Middletown - Newburgh NY, Mid-November 2017
Driving home from killing Dog listening to the wind and the drone of tires on cold pavement. This is a night for no music, no emotion. I’m trying very hard to hold it all together.
I realize the need to lose the soul-sucking Toyota for good. I’m close to Middletown now, my mom's house, again. I pull off the Interstate and into the parking lot of the Galleria shopping mall. It’s late and the air is freezing. The mall closes at 10 pm.
Inside a cluster of other cars that sit waiting for their festive shopper’s return I abandon mine. I shake my head and say to under my breath to myself, “Christmas season again.” This season, long ago was poisoned for me.
The parking lot is already in the holiday spirit with ugly, gaudy decorations hanging off light poles. Fake trees and Santa in a sleigh outlined in white lights. Loudspeakers blast Christmas carols into the frosty air, some nonsense about sleigh bells jingle-ing, ring-ting tingle-ing.
I think of the look in Dog’s eyes as I raised Unk’s .38, of the dull thud of the lead as each slug hit his chest. A strangely comforting sound to me. Each sound was a step closer to eradicating the universe of his reign of insanity.
The night is quiet and perfectly surreal. Santa’s Elves and festive songs and the final seconds face to face with a soon to be dead man, as only a hint of fear washed over his face. The only time I ever saw any fear in White Dog and it was a fear of me. I owned it, that was satisfying to me.
Walking away from my car, pausing for a second to remember Vinny. He would have burned the car! Vinny sure did love to burn him some cars, boy.
At that moment I realize everyone from the old days is either dead or in jail. Eddie G. is still living life exiled in Florida in the efficiency apartment with the forty-two-year-old stripper. From what he’s told me about her he’d prefer to be dead. Eddie and me, that’s it for the old crew. They even killed Mr. J. In lockup. It’s like a cleansing, a purge.
A mile and a half walk to Ma’s house, in the cold. my mind is all about Pearlman, he made no sound. He didn’t beg for mercy. He took it like a soldier. I had little to admire in Dog. I admired how he took his violent end. Which slug killed him, was it the first, the third? Did he feel each one? Where did his rotted soul go...
Thinking the world would be a better safer place if I’d done this years ago. I recall Juan's almost organic hatred of White Dog. I’m hoping somehow Juan knows tonight I did what I should have done a long time ago. Tonight I ended the plague that defined and ruined our lives.
I’m sure the New Jersey State Police are looking for me now. Dog had a lot of friends, not really friends, more people who owed him, people he had info on. I wondered if they’d be happy and relieved that crazy bastard was dead, or would they help to find his killer. The waitress in the tight black slacks and white blouse could very easily identify me, as could anyone in the restaurant.
Walking toward Ma’s house in the dark, turning onto her property, stumbling and tripping over some garbage and brush. Walking right over the spot where I killed my father, I arrive.
This, like the farm, is home. Both harbor a horror that defined me.
On that spot of dirt where so many years ago I first felt the rush of death, the confusion of death, the mystery of death, the satisfaction and terror of death, I stand, hands at my side and head down. There on that very spot, I feel the screaming, reeling rage of the full circle I’ve come. I wait as if I’m there beckoning the spirits, calling them out for one last, all out, bare-knuckle street fight.
I wait for the ghost of my father, “Come at me you cowardly fuck! You gutless, drunken fuck. Come at me, bitch! One more. Just one more, you miserable pathetic bastard!
I scream at the cold, moonless sky, “I lied, there were two that felt good. In whatever corner of Hell you burn and rot, let me tell you now I enjoyed yours the best.”
I take a swing at the autumn air and stumble and land in a pile of wet and stinking leaves, like a drunk stumbling over his own feet, but I’m not drunk, I’m engulfed in it all, like in flame. The torrents of death and destruction I rained down on the world, It all started here on this spot.
Ma’s car sits in the driveway, a 1982 Chevy Impala, once a pretty maroon, now mostly body putty and gray primer paint. The years have not been kind to any of us.
Thirty seconds with my pocket knife and the back door, with the still missing and plywood covered pane, is open. I wonder why people even bother to lock doors.
The house is neat and clean. Sister was always much better at keeping the house organized than Ma. Over by the window on the kitchen table, I see a set of keys for the old woman’s car.
I scrounge around the kitchen - Ma always hid cash somewhere - In an old flour canister up high on a shelf behind the refrigerator I find the stash. About three hundred dollars in fives, tens and twenties. I find a piece of paper and write an IOU to Sister. I’m broke, she’ll understand.
Finding a couple of beers in the refrigerator and a half-empty bottle of cheap rye whiskey. I have my driving booze. I climb in her car. It starts after a battle, the tank is empty. I hope I’ll make it to a gas station.
I do, on the last fumes. I fill the tank and get back on the interstate toward Newburgh and my apartment.
Pulling off the highway and onto Broadway; it has been a long day. I’m thinking about how many years its been since I’ve killed a man, not nearly enough years.
Cresting the hill and heading down toward the river I see police cars patrolling the streets. Three cars, lights flashing, radios and static blaring through open doors, the noise rips open this quiet, late autumn night.
The cops are in front of my apartment. I pull into a parking space on the opposite side of the street to watch, in front of a VFW hall. Looking at my watch it’s close to midnight.
An old man, gray hair, an unshaven stubbly face. He’s got a bulbous nose that must be some horrible form of cancer. No drunk I’d ever known could sport a nose like that. On his head, a dark green baseball cap with ARMY ‘Be All You Can Be,’ in bold gold letters. He stands in the doorway of the crumbling brick building. I approach him, stopping on the sidewalk under an old red, white and blue sign: American flags and eagles and large block letters, “VFW.”
“I’ve seen you around the neighborhood,” he started the conversation. Extending a hand he said, “Jake, the name is Jake, somebody’s ass is grass tonight, huh boy?”
I laugh at ‘boy,’ I’m sixty years old, he must be seventy-five, there are no boys here on this street tonight.
“Did you serve?” He continues.
“Me? No, not in the way you’d consider service. It was war though.”
“How the Hell was you in the war and didn’t serve? Was you with the Russians?” He snorted and laughed hard.
“As a matter of fact, for a time, in Central America yes I was with the Russians. I did some things I thought were for the good of this country, they were not!”
“Was you a spy?” His eyes wide like two small moons.
“No man, I was with some CIA spooks for a time, but I was no spy.”
“Well,” He said, suddenly looking approvingly at me, “The CIA, they help protect America, that’s good enough for me.”
I put my hands in my pockets, warming them from the November air, “Protect, huh? Yeah, I guess that’s the story.”
“Jake, I need to hide out here. We can get good and drunk and tell each other war stories. Those cops, they are looking for me, I’m pretty sure. I need a few hours to lay low. Can you help me, Jake?”
He opens the door wide and I walk in. The bar is dark and empty. It smells like stale beer and cigarette smoke. Some Playboy centerfolds from the 1970’s adorn one wall. Jake walks behind the bar. I slap a twenty on the old worn wood. My new friend hands me a beer. He pours us both a shot of cheap scotch.
“I figured you for a scotch man, what’s your name, anyway?
I paused for a minute... “Fuck it, my name is Richie. Some people on the street will tell you my name is Jesse. That’s not me. My name is Richie.”
Jake takes a long drink of his beer and slams down his shot. “Tell me a war story then, boy...”
“I did a lot of harm to innocent people for the wrong reasons, Jake. I don’t even, now, understand how I did it or why. I can’t say I was duped. I can’t blame anyone else. Everyone I touched, here in the US and in Central America, everyone I touched I harmed. I hurt. People think I’m just some quite old guy with a past, Jake, I had a hand in half of what is broken in the country today. Back at the very beginning, in the 70’s, when shit started to change. It may have started with your war, then Nixon. I don’t know. By the time I got involved the wheels and gears were moving already. I thought I was just running dope. We were helping to build a machine.
“I’ve developed a great respect for the fearful, Jake. The fearful were and are my customers, my consumers. A lot can be said for those who only toe the line and never cross. I crossed and never came back. It must be what floating in space is like. Unbridled and unbound, floating endlessly. Unable to touch or connect with anyone or anything. Silent, and cold and transient. I’ve spent my precious days, now winding down to a lonesome few as an observer. Looking over the shoulder or this life. Never directing, never touching, never really feeling. Floating, above or behind. Marching a half step out of time with the parade. The fearful never have to watch their back. The fearful can walk into any restaurant or bar and never worry what face may appear to confront them. What face may appear to haunt them? I have a world of respect for the fearful, Jake. Respect and envy.”
“I’ve acquired a collection of the truth, Jake. Boxes of photos and documents and signatures. Flash drives now, in modern times. I’ve got information on the key players of the past forty years and how perfectly they played us all. I’ll soon release this truth. It’s been my insurance policy. It’s time to cash it in.”
“Will it matter, Jake? Will it matter to a world grown so full of fear that no one any longer wants to even approach the line?”
“The worst part of it all is I let myself believe I was doing it for the good. I went south to make some fast money and find a guy and get revenge. The guy I found, he changed my life, I let him ruin and dictate my life and actions. I killed him tonight, Jake. That’s why the cops are looking for me.”
I pull out Unk’s .38, “This gun, Jake, it belonged to my uncle. He was killed in a hit, to send a message to me, maybe forty years ago. I’ve kept this gun with me everywhere. It’s my oldest and most prized possession. I’ve killed many with this gun. With some, I thought I was being a soldier like you, a hero. Others I killed to get even. I’ve pointed it at myself too. I’ve spun the barrel and asked it if it was my time, too. The gun said it was not. This gun told me to go and do more evil. To go cause more damage and death. I used it to kill that guy tonight. You’ll read about it. You’ll read about me in the papers tomorrow.”
Jake looked at me. He was ashen, I could see his hands shaking. Taking a long drink of his beer he said, “You called me a hero. We, my guys, we weren’t that. That was the older guys war. WWII, That was the war where the heroes came marching home down the streets, kissing the girls, making them swoon.”
“I was at My Lai, ever hear of it? The My Lai Massacre, 1968.”
“I came home and they called us baby killers and threw blood on us. I was on my second tour. I fucking loved war.”
“Fucking President Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, the guy leading the war, what was his name? McNamara, that’s it, he said they knew the war was a war we could not win and a waste of life and young men. Only young men die in war, never the old men. They stay home and watch and rally the cause for more war. Richie, in my case, in the case of My Lai, women and babies died.”
“You know when I heard about what fucking Johnson and McNamara thought? Two weeks after the massacre, I was one of the handful not charged in the killing of civilians, I’m back on patrol. Pinned down, I’m lying in mud in a fucking ditch, hot as Hell, almost a hundred degrees, pouring-down fucking rain, two dead guys laying in their blood and shit next to me. Sometimes men shit themselves as they die, I’m sure you know that. There was rats running over my fucking legs, we were pinned down by fire from the Vietcong.”
“My buddy convinced we was about to die, said ‘Just so you know, Jakie, even the motherfucker who sent us here knew this was a goddamn joke. We’ll both be dead soon, you should know they are laughing at us, hoping they can cash out before their game goes bust.’”
“That’s what he said to me, his last words as a bullet blew his brains all over my face. I was no hero either Richie. Please, don’t ever call me a hero. The choppers came in a napalmed the fuck out of those Cong.”
“I spent the rest of my time there selling heroin to the other guys. That’s what I did in the war. I watched good men die and sold heroin to the ones that didn’t die because that’s the only way we could cope with that fucking shithole. I came home and had blood thrown at me and I sold some more dope. Don’t ever call me a hero.”
I looked across the bar at Jake. He poured us each two more shots and spoke again. “War makes rich men richer. Men like you and me, we either die in a ditch with the rats and shit and blood or spend our lives wishing we had. No, my friend. We were both soldiers. We were both sold a line of shit.”
Jake and I drank until well past 2 am. We each curled up in small booths that line the outer walls of the bar - hard red plastic seats. It beat jail, for now, I said to myself. I looked up at Miss December 1978’s ass and imagined now she was somebody’s grandma. Probably baking cookies shaped like reindeer and snowmen and holiday trees...
I woke with the sun. The clock on the wall said 6:30 am. I stumbled to my feet. A heavy, cheap scotch hangover. Jake was still passed out or dead. Hard to tell which. Looking out the window I saw no cops. I am tempted to try to get back to my apartment. I am tempted, I am not stupid. I walked out into the cold sunlight. A small cramped bodega next door had coffee to go, cigarettes and newspapers. I grabbed all three and let myself back in the VFW.
Jake looked rough. He sat at the bar smoking, drinking scotch and water. I walked up to him and handed him a coffee and a paper.
I laughed, “You looked like a black coffee guy to me...”
Jake looked at the headline, then back at me, then the picture on the front page. “Looks like you are in for an interesting afternoon.”
“Yeah,” was all I could offer.
Jakes said, “You think you’ll make it out of town?” The paper says you are driving a late model Toyota, champagne colored. The picture don’t look like you at all.”
“Yeah, the picture they had was me with a shaved head and face. Now with a beard, a hat, some sunglasses and that old Chevy. I might make it.”
Looking out the grimy windows we could see the car.
Ma’s Chevy had a survived a night on the streets of lower Broadway, Newburgh. You’d have to know these streets to fully appreciate the significance of that.
Jakes asked me, “If they come by here, they probably will eventually, you’d better look me in the eye and tell me where you are headed.”
“You are right, my friend. You should know. I’m heading straight down route 95 to the Carolinas, then I’m cutting across to Texas. I’ll cross there into Mexico.”
Jake reached out his hand and we shook. “It was good to meet another old soldier and trade war stories, Richie.”
“Yes, it was, Jake.”
I walked out of the hall and climbed into Ma’s Chevy. The engine started, I hit the gas and got on the NY Thruway headed north, as far from Mexico as I could drive.
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