“At last, here was a woman who adored fornication, expected Jack to make her climax, and to do so frequently, and who didn't burst into tears when the sadist in him punched her in the mouth.”
- The second wife, “Jack London: A Life”

***

You don't sicken me.

Hal and I were talking about women, which is rather common after a few beers and no Presidential fuck ups to complain about, when Sam walked in. Sam is the blonde who works down at the hardware store for her father, Hank. She lives above that hardware store in an apartment Hank had built years before she was even born. She walked in wearing a long coat over stockings and a pair of blue pumps and just about every head in the place turned to the door the moment they heard the click of the heels along the bar room floor. Following close behind was her boyfriend who wasn’t familiar to me. Some guy wearing a heavy coat, slacks, and leather shoes, so I assumed he worked at an office somewhere on Randall, Gantree’s version of Main Street USA. As they walked by Sam smiled and said “Hi” to Hal and I as she passed, as we were both friendly with her dad and I stop by the store when I am in need of a part or tool that I lost. Very nice girl, always smiling and quite helpful. Her boyfriend just nodded at both of us and continued along behind her to a table near the jukebox. Hal watched them walk away and sit down, then stared absent-mindedly at the wall beside them before turning back to me.

“You ever been with one of them submissive women?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Ya know… submissive. In the bedroom?”

I shook my head. I had gone out with plenty of girls over the years, but never any of the unusually sexual variety. Just honest girls who liked to have fun.

“Well I did, once.” Hal leaned in closer, as if frightened to discuss the topic too loudly. “She seemed normal. Didn't go out of her way to act unusual, ya know? But she was different, man."

I smiled. That is how good stories always started out. "Oh yea? How so?"

He placed his elbow on the bar and swiveled on the bar stool towards me. “Well, this gal came along right after Danielle left me. I met her over at the Gunnery over in Tarlton. She was kinda shy, which ain't too different, but there was somethin' about her.” He quieted himself again as he spoke. “She had secrets.”

Secrets? I expected quite a good story at that point.

“Yea, and I realized it soon enough. She had those emotional issues. Hated herself ‘n all. Who doesn’t, right? I was at a low point myself after Danielle, but this gal was there with me at the bottom of that barrel, and I think that’s what did it. Our self-pity was what connected us to each other. Her self-hate was beautiful. She was beautiful. Mind, body, and spirit. She was all there, man, and every shiver or tremble or slight movement came across like… like a wave, or somethin’.”

I looked at him cockeyed. “A wave?” As I said that I happened to glance down and noticed his pint glass was nearly empty and mine had been for the past couple of minutes, so I gestured to the bartender to bring us another round as Hal finished his. Stout, I told him. Hal’s eyes widened and narrowed as he attempted to keep his focus on the glass he had just slammed down, then shifted his eyes towards me. He was a good guy, but certainly looked mean as hell. He had a determined blue stare and it often startled the non-locals who stopped at the bar on their way to or from the air field when he suddenly turned in their direction and stared at them. His goal was to scare them right out of the place, but if they managed to survive his eerie staredown he would guffaw and buy them a round. His narrow Norse nose and hefty brown beard certainly lent him the look of a Viking, and when he got as drunk as he was just then his pallid skin became red as a tomato. I suppose he looked more like Santa Claus, especially with those whiskers that had sprouted up in his beard those last couple of years, but no one dared to tell him such a thing to his face.

He wrapped his fingers around the next pint and brought it to his lips, then continued as droplets rolled down from the corners of his lips and into his beard.

“You ever stood in the ocean, at that point where the wave crashes down, sucking you in and under it and spinnin’ you about, making you lose your sense of direction, or place, of time… of everything? That point where the wave crashes into you and you’re lost, you ain’t nothin’, and all you are is this little floating piece of flotsam, completely helpless and unable to free yourself no matter how hard you fight?”

I nodded. “Mm hmm.”

“Well, that’s what she did to me. Every hit, every shove, every foul word outta her sweet lips washed over me like a wave, tumblin’ me across and through my own mind. But, you know what? I wanted more. No matter how high or painful each crashin’ wave got, I wanted more.”

You can't sicken me.

As I said, Hal was a good guy. The other pilots and I who made regular stops at Gantree could always count on Hal to offer up a room at his house in town to help us save on an overnight stay at Hennessy’s Inn. Hal’s place was certainly big enough. I believe it was three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, that giant kitchen with one of those island counter set-ups in the middle, and the huge living room with a 62 inch television parked against one wall and a couch on the opposite wall. As far as we could tell Hal just slept on the couch and had formed a triangular path in his routine: living room, bathroom, and the kitchen. There were beds in the rooms upstairs, but as dusty as they were we doubted he ever stepped into those rooms.

Hal was already halfway through that next Stout when he resumed.

“She tried to make me stay away. Tellin’ me she was sick, and perverted, and I was too good a man to stay with her. Became more and more disturbed, which’d probably be better said as ‘more and more honest.’ She told me, and showed me, about her need to cut herself, her suicidal thoughts, her troubled childhood. And,” he slammed the glass down again, spilling more beer on the bar, “it wasn’t that she was a product of an abusive home. Nah, not that ol’ tired story. It was that she was a product of neglect. She needed a strong man type to control her. I tell ya, old as she was, what she wanted was a daddy.”

I chuckled. “Daddy, huh? Think I’ve heard of that. When women want an older man because their father was abusive, or I guess in her case their daddy wasn’t around?”

Hal smiled, his thick walrus moustache covering his lower lip entirely, and winked as he pointed at me. The wrinkles around his eye bunched up as his cheek rose. “You’re a smart lad, Tommy boy. It’s why I like talkin’ to ya, not like these bunch of LACKWITS!” He turned towards the tables out on what was supposed to be a dance floor and said the last part loudly enough to reach everyone inside, but no one turned. There were never any new people coming into town on a Wednesday.

When he saw that one was going to respond, he turned back to me. “Man, that woman. Her lust for pain was like nothin’ you’ve seen.”

“How do you know?” He laughed, then, and I couldn’t help but feel offended.

“Please, young buck. You ain’t been with a real woman yet, not like this one was. I seen you struttin’ outta here with Avery’s youngest; the pretty lil brunette number? If that’s a real woman I’m Fred Astaire.” I was tempted to stop him then at the mention of Avery’s daughter; Helen, a girl I’d gone out with a few times while in town. She was a nice girl and didn’t deserve to have her name dragged into the conversation. He continued before I had a chance to say anything.

“Nah, boy, I tell ya this woman had issues, same as me. She wanted the strike over the caress. It was kinda shockin’ at first, and it sorta felt like I was forcin’ myself to do it until eventually I didn’t even notice that I wanted it. Even when she became my ‘little girl’ and I’s her ‘daddy,’ I thought nothin’ of it. The love I held for her was so strong that I’d do anything for her, or to her, to keep her with me.” His eyes dropped to the floor. There was nothing there, so I assumed he was in one of those ponderous states when a man stares off into space and just thinks. “To feel her palm across my face, or the heat of her flesh between my fingers as I held her to me… it was… it was, uh… what’s the word, Tommy?”

“Painful?”

“Nah, ya ass. That ain’t it. That feelin’ when yer lost and in complete happiness.” He motioned with his hand for me to spit it out, but I had had several beers myself at that point and my mind wasn’t exactly running on all eight cylinders. Then he slammed his hand down on the bar.

Ecstasy! That’s it! Ecstasy, physical ‘n pure. There was nothin’ she could say or do that’d make feel disgusted at her. She seemed to be tryin’ so hard, and I tell ya it was somethin’ to see. I remember thinkin’ to myself, ‘Why’s she tryin’, for so long, to make me feel disturbed?’ And ya know, I always tried to look her in the eyes just so she could see that we were the same. I mean here she is worried she’s a disgustin’ human being, and I’m just the same! Man, she had ‘em hazel-gold orbs that she called her ‘drab eyes’ starin’ back into mine.” He trailed off again, and it seemed like he had struck another nerve within himself. His face was blank; not a wrinkle anywhere. “So many times, so many ways. I’d seen them eyes opened wide, rolled back, and how many times they was shut altogether. There was occasions when I had to imagine what her eyes was lookin’ like, ‘cause she wasn’t facin’ me.”

Tell me what you consider to be your most perverse, sick thoughts and I will nod thoughtfully and ask why you think that (or if it's something that I think isn't all that bad I may chuckle out loud).

Hal had finished another, and I was so engrossed by his story that I decided I was not going anywhere soon. I asked Mike, the bartender, for a pitcher, and urged Hal to continue his story. He was tomato red, as I mentioned, and began to slur words, so I knew I needed to get the rest of the story out soon or he would knock out right there on the bar. As his drinking buddy it would be up to me to get him to his place or he would be tossed in a cab and left at his front door. But I was far along as well, and when the pitcher came I poured him another. He opened his eyes wide when he saw the drink, smiled, and took it in his hand. He thankfully resumed before his next swig.

"She was afraid, man. Paranoid. Always thinkin' that I'd abandon her; that I'd think she was a perverse and sick human bein'. She was as normal as they came, and... and it was just..." Hal's head was bobbing and the brow above his right eye looked like it was ready to fly off, as high as it was raised. He was fading fast, and I knew that I should have just taken him home, but I needed to know.

"Hal," I told him, "come on. What was she telling you? Hey!" A pat on the shoulder brought him right up.

"What, what?"

"What did she tell you, Hal?"

"Oh, right, right..." He shook his head and smiled again as he continued. "Well is just weird to hear her try 'n convince me, ya know? She's the kinda woman's content in a world of fast food 'n malls 'n all that fashion jazz. Had her friends 'n her family and was just a picture of normal. So when she starts talkin' 'bout her fears and her 'sick' desires, can't help but smile and chuckle." He paused here to look at the television bolted to the wooden stand in the corner, above the Cognacs and Scotches and other bottles that had a fine layer of dust from lack of use. No locals could really afford the stuff except on the rare occasion when someone was having a bachelor party or birthday, and no pilot would touch them unless it was an extended stay. He stared off in that direction, at what could have only been the television, to watch the game for a moment. I glanced up at the television off in the other corner of the bar and glimpsed a player in burgundy running the ball for a first down.

Hal resumed talking as he watched the game. "I was lookin' at the floor the first time she confessed all that stuff about her wantin' me to control her 'n such. Then, I look up. There was tears in her eyes..." Hal chuckled lightly as he let that linger in the air for a spell. "And when my eyes looked into hers ya know what she did? She broke down into soft sobbin'. Straight tears 'n red cheeks, right there in front of me. All that pleasure and pain we'd done shared; all that emotion 'n physical stuff, and she never cried. But there she was, man. There she was... sittin' 'gainst the corner of the bed, one sweet 'n soft leg folded underneath another and arms folded. Tears in her eyes..."

I want to hear your insane thoughts.

"All of 'em, I told her.”

Her insane thoughts… that is a rather vague notion, insane thoughts. What could possibly constitute an insane thought? True insanity must be difficult to explain, particularly if someone truly is insane. An insane person can convey insanity by virtue of being insane, and to ask someone to explain insane thoughts seemed liked an odd request. Any thoughts discussed in a sane state of mind would surely be sane thoughts.

“How’s she going to tell you her insane thoughts?”, I asked him. “You haven’t said anythin’ that sounds like she’s nutty.”

Hal glared at me as he held his glass, still sitting on the bar with beads of condensation rolling down onto the varnish. He had not touched the glass for several minutes. “Who’s tellin’ this? You, boy? Did ye know her?”

“Nah I didn’t know her, I’m just—“

“Shut up! YOU SHATUP!” He bellowed this and it caught me off guard. As nice a guy as he was, there was a reason no one roused any trouble with him. He was a large guy, about six foot three, and stocky to boot. When he stood and puffed himself out as he did just then he looked ready to drive his fist into a tree. There was a story that he had tried that once and lost the use of his right hand for several months. Mike approached then, no slouch himself in the heft depart having come from a Polynesian family, and already known for tossing even the most intimidating drunk out into the street.

“You calm down, Hal. Am I going to have to escort you out of here?”

Hal turned to him, and he sat back down. Hal knew what I had just explained. “Nah Mike, relax. We’re just havin’ a talk is all.”

Mike looked at me and I nodded reassuringly, letting him know we were fine. When Hal saw that he had walked down to the other end of the bar he turned back to me and waved his hand in Mike’s direction dismissingly. “Goddamn Samoan, think he’s big shit…”

I told him I was sorry for talking about his girl, and he seemed to accept the sincerity. “So, you were sayin’ you asked her about her crazy thoughts?”

He eyed me warily and drank more of his beer before continuing. “Not crazy, Tommy. ‘Insane’ is what she said. And I told her, gimme what ya got. Every pretty sick lil thought that she hid away from the world, and I told her I'd tell her all mine.”

“Sure she wasn’t tryin’ to trick you or somethin’?”

He shut his eyes and burped with his mouth closed as he shook his head. "No, no, this gal was on the level. She told me… she told me what she’d done, least some of what she’d done. What’d been done to her…” Hal muttered and I could scarcely hear, so I leaned in closer. “And I said I’d tell ‘er things I’d done. Secrets ‘n all. I would and did.”

Then he smiled again and laughed. “I tell ya if I’ver run for President I’d need to have ‘er taken care of. She got that much on me!”

You don't have any twisted thoughts? Don't fuckin’ tell me that. We all do. They cross our minds, and they're just that, thoughts in our minds. It doesn't mean any of the weird, twisted things we think will come to fruition. So, tell me what you think will sicken and disgust me.

"Taken care of." I didn't think much of that when he said it, but in hindsight I should have seen it for what it was: a warning. Hal, as good a guy as he was, had demons. I mean, he was telling me right then that he hated himself, and that he liked when this woman hit him and yelled at him, and even that he had hit her. And all I could think at the time was how interesting such a woman would be. Her background must have been troubled, somehow, and now I was more interested in talking to her about this. To find out how she felt...

"She tried to talk 'bout her normal side..." Hal continued his side of the story as I pondered hers. "... was clear from the beginnin' she ain't normal. She's more'n normal. She asks once if I thought she's weird. I say 'Yes'..."

"Why?" I said. "Like sayin' yes when she asks if she's fat."

He nodded and smiled. His eye lids were dropping heavily at that point. "Guess so, but I ain't nothin' if I ain't a man who speaks it like it is. But yeh...", he stumbled forward and I had to hold him up. "Um, yeh... what?"

"What?"

"What'd you say?"

"Nothin'. You were talkin' about her bein' weird." He glared at me then leaned to the side again against the bar.

"Right... um, angry. She got pissed, which always got to her slappin' me... and then bare naked on a table, uh, anyhow. Callin' me 'sick mother fucker' 'n such. She tried, she did, 'n chump in me took it and liked it, then turned right ‘round and gave 'er some..."

I assure you, I won't look away.

"Goddamn, son, she was a beauty. She was, she was... goddamnit..."

I was glad. Ecstatic! I'd heard all about this woman, this exciting and troubled and obviously sexually twisted woman, and I felt like a teenager finding out about Playboys again. And I was finally going to hear about her beauty. Hal was now hobbling to and fro, the rest of his beer finished with one final swig and drops running down his lower lip. He was beyond stewed.

"Emotion 'n spiritual, all that... but she was a beauty. Freckly all on 'er nose; one of them bumped noses, like women over in Europe have. There ain't many noses like that 'round here. Not long, white 'n goddamn pretty. Narrow too, like somethin' ya see in a art textbook from school ya know? Like some dead master painter type sat down with God 'n said, 'Hey, God, I got this nose I thought up. A real pretty nose. I think ya outta use it on one of ‘em ladies down below heaven 'n test 'er out.' Now God, he ain't no fool, I figure, so he'd ask this guy, 'Well, I got plenty of good noses. I made noses. I know noses. Why's your nose any better 'an mine?' And this master painter, he'd say, ''cause it'd be a shame, God, a shame if this here nose don't grace the dominion of man. This nose, it outta be shared with 'em.'' And goddamn, Tommy, ‘er nose... I loved 'er nose..." Hal trailed off, his head dropping.

I understood she had a fine nose, but what about the rest of her? "Fine, fine, but what else? Hey, Hal! Hey' come on."

"Come on what? She had a fuckin' pretty nose! I loved ‘er nose!" Just as quickly as he yelled that out his arm was on my shoulder, and only moments later I was on the ground looking up at him. His chest was out and stomach pulled in as he loomed over me.

"Ya jealous, Tommy? Jealous of my woman, 'cause you only had girls? Ya ain't never seen 'em like mine, Tommy. Never! Hair as dark as night, and shiny as hell. Them lips as red as the hearts of the livin’. That touch of ‘ers like... electricity! Electricity shootin' through..."

Mike was on him, his arms wrapped under his armpits and holding him back. "Hal, Hal! Stop! Goddamnit, stop! Stop mov--" In one hard thrust Hal pushed himself back and into the bar, crushing Mike's back against himself and the varnished edge of the hard wood. Mike's face contorted into an odd grimace as his hold loosened and Hal pulled forward. He stepped towards me to the spot on the ground where I'd fallen when he pushed me. His face was beet red now, which if possible seemed darker than the tomato red he had already been. His hands were clenched so tightly that I was sure I was about to take a beating, and he was shaking like a mad man. As drunk as I was I had no coherent reaction to the imminent beating. What could I do except watch?

“You sum bitch… yea, yer jealous. Whaddya ya fuckin’ know. You ain’t knowin’ love, not like this. Goddamn, you jealous of my woman… my lil woman.” As he swayed from left to right, to and fro, he paused. I’ll never forget that moment. His face, which although fearsome with the piercing blue rage and stark beard, was surprising. I had seen him drunk and angry and happy, but the face looking down on me then was not any of those. It was something I had not seen before. Hal’s face was twisted up all right, but it was twisted into the most heart-wrenching frown I had ever seen. Tears were forming along the rims of his eye lids.

“My lil fuckin’ woman…”, he said.

Why did you lie to me?

Hal was a forgiving guy, I have to give him that. As angry as he could get he had a soft spot for women and believed it is a man’s duty to “help women because they need us,” which really just meant he was whipped in the worst kind of way. He rarely mentioned his ex-wife, but as far as we could tell Hal had smothered her to the point where she had to leave. He loved her too much. So as I sat there on the floor that night, listening to him tell me about this woman, I felt as if I had crossed a line. I had opened a wound that he would not forget. These were more than simple feelings for a woman, and while the relationship between a man and a woman is certainly a difficult one to navigate, this was a step beyond. Hal was a tortured man and I had brought it all out of him. He did not know where to go.

He stood up straight and tucked his lower lip underneath his upper, the deep lines running from his nose to the sides of his mouth cutting deep into the flow of tears. Hal looked down on me, my own eyes narrowed as the faint lights from the lamps shone down upon us.

“Look, Hal…” He turned, then, grabbing chairs and tables along the way to keep from falling, and stumbled his way to the door. He did not turn back and I did not dare to speak again until the heavy wooden door had swung shut.

The intensity of the silence after he left kept me from moving. I needed to register what had occurred. I needed to wait and make sure he was not going to come back inside and break his hand again. The only sound in the bar was the music coming out of the jukebox; something about “cheap sunglasses.” I did not move again until the song ended and Mike gave me his hand.

“You okay?”

I nodded. “Yea, um… yea, I’m good. Sorry about this. We just got to talkin’ and he lost it. How’re you?”

Mike smirked and picked up the bar stool that I had been sitting on. “Fine, as long as you’re good.” As he set the stool back and walked around to clear our glasses and pitcher I reached into my pocket, pulling out a bill. I held it in front of Mike and he looked at it then nodded, pulling it from my hand. To this day I have no idea how much I gave him. When I turned around to walk out I could not help but notice Sam and her man in the corner next to the jukebox. She was glancing in my direction, and was not smiling.

When I stumbled outside I stopped a few feet ahead of the door, listening to the muffled sound of the next song behind me. The steady hum in a drunk man’s ears. I shoved my hands in my pocket, keeping the cold at bay although not very well given I was only wearing a t-shirt, and stared up at the sky. The sky was always clear there in Gantree.

“She’s a liar ya know.”

I turned to my right to find Hal sitting on the curb, partially hidden next to a yellow Honda. He was hunched over, his arms hanging between his legs. “She’s a liar.”

All the fierceness in him was gone. In fact, all the emotion was gone. He just sat there looking out across the street at a house whose porch light flickered. I could not see anything in his face, although as dark as it was I probably would not have been able to see much. I walked to him and stood slightly behind him, looking in the same general direction of the house with the flickering light.

“How’d she lie?”, I asked him.

He smacked his lips then raised his hand, stroking his beard as he spoke. “I got hard eyes. Can’t look away. Had ‘er hand up over ‘er eyes when she was tellin’ me. Loved them fingers. I wanted to hold ‘n feel them fingers always. But just then I hated ‘em. She’d never been scared of me since I known ‘er, but when she was tellin’ me ‘bout ‘er lyin’ she had a looka fear. She was scared outta ‘er wits.” Hal brought his hands together and rubbed them to warm up, then looked down at them. Stared intently at them. “I ain’t scareda much, Tommy. I can handle it. It’s just me I’m scared of. My power to hurt’s what should be feared ‘cause the power to cause pain ain’t nothin’ short of horrible.”

I stepped closer then and placed my hand on his shoulder. It seemed like the thing to do.

“And know what she said to me ‘bout why she lied?”, said Hal. “She said, ‘I didn't want to lose ya. I didn't want to lose the beauty ‘n love.’"

I can’t go back. I’ve beared witness to the soul.

I didn’t see Hal again after that night, but I have not been able to forget it. I replay it all in my mind over, and over, and over again, and the fact that I remember it all so vividly always seemed odd. It is as if it was meant to happen; meant to glean some fact or lesson from it all, but what I could not decide. Perhaps it was not a simple lesson. And perhaps it was not a lesson at all. I only understand that I was a much simpler man before then. There was nothing more than that which I saw on the surface, and I was content in my acceptance of the world for what it was. Now, I don’t see what I see. My mind sees everything as it is beneath the surface, only I do not know if what I think I see is real or perceived. I never will be able to go back to before Hal’s story, and I am in constant fear of meeting a woman like her. I fear becoming Hal.

I flew into Gantree a couple of times a month for another year or so but never stopped by Mike’s again, and I always made my walks into town brief and as quickly as possible. It was straight to Hennessy’s then back to the field the next morning. And it’s odd, but there’s still one thing I wonder about. One thing I wanted to ask him. Hal told me deeply personal things about his relationship with this woman. Emotional issues and words of beauty and rage. Words of the great love he had with this submissive, attractive woman who had ensnared him so severely. He just never told me her name.

***

"Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones."
- A warning, "Henry and June"

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