|Hercules and the Nemean lion, Peter Paul Rubens
Uploaded by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons
His world was tough and he the toughest in it, exploiting smarts and size. As he matured, he learned intimidation on an intellectual level so he seldom had to resort to the earlier violence. They called him The Beast of One-Hundred-Twenty-Fifth Street—soon friends and enemies alike called him simply B. Absolutely nobody but his mother was allowed to call him Alfred.
At the local bar, Sinatra alone lights the jukebox. Frank croons endlessly, When I was seventeen. B takes the far end seat, backs up to face the room, zeroes in on the door, becomes a massive hulking shadow in the corner. A Pabst sign winks red and blue. It contours his face, a sheen of sweat intensifies the neon. Today is far from warm. His uniform fits like a tailor’s dream—sergeant’s stripes adorn the sleeve, fruit-salad ribbons protect the heart. Within reach a green beret lies neatly folded on the mahogany bar; between his legs leans a formal black umbrella. It isn’t raining.
A scar keloided, a fresh-healed rope that reaches from his eye to his chin, highlighted red from the bar-light—in another century, a dueling badge of honor. This scar pulses in time to its own aggression. In a war without rules, bayonets slash while the jungle laughs.
I blink in the bar’s low light, then I spy him. “Hey, B! Long time, no see.”
He rises from the bar stool. A huge arm hoists me. We spin, a few turns to the music. He dips me and chuckles. With his right arm only. His left hand clenches the umbrella.
“What’s with the brolly, B? You turn English?” I roll my eyes and tighten my upper lip in mimicry. I forgot how huge he is. Wonder why he never played ball? Coulda been a contenda, for sure.
The chuckle fades, the dance ends, the corner is reoccupied. “This’s my piece now, Li’l Sis. Never without it. NEVER. Even sleep with it. Tellin’ you true.”
I’m not really cold, but I have a sudden need to pull my sweater a bit closer around my shoulders. “Don’t understand what you mean, B.” But I do, I think I do.Oh, my buddy, don’t venture into that dark place. Not you, the tough guy at my side, my hovering angel, my Bthe invincible giant, my dancing partner.
He shifts slightly on the barstool, lowers his head close to my level. Stares. Hard. At me. A piss-your-pants look, but I will not flinch. I stare back. This is still B. Home on leave. His mother just died. Sure he’s gonna be a little nuts.
The muscles in his forehead relax. The corners of his mouth work the ghost of a grin.
“Sorry to hear about your mother, B. She was one terrific lady. Sure proud of your scholarship.”
(Let’s take promising young men from the streets, said the college. Let’s have them return home to Harlem to teach after graduation.) Uncle Sam and the draft gobbled them up, those young men whose grade-point averages and circles of influence didn’t measure up to their suburban brothers. Sooner than you can whistle ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ they traded books for guns. Damn poor trade.
“She went quick. No pain. Heart gave out in her sleep and she never woke up. My, that woman did like to eat! Her arteries were probably just clogged with fried chicken and lard biscuits. Good woman. Kinda glad she didn’t live to see me like this.”
“Don’t say that, B. She loved you. She was so proud of you. We’d gab on the phone and she’d say how she’d be dancing at your graduation. And you better believe her spirit’ll still be there when you do.”
“HA. You really think that’s still going to happen? Don’t kid yourself, Li’l Sis. I’ll never be back here again. This is who I am now. Once I leave this time, I’m gone for good. Signed on for another turn.”
“But you don’t believe in the war! You were always against it. You were drafted! Why the hell would you sign on again?” I shiver and I hope to God it doesn’t show.
“I’m not fighting the Cong. Don’t give a shit about them. I’m not fighting for the flag or democracy or any of that high idealistic crap. I fight for my buddies, same rats caught in the same trap as me. That’s all any of us are good for now. Just fightin’. Tellin’ you true.”
He reaches over the bar, helps himself to another draft. He grins. “Good ol’ Angelo. He owes me from ‘way back. Who else’d sit in the dark and give us the courtesy of a private conversation?” He swivels around and raises his mug to a couple elderly Italian men sitting at a far table. One of them dips his head a fraction in response. “You need another?”
“I’m good.” Shit, I’m scared. No beer on the planet can help me out of this. I tap down a Pall Mall and my fingers quake.
That hard dark stare bores into me. Reads my fear. Smells my shiver-sweat.
“Hit you with a shitload, huh kiddo? Good. What I’m here to do. Promised myself I’d try to save your ass even if I can’t save my own. Tell you the truth ‘bout what it’s like over there. Nobody knows ‘less they’ve been there. And even then, some of ‘em try to lie to themselves ‘bout it, actin’ all noble to hide the truth. Li’l Sis, ain’t nothin’ noble ‘bout killing. What I did on the streets, what I grew up doin’ to get by? Shit, that was nothing. Women, children, babies—that’s something way different. Way different.
Things I did over there. Not like in the movies, all noble and heroic and all, but terrible things. Terrible things.
You always got questions when you’re over there. And even more once you come back. All the time you ask yourself all those questions ‘til you go nuts and can’t sleep and that makes you more nuts. Why did my buddy die and not me? Why did that little kid hide himself above us and rustle in the trees until we blew him to bits and he floated down like dead leaves?
In a second—boom! Things change. Guy next to you is dead or dyin’ and guy next to him is missin’ parts and bleedin’ all over. And it never stops.
It’s the smell of blood and death and it stays with you and every day is worse than you could ever dream. So much blood. And hate. And fear. And what you can’t learn in all the war movies—that smell and that taste of fear in your mouth all the time.”
B takes a hard swallow from his beer mug, takes a long drag from his Marlboro.
All with his right hand.
The left flexes on the handle of the umbrella.
“Don’t you ever, NEVER, go with any guy been over there. You hear what I’m tellin’ you? We’re all crazy after that. Not fit to be with regular people. Why I signed up again. Stuff we did makes us crazy, why I’m goin’ back. This ain’t me—
not any more. Terrible things we did . . . Terrible things. You hear me?”
The huge hand chokes the umbrella. The strap of the Timex glitters in the neon, the cords in the wrist flex and tense.
The bar darkens. B talks. I listen. Endless stories of horror and slaughter and friendly fire and atrocities until I’m a trembling wreck, and I swear, I repeat to his satisfaction, that never, no never, will I be with any combat veteran. He forbids me to go to his mother’s funeral. Never, no never, will he see me again. He grabs the umbrella.
He is gone.
Mara Buck has won awards or been short-listed by the Faulkner/Wisdom Society, Hackney Awards, Carpe Articulum, and others, with work in HuffPost, Crack the Spine, Blue Fifth, Pithead Chapel, Writing Raw, Whirlwind, Tishman Review, Maine Review, Apocrypha, Linnet’s Wings, Poets for Living Waters, Lake, and others, as well as in numerous print anthologies. A portfolio from her gallery-sized cancer installation was published in Drunken Boat. Her art, poetry, and video appear on the website of the World Trade Center Memorial.