INSTRUCTIONS ON THE USE OF THE M-57 CLACKER
Published in "Fear the Reaper," October 2013, Crystal Lake Publishing
“She was among the recent dead, and walked haltingly from her wound.”
-- Ovid, “The Metamorphosis” Book X
“So, you kill anybody?” Arinello said. No one else had asked.
Libassi had put a million rounds into the dark. Careful three-round bumps or Mad-Minutes on full-auto, a thousand year-old wall between him and Charles, the stink of nitro coating his throat, muzzle-flashes right, left, forward, above, like stars.
“Probably,” he said. “Why?”
“Just wondering’s all. You was scared?”
The ceiling at O’Dwyer’s Fishtown Bar-Liquors-Beer was still pressed tin. O’Dwyer was dead, old age, cancer, something, but his ceiling? That was the same, sure-sure. Libassi’s eyes wandered. He read the tin landscape cold, like a field map of the Highlands. “Scared? Fuck yeah.” Then, “Okay no. Well at first, then it goes inside. Then, ‘I see the light,’ clack-clack,” Libassi said.
“Fuck, I know you, Libassi. Scared shitless! What’s that? Clack-clack?”
“Something. You want stories? ‘A Grunt’s Tale, or What the Fuck?’”
“Like Sister Magdalene reading, what was it? ‘The Red Badge of Who Gives a Shit!’”
The laughs died.
“How old you think Nam is? Country not the war?
“A thousand years.” He stopped for the memory. “‘Place is the clit of the South China Sea.’ Soc said that.”
“Look at a map.”
“Socrates. Socrates is a dead nickname. Words for everything that guy had. What’d he say jungle was?” Took a second. “Fecund!” The word popped out of memory. “Yeah, ‘fecund.’ Should hear what he called malaria and shit.”
The laughs died again but Soc was in his head now, whispering smells, tastes. “’Jungle’s the cunt of the world.’ Soc said. ‘War inhales us and the forest spits out death, rot, life; it is all the same. The end. Amen.’” Libassi turned to Arinello. “That’s Soc. Dead now, sure-sure.”
“A thousand years?”
“Them villes, yeah. Grass huts, ‘imagine.’ Not stone like Italy and the Greeks. A thousand at least, the butterbar said.”
“Butterbar. Yeah. Second lieutenant. We come out of the forest. A dog’s barking down in the ville, always a dog’s barking. The path leads down into whatever it was called. ‘Imagine,’ LT said. ‘Huts lasting a thousand years.’
“Then an RPG comes smoking out of that shithole, pins the man to a tree and…”
“…dog’s still barking. But LT’s greased. Quickly dead. Anyway, the round never detonated, Chicom shit, so I’m okay. But LT’s guts leave a trail from where we stand back to the fecund forest.”
Then memory. There in O’Dwyer’s Fishtown Libassi remembered: out of that ville had come the thing, the dark he called it. Nothing else to call it. He saw it there for the first time, he and another cherry; a crawling blackness… That’s all he remembered.
“After? After, we Zippo’d the place. A thousand years those huts keep the jungle back.” His memory was alive in smell, taste, sound. “A couple Zippos and... Yeah, guess I got some then. The dog anyway.”
“Fuck. Gotta make ‘em pay for it.”
The dark—which did not care who was who or what side had to pay—had a time that day. After? After, it left for a time and for a time Libassi was good. Afraid? There was a respite, Soc’s word. That was before the tower.
The corner of Libassi’s eye caught a ripple, a twitch on the far side of O’Dwyer’s American Shuffleboard. Might have been his eye, might have been the beer. He almost turned, but didn’t. There was nobody, but there’d been a ripple. “What the hell?” he said to O’Dwyer’s ceiling.
Libassi turned to Arinello. Bobby A. Remember? Arinello, Bob whose fucked up ball-playing high school knee kept him out of the war? Ran numbers for some people? Nothing big. That was then. Now? Well, now the State is writing policy so what’s Arinello doing?
“You know, working. Arinello’s and Son Auto Body. Arinello rubbed the black lines in his knuckles. “Least I got a trade, huh?”
Libassi pulled his head away from the dark. “Me too.”
“Couple-a lucky fucks we are, huh?” He called to the bar, “Yo-there!”
The bar was a lady. O’Dwyer’s daughter. A little older, still… She came in slow motion.
“Hey, fix my friend, here. He’s just back,” Arinello said. “Say, what’s this? Place is dead. Used to be something.” No answer. “Just back from Nam, my friend here.” Maybe she hadn’t heard.
Her eyes stayed rigid in her skull. The skull turned to Libassi. “That right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You can tell?”
“No.” Behind him, the shuffleboard went dong-ding, dong-ding. “Can I get you?” she said.
She went. Libassi could have sworn she sniffed and curled her lip.
“Smells it on me, though.”
“So you got a? What is it? Trade you say?”
“Oh, I wade nose-deep in shit without puking, stand stick-fucking-still till hell freezes. Won’t scratch, sneeze, fart or drop dead till told. We’re all meat for the market is what Soc said. Being ‘sardonic’ he said, ‘The end. Amen,’ he said. He said that.”
“Soc got shot?”
“No. Mosquito. Anophol-something. Bites and down you go. Malaria. Gets better, then comes back. Fifty years, maybe. You carry it. Then, snap, you’re dead. Soc didn’t wait.”
Dong-dong, dong dong.
A wet Pilsner touched Libassi’s fingers. The bar waited, her eyes on him. “Schaefer,” she said.
Arinello slapped a buck on the bar. “Chrissake. Guy’s been over there killing for America.”
“A dog, anyway,” Libassi said.
“I’ll bring change.” She waved the single as she walked. She walked nice.
“Fuck,” Arinello said to her back. “Keep it,” he called.
Libassi thoughts ran: Army, trade, eighteen months. Happy to separate out?
Good to be back in the world?
You still you?
He thought so.
“So you got it, Malaria?”
“Yeah. And I burn shit, a valued trade. You and your buddy, both fuckups, are assigned to latrine police; you pull out the honey drums, pour in the magic, light it up, poof. Long burn.” His next breath caught a whiff from memory, the sense, separated but still in Nam: burning shit that he and…
Fuck. What’s-his-name? Colored guy? He knew it but the name was locked in the memory still in-country.
…they breathed, a stink like no thing in the world but itself—solid black that unspooled from the drums of burning…
…shit. Yeah, but in the field what was shit? C-rats, pressed-meats, eggs-n-ham Spam-I-Am, stuff called spaghetti heated with C-4, instant coffee, mouth-mixed and swallowed with spit, tinned pound cake, beans, crackers, Vienna wieners, peanut butter, salt tabs, malaria pills—keep the shakes down—pizza, choppered in with beer and Beam and the rest. That was shit. And shit was the stuff they squeezed from the world, things swallowed, shot, smoked, chewed or shoved to keep hopping. They burned all that.
“Slopes loved our shit, Bob. American shit is fertilizer supreme, worth a fortune, ‘Numbah-one.’ ‘Eat so good, America, you shit numbah-one. You give, yes?’ ‘Give, Charlie? Fuck no, I sell!’”
“G.I. shit brings Bookoo bucks. But no, we stir in some diesel, light a TP-Stick and up it goes. Whoof. ‘Deny the enemy that vital resource, son,’ commander says. ‘No fortune for you, G.I., the end. Amen.’”
Libassi snorted, sucked a breath and he was back in O’Dwyer’s.
“State fucking lottery,” Arinello said. “You believe that shit? Somefuckinbody’s getting rich. You know someone’s getting rich.”
“Always somebody getting rich that ain’t you.”
“Fucking lottery,” Arinello said.
Ding. Dong. Donk, the shuffleboard said.
“Elephant grass,” came into Libassi’s head.
“’Grass, sharp like a sweet soft razor, two-mans high!’” The colored guy called it, ‘Grass two-mans high cuts like a Satiday-night nigger.’”
The picture sharpened: the Huey’s downwash, grass waves rolling out from their center. Libassi leaned to Arinello, “Elephant grass makes pretty waves.”
“Down the shore. Now you’re talking,” Arinello said.
“No. Grass waves. Looking down, from the chopper when you’re dead. Elephant grass rolls away forever.”
“Dead?” Arinello said.
“Swirls, like that ‘Starry Night’ the painter made, one with the ear.” He leaned closer. “But what’s in that grass? Oh, Arinello, Bob, you do not want to know what’s in that grass.”
“When you’re dead?”
“Everybody dies, least once. Bullet, malaria, grenade.”
“You gonna say?”
“Yeah. I died.” Even the t.v. shut up. “You want to know?
“War stories? I’m hanging with my old man now.”
Libassi locked an eye on Arinello. “Lemme show you.” Libassi opened both eyes. Arinello fell into them. The story was this, and it was true, a war story.
Base Camp was a jerky square a couple hundred meters on a side. Someone shaved the top off a mountain, people who’d been before and now were gone. They’d made a place. The place was Fire Support Base Jenny. Who was Jenny? Who cared? Jenny was permanent, as permanent gets in a war, a mountaintop with men, tents, latrines, dugouts and four howitzers. Looking out from Jenny, Libassi saw a line of jungle-clad peaks and valleys. On the field map, neat north-south contours, but from the bagged perimeter above the forest, the lines of hills folded, merged, separated and faded into the mist. Air was mostly water so there was always mist. Daytime.
Nights? Nothing. Overhead was sharp, hard. A black that rose from the forest and went everywhere Jenny wasn’t. Up in Jenny you were safe, more or less. Go down to the forest, though, you were in the House of Charles.
And they would keep ordering you down, captain to the LT, LT to the sarge, then sarge says to you and the map, ‘Patrol that there river trail, Fox one-niner to Lima eight.’ And down you went, got a little bok-bok with Charlie. Kill-and-count. That simple. Really. Stay on Jenny and all was fine. Burn shit when it was your turn (or because you’d fucked up again). Not bad duty considering. “Burn time, get short. Now and occasionally the Shithook comes…”
“Chinook. Big chopper, okay? Shithook comes out of heaven with pizza, beer, porn, smokes, mail, rations, ammo, new guys. Weed too, I figure.”
“Army sent weed?”
“Who else? So. Stay on your mountain, smoke, drink, jerk off, burn shit, turn on, get short, go home. But no, they keep sending you down to the dark.” He smacked the empty Pilsner on the bar.
“Well, you made it.”
“Yeah. Now and occasionally you pull guard duty. You get your chicken plate on, climb your tower—there are four—you watch, listen, sniff the air for Charles because Charles is a stealthy little fuck.”
“Charles’s the Viet Cong.” Arinello spoke for the bar to hear.
“Yeah. Viet Cong. V.C. Victor Charlie. Charles owned the forest below. Trouble is, on a mountaintop you’re surrounded by ‘below.’”
“You said.” Arinello called to the bar. The bar delivered. “Go on.”
“So now and then Charles gets his hands on heavier stuff than AKs. RPGs, mortars, little field howitzers they drag around on bike wheels, you know?”
“So, my turn in the tower. Nightwatch. I climb. Not alone. This other guy has some bodacious weed he wants to blow with someone who ain’t letting everyone in on he’s got it, and that’s me. He brings his shotgun and we are up there bonging with the 12-gauge and it is quiet. Dark.
“Dark’s regular. And quiet?” Libassi listened in his head. “You don’t know how many kinds of quiet there are in the boonies.” Libassi knew a thousand shades of silence, the kinds of nothing the war had to offer. What he knew, he couldn’t tell. “Anyway, we’re fucked up. Somewhat. Don’t get the idea that what’s coming is because of fuckedupness, no-no. Fucked up’s regular too. Anyway. Night’s everywhere, then my buddy, can’t fucking remember his name, colored guy from I don’t remember…”
“Buddy’s a nigger?”
“Buddy’s a nigger. From Boston someplace. He smiles. Why? I don’t know because next thing, he points to the black below our position. I look and down there?” Libassi looked in his head. “There is something. First I think the malaria’s coming out again. Like it does, dreams…
“What is it?”
“Arinello, Bob, my buddy and me, we are both of us fuckups, two guys who should never be in a tower together, people sleeping under our care. We look and I don’t know, there’s something not night, not animals, it’s not Charlie creeping, it ain’t my malaria. I am with my mouth hanging open. The nameless nigger’s still smiling. We’re like boy and girl, heads together, looking.
“The silence—this silence—is the kind that every bug, breeze, everything down there humping, hunting, being killed, suddenly shuts the fuck up over. Freezes. Scared. Tigers, snakes, roaches big as that go numb. Numb because something is among them. Something the fecund forest don’t know, don’t want to know. And the something’s moving. Got a purpose and nothing knows what is that purpose.”
“Anyway, it moves. Bottom of our mountain, across the stream we can’t see except now and then starlight winks on water, it’s down there, okay? Rolling.
Libassi had never spoken it. There was no Army word, no Soc word. “It’s a blackness with arms, or like arms, fingers. Fingers like smoke but not. They reach, touch. Like bug feelers. The trees wrinkle, move aside, no noise, nothing, they just part, like they want nothing to do with this whatever.
“My buddy’s still smiling. ‘We got LURPS out?’ he says. Teeth leave white trails.”
“Long-range patrol. ‘No, we’re buttoned up,’ I tell him. Then, he wants a closer look I guess. He leans over the rail. I do too ‘cause were sort of connected. So. The thing below. Maybe it sees us then, ‘cause, right then, it stops.
“I feel it stop, feel it look. Looks up at us. Looks up at me. And it knows about me. Everything down inside. Anyway, it’s fixed. It’s now ours, or I am its. But it is the thing was in that ville when LT got pinned. The dark.
“‘For me?’ colored guy whispers, ‘Is it? Is it for me?’ Still grinning.
“’Ain’t me,’ I say. Now fucked if I know how, but I know it is for me.
“Weed’s forgotten. We’re looking. Can’t see, looking at. Corner of the eye is how. Thing crosses the stream. No splash. Water flows around. hssshhh… Trees, this side of the river?” How to say this?” They step aside, quiet, polite. Let whatever pass. At the bottom, bottom of the hill below our position, we can’t see for the trees, but the trees wrinkle; they move so easy.
“’We sound alert?’ my buddy asks.
“Now, I want to, I want sirens, lights, want to burn the forest, Mad-Minute the fucker. But, this is not Charlie and the first shirt gets a flaming asshole, his sleep is disrupted. That gets you volunteered. So, I shake my head and watch the dark come up our mountain.
“Buddy’s not smiling now. And, now it’s closing, I smell... I don’t know. Well, I do know.” Libassi blinked Arinello out of his eyes. “You don’t know how death smells. You had a different knee, you’d know. Bodies out there’re mostly Charlies, but sometimes there’s a G.I., and we bring back our own. Try to. And a body in the jungle…” Libassi had to think. “After a couple days, skin slips off the bone, the thing rolls out of your hands and you’re holding slabs of black fat. There’s that. And shit. You shit when you die, so there’s days-old whatever the forest didn’t eat. Anyway, a body, dead, is rotted meat, shit, piss and more. Okay?”
“I smell that and the air. The air carries wet stink from a hundred miles of jungle. And sweat—panic sweat—I taste it. Stink and the taste of stink, it’s in the air.” He thought about that. “No. It’s in me. Okay? It’s me.”
Ding. Dock. Clack. The shuffleboard clacked in the dark by the Ladies’ room.
Libassi shut up. This is Philly, O’Dwyer’s same-old. There’s tin above, a good-looking woman ignoring him, as she should, end of the bar. Still. The silence—the silence of that night in the tower—that silence, that smell and the dark were in him now. Memory? No-no.
Arinello raised his arm for another round. Libassi dragged it down like there were tracers in the air. “No. See, the dark was everything; fed us sight, hearing, taste, smell, all of it. It’s just that what it gave was nothing. Zero. Get it? There was jungle, there was movement and stink but the dark at the center was nothing. And it fed us the nothing.”
“Touch?” Arinello whispered.
“Huh?” Libassi said, then, “No! Not touch, not yet. So, long story short, we watch. Two dumbfucks, ripped to the tits, watch this thing flow, roll, finger its way up the mountain. Takes, I don’t know, ten minutes. Took us longer going down, but call it ten. Thing’s below our twelve o’clock now, and now I hear. A little something, but something touches.” Libassi’s fingernails scraped the bar. “Touches our tower. Tower will not step aside; tower’s not trees, animals. It’s a fucking dead tower someone built and it won’t let the dark go by. Anyway, I’m there. Tower vibrates. Gentle, creak, crackle, crack. Tower rattles, we shake, the stink is heavy.”
Libassi took a breath. “And we fucked up. I know because I suddenly remember we’re soldiers. And that thing is coming. We should shoot, hit sirens, lights. We don’t. Whatever the dark is, we fucked up and people are going to be dead because. Us, too.”
Libassi closed his eyes. The stink came full-bore, filled his nose. With the smell came the heat, the wet, the sound of that long silence, that once and once-only silence that comes just before you’re dead, and you see it and taste your fear of it; that something he knew he’d taste only once again, and after that he’d never taste anything ever.
The Shuffleboard clacked. Three times. Hard. Sharp. Then a fuck-empty silence. He didn’t look. “Not me,” he said to the dark.
Arinello looked like every cherry new in-country. He stared at the old guy, nine months and a thousand years older than he’d ever be. He looked and waited for the word, word of the way, word of the worst and word about the easy way.
Libassi wouldn’t give it. Fucked if he knew himself.
Memory of night, heat, the silence that was the dark’s, the complete fucking nothing that slithered up their mountain and the war-stink it shoved into him, the safe reek of Jenny, which was cosmoline and diesel, armpit and after-shave, mud and SOS bubbling on the stove—and the far end of SOS, the meat-eater shit that uncoiled to heaven on solid rolls of black smoke, those and the other friendly stenches put out by the Army and its men, that and the death-reek of the forest. Then memory of a flicker that lit the air a million miles away; brief lightning in a cloud full of shadow and rain, a misty ripple on the edge of the world. Libassi had wanted rain. He knew when it came the rain would be only a little wetter than the air, but he wanted it, and yes, he knew something bad had advanced on his position and was about to over…
Then memory of the yellow light that killed him.
Then space. No memory.
Like/that Libassi was back in O’Dwyer’s. Arinello was just Arinello and Libassi finished the story he should not have started.
“A mortar. Chinese shit. This’n worked. There’s yellow light. I guess there was noise; I’m squeezed by a bear, gorilla, some fucking thing, and that was that. My post abandoned me. Ha.”
A war story. A quick easy lie.
“Then I wake. Only not like coming up from a dream. It’s like/that.”
“It’s later. Someone kicks me. My chin. I’m bagged, being processed with other dumbshit dead guys. I’m lying next to other bundles of meat. I’m screaming. My mouth is blood and teeth. Rain’s filling my mouth. Thunder, lightning and something’s jammed up my gums. The son-of-a-bitch who kicked me’s on his ass, screaming into the sky too. I’m sitting up, trying to, and I’m trying to pull out…”
Libassi dropped his top plate, pulled out the bottom one to show Arinello the fucked-upness of his mouth.
“I pull my tags out of my fucking fucked-up gums. Fucking guy believed that shit.” Air lisped through the gaps where his teeth weren’t.
Arinello squinted at Libassi’s mouth. “Fuck. Like somebody curbed you, man.” Libassi remembered he and Arinello curbing that Irish what’s-his-name, the prick Stinson and his brother, back when, before.
The shuffleboard clack, clack, clacked.
“I said fucking guy believed that shit about the notch on the dog tags. Fucking new guy just out of charm school. Ought to be field-stripping butts and burning shit, but he’s in a firefight with nobody to kill except each other, and now he’s detailed securing bodies, mine, because I’m dead and my buddy, who I can’t remember his name, and three or four other guys who are well and truly dead, dead because, well, they are, call it enemy action, friendly-fire or what the fuck, they’re dead. I’m one of them.
“Tower’s through the grinder. Seen it next day. Me and the colored guy were in the wreckage. Both dead. Should have been, anyway. The nigger, my buddy, he’s all…” Libassi didn’t want to say, “…splinters and meat,” he said, “you know?”
“Spiedini!” Arinello laughed through his nose. “Eggplant kabob!”
“Yeah. I’m one of them kabobs.” Libassi rubbed his arm. Pieces were still working their way out from down deep. “So, spiedini. So this fucking doofus does my buddy then same to me, yanks my tags, sticks the notch between my front teeth and kicks a field goal on my chin. Wham. Minnesota farm fuck, Stateside fat still on him. Someone told him that’s what to do, said, ‘jam the dead guy’s tags up the gums, then kick it home. You will keep them tags and dead guys together till they get to Graves Registration, stateside, young trooper!’ He believed that shit.
“So, I’m dead, bagged, and this mother jerks me from Jesus, ha!” He smiled wide at Arinello.
The shuffleboard’s Clack Clack Clack shot up Arinello’s backbone. “Hey, that? What’s that?”
“Playing with itself?” Arinello hooked a thumb at the shuffleboard and did not look into Libassi’s holey mouth.
The look on O’Dwyer’s daughter reminded Libassi his plates were still out.
Click, clack. The partials went back. Libassi, as he ever was.
He had to say something else, something to finish that night. “Yeah. Chinese mortar shell that worked.” Libassi finished the warm beer. Miss O’Dwyer brought a cold one and a whisky, Irish. She was all tits and sweat, fucking gorgeous. Buttons holding where cloth parted. How long was it? Got him some boom-boom back there, sure-sure but the women? Little-girl womens, womens like little boys.
“On the house,” she said.
“C’mon, down that,” Arinello said, “place’s dead.”
While Libassi thought of other things, Arinello drank the Irish.
Libassi leaned toward Arinello’s ear. “Buddy, there’s a shitload more.”
“What?” Arinello said.
“Never stand in front of your own Claymore, for instance.” Libassi downed the beer, picked up his empty Irish, shook his head at Arinello and smiled at Miss O’Dwyer. She brought another.
The year faded in, shadow and noise: his buddy’s name, the empty place in that night, more, all on the tip, almost there. What had come out of the forest and up the mountain, what had dropped their tower, what had been alive in the bright yellow burst in his head, what was the dark, what stank inside him. What had made that other guy, another blank where a name should be, what had made him do that? “Clack, clack, clack.” Libassi said. Memory.
He tells this one: “We’re both cherries, same arrival, same DEROS. Both Zippoed the ville that day. But that guy. Stands in front of his own claymore and clack-clack-clack.”
No face, no name yet, just the pink ooze of brain froth.
“Talk,” Arinello said.
“Some guys want it,” Libassi said.
“Shit, I want it,” Arinello, looking at O’Dwyer’s ass.
“Nah,” Libassi said. Should he say? Death wasn’t just out there. It’s in you, death is. He’d learned. Soon after being dropped into Jenny, that fact came around and introduced itself. That day at the ville, they both saw the dark, both looked in its face. Maybe it had been just for the other cherry, what’s-his-name, brain oozing? They choppered in together, both clean and scared.
“Trembly.” Libassi said, a load off.
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“Guy fragged himself, his own Claymore. Trembly.”
“We cocked an ambush. Platoon makes a tactical adjustment left, defilade from cover. But Trembly, he stands, walks forward, and right. Looks at me, ‘See the light, see the light, see the light,’ hits the clacker. Clack, clack, clack. Boom.
“‘New guy panicked,’ Sarge says. Fucking lifer never even knew Trembly’s name. ‘Panic’ll get you dead,’ Sarge says. He’s sure. He’s got Trembly for audio-visual whatchcallit.
Arinello’s face says, ‘what the fuck?’
“To blow a Claymore you got a clacker. Detonator. Generates a current. You hit the clacker switch. Hard. Three, four hits. You’re trained; see a little flash in the tester. ‘I see the light, see the light,’ you say. Wait. The enemy crosses the zone, you do it fast, hard.” He demonstrated on the bar. WHAM. WHAM. WHAM. “Then boom; supersonic pinballs.
“Trembly didn’t panic. He stood, walked. Looked. Clack, clack, saw the light like he was taught. Pinball riot. He let the dark out of him. Holes everywhere and out Trembly oozed, guts, brains—what brains there was; dumb as scum, Trembly. A cherry who couldn’t hack it. I was cherry then, too. Not after that.
“So the year goes. Other guys buy it. Hard, sharp guys. I’m a fuckup but alive. I’m in the tower with that colored guy. Something blew us up. A mortar, sure-sure. There was a firefight over our dead bodies. Then the FNG kicks me in the face and I’m alive again. The end. Amen.”
Alive. No front teeth. The Army fixed that, Choppered Libassi out of the highlands and over the grasslands. Looking down, while dead, he saw what was in the elephant as the waves rolled and the grass flattened then rebounded. Then he was fixed. Wasn’t like playing war down the alley…Patch-patch... Not that easy but…
And the Army’s teeth slipped around his mouth—Click, clack—rattled against his for-real bone-teeth. They got most of the tower out of him. Some was still working its way.
“You get disability? I would. Stick it to the…”
Arinello sounded like Libassi’s old man; gu’ment took eighteen months of your life. For what? Get your disability, for Chrissake. Like Pop’s, Arinello’s grousing was a kind of silence. The silence got bigger. It filled Libassi. Then it filled the bar.
Behind him, the dark moved, a shuffle, a ripple.
Libassi kicked the stool jumping to his feet. The dark flowed, reached for the light in him. Libassi grabbed the bar, held on, did not turn, would not turn. In back, tables, chairs parted quietly, the shuffleboard held fast. He would not look. Not now, not ever. “Never fucking look. See?”
“Huh?” Arinello leaned aside.
“Got a leg cramp,” Libassi said. “Ain’t going to look, though.”
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“Colored guy looked. ‘For me?’ he says. ‘Fuck’d if I know,’ I said. ‘It ain’t me.’ You gotta know that much. Guess Trembly learned that. Back at the ville. Too late.”
Libassi stretched his leg like he believed in the cramp.
The bar darkened. The American Shuffleboard whimpered in clacks, the dark advanced. Overhead, the tin ceiling traced a route: grid reference A to grid reference B. From somewhere to them.
Was it him?
“Gotta pee,” Libassi said, more plea than statement.
Arinello was still talking. The crapper was to the rear, past the Shuffleboard. A minute ago pissing was a suggestion, now it was an order. His bladder climbed his spine and throttled his brain.
“Gotta see a man.”
“Want me to hold it?”
Libassi backed two steps. Wrong. All wrong. Beer cases were stacked like sandbags along the wall. The ceiling fans trailed ropes of greasy dust and liana shadow. The piss-shivers hit hard.
Another backward step and he was in the line of march. Behind him was the forest. No looking but it was there, old, familiar, and fecund. Arinello and O’Dwyer were on slack. The shuffleboard whispered in the moving dark: Clack. Clack… Hit the dirt? Nah. Trembly was long ago, far away. Libassi was in the world, Philly, in O’Dwyer’s Fishtown with his buddy, what’s-his-name?
“Washington,” he said. My shit-burning bud. Forget Washington? Fuck me!
With the dead named, the shadows advanced in strength. They rolled over the redoubts. Ropy black fingers curled over edges, pulling smoke-black bodies along. In mass they darkened the space. From the front, from behind, from the T.V, through the windows and over the beer cases, they advanced across the walls, floor, they drew across the tin map of the ceiling. The shadows moved fast: fans, chairs, tables, shuffleboard, Libassi’s shadow—for Holy fuck, his own shadow—separated, flowed, merged with the others. Stealthy, like Charles. Where there’d been light was now nothing. The nothing gathered substance. Coiled smoke writhing. It wanted. Not him. It was not for him but it wanted something living.
“Ain’t for me,” He stood alone. “You can’t see it, it can’t get you.”
“Huh?” Arinello said.
“What?” Gorgeous looked down from the news.
He was out of the bar running. The street washed him, he drew its light. At the corner where a dead three-flat sagged into shadows, he hung hog. Finally. Shivers poured out.
Night was hazy, hot and humid. Philly normal. Center City was a wet glow above the low buildings of Fishtown. When he was a kid he thought the city was on fire. Every night. Libassi sucked air. O’Dwyer’s stood alone on its block, the last tooth in a wino’s mouth. The ground was wet. Busted glass kicked back sparks. No cars, no people, distant sirens. In the far distance: shots, running shots and shot echoes. Philly night.
Libassi tucked and zipped, set a pace. “Where’s everybody? ‘Where all the mens?’”
“…the hell, Libassi?” Arinello. Another echo.
“Don’t follow, Arinello. It ain’t for me.”
Arinello barely kept pace. Not the running back he’d been two years ago. When the two of them and DiNardo and Chiarelli, those guys, the four of them, back when they made the Fishtown Irish pay for it, wasn’t that something? Fucking Stinson! Mouth on the curb, heel to the back of the head and boom. Right here. This street. Over there… The cement could still have teeth in it.
Now he was a long way from Ninth and Passyunk, the two of them alone in Fishtown. Libassi kept pace. O’Dwyer’s merged with all the bricks of Philly. Fuck O’Dwyer. Fuck O’Dwyer’s girl, Jenny’s her name? Back there was the stink, the shadows. Not for him. He was not going into it, the dark.
Libassi sucked air. He was what? Two weeks back in the World? Already dragging home-pounds, his legs ached, he had to breathe too much, but he was still going. Arinello? Forget it.
Maybe the Army done my ass some good. “Ha.”
His laugh cracked back from brick and concrete.
Double-time now. The street grew darker, narrower. Silence oozed around him.
Libassi broke pace. Let your buddy catch up, something said. We been here a thousand times, him and me. Libassi knew the pavement cracks, the broken curbs, boarded storefronts, busted stoops. He and the others lived and fought here. Kicked the shit out of the Irish, had the shit pounded out of their Dago asses. A thousand times but different, now. The corner of the eye: the shadows from O’Dwyer’s paced them. Silent, wriggling fuckers, they raced along the pavement, walls. Alive, they flanked him, hissed like the ocean that licked the sand down the shore. Larger shadows peeled off the buildings. Brick shadows, stucco and tin shadows from cornices, rusted, dripping darkness eased off whatever bits of the world he passed. They rendezvoused as they advanced. Behind, they surrounded Arinello. Arinello was the scream back there.
This was the memory: Libassi and Washington in the tower. Below, from a billion smelly births and deaths came the dark whose silence was more complete than Charles ever was. The dark looked up. The eyes at the top of the tower, his eyes, drew the dark. Not for him, no, no. He was only the light. The dark flowed upward, the trees below the perimeter leaned aside. The dark topped the rise.
Washington pressed against him. Washington didn’t know what the fuck. It did not matter.
Libassi shut his eyes. He knew not to look. How? Who the fuck knew? He saw with Washington’s eyes, felt the scream in Washington’s throat. The dark rippled faster than he could imagine. With it came the fecund jungle, the being and death of a billion lives filled his head. Trembly, a time ago, saw the dark, his own dark. Instructed on the use of the M-57, Trembly did his job. ‘I see the light, see the light. clack, clack, clack. And the dark oozed from him like malarial sweat.
Libassi filled sucked light but could not, would not give himself to death. Afraid? Fuck yeah. Scared shitless. Then the world and Washington shredded, filled with splinters, fell. He was alive. Washington wasn’t.
Soft yellow from the street’s one working streetlamp washed Libassi. He drew it in. Felt the world darken. Fucked if he wasn’t the bringer of the dark, the caster of shadows.
Imagination? A way of seeing, sure-sure. He wouldn’t remember. Who can go through life knowing the dark is in you like shakes and sweats? Not him. Not till the next time.
“Arinello, this is your day.”
The forest, he was the forest. The fecund smell of life and the fruitfulness of death were his. Libassi knows that, of that time and place, the dark is the one love he will ever know in his whole fucking life.
Arinello’s scream flailed, brick wall to brick wall, down the Fishtown street. Then silence—that silence—the one he believed was the death he heard just once before, before all things ended. The silence crawled back in him and settled to wait with the dark.
As he forgot it all, Libassi wondered what it was his buddy’d heard, what he’d seen that came for him. There was a word. Damn if he remembered.
The end. Amen.