Leroy Finch sat on the lowest part of the foldout couch, a thread bare cushion and flat as a pancake. The once gold color was now a dingy faded wheat. He lifted his legs onto a cedar chest, the only other piece of furniture in his studio apartment, aside from a small black-and-white TV on a roll cart.
Through his window on the north side of Las Vegas, he could see the Stratosphere reaching up into the sky, the “stank” end of the Strip. A flip phone buzzed incessantly next to two-day-old remnants of Taco Bell tacos, cups of hot sauce, and a half empty Red Stripe beer. Nursing the last drops, he wished he had the money for another six-pack, though he’d have to walk down to the corner 7-Eleven to get it. In 90-degree heat at 10 o’clock at night, that turned out to be a bad plan, considering he’d have to throw them in the freezer for an hour before he could drink them. They might drink warm beer in Europe, but this wasn’t Europe. All that trouble. It’s a good thing he didn’t have the spare change.
He already felt a bad mood coming on, but he knew where the night was going. He reached down next to the couch, retrieving the red bong he called Billy, a long-time friend since college, filling it with the last few dried leaves of a giant sweet-smelling bud he picked up from a surfing pal in Cali. Now, this is all he was doing, little work, and getting high. He spent his GI Bill money on getting a teaching license at UNLV, all prepared to spout on about grammar and literature at one of the local high schools, but he couldn’t get his shit together enough to do it. He came back from Afghanistan more than a year ago, feeling not quite right in the “cabeza.” He wished he was back there. Substitute teaching was OK for now; it was all he could take from the piece-of-shit kids who didn’t have an ounce of respect for him, or for school. He debated the whole nature-versus-nurture idea, drawing the conclusion that some people should not have kids, ever. Yet, he had sympathy for some of them, coming from wrecked homes, the products of different kinds of abuse, from neglect to sexual molestation to outright getting the shit kicked out of them.
The guitar in his lap sat mute. Taking a big draw off Billy, he waited. There was no inspiration. No burning desire. He strummed, then picked, but couldn’t decide on a song. The blank TV screen showed the reflection of his long legs covered by a pair of Levis with holes in the knees. His bare torso glistened with sweat and darkened the thick lines of an eagle swooping down to attack a mouse, the middle finger of the small creature’s right hand sticking straight up just under his protruding rib cage. The mouse was neither frightened nor angry. Instead, the small furry beast showed the calm resolve of what comes natural in life. In Leroy’s take on things, it wasn’t about the poor rodent’s survival. To him, the mouse provided the required protein to power America, but he didn’t do it without the pride of having lived. If he was going to die, as in war, then he had every right to an opinion, and flipping the bird to the bird, to death, was all kinds of powerful.
Setting Billy back to the floor, his reflection taunted him. It said, “get a haircut, you mother fucker!” The dirty blonde scraggly strands fell past his shoulder. His long sideburns blended into the weeks of stubble on his gaunt cheeks and pointed chin. The dimple in it grew deeper. A rigid pronounced brow jutted out over beady brown eyes, keeping them in shadows. He squinted like Clint Eastwood, his all-time favorite actor, warning his reflection, “Are you feeling lucky punk?” The whites colored in by swollen red veins. He wasn’t feeling lucky. Far from it. He plucked at the guitar strings hearing some faraway voice, a raspy alto singing Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde covers. Her favorite was The Pretender’s ‘Back on the Chain Gang,’ “A circumstance beyond our control…” Then there was ‘Bad Reputation,’ one he knew his girlfriend had having run away from real life, pursuing the dream of glittery Hollywood, getting nowhere with a band from the Valley. He cheated on her with some older woman from Long Beach, a single mom, who wanted to live some romance with a cute musician. Next thing he knew, bad, bad Leroy Finch was on his knees apologizing.
Then he dragged his cover girl to Las Vegas, where they played the lounge room gigs for practice, but she couldn’t get over the stink of beer on his breath, the hickeys on his neck, and the feeling she was losing her touch. She used to think it was love that fed her musical passions, the cries that reached the back row at the Palladium, that made some girl feel like she understood what it meant to have a vagina. At thirty-something, she went back home to Redondo to live with her mom, and her fat ugly boyfriend, a cook at one of their pier restaurants. She thought her mom could have done better, being one of the original beach bunnies, hotter than a Bond girl and 10 times the personality of Annette Funicello. Then one day, the crow’s feet fanned out from her eyes, and her smile like the fault lines up and down the state, made her look like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy. Gravity took care of the rest, sagging boobs, slumping shoulders… but her graceful ways hinted at her beauty queen days, of knowing she was wanted.
Leroy wanted his girl back, but it wasn’t that easy. He’d have to woo her. He’d have to prove he had his shit together. The phone on the table kept buzzing. That was her. She still talked to him, hoping with each new day, he might get it. Instead, he’d do just enough to pay the rent, about a week and half in the local schools, picking up the dregs, the special schools for kids with autism and trouble makers patted down inside chain link fences topped with razor wire, and guards armed with mace. The bell at the end of the day meant he was $110 dollars closer to the rent, but billions from getting his life back.
“Mister, you kill anybody?” one of the kids asked. He ignored the question and put his head back down on the desk. “C’mon Mister, you a war hero or something?”
The rest of the time, he sat on the walking bridges with his hat out, watching the tourists shuffle and stumble through. The heat made him feel like throwing up, but with enough change, he could buy a few suds, a plain single patty burger at In-n-Out, and sit inside air conditioning. Walking out to his Suzuki Grand Vitara, he’d have to remember gas. By no means was it a gas guzzler like the Chevy Tahoe he eventually had to sell, but he missed that heavy feel, like he was riding in up-armored trucks back in Kabul, heavy plated SUVs, nothing was getting in, but it also meant nothing was getting out either. He remembered how it took him awhile to get used the traffic on the 15 freeway when he got back. He drove slow and honked at everybody, cussing so much that he was hoarse by the end of the ride.
He logged on to his laptop to book a teaching assignment. He took something at the top of the list, something at Basic H.S. in Henderson. That’s a drive. The effects of the pot made him drift off. He thought of running out of gas. Then what? He took the job anyway – another early start. It was a good thing he didn’t have beer; the binges made him sleep late. Worse, he’d kick himself in the ass for wasting time, but that’s all he really had, was time.
He used the alcohol as sleep meds, and being low on weed, he wondered if he’d be up all night. Turning on the TV, with no cable, he slipped in the VHS cassette of ‘Apocalypse Now,’ the extended version, to watch it for the 27th time since he arrived in Sin City. There was little difference between his apartment and Martin Sheen’s hotel room. Surfing while ordnance fell into the ocean confirmed his belief that crazy was only a step away, but for some reason it made him feel better. He woke up at 3 o’clock, the way he did every night, bolt upright, having to piss like a race horse. There was no chance of curling up on the foldout for a few extra winks. That made him late, and he nearly got fired. Still dark outside, opening the can of Folgers was the first step. Scooping three heaping helpings of grounds into the auto drip, and poking at the on button to see the red light, was the second. He could smell the rich flavor as he soaped his dick and balls in the shower. This small tingle of feeling human brought him briefly out of feeling numb, and no one on the VA staff could propose a cure. Endure this ’til the day I die? No wonder his best friend shot himself. He joked, just like that football player, that island dude Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest.
“That’s what I’m gonna do,” his battle buddy Mac said. “I’m gonna fuckin’ blow my heart out, and save my head. Maybe they’ll find something that’ll help the next guy.” Leroy stared at his friend, hoping he wasn’t serious. Then how close would he be? He found some courage with each pluck of the strings. The small amplifier on the walking bridge crackled, and a small bit of change clanked into his dusty fedora. A few teenage girls stood swaying to his version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ the day his friend bled out.
His wife found him when she came home from work. Leroy was glad that Mac’s kids were living with his mom, taken away, because Mac was deemed unfit for his explosive behavior – broken dishes and holes in walls. No amount of anger management could unstick the bad memories. All that was left was gunshot therapy. Leroy felt the same on that walking bridge, watching the girls, drunk and high, having the time of their lives. He could tell the first-timers. All he had to do was jump over the rail and the splat in front of CityCentre would have halted traffic for miles. A tear stood in his eye. The girls were long gone, when all he could see was his girlfriend rushing to him in the airport. Falling to his knees. Janelle Ritchie was supposed to be Mrs. Leroy Finch.
Out of the shower, he grabbed a stiff towel off the rack, and wrapped it around his waist. Grabbing a mug out of the stainless-steel sink, he poured the hot brew over three packs of Splenda, and took a big swallow. This was “Groundhog Day,” that old Bill Murray movie in which the same day plays over and over, plus 435 more, and nothing had changed. Still, Leroy wasn’t any closer to coming home.