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Gino Vendetti was nursing a sweaty bottle of Bud. Four ceiling fans along the bar spread the cigarette smoke and a faint odor of beer. Always a few guys from the old high school gang were here. Most had something going. Not Gino. It had been almost two years since Viet Nam, the shoulder wound, the psych ward, and the medical discharge, but he still didn’t have a job worth talking about. Nothing before he lucked out with his Crest View situation, but still far from what he wanted. Before that, his last job was in a warehouse full of loud concrete echoes. Dropped hammers, crowbars, sledgehammers often hit the floor like gun shots. He was opening wooden shipping containers. And Fat Vic, the boss, was always too close, yelling about the clock and pickup deadlines. All of it finally got to Gino. He dropped a hefty mallet on Vic’s toe, grabbed him by the throat, and said in a loud voice that he was done with this shit, and wanted his fucking pay. Now! Vic’s face got red and twisted, the sleepy eyes popped wide: Okay, okay!
Gino looked down at the classified page of the newspaper. It held nothing. As usual. Clicking his ballpoint, in a blank space below a tire ad, he drew a rectangle with one missing side. In the middle he inked a much smaller rectangle and lettered it “pool.” Head tilted, he drew tiny trees behind the three closed sections of the rectangle. In the empty space below the trees he printed “parking lot.” After sipping his beer and checking the sketch, he made a small “x” in the trees. Deep in the bar mirror behind the stacked bottles, he saw his dim self, tired and needing a shave, but that “x” was worth thinking about.
Gino absently twisted his empty bottle of Bud. Froggy, jug-eared and balding, came limping down the other side of the bar. “Hey, that bottle ain’t no lemon, you nutty fuck.” His voice was a deep rasp. “Another Bud?”
“Pleeeze, pleeeeeze, Mr. Croaker Man!!”
Harv and Kenny laughed from the other end. Harv was a hefty, bug-eyed jeweler, tan and cool in his white sport shirt. Kenny had been in high school with Gino but looked younger. Not a jewelry storeowner, but he was dressed for the part and worked in a travel agency. Harv was his uncle and took care of him, got him the job. Gino was thinking that if he was part of that big McCarthy clan, he might have something going. But he was a fucking dago and had no family to back him. Parents divorced and gone when he was just a kid. His VA checks didn’t amount to diddly. And here, putting down another Bud, was Froggy who got this beer joint handed to him by his father, the old man even coming in on weekends to help him out.
“It’s on Harv,” said Frog, pushing back Gino’s dollar bill.
Gino raised the bottle toward Harv and said, “Thanks, amigo.”
“You been hanging out with spiks?”
He said “Si, señor” and got some laughs along the bar.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m working at Crest View Apartments.”
“Painting rooms before new renters move in, mowing the grass, taking care of the pool, and some other handyman stuff.”
Kenny asked, “Wasn’t a car stolen there a few weeks ago?”
“Yup.” Gino nodded. His mind climbed up to the “x” in the trees.
“So how’s the want ads?” asked Harv. “Anything promising?”
“Not much,” said Gino.
“Hey, man, you’ve got to be patient,” said Harv. “Sooner or later you’ll luck out. Takes time. Everything’s a shot in the dark.”
“Hey, Gino,” said Frog, drawing a Miller from the tap, “High school track coach is lookin’ for an assistant. You were a stand-out at track, right?”
“Yeah, I suppose. That might be cool.”
“Well, word is he needs a javelin catcher.”
Harv and Kenny and a few others ripped the hot air with cackles.
“Yeah, and I know somebody who needs a javelin up his ass!”
Gino gulped a mouthful of beer, its taste sharpened by the heat. What the hell. If you spent any time at the Brass Rail, you had to expect the needle. Everyone got it sooner or later. At the right moment, he’d ask Frog why he was such a cheap fuck and wouldn’t get air conditioning for this shit hole? But the Rail was an in-place to kill time, an across-the-board hangout: college jocks, construction guys, a few lawyers, reporters, and teachers. Even some women. They all had something going, and Gino would too. If what he thought might happen happened. You had to get yourself known, like Ben Eliot who just came in. Ben played football in high school, then college, then two years with the Giants until he wrecked his knee. But he was known, and now he had it made at an insurance outfit. Some guys like Kenny had everything handed to them. He probably didn’t even know that Gino had been in Special Forces, could rip out his Adam’s apple in two seconds, and plop it into his bourbon on the rocks.
Meg Fagan came in. A reporter for the Examiner, she was talking to Kenny and Harv. She wore a denim skirt and high black boots. With blond hair streaked in two tones and pulled into a ponytail, she was good-looking. She was maybe a year or two older than Gino, tough too, and could make her way in a place like this. Meg and Gino last week had a few beers together. Hong, a bargirl he met in Saigon, came to mind. Both women were attractive. Hong spoke better French than English. Meg didn’t speak French but she sometimes, as a joke, threw a French phrase into the conversation. Her answers to his questions about deadlines and what it was like being a reporter were interesting and sometimes funny. Sipping his beer, Gino watched her step away from Harv, tilting an ear to the collar of her denim jacket, probably listening to her scratchy cop scanner. She finished talking to Harv, waved to Gino, and quickly made an exit through the kitchen door.
Kenny came over. “Hey, man, wanna play the machine?”
The Budweiser clock above the bar said it was only four thirty. Plenty of light left. Besides, he could probably pick up a few free beers. Kenny was a loser and there was nothing better than seeing him shell out some loot.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll play.” He picked up his newspaper, cigarettes, and beer, and walked down to the end of the bar.
“Low man buys?” Harv looked at Gino, Gino at Kenny.
“Right, low man buys.”
They thumbed quarters into the machine and it sprang to life with a rainbow of flashing lights. Gino liked the chugging sound of old scores being cleared. Everyone began even-steven and then if the puck, like a grenade, went where you wanted it to, boom, you won. You watched it slide down the alley, guided by your skill, your skill against theirs. Even if the stakes were almost nothing, it still gave him a sense of excitement. He deep-dragged on his cigarette and watched Harv’s chubby hand curl around the black puck, his pinkie ringed with gold and a few small diamonds. Gino stared. Christ, the damn thing must be worth a mint.
Harv opened with a strike; Kenny a spare; Gino a strike.
Rubbing his hands, then picking up his beer, he felt a bubble of gas, fought it, lost, and barked like a seal.
Lots of laughs from the bar.
“Real class,” said Kenny.
Gino gulped the rest of his beer and deepened his voice, “Class my ass, we’ll see who wins.”
And they did. Gino had 248. Harv, 220. Kenny, 190. So it went for the next two games until Gino found himself sitting behind two sweating bottles of Bud. He felt good. Maybe a sign that things would turn his way. He didn’t even mind when Kenny clapped him on the back and said with some irony that he was one of a kind.
Harv agreed. “Definitely a winner.”
Stooled up at the end of the bar, he could see everybody. The place was getting crowded and noisy and now Ben Eliot and some other guys were playing the machine. He stared blankly at the lines that humped and changed colors in the Miller’s sign. Kenny and Harv must have taken off through the kitchen where Frog’s father was already grilling hamburgers. He stared again at the Miller’s sign. Shit. He forgot to buy back for Harv. Now they’d be calling him a tight-ass. He drained off the last few inches of beer. Better get out of here.
Frog yelled, “Look into that job.”
At the door, Gino turned, confused. “What job?”
“You know, the javelin-catcher.” Frog’s cackle touched off others. Gino stood as though staring into a shooting gallery, the faces like plates moving in the half dark, meant to be shattered. His right hand reached for something not there and he stumbled into the street followed by laughter, the low orange sun squinting his eyes.
Barefoot and dripping, he stood at the side of the pool, watching the broom-like vacuum as it made slow paths across the bottom. He had already scooped some leaves with the long-handled net. Then he checked the chlorine and PH levels in the water. Sweeps of the blade reminded him of a mine detector he’d used in Nam. Only one thing for sure, doing this he wouldn’t end up red and white shreds of flesh and guts dangling from the bushes. Vacuuming was a peaceful operation, and now that he had jumped in the pool for a few minutes, all the layered heaviness of the day had left his limbs and head. Residents had retreated to their apartments for dinner and it was fairly quiet. Nothing but birds, faraway cars, a few jets passing overhead, and a kid crying. Damn kids—they were the ones who clouded the fucking pool, dropping cookies and other crap in the water, or pissing in it while their fat mamas dangled white feet and yakked away about what?
But Gino liked water, liked to look at it. Sparkling, rolling, or completely still. Sometimes sitting on an upper veranda, he would smoke, gaze at the green pool, try to think of nothing, listen to different bird songs, smell the pines and freshly cut grass, the chlorine, or the scent of steaks being grilled. But the steaks—they brought back napalm and the smell of burnt flesh, the thunder of mortar bursts and gunfire. Otherwise he could just sit and try to keep bad memories at bay. But what did that get you? A cheap room on the other side of the river where you only went to pop a few Xanax and try to sleep, keep some gear, and rarely turn on the lights because he hated to see paint peeling from the blue dresser, dusty curtains, cracked plaster walls, and the sway-back bed with each leg in a can of liquid ant killer. Not even as nice and clean as Hong’s little place in Saigon. He met her in a bar across the street from an opium den. He paid her, but she was sweet, liked him, and let him stay at her place sometimes. On the way there late one afternoon, distant artillery rumbling, he stopped at an alley. A thin stream of blood crossed the pathway. He saw the body, then its head in the gutter. He yanked out his Colt. The street was empty. Quiet. Just a buzz of flies around the head. When he got to Hong’s, she gave him a hug and asked, “”Qu’ est-ce qu’il y a?” But he just shook his head. He couldn’t say.
Coiling the vacuum hose, he looked at the innocent pink fading from the sky above sharp lines of buildings, three wings in the shape of a sharp angled C, then to a point in the trees up on the steep bank behind the parking lot that was still a likely target.
Mike Baron and his wife Linda appeared on the long sweep of grass outside a tall wooden fence enclosing the pool. They began to toss a blue Frisbee. For a few minutes, he watched it sail cleanly in slow curving flights. Just a plastic plate. Simple, beautiful. And the guy who invented that plate was now worth millions. The Barons said hi and asked if he wanted to throw with them. Nice folks.
“Thanks, but I’ve got to paint Number 28 upstairs. People moving in day after tomorrow.”
When he walked off toward the workshop lugging a wet hose, she said something in another language that sounded like the French he heard over in Nam. Different accent. If you knew some French it helped you to get around in Saigon. Before he dropped out, French was the only college class he liked. Baron was some kind of scientist and his wife taught. She was probably from Europe. They were class people. Once he had a drink on their patio and, prompted by some questions, talked about one of his Nam experiences to Baron and two of his friends. They were respectful and only asked a few questions, questions that allowed his humor to vent. This one woman, a real beauty, kept laughing and laughing and said he ought to be a comedian.
“Comedian? Let’s see. When is a linen handkerchief not a handkerchief?”
“We give up.”
“When it’s a snot rag!”
They all laughed.
“Didn’t you learn anything in high school?”
They laughed again. The attractive woman said, “See, I’m right. You’ve got a comic in you.”
Though Baron never actually said so, he could probably get Gino a good job. If Gino only had a college degree. Or if he had made a name for himself.
Dusk automatically turned on the buildings’ outside lights. Lights also came on in town across the river. Ralph Marcus, a slight young man with thick glasses and barely visible eyes, met Gino as he made another trip back from the pool. “Gino, my man,” he chuckled. He had wild black hair except in the front where it flopped over his forehead like fringe on a rug. “What’s up?”
“Up? That’s where I’m going. Upstairs to paint Number 28.”
“The Perkins family already gone?”
“He got a new job, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. White shirt and tie. Some corporation.”
“Hey, man, ambition’s always got a stiff dick.”
They laughed. Ralph liked to joke around. Gino noticed his glasses. “New specs, huh?”
Ralph laughed. “Yeah, well, my old plastic glasses snapped, so I got these to replace them. Everybody’s going frameless these days, so I figured, what the hell. Hey, listen, stop by for a beer later. I want you to meet a few friends.”
“Well, I got this—”
“Come on, Gino, you can make it.”
“Great! See you later.”
He stepped into the storage/work room, into a smell of paint, turpentine, and cut grass matted on the mower blade. He moved sideways through clutter. His head hit a dangling bulb, and the room swayed. Under the workbench was a blue plastic bucket full of rags, appearing and disappearing, where his old friend Charlie hid. Maybe Charlie would come out tonight. Right now an apartment had to be painted. Gino picked up a gallon of Goldseal off-white, a tray, roller, thinner, a speckled drop cloth, then struggled up the stairs of the A-wing.
He stood in the center of an empty living room with hands on his hips to check the job. He rose up and down on the balls of his feet. Nice spongy carpet. Nothing like his dump across the river. Christ, the carpet was softer than his bed. The wall had a few scuff marks and scars he’d have to plaster. With the drop cloth finally spread, he began to paint, smoking and humming as he doubled and stretched. Soon he’d have to take a break, go downstairs, and bring up a ladder. One thing at a time. Too bad he couldn’t look forward to a day’s end when Hong would light him a pipe of opium, then lie down beside him.
Now the walls began to glow, glow with a promise of reward. Bartolo, the boss, came by once a week to talk to tenants and look around. He liked Gino and said so once, called him a good man. “Sure,” said Gino, “we’re both dagos,” and Bartolo broke up. On the outskirts of town, Bartolo was building more apartments—bigger, with tennis courts, indoor/outdoor pools, weight and exercise rooms. And if Gino played his cards right, he could be the new Super when the condo was finished. That’s why he kept Crest View in tip-top shape, and that’s why he’d tell Bartolo tomorrow about his idea for a gate. With steep wooded banks on three sides of the parking lot behind the buildings, all they had to do was put a gate at the side of the A-building that led to the lot. A swinging gate with an electric eye that responded to a punch-in code or a clicker that tenants would have in their cars. Gino could build the thing himself and save Bartolo some loot. Around town a number of cars had recently been stolen. And with some expensive new tenant cars, their lot was a target. A gate was the answer.
The big living room, kitchen, bath, and bedroom went fast. The walls were beautifully white and, still wet, had a high gloss. Gino puffed on his cigarette but it was out, had been dead for some time. Thirsty, he stepped through the sliding door onto the veranda and flicked his butt into the dark hot air. His face was running with sweat that he mopped with his T-shirt. City sounds drifted faintly across the wide river—a roar of cars, loud mufflers, and occasional horns. He swallowed, licked his lips. He let the treetops and river keep him from thinking. He’d go down to Ralph’s for a beer, let the paint dry a bit longer, then come back to check for any skips.
There were about a dozen people in the apartment. Ralph introduced Gino around and he shook hands with everyone. Girls and a flash from the air-conditioner made him feel uncomfortable, but he relaxed after Ralph handed him a green bottle of Heineken. He’d never tried one. The taste surprised him. Great stuff. He felt like chugging the whole bottle. These people were college age, not much older. Mostly brats who wouldn’t know what a hard day’s work was all about. Draft dodgers. They seemed to talk and dress alike: beards, jeans, and work shirts. Strangely interested in him, they asked odd questions. He said a few things about patrols, firefights, mine sweeping—
One of the long-haired guys said, “I read that some of our soldiers cut off and collected the ears of dead Viet Cong. Is that true?”
“You did that?” asked one of the girls.
He shook his head no. “I was a Green Beret.”
“But you saw it happen.”
Somebody else asked, “Were they good eatin’?”
Everybody laughed. Gino too. “Maybe. I never tried one.”
Then he told about nearly getting killed by a mama-san out in a rice paddy, how it was harder to shoot at women. But if you didn’t, they’d shoot you. One of his buddies, Floyd, got killed by a mama-san. Buddies. They had deployed together, were in the same squad, like family. In firefights they had each other’s back. On R & R, they once slept with same bargirl.
“Who went first?” asked Ralph with a wide grin.
They all broke up, except one girl who shook her head and frowned. Some chicks were like that. You could never tell. Too complicated, they were better left alone unless you could talk to them about serious things. Ralph and his friends got lost in an argument about what they were going to do when they got to the upcoming protest out in Chicago. Another young woman said Ralph didn’t have any balls and was afraid to have ideas of his own. Gino didn’t like to hear women talk that way but a lot of them now did—and that’s the way it was. He sipped the tasty Heineken and ran his eyes over goofy paintings on the walls, flipped through Ralph’s records, and fingered the elaborate stereo. He could have gotten one just like it in Japan for a steal when on leave.
The group was discussing this anti-war gathering in Chicago when he finished his beer and was ready to leave, but a familiar voice behind him said, “I was listening to your stories about Nam.”
It was Meg Fagan. “You’re a good story teller.” She handed him another Heineken.
He put the empty on the kitchen counter. “Thank you.”
“Mon plaisir, monsieur. So, ah, who went first with the bargirl?”
He laughed and pointed to his head.
“Concussions. Can’t remember. Probably made that up.”
“You’re a good story teller.”
“But not a reporter. You have to write the truth.”
“This is true.”
They laughed. Meg clicked her bottle against his. “To the truth.”
“Amen. This afternoon I saw you slip out of the Brass Rail. Did you get a story?”
“No story. Some guy got arrested passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill he didn’t print, or even realize was a fake. My editor would say it’s not worth the ink.” She took a sip of her beer. “But you’re worth some ink. Tell me about your discharge. Honorable?”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
“C’mon. Look at that green bottle in your hand. You owe me.”
“Okay. I quit college in my second year. Big mistake. I signed up for four years active duty in the army. Nam was definitely active, especially for a Green Beret.”
“But why quit college?”
“Money. I was running out. And too much abstract stuff. Boring.”
“What were you studying?”
“American lit. Two profs I had were more interested in symbolism and theories than characters and the value of their stories. French was my favorite course in college. And it helped me get around in Vietnam.”
“We’ve got something in common.”
“I know. We drink too much.”
She laughed and gave him a soft punch in the shoulder. “No. I was going to say that I studied literature too.”
“Maybe you had better teachers.”
“Do you think now that what you did as a mistake?”
Gino laughed. “Are you recording this interview?”
“No.” She laughed and patted herself. “No recorder.” Arguments about the Chicago gathering got louder. Meg pulled Gino around the corner toward the front door.
Gino said, “Hey, you do what you’ve got to do.”
“And I’ve got to get a story that might make front page and give me a boost, get my name out there. Then my editor might give me an office of my own.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you about Nam. And I won’t kill you, but right now I’ve got to get upstairs and finish painting an apartment. What are you doing here?”
“You know Patty Connors?”
“She lives here in A-Building?”
“Right. She’s an old friend of mine. Anyway”—her mouth widened into smile—“we’ve got a deal. Meet you at the Rail tomorrow afternoon.”
Shit! Something had happened to the white walls. There were dark streaks here and there. Gino walked through the kitchen and bedroom. Same thing. What the hell? Then something, a movement in the kitchen corner caught his eye. As he got closer, it flapped on the floor—a bat, smeared with white paint. He pinned its wings and flinched when it made a high-pitched cry. He studied its little ratty face with needle teeth and tossed it from the window where it entered. His own fault. He should have noticed. Stupid Perkins left the fucking bathroom window open and there was no screen. Son-of-a-bitch! Now he’d have to touch up all those bat spots. No choice. In the living room, he poured paint into the tray and began to roll it over places on the wall. Only this time he didn’t hum while working. Megan. He liked being with her more than anyone else. In some ways, she reminded him of Hong, but he felt he could talk to Meg, talk about anything.
When he finished, it was past two. Still hot. In the storage/workshop, he cleaned the brush and paint roller and washed his hands with turpentine. Then he smoothed mosquito repellent on his face and neck. From a blue plastic bucket, he lifted rags and pulled out Charlie, a nicely balanced Colt .45 that had belonged to Wayne, another dead buddy in his squad. In Vietnam, a firearm was the best friend who always stayed with you. Gino had two friends—Charlie and his M-16. One time he and Wayne were coming back from a stinky latrine on the firebase. It was after sunset when they saw a tiger crouched ahead of them almost hidden in the grass. Then it sprang up. They fired over the cat’s head, but it kept coming until they dropped it and became famous among their buddies. “Hey, here come the Tiger Men!” Gino put on a long-sleeve work shirt. He made sure Charlie was on safety and stuck him under his belt.
In the dark parking lot, he could see most window lights in the buildings were out. Air conditioning units purred softly. It was not as hot now. Quiet, peaceful. The steep wooded bank loomed above. A quarter moon revealed a jagged line of trees and bushes. He climbed the slim path he’d trampled on other nights up there waiting with his back against a tree. The butts he smoked now lay like pieces of a puzzle glowing whitely in the dark. He sat and tried to get himself comfortable. Crickets chirped. Several spaces in the lot below were empty. People gone on vacation. His car stolen a month ago, Stone finally got himself a new green Mustang. Cool muscle car. Probably bought it after listening to “Mustang Sally” at a party. Definitely a cool tune. Now Wilson Pickett had a big hit and a name for himself. Gino breathed in the relaxing scent of honeysuckle until he began to yawn. Then he drew up his legs and leaned back against a tree. He smoked to stay awake. He remembered night-watch duty and the painterly calm of rice paddies reflecting the sky. During the day, doubled-over, mothers and daughters were there working in the sun. Cigarette crushed out, he dropped his head to his knees, and fell into an old dream. Rifle flashes. VC splashing toward his position. Bullets licked past his head then stung his shoulder. His eyes snapped open, and he wondered if he had screamed. A few seconds and the lot below him began to focus. Some sounds separated themselves from crickets. An idling car was aimed at the lot exit, lights off. A blue Chevy. Gino lifted the binocs and got the plate: TTZ1223. There was a guy ducking around cars. He stopped at Olsen’s new Audi. He had a slim jim and began to work it between the door glass and frame, going for the lock. Not Olsen for sure.
This was it. He bounced to his feet and eased his way down the path. As soon as he hit the lot, he fired one shot into the sweltering night.
“Move and you’re fucking dead!”
The waiting car lurched ahead spitting gravel. Gino fired one shot at the car shattering the rear window, then quickly aimed Charlie at the guy with the slim jim still in his hand. In A-building, some lights turned on, and a head came out one window. Gino looked up and yelled, “Call the cops!” When he looked back, Slim Jim was on the run. Gino fired a warning shot. The guy was heavy, not that fast on his feet, and went around the corner of A-building. No place to hide by the pool. When Gino rounded the corner of the building, the guy was nowhere in sight. Where had he gone? Gino moved ahead slowly.
From an upper balcony, somebody yelled, “He’s in the bushes!”
The guy broke from the bushes and headed for the street. Gino ran after him, then stopped. Charlie barked again, but the guy kept going.
“Stop or the next won’t miss!” Gino stopped running. He crouched, left hand holding his right wrist. The discharge made his ears ring, but Slim Jim fell and bounced about like a broken toy. He yelled and groaned, “Okaay! Okaay!”
Gino moved ahead slowly. The guy was wearing black shorts. Gino could see where the bullet hit his thigh, blood leaking, not spurting. Good. The guy was groaning, but still gripping the slim jim. He had long hair. “You didn’t have to shoot me, you fuck! Ahhh.”
“Lucky you weren’t in a rice paddy, man. You’d be fucking dead.”
“Rice paddy? You crazy?”
Non, pas fou. Et toi, sale con?”
“You are crazy.”
Gino wagged the .45 back and forth. “No, but my friend Charlie here is kind of edgy. He wants to shoot you right between the eyes, but I won’t let him.”
The guy’s expression became more frightened.
The trees sighed with a breeze. Sirens wailed closer now. Gino knew he’d soon be looking at and talking to lots of cops. It was late, but he hoped Meg had her scanner on and could make it to the scene. Cops would have lots of questions. But the guy had a slim jim. Gino would say it was self-defense. The guy turned on him swinging the slim jim. Thin, the thing looked like a sword. And he was part of the car-thief crew that had been plaguing the city for months. Charlie wasn’t legally registered, but Gino would tell a story to memorialize his buddy Wayne, killed in Nam. And he had a license plate number for the other car thief to give to the cops. Gino felt good and knew good things would begin to happen.
Copyright 2022 Peter Makuck
Peter Makuck’s many books include Wins and Losses (Syracuse, 2016).
I will look forward to meeting you on July 11
Ah, mon vieux, “You’ve got a comic in you.” Et un superbe raconteur to boot. LOVE this, friend!
Yes, I do too.