By Bill Cushing
Whitey Tuggle took one long final drag off the unfiltered Camel. Savoring the sweet but nutty taste of the cigarette’s Turkish tobaccos, he leaned against a lone wooden sawhorse to survey the grounds.
At first glance his place looked like a microcosm, the aftermath from an atomic explosion: rusting bodies of three cars—two sitting on cinder blocks, a johnboat that might have been lifted out of the green trailer sitting about fifteen feet away, some axles and tires litter the patchy grass that could hardly be called a lawn. Everything was dulled by a thick film of dust and dirt kicked up by trucks taking the unpaved roadway cutting behind the coal-burning power plant separating Whitey’s property from the two-lane blacktop highway running north and south. The only thing on the property that seems like it might work is the 1976 Ford Econoline van with a rough, hand-lettered advertisement scrawled along its two side panels:
Houses/ext & int
It looks like even that crude and scrawled lettering took some effort getting there.
Flinging the remains of the butt, a smoky arc hung in space as it flew through the air, cartwheeled a few times along patchy dry grass before resting by the house, a patchwork of old paneling and assorted lumber tapering into cinder blocks with a series of half-inch sheets of warped plywood layers resting on top, trying to be a patio. The facade didn’t really even try to conceal the trailer home settling into the ground that is the actual residence. The yard seemed to be half vegetation, half dirt. Various-sized piles of bullet-riddled beer and soda cans squatted at irregular intervals, testaments to aborted attempts at recycling aluminum for cash. A picnic table stood on end, a large arrow-punctured target nailed to its flat surface.
Whitey fit into this derelict setting: his head a full mop of white hair blackened by grease; his pockmarked face lined from too many years working outside in the Florida sun; his splayed fingernails rimmed with permanent cakes of dirt and oil that, after decades, even he has stopped trying to dig out. He really didn’t paint houses. Well, he would but only when he has to, like when someone actually saw him driving the van around town and was hard-up enough or cheap enough to trust him with work after seeing the condition of the vehicle. He attended to any potential business soon enough. If the estimate didn’t scare them off, the first day’s work definitely would. The “company” only “exists” so that Whitey could explain to the government where his money comes from each year. What Whitey really did was sell dope. Occasionally, his customers were college kids who managed to work up enough nerve to approach the place after hearing that Whitey’s a good source, but he mostly sold to the fishermen and factory workers frequenting the area and had known him for decades. He didn’t sell anything but grass and speed.
“Just the stuff that’s good for a man,” he told friends—of which he had few. “The speed helps ya’ work; the pot is to relax after.”
He held a trace of the American work ethic and blended two of America’s grandest traditions: the entrepreneur and the outlaw. If he’d been born a century earlier he might have ridden with Cole Younger and Jesse James. Or, he might have simply gone into that business for himself. His dose of free market behavior was why he spent two weeks throwing up the false front that surrounded his trailer. He knew that one day either the city or some developer will get around to buying this neglected land, and he also knew that unless there is a “permanently constructed domicile on the premises,” the buyer was only legally bound to pay him for the value of the land itself. With the cheap wrapping around the trailer, he could charge up to five times, maybe even more, than the place was worth “after those city assholes finally get through chewing up the land downtown and need more to waste.”
He gave himself a “Dutch fuck,” lighting a fresh cigarette off the glowing remains of his last one.
“I can almost hear that change jinglin’ in my pockets now,” he snorted to himself. Flicking the butt he’d just finished at one of the many chickens roaming his property, he hit one in the head.
“Gotcha,” he said, removing an errant piece of tobacco stuck to his tongue. Whitey straddled the homemade steps leading to the collage of a house. He rubbed scarred tissue where a tattoo once resided on his left forearm and laced blunt fingers over a jackknifed knee. Under the cigarette pack rolled into the sleeve of his ripped and faded t-shirt was another tattoo, a deep black-blue panther crawls down the bicep of his left arm. He’s proud of it. He’d had it done while stationed in the Pacific by an ancient Filipino artist who never lived to see the electronic pens used today.
“Hell, yeah, it hurt,” Whitey would explain when asked about it. “Screamed like a damn baby when I sobered up the next day, but I tell you this: I had it appraised some years ago, and work like this, it’ll cost you over five big ones nowadays. Damn sight more’en I paid that slope for it, I can tell ya’ that.”
The smoke from the cigarette circled Whitey’s head and trailed out over the river winding around the place. The shores of the waterway were as shabby as the property bounding it. Half-submerged, the wreckage of a long-forgotten fishing boat leaned on its port side; a hole ripped in its flank by moonlight scavengers reveals waterlogged innards. More tires sat buried in the muck.
The foamy surface of the water meeting the shore should have been all the warning any potential swimmer needed, but the polluted waters weren’t the reason that area youngsters avoided the place. Whitey once told some visiting fishermen, “No one’d dare swim there. I’ve played enough target practice to discourage any of that kind o’ thing happening’ at my place.”
He shifted, facing the other way, to lay his eyeglasses down while pulling a swallow of bourbon from the plastic tumbler resting on the ground. His face sagged slightly in relaxation, then suddenly tightened up. The once-clear blue eyes, gone dull and filmy from cataracts, focused sharply on something at that moment, something that Whitey could see as clear and distinct as the redheaded woodpecker perched halfway up the trunk of an elm tree. Hammering at the bark, the bird sought ants for food. What Whitey saw is neither nourishing nor desired.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned! It’s ‘bout time I found you.”
The voice was loud and even sounded fat. A red-faced man waddled up the dirt pathway to Whitey’s porch. His wide smile looked like it had been plastered on the even wider face. The man stopped, facing Whitey who winced as he looked at the wide hand stretched toward him.
“Betcha don’t even remember who I am,” the man yelled as if he were thirty feet from Whitey rather than three. Whitey shook his head in disagreement.
“You’re Edwards,” Whitey murmured, as if a drop in volume might make the guy go away.
“That’s LIEUTENANT Edwards to you,” the man commanded. Seeing that no one was going to laugh at his joke, he decided to.
“Well, goddamn, man,” Edwards shouted, punching Whitey in a good-natured salesman-like manner. “Don’t act so happy to see me. Hell, I’ve been looking all over for you; you hid yourself pretty goddamned good.”
Whitey’s expression said “not good enough.”
“Anyway, we’re organizing a reunion of the whole ‘Gang of ‘45,’ and we’ve played hell trying to locate you.
“Did he ever tell you about us?” Edwards turned and shouted the question at others fishing on the pier.
“No,” Whitey answered. “Can’t say as any of ‘em’s ever heard of any Gang of ‘45.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the big man countered, turning to stare at Whitey. “You don’t talk about the good old days any, son?”
“Weren’t that good,” Whitey said softly. The answer surprised those nearby. Whitey was never the loud type, but he was certainly never at a lack for an answer. And whatever those answers might be, they were never self-reflective.
“Well,” Edwards said, squinting through fat drooping eyelids. “We—Whitey, me, and the rest—were all part of the group that dropped the big one in 1945, right about this time of year. Yup, it was on August 6.”
He guy rolled up the sleeve of his left arm and there, in almost the same spot as Whitey’s unmentioned one, is a tattoo of a B-29 flying out of a banner emblazoned with the words “Enola Gay.” The Enola Gay—the plane that had carried the atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. It was a mission that forced some involved to buckle, retiring from society after realizing what they had done. It had always been one thing to drop bombs on people, but few had ever dropped one that had destroyed so many lives at one time and then continued the killing for years after the initial impact.
“We’re trying to get the president to meet with us on this one,” Edwards told Whitey. “Think of the photos we can get on that one, boy. Arm in arm with the president of the United States. There’s something to give to your grandchildren!”
“Fuck my grandchildren,” Whitey muttered. He had none. The remark took Edwards back, at least long enough for Whitey to make his escape. He stood, drained the rest of his whiskey, then half-sauntered, half-wobbled down to the fishing pier extending from the end of the road’s blacktop. He left behind the bulky, perspiring Edwards standing, chubby hands on hips, the left sleeve of his shirt still rolled halfway up his arm and a look on his face mixing shock with indignation.
Whitey escaped to the pier to be among those who had come for the fishing. He’d spend the rest of the day there as he had many days in the past, talking to the people, dispensing advice and admonishment to the beginners.
“Give ‘em more slack,” he’d tell them or “that piece of shrimp is too big for the damned thing to eat.”
Even though some might nod their heads and smirk at him as he dispenses it, they listened to him because, although the advice was endless, it was good. He’d trade his pointers and company for whatever beers are in the coolers alongside the bags of shrimp bait. It was, as well, cathartic, something that Whitey needed this day just as he must have needed it all those other days and nights before. He would stay as long as no cars pull up into his driveway.
When the sun settled closer to the water’s surface, Whitey’s skin itself seemed to darken until it go3t beyond brown and approached the deep gray of the wooden planks making up the perimeter of the pier’s dock.
They’d all notice him, especially those who were in the area for the first time and hadn’t met Whitey before. All of them—newcomers and the experienced alike—would leave grateful for his fellowship, thankful for his tips. Yet, they’d all have a slight smile on their faces when they parted company with the weird old man who sat on the benches, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking whatever he could scrounge.
There would be no doubt that the old man was alien, isolated, but few people rarely wondered why, and even fewer ever noticed the rectangular piece of shriveled skin on his left forearm, the only evidence left of an old tattoo, that eternally pink and rippled patch of skin where there was once the name of an Army Air Corps bomber crew Whitey had never asked to be a part of.
About the Author
Named in honor of Civil War Naval Commander William Barker Cushing, Bill Cushing
grew up in New York but lived in various states, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico before moving to California where he now resides with his wife and their son. As an undergrad at the University of Central Florida, he was called the “blue collar” writer because of his years working as an electrician on oil tankers, naval vessels, and fishing boats after serving in the Navy. His short stories have appeared in the Altadena Literary Review, Borfski Press, and the Newtown Literary Journal. He has also published creative non-fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, and articles in various print and internet publications. A Former Life, his poetry collection, was honored by the Kops-Featherling International Book Award. Bill earned an MFA in writing from Goddard College in Vermont and recently retired after 23 years teaching at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges. Besides writing, he facilitates a writing group for 9 Bridges, a non-profit community of writers.