Originally published in PODNAHZ, 1996 by Otter Limits Presses & The Presses. Retyped by Tex.
THE LONG & WINDING ROAD
The barracks had a smell uniquely its own, a mingling of many separate odors to create the one heavy stink. Sweat and piss. Rotting socks and stale beer. Young male bodies. Vaguer aromas that had no name at all. Although the smell permeated their clothes, their hair, and sometimes even seemed to send its tendrils into their very souls, no one really minded. The stench became familiar, became by its presence a note of constancy in a world that was ever-changing and ever-threatening.
Dave Starsky was hardly even conscious of the smell anymore. His sense of reality was constructed of smaller, more immediate concerns. A persistent case of athlete's foot. Heat rash. Diarrhea that came and went with insidious monotony. It was these simple facts of life and the rituals derived from them that kept him conscious, however tentatively, of his own existence. Because he had worked all night, he was still in the sack when the new man arrived. Awake, but too damned hot and tired to make the effort of moving, he lay on the cot in his khaki shorts and watched as the greenhorn came in. There was no one else in the barrack and they stared at one another for a moment.
"You look like a frigging recruiting poster," Starsky said mildly. "Anybody ever tell you that?"
The man with the perfect crease in his trousers and, for chrissake, a tie knotted with precision around his neck, looked bewildered. Remembering his hat suddenly, he reached up and swept it from his head. The humid heat had caused his short blond hair to curl a little on the ends. "What?" he said.
"Never mind. You looking for somebody?"
"I'm, uh, Hutchinson. I have my orders." He reached toward his pocket.
"Save it. The lieutenant'll be back later. He gets off on looking at orders and reading official memorandums. Me, I believe you have orders. Why the hell would anybody be here if they didn't?" Starsky sat up, wining his feet to the floor. "You must be just off the plane."
"Lucky you." He stood, stretching and scratching at some mysterious new rash. "Look, uh —?"
"Yeah, right. Well, I'm going to get dressed, Hutchinson, and then I'm going to let you buy me lunch. While we eat, I'll fill you in on everything you need to know." He grinned crookedly. "I'm a frigging expert, 'cause I've been here three months already." He started pawing through his footlocker in a rather hopeless quest for a clean pair of shorts.
After a moment, Hutchinson dumped his duffel bag onto the next cot and sat down, apparently willing to wait patiently for whatever new development might enter his life next.
Dodging sidewalk peddlers and pint-sized hustlers, they walked three blocks down the wide, tree-lined boulevard that bore only an occasional trace of the war that had brought them here, arriving shortly at the Hollywood Bar and Grille. "You should come here to eat," Starsky explained as they pushed their way to a rear table. "The old guy that runs the place used to live in the States, till they kicked him out for moral turpitude, so he knows how to make a hamburger." He swept aside the debris left by the table's previous occupants. "Of course, I'm not real sure what kind of meat he uses, but it tastes okay. Usually."
Looking a little dazed, Hutchinson nodded. "For drinking, though, you don't come here. Go to the Halfmoon Inn, two blocks over. They don't water the booze so much. Whatever you do, stay out of the Pink Lady. They'll serve you cold tea in a whiskey glass and if you don't pay, the bouncer will beat your ass." Starsky leaned his chair back to a startling angle. "Two specials!" he yelled at the harried counterman. "Load 'em up." He banged the chair back down onto all four legs. "Bastard steals all his pickles and stuff from the commissary." The grin appeared again. "God bless the American free enterprise system, right?"
"If it's broads you're looking for," Starsky continued, "go to Madame Hua's."
"I'm going to get married," Hutchinson said. "As soon as I get home."
He took out his wallet and flipped it open. "Vanessa."
Dutifully, Starsky looked. The girl in the photo was worth two looks. "Nice," he said.
"Yeah." Hutchinson stared at the picture for another moment, then closed the wallet and shoved it back into his pocket.
Two plates crashed down onto the table. Starsky dumped catsup all over his burger and began to eat.
Hutchinson poked at his food tentatively. "What's it like?" he asked suddenly.
"Great," Stansky said around a mouthful. "I think the old bastard got hold of a real cow this time."
Hutchinson smiled faintly. "No, I mean...what's it like, being here?"
"Not bad." Starsky was oblivious to the catsup dribbling slowly down his chin. "Hell, it's not much worse than spending a two-week vacation in the men's room of the L.A. bus depot. During a heat wave. With an attack of stomach flu. Except that somebody keeps trying to blow the frigging place sky-high with you inside." He shrugged. "But at least we're not out in the jungle. They have snakes out there." Starsky swallowed and took a haphazard swipe at the catsup. "Don't worry, man. I'll show you the ropes."
He wasn't particularly enthusiastic at the idea, but the guy looked so damned pathetic sitting there, with the starch in his shirt beginning to wilt and small drops of sweat on his upper lip, that Starsky's good judgment gave way to pity.
If Hutchinson was a little skeptical about being 'shown the ropes' by a man wearing wrinkled fatigues, an L.A. Dodger's T-shirt, and tennis shoes with no socks, he managed to keep his doubts to himself. "Thanks," was all he said.
"Aren't you gonna eat that?"
Hutchinson eyed the congealing lump of meat suspiciously. "Uh, no. Guess my stomach is still on stateside time."
"Can I have it?"
Hutchinson shrugged and slid the plate toward him. "Be my guest."
"Thanks." He started eating again. "My mother never let me waste food. Think of all the starving kids in India, she used to say."
"Yeah, my mother used the same line on me."
They exchanged small, knowing smiles, then Starsky resumed eating. "You want I should get the lieutenant to partner us on patrol? Just until you get the hang of it," he added hastily. Doing the guy a favor was one thing, but he didn't particularly want to get stuck with Sergeant York for the duration. "Otherwise you could end up with some turkey who'll get your ass blown off."
"Yeah, okay," Hutchinson said.
There was a look of barely concealed amusement in Starsky's midnight blue eyes. "Hey, Hutchinson—"
"There's an old Jewish saying: 'Never judge a book by its cover.'"
"I didn't know that was a Jewish saying."
"Sure. My grandmother the rebbetzin always said so. Anyway, the point is, I may not look much like your idea of a gung-ho soldier, but I'm damned good at my job. Trust me."
After a moment, Hutchinson nodded.
Starsky followed through on his promise and they went on patrol together that night. As they walked the streets of the city, he kept up a steady stream of irreverent and irrelevant conversation, filling Hutchinson in on everything he thought the newcomer should know. Some of it Hutchinson thought he could have done without, such as the graphic details of what exactly had happened to his predecessor on the squad.
"A woman?" Hutchinson asked doubtfully. "On a motorcycle?"
"Yeah. She's wasted about six of us in the last couple of months. Rides up on her cycle and blasts away with a .45." Starsky shook his head. "Poor dumb bastard Collins never knew what hit him. Wasted by a broad." Starsky laughed grimly. "The funny part of it is that Collins always said there wasn't a broad on earth who wouldn't spread her legs when he laid his charm on her. Guess she was the exception."
Hutchinson didn't think there was anything especially funny in the story, but he just kept his mouth shut. They spent most of the night rousting drunks, battling rowdies, and trying to keep a lid on the drug traffickers. Hutchinson was grimly trying to remember everything he'd been taught, but Starsky went about his duty with a smile. It was nearly dawn when they went off duty and returned to the barracks. Kicking aside the empty beer cans and cigar butts, Starsky sat on the step to have a last cigarette. After a moment of hesitation, Hutchinson joined him. "Is it like that every night?"
"Yeah. Sometimes worse." Starsky took a long drag and exhaled.
"You don't seem to mind very much."
Starsky shrugged. "It's a job. Good experience. When I get home, I'm going on to the L.A.P.D."
Hutchinson looked surprised. "You?"
"Yeah. Why not?"
"I don't know. It's just that I always think of cops as being... well, pretty uptight. More of a fascist mentality."
Starsky looked at him. "You been to college, right?"
"Yes." Hutchinson hitched forward a little on the step. "I've got one more year and then I'm going to law school."
"A real buttoned-down-collar man, huh? What the hell are you doing over here with us dummies?"
Hutchinson loosened his tie. "I don't know for sure. Guess I just felt like it was something I had to do."
"God. A college-educated patriot who wants to be a lawyer, yeah, it figures. Well, that's fine." He yawned and tossed the butt away, watching the orange glow arc into the pre-dawn grey. "I can bust the bastards and you can figure ways to spring them. That's what makes the world go round, right?" When Hutchinson made no reply, Starsky shrugged and struggled to his feet. "I'm going to bed."
"Thanks for helping me get my bearings."
"Oh, yeah. Good night."
"Sleep tight," Hutchinson responded automatically. An instant later, he smiled sheepishly at the absurdly childish remark.
Starsky looked momentarily startled, then he returned the smile. "Same to you," he said before vanishing into the barracks.
The next two weeks passed slowly and almost too quickly. Something seemed to be building beneath the surface of the city, but all they could do was wait. Starsky and Hutchinson were still walking patrol together every night, although the unlikely partnership had become the cause of some amusement among the other men on the squad.
Starsky bitched long and hard to anyone who would listen about Hutchinson's obsessive (according to Starsky) neatness and stiff-necked observance of the rule book, which he seemed to have memorized. Despite that, Starsky did not request a new partner. Every night, he strapped on the .45, nicked-the nightstick into his belt, and left the barracks with the skinny blond at his side. Amos Hayes was giving odds on the likelihood of homicide occurring within the squad before too much longer. The only question was who would kill who, first? Would Starsky flip out as he sat on his cot watching Hutchinson labor placidly over his perfectly knotted four-in-hand tie or mirror-like spit shine? Or would the soft-spoken Hutchinson be the first to crack, not able to bear up under the strain of seeing one more Hollywood Bar and Grille special inhaled by a man who walked patrol in the same T-shirt he slept in?
No one else on the squad could figure out just what the hell the two men talked about all night, as they patrolled.
"What's a nine-letter word for a non-flying bird with razor-sharp nails?"
Starsky lowered the can of Coke and squinted into the distance. "Cassowary," he mumbled after a moment. "C-A- double S-O-W-A-R-Y."
Hutchinson looked skeptical. "You sure?"
They were strolling through the early evening half-light, easy in the calm time before night descended on the city, but still Starsky's eyes were alert to everything. His gaze darted from one side of the street to the other, missing nothing. "Of course I'm sure. It's something like an emu."
Sighing softly, Hutchinson paused to carefully pencil in the word. "I don't understand you, sometimes," he muttered.
They started walking again and it was at that moment that the earth beneath them trembled and exploded. Instinctively they both dropped to the ground and covered their heads protectively. The movie theater half a block away vanished with a roar. Starsky recovered first, jumping to his fact and pulling Hutchinson up with him. "Come on," he said, half-dragging the taller man along.
They turned the corner and encountered a scene of destruction and suffering that made Starsky pause for an infinitesimal time before moving forward again. Hutchinson took a single step and realized he was standing on a leg, a child's limb wrenched from the body, looking like part of a doll ravaged by cruel children. Hutchinson froze, staring at the grisly result of the terrorist bomb, ignoring Starsky's urgent tugging on his arm.
"Dammit, move!" Starsky yelled.
Hutchinson lurched forward a little and began to vomit helplessly. Swearing, Starsky released him and then the wiry, dark-haired man disappeared into the thick, black smoked and swarming humanity. Hutchinson reached out for him desperately, not wanting to be left alone in what had become a piece of hell, but Starsky was gone.
Hutchinson dropped to his hands and knees and began to crawl through the charred debris, the puddles of water beginning to form as the firemen battled the flames, the blood. All around him, the air was filled with the horrendous screaming of the injured, the age-old keening of the mourners, the hoarse shouts of the would-be rescuers; Hutchinson ignored it all in the intensity of his search. Ignored even his own rasping sobs.
The little girl's body, when he found it, was twisted brutally, her remaining leg bloody and shattered. Tenderly, Hutchinson took the tiny form into his arms. "Shh," he whispered. "It's going to be all right, honey." Staggering a little, he got to his feet and made his way through the swirling crowd, searching again. Not until he saw the reassuringly familiar face, now streaked with soot and sweat, did Hutchinson stop. Some of the despair seemed to lift from his heart. "Hey," he said softly.
Somehow above the terrible noise, Starsky heard him and turned. Their gazes locked over the child's body. "Starsky?" Hutchinson said. "What should I do?"
Starsky dropped his grip on the hose and came to Hutchinson's side. "Ahh, man," he said, in a voice made gravelly by the smoke. "The kid is dead. Put her down."
But Hutchinson shook his head. "I can't . . . please . . . can't we do something?" His voice cracked. "Starsk?"
"Lemme." Gently, Starsky disentangled the body from the other man's clutch. "I'll take care of her."
"I will, man." Starsky moved a few yards away to where a line of bodies was rapidly growing longer, and rested his burden there. When he turned around again, Hutchinson was gone.
It was nearly six hours later before Starsky, black from the smoke, his hands bloody from digging through the rubble, his body filled with a weariness that brought him close to tears, staggered into the barracks. There was a bundle of filthy, wet clothes piled on the cot next to his, so Hutchinson had obviously been there; however, he was nowhere to be seen, now. Too exhausted to wash or even strip off his own soggy garments, Starsky fell into bed.
Before complete oblivion took him, he had a moment to wonder where the hell the button-down-collar man had gone to.
By the next day, everyone was wondering. The lieutenant was pissed — the squad was short-handed already — and getting madder by the moment. He finally called Starsky into his closet-sized office and glared at him. "All right, Starsky, where is he?"
Starsky slumped in a chair and tried to clean some of the dirt from under his fingernails with his penknife. "Beats the hell out of me. Sir," he added belatedly.
"Everybody says you and Hutchinson are tight."
Starsky sneered. "Everybody's full of shit. I helped the guy out a little because he was new. Does that make him my blood brother or something? I don't know where the hell he is." He frowned a little as the knife nicked a fingertip. "If he was such a good buddy, would he run out on me like this?" Starsky didn't know for sure if the question was directed at himself or at the lieutenant.
The phone rang and Starsky waited as Danner took the call. "That was Milford in Transportation," the older man said as he hung up. "Word is that Hutchinson thumbed a ride into Saigon late last night"
"That dumb bastard."
"Guess I better contact the office there and have him picked up."
Starsky snapped the knife closed and stood. "Look, sir, he's new, like I said. What happened last night got to him, but, hell, I think he might be good if we give him a chance. Let me go to Saigon and try to talk to him."
"You don't even know where he is."
"I'll find him."
The lieutenant didn't like the idea, but he finally shrugged. "All right, I'll go along with that. For twenty-four hours, Starsky. You have him back here in twenty-four hours, or I file AWOL charges. Got me?"
"Yes, sir," Starsky said. He left quickly, before Danner could change his mind. He managed to grab a ride into Saigon and spent most of the journey over the primitive roads cursing Hutchinson for being a pain in the butt, among other uncomplimentary things. The truck shook and bucked and banged through uncounted potholes and ruts, and the wind blew dust in his face until his mouth felt like he'd stuffed it full of cotton.
By the time he reached Saigon his mood was, at best, slightly disgruntled. Figuring that Hutchinson's next logical move was to try and get out of the country, Starsky decided to concentrate his search at the airport. Deciding that it would be wise to cover all his bases, however, he tried to hit every bar between where he was and his destination. That took him a long (expensive) time, but at least his mood was somewhat improved by the time he got to the airport. His first stop there was the men's room. He was more than a little surprised when he walked in and saw Hutchinson leaning against one of the sinks. Neither of them spoke as Starsky went to the urinal. A few moments later, he zipped his trousers and joined Hutchinson at the sink. "Hi," he said casually.
"I'm going home." Hutchinson's voice was hollow.
Starsky shook his head. "Ah, man, the road you're on don't go home; it only goes to the stockade."
"I don't care."
"Man, look —"
"I'm not a coward," Hutchinson broke in.
"I never said you were."
"But you're thinking it."
"You don't know what I'm thinking," Starsky said sharply. He studied the other man's pale, pain-streaked face. "Come on," he said, his voice suddenly gentle. "Let me buy you a drink."
After a moment, Hutchinson nodded and followed him out. They went into the airport bar and sat in a dark corner, bent over their drinks sullenly, not even talking for a while. The blond traced aimless circles in the wet patches on the tabletop. "I never even saw a dead person before," he said finally. "Nobody close to me ever died, except my grandfather and that was a . . . they didn't open the coffin. Guess I've been pretty damned lucky all my life."
"I guess so."
"What about you?"
Starsky took a slow drink and then lit a cigarette. "A long time ago," he said finally, "my father was killed, shot to death. I saw it happen."
Hutchinson stared at him. "My god."
"When I first got here, man, I felt like running away, too. Really. But you'll get used to it."
Hutchinson slammed his fist down onto the table. "Maybe I don't want to 'get used to it.' Maybe I want to stay human, not get turned into some kind of cold-hearted automaton."
"I don't know what that is," Starsky mumbled, staring at his fingers wrapped mound the beer can.
"It means I don't want to become a robot with no motions. Leave the killing and all of this to somebody who can do it. Leave it to the soldiers and the people like you, the cops of the world." He pushed the empty glass away. "I don't want any part of it."
Starsky's face was pale, but his eyes burned. "You goddamned son of a bitch," he said in a voice as hard as steel. "You think I'm enjoying this? Well, for your information, I'm not. I hate it just as much as you do, maybe more. Why do you think I want to be a cop, anyway? Just so I can wear a gun and blow away the bad guys? You're an ass." He stopped to catch his breath.
"Forget it. I thought you were smarter than that. I even thought that maybe you understood me a little. But I was wrong. You're no different than every other college prick in the world." He took a savage gulp of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand. "All right, Hutchinson, you just run. Run right back to your law school and your foxy little girlfriend and the nice, safe corner you want. Start running right now, and maybe if you're real lucky, the world will never catch up with you."
He tried hard to keep his voice from shaking. "Don't worry about anything. I'll still be here to do your job. And later on, when I'm a cop, I'll try to keep the animals from taking it all away from you." He looked up to meet Hutchinson's gaze. "That's why I want to be a cop, man. So I can keep the animals of the world from taking everything away from people like you."
He stood, looking down at Hutchinson. "I hope you have a really great life, buddy." He paused, and when he spoke again, there was no more anger in his voice, only an infinite sadness that even he didn't quite understand. "I thought that maybe we were . . . oh, what the hell difference does it make?" He turned to go.
Hutchinson grabbed his arm. "Don't, Starsk. Wait a minute, please."
Starsky made a half-hearted attempt to pull free. "Ahh, man, what's the use? You want a different kind of life than I want, so—"
"Give me a chance, will you?" Hutchinson interrupted angrily. "Can you just give me a goddamned minute to try and get my head together?"
Slowly, Starsky sat down again.
Hutchinson took a deep breath. "I guess maybe I'm afraid of changing. Of becoming somebody I don't know or like very much."
"You don't have to change, man, not really. You're kind of a dope sometimes, but that's okay, so am I probably." He smiled fleetingly. "Nobody's perfect."
Hutchinson shook his head. "I just don't know if I can hack it, Starsk."
"Sure you can." He cleared his throat. "I'll help."
"Why should you?"
Starsky toyed with his Zippo lighter. "I don't know." He flicked the lighter on and watched the flame. "I guess because we're friends."
"Are we? After all of this?"
The Starsky grin flashed again. "Hell, man, if you can't get pissed at your best friend, who can you get pissed at?" He realized, when the words had been said, that they were very true. Hutchinson, whom he'd known for only two weeks, was his best friend. The realization was a little startling.
"All right," Hutchinson said. "I'll try."
Starsky expelled his breath in a long sigh, but there was no sense of victory in his feeling of relief. He stared into Hutchinson's eyes and saw some new emotion there. The expression reminded Starsky of something, but he couldn't quite get a handle on the memory.
"This round's on me," Hutchinson said in a mute voice.
They had a few more rounds, and it wasn't until several hours later, as they sat jammed together in the back of a supply truck heading out of Saigon, that Starsky remembered. His half-drunk consciousness groped for the reason why Hutchinson's eyes had seemed to stir old memories.
He stared at Hutchinson again, and it all came back. The look in his friend's blue eyes was the same half-bitter, half-melancholy expression he'd seen so often in the eyes of his long-dead father, and the men who'd served with him on the N.Y.P.D.
The recognition brought a painful ache of sadness, a feeling of loss that Starsky couldn't put words to. He only knew that he didn't want to think about it any more. And that he wanted to make the hurt and pain disappear from the other man's eyes. "Hutch?" he said, sounding maybe a little drunker than he really was.
Hutchinson blinked. "Huh?"
"Hey, Hutch," he repeated, deciding that he liked the way it sounded. "You ever think about maybe being a cop?"
As he had expected, the question brought a burst of laughter from Hutchinson, a clear, ringing sound that made Starsky grin in pleased response. He saw the anguish ease in Hutchinson's eyes, at least for a little while, and the sight took the edge off his own sadness.
"You're an idiot."
"Yeah," Starsky agreed amiably. They were quiet then, but that was okay, too, Starsky realized. He rested his head against a fifty-pound bag of rice and fell asleep almost immediately, snoring lightly. Hutchinson was still awake. He listened to the small, metallic explosions of gravel hitting against the truck bed and watched Starsky sleep. The truck swerved suddenly and Starsky fell against him, giving a muffled grunt of protest but not waking up. After a moment, Hutchinson carefully put arm across the sleeping man's shoulders and held him, so he wouldn't fall again. Starsky mumbled something unintelligible and then was quiet.
Hutchinson felt cramped and sweaty, and his stomach was definitely getting queasy, but he smiled a little anyway. No matter how bad things got, he knew, more surely than he had ever known anything before, that Starsky would be there. That knowledge made him feel stronger. That knowledge became the center of his being, and he was secure. Gingerly, he rested back against the bags of rice and closed his eyes. Starsky sighed lightly. Hutchinson caught the scent of beer and felt a warm dampness brush his cheek.
That was the last awareness he had before sleep overtook him, as well.
The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear;
I've seen that road before;
It always leads me here,
Leads me to your door.
Don't leave me waiting here,
Lead me to your door.
— Paul McCartney