I’m in San Diego’s Greyhound bus terminal, a fishbowl of humanity tinged with diesel fumes. There are retired travelers with map brochures that unfurl like little accordions of geography. There are servicemen in uniform, most of whom look like they’re barely out of Little League. There are sleep-deprived teenage runaways with stained fingers, and curb-level grifters who have little chance of suckers for their hustle. There are people in scalloped plastic chairs with coin-operated televisions attached to the armrests. One is watching Sally Ride being interviewed before her space shuttle voyage.
I’m a dozen feet away from the ticket window, and not much farther from the sidewalk stand where the Navy shuttle can ferry me back to my ship. If I choose to go. I can also take a bus out of town, corrupting my service record with desertion.
The nuclear fueled aircraft carrier is visible from across the harbor like a massive anvil on the water. It’s ready to crush the air out of my chest if I go near it. Lieutenant Commander Blake’s personal taunts wait there for me, ready to poke holes in my supposedly waterproof soul.
Adjacent to the bus terminal is an arcade filled with video games, flashing and beeping like faceless little twenty-volt carnival barkers. The floor is scattered with Kool filter confetti. Many patrons wear crackerjack uniforms or Marine dress blues, toting upright green duffel bags like burlap sidekicks. I’m not packed for desertion, but in Levi’s jeans and a souvenir T-shirt from a Stevie Nicks concert, I’m dressed for it.
I break bills for quarters and start toward the Donkey Kong machine.
Things feel better for a while. In the games, you can always renew yourself after being flattened, blasted to smithereens, or eaten. I migrate across several more machines, taking on galaxies, medieval forests, dotted mazes, pixelated insects, and ladders with barrels and apes.
I avoid Lieutenant Commander Blake, who is aboard the carrier, because he wants to play games that are not fun. I always get the odd feeling that I’m supposed to be honored by his attention, even if the attention is tinged with snide remarks. He tries to draft me into his Mental Monopoly. Nuclear missile player pieces and Get Out of Asylum Free cards. He’s a severely damaged man who hides it well. An unfortunate walking artifact of early Cold War history. If only I could skip the chain of command and ring the red telephone on President Reagan’s desk. Although Reagan might fancy the idea of torching the Soviet Union in the name of God.
I guide another founding father into the change machine, hearing the jingle in the steel cup, and I see the daylight outside is getting dim.
“I guess they fixed it,” someone says behind me. “Yesterday it took my money.” It’s a wiry Mexican American guy in a wheelchair with a ponytail and a faded football jersey.
“And I guess we’re out of luck when that happens,” I say. Selfishly I wonder if this guy is angling for a handout.
He shakes his head. “They give you a phone number. Which, if the changer ate my bill, I can’t feed a pay phone.”
I’m about to offer him a quarter when I realize it. I’m looking at a familiar face, but it’s as if he’s behind a windowpane full of fractures and dust.
Then his dark eyes widen. “Whoa,” he says. “Snow? Is that you?”
“Uhmm—” I almost drop my change. The wheelchair and the ponytail had thrown me off. And the lines on his face. “Johnny Lorca,” I say.
“What a treat to see you, brother! What the hell are you doing at the bus station?” His handshake is a vise, caveman strong; ready to pull me to the floor.
“What’s it been, two years?” I say, still processing his appearance. Johnny Lorca doesn’t look great, even if you don’t consider the wheelchair.
“Two years, three months. And two weeks.”
Of course, he knows exactly how long. How long since the day his life changed horribly, when the jet touched down on deck and its landing gear splintered apart. Shrapnel careening across the flight deck taking part of his right leg. I take a moment to breathe, remembering how the jet’s wheel assembly clattered past me like lethal, sonic tumbleweed. Where Lorca had lain, the blood was a crescent on the deck, a reaper’s scythe. The ocean’s headwind moved it like finger paint. A short time later, when the medics hauled him away, they formed a detail of us with mops, to get the blood off the deck. Lorca never returned to the ship, or the Navy.
“You stayed in San Diego after your discharge?” I say.
“No, I went home to East L.A. But I’m always on the bus to the VA hospital here. My prosthesis—” Lorca knocks on his jeans below the knee “—is something they’re still trying to get right. I think they’re almost there. Then I can walk like an evolved man again.”
Lorca leans over in his wheelchair and hikes up the leg of his pants, exposing a limb with a hard smooth sheen. “They couldn’t even make it the same color as me,” he says. “A Navy conspiracy. Trying to turn me white!”
“I’ve never forgotten that day for an hour, Johnny. It stayed with me.” Shortly after that incident, I’d met twice with a psychologist counselor on board, a lieutenant with pressed khakis and gleaming metal shoulder bars. He didn’t look much older than me.
“It isn’t your fault what happened to him,” the counselor told me.
“I know, sir. And it wasn’t Lorca’s fault.” Word had just come back that Lorca’s drug test, which we all had to submit after the incident, had come back positive. “Yes, he’d smoked some pot,” I said. “But who’s responsible for the crash? Are they facing any blame?”
“Now, it’s not about the blame.”
“You mentioned fault, sir,” I said.
“I mentioned the absence of fault.”
I suppose he had to talk that way, being a lifer.
“In spite of things, Snow, it’s worked out,” Lorca says to me now. “After the general discharge, because of the drug test, y’know, I got a lawyer and had it upgraded later on, to an honorable. All these trips down here to the VA, they’re doing me a favor. Staying with my mom drives me a little nutty at twenty-four.”
I have to tell him what I did. “Listen, Johnny. Don’t hate me, but—well, not long after that, I transferred from the flight deck to the hangar deck.”
“No!” Lorca looks genuinely insulted. “Not with those lazy dogs. Those valet garage parkers? You don’t belong down there.”
“I know I don’t. And I might leave altogether. You asked what I’m doing here.”
“What, man, you’re just gonna split town?” Lorca says. “You can stick it out. How much more time til you get your papers?”
“How much time do we all have?” The context of this question is lost on Lorca, because he doesn’t know Lieutenant Commander Blake.
“C’mon, Snow,” he says. “You look like you got time on your hands right now. Let’s go up the street.”
“The Star Lounge. I’m a regular. And you can’t say no. After two hours of physical therapy, I’m ready for a drink.”
“I spent too much here,” I say. “Defeating the universe.”
“Not to worry, brother. I have a running tab there. Hell, the last time I gave them cash, Brezhnev was still kicking in Russia.” He looks up at me from the wheelchair. “Did you ever think you’d be havin’ a beer with me again?”
Since I’ve last seen him, a pair of fallen parenthesis has etched into either side of his mouth. The set of his face is open and raw like he’s ready to accept anything from a warm sunny California day to the moon crashing down onto the coastline. He’s right. I can’t say no.
“You’ll miss your bus,” I say.
“There’s another one at eleven.”
We make our way along Broadway, on a slight uphill grade that doesn’t faze Lorca’s arms while he propels the chair. Buses and cabs squeeze past the chain link fencing that’s been put up in front of a derelict old movie palace set for demolition. Then we’re in the Gaslamp District. The Star Lounge doesn’t look like the grimiest place on the street. The facade lettering is in a funky mock futuristic style like the Jetsons, cut from wood panels coated with peeling white paint.
“Evening, Johnny,” the doorman in the alcove says as he checks my ID. Lorca stands up a bit unsteadily and folds his wheelchair, nestling it against the wall behind the doorman’s stool.
Lorca limps, but he prefers keeping up appearances in bars. We take seats at the bar with an extra stool between us for him to extend his leg on.
“One upside,” he says, wincing as he situates his limb, “is that I get drunk about a half-beer faster than before.”
“Phantom pain,” I say. “Is that where your brain thinks the limb is still there?”
“You might remember it was an F-4 Phantom that crashed, so hell yeah, for me it is phantom pain!”
The beer is crisp and cold. I can’t decide whom to tell him about first, Edith or Lieutenant Commander Blake.
“Let me guess,” Johnny Lorca says with an analyzing glint. “You haven’t made it to Second Class Petty Officer.”
“I didn’t even make Third Class. And no regrets either.”
“Snow, I really would’ve made a career out of it. Fate had other plans. Even though I smoked some weed, and I missed the ship leaving Bangkok that time, I planned to make the most of it. I was gonna straighten up.”
“I ditched those ambitions a long time ago,” I tell him. “Look at how they handled things after the accident. Did they punish the landing signal officer? No, that able-bodied lieutenant got reassigned to shore duty at Miramar. And you get a less than honorable discharge because of a drug test.”
“I know you’re mad at the Navy,” Lorca says. “But keep in mind, it’s not the Navy that’s messed up. It’s some of the people in it. And Snow, if I was still in, I’d be doing everything I could to make them either get squared away or get the hell out. After ten years when I would’ve made it to Chief.”
“You sound a lot like this woman I know. This Second Class.”
Lorca arches a thick eyebrow. “Yeah? Like, know her in the biblical sense?”
We’re fleet sailors, but I resist talking to him about my sex life, or in this case, the lack of it.
“Edie lectures me a lot. About my not taking the advancement exams.”
“No lectures here, Snow. How long have you known her for?”
“Since basic. Over three years.” Edie has, unlike me, not only motivation but an agenda. She wants to be a force of change, to see a Navy that allows women to serve on warships and in combat aircraft. Roles they’re currently denied, all on account of a chromosome. If Sally Ride can go into space, why can’t another woman strap into an A-6 Intruder? Me, I’m fine with her hopes, as long as there’s some kind of flagging system for lunatics of either gender. Which we don’t seem to have now.
“Well,” Lorca says, “that’s long enough, I’d think.”
There are cigarette burns on the wooden bar counter. Maroon curtains cover the walls. Our bartender has greasy shoulder length hair and the ends of his mustache are waxed into curls. He’s like a benign trailer park version of Lucifer.
“Johnny, do you ever think about the arms race?” I ask.
“Is this a limb joke? Only I’m allowed to make those.”
“No, just a question.”
“I think it’s a business, like everything else. Bombs. Hamburgers. Tennis shoes.”
“Handshakes to keep it all balanced, you mean.”
“Maybe,” he says. “But what do I know?”
“Johnny, I’ll tell you the craziest thing. The Second Class, she should be at the front of my mind these days, but she isn’t. It’s this berserk division officer I have. In the hangar deck.”
Lorca straightens up from leaning against the bar, conviction in his eyes. “Fuck him and his shoulder brass. End of the day, he’s just a man like you and me.”
“But he isn’t. He’s the most disturbed man I’ve ever met. Honestly. He’s a decorated naval aviator, and he wants to start a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Claims he can do so. He doesn’t see why the human race deserves to keep living.”
Lorca is less shocked than I want him to be. “He wants each of us to die for our sins? Like be our own Jesus? I told you the hangar deck was full of rejects.”
“I’m not making this up, you know.”
He tips the neck of his beer bottle at me, indicating that I should continue. He rubs at his right knee, probably where the stump joins the prosthesis.
“He could be just talking shit,” I say. “Or he might not. This is a real existential dilemma for me.”
“Whoa, cuz,” Lorca says. “Warn me before throwing those fifty-cent words! Is this gossip or has he told you this stuff himself?”
“The horse’s mouth.” I tell Lorca my history of exchanges with Lieutenant Commander Blake, all without witnesses save for me. Of hearing his grim view of our point in history. Of him claiming he can bring on Armageddon, how it’s as close as tomorrow’s newspaper, only there won’t be any more of those. Of him using firecrackers to break apart assembly models of warships. Of him defending the life of a cockroach as it moved across the hangar deck. Claiming they’ll inherit the earth.
Our beers aren’t empty but he orders another round. Someone feeds money to the jukebox nearby and it plays a synthesized tune with harmonizing Australians singing “it’s a mistake” over and over in the lyrics.
He finally speaks again. “So you’ve reported this guy.”
“Yes. To the Navy as well as the San Diego P.D.”
“Then why don’t you relax and get horizontal with the Second Class, Snow? It should be about the Garden of Eden, bro, not the Four Horsemen.”
I don’t admit to him that I’d like nothing more. But putting my hopes with Edie in context with the hopes of Blake not flipping nuclear currency is beyond my reach.
Lorca was a talented deck crewman hobbled in the prime of his life. He can only live vicariously through others while he takes bus trips to tolerate antiseptic limb fittings and grueling therapy. Just so he can walk again, like a creature that doesn’t live in the ocean.
Two guys at the pool table chant “Semper Fi!” loudly to one another. They have buzz cuts and wear sleeveless shirts to show off their fresh, vibrant tattoos. Their soft baby faces are dotted with acne. A pair of Marines, fresh out of basic training. They’ve just finished a game and are coming to the bartender with an empty pitcher.
“Love your hair,” says one in a snide voice, regarding Lorca’s ponytail.
The other guy makes a point of Lorca’s leg propped on the stool. “Does a hippie civilian really deserve two chairs?”
Lorca looks at him drolly.
The bartender tries to wait on the Marines but they’re focused on Lorca.
“I need that seat, scruffy,” says the taller one. Everyone can see there are many other empty stools at the bar.
I take a deep breath, then let it out. I say, “You boys should know—”
“A boy is more man than a squid,” one Marine says. He leans in with sour emphasis on the last word. Slang for sailor.
“Hey,” Lorca says to the tall Marine. “Why do you have a tattoo of Captain Kangaroo on your arm?”
“It isn’t Captain Kangaroo,” he says. “It’s Uncle Sam!”
Lorca still has his right leg extended on the stool. “I don’t see it,” he says. “I see a chubby guy with a mustache. Did your buddy here ink him on?”
Now the kid is standing way too close to Lorca. “He’s wearing the Stars and Stripes. What are you a Communist?”
Lorca drains the last of his beer, then looks at the bottle. “No, I’m a sadist.” He brings the bottle down hard against his own pant leg, on the shin of his prosthesis. I shut my eyes while hearing the brittle pop of glass going in all directions.
The fledgling Marines are shocked and ashen. Lorca stands up from the stool, holding the bayonet of glass by the neck. His face is set like damaged concrete.
“Me and my shipmate,” he says, “have earned more space on this earth than you. So, we have three stools.” He jabs his weapon in the air.
The Marines stumble backward. Their eyes are wide watching the glass. Of course, they don’t know about the leg.
“Stu, you’re bleeding,” the tall one mutters to his friend. Stu’s eyes roll around to his chest. A drop of blood has settled on his Members Only polo shirt. He has a superficial cut on the center of his chin.
“Shit. Oh, shit.” Both of them stagger to the bathroom like their own legs are wood.
The doorman doesn’t look like a fast mover, but it seems he has transported across the room like science fiction. He has Lorca by the arm, leading him out.
“That’s all, Johnny. Can’t have you breaking glass and threatening people.” With his other arm the doorman pulls the folded wheelchair from the alcove and jerks it open in one motion. “Hit the street.”
We get two storefronts away from the Star Lounge when a giggle comes over me. I’ve broken a seal, because now I’m laughing hysterically. Lorca cackles from his wheelchair like an evil bridge troll after he’s collected fare. “Does this mean they’re letting your tab go?” I say between breaths.
The evening has turned cool, and sparse raindrops are falling, a rare phenomenon here. Some of the downtown denizens huddle in storefronts, unsure of what to do with such weather.
“I wish, I wish,” Lorca says, sweeping a hand over his knees, “that they could waiver this, and let me back in! Snow, it takes as many of us as possible to keep the Navy clean.”
It isn’t lost on me how he says the last part like he’s still in. I’m struck by how broken, defeated and empty he looks, face turned up like a prophet seeking the North Star and seeing only dark windows and sky.
Lorca lowers his gaze to the sidewalk ahead. “Angel from heaven,” he whispers. “Be my deliverance.” A woman is walking toward us. She moves with an exaggerated swing and her clothes look almost painted on. She stops, pivoting one platform heel where she stands.
“I like your wheels, baby,” the woman says to Lorca. “What’re you up to tonight?”
“I’m up to here,” Lorca says, raising a hand high, “with bus travel.”
She makes a pout. “Forget that stuffy bus. And hang out with me.”
“Johnny Lorca,” I say. “I’m gonna leave you here. I’m really lucky to have run into you.” I haven’t decided about hopping on a Greyhound or calling Edie or continuing to cower from Lieutenant Commander Blake. But I’m leaving Lorca to his own choices. It isn’t my place to discourage him from the street solicitor. Considering what he’s had taken away from him and what he has to look forward to, Johnny Lorca is entitled to whatever delights he can get.
The hooker bends over and whispers in Lorca’s ear and Johnny chuckles.
As I walk away, he calls after me: “You tell that ship I love her, Snow. And I remember everything. Every inch of her!”
Although I’m alone, I keep laughing. But I’m also shaking. I attribute it to the giddiness from the alcohol layered under the adrenaline from the Star Lounge episode. Is this a reaction similar to seeing battle? Lieutenant Commander Blake would know, but I’m not going to ask him.
I am headed the opposite way, but I can still hear them behind me. I turn and see the two Marines calling after Lorca and the woman.
“Poser! Fucking faker,” says the one with the chin wound. “You’re not really a cripple!” He holds a cloth to his chin as he approaches them.
The prostitute whirls on him and spouts something vicious, teeth gleaming, eyes lit up like lava. The kid stops hard on Nike brakes.
Johnny Lorca ignores it all. He keeps his momentum, thrusting his arms over his wheel treads, flinging them like a casino shark tossing dice.
About the Author:
Following an enlistment in the US Navy, Art Hondros attended the Colorado Art Institute. In addition to being a freelance illustrator, he has been a staffer at The Charlotte Observer and National Geographic. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, Bethesda Magazine, Packingtown Review, and Pisgah Review. He was a winner in the Winston-Salem Writers Anthology in 2011. You can see more of his work at arthondros.com. Right Foot Left Foot is an excerpt from his novel.
Feature image by Anders JildénUnsplash