The man forgets his sunglasses. He bounds up the steps of the train and nearly runs into Henson. When he sees the right side of Henson’s face he jerks back and says, “Ho, fuck.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Henson rented a sleeper car. Slipped the conductor his ticket through a cracked door. Dined on jerky and crackers alone in his compartment. Made sure he was the last to exit.
But the man catches him off guard. Henson pegs him as a corporate Nazi fresh off vacation: tall and broad-shouldered with a deep tan and sculpted hair. He can smell the bourbon seeping from his pores.
“Fuck me,” the man says, once he is past Henson and on the train. “Fuck me!”
Henson walks through the blinding Texas sunshine and into the depot. He keeps along the wall, hiding his profile, and stops to examine the train schedule. He holds two green duffel bags filled with everything he owns. His heart beats as slowly as that of the stooped man mopping the floor.
The man with the sculpted hair enters the depot with a slender blonde. She’s young enough to be his daughter, though his hand on her ass says she isn’t. The man tells her he’ll be just a minute and heads for the restroom. Henson has his back turned but can smell the department store cologne, hear the faint slap of his loafers. He follows him in, dropping his bags at the entrance.
The man is alone. Henson takes the urinal to his left. After a moment the man looks over and makes a noise in his throat, a laughing cough, as if he cannot believe his misfortune. His head shakes but his hair doesn’t move.
“Goddamn, man,” says the man, zipping up. “I mean, fuck. You know?”
Henson finishes his business and joins him at the sinks. He watches the man smooth an eyebrow in the mirror. Then he seizes him by the throat and pushes him through the stall door, the man going ass-down into the commode, arms flailing. Henson, wild-eyed, drives a fist into his nose. The man crumples to the floor and lies still.
“Yeah,” Henson says. “I know.”
He closes the stall door. Washes his hands and rubs them under the blower. On his way out he retrieves his bags and passes another man coming in. The man sees Henson’s duffel bags and buzz-cut and throws him a head toss. Henson ignores him, thinking, Fucking civilians.
So this is Ward’s beloved Texas. Henson is not impressed. The oppressive heat, the flat brown terrain, it reminds him of the hellhole he called home for much of the past five years. Even the livestock look sickly.
In Ward’s guest bedroom Henson tacks three pictures to the wall. There’s him as a civilian, before the bomb did its work; Sylvia, raven hair still damp from one of their trysts; and Len, sneering in a middle-finger salute. He puts himself on top, the other two beneath him.
“That’s a fucked up love triangle, Sarge.” Ward has positioned his wheelchair at the foot of the bed.
“Fucked up is right. And call me Henson.” He’s nursing his fourth beer on his way to who knows. Ward holds a gin and tonic he doesn’t need, his bloodstream already streaming with narcotics.
Henson had sent the kid home from the desert nearly three years earlier, never expecting him to make it. Yet here he is: stumps for legs, withered right arm, talking through a voicebox.
Ward sent him letter after letter. He had no one else. Im buyin a trailor with the money they gave me, Sarge. I herd you got fucked up, Sarge, come recoop with me. Theres no place like Texas, Sarge, I can tell you that.
“Hey Sarge,” he says now in his electronic voice. “They found some fella at the train station with his nose in his brain. On the same day you came through. That’s some crazy shit, huh?”
Ward with his wide eyes and big white teeth. Maybe the kid knows, maybe he doesn’t. Henson doesn’t give a fuck either way.
“It’s a violent world,” he says. “And Ward, I’m a civilian now. Call me Henson for Christ sake.”
Someone forgot to tell Houston about the recession. Henson hires on with a company throwing up suburban apartments every fifth block. He wears a large white bandage on his face, tells them he had a cyst removed.
He does grunt work with the immigrants at a slave’s wage. The Gulf Coast humidity is a bastard; the bandage will not stay put. His second day on the job he flings the sweaty gauze through the air and continues up the ladder with two bundles of shingles.
The Mexicans point and chatter for the rest of the afternoon. He doesn’t know the words but understands their meaning. Still, he lets it go. Maybe these fellow grunts have earned their malice.
There’s an electrician name of Tomlin, big lazy jackass who takes to calling him Two-Face not quite out of earshot. Does little skits for the others where Henson is the antagonist, the growling bad guy whose alienation is all-consuming. Knows all the movie lines like a fucking twelve-year-old.
Henson approaches him around back with the nail gun. Tomlin is running electric line through a hole in the plywood. When he turns Henson seizes him by the collar and puts the nail gun to his forehead. Shows him Two-Face up close and personal.
“Boo,” he says, and feigns pulling the trigger. Then he nails Tomlin’s flannel shirt to the wall in three places, pinning him there. The big man darkens his pants.
Henson drops the nail gun and walks off the site before they can fire him.
Three days later he’s drinking beer and staring at the pictures on the wall when he gets a call from Barber, the rail-skinny foreman. “I saw what you did to Tomlin,” he says, “and I’m thinking you can help me out.”
“There’s a kid bothering my daughter.”
“I’m hanging up.”
“No, listen. He did more than bother her. He hurt her. And got off because he’s sixteen. And because his old man’s a prosecutor.”
“Move her to a different school.”
“Listen to me, goddamnit. I don’t want him killed, just fucked up. The little bastard’s still threatening my girl, saying his buddies are gonna join in next time. She’s scared to leave the house.”
Henson holds the phone to his ear and listens to the man breathe.
“Five hundred,” says the foreman. “Half now, half after.”
“A thousand,” says Henson.
“A thousand? I can’t swing that. Six hundred.”
“Eight hundred,” says Henson. “Cash up front.”
And that’s how it starts. Before long Henson is doing a job or two a week, mixing with a seedy set of characters. He returns to the trailer at all hours, occasionally bruised and bloodied but always wound up. The truth is, he feels useful—alive—for the first time since the shrapnel shredded his face.
Ward’s in the hospital for his ninth surgery when she shows up, a pudgy little thing still in her waitress outfit and smelling of deep fry. She unties her apron and drops it on the counter. Henson, drunk, thinks: Some prostitute.
“Ward thought you might like some company,” she says.
Henson is sitting in the dark watching TV with the sound off. He sets his beer on the coffee table and leans forward into the glow. When she sees his face she doesn’t gasp or cover her mouth or otherwise react to his deformity. Instead she comes and sits on the coffee table and gently turns his chin to get a better look.
“That place really fucked you boys up,” she says in her soft Texas accent.
Henson guesses her at nineteen or twenty. Dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, dark eyes, soft white cheeks shiny from the grease. He pulls out his money clip and starts peeling bills, not sure of the arrangement.
“Easy cowboy,” she says, easing his hand down. “Another beer?”
Henson nods. She grabs two from the refrigerator, then sits back down and drinks deeply, her short skirt riding up. Henson watches the muscles of her inner thighs contract.
She meets his gaze. “Ward says your fiancée fucked you over. That you haven’t said a thing about the war.”
“True, and true.” His eyes take a trip back over her.
“Keeping that shit inside will eat you up. And fucking me won’t help none, cowboy.”
He closes his eyes and drains his beer, the can quivering in his grip. Finished, he motions to the bulge in his lap and says, “I’ll let you guess my priorities.”
She smiles and kneels before him. “I’ll meet you halfway. Pick an issue and discuss it.” Henson makes a face that says Fuck that. She puts a hand on his thigh. “Pick.”
He exhales and begins describing an armed patrol gone awry, a fireball burrowing into his cheek, nine months of captivity, gangrene. How the army doctors said it would be another year or two before they could even attempt reconstruction, and even then it might not take. It all depends, they told him, on blood flow.
As he speaks the little waitress releases him and moves him to the cadence of the story, slow and steady, making sure he gets it all out before bringing him home.
Henson’s first paid hit comes in autumn. The mark is a hulking black bouncer with a penchant for abusing strippers under threat of going to the cops with their side action. The clients’ representative is a freckled coed named Soshanna who dances Fridays and Saturdays and entertains in her dorm room on select weeknights.
Soshanna delivers a collective nine grand to the trailer. A beaming Ward takes it from his wheelchair without counting, explaining that he trusts her no problem and since she’s here, how would she like to earn some of it back? She smiles and pats his cheek. Fresh from the hospital, Ward had lobbied for this job: forty percent to act as middleman. You can trust me, Sarge. I ain’t afraid of no prison. Hell, what could they do to me that ain’t been done already? They settled on twenty-five percent.
Every Thursday, the mark, known as Bertrand, takes a wing chun kung fu class and goes for ribs at a place downtown. This night, Henson, wearing a long dark wig, helps himself into the big man’s townhouse. Spends some time admiring his Tarantino posters and Motown collection. As expected Bertrand returns just after six, then undresses and shaves while singing an old funk tune in the bathroom mirror. As he performs Henson can hear his cock slap against his thigh, smell the mint shaving cream. When the big man pulls back the shower curtain Henson puts the blade in his neck.
Bad choice. Bertrand flings him against the vanity like a rag doll even as the blood squirts from his adam’s apple. The wig comes off, revealing Henson’s face. Dazed, he manages to stand and get a hand inside his coat before he’s met with some kind of open-palm blow. The kind that cracks ribs.
“Fuckin’ freak,” the bouncer growls, pulling the knife from his neck and turning it on the intruder, Henson thinking, This motherfucker should be dead. Coked up or what? He retrieves the thirty-eight cleanly this time and puts lead in Bertrand. The knife falls to the floor but the bouncer is able to take a step, and another, before collapsing on Henson, two hundred seventy pounds if he’s an ounce.
Henson spends the next several minutes freeing himself, a little at a time, ribs screaming. When he stands he’s coated with blood and sneering at both the pain and the botched job. The neighbors would have heard the gunshots. If they’re home. He’d need something with a silencer. Fuck.
Moving quickly, he washes the blood from his face and finds a jacket from the bouncer’s closet that hangs nearly to his knees, covering his gory coat and jeans. He reapplies the wig, smoothing the long hair over the sides of his face. Hearing no voices, no sirens, he leaves out the backdoor, the way he came, and into the bayou, not looking back. After awhile he stops and buries the gun and knife deep in the muck, scanning the marshland for snakes and alligators and whatever else may make an appearance.
Thirty-five minutes later Henson is in his car, an old Cutlass he bought with his earnings, motoring north for a suburb called Humble. The sun is setting when he stops across from a rundown ranch house with a monster truck in the driveway. He slouches down gingerly and watches the front door, thinking of the little waitress inside and what she’s doing at this moment.
She never came back. He would have told her everything. He’s since learned that her husband of six months committed suicide on leave and that she does what she does to keep his spirit alive. And to make ends meet.
After nearly an hour the screen door swings open and a shaved-head kid bounces down the steps and into the truck. Just out of basic, Henson thinks. Good luck, private. A short while later she comes out in her waitress outfit, tying up her ponytail under the porch light, Henson memorizing every contour of her face. He watches her taillights disappear before firing up the Cutlass and following her out. But instead of heading south for the trailer, he goes north up the highway and settles in the best he can with the pain in his side, a thousand miles and more before him.
It’s time to get out of here. It’s time to go home.
Paranoia creeps in. Henson imagines a statewide alert, graveyard-shift troopers itching to get a piece of him. He keeps the dial on the news stations but hears nothing of a homicide. Considers calling Ward but fears they’ve already gotten to him. A few days ago he had cleaned out of the trailer and started living out of the trunk, ready to go at a moment’s notice. If I don’t come back, he told Ward, tell them I dreamed of California. Better yet, Acapulco. Throw them off course, at least for a few days.
At a truck stop outside Nacogdoches, he bags up the bouncer’s jacket and the bloody clothes and drops them in a dumpster. When it’s time to pay for gas he uses his credit card at the pump, figuring it’s a better option than paying cash and having to present himself to a curious attendant. He won’t have the same option at a motel, so when he reaches Shreveport he pulls over at a rest stop, well away from the other vehicles, and puts his head back. Closes his eyes but knows he’s still too juiced to sleep, his mind churning over the day’s events …
… And wakes with a start. In the dream, Len is on the couch watching television when Sylvia approaches. He sits up. Runs his hands up her thighs and under her skirt, slipping off her panties. She guides his hand, eyes closed. Henson’s mother sits at the kitchen table, along with a collection of aunts and uncles and cousins, all of them watching. And Henson is there, suddenly, seated at the familiar table but unable to get anyone’s attention. His family can only stare and smile contently, as if watching a tender exchange of vows instead of a porn show. Henson jumps up and runs for the couch, screaming, swinging his arms, anything he can think of, but is unable to stop his best friend from fucking his girl.
Henson killed at least thirteen men in the desert, several of them civilians. The man who kept him out of the shit, kept them all out of the shit, in fact, was Lars. Unlike the ass-kissing brass in Baghdad, Lars understood the gray area of urban warfare, the split-second verdicts that had to be made a dozen times a day.
Lars is a fellow Midwesterner, living alone in a faded pink house in downtown Fort Wayne. He has a college degree and not much else. His wife left him for a Mercedes salesman while he was off leading the surge. Henson raps on the door and walks in with a six pack and a newspaper.
“Lars,” he says.
“That’s Captain to you, Sergeant.”
“Ah, Henson,” he says, accepting a beer. “Man, I missed you.”
Henson drops down in the chair across from his former company commander. The house smells of rotten fruit and marijuana. On the television a heavy-breasted brunette is down on all fours licking out a blonde while a bearded man fucks her from behind.
They sit and watch the movie and drink their beers. Henson unfolds the paper and looks through it until he finds a brief item datelined Houston. Authorities investigating the slaying of a 30-year-old bouncer continue to question the dancers at the strip club where he worked. A spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office refused to say whether the dancers are suspects, although he did confirm investigators are searching for at least one additional person of interest.
“I gotta thank you for doing this,” says Lars. He’s scheduled to leave for his third tour in a week. Henson nods.
On the screen the brunette has a black dildo up her ass. Lars says, “So good old Ward is still kicking.”
“In a manner of speaking. He sends his regards.”
Lars laughs in memory of the bucktoothed Texan. “Goofy fucker, anyway.”
The movie over, Lars stands and rubs his hands together. “It’s on the bookshelf,” he says. Henson retrieves the Glock and checks the chamber.
“You sure this is untraceable?”
“You’re good to go, Sergeant. And make sure you steal something on the way out. Break some shit while you’re at it.”
Henson steps forward and fires a round into the captain’s left shoulder. The shot propels him back onto the couch, spraying blood and bits of muscle on the wall. Panting through his teeth, Lars presses a folded towel to the wound and stays that way for several moments, eyes closed, rocking slightly. When he looks up, his face is pale as a corpse. Still, he smiles.
“You were a good fuckin’ soldier, Henson. You gonna get that face fixed or what?”
Henson shoves the gun in his pants, pulls out his keys. He’s got a hundred miles left.
“That depends,” he says, “how the next few hours go.”
When she sees him she smiles uneasily, as if he’s a stranger, before turning back to her beloved lottery numbers. Henson watches her scan the pages of notes, lying on her yellowed sheets, the oxygen tube up her nose. Her silver hair is matted to her skull.
“Mom, I’m sending you to the casino. A thousand bucks to spend, all the sours you can drink. How about it?”
She looks over, a face of surprise for this person at her bedside. “No complaints here. I’ll give your money to the Indians.”
“Uncle Burt’s taking you,” he says, motioning to her brother in the doorway. “You’re gonna live it up for the day.”
Her face contorts as she looks back and forth between the men, trying to understand. Finally her gaze settles on Henson. “Red,” she says, and by this she means his younger brother. “Such a good boy. I like your little friend, what’s her name. Now go and wash your goddamn face before supper.”
His uncle begins pulling her to her feet. “Here’s how you have to do it,” he says. “Get her up and moving and she’ll come around.” Together they get her situated in Burt’s car, the old woman chattering about the coming winter. His uncle shuts the door and offers his hand to Henson.
“Real good of you,” he says as they shake. “And listen, I wanted to say thank you, you know, for your service over there. You probably hear that all the time.”
Henson hasn’t heard it once.
“And I’m sorry for, you know …” He waggles his finger at Henson’s cheek. Henson nods and his uncle slaps him on the arm, grinning. “What some guys’ll do for a Purple Heart, hey, partner?”
Henson watches them drive off, thinking of worthless medals and wars for the generations and diseases that turn brains to mush. He realizes he’ll probably never see his mother again. Before long a car goes by, a load of teenagers pointing and laughing at the specimen on the sidewalk, and Henson turns and goes back into the house.
He lies on the bed of his youth staring at football banners and bowling trophies. Remembering afternoons with Sylvia in this room, on this bed, he can almost smell her grandfather’s musty bowler. She never took the thing off, tucking all that dark hair away and not giving a fuck. She wore nothing but Levi’s and white t-shirts and still was the sexiest girl in town.
He hears the front door open and his brother call out for his mother. Then a female voice, and talk of her whereabouts.
“Uncle Burt probably took her to bingo,” his brother says.
“It’s not bingo night,” she says.
“So what. She’s out of the fucking house for once.”
This leads to bickering, the two taking their sarcasm and profanity-laced discussion into the master bedroom where they change out of their supermarket garb. When Henson left this place, seven years ago, his mother still occupied the master and his brother was a high school junior with a decent grade point and plans of becoming a cop. Henson had hoped against hope he would make it out of this town.
He walks in on them. Sweeps clothes off a chair and takes a seat by the door, the gun digging into his thigh. His brother and best friend, Len, stops in mid-sentence and sits on the bed, fingers going absently to his face.
“What is it?” Sylvia turns toward the intrusion, bare-chested. Her hands immediately go to her breasts and her mouth comes open. Her long dark hair is gone, replaced with spiky blonde punk. The thick black makeup around her eyes makes Henson think of a raccoon.
“Johnny,” she says, the first time he’s heard his first name in years. “Your …” She’s looking at his face. “Oh Johnny, I’m so sorry.”
“Some shit, isn’t it?” says Henson, turning his head for their benefit. His right earlobe is missing, as is most of the hair on that side of his head. Where his cheek used to be is a fist-sized cavern, the sunken flesh a purplish-black, and thin as paper. Several teeth show through atrophied lips. He moves his jawbone to give them the full effect.
Len makes a sound and says, “Fuck, bro.”
“Fuck bro is right.” Henson levels his stare at his brother.
“Why’d you take Mom’s room?”
“Like it matters,” he says, palms up, eyes wide. “She could in the fucking Taj Mahal and not know the difference.”
Henson is shaking his head. His brother, once an all-state wrestler, now has crude tattoos covering his neck and arms, a series of silver hoops through an eyebrow.
“So you’re stocking shelves. What happened to being a cop?”
Len looks away. “Little problem with a possession charge.” He pulls out his cell phone and flips it open and closed nervously, then looks back at Henson. “They’re not hiring anyway. I don’t know if you noticed, bro, but this state’s in a fucking depression.”
“Depression,” Henson says. “Right.”
He turns to Sylvia. “And you. What, you couldn’t wait?”
“Johnny,” she says, crying now. “They said you were dead.”
Henson sighs, looking them over. Sylvia sits on the bed, away from Len, bare breasts forgotten. The makeup runs down her face with the tears. Len diddles with the phone, just another socially inept punk.
Henson can’t believe he came here to kill them.
Suddenly Sylvia stands and folds her arms over her chest. “Johnny,” she says, “he forced me.”
The statement sits there for a few beats, sinking in. Finally Len twists his face up and says, “The fuck did you say?” He stands and clenches his fists.
“Sit down, Red,” Henson says, and when he doesn’t listen: “Sit. Down.”
This time he complies. Sylvia drops to her knees, fixing Henson with puppy-dog eyes. He doesn’t remember her like this. She’s high, he thinks. They’re both high.
“I never stopped loving you, Johnny Boy. You know?” When he doesn’t respond, she gestures to his face. “They have great doctors today, you know. I’ll bet they—”
“They can fix it, good as new.” Henson says it like he believes it; he can’t help himself. She’s nodding, a look of hope in her eyes.
“But you know, I kind of like it this way.”
She frowns; Len snorts. From the distance, the sound of a siren. Henson looks at his little brother. “You called them in?”
Len cocks an eyebrow. “Text messaging. It’s all the rave.”
Henson stands and pulls out the Glock. Taps it against his thigh, eyeing them. He hears his name, a whispered plea. For a brief moment he considers it again, doing what he came to do, then comes to the same conclusion: They’re perfect for each other. The best punishment he could deliver.
He walks out of the room, the siren on top of him now. Opening the front door, he sees a single squad car pulling in the driveway, a single cop stepping out. It’s a fucking kid, Len’s age. Probably one of his buddies from high school.
Christ, he thinks, maybe there is a depression. Where’s the cavalry?
Henson descends the porch steps. The kid comes around the car unbuckling his holster. When he sees Henson’s face, he hesitates, just as Henson knew he would.
Fucking civilians, he thinks, and brings up the gun.
BIO: Andy spent three years as a cavalry scout in the U.S. Army, although not, thank God, under W. He lived for a stretch in South Texas but now is back in his native Michigan. His crime fiction has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Plots with Guns, Hardluck Stories, Pulp Pusher, Lynx Eye and elsewhere. For a different slice of his prose, try this one in Poor Mojo.