By Scotch Rutherford
June 8, 1980
Max was up before the sun. It was a habit he couldn’t shake. Three tours will do that to you. The hooker from the night before was asleep in her clothes next to him. He had that clammy feel on his skin, like he was covered in hair gel. It reminded him of nights he’d had before the war, back in Ohio—nights he’d wake up fully clothed in the front seat of his truck, at 4 AM, with a pounding headache, freezing his balls off. Early mornings after long nights at the bar. He stripped his clothes off and hit the shower.
When he got out, he saw that the hooker was awake. Buck naked, waiting for him. He dug into her pussy with morning wood, the way a starving man buries his face in a bucket of takeout chicken after shingling a roof for eight hours in the Dayton summer heat. So much angst and hidden shame exploded from his balls when he shot his wad deep inside her. He felt rejuvenated and found his resolve.
Max fished a couple twenties out of his wallet and put them on the night stand, and went looking for a diner for some breakfast. No sign of Nicky. But Nicky had been a LRRP in-country. No stranger to extended long range missions in enemy territory. No telling at that moment if he was just UA or KIA.
Inside Norm’s on Sunset, Max sipped black coffee, and watched the sun destroy what was left of the cover of darkness. There was something to that. It was cool out at that hour, at least for Los Angeles in early June. But it wasn’t a comfort. There was a heat growing inside of him. A slow burn. There were moments he’d seen guys give up—not out of some impossible situation, the guys in his outfit were too tough for that, but when the hope of a happy future was destroyed. That was the real killer. When you had nothing ahead of you, to look forward to. The power in your voice reduced to a horse whisper, when the muscles in your mouth worked too hard to slur, and your last meal was an MRE 24 hours ago, it was that dear john letter that was the last straw.
He caught a partial reflection of himself in the window that overlooked the Boulevard. He could see himself now, and as the old man of his future self. Leathery skin—the years would not be kind, and a clean-shaven head, save a halo of silver stubble. His old man hadn’t aged well. Genetics didn’t favor the men in his family line. As far back as he could remember, people had said he resembled Lee Marvin. But as long as his hair was dark, it was something only people close enough to him claimed they saw. He promised himself as soon as he went gray, he’d take it all off.
There was a man at the counter, whom he knew could see him in his peripheral, but Max only looked at him directly for a moment. The only other patron in the diner was a woman at the counter, whose back was to him. He couldn’t see her face if he tried. He looked back through the window and saw now that his reflection was gone. What had been a de-saturated bluish light was now a vibrant street scene rich with brightening orange hues.
When his eggs arrived, they were cold and dippy, and tasted great. Last time he’d eaten had been breakfast, yesterday. That was when he’d gotten the news about Eva. Nicky had been the one to tell him, before he identified the body. Nicky told it straight, without the usual coddling. Something he—like Max, had gotten used to doing. He’d known for a long time, she’d been the only woman, counting his mother, that he’d ever really loved.
The man with the clean-shaven head got up from the counter. Walking past, Max watched him, albeit indirectly, in his peripheral. Until the man stopped. He was a blur in front of Max, until Max turned his head and focused on him. He could see now, that the man had on the top half of a green working uniform, with the sleeves cut off. It was a clean uniform—no name or branch identification—but the tattoo on his left shoulder was a spade under a white skull and crossbones. The words “swift” and “silent” hugged the spade. Third Platoon, First Recon. He’d known guys in that outfit. His eyes panned quickly from the tattoo, and locked onto the man’s stare.
“You look troubled, brother.” the man said.
He didn’t know the half of it.
“Mind if I sit down?” the man asked.
Instinctually, Max did mind. But then he released the man from the intensity of his stare, and he let his eyes wander back to the boulevard, now a vibrant street scene.
The man sat down, and said, “I was up hours ago, and I only sleep four hours a night. On account of the time I spent over there. Two tours.”
Max watched a man jog by wearing earphones. He passed by a woman walking her dog—a Pomeranian. They shimmered against a cloud of smog, and the sea of rush hour traffic.
Max turned back to the man. “Three tours,” he said.
“Hell of a long time to be in country. When I left,” the man said. “I was a devout Catholic, and my biggest fear was going to hell. After two years over there, my greatest fear was coming back.”
“I used to think the best thing about that hell, was leaving it,” Max said. “And now, I’m not so sure.”
“Over there, I had a purpose,” the man said. “You know?”
“I do,” Max said. “I was a Methodist. Before.”
“And now?” the man said.
“I no longer follow orders, and I have no religion.”
“And are you liberated or lost?” the man asked.
“Both,” Max said.
“My name’s Cain. And I used to say, all my brothers are Able,” he said, and started to laugh, and Max joined him.
“Which turned prophetic,” he said, still laughing. “When my whole fire team got cut down by the VC.” His laughing became stilted labored breaths.
Max just stared in silence. Cain looked like he wanted to cry but had forgotten how.
“This was back in ’66. The old Quail Tactics. Before the Stingray teams,” Cain said.
“Do you remember the freedom bird?” Max said.
“Like it was yesterday morning,” Cain said.
“Problem with freedom, is that people don’t know what to do with it,” Max said.
“Everyone needs guidance. I’ve been on the road—the path, for eleven years.” Cain said. “I’ve heard it said Hell has three gates: anger, lust and greed.”
“Lust is a big part of my life,” Max said. “But not the whole.”
“I see anger,” Cain said. “In you.”
For Max anger had always been something he could control. Anger could be ventilated—jettisoned, like an ejected shell casing.
The kind that holds on to you,” Cain said. “The kind of rage you can’t turn off.”
Like the white-hot barrel on a .50 Cal when you’re under enemy fire, and you can’t change it out. “Well, maybe I ought to work on greed,” Max said, with a snicker. “Then I’ll have the trifecta.”
“You need to let go of those things, brother,” Cain said. “Death is only the beginning. We’re reborn every seven years.”
“But you’re still alive…” Max said.
“One does not need a physical death to be reborn,” Cain said.
“You ever think maybe we’re doomed to do it all again?” Max asked. “You know, the same thing over again. That hell is right here.”
“Hell is only temporary, brother. Your last thoughts—the ones you’ll have when you lay dying an earthly death—those will shape your next life,” Cain said, and pulled out a cloth bag, and removed from it a string of beads. He handed the beads to Max and said, “Hare Rāma Hare Kṛṣṇa.”
Like the guys he’d seen chanting at the airport. He suddenly wanted the booth all to himself. “Take your beads, and shove ‘em up your ass,” Max said.
Cain looked confused.
“Fuck off,” Max said.
Cain got the message. Put his beads away and got up from the booth.
Max watched him cross Sunset, and join three other men with shaved heads, wearing orange Jesus robes.
“I don’t think he’s got any balls,” the waitress said.
Max turned and saw the waitress holding a pot of coffee.
She watched the men gather and begin to chant at passers-by. “I think they cut their balls off,” she said. “More coffee?”
“Sure,” Max said.
Bio: Scotch Rutherford writes about dark corners between the bright lights. He is the author of the novella, “The Roach King of Paradise”, available in the collection: L.A. Stories: Three Grindhouse Novellas. His short fiction has appeared in Pulp Modern, Greasepaint & .45s, The EconoClash Review, Pulp Metal Magazine, The Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He lives in Los Angeles.
His book Novella, “The Roach King of Paradise”, available in the collection: L.A. Stories: Three Grindhouse Novellas. Can be Purchased on Amazon.
Read more Hard Life crime Fiction on The Yard: Crime Blog