Don L. Robishaw
as having a felony on their record.”
William L. Robinson, III
Winter of ‘84
Leap year, winter of ‘84. Make a deposit at the local blood bank and get twelve dollars. If late, it’s ten. I hang out and drink all their orange juice.
“Thank you, Sergeant Robinson, for your donation and service. Can’t stay here, all day.”
This happens every time.
“Just Willie, please.”
I turn and hit the streets. Cash twelve-dollar check around the corner at a multi-purpose Package Store in West Roxbury. Get a sawbuck back. Bloody usury. This is bullshit. Young gypsy girl with sad eyes reminds me I have a daughter somewhere. Touches my hand, turns it over, scans the lines, frowns, and shakes her head. Gypsy girl knows. Never charges me for coffee at the Packy. Never says thank you for your service. Half Asian…maybe, “Have a nice day, Willie.”
“If I were younger….”
She laughs, smiles, hands over my coffee and paper sack. Good kid. Packy owner would fire her ass in a Boston minute if he knew about the coffee. Fran from the shelter and me, we loiter outside the Packy sipping coffee. Thirty minutes later the owner taps on the window, as usual. We get it—loitering, public vagrancy. Big deal. Won’t be the first time the cops come and make us move.
“What are we going to do now,” asks Fran?
“Get fucked up.”
Fran laughs, and slaps my shoulder. “Getting shit-faced today, kid. Loss of blood and cheap wine sometimes causes flashbacks, though.”
Fran’s sensitive and reminds me, “Willie, I’m here for ya baby, don’t even think about them.”
There really is a bottom.
Leave Packy area and find an old Chevy with flat tires and broken windows in an empty lot. Open door and slide into backseat. “Ahh, shit.” Pony tail catches on broken interior roof light wires. Fran puts her hand on my knee, help her slide in next to me. Take gloves off one finger at a time, reach deep into pea-coat I found at the shelter and fish out an old friend. Often alone, makes me happy on moonlit nights. Remove wine from sack, unscrew cap, and fill my friend up to the brim. Tip back and squeeze, “What’s the word?”
Fran says, “Thunderbird.”
“What’s the price?”
Fran laughs, “Thirty twice.”
Raise again, twist face, and say, “Nit, nit, nit, ahh, God-damn Sam that’s good shit, aye. Ahoy cruel world.” Pass it over to Fran. She digs the stuff. We having fun.
Fran asks, “Does the alcohol warm you up?”
“Not really, more like the opposite. You want to know what will warm me up?”
Her hand’s still on my knee. Start making out. Fifteen minutes pass, not the greatest location. Wearing more clothing, than we need. Don’t feel the cold anymore. A rare moment for Willie here, as we begin to explore each others bodies.
I’ve missed this. Not exactly on the top of ladies’ hit parade these days.
Cops kick the door. “You know, youse guys can’t be here.”
Asshole. Get out of the Chevy, walk to the homeless shelter. Have a private place in there for Fran and me, if we can get back in.
“Ah man, Willie, you drunk again? Can’t let you in, bro.”
“Hear ya, man.”
Sonny, the night guard says, “Wore that coat for four years, mate,” and slips me a five-spot, turns, shuts door. Hang outside for an hour.
Getting colder. We stagger towards tent city; a forty-five minute walk. Get to know Fran better on the way. Thin, short blond hair, can still be a pretty girl if she’d get her teeth fixed.
Fran smiles, “Still cold, Willie?”
Let my mind wander. Start to imagine Fran after a makeover, a trip to the dentist, and dressed really nice. Two minutes to tent city, stop, make love on hard ground under bridge over bottomless Charles River. Fran refuses to take my last ten dollars.
I immediately hate myself. I want to die. The lady’s pissed-off. She cries. Shaking my head, for Christ Sake’s man, why did you do that? She ain’t no ho. We sit, don’t look at each other, and stare out at the muddy river.
There really is a bottom, and it looks like Fran and me.
I’m shivering, “Who is Malcolm?” Fran asks as she touches the ink on my forearm.
“Sorry Darlin, I never talk about Malcolm.”
On blood days we meet with others at tent city behind the black one-hundred foot tall storage tank along the Charles. Tonight there’s three tents in the wooded area behind the tank. We build a fire, drink more wine, and dine on box lunches.
Tonight, Fran’s dressed in an old leopard skin print coat, white ribbed beanie with a fake fur pom-pom, olive green mittens, black and grey baggy stripped slacks, and white tennis shoes. Oh yeah, and she’s shitfaced.
Fran stands in front of a half circle of men and women. Red-faced and shivering, says, “Folks, I’ve got a story to tell you. I always wanted to be a nun.” Arms folded, hands sliding back and forth and up and down on leopard-skin. “Father Flaherty encouraged me from the time I was a young girl. The good father said I was like a daughter. Liked to hug me. I liked it. My daddy never hugged me. He was too drunk. Didn’t think about it much till I developed boobs.”
A few snickers.
“He got transferred before my senior year. I missed him and his hugs. Got accepted into the nunnery right out of high school. After my first year Father Flaherty was transferred to the nunnery. I was so happy and excited to see him. We became best friends. He was the kind of father I always wanted. He taught me about sex. Throughout my second year we would meet privately, until we got caught. I was nineteen and forced to resign. Father Flaherty was transferred, again. Became use to the structured life, joined the army where I learned about drinking. I combined drinking and sex, a little too often. I was out of control. Got a bad paper discharge.”
Fran and me make eye contact and both smile. I pass her the goat skin.
She takes a swig, “Funny, I told this story at an AA meeting once to a hundred people. It was warm and I was sober. Took forty-five minutes to tell the whole story, not five. Got a big hand, like everyone gets when they share their story at AA.”
We all clap.
I’m next. Get up and wave my arms. I think about my life and how I got here. I say to the vets. “Back in the day, tested high for language. During first tour of Nam, was a translator and interrogator. Got out with medals and good paper — honorable discharge.”
A guy named Loser gets up off a rock, stands, stretches, and squeezes the goat skin. “Ahh, didn’t your withdrawals give you away?”
“No withdrawals, bro. Dope available everyday. Was a soldier, a good soldier, otherwise.”
Silent Bob nods. Carried a knife in the shelter before they got a metal detector. Sure he’s got bad paper. Don’t want to mess with this son of a bitch.
“Back in the states and on the streets of Boston. Don’t know how to score skag.”
Fran asks, “What did you do?”
“Made friends with street vets, learned how to score and live without work. Didn’t like it. Not as easy to score dope as in The Nam.”
“What happened next?”
“A year later, reenlisted.”
Silent Bob shakes his head, “Say what? For fuckin’ heroin?”
“Don’t want to talk about it.”
“Come on, man. Tell us about Malcolm.” He laughs.
“You think this is funny? I don’t talk about Malcolm. Go fuck yourself, Bob!”
We both try to get up. A few guys separate us.
I try to continue. “Heard I had a daughter in Nam, that’s all. …don’t want to talk about her either.” There are places I just can’t return to, that’s all.
Fran, red faced, looks like she’s about to blow a lunch. “Fran, you all right?”
Silent Bob slides over a few feet.
“Anyway, sent me back to Nam. In the meantime, US Army learned more about drugs and soldiers who took drugs. Was found out and given bad paper. Nothing else mattered: Purple Heart and other medals, previous record, nothing. Wasn’t eligible for most veteran’s benefits, including the GI Education Bill.”
“Same here, bro,” says Loser.
“What happened after you got stateside, again,” asks Fran?
“You know Harry’s Place in the Combat Zone? Hung out there and other bars, bumming money. Ate scraps in Chinatown. Back on the streets still addicted to skag. Kick with help from a friend.”
“And who be your friend,” with a little jealousy in her voice, says Fran.
“Thirty straight days. Jim Beam, Kentucky Bourbon be my friend, sister.” Sounds of crazy laughter. “I ain’t shittin’ you.”
Red faced from laughing so hard, Fran says, “Okay Willie, why didn’t you come to Malden with me the other night? ”
“What happened that was so special in Malden?”
Fran says, “Got lucky. Got a script from a doctor for a month of methadone and yellow jackets. Sold most of it to buy wine. Not really hooked on skag. Maybe a chipper now and then, but no junkie.”
I say, “Don’t want that stuff near me. Seen what methadone does to people over the long haul. Now, I’m a wino instead.” Big step up, hey, Willie.
In the ER
Fran passes out next to the fire. Try to wake her. Shake again, and again. “Baby, don’t tell me you mixed barbiturates with wine. Get up, get up!” Drag her up the embankment.
Hit the streets, hail a cab. Pass on VA hospital. Might not take her in because of bad paper. Maybe they will. Don’t want to chance it. Straight to the ER at Boston General. Friday night, place is crazy. The two boys who helped, split. After two hours Fran gets help. They pump her stomach and keep her overnight. Sleep in the ER waiting room.
Next morning, she’s ready to be discharged. Takes my hand, turns it over, stares at the lines, shakes and cries. Man, hate when she does that.
Nurse Vicki, a hardened ER head nurse, enters the room and says, “This is not your first rodeo. Do you remember me, Fran?”
“I don’t know if you were even paying attention to the doctor this morning.”
“Doctor Valdez. She’s the one who stabalized your heart and brought your blood pressure down.”
“If you don’t stop drinking you’ll soon end up like my first husband.”
“What happened to him?”
“He’s fuckin’ dead, Fran. My little Jonny never got to even meet him,” as Nurse Vicky removes a hand from Fran’s shoulder with a tear in her eye.
Fran listens intently to Nurse Vicky’s fifteen minute spiel. Vicki looks over at me and says, “She’s done significant damage.”
Fran’s discharged and persuades me to go to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting. Don’t dig these meetings. Guess it’s love. “Okay baby, I’ll go.”
“Haircut and shave too.”
“Where do you want to go, Fran?”
“Just get me the fuck out of here.”
“Hospitals give me the creeps too. I need to get out of here.”
“Not Sonny. Not Malcolm.”
We become permanent guests at the dry shelter, as long as we stay sober. Luck’s on our side. Fran gets approved for Social Security Disability Insurance with the help of a lawyer, and gets a three-month retroactive check. The shelter staff helps us find a pad. Fran gives the shelter most of her money to hold.
We check out of the shelter, move into an apartment, and continue attending AA meetings. Fran gets on my case these days to find a decent job. I’ve quit drinking, quit smoking, shaved, and got a haircut too. Isn’t that enough for her?
I’ve got no skills. Take a job second shift washing dishes at Greg’s Restaurant. Of course, it’s also a bar. I’m tempted everyday. After two weeks, I have my first slip. That’s what AA calls it when you end your sobriety streak by consuming alcohol. Several times show up to work drunk. Management tries to work with me.
“One Day at a Time” is the mantra at AA. I call Sonny, my AA sponsor. He comes over to give words of encouragement to start another streak. I go another two weeks.
Eventually stop going to the meetings. I quit AA. On the other hand, Fran’s doing really well. Gets her teeth fixed for free at Tufts University. She knows the schedule where all the meetings are around Beantown and never misses a single one. She’s had a moment of clarity.
She’s getting a little too friendly though, with her Social Security Disability lawyer who also attends AA meetings. Fran and I fight. Tell her, “Stop going to the meetings Fran, or we’re finished!”
She quits AA too and starts drinking again. After several weeks we’re broke, evicted, and back on the streets.
Sometimes we return to the shelter to eat and hang with friends. My old friend and former AA sponsor, Sonny, is on the front desk today. He’s outside on a smoke break. Sonny would give you the shirt off his back, literally.
Silent Bob’s his usual drunk and belligerent self. Stares at me, but he’s in the middle of a confrontation with Sonny.
Bob yells, “You’re an asshole, Sonny.” They’ve been at each other for several weeks now.
Pointing his finger at Bob, “It’s the rule. Told you three times already. You can’t come back here for a week.”
Fran says, “Be careful, Sonny.” Fearless, Sonny turns towards Fran and smiles.
Silent Bob pulls out a switchblade, cuts Sonny twice from ear to ear. Fuckin’ terrible, blood everywhere! Sonny covers his throat, blood drips between his fingers.
I try to stop the bleeding with an old rag.
It’s no use.
You should have protected Sonny. You should have done something to stop it.
Time stops. Not in Boston anymore. Back in Nam.
I’m scared. Mom told me to protect Malcolm. I can’t even protect the ones I love. I should be fuckin’ dead, not my friend Sonny. Not Malcolm.
Police arrive and Bob’s inside the green dumpster in the yard. Police knock me off the top of the dumpster. Hope to never see that bastard again. Police drag Silent Bob away. Bob had bad paper, too. The shelter beefs up security for the next month.
I’m not the same man. I relive the event over and over, again and again. I can’t sleep at night and suffer from recurring nightmares. Some even from Vietnam.
“Just Willie, please”
Move back to tent city for the umpteenth time. Fran’s SSDI check’s overdue.
The Loser gets a high school equivalency through the shelter’s GED program. Good paper. Can he get his military discharge upgraded to honorable? Better paper. Working on the upgrade for fifteen years, now.
For some men and women, it was as bad as having a felony on your record. Knew a fella who was a bit of a slacker, not a bad guy, got bad paper after four years of service because of a couple of negative job performance evaluations. I got bad performance evaluations at Greg’s–a little slow on the pots and pans. Imagine getting a felony on your record for that! Same difference.
Fran breaks up with me. She’s been on my case to get another job, after I got fired from Greg’s for continuing to show up drunk. I’ve destroyed every meaningul relationship I’ve ever had. I’ve tried to change before. Last I heard, Fran’s still seeing the lawyer who helped her get on SSDI.
I’m back at the blood bank, make a deposit. Another lucky day. I got a raise. They give me a fifteen dollar check. Hang around, drink all their orange juice.
“Thank you Sergeant Robinson for your donation and service, but you can’t stay here all day.”
This happens every time.
“Just Willie, please.”
I turn, slowly walk away, don’t look back, and hit the streets. I cash the check at the Packy. Not in a good mood Louie, don’t even think about it. Can he read my mind? First time there’s no check-cashing fee. Maybe luck is changing. Got a few dollars. Should I go to the track again today? Buy scratch tickets instead.
The young gypsy girl with sad eyes that always reminds me of my lost my daughter, waits on me. She touches my hand, turns it over, scans the short lines; shakes her head. She knows. Got a bad road ahead. Never charges me for coffee at the Packy and never says, thank you for your service.
The gypsy girl says, “Have a nice day, Willie.”
“If I were younger….”
While waiting, I think about my life and how I ended up here. She laughs, smiles, hands me a coffee and a paper sack.
About the writer:
Don L. Robishaw served in the US Navy, worked for the VA Hospital in Leads, Massachusetts, and as a civilian for the US Army in South Korea. He has been a Peace Corps volunteer, bartender, hitchhiker, world traveler and backpacker, college professor, and circus roustabout. He ran educational programs for homeless shelters for thirteen years. Today, he writes short stories and flash fiction about men and women from various backgrounds who are on “the hero’s journey.” His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and in O-Dark-Thirty.