“It is high time we talk,” Todd said, before he sat down. They were both staying at the Hilton, corner of First and Main, set along the Los Angeles city streets, lines of concrete and sharp angles. She wore a summer dress with fancy pink lingerie to cover the nakedness hinted at underneath the sheer cotton, especially when she stood against the sunshine. She’d pinned her hair up the afternoon he walked into the Dean Martin Lounge.
“Sit here,” she said from the deep-cushion chair, where she sat most of the day, “next to me.” She closed the book she was reading, a finger holding the page, and smiled as he approached, dressed in island flower silk shirt and baggy blue jeans.
“You didn’t have to get dressed up just for me,” he joked.
Her quick smile encouraged him. “I figured you’d be good to talk with.”
“Anything you want, except sports, football in particular,” he replied.
“I don’t play…football that is.” Her eyes flashed.
“You’re not the type.” He rubbed his hands over his blue jeans.
She eyed him from his shaved head—the weathered look to his face—and his athletic build.
“Here by yourself?” he asked.
“Eight months now.” She crossed her legs, showing some thigh. “So, now you’re what, courting me?”
Her matter of fact talk—he liked the way she said it.
“If you’re interested, Lucinda Williams is playing in town this Thursday, down at the Veterans’ Hall.”
“Love her songs.” She wedged the book in next to her hip.
“I like your dress. Style, lady, style.”
“For thirty-something? You should see me with a good blond bleaching.”
“Woman like you, you can rule this town with a smile and a new dress…no need for bleach.”
“Why the shaved head?”
“A habit from the Marines.”
“How’d you lose the leg?”
“I went down the wrong road on the wrong day in Kirkuk. What they call ‘Improvised Explosive Device.’ Damn thing took out part of my intestine and liver and a kidney too. What the hell. Can’t live forever. You hang around too long, you end up with Alzheimer’s, like my dad. He gets dressed every day, drives around in his car visiting his lady friends. Then gets lost, can’t find his way home, sometimes even has to sleep in his car.”
“You don’t watch the news much. Iraq.” He rubbed his knee near his prosthetic leg. “What brings you to stay so long here? I talked with you a week ago at the complimentary brunch. You don’t remember, do you? I’m Todd. I remember you. Nellie, right?”
“I like it here,” she said with a sigh, setting back in her chair. No better reason. What about you? Why’re you here so long?”
“It’s near the Veterans’ Hospital.”
“You spend a lot of time there?”
“I stay here now. I like the luxury. Government pays for some of it. I didn’t have insurance. Sold my house when my wife moved up to Seattle. Got some equity. I did all right in construction, built rows of houses in the Valley until the Reserves called me back. And back again.”
“You joined the Marines. You must have liked it.”
“Something like that.” Todd let his eyes roam off into space.
“You did the dirty work? Shot people?” She looked him square in the eyes.
“That’s a hell of a question.” The romance he once sensed in the air crashed down so hard on the tile floor he heard it shatter into pieces.
“You said I could talk about anything except football. Change your mind?”
“Not a subject for light conversation. That’s all. Guys come back after a year or more of solid combat, they don’t talk about it.” Uncomfortable, he teased his black mustache.
“So,” she said softly, “you see me, you expect some chit-chat about the weather, maybe the arrangement of those bird-of-paradise flowers over there in the fancy pots?” She nodded toward the big ceramic containers.
“I don’t care to talk about it. That’s all.” He crossed his leg and started shaking his foot back and forth, nerves finding some way out of his system. Memories started seeping in. The ones he tried to push away, better left alone.
“A person who can’t talk about something,” Nellie pressed him with a cool voice, “it can twist up inside and gnaw away at your heart…pull you into hell.”
“Sounds like you speak from experience.” His foot still shook, though not as hard and fast as a rattle snake’s tail.
“You’re still avoiding my question.” She brought her left hand up, thumb under her jaw bone, red-hot polish on her long nails, no wedding ring.
“Fine.” He stopped touching his mustache and sat up straight. “You want some…some hard core combat stories…a way to pass the time in the afternoon? So I did sign up for the Marine Reserves. I was naïve. You could say, ‘well intended.’ Once I got over there, it opened my eyes to a whole new world—one where the sewers busted open spewing shit and piss in the streets. The smell…bad enough to close the LA Airport, if it was here. That was the easy part. The dead bodies…dead kids, women…a little girl dressed in a cute summer dress…her legs shredded to the bone; she lay on her back…side of the street dead, blank face looking up into the sky. Cluster bombed. Carnage all over. Artillery always scattered body parts all over the towns we entered. I was a driver…a Humvee…you know? We rolled into Nasiriyrah…turned a corner…right there in the middle of the street an old man’s head lying…right there…a head. I swerved but not enough, ran right over it. The sound of it cracking under the tires…that comes back to me sometimes…that sound. The worst, though…when we guarded a road block. Some woman drove up trying to leave the shelled town. We waved her to stop. She freaks out and speeds forward. We had to shoot. Standard rules of engagement…the way we stayed alive. We had to shoot. Afterward, I walked up to the car. The woman was dead. A little girl sittin’up straight in the back seat, in shock…ten, maybe twelve years old. She sits there lookin’ at me with big brown eyes. I opened the door and touched her arm to help her out. Top of her head slides off, falls on the ground. I stepped back and put my boot in her brains on the ground and slipped.” He fell silent. His eyes, glossy red, returned from some other place and time and looked at Nellie for a moment, and then said, “You asked.”
Nellie leaned forward, reached out her hand and glided it over his bare arm and then sat back in her chair. “Not the stories we see on the TV.”
“It’s like they keep it all hidden. Civilians have no clue about combat. They think it’s some kind of job people do…like…like going to the office. The other day I saw in the New York Times, they say some six hundred thousand innocent civilians died in Iraq. Think about it.”
Nellie sighed. “It’s good you can talk. Get it off your chest.”
“You’re the only one I’ve told this to.” He set his foot flat on the floor and leaned his shoulder into the arm of his chair, closer to her. He pointed to the black and white photo framed in glass hanging on the wall.
“Dean Martin,” said Nellie.
“Autographed.” He turned his head, looked around. The orange and gold birds-of-paradise opened in full splendor. A silence crept in and floated in the air, mingling with the cigarette smoke drifting in from the terrace through an open glass door at the end of the bar. He cleared his throat. “My dad loved Dean Martin.”
“What was he like?”
“Dean Martin?” His lips opened a little.
“No.” Nellie chuckled. “Your dad.”
“He died years ago, when I was young. He boxed for a year or two while he was still in the Army, Eighty-ninth Division. That’s probably why he liked Deano. Dean Martin boxed for a while, you know?”
“Really?” Nellie said.
“Yeah, I heard about it once on the radio. They said Dean Martin’s hands were messed up from boxing…arthritis and such.”
“And your dad, his hands?”
“Boxing didn’t faze him. He was a tough guy, but sensitive inside, you could see it if you looked close. Stoic as an icebox. Never talked about his feelings. World War II combat left a mark on him though.”
“You’re a curious lady…a great looking lady but curious as a cat.”
“Ask questions, you learn things.” She smiled. “I purr too.”
“I bet you do.” He held her gaze for a second. “My dad…carried pieces of shrapnel around in his legs. He’d frozen his feet in Germany. Caught typhoid fever…almost killed him, gave him narcolepsy for the rest of his life. His whole unit was wiped out one afternoon. He barely survived by throwing himself into a cold pond where he could hide.”
“He told you his war stories?”
“That’s the only one I know. He never talked about it. I asked him about it once. Put him in some god-awful humor. He made one thing clear to me though. No heroes in war. Not so much as a teaspoon of glory. After I came back from Iraq, I understood what he meant. Nobody ever boasts of any mission accomplished. Only the ones never fought in combat turn war into some kind of romance. Fact is, no one ever accomplishes any mission in war. Only a few businessmen win. The rest of us just go home busted up one way or another.”
Nellie sighed again and asked, “You think this war will ever end?”
“Eventually…we run out of men or money.” Todd shrugged.
“Then what?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Probably Iraq will pretty much go back to some Islamic state. That’s what it’s all about. Church and state are joined at the hip. Islam has its own legal system…government. That’s the way they live. Saddam Hussein was some kinda tyrant, but without him, the country is open field for any kind of religious nuts now.”
“Funny,” she said, “how this got twisted up. Nobody seems to talk about this much.”
“That’s ‘cause it’s not so funny,” Todd said.
“Well,” said Nellie, “you and I, we have plenty of things in common.”
“We both like to chat about the essentials.”
“I know you were married. What’d your husband do?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Your classy look. Someone’s taken good care of you. You’re better looking than any woman I’ve ever talked to. Classy. Elegant figure, beautiful eyes. Hair like silk. What happened?”
“Classic…my ex is loaded, has everything, including a hot little secretary half my age.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Todd said. “You’re fun to talk with. Your ex is a sad man. He did a very stupid thing. I’ve studied the subject. Men are stupid, but I’d say your ex exceeds the average. Damn, you’re the finest woman around. What’s your ex do?”
“Commercial real estate.”
“Here in LA? Maybe I know him.”
“New York City.”
A lull settled in between the two. Todd glanced around the lounge, at furnishings he’d never been able to afford, expensive-looking pieces.
“You happy here? I mean, living at a hotel?”
“It’s a long way from New York. That’s all that matters to me now.”
He waited before saying, “Are you sad?”
“I have pills.”
He nodded. “Back’em up with a cocktail in the evening?”
“Hardly ever in the evening.” Nellie pulled herself up in her chair. “Mostly all day long. I mix it up with a little Xanax. Makes me feel like a Buddhist monk, calm. It passes the time.”
“I’ll get you a drink. What would you like?”
“Vodka, straight up.” She smiled and winked. “I’ve been doing this every day since I arrived.”
“Okay, I’ll get it for you. I like Jim Beam myself.”
“Sit still,” she got up and was moving—slim tan legs, nylons with a garter belt. He hadn’t seen as much in a long time and then only in magazine photos. Her legs were long and in good shape, her body a golden hourglass. She looked and walked like a dream come from paradise. She returned with drinks in tall glasses, handed him one and settled back into her chair with a coquettish movement that displayed her upper thigh. Now she was looking him over with a naughty smile, and licked her lips after a sip.
“The guys here,” Todd said, “either run around for business, or gossip sports…on and on about golf. Or they sit and watch CNN. I get the feeling most of them like G. W. Bush.”
“It’s just a matter of time with you, right?” She sipped her drink.
“Doctors say six months, a year. What about you? What’s your plan? You can’t live in a hotel the rest of your life.”
“Screwed up my liver. So, they tell me anywhere from six months to ‘who knows?’ ”
“Vodka can do that. You afraid?” He looked her over, admiring.
“Not so much now. The Xanax helps.”
“You learn to live with it. Weed is good too…less expensive.” He realized how that sounded.
She smiled. “Money helps too. I emptied my ex’s account when I left.”
“Maintaining that quality of life, huh?” He grinned, finishing his JB. “Only I’m still not used to this; hanging out, not doing much, talking with a gorgeous woman.”
“Waiting,” Nellie said. “No, me neither.”
They sipped their drinks, not a sound coming from anywhere. From the main entrance a beam of light drilled through that somber lounge. She finished her drink.
“You want to get out of here?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” She looked at him with surprise.
“I suppose we could,” she said, nodding her head.
“Or,” he said after a moment, “get your pills and move in with me. Room 509. What do you think?”
Nellie smiled. “I’ve got a suite with a full bar. Living room. Bedroom.”
He nodded in a thoughtful way.
“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” Nellie took a moment before saying, “Elevators are right there.” She pointed with her book. “Let’s go up. I’ll show you my place.”
Causes Mark Biskeborn Supports
Democracy instead of Corporatism