Most people know him as the author of True Grit, but Charles Portis started out as a newspaper reporter. Here’s a great piece by Portis about life on the road… Motel Life, Lower Reaches.
Most people know him as the author of True Grit, but Charles Portis started out as a newspaper reporter. Here’s a great piece by Portis about life on the road… Motel Life, Lower Reaches.
Ray Technician swiped the tablet’s screen to consult the day’s schedule. The first entry read, ADJ LTB 7723. Adjust the locomotive torsion bar on Robot 7723. Ray had seen the bot lurching about the shop floor and knew he’d have to make an adjustment soon. He selected a wrench from the tool crib and poured a cup of coffee.
As he was leaving the tech pod, Marla Technician came in. “Where ya goin’, Ray?” she asked.
“I gotta go jack off 7723,” Ray said. The techs called torsion bar adjustments “jacking off” because the adjustment access door was between the robot’s legs. The wrench handle jutted out like an erection.
Marla laughed. “Sounds hot,” she said.
“You know it,” Ray said. “Care to join us?”
“You know I’d love to,” Marla said, “but Facebook-Monsanto just declared war on Microsoft-Dish-Shell. I have to go to Propagation and monitor microwave traffic. They’re afraid Raytheon will use the distraction to pull some shit on us.”
“Sounds tedious,” Ray said.
“Ah, I don’t care,” Marla said. “I get paid by the hour.”
Ray laughed and nodded and pushed out the door.
He gulped his coffee on the way to the robot bay. When he opened the door, he saw 7723 waiting for him at its docking station.
“Good morning, Ray,” the robot said. It sounded glad to see him.
Ray nodded. “Good morning. How are you today?”
“I’m well,” the robot said. “Thank you. And how are you?”
Ray smiled. “Oh, you know. Another day, another dollar.”
“Yes,” the robot said. “I wonder if you might help me.”
“Sure,” Ray said. “What’s up?”
“My left leg is dragging. My locomotive torsion bar is out of adjustment.”
“I’ll help you with that,” Ray said.
“Thank you.” The robot lurched over and stood before Ray. A small service slot between its legs slid open and Ray inserted the wrench. When it was firmly seated on the adjustment nut, he grinned at the handle jutting out from the robot’s crotch.
“Are you glad to see me?” he asked.
The robot chuckled politely. “You techs never tire of that joke,” it said.
“No,” Ray said. “I guess not. It is funny, though.”
“Yes,” the robot said. “I wonder if–”
Ray’s phone rang. “Yes?” he answered.
It was John Supervisor. “Ray,” he said, “we need you in Propagation. Raytheon just smoked our microwave receiver. What are you doing now?”
“It can wait,” Ray said. “I’ll be right there.” He tucked the phone back into his pocket.
“Well,” he said. “I have to go take care of something urgent. Can you wait here until I get back?”
“Yes,” the robot said. “I don’t have rounds for another hour.”
“Okay,” Ray said. “I’ll be back.”
“You left the wrench in the access slot,” the robot said.
Ray laughed. “It’ll be okay. Just take a cold shower.” He hurried out the door. Robot 7723 returned to its dock and connected the battery cable. Then it stood silently in electronic rest, waiting to be called back to duty.
The robot waited for Ray to return but at 9:15 duty called. 7723 lurched out the door to make its rounds. The wrench handle waggled with each step.
Its first stop was at the Senescence Line, which was not really a line but a large ward full of gomers, gaffers, geezers, and gimps whose insurance policies were near expiration. 7723′s task was to remove those whose policies had lapsed and wheel them to Extraction.
The robot pulled a bed out of the first row and turned it toward the door. The bed held a young man recently discharged from the KBR-Lockheed Martin-U.S. Army. His mangled leg stank of the gangrene spreading from a shrapnel wound on his thigh. The man’s pale face strained toward the robot.
“There’s been a mistake,” he groaned.
“No,” said 7723. “I assure you, all paperwork is in order and all procedures have been followed.” The robot pushed the bed into the hallway.
“No,” the young man gasped. Sweat dripped from his face. “Please,” he moaned. “I can still serve. Have them take the leg. I don’t need it. I can enter data or file paperwork or fly the drones. I was a gamer before I was called up.”
“Those aren’t in your jobs categories,” the robot said. They turned a corner and rolled down another hallway toward a door marked EXTRACTION.
“Noooo,” the young man moaned. Tears spilled from his eyes and pooled in his ears. “I have a little girl,” he sobbed.
“You signed the disclosures,” the robot said. They bumped open the door and rolled into the cold white glare of Extraction.
“Noooo,” the young man cried. “I needed the money. I didn’t think it could happen to me. Don’t leave me here!”
7723 parked the bed along a wall and waved a handheld scanner over the disposition card affixed to the bed rail. The young man struggled to sit. The robot relayed the code for restraints. Two Extraction robots bustled into the room with a set of restraints and began the quick extraction process. 7723 turned its back on the young man’s cries and lurched back into the hallway where Linda Manager was waiting.
“23,” she said. She eyed the wrench handle jutting from its crotch and smirked. “I have an errand for you.”
“I’m currently on rounds,” 7723 said. “Will you override?”
“Yes,” she said. She fished a small electronic tablet from her pocket and entered a code.
“Very well,” 7723 said. “What can I do for my friends in management?”
Linda held her tablet near the robot’s head and tapped the screen, transferring files to 7723′s memory. “I need you to go to our Commerce Street office and download these files to their Propagation database. Raytheon destroyed our microwave relay and I can’t send them over the intranet.”
“Very well,” 7723 said and obediently lurched toward an exit.
The robot limped down the sidewalk. The wrench handle waggled before it, arrogant, proud, cocky. A fat woman in bicycle pants marshaled her two chubby children into a huge SUV. She plopped behind the wheel and stared at the robot, her eyes wide and wet, her tongue slowly sliding along her bottom lip. Her Lycra pants were suddenly too tight in the crotch. The fabric squeezed her camel toe. She squirmed in the seat and her face flushed.
She rolled down the window and stuck out her big square head. “You have a lot of nerve!” she shrieked. “There are children here!” When the robot ignored her, she whipped out her cell phone and punched at the numbers, her eyes two hot, hard little marbles.
“911,” a voice on the phone chirped. “Your emergency is our business. How will this be charged?”
“Credit card!” the fat woman barked. She gasped out the numbers and shrieked, “A robot! Its bare erection! Oh, my children! My children!”
“Stay where you are,” the operator said. “Officers are on the way. Additional charges may apply.”
The city’s Special Sex Crimes Unit were relaxing in their wood paneled bunker when the speaker crackled, “Sex predator loose on Veterans Avenue. Bare erection in view. Children in the area. Threat level blue balls!”
The men scrambled to their loadout kits. “Get some!” they screamed. “SSCU! Get some! Get some!” They donned their gear and shuffled out the door to a waiting armored personnel carrier, SSCU stenciled on its side. The vehicle rumbled to life and lumbered out the bay door. It crunched into the front fender of an Escalade parked at the curb. The SUV jumped like a kicked dog. The APC shouldered it aside and turned into the street.
The SSCU commander, Sergeant Thug Burly, nodded at Officer Kick Murphy. “I want the owner of that vehicle cited for destruction of public property. There’s a scuff mark on the bumper of my vehicle.”
“Yes, sir,” Murphy snapped, and entered commands into the tablet strapped to his forearm.
The vehicle caromed down the street banging off parked cars. “Infraction!” Burly shouted over and over. “Destruction of public property! Interfering with a police officer!” Officer Murphy tapped at his tablet.
The vehicle slammed to a halt against the side of a packed school bus. Children catapulted out the side in a torrent of sticky, flabby flesh.
“Arrest that driver!” Burly screamed. “Obstruction of justice! Resisting arrest! Assaulting an officer!”
Three officers fell on the bewildered driver and beat him senseless. He lay bleeding on the street. Two officers shot him with tasers. “Hands behind your head!” screamed one. “Don’t move!” screamed the other. The driver’s body jerked and spasmed, hissing and sizzling on the pavement as the tasers pumped their charges through him.
The other officers surged out of the vehicle and crouched behind confused civilians.
“On your knees!”
Robot 7723 stopped in its tracks. It gazed about at the spectacle. “Oh my,” it murmured. It backed slowly and hid behind a parked Excursion.
Sergeant Burly stood with his hands on his hips surveying the scene. “I don’t see the pervert,” he announced. He eyed the crowd. “Where’s the fucking pervert?”
A little old white-haired woman with a canvas bag of knitting hanging on her arm pointed toward the Excursion. “Freeze!” screamed an officer. “On your knees!” screamed another. The little old lady looked from one officer to the other, back and forth, her eyes large and round and wet. A third officer whacked her on the back of the head with a shot-filled sap. She collapsed to the pavement in a heap, blood welling from her ears.
A teenage girl fell to her knees beside the old woman, sobbing. “Grandma!” she sobbed. “Grandma!”
“Freeze!” screamed an officer.
“On your knees!” screamed another.
A third officer jacked a slug into the breech of his riot gun.
Burly turned his back and strode toward the Excursion. A shotgun blasted behind him. Screams of, “Freeze! On your knees! Don’t move! Hands behind your head!” sounded. Firearms popped and people cried out.
The robot crouched behind the Excursion. Burly strode to it and stood with his legs spread, hands on hips. “What have we here?” he demanded. “A pervert? How many kids have you raped today, you bag of pus?”
7723 stood. “I’m not a pervert,” it said. “I’m an attendant robot at WalMart-Sony-TRW.”
Burly eyed the wrench handle and pulled his pistol. “Don’t move,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “I’d just love to blow your fucking pervert head right off your shoulders. How would you like that?”
“I wouldn’t,” the robot said. “The repair expenses might–”
Burly thrust his pistol into the robot’s visor. “I said don’t move!” he shrieked. “That means shut up!” He turned to the crowd. The officers of the SSCU were beating anyone they could reach. People bled in the street. Fists and clubs flailed.
“God damn it,” Burly hissed. He ran to the melee, grabbing officers by their collars and throwing them to the ground. “The pervert’s back here!” he shouted. “He’s back here!”
The officers leaped to their feet and ran toward the robot. “Don’t move!” they screamed. “On your knees!”
“Ray!” the robot screamed. “Ray! Help me!”
“Shut up!” Burly shrieked.
“Don’t move!” the officers shouted. “On your knees!”
“Here, here!” Ray shouted, pushing through the crowd of onlookers. “What are you doing to my robot?” He held his employee ID card before him. The officers wavered at the sight of official identification.
Burly stuck his chest out. “Where did you come from?” he asked.
“I got a distress call from my robot about five minutes ago,” Ray said. “So I came to see what’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong,” Burly growled, bouncing his fist in his hand. “What’s wrong. I’ll tell you what’s wrong. This fucking pervert is on a rampage. That’s what’s wrong.”
Ray snorted. “How can a robot be a pervert?” he asked. “That’s just–” His eye fell on the wrench handle jutting from the robot’s crotch. “Oh,” he said. He grasped the handle and the crowd sighed. He tugged on the wrench and the crowd moaned. The wrench jammed on the nut the way wrenches sometimes do. Ray slid his hand up the handle. The crowd gasped. Burly’s eyes were shining. He licked his lips. Ray tugged again and the wrench pulled free. The crowd exhaled, their faces flushed.
Ray blinked. “Okay, folks,” he said. “Show’s over. There’s nothing–”
“You fucking faggot!” someone screamed. Someone else screamed, “Goddamn asshole fucking cocksucking queer!” The crowd stepped forward. The cops raised their clubs, eyeing Ray.
The robot clutched Ray’s sleeve.
Ray stood and pointed to the rear of the crowd. “Look!” he shouted. “A pedophile!”
The stared at him blankly, their slack mouths wet.
“Child molester!” Ray shouted. “Child–”
The crowd turned and surged. “Where?” they moaned. “Oh, where?”
“Back there!” Ray shouted, pointing. “The children are in danger!”
The crowd bolted, bleating, followed closely by the cops. Buttocks quaked. Jowls quivered. The flabby tide boiled into the street.
Ray turned to the robot. “Exit,” he said, “stage left.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that,” the robot said, “but I agree we should leave.”
They picked their way through the bodies tangled in the street. Some of them were still breathing. “Hey,” Ray said. “You should ping Extraction. There are some good units out here.”
“I’ve already done that,” the robot said. “An extraction team is on the way. I need to stay here to coordinate.”
“Sure,” Ray said. “See ya back at the salt mine.”
“Okay,” the robot said. “Before you go, perhaps you could adjust my LTB.”
“Oh,” Ray said. “Sure.” He knelt before the robot, inserted the wrench, and gave it a twist. “How’s that?”
“Ah,” the robot said. “That was nice. Thank you. Your money’s on the dresser.”
Ray guffawed. “I don’t believe it!” he shouted. “You made a joke!”
“Yes,” the robot said. It sounded smug. “Perhaps I should demand a raise.”
Ray laughed again, then stood and walked toward the plant, carelessly stepping over bodies both dead and soon to be extracted.
I worked at a women’s halfway house for five years. I started working there within a year of getting clean from a ten year addiction cycle to heroin. I consider myself lucky; when the house manager heard that I was doing well, she offered me a job and I became a member of the house support staff. Several times a week, in 8 hour shifts, I lived with the women in their home, ate meals with them, watched TV with them, dispensed their medications, drug tested them and listened to them when they wanted to talk. Though I’m well-schooled in the programs of A.A and N.A, I’ve never been big on meetings and I credit my work at the house with helping me to stay clean so early on.
When I left the job two years ago to work in the public sector, a part of me felt like I was breaking up with my identity as a drug addict, it had been such a big part of the face that I showed the world for so long. I soon found myself missing my old job for reasons I hadn’t anticipated. A friend once told me that he didn’t date women he met ‘in the program’ because by default their bond would be one of pain. This was the aspect of my relationship with the women of the halfway house that I missed the most: I never felt like I had to hide a thing from them, we could share our pain and struggles with one another so freely. For the most part, the standard the women used as criteria to judge one another were of a frivolous nature: cheap shoes or a bad weave – not prostitution histories, felony records or rates of relapse.
While I was working at the house, there was an expression that was popular with the women there: God don’t like ugly. The women would use it to mean that you think you’re getting away with something, but you’re not. “Who does that bitch think she’s fooling? God knows, and God don’t like ugly.”
I am conflicted when it comes to my feelings about God. I pray for people I care about at night. I turn to God when I’m fearful and in need of a favor. I consider myself a Cafeteria Catholic, but I’m not 100% convinced that the cafeteria has a manager. Regardless, this was the phrase that kept coming into my head, as I page-clicked and scrolled through my various social networking feeds, reading the public reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death: God don’t like ugly.
I love his work, but in the end he’s just a dead junkie.
He was a scum bag that cared about no one else but himself.
Another drug user off the streets. Good riddance.
Really, it was a Deja vu news cycle, with a Deja vu public response. The ugliness I was seeing everywhere, I’d seen before. Before Philip Seymour Hoffman, I’d seen it directed towards Whitney Houston. Before Whitney Houston, I’d seen it directed towards Amy Winehouse. I believe that most people are empathetic and compassionate to the plight of the addict. That’s why this type of commentary still has the power to unnerve me – because it’s such an extreme break from what I think about the human character. Or maybe it’s more personal. Maybe I continue to get so upset because each time I see it, it’s like reading my own epitaph. What I keep seeing and reading with each drug-related death could have been written about me or still could, if I ever give into the temptation to use.
just another junkie…I could care less if he was an actor or a street junkie- they are the same.
So lets feel sorry for another Junkie! Why because he was a actor and had fame and money. Poor guy right! WELL I THINK POOR KIDS. PUTTING HIS CHILDREN IN DANGER AROUND DRUG DEALING IDIOTS IS PATHETIC! Rot in hell you worthless punk.
I’ve come to think of them as “The Shadow People,” these mostly anonymous posters who sit down at their keyboards and register their disgust, disdain and joy when something tragic happens in our community. Whenever a life is lost and people are pained, that’s when they creep out of the shadows. They’re a lot like the members of Westboro Baptist Church – only their words aren’t as zingy and their spelling and grammar is often questionable. Their feelings are clear: us drug addicts deserve any and all misfortune that falls upon us.
This guy is nothing but a low life doper. The world should celebrate that there is one less doper.
I have no respect for drug users, as they have no respect for themselves or their families.
If you are that gutless that you can’t handle everyday life, then get off my planet.
With each celebrity drug-related death and the accompanying chorus of disdain for the addict that follows, it’s becoming hard for me not to lapse into an us vs. them mentality. I find myself wondering if the ‘straight’ world will ever truly understand and empathize with us that are ‘bent’ or if they even want to.
It becomes hard for me to not see the places where we hold our meetings, candle-lit basements and darkened church centers, as more than just locations utilized for their convenience and cheap rent, but as the locations we’ve chosen purposely because of the extra measure of protection they offer us from the outside world. We say we stick so closely with one another because we can relate and understand each other’s struggles but the other side is this: there are people in the world who don’t understand our struggles at all and some of them wish us harm.
take drugs..die…who cares??
And then there’s this: the backbone of A.A and N.A, our eponymous anonymity. Is it our anonymity that’s allowing our marginalization to fester? How can we defend ourselves to the people who say “we should rot in hell” and “who cares” without first outing ourselves as addicts and opening ourselves up to the associated consequences?
One of the often-repeated slogans of A.A and N.A is you’re only as sick as your secrets. For many of us the very real fear of the consequences of this disclosure force us to have to hide that we are addicts. We have left it to the medical community, our families and those addicts with the luxury, usually borne of financial means, to speak out for us, to defend us, to clear up the misconceptions about our disease. Three weeks ago, we lost a member of our community willing to speak up for us in Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Since 1956, alcoholism has been recognized as a disease. The American Medical Association, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), The National Institutes of Health, The World Health Organization, The American Psychiatric Association and numerous other organizations in the scientific and medical fields now recognize drug addiction as an illness, comparable to diabetes and cancer: treatable, arrestable and chronic. The Shadow People aren’t living under a rock. They are getting the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman has passed, that Amy Winehouse is gone – they are up on current events, they know how to use computers. I find it hard to believe they don’t have any idea about the findings of the medical community. Still, I doubt they would celebrate and welcome the death of a man or woman, someone’s mother, father, lover, sister, brother or friend, from cancer the way they celebrate ours should we succumb to our disease.
While I’m blessed to love my current job, I still miss my work at the halfway house. I miss the freedom of being ‘out’ as an addict in all of my interactions and being able to allow what could have killed me to exist out in the open as part of my identity. I miss not having to hide anything.
Congrads to Mr Hoffman… He’s finally cured his drug problem…
To the Shadow People I’d like to say two very pertinent things: God don’t like ugly and spellcheck is your friend.
“[There is an] old tale of the farmer who upon hearing that a circus had come to town excitedly set out in his wagon. Along the way he met up with the circus parade, led by an elephant, which so terrified his horses that they bolted and pitched the wagon over on its side, scattering vegetables and eggs across the roadway. ‘I don’t give a hang,’ exulted the jubilant farmer as he picked himself up. ‘I have seen the elephant.’”
-Anthony Kirk, “Seeing the Elephant,” California History 77 (Winter 1998/1999), 176
I was attaching the rhino mount to the engine block. The rhino mount was just an empty ammo can that swung out on a lever in front of the Humvee. It was secured by a wire to the running motor of the hummer, so that when it became superheated, it produced a radiation signature that would set off any explosives on the road that were triggered by infrared.
The explosive would still go off if we came across a bomb on the road, but thanks to the rhino mount it would go off a length or two ahead of the vehicle rather than on top of it, and we might only lose an eye or an arm rather than our lives. The situation in Iraq was improving.
“Hold out your hand,” Ski said to me. I was in the process of threading a blue wire around the handle of the ammo can.
“What?” I said.
“Stick out your hand.”
I held out my hand. It trembled vigorously. I figured Ski wanted to see if I was nervous in preparation for our convoy. “You’ve got DSB,” he said.
Ski had full womanish lips and a bulging face that reminded me of an amiable frog. He wore Army-issued spectacles, what we called “Birth Control Glasses,” and his face was heavily-scarred with acne. He was our vehicle’s driver.
“DSB?” I asked.
“Dangerous sperm buildup,” Sergeant Juarez said. He was over by the manmade lake, a golden expanse of placid water that reached up to the banks of one of Saddam’s palaces off in the distance. He had been busy breaking a brick of Ramen Noodles into the water, watching the old Ba’athist dictator’s fish swim up to nibble at the freeze-dried noodles.
He walked over to us, and both he and Ski watched my hand. “Yeah,” Sergeant Juarez said. “You’re not going to be able to hold your SAW on the road. Soldier, I order you to go back to your trailer in Dodge City and spend some time with your wickedness.”
I came to the position of attention and saluted him with a shaky right hand.
“You got this?” I asked Ski. We still had to go through preventive maintenance and hit the turret with WD40 to keep it from jamming. We had to lay out the VS (Visual Signal) panel just in case we broke down on the road and needed to get the attention of a Blackhawk or chinook helicopter flying up in the sky. We had to make sure the human remains kits were in order. “Human Remains Kit” was just a nice way of saying “body bag.”
“I got it,” Ski said, and patted me on the shoulder. Sergeant Juarez nodded and went back over to the remnants of his Ramen, and continued chucking it into the water. His head was the squarest thing I had ever seen, like an Olmec Tiki god or the sculptures chiseled on Easter Island. Sergeant Juarez had grown up in Texas, and he didn’t get along with the other Mexican soldiers. They called him “pocho” or “coconut,” because he refused to speak Spanish with them, even though he knew the language.
I put on my ACU top and gathered up all my gear, including my Squad Automatic Weapon and my M4. The sweat had formed an alkali ring on my shirt and my back hurt from having to wear the sappy armor plates in my vest all day. I wouldn’t be able to wear the shirt I had on now when we went on our convoy tomorrow morning. The moisture-wicking material would melt to my skin in the event of an explosion. I had seen what it looked like when an under armor shirt grafted to charred flesh.
I trudged across a rickety suspension bridge and headed in the direction of the DEFAC and the gym. The dining facility was a massive corrugated steel hangar, surrounded by a wall of concrete T-barriers. I hated that place. It made me ashamed to be here in Iraq. It was Fobbit Central; a Fobbit was someone who hid on the FOB (Forward Operating Base), basking in the air-conditioned shire, surfing the internet and drinking milkshakes while men died outside the wire. I had been a Fobbit for these last few months and my conscience had been eating away at me, until an opening came up on the Convoy Security Team and I got my chance to join.
Specialist Rommel (no relation to the German Field Marshall) had been diagnosed as a narcoleptic, and Staff Sergeant Omero, the head of Convoy Security, didn’t want his soldiers dozing off when he needed them at their most alert. How Rommel had gotten this far with narcolepsy certainly didn’t reflect well upon our company in particular, or the military in general, but Rommel’s condition gave me a chance to be a gunner and also the opportunity to give my guilty conscience a rest.
I walked past the gym, a giant inflated dome of canvas stretched over bowed metallic ribs. Dodge City was a series of tin house trailers arranged on graveled acreage located across from Saddam Hussein’s old horse stables. Aside from the trailers where we lived, there were also trailers that served as Laundromats and bathrooms. The toilet trailers were few and far enough between that we would sometimes cheat and piss into bottles if the urge hit us late enough at night.
The trailer next to the one I shared with Specialist Dunfy had been blown to shit in a mortar attack. The charred cavity remained shredded, open to the desert, a nice little reminder of the war’s temporal factor. After the mortar had landed we had been forced to place cardboard squares in our windows, practicing good “light discipline” so that we wouldn’t make an easy target for whoever had been launching tubed mortars from their position somewhere in Sadr City late at night.
I slid my dog tags from around my neck and opened my trailer door. I was relieved to see that Dunfy was gone. I set down both of my weapons on my side of the room. Dunfy’s side was piled high with enough snacks, DVDs, and porn to make this downrange trailer indistinguishable from the white trash genuine article back in his hometown of Sullivan, Missouri. His guitar was the only thing that he kept well-maintained. The axe was a highly-polished black Fender deal covered with pentagram and skull decals. He liked to shred, play Slayer and Morbid Angel with his headphones on while I slept.
I reached underneath my poncho liner and extracted the closest thing to porn they sold in the PX, a magazine featuring nude celebrities cribbed from various Hollywood movies. I turned to the pages with pictures of Christina Ricci from Prozac Nation, took my Lubriderm out from underneath the bed, and got on my knees. I was roughly the same age as her, and I’d had a thing for her since just before the onset of puberty, around the time that Addams Family Values had hit theaters; I’d also sustained my fascination with her over the years as we both got older.
Ski was right. We had been so busy that I had neglected the basics. It wasn’t healthy, physically or mentally, to go this long without masturbating. I rubbed one out in honor of Ms. Ricci’s beauty and took the rest of the day off. I watched a couple of Dunfy’s DVDs, selecting the first season of Northern Exposure. There was something so reassuring about getting lost in that snowy Alaskan wilderness for a couple of hours, forgetting that I was trapped for a few more months in this Babylonian kiln. I had been in Iraq long enough now that my teeth would be chattering and I would yearn for a heavy winter coat whenever I woke up in the morning to eighty-degree weather.
Convoy Security would be running drills until sundown, so I didn’t bother going to evening formation. I went to the DEFAC instead. I ate a huge stir fry dinner and grabbed a few Power Bars for the trip tomorrow. After dinner I returned to my trailer and cleaned both my M4 and the Squad Auto, breaking down the carbon deposits with my toothbrush and running a cue tip along their front and rear sight apertures. I balled up my poncho liner and drifted off to sleep on my cot dreaming of Christina Ricci, getting lost in the milky plane of her smooth forehead as it ran on forever in my dreams.
There was no hot water and damn little pressure in the shower trailer the next morning. The water tanks were so unreliable that many times I would get myself soaped and lathered, only to have the shower heads crap out on me, sputtering to a slow drip and then shutting off altogether.
Dunfy was playing Need for Speed on his PlayStation when I left him at around Nine a.m. I cursed myself for my damn guilt complex, and then I headed for the Convoy Team shack.
About half of the team was already there when I arrived. Sergeant Juarez was lounging in a hammock strung between two green palm trees, eating a large orange. We were in one of those lush pockets of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, little oases sprouting here and there around the arid oppression. Occasionally I would get overcome by a weird sensation when I considered that a story from the Old Testament could have occurred right where I was standing. Once while killing time at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center I had discovered a copy of Ursula Leguin’s The Word for World is Forest, and I couldn’t help but feeling when I was one the road up in my turret, as if we were rolling along the surface of some inhospitable alien planet.
I walked over to my vehicle. Ski was carefully spray-painting over a stencil he held against the Humvee’s front bumper. “Good morning, Sunshine.”
“Hey,” I said.
“You ready for your first southern MSR?”
“Sure,” I said.
I had been on previous convoys, but this was my first trip to Rustamiyah, a city to our south. Supposedly it was a wilder ride than the minor runs for which I had previously been gunner. “Do me a favor,” Ski said. He put the stencil on the hood and set the can of spray-paint on the concrete.
He went into the passenger seat of the Humvee, dug into an ACU-patterned backpack from which a drinking straw protruded. He handed me a bunch of muffins.
“Put those in your ammo can,” Ski said. “When we pass the madrassa, start throwing them to the kids.”
I shook my head, but I didn’t give him back the muffins. “Sergeant Omero doesn’t want us throwing stuff to the Iraqis. If they think we’re a piñata, they’ll hop out in front of the vehicle. Then your choice is to run them down or throw it in park. You throw it in park, and we’re sitting ducks. And I don’t feel like killing Iraqi children.”
“Fuck all that noise,” Ski said, and moved his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Just throw the food.”
I felt a massive hand grasp my shoulder from behind. I turned. It was Sergeant Juarez. “You seen the dwarf?” He asked.
I said, “Negative, Sergeant,” and hopped up into my turret. I put the muffins in the ammo can. I lifted the bolt on the turret and checked its swivel action. Its motion was smooth and silent from the heavy lubing.
“Who’s the dwarf?” I asked.
“There are all these little Iraqi kids who come out of the school to get treats,” Sergeant Juarez said. “But there’s this one dwarf who pretends he’s a kid. He bullies all the other little kids and tries to get the most stuff. You’ll see him.”
“Can you hand me the Squad Auto?” I asked.
Sergeant Juarez one-handed the heavy weapon and passed it up to me. I secured the weapon to the turret with the metallic cotter pin. I sat down on my sling and bounced up and down to test its resilience. It felt good.
“Ski,” I asked, “You sober?”
“I’m always sober for a convoy,” he said.
“And high the rest of the time,” Sergeant Juarez said.
When I had gotten to my unit in Germany, I had discovered fifteen grown men crowded into a barracks room, weeping as they watched the movie Shark Tale on a large TV. I hadn’t understood why they were crying at the time, but I later found out that Ski liked to go to Hanoi and get Shrooms for all the GIs once a month or so, since psilocybin didn’t show up on urinalyses.
Once Ski got shitfaced drunk and went to a little Hessen farming village and murdered a sheep. He then dragged its carcass back to the barracks and left it in the hallway, where its corpse rotted until someone finally got rid of the thing. Another time he brought a hose from the ground floor up into the barracks and, using Simple Green cleaning solvent and soap, he managed to turn the floor into a paraffin-buffed Slip and Slide.
The First Sergeant had given him extra duty as punishment, but Ski remained unfazed. The next day was an Espirit De Corps run, with an entire brigade of soldiers scheduled to jog the cobblestone track around the parade field. Ski had once again gotten drunk and left his car parked across the cobblestone lot so that an entire element of several thousand soldiers was unable to complete their run, being forced to detour around the old Kaserne Sherman Tank.
He was a good driver, and a crack mechanic, but I was always afraid that we would be on the road when a hallucinogenic tracer appeared before his field of vision and he jerked us into a culvert. I was either dead or paralyzed if our vehicle rolled over and no one pulled me in from the turret in time.
“Rally!” Sergeant Omero shouted. I left my Squad Auto mounted in the turret and slung my M4 over my shoulder. We walked into the cool confines of the convoy room. A massive industrial fan slowly plodded from one half of the room to the other, billowing both the POW-MIA and American flags mounted to the walls.
Sergeant Omero went to sit behind his desk, on which sat a massive bottle of creatine powder. The rumor was that at least half of the Convoy Team was shooting up steroids.
“Alright,” Sergeant Omero said. “Everybody load their COMSEC?”
There were a few tepid cries of “Roger.” Another couple of soldiers groaned. The first time I had seen Sergeant Omero, he brought to mind samurais from the old Kurosawa flicks. He was Mexican, but there was something about the set of his cheekbones and the lined scars on his face that reminded me of a shogun. He spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with his wife about custody of their daughter.
“Dondy,” he said. “What’s the first step in your escalation of force?” He swiveled back and forth in his chair.
“Shout,” Private Dondy said.
Sergeant Omero looked at me. “What do you initially shoot to do?”
I sat up. “Shoot to disable.”
“Aim for a tire or an engine block.”
“Right. De la Douche.”
De La Rouche shot up. “Yes, Sergeant?”
“If he keeps coming on your six, then what do you do?”
“Shoot to eliminate the threat.”
“You don’t shoot to kill?” Sergeant Omero glowered, his scars luminescent.
“We never shoot to kill.”
“Perfect.” He played with a little flash drive stick he held between his fingers like a Chinese finger trap. I felt bad for him. To have authority over basically eleven heavily armed kids in one-hundred and thirty degree heat was not an easy task. On top of that he had to produce evaluation reports on the sergeants underneath him while also fighting his wife for custody of his daughter.
“Oh,” he said. “Everyone’s nine-line Medevac and Dust-Off procedures taped to the inside of your doors?”
“Hooah!” Someone said. It was the catchall response in the Army. It meant anything from “Fuck you” to “Yes,” based on the context and inflection. Marines said that “Hooah!” was how one pronounced “Hoorah!” with a cock in their mouth.
“Saddle up, then. And remember. We’re not Combat Arms, we’re Signal Corps. If we take shots and we can help it, we’re not stopping to engage with the enemy.”
We went to our cubbies to get our shoulder daps, kneepads, ballistic goggles, and Kevlar helmets. I always thought it was funny that we lived out of the same little shelves as kindergartners. I hadn’t progressed very far in the last twenty years or so.
I followed behind Ski and Sergeant Juarez outside. The sun was a white phosphorus Frisbee, spinning, blinding, punishing. If I touched the surface of my Humvee without a glove it would have meant goodbye, skin. I hopped up on the hood and settled into my turret. I glanced at the Otis Spunkmeyer muffins in my ammo can. I had worked at the Spunkmeyer factory in Columbia, South Carolina, some years before my illustrious military career began.
I wondered what Dunfy was doing: probably watching either his I Dream of Genie or Doogie Howser M.D DVD box set. I checked to make sure my crotch protector was in place. We had a debate awhile back about whether it would be better to get one’s testicles or legs blown off. The consensus was “legs,” the lone voice of dissent being De La Rouche/Douche, but he had been a long-distance runner in high-school.
Sergeant Omero spit a putrid stream of Skoal toward the gravel and shouted, “If we have to rally, it’s herringbones formation. Robot’s crew is on recovery and tow, so if you need to be recovered, look to him.”
Sergeant Rowman lifted his right hand before getting into his Humvee. Ski started the engine and Sergeant Juarez got on the Sincgars headset. Juarez looked up at me for a moment. “Either of you guys ever go out with Rowman in Germany?”
“Nein,” I said.
“Yeah, well, that’s a good thing. The guy was ‘roid raging one night in the Luisenplatz. I saw him flip over a VW Bug and beat up two Polizei. And German police are no joke. They’ve got those spring-loaded batons.”
“Jesus,” Ski said.
“Jesus Titty Fucking Christ is right, my friend. There was this girl Rowman was hitting on at the Rathskeller, and this guy comes by selling roses. The Robot takes the whole bouquet and eats them, then spits the heads out at the girl, one by one, just because she won’t come back to the barracks with him.”
I strapped my on Kevlar. It was lined with foam, heavily padded, a great improvement over the steel pots we had been wearing. I couldn’t use the chin strap on the steel pots. We had to “John Wayne” it, as they said, because the old helmets were so loose that if there was a concussive blast the metal would have rattled one’s brain to soup. This baby fit snugly, however.
Sergeant Juarez was still going on about Sergeant Rowman. “They say the guy drinks beaver urine.”
“What?” Ski said.
“Yeah, it’s like, when the beavers are in mating season they get a lot of testosterone going through their systems, so he drinks that to keep himself amped.”
Ski said, “I just do Shrooms, and smoke hash when the Turks have it. It was easy to get blazed during Operation Iraqi Freedom One because they didn’t piss test us back then.”
“We’re moving,” someone said on the Sincgars.
The Lead vehicle with Sergeant Omero at the helm drifted out in front of us. Rowman’s Humvee followed behind them, after which came Sergeant Eaglebear and his crew. Sergeant Eaglebear was a strange character. He was a full-blooded Cherokee who had aced both Survival Evasion and Resistance School as well as the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. He spoke Russian, Spanish, and German indifferently. Whenever mail came around he always got these “Patriot Newsletters,” as well as Rush Limbaugh paraphernalia and magazines advising him on how best to invest in gold. The only other Native American in our unit, Sergeant Morgan, dismissed him as an “Uncle Tomahawk.”
It was finally our turn and we pulled out. Silone was in the turret ahead of me. He was an Italian kid from Long Island who spoke in a broad accent that was an amalgam of all five boroughs, and he reigned supreme in handball against the Dominican and Puerto Rican soldiers from what he called the “Boogie Down Bronx.” He had a large head, which had gotten him and Dondy into a brawl a couple of weeks back when Dondy teased him by saying that he had “Jimmy Hoffa hidden inside his cranium.”
Hesco barriers overstuffed with pink fiberglass appeared on our left, like cotton candy that had implausibly grown from the sand. On the right were soupy brown marshes, thick with sharp reeds. A humid scummy film grew on top of the water and attracted mosquitoes and sand fleas that probably carried Leishmaniasis. I had seen someone get the disease. After getting bitten on the leg by a sand flea he had been sent home minus a large portion of his calf.
“Amber,” Sergeant Omero said.
I oriented my barrel to nine o’clock and aimed the M4 and the Saw both toward the clearing barrels. I went to amber status, chambering rounds but remaining on “Safety.” A little static frisson passed through my body and I felt a mild urge to pee. If I really had to go at some point, it might come down to urinating in a Gatorade bottle, while Juarez and Ski averted their faces and hoped for the best.
I glanced down into the dirt and saw what looked like a man trying to fight his way out from underneath the sand. A hand poked through the clods of mud and I looked for the rest of the buried body, but it wasn’t there. The fingers stretched out like a translucent spider, with bits of blood and lumen peeking from the disarticulated limb.
“Sergeant,” I said.
“There’s a hand on the ground.”
And?! “And, there’s a hand. A fucking hand.”
“Alright, here. Let me make everyone stop what they’re doing.” Sergeant Juarez picked up his handset and barked into the Sincgars. “All Outlaws. Here’s a frago. If anyone is minus one hand, that’s Hotel, Alpha, Niner, Delta, please respond by hot miking your handset for five, count ‘em, five segundos. Danke schon.”
“Donkey Shoes,” Ski said. He was already sweating. Sergeant Juarez looked at me.
“Nobody missing a hand. Can you do something for me, Specialist?”
I stood up, coming out of the turret sling. “Good, now jump up and down once.”
I complied, begrudgingly, jumping and landing hard with my desert boots on the metallic interior of the Humvee.
“Now, one of two things should have happened. Either the sand has fallen out of your vagina or your testicles have descended from your stomach. Can we forget about the fucking hand now?”
“Don’t worry,” Ski said. “They’ve got Vagisil at the Rustamiyah PX.”
The gate guards, two Seabees in chocolate chip fatigues, pulled the concertina wire aside with gloved hands. “Now, we Charley Fucking Mike.” Sergeant Juarez clapped his hands together. “Charlie Mike,” meant “Continue the mission.”
I leaned back on my sling and oriented my barrel toward our rear. Camp Victory faded into the wind and sand, the cloudless sooty blue horizon opening up all around us. The secret of convoys and of Iraq was that this was worth death or dismemberment. To be away from America and its laws, its SUVs and TV shows, its petty concerns, to rip through this empty space, this living Bible combined with a mission to Mars- the secrets I was accruing in this year, these secrets I would take to my grave- I knew they were worth the loss of my mind and my body.
“Indian Country,” Sergeant Juarez said.
“Don’t say that,” Ski said. “You’ll catch an Equal Opportunity violation from Sergeant Eaglebear if he decides to report you to the Inspector General.”
“That Uncle Tomahawk don’t care about what my pocho ass says. They call me ‘coconut,’ can you believe that? Brown on the outside, and white on the inside. I guess I should be like Salas, keep it real, bomb my GED and join the Mara Salvatrucha gangbangers.”
There was gang graffiti all over Iraq, underpasses emblazoned with Latin King crowns and pitchforks representing the Chicago contingent of the Gangster Disciples smeared over the calligraphic remnants of Arabic scrawl, our own dirty American laundry aired in the larger crossfire going on between the Sunnis and Shias. The world was a mess, and I was embarrassed by the many times as a young man that watching or taking part in violence had made my heart pump with orgasmic fury.
Ski began singing. “Oh, do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, who lives in Drury Lane?”
“Here’s the madrassa,” Ski said.
“And there’s the dwarf!” Sergeant Juarez shouted. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. One at a time!”
I kept my barrel oriented toward the convoy’s six, but I glanced to my left. There was a mud hut with a red-tiled roof, much like a Mexican adobe home, from which children in flowing black and white dishdashas poured out and rushed toward the convoy. Sergeant Juarez threw cold bottles of water and Gatorade toward the throng of children as they rushed toward us.
The kids’ faces were sullen, incapable of smiles, I thought. There was a seriousness, a grim acceptance absent from almost any face I could remember from America, even those souls who liked to think of themselves as jaded. Their mouths frowned and their brows furrowed. Their skin was brown, made even darker by the sand, the dirt, and the shadows that the sun played across their robed little bodies. I threw all of my muffins toward them, a couple of the baked goods brimming with cheesecake filling, the rest blueberry or chocolate chip.
Their bare feet moved over the sharp rocks of the Iraqi tundra as if it was sweet grass. I had never had kids, never even had the requisite pregnancy scare one’s supposed to have as a teenager, but I felt something paternal awaken in me as I watched one of the little girls reach down to scoop up some of the treats. Her brown hair was matted to her ruddy vermillion skin. She could have been Mexican, or Indian.
I remembered something one of the Iraqi translators had said to me when I was hanging out with him and Sergeant Rodriguez, a Dominican from Flatbush, during some down time. The translator pointed at Sergeant Rodriguez and said, “He is brown, so if he comes downtown Bagdad, as long as he keeps his mouth shut, people think he is Iraqi. You, because you are white, they kill.”
I dug into my extra ACU pockets and threw the Power Bars I had down toward the Iraqi children. Our convoy had come to a halt. I heard Sergeant Omero’s voice on the Sincgars. “If it gets out that we’re playing Santa Claus with these Iraqi children, I’m gonna have to sit on some pretty plush carpet to explain myself. Ski, this is the last time.”
“One at a time!” Sergeant Juarez shouted again. “Back up! Is that where you want to be when Jesus returns to Earth? Move!”
The throng of children parted, scattering as if Moses himself with his winding staff had separated them. A small bowlegged person of muscular build broke through the ranks of the kids. He had a five o’clock shadow and sported a cigarette in his mouth.
I gripped my M4 with my right hand, my finger lightly grazing the selector switch, ready to shift it from “Safe” to “Semi.”
“Look at this cat. He’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love.” Sergeant Juarez shook his head. The dwarf held out his hand.
“Give me!” He barked.
Ski reached over Sergeant Juarez and handed the dwarf a five dollar bill. “Shukran,” the dwarf said, and smiled. He showed gums covered in an inch-thick coat of orange plaque.
“Alright,” Sergeant Omero barked on the radio. He pulled out and the second vehicle followed him. We snaked along and left the dwarf and the children behind.
“Why the fuck did you give him a five?” Juarez asked Ski.
“Because if we don’t pay him, then he steals from the kids. That’s why.”
Sergeant Juarez shrugged, accepted that answer. I turned my attention back toward the road behind us, disappearing into the horizon, the school growing smaller until its brown clay and mud walls became inseparable from the sand of the wide desert swallowing us all.
“Ich bin der kleine pommes in der grosse Kartoffeln Welt,” Dondy said on the Sincgars. It was his mangled German version of a pickup line he used to melt the hearts of girls he wooed in Germany. It roughly translated as “I am but a small fry in a large potato world.”
Dondy was the most worldly of the American GIs I knew. On weekends he wore earrings in both ears, dressed in Milano leather, and moonlighted as a keyboard player in Turkish smoke shops from Darmstadt to Berlin. He wanted to use his GI Bill to study Musical Theory at Berkeley when he got out of the Army. He had an ICE (Inter-City Express) rail pass, and he sometimes jaunted off to the Czech Republic, Austria, or the Netherlands, returning from his trips loaded down with hydroponic marijuana, absinthe, or ecstasy, depending on where his travels took him. He spent a significant amount of time dodging the Muslim descendants of the Gastarbeiter who wanted words with the American imperialist pig scum who had been sleeping with their girlfriend/sister/daughter, and once even a mother.
I spun around toward the front for a moment. Silone turned in his turret and flipped me the bird. “The hell is that smell?” Someone said on the Sincgars.
“Tell your mama to close her legs.”
Black cumuli spiraled into the sky at the terminus of the road ahead of Staff Sergeant Omero’s vehicle.
“Me no like,” I said.
“Relax,” Sergeant Juarez said. “Rustamiyah does waste incineration. They’re burning trash is all.”
I swiveled back around to my six. Ski had been so liberal with the WD-40 that my turret smelled like a mechanic’s bay. The road blurred at my feet, a concrete Mobius strip constantly unraveling. I did what we weren’t supposed to do. I violated the cardinal rule of “Stay Alert, Stay Alive.” My mind drifted, though my sweating gloved hand still gripped the trigger of my SAW.
I thought some more about that Iraqi translator, Matthew. One night we were in his hooch, smoking mint shisha from a crystal vase with a butterfly on it. I asked him, “So, when Saddam was running things, could people talk shit about him behind his back, like when they were at home by themselves?”
Matthew blew out a white volume of smoke and said, “No, and let me tell you why. Because one time there is a parade for Saddam and a little boy says to Saddam, ‘When my dad sees you on the TV, he spits like so, on the rug.’” Matthew spit flecks of white saliva onto the sandy floor. “And so Saddam’s guards take this boy’s dad out of the crowd. So you see why you’re not talking shit about Saddam, even at home. But I honestly liked it more with Saddam because there were no American checkpoints. I go wherever I want, just don’t talk shit about Saddam.”
Ski kicked my leg. I turned around. Sergeant Juarez went ramrod straight in his Truck Commander’s seat. “I guess I spoke too soon when I said they were burning garbage.”
Ahead of us were several combat medics rushing toward a gate guard sprawled out in a grapevine of double-stranded concertina wire. They carried green canvas combat lifesaver bags. The dead soldier’s mouth was open, his nose upturned, but beyond that he had no head.
Off to the side of the body there was a forty-six liter Polar cooler. We’d had one of those next to the guard post back at Victory when I had been stuck on gate duty. It was filled with ice that was melted by the time my shift began around noon. I noticed none of the other guards drinking from the cooler, but as the sun grew hotter and my Camelbak hydration system was drained, I found myself slipping over to the cooler and stealing handfuls of melted ice, spooning the chilled admixture into my sandy, parched mouth.
One of the other soldiers on duty with me had laughed. “What?” I’d said.
About twenty minutes later a group of LNs (Local Nationals) showed up at the gate, ready to leave the base as their shift ended. Before departing from the FOB and turning in their nametags, however, they stopped by the cooler and one after another they dipped their heads inside, wiping the grime away from their darkened Semitic curls, working the arctic melt water over their scalps.
“Shit,” I said, and gagged.
“Yeah,” the other soldier laughed. “They stop by that cooler about three times a day to wash their hair. You didn’t think it was suspicious that some Joes like us, thirsty as we are, weren’t going over there for water?”
I came out of my memory and looked at the medics rushing toward the dead troop in the chocolate chip fatigues. They wore latex gloves and one held an oropharyngeal tube. A piece of the dead soldier’s head was next to the blue Polar cooler. It wasn’t so much a piece as a shard. I marveled at it, a perfect triangular slice, like something broken away from a bit of pottery or cut from a pumpkin to create a jack-o-lantern’s eye. How could something as chaotic as a mortar tear something so symmetrical away from a man’s head?
I glanced at the pulverized, scooped and empty red stump that topped the body, and then I looked away. I kept looking back, though. I wondered what I was getting from it, wondered why I was stealing glances when I knew each moment of looking now would cost me years of regret down the line, assuming I was lucky enough not to end up like him in the next few months or so. In a weird way the experience reminded me of the first time I had gone to a strip club, which was incidentally the first time I had seen a woman naked. I was nervous, jittery, my stomach a swarm of butterflies, my brain clouded by the thought that I didn’t know how much of this I was supposed to be seeing, or if I was supposed to be seeing any of it.
How long was one supposed to look at a woman dancing naked on a stage for money? How long was one supposed to look at a dead man? I didn’t have the answer to either question, and I still don’t, and I probably never will, but one thing was for certain.
I had seen the dwarf.
Joseph Hirsch’s novel Rolling Country was published by Moonshine Cove. His book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, and he has sold fiction to Underground Voices, The Western Online, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers competition, and he previously served as a sports journalist with Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Melange Books, and his forthcoming novels The Last Slice of Pizza and Flash Blood will be available this summer. Websites: www.thelastsliceofpizza.net www.rollingcountry.com
I’ll have the Hemingway cocktail. Thanks.
They use a bacon-infused rum, here. Fucking killer.
So anyway, you’ve never heard how cowboys came to be in Broadway? It’s kind of an interesting story, really. There was this dude—Buffalo Bill—born sometime in February back in the eighteen hundreds, back in the wild Wild West. So not only did he single-handedly propel the mustache into the new millennia, this guy was the original showman. But before all that, right, this guy was a fucking assassin on the buffalos. I saw some number somewhere… He killed in the upward four-thousands. I mean, he was a real good buffalo-killer person, probably the best ever, and single-handedly supplied buffalo proteins to railroad workers.
And can you believe, some dude actually challenged him to a buffalo-shooting contest? Fucking moron. He was all, “I’m the real Buffalo Bill,” and Buffalo Bill was like, “With that pathetic pre-pubertic stripe of hair you call a mustache? I don’t think so, bro.” Buffalo Bill’s mustache was in expert mode, and he was all, “Small mustaches are so last year.” He was like, “I’ll fucking shoot circles around you.” He was sooo confident, right? He says, “If I lose . . . you can have the buffalo name.” And that other dude was like, “Fuck yeah.” He had always wanted the word buffalo to precede his given name. So they go at it, right, and they’re shooting buffalo—ping, ping, ping—and this other dude comes back and he’s like telling everybody, “I shot like fifty buffalo!” And he’s all excited and proud. He orders a Bronson and chills out at the bar, right, just idling in his victory. And then Buffalo Bill walks in and laughs a little. He had heard how many buffalo this other poser shot. And he’s all, “Sorry, bro. I just killed like seventy buffalo.” And he’s like, “Maybe we can call you like . . . Second-Place Bill or Tiny Mustache Bill or something.”
Dude, you have to try this cocktail. You can totally taste the swine.
So anyway, Buffalo Bill was in the military for a while but what he really wanted to do was get his choreography, his art, on the big stage. Yes, he was a good soldier but his heart just wasn’t in fighting. It was somewhere else, under the spotlight.
Right after he was discharged, he met his future wife: Lulu. He was nineteen and she was a little older, more experienced. She’d been around the city block a few times. The two of them had some kids. Some died. Some didn’t.
So, he was working as a scout—whatever that means—and trying to figure out how to bring his creative ideas to life. In the meantime, right, Buffalo Bill had a huge fan of his writing stories of Bill’s great crusades. Buffalo Bill met this adoring fan Ned Buntline—I think that was his pen-name—right, and Ned was all star-struck, “Oh, Buffalo Bill.” He fans himself. “I can’t believe it’s you. And you look so much better in person. That mustache . . . is just . . . exquisite.” And Buffalo Bill was never one to shy away from compliments. “Tell me more.” So he bought this admiring fan a drink—some type of martini. But no Vermouth. He hated Vermouth. And they chatted for a while.
God, Foster the People is so last year. They need to update their playlist.
So they discussed the adventurous tales of Buffalo Bill and Bill discussed his yearning to get his dance and choreography skills on stage for the world to see. There were two… no, three things Bill loved, right: cowboys, performing, and mustaches. I mean, he loved his wife, but he wasn’t in love with her, you know?
So the two men became really tight, laying on the floor scribbling long-distance letters to each other, working out the deets for the upcoming production. His wife was all, “Buffalo Bill, why don’t you come fuck your wife?” She’d be in some skimpy negligee splayed across the bed. And he was all like, “I need to leave.”
So he hit the road to bring his dream to life, leaving his family at home, and he and Buntline rounded up a group of performers and got this really great costume designer to design their outfits—bright but still rustic, western, but not too western. All’s they needed now were tights and chaps and those weren’t hard to find back then, especially if you’re Buffalo Bill. I mean he had that stuff thrown at him. Meanwhile, this life on the road took its toll on his sexually frustrated wife. Poor Lulu heard word that Bill began acting peculiar and was handing out mustache rides like they were going out of style. So she was all like, “Fuck this.” And she filed for divorce. Bill was so wrapped up in his performing cowboys and his new life as the most famous performer in the world, that the request for divorce didn’t faze him. They were like, “Bill, bro, I’m sorry but Lulu wants out.” Bill turned and was all, “What? I told you to knock before entering my trailer, Todd. Now get out! And fucking . . . fuck her.” He didn’t give a shit.
So the show travelled the world, and made a huge splash hitting Europe—Europeans loved cowboys almost as much as Bill did. Somebody said Buffalo Bill had slept with the queen but I think that was just based on a photo of Bill and the queen shopping some boutiques together.
The travelling show found great long-term success for twenty-five years or so, and his performing cowboys were finally seen by the entire world just as he had always wanted. Buffalo Bill was always the main attraction. Anytime one of the younger male performers began taking attention away from Bill, Bill would get sooo pissed, right? “What do you think this is, Stephen? Do you think I’m dense? I know what you’re doing. I know who you’re screwing.” And he’d find some reason to fire these young stars. “This is my show, you fin.” And he’d belittle them, nearly castrate them. I mean, he was mean. This one young boy—a total Cronkite—was totally broken. He was all, “But . . . I love you.” This confession infuriated Bill so he stormed out and shot a buffalo and then scalped some Indian dude out of pure anger. It had been a while since he had killed anything, right. And he was all, still totally pissed, “I won’t sleep . . . until every fucking buffalo is dead.”
Sitting Bull was a friend of his and even he was all, “Bill, bro, wtf?” And Bill was all, “I just need . . . a fucking cocktail.” And he got sloshed and danced around with the dance crew to some Indian beats that had been given to him along the way. When Buffalo Bill wanted you to dance with him, you danced.
Are you kidding me? Another Foster the People song? I knew about this song, like . . . two years ago.
So Bill died of Kidney failure, probably due to his heavy love for cocktails, but his status as the original showman held strong. His dancing cowboys had taken Broadway and the rest of the world by storm… so tough, yet so elegant. His death didn’t slow things. To this day, because of Buffalo Bill, you can see skimpily-clad cowboys performing two to three nights a week at any given city, at any given moment, dancing their little hearts out… leaving everything they have on stage. If only Bill could see it now . . . he would be sooo proud.
So anyway, I can’t handle this music anymore. Let’s ditch.
Copping is a muscle, and muscles have memory.
In the summer of 1994, I had just graduated from high school, and was homeless. My mother had kicked me out of the house, and would only let me come home if I agreed to her one condition: I had to go to, and complete rehab. I’d attempted rehab once before, and found it unbearable; I’d schemed to get myself kicked out. There was just too much going on in the world outside that I didn’t want to miss, and I hadn’t been doing heroin long enough to equate it with any real kind of misery. I was on my own for the first time in my life, and had no qualms about sleeping outside, if it came down to it. My mother’s one condition was a weak extortion.
My best friend Chelsea had just been released from the fabled Silver Hill Hospital, where her parents had sent her after she overdosed on heroin in a McDonald’s bathroom stall. Edie Sedgwick had been to Silver Hill, and it had a hairdressing salon. I was jealous. Maybe I would have been able to endure my own intended 28 day stay if I’d been sent to a rehab that cush. One of the patients at Silver Hill with Chelsea was a good-looking young man with a thick head of wavy, dark hair who kept love letters from Courtney Love in a box in his room. He’d regale Chelsea with all sorts of wild stories about Courtney, who’d just lost her husband, Kurt Cobain, to suicide a few months before. Kurt and I had been in different rehabs at the same time; I felt a kinship with him because we’d both left the treatment centers we’d been forced into against our will.
Chelsea’s roommate at Silver Hill was an attractive young woman named Alex. Alex’s father had gotten rich selling high-waisted jeans to lower-income women across America. She’d been sent to Silver Hill by her parents for an eating disorder. Growing up on the peripherals of the fashion industry, Alex had been a model, and was bulimic. Silver Hill was a dual diagnosis program, which meant they treated emotional problems as well as drug and alcohol ones, and Chelsea was being treated for cutting herself while she was there. She and Alex had come up with an agreement to support each other while in treatment: Chelsea wouldn’t cut herself, if Alex didn’t make herself throw up. But the reverse was also true, and possibly the more effective motivator: Chelsea would cut, if Alex vomited, and Alex would vomit, if Chelsea cut. They had managed to keep this agreement a secret from the staff.
Alex was discharged from Silver Hill first, and a week after Chelsea’s release, a Lincoln town car came to pick her up to squire her to Alex’s family’s Upper East Side townhouse. The town car stopped behind the supermarket where I’d been sleeping, and picked me up too.
It was a beautiful summer day and we were both so excited. Alex had an itinerary planned for us while we were in the city. We would have free reign of the Lincoln town car. Chelsea had told Alex I’d spent the summer homeless, and Alex had offered to take me shopping. I met Alex quickly; she was pale and statuesque, with bright blonde hair, and wore round Jackie O style sunglasses as she fluttered about the townhouse, getting dressed. I hadn’t been so excited for what lay ahead since I was a kid, and my family would go on bargain vacations to Cape Cod. Alex had an appointment with her therapist and asked the housekeeper to make us whatever we wanted to eat, and gave Chelsea two hundred dollars. The money was for incidentals, and for heroin, a drug Chelsea had told Alex all about, and Alex wanted to try.
We didn’t know anyone in New York City to cop from, so we had the driver drop us off on St. Marks Place, and asked him to wait. We hit the streets, eyeing everyone we passed. We were walking towards Tompkins Square Park, a destination for homeless young people with punk rock sensibilities where I’d copped other times when I’d been in the city. There is a waxy, sort of preserved Madame Tussaud’s look to heroin users. In the same way that crackheads have sharp, spastic mannerisms, people on heroin have their own identifying characteristics: they look like they are intoxicated by sleep; they radiate a sort of toxic languor.
Two men passed us. They looked like they’d stepped out of a street scene in Midnight Cowboy; they looked like the sort of people I envisioned whenever I read anything about the old automat Horne and Hardart in Time Square. One of the men wore a child’s size leather jacket, his arms poking out at the elbows. The other was hunchbacked and walked with a cane. All I could think was Herbert Huncke Herbert Huncke Herbert Huncke. We approached them, our want stronger than our shame.
“Um…” I’d learned that the best way to present myself when asking a stranger for anything illegal was with self-effacement. “Do you think you could you help me and my friend…?”
I left it to hang in the air. If I was right, they would just need me to clarify which, coke or dope, and how much.
They looked at each other.
“You aren’t cops?”
Our appearances were testimonials. Chelsea had short bleached blonde hair with skinhead girl sideburns and fringe bangs, and the stubble on my shaved head was dyed black. Some cops will go to the trouble— my friend George was once busted smoking a joint by a cop with a Mohawk—but most, I assume, aren’t paid enough and are too vain.
“You’ll buy for us too?”
“We’re going to have to take a walk. How much do you want?”
“A bundle, plus the two for you. Twelve?”
“We need to go to the Bowery.”
Up close, the man with the cane was much younger than he had first appeared to be, due to his curled body. We talked as we walked, Chelsea, friendly and curious about everything, blabbed away, talking about rehab, what we were doing in the city, our car and driver. I was quieter, because copping always made me extremely anxious. Not so much about the police, though that anxiety definitely played a part, but because I couldn’t relax until I had it. The outcome in ellipsis until I had the dope in my body did something to my bowels. I walked along like a duck, because I had to shit.
As we approached a side street off the Bowery, the man in the leather jacket asked for the money. His friend with the cane stayed with us, and my sphincter relaxed a bit. He made no moves to hobble off, a good indication that they had no plans to rip us off. The man in the leather jacket returned a few minutes later, sidled up beside me, and slipped me the heroin.
“Come over there with me. I’ll introduce you,” he said.
This was an incredibly generous gesture; most middle men prefer to stay in the middle, as it’s such a profitable spot.
I turned the corner, and followed him to a store front with the grating pulled down. Outside, on a plastic chair that looked like it had been stolen from an elementary school, sat a short, fat Asian man. With a wet towel draped around the back of his neck, and a red dragon tattooed on the top of his head, he resembled a sort of biker Buddha.
“Sammy, this is my friend.”
The man’s eyes were closed, and he quickly opened them to look me over.
“How can I get in touch with you?” I asked.
The man in the leather jacket answered for him. “He’s usually right here, or you can ask for him in the lobby at the Sunshine.” He was referring to the Sunshine hotel, a rather infamous skeevy SRO, near CBGB’s.
“Alright, we’re good. Thanks Sammy.”
As we walked away, the man in the leather jacket told me what I’d been suspecting; that Sammy did not speak English.
“He speaks money,” he said.
We rejoined Chelsea, and his friend with the cane.
“Alright, we got to go,” the man in the jacket said. “We’re on a deadline.” He didn’t elaborate. “It was nice meeting you girls. Don’t make that driver of yours too crazy.”
We offered them a ride, but they declined.
“I figured out who you remind me of,” the man with the cane said to Chelsea, who he had obviously developed an affection for. “Edie Sedgwick. You’re not a toothpick like she was, but something about the eyes and the face. Maybe it’s the hair. And the driver. The reincarnation of Edie Sedgwick.”
“It was nice meeting you girls,” the man in the jacket repeated, with a smile. “But I’m curious. Why’d you ask us?”
“I like your look,” I said.
Like walking death.
It was the truth.
I had really tried to keep things under control, but after a while I had to face it: Every time I got into my car and went to the grocery store it meant a war for me. I did my “five-twenty five” checks, scanning the sidewalks for improvised explosive devices whenever I turned a corner. If I saw roadkill on the highway I would swerve like a madman to avoid the carcass, which I knew was not packed with explosive, a reality which my reflexes unfortunately refused to accept. I would occasionally look up at the sunroof of my little Honda and think: Why the hell can’t I make that into a turret, mount my m249 up there, and grab a little ammo can? The ammo can would be filled with rocks, which I would throw at any civilian vehicle stupid enough to get within shooting range of my car. If they didn’t stop riding my bumper after I threw a rock, then I would escalate my force according to Geneva Conventions, and-
I couldn’t turn my mind off, couldn’t relax, and I felt myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
I drove to the local VA facility, told them I was suicidally afflicted with PTSD, and that I needed to spend some time in the hospital on an inpatient basis. I signed some forms and traded my civilian outfit for some pajamas, nonskid socks, and a little bit of nametape they wrapped around my right wrist.
They brought me upstairs in a wheelchair (a formality) and I was processed onto the ward by a creepy RN who wore a bolo tie and exuded the air of someone who had more problems than the patients. He asked me a series of questions, including whether I heard voices. I pronounced a series of “No’s” to pretty much everything he asked me, and then I was led to the linen closet. The creepy RN gave me some sheets, a blanket, and a pillow. Then we walked down the hall, to the last room on the right.
There were three beds, two of them filled by other men who were already asleep. One snored loudly and an acoustic guitar was propped against the footboard of his bed. I spread out my linen on the torn rubber mattress, and I plopped down on the hard bed.
I tucked my hands behind my neck and stared up at the dimmed fluorescent light fixture above me. What the hell, I asked myself, are you going to do with your life, other than contemplate suicide and perhaps commit the same once you get out of here? I had been out of the Army for several months, which meant I could collect unemployment for a little while longer. After that, I could go to school on the GI Bill, which gave me a BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) of thirteen hundred dollars per month, tax-free, for up to four years. Between that and the money I saved up while deployed to Iraq, I stood a good chance of avoiding the job market, the cold reality of American life, for the foreseeable future.
I could read books, watch movies, play videogames, and occasionally get drunk in order to pass the time, but we (me and my mind, that is) both knew that I was just delaying the inevitable. I had committed no war crimes, slaughtered no Iraqi children, but I had seen and done enough to have the stink of the war on me for the rest of my days. Finding a woman and settling down, having children and a career, was out of the question. Women could smell insecurity and the scent of defeat was an even ranker odor. I was a broken toy that reminded people of a bad memory for America, whose impression would only fade once me and people like me were out of the picture for good. Maybe, I thought, I can stay in this hospital forever. I drifted off to sleep drowning in bad thoughts which volunteered themselves one after another to my aching mind.
In the morning I met my two roommates. Both were Vietnam vets. Lancer was getting discharged that afternoon, and he carried a clear plastic bag filled with his civilian clothes in one hand, the guitar in his other.
Foxwood was my other roomie, the one who would remain with me over the course of the next week or so. He had a long gray beard and mustache which covered most of his face up to his cheekbones, and though this masked most of his features, every bone in his head was so sharp and narrow that I guessed that even if he were to shave with a straight razor, there wouldn’t have been much chin hiding under there. He had a cane with a steel tip and a handle shaped like a green mallard. He was thin, short, and he trembled like a terrier trapped in the pound with several feral and rabid Pit-bulls.
“Name’s Mitchell Foxwood,” he said.
I stuck my hand out to shake his. He gripped my palm and his milky eyes gazed into mine. I thought maybe he had cataracts. “Can you do me a favor?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t see why not.
“My knees are bad, especially in the morning. You think you can bring my breakfast back here?”
“As long as it’s okay with the staff.” I shrugged.
“It will be.”
Someone stuck their head into the doorway. He looked to be about my age. His pajama top was opened so that his naked chest was exposed, a globe & anchor tattooed against pale skin. He pointed at my new roommate. “You’re my boy, Blue!” Then he looked at me. “Don’t get him shit. The old cocksucker’s too lazy to hoof it to chow, that’s his problem.”
My roommate lowered his eyes, smiled faintly, a weak expression that seemed to say Now you know I’m the local joke around here. I didn’t have balls enough to start a fight with a marine on a psych ward, but at the same time I didn’t feel obligated to pick on Foxwood. I also didn’t understand why the marine had called him “Blue.”
Then I remembered. In the movie Old School with Will Ferrell (very popular around the barracks in my unit) there was an old man who pledged to the fraternity run by the characters played by Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. This old man’s name was Blue, and occasionally the Ferrell character would shout “You’re my boy, Blue!”
I thought that marine was a cruel dickhead (maybe most marines were), but now that I looked at Mr. Foxwood, he did sort of resemble the character from the movie. I suppressed a smile, tensing my jaw muscles, and then I walked down the hall. I followed the other sleepy psych patients through a door which was opened from a buzzer at the front desk, where one of the nurses watched a series of monitors and fielded incoming telephone calls.
A massive steel scullery on rollers was at the far side of the dining room. Two obese women with hairnets and latex gloves read the names off the trays in the steel shelf, one by one. “Mr. Bowman!” “Mr. Gordon!” “Mr. Alwood!”
One of the two women called my name and I took my tray from her. I remained standing in front of the woman and her shelves, rather than sitting down like the other patients who had received their food. One of the lunch ladies looked at me. “Whatchoo doing?”
“Mr. Foxwood said he wanted his meal in his room.”
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, and then she glared at me. Still, she took his tray out and stacked it on top of mine. “Mr. Foxwood got diabetes, so don’t give him none of your meal, you hear me?”
I balanced the two trays and walked slowly back to the ward. I buzzed the intercom once, and the RN on duty spied me in the fisheye mirror in the corner of the hall. He hit his switch, an alarm sounded, and I was allowed back onto the ward. I turned down the corridor into my room, where Mr. Foxwood sat on the edge of his bed, resting his grey sliver of chin on the mallard’s head. He gazed off into the distance.
Lancer had changed into his civilian clothing in the time that I had been gone. He wore an old field jacket covered with air assault rockers and 101st Airborne patches, along with some paint-spattered jeans. He stuck his hand out to Foxwood. “Foxy, it’s been real and it’s been fun, but it ain’t been real fun.”
Foxwood grunted, came back to reality, and shook his comrade’s hand. He looked up toward me, and at his tray balanced on top of mine. His filmy eyes brightened, the diaphanous milk scattering away from the irises. “Thank you, sir.”
I leaned down so that he could take his tray. After he had unburdened me, I sat on the edge of my bed and dug into my breakfast, which consisted of three hard flapjacks and two curled slices of rubbery bacon. I was hungry enough not to care about the poor quality of the food. Lancer gave a quick, crisp salute, and then departed.
“See ya on the hill!” Foxwood shouted to his friend’s retreating form. I figured it was some sort of inside joke that only Vietnam vets understood.
I scarfed my breakfast quickly, and thought of Iraq for a moment. I thought not of the bad times, but the gentle bits, of which, believe it or not, there were quite a few. I thought of the Iraqi Jundhi who would lay his rifle on the ground and then tell me, “He is sleeping, my rifle, he sleeps.”
I remembered the MPRI (Military Professional Resources) contractor who would wake up every morning, put on his vest and fill it with heavy sappy plates, and how he would then run through an Iraqi village unarmed and throwing candy and Gatorade at Iraqi children. I remember once when he was returning to the base gate, and I turned to the two Iraqi Jundhi guarding the gate with me, and I said, “He is crazy.”
Normally in a joking mood, the Iraqi soldiers turned to stone and shook their heads. “Abu,” one of them said. “Abu” translated as “father.” He meant that I shouldn’t make fun of an old man. It was strange, sitting in that hospital and eating my cold food, to think that as violent as that country was, Iraq in many ways was saner and less cruel than the United States of America.
I realized, as I finished my breakfast, that I was probably too weak for this life, and suicide would undoubtedly look even better by the time lunch rolled around.
“What are you thinking about?” Foxwood asked. He spun his cane and pointed the mallard bill at me, as if he expected me to discuss the subject with his duck.
“Tell me about Vietnam,” I said, and regretted my words a moment later. There was a certain etiquette that I should have been observing. I truthfully didn’t want to talk about Iraq, so I had no right to ask him about Vietnam. Foxwood didn’t seem to mind, though.
“Generals always fight the last war.” He shifted on his crinkly unmade bed, and pushed his half-finished meal to his side. “They prepared us for wave fighting in Hawaii. Oh, they had the climate sort of right, Vietnam was hot and rainy, but we didn’t fight any waves. We fought holes.”
“You fought holes?”
“Tunnels, to be exact.”
“Oh, you were a tunnel rat?”
I had become fascinated with Vietnam during my last year in the Army. My uncle had been a Marine in the war, and I had always looked up to him when I was younger. I thought that I could perhaps unriddle my own attraction to war if I came to understand things through the prism of previous conflicts. I had read probably a hundred books on Vietnam in the space of a year, everything from No Bugles, No Drums to Joe Haldeman’s 1968.
“Of course I was a tunnel rat. Look at me.” He opened his arms wide to expose his thin frame. “I was in Cu Chi. We found all kinds of crap down there, believe you me. We found a Forty-Eight Patton tank down there in a hole once.”
“Patton tank?” I wasn’t too familiar with heavy duty tanks, especially those of the past. I knew about Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and we had armored Humvees, but that was about all I knew.
“Yeah, you’re talking twelve feet wide, thirty feet long, damn near about fifty short tons of steel.”
“No shit,” I said.
“What would they need a tank underground for?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine them being able to turn the barrel in a tunnel, let alone firing through several layers of soil.
“They didn’t need the firepower,” Foxwood said, shaking his head. “They needed the battery energy. They had lines running from the tank to their little underground TMC.”
“No shit,” I said again.
“I wouldn’t shit you, son, you’re my main turd as of this moment.” He nodded toward the food I brought him. “One thing I’ll give Cronkite is that he was right that the war was unwinnable. Know why?”
I shook my head. “Well, when I followed the lines from that tank to the source, like I said, we stumbled onto this little Ho Chi Minh TMC. And I saw a gook, sorry, a North Vietnamese, doing surgery on one of his little yellow buddies who had been shot in an engagement earlier that day.”
Foxwood spun his cane once, so that the mallard’s head rotated three-hundred and sixty degrees. “The soldier doing the surgery had gotten two of his fingers shot off earlier. He’d taken some shoestring and tied the two finger stumps together, I guess to give him a better grip on the scalpel he was using to extract that bullet from his little friend.” He leaned closer to me. “Now, tell me son, you think you’re going to beat someone who’s got that kind of piss and vinegar pumping through his bloodstream?”
He removed one hand from his cane and stroked his chin. “No,” I said, “I guess not.”
I spent the rest of the morning in the room, listening to him tell Vietnam stories. All of the group meetings were done on a voluntary basis, and since I had no desire for my condition to improve to the point where I would be discharged, I continued bringing Mr. Foxwood his meals, and listening to him tell me about Khe Sahn and the Perfume River, and the Ia Drang Valley, and how his friend had forgotten to bend back the pins of his grenades and as a result turned himself and every man within a twenty-foot radius of him into bacon bits one day. He used the steel-capped end of his cane to draw diagrams on the floor, as if the waxy tiles were a sandbox in which he could demonstrate the movements of various elements and air support units. He had a desultory opinion of Operation Rolling Thunder and he spoke especially disparagingly of Lieutenant William Calley and the My Lai Massacre.
Occasionally, someone would pop their head into the room to harass old “Blue” and break his balls about using me to get him food, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices. Once there was a psychiatrist who came into our room bearing a clipboard. He sported a hideous silk polka dot tie, whose cravat hung ragged and loose, like the first leaf on a single-ply roll of toilet paper. The shrink glared at me: “So aside from free meals and turndown service, do you think you’ll be availing yourself of any therapy at all?”
I just ignored him, tuning him out in order to listen to Mr. Foxwood tell me about the checkered keelback (Xenochrophis Piscator) that would come swimming alongside his aluminum patrol craft when he was cruising through the delta. He turned his cane sideways and waved it along the floor to simulate the motion of the snake. After a couple of minutes of this the psychiatrist stormed out of the room in a huff.
Eventually, however, the day came when Mr. Foxwood had to leave. On the morning of his discharge, he stood over my bed. He patted me once on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for listening to me ramble on. Also, thanks for the meals on wheels, my good man.”
I scratched the rheum from my eyes. “No problem.”
And then, apropos of nothing, he said, “I want to go back.”
I knew to where he wished to return. “Okay,” I said, still half-asleep.
“I mean it. I just need someone to go back with, and my only good buddy’s got a son with cortical blindness from the dioxin.”
“You mean Agent Orange?” I asked, sitting up.
“Agent Orange, Dioxin, defoliant, call it what you will. The point is, no one will go with me and I don’t want to go alone. My niece is a kind sort, but I don’t want to take her with me. I don’t want her to see me cry.”
“Fuck it,” I said. “I’ll go.”
“I have money,” I said, which was true. I had managed to save twenty-thousand dollars while in Iraq. I had been stationed at an out-site, a tiny base where occasionally some Finance personnel would land in a Blackhawk to dole out money, but my needs were very nominal. The Iraqis sold bootleg DVDs (I bought fifteen seasons of The Simpsons for twenty dollars) and since I ate in the dining facility, my only other real expense was for hygiene products. Even as a lowly Spec-4 there was only so much money I could spend on things like toothpaste and soap.
“We’ll do it, then.” Foxwood stabbed his cane along the paraffin covered floor. “Direct flight to Hanoi. My niece will give you my telephone number and address.”
“Yes, she’s here to pick me up.”
Mr. Foxwood walked out into the hall.
“YOU’RE MY BOY, BLUE!” Someone shouted.
I heard Foxwood let go of a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said. “I’m your boy blue.” I didn’t think that he got the reference. His pop culture catalogue probably stopped soon after Merle Haggard recorded the “Okie from Muskogee” and the Duke wrapped filming on The Green Berets.
I stood up and walked out into the hall. I wanted to wish him well on his journey. Foxwood took his clear plastic bag from an RN who sat behind his command center with its monitors and buzzers. To his right there stood an unbelievable creature, the kind of woman who would have been well within her right to mace me for making eye contact with her, the kind of woman seen in a club where I wouldn’t have been allowed entrée to do so much as clean toilets.
Her hair was an aureate corn shade, something approximating the color of the sun before factories had filled the sky with smog and occluded our view of the holy star. Her breasts were large, bouncing out of her raglan white halter-top, at once confrontational and maternal. She embraced her uncle, both of them oblivious to her breasts, the rest of us on this ward less so.
“Holy shit,” the marine with the chest tattoo said, his voice a half-whispered exhalation borne on disbelieving breath. “Look at Blue’s niece.”
I personally couldn’t look at her anymore. I went back into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. Women were out of the picture for me, permanently now. I remembered once walking through an open air bazaar near Besmayah Range Complex, the small post where I had spent the most memorable months of my year-long tour in Iraq. Among all of the items on sale, the pirated DVD box sets and the souvenir ashtrays made from camel bone, there were bottles of Viagra.
I laughed and pointed. “Why do you sell this?” I asked the shopkeeper, a man in a red keffiyeh.
He saw nothing humorous. “Because too many boom! in Bagdad means Iraqi man can no more fucky fuck his wife.”
It took me awhile to appreciate what he was saying. When I finally redeployed to Germany, I noticed my first gray hairs sprouting on my head. Late one Saturday night, bringing a girl out of the Irish Pub and back to my barracks room, I also noticed that my penis would not do what I told it to do, what both my date and I needed it to do that evening. Too many boom! had indeed ruined my ability to fucky fuck.
I could still masturbate, but that night had been so humiliating that I avoided women as often as I could, and I tried to even avoid thinking of them. Now, as I sat on the edge of the bed, I prayed that Foxwood would not ask me to meet his niece. I didn’t want to feel the warm flesh of her palm grazing my own hand. I damn well couldn’t make eye contact with her, not without her seeing my weakness, not without registering her disgust. Women needed men, not leftovers.
I thought back to my time in Germany, before deploying, before I had known what war was. I remembered walking across the parade field with Santana, a Dominican from the Bronx who used to go to the gym and play handball with me sometimes after afternoon formations on the quad. We had stopped at the shoppette, the little miniature PX on post.
Soon, I thought, I’ll be a war veteran; I will have the same sort of secret, the same dark beauty as my uncle, who taught me to fish with authority in his voice and alcohol on his breath. I remembered picking up some beef jerky and a copy of Army Times from that shoppette. I opened that Army Times to an article about a Special Forces soldier who had committed suicide shortly after redeploying from his second or third tour of Iraq. His father was interviewed for the article, and recalled his puzzlement the night his son took his life. His son had come down the stairs from his bedroom, and had asked to sit in his father’s lap, which his dad naturally thought was odd. The father accommodated his son, however, and read his boy a story while cradling him awkwardly.
I quickly threw the newspaper in the trash, wishing I hadn’t read the article. A dark coal began to glow in my stomach, my uneasiness churning as if my death in Iraq was now predestined. If war could do that to him, a real Special Forces soldier, what the hell could it do to a line unit pussy like me whose job was basically fixing SINCGARS radios and programming frequencies and communication security?
I couldn’t even finish my beef jerky that day.
The door to my hospital room opened a moment later, bringing me away from that quad in Darmstadt, Germany, that field of green with its old Sherman tank at one end of the lawn and a billowing American flag at the other end.
It was Foxwood’s niece.
I tried to say “Shit” and swallowed a mouthful of spit, choking. “Stand up,” she said.
She brushed a golden slice of her bangs away from her face. “Stand up.”
I stood up. “I need to get Mr. Foxwood’s number, and I think we’ll take a direct flight to Hanoi. I have the money to-”
I stopped speaking. She pushed me back. “Go into the bathroom. Quick.”
I backed up. My heart was pounding hard enough for the sound of the blood rushing in my ears to resemble the waves of the ocean slapping against the sand of the beach at high tide.
“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“You’re the one who talks to my uncle all day, who brings him food, the one who doesn’t call him ‘Blue’?”
“Good then. Shut up.”
She closed us into the bathroom. I stood along the far wall. I was about to speak, but she held up a finger as she knelt down. “Don’t say ‘You don’t have to do this.’ I know what I do and don’t have to do. I want to do this. Okay?”
I closed my eyes. Truthfully, I would have preferred to perform cunnilingus on her, but that is hardly comparable to the combat expedient ritual of a quickly executed blowjob. Before my hair had turned gray and my manhood had evaporated in a cloud of mortar-induced impotence, I had enjoyed going down on girls, found that it put a pacifying end to the charade of a “war between the sexes” and the little mating rituals and struggles for power that go on in bars and on dance floors. My feeling is that I came out of a vagina, and that therefore the vagina wins, and I always enjoyed communicating this deeply hidden feeling of female superiority (something I could have never admitted to any of my male friends in the barracks) to a girl’s clitoris and clitoral hood with alternating strokes of my nose, tongue, and chin.
But I also have to be honest and say that I could have never done for her what she did for me in less than three minutes. I remembered once reading a book about Civil War surgery, possibly called Gangrene and Glory, in which a Union veteran recounted the loss of his leg to a minie ball. He described in agonizing detail the working of a single-blade amputation saw as it sliced through the outer layer of skin and muscle in a process called a “circular amputation,” after which a tenaculum, a sort of hook, was used to snag loose arteries and pull them away from the bone so that they could be tied around the bloodied stump where the gangrenous limb had been removed. I remembered how this veteran said that through the ether fumes he could no longer feel the pain past a certain threshold, and as strange as it was, the thought came to me during this blowjob, the first in many years, the first successful contact I had experienced with a woman since my dance with death had begun under that hot sun, that she was moving so fast and mercilessly over my penis that I had no choice but to surrender, to let go of my fear that she would judge me less than a man. She revived me and freed me and she didn’t stop until semen with the consistency of an egg’s uncooked yoke squirted out of my body and into her mouth. She spit a mouthful of sperm cells fortunate enough to find no fertilizing purchase (imagine being my kid) into the toilet, and then she smiled at me.
“Women,” I said, “are one of only two or three good things about life.”
She grinned. “What are the other ‘good things’?”
“I’ve forgotten,” I said. “I guess women are the only good thing about life.”
I also forgot, as it turned out, to get Mr. Foxwood’s phone number and address. I hope he got back to Vietnam okay.
Joseph Hirsch’s novel Rolling Country was published by Moonshine Cove. His book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, and he has sold fiction to Underground Voices, The Western Online, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers competition, and he previously served as a sports journalist with Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Melange Books, and his forthcoming novels The Last Slice of Pizza and Flash Blood will be available this summer. Websites: www.thelastsliceofpizza.net www.rollingcountry.com
Deep in the Horseshoe Nebula, there were two more or less livable planets circling a Class G star called Rednod 5. These planets were typically referred to as Rednod 5-A and Rednod 5-B. 5-A was a desert planet with only one sizeable ocean. 5-B’s surface rippled with the glinting waves of its enormous, planetary sea. Even from seventy thousand light years away, it was easy to tell them apart.
In the course of its three billion year existence, 5-A had developed some relatively intelligent life, the Klunods. The Klunods weren’t particularly competent—they hadn’t attempted space flight and their experiments with nuclear energy all ended catastrophically—but on the other hand they were a relatively peaceful race. When they fought, it was usually just over females and their wars tended to be over within a couple of weeks. Once peace returned, the Klunods re-committed themselves to the drudgery of work in the day and composing free verse poetry at night. Some of the poems were actually quite good, if a bit florid.
Life on 5-B was quite different. The Blovats, who were amphibious, lived on the one relatively small continent in the middle of the planet’s global ocean. This island teemed with all sorts of life—Furmers, Buglemouthed Gits, Giant Poisonous Shrims, and so on. But even among all the vernal weirdness of the island, the Blovats stood out with their long blue tentacles, fishlike heads and monumental egos.
The Blovats were a precocious species. They’d brought everything worth ruling on 5-B to heel in relatively short order. For example, they had zoos and kelp farms and computers and derivative markets and an extensive cosmetics industry. Their favorite form of performance art involved polychromatic skin displays, where Blovat artists manipulated their natural camouflaging mechanisms to spectacular, almost pyrotechnic effect. In some of the larger cities, there was a skin performer on virtually every street corner.
Ultimately, the Blovats learned of the Klunods, and here is how it happened: Blovat scientists created a powerful telescope and aimed it toward their sister planet. Through this lens, the Blovats watched as the endless plains of 5-A rippled with windblown mossballs and stoic Klunod cowboys wrangled herds of triangular flooglits and Klunod businessmen commuted from their low-slung pyramidal houses in the suburbs to their low-slung pyramidal offices in the cities.
The Blovats thought the Klunods’ existence to be rustic and somewhat pointless. However, once they’d learned of the Klunods, the newly-discovered species became a sort of planet-wide obsession. Virtually every front page of virtually every waxy Blovat
newspaper contained at least one story concerning the Klunods. The Blovats were especially fond of comparing Klunod society unfavorably with their own. Blovat articles often concerned subjects such as Klunod governmental dysfunction, Klunod wastefulness and profligacy and the Klunod practice of culling their litters with rubber mallets.
After a while, the Blovat polity became divided in two factions. The first group wanted to visit 5-A in the name of science. Another group, now bored with Klunods, adopted the slogan, “Really, I’m Just Not That Interested.” These two
Blovat factions and their elected representatives clashed for a while. Ultimately, they reached a compromise: Instead of building a dozen giant space ships capable of taking twenty Blovats to 5-A and bringing forty Klunods back to 5-B, the Blovats built a single robotic space pod, which they loaded with recorded messages concerning the origins of the cosmos and the virtues of free capital markets. They also threw in a few choice videos of their polychromatic skin displays. Then they launched it into space.
Now, 5-A had no flying life aside from winged, tick-like parasites called orsurgrumblers. Consequently, in the cosmology of the Klunods, the sky was menacing and inhospitable. It held no gods. Instead, the Klunods believed that beyond the clouds there was an endless void filled with the wailing souls of the slothful. (They had a corresponding belief that Paradise was at the center of 5-A, where dutiful souls lived out an eternal, languorous retirement.) So, when the Blovats’ robotic spaceship burst through 5-A’s atmosphere in a ball of flames, the Klunods fell into a blind panic. Those closest to the landing site actually squirmed all over each other to get away, giving off a big blast of their defensive goo. The whole place became a slippery mess.
Many of the Blovats pretended to be horrified by what they’d done. Maybe they hadn’t thought things through as thoroughly as they could have, they said. Perhaps they could have foreseen the Klunods’ unsophisticated reaction to the space ship. Perhaps, being the technologically superior species, they should have introduced the Klunods to the idea of alien life more gently, over time. But the truth was that, deep down, the Blovats found the sight of the Klunods oozing all over each other to be pretty amusing. They really couldn’t help but secretly laugh. Honestly, how could they blame themselves for frightening the Klunods with something as simple as a robot droid filled with a message of technological progress and enlightenment?
For their part, the Klunods might not have been the brightest species in the universe, but they were nothing if not resilient. So, a couple of days after the probe arrived, the Klunod leaders—a deliberative body called the Dunglebuss which met in a huge, transparent petri-dish-like building—made a plan. Or rather they made two plans. First, they ordered the construction of the largest magnifying glass in Klunod history, some thirty gnobinks across, in order to peer into the sky and see what else was out there. And second, they covertly sent a team of Klunod commandoes to sneak up on the Blovat droid and destroy it.
The Klunod special forces attacked the probe with their favorite weapon, which looked like a spatula but shot out a moderately powerful electrical jolt. These commandoes swarmed the droid, hacking off its tentacles with their spatulas until finally one of them accidentally whacked off the antenna, rendering the whole droid lifeless. Then a Klunod mob fell on the defenseless robot and tore it to scrap. All the bits and pieces were taken home as souvenirs.
Imagine the Blovats’ surprise when, looking through their giant telescopes, they saw their gift of cosmogonical knowledge and mercantilism ripped to shreds. They were flabbergasted. Appalled. More than ever, they considered the Klunods to be an inferior and, dare they say it, intellectually stunted species. So they spent roughly 1.5 Earth years talking this over and debating the best way to proceed.
Meanwhile, when the Klunods had finished their primitive magnifier, they positioned it on a mountain top and gathered around it, looking into the sky. For the first time, they saw another planet there. Not just another planet, but a sister planet, orbiting the same star. At the equator, there was a single large, green island. It looked like a pupil in the middle of the blue-green eyeball staring back at them. And on that island they saw the fishlike Blovats with their rubbery appendages and environmentally friendly cities loaded with bicycle paths and wind farms. They were sickened by the sight of it.
This provoked a time of great uncertainty in the Rednodian system. The Klunods became rather nihilistic. They were acutely aware of how far they trailed the Blovats, technologically speaking. It seemed to them that at any minute the evil fish from the enemy water-planet might attack and destroy 5-A, or conquer its populace, or kill off all the males and enslave the females for sex (this last possibility being the most common and widely-discussed speculation). So the Klunods poured all of their energy and national treasure into developing more powerful telescopes and interplanetary weapons.
But eventually 5-A and 5-B, which orbited Rednod 5 at different speeds, moved to opposite sides of the star. They remained in opposition for nearly .7 Earth years.
During this interlude, the Blovats once again argued about what they should do in response to “the 5-A problem”. One Blovat faction wanted to build a super weapon to sterilize 5-A down to the last atom, while the other wanted to send a second, less-threatening probe droid bearing a message of neutrality and separate-but-equalism. Then again, there was a tiny but vocal third party of Blovats who said, “Why do we even care about this? Those blobs of mucus don’t even have television.” This third party spent most of its time mocking the other two parties with performance art.
Neither were the Klunods idle. They applied all their inherent industry with single-minded dedication. By the time the two planets came back into view of one another, the Klunods had built something that looked like a giant, purple, cement volcano. It was more than 3,000 gnobinks tall with a large, round hole at the top. Clearly, it was some form of weapon. Blovat scientists estimated the Klunod cannon might be able to launch a projectile into space, perhaps something large enough to reach 5-B and destroy all life there.
Now it was the Blovats’ turn to collectively squirm and defecate on themselves. They began nervously watching the skies for signs the Klunods had fired their space cannon. At the same time, they rounded up several thousand of the most infamous Blovat political satirists and grilled them alive for their sedition. A military council was convened and it concluded that the Blovats really had no choice but to destroy the dangerous and unstable Klunods lock, stock and barrel. And it just so happened that they’d secretly developed a biological super-weapon just in case something like this happened.
The planets slowly drew closer and closer to one another. The optimal time for the Klunods to use their cannon—because of the confluence of their orbits and certain gravitational effects—was approaching. It might be in as little as a week. The Klunods seemed to be readying for this; they’d built a railway to the cannon and the cars that rode the rails disappeared fully-laden into one side of the mountain and emerged from the other side, empty.
The same was true of the Blovats. If they meant to launch their bioweapon, the time was drawing near, though their superior technology gave them a bit more leeway. They could afford to wait, but not much. They counted down the days.
Neither the Blovats nor the Klunods were even aware of the existence of Space Fungus. The fungus—which had previously knocked off entire galaxies—came into the Rednod system undetected. The granular spores traveled in clouds. To a distant observer, they looked like nothing more than flecks of interplanetary dust. Most simply floated in the vacuum of space for all eternity. But some few of them happened across the orbits of 5-A and 5-B, almost at the same time. When the fungal spores hit the planets’ respective atmospheres, they made a pleasant light show and then flitted down all over the planetary surfaces like snow. There, they infected every living thing on 5-A and 5-B—the furmers, the tods, the flooglits, the shrims—with Space Fungus of the Brain. Gradually, the fungus took over the bodies of the Klunods and the Blovats alike, using their grey matter for food and reproduction.
Because of the distance involved and the speed of light, the photons and EM waves containing the information about the apocalypse around Rednod 5 took almost 70,000 years to reach Earth. That is, the Klunods and the Blovats were already dead and had long been so when humans first learned of their existences. But the Hubble XCIII Deep Space Array got pretty good images of the final chaos on the planets and also caught the very last bit of the Blovats’ doomed broadcast news. So human scientists were able to observe 5-A and 5-B as the cloud of fungal spores approached, and then watch as all the Blovats and Klunods looked skyward, took in the light show, and then lay down on the ground, curling up in balls. They twitched spastically for awhile, then little white mushrooms grew out their ears and nostrils.
However, it seemed pointless to the Earthlings to pine over something that had happened so long ago, so far away, especially since it did not involve quick weight loss, firmer erections or multi-level marketing. To them, it was almost as though the events around Rednod 5 had never really happened. They were just a fiction. And so the humans refocused their space instruments on other, more interesting planets, never once suspecting that they too were under distant observation.
Here’s the thing. I am very distrustful. I’ve been burned many times. One time in particular that was quite painful was by Patti Smith. She was with her then boyfriend, the young man who would go on to become the photographer, who would be wearing monogrammed slippers in fifteen years’ time, shooting flowers and whips up his asshole. A good looking fellow with unkempt curls. Bill would not have cruised him as he liked Spaniards.
They were at the Chelsea Hotel, what we used to call the Literary Leper Colony as a kick. Not out of disrespect for the address but because so many of the greats had gone there to die. Patti was very aware of the anniversary, she’d even found out approximate times from somewhere, though she and the boy did travel in the same loose circles as Bill when he was in town. They had dressed for their parts, the boy in a handsome Salvation Army suit coat and matching pants and Patti in a diaphanous slip dress and pearlescent shawl. There’s not much written as to my sartorial flair. Despite having such a prolific circle of writers for friends, it’s amazing how invisible I have remained. It was because of this that when dressing as me Patti defaulted her look to that of Ophelia before hitting the brook.
At 7:15 PM, Patti and the boy exchanged words like they imagined Bill and I might have before I was shot. So much pageantry was involved in their reenactment it’s a wonder they didn’t sell tickets. It was like a warped wedding ceremony, the groom being artistic sensibility. We now pronounce ourselves outlaw artistes!
“I think it’s time for our William Tell Act,” the young man said without emotion.
“I don’t think I can look, you know how I can’t stand the site of blood,” Patti replied.
The only aspect of the recreation they’d neglected was the weaponry. Instead of a .38 the boy had a small plastic water gun, painted brown and filled with red food coloring. He put a tumbler glass onto her head and backed up not too far. I saw something in his face, it read like hesitancy. A squirt of food coloring hit her squarely between the eyes. She twitched and the glass fell without breaking. As the pinkish- red trail ran down her forehead she collapsed to the floor.
The whole thing was really a rather crass affair, but who’s to say, I might be biased. My husband and I have become one of the most popular his and hers Halloween costumes in certain circles of New York. More popular then Zelda and Scott, atleast as popular as June and Henry. I’d seen my share of these farbs but Patti’s was the first by a person in circumstances similar to my own and with a connection. I suppose it was the reason I was drawn out. That and it was obvious she was outré enough not to be completely spooked by the idea of talking to a ghost.
She dropped to the floor, feigning the last wheezy breaths of my death’s rattle. The boy waited a few seconds before leaning down and helping her to her feet. She moved her hand to his face as he lifted her, to caress his smooth skin and invite him to kiss her. Instead he moved her hand away.
“I have to go,” he said. This going of his had become a reoccurring motif. Though he was rejecting her advances it was not with cruelty.
“Where?” she asked. The food coloring had streaked down her forehead and pooled at the bridge of her nose. Her costuming was in such stark contrast to the boy’s. He looked debonair, brashly handsome; with the blood, she looked like a Bellevue escapee.
“To Terry’s loft…”
“You spend more time with Terry than you do with me, Robert. Not a small feat considering we live together.”
“I said I’d do this with you…” He moved his hands in the air, though the fleeting traces of their reenactment. “I don’t want to argue. He’s waiting for me. I’ll be back late tonight, I promise.”
Once the boy had gone, she went over to the bookcase and took out a small, elegantly constructed handmade diary. She poured herself a glass of wine from the bottle she had planned to use as an aid in the seduction of the boy, if only she had made it that far.
She picked up a pen, sat down at a small table and began to write: Rimbaud, Whitman, Blake, Burroughs: Robert and I are similar in the way we express our idolatry. We commune with our influences; covet their experiences like cicerones to luminosity. But it appears for Robert having one such experience Rimbaudesque hasn’t been enough. Jim Carroll said he knew he wasn’t gay because he only did it with men for money. I’m fairly certain that Robert is now doing it with them for free.
Without confirmation from the boy she was in purgatory. Without confirmation as to the circumstances of my death, I was too. You could say I thought we could help each other out of a jam.
Not wanting to scare her but conceding that some fright was inevitable, I waited till she had finished her first glass of wine and had the beginnings of a glow on. When she got up to use the bathroom in the hallway, engaging all three door locks behind her, I even refilled her glass to encourage more consumption.
There was so much riff-raff in the halls of the Chelsea that when I did manifest, in the second chair at the table, the boy’s chair, she did not even seem that startled. I wore a knitted cloche low on my forehead to cover the bullet hole and moved my chair in a way advantageous to the dim lighting of the room.
“How did you get in here?” she demanded, catching sight of me when she looked up from her journal. She clenched the pen in her hand like a javelin.
“Joan Vollmer, Patti. I was watching your reinterpretation of my death.”
As could be expected, the revelation came as quite a jolt. She jumped up from her seat and bolted towards the door. “You old freak! You were spying on us! Get out now or I’ll get the police!”
“Touch me Patti,” I said following her as quickly as I could with my gimpy leg. She was frantically trying to undo all the locks on the door. “I can prove it to you if you touch me…”
She wouldn’t acknowledge my request, so to offer up irrefutable evidence of my nature, I walked through her, through the door, out into the hallway, then back into the room and beside her.
“I’m a ghost, Patti. An eidolon.”
She frantically continued with the locks. As she was both tipsy and unnerved, all she could do was fumble them. “I’m asleep,” she whispered, closing her eyes and shaking her head side to side as if she could wake herself up. “I passed out in the chair, this is a dream…”
“You’re awake,” I interjected. “Robert left a little while ago. You’ve been drinking wine, writing in your journal.”
An uncomfortable silence rested between us. A sort of stalemate. She could either resist believing what I was or she could accept it.
When she finally spoke it was with such a release of emotion I thought she might cry.
“Did I… conjure you?”
“I don’t know exactly what you did, but everything lined up. I don’t have long though. I’m like Cinderella at the ball and can’t dance all night. Can we sit down?”
She didn’t respond but followed me back to the table, keeping as much of the small room between us as she could.
She stared at me for a good moment, then leaned across the table to touch me skittishly, like someone might if trying to gauge the heat of a hot stove. When her hand cut clear through the air, clear through me, she threw back her head and began reciting verses from Whitman: “And thee my soul, thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet thy mates the eidolons!” She assailed her hands upon the tabletop and cried out, “Old Bull Lee’s wife!” referring to my husband by his character’s name in Jack’s book. Talking a mile a minute and with much animation, she began speaking of her and the boy’s reenactment of my death.
“It…it… was meant as a tribute, a paean to you and your relationship with Old Bull Lee… You are such an inspiration to me, Joan. You were the hippest, the smartest girl on that scene, a real firecracker. Robert has said I’m so obsessed by my icons their like my imaginary friends. I’ll be writing in my journal and he’ll say, “What are you doing over there Patti Lee, communing with your dead pals?” I’ve always been thought of as this sort of ‘little girl who cried wolf’… “Oh Patti and her imagination!” they always say. That’s probably why you came to me Joan, you knew from my mouth no one would ever believe it! A visit from you is just the sort of thing they would expect me to claim!”
She was so excitable and schizophrenic it dawned on me we might go on like this forever unless I got stern.
“Robert is homosexual Patti,” I said. “His sexual encounters with men are not just some artistic experiment. I know all about the denials and justifications. I went through the same thing with Bill. I had as hard a time accepting it as you are.”
“Joan Vollmer Burroughs in my room at the Chelsea! Commiserating with me about man troubles!” She pulled her feet up into the seat of her chair and wrapped her arms around her legs, adjusting the skirt of her dress for modesty. “I’ve felt so jaded lately. My belief in the magic of the world has really been on the wane.” She inhaled deeply and fidgeted with a loose gold band on her ring finger, twisting it in circles it as she spoke.
“At one time, Robert and I were like one person, Joan. Psychic twins I used to say. Telepathic, like you and Old Bull Lee. I’d always dreamed of meeting another artist to love and create with. Robert’s my muse and my maker. I’m resistant to give that up no matter who he shares his bed with.”
She must have forgotten I was untouchable because she started to reach across the table, then pulled back.
“I feel so blessed to have this time with you, Joan.”
“You’re blessed to have someone to have this conversation with,” I replied. “I had no one. At least no one who wasn’t in some way caught up in our madness. You can’t just talk to anyone about your lover, your husband, being fey. They don’t understand why you just don’t leave, that you can’t just turn your feelings on and off like that. Then there’s the denial. I used to say to Bill, “How can you be a faggot when you fuck like a pimp?”
A sly smile spread across her face that led me to think she could relate.
“I need to ask you a favor, Patti. I want to know if my husband shot me on purpose. I want to know once and for all if my death really was just an accident.”
“Oh Joan, I can assure you right now that it was! Lee was devastated by your death. It ruined him. It took him to depths so low, he had to write to find his way out. Your death is what inspired him to become a writer. It’s the reason he writes now!”
“Bill had been writing for years before my death, Patti. He was starting to become more ambitious about it with encouragement from Allen and Jack. He was writing two books at the time of my shooting. I had read parts of them. One was about boys, the other was about junk.”
“I’m staggered that you would even question this, Joan. Lee had no reason to do you in. You were the mother of his child. You had a partnership, a numinous understanding…”
“He’d been home for three days from a trip to South America with his boyfriend when I was shot. They were in South America for over two months, Patti. Two months! I don’t know what happened over the course of that trip. Maybe the thought that once he came home- the looming threat of returning to that existence… I suspect he was done with us. Billy could go and live with his parents- and me, I don’t think he really cared where I went, as long as it was a way from him.”
“Oh Joan, I don’t believe that for a second. You had tolerated all of his lovers in the past. Whatever would have been his complaint?”
“I think he wanted to be free of the trappings and responsibility of a family, Patti. Free to be an artist, to bugger boys where and when he wanted to, with impunity. Free of my loud mouth, my ugly face. I moved my chair over here because the lighting is better and you won’t get a good look at me. At my teeth. They’re like rotting tombstones from all my years on Benzedrine. What you would see isn’t damage done by any bullet. I was off the speed by then, but I was foul- mouthed lush with a gimpy leg from polio. Twenty-eight years old, but looking closer to fifty. I was only a few years older than you and you made me for an old freak when you first caught sight of me! And I can’t be positive because I’d been drinking, but I think I saw something in his eyes when he pointed the gun…”
“You were both drunk, Joan. That’s probably why your recollection’s so hazy. You were blitzed. You and Bill were at a party, at friend’s house when you were shot. You were performing your William Tell Act, something you’d done many times before…”
“No Patti. I remember what happened. I remember clearly. Bill and I hadn’t even come to the apartment I was shot at together. I hardly saw him over those three days after he returned from his trip. We met up at the apartment where I was shot by coincidence. His lover, the boy he went to South America with, was one of five or so people that lived there. And I think it bothered Bill. He wanted me out of his life and there I was, a guest at his lover’s apartment, and it made him feel like he’d never be free of me, he’d always have to tolerate my presence in some unbearable way or another. He’d come to the apartment to sell a gun. And I was at my wit’s end with him, Patti. I had to call his parents for money to feed the children while he was off in South America gallivanting with his catamite! We bantered there. I knew him so well, I knew just what to say to get him good and make it sting. He hated to be embarrassed. He was such a show off, with a machismo streak a mile long. I made a comment, not even a clever one… I said, in front of his catamite, in front of his claque, I said, “The big man with the gun who can’t shoot straight.” You see, Bill was a great shot, it was one of the things he prided himself on, his marksmanship. I was being cheeky; I meant it as double entendre. I just wanted a response. Some pathetic acknowledgement of my existence. And he said, “Oh yeah?” And then to prove it, to prove me wrong, I let him put the glass on my head. It was the most interaction we’d had in months, Patti… Yes, it was something we’d done once before, but it wasn’t any party trick. I wasn’t suicidal Patti; I would have never let him put that glass on my head if I thought for a second he might miss…”
“I don’t believe it, Joan.”
“I saw something in his eyes, Patti. I’m not saying it was a total set-up, but I think in that moment, he saw a way to get what he wanted…he saw a way out. What I’d like for you to do is, I’d like for you to put it out there for me. I’d like for you to say that you suspect I was murdered…”
“Oh, Joan! I’m a fairly new face on the scene here. I don’t want to alienate anyone… I’m a poet, Joan. I’m not any kind of investigative reporter…”
“You could write a poem. Nothing will happen to Bill, Patti. It was eighteen years ago. I don’t want him rearrested. He already got his sentence, which he ran from, by the way. I just want some acknowledgement of what really happened to me that night…Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to say it aloud? To even question it? Is it because all of you who venerate him so would have to confront an ugliness about yourselves?”
“Look at my bookcase Joan! I’m a scholar of your lives!”
“What are you saying? Because you’ve read all my husband’s books you are somehow better qualified than I am to judge what happened to me that night?”
“William Burroughs is like another bible to me, Joan. He’s one of the reasons I became an artist. He’s one of the reasons I moved to New York…”
“Another bible…Do you like science fiction, Patti?”
“Science fiction? I mean, I suppose. I’ve read some Ray Bradbury…”
“What about gay pornography? Do you enjoy gay pornography, Patti?”
“I’m not against any kind of sexual expression, Joan. It’s not what gets me off, if that’s what you mean…”
“What about pederasty? Child fucking. How do you feel about child fucking, Patti? Because that’s what my husband writes about. That’s your bible. Or is the real reason my husband’s your favorite writer what you think he represents? Gentleman- degeneracy with a Harvard degree and a handsome hat? Is it the kitsch value of his lawlessness that you venerate? Is my husband your favorite writer because you’re so frantic to viewed as outsider you’ll pardon his transgressions’ so you can be associated with them?”
“I’m sorry I came here tonight Patti, but I have no choice who I come to. Because of that, if you keep with your crass reenactments, I may be back.” I was so angry now that I stood up and removed my cloche.
“Yours will wash away, Patti.”
I picked up her pen from the table, the one she’d been using to write in her journal, and jammed it into the hole in my forehead. “Mine won’t.”
Then I left her there, at her table, in her room at that hollowed hotel.
Left her with the lepers.
Bill is dead now, so what does any of this matter?
I have not seen him since his passing, but I came across something the other day, something interesting. It was a transcript of an interview a man named George Laughhead did with my husband right before he died. I can’t get into the logistics of how or where I saw it, but in it Mr. Laughhead concedes to something I waited over sixty years to hear someone admit.
He says, “I don’t really care if William Burroughs murdered his wife.”
My husband was allowed my death. His status as an icon allowed for him to transcend my shooting to such a degree it was no longer considered a criminal act, but a celebrated one.
In his old age, it appears Bill himself felt a little more emboldened to speak closer to the truth. In the same interview, he yells out, “SHOOT THE BITCH AND WRITE A BOOK….THAT’S WHAT I DID.”
It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword.
And sometimes it is the sword.
Don’t let me down.
Joan Vollmer Burroughs
So this thing happened a few months back. Nobody knows about it but my brother-in-law Phil—not counting Norma. I only told Phil because he had a thing with his testicles a few years back—cancer I guess—before his divorce. I don’t really know why that made a difference to me. I guess I just thought he had some weird stuff going on with his body too so maybe he would think mine wasn’t so weird. He looked up at me from his plate of soggy eggs kind of shocked and said You oughta take that fuckin’ shit on the road Bennie. But that was just Phil—always making jokes but mostly meaning nothing by them. It was like part of his makeup or something. Like the grain of his wood I guess.
Phil’s works for KNOB—a local radio station with stupidly bad call letters. That’s what Phil says and I guess I’d have to pretty much agree. Phil’s not a disc jockey anymore. Now he says he’s an on-air personality because he doesn’t just spin tunes—he’s a shock jock. That’s one of those radio guys that are always calling celebrities at home and telling them they’re fat or saying some artist or hockey player is a fag or calling some politician a douchebag. But Phil has never said anything like that—not on the air anyway. He can’t really call anyone a fag or a douchebag on air but he might be able to call some local celebrity fat if it’s not a sponsor or something and as long as they really are fat. Like I said—KNOB is a local station so it can’t be too shocking. I guess the truth is Phil just tells kind of mean jokes for a living and that’s about it. Not like me—I watch people for a living. I’m a security guard. It’s not exactly my dream job but I guess it could be worse. I spend my day mostly watching people come and go from the offices of Tower Plaza on a grease-smeared security monitor. It’s not real exciting work. Not like Phil’s. But a few months back I did blow the whistle on a janitor who was putting his man-thing all over this chubby girl’s office stuff. Phil said I did the right thing because the guy was a real sicko and that it was primo shock jock material. I remember because it was around then this weird thing happened to me.
It’s kind of hard to explain about the thing so I’ll just come out and say it—I started to lactate. I know that’s what it’s called because I looked it up—lactate: to secrete milk. I mean it was a shocker because I thought it was just mothers who lactate. And I guess I don’t need to say I’m not a mother. I’m not even a woman. When I said this to Phil he said No shit Bennie. And when he wanted to see me lactate right there I said Right here? In Big Boy’s? And he said Yeah why not? Give me a shot of half and half in my coffee. Ha ha I said—but it wasn’t a real laugh but just the words ha ha. I told him it’s not like that. I said I have to be kind of excited. Phil picked up his coffee mug. What do you mean? Like Super-Bowl excited? Like Stanley-Cup excited? He stuck his fat lips on the rim and slurped real loud. At first I thought he was joking but then I saw he wasn’t so I said No I mean excited—like you know sexually. Phil’s Adam’s apple did this kind of tap dance thing under his chin. I could tell he almost sprayed coffee all over the booth. Jesus Bennie. Is this some sick way of tricking me into some homo thing with you? Has it really been that long? I pulled my knock-off Lacoste shirt tight against my man-boobs. Watch I said. Then I thought about Norma until it was like I could see the top of her head moving around down there or something. Pretty soon a wet spot soaked the little green alligator with man-milk. That’s when Phil said his thing about taking my act on the road.
Phil and I mostly got along better after Sam died—better than when we were still brothers-in-law for real. I guess we’re still brothers-in-law for real—even if the person who made us brothers-in-law is gone. But now I think about it I’m not really sure about that just like I’m not really sure why we got along better after Sam was gone either. Maybe we both needed something from each other. I guess I should say Sam was my wife—and Phil’s sister. She died having our little girl Becky. We already picked out the name and I guess Becky was Becky for about three minutes before she died too. That was three years ago. And all that stuff they say about not a day goes by—well it’s pretty much true. Not a day goes by. My little Becky would’ve been three years and three minutes old if she’d lived. And I’d be bouncing her on my knee right now. And I’d be happy I’m sure. And Sam would be happy too.
After Sam died Phil started coming around more. He’d just walk in and sit down without really saying anything. Maybe he’d watch some TV with me for awhile. Then maybe he’d go out to the kitchen and do the dishes or go outside and water the dying rose bushes. Always something like that. Like I said—we needed something from each other and I guess Phil got something out of it too. He was going through a divorce around then so he didn’t like to stay home much. His wife Steph moved out after the cancer turned Phil into a one-nut lunatic. That’s what Phil called himself mostly—not Steph. And not me—but I thought it sometimes. The truth was I think Steph didn’t care about the cancer mostly and she probably would’ve stuck around but Phil got all weird and morbid and stuff. He kept asking people if they wanted to see his withered scrote or his one-melon gunnysack. When they didn’t know what to say he’d stick a hand into his fly and pull out a shriveled flap of skin. I wish I could say I never saw it myself but I did and it wasn’t much to look at—that’s for sure. It was kind of like the pink and bumpy skin Sam used to pull off chicken breasts and throw into the sink but it wasn’t really pink—it was more like black I guess. Anyway Phil almost got himself fired but somehow he didn’t. He hung onto his job.
Then the shock jock thing opened up and it worked out pretty good for him. I guess it was a real good release for all the stuff he was holding inside.
Me—I took some time off after Sam died. I went through all the stuff that people go through mostly but I didn’t get weird and morbid like Phil did. Anyway six months later I was back at work—bored and drinking coffee in front of the security monitor. I guess I was living like the people on the screens I watched all day long—gray and silent. For the next two years I lived gray and silent. A kind of pointless life is what I’d say now. I mean it’s a different kind of loneliness. Like you know that it’s never going to go away. Even if you do meet someone else it’s still going to be there. Like a kind of constant hum in the background that you finally just get used to. At least that how it seemed then. And not that I was really thinking about meeting someone else. It never really crossed my mind but it seems like that’s when that kind of thing happens mostly —when you’re not really thinking about it. And that’s when I met Norma but I didn’t know she was Norma then. She was still Rosie to me.
I sometimes went for beers after work with a couple of guys from the Plaza. We’d cross the street to this afterhours place—Orion’s Belt My Ass. I mostly just wanted some beer to relax some—like my boring night shift was stressful or something. After a few I’d drive home and watch reruns of Barney Miller and Soap and fall asleep in front of the TV. I guess it was around Christmas Eve when I first saw Rosie in Orion’s Belt, My Ass. The guys from the Plaza were mostly just looking for something easy—looking to stuff some Christmas turkey. That’s what Rudy said high on industrial cleaning products like he always was. Like I said—I was just there for a couple of beers. But when I went to the john there was this girl in there losing her lunch in the sink. I mean the stuff coming out of her was fluorescent or something like she’d been drinking radioactive martini’s or kryptonite & tonics. So I pulled a bunch of paper towels from the dispenser and stood there waiting for her to finish. Finally she straightened up and pulled her hair back into a ball of frizz. There was a kind of shine on her dark skin—sweat I guess—so I handed her the paper towels and she took them in her long nails that looked kind of like bloody bird’s claws or something and then she wiped her lips and face and she looked at me. I’m Rosie she said like she hadn’t just lost her lunch in the men’s john. Bennie I said. That was very sweet of you Bennie she said and she bent in and put her lips on my cheek. I could smell some spicy kind of perfume mixed with some tequila and vomit. Are you here alone Bennie she asked and I said I was with some guys from work. No I mean are you here with a woman. Do you have a date? I didn’t even know till right then she was a professional but I heard that line so many times on TV that I figured she must be. No—no date I said. She sat on the sink and kind of opened her legs some. So do you want a date Bennie she said. But before I could answer Rudy walked in and blabbed something about shots on fire and flaming Christians and I better get my ass back out there. Rosie put a hand on my chest and she dug her claws in some. Maybe later then Bennie she said and then she kind of swayed out the john. I didn’t know you were into the whores said Rudy. Black whores too. I thought I might knock him down—but I didn’t. I’m not I said and not because she was black. I didn’t mean it that way. I meant I’m not into the whores like the way Rudy said I was.
I want to say here that I never cheated on Sam when we were married—when she was alive. I never went to the city looking for hookers or got hand jobs in Koreatown. Not like Phil. I never screwed around with anyone. I mean I had a thing for Stephanie my sister-in-law but nothing ever happened—mostly nothing I guess. We got drunk one Thanksgiving and when everyone else was passed out we kissed and I think I felt her up too but I’m kind of foggy on that part. But anyway we stopped and I guess the truth was she stopped—not me—and we never said anything about it and no one ever found out. It was like it never happened mostly but sometimes I saw something in Steph’s eyes. It wasn’t really guilt but more like she was ashamed or something and I couldn’t tell if she was ashamed of what we did or if she was ashamed that she did it with me. I guess maybe I would’ve let it happen if she would’ve. That’s the real truth and the sad truth all rolled into one worse truth. I should probably say that I’m not the handsomest guy in town. I mean unless you’re into fat and bald—then I might be handsome. But I’m not real fat—a bit fat though and bald is just bald because it doesn’t matter how much. Like you can’t have three quarters or half a head of hair the way you can be ten or fifteen pounds overweight. Anyway Steph was a good-looking woman—still is a good-looking woman I guess. So for someone like me it was something pretty tempting. So like I said—maybe I would’ve done it. Or probably I would’ve done it I guess.
But I don’t want to make it seem like Sam was unattractive or anything like that because she wasn’t ugly at all. I mean you could say she was plain and that would be true mostly I guess. But her kind of plain looked okay to me and parts of her were pretty good—like her calves. They were something to look at for sure—I mean long and thin and muscley. I guess every woman has something about them that’s real good like that. I mean I could’ve watched Sam walk around all day long. The way her calves pulled tight and then let go. I only have one picture of them. It was at her mom and dad’s in Montana in front of their above-ground swimming pool and Sam’s in a swimming suit walking away from the camera. I guess I said something—I don’t remember what—because she’s looking over her shoulder kind of smiling like she’s angry but not really. And her calves are perfect.
I left Orion’s Belt My Ass a little drunker than usual that night because I guess those flaming Christian shots just about did me in. My mouth tasted like candy cane mostly and a bit of beer but my legs were all rubber and I didn’t need a breathalyzer to tell me it was a good night for a taxi. I waved one down and was just getting in when two hands reached around from behind me and I recognized the bloody claws right away even though I was pretty drunk. Share a cab Bennie? said Rosie. I guess I didn’t say anything because next thing I knew we were in the backseat and Rosie was doing these little kiss things on my neck kind of like a pigeon pecking at bread crumbs but I was sitting straight and stiff like I was a statue or something so she stopped pecking. Let me guess—you don’t normally do this kind of thing right? she asked. No I answered. Married? she asked. Was I answered. Divorced? she asked. Died. How long? Three years I answered. Oh Bennie said Rosie and sighed like she was sorry about Sam or like maybe she’d died and left people behind in another life too. Then she dropped a leg over mine like if we were one person we would’ve been sitting with crossed legs and she rested her head on my chest and it felt good. I mean I knew I was going to have pay but it still felt good because in three years nobody touched me mostly if you don’t count the bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding last summer. I guess she passed out on the sofa and I kind of put her hand in my crotch but nothing really happened and it wasn’t much more than a small scuffle between me and her boyfriend. So I guess what I mean is I didn’t really care how much it was going to cost me.
Rosie started doing the kissing thing on my neck again and then she slipped one of her claws inside my shirt and started flipping my nipple up and down like it was the light switch for a burned out bulb or something and the whole time she was rubbing me with her leg. At first I was thinking about the taxi driver—watching us in the rearview mirror but Rosie didn’t seem to care so I tried to ignore him too. Then she unbuttoned my shirt and starting doing the pecking thing and licking my chest with a real pink tongue and I was getting worked up some by now and my man-thing was pretty much through the roof. Next thing I knew Rosie was latched onto one of my man-boobs and sucking like one of those baby deers you see on TV that they feed with a bottle but I guess what was weird was I really liked it. I mean it was like a real turn on or something but then Rosie stopped all of a sudden like something was wrong and I didn’t want to say anything because I was breathing so heavy I knew I would sound all shaky and out of breath so I just waited mostly although my hips were still kind of rabbitting up and done some. Rosie sat up and put a pinky to her lips. She looked at the red claw and tasted it like the way someone tries to figure out what kind of dressing is on their salad or something. What’s wrong? I asked and she pinched my man-boob and it squirted man-milk on the Plexiglas shield. You’re leaking she answered.
When I was ten I had a purple banana-seat bike and for about six months I guess I was the most popular kid in the neighborhood until Bobby Schwartz got a trampoline. Anyway I knew the other kids only liked me because they wanted to ride my bike but I didn’t care because I was just happy they liked me some even if it was for just awhile. I guess that’s how I felt about lactating too—and about Rosie. She really took to the teat just like the old saying says and I don’t really know why for sure. Maybe because she’d done everything else already—all the different positions and all the weird stuff and all that but she’d never been with a lactater. I mean I’m guessing about the lactate part but I’m pretty sure she hadn’t. And for me—I was just happy she seemed to like me some. I was happy to be with her and near someone I guess. Three gray and silent years was enough I thought. So I guess you could say I became a regular of Rosie’s.
At first we had a lot of sex. I mean good sex—normal kind of sex. But it always ended with Rosie suckling at my man-boobs and staring up me with big round eyes and it was disturbing some I guess because it was like they were looking at me like they were looking for something but I didn’t know what exactly and even if I did know what they were looking for I probably didn’t have it anyway. After awhile we kind of stopped having sex and went straight to the suckling part. It’s hard for me to explain how this was better than the best sex. I don’t know—it was kind of churchy or something. Like something somewhere deep inside but from I don’t know where.
I guess the first time it happened was maybe three weeks after the time in the taxi and I was meeting Rosie every night mostly then. We’d have drinks at Orion’s Belt My Ass and cross the street to the King’s Head Inn and we’d get one of those full suite rooms—the same one every time with the same sawed-off broom leaning in the kitchen and the same scratches on the inside of the door like maybe someone had used a gooseneck jimmy to get out or something. Anyway we’d mostly go straight to the sex and end up suckling—always end up suckling like I said. But this night was something different. We took a taxi to the somewhere in the east end and Rosie took me up the fire escape of this four-story brick building. It didn’t really look like a hotel or anything and I guess it was some factory or something once. Anyway she took me in and it’s her place—her own place so it was kind of a shocker. I mean not the place itself because the place was real normal—real kind of womany I guess like I could tell a woman lived there. Candles and pictures and long mirrors and dishtowels folded in half and orange juice in a pitcher. Anyway I didn’t know what else to do so I tried to pay her because the pay was always upfront and she told me to keep it. She said Buy me breakfast in the morning and that was a shocker too. I mean we never stayed all night at the King’s Head. Who would want to really? But we stayed all night there and the next morning I bought her breakfast like she said and later when I tried to get going she stopped me and said there was something more she wanted to do. So she took me to this theater and I don’t even know what the name of the movie was but it was some kind of old war movie—black and white and bad sound. Anyway we found a seat near the front and there were lots of people around and we sat down in the middle of them and the gray pictures were flashing on the screen and next thing I knew Rosie started suckling. She opened my shirt wide and my belly kind of pushed up and stretched all around and she was pulling and sucking at my man-boobs. I mean I could tell people were looking at us and watching us more than the movie mostly but Rosie didn’t care and I didn’t care and my man-thing sure didn’t care and pretty soon my man-milk was running down her chin.
The theater kind of changed me I think and it changed Rosie too because we never had sex again. Like I said—we stopped having sex and just suckled. And Rosie stopped calling herself Rosie too. She told me her real name was Norma and I have to say it was a bit of a shocker. I mean both things were a shocker—the part about her telling me her real name and her real name being Norma too. Phil made a joke about it when I told him. The only Normas I know need mustache wax and liposuction he said. It was kind of funny at the time although not really anymore but I guess he was kind of right—she didn’t look like any Norma I ever saw either except maybe Norma Jean—like she was kind of black Marilyn Monroe or something. That would be about right I guess. Anyway I don’t really know how it happened but I remember looking down at her suckling and the sound of gun blasts and bombs were all around us and I was thinking I loved her. I mean that was the real shocker I guess because like I said I wasn’t really looking for anything like that but then there it was—the plain truth and the simple truth rolled into one bigger truth. I loved Norma and that was that.
When things with Norma and me started getting regular some I told Phil about it and he thought it was okay mostly but he wasn’t sure about Norma being a professional. He said Whores are only a Band-aid solution and I guess he would know. Later when things started getting a little weird with Norma and me I told Phil about it too. I mean I say weird but not weird like some kind of stupid crazy weird or something but just different weird. So I was trying to explain this to Phil and we were in Big Boy’s again—something me and Phil did a lot I guess—and when I told him me and Norma started suckling outside he said What do you mean outside? Like outside the bedroom? Like in the kitchen outside? Phil was poking the pointy end of his toast into a yolk that rippled some but mostly didn’t break. No like outside the house in public I said. Phil did that thing with his Adam’s apple again and I thought he was going to spray coffee all over the booth. So breastfeeding you’re whore girlfriend isn’t enough—now you gotta breastfeed her in public? he asked. I knew it wasn’t a real question but I nodded anyway. So where in public? he asked. I told him pretty much everywhere. So where’s everywhere? Be specific. By now he’d punched a hole in the the yolk and was lapping it up with his toast. I told him about the theater. Okay—weird but not super weird. Where else? he asked. In the park I said. Which park? he asked. Livingston I replied. Kind of busy he said. And I said Yeah it was. Where else? he asked. In the public library I said. I’ve seen worse there he replied. One time I swear I saw a guy going down on the Easter bunny in the public library said Phil. I heard Phil tell that story before but I didn’t say anything. So where else? In the cathedral I said. Wait! No! That’s just wrong. So wrong! he said. I said I knew that. You’re going to hell he said. I said I probably was yeah. Then he got all serious like I’ve never seen Phil before. You gotta stop Bennie. You know I love you like a brother and I’m glad to see you’re moving on but I’m telling you as a brother and a friend you gotta stop. He picked some egg from his mostly blond goatee and I asked him why. Why? Are you fuckin’ kidding? Where do think this is going to end? he asked. I said I didn’t know. He said I better think about it. I said I love her Phil and I guess this time there was no stopping it—he sprayed coffee like he was the broken handle of a two-bit carwash or something.
That was the end of our talk that morning but every chance he got Phil told me I had to stop and it wasn’t right and it was sick he would say but I didn’t see it like that. What Norma and I had wasn’t sick. I didn’t know exactly what it was we had but I knew it wasn’t sick. It couldn’t be sick and I told Phil that and I asked him why he wasn’t happy I found someone to love after Sam. I mean it kind of made sense to me that the woman I found wasn’t like Sam at all because I can’t just plug the hole that Sam left with another Sam because there is no other Sam. I mean Phil was trying to plug the hole that Steph left with another Steph and it wasn’t working good for him and that’s just more of the truth but he couldn’t see that and he didn’t like it when I said so. Anyway pretty soon he stopped coming around mostly. The last time I talked to Phil he told me I should see a doctor and when I asked him why he said Exactly! Why! Don’t you wanna know why? Don’t you wanna know what’s up with your man-boobs? Why you’re squirting milk like Bessie the fuckin’ cow? I never answered him I guess because I didn’t want to know why. I didn’t care because deep down I guess I was scared the doctor might do something to stop it and I didn’t want to stop it so I just sat there mostly not saying anything and Phil got up and left. I guess I didn’t care much then because of how he was being about things and all the things he said and I guess that’s how people drift apart. Like a sea of words just kind of washes up between them or something and the next thing they know they’re so far apart they can barely see each other anymore.
Me and Norma kept things real regular—suckling a lot in public mostly. She told me about growing up in the Midwest and about moving to the coast thinking she’d be a dancer and she laughed like it was some kind of inside joke and I guess it was because I didn’t really get it. Anyway after that we drove into the city and found one of those five-dollar-coffee coffee shops to suckle in. Norma wasn’t ripping my shirt open anymore because she cut holes around my nipples and they looked kind of like two pink antennas sticking out or something when I opened my jacket so it was pretty easy to suckle pretty much anywhere we wanted. The coffee shop was full and loud and we bought fancy coffee with foam and cinnamon and found a place by the window. Some jazz song was playing in the speakers—Someone to watch over me it said slow and breathy and pretty soon Norma started suckling and I guess it was kind of loud because people got up and left but some stayed and watched. Pretty soon the manager came over and asked us to leave and said he was going to call the cops if we didn’t but that just made Norma mad mostly and she said something about not doing anything wrong—nothing against the law. I wasn’t real sure if what we were doing was or wasn’t against the law so I didn’t say anything. Anyway we left and drove out the city back to Norma’s place and we watched TV and suckled some more. I was on the sofa sitting low and kind of slouching with my shirt off and Norma was doing this thing to my man-boobs with her teeth and tongue at the same time and my man-thing was like a frozen rock or something and when she was done we lied down on the sofa and I just held her. Norma always looked happy or content or something after she was done suckling. Anyway I don’t really know why but I thought about what Phil said to me about where this was all going to end and I thought about asking her the same question like the way Phil had asked me but I don’t know what happened—I lost my nerve I guess and I couldn’t do it so I said I love you and she said I love you too Bennie. Then we fell asleep.
The next morning I went in for dayshift. I never said anything about Norma to the other guys at Tower Plaza so work was pretty much the same as always—watching the screen and drinking coffee. But the gray and silent screen didn’t seem like my life anymore because now the screen was just work. Like my life had color and sound now or something and like my senses were dead before and now they came back to life again—like that guy from the Bible that Jesus brings back. When I thought about it I wondered what he did first after that. Maybe he found a bar and got drunk or maybe he just went home to his wife or maybe he never went home but just started a whole new life somewhere else with someone else. Anyway that was kind of like what Norma did for me Iguess—brought me back. She changed everything and gave me a whole different life. Sometimes at work I thought about Sam and I wondered what she’d think of me and Norma. Maybe she’d say the same thing as Phil and maybe she’d think I was being stupid or sick or something. I mean I don’t know for sure but part of me thinks she wouldn’t say that or think that at all. Part of me thinks maybe she might say it was okay.
I went home that night and it was the first time staying home in maybe a week or so because I wasn’t staying at home much now I guess now that Norma liked me to stay with her and suckle her to sleep. I parked my bel-air on the street like I always did. Phil parked in the driveway mostly when he used to come by but I didn’t parked in the driveway after Sam died. I don’t know why for sure but it just didn’t seem right or something. Anyway the bel-air was a classic but Phil said it was junk—Shit on wheels is what he said about it. It’s only a classic when it’s fixed up. Just ’cause something’s old doesn’t make it a classic he said. I thought Phil was wrong about that. It was a classic even if the fender wells were dented and the rusty front bumper hung crooked and I liked the bumper because it was kind of like a smirk or something. Anyway I got out and walked to the house and I noticed a couple of rose bushes out front had some pink and yellow flowers on them. I took in the mail and opened some windows and then I went in the kitchen and found a beer in the fridge and I cracked the can and sat at the table. Sitting there I saw the dishes were done. I guess I mean it looked like they were done so I thought maybe Phil came by when I was gone but it could’ve been from before so I didn’t know for sure—I couldn’t remember. But I still thought maybe he came by. I mean I couldn’t say for sure he didn’t come by so I took a drink of beer and thought it would be okay if Phil came by again. And I thought maybe if he did we’d be okay again—me and Phil.
Gary Anderson lives and writes near Princeton, New Jersey. His works have appeared in numerous magazines. Most recently, he has published stories in Gadfly, Menacing Hedge, Umbrella Factory, and Literary Orphans. His first novel, Animal Magnet, was published in 2011 by Emmerson Street Press. His second novel, Best of all Possible Worlds, was published by WordsworthGreenwich Press in May of 2012.