"And he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his
body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown
like eagle feathers, and his nails like bird claws."
the reduction to madness of King Nebuchadnezzar of
Babylonia, conqueror of Jerusalem, in The Book of Daniel
The stained grill cloth of the citron Crosley radio
pulsated with Dinah Shore's I Wish I Didn't Love You So,
and, for the third time in fifteen minutes, the back of the boy's
skull slammed into the forty-gallon water tank. He staggered
against the side-arm kerosene heater, wrapped one gloved arm
around the conical steel draft diverter, wobbled, and finally
tail-ended onto the chill, damp cellar floor. The acrid smell of
lime mortar, fused with mildew, seared its way up his nose. A
metallic taste welled up in his mouth as though he'd just been
sucking soda through a copper tube. The ceiling rafters swirled
round like the wares of a Jap chopstick factory that had just
taken a direct hit from one of Doolittle's B-25s.
With his other glove he shoved away a mass of thick dirty blonde
hair clotted to his sweaty forehead and rubbed his square
Dick Tracy jaw. The sloshing sound in his ears –
was it just the water in the tank or what was left of his brains
swashing round in his head? "Jesus, what you fixing to do? Turn
me into a drooling idiot?"
With his ungloved hand, his father took a long drag on his
Camel. "You're there already, Sad Sack. Three
times I told you to keep your left shoulder and foot forward and
your left fist ten inches in front of your chin. But you, you
rather pretend you're a windmill. A left hook isn't a wide swing.
It's mostly a twist of the body, Joe Palooka. And you
telegraphed your right cross by drawing your fist back from your
guard position. You ain't never gonna send that bully Sean
Cummins to Slumberland like that. And just so you don't
think I'm getting soft, there's only one reason I'm not undoing
my belt to tend to your cussing little ass. I'm assuming, after
that punch, you figured you'd died and gone to Heaven and mistook
me for your Lord and Savior."
The kid chuckled. "The day I start taking you for Jesus ... well,
I'll be ready to play Tiddlywinks with the squirrels.
I'll check myself into the Bughouse. I ain't that punch-drunk
His father laughed. "Yeah, me as Jesus, that is some stretch,
"You ain't whistling Dixie," the boy replied. He folded his
gloves prayer-like over a small but well-defined chest covered by
a tattered white Davy Crockett t-shirt. "Gentle Jesus, meek and
mild, please don't dust this little child."
His father flipped the butt into a rusty floor drain, where it
hissed, sputtered and died. He brushed a shock of raven-black
hair out of his eyes and rolled down the sleeve of his spotless
white dress shirt. Then he leaned down and jerked the boy up by
his collar and yanked his face up close to his, scowled, then
grinned. "If you were as quick with your fists as you are with
words, old Sean'd be sleeping in the boneyard now. As it is, I
wouldn't take hundred-to-one odds you'll live to be twelve.
"Aw, it ain't fair. That Sean's fourteen, and he's got thirty
pounds on me.
"Fair, huh, kid? Get me a crying towel, and I'll wipe your snotty
little muzzle. His father unlaced his glove, hurled it into a
khaki duffel bag and broke out a chromed Zippo lighter
decked out with a leering skullhead – his lucky piece that
he had carried as a jungle scout all the way through the War in
He lit another Camel, dangled it from the corner of his
mouth, and unlaced the boy's gloves. "After Pearl, the first
thing we learned in jungle training was to knock that word out of
our vocabulary. Our sergeant was a bantam of an Irishman who had
been with O'Ryan's Traveling Circus in WWI, the 27th
Division. He was showing us the fine and manly art of hitting a
guy below the belt. A real character he was, all five feet three
of him, with a twitch in his left eye and a z-shaped white scar
on his forehead – a little beauty mark he picked up in
France. I raised my hand, with a goofy Howdy Doody grin
on my face, and said, 'That don't seem on the up and up, Sarge.'
"And Sergeant Z double-timed right over to me, with his eye
twitching like mad. 'Up and up, Private Numbnuts? I wouldn't give
a plug nickel for your ass out in those jungles. You're gonna be
down and down out there, Sad Sack. Who the hell do you
think's running around in those bushes? Little Lord Fauntleroy?
Yeah, that's who's mincing around out there. And instead of a
Sears, Roebuck catalogue to swipe his ass, should the need arise,
he's toting a copy of the Marquis of Queensbury rulebook to read
and abide by.
"'Oh yeah, and little Miss Shirley Temple's out there too,
throwing a tea party. You just listen real careful one night and
you'll hear her singing On the Good Ship Lollipop.'
"Then he hopped back like a rooster and addressed the others.
'This here shit-bird, men, is Private Flatpeter, alias, Private
Pumfrits, Fried Potatoes, late of the S.O.L. Division. He's
already pushing up the daisies. He's gonna be out of the trenches
by Christmas, put in a bag. Repeat after me, for his sake, all
together, or as we used to say in France, toot and scramble,
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of
death ...." And they all muttered the Psalm right after him.
He turned away as if Last Rites for the corpse were over, but
then he spun round and kneed me in the groin so good I doubled
over. I thought I was gonna decorate my boots with the sinkers I
had for breakfast. He whirled around to the others and said,
'Now, boys, was that fair?' 'Yes sir!' they all yelled. 'Any
questions, idiots?' And all the guys yelled out, toot and
scramble, 'No sir!' "Three beans, clowns," he yelled back, "three
beans." My buddy Mac, who taught French before the War, told me
that was Z's twisted version of Froggie-phone for Tres
bien, or Very good; just like toot and scramble was his way
of saying, tout ensemble, or all together.
"Then he yanked out of his pocket some piano wire. 'You know why
I carry this, Private Flatpeter.' By then I was mad and I
smart-mouthed him. 'I dunno, Sarge. Maybe in case you run into
Porter tickling the ivories for Shirley and he's broken a wire on
his piano.' He booted me in the left kidney.
"'Oh sweet tit of the Virgin, sweet milk of our Savior, you're
gonna pay me drills. This, Pumfrits, is to cut off some sentry's
airflow – a fool who didn't keep his mind on business, like
"Some of you got the wrong notion. You think you're a bunch of
Gary Coopers playing Sergeant York. You think you're gonna go out
in those jungles, make some turkey sounds, and 132 scared Nips
are just gonna stick their hands up and say, 'So solly. We
sullender. Prease to forgive for Pearl.' Oh they'll stick their
hands up all right, but it'll be up your cherry asses. You think
you're gonna be John Waynes – guys in white hats.
No sireeee, assholes, you're gonna be the guys in black hats. I'm
gonna teach you to think like gangsters, hitmen. By the time I'm
done with you, you could work for Al Capone after the War if he's
ever makes a comeback. He grabbed this giggler out of the line
who looked like Caspar Milquetoast. "See this loggin. He's gonna
be the Enforcer, the new Frank Nitti."
"You're all gonna be the nastiest snakes in the jungle, condemned
to crawl on your bellies through the grass just like the devil
serpent after he went and screwed up Adam and Eve's cozy little
Garden setup. Yeah, that's me. I'm the head serpent, the Devil
himself. Get down and give me one hundred pushups, all of you,
toot and scramble. Worship your new god.' Then he danced around
us while we huffed and puffed, yelling when he was finished with
us, if we did find Shirley out there, hey, if we found our own
sisters out there, we'd ... well forget that. We thought he was
nuts, but he sure as hell put the snake in us after eight weeks.
"But Private Flatpeter still had to learn the hard way. On
Guadalcanal, I was out late one afternoon scouting and came
across a half-dead Jap. Bad shrapnel wound, like his leg had been
put through a meatgrinder. Muscle, bone, leggings – they
were all swapped around. So I haul him up and start cutting his
leggings away with my Kabar. Well he's a- moaning and
groaning. And then he slaps his leg real hard. I figure it was
because he was hurting so bad.
But that wasn't his game. He had a grenade hidden near his
doohickey and he had pulled the pin and plunged in the fuse all
the while Doctor Kildare was practicing medicine without
a license. But then he made a mistake. Pulled the grenade out of
his bloomers. Don't know why. He was ready to sacrifice me and
himself for Hirohito, but maybe he got squeamish about his
privates and decided to create some distance between them and the
grenade. Maybe he didn't want to spend all eternity on the rag. I
caught the grenade out of the corner of my eye and turned round.
He was grinning a big buck-toothed grin, just like one of those
Nips in the movies. Problem for him was he was holding a Type 91
which had a seven-second delay."
"Seven seconds?" The boy whistled. "A guy could take a pi–"
"Right kid, right, if he were so minded." His father gave him
that puzzled look as though he were still trying to figure where
his good little Catholic boy learned to talk like that. "But a
type 91 wasn't just for hand tossing. Could be used as a
projected munition, in a 55mm knee mortar. If you got a grenade
in a pipe between your legs you want something that's not gonna
go off lickety-split. I knocked it out of his hand with my
Kabar, came back and cut his throat right here." He
pointed to a spot on his neck,
"Geez, the carrot artery," the boy said, with his hand around his
"Carotid, Numbnuts, carotid. Then I flipped him on his side and
ducked behind him, but my left arm caught shrapnel. No pain, more
like a baseball bat had slammed into me. That's those dotted
scars on my left forearm. Still some steel deep in there."
"Don't I know it!" the kid said rubbing his square jaw, the image
of his father's.
His father thrust the gloves into the bag, knelt before the boy
and gripped both his arms just above the elbows. "Don't ever talk
fair to me, kid. Life ain't on the up-and-up. Your
brother choking to death with the polio in that iron lung –
you think that was fair? Jesus, I wanted to shoot holes in it
with my .38, rip that damn metal tube apart with my bare hands,
force my hands against Pete's shoulder blades till he started
sucking air again. And afterwards, your mother hitting the bottle
and taking a powder to California ... And that War – what
we had to do out there – what we had to become to do it. We
crawled all right, tooting and scrambling, tooting and
scrambling. When I'm on special detail down on the docks and some
punk comes squirting lead at me with his .45, you think I just
stand there and say, 'Hey no fair, buster. Time out, time out. I
only got me a lousy .38. Gimme time to go home and get my .45.'
"You get a guy down who's out to hurt you, you gotta hurt him,
hurt him so bad the next time he sees you he starts shaking and
puking. This river neighborhood ain't changed since I was a kid,
back in the Depression. Always bigger fish looking for smaller.
You get the chance, you give him the works – in spades.
Guys like Sean you gotta fix or they'll never lay off. They'll
always be back. Knee him if you get the chance, slug him when he
doubles up, and when he's down, kick him hard in the kidneys,
here just below the ribcage." A finger of his left hand jabbed
the boy's back, and the kid squirmed as he felt a knot of pain
corkscrewing up through his diaphragm. His father gripped his arm
again. "If he rolls over, give him another kick in the balls.
Keep hurting him so he'll never wanna come near you again. You
gotta be hard, boy, or you ain't never gonna get on with Sean or
anybody else in this damn life."
Their eyes locked together. When he was eight and his father
talked about the War, he peered into those eyes and saw only
cerulean blues, like the pictures in magazines of the Pacific.
But as he grew older, he began to see shades of green there
– dull yellow green, bluish green. And that too was like
the Pacific. Lately – since Pete and his Ma – he
began to see other greens – some like the bottle green on
the bellies of flies that flickered around the pails out in the
shed where there was always the smell of rot, and some so deep
they were black like an avocado that had lain around too long.
And that too was the Pacific. He remembered his father telling
how he sailed up through the Gap toward the Philippines, after
the campaign at Guadalcanal and how a sailor told him he sure as
hell hoped they'd weren't torpedoed there, because it was a
five-mile one-way trip to the bottom.
That was the darkness he saw in his father's eyes now. He saw
himself as a GI on that ship spiraling downwards into a
bottomless darkness and below him, pulling on his heels, was his
father with a mug that looked like a grinning devil god. The
feeling in the back of the boy's hands was disappearing, and he
felt he could no longer flex his fingers. His lungs were
blackened by the updraft from the Camel.
"Dad, Numbnuts' arms are turning numb too."
His father flushed and released his grip. "Time for you to get on
your paper route. And stay away from Sean. You ain't ready yet.
I'm counting on you for the party tonight, unless you got
something better to do."
The boy laughed. "Sure, Dad, I got me a heavy date, playing
kissy-face with a coal truck."
On the planked porch, scabrous Hunter green paint cut into the
boy's knees as he knelt and crouched, rolling and shaping his
papers into the form of small baseball bats. He shoved them into
a canvas bag smudged with newsprint as black as his T-shirt. He
breathed in the smell of damp newsprint and rubbed his blackened
hands against his spotted shirt. The ink smelled almost as good
as gasoline, fresh out of the pump, at Joe Blake's Shell
A guy'd have to be a blink to confuse him with Mr.
Clean, but tough titties. He'd have to take a bath tonight
and stick his head under the faucet before the party – even
put on a white shirt and tie so he'd look like the other mugs at
the party. So, if anybody didn't like them apples – like
Mister McCreary, who nicknamed him Ragged Dick –
they knew what they could do, and he'd be happy to give them one
of these papers, nice and tightly rolled, to do it with.
In the headlines, Ike was recovering from his heart attack. Back
in September, Sister Marie had made them all get down on their
knees on the hard oak floors and pray three whole rosaries. After
twenty minutes, his kneecaps felt like someone took a
sledgehammer to them. On his seventieth Hail Mary, he
turned into Jimmie Doolittle and began to spin round the crucifix
part of his rosary, now the propeller of his B25 headed for
Sister Marie came up behind him and clunked him in the head with
her wooden clapper. "You better pray, you little bastard. Aw,
Jesus Christ, yes. Because if the President goes tits up, the
Commies'll be over here quicksville and the first thing they'd do
is round up all us Catholics and machine gun our sorry little
gutter hype asses." Those weren't her exact words, but the way
she rolled her head and swung her rosary around as she yammered
on, they were largely to that effect.
God, he had a funny old man. He was proud of him, proud of the
way he served, and all the medals he brought home. Real tough
guy, but sometimes he could be gentle too – come into your
room at night and pull the cover over you, just like his Ma used
to – until Pete died of the polio. Then she started hitting
Nick's tavern and the bottle and finally him too when his old man
wasn't around – and then one fine June day when he was at
school studying his Baltimore catechism – thou shalt kiss
thy father's and mother's tail and all that hooey – she
took a powder for California. How come God didn't set up an
eleventh commandment: Remember thou to stay off the amber
fluid and dump thou not thy kids?
Yeah, his old man was A-1. Some times, though, Mike could explode
at the littlest things. But at least he wasn't a mean drunk like
Sean's dad who had been at Pearl on the Arizona and now
smashed Sean around whenever he got stinko, as though his
buck-toothed kid had been a Nip piloting a Zero that Sunday
Or like his Ma. That time he and his best pal Frankie from the
trailer park had plopped themselves on a rock outside Nick's
Tavern and kidded all the drunks that stumbled out: "Hey
Jiggs, better get home. Maggie's been up and
down the street with a rolling pin looking for you." Most of the
lush hounds just laughed and stumbled away. Some flipped a bird,
and others called them names the boys had never heard, which set
them laughing – names like bindle-stiffs,
door-matters, flukers, gump-glomers.
Every one of these the boy, a born wordsmith, treasured and
stored up for future reference.
But toward dusk, a floosie in a black dress, with a cloche that
dropped a veil net over her face, had stumbled out bongoed,
assisted by Nick who gripped her elbow. "That's it for tonight,
Gertie. This is a decent gin-joint, not a two-bit nautch-joint.
You're gonna get the cops on me." And the boy had stood on the
rock and yelled, "Hey Blondie, better get home.
Dagwood's roast beef is burning." Frankie had grabbed
him by the arm. "Nix, nix, ain't that your Ma?" For a moment he
thought he pissed his pants, but it was just all the blood in his
body draining down into his feet. She came up to the rock.
"Making fun of your own Ma, huh? You get your ass home and wait
for me in the kitchen. I'm gonna make something burn."
His father was away, so it was no-holds-barred-time. When she
finished giving him the business, he didn't stir out of bed for
two days, and even then he was still limping. Told his old man he
fell off his bike. Frankie said when he saw her heading after
him, he knew the score and wanted to pick up a tree limb and
smash her in the squash. "Sure, sure, Frankie, then we could have
drugged her body into the bushes, hopped a freight down on Water
Street, and went on the lam to Chicago to join up with the
remnants of Capone's outfit."
No, his old man could hold his liquor. He was real lucky that way
and if his father did knock him around, did take the belt to him
now and then, it was his own fault or it was to toughen him so he
could take care of himself. So everything in his life wasn't
jake, but that was just too bad. What was the old Army
expression for just doing your best? He'd just have to battle the
But Mike could really explode too. The boy struck a rolled
newspaper against his palm. That afternoon his father came home
and his puppy Spankie had pissed all over his father's chair ....
First his old man's face reddened, then went all white, but he
didn't yell. He spoke in a low controlled tone, like one of those
guys in a B-crime movie who catches up with a squealer, smiles,
and tells him how he's gonna get it, usually in the belly, so
Mister Squealer'll have plenty of time to think about it, and how
it's gonna hurt like the dickens. "Listen up, kid. You get that
mutt to stop pissing in my house or I'll dry him out –
permanently. I mean it. He and I'll take a little stroll out the
kitchen door, and only one of us'll have a round-trip ticket. And
in case you don't get my drift, the returnee'll be walking on two
legs, not four." He tapped the butt of his .38 police special
lodged in a black Mexican-tooled shoulder holster under his left
"Aw, you wouldn't do that, Dad."
His father leaned down. "You have any idea how many guys I sent
down the long road in the War? You think I'm gonna lose any sleep
over one mangy mutt? You think –"
But the boy was already rolling a Batman comic into a tight
cylinder and heading for the kitchen where he found the mutt with
his head in his water bowl and pissing out the other end. "Jesus,
Spankie, if you ain't living the Life of Riley." He
started whacking him real hard, three or four times and yelling,
"No!" "You want to go for a walk out back with my old man?" He
kept smacking him until his father came behind him and grabbed
his arm. "Just get his attention, kid. You ain't gotta knock the
bejesus out of him."
No, he didn't have to do that. Three days later, a coal truck
backed into their driveway and played out that little scenario.
Knocked the bejesus, the beshit, the bepiss, the beguts smack dab
out of him. All that was left, after the crows chowed down, was a
stain in the driveway's ashes. He stood over it and cried. "Oh
Mother of God, I'm sorry, Spankie. Jesus, I'm sorry for that time
in the kitchen." In his mind, he swore the stain had muttered
back at him, "Too late. Up your brown, buddy."
Yeah, his father was a killer all right. The first time he
examined his War scrap book he found photos of Jap soldiers. "Who
are these guys, Dad?" "Some guys whose Christmases I cancelled."
Then he found the pictures of the kids, one a baby all naked on a
blanket stitched with Jap designs. His doohickey looked
different, as though it had a helmet over it. Maybe that was the
way Jap doohickeys looked, funny like their eyes, but he didn't
exactly have a picture gallery in his head to draw on for
comparison purposes. The nuns had him convinced even thinking
about down there was a sin and the only one he had ever seen was
his own, not even Pete's.
"You didn't take them off the payroll too, did you?" "Nope, they
weren't there." The way he said it, the boy thought it was just
jim-dandy for them that they weren't, because if they had been,
his old man would have arranged a family package to Sliceville.
Then he had found a tooth with gold in it, and his father had
clammed up and told to take a hike and start bothering him.
That night at nine o'clock, a breeze came up from the river, and
leaves of the great elms along the walks rustled in air empty for
rain. Squirrels, in an endless search for food, scurried up and
down their trunks, and, to the north, ships with twinkling lights
glided down the St. Lawrence. The boy, in the brilliantly lit
lemon yellow kitchen, pressed his nose against the window's mesh.
The corroded zinc grated against his upturned schnozz, and the
neighborhood's familiar musty smell filtered in. Countless
shadflies up from the river whirled round the single flickering
yellow porch light. He inhaled deeply the fragrance of the lilac
bushes that camouflaged the rotted trelliswork under the porch.
He half turned, stretched, and twisted the treaded brown knob on
the Depression-style cathedral radio. The Philco's hum betrayed a
bad capacitor, but eventually gave way to Glenn Miller's I
Know Why. As the radio tubes warmed, the old wooden cabinet
emitted the smell of shellac that had dried back when Hoover was
promising a chicken in every pot. He remembered his grandmother's
old joke. "Damn fool. We didn't even have the pot to piss in."
Behind him, a cloud of smoke enshrouded his father and his vet
buddies, immersed in their beer and poker game. Bakelite chips
clattered against the Formica table, and that clatter was
punctuated by murmured folds, raises, straight flushes, and
accusations that his old man was trying to steal the blinds. He
grinned, imagining Mike as a second-story man running down the
street with a set of Venetian blinds rattling away on his back.
A thrill shot through his body. It was an A-1 time – one of
those times you'd think back about even when you were really old
– so old maybe you'd be lying in bed with a tube up your
ass, like his great- grandmother just before she croaked. Since
his mother, brother and dog vanished, he had come to think of
life as loss. The trick was to gather up the special times, so
when the bad happened you had the good to think about –
just like a blackbird stores shiny things in his nest. The
special days he called murderistic, after the Jimmy
Dorsey song, which in jive talk meant just jake or
mighty fine. It was his own special word, which he kept to
His great-grandmother had told him life was like a great big
ice-cream cone, triple-scoop. "There's one catch, though, boy.
like you got it served up to you on a hot day in July – a
real scorcher. So you gotta lick it hard, afore it up and melts
away." Sometimes when he thought about his brother Pete, his Ma,
and Spankie, he wanted to pay a call on His Grand Highness,
Mister Good Humor in the Sky, and say, "Hey, buster, do
I look like some rube appleknocker? You rooked me. I only got one
scoop." He glanced round, imagined seventy years from this night,
and they were all gone, and there he was alone with a tube up his
... And the radio wasn't playing Glenn Miller and Dinah Shore but
weird electronic music like what you heard when a flying saucer
showed up in those science fiction films at the Strand. And the
kitchen wasn't a bright yellow, but all cold stainless steel.
But that was the wrong way to think. A guy could get himself real
down thinking that way, turn into a real mope. Tonight was here
and now, and he could enjoy it. So tonight was
murderistic. Out of a shoulder holster his old man had
cut down for him, he flicked out his chromed Hubley
.38-style cap gun and broke it open. A red roll of caps sat there
like an angry rummy's eye. He threaded it up through the hammer.
Around the table there were four cops, Joe, Ernie, and his uncle
Pete and his father, all just off some detail, with their white
shirts and ties, shoulder holsters and guns, just like his
– all police specials – and he was dressed just like
them. Now and then he heard a metallic click as his old man drew
out his .38 and flicked open the cylinder – a routine he
practiced for as long as the boy could remember.
His uncle Pete, grinning like Howdy Doody, was the
youngest, still in his twenties. With his slouch-brim tilted back
over a sprawl of thick raven-black hair, he leaned his gangly
frame forward in his chair. Together, he and Mike, who shared
with his kid a brickwall build and Dick Tracy chin, looked like
that comic book ad in which the muscle job is always kicking sand
in the face of the ninety-pound weakling. But Pete's eyes, like
the others', had what the boy called The Look. That look
– and maybe the Howdy grin too – had been
the last sights a lot of Nip Clarabells had had a gander at just
before they slammed into the ground.
He had seen a similar look in just a few civilians – the
handcuffed guy his father had hauled into the station last
Saturday. Claimed he mistook his wife's head for some petunia
bushes that needed trimming and used the hedge clippers on her.
"Honest mistake," his father said to the booking sergeant, "but I
sure as hell ain't hiring Lawnboy for any yard work around my
place." The sergeant split a gut.
Suddenly Pete snapped one of his suspenders and called out, "Hey
piss-ass, what's a guy gotta do for a drink in this dump, fall
over and clutch his throat?"
"Sorry, uncle Pete."
"Yeah, well next time you will be. I'll lay one upside your
"Yeah? You and what army?" The boy took up a boxing stance.
"Oh Jesus, Mikey's School of the Manly Art of Pugilism
is open again for business." He looked at his brother. "Trouble?"
"Time somebody settled his hash. Of course, the way old Lester
whacks him around, no wonder the little devil wanders the
neighborhood seeking the ruin of souls." His uncle yanked the kid
over by his tie. "Is that one of those phony clip-on baby ties or
did you knot that four-in-hand yourself?"
"Hey, easy on the threads. I tied it myself. Dad showed me."
"Ok, so I'm impressed, Bright Boy. Here's a pack of candy
cigarettes. And now, kid, I'm dying here."
"Sure, sure, uncle Pete. Thanks."
He snatched his uncle's glass, ducked a playful slap, and turned
the cold brass knob on the thick paneled door with chipped green
paint. It stuttered open. He dashed out into the shed to the keg
stenciled with the label Nick's Tavern. From a half-open
pail of garbage a gust of something rotten struck him. The buzz
of bottle flies transformed into his grandmother's old Depression
favorite, Easy Come, Easy Go. Suddenly he was in New York,
in the Rainbow Room, high above the skyline. He was a waiter
there in a fancy monkey suit in the ritzy restaurant in an old
William Powell-Myrna Loy Thin Man movie. "Spam, definitely
spam with a hint of tuna melt casserole, vintage 1936. And
tonight, Monsieur and Mademoiselle, no
surcharge for the maggots."
He turned the glass in his hand. His old man had picked them up
in Lake George at a honky-tonk souvenir shop. The dilapidated
shop fronted a ramshackle motor court where they had gone on
retreat after his brother Pete sunned his moccasins. Real quality
place – no extra pillows, sheets that smelled like a mummy
had suffered the second death in them. And in the back, a
picture-window view of a cinder dump with garbage cans that kept
the blackbears so happy most of the night they didn't know
whether to shit or go blind. His mother, a Lucky Strike
dangling from her kisser, had yanked back the faded tropical
curtains and cracked, "Geez, the miracle of Cinderama,
and no extra charge." And Mike said, "For five bucks a night,
what'd you expect, the blue Danube?" Yeah, and in the morning you
got up itching yourself to beat the band.
Painted on the glasses in garish pinkish tones was a naked woman
like those dames guys dabbed on planes and bombs during the War.
His mother hated the glasses, but after Mike poured her a few
shots in one, she mellowed. "They ain't so bad, and I reckon
they're the closest I'll ever get to Irish crystal on your
From Lady Godiva's babaloos, red tassels hung down, like
what you saw on curtains in fancy old houses in movies like
Gone With the Wind. He couldn't figure what they were for,
but there was a poem of sorts inscribed over her head. "When the
beer you swirl, the tassels will twirl." He had shaken the beer
around, but nothing happened. A call from his uncle broke off his
musings. "Hey, Shit-for-brains, in exactly five seconds I'm
coming out there and emptying my .38 into that dawdling ass of
As the evening drew on, the suds and some jungle-juice from under
the sink loosened their conversation. Master Tin Ear smoked his
pack of candy cigarettes, swigged his Coke, and
pretended to read his Batman comic, all the while his
ears were jacked up like he was an official member of the Mickey
Mouse Club. Ernie started humming Remember Pearl Harbor.
And Joe said, "Yeah and remember Hotel Street in Honolulu. Three
dollars, three minutes." Pete interjected, "Yeah, and Ernie here
got 2.75 back in change." And they all snickered. And Ernie said,
"Yeah, because after you clowns, she was pleased as punch to meet
a guy who knew which end was up." Then someone said, "The kid.
The kid. Can it." And Joe said, "Canned it all right!" And they
all giggled, but the kid didn't get it. After a while they
started up again, and just when it was getting interesting,
someone said, "The kid. The kid."
His father threw a look of disgust his way. "Kid? That ain't no
kid. That's a midget, Dick Tracy Junior. Been hanging around the
station ever since he could walk. He'd pretend to be sucking his
bottle all the while he was picking up everything you said like a
Pete added, "Remember that Christmas down at Hess's Department
Store? What was he – six? Anyway, we take the kid to see
Santa. Mike puts him on the old geezer's lap and Santa says, 'Hey
kid, what say we hitch up the reindeer and take a sleigh ride?'
Next thing you know Bright Boy is pulling a Judas on the old guy.
'Dad, Dad, Santa is trying to get me to snort nose-candy, the
white powder, coke!' They all howled at that one, and Joe
spattered his beer on Ernie.
About eleven, they had reached what he called The Stage.
They'd be talking about the War, which he was always wanting to
hear about, but the booze'd work its magic and sometimes one of
them started bawling or yelling which embarrassed the hell out of
him. Guys weren't supposed to do that. Ernie was yammering on
about somebody named Jim and before you knew it, the guy's voice
cracked and the bawling and hoo-hoo-hooing started up.
Ernie leaned toward Mike. "But you paid those Nips back in
spades, Mike. Fixed their assholes or, more exactly, their
pieholes. Yeah, after they got their butchering mitts on Jim, you
hung out your shingle: Mike's Pacific Dentistry. Pain
Joe and Ernie laughed, but not Pete and his father. Pete pushed
down his hat, and his father's face flushed. Then Mike muttered,
"Cut that shit, Ernie."
"Yeah, good old Mike, the dentist: Catering especially to the
Oriental trade. Walk-ins – welcome. Walk-outs –
His father hurled the cards down. "Jesus Fucking Christ." The
cards splattered on the Formica with a sound the boy knew well,
the sharp crack of a hand slapping a face. He studied the
Formica. No embarassing marks there. A marvel of modern industry,
easy to clean, not like a kid's dirty face that lets you trace
perfectly the red imprint of the hand that smacked it. He could
draw his mother's hand in his sleep.
There was a nearly profound silence – just the hum of the
fluorescent fixture, the crickets in the backyard, and on the
river a fog horn moaning low. The radio sputtered static, as
though Glen Miller had latched on to Dinah Shore's tassels and
headed for the powder room.
The kid's jaw first slackened. Then his fists clenched till his
nails cut into his palms, and he clamped his lower lip between
his teeth – exactly what he did, when his Ma was working
him over with a belt, so he wouldn't bawl. He nearly sucked down
his candy cigarette. Sister Marie had told them there were
certain four-letter words, if Catholics uttered, their tongues
would turn black forever, way past the Last Judgement, and, by
intuition, he knew this was one of them. And combined with the
Holy Name, Mister J.F.C. Himself – you'd have to roll your
tongue around in the coal bin for two years to get it that black.
For a moment, he imagined the official three censors stamping
their bimbo glasses on the table and chanting, "The kid. The kid.
The fucking kid."
His father shoved his chair back, scraping the pitted chromed
legs into the cracked fifty-cents-a-yard linoleum. The back door
slammed in his wake. Pete stood up. "Jesus, Ernie, don't you know
when to cut the yap and dummy up?"
"Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I'm sorry, Pete. It was the booze,
the damn booze." An old saying from the War came into the boy's
mind. Loose Lips Sink Ships. Somebody's rubber dinghy
had taken a direct hit.
"Yeah, I know, Ernie. I know. You guys take a walk down to Nick's
and take a piss. I'll get him back." Joe and Ernie staggered past
the boy – so slathered they were strutting along side by
side like Frankenstein and the Wolfman doing
the Foxtrot's conversation step. Pete went out the back door.
From the rear screen window, the boy saw their two forms hunched
together on the back steps, just like him and Frankie when they
trying to figure whose cellar window to toss a rock through some
particular night. The boy drew a metal stool up against the
window and pressed his ear against the screen as though he were
listening to The Shadow on the big Philco in the
living room or playing Father Malloy in the confessional
preparing to hear a recital of sins.
"Christ, Mike, after Jim, we all went crackers. Ain't no denying
it. We were like animals crawling through the grass. But that's
over, Mike. We ain't done nothing like that again."
His father turned to his brother. "We were all hungry out there.
Some mornings I woke up with such a pain in my gut I figured a
Nip had slipped into my hole in the night and gutted me. But the
way they hung him up, cut him up like they were slicing steaks
off a side of beef. Jesus, Jesus. I wanted to get a flamethrower,
burn that whole island down. If the A-bomb had been around, I
would have strapped myself to it and rode it down to ground zero.
Destroyed every bit of evidence that any of us – Nips or
Yanks, it didn't matter – had ever been out there.
"But that boy whose teeth I knocked out ... I swear I didn't know
he was alive. Sometimes I wake up and I feel like I'm holding the
Kabar in his mouth and he starts screaming and choking
and all that sticky blood and drool is flowing over my hands.
What happened to us out there? We were Americans, a bunch of
Andy Hardy types. Sure, we came from nothing, but we
were still clean-cut Catholic kids with a sense of right. Jesus,
we were Americans. Americans!" He placed his finger against the
side of his head. "That tapping sound the Kabar made
– sometimes a guy next door can be hammering a nail or the
pulldown on the shade'll tap against the window sill, and it's
all back in here again."
"Look Mike, the training, the jungle got into us all after a
while. It was as though there were someone or something lurking
in that kunai grass, just waiting to take us over, body and soul.
The way that furnace heat rushed up into us when we stirred that
razor grass, sometimes I felt like the devil himself was grabbing
us by the balls. So you knocked some teeth out. There were guys
who were cutting and shooting off men's .... But Tojo Junior
didn't suffer much. I was assisting as your anesthesiologist that
afternoon. One shot from my .45 in his temple and he cheerfully
fulfilled his duty to Hirohito."
His father shook his head. "Some nights when I wake up, his face
changes under me – first those slant-eyes, then the nose,
and the mouth. He becomes my boy Pete, choking to death in that
iron lung, with his eyes all rolled back and scared, pleading
with me to do something, and I'm trying to save him with my hands
in his mouth, but there ain't nothing I can do for him. For one
minute, when he was lying there all scared and struggling and
choking, I wanted to cradle his head in my hand and take out my
.38 and ... Jesus, my son, my son, my own fucking son, and all I
could have done to take his suffering away was blow his goddamned
brains out. Mister Big in heaven sure cooked up a way of paying
me back in spades – right in the here and now. I ain't
gotta wait till they shovel dirt in my face for my taste of
Altar boy Latin played in the boy's head: Absolvo te tuis
peccatis, "I absolve thee from thy sins," and he moved away
from the confessional screen. "Say three Hail Marys and
an Our Father and sin no more." That was penance?
Christ, he'd never think so again. He came toward the table.
There were four glasses there, all more than half full. He walked
deliberately over and drained them, one by one. After a while, he
felt some pretzels cavorting in a bubble bath in his stomach and
a-hankering to make a return trip up his gullet.
He picked up a glass and stared at the figure whose lips now
seemed drawn back in a leer, like the lips of Frannie Bouchard
who ran a business in the carriage house behind her house. The
teenagers called it making boys into men, and, when he was eight,
they'd given him a nickel and sent him off for a complete job.
Decked out in a yellow-and-blue striped polo shirt and shorts, he
knocked on her door. He cracked an Atomic Fireball
between his teeth and pushed back an old Army cap as the door
swung open. He repeated the words the teenagers had taught him.
"Hi ya, sister. I'm here for the works and I got dough." She
stood there in a ratty yellow chenille bathrobe with one hand on
her hip. The robe looked like she'd spilt a nine-course dinner on
it, and there was a musty stale smell about her – not the
neighborhood smell, but like what comes up out of a hole if
you're digging dirt for worms. She brushed back her hair which
hung straight down over half her face, like Veronica Lake's. But
this dame was no movie star. She leered out of
Coke-bottle glasses that barely covered a large dark
mole over her
left eye. A fancy orange marbleized cigarette holder projected
from a set of teeth that were the spitting image of a yellow
picket fence a coal truck had crashed through. She looked like
FDR in a woman's get-up.
"How much dough you got, piss-ass?" And he said, "A nickel." And
she laughed and said, "You think I'm running a penny-candy store
here, kid? That ain't enough to get your foot in the door.
Amscray, buster." And she had snickered and waved her holder at
him as he hauled his Radio Flyer down the cinder ash driveway,
with his face as red as his wagon, thinking it was easier to
become a man by killing people, like his father did. Maybe he'd
start with those teenagers who had tricked him.
But now, there in the kitchen, as he stared at the empty glasses,
the tassels were a-twirling. Oh Lordy, yes, they were a-twirling
and a-swirling, and a-whirling, like the red, white, and blue
pin-wheels he had hooked to his bike handles when the Korean War
ended. He could almost hear the flapping again and feel the wind
streaming through his hair when he went up and down the street
yelling, "The War's over, it's over."
He just bet Frannie had tassels on her diddies too, but he wasn't
gonna find out in this lifetime, the way he spent his nickels on
Atomic Fireballs. So like his father he'd have to become
a man some day by getting in a war and killing somebody. That
wouldn't cost a red cent. And that Frannie babe – a guy'd
probably have to spend a month in a claw-footed bathtub up to his
neck in bubble bath after she got her biscuit snatchers on him.
Behind him the screen door slammed. He turned to his uncle.
"Where is Dad?"
"Taking a stroll down by the river." The boy was surprised at how
uncontracted and precise his own diction was, not like drunks' in
movies. His uncle smiled and said, "You've been tin-earing, ain't
"Yes. Yes indeed I have." Christ, he was talking like a book,
like Howard Pyle's version of King Arthur, and when a
little shit like him started talking like that – well his
uncle was no fool.
"They're twirling, aren't they boy? You've been to Jericho, ain't
"You can take that to the bank and cash it, uncle Pete. Yessiree
Bob. They are and I have. And the whole kitchen is in on the
"Sometimes, kid, it ain't such a bright idea, tin-earing on other
The boy revolved a glass on the table. "Uncle Pete, a few weeks
ago, we were out to the cemetery putting flowers on Bridget's
grave. And Dad told me she had been one fine sister." He burped.
The pretzels stayed down. "But when we passed by Grandpa's, he
spit on it when he thought I wasn't looking. But I caught him and
asked him, 'Why you spitting, Dad?' And he said, 'I'm doing him a
favor, boy. His ass is burning in Hell and I just cooled him down
for a spell.'"
"Your Grandpa used to give boxing lessons too, back when your Dad
was a boy, but not so Mike could defend himself against a bully.
When he got liquored up, he got mean. And when he got mean, he
took Mike out to the shed supposedly to help him clean things up.
Then he'd look for an excuse to lay into him. Maybe Mike'd drop
some old screwdriver that looked like it had spent the last ten
years parked up a horse's ass. Suddenly Pa'd set to raving that
was the best screwdriver he ever had. Jesus, you'd think it had
been handed down through the family from Joseph the Carpenter
himself. 'Gonna have to fix you for that, boy. Fix you so you
never drop one of my tools again.'
"Then he'd set to whacking Mike around. But when Mike turned
twelve, he fought back and slugged Pa in the gut so hard that he
shot his doughnuts all over the shed. 'Clean it up, you little
bastard.' 'Clean up your own swill, Pa. You lay a finger on me
again and I'll take a bat to your head. And Pa ... calling me a
bastard, that's the biggest compliment you ever paid me.' He left
him there crawling in his own vomit, half hoping he'd fall asleep
on his back and choke on it. He never touched Mike again.
"Six years later he enlisted and I joined up right afterwards.
Then one Sunday morning in December 41, thousands of miles away
in that barracks in the Pacific, the War came along .... Oh yeah,
it just strolled right in on us without so much as a howdy-do,
traipsed right in, and knocked us on our asses for four years
– or better, on our stomachs, since we spent those years
crawling like dogs through all that grass, mud, slime and rot.
There were things we did out there ... some we had to ... others,
well it was like something from those jungles got into us.
"Sometimes, kid, when you swallow that much dirt, it takes a
while to spew it all out. And when you do choke it up, it spills
over on other people too, the ones you care most about. Mike
brought the War home with him. It's like he's still playing
jungle scout, trying to find his way through the jungle, looking
for something he lost over there.
"Your Ma – it wasn't just Pete and it wasn't just her. It
was the War too, the way it changed your father. She loved him as
much as any woman loves a man. But she couldn't handle the way he
changed – the moodiness, the nightmares. There's a side to
Mike .... She took after you because you were so much like him.
She wouldn't have dared pull that shit on Mike. He would have
taken his Kabar and .... And you, Mister Tough Guy,
trying to keep the family together, too proud to tell him what
was going on. Jesus, how many times could you fall off that
piece-of-shit bike of yours?"
The boy grinned and looked down. "Dad used to say if I kept it
up, he'd have to put the training-wheels back on. And wouldn't I
look like one, delivering papers like that. Uncle Pete, why did
he keep the tooth?"
"You remember Mac, married Bridget. Bad alcoholic, but he always
kept a bottle of Old Crow in the cabinet over his sink.
Reminded him of what he had been and what he was never going to
be again. Used to quote that poem we learned in school by Edgar
Allan Poe. He'd swing the door open, look at the blackbird, and
say Nevermore. That tooth was your Pa's way of saying,
Never again. Your Pa's a tough guy, but you and he are
alike in a lot of ways – thinkers, brooders, always trying
to piece things together, connect the dots.
"I was like that when I was a kid. When I was eight, I sold forty
jars of hair pomade and got me a BB-rifle for a premium. Went out
in the fields and started shooting every can, bottle and branch
around. Then a sparrow came into my sights, and without thinking,
I dropped him – crippled him bad in the wing. I took him
home, laid him under the shed in the back where Pa made panther
piss. For two days, I fed him crackers and water, then he cashed
in his chips.
"He suffered, and I knew I should have finished him off right
away. But I kept him alive, for myself, as though what I had lost
when I shot him, I could still recover, as long as he was alive.
It was like that bird and I were kin, part of each other.
"The night he died, I went out behind the shed where there was a
rain barrel. And when I peered in, there were stars reflected in
that still dark circle of water. I cupped my hands and drank,
trying to put one of them stars or something from up there,
something divine, back into me, into my soul. Crazy little Mick
Catholic. I was looking back, trying to right what couldn't be
righted. I'd never killed anything before.
"Pa and the War taught me to sort things out in my head, shut
doors in my mind. That kid whose brains I blew out – that's
over for me. If I think about it, I can hear the blast of my .45,
feel the gun's recoil against my hand, and the bits of him
splattering into my face.
"But I don't dream about it. I don't search for meaning where
none can be found. It was them or us out there – and us,
well, we came home. Mike ain't like that. He's always opening
doors, looking back. You're cut that way too. Life ain't gonna be
easy for either of you. Some day you'll be sixty years old and
still thinking back to these times – maybe to this very
night – and wondering how you got from point A to point D,
revolving and recreating scenes in your mind. You ain't never
gonna put an end to it. The day they shovel dirt in your face,
you'll still be hearing the old voices and music in your head.
And maybe you'll find meaning there, but more'n likely you won't.
"Now you'd better get your ass up to bed. You look like a hophead
who spent a night on the rainbow. If Mike comes home and smells
that breath of yours, you're gonna be walking funny for a week.
He drew a roll of mints out of his pockets and handed them to the
At the hallway door, the boy turned back and said, "The War,
uncle Pete, it wasn't like in the movies?"
His uncle laughed. "Jesus, kid, do Mike and I look like John
Wayne and Robert Taylor? We were just ordinary Joes doing a job,
trying not to get our asses shot off, trying not to piss our
pants while doing it. We went into the dark, and we found out
things about ourselves we never knew – some good, some bad.
"I hope to hell you never have to find that out the way Mike and
I did. You've had some tough breaks yourself already. You've been
throwing boxcars for a while now. But poking around in the dark
corners, dancing with skeletons, when you're young – well
sometimes, the skeletons stay with you, and you can draw on those
little two-steps later in life. Having some hardness in your life
when you're a kid, getting some dirt on you – sometimes
that ain't the worse thing in the world. You came from folks like
that, straight out of the Irish potato patch. You're gonna be ok.
You've got something the rest of us never had – a gift of
words. Maybe you'll take another path out of this neighborhood.
But don't you ever forget where you came from. That'll be
something you can fall back on later, no matter what happens to
"I'm glad Dad named Pete after you. Sometimes it's like ...."
His uncle coughed. "Jesus, don't get drippy on me, kid. We're
both corked and any minute you'll have us doing Joe and Ernie
impersonations, like a pair of sob sisters chanteusing an onion
ballad. I know. I know. Now get your ass up those stairs and
start sucking mints. And, Numbnuts, don't fall asleep with one in
that fool kisser of yours and choke."
The following Monday afternoon, the boy walked home late from
school. He had arrived there that morning just after Mary Ellen
White had pealed the bell on the porch, and, when he came up the
steps, she grinned the snitcher's smile and scurried off to tell
Sister. Sister kept him after and made him clap all the dust out
of the chalk erasers and wash down the blackboards.
Large elm trees lined the sidewalk on his way home. Ahead he saw
one marked with an X. It was dying. He knew that for a fact. The
day before, he passed by a shabby old gent marking it. He looked
like one of the hoboes who hung around Water Street who
supposedly kidnapped kids, ran off with them on the rails and
turned them into bindle-boys, He wasn't certain what bindling
was, but intuitively he felt it was something he wanted no part
of. The old guy was stooped over and his left leg trailed his
right. His slouch-brim's sweatband was stained and his green work
shirt marked with oil and ink. His red-spidered nose looked like
a road map to every gin-joint within a fifty-mile radius.
"What you doing that for, Mister?"
"Tree's dying, got the Dutch elm disease. Funny kind of blight.
First showed up during the Depression when a lot of things were
kicking in – factories, farms, men's dreams, and then one
day the elms just decided to cash in too. Someday all these
trees'll be gone."
"It don't look like it's ailing."
"You have to know how to read the signs, boy. See those branches,
high up in the crown, how their leaves are curled and yellow and
some are even brown, like somebody went right up there and parked
his keister and shat on them. That's a sign called flagging. Got
a pocket knife?"
The boy handed him his Budweiser knife with the chipped
pearl handle. The old guy nicked the tree and tore away the bark
like a scab. Underneath, the tree's white wood was striped with
brown. "That's the fungus, boy. This tree's all infected. Gotta
come down or it'll infect all the other trees."
The boy pressed his hand against the fungus and felt the tree's
vessels that conducted water and now death upwards. "My old man
was in the War, in the Pacific, got himself some jungle rot on
his toe that looks like this shit. Were you in the War, mister?"
"Me? I was too old. Had a son over there, though."
"Did he get jungle rot?"
"Yes, yes he did and a piece of shrapnel too, right under his
"My own man picked up some shrapnel. They fixed him up. Did they
patch your kid up too?"
"Couldn't. Piece of metal went right on through and pierced his
pump. He's still over there, buried somewhere on one of those
islands. They say they're gonna bring all the boys home some day,
but I dunno, I dunno."
"My brother died, but not in the War. The polio got him. I knew
people died, but I thought trees just went on and on."
"Everything dies, kid. But there's a trick with trees. When a man
dies, sometimes they stick him in the ground so fast no body
rightly remembers where they laid him. But trees – well
they can be dead a long spell and still stand up – until a
wind storm comes round and knocks them over and then you know
they've been dead a long while. Sometimes I think there're men
that died in the War who're still walking around, not knowing
they're dead. But trees just abide a little longer than other
things." His calloused hands pressed the wood of tree as though
he were trying to force the poison out. Then he turned and smiled
at the boy. 'OK, buster, put an egg on your shoe and beat it. I
gotta finish up here."
There it was, the dying tree with its red X. And somehow the boy
knew there was trouble behind it. It was hot that day, and he
stooped in the road and picked up a small ball of melted tar to
chew. A gasoline taste flooded his mouth. He glanced at the tree
again. Sure enough Sean jumped out. "How's my favorite punching
bag?" The boy went into a fighting stance. "Learned a few tricks
since last time. That's just fine. Beating the shit out of you
was getting to be a drag."
As Sean came at him, the boy spat the ball of tar into his
broad-planed face. Sean wiped the tar and drool off. "You little
–" Before he could finish, the boy shot his right knee into
Sean's groin. The blood drained from Sean's face, and his lips
formed a perfect geometric circle as he doubled over. But the
circle became a narrow rectangle as the boy whirled a right hook
into it. He collapsed on the cement sidewalk. It wasn't like in
the movies. The boy's hand throbbed and bled all over from a gash
furrowed out by Sean's decayed buckteeth.
Then he saw his god up the street on the porch – his old
man leaning over the railings and grinning. Grinning? Jesus. If
some guy had come along and rammed a lit candle up Daddy Jack O'
Lantern's ass, all the little kids in the neighborhood would have
been out on the button and running up and down the street,
yelling, "Trick or treat." The great Tiki from the far Pacific
was pleased; the devil god was getting his human sacrifice. The
kid felt like Boy in a cornball Tarzan movie, only in a
Polynesian setting, and the drums of sacrifice were pounding
through the jungle. "Serve the mighty Tiki, serve the
For a few seconds, he hesitated. Sean's was curled up and
squealing, squealing like Spankie that day in the kitchen. His
tattered blue work shirt had come out of his waist, and there
were purplish bruises on his back – probably his old man's
handiwork – and to the boy's surprise the bones in his rib
cage seemed to stick out. He glanced up the street. His father
moved his finger across his throat. Carotid time.
Remorse, compassion, faith, hope and charity, the Golden Rule,
saving pagan babies – zippo, all gone. Praying for the
conversion of Russia – forget that. Just drop the Big One
on the Red bastards. Now the rage was on him. He was a berserk,
in service to the devil god. He aimed his right foot just below
the rib cage and struck. Sean's body jerked like that time in
school Patty Jordan had gone into an epileptic fit in the
Then the kid danced around him and fished into his pocket. No
piano wire, just string from a yo-yo. He dangled the string
before Sean. "Next time, no more Mister Nice Guy. You come for me
again, I'll wrap this string around part of you – I ain't
saying which – but you'll be walking funny for a year. You
just thank your lucky stars you ain't get no gold in those rotten
teeth of yours, buster, because you'd be looking up at the last
of the '49ers. California, here we come. Who knows what evil
lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows and that's who I am,
the fucking Shadow, come for your sorry Commie ass."
From some small, objective vantage point in his mind, a lonely
islet, not yet submerged in the waters of the Pacific, he heard a
tiny voice saying, "Time to be playing with the squirrels, buddy.
Next stop, the Cackle Factory and, boy, ain't you gonna be a
stylish number with those shock-treatment electrodes hooked up to
your temples." He left Sean there, curled in the fetal position
beneath the elm with the X on it.
That night, his father took him out to Phil's diner. Ordered him
up two cheeseburgers, pile of fries, a huge Coke and a
banana split. Told everybody within earshot how his kid took care
of business that day. "He's your kid all right, Mike." "If he'd
been over there, we would have come back in '44." "Should have
sent him to Korea, Mike. He and Old Doug would have swum across
the Yalu river with their Kabars in their teeth." Mabel,
the waitress, snapped her Chiclets at him, refilled his
Coke and addressed him as Mister Rock'em Sock'em. That
was him all right, his father's son, the black-tongued killer
spawn of great Tiki, fresh from the lava pits of
Beserkdom. His uncle Pete sat beside him with his
Howdy Doody grin. Every now and then he'd put his arm
around the boy's shoulders but he said nothing. Howdy
knew the score. In that little group, he was Albert Einstein
sitting in the Peanut Gallery. Pete's eyes tried to lock onto
Mike's, but, for some reason, Mike was always looking in the
Afterwards, the boy retired early, complaining of a stomachache.
In his bed, he kept hearing that squealing sound Sean made on the
ground, just like the loose fan belt on their rusted-out '36
Plymouth or a piglet who's about to become sausage. He wondered
if Sean made that sound when his old man was beating on him. When
someone was always knocking you around, after a while, you wanted
to give some too. Christ, he knew that, should have known that.
He had enjoyed giving it, feeling Sean crumple to the ground
under his fists and squirm as he kicked him. But why the hell did
he have to kick Sean after he was down, after he saw those
bruises on him? Those purple loop marks – he'd seen them
plenty himself, just like the hand impressions. It must have hurt
like hell getting kicked on those belt bruises. Why had he done
it? As he stared at the ceiling, spider-webbed with cracks,
specks formed in his eyes that became dots – dots to be
It was as though a surge of electricity had passed through him,
as if the pain and anger he had held in so long flowed into that
crumpled form. He clenched his fists, slugged the broken-down
mattress and rocked himself against the footboard. He drifted
back three weeks.
Glass shattered in his head, wood splintered – the panes
and mullions of cellar windows – and he recalled his rage
following the rock down deep into the dark cellars. His body
convexed in the bed when he felt that release again. The wobbly
footboard became the pebbled muck that bordered the foundation of
neighborhood houses and sucked at his frayed Jeepers. On his
street, the rain fell hard off the drainless tin roofs, not down
through spouts and drains like on the fancy houses on Mansion
Avenue. That sucking sound – he'd heard that before too
– outside Pete's room in the hospital, the room they
wouldn't let him in.
At first he had just followed after his pal Frankie and watched.
But one night, Frankie had turned and said to him, "Some times
when the moon or the street lights are just right, I see yellow
Jap faces in the windows, the Japs who snuffed my own man on Iwo
Jima while he was trying to dig his hole in that damn ash. And
when the glass explodes, I feel good all over because I pretend
Dad came home and we ain't living in that shit-ass trailer park
and Ma ain't cleaning toilets at night in the office buildings
One evening, the light rippled in the bubbled glass and played
just right for him, and he held Frankie's arm. "My turn."
"You see 'em too?"
"No. Something else."
And Frankie just smiled, spat on the rock, and handed it to him.
"Give her a good one – smack dab in the kisser."
He passed Nick's tavern on the way home, and there in the window
was the familiar neon sign that blinked red for wine and
green for beer. But this night, as he lay in bed
remembering, the letters changed, and the sign blinked out a red
hate, a green need. He hated her. He needed
her. He hated her because he needed her.
Something clicked in his head. The first dots joined together.
Then he recalled two days later. Frankie was helping him with his
paper route and old McCreary came to the door and said. "Well, if
ain't Ragged Dick and his sidekick Ibrett." And the boy said,
"Why you calling Frankie Ibrett?" And McCreary leaned down and
said, "Short for Inbred Trailer Trash." The boy clenched
his fists, thought of his first afternoon in Frankie's oven-like,
rusted-out Airstream trailer when his new pal showed him his old
man's medals. "Ain't nothing more prideful than having your
father's medals. Your old man was A-1, Frankie." And Frankie
smiled and said. "Yours is too." Then Frankie passed him a
piss-warm flat Coke that was sitting on the countertop
some oil rags Frankie was using to fix the icebox. The boy drank
half and passed it back to Frankie who finished it. That was the
best tasting Coke he ever had.
So when McCreary spewed out his insult, the boy clenched his
fists, but then just grinned and said, "You're a real funny guy,
Mister McCreary. Ain't he, Frankie?" Frankie shoved a mass of
thick jet-black hair out of his eyes, the shape now of two slits,
and said, "Yeah, he's a real hoot." The last time he saw
Frankie's eyes that shape, he had told him how Sean was laying
for him. And Frankie had said, "A vet down at the park is
teaching me to shoot his .45. I reckon he'd let me borrow it. I
seen what it does to cans, and I reckon it would blow a hole
through Sean's face a cat could jump through. The boy thanked him
for the idea, said he liked cat tricks as much as the next guy,
but maybe that was a solution they could work up to,
As they came down the steps, they exchanged a glance. McCreary
had unwittingly just signed a contract for some home improvements
– cross-ventilation in his basement – custom work.
But that night, McCreary was in the basement changing a fuse when
two rocks blitzed through, one an inch from his head. Nearly
killed him. He yelled after them he was going to make some phone
calls right quick.
The boy remembered how he ran all the way home, came up the
steps, gasping for air, and lingered on the porch before the
screen. Inside, Philip Marlowe with his slouch-brim, white shirt,
tie and shoulder holster was playing solitaire at the table.
Twenty-eight cards arranged in a triangle –
Pyramid, a game his grandmother had taught him one long
boozey afternoon. Six props surrounded the triangular tableau
– the dealt hand, the waste pile, a bottle of Jack
Daniels with glass, a badge, and the razor strap.
God, he had a classy old man. Joey's LaDuke's dad would have been
standing at the door in a beer-stained tanktop, with his paunch
hanging out, holding the belt and ready to grab him by the scruff
of the neck as soon as he came in. And Tommie Mcginn's dad
– geez, that Bozo wouldn't even have a shirt on.
Baldie'd be running up and down the street waving the belt,
cursing and yelling, "Toooomeeeee!" Sure, sure he was going to
get his ass whipped off, but at least it would be done with a
sense of style and dignity. Mike was the Iceman and the Iceman's
son was going to get iced.
A cool breeze from the river passed through him, and, for a
moment, he shuddered at the thought that he had lost something
again. He stared through the screen, scanning the individual
quadrants, as though trying to imprint in his mind an indelible
photographic image of what was about to pass away. He felt lonely
for his father, wanted to have grown up with him during the
Depression, been in the War with him. He knew well what he had
done out in the streets now separated him from Mike, and Mike was
the only family he had left. He felt like Adam, looking wistfully
back into the Garden and seeing God playing solitaire.
He entered, slammed the screen. The Iceman didn't flinch. He came
behind him, put one hand on his shoulder, and examined the
pyramid. He reached into the bottom row and discarded into the
waste pile a king, value thirteen. Silence. He reached again for
a nine of spades and a four of clubs to discard. Mike hand's
circled his wrist. "My game, kid. By the way, Mister McCreary
called while you were out for a stroll."
"Yeah? What'd that old geezer want? Ma's three-bean casserole
"Bingo, kid. Bingo. Funny the way a guy gets a hankering like
that at 2:00 in the morning. Good thing, though. Seems he caught
two yeggs smashing his cellar windows."
"Dad, I –" His father's hand came up from the table and
knocked him on his ass. Not hard. Just enough to get his
attention – the kind of smack Spankie would have
appreciated. "Ain't you heard, kid? Night air ain't good for your
health." Then the hand jerked him up near the table, picked up
the badge, and the hand's owner said, "Spit on it."
"No, Dad! I ain't –"
"You don't get it, kid. What you did out there ... you already
spit on this buzzer. Two things I care most about, this badge and
you, getting you out of this shit-ass neighborhood into a better
life than I ever had. And now tonight ... Back in the Depression,
after Pa's wages got cut and he came home and cried, I took my
BB-gun and shot half the cellar windows out on Mansion Avenue,
just to show those swells. But you, you're James Dean, Mister
Rebel Without a Cause. Christ, most of the guys down here work
sixty hours a week just to keep a tin roof over their shacks. And
you break their windows? He held the badge up again. "Spit on it
or I'll ram it down your throat and out your ass." His voice was
level, without emphasis.
The boy's mouth felt like somebody had shoved a hair dryer into
it, but he summoned up just enough drool to manage a spit.
His father returned the badge to the table, into the waste pile.
The boy had expected a B-crime movie scenario, but tonight High
Theatre was on the bill.
"In the islands, some nights were so dark you couldn't see your
own hands. We lay in slit trenches on our stomachs holding our
Kabars, waiting for the Japs to sneak round and jump us.
You had to listen real careful, and when he made his leap you
whirled round and stuck him right in the gizzard, right when he
was jumping you. When you let the air out of a man and he's
dying, his muscles spasm, his face twitches and sometimes there's
a funny choking sound, a rattle in his throat. If he's lying on
top of you, you feel death and him struggling. Sometimes at the
end, he even pisses on you. Lots of guys breathed that rattle
into my ear before they died. Jesus, sometimes their lips were
right up against my ear, as if they wanted me to know what they
were seeing on the other side. And every time they whispered and
that rattle settled in my ear, something inside me died too.
"All the time I was out there I kept thinking about a white spot
inside of me that none of that filth and shit could touch. That's
where I kept my dreams for after the War, the way a woman keeps a
hope chest. I'd come back to this shit-ass neighborhood, carry a
badge, raise some kids decent, send them out of here to make some
difference in the world. Back in the Depression, a lot of people
saw Regular Army guys like us from places like this as dirt. We
weren't the Marines or even the Navy. If we died, what difference
would it make? We never would have amounted to anything anyway.
Maybe a toilet wouldn't get cleaned, a pot-hole filled, a floor
swept, a car greased, or more likely, jacked. No cures for cancer
here, no great books, no inventions. Just Regular low-class Army
trash. I wanted to prove them wrong.
"Your brother already left this neighborhood decent, not quite
the way I planned. But if being in a box is the only way for you
too, ok, I'll be master of ceremonies at your cold meat party.
You want to be James Dean? I'll get you a little red jacket just
like he had in the movie. You can run around the kitchen, hold
your head in your hands, and yell, "You're tearing me apart,
you're tearing me apaaaaaaaaart!" I'll sit here, nurse my drink,
play cards, listen. Jesus if you want, I'll even let you sit on
my lap and tell Daddy all your troubles. But when you've said
your piece, boy, I gonna do you. I gonna do you good. Rules of
"You got me confused with Doctor Spock. Big mistake. I'm Doctor
Spook. Make you a deal, though. Tell me why you did it, and maybe
in a week or two, you'll be able to pass a window without shaking
or drink out of a glass cup again. But if you don't, you're gonna
be drinking out of paper cups till you're eighty years old."
The kid's knees knocked together. He was the son of the Priest.
That's what they called Mike down at the station. If some mug
didn't feel like talking, the other cops always said, "Send him
to Father Mike. After he talks to the Priest, he'll confess.
Jesus, he'll be telling us about the first piece of penny-candy
he stole when he was five."
So the son of the Priest was scared, Her face forming, shifting,
and then exploding in the window, flashed in his head. It would
be easy to tell. But there was something else inside of him too,
stubborn, hard like the steel shrapnel in his father's arm,
something that was his father's and his too. The way he felt
about her was private, not to be shared, whatever the
An old phrase from that other war came into his mind –
Belleau Wood, the gunnery sergeant trying to knock the fear out
of his men. "Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live
forever?" And his second self – the one apart from the son
of the Priest – the little son of a bitch – genuine,
card-carrying and bottle-fed – looked directly at his
father and said, "What do you think? I want to live forever?"
Something came into his father's eyes, like at first he couldn't
quite figure. But then he smiled and said, "No, Sergeant Daly, no
son of a bitch in his right mind would wish that on himself."
Grim again, he focused his eyes on the tableau. "What's the
object of this game?"
The boy rested his hand on the tableau. "To clear away all the
cards in the pyramid by the time the hand is played out."
"And if you don't ..."
"Game is lost. No re-deal."
"Exactly. I'm clearing cards, boy ... and accounts. Call it."
He locked eyes with his father. His knees were still knocking,
but he just said, "Those plastic cups Grannie gave me when I was
a baby, the ones with the yellow duckies on them – we still
And his father, looking old and tired, said, "You're a hoot,
"Yeah. That's me all right. I'm a triple scream and a yell."
"Boy, you hit that one on the head." He picked up the strap and
pointed down the hall to the spare bedroom. "Next time, Al
Capone, don't leave witnesses."
All that was three weeks ago, and the boy lay there now,
remembering, sorting it out in his mind. Then he heard a second
click. Hate, need flashed again. He hated
himself because he needed himself. And when he kicked Sean, he
lost himself. It was sounding like a nursery rhyme –
Jack and Jill went up the hill – but in his
condition that's what he could come up with. He had taken on his
father's hatred, and he knew why now – to rid himself of
that lonely feeling of being Adam on the porch. He wanted to be
with his father again – Jesus, who was left? – but,
in so doing, he had gone against himself, against what he knew
was right and decent, at least for him. For hours, he lay there
awake, trying to square it all.
After midnight, his father came down the hall to bed, and he
pretended to be fast asleep when Mike pulled the covers over him
and half-closed the back window. He waited twenty minutes, then
quietly descended the stairs to the kitchen. The worn steps
creaked beneath his feet. The holes in his Roy Rogers socks
caught on the fissured linoleum as he crossed to his special
place, the hiding spot he discovered the day after his Ma left
when he kept blaming himself for her leaving.
He shoved aside a stained red calico cloth that she had hung in
front of the chipped yellow porcelain sink to mask the dripping
rusted pipes. A mildew smell crept up his nostrils. He crawled in
and propped himself against the back wall. A cockroach scuttled
across his leg, His hand brushed against a damp rag Mike had tied
around a leaky pipe. To his left were liquor bottles since the
space was also the official house liquor cabinet. One in
particular he reached for, with a plantation on the label,
Southern Comfort. He took a long swig, then another and
another. Then he hummed the theme music to Gone With the
Wind. Christ, that was his song all right.
Usually he spit the booze back in so his old man wouldn't know.
But not tonight. He chuckled when he thought how his uncle Pete
always told Mike how smooth his Southern Comfort was.
"Jesus, Mike, that's smooth. I ain't never tasted it that smooth
before. You must have some secret stash." If they ever found out,
this was one Junior Master Distiller that'd be kissing what was
left of his hind-quarters good-bye.
Later, back in his room, he rose twice from a fitful sleep. His
sheets and t-shirt were drenched with sweat. Both times he
stumbled down the hall to the bathroom, stood near the toilet,
and vomited. The third time, he retched till he had the dry
heaves and felt like he had four broken ribs. Then he just
collapsed, curling his arm around the neck of the porcelain god
and pressing his forehead against the coolness of his base.
In the morning his father found him there amid the reek of vomit
and Southern Comfort. Through his daze, he heard him
mutter something about The Unholy Three. "Three
generations of crawlers. Pa, me and now you, kid." Then he felt a
moist, nubby washcloth wiping down his face and all that he had
brought up. For one quick flash, he shuddered. He'd get it
bare-ass for this little caper, just like the time he busted the
But his father said nothing more. He gathered him up and moved
down the hall towards the bedroom. The boy's arm somehow found
its way round his father's neck, and his forehead, still cold
from where he had been, began to warm and pulsate, as though
Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights were jamming inside
his head. In bed, he felt his father push back his clotted hair
out of his eyes, and the washcloth, soaked now with cold water,
come up against his forehead.
His father was speaking again, words he had heard since he had
first peered over the crib, words whose soothing cadence was
locked in his head the way some boys knew The Night Before
Christmas and which his father had always used to lull him to
sleep. "Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended ....
The skies no longer rain death ... men everywhere walk upright in
the sunlight." Instinctively, he responded the way an altar boy
at a Mass answers the chant of a priest, "... I speak for
thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and
the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific ... your sons
and daughters ... are homeward bound – take care of them."
He heard metal clink on the wobbly TV table that served as his
nightstand. "There's a quarter there, boy. In a few days, you
call Sean and tell him you want to square things. You know how to
handle it. The War's over, kid, for you ... for now ... and maybe
for Sean too. I'm gonna have a chat with Lester Cummins and he
ain't never gonna touch that kid again. I'm sorry. Mother of God,
I'm sorry. I've had those dead guys whispering in my ear all
along, and I became like them, whispering all that hatred and
death into you. On the porch, I was back in the jungle, and I
took you with me. You're homeward bound now." His father moved to
"The War ... it's over for you, too, Dad."
"Some day, kid, maybe ... maybe." The boy blinked, and in that
instant the dark silhouette in the door that had been his father
disappeared. The pulled chain of an exposed bulb that swayed
gently in the hall was the only sign that he had passed that way.
Enveloped in the darkness, he heard the whistle of the 6:30
express passing by the gate on Water Street. Wednesday,
Wednesday, he'd call Sean and square things by buying him a
Coke at Boyer's and some candy too. There wasn't nothing
an Atomic Fireball couldn't square. It was a funny
neighborhood. You could stick a shiv in a kid's mother, and the
next day offer the kid a Coke and everything'd be
jake again. Kids in the river neighborhood didn't get
many nickels, so doing that for a guy – well, that was a
And Sean – he had gotten his punches in plenty, so he had
nothing to blat about. And by the time the Priest chatted up
Lester Cummins ...boy, that would be a one-sided gabfest.
Another time down at the station, he heard a corporal talking to
a red-faced gunsel who had just chatted with Mike and was rubbing
drool off his face with a red-checkered handkerchief. "I'm
telling ya, buster, guys like Mike – Jesus, all those guys
who came back from the War – you don't monkey with them.
You monkey with them and they'll monkey with you and you'll stay
monkeyed with." The corporal, unaware that Dick Tracy Junior was
listening, had actually used the tongue-blackening word in place
of "monkey", but enough of that for one day.
Yeah, trifle one-sided. Mike's .38, shoved halfway down your
throat, could bring on one hell of a speech impediment, bad case
of the stutters. Jesus, there it was again – but sometimes
words weren't enough with guys like that, and Mike was Mike and
Lester was Lester. No overnight miracles there. Praise the
Lord and Pass the Ammunition. All in all, it was a better
way to keep Sean's dad on the straight and narrow than taking the
pledge down at the Detox center. No boohoo's. T.S., Lester. He
just hoped Sean didn't pull a Spankie and end up in the path of a
coal truck before everything got set right.
Something turned in his head. His uncle Pete's words came back to
him. There was some great design of things that he did not yet
comprehend, dots to be connected, some kind of web that linked
all of them together – the men who had been in the War and
their sons, those who had lived and those who had died –
and he felt himself drifting into it, finding his own place there
and drawing some inner strength from it.
It was a dark web from which could come both violence and hate
– hate with no limits he knew now, hate that could blind
you, drive you out of your skull – but strength could come
out of it too, strength to fight on in life. Frankie, and Sean
and he – they all had shrapnel in them from that War, and
darkness too. The shrapnel brought pain, but, like the medals, it
was a prideful thing as well. There was good and evil in the
darkness too, and that darkness, to which he could give no single
name, was his legacy. It had trapped his father, undone his
mother, and for a while cast a spell over him. In time he would
learn how to master its energy.
He no longer feared the bottomless emptiness he imagined far to
the west in the Pacific. There was stillness and peace for those
who lay there, deeper and more profound than for those who had
come back. It was for the living to find some peace now and, for
those who had died and not known it, to search for another life.
And they would walk upright in the sunlight, all of them, toot
and scramble, as old Z used to say.
In the blackness of his room, he smiled and would have probed
more. But the booze took over again, dulling his senses. Down the
hall, his father had wound up the Aircastle graphophone
and put on an old 78rpm of Vera Lynn singing When The Lights
Come on Again All Over the World. And long after the
scratchy, timeworn disk wound down, the music continued to play
in his mind until he slipped away into stillness, a positively
by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, and has previously published
creative writing in this magazine, as well as non-fiction in
professional journals. He is currently working on a novel,
After the War, set in the early 1950's which deals with a
veteran who returns from the conflict and shares not only his
stories but his ghosts with his son. Born into a military family,
Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout who served in the
Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the end of World War