by Dennis M. Desmond
“Early autumn, 1974, Lawton, Oklahoma
“Indian Summer” in Oklahoma doesn’t involve Native Americans but it does bring plenty of heat, especially to the sidewalks of Fort Sill Boulevard, with its massage parlors, pool halls, bars, and liquor stores.
Private Joey “the Stick” and I knew all about that heat. We’d just walked two miles from the Army base to mingle with the scantily-clad ladies of said sidewalks.
Joey, who resembled a bull that’d escaped from a china shop, inclined his meaty head towards our destination, the Club Royale. The Club wasn’t much to look at, with its one-story concrete front and plate glass window. A neon light in the shape of the Eiffel Tower dangled in the window and flickered erratically in red, white, and blue. I suspected there were plenty of things to be learned inside, but French grammar would not be among them.
Joey the Stick and I were residents of Administrative Barracks #2 at nearby Fort Sill. AB2 was the place the Army put soldiers under investigation for one reason or the other. Joey had a bad habit of breaking pool sticks over people’s heads in barroom brawls. I’d applied for a discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector, based on my opposition to the Vietnam War.
Inside the Club, we were greeted by plain white walls, an empty front desk, and a shaggy brown carpet of indeterminate origin. Joey – a regular at the Club – sauntered around a narrow corridor to some unseen destination.
“See you back at the barracks, Private Flynn,” he said.
A buxom, middle-aged, bleached blonde in pig-tails stepped around from the same corridor. With her low cut blouse and mini-skirt she looked like a grown-up version of “Heidi.” She introduced herself as “Madame Tussaud.”
Her eyes roved over my 5’11” frame, pale skin and black hair. She made me want to yodel.
“Would you like to meet some of our girls?” Madame asked. I followed her into a side room that had everything a house of its sort should: shabby carpet, thrift-store arm-chairs, little red table lamps, and half-dressed ladies who looked more worn than the furniture.
“Just pick the one you want,” Mme. Tussaud instructed.
“You’re the one I want,” I replied.
Mme. Tussaud’s eyes blinked. “That will cost a good deal more.”
“No problem,” I replied. I flashed a wad of bills.
We found our way to a bare-bones room with a single bed and a white sheet. I guessed the Club was used to stacking clients top-to bottom rather than side-to-side.
“Club Royale is a private club,” Mme. Tussaud intoned. “Whatever happens between consenting adults behind closed doors is strictly between you and the girls.”
“I like it when ladies tell me what to do,” I said.
“What else would you like?” Mme. Tussaud asked.
I peeled off two twenties from my wallet. “Actually, what I would like is some information.”
Madame Tussaud flinched.
“Tell me what you know about the GI’s who’ve been knocked over the head and robbed at the Club over the last few months.”
Things went quieter than a wax museum after hours.
“You’re a cop,” Mme. Tussaud said.
“No,” I replied. “A private investigator.” Which was kind of true.
“I already told the police everything I knew about those robberies,” Tussaud said. “Which is nothing. This is Lawton, Oklahoma. People get knocked over the head all the time.”
I peeled out two tens.
Tussaud stood. “Keep your money, Mr. whomever-you-are. We’re done here.” She stomped out of our love nest.
My career as an Army investigator was off to a bad start.
There wasn’t much else to do, other than leave. I continued down the corridor, to see what there was to see, which wasn’t much, just more closed doors, a flickering light, and an exit door. I stepped outside into a pitch-black, deserted, weed-infested alley that made the interior of the Club seem pleasant by comparison.
Across the alley, a rat scurried from an overturned trash can. I observed that its brown fur closely resembled the fibers of the Club Royale carpet. It also struck me that this alley would be an ideal place to whack a half-drunk GI over the head. Just when I had that thought, I sensed, rather than saw, movement from behind, followed by a crashing blow. The world flashed a brilliant white, and I tumbled into darkness.
Sometime later, I opened my eyes to find myself on a bed of gravel, a pounding in my head. I gingerly ran my fingers over the bloody lump on the back of my head.
“PFC Flynn,” said a disembodied voice and I looked over at a pair of boots. I gazed up. The boots were occupied by one of the ugliest Military Police officer I’d ever seen. With his crew-cut, bulging eyes, pocked face, and jutting teeth, he looked like Frankenstein’s unwanted son. He held my wallet in his hands and was scanning my military identification. Or maybe he was intending to eat the wallet.
“Wild night on the town?” he asked.
“Take me to the hospital,” I moaned.
“What do I look like, a taxicab?” he replied.
It was better for all concerned that I slipped back into unconsciousness before I could enlighten him on what, or rather whom, he looked like.
I awoke on a bed of white sheets and a room of white walls. At first, I wondered if Frankenstein’s son had harvested my organs, until I took note of the IV bag, and nurses passing outside. I didn’t notice the officer in the starched green uniform and shining black boots until he spoke.
“PFC Flynn, I presume,” he said, from his visitor’s chair.
I struggled to salute. “Captain Parker,” I said.
Parker looked me over with his beady eyes. “You’re lucky to have such a hard head. You might have even improved your looks.”
The phosphorescent lights reflected off my commanding officer’s shaved pate. He leaned forward. “If it’s not too much trouble, maybe you could explain how the hell you got into a barroom brawl when you were supposed to be investigating a series of robberies?”
I did my best to explain.
“The bottom line is,” Parker said, “we don’t know anything more than when we started. I’ve still got one pissed-off Congressman on my hands, whose GI son happens to have been robbed at the Club Royale. The only thing you accomplished was to get robbed of $70 of Uncle Sam’s money.”
My day-to-day job in the Army was to train artillery recruits. Captain Parker had recently hired me for investigations that the Army, for one reason or the other, wanted to keep low-key.
I winced. “Give me another chance, Captain.”
“Spend less time on wise-cracks, more time solving mysteries,” Parker said. “Speaking of which, there’s a young woman in the lobby. She claims she’s a friend of yours. I told her you didn’t have any friends but she wouldn’t believe me.”
Parker exited, boots squeaking. “I want an update within the week.”
Susan the Dark-Haired-Beauty came walking through the door.
I ran my fingers through my hair before realizing I didn’t have any. Susan the DHB had that kind of effect on me, with her dark hair, porcelain skin, and a body that would jolt Frankenstein back to life. She looked a few years younger than my tender age of 25.
I hardly knew Susan and had no idea why she’d come to visit. I’d seen her from time-to-time at the Green Goose bar. She kept her pack of male suitors – dogs chasing a bone – at bay.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your accident,” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“It wasn’t an accident,” I said, managing a weak smile.
“What happened?” Susan asked.
“I was in an alley yodeling when someone threw a shoe at me.”
“Be serious,” Susan said.
“Seriously,” I replied. “I got hit over the head and woke up here. Speaking of which, how did you even know what happened?”
“Word spreads,” she said. “I came out of concern.” Susan looked down at her hands. “I know we hardly know each other, but I’ve been meaning to talk to you for some time. One of the GI’s told me that you are a conscientious objector.”
I blinked. I didn’t keep my application a secret, but I didn’t brag about it either.
“I admire you for that,” Susan continued. “I’m opposed to the War. I’m active in my church. I’m the Co-Chair of the Lawton Peace Committee.”
My mouth hung open. I was no stranger to anti-war sentiment. I’d gone to college for a year in liberal New England, but Oklahoma was a conservative place. I figured conscientious objectors were about as popular as vegetarians at a pig roast.
“Okay,” I said. “But what’s a girl like you doing hanging around the Green Goose?” The Goose was a rough and tumble joint, the kind of bar where Satan keeps his hand on his wallet so it won’t get stolen.
“What better place to meet regular GI’s?” Susan said. “It’s part of my outreach ministry.”
“I’ll be darned,” I said. We stared at each other.
“I was hoping that when you feel better, you might come to a meeting of the Lawton Peace Committee,” Susan said. “We’d be honored to have you. We’ve never had a conscientious objector at our meeting before.”
I figured the entire state of Oklahoma had never had one before, but what did that matter. Susan the DHB was staring at me with those big green eyes.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
A few days later, my head had healed sufficiently for me to swing back into action. But first I had to have my weekly talk with the Dead. The gloomy sanctuary of the Catholic Church, a few blocks from Fort Sill Boulevard, was where I did my talking.
Early evening light filtered through the glass windows. A few old ladies were, as always, hunched over in prayer, or maybe nobody had told them that Sunday services had ended.
I paid 25 cents for the privilege of lighting a candle in remembrance of my brother, Tom.
Tom had died five years ago in a car accident. He was everything I wasn’t. Motivated and directed, he’d finished college in four years, excelled in sports, and had a girlfriend. I always looked up to him, wanted to be like him. When I sat in that church, it felt like he was there with me, listening to my silent ruminating, counseling me.
My brother had a way of bringing things to my attention. I was, I realized, downright giddy about the prospect of seeing Susan at the Peace Committee meeting. At root I was a lonely person, didn’t have close friends, and female companionship at Fort Sill was as scarce as water in the desert. As to the Club Royale, I was angry about having been such a sucker. I thought my brother would agree with me, but instead I got a ghostly admonition, which lingered as I departed.
Be careful, he whispered. Be careful.
My destination was yet another church – Lawton had its saints as well as its sinners – a few blocks away. The church basement space was run-down, with a cracked linoleum floor and a water fountain so dry that not even Moses could coax liquid out of it. Members of the Peace Committee, some of them old enough to have changed Moses’ diaper, milled around with cups of coffee.
Susan introduced me as a conscientious objector and people breathed a sigh of relief that the man with the bandaged head hadn’t come to bar them from the Promised Land.
The group planned to hand out flyers at shopping malls in opposition to the War. Though I wouldn’t participate, I was glad to live in a country where dissent was possible. God bless America, and also my good luck, when Susan asked me to walk her home after the meeting.
“Is Boston very different from here?” Susan asked, as we strolled past dimly-lit streets of identical ranch houses.
“Night and day,” I said. “Mostly, I notice the weather here in Oklahoma; hail as big as golf balls, tornadoes. The endless plains lit up at night by lightning strikes. Flowers blooming overnight in springtime.”
“That’s quite a bit,” she said.
Our arms brushed lightly as we walked along.
Susan asked how I’d come to be a conscientious objector.
I blamed some of it on my former roommate in AB2, who’d served in Vietnam and laughed about throwing people out of helicopters. “It sure didn’t come from my dad,” I said. “He’s a police officer and conservative as they get.”
“My dad’s the same,” Susan said. “He’s retired military.”
“He’ll love me.”
“Oh, I don’t know, he likes people who speak their minds,” Susan said, as we neared the stoop of her home.
I was debating whether I could get away with kissing Susan goodnight, when she grabbed the lapels of my disco shirt and pulled me close. She pressed her lips – full, warm, and willing – on mine.
I made up for months of female kissing deprivation.
“I hope we see each again,” Susan said.
“Yeah,” I muttered, as best I could in my breathless state.
I floated back through the deserted streets of Lawton towards Fort Sill.
As I walked along, I heard the sound of crunching tires. A police car pulled up beside me. The window rolled down. I stared at the mug of the MP – Frankenstein’s son – from the alley.
Frankie glared at me.
“Thanks for checking in on me,” I said. I pointed at my head. “I still got a few stitches but they’re healing quite nicely.”
Frankie pointed an automatic pistol at me. Streetlight glinted off his protruding teeth.
“Get in the back seat, wise-guy.”
I find it best not to argue with a loaded pistol, so I did as commanded. Imagine my shock when I found Joey the Stick occupying that back seat. Imagine my further surprise when Joey’s right fist struck me between the eyes.
Not much later I awoke to find myself twisted like a pretzel. My right arm was handcuffed to a chain link fence. I was sprawled on an asphalt parking lot littered with trash. My left eye was throbbing and swollen.
Frankenstein, Jr., and Joey were leaning up against the cruiser in the middle of the deserted lot illuminated only by moonlight.
“I thought you’d learned your lesson after I instructed Joey to whack you in the alley. Now I find you walking home with the boss’s daughter.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I muttered.
“You don’t know?” Frankie said. “Joey, he don’t know.”
“Guess not,” Joey said. “He’s a slow learner.”
“Susan’s daddy owns the Club Royale,” Frankie said. “He’s my boss.”
I had no response for that.
“I don’t think the boss would be pleased to find his daughter hanging out with some snitch,” Frankie said. “What do you think, Joey?”
“No,” Joey said. “He wouldn’t like that.”
“I’m thinking we need to find a permanent solution to the problem of Private Flynn,” Frankie said. His voice sounded slurred, like he might have had too much monster juice to drink. He whipped out the 45 automatic pistol. “I’ve never shot a person resisting arrest before. But a guy’s got to start somewhere.”
I struggled to a seated position. Keep them talking.
“Wait a minute ….you guys are the ones robbing the GI’s at the Club?”
Frankie snickered. “Yes, genius. I do the tracking – decide whom to rob – and Joey does the whacking.”
“Jesus, Joey,” I said. “You’re knocking your fellows GI’s on the head for a few extra bucks?”
“I keep the money, dim-wit,” Frankie said. “Joey gets favors.”
“How the hell do you justify that, Joey?” I asked.
“My goodness,” Frankie said. “I think we’ve upset Private Flynn. Say you’re sorry, Joey.”
“Sorry,” Joey said.
“Enough,” Frankie said, leveling the pistol at me. “I wonder if he’ll even notice the hole in his head.”
My eyes were half-closed when Joey whipped out his beloved pool stick from his sleeve and brought it down hard on Frankie’s wrist. Frankie howled and the pistol clattered to the ground.
Both dived on the pistol like footballers after a fumble. I could’ve kicked them in the head, but I wasn’t sure which one to target.
A shot rang out.
Frankie thrashed and went still. Joey got out of the pile and brushed himself off. He took a key off of Frankie’s belt, and unlocked my handcuffs.
“Sorry about this,” he said.
I stood. The gun was still on the ground. As fast as I could I snatched it up and pointed it at Joey. Joey raised his hands. “Take it easy,” he said.
“You’re under arrest,” I told him.
“Don’t be a chump, Flynn,” Joey said. “I didn’t know it was you I’d whacked at the Club until I took you to the hospital. I’d never have gotten you involved in this stuff.”
“That’s great, Joey. You’re a real pal.”
“Why the hell do you want to do the Army’s dirty work? They don’t give a damn about you. You think they’d even be investigating if some Congressman’s son hadn’t got robbed? You got your criminal,” he said, motioning towards Frankie. “Let’s split the cash from the robberies and call it a day.”
In the distance, a siren sounded.
A few weeks later, my head had healed and my eye felt good, although it’d turned black and yellow. I looked like a raccoon, minus the fur.
For my efforts, Captain Parker gave me a pat on the back. You understand, we don’t want to draw too much public attention to a case like this.
Joey would soon be packing his bags for Leavenworth military prison, albeit with a lighter sentence for having saved my life.
I briefly considered Joey’s assertion that I was a chump, and decided against it. Even if it was true, I knew I’d sleep better as an honest chump.
The Army investigated Susan’s daddy, but found no evidence of any wrongdoing. I still had one phone call to make.
Lucky for me, Susan and not her dad answered and we agreed to meet the following day, a Saturday. Our destination was a breakfast joint along the Boulevard. Lettering on the window promised diners “just the basics.” and they weren’t kidding. The eggs were larger than the waffles and the flies outnumbered the customers.
Susan looked anything but basic, in a clingy, black blouse that did nothing to hide her natural accoutrements.
“You didn’t really come to the hospital to visit me, did you?” I asked, hoping I was wrong. “You came because your father sent you to keep an eye on his business problem. He owns the Club Royale.”
Susan winced. “Yes, but there’s no shame in that. Of course he wanted to know what happened. And before you condemn him, let me tell you that he’s a good man. He’s been trying to bring in more respectable tenants. It hasn’t been easy.”
I pondered Susan’s words.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all that upfront but it’s not like we know each other well.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute.
“I did want to talk to you about the CO thing. That was … real.” Susan blushed. “And you haven’t exactly been upfront with me, have you?”
“Meaning?” I asked.
“Meaning, I’m wondering, are you really a conscientious objector? Or is that just a cover story for your Army investigation?”
“No,” I said, taken aback, “I mean yes, I’m an objector, and I do investigations for the Army on the side. Both things are true.”
“And you came to the church meeting because …”
“Because I wanted to see you,” I blurted. “I could tell you I support the Peace Committee, but that would be misleading. I came for you.” My heart started to pound and I could feel the pounding travelling to my throat.
Susan stirred the shadows in her coffee. “Okay,” she said.
“Just okay?” I asked.
I leaned in. “Maybe things could become more than okay. Between us.”
A smile eased onto Susan’s face. I didn’t need my brother to tell me what to do next. My hand found its way onto Susan’s.
That her smile remained made me feel a whole lot better.
About the author:
Dennis M. Desmond is an attorney living in the Washington, DC, area with his wife and daughter. He received his BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his JD from Antioch School of Law. He’s a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and was a contributing author to “Pipe Dream Blues” by Clarence Lusane (South End Press, 1991). His short story, “Camp Jesus”, was published in the Broad River Review (vol. 47, 2015). His other interests include foreign languages and playing basketball.
Photograph: “Barflies,” by Joseph Buemi. Binghamton native Buemi’s work is held in the collections of the Museum Reattu in Arles, France, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the King’s Library in Copenhagen, as well as in corporate and private collections. He died in 2007.