Mondongoby Amiri Baraka
From the just-released collection, Tales of the Out & the Gone (Akashic Books).
“You never go anywhere, Ray. Believe me, I know where you go. And you don’t go anywhere. Not around here, I mean, where everybody can see.” Irv Laffawiss pushed his “cunt cap” back on his head so he looked like the posters of the sloppy airmen in the slides shown at Character Guidance lessons on Saturdays. He should have had a red X painted across him to resemble the classic well-advertised “Sad Sack” of U.S. military tradition. And it was the U.S. military, the Air Force, in which he and his good friend, Ray Johns, were now entrapped.
Johns was reading, it looked like. But he had on dark glasses and the lights in the room were low, so how he was accomplishing this reading was vague. But Laffy knew from repeated encounters not to get involved in any conversation with Ray about how it was he could read in the near-dark with dark sunglasses.
To the inquiry about “not going anywhere,” Ray Johns merely peeped up over the book and stared at Laffy, “Hey, man. Why I got to go off the base? I ain’t lost nothin’ out there.”
“You’re too weird, Johns.” Laffawiss sounded mildly annoyed. “Don’t you believe in R&R?”
Ray Johns turned over on the bed where he was half-sprawled. He knew Laffy was going on with the conversation, so he wanted to see how he looked when he said this shit. “R&R? Shit, man. I wanna go home. Naw, I wanna go to fuckin Greenwich Village. R&R?”
“Don’t you believe in girls, then?” Laffy was pressing it. He was leaning now against one of the walls, smoking a bent cigarette and flicking the ashes like Groucho Marx. Groucho was Laffy’s alter ego. He enraged the non-coms and officers by coming into their office or his own room when there might be an inspection or something, bent at the waist, holding his cigarette like Groucho’s cigar and striding in crazy-looking, rolling his eyes like a roulette wheel.
“Yeh, Laffawiss, I believe in girls. Why, you got any?”
Laffy pointed over his shoulder and imitated Groucho: “They went that-a-way!” Pointing in the general direction of the town—in this case, Aguadilla, a nasty little dot at the tip of Puerto Rico’s shore. Laffawiss and Johns, together with 5,000 other airmen, were stationed just outside Aguadilla at the SAC base, Ramey. They, along with the others, commanded by a thirty-eight-year-old nutty general who wanted to clean up venereal disease, were busy with the task of keeping the free world free and intimidating any sons-of-bitches who wanted to maybe make wise remarks, or rape freckle-faced girls, or live too close, or talk in funny languages, or smell or look funny, or communize the country—any of that stuff. They were doing this by means of the B-36 bomber. Laffawiss was a radio operator without a crew, and Johns a weather-gunner in the worst crew on the base.
Every weekend and maybe more, Laffawiss would “roar into town,” as the airmen described, get drunk, pay for some pussy, then stagger back to the base with a head as big as a propeller. Johns and Laffawiss were pretty good friends, Johns from a large town in Jersey close to Manhattan and Laffawiss from the Lower East Side. Not the Lower East Side of boutiques and poetry readings, but the old East Side of Mike Gold’s heroes and heroines of herrings, kosher pickles, pushcarts, and poverty.
Johns was a college boy, a dropout from a black school trying to find himself. Mostly by reading everything that would sit still long enough to be read, including gruesome adventures like reading the whole of the Times best-seller list in a month. The complete works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, &c. Hours and hours of guard duty pulled by Johns had turned reading from an informative pastime to a physical and psychological addiction. He got so he could read anything—no, not could, had to. The sight of words on paper inflamed him, turned him on in a way nothing else could. Sometimes when he slept uneasily under the Puerto Rican moon, he dreamed of reading, pages flowing effortlessly through his sleep.
His barracks room, which he shared with a giant country boy from Long Island (now, thank god, on leave), had, despite the pressures of would-be military standard operating procedures, begun to take on the look of a second-hand bookstore.
Every week, Johns had to hear something from one of the non-coms about the room and its unmilitary look. You were only supposed to have “pictures of loved ones,” and as many books as the dresser top would allow to sit “in a military manner.” But then he had to hear about the weak little fuzz he had sprouting out the edge of his chin, which the “war cats” insisted was a beard. Or the “boot salute,” which many of the black troops threw in lieu of the war one, viz, this was where the head was bent down to meet the reluctant right hand, producing a “blood salute.” Especially them Southern white officers didn’t dig this. Johns once had to stand and salute about forty times in the hot sun, “until he got it right.” And he did, “by god,” as the game started to tire him and the hot sun had got all in the young blond lieutenant’s uniform, wetting him to the skin.
Between Laffawiss, the scrawny humpbacked Groucho “Jew bastard,” as some of the quainter Southern boys called him, and Johns, “a fuckin nigger snob,” many incorrect and backward dudes did they light up with their wild antics. Both were young men sufficiently turned around by their younger lives and what they were learning now in “this war shit” (although it was peacetime, between the Korean and Vietnam Wars). Both had the beginning of the stiff self-identification of themselves as intellectuals, whatever that meant to them. And it didn’t mean too much, except both liked to read, both were mostly quiet and inner-directed, and they both hated most of the assholes that passed for non-coms and officers in the error farce, plus a whole lot of them “farmer motherfuckers” who would batter at their sanity with endless hours of “In the Jailhouse Now,” which was the top country-and-western hit of the period. Either that or Patti Page singing, “We’ll Be Together Again.”
They were dragged away from civilian life by their own confusion, Johns being tossed out of school for making his studies secondary to his social education, and Laffawiss because he didn’t realize (either) that school did have some merit—even though you couldn’t learn a hell of a lot around those people. But shit, Laffy found out he was learning a hell of a lot less around Curtis LeMay’s (SAC C.O.) relatives and friends.
Both hung around a large group of full, semi, and closeted intellectuals, all now lamenting their being trapped and martyred in the Air Force, when, hell, all had joined voluntarily. They figured they were escaping the “malaise” of post-adolescence, but now they were in the real fucking malaise with not much white bread either.
A few nights a week, Johns worked as the evening librarian; and the old career special-services librarian, seeing Ray was a book nut, let him have run of the place, including being in charge of ordering books and records. So a few nights a week, Ray, Laffy, and the rest of the crowd would ease into the library, draw the blinds, break out the cheap rum and vodka, and play music most of the night—in both luxury and captivity at the same time.
But Johns almost never left the base. Only sometimes by himself would he catch the gua gua and end up in San Juan, preferably viejo San Juan, to wander around the wild and pretty streets, lamenting his fate. And Laffawiss, though not altogether gregarious, still occasionally wanted his on-base walking buddy to dare the wilds of the island with him. Shit, at least Aguadilla.
But Ray, most times, just rolled over and flipped a page, or maybe he’d just turn up the box and check what Beethoven or Bird might have to say. Or maybe just wonder what Monk was thinking behind those weird blue glasses.
“Johns, are you masturbating?” Laffy could get rude like that. Matter of fact, that was his standard tone.
“Why, you bottling jerk-off come?” Neither laughed, though they were amused.
“Naw, I just wanna find out how come you don’t have a go into town and release your tension.” Laffy made a lurid leer with the Groucho face on, swiveling his hips.
“Why, you think my tension needs to be released? Shit, my tension can do anything it fuckin want to. Can’t you, tension?” He looked down at his fly, but there was no immediate answer.
Laffy snickered at this, picking up a water glass as if it was a microscope. “Aha, now we are entering the area of microbiology,” he said, as he squinted in the same area Ray Johns made believe he was talking to. A perfect comedy team, though a trifle avant garde and abstruse for some of their buddies and anti-buddies.
Now they stalked the streets of Aguadilla, in which thousands of restless, sex-starved, largely ignorant troops were released during the evening. And there were always incidents, always unpleasantness (which included drunkenness, fighting, and sometimes cutting and shooting). And, of course, most of the people of Aguadilla just tried the best they could to do the shit they had to do to survive. But imagine being just outside the gate, and being invaded each evening by about 5,000 screaming crazed American airmen. Jeez, what about releasing them, this evening, into Darien? What about Scarsdale or Palo Alto or Basking Ridge? Yeh, yeh. I’d like to film that, boy. Or hire somebody to film that shit. Like a military-suburban Animal House, if you catch my sniff.
This Friday evening it was already a little late, as it had taken Laffy an hour or so to convince Ray Johns to come on in and play cowboy. Assorted airmen of all shapes, sizes, and colors were staggering, dragging, heaving, and spinning past them, the number increasing each half-hour or so as that Friday wound its way out. Most of the troops were in little groups with their buddies, some stumbled alone, and the lucky ones were already with some local women.
Laffawiss swiveled his head around on his neck, leering his Groucho leer. “That’s one, Johns. That’s one. A woman, ya see?”
“Yeh, I see. Very interesting.”
“There’s another one. You see, they got different features and all.”
“Very interesting. So what happens now? My tension ain’t been released. Not a bit. Is this all you have to do, twist your head off at the neck? Somehow, I thought it was going to be more complicated than this.”
“Wow, first you don’t even wanna leave the base and stop your meat-pulling, now you wanna turn into the original flesh fiend.”
“Yeh, yeh.” Johns whooped a little weakly, in celebration of some of those “farmer motherfuckers” who could be heard, even now, up and down the street whooping cowboy and confederate war cries.
Walking in the direction the way they were headed brought them face to face with The American, the first of the near-base bars for mainly white soldiers. Harry Truman had already desegregated the Armed Forces alright, but just as in the rest of American life, the separation still existed. So there were white bars and colored bars and a few fairly mixed. But most, even there in Puerto Rico, were either one or the other.
The American was notorious, anyway. Black and white soldiers had frequently locked asses inside its doors. And a few times, the place had been closed with Off-Limits signs put up. Laffy got to the door first and pushed it open, peering in.
“Why you come to this joint, Laffawiss? You gotta meet some old Klan buddies in there? Jeez, Laffy, let’s not get into no abstract shit.”
Laffawiss looked over his shoulder. “Hey, we’re stalking our prey, man. I thought you were trying to release your tension.”
“In The American? Ain’t nothing in there but farmhouse motherfuckers. And they got all them bitches in there sick as them.” Johns meant that the more backward of the white soldiers would try as quickly as possible to infect the local women with their own anti-black views. First, because they themselves had been long-shaped by the sickness of racism, but also, more practically, they were trying to protect their choice pieces of chocha from getting “pulled” by the aggressive black troops. Hence, fights in and around The American and a lot of other places, in this “neutral zone” outside the U.S. mainland, where the “bitch pulling” competition was conducted by a slightly different set of rules.
“I ain’t goin in that lousy joint.” Johns stepped back from the doorway as two obvious “farmer cats” stumbled by, tossing him a death look. They pushed past Laffawiss, who was still peeping in the door, seeing what he could see and talking to Ray over his shoulder.
“Hey, they’re all dogs in here anyway.” Then, in response to being slightly shoved by the drunken duo, Laffy added, “Creeps, you’ll probably die with clap of the mouth.”
“Laffawiss, let’s go. I ain’t in no goddamn boxing mood, man. You don’t want to release tension—you want to build the shit up.” Johns turned now as if he was going to leave Laffawiss in front of the bar.
“Hey, Ray—shit! Shit, Ray. Look who’s in this joint.” The sight of whoever was cracking Laffy up. “Hey, look. Come on, it’ll do you good. Come on, look!”
Reluctantly, Johns crept up toward the pushed-open bar door and peered in. There were two white airmen in uniform, or mostly in uniform, their “cunt caps” or other class-A visorless caps sliding all the way to the back of their heads. Or else there were those in what was supposed to be “civilian clothes,” which included “Hawaiian”-inspired obscenities as shirts, loud trousers, jeans, some pants high-styled with contrasting “pistol pockets” and seams. Bottles, mostly beer, being raised. Loud profane talking and shouting, confederate whoops, and spaced appropriately throughout the joint, on the stools and at the tables, different sizes, shapes, and colors of Puerto Rican women—some prostitutes, some not. The soldiers in the bar didn’t care too much one way or the other, as long as they got over. (If they could still get it up after falling down and throwing up on each other.)
But Laffawiss was pointing now, almost frantically, at a fat, stoop-shouldered, red-faced white Airman Second with his “cunt cap” cocked way over on the side of his head. But not far over enough to hide the screaming red knife scar dug into a white valley down his cheek. Laffawiss could not contain himself. He was laughing out loud and jiggling from one foot to the other.
“What?” Ray Johns stared into the now fully lit bar. “Oh, it’s that goddamn farmer that Grego cut. Wowee, first time I seen that sucker since Jack the Ripper got his ass.”
Grego was a Mexican-American airman who hung with Laffy and Ray and the others in their little lightweight intellectual gang. Grego was blond and you couldn’t tell he was Chicano until he opened his mouth. Or unless you spotted the tiny cross tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, which marked him pachuco and a member of one of the hard-ass Chicano youth gangs that littered the Southwest and L.A.
The fat farmer had made the mistake of saying something about “spics,” and lickity-split, before you knew it, light caught for an instant in a blue blade passing through the air on the way to slash the man’s puss, and unless he got plastic surgery, it remains so slashed until this moment.
Johns now howled too, a little cooler. But at least Laffy hadn’t started pointing at the dude and hollering, Cut that motherfucker too short to shit!
The farm boy was apparently sitting with friends, and Laffy and Ray were the only ones from their own group, so after another second or two of acid kibitzing, including, “You should thank Grego, motherfucker, that scar at least makes your face interesting. Shit!” there was an abrupt about-face by the two laughers, as First Sergeant Barfell called out at our two heroes, and they got in the wind.
They cut around the corner and crossed a vacant lot, and presto, they were standing close by the Estrella Negra. Actually, it was simply Estrella, “Star”—The Star Bar. (The Negra had been added by both the black and white troops.) It was the big hangout for the blacks and the Latins and the white soldiers that swung with the Bloods.
White (who was not), Perkins (who was), and Yodo (who was from outer space) were sitting and standing at the bar, arguing whether Fats Navarro or Miles Davis played the most shit to the background music of Lloyd Price singing, “Lawdy, Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.” This place was jammed up tight with uniformed and civilian-slick airmen, also shouting and laughing at the top of their voices. And while Estrella was a predominantly black bar, there were white and Latin troops hollering with the Bloods, insulting each other, bullshitting each other, sympathizing with each other, trying to make it and do their various hitches.
“How the fuck you get Ray to come into town, Laffy?” White was standing tall and dour as usual, slightly tipsy and bending toward the new arrivals. “How the fuck you get . . .” he trailed off, giggling. “Yodo, buy Ray a drink for coming off the base.”
Yodofus T. Syllieabla (Carl Lawson’s chosen moniker to evade the constant depression of being an Air Force medic for seven years of his life and having still only one stripe) was a very yellow-colored fellow, and with the booze in him he had colored slightly red, blinking his eyes. “You want Yodofus T. Syllieabla, the High Priest of Swahili and the Czar of Yap, to do what?”
“Buy them a drink, silly nigger!”
“Yeh, Ray, why you out here in this dirty town? And in this dirty bar?” This was Bill Perkins, an aspiring photographer from a suburb of Boston. His name wasn’t really Perkins, but his parents had changed it in order to get in the suburbs, and Perkins felt guilty about that when he got loaded. So he tried not to get loaded, but it didn’t stop him. He got loaded, then guilty, all the goddamn time. “You said you didn’t need to come into Aguadilla, but here you are. And with that Groucho Marx–lookin cat. Stand up straight, Laffawiss, goddamnit. You’re standing in a hole.”
Laffy half-turned immediately. “Hey, Johns, let’s get the fuck outta here. I’m not gonna be insulted by guys named Perkins whose names ain’t really Perkins. Hey, I wouldn’t sell you a pickle on the Lower East Side, my friend. Not even a herring, Perkins. Shit!”
“Shut up, Laffawiss, I wasn’t talking to you. Johns, why are you in town with this guy?”
“Aha!” Yodo was pointing the umbrella stick he always carried. “Aha, I know. And Anachronobienoid knows too.” Anachronobienoid was the name Yodo had given to his stick. His “all-purpose stick,” he called it. The stick had once cursed out a warrant officer who had been staring too long and hard at Yodo. The stick leaped to the fray, making horrible nigger curses that sent the W.O. scrambling down the dusty road outside the PX in Ramey.
“I know, I know. You two are on a secret pussy mission. That’s all this Groucho Marx sucker is searching these streets for . . . What?” Yodo held his stick up as if it was talking. “Yes, yes. Anachronobienoid says he’s surprised at you, Airman Johns. Didn’t know you was into these SPM’s. Aha.” Yodo’s humor always cracked Yodo up the most, and he howled.
“Shut up and buy them a drink, Yodo, goddamnit,” White persisted.
“Why are you guys concerned about what I’m doing? You’re the kinda guys that give SAC a bad name. That’s why Ramey’s got the highest venereal disease rate in SAC too. Hey, man, even my AC got the clap.”
“In his ear, probably.” Laffy was pacing back and forth without moving, Groucho Marx style. “Hey, Ray, I think we got to go before these creeps influence you against sin!”
“These motherfuckers getting ready to sin. I knew it. Lemme in on that shit or I’ll squeal!” White had to steady himself on Perkins, who was no more sober but since he was normally stiffer he could play sober better than White.
Pulling Ray Johns by the arm, and exchanging putdowns and jokes and repeated laments, Laffawiss turned and grunted at the weight of dragging Johns out of the bar. But now with wobbly White in less-than-hot pursuit and Yodo waving his “all-purpose stick.” White was saying, “Hey, if you guys are gonna start sinning and shit, don’t leave me out, you greedy motherfuckers. Don’t leave me out, goddamnit.”
“Anachronobienoid knows. He will see what you do, no matter where you go!” Yodo shouted, as Laffawiss and Johns hotfooted it out of the Black Star and up the narrow alley street, deeper toward the section known as Mondongo. This was the heavy whore area, and was, of course, strictly off-limits. But in reality, about as off-limits as the day-room candy machine.
It was night now, and although the low starry skies over the enchanted island were bright and clear, still the lights of Aguadilla did not make for very much illumination, and so the streets as they wound also got darker, it seemed, the deeper into Mondongo the two adventurers got.
Johns had on a pair of khaki pants that could have been his class-A khakis, but also a blue-striped Ivy League button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, plus the usual dark glasses. Laffy had on his class-A khakis, with his cap tipped on the back of his head. To the question, “Why you wanna wear your goddamn uniform if we gonna go off-limits, asshole? You just wanna get arrested.”
“Why should I disguise myself? What am I gonna do, pass for Puerto Rican? Hey, man, people can look at me and tell I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side. I’m telling you.”
“Look, man, you got me to leave the perfectly comfortable barracks for some kind of flesh chase. Now you wanna get me busted. Laffawiss, I do not want to get busted. I don’t want no Article 15. I don’t want no extra duty, no KP, no double guard duty shit. Why did I go for this bullshit, is what I want to know.”
And while this was being said, the two wound further and further away from the USAF-sanctioned center of Aguadilla, back down into the center of the off-limits prostitution and gambling sector, Mondongo. Laffawiss was an old hand at winding through these semi-lit, sometimes unlit streets, in search of a little distraction from the day-to-day (and night-to-night) madness of the “war cats.”
For Ray Johns, it was a little too exciting, though no one unfamiliar with his generally calm, even taciturn manner would know anything out of the ordinary was happening—he could drive polygraph interpreters crazy. But his heart was actually stepping a little faster, the darker and narrower the streets got. The further away from military tourist unreality they got, another Aguadilla emerged, with even fewer stone and clay houses and more and more low tin-roofed wooden shacks.
It was darker, but probably not as dark as Ray Johns’s souped-up senses had it. The streets at first seemed strangely empty, but then as the two soldiers’ eyes adjusted to the tightening light, they could see occasional figures sweep past them or just beyond them. They could see people sitting on steps and porches. They could see one or two people stop and turn to regard them as they passed.
“Come on, Johns. Don’t get scared. It’s just people walking up and down like they do all over the world. No need to get psyched out!” This was Irv Laffawiss, AF 133 75 9011, Airman Second Class, radio operator, 73rd Strategic Bomb Command, unassigned, speaking. He was urging Airman Second Class Ray Johns, AF 125 60 8040, weather-gunner, 73rd Strategic Bomb Command, Crew N45, to keep marching through the menacing night toward the Golden Bowl.
“No need to get psyched out? I’m not psyched out. I just don’t feel I need to get busted. ‘Release tension,’ he says. Hey, and I didn’t even go for it. I was just humoring you, old man. I just thought you needed some company down here in the boonies.”
Laffawiss kept on trucking, head poked forward and tilted a little downwards, a modified street-Groucho. “Oh, man, you can lie. Don’t panic. Just don’t panic.” And they kept moving into darker Mondongo.
“You mean you have so little self-discipline . . .”
A few people scattered out of their way as they pushed on. They saw a couple of tall, red-faced obvious G.I.s in loud “civilian” clothes poke their heads from behind a shack and wave at them. Though if they’d stopped to talk to those two troops, the four of them would have been rolling in the dust after exchanging a few paragraphs as to the nature of reality in general.
“You mean you have such little control over your pecker,” Johns picked up, “that it can demand that you trail around back alleys all night?”
“I know, I know,” Laffawiss shot out. “You may prefer Merry Fist. You keep pullin on that thing, Johns, it’s gonna fall off.”
“You keep messin with these nasty whores, yours is gonna turn green and rot off.” The two G.I.s laughed, too loud for their purposes. “And I’m speaking,” Johns added quickly, “as a noted microbiologist!”
“Don’t make so much noise.” Laffawiss slowed a bit. It seemed there was no light at all. Some flickering matches, muffled laughter close and fading, unknown movement. Overhead, the moon and the stars and some scattered clouds, and somewhere, the hint of ocean.
Laffawiss came to a full stop, with Johns bumping into him in the dark like in a Charlie Chaplin film. Laffy stood stock-still for a few seconds, till Johns pulled at his sleeve, whispering sweatily, “What the fuck is going on? Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Hey, I know this routine cold, Johns. Don’t worry, it’s OK.”
“OK, my ass. What the fuck’s going on?”
Another few seconds, and a man appeared in Johns’s eye who was already talking in hurried whispers to Laffawiss. Johns jumped inadvertently as the image came in, but he poked his head toward the two to try and hear what was going on.
Laffawiss reached back for his friend, smacking him on the shoulder. “Come on. This guy’s taking us to the women. See how quick that happened?”
“Who’s this guy, Laffy?” Johns tried to look in all directions, but it was totally black except for indistinguishable shapes and noises. “What’s he, a pimp or something?”
“Yeh, yeh. Now shaddup before you scare the flesh away.”
The three men walked perhaps a hundred yards, up one alley and down another. In a minute or so, Laffawiss was leading Johns up three steps and across the short porch of one of the wooden tin-roofed shacks, completely sheathed in darkness. Laffawiss knocked at the door and almost immediately it swung open.
There was a candle or oil lamp lit, and it amazed Johns how much light was in the room that could not be seen from the street. He could not be sure that there were windows. The walls were pasted up with pinups from various Puerto Rican rotogravure sections. But it looked like the New York Daily News, with open-legged blondes, &c., though modest by today’s standards.
In the room was a table with chairs, a few notches below your local corner ghetto “furniture” store. A woman had opened the door. And she stood now, in some hopeless, colorless cotton housecoat-like garment, without shoes. As Johns’s eyes adjusted to the dim lamp, the hair on his neck rose and shivered in stiff formation. The woman was old and hideous. She was like some kind of “witch.” The word slid uneasily out of Johns’s mouth and punched his comrade in the back. This was followed by Johns’s actual hand poking Laffawiss in the small of his back as he leaned forward to half-whisper in half-Spanish pidgin the desired relationship.
“What?” Laffawiss was showing fingers to the woman, indicating the market value of the chocha. He was trying to complete the deal, in a fairly circumspect way. He did not need to be bothered by his stuttering friend. So at the next poke, he half-wheeled around. “What?”
“That witch is ugly as shit, Laffy.”
“Two dollars, short time.” Laffwiss was talking to the old woman again. “Three dollars, long time.” The woman was nodding her head vigorously and making the two- and three-finger signals back to Laffy.
“Hey, Laffawiss.” Johns was still trying to whisper, but not really succeeding. “You bring me all the way down here through the goddamn AP’s for this, you fucking pervert?”
“This ain’t the woman, Johns. Jesus H. Christ, you think I’m sick?”
“Yeh, I think that.”
The old woman now had her hand extended. She was speaking most of the English she knew. “Two dollar, short time. Three dollar, long time.”
“Short time, long time?” Johns looked at the woman and shuddered very openly.
“Mi amigo no comprende. Que es corto vez?” Laffawiss felt he was speaking good Spanish, but he sounded as illiterate to the woman as she sounded to him.“Y largo vez?”
The woman squinted, trying to understand the Lower East Side gibberish. Then she said, “Short time, very short. Long time is till you come.” She laughed at the idea. There was nothing in her mouth but memory.
“Laffy, I don’t like this a hell of a lot. Where are the goddamned women? If this ain’t the one we supposed to lay with—”
“OK, OK, unbeliever. Good chocha coming up.” Laffawiss was grinning, but the old woman simply stood her ground with her crippled hand extended in the traditional collection position.
“Hey, look, we gotta get the chocha first,” Laffawiss said. “Let us get the women first, then we pay.” He winked over his shoulder to Ray.
“Short time? Long time?” The old woman took a step back and turned toward what now seemed to be another door at the back of the shack, still squinting cynically.
“Long time, yeh. You know me. You remember me, Irv?”
“What are you, a fuckin nut, Laffy? Telling this bitch your name?”
“Hey, I’m an old customer. I gotta see the merchandise before I shell out big bucks.”
The old woman repeated Laffawiss’s first name. “Irv? Sí, Sí. You here before. OK, OK. Come on.” She beckoned the two to follow, and the gesture made Ray Johns think even more of witches.
On the other side of the back door was a smaller room with one bed in it. The room was almost completely dark, but there was a small candle stuck in a bottle. On the wall was a gold and ivory plastic reproduction of Christ hanging on the cross, bleeding down into the bed. Because even in the dark, the spotted bed sheets, if they could be called sheets, could still be perceived.
Sitting on either side of the bed were two women. They seemed younger than the old woman. But it was going to take a few seconds for the soldiers’ eyes to adjust. The old woman still had her hand out, but Laffawiss’s determination seemed to influence her.
“Here, see,” the old woman said. “Beautiful!”
Johns’s squinting eyes began to see the two women as more than vague shapes in the darkness. And no, they were not beautiful. As they became visible, Johns was trying to clear his throat so words could come out. “Laffy!” It was like a low, but sharply rising moan. “Laffy, Jesus Christ, man,” Johns was pretending to whisper. “Are you that hard up, man?”
Laffawiss had succeeded in cooling the old woman out. Their prey was near. Why was this bastard, Ray, trying to queer the deal? “What? Hey, Ray, it’s about to happen, man. Don’t fuck it up.”
“About to happen? Hey, man, they’re . . .” Johns wanted to say ugly, but he couldn’t bear to.
“What’s the matter, Johns? You choosy? Goddamn, man. Once you get it in, you won’t know the difference. So they’re not bathing beauties. What the fuck you want for three bucks, man! Lena-fuckin-Horne?”
“Jesus Christ, Laffy. Jesus Christ.” In reality, the women were not as ugly as the old woman, and they were a few years younger.
“Don’t worry, Ray. Don’t worry. It ain’t the looks, it’s the movement.” Laffy thought this was funny, and bent a little, Groucho-style, one arm hung at his side like he had a cigar. “It’ll be great, man. Great, don’t worry. I bet you anything you’ll fall in love.” And at this, Laffawiss almost fell down laughing.
“OK?” the old woman asked, and she started to leave the room.
“Say, man, there’s another room back here? Which woman you got and where’s the other room?” Johns turned beseechingly to the old woman and babbled the pidgin Spanish he knew. “Otra cuarto, por favor?”
The old woman shook her head, about to back out of the room. “No, no,” still shaking her head, and pointing at the single nasty bed that straddled the shadows.
“Hey, man, only one bed?” Johns howled. “How we gonna do that, Laffawiss? Shit, one bed? Man, you crazy!”
“Oh, come on. Just lay on the bed sideways. You’ll have to let your legs dangle off.”
“Let your legs dangle off? Goddamn, you ain’t even got the normal positioning and shit happening. I didn’t know you people from New York were some kind of freaks. Same bed, and let your legs dangle off? Man, how we gonna do anything in the same bed? Don’t you even want no privacy?”
This would have cracked Laffawiss up, but he blew air through his teeth instead, moving toward one of the women, both of whom were still seated.
“How you get that one?” Their eyes had now fully adjusted, and it did seem in the dark that Laffawiss was getting the best of the deal, but only by a whisker.
“OK, Ray, you goddamn pest. You take this one. Gimme the other one. It don’t make too much difference in the goddamn dark, you know.”
“It does to me.” They crisscrossed in front of the bed. Laffawiss was already unbuckling his belt as he moved forward, a wide shit-eating grin growing where his face had been.
“Goddamn. Goddamn,” was all Ray Johns kept mumbling as he approached the woman who looked like she was in her hard thirties but who was actually only twenty-seven. Johns was twenty-two, Laffawiss twenty-four. “Goddamn. Goddamn.”
For some reason, Johns was determined to go through with it, but the whole deal had cooled him out as far as having any raging animal passion that had to be pulled off by some anonymous chocha. Laffawiss, on the other hand (and on the other side of the bed), quickly pulled his pants down, and without the least adieu got to righteous work, pumping away at speeds sometimes approaching the sound barrier.
Johns was still fumbling and trying to maneuver the woman in some kind of way. And at the same time, trying to remain oblivious of his partner three inches away heaving and wheezing like a small white Groucho Marx gorilla on loan from the Lower East Side.
Not long after, Laffawiss’s “long time” was got to in a relatively short time. But at this point, Johns was just beginning to feel that maybe in a little while he might actually begin to feel something—at least be a little more comfortable. And the woman was not giving much help. Instead of going through a few of Scheherazade’s 1,001 sexual variations, the way the old soldiers said it was done for them at bases all over the universe, this less-than-plain woman lay back in the shadows and scowled. After a while of Johns’s aimless pushing, she ventured, “You finished? It’s long time.”
Ray was raising his head to make some comment to the babe, and he saw Laffawiss’s narrow butt rising up. What a sight that must be, Johns thought, black and white butts flagging away in unison—shit, it’s what Civil Rights is all about, goddamnit.
But then Laffy started sounding like the babe Johns was supposed to be banging. “Hey, Ray, you finished yet? Huh?”
“What? Am I finished? Goddamnit, Laffy. Nobody told you to be so goddamn quick. You like a kid—wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” All that to hide the fact that in this surrounding, there was nothing going to happen with Ray Johns. In fact, he was laying there mostly embarrassed in the near dark, wondering how the fuck he’d gotten talked into this madness.
“You finished yet, Johns? We can’t stay here all night, you know. Not only are we off-limits, but we only got about forty-five minutes to get back to the base.”
“Aw, fuck that.” Johns had his head cocked to one side to talk to Laffy, who had now risen up completely away from the woman. “You bastard, I don’t care about all that shit. Ain’t nothing happened with me yet, goddamnit.”
“Hey, you finish now,” the woman puffing under Johns called out. “You pay for long time, but not for all night. You finish now.”
“Goddamnit, I ain’t finished. Laffy, look, you got this bitch throwing me on the floor and shit. I ain’t got my money’s worth yet.”
Laffawiss looked at him and tried to make a suggestive face. But in the half-dark, Ray couldn’t tell what he was making faces about. So Laffawiss whispered, “Hey, we didn’t pay, ya creep. We’ll get our clothes on, then lam outta here. See, you get a little free stuff.”
“I didn’t get nothin’ in the first goddamn place.”
“You finish,” the woman repeated once more. “Your long time is over.”
Laffawiss was pulling up his pants now. Johns had been put off the woman as she tried to rise. Laffy was making faces, urging Johns to get his pants on and make ready to dash out of the joint. But Johns was still reluctant, feeling cheated, even though he and his buddy were getting ready to cheat these women (and their pimp). But then the woman that Johns had been riding stood all the way up and began talking to her companion, who had also risen. Ray Johns could see her now more clearly, and in near profile he saw that the woman was a cripple. She had a large hump on her back. Johns’s skin felt like pins and needles, and all he could think to do was shout at his buddy who was about to break out the front door. “Laffy, you dirty son-of-a-bitch! Goddamn you, goddamn you!”
As he was answering Johns, Laffy was pulling his buddy’s arm to get him to move. “Come on, Ray. Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
Johns did not really believe Laffy would run away after fucking the women. It never occurred to him that you were supposed to pay even if nothing happened. But now, after being jerked by Laffawiss, he found himself staggering out into the front room and past the startled old woman, who now had her broom raised to stop the two retreating thieves.
The two women in the back room bust out too, the three of them screaming, “My money, mi dinero. Mi dinero, maricón! Cholito negro!”
Then the old lady started calling a man’s name. “Miguel … Cabrón! Miguel!”
Laffy and Ray plunged headlong into the darkness. Laffawiss knew generally the direction he was heading in. Johns knew nothing, except that it was dark and now three women and some crazed pimp were chasing them.
Running, as they were, down the off-limits black streets of Aguadilla—no, Mondongo—made Ray Johns feel absurd. Like he had been Shanghaied into a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Laffy, on the other hand, felt exhilarated. The sweaty air laughed around him like his sweaty skin and sweat-soaked uniform. He had his cap in his hand, running in his squatty Groucho Marx gait. The three women had fallen quickly into the far rear, and the pimp was only a step or two ahead of them. The cries of “Mi dinero, maricón! Cabrón!” and other untranslatable obscenities sailed along closer to the feverishly retreating G.I.s. But suddenly, out of the darkness, there were other figures next to them, closer.
“Oh shit!” Johns called out, trying to raise his velocity still higher. Laffawiss was actually chuckling, and the sight of this made Ray very angry, but there was not time to do anything but hotfoot it.
The Air Force physical-fitness programs kept Laffawiss and Johns relatively close in their flight, except Laffy was beginning to breathe a little heavier. Johns ran track and cross country in high school and college, and was actually sprinting easily. If he was sitting still he might have been more frightened, but during the chase he saw it as an emotion-tinged physics problem. The bottom line of this was: You’ll never catch me, motherfucker.
Then, it seemed, several more dudes leaped out of an alley ahead of them, and all at once they were just about surrounded. A hand scraped Ray Johns’s face, trying to grab at his clothes or whatever. Laffy was being reached for, and then both of them were trying to break free from many hands and the blood-seeking Puerto Rican Spanish.
Johns twisted, flailing his arms, and put his head down, twisting and diving for freedom. As he began to receive several glancing blows, he broke free and then accelerated to light speed. In the darkness, it was almost impossible to see clearly the faces of the seemingly young men who lunged at them. He moved away and caught a glimpse, still moving, but with someone’s hands grasping for him as he tried to round a corner.
Speeding through the dark, Johns careened blindly into a stack of garbage, knocking over boxes, cans, bags. As he regained his balance, he grabbed the lid from one of the cans and bashed it at the threatening shadows as he ran. He was trying to get away, number one, but then thought he should try to circle back behind where they were jumped to see what was going on with Laffy. Yet it was not merely one block he had to circle, but several, in the blind hit-and-miss fashion his running enforced. And it seemed a long time and a long journey, with the voices behind him. Once, he had to swing the garbage can cover at a couple of dudes moving near the edge of an alley. As he passed them, he wasn’t even sure they were chasing him. But now they were, for sure. He ran and ran, hoping he still had the right direction.
When he turned the corner to what looked like the narrow little street where the citizens had first cornered them, Johns’s heart leaped again as he noticed a blue Jeep of the Air Police, the red light blinking threateningly from its hood. He could see two air policemen, one black and one white, talking to what looked like a huddle of screaming young locals. To one side of the group, the wrinkled old woman stood, adding her two and three cents to the general roar.
Laffy lay up against one of the buildings, turning his head slowly from one side to the other. Somebody (or bodies) had popped him good. Johns froze for a second, figuring if he showed, he blowed. But fuck it, it didn’t mean that much. Who cared? A fuckin Article 15, what the hell? He thought this as he came striding out of the shadows. His appearance set the little crowd on “Vaya!” and for some reason the old woman wanted to spit at him.
Looking up wearily, all Laffawiss could offer was, “Hey, do any of you sad sons-of-bitches got a cigarette?” He even gestured at the crowd that strained to ice him. “Mira, dame un cigarillo, por favor.” They howled blood.
At Johns, Laffawiss merely tried unsuccessfully to grin. “Hey, airman, what the fuck happened to you?”
As the A.P.s closed on Johns, particularly because of his ability to move the assembled crowd, he answered, “I went home to jerk off. That was the worst pussy I ever had.” And they tried to laugh again.
The two buddies did get an Article 15 as punishment, and the First Sergeant made them paint the exterior of both of the large cement barracks that housed the flying personnel of the 73rd Strategic Bomb Squadron.
Ray and Laffy renewed their friendship after both had left the service. Johns had gotten out early because someone had written an anonymous letter to his squadron commander saying that he was a Communist. He didn’t even protest. Laffy got out a few months early on a hardship discharge he had phonied up.
Ironically, the last time the two were together was in New York City, the fond and flying apple of their Air Force daydreams. Coming down Ninth Avenue together, crossing into the Village, they were jumped by a screaming, bottle-throwing mob of young white boys. Again, Johns, with his fabled foot speed, got away, circling a few corners and picking up a garbage can cover as he ran, laughing at the déjà vu of the whole thing. But this time as he rounded the corner, Laffy had already been taken away in an ambulance.
Two guys, who said they were related to Laffy, came by Johns’s house a few days later and left an odd message that they had been there. They had also asked the superintendent “what color” Johns was, for some reason. But he never saw them again, nor did he ever see his old comrade in arms.
Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey by the New Jersey Commission on Humanities, 02-04.