"Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who / Before us passed
the Door of Darkness through, / Not one returns to tell us of the
Road, / Which to discover we must travel too."
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The black slab-sided '49 Ford coupe usually braked on a dime. But
at 120 miles per hour, unless the Jolly Green Giant had been
around and dropped some pocket change, the six -year-old crate,
with a bullet hole an inch above the chrome strip on the driver's
door, wasn't stopping on any dime that day. Ten-year-old Dave
Flanagan had begged his Detective father Mike, to floor it, and
Mike complied, just the way the boy knew he would, because Mike
had been in the War and was that way – had an edge to him,
unlike Joe Anderson's long-faced, crepe-hanging dad, Mister 4-F-er, who sold insurance and droned on to the boys about the
dangers of speeding. Even better, his old man replied in the
military phonetics the War had drilled into his head: "Roger.
Will co, son." After they abruptly banked a curve, Mike yelled,
"Hang on, Dave," and shoved the brake pedal halfway through the
Dave had been show-boating to his father by speed-reading seven
Burma Shave signs as they whizzed by, each on its own
flaking white post: Slap – the – Jap – With
– Iron – Scrap – Burma Shave. The road's
dust swirled around them as the car fishtailed, veered to the
left and barreled sprucewards. The boy's hand shot back and up
through the assist strap on the B-pillar as a thought flashed
through his mind. Iron scrap. Maybe their Ford was about
to become a late contribution to the War effort. His teeth
clenched, and the red end of his candy cigarette plunged into his
His father's arm whipped out across the boy's chest. If it
hadn't, Dave would have been wearing chevron-shaped glasses that
a few seconds before had been his kneecaps. The kid's head
swiveled round like the bobbing head on one of those ceramic
knickknacks marked Made in Occupied Japan. Only this
knickknack was wearing a cub scout cap over a mop of blonde hair
that now covered his eyes. His limbs jerked like a Howdy
Doody puppet whose string-puller had been snorting from a
flask of amber fluid hidden deep in Clarabell's waist
box. The Ford, cartoon-like, accordioned to a halt, and
two chromed hubcaps sliced through the air. The sunlight on their
curved surfaces radiated like Death Ray beams in a
Flash Gordon serial, bringing the Purple
Death to the unwary denizens of the shadowy spruce hedging
the dirt road. As he gaped at the chromed discs, the taut muscles
in the boy's face slackened. The rest of his candy cigarette,
still dangling from his lips, dropped as he shouted, "Jeez, Dad,
Earth Versus the Flying Saucers."
"Wait here, son." Dave drew his .45 semiautomatic cap pistol from
the shoulder holster Mike had cut down for him and clambered into
the back seat over some tattered American
Rifleman magazines and green boxes of empty cartridges.
He caterpillared into the catwalk like the tail gunner in a B-25
and peered out past a sun-bleached NRA sticker. The
Adirondack spruce became tremulous coconut palms, emerging from
the dank humidity of some South Pacific island. His blue eyes
scanned the perimeter for any sign of Tojo aiming to bushwhack
his buddy. His father, the Pearl Harbor survivor and jungle
scout, wasn't going to get plugged on his watch. He slid back the
cast iron lid on his cap chamber. Two rolls of super Atomic
Disintegrator caps glared up like the red eyes of rummies
his old man put the slough on down at the station.
But now Mike was bending over whatever it was, giving him the all
clear and motioning for him to advance.
Secure behind his father, the boy leaned against his broad back
and stood on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. "What is it, Dad?"
"A black Labrador. She's been lying here for a spell." Mike's
hand stroked the dog's head. "Her fur's stiff and matted where
the blood's clotted."
"Jeez, Dad, she's still sucking air."
"Yeah, kid. And that's the problem. See that blood and fluid
coming out of her ears and nose. She's partly paralyzed and
bleeding deep inside. Left pupil's blown. Got her a brain injury.
Ain't a damn thing we can do, except ...."
"Put her down, son. Take the pain away. She'll probably live at
least another hour, maybe forty-five minutes, but she's going to
be hurting like hell. What do you think, buddy?"
"Jeez, Dad ... ain't no call letting her hurt like that." The boy
brushed his thick hair out of his blue eyes and thrust his .45
back into his holster.
Mike stood up, fished deep inside his double-breasted suit and
drew out his .38/44 Outdoorsman. The nickel-plated
double-action revolver with its pinned five-inch barrel and
shrouded extractor glittered like a futuristic ray gun in the
brilliant afternoon glare, the kind of gun Flash Gordon
could use on one of Ming the Merciless's henchmen.
"How'd you like to perform the last rites, son?"
"Jesus, Dad." His words had slipped out spontaneously, but he
reckoned he was owed one Jesus, given his father's
invite. His father Mike took no notice. "I don't know, Dad."
"It's up to you, partner. I ain't pushing you. But there are
things, kid, you got to learn sometime. And you got to learn them
early and quick."
The dog gurgled, and the boy's eyes riveted on the Lab's deep
hazel headlights. The blown left pupil appeared as large as a
purple plum. He felt his own eyeballs swelling and a hitch in his
side from eight cracked ribs. His nose dripped, as though his own
brains in the form of pinkish-gray goo were leaking out. He'd
sure want someone to put him down if he ended up that way. But
still he wished some one else, even a North Korean organ-grinder
with a chatterer, would come by and snuff Lassie out,
cancel her Christmas. But his father the detective had called him
partner. And as Bogie said in The Maltese Falcon, a guy
never lets his partner down.
He was wearing the same white shirt as the old man, the same navy
blue tie, the same shoulder holster. His small hand nervously
brushed down a wrinkle in the hip pocket of his gray doubled-breasted suit that matched his father's seam for seam. When he
and his old man showed up at the station, the guys called them
Dick Tracy Senior and Junior.
He was his father's son, and somehow what his father was asking
him to do – putting down, killing, whatever you wanted to
call it – was part of becoming a man. It was what his
father had done for four years in the War, was still doing in his
line of work ... that article in last Saturday's paper about how
his old man dusted some punk who was fixing to squirt lead in his
direction down at the docks ... a bullet in the face, right
between the eyes, real clean.
He had run into the kitchen waving the paper flag-like as though
he'd just reached the summit of Mount Suribachi. "Ma, Dad put the
chill on some yegg." She was at the sink washing the breakfast
dishes in a turquoise polka-dot shirtdress she had stitched up
for herself out of a pattern a week ago. A gray Fiesta
plate clattered against chipped yellow porcelain. Her back
stiffened, and she brushed raven black hair out of her face.
Half turning, she took the paper out of his hands, glanced at the
photo of a mugg in a leather aviator jacket, his face covered by
his slouch brim, slumped over some furniture crates. His fingers
curved gracefully, almost girl-like, around a nickel-plated .45
that seemed to have blossomed like some strange orchid, out of a
dark pool on the warehouse floor. Two huge stevedores, like a
Martin and Lewis comedy routine, stood to the side
grinning, one with his finger across his throat, the other
gesturing with his thumb down.
It was a grand photo, straight from the fridge – the kind
you saw in the news racks down at McCreary's drugstore in those
tabloids shipped up from New York. Deadly mob hit in
barbershop. Three dead. Forty shots fired. Candid close-up photos
inside. Photos like that had the pulp mags all beat ... a
mob hit compared to some tomato running through the jungles with
her babaloos hanging out being menaced by a Jap with a bayonet
who was leering so hard he looked like he was testing for a
Pepsodent commercial. He had seen enough of that
baloney, and anyway his father told him he saw plenty in the
jungle, but never any frills running around like that –
just some native women in New Guinea. And he hadn't stuck round
for a gander because they seemed to be hankering to make him into
the blue-plate special.
From her invisible lips issued a terse monotonic command, "Go out
"Ain't Dad the greatest ? Ain't you proud, Ma?"
She whirled around with a grin that looked like the
Joker's in a Batman comic. "Oh Jesus,
yes, I'm proud, boy, so proud, tell you what I gonna do. I'm
gonna cut this photo out, clip it real neat-like with my sewing
shears." She formed her right hand into scissors and clicked her
fingers together. "See? Snip, snip, snip. And then I'm gonna
paste it on a piece of cardboard. Got some turquoise polka-dot
material left over from making this ratty dress that we can use
as a border. And Monday, bright and early, crack of dawn, buddy,
you can take it to school, to Holy Cross, and give just about the
rootingest, tootingest show-and-tell those little Holy-Joe
assholes ever seen."
"Oh geez, can I, Ma? I don't know about those turquoise polka-dots, though. Don't you think that'd look –"
Her grin flipped upside down. Usually, he could gauge her moods,
but he had been too enthralled with the photo. Just behind her on
the chipped red Formica counter, he saw his yellow Davy
Crockett glass half filled with Jack Daniels. She
hauled off and slapped him upside the head, and he vamoosed out
the back door before she could get the belt out of the cellar-way. The screen door flared open, and she yelled, "Maybe Sunday
we could take it to Church, lean it up against the Communion
rail, so everyone can see what kind of folks we are. I can just
hear them. 'The old man's a real killer, Duke Mantee
hisself fresh out of the Petrified Forest. Older boy's a
gimp, got the polio, and they squirreled him away in an iron lung
somewhere. And the younger – well, he's addled, the other
half of a half-wit – always daydreaming and living in some
He spun round, stamped his foot, and hollered, "Yeah, that's us
all right. Ma and Pa Kettle and the kids. Only Ma
Kettle's been keeping company with a guy named Jack."
She pointed the strap at him. "Better stay out all night tonight,
"I ain't gotta. The Sandman'll have you and Jack cutting
z's in two hours – tops."
Yeah, well what did she know? She was like Sister Marie in
school. One day, they'd been learning to read out of those silly
Dick and Jane readers. The only guy who talked like those
repetitive birds was Dickie Brown down at the docks. A furniture
crate had clipped him in the noggin one day while he was
unloading cargo. Now he went around all day saying, "Time to
work. Work everybody. Work. Work. Work. Dickie works. You work.
Work. Work. Work."
Anyway, it was dinner time, and the whole family was sitting
around a long table covered with a glittering white cloth. The
one time he'd seen a tablecloth like that was when his great-grandmother was waked in her dining room. The old lady was lying
on top of it deep into the Big Sleep, so unless your
hailed from New Guinea, chow wasn't exactly the first thing on
your mind. Dick's father in an equally brilliant white shirt was
carving the turkey. Even Spot was in the picture, curled up
against the wall. Then Dave noticed what was missing and took out
his pencil and began to draw a triangular form below the father's
Sister Marie came by. "What are you doing, David?"
"Giving Dick's old man a heater, a .38/44 Outdoorsman,
just like my father's. Got a five-inch barrel too. Ain't many of
"But why, in a nice neighborhood like that, would his father need
He looked at her as if she were bucking for a section-eight. "Who knows? Maybe some crumb bum commie might come
around pushing the mooch or try to put the snatch on Dick's kid
sister, Sally, and then the old man'd have to plug him with his
mahoska." Sister gave him the works – the whole magilla
– a lecture on the fifth commandment, about turning the
other cheek, how violence never solved anything – and when
she finished the yammer, she whacked him three times,
violently, with her ruler for drawing in his
book. Told him that was for his sanctification and someday he'd
thank her kindly for it. This all happened two years ago, and a
fervent Thank you, Sister, had yet to materialize on his
But now, out there, on that road, he locked eyes with his father
and said, "Show me what to do, Dad." Mike passed the gun down to
him, and his trained hand automatically pointed it to the ground.
He had shot it many times before – at tin cans and bottles.
The walnut grip was warm in his hand, and today, each diamond cut
in the wood seemed to have its own point.
"Stroke her back toward her tail. When she gapes wide, put the
barrel in. She's too splitsville to snap – I think.
There'll be a soft spot in the roof. Not too far les'n you gag
her. Aim slightly upwards and pull the trigger. Shoot like I
always taught you. Cock the hammer so the trigger'll pull light.
Then pull gentle so you don't know when it's going off. Close
your eyes while you pull, and I'll take Lassie over to that high
grass, over yonder, so you won't have to view the remains
Mike turned toward the other side of the road and seemed to drift
as he stared at the shrubs that hedged the road. "Over yonder
..." he repeated.
"What is it, Dad?"
"Those shrubs over there – they're Jimson weed."
The boy had walked the woods with his father since he was five,
and his trained eyes scanned the perimeter. The road shelved over
a conifer swamp crowded with black spruce and tamarack with their
reddish-gray bark. In a few spots the trees gave way, and there
bog shrubs and pale green sphagnum moss prevailed. Once when he
had cut his foot, his father had wrapped his wound in the soft,
spongy moss, and it had stopped the bleeding. Near the raised,
drier road itself were four-foot shrubs out of which grew
whitish-violet funnel-shaped flowers. Stink Weed he and his pals
called it, because when you thrashed your way through it with
sticks, the crushed leaves gave off a smell somewhere between a
hospital and an outhouse that hadn't seen its share of lime in a
spell. His father seemed to be waiting for some fanfare to issue
from the trumpet-like flowers to get Lassie's going-away
party up and on.
"The Indians used to chew the seeds or make it into a tea to
bring on dreams and visions."
"Did you ever try it?"
His father's shoulders stiffened. "No, Jesus, no. I don't need
locoweed to help me have dreams and visions. I got me a whole
sideshow – right in here." He tilted back his Panama and
tapped his head. Then he turned to the boy. "And don't you have a
mind to either. You take too much of that weed and you'll be
taking a trip to the Cackle Factory or Marble
City. Go right off the deep end. And you, kid, well, I don't
know how to put it polite-like, but you already got one foot in
As the boy stroked the dog's lower side, he felt a swelling
quicken under his grasp. He grimaced. Inside he imagined a bus
station, not a Greyhound bus station, but one with
Labradors painted on the side of the buses, and in it a tiny Lab
was playing around the door and looking down the road for a bus
that was about to change routes. Ralph Cramden was on a
bender and was going to take a little detour. Pow and straight to
the moon, straight to the moon, Alice. Do not pass
Go. Do not collect two-hundred dollars. His chest felt as
though some one were tightening barrel staves around it, and his
small hand felt like a predator's claw. But when he spoke to his
father, he steeled himself as though he were addressing a fellow-hitman, "Uh oh, we got us a witness, a gapper."
His father's eyes narrowed as though someone had stuck a shiv in
his kidneys, but then he just said, "Luck of the Irish, Bright
Boy. Two for the price of one." Then he flicked his cigarette
onto the road, ground it out with the heel of his black wing-tip,
and lit another, fumbling slightly. "Junior's probably dead
already, but if you want to take a run-out powder, I ain't gonna
squawk. Your call. This is going to be one hell of a cold-meat
party, and when you've finished here, Lassie ain't gonna
look like any mutt you'd want to enter in a dog show."
"Not unless you had a hankering for last prize," the boy cracked.
"Jeez, kid, you're a panic," his old man said.
"Yeah, Dad, I'm a real hoot, a triple scream and yell."
He and his father could milk any situation for a yuk, and if the
boy's foot was in the water off the deep end of the pier, maybe,
just maybe, there was another foot in there too, size twelve, in
a black wing-tip. A week ago, down at the police station, Dave
had been sitting at the old man's desk with his feet up, smoking
a candy fag and reading a Crimebusters comic. In
the corner, by the door, metal keys tapped against a platen as
his father typed a domestic violence report – a Lizzie
Borden job his father called it, whatever that meant.
Through the door's open transom, they heard furniture crashing
and a guy jabbering away in a funny accent.
When Mike's partner, Mac, stuck his head in the door, Mike spun
round in his chair. "What kind of burlesque act you got out
Mac glanced at Dave and ran his left index finger horizontally
under his nose. Dave looked over his comic. "Got you a snowbird,
eh Mac?" Dave said.
Mac's jaw dropped. "Jeez, Mike, that kid of yours is going to be
drawing his pension when he's fifteen."
"If he lives that long, Mac," Mike said.
Mac turned to Dave. "That's right, kid. Got us a guy who took a
ski trip, got hisself caught in a snowstorm – the white
powder, coke, up the nose. Makes 'em want to fight. This yegg's
wound up like an eight-day clock."
When Mike got up for a look-see, Mister Accent broke away from
the cop who had him in a chokehold and headed straight for Mike's
office door. Mike floored him with a right hook and shoved his
.38 down his throat. "Hey Palooka, you got a cavity down
there. Want me to fill it? We use lead around here. None of that
mercury crap." The guy's eyes were bulging like Mister Potato
Head's. The way he was wagging his head, dental work was not
high up there on Mister Accent's wish list.
Mike's offer brought the house down. Dave doubled up and nearly
choked on his candy cigarette. Sure Mike had an edge to him, but
he still was top drawer, and Dave wanted to be just like him. He
could make everybody feel good in a tense situation. When Dave
left the office later that afternoon, even Mister Accent was
still laughing to himself, and he'd been sitting in the holding
drum for over an hour – a strange sort of laugh, hyena-like, but maybe if a guy talked with an accent, he laughed funny
His mother had other ideas. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you two are
sick bastards together," he had heard her say once to Mike. "That
kid is going to be screwed up when he grows up."
She'd never understand. Maybe the way they were was a little
screwy, but it all had something to do with the War. All the vets
in the neighborhood were like that. Danny O'Shea, who lost both
legs in the Jap turkey-shoot at Pearl, was funny that
way. He was over playing Canasta one night and told a
story so hilarious the boy choked and blew his coke out his nose.
"So I goes into the shoe store, and I says to the clerk, 'I need
some loafers, size ten.' And he gives me one duzey of a look and
goes in the back. Out he comes all shaky-wakey – worst case
of the heebie-jeebies you ever seen – with a size twelve
and hands them to me. And I stare at them and say, 'Jesus, buddy,
I said a size ten. I got me kind of a narrow foot, and these are
gonna slip right off.'"
Mike had told him a story about something that had happened to
him on Guadalcanal. Mike and his best friend Joe Flynn had come
under bombardment by Jap artillery. Joe was a great guy, always
cutting up. His only fault was he always bummed cigarettes off
A shell hit a coconut tree, and it flew up like a rocket and
impaled Joe right through the midsection. Joe cashed in his chips
instantly, and when the tree plowed into the ground he was left
sprawled out like a human starfish. His legs jerked for a while
as though he were Fred Astaire waiting for Ginger Rogers to show
Mike and his two buddies in nearby slit trenches just stared at
the floor show for a while. When the spasms stopped, Mike crawled
out and put a half-smoked Camel between Joe's fingers. "Make it
last, buster. That's the last cigarette you're bumming off me."
Then the three of them started to laugh, long and hard.
Christ, what else could they do Mike had said.
Crawl in their holes, put their hands over their heads and start
bawling until some Code of Bushido guy came by and took them off
the payroll by kindly planting a knife in their backs.
But his great-grandmother, the most educated of the entire
family, had once said something that stuck in his mind, though he
did not entirely understand her words. "Give the boy more time,
Mike. This isn't ancient Greece. You act as though you were Homer
chanting war poetry to this child. What you saw wasn't poetry,
and it's crowding out other decent thoughts."
His father had held her paralyzed hand and smiled, but replied
grimly, "There never will be enough time, not the way things are
nowadays in this cockamamie world. It'll be easier for him when
it's his time. I don't want him learning the way I did."
"Your ghosts will become his ghosts. And, in Homer, to make the
ghosts speak requires blood," she said.
"Whatever it takes, Grandmother," Mike had answered, looking
directly into her eyes. Perhaps it was just a gleam from her
ornate brass bed, but the boy thought he had seen water bead in
their eyes. But since his father never cried, at least for him it
must have been the play of late afternoon light. Great-grandmother died two days afterwards in that bedroom while the
boy was holding her already motionless hand. She'd choked at the
end, her eyes stayed open despite Mike's efforts to close them,
and, though all the years he knew her to have been a dignified
personage, she'd pissed herself. The boy leapt away from the bed
with his trousers dampened. Mike just said, "That happens, kid. I
seen worse, plenty worse, and maybe you will too some day."
Yeah, maybe he would. His mother and his brother Pete had already
forced him to realize he'd been dealt a bum hand in one mean low-down floating card game. He knew too that his father, Danny, and
the other vets in that run-down river neighborhood had suffered
something terrible in the War. And yet they were survivors.
They'd returned home with some secret knowledge of getting on in
life, even those who'd been half blown away – knowledge so
precious that it could get you through anything, no matter what
kind of shit-ass hand you were holding. And he wanted to learn
that secret to survive and get on in his own world. Feather
merchants like Joe Anderson's dad, who lived over on Mansion
Avenue, what could they tell him to stop the pain that gnawed his
insides like a rabid coon?
Another night Danny had called, and his father grasped the
ameche like it was a walkie-talkie. All Mike said was
"On my way." And when the boy asked his father what was up, he
replied, "Danny's in trouble." He asked to go, and his father
stared at him for a while as if sizing him up for a heist-job,
then just said, "Okay, but it ain't gonna be any picnic. Get that
bottle of Jack Daniels from under the sink."
They came up the single crazed-concrete step onto a tottering
porch jaundiced by a solitary bulb encircled by shadflies up from
the river. Mike shouldered open the stuck door. The boy half
expected him to flash his buzzer and yell, "Police. Open her up."
The door, with its alligatored black paint, groaned open on
hinges loose in a frame spreading along a grain. For a moment,
the boy studied the doorjamb. It was so eroded it looked like a
picture of a dustbowl farm he'd seen in an old
A familiar smell invaded his nostrils – carbolic acid, He
had smelled the disinfectant before in his great-grandmother's
room and in the hospital where Pete was – down at the
station, too, on some bindlestiffs the cops had pinched on Water
Street on a vag charge. "Should have got a whiff of them rosebuds
when they was registering for a night at the inn. Had to give 'em
the Carbolic Dip," the booking sergeant had told him. And then
there was that other smell – piss, shit, sweat – what
people called old people's smell. Only Danny wasn't old, just
thirty-one – thirty-one going on eighty.
What appeared to be a sack of ashes was propped up in a tattered
parrot-green Art Deco lounger with tufted, flamboyant rolled
arms. Curtains decked out with mutant yellow and blue tropical
flowers were drawn shut as if the occupants were expecting Jap
zeroes to pay a call. In the blacked-out room, a
solitary cracked plaster lamp cast a cone of light near the
chair. Its base was a Nubian jitterbug musician with cherry lips
and a squeeze-box. One of those new-fangled aluminum TV
dinners, half consumed, graced a rusty metal side table.
Dust motes, like the porch shadflies, speckled the cone. On a
shelf on the north wall, an old cathedral-style superheterodyne,
with a bad capacitor, hummed out Glenn Miller's Over the
Then the sack stirred, and he realized it was Danny. His color
actually was like ashes, like the ashes Dave shoveled out of the
coal furnace on cold December mornings – all grayish-yellow
with white streaks. Sweat pebbled his forehead, and his thick
black hair hung limply over one eye. One of his stumps projected
from a ratty maroon bathrobe with white braided trim – red
and channeled deep black like a picture of the angry planet Mars
he'd seen in a science book. It stuck out like a middle finger,
as if it were signaling, "See this? Don't like it? Well you know
what you can do, buddy."
His father turned Good Humor man and began to sling the lingo,
speak like the characters in the kid's radio plays and pulp
magazines. By tin-earing, the boy had trained himself in the
dialect for a while now, but could still only completely decipher
sixty per cent of most conversations. If the topic was mayhem
– gangland killings and such, ok, but if it was women, his
comprehension dropped to fifteen per cent.
"Hey Fred Astaire, ready to put on the ritz and take a
trip over the rainbow?"
"Aw, Jesus, you ain't kidding, guy. They're burning like hellfire
tonight. You ain't got a bindle of C on ya, Mike, have ya, cuz
I'm telling ya this is one hophead who's looking to have his
ticket punched on the Rainbow Express – an all nighter.
"Sorry, kid, fresh out. They nearly pinched Flaherty on that last
score. Wanted to put him under the light, but I ixnayed that.
Told them they could pin my buzzer you know where if they played
that game. Evidence room is buttoned down tight. All the guys
down at the station are on the prowl, looking to find you some
free Sweet Dreams, but the heat's on right now."
"They don't give me enough of the M. Fraid I'll pull the Dutch
Act, take a backgate commute out of this drum." He lifted himself
with his arms, and his whole torso twisted. His mouth squared
with the pain.
"Hey Fred, where Ginger Rogers this fine evening?"
"Tripping the light fantastic at Nick's. What you expect
with a frill like that? I ain't exactly been pushing smoke out
her chimney lately."
Mike drew out a pack of Luckys, buddied one up for
Danny, then served himself. After a long drag he remarked, "Geez,
Mister Giggles, I always thought half a loaf was better than
Danny's jaw dropped, then the sack and Mike exploded into
laughter. "Oh Jesus, Mike, you are one flask of healing balm. You
bring me more comfort than some Holy Joe sprinkling my stumps
with the sacred water. You can play the abbey any day over here,
Mike." The kid didn't get what they were laughing at, but,
unwilling to be left behind, Giggles Junior joined in the yuks.
"Tell you, Danny, she hangs around that nautch joint too long,
she'll end up with a full house. More than smoke'll be coming out
her chimney. We had two calls up there this week on a skin-heist
beef. Real bad crop of gash-hounds creeping around there."
"You ain't whistling Dixie, pal. Serve her right. And when she
starts burning and itching and hopping around, dancing the
fandango, I'll invite you over for the floorshow."
"Wouldn't miss it. That gig'll make the Rockettes look like ten-cents-a-dance floosies. She'll be ready to join a nunnery."
"Yeah, but it'll have to be one of those border jobs." As if on
cue, the radio belted out Crosby crooning South of the
They laughed again. Then his father turned to the boy. "Hey
Mortimer, quit gawking around. Make yourself useful. Go
draw Monsieur Stubbs' bath.
"Not too cold, not too hot, kid. I mean it, or the only tip
you'll get will be a box on the ears."
The boy had caught the rhythm. "Okay, Monsieur Stubbs, okay. At
least I ain't gotta worry about getting a boot in the tail."
The two of them howled appreciatively. Danny added, "Oh, Jesus,
Mike, that's one kid on this block that ain't the milkman's son."
The old-fashioned cast-iron tub rose up on four claw feet off
fissured turquoise linoleum, the fifty-cents-a-yard special down
at Woolworth's. To flush the toilet, you had to pull a
chain that hung down from an overhead tank. A single sixty-watt
exposed bulb dangled on a frayed cord from a plaster ceiling
spider-webbed with cracks. Dave's bathroom looked much the same.
His mother used to joke House Beautiful had
called. Wanted to use their bathroom for a before shot in an
article titled Still Living in the Dark Ages? The boy
twisted the yellowed porcelain faucets, and water dribbled from a
corroded spigot. Joe Anderson's tub over on Mansion Avenue had
one of those new huge square faucets that shot the water out
quicksville. He swore and slammed his hand against the spigot.
His peedie could fill the tub faster than this job.
Ten minutes later, he came back up the hall. Mike had removed
Danny's robe and undershirt, but, thankfully, had draped the
shirt over his mid-section. Or did you still call that part of
him his mid-section now that ... Christ, thinking like that,
always analyzing, maybe he was addled.
Mike reached down and cradled Danny against his chest as if he
were an infant. The boy blushed – his old man, the jungle
scout, the killer, Duke Mantee straight out of the
Petrified Forest, holding another guy like he was a
baby. "Bring old Jack along, kid." The officiants, each
with his ritual bundle, processed down the darkened hallway. As
he listened to Danny talk, he came to understand that the pain he
was beefing about was searing up from his feet. But Danny had no
feet. The boy couldn't figure. Maybe Danny was going off his nut
from the pain.
His father lowered Danny real gentle-like into the tub, the way a
priest lowers a baby into the baptismal fount. Danny sighed and
muttered, "Bless ya, Mikey, bless ya."
"Give him a nip,' father ordered son, and Dave unscrewed the cap
and handed the bottle to Danny who thanked him and took a long
swig. Then Danny squirmed as if someone had shot a jolt of
electricity up his ass.
Dave stood near Danny's shoulder and gripped the tub's rolled
edge. "I sure feel low seeing you this way Danny, all hurting and
"Don't you go fretting none, boy. The way I got it figured, I'm
the luckiest guy in the world. I got no feet."
"Why, what you mean, Danny?"
"Well if my feet hurt this much – and I ain't got no feet
– just imagine how much they'd hurt if I still had
them."They all burst into laughter. Danny took another long swig,
and passed the open bottle, neck up to the boy. The boy looked up
"Go ahead. I reckon you earned it. But make it a short one. I
ain't running after you if you nose-dive out the window."
The booze felt like Sherman was leading a path of destruction
down his throat, like the cough medicines of all cough medicines.
He passed it to his father who took his turn and then passed it
again to Danny. After a few revolutions, one of them, probably
the kid, began to sing and they all joined in – old war
songs from the forties – some still popular and others long
forgotten – Remember Pearl Harbor, Something to
Remember You By, Sweet Leilani, I Came Here to
Speak for Joe, and finally, they all were crooning Crosby-like versions of White Christmas, and there it was, one
fine July evening in the middle of a hot spell.
They had cut the kid off after three rounds. He had held out his
hand and said, "Givesky," and Mike had replied, "Nuffsky." But
three rounds were all Jack needed to work his magic on
the boy's small frame. At some point, the turquoise linoleum got
a mind of its own, rose up, and slammed him in the puss . He
crawled to the toilet wall that sported a mouse-hole and slumped
against it. His arms flailed and with both hands he yanked the
toilet chain for support. The toilet flushed. As he hung there
from the chain, Danny looked over the tub. "Well if this ain't a
treat. Howdy Doody's done shown up for my little hoe-down."
Howdy felt like one of those private dicks in a crime
movie who's been slipped a Micky Finn or a double dose of mooch
and ankles over to Gonesville where they're projecting a triple-feature. The room shifted like a Tilt-a-whirl, and suddenly
turned Grand Central station. His old lady jumped up from behind
the tub. "You just wait till you get home, you stinking little
lush-hound. I got something real special planned for you." Then
his great-grandmother was perched on the edge of the tub, only
she was smoking a big fat stogie like tough old Jim Michaels down
at the dock always had sticking out of his kisser, and she kept
saying, "His ghosts will become your ghosts." And to the right a
hopped-up Sister Marie was playing Midnight Boogie-woogie on the drums in a crazed Gene-Krupa-style with her
black veil swaying like a smoke plume. Only instead of
drumsticks, she was using wooden rulers like the ones she worked
him over with. Then in the corner, he saw his brother Pete, with
his head sticking out of the iron lung, and he was singing in a
low, melancholy voice, "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my
Next stop, The Funny Factory. All out. Then the figures
melted away, and, as if through a fog, he saw his old man
shooting Danny up with a needle and muttering, "Sweet dreams,
buddy, sweet dreams and plenty of them."
Small hand grenades, strategically positioned, were going off in
his head. His stomach was burning like the forest fire that
snuffed Bambi's mother. The walls were all crazy-angled.
He leaned left and made a votive offering at the porcelain altar.
He groped again for the chain which a chortling Mickey
Mouse seemed to have hauled up into the ceiling. He could
smell shit, piss, and other attendant odors. The mildew under the
cracked linoleum seemed to have worked its way into his mouth.
He had never felt so sick in his life. And yet, he was so happy
he didn't know whether to shit or go blind. It made no sense how
something could be good and bad at the same time. All he could
think of was the opening of a Classics
Illustrated comic he'd read by Dickens about guys
getting their noggins chopped off in France way back when. How
did it go? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ... it
was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness ... the
spring of hope ... the winter of despair."
He had seen something very special this night. It was as if he'd
been wandering all his life through a tractless jungle in search
of something, then suddenly stumbled into a small clearing and
witnessed a secret rite passed down out of a long dead time
– a time when men wearing skins fought with stones tied to
sticks. He had caught a glimpse into the world of these vets
– glimpsed a scene played out again and again on
Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Mindanao, and Iwo Jima. – these
vets who had given everything, seen everything, had their guts
torn out, hard men who had shot, strangled, knifed, burned other
men alive. In the measure of care he'd seen between legless Danny
and his killer father who had been touched by the War, he had
felt a sense of hope that shaded into trust.
When the pain came, you could be hard and still not be alone
– drained the way he felt when one rainy night a damp
darkness came up from the river and he awoke cold and by himself
in the huge double-bed where he and his brother had always slept.
There was his brother Pete standing by the window looking out.
"Petey, where'd you come from?" His brother replied, "Up from the
river." Pete turned round. "It's your brother Pete up from the
river, Dave, come to see you."
It sure looked like his brother, but he was dripping water
everywhere. A full moon played upon his features. His thick
blonde hair hung in ringlets over an ivory forehead, the way it
did when he was playing ball. But when Dave looked into his eyes,
his pupils were all dilated and black. He had seen eyes like that
before, in the swollen dead bass that littered the river's banks
and that time with his great-grandmother.
"You son of a bitch. You ain't Pete!" the boy yelled. He gasped
and groped in the darkness for a squeeze bottle of holy water
– straight from Lourdes – a bottle he kept near his
bed in case the devil showed up one night to fetch him off to
Hell. When he sprinkled it, the figure melted away like the witch
in The Wizard of Oz. Drenched in sweat, he lay awake and
alone for hours, shaking and clutching the water.
But that night and the night at Danny's now drifted out of his
mind. Here he was again in the road with this dog. It wasn't
Old Yeller or Flag the yearling down there.
Just some mutt who couldn't stay out of the way.
The Labrador's jaws were grasping at the air. Dave wanted to be
hard like Mike, but the mutt was getting to him. When his great-grandmother died, her soft, girl-like voice right at the end had
turned into a choked rattle. He wanted it over, fast and smooth,
easy on the sound effects and water works.
The dog gaped, and he slipped the gun in as though it were an L-shaped dog biscuit . It glided backwards as Doctor
Kildare probed for the soft spot. What was that line in
The Maltese Falcon Bogart came out with just before he
turned his girlfriend over to the cops to be hanged? Oh yeah.
I'll have some rotten nights after sending you over, but
that'll pass. At the last second, he leaned in close and
He heard his father call out, "Wait, Dave, don't ...." Then the
gun fired, and the boy felt as though a stick of dynamite had
exploded inside his skull.
A stream trickled by the side of the road. In spots it murmured
over a mosaic of variegated stones and bonelike pebbles worn
smooth by countless experience. His father knelt beside him and
with a moistened handkerchief from his breast pocket wiped away
the pieces of Labrador brain and bone that covered his son's
face. His huge square hands were warm and gentle on the boy's
face and around his shoulders as Dave had rarely felt them
before. Usually his father playfully slapped him around or
slugged him in the stomach when they were near one another. Or
else he was working him over with his belt when he screwed up.
And lately, since his older brother Pete had gotten the polio and
ended up in an iron lung, Dave had been screwing up plenty.
Otherwise, why would his father be working him over all the time?
Dave had removed his suit jacket and folded it on a flat granite
rock whose crystalline surface danced with light. His white shirt
was sticking to his back, and he had loosened his frayed blue
tie. He still held the revolver. When his father had reached for
it, he had glared at him and clung to it. And his father had said
in a quiet soothing tone, "That's ok boy. That's just fine. You
hang right on to that rod. Sometimes when you kill something, it
feels like the weapon is part of you. You can't rightly tell
where your hand ends and the heater begins. It'll pass. When
you're ready, you just give old Dad his piece back."
Then his father knelt before him and held his shoulders. "Don't
ever get close to something you have to put down, son. It can get
messy, real messy," his father said. "You won't forget that, will
you, son ?"
"No, Dad, I'll never forget. Never." Not until they put me to bed
with a shovel, Dad. And maybe, just maybe, Dad, when the dirt
hits my face down there, I'll still be remembering.
The boy stared straight ahead past his father, his eyes
unfocused. "I saw something, Pa, something in there where the
shell went. Just for a second when everything exploded, I thought
I saw a star like the star on a Christmas manger that marks the
coming of –"
"Death, kid, the Reaper. Got nothing to do with the Christ child.
When you shoot something ... or someone ... up close, so close
the muzzle is touching tissue and bone, the gases from the
gunpowder tear the skin or tissue into a star pattern. Seen that
plenty in the War in the jungle. The Japs and us, we were always
stumbling over one another in the high grass. Barely had time to
shoot. And then we'd shove our guns right up next to one
another's skulls. And we made stars, oh Jesus yes, we were all
star makers out there, just like little tin gods. Shaped us whole
new sets of galaxies."
The boy's face was close to his father's, and, for a moment, he
could see in his dark eyes, a night sky glittering with stars,
the stars of all the men who had died by his hands, in the War
and after. Shot, strangled, knifed, they were all in there, each
now a mere point of light in an endless darkness. If he could
look into his own eyes, would he see just one star or two, close
Against the yellow afternoon light, his father's slouch-brimmed
Panama cast a dark violet shadow across both their faces as Mike
leaned in. The violet that tinged the Jimson weeds' flowers, the
violet that lurked in the swamp on the shadowed side of the
spruce and tamarack, shaded the ground under the Ford,
that tinted even the distant mountains, seemed to be the color of
death itself. He had seen that violet before, in his brother's
legs, in his great-grandmother's feet. And when he asked his
father why they were that way, his father had just said, "It's a
sign, boy, a sign of things to come."
His father was still speaking to him, but when Dave looked into
his eyes now, he no longer saw stars, but a glazed look he knew
well. His father's eyes were focused faraway, because he was
thinking of another time and place. It was the Islands' look he
had come to know so well. Mike was back in the War again, his War
from which only part of him had returned – his War which he
had recounted to Dave as soon as the boy could understand words,
the way other fathers recited The Night Before Christmas.
The boy never could figure it. Either his father went away to a
place deep in himself or part of him left his body, traveled
west, back to the Pacific. He was like one of those prophet guys
he had seen in a Biblical movie yammering on and on, but really
it was as if someone else were speaking through him, as if the
prophet himself weren't there.
"There was a guy in the War I was close to. We trained together,
fought at Guadalcanal. I was as close to him as I was to my kid
brother Frankie, who got it in the belly taking that air field at
Munda. He wanted to go out scouting once with me. Talked Sergeant
into it. The short of it was he got hit by a stray artillery
shell in the legs. He was dying, and he knew it, he damn well
knew it. He begged me to kill him. It wasn't like he was hurting
that much. Wound like that puts you into shock quicksville.
Nerves go dead pronto." He snapped his fingers. "If a guy's
yelling his lungs out, you figure, ain't you the lucky shit,
buddy, you still got a chance. But when they turn quiet and still
.... He was scared some Jap'd come along before he cashed his
chips in and find him, then start hacking out his liver while he
was still alive. Some of those Nips were worse than headhunters
when their stomachs started growling."
"Couldn't you save him? We learned in Scouts how to
treat leg wounds – using a tourniquet and elevating the
legs and stuff."
His father, apparently momentarily distracted by the question,
came out of his trance and laughed. He drew a chromed flask from
his left breast-pocket and took a short swig. "Geez, you're a
bright kid, really on-the-beam. Problem was his legs were already
elevated – about twenty feet away, up in a tree."
The boy's jaw dropped.
"Sometimes we carried morphine for just such occasions, but I
didn't have enough to kill him. Needed to use a knife, but
neither one of us wanted to go that way. One shot in the mouth
from his rifle was what we decided. It was a dumb choice because
the shot could give our position away, but, like I said, that's
what we decided. He held my hand, and we pulled together, gentle-like. I leaned in to say, "Sorry, pal." He was up against a rock,
and the backfire blew him all over me, decorating me up to beat
the band, just the way Lassie decked you out in style.
"Yeah, right up against a rock." He stood up and fixed his eyes
on the granite rock on which the boy had laid his jacket. "You
see that rock over there? I hunted these woods when I was a boy.
Used to sprawl out and have my lunch right on that rock. Ma'd
slather butter on two slices of bread and dump sugar on it to
make a sandwich. Thought a lot about that rock in the War." His
eyes glazed. He was traveling again, but back and forth, one
minute here, another, there.
"One afternoon, all the while we were coming in in the LCVPs, we
kept wondering if somewhere in the shallows the Japs had planted
mines. A Model 96 contained forty-six pounds of explosive, enough
to destroy a whole vehicle. The older guys were more scared than
the younger, and some were watering their ponies and spitting
beef. Us seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds – we were so
jazzed up we were just wondering what it would feel like to be
blown to pieces. More curious than scared. Thought we'd live
forever. Damn fools. Did lose a boat to our right, but from Jap
artillery fire from a high ridge on the island.
"When we hit the beach, cordite singed our nostrils. Sand cut
into our eyes. You couldn't hear anything, your ears were ringing
so hard. There was a haze of small-arm fire and a 20mm gun
emplacement was raking the whole MLR. We were like dogs trying to
dig a hole for our bones, scrappling the sand with our hand and
knees and chins. I uncovered a saucer-shaped mine, a twelve pound
Model 93. Didn't go off. Could have been a dud, but there was a
pressure device you could set to different degrees of sensitivity
from 7 to 250 pounds. Maybe I didn't hit it hard enough, but I
didn't stick around to make tests.
"Farther up, I twisted my head sideways and a giant spigot mortar
shell burst just down the beach, and two guys I knew turned into
nothing but a smoldering pile of uniforms and rags. It was like
the beach was alive. Every square inch was dancing upward under
the shelling and arms. I stared at a small piece of volcanic rock
that hadn't been hit yet. Then shrapnel pulverized it and a piece
cut over my eye." His hand brushed a small scar over his left
"Nothing stayed still. That's when a picture of that granite rock
over there came into my mind. I started thinking how it'd been
there long before I was born – maybe thousands of years.
And how long after I hit the long road, it'd still be
there. So I lay flat on my stomach under all that raking fire and
imagined I was a boy again, all sprawled out on that rock and
enjoying my sugar sandwich. For a while in that hell-hole,
everything stood still – time too – and I found me a
measure of peace. Then before I knew it, we had to move out. And
that's just exactly what I did.
"Me – and a lot of other vets too – we need sometimes
to get up in the mountains, deep in the wilderness. We drift in
time for a spell out here, and it's like there ain't no past,
present or future locking us in. A man can be in control, breathe
without everything changing around him. There's a sense of rest
here. When you stand on that rock, you're standing in the long
ago when you didn't exist and in the not so long ago when you
were a boy. And in the present, and, in some crazy way, in a
future too, a future you'll never know, because that rock will be
there long after you and I are dust. Probably doesn't make much
sense to you now, but maybe someday, when you need to, you'll
drift back the way I did to this very spot. Funny, when your life
is going to pieces, when you're losing control, it's the small
things you anchor back to, the things that don't seem to mean
much at the time."
How the past, present and future could meld, made no sense to the
boy. There were times when he was in the woods and heard twigs
cracking, he'd felt the Mohawk and Algonquin braves still moving
through in a hunting party. They were there, but not there, as if
the past and present could somehow converge. But the future
– how could you stand in the future? His father was drawing
on his secret knowledge, passing it on to him, but it wasn't like
learning to read or tell time. It would come into him only
gradually, over time.
For a few moments, as his father gently wiped his forehead, the
Catholic boy recalled the opening of Mark's gospel, the story of
Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. And how
the Holy Ghost had descended like a white dove upon Christ.
He had been baptized here in a sense. But when he looked
heavenwards, his mood broke. There was no white dove. Only a
black crow looking for what was left of Lassie and son.
He flew in from the left, his two wings alternating up and down
machine-like. When he'd had his fill, he'd probably be back to
leave a tip for Dave by shitting on his head. If the buzzard
pulled that stunt, the Lassies would be his Last Supper.
The boy tightened his hold on the gun, for the moment pointed
downwards. His shoulders tautened against his father's grip. As
if in understanding, Mike said, "No, son. He just takes what God
doesn't want. That's what God made him for."
His father's response evoked in the boy's mind a question from
the first page of his Catechism – Why did God
make us? He turned to his father and said, "And us, Dad
– why did God make us?"
His father chuckled. "A nun beat that answer into me a long time
ago, boy. To know, love and serve him on this earth and in the
next world. Only she left part out – to feed his crows.
That's my job, a soldier's job, and maybe yours someday too, in
"In that next world, will we still be feeding the crows?"
His father stared toward the patch of locoweed. "Jesus, if I
The afternoon's work was finished. He could be hard like his old
man and Danny and the other vets he respected. He could do what
he had to do when it had to be done. Church Baptism removed
Original Sin from your soul. This baptism had put a mark on it.
But that was just fine. The mark probably covered some soft spot
in him – covered, but not buried. His act had nothing to do
with salvation, but it had to be done. It was right and fitting
in some dark way that he did not yet fully comprehend.
Otherwise, his father would never have asked him to do it. Roger.
Will co, Dad. The warmth in his father's hands came from blood.
His experience with the fragments of Lassie had taught him that.
And his father's blood flowed through him. And yet in some sense
he knew he had played with Death, the way Mike had played with
Joe on the 'Canal, and no matter how much his father cleansed his
face, something would remain on him from here on in. He had
passed through some dark doorway. A store of knowledge lay behind
it, and that was his treasure, but it came at a price. There was
no turning back.
But that was ok, because he wanted, needed, the hardness that his
father and guys like Danny O'Shea had. His brother was never
going to stroll out of that iron tube, and his Ma was just going
to keep on hitting the bottle and him. And his father – he
was a good and decent man, a vet who had done his duty, and he
could learn things from him and depend on him – sometimes.
Sometimes, because the War had touched Mike, and now he was a
traveling man, to parts unknown. So he had to look inside himself
for some of that knowledge, buried deep within – knowledge
he knew intuitively existed but for which at this point he had no
words nor way of uncovering.
For a moment, the road, the Jimson weed, the spruce and tamaracks
dissolved, and he had a vision. He and his father were in a boat
in an endless gray sea where the water and sky on the horizon
were seamlessly welded together. And a great wave came on, and he
fell out of the boat and cried out to his father. His father
rushed to the stern and stretched forth his hand, and the boy
took it. But just as his father was drawing him in, his father's
eyes changed to what seemed like hard flawed onyx. He let the
boy's hand slip away as he stood up in the boat and intoned,
"There was no moon that night, and when the Japs attacked, all
along the MLR, we ...." The boy felt the water encircling him,
pulling him down, and cried out again, but his father didn't hear
him because he was no longer there. And then the darkness came on
– the Big Sleep.
His father was not Christ, only a man, a good and decent man, a
vet who had done his duty and took on his share in life. To a
certain extent, he'd have to learn on his own how to still the
wind and raging of water in his life. And if some fine day he got
himself half-blown apart like Danny, well, he'd work out a
routine he could take on the road. He'd have them laughing so
hard they'd be rolling in the aisles and throwing babies out of
That night at Cub Scouts, each boy was asked what good
deed he had done that week. Tommy Doyle told how he had helped
Mrs. McCarthy, whose hands were all crippled up and twisted from
the rheumatism, carry her groceries home from Boyer's. Jimmie Fox
told how he had earned a quarter hauling ashes all day for Mister
Flynn and then gone and bought twenty twizzlers for
little Sean Kelly who had gotten bitten by a river rat one
morning while bringing in the milk from the porch. Now Sean had
to go for the twenty-in-the-belly cure, and he was scared stiff,
but he brightened up when Jimmie told him he could take one
twizzler every time he had to go for a shot.
And when they came to Dave, there was an excited murmur among the
boys, and they nudged one another with their elbows. Dave could
really spin a good tale with all kinds of funny words nobody had
ever heard before. But that night, the kid just stood up in his
newly spotted gray double-breasted suit, with his cap in his
hand, and said in a matter-of-fact way, "I blew a yap's brains
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