Big Diehl understood his nature, early-on. Raised as a cowkid on a ranch in northeastern Colorado, Diehl yearned for something more, something encompassing the truth of himself. He became a soldier. Served honorably in Iraq. Found precious love along the way. Yearned to return to Wyoming where his future awaited, where an unfinished reckoning beckoned.
Diehl leaned against the wall inside the vintage World War Two wooden barracks, now a gym with free weights, a pull-up bar, an incline bench and two mats at either end of the room. Watched two boys wrestle, a circle of others sitting on the floor or on their knees at the edge of the mat, hollering at the duo to do this or that to the other, flung admonitions framed around the words pussy, wimp. Boys wrestling wore shiny nylon shorts, tennis shoes, flash of jockstraps.
Diehl had wrestled in high school, knew the moves, the holds, the essentials of tactics; knew the necessity of quickly learning your opponent's weak points'a war of sorts. Knew the boys here were just working out the kinks of the Army, nothing serious. The screeve of testosterone wafted to the rafters. Neither of the boys appeared to know a damn thing about the fine points of the sport. Diehl smiled, wondered if they'd want to know. He could teach them. Didn't have any shiny nylon to pull on, though, just his old sweats, cut off at the thighs. But, hell, would they let him into the circle? He was a three-stripe sergeant, with three years of the Army behind him. These boys were all privates, PFCs, all just out of high school or scooting by on a GED'good enough for the Army. Diehl was only a few years older. But he was part of what some of these boys called the management, the chain of command to which they, the privates and PFCs owed fealty. Not that fealty was necessarily deserved. Just demanded.
Mock battle over, the loser now sat with his back against the wall, breathed hard, watched the others leave the gym with the winner. Grabbed his T-shirt, dabbed sweat from his face, shoulders, chest. Saw Diehl, smiled, raised his hand in greeting.
They all knew Diehl. Diehl was the junior NCO who assisted drill sergeants and staff sergeants with small arms training. Diehl'd always show up for one company or another's morning formation. Participated in PT, ran the two, three miles with the privates, corporals and their drill sergeants. Sang the songs, chanted the chants against the unison double-time clop of combat boots on tar top, cement streets or dirt trails. Diehl gave smiles and small talk to what were technically his subordinates, but who he'd come to think of as just kids ' so much like himself, not so long ago ' trying to figure out the particular nuances of the Army as well as the mysteries of themselves. Most of them had also seen Diehl in the gym, his body hard, defined, somebody whose wrong side you wouldn't want to test, even though he was only five-eight. When Diehl worked out, he took on the look of caged anger, a bantam whose gray eyes projected a cold hardness, something the primordial part of yourself, there at the top of your spine, told you, without thinking about it, to avoid.
Diehl walked over to the PFC. Denman was his name, remembered from the tag on his fatigues.
"You did okay, Denman." Diehl stood over him, watched him pull his T-shirt over his head.
"Guess I lost though, sarge." Denman looked up, smiled from his blue eyes, a dark blue that Diehl thought he could get lost in if he looked long enough. The kid's black hair was wet with sweat, his face carved fine; strong cheekbones, dimpled chin.
"Prob'ly did lose, but I think you could do better. I could give you some pointers. Wrestled a bit in high school. Could show you some moves, if you're interested."
Denman nodded. "Sure, why not. Maybe a rematch, huh?"
"Sure, couldn't hurt." Diehl thought about the prospect of touching the kid, feeling his skin, smelling his sweat, running his hand over nylon. "Tomorrow. Sunday would be a good day for it. Meet you here at, oh, say oh-eight-hundred. Work for you?"
"Yeah. That'd be great."
"Good. Don't eat much breakfast, though. Full stomach don't mix with exercise."
Denman smiled. "Okay, sarge, oh-eight-hundred."
"You could call me Diehl, if you want. Kinda try to get away from the Army when we can. Drop the sarge stuff."
"If you say so, sar'uh, Diehl." Denman stood up, walked to the door.
Diehl watched Denman leave, saw an ease of movement, stepping more from the balls of his feet than his heels, ass flexing with each step. The kid had worked his body. Probably knew what it was to be prideful in seeing what he saw reflected in a mirror. "See you tomorrow."
"I'll be here." Denman turned and, once again, raised his hand in a wave.
* * * *
Diehl stepped onto the mat, felt old memories surge. Sat down, placed his hands on the leather. He'd learned to keep the demon behind him since he last wrestled in high school. Demon wasn't the sex, or just the feel of another man's body against his. No, the demon still stumbled around in a tin house in Laramie. Someday he'd' No, he didn't even want to give voice to it. Still, he let the thought simmer.