by: Frederick Foote ((Header art is by the talented artist, Matt Talbert.))
Oftentimes things don’t wrap up as tidy as you may think…
The four of us from McGuire Air Force Base, are in Trenton, New Jersey, drinking in the Corner Tavern. It’s not quite 5 pm and Milton was spinning straw into gold talking about the old lady he with and the one he wants to be with. Axel, Brown and I are listening and nodding, because Milton’s buying.
Two locals on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped bar are having a half-hearted argument over which song is better, Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” or Aaron Neville’s “Tell it Like it Is.”
An older local is sitting at the bar hitting on a sister in a white plastic coat and matching white plastic boots. She’s way too old and tired for the mod look.
James Brown’s in a “Cold Sweat” bursts on the jukebox.
Axel starts the shit. “Milton, please, you about to lose the old lady you got. You like the dog who lost the tip of his tail under the railroad car wheels. That fool turned around to check on that piece of tail, and the train cut off his damn fool head.”
Brown raises his bottle and grins at Milton. “Lost his head looking for a little piece of tail. That sound like you Milton.”
Milton, points at Axel as he responds. “Boy, you ain’t had no pussy since pussy had you.” Milton turns to Brown. “Man, you can’t say shit. Crashed your ride. Lost your bride to some fast talking, slick nigger down in Memphis. Brown, if it wasn’t for bad luck, you be out of luck.”
I grab Brown by the back of his coat and pull him back down on his bar stool as he struggles to get to Milton. “Sit your ass down, Brown. We drinking on Milton’s dime, riding in his ragtop, and your lame ass ain’t put in a red cent for gas or booze.”
“The only scent Brown got on him’s coming from his dirty asshole.” Alex sneers as he touches bottles with Milton. They both laugh and exchange back slaps.
Brown turns on me. “Wilson, you keep your hands off me or you won’t look so good the next time your little high-yellow bitch see you.”
“Wilson, you still with that jail bait? You know I’m going to look out for her while you in jail. You know I will.” Milton is dead serious as he leers at me and taps the bar for another round.
“What about her sister? She be just right for me. Help a brother…“
“Brown, they docking your pay, man. How you going to take a girl out…“
Brown stands and tugs at his leather jacket, smooths back his conked hair and pokes his finger in my chest. “You don’t need money to catch. You just got to have style, man. You niggers watch and see how it’s done.”
Brown pimp-walks his way toward the sister in the white coat and whispers something in her ear as he moves on to the restroom.
“Aaaww shit! Wilson, this on you. I told you that broke-ass nigger is trouble waiting to happen.”
I can’t argue with Milton there. Brown’s been in bad shape since his wife left him, but he wasn’t all that cool when they were together.
“We need to book.” Axel drains his beer and looks to us for agreement. We finish our beers, too late.
As Brown passes the sister, words are exchanged between Brown and the older dude she’s talking to. Brown shrugs and steps pass the brother, spins around, pulls the brother backward off the stool and is kneeling over the older man, unleashing a barrage of punches to his face and head.
Axel and I jump up to pull Brown off his punching bag. Before we can get there, the local grabs Brown by the front of his jacket and flips him over and rolls over on top of him. The old guy gives Brown a better beating than he was dishing out.
Axel and I reach forward to rescue Brown when we hear the click of the switchblade and look up at four brothers grinning at us.
“You should’ve stopped it when your buddy was winning. Too late now.” Says the tall, skinny nigger holding the switchblade.
Alex tries reasoning. “Yeah, you right. I know you right, but they about even now…“
I look around again, and there are five dudes standing across from us. One of the new arrivals with two gold front teeth smiles as he tells us, “We be even after we kicked all your asses. Fuck you GIs up good.”
“Enough!” The bartender steps out from the bar with a baseball bat pointed at the man beating the shit out of Brown. “Get up off him, Chester. Now!”
Chester slowly complies and kicks the nearly unconscious Brown in his ribs.
Axel pulls Brown to his feet as I step between them and the brother with the dagger.
The bartender points the bat at me. “Get out. And don’t come back. Get!”
We do. Alex tosses Brown over his shoulder. I play rear guard. Milton had parked the Chevy right outside the bar with the top down. We can make a quick getaway, except Milton and the damn car is gone. Axel and I look at each other, shocked.
Alex points down the block at Milton speeding toward the intersection just as the locals come spilling out of the bar like bees out of a hive. I hang back a little as we race down the middle of the street toward the speeding car. A red light stops Milton dead in his tracks.
Gold teeth is leading the pack, grinning with a wicked looking curved blade in his hand. He’s almost within slashing distance of me when his slick-soled Stacy Adams slip and gold teeth goes face down. The next two locals fall over him. We reach the Chevy just as the light is changing. We toss Brown in the back. We’re holding on to the seat with our legs sticking out over the trunk as two locals slice at our feet.
The next day in the barracks after work, Brown has his door ajar as I pass him by. He beckons me in and points to a fifth of whiskey on his table. As soon as I’m inside he closes the door and puts a straight razor to my throat. I’m looking into his one good eye, looking at his stitched-up lip, the knot on his forehead, and his broken front tooth.
“You left me, Wilson. You ran and left me.” He draws blood with the razor.
“Nigger, are you out your fucking mind? How you think you got here? If we had left you, you would be dead, fool.”
“Liar! Lying motherfucker.”
I swallow hard and think about my moms and my girl. “Ask Axel, man. Ask him.”
Brown drops the razor and gives me a broken tooth grin. “I had you! Had your ass going didn’t I? Boy, your eyes was big as ping pong balls. I bet you peed yourself.”
“Brown you fucking crazy-ass fool!” I collapse into a chair as Brown pours me a big drink in a water glass and goes and opens his door a crack as he peeps out into the hallway.
“After I got out of the Infirmary I called the bar. The bartender told me everything. You alright, Wilson. You alright with me.”
A few minutes later Brown dashes out into the hallway and snatches Axel into the room. He pours Axel a drink and still keeping an eye on the hallway he tells Axel how he scared the shit out of me. Axel looks at Brown, looks at me, shakes his head and starts to leave, but Brown pulls the razor and blocks him, points him to a chair.
Less than a minute later Brown pulls a startled Milton into the room with us. “Milton, Milton my man. Have a drink man. Come on now. We need to celebrate. We alive, man, alive.”
“Hey, I’m sorry about yesterday. I was going around the block and come back for…“
“Milton, I know that. Shit, I know that. I was just telling Axel and Wilson that. Drink up.”
Milton’s hand shakes like he’s got palsy as he tries to sip the whiskey.
“Good whiskey, huh?” Brown gives Milton a swollen lip smirk.
Milton looks at Axel and me but we just look worried and scared.
Brown puts his arm around Milton’s neck and pulls the razor from his pocket and flips it open. “I’m going to cut off your dick you cowardly motherfucker. I’m going to cut off your motherfucking dick.”
Milton is staring at the razor that Brown’s using to shred the crotch of Milton’s pants. Milton drops his glass; it shatters across the floor.
Brown looks at us, grins and slices a little more. “Niggers, niggers should I cut off his dick? Should I?”
Axel stands. “This is bullshit…“
“Sit down fool or I cut off his dick right now. Watch me. Watch me do it.” Axel sinks back into his chair.
“Don’t cut off his dick, Brown. There are…“
“Ok, Ok, Wilson. What about an ear? I know a man needs his dick. I can be fair. I want to be fair.” Brown tightens his grip on Milton’s neck and sniffs around Milton’s face. “You smell bad Milton. You shit yourself? Damn! Alright, man. Ear or dick? You choose.
Come on now, Milton. I’m giving you a choice….more than you gave me.”
Sweat and tears mix on Milton’s face.
“Brown, how about you borrow his car, borrow his car for a week, a month?“
“Good idea. Good idea, Wilson. What you think Axel?”
“Yeah, that works. You need a ride.”
“You niggers is soft, but you saved me. You did do that. I appreciate that.” Brown smiles at us as he loosens his arm around Milton’s neck. “Is that good with you Milton? I mean, if you rather give up an ear….that is a clean ride. Car or…“
Milton nods his head, and sweat and tears fly.
“Give me the keys. Give me the keys.” Brown pats Milton’s back as he speaks.
Milton pulls the keys from his pocket and tosses them on the table.
Brown steps away from Milton, smiles at each of us. “Milton, you can go or stay and have a drink. No hard feelings, right?”
Milton wipes his face, his eyes with both hands. He looks sick near death.
As Milton starts to leave Brown grabs his shoulder, “Wait, wait let me get your room key off the key ring for you, man. You look like you need to lie down.”
I stand to leave as Brown hands Milton the key. I don’t see the flash of the razor and the spurt of blood, but I can’t miss the bloody ear at my feet.