UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Lt. Col. Joseph R. Higgins (U.S. Army, ret.) passed Memorial Day the same as every other day,
Crisscrossed American flags adorned the wall between the top-shelf bottles. Christ-mas tinsel hung haphazardly from the cornice, reflecting from the Miller High Life mirror, draping like frozen moonbeams off the girl in a sombrero. Higgins sipped his beer. Despite regulations banning any but seeing-eye dogs, Higgins brought with him Chip, the rangy mutt now sleeping at his feet. Higgins reached down to pet Chip, but the dog only shuttered, dream-chasing a calico cat.
The door creaked open. The sun burnt like a platter of pale yellow fire around the silhouette of a one-legged man supported by a crutch. The man’s shadow staggered left to right between the crutch and his leg. The door snapped shut behind him. He hopped into focus. Higgins looked at the shoe, a black crinkled faux leather loafer. The gray rubber stop-per at the end of the crutch pressed into the ground. His khakis were pinned into a tight crease beneath the knee. The crease swelled dark purple-red, dripping a blood trail behind him. A yellow polo shirt hung loosely from the man’s wiry frame. A couple hairs bristled from his white neck, but the man’s face was clean-shaven, powder-dull skin stretched across his skull. A baseball cap pulled tight across his forehead, shading his grey-flecked blue eyes.
“Johnson?” Higgins asked.
“Goddamn. How ya doing? Have a seat.” Higgins motioned to the stool beside him. “I haven’t seen you since. . . shit how long’s it been?”
“Long time.” Johnson shimmied around the stool, propped his crutch on the bar, and hoisted himself up.
“Barkeep,” Higgins said.
The bartender swiveled again off his stool and moseyed over to Higgins.
“Give my friend here a beer,” Higgins said.
The bartender placed his thick hands on the bar. Dark hair sprouted from his knuck-les. He looked into Higgins’ eyes and blinked.
“A beer. For my friend.” Higgins tilted the shot glass back.
The bartender refilled the shot glass, staring all the while into Higgins’ eyes. He took the money from the pile and went back to his stool. Higgins shrugged towards Johnson.
“Barkeep,” he said, but the bartender watched the television.
Blood continued to drip from the damp crease in Johnson’s pant leg. The purple-red stain crept up the khakis, following the contour of a pink smear. Chip stirred. Eyes closed, he lapped at blood. Higgins drank his beer. Johnson stared at the bottles on the shelf.
“What do you know?” Higgins asked.
“Same old, same old,” Johnson said, lighting a Camel.
He removed his cap and ran fingers through stringy hair. He pressed his hand to the counter, leaving a gelled red imprint. Higgins looked up from his beer. The top half of John-son’s head was missing. Only a mess of purple clumps and grey strands remained. Chip con-tinued to lap up the drip from Johnson’s crease. Higgins finished his beer and motioned again for the bartender. He drank half the fresh can of Busch Light before placing it on the bar.
“Pirates lost again,” he said.
“Dammit, that Dominican boy craps out after two innings and they got nobody to finish.”
“What about Clemente?”
“Ain’t got nobody that can hit like him anymore.”
The two men stared at the bottles on the shelf.
The door creaked open again. The burning concrete glared in the open doorway, re-vealing a child’s silhouette. A little girl ran into the bar, her long black hair flapping against her back.
“Daddy,” she cried, running straight into Higgins arms.
Higgins lifted the girl off the ground. He kissed the soft skin on her cheek.
“You smell bad, Daddy,” she said. “And your beard itches.”
Higgins held her in front of him. He smiled. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he asked Johnson, “Have you met my pride and joy?”
Johnson didn’t answer.
“Sweetheart, say hello to Private Johnson.”
She placed a slender finger at her pink gaping lips, “Shhh.”
Johnson took a drag off the Camel and exhaled through his nostrils.
“Mommy needs you.”
“I asked you not to talk about her.”
“I know.” She puffed out her bottom lip. “But she’s in trouble.”
Higgins drank the shot, then the beer. He crushed the can and left it on the bar. When the bartender made to stand up, Higgins shook his head no. He lifted the money from the bar, leaving a 75¢ tip. He nodded at Johnson.
“Come on, Chip,” he said, but the dog just lapped at the dripping blood. “See ya next year, Johnson.”
Johnson nodded back. Higgins walked, hand in hand with his daughter out the door onto the sun-baked concrete. The light ambushed his eyes; the surroundings blanched as he pulled his V.F.W. cap tight over his brow. He placed his cap reverently over his heart as they passed the Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where little American flags flapped over the graves of every veteran. The concrete under his feet gave way to packed mud. He no longer saw any familiar brick buildings, remnants from the time when fires still burned in the steel factory furnaces. The yellow traffic lights stopped swaying in the now salty breeze. Two-dimensional date palms lined the mud path he walked along. He flipped a leaf over to find it was a Benday dot pattern printed on cardboard. He pushed a tree and an entire range of cardboard cutouts fell over, bent in the middle. A rice paddy expanded to his left. Each stalk had been identically printed, the straight-back leaf mounted on cross-cut particle board, planted at two-foot in-tervals, at increasingly lower resolution toward the horizon. Even the sun seemed no more than a giant klieg light hanging over the cardboard rice paddy. The mud smelled not like mud, but like clay from a studio. His sweat tasted sweet, without a hint of salt.
“Daddy.” The girl stomped her feet. “Mommy needs you.”
She dragged him by the hand. The breeze picked up, but individual leaves did not flutter. Rather whole blocks of trees swayed back and forth, every rigid leaf and dead-set branch moving in perfect symmetry, whipped to the sound of shuffling paper. The card-board trees gave way to a set of plywood building fronts. Each shadow painted perfectly to reflect the angle of the early afternoon sun. The buildings were low-slung hovels. The thatching on the roofs looked authentic. Honking horns, the swish of bicycles, rickshaws led by the pitter-patter of sandaled feet, in an eyeblink the city bustled. But with open eyes the cars stood still, riderless bicycles were secured by twine and tent stakes, and no people tram-pled up the dirt. The girl led Higgins to a plywood façade replica of a chipped plaster build-ing guarded by an American soldier with grey-flecked blue eyes. A crumpled pack of Camels held tight to his helmet by a headband.
“She’s in here,” the girl said, pulling at Higgins’ arm.
The soldier slammed Higgins in the chest with the butt of his M-16. Sweat glued a patch of hair to his neck. He said, “No entry.”
“Daddy,” she said, as Higgins paused. She tugged at his hand.
Heavy footsteps and a thick-jawed Officer shoved out of the façades doorway. A woman wearing a flowing pink ao dai clung to his muscular arm. He shook her loose, but she grabbed on to his pant leg. The officer kicked her in the chest, knocking her to the ground, covering her dress in dust. She looked at the mud, speaking with the lilting dipthong stabs that Higgins had not heard since the end of his second tour in Viet Nam.
“I paid your goddamn mamasan,” the officer said. “That baby’s not my problem.”
She spoke again, raising her head from the triangle of her forearms planted in the dirt. Her cocoa brown eyes burned in anger. She pulled a pairing knife from her ao dai and lunged at the officer. He held his hand in front of his face. The knife slashed his ring and pinkie fingers. With his good hand he punched her in the face, and when she hit the ground he planted his boot in her stomach. Blood trickled from her lips and nose. He cocked his nin millimeter and aimed it at her head.
“Sir,” said the guard. “Let’s get out of here.”
The officer slid his pistol into the holster. He kicked the building. It creaked then toppled over onto the packed mud. Behind the building was nothing, mud stretching flat until the horizon. The officer nodded briskly. He and the guard hopped into a real metal jeep fueled with real gasoline and sped away. Tire tracks remained in the street’s packed mud. There was a blast. Not the cochlea–splitting report of a real explosion, but rather like a firecracker transmitted through a television’s tiny speakers. The girl clung to Higgins’ hand, eyes creased tightly. They turned around to see the jeep flipped over, wheels still spinning. The officer was running down the road. The guard’s leg was pinned beneath the jeep’s roll bar. His helmet wobbled on the ground several feet away.
As Higgins approached the jeep, he heard the sound of rushing water. The card-board trees fluttered away like a house of cards next to an Electrolux fan. The building fa-çades toppled like dominoes. The land was barren and flat as far as the eye could see. And then a grey and white wave swept Higgins up, tossing him in the current. He squeezed the girl’s fingers into white, yet they slipped. She splashed. Her pink lips gulped the saltwater, suppressing a scream. He watched her head dip under, her black hair pasted around her face. Her fingers pricked through whitecaps. Grey water swirled until her tiny head became an-other piece of debris, and she disappeared beneath the swell. Higgins grabbed hold of a pass-ing cardboard tree. He flowed with the water through the city, across the rice paddy, and over the Mt. Olivet Cemetery. The water’s force plucked the miniature American flags from the graves of every soldier. Higgins was surrounded by grey frothing water and the colors that never run. The water slammed him against the brick wall of O’Shenanigan’s and then subsided as quickly as it arrived. The receding water deposited the damp American flags around him like candy wrappers left littering the sidewalk after the Memorial Day parade.
Higgins picked himself up and walked into O’Shenanigan’s. His clothing dripped as his waterlogged boots sloshed across the thin-weave carpet. He sat in the stool above where Chip slept. Johnson was nowhere to be seen. The bartender reluctantly rose from his perch.
“One for the road,” Higgins said.
The bartender poured him one shot of Old Grand-Dad and popped a Busch Light for the road. Higgins drank the shot then downed the beer. He shook Chip awake and walked towards the door. Chip stretched and walked with arthritic slowness behind Higgins, leaking blood from his side, the bullet hole inflicted by a fourteen-year-old Joey Higgins tar-get shooting with his father’s 30-06. He trudged down the street to his fourth floor walk-up apartment. He checked the empty mailbox, forgetting that the mail is not delivered on fed-eral holidays. It would be at least another day before the arrival of his checks from the mili-tary and social security. At the top of the steps, he panted, removing his cap and wiping the salty sweat from his brow with a forearm. He unlocked the three deadbolts. In the window-less kitchen, he opened the bare cupboard, removing the only item, a can of Bush’s Homestyle Baked Beans. He carried the can and a spoon to the other room. He tuned the black and white television to Fox news, then sat down on his military issue cot. A folding chair held a bottle of Old Grand-Dad and an eight ounce Tupperware cup. He set the can of baked beans on the folding chair. He wrapped the three fingers of his right hand around the whiskey bottle and filled the Tupperware cup.William Haas' work has appeared in River Teeth, Main Street Rag, Bull: Men's Fiction, Babel Fruit, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Western Oregon University and lives in Portland.
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