Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blood Totem

As promised, the following is a short story I published a couple decades back under a different title in Blue Moon Review. The original is still out on the internet, but I seem to have been far too interested in semicolons in those days. I think this version reads better. The story is essentially true. The names, of course, are all false.

Blood Totem
by D. G. Grace


Petty Officer Daniel Carter and Petty Officer Daniel Sandusky had very little in common. Oh, they looked enough alike, same age (22), same height (average) and weight (slight), same gray eyes and olive skin and brown hair and aquiline nose, and of course the same first names, but who selects friends based on that? As far as anyone on the boat was concerned, the two Daniels were exact opposites. Daniel Carter, the introvert, was married with a child on the way. Daniel Sandusky, the party boy, planned for a desultory bachelor life. Carter spent WesPac visiting historical monuments and reading The Brothers Karamazov and Faerie Queene. Sandusky, armed with maps and magazines, a walkman full of punk rock, a snorkel and fins, a new pair of Adidas, drew detailed hiking, biking, and scuba schedules for layovers in Yokosuka, Perth, Guam, Bangkok. Carter had worked hard to know everything about the ship’s system and was the go-to guy for engineering trivia. Sandusky couldn’t tell you at any given time which bilge he was in the process of not scrubbing, but he could tell you where to hide if you needed to cop a nap.
Nonetheless, the Daniels were friends, each in his element ably defended the other. Neither Daniel could say why he liked the other—Carter usually fell back on dusty electric-particle-interaction clich├ęs—but each considered the other a fine man. Still, mostly for lack of common interests, in the three years and seven cities in which these two antithetical Daniels had been acquainted, they had never been drawn together for so much as a shared beery moment ashore.

Olongapo changed that. Changed a lot about both Daniels.

Neither Daniel fit Olongapo. Daniel Carter wanted to go out and dance and drink and perhaps even carouse and debauch with his buddies, but he was too busy convincing himself of his loyal, abiding love for his wife—pregnant with his daughter on the light side of the world—to feel more than a warm rush when one of the Philippine honeys sat to rub his knee, his thigh, and whatever came up. Daniel Carter tried getting drunk, but the formaldehyde in the San Miguel sold by every bar in Olongapo made him ill well in advance of intoxication, and the sweet toxic stench of the concoction the bartenders called Mojo made his stomach complain any time it came within sniffing distance. He even tried just dancing when the honeys asked, but they would slither up against his crotch and he couldn’t keep time. Carter bought another San Miguel and set his mind to trying to get drunk again, but a scantily clad foursome of tiny women crowded his chair, two of them trying to crawl into his lap.

Stationdido,” he said, raising his voice over the band’s Styx imitation (“Jew know it CHEW, BEBB!”). It had become his mantra: “Stationdido.” Every Subic Bay hustler knew they couldn’t work the GIs stationed there, but Daniel Carter didn’t know whether that was naval lore or just good politics. Steeled by two days experience in Olongapo’s converted warehouse superclubs, he chanted this Tagalog abracadabra and refused to let his eyes light on puckered nipples as he raised his voice to say, “Peddle it somewhere else, honey,” and waved their little terrycloth-pantied butts away with his beer bottle. For better or worse, the four honeys moped off to flypaper other sailors.

One of the women, her crows’ feet spackled with eye-shadow and wearing a plunging mini-dress, which just covered her stretchmarks, winked and called back, “I love you no bullshit, Joe.” Her mantra, apparently. She laughed off into the crowd and left him sipping his uriney San Miguel and listening to the snotty inner voice that accused him of being a counterfeit boy scout who was just afraid of getting the clap.
Daniel Sandusky and the other machinists were sitting at the next table, barnacled with their own cadre of terrycloth bikini girls. Sandusky was too mom-and-apple-pie for the 1980 Philippine scene to register on his psyche as anything but a sight: a Grand Canyon of slums, a Space Needle of filth, an Angel Falls of debauchery. When Chalmers, the big muscleman in Sonar, pounded the table, bragging that he’d picked up two full-access honeys and a flat for the week at a price of three fresh oranges per day that he swiped from the galley, Daniel just shook his head and blushed and giggled. When Parker, the short electrician at the next table, paid a girl—who looked all of thirteen—fifty pisos to crawl under the tablecloth and play Smile with him and his three torpedomen buddies, Daniel watched confused as Parker and the torpedo boys unzipped their flies and leaned back in their chairs. When it finally dawned on Sandusky why Parker called the game Smile, Sandusky covered his eyes with a blushing hand and tripped over four chairs and a barmaid getting away from the table.

“Oh, man!” He laughed but looked like he would throw up any minute.

Carter reached up to touch Sandusky’s elbow. “You okay, Daniel?”

Sandusky spun smartly and grinned. “Why, yes, Daniel. And yourself? Say, Daniel, how’d you like to do some shopping with me? Maybe pick up some monkey-pod or silver trinkets for the little woman.”

Carter had about reached his limit of vicarious debauchery. “You’re on, Daniel.”

Out in the squinting noonlight, they stopped to get their bearings. Carter opened his mouth to suggest walking in any direction that was away from the stench of Shit River when a roving peddler tried to sell him one of the dozen “real gold no bullshit” watches strapped to his sweaty arm. Simultaneously, a sloe-eyed shoe shine boy—couldn’t have been more than nine years old—popped up in front of Sandusky. Normally, they would have just waved both away and continued walking. Eventually they’ll get tired of following and look for another target. This time, the two of them and the bar behind had the Daniels in a tripartite blockade.

“Not interested,” Sandusky said. “Look, kid, they’re basketball shoes. You can’t polish suede, man.”

“You know how much these worth, Joe? Swiss. I give you good deal.”

“I have a watch,” Carter said.

“I clean good, you see. Ten piso.”

“Is waterproof, show moon and date, time in seven time zones. Forty-five piso.”

“No, really.”

“Okay, I clean shine, five piso, five.”

“Please, I don’t need—”

“Forty piso. Two watches. You robbin’ me, Joe.”

“Two piso. Just two piso.”

“Stationdido. No watch, man. Stationdido.”

Carter’s hustler waved a disgusted hand at him and scurried off after a freckled face, and Sandusky placed one resigned foot on the boy’s portable shoe shine box. As the child toothbrushed away groove-grit, bleached Sandusky’s shoe-rubber back to white, and curried the suede back to supple, he stopped occasionally to look up at the sunshadow of Sandusky’s face, dropping precise verbal hooks:

“I do good, no?”

“I surprise you, yes?”

“I make shine, you give tip, no?”

“Is worth more than two piso, eh Joe?”

By the end of the job, Sandusky’s Adidas looked newer than any two-year-old shoes he’d ever seen. He smiled and, his face seeming large with his own impending magnanimity, took out his wallet to give the boy a ten piso note.

“Good job, kid. You were right, it’s worth more than—”

But the little boy shook his head and turned his shine box around to show the ad painted on a side of the box we hadn’t seen: GOOD SHOE SHINE CLEEN 20 PISO. Sandusky’s smile fell, and Carter looked around to see if any Olongapo police were hovering. The city of Olongapo had a hundred laws designed to fleece sailors. If a business operator performed a job for which he carried prominently advertised prices, the prices always won in a court of law. Walking the streets, Carter had seen “prominent advertising” with letters in pica type. If the boy had a pet cop working with him, any refusal on Sandusky’s part would immediately be labeled an attempt to swindle the boy, and both Daniels would be in jail within the hour. Somehow, jail terms for sailors always ended in a five-hundred-dollar fine. Carter just stood frowning, apparently also mulling over the local laws.

The boy suddenly took off running, leaving Sandusky staring open-mouthed at his empty hands. “He took my wallet.”

“Daniel!” Carter yelled, but Sandusky took off running after the boy. Carter snatched at his arm and missed. “Daniel!”

“Stop, thief!” Sandusky chased the kid to an intersection and through an open-sided jeepney. “Stop, thief!”

As Carter ran after Sandusky running after the boy, laughing brown faces closed in around them: mango and barbecued-monkey-paw peddlers, leather and knife vendors, three-card-monte hustlers, sky-blue-uniformed Olongapo police who’d been holding up doorframes, high-heeled and lipsticked strutters, wrung-out raggedy bag women in alleys. Half-naked children with bellies like basketballs hooted and threw clumped wetbrown street trash at the Daniels. Scooter and jeepney drivers burped their horns. Every mouth stretched around wide volumes of laughter; every eye squinted; every voice joined the traffic noise. Even the sailors and marines on the street were holding ribs and rocking and howling. Every face on that street rejoiced in the citychild outrunning the rich American. Carter began feeling foolish.

As Sandusky and his small prey wove through food carts, Carter stumbled to a halt. Stop, Daniel, he thought to shout. Let him have the wallet. It’s not worth it. Two minutes later, he wanted to go back in time just far enough to shout those shouts.

“He’s got my wallet! Stop that stinking little thief!”


Stop, Daniel.

Then Carter saw one face not smiling. A National Guardsman, one of President Marcos’s boys in green fatigues and spit-shined boots, appeared in the center of traffic. A split second’s side glance of his mirrored shades halted the oncoming jeepneys, and his left hand released a spring-loaded bolt. It snapped into place with a clang that deafened the whole city. He dropped his right forearm parallel to the ground like an usher ready to receive your tickets, but of course, an usher wouldn’t have that AK-47 wedged in the crook of his elbow. Then he clenched, and bullets drew a dashed line up the street and up the boy’s back, popping crimson buttons out his front. Emptied, the child rag-dolled to the sidewalk, a red cartoon boy running on ahead of him a few feet before it, too, collapsed. Carter heard the wallet plop into the babyblood.
The Guardsman strolled past toppled fruit carts and, stepping on one small still thigh, reached down and plucked the wallet from the blood with thumb and forefinger. As he handed the thing to Daniel Sandusky, the Guardsman tipped his Castro hat and flashed a brief Thank-You-For-Shopping-At-K-Mart smile. He strolled off without a word.

Carter heard traffic moving again, and he vomited a quart of beer on a T-shirt vendor’s table. The vendor silently wadded up his wares, folded his table, and walked away. Sandusky dropped to his butt on the sidewalk and cried, rocking and hugging the wallet, smearing blood all over his face and polo shirt.
Back on the boat, after Carter had told this story seven times over in crew’s mess, Parker said, “Whoa, he’s gotta keep that wallet. It’ll bring him luck; it’s got a life in it, y’know. It’s kinda like in the middle ages: when they first killed someone with a sword it made the sword more powerful. They even named the swords when that happened. I mean, that kid dying for that thing has to make it worth something.”

They didn’t see Sandusky drag himself from the bow compartment, but suddenly, there he stood, black eye-circles eating away at his cheekbones. He dropped the wallet on the table in front of Parker, and brown flakes dandruffed off and settled onto the formica in a rough circle. Daniel looked at Parker with round empty eyes, like a shark just before it strikes or a Guardsman before he fires.

“It’s imitation leather,” Sandusky said, “and it’s got a picture of my mother in it, along with my expired California driver’s license and twenty-four pisos. All together it’s worth about six bucks. Keep it.”

Chief Treeter, the head cook, stuck his head out of the galley and pointed at Parker. “Parker, you a friggin’ ghoul, you take that damn’ thing,” but Parker took it.

The next night, while Parker was on watch back in Engineering, Carter went to the bow compartment and broke open Parker’s bunk lock with a pair of bolt cutters. Brown bits of blood flaked off in his hand, and he worked through a possible future. He would wait in a rack directly across from Parker’s. When Parker dragged himself up here in another hour and fell into his rack to sleep until sunrise, Carter would wait until he heard the electrician snoring. Stealthily, he would climb from his hiding place. He would stuff the bloody wallet in Parker’s mouth and hold him down with a pillow until he stopped kicking. If he fought too hard, Carter would elbow him him in the throat to speed the end. Someone, eventually, would find Parker, eyes red, lips blue, the wallet filling his mouth with its death magic.

Carter shook his head. He took the wallet topside and chucked it well out into the bay, watching it spin and skip across the sewage-dulled waters. Goodbye, babykiller.

Parker complained, of course, and the XO opened a theft investigation. Carter figured at least twenty people saw him, either breaking the lock or walking through Ops with the wallet in his hand, and the topside watch had stood beside him watching it frisbee out into Subic Bay’s fetid waters. A month later the XO closed his investigation, unresolved due to a lack of material evidence, including a complete absence of witnesses.

2 comments:

  1. Whoa! Are we going to be *Grace*d with more stories?

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  2. Possibly an occasional short short.

    I have a pair of SF stories that Aboriginal Science Fiction published for me in the 90s. I'd love for them to find a new audience here. Unfortunately, I only have hardcopy remaining. The tales were on a computer that died a painful death, and I lost the backups years ago. So, I'll have to retype them when I have time.

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