Steve McQueen Would Be
By: Steve Mitchell
(Steve shares Chapter 12 of his book)
Larsen paused at the door of the aft head and peered inside, steam from the showers fogging his glasses. When he rubbed them clean with his towel he could see naked men snapping towels, combing hair, showering and shaving. The smell of Aqua-Velva rose from the place like the fumes from an acid spill. He wiped at his watering eyes.
It was too crowded. Larsen decided to come back in an hour or so when the men had gone on liberty and the head was empty. But as he turned to go a sink opened up along the port bulkhead. Larsen took a couple of steps toward it when a muscled forearm shoved him aside. A half-used bar of Lava soap plopped in the aluminum basin.
"Sorry bub. Momma's waitin' and I'm late."
Larsen turned to see Toolard, naked but for a faded red heart tattooed on his upper arm. It boasted the inscription "I love you no shit."
"Gotta make myself pretty for my woman," Toolard said, teeth flashing. He combed his jet-black hair straight back. "Get your butt in gear, bootcamp, or you'll miss liberty call."
Toolard jerked a thumb at an empty sink. Not wanting to disobey a direct order, Larsen laid his shaving kit on the edge of the sink and rubbed the fogged mirror clear with the heel of his hand. He rummaged in his kit for his toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss, and then looked closely at himself in the mirror. He didn't need a shave, maybe tomorrow. He brushed his teeth, and then pulled out a length of dental floss.
Toolard slapped shaving cream on a cheek rough with black stubble. "Goin' into town tonight, boy, or you goin' write another letter home to your momma?"
Larsen reddened as he worked the dental floss between his back teeth. Right rear upper molar.
"My woman's got a friend," Toolard said, spitting Barbasol as he spoke. "Hear she needs a hot-blooded man tonight."
Larsen concentrated on his teeth. Right rear lower molar.
"When you gonna go out and get yourself bred, boy?" Toolard grinned through white foam. "Go too long without it and a body's bound to swell up and die."
Larsen grabbed his kit and rushed from the head, tears welling in his eyes. Behind him he heard Toolard screaming. "Bootcamp! Get your butt back here and police up this sink!"
He kept running, down the ladder to Operations Compartment. Damn Toolard! Damn them all!
Larsen sat on his bottom bunk and collected himself. He opened his locker and pulled out a packet of letters bound with a thick rubber band. Letters from his mother. Men walked by in white skivvies and flip-flops, while others pulled on civvies and combed their hair. Kallas, wearing a string of purple love beads, leaned down to where Larsen was sitting.
"Me and Goat are gonna hit the town. Wanna come?"
"No thanks. I think I'll write a few letters and hit the sack early."
And he had Bible class tonight. There was that, too.
Kallas's eyes raised into his forehead. "Got some smell-good you could lend a buddy?"
Larsen found a bottle of cologne and handed it to Kallas. "Brut. Hot damn. Chicks love Brut."
Kallas rubbed some on his neck and into his underwear. Another man walked by and motioned for some, so Kallas tossed him the bottle.
Take it! Larsen growled to himself. Pour it on your hair. Drink it! He sure the hell wouldn't need it. He was staying on ship writing goddamn letters to his goddamn mother, and then he was going to a goddamn Bible class. Larsen slammed his locker shut and sat down at one of the empty tables in the compartment. He laid a pen and paper before him and opened one of his mother's letters. The bridge club was hot news, as was his mother's volunteer work at the Red Cross. Larsen picked up his pen but his eyes wouldn't focus on the paper.
"NOW LIBERTY CALL FOR SECTIONS ONE, THREE AND FOUR," the loudspeaker blared. "NOW LIBERTY CALL."
Everyone was going on liberty but him. He looked down to see his writing paper crumpled in his fist. He flung it at a row of lockers and it bounced to the floor and rolled back to his feet. Pick it up, he told himself, and smooth it out. Write a letter to your mother and forget about liberty. The air conditioning clicked on and the vents rattled. That was the only sound. He was alone. Tomorrow morning they'd come back from liberty with their stories and he'd be sitting here with his goddamn letters and his goddamn Bible class.
He looked up to see Kallas standing before him with a silly grin on his face. Goat stood behind him counting his money.
"Goat is bummed about Shipman getting busted," Kallas said. "We're gonna get toasted tonight in his honor. Sure you don't want to come?"
Larsen broke into a run to keep up with Goat and Kallas, who walked quickly through the shipyard to beat the rain. The sky was getting dark and the squat buildings of the shipyard were in shadows. The air was so soggy with moisture it seemed as though he could grab a fistful of it and squeeze out the water. Men were all around them, alone and in groups, moving in the same directiontoward town and the main gate, like moths drawn to a porch light. The city of Olongapo pulsated in the distance, its neon flashing against low dark clouds, its muffled music from hundreds of bars thudding, thumping, a giant's heartbeat, beckoning them to come.
"Hustle it up, Larsen, it's gonna rain," Goat urged.
Goat wore a faded, t-shirt with a peace symbol stenciled across the front, a pair of frayed corduroy pants, and sandals that flapped when he walked. Kallas was at his elbow, his blue t-shirt advertising the talents of Santana. Larsen wore liberty whites because he didn't have civvies. What a dumb ass he was.
"The Enterprise is in tonight," Goat said. "Those boys are gonna be mighty rowdy after 40 days on Yankee Station."
Kallas looked over and grinned. "No birdfarm's gonna ruin my liberty. Lisa will stay true to me."
Goat laughed. "You haven't seen that two-timin' bitch since last cruise."
Kallas patted his back pocket. "She'll stay true. How can she resist my looks, my sex appeal, my cash money?"
Goat shook his head. "You and your paid-for pussy."
Larsen walked along in silence, every few minutes patting the front pocket of his tropical white shirt to make sure his money was safe. He had followed Goat's advice and left his watch and billfold in his locker on board ship.
"When they see you walking down the street in them whites, they'll know you're a cherry boy," Goat had told him as he dressed in the living compartment. "Pickpockets will be on you like stink on shit. Here, I'll show you a trick."
Goat had placed two dollar bills in Larsen's front shirt pocket, and two dollar bills in his front pants pocket.
"That's the bait."
"Yeah, for the pickpockets, man," Goat said. "The first will jostle you, draw your attention, then the other will come out of nowhere, slap your pocket. Slap! Bap! Man, they're gone. With your cash. The good ones will even rebutton your shirt pocket for you," Goat laughed. "That's cool. Remember, that's the bait. Your real stash is here," Goat bent down and stuffed a $20 bill in Larsen's sock. "Just don't let yourself get talked into a shoeshine or you'll find yourself picked clean."
Men waited in line at a row of lighted booths at the front gate. Black-haired girls with business-like fingers counted out stacks of bright piso bills and odd-shaped coins. The crumpled greenbacks went into the cash drawer. Larsen retrieved the $20 from his sock, but Goat pulled him away.
"Exchange rate here is only 6.6 pisos," Goat said, pointing to the sign above the money exchange booths. "We can get eight, maybe ten, on the street in town."
Yeah, and get ripped off, Larsen thought, but he kept his mouth shut. Bible class was just starting.
Larsen felt the first cold raindrop hit his arm, then he heard a splat at his feet, and then shouts as men started to run.
"It's starting!" Goat cried as he sprinted for the protection of a canopy near the main gate. Larsen was running to catch up, leaping over puddles he could see, splashing through those he couldn't. Gasping, he reached the shelter a moment after Goat and Kallas and squeezed in close with the other men. They watched in awe as gray sheets of rain hammered the concrete walk, the gray puddles erupting with raindrops. He tried to say something to Goat but couldn't hear his own words over the uproar. Larsen watched the rain and shivered. Damn he was cold. He moved his feet and his shoes squished.
The rain chased everyone to shelter but six or seven girls who huddled under black umbrellas near the entrance of the bridge. Through the blur of the gray rain Larsen could see their round dark faces peering out from under umbrellas shiny from the rain. They wore rags and couldn't be more than 10 or 11 years old, Larsen guessed, about the same age as his little sister.
The girls stared intently at the men under the canopy, waiting for one to cross the bridge in the rain. This time there were no takers.
The rain stopped abruptly, as though someone had turned off a faucet, and the men rushed from the dripping canopy to the gate. Now that the clouds had lifted, the shore patrol in their long, gray raincoats waved the girls away from the gate with their billy clubs.
Larsen stepped onto the bridge and instantly understood why sailors called it Shit River: it smelled like shit and there was shit floating in itbig turds probably. The Santa Anita River was the sewage system of Olongapo, a city of a quarter million that had flush toilets in each of its hundreds of bars but none at all in the shacks on stilts along its muddy riverbank.
As he followed Goat and Kallas across the bridge Larsen heard tiny voices drift up from the river.
"Throw me coin, sailor. Throw me coin."
"Hey, Joe. Throw coin."
Larsen walked over to the bridge railing and peered into the dark water below. When his eyes adjusted he saw scrawny brown boys diving and surfacing in the river. Others stood in wooden boats with butterfly nets wearing white sailor hats pulled tightly over their heads. Each was labeled with a different name: SAM, ELVIS, NIXON, LBJ.
NIXON was the smallest, a little fellow who wore large, wet shorts that kept slipping down his chicken bone hips. His face broke into a wide grin when he saw Larsen leaning over the railing. NIXON hitched up his shorts and flashed him the peace sign.
"Throw coin, sailor," he shouted.
Larsen reached into his front pocket for a coin but all he found were two one-dollar bills. He had no coins.
Goat and Kallas stood about ten feet away, their heads together talking. Kallas gave Goat money.
"Hey Goat!" Larsen shouted. "Got any change?"
"Goat!" Larsen repeated, but Goat didn't hear.
Boys dived after coins sailors threw into the water, but NIXON waited in his boat and looked up at Larsen. His grimy white hat covered his ears. If only he had a coin. A sailor standing next to him tossed a coin that arced far past NIXON's boat. When it plopped into the water boys dived off their boats like seals off a rock. NIXON looked at Larsen, then at where the coin disappeared, then made up his mind. He slapped his hat on the floor of his boat and dove after the others. Seconds later heads popped out of the water, the boys chattering in Tagalog, and then they dove again, their feet disappearing in the black water. But NIXON had yet to surface. Larsen scanned the black water. Where was NIXON? Seconds ticked by slowly as the stench of raw sewage rose from the river like swamp gas. Then NIXON's head exploded out of the water, gasping, spitting, hair plastered to his head. He didn't have a coin.
Goat grabbed his arm. "Hey, move away. Here comes the shore patrol."
Two men in whites with SP bands on their left arms motioned the men away from the railing with their billy clubs.
"Fall in that septic tank and you're dead," Goat said. "Dead?" Larsen said. "But those kids . . ."
"Those kids drink that sewage like it was soda pop, but there's cholera, black plague, leprosy, syphilis, all kinds of bad bugs living in that water. Last year a chief off the Oklahoma City leaned over the railing too far, lost his balance . . ." Goat snapped his fingers. "The shore patrol dragged him out but he was a gonerall green with slime, his tongue black."
Kallas leaned close. "Fall in and pfft! There's ole' Larsen, all swole up dead, floating in the river like a dead dog."
Larsen's throat closed at the image of that swollen dog floating in Subic Bay when he noticed the sneaky grins Kallas and Goat were trying to hide. They were putting him on again, those assholes.
"Stay close," Goat whispered as they walked onto Magasaysay, Olongapo's main drag. Before they took two steps a red-and-orange jeepney with two chrome horns on the hood splashed by and stopped in front of the Diamond Bar. Four sailors tumbled out of the back.
"Cheap sailor!" the driver screamed at the sailors. His frown became a smile when they walked up. "Take ride, huh? Plenty girl. Good time."
Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" blared from the jeepney's tape deck. Goat shook his head and walked on. "Shitkicker," he muttered.
Goat guided Larsen down a narrow wooden walk that bordered the mud street.
"Chiclets. Chiclets," cried a girl dragging a clubfoot. Goat brushed her away. An older girl with a basket took her place. "Peanuts!" Boys carrying shoeshine boxes walked alongside. "Shoeshine?"
Near the entrance of the Pearl Bar a young girl squatted next to a grill and rotated dark meat over an open fire. "Barbecue, barbecue," she trilled as she held up sticks of meat. The tangy smell of cooking meat made Larsen's mouth water.
"Monkey meat," Goat whispered. "That girl will tell you it's pork satay, but chances are it's the family dog."
Larsen gulped at the image of the dead dog, floating. He sidestepped the barbecue vendor just as a mini-skirt and tie-dyed tank top strutted by on platform shoes, her jasmine perfume yanking his head around. What the. . . ! Girls were everywhere: snuggled under the protective arms of sailors in passing jeepneys, standing inside the doors of bars, smiling, beckoning, dark, beautiful girls with rich brown skin and wide, white smiles and long, black hair, doll-size girls dressed in tight jeans, mini-skirts, tie-dyed t-shirts with shiny belts and three-inch high platform shoes.
Sex was all around him, packaged to sell. He breathed it in; let it tingle his skin. All he had to do was reach down into his sock, get his money, and . . .
But Goat and Kallas walked past it all. He followed, wondering how they could resist all the girls and all the bars, their neon signs a Technicolor of reds, blues, yellows and greens, luminous against the dark sky. Empire Bar. Pearl Bar. The Cave. Zanzibar. Astro Bar. Tender Trap.
They walked by the Astro Bar and Larsen heard Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" escape through the door and float on the rain-cooled air. They walked past The Cave and it was Janis Joplin. The Doors, Cream, Shocking Blue, all live, the bands such good mimics that Larsen swore he could walk into the Zanzibar and find Jim Morrison back from the dead.
The door to the Queen Bee Bar opened and a burst of high energy Creedence Clearwater pulsed into the street. Larsen caught a glimpse of lights flashing on a dance floor crawling with gyrating dancers, and a girl in the doorway looking. At him! She smiled. At him! But the door closed and she was gone.
Larsen was still straining to see past the closed doors of the Queen Bee when Kallas pushed him into the back of a blue and white jeepney, and crawled in after. Goat was already sitting in the front seat with the driver.
"Let's make a deal," Goat said, and slapped Larsen on the shoulder. "Let's see the color of your money."
Larsen removed the $20 bill from his sock and gave it to Goat. The driver pushed his reflector sunglasses down on his nose, inspected Goat's hair, and put Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" on his eight-track tape deck. The jeepney jerked and moved slowly into traffic.
Larsen gripped the seat and looked around inside the jeepney. Tassels hung from the rearview mirror; chrome horns and religious statues cluttered the hood, and when the driver shifted he gripped a croquet ball. On the dashboard "GO NAVY," "BORN TO LOSE," and "NO TIME FOR LOVE" bumper stickers surrounded a yellowed picture of the Madonna and child.
The Steppenwolf was so loud Larsen couldn't hear Goat talking, but he could see Goat moving his hands in that way he did when he got excited, his fingers outstretched and crooked a little, as though he was holding a ball. The driver stared silently at Goat through his insect eyes, and then spoke rapidly. Goat shook his head and the driver yelled louder. Finally both nodded and there was an exchange of money and a small package. Goat crawled into the rear and handed Larsen and Kallas their pisos.
"Here's your money. I got nine. And I scored some primo Thai Stick. Time to fly high." Goat flashed a thin joint and Kallas laughed.
Larsen felt his face grow hot. "No. I can't do that. Not here."
"Where else?" Goat's eyes were so wide the whites showed.
"We'll get caught. Everybody can see us."
Larsen pointed to two shore patrol strolling past the Zanzibar. The jeepney was stalled in traffic. The driver leaned on the horn and screamed at the jeepney ahead.
"Who's going to catch us? The big bad boogie man?" Goat laughed. "Shore patrol don't care about jeepneys. They're busy checking out the chicks in the bars."
"Larsen is right," Kallas said, pointing at the driver. "We can't trust this dude."
"He's a head. He's cool."
"Bullshit! This dude could turn us in for a bar of soap."
The driver turned and smiled at them, his sunglasses hiding his eyes.
"No balls, Kallas?" Goat taunted. "Damn. You're as bad as Larsen."
"You got a death wish, Goat?" Kallas said. "I'm just as bummed as you are about Shipman, but I sure as hell don't want to join him in the brig. What is it, man? You want to get busted?"
Larsen rubbed the money in his sock. He couldn't listen to this anymore. He had to get out. He crawled out the back of the jeepney and jumped into the street. Sailors with their girls brushed past him, talking, laughing. Jeepneys splashed by, children tugged at him.
Three street boys with long hair walked up and jostled Larsen. He sidestepped to go by but the biggest one stood in his way.
"Tough sailor, huh?" He sneered, pushing up close to Larsen, his sour breath in Larsen's face. "Big American push around Filipino, huh? Tough, huh? Want to fight?"
The boy struck a comic karate pose, his hands chopping the air. Suddenly all three were on him, yanking and slapping at his clothes. Larsen whirled and waved his hands. "Get away, get away," he yelled.
One was at his foot, at his sock. Larsen kicked at him but the boy was up and running with the others, down a muddy alley, his red shirt flapping at his back. With his money!
"Come back with my money!" Larsen screamed, and was after the boy, pushing past surprised sailors and slogging through the mud. When the boy heard Larsen scream he glanced back. Suddenly, he stumbled and fell, and was crawling to his feet when Larsen landed on him and rolled him into the mud.
"Give me back my money!" Larsen panted. His heart was about to leap out of his chest it was pounding so hard. He couldn't catch his breath. Then he saw feet in the mud around him. People were watching. He looked down at the crying boy and his rage evaporated. The pickpocket couldn't be more than ten years old. He put his head in his hands and tried to collect himself, calm himself down.
"Let that poor child go," a low voice growled from the crowd. "He don't have your money."
Larsen looked up at a wide, hard, bulging belly, the god of all bellies, stretching a purple-flowered shirt so the buttons couldn't stand it any longer. It hid the man's face, so all he had to go on was that deep growl of a voice.
"This one does," the voice said.
A fist with hairy knuckles appeared and lifted the longhaired, karate expert off the ground by the scruff of his neck. The pickpocket! He looked petrified. Larsen sighed and crawled off the boy wearing the red shirt.
There was a big crowd gathered now, and they were enjoying the show. Larsen stood up and watched the fat man pull the boy to within inches of his nose, his feet still dangling above the mud. "Give the sailor back his money, punk," the fat man ordered.
Without the karate pose, the sneer, the pickpocket seemed harmless. He dropped a roll of piso bills in the mud.
The fat man shook him. "All of it."
Pisos, greenbacks, coins, and a crumpled package of Trojans fell to the ground. Satisfied, the fat man tossed the boy into the mud and the boy was up and running away. The crowd whooped.
Who was this guy? The goddamn marshal of Dodge City?
"Thanks," Larsen said, getting to his feet. The fat man had blue eyes and a red-veined face that could pass for Old Saint Nick's after an all-night drunk. His blond hair was cropped short and when he smiled he revealed discolored teeth that reminded Larsen of tombstones. The face and the belly went together. He had never met this man, but something about him was familiar.
"Do I know you?" Larsen asked.
"I'm your guardian angel," He said, and stuck out a meaty paw. "Name's Fitzgerald, but most call me Fatty."
Fatty Fitzgerald! Larsen's mouth dropped open.
"So you've heard of me," Fatty grunted.
"Oh yeah," Larsen said. "The whole ship's heard of you. And in Pearl there's a lady who wants you real bad."
Fatty grimaced. "Mother of mercy. It wasn't Mama-san Margula, was it? She have a tattoo of a spider on her wrist? Shit! How'd she sniff me out. . . ?"
As Fatty raved, Larsen realized that mud was hardening like cheap plaster on his hands, his arms, his white uniform. He wanted dry clothes, a warm drink and a cozy bed. He'd had enough adventure for one night.
Splat! Splat! Two drops hit his head, and the rain came down again, hard, like a basin of dishwater thrown out of a second-story window. People ran for cover, diving into the shelter of doorways, crawling into jeepneys.
Larsen raised his arms to the sky and let the rains wash him clean. The rain made him feel good, like a cold shower after the big game. He took off his glasses and tried to clean them on his shirt, but they just smeared. He was soaking wet.
"We gonna stand in the rain all night, or you gonna buy the fat man a beer?" Fatty bellowed.
The fat man stood under an umbrella held over his head by a young umbrella girl. Larsen searched the mud for his money, stuffed the bills in his sock, the coins in his pocket and left the Trojans lying there. He wouldn't need those.
When the short shower ended Fatty shook the water from the umbrella, closed it, and handed it to the girl. Then the fat man was on his way, skipping nimbly over the puddles in the alley as he headed for the bars and jeepneys and girls and beggars of Magasaysay. Larsen caught up to Fatty at the doorway of the Empire Bar, its neon flashing blue on Fatty's face. He was talking to a guard dressed in a tight khaki uniform and armed with an automatic weapon.
"Fatty! You bring friend!" the guard said, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth.
Girls waited for them at the top of a long flight of wide stairs. Black hair and white smiles were all Larsen could see in the bar's purple black lights. From somewhere a small but firm hand guided him to a table. When he was seated a girl wiped Larsen's forehead dry with a cloth and pressed the wrinkles out of his wet uniform with the flat of her hand. Fatty sat across from him, drumming his fingers on the table.
"My name Sally," the girl announced. "You have girlfriend this bar?"
The girl's long hair was parted in the middle and fell over her shoulders to her waist.
"Uh . . . no," Larsen answered. Sally snuggled close.
"Well, you do now," Fatty snorted.
Boy, this was easy. If only the guys back in Iowa could see him now. He looked over at Fatty, who was sitting alone.
"Where's Fatty's girl?" Larsen asked.
Sally laughed. "Fatty tapped out. Spend all his money on beer. No money, no honey."
Fatty nodded and leaned close. "Sally's our little mercenary. Now, talking about beer. . . ?"
Sally pinched him and whispered, "Watch out! Fatty drink up all your money." Then she cooed into his ear. "I love you no shit. Buy me drink?"
Why not? He had plenty of money. He had a girl, a new shipmate. Hell, he felt like buying the whole bar a drink.
Larsen peeled a couple soggy bills from his roll and Sally snatched them out of his hand, giggled, and strutted toward the bar on her platform shoes. Larsen followed her across the floor with his eyes, and then he looked back at Fatty.
Something was horribly wrong!
Fatty had his hands around his throat as he made dry, choking sounds. "Beer . . . beer . . . one last beer for a dying man. For the love of God buy a shipmate a beer."
Larsen laughed and bought two San Miguels, one for Fatty and one for himself. Fatty intercepted his before it touched the table and sucked down half the bottle in one long draw, paused, and finished it off with a smack of the lips. Then he eyed Larsen's untouched beer, his eyes strangely focused, and Larsen motioned that he could have that one, too. Fatty drank this one a little more slowly, stopping only to belch. With a sigh, he put the empty bottle on the table, sat back in his chair and rubbed his belly. A barmaid brought them two more San Miguels and Fatty grabbed them before they touched the table.
"Rule number one," Fatty raised his finger. "Never leave a bottle of beer on a table half-drunk. Keep it here." Fatty cradled the fresh bottle of San Miguel next to his belly. "Where you can get at it quick. Table's where you line up your dead soldiers."
Fatty watched Sally return to the table with her drink and whispered. "Drink up! It's bad form to buy a girl a drink before you finish your first beer."
Sally sat down in a huff. "You buy Fatty beer?"
Fatty raised his hand before Larsen could respond. "Don't get all riled, girl. This boy here's just buying a shipmate a beer. That's the code of the navy."
"You so full bullshit, Fatty," Sally snapped.
"I'm so full of love . . . for you," Fatty scraped a handful of pisos off the table and walked over to the jukebox. "Remember the old days, Sally, when this song melted your heart."
"Melt my heartha!" Sally cried, then elbowed Larsen. "Make Fatty stop playing that song."
But it was too late. Fatty punched the buttons, the jukebox clicked and a scratchy version of Charlie Pride's "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" filled the bar. Fatty walked back to the table, crooning to Pride's clear voice, then leaned over and deposited a wet kiss on Sally's forehead.
"Fatty!" Sally said as she wiped the kiss off with the back of her hand. "You freeze my heart. Song freeze my heart. I no butterfly girl. I have new boyfriend now."
"I'll melt your heart," Fatty smiled. "Charlie Pride's always melted your heart."
Larsen stood up. "Hey, if she's your girl . . ."
Sally yanked him down. "You my boyfriend now. Fatty spend all his money on beer. No care for girls."
"Awwwh honey . . . you know that's not true," Fatty said.
Sally stuck her chin out. "No money, no honey."
The song ended, the jukebox clicked, and the song began again: "Kiss an Angel Good Morning." The three of them sat in silence throughout the entire song. It finished and began again. Fatty drank his beer and smiled. He was going to try and wear her down, Larsen realized. He felt Sally stiffen next to him and he decided to get the hell out of there. But Sally had a firm grip on his arm.
When the song began for the fourth time there was a chorus of boos from the other sailors and girls in the bar. A burly marine with a crew cut and tattooed forearms walked up to their table. Behind him were three of his buddies.
"Who's the asshole playing that song?" the marine demanded.
"Beat it, jarhead," Fatty said as he drank his beer. "Can't you see I'm wooing my girl?"
The veins started sticking out on the marine's neck. "I'm giving you ten seconds to shut that damn music off. Woo that fuckin' pig someplace else."
"Pig!" Fatty's eyes widened as he looked at Larsen. "Did you hear what that jarhead said about your girl?"
His girl! Suddenly Sally was his girl? Fatty was wooing her, but she was his girl? Sally hugged him close and whispered. "Don't do it."
"Do what?" Larsen asked.
Fatty leaned across the table. "Rule number four. A man fights for the honor of his girl. I would let no jarhead call MY GIRL a pig. No sirreee."
The song ended. There was a dead pause. The bar was quiet. Waiting. Every eye was on Fatty's table now, waiting to see what would happen. Sally's head was in her hands. She didn't want to see any of it. Maybe that was the last song, Larsen hoped. Maybe it would end without a fight.
But the jukebox whirred and the song began again. "Kiss an Angel Good Morning." The marine's hands were on his hips. His three buddies looked ready to fight.
"Well, time's up, fats," the marine snarled. "Why don't you and your squid friend here leave friendly-like, and there won't be no trouble."
Fatty's chair scraped the floor as he stood up, his face inches from the marine's nose. "Rule number eight," he announced to the bar. "The fat man don't take no insults from no jarheads. Not now, not ever."
"What you gonna do about it?" the marine sneered.
Fatty grunted and bashed his giant belly into the marine's chest, sending him flying backwards across a table. Glasses and bottles crashed to the floor. Girls screamed and men ducked for cover. Swinging his belly like a battering ram, Fatty sent two more marines to the floor. Then he took a swig out of his beer, and went after the last marine. Larsen stood up to help, then suddenly felt a sharp pain at his left temple, saw a flash of white light across his brain, and everything went black.
He awoke to the low murmur of voices. His throbbing brain winced at the bright ceiling lights. He tried to get up, but a hand pushed him down.
"Shore patrol," Sally hissed. "Stay down."
They were out of sight behind the bar. After the shore patrol hauled away the groggy marines, Sally put Larsen up on a chair and found some ice for his eye. The lights went down and the band began to play.
"Get very bad sucker punch on head," Sally said. "When Fatty play that song men fight."
Larsen rubbed his eyes, but couldn't see a damn thing through the cigarette smoke in the bar.
"Where's my glasses?" he asked.
"Broke," Sally said. "We fix. No problem."
"I can't see without my glasses," Larsen said, looking for Fatty. Maybe he could help. "Where's Fatty?"
"Oh, he split before shore patrol come. He got enough troubles."
"Fatty have no money. He wait at bridge for sailors he know."
"How'd he know I was from his ship? I never met him before in my life."
"So silly," Sally tapped the black ship's patch on the right shoulder of his white uniform, the patch that had taken him an entire evening to sew on. "Fatty see patch, follow you around, wait for trouble, then suck you up for beer." Sally nodded. "Fatty an operator."
"How do you know all this?"
"I know. This Fatty's bar. Long time I Fatty's girl. I know everything."
Larsen put ice on his eye and tried to think this out. Fatty had saved him and his money, and now he was sitting with Fatty's girl, sitting very close to Fatty's girl. He felt her thigh pressed firmly against his leg.
He looked down at his untouched beer and realized he was supposed to drink it. His first sip of San Miguel was so bitter it made his eyes water, but his second drink went down a little easier, and he finished the bottle listening to the Filipino band begin their set. A tiny girl dressed in a sequined shirt and cowboy boots belted out Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams." Great, a country bar. Wouldn't Goat have a field day with that.
Larsen ordered another San Miguel and bought Sally another glass of colored liquid. And another. She sat so close he could smell her hair and the perfume on her neck. The San Miguel went down easy, the bitterness gone, and he was beginning to feel good. He put his arm around Sally's shoulder and allowed himself to relax for the first time that night.
"Dance?" Sally asked, and Larsen found himself on the crowded dance floor shuffling along, trying not to step on her toes. She was so small! Her head only came to his armpit. It was like dancing with a doll, a cute, warm, snugly doll. Because he had never danced with a girl before he held her at arm's length, but she pulled him close and he could feel her warm body, her soft breasts, he had touched her breast!
She giggled and pinched him, and through his excitement he realized that it was the first time he had ever touched a girl there. He hugged Sally even tighter and became quite familiar with that breast, though he still didn't want to risk trying for the other one. Every slow dance now he rushed Sally onto the dance floor so he could hold her small body close and touch her breast. She was rubbing her body up and down on his leg as they danced. Sweat beaded on his forehead as his groin began to throb. The song ended, and he limped off the floor hoping no one noticed the lump in his pants. He cuddled close to Sally and ordered another San Miguel, his head swimming in a room no longer in focus. Then Sally took him by the hand and led him to a booth in a dark corner. There she placed her hand on his groin and kissed him full on the lips, her tongue in his mouth like an excited eel. He tried to kiss back but it got sloppy, tongues got tangled, and Sally slapped him on the leg to be still. His hands found her breasts, her hard nipples, and when she didn't push his hand away he kissed her harder and she moaned. That was the signal, the go-ahead he had read about in the books. He tried to rub up against her as he kissed but the booth was so small he lost his balance for an instant and fell partway to the floor, dragging her with him. He sat up all embarrassed. Boy, what a dumb thing to do. But it didn't seem to bother Sally. He bought her another drink and they kissed some more. Time seemed to float, as if it wasn't connected to anything. There was much kissing and many beers and the band played song after song.
How long he had been sitting with Sally he couldn't tell. But for some reason he thought he'd better stand up for a moment, get his bearings, see what was happening around him. But when he got to his feet the room teetered dangerously to the right. He slammed a foot down on the floor to regain his balance.
"Sit down. You drunk," Sally said.
"I gotta go to the can," Larsen said, and he noticed to his surprise that his mouth fumbled over the words. He made his way slowly toward the head, seeking chairs and tables to steady himself. If he could just keep the floor level in front of him then he'd be all right. He learned that on ship. He made it to the door of the head, only to have a marine open it in his face.
"Hey squid! Want a busted head?"
No, he already had one of those. He found a urinal and tried to unbutton his pants, but his fingers wouldn't work, so he leaned his head against the wall and tried to keep the room from spinning. His stomach bubbled and a pressure rose in the back of his throat and suddenly he found himself on his knees, gagging. Everything came up, splattering wetly on the concrete floor. Oh, man. He tried to wipe himself off with a paper towel, but his face felt numb, so he splashed cold water on his face.
What a headache! It felt as though someone was stabbing his left eyeball with an ice pick. Maybe if he sat down for a few minutes it would go away.
The lights were on when he walked out of the head. Members of the band began putting away their instruments as barmaids cleared the tables of empty beer bottles, the sharp clinking of glass sending shards into his bruised brain. He found his booth but Sally had disappeared, so he sat down and spread his crumpled bills and coins on the table. He didn't have much left.
At several tables sailors leaned close to girls, talking earnestly.
Sally walked up with a purse over her shoulder. She handed him his glasses, which were crudely mended at the temple with white tape. He put them on and the harsh yellow of the overhead lights made him squint. With his glasses things finally came into focus. The harsh, yellow lights now replaced the black lights that accentuated Sally's bright teeth and smoothed her skin earlier in the evening.
Sally wasn't a young girl.
Larsen could see creases around her eyes and her face was heavily caked with makeup. A thick coat of freshly applied lipstick on her mouth made it a caricature, like the lips of a cartoon floozy. Her stomach pouched a little above her tight mini-skirt. His engine had cooled and his mind was beginning to work again. Why hadn't he noticed this before? He felt as if he'd been tricked. Suddenly, he didn't want to touch her.
Sally saw the look on his face and leaned back in the booth. It was covered with cheap, green vinyl torn in places and repaired with tape. Now that the overhead lights were on and he was wearing his glasses, it was as if he was seeing it for the first time.
His head started getting really light; as if it wasn't connected at the neck it would float to the ceiling and stay there. His stomach began feeling woozy and a sour tasting bile began to back up in his throat.
"You have money?" Her voice was gruff.
Larsen put all his money on the table.
"What!" Sally's face grew coarse. "This all you have? You think I street girl?"
Larsen was on his feet. To hell with this. He collected the loose bills on the table and looked at his bottle, a quarter-inch of beer left at the bottom. It was warm but he drank it anyway, the muscles contracting in his throat. It was Fatty's rule.
"You go?" Sally asked.
"Yes," Larsen said with conviction.
"Stay here. I show you good time. Stay all night. Make love all night. I take care of you."
Larsen shook his head. He was leaving. It felt right. It was the way it worked in the movies. He shook away from Sally.
"Go!" Sally shouted, instantly angry. "You no care for me."
Larsen rushed out the door, down the stairs and into the street. Bar signs flashed against the rain-darkened sky. He began walking with the others toward the bridge and the base beyond, but a neon flashing Queen Bee caught his eye. He stopped a moment to look, when a girl ran out the door of the bar, grabbed his white hat off his head, and ran inside with a giggle.
He hesitated only a moment, and then ran into the bar after his hat.