just that kind of afternoon
"To conquer and defeat in all battles
is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence lies in breaking
the enemy's resistance without a fight."
fountain was terraced into a Japanese outdoor sculpture that looked
like a waterfall, with pools above and below and a huge gazebo at
the top. Two ducks, regular visitors, watched the old critter stagger
slowly past in its black watchcap. Its feet, bound into sneakers
made mostly out of duct tape, hammered on the sidewalk like an irregular
windup toy. There was a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup in its hand. It seemed
to have forgotten this.
The mallard of the pair had just found the place, his wife following
him with her head in the clouds, not paying attention. He had been
stoked by the larvae that were falling out of the cottonwood trees.
His butt bobbed up as his head slid beneath the waves. It was his
wife's terrified scream that brought him back above the turbid meniscus
of the bottom pool.
"Have you been shadowing me all along, or was this just a
happy accident?" The voice of the ancient one was cultured,
dry, academic. Intelligence danced in those eyes like caged crickets.
The old man had come a long way. His hands shook, and he was very,
very tired from the walk. The smell of other presences was thick
in the wind, flanking the bottom pond two on a side. The old man
seemed to be okay with this. The ducks were not. They bailed.
I really hoped he wouldn't come into my bar. Everyone was crazy
with the heat today. It was so much safer just to sit on my stool
and check the odd ID that wasn't visually verifiable, smoke cigarettes
and work on my real work. And watch the ducks.
The only person in the bar who looked like he'd seen 21 in the
recent past was the only one I was worried about.
He wasn't even borderline VIP (that's "Visibly Intoxicated
Person" to you). He was working on his fifth shot of Wild Turkey,
with beer backs. Mr. Pak, the owner, had been around to fix the
one video poker machine, and waved away my cautious side-mouth comment.
"He spend good money in here." Pak was Thai. His broken
sentence structure masked one of the sharpest businessmen in Portland.
"Him and his lady. Don't bug him till he start to get unsteady."
"Where's his lady?"
Pak gave me a look like I should know better than to ask and glided
As I sat and watched the guy at the bar, I thought to myself that
the look on his sunburnt, stubbly face was that of a postal clerk
just before he opens his duffel bag and empties his clip into the
next sorry sack who yanks his chain.
I had seen that look before, in Desert Storm. My battle-buddy
had been twitchy since basic, but when Saddam's Finest were coming
over the next dune with Russian mortars from the '70s and blaring
that oud-opera shit that sounds like performance art ... the last
thing I expected to see was SP4 Lou Green make a run for the roses
and take out anything in his way.
I still dream about Lou, sometimes, the way his eyes just went
somewhere else. As Popeye would have put it, that was all he could
stands and he couldn't stands no more.
The guy wore a gray gas-station-attendant uniform shirt covered
with patches for punk bands. His pants were BDU cutoffs. Doc Martens,
earrings all over the place. Ponytail.
But there was something about him that didn't quite match the cover.
Pak said he was a regular. I didn't doubt it. I just wanted to know
what had put that look on his face and whether or not his course
of action in coming down here might not have been the best thing
for all parties involved.
There had to be another half. Couldn't nobody look that mad without
someone else being responsible. But I had the feeling he was blaming
There I went again, I thought. I had my own shit to worry about.
NORML was doing a comedy festival down on the waterfront. The five-grand
prize for writing material about the DEA looked pretty sweet. I'd
taken my notebook with me. I had plenty of time to brainstorm new
The look on the punk guy's face did something to me. I had no idea
what he did for a living, but he should have been in charge of it.
Even from that far back, he seemed to have such a strong personality
that it rubbed off. Whatever was eating him alive was my concern,
if only just to see that he didn't get too wasted and cause any
I was sitting there thinking all this when there was motion in
my left peripheral quadrant. I whirled around.
dude," I said. "Sorry. Thank you for pl"
The bum waved a 20-spot at me. "I just want a beer, man."
"Hell with it," I said. "It's hot. Put your money
away. I'm not gonna have any trouble with you, grampa, am I?"
He shook his head and grumbled something, walking in and sitting
down at the other end of the bar from the punk guy.
The punk guy looked up like he was gonna say something. I made
"You all right, amigo?" I stood back at a respectful
distance, looking at his napkin. There was some fabulous art going
on it. He had spread it out to continue the design, in fact. Tribal
stuff. The kid would probably be a whiz at drawing tattoos.
But there was a second napkin next to it, which was his current
focus words spilling out in a loopy scrawl. I caught a sentence
"I have to eat my half of this pie. But I want you to make
this up to me. Then it will all still be okay, we can hit rewind
and start over. I don't know exactly what I have in mind, in that
The guy was looking up at me. His effort to focus was bleary and
"Not just now," he said in a soft, hoarse voice. "But
I'll be all right. And I do thank you for asking."
The old Asian guy at the other end of the bar may have chuckled
in his throat.
"I seen some shit, son. Let me know if I can help."
"Duly noted." I nodded and went back to my stool. Then
Jake came in and all hell broke loose.
I never liked Jake. He was the type of guy who just thought he
had seen some shit. He had a short mullet and a ferret face. Some
sort of trust-fund baby, lived right up the road.
He was in there every day. Real blowhard in training, no different
than the crapped-out old drunks lining my bar during the long afternoon
hours of Hurry Up and Wait. Just give him time. He'd walk the same
broken-glass highway as the rest of them, to the bitter end.
Jake sauntered in. In two seconds, the punk guy was right up off
his stool and had Jake in a one-handed arm bar and headed toward
the door with a growl of "Outside."
I nodded at the bartender, who nodded back with her own weary
amusement. Both halves of the fight were headed toward the fountain.
There were strings of sticky green stuff swinging out from the
punk guy's eyes like spiderwebs. Jake was being dragged by these
like a cat on a leash. I saw his skin stretching at parts. Anyone
just walking by wouldn't have noticed.
"It is an Ancient Mariner ... That stoppeth one of three..."
I heard myself mutter, a high-school memory of the lines about the
eyes that holdeth you in their spell.
"She made the first move," I heard Jake gibber. "We
were all pretty drunk. There was a lot more to it than"
"Shut the fuck up," the punk guy growled. "I was
in the other room, fahcryinoutloud. You planned this."
air was still. The ducks were back, walking cautiously on the edge
of the fountain's lip, looking like they didn't want to interfere.
"You went for it."
It was off company property. I saw the spray of blood from the
backhand. This was no longer my problem. Honestly, you know who
I had my money on.
"I haven't been able to sleep yet."
"You son of a bitch! Do you have any fucking idea how hard
it's going to be for me to start over now?" The punk guy's
skin was flushed as green as the strings coming out of his eyes.
"Look, dude" Jake threw off the strings with a
pass of one hand and a mutter in between sentences that I couldn't
catch. "She said she was going to avoid me from now on, problem
solved, that she wanted to be with you and"
That one had to hurt.
"Problem not solved. Because you're still thinking about
it. Do you doubt that I know this?"
Jake said nothing. The ducks were testing the water.
"So you just get away with it, huh? Is that it?" Then
punkboy got a backhand, too.
For a moment, I didn't even recognize the old Asian man standing
there. His spine had straightened. Even the castoff clothes he was
wearing glowed in the relentless sun. Like armor.
"But I don't even have her ... your ... number," Jake
began. His voice was too loud. The old man stepped between them.
"I warned you," he said to Jake. "That's two verbal
The punk guy stepped back, looking confused. He took in the old
man, remembering something ... then nodded slowly.
A white glow shone all about the old man's head. He seemed to
be much taller. He glanced at Jake for a moment, then back to punkboy.
"You know, he let you have a couple of free shots. And when,
in the history of this whole miserable excuse for a dimension, WHEN
... " He realized he was shouting. "... has violence ever
really solved anything? Even for us? Please."
"I ..." The punk dropped to one knee. "... I've
shamed you, ancestor. There was no call"
"Shut up," the old man growled in a voice 30 years younger.
"If it was that serious, it wouldn't have been me came round."
He held out one hand, lifting punkboy to his feet.
"There's no danger now," he said carefully. "You
just have to be there more often. And you know what I mean. He who
is without sin, and all that."
The punk guy nodded slowly.
"Now, you ..." He turned back to Jake. "You know
the rules. I thought I told you never to cross us."
"I wasn't sure if"
I was never more surprised than when Jake took one of those duct-tape
Reeboks to the face, just then. It happened in such a fast-motion
blur, like the old man had whipped a leg out of his shirt and beaten
Jake with it.
"You know the rules," the old man repeated. "And
you willfully broke them. Speaking of which"
The downward clutch happened too quickly for me to call the law.
An old couple walking their dogs past the fountain heard the screams
and walked faster. Other than that, the air was still.
Jake screamed and fell to his knees. For just a moment ... I saw
the shape beneath Jake's shape.
And it was all clutching, crawling, sideways goblin terror, pale
and quick. Its face was full of cheated pain and skulking avarice.
"You can't fuck with them," the old man whispered, releasing
his hand. There was a flash of white light from somewhere. I realized
that I had ducked back against the wall. "That's the whole
point of the exercise."
drew Jake to his feet. Forces all around them seemed to disperse,
invisible hands lifting from that strange, strange afternoon like
heat shimmer in reverse, rolling away.
The ducks were swimming again, bobbing for grubs. Business as usual.
The old man sighed. "Both of you, go the fuck home. I'm too
tired to waste any more breath. Damn kids."
I called off early two minutes later and poured myself a tall
dark one. It was just that kind of afternoon.