Memorial Day by Bill Cushing
by Bill Cushing
Whitey took a long final drag off the unfiltered Camel. Savoring the sweet nutty taste of the cigarette’s Turkish tobaccos, he leaned against a lone wooden sawhorse to survey the grounds.
At first glance his place looks like a microcosm, the aftermath from an atomic explosion: rusting bodies of three cars—two sitting on cinder blocks, a johnboat that might have been lifted out of the green trailer sitting about fifteen feet away, some axles and tires litter the patchy grass that could hardly be called a lawn, and everything is dulled by a thick film of dust that’s settled from the unpaved roadway cutting behind the coal-burning power plant separating the property from the two-lane blacktop highway running north and south. The only thing on the property that seems like it might work is the 1976 Ford Econoline van with a rough, hand-lettered advertisement scrawled along its two side panels:
Whitey’s Painting Houses,
ext & int Call 766-2938.
It looks like even that crude and scrawled lettering took some effort getting there.
Flinging the remains of the butt, a smoky arc hangs in space as it flew through the air, cartwheels a few times along patchy dry grass before coming to rest by the house, a patchwork of old paneling and assorted lumber tapering into cinder blocks with a series of half-inch sheets of warped plywood layers resting on top, trying to be a patio. The facade didn’t really even try to conceal the trailer home settling into the ground that is the actual residence. The yard seems to be half vegetation, half dirt. Various-sized piles of bullet-riddled beer and soda cans squat at irregular intervals, testaments to aborted attempts at recycling aluminum for cash. A picnic table stands on end, a large arrow-punctured target nailed to its flat surface.
Whitey fits into this derelict setting: his head a full mop of white hair blackened by grease; his pockmarked face lined from too many years working outside in the Florida sun; his splayed fingernails rimmed with permanent cakes of dirt and oil that, after decades, even he has stopped trying to dig out. He really doesn’t paint houses. Well, he will but only when he has to, like when someone actually sees him driving the van around town and is hard-up enough or cheap enough to trust him with work after seeing the condition of the vehicle. He attends to any potential business soon enough. If the estimate doesn’t scare them off, the first day’s work definitely will. The “company” only “existed” so that Whitey could explain to the government where his money comes from each year. What Whitey really does is sell dope. Occasionally, his customers are college kids who managed to work up enough nerve to approach the place after hearing that Whitey’s a good source, but he mostly sold to the fishermen and factory workers who frequent the area and have known him for decades. He doesn’t sell anything but grass and speed.
“Just the stuff that’s good for a man,” he told friends—of which he had few. “The speed helps ya’ work; the pot is to relax after.”
He holds a trace of the American work ethic and blends two of America’s grandest traditions: the entrepreneur and the outlaw. If he’d been born a century earlier he might have ridden with Cole Younger and Jesse James. Or, he might have simply gone into that business for himself. His dose of free market behavior was why he spent two weeks throwing up the false front that surrounded his trailer. He knows that one day either the city or some developer will get around to buying this neglected land, and he also knows that unless there is a “permanently constructed domicile on the premises,” the buyer is only legally bound to pay him for the value of the land itself. With the cheap wrapping around the trailer, he can charge up to five times, maybe even more, than the place is worth after those city assholes finally get through chewing up the land downtown and need more to waste. He gave himself a “Dutch fuck,” lighting a fresh cigarette off the glowing remains of his last one.
“I can almost hear that change jinglin’ in my pockets now,” he snorts to himself. Flicking the butt he’d just finished at one of the many chickens roaming his property, he hits one in the head.
“Gotcha,” he says, removing an errant piece of tobacco stuck to his tongue.
Whitey straddles the homemade steps leading to the collage of a house. He rubs scarred tissue where a tattoo once resided on his left forearm. He laces blunt fingers over a jackknifed knee. Under the cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve of his ripped and faded t-shirt was another tattoo, a deep black-blue panther crawls down the bicep of his left arm. He’s proud of it. He’d had it done while stationed in the Pacific by an old artist who never lived to see the electronic pens used today.
“Hell, yeah, it hurt,” Whitey would explain when asked about it. “Screamed like a damn baby when I sobered up the next day, but I tell you this: I had it appraised some years ago, and work like this, it’ll cost you over five big ones nowadays. Damn sight more’en I paid that slope for it, I can tell ya’ that.”
The smoke from the cigarette circles Whitey’s head and trails out over the river that wound around the place. The shores of the waterway were as shabby as the property bounding it. Half-submerged, the wreckage of a long-forgotten fishing boat leans on its port side; a hole ripped in its flank by moonlight scavengers reveals waterlogged innards. More tires sit buried in the muck.
The foamy surface of the water meeting the shore should have been all the warning any potential swimmer needed, but the polluted waters weren’t the reason that area youngsters avoided the place. Whitey once told some visiting fishermen, “No one’d dare swim there. I’ve played enough target practice to discourage any of that kind o’ thing happening’ at my place.”
He shifted himself, facing the other way. He laid his eyeglasses down and pulled a swallow of bourbon from the plastic tumbler he picked up off the ground. His face sagged slightly in relaxation, then suddenly tightens up. The once-clear blue eyes, now dull and filmy from cataracts, focus sharply on something at that moment, something that Whitey could see as clear and distinct as the redheaded woodpecker perched halfway up the trunk of an elm tree. Hammering at the bark, the bird seeks ants for food. What Whitey sees is neither nourishing nor desired.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned! It’s ‘bout time I found you.”
The voice is loud and even sounded fat. A red-faced man waddles up the dirt pathway to Whitey’s porch. He had a wide smile that looked like it had been plastered on his wide face. The man stopped, facing Whitey who winces as he looks at the wide hand stretched toward him.
“Betcha don’t even remember who I am,” the fat man yells as if he were thirty feet from Whitey rather than three. Whitey shakes his head in disagreement.
“You’re Edwards,” Whitey murmurs, as if a drop in volume might make the guy go away.
“That’s LIEUTENANT Edwards to you,” the man commanded. Seeing that no one was going to laugh at his joke, he decided to.
“Well, goddamn, man,” Edwards shouted, punching Whitey in a good-natured salesman-like manner. “Don’t act so happy to see me. Hell, I’ve been looking all over for you; you hid yourself pretty goddamned good.”
Whitey’s expression said “not good enough, obviously.”
“Anyway, we’re organizing a reunion of the whole ‘Gang of ‘45,’ and we’ve played hell trying to locate you.
“Did he ever tell you about us?” Edwards turned and shouted the question at others fishing on the pier.
“No,” Whitey answered. “Can’t say as any of ‘em’s ever heard of any Gang of ’45.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the big man counters, turning to stare at Whitey. “You don’t talk about the good old days any, son?”
“Weren’t that good,” Whitey said softly. The answer surprises those nearby. Whitey was never the loud type, but he was certainly never at a lack for an answer. And whatever those answers might be, they were never self-reflective.
“Well,” Edwards said, squinting through fat drooping eyelids. “We—Whitey, me, and the rest—were all part of the group that dropped the big one in 1945, right about this time of year. Yup, it was on August 6.”
He guy rolls up the sleeve of his left arm and there, in almost the same spot as Whitey’s unmentioned one is a tattoo of a B-29 flying out of a banner emblazoned with the words “Enola Gay.” The Enola Gay—the plane that had carried the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. It was a mission that forced some involved to buckle, retiring from society after realizing what they had done. In spite of the fact that Paul W. Tibbits, Jr., the pilot and the one who had named the plane after his mother, once told a Canadian reporter, “I’ve never lost a night’s sleep over it, and I never will,” it didn’t mean that everyone involved in the mission felt the same way. After all—war or no, enemy or not–140,000 corpses were a large number for such a small group of men to produce. And that was only the initial count.
That didn’t include those who later died of radiation poisoning or the hundreds of thousands of deformed babies born in the years after. It had always been one thing to drop bombs on people, but few had ever dropped one that had destroyed so many lives at one time and then continued the killing for years after the initial impact.
“We’re trying to get the president to meet with us on this one,” Edwards tells Whitey. “Think of the photos we can get on that one, boy. Arm in arm with the president of the United States. There’s something to give to your grandchildren!”
“Fuck my grandchildren,” Whitey says, even though he had none. The remark takes Edwards back though, at least long enough for Whitey to make his escape. He stands, drains the rest of his whiskey, then half-saunters, half-wobbles down to the fishing pier extending from the end of the road’s blacktop. He leaves behind the bulky, perspiring Edwards standing, chubby hands on hips, the left sleeve of his shirt still rolled halfway up his arm and a look on his face mixing shock with indignation.
Whitey goes to the pier to be among those who had come for the fishing. He’d spend the rest of the day there as he had many days in the past, talking to the people, dispensing advice and admonishment to the beginners.
“Give ‘em more slack,” he’ll tell them or “that piece of shrimp is too big for the damned thing to eat.”
Even though some might nod their heads and smirk at him as he dispenses it, they listen to him because, although the advice was endless, it was good. He trades his pointers and company for whatever beers are in the coolers alongside the bags of shrimp bait. It is, as well, cathartic, something that Whitey definitely needs this day just as he must have needed it all those other days and nights in the past. He’d stay as long as no cars pull up into his driveway.
When the sun settles closer to the water’s surface, Whitey’s skin itself will seem to darken until it gets beyond brown and approaches the deep gray of the wooden planks making up the perimeter of the pier’s dock.
They’d all notice him, especially those who were in the area for the first time and hadn’t met Whitey before. All of them—newcomers and the experienced alike—would leave grateful for his fellowship, thankful for his tips. Yet, they’d all have a slight smile on their faces when they parted company with the weird old man who sat on the benches, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking whatever he could scrounge.
There would be no doubt that the old man was alien, isolated, but few people rarely wondered why, and even fewer ever noticed the rectangular piece of shriveled skin on his left forearm, the only evidence left of an old tattoo, that eternally pink and rippled patch of skin where there was once the name of an Army Air Corps bomber crew Whitey had never asked to be a part of.
© 2017 Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing grew up in New York City but has lived in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Maryland, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico before moving to California. As an undergrad, he was called the “blue collar” writer because of his years working as an electrician on oil tankers, naval vessels, and fishing boats. He earned an MFA in writing from Goddard College in Vermont and teaches at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges.
His short stories have appeared in Borfski Press, Newtown Literary Journal and Sediment. He has also published creative non-fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, and articles in various print and internet publications. When not teaching or writing, Bill works with a musician in a project called “Notes and Letters.” He invites anyone interested to visit and “like” their Facebook page.