Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Birdie White #6

An opal pendant necklace lay on the lace doily on top of Birdies makeup table. She touched it absently as she stared in the mirror at the aging woman with a thin face, wispy white permed hair, and eyes the color of a monks cowl. Starburst wrinkles radiated out from her brittle lips. She looked as if she had been sucking tailpipes for decades.
Birdie pulled a Salem out of the pack and lit it, inhaling deeply, and exhaled as she plucked it out between long bony fingers stained caffeine brown. The smoke wafted up into a small but tidy bedroom with dresser drawers, an easy chair, a small closet, and one window looking out over a puddled street below. The sky was clearing after a cold fronts lashing rain had passed during the night, the winds now gusty, pushing fair weather cumulus briskly across the cerulean sky and clattering the grimy steel shutters of the closed storefronts across the way.
Today was Monday, and the bar was closed. Birdie had woken up at her usual hour, 11am, had bathed and put on simple gray slacks and a blue silk blouse. Last nights trade was slow, even for a Sunday.
Birdie picked up the pendant. The large fire opal gleamed in its silver setting, its deep yellows and oranges and reds flickering in the daylight. Roddy had picked it up for her in Perth during one of his stints as an engineer on the MV Tysla, a 75000 ton Maltese flagged vehicle carrier.
Birdie had first met Roddy when he was on shore leave in Brooklyn. She was a bartender/server at Sammys, a watering hole in Red Hook near the Brooklyn Marine Terminal. Birdie was a young woman on the rise, interested in the hospitality business with a GED that she hoped to upgrade to a BA at CUNY. Attractive, thin, brunette, she drew appreciative gazes, not leers, from the men she served. She had a dignity in her presence, in her bearing, in her alert eyes that men seemed to respect. But some fools are always rude.
Roddy had come in alone to have some late lunch. The restaurant was mostly empty, so he sat at the bar and ordered a Coke and a sandwich from Birdie. Roddy was a small man with gentle, mirthful green eyes, a crooked, endearing smile, and a shock of unruly red hair in a Jughead cut. He wore denim from neck to ankles, heavy black brogans, and a knit cap. Birdie had seen many sailors come and go in her work along the waterfront, and sailors are sailors. But there was something about this sailor, this man, that intrigued her, even comforted her. It was his mirth that she had sensed, had drawn her to him like a pheromone. Birdie understood that many years later.
She put Roddys order into the kitchen, and brought him his Coke.
Your order should be ready in just a few, she said. Kind of quiet today.
Thanks, said Roddy, smiling politely.
Normally Birdie would have turned away and left him alone until his sandwich was ready to bring out, but instead she paused and held his gaze.
When do you need to be back at the ship?
He cocked his head, and grinned.
That obvious, huh?

Well, yeah…” she replied with a chuckle.
Eight bells, last dog, said Roddy casually, watching her reaction, testing her, sensing something.
Birdie looked at the clock above the entrance.
Well, that gives you about five and half hours to kill, and my shift ends in a half hour. Ever been to Governors Island?
They married six months later. Roddy had returned from Australia with the opal, a diamond ring, and a fistful of letters that Birdie had posted to him while he was gone. To stay closer Roddy had become a coastie working tugs and supply ships servicing oil rigs. He was away from Birdie no more than a week or so at a time. She finally got her BA from Stonybrook in hospitality management. Good times. Young couple. Bright future. They shared joy and accomplishment, but mostly mirth, a state of mind.
Then a noreaster roared up the coast almost two years to the day after they were wed. Roddys supply ship got caught in the brunt of it, lost an engine and broached sideways in 100 foot seasat about eight bells, last dog according to their final transmission received. Roddy certainly would haveh been below decks working on the engine when the ship went down, and Birdie still cant stop the nightmares of Roddy's final moments when the ship rolled, the lights flickering out with a last image of terrified shipmates, eyes bulging in fear and screams overwhelmed by shrieking wind and pounding seas as the black, cold water took their last breath away.
Mirth beams and enfolds, it softens and uplifts, soothes the edges and freshens the moldiest of minds. Its a gift readily given by those who hold it. And when it goes away, for some it lives on as a powerful memory and brings a smile when thinking of the departed. For others, its absence makes the loss even more painful, even more obvious and enduring.
Birdie last saw Roddy from the window next to her makeup table. It was a beautiful fall morning, unseasonably warm breeze blowing from the south, and the first rays of sun shining. The weather was turning, but it was just a short haul and Roddy would be back. She was leaning out the window, her opal pendant dangling from her neck, the sun on her face, and blew a kiss to Roddy as he came out the front door. He waved, returned the kiss, and shouted, that little stone just winked at me, but it aint as beautiful as you are, doll! See you in a few! And he had turned and walked down the street.
That was almost forty years ago. Birdie had taken the modest surviving spouse benefits and Roddys life insurance proceeds to put a down payment on their brownstone, establish her private quarters upstairs, and gut the first floor to put in a modest cocktail bar called Roddys. An old woman before her time, Birdie let her youth slide into middle age and beyond as she faced life, and drunks, and drifters, and suitors, and callow youth equating whiskey sours with sophistication, and wanted only Roddy again. His mirth became her ghost, haunting her, taunting her, a mirror image of its origin. Birdie could only think of what she had lost, and how it had happened. The cold dark sea had extinguished her mirth.
So she tended her bar, employed a gypsy parade of bartenders who too often raided the till, and made a meager living in a smoky room, each night retiring upstairs to see Roddy in her dreams, waving goodbye, calling her doll, and drowning alone in a blackness that stole the light from her life. 
Birdie looked again at the pendant in her hand, put it to her lips, and kissed it. She opened her jewelry  box and gently put it inside. She put on her coat, lit another cigarette, and headed out the door to buy an assorted case of booze for the bar, just another old woman disappearing into self-imposed exile alone amongst the multitudes.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Everett Dixon #5

Just looking at him, Everett Dixon did not inspire; crew-cut, short and stocky, brown eyes peering intently out of a pallid, round face underneath a blaze orange ball cap. A cigar dangled listlessly from his left handHis red flannel shirt strained against a middle-aged belly swelling out over faded LevisEverett was sitting on the porch swing of his small cabin in the Blue Ridge looking out over the Shenandoah Valley, the same cabin he and his father had used during hunting seasons many years ago.  
It was a crisp fall day, glowing with late afternoon sunlight cutting long shadows in the woods beyond the clearing below. The sweet acrid scent of an early winter woodstove hung in the airA pair of ravens were soaring in opposing circles, rising on warm currents, their trailing feathers rippling in the breeze. Everett could count each feather. He tapped his ash on the floorboard and leaned back on the swing, its squeaks breaking the quiet. Dust motes fluttered in the light. 
Everett grew up in a rented ranch in a nearby hollow with a couple of older sisters long gone now – dead or locked up he had no idea, they weren’t much to look at after all. His tee-totaling, God-fearing parents kept Sunday sacred but profaned the weekdays nurturing a tribal hatred of anyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Pa worked at a turkey farm in the Valley, ramming birds into a killing cone day in and day out, imagining they were heretics. Ma worked for a local housecleaning company, scrubbing the floors of heathen. They made ends meet. 
Growing up hunting deer and turkey and bear, Everett never missed. He couldn’t miss. Don’t count bear, they’re treed by baying hounds and GPS tracking, shitting buckets of fear, and summarily executed from close rangeBut from 1000 yards or more, a scope fitted deer rifle in the hands of Everett Dixon became a precision tool in the hands of a killing master. He could stand far, far away, peering intently into the woods or across fields, sense movement, see it clearly, and kill it. He didn’t need a deer blind, and the turkey’s notorious hearing couldn’t sense him from that far 
So Everett might not have inspired with his looks, or his simple background, or his rural lassitude, but his hunting skill would ultimately blaze a career path for him and astound a small coterie of devoted, trained professionals. 
Everett was seventeen when Pa dropped dead of a heart attack on his way to work. It was lucky Pa hadn’t killed anyone sitting in that living room when his car crashed through the bay window and came to rest just inches from a crib as he lay slumped over the wheel. A year later, Ma’s emphysema had worsened so much she stopped working, and finally couldn’t get up the strength to keep her oxygen tank nearby. She died staring at the clock across from her faded chartreuse Barcalounger, wondering where Jesus was. Their Walker hounds howled until the neighbors took notice. The girls? He had no idea, nor could he care less.  
With no prospects in the local economy, his family gone, and high school diploma in hand, Everett enlisted in the Marines. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and Everett figured that his skill with a rifle would give him a leg up. He made it through basic, and then on to advanced training in the sniper school.  
He simply dazzled everyoneEverett had 20/10 eyesight. He was preternaturally calm. Not a tremor, no matter how contorted, or tired, or exhausted he might be. His hand was rock still, and his eyes as good as any human ever recorded. He sailed through sniper school, a quick study on calculating humidity, temperature, barometric pressure, Coriolis effect, bullet drop, windage, and leading to get a clean shotIt came to him naturally. He learned field craft, concealment, and surveillance techniques. Upon completion, Everett shipped out to the 1st Marine Division a few miles south of Danang and went to work. 
Everett took a pull from his cigar and watched another pair of ravens join the lifting air currentsHe could take those black birds out, right now, and wondered how many other people looked at everything as if it were a target. And how many of them knew the indescribable satisfaction of a clean kill, and how many fewer of them ever saw how slowly life ebbs when the meat sack that holds it springs a fatal leak. 
It was acid and infrared that changed Everett’s life. Unlike many GIs in Vietnam who turned to reefer and heroin to ease the pain, calm the fear, or escape reality, Everett stumbled on a new way to enhance, enlarge, prolong, and intensify the kills he stalked every nightpaper blotters of windowpane acid, sold by the handful in the streets of Saigon.  
A buddy had described “tripping,” how acid could stretch and bend and warp reality, or more accurately, our perceptions of itSo, one night, draped in his ghillie suit looking like a swamp critter and carrying his M40 with night vision scope and muzzle flash suppressor, Everett slipped out of camp and carefully sidled his way into the kill sight about 500 yards away from a Vietcong encampment he had reconned a few days before. He put the blotter in his mouth, sucked on it, and waited as he peered through the scope at the enemy figures glowing red with thermal energy.   
At first, nothing, but in a few minutes the red prey began to dance silently in reverse shadows lighting up the back of his brain, flooding through his eyeballs as if they were an entrance to his cave, his brain, his new reality. Shadow and light became oneEach specter had a name, a history, a family, a density. He could pick and choose, but he waited. He felt the whole camp inside of him, and he waited. In silent majesty. 
He took his eyes off the scope and looked up at the night, multi-hued stars glittering like fire glass and so close he could pluck one right out of the sky and put it in his pocket. It thrummed there, like his whole body. But still so calm, a calmness that filled him with joy and promise and lust. He could wait out the world, be infinity itself. He turned back to the scope. Red prey dispersing, moving away, lessening, but one separating and moving closer. He fired. 
The red prey dropped like a meteor. The other red prey rejoined the dance, came to his side, arms pointing excitedly looking around, looking right at him. Everett slid like a snake along his escape route, only the sound of the report still ringing in his cave and linked inextricably to the red prey, lying prone, dying. And from his escape perch, Everett watched through his scope as the red prey slowly changed color to an orange, and then yellow, green, blue, dark blue… and gone. Everett had watched life re-form, relocate, in dying color. He was mesmerized. He wanted more. 
Everett re-upped three times before the Corps told him it was time to go. Truth be told, after 73 confirmed kills and probably the same amount unverified but real, Everett was a star, and they wanted him alive and out of theater to preserve the dignity of the Corps. He was a legend, and a teacher of new snipers, and a man who went to bed every night with red prey dancing on the walls of his brain. They had praised him for killing bad guys and saving good guys. But he knew that’s not why he did it. 
Dusk had softened the light and the ravens had skimmed down the sides of the mountains on the shoulders of cooling air. Everett stood up and stretched, took a last puff of his cigar and threw the stub out into the grass. He turned around and walked through the screen door. It slammed loudly as he strode across the bare wood floor to his gun case.