His red face pocked with dried blisters, the man bent forward in clothes reeking of wine barrels. He looked familiar. Pausing in his work, Billy said “hey, how you doing?” but the man kept his head down and shoved the tray along as if not expecting dollops of food. From the aluminum pans Billy dug out a heap of mashed potatoes and plopped it on the plate, followed by a ladle full of beans, then a portion of liver and onions. He didn’t think the man would prefer the alternative: marinated fried tofu. From the desserts at the end of the line, guests could also select raspberry jelly topped with a swirl of an edible oil product, or gluey date squares, or a slice of soggy-crusted apple pie, food prepared by the volunteer staff. For the children, spaghetti and hot dogs.
Billy watched the man find an empty seat and hunch over his plate, keeping his face close to the food as he shoveled in the food like a last meal. Something about the guy, years had passed since their last meeting, but, yeah, when the man looked up, holding the fork half-way to his mouth, Billy recognized him. He had once been a youth in fatigues, an infantryman, young and vigorous, his first deployment, complexion smooth as a baby’s bum: late leaving the barracks and scrabbling to join his platoon. The drill sergeant had chewed him out and forced him to the ground to do push-ups in the dust as the troops marched past. Now and then, Billy remembered, they had sat across from each other in the mess hall. Couldn’t have been more than twenty at the time. Years ago, but no mistake, now hunkered over a free meal in a community shelter.
Earlier Billy had hustled a beer-sodden man outside who had flapped his dick at the back of the cafeteria. Two bag ladies, regular guests, draped in layers of musty shawls and skirts, both scandalized, had screamed. What kind of place was this where a decent woman couldn’t drink a cup of tea in peace? He tried to fathom the mentality a man must have, the kind of uncontrollable impulse which compelled him to expose himself in a soup kitchen, for Chrissakes, where street people and disregarded veterans, and even kids who lived in cardboard boxes, came to eat and get warm in the winter. Some of his mates used to flap their pricks in the barrack showers to arouse general hilarity. He thought about speaking to the one-time soldier now, but decided against it.
Between jobs, he needed to distract himself from the impending divorce and get out of his crappy apartment where he had moved after Noreen screeched at him to leave their house, Billy volunteered for duty in The Good Neighbours Shelter. He couldn’t spend all his time pumping iron just to escape from what he didn’t want to be near. Besides, he knew that a few soldiers down on their luck and bereft of family or friends, alcoholic or drug-befuddled, depended upon it for a meal and whatever bed was available. The woman holding the tray as Billy dished out the liver and onions kept her eyes down and thanked him in a whisper. She wore a faded brown spring jacket and monarch butterfly barrettes on either side of her well-brushed brown hair, still wet and dripping from the rain. The little girl beside her shouted that she didn’t want wonions and wivers and wouldn’t eat them. Billy suggested spaghetti or hot dogs.
“I don’t want no sghetti ‘n dogs.”
Wearing army fatigues and khaki-brown T-shirt, he could have told the kid that soldiers had no choice but to eat whatever slop cook had prepared. Billy still remembered scraping the shit off plates before hosing them down when he had been assigned KP duty. He wasn’t supposed to say the child should be grateful for what she received.
“I wanna go to Macdonald’s, I wanna go to Macdonald’s”
The mother looked at Billy, her tight-lipped smile suggesting helpless fatigue. Maybe thirty, maybe younger, and already her eyes were cloudy with diminished means. Not enough prettiness left in her to arouse his interest or he would have tried to charm, flex his muscles, maybe shag her in the storage room, but she exuded an aura of exhaustion and poverty. The girl began stomping her foot. Her green sneakers were wet. With a hole cut out for her head, her rain coat was a clear plastic sheet covering jeans and a pink sweat shirt on which smiled the washed out face of Mickey Mouse.
“I want Macdonald’s, I want Macdonald’s.”
He could drop his serving spoons and leave this shit behind. It wasn’t a career choice, his livelihood didn’t depend upon pleasing a sniveling brat, and he wasn’t paid for his time and efforts. The mother seemed unable to decide what to do. Billy stopped himself from shouting over the beans. Miserable twit, but he stood pressing lips tight to keep quiet. They were holding up the food line. The child stuck out her tongue, but relented and accepted the spaghetti and hot dogs. Try to understand the pressures of poverty and misfortune, he had been advised at the workshop for volunteers. Try to understand the fucking pressures of a soldier leaping out of his skin in civilian life after years of service, his wife threatening him with his own rifle. Biting his tongue, he had almost walked out of the session for new volunteers, but stayed because he remembered the homeless veterans and he needed to do something between jobs he was finding it increasingly difficult to hold down. Some days in the morning before going to work he stood on his threshold, hand on the doorknob, and wondered if it mattered at all if he were alive or dead. Yesterday he had slid a finger over his razor blade, cutting the skin, and watched the blood. Target practice in the backyard where he picked off sparrows and starlings had aroused his neighbours’ fury. The blister-faced guy stood up and slipped his tray into the cart. Once he looked towards Billy and paused as if he, too, experienced some kind of inkling, but he sneezed without covering his mouth, then left.
Billy finished his stint, removed the plastic gloves volunteers wore while dishing out food, and the bandage also slipped off his finger. His van, rusted crap, was parked in the back. It clunked on worn-out springs and duct tape, but he saw no point in buying a new car which suggested a commitment he wasn’t about to make. Revving the engine and squealing the tires as he pulled out, getting into his lane, he cursed every driver who passed by too fast in violation of the posted speed and failed to demonstrate the minimal courtesy and good road manners. Soldiers had to be courteous to their superior officers and tried to treat civilians with respect. So many speeding vehicles shooting out of the distance like missiles, each one loaded with potential disaster. Like the military jeeps and trucks he had driven wildly, hooting with his comrades, down desert roads and through sandstorms.
Fuck, look at that driver, cutting him off as he changed lanes, not signaling his intentions, ignoring the STOP sign. Rules of the road served a useful purpose, just like military regulations: put in place to get things done properly and reducing the risk of being killed. Billy flicked on his own signal light, slowed down, and still driving behind that dipshit, turned into the right lane at the corner. It’s a wonder carnage on the road wasn’t more common, bleeding bodies heaped up inside mangled metal like victims of suicide bombers. Billy checked his speedometer. Not that his clunky chariot could have done much more than the speed limit. Besides, he wasn’t on a mission and the last thing he needed was a cop with a baton up his ass writing out a ticket.
Obeying the rules of the road or being socially responsible guaranteed fuck-all. The luck of the draw. Your number’s up. All the caution and skill in the world had not saved his two best army buddies who had stepped on IED’s. He had knelt and sobbed over a severed arm with veins looping out. Billy slowed down and stopped on the line. A pedestrian crossed. A sleek red car surprised and whizzed by Billy on the left. Obviously, the speed limit or passing at a crosswalk posed no problem for the son of a bitch. At an intersection, halted by traffic lights, the low-slung red car hummed in front of Billy’s van, inching its wheels forward. Dark tinted windows hid the face of the driver.
Just before the light changed, the car shot across the intersection and veered unexpectedly into the lane of oncoming traffic and passed a FedEx truck. Billy lost sight of it because he wasn’t about to risk a pass. At the next set of lights, though, the truck turned into the left turning lane and, sweet Jesus, there was Hotshot forced to a stop by too many cars crossing the intersection. The lights changed. The red car squealed ahead and, without signaling, made a sharp right turn at the next corner. If everyone followed the rules, there was a greater chance of survival. In one way or another, the army had drummed that idea into Billy’s head until he half-believed it, despite evidence to the contrary. Screwing chicks in his basement recreation room while his wife was at work certainly broke the rules. Ah, the fucking games he played with civilians, they all broke the rules and he felt good feeling bad. He thought he had lost track of the car when it veered around another corner down the road, without signaling.
A residential neighbourhood. Suppose a child ran out on the street, chasing a ball. Just as that shirtless boy in baggy white trousers had run on to an unpaved road to pick up and fondle a grenade that looked like a baby armadillo in the searing sun. It exploded in black smoke. If the boy hadn’t been the victim, Billy’s jeep would have struck it. He had been ordered not to stop for civilians under any circumstances, enemy ploys designed to appeal to common humanity before your head was ripped off your shoulders. The car pulled into a driveway next to a bungalow. Should he recite all the statistics about the thousands injured annually, the thousands maimed and killed by inept drivers ignoring the rules of the road? The soldiers seared and sundered on the road?
He had made a note of the man’s car license. A citizen’s arrest but decided not to. Why do the authorities any favours? For a moment Billy recalled when the local police had raided a Turkish brothel, searching for illicit drugs, but found several soldiers on leave, himself included, gang-banging black-haired whores on puffy divans. He had been high on hashish then. Billy slowed down, checked his mirrors, signaled, and parked in front of the house. He switched off the ignition. Fighting was not his purpose, but if it came to that, what the hell? The army had taught him not to retreat unless no other option remained.
He had risked his life for civilians and wasn’t about to lose it in a car accident caused by someone like bonehead getting out of the red car this very moment. Instead of tailing this human turd, he should have bought that soldier in the shelter a beer or offered the worn-out mother a ride home, taken advantage of her gratitude and ploughed her good against the kitchen sink, but it was against the shelter’s rules to fraternize with the down-and-out. The bitch might have said something afterwards. The young man shut the car door and adjusted his sunglasses. A bulky creature in white jeans and black tank top, more flab than muscle, he took four steps in motorcycle boots towards the garage. Man, a drill sergeant would have beaten that fucker’s ass into submission. Some guys needed training.
Billy switched on the ignition, waited for the enemy to open the garage door which he did by pulling on a strap at the bottom and stepping aside as the huge metal sheet rose above his head, flat and grey like a Sarajevo sky. If this were a real war he’d have the dude within his sights and could drop him on the spot with a single bullet through the back of the head. He wasn’t afraid of pulping the jerk: he was afraid of not stopping. Civilians were easy but unfair targets. A fight would lead to more complications which he didn’t need. What would teaching dickhead a lesson achieve in the end? He lowered the passenger window of his van and crept by the end of the driveway. The man turned as Billy leaned over the seat and shouted, giving the guy a finger.
“Hey, asshole, you’re lucky you didn’t kill someone today, you piece of shit.”
Nearly crushing a squirrel skittering directly under the front wheels, Billy accelerated. The van groaned and rattled from the unexpected speed. God, it would have felt good to crack open a face, or even slashed which he might have done if he had bothered to carry his army knife. His heart leaping, he craved some kind of action. Maybe the gym for a hard work-out, or grab hold of this married chick who got off on his biceps and uniform for a harder fuck. Blood rushed to his groin and he yelled over his hands, white-knuckled on the steering wheel. In the rear view mirror, Billy saw the blubbery guy running down the road after the van, soundlessly hollering and pointlessly fisting the air.