Billy Malick carried his nervous smile from childhood into the Army, where he became PFC W. R. Malick. The joke had been on him in high school. A lot. So, he smiled when he didn’t know what was up. If you were smiling, you were in on the joke, right? You couldn’t be the butt of it.
When a single hooded POW, hands secured behind his back with plastic cuffs, stumbled into their midst, he didn’t think much of it. He didn’t smile. It was routine.
Billy wasn’t an infantryman. He worked on a little base carved out of a field in an alien country, with mountains in the distance too far away for enemy mortar crews or snipers to aim down at it. He washed, cleaned, and repaired helicopters. He’d been working in that little patch of barbed-wire blandness for 17 days, and prisoners had been routinely evac’d for interrogation, singly, in twos, in threes, almost every day; it was nothing.
Two soldiers whom he did not know guided the blinded man. Billy stepped away from his own work space, stretched his muscles, and idly looked at the scene in front of him.
A 1st lieutenant and some civilian pool photographer, also strangers to him, had been waiting for a chopper ride for an hour. He hadn’t said a word to them. The two soldiers approached with the prisoner, probably to wait in the same queue.
“Wait,” said the lieutenant, a grave man with ancient eyes set in a young face. The two enlisted men stopped, obeying the stranger who outranked them. “Give him to me.” Without waiting for a response, he grabbed the prisoner by an elbow and pulled the stumbling man close to him.
With a single, graceful movement, he drew his service pistol and put it against the black burlap which covered the prisoner’s head.
Billy smiled nervously.
The black cloth exploded into pink mist at one end.
“That will spoil his day,” the lieutenant said, and said no more, because the escort soldiers tackled him at that moment; the dead man’s knees were still buckling as his killer was pushed flat against the earth.
The pool photographer, who had taken one shot, turned away to vomit.
The POW’s face had been hooded, and was gone anyway. The face of the lieutenant (who ended his days in a mental ward) had been obscured in profile. The two soldiers had been just outside of the frame. The only human face, clearly in focus in the background, was the open-mouthed grin of PFC W. R. Malick, seemingly amused, approving, mocking.
When peace came, Billy Malick had already been back in civilian life for a year. Every news story about the end of the war, whether text or video, used The Photo.
Billy was close to 30 years old. It was over ten years after The Photo had been taken. He had never been in a relationship that had lasted more than a few months. This blind date with this girl, Pam, had been set up by a friend at the office; Pam was her sister’s friend.
“She’s really nice and she’s pretty,” his colleague had said. “Smart too. You two could really — “
Hit it off.
“I understand you’re a commercial artist,” he said at the restaurant, after the waiter had taken their drink orders. “I envy that. I’m a budget analyst, but it bores me to tears.”
“Working for yourself can be dull too,” she said. “Doing your own paperwork. I hear… I’ve been told you were in that picture. You know, the crazy officer, ‘That will spoil his day.’”
He nodded. His posture improved. He looked over to one side of her.
“I think that’s amazing,” she said. “It must have been horrible — “
“But I know you weren’t enjoying yourself, no matter what it looked like in the picture — “
They skipped dessert, but not to rush home to tear each other’s clothes off. There was no second date.
On the 20th anniversary of The Photo, Billy skipped work, because on anniversaries reporters usually tried to contact him there. Plenty of them knocked on his door that day, but neither he nor his two cats answered.
Billy spoke at his mother’s funeral.
“She didn’t want to see her only son in a war zone. But she was stoic about it. Yet, I knew.”
He paused for effect.
His cousin had brought his fiancée to the funeral, a woman who did not know Billy’s family. Billy, standing at the podium, heard her loudly whisper to his cousin, “He was the smiling guy in the picture, right?”
Billy spent his 50th birthday alone. That night, with the new kitten lying on his chest, he watched late night TV. The comedy host ragged on some jackass Senator who had been caught on video mocking people with Down’s Syndrome.
“But I tell yah,” squeaked the hyper comedian, “Senator Roane has been even meaner in the past when making fun of people. Why, just look!”
The screen filled with The Photo. The senator’s smirking face was plastered on Billy’s 19-year-old body. Bursting brain and skull fragments were frozen in mid-air, as they always would be.
The audience guffawed.
“At least you can’t see my face this time,” Billy told the kitten.
The bar was filled with people, mostly in groups. One older man sat alone.
The high-cheekboned woman on the huge video screen behind the bar said, “And, a landmark anniversary. Fifty years ago today, this famous picture was taken — ”
A young woman nearby, whose parents might not have been born when The Photo was taken, said to whoever was in the vicinity, “Oh! ‘That will spoil his day.’”
Billy sipped his beer and did not bother looking away from the screen.
“Yeah, that’ll do it, all right,” he muttered to himself.
Eric Cline is a Gen-Xer in a Gen-Y world. Pity him. His story, “Two Dwarves and Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs” was published in the June 2011 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Check out his occasional web ramblings at www.cruelcline.blogspot.com.