International Writers Magazine: Fiction
Texas Long-Haired Rifle Association
me a minute or two before I realized that Harry wasn't trying to
pretend he didn't know me. He knew me once he got to where he could
see me. The crowds passing by on Bourbon Street streamed around
us on the narrow sidewalk. Some of the drunks shoved him and he
struggled to remain standing.
He jerked his glasses
off, tried to wipe them with a very shabby red bandana, and ever so
carefully draped them back on his misshapen head. It was a head with
a deep crater that ran the length of his part line on one side and there
were wide, flat shiny scars that radiated out of a spot on his brow
and through his hair on the other.
Harrys glasses were bifocal, bent, smudged, chipped and sat askew
on his head as if placed there by some absent-minded child with curls
of greasy graying hair spilling over his eyes and the collar of his
olive drab field jacket. He really was an absent-minded, childlike man
wandering the streets of the Quarter like a stray dog, a piece of surplus
war equipment. To me, he was a fellow Navy veteran, a shipmate.
He couldn't help the fact that as soon as he got a new pair of glasses
they would get all bent up when he went into a gran mal seizure. They
usually got thrown off his head. When he took them off and tried to
hold them in his hand, they got all bent up.
We gave each other the secret Texas Longhaired Rifle Association handshake.
They leave this stuff out here all the time, he told me,
grabbing a half-eaten hotdog in its little paper gondola and downing
it in two gulps. Cant take it in the clubs with them.
He meant the tourists in their child-like quest to see it all, to see
more, to rush from place to place with dollars in their hands.
There you had it, as far as Harry was concerned. He was a child that
had stayed too long at the fair, lost his way and could no longer find
his way out of the maze, enraptured by the bright lights, the crowds,
the odors, the noisy frivolity of the setting.
I asked him why didn't come around the Avenue uptown any more. Why he
didn't come see his brothers, just stayed around that old lame tourist
trap like that? He ignored the questions, searching among the uprights
of a little wrought iron fence. He found another half-eaten hot dog,
this one with congealed chili on it.
He was like a scavenger fish on a reef eating the detritus of others
feasting and disposing of the inedible.
He licked his fingertips in a dainty gesture that contrasted with his
overall impression, that of a man so completely coated with the filth
of the streets that you were sure he would have been unrecognizable
to family and friends.
He downed a watery cola drink, ice and all, and placed the waxed paper
cup in a convenient curbside waste basket that was emblazoned Throw
me somethin, Mister, the traditional cry of the Mardi Gras
parade spectators begging for the krewe members on the floats passing
by to throw them beads and doubloons. It was decorated in the Orleans
provincial Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and that funny shade of
He had a simple story, simple enough for anyone from our side of the
tracks to understand. He had gotten injured severely riding a Patrol
Boat - River, the Navys parlance for the PBR, a very rapid
little fiberglass number with twin .50 caliber machine guns, plenty
of rocket firepower, and the ability to stop in half its length or turn
tail in the blink of an eye with its twin propulsion nozzles.
He received a small pension for what had happened to his head one sun-drenched
afternoon in a Mekong River tributary as he toured Vietnam at government
expense. I have the Veterans Administration send the money to
a bank account for my ex-old lady and kid, he said proudly when
It had been like a cartoon, he would say. His war had been like a Technicolor
movie only it had the logic of a cartoon, the kind that they used to
show in matinees. Stuff like the Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
There were no heroics. He was lolling half asleep on the stern in the
sun as the boat churned down the muddy brown stream. When she hit a
mine, he got blown out over the water and he hit on his back. Just as
he hit the water, a piece of the hull hit him in the head. In any other
war, he wouldnt have survived, but the medevac system, the Navy
hospitals in Japan and California, and the medication enabled him to
live in a perpetual state of fat Tuesday.
But nothing would stop the seizures. They came at any old time and he
couldn't hide them.
No employer in his right mind would allow him to come on the job in
that condition. It was just too dangerous in any industrial setting.
In the service industry, it had a very negative impact on the company's
image. It turned customers off.
When they found him beaten to death behind a dumpster near Canal Street
- the result, they said, of a dispute over who could have a bag of unsold
hamburgers left over at a fast food franchise - we of the Texas Longhaired
Rifle Association went to the dime store and bought toy plastic rifles
so we could drill over his grave in a lonely part of the Port Hudson
National Cemetery a few miles north of Baton Rouge ninety miles west
of the Big Easy.
We had all met in the neuro-psychiatric ward of the New Orleans VA Medical
Center. All of our clique were from Texas, slumming in The Easy, hospitalized
for one reason or the other in the ward where they treated nerve disorders
and mental problems. Some, guys like Harry, had been long term residents
of the domiciliary system because of their war wounds. President Reagan
had cut the funding for those programs to the bone and they were now
trying to make it in the normal world.
We had determined to keep our spirits up by getting little plastic toy
guns at the dime store and drilling in the second line of the Mardi
Gras parades, that raucous moving party that follows the parade from
its starting point uptown to its terminus at the ballroom downtown.
Funny looking street bums in filthy war surplus clothing sporting fierce
looking little black plastic toy rifles, we sent Harry off with a twenty-one
gun salute and joyfully upraised middle fingers.
You know why twenty-one guns? Fred David, Jr. asked the
question as we rode along in Shortys old four-door Chevy with
the expired Texas license plates. He fingered a knot the size of a walnut
on the side of his head.
No one answered.
Its because thats what seventeen seventy-six adds
up to. Twenty-one.
Shut the fuck up, asshole. Shorty blew his nose and repeated
himself. I dont want to hear it. Shut up.
He had one of those scars that start at about the eyebrows and streaks
up and over the top of the head where a bullet hit his helmet and rocketed
around inside its curved top.
He was crying softly.
He didnt try to hide it.
Parks March 13th 2008
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