Why he stopped showering, no one could say for sure, though everyone had their guesses. Most assumed it was a matter of convenience, which evolved into laziness, and then absentminded comfort. Showers, the somewhat infrequent occasions that they were, became difficult to appreciate in the dark, wrapped in cold, wading waist-deep through lack-of-sleep, the length of the day dragging the body down with more weight than the collected grime of the road.
He’d gone nose-blind, as they say, as those closest to him might have, as the rest of our platoon had not. Some claimed he hadn’t, in fact, stopped showering but was only entertaining an extended break between showers as a matter of pattern fulfillment—shower at every other opportunity, then every third, quarterly, and so on until he’d finally reached some staggering interval which might last him the remainder of his time in country and carry him well into his post-deployment leave. Pity the poor dears who will rush to hug him! The fumes their embraces will loose upon the welcoming! His decidedly unhygienic maneuver may have been some form of reactionary protest, conscious or otherwise. The inauguration of this personally and professionally subversive step toward putrefaction seemed to coincide with a bout of small arms fire in which he had successfully engaged, however, how his combat experience links causally to his decision to avoid the showers, we must remain unaware. When asked, he parried the inquiry with a dismissive hand and retaliated with a strike to the obvious—this is a war zone, man. The armory’s always open if you’re itching for something to clean.
Because we had spent so much time around him and as much mindpower on the origins of his anti-antiseptic behavior, it came as no surprise to everyone except Doc that he came down with what she called a floriferous staphylococcal bacterial infection which had germinated on his upper thigh, took root in the pocket of a single hair follicle, and blossomed into a blistering daisy with red ulcers petaled around florets of honey-crust toxins, all stemming from a central, festering pustule.
He must have quietly borne this affliction for weeks before we finally caught him struggling to climb into his truck and sent him straight to Doc who, against his wishes, purged the affected area, sliced him open and drained, she told us, nearly a pint of fluid from his leg. Why he refused the local anesthetic, we may never know. Some say he enjoyed the pain—the same reason he let the infection build nearly to the point of immobility, until all the company’s Corpsmen gathered to contemplate whether it was safe to allow him to keep his own limb. Maltreat your body, he told us, and somebody may take it from your charge. Maybe he couldn’t feel much of his thigh anyway, swollen as it had become, and so he assumed a surgical slice amid all that existing carnage wouldn’t even register. Doc, however, says he knew full well how much it would hurt—having counseled him and confirmed and reconfirmed his decision. She thinks he probably welcomed the flood of pain with the hope that he would pass out, assuming she would necessarily bathe him either way and preferring to ward the whole of the experience from his memory. He awoke shiny and sterile and wrapped about the leg with brilliant white gauze.
His vision, he told us, had slowly turned to static from the outside until it collapsed at the middle where everything went black. Maybe the scar will pass as a bullet wound. We all knew why a Marine would prefer a bullet wound to a staph infection. There’s still time, we told him, to land an actual bullet wound. Then, of course, he would call them two bullet wounds—double the stories for the working girls back home. The infection cleared up quickly, but the wound was deep and at risk for a necrotic relapse for weeks following Doc’s procedure, and so he had to clean it daily with all of us, Doc most of all, holding him accountable. This supervised sanitation may have caused him to shower even less frequently, though his wound remained immaculate. He took to carrying packages of sterile wipes in his cargo pocket and thin-ribboned gauze with which to stuff the hole in his thigh—a performance for our benefit and a necessity of effective healing. Often, while he changed the dressing, he would put on a kind of show, holding his thigh with both hands, a thumb on either side of the gash, pulling his skin apart and letting it loose so that the wound opened and shut like the bony mouth of a fish gasping for water. He would gasp in time with the opening and closing of the flesh as if his leg was drying out, struggling for life on land, and he would beg us—his audience—to drag him to the showers.
Once, out on the road, out of boredom perhaps or as a means of airing his wounds, he gathered us around his leg and unraveled his bandages and unpacked the hole in his skin. He took a permanent marker to his thigh and drew two wonky circles around splotches for eyes, a cascade of squiggles for hair, and he, puppeteer-like, worked his red-lipped wound as if she were a lady of the night singing out from the docks and calling to the boys in uniform who were just then sailing in from the long drought of the desert war, like some traveling stage show from another era. We laughed as he continued to wrench open her jaws and voice her calls to the returning masses, and we slapped our thighs and whistled back, and it went on like that until she sang a high note and held it too long and opened her lips too wide and tore something deep in her throat and gagged on her own blood and let it spill from the corner of her failing lips which suddenly and unmistakably returned to a break in bloodless skin. He must not have felt it but marked some pain on our faces. He wiped the stream of blood through her hair and shut her up with a mouthful of cotton.
Where she went and why we never saw her again, only he could say, though everyone has their guesses. I imagine she’ll be there to welcome him home.