Phantom John (Part Six)

The black soldier led her first to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, then to the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, and on to Arlington National Cemetery, to a place he called “Missing Men Hill.” There, her hopes high, she saw rows upon rows of somber white stones, without bodies in the ground, he told her.

She searched for her father’s name under a pouring rain, but couldn’t find it. So she wheeled the black soldier back to the city, as it got darker and the rain – answering her earlier wish – was falling harder, burying everything with its fury, including him and her.

She didn’t care anymore what happened to her. She just pushed him apathetically into narrow streets and dark alleyways, places she wasn’t, of course, familiar with. Nor did she want to be familiar with. But she pushed him anyway, why not, until he told her to stop, as they were in front of a shabby looking building. A homeless shelter maybe, a flophouse or something. She couldn’t tell.

“Got myself a room here, child,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay the night with me.”
She looked away from the building and studied him with unsparing eyes.
“Ain’t gonna touch a finger of yours, don’t worry.”

She believed him. Because she believed in him – even if the whole world would’ve said she shouldn’t. That this was a trap: a place and a man she shouldn’t trust. But Joy – unfortunately, or maybe not – was an experienced girl. And knew her turf well, bad characters included. From her adoptive father to the track team coach, from the boys at school to the men on the streets of L.A., from the runaway kids to the patrons at the strip clubs. She knew them all and figured she could trust him. So she went in with him. Didn’t even pay much attention to the other strange looking men there, in the lobby, staring at her. Ready to eat her alive.

No such luck. She and the black soldier reached safely his small room on the ground floor. Where the walls – all four of them, all over – were covered with army stuff: pictures of him and his buddies in the army, some of the soldiers with black marking-pen crosses over them; pieces of camouflaged uniform and a helmet with a bullet hole in it; boots and shells and cartridges; guns of all kinds and ammunition; a long machete; a skull.

He gave her a dirty, much used towel to dry herself, which she accepted. And didn’t hesitate much before taking off her rain-soaked T-shirt, remaining topless for a minute while digging into her backpack for a dry one, then putting it on. He then offered her a shot of whiskey, which she rejected, but asked him if she can order a pizza for them. He said yes and she did: a combination of cheese and salami for him, an extra large pepperoni for her. She insisted on paying when the pizza deliveryman arrived, then made a cup of tea for herself in his tiny kitchenette.

She sat on his old, torn, dirty looking couch, preying on the pizza and drinking her tea. While he, after testing some pizza, drank whiskey straight from the bottle and smoked pot. She smoked too, his Camel cigarettes, and zipped open her backpack and brought out her book. She wanted to forget everything; she wanted to know if Florentino Ariza, the hero, would ever again win the heart of Fermina Daza, the heroine. But she couldn’t read. All she saw was black pages with white letters etched on them. With only one name, top to bottom: Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi, Raymond De Rosi…

* A short story excerpt from my novel: Very Narrow Bridge.
To be continued next month on the 15th.


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