Saturday, December 28, 2013

Overheard in a bar - Chapter 4

King Kong approached quickly, parting the crowd with his bulk.  My training took over.  He reached for my upper arm but I turned and all he got was a handful of my sport coat sleeve.  He swore at me.

I heard Fred yell, "Bill, don't!"

My legs were a mess but the rest of me hadn't been neglected during my hospital stay.  I brought my arm up inside and over his, quickly locking it under my arm and I twisted my left side back yanking him off balance and he stumbled forward a little.  I slapped his left ear with the palm of my hand to stun him.  When he brought his hand up to guard I thumped his floating rib twice as hard as I could.  I was trying to break it but I didn't.  He was big and tough, but he wasn't prepared for this.  No doubt he was used to throwing out drunks half his size.  I hit him again in the arm pit then brought the edge of my hand down above his shoulder.  That was it for him.  He went down on his knees.

I hadn't heard any sound except Fred's plea, but now I could hear women screaming and men yelling.  I looked up and right at Jenny who was holding both hands over her mouth, her eyes staring as though she couldn't understand what had just happened. 

Then Fred yelled again, "Look out!"  A hard object hit me in the kidney, taking my breath away, then another one glanced off my head knocking me down onto the table which collapsed to the floor beneath me.  I found myself splashed with cold bourbon and dusted with cigarette ashes and in considerable pain.  The floor felt gritty under my cheek. and I could see shoes backing away. 

A voice said, "Alright!  You're coming with us!  Sergeant Monahan will love you!" and a pair of enormous hands cuffed my hands behind my back and lifted me off the floor.  I was turned around and found myself staring at a short, dark, stocky cop who glared at me and held a short billy club in his right fist.  I looked over my shoulder at a craggy sunburned face with large blue eyes underneath bushy white eyebrows and a blue peaked cap.  His one hand had my wrists shoved up high toward my shoulder blades.  It hurt.  I had a brief moment of wanting to fight it out, but he must've read my mind because he jerked my hands higher.  These guys were different.  No bluffing and blundering like the bouncer.  They knew exactly how far to go to make me realize they could go a lot farther and I wouldn't like it.  It was time to do as I was told. I suddenly didn't like the idea of meeting Sergeant Monahan.

I had a brief glimpse of the bartender supervising a kitchen boy with a mop as they cleaned up the mess.  King Kong was kneeling and trying to move his left arm.  Fred and Jenny grabbed their coats and were following us out.  They watched as I was frog marched down the street to the police station.  It was only a block away.  The night was foggy and cool.  Except for the pain from the cuffs and the hold, I began to feel better.  The cold, merciless me drained away into the damp night.  I briefly felt part of humanity again, but my other, inside pain returned.  By the time we reached the station door I wanted a cigarette and a drink again.  I wanted to get back to my room at the hospital barracks.  I felt incredibly tired and I wanted sleep. 

They hustled me in through the front door, then into the next room.  There was no one there except the desk sergeant who was standing at a file cabinet stuffing something in the top drawer.  He had authority written all over him.  He was half a foot taller than me, and straight as a flagpole.  He had a white moustache and his white hair was combed straight back and parted in the middle.  This had to be Sergeant Monahan. 

He spoke to the cops while staring at me.  "What's the story with this one, Al?  This the guy from down the street?"

The short cop spoke.  "Yeah, ex-Marine who got a snootful and caused a ruckus.  He's tough.  He put big Till on the floor."

The desk sergeant raised his eyebrows and nodded a time or two and looked at me for another few seconds without a word.  Then with a smile from the eyes down, "Ah, you're not so tough, are you son?  Take those cuffs off, Murphy and sit him down.  Al, there are no ex-Marines, only former Marines."  That got my attention and had me sitting up straight in the chair, even in my damaged condition.  My shoulders hurt, but something told me to sit still and clam up. 

"OK, you guys can go.  We're fine here."  The other two cops didn't move.  "Well, go on.  Broadway ain't gonna keep itself clean, fellas!"  I heard them shuffle out.  The Sergeant fixed his eyes on me and cocked one eyebrow upward.

"What's the story here, Son?  How drunk are you really?  Need a night in the tank?  We got a nice room all ready for you personally.  It's a slow night here, so you can have it all to yourself.  It'll be a little drafty, but that's the way it goes." 

"No.  Uh, no sir."  Don't know why I added the "sir."  Just instinct.  "I'm not close to drunk.  Just had a bad moment in there, and the bouncer pushed me too far."

He regarded me for a little, nodding again, to himself more than anything, as though he was guessing silently that he'd be right about me.

"Had some bad memories, did you?"  I nodded and stared at the floor.  I felt ashamed.  I was in the presence of someone who must've been a senior NCO in the Marines.  He had Master Gunnery Sergeant chevrons stamped on his forehead.  Judging by his age, he must've seen action in the Great War, or Haiti or China or any number of places.  I was sitting in front of him because I'd begun to come apart at the seams.  I felt worse than useless. 

"I know it's tough, Son, but you can't go busting up guys just because you had a bad time overseas.  Get me?"

"Yeah, but I didn't do anything to get kicked out.  The bouncer just doesn't like Marines.  He was working me.  He tried to get me started earlier but I didn't take the bait.  I defended myself when he came after me.  I didn't fight for this country just to get shoved around by some big meathead with a chip on his shoulder."

He just nodded and looked straight into my eyes.

"Tell me what happened."  I didn't at first believe him, but looking at him I thought he meant it. 

"Well, I heard this kid tell his girl he wanted to join up and I thought I should set him strai-"

"Not what just happened, Son.  Tell me what happened to you.  Out there.  In the Pacific.   Guadalcanal?  Gloucester?"

"I don't know if I can talk about that, Sir." I really just didn't want to hear myself tell the same dreary tale again. 

"Stop calling me 'Sir.'"

I looked at him for a moment.  He was hard in every line, but something told me he was fair, and could understand.  I felt myself relaxing a little. I took a breath to settle my nerves. 

"I lost a foot on the 'Canal.  Japanese grenade.  I killed a Japanese trooper with my bayonet and, and...."  I just stopped and held my hands up.  I was locking up again.  I looked around the room and when I turned back toward the sergeant, he had rolled a cigarette and was handing it to me across the desk.  He rolled one for himself and lit both with a huge wooden match.

"I gotcha, Son.  Don't say another word.  See the part on top of my head?"  He leaned forward and I looked to see the puffy ridge of a scar about four inches long running right down the middle of his scalp.  "Cacos machete got me when we took Fort Riviere back in '15.  I'll never forget it.  I didn't even see the guy but his blade ran right through my Stetson and along my head.  I had blood running into my eyes and I thought I was done for, but Captain Butlerl shot him before he could finish me off.  I had a hell of a headache for a few days."

I relaxed a little.  I began to think the night might not end badly.  He reached a hand across the desk.

"Gunnery Sergeant Tim Monaghan, retired."  He said "retired" with ill-disguised contempt.  "Your name?"  I told him and we shook hands.  He wrote it down on a sheet on his blotter, but that was all. 

As he wrote he said, "You know, Bill, it'll get better as time goes by, but you gotta work at it.  No one is gonna help you sort it out much.  I fought in France, and we slugged it out pretty good with the Huns at Belleau Wood.  I still see the faces of the men I killed.  Shot two of 'em at close range with a scatter gun.  I don't need to tell you what that does.  Pretty awful thing to do to someone, even if they did deserve it.  Got a bad case of shell shock and they sent me home here to Oakland.  I had about a month in the sanitarium then they mustered me out.  I didn't sleep much for about ten years without having nightmares, night sweats, you name it.  The Priest at de Sales helped, but it was really up to me.  The Navy had some shrinks but who needs those guys.  Joining the Force helped too.  What I mean to say is, you'll be OK someday, but get your teeth into something.  You out now that your foot's gone?"

"I don't know.  Maybe I'll stay in.  Don't know what else to do."

"Well, whether you do or you don't make sure you have somewhere you have to be most days.  Don't have too many days where you sit around playing mumbledy-peg with your trench knife and knocking back a few.  That's a quick road to one of my cells, or worse.  Get yourself some exercise.  Get down to LaLanne's exercise place a couple of blocks down and over one, I think.  He's kind of different, might even be a fairy, but he knows how to shape a man up.  Best thing for you." 

I just nodded and stared at the floor.  His understanding was the last thing I'd expected, and I felt terribly ashamed.  It would've better if he'd tossed me in the cell.

"Hold your head up, Bill.  You've got every reason to."  I wasn't so sure about that.

"Don't look down, Marine!  You're gonna walk out of here tonight, but I don't wanna hear anymore about you busting up bouncers, even if that particular son of a bitch deserved it.  Yeah, I've had my disagreements with Till.  He was 4F'd with a heart murmur and he doesn't handle it too well.  He's a clerk at City Hall during the day.  Bouncing at night gives him a chance to be a tough guy.  Forget about him.  You worry about yourself.  Go easy on the smokes and the booze.  Once in a while...OK, but they'll break you down in the end if you overdo it.  OK?"

He stopped and sat back in his chair, and puffed his cigarette.  I couldn't help but grin at the irony.  He grinned back.  It was good to be in the presence.  I knew he was right.  Old sweats always are.

"OK.  Thanks, Gunny.  I'll keep that all in mind."  I took a deep breath then finished my smoke.


Anonymous Mme. Coelacanth said...

Been looking forward to the fourth installment. Love your reference to the inimitable icon of fitness!

1:13 PM  
Blogger Don said...

Same here. Mention of ol' Jack made me smile. You know my mom was a model for him one day for a demonstration at Cal, I'm guessing in 1946, 47.

Great dialog. Been reading a lot of hard boiled, or do you just hear it in your head and write it down?

9:31 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Dear Madame,

I'm honored. Didn't know if you'd been reading. Was hoping you were. I couldn't not put our homeboy Jack in there. Didn't occur to me until this installment, but he's too good to leave out.

Thanks for reading.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Hey Don,

I think I just hear it and it comes out that way. I am never too far from having read Chandler or Hammett, and maybe they are just in my bones now. Maybe I'll try to soften things when next I try this, and see how it feels.

I remember you said your Mom modele for Jack. Did she ever comment on that? What does she say about it?

11:12 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

I need an opinion from whoever is willing to share it:

Should I write a brief ending, referring to Fred, Jenny, and what became of Bill?


Should I leave it at that? That seems partly appropriate, but I wanted to comment on Fred and Jenny in some way that leaves the reader free to construct their future.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

First of all--top notch, and very entertaining. Thank you.

I like the voice, and I was also going to ask if this is "your" voice or if you are in double-you double-you eye eye mode. I respect you for including the smokes and the Zippos etc without making them seem like artifacts.
But . . . you're finished? If so, I can see it, but as it is, then, I missed sending off Fred and Jenny to wherever characters go. My opinion, should you ask me, would be to drop them off closer to the end. Or, and I can't imagine a final scene with everybody in it, but in a story of this length, that might work.
I have this vague idea that the four main characters should be more connected to each other by the time this ends. Hoping that even makes sense to you.
Favorite line: "Maybe I could do my small bit to deprive the butcher, since I'd already done my large bit to keep him busy."

I hope to see more!

8:58 AM  

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