Michael Nolan‘s fiction has appeared in Charles River Review.

His non-fiction works have appeared in “The Vermont Guardian,“ Common Dreams, Antiwar.com and many more.

The Zone

By Michael Nolan

Will rounded the corner at the end of LaGrange Street and stepped into a Friday night sea of hookers, sailors, students, hippies, pimps, panhandlers, transvestites and cops. Neon marquees enticed passersby into the bars and the strip clubs, massage joints and twenty-five cent peep shows on Boston’s lower Washington St. The papers called it the Combat Zone, for its sleazy, hollow-eyed sexuality and the undercurrents of violence and knife-slashing danger upon which it all floated.

By the curb, two cops sat in their cruiser, reading the newspaper. The cop who was driving glanced over his glasses occasionally to take in the street commerce. A Navy shore patrol swaggered along in front of Will, twirling their nightsticks, turning to stare at a hooker standing on a corner. Down an alley, two freaks with filthy hair and tye dye shirts copped dope from a stone-faced black dude with more jewelry than Will had ever seen on a man. Another hooker leaned seductively against the wall of the same alley and took note of each passing man. A cigarette hung from her lips.

Will continued along the sidewalk and when he looked up he saw a neon sign that read Blue Dolphin. Something compelled him to go through the big doors. The bouncer was one of the fattest men he’d ever seen, compulsively snapping the fingers of his right hand into the palm of his left. It was so dark in the Blue Dolphin that Will’s nose got a better sense of the place than his eyes. There was cigarette smoke out in front of him. There was the smell of beer and Lysol and piss. Deeper inside everything was lit in a pale blue glow. He made his way down one side of the enormous horseshoe bar. From a barstool, a thin woman in a low-cut, sequined dress followed him with her eyes.

On the TV up over the bar weary young soldiers were loading body bags onto a US helicopter in the rotor-washed tall grass of South Vietnam. The over-voice sounded like Walter Cronkite but Will couldn’t tell what Walter Cronkite was saying.

He took a stool halfway down the bar. It was a horseshoe bar with a stage in the middle and over the stage was a banner that announced All College Girl Review – 1969. As his eyes became acclimated to the dark, a bartender appeared in front of Will like a genie out of the dark.

“What are you having, pal?” He had biker long hair, a leather vest and bare, tattooed arms.

He found out the Budweiser cost three dollars. Will had never paid more than a buck in his life, but he pushed three bills forward.

“You look lonely,” the thin woman who’d been following him with her eyes said as she   slid onto the barstool next to him. Her voice was smoky and provocative. She rubbed his shoulder and she leaned in to him, touching her breasts to his upper arm.

Will pulled his face back.

“What’s a handsome boy like you doing alone tonight?” As Will gazed at her face, she lifted her arm above her head. She clicked her fingers for the bartender. Just as quick, she brought her hand down and resumed rubbing Will’s shoulder.

“Could you use a little company? My name’s Miranda. I’m a little lonely too.”

The bartender put a small brown bottle, maybe eight inches tall, in front of Will’s new companion.

“Thanks honey,” she murmured to Will.

The bartender brought what Miranda had ordered and he said, “Seven bucks pal.” Will had read about this somewhere. They were called b-girls and they made money for the house by getting the customers to buy them drinks all night. The little bottle in front of Miranda had a champagne-like label. But it was probably iced tea.

Will straightened his back. “Seven bucks for what?”

“You ordered the lady a drink. Now you owe me seven bucks.”

“I didn’t order shit.”

Miranda cooed “Now, honey…” She drew out the word honey in a patient, protective kind of way, like she’d seen this all before.

“Seven bucks, asshole!” The bartender folded his arms on his chest.

“Fuck you!”

“Just pay it,” Miranda suggested, with a ring of maternal alarm.

When the bartender put his palms on the edge of the bar in front of Will he spread his arms in a way that brought him in close to Will’s face. He made a point of letting the front flaps of his vest hang open, revealing the blackjack stuck in his belt.

Something fat and relentless pushed Will forward on the barstool, jamming him into the bar, and followed by an evil wind of garlic and stomach bile. When Will turned his face, the obese bouncer’s wet, distended lips were next to his ear. “Jackey,” he asked the bartender “there some kind of problem?”

“Ask him.” Jackey palmed the grip of the blackjack, pulled it a little higher out of his belt. Fatso bumped him again from behind. Will knew he had no choice and he pushed a five and two ones toward the bartender.

“What brings you in here?” Miranda didn’t miss a beat in resuming her conversation. The bartender withdrew. “You look a little worried if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“You’d look worried too if the army was after you.”

“My son just came home from the army. He was in Vietnam. Now he stays in his room and won’t talk to anybody and he takes drugs all day.” She had a low-cut dress on and her neck was long, the concave hollow on her cheeks was long and so was her cleavage. The top of her long chest was mottled and her neck was wrinkled and dry like paper.

“Could be something in the dope.” Will said irritably, as he gulped his beer. He lurched off the barstool on his way to the men’s room.

A dress-blue sailor sat alone in a booth, the look on his face one of ecstasy and great discomposure. He looked straight ahead, his mouth agape.

Under the sailor’s table Will detected movement. A coif of orange hair was moving up and down on the sailor’s lap. Will bent slightly to see under the table as he went by. Between the blue woolen knees was the trademark sequined dress. The lady servicing the sailor rolled great, round eyes up to Will and then went back to what she was doing. Will mumbled “‘scuse me.”

There was a phone call that very afternoon and it still preyed on Will’s mind. “My name’s special agent McDermott from the Boston field office of the FBI,” the voice said, “You need to call us.” There was a pause then the voice said, “If you know what’s good for you.” This last part made Maria cry. Maria was Will’s girlfriend and she would keep crying all day and she said between sobs, “why aren’t you in Toronto.”

When he made it to the men’s room of the Pink Pussycat he found himself at the urinal next to a man whose face was painted like a lady’s. At the next urinal was a moronic-looking dude in a greasy mechanics shirt on. The name on the shirt said Gerry. He was drunk and he was saying, to no one in particular, “niggers got hard heads. You want to fight a nigger you got to kick him in the balls.”

“You’re an ignorant son-on-a-bitch,” Will shot back disgustedly. He leaned backwards at the urinal to make eye contact with Gerry. Then he zipped himself up and turned and got lost in the swirl of traffic leaving and entering the big men’s room. Gerry yelled something that sounded  violent but Will was gone.

As he got back to his place at the bar a DJ was announcing in an amplified, mechanical voice, “Let’s hear it for…Tiffany,” Suddenly, from the end of the stage, out pranced Tiffany in a   bikini and a green cape like an erotic, exotic bat in high heels. She ended up right in front of Will with her back to him. Her feet were spread and her knees were locked. The stage which Tiffany danced on was at the same level as the bar so that Will’s view of the motley lineup on the other side of the horseshoe was framed in Tiffany’s legs. Will noticed a man sliding onto a bar stool directly across from him. He had a sport coat on and an open-necked shirt. He was a big bastard with a meaty face and there was something about how he was staring so intently at Will that made Will nervous.

Then – just like that  – Tiffany bent at the waist until her hair touched the floor. She obscured Will’s view of the other side so that all he could see was Tiffany’s upside-down face;   smiling back at him. She took her time shaking her fanny at him.

Then – just as suddenly – she straightened up again, restoring Will’s view from between her legs. And he was surprised to find Gerry, the moron from the men’s room, was seated next to the man in the sport coat; the man still staring relentlessly at Will. When Gerry discovered Will  at the bar he erupted; he stood up and yelled, “you hippy, nigger-loving son-of-a- bitch. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.” The man beside him, the man in the sport coat turned to stare, momentarily, over at Gerry with great distaste. Gerry took an empty cigarette pack, crumpled it into a ball and threw it across the bar so hard it bounced off Will’s chest. This caused the man in the sport coat to punch Gerry right in the nose, with a short, vicious hook. Will just had time to notice a great spurt of blood escape Gerry’s nose. Then Gerry disappeared forever just as sure as if a trap door had been opened underneath him.

And the mysterious man in the sport coat turned again to Will and he held his glass up as if in a toast. The man was holding something in his other hand. It was a wallet and Will tensed to see it flop open to show a badge.

Without expression, Will nodded steadily, in slow affirmation.

But McDermott was eager. He seemed to come further forward on his stool. His glass was still raised in a toast and he smiled at Will. He was up on his elbows and he looked positively merry.