don't be a boovler!

He was getting old when I last saw him ...

Purple Hearts

NOTES: This was written during the period 
that my address had become

Whereabouts Unknown
Hollywood, U.S.A.

Hart Williams © 1985

He was getting old when I last saw him. I knew him before, and he had seemed old, but I was just a kid, then. I ran into him on Hollywood Boulevard, one day, by accident. He was going one way, and I was going another, so he gave me his number, and told me to come over for a drink.

It was about a month before I made it. His name was Ross, and that was all we called him. It took me a few seconds to figure out that the buzzer number attached to the strange last name was his. Like I said, I knew him before.

He was in his fifties, it was 1985, and I knew him before in the late 1960s. I think seeing it brought it all back to me. His apartment was still furnished the same way: brass fittings from ships had been turned into lamps. A net and the heads of bucks were on one wall. There was a nude on one wall—4' x 6' and a real painting by a dead painter. I asked him about it. You don't hardly see that kind of painting anymore. A girl in a piece of lingerie, pubes carefully covered against a green pastel background. A real girl, who is lying on that bed for a reason and isn't ashamed of it. In the corner I saw it was dated '1958'. The apartment smelled like leather.

"Hell," he said, shoving a glass tumbler into my hand, "It's worth money, now. Artist fellow I knew painted it. But he's dead. Couldn't sell his stuff after '69. Suicide, they said. Changing times, I say." I tasted the scotch. Ross was always top-drawer. Best rifle, best Pendleton shirts, best stuff you could get, without any frills. I nodded.

"What you been up to?"

"Some writing. I'm working on it."

He smiled. His face was lined and worn with a deep-water tan that had etched lines into his face. His hands were brown and calloused. My dad used to be like that. A lot of men did. Ross was about the last one I knew. You could still tell, looking at his belly. It came out over his belt, but it was still hard. No fat on him. There aren't any bellies like that anymore.

"I read some of your stuff," he said. "Saw it in a girlie magazine. Nobody writes like that anymore. Hardboiled. It was OK."

I was embarrassed. So, I looked at the stack of records by the stereo. "Mind if I play something?" I asked.

He waved his drink at me. "Sure," he said.

There was an old copy of the "Thunderball" soundtrack. I put it on. Jazzy and brassy. You could still admire the painting of Sean Connery on the front cover, fighting it out with a frogman. Ross reminded me of Sean Connery, some. The cover was worn down to the cardboard in a neat circle where the record was. A little cellophane still clung weakly.

"Didn't think anybody listened to that stuff anymore," Ross said.

"What are you doing these days?" I asked.

"Same," Ross said. "About the same, anyway."

"I never was sure what it was to begin with," I said. "This and that," Ross said. "Used to call it beach bum. Now it's something or other. I don't talk much about it anymore."

"Ladies in distress and all that?" I asked.

"Hell," he snorted. "None of that anymore. Ones who need help won't take it, and the ones who don't are the weepy kind. You know."

I knew. I could see them in the bars, under the tropical fish tank, backlit in the red and green light, half-drunk, and wearing too much lipstick. "Not a man's world anymore," I said.

He smiled ruefully. "You know," he said, "I was in Korea. I remember Anzio. I remember D-Day. V-E Day. All of that."

"I remember," I said.

"It was something," he said. "Biggest damned fight in history. World War Two, I mean. Korea was just table scraps."

"I know," I said. "Mind if I ...?"

He stopped me and poured me some more scotch. Unblended. No frills. $25 a bottle. "It's a goddam sin to get drunk these days," he said. "I don't care. I'm still carrying an ounce and a half of shrapnel. Too late to change now."

"What happened?" I asked. I always wondered.

"Lousy grenade," he said. "Got my Purple Heart and went back. They wanted to send me back stateside, but I wouldn't let them. I re-upped. They mustered me out when it was over."

I sipped. I remembered: the Purple Heart for wounds.

We talked for awhile, and he decided we should go to the beach. It was after midnight, and I had to get back, but I went along anyway.

We walked along the shore. He was wearing an old sweater and the moon was still waxing at midheaven. It was cool, but not cold. The surf was low and even.

"It's not like it used to be," Ross said. He bent down and scooped up a flat rock. He flipped it side-arm and it skipped far out to sea. "Used to be a man knew what it meant to be a man. Not like that any more."

It was true enough, I agreed.

He laughed to himself. "Remember Audie Murphy?"

I nodded.

He grinned. "Damn straight," he said. "Fellow may have been a hero, but he sure didn't look like one. Barely"—he snorted—"looked like one. Looked like a damned fairy. Tough sonofabitch, though. Did you know he was the single most decorated American of World War Two?"

"Yeah," I said. "I saw the movie."

"We all saw the movie," Ross said. "I don't know what it is anymore. The men I knew were the meanest, toughest, best sons-a- bitches ever walked the earth. They won the biggest war in history, and then turned around and rebuilt the world. What happened?"

"Times change," I said.

"Hell," he said. "Right and wrong are on their ear. Man doesn't keep his word. Lies just like a broad." He stopped and looked at me. "You don't mind if I say `broad'?" he asked. "Can't say things like you used to. You can say `motherfucker' in polite society, but you can't say `broad'. Jesus."

I said: "I know what you mean."

He scratched at an old scar on his neck. "All I do anymore is apologize," he said. "Every damned thing I say is wrong. I mean, people agree with me, but I don't say it right. Got to apologize to every fucking cunt I meet, it seems like." He stopped himself again. "Don't take offense," he said. "It just slips out." He slapped the side of his head. "See? I'm apologizing again. The world's all fucked up," he said.

"I guess so," I said. I picked up a rock and threw it out to sea.

We walked along for awhile doing that. The fog started to roll in; it started getting colder. Ross didn't say anything. I kept quiet. We each knew what the other meant, though. He reminded me of my father, not needing to talk, that way.

We finally turned back for where we'd parked the car. A car full of girls passed on the highway, slow. A girl leaned out the window, and shouted something obscene. The surf drowned it out.

Ross shook his grizzled head. "Like that," he said. "Like that."

"It's better and it's worse," I said.

He shrugged. "I guess I'm just getting old."

"I'm confused, too."

"Really?" he asked.

"A woman I know got a few drinks and told me she just wanted a man to hold her down and FUCK her," I said.

Ross laughed. "Yeah," he said. "Well, that's something. I thought I'd wait my whole life to hear something like that."

"So did I," I said. "They say it now, though."

"I don't mind Women's Liberation," Ross said. "Seems fair enough. I just don't understand what we did wrong."

"I don't get you," I said.

"Seems like we stood aside and helped 'em out because we saw it wasn't fair. Seems like men—American men, I mean—went overseas and saved the damned world with their blood and guts and spit and chewing gum, and now ... hell, now everybody blames us."

"I still don't know what you mean," I said.

He grabbed my shoulder and turned me inland. He waved his arm at the city lights. "I'm always apologizing for things I don't think are wrong," he said. "But I apologize, anyway and it hurts my pride. I want to pull up my pants leg and show 'em the hamburger I call a leg, and say: `Look, I lost this for you,' but I know it wouldn't do any good. I'm wrong all the time, and I haven't changed." He sighed. "Just the times," he said. "Just the times." It might have been an echo.

We went back into town. I was late, and caught hell.

I got a package in the mail a few months after that. It was from Ross. There was a note with it, and it was carefully wrapped in brown paper and twine, the way packages used to come. I read the note first. He wondered why I didn't come over more often, but then he wrote that he understand that I had things to take care of. I knew what he meant.

It was his Purple Heart, faded and tarnished.

He died before I could did find out why he gave it to me. I didn't find out until he was buried, or I would have gone to the funeral.


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