Semper fidelis

In spite of his Bad Conduct Discharge, Zane landed a series of good jobs subsequent to his release from the Brig. Immediately after returning home he secured a job as a roughneck with a water-well drilling outfit. From there he found employment as an entry level automotive technician. He struggled with alcoholism however and crippling hangovers made it difficult to show up for work on Monday mornings. Zane picked up the habit of binge drinking while in the service, and it fueled his newly cultivated penchant for red-light districts which he frequented often. People who knew Zane blamed the military for the belligerence, but truth be told, he was already mean spirited before the Marines had their turn with him. Earning the title of Marine, and then immediately squandering it, afforded him a certain kind of unspoken elite status. His war buddies only exacerbated the situation by proclaiming Zane to be the best Marine ever!  Zane spent all of his free time hanging out with a pair of combat seasoned Marines. Nathan had seen some action in the Falkland Islands, while Sergeant Valdez served in Southeast Asia. Nathan was Zane’s brother-in-law, while the Sergeant just moved into town from Houston.

Zane wore greasy clothes because he was a mechanic, not a poser. Zane wasn’t trying to fit into the mold of Punk Rock, because if there was such a mold he would have shattered it! His genuine combat boots accented oil-stained jeans while threadbare flannel shirts concealed poorly laundered white thermal underwear that would cling to his lanky torso. His knuckles were often scuffed and bloodied.  Trapped greasy dirt would accumulate under his rugged fingernails so thoroughly that he had to scrape out the mess with the business end of his favorite pocketknife. Sergeant Valdez realized Zane was a capable mechanic, so he solicited services to help replace the water pump in his 1979 Buick LeSabre. The two former Marines became fast friends as Zane eagerly and efficiently performed the repair in the parking lot of the apartment complex. To celebrate the successful operation, Zane was asked to stay around for a while longer to knock back a few beers. One thing led to another and soon another spontaneous party had erupted!

Sergeant Valdez served in Viet-Nam at a forward observation post known as Khe-Sanh. Zane considered the Sergeant to be a real Marine because jagged scars upon the upper lip and jawline proved it. Red hot exploding shrapnel nearly tore out the bottom of his face while knocking out three teeth in the process! The battlefield surgeons did their best to stitch the flesh back together in field expedient fashion, which in turn led to some truly impressive scars. The Marine Sergeant could have masked it with some facial hair, but instead he chose to display his wound as a badge of honor. In this way the Sergeant was reminded of the horrific ordeal each and every time he gazed into a mirror. It was his way of paying homage to the atrocities of war while cementing his gratitude for making it out alive.

The relentless music had been replaced by the sounds of shadowy darkness as inebriated guests found themselves sprawled out on the living room floor, while other anonymous souls found solace upon couches, sofas, and love seats. It was nearly dawn when Sergeant Valdez found himself sitting up against the lower portion of the kitchen wall. He was gingerly babysitting a nearly emptied bottle of generic whiskey. The overhead kitchen lamp had been switched off and the only light was produced by the neon glow of a Hamm’s Beer sign that Chris had stolen from work. The advertising specialty was a marvel to behold based on its simplicity alone. The electric fonts were in the form of cursive script, and crystal blue glowing text explained how Hamm’s beer is born from the land of sky-blue waters! The words were encompassed by a separate band of fluorescent neon tubing which emitted an eerie crimson glow that illuminated the shadowy kitchen with a soothing red hew. The Sergeant’s head was spinning, and his inner light was extremely dim. Meanwhile Zane was nestled on the floor directly across from him. He was sprawled out beneath the bar accompanied by a pair of toppled barstools. They had been knocked down about thirty minutes prior due to a drunken reenactment.

As it turned out, Zane was duplicating a time when he felt it necessary to assert his dominance so he challenged some anonymous Sailors who were visiting a topless bar. While on liberty call he came across two random Navy personnel who were sitting at a bar, minding their own business. In a completely drunken stupor, Zane suggested that the establishment was meant to be frequented by Marines, as if to say Sailors weren’t welcome. “You two squids finish your fuckin’ beer and then get the fuck out of here,” he commanded! The young Sailors were not amused and promptly told Zane to “beat it!” In response, the belligerent Marine suddenly kicked the barstool out from under the Navy man which sent him plummeting to the floor! The second sailor rapidly emerged from the adjacent barstool and proceeded to square off against Zane while offering up some colorfully threatening gestures in the process! Zane responded as if he were a snarling pit-bull! His usual steely-eyed gaze had morphed into pools of seething fury as he abruptly shoved his prey in the chest with a force that nearly knocked him down!  Fortunately a friendly bouncer placed Zane into a chokehold and dragged him backwards towards the front door upon which time he was unceremoniously escorted from the premises.

Upon completion of Zane’s re-enactment, the Sergeant promptly asked, “Did the bouncer kick your ass, or what?”  The direct question prompted Zane to reinsert himself into the present moment where John was awaiting a response.  “How long’s it been since you’ve had your ass kicked,” Zane asked with a cryptic vitriol that spewed from his mouth like a probing serpent? Sergeant Valdez was still perched on the dirty floor in the dimly lit kitchen space with his extended legs sprawled out in front of him. The celebration had long since died down and the front room was littered with unconscious party goers.

An impressive pyramid of 12-ounce Budweiser cans had collapsed by this point and 24 containers of spilled beer littered the unkempt kitchen floor. Zane repeated his question with a drunken sense of urgency. “How long’s it been? I asked you a question goddamn it!” The words were slurred but his intention was razor sharp. Zane was drunk enough to pick a fight and much to John’s chagrin, he was the only one who remained conscious. “I heard your fuckin’ question Private,” John informed him from across the poorly swept linoleum! “Well, how long has it been since you’ve had your ass handed to you?” The aging Marine sat there in the dark as he pondered the question. He raised the bottle of whiskey to his lips and took a leisurely pull from the poison. “How long’s it been since I’ve had my ass kicked,” John quietly asked himself? “How long’s it been since you’ve had your ass kicked,” Zane demanded for a final time? “It’s been a long time,” said the Sergeant after a calm moment of peaceful reflection. He felt compelled to let his demons frolic, so Zane upped his ante by jamming the man’s mother into the conversation. Zane was being legitimately cruel, and he calmly stated, “You’re a dirty son of a bitch John, did you know that? Did you hear what I said John? I said you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch!” By now something had finally triggered John’s inner gladiator and he felt compelled to wage war.

“I’d like to see you try to kick my ass,” John warned from behind the veil of his drunken haze! His voice was becoming cold and mechanized because Sergeant Valdez was finally taking the bait!  Zane’s demons had suddenly been given access to what they had been craving. They were craving battle!       

To Zane’s delight he finally elicited a response from the drunken combat veteran, and he followed up by saying, “I’m going to rip your head off Sergeant. I’m going to mop up the floor with your ass, and you’ll never even know what hit you! I’m going to knock you into next week!”  The weathered sergeant sat there in a state of silent disbelief. Fire was seemingly spewing from Private Shimek’s bloodshot eyes! Zane intended to wail upon his new best friend, and in the moment he truly wanted to hurt the Sergeant. Zane struggled to gain his footing as he raised his right arm in an attempt to grasp the edge of the bar. It was Zane’s intention to make his way to the restroom, so he used the countertop as leverage while propping himself up and off from the floor with his other arm. Zane was very drunk, and he forgot that his leg was still tangled within the grips of the fallen barstool. John, who was silently watching Zane’s attempt to stand up, must have thought Zane was indeed going to follow through with his threat! “I’m going to take a piss goddamn you,” Zane said! “When I get back I’m gonna kick your ass right out into the goddamn front yard!” The combative words tumbled from his drunken mouth as he fumbled his way towards the hallway that lead to the restroom. Zane turned towards the dimly lit corridor while Sergeant Valdez shouted, “It’s too quiet in here Marines! Who turned off the radio?” “You turned it off yourself you drunk bastard,” Zane curtly replied as he wrestled to shake free from the barstool that was still clinging to his ankle! He was stumbling and staggering while bracing himself up against the wall trying desperately to find his balance. After he freed himself from his trap, Zane belted out the words, “You were crying like a little bitch, and said that if you ever heard the song again you’d kill yourself!”  By this time Zane had regained his composure and proceeded through the door which led to the toilet. In his absence, John recalled the lyrics and started singing. “We met as soul-mates on Parris Island…We left as inmates, from an asylum…” He was mouthing the words to Goodnight Saigon as if he were a man condemned to die. Tears welled up in the Sergeant’s eyes because the music stirred up sour thoughts and painful memories. John’s cerebral cognition was hijacked, and it forced him to relive a painful event where he had succumb to a very significant flashback which encouraged him to slice his way through a wall leading to his infant son’s nursery with a reciprocating saw! “I should have done some jail time for that one,” John reasoned. Meanwhile the reptilian portion of his mind focused on the inevitable disintegration of his marriage, while yet another part of his essence continued singing. “We came in spastic, like tameless horses…we left in plastic…as numbered corpses.”  Uncontrollable sobbing commenced as John struggled to mouth the words. By this time Zane had begun his trek back from the restroom. When he arrived at the scene he discovered the Sergeant curled up into a fetal position. His previously extended legs were drawn in towards his hips and he cradled his uplifted knees with powerful forearms. The fingers were interlaced, and his chin was planted firmly into the recesses of his muscular chest. John was reduced to a slobbering mass of broken humanity as he continued to articulate the lyrics with the sincerity drawn out from a purely drunken solemn reverence. Zane immediately jettisoned his desire to continue with his relentless taunting. Instead he made a beeline towards the refrigerator where a six pack of Budweiser longnecks were patiently waiting to be claimed.  Zane grabbed two of the bottles and proceeded to join his mentor on the floor. Tears were streaming down John’s face as he looked up at Private Shimek who was offering him a beer. It was Zane’s only means of consoling him, so he offered up a toast. The two Marines sat there one abreast on the dirty kitchen floor under the flashing red beer sign.

“To Billy Joel,” Zane suggested as he gingerly raised his bottle in a weak display of solidarity. In response to the kind gesture John accepted the offered beer and softly proclaimed, “Good night Chesty Puller…wherever you are!” Time felt as if it were standing still if just for a moment in the pre-dawn hour. In the moment John reviewed triggering events, while the Private fell silent. With a guttural sense of mild urgency, the words “I love you God Damn It,” suddenly flowed from the Sergeant’s mouth. Zane would have replied with a “Semper-fi,” but he had already been passed out for at least thirty seconds. John was fading fast and he yielded to the the silence as his body fell limp. Morning sunlight was streaming through the kitchen window as John’s thousand-yard stare was dampened by the sinking of his heavy eyelids.

To be continued…