“Grass—dime bags—loose joints.”
Although well after lunchtime for most of the city’s residents, it was ‘up at the crack of noon, first-thing in the morning’ for the pushers in Washington Square Park.
The buyers and sellers did a brisk business during the final year of John Lindsey’s tenure as New York City’s Mayor. Their dealings were tolerated as long as everyone got a taste. The mobs, dealers, and beat cops all got a piece of the pie.
The park’s residents, bums as they were known in those pre-PC days, who couldn’t afford anywhere else to live, spent their days around the circle of the long-dry fountain. Martha Mumbles talked to herself and the pigeons. Nate the pharmacist held court by the public restrooms. And Vietnam veterans, Mick the tunnel rat, and Felix the sniper, moved as the sun did; shifting their locations to stay in the shade. Always keeping their backs against a wall or fence to, ‘cover their asses’, in case of attack.
They all lived below the line that society set for the lower class. Way below it. These were the cast-offs, the losers in life’s game between the haves and the wish-they-hads. Wish they had a home, had a dry bed, had a warm meal. Their days spent squirrel-like, storing up supplies to get them through the nights.
The sun shed light on the hiding places of the monsters, human and imagined, that would soon be hunting for provisions of their own when darkness shrouded the park.
The vets were sitting in the shadow of the triumphal Washington Arch studying the sidewalk scenery.
Without turning, Mick said to Felix, “Let’s jump on the subway and crash at the old World’s Fair site in Queens, I met a guy who’s got a still like we had back in the Delta.”
Both men had volunteered to fight the Viet Cong. Mick, believing the rhetoric about the domino effect of communism, joined to fight for democracy. Felix chose the war over going to prison for stealing a car in order to run away from his abusive father. The friends met during a tour in the Mekong Delta, where they had learned to survive on C-rations and whatever mind-altering concoctions they could find.
Mick thought Felix’d had it easy when they were in-country.
“Death from afar man.” He’d said. “Line up the crosshairs, squeeze the trigger, and poof, look for the pink mist. Easy-peasy kill. I had to get in there on my belly and find them by touch.”
Felix had acknowledged that Mick had a point, even though he had more kills, more than five times as many, without a doubt those that died by Mick’s knife and modified Model 29 Smith & Wesson, were enemy combatants shimmying through the same dark burrows. Felix’s were judgment calls. Killed from as far as a mile away, a lot of doubt can exist in that distance. Several were children unfortunate enough to have been carrying weapons. Add in Felix’s abuse of substances taken orally and intravenously, and he was never in the mood to belabor the point with his only living friend.
Mick stood. “If we’re getting on the subway, I needs me some anti-bumming meds. I’ll get our rations.”
While Mick headed for Nate’s illicit pharmacy, Felix sat by Martha and helped her feed the flying-rats.
“Hey Martha, you’re looking good. How are your birds this fine morning?”
“’Snot mornin’ fool. Damn near evenin’” She continued to speak under her breath as Felix fed the birds from the bag of crumbs next to the disheveled woman.
“Now, don’t get uptight Martha, I’ve got some bread for you. And it’s not the kind your pigeons would eat.”
Felix pulled a ten-dollar bill from the breast pocket of his drab-green Army jacket and placed it into Martha’s crumb bag. “I had a good month. Buy yourself something pretty.”
The park’s people had a bond stronger than any traditional family. Looking out for each other, each shared what they had in good times, in the hope that someone would have their back in the bad.
Martha snatched the money and looked at Felix. “Don’ tink you’re gettin’ anyting from me for dis. I’m a honorable woman.” Stuffing the cash into her ample cleavage, she returned to her task.
Felix heard a quiet, “tank you,” in her next stream of indecipherable speech.
Mick, his empty hands held open at his sides, approached Nate and said. “Hello my black brother from another father. I think we had the same Celtic mother. What looks good today?”
“What you say about my mother, cracker?”
“Chill Nate. It’s not like I don’t have black friends. Granted they’re all dead in the mud back in the jungle, but we got along fine when we were together.”
“The hell with you Mick. Playing that, Lucky-Charms leprechaun shit whenever it suits you. You’re as Irish as I am African. You gonna buy or talk? Ain’t got time for your bullshit.”
“Whoa, hold up Nate. I’m just making small talk my friend.”
“I ain’t your brother and I certainly ain’t your friend. So put up or walk away.”
“All right man, I’m just ball-busting, one vet to another.”
“Mick, I served just like you and your degenerate friend over there. At least I make a contribution to society by providing a needed service. You two just feeding off the city’s tit. I don’t take none of that welfare or food-stamp shit. I make my own money, pay my own way.”
“It’s cool Nate, I get it. We appreciate your service to the community. I just need a dime and an eight-ball and I’ll be on my way.”
To anyone passing within earshot, what seemed like a tense confrontation was just the way they had to play it. Man to man trying to make it on the street. Money was swapped for dope, then they shook hands in a soul handshake, the accepted way to show respect to another member of the second society.
Mick signaled to Felix that the deed was done and they walked to the south end of the park. They shared a joint, Mick took a bump of coke, and they descended the steps into the darkness. Even though it had been years since Mick had gone underground in anger and with deadly purpose, he still couldn’t go into a tunnel, even one as large as a subway, without hitching his brain up a few notches.
They reached the bottom of the urine-stained and acrid entrance, jumped the turnstiles and hopped onto the first of several trains they’d need to get to Flushing Meadows. The site of the abandoned 1964 World’s Fair.
They traveled with hippies looking to score in Greenwich Village, and respectable types dressed in their fine clothes heading uptown to the theaters and pricey restaurants of midtown. Only the punk-rockers, heading for CBGBs in the Bowery, dared make eye contact. The others, each in their own way, thought themselves better than those poor dirt-bags, in the worn fatigues.
Their final train emerged above ground as the sun set behind the sky-scrapers of Manhattan. They watched the orange light reflect off the mirrored glass facades of the buildings they would never see the interiors of. Mick said, “They look so small from here, man, can’t even see the tops when we’re below them. It’s like they’re a painting when we’re far away.”
Felix laughed the way stoners do when something simple strikes them as profound. “That’s really deep Mick my tunnel-rat friend. Profoundly deep.”
They rode their buzz in silence as the buildings and graffiti slid by. The iconic flying-saucer towers drew close as the train rocked and bumped along the tracks. Their destination was a twenty-minute walk from the train platform. Stopping at a corner bodega, they picked up a quart of beer and pint of Jack Daniel’s. As they walked through the busy streets, they were invisible. Their existence in the world ignored.
When they reached the chain link fence surrounding the abandoned landmark, Mick said, “There’s a maintenance shed near the east tower, the guy I met has the still set up there. I met him at the VA hospital when I had to be recertified as unemployable.”
Felix replied. “What, you? I know I got no marketable skills; what use is a long range shooter stateside? Other than, maybe, popping rats in the dumps of Staten Island. But you’re perfect for the underground sewer arts, man. Put you down the pipe with a scrub brush, and you’d clean this town out faster than a Godzilla-sized enema up the ass of Jersey.”
Mick didn’t laugh with Felix, his high was gone.
A subway he could handle, the thought of going into a tight, dark, hole drew him back to Nam. His eyes wide, unfocused on anything near them, his gaze far off into the night, he began to shake. “Dude.” Felix touched his friend’s shoulder.
He knew that Mick wasn’t in New York anymore, he wasn’t even on the same plane of reality. Felix pried the brown paper bag from Mick’s hand. Losing the beer wouldn’t help their situation, he had to be practical.
“I’m sorry man. Mick, buddy. You’re safe. We’re home.”
Mick came back to Felix, tears rolled down his cheeks. His eyes, already bloodshot from smoking grass, reflected a dark crimson in the final shafts of dusk’s light.
“C’mon Mick, let’s find this party. We got dope, liquor. We’ll try this hooch and see if it’s as good as he says.”
It took the two stoned men an hour to find an opening into the deserted grounds. They walked through a decaying reminder of a government’s wealth spent on a showcase of tomorrow, while the men who served that same nation, lived in squalor.
Passing the twin pinnacles of the observation towers, they spotted a low flame under the Unisphere, the skeletal globe of our planet. A group of a half-dozen men, all dressed in the same tattered remnants of their uniforms, were sitting around a fire in a sawed-off steel drum.
A gruff voice called from beyond the fire, “Hey Mick, glad you could make it.”
Mick said to Felix, “That’s Gunnery Sergeant Bob ‘Gunny’ Baxter. Met him at the VA while I was getting…” Felix cut him off.
“I know man. We been over it a few times. I got it.” “Gunny, this is the best Scout Sniper to ever pop gooks in the Delta. My friend, Lance Corporal, Felix Bukowski.”
Like a failed Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the group said in unison, “Hello Felix.” And burst out laughing.
Felix nodded, returning the group’s greeting.
They found places around the fire and Felix began rolling a joint as Mick started tapping out lines on a broken piece of glass.
Gunny said, “It’s nice that you didn’t show up empty handed like some jamokes. You want to try some of my Ho Chi Minh hooch?”
Reaching behind him, he pulled a white plastic bleach jug from a duffle bag.
Mick and Felix stared.
The original group laughed. Gunny almost fell off his battered folding chair. “Gets ‘em every time. It’s just the bottle I use. We kept breaking the glass ones. I don’t even rinse them out anymore, the leftover bleach gives it a little extra punch.”
He twisted off the blue top and raised it to his lips. “Death before dishonor boys!” The other men cheered as he took a long pull. He passed it to the man next to him, who repeated the toast to another round of cheers.
Gunny jumped from his seat and said, “Hey. I got a new trick to show you guys.”
As the drink passed amongst the group, each reciting the requisite chant, Gunny fumbled around in the duffle bag.
“I got these from a buddy stationed at Fort Dix. Snagged them from the practice range. Bet’cha you guys didn’t know I could juggle.”
He produced three hand grenades and proceeded to spin them from hand to hand.
With the exception of Mick, the rest of the scared-sober group scattered.
“Ha-ha you motherless bastards.” He continued to juggle them without any apparent effort or concentration. “These are just training pineapples, they’re probably duds.”
He began to work his way around the fire, stepping towards one or another of the group making them jump away. His eyes watching the top of the arc of the objects, he tapped his foot trying to locate the jug. Finding it, he lowered himself into position to pick it up.
Mick hadn’t budged. He sat transfixed on Gunny’s juggling.
Felix shouted, “Dude, don’t be a hero. Get back.”
“Now for my next trick.” In a remarkable display of dexterity for a drunk, Gunny began spinning the three explosives with one hand, throwing them higher into the air than the reach of the light from the campfire. With his free hand, he picked up the bottle.
Several of the men had run for the fence line, the others backed up a safe distance to see what would happen. Living in the open may be dangerous, but at least this was entertaining.
As the bottle reached his lips, there was a hitch in the spinning of the grenades. A momentary stumble as one of them left his hand on the way back up.
The hand holding the jug stopped.
In the split second before the next grenade was caught, Felix saw a glint of silver falling towards the ground.
“Grenade!” Felix shouted as Gunny dropped the hooch and dove back towards his duffle bag.
In quick succession, the grenades hit the ground by Mick. The jug landed on the opposite side of the drum, splashing liquid onto the open flame producing a fireball that shot twenty feet up into the hollow globe above them.
Felix grabbed his friend by the shoulders, tossed him away, and dove belly first onto the grenades.
Nothing happened. No flash. No boom. No guts blasting through the air in a bloody, heroic, end to Felix’s life.
Felix lay still.
Mick eye’s regained focus as he saw the silver grenade’s pin lying on the ground next to Felix.
Gunny began to laugh as he looked up from behind his bag. “Ha I told you chumps they was duds.”
He picked up one of the other grenades, pulled the pin and threw it off into the clearing beyond the light of the fire.
Seconds later, it exploded. Showering clumps of debris onto the startled drunkards.
Mick, eyes shut, shook his head in an attempt to clear his mind. He rose and walked to help his friend onto his feet. Felix took the still-sealed whiskey out of his pocket, spun open the cap, and drained the bottle onto the ground.
Mick said, “Felix. That was heavy, man. You okay? You good?”
“Mick, I’m gooder than I’ve been in a while. Maybe we should talk to those dudes at the VA about getting straight. I think I’m done with this life.” “Can’t hurt. Gotta be better than a grenade hole through your chest.”
Felix put his arm around Mick’s shoulder. “Yeah dude, sounds like a plan.”
Warriors Reward by Wayne Hills won an Honorable Mention in this year’s, NYC Midnight, short story competition.
“I have a BS in CS that took me nine and half years of night classes to accomplish.
I feel now as I always have; that since I’m blessed with all my fingers and toes and five out of the six human senses, I can accomplish anything that any other human before me has.”
(And this is why we love him).