He tells me he killed the son of a bitch.
“Emptied the magazine of my gook gun into him, just like that,” he says.
There is the intake of breath from my thought to correct him, and then me closing my mouth and instead retrenching. This is a story you just shut up and listen to, the bar told me. It was in the maple and the neon and the empty booths. Listening the old fashioned way, I thought. No corrections, no requests for confirmation or qualification.
The man called himself Lee, and before he said anything I already knew he was an import– the way he carried himself showed that the smell from the slaughterhouse was only beginning to weigh upon him.
My shift had started with him going on about his toy poodle, “Baby,” and pets in general, how good they are for human beings.
We talk sports, even though this isn’t a sports bar. Maybe I bring it up because I’m new to this whole behind-the-bar thing and sports is a safely banal subject.
He likes football.
I ask him if he likes anything else. He shakes his head.
Football it is.
I ask him if he’s always been into football. He says no, he started when he was trying to impress the father of his then-future wife, Patty. Superbowl II was playing in a bar in San Diego, January of 1968. Her father’s eyes were glued to the screen. Lee mimicked him, and fell in love with her over lowballs of bourbon, which he says he’d drunk a lot of in ‘Nam.
He says they had big bottles of it over there, which you could buy for eight bucks, no tax. He says his CO lined the bottles up on the floor of his hut at base, and one time just after Lee had been flown in with his buddies and the green of that place still saturated their insides, before they’d seen any action, the CO brought them out behind his hut and beat the shit out of them one at a time.
He told his buddies after coming to, his CO having cold-cocked him in the back of the head, his CO with three purple hearts and a scar down one cheek, he told his buddies if the guy ever touched him again he was a dead man.
“A dead man,” he said.
A few months later, he says, they were in serious trouble with Charlie. Surrounded, “fucked,” and here he makes a gesture, two-handed, forming a “T” with the stem of it a middle finger. That, I guess, was their sign for that.
Lee turns and sees the CO with the three purple hearts and the scar down his cheek pointing an M16 right at him.
“Right at me,” he says. He holds an invisible rifle in his hands.
The guy actually pulls the trigger and nicks Lee in the shoulder. Lee looks over my head, straight into the neon, and says,
“I emptied my magazine into the son of a bitch. Killed him right then and there.”
I smile at first. He’s kidding.
I smother the stupid grin on my face and keep listening the old fashioned way.
They got back to base and he tells his buddies, who saw the whole thing, that they have two choices: watch him eat his gun right there, or never mention it again. They’re quiet for awhile, he says. How long “awhile” is, I don’t know. Time was a weird thing over there, probably. Briefly I wonder if time ever goes the way it should after a thing like that, or what. Anyway, Lee says a buddy–a Native American named Kyle–hands him one of those big bottles of bourbon and tells him to forget about it.
Kyle was killed a week later, he adds.
He says that’s how he started drinking bourbon. And that’s how he met Patty, and meeting Patty was how he started watching football. And watching football, I think, is all he has left, because shortly after this he says Patty left him.
He starts to cry a little, but takes a swig from his beer and recovers.
“I went to Patty’s parents and told them straight, told them I didn’t want to hurt her anymore.”
He’d become an alcoholic. He drank too much bourbon, and he had too many night terrors, and woke up screaming too many times. He tells me it scared her. He tells me it scared him, too.
I probably shouldn’t, but I buy him his next drink.
Later, my friend tells me the guy must have been full of shit. “No CO earned three purple hearts and was allowed to go back for more,” he says.
You’re right, I say. What I don’t say is that I still believe that there was something true in it, outside of the details and the chest-thumping and all the bullshit that comes from mouths that are propped up on bars, held there by greasy elbows. You don’t name a toy poodle Baby without some kind of damage.