The Good Lieutenant

Whitney Terrell

June 7, 2016 
The following is from Whitney Terrell’s novel, The Good Lieutenant. Whitney Terrell is the New Letters Writer-in-Residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His first novel, The Huntsman, was a New York Times notable book. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010 and covered the war for The Washington Post Magazine, Slate, and NPR.

Fowler’s mother had picked her up from school early, the day she left. The feeling Fowler remembered was one of derangement. Not mental derangement (though her mother, on that particular day, probably qualified), but deranged as in rearranged, out-of-phase; Deirdre Fowler was not dressed in her usual khaki pants and a belt and an oxford shirt, but instead had shimmied into a dress, an actual evening dress, short-cut in turquoise blue, which seemed a strange choice for the middle of the day. And also she could not, or would not, engage with her daughter directly; only when Fowler stopped asking questions about their destination— “Can we go to the pet store?” “Are we going to a movie?” “Don’t we have to get Harris?”—and instead mooned out the window quietly did she feel her mother’s abstracted, fluttering caress. Even these touches were ill-timed, somehow off-beat, arriving when her mother was busy making a turn so that the wheel slipped and she had to quickly grab after it, and when Fowler turned to try to catch her mother’s eyes, to get an actual answer, she would find instead her mother’s face quickly averted, as if the only circumstance in which she felt comfortable looking at Fowler was when her daughter wasn’t looking back.

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“Why are you all dressed up, Mama?”

That had been her last question. She’d asked it again as they were heading down the corridor at the White Haven Motel. She had never forgotten that motel, the strange time warp of that specific corridor, the ceiling whose plaster had been teased into swirls, the stained, nearly black woodwork that, despite the darkness of the dye, still seemed light, insubstantial, the doors hollow-core, the frames a cheap white pine. Their flimsiness lacked the compensating familiarity of a Motel 6 or a Days Inn, and the rooms she glimpsed as they strode along had seemed oddly old-fashioned, out of time. They had dressers made out of gray carved wood; they had faded, embroidered chairs.

If one thing haunted her thinking during her first few months with her platoon, it was this last encounter with her mother. Not that she made the connection immediately: the actual conversation itself, which she had never spoken about to anyone, had long ago become an event she’d “dealt with” but rarely thought about consciously. A man had been sharing her mother’s room at the White Haven Motel. He wasn’t there when Fowler arrived, but his things were, commonplace objects that, set amid her mother’s things, stuck out with unnatural clarity. The T-shirt draped over a chair’s back, a line of yellow around its neck. The smell of spice, a different, fruitier smell than her father’s, that leaked out when her mother bustled her past the bathroom. And in the bathroom, a leather dopp kit on the toilet’s back, a rusty pair of barber’s scissors, a shoe tree, upended, with its carved wooden sole facing her way. She could sense that her mother didn’t care at all what the room looked like. That it would feel shameful; that its shame would be legible to Fowler in such a clear way. She was talking confidently now, unzipping and zipping bags of makeup, knuckles close to her teeth. “I just want you to promise me, Emma, that you are capable of handling your brother. Of, uh, well, basically giving him some structure”—her eyes darkened here, as if the word “structure” stood for some deep emotional event (or, as Fowler thought later, because the word seemed so cheap)—“because Harris is a lot more fragile than you. He’s more like me.”

“How do you know that?” Fowler had asked. It was not really a question. Everybody knew this about Harris. But her mother’s claim left her flushed, marked, her right leg bent and sliding up against her left beneath her skirt, as if she wanted to strip herself naked there. To show her mother everything.

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“Harris?” This at least caused her mother to laugh. “Oh, my God, honey—it doesn’t take a world of observation to see that you two are different.”

“But why aren’t I like you?” she demanded.

Her mother’s eyes were compressed into slits by the pressure of her hands and then snapped back to their almond shape. “Trust me, honey,” she said, “you really should be thankful for that.”

“How do you know I’m not like you?” Fowler said. She was propped against the desk, a pad of White Haven stationery under her left hand, which she was crumpling, crumpling, crumpling. “You’re my mother. Aren’t I supposed to be?”

Did her mother know that she imagined, right now, this clump of stationery bursting into flames in her fist? She imagined showing her mother this: See? See? But as she squeezed, the stationery only grew soggy with sweat.

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“Honey—okay, look. Could you hand Mama a Kleenex?”

“No,” Fowler said. Though she did. It was an excuse to stand beside her mother, right between her knees, squeezing that ball of stationery until it burst into flames.

“I’m leaving,” her mother said. “Surely you see that. Here’s the thing. You know I’m different, and you’re only eight. Your father knows it, everybody knows this. I want to do things I’m not supposed to do, which is why it was a mistake for me to get married to your father in the first place. A mistake, okay? And do you know what else? I make mistakes. I think too much. I don’t know what I want. I’m not organized—or I’m too organized. Or I organize the wrong things. All of these things that your father says are true, exactly true. It isn’t that hard to be happy. It shouldn’t be hard, but I’m not happy, and it isn’t fair for me to take it out on you and your brother. Or your father.”

These were exactly the things that her father had said. Fowler had been hearing them over dinner and down the hallways of their house for over a year.

“But what if that’s like me?” she asked.

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“But it isn’t, honey,” her mother said. She wanted her mother to grab her, to crush her to death, but instead she stood and unlocked her suitcase, her skirt trailing away against Fowler’s wrist. “It isn’t, honey, because, see, you are a good girl, and your mother—I am—well, really basically when you get down to it, I have violated all the rules. I don’t keep rules, I break rules. That’s not what you do.”

“So what?”

“It’s not so what,” her mother said. “You’re a good girl. A beautiful smart girl. You really are. And your brother is going to need someone who can give him rules. Here, take this, will you hold these for me?”

These were the blue books that her mother had pulled from the suitcase. They were embossed in gold: PASSPORT. The first showed a picture of Emma at age six. The second was Harris as an apple-cheeked four-year-old.

“I want to go with you,” Fowler said. “I don’t want to stay with Harris and Daddy. I want to leave.”

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“Oh, no, honey, really—trust me—you’re much better here.”

“I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to. I won’t do it.”

“Yes, you will,” her mother said brusquely as she opened the door. “That’s just who you are. That’s what you’ll do.”

Fowler was thinking about this as she listened to Captain Hartz lead a discussion of Colonel Hal Moore and his efforts in the Ia Drang Valley. It was Hartz’s view that officers must be noble, that they must care deeply for their soldiers, that they must never complain down the ranks, that they should never ask their soldiers to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves. Since nobody but Pulowski would’ve argued this, Hartz ran the leadership seminar as something of a film and literature appreciation course, a gut in which the best traits of an officer could be confirmed by film clips, passages from the field manual, information from Petraeus’s counterinsurgency manual, object lessons taken from previous deployments, pamphlets on the rules of engagement.

During most of the fall, Fowler had kept her mouth shut. The seasons had changed outside the wooden casements of the battalion’s briefing room, which was where they’d held their class. But on this, the final day of lecture, Hartz had cued the movie We Were Soldiers to the scene where Hal Moore addresses his troops as they depart for the Ia Drang Valley, and then settled down in his rolling chair behind his desk and gave the class a very long and knowing stare—or at least a stare that Fowler believed was meant to appear knowing, while twiddling a pencil in his small, neat hands.

“Every damn Hollywood movie got the Vietnam War wrong,” Hartz said. “That’s what the real Colonel Moore said before he made this movie. Why did they get it wrong? What did they get wrong? Why should it matter to you that four hundred Americans held out against four thousand Vietnamese soldiers one November day in the Ia Drang Valley, on a mountain that was of no clear military value? And more than that, why did so many people see this movie?”

Fowler knew the answer to this question. Everybody in the room did. The answer was that Hal Moore represented all the good qualities in an officer: he loved his wife, he prayed with his kids, he refused to abandon his troops in the heat of the battle, he swore and promised that he would never leave anyone behind, and he was always the first one off the helicopter. Anderson, an infantry lieutenant from Delta Company, raised his hand and said, “Because he’s a badass, sir?”

There was laughter here, some snickering; all along, during the entire fall, there had been an undercurrent of resistance to the class, a consensus that the good-hearted and noble points that Hartz had been assigned to make were so boring and so preordained that the only interesting thing for anyone to do was to make fun of them.

“You think that’s it?” Hartz said. Since they’d watched the movie, Hartz had taken to emphasizing his Oklahoma accent, in imitation of the actor who’d played Mel Gibson’s loyal sergeant major before going on to narrate The Big Lebowski. “You think that the thing that makes an officer great is being a badass?”

“It was pretty sweet when he shot that dude who was coming at him with a bayonet,” Anderson put in, grinning thickly for the benefit of the room.

Her guess was that Anderson imagined himself as the fierce and courageous sergeant, who’d buried himself in the ground and saved his lost platoon.

“That was luck,” Hartz said. “I’m looking for principles.”

“He was nice to that one guy,” said Lieutenant Weazer, a whey-haired lieutenant in Delta, who was the youngest of the group.

“Which guy was that, Weazer?”

Weazer stuttered and flushed. He was shy, she knew, and religious—and married, with a five-year-old kid—though he was also, at the same time, sleeping with Shoemaker. She’d already guessed the character that Weazer had identified with. “The guy he prayed with,” Weazer said. “In the church that time.”

“Yes, well . . . ,” Hartz said.

“You mean the guy who got his face shot off in the end,” said Anderson. “The principle there is don’t be a fucking weak-ass.”

Fowler faded out from the discussion at that point—or tried to, anyway. She glanced at Pulowski, who was sitting in the back, with his laptop open. He’d convinced Hartz that he took notes that way, but Fowler knew for a fact that he generally gamed. She’d slept with him the night before and now she imagined his penis, how unguarded it had looked when she wrapped her hand around it, or when it flopped back against his belly on the bed. There hadn’t been any shots of Mel Gibson like that.

“I think people like the movie,” she said, “because it makes them feel better that there’s someone perfect around like Mel Gibson to fix everything.”

“Sorry? What’s that, Fowler? Did you say something?”

Instead of imaging herself as Mel Gibson, worried and obsessed with duty, poring over pictures of Custer at his dining room table, she tried imagining herself and Pulowski someplace else entirely, doing something completely frivolous . . . Skiing. In the French Alps. But the vision wouldn’t jell completely. “I’m just saying that Colonel Moore lost a bunch of men in that battle,” Fowler said. “So if I’d been in a battle like that, and lost that many people, I wouldn’t write a book about it.”

“Are you saying that he did something wrong tactically?”

The movie involved four hundred men fighting to hold a single clearing on a mountaintop against four thousand well-armed fighters, who were living underground in a fortified position. Tactically, it was about as useful to her as learning Chinese. “Sir, I guess I’m going to leave the tactical assessment to the big boys like Anderson here,” she said. “I was thinking that we were watching the film more as an instruction manual for how an officer should act, and I’m just saying that it’s interesting to me that Colonel Moore wrote the book and he comes off as being pretty perfect, generally. If he’d really been all the things he says he was, he wouldn’t have needed to, I think.”

“That doesn’t even make sense, Fowler,” Hartz said. “He either did those things or he didn’t. Are you denying that he stayed with his men? He never lied to them. He risked his life to bring the bodies of his men back. Or are you saying those aren’t good examples of how to lead?”

She thought of the nice clapboard house with a big screen porch that Mel Gibson and his hot wife had lived in during the movie. This time, she imagined Pulowski in a nightgown coming in to pet her cheek, while she stared at Custer’s massacre. Pulowski having tea for Waldorf’s and Dykstra’s wives. These daydreams were funny and arousing, good dreams, far more interesting to her than anything she’d seen in a movie. “Actually,” she said, “I don’t see why everybody seems to think he’s just a badass. I mean, who the hell doesn’t know that you’re not sup- posed to abandon your men? Or that you ought to be the first in, first out? It’s not exactly rocket-science principles of leadership, sir.” She riffled through her notebook of Hartz’s handouts. “You gave them to us on the first day of class. Besides, if you asked his wife how to take care of his kids, she probably would have said the same thing. What I’m saying is that he seems conceited to me, sir. He says he cares about his men, but if that was true, then his men would’ve been the subject of the movie. Instead, we get all this stuff about how he went to Harvard, and how many books he has, and how nice and sweet he is to all his children—I mean, I don’t know about you, sir, but if I had a commanding officer telling me how perfect he was all the time, I’d get a little bit tired of that, don’t you think?”

This was not meant as an indictment of Hartz—more like a compliment, since she knew that he’d previously been divorced, that his kids from his first marriage lived in Cleveland, and that his ex-wife had remarried a consultant, who made twice what a captain’s salary could ever be. But she could also tell that Hartz was not going to take it that way. She glanced over at Pulowski. He’d had an outbreak of acne and his shoulders looked bony and un-Gibson-like, but the skin along his neck was as soft and milky as the skin of Mel Gibson’s wife in her negligee. “Why conceited?” said Hartz.

Pulowski gave her a smirking grin. They were in their manicured backyard, Fowler tending the grill with a cigar in her mouth, Pulowski wearing a checkered apron, carrying out a silver tray of condiments. “Because he’s not really leading,” Fowler said. “He’s putting on a display. I mean, the guy loses a bunch of soldiers. What about that scene where he has his helicopters buzz by his men in the hangar—”

“Which was awesome,” Anderson said.

“—which was totally unnecessary. Why didn’t he just take them out to the landing pad? Why? Because he’s acting. He wrote the movie, right?”

Pulowski yipped laughter. She loved the sound of it—even if she was really just talking about herself. Who wouldn’t want to lie to make themselves look better than they did? Hartz was close enough then that she could smell the coffee on his breath, see the small bright tears along his cuticles. If anybody deserved an Oscar in this room, it was him, for patiently putting up with crap like this. I’m going to be a fake and a coward my entire life, she thought angrily. I’ ll lose control of my platoon. I’ ll be court-martialed for incompetence. “All right, Fowler,” Hartz said. “Let’s say you were leading four hundred infantry soldiers into the Yo Drang Valley. Who would you want to act like?”

Ia Drang Valley, she thought. She was also trying to think of the name of even one woman who’d led an infantry charge, anywhere, in the Army’s history.

“Eisenhower,” she said.

This name produced an almost physical contraction of boredom in the room, as if a great shadowing cloud had passed overhead. Hartz licked his chapped lips and glanced up at the ceiling. “He was a general, Fowler. Not a colonel.”

“Yeah, well, before any of that, he lived around here,” Fowler said. “We had to take a field trip to his house when I was a kid.” It was actually a field trip she’d taken twice, once for freshman history, and then again when Harris had been in the same class and he’d missed the field trip bus so she’d driven him up to Abilene personally—a good excuse to spend the afternoon together. But instead she’d been pissed off because he’d tried to ditch the class. A three-hour round trip, on a sunny fall day, during which she had not spoken—time that now she’d give anything to have back.

“Well, then,” Hartz said, “maybe you should tell us a little bit about what made the general so great.”

This time, instead of Pulowski in a negligee, she imagined Harris, acting just as loving and well-behaved as all of Mel Gibson’s kids. Harris waiting for her on the screened front porch of her perfect officer’s digs. No cigarettes, no dope, no Black Sabbath shirts, no angry resentment at her rules. Eisenhower had five brothers, and one of them had injured and eventually lost an eye when Ike was taking care of him. He never forgot his failure to protect someone who was weaker than him, who relied on him. And then later, when his family ran out of money, Dwight let his older brother Edgar go to college while he worked night shifts at the local dairy. “The thing about Eisenhower,” she said, “was that he never sat around thinking about how he was going to look to somebody. He didn’t try to impress people. He didn’t act. He wasn’t showy. He was boring. He would’ve thought boring was good.”

“That’s an interesting perspective,” Hartz said.

Way to go, Fowler, she thought, now that she’d finished speaking. Nothing like speaking up in class to inform your commanding officer that you don’t really want to be interesting. “Think about it this way,” she said. “How many people have seen any movies that Eisenhower made?”

“If there wasn’t any movie,” Anderson asked, “then how the hell do you know so much about this?”

“I read a book about him for a class,” Fowler said, flushing now, humiliated. Goodbye to Pulowski in his negligee. Forget about backyard barbecues and adoring children. Forget about fitting in. There’s a beat-down on the way.

“Sir,” Anderson said, his wand waving in the air. “I think that the lieutenant had a good point, sir. I think we need to spend a lot more time reading, sir. That’s one of the real mistakes that I felt that Colonel Moore made in the Io Drone Valley, sir. I kept looking for it, sir, but during the entire battle, nobody read a single book. It was shocking, sir, if you ask me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a soldier being interested in history,” Hartz said. “I’m sure the colonel would appreciate your thoroughness.” His tone was odd, not a warning, exactly, but the opposite of a compliment.

In other words, he had no idea what to do with her—the exact conclusion that she most feared, particularly from the men who were in charge of things. I got a book you should read, she thought, and imagined Anderson in a miniskirt and heels and tried, desperately, to inject this thought clear across the room into Pulowski’s brain.


From THE GOOD LIEUTENANT. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2016 by Whitney Terrell.

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