Frank was sitting at the corner table, staring into his half-finished beer and contemplating life in ways that were only possible when one was not entirely sober.
It was his second beer.
Another sigh escaped his lips. Or rather, those small bits of flesh framing his mouth that liked to pretend they were lips. In truth, Frank Burns has no lips. No lips, a timid chin, and beady eyes. Frank knew these things. In fact, he was well aware of each and every single one of his faults, thanks in part to his bunkmates, and occasionally others that he'd chance to overhear because, unlike his bunkmates, they didn't dare say such things when they thought he was within earshot.
No lips, timid chin, beady eyes, but very, very good ears.
He liked to think it was out of respect that they didn't mention his physical faults to his face. In reality, he knew that it was simply diffidence towards a higher ranking officer. But at night, when the lights were out and he had only his own dark thoughts to keep him company, he could admit to the real reasons.
It was times like those that he regretted sorely having such good ears.
No one ever complimented him on them anyhow.
Actually, no one ever complimented him on anything unless it was with some measure of sarcasm. Except of course Margaret, but even she wasn't fast and loose with compliments and other things that made a person feel good about themselves. And Frank was ok with that. At least, he told himself over and over and over again that he was ok with that. After all, she was the only person in the entire camp who seemed generally interested in him as a person. She was the only one who made the effort to be his friend, and, on colder nights, the effort to be more than just his friend. She even stood up for him when no one else would, and took his word without question. Until he was proven wrong, of course. Which happened more often than not.
Yes, it was safe to say that Margaret was the only friend he had in this entire camp.
Had. Past tense.
They hadn't been friends since she announced her engagement, three months ago. Not like they used to be anyway, and in more ways than just the absence of physical intimacy. She had found her colonel, climbed up the ladder to the next available rung. Suddenly being a major wasn't good enough for her. Being the entirely one hundred percent totally devoted to her—and present—major wasn't good enough. She needed to find some flashy, confident, everything-that-Frank Burns-wasn't colonel, and a long-distance one at that.
In the dark, at night, these last three cold, lonely months, Frank wondered if she would ever leave Donald for a general.
In the end, it was inevitable, of course. Her leaving him. Everyone always left him in the end. They'd either leave, or they were never really there in the first place and only liked to pretend that they were. His father was like that. His so-called friends from home that haven't yet written to him were like that. At least his father was dead. That was as good an excuse as any. His friends on the other hand…
That was another conclusion best left for the dark. Not here, elicited by cheap beer and loneliness.
Ah, the scent of cheap beer. It almost smelt of home.
Home… Where his father would drink it by the case simply because he could afford to. Not that Frank couldn't understand that, of course. Where was a wealthy, friendless man to turn when his wife turned colder than a Great Plains winter and his children didn't even remember his Christian name?
Frank never drank. It was the only promise he thought he could keep. His back was a latticework of testimony to what can happen when a man gave in to the allure of alcohol. He promised himself, and his mother, a long, long time ago, that he would never become his father. He would never let his life spiral so far out of control, never let money become his only focus, because his marriage bed had long since gotten cold and his children barely recognized him, because if money wasn't the solace it used to be, well, at least the booze was always there.
Frank remembered making that promise. Then he thought of his wife, and his children, his country club and that lucrative private practice, and once again of the promise. The promise to not become his father. The promise that kept him clean and sober his entire life. The promise that kept him from turning to alcohol to drown his sorrows because there was no one or no place else to turn to.
The promise he was breaking now.
Of course it wasn't Margaret's fault. She didn't know of the promise, nor did she ever notice the scars tracing his body. Mostly because she never wanted to see him naked. Frank was a physically flawed man, after all. She certainly couldn't be blamed for his seeking solace in a bottle tonight. Or just about every night these past few months. Nor could she be blamed for that fact that not a single soul seemed to notice the change.
She left. He couldn't blame her, because it was inevitable. They all left him in the end. At least, the ones that mattered. Those that didn't always stuck around and pretended they were there.
Suddenly his thoughts shifted to his mother. Dear, sweet, mommy. She even looked like Margaret, in her younger years of course. Frank sorely regretting being cursed with his father's looks. His mother had been so beautiful…
She moved to Florida four years ago. Two years before Korea. Said that the weather was better for her health. Consulted some fancy-shmansy doctor at some new-fangled, expensive clinic.
A doctor that was not her son.
She left, like they always did. The only woman who would talk to him like his responses mattered, the only woman ever to show confidence in him that wasn't feigned, the only woman to say "I love you" and mean it. Then suddenly it was a phone call on Sundays after church but before bridge.
She left. They always did. It was inevitable.
Two years of phone calls that barely amounted to an hour's time. "Hi, how are you, good, good-bye." Such conversations were hardly reassuring. It was hard to hold someone across a phone line and tell them that everything was going to be ok. It was hard to rub someone's back while they cried out all of their fears and frustrations across so many hateful miles. A mother couldn't be a mother long-distance. Frank learned that before the war.
Of course a father couldn't be a father long distance, either. A lesson he was sure his children were learning now.
In the dark of night he wondered if, that if it were possible for him to still call her every Sunday, would she even know he was in Korea?
He knew she didn't know that he was drinking right now, or that he had been for the past three months. He knew she didn't know. He knew Margaret didn't know. He knew that no one knew. And he knew that no one cared. Because the only people who cared had left already. It was inevitable.
First mommy, now Margaret too. And he didn't have any place to turn. And so the beer, and the breaking of a promise. A promise to a woman who was gone about a man who was dead. Neither would ever know about this beer, or the next.
Or the next.
And that suited Frank just fine. For perhaps the first time in his life, no one was there to revel in his shame.
It was just him, and the dark thoughts that haunted him late at night while the rest of the slept on. The thoughts that surfaced when one was only partly drunk. And for perhaps the first time in his life, Frank was actually thankful for the loneliness.
Perhaps the most troubling thought was that he knew the beer wasn't helping. He didn't feel better, as he always thought his father did. He didn't feel numb, as his bunkmates strove to feel. He just felt… everything. Everything that he never allowed himself to think or feel before, except in the quiet hours, in the darkness and the solitude of too many nights alone.
He'd always heard that men drank in order to forget, though for the life of him he couldn't fathom why, seeing as it always seemed to force him to remember.
And yet he still kept drinking. One or two beers a night. Hating the taste but afraid to find something more palatable. Unsure of its value but liking the routine he was developing. After all, he had his evenings free now, and it helped him sleep better. No more nightmares about his drunken father.
The irony wasn't lost on Frank.
And so he drank, breaking a promise; he stared into his reflection in the beer (because the head has long since died) and saw his father's faulty features staring back at him. One or two a night wasn't so bad, right? He would never let it get out of hand. He would stop himself before it got that far. He promised himself.
He promised himself…
Two beers wasn't dangerous. It was just beer, and it was only two. Two to help ease the pain of their loss--a beer for each of them. Because they left, as they always did, because it was inevitable.
The beer was warm now, and Frank's grimace as he nursed it would only grow. If anyone were paying attention, they might think to ask why he was drinking a beer he didn't like, and a warm one at that. But in a way, Frank preferred it warm. He still remembered all to well the sound an icebox door would make when it slammed shut. His father only took out one beer at a time, so those heavy doors would open and slam long into the night. Frank's got many childhood memories of being lulled to sleep by the happy sound of slamming doors.
Free-swinging doors make the same sound when they butt up against something, hard. The sound that gurneys and stretchers make when they crash through the doors of the OR, bringing patients in and out. Frank has wondered and more than once if he actually thinks of drinking more than any other doctor or nurse in the OR.
Perhaps even more than Margaret. He knew about her hidden bottles and that flask she kept on her twenty-four/seven. He would toast to her and her own alcoholism right now if he only could remember an appropriate toast. She had been his saving grace for nearly two years. That had to count for something, especially over here. Everything surely has to count for more during times of war than during times of peace. He knew she didn't know how miserable her leaving had made him. And in the dark, alone at night, he knew she wouldn't care.
Two years here. Two years spent fighting the communists the only way he knew how. As a doctor. Funny how even through all his medical training and experience, he was still surprised to see that the insides of a communist were identical to the insides of a capitalist.
This war was a crusade. Money was its own religion, after all. We were fighting to preserve our right to worship money in our own way, and to inflict holy inquisition upon any that begged to differ. Frank had once considered sharing those thoughts with the Padre, but decided at last that the man wouldn't understand.
Communists and infidels and heretics. Were the words really that interchangeable?
And Frank Burns hated communists. He hated them with more passion than he'd ever felt towards anything else in his entire life, for good or ill. He knew what they were all about, with their honeyed tongues and impressive leaflets. How they could make a man turn his back on money, because capitalism leaves orphans hungry. He knew the horrors their kind could wreak, even in the supposedly capitalistic U.S. of A. He knew what their ideals could do to a man's soul. Oh yes, he knew very well.
He also knew, quite plainly, what being associated with them could do to a man's mind. He knew what such suspicions could cause, and what such accusations could drive a man to do. How they could make that man turn to drinking because money didn't do it for him anymore. He knew the corruptive power of the communist mind, how they could bend even the noblest of men down into the bottom of a bottle, how they could make that man in turn bend his own son beneath the leather of a belt, all in some put-upon concern for those stupid starving orphans.
Oh yes, Frank Burns hated communists. He hated them more than anything else in the world.
His mom left two years before the war. Two years where he had to endure his life alone. Two years of sharing a house with a stranger (and not his bed, oh no, not for several years), two years of watching his children grow up like an errant spectator in some other family. Two years of living in a large and lonely house where every room echoed so loudly in its silence that the sound of it was almost deafening.
Two years without laughter. Two years without friends. Two years without love.
Two years of bi-weekly paychecks, country club visits, elite dinner parties. Two years of monotony.
Two years of hell.
Two years of knowing that'd he broken his promise, of reaffirming it each and every morning. Each and every time he caught an all-too-familiar face staring right back at him, accusing him from the other side of the bathroom mirror.
Because he was his father's son.
And his mother left his father.
As she later left him.
As Margaret left him.
As everyone would always leave him, because it was inevitable.
Frank endured two years of hell before the war even began. And, as he listened to his bunkmates drunkenly pontificate from across the Officer's Club on how the war was hell, he knew it wasn't just the alcohol swimming in his system that made him laugh. Oh yes, the two of them, laughing, carousing, being accepted and liked, finding willing women they exchange as often as their stained sheets. The two of them, best friends through thick and thin, watching their patients die and hating the army more with each passing day. Two inseparable souls that delighted in devoting their free time towards making Frank's life miserable. Frank who knew of hell long before the loneliness of Korea. Frank who fought the communists long before joining the army. Poor pathetic, picked on, physically defective, friendless Frank, whom even Margaret turned on, because it was inevitable.
What right have they to speak of hell?
Hell was a place Frank Burns knew intimately. He went there every dark, cold, lonely night, with only his own dark thoughts for company. He had lived in hell for two whole years before the war—twice as long as his happily drunk and carousing bunkmates can claim. He'd even been in Korea longer than Hawkeye, but he knew no one else remembered.
Of course, that was because he volunteered for the war the second they'd sounded the call. No one would dare question the American-ness of a doctor volunteering to patch up our boys. No one would dare call such man a communist traitor… or the son of one.
When the word came that they were looking for doctors, Frank came running. It was an all-expenses paid ticket out of hell. His chance to leave the gossipers and the rumor-mills far behind and start over, a fresh start with fresh faces that didn't know him.
He wanted to escape the stranger's house he'd been living in, and the people who didn't know or care if he came or went. He wanted to hide from all the laughter that his good ears told him was at his expense. He wanted to fly far from the casual cruelty of being incidentally left out of everything. He wanted to forget all about eating meals alone because no one would suffer his company. He wanted to outrun all the hateful rumors, obscene taunts, and disrespectful accusations. And most of all he wanted to leave the cold emptiness of a bed long since vacated by a woman who didn't know how to show warmth, who only suffered his touch to produce heirs to the family fortune and never, ever wanted to see him naked.
Frank had been so excited to leave hell far behind him, and flee to Korea.
And now he sits alone in a crowded bar in the middle of a war, night after night, sipping warm beer and grimacing, remembering broken promises and shattered ideals, staring down into his father's reflection in the amber puddles on the table and reminding himself that he's got no right to be upset because—hasn't he known it all along? Everyone leaves.
Even Frank Burns.
The empty stein slips through his numb fingers and clatters to the table, a dead soldier resting in the remnants of its own gore. Frank stares at it and wonders, in a moment lucid thought, if his bunkmates would mind his writing Relinquete omnem spem, o Intrantes above the swamp door. After all, Pierce and McIntyre named the place without his consent, so it would be only fair. After all everyone's said it, and they're all agreed. "War is hell." Frank's just another unfortunate soul in residence, one who'd made the wrong deal with the devil and wound up trading one form of hell for another.
And in the dark, on those cold, lonely, sleepless nights, Frank begins to understand that this second hell is worse.
And now, after his second beer, it was time for Frank to stumble back to his cot and resign himself to his demons for yet another stab at sleep. Unfortunately, but normally for Frank, things didn't get the chance to work out as he'd planned. Just as he was getting up to leave, his very drunk and still pontificating bunkmates chose that exact moment to occupy the two chairs at his right and left, each clapping a hand on one shoulder as they did so.
"C'mon, you guys," Frank protested tiredly as he tried to rise. Two strong hands denied him the right.
"What's a-matter, Frank?" a drunken Hawkeye asked. "You been awful quiet over here all night."
"We din even notice you was over here 'til jus now," B.J. added, gesturing emphatically to no one.
"Fancy that," Frank mused bitterly as he tried to stand once more, though his tone was lost on the pair.
"C'mon, Frank, wuz up?" Hawkeye asked.
Frank didn't answer.
"Yeah," B.J. chimed in. "You're never this quiet when Hawk n' me make asses of ourselves in 'ere." The two drunken captains laughed hysterically at that comment.
"'Specially when all we've been doin' is bashin' th' army," Hawkeye added.
"So what's wrong, Frank?" B.J. asked. "Why din you come charging to MacArthur's defense like you always do?"
"Why didn't you tell us to shut our traps?"
"Or threaten to put us on report?"
"Or have us mart-coursheled?"
"Court-marshaled," Frank corrected tonelessly.
"Is that a threat?" Hawkeye roared, standing up in outrage only to wobble on his legs and collapse back down into his chair again.
"Jus' tell us why, Frank," B.J. pleaded with drunken sincerity.
Frank blinked, not sure if he was certain of the question. "Why what?"
"Don't play dumb," Hawkeye chastised.
"He's not playing," B.J. corrected.
"We wanna know, Frank."
"Know what?" Frank asked, genuinely confused by this point, though he was fully aware that he was being insulted.
"We all hate the army Frank," Hawkeye explained. "Each n'every one of us, 'cept you."
"We hate it cuz they made this damn war," B.J. elaborated, pounding his fist on the table for emphasis.
"It sent us over here—"
"Sent kids over here—"
"Kids who get blown up—"
"That we have to patch up again."
Frank recognized this rapid-fire dialogue from the snippets he'd overhead throughout the course of the evening as the two leveled their diatribe on whoever would listen.
"We hate Korea, Frank," Hawkeye reiterated, passionately. "We absolutely can't stand the stinking place."
"No offense t' th' nice Koreans who live here, of course," B.J. added.
"We hate it, Frank. Every single one of us hates it."
"We hate it cuz it sent us—"
"Along with everyone else—"
"To Korea!" they exclaimed in unison.
Frank was fairly certain that he was able to follow their double speak, convoluted though it was. They were asking him why he loved the army so much. The very notion made Frank laugh out loud.
Hawkeye was incredulous. "Wha's so funny?"
"You guys really wanna know?" Frank asked, just tickled pink by the irony of the question.
Hawkeye nodded violently.
"Of course," B.J. agreed.
"Else we wouldn't have asked."
"You really wanna know, huh?" Frank asked again, this time rhetorically.
Both captains nodded this time, waiting like expectant children who desperately needed to know why the sky was blue. It was at this moment that Frank noticed that they weren't holding him down anymore, so he stood up quickly and backed off a few steps. Hawkeye rose as well, but B.J. just turned in his chair.
"Ok," said Frank, "I'll tell you." He snickered again, highly amused at the inside joke he was about to share. "Because the army sent me over here."
The captains' disbelieving looks soon turned into ones of dismissal as their ruckus laughter filled the Officer's Club once again.
"That's a good one Frank!" Hawkeye choked out.
"Yeah," B.J. agreed. "I nearly fell for it!"
"Not even ferret face would have wanted to come here!" Hawkeye proclaimed.
"He prolly din even know where the war was," B.J. observed, his laughter overtaking his sentence by the end, and Hawkeye joined him.
"Just thought they'd give him a shiny uniform an' send him back to his country club."
"I wonder if he'd even heard of communists before he volunteered to fight 'em, as he says he's doin'." B.J.'s words were slurring more and more by the second.
"That must by why he bought into them damn pamphlets they gave us before we shipped out."
B.J. gasped. "You got pamphlets? We had to watch a movie!"
Hawkeye's fist contacted with the table. "Damn propaganda machines!"
Their drunken conversation continued thusly long into the night, but stayed mostly on topic. That is, they cursed the war and the army up and down until the Officer's Club closed and they had to stumble back to the swamp for a nightcap. Once again the two captains passed out in their bunks, completely oblivious of the fact that Frank Burns had made his exit over an hour before. And once again they fell asleep, completely oblivious to the slight whimpering and mild fidgeting of their third bunkmate, once again in the throws of a nightmare that would be forgotten by morning.
Until the next dark, cold, lonely night, as he tried to sleep again, inevitably forgotten.