Things Long Dead

By Rhonda Browning White

I’m hard pressed to tell you how I feel when I look up from my barstool in Roadhouse 44 and catch Lieutenant Finnegan’s reflection in the sooty mirror behind the liquor shelves. I ain’t sure if the prickle on my scalp is one of foretelling, like when time slides around and I know things ahead of God’s time for them to happen, or if it’s anger from knowing I’ve finally caught up with the lying sack of shit. I haven’t set eyes on him since Nam. The prickle might even be pleasure I’m feeling; the satisfaction of seeing a living piece of my death-filled past. I watch him a good five or six minutes before he meets my glare in reflection and leans over the bar to gawk down its length at me. We’ve aged, but I know he recognizes the star-shaped scar that covers the side of my head, the place where hair hasn’t grown since the sixties. I lift my beer bottle, but it ain’t a toast. More like fair warning, and I feel good about giving him that. It’s more than he ever gave me.

He slides off his stool and swaggers toward me with that same arrogant saunter that used to irritate me worse than jungle rot. Nowadays, he’s wearing black leather chaps instead of fatigues, and his thighs creak against each other when he draws near. I turn to face him.

Front Toward Enemy. I see the words in my mind today as clearly as I saw them the day they sent me sailing through the air.

“Fuzz!” he says, clapping me on the shoulder.

My jaw tightens, but I push out a smile anyway. “Lieutenant,” I say, and I accept his handshake.

His face colors the way it always did when his empty head clouded. “You don’t have to call me that now, Fuzz. Vietnam is way behind us. They call me Crankshaft these days.” He pats himself on the back—physically, this time—and his face stains a shade deeper. “Never mind. Vest is in my saddlebag.” He hooks a thumb toward the hand-lettered sign hanging over the bar. “No colors allowed in here.”

Like I didn’t know that, couldn’t read. I’d shed my Thunder Hogs vest when I parked my bike out front, laid it atop the pink baby blanket in my saddlebag. See, the V.A. thought working with newborns would help me re-find my appreciation for life, so I volunteered at the local hospital—they need people to hold the preemies and sick babies, say it helps them thrive. I’d held “Walker, Baby Girl” off and on for weeks, and she was a fighter, a real soldier. Her first day out of NICU, she snuggled against my chest and quit breathing. I didn’t know I was screaming until the charge nurse pulled her out of my arms, let her blanket fall to the floor. They worked and worked on her, but she never breathed again. I picked up her blanket, walked out of the hospital, and I never went back. Even when you hide among brand-new life, death will find you.

And now it’s found Lieutenant Finnegan.

A slimy-looking grin slides across the lieutenant’s face as he eyes my Harley t-shirt. “You ride?”

I nod, pull a swig from my beer, swallow, and run my tongue over my teeth, feeling their hardness. I want to bite him. Tear meat from his bones.

“Ain’t seen you in here before. You down on vacation?”

“Moved here a few months ago.”

“That so?” His red-dog eyebrows lift. “What brought you to New Smyrna?”

“Came for Bike Week. Liked it so much I stayed.” It feels good, keeping my gaze steely and level while I lie to the man I nearly died to save. Truth is I came here for him. He may as well have been feasting on the marrow of my bones all these years, just like Agent Orange, both of them cancers feeding off what few months I have left.

I study him a minute, decide I made the right choice, coming here. I figure I saved his life, so it’s mine to take if I choose.

“Yeah, it’s a good town for bikers.” He pets his goatee as if it were a dog.

“Crankshaft!” hollers a barrel-chested man from the far end of the bar. “We rollin’?”

The lieutenant lifts his chin toward the man, then looks at me and smiles. “Walk out with me.”

I stand, and the stump of my calf tingles against the boot prosthesis. Lieutenant Finnegan throws his arm around my shoulders as we walk toward the door.

“We’ll have to catch up, now that you live here, Fuzz. I’ll show you around, introduce you to my posse.”

The warm, salt-scented breeze dampens my skin as we step from the bar into the late-night air, and I draw it into my lungs, lick the briny taste from my lips. “You got a posse?” I know he rides with Night Fiends, but I don’t know how many members he keeps at his side. I follow him to his bike, and when he reaches it, he strokes the leather seat, turns to me and grins.

“Twenty-ten Fat Boy Lo,” he says. “I usually trade up every year, but this one’s a keeper.”

“That a leather-covered fuel tank?”

His shaved head nods on his stump of a neck. “You can touch it.”

I don’t.

He reaches into his saddlebag and pulls out a leather vest, then shoves his meaty fists into the armholes. He holds out his arms like Jesus on the cross, turns slowly to model his colors. Full-patch Night Fiend. When he faces me again, he grins.

I swallow against the hate in my throat. “You ride with the Fiends?”

His snide laughter shoves me backward four decades. “Ride with ’em? Hell, I’m prez of the NSB chapter.”

My eyes plow the patches on the front of his vest. Crankshaft. President. 1%. Vietnam Vet. POW/MIA. Respect Few, Fear None. Then I see it. Valor—the Medal of Honor.

My award.

He wears a patch—not the medal, at least—but it bears the same emblem. I shove my hands into my pockets where they curl into fists.

He must have followed my stare, or else my hatred stabbed a hole into his chest. He clears his throat. “Look, Fuzz—”

“Don’t call me that,” I say through a vise of teeth.

“All right.” His words come out slow, and I know he’s measuring me. “We oughta put this thing to bed. We’re not dumb kids anymore. I know you believe what you think happened, but I was there, too. You took a gash to your head. You weren’t thinking right.”

The muscles in my jaw clench, and time stretches enough for me to see, without turning, the three Night Fiends standing a dozen yards away, watching us. Watching me.

“If you want, we can talk about it.” His voice grows soft, like the lob of gut hanging over his belt. “Sometimes it helps to talk.”

I glance at the sky, see the last stripe of sun’s fire streak through blue suede. Red sky at night, soldier’s delight. I look back at him, squint as if I’m in pain. “Alone.”

His eyes glitter in the neon glare. “There’s a place on the county outskirts, a dive called Digger’s. They close early tonight, but I know the owner. We’ll get a bucket of beer, sit out back, talk ’til daylight.”

I nod.

It doesn’t feel right to straddle my bike without wearing my colors, so I pat my saddlebag to honor them. My patch only has one rocker, but that’ll change tomorrow. Cancer’s numbered my days, so I’m taking the shortcut to full patch.

I follow the lieutenant out of the parking lot. He rides the double yellow lines, waiting for me to pull alongside. I stay behind, keeping his Fiends patch in the glare of my headlight.

Front Toward Enemy.

I picture how it will go down tomorrow, how I’ll throw the lieutenant’s vest on Thor’s table at the back of the Thunder Hog’s clubhouse. The vest will land with the words Crankshaft and President face-up, and when Thor picks it up and sees the Night Fiends patch on the back, his black beady eyes will come out from under their hoods to gape. He’ll stand, shake my hand, pull me against him, and pound my back. He’ll say something wise. “Welcome to the brotherhood.” The brotherhood. Brotherhood. Time slides around the word, turns it into an echo, and it bounces against the top of my brain like a helium balloon, overinflated and out of reach.

Thor will hold up the vest for other members to see, and he’ll smile big and proud. They’ll nail Finnegan’s cut to the wall over Thor’s table. Then I’ll get the full patch, not just the probate’s rocker like I have now, says Thunder Hogs. And on the front, they’ll put a lightning bolt, because I’ve killed for my colors. Respect Few, Fear None. The badge of a killer. I’ll ask Thor—no, I’ll tell him—I’ll tell him before he nails the lieutenant’s cut to the wall, I’ll tell him I want the Valor patch for my own cut. It belongs to me. I earned it. My dying wish, to get what is mine.

Now the lieutenant shoots through a red light, and I know he thinks I’ll stay behind, await the green. His head ducks and tilts to the right as he checks his side mirror, but I stay on his tail. Laws don’t apply to one-percenters like us, but he don’t know I’m a Thunder Hog.

We pull into the small parking lot, and I dismount. Broken raw-bar oyster shells scattered on the sand crunch like bones beneath my boots.

“Go on around back,” he says. “I’ll grab the beer before Digger locks up.” He grins like he’s my savior. “It’s on me.”

Behind the joint, six picnic tables sprawl at odd angles, and I straddle the bench of the one farthest back, the one hidden in the shadows of a live oak’s dripping moss. Outside the ring of yellow light splayed by bare bulbs, I blink fast, force my eyes to adjust. I finger the slim leather holster beneath my t-shirt, feel the Ka-bar knife tucked there. She’s been with me since Vietnam, came with me aboard the chopper the day I lost my foot. The day I saw the Claymore propped on its spindly praying-mantis legs. Front Toward Enemy. The day I shoved Lieutenant Finnegan over the bank to save his life. The day they pulled eleven steel balls out of my legs, my stomach, my chest. The day my head hit a boulder and my skull opened, pouring out the last drop of loyalty I had for my lieutenant, my unit, my country.

The lieutenant thumps two buckets of beer on the picnic table, and a kamikaze ice cube shoots across the table and lands in the sand on the other side. He sits down across from me, and his weight shifts the table. He pulls out a knife, a Ka-bar like mine, pries the top from a bottle, and shoves it my way. I can’t help but grin. I pull out my own Ka-bar, slap it against the table in front of me.

He laughs. “Too much alike, my brother.” He holds out a fist.

I knock my knuckles against his, though we’re nothing alike, and we sure as hell ain’t brothers no more. I look up into the tree, stare until I make out scraps of blue night against the groping fingers of leaves.

“You been rolling long?” he asks.

I pull a few swallows from my bottle, wipe my mouth on my hand. “Since I learned to walk again.” I stomp my boot in the sand to remind him, and the prosthesis shoots a tingling jolt into my knee. He looks away, doesn’t speak for a full minute. I wait him out.

“I told what I saw,” he finally says. “What I knew to happen.”

“Tell it to me, then. I want to hear you say it.”

When he looks at me, his stare is hard, but then it goes soft. He turns away again before he talks, remembering. Remembering the things he made up, not remembering the truth.

I know the truth.

“You were on the bank above me. I looked up, was going to tell you to get the hell down from there, but before I could say a word, you jumped spread-eagle. You were airborne over my head before the mine exploded.” He shakes his head. “No idea to this day where the VC were hiding. Hell, maybe they didn’t have a clacker. Maybe you tripped a wire.”

I can’t pry my teeth apart, so I talk through them. “Didn’t trip no wire.”

He pulls another swig from his bottle. “Clacker, then. They pressed a clacker, set off the mine.”

“Clacker. Yeah, I’m sure of that. I saw the Claymore.” Close enough to read the embossed words: Front Toward Enemy. “They didn’t even try to hide the thing.”

“Really,” he says. It isn’t a question.

“Sitting out there in broad daylight. You walked right past it. That’s how come I know there weren’t no wire.” I stare at him hard. “I shoved you over the bank, jumped right behind you. Musta been in the air when they blew it.”

No way can I forget, though I wish to God I could. It was the day I first slid time around. I slowed it down while I was falling through the gray mist. I drew in a full breath, smelled the mud-thick air, and saw my boot fly past my face, hit the ground and bounce. Didn’t know then my foot was still in it. I saw the low boulders in my landing zone. They weren’t the granite-gray rocks of the West Virginia farm where I grew up, and no moss grew on them, despite the dank. These big stones shined white, like smooth, bleached bones coming out of their graves among ferns and leaves. I slowed time enough to turn, look toward Lieutenant Finnegan, his face buried in the ferns, his hands covering the back of his head.

I heard the crack as much as I felt it. It sounded like a shotgun, but I knew it was my skull breaking open. I stayed awake. Had sense enough to tell the lieutenant to get my boot when I saw my foot was missing.

And he says I misremember.

He works at his bottle now, picks at the label on the neck, peels it loose. “You didn’t shove me,” he says, low and quiet-like. “I was already down there. You came flying over my head, landed in the rocks.” He pushes his empty aside, pulls another bottle from the bucket.

I take the bottle from his hand, surprised that I already have my Ka-bar pointed toward him. I flip off the cap, shove the bottle his direction. I hear him swallow before he ever lifts the beer to his lips.

“Thanks,” he says. He pulls a long swig, then he stares off toward the bar as the only car in front of it comes to life, spins shells and loose gravel as it hits the highway. “I carried you out of there.”

“You did.” I run my finger over the blade.

“You remember that, too?”

“I do. Stayed awake until they loaded me on the chopper.”

He nods. “Your eyes were open some. Closed some.”

“Hard to keep ’em open. Had a hole in my head. No foot.” I scrape the back of my hand with my knife, shaving hair, fine pieces of me falling to the table. I blow them away.

“You think I don’t deserve it?” He touches a thick finger to the Valor patch.

“Never said that.”

“You tried to fight it. I know you called the captain and the major. Said it was yours.”

“I shoulda had one. I saved your life, probably some of the other men, too. Nearly cost me mine.”

He sucks deep of the night air, and it feels like he pulls it from my lungs. “I saved your life,” he says. “Carried you to that chopper, bullets whizzing all around, grenades blowing craters at my feet.”

“You did. I know. And I thanked you for it. I thank you again.” I glare at him until he looks back at me. “But all that happened after I saved your life. After I pushed you down the bank. I coulda jumped, left you up there, let you get blowed to bits. That split-second it took me to push you first liked to have killed me.” My calf tingles, tries to sleep, so I throw my leg over the bench and stand.

He clears his throat. “You know . . . you gonna live here, we’ll cross paths a lot, small town and all.” He jerks his head toward the bar’s parking lot. “Especially if you ride.” He gazes over his shoulder for a while, then turns back to me. “You could ride with the Night Fiends. It takes a while to patch-up—years, sometimes—but I can get you past all that. Have your full patch in two or three months. Prez has powers like that, you know. I say what’s what.”

I pull another beer from the bucket, flip off the cap with my Ka-bar, keep her in my hand as I guzzle half the bottle. I stare at him. “Been riding some with Thunder Hogs.”

The proud look on his face melts, and I want to laugh, but I don’t.

“They’re a mean club,” he says. “Rivals. Might want to think twice before you start hanging around with them.”

“Oh, yeah?” I stare at the patch. It’s stitched of golden thread with “Valor” embroidered in blue, the same colors as the Medal of Honor. The one he lied to get. The one he took from me.

He nods, presses his lips into a line. “Got to fight your way in, you join the Hogs. Can take as long as four, five years to go full-patch. That is, if you make it that long. The Night Fiends . . . we’re a real brotherhood. All for one, one for all. Like we were in Nam.”

Time slips again, and I see his lips, still wet with beer, slide around the words. Brotherhood . . . Like we were in Nam. The empty in my chest swells, constricts, aches.

“Look here,” he says, and he tugs on the Valor patch. “You can’t stop staring at the damn thing, can you? If it means that much to you, you can have it. It ain’t the real medal, no how.” He slides his Ka-bar under the stitches, starts to pop the patch loose.

“Stop it!” Time slips again, all slick and smooth, and I can’t seem to wrestle it back into place, make it hold still. It slips backward, and I see the Claymore. Front Toward Enemy.

The lieutenant chokes out a wheeze as time glides back into the now, and I find myself twisting his arm at a crazy angle behind his back, my Ka-bar resting flat against his throat. I turn him loose, the broken arm falling heavy toward the sand, and he bends over, vomits on the ground. Beside the acrid beer-puke lays the splattered Valor patch. Stolen from me again.

I hover above him, angel of death or angel of mercy, I ain’t sure which. I imagine the Ka-bar sinking handle-deep into the Night Fiends patch on his back. Imagine him breathing his last, his chortling sound, and I’ll wonder for a minute if he’s laughing. He’ll cough then and spray the sand red.

“Brotherhood.” I spit on him now, lying in his stench, his puffy bug-eyes looking up at me. “Ain’t no such thing.” I lean over him, and he whimpers when I snatch the bandana hanging from his pocket. I use it to wipe my Ka-bar, sheathe her at my hip.

I’ve turned off Route 44 onto I-95 before I realize I’ve left my colors in the saddlebag. I pull to the side of the interstate, take out my vest and crush it against my nose, breathe deep the animal smell of leather, of things long dead and better for it. I fling it over the guardrails where it lands among the palmettos, and I point my bike again toward the mountains of home.

 

Rhonda Browning White resides near Daytona Beach, where she works overtime to support her writing habit. She’s currently polishing her first collection of short stories, from whence this story comes.

 

 

 

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