by Russell Thayer
Maggie waited on a barstool, ready to enjoy a night of hot jazz. Another long day of restaurant work had ended, and she was finally free of her custard-yellow uniform, white apron, and the idiotic mutterings of her co worker, Eve. The thought of Ronnie Johnson’s Combo on stage soon at the New Orleans Swing Club made Maggie snap her fingers with excitement. She’d dance tonight if a man asked her. Someday she might even get up on stage and beat that old piano herself.
Then she sneezed. Eight times. By the time she finished, a rope of snot hung into the head of the seven-ounce brew she’d just purchased with a dime she’d found on the floor. And she had no purse with her, no tissues, no sleeves on her blouse. Hot with embarrassment, she began to pinch the slick mess with two fingers when the man next to her offered his handkerchief.
“Thanks,” Maggie mumbled as she wrapped things up, pushing the handkerchief into the pocket of her skirt. The man said nothing. She glanced sideways at him as he downed a shot of whiskey with his standard technique. It was the fourth or fifth for him since she’d been sitting on her hard stool. He’d stare at the glass for a minute, seeing something in the brown fluid, then he’d grab it with his fist and throw it down his throat. The action made her jump the first time. Now she was used to it.
Maggie finished off her kid-sized beer, enjoying the feel of the wet glass in her fingers, the buttery taste and warm prickle of the Lucky Lager as it flowed down the inside of her long neck. Belching, she set the glass down on the bar with a loud knock. The man next to her never turned his head.
“Would you care to buy me another?” she asked, pulling a strand of copper-colored hair behind her ear.
The man glared at himself in the mirror behind the bar. He was movie-star handsome. Blond. Diminutive, like Alan Ladd. Maybe twenty-six.
“It’s been a long day,” Maggie said, flashing her prettiest smile at the mirror, “and I’m thirsty.”
Otis, the bartender, appeared in front of her, working a toothpick into the roots of his large teeth.
“Ain’t nobody gonna buy you a beer tonight. Go home, Magpie.”
“It’s early,” she said, swinging around on the stool to look at the stage. The band hadn’t started setting up. “And I would be grateful if someone at this bar bought me a plate of oysters.”
“Nobody gonna buy you nuthin’. Go home.”
“I’m here to listen to the music,” Maggie said. “As if you didn’t know.”
Otis gave her a laugh. “You gotta have a drink in yo’ hand if you gonna sit at the bar and watch the show for free. I already took your glass away, dummy.”
“Otis, I’m sorely tempted to break this stool over your fat head.”
“Then I’d be the sorely one,” said Otis, flashing both rows of teeth.
“Give her a beer,” the man beside her said in a rough tone. “And a plate of oysters. I’ll have another one of these mothers.”
“Ten ounces this time,” Maggie said promptly. “Not that juice glass portion for baby girls.”
Otis shook his head, both hands on the bar in front of her.
“Mr. Landry say you got to go. He don’t want you in here cadging drinks. Makes you look like a whore.”
“If Mr. Landry ever gives me a chance to play with Ronnie’s cats up there, maybe I’ll stop cadging drinks from willing men.”
“Mr. Landry say he ain’t gonna let big-headed Magpie show off until she get herself an agent. And Ronnie already got a piano player, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“The man is so bad,” said Maggie, “it’s hard not to notice.”
Otis made a “hoo-hoo” sound as he went to serve a group of Negro men at the other end of the bar.
Maggie tipped her head toward the man at her side. “I’m not a whore, if that means anything to you.”
“I don’t care what you do,” said the man.
“So you say. But if you make an effort to be pleasant to me, I’ll share my oysters.” Mr. Landry’s club was known to have the best New Orleans kitchen on the West Coast.
“I thought he said he wasn’t gonna serve you.” The man would only look at her in the mirror.
“Otis? He likes me. He’ll be trotting back soon with our drinks.”
The bartender arrived right behind her comment, setting the glasses down, sliding the plate of oysters between them. Maggie pushed her stool closer to the man, making it easier to share the steaming shells.
“These are spicy hot,” she noted after swallowing a couple of oily blobs, licking the flavor off her fingers. “I’ll probably need another beer.”
The man had just thrown down the recently arrived shot of whiskey, and Maggie could see that it had filled the tank inside of him, running over the top. He had begun to weep. She studied his damp features, skeptical, even annoyed.
“Three days in a hospital tent and all he could say was, Forgive me, Mama.” The man wiped at his eyes with the palm of his hand.
Maggie nodded. Another wartime head-case. She’d seen a hundred of them.
“Where did the, uh…fellow in question say this?” she asked blandly.
“Okinawa. That’s where I killed him. My best friend.”
Maggie took a swallow of beer, setting the glass quietly down on the bar.
“Tonight I’m going to kill myself,” he added.
Maggie nearly choked on an oyster.
“That’s silly,” she said. “Where?”
“You’ll see,” he answered, throwing a twenty onto the bar before staggering toward the door.
With a look toward the musicians gathering on stage, Maggie regretfully followed the man outside. She spotted him lurching down Fillmore Street, and something in his sad gait asked her to follow him home. Nearly twenty, she was too young by law to be out drinking at the New Orleans Swing Club, but no one cared enough about her to question her age. She was slim but strong. If he wanted her to witness some act of confession or contrition, she’d do it. She’d seen a lot of death in the Pacific herself, three years a prisoner of the Japanese Army at Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Liberation had brought her to San Francisco. Her parents were gone. There was no control on her life other than the woman who worked her hard in the restaurant all day. Nothing much scared her anymore.
After a left turn onto Sacramento, the man stepped into the doorway of a well-kept, two-story apartment building. Maggie hurried to catch up with him.
He was waiting at the top of the stairs, bathed in hallway light.
“Are you coming up?” he asked.
Stepping out of the shadows, she began to climb.
He opened the door to his apartment. She entered. Streetlight filtered through sheer curtains before he fiddled with a floor lamp. The place was cozy and he kept it clean. An upright piano stood against a wall, the keyboard cover open. Maggie sat on the bench and touched the keys. The strings were in tune.
“Do you have a favorite composer?” she asked. “I could probably play you something if you give me a name. When I was twelve I won the youth division of the International Chopin Competition. In Peking. That was a lifetime ago. Now all I want to do is swing the blues in a hot combo at a club like Mr. Landry’s. I guess I don’t like the starch and purity stuff so much anymore. I wanna get down in the music, sweat and smile. Maybe you know what I mean.”
“I don’t care to know you,” he said from the kitchen. “There’s no point.” He walked past her to sit on the sofa, carrying a small, leather pouch. “Do you want another beer? There’s a couple of bottles in the fridge. Help yourself.”
“No, thanks,” Maggie said. “In fact, I need to get rid of the one you paid for.”
“It’s just in there.” He pointed to a narrow door.
She found a clean, tile bathroom on the other side of it, emptied herself into the toilet, then poked around inside the medicine cabinet. Nothing of interest, the usual grooming items to be found in a man’s bathroom. She closed the mirrored door and noticed a gold star pinned to the wall through a ribbon of red, white, and blue. The gold star had a small, silver star in the center of it, and there was a note taped below, written in a clear, strong hand.
Think of the men you did save.
As she returned to the living space of the small apartment, she could hear music coming from a turntable and speakers in the corner. Coleman Hawkins. Monk. She wasn’t sure yet about Monk as a pianist. Art Tatum, Earl Hines, that was her meat. She did a little skip and spin along with the music, stopping in front of the sofa.
“Why don’t you put away this idea of killing yourself tonight and take me to bed instead? I know what to do.”
He looked up at her, his blue eyes wet as oysters. “You’re a pretty girl but I’d never get hard for you.”
She owned a narrow face dotted with freckles. Her red hair was a mess, but it was nice of him to give her half a compliment.
“Don’t take it as an insult,” the man said with a shrug. “I can’t do anything like that anymore.”
“My brain’s not right, I guess.”
Feeling cold suddenly, Maggie hugged her bare shoulders. She’d left her sweater at the club.
“Do you have something I could wrap myself up in for a bit?”
“There’s a jacket hanging in the closet. Should fit you. Take it when you leave. Take anything you like.”
“I might look through your record albums on my way out,” she said as she opened the closet door. In a few seconds she stepped back, holding a dark leather flight jacket with a black fur collar. Just her size. She wiggled into it. The leather was as thick as armor, the lining quilted. She walked over to model it in front of him.
He studied her. “It suits you.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Maggie,” she said, settling onto the sofa beside him. In a smooth motion she turned to flop her head onto his lap, looking up at his chin. “I could use a smoke.”
“I quit during the war, if you can believe that.”
Maggie thought of the medal hanging in the bathroom.
“What else happened in the war, Ray? Why are you doing this?”
Ray touched her hair, which surprised her. After pushing her bangs aside, he ran his fingers gently over her ears, pulling the hair around behind her head, exposing her smooth neck to the soft fur collar of her new jacket.
“Walter and I were Navy corpsmen. First Marine Division. We trained together right here in Oakland but didn’t become good friends until New Guinea. We made it through Peleliu without a scratch. Peleliu was bad. But not as bad as Okinawa.”
“What happened on Okinawa? You don’t have any cigarettes at all?”
“Tell me what happened, Ray. Just push it all out at me. When you’re done we’ll curl up together in your bed, and maybe in the morning you’ll change your mind about doing such an uncompromising thing.”
He made a snort of disdain but continued.
“After a long spell of fighting up on Dakeshi Ridge, the division got sent to the rear. We’d lost over a thousand men at that point. Walt and I tended to guys under fire for weeks. Again we made it through without a scratch. While we took it easy in the rear, a company of raw kids joined us on the beach. We all knew that the only way we were gonna clear the Japs from their caves was to smoke ’em out with flamethrowers, but most of our combat engineers, about eighty guys, had been killed at that point, so the officers asked for volunteers from the new company for a training exercise. None of the new guys wanted anything to do with flamethrowers, so I nudged Walt and he agreed to volunteer with me. We’d been sitting around for a week and were bored out of our heads, so we decided it would be a blast to play with those god-damned things without angry Jap snipers targeting our sorry asses. We were corpsmen. It was just for something to do.”
“It never hurts to understand how to operate a flamethrower in case you run across a cave full of Japs.” Maggie looked at the chipped polish on her fingernails. “There are days at the restaurant when I wish I had one. For Eve especially. She’s—”
“Please don’t try to be funny. We had no business volunteering. The training was for the new company. We were just fuckin’ around. I talked Walt into it.”
“I don’t blame you, Ray.”
“The officers didn’t know us. It was hot and nobody was wearing shirts. They didn’t know we were corpsmen. They set us up with those things and showed us how to open the valves. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to get set. They told us to point ’em at some rocks about twenty yards away. I went first and triggered the mixture, but I let the nozzle drift too far down, and the spray went into the ground in front of me, splattering in every direction. Some came back onto my chest and burned like hell, and then I jerked to the side, hitting Walt with a direct shot. I set him on fire, his whole upper body. I stood there in shock as the officers rolled him in the sand, and we got him to the aid station pretty quick, but he was done.”
Maggie took his hand.
“I stopped by the hospital to see him every morning. He was in too much pain to even look at me. Never opened his eyes. All he ever said, over and over again, was: Forgive me, Mama.” Ray clasped her hand with both of his. “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t stand the sight of him in my head. It’s ending right here. Tonight.”
“Do you have a gun?”
Ray shook his head, lifting the leather pouch.
“What’s in that thing?” Maggie asked.
“Morphine syrettes. I’ve killed a lot of men with these. Suffering men. Men who didn’t stand a chance. They needed to die. They wanted to die.”
“You don’t need to die for what you did, Ray.”
“Walt had a wife and little girl back in Oakland.”
“Let’s go visit them tomorrow,” said Maggie. “They’ll tell you not to hate yourself.”
“I’ve been to see Janette. She slammed the door in my face.”
No one spoke for a minute.
“You want me to do it, don’t you?” Maggie asked finally. “To kill you. Like you did for those men.”
Ray nodded, his eyes closed.
“That would be nice,” he said. “It feels cowardly to do myself like that. Shouldn’t matter but it does. I’m not a coward, Miss. I just need to go away. There’s a hundred dollars in my wallet for your trouble. Take it before you leave.”
“Nah,” she said. “I already owe you for the oysters.”
Ray smiled for the first time. It gave her hope.
“Come on, Ray. Stop these thoughts. Let’s become friends instead.” She wiggled her fingers, raising an eyebrow. “You play the piano. I play the piano. You like jazz. Jazz is all I think about these days. We both had some bad experiences in the Pacific. You’ve got a swell apartment and a solid record collection. You said I was pretty. I could move in here tomorrow.”
“It’s time, kid. You gotta get home.”
Ray gently lifted her head and slid away. Maggie liked the soft way he touched her. She followed him into his bedroom, where he began to undress. She watched him bare his lean, muscular body, then, after he pulled the covers back to settle in, she removed the jacket he’d given her, her shoes and socks, blouse and skirt.
Hopping under the bedclothes in her brassiere and underpants, Maggie wiggled close to get warm. Ray had already opened the pouch and, along with a rubber hose, held two small syrettes in his hand.
“Where did you get those, Ray?”
“I work in a drugstore.”
“You can’t get those in a drugstore.”
“I know some guys.”
Maggie ran her fingers over Ray’s thigh, stroking his pelvis, stomach, and the small, rough scars on his chest.
“Doesn’t that feel good? You’ll give up on a woman’s touch?”
“Sure, that feels good,” he said. “So what?”
Maggie climbed onto his hips, straddling him with her legs, letting the covers fall away, then bent down to place her cheek next to his.
Ray pulled his face away.
“I don’t want you. Got it? Sit up.” He handed her a small tube.
Maggie sat, looking at the thing in her hand, as Ray wrapped the rubber hose tight around his upper arm.
“Press on the pin at the top of the needle until you feel it break the seal. Then pull the pin out. I’ll show you where to stick it into my arm. It’s more than a half grain of morphine. Two will do the job. Give me the second one right away. OK. You got it?”
Maggie nodded, pressing the pin, feeling it breach the seal, pulling it out of the needle as it released an anxious drop of clear liquid. Ray showed her the angle she should use at the bulging vein and told her how far and how slowly to push the needle in. She was suddenly grateful for the opportunity to learn something new that evening, something she hadn’t expected. It was easy work.
“That’s swell, Miss. You’re in. Squeeze the tube from the bottom. Slowly.”
When she was done, she gently drew the needle out, nodding with satisfaction. A small bead of blood marked the spot. Ray handed her the second syrette.
Maggie touched his cheek. “Close your eyes, Ray. This is it.”
He closed them and, with quick fingers, she undid the rubber hose, letting the first blast loose. He struggled for a moment as she lay on him, holding his head, her arms on his shoulders.
“I’m stronger than you,” she whispered, watching his eyes roll up as he disappeared.
“Don’t fight me, Ray. Go to sleep. That’s it. I won’t kill you this time. I don’t care how much pain you’re in. If you have no interest in me, I’m certainly not doing you any favors.”
At work during the next day’s lunch rush, Maggie watched Eve flip a plate of spaghetti onto the lap of one of the Bella Rosa’s most regular customers. The thought of Eve melting in a flood of sticky flame didn’t strike Maggie as comical anymore. Ray had just begun coming around to consciousness while she got dressed at dawn, having slept all night in a big bed next to a warm man. She could get used to that one day, but the man would probably not be Ray, not after disappointing him the way she had. After zipping tight the sturdy flight jacket, Maggie placed the second syrette into the leather pouch with its ten brothers and left with it tucked under her shoulder. She didn’t take a single record album. She left all the money in his fat wallet in case he ever wanted to come around Mr. Landry’s place again to buy her a drink, maybe thank her, or scream in her face if he wanted to. She’d just smile at him, damned fool head-case that he was. The leather pouch now lay in the dust under her bed upstairs, in the apartment above the restaurant. She could sell the morphine. She knew a couple of musicians who’d pay her good money for that kind of relief. The tubes might even come in handy someday, now that she knew how to use them. It was a simple formula. Any fool could remember. One for comfort. Two for eternity.
Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in Tough and Pulp Modern. He received his BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Washington and worked for years at large printing companies. He has cooked a lot of meals, watched a lot of French films, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife of thirty-four years.