I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was…. No one can see the damage but me.
In this room I’m hidden by a camouflage of poverty. It’s a small room with a bed that pulls down from the wall, a Murphy Bed they call it. To me, my bed is Murphy. There are no sheets or covers on Murphy and the mattress has a tear in the middle. Its intestines are sticking out. I have no pillow, but I rest my head on a helmet and dream that I’m somewhere else other than this room.
There’s a dresser with five drawers but I only use the bottom one, hiding my papers there; my army discharge papers, high school diploma, newspaper articles about me winning swimming competitions when I was in high school. Everything else I own, my civilian clothes, my army uniform, army boots, two thirty-pound dumbbells, my emptied duffle bag, are scattered about on the floor forming small mounds that I step over like the dead bodies I stepped over in Afghanistan. The mirror above the dresser has a crack that looks like a scar. The walls have the wounds of neglect; cracking green paint and peeling yellow wallpaper. There’s a window with torn plastic curtains that looks out on the busy street and the small grocery store across the street. No one going by on the street or in and out of the store know I’m watching them through the holes in the curtain. This room is my bunker.
I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was. Alone in this room it’s easy to forget a simple thing like my own name. Looking into the cracked mirror, its scar becomes my scar, an injury across the smooth flesh of my muscled chest. I came back from Afghanistan, from the army, uninjured but not unscathed. No one can see the damage but me. I see it in my blue eyes when I look in the mirror, the injuries of seeing what no man should see. My biceps, triceps, forearms, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, glutes, quads and calves are strong and well developed. My identity isn’t. It has gotten lost along the way.
Lifting dumbbells in front of the mirror, I watch the armor that is my flesh ripple with every arm curl. In this room no one can pierce my armor. Out on the streets, it’s a different story. It’s a dangerous place called the Tenderloin. It’s the bruised underbelly of this city and I am now part of the bruise. It takes strategic thinking about when to venture out, so when it is dark I watch through the holes in the curtains for the time that is right to infiltrate those who inhabit the city streets.
One booted foot against this wall at night, my knee bent, my back pressed against the heat of the summer-heated bricks, I can only be seen by those looking for me, not me exactly, but the type of me they are looking for. I wear my sand color camouflage fatigues and a tight black t-shirt and black army boots, but in the darkness where I stand I am the same color as the shadows. The warm winds blowing in the night tousle my short blonde hair. Rivulets of sweat run between my shoulder blades down my spine and down the middle of my pecs. This is the weather of Afghanistan without the sand and what I inhale isn’t dust particles, it is the drifting toxins of the city: gas fumes, rotting trash, urine. From this location I can see the window of my room, the light left on like a safety beacon.
“How much?” the middle aged man in khaki shorts and a blood-red polo shirt passing slowly by asks me.
“Not interested,” I say.
“I’ll make it worth your time,” he says.
“My time isn’t for sale,” I say, shifting to the other boot against the wall.
I watch as he moves on, targeting another inhabitant of the shadows not far from me. I can’t hear what is being said, what tactical maneuvers have been agreed on, but they depart together into the alley. The sound of what they are doing with their bodies blends into the multitude of other sounds on this street. The two in the alley are on a diplomatic mission, seller and buyer. I separate myself from them, their sounds, what they are doing, watching Jade the prostitute across the street adjust her neon pink stockings. Her hair is down tonight, separated down the middle and hanging around her face like a hajib of hair. I know Jade and she is not modest or religious so her hair doesn’t fool me, but her intention isn’t to be modest anyway. I watch as a car pulls up to the curb where Jade is. She leans into the open passenger side window of the car.
Apparently, there is no agreement on the terms so he drives off leaving Jade now adjusting her halter top. What she wears is her uniform. She sees me seeing her and she waves and I wave back. As she walks on, I am aware how much we are alike, she and I, both survivors of different kinds of war. Her war is the streets of the Tenderloin and I left the war in Afghanistan to enter this one in Jade’s territory. It is a combat zone of a different type.
“Have a cigarette?” a young man in tight jeans, a button down blue shirt and wearing cowboy boots asks me, having infiltrated my space, my shadows, when I was off-guard watching Jade.
“I don’t smoke,” I tell him.
He leans against the wall so near to me, I can smell the strong scents of his cologne and aftershave. I’ve seen him before and he has seen me. He is a wanderer, one of the many who are always walking these streets. I’ve seen him through my curtains going in and out of the store, and up and down this street. He has seen me here at this spot. It’s mine, this space, my lookout location on this street when I am not in my room. His brown cowboy boots are well-shined. I notice those kinds of things. I’ve named him Boots.
“Hot night,” Boots says looking up at the starless slate of sky. The city has blotted out the stars.
“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.
He leans even closer to me. “I have some brown sugar,” Boots whispers as if it was a secret that no one in the Tenderloin had ever heard before. “We could go to my place.”
“No thanks,” I tell him.
The two have come out of the alley. The man in the shorts adjusts his belt and hurriedly walks past me. The other one stands at the entrance of the alley surveying the landscape and in the half-light he looks young, illegally young for what he is selling, which in itself is illegal. He walks the other direction and escapes into the night. I am an observer of these things, the transactions where strangers briefly become allies. I have several lookout posts in the Tenderloin, but this one near my room is where I mainly station myself. Boots is still near me, taking time from being on his own private parade on the litter-strewn sidewalks. He is nervously tapping the toe of one of his boots against a crack in the pavement. He is as watchful as I am, but I can only guess what he is watching for.
Back in the room, I remove my sweat-soaked t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror and, while the scar is still there, there are no fresh wounds, not on me or on the mirror.
Lying in the dark on my back on Murphy, I’ve pushed the helmet aside and am staring up at the ceiling. Light from the grocery store’s white neon sign shines through the holes in the curtains and form bullet holes and grenade blasts of light between the cracks that are like lines on a terrain map on the ceiling. The ceiling fan does not work and is idle and useless. The room is even warmer than outside. I’ve taken off all my clothes and deposited them on a mound of other gear. I sweat. I can feel it draining from my pores. This being naked, it is a test of my sense of safety. I’m not vulnerable in the room, only when I leave it. Beneath the naked flesh of my back, Murphy’s protruding innards pushes into me. It’s a test of endurance, my ability to sustain the feeling of discomfort, so I don’t move. I hear a brief scream from outside as I drift off to sleep. I’ve heard screams before, when awake and not awake.
Morning comes with the subtlety of a tank rolling across hard earth. The sounds of heavy traffic have broken through the barricade to the world of my dreams. Eyes open, I see the ceiling as it is in the light of day, a canopy of cracked plaster. I don’t move, letting my naked body adjust to the dryness of the daytime heat. Sweat has dried on my entire body; I’m an evaporated salt lake with nothing left but salt. My skin has adhered to Murphy and, as I rise up, I pull some of Murphy’s insides with me. I sit on the edge of Murphy and survey the landscape that is the room. It’s a wasteland of neglect.
With a towel around my waist, I go to the only bathroom on this floor and stand outside it waiting for whoever is inside. Around me is the carnage even worse than that in my room. Everything needs repair. After the sounds of the shower cease, the door unlocks moments later and the old man who lives in another of the rooms, comes out in a tattered purple bathrobe. He wears the difficulties of his life on his face like a mask of despair.
I go in as he goes down the hallway toward his room. I lock the door and undo my towel and take my member in my hand and urinate in the ringed toilet bowl. There is no brush to clean it with even if I wanted to. Every part of this building outside of my room echoes and in this bathroom the sound of my urine hitting the water in the toilet bowl reverberates around me. The sound has a slight similarity to the propellers on choppers just as they land. While peeing I read the graffiti on the walls as I have every morning. Nothing new is added, the writers of the messages on the wall having moved on or grown tired of deciphering each other’s codes. Finished, I step into the shower and turn it on and let cool water rinse the night from my skin. My time in it is brief and after shaving and going back to my room I see a yellow note has been pinned onto my door. I open it and read: “Rent Past Due. Payment in full required. Management.”
In the room I dig beneath the papers in the bottom drawer of the dresser and take out the white envelope that I keep my money in and flip through the bills counting up the total. There’s enough to pay half the rent if I include what little is in my pants pocket. Sitting back on a mound of clothes, the softness of it much like a dead Afghani soldier’s body I sat on while getting my picture taken, I pull one of the articles from high school out of the drawer and look at the picture of me when I was a champion swimmer in a pair of Speedos. My body has changed. I’ve changed. The names of my parents are in the article: Bill and Doris. In the room they are just names on a yellowing piece of newsprint. I fold the article and place it back with all the other emotional contraband and close the drawer. Naked, exposed, but unable to be seen, I stand at the window and peek through a hole in the curtain. Even in the brightness of the morning sun, the shadows are everywhere in the Tenderloin.
In a different pair of fatigues, the same color as the others and a different t-shirt, also black, I leave the room and leave the building and step out into the fury of noise and odors that is the Tenderloin on a weekday. Crossing the street to the store, I see a man in a suit standing in my location. He’s reading a newspaper, an innocent occupier in my nighttime territory. The store is cool and surprisingly quiet. The Korean man behind the counter is Mr. Chin. It’s not his real name. It’s the name I have given him. He has a mole in the middle of his chin and Mr. Chin sounded more Asian than Mole. His age is hard to determine but his jet-black hair is lined with strands of gray and his eyes have the weariness of age. Placing a carton of orange juice and a pack of Fig Newtons on the counter, I don’t call him Mr. Chin. I don’t call him anything.
“How are you today?” he asks in a very formal way as always. “It looks like it’s going to be another hot day today,” he says as he tallies the cost of my two items on the cash register.
“I’m used to the heat,” I tell him as I hand him money. Mr. Chin is always here it seems, night and day. He’s a motionless target in the Tenderloin where enemy combatants roam. Without knowing why, I worry about him. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.
“I have insomnia,” he says. “Keeping busy takes my mind off wondering why I’m always awake.”
“Sleeping isn’t all it’s cut out to be,” I say refusing a bag for my juice and cookies.
“Neither is being awake,” he says with a smile as I leave the store.
Finding a a wood crate at the entrance of the alley, I sit down and open the carton and Fig Newtons. The alley reeks of refuse and stagnant water and in the heat is a noxious mixture that kills the taste of the juice and cookies. On the wall near where I’m sitting is a used condom glued there with bodily fluids like a medal of honor in a whorehouse. I’m unable to finish what I bought for my breakfast. I toss the half-empty carton of juice on top of garbage in an open trash can and wrap the package of Fig Newtons in my hand to be eaten later.
On a street in Baghdad I was accosted by a man who spoke no English but was definitely trying to warn me about something. When a bomb exploded a hundred yards up the street in the direction I was headed, I realized what he was trying to say. Paxton Street is much the same way; I feel like a foreigner always headed for unspeakable danger. I was told that it has improved over the years, becoming in some parts more gentrified, but I see few signs of it. When I run into Boots coming out of an adult book store, he’s more surprised to see me than I am to see him. I see he’s wearing the same cowboy boots.
Likewise, he looks me up and down and says, “You always look like you’re dressed for combat.”
“I am,” I say, gripping hard onto the cookies, feeling them being crushed in my grip. “Listen,” I say hesitantly, knowing I am about to enter a mine field. “I need to earn some money.”
“What are you willing to do for it?” he asks.
“Not what you think.”
A car drives slowly by and the driver taps the horn. Boots waves him on and the car continues up the street. “I know this guy looking for just your type,” Boots says.
“I told you, I’m not looking to make money that way.”
“I know,” Boots says. “This is something different. It’s not even illegal and the guy has lots of money and is willing to pay.”
“What does he want?” I ask, feeling as if Boots is that Afghani but only I am being led into danger and not being kept from it.
“Meet me tonight at your usual spot and I’ll bring him along. You guys can meet and if you two are cool with each other he can tell you himself.”
“What do you want out of it?” I ask.
“I’ll get my take from him afterward,” he says.
In the afternoon with the window up, as hot air blows the plastic curtains into the room, their snapping ends sound like muted gun fire, I stand in front of the mirror and do arm curls. This combined with squats and crunches done between the mounds of my belongings is my daily routine. My dog tags tinkle against each other with every lift. On the top of the dresser, the empty package of Fig Newtons rustles in the breeze. I’m readying myself for something; a secret mission. With each curl, I exhale in and out the smells of the Tenderloin and the odors in the room. My clothes are lying on Murphy. I haven’t washed my clothes for a week and those on the floor and those on Murphy carry the scent of my sweat. When I leave the room and then come back in, it’s my scent I smell first, then that of the city. Looking into the mirror is therapy. It reassures me along with the scent in the room that I exist, that I fought in Afghanistan and lived.
It’s me I’m looking at in the mirror when there is a knock on the door. I put on my pants and open it cautiously.
“Did you get the note I pinned on your door?” It’s Beard. That’s not his name, but he has a beard that reaches down to his stomach. It was the first thing I noticed about him and before I knew his name. He’s a big man, obese not muscled. He’s proud of his job as manager of the building. I know this because he told me so.
“Yes, I got it,” I say.
“Are you going to be able to pay your rent by tomorrow?” Beard asks looking around me at the room and grimacing under the facial hair.
“Yes,” I tell him. “I’m making arrangements to get it tonight.”
“Good,” Beard says. “I don’t like to throw veterans out if I don’t have to.”
“You won’t have to throw me out,” I say.
He takes another look into the room, at the hills of my belongings. “I’ll be back tomorrow and you can give me the rent then,” he says before he turns around and walks away.
I shut the door and then put on the rest of my clothes. Without me or my clothes on Murphy it looks naked. My scent is embedded in the mattress.
At twilight the store is busier than it was earlier. At the freezer, I see through the glass there’s one burrito left. I open the door and take it out and look at the microwave instructions printed on the back. My diet sucks and the food I put into my body does not nourish me. In the Army, I was fed well and had a roof over my head as well as a steady paycheck. The only cost was the possibility of being shot or blown up. I put the burrito in the microwave at the back of the store and, while waiting, unscrew the cap on the water. I’m prepared to have my supper even before I get in line at the counter. After Mr. Chin takes care of another customer, I step up and put the heated burrito and the water on the counter and take out a few dollar bills from my fatigues pocket.
Before he puts his fingers on the cash register, he says “You seem like a nice guy. I could use some help if you’re interested in working here.”
“Sure,” I say. “When do you want me to start?”
“Is tomorrow morning okay?” he asks as he tallies up the price of my purchase on the cash register.
“Sure,” I say again. I pick up the burrito and bottled water and leave the store. The street is bathed in fading sunlight as I cross it and take up my place at my lookout. In a matter of minutes, even before the sun is completely down, the young man – the kid – that was here last night takes his place in the same spot he was in last night. I quickly eat the burrito and down the water and walk over to the entrance of the alley and toss the burrito package and empty bottle in the trash can. I’m looking at him and he is looking at me. He looks as if he stepped out of one of the photos of me in one of the newspaper clippings. I think of him as the me back then and name him Me. Me is wearing a tight white t-shirt with gold lettering on the upper right chest that says All-American.
“What are you looking at?” he says.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.
Me leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s a free country. I can be where I want.”
“I meant you shouldn’t be using this disgusting alley to conduct your business.”
“You know a better place?” Me asks sounding partially sarcastic and partially honestly inquisitive.
I think about my room, not because I would offer it to him, but it’s the only safe place I have known for the past three months. “No,” I say.
I return to my spot and prop my boot against the wall and watch the shadows turn to night along the street. Glancing over, I see Me has mostly disappeared in the darkness, only his white t-shirt partly visible. I’m thinking about beginning work at the store. It isn’t much, but it’s enough. Jade suddenly appears in front of me. She has changed her uniform. She’s wearing a tight yellow vinyl skirt and a bright green bikini top. She almost towers over me in her knee-high boots with spiked heels. Her hair is wound around her head like a turban.
“I saw you talking to that little sleazeball who wears the cowboy boots. If you’ll take my advice, steer clear of him. He’s connected with some pretty strange dudes.”
“Okay, thanks,” I say.
“Au revoir,” Jade says as she crosses back across the street, her heels clicking like small firecrackers on the pavement with every step she takes. The sound of it reminds me of 4th of July with Bill and Doris. It also reminds me of the sound of tracers being shot into the night sky.
Some evenings going into night move very slowly, like a clock gradually winding down. This is one of those nights. Neither Jade nor Me has seen any action. We three occupy our territories being watchful and restless, each for different reasons. The light shining through the window in the room reminds me I have somewhere to go for rest and relaxation, R&R. I have it for now at least. I see Boots and the man with him as they walk toward me. In my head, I instantly name the man Swagger. It’s how he walks, as if he owned the world. As if about to undergo military inspection, I stand at parade rest. Boots and Swagger come up to me.
Without really acknowledging me, Boots turns to Swagger and says, “See, I told you, just what you’re looking for.”
Swagger is wearing a t-shirt and jeans and is nearly as muscular as I am. He’s looking me over from boots to my hair. I feel like a mannequin in a store front window being examined for the cut of my clothes.
“You’ll do just fine,” he says to me.
“Do just fine for what?” I say
He raises his left hand to swat away a gnat and I see a wedding ring on the third finger. “I’d rather not discuss it here,” he says as if what he has in mind will be broadcast by loud speakers throughout the Tenderloin. “You must live nearby. Can we go there?”
Boots is shuffling his boots on the sidewalk, the sound of it is an annoying distraction. “Don’t you have somewhere else you can be?” I say to him.
“Oh, sure,” Boots says and turns to leave. “I’ll catch up with you later for my cut,” he says to Swagger. He walks toward Paxton Street, stopping in front of Me and whispering to him. They walk on together.
“I don’t do anything sexual,” I tell Swagger.
“What I’m looking for isn’t sexual, at least not in the usual sense. You could make up to five hundred dollars,” he says reaching into his jeans and pulling out a roll of money held together by a rubber band. “But I don’t want to do this if you don’t have a place we can go to.”
No one other than me has been in the room since I moved into it. Even Beard has not gotten any further than my open door. “We can go to my room,” I say reluctantly. When the sound of gunfire rings out from Mr. Chin’s store, I think it’s noises in my head.
Swagger and I look that direction. Within moments the sound of police car sirens pierce the night.
“He’s been shot,” Jade yells to me from across the street.
I cross the street with Swagger as two police cars and an ambulance pull up in front of Mr. Chin’s store. A small crowd of onlookers including Jade are chattering among themselves.
“The guy tried to rob him, then shot him and ran out.”
“He’s such a nice man.”
“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.
“Mr. Chin, I think,” I say. “He owns the store.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” Swagger asks.
“The last friend I had was killed in Afghanistan,” I say.
Swagger looks at his watch. “I don’t have lots of time,” he says. “Can we go?”
Going into my building I look over my shoulder and see two paramedics bringing someone out of the store on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.
I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands, there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused.
The room is as I left it. It never changes in any noticeable way. The room is hot and the air is thick with the scents of unwashed clothes and my sweat. Swagger says nothing as he comes in and I close the door behind him. He stands, feet spread apart, between two mounds of clothing. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the roll of money and tosses it on Murphy.
“A hundred dollars every time you punch me,” he says.
“What?” I say, uncertain that I have heard him correctly.
“I want you to punch me,” he says. “And hard. Anywhere but my face.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, then he begins to remove his t-shirt.
“What are you doing?” I say. “I told you nothing sexual.”
“I’m not wanting sex with you,” he says as he sits on Murphy and pulls off his shoes and socks. “I just want you to punch me a few times. That’s all. I just prefer to be naked when you do it.” He stands up and takes off his jeans and underwear and faces me. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”
I punch him on his left chest just above his nipple. He’s staring at me with disappointment written on his face. “Surely you can punch me harder than that,” he says.
I land another much harder punch above the other nipple. The sound of my fist contacting his bare flesh sounds like a bullet striking a cardboard target. He reels back slightly, and closes his eyes for a moment. He slowly opens his eyes. They are glassy like a cat in heat. “Oh, yeah, that’s more like it,” he says as he reaches over to the wad of money and takes out a hundred-dollar bill and hands it to me. “Again,” he says.
I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands, there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused. He gives me another hundred-dollar bill. I hit him again, this time on his left jaw.
“I told you not the face,” he says.
Then I punch him again, and again, and don’t stop. I am a relentless machine of released anger. He has collapsed onto Murphy, bloody and sweaty. His face is swelling and bruises are forming around his eyes. His breathing is labored.
“Why?” he asks as blood drips from his mouth.
“I was in Afghanistan,” I say.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. Twitter / Facebook / stevecarr960.com.