Blood and Wisdom by Czar

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The mashed potatoes are a little clumpy. The skins are burnt and interfere with the garlic and rosemary. They could have used more butter; perhaps grandma ran out, perhaps she forgot to tell grandpa when he went out earlier.

The chops, however, are fantastic. Absolutely brilliant. I don’t know where grandma goes from here with these chops. She’s made them hundreds of times in my twenty-seven years. Hundreds. But these are absolutely perfect ─ the sort of meat that men on death row request before they’re strapped to a chair and zapped.

We’re just sharing looks, the three of us, as usual.  Grandpa always said, “If people are talking during their meal it’s because the food tastes like shit.” I’m not saying he’s right, but I can’t say he’s wrong. Certainly at this moment, he’s right.

Every few bites, one of us takes a soft slurp from something wet. Grandma and her wine, grandpa and myself: a bottle of beer. I’m not a drunk, none of us are, we just like a drink or two with supper.

The cutlery clinks and clanks atop the plates. Grandpa is always the first to finish, then myself and grandma last. Grandpa and I may finish first, but we never interrupt grandma’s meal with dialogue. When she finishes, we discuss the luxury we just consumed.

 “My love,” Grandpa says to grandma, his voice sounding as concrete feels, “dinner was exquisite.” He smiles, taking her small hand in his large mitt.

She smiles as he brings the top of her hand to his mouth, leaving a kiss upon it.

Grandma’s face may be withered, her hair white, but her green eyes are still filled with brilliant light as they connect with mine.

“Plans for the night, hun?” She asks, smiling her old white smile.

Studying is what I tell her. I’m not lying either, but she knows that. Gran and Gramps both love so much that I’ve found something to love: teaching. I want to be an English teacher at an elementary school. Open their minds when they’re young so they’ll be wise forever.

Over the next hour, Gran puts on a pot of coffee, the trio remaining at the table.  As per usual, the grandparents rekindle the passion between them by telling old stories that one or both of them have forgotten. It’s actually rare that I hear the same story more than once.

Their love is so infectious.

Gramps is seventy-five and Gran is seventy-two. They’ve been married for fifty years. Five-zero.

Honesty and integrity, faith and loyalty for every year of their five decades together. There have been bad times, bad years for sure. I’ve lived with them forever, but they’ve never given up on each other. 

“…And you’re grandpa’s best friend, Marty,” Gran says, laughing. “Sat outside that poor girl’s house for weeks on end!” Takes a breath.

And then what happened? I say, sipping a mug of java.

Grandma pats her mouth with a napkin. “Well, the two of them got married, stay married for nineteen years, until one day she shot him to death in his sleep.”

“I remember the funeral,” Grandpa speaks low, splashing a bit of whiskey into his coffee. “His parents sobbed for months, died of broken hearts.”

The traumatic silence of the memory dances between the three of us, allowing each warm cup to be drank until it’s dry. Silence. From the corner of my eye I spot grandma opening and closing her hand beneath grandpa’s. Must be sweaty. They flash a smile.

“I think there’s a game on tonight,” Grandpa says to me. “First one following the All-Star break, time to see who really wants it.”

I can’t help but smile, old man loves spending time with his grandbaby so damn much. I tell him that I’ll be more than happy to watch with him.

Grandma shakes her head, smiling. She’ll watch the odd game with us, but that’s about it. She, I guess, just never got the point of “putting a ball through a glorified peach basket.”  I’m sure she’ll end up painting or writing a story, knit up a sweater before halftime. She’s pretty awesome that way.

It’s so perfect, this quaint little dining room. The old table, place mats at each of the four chairs─despite there only being three of us─lace curtains over the windows, little island in the center of the kitchen, a cross here and there. Not to mention the tile flooring that grandpa must remind us of every week. At least once. That’s all because he installed it.

Grandpa fills up our cups of coffee, grinning as he returns to the table. He must have a story to tell, he always does.

“Used to work with this guy Steve.” Gramps places the mugs on the table. “As you both know, men who smash coal like their drink…” he pauses, Gran and I smile.

“…So one day we’re all busting coal when old Steve, drunk as a goddamn skunk, drives a pickaxe into his foot…”

Grandma and I gasp, Grandpa is already laughing, but of course.

“…But we’re all messed up too, so none of us notice until Steve passes out from blood loss!”

“Well, what happened, you old fool?” Grandma laughs.

“Let’s just say it was an awkward conversation with the foreman.”

It doesn’t take Gran long to wear herself out with laughter and wine. She excuses herself to dig away at one of those cozy mystery novels she loves to read.

Never been much of a book person myself. Oh well, as long as she takes pleasure in it.  Probably why she’s gotten things going at once, she never allows her mind to rest.

Eventually Grandpa and I move to the living room with the old tall clock and treasure chest and pictures which tell many lifetimes of memories. Oh, and the plastic-wrapped furniture.

Our team, the Buffalo Beamers, are losing at halftime but manage to pull it together for a blowout once the fourth quarter rolls around. We manage not to wake the dead with our celebration.

And then Grandpa leaves for bed. Now, I am alone in my room.

***

I haven’t heard a peep from the other bedroom for an hour maybe, hour-and-a-half. Can’t imagine being so in love that you can stop having sex with whoever you’re sharing a bed with. Then again, they’re both pretty old; ten-to-one, grandpa’s got a stash of blue pills somewhere.

In his pickup, or in a sock drawer. The beside table, maybe.

Maybe it’s Grandma; perhaps she’s the freak with the whips and the collars and chains and leashes.  Bondage hoods and nipple clamps. Maybe Grandpa even lets her put a strap to him.

Too far?

Too far.

It’s the studying, the impending exam, that carries me for hours into the night. I love this; this small and cozy home, this small and cozy town, but I’ve gotta get the hell outta here. Maybe if I could make enough money to move just outside the town and travel every day for work back into it. I like shopping malls and expensive coffeehouses and chain restaurants, I just don’t want to live in them. 

The watch on my wrist says: 10:15.

I need to be there at one in the morning. Takes ninety minutes to get there. I’ll leave early just to make sure. Most of the snow is gone but it’s mighty friggin’ cold outside. These Midwest winters can be real bitches. 

In a perfect world I’d just take grandpa’s truck, but the world isn’t perfect. He’d notice the mile change, the fresh oil in the morning that never seems to stop running. I’ll just walk. I have to walk. 

Study until 10:45, that’s what I’ll do. Keep up on the importance of positive reinforcement. Reward the child when right, comfort the child when wrong. This all takes time, repetition and comfort. Spoil the child.

I’m hoping somebody will let me intern for them within the next year, eighteen months. I know I’m a little old for such a start, but that’s how life goes sometimes.

Who knows, they might see my age as a good thing; matured, less likely to fold under the stress of all the screaming and fussing and crying and nose picking that comes with children of that age. I just need to be able to hand my grandparents a check so I can pay my way doing what I love. Not waiting tables, not working in the one retail store in town, and not scrubbing toilets.

It’s 10:55.

Wrapping magazines and printing paper, duct tape over for forearms and wrists, thighs and stomach. Multiple layers of clothing. Hoodies and shirts and sweats beneath my jeans. Everything I can think of while remaining within the rules: no throats and no face. Perfect. Only clothing and household items, nothing solid or immovable. Perfect.

11:00

Tie up the last laces of my boot and strap Velcro around the tops, around the ankles, make sure these babies don’t go anywhere. They’re good enough for SWAT teams, better be good enough for me.

All black: hoodies and beanie, boots and pants and the layers beneath. Won’t draw any attention on the long walk to The Venue. I hold my ear to the wall… nothing.

Move out from the room, to my grandparents’ room, ear to the door… nothing.

I’ve got seven-and-a-half hours until they wake up, precisely.

I know exactly which tiles in the dining room and kitchen to avoid. Every third tile from the entrance, without fail, squeaks. As does the fourth of center on the left side following the island. Last obstacle would be the door of the screened porch past the living room, but no worries, I greased it down earlier while Grandma was gardening and Grandpa was at the store.

First concrete step.

Second concrete step.

Open the door slowly, then close it.

The air is cold but the grass is only slightly crisp from the cold weather. Odd. Not enough to wake up anybody in the bedroom behind me from the backyard. The shed is getting larger, even in this black, empty night. Its edges and pointed top are impossible to miss.

By the front door, which is locked, sits a flower pot, there’s pot in it. Within said pot is a key for said locked door. It’s so cold, if I wasn’t wearing these gloves it might stick to my skin.

The key sounds like a pipe, wiggling its way into the lock, clicking when it finds home.

Righty-tighty, left-loosie.

Another click and the old wooden door opens, just enough. Just gotta squeeze through this door, it’s not too hard. Right to the left of the door is another pot; the search goes without luck until I recognize the crinkling plastic. Remove from pot and slip the baggy into my pocket. Step out from the shed, close, and lock door.

Step-step-step. Crunch-crunch-crunch. Back through the yard. Down the little hill that leads into the concrete driveway, up fifty feet and I’m over the gravel entrance, then a left.

There aren’t many houses to either side of me, just dark, deep woods. The road beneath me is smooth, almost entirely quiet and straight. There’s plenty of cracks and crunches circling me, probably deer or little rodents making for home or in search of shelter for the night. Up ahead, some quarter-mile, there’s a light─the Josephson’s porch light, one they always keep on at night. It lets me know I’ll be making a right before long. From there it’s a few miles.

A pair of headlights, probably from a truck, turn down onto the street. I step further onto the shoulder, so much so that I’m on grass. I would hate for the vehicle to stop in efforts of being a Good Samaritan. Nope. Too many questions, lose focus, start questioning what I’m doing out here.

The truck’s getting larger with every step, like they’re only moving with me. A one-sided relationship, a willing patient with a bored therapist. A loving dog with an abusive owner.

It’s kicking up gravel, little putter-patter of shrapnel sticking into the frosted tips of grass. The motor is rumbling. It’s like an old man breathing his last breaths, like I’m the Good Samaritan.

I don’t know if it’s the truck, its owner or me that’s screaming as I’m illuminated from the four-wheeled tank. And then nothing. We just pass each other.

Boop.

I turn back to look at the truck, I don’t know, ten seconds later, and it’s gone. Fucking gone. 

Turning back—oh shit!  I’m thrown to the ground, blam!

Almost right after my ass lands on the concrete I can hear a galloping pack of hooves clacking. First over the concrete and then the grass. The sound disappearing into the woods. I can’t help but laugh aloud at myself.

“You big pussy,” I say into the night. “Stand up.”

Just keep on moving towards the light at the end of the street. There’s a warm bottle of water in my front pocket, I retrieve it and unscrew the cap, sucking back just enough to lube up my mouth before swallowing.

Already, I’m playing the future out in my head. Once I get to the corner I’m going to jog for fifteen minutes. Then I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll walk for five, after that I’ll jog for ten more. After that, walk, and after that? Who knows.

The air’s burning through my lungs like some little guerrilla soldier just ran down my throat and dropped a grenade into my body. He was probably smiling as it went off, sending dozens of little bits of death through my organs.

Like a driver checking the blind spot, I glance back over my shoulder. It won’t be long until the Josephson residence is completely out of sight. Once it is, then I’ll stop to walk for a spell. Check again, the light’s dying.

And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Breathe, in through the nose and out through the mouth. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride.

I wonder what grandma and grandpa are dreaming of. I hope it’s nice. One time, multiple times, I snuck into the bedroom and read grandma’s diary. She writes about Heaven a lot, dreams about it a lot.

They’ve always been Atheists. Can’t imagine what Grandpa’s diary would be like if he had one, poor guy has a rough time writing down a grocery list.

Glance back. And stride; stride, stride, stride, stride. Glance. Stride, stride.

Another guerrilla soldier dropping another grenade into my lungs. Another explosion and another collection of shrapnel ripping my insides to bits. Another glance backwards: blackness.

The long strides come to a sudden halt. Quick walk slows to a slow trot. The collective sigh of disappointment from the wildlife around me drains out the howling wind. They wanted to watch me run the entire trip, what a bunch of assholes they are.

The steps over the pavement grow however, the clouds leaping from my mouth are short and rapid. Before long, I’ve gained what control I can of my wind in this weather.

Makes about as much sense as pushing a boulder up a hill every day after it rolls back down.

Grandpa was telling me about a book or something. Nihilism or something. The essence of the futility of hope and effort.

I should read something. Something besides a goddamn text book.

***

The Venue, an old abandoned factory, used to be a forge I think. It is packed with pickup trucks and sports cars, motorcycles and four-wheelers. Easily a hundred vehicles. Who knows how many people to each. There’s more than enough light being thrown through the dusty windows to give me an idea as to where I’m to enter. As I get closer to the entrance I begin fiddling with the bag in my pocket. 

What ground of the lot not filled by wheels is trashed with bottles and empty cigarette cartons and wrappers and who knows what the hell else. Maybe fifty yards until I’m stepping through the front door. Might as well be hell.

The shapes around me vary. Some are short, some tall, some fat. Some are small. Some of them are so broad, others narrower than me. Everybody’s wearing boots, it’s obvious from the earth’s crunching. 

From the corner of my eye I can see the breath of those around me shifting direction. They’re sizing me up, scanning who’s first and which ones will be second, who they’ll be seeing thirty minutes after the party gets started.

As if heaven opened, somebody makes it to the front door, allowing a mob of light to shine out into the night, lets me see the pair up front: two men, tall with beards, dawning leather. I wonder where they’ll end up.

Three, four, five more people walk past me towards the door and step into the concrete playground. I’m in next.

Upon entry, there’s a green steel pole with a sign posted on it: FOLLOW YOUR GENDER. I do as I’m told and go in the proper direction, to my locker room. No gender neutrality or transgender victim cards in this place.

As I move through the long, yellow, crowded hall I’m allowed faint glances into the center of the building. Poles and ladders, a floorspace the size of a football field illuminates by portable spotlights.  The sight blinks away as I move in front of a wall. The locker room is getting close. Not too far ahead I’m able to hear waves of hooting and hollering, war cries from those ready to do battle. My hands are shaking by the time I step into the stinky room.

The entrance door has been ripped from the hinges, the floor covered in dirt and grease and definitely shit. The hollering only grows as I step into the first bay of green lockers. The tile walls match the flickering light: yellow. Reminds me of the color of a smoker’s house before they die.

Onto the second bay, less folk but still too crowded for any level of comfort. Not that that’s something I should be looking for this place anyway. Third bay, only one other person, at the end of the bench; dark hair with eyes to match and a granite jaw. We say nothing. Not even a nod. If anything, we might be giving each other a sniff.

Sitting here on the bench, tightening wraps around both wrists, I can’t help but think of the grandparents. Which one of them has woken up first to go to the bedroom, which of them cracked my door silently to peek in on the bundle of pillows they believe to be me. Been checking in on me every night of my life. Twenty-seven friggin’ years old and they refuse to quit.

The locker at the end of the bay slams shut, a deep breath following uneasy. The steps turn back and then there’s a voice, soft and trembling.

“Three—three minutes,” she says. I nod and keep quiet.

Her footsteps carry away once more, this time without return.

The pack of hooting and hollering hyenas grows louder, fading into the hallway which leads into The Venue’s main square. Finally, something that resembles peace and quiet; all I hear now are the whispered prayers of those still in here.

To my feet, push out a breath. I know I am loved.

The first step to my right, out of the bay, leaves me in an uneasy freeze to maintain my balance. From my ankles to the knees are made of granite, up to my hips and I’m nothing but rubber. Stay for just a moment, I can’t fall here. Another deep breath and then a second step. The feeling to my lower half returns slowly.

My strides grow shorter as the exit door comes into view. Looks as if the pearly gate just opened, but they lead to demons. The light grows and then the voices return, coming from the main square. Just louder and louder, like a goddamn moshpit.

If there is a god, I am not asking for your forgiveness. If the devil is real, I do not align with you. Between me and myself, heaven and hell are one in the same.

***

Now that I am here, amongst the demons, I cannot see where the flesh ends; just rows and layers of men and women. Young and almost old. You’d have to be crazy to be smiling, and some of them are. I am not one of those faces. Like a goddamn cow farm, so tightly packed in, so many leather jackets and leggings. Morbid hide.

All the little whispers around me, like rabid bees. Bumping elbows, catching nasty looks for it. Look for them first.

Our little world of two-hundred goes quiet, deathly silent, as a crackling male voice bounces about the bodies like a rubber ball.

“Prom queens and parasites, the soon-to-be-haves and the forever-to-have-nots, I am Gauge.  Only Gauge…”

The man coughs into the speaker repeatedly, chuckling for a moment afterward.

“…By now I will assume all of you know the rules, you should considering you had to read them to unlock this location.  But allow me to refresh my own memory…”

More coughing, this time from Gauge and somebody behind me.

“…Thirty minutes, last cow standing. You’ve all got ten seconds.”

Coughing. More of it and then the speaker slams quiet. Then the beeps.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six; reach into my pocket. Four, three; pull out the knife, two, one.

The buzzer’s not even finished by the time I’m jamming the hunter’s blade into the back of a small woman; two, three, six times. She’s screaming so I shove the weapon into her neck, spraying the crowd with her crimson.

I feel the thud in my lower back. Somebody is trying to stab me!

Spin around, staring back at me is a bearded man covered in blood. The first thing I do is cram the knife into his eye, then slash through his lips. From nowhere another knife enters his cheek.

I thank the aiding man with a stabbing blow. Tear right with the blade. Rip out.

His intestines fall to the floor, he slips on them and crashes lifeless to the concrete below.

A fist, or the palm of a hand, slams into the back of my head, throwing me atop the floor of flesh. I roll onto my back atop the bodies, just in time to move from a long blade being driven downward by a well-built black woman. I reach up and pull her close. Hands clutching her face towards me, legs wrapped around her waist. My grip won’t last for long.

As if the gods of death are watching, the woman is swarmed like maggots to a corpse. They begin to stab and slice and tear at the woman with their knives, her screams canceling my ability to hear.

Whoever killed the black woman, some of them anyway, turn their affection to me. Stabbing at my exposed forearms, only to hit the rolled paper.

Fuck!

One of them slashes my hand—goddamn it.

 Now the other.

I dodge their attacks at my face, their blades sticking into the back of the woman’s head. I squeeze out just enough.

Grabbing at one of the men, I yank him towards me by the wrist and slit his throat, immediately wearing his red. The other flees after I slash his wrist.

Kicking and squirming, I manage to get out from under the body. It’s a matter of moments before the back of my thigh is torn into. My leg is steaming wit heat almost immediately. I hear the boot behind me, so I duck down, allowing the charging body to roll over my back.

They land with a wet thud, their stunned state allows me more than enough time to stomp on their face until it shatters. Their skull slides off the heel of my boot and I step towards the ever-dwindling crowd. Staggering. 

I don’t know if I’m killing or the bodies just happen to be falling as I cross them. I want to be the one killing them. That is until I see her, the girl from the locker bay. 

She’s been stripped down on top to just a green tank-top. Her entire face, neck, and chest are saturated with blood. I swear there’s red rings around her blue eyes. 

In her left hand is a long, serrated machete, in her right a hunting knife that is considerably longer than mine. Hanging from the blade is a chunk of piping-hot flesh. 

Reaching down blindly, ignorant to the death around us, I take hold of another knife in my free hand. Duel-wield.

She and I are screaming as we charge each other.

5 Years Later

It’s a Monday. I step into the third-grade classroom at Borton Elementary School. So many little faces from all races, walks of life, and futures. Nothing to divide us.

Before them, in front of my desk, I wish them a good morning.

They respond as one, “Good morning, Mrs. Gruenwald!”

Czar resides on the small Island of Malta.

           

Tenderloin by Steve Carr

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In this room I’m hidden by a camouflage of poverty. It’s a small room with a bed that pulls down from the wall, a Murphy Bed they call it. To me, my bed is Murphy. There are no sheets or covers on Murphy and the mattress has a tear in the middle and its intestines are sticking out. I have no pillow but I rest my head on a helmet and dream that I’m somewhere else other than this room.

There’s a dresser with five drawers but I only use the bottom one, hiding my papers there: my army discharge papers, high school diploma, newspaper articles about me winning swimming competitions when I was in high school. Everything else I own, my civilian clothes, my army uniform, army boots, two thirty pound dumbbells, and my emptied duffel bag, are scattered about on the floor forming small mounds that I step over like the dead bodies I stepped over in Iraq. The mirror above the dresser has a crack that looks like a scar.

The walls have the wounds of neglect, cracking green paint and peeling yellow wallpaper. There’s a window with torn plastic curtains that looks out on the busy street and the small grocery store across the street. No one going by on the street or in and out of the store knows I’m watching them through the holes in the curtain. This room is my bunker.

I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was. Alone in this room it’s easy to forget a simple thing like my own name. Looking into the cracked mirror; its scar becomes my scar, an injury across the smooth flesh of my muscled chest.

I came back from Iraq, from the army, uninjured but not unscathed. No one can see the damage but me. I see it in my reflection; my blue eyes hold the injuries of witnessing what no man should see. My biceps, triceps, forearms, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, glutes, quads and calves are strong and well developed, but identity isn’t. It has gotten lost along the way.

Lifting dumbbells in front of the mirror I watch the armor that is my flesh ripple with every arm curl. In this room no one can pierce my armor. Out on the streets, it’s a different story. It’s a dangerous place called the Tenderloin. It’s the bruised underbelly of this city and I am now part of the bruise. It takes strategic thinking about when to venture out, so I when it is dark I watch through the holes in the curtains, for the time that is right to infiltrate those who inhabit the city streets.

***

Against this wall at night, one booted foot against it, my knee bent, my back pressed against the heat of the summer-heated bricks, I can only be seen by those looking for me; not me exactly, but the type of me they are looking for. I wear my sand color camouflage fatigues and a tight black t-shirt and black army boots but in the darkness where I stand I am the same color as the shadows.

The warm winds blow and tousle my short blonde hair. Rivulets of sweat run between my shoulder blades down my spine and the middle of my pecs. This is the weather of Iraq without the sand. I inhale the drifting toxins of the city: gas fumes, rotting trash, urine. From this location I spot the window of my room, the light left on like a safety beacon.

“How much?” A middle aged man in khaki shorts and a blood-red polo shirt passing slowly by asks me.

“Not interested,” I say.

“I’ll make it worth your time,” he says.

“My time isn’t for sale.” I shift the other boot against the wall.

He moves on, targeting another inhabitant of the shadows not far from me. Their muffled voices are low and indecipherable until they depart into the alley. The sound of what they are doing with their bodies blends into the multitude of other sounds on this street: seller and buyer.

I separate myself from them and focus on the prostitute across the street adjust her neon pink stockings, Jade. Her hair is down tonight, separated down the middle and hanging around her face like a hajib of hair. I know her, not modest or religious, her hair doesn’t fool me.

A car pulls up to the curb beside her. She leans into the open passenger side window of the car. Apparently there is no agreement on the terms so he drives off leaving Jade now adjusting her halter top. What she wears is her uniform. She catches me and waves. I wave back.

She walks on and I realize how alike we are. Jade and I, both survivors of different kinds of war. Her war is the streets of the Tenderloin and I left the war in Iraq to enter this one in Jade’s territory. It’s a different combat zone.

“Have a cigarette?” a young man in tight jeans, a button down blue shirt and wearing cowboy boots asks.

“I don’t smoke.” I set my jaw.

He leans against the wall so close his cologne and after shave surround me. I’ve seen him before. He is a wanderer, one of the many who are always walking these streets. I’ve seen him through my curtains going in and out of the store, and up and down this street. His brown cowboy boots are well-shined. I notice those kinds of things. I’ve named him, Boots.

“Hot night.” Boots glances up at the starless sky.

“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.

He leans even closer to me. “I have some brown sugar,” Boots whispers as if it was a secret that no one in the Tenderloin had ever heard before. “We could go to my place.”

“No thanks,” I tell him.

The two have come out of the alley. The man in the shorts adjusts his belt and hurriedly walks past me. The other one stands at the entrance of the alley surveying the landscape and in the half-light he looks young, illegally young for what he is selling, which in itself is illegal.

He walks the other direction and escapes into the night. I am an observer, where strangers briefly become allies. I have several lookout posts in the Tenderloin, but this one near my room is where I mainly station myself. Boots nervously taps the toe of one of his boots against a crack in the pavement. He is as watchful as I am, but I can only guess what he is watching for.

 Back in the room I remove my sweat-soaked t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror and while the scar is still there, there are no fresh wounds; not on me or on the mirror.

***

Lying in the dark on my back on Murphy I’ve pushed the helmet aside and am staring up at the ceiling. Light from the grocery store’s white neon sign shines through the holes in the curtains to form bullet holes and grenade beams between the cracks that are like lines on a terrain map on the ceiling.  The ceiling fan does not work and is idle and useless. The room is even warmer than outside.

I’ve taken off all my clothes and deposited them on a mound of other gear. I sweat. It drains from my pores. This being naked, it is a test of my sense of safety. I’m not vulnerable in the room, only when I leave it.

Beneath the naked flesh of my back, Murphy’s protruding innards push into me. It’s a test of endurance, my ability to sustain the feeling of discomfort, so I don’t move. I hear a brief scream from outside as I drift off to sleep. I’ve heard screams before, when awake and not awake.

Morning comes with the subtlety of a tank rolling across hard earth. The sound of heavy traffic breaks through the barricade of my dreams. Eyes open, I glimpse the ceiling as it is in the light of day, a canopy of cracked plaster. I don’t move. My naked body adjusts to the dryness of the daytime heat.

Sweat sticks to my skin; I’m an evaporated salt lake with nothing left but granules. My skin has adhered to Murphy and as I rise up I pull some of Murphy’s insides with me. I sit on the edge of Murphy and survey the landscape that is the room. It’s a wasteland of neglect.

With a towel around my waist I go to the only bathroom on this floor and stand outside it waiting for whoever is inside. Around me is the carnage even worse than that in my room. Everything needs repair. After the sounds of the shower cease, the door unlocks moments later and the old man who lives in another of the rooms, comes out in a tattered purple bathrobe. He wears the difficulties of his life on his face like a mask of despair.

I go in as he goes down the hallway toward his room. I lock the door and undo my towel and urinate in the ringed toilet bowl. There is no brush to clean it with even if I wanted to. Every part of the building outside my room echoes. My urine hits the water in the toilet bowl and reverberates around me like choppers just as they land.

I read the graffiti on the walls as I have every morning. Nothing new is added. The writers moved on or grew tired of deciphering each other’s codes. Finished, I step into the shower, turn it on, and let cool water rinse the night from my skin.

My time in it is brief and after shaving I go back to my room. A yellow note sits pinned on my door. I open it and read: “Rent Past Due. Payment in full required. Management.”

In the room I dig beneath the papers in the bottom drawer of the dresser and take out the white envelope that I keep my money in and flip through the bills counting up the total. There’s enough to pay half the rent if I include what little is in my pants pocket. Sitting back on a mound of clothes, the softness is like a dead Iraqi soldier’s body I sat on while getting my picture taken. I pull one of the articles from high school out of the drawer and look at the picture of me when I was a champion swimmer in a pair of Speedos.

My body has changed.

I’ve changed.

The names of my parents are in the article: Bill and Doris. In the room they are just names on a yellowing piece of newsprint. I fold the article and place it back with all the other emotional contraband and close the drawer. Naked, exposed but unable to be seen, I stand at the window and peek through a hole in the curtain. Even in the brightness of the morning sun the shadows are everywhere in the Tenderloin.

In a different pair of fatigues the same color as the others and a different t-shirt, also black, I leave the room and exit the building to step out into the fury of noise and odors that is the Tenderloin on a weekday. Crossing the street to the store I see a man in a suit standing in my location. He’s reading a newspaper, an innocent occupier in my nighttime territory.

The store is cool and surprisingly quiet. The Korean man behind the counter is Mr. Chin. It’s not his real name. It’s the name I have given him. He has a mole in the middle of his chin and Mr. Chin sounded more Asian than Mole.

His age is hard to determine but his jet black hair is lined with strands of gray and his eyes have the weariness of age. Placing a carton of orange juice and a pack of fig newtons on the counter I don’t call him Mr. Chin. I don’t call him anything.

“How are you today?” he asks in a very formal way as always. “It looks like it’s going to be another hot day today.” He tallies the cost of my two items on the cash register.

“I’m used to the heat.” I hand him money.

Mr. Chin is always here it seems, night and day. He’s a motionless target in the Tenderloin where enemy combatants roam. Without knowing why, I worry about him. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.

“I have insomnia,” he says. “Keeping busy takes my mind off wondering why I’m always awake.”

“Sleeping isn’t all it’s cut out to be.” I refuse a bag for my juice and cookies.

“Neither is being awake.” He smiles and I leave the store.

Finding a place to sit on a wood crate at the entrance of the alley, I sit down and open the carton and fig newtons. The alley reeks of refuse and stagnant water and in the heat is a noxious mixture that kills the taste of the juice and cookies. Stuck on the wall near where I’m sitting is a used condom glued there with bodily fluids like a medal of honor in a whorehouse. I’m unable to finish what I bought for my breakfast. I toss the half-empty carton of juice on top of garbage in an open trash can and wrap the package of fig newtons in my hand to be eaten later.

***

On a street in Baghdad I was accosted by a man who spoke no English but was definitely trying to warn me about something. When a bomb exploded a hundred yards up the street in the direction I was headed, I realized what he was trying to say. Paxton Street is much the same way; I feel like a foreigner always headed for unspeakable danger. I was told that it has improved over the years, becoming in some parts more gentrified, but I see few signs of it.

When I run into Boots coming out of an adult book store he’s more surprised to see me than I am to see him. I look down. He’s wearing the same cowboy boots.

He nods. “You always look like you’re dressed for combat.”

“I am.” I grip the cookies until they’re crushed. “Listen,” I say hesitantly, knowing I am about to enter a mine field. “I need to earn some money.”

“What are you willing to do for it?” he asks.

“Not what you think.”

A car drives slowly by and the driver taps the horn. Boots waves him on and the car continues up the street. “I know this guy looking for just your type,” Boots says.

“I told you, I’m not looking to make money that way.”

“I know,” Boots says. “This is something different. It’s not even illegal and the guy has lots of money and is willing to pay.”

“What does he want?” I ask, feeling as if Boots is that Iraqi but only I am being led into danger and not being kept from it.

“Meet me tonight at your usual spot and I’ll bring him along. You guys can meet and if you two are cool with each other he can tell you himself.”

“What do you want out of it?” I ask.

“I’ll get my take from him afterward,” he says.

***

In the afternoon I put the window up. Hot air blows the plastic curtains into the room. Their ends snap like muted gun fire.

I stand in front of the mirror and do arm curls. This combined with squats and crunches done between the mounds of my belongings is my daily routine. My dog tags tinkle against each other with every lift. On the top of the dresser the empty package of fig newtons rustles in the breeze. I’m readying myself for something; a secret mission.

With each curl I exhale in and out the smells of the Tenderloin and the odors in the room. My clothes lay on Murphy. I haven’t washed them for a week and they’re thick with sweat. When I leave the room and then come back in it’s my scent I smell first, then that of the city. 

Looking into the mirror is therapy. It reassures me along with the scent in the room that I exist, that I fought in Iraq and lived.

It’s me I’m looking at in the mirror when there is a knock on the door. I put on my pants and open it cautiously.

“Did you get the note I pinned on your door?” It’s Beard. That’s not his name but he has a beard that reaches down to his stomach. It was the first thing I noticed about him and before I knew his name. He’s a big man, obese not muscled. He’s proud of his job as manager of the building. I know this because he told me so.

“Yes, I got it,” I say.

“Are you going to be able to pay your rent by tomorrow?” Beard looks around me at the room and grimaces.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’m making arrangements to get it tonight.”

“Good,” Beard says. “I don’t like to throw veterans out if I don’t have to.”

“You won’t have to throw me out,” I say.

He takes another look at the room, the hills of my belongings. “I’ll be back tomorrow and you can give me the rent then.” He turns and walks away.

I shut the door and put on the rest of my clothes. Without me or my clothes Murphy looks naked.

***

At twilight the store is busier. At the freezer I see through the glass there’s one burrito left. I open the door and take it out. I stare at the microwave instructions printed on the back. My diet sucks and the food I put into my body does not nourish me.

In the Army I was fed well and had a roof over my head as well as a steady paycheck. The only cost was the possibility of being shot or blown up. I put the burrito in the microwave at the back of the store and while waiting unscrew the cap on the water. I’m prepared to have my supper even before I get in line at the counter.

After Mr. Chin takes care of another customer, I step up and put the heated burrito and the water on the counter and take out a few dollar bills from my fatigues pocket. Before he puts his fingers on the cash register he says “You seem like a nice guy. I could use some help if you’re interested in working here.”

“Sure,” I say. “When do you want me to start?”

“Is tomorrow morning, okay?” He tallies up the price of my purchase on the cash register.

“Sure.” I pick up the burrito and bottled water and leave the store.

The street is bathed in fading sunlight as I cross it and take up my place at my lookout. In a matter of minutes even before the sun is completely down the young man – the kid – that was here last night takes his place in the same spot he was in last night. I quickly eat the burrito and down the water and walk over to the entrance of the alley and toss the burrito package and empty bottle in the trash can.

I’m looking at him and he is looking at me. He seems as if he stepped out of one of the photos of me in one of the newspaper clippings. I think of him as the me back then and name him, Me.

Me is wearing a tight white t-shirt with gold lettering on the upper right chest that says All-American.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s a free country. I can be where I want.”

“I meant you shouldn’t be using this disgusting alley to conduct your business.”

“You know a better place?” Me asks sounding partially sarcastic and partially honestly inquisitive.

I think about my room, not because I would offer it to him, but it’s the only safe place I have known for the past three months. “No.”

I return to my spot and prop my boot against the wall and watch the shadows turn to night along the street. Me almost disappears in the darkness, his white t-shirt partly visible. I’m lost in thought, thinking about working at the store. It isn’t much but it’s enough.

Jade suddenly pops up in front of me. She has changed her uniform. She’s wearing a tight yellow vinyl skirt and a bright green bikini top. She almost towers over me in her knee high boots with spiked heels. Her hair is wound around her head like a turban.

“I saw you talking to that little sleaze ball who wears the cowboy boots. If you’ll take my advice steer clear of him. He’s connected with some pretty strange dudes.”

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

Au revoir.” Jade crosses the street. Her heels click like small firecrackers on the pavement with every step she takes. It reminds me of Fourth of July parties with Bill and Doris. It also reminds me of the sound of tracers being shot into the night sky.

***

Neither Jade or Me have seen any action. We three occupy our territories being watchful and restless, each for different reasons. The light shines through the window in the room, reminds me I have somewhere to go for rest and relaxation. I have it for now at least.

I spot Boots and the man with him as they walk toward me. In my head I instantly name the man, Swagger. It’s how he walks, as if he owned the world. As if about to undergo military inspection I stand up at parade rest. Boots and Swagger come up to me.

Without really acknowledging me, Boots turns to Swagger and says, “See, I told you, just what you’re looking for.”

Swagger is wearing a t-shirt and jeans and is nearly as muscular as I am. He looks me over from boots to my hair.

I feel like a mannequin in a store front window being examined for the cut of my clothes.

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

“Do just fine for what?” I ask.

He raises his left hand to swat away a gnat and I see a wedding ring on the third finger. “I’d rather not discuss it here,” he says as if what he has in mind will be broadcast by loud speakers throughout the Tenderloin. “You must live nearby. Can we go there?”

Boots shuffles his feet on the sidewalk, the scuff of it is an annoying distraction. “Don’t you have somewhere else you can be?” I ask him.

“Oh, sure.” Boots turns to leave. “I’ll catch up with you later for my cut,” he says to Swagger. He walks toward Paxton Street, stopping in front of Me and whispering to him. They walk on together.

“I don’t do anything sexual,” I tell Swagger.

“What I’m looking for isn’t sexual, at least not in the usual sense. You could make up to five hundred dollars.” He reaches into his jeans and pulls out a roll of money held together by a rubber band. “But I don’t want to do this if you don’t have a place we can go to.”

No one other than me has been in the room since I moved into it. Even Beard has not gotten any further than my open door. “We can go to my room,” I say reluctantly. When the sound of gunfire rings out from Mr. Chin’s store I think it’s noises in my head.

Swagger and I glance in that direction. Within moments the sound of police sirens pierce the night.

“He’s been shot,” Jade yells to me from across the street.

I cross the street with Swagger. Two police cars and an ambulance pull up in front of Mr. Chin’s store. A small crowd of onlookers including Jade are chattering among themselves.

“The guy tried to rob him, then shot him and ran out.”

“He’s such a nice man.”

“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.

“Mr. Chin, I think,” I say. “He owns the store.”

“Is he a friend of yours?” Swagger asks.

“The last friend I had was killed in Iraq,” I say.

Swagger looks at his watch. “I don’t have lots of time. Can we go?”

Going into my building I look over my shoulder and see two paramedics bringing someone out of the store on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.

***

The room is as I left it. It never changes in any noticeable way. The air is hot and thick with the stench of body odor. Swagger says nothing as he comes in and I close the door behind him. He stands feet spread apart between two mounds of clothing. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the roll of money and tosses it on Murphy.

“A hundred dollars every time you punch me,” he says.

“What?” I say, uncertain that I have heard him correctly.

“I want you to punch me,” he says. “And hard. Anywhere but my face.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes.” He removes his t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” I say. “I told you nothing sexual.”

“I’m not wanting sex with you.” He sits on Murphy and pulls off his shoes and socks. “I just want you to punch me a few times. That’s all. I just prefer to be naked when you do it.” He stands up and takes off his jeans and underwear and faces me. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

I punch him on his left chest just above his nipple. He’s staring at me with disappointment written on his face. “Surely you can punch me harder than that.”

I land another much harder punch above the other nipple. The sound of my fist making contact with his bare flesh is like a bullet striking a cardboard target. He reels back slightly, and closes his eyes for a moment. He slowly opens his eyes. They are glassy like a cat in heat. “Oh, yeah that’s more like it.” He reaches over to the wad of money and takes out a hundred dollar bill and hands it to me. “Again,” he says.

I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused. He gives me another hundred dollar bill. I hit him again, this time on his left jaw.

“I told you not the face,” he says.

Then I punch him again, and again, and don’t stop. I am a relentless machine of released anger. He collapses on Murphy in a pile of blood and sweat. His face swells. Bruises already darken the skin around his eyes. His breathing grows labored.

“Why?” he asks. Blood drips from his mouth.

“I was in Iraq,” I say and lay into him again.

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 240 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.