Monday, February 12, 2018

Back to the World by Lee Conrad

Back home, a Vietnam vet tries to make his way in the world, but with no job and no money he must resort to desperate measures; by Lee Conrad.

Joey looked out the window of his small apartment and watched the snow fall. He knew he had to find another job fast or he would be out on the street. The jobs were never high class and his last one on a loading dock was a bust. He went into the cramped bathroom, ran his fingers through his long hair and stared at the face looking back at him from the mirror. He had changed, they all said. Well who the hell wouldn't? Joey grabbed his army fatigue jacket and headed out the door.

He walked to Murphy's Tavern down sidewalks covered with snow up to his ankles. Joey had been back from Vietnam for over a year but it seemed like an eternity when jobs kept disappearing. A cold winter in upstate New York didn't improve his mood either.

Joey opened the door to the bar and a blast of hot air, stale beer and cigarette smoke hit him full on. No matter, one got used to that as the night wore on.

"Hey, there he is. Where ya been Joey? If you had a phone at that dump of yours I'd have called you."

The voice was from his friend Vince, another vet at a loose end. The army took a lot of kids from this neighborhood. Vince was lucky in one respect... he came back.

Joey laughed. "How would you have done that Vince, you ain't got a phone either."

"Maybe we could string two tin cans together like when we were kids. But anyhow, what'll you have?"

"Just a Rolling Rock draft Vince."

A short bull of a man in his 40s, eyes as black as his hair, walked over. "Well, look who drifted in. Hi ya kid. How's life?"

"Not that good Frankie, I lost another job."

"I heard. Well, I'll keep you in mind kid. You never know, something might come up."

"Careful Joey," warned Vince when Frankie walked away.

"Yeah, I know. Problem is he knows what I did in fucking Nam."

The bar was starting to fill up. The older afternoon crowd started heading home as the younger night owls came in. The juke box that had been playing jazz and crooners switched to playing rock. The new crowd was a mix of "heads and straights", mostly local, some from other neighborhoods. Sometimes they got along, sometimes not. The heads would rather smoke a joint out back and mellow out. The straights, high on booze, would rather start a fight. Both though liked a good song and the juke box was full of them.

"What are you two sorry asses moping about? Let's get this party going!"

"Hey Steve, absolutely," said Vince, always looking for a freebie.

"Let's step out back," Steve said with a sly smile. Steve was a local on his way to better things. With his newly acquired degree in business and still living at home, he was biding his time until he could make his move out of the neighborhood.

The back was a secluded parking lot bordered on three sides by buildings. The snow on the cars sparkled from the surrounding street lights.

He handed a joint to Vince. "Light this sucker up."

The end of the tightly rolled joint flared as Vince's zippo lighter did its job.

"I see Frankie cornered you," said Steve. "You aren't getting involved in his gambling racket are you?"

"He heard I lost my job. Christ, it's freezing out here. Let's finish this joint and go back inside."

"Ok, Joey, you don't want to talk about it, fine."

"You ain't in the same boat me and Vince are. You got your college degree and will be outa here soon. We're stuck here, not many choices."

"Always choices man." Steve sucked on the joint. "You just got to make sure you steer the boat around the rocks."

Joey shook his head. "Well 'Mr. Philosopher' there seems to be plenty of fucking rocks in my life."

"OK man, no need to get hostile. And don't look at me like that with those crazy eyes, we're friends remember."

Vince held back, not wanting to get into the middle of it, just wanting to get high.

"Sorry to get heavy on you Steve. Come on, finish that joint and let's go drink some more beer."

Last call came and they left with "Run through the Jungle" by Creedence Clearwater Revival echoing in their ears. They slipped and slid on the wet snow, rough housing until they went their separate ways.

Joey staggered up the stairs to his third floor apartment, unlocked the door and stepped into the small living room. The bedroom was only slightly bigger but at least it had a balcony. The old Polish couple that owned it ran it like a tight ship. No candles allowed. Joey didn't care. He lit a candle and some incense. Thanks to Steve, he had a joint to help him fall asleep and keep the nightmares away. His used stereo wasn't the best but it served its purpose. He put a Moody Blues album on the turntable and floated away.

On Monday Mr. Jankowski, the landlord, knocked on his door. Joey opened it and the landlord handed him an envelope. In broken English he said, "By end of week," and walked back down the stairs.

Joey went into the kitchen and opened the envelope. No surprise. Pay the back rent by the end of the week or be evicted.

There it is thought Joey, a big rock. No steering around this one. But there are choices, said Steve the "philosopher". Not choices Steve would have to make.

That night Joey went back to Murphy's. Some of the regulars called out to him and then turned back to their drinks. A small RCA TV on a shelf had the news on. Tricky Dick Nixon's mouth was moving but the sound was turned down so the music on the juke box could be heard. Christmas lights were wrapped around a big mirror that reflected the Murphy's selection of booze. Some expensive stuff but mostly run of the mill on down to rot gut. Vince was in his usual corner seat around the bend of the bar talking to Walt the bartender.

"Hey Vince, you didn't call me."

"Funny guy," said Vince. "Here, I kept a spot open for you. Walt, two beers if you please."

Joey took a sip of his beer. "I owe ya Vince." They clinked their glasses together.

"You look kind of down Joey."

"I got troubles, Vince. Back rent is due by the end of the week or I'm out on the street."

"Bummer. But if it comes to that you can crash with a bunch of us at a place on Clinton Street."

"I'll think about it, but the nightmares might be a bit much for some of your friends. It's the main reason I didn't go back to my mom's house. I didn't want to worry her."

"Fuck, Joey, most of them are vets who just got back and aren't going to crash at mom and dad's either. They have nightmares too. Remember when we couldn't wait to leave that shit hole jungle and get back to the world? Well the world don't impress me much anymore."

"Gotta eat too Vince."

"I hear ya buddy. Lost some weight myself. Only thing keeping me going is my liquid diet in this place."

"I'm going to have a talk with Frankie."

"Shit Joey, don't go down that road."

"Too many rocks in the way, Vince. Steve was right. Got to find a way around them."

Joey walked over to Frankie.

"Hi kid. What's cooking?"

"I'm in a bind Frankie. Need some cash. What can you do for me?"

"That's not how it works kid. It's what you are going to do for me."

Frankie laid out the deal. His voice lost its friendliness. He was all business now.

"Some of my customers aren't paying their debts and need some incentive. I furnish the gun, a .45 with no serial numbers. You furnish the incentive. An advance of cash will keep you in your apartment. But no backing out on a job kid or someone with incentive will be looking for you."

Joey knew how to handle a .45. His job in Vietnam was as a tunnel rat, climbing into holes in the ground to seek out and kill Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army soldiers. The .45 was the weapon of choice. Some of the places he went into were like underground villages. Tight quarters, never knowing what was around the corner, shoot first, plant explosives, no fucking questions. In and out. A lot of rats didn't make it out. Those that did carried the terror of the job the rest of their lives. Even when he came home and tried to put it all behind him, Joey knew he survived because he was good at killing.

Joey had been on the job for a couple of months when Frankie came up to him at Murphy's. It was late in the afternoon and the place was just starting to get busy with guys getting off their shift at the factory down the street.

"Bonus day kid." Frankie handed him $300 in small bills.

"What's all this bread for?"

"Hey, I know talent when I see it. It's just a little extra on top of your regular pay. My customers have seen the errors of their ways and have been paying up." He looked around to make sure no one was listening in, and even if they were they knew better than to say anything. "I got reports back that you just looking at them with those eyes of yours encouraged them to pay up. Word spread to the other deadbeats about you. Even my partners are impressed. Your last job I know was tough. Heard he was stubborn, and it wasn't the first time. He was in deep and he was warned. But business is business, right kid?"

"Just another day at the office Frankie. Hell, what's one more body. And by the way what happened with the body? Your cop friends clean up the mess?"

"Yeah, they pinned it on some poor sambo from the fifth ward. Said it was a botched robbery," Frankie said as he laughed.

Joey finished his Crown Royal and set the empty glass on the bar. No more draft beer for him.

"Have to book on outa here Frankie, looking at a new apartment." He stood up and put on his new leather jacket, big enough to hide his .45.

"See you tomorrow Joey, we got more business to attend to."

Joey coolly waved back as he headed to the door. He steered his boat around the rocks, just like Steve said.

He stepped outside and breathed in the crisp air. The desperation he felt before getting the job with Frankie was long gone but a sick feeling had seeped into him. He drove it away when "work" required it. Joey could turn his mind inward to a dark place that gave him the space to hurt and kill if he had to. He had been there many times before in Nam but it wasn't supposed to be in this world.

The next day Joey went to Murphy's to pick up his new assignments from Frankie.

He walked in to the bar and looked around. Only a few of the old timers around, some new guys playing cards in the corner and a few sitting at the bar holding court with the bartender.

Joey stood at the bar and ordered a CC and ginger.

Frankie came over to him. "Hey Joey, step over here where we can talk."

They stood along a wall near an old shuffleboard table.

Joey played around with a weight, spinning it around in the dust while Frankie told him who he had to visit and where. One of them had to be dealt with severely.

"Hey, you paying attention kid?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Don't be going soft on me. You got lots of potential," Frankie said as he squeezed Joey's shoulder.

"No problem. I'll get right on these guys."

"See that you do."

Frankie went over to a table where a neighborhood tough named Sean Sullivan was playing cards. Frankie said something to Sullivan and the tough looked over the rim of his beer glass at Joey with eyes grey and menacing, like an approaching storm.

Over the next week Joey visited the people on Frankie's list. Some strong-arming, a few punches or the .45 tucked under their chin brought them around.

On Friday he had one last one and he knew this one had to go. Frankie made no bones about it. He knew his desperation had put him in a spot he didn't want to be in.

He knew his mark would be at the Royal Lounge on Edwards Street. The name was deceiving. It was a dump. Only the real down and outers went there. It looked like the last time it had a paint job was in the depression. Decades of cigarette tar coated the walls. Joey ordered a bottle beer from a bartender that was as drunk as his customers. Not wise to drink anything out of a glass in this place he thought.

He positioned himself in the back near the men's room.

After a while his mark came in with a couple other guys. He was in his mid-20s, medium height, long reddish blonde hair, denim jacket and jeans. His furtive eyes scanned the room. Joey leaned to the side out of his line of sight.

After a few minutes Joey went into the men's room to chamber his .45.

Joey came out and looked directly at his mark. The mark saw him.

"Hey guys, I forgot something at my place. I'll be right back."

Joey followed him out the door and down the street.

He knew the mark's name and called out to him.

"Hey Rick, hold up. I just need to talk with you."

"What for?"

Rick stopped, pulled out a cigarette from a pack and fumbled for some matches.

"Here, let me light that for you. Let's take a little walk."

They walked halfway down the street. It was a cold night in a rough inner city neighborhood. Nobody was out.

When they passed an alleyway Joey's demeanor changed. He grabbed Rick and pushed him down to the end of the alley.

"Hey what are you doing?" Panic choked Rick's vocal cords.

"Unless you have the $1500 you owe Frankie you might as well say your prayers."

He slapped Rick alongside the head.

"How many times did you have to be told," he said as he pulled out his .45.

"Go ahead, shoot me. I've had it anyway. Ever since I got back it has been one problem after another. I would have been better off dead in Nam.

Christ thought Joey. Not this. Not now.

Joey wavered.

"Where were you?"

"Dak To," said Rick.

"Ah fuck, those fucking generals left your asses out to be butchered."

"You got that right," said Rick, slumping against the alley wall. "So do it, get it over with. What's one more butcher."

Joey's head was swimming. He couldn't find that dark space he needed to finish this job. What he saw was a guy that was just like him a few months ago in his own desperate time.

"Ok Rick, this is what I am going to do. I'm going to say I couldn't find you. You get out of town now. Steal a car if you have to but fucking go, and far away!"

Rick stared at Joey, disbelief on his face.

"Go, damn it go!"

Rick ran as fast as he could out of the alley. He passed a guy walking in. Probably got to take a piss he thought.

Joey stood facing the end of the alley thinking about what he just did. Killing Frankie's deadbeats was one thing, but a guy who faced the same demons as he did in Nam and lived through it deserves to live, not die in an alleyway for a debt to a bookie.

He was turning around to leave when three slugs hit him, spinning him around and dropping him on the trash and snow. He struggled to get up but his body wasn't cooperating. He laid back down.

Sean Sullivan with the grey eyes stood over him.

"Frankie told you if you couldn't cut it someone would be coming for you. That's me," he said grinning. He looked back at the opening of the alley. "That rabbit ain't going to run far. He's got..."

Sean turned to face the prone Joey, but Joey had a surprise waiting. The .45 that was resting under his splayed leg was up now and pointed at Sean. Joey pulled the trigger as an astonished Sean flew back into the snow with a smoking hole in his chest.

Joey's arm dropped down, the .45 too heavy to hold anymore.

"Rocks Steve, fucking rocks," Joey said softly as he closed his eyes and left the world.

9 comments:

  1. A tight, tense story - claustrophobic with hopelessness. Well told and compelling, thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. An excellent and gritty tale of some of the many nightmares of the Vietnam War. Nightmares that unfortunately are still being lived today by some.

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  3. lean and mean. great cast of haunted vets. live by the gun and die by it. powerful stuff.
    Mike McC

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  4. The ending surprised and shocked me. Great last quote!

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  5. Really dark and raw. Sparse, to-the-point narrative that mirrors their lives, full of despair and colorless. And, as said above, these problems still continue today. Not as if this is ancient history. Thanks for the gripping read.

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  6. I read, I understand, I wish it would end for my brothers. Help and time, scares heal, but never disappear. Good read Lee......

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  7. A good story Lee...brought back memories of Hannigan's as you open the door and get hit with the smell of stale beer and cigarettes. Hard to believe you'd get killed owing $1500 bucks to a bookie!I got some good visuals as I read it..it would be great in an illustrated version.good work

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  8. Loved the ending. The characterization and dialogue were also sharp.

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