Long story short, I left the country before the L.A. riots, and didn’t get back till after the O.J. verdict in November of 1995, having fulfilled my obligation to The Man. When I showed up without warning on Michael’s doorstep, it came as quite a shock.
“Holy shit!” I’d caught him completely by surprise. “What’s up, man!” he shouted, embraced me in a huge hug, thumping me on the back. Michael was a chain-smoking fireplug who’d moved furniture for years. “Where the hell ya been?”
“Europe,” I dead panned. “Can I come in? I’m really thirsty.” We laughed and he led the way. “Hey, look who’s back from outer space!” He had a house full of guests. I’d managed to arrive on his birthday. We talked for awhile, got caught up on old times. He seemed genuinely proud of what I had done.
The rest of the evening wasn’t as festive. There were a lot of guys there from the old days, friends of Michael’s who didn’t particularly care to see me again for one reason or another. Nothing I could really put a finger on, but there’d always been bad blood between us. Something about me always made them shake their heads in disbelief, or look down their noses at me.
I’d been at Michael’s for an hour or so before I wandered into the kitchen for a fresh drink. Michael had stepped out back to conduct ‘business’, which was always handled outside. House rules. Abide by them, or leave.
The kitchen was tiny, dominated by cigarette smoke. There was barely room for the appliances, let alone five guys crammed around three sides of a card table playing Euchre. I hate Euchre. Knowledge of that stupid fucking game is some kind of weird requirement to live in Ohio.
The counters brimmed with stacks of paper plates and bowls of food, platters of finger foods, bags of pretzels, two-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper, and an army of liquor bottles.
I stood leaning in the doorway, watching them. Waiting for the right time to speak. “So. What’re you guys been up to?” I smiled, tried to sound friendly, casual even. The reply came after a brief pause.
“Aw, you know. Chillin.”
I fucking hate that phrase. I feel like punching a goat when someone says it. Especially when the speaker bobs his head and shoulders slightly as he speaks, as if to lend more weight to his words.
“So what’re you been?” He didn’t look up when he asked me, and didn’t sound like he really cared one way or the other.
“Aw, you know. Europe,” I deadpanned. After a pause and a shrug, of course.
“Huh. Must be nice to be rich,” grumbled another from his chair in the corner. I forget his name, but I remember his sullen expression. Slapped down a card. Drew another. Exhaled plumes of smoke through his nostrils. No eye contact.
“Wasn’t a free ride.” I put emphasis on the last word, felt my teeth grinding. I was boring a hole through the top of his fat head with my eyes, daring him to look at me. “I made sacrifices to get outta this fucking town. Sold my soul to The Man. Otherwise I’d still be on the couch. Chillin.”
Moments passed, and subtle looks were exchanged. The second hand on the wall clock could have broken concrete. I waited for the inevitable.
“So, ya fight in any wars?” There it is. This wasn’t about me going to Europe. It was all about ‘had I proven myself, tasted blood, walked through fire, seen some shit’, or was I still Mike’s weird little bookworm cousin who dressed in black and acted like he knew too much? There wasn’t going to be an answer good enough for them. I could have handed them Hitler on a stick, but they’d have just grunted and said it was ‘cool.’
The follow-up question was slow to surface, but it surfaced nontheless: “You kill any bad guys?”
“Hell YES!” I shouted, slamming the handle of the butter knife down across the breadboard with the edge of my hand, sending it into the air. It spun once, landed in my hand and I gripped it with what I felt was an action-packed crouch. The sight of the knife in my hand combined with my sudden outburst had grabbed their attention. They weren’t ready to deal with this.
“There we were! MILES behind enemy lines! Taking heavy fire from a nest of blood-thirsty KRAUTS! Cut off from our rendezvous with the Scarlet Pimpernel, our inside man in the French RESISTANCE! The lives of my men and the success of this top secret mission hung in the balance! And so, armed with nothing more than the tempest of my LOINS, I rushed into the bunker and whipped them all to DEATH with a ROLLED-UP COPY OF PENTHOUSE!” Arms over my head, I let out a blood-curdling battle cry and screamed the last line. “GOD BLESS AMERICA! GOD SAVE THE POPE!”
Actually, I didn’t say any of that. I wished I had. Instead, I told them my job was to build, arm, actuate, refurbish and repair smart torpedoes and underwater mines. I explained how underwater mines worked, how they generated a series of bubbles so strong they could punch cracks in the underside of a destroyer. That was my job. And that’s all it was to me, a nine-to-five job.
Off the clock, I could be found in a cab, on a train or on a bus. I told them I’d seen famous works of art and rubbed elbows with celebrities. I’d filmed the ruins of crumbling monasteries and medieval castles. I’d gone swimming in the sea, and climbed Mt. Etna. I’d hiked through abandoned villages half-embedded in black volcanic rock. I told them in great detail about the night some friends and I camped in a World War II bunker crawling with mice, but how we’d stunned them into stupidity by flinging flash bang grenades down the passageway. I demonstrated my (fading) grasp of conversational Italian. I painted vivid pictures of fresh blood oranges eaten straight off the trees, and bitter brown espresso sipped at corner cafes. I talked about the old Sicilian men in their wool suits on rickety wooden chairs under a sweltering sky. I mentioned the time I’d gotten lost in a vast underground burial chamber with only a camcorder to light my way. I’d talked about touching the graves of knights, and how I’d stood so high on a mountaintop that I could see the curvature of the earth. I talked about ancient battlegrounds, and falling off barstools in pubs that were older than America. I showed them my tattoos. I described my life in Scotland and Sicily, and what it was like to see the velvety spiral of the Milky Way at midnight from the deck of an Italian minesweeper sailing off the coast of Tunisia.
When it was over, you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. I’d gone too far. I’d rubbed their Midwest faces in it, but good.
“I’ll be in my office.” I grabbed a bottle of cheap vodka from the counter and sat on Michael’s front stoop staring at the swirling snowflakes. I thought about nothing and killed off half the bottle in about an hour, hiding my vomit in a snow bank. Somehow I woke up on the couch under a warm blanket. My Docs were untied, sitting nearby. Mike’s doing, no doubt.
I guess it’s true about blood being thicker than vodka.