The Soldier, the Squid, and the Dancer

I was drunk asleep on Jackson's couch when Tommy shook me, putting
his face down in mine.

“C'mon, get up.”

I rolled over, pressing my head down between a pillow and the arm
of the couch. I can't hang with those guys, don't have it in me.
We'd started drinking beer and foamy hard cider at four out in Jackson's
yard, the leaves golden, turning and falling, and Xerox showing
us how to smoke hornets out of a tree. Last I remembered was Norm
turning on Baywatch and they rerun that at eleven on Saturday
nights. It had to be midnight now. At least.

“Get up, Richard,” Tommy said, shaking me.

“Fuck you, Richard,” I said, but I was sitting up now
and he backed off.

“We're going downtown, down range,” Tommy said. “Get
a dancer for Norm. Some bachelor party, Richard. Best Norm gets
is Baywatch 'cause you didn't hire a dancer.”

“Norm's asleep,” I said.

“Fuck you, Richard” he said. “It's your party.”

I called him Richard back, but there was Jimmy Two-Balls and Xerox
at the door with their jackets on and Tommy finishing his beer and
I knew I was done.

“I can't hang with you guys,” I said, but I was standing
up then and Tommy handed me his keys.

“Richard.”

“Richard Whiskey.”

Tommy waved at Jackson. “We'll be back in an hour.”

“You awake?” Xerox asked me.

“Yeah.”

Tommy's backseat was filled, two duffels and a suitcase and his
Kevlar combat helmet sitting on top. The helmet still had a desert
camo cover on it.

“Throw all that in the hatch,” he said.

Tommy'd been out just a week. He was living on Jackson's couch
for now, the one I'd fallen asleep on. Jackson wasn't one of us
anymore, either, but he was still in the Army. Jackson had a broke
wrist and Norm was getting married and the two of them had been
pushed off into headquarters platoon. Me and Jimmy Two-Balls and
Xerox were still in a line platoon and were deploying in four days
-- four days and we'd be back in the desert; a different one, but
desert all the same -- which is why I hadn't done such a great job
setting up Norm's bachelor party.

“Worthless Richard,” Tommy said.

“Shut up, Richard,” I said, getting behind the wheel.
“Someone give me a beer.”

Those guys all lit cigarettes and we drove with the windows cracked,
pulling off Jackson's road and swinging right onto Warwick Boulevard
and the long drive down through Newport News.

“Can't we just go to the Crystal?” Xerox said, popping
a beer in the backseat.

“Those girls don't play,” Jimmy Two-Balls said. “Those
girls make too much money. Gotta go south.”

“Creepy downtown,” Xerox said.

“Your mom is creepy,” Jimmy said. “Mrs. Richard
Creepy.”

It was after midnight and Xerox was too drunk to do anything about
that.

Newport News was dead and cold and Xerox was right; downtown was
creepy. Indian country--down range. Blocks of dead buildings and
lunch counters closed twenty years and the old dark high school
they'd turned into billets for the Navy squids working in the shipyard.
The traffic lights didn't even work , yellow boxes hanging blind
and dead on their wires. Two black girls stood in the shadows of
a corner about four blocks north of city hall. No one had said anything
for ten minutes, just those guys smoking and all of us sipping our
beers, but Tommy pointed at the corner as we passed those two girls.

“There we go, Richard,” he said, and he leaned out
the window and waved. Those two didn't wave back, but I saw one
of them crook her finger to come here.

“Let's just go to the club, Richard,” I said. Tommy
was always going for the seedy side. That's what got him in trouble
in the first place. He didn't know I knew, but that's what got him
put out.

“What?” he said. In the back, Xerox started snoring.

“Norm don't want that,” I said.

“Yeah, okay.”

There are two kinds of men in the world. There's the guy who talks-up
the toothless waitress because it's two a.m. and he's drunk and
he's not going to do any better. Then there's the guy who talks-up
the toothless waitress because he genuinely enjoys the company of
a toothless waitress. That's Tommy. That's Tommy all over.

“Probably weren't girls anyway,” he said, and probably
he was right. Fucking Tommy. Richard Whiskey.

I pulled his car into the lot behind the High Spot, Jimmy Two-Balls
in the back shaking Xerox awake.

“You sure?” I asked Tommy. He had all his stuff in
the car. I wouldn't have left my car at all, not even for five minutes.

“Yeah. C'mon.”

The room was long and all blacks and reds, the stage just plywood
and not even painted. Tommy waved at the bartender and the guy lifted
a hand back to him so I guess they knew each other, or at least
Tommy thought they knew each other. Tommy thought he knew everyone.
I'd never been here, but Tommy used to come down a lot, especially
the first few weeks after we'd got back from the desert, back when
the only company you could stand was other guys who'd been to the
desert. It wasn't an Army bar. It was way-down deep in squid country,
but it wasn't even a squid bar. I don't know, but I'm sure it was
off-limits. It was too far south in Newport News to show up on the
Army off-limits list, but I'll bet the Navy Shore Patrol marked
it off for the squids. It smelled of beer and cigars.

Tommy and Xerox pulled up chairs to the plywood stage and Jimmy
Two-Balls and I got beers and shots all around and sat next to them.
The music was too loud for a bar less than a third full, but maybe
I was just tired. Most of these guys, when they know they're going
to ship out, they spend their last days drinking and yelling nonstop.
Me, I just wanted to sleep. And Tommy, he didn't have anything coming
up but we couldn't talk about that so I just let him be.

Two girls were talking and laughing over at a table in the corner,
and it's funny and weird to see two girls sitting in bikinis at
a table in a bar late at night. Xerox looked like he was going to
fall asleep again, but Tommy and Jimmy were looking at those girls.
The one wasn't much. But her friend was kind of cute. Really cute,
actually. A redhead in a green bikini. When one song ended and another
started she stood and ambled onto the stage and started swaying
and grinding. Jimmy raised his glass to her and she laughed, then
went over to the only other guy sitting at the stage, this older
guy with a mustache and black hair, and she danced for him first.
Tommy leaned over to me.

“You got a chubby yet, Richard?” he said.

“I got a chubby for your mom, Richard,” and I laughed
and downed my shot. Then the girl was over in front of us, starting
with Jimmy to my left.

She was something. Jimmy held up a dollar and she kind of squatted
in a sexy way and danced for him like that, right up in his face.
She had freckles all up and down her thighs and across her chest.
I go crazy for a girl like that. I wasn't much for coming down here,
but now that I was here it was fine and I liked this girl. There
are worse ways to not think about deploying again than at the feet
of a pretty, half-naked girl. She leaned even closer into Jimmy
and his hand with the dollar slipped up between her thighs, lingering,
and she kissed him on the cheek and came the two steps over to me.

“What's your name,” Tommy yelled, and she smiled and
said something I didn't hear. Her chest came up into my face and
Tommy was laughing and patting my back while she pulled my nose
into her cleavage. I was happy it was this girl and not the other
who'd come up to dance.

“You're cute,” she said, kissing my cheek. Time for
the tip. She leaned back, spreading her legs out, and I ran my hand
with a dollar up her thighs, touching every freckle along the way.
She put her hand down, but this wasn't like the places uptown where
the girl has to take the money out of your hand. She slipped a finger
under that green fabric and pulled it to the side just as my hand
got there, my fingers brushing through red, sharp hair and then
smooth down that dry skin as she let the bikini snap back into place,
catching my dollar.

“I'm awake now,” I said, laughing, and Tommy pounded
his open palm on the stage, cracking up. I had one quick thought
of would that be the last girl I ever touched but I pushed it away
as soon as it was there; that's just me being morbid. I always do
that. It doesn't mean anything. Still, I'd lost my laugh. Maybe
it would come back later.

“I got to hit the head,” I said, standing. But the
girl was already in front of Tommy and he wasn't listening to me.

When I came out of the bathroom the girl had moved on to Xerox.
He was all mooned out about her, eyes bugging behind his big wire-rim
glasses the way they do, and that got my laugh back. Tommy was standing
alone at the bar, ordering another round for us. I went up to him,
shaking my head and laughing to myself. He was staring in the mirror
behind the bar.

“S'up, Richard,” I said.

“It's not right,” he said, staring at in the mirror.
“It's just not right.”

That shut me up again. I waited for him to say something else,
but he didn't. The bartender came with four beers and Tommy paid
for them, but he didn't make a move to go anywhere. Just staring
at himself again, in the mirror.

Finally, I said, “Well, it doesn't feel right.” I didn't
know what else to say. He didn't say anything, so I added, “Not
in any way.”

It was bad enough he was out, and got put out the way he did. The
best ones always seemed to fuck up and get put out. It was the way
of it. Bad for us, though, too; shipping without him. I tried not
to think about it too much, but here it was now. He was an asskick
of a Richard, that's for sure. Our asskick. Our good-luck charm.

He tilted his head and looked at me.

“You think I could get a job maybe that would get me there?”
he said. “I bet Brown & Root'll be there within ninety
days, building camps and stuff.”

Brown & Root built all the camps everywhere the Army went.
And those guys were all ex-military. Paid good, too, we'd heard.

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.” I had a hard time
picturing Tommy with a hammer in his hand, but I wasn't going to
tell him that.

“Fuck it, Richard,” he said, looking at his watch.
“We got to get out of here. Get a dancer to bring back for
Norm and get out of here.”

“Someone's going to have to drive her back down here after,”
I said. “It's already pretty late.”

“I'll do it.”

We got the beers and went over to the corner table. Jimmy Two-Balls
and Xerox had joined the two girls. They were all getting along,
so I thought Who knows? Maybe we'll pull this off. I wanted to say
something else to Tommy, about the other thing, but he was already
back in the party, smiling and drinking.

Jimmy Two-Balls had his arm around the girl who wasn't as much.

“Lisa here says she's up for a party,” he said. “If
the price is right.”

“What about you, sweetie?” Tommy asked, putting his
arm around the cute one, the one who danced for us.

“I can't leave,” she said. “Three more hours.”
But she smiled and let him keep his arm around her. You could never
do that uptown. These girls weren't snobs.

“That's a damn shame,” he said. “A damn shame.”

I was standing with my back to the wall, so I was the only one
who saw the door open and the two guys come in. They looked older
than us, by maybe a couple years. I knew they were squids. They
were in civvies, jeans and jackets, but I just knew. They had that
stupid Navy haircut. They smelled like squids. The one squinted
toward the stage, looking for something. His eyes roamed the room,
and when he saw us in the corner he slapped the other one on the
chest and they came over. The girl who wasn't much, Lisa, saw them
and pulled herself out of Jimmy's arm, standing up.

“What's the deal?” the one guy said. He was drunk.
Drunk and mean. Big. A big damn squid. He smelled like a squid.

“I don't know,” Tommy said, making no move to take
his arm off the other girl. “I don't know. What is the deal?”

The girl Lisa opened her mouth, but she didn't get a chance to
say anything. Her squid boyfriend reached over and grabbed her arm,
pulling her to him.

“Get out of here,” he said, looking at Jimmy.

Jimmy came closer, and he was still smiling. Poor stupid Jimmy.

“Look, man, we was just setting up a--”

But the big squid's punch was already flying, catching Jimmy Two-Balls
square in the jaw, his head snapping back and then forward. Tommy
yelled something I didn't hear, and in one motion he brought his
arm from around the other girl and grabbed his beer mug from the
table and swung it up into that big squid's face. One inch to the
left and that fucker would have been done for sure, but Tommy slipped
and the mug caught the squid short on the cheek, sending him back
but not down, a stunned look on his face. Not the look I wanted
to see. He'd be clear in a few seconds.

“Tommy!” I yelled, and I think Xerox yelled it, too.
And we should've been all right then, that would've been enough
time to get out, but Tommy's eyes were dark now and somewhere else.
“You fuck!” he yelled, and then that skinny little guy
launched himself onto that big squid, twice his size, and with one
hand around his neck started pounding his fist into the guy's face,
riding him back across the room. Tommy is an asskick of a Richard,
all right, and blindly brave. Stupid brave. The brave that comes
from being a little guy and born scared but tightening the screws
down so hard you become fearless and that's why we loved him, that's
how he'd saved all of us in Kandahar, but now it was just Tommy
drunk and dark and blind.

None of us had been watching the big squid's friend, so it was
too late when the guy swung wide and even with a pool cue, breaking
the tip of it across the back of Tommy's head. Those squids were
done then for sure, because even with Tommy down there were three
of us and only two of them, me and Xerox jumping on the pool-cue
squid, Jimmy throwing himself onto the big guy. It took less than
a minute from there, the bartender finally coming around with his
piece and the two squids out the door to the street with the girl
Lisa in still nothing but a bikini, getting dragged by the big one,
that guy holding his face and blood coming between his fingers.
The cute girl had run into the bathroom. We carried Tommy out of
there, back to the car, the blood on his head making him slippery
to hold on to. Xerox and Jimmy looking around, pulling perimeter,
yelling at the empty night, threatening to kick the ass of anything
that moved, me alone with Tommy in the backseat, holding his head
in my lap.

“You're a worthless Richard,” I said to him. “A
groundpounding stupid skinny Richard.”

“He kicked my ass, Mike,” he said, squeezing his eyes
closed.

My hands were shaking, holding his head. “You're alright,”
I said. “We're alright.”

“Squids--safe in their ships. What the fuck.”

And wasn't that a mouthful.

Jimmy and Xerox were outside the car, yelling at the bartender
now, who was threatening to call the police. In the back of the
car, under the hatch, Tommy's helmet rested on his old duffel. He
could probably get fifty bucks for it at a pawn shop if he needed
to.

I looked out the side window, at Xerox and Jimmy and the bartender
under the parking-lot light. I knew Tommy didn't want me watching
him, so I looked out at the cold night and these two soldiers yelling
at the bartender, the soldier beside me cut-off clean and alone.

“You guys are no good without me,” he said quietly.
“No good at all.”

He was both right and wrong about that, and there was nothing I
could say.

Jimmy Two-Balls opened the passenger door then, Xerox slipping
behind the wheel, yelling one last curse at the bartender as I gave
him the keys.

“Some bachelor party, Richard,” Tommy said, looking
at me now. “You couldn't even get a dancer for Norm.”

“Norm's asleep,” I said, my fingers touching the bump
rising on the back of Tommy's head, his blood covering my hand and
staining the sleeve of my jacket black. It didn't matter--this jacket
and all my civilian clothes would be in a box by this time tomorrow.
I could get a new jacket when we got home. It was the way of it,
all of this--the way it seemed to go sometimes with the best ones.
You couldn't think about it too much.

“You're going to need stitches, buddy,” I said, looking
out the window again, and Xerox put the car in gear and pulled out.
Tommy would need stitches, but I wasn't really thinking about that.
I was thinking about the plane ride coming up and the girl, the
dancer, her pale skin and freckles, how she didn't make a big deal
to put an arm around her.

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