Purity

We had been exchanging stories along with shots and beers, Tank and I, on one particularly bitter winter day. The snow obscured the view of the busy street outside the tavern's wide windows and the wind hammered angrily at the fragile glass like the fists of Thor. Tank stared down at our pitiful few dollars on the bar. When they were gone we were, the both of us, tapped.

"Broke again," I said, motioning to our last few bills.

"There's a certain purity in being broke," he said in between slamming down his shot of whiskey and then chasing it with a slug of his tap beer. I opened my mouth to challenge him, but he silenced me with a raised hand.

"I said 'broke,'" he replied, answering my unasked question. "There's a big difference between being destitute and being broke. Broke is not having enough cash to buy a shot and beer, or maybe a second hamburger or cup of coffee at the diner. Destitute means you have nothing to eat, no place to sleep, and no prospects for getting either. Big difference."

He took another sip of his beer, and his eyes took on a faraway look, as if he were staring into a dark and painful past.

"I damned well know destitute," he said. "During the Depression. My father lost his farm, and we lost our home. There were no Hoovervilles where I came from. We built a shack in the woods out of tar paper, tin and fallen timber. We lived there for nearly four years, hunting and trapping to eat, like our neighbors and friends. The game warden kept well clear of us. His predecessor was shot dead one moonlit night, trying to arrest a man seining the river for fish for his family to eat. That warden got between a man and his family's survival. Nobody confessed to the crime. Nobody was charged, or convicted. There was one constable for three counties. People pretty much set their own rules and abided by them, or paid the price. Justice was meted out by your fellow citizens. It was swift and many times it was harsh.

We had less than nothing. They talk about the Depression in the big cities, where people had to wait in soup lines, and sold apples for a nickel. Hell, we didn't even have that. Those who were fortunate enough to keep their homes let their cats and dogs loose because they couldn't afford their upkeep. The dogs began to run in packs, pulling down livestock and poultry. There was even a story of them taking down a little girl and devouring her right in her own back yard. I can't say whether or not that was true, but I choose to believe it. It was that bad. Feral cats destroyed game birds; pheasant, grouse and doves, by the thousands. They were competing with us for the food supply, the cats and dogs, and we hunted them down and killed them. Everyone owned at least one gun. It meant the difference between starvation and survival. We gathered together in groups of dozens of hunters and flushed them out of the woods and shot them dead and buried them. If we left them where they lay they'd provide food for their brethren. Starve them, shoot them, poison them and then bury them deep; any way to rid the woods of them."

He laughed, shaking his head. "I wonder how people today would react to that story, that their precious little puppies and kitties would tear out their throats if they were hungry enough. I had thirteen brothers and sisters, and my mother died a few years into it and that left my dad and me and my two older brothers to take care of the little ones. Damn! It was hard!"

He shook his hand, as if waving away the bad memories. "No whining, mind you, just fact. It was tough, but I got through it and when I got to Korea and we were up there on the Yalu River and the winter wind blew down from the north and froze every goddamned thing that didn't move and some that did I saw men who weren't conditioned to take it just give in, lay down and freeze to death, as if their life wasn't worth the effort. I was used to the cold and the wind and the lack of food and toughing it out because that's what you did to make it through. There was no other option, except to lay down and die, and I sure as hell wasn't going that route. And when the Chinese hit us by the hundreds of thousands with those goddamned bugles blowing and human-wave attacks the weak tits among us had already been weeded out and those of us that were left fought back like demons. We then retreated through the most miserable conditions any army faced in American history and made it back to our reformed lines and when we got our strength back hit those slant-eyed sons of bitches like the fire-breathing dragons out of their own mythology. We mounted their skulls on pikes, and mounted the pikes on our tanks. We put the fear of God in those godless bastards, that's for sure."

He took a long drink of beer, his Adam's apple bobbing on his throat as he did. He set the glass down, still staring into the distant past. "Goddamn," he muttered. "We were tough. I was tough."

I had never heard him brag on himself and it was disconcerting to hear him do so. But he was right; he was tough, the toughest man I had ever met and now he was dead, gutted like a fish and discarded like trash on a filthy city side street. Tank Dupree, a man I had come to view as some sort of immortal Titan from Greek mythology was at this very moment sprawled out naked on the Medical Examiner's mortuary slab as they poked his wounds and probed his private parts for clues. I flushed in embarrassment for him. There is no goddamned justice in this world, only that which you make for yourself, and Tank Dupree was past that now.

I cursed and punched a fist into my palm.

This was nothing I could render onto canvas with brushes and oils. It was as if I weren't skilled enough to translate it's sordid and bloody reality into transcendent art. Maybe Pablo could on one of his best days, but not I, not now. This was real life, and I would have to face it with muscle, bone, sinew and brains. I couldn't imagine anyone having the physical capability and raw courage to take down Tank Dupree, but they had and they were out there, somewhere, poised and dangerous. Tank Dupree deserved justice--hard justice--and he wasn't going to find it in the system. I made a vow, sotto voce, to find and kill his murderer.

Before they had the chance to do the same to me.

Lenny Palmer 10/29/11
This is a chapter from my new novel, "Tricky Dick Nixon & the 5 Naked Nuns."

 

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