“You look drunk.”
“You look sober. What’s wrong with you?”
Sam shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe, I’m not afraid.”
Wayne took a drink from a fifth of Old Crow wedged inside a brown paper sack. “Afraid of what?”
Sam had a habit of not blinking, sitting, staring. “You know, the way it is.”
“You wanna be one of those candy-ass philosophers that sit around coming up with vague ideas about God dying or life being a dream or the pleasure of suffering … go to the goddamn coffeehouse and leave me the hell alone.”
“I don’t like coffee, makes me nervous.”
Wayne took another drink from the sack. “But you’re not afraid?”
“I don’t know.”
“Shit,” said Wayne, “you’re sucking me into your cold trip. Do we both a favor and just bump yourself off.”
Sam didn’t blink. “I don’t like pain.”
Wayne smiled. “Serves you right to suffer.”
“Who said that, poet?”
“John Lee Hooker, asshole.”
The bus rolls up an off-ramp somewhere outside Skidmore, Missouri. We’re moving toward the second show of the day. Two is nothing new. It’s 1968, and business is good. Behind me, the trumpet man blows quietly into his horn.
How many miles have we made in the last month? How many hours riding the blue highways of Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, burying fellow Marines shipped back home, back to the “world,” in flag-draped caskets, courtesy of the KIA Travel Bureau.
Unfortunate sons from Pleasantville, Tennessee—Evening Shade, Arkansas—Skidmore, Missouri. Mostly low-ranking grunts killed by: automatic weapons, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, mines, booby traps, and “friendly fire”—the military “euphemism of all euphemisms.”
After you’ve been doing military funerals for a while, the dead faces all start to look the same—all the essential information removed: face pale and shiny like a dime store doll, beard beginning to break through the makeup, life sucked out of the eyes, gray-blue fish belly lips. Gazing into a coffin was like looking into a dark crystal ball. You start to realize that you might be catching a glimpse of your future.
Sometimes, I’d think about crazy things: “Roadrunner” cartoons on a Saturday morning—Wile E. Coyote catching hell: electrocution, burnt to ashes, dynamited into tiny pieces that hang in the air for a second, then fall apart like a broken plate. A split-second later, he’s up again and whole and back in the game.
Sometimes, I leaned out so far I almost slipped over the edge. If you’re around them long enough, the dead will start to speak. They’ll say, “Put yourself in our place.”
“Whoever it was said: ‘You can’t chose your neighbors’, must have known the guy who was living next door to us. Most nights, we were entertained by music cum noise that sounded roughly like squealing pigs at castration time, interspersed with a ritual sharpening of the instruments of torture.
The sky, a layer of hopeless gray, hangs over Celia’s jammed lips. She yanks up her faded pink panties with her shorn fingernails while her lover lips his Chesterfield. During the deed she slipped off the picnic blanket he kept squirreled in his 1957 Buick Special’s trunk. He had laid it down for them inch by inch. Her eyes focus on the attention his mouth lathers on the cigarette and her thoughts run to the lack of caressing he gave her. The stiff border grass itches her fleshy pale thighs.
Overhead, the seaplane dips, sputtering. Celia waves, smiling weakly, inhaling black smoke.
A moment later she expects to gather courage and state, “It’s over.” Her throat grasps the words, and yet, she hesitates, wincing and witnessing him pummeling her froggy-green VW’s fender with the lit butt-end of the Chesterfield – the same fender her son, Daniel, had scarred with his mini-bike.
“Oh balls,” he yells. “You’re fired.”
When lucy’s Oldsmobile broke down on the country road, needing assistance, she limboed under an electric wire & after a mile or so, winnowing between bramble bushes, there looked to be an opening into a pasture. Something drew her on. At dusk she seemed to be pushed toward the big cow standing across some barely visible path. His horns seemed to wink to her. She thought it was by the hope of a farm house near, yet what forces were they that like one dumb thickening wind were crazily magnetting her along? Something not known shaped an inhibiting question within becoming lassooy as it grew now around & around & duplicating itself loops coiled her very sinews. In this mummified state of doubt mixed with fear she thought, who could move? Then, just after both their poised figures, eyeing each other, commingled together with this deepening darkness into a giant shadow asterisked with starlight, Lucy heard rhythmic thuds from the ground as the bovine approached. It was totally dark now, she could smell the large animal’s grassy breath puffing on her face. Nether moved. She felt like a heart of hot fudge waiting to melt the ice cream starry mind it was moored in, so she could run, run, run away from this invisible beast. Whereto? As she remembered, before the almost completely moonless black set in, a wild forest surrounded the path. Limbs to poke out her eyes, ravines to fall into. The cow stepped back & pawed the hard dirt with his hoofs. Her pulses penduluming with the thunder in her ears, Lucy mimed her body still as a stone. The longhorn approached up close again. She lowered her breathing to a tiny fog on the mirror of her now precarious mental control. Suddenly, Lucy could no longer hold back the hurricane of fear & doubt whirling within her & she screamed at the bull & the night: “GET OUTA HERE”! The animal turned around, she could feel the brushing wind of his horns & then it trotted back a few yards, stopped & turned around again pawing the ground. Since he couldn’t make her out in the dark enough to charge, Lucy became calmer. She turned & knelt down quietly & lengthening her body along the narrow path began slowly pulling & hunching herself away from the bull with her knees, feet & elbows like a broken snake. At first she heard nothing but the shuffling whispers of these peristaltic movements along the ground. Then, after, it seemed, only two or three minutes of crawling, Lucy’s heart stopped, the giant bull started following her. A minute passed & the bête noire was panting above her heels. Even though she quit moving her body parts altogether, Lucy wondered, will he hear my breathing & my heartbeats now thumping against the ground & trample me with his hoofs like he would a snake, no, quiet yourself down, maybe he was bored with his life as it was lately & curious, maybe he just wanted to play, charge at some target. All this immense nocturnal unwordable event surrounding & within her was way beyond her or anyone’s understanding Lucy felt. She became a radical agnostic that moment. After playing possum for what it seemed to be an eternity, the cow slowly plodded off. I hope he turns into a Ferdinand addicted to wild flowers perfuming the air now somewhere & leaves me alone, Lucy thought, as she, quietly as possible, flipped over on her back & looked up at the stars.
In the rear-view mirror Brandy carefully fixed her face and adjusted her wig. Brandy touched her chin and examined the dark stubble. Christ, she’d forgotten to shave. Electrolysis was such a nuisance. She examined herself critically—from the point of view of a woman eyeing another woman. She was barely acceptable. She felt her breasts. They had matured—somewhat. When would the hormones fully kick in? Still, she felt like a woman, she was a woman, and she had a woman’s needs. There was only one way she knew of to become fulfilled as a woman. She would proceed on her mission, no matter what. Brandy steeled herself, examined the passenger side of her car to make sure everything was in order, and resolutely opened the car door.
The sun was going down and there was the hint of autumn in the air. A panhandler approached as she neared the entrance of the tiny, forlorn old mall. Before he could speak, she pulled a dollar out of her jacket pocket – she always kept several singles available – and handed it to him. “Bless you, sister,” he said. Brandy smiled at him.
“Easy does it.
I try to sit up but a big hand pushes me down. I’m lying on the asphalt looking at the
moon. A PD flasher circles the alley. My head is throbbing. I feel it oozing blood. A rangy
lawman crouches over me, holding a gun. He is pointing it down the street and whispering “ka
boom, ka boom.” He smiles faintly and then his edgy features cloud.
“Someday I’ll clean up this town.” He looks down at me and frowns. He has coal black
eyes and a prizefighter’s face, wild dark hair with lightening sideburns. “Saw them jump you
from down the block.” He pushes up the brim of his cowboy hat with the barrel of his pistol.
“Three. They went at you pretty good with saps, digging in your pockets. They scattered when
they heard my siren. Should have shot the shitheads.” He looks down the street again. “Let’s
see if you can stand.”