Thumb War

Should I get it over with, and tell the colonel my intention to marry his daughter? No, this isn't a good time. Too dark inside the automatic carwash, and we've been stuck in here for hours. The colonel stretches in the passenger seat as though trying to expand the boundaries of my car to better accommodate his bulk. Nothing comes of his efforts, so he takes a pack of cigarettes from his jacket. His jacket is decorated with the war medals that he wears on certain days to commemorate battles fought long before I was born. We stopped at his suggestion to wash my car, which has now become stuck, maybe forever.

"It's good you paid extra for the undercarriage wash," the colonel says to me. "Salt eats cars."

He knows that I don't smoke, but he offers me a cigarette so that I'll have to refuse it. He knows also that his medals commemorate battles fought long before I was born, but he pretends that my ignorance is due to lack of patriotism. He lights his cigarette and opens the window so slightly that smoke can escape but water can't get in. Then he flicks the ashes into my car ashtray, which until now has held nothing but spare change.

The colonel wants to tell me something about the interrogation process. "The hardest subject to break," he says, "is the one who is himself trained in the art of torture, who is familiar with the tools of the trade, with the subtleties of threshold and duration, the natural rhythms of agony and inquiry. That man knows the signs along the road to submission, and may fake them in order to throw his torturer off the trail. As a result, periods of interrogation may be conducted too close together or too far apart, the torturer may misjudge the degree of pain required, and the subject's spirit will remain intact despite the work of his interrogators, who are busy people and cannot bear to have their time wasted. The subject feels pain, of course, but pain has long been his ally, and will not soon forsake him."

Another jet of soapy water strikes the windshield, coating it in thick foam, and a swirling mass of brushes whip against the glass. My car must be very clean. I wish I could turn on the radio, but I can't extend the antenna, because the infernal machinery of the automatic carwash would only rip it away.

"Salt eats cars," the colonel says again. "It is ruthless and depraved. Thank God for our automatic carwashes and the valiant people who conceived them."

In spite of my terror of the colonel, in spite of what I have to tell him today about his daughter and me, I shout that he makes no sense, that nothing he says makes any sense anymore.

But the colonel smokes his cigarette as though I have said nothing. Then he says, "Certain words belong with certain other words. The enemy is always ruthless and depraved. Our allies are valiant or noble, or both. You understand?"

I honk the horn, twice. There is no attendant at the automatic carwash, because even payment is handled automatically. And since it's winter, no one will pass by, no one will hear my signal.

"You should enlist," the colonel says. "It has nothing to do with politics, nor with patriotism, nor lack thereof. Serving in the armed forces will help you to understand things about yourself which you may otherwise deny out of shortsightedness or fear. It could help you develop as a person, to enlist in the armed forces."

The colonel has told me this before, but now I am trapped here with him and have to answer. Still I can think of nothing to say.

"Here, let me show you," the colonel says, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. He extends his right hand, fingers curled and thumb pointed upward. "Link your hand with mine."

I do as he says.

"Now count off," he commands, and I smile because now I know where his daughter learned to play this game.

Together we count, "One, two, three, four, I declare thumb war."

The colonel is an expert strategist, but I have fought many thumb wars with his daughter, so his tactics are familiar to me. I dodge, he feints, then I go in for the kill and I have him. His thumb is pinned helplessly to our conjoined fists.

He tears his hand away and slumps back into the passenger seat. Another jet of soapy water strikes the windshield.

The colonel says, "I forgot to tell you how to break the man who has himself been trained in the art of torture. There is only one way. You see, the torturer must pretend that he is inept at his job. He must fumble with his tools, hesitate to apply them. The subject must be made to think that his torturer is capable of making a mistake, because an unskilled torturer is far more dangerous than one who knows what he's doing. So frightened will the subject be by the sight of his craft in the hands of a bungler, that he will confess everything to his inquisitors."

I try not to listen, but his voice is the only sound I hear. I need to end this excursion. I need to escape from this automatic carwash. So I tell the colonel that his daughter and I have slept together, that she is pregnant, that we are getting married.

As though on cue the water shuts off, the whirling brushes retreat, and the door of the automatic carwash opens.

The colonel and I blink in the sunlight.

"You have my blessing," he says.

About the author:

Jedediah Berry has published short fiction in Web Conjunctions and La Petite Zine. He is an MFA student at UMass Amherst, where he serves as managing editor of jubilat.