FINDING ROMULUS’ ROME
by Skitz O’Fuel
This begins in a warm leather chair of a neurologist’s office in Odessa, Texas. Alex Randal is recalling the day he saw One-Armed Billy get his ass kicked behind the grocery store down the alley from his school. He never talked to One-Armed Billy before or after and he has often regretted it. His bloody eye and his fucked up nose and his bloody broken smile and how he laughed at Shawn Baker. Laughed at him. Alex was awestruck. Don’t feel defeated Alex, the neurologist tells him. He tells him there are smart people working on treatments and procedures, making progress. He reminds him of his youth. He lists medications designed to relieve any symptoms he might experience. He tells him to call his office the moment he feels any strange pressure or nausea or experiences any prolonged headaches. Randal begins explaining—again—that he hasn’t experienced any symptoms but he stops himself and instead conveys his respect for the doctor’s profession, his respect for science, interrupting the neurologist several times to clarify his point. So all that being said, doc, you understand what kind of shock this is to a person—to me—so I’m going to ask you one question: how long? I don’t have an answer for you. I could fall out of this chair right now, is that what yer saying? The doctor stares into Randal’s eyes past his threshold of confidence until he finally relents. I suppose that’s what I’m saying. I appreciate yer honesty, doc. Randal rises from the leather chair, noting the sound of it, like slingshot tubing gathering energy. The receptionist is a tall unobtainable beauty who projects an aloof air which dissolves the moment he approaches her. He is abrupt and far too direct for her taste but she indulges what she will later describe to a friend as his cold cordiality. She follows him from the office onto the stone floor of the main hallway and within minutes they are sweating and naked in a men’s restroom stall. He’s arrested within the hour. Randal won’t remember what initiated his encounter with the cop, only that he relished every second of it.
I’m not saying yer a bad person, Randal tells him, I’m saying it takes a very special individual to handle authority, a very rare personality; most cops don’t have it; maybe you could get a job in a mall; it helps if you know something about athletic shoes or panties. Randal had memorized this rant and dreamt of its debut before an officer of the law. Today is that day and he bathes in the effervescent satisfaction of it before his face hits the hood of the squad car. Van Horne would have jumped his ass for a stunt so brazen. But Van Horne comes later. Van Horne will meet an Alex Randal unrecognizable to the one now smiling and bleeding in a drunk-tank in Odessa, Texas. Randal buys a motorcycle, refusing red lights or speed limits until he’s ticketed for exhibition of acceleration ten miles across the California state line. He plays mumblety-peg for money in a Barstow dive. Rock climbing leads to cliff diving leads to skydiving which leads to base-jumping and a new circle of acquaintances, most of whom think Alex Randal is insane. He acquires an affinity for car chases, once switching from passenger seat to driver seat by crawling over the roof. He learns jujitsu and krav maga and spends his nights breaking arms and removing knives and guns from angry men’s hands. Tattoos will cover his body from the neck down. He sells pounds of heroin, mountains of cocaine, suitcases of molly. Then there are the women. Sassy bartenders share a universal and mutual attraction with him. Grocery stores become places to score as much as places to shop for food. There are several naked skydives to impress girls. A mere glimpse of a woman staring down at him from a party prompts a ten-story climb from one hotel balcony to another. He pays for a multitude of prostitutes and calls many of them friends. Randal finds himself attached over the next few months to a particularly sultry Asian who has a smart mouth with which she aggravates her pimp, a man who now suffers from chronic broken fingers and black eyes. Randal loses contact after her conviction and incarceration for shoving a certain Baptist preacher (a man famous for buying up strip clubs across the West, renovating them into churches) through a downtown hotel penthouse window. He buys part of a vodka company and recruits a chaotic clutch of strippers for his sales and promotional teams. Over the next year, Randal’s business partner acquires a cocaine habit, loses his wife and children and “sells” the company to a mobster with his hooks in the state legislature. None of this bothers Randal. He has fallen for a hyper-talented young graffiti artist, an anarchist from Estonia who speaks semi-decipherable English yet still lapses into extended soliloquies against capitalist economies and the absurdities of political borders. They spend their nights fucking on rooftops and shooting red-light cameras off traffic signals with a .22 magnum rifle. She takes hours of his time in playful attempt at uncovering the reason for Randal’s estrangement from his mother and family. In a Seattle restaurant where they spin cognac and smear caviar, the Estonian introduces him to an associate who claims he can get any gun—any weapon for that matter—Randal might desire. The three of them spend a week on a ranch shooting all manner of rifles and pistols and assault weapons. After the Estonian mentions Randal’s ability to protect himself with his hands, the associate grills him on his past and current sources of income. There isn’t a current source. Coincidental because, the associate explains, I’m looking for someone to go to Florida; some campesino has miraculously acquired a stash of military grade stuff, from the sound of it, probably a shipment that disappeared several years ago—not one of mine—on its way to some faction of the Sandero Luminoso; I know none of this means anything to you but if you are looking for something to do with your time as you say, I might be able do something for you and you do something for me. You trust me this much already, nothing but a couple of meals and some bullets shared between us? I trust this young woman and that’s what matters. I just have to confirm it’s legit? And if it is, you inventory it for me. A handshake and a round of sake seal the deal and several days later, in a morning fog so thick he can’t see his feet, Randal kisses the Estonian goodbye in the SFO parking lot. The Estonian will disappear, never making contact with Alex Randal (who will never discover she perishes in a premature bomb explosion during riots in Greece) again. In the Keys, at the beachside bar where his campesino contact will never materialize, Alex Randal meets a bikini-clad green-eyed bartender with moves like a dancer who seems the exception to his rule. I really wanna throw a Sex-on-the-Beach line at you but my guess is it’s probably overused. You have no idea. No idea, huh? Like a thousand a month; it’s so sad; originality is dead; I mean seriously, charm must be retired or sumthin. Originality dead? charm retired? Like I said, Tex, a thousand Sex-on-the-Beach lines a month. I think originality is alive and well; and sometimes things are so charming, you don’t even notice them. If you’re gonna turn into a weirdo, you can pay up and move on. Yer saying I have no idea how many times you’ve heard some lame Sex-on-the-Beach line to get in you in the sack or the beach as the case may be? That’s right, no idea. Well, I must have some idea; I just got you to say more than two words to me with a lame Sex-on-the-Beach line. Vanessa Lupine and Alex Randal spend the night on the beach. In fact, they spend the next ten nights on the beach until one morning, a man dressed like the truckers from Randal’s hometown discovers them in the throes of coitus in her bungalow (on the beach) and he kicks Randal from the bed. The fight lasts several minutes and wrecks Vanessa Lupine’s fragile bedroom. Randal finally compromises the older man’s position, threatening to snap his wrist. The man, in his late fifties, bleeding from his lip and ear, now sliding down the wall in sighing relief, is the aforementioned (Chris) Van Horne. What the fuck do you think yer doing, old man? I tend to lose my temper when I find some punk screwin my wife! Yer wife? I’m not his goddamned wife! Vanessa Lupine throws Randal’s clothes in his face and orders the pair out of the house with an exclamatory heave of a wooden hairbrush, resulting in the collateral destruction of a dresser mirror. Randal hurries on his pants in the sizzling glare of sunrise, squinting after Van Horne who is limping down the beach, his palm pressed against his bloody ear. Where in the hell did you learn to fight like that, old man? Where’d you learn to bleed like that, kid? Van Horne has to make a lazy gesture toward his chin before Randal realizes his chin is bleeding. After Van Horne finally stops laughing and then finally stops coughing, he invites Randal for a drink. It’s the least I can do for cleaning your clock. You didn’t clean anybody’s clock; we need to sit down, old man; I’m afraid you might be delirious. Van Horne buys cold mugs of beer as much to cool their swollen hands as for the alcohol. They stretch out on a bench staring into the gleaming gingerbread neighborhood crowded with tourists and palm trees and the osmyrrah of Caribbean cuisine and honeysuckle. Relaxed, his guard lowering, Randal makes his first detailed note of Van Horne’s size. The John Wayne trunk and the paddle-sized hands. Van Horne peels his blackened ball cap so the bill shades his leathery neck and he privileges Randal with his time in the Corps, how he was a troubled Iowa boy court ordered to either join the Corps or go to state prison so he chose the Corps and smashed a sergeant’s face with his boot and dropped an MP with an open hand slap then got pistol whipped in the back of a jeep, all on his first day, still scratching from his shave the next morning when a pair of MPs drove him and the largest black man he has ever seen to a remote strip of barracks and barbed wire where, dawn to dusk, the prisoners moved a mountain of gravel from one side of the yard to the other using only hands and footlockers and he remembers how frightened he was when they drove through the gate and how relieved when they only left the huge black man behind the fence and Van Horne still wishes he knew the officer’s name who designed this coercion that tightened his crooked line into a straight one and paved the way for the best days of his life. So you learned all those judo throws in the Marines? That and how to fly a plane. How serendipitous, Randal says, I jump out of them. Van Horne walks him through town to an airfield where they drink rum in a hangar while he boasts about his plane, an ancient DC-3, a Commando, one of less than a dozen still in the air, void of any fancy accoutrements such as seats. Randal doubts if the thing has seen any significant air in a decade. What’s with the cigarette? Randal asks him. You mean, why don’t I light it? Yeah, of course, why won’t you let me light the damn thing? I quit smoking em ten years ago, just can’t seem to keep em outta my face. I could quit smoking if I would quit drinking, Randal says. But why would you do that? Exactly. Funny thing about cigarettes, Van Horne tells him. Several hours and several bottles later, it only takes mild persuasion to put Randal in the cockpit next to Van Horne, roughly 18,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico headed for the Yucatan to smuggle 13,000 pounds of cheap American cigarettes onto a US Navy patrol ship. It’s cheesecake, Van Horne assures him, the unlit cigarette ever dangling like a miniature drum stick rattling off the paradiddle cadence of his voice. Van Horne buzzes the massive shark colored patrol craft before sinking over the trees. They land at sundown on a long soft gash of moist soil only a mile off the coast. They watch the captain and his half dozen men unload the pallets of cigarettes and place them onto rusty flatbed trucks. Not engaging any attempt to hide his dilated eyes, the captain—younger than Randal anticipates—insists they partake in some Navy hospitality before they return to the air. The lengthy discussion on the ship will meander the profit margins on tax free cigarettes in California, college football, Cannibal Corpse, Townes van Zandt, the captain’s war, how Van Horne missed out on Vietnam, the captain’s current mission hunting drug smugglers along the coast of Mexico and Central America, touch on the philosophy of anarchism and finally end with a tour of the captain’s stash of personal weapons. During the entire exchange, several other officers enter his quarters to snort lines of coke or crushed codeine off the captain’s desk. When Randal asks how he gets way with all the drugs and the booze, the captain explains that due to all the contraband his crew encounters, they aren’t subject to the same testing requirements most sailors face. After Randal makes a remark about typical bureaucratic comedy, the captain prods him on his political views to which Randal affirms his belief in a stateless society. The captain tells him anarchism has never struck him as a foresighted option and he asks what Randal is going to do when all these government services disappear and the schools fall to pieces and the economy is flipped upside down. That’s not the question, Randal says, the question is, what are you going to do, sir? The captain laughs and says, I suppose I’ll still be fighting for democracy. You don’t need democracy to do coke and sell cheap smokes, captain. Democracy pays the bills, man; democracy lets me shoot wetbacks from the deck of a fucking warship, bro; speaking of weapons, I have a huge sword collection down below I have gotta show you. I’m sure you do, sailor, but I don’t swing that way. The trio enjoys a hearty laugh until Van Horne’s cough returns. When the captain insists again on showing them his swords, Van Horne tells him he’s not a fan of weapons, doesn’t own one, a remark that will later escalate to near argument during the flight back to the Keys. Randal will remind Van Horne of the captain’s instability and the stupidity of telling volatile people with weapons that you don’t have any. You can’t control a lie, Van Horne will tell him, you can use a lie to control people for a little while but every lie takes on a life of its own and then it’ll turn on you. But you didn’t even have to lie, Chris; you just had to keep yer trap shut. And then there will be a brief debate on who should be giving whom advice on when to keep one’s mouth shut but before all this, the captain’s special forces contingent reports a small vessel suspected of contraband moving north between the patrol ship and the coast. When asked for orders, the captain calls for the surface guns to open fire and he shows Randal and Van Horne grainy green images of villagers scampering from the trees to gather the “white lobster” bobbing in the surf among the smoldering remains of the eliminated speed boat. On their return, Vanessa greets them in the nocturnal festivity of the streets. As if the near razing of her home never happened, as if her days with Randal a slim recollection, she places her open mouth against Van Horne’s lips for an unreasonable length of time then pecks Randal on the cheek and waves goodbye, dragging Van Horne and his smug grin into the crowd. Don’t make me kick yer ass again, old man, Randal threatens him the following day. You might have to kick my ass several more times, kid, but it’ll never get any easier. Let’s test that theory. Calm down, sparky, last night she chose me, the night before that she chose you; don’t try and figure it out. This from the guy who blind-sides me while I’m balls-deep. That was before we were friends, friend. Randal knows without looking the contents of the paper bag Van Horne slides across the table. That was before we were partners, partner. Days later, they smuggle 6 tons of cheap Chinese textiles from St. Croix to Mexico, one of many midnight runs lugging cheap illegal Chinese goods to mainland North America. They fly 13,000 pounds of U.S. rice into Panama, destined for a hollow place in the hull of a Saudi oil tanker bound for South Korea. They move countless tons of cigarettes from one end of the Gulf to the other. They smuggle a 1997 candy-apple-red Lamborghini Diablo from Brownsville, Texas to Jaco, Costa Rica. They smuggle sugar from Brazil to Mexico, plastics from Mexico to Brazil. They deliver 4 tons of chicken legs and thighs to a Russian mobster in Nicaragua. A Peruvian government official gives them a bottle of 130 year-old Scotch to ensure that 7,000 pounds of exotic cumaru wood finds its way to the Belizean coast. A South African and his adulterous wife pay them to deliver two crates of coltan to a one-eyed Cuban in Guatemala. They smuggle tons of toys, glass, birdseed, motorcycles, computers, baseballs, kitchen knives, once flying an entire payload of gorgonzola cheese from Pensacola, Florida to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. When Randal asks Van Horne why he won’t fly guns or drugs, Van Horne reminds him that guns and drugs attract psychos. Vanessa shares Randal’s enthusiasm for both guns and drugs, if only on the occasions she chooses to spend with him and his persuading her into reckless stunts or forcing her to watch him perform them. She develops a specific predictability. Although she enjoys their mutual companionship and their social adventures as a threesome, she regulates them, getting high with Alex Randal and coming down with Chris Van Horne. She and Van Horne spend their time together in candle-lit places, laughing with old-timers and holding one another in the sea air. Her days are easy, bartending and flirting with rich tourists, men who would have paid her thousands a night to strip in Miami clubs ten years ago, the same men who would then pay tens of thousands to sleep with her only five years later. Why’d you quit? Alex, I’m thirty years-old; I made a lot of money; I didn’t have to sleep with a shitload; I got lucky, very fucking lucky; I have what I need; I’m done scrambling and chasing things. Yer thirty years old and it’s all done? no more dreams, no more goals; just gonna ride the same surf from here on out. It’s good surf, Alex, no more worries, no more surprises. Horseshit. I have you and I have Chris. How sick is he? I don’t know. Yer so full of shit. I don’t wanna talk about it. He’s getting worse. She continues her refusal and the ensuing argument culminates in a few heavy slaps across Randal’s cheeks and he’s thrown out for the night. For some time now, Randal and Van Horne have exchanged a silent cognizance following his coughing fits and Randal has seen the bloody handkerchiefs and the way his breathing can go shallow. One night in a crowded Miami club, the triplet is drinking and belligerent, attracting the ire of some servicemen so infatuated with Vanessa a shouting match becomes a confrontation in the alley where Randal wrenches a gun from a drunk kid’s hand and dismantles the thing, throwing the pieces on the pavement just as the coughing Van Horne collapses into the muck. Vanessa screams and this distraction leads to the blow to Alex Randal’s head that puts him in the ER, somewhat embarrassed to discover Vanessa has saved them with a can of pepper spray. Van Horne spends three days in the ICU. Vanessa leaves the room when the doctors begin talking and Van Horne insists Randal leave with her. You don’t trouble her with this, Alex, don’t do it. Following Van Horne’s reluctant release by the doctors, she tells them at dinner she needs some time to herself. Neither of the men argues with her. She cries and leaves them on the restaurant deck under a clear sky where the arc of stars above them is a raw diamond vein clinging to the deep black earth. An increasing friction will emerge between Van Horne and Randal over the next couple of weeks, partly due to Van Horne’s annoyance at the common knowledge of his condition and partly due to Randal’s increasing insistence on running guns or drugs. It’s where the money is, Chris. You don’t give a shit about money. I don’t but you should. You’ll get us killed. Randal fights his instinct to tell Van Horne he’s already dead—that they’re both already dead—and relents to shipments of Chinese solar modules and crates of African peanut butter. The peanut butter will never arrive in El Salvador. After a fire erupts in the starboard engine, Van Horne cuts the fuel and Randal jugulates the inferno by pulling the T-shaped handle on the CO2 extinguisher in the floor between their seats but the fuel feed to the opposite engine has stopped, forcing Van Horne into a precarious landing on an airstrip with which he is familiar. A streak of trucks and SUVs filled with damp Latin men holding an assortment of assault weapons as if they have been carrying them their entire lives greets them in the dust. Randal notes the lack of aggression in their faces as a heavy, older chap in bright clothes steps forward to embrace Van Horne as an old friend. Van Horne places his chin across the man’s neck and pats him on the back. Randal, he says, this is my brother-in-law Arturo. Welcome to Nicaragua! Arturo tells him. Randal receives Arturo’s hearty handshake and can’t help but laugh in Van Horne’s face. Arturo joins in, bowling a wave of laughter through the stand of rifles pointing in the air like pikes on parade. Van Horne leans into Randal’s ear and says, Remember what I said about psychos? They leave the plane and drive through the jungle as Arturo and Van Horne reminisce over the old-days, their young invincible days, Van Horne’s aversion for guns and drugs becoming more reasonable as Randal listens, enthralled. Arturo is a ranking member of a certain drug family in Mexico where he met Chris Van Horne and introduced him to his sister. Van Horne spent a brief period in the early 90’s working with him, drinking with him, flying drugs for him, watching him shoot people by headlights in the desert. After three years, Van Horne divorced the erratic sister (the sister Arturo never forgave for their separation which, unbeknownst to Arturo, owed its existence to Van Horne’s lengthy series of lies designed to cover his philandering) visiting his daughter Angelica when he found the time. Angelica, now nineteen, raised by Arturo and his mother since age twelve, hasn’t seen or spoken to her father since the day her mother died of an infection in a Mexico City hospital. Arturo has only been in Bluefields for three years, moving his mother, Angelica and his wife and two young children into a modest home on a modest ranch to supervise the efficiency of the boat smuggling route between the mainland and the Corn Islands. Although irregular, this is not the first time Van Horne has utilized Arturo’s runway for refueling and emergencies. Is she here? No, she’s in Mexico City visiting friends, coming home tomorrow; I’ll talk to her, Chris; now is a good time for her to grow up. I’d like to at least say something to her, Arturo. I’ll talk to her, Chris. What little remains of the motorcade halts at small empty house where they will stay until Arturo sends for them so he can take them—if the weather holds—into the forest to watch the fights. The fights? Randal asks. A thing I had never heard of until I came to Nicaragua, Arturo says, they have snatched some American tourists off the main road; they’ll throw them in a hole along with some shovels and some baseball bats and make them go at each other; it’s stupendous gambling. Yer gonna make them kill each other? This is not my event, Alex Randal. What does the winner get? He gets to win, Alex Randal, that’s what he gets. Both Arturo and Van Horne sense Randal’s displeasure with the idea as any burgeoning reverence Randal may have for the Mexican is immediately shattered. Arturo’s truck speeds down the hill toward his home just visible in the outlying trees in the lower valley. Van Horne pre-empts Randal, I told you the guy’s a psycho, kid. Psychotic doesn’t even begin, Chris, they’re gonna make a some tourists kill each other out there in the jungle. I heard him. And we’re expected to sit there and watch it? we’re expected to participate in it? The ensuing argument will lead Randal to suggest they steal one of the trucks and save the tourists, going so far as telling Van Horne he’ll hoof-it for the maps in the plane to which Van Horne will lose his temper and suffer a particularly severe coughing fit. This is not a fucking game, Alex! What the fuck does that mean? How are you gonna cross a border in a stolen truck with a bunch of white people who have no possessions or passports? you gonna go to the cops, mister anarchist-man? the American embassy? look at you, Alex, you’re a goddamned cartoon parody of yourself; you don’t understand how this works; we lie low and he gives us a place to sit while I figure out how to repair my plane; I’m not leaving my goddamned plane and burning bridges all for your vanity. My vanity? What the fuck are you, Alex? you’re like some kind of savant who can’t see the truth staring him in the face! you and this death wish are gonna succeed one of these days but not today! And then the coughing starts. And it won’t stop. Randal helps him into the house, leads him to the bed and offers him water but Van Horne refuses, blood from his lungs bubbling through his teeth so Randal bolts down the hill, almost shot by a sentry as he approaches the house where Arturo sends for a doctor and drives Randal back up the hill and they find Chris Van Horne face up in the meadow between the backdoor and the trees, the rain falling on them, the setting sun igniting each droplet into a spark as if fire has come to burn the world. Randal will watch Angelica (who boarded a plane the moment Arturo told her of her father’s sickly appearance) arrive the next morning to hear the news Arturo could not bring himself to relay over the phone. He will watch this beautiful young woman collapse into her uncle’s arms, broken, regretting her childish pride and anger. Avoiding any awkward farewells, Randal flies back to the Keys to deliver the crushing news to Vanessa Lupine who will scream and cry and pack a small suitcase and then vanish. Where are you One-Armed Billy, Randal asks the moon over the water. Where are you now? The moon has no answers and after several lonely sober days on the beach, Randal realizes neither do the Keys so he returns to Texas, ending a search for his estranged mother within weeks, learning diabetes had taken her years ago. Within several days of this discovery, he tracks down the boy—who is now a man—with the deformed arm Randal ridiculed with all the other boys so long ago. He’s an architect in Seattle, three kids, a beautiful wife and a country club membership. I saw Shawn Baker kick the shit out of you in 9th grade behind the Y&T drugstore, Randal tells him, looking at the framed snapshots of Billy’s life, university graduation, Special Olympics gold, handshakes with celebrities. Yeah? that was a long time ago, man, I’m sorry I don’t remember you. You don’t wanna remember me. I see; and you came to find me why, again? I’m not sure. For the first time in years, Randal finds tears in his eyes. Billy embraces him with his one powerful arm and lets Alex Randal sob into his chest. I guess I just needed to know you were still out here somewhere.
Copyright 2013 © Skitz O’Fuel
Chrysalis, a growing collection of very short fiction.
Unless noted, all pics credited to Skitz O'Fuel.