by Paolo Dhin

4. How Far They Will Go

This is me, behind enemy lines, supping at the table of my foes. A couple of pairs of watery eyeballs belonging to a woman and a child stare at me over a meal I'm packing away like there's no tomorrow. Which there isn't, if my boys in the hills have their way. The barrage has been stepped up. Clusters of explosions are moving about the city, like a giant's finger, riffling through a candy box.

The woman is quiet. I can't tell if the child is a boy or a girl. They're not eating. I am. I'll say one thing. She may be enemy scum, but she can whisk up something out of nothing like nobody's business. The cupboard is bare and this meal just about put the period on the end of the sentence.

There's no gas so she had to break up a chair and light it on fire in the stove to cook. That's why the kid ain't sitting. It's standing there, staring at me, every once in a while swallowing a big gob of spit. Maybe it's hungry. I don't care. The child of my enemy is my enemy. Little trees grow into big trees and break boulders with their roots. I don't blame it for salivating. It's a doggone good meal.

The greens have a zing and a tasty crunch, even though they come from the cracks and crevices between the bricks on the outside of the building. I watched the woman collect the stuff. She crawled out on the fire escape, six floors up, mind you, tossed her shoes aside and headed out like a fairly-attractive mountaineer in a simple print dress, gripping with fingers and toes the mini-ledges formed by the bricks. The kid must be used to it cause it didn't blink an eye, not even when a brick crumbled beneath her toe and she dangled for a heartbeat or two by one hand. When she did, she looked back and the look went straight to my groin, like a long arm had reached down there and given the twins a gentle tumble, the way a dice player does just before he tosses and prays for eights. Then she pulled herself up and crawled on, disappearing around the corner. When she came back she had a bundle of weeds clenched between her teeth.

The bread is dark and satisfying even though it's made out of cardboard boxes. She and the kid ripped them into pieces, then ripped the pieces into pieces, then ripped the pieces into pieces and so on and so forth for about a year and a half until there was a mound of cardboard flour on the table. For salt, she made the kid run around the kitchen until it'd worked up a decent sweat, then stripped its shirt off and scraped it down with a butter knife. For yeast, she went to the refrigerator, which wasn't working cause there isn't any electricity, and went to work with the butter knife again, scraping the green, powdery mold growing in there. She had to lean way in, and, as she scraped, her hips slid back and forth, describing the scraping, mirror-like. The dice player in my testicular zone made ready to toss again.

For butter, to lather on the bread, she tore the page out of a sorry-looking book that was already half gone, and sent the kid with it and a cup down the hall to knock at another apartment. I went along for the ride. A big woman with a baby attached to a big tit, and a weasily-looking guy with a pair of thick specs covering half his face answered the door. The kid held up the page. The guy nodded his head, greedy-like. The woman dis-attached the babe and stuck the udder in the cup. After a couple of decent squeezes, we headed back, where my hostess attacked it with a whisk. She kept at it until the whisk became a blur in the cup and beads of perspiration were popping out on her forehead. Her breasts were rising and falling like the bow of a ship going through heavy water. When she finally slowed to a stop, lo and behold, there was a generous dollup of big-woman-butter in there.

The kitten, if that's what it is, is rich and toothsome. She didn't say it was kitten and I didn't ask if it was kitten, but, it's awful fresh and there'd been some kitten-like mewing going on earlier, somewhere in the bowels of the apartment, and it'd gotten real quiet all of a sudden, coincidentally while the woman was out of the room and afterwards the kid looked a little teary-eyed and pre-occupied with some absent tragedy, so, I figure it's kitten. I can't quite put my finger on the sauce. It's a little picquant for my tastes, but, hey, it's really pretty amazing there's any sauce at all, here in this devastation, with the bombs going off outside, and the screams of the dying, so, I'm not going to complain.

I sop up the last of the kitten-sauce with the last of the cardboard bread and lean back in my chair. I suck my teeth loudly. Suddenly there's a knife in the woman's hand. This makes me nervous, but she goes to work on the edge of the table and whittles a perfect little toothpick, sharp on one end, flat at the other. She hands it across and our fingers touch. A little jolt goes up my arm. Her eyes jump to mine, so I figure she's feeling it, too.

I don't know why she's being so nice to me. My mother, who I can't remember right at the moment, didn't raise any meatheads stupid enough to assume it's because I'm so overpoweringly attractive, I think. I figure it's got something to do with the clown who picked me up on the street and brought me here. He took her aside and whispered in her ear and after that she got kind of careful around me like I was souvenir plate that could break easy. Little does she know, ha, ha. I'm not in the mood to destroy her pretty illusions. I've got a roof over my head and a kitten in my belly. In these times, that's not a boat you should rock.

The woman and I stare at each other as the kid gathers up the dishes. I hear them clatter in the sink. Her eyes are like magnatized pools. I couldn't look away from them if I wanted to. I feel tiny lips peck me on the cheek and hear tiny footsteps exit the kitchen. The adults are alone. We stare at each other. The wind-up clock on the refrigerator ticks. A distant mortar crumps. A fly buzzes. Then, in a perfect example of action minus volition, my body leaps forward, and we're all over each other.

The kid couldn't have negotiated the far turn at the end of the hall before my three-day growth is taking a layer off her face like number 3 sandpaper on the southern side of a clapboard house. That print dress is up around her hips, my pants are down around my knees, and I'm pumping away like the guy digging for treasure whose shovel has just hit something metallic.

I back her up to the kitchen table, plant her haunches on my place mat and work the situation for all it's worth. The table starts to travel, so I climb on up there with her but it continues to move. It's like we're on one of those big circus horses with backs so wide you could toss a queen-size fitted sheet over it and have a pillow fight.

It comes up against the stove with a crash heard in Cincinnati, and begins rapping the appliance rhythmically, as if there's a giant process server at the door and this is his last gig of the day. We start to wriggle forwards, as if we're one thing, some kind of worm-thing, that has to undulate to motivate. We halumph right over the cooktop, rattling the burner racks and her head hits the wall with a resounding thump. I think she's finally going to settle, but, no, she starts moving up, scrambling with her heels for purchase, sending the burner racks clanging to the floor. I scrabble after her like a greedy crab after a juicy hunk of flotsam.

She gets to her feet, but that's not good enough for her. She's got to go on her tippy toes, and then her feet leave the stove altogether and she's pinned up there like an entomologist's prize bug and I've got the pin. She keeps sliding up the wall. I'm trying to stay with her. It crosses my mind to tell her to stop being so coy, the damage has been done, when my feet leave the stove, also. We're both up on the wall. We're crawling up the wall. I try to look down but she grabs my head and yanks it back with the kind of growl a cat makes who's warning somebody off her gibblets.

And still we're moving up. Gravity's taken a holiday. The worm is on the wall. The worm is working the corner angle. The worm is on the ceiling. I can feel the accumulation of dirty grease beneath my hands as we slide forward, thumpity-thump. The ceiling light sails towards me like a table lamp somebody's left on the floor. We're both yelling our heads off and slobbering all over each other's face. A broom handle sprouts from the ceiling in front of me, like a fast-growing reed and I can hear the upstairs neighbor screaming at us to shut up, give it a rest. But it's too late. The worm is in the driver's seat. I hang a left around the broom handle and keep going, orbiting the dead lighting fixture, picking up speed.

My compadre's decide now's a good time to send a meteor storm of mortar shells to our part of town and everything is explosions and screaming and yelling and thuds and shakes and that's when we do the thing together, the final thing, the top of the roller coaster, the jump off the cliff and it's like having your ears cut off with sharp knives and liking it.

When we're done, when the plane has come to a complete stop and our trays are locked and our seat backs are in their upright position, we look at each other and drop from the ceiling like a cockroach hit by the bug spray. Fortunately for her, I break her fall. Unfortunately for me, I break her fall. We land on the table. The table collapses beneath us and we're on the floor, back where we belong. The bombs have moved on. The upstairs neighbor is dead. Everything is quiet. I gotta take a wicked piss.

I'm stumbling down the hall with the candle she's given me when I come across a flock of family photos, hung on the wall. I stop to pass judgment. There's the kid at two, four and six. That must be the hubby, a silly looking sap if ever I've seen one. I wonder where he is now. Under the ground, or maybe in a trench, facing our boys, about to have his stupid grin split by a bayonet.

The toilet's long since kaput so I piss out the window. It's a long piss, three sighs long, and when I'm done, I tuck busy Jimmy away and face the bathroom mirror. And stop. Something is wrong. Why is he staring at me? Why is the guy from the pictures in the hall staring at me? The sap who should be dead under our guns is staring at me in the mirror, wearing my face. I'm scared. I don't understand. My fear comes up around my ears like a rasty collar, choking off my air. What does this mean?

And then I get it. The explanation clicks into place like a well-oiled puzzle. My fear drains from me like sand through an hourglass and I'm calm, calmer than I've been for a long, long time. I get it. It can only be one thing.

The dirty, low-down, stinking, son-of-a-bitching scum doctored the pics. They will go to any lengths to defeat us. It lays out before me like a well-drawn up contract. The sex was a killing kind of whoredom, designed to sap my will and put me to sleep. Once asleep, she and the kid, who's probably not a kid at all but a shaved midget, would pounce on me. I stare at my face in the mirror. My face, not theirs. Well, not this time, Charlie. Sorry to disappoint you, Bernice. Guess that pile of corpses you keep in the basement won't be getting any bigger tonight. Or will it? I saw where you put down that knife. Sorry to eat and run. Sorry to eat and kill but I'm going home. I'm getting out from behind enemy lines.
the end


" pants are down around my knees, and I'm pumping away like the guy digging for treasure..."