I am posting this short story at this point because it is based on an actual occurrence that happened in the bar while I was working – and also because I have nothing further written in The Wailings to copy from. But bear with me as I will continue the story after the holidays.
He wasn’t a bad man. At least he didn’t think so. He had always done his job, following orders meticulously, carefully. For twenty-five years he had shown his loyalty and his respect, and he had gone about it in a quiet and unobtrusive manner. He was the perfect soldier. It was his life’s work and he was proud of it.
He had started to notice the problem within the last year. It seemed to have snuck up on him, and that alone was cause for concern.
Nothing had got passed him in his youth. He had been razor-sharp with instant reflexes, performing like a well-oiled machine. When you got right down to it, he was locked and loaded. Now he creaked a bit when he moved and he had developed an annoying tick in his left cheek. His senses still whirred along at breakneck speed, but that pace had been lessened by 10%. Reminiscing didn’t help matters either, but he couldn’t help it. He had to admit it. He was getting too old for the job and that was a problem for someone of his profession.
He walked carefully into the darkened room, checking in corners and behind pillars as he made his way forward. A pounding bass noise enveloped him and bright lights flared before his eyes causing him to duck suddenly towards an empty table tucked into a corner.
He sat with his back against the wall and watched morosely as a woman pranced up and down in front of him. Her long legs stretched out of high heels and into something that shimmered and swathed her body, reflecting the spotlights. Her lips were lathered in bright red and pouting, her face a studied repose of indifference. She sauntered the runway caught up in the music and her routine. Sipping his beer slowly, he cursed himself silently for almost having tripped on the stage in the semi-dark. Twelve months ago that would never have happened.
On a different floor of the building, a stranger bent and fitted the rubber plug into the drain of the old tub. She had been traveling all day in the smog and dirt, trying to flog the silly toys her small company manufactured to new and unsuspecting customers. The heat and the pressure had finally gotten to her, and with money dictating her every move, she had escaped to this ugly backwater for a little R&R. A light supper in a nearby greasy spoon had sufficed before she had retired to this dingy room, intent on a long bath before crawling between the thin sheets. She could hear the music pounding away beneath her, but she thought she could probably ignore it. Lying back against the threadbare blankets, she listened with suppressed anticipation to the quieting sounds of the water filling the tub, and promptly fell asleep. The music blared on.
He sat with his big hand around the sweating beer glass and let the music wash over him. With his proximity to the speakers it had more of a tendency to pummel him than wash, but he was oblivious to that. His dark clothes and unobtrusive manner helped him to fade slightly into the background, a technique he had perfected years before. He almost looked like any of the other old rummies, sipping their suds and watching the peelers, except their eyes were glazed and slightly lustful, while his were sharp and constantly sweeping the room. His dark hair was sprinkled with gray and gave him the look of a man who had caught his toe on middle age as he was trying to pass it by. With a forced nonchalance he watched the dancer perform her moves while his mind stripped away the years and took him back into his past.
He saw himself as a young man dressed in a snappy dark suit watching his shoes come down in the soft dirt of the road. With each step little puffs of dust swirled up and covered the careful shine he had put on them earlier that morning. He followed those shoes till they reached a ’44 Buick that was eased over on the edge of the road. He noted the birds singing spectacularly in the early morning sunshine as he put a smile on his face before he bent to the open window of the car.
The man inside had jerked nervously toward him at his approach but had relaxed noticeably with the smile. The guy hadn’t even seen it coming when he had raised the Tommy gun and sprayed him right in the face. That had been the order, right in the face. Afterwards, he had calmly doused the car and its inhabitant with gasoline, trailing a little line back up the dirt road till he felt he would be safe from the blast. The smouldering cigarette had lain in the puddle for a brief moment before it had ignited the gas and the flames had streaked towards the car. He was driving away when the explosion caused the birds to quit singing. He was going to have to polish his shoes again.
His mind shifted and he could see himself a little older now. He wasn’t as cocky as he had been in his youth and his face had new lines in it that reached down to his chin. He was sitting over a barrel, stirring the mixture within with a big stick, occasionally adding a little sand and water. An annoying mumbling filled the dank basement where he sat, but he ignored it and concentrated on the job at hand. Finally happy with the concoction, he hefted the barrel and poured its contents into the two forms that sat on the floor. The cement oozed up to the brims, nicely covering the feet that nestled in the center of each.
It wasn’t until he was finished that he actually looked at the man who sat on the chair in front of him. His arms were tied behind his back while his legs were bound securely. That part was important. Cement didn’t set too well while it was being agitated by wiggling feet. A dirty rag was wrapped around the man’s face, causing the mumbling that was on the edge of annoying. He had shrugged and lit another cigarette. It was all part of the job. It had taken a great deal of his strength to hoist the struggling man with the cement shoes and toss him into an obscure part of the river. But he was a soldier following orders.
He had been in a number of sticky situations himself over the years. He recalled with distinct clarity the icy sweat trickling across his testicles as he knelt in a filthy warehouse with his hands behind his head. He could remember the feel of the grease in his hair where it touched his palms as they trembled against his head. The sneering face of the member of a rival mob was unforgettable as he had silently removed nails and a hammer from a canvas sack. His heart thudded heavily even now as he remembered the intensity of the moment when the nail hovered over his knee and he had imagined the pain blossoming through his entire body. The relief that had crashed through him when his partner had stepped up behind his captor and slit his throat was engulfing and he had almost wept with gratitude and shame.
He sat in the smoky darkness that smelled of vomit and sawdust and watched as the stripper settled back onto the raised platform and started waving her legs about in the air. His nerves ached and stretched as he eyed his fellow drinkers. The years of soldiering had left him a wreck. He had whacked enough people in this job that he was sure more than one person would want to retaliate.
His bathroom mirror told the tale. The ticking cheek and bloodshot eyes were good indicators of the constant tension. He needed to get away for a long and overdue vacation. An image of palm trees and almond-eyed girls with glistening brown skin slid into his brain, and an unfamiliar upward tilting of his lips crossed his face. The stripper caught the look across the dark room and thought it was meant for her. In the room above him the water had crested the edge of the tub and was now pouring silently onto the bathroom floor. The lady slept on.
He shook his head slightly as he focused on the figure that sidled slowly up and down the stage, fully dressed. Somehow he had missed the end of the last show, and that frightened him. He dug the required change out of the pile in front of him to pay the waitress for the beer that he had forgot he ordered. Thinking about the past was ruining his concentration, and that could prove to be harmful.
With the music battering against his ears and the lights blinding him slightly, his strung out nerves were at a disadvantage. In the dark above his head, where the smoke curled and roiled, the smoke-encrusted ceiling sagged slightly. In front of him the dancer removed her bra and waggled her breasts within touching distance of his face. This distraction and the pounding of the bass from the speaker beside him effectively covered up the sound the two wet marks made as they hit the table beside his bent elbow.
He continued to goggle at the large brown nipples that bounced before him leaving him blissfully unaware of the looming event that was forming above him. As he raised his glass to his dry lips, the bulge erupted and gallons of soapy warm water and soggy ceiling tile hit him directly on the head, flattening him and the table. Shrieking like an old woman he battered away bits of spongy acoustics and fled the barroom, his wet footprints direct evidence of his overworked brain as they twisted and turned in different directions till they vanished in the dark.
Time to retire.