When I was seven years old my grandpa bought me a GI Joe. I had to ‘be good’ for a month for it, and let’s be clear here: ‘be good’ kind of wasn’t my thing at seven years old. I was a Colchester, Connecticut farm kid and, at the time, ‘be good’ to me was more “don’t push your cousin out of the hay loft before warning him (or her)” than actually doing chores and, well, let’s face it: tricking my sister into eating worms.
After thirty days with a clean face and ears, not bloodying up any cousins and my sister being on a diet of store-bought food, I was ready to bust and, when grandpa took me down to the department store and actually bought me that GI Joe, well, it was Christmas in July.
It wasn’t even twenty-four hours later that the Barnesly boys down the road had come over, saw me with playing with a new toy, asked to see it and then decided that they needed it more than me.
I could have called my mom, and she would have called their mom, and their mom would have beat those boys for stealing and made them give me back my toy, but I just knew that the moment I walked away they were going to beat the hell out of that GI Joe, and then it would be ruined and every time I saw it, all I’d think about was how they got over on me. All of my life, my father had told me, “Be a man, be strong, stand up for yourself. Don’t let the rest of the world push you around.” When those three boys took that toy, I could hear those words as plain as if my dad were standing right there, so I screwed up my courage and straightened my back, stood up to the biggest one of them (who was all of ten) and squared off on him.
“Give it back,” I demanded. My voice wavered and my hands shook; I had wanted so bad to cry.
“No,” the other boy said, confidently. As he spoke, one of the other boys knelt down behind me so that his brother could push him. The last of the three stood back and laughed.
We were in my front yard – the house being one of those that crouched up close to the road so that as much acreage as possible was useful for the farm. Once in a while a pickup truck or an old car would rumble down our road, and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone on horseback, but you never saw a pedestrian because all of the kids knew all of the shortcuts between the properties and the adults were just too darn busy to do much walking, and so it really stuck in my mind that a dark-skinned man was watching us from across the street, standing in the shade of an old elm tree, dressed in a trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat.
I even thought to call out to him, because when you’re seven all adults are omnipotent to you and they can fix any problem, but that’s when the oldest of the three boys pushed me.
I distinctly remember the hands on my chest, the pressure of the boy behind me as the backs of my calves hit his mid-section, the fear, the humiliation and then the anger that this was happening to me.
And then something went click, and all I remembered was the color red. Where I should have fallen, I recovered and, in fact, had the peace of mind to drive my heel into the fingers of the boy behind me, breaking three of them. He screamed, I rolled, my back against his for a second, and I was on my feet again and facing off against the larger boy.
That boy straight-up attacked. It should have been an easy victory but he fought one-handed, wanting to protect his prize. I went berserk – straight up, black-Irish crazy like a true son of Cu Chulain. I don’t know if it was an Irish thing where genes dormant for generations were awakened by the actions of an outsider, or if it was dad’s voice telling me to stand up for myself, or the pent of anger of taking crap off of my cousins, but I launched myself at the larger boy, all thought of toys forgotten, and I remember that it wasn’t going to be good enough to beat him, even to get the toy back – that boy needed to bleed, to have scars, to bear a mark for having put me in this situation.
Fight for what is yours. Be a man!
The next thing I knew, my mom was pulling me off of that boy and his mom was screaming. The one who’d been behind me stayed on the ground and the third had run. I had blood in my blonde hair, my face, my hands, and my clothes, very little of it mine.
The general understanding was that one had stood against three and won.
The figure from across the street was gone. I don’t know what he wanted – maybe he just got off on the fighting, or maybe it’s him who went for help, though the adults never mentioned it. It would be a long time before I saw him again.
Nine years later I was standing on a soccer field, waiting for starting whistle, facing off against the team from the local Catholic High School.
I’d come straight from a fight with my girl friend, something stupid had got me to accuse her of cheating on me. She’d denied it, but earlier that week her best friend had informed me that she had gone straight to one of my best friends after school for three days, a boy who went to this same Catholic School. I felt like I should have known! No one who said they loved someone like she claimed to love me really did. I’d really liked that girl, and here she was, cheating on me with one of my best friends.
Be strong, I’d told myself. Fight for what is yours.
The whistle blew, both sides charged. By this time I was pushing six feet and one hundred and eighty pounds, all of it farm muscle. I had this maneuver where I’d plant my foot on the ball a second before someone else would kick it, and they’d trip and fall. They made that maneuver illegal in my honor because you could break someone’s ankle doing that. Their center didn’t break his ankle but he snorted about a yard of sod as I blew past him for the goal, the crowd cheering.
Give you one guess whom their goalie was.
I drove down the field, took a check on the hip and forearmed another kid. Our schools were rivals so no one expected a clean game with All State coming up. I remember that kid grinning from the goal. He was short where I was tall, he was classic Italian with black hair and brown eyes and olive skin, I was more Irish fair-skinned and blue-eyed with blonde hair. We were different and we were the same – before he’d gone to Catholic he and I had played this game all year round, to the point where I could think of him being where I needed him, and he’d be there; where I’d sense that he was in a jam and my feet brought me there.
I think that all of that just made it worse. How could he be seeing my girlfriend? How could she put the two of us in a position like this?
In a corner, beneath the bleachers, a dark figure in an overcoat was watching the game. He stood out the way that someone who is trying too hard to blend in stands out. I caught him for a second out of the corner of my eye. Same overcoat, same wide-brimmed hat, same dark skin. He had some kind of long nose and his eyes seemed almost yellow to me, but I’m sure that’s just a trick of the light, or having sweat in my own eyes, or something. I looked at him, then I looked back at the ball, and once again my world turned red.
I slammed past another defender, then I had a bead on the goalie. He grinned at me – I actually remember him smiling. For some reason I thought of the older Barnesly brother smiling when he had my GI Joe, thinking I could never get it back. That kid actually lost part of his ear that day, and I had nightmares about the fight for a month.
It’s like something took my brain in its fist. The goalie turned larger than life – a monster in a green soccer uniform. I got within four feet of him at a dead run, right to the edge of the goalie’s box, and I kicked that ball as hard as I could.
I didn’t try to get it past him, I drove the ball straight at his face. He could have had hands made of steel and he wouldn’t have been able to stop that ball with that much force behind it. It bent back his thumbs and forefingers and caught him square between the eyes. He did a back-flip and the ball actually got stuck in the net behind him. Our side of the field cheered and their side booed. The ref didn’t flag me – in retrospect he should have had me arrested.
They had to rouse the kid with smelling salts, then he had to leave the game. I heard later that he was seeing double and it wouldn’t stop. I didn’t hear it from him. The Catholic school lost that game and so did I from another perspective, though I didn’t know it at the time. My friend never spoke to me again and his parents went broke trying to find a way to get his sight fixed. Last I heard he was selling men’s clothes because you can do that with bad eyesight.
The guy in the trench coat stayed and watched the whole game. He never said a word to me. I went looking for him afterward and he was gone. No one remembered seeing him, either, which is strange because this was a high school game.
As for my girlfriend – she became my former friend’s girlfriend. The girl who’d told me about her became mine. Turns out that she’d made the whole thing up. The two of them were seeing each other, but it was totally innocent. When I found that out, I spent a year cheating on her and getting her to take me back, so that I could cheat on her again. It became kind of a joke around the school, culminating in me taking someone else to prom when I graduated.
It was a pretty crappy thing to do, and I’m ashamed of it, but there’s a part of me that keeps telling me she had it coming.
In another reality, a dark being sat his throne atop a cold mountain, the wind whistling past him from nowhere to nowhere else.
Before him, the god Anubis imagined an artifact that would change another world.
Together they watched their blond protégé fail through the next part of his life. They watched him go to college on a soccer scholarship, and sent him a woman who would break his heart.
When he loved the woman they took her away. When he rose up from the heartbreak, they crushed his academic dreams.
When he didn’t become despondent over failing at college, they sent him a woman to love him with all of her heart, and they watched as he destroyed her.
“He is heartless and cruel,” War commented.
“As you required,” Anubis countered.
“And you have done everything you could to beat him down, to make him fail?”
“You know the truth of this,” Anubis informed him. “Other boys cannot beat him. Women who love him fill his heart with venom. Failure forced on him only encourages him to be more ruthless.”
War nodded, much as he did not have a body. Unlike Anubis, who had form, War existed as a concept in reality, not a man or beast. His power was the force of his being.
“I think one more test for this one,” War hissed, “to prove that he is, indeed, your invincible warrior. Then you must turn him to your cause.”
Anubis nodded his lupine head. He knew what must be done.
I flexed my right arm and, as expected, the bolt broke off in the engine block. God damn it!
Bobby-the-idiot-boy, my Service Advisor, stood right there, too. I heard him suck air through his teeth. I shook my head and put the 12-mm Crescent wrench back in the toolbox, using my left.
Naval Nuclear Power had taught me to put my tools back. Being ambidextrous let me use both hands. I was standing under the Chevy on the lift, smelling the good grease smell that comes with an engine.
“Can you fix it?” Bobby asked.
No, dumbass, we’ll have to buy this car from the owner now. What Bobby meant was, “Can you fix it in such a way that I can get out of telling the customer that there is a bolt broken off in his car.”
“It’s in the block. Maybe I can drill it out, but odds are we’ll have to tap a helical. It’s a water pump bolt. If we can’t make it tight the water pump will leak.”
Too much information for Bobby to process. I looked into his vacant green eyes and re-explained that there was a chance I could get the bolt out, but if not we would have to rethread a bigger hole into the engine’s block. Otherwise the water pump, which needs to make a good seal against the head, would leak. He waddled off to tell the customer what had happened and that we should be able to fix it.
I shook my head and got an air drill out. A lot of people don’t realize it but a drill with a burring-bit, put in reverse, will often pull a broken bolt far enough out of the engine that you can put a vice-grip to it and get it out the rest of the way without damaging the threads. If that doesn’t work, with a steady hand you can drill a bit into the bolt, heat it and put a wrench to that, and loosen it enough so that you can back-drill the bolt out. With welding equipment available you could also weld a washer to the end of the broken stud and then weld a nut to the washer to achieve the same goal without the risk, but then you have to go get the welding equipment, and that’s a pain in the ass.
Only a Navy guy used to being a few hundred miles away from the nearest hardware store would think this way. The ship isn’t going to swing into a floating Ace Hardware if you can’t save a part.
I could have shared all of this with Bobby, but he wouldn’t have understood it. Dealerships don’t like to hire mechanics to be Service Advisors - they tell the customers too much. That problem didn’t weigh too heavily on Bobby.
“Randy come to the Service Manager’s office,” the loudspeaker announced. I put the drill back and swore under my breath, heading across the long, open garage to Wayne the Service Manager’s corner office. Freaking narc Bobby –he had covered his ass at my expense before. I had only been here six months and this made seven times that he hadn’t understood what he saw and told the Service Manager on me.
Truth is: I’m a pretty good mechanic. Naval Nuclear Power School and Mechanic’s Apprenticeship School do a lot to teach the skills you need to fix machines. Most dealership mechanics, however, are really just parts-changers. I’m different and Bobby doesn’t like it because I take too long on the cars. They never come back with the same problem, though, so the Manager cut me slack.
“We have to talk, Randy,” Wayne said as he closed his office door. Bobby watched nervously outside through the huge glass window that Wayne cleaned every day. Bright sunshine shone through it now, hot on my skin and my red polo shirt. I could smell the ammonia cleaner.
“About a broken bolt?” I asked him. Wayne was a former mechanic himself. He was a smaller, darker version of me, with one of those moustaches that are common among old-style Italians. He had a temper but he usually didn’t flip out over stuff like this. Bolts break, there isn’t a lot you can do but fix them. It’s part of the job. If Bobby were better he could have sold this to the owner.
“No, not about the bolt,” he said. I looked into his eyes and knew right then where this would go, and that I was fired. He said, “Sit down,” and I sat.
I sighed. Freaking Navy catching up with me again. Never stops, ever.
“Randy Morden, 22, former Navy Nuclear Technician, Machinist Mate Second Class, Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist,” he read to me from my personnel file, as if I didn’t already know it. “Dishonorably discharged, U.S. Navy, for assault on an officer.”
He looked up from the page he held, his brown eyes meeting mine.
“You didn’t mention your Navy career, Randy,” he said.
“So you ran my social,” I countered.
Wayne slapped my personnel folder down on his desk. “Hell, yeah, we ran it, we have to run it! You think we don’t run a criminal check on everyone here? You could be a car thief, Randy.”
“I’m no thief.”
“No, but you were dishonorably discharged from the Navy last year.”
“Not for stealing.”
“It doesn’t matter, Randy – the company has a policy. No dishonorable discharges."
“That is such bullshit, Wayne. I am one of the best mechanics in here – “
“No, Randy, you aren’t,” Wayne looked me right in the eye. “You’re slow and you care too much. I kept you because you work a full day and don’t have any come-backs, but you’ll never do better than $2,000 a month in here.”
“Not now, anyway.”
“No, not now,” Wayne agreed. “Effective immediately, you are terminated, Randy. You can pick up your paycheck in two weeks – “
“Two weeks? Payday is Friday, in two days.”
Wayne shook his head. “Policy – we hold the paycheck against any of your work that comes back – the state says we can hold it for two weeks and we do.”
I stood. I wanted to hit him so bad I could taste it, but it wasn’t his fault. Besides, my temper is what put me in this mess.
I am six foot, two inches tall, weigh two hundred forty pounds and can bench my weight. I have blond hair past my ears and blue eyes. In the Navy they called me “The Viking.” I have a bad temper, and everyone who knows me knows that. I am not proud of it but I’m not afraid of it, either. A man has to stand up for himself in this world.
So when a Nuclear-unqualified ensign tried to operate a set of valves on my watch, I yelled at him. I shouldn’t have done that, but if he had operated the valves, he would have released radioactive liquid waste into San Diego harbor. He didn’t know that, but he did know better than to operate a valve on someone else’s watch.
But I yelled at him, and ensigns are very self-conscious, especially when they are really new. He wanted to set a precedent, so he ignored me, and I smacked his hand away from the valve.
No one would have said a damn thing about that. Part of my job is to guard my watch – in fact, he got a record entry into his fitness evaluation for trying to operate the valves. However, he didn’t like having his hand smacked, so he shoved me.
I flattened him. With an eighty-pound weight advantage one punch broke his jaw. Coincidentally he cracked his skull and got a concussion when his head hit the metal decking. He had to wear a head brace for two months, I’m told.
I wasn’t around to see it – I went to court martial. There is a thing called “non-judicial punishment,” or “Captain’s Mast,” where the Captain can just hand out punishment. He would have taken some of my pay for a couple months and dropped me down a pay grade that I could have gotten back in a year. But all I could hear in my mind was “stand up and fight for yourself,” so I insisted on court martial.
In court martial the ensign swore that he never touched me. The idea that he would straight-out lie had never crossed my mind. He said that he had operated the valve and I hit him. They found me guilty and dishonorably discharged me from the Navy for assault on an officer. Busted to E-1 so that I could only get a couple bucks a week from unemployment.
And the day I left the ship, with my chief and my division officer walking me off, I saw the Captain, and I looked him right in the eye and said, “You know I didn’t hit him like he said. You know that I don’t deserve what I got.”
And he looked me right back in the eye, and he said, “Yes, I do – and I know for a fact that candy-ass lied. But you had to take on the whole Navy over it, and guess what? The whole Navy won. Big surprise, Morden – now go live the rest of the life you just screwed up.”
I didn’t hit the Captain because he was right and I was wrong. I didn’t hit Wayne for the same reason. If it were up to him, he would have given me cash on the spot. But he had a job to do, and now I didn’t.
I wouldn’t let that sort of thing beat me. If I knew nothing else, I knew that. There is always something bad out there about to happen. A man can run and hide or he can face it with only himself to blame.
I went behind the garage and got my beat-to-hell pickup truck. Only my working here had kept it alive. It occurred to me that I had almost put a new manifold gasket on it during lunch. Good thing I didn’t, I would be pushing it home now. I brought the truck to my workspace and started loading my tools into the bed.
Brad, the shop senior mechanic, walked over, wiping his hands with a pink rag. He was about 32, tall and angular with a short beard and curly, red hair – kind of like a rusty, wire brush with glasses. He had tried to get close to me here, inviting me out after work for a beer or to his house for a barbecue. I think I had been waiting for this day and I had kept him at arm’s length.
“He canned ya, huh?”
I just kept loading my tools. Someone already had a drill to that bolt in the engine block. It wasn’t my job anymore so I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” I said when he didn’t walk away.
“Not over that?” he asked, pointing out the engine with his jaw.
“Nah,” I said. “Past history catching up with me.”
“Oh? You get busted or something?”
“I didn’t know you were in. What branch?”
“Ah – where are you going to go now?”
“Dunno – they won’t pay me.”
“Not for two weeks – you won’t get all of it, either.”
I looked at him. “No?”
“Nah. They will pay him out of your pay to tap that helical, plus anything else you didn’t finish – if you’re lucky you’ll get half.”
“Guess I’ll be sleeping in this truck, then, because I won’t make rent.”
“Got family you can go to?”
“Nah, you don’t have family, or nah, you won’t go.”
I looked at him again. “You writing a book? Leave that chapter out, huh?”
Brad narrowed his eyes. “Look, you know they’ll call every garage in town about you, right?”
I knew they did that, but I didn’t say anything. The garages here were pretty tight, especially the dealerships. I might be able to get a job at an off-road place, but they don’t have a lot of work and they don’t really pay much.
“So, if you want to sell me those tools, I’ll buy them from you. You have a lot of stuff that I broke and never replaced.”
I looked at my toolbox. When I got out and found out that no one decent would hire a DHD, I worked construction. It paid pretty well in season, all under the table, and I made enough to buy these tools at a pawnshop. When it got too cold to do construction I came here. I would be going back to construction now. They were hiring. I’m big, and they like big guys.
I didn’t want to do construction, I wanted to fix things. I wanted to create with my hands and my mind. I wanted to use tools.
I wanted to sleep indoors too.
“Cost me six.”
I sighed. “Probably. Cash?”
Brad had the money on him – which meant that Wayne had told Brad before me. It didn’t surprise me; he likely had to make sure I didn’t bust up the place. Mechanics did that, sometimes. It also didn’t surprise me that they hadn’t let me near the cars I had started, either. Too good a chance I would break them all for spite.
I would love to think that I would have, but I know better. I would have done the same job that I always had, fixed them right so that they wouldn’t come back. That is just my way and, quite frankly, there are worse ways to be.
I took his money, jumped in the truck and drove off without saying good-bye to anyone. I hadn’t gotten close to any of the other mechanics. As I passed Bobby’s car I saw him sneaking a sandwich that he brought from home for 3 p.m. when his appetite got to him. He looked up at me with a mouth full of food and big round cheeks, like a hamster dressed in people clothes.
And I thought to myself “Him they want to work here”
Rent was $150 per week, so I paid for a whole week. Then I put another hundred in the box spring of my bed, and put the rest in my pocket. A night out maybe wasn’t the best idea I ever had, but I’d had a bitch of a day.
I bought myself a steak dinner downtown, and had a couple beers with it. The waiter turned his nose up at my decision to turn down his wine recommendations, but I didn’t hear an offer from him to chip in on it, either.
I can’t afford to drink much so the beers really hit me. I pushed myself up from the table, paid the bill cash with a tiny tip, and stumbled out the door. I’d driven here and I didn’t need to compound my situation with a DUI, so I decided to take a walk around the block.
I must have still been angry about what happened that day because the people I passed tended to look in my face and then get out of my way. I also wasn’t in much of a mood to justify myself to any of them so I just kept walking. The sun had set and the street lights were on. Cold night air blew against my face; the city smells of car exhaust and open dumpsters in a restaurant district filled my nose.
I was passing by a parking lot when I heard someone say, “That’s pretty funny,” and then I heard a dog yelp.
I don’t know why but that got my attention. I looked to my left and I saw four guys standing around in a circle.
They laughed and the dog yelped again.
I crossed a short, wrought-iron fence and passed two lines of parked cars, and then I saw what I was hoping I wouldn’t see: four guys kicking a dog.
Something just burned inside of me when I laid eyes on that. Who does that? Who the hell needs to see some animal suffer for their jollies? I stepped past the third line of cars and called out, “Hey!” at the four guys.
They looked up from the dog toward me. They were guys in their early twenties like me, better dressed than I was, probably guys who’d stopped off for a drink together after work on a Friday.
I expected them to scatter but they didn’t. If anything they looked as irritated with me as I was with them – as if they were saying, “Who are you to talk to us without permission?”
“We don’t have any money for you, hobo,” one of them, a light-skinned black guy, announced. The others chuckled.
The dog tried to get up and one of them pushed it back down with his foot.
“You don’t want to touch that dog again,” I said.
One of the other guys, a white guy in a grey suit with a red tie and white shirt, his brown hair cut close to his scalp, grinned, turned, and just kicked the dog under the jaw. It yelped, turned in a circle and whimpered.
“The fuckin’ dog pissed on the tire of my brand new car,” another, also white, said. “You better take a walk, pal, or you’re going to get what he’s going to get.”
You grow up on a farm, you learn to respect animals. Even the food animals like cows and chickens and pigs – they’re going to die, but you don’t want to see them suffer. The life you make for yourself costs them theirs.
But dogs are special. A good dog guards your crop all night from the varmints that would eat it. A dog protects you from what might come to eat your herd. He’s your companion, he’s your friend. He works right beside you for no other reason than because he can.
“I’m telling you one more time to get away from that dog,” I told them.
I started walking, they lined up between me and the dog. It didn’t run away, and then I saw why. They’d already broken his leg.
I’m not ashamed to say, I lost it. It was too much. I’d gotten kicked out of the Navy for no damn good reason, I’d gotten fired for no good reason, now here I was going to have to work through the whole, hot summer on someone else’s property for no good reason, trading sweat for pennies, because all I ever did was to try to work for someone else and then stand up for myself.
No. Not only no, but hell no! I charged forward and I engaged.
The first guy caught me in the stomach with his right. I reached out and took him by the side of the head with my left hand, and punched him square between the eyes with my right. Another of them leapt at me and caught me around the shoulders, trying to drive me to the ground with his weight.
If I didn’t have fifty pounds on him, that might have worked. As it was, I caught him in the chest with my right elbow and punched the guy coming up behind him with my left fist. The first guy was staggering to the ground, shaking his head, when the fourth guy punched me in the head.
The guy with his arms around my shoulders tried to drag me to the ground, circling behind me and pulling back. The fourth guy, the black one, hit me in the stomach, then again, and again, then looked up at me and smiled, as if to say, “This is what you get, aren’t you sorry now?”
I pasted him once in the mouth, then in the throat in a left-right combination. He stepped back, both hands on his neck, and I could see the third guy had chosen the better part of valor and had taken off.
I reached my right hand behind me, found the back of the second guy’s head, and then flipped him over my shoulder. He landed on his feet and I took him by the hair and punched him in the back of the head, right behind the ear. He dropped like a stone.
The dog whimpered again. I turned and he was laying by the guy I’d punched in the throat. For all of the pain the poor animal was in, he laid his head on that guy’s leg and his tail thumped the ground. His broken leg lay twisted out behind him.
The guy was making some kind of gasping noise. I’d probably hurt him pretty badly. The first one lay quiet on the ground, and the fourth lay next to him. They were amateurs. I took a step toward the dog, wondering if I had enough money to afford a vet.
“Stop right there!” I heard behind me. I turned and saw two uniform cops with their weapons drawn, and that third guy standing behind them.
“So you was defending a dog?” the big cop asked me. He was black, overweight, dressed in over-tight pants and an over-loose jacket. His stomach poked out three inches past his belt line and strained the last two buttons of his white shirt. His tie looked like a test pattern and his breath proved that coffee could get rancid.
“They were stomping it,” I said, not looking at him.
“They said they found it that way,” the cop informed me. “They say they were trying to get it into their car when you came up, tried to mug them.”
“I want a lawyer,” I told him.
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll get you one, one is on the way, but while he gets here, let me tell you something.
“Them boys you beat up? One of them was a fellow officer’s brother. And that punch you gave him in the neck? Well, he died.”
No way! I didn’t hit him that hard.
I looked up at him. He wasn’t lying. “I don’t want to talk to you until I hear from my lawyer.”
“Well, you’re poor, so you get you a prime, public defender. And when he is through seeing his other thousand valued customers, I am sure he will get around to you.
“And I bet, with all that long, blond hair, they gonna love you in prison, Randy Morden, dishonorable discharge, U.S. Navy, because it’s four against one, and they sent that dog to the pound, so he ain’t talkin’.”
The cop grinned again, turned around and left. Two hours later, when the public defender, an overworked, greasy-haired white woman with coke-bottle glasses, finally arrived, she told me the exact same thing. She may get me off with manslaughter, but the DA wanted Murder Two and odds were that I would do no less than ten years.
And she let me know that they were putting down the dog.
I lay in a dirty little cot, in a dirty little cell, in local lock up. A single bulb burned above me, a stainless steel toilet ran to my right. The whole place stank of urine and fear.
My cellmate was a big, dark-haired, dusky weightlifter-type. I don’t know if I could have beaten him in a fair fight. I resolved not to fight fair if he pressed me, but so far he just stared at me.
After about two hours of this, he finally said, “You dat murderin’ white boy?”
“Why, you going to do something to make me want to kill you?”
He put up his hands, “No, no! I saw you on the news, man! Say you killed a man,” he snapped his fingers, “didn’t take you nothin’.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, wondering if I should just pick the fight and get it over with. It occurred to me that, at its very best, the rest of my life would be like this. Fighting other people to be one step up from the bottom. No money, no future, no fair shake – and no one to blame but my damn self. I seemed preordained to screw up.
As if he read my mind, the other man said, “They say you a lifetime loser, man. They say you kicked out of the Navy, say you have an ax to grind, that they going to lock you up.”
“Whatever,” I said, hoping he would just shut up. But he didn’t.
“No, man – don’t you be giving up, now. You look at me, and what you see?” He spread his arms wide, his big chest rippling underneath a loose-fitting cotton shirt. “Just another bruddah, huh? Well, I tell you something, you’d be wrong, man!”
And he leaned close to me, so I could smell his breath, and unlike the cop’s, his smelled sick, sweet like dead things smell, like his insides were dead even though he kept moving on the outside.
“I am my own religion, man,” he whispered, his eyes sparkling.
Oh, man! “Look, I had enough of Jesus freaks in the Navy-“
“Pah, don’t tell me ‘bout no Jesus, man – this ain’t about no Jesus. I’m an Egyptian, man. I’m the last high priest of Anubis, and I tell you, man, Anubis can walk you right out through these bars like they wasn’t here, man.”
“Yeah, well, I am the Green-Freaking-Lantern, myself, man, so I don’t need no Jesus and I don’t need no Anubis, either.”
The other man shook his head. I didn’t know what an Egyptian looked like so I didn’t know if he was one. If so, then he was the biggest one I ever saw. I didn’t look forward to him going on about his god all night.
Most of what he had to spew covered not giving up, about faith. That pissed me off worse than anything, because giving up wasn’t on my itinerary. I wasn’t giving up. I might not beat this – those guys were going to lie, like that junior officer had – but that didn’t mean it could beat me.
As for faith – I didn’t want to hear it. God didn’t care about me.
“Look, shut up, OK?”
“Oh, you don’t want to hear about Anubis – you don’t want to be free of this place?”
“Sure, I want to be free of this place, but you know what? That ain’t gonna happen. I killed a cop’s brother to save a dog, so quite frankly, your Anubis is about all that could get me out of this situation if he were real, which he isn’t. And like the rest of the world, he doesn’t have any reason to help me.”
I’d had enough of religious people in the Navy. This belief that ‘god’ comes out and helps you for no reason. A nice fantasy, but nothing in my life ever went that way and I didn’t doubt that nothing ever would.
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, man. You have had a whole destiny that brought you to me right now. So if none of it ain’t your fault, and if you could believe in Anubis, then he would have a reason for getting you out of here.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “What reason? Why should he be any different than anyone else?”
“You fought the just cause, man,” he said. “You coulda kept walkin’, but you didn’t. You a warrior, man! You fought for the one who couldn’t fight for himself.”
“If he took you out of here, would you be willing to believe in him, then, man?” The Egyptian’s eyes shone bright – obviously, this is what he had been working toward all along. He stood a good three feet from me now and still I could smell the sick-sweet reek from his breath. I felt exhausted, tired of fighting, tired of being fought, tired of the cards life had dealt me and how I had played them.
I’d fought for the dog, but they killed it anyway. What did its suffering really matter? What did anything matter now?
“Sure,” I told him. “Sure, mother fucker – if Anubis can get me through these bars right now, then I’ll convert. You got your warrior.”
“Then give me your hand, man,” he told me and he reached out a huge black paw to me.
I reached up from where I sat and I knew that doing this must be fundamentally wrong. I looked at those dark, clutching fingers and watched them enfold my lily-white hand. That grip felt as cold as a tomb, as if he had been holding ice, but dry and rough like sandpaper. I watched him with his hand holding mine as he reached up his other hand, the palm up, toward the one overhead light in the ceiling.
He looked down at me, sitting on the cot, and his eyes flashed yellow. This was no trick of any light – his eyes turned yellow like a feral animal’s. I remembered where I’d seen eyes like that before.
I looked past him and could see a single, uncovered, 100-watt bulb in the cieling. I would have thought they would cover those things, so that the inmates wouldn’t break them.
And it would have been a good idea because the Egyptian with the yellow eyes drove his thumb right up into it, and the current ran through us both. For some reason I remembered, from Nuclear Power School, electronics training for Mechanics, “It takes .1 amperes of electricity to kill you instantly.”
In the prison block, the overweight guard munched his Hostess Donettes and watched his favorite show on the television. To his surprise, the power blinked, and he heard the slam of a circuit breaker opening. As the inmates started yelling and swearing, he heard a low groan and guessed what must have happened.
He grabbed his keys and his baton and hit the “assist” button to bring other guards to help him. There were only five inmates here tonight: two car thieves, a drunk, a dope dealer and a murderer. He couldn’t remember if he had taken all of their belts and shoelaces but was pretty sure he hadn’t.
He unlocked the first gate to the long hall between the cells. County lock-up wasn’t as elaborate as a prison, just a block of ten opposing cells. First two: drunk snoring, car thief screaming, pointing down the hall. Second two: One empty, dope dealer swearing, eyes wide. Third two: both empty. Fourth pair: car thief, sitting on the ground, holding his head – he is OK.
Fifth pair: empty. The prison guard stopped in his tracks. He looked into the dark cell. The toilet had no seat; he could see the water running. The bed had been laid in and he could see a crease in the gray blanket. The cover was still on the light although the bulb was dark. There were no marks on the gate or the lock.
But he himself had locked that big, freaking Viking in here. He’d seen him sit; seen the beaten look on him. Yeah, that one might have offed himself somehow – figured out how to do it with the light.
The guard ran back to light off the “Escape” alarm. Well, he couldn’t have gotten too far. How hard would it be to find Goldilocks on steroids?