A relentless banging woke me from whiskey dreams. Thinking it was the cops, I suffered to the door, each knock driving a spike in my skull. It wasn't the cops. As he stood there holding his arm, I saw his wrist had freakishly swelled, rivaling the enormity of his Popeye forearms. I let him inside.
"That wrist looks pretty bad," I said.
"Yeah, it's broke. It's definitely broken. I've been surviving on vicodin and vodka."
"That's not good."
"As soon as we finish up here, I'm going straight to the ER. I still have no idea how I could have fucked it up so bad. It's like I punched a wall or something. Did I do that?"
"Punch a wall? No."
"Fucking strange ..."
"You really wanna do this?"
"It's not about what I wanna do. It's what I have to do. What we have to do. You got the easy part."
"I'm wondering if it's really necessary. Maybe the wrist could work."
"Look, we already went through this. You agreed."
Sitting on the stool, he closed his eyes and took a number of deep breaths. He had a big head and giant Dudley Do-Right chin. Normally I would be looking up at him but now his head was in line with my neck. He gave an almost imperceptible nod. Planting my feet, I delivered a picture-perfect uppercut to his jaw.
He and the stool toppled to the floor with a clatter and a thud. But he was not knocked out, just dazed and moaning. Although I didn't feel bad, I felt something akin to wonder, an epiphany of amazement at him withstanding such a blow and me being talked into throwing it. After I helped him to his feet, he thanked me and righted the stool.
"Is it broke?"
"I'm not sure," he said, sitting back on the stool. "But it hurts a lot. The whole side of my head is throbbing."
"Then it's probably broke."
"Not necessarily. They say if you break something, you know it, no doubts ... Maybe give me one more, just to be sure."
"No fucking way. It's already starting to swell."
"You said you were gonna help me out. You agreed."
Billy Butler was my best friend. He stood six-four with an apish upper body. When he wasn't drinking, Butler was the nicest guy in the world and even when he was drinking he was pretty nice, unless you pushed that "little red button" of his.
"I got this little red button in my head that only comes out when I had a few," he had explained. "When it gets pushed, there's no coming back."
Although I never saw this button, I noticed a peculiar protrusion each time the alleged button was pushed. Whenever Butler got good and drunk, a small drip formed at the very tip of his gargantuan chin, a drip that had the uncanny ability to cling to his jaw in defiance of the laws of physics. It didn't matter if he was talking or walking or fighting or standing on his head---the drip was constant as the northern star. I often pondered on the nature of this drip, its viscosity composed by what I suspected was a unique combination of booze, sweat, spittle, and maybe some ineffable element from another dimension.
The drip was in full effect during the events leading up to me agreeing to break his jaw. We had been drinking most of the night in the campus pub. This was in the Bronx, back when the crack epidemic was just getting underway outside the iron gates of the university. Despite the risk of drug-related mayhem, it was not unusual to end a night of drinking at the White Castle on Fordham Road. Known as a "slider" or "rat burger," a White Castle was a small, hole-punched patty of gray, processed meat. The holes were to facilitate steam grilling, a method peculiar to the establishment. The drunker you were, the better the burger tasted. Never did I attempt to eat one sober. Butler's record was twenty-two, but on most nights a dozen satisfied. Butler was enamored with the ritual of getting a numbered card assigned to your order, creating a complex numerology that he hoped to one day write a book about. Although I can't recall many specifics, I do remember you had to take into account your number, the number of the guy ahead of you and the number of the guy behind you. The weather and phases of the moon were also part of his calculations.
"When was the last full moon? Was it Wednesday?"
I stared at Butler's drip. "Yeah, I think so," I lied.
"And the last time it rained?"
"Same. Wednesday. Drizzled all day."
"What number that guy got?"
"Six!" He closed his eyes and calculated. "Holy cow! This is really fucking weird."
It surely was. But not because of Butler's numerological outlook. What was weird was the entrance of a contingent of costumed students, a "shadow cast" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show." A cult movie playing the midnight show in the Village, "Rocky Horror" drew a recurring fan base that would dress up as characters in the film, ritually throwing toilet paper, hot dogs, toast, and rice at key scenes. It was not uncommon for these players to imbibe in all sorts of intoxicants before, during, and after the show.
Although I didn't know what drug they took or what they were coming down from, I witnessed an unusually aggressive demeanor, especially in the guy dressed as a transvestite. Normally, outside of the theatre, these Rocky Horror types were quiet and well behaved. If you didn't catch them dressed up, you wouldn't even know whom they were. But at the Castle, something had taken them over, causing a small disturbance that inadvertently led to the pushing of the little red button.
Just as our numbers were being called, our attention was drawn by a hard slap to the face of the girl dressed like a hooker. Looking over, we could see that the transvestite was getting ready for a second blow. What we didn't know was that they were re-enacting a scene from the movie.
"Hey, cut that out," said Butler.
The transvestite turned, "Fuck you."
While this transvestite was obviously a weightlifter and almost as tall as Butler, he had no understanding of the drip.
"Do not strike her again," said Butler, his voice soft and measured.
The transvestite smirked and gave the hooker another head-jarring smack. As the transvestite and the mad scientist cackled with glee, Butler went into motion, grabbing the transvestite by the neck and tossing him across the bolted-down stainless steel table. But instead of backing off, the transvestite removed his high heels and came back at Butler, throwing two wild haymakers that Butler bobbed and weaved with aplomb. That's when the hooker and mad scientist joined in, the hooker jumping on Butler's back and the mad scientist kicking him in the balls. Entering the melee, I pulled the mad scientist back by the hair, swinging him against the bulletproof glass. But the mad scientist was no fighter and as soon as I approached with my fists at the ready, he held up his hands in surrender. Meanwhile, incapacitated by the kick to the groin, Butler was covering up from a rain of transvestite blows that ineffectually glanced off his forearms and shoulders. The hooker, still astride his back, got it in her mind to start biting Butler's head. Butler gave a backhanded snap to the hooker's nose, sending her ragdolling into the bulletproof glass alongside a whimpering mad scientist who still had his hands up.
The hooker, blood running down her chin, went to touch her nose and let out a Munchian shriek, freezing everybody on the spot. Time seized inside and outside the White Castle. They say that in a terrible accident, time slows down and that's what I experienced in the wake of her scream. Outside, the cars on Fordham Road looked like a frozen blur that you'd see in a photograph. Inside, the other customers, the workers, even the steam from the burgers were suspended in the moment. But a moment was all it was and when it passed, Butler raised himself to a standing position, looked at the bleeding hooker, and said, "Oh, God. I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
Before she could answer, the transvestite sucker punched Butler in the temple. It was a solid blow, a blow that could have killed a man, and Butler dropped like a fallen oak. But Butler was not knocked out, just groaning and writhing on the dirty tile floor. When I went to his side to see if he was okay, the Rocky Horror crew ran into the night like a gang of thieves.
Still dead drunk and dazed by the murderous transvestite, Butler struggled to remain conscious. Through the hole in the bulletproof glass, the White Castle worker called out, "The cops are comin'." I wasn't sure if this was an accusation or helpful warning. But it didn't matter. I needed to get us the hell out of there.
Lowly moaning, Butler was barely awake and mostly dead weight and I struggled mightily to get him up and out the front door. Leaning him against a telephone pole, I held him in place with my shoulder, giving myself a minute to summon my strength for the walk back to campus. Fordham Road was deserted, no cars or people in any direction. I listened and waited for the wail of a police siren. Nothing. I never experienced it so quiet before. In the moment, I imagined a Bronx from long ago, a pastoral setting with farms and cows and birds and bees ...
Across the street appeared a short and skinny man. I don't know why but, for some reason, I fancied him a bodhisattva come to offer help. Although he was in no way dressed like a bodhisattva, he had a shining radiance impossible to ignore. On later reflection, I surmised that it might have been due to the neon glow of the car dealership. In any case, this bodhisattva seeing me seeing him, smiled and crossed the street to our side.
"Yes," I said. "As soon as I get him home, he'll be alright."
"I'll help you."
"Thanks. But I got him," I said, dragging Butler from the telephone pole as he leaned heavily on my shoulder, the drip hanging steady an inch from my eyeball.
But the bodhisattva was not taking "no" for an answer. Skipping to Butler's other side, he positioned himself beneath Butler's armpit, both of us now escorting him between us across Fordham Road. At the halfway point, when I was thinking that maybe this guy really was a bodhisattva, there came a commotion and a mumbling from Butler. Looking across, I saw the bodhisattva rummaging through Butler's pockets.
"Hey motherfucker!" I shouted. But I didn't have to say anything more.
Butler sprung into action. It was an amazing transformation. There he was, standing in a classic boxer's pose, facing the evil bodhisattva who stood slack-jawed and dumbfounded. In less than three seconds, Butler connected with two lefts and a right to the bodhisattva's noggin. The bodhisattva fell flat on his back. Lights out.
Drained to the core, Butler collapsed like a marionette with his strings cut and I worried that we would get run over by a car before I wrangled him to the curb.
"Hey, Butler," I said. "We gotta get outta here. You gotta wake up!"
He shook his head groggily but was barely capable of walking, so, again, we moved slowly forward, him on my shoulders, looking like the Civil War wounded back from Gettysburg. Turning once, I was relieved that the bodhisattva was no longer laying in Fordham Road. But this relief was short lived. A block away, in the light of the streetlamp, he stood holding an empty 1.75 liter bottle of vodka, the kind with the handle.
"C'mon, Butler! We gotta run!" I coaxed him as best I could, but running was out of the question. He did sense my urgency, however, and began moving faster than before.
I heard a smash and saw that the evil bodhisattva had cracked the vodka bottle into a jagged weapon of menace. "You gonna be cut," he declared.
Hustling Butler around the corner, I could see the gates of the university. But there was no way we were gonna outrun the bodhisattva. I leaned Butler against the hood of a car. I shook him. "Butler, wake the fuck up! That guy's got a broken bottle."
"Wha??? Who to do unto others?"
The bodhisattva rounded the corner. "You gonna get cut now."
I let go of Butler. Sliding down the hood of the car, he remained sprawled on the sidewalk, eyes closed and snoring loudly. I turned to face the oncoming bodhisattva. His eyes were wild and bulging, blood globed from his lips, and the broken vodka bottle was held before him like a sword. But I did not panic. Instead, I prayed. I prayed to God to help me.
To this day, I don't know whether it was God or an angel or something to do with some other dimension. But what I do know is that there was no rational explanation for a pool cue to be leaning up against the building on the sidewalk beside me. There wasn't a pool hall within miles. It was not brand new but not old or warped either. It was a perfectly serviceable cue, perfectly leaning against the side of a brick tenement, the blue of its tip perfectly chalked for the next shot.
As the bodhisattva approached, I grabbed the cue, holding it with two hands near the butt end. But this did not deter the bodhisattva. Circling around me, he went straight at Butler and I jabbed him in the side, poking him off course. As the bodhisattva smiled bloodily, I gave Butler a kick.
Again, the bodhisattva charged, this time at me. I jabbed at him with the cue but he easily danced out of reach. Looking at the jagged glass, I realized that this was a very serious affair.
"Get out of my way," said the bodhisattva. "I got no beef with you."
While keeping him at bay, I quickly glanced over to see Butler back on his feet. Not fully conscious, he stood in a droopy boxer's pose, his eyes half-hooded, body swaying. He took a couple of slow, hopeless swings at some imaginary foe. The bodhisattva laughed and I would have laughed too had he not had such murderous intentions. I jabbed at the bodhisattva but he easily circled out of range. Only now he wasn't laughing any more, his face contorted in revenge.
"Just go! Get the fuck outta here," I said.
The bodhisattva lunged with the broken bottle. Again, time slowed and I saw the jagged glass cut an arc inches from my face. This guy was fast with his hands. Without thinking, I flipped the cue around and, with the skinny end in my hands, swung the fat end at the bodhisattva's head. When the bodhisattva ducked, my follow-through cracked the wrist of Butler whose howl of pain echoed down the canyon of tenements. But I didn't let this faux pas deter me. Letting the momentum of my swing continue in a full circle, I came right around to hit my mark, cracking the bodhisattva not in the head where he was expecting it, but on the side of his knee. This buckled him and rendered him motionless. As he pathetically pointed the broken bottle in my direction, I cracked him again and again and again, each time on a different portion of his head.
Butler was slumped against the side of the car, holding his wrist and softly moaning.
"C'mon," I said. "Let's get outta here."
He was able to walk and we made it back onto campus without further incident. He asked me to drop him at his girlfriend's dorm, her roommate out of town for the weekend. I hesitated but then let him have his way since I was sick of him by now and at least she was used to tending his wounds. When I dumped him off, she wiped the drip from his chin and helped him inside. She didn't seem angry or greatly concerned and thanked me for bringing him home.
But later that morning she called in a tizzy to tell me that the Rocky Horror hooker was the daughter of the Dean of Students. She said that Butler could be kicked out of school or even arrested for smashing her nose.
"Well why are you telling me? What am I supposed to do about it?"
That's when Butler came up with the bright idea of me breaking his jaw. If Butler could claim that he was attacked and seriously hurt, there would be no way that they could press charges against him. What's a bloody nose compared to a broken jaw? At the time, it made sense. What's more, I was still drunk and exhausted so I agreed if only we could do it later in the day, after I got some sleep.
As Butler waited for the next shot, he saw the cue leaned up in the corner. "Hey what's that?"
"That? That's a pool cue."
"I know what it is. I just never saw it before."
"You don't remember what happened? The guy who tried to rob you?"
He stared at the pool cue. "What guy?"
"I fucked him up with that stick. Don't you remember?"
"Absolutely no recollection. Now, we gonna finish this or what?"
Copyright © 2014 Steve Romagnoli.
Steve Romagnoli's short stories have appeared in The Mid-American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Booth Magazine, The Rusty Nail, Chicago Center of Literature and Photography Magazine, and real fiction. He's had four plays produced in New York City, including, Stealing Heaven, running off-Broadway at the Samuel Beckett Theater. Steve is currently finishing a collection of related stories called, Idiot Missions.