Last night I dreamt about Jimmy again. I had no idea back in that Bowery dive-bar booth, sitting opposite him just a few years ago, that his words would come back to haunt me for the rest of my miserable life. Jimmy had twenty-two years on me, yet he always seemed younger, more vulnerable and a lot more lost than I ever could dream of allowing myself to be. We would sit with the din doing its best to drown out conversation, drinking beer and convincing ourselves we were having fun. Torn tee shirts, big boots all the better to kick away the resident rats and avoid being feet being soaked in the nameless filth on the floor, combined with outrageous noise made for engaging, if sometimes monotonous evenings. When my gaze finally rested on his eyes, I would find him staring at something in the distance – some thousand-yard point that was busy swallowing him up whole. I used to wonder just how to fix him. I always did like to fix broken things.
He always struck me a little odd, a little sideways, slightly left of center, like he was coming from behind the looking glass not standing in front of it. “Babs,” he would say, “Babs, the most frightening thing in the world is not the horror while it is happening, but the anticipation of what is to come when all is quiet and still in the dead of night. Fear comes knocking in the stillness of an uneventful day. Fear grows in those empty spaces that are filled with the helium of happiness. The fear flees when the bullets start flying and the people are being ripped apart from their sorry souls: that is the time of rage and fury and a hatred so pure it stings like cheap vodka going down the gullet. Fear belongs in silence and stillness and lack of anything happening, that is where it can grow big and fat and full of itself.” I shook my head, not wanting to think of such things. He was such a live wire, Jimmy. He could be the sweetest man in the world, he could also be an unholy terror when the fear got too much for him and the bottle of whiskey started to call his name. Jimmy laughed at my nervousness, holding out his zippo to my unlit cigarette and raising his voice to be heard over the band.
“You will find out one day, you will stumble upon the truth. Beware the silence, that is when the Fear takes hold and shakes up a man – or woman, I guess – good and proper.” A group of scrofulous little ex-choir boys had taken the makeshift stage. I couldn’t work out if they were tuning up or playing a particularly tuneless number. The lead singer was slashing himself with a piece of broken bottle, and the guitarist playing with a noose slung loosely around his neck. Jimmy looked as content as he ever looked. Noise: that was the only cure for the terrible shell shock that a combination of his father, the United States Army and being forced to go and fight in the jungle had brewed up in him.
I wondered if Jimmy ever had an untroubled restful night. I wouldn’t know. He never let me stay while he was sleeping. I had heard tales of grown men having to wake him up by poking him with the business end of a broomstick, ready to fend his reaction off counter-attack as Jimmy’s eyes opened to jagged hallucinations of the burning hot foreign jungle, instead of the somewhat safer reality of the moldy walls of his Bowery brownstone. Sometimes he would wake up, but not come back properly for days, digging himself into holes in Central Park and screaming as the ghosts of bombs fell about him.
Even in our favorite bar he would never really relax. I never saw him completely off guard, not once. He would be on high alert in diners drinking egg cream, jamming his back up against the wall while I stole fries from his plate. He sat distracted and scared in coffee shops as I read the funnies to him. I would look at him, and he would stare back at me peering right through my head, over my shoulder, off into the distance looking for the evil waiting to happen. He would always be searching for danger, clocking it from out of windows, through shut doors, in the squeak of shoes under the noise of punk, in the rustle of paper, or the spark of a lighter. He was a connoisseur of the little signs, the small things, the minute signposts of deathly danger. He saved me variously from tripping on a can left at the top of a steep set of concrete stairs, overdosing on a hot bag of smack, having my bag snatched in Washington Square Park, and choking on a stubborn piece of gristle that was hiding in a greasy burger. Sometimes I suspected that he saved me from things that I didn’t even notice. The shadows retreated when Jimmy was near.
Most of the time it was nothing: the enemy in the forest was merely a guy from another campsite on the 4th of July, drunkenly stumble-bumming around looking for a place to take a whizz. The dangerously loud man in the crowd of young people getting high on speed and noise, was simply another young soul with an attitude problem, but you could never tell Jimmy that, no. Jimmy saw tigers in the bathrooms. He saw the glint of AK47s in the hands of commies poking out from behind doors. He smelt the agent orange from ‘friendly forces’ being dropped carelessly close to his tender behind, not the constant sweet stench of weed that permeated his apartment. He didn’t see the dancing and pogoing of hot vital bodies to Blondie and The Dead Boys, but instead that desperate twist and shout of a man splashed with napalm doing that horror show marionette dance macabre. Hot-hot-hot, burning to a crisp and not dying anywhere near fast enough, jerking and spasming in the throes of excruciating liquid fire. I know, because he told me. I told him in return that the tigers were alley cats, the dancing men jerking around were only punk boys letting off some steam in their speed-frenzy, and the men hiding behind doors ready to kill him, were the usual crowd who were only a danger to themselves instead of VC waiting to grab onto his belt buckle and slide their bayonets into his soft belly. He nodded his head, but I could tell that he never really believed me.
He saw punji sticks peppering the places where his feet were meant to go, instead of discarded needles in the bathroom. To Jimmy every subway was a death trap tunnel full of men and women, children and animals who wanted to kill him in the worst and most imaginatively painful ways possible, but that one might have been true; I didn’t much trust the subway myself, either. Life had been a death trap for Jimmy ever since he decided to sign up and go prove himself a man back in ’66.
He could have played football in college, but oh no, not Jimmy. Football was too violent for Jimmy, so he decided in his youthful idiocy, to go to war out of some misguided desire for revenge. Jimmy divided the world up into “us’ and ‘them’. The ‘us’ was Jimmy, his friends, his comrades, the cannon fodder of the world. The ‘them’ was those that ran the world around him. He seemed to hold the US military in as much revulsion and hatred as the VC themselves. To be frank, at least he respected the VC and if pressed he would always say that they were fearsome fighters who fought for what they believed in. They all of them were pawns in some geopolitical game of chess, and no one was going to win, especially not Jimmy and his buddies.
‘They’ had killed his best friend – a Buddy Holly faced nerd by the name of Goober. Jimmy was playing football for some minor college when Goober got a bullet in the brains down on the border of somewhere that Jimmy had never even heard of at the time. Jimmy lost his friend and his good sense in some forsaken hell hole in a place he couldn’t even picture. All Jimmy knew back then was that it was somewhere that was not Idaho, was not Montana, nor Minnesota, not even Atlanta or Calgary. It was somewhere that didn’t even feel real to him. It was somewhere that monsters lived.
If only Goober had not been the kind of kid to want to go prove himself a man in war, but Goober loved playing toy soldiers and was too young and pig-headed to know the difference between war movie matinees and real horror. Goober didn’t want to sit at home, aged 17, and hope to dodge the draft. Goober wanted to go fight, and then maybe, just maybe Betty Sue with the light brown pigtails and the freckles on her button nose, might let him get to second base, and hold his hands to her perfect breasts, and swoon and call him her hero. Goober just wanted to be somebody. Goober ended up being some body on a pile of bodies, taken out when his damn standard issue M16 jammed. Bullet in the back of the head. Bang. No more Goober. Goober was gone. No more swimming in the old flooded mine. No more drive-in movies, no more baseball games, no more racing their dirt bikes across the mud of his father’s farm. No more nothing.
When Goober had left to go to basic training, he asked Jimmy to do him a favor and look after his dog for him. His mother did not want to be hassled caring for his big old mutt. Every time Jimmy looked at old Smokey, he figured Smokey was telling him what was what, that Jimmy was a coward and that he wished Jimmy had died, not Goober. Boys should not listen to dogs, especially heartbroken ones, but Jimmy never was one for doing the right thing.
Goober hadn’t been buried a month when Jimmy turned 18. He apologized to his mother, gave his father some manly talk about wanting to defend America from the Commies and how it wasn’t fair to leave it all to other guys, and then soothed the both of them with talk of college when he got home. Then Jimmy went to the recruitment office and signed the papers. He wanted to go to Goober’s old regiment, and the officer said he would try. Anything to get more warm bodies on the transport planes to the front lines of the unwinnable war that we should never have been fighting, Jimmy would tell me. They would have promised him that he could be Queen of Sheba if they thought it might get him to sign on that dotted line.
Whenever I looked at Jimmy’s face, holding his strong hands in my own, looking back into his pale blue watery eyes I would see the goodness in him, but then the darkness would take over him, and threaten to envelop me too.
Jimmy would tell me the story with a drink in his hand and a wry smile on his face. “Babs…I had to go because every damn time I shut my eyes I would see Goober’s stupid face grinning out at me, that big ole black hole in the middle of his stupid forehead. Then I would turn him over an’ see that empty space where the back of his head where his brains should have been. I had to go. I had to make him leave me alone.”
I think Jimmy understood that I thought he was an idiot, a perfect fool, and that it was nothing that a few drinks and a few months would not have fixed. He could have gone to Canada if his number had come up and he got drafted. I could imagine him as one of those hippy draft resister boys if he just had the good sense to smoke some weed and buy himself a few strings of beads. After all, what is wrong with a bit of free love, peace and mutual understanding, even if it is only a pose, give it some time, I told him, and it might become a habit. It sure beats seeing Tigers in bathroom stalls, but Jimmy was never wrong, or at least would never admit he was.
I would buy him another drink and drag the conversation towards the latest Clash album, the most underrated albums of all time, the latest issue of Creem, how punks did not need to know how to play their guitars, the band I was going to start up: anything except hear again and again about Goober and his empty headedness.
The story generally ended there. Sometimes Jimmy would talk about the tigers, sometimes about the thirst, the useless M16s which always jammed, and the value of a gun cleaning kit which the ‘Yoooou-nited States Mil-lit-ary’ neglected to provide to the boys, sending them scrabbling for supplies in guarded but desperate letters sent home. I found Jimmy’s north country drawl soothing. He didn’t sound like the average sardonic and harsh New Yorker. His voice dripped with dairy farms and country back roads. However soothing his tones were, what he told me was far from comforting and sometimes left me feeling as if I had gone out there with him. I began to understand what he meant about the quiet times being scarier than those that were noisy and busy and full and would sit shaking in the empty moments of the night hiding under my covers with tears falling down my face.
It was easy for me to dismiss him as a ‘haunted man’, to tell myself that his demons lived inside his head, and did not wander the streets of New York, ambling after him, having travelled with him from the jungles to the Iron Range country backroads, and then all the way to New York.
Then it happened. One night Jimmy stepped outside into the alleyway to do a deal for an eight- ball of crank. It was past 2am, and the evening was winding down. I knew better than to follow him, only a fool would walk behind Jimmy when he asked them not to. I should never have gone out there in the dead of night. You see for all the lights and the people even New York has silent quiet empty spaces where there is no light, no human traffic, not even any moving cars travelling to Broadway shows and Michelin starred restaurants. The emptiness and silence finds a way to invade even the most full and loud of spaces. The evil does not always announce itself with sound and fury, sometimes it creeps up behind you and slits your throat in a public bathroom stall.
The metal shutters were halfway down in front of the dive bar, the graffiti and gummed up grubby posters only semi visible. The noise inside had abated to a steady hum of an evening winding down. You could see the combat boots and hi tops of a few stragglers drinking the early hours of the morning away and tapping their feet to the beat that came from somewhere left of center. The little side alley that ran along the length of the bar was only lit by a few blinking halogen lights. There was nothing down there but rats, dumpsters and trouble.
I watched as Jimmy headed down further into the alley, and then disappeared from view. At the time I told myself I wanted to see who he was buying from, so I didn’t have to go through him all the time when I wanted to buy a little myself, but that was not true. It was more honest to admit that I was curious and had forgotten all about what they say curiosity does to the cat.
I admit I hesitated as I stepped into the side alley, and the halogen lamps flickered and puttered out, giving up the ghost entirely within a few feet. An eerie glow from the street threw shadows down the alleyway, providing visibility if not illumination. It was a dead end. There was nowhere left to go except back to the street. I saw Jimmy. He was doing a deal with a small man, exchanging a ring that I thought I had lost, and a handful of dollars for a bag of skanky yellow crank. I was about to shout at Jimmy that he was a dirty thieving little rat, when my eyes were suddenly caught by movement further down in the alley.
Jimmy seemed to see it too and moaned softly. All the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt an intense urge to run. Evil is palpable, especially down dark alleyways in the dead of night. The noise from the bar seemed to drift away like smoke and nothing in the world existed except me, Jimmy, the small man selling speed, and whatever was lurking at the end of that alleyway. I told myself it was a rat, or perhaps some hobo who had got drunk and was coming to his senses, but I knew it was something more serious than that. Some fanciful part of my brain wondered if it might be a tiger, waiting to pull supper behind a dumpster and gnaw down on the marrow that ran through human bones.
Something emerged from the shadows at the end of the alley, illuminated by a few straggly rays of light. The thing had a human face, or at least what was left of his face was human. It is strange how something can have eyes in the right place, a nose, a mouth, two ears, but still be so definitively monstrous. In the middle of his forehead there was a hole, not healed, yet not bleeding. It simply existed. As he turned his head I could see that most of the back of his cranium was gone. There was no skull, and the remains of his brain was brackish and pulsing, wriggling like a worm on a hook, bloodless and terrible. Then he opened his mouth and smiled revealing row upon row of sharp pointed teeth, more like a shark from the shores of some nuclear accident, than any human I had ever seen. His tongue was lolling out lasciviously, sending a few specks of greenish drool onto the filth around him. You could tell at some point he had been an attractive man. His hair was black and slightly wavy, and he had piercing blue eyes. Under the blur of his corruption, there used to be a boy in there. There used to be someone that someone could love, even if none of that sweetness remained now.
In the millisecond it took me to remember all those stories of his dead empty-headed friend, killed in the jungle somewhere that Jimmy could not even find on a map if his life depended on it, and for my brain to dismiss it as impossible, the thing that used to be a man leapt forwards, grabbed the small fine boned man in one impossibly strong hand, and pulled him backwards into the shadows. I watched as the thing clamped his jaw over the neck of his victim. I could see the monsters’ throat working glugging down the contents of the veins of the silent bulging-eyed man. Jimmy was not so insane after all. How many of those monsters he said he saw were real? I looked around nervously for Tigers and errant VC in the hot New York night air and fought the urge to scream and run.
“Goober, you have to stop. For the love of God, man, this can’t continue!” Jimmy did not flinch, nor did he back away.
“I’m N’American – Gomper!” Replied the monster.
Jimmy’s voice remained even and calm. He took a step towards the Goober-Thing, and reached out his hand. “Those boys shouldn’t have changed your name. Goober suited you just fine. I know who you are. I’m so sorry they left you behind and then…this…this…,” Jimmy waved his arm expansively gesturing towards Goober, “This thing happened to you. It isn’t right. It isn’t fair.” Jimmy groaned as Goober went back to sucking on the jugular of the small man, who, as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, was not a man at all, but instead a skinny young woman with short hair, and tattoos on both her hands. She was not yet dead, and her eyes were popping out of her skull pitifully.
“Let her go, Goober.” Jimmy half begged, half commanded. “Let her go and we can go and talk about this. My dad used to say there weren’t nothing without a solution. We will work this out, Goobs.” Jimmy took another step towards Goober, who hissed at him like a mountain lion standing over a freshly killed deer. I stifled a sob that had been trying to escape. I wasn’t even upset about my Egyptian cross ring anymore. My curiosity had been satisfied: there were things in this world that it was better to be ignorant about. I wished I could go back; I wished I could be sitting inside the bar, oblivious to the horror unfolding outside. If this monster was real, then what else was real too? Goober was no suave and sophisticated Count Dracula, he was a hungry feeding machine, fueled on confusion, war and blood lust.
He was the perfect N’American soldier, devoid of any compassion or humanity, a pure killing machine. The only trouble was that he was not pointed towards the enemy. The enemy wasn’t an innocent young woman slinging a bit of crank down the alleyways of the city. She didn’t deserve to die; she deserved to bounce and dance and shout and screw and live life in all its grubby greenness. She deserved to fuck up as royally as she wished and still live another day. She deserved to be where I was, hiding at the end of the alleyway looking down into the bloody horror of it all, not in the hands of that thing that used to be a farm boy from Minnesota with a dog called Smokey and a best friend called Jimmy, and a mother who loved him, and dimples in his corn-fed cheeks, and a small basic desire to be somebody who mattered.
The city lights all seemed to fade away, except for Jimmy, the Goober-Thing, the small young woman bleeding to death with those filthy teeth in her neck, and me, there hidden in the shadows with rats and roaches running over my feet. I couldn’t take it anymore. My reptilian brain was unable to stop me forcing my body up from its crouched position behind a dumpster, and into the light. I don’t know what I was planning to do, except make the Goober-Thing drop that girl, and before I knew it, I was running full tilt towards Jimmy and his empty-headed friend and the girl-who-could-have-been-me.
Jimmy didn’t say a word as he saw me. Instead, he reached out his hand and grabbed the back of my jacket.
Goober looked at Jimmy, who was holding me brutally, painfully, stopping me from throwing my life away on a doomed attempt at saving a girl who I didn’t even know was savable. What if she ended up like Goober? A thing hunting the living in the hidden parts of the city was no life for a girl, death would be better than that. I tried to remember the folk law, the popular culture guidebooks to the impossible, and dredged up the memory of some hokey Hollywood vamp holding his dripping wrist over the mouth of a starlet playing a freak with immortal longings in her. As long as there was a chance she could survive and survive as fully human, I was going to try and save her, I knew that. I suppose you never really know who you are until the impossible happens, and it seems I am not quite the self-centered coward after all. I suspect not many of us are, we just rarely get the chance to prove it, which is something to be grateful for in the whole scheme of things.
Goober-Thing raised his head, dropped the drained and spent girl onto the filthy floor of the alleyway, and opened his gaping maw into a bloody deformed grin. Jimmy kept a hold of me and grinned back. “You want this, Goober? You want pretty girls to like you, don’t you? That is why you did all this, wasn’t it, you wanted girls to look at you and see a man, not a skinny little nerd. I’ll let you have her, promise. You can take this one too, I just need you to come here. I want to tell you something first, and I don’t want this pretty little thing hearing it.”
The girl on the floor whimpered softly, trying to drag herself away on her elbows, smearing blood over the greasy blackness of the concrete. Jimmy thrust me a little closer, a little further away from the heat of his body and towards the cold bloody fury of the Goober-Thing. Right at that point in time I hated him. I hated Jimmy so purely, so absolutely, so totally that I wanted to kill him too. He was as much of a monster a Goober was. I wondered how many women he had killed over there, burning them to death in their villages, raping their daughters, slitting the soft brown throats of their sons, driving hot lead into living bodies, without discretion or judgement, spraying devastation wherever his M16 pointed. I knew it right then as I stood there, trapped between two monsters, two men who were bent on wrecking death and havoc wherever they and the other monster-men they ran with roamed, in a country they never belonged in to start with.
I was so close to the Goober-Thing that I could smell the sweet rot on his breath and see the pulsing of the girl’s blood in his blackened veins. He sniffed their air like a predator seeking out their next meal. Surely, he was not still hungry, I told myself. Perhaps he would save me for later, and I could escape. It was almost easy not to lose hope and hold onto the possibility of escape and survival. I told myself I would leave New York and never see Jimmy again. I would head west and start a band, write that novel I always told myself I was going to write but never did. I would do things better, do things differently. Making a deal with oneself is almost as bad as making a deal with some God or other: both are doomed to failure, but at least I could hold myself accountable for my failures, whereas prayers sent upwards went unheard and unheeded. Perhaps there is evil, with no good. Just maybe all there is in this world is either monster or man, and we have no hope at all, especially when some of the men are monsters, and some of the monsters used to be men.
The Goober-Thing lurched towards me, his sinews and bones creaking, protesting at his dead body being forced to move. There was no glittery beauty in this golem of a man, there was no seductiveness, not until my eyes caught his, and like a tractor beam on some sci-fi spaceship, they drew me in held in place by some invisible force. I didn’t want to fight or escape. I wanted nothing more than that monster to do whatever he would do with me. Some small part of my brain told me to fight it, to hold on and live, but trapped between Jimmy who was still holding onto me painfully tightly, and the Goober-Thing who was flecking my face in spittle in anticipation, there did not seem much chance for survival. My hopes to be kept for later in some monster-larder seemed to be overly optimistic.
I felt the teeth sink into my neck, and that dreadful rhythmic sucking start up, and my knees buckled. I felt as if I was suffocating, his desiccated fingers squeezing my voice box so no sound came out no matter how hard I tried to scream. I had snapped out of the illusion of desire, but it was too late to do anything about it. Still Jimmy’s strong muscular hand held onto my jacket, gripping harder than ever.
Jimmy lunged forwards, the switchblade in his hand jabbing into the Goober-Thing’s guts and twisting up towards his chest. The sucking stopped, but Jimmy kept on hacking away.
I like California. The scar on my neck is ugly, but hidable. I haven’t seen Jimmy since that night, but every time I go to bed and shut my eyes I can hear the call of the monsters in the night, calling me to come join them. I won’t give in. I can’t. I ain’t no N’American gomper. I am still human, and so is the small woman with the tattooed hands who survived Goober and Jimmy and their dirty little war. Neither of us are going to hang around monsters in dark alleyways again, it is much safer to stay where the light and noise fills up the spaces that fall between the world people expect, and the one that sits waiting to drag you under, just below the surface, just left of center, down the alleyway and off the strip.