“Take my word,” Johnson said, “the greatest casualties are not the dead, for the dead have clearly made it out of this rotten scuzzy setup.” The five of them were sitting around a large circular table covered by a mock white lace tablecloth, drinking beer and toying with appetizers. The feeling of being back on the outside was totally foreign.
“The crips,” Johnson continued, “the real cripples, the guys without any wheels, the guys without any wings, the guys who really got it all taken away from them, those guys are going to be lepers out there for awhile. And we’re the next best thing to lepers.” He paused for affect and looked around at the faces surrounding him.
Calloway immediately ducked his curly blonde head and began picking at the guacamole. His lips silently began moving, as if he was trying to learn his lines in a play or something.
A tiny Mexican waitress brought two fresh pitchers of Sangria as a mariachi band began playing San Antonio Rose on a balcony overlooking the table. Johnson filled his glass, pushed the nachos away from him and said, “Nobody’s going to want to look at them – nobody’s going to want to look at us, because when they do, what they’re going to see is that real bad guy in this shitkick is us.”
“Don’t start that crap again!” Benny Malpie was sick of listening to Johnson. Words were a waste of time unless you were closing a deal. It didn’t make any difference whether it was morals or politics, he had no more time to listen to bullshit, no more time to waste. He had to get laid and he had to make money. Lots of bucks. Lots of pussy. What else is there? was Malpie’s philosophy of life. “You know,” he leaned across the table at Johnson, “if you weren’t getting out of this man’s army, they’d heave your ass out for that kind of talk.”
“They’ve already used it up, what’s the difference!” Johnson growled back.
“Hey, come on, you guys. Don’t start again.” Mik the Greek couldn’t take anymore arguments. “We’re suppose to be enjoying ourselves today, we’re suppose to relax. They wouldn’t let us go for the weekend if they thought–”
“Lookit,” Johnson broke in, “I’m not trying to bring anybody down. All I’m saying is that it’s not gonna be a pretty picture when Johnny comes marching home again, Jack. This ain’t WW-2, and it ain’t Korea, and the real victims, the real immediate victims are us so-called healthy creeps. Us walking wounded creeps. . .How am I going to explain to my family and friends what’s really going on over there? Am I suppose to give testimonials for the cause of Right verses Wrong like some good German?
Malpie shook his head in disgust.
The Greek laughed. “You don’t mean family and friends, you mean constituents, Sam.” He poured himself a shot of Metaxa and looked out across the canal. San Antonio was almost beautiful this time of year. But if you asked Mik what month it was, he couldn’t have said April. He couldn’t have said 1966. Those sort of facts had left him in Khe Sanh. What remained was just a shell of give and take; The substance was missing, and when he looked out across the canal there was a hollowness, an almost perfect emptiness that radiated out of his eyes. One minute he was there, the next he was back in the past, up on the tip of Lake Erie, tasting his wife Angie’s flesh on his lips. Talking about the three-year-old son he had never seen, and rocking his arms back and forth like he was lullabying the boy off to dreamland. He turned back towards Johnson, and with a voice as sweet and assuring as the stories he promised to one day tell his son, said, “You can have my vote.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Johnson scowled.
“It sounds like you’re running for office, turkey.” Malipe let out a derisive hoot.
“Well, maybe I will one day,” Johnson grimaced. “And then again maybe I just want to find out what you guys really feel about all this shit we’ve lived through. This is the first time all of us have been out of the hospital together. The first time any of us have been out for over 24 hours at a stretch.”
“Thinking don’t get you nowhere except the boobie hatch,” Malipe hissed. “I’ve thought enough in the last 18 months to last me a lifetime. Now I want some action!” He looked down at his watch, then over at Stein. “Are you gonna pick up the car or not?”
“Hang loose,” Stein drawled. “We ain’t got nothin’ but time, man.”
Calloway started talking a-mile-minute then. Mumbling about West Virginia, talking about a girlfriend back home that he never really had. They’d all heard the rap before, and knew he was talking to get rid of his nervousness, to hide his anxiety. Though he probably jerked off 10 times a day, he was still a virgin. Twenty-years-old, and he had never been laid before. He had killed – God, even murdered and butchered helpless women and children in the heat of battle but he had never made love to a woman. He looked at the faces surrounding him, he strained to see whether or not anyone knew his secret.
“I don’t know nothin’ from nothin’ anymore,” Malpie growled, “but if you’re not gonna get the car, Ripper, then I am.”
“Cool out, New York.” Stein leaned back and shook his head. “They told me they’d have us a hawg in an hour. Lemme finish my beer in peace, then I’ll go pick it up.”
Malpie grunted. He was growing impatient, and started uncon-sciously squeezing and picking at his pimple infested face. He hadn’t been laid in 18 months. No, his mind recalculated, make that 19, 19 months, three days and nine hours. That was the count, and it was much too long for anyone to endure, much less The Prince of Coney Island Avenue. No one, Malpie thought, should have to go that long without gash. Especially not a Prince. Not when he felt so good. Felt so GREAT! He finally had two good legs under him for the first time in 19 months. He could walk a mile if he wanted to. He could limp five. Shit! He could crawl if necessary. His legs stretched fully out under the table and he leaned back in his chair like he didn’t have a care in the world. Stein knew he was about to lose it, about to explode.
“The trouble with you rednecks, Ripper–”
“Don’t tell me, man.” Stein stood up. “Lemme figure it out on my own. That’s the only way I’ll ever learn anything. Besides, it’ll give my mind something to occupy the vacuum with.”
“Funny, very funny,” he hissed.
Sgt. Jake Stein, a.k.a., The Ripper, was a very funny fellow. Five minutes of stand-up in a foxhole, 15 puking his insides outside in the mud as he crawled after that bigger and better laugh was all it took to get an audience worked up. And if that wasn’t enough, try six hours tied down on a stretcher, or 14 months being probed by Uncle Sam’s finest. Belly laughs, mind you, not complaints. Questions, you see, not answers, that’s what he was looking for at The Alamo. Of course getting stoned wasn’t a very good idea, but what the fuck, what was? Life was ridiculous, and he felt lost. He took out a small spiral notebook that he had taken to carrying in his back pocket, and wrote in it:
There is nothing to live for, but there is nothing to die for either.
Love always brought profundity bubbling out of Stein’s head, and the third hit after picking up the rent-a-car carried him all the way back to Carolina. 1964. Back to the girl he’d met and fallen head over heels for up in Chapel Hill, after basic training. At the time (right before he was shipped out) he didn’t realize he wasn’t in-love with her, but in-love with love itself. He was grasping at straws, reaching out for something, someone who could ground him, give him stability, give him meaning to the absurdity of life. She provided this, at the time, through a picture he carried in his pocket and the letters she wrote him while he was doing his duty to the visions of his country he carried in his head. The visions promptly stopped when her letters stopped, and his country right or wrong died long before her letters resumed with a DEAR JAKE letter, telling him that she had met, fallen in-love with, and was marrying some grad student with a deferment. The fear was born shortly out of disgust afterwards. It was not of death particularly, but more like a terror of the futility of life itself.
When he saw the photographer taking pictures of the tourists, he thought to myself, why not? The idea really appealed to him. Though he knew it was a shitty idea. Childish. Unworthy. Cheap revenge. But of course what Stein wanted at that point was the cheap brand of revenge. He’d blown his life savings so to speak, in a rice patty, so cheap was really all he could handle.
He walked across the street to the parking lot and paid the attendant. Got in the rented Chevy, and guided it out of the lot. The car bounced off the curb, and he knew his perception was altered forever. If the man at Hertz had known he was putting a one-eyed man in the Driver’s Seat, Stein obviously wouldn’t have been able to rent it.
At the first stoplight he pulled a black patch out of his pocket, took off his cap and covered up the good eye. He wanted to blank out any outside distractions, wanted to picture the five of them standing there in front of The Alamo. He wanted to picture Malpie holding his aluminum leg under his arm, the Greek blankly waving his gnarled, almost useless, dead arm. He wanted to picture Calloway’s eyes bugging out of his head, almost stuttering at the camera and saying look what horrors my innocent eyes have seen. No wonder I can’t sleep at night. See what I saw and you won’t be able to sleep either. But most of all Stein wanted to see Johnson. He wanted to see this almost exact replica of a young Sidney Portier unscrew his colostomy bag and hold it up for the photographer like he had just caught a 3000 pound sailfish. Then all he’d have to do was give the photographer her address, hand him five dollars, and two weeks later she would receive the picture as a postcard, stating in bold black letters under the picture, REMEMBER THE ALAMO!
The car behind him honked. He moved the patch over to the glass eye and put the car in gear. Then blinked several times getting use to the light, and felt the tears run down his cheek. This is definitely gonna take some gettin’ used to, he thought, then turned off the highway and headed for the restaurant.
The temperature was already 92 degrees by 3:00 p.m., unusually hot, even for Texas at this time of the year. The mood in the car was mostly pissed-off, and Stein’s idea was definitely one of the reasons why. Malpie snarled at him when he suggested the Lt. remove his leg, and refused to acknowledge The Alamo’s existence. The Greek hated the heat and refused to get out of the air conditioned car, even though the air was as flat and dead as if it were in a coffin. And Johnson, well Johnson just rolled his eyes and curled his upper lip when Stein suggested he unbutton his shirt and unscrew his bag. Only Calloway wanted his picture taken.
“To send my Mom,” he said with a sincerity that overwhelmed Stein. “She’d like a picture of you and me together, Sarge.”
Stein got out of the car and walked across the street with Calloway, while the others refused to move, breaking out a bottle of Tequila instead.
“Don’t that kid know his mother’s dead?” Malipe snapped.
“The poor kid’s still in shock,” the Greek smiled sadly. “He wants things to be the same as they always were. Be patient, Benny. We’ve got until Monday, 0700.”
Johnson was about to explode. He couldn’t believe Stein had the balls to ask him to publicly display himself. Stein’s attitude was an insult to any decent human being’s sensitivity. When Johnson said that to himself the pomposity of his own thoughts stopped him cold, and he realized what he was doing and started laughing at himself. The idea of him actually holding up his bag as if it were a trophy he had earned through his own heroics tickled his sense of the absurd. The laughter made him feel more free than he had felt since leaving the hospital; It released his tension, and before he stopped to analyze and re-analyze why he was so tense, he opened the door and went after them. Suddenly the idea of holding up his bag in front of The Alamo, while undeniably a stupid idea, felt like a liberating act. Later that night, drunk in the street, he would tell Stein that he was disappointed he didn’t take the picture to use in his campaign when he ran for Congress.
By the time he joined them Stein had lost his buoyancy. Taking a picture to send to someone’s dead mother was a real bummer. It had been hard enough for him to get himself up for this excursion in the first place, and now the bottom had dropped out again. He didn’t let on to Calloway, but as far as the rest of the idea went, it was as dead as the kid’s mother. He didn’t even order a copy of the picture for himself. And when Johnson walked up to them and said, “I’m ready,” he could tell from one look at Stein’s face that he was too late.
The three of them walked back to the car together, Calloway nervously babbling the whole way how thrilled his “Mom” would be to get a picture of her son and the man who had saved his life.”
Unfortunately Stein had saved no one’s life. Not even his own. But the first day he arrived at Fort SAM Calloway attached himself to him, and for some reason, maybe he was flattered by the adulation, or maybe he was just lonely or bored, but whatever he was he made the mistake of not discouraging the friendship, and before he knew it Calloway had adopted him, and started tagging along behind him everywhere he went. This in itself wasn’t so bad, but then Calloway started telling people, complete strangers, how Stein had saved his life in Nam. When Stein warned him to cool it, he started crying. Then promised never to do it again. But inevitably the fantasies were too strong. His realities too weak and shattered. He apparently needed this illusion, and Stein, not being a certified anything other than jerk-off, did not really want to fuck with the monkey demons copulating in the midst of the Calloway’s soft grey matter. Instead, he tried to turn the whole thing into a workable joke, and make Calloway see the absurdity of his folly.
“Yeah, I saved him,” he’d say. “I dragged him out of the jaws of a man eating Cong pussy, right before he went down the shoot, back to the womb.” (But no laugh for Stein there.)
“That’s not the way it happened, Sarge! He’s so damn modest,” Calloway would say, and then go into a story so gory, so horrible beyond belief, that Stein would feel like throwing up. Then Calloway would start crying, start gasping for breath, his eyes bulging out of his head in such sheer terror that Stein could understand why he couldn’t sleep at night. Why he couldn’t sleep at all without his prescribed medication. Or without beating-off all day long, despite a lifetime of warnings from his late mother that if he didn’t quit playing with himself his pecker was going to fall off. Stein supposed the thing Calloway’s mother never understood was that her son wasn’t playing. It took a long time for Stein to understand Calloway was incapable of playing, and was dead serious when he fell into his fantasy of Stein saving his life. It took at least a half dozen times, and then once in front of Stein’s shell shocked parents before he finally realized that.
Stein’s mother, in the lexicon of the times, sort of flipped out from the whole experience. Hospitals were not exactly Sara Stein’s forte, though his father in fact fit right in with all the other loonies in the bin. Johnson had witnessed that bizarre scene. In fact, Johnson had witnessed quite a few bizarre scenes in his time. One might’ve even called it his specialty.
As Calloway got back in the car, Johnson grabbed Stein and yanked him back around to the other side. “I thought he was finished with all this you saved his life crap.”
“So did I. He hasn’t done it for over a month.”
“And what is this garbage about his mother? His mother died almost a year ago. Lookit, Jack, the kid is regressing.”
“It sure looks that way,” Stein agreed. “But maybe he’s just excited. I think he’s a virgin.”
“Nobody’s a fucking virgin, man. He’s just not stable enough to handle the heat. The pressure’s too much for him, that’s it!”
“Well, you’re the honcho. If you wanna take him back to Fort SAM it’s cool with me. To tell ya the truth, I’d sorta like to concentrate on ole Jake while we’re down there. I’m sick of babysittin’ for Calloway.”
“If ya wanna know the truth, I don’t feel like doin’ shit right now, so why don’t you drive instead of me.”
“You got it, Jack.” Johnson opened the door, and Stein walked around the other side and took shotgun.
“It’s about fucking time!” Malpie snarled. “You two guys afraid to get your peckers wet?”
Mik the Greek laughed. “That’s good, Benny, really good. Afraid to get your peckers wet. . .I gotta remember that one.”
Out on the beltway, Calloway somehow realized they were taking him back to the base. He sensed that Stein was really fed up with him. He started apologizing, started explaining, “I just had to get it out of me. I know you didn’t save my life, Sarge. And my mother died peacefully in her sleep, March 3, 1965.”
“Are you taking him back to the base?” Malpie asked. He was outraged. “I can’t believe it! What kind of pussies am I associating with?”
Johnson pulled off on the soft shoulder, as the traffic roared by. Then turned around slowly and snapped at Malpie, “Snapping pussies, Puss head! What’s it to ya?”
Malpie slumped back in his seat. “Nothing. It’s not a fucking thing to me, that’s what it is to me! If you want to take him back to the hospital, if you want to lock this poor kid up in a life of permanent celibacy, it’s fine with me. I don’t give a fuck!”
“I’m all right, Sarge,” Calloway whined. He put his hand on Johnson’s shoulder. “I just had’ta get it outta me, Sir.”
“Sure he did,” Malpie laughed. He reached over the Greek to give Calloway a pat of support on the leg. “We all have to get rid of our bad shit. You can’t carry it around with you and stay sane.”
“I think Benny’s right,” the Greek said.
“That’s two he goes to Mexico and goes right now,” Malpie leered at Johnson. “And what’s your vote, Captain?”
“Make that three for me to go,” Calloway piped back in with All American good cheer.
“The kid votes for Democracy,” Malpie laughed, now thoroughly enjoying Johnson’s plight. “Are we going to Mexico or not, Fearless Leader?”
“We’re going to Mexico,” Johnson mumbled. He hated being a leader. But since he wasn’t a very good follower, and couldn’t keep his mouth shut, he invariably found himself in charge. “Any objections?” he asked Stein.
Stein propped his feet up on the dashboard and flicked on the radio. Wolfman Jack’s voice stopped Johnson from pushing it any farther. He put the car back in gear and pulled back on the highway as The Wolfman howled out a promotion for a Rock’n’Roll revival.
Stein covered up his good eye again on the way down. Blocked out the voices in the back seat and rode the music on the radio back to Carolina. Pretended he was with her, and in-love again. But it didn’t work. He got his mother instead. His mother sitting in his room at the hospital, crying hysterically, listening to her say it was all her fault. It was all his father’s fault that he’d gotten his eye blown out. And if they had stood up for him, if the two of them had stood up, he never would have been such a pitiful-helpless wretch, and his life wouldn’t be ruined.
“What are you going to do now?” his mother shrieked at him. Then before he could tell her, “Get the fuck out of my dream! My life isn’t any more ruined now than it’s always been,” his father said he had a surprise for him.
“You don’t have to do anything for awhile,” his father said. “You can come home and do nothing as long as you like.”
Despite knowing better Stein couldn’t helping asking, “How come?”
“Because you’re a hero,” his father beamed. And then he started telling him about someone Stein had never heard of, a buyer for a department store in Little Rock, who had dropped dead on the handball court during a tournament at the YMCA, up in Memphis.
His mother started crying in the middle of his father’s story, ruining the punchline as usual. “What will you do with your life now?” she sobbed. “Who’ll help you now that you’ve been turned into some sort of cyclop?” She started hiccuping just as Johnson walked into the room to get something out of his footlocker.
He quickly sized up the situation, and offered to get her a drink of water. Then without prompting, he helped her out of her chair and led her out of the room. Stein’s father used this opportunity to finish telling him the story, and explained that the buyer from Little Rock was 57-years-old and had never been sick a day in his life when he suddenly dropped dead, on his serve. This buyer it turned out was not only the same age as Mo Stein, but it turned out that his opponent, the guy busting his hump to break serve and close out the game, was none other than Mo himself. “Why him instead of me?” he asked his son, on the verge of some sort of philosophical breakthrough. But he couldn’t ride the train, and boarded a side car instead, then began shaking his head back and forth, and in a very serious half-whisper, confidentially told his youngest son that he was very disappointed in his older brother. In the next breath he started apologizing for Lenny’s not being there with them, when this was the time and place they obviously should have all made up some very strong, solid nuclear unit, or something.
“Hey, it’s ok,” Stein heard himself defending his prick brother. “I’ve talked to Lenny five or six different times on the phone. He’s just real busy now.”
“DON’T LIE FOR YOUR BROTHER!”
“Well you know Lenny’s got this deathly fear of hospitals back from when Granpa crapped out, and from bein’ in here a while I’ll tell you it’s not entirely irrational. Look, I don’t blame him, so don’t go gettin’ yourself all worked up over nothin’. When I get out of here we’re gonna spend some time together. Me and Lenny won’t be like you and Uncle Sid. Don’t worry about that.”
Calloway walked in then. After the perfunctory “how ya feelin’, Sarge?” he turned around to Stein’s father and started telling him how Stein had saved his life.
Never one to take these things lightly, Mo was impressed. So impressed that when Stein’s mother and Johnson walked back into the room, he insisted Calloway tell the story all over again for her.
This was not exactly one of Mo’s better ideas. Sara Stein started hiccuping again, and broke out in small red welts all over her face and arms as Calloway, now fully warmed up, began embellishing in all too vivid detail how Stein had ripped the leaches off his half dead body with his teeth, thrown him over his shoulder and trudged 15 miles through the Cong infested jungles, picking off snipers as they went.
Right before Calloway had the opportunity to nominate Stein for a Congressional Medal of Honor, his mother flipped it. Completely lost the handle. She started shrieking and sobbing, and babbling about how she and his father had turned him into a murderer, and how his life was ruined because they’d let him be railroaded into the army. Mo grabbed her then, squeezed her in his arms and tried to calm her down. That’s when Stein’s mother completely lost it. She lifted her knee up hard into his father’s balls, then slapped him across the head as he was sinking in shock to the floor. Then like an Ice Queen, calmly turned and walked out of the room.
“Jesus!” Stein roared, as he dropped down next to his father, “Get outta here, Calloway!” He leaped up and went for him then, but Johnson grabbed him as Calloway bolted out the door, and down the hall. Stein’s father, by this time, had pushed himself up off the floor and begun hopping down the corridor, in the opposite direction, after his wife.
When he got back to the room a half an hour later, he told Stein they were leaving. “This has been quite a shock,” he whispered. Stein’s mother was waiting for her husband in the car, she refused to come back inside the hospital again to see her son.
“Tell her that kid was sick, making everything up,” Stein said. “None of it was true. And I’m not a hero.”
Mo Stein smiled sadly. “If you say so,” he said.
“Look I mean it! I’m not a hero!”
His father was a total blank. He didn’t get it, so Stein grabbed him by the shoulders and started shaking him. “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND, I’m a coward. . .a fucking coward, man. . .I wanted out – I had to get out – I couldn’t take it. I decided to shoot myself in the foot, but at the last minute I chickened out. I didn’t have the guts. I pulled the gun away as I fired. The bullet musta hit a rock, ricochetted up. . .” Stein started laughing hysterically. “And put out MY OWN GODDAMN STUPID EYE!”
His father hugged him, then stepped back and shook his hand. Whatever you say,” he said again. “But when we get home I’m going to call Senator Eastland. We’ll get you out of here so fast you won’t even know you were here.”
“You don’t understand–”
“Trust me,” he whispered, then turned around, shook Johnson’s hand, wiped at his eyes, and walked out without saying another word.
Johnson and Stein talked about this horrendous scene for hours afterwards. Johnson thought Stein should write about it. But Johnson thought Stein should write about everything. Probably because it was what Johnson wanted to do, and he couldn’t write about anything.
He was blocked.
Stein nodded as they changed out of their uniforms at the Laredo Holiday Inn. Johnson was off into his passion now, his fixation on THE BIG BOOK. THE BITCH GODDESS! Into literature and writers like he was a baseball junky rating shortstops. He can go to his left, can turn the metaphor, make the pivot, and besides that, the bastard covers the hole and can hit with both hands.
Just when Johnson started rhapsodizing about Hemingway there was a knock at the door. “Hey, what’s keeping you pussies?” Malpie roared. “Open up in there, unless you’re giving each other head.”
Stein moved the patch down over his glass eye, and reached out for his shirt.
Johnson opened the door.
“Hey-hey, let’s get a move on,” Malpie sang. He was wearing a bright red and green iridescent Hawaiian shirt with large gold pineapples jutting out like enormous breasts. “How do I look?” he asked, then whirled around the room like a human dildo. “Notice anything different?”
“Not really,” Johnson snarled. “You’re still the same sweetheart you always were.”
Malpie laughed. Swirled around the room again. He was totally impervious. He stuck his arm in Stein’s face. “What about you, Ripper?”
The Greek walked in then. “Did they see it?” he asked. Then waved his arm under Johnson’s nose. “A real beauty, huh?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Jack?” Johnson shoved the Greek’s paw out of his face.
“It’s a Rolex, you fool!”
“A hundred and fifty each,” the Greek beamed. “What a steal!”
Stein pushed Malpie’s hand out of his face. “Looks like a Timex to me. You got taken.”
“What’re you talking about, Ripper?”
“He’s talking about Calloway,” Johnson said. “You two were supposed to be watching Calloway.”
“He’s fine,” the Greek said. “he’s down in the coffeshop telling the waitress his life story.”
Johnson pulled on a loose fitting white shirt. “You ready to roll?” he asked Stein.
“In a minute. Gimme a minute.” He walked into the bathroom and closed the door. Turned on the overhead exhaust and sat down on the toilet. Lit up a joint and slowly sucked the smoke into his lungs. For a moment he wondered which life story Calloway was telling the waitress, then it didn’t matter. His thoughts turned into images, images of incredible beauty, images of incredible rage, images he could reach out and touch. Images that touched him back, then hit him, and hit him again before he could turn them off.
They took a cab over the border, leaving the rented car in the motel parking lot. Before they knew it they had passed through the town of Neuvo Laredo, and were suddenly out in the middle of nowhere.
“Is this what Brooklyn’s really like?” Stein asked Malpie.
“Fuck you, Ripper. How much farther?” he asked the cab driver.
“No much, senor. You have never been to Boys Town before?”
“He was born there,” Johnson said. “Now he’s on the way home to find Mommy.”
“Fuck you, Johnson!”
The cabbie laughed. And suddenly, as if we had been transformed into an old time western movie, they were there. Saloons, cantinas, women of all sizes and shapes walking up and down the dusty dirt streets, mingling with the peddlers and Mexican policemen.
“I’m gonna fuck my brains out,” Malpie said several times in rapid succession.
The statement wasn’t hard to believe. Like a true-life remake of Pinochio, this was every boy’s fantasy promising to come true: Women would take you in their hands, bro, into their hearts, into their bodies, and you wouldn’t even get in trouble. No involvement. No attachment. No nagging voices, no guilt, and a 24-hour WE-NEVER-CLOSE VD Center if you got paranoid about catching a dose. Two square miles solely for the purpose of catering to the fantasies of wayward boys of all ages and persuasions.
“I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!” STOP THE CAB!” Malpie roared. “I gotta get it, and I gotta get it now!”
For a few minutes they were frozen, standing in the middle of the dusty road with their backs to each other, staring at the women walking by them.
“We need a plan of action,” Johnson said. “Some place where we can hook up.”
“What about over there?” Stein pointed, his eye following a exotic dark skinned woman through the swinging doors of The Blue M & M.
Johnson gave him a questionable look. “There’s no such thing as a blue M & M!”
“Yeah, well it looks all right to me,” Malpie said. “I’ll see you pussies in hell. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he cackled, then limped away towards the opposite end of town.
“What do we do now, Sarge?” Calloway’s eyes looked like saucers of day old milk to Stein.
“Whatta ya wanna do, Calloway?”
“Let’s get a drink and check out the action,” Johnson said.
“Is that what you wanna do, Calloway?”
“It sounds like a good idea to me,” the Greek said. “I could use a drink.”
“Well, Calloway,” Stein drawled as he threw his arm around the kid’s thin shoulders, “it seems like it’s about time for me to introduce you to your future wife.”
“My future wife?” Calloway blushed.
“Let’s hit it,” Johnson said.
The four of them slowly started walking across the street.
“My mom’d like that, Sarge. She never got married herself. At least not to my dad. He was in Alaska workin’ in a gold mine when I was born.”
As they walked through the swinging doors of The Blue M & M reality got the better of Stein. “Oh yeah? I thought he was in New Guinea stompin’ head hunters’ butts.”
“He was,” Calloway said, “but. . .” There was a funny look in his sad eyes.
“It don’t matter, Lucien. I’m in two places at once all the time myself,” Stein said. Let’s get a drink, and forget the whole damn thing.”
They took their beer from the bar to a table in the back, and then Johnson started talking about whore houses it had been his distinct pleasure to know. Like shortstops or writers, there was a rating system. “There was a place in Jersey. In Wildwood. A grand old House, for its day. But it didn’t have the style of Peggy’s. That was in Rome, Georgia. Or Pauline’s in Bowling Green, Kentucky.” Johnson laughed. Started talking about southern whore houses in comparison to northern whore houses. The six months he had been stationed at Fort Gordon. An extraordinary relationship he had had with “a sweet cream lady” named Victoria, who was “the perfect-perfect embodiment of that fabulous fabled snapping pussy of yonder yore we all dream of.”
“I don’t dream of it,” the Greek said. “I always thought it was demeaning to have to pay for it. Paying for love is pitiful.”
“This isn’t love, Jack. It’s sex.”
“I’m not like Malpie,” the Greek said. “I don’t fuck a woman, I make love to her! I make love to her! I shouldn’t have to pay to do her a favor.”
“Lighten up,” Johnson said. “It’s only five dollars, Mik. You’re not paying for it, you’re making a contribution to the Mexican economy! That’s what we ugly Americans do, we make contributions to less fortunate economies. Didn’t you learn that in college?”
“Sure,” the Greek lied. But he wasn’t sure what he learned in college, much less what Johnson was talking about now. “Before this night is over, ” he said, “I know that some woman is going to come to me for love. I would rather be making love to my wife. But I’m not that strong. I’ll make love to her. I’ll do it But I won’t charge her, Sam. So why the double standard? Why if I’m willing and she’s willing, why should either one of us have to pay? I’ve paid too much already.” The Greek smiled sadly. “What price can you put on love?”
“You’re taking it too personal,” Johnson said. “The reason these places exist, is because there’s a need to get out of the personal, and release yourself on the etheric plane.”
“I’m not following you,” the Greek said.
Calloway nudged Stein with his elbow. “There’s a girl starin’ at me, Sarge.”
Stein looked over at pretty young girl sitting three tables over from them. She had high cheekbones and thin lips. She looked about 17, but that probably meant she was 12 or 13.
` “You’ve got to allow yourself to get outside of yourself, you’ve got to let go of the personal programming, Mik.”
“But Sam, what if I don’t want to?”
“What should I do, Sarge?”
“They’re in business, Mik, it’s just another business!”
“Smile at her,” Stein said.
Aw, Sarge. . .”
“Smile at her,” Johnson turned and echoed.
“Go ahead, kid.” The Greek patted Calloway on the shoulder. “It won’t kill you.”
Calloway turned his head awkwardly and forced his lips into a smile.
The girl and another girl with peroxide blonde hair got up from their seats and came over to our table.
“I am Rosita,” the young girl stated as she sat down between Calloway and Stein. And this is my sister, Angel,” she said, as the blonde shoved her way between the Greek and Johnson.
“Is that so?” Johnson said as he felt Angel’s hand grab for his cock at approximately the same moment Rosita found Stein’s.
“We are new in town,” Angel said to Mik.
“Really?” Calloway responded.
Rosita let go of Stein’s cock and turned around to Calloway. She held his face gently in her hands and looked into his eyes. “Nice,” she said. “Nice hombre.”
“Would you girls like a drink?” the Greek asked. Angel immediately released Johnson’s cock and turned her attentions to Mik.
Then the two whores ordered champagne cocktails.
Stein used this opportunity to disappear. Got up and excused himself to piss, and said, “see ya later,” and was gone before Calloway realized he was gone.
And when Calloway asked, “Where’s Sarge?” 20 minutes later, while Rosita was telling him what big muscles he had, Johnson got up from his chair and volunteered to find him Of course, finding Stein was the last thing Johnson had any intention of doing.
He was looking for something special. And even if he didn’t find it, he had no intention of seeing Stein again until they all met back at The Blue M & M in the wee hours of the morning. There were at least 50 bars, 50 houses in Boys Town, and while Johnson didn’t care to check them all out, he did figure if he followed his instincts, he would not only find what he was looking for, but see everything the town had to offer before the sun sucked what innocence he could fake out of his body.
He walked about two blocks, twice resisting the urge to check dumps out, when he saw it. It was called simply enough PARADISE, but the S from the dim orange neon sign had burned out. It’s perfect, he thought, when a Mexican peddler stepped in front of him.
“Serape, Senor? My mother she made this by hand,” the boy told Johnson. He held out a thick wool sleeveless rainbow in front of Johnson, and Johnson shook his head No.
“French ticklers, wedding rings?” Again Johnson shook his head No. The boy reached under his cart and came out with what looked like a small comic book. “Bumstead Dagwood,” he said. “Bumstead Dagwood geeves it to Blondee.”
“No,” Johnson said loudly, and tried to brush past the boy.
But the boy grabbed hold of his sleeve. “Poppie and Olive?”
“Back off, kid!” Johnson snapped. “That stuff’s junk. It’ll ruin your mind! On second thought, my mind’s already ruined,” he laughed, laying a fiver down and grabbing the comic books out of the boy’s hand, then whirling in through the doors of PARADI E.
Stein found what he thought he was looking for in a place called MR. LUCK. Though to be honest, at the time he wasn’t really sure what he was looking for, only that he was going to be selective. But the moment he went through the door and heard the music coming out of the juke box, the moment he caught Jimmy Reed’s moaning voice, his wailing harp, in that moment he felt at home. A certain familiarity, almost a deja-vu came over him, and began rocking his boogie.
At first he thought he was somewhere else. And then he thought she was someone else. And though he had meant to be selective and hadn’t planned to do it in the first place he walked into alone, the moment he saw her wild thick animal lips quivering, her jutting ass gyrating like the night train up to Memphis, he knew he had to have her. It had something to do with the way her hair flailed out from her back, parachuting slowly down below her ass. I’m tantalized, he thought. Paralyzed. I can’t move my fuckin’ legs. I’m a goddamn cripple, I can’t, I just can’t. . .
Then he couldn’t can’t anymore. His mind had completely stopped. It was exactly like one time up at a Heaven & Hell dance at The Armory in Memphis, where he spotted the animal woman of his dreams. Wild woman! Queen of the jungle, he thought as he watched her long pointed fingers sweep down between her deep succulent cleavage and come out filled with her own sweat. He watched her offer those fingers, that hand to drink from. And then he watched her put her fingers into her mouth and drink from herself. He watched her walk away with somebody else that time up at the Armory, and he hated his chickenshit self for not going for it.
“I won’t make the same mistake twice,” he said to a gaping Second Louie getting drunk at the bar next to him. Then he moved. Out to the dance floor, bumping and grinding. Letting his body go with the music, letting himself become an animal again. An animal equal to hers. He hooked into her almond shaped eyes and felt the heat in his groin start to rise, never realizing for a minute that this was a brand new mistake.
The most famous whore house in Boys Town is called Papaguyos. When you walk in it feels like a setting right out of The Wild Bunch or something else by Peckinpah or Ford or one of those old Hollywood outlaws. It has a dirt floor that resembles hard black clay. Johnson was wondering if he got drunk enough if he could see his reflection in the floor. He was looking down at his feet, thinking of PARADI E, when Stein spotted him standing at the bar.
“This place is outta time,” Stein said. “Like a movie.”
Johnson looked up. Smiled at Stein and let his eyes travel around the room. “They’ve got another Papaguyos in Manila, just like this, I hear.”
“Which one’s the original?”
Johnson didn’t know. “Nothing’s original,” he said, “not even sin. There are only variations on variations left.”
“I take it you’ve already done it?”
Johnson nodded. Stared down into his whiskey, and swirled the drink around with his finger.
“How was it?” Stein asked. “Live up to all your fantasies?”
“Who the fuck has fantasies anymore?” He pointed at the comic books in front of him, laid out on the bar.
“I know what ya mean,” Stein mumbled. Then ordered a beer, a Mexican beer from the bartender, and propped his foot up on the railing. “Wild woman had a lisp,” he said.
“You’re gonna tell me about it whether I wanna hear it or not, aren’t ya, Jack.”
“Wild woman, my dream woman,” Stein nodded his head compul-sively, “she had a lisp. A Mesican lisp. And her tits weren’t real. They weren’t real, man! She made me turn off the light so she could take off her falsies. Not only that, but she had her pubes shaved. I think she was wearin’ a wig. She was bald!”
“Sounds like you’re lucky she didn’t stick a dick up your ass.”
“Yeah, well, I guess so,” Stein laughed.
Johnson ordered another whiskey and looked around the room. Almost all the men were wearing the wool sleeveless rainbow colored serapes.
“I feel dirty,” Stein said. “I can’t explain it, but I feel like this whole place is crawling with invisible bugs. After 15 months, I guess ya expect somethin’ more.”
“You always expect something more, Jack.”
“Ya always expect something more than a two,” Stein mumbled.
“Yours was a two? I never heard of anything lower than a five.”
“You must have had a five then, I had a two.” Stein turned the warm beer up to his lips and silently cursed Mexican whore houses. If he was lucky he had a two! He didn’t even feel like he ejaculated, though of course, in the vernacular of the times, he’d gotten his rocks off. There was no doubt about that. And there was no doubt that as soon as she turned the lights off he felt his hard wilting, and it began wilting even more when he lay naked in bed next to her and felt her chest as she explained in her lisping whine that her religion forbid her from turning on the lights.
He thought to himself then, my religion forbids me to be a shmuck. And leaped out of bed and turned on the lights! She started screaming, threatening him if he didn’t turn the light back off she was going to hit the buzzer by the side of the bed. And then Poncho Villa and the entire Mexican army would come in and stomp the shit out of him, and then the bouncer Hector would come in with the cops, and then he would be turned over to the MPs. And they might decide to keep him in their fucking army, or not give him disability.
“I want my money back!” he roared. But as soon as he said it he knew that was impossible. The goon she called Hector had his money; he’d paid him before he walked down the sleazy corridor to the bug infested room.
She reached for the buzzer, and Stein said, “Wait. Stop. Cool it. I’m turnin’ out the light.” And he hit the switch and stood there simmering in the dark. His hard was completely gone by this time, and thinking about what was waiting for him in bed did nothing to motivate its ascent. He tried imagining his so-called true love back in North Carolina, but was still too pissed off at her for abandoning him to even fuck her in the toilet of his mind. Then he tried to conjure up the image of Wild Woman, but Wild Woman was no Brigitte Bardot, he realized. Even her animal hair, her wonderful mane was nothing more than a wig. It’s all phony, he thought. And suddenly out of desperation (to preserve his manhood? Save five dollars?) he grabbed his pud and started pulling it back to life. It was a valiant effort, one that took all his will, all his concentration, and of course, all he got for his efforts was a passably decent semi-hard. And when he crawled back in the bed and slid inside her, his mind was far-far away from his body. It was up in St. Louis, watching the Cardinals. Brock was on first. Two out. McCarver at the plate. Bottom of the ninth. Tie ballgame. And then McCarver hit a lazy little pop-up behind second base and he shot his load.
It wasn’t much of a load. A Texas Leaguer never is. It was more like a squirt than anything else. A very unnatural feeling. Like something was stopping up the inside of his pecker, blocking the passageway and preventing him from exploding, preventing him from hitting one out of the park.
Stein looked over at Johnson and laughed. “Brock scored anyway,” he said to him. “He was running with the pitch.”
Johnson looked over at Stein, and without smiling at all, said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Jack. And I don’t think I care.” He ordered another whiskey from the bartender and narrowed his eyes into a squint.
It was sometime after midnight, probably around 1:30, that Stein found himself in Cowboy Nirvana. It had taken 12 beers and swallowing a half a gram of Cambodian hash, to get there, but when he got there he knew he was there. He felt it spiraling in the center of his stomach, felt it coming out the top of his head. He felt like singing.
“Lookit, Jack,” Johnson growled, “if you feel like singing, SING! Who’s fucking stopping you?” Johnson was in a dark-dark place. A black hole of rage and self pity. Stein sensed he felt like punching. Like HITTING. Feeling the crunch of bone shattering against bone.
He walked away from the bar, away from the heart of darkness, to the very back of the cantina. Then started talking to an old Mexican musician who had been sleeping with his back to the wall, on the floor. At first the old man pretended he couldn’t understand what Stein was saying, but that language barrier disappeared the moment Stein’s Yankee green nested in the old man’s palm and began serenading him.
Johnson was trying to hold on to a thought when he saw Stein put on the old man’s battered straw cowboy hat and sleeveless rainbow colored serape. He couldn’t remember what the thought was, but at the time he didn’t want to let it go. He wanted to hold it, and take it, and stretch it, and follow it wherever it would lead him. But when he saw Stein take the old man’s guitar and prop his foot up on a chair, he lost the very thread he was trying to weave, and in the next instant heard himself bellowing, “DO IT, JEWBOY!” and Stein started playing.
A few whores turned around from their tricks and made clucking noises. And somebody, probably a Junior Birdman from Lackland, yelled “KNOCK IT OFF, SOLDIER!”
Stein pointed the guitar right at him and his friends, and started singing:
Jack o’ Diamonds, Jack o’ Diamonds
I know you of old,
You robbed my poor pockets
of silver and gold.
For the work I’m too lazy
And beggin’s too low,
Train robbin’s too dangerous
so to gamblin’ I’ll go.
They left, or to be more accurate, got the boot from Papaguyos before Stein even finished his song. Johnson knew he broke someone’s nose and got a hand full of balls before he went under. And the feeling of the guitar breaking the smugness of the birdman’s face was enough to compensate Stein for the dull throbbing pain rising under his good eye.
Lying face down in the dusty street, Johnson turned towards him and said, “You’ve got the worst voice I’ve ever heard, but I loved every minute of it, Jack. How about an encore?” He pushed himself to his feet, and held out his hand towards Stein, and pulled him up. “How does the rest of that song go?” he asked.
Stein looked up and down the hot breathless street, and said, “What difference does it make? You really don’t care.”
“Sure I do,” Johnson slobbered. “If you had waited for me I’d’ve used that picture of us at The Alamo as a promo when I run for Congress.”
“Bullshit!” Stein walked over to a peddler and bought a hot dog, but he couldn’t even look at it, much less eat it. He handed it back, threw his arm back around Johnson’s shoulders and the two of them started staggering towards The Blue M & M, singing:
I eat when I’m hungry
I drink when I’m dry
And when I get thirsty
I lays down and cry.
O. . .there’s snakes on Clinch Mountain,
There’s eels in the sea,
Twas a two faced Molly
Made a damn fool out of me.
Suddenly Stein stopped. “Goddamnit!”
“What’s wrong?” Johnson asked.
“Lemme ast you somethin’,” he slurred.
“Let’s sing! Let’s sing!” Johnson was out of his dark hole, but suddenly Stein was in it.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll sing, but lemme ast you somethin’ first. . .” He started laughing, though it felt like he was crying.
“Feel the silence,” Johnson mumbled. “The street’s deserted. We must have been in there a long time.”
Stein saw two or three silhouettes moving in the low morning dust. He pulled out his patch, and put it over his good eye. “Now the streets are deserted,” he whispered. “There’s nobody here but you and me. So lemme ast you somethin’, Johnson.”
“Then you’ll sing?”
“If you answer honest.”
“HONEST! HONEST! you’re talking to the most honest man on the face of the planet! Ask away, Jack.”
Stein took a deep breath. Then another. “Do you think,” he asked, “that I’ll always be doin’ dumb-assed shit I don’t wanna do to prove to myself I’m not who I don’t wanna be?”
“Well, what I’m tryin’ to say is that everything feels like shootin’ out my eye because when it comes right down to it I don’t wanna shoot myself in the foot.”
“One more time.”
“Goddamnit!” Stein pulled the patch off, blinked a few times, then stared at Johnson. “I don’t wanna go through the rest of my life feelin’ like I’m a coward, and then feelin’ like I’m stupid for tryin’ to prove to myself I’m not a coward. What should I do?”
“Admit you’re a coward.”
“But I’m not, goddamnit!”
“Then admit you’re stupid.”
“I thought you were the most honest man on the planet!”
“I am,” Johnson lied. “But I don’t know the answer. Write about it. Call it ONLY THE DUMB DIE BRAVE.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “But I’m honest. Sing.”
Well, if the ocean was whiskey
And I was a duck,
I’d dive to the bottom
And never come up.
Johnson’s voice joined in.
But the ocean ain’t whiskey
And I ain’t no duck,
So I’ll play Jack o’ Diamonds
And then will get drunk.
Out of what Stein thought was the imaginary part of his vision he saw the Greek standing by the side of the road, staring at them like they were craZy. For a moment he could see it all outside myself: He and Johnson standing in the middle of the road as it split down the middle, dividing life into the land of the comfortable obvious home of the so-called brave and the free, and the land of the not-so-ever-comfortable-again unknown shaking in its boots as it pushed itself along in the endless pursuit of something. What it was he wasn’t sure.But before he could even see which way he was going, the Greek put his fingers up to his lips and blasted the loudest whistle Stein had ever heard right through the center of his life.
Johnson looked over at him and grinned. “Am I in dog heaven?”
“No,” Stein said, “this is the pound.”
“HEY!” the Greek yelled. “I’ve been looking for you two guys all over. Where the hell have you been?” He started moving towards them. “I’ve been looking everywhere. I even looked in the 24-hour VD center, Sam. It’s the only air conditioned place in town.”
“Is anything wrong?” Johnson asked.
“Is anything not ever wrong,” the Greek whistled softly. “Calloway ran away with Rosita to get married!”
As the story goes, Calloway purchased a wedding ring from a peddler in the street. The Greek tried to stop him, tried to talk him out of it, but with Angel’s lips gliding up and down his pecker at the time, his argument didn’t seem very convincing.
By the time the Greek got out of bed, into his clothes and out of the room, pulling up his pants as he ran down the hall to the bar, by the time the Greek got out to the street, Calloway and the girl were pulling out of Boys Town in cab. A young Mexican boy, a peddler, was standing by the side of the road staring in disbelief at a hundred dollar bill in his hand. Calloway had just purchased a wedding ring, and told him to keep the change.
“Great,” Stein said. “We better see if we can find him. I wouldn’t want his mother to think I let him down.”
“Let’s go get Benny,” the Greek said. “He told me when I found you to come get him.”
Johnson suddenly got sober. Suddenly got aggravated. “Why didn’t you and Malpie follow the cab? You’re both officers!”
“I’m sorry,” the Greek whined. “Benny wasn’t finished yet, so I went looking for you two.”
“YOU MEAN HE HASN’T FUCKED HIS BRAINS OUT BY THIS TIME!” Johnson roared. “Well, Mik, I’ll have to see it to believe it.”
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
“Forget it, Jack! Just take us to the Prince, and let’s get on with it.”
They started following the Greek, following him off the main road, into a part of Boys Town they’d never seen before. The Greek mumbled as he walked, mumbled, “I think he fucked his brains out a long time before we ever came here. I just don’t think he’s fucked his prick out yet.”
“Yeah, well that pimple is a regular Superman, ain’t he?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Sam.”
Stein broke in then, “Where the hell are we?” They were, to be exact, standing in the center of two rows of small shit covered clapboard shacks. Suddenly the topography inside Stein’s head changed, the sounds changed, for a moment he was back in Nam trying to figure out how to get out.
A large rat darted between them, and he instinctively kicked out with his foot, and clipped its tail. “BUMFUCK!” he roared.
“Cool it,” Johnson said. Sweat poured down his face. His eyes sucked back into his skull, and in that one instant of recognition Stein knew they had the same vision of hell. It was a vision they had both come from, a vision both of them wondered if they’d ever get out of.
“This is where the old whores come,” the Greek whispered “after–”
Before the Greek could finish there was a loud shriek from the shack! It sounded like an old woman being tortured to death. And then Malpie’s voice came roaring through the village: “You fucking low rent cunt! Try to cheat me, will you!” And then an old woman, crying and screaming, came flying right through the cardboard wall, landing in the dust at their feet.
And then Malpie stepped out the door. He was naked and screaming at the old woman. His blood red cock seemed to be screaming at her too. “I oughta kill you, you cunt!” And then he saw them standing there staring at him. “I oughta kill her!” he screamed. “She tried to cheat me.”
“Put your clothes on,” Johnson said.
Stein bent over and helped the old woman to her feet.
“Do you know what she did? Do you know what this cunt did?” Malpie hollered.
“Put your fucking clothes on, creep! That’s an order!” Johnson stepped towards Malpie and Stein was sure he was going to beat the shit out of him. But the Greek stepped between them, and led Malpie back into the shack.
“Are you hurt?” Stein asked the old woman. She looked up at him and smiled. Her toothless mouth looked like a cave for the dead to retreat to.
“Are you ok? You wanna go see a doctor or somethin’?”
The old woman laughed and grabbed for his cock.
In the cab, on the way into Neuvo Laredo, Johnson told himself over and over he was not going to stoop to violence. He was not going to take Malpie’s throat in his hands, and he was not going to beat the puss out of his face. He was not going to kick the aluminum leg out from under him, straddle his chest, and beat him until there were no more pimples. He was not going to do these things, and he told himself so, over and over again.
Malpie of course was oblivious to Johnson’s rage. He was still too pissed-off to be conscious that anyone wanted to do him bodily harm. This gross unconsciousness had saved his life on numerous occasions, and by this time he had it cultivated like penicillin. “Can you believe it, Mik?” he hissed, “the cunt tried to put one over on me.” And then he began describing what the old woman had done to him for the fifth time. “She was suppose to be giving me a blowjob, a 75 cents blowjob, Mik.”
Stein tried to block the words out of his head, as the Greek attempted to cool Malpie out. “Calm down, Benny. She was just an old woman trying to make a few pennies.”
“She was not old, Mik. She was a whore! Not a day over 30,” Malpie said,” and I was paying her three times her normal rate. . .”
Stein didn’t want to hear this part again. Didn’t want to hear how the old woman had faked giving The Prince a blowjob. He didn’t want to hear how she straddled his chest with her ancient ass to his face, or how she started jerking the benevolent Malpie off with a cardboard toilet paper roll filled with Vaseline, as she bent her head down between his legs and made sounds like she was s-s-s-sucking. The only part of the story Stein liked was when the old woman farted in Malpie’s face. That was the part that flipped Malpie out.
“And then I sat up,” Malpie said, “and–”
“Shut the fuck up,” Johnson said. His voice was very low. Almost a whisper.
“What?” Malpie asked in disbelief.
“Cool it,” Stein said. “We’ve gotta find Calloway.”
“Oh, I get it,” Malpie hissed. “You two pussies blame me for Calloway running off to get married. You think if I didn’t do it one more time, everything would be all right now. Well FUCK YOU! And FUCK Calloway! I saw God five times tonight, how many times did you see him?”
Stein had no answer. He looked over at Johnson. All hostility seemed to have drained out of his face. Neither of them had obviously seen God at all.
“You saw God?” the Greek mumbled in disbelief.
“Five times,” Malpie said. “I climaxed five times. It would have been six if that scumbag hadn’t tried to rip me off.”
“You see God when you shoot-off?” Stein asked.
Malpie looked around at their astonished faces and grinned. “Doesn’t everybody?”
They found Calloway in a sleazy motel on the edge of town, standing over Rosita’s naked body, a knife dangling from his wrist, dripping blood from her slashed throat all over the floor.
“I wanna go home, Sarge,” he said, when he saw Stein standing in front of him. “I wanna go back to Fort SAM.”
“Shit!” Johnson moaned, dropping down next to the girl’s body.
Calloway blankly stared into Stein’s eyes. “She didn’t love me, Sir. She tried to cut off my pecker.”
Christ!” Johnson groaned, and began wiping the blood off the floor with a dirty towel.
“I think it’s better it happened this way, Sarge. I’dve felt awful bad if you wadn’t my best man.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind!” Stein exploded.
“No, Sir. I don’t think so.”
Stein walked over to the door in disbelief. Squatted down on his heels and lit up a Camel. Watched with amazement as Malpie and the Greek wrapped the girl’s empty carcass in a cheap faded off green bedspread.
“What the fuck are you two doing?” he asked.
“She didn’t love me, Sir,” Calloway repeated.
“What the fuck are you two doing?” Stein asked again.
Malpie looked up. “Makin’ sure the kid don’t get framed. It was obviously self defense. Right, kid?” he winked at Calloway.
“She didn’t love me, Sir.”
Stein looked over at Johnson. “You buyin’ this shit, man?”
“He’ll never get a fair trial here,” Johnson grimaced. “They’ll lynch him. Turn him into a martyr. If we don’t take care of it ourselves it’ll prove we don’t care. It’s our responsibility.”
“The world’s full of dead whores,” Malpie said. “No one will ever miss her.”
“I miss her, Sir.” Tears rolled down Calloway’s cheeks. “We were going to be married.”
Malpie and the Greek lifted the body up off the floor.
“There’s a dumpster out back,” the Greek said.
“Take point, Ripper.”
Johnson got right up in Calloway’s face. “You’re going to make an important contribution at last, Calloway. You’re going to be made into an example. If you’re guilty, you’ll fry for this. But we’ll fry you, not them.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
He turned to his troops. Started to say something about leadership, then caught himself. “When we get outside, take it slow, take it cool. No rush to get out of here. Don’t wanna be remembered as anything other than five lonely soldiers looking for a good time.”
“Take point, Ripper. Act natural,” Malpie barked.
Natural, sure. Stein could act. James Dean incarnate, he could march with the troops into Little Bighorn or piss on Custer in an all night diner in the bowels of hell if he had to. What he couldn’t do was eat, couldn’t eat what was served. The smell, even without the taste, made him sick. Made him feel like he was going to lose his insides. So naturally he did what came naturally. Got up to puke just as a black American pimp in a three-piece pinstriped suit walked in, with four of his girls, and sat down in a booth directly behind them.
Whatever was inside Stein wouldn’t come outside, however. Just stayed lodged in there, stuck in his gut, breeding like microscopic bugs on a picnic, he thought. Though thinking, he finally agreed with Malpie, could definitely be hazardous to your health.
He got back to the table just in time to see the pimp lean back over the booth and introduce himself as “Fudge.”
“See something you like?” Fudge asked Calloway, who with his new found experience with women now seemed to be over his shyness for good. He was staring at the blonde. He and Malpie were staring at the blonde. Even the Greek, who was hoping his wife hadn’t left him for his many indiscretions, was staring at the blonde. Johnson’s colon was working overtime, but even he knew the blonde was something special.
The pimp named Fudge instantly sized up the the four drunk soldiers, and surmised they were looking for a good time.Though he was never a man to walk away from business, the pimp named Fudge wasn’t about to destroy a good ticket, and as he explained to Malpie, the blonde was a ticket. She wasn’t from Mexico like the other girls, she was from Los Angeles, and she never turned more than five tricks a night. “It’s all pink on the inside, fellas,” the pimp named Fudge smiled, oozing charm, as he nodded at the three other girls. “Their ain’t but two kinds of pussy; Good old big and big old good.”
“I’m splitting,” Stein said. “I’m goin’ back to the motel, pickin’ up my shit, throwin’ it in the car, and I’m outta here. Anybody who wants to come with me is welcome. If not, you can rent another car in the morning.”
“Take it easy,” Johnson ordered.
“Where are you going?” the Greek asked.
“Relax, Ripper, hang out. We’re conducting a little business here.”
Stein walked then. He turned around without saying another word, and walked out of the restaurant. There was no arguing. If his descent into hell had proved one thing it had proved the color of his blood was liquid and would flow with not only the best, but the worst as well. Innocence was no longer possible, though it made no difference. When the inside got outside it was all the same color.
He walked through the low morning dust down the street towards the bridge, then walked across the Rio Grande, back into the United States, and then he walked all the way to the Holiday Inn.
Johnson was waiting for him when he walked into the room. He had taken a cab from Neuvo Laredo. “We’re doing the right thing,” Johnson said.
“Sure we are,” Stein laughed.
“I’m turning him over as soon as we get back.”
“Yeah, I know.” Stein picked up his bag and threw it over his shoulder and walked out of the room. Johnson was right behind him.
Malpie, the Greek and Calloway were waiting in the car. The Greek was snoring, probably lost in the fear that his wife was fucking her dentist or doctor or candlestick maker. Malpie was passed out cold, his body twisted like his mind into some human pretzel. Calloway’s eyes seemed like they were about to come out of his head. “Don’t take me back to Fort SAM, Sarge.”
“Ok,” Stein said. It was the last word he would say before the sun came up. He pulled the car up out of the garage, handed the attendant the ticket with two dollars. Then he pulled out into the night.
Somewhere just east of Kingsville, Texas, the sky started turning blue. They had been barreling down the two lane highway at speeds over 100 miles an hours for close to two hours. At times he felt like he had covered up his good eye, and was driving in the total blindness, the pure total void of the night. Somehow that felt familiar, made him feel at peace. Things started running through him in his emptiness, started to move through his mind, into his body, and even deeper.
Years later, when he tried to explain this feeling to his wife, when he tried to explain why he could never let the feeling go, why he could no longer take his medication, she screamed, “I love you, but I hate your life!” Then walked out on him for good.
It would take a long time before he ever tried to describe the feelings to anyone else.
It was 6:30 in the a.m. when they pulled into Corpus Christi, and the city was still asleep. Stein looked down at the map, looked up at the sign, and then he drove. He drove across the bridge, across Aransas Pass, he drove back down south, down Padre Island, and looked out at The Gulf of Memories reverberating in front of them. Then pulled the car up on the deserted beach and stopped.
Johnson, as stiff as a board, was out for the count. The Greek was moaning and squirming in the hell hole of his dreams. While Malpie came off almost innocent, sucking his thumb, sighing, maybe even being blessed in heaven by his God, or something, before the thumb fell away and his head rolled back against the seat, and he began snorting loudly like a warthog in heat, his mouth as wide open as a box of doughnuts. Only Calloway was on the edge of his seat.
Stein opened the door and got out of the car. Then looked up at the sun. Calloway followed suit. They stood there for a moment staring up at the great ball of life slowly rising in the eastern sky. Then Calloway stripped and stood there in front of Stein, tears flooding down his cheeks and plopping in the sand like indelible little bullets. Almost everything he had was gone. It was an ugly discolored truth hanging there. What was left was dangling from no more than a thread, it seemed. He grabbed it then, and yanked it free from his body! “Here, Sarge,” he cried as he handed it to Stein, then clutched his bloody groin and started stumbling towards the water.
For a moment Stein was frozen. In shock, no doubt, from what was laying in his hand! Involuntarily his arm jerked as if being burned by a blow torch, and it shot out of his hand into the car, banking off the ceiling, into the door, and dropped with a thud in the side pocket, between Malpie’s lips.
He looked away from the car just in time to see Calloway dive in the water. Then without looking back, Stein took off his boots, took off his shirt, took off his pants and skivvies and stood there and watched Calloway disappear from sight. For some reason he began singing as he walked towards the Gulf:
Well boast of your knowledge
And talk of your sense.
‘Twill all be forgotten
A hundred years hence. . .
His body dove in after him then.
It was the only conceivable thing left to do.
© 2015 Mike Golden
originally published in Beet #12, 1995