Friday, November 18, 2016


The following is a work of fiction inspired in part by a true-life incident.

It was originally written in 2005 to come to terms with racial dischord,
violence and the effects of the Iraq War on our Midwestern hometown.

We posted this in 2012 to address mass-casualty gun violence 
following the murderous rampage in Newtown, Connecticut.

We are reprinting it for obvious reasons.

The grit-grey industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan was known for the peculiar orneriness of its people. John Dillinger found that out when he drove into downtown on a windy day in 1933 to rob the American Bank and Trust and was told, If you didn’t have that gun you wouldn't have that much guts.

The prickly dispositions had something to do with drinking, which also made for lousy and remorseful witnesses. People die in bars here, generations of Racine, Wisconsin homicide detectives advised their successors. Double- and triple-check everything—and even then you won’t get everything.

This became painfully clear after the massacre at Rev’s Place on Wisconsin Avenue. None of the survivors were able to confirm exactly when the shooter first entered the corner tavern. They left investigators with a murky composite: dark-hooded jacket over blue worker’s overalls and scuffed crème-colored boots. One patron who sat next to him at the bar before he retreated to a corner pinball machine noticed a tattoo on the web of his left hand and a yellow lighter with the Green Bay Packers logo. Another insisted the Packers logo was the tattoo and the lighter was merely smudged.

As it was constructed later with great difficulty and waste of time in witness interviews, the trouble started with the arrival of “the Mexicans”—five! No, three! No, twenty! Some said they sat at a table near the door; others insisted they stood near the back. The regulars were collectively well-oiled, particularly a bull-necked Army recruiter with a fade-shave haircut named Harry J. Gelding, who wore white tennis shoes with no socks and long tan shorts advertising knees crisscrossed with surgery scars. Gelding kept stumbling into others in a friendly but aggressive way and nearly falling to the floor; like a cranked-up Russian he wanted everything around him to be as drunk and unruly as he and damn the cost.

Harry had a mouth and the Mexicans were not happy. They were part of a new influx that had seen many taquerías and carnicerías—signs hand-painted in blotchy deformed red and green lettering—appear on forgotten wet stretches of the rust-brown and cream-brick beige city where many of the old factories had moved south or east. Indeed, a few Latin-themed records had crept into the jukeboxes of the local taverns; they had just introduced a giant Chorizo to the grand costumed sausage race at Miller Park. But Gelding and his friends—the majority of people in the bar—were the remnants of the German and Danish sectors, the Slavs and the Poles and the Armenians, undemonstrative drinkers whose necks sunk into their collars as the night wore itself down and smeared halos grew around the beer lights. Gelding—charming some women nearby and laughing ar-har-har—was the only exception. As it turned out, the Mexicans thought so, too.

The next day, the Journal Times landed outside his second floor apartment, its front page showing the gaping ruins of Rev’s Place. Harry J. Gelding opened the paper, fuzzily rescreening the large brown women, two of them, strolling over in winter coats that swished like insect wings; oily ringlet hair and dark lines around their silver mouths; flat noses like bulbs of mushrooms and moles rat-a-tatted on their jowled cheeks; dangerously long nails just waiting to be stuck right in your eyes.

They chose their moment when he was in mid-swig: “Hey, choo spell my friend’s dreenk.”

Harry knew their men were pulling some sort of asymmetrical warfare: sending their women over to test the waters, to nudge him with the implicit knowledge that he was being nudged. The drink? Who knows? He might have spilled it, not the first time mind you. But he knew the drill: Every scrap-iron oldster in town was his friend for life after one beer spilled and rebought five years ago. It was shorthand that most of the city understood.

Harry told them, “Sure, sure I’ll buy you a dreenk, no problem.”

The hot radio-tube taste was already in his mouth, and he heard the downward chop of fate as the air became cold and hot and the Schlitz lamp above the pool table jumped to a heartbeat rhythm. Down the bar, Rev had fallen off his stool and was being picked up by the hands of his laughing friends, who were slapping him on the cheeks. Gelding saw then it was the Wild West. No police would even come into this neighborhood at this hour. If they did, someone would already have to be dead.
It had the queer slo-mo logic of gutter confrontations. It spun Gelding’s head around. These gorditas and their phoney-tough esses. They swaggered into this place and expected los gringos to shrink away to the shadows, trembling, backs against the pull-tab machines. Oh, oh no. No. Gelding knew crazy white boys. He considered himself one—of the Don’t Tread Here variety. And there was Guy.

Guy. One of the first to re-enlist when the country was attacked. Even before he left for the desert he was fond of saying, If this is going to be a death struggle I say we get down to it for once and forever, toe to toe, just slam away at each other until there’s only one side left standing. “And I wanna be there to kill ‘em on contact!” he’d add with a whoop, smacking his knees together and thumping his breastplate, unaware how much he sounded like a pesticide commercial. “Hell yeah we’re gonna come and take your oil!”

Gelding had never seen combat in twenty-three years in the military—only its edges in Germany and South Korea—while Guy rocked the Mog, Asscrackistan and Eye-Rag II. The only story Harry had to match ten of his was the Sergeant at the Eau Claire Recruiting Station who popped himself through the mouth a few weeks ago—sitting at his desk, no less—just as Harry was jumping in the car to go up to give him a review. Couldn’t handle the pressure of keeping his quota during such a hot time for the Company. Maybe the poor fuck had food spoiling at home. Gelding didn’t think much of it, really.

With the sickly-sweet light of the sun poking though the broken blinds and the sparkled dust floating over the tops of the beer bottles on his abraded coffee table, Gelding read on in stunned hungover silence,. A survivor, questioned by a young reporter for the Racine Journal Times, explained that “an Army-looking guy” had held up his hands to the Mexican women and offered to replace the drinks everyone watching and listening knew never existed. That was the first checkpoint, Gelding thought, absently touching the top of his head.

The second arrived less than five minutes later when, explaining to someone about how an Army quack botched his snip job, he was tapped on the shoulder and informed, “Yeah our men want drinks, too.”

That was it. Gelding wheeled his body full around on the stool and was about to lay into this burrito grande in a Raiders parka (Raiders?!) when Gelding’s Army girlfriend, a fireplug of a woman with pointed-up tits named Kelly-Lynn, stepped up and curled a sneer out along with her cig smoke: “Get your asses back to the ghetto where you belong.”

The whole line at the bar went hooaahh and there was the chittering sound of breaths being drawn into rib cages and held tight like rubber bands.

Bam. The gorditas were on Gelding’s lady like hot thrown tar. They surrounded her and pushed her back nearly halfway across the room, flattening her against the rail of the pool table, drowning her face in their palms, raking it red as pigmeat, upsetting the billiard placement. No one was prepared for the ferocity of the attack—even Gelding was taken aback. When Kelly-Lynn was pulled out of the twin wall of black parkas she had a piece of scalp missing from the top of her head and both her eyes were closed and glistening. Gelding could not believe it: she was crying.

Kelly-Lynn was sexy in that sturdy tomboyish way: carrying Viagra in her purse and dropping it in his drink without warning; fucking him right through a flimsy shower stall wall in Bamberg wearing her combat boots; playing topless golf at Camp Bonifas and blowing kisses towards Pyongyang and the snipers of the Supreme Leader. Why couldn’t she use that moxie now, in this fine moment of step-up street theater?

Rev, awoken from his brown-liquor stupor, promptly ejected her from the bar. That pit-faced old redneck—how many beers bought for him?—was siding with the Mexicans. Gelding didn’t know what made his ankles wobbly at that moment but he hoped it wasn’t fear. (He wouldn’t know what that felt like anyway!) He managed to grab his coat and Kelly-Lynn in the same hand and backed them out of the front door into the whiplash cold. It sobered him up and Kelly-Lynn’s shrieking woke him up even more—except, wait, she was angry at him! Grabbing—no, pawing—his jacket and coughing up words like Harry Harry Harry oh god fuckin Harry I always stand up for you and you let them do that to me Harry. That made Gelding hot, and he turned and unleashed on Rev, who himself stood unsteadily in the open doorway and yelled, “Yer barred for life! Both o’ ye! Barred for life!” Behind him, behind the hands holding him back, behind the formless faces at the bar looking on in soused shock, Gelding heard the jukebox start up on a Selena tune.

That’s when the nausea started—every punch he had taken in every fight since he was five years old came back to him in one horrid whollop of gut pain like his stomach was being pan-fried. And lo, Army Staff Sergeant First Class Harry J. Gelding actually backed off the second time that night, grabbing Kelly-Lynn with her ropes of snot and wrestling the car door open and stuffing his wet mewling lady in the passenger side like she was a suit bag. It was an exquisite and agonizing opera on the cold dark street corner. Turns out, leaving at that moment saved their lives.
What happened next: The kid who had wandered into the bar two hours earlier with his face drowned in the shadows of his hooded jacket save for a single orange glow of a cigarette came to life. No one saw him until he loomed like a Golem out from the corner with the pinball machine, already wielding a pool cue he had snatched up from the floor. Swinging it in an arc, he landed the lead handle against the side of the Mexican girl’s skull, making a large thok sound, snapping her head back and bouncing the cue so it hit the lamp over the pool table, vaporizing it in a grenade blast of colored glass and plunging the whole room into a harsh white light. Dead black specks of insects trapped inside the exposed bulbs threw tall deformed shadows against the black windows and imitation wood paneling of the pool room. A return-arc of the cue brought the big girl down, her body jack-knifing as she went to the floor.

Seeing this from next room, the Mexican men were as ready as cobras, launching off their chairs, spinning the tall bar table until it fell over with a crash. The assailant had made his way to the back hallway right off the pool room, where the second girl was emerging from the ladies’ room, wiping the corners of her mouth with a piece of toilet paper. He came straight at her and used the pool cue like a spear and made a perfectly ruthless jab of the pointy blue end straight into the girl’s cheekbone, popping the eye socket. She made a sort of huhhnnhh sound and covered her face, sinking to one knee against the wall, the eye hanging at an odd angle like a tiny onion between her bloody fingers, iris furiously focusing and refocusing to the swinging pool lamp.

By this time, the esses were jamming their truck frames into the tiny hallway. The Men’s Room door was already bolted. Rev had passed out again and people were trying to raise him up off his oaken, USMC-tatted forearm to get him to pay attention to what was unfolding in the next room, where the bathroom door rumbled from the men’s hammering fists. One pulled something short and curled from his back pocket and started punching the door with its tip, making long ugly streaks of yellow woodgrain. Behind them, along with the shrieks of their one-eyed gordita whom they had passed without bending to help, pool players cradled the dented head of her partner, who had a queer clear fluid collecting under her nose.

The one witness in the tiny bathroom, a retired custodian at St. Catherine’s High School named Bob Steak, had emerged from the single shit stall to see an extremely skinny kid, stalk of his neck sticking out of mounds of clothing, newly shaved head, whole body resting against the door as he listened to the pounding and cries of Muerto! coming from the other side. Steak was hard of hearing and therefore didn’t appreciate the situation. “Everything okay there son,” was his gentlemanly way of trying to get the kid to move to the side so he could wash his hands in the white sink with the orange rust ring.

The kid didn’t move. He heard the kid say, “Get back if you know what’s good for you.” His voice vibrated slightly from the drum beats against the door. Steak did as he was told. He didn’t like the egg-yolk color of the kid’s eyes, nor that his teeth had braces. Streak stood in the stall as the toilet calmed down behind his knees. It was from there he saw everything.

He saw the kid wrap a blue bandanna around his bald dome and step back from the door and turn towards it as if he were about to start an argument. Up in his hand came something Steak immediately identified as a 9mm semiautomatic. He heard the kid say something very carefully and slowly to him, nodding to make sure it had sunk in, before he fired three rounds through the door, two at waist level and then one straight ahead. He saw the kid daintily unlock the door and crouch as he opened it, springing off one boot into the hallway. Steak knew a 9mm pistol could hold up to 24 rounds but heard so many overlapping shots and screams he lost count.

Steak peered his head out of the bathroom to try to listen to the kid deliver some sort of speech to the now-emptied bar. He couldn’t hear it all so Steak came slowly out of the bathroom. He averted his eyes from the bodies lying in the hallway and walked carefully towards where the kid was pointing the pistol straight down into the face of a large woman in a dark parka who lay half-under the pool table with one leg twisted outwards at an intolerable angle. As he edged closer, he heard the kid speaking to the head beneath the gun’s sights:

“What happened to those tough guys, huh? What happened to them? Was it worth it? Where are they now?”

Steak was wrenched by this scene, his stomach filling up with acid soup and his knee quivering and threatening to give out. It was pornographic, made ridiculous by the movie quality of it all. In Korea, you didn’t make speeches, you just shot them. There wasn’t that much intrigue about it except for what you went through in the dark in the maddeningly quiet nights back home. This kid seemed to roll off his revenge scroll as if he had been practicing before a mirror, with such a robotic quality that it led Steak to believe someone had taught it to him, drilled it into him, had him repeat it over and over until the kid was parroting the voice of the teacher, not his own.

Steak stepped up and said, “Okay son, okay. She’s dying, okay, can’t you see her pupils? Let her alone, alright? See that on her face? That ain’t snot—it’s spinal fluid. Okay?” When Steak added “You won,” the kid shot the woman three times in the face, the chamber snapping itself empty. Steak dropped his hand and stepped back.

The bar was quiet and reeked of liquor, urine, sweat and cordite. Broken glass lay in pools of blood and beer mashed by panicked boot prints into a rancid tapestry. A forest of glasses and bottles sat abandoned on the bar, lit by the beer lights and the fading red pulses of cigarettes dying in separate ashtrays. The swinging bulbs from the broken pool-table lamp had stabilized but their queasiness was replaced by the rotating splashes of red coming from the squad cars that were just beginning to pull up in the cold outside.

Steak did not even think of clocking the kid or grabbing the gun. He was an old man now and he did no such things. Steak watched the kid fasten another clip and stalk into the next room where he found Rev trying to access an old Cold War bomb shelter that opened out of the floor. “For not protecting your people,” the kid hissed after he shot Rev four times.

Steak had heard the pops like the kid had fired the chambers just inches from his ears. His head still rang as the kid then stalked to the front of the bar, crouching and squinting past the red glowing ‘Come On In, Partner!’ sign at the three, four, now five squad cars with their shimmying gumballs throwing funhouse light into the dead tavern.

The kid flipped up his hood, hefted the 9mm and jammed his other hand so deep into his other pocket that it looked as if he was stabbing himself. He looked back at Steak and grinned, the braces on his teeth black and oily. Steak heard the kid as clean and as clear as each single dew drop off a wet twig:
“I’m doing this for you, brother. I’m doing this for us.”

The kid kicked open the front door, shattering it against the side of the building as he walked forward hollering, “Light it up you shitasses, light it up now.” Then the metallic echo of a loudspeaker—“put the gun down put the gun down put it down put the goddamn thing down now now now”—as the kid exploded. The concussion blew out all the windows of the bar and threw the death scene into blackness and caused Steak’s knee to pop as he sank to the floor, passing out from the pain and the
drink and the shockwave and his third and final heart attack.

The next morning, the man who had inadvertently started all of this finished the article in the Racine Journal-Times and promptly stumbled to his tiny bathroom to vomit, replaying the factoids he could not get out of his mind: the Neighborhood Bar Bomber, as he was now being called, was wearing a vest made of the powerful explosive RDX and had packed it full of ball bearings to kill as many people as possible. In his car parked one block down the street they found 35 rounds of ammo in the back seat—plus more explosives in the trunk. Wrapped in a plastic Econoprint sack under the front seat was a box of business cards with crimson lettering: ‘Our Next Visit Will Not Be Social’.

In that instant, Guy came back to Harry Gelding in a sick rush.

When Guy came home from his second tour his hair had turned a salt-and-pepper color and his teeth seemed permanently browned. He kept talking about parasites and how it took him two days to eat half a sandwich. Mixing and matching his Remeron and Depakote with Zoloft, washing them down with beer, his friend of thirty-two years had concluded: They came from all over the world to kill us.
Harry knew enough not to ask him about the war, just to wait until he was ready. You just knew it was an intimate thing. When Guy Cunniver spoke of it at all, it was with little teasing shreds, not any direct remembrance of what he had seen or inflicted but odd, small facts with no context. He spoke of dreams of smoking meth with his dead mother and the puffs of smoke coming out of her mouth in perfect round black balls, shiny like the beads he saw in a straw basket in some filthy market in Haditha. He referenced the phrase “skull orchard” as he rubbed his neck tattoos red. Since he returned to Racine, he’d walk down the street and a small fox’s head—just the head—would be following him, floating in the air over his right shoulder. Other times, he saw black flags flapping in trees or from the tops of houses. At night he would be pursued by giant camel spiders—shitloads of them, Harry—who snuck in perfect attack formation across lawns and down the sides of his bedroom walls and even up through the cracks in his floor. Whenever he sensed them coming, his ears would cease giving him sound and he would become deathly afraid of smells. I think I was supposed to buy it, Guy said. I just kept missing it.

Later that day, Harry J. Gelding cleaned himself up and went to his bartending shift at the Ice Box, all the while expecting the cops to call him downtown to make a statement. Kelly hadn’t called him; she probably wouldn’t after last night, when he simply dropped her off at her place after she had gotten nasty and turned on him, berating him for his snipped balls and the fact that he would never be able to give her a child. He let her go without saying anything and went back to the horrid black alone of his apartment.

The massacre was all over the local news—Good lord, they couldn't get over it!—and Harry switched all the screens in the bar to the Badgers game. Strangely, they played to a dead room and Gelding was unnerved by the lack of customers—not one of his friends came in or called to ask, Dude what happened last night? It left him alone with his thoughts. Right before dusk, a guy wobbled up to the bar and handed him back a plastic Bud Lite bucket full of empty shorties and icewater: “Hey guy, take care of these dead soldiers.”

Memories came flooding through Harry’s head again. Lately, Guy had been making cracks that on the surface sounded like his usual sick jokes: Your recruiting station with all those shiny new government vehicles, Harry, I could hit that place so easily. “88th Regional Readiness Command”?—Shit, I could kill every Fobbit in there if I wanted. I could even go to the cop station downtown and rain a little Najaf or Ramadi on their sleepy fat asses. I could make them tapdance and moonwalk.

I know you could, Harry would tell him. As if it were enough that someone knew this.

Only once his friend had slipped and said, I think I left Guy back there.

It hit Gelding like a crab’s claw crushing his chest. Gelding wondered if that kid last night was the part Guy had been talking about—the part he left behind in the desert that somehow had followed him back home and walked uninvited into the bar last night to deliver death like Halloween candy. He and Katie had just missed the Reaper by minutes—no, seconds. Gelding’s knee felt like something was chewing on it from the inside as he unloaded a case of Leinenkugel’s from the walk-in freezer. The notion began growing in his head that bad things were going to start breaking out like blood flowers all over this reedy, unfettered place at the center of the continent.

Gelding shivered in the cold smoke. His ears plugged themselves and left him vulnerable to voices he had never heard before. Everything that has not yet exploded will now, they said. You didn’t see any of it coming. And you should have.

No comments:

Post a Comment