I was born and raised in Corcoran, California, a dirty little snot wipe of a town about sixty boring ass miles from the ass end of Fresno. I lived there all of my life and have learned to love it. I only left once for a brief time to go fight Krauts in the jungles of Vietnam, oh, wait a minute, that was my daddy's claim to fame.
We were fighting Viet Cong, the sneakiest little critters in the known universe; if Hitler'd had a bunch of those sly little fuckers instead of such big blonde stationary targets, we'd probably still be over in Europe trying to corral his stupid ass.
I was shipped home as damaged goods; my left eye resembling a big marble more than a functional piece of optical equipment. I used to tell my friends when I was drunk that my vision in my right eye was exceptional, but everything I saw out my left eye was an illusion. That was a lie. My right vision was little bit blurry, and I couldn't see shit out my left.
I guess, what was even worse, if there was something worse than losing your vision, was that I had lost my sense of perspective too. Well, maybe not lost; I still had a perspective, but it wasn't the same one I took over there. That one was still sitting around Vietnam somewheres probably smoking hash and drinking hot Pabst Blue Ribbon with all the other perspectives that got left behind.
My daddy came home from Germany a hero of sorts. He had a bunch of ribbons and a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. He earned the first by liberating a village in France and the latter by getting shot in the butt by sniper as he was fleeing an ambush. My Grandpa Big Joe Mooney was a tough assed hillbilly moonshiner, and my dad always hid the news of how he had acquired that Purple Heart from him because Dad was afraid to tell my grandpa why the wound was in his butt and not his groin.
Grandpa had concocted some dumbass story about how a Mooney had never ran from a fight in the entire history of the family. My Momo said it was all bullshit because plenty of times she'd seen him scooting away from her brothers while her and Grandpa were courting.
I, on the other hand, came home with a whole bunch of nothing except a glass eye, a dead soul, a lot of nightmares, and a broken heart. While I was gone, my fiance had eloped with my best buddy who had been labeled 4F by the local draft board. I guess it was flat feet or something because his johnson was working fine; him and her had two kids by the time I managed to find my way back home to the south side of Corcoran.
I lived for a while, I guess a more accurate word would be subsisted, in a small rental cabin belonging to my Aunt Mickey. She let me stay free because I was always her favorite. When all my other family members were just happy as hell to see me get home, my Aunt Mickey took one look into my good eye and started crying. She put me in a bear hug vice, and I thought I was going have to pry her off of me.
"Long as you want, Billy Boy, stay as long as you need," she kept telling me. The cabin was small, but it was the perfect size for me, Lerdo my dog, a small coffee table, a stereo and my bong. I spent the the first two weeks at home and not ever going out except to eat breakfast and have coffee with Aunt Mickey.
Then I would get high at night, drink some Pabst, put on the head phones and stack records on the turntable as high as they'd go. Strange as it seems, those two weeks were the best times that I had had since I had left high school.
It got to a point where I had to do something else. I didn't arrive at that point by own volition, however. It had something to do with the fact that my grandpa showed up one day, got the spare key from Mickey, and let himself into my cabin.
I was passed out on the small red sofa with my legs all skewed and headphones on. My grandpa just took one of the two yellow vinyl chairs from the kitchen and sat his ass down until I awakened to the sight of him handling my bong.
"Bout fuckin time. I don't know how you ever spect to get anything done if you are going to sleep to nine o'clock ever morning." He looked at me like a big bald eagle examining its dinner.
I struggled into an upright position, pulling my t-shirt down over my exposed belly as I did, " I was planning on sleeping to ten or so; didn't rightly pect to be doing much of anything important. Least not yet." My grandpa had always talked to me like a man, and I returned the favor figuring it was how he wanted it.
"I know you saw some bad shit over there, but I can't be having a grandson of mine lying on his ass all day feeling sorry for hisself. You ain't no damned Lewis (Actually I was because this was my Grandpa's way at expressing derision for my mom's family.) And your pecker's too damned big for you to be still crying for some milk tittie."
I looked at him oddly which is the only correct way to look at big bald eagle fixing to nibble on you. "Grandpa, I don't even know what's that supposed to mean. I was born in California. We speak English."
At first, he got red angry, but then couldn't stop himself from laughing. " You know what I said. You Mildred's boy, but you ain't that damn dumb. Some of your daddy's DNA had to dribble in there somewheres. Sides, I ain't got enough sunlight to sit around splaining allegories to a grown ass man. How you fire this sumbitch up anyway?"
I reached over to the coffee table and tossed him my lighter. He took a moment to look at the insignia on it then took a big hit off the bong. I pinched my left nipple purple trying to make sure I wasn't dreaming. He coughed a couple times, so I went and got him a beer.
When I brought it back, he waved the beer off and pulled a half-full pint of Jack Daniels out of one of the pockets of the oversized red plaid Pendleton jacket he was wearing. He took a swig and offered it to me. I took it from his outstretched hands.
As I took a drink, a sip really, he started back in talking, "You young, dumbassed kids think you know and invented everthing. Me and my cousins Clyde and Darrell smoked this shit while we were overseas during the Big Un. Clyde was growing some up in them hills back home. We'd get all dizzy and hit them dances chasing coochie all ovah the northern part of Arkansas and half way up Missouri too. I tell you they ain't any music like a drunk fiddler on moonshine can make. Hell, I was was all goofed up the night I met your Granny. Got lucky that night too, first time I tried. Might splain why your daddy is so damned stupid."
I had to laugh at that. My dad was a good man, but good men are usually boring as hell. People here abouts said a lot of things bout my grandpa but no one ever said he was boring, bastard misfit son of one of Satan's whores, yes, but never boring.
He passed me the bong, and I took a hit,"Grandpa, I'm worried I can't get right again. Don't know what to do about it. This shit here takes the edge off. I know I need get up in the morning and get to fixing whatever it is that's wrong with me, but I don't know how."
He was silent for a moment then he pointed at the record player and asked, "That thing work?" When I nodded yes, he said, "Well put some Goddamn music on then. I think better when there's something filling in those awkward silences. Them sumbitches make me feel jumpy."
I got up and put on Bridge Over Troubled Waters. He listened for a while nodding his head until it came to the lines " When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light. That split the night, And touched the sound of silence." He looked at me weird like he suspected that I fucking with his head and only relaxed when I shrugged my shoulders like I didn't know why he'd think that.
He took back the bong and took a huge hit. When he stopped, he started letting the smoke escape from his partially opened lips. It framed his face and made him look like a shaman in a dark cave fixing to impart some life altering knowledge to the young initiate. Which I guess was what was actually happening, but I was too dumb to grasp it at the time.
He begun by saying, "I know you stepped into bad piles of shit over there and saw things that a young man probably wasn't meant to see. And I know that them memories ain't likely to leave you alone anytime real soon. Believe me, I got some of my own, but we aint gonna talk about those. Instead, I'm gonna share what my Grandpa told me the night before I shipped out to France."
I motioned for him to pass me back the whiskey; he did, and then he went on, "We was sitting on the back porch of my grandma's house facing the big river. We was drinking shine from his own still, and believe me, that man knew how to put fire in jar.
He told me a bunch of stories I had never heard. He said, ' Son I killed a man in the first hour at Pea Ridge. Later on, I killed another un before the war ended. My cousin Curtis died in my arms in the prison camp. My daddy made extra money as a bounty hunter, and I helped them load the bodies into the wagons before I turned twelve.
I saw seven men get hung at Fort Smith, Arkansas. One of them pissed hisself before they hung him. Me and daddy and our neighbors butchered seventy-two hogs in a single day. I was so tired, I slept outside on a bench that night in the blood soaked clothes I was wearing. They had to dip me in the river to get them clothes off of me. I never learned a single thing from all that death until your brother Eustace died of gangrene from showing off his knife handling skills. He was laughing when he lost his grip and caught the blade with his palm. I figured the Lord got him for showing off.
At Pea Ridge, I saw the flag bearer of our unit get decapitated by a cannonball, and the flag hit the ground. A fifteen year old kid I knew ran out there and picked it up and held it aloft right before a Yankee sharpshooter put a musket ball in his left eye. Another young man ran out there and picked it up and ran it back to the safety of our lines. Ever one was a cheering and laughing. When he got there, he fell over dead from the two wounds in his back. He was still smiling when they pried the flag out of his hands.'"
" Where's this going?" I asked, "Gramps, I know I seen a bunch of dead people. Hell, I helped bag'em for the trip home. I don't need to be told that."
"You Goddamn youngins are too fucking impatient for your own good. I'm getting there. Story like this takes its own bit of telling. Any way, My grandpa went on to say that he learned that day that it's not how you die, it's how you live that matters. He said he looked around him on that day and for a moment he saw all them faces of the young men gathered round that hero's body change into the faces of tired old men dying from loneliness, neglect, and especially of irrelevancy. He said it only lasted a couple of seconds, and when he looked back at the body lying at his feet, the smile of that man's face etched in his memory. He drew it for me that night, and then he told me, " Don't be skeered of dying, but if you gotta be skeered, be skeered of not living your life the way its posed to be lived.'"
I got mad, " That's it. That's the point you tryna make? Damn, Gramps, I read quotes like that my whole fucking life. I even seen a poster of it in a coffee shop when I flew into Frisco on my way home. I'm disappointed. Story started out great, but that endings a dud."
Then it happened. My eighty-year-old Grandpa metamorphosed into the image of Moses standing on Mt. Sinai holding stone tablets over his head, " You fucking punkass little bitch don't know a Goddamn thing! You can't put that shit in a Goddamn book, you can't put those words on piece of poster paper and spect them to mean a damn thing! Words on paper ain't got no roots! But your granddaddy passing down wisdom that he got from his old granddaddy who learned it well over a hunnerd years ago, now that's a living force, and it has to be passed down from someone who went under his own damned self to someone who is near close to drowning, and brought to you at 'xactly the right fucking time for you to hear it!"
He calmed down a bit, and I passed him the whiskey. He took a slug finishing the bottle off and went on, "Son, we are all born dying. All our life ain't nothing but a journey to the graveyard. I don't care how wealthy a man is or how powerful he be, he's gonna eat his share of this shit sandwich, ain't no way around it. The thing is if you start grieving from the get-go and surrender while you still young, you might as well as ran down your daddy's leg with the rest of them slow swimming bastards."
I never got a chance to answer my grandpa if it was the right time for that speech. He passed away a month later while playing solitaire at The Club. It must have been somewhat near the correct time because a week later, I got up at six in the morning, took a shower, and left the cabin for a trip into town.
About six months later, I used a loan from my dad to purchase a small bar and grill out south of town by where Carl's Market was located. I named it the Southside Social Club. It became something of a neighborhood hangout.
I got over the depression; some it of lingered, I guess, but I was usually strong enough to keep the worst parts at bay. I did, however, decide to test the boundaries of my conception of what life actually meant, whether it was meaningless like science said, or rather that God had big sense of humor as Grandpa used to say. I had a jukebox brought in, and I bought a record of John Prine singing The Great Compromise.
I put the record in that jukebox under the label of F6. I told myself that if anybody ever wandered in and pushed that button, I was going to buy their beer so that they would have to listen to my lecture on what a great allegory of the Vietnam War that song represented.
I waited year after year, and it never happened. Then one night a tall, lanky man came in and sat down at the bar. He was wearing sharply pressed black slacks and well shined shoes, but he was also wearing an army fatigue jacket which was kind of a strange combination.
He asked me for change for a dollar and a beer. I gave him his change, turned toward the cooler, and asked him what kind of beer he was drinking. He had walked over to the jukebox, slugged it, and pressed a few buttons before he answered back, "Pabst Blue Ribbon. I'll take it off the shelf if you got it. I prefer it warm."
I reached under the bar, grabbed one off of the shelf and opened it just as the first strains of the song came on, "I knew a girl who was almost a lady, She had a way with all the men in her life, Every inch of her blossomed in beauty, And she was born on the fourth of July."
My expression must've weirded him out because he asked me if something was wrong. I answered, " No, I was supposed to do something, and I forgot what it was. I was wondering instead about what time it was."
He raised his hand and pulled the arm of his jacket back, looked at the watch on his wrist, and said, "It's a quarter to nine."
I swear I felt a tear leak out of my dead left eye.