V, p.48

V., page 48

 

V.
 



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  He hadn’t gone two blocks when there were yells behind him. It was Pig on the other bike, chasing him with Flop on the handlebars. Far behind was Flip, on foot.

  “Oh-oh,” said Profane. He fiddled with the gears, and promptly dropped into low.

  “Thief,” yelled Pig, laughing his obscene laugh. “Thief.” A prowl car materialized out of nowhere and moved in to intercept Profane. Profane finally got the bike in high and whizzed round a corner. Thus they chased about the city, in fall’s cold, in a Sunday street deserted except for them. The cops and Pig finally caught up.

  “It’s all right officer,” said Pig. “He’s a friend, I won’t press charges.”

  “Fine,” said the cop. “I will.” They were hauled down to the precinct and put in the drunk tank. Pig fell asleep and two of the occupants of the tank set to work removing his shoes. Profane was too tired to interrupt.

  “Hey,” said a cheerful wino from across the room, “you want to play hits and cuts?”

  Under the blue stamp on a pack of Camels is either an H or a C, followed by a number. You take turns guessing which it is. If you guess wrong the other gets to Hit (with the fist) or Cut (with the edge of the hand) you across the bicep, for the number of times indicated by the number. The wino’s hands looked like small boulders. “I don’t smoke,” said Profane.

  “Oh,” said the wino. “What about rock, scissors and paper?”

  Just about then a detail of Shore Patrolmen and civilian police entered, dragging a boatswain’s mate about seven feet tall who had run amok, under the impression he was King Kong, the well-known ape.

  “Aiyee!” he screamed. “Me King Kong. Don’t screw with me.”

  “There, there,” an SP said, “King Kong doesn’t talk. He growls.”

  So the boatswain’s mate growled, and made a leap for an old electric fan overhead. Round and round he went, uttering ape yells and pounding his chest. SP’s and cops milled around down below, bewildered, some of the braver making grabs for his feet.

  “Now what?” said one cop. This was answered by the fan, which gave way, dumping the boatswain’s mate in their midst. They jumped on and managed to secure him with three or four guard belts. A cop brought in a small dolly from the garage next door, loaded the boatswain’s mate on and rolled him off.

  “Hey,” said one of the SP’s. “Lookit there in the drunk tank. That is Pig Bodine that’s wanted down in Norfolk for desertion.”

  Pig opened an eye at them. “Oh well,” he said, closed the eye and went back to sleep.

  The cops came around to tell Profane he could go. “So long, Pig,” said Profane.

  “Give Paola six for me,” Pig grunted, shoeless, half asleep.

  Back at the flophouse Stencil had a poker game going which was about to break up because of the next shift coming on. “Just as well,” Stencil said, “they’ve about cleaned Stencil out.”

  “You’re soft,” Profane said, “you let them win on purpose.”

  “No,” Stencil said. “Money will be needed for the trip.”

  “It’s set?”

  “All set.”

  Somehow, it seemed to Profane, things never should have come this far.

  III

  Now there was a private going-away party, just Profane and Rachel, about two weeks later. After the passport photos and the booster shots and the rest Stencil acted like his valet, removing all official roadblocks by some magic of his own.

  Eigenvalue kept cool. Stencil even went to see him—perhaps as a test of the guts he’d need to confront whatever of V. was still on Malta. They discussed the concept of property and agreed that a true owner need not have physical possession. If the soul-dentist knew (as Stencil was nearly sure he did), then “owner,” Eigenvalue-defined, was Eigenvalue; Stencil-defined, V. It was a complete failure of communication. They parted friends.

  Sunday night Profane spent in Rachel’s room with one sentimental magnum of champagne. Roony slept in Esther’s room. For two weeks he’d done little else but sleep.

  Later Profane lay with his head in her lap, her long hair falling over to cover him and keep him warm. It being September the landlord was still reluctant about heat. They were both naked. Profane rested his ear near her labia majora, as if it were a mouth there, which could speak to him. Rachel was absently listening to the champagne bottle.

  “Listen,” she whispered, holding the mouth of the bottle near his free ear. He heard carbon dioxide coming out of solution, magnified in a false-bottomed echo chamber.

  “It’s a happy sound.”

  “Yes.” What percentage was there in telling her what it really sounded like? At Anthroresearch Associates there’d been radiation counters—and radiation—enough to make the place sound like a locust-season gone mad.

  Next day they sailed. Fulbright types crowded them at the rail of the Susanna Squaducci. Coils of crepe, showers of confetti and a band, all rented, made things look festive. “Ciao,” the Crew called. “Ciao.”

  “Sahha,” said Paola.

  “Sahha,” echoed Profane.

  chapter sixteen

  Valletta

  V

  I

  Now there was a sun-shower over Valletta, and even a rainbow. Howie Surd the drunken yeoman lay on his stomach under mount 52, head propped on arms, staring at a British landing craft that chugged its way through the rainy Harbour. Fat Clyde from Chi, who was 6′1′′/142 pounds, came from Winnetka and had been christened Harvey, stood by the lifelines spitting dreamily down into the drydock.

  “Fat Clyde,” bellowed Howie.

  “No,” said Fat Clyde. “Whatever it is.”

  He must have been upset. Nobody ever says things like that to a yeoman. “I’m going over tonight,” Howie said gently, “and I need a raincoat because it is raining out, as you may have noticed.”

  Fat Clyde took a white hat out of his back pocket and tugged it down over his head like a cloche. “I also got liberty,” he said.

  Bitch box came on. “Now turn in all paint and paint brushes to the paint locker,” it said.

  “About that time,” said Howie. He crawled out from under the gun mount and squatted on the 01 deck. The rain came down and ran into his ears and down his neck and he watched the sun smearing the sky red over Valletta. “What is wrong, hey, Fat Clyde.”

  “Oh,” said Fat Clyde and spat over the side. His eyes followed the white drop of spit all the way down. Howie gave up after about five minutes of silence. He went around the starboard side and down the ladder to bother Tiger Youngblood the spud coxswain who sat at the bottom of the ladder right outside the galley slicing cucumbers.

  Fat Clyde yawned. It rained in his mouth, but he didn’t seem to notice. He had a problem. Being an ectomorph he was inclined to brood. He was a gunner’s mate third and normally it would be none of his business except that his rack was directly over Pappy Hod’s and since arrival in Valletta, Malta, Pappy had commenced talking to himself. Not loud; not loud enough to be heard by anyone but Fat Clyde.

  Now scuttlebutt being what it is, and sailors being, under frequently sentimental and swinish exteriors, sentimental swine, Clyde knew well enough what it was about being in Malta that upset Pappy Hod. Pappy hadn’t been eating anything. Normally a liberty hound, he hadn’t even been over yet. Because it was usually Fat Clyde who Pappy went out and got drunk with, this was lousing up Fat Clyde’s liberty.

  Lazar the deck ape, who had been trying the radar gang now for two weeks, came out with a broom and started sweeping water into the drain on the port side. “I don’t know why I should be doing this,” he bitched conversationally. “I don’t have the duty.”

  “You should of stayed down in first division,” Fat Clyde ventured, glum. Lazar began sweeping water at Fat Clyde, who jumped out of the way and continued on down t
he starboard ladder. To the spud coxswain: “Give me a cucumber, hey Tiger.”

  “You want a cucumber,” said Tiger, who was chopping up onions. “Here. I got a cucumber for you.” His eyes were watering so bad he looked like a sullen boy which is what he was.

  “Slice it and put it on a plate,” said Fat Clyde, “and maybe I will—”

  “Here.” From the galley porthole. Pappy Hod was hanging out, waving a crescent of watermelon. He spat a seed at Tiger.

  That’s the old Pappy Hod, thought Clyde. And he is wearing dress blues and a neckerchief.

  “Get your ass in gear, Clyde,” said Pappy Hod. “Liberty call any minute now.”

  So of course Clyde was off like a streak for the fo’c’s’le and back inside of five minutes, squared away as he ever got for liberty.

  “832 days,” Tiger Youngblood snarled as Pappy and Clyde headed for the quarterdeck. “And I’ll never make it.”

  The Scaffold, resting on keel blocks, was propped up on each side by a dozen wood beams a foot square which extended from the sides of the ship to the sides of the drydock. From above, the Scaffold must have looked like a great squid with wood-colored tentacles. Pappy and Clyde crossed the long brow and stood in the rain for a moment, looking at the ship. The sonar dome was shrouded in a secret tarpaulin. At the top of the mast flew the biggest American flag Captain Lych had been able to find. It would not be lowered come Evening Colors; and come true nightfall portable spotlights would be turned on and focused on it. This was for the benefit of any Egyptian bomber pilots who might be coming in, Scaffold being the only American ship in Valletta at the moment.

  On the starboard side rose a school or seminary with a clock tower, growing out of a bastion high as the surface-search radar antenna.

  “High and dry,” said Clyde.

  “They say the Limeys are going to kidnap us,” said Pappy. “And leave our ass high and dry till this is over.”

  “It may take longer than that anyway. Give me a cigarette. There’s the generator and the screw—”

  “And the barnacles.” Pappy Hod was disgusted. “They will probably want to sandblast, long as she’s in the yards. Even though there’s a yard period in Philly coming up as soon as we get back. They’ll find something for us to do, Fat Clyde.”

  They made their way through the Dockyard. Around them straggled most of the Scaffold’s liberty section in files and bunches. Submarines too were under wraps: perhaps for secrecy, perhaps for the rain. The quitting-time whistle blew and Pappy and Clyde were caught all at once in a torrent of yardbirds: disgorged from earth, vessels and pissoirs, all heading for the gate.

  “Yardbirds are the same all over,” Pappy said. He and Clyde took their time. The dock workers fled by, jostling them: ragged, gray. By the time Pappy and Clyde reached the stone gateway they’d all gone. Waiting for them were only two old nuns who sat to either side of the gate, holding little straw collection baskets in their laps and black umbrellas over their heads. Bottoms of the baskets were barely covered with sixpences and a shilling or two. Clyde came up with a crown; Pappy, who hadn’t been over to exchange any currency, dropped a dollar in the other basket. The nuns smiled briefly and resumed their vigil.

  “What was that,” Pappy smiled to nobody. “Admission charge?”

  Towered over by ruins, they walked up a hill, around a great curve in the road and through a tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel was a bus stop: threepence into Valletta, as far as the Phoenicia Hotel. When the bus arrived they got on with a few straggling yardbirds and many Scaffold sailors, who sat in the back and sang. “Pappy,” Fat Clyde began, “I know it’s no business of mine, but—”

  “Driver,” came a yell from in back. “Hey driver. Stop the bus. I got to take a leak.”

  Pappy slumped lower in his seat; tilted the white hat down over his eyes. “Teledu,” he muttered. “That will be Teledu.”

  “Driver,” said Teledu of the A gang. “If you don’t stop the bus I will have to piss out the window.” Despite himself Pappy turned around to watch. A number of snipes were endeavoring to pull Teledu away from the window. The driver drove on grimly. The yardbirds weren’t talking, but watched closely. Scaffold sailors were singing:

  Let’s all go down and piss on the Forrestal

  Till the damn thing floats away,

  which went to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare” and had started at Gitmo Bay in the winter of ’55.

  “Once he has got an idea in his head,” said Pappy, “he won’t let go. So if they don’t let him piss out the window, he will probably—”

  “Look, look,” said Fat Clyde. A yellow river of urine was advancing up the center aisle. Teledu was just zipping up.

  “A fun-loving good will ambassador,” somebody remarked, “is all Teledu is.” As the river crept forward sailors and yardbirds hurriedly covered it with the leaves of a few morning newspapers, left lying on the seats. Teledu’s comrades applauded.

  “Pappy,” Fat Clyde said, “you intending to go out and get juiced tonight?”

  “I was thinking about it,” said Pappy.

  “That’s what I was afraid of. Look, I know I’m out of line—”

  He was interrupted by a burst of merriment from the back of the bus. Teledu’s friend Lazar, whom Fat Clyde had last seen sweeping water off the 01 deck, had succeeded now in setting fire to the newspapers on the floor of the bus. Smoke billowed up and with a most horrible smell. Yardbirds began to mutter among themselves. “I should of saved some,” crowed Teledu, “to put it out with.”

  “Oh God,” said Pappy. A couple-three of Teledu’s fellow snipes were stomping around trying to put out the fire. The bus driver was cursing audibly.

  They pulled up to the Phoenicia Hotel at last: smoke still leaking from the windows. Night had fallen. Raucous with song, the men of the Scaffold boat descended on Valletta.

  Clyde and Pappy were last to get out. They apologized to the driver. Palm leaves in front of the hotel chattered in the wind. It seemed Pappy was hanging back.

  “Why don’t we go to a movie,” Clyde said, a little desperate. Pappy wasn’t listening. They walked under an arch and into Kingsway.

  “Tomorrow is Hallowe’en,” said Pappy, “and they better put those idiots in a straitjacket.”

  “They never made one to hold old Lazar. Hot damn, it’s crowded in here.”

  Kingsway seethed. There was this sense of containment, like a sound stage. As an indication of the military buildup in Malta since the beginning of the Suez crisis, there overflowed into the street a choppy sea of green Commando berets, laced with the white and blue of naval uniforms. The Ark Royal was in, and corvettes, and troop carriers to take the Marines to Egypt to occupy and hold.

  “Now I was on an AKA during the war,” observed Pappy as they elbowed their way along Kingsway, “and just before D-day it was like this.”

  “Oh they was getting drunk in Yoko too, back during Korea,” said Clyde, defensive.

  “Not like that was, or like this either. The Limeys have a way of getting drunk just before they have to go off and fight. Not like we get drunk. All we do is puke, or break furniture. But the Limeys show imagination. Listen.”

  All it was was an English ruddy-faced jarhead and his Maltese girl, standing in the entrance to a men’s clothing store and looking at silk scarves. But they were singing “People Will Say We’re in Love,” from Oklahoma.

  Overhead bombers screamed away toward Egypt. On some street corners trinket-stalls were set up, and doing a peak trade in good-luck charms and Maltese lace.

  “Lace,” said Fat Clyde. “What is it about lace.”

  “To make you think about a girl. Even if you don’t have a girl, it’s better somehow if you . . .” He trailed off. Fat Clyde didn’t try to keep the subject alive.

  From a Phillips Radio store to th
eir left, news broadcasts were going full blast. Little tense knots of civilians stood around, just listening. Nearby at a newspaper kiosk, red scare headlines proclaimed BRITISH INTEND TO MOVE INTO SUEZ! “Parliament,” said the newscaster, “after an emergency session, issued a resolution late this afternoon calling for the engagement of airborne troops in the Suez crisis. The paratroopers, based on Cyprus and Malta, are on one-hour alert.”

  “Oboy, oboy,” said Fat Clyde wearily.

  “High and dry,” said Pappy Hod, “and the only ship in the Sixth Fleet getting liberty.” All the others were off in the Eastern Mediterranean evacuating American nationals from the Egyptian mainland. Abruptly Pappy cut round a corner to the left. He’d gone about ten steps down the hill when he noticed Fat Clyde wasn’t there.

  “Where are you going,” Fat Clyde yelled from the corner.

  “The Gut,” said Pappy, “where else.”

  “Oh.” Clyde came stumbling downhill. “I figured maybe we could wander around the main drag a little.”

  Pappy grinned: reached out and patted Clyde’s beer belly. “Easy there, mother Clyde,” he said. “Old Hod is doing all right.”

  I’m just trying to be helpful, Clyde thought. But: “Yes,” he agreed, “I am pregnant with a baby elephant. You want to see its trunk?”

  Pappy guffawed and they roistered away down the hill. There is nothing like old jokes. It’s a kind of stability about them: familiar ground.

  Strait Street—the Gut—was crowded as Kingsway but more poorly lit. First familiar face they saw was Leman the red-headed water-king, who came reeling out the swinging doors of a pub called the Four Aces, minus a white hat. Leman was a bad drunk, so Pappy and Clyde ducked down behind a potted palm in front to watch. Sure enough, Leman started searching in the gutter, bent over at a 90 degree angle. “Rocks,” whispered Clyde. “He always looks for rocks.” The water-king found a rock and prepared to heave it through the front window of the Four Aces. The U.S. Cavalry, in the form of one Tourneur, the ship’s barber, arrived also by way of the swinging doors and grabbed Leman’s arm. The two fell to the street and began wrestling around in the dust. A passing band of British Marines looked at them curiously for a moment, then went by, laughing, a little embarrassed.

 

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