The narrator of this vignette describes how soldiers take six cabinet ministers outside and line them up to be shot against the hospital wall in the courtyard. Dead leaves littler the courtyard, and puddles of water, from a hard rain, dot the ground. The hospital is boarded up. One of the ministers has typhoid and cannot stand up against the wall. They let him slump down. He is sitting when the executions begin.
This brutal vignette offers very little specific information, such as who the ministers are, or which soldiers are doing the executing. What is important here is the viewpoint. The narrator—whether merely a witness or a member of the execution squad—describes the whole scene in a dull, matter-of-fact way, suggesting someone numbed by war and its horrors.
“The Battler,” pages 53-62
Nick Adams finds himself on the ground with a skinned knee and hands, as well as a black eye. The train from which he has just been thrown by the brakeman is rounding a curve and chugging out of sight. Nick curses the brakeman, who had tricked him and then tossed him off the train. Nick had hopped the train as it slowed down outside Walton Junction and ridden it until he was kicked off, near Mancelona.
Nick begins to walk along the track, and eventually he sees a fire in the distance next to the tracks. He carefully approaches it and discovers a man sitting with his head in his hands. Nick announces himself, and the man does not seem surprised. He asks how Nick got his black eye, and he suggests that Nick throw a rock at the brakeman when the train passes again. In the firelight, Nick can see that the man’s face is a mess, and when the man takes off his hat, he shows Nick that he has only one ear. The other has become a stump. He tells Nick that he is “crazy” and asks if Nick is crazy. Nick says he is not. Then the man tells Nick that he is Ad Francis, the one-time prize fighter. Nick believes him. The man says he beat his opponents because his heart beats slower than most. He makes Nick feel his pulse to prove it.
Another man appears. He is a negro named Bugs, and he begins to cook ham slices and eggs on a skillet over the fire. He asks Nick to slice some bread from a bag he brought, and when Nick takes out his knife to do so, Ad asks to see his knife. Bugs quickly tells Nick not to let him have it. After that, Ad stares maliciously at Nick as they each eat their ham and egg sandwiches. When Bugs offers Ad another, the man instead gets to his feet and taunts Nick. He says that no one invited Nick to eat with them, and that Nick was “snotty” for refusing to show Ad his knife. As he draws closer and closer to Nick, Bugs comes up behind Ad and clubs him with a blackjack. Ad falls unconscious at Nick’s feet. Bugs says he has to do that every time Ad becomes crazy. Ad will not remember a thing.
Bugs offers Nick some coffee. Nick asks how Ad became crazy. Bugs says part of the reason is from fighting so much, but he really became crazy when his wife—who looked so much like him that the papers reported that they were brother and sister—left him.Bugs says he met Ad while in jail. Ad was in for beating up people, and he was in for cutting a man. Once he got out, Bugs hooked up with Ad and has been looking after him ever since. The wife sends Ad money on which to live.
Bugs says he needs to revive Ad, but that Nick had better leave before he does. Very politely, he makes Nick another sandwich and says goodbye. As Nick leaves the camp, he hears Bugs speaking gently to the fighter, bringing him back to consciousness.
Nick seems to be leaving behind his childhood and journeying somewhere, although the narrator never says where. His encounter with Ad Francis and Bugs puts him in the brotherhood of men who make their way in the big world, not without a few bumps along the way. Both men are criminals and have seen plenty, but each seems to have withdrawn from the world. They are a lesson to Nick, who has his life before him, wherever he is going. The irony of this story lies in the fact that Bugs treats both Ad and Nick with such kindness and courtesy. Like the fire in the dark, this kindness speaks of humanity and brotherhood. As Nick leaves it behind, what else is he leaving behind?
Chapter VI, page 63
Nick has been shot in the spine and dragged by his fellow soldiers to a safe place against a church wall. Next to him,Rinaldi, lies wounded and dying, face down next to the wall. Nick looks out at the scene before him “brilliantly.” The bombed house across from him has lost its roof and a twisted iron bedstead hangs from it. Two dead Austrians lie in the rubble nearby; other dead lie in the street. “It was going well,” the narrator says. Nick waits for the stretcher bearers to find him. He speaks in Italian to Rinaldi, saying that the two of them have “‘made a separate peace.’” He then tells Rinaldi, “‘Not patriots.’” Nick thinks that Rinaldi is a “disappointing audience.”
In contrast to the previous story of Nick along the railroad, coming upon the fire and civilized easiness of Bugs (and, to some extent, of Ad), Nick has been thrust into war. Anything that resembles civilization around him has been destroyed: the pink house, the iron bedstead, the people of the town. He stares “brilliantly” around him, a word that suggests irony—Nick sees the horror around him with complete clarity, yet he is forced to watch it as if a spectator. Even the man next to him cannot converse with him, cannot laugh or remark on the absurdity of the situation. Unlike Bugs and Ad, who were able to retreat from the hard world, Rinaldi and Nick are unable to retreat. One cannot help but wonder now if Nick is “crazy.” Is this what happens when the world around a person falls apart and makes no sense?
“A Very Short Story,” pages 65-66
The narrator says that they carried the man up to the hospital roof in Padua so he could look out over the town. Several of them seem to be on the roof drinking, but after they go back down, there remains only the man and Luz, the nurse who attended him when he was brought in and operated on. He has become Luz’s lover; she shares his bed in the hospital.
Before he was sent back to the front, the two of them went to a church and prayed together. They wished to marry, but there is no time for a banns, and neither has birth certificates for a license. While he was at the front, Luz wrote him letters, but he never got them until they came in a bundle after the armistice. In them, she proclaimed her love and how much she missed him.
After the armistice, they agreed that he would go ahead to America and get a job, making it possible for her to follow and for them to marry. He would not drink nor see his friends there. Luz and the manquarreled over the fact that she did not wish to come with him, but to remain behind until he has the job. They parted in anger.
While he went off to America, Luz went to Pordenone to open a hospital, and there, during the cold, lonely winter, she took an Italian officer as a lover. She wrote to the man that there love was only that of a boy and a girl, and she will not be coming to America to marry him. She wished him a great career.
The Italian officer did not marry Luz. She never got a reply to her American lover’s letter. However, shortly after he received the letter in Chicago, he made love to a sales girl in a taxi and contracted gonorrhea.
Although the narrator never names the main character of this story, readers can assume that it is Nick Adams. He had recuperated from his war wounds in an Italian hospital and fallen in love with a nurse there. Unfortunately, the nurse proved not to be steadfast in her love. Nick found himself back in the United States, in Chicago, after the war, jilted by his girlfriend, and foolish enough to contract a venereal disease from a sexual adventure.
Readers can assume that Nick returns after the war as a different man from the one he was when he left for the war. He has been wounded in both the war and in love. What scars will he bear?