by RYAN STARSAILOR
“The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.”
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Part One: The Long Way Down
Part Two: Gritt Goes South
THE LONG WAY DOWN
GRITT CALHOON GAZED EMPTILY OUT THE WINDOW of his hotel room on the fifty-sixth floor and decided that life was nothing more than a senseless terror. The lights of Buenos Aires twinkled in the infinite darkness below and Gritt scanned them with the ferocious hollowness of a man who had seen bamboo orphanages burn to the ground in the time it takes for a man to conclude that children never deserve to die.
“Greett?” said a woman’s voice. “You look tense, baby. Like you see something far away.”
Gritt didn’t hear a single word. His thoughts were slithering around in the gloomy pond of vampire feces that was his brain. Presently he was picturing murders—murders for God and country, for glory long since forgotten. Uncle Sam’s checks had bounced and those boys were in the ground now, coffins wrapped in the dead flags of dead countries.
“Greeeeeettttt . . .” The woman gently tugged on the shaft of Gritt’s elephantine penis. Somewhere deep inside the vaporous screaming psychedelic nightmare where his soul-ghost dwelt, he heard the faint ringing of his body’s doorbell. He sensed someone was luring him back to the physical realm. Gritt shook his head like a junkyard dog in a meth lab and resumed control of the tree-trunk-thick tube of decades’-old hamburger meat that housed everything he was.
God dang it, Gritt was alive.
He looked down and realized he was reclined spread eagle in an emperor-sized hotel bed stroking the tanned inner thigh of an Argentinian woman whose name he had never even bothered to know in the first place.
“Huh,” said Gritt. His dark unfeeling eyes quivered. Everything looked bad just then. He felt insane. “Sorry, must’uv spaced out there fer a fuckin second.” Gritt instinctively clenched his buttcheeks like a salad tong, and in doing so collected a healthy swath of the silky sheets upon which his gargantuan sweaty body lay in a post-coital stupor. The material felt good betwixt the folds of Gritt’s inner buttocks. It soothed him and Gritt liked it.
“Who the fuck’re yew again . . . ?” he said. Gritt was staring at a shit stain on the wall and wondered if it was his doing. Glancing at the carpet, he spied what appeared to be a healthy pile of horse turds and his suspicions were confirmed: the turds were unmistakably his own. For a moment he felt proud of his handiwork, though he had all but forgotten the mysterious circumstances surrounding his misplaced bowel movement. Whatever was in his system had robbed him of his short-term memory. He reckoned it was probably just another one of his acts of rebellion against existence itself—a gift of silent protest which he offered up to oblivion just for the sake of the song. Or maybe he’d just had the hankering to take a dump. Either way, his indelible mark, his signature, had been lain upon the mortal world, and soon an underpaid hotel housekeeper would know the true meaning of sadness upon its discovery.
Gritt swished the silken sheets back and forth between his glorious gluteal cleft as the luxurious linens grazed the outer rim of his battle-scarred cinnamon ring.
Talk about’a fly-by-night operation, thought Gritt, not really understanding what he meant by that. He farted gently into the mattress. It was a quiet, intimate expression of joy. He felt a warmth in his heart and was glad.
The woman laughed nervously. “You forget my name already, Greett baby?” She nearly vomited when Gritt’s gut vapors reached her nostrils.
“Hain’t registerin up in HQ,” said listless Gritt. He sighed theatrically. Secretly he wished he could forget almost everything about the long dark dream of his life. Gritt’s sorrows were frozen inside of him like a subarctic graveyard from which there was no escape. He had spent decades of his life in desperate pursuit of a place beyond the memory of his earthly pain to no avail. To him it was all just turds on the carpet from beginning till fiery end.
Gritt closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead with his free hand, still slicked with personal lubricant and a cocktail of bodily fluids. With the other he instinctively let his fingers run wild, raking those sweaty crawdaddies of his through the unknown woman’s neatly-trimmed meadow of black pubic hair. She stirred and moaned. Arching her back, she pointed her pelvis toward the vaulted ceiling—a beacon of oozing hot flesh, come one, come all . . .
Gritt knew he should have been aroused by this but he wasn’t. He should have been a-rootin and a-tootin and a-midnight salutin, what with her flawless sun-kissed skin spasming like a coffin full of spiders. But up in his brain it was little else than murk and haunted machinery. Up there, in the abandoned amusement park between his ears, he saw only the spiraling black vortex that would get him yet.
“Mmm . . . oh, Greeeeeett . . .”
Gritt’s penis didn’t budge a millimeter; it lay there on his knee like a dead boa constrictor. Though he was flaccid, there was still some baby gravy flowing through it, giving it shape and texture. Any reasonable person would have mistaken Gritt’s love muscle for a little league baseball bat that had been fished out from a swamp, such was its otherworldly girth and length. The only giveaway that this bacon bazooka belonged to a man of flesh and blood was the howling wolf tattoo on the left side of his shaft, badly faded now but still visible to those who knew what they were looking for.
The wolf was silent now. So was Gritt.
“You are magnificent lover, Greett. Never before have I felt such pleasures in my body.”
Gritt flicked at the roof of his mouth with his pierced tongue. He stared down at his buttermilk stick as though it were the corpse of Ernest Hemingway. He snorted and felt disgusted with everything just then. He wanted to die and he wanted the world to die with him—to rupture like a pumpkin full of rat turds left out in the sun.
“Huh? Yew fuckin say sumthin? I’m fuckin thinkin over here, h’okay? Man’s gotta think ‘bout some shit every now’n then. And as fer me my own, now and then is right the fuck now.”
“I was just—”
“Shit, how many god dang times dew I gotta tell ya that I cain’t speak yer fuckin language?” said Gritt, not realizing the woman was communicating to him in English. “Moo-cho En-glace? What tha fuck am I even dewin here, man. This is fuckin useless.” He jerked his hand away from her crotch as though it were swarming with fire ants.
“We made love—”
“Je-sus Krispy Kreme Christ, woman. Made love? Izzat what ya think we did? I don’t ‘member makin no god dang love. I ‘member skinny dippin in puppytown, ya hear? And even then I jus barely ‘member. Shit.”
“Greett, sweetee,” said the woman, her eyes lined with tears, “you don’t remember? Is only five minutes ago . . .”
“Baby girl, listen ta me.” Gritt clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. “Five minutes ago I wuz dewin what I always dew: countin down the seconds till my heart finally collapses in on itself after decades of heavy fuckin livin. I’s prayin to the Dark Master ta take me fuckin home. See I got problems. Comprende? I cain’t ‘member shit cept all the bad stuff. I cain’t even ‘member what my fuckin parents looked like. Hell, I’m lookin right the fuck at yew right the fuck now and I don’t even know what the fuck yews look like. Just see a big ol setta lung mittens and a buncha other shit I don’t wanna bother carin ‘bout, all dew res’pect.”
Gritt opened his eyes. He sighed.
“Yew really think I give tew shits ‘bout bonin anymore? And that’s what it wuz, by the way: jus some good ol fashioned barnyard bonin. Didn’t mean no god dang thing. Meant less than nuthin, even. Bonin ain’t the same as makin nut-bustin love with yer special lady, whatever the hecka-doodle-doo that even means anymore. Yew feel me, Sister Marie? The day Gritt Calhoon gits sentimental ‘bout dewin the dipsy-doodle in a cucumber patch again is the day I finally nut up and jump off Mount fuckin Ev’rest with the sweet cold barrel of ol Sin Daddy shoved halfway up my freakin butthole.”
Sin Daddy, of course, was Gritt’s heavily-modified triple-barrel shotgun he’d bought at a police auction in Memphis, Tennessee. Gritt’s fabled corpse-duster was resting upright against the bedside table, which was littered with empty bottles of cough syrup and a bong shaped like Steve McQueen’s head.
Disgusted with language itself, Gritt stood up and yanked the silk sheet off the bed and wrapped it around his thick-ass waist. He padded across the plush baby-soft carpet towards a large plate glass window on the other side of the room, leaving craterous footprints in his wake. He put his big-ass hands on his big-ass hips and surveyed the sleepy city to which he was utterly indifferent. Gritt mindlessly flexed his pecs and abs and butt in perfect harmony. The sheet stretched and snapped and was torn asunder. It fell to the floor like a half-remembered dream, revealing Gritt’s Grecian buttocks and bronzed thighs. His tan was deep and perfect; it spread evenly across his robust constellation of hardy meat-parts. The South American sun had done him good. Gritt looked fantastic.
The woman was sobbing now. But all Gritt heard were the screams of ten thousand children who would never go home again.
Ain’t ‘member no stories ‘bout Macho Man Randy Savage havin ta deal with this fuckin bullhockey, he thought. Macho Man woulda jus taken a big-ass horse dump on the bed and got the fuck outta dodge. I’s wuz halfway to heaven earlier, what with tha hefty heapin I done left on the carpet. Though it ain’t too late fer ol Gritt Calhoon ta flop out another mud brick and skedaddle, I don’t rightly reckon. . . .
Gritt was flea-bitten and time-rotten. He had been all around the world and back again—had gotten down and sloppy with thousands of women, but none of it mattered to him now. He decided long ago he could have had the same experience with a can of compressed air and a bean bag chair.
Least bean bag chairs don’t sue ya fer half yer military pension, thought Gritt. And they sure as hell don’t superglue yer womb broom to yer freakin stomach jus cuz ya fergot to disclose that ya got a particular strain of gonorrhea that’s impervious ta antibiotics.
Gritt stood at attention while semen dribbled out of him and onto the carpet below. He tried to remember the last time an orgasm was anything more than a few seconds of screaming amnesia, was anything more than a brief and fleeting antidote to the unflinching reality of a tired old planet that had been trying to commit suicide since the first man-ape dreamed of a world outside of his own miserable shit-filled cave.
Gritt sniffed his fingers.
Had ta’ve been twenty years now, he thought. The night Gina-Lynn Cobra and I boned so hard we made Andy. God dang, now that wuz one fer the fuckin his’try books! That shoulda been the page right after Tommy Jefferson got all them powdered-wig-ass dingleberries together ta sign the Dec of Indo. And sure, some shit since then’s felt pretty fuckin good . . . ’specially them porn stars, way back when. Damn, them girls wuz nice. But who gives a fuck, man. Pussy just another thang that don’t work on me no more . . .
“Ayy . . . enn . . . dee . . . wye—” said the woman. Gritt whipped his head sideways and glared menacingly as the stranger on the bed audibly spelled out the word inked into Gritt’s butt-flesh. She was uttering the four sacred letters that made up the name of Gritt’s dead son.
“What is tattoo you have, Greett? I look at it for long time but I do not understand what is Ann-Dee, baby.”
“The fuck yew jus say . . . ?” Gritt snarled. His face was engorged with an unbleached hatred for all mankind. “Don’t yew dare speak that name ta me.”
“I just wanted to know—”
“Enough!” Gritt clenched his buttcheeks tight like a bear trap, obscuring the precious combination of letters in his muscular folds deep within. Now, for a time, Andy’s memory would be safe from the world—but the world, he thought, would never be safe from Gritt Calhoon.
In a single terrifying motion Gritt gorilla-lunged toward the wall and, with shaking vein-ripe hands, ripped the 240-inch holo-screen displaying muted hardcore pornography off its mounting bracket. Sparks erupted from the wall as he hurled the thing across the room like a frisbee, shattering the triple-layered plate glass windows. It pinwheeled out into the darkness beyond, hanging there for a moment before succumbing to at least two of Newton’s laws of motion.
Seconds later there was an enormous crash followed by screams of terror. The holo-screen had landed on top of a self-driving city bus. Unfazed, Gritt chucked a nightstand and four lamps along with it just to shake ‘em up a little.
“Yew know what needs ta happen?” said Gritt, not really talking to anyone as he stared down at the baby-plush carpet with revulsion. “This fuckin turd-ass planet and all the sinners who dwell upon it need ta burn forever in the fiery shit-cauldron reserved fer Lucifer ’n his scumbag homies.” He covered his face with his hands and seemed to embody, for a whisper of a moment, the cumulative exhaustion and sadness of all living things.
My sweet Andy. . . . thought Gritt. He closed his eyes and saw his son smiling in the company of angels. It was a vision he had often seen in his dreams. Gritt reached out his hand and longed to be there with him in that faraway place, to be free, once and for all, of the prison of scarred flesh he unwillingly inhabited. But the vision dimmed as it always did, and opening his eyes, he saw now that his hands grasped only at the nothingness of the void around him. Andy and the angels were gone from him, and Gritt was alone once again.
Gritt crunched over the broken glass scattered upon the carpet and approached the hole in the wall where the floor-to-ceiling window had been seconds before. The cold nighttime air soared through his dark pubic and chest hair. He folded his big-ass arms and watched dispassionately as dozens of self-driving firetrucks and police cars and ambulances swarmed to control Gritt’s newest catastrophe. He pointed an angry finger down at the chaos and turned to the frightened woman.
“Yew wanna tell me man is evolved . . . ?” said Gritt. “That he’s better’n them gorillas ‘n them monkeys? And them lions and them tigers too? Shit. Say what ya will ‘bout fuckin cockroaches and phytoplankton ’n whatever the god dang diggity else, but them motherfuckers sure dew got a lot figured out that we jus ain’t never gunna. Cockroach don’t need no fuckin jewelry. Phytoplankton don’t need no fuckin sportscar.”
Zebra don’t need no fuckin diaper neither. Not no zebra I ever met, anyway, thought Gritt Calhoon.
“My son is gone,” he said. “And the weight of his absence has cursed me with this high fuckin perception. What stands before yew now is a cosmic conduit fer the pain and sadnesses of this feeble world. From behind a pasteboard mask I bear witness ta the sins’uv man, which are as horrifying as they are innumerable.”
Gritt inhaled deeply, collecting every secret fluid in his sinuses, and launched a big wet one down into the ugly concrete hell below. His saliva fell six hundred feet and splattered on an android policeman’s hat.
“What a miserable fuckin dick show this is. Ev’ry god damn pathetic ounce’uv it!”
The woman sat upright in the middle of the bed. Her body was frozen in shock. A gentle stream of warm tears rolled down her face.
“Damn, woman. It’s cold in here. Yew’d best put them toys back in the toy box,” said Gritt, referring to the woman’s breasts. He knelt down and picked up the silk sheet, which had been fluttering in the wind, and approached her on the bed. He wrapped it around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. It was an old parlor trick of his, the kiss on the head. It temporarily disguised the fact that Gritt was a dangerous psychopath whose heart had become an impenetrable black fortress where his soul cried out in pain for a son he would never again hold in his arms.
“I’m goin fer a god dang walk,” said Gritt, “and I don’t intend ta return. And I mean that in a big fuckin way, baby. Cuz chances are, I’s gunna be dead as a Nicaraguan dope wizard by the time ya take yer mornin dump in the ay-em. Comprende?”
Gritt, who was still naked as a newborn babe, produced a rubber-banded wad of wet stinky cash from an unknown part of his body and tossed it onto the bed. He eyed Jefferson Davis’ smirk on the outermost $500 bill and felt disgusted.
“Money,” he said softly to himself. “El mucho dinero.” He had exhausted his knowledge of the Spanish language. The moist cannonball of American currency that lay before them now constituted what would otherwise take her six months to earn.
“Hell, take it all. It wuz just gunna end up in some stripper’s buttcrack anyhow. And now yew can put a down payment on a fuckin prefab condo or whatever the fuck.”
Gritt shimmied into his Russian tundra fatigues and threw on his battle-damaged leather jacket. The little ruby-eyed skulls that hung from the zipper ends rattled as he squeezed the jacket over his tremendously large and sexy body.
His steel-toe combat boots were already on. Gritt never removed his boots—not even when he was grinding corn between the sheets.
Gritt was zipping up his fly and snorting a foot-long trail of blow off his tattooed forearm when another Argentinian woman stepped out of the bathroom. She had a towel wrapped around her torso. Gritt recognized the expression on her face. It was the same face first-year POWs make when they’re forced to eat their own shoes at gunpoint.
“Huh,” said Gritt, plugging his left nostril and inhaling hard with the other. “And jus who the fuck’re yew?”
“Lucía, was going on out here?” said the second woman, addressing the first. “What are loud noises? Where is holo-screen? Why is big man leaving?”
The woman on the bed was frozen in time with the lavender sheet still hung over her body. Her perception of herself and of the world she had always known had been thrown out the window along with the holo-screen and the hotel furniture. Gritt’s lonely diatribes had a way of hollowing someone out like that.
“Big man,” said the woman in the bath towel. “You do not remember? We have threesome.”
Gritt pawed at his syphilis rash. “I don’t ‘member no fuckin threesome.”
“How you forget? Was twenty minutes ago. Two more girls on the way over now.”
She tiptoed over to the gigantic hole that Gritt had made in the wall. The icy air whipped at her face and pubic hair. There were dozens of sirens going off now, way the hell down there.
“Where is holo-screen?” she said.
Gritt was already out the door. It slammed shut behind him. His pockets were stuffed with shrimp scampi he’d swiped from the room service cart. Garlic butter sauce trickled down his sex-hosed thighs and Gritt quietly enjoyed the sensation.
Savin these li’l babies fer later, he thought, once I git my god danged mind straighten’d out, if’n that’s even possible ta’night . . .
Gritt walked down the hall and ogre-lurched into the elevator. Inside he punched the control panel as hard as he could. Sparks erupted in a halo around his big-ass fist. The “L” button lit up. Gritt was pleased that he still knew how to interact with the unfeeling machinery of the world.
The elevator hummed and began to move. Gritt eyed his gnarled reflection in the shiny gold doors.
Lookit yew, Calhoon, he thought. Mangy fuckin junkyard dog. Messin ‘round with them babes . . . ‘n two more inbound. Lordy . . . if only Shark could see yew now, ya poon-hungry hound . . .
Gritt smiled warmly at the thought of his own wild exploits.
On the forty-second floor a young woman boarded the elevator. She eyed Gritt as he stood leaning against the far wall with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself about the dead past and mankind’s hopeless wishes for the future. The stink of shrimp and semen hung in the air like a curse.
Gritt, entranced in a sort of dark meditation, felt the psychic vibrations of a stranger in his periphery. He turned his big moist head and peered at her vaguely from beyond the haunted wreckage of his mind.
Don’t even think ‘bout tryin ta break off a li’l piece of this fuckin KitKat bar, sister. If’n ya want Gritt Calhoon ta care ’bout sumthin, ya better damn well put a god dang target on it with the promise of plenty’a blow back at basecamp . . .
The elevator made its way down to the hotel lobby as the woman struggled to understand why this sun-baked snow demon of a man was snorting cocaine out of an empty shotgun shell and staring wistfully at a dog-eared photograph of a young boy he had surreptitiously retrieved from a hidden compartment in his microfiber boxer briefs.
• • •
Gritt was in a haze. Entombed within an inky black forcefield, he staggered aimlessly through the gloomy trash-filled streets. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. It was December, but the weather was miserably humid. Gritt’s balls sweltered like a couple of cantaloupes at Satan’s one-hundred billionth birthday party.
“Fuckin Southern Hemisphere, I swears,” said Gritt aloud. “What a joke. Flush the toilet and the turds spin the wrong way. Backwards-ass bullshit country if I ever seen one, and I done seen a lot. But then show me someplace that ain’t fucked as all git-out. . . .”
A small satellite torpedoed down from the night sky and crashed into a derelict taxicab. A gang of hooded night-roamers scuttled out of an abandoned underwear factory and quickly stripped the smoldering space object of whatever scrap metal hadn’t been fried upon reentry. Gritt instinctively wrapped his big-ass hand around his holstered sidearm. As the scavengers picked at the wreckage, Gritt briefly considered blowing them all away just for the hell of it. In a rare moment of self-awareness, he closed his eyes and meditated upon the very idea of murder.
Lettum have their fuckin fun, I s’pose, he thought. And ‘sides . . . I’m too fuckin tired ta be the arbiter of Death ta’night. I’ll leave theys fates up ta whatever terminal diseases these dingalings got, livin here in this irradiated piece’a shit turd-ass butthole-ass city. . . .
Gritt sighed and took his hand off the gun.
“I have seen Him in the watch fires uv’a hund’red circlin camps,” he said aloud to a family of rats huddled inside a storm drain. “They have builded Him an altar in the eve’nin dews ‘n damps.” Seeing the fear in their black eyes, and aware of their ancient instinct to persevere in the face of that fear, Gritt felt a sadness in his heart for all the lonely little creatures who still roamed the dying land which was once called God’s green paradise.
As Gritt stomped in the direction of nowhere, a fiery neon sign beckoned to him in the darkness. It hung in the window of a small bar as though it were heavenly Polaris, guiding him to a safe place where he could finally die. Beneath the illuminated outline of a pink-bikini-clad señorita were three flashing words:
Y COMIDA PUTA!
Gritt was essentially illiterate in every human language on earth, but he found himself drawn to the words nonetheless. He just liked the look of them. Gritt loved it when lights and colors were mixed together like that.
It wasn’t the sign alone that piqued Gritt’s interest. A beautiful combination of delicious smells wafted out of the open doorway of the bar. Gritt used his big-ass nostrils to sniff the hot and heavy air. He took in a big-ass lungful and felt his ding dang twitch ever so slightly.
“Beef ‘n grilled onions,” he whispered to himself, growing excited. He sniffed again. “And spiced corn.”
Gritt’s pants tightened as his penis inflated down his leg like a balloon animal. He felt feverish. His stomach, like every other part of him, was empty. Gritt was downright peckish.
The old warrior lumbered into the bar, barely fitting through the frame. He stood there for a moment eyeing the place suspiciously, thinking it to be a trap laid by the denizens of a country he scarcely understood. Silently he flexed his gluteal muscles beneath his olive drab undies—back and forth, in and out. It felt good to do that. Gritt loved to feel good when he could.
“Evenin, compañero,” said an old white man from behind the bar. He smiled as he flipped vegetables and cubed steak chunks with a spatula. Smoke rose up from the grill like the napalmed shantytowns Gritt had bore witness to in the long ago.
Gritt was silent as a sarcophagus. He squinted his eyes. His brain sent a telegram to his trigger finger: Uv’all the places in this here strange land, and I gotta end up in the one bar run by some twinkle-toe’d honky loser. Fuckin figures. If’n thangs git fruity, and I reckon they just might, I gots ta be ready to send this knucklehead on a slow boat to Kingdom Fuckin Come. . . .
“Take a seat, compañero. Stick around and have a beer. I’m making empanadas. They’ll be ready momentarily. And—” he said smiling, “perhaps we can keep each other company on this lonely night.”
“Quit callin me com-pan-arrow, ya ol wet fart!” Gritt thundered. He gave the man a savage lip-curl and licked his chompers with a long grey tongue that looked like it had been designed by George Lucas. “I ain’t exac’ly in the biz’ness of bein give’n baby-turd nicknames by Grandpa Cracker-ass.”
“Settle down now, friend,” said the man. He was folding dough over the cooked meat and vegetables. “I mean you no harm.”
“Why the fuck yew talk like that?” said Gritt. “Hate to break yer rice bowl, Papa Dingdang, but if’n ya think ya know Gritt Calhoon—well, lemme tell ya somethin—yew don’t. I’s ‘bout two seconds away from tossin yer pale ol wrink’ly ass onta that there grill ’n makin me a peckerwood sammich, ya hear?”
It was then that Gritt noticed that every square inch of the dingy bar was crammed with John Wayne memorabilia. A framed poster of him as Rooster Cogburn was hung on the wall behind a row of half-empty liquor bottles. Gritt got jealous real quick. He wanted that poster for himself.
The old man took notice of Gritt’s widened eyes.
“Ah, I see you’re a fan of The Duke,” he said.
“Don’t make me laugh, ya old turd. ‘Course I am. And hand over that there poster ‘fore I git antsy ‘n pound yer dumb ass into bacon bits ’n stuff ya inta one of them gay-ass burritos yer fiddlin with over yonder.”
“That poster,” said the man, pointing to it with a spatula, “is very precious to me. A gift from my son. I cannot part with it. Here—” He placed four empanadas on a plate and set them down on the bar. “Please, eat up. These are on me.”
Gritt was shaken by the thought of a child’s gift, but quickly concealed his tenderness by honking out a particularly venomous pumpernickel gale.
The old man winced as the deadly smell invaded his nostrils.
“Here’s the skinny, sane-yor,” said emboldened Gritt. He fanned his butt with one hand. “I ain’t eatin no em-poh-pan–dohs. Thems extinct, anyway. God only knows how rotten that fuckin meat is. And good luck passin a fuckin health inspection when yer servin up them fuckin prehistoric space turds.” Gritt folded his arms and made a ffffffppp sound with his mouth. He was pleased with his basic knowledge of exotic wildlife. He had also mistaken empanadas for panda bears, which had been extinct for nearly four hundred years.
The old man smiled. He poured a beer from the tap and held it aloft. With his other hand he pointed his index finger at Gritt. “For you, my friend,” he said. “Drink up, and be glad.”
Little did the old man know, pointing a finger at Gritt Calhoon was often a fatal mistake.
“Ya best git that fanger out my face,” Gritt barked, tensing his thighs to the rhythm of the bongo drums he heard inside his head—an old death march number from his time as a POW on the moon of Ananke. The dark melody which only he could hear had been droning on ceaselessly inside his skull for decades. “Unless yer itchin to have one less fanger, that is.” Gritt spaced out just then. He remembered a chili dog he’d eaten fifteen years before.
The old man did not waver. He stood there smiling, still holding the beer. Foam crept over the side of the glass and down onto his brittle fingers.
Wut’s this old shit stain up tew? thought Gritt. This wily ol dog ’n his fuckin kinship with all mankind. Hell, I ain’t gunna fuckin pretend I ain’t at least a li’l bit curious ‘bout what makes a man’s heart smile. . . .
“All right, all right,” said Gritt finally, squinting at the man with bloodshot eyes. “I’ll drink yer stinkin beer and eat yer lousy meat, if’n it’ll gitcha ta put that there fanger away. ’N jus eff-why-eye, last man who pointed a fanger at me done got his nuts shipped back to Kansas in a dirty diaper.” Gritted grunted and offered no further explanation. He lurched over to the counter and slammed his big soggy cheeks down upon the stool. The whole building shook. Dust fell from the ancient ceiling. Gritt’s buttocks, which were vast in every way imaginable, engulfed the entire surface area of the stool beneath him. To a passerby it would have looked as though his huge ass had sprouted four wooden legs.
Gritt badger-swiped the plate of empanadas off the bar and held it up to his big-ass mouth. He tilted it at a forty-five degree angle. The steaming empanadas Scooby-Doo’d down the porcelain superhighway and into Gritt’s charbroiled throat-hole. He gulped the fried dough down quick. Gritt lifted his leg and farted thunderously. It sounded like the death-yodel of a tyrannosaurus rex begging God for a few more seconds of life before the meteor hit. The supernatural music of Gritt’s guts climaxed into a sort of cute trumpet squeak. The sound was delightful to him. Gritt was a man who appreciated a fart which ended in a question mark.
Tew be fuckin continued, thought Gritt. This li’l baby’s a cliffhanger. He smiled warmly and felt at peace with himself.
Gritt tossed the empty plate at the adjacent wall. It shattered into a hundred pieces. He wrapped his greasy gorilla-mitt around the glass of beer and swilled the whole thing down in a quarter of a second. He let out a barbaric burp, blowing stomach-gas out of his open maw. The property value of the building instantly decreased by fifty percent.
“If’n ya are whatcha eat, then I reckon yer lookin at three hundred and eighty-five pounds of pancakes shaped like monster trucks,” said Gritt Calhoon.
“Plus a few empanadas and a beer, pilgrim,” said the old man.
“Pilgrim? The fuck? Did’ja see me step off the Mayflower?” he said. “Dew ya see me wearin a fuckin hat with a fuckin belt on it?”
Gritt’s short-term memory had been completely obliterated by decades of heavy drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an infinite screaming black cyclone of untreated manic depression. So the old man’s comment didn’t register with Gritt. He had all but forgotten the meal he had ingested only seconds before. In fact, Gritt suddenly couldn’t remember who the man was or why he was seated at the bar in the first place.
“Huh,” said Gritt. He shook his head so hard his brain smacked against both sides of his cro-magnon skull. “The fuck yew mean by that, cum-pah-drey?”
Gritt blinked and had an intense acid flashback that caused him to shit himself.
“How was your meal, pilgrim?”
“Did’ja see me separate from the Church of England ‘n settle in the New World to practice my Puritan-based faith in peace?” said Gritt. “Did’ja see me enjoy a bountiful harvest feast with some fuckin native peoples in a crisp autumnal setting?”
• • •
Hours passed. Gritt had tongued every last crumb and had slurped every last drop in the place. He was seated sultanically upon his throne smoking his pipe and metabolizing many tens of thousands of calories when it occurred to him that he was having a fine evening a-hootin and a-hollerin with the old white man who loved John Wayne. Gritt decided he was all right, as far as civilian folk went. The man’s kindness and generosity had even made Gritt forget all about his troubles, about the killing, about the wars . . .
About the day Andy gave his last breath.
But then the old man got curious. He had shared a bottle of wine with Gritt, and was loosened up a bit. The warm languid breeze blowing in through the open doorway combined with sleepy drunkenness made him feel comfortable enough to ask the big strange man in his restaurant a few personal questions, which of course was foolish. Any man who had ever asked Gritt Calhoon a personal question and lived to tell the tale would have warned the old man thusly: you may as well cover your testicles in honey and dip them into a scorpion nest.
The old man eyed the dozens of unpolished war medallions which hung from Gritt’s tattered tank-top. He saw too the many faded tattoos of guns and knives and skulls and nude women adorning Gritt’s beastly brick of chest-flesh. Gritt also appeared to be wearing a necklace made entirely out of human teeth.
“Service man I see,” said the proprietor. “Hell, I’ll bet you’ve got some stories to tell.”
Gritt’s ghostly eyes recalled the lifeless faces of all the young soldiers who had died in his embrace upon the fields of battle.
“I could not save them,” Gritt said vaguely. “I saw the dimmin a’way of theys souls as the Reaper come ta git His, and then they wuz gone from me.” He clutched his sidearm to calm his nerves. “Gently I tucked each ‘n ev’ry one’a them boys inta their coffins ’n sent ‘em home to their mommas.” He closed his eyes and traveled back in time to the many sad and lonely crevices of his life where the past refused to die. “One final gesture,” he said, as if to himself. “A wooden box fer all the little angels I could not save.”
Gritt exhaled deeply. The indelible monolith of absolute sorrow which dwelt within his heart trembled and became heavier still.
“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name,” he said finally. Gritt opened his dark eyes and turned to face the old man. “Yew don’t ever want ta see the thangs I seen.”
A deep silence followed. The holo-screen above the bar flashed with some slow-motion recaps of a sporting event involving two mutated raccoons the size of grizzly bears fighting to the death in a coliseum on Mars.
“You got a wife, pilgrim?” said the old man after some time.
“Nope,” said Gritt. He stared vacantly at the John Wayne poster and wished he were dead.
“Any . . . children?”
Gritt slammed his fists down onto the counter and bit his bottom lip so hard it squirted blood onto the ceiling. His skin flared into a murderous demon-red. The veins in his body bulged like earthworms. He shook wildly.
“Nope,” said Gritt, still silently erupting on the inside. His bad chemistry was all out of whack. Gritt was ferociously sad just then.
The old man knew he had asked the wrong questions, and that, as much as he had come to like Gritt, it was time to get rid of him. Gritt was huge and dangerous and appeared to suffer from a litany of permanent psychological ailments. That was bad news for everyone.
“Last call, pilgrim,” said the old man. He gave a wan smile.
“Yeah,” said Gritt Calhoon. “Last call fer a lotta fuckin thangs.”
• • •
A million miles beneath the tangible universe, Gritt felt the white-hot heat of an enormous star beat down upon his big huge face.
“Good morning, Mr. Calhoon,” said a voice from above. It was the voice of an aristocrat. It was shrill and presumptuous.
Gritt had been asleep on the ground. He was awake now. He opened his eyes. They ached badly. His vision was flooded with miserable sunlight. He couldn’t see a thing. He knew only that his body lay partially buried within the crest of a small sand dune.
“The fuck?” said Gritt, still half-dreaming about the time his second cousin had given him a lap dance at his grandmother’s funeral. “Hain’t no deity addressin me, I can tell yew that,” he said. “Least not one I pray tew. Yew sound like a fuckin milk-drinker, mister.”
“Another wild night, I see. You are quite a man, Gritt Calhoon. A foolish man, no doubt, but a man nonetheless. You keep up this sort of thing and you will become even more of a relic than you already are.”
Gritt was still blind, but he knew he was being addressed by some needle-dick bureaucrat. The cadence of the man’s voice—the weakness of it—gave it away.
“Listen, Pancho,” said Gritt, swiping at hallucinated insects in the hot morning air. He was delirious. “I ain’t know what no god damn rell-ick is, but I sure as shit ain’t one. I’m a fuckin dec’rated veteran, son, and ya best respect that ‘fore I give ya a civics lesson that’ll leave ya shittin outta yer fingertips fer the rest of yer yanky-doodle-dandy-ass life.”
Rell-ick? thought Gritt. He swallowed a horse fly that had landed on his lip. Ain’t that the green shit ya put on a fuckin hot dog . . . ?
Gritt stood up. He was returning to his definitions now and his vision was coming back to him. He looked around and saw that he was standing on some forlorn beach beneath an overcast sky. The shoreline was littered with dozens of empty bottles of coconut rum, a few unspent M18A1 Claymore mines, a dead boa constrictor, and a crashed UH-72A Lakota helicopter. A half-deflated sex doll wearing a leopard-print fur coat bobbed soundlessly on the surface of the melancholy sea.
Damn, thought Gritt. He took in a big honking whiff of the passing nuclear fallout breeze and felt alive.
“You are lucky I am not the policía, Mr. Calhoon,” said the man. “What with all this . . . this drunken buffoonery of yours, it is no wonder I am not speaking to you from the other side of a jail cell.”
Gritt wasn’t listening. He hadn’t even bothered to lay eyes on the man yet. His steel-toe combat boots were entrenched in the sand and his fists were clenched tighter than a duck’s asshole on the first night of Hanukkah.
He was praying in the deepest chambers of his heart for SpaghettiOs to hurry the hell up and make Oops! All Meatballs already.
“Mr. Calhoon?” The man tapped his wing-tipped shoe on the hard sand.
“How hard could it fuckin be . . . ?” said Gritt dreamily. “To fill an aluminum fuckin can with them big-ass meatballs? Don’t need that other bullshit, them little sketti rings. Hell I always spit them thangs out anyway. Gimme a fuckin break with that shit.”
“Them fuckin mushy-ass pasta circles, man. Taste like baby food. They shoulda put that fuckin Gerber baby on the label if’n they’s gunna pack them cans with that crapola. Just gimme them meatballs, ya know?” Gritt’s swampy stomach churned like a pygmy goat in an oatmeal bath. He was starving again.
“Mr. Calhoon, I have come here to offer you an opportunity. I am not interested in discussing ‘Whoops Mothballs’ or whatever you have called them.”
Gritt’s desert-camo tank-top was soaked in unfriendly fluids. He spit. Finally he turned around and eyeballed the man from top to bottom: white linen business suit, lavender ascot, straw fedora, neatly-trimmed fingernails and mustache, and hands as soft as a preacher’s belly. Gritt had about a foot and a half on him and at least two hundred pounds.
Big fuckin surprise, thought Gritt, scratching at the lice in his pubic hair. ‘Nother weasel-necked corporate yuppy tryin ta tell me where to hang my fuckin undies at night!
“Lutz Schlumfelder,” said the man. He extended his flimsy arm and smiled disingenuously. It was a little paper-cut of a smirk that Gritt knew was commonplace with pencil-pushers and clock-watchers and spenders of Daddy’s Money.
Gritt slapped the man’s arm away in a savage downward motion, nearly dislocating it.
“I ain’t playin no knick-knack patty-whack give a dog a fuckin boner or whatever the fuck ya expect me ta dew. Git that there butt-scratcher out my sight ‘fore I rip it off ’n toss it inta the god dang ocean fer Poseidon to piss on.”
“Mr. Calhoon, please. I was merely being poli—”
“Save it, Kraut. And yew is a fuckin Kraut, ain’tcha? I reckon with a name like that ya gotta be. That there’s a Kraut name if I ever heard one. And see, rest’uv the fuckin world may have fer’gotten ‘bout them patriots y’all Panzerschreck’d to Kingdom Come in Dub-Dub Part Deuce, but I sure as fuck ain’t fergot.” Gritt ripped his left pant leg off. There on the sculpted topography of his gorgeous thigh was an inelegant prison tattoo writ in faded black ink:
“That date ring a bell, homeboy?” Gritt pumped his protein-packed quadriceps. The numbers bounced madly on his glistening flesh.
“How ‘bout now, dickweed?”
The man’s mouth was agape. He stumbled backwards. Gritt continued to flex his browned leathery thigh for all the world to see.
“Operation Neptune,” Gritt snarled, sucking down a C02 cartridge from a whipped cream canister. “Normandy. Omaha Beach. D-Day, motherfucker.”
“Mr. Calhoon, please!” He shielded his eyes. “You are mistaken! I am not German, I am Austr—”
Gritt took a Sasquatchian step toward the man. He veered left, pacing slowly in a predatory sort of way, as if to give the impression that he was encircling a wounded animal, and probably he was.
“Them Panzer IV’s turned our boys inta fuckin mystery meat and ya got the audacity ta approach me on my vacation and stick yer sauerkraut scoop in my face and ask fer my friendship?” He snorted haughtily. “Dream on, turd.”
Gritt turned his back on the man. He folded his arms and watched the waves. He thought about the past.
Yew wanna roll around in excrement with tha big dogs, thought Gritt, then ya’d better bring a fuckin jumbo pack’a diapers with ya next time. Shoot!
“Yews Krauts is all the same,” Gritt said with disgust. “I have nuthin further ta say ta ya. Now ya best git yer dirty-ass butt off my god dang beach lickity-split like. Leave me ta stew with my turds and my mem’ries. Man needs his turds and his mem’ries, ya dig?”
What else has a man got, really . . . ? thought Gritt. He put his hand in his pocket in an attempt to look moody and contemplative and was surprised to discover a luxurious silk thong he must have lovingly stowed there. Gritt blushed.
The beach was silent for a long while. Gritt surmised that the man had not departed. His French cologne still wafted in the noontime breeze.
Gritt grasped the thong in his pocket like a talisman. At length he spoke:
“Yer here ‘cuz yew wanna offer me an assignment on account’a ya cain’t dew nothin fer yerself. Ya wanna give me a duffel bag fulla greenbacks and a coupla clips of ammo ‘n send me off ta blow away some goat-fuckin wannabe warlord who ain’t man enough ta come outta his compound ’n face the fuckin music. I take a few shots in the chest—hell, maybe I even fuckin die, and yew’d like that, wouldn’t ya Kraut?—while yew and all yer turd-chuggin Nat-zee friends sit there all nice ’n comfy-like in them big swingin chairs, cradlin yer soft Kraut chodes in yer soft Kraut hands while yew watch some butt-chinned lederhosen-wearin Aryan coffee boy redraw the world map with a magic marker. ’Zat it, Kraut?”
Gritt shifted his weight onto his dominant leg and belched.
He went on: “Yew can buy them crates’uv AKs, and yew can mark up them maps, and yew can put them boys in fatigues and send ‘em off ta dew yer Kraut bidding. But till ya rip a set’a dog tags off yer best buddy’s chest after givin his last, with yer boots filled with fuckin jacknife clams and gorilla feces, ’n every notion of goodness and decency gone from yer fuckin soul till ya meet your own miserable end alone in a wheelchair with a syringe in yer dick-vein behind an abandoned motel in Topeka, Kansas—till then, Kraut, ya don’t know a god dang thing ‘bout what I’s been through ‘n what I dew.”
Satisfied with his poetic diatribe, Gritt urinated down the side of his own leg. The skunk piss smell was overpowering but neither man verbally acknowledged it.
“I do not represent a government, Mr. Calhoon,” said the businessman as he watched the molasses-brown piss stream through the patchwork of dreadlock’d leg hair and shrapnel scars on Gritt’s bare leg. He wasn’t wearing underwear as evidenced by the exposed gangrenous testicle seemingly glued to his thigh. The Austrian shivered.
“. . . and I am not offering you any money.” He circled around Gritt and stood before him—a truly dangerous move. He took an envelope out of his suit jacket and delicately placed it upon the sand before Gritt’s huge-ass feet. The unhealthy urine still trickling down Gritt’s boots, perhaps guided by supernatural forces, seemed to form a sort of halo around the envelope.
“Thems better be tickets ta the fuckin Super Bowl, Kraut,” said Gritt, “or else I’m gunna turn yer nuts inta mashed ‘taters with a side’a turd-battered biscuits.” He was still urinating.
“Afraid not, Mr. Calhoon.”
Gritt unbuckled his enormous pants. He jerked them down to his ankles like a birthday magician. He squatted his huge bare ass over the envelope.
“Pat, I’d like to buy a bowel,” said Gritt. Without ceremony he emptied the contents of his large intestines onto the envelope.
“Charming, Mr. Calhoon.” The man clapped his hands mockingly. He took a few steps forward and stopped dead center in Gritt’s line of sight. “Really, quite charming.”
C’mon, Kraut, thought Gritt, wiping his ass with a dead seagull. Dew yer dirtiest. ‘Cuz I’ll split open that there Aryan skull’a yers faster’n yew can say “yabba-dabba-fuckin-doo-wop.” Gritt smiled like an orangutan in a ketamine cavern.
The man leaned forward, arched his eyebrows, smoothed out his pencil-thin mustache, and held up an index finger. “Let me ask you this, Mr. Calhoon.” Gingerly he fluttered his fingers. Gritt didn’t trust a man who fluttered his fingers.
“Are you familiar with Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce?”
Without hesitation, Gritt thrust his hand into the crotch of his pants and retrieved a large bottle of Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ sauce. He laughed. “Don’t make me laugh, Kraut. ‘Course I know ‘bout Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce. Best god dang bee-bee-kew sauce on the planet, let alone the rest of the god dang galaxy, far as I’m concern’d. And trust me, Kraut, I done tried ‘em all—from the Lone Star State tew the great reaches beyond. I never leave home without this li’l baby.”
Gritt became depressed when he realized that he didn’t have a home. War was home, he thought. And lord knows I hain’t been home in a long while. He bowed his head and whispered a brief prayer for his fallen brothers in arms.
Wonton, Cleophus, Little Surfer, Gritt said to his friends in Heaven, yew boys done earned yer fuckin rest. Keep the grill hot fer me in the sweet by-and-by. I’ll sees ya when I sees ya, ya freakin turds. Amen.
“Mr. Calhoon, what if I told you that as of fifteen minutes ago, I now own a majority stake in the Coca-Kraft UniTyson ExxonMonsanto Disney Corporation?”
“And whaddif I told yews I ain’t interested in yer shady fuckin Wall Street dealins, Kraut?” Gritt eyed a pelican he planned to eat once he was alone again.
“You should care, Mr. Calhoon, because they manufacture your beloved Uncle Cowboy’s Corntown Sauce. Or they did, rather. Now I do.”
“And?” said Gritt. His eyes were bulging out of his perfectly hideous skull.
“And, if I so desired, I could, say, blow up the factory—and destroy the secret recipe along with it. Wipe it from the face of the Earth. Bye-bye, Grandpa Cornboy. That sort of thing.”
Gritt flexed his pectoral muscles so hard he broke a tooth. His leather vest was bursting at the seams. He was pissed.
“I believe yer threatenin Gritt Calhoon,” said Gritt Calhoon. “Didn’t they warn ya not ta dew that? Let’s think ‘bout this’n fer a moment, Kraut. Yer talkin ta a man who has ta flush the toilet four times after he takes a dump. That mean anythin tew ya?”
“I have no intention of blowing up the factory, or destroying the recipe—as long as you do what I say.”
“I pay taxes on my dick, dude.”
“Mr. Calhoon, please—”
“‘Fore I fuckin pound ya into a baker’s dozen of butt waffles—” said Gritt, smiling darkly now, “and believe yew me, Kraut, I am ‘bout ta fuckin pound ya—jus what exactly did’ja have in mind fer ol Gritt Calhoon?”
The Austrian smoothed out his suit with flaccid pillow-soft hands that had never seen a day of manual labor.
“There is a drug lord operating out of Ross Island in Antarctica. His production facility is set up inside the walls of Mount Terror, which is an inactive volcano there. And in this facility he produces over a hundred billion dollars worth of synthetic cocaine a day. This cocaine is super-charged—it is much more potent than your garden variety cocaine.”
“Ya don’t say,” said Gritt, who himself famously harbored a severe cocaine addiction. He popped a pimple on his butt with a rusty fishhook.
“The drug lord is an old acquaintance of mine. I won’t get into details—it would be a waste of my time. Let us just say that business went sour and I need you to take him out and shut down his operation.”
Gritt lit a cigar and stroked his bearded chin. He paced back and forth along the beach and seemed to be deep in thought. His combat boots sank into the damp sand. Gritt closed his eyes and breathed in the salty gale with obvious pleasure. The thought of primo cocaína honey-glazed Gritt’s sad old brain, and a sense of peace washed over him just then. The poetic grace with which Gritt quietly pondered his next move stirred the Austrian businessman’s soul until he spied a half-eaten cheeseburger in Gritt’s back pocket.
“Ya woke me from a beautiful dream, Kraut,” said Gritt. “Ya walked inta my kill sights. Ya pointed that Kraut fanger at me. Ya threatened to extort me. And now, ‘cuz ya hain’t got no nuts’uv yer own, yer tryin ta strong-arm the biggest set’a coconuts in the god dang known universe to dew yer biddin’ fer ya. ‘Zat sound ’bout right ta yew?”
Gritt laughed in a way that terrified every cell-based organism within a five-mile radius.
“Did’ja really think yew could boss ol Gritt Calhoon a’round, Kraut?” Gritt pointed his huge-ass thumb at his big-ass chest when he said his own name. His testicles tingled wildly as the syllables rolled off his tongue. Gritt loved the sound of his own name, and he loved saying it, and hearing himself say it.
“If it pleases you to see it that way, Mr. Calhoon, then so be it. I am a businessman. I know how to get what I want.”
“So riddle me this then, Kraut,” said Gritt, erecting his impossibly huge skeleton to its full height, “did’ja want ta die?”
Gritt Calhoon lunged his great beefy arm toward the man and gripped his throat with fingers that belonged in woolly mammoth sausage casings. He flexed his bicep hard. It solidified into a greasy cannonball spiderwebbed with juicy black veins.
“Surprise, surprise—puppy surprise,” said Gritt. There was a sort of yellow foam erupting from his throat and sliding down his sweat-slicked neck. His titan bones shook wildly. “Don’t tell mom the babysitter’s dead.”
“W-what—“ said the man. He could barely breathe. His eyes were solid red. “D-does . . . t-t-that m-m-m-mean. . . .”
“I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” said Gritt. “I am Gritt Jefferson Calhoon. Not even God Almighty could git a lasso ‘round me. Ya’d best remember that while ya still can.” And with that he tightened his grip, severing the man’s spine from his skull. He died instantly.
Gritt tossed the man’s frail and lifeless body like a scarecrow. It landed in the mangled cockpit of the crashed UH-72A Lakota helicopter, some thirty feet away.
Touchdown, thought Gritt. I didn’t exact’ly lib’rate Nuremberg, though hell, it’s a god dang start.
Gritt clomped over to the fresh corpse. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. He thrust his arm into the man’s suit jacket and retrieved a tele-communicator. After fussing with the thing for a few seconds, he managed to make an outgoing call. Gritt was phoning the dead businessman’s associates.
A syndicate boardroom full of what Gritt would call “penny-loafin turd-peddlers” appeared on the tele-communicator’s screen.
“Hallo Lutz!” shouted the men in unison, giving the Nazi salute. They were all dressed in expensive pastel suits.
Meanwhile, in the boardroom, projected onto a massive holo-screen at the end of a long table—a sweaty, grizzled, psychopathic war veteran with several incurable drug addictions and mental illnesses and sexually-transmitted diseases was snarling at them from beyond a blue-lighted hell of invisible ones and zeroes.
“You are not Lutz!” shouted one of the men. He stood up. “I demand to know what you have done with Lutz!”
“Yew mean that butthole sammich I just wasted? Well, I done reckon his body’s right here with me in Cancun or wherever the fuck I am, but if’n yer inquirin ‘bout his soul,” said Gritt, who was chewing on a stale pork rind that had fallen out of his hair, “y’all’d dew well ta check with Brother Lucifer in the unquenchable lake of eternal fire which was prepared for him and his angels.”
The boardroom was filled with the gasps of a dozen pudding-souled weaklings who now knew their days were numbered.
Gritt went on: “Yew ain’t gunna need no crystal ball ta know the ultimate fate of that sumbitch I just iced, ‘cuz here’s the skinny: I have it on good authority that he’s gittin his asshole stuffed full’a Halloween candy right ‘bout now, somewhere deep below the mortal world. And hell, I don’t reckon it’s undeserved. Fact I know it ain’t. Man tries ta tell Gritt Calhoon what ta dew”—he pointed his thumb at his chest again—“well, then he done got what he had comin to ‘im. Yer ol pal Lootz wuz a marshmallow-filled burrito wrapped in a wet blanket. He was a bicycle-seat sniffer if I ever seen one. Only thing he ever felt in his life till my fist made contact with his skeletal system wuz the tinklin of a bidet jet upon his lily-white B-hole. Shit, if’n anything, y’all should be thankin me.”
Gritt eyed his stunned audience. He suckled upon the wet end of the cigar still crammed into the corner of his mouth for a quick buzz.
Feel like I’m addressin a god dang fart cloud right now, thought Gritt. Gimme a fuckin break-a-roonie.
“You killed Lutz?!” said another man. “You imbecile! If you think for one second that you’re going to get away with thi—”
“Sid’down, Kraut.” Gritt said it so calmly the man reflexively obeyed out of sheer terror. “And listen ta my fuckin words.”
“I done heard all ‘bout Antfartica,” said snarling Gritt. “And sure as yews was born, ya can bet yer Holocaust-denyin butts I’m goin down there. And I’m gunna find me some of that primo cocaína. And when I dew, ya best believe I’m gunna inhale every last gorgeous snowflake uv’it. And with my super-charged strength, I will hunt down and execute each’n ev’ry last one’a yew rooty-tooty goose-steppin fruit-huggers. And I will take my sweet-ass fuckin time ’fore I hand yer asses over ta the true master of this planet, and o’course I’m talkin ‘bout His Holiness the Grim Fuckin Reaper!”
Black vomit bubbled out of Gritt’s nostrils and rolled down his plump sun-scorched lips, but he didn’t seem to notice nor care.
“So enjoy yer currywurst and yer mornin mountain yodelin whiles ya still can, Krauts,” said Gritt, “‘cuz yer ethnic cleansin days is over. All the Nat-zee gold in the world cain’t save yew now.”
Off-camera, Gritt shimmied his thick thighs together to calm the herpes sore on his right testicle.
“And one more thang—” said Gritt, shaking now with hell’s hot anger, “—if’n y’alls plannin ta destroy the Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce factory, ya best think again. Not that it’ll save ya now.” Gritt snorted. He pointed a tribal-tattooed finger at the camera. “Yer marked.”
Gritt paused and farted emphatically.
“And whatever it is yew fuckin love, or think yew love—cuz a Nat-zee cain’t love, cain only hate—” Gritt added with finality, “consider it dead jus the same.”
Gritt crushed the tele-communicator with his fat meaty hand. He chucked it into the sea. It bounced off the head of the blow-up doll and sank into a small cresting wave.
Now it was time, Gritt thought, to charter a boat to Antarctica and get his paws on some of that super-charged cocaine. It would be a long journey, but Gritt’s schedule was wide open—and it always was when it came to ice-cold murdering some fools and tracking down what sounded like a king’s bounty of Colombian cornflakes.
‘Nother adventure? thought Gritt. He slapped his ten-pack abs with great mirth. Shit, I’m game. Hope they got some hot-ass chicks down there in the North Pole. Though hell, I reckon Santa Claus done claimed all them babes for himself at this point. That fuckin dog, I swears!
A lone seagull soared overhead in the direction of the midday sun, and Gritt stopped to observe the tranquility of the moment. He felt a sort of kinship with the bird, knowing that they both went wherever the wind took them. This renewed sense of freedom invigorated him, and seemed to give him purpose when he had felt so lost for so long.
“Wastin away again in Turdaritavilla,” said contented Gritt. He spread out his beautiful sun-ripened arms in ecstasy. “Lookin fer my lost shaker’a blow. Hoo-ee . . . shit!”
Gritt reached into his pants and took out an old Lincoln Log. The sides were worn and notched. He smiled, thinking about the Christmases of long ago—the ones he’d spent with his son.
Andy loved these fuckin thangs, he thought, spinning the plaything between his gnarled old fingers. Always looked like god dang dog turds ta me, but hell, that’s kids fer ya . . .
Gritt emotionlessly recalled a memory from many years before when, in front of a school bus full of Andy’s classmates, he’d had to mercy kill a reindeer with a cinderblock.
“O Mighty Death!” howled Gritt. “As I have pledged fealty tew thy barbarous sword, and have grimly served thy dark agenda, I call upon yew now, ye who holdeth the keys to Hell and other worlds beyond: Guide my weary fuckin soul once more through the Black Gorge!”
Gritt beat his lordly chest like a taiko drum. His colostomy bag exploded onto the sand below.
“And as fer yew, the wicked and the unjust, hearken unto my words: Zip up yer diapers and batten down them fuckin hatches, ‘cuz Gritt Calhoon’s comin fer ya! And baby, after the blood has been spilt and run cold, all he wants ta dew is git good’n greasy and snort a few hot trails of white thunder till it all goes dark. . . .”
Gritt kicked the Austrian man’s decapitated head into the ocean. He marched down to the shore and followed the tidemark for miles, collecting seashells and sand dollars here and there, all the while hoping he’d stumble upon a sailor just crazy enough to take him to a cocaine factory in the arctic wastes at the bottom of the world.
• • •
The sun was setting by the time Gritt Calhoon reached the nearest shipyard. Along the way he had consumed fifteen snow cones and about as many piña coladas. His skin was ripened and his hair was wild and playful. Gritt looked sexy but not in a loud or garish way.
He had almost forgotten all about the mission and was hankering to get back into town to find a burger joint and an easy lay for the night when he spotted a young boy and his pony standing near a row of icebreakers docked along the shore. The pony was eating some peanuts from the boy’s hand.
The boy looked just like Andy Calhoon.
Gritt hadn’t been able to distinguish fantasy from reality in several decades, and so he really did think he was seeing his dead son. His eyes softened and became moist in a way only a bereaved father’s can. He flexed his pectorals excitedly and sprinted toward the boy and his pony with molten tears streaming down his time-worn face.
“Andy?” said Gritt, who had galloped a half mile in twenty seconds. He grabbed the young boy by the face and squeezed his cheeks like a panini press, lifting him off the ground.
“Cain it be . . . ?” said Gritt. He was shivering now. “‘Zat yew, my son?”
The young boy gasped in horror as Gritt’s monstrous hands encased his entire skull and shook with a sad fury. His vision now blackening, the boy feebly slapped at Gritt’s furry arms. He pleaded with the big hairy man connected to them: “Señor! You are crushing me! Release me or my head will crack!”
The light in Gritt’s soul faded and his mind darkened once again. The trance was broken.
“Fuck, dude . . . sorry ‘bout that’n,” he said, unlocking the death clamp from the boy’s teenage skull. His glass eyeball fell out of its socket and landed in the rat’s nest of his wet beard and Gritt seemed not to notice. “Thought yews was my dead kid fer a second. Thought that maybe . . . maybe he’d come back ta save me. . . .”
“I am Benicio,” said the boy. He plucked Gritt’s fake eye from his beard and handed it back to him. “And this is my pony, Al Pacino.”
“Nice, uhh . . . nice to meet yew fuckers, I dew rightly reckon,” said Gritt. He slapped his eyeball back into its dark empty socket. “Sorry ‘bout fuckin up yer shit, homie. Lost my god dang mind there fer a minute! But then what the fuck else is new?”
Gritt flexed his abdominal muscles. They rippled luxuriously beneath his linen cabana shirt.
“Sergeant Major Gritt Jefferson Calhoon,” said Gritt, standing to attention. “First Armored Division, Iron Butthole Battalion. Decorated war vet, semi-retired, ten-thousand-plus confirmed kills.” He laughed. “And thems kills is jus mine, boy-o.”
Gritt closed his eyes and recalled the endless skirmishes he’d been in and smiled. Operation Blood Bucket, he thought. Now that was a helluva way to ring in the fuckin New Year . . .
Gritt grabbed Benicio’s hand and gave it a good manly shake. Benicio winced as all the bones in his hand nearly snapped in half. “Ya don’t gotta be shy, li’l dude. I know yews prolly heard’a me. Hell I don’t doubt yew got one’uv my fuckin action figures squirreled away in yer underoos. Kids love them thangs, them action figures. Still ain’t seen a nickel of them royalties they promised me . . . though I reckon that’s what happens when ya sign a contract with a god dang cow turd!” Gritt laughed like hell.
“It is an honor to meet you, Señor Calhoon. And no, I do not have one of these so-called action figures . . . I have only my pony, Al Pacino. I have been poor all my life, and can afford only what the beautiful earth has to offer, which is plenty enough for me.”
“Cool it on the hippie-dippie horseshit, David Crosby. This ain’t Haight Street! Yer spoutin out that Mother Earth baloney now, but lemme tell ya, once’n yer balls drop, yer gunna come right the fuck around to the fact that there hain’t nuthin sweeter than a five-kay-a-night Bangkok hooker slobbin on yer ding dang while yer suckin down a liquid morphine protein shake. And that’s the truth, brother.” Gritt slapped Benicio’s back so hard the boy nearly projectile vomited out his own appendix.
Benicio wiped the blood from his bottom lip and caught his breath. “What brings you to Argentina, señor?”
“Aw shit, who the fuck knows anymore?” said Gritt, who appeared to be whittling a buttplug out of a piece of driftwood. “Reckon I’s tryin ta git ta the fuckin bottom of the god dang planet by tomorrow mornin fer reasons I ain’t at liber’tee ta discuss right the fuck now, ‘specially not with fuckin Punky Brewster here, all dew res’pect.”
“It is a voyage I have made many times, señor, and I assure you it is a long one. You could charter an icebreaker over by the shipyard, but because the ship would have to navigate around all the nuclear waste and islands of garbage that fill the oceans, it would be weeks before you reached Antarctica.”
“God dang, hombre,” said Gritt. He crossed his arms and burped out an undigested fish taco. “Well, that fuckin blows!”
“Do not despair, Señor Calhoon. I know the local sailors, and I would be honored to negotiate with them for your safe passage to the South Pole. And should you need a guide, look no further. Benicio has your back.”
“All right, all right,” said Gritt. “It’s a fuckin deal, Pinocchio. And from the looks of it, ya could prob’ly use a vacation yerself anyway. People’ll start to git the wrong idea, seein ya standin ‘round like a perv with some fuckin donkey all the time.”
“I will speak with Captain Ignacio. He is my uncle. His ship, El Chico Gordo, departs at midnight. We may still find space on this famous vessel . . .”
“Whatever yew say, el chico turdo,” said Gritt, who was pleased with his own wordplay. “Jus make sure they got a Little Caesars down in the mess hall. Fuck, if’n ya think fer one god dang second I’m gunna travel all the way to that piece of shit country down yonder and not eat six Hot-N-Ready’s fer dinner ev’ry night, ya got a’nother thang fuckin comin ta ya, Pinocchio.”
“I will return shortly,” said Benicio. He saddled his pony and galloped toward the boats.
Gritt stared out at the sea and thought about the past.
Cain’t never take away my gun, my balls, my freedom, or my mem’ries, thought Gritt. Not without startin fuckin World War Five, that is! He laughed and stomped on a scuttling hermit crab.
It was then that Gritt experienced what the medical community would refer to as a complex focal seizure. It wiped out approximately twenty-five percent of his memory in the span of a heartbeat. Electroshock therapy, various barbiturate addictions, and cruel torture had already claimed most of his brain’s capacity to store memory, but the seizure managed to sanitize a hefty chunk of whatever was left. Gone were his twenties and thirties. Gone were the memories of his mother and father, and of most of his childhood. All that remained were a few cherished moments from Andy’s tenth birthday party, and a mental image of the nicest pair of breasts he’d ever laid eyes on, which had belonged to a hotel receptionist he had bedded in Carson City. Most else was turned to smoke and ash and it fell to the bottom of the floor of his mind.
Now that ’twas a strange’n, thought Gritt. He shook his head. He plugged his left nostril with his big-ass index finger and blew out a snot rocket containing a small piece of his brain from his right nostril with obvious rapture. Gritt collected the brain fragment from the ground and, believing it to be a cashew, put it in his mouth and ate it.
Benicio sidled up next to Gritt. He was still on Al Pacino’s back. “Good news, señor. My uncle has agreed to take us along. We’d best make our preparations now, for the ship disembarks in just a few hours.”
“Preparations?” said Gritt. “How’s this fer preparations!” He lifted up his leg and pointed his big nasty butt at Benicio and Al Pacino. Gritt popped out a cacophony of trumpet-y squeakers and tootin tugboaters aimed directly at his new friends’ virgin nostrils. An invisible funeral procession of foul stink clouds soon rose up from his tattered fatigues and poisoned the air around them. Al Pacino reared back on his hind legs and neighed, nearly unsaddling Benicio in the process.
“Reload!” said Gritt. He knocked back a jumbo can of baked beans that had been holstered to his hip and prepared for another olfactory assault.
“No! Señor! Please!” cried Benicio, his eyes watering from Gritt’s lingering butt-stink.
Gritt slowly lowered his leg in defeat. He bowed his head and stared solemnly at the sand beneath his boots. Benicio swore he saw a single teardrop roll down Gritt’s tender cheek.
“Señor Calhoon, your flatulence was enjoyed by us both,” he said in an attempt to cheer Gritt up. “I-It’s just that, you see, Al Pacino has asthma . . . a-and he’s sensitive to such things is all. Really, I’m impressed by your talents.”
“Yew really mean that, dingleberry?”
“Of course, Señor.”
Gritt seemed to lighten. “Well gosh, Pinocchio,” he said blushing. “Thanks fer puttin a fuckin smile on this old man’s face.” He punched Benicio in the stomach playfully and a pint of blood flew out of his nose.
“C’mon, ya turds!” said resilient Gritt. “No sense standin ‘round with our dicks in our hands. Let’s climb a‘board that fuckin boat and git ta goin. Hope yew boys is down to get trashed lickity split-like. And hey, first round’s on me, ya god darn queefs!”
Gritt barreled toward El Chico Gordo with a sort of childlike exuberance. He laughed and hollered and wildly slapped his own butt.
“Onward, Al Pacino,” said Benicio, wiping the blood from his face. He stroked his pony’s neck. “We have quite an adventure ahead of us, and our new friend is anxious to see it through.” Al Pacino bowed his head and trotted gayly in the gargantuan bootprints of the living god who was called Gritt Calhoon.
• • •
GRITT GOES SOUTH
The intrepid trio spent nearly a month aboard El Chico Gordo. The days passed slowly. At the outset of their journey, the weather had been agreeable, but as the ship headed farther south, conditions worsened. Once the deep dark cold came, everyone aboard holed up inside the warm belly of the ship to play cards and sing songs and tell all the old tales.
Everyone except for Gritt Calhoon.
Gritt refused a cabin and spent most of his time perched on the ship’s bow. It was there he smoked his cigars and did lines of blow off his biceps, seldom sleeping and ever watchful for signs of danger. He stood poised like an ice goliath at the front of the ship . . . an obsidian-hewn Atlas shouldering the great sadnesses of the world for all of God’s little creatures.
At night, when the ocean was dark and vast and silent, and the cold twinkling stars shone down upon him from on high, Gritt thought about his son.
Rest easy, m’boy, Gritt would think to himself, gazing out into the arctic abyss. Yer daddy misses the ever-lovin shit outta ya, ya little turd. Whole world keeps on spinnin, and here I am, man alone, livin on borrow’d fuckin time till the final darkness comes fer me . . .
The tears he shed for Andy froze inside his skull before they ever reached his face. The torment he felt and would always feel cooled his blood and frosted his innards to the parts extreme, denying him even the simple reprieve of mourning the loss of his only begotten son.
I gave this world my body ‘n my soul, thought moody Gritt. His boundless frame glistened sweetly in the dim starlight. The sea and the night sky enveloped him in cosmic blackness and Gritt felt utterly alone. Fought fer freedom, fer liber’ty, fer the unborn babes still nestled in their momma’s tummies. Took many a life in the name of somethin I ain’t even sure I b’elieve in anymore, now that the world done took from me that which was most precious. T’was it all in vain? A man’s got ta wonder . . .
It went on like this for some time.
In the dark early morning of Christmas day, Gritt jolted awake from the formless nightmare void in his head. It was a hundred degrees below zero. With the exception of his combat boots and his thigh holster, which housed his Mark XIX Desert Eagle, Gritt was bare-ass naked. Frost covered his whole body. Even in the extreme cold, Gritt’s tonsil tickler was huge and awake. It was giving the ocean and all the slimy things living below a real how-do-you-do.
Gritt opened his mouth. It was as if a stone had been rolled back from an icy tomb. Dozens of tiny icicles fell from his yeti beard and shattered upon the pool of frozen urine beneath his feet. A dark sound arose from his chest. It was Gritt’s voice. And thus he spoke for the first time in three weeks:
“Damn!” he boomed. He had never seen his plum tree shaker so deliciously engorged before. “Somebody grab a coupla chains or somethin so we can git a lock on my yogurt slinger! This baby’s wet ’n wild and if we ain’t careful, it’s gunna put someone’s god dang eye out!”
Or poke a hole the size of St. Louis in the starboard side, thought Gritt. He chuckled to himself. Lordy, who knew the ol Master of Ceremonies was gunna make an appearance on this, the holy day of Christmas. . . .
A group of five half-asleep crewmen spilled out of the deckhouse and rushed to a nearby lifeboat. Still in their pajamas, the men tore off a thick tarp wrapped around the small vessel. The tarp was heavy with thick ice and required all five men to carry it. Together they quickly dragged it all the way to the front of the ship where Gritt stood erect, chiefing on a cigarillo. With great effort they hurled it to him.
Gritt Calhoon caught the leaden tarp with one hand. He spun it around wildly until it formed into a shape he found acceptable. He then snapped it around his Herculean frame like a toga. He took a long drag and expelled a swampy cloud from his frosty nostrils.
“Didn’t mean ta give yew boys such a fright on Christmas mornin,” said smiling Gritt, slapping his monstrous thigh. “But y’all know how unpredictable ding dangs can be sometimes. Hell, looks like I’s been a good boy this year cuz ol Saint Nick done left me a big-ass boner beneath the yuletide tree!”
At that very moment a white albatross flew out of the arctic mist and circled the boat from a great distance overhead. Gritt’s morning erection had attracted it from miles away. The albatross had been flying ceaselessly over the ocean for hours, and intended to use Gritt’s penis as a perch.
Gritt eyed the bird as it neared.
“What the fuck—” said Gritt. Instinctively he unclipped his sidearm from his thigh holster and took aim. He fired off three shots. Each bullet hit its mark. The albatross dropped dead. It landed on the ship’s deck with a wet thud.
“Jiminy freakin Christmas, bird!” bellowed Gritt. “That’ll teach ya to fly all up in my shit all unannounced.” He holstered his Mark XIX Desert Eagle. The barrel of the gun was warm against his thigh and Gritt enjoyed the sensation.
The five crewmen began yelling in Spanish. They rushed to the corpse of the albatross and dropped to their knees. One of them wept. Two of them prayed. The other two eyed Gritt with suspicion and disgust.
Benicio and Al Pacino had been watching in horror from the opposite end of the boat. Numb and pale as a ghost’s dick, Benicio rushed over to Gritt now.
“Hey-oh Pinocchio!” said Gritt. He held out his index finger. “Pull my fanger, partner. Got a li’l Chrissmas present fer ya.”
“The sailors are very upset with you,” said Benicio, who was wearing footed pajamas and a Santa Claus hat. “At sea, the sight of a white albatross is considered a good omen, and a harbinger of fair weather. They think you have killed their good omen.”
“No bway-no, huh?” Gritt scratched his left buttcheek with his coke nail. His other hand was still outstretched toward Benicio. “Hell, they’ll git the fuck over it. Didn’t realize I wuz sailin with a buncha fuckin namby-pamby draft dodgers. The fuck them boys been eatin? Wheatgrass and kale chips? Dang.”
Benicio noticed that Gritt had not faltered in his mission to get him to tug on his index finger. In fact Gritt’s finger had slowly inched closer to Benicio’s face.
“Yew tell a lie and that nose’a yers is gunna pull my fanger fer ya,” said Gritt. He smiled. His teeth were yellow and foul. His breath was a combination of fermented baked beans and pizza-flavored dog food. It hissed out of his mouth like a carbon monoxide leak in a nursing home.
“Señor Calhoon, this is serious. The men are discussing throwing you overboard!”
“How’n ya reckon they gunna dew that? D’ye have any idea how much’n I weigh?” said mountainous Gritt. He erected his skeleton to its full terrifying height and flexed every muscle on his impossible body. “That fuckin turkey wuz a god dang maniac. Hain’t no tellin what sorta damage it woulda done if’n I hadn’t stepped in ‘n saved us. Hell, y’all’s lucky I wuz here. If anythang I should be gittin some sorta medal for bein such a brave-ass dude!”
Like I ain’t got enough of thems already, thought Gritt.
Gritt’s furrowed his brow. He leaned in close to Benicio. He forced his index finger into Benicio’s open palm. “Now—” he said, his eyes wilder than hell, “are ya gunna pull my fanger, boy, am I gunna have’ta make ya?”
“If this is what you want,” Benicio said glumly. Sighing, he pulled Gritt Calhoon’s finger.
First came an enormous gust of spicy pressure-cooked air followed by a booming silence that deafened everyone on board. The tarp which Gritt was wearing blasted off his body with great force. It sailed out into the arctic wind, caught fire midair, and dropped like a lead piano into the icy sea below.
El Chico Gordo rocked violently. Benicio and the sailors clung to the railings. The shockwaves emitted from Gritt’s body had nearly capsized the vessel.
Gritt hadn’t budged a millimeter. He let out a hearty laugh. His ten-pack abdominal muscles undulated madly beneath his scarred stomach-flesh as he stood arms akimbo with his legs spread wide. Now released from its prison, the leviathan between his legs loomed tall and menacingly once again.
“Fetch me a harpoon, turd,” he said to Benicio. A small mushroom cloud was dispersing behind him.
Benicio was seeing stars. The shockwave had ushered him into a dark corner of his being. Roused by Gritt’s command, he did as he was told—mostly because he didn’t know what else to do. He scurried to the side of the boat and grabbed an old harpoon hanging near a row of life preservers. The harpoon was terribly heavy in his small hands. He held the dull end with both arms and dragged the pointed end along the deck of the ship.
Benicio strained to lift the harpoon up to Gritt. “Please . . . señor . . . help . . . me . . .” he said, his face red and sweaty.
Gritt plucked the harpoon out of Benicio’s arms with his thumb and index finger as though it were a toothpick. He tossed it high into the air and caught it with one hand. He swung the thing around like a marching baton. “Got a nice heft tew it,” he said admiringly. “This’ll fuckin dew.”
With a clean deft motion, he chucked the harpoon into the dead albatross, nearly skewering two of the weeping sailors in the process. He yanked hard on the rope tied to the end. The albatross’s lifeless body was hurled into the air, the harpoon jutting out of its bullet-riddled chest. Gritt caught the harpoon before both it and the bird flew overboard.
Gritt sprang from the bow toward the center of the ship. He fell like a meteorite. Lowering himself to one knee, he tenderly set the harpooned albatross by his side. He utilized a few crumpled rolling papers and a waterproof match to produce a small fire. He held the harpoon over the flames and began to cook the albatross.
The sailors were screaming again: “Dios mío! Estamos perdidos!”
Gritt jerked his head to the side. He shot them a look that drained the yolk from their souls. The men fell silent and were ashamed.
Gritt removed a bundle of kindling from his left boot and tossed it onto his makeshift bonfire. From his right boot he produced a small FM radio and fiddled with the station slider until the tinny sound of a Mariachi band could be heard coming from the tiny speaker.
“Pull up a chair, amigo,” Gritt said to Benicio. Slowly he rotated the felled albatross over the flames. “Hell, I sure as shit ain’t ol Grandma Calhoon or nuthin, but this fuckin chicken is bomb-ass, duderino.”
Benicio watched as Gritt chewed on the half-cooked bird flesh with great mirth. He couldn’t help but smile. His new friend was absolutely insane, but there was something about him that made Benicio feel at ease. A sort of secret kindness, he thought, radiated through the old warrior, and he knew few had lived to see it.
Benicio walked over to the bonfire and sat down beside Gritt.
“Try summa this,” said Gritt. He dropped a couple strips of thick-ass bird meat on a paper plate and tossed it onto Benicio’s lap. Leaning over, he squirted a healthy dollop of Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce on the side and garnished the plate with a festive pinch of kimchi.
Gritt used his butthole as a bottle opener and handed Benicio a foaming holiday-themed peppermint IPA.
Al Pacino, wearing a Rudolf nose, sidled up to Gritt and rubbed his head against Gritt’s shoulder.
“Aw man, cain’t forgit about yews, now cain we?” he said, and he fed the donkey a milk-bone laced with angel dust.
“Señor, where did you get all this food?”
It was a valid question. Gritt was, after all, stark naked.
The glow from the fire almost humanized Gritt’s otherwise gnarled and icepick-chiseled face. It made his cheeks rosy and his eyes twinkle. Benicio thought that Gritt almost resembled Old Saint Nick himself just then.
Gritt bit into a drumstick and sucked the meat clean off the bone. He held a keg aloft and glugged down half its contents. Turning to Benicio, Gritt smiled warmly. His face was covered in bird grease and white feathers. “Don’t yew worry ‘bout that’n, my li’l amigo,” said Gritt, winking ever so slightly.
As ten thousand calories slid down Gritt’s greasy throat-tube, he couldn’t help noticing again that Benicio bore an uncanny resemblance to his son, Andronicus “Andy” Trebuchet Calhoon. If Benicio hadn’t been wearing what Gritt assumed was a wig of Paul McCartney’s hair, the two boys could have been mistaken for twins. The fact that it was Christmas day only added to the misery Gritt had stirring up inside himself; it was a sensitive day to be reminded of his beloved son.
Andy had loved Christmas.
Gritt hadn’t had a Christmas with Andy in more years than he cared to remember. Gazing into the fire, he despaired at the thought of it.
“Yew mind if . . . yew mind if’n I call yews Andy, Pinocchio?” said Gritt. The albatross’ beak was glued to the side of his lip with congealed tortilla chip crumbs.
“My name is Benicio, señor. I am not Andy.”
“Yeah but, like, could I calls yew that anyway? I mean what the fuck yew care, honestly?”
Benicio sheepishly nibbled on an albatross thigh. “I would prefer it if you did not call me that, señor. My mother named me. It would dishonor her.”
“Hah. If’n ya say so, Pinocchio.” Gritt rubbed the back of Benicio’s head with his huge behemoth hand. “Merry Christmas, turd.”
Merry Christmas ta yew tew, Andy, Gritt thought to himself. He felt a sort of swelling in the back of his throat that he initially mistook for a gob of beef jerky that had gotten lost on the way down. He looked up at the sky, all ghostly and dim, and located the North Star. He imagined the great voyage the three wisemen had undertaken on that fateful night all those many years ago.
Yew wild fuckin cowboys, he thought. Takes some big-ass coconuts to pull off sumthin like that . . . goin lookin fer li’l baby Jesus ‘n all. Yew boys is true blue. God bless ye.
In the warm center of his heart that he kept hidden from the world, Gritt Calhoon held a prayer. It was a simple prayer. He prayed that one day the fighting would stop, and that all men could live together in peace.
• • •
The ship reached the shores of Antarctica at dawn on the first day of the new year. Gritt stood solemnly on the ship’s bow wearing a party hat and sipping on a bottle of champagne. He was quietly meditating on the ordeals to come. He knew that soon he would have to once again reap the souls of misguided men, and he didn’t feel altogether good about it. But he knew also that this was no time for trepidation, that his mission was as pure as the cocaine he hoped to soon commandeer by deadly force.
Beside him were a set of five-hundred pound dumbbells, an empty thirty-gallon holiday popcorn bucket, a vat of scrapple-flavored creatine power, and a stack of vintage Playboys.
The skeleton of the albatross was hung around his neck like an ominous wreath.
Thar she fuckin blows, thought Gritt, opening his eyes. Emphasis on the blow! He surveyed the topography from beneath a layer of codeine and gin. He was looking for a Waffle House.
Gritt hurled a lifeboat off the side of the ship. He dropped a couple of ammo crates and a box of frozen pizzas into the tiny vessel below.
Intertwined in his chest hair was a celebratory cigar. He ripped it out of its hair-holster, bit off the tip with teeth that had not been brushed in a decade, slammed it into his mouth, and lit the other end.
“Here’s tew another year’uv fuckin horseshit,” said Gritt. “’N thanks fer the ride, fuckers.” He held up a champagne bottle to the sailors and nodded. “Feliz cum-plee-ahh-nose, or whatever the fuck y’all say back home. Cheers.” He swung his huge body over the railing and down into the lifeboat.
“Señor Calhoon! Wait!” cried Benicio, hanging over the side. “Wait for me!”
Gritt looked up from the lifeboat. “Huh. Oh yeah. Uh. Yew and that fuckin goat better hurry the fuck up. Time’s a-wastin, kee-mo-sah-bey.”
“How will I lower Al Pacino down to you?”
“Just toss ‘im.”
“Are you mad?!”
“Toss that bitch!” yelled Gritt. “Yew know how many desert wars I fought in? Hain’t my first donkey rodeo! Not to root-a-toot-toot my own penny whistle or nuthin, but I’m purdy fuckin sure I can catch that sumbitch and not git a scratch on ‘im!”
Benicio carefully lifted Al Pacino over the railing. The pony eyed his master nervously. “Señor Calhoon will catch you, my friend, I am sure of it.” He let go. Al Pacino fell fast and hard.
Gritt caught the beast of burden with ease. He gently placed him on the other side of the boat. “Now yews, Pinhole!”
Benicio whispered a prayer in Spanish. A devout Catholic, he gestured the sign of the cross, closed his eyes, and jumped into the frigid unknown below.
Just as Benicio supposed his life was over, Gritt seized him by his shirt inches above the frozen sea. Like a mother cat holds the scruff of her kitten’s neck, Gritt let the boy hang there for a moment. “Ya doubted me, didn’t ya?” He was flossing his teeth with what appeared to be a chimpanzee toenail. “Baby, don’tcha ever fuckin doubt Gritt Calhoon!” He set Benicio down next to a box full of blow-up dolls that resembled Gritt’s favorite porn stars.
Gritt sniffed his fingers and pointed at nearby Ross Island, and the twin volcanos there. “Reckon that’s the place over yonder,” he said. “Looks like a fuckin snoozefest, though whatcha gunna dew, y’know?” Merrily he slapped his own ass. “Now let’s go’n git us summa that fuckin blow!” Gritt plunked down on a bench and took up a pair of oars. He rowed like hell, his bare muscles expanding and contracting like an accordion made of rhinoceros meat, mesmerizing both Benicio and Al Pacino. In no time the trio were on their way.
• • •
An alarm went off on Gritt’s army wristwatch. He glanced at the time. “Oh-nine-hundred hours—time fer squats ‘n dips.” Gritt stowed the oars beneath the wooden bench and let the tide take over. He began his morning workout routine while the boat lazily drifted through a maze of ice floes towards the looming volcanos.
Mid-squat, Gritt watched as the fierce Antarctic winds erected pillars of snow and then erased them just as quickly. In that bone-dry wasteland, in that white slab of absolute nothing called Antarctica, all the big questions turned to dust, he thought. With none of the window-dressings of human civilization, the totality of existence was reduced to a simple miserable metaphor. Gritt felt right at home.
Nearing land, Gritt finished his morning routine, anchored the lifeboat, and leapt ashore. His glutes and triceps burned fiercely in the bitter cold. He took out a pair of snow-camo fatigues from a duffel bag he had slung over his shoulder and began suiting up. He poked his head through the neck-hole of a T-shirt and stretched it over his brawny chassis.
The shirt caught Benicio’s eye. It was, by his reckoning, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his life. In the center was a colorful graphic of three anthropomorphized bulldogs wearing backwards baseball caps and gold jewelry. The dogs had their muscular tattooed arms folded in a defiant pose. With great reverence Benicio read the English words writ across Gritt’s expansive chest:
Gritt put on a grey commando sweater and clipped grenades and sticks of dynamite to his thighs. He racked Sin Daddy Slim, his trusty old shotgun, and holstered it behind his back next to the harpoon he had used to slay the albatross.
Gritt tightened the laces on his combat boots. He liked them tight.
He stood up and farted quixotically.
“Almost fergot,” he said smiling. Gritt tossed a Beretta M1951 pistol to Benicio. “Hain’t gunna dew much with that there li’l pecker popper—it’s pure Eye-tal-yun trash. Though hell, I reckon it at least looks like a gun, fer whatever the fuck that’s worth.”
Benicio eyed the weapon in his hand with awe. “I have never held a gun before, señor,” he said.
“Yew blind or somethin, dummy? Yer holdin one right now!”
“I mean—before right now. This is the first time.” Benicio cringed. He dropped the pistol. It sank into the thick snow.
Gritt fidgeted with his prolapsed anus.
“Ya’d better pick that’n up, ding-a-ling,” said Gritt. “My idiot cousin Travis Cooter done charged me three hundred big ones fer that hunka crapola. Said he was gunna use the money ta pay fer community college. Thought I wuz doin ‘im a favor, y’see? And then the sumbitch went out and bought a god dang crack rock and a dirt bike that ain’t even got handlebars!” Gritt shook his head and smiled knowingly. “Though hell, I reckon I prolly woulda done the same damn thang . . .”
“My parents were murdered by nationalist rebels when I was very young. As a result, I am an avowed pacifist. I . . . I cannot accept this gun you have given me, Señor Calhoon.”
“I done heard a lotta dudes say they was pass-a-fists in my time,” said Gritt. He was smoking a joint and sharpening a lawn mower blade between two rocks. “And ya know what? Watched every single god dang one’a them sons-a-bitches die, tew.” He flicked the blade with his thick-ass calloused finger. Its chime was a sweet sound in an otherwise dead land.
Gritt fastened the blade to his utility belt. “But hell, it’s yer fuckin funeral, broheim. Reaper done got bills ta pay, I reckon.”
Benicio gulped audibly. “I did not realize we would be fighting, señor. . . .”
“A-yup. Heard that’n b’fore tew.” He grinned. His gold tooth flashed menacingly like an animal’s eye. “Ya signed up fer basic thinkin yew’d peep sum island girls in them tube tops, nipples hard as diamonds, and hopin yew’d score some hot tang jus cuz yer in yer olive drabs with yer li’l flat-top haircut. Well, newsflash, dickhole: the guv’ment done gotcha by the balls, and yer nuthin more than a sack’a fuckin liquid meat destined fer a body bag.”
Gritt unzipped his pants and appeared to massage his prostate. Seconds later, a firehose blast of hot piss cascaded out of his body and bore a hole in the thick ice a hundred miles deep.
Steam rose from the newly-wrought piss crater and Gritt regarded it proudly.
“Now, git that cocker spaniel of yers over here and let’s load ‘im the hell up. I wanna reach that freakin big-ass volcano by nightfall.”
Benicio did not move. The thought of violence—either having it done to him or him doing it someone else—shook him deeply. At his core, he was a kind and gentle soul of humble means. He had seen the ugliness of mankind, and knew enough to turn away from it. Picking up the gun would change all of that.
Wut’s this kid’s god dang problem? thought Gritt. He ruminated on the word “kid” and realized that’s all Benicio really was. Just a kid. Gritt felt a rare emotion well up inside him, which was regret. He padded across the snow and bent down to pick up the Beretta. He shoved it into the back of his pants. Gritt stood up and put his arm around Benicio.
“Sorry ‘bout that, li’l buddy. Don’tcha worry, y’hear?” Ol Gritt’ll keep ya safe.”
Just like yew kept Andy safe, huh Gritt? thought Gritt. Quickly he flushed his own insecurities. ’Nuff’a that bullhockey. Questionin yerself is fer rookies. And rookies git sent home in a box.
Benicio looked sullen as he sat perched upon a crate full of frozen elephant steaks. His eyes were moist with warm tears.
Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side’a the sled dog’s dick, thought Gritt. Make things right with the kid, ya big turd.
“I, uh . . . I almost fergot to pay you for all the hard fuckin werk yew been dewin fer me. Here—“ Gritt took out his wallet and retrieved a small card. Gingerly he placed it in Benicio’s quivering hand.
Benicio held it up to his face. It was a sort of loyalty card from a truck stop called “Big Pumpy’s Pop-n-Squat.” There were ten small holes punched out of it, which entitled the cardholder to one free chili dog.
“Next time yer in Tuscaloosa and yer tummy starts a-rumblin, yew jus show this’n ta Big Pumpy and he’ll fix ya up with sumthin real good,” said Gritt proudly. He laughed. “And don’t let that sorry sack’a gopher turds skimp on them fried onions! Hell, ya gotta watch ol Pumpy, ‘cuz if ya don’t, that cheap bastard’ll try ta shortchange the shit outta ya . . .”
Benicio delicately folded the card in half and placed it in his breast pocket. He had tears in his eyes. “Gracias, Señor Calhoon. This . . . this is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.” He meant it.
“Well shit, Pinholio. Yer god dang welcome.”
“I will be all right. I am brave, señor. Braver than you know. Let us do what we set out to do.”
“Now yer fuckin talkin!” Gritt unholstered his Mark XIX Desert Eagle and emptied an entire clip into the godless sky.
With a renewed sense of vigor, Benicio unloaded the supplies from the lifeboat and placed them in Al Pacino’s saddlebags. He patted his old friend on the neck, grabbed hold of the saddle horn, and swung himself on.
Gritt got a running start.
“Alley-fuckin-ooooop!” he screamed, launching himself high into the air and slam-plopping down onto the saddle behind Benicio. The shock nearly broke all four of the pony’s legs. Oblivious to the burden of his own shape, Gritt slapped Al Pacino’s ass with his open palm and the trio got to going fast.
Al Pacino, well encumbered beyond any reasonable capacity, galloped ferociously over the vast desert of ice toward the snow-capped cone far off in the distance. With each passing second he picked up speed, mostly because he wanted to get Gritt’s huge ass off his back. His muscles burned and his veins flared. It was a hell of a thing, to be racing through the last untamed wilderness left on that great stinking ball of garbage called planet Earth.
Meanwhile, hanging off Al Pacino’s ass, Gritt Calhoon bobbed up and down on the merciless terrain. The wind was in his hair and he inhaled it rapturously. He closed his eyes and began humming in a low octave known only to the Ancients. He held out his arms, giving the pony monstrous wings. Gritt was deep inside himself, pondering the night. God only knew what awaited them in the cocaine factory on Mount Terror, he thought. Armed guards, for sure—a whole mess of them too, no doubt. Rottweilers. Barbed wire. Chain guns. The bastards probably even had punji stake pits.
If’n, thought Gritt, I git my god dang foot stuck in one of them charlie holes again, it’s gunna be a sorry day in Shitsville, ‘cuz the entire town’s gunna git straight-up murdered. Hate them fuckin thangs!
Reflexively Gritt rubbed the shin of his left leg. He could still feel the scars from a pain he had felt long ago. But then Gritt was mostly made of scars now, both inside and out. Scars on top of scars till his battered flesh slid right off the bone.
Gritt shook his head and quieted his mind. No shortage of darkness if you go looking for it, he thought. All you had to do was peer behind the furniture and you were bound to find some ugly thing there that will hurt you. Life, if you let it, really could be a slip’n-slide straight to hell . . . heavy and painful all the way through. No sense in diving into a pool full of turds on your own when some other force was bound to send you there sooner or later. For this reason Gritt snapped up simple pleasures whenever he could get his hands on them. Those brief moments of elation were the only indication that he was still alive.
“Yew ever mixed up a big girl’s guts before?” said Gritt, lightening the mood.
“I do not know what this means,” said Benicio. He was gripping Al Pacino’s reins tightly.
“Big girls. Hell, I love ‘em. Not everyone does, though. Sometimes—well, sometimes that’ll werk in yer fuckin favor.”
“Sometimes ya git in them moods where ya jus wanna throw a big girl ‘round a hotel room, ya know?”
Gritt leaned back and stroked his long beard contemplatively. A human finger fell from the hairs and onto the snow beneath them. “I reckon at this point I’m bonin ‘bout as much as I’m dewin the other dang thang. My life is a fifty-fifty split between the burden of existence ‘n gittin groovy between the sheets with as many hotties as I can handle, and that ain’t no small number.”
Gritt puffed on his corncob pipe and blew a smoke ring that looked exactly like a Genghis Khan’s butthole.
“Hell, Pinocchio, I reckon ya ain’t got that pecker of yers out in the open jus yet, but believe yew me, I have plenty’a times. And homie I’m here ta tell yew ya ain’t tasted the sweetness of the sun till ya wake up on a wet mattress with ribcage marks on your tunnel funnel!”
“I intend to make love to only one woman, Señor Calhoon, and that is to my future wife.”
Gritt rolled his eyes theatrically. Someone git this geek a fuckin library card, he thought.
“Been married twelve times, brother. Hain’t no such thing as forever, least not in this, the ephemeral realm of mortals. And anyway, hell, yew don’t even wanna fuckin know how many times I done had a god dang trailer door slammed on my face.” Gritt laughed. He slapped Benicio on the shoulder. “Or how many cigarette burns I got on my big-ass butt.”
Gritt leaned in close. He coiled his arms around Benicio like a python and whispered into his ear: “But ya know what? I wouldn’t trade it fer anythang in the world. Shit like that is grilled onions on a free chili dog from Big Pumpy’s, if’n ya catch my meanin.”
Gritt corralled his long black dreadlocks into a scunchie and popped a tab of acid beneath his tongue. He gazed at the strange new world that enveloped them and felt humbled by the sheer magnitude of it all.
Wonder what the Good Lord had in mind when he dream’d up a weird fuckin place like this? Gritt shook his head and smiled. That crazy ol astard ’n his mysteries, I swears . . .
“Hey turd. I’m gunna take a fuckin nap. Wake me up when we git to Mount Fuji or wherever the fuck it is we’s headed.”
“Of course, señor.”
“And wake me sooner than that if’n ya catch sight’uv any smokin hot hoochie mamas bustin out of their daisy dukes along the way. We gotta git fuckin laid pronto. Affirmative?”
“Of course, señor.”
“And take ‘er real slow on the approach ‘less yew want this here giraffe’a yers to have its nuts blown off by some coward-ass cake-sniffin sniper.”
Benicio swallowed hard. “Sí, señor.”
Gritt’s eyes darted wildly. He ripped Sin Daddy off his back and steadied the barrel on Benicio’s shoulder. The acid had fast-tracked its way into his bloodstream already and he scanned the horizon with fathomless black pupils. There was a sort of reddish foam building up on the sides of his mouth.
“See what, Pinocchio?”
“I was speaking Spanish, señor. My apologies.”
Gritt holstered his shotgun and sighed. “Yeah. Don’t ever fuckin dew that again, chucklehead.” He playfully punched Benicio in the left kidney, nearly rupturing it. “Shoot. Ya got me on edge, boy. Yer gunna git every snowman in this whole god dang continent killed if’n ya keep that shit up. I’s paranoid!”
Gritt snorted. He closed his eyes and went to sleep. It was only a matter of seconds before he descended into the familiar spiderweb of nightmares where Andy Calhoon gave his last breath, and Gritt, powerless to save him, held his son’s little hand and said good-bye.
• • •
Gritt felt two fingers pinch his nipples. It was a sensation that was not altogether alien to him. Grunting, he lifted his heavy eyelids to discover he had fallen off the back of the pony and was lying ass-down in a massive butt-shaped crater of ancient snow.
Benicio was hovering over him. “Wake up, Señor Calhoon! We are close now. I can see men with guns patrolling near the base of the volcano.”
Gritt rolled over and mysteriously coughed up a hairball. The furry black wad landed on his heaving chest. He flicked it away without looking at it. The hairball was snagged by an arctic breeze and vanished into the night.
“Um,” said Benicio.
“How many War Bots you see?”
“War Bots, guerrilla infantry, Krauts—whatever. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if ol Adolf hisself weren’t standin over yonder holdin a fuckin M4 in them squirrelly fangers of his. Prolly sharin a queef sammich with his ol buddy Hirohito.” He laughed. “Shit, this could be a long-ass night.”
“Señor Calhoon, I do not know what it is you are saying—”
“Fuck it. Whoever them nutwads is, I’mma give ‘em what-fer. They done picked the wrong day ta eat corn through a picket fence.”
Gritt rose to his feet and thunder-clapped snow off his urine-soaked fatigues. He took out a pair of binoculars and had a good long look. Two football fields away was Mount Terror, a nondescript mound of white powder that wouldn’t look out of place on the moon. Other than a few craggy spots and the faintest hint of a peak, the volcano was barely indistinguishable from the woeful infinity which surrounded it in every direction. Gritt scoffed. He thought the place looked boring as hell.
“Fer real? This is the most half-assed volcano I ever did see. Shit’s duller than a dildo at Disneyland, and I should know.”
Gritt narrowed his eyes and focused on his prey. By his count, there were six lightly-armed guards on patrol, and four others standing idly by a suspiciously geometrical protrusion on the side of the volcano. Gritt guessed the structure was artificial. The architects had utilized the snow and the shape of the volcano to hide the entrance to the factory. To those who didn’t know any better, it may as well have been invisible.
But Gritt always knew better.
He licked his frozen lips with his storied tongue. “Looks like a coupla feral cats done fell right inta Grandma’s soup cauldron,” he whispered to himself. “And thank God Almighty fer that, ‘cuz Grandpa went and had hisself a hell of a day in the coal mines, and that sumbitch got the god darn tum-tum gurgles.”
Benicio ignored Gritt’s enigmatic metaphor. “Señor, what do you see?”
“I spy with my big-ass fuckin eye . . . some boys who ain’t got long ta live. Yew ready ta git sticky, dipshit?”
“Sticky . . . ?”
Gritt ripped the top layers off his big beautiful body. He tossed the bundle to Benicio and began rubbing petroleum jelly all over his chest. “If’n ya put yer hand in the honeypot, then baby”—he popped his pecs back and forth to juice them up—“ya best believe yer gunna come out all sticky.”
“Beat all!” spoke ghastly Gritt. “Come close, and know me better, man! No pulsed thing ever fetched lightnin from the sky by sittin ‘round bottlin his farts in mason jars! Let the beautiful visage of yonder Satan light thine eyes! Spit yer fire! Eat yer tongue! Slick yer throat with blood! Grip ye soul, m’boy, we’re goin in!”
In a fit of sheer lunacy, Gritt stomp-sprinted away from Benicio and Al Pacino and charged toward the volcanic compound at about a hundred miles an hour. Not since the Paleolithic age had the world heard such a roar escape from the mouth of a mammal. Gritt was slobbering, drooling, swearing in languages that hadn’t been spoken in centuries, or ever before. He sailed over the dismal land like a phantom train bound for hell, his huge black boots crunching down on thick snow as though he trod upon a field of bones. His pirate beard, ragged and wild, split in the center and flung backwards. Pork cracklin crumbs and dried vomit loosened from his whiskers and flew out into the icy darkness and were lost to Time itself.
The drums of madness beat on inside Gritt’s head. With each lunge toward total annihilation, his fury increased tenfold. He had unhitched his brain from any higher thinking. Unencumbered by personhood, Gritt down-shifted into an unfeeling murderous hellhound whose only vocation was quieting the biology of any bipedal ape who dared to breathe.
Gritt’s soul bore the flaming sword of his ancestors, and his shield was his leather-wrapped skeleton. He formed his arms into a rigid raptor pose, his fingers into iron talons, and sped swiftly through the darkness now. Against the midnight moon, the petroleum jelly gave Gritt’s bare chest an otherworldly glow.
Descending upon the first guard, Gritt lunged into the air legs-first and sledgehammered his spiked boot heels into the man’s face. The sight was enough to make a physicist choke on his morning coffee: the man’s head came clean off!
“D’ye see The Master’s hand?” he howled. “D’ye hear Him laughin in the Deep . . . ?”
Gritt Calhoon—grim menace of oblivion, tidal wave of freak meat, pulverizer of men’s souls—unsheathed the lawnmower blade from his belt and boomeranged it in a perfect elliptical path, decapitating all five guards. Their heads fell from their bodies like feed sacks full of orthopedic shoes.
Four guards remained.
Upon hearing the bubbling gurgle-yelps of their doomed comrades, the other guards rushed to the dark plain to find six bodies unburdened of heads. A few of the men cursed, all of them confused and frightened. From what dimension had such grisly savagery touched them? They couldn’t have known that the molecules they fearfully exhaled were being inhaled by lurking Gritt Calhoon, whose very soul was fueled by the final utterances of other men. Soon they would be as dead as a urine-soaked mattress pitched beneath an overpass. In layman’s that meant certain doom. What was good news for the undertaker who wished to retire early was bad news for everyone else.
Cloaked in freezing darkness, Gritt watched from afar as the guards nervously patrolled the area for the unseen villain who had slain their kin. He took out a salt shaker and inhaled the genie potion of methamphetamine dust trapped inside. The fumes illuminated his dark circuitry. His pupils tripled in size until his eyes were solid black. His skin was tight and warm. Silently he removed the harpoon from his back and balanced its delicious weight in his paw. As a holy man blesses his fowl before slaughter, so too did Gritt recite a prayer—in this case the entirety of ‘The Gettysburg Address’—for the hapless homo sapiens who would soon walk with Death into that starless place beyond the realm of Space and Time.
The trembling guards clustered together. Shoulder to shoulder, guns pointed outward, they moved as a single organism in search of their unseen foe. But “strength in numbers”, as Gritt well knew, was just cheap hippie trash. All it did was simplify the coroner’s paperwork.
Meanwhile, Gritt Calhoon, a man who embodied all four horsemen of the apocalypse, and who had said “I love you” to a woman precisely once (she had been a stripper in Salt Lake City), crept through the snow until he found the death angle he had seen in the endless dream of his mind’s eye. The albatross skeleton hung around his neck swayed violently like a wind chime in Hell as he lined the guards up as though they were crows on a telephone wire.
Death comes at night, he thought. And we must meditate on the idea that it is always night.
Harpoon held loosely, he took aim and Zeus-chucked the thing like a bolt of lightning. It whistled through the air and shish-kabob’d all four guards through the sides of their chests, piercing their hearts and killing them instantly. The mass of dead men buckled on eight rubbery knees and fell backwards.
Worst game’a foosball I ever played. He lined his lower lip with a wad of chewing tobacco laced with PCP. These buttholes done got their bones roasted. I reckon I had hemorrhoids who put up more’uva fight than thems. Hell.
Gritt took out a flag bearing his own beastly likeness from his underwear and unfurled it. He slammed his harpoon into the ice and affixed the flag to its iron shaft with a long spool of his own pubic hair.
The flag billowed wildly in the arctic gale and Gritt was pleased.
Who says no man owns Antarctica . . . ? he thought, and took a bite out of a protein bar made of compacted dog food.
Gritt strolled over to the back entrance of Mount Terror where the guards had been standing. He scooped up a pack of smokes from the ground. He took out a crumpled cigarette and gave it a big sniff.
“Hain’t Virginia-grown, but I’ll take it.”
Gritt split the cigarette down the center with a pocket knife. He removed some of the tobacco and swallowed it whole. Inside the halved cigarette he sprinkled the sacred dust from a small marijuana bud he had tucked up in a hair-pocket behind his ear. Sealing the spliff with a wad of his alien mucus, he put it between his chapped lips and flicked on his skull-engraved butane lighter. It only took a single puff of the spooky stuff for Gritt’s senses to become super-charged enough to detect a hair-thin vertical band of light on a craggy wall of the volcano. It was some kind of door. One of the guards must have left it ajar.
Gritt guessed a seam of reality had torn open before his war-weary eyes. It wasn’t the first time he had bore witness to such a thing.
He took in a monstrous lungful of sub-zero air and swung his body around like a ballerina made of tank entrails. His huge foot hit a flimsy door disguised to look like the outer flank of the volcano. The door fell inwards and clapped to the ground.
“Cheap-ass contractors, no doubt,” he snorted, “usin drywall made’a cereal dust.”
Gritt took a long drag and stepped inside.
• • •
THE COKE KING
IN THE FIRE PALACE
The interior of Mount Terror was dark and humid—a network of cramped fart-fumed tunnels, most of them leading nowhere. It reminded Gritt of the labyrinthine caverns of Venus, where he and a small team of Navy SEALS had taken down a terrorist ring operating from deep within the hellish planet.
T’was a long fuckin time ago now, thought Gritt, when I wuz a younger man, fulla rage ’n sperm. Though hell, I reckon ain’t much has changed since then . . .
He pondered this for a moment. Glancing down at the naked ring finger on his left hand, he nearly threw up.
Fearless Gritt, shotgun in hand, extinguished his memories of the past and got on with it. He padded through the endless black tunnels of the volcano feeling gorgeous and twisted as hell. Sweat formed beneath his Alabama-sweet-tea-soaked bandana. The rubbery tread of his combat boots gripped the earthen floor. He hadn’t slept in five days.
“Jesus it’s hot in here,” he said, leaning against the stone wall. It was warm on his flesh. Something huge and angry was churning and boiling on the other side. Whether it was the machines which birthed trillions of dollars of synthetic cocaine, or lava which bubbled out of a dying planet, Gritt couldn’t have known.
I reckon lava just volcano sperm, he thought, feeling a sort of enigmatic kinship with Mount Terror.
Gritt had disappeared into the heart of the fire mountain with his bag of death tools to send the evil ones away, to make the world safe . . . for what exactly? he wondered. For democracy? Lord no. He didn’t give a hoot in hell about empty platitudes and cheap campaign promises. Gritt wasn’t a target demographic; he was a man in search of demographics to turn into targets. For Gritt, that meant potentially every living thing. If he really thought about it, deep down all he wanted was to make the world safe for a little boy who would never unwrap another Christmas present.
And it was for that reason he had intentionally left Benicio behind. To clear a path, he told himself. To protect his little friend. He just hoped the son of a bitch was smart enough not to get himself killed in the meantime.
Gritt unclipped a flashlight from his belt and gave the place a quick sweep. There wasn’t a single guard in sight. He figured the night crew he had dispatched in the snow was the worst of it. No one would be expecting him. Who the hell infiltrates a cocaine factory seven thousand miles away from civilization? He smiled when he realized the answer to the question was his own name.
It was shaping up to be a simple smash-and-grab operation until Gritt’s medieval plumbing interjected. Out of nowhere his timeworn intestines made a sound like a trash bag full of old hot dogs machine-gunning out of a rusty tailpipe. His bowels were loose and heavy; a time bomb had been activated.
“Lordy. Had to go ’n eat a whole god dang sheet’uv pizza rolls this mornin, huh Calhoon?” said Gritt. He placed a fat wet palm on his gurgling stomach. “Hain’t no splittin hairs over this’n. I gotta take a freakin dump!”
Gritt snaked his head around a bend in the tunnel. He could hardly believe it when he saw light up ahead—hot fluorescent light, even, the kind that had been eating away at human souls for centuries—pouring out of a lone doorway and into the volcanic passage. His shotgun held in a tactical position, he treaded carefully toward the unknown, aware that his body would only allow him to take a finite amount of steps before it squirreled out a loaf of pumpernickel right where he stood, wherever that might happen to be.
Gritt sighed with relief as he neared the man-made light. It was coming from some sort of employee break room. The place was littered with empty potato chip bags and overturned styrofoam cups. He tiptoed over to a vending machine in the corner of the room and whacked the side with the back of his Desert Eagle. A bag of Chocolate D-Hole Diddlers slipped out of a plastic coil and tumbled into the dispensing area.
Shit’chyah, thought Gritt. He punched through the glass and retrieved the small packet of donuts. Now alls I gotta dew is find me a fuckin bee-room or else it’s gunna be rainin turds down in Whiteytightyville, if’n ya catch my meanin.
Gritt poured himself a cup of black coffee. He swilled down the whole thing in a single gulp. It encircled his throat in a tiny whirlpool and was flushed into the dreary black hole of his Tyrannosaurus Rexian body below. A little in, a little out, he thought. That’s wut I always says. He burped triumphantly. The caffeine soured through his juicy circulatory system. It mixed with the marijuana he had been casually smoking and made him feel alive as hell.
His vision now sharpened, he spotted a restroom door beneath a flickering light on the other side of the room. The door was next to a poster which said, in big bold letters:
DID YOU REMEMBER
TO CLOCK OUT?
A sound like a dolphin choking on a garden hose erupted from Gritt’s midsection. His fatigues billowed with hot Jovian gas and he knew he was fast approaching event horizon diarrhea. It was time to go, lest the ground be slicked with the viscous fluids which would destroy a lesser man. Gritt galloped across the length of the room and kicked open the bathroom door. He rushed into the first stall he came upon and dropped his size 62 pants to his ankles.
Gritt had a good old fashioned sit down just seconds before his body dispensed the first warhead.
Woo! Dodged a god dang bullet there, he thought. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth. A few more seconds and my poor undies woulda been standin b’fore ol Saint Pete and them Pearly Gates, and I ain’t sure they woulda gotten through . . .
As Gritt painted the town brown, he couldn’t help feeling that something was off. There was a ghostly presence in the room, he was sure of it. Decades of squatting on the frontline had gifted him with the paranormal ability to sense when he was not alone in his most vulnerable state.
Gritt held his breath and skillfully silenced his sphincter.
Weren’t be the first time I had ta put a turd on ice in order ta grease some fool-ass nut-hugger, that’s fer damn sure . . .
With his right hand he quietly unholstered his Desert Eagle from his thigh holster and cocked the hammer back.
Gritt K9-sniffed the turgid air of the inferno latrine. He nearly screamed when a heavenly host of old familiar odors crescendoed inside his brain.
The hell? he thought. Circus peanuts and clam juice. He sniffed again. Coco Loco Mad Dog 20/20 and a li’l bit’a engine coolant. But that’s . . . that’s . . . Naw, it cain’t be . . .
Though every waking moment of Gritt Calhoon’s life was a twisted screaming haze of darkness and Satanic psychedelia, his olfactory senses were second to none. Gritt had hunted man and animal alike on scent alone. He was a tracker, a killer, Gritt was, and he knew, right then and there in the men’s restroom in a cocaine factory housed within a volcano in Antarctica, that there was only one creature in the whole damn galaxy whose pores emitted this particular perfume cocktail. There could be no mistaking it: the man he smelled was Shark “Iron Gate” Gladiator, Gritt’s old war buddy and greatest friend on Earth. But how could that be? he wondered. Shark was supposed to be on a honeymoon cruise somewhere in the South China Sea. According to a nearly incomprehensible postcard Gritt had received a month prior, Shark had eloped with some babe he claimed to have met at a karaoke bar in Hong Kong. Had things gone sour for him already? What could have possibly led Shark away from the embrace of his newly beloved to a loveless bowl of porcelain in the land of eternal ice and snow . . . ?
Carefully Gritt lowered his head to the tile floor. He peered beneath the stall divider. Two toilets away he saw a pair of worn snakeskin cowboy boots embroidered with roses and dancing skeletons. He regarded the boots with a warm curiosity. Size 18, rusty spur on the left boot and a straight razor tucked into the right, a small FM radio faintly playing tinny Mariachi music from some unknown place, cow shit baked into the heels, and a little bit of dried blood here and there. No doubt about it: the thick, hairy legs shoved inside of those bad boys had to belong to none other than dirty-dicked Shark Gladiator.
Shark’s legs were splayed open in a way that Gritt knew all too well. After twenty-eight military tours together, squatting back to back everywhere from the jungles of Cambodia to the peak of Mount Everest, Gritt could have picked out Shark’s dump-stance from a police lineup any day of the week. For reasons he could not explain to himself just then, Shark’s butt-splitting choreography had saved his life more times than he could count.
Gritt heard his friend snoring and smiled. The king was asleep upon his throne.
“Shark!” Gritt boomed. He banged on the left side of the stall with his massive fist. “Yew lousy sonuvabitch. Takin a li’l nappy-poo on the god dang job, I sees. Yew ’n yer Midwinter Night’s dreams. If only Captain Hoppenheimer could see ya now. Hell, he’d have ya shuckin corn till the buttcrack’a dawn.”
“Huh,” said Shark. Half asleep, he dropped an issue of Big Titty Honkers on the floor near his boot. Porn star Mindy Mondo was on the cover.
Dang, thought Gritt, eyeing the cover from beneath the stall. The October issue. T’was a good’n, as I dew rightly recall . . .
Still hunched over, Gritt watched as Shark’s legs quivered and came to life. Shark kicked his feet wildly, scuffing the floor in the process. Gritt smiled. He knew those weren’t the only skid marks Shark was making.
“Calhoon? I’ll be damned. That yews over there? Shit, I must be hearin thangs!”
“Ya ain’t hearin nuthin but yer ol buddy’s voice, ya turd. Who else would it be?”
All the bathrooms in the world, thought Gritt, and I gotta pick the one where ol Ten-Pounder is layin down some spicy brown. Lord have mercy!
“Ten-Pounder,” of course, was Shark’s old squad nickname. He was infamous for his scale-tipping bowel movements, which easily weighed in at over ten pounds.
“I’ve dreamed ‘bout ya, Gritt,” said Shark. “Not ev’ry night, but some nights.” He was smoking a joint now and writing his phone number on the stall door.
“Yeah, yeah . . .” Gritt shifted nervously on the toilet seat. “Betcha were, ya freakin perv.”
“‘Tis true, brujo! Dreamed we wuz fightin ta’gether again, ya know? In them tundras, and in them caves. Big-ass guns, lotsa smokes, coupla kilos of white thunder, Uncle Sam makin our alimony payments fer us . . . Shit, Gritt. Thems wuz good fuckin times.”
“Good fuckin times, Shark.”
“I’ll never ferget all them crazy nights, man. Hain’t nothin like a cheap motel room with two double beds and a coupla babes from the bus station.”
“Kansas City. Shit. ‘Member that?”
“Wild night’uv tokin ass, brother. Wouldn’t mind livin that’n on repeat fer all eternity!” Shark laughed.
“Hell, I see yew ain’t changed god dang a bit.” Gritt twiddled one of his beard dreadlocks. “Ya god danged rascal, yew.”
Shark slapped his bare thigh and peed on the floor. “Calhoon! Dang. I wuz gittin bored as hell, and here yew show up. Baby, it’s a strange’n, this world.”
“Speakin’a strange . . .” said Gritt. He glanced at the war zone between his muscular thighs and dropped another monstrous payload. “The water doth rise, amigo. Got me a real weird’n cookin over here. Talk about a turd that belongs in Area 51. Hell, this damn thing’s probably sendin messages inta space!”
“I hear ya. Baby, yew would not believe the pepper steak my body converted inta this’n right here. Hell I feel like I’m witnessin the birth’uv Moby-Dick hisself. This damn thing’s got its own Social Security number. Reminds me of that fuckin delicious-ass dinner we had with the Emperor of Jupiter. ‘Member that? In that big-ass castle on one of them moons? Helluva meal. A rack of grizzly bear ribs with taters and collards on the side. Stack’a honey biscuits and a big ol goblet full’a sweet tea . . . exotic babes makin out and touchin each other ev’ry which ways . . . ‘n them monkeys in little tuxedos jugglin flamin bayonets ‘n shit. Holy hell, brother. ’Twas quite a pipe-buster. Definitely one’uv my top five dumps, and that right there’s a list about a million ‘n a half miles long.”
“And now here ya sit on some dirty-ass toilet in Antarctica,” said Gritt, “makin a god dang witch’s hat.”
“Meltin paint,” said Shark.
“Phonin Elvis,” said Gritt.
“Parkin my breakfast.”
“Pinchin a grumpy.”
“Torquin a moonfish.”
“Nukin out a nasty.”
“Churnin the chowder.”
“Curlin one out.”
“Freein the hostages.”
“Flyin the brown eye.”
“Feedin the geese.”
“Honkin out a homegrown.”
“Heavin a havana.”
“Snakin out a Sasquatch.”
“Snappin a yambo.”
What followed was a moment of silence that could only exist between old friends. Both men sat on their respective toilets thinking about the past, and how far they’d gotten away from it all. Time has a way of coming between a man and his memories. It clouds some, and sharpens others. Like an old guitar tucked away in the attic, you pick it up and pluck at the chords of a song you once loved. That eternal melody—fragmented, distant, dreamlike—shall not perish from the minds of men who have endured the gaping jaw of Death by virtue of their love for one another. Being in each other’s presence again inspired the same poetry in the minds of Gritt and Shark just then.
Butt Brothers for life, they thought in unison.
Shark smiled as he tore off a square of extra-quilted six-ply toilet paper and wiped his huge ass, a Sisyphusian gesture as futile as cleaning an aircraft carrier with a squirt gun. “Missed ya, brother.” He flushed the toilet and it immediately overflowed.
Gritt looked up at the fluorescent light humming over his head and wondered at the mysteries of life, and what it would all amount to in that ultimate moment. He cleared his throat. A hot brick of excrement dislodged from his undercarriage and splashed thunderously below, soaking his testicles.
“Missed ya tew, ya fuckin pirate.”
• • •
Back in the employee break room, Gritt and Shark regarded each other with a brotherly tenderness.
“The hell brought yew down heres?” said Gritt. He zipped up his pants and began loading his triple-barrel 10 gauge with napalm buckshot. He was pleased with himself for having defiantly left his turds simmering in the toilet. Gritt hadn’t flushed in years.
Talk about a shit-n-run, he thought.
Shark reached his arm through the hole Gritt had made in the vending machine. He took out a couple packets of Creamy Dream Chocolate Puff Cupcakes and stuffed them into his pockets. “Cocaine, baby. Plus Jenny wuz gittin sick’a my shit. She moved out this past September. And let me tell yew, t’weren’t nary a clean sock in the house after she left, if’n ya catch my meanin.”
“Yew keep the security deposit?”
“Damn right I did. Bought me a god dang four-wheeler with it. Wrecked the sumbitch ‘bout a month later. Got drunk and drove it inta a fuckin lake or some shit.” Shark laughed. “That’s what the police report said, anyway.”
Gritt shook his head and smiled. “Shark Gladiator, ladies ‘n gentlemen.”
Shark punched Gritt’s big sweat-marinated bicep. “Like yer one ta talk, Calhoon. Last time I checked, I’s standin here with the only dude I ever heard’uv who done crashed a combine inta a fuckin Christmas float and leavin no survivors!”
“I reckon yew ain’t never gunna let me live that’n down, huh?”
“Hey, yew wuz acquitted, weren’tcha?” Shark smiled. “Ridin that damn thing all over creation while high on PCP. Yer a god dang maniac on wheels, baby—literally.”
“What happened tew yer honeymoon? Thoughtchu met some babe or sumthin.”
Shark took a swig of mastodon gut flora from his canteen.
“Yew talkin ‘bout Mingyu? I split. Chick was nuts, dude. As I recall, it were Vegas Night on the cruise ship. They had these fuckin slot machines ‘n blackjack tables everywhere. And ‘course I wuz topside with a fat cigar and a big-ass margarita, checkin out them babes in them evenin gowns. Them girls was top-heavy, Gritt, believe yew me. Well, wouldn’t ya know it, my Hong Kong honey caught me peepin some cleave ‘n lost her shit. I mean, big time, brother. Tore both my Purple Hearts off my vest ‘n chucked ‘em inta the East China Sea.”
Gritt shook his head in revulsion. “Yer fuckin kiddin me.”
“Nah, brother. And this wuz on our honeymoon, mind’ye.”
“How . . . how can ya take a man’s Purps ‘n toss ‘em inta hell? When that’s the very place a man has to go to earn ‘em . . . ?”
Gritt felt his blood pressure skyrocketing. “Jesus, Shark.”
“Yeah. Dove in after ‘em and still couldn’t find the dang thangs. Back on deck I wuz fuckin nuclear, man. Yew know, fightin people ‘n shit. Endin up gittin kicked off the boat at the next port ‘cuz apparently I’s so pissed I destroy’d hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of navigation equipment or sumthin. That’s what the lawsuit said, anyway. Hell, Gritt. T’weren’t pretty, that’s fer god dang diggity sure.”
“Fuck, dude.” Gritt bowed his head.
“Ended up in Shanghai ‘n got the damn clap a dozen ’n a half times. ’Bout a month later I wuz cruisin fer a lay down in Knoxville and I ran inta ol Chooch Tuskins. Ya ‘member Chooch? Owns a strip club jus off the interstate. Some big nasty asses in that joint, Gritt . . . all yew can fuckin eat, brother. Well, that sumbitch told me he done heard tell uv’a cocaine factory somewheres all the way at the bottom of the fuckin globe ‘n I thought, hell, why the fuck not?”
“Dang, how’s ol Chooch dewin?”
“Divorced. Twice. Dude got fat as shit. But I tell ya what, ol Choocherino is still the funniest sack’a turds I ever did meet.”
“Chooch always made me laugh.”
“He’s a dirty-ass junkyard dog, Gritt, I tell ya. Hain’t nuthin changed there. Shit, that mangy mutt wuz at the bar with a god dang ninteen-year-old girl hangin off his big fat arm.”
“Lordy. Guess that salty fuckin dog is still chewin on tires’n rollin a’round in his own excrement. Chooch . . . that crazy ol sumbitch. He ain’t never gunna change, bless his fuckin heart.”
Shark did a key bump of ogre bone meal and farted didactically.
“Anyway, like I’s sayin, he told me he wuz smokin some top-shelf crack with these sailors who come inta his club one night, and them boys said they’d made a coupla deliveries tew a god dang’d coke factory down yonder. Said that wuz wheres they got the good stuff. And, ya know, with Jenny and Mingyu gone, I don’t got a whole lot goin on these days, ’n Lord knows my military pension is dog shit, so I hauled my dumb ass on down ‘ere and picked up some fuckin union job. Used a fake name ‘n everythang.”
“Ya gone and got yerself a fake name. Yew jokester, I swears.”
Shark grinned and slapped his stomach. “Yup. ‘Round here they calls me Buck Bighorn. Purdy cool, huh? Came up with that’n myself, don’tcha know.”
“Buck Bighorn.” Gritt shook his head and hid a smile. “Ya god dang scalawag.”
“It was either that’er Billy Butthole.”
“Dang, yeah, that one’s good tew . . .” Gritt silently admired Shark’s enterprising spirit.
“I push a mop a few nights a week,” said Shark, “but really I’s been waitin fer a chance to rob this place blind. Make off with as many bags’a blow as I can carry and head fer the fuckin hills!”
Shark shifted his weight onto his dominant leg. He put his hands on his wide-ass hips. “Figured ya’d come sniffin ‘round sooner or later, Gritt. Hell, took yew longer than I thought.”
“Well I’m freakin here now, ain’t I?”
“Sure are. Ya look good, Gritt. Like you got some sun or sumthin. Last time I saws ya, yew wuz whiter’n a ghost’s dick in a paper factory. Whatchu been gittin into, ya freakin trickster?”
“Been kickin it with a buncha babes in the tropics, baby. What else?”
Shark dipped a rusted Ford Pinto key into a bag of cocaine and held it up to Gritt’s nose.
“Thank ye kindly,” said Gritt. He flexed his prostate.
Gritt unhinged his nostril like a python’s maw and thunderously snorted the key clean, the echoes of which shook the halls of Hell far below.
“Diggity damn! This shit is great!”
“As if Christ kissed it, my friend,” said Shark.
Gritt leaned in close to Shark. “But listen, Oprah Winfrey, let’s save the fuckin small talk fer when we’re sittin pretty on a big-ass stack’a ‘caine.” Gritt scratched a mosquito bite on his buttcheek with the muzzle of a cheap 38-caliber revolver. “We can take this bitch ta’night. Are ya armed or aren’tcha?”
“Ya mean ‘sides my banana peelers?” Shark flexed his muscular fingers. “The hell kinda question is that, Gritt? ‘Course I’m fuckin armed. Yew don’t even wanna know where I’m hidin guns on this big-ass body’a mine. And baby, trust me, what I’m packin is a helluva lot meaner than that little Saturday Night Special ya got there. Where’d ya pick up that turd popper anyway? A one-peso store in Tijuana?”
“As a matter’a fact I did,” said Gritt proudly. “Best dang peso I ever spent in my whole damn life, tew. This’n right here is one’uv them ‘Don’t judge a porno by its VHS sleeve’ sorta deals. Just yew wait.”
Shark grinned. He folded his arms and shook his head playfully.
“Whatchu smilin ‘bout over yonder, ya turd?” said Gritt.
“Yew,” said Shark. “Jus listenin tew ya talk. Been tew damn long, man. I wuz jus thinkin there ain’t no point in livin if yew ‘n me ain’t fightin’a common enemy ta’gether. I git restless, ya know? I miss’d ya, partner. That’s all.”
Gritt and Shark put their hands on each other’s big-ass shoulders. They leaned forward till their heads met in the hallowed space between their overripe bodies. They closed their eyes.
“Brothers till the fuckin end, Shark,” said Gritt.
“Brothers till the fuckin end, Gritt,” said Shark.
• • •
Gritt and Shark charged through the volcanic tunnels with their weapons drawn. They were feeling downright dippy. It felt good to be working together again. For these two friends, their work was all they ever really had. The peaks came when the gunfire erupted and the blood ran. Everything else was a valley as deep as the ocean and piled high with fermented dog turds.
“Down yonder,” said Shark, “is the central production chamber. Now, that’s where them robots is pumpin out them big ol bags’a blow ‘round the fuckin clock. Shouldn’t be much resistance at this hour. Night crew’s light. Rest’a them fuckers is a-sleepin in they bunks.” Shark thought for a moment. He seemed to recall something. A crinkle of a smile unfurled at the corners of his big-ass mouth. “Or rather, they would be sleepin, if’n this were any other dang night, which it most certainly ain’t . . .”
“Ya gunna tell me whatcher upta, ya trickster?”
Shark snickered. “Hell, I gassed them boys hours ago. Hoo!”
“Nicely done,” said Gritt, still charging ahead. “What’d ya use?”
“Just pumped in some good ol fuckin fashioned see-oh, my brother. Now that’s scientist talk for carb’on monoxide. Shit’ll kill yew quick. Them geeks wuz meetin their maker ‘fore their first wet dream.”
“In a way ya kinda did’em a favor,” said Gritt. “Not a bad way ta go: in yer pee-jays with yer dick half-chubed, dreamin ‘bout boobs ‘n butts or some such thing. Most of us don’t git that luxury. Shit.”
“Better’n dealin with us, that’s fer damn sure!” Shark playfully slapped Gritt’s buttcheek.
“How much farther? If ya git any lighter in them loafers, I’m afraid yer gunna float away.” Gritt smiled.
“‘Nother fifteen yards or so. Hold up.” Shark hooked one of Gritt’s belt loops and gave him a good tug. The huge man halted in his tracks. “What’s the fuckin game plan here, big daddy? We goin in dicks-a-swingin or what?”
Gritt wiped his forehead and lit the end of his opium pipe. He took a long drag and licked his lips. “Everythang on tew legs dies ta’night,” he said. “Pretty simple, Shark. ‘Cept . . . if we happen ta come ‘cross some Kraut in a business suit—well, pin ‘im to the wall if ya gotta, let the sumbitch squirm—but ye be leavin his final judgment ta me. That fucker’s mine.”
Gritt passed the opium pipe to Shark.
“Some Kraut, yew say?” Shark blew an opium smoke ring. “Yeah. I know ‘im. Dude’s in charge here. Big fuckin asshole. I been pissin on his sammiches fer months.” He elbowed Gritt in the ribcage. “But knowin them Krauts, he prob’ly prefers piss-soaked sammich bread!”
“Shark,” said Gritt gravely. “That Kraut—” He paused and collected himself. “That Kraut is part’a some kinda Nat-zee syndicate that wants ta . . .” Gritt paused. He gazed into nothingness for what seemed like a long while.
“Wants ta what, Gritt? Spit it out, ya dickhole!”
Gritt struggled to keep his composure. Finally he spoke to his friend with quivering lips:
“Shark, they want ta blow up the Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce factory.”
A joint fell out of Shark’s mouth. His eyes were huge and empty. Gritt thought he saw a tear roll down Shark’s tanned cheek. “Forgive my fuckin ignorance on this’n,” said Shark finally, his neck-veins pulsing, “but yer gunna have ta explain ta me why the fuck someone would ever want ta hurt Poppa Creole and his bomb-ass Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce.”
Gritt resisted hugging Shark. “When’s the last time a Kraut made any god dang sense to yew, brother?” he said. “Ya know they’s all pervs ‘n weirdos.”
“I got bile bubblin up my throat, hombre,” said Shark. He tilted his head back. “I ain’t even kiddin. Shit, I’m gunna need a minute.”
“Be strong, Shark. Fer me.”
“Hate ‘em, Gritt,” said Shark. He ran his hands through his dirty blonde mutton chops. “Krauts, that is. They tried ta wipe out God’s chosen people, and now they’s tryin ta wipe out God’s chosen BBQ sauce. When’s someone gunna come along and wipe thems out?”
“Yer upset, Shark. I git that. But what yer talkin ‘bout here is genocide.”
“So it’s all fine ‘n fuckin dandy fer them ta dew it? Hell, they wrote the fuckin book on it, brother. Wut if they got some kinda defect in their brains? History is loud and clear on Krauts, Gritt. They started two world wars and they’s nuthin but a buncha square-jawed psychopaths.”
“I dropped outta social studies once, Shark. Don’t make me dew it again.”
“All I’m sayin is, no more Krauts, no more genocide.”
“This, comin from the guy who had a poster of three-time Olympic gold medalist Klaus Himmelfarb tacked to the wall over his bunk all through fuckin basic trainin. Himmelfarb was a Kraut. Think he should be wiped out tew?”
“I admire Klaus Himmelfarb in spite of his Krautness, not because of it.”
“Man commits sin, Shark. Kraut ain’t nothin but a man. Don’t matter where we bury our turds at night. We’re all the same. We’re all guilty of sumthin . . .”
“Gritt, thing ‘bout Krauts is—”
“Figures,” said Gritt, turning away. “I fumble through some god dang conflict resolution and ya give me shit every step’uv the way.”
Shark thought for a moment. Then, with a trembling hand, he reached into his microfiber boxer briefs and took out a bottle of Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce. He held it close to his war-torn chest. “When Mingyu tossed my Purps, all I could think was, ‘Wut if it’d been my bottle of Poppa Creole . . . ?’”
“Don’t talk like that, Shark,” said Gritt. He rested his hand on a nearby wall and sighed. “Yer just gunna upset us both.”
“I don’t know wut I woulda done, man.” Shark unscrewed the cap and held the bottle beneath his nostrils. Gently he sniffed at the delicious vapors. The medley of secret herbs and spices made his nose hairs sing. He used his thighs to tuck back a ballooning erection. “They’da had ta kill me, Gritt. And I woulda let ‘em, tew.”
Gritt sensed the aromas. Tucking back his own erection, he spun around. “Put that thang a’way, man. Keep it safe.” Gritt gently clasped Shark’s hands around the bottle of BBQ sauce. “We’re gunna end that Kraut fucker, Shark. Me ‘n yew. Jus like old fuckin times. Ya hears? Hain’t nobody gunna blow up the Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce factory. Not on my fuckin watch. I promise yew that, broheim.”
Shark stuffed the bottle into his microfiber boxer briefs. He looked up at Gritt and seemed to be at ease now. “Yer a good fuckin friend, Gritt. Ya know that?”
“I need ya, brother. Cain’t do it alone. Don’t wanna dew it alone. Zip up them panties ‘n let’s give them boys hell, jus like we always dew. Lead the fuck on, Iron Gate.” Gritt winked. His glass eyeball seeped out of its socket.
Shark took a grenade off his tactical desert-camo vest and badger-tugged the pin out with the brim of his burly butthole.
• • •
Ducking behind two boulders near the entrance of the central production facility, Gritt and Shark watched as hundreds of machines toiled unfeelingly in the dim cavity of the volcano. An incomprehensibly vast room unfolded before them. The hum of repetition was all around: pouring, mixing, refrigerating—all powered by a seemingly endless ocean of siphoned lava leagues beneath the volcano. It was the largest cocaine operation the world had ever known. Both men were half crazy and three-quarters chubbed.
Gritt wiped the drool from the corners of his mouth. It oozed into his matted black beard. “Hearts ‘n souls alive, man!” he whispered. “Lookit all that ‘caine!”
“Seen it ev’ry damn day, brother,” said smiling Shark. “Never gits old. Nope, it sure don’t.” He glanced down at Gritt’s rapidly ballooning crotchular region. “Dang, cowboy! Ya better fasten that there’n beluga whale’a yers or I reckon yer gunna blow out the crotch of them sweet pants ya got on!”
“Oh, shit—” Gritt hastily unfastened his belt and threaded it between his thighs to create a sort of makeshift boner-sling. Soon his erection was tamed but not even Gritt himself knew for how long.
“Take a gander at them boys up there,” said Shark. He pointed his pistol at a row of steel walkways hung from the ceiling. Several guards were lazily pacing about, weapons slung over their backs. “Checked the watch log earlier this eve’nin. Should only be about a thirty or so of ‘em wanderin ‘round. Prolly fifteen up top, fifteen below. Them coke robots run themselves. And them grab-ass butt-pickers with the machine guns earn a livin wage sniffin theys own farts, more or less.”
“Yeah I know how that song goes,” said Gritt. He was analyzing the layout of the room while doing kegels. “Let’s flank ‘em, I reckon . . . double-decker these queef salads right good. Ya want top or bottom?”
Shark squinted his eyes and smiled. “I’m goin in doggy-style. Yew dew yer swingin, Tarzan. I’ll sneak up on ‘em from here.” He unsheathed his Bowie knife. “Been wantin to slice ‘n dice some of these cheesedicks fer a while. Few of ‘em cheated at last week’s poker game, I jus know it . . .” Shark pictured himself in bed with Dolly Parton.
Gritt watched as a robotic arm dumped a bucket of white powder into a massive steel vat. A rotating hook descended from an overhanging crane and began churning the contents of the vat like cake batter.
“Dang,” he said.
“Ya want a bump’a nose candy ‘fore we crush these fools?”
“Don’t mind if I fuckin dew. ’Tis the season . . .” said Gritt. He aimed his nose at the ceiling and breathed in the fetid volcanic air. “Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow. . . .”
Shark shoved his blade into a baggie packed to the gills with the purest cocaine money could buy. He scooped up enough to put a clydesdale into a coma. “Git a load’a these Christmas cookies, brother.” He held the blade beneath Gritt’s upturned nose.
Gritt, eyes closed in deep meditation, inhaled every last ghostly molecule like the old master he was.
“What is a flag?” said Gritt moodily. His eyes were still closed. “A symbol of popular lies, I reckon.” He lifted his leathery eyelids halfway. He gazed into the nothing he saw before him. “Woulda died fer them stars and stripes. Watched a lotta men dew jus that. All the terrible things we man-apes have done ta meat, Shark. All the sins we have committed in the dark. Picassos of carnage, that’s all we is.” Gritt outstretched his arms as if grasping at all of human existence. “And here we are, at the end of all things, imprisoned in this hell we have wrought, imbued with the dreams of our sleepin forebears, and gone mad knowing we have squandered the sum of our collective experiences. Our ancestors crawled on their hands and knees through the horrors of time and space so we could . . . sell a few more cans’uv Coca-Cola. . . .”
“I have gone to dark places and have seen the dark things growin there. I tried ta see the world fer what it was. I tried ta live inside of it. All in vain.” He exhaled deeply. “All in vain.”
“Age gits inta ya, Shark, one way or another. Curls up in yer lungs and stays there. Hell.”
Gritt opened his eyes. His pupils were big black holes. He stood up and took his shotgun off his back. “Let’s git this over with. I’m old, Shark. I’m tired.”
“At your signal, brother bear.”
“Hand me that ‘nade.”
Shark, fingers still squeezing the lever of the grenade, transferred the small explosive to his best friend Gritt Calhoon.
Gritt snatched it up right quick. He examined the shape of the thing and decided it was agreeable to him. “A steel pineapple,” he said. “Fruit of the Doomed.” He narrowed his eyes at Shark and gave a sharp nod.
Shark “Iron Gate” Gladiator, once-Angel of Death for the U.S. government and permanent righthand man to the dark agencies scarcely known to mortal men, vacuumed up a snowball of cocaine with his big huge hungry nostrils. His face went numb. “Happy birthday, Sharky,” he said as the dust hit his brain. His body got tingly and weird and he liked it.
He bit down on the blade of his Bowie knife and rolled out of cover. Crazed, wild-eyed, and crouching low, he sped onto a path through the city of cold machinery in search of a few more witless chumps to deliver to the void.
Gritt periscoped his ears toward his friend’s murderous trajectory. He held his breath and waited. Within seconds he heard that old familiar sound: the death-gurgle of a newly-slashed throat. Shark was on the loose and there was no stopping him now.
Dang. Butcher just clocked inta work. Gritt chuckled. Time ta git my ass topside ‘n lookit what I’m werkin with.
Gritt spied a chain dangling from the ceiling. He rushed to it and gripped the thing tight. With one arm he hoisted his meat up into the air. Gritt hung there like god made of Frankensteined filet mignons. He took Sin Daddy Slim from his back-holster and held it loosely with his free arm. It was racked and ready; so too was gloomy Gritt.
One of the guards—an inert, low-functioning, dopey-looking homo sapien of which there existed billions—stood on the cantilevered walkway holding a fifteen-inch holo-screen as bright as the sun an inch from his face. He laughed dumbly at whatever miserable picture show played out beneath his sad gaze. Gritt squinted his eyes and saw that the man was simultaneously watching ten different television channels at once, half of them six-second looping clips of hardcore pornography.
World ain’t gunna miss this buttwipe, thought Gritt. What’s a few more bones fer the fires of Hell . . . ?
Gritt remembered how, in the old days, kill lines at slaughterhouses were zigzagged. That way the animal—be it a cow or a pig, both long since extinct now—could not see its own impending doom, which otherwise lay straight ahead. Such is life, thought Gritt. Sprinkle in a few twists and turns and Death disappears from view—but of course it is always there. You can’t see it coming until it is your turn to face the music.
D’ye hear the music? thought Gritt. He watched the guard breathe his last breath. Lonely (lowly) creature; he does not hear the wail of the Reaper, so lovely is His song. . . .
A thousand black pellets flew from the barrel of Gritt’s shotgun and burrowed into the macaroni-textured flesh of the guard. He dropped dead. In the span of a second a whole human life became little else than overtime for the janitor.
Shark was neatly stacking bodies by a ventilation duct when he heard the roar of Gritt’s sorrow. “Pop goes the fuckin weasel,” he said. Glancing toward the ceiling he saw Gritt hanging from the chain pulley. “Now there’s a flag I’ll sa’lute.”
Shark saluted Gritt’s colossal body with utter solemnity.
The guards who were still alive, now aware of intruders, sounded an alarm. They took aim at the mountain of meatloaf who had seconds before felled their brainless colleague. Machine gun fire erupted in the hollow heart of volcano.
Furious Gritt swung his dreaded flesh back and forth on his steel vine. With enough momentum he intended to fly. In the meantime he used Sin Daddy’s scattershot functionality to deflect the gunfire headed his way.
“O! midnight phantom!” shouted prodigious Gritt. “Guide my fuckin hand!” Gritt was on a powerful arching backswing, his boots nearly touching his spine. He hurled himself into the air and descended upon the walkway like the ossified innards of a prehistoric septic tank that he was. A few bullets grazed his hulking biceps; one entered his shoulder and went right back out again. Gritt felt nothing. He didn’t even bleed.
Two guards came careening down the grated walkway as fifty-thousand gallons of synthetic cocaine whirlpooled beneath them. Gritt planted himself heavily upon their path.
“Hold it!” said one of men, speaking with a faint German accent. “Hold it right ‘zayr!”
Gritt smiled as he whacked both men in the stomach with the butt of his shotgun. They flailed backwards and Gritt gorilla-choked them both with his bare hands. Showing no emotion whatsoever, he tossed their corpses over the side of the railing and into the cocaine vat below and sprinted ahead.
“Shark! Ya down there or what?”
“Yeah baby!” He gave Gritt a thumbs-up before stabbing a man in the throat.
“Ya god dang miscreant!” Gritt shook his head as he galloped across the grating. He glanced between his swiftly-moving thighs. There, thirty feet beneath his dick and boots, was his old friend Shark, doing what he did best. He didn’t say so just then, but the truth was that he was a great admirer Shark’s work. Always had been. “Save some fer me!” he said.
Gritt farted euphorically. The great booming sound echoed in the deepest chambers of the volcano at a decibel level not heard since dinosaurs walked the earth.
“Plenty’a turds left fer the pickin,” said Shark as he stomped on a man’s chest, shattering his ribcage as though it were made of glass. “A fine harvest this year. Yeeehaw!”
Gritt realized he still had Shark’s grenade in his hand. A group of guards brandishing riot shields were setting up a sort of barricade dead ahead. They were taking potshots at Gritt’s chest but he cartwheeled right through them. During one of his bodily rotations he let the grenade slip from his fingers and roll away. Gritt began counting in his head. At the three-second mark he launched himself toward an exposed steel beam bolted to the ceiling and gripped the sides with his fingers.
The grenade tumbled toward the men with their riot shields. There was a deafening sound and a horrible flash of light. A white-hot fireball ballooned outward in the center of the walkway and consumed the surrounding matter in its wake.
Gritt smiled grimly. It was the only reaction that seemed appropriate; it came to him without any thought. His eyes mirrored the destruction. He hung there, breathing but spiritually dead, feeling the flames lick at his kevlar boot heels like hungry puppies. Glancing down, Gritt saw that a dagger of shrapnel was embedded in his great gut. It had pierced what Shark called the “iron gate” of a man—those ferocious abdominal muscles that countless men had quietly admired and countless women had run their hands over in the darkness of some strange night. The gates were wide open. Gritt felt no discomfort. A thin unbroken superhighway of black blood drooled out of the wound and, with no other choice, obeyed gravity. It continued down his leg and pooled in the heel-cup of his boot. It was warm and Gritt liked that it was warm.
Television, Gritt thought. It was all just television anymore. And no one has gotten up to change the channel in a long time. He saw the gaping hole in the twisted screaming architecture that had only seconds before been a sky-path for the factory workers. Never again would they hover over the world inside the volcano, clipboard in hand, and monitor the machines which gave life to a miracle substance that renewed a man when he could no longer feel anything for himself.
All Gritt had to do was let go and he’d plummet into a creamy vat of the stuff far below. For a moment he considered it. Time crawled, maybe even stopped. He forgot all about the mission, about Shark, about Benicio. His body was way the hell up there. His arms were stretched as far as they would go. He was bleeding out. Mistletoe for the doomed . . . a tired bloody mess. That was Gritt Calhoon just then.
He thought he heard gunfire beneath him. It felt like a million miles away. A man’s voice cut through the din.
“G-r-i-t-t!” said the voice. It was vast and whale-like.
Gritt blinked. In his mind it took a year for his eyelids to slam shut and reopen. Another year passed when he looked up at his arms, both inflamed, dipped in hellbroth, bulging with scarred veins. God only knew how much longer he could hold on.
“Huh.” Gritt drooped his head like a drunken elephant. His body swayed. The ground was getting closer. There was a whoosh of hot air. In his mind he saw little neon shapes dismantling and reassembling themselves over and over. He thought it was beautiful; he thought he would throw up. He saw Andy’s face. He saw the wars. The smoldering ashes of jungle villages. Tanks on fire. Screams. Helicopters. Napalm. Christmas morning. Birthday parties. Little Andy. The dark highway. The wreck. We’ve done all we can, Sergeant Major Calhoon. An empty hospital bed. His hand on the casket.
Gritt was falling fast. He hoped the earth would swallow him whole when he reached it. Someplace dark, he thought. Anywhere as long as it was dark.
In the next instant Gritt was inches from a skull shaped like an upside-down ziggurat. The face was wreathed in a black halo of smoke. Gritt tried to see inside. He could see nothing.
“Spirit, where am I?” he said.
A dying star appeared in the center of Gritt’s vision. It was the size of a marble. Gritt recalled enough of the ephemeral realm to know that he was staring at the muted ember of a blunt. The fire gave the skull definition, illuminating its features. Like a gnarled enchanted tree it unfurled and came to life. It was Shark.
Shark lightly slapped Gritt’s perspiring cheek.
“Hombre!” The dying star between his lips bloomed as he inhaled. “Ya gotta wake up!” Shark cradled Gritt in his arms. He was running and shooting blindly at the armed men who hid in the darkness—men who had been too weak to conceptualize the existence of the juggernauts invading their factory. They would die tonight, surely, all of them—and soon. There was no way around it. That they even bothered to fight was evidence of the failure of their imaginations. Gritt and Shark, in many regards, were men who had been worn down and worn away; but in spite of the ocean of pain they had endured, and the many scars they had acquired, they were victors over flesh. Not of their own, but of everyone else’s. Anyone who stood in their way lived just long enough to know that much.
Shark bent down and laid Gritt out on a slab of concrete next to one of the cocaine vats. They were out of the line of fire. Shark tore his acid-soaked bandana off his head and fashioned it into a makeshift tourniquet. He snapped off the shrapnel in Gritt’s beastly stomach and squirted a gallon of medical superglue into the wound. Every few seconds he leaned out of cover and popped off a few rounds to keep the dogs at bay.
Gritt pinched the wound shut and let the glue do the rest.
“Them fuckers got some sort of trainin mentality kickin in right ‘bout now,” said Shark. He scoffed. “And I would know. I read the same damn manual.”
Gritt, honeycombed in a fit of delirium, knew Shark was fibbing. He knew Shark couldn’t read for shit. But Gritt kept quiet. His friend was a good soldier with supernatural instincts. Cain’t read about instinct in a book anyway, thought Gritt. A man is born with it in his brain or he deludes himself inta thankin it can be got off the chalkboard. In the end, the true warriors will stalk theys prey on the ruins of lib’raries and on the forgotten graves of academics.
“These cheese-eaters is gunna try ta pinch us in.” Shark was dabbing at Gritt’s wound with an adult-size diaper he’d had in his pocket. “We gotta move, brother. Can ya stand?”
“Stand what? Yer smell? God dang, Shark! Yew sure that’s a clean diaper?”
“See if I save yer butt again, ya jerk. Do ya knows a lotta people who would rush ta catch yer big dumb ass as it fell from the freakin ceiling? All the while dodgin hot lead? ‘Cuz I sure as hell don’t!”
“Relax, Shark. I’s jus bustin them big ol coconuts’a yers.” Gritt sat up and playfully smacked Shark’s testicles with his bandaged hand. “Thanks, partner.”
Shark was reloading. “Had ta go ‘n throw that ‘nade, didn’t ya? Nearly burnt my pubes off with that ‘splosion. Ya god dang’d punk!” He smiled and put his hand on Gritt’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “Glad yer all right, brother. Thought ya’d finally gone cuckoo fer freakin Cocoa Puffs up there.”
“Me tew, Shark. Me tew.”
Shark unclipped a morphine stick from his bandolier and tossed it to Gritt. Gritt bit off the plastic cap with rotten teeth and slammed the pointed end into his perspiring buttcheek.
“So what’s the werd, turd? We gunna git on with it and finish the damn thing?”
“I reckon so.”
Shark hooked Gritt’s arm and gave him a yank. Gritt wasn’t on his feet for five seconds before the excrement hit the fan.
There was a crash of static feedback on the factory’s PA system. A man cleared his throat into the mic and then spoke.
“Good evening, my darlings,” he said. He had the voice of a middle-aged Brit who more than likely had a bidet installed on every toilet in his house.
“Thought yews said a Kraut wuz in charge here?” whispered Gritt.
“Maybe he wuz fakin. Yew knows them Jerries is snakes, Gritt. They’ll bite’cha when ya turn ya butt on ‘em. Hell, I ain’t gotta tell yew that.”
“Gritt Calhoon . . . and . . . let’s see, what does it say here . . . ah yes, Buck Bighorn. Or should I say . . . Shark Gladiator. Did I pronounce your names correctly, chaps?”
“Not even close!” screamed Gritt. He farted and fired his shotgun at the same time. “That’s how ya say my name! Ya got that?!”
“Bravo on the falsified papers, Mr. Gladiator,” said the voice. “Really, charming stuff. Up until now you’ve done a fine job for us here at the factory, but I see you’ve had a change of heart. Mr. Calhoon appears to be a bad influence on you. Pity, my boy. Pity.”
“Can it, Kraut!” said Shark. “We knows yer a Nat-zee!”
“A Nazi! My, my—now, there’s a first. I assume you are referring to the German accent I sometimes employ?”
“Keep yer squirrelly Kraut hands off God’s chosen people!”
“Mr. Gladiator, I assure you my—as you so charmingly put it—Kraut accent is authentic. You see I was born to English parents, but raised in Munich. Occasionally it slips out.”
“Yews sayin yews an Anglo then?” said Gritt. “Make up yer fuckin mind, Kraut!”
“Yeah, Kraut,” said Shark. “Know where I’m from? The great state of Wyoming. Know what I am? American. See how simple it can be when ya put down yer fuckin tea ‘n crumpets and get real fer once? God dang!”
Gritt and Shark had their backs to the cold steel of a cocaine vat. Both men were armed and ready to shred the thing—whatever the thing was—as soon as it lurched into view. It was the only philosophy they had ever known.
“Let’s smoke this fish-n-chips-eatin Kraut,” said Shark. He clawed a fat wad of stale chewing tobacco out of his bellybutton and lined his bottom lip with it. “This pretend Kraut. This fake Kraut. How sad is that? Who pretends ta be a Kraut? I cain’t stand this fuckin dingleberry!”
Gritt nodded solemnly. His face was twisted and barbaric. It looked like a Japanese oni mask carved out of deer meat. He held his hand out toward Shark and the men exchanged a secret handshake so grotesque in its perversion of taste and decency that it had, in the past, put old women in the hospital, and sent old men to their graves.
“Well chaps, I think we’ve all had enough fun for tonight. Why don’t we stop these silly games? What say you, lads?”
Shark began counting down from three with his fingers. Just as Gritt and Shark were about to break out of cover and attack, Gritt heard a child’s voice on the intercom. A black streak of terror shot down his spine.
The voice was Benicio’s.
“Señor Gritt!” said Benicio. “I have been captured!” It sounded like he was in pain. Gritt felt sick.
“Baby boy!” cried Gritt. “Pinocchio! Papa’s here! Talk ta me! Where is ya!” He sidestepped around the vat with his finger on Sin Daddy’s hair-trigger. He probed the shadows high and low. The firing had stopped. The guards had retreated. Gritt was paranoid as hell. What kind of shakedown was this? he wondered.
“My guards found this little brat wandering the halls,” said the Brit. “Shame, really. Bloody shame. Because now I’m afraid I have no other choice but to kill him. That is—unless you leave here immediately.”
“Yew dirty stinkin Kraut!” said Gritt. His eyes were pinwheeling with fury as he lunged across the factory floor on legs so thick and so juicy they could have held up the Parthenon.
Shark ran after Gritt and got ahead of him. He lead the way. “I know where they’s broadcastin from,” he said. “Hain’t far! Follow close!”
Gritt addressed the formless threat: “Don’tcha dare lay a fanger on that boy! Boy ain’t done nuthin wrong!”
“Ya said yerself that they wuz pervs, Gritt.”
“Not now, Shark. That Kraut is holdin my friend hostage.”
“Thought yews came alone.”
“Naw. Met this little turd on the beach ‘n he helped me git here. We gotta save ‘im, Shark. He jus a boy. And a good one at that. He’s . . . he’s almost like a son ta me. Hell, yew know I ain’t good at explain thangs. But it’s true, man. True as I can fuckin tell anyways . . . ”
“Say no more, compadre,” said Shark. He guzzled down a two-liter bottle of cough syrup. “We’ll git yer little turd friend back. Even if he does kinda sound like fuckin Pee-wee Herman.”
Shark led Gritt up a flight of gold-gilded stairs that terminated at a doorway carved out of the rocky wall of the volcano. He stopped on the final stair and turned around. “They’s in here. This is where that Kraut holes up ‘n jerks off or some such thang.” He spit out a thick wad of chew that had lost its kick.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the Brit over the PA. “It would be bad news for that poor chap you rode in with. Bloody, bloody Christmas, old boy. That sort of thing.”
Gritt glared at the surveillance camera pointed at the door. “Whatchu want from me, Kraut? My undies? My life? My soul? Hell, yew can have all three. Hain’t much left but I reckon ya can make dew with the crumbs. Jus hand o’ver the boy, ya cheese-eatin ratfuck coward!”
“Bloody hell, chap! You’ve really cocked this one up! Is this how things work on the floating island of rubbish once called the United States of America? Do you Americans . . . break into another man’s house, kill his family, steal his belongings, and make demands under some deluded pretense of honor?”
“Historically, yes,” said Shark.
“Big werds comin from a fuckin redcoat,” said Gritt.
“A redcoat! Ho ho! Jolly good, that. What a queer thing: a Nazi dressed in an Englishman’s uniform!”
“Seen stranger thangs,” said Gritt, clenching his jaw. A fragment of his back molar broke off and Gritt swallowed it.
“And—if you play nice and leave now, you shall live to see stranger things yet, I’ve no doubt. Now away with you, Yank! Good day!”
“Open up, Kraut!” Gritt violently jiggled the knob of the locked door. He beat his blood-crusted fist against the side but it wouldn’t give. “I mean it! Open up!”
“Not on your life, boy-oh. Take your popguns and clear out. You won’t get a better deal than that. I have no intention of killing you, Mr. Calhoon. But if you persist with this silly nonsense I will hurt this boy. What a damn shame it would be. A damn shame, I say.”
“Heard jus ‘bout enough of this horseshit,” said Shark. He slid down the railing on his big butt and approached one of the many cocaine cisterns near the stairwell. He holstered his weapon. Clenching his fist, he reared his veiny arm back and rocket-slammed it into the side of the thick steel. A hole burst open and out came a torrent of white powder. Like a kitten laps water from a running faucet, Shark inhaled the stream of cocaine as it torpedoed out of the fist-shaped opening he had created out of hatred.
Gritt hurled himself down the flight of stairs toward the cocaine eruption. He joined Shark in nose-siphoning the good stuff with his wide-ass nostrils. In no time both men had inhaled nearly half their body weight in crystalized madness. Gritt flexed his traps and his delts and howled like a Pagan in a rainstorm. Shark got on all fours and, panting wildly, began slapping the back of his neck with his palm as hard as he could.
“Ta’gether!” shouted almighty Gritt.
Shark stood up, devoured the contents of an unmarked pill bottle, and pledged allegiance to his friend: “Hail thee, Gritt Calhoon! Lead on!”
“We juiced! Now let’s knock this sumbitch down!”
Gritt and Shark, sweaty and wild, chest to chest, nipple to nipple, formed their bodies into one hideous mass of monstrous meat. Like a battering ram forged in Hell and hellbent, their united flesh charged up the stairs huffing and shrieking. The door never had a chance. It burst inwards and snapped off the frame at its hinges.
The two friends detached from each other and flung themselves into tactical positions on either side of the room. Gritt racked Sin Daddy and Shark slipped on his brass knuckles. Their chests heaved. They waited.
“For shit’s sake! You fools!” said the Brit. He was a tall, pale, ordinary-looking man in an expensive suit. He stood behind a large oaken desk with Benicio in a headlock and a pistol pointed at the boy’s temple. “Are you blind, or just stupid? I have no qualms taking this grubby little urchin’s life! You stay right where you bloody are!”
“Yew hurt that boy ‘n I’m rippin yer skeleton outta yer butthole feet first,” said Gritt. He flashed his canines.
“Yeah,” said Shark, “and then I’m gunna build ya a new one outta calcified sauerkraut. Brick by brick, Kraut, I will rebuild ye, only to break yew down again. And I don’t think ya want that. I ain’t no Prometheus, neither. More like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor.”
Shark smacked his fist into his open palm. It made a sound that reminded Gritt and Shark of boning and they both laughed.
“I haven’t the slightest damn clue what any of that even means!” cried the Brit. “Calcified sauerkraut . . . Tim Tool Man . . . you raving lunatics! Stay back!” A vertical stream of straw-colored urine came trickling down his leg. He was shaking badly now, all full of fear. The gun was vibrating against the side of Benicio’s skull.
“Señor Calhoon I am scared!” said Benicio.
“Little buddy!” said Gritt. He still had his shotgun pointed at the Brit’s head. “My little baby buddy boy! Yew jus fuckin sit tight! Gritt’s right ‘ere with ya! Hain’t never gunna let no harm come yer ways!”
Benicio clenched his eyes tight and had an intense psychedelic flashback to the night his parents were murdered. He attempted to extinguish the painful memories but it was no use. As Gritt Calhoon would have told him, those things never go away forever, not really. They suck on your fingers and toes, on the backs of your eyes, on your brainstem . . . they haunt you till the inside of your head becomes nothing more than an empty theater displaying the same bad movie over and over. You are shackled to a chair, center row, fixed on a thing that never fades but only warps and grows larger and brighter and louder as time goes on.
“Wuts it gunna be, Kraut?” said Shark. “Cuz we’s about to Yankee Doodle Dandy yer dumb ass inta oblivion!”
“You made up my mind for me when you brought violence to my factory, Mr. Gladiator. This was a peaceful operation! We provide a service to the world—we provide it with cocaine! And you . . . you heedless brutes! You want to put an end to it all!”
Shark and Gritt glanced at each other and raised their eyebrows.
“Kraut,” said Gritt, “ya best shut that fool mouth’a yers. Hain’t neither of us got nuthin ‘gainst ‘caine. Fer shit’s sake man. Quite the fuckin contrary, as yew redcoats would say. We came here ta score a buttload that disco dust, not destroy it.”
Shark shook his head in disgust. “Jeepers creepers, ya turd.”
“I know all about the meeting you had with my cousin on the beach. You can’t fool me, Mr. Calhoon.”
Gritt pointed to the thick layer of white dust on his face. “Did’ja somehow overlook this? I ain’t no geisha ya know. This here’s blow, baby. As fer yer Kraut cousin, well—he didn’t git a chance ta ‘splain much, if’n ya catch my fuckin meanin. Stomped his Kraut ass right good, I did, on account’a ‘im disrespectin the shit outta me.”
“I am aware, my dear boy.”
“And ya ain’t the least bit sad ‘bout it? Dang, dude.”
“I loved my cousin. But we . . . we disagreed on many things.”
“He told me to shut yer dumb ass down. And that wuz the only thang we agree’d on.”
“Yes, old boy, I am sure he did. Lutz was always more loyal to the investors than he was to his own family. Pity, pity. For damn sure.”
“Yew talkin bout that room fulla pecker suckers? Them limp-wristed architects of the Turd Reich?”
“I presume you are referring to the board? Oh, yes. To hell with the board.”
Shark was getting antsy. “The fuck is this, Gritt? Let’s waste this Kraut. He’s jus buyin time. He knows we ain’t gunna let ‘im live. Yew ‘n me rolled in here like a coupla juiced-up junkyard puppies and he’s god dang scurred as hell about it.”
Gritt held up his fist. “Cool it, Shark. Believe yew me, brother, there ain’t nuthin more disgraceful to my ears than listenin ta some tea-and-crumpets motherfucker butcher the English language, but I gotta git to the bottom’a this’n. Shit’s fishy, man.”
“Gritt Calhoon the diplomat,” muttered Shark. “Now I’ve gone ’n seen everythang.”
Gritt shot Shark a menacing look. “Proceed, Kraut,” he said.
“There is no flag down here, Mr. Calhoon. No national anthem. No military. No governing body. The rules do not apply here. You have seen the rest of the world. You have seen what so-called civilized men have turned it into: a toxic trash heap filled with lies and broken promises. Explorers and scientists have been coming to Antarctica for centuries. They left their wives and their warm beds behind. And why on earth would they do that, old chap? It is as dead as the moon here.”
The Brit took the gun away from Benicio’s head and set it on the desk before him. He could see that he was appealing to Gritt’s libertarian sensibilities.
“Man rejects utopia, Mr. Calhoon. Nothing will ever be enough for him. Is that not why you have spent your whole life killing? You weren’t fighting for freedom, old boy. Surely not. You were fighting because the emptiness compelled you to. And it will again, and again, and again . . .”
“Can it, Billy Shakespeare. Yew and yer grandstandin ’n yer hot-dogging is makin me question the choices I’s made in life,” said Gritt. He twitched his nose. “And I don’t like it.”
“The men you killed out there—in the factory. Those were my men. Those were . . .” The Brit swept his hand across Benicio’s forehead in a way that Gritt found revolting. “Those were my boys, Mr. Calhoon. I never had much of a family, you see. That is why I make my home in Antarctica. I wanted to start a family away from judgment . . . away from the cruelty of civilization. Who is to define what a family really entails? Truthfully, cocaine means nothing to me. It is simply a way for me to provide for my family.”
“This is gittin kinda fruity, Gritt.” Shark shifted uncomfortably on his monstrous legs and silently passed a kidney stone.
“Yeah. And why ain’tcha pissed as hell that me ‘n my buddy Shark here jus sent all them boys’a yers on a one-way trip ta the Grim Reaper’s screaming black bosom? Where theys will forevermore nourish themselves upon the bitter milk of eternity . . . ?”
“Puppies grow up to be dogs, old boy. It’s the bloody truth. And dogs must be put down. I am sentimental of my boys, make no mistake. But once they became men . . . it wasn’t the same, if you understand me. It’s just not the same when they’re all grown up.”
Gritt felt the dark truth of the man’s words hover over him like a phantom made of horse farts. Sweat oozed from his dirt-clogged pores. “Is yew sayin yew been . . . kissin on them boys?” He lined up the sights of his huge shotgun on the man’s bourgeois head. “Kraut, wut kinda scheme is yew runnin down here?”
The Brit turned his back on Gritt and Shark. “You men kill to fill the void. I have other ways of filling my own. That is all I will say. I don’t answer to you, Mr. Calhoon—nor to anyone for that matter. Not in Antarctica. Not in my own home.”
“Gritt, the Kraut’s a pederast.”
The Brit spun around. “Don’t get nasty, chap!” he hissed.
“Ya sure ya ain’t tryin ta fill someone else’s void, Kraut?” Shark took a hippopotamus suppository out of his pocket and shoved it up his ass.
Knowing he was in the presence of two men who would never understand his twisted worldview, the Brit began sobbing. “Leave me with this boy!” He reached for the gun.
“Nope!” said Shark, leaping into the air and body-slamming the Brit’s hand just as he wrapped his wiry Brit fingers around the handle. The weight of Shark’s beefy butt shattered both of the bones in his forearm. Gritt was screaming and charging forward with his shotgun blasting as Shark began to punch the Brit in the face, his butt muscles clamped down hard on the gun. But the Brit still managed to squeeze off a shot with his useless hand.
A bullet as hot as bullfrog’s balls, fired out of weakness and fear, whizzed past Gritt’s oily beard, pinged against the mangled doorframe, ricocheted back around toward the scuffle, and hit Benicio cleanly in the throat. He let out a little yelp and fell to the floor.
Gritt roared and aimed Sin Daddy at the Brit. His tongue writhing madly in a foaming bath of vomit and tears, he let loose big time, pumping round after round into the three-dimensional hell that he and every living thing were trapped inside of. He saw nothing, felt nothing—Gritt was simply a pyramid of death-pale whale blubber attached to a trigger finger.
Sin Daddy clicked empty and was spent. Gritt crumpled to the floor like a buffalo carcass stuffed with cinder blocks. His vision dimmed as he lay there with his head against the concrete. He gazed into Benicio’s empty eyes. A leaden mixture of exhaustion and sadness expanded outward from the center of his big-ass chest to the farthest reaches of his big-ass body.
Shark was shouting something but Gritt was deep inside himself.
• • •
It was the smell of tobacco that awakened him. Gritt’s head was marinating in a half-inch pool of his own saliva. He flicked a peanut shell from the corner of his scarred eye socket and stood up.
Shark was sitting in the lotus position on a Persian rug in the center of the room, puffing away on a fat cigar and grazing out of a jumbo bag of mixed nuts. He had taken off his shoes and unzipped his pants. His face was perfectly calm.
“I wuz meditatin on what it means ta be a warrior,” said solemn Shark. “On what it means ta bring death ta livin things.” He tapped his cigar and a nugget of ash fell to the floor. “Plus I wanted ta give yew a chance ta git some rest, after wut happen’d here . . .”
“How long I been out?”
“So you jus been sittin there pretendin like yews the Dolly Lamas this whole damn time?”
“Naw. Loaded up ‘bout ten mil worth’a ‘caine on some sleds near the entrance. A few guards tried ta stop me but I reckon I changed theys minds when I show’d ‘em my corn-shuckers.” Shark took a drag of his cigar. “Sent ‘em home with a severance package they ain’t never gunna fer’git. They’s jus kids at heart, Gritt. Kids hidin behind the faces of men. Took me a while to understand that’n.”
“Been enough bloodshed here today.” Gritt was staring at a cat turd near his foot. He cracked his spine and farted. “What happen’d tew that fuckin redcoat?”
“That pinky-lifter ain’t gunna bother nobody no more. Reckon ya don’t ‘member, but ya blew enough holes in ‘im ta bring down a jumbo fuckin jet ‘fore ya peaced out. Guards took what were left of ‘is corpse. Said they’d give ‘im a proper burial or some shit.” Shark popped a cashew in his mouth and thought about his first wife’s butt squeezed into a pair of old blue jeans. He shrugged. “Which is kinda gross when ya git down tew it, though hell, that’s Stockholm syndrome fer ya. I seen worse.”
Gritt saw a small bundle in the corner of the room. It was child-shaped and wrapped neatly in a wool blanket. Gritt pointed to it and Shark gave a mournful nod. With teary eyes, the old soldier walked over and gently lifted his fallen friend’s body off the ground. Benicio’s head was still covered. His little legs hung over Gritt’s big furry arms.
“He looked jus like Andy,” said Shark. A teardrop rolled down his cheek.
“Come on, Shark. Let’s git the fuck outta here.”
Shark was cleaning his fingernails with a letter opener. He slammed the pointed end into the ground and rose to his feet. He spit out a pistachio shell and burped.
“Right behind ya, Gritt. Always.”
• • •
Outside the volcano, Shark untied Al Pacino’s reins and brushed a dusting of snow off his saddle. He took an afro pick from his back pocket and used it to chisel icicles out of the pony’s thick mane. “There, there, li’l turd,” he said softly. Shark mounted the beast and held his arms out for Benicio. Gritt wearily handed him over.
A fierce wind sailed over the featureless landscape. The wind was cold and Gritt wanted to be alone.
The wasteland of Antarctica is the wasteland which man sees inside himself, thought Gritt. I git that now.
“Yew all right, partner?” said Shark.
“Brother, I’m so low I could skydive off a snake’s dick . . . but I reckon I’ll git on anyway. The fuck else am I gunna dew.”
“Hop on, mijo. It’ll be a few hours ‘fore we reach the shoreline. If ya got some thinkin ta do . . .”—Shark plugged his nostril and blew out a wad of bloody mucus from the other—“then yew jus go ahead and dew it, man. I ain’t gunna git in yer god dang way.”
The pony was slow going through the terrible darkness. The two men were silent, Shark up front with his head hung low in his pancho and a clove cigarette between his lips, and Gritt cradling Benicio across his lap like a sacred object. They rode for many miles till, at a plot of nothingness that seemed quieter than the rest, Gritt, a religious man of sorts, halted the pony in the center of what he perceived to be an energy vortex and dismounted.
“Here,” he said.
For some time the friends toiled, carving out a hole in the ground with their mighty paws, passing a joint back and forth all the while. Al Pacino watched on with melancholy eyes.
Gritt stood over the icy grave he had dug and felt disgusted with himself. This was no place to bury a child, he thought. But then there is never a good place to bury a child. A vague, amorphous sort of sadness clung to his heart like a cancer. He knelt down beside Benicio’s body, still wrapped in the wool blanket, and held him tenderly in his arms. Benicio, once so animated, was reduced to a cold, limp, featureless bundle. Gritt felt like vomiting when he realized the boy didn’t even have dog tags.
I promised ta keep yew safe, thought Gritt. He closed his eyes and hugged Benicio tight against his chest. I failed yew, baby boy.
Shark walked over to Gritt and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Gritt shed a single tear as he gently committed Benicio’s small body to the deep. Together the men filled in the hole with snow and frozen earth.
Shark stood up and lit a spliff. He took a drag and listened to the howling wind. He retrieved an old harmonica from the breast pocket of his jungle-camo vest and warmed it with his lips. He began playing a soft tune while Gritt, still kneeling before the grave, softly sang along to that old remembered melody:
Gone are the days
When my heart wuz young ‘n gay
Gone are my friends
From the hot dog fields a’way
Gone from the earth
Tew a better land I know
I hear them gentle voices callin—
“Ol Fat Joe”
Gritt sniffed. “That was beautiful, Shark.”
Shark blushed. “Thank ye, Gritt.”
Gritt stabbed an old bayonet into the ice at the front of Benicio’s grave and wrapped the albatross’s skeleton around it. He took a crumpled pizza box out of his pocket and tore off the top. He bit into his forearm and, using his own blood, crudely decorated the cardboard with stars and stripes. I ain’t no Betsy Ross or nuthin, thought Gritt, but it’ll have ta dew fer now.
Gritt and Shark straightened their backs, clacked their boot heels together, and saluted.
“OO-RAH!” they shouted. Their voices echoed out into the icy beyond.
Together Gritt and Shark folded the pizza box into a small triangle and placed it atop the sacred plot next to a cairn Shark had made out of crushed beer cans. They fired their pistols into the air until their respective clips were emptied.
Rest easy, Pinocchio, thought Gritt. Yer free now, baby. Enjoy it. And say hi to Gregg Allman fer me.
As Shark holstered his sidearm, a small piece of paper floated up into view. He collected it in his massive hand and held it up to his massive face. He couldn’t read the words, but he recognized the tap-dancing anthropomorphic hot dog on the front of the card.
“Dang! Lookee here!” he said. “A free chili dog at Big Pumpy’s!”
Gritt snatched the card from Shark. He lit all four corners with his butane lighter and let the tattered embers be taken up in a passing gale.
Shark smiled and shook his head in bewilderment. “That’s gotta be the first time I ever saw Gritt Calhoon pass up a free fuckin chili dog.”
“I ain’t passin nuthin up, Shark.” Gritt watched dreamily as snowflakes gently fell from the sky. “I’m sendin it tew my friend, wherever he is . . .”
Hope they got a Big Pumpy’s in Heaven, thought Gritt. Gitcherself somethin good, li’l buddy. He managed a smile.
Shark slapped his thigh and laughed. “Hoooo-eeeeee!”
“Whatchu laughin ‘bout over yonder, ya freak?”
“Jus . . . damn! Cain’t believe we left all that ‘caine back at the volcano. Had it all loaded up on a sled ‘n everythang.”
“We did jus perform an ancient human ritual, Shark. Our minds wuz elsewheres.”
“Yer right. Didn’t mean no disrespect, Gritt.” Shark farted elegiacally.
“I know that, Shark. But—shit, dude. I reckon we oughta go back fer it.”
“Hain’t far. S’long as we keep our wits ‘bout us, we can still make good time.”
“Well, let’s git on back there ‘n grab as mucha that shit as we can,” said Gritt. “Hell, I reckon we’re gunna need it.”
“Where we headed after we snag the ‘caine, ya wily ol bitch?”
Gritt lit a match on his boot heel. He held it up to his face, sparking a roach he had dangling out of the corner of his mouth.
“I know’uva few Krauts who need a good talkin tew.”
“Hate Krauts, Gritt.”
“I know ya dew, buddy. I know ya dew.”
Gritt squinted and saw the outline of another volcano on the far edge of the horizon. It was Mount Erebus, the sister volcano to Mount Terror.
“Hey Shark. The hell they makin in that other volcano over yonder? I done seen it when we made land and never gave it no mind till nows.”
“Oh, nuthin special,” said Shark. He took a drag from his crack pipe and gave Gritt an impish smile. “Jus a li’l ol thing ya might’a heard’uv called Poppa Creole’s Cajun Cowboy BBQ Sauce.”
Gritt shook his head and smiled. “I s’pose yews wuz jus gonna keep that’n a secret, huh? Yew trickster, I swears.”
“Sounds like we’re gonna have to make a fuckin pit stop!” Shark was sipping orangutan breast milk from a beer helmet.
Gritt hopped back onto Al Pacino. Shark finished taking a piss and followed suit. “I got a li’l sumthin that’ll git us there right quick,” he said. He squirted some barbeque sauce on a small mound of cocaine and held it up to the pony’s nostrils. Al Pacino took a precautionary sniff, whinnied with delight, and proceeded to suck the whole thing up into his skull. “‘Ey Gritt! I think this little bastard likes it!” Shark gave the pony a kick with his spurred boot and the three blazed across the ancient terrain quicker than a plague rat in a lube bath.
Gritt reached into his microfiber boxer briefs and took out Andy’s old Lincoln Log. He twiddled it between his scarred fingers.
“Yeah, hombre?” Shark folded a nudie mag he had been reading and shoved it under his big sweaty arm.
“Ya think . . . well . . . d’ya think Benicio and Andy are ta’gether right now? In Paradise? I mean, d’ya think they’s lookin down on us ’n smilin ‘n shit?”
“I think so, Gritt. I really dew. Prolly sharin a bowl’a fuckin Oops! All Meatballs as we speak.” Shark gestured at the nuclear twilight that consumed the visible atmosphere. “Andy! Benicio! May yer precious li’l-ass souls guide us ta safety! And ya best save summa them heavenly babes fer us or else I’m gunna whoop yer god dang baby butts when I git home, ya freakin turds!”
Gritt laughed. He reached around and pinched Shark’s frozen left nipple. “Ya ol turkey, yew.”
“Damn, Gritt!” Shark smacked his hand away. “Least ya coulda done wuz pinch the one that ain’t pierced!”
Gritt stretched his big-ass arms behind his head and thought about some shit. He closed his eyes and felt the wind on his face.
“Wake me up when we git ta where we’re goin, ya hear? I’m gunna take me a li’l snooze-a-roonie while the trail is straight.“
“Yew got it, Gritt. Ya earned yerself some fuckin rest.” A god dang lifetime’s worth, far as I’m concern’d, thought Shark. He snapped Al Pacino’s reigns and cracked open a beer he had in the refrigerated side-pocket of his desert-camo fatigues. “Yah! Onward, ya fuckin turd!”
Gritt Calhoon, weary of the hugeness of all things, closed his eyes and fell dick-first into a fever dream. Not unlike the man himself, it was heavy, and weird, and it seemed to go on forever.