If Thou Sorrow
By Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Summary: Remember when in "The Road To Hope," Murdock said he knew a little something about Skid Row? A brief glimpse into that period in his life. ATSB prompt response "Tape."
Warnings: Brief profanity.
Disclaimer: TAT belongs to SJC and Universal. This is me borrowing them for a short walk down a dark alley. The quotations are from Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Dedicated: To H.S., and to all the men who carry their memories of Vietnam with them.
Between the dusk and the crumbling buildings and the fickle California stormclouds, there is only darkness.
The streets are coated in it, as if from a paintbrush in some giant's clumsy hand. The darkness is as real as the acrid stink of cat piss and rotgut liquor, and the yellowed newspapers that blow through the canyons of the urban desert like rogue tumbleweeds.
No one with any sense is out on Garrett Street. There's only a stringy woman carrying a paper sack out of the TOBACCO N BEER store, plastic poncho draped around bony shoulders as she shuffles off. From a brick building a few doors up, a trio of teenage boys with souls like hyenas watch her go, gimlet eyes narrowing.
She isn't even worth the entertainment value of mugging.
The LAPD, along with "respectable" citizens and neighbors and maybe even hope itself, leave this squalid corner of the city well alone. Crack pipes sprout like dandelions everywhere. At the corner of Garrett and Blount, a block down, various poisons in Baggies with catchy street names trade hands, as do stacks of grimy currency.
There are no birds. Even the pigeons, small as their avian brains are, keep their distance. Rats grown to obscene size war with the grizzed tomcats over scraps of spoiled meat and rancid vegetables.
He has been here for three nights. He never stays anywhere very long.
Right now, his "home" is the little alcove in front of what used to be Trustees Bank and Loan but is now only one of many shabby storefronts with a "For Lease" sign in the window. The location is good (next to the only greasy spoon in the neighborhood and its Dumpster), and usually the sewer doesn't overflow.
And the view is terrific.
There's a gap between TOBACCO N BEER and the tattoo parlor two doors down, like a missing tooth. Between the gap, the L.A. skyline appears like a shimmering vision. Emerald City with a lot more smog.
It could have been on the moon. It is out of reach, like trying to catch a sigh in midair.
He pulls his threadbare blanket down, stretches, bites his tongue to make sure that yes, he's still alive for one more day in the gutters of hell. If he'd had a can of sardines or Spam, he might have enjoyed it as a "breakfast." But he doesn't, and he can only pull ruefully at the stale-tasting water in his Coke bottle. Imagines that it's bacon and eggs and toast and a smiling waitress at HoJo.
All last night, he dreamed. It's a rare night when he doesn't.
Sometimes, if he's lucky, it's one of the easier ones. Just the thunder of rotors and the zip-zip-zip of tracers going past and oh-God the screams of the dying and wounded grunts as they were carried aboard his Huey…
In his flared nostrils, he can smell diesel and the smoke from scores of burning thatch huts. Not cat piss.
Nighttime is his time. Time to walk, and to think, and try and lose some of the things without names that trail him wherever he goes. Things with bared fangs and talons honed to wicked points. Things that whispered to him and salivated over the prospect of eating his still-steaming flesh.
He needs coffee. There is none. Another pull at the bottle. Maybe, if he's resourceful, he can scrounge enough for a Mountain Dew or an actual cup of joe tonight. He lets the ratty blanket fall, and rises to his full scarecrow height.
It's been a while since he looked in even a broken pane of glass. If he could have, he'd have seen his terror-filled eyes, rolling in their sockets like a mustang pursued by wolves, his shaggy, matted hair, the layers of sweat and fear and loneliness caking his skin.
He would have seen a ghost.
A thousand voices, like radio chatter, gallop across his mind from every direction. Some he knows. Others are only shreds of torn memories.
"…get this motherfuckin' bird outta here before…"
"…Captain, you saved Cpl. Sturgis' life and…"
"…by God, she's burning, did you SEE that sumbitch…"
"…call me, Murdock, I'm really worried about you…"
It's the last voice that is the most familiar. He is so hungry and thirsty and strung out on cheap caffeinated drinks, he can't remember whose voice it is.
He part-hums part-sings, the words coming in spurts as he remembers them.
"When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…"
The Queen of Angels is not there on Garrett Street. It is only him in the darkness, along with the sputtering neon signs of the few businesses still open and the distant, plaintive howl of a police siren.
That part he still remembers. He is a deranged coyote, lifting his head and announcing to the world, or at least to Skid Row, that he is still alive and full of piss and rainwater and last night's stale half of a Twinkie he found in the Dumpster.
When Coyote howls, the hunters hear. In this case, the hunters are the trinity of gangbangers from 1458. They are drawn to him like flies to fresh blood.
The one in the lead smiles, revealing a mouth full of gold. "Didn't know we had visitors. Know how we like to greet visitors?" The word is spoken mockingly.
Behind him, there's a sharp snick as one of his friends snaps open a six-inch blade.
He freezes. This is fight or flight. Flight is not an option (though he wishes, for just a moment, that he were facing these human pieces of shit from the cockpit of a Cobra and not from the stoop of a long-dead bank.) He makes his decision.
In a low voice, he speaks:
"When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly 's done,
When the battle 's lost and won?"
"The hell?" one of the 'bangers mouths.
He continues, unleashing the full force of his monologue and, as the knife-bearer approaches him, a good deal of the Jiu Jitsu moves he once learned from (who?)
"Son of a bitch!" The banger screams, the knife clattering to the steps. "Broke my fuckin' wrist!"
"Let's get outta here," their leader mutters. He knows easier, and less apeshit crazy, prey can be found in other parts of their urban jungle. They slink away, and they are gone.
On the stoop, he sits down. The thug's dropped shiv is there. It stares at him, an exclamation point on the faded concrete. With gentle hands, he picks it up.
"Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand?"
In these times, it is always the words of others that comfort him, and not his own. That one, he knew, was Starsky? Salk? Sherman? Like so many other things, it escapes him.
He cannot think what to do. Cannot think at all. So he cries. Slowly at first, then an uncontrollable shaking, heaving torrent.
And the clouds above release their payload at last. Fat, heavy droplets soak him and his meager belongings in seconds. The few stragglers around the bar and the tattoo place hurry inside, leaving him all alone once again. When he hears the voice, he tries to push it away.
"Didi mau. Du ma nheiu ! » Automatically, he speaks the language he knows the speaker will understand.
There's no need for that, Captain. Look at me.
No one calls him that, at least not anymore. He's curious enough to lift his head for just an instant. And between the streaks of despair and the rain and the grime, he sees.
"What…what are you doing here?"
Because she shouldn't be here. She shouldn't be anywhere. But she is, here on Garrett Street, nonetheless.
Her name is (Le? Linh?) and has seen her face in dreams many times over the years. She looks like he remembers: soft eyes, silky hair framing a pretty face.
She is whole. When he left her, she was broken.
I have something for you.
He shuts his eyes. This is another trick. The pointy-talony things are using Le Linh as a disguise, and they'll tear him to pieces.
But she's still there when he opens them again.
He knows whatever it is, he can't possibly want. It's like a car smashed into the embankment wall going 90 and he can't force himself to look away.
Please? Her lips don't move; he can still hear her words. His hand shakes like the last leaf on a maple tree as he reaches tentatively out.
When he sees what's in his hand, he wants to laugh. She came all this way, back from the edges of hell itself, to give him
"A tape dispenser?" He stops sobbing. "What am I gonna do with this?"
Le blinks. As if she expects him to answer his own question. When he doesn't, she does for him.
You are going to make yourself whole again.
A dagger of regret plunges deep into his heart. "The way I didn't do for you?" He can only think of her lithe body racing, trying to outrun the tongues of flame and reach his bird…almost…
She can't be one of the devouring things. They would not reach out and touch his forearm as tenderly as a mother would.
That wasn't your fault. None of that was your fault. How can I forgive you if there's nothing to forgive?
There's a dryness in his throat which has nothing to do with the fact that he's parched. "What about you? Your family?"
What's done can't be undone. He's sure that's from that S-guy (Steinbeck? Salinger?) again.
The tears build up behind the dam of his resolve. So close to breaking again. "What am I supposed to do?"
Make yourself whole. Make yourself whole, Captain. The world needs you.
Le lifts her hand. It's the world's greatest magic trick. She vanishes.
The only drops that spatter the steps are the ones trickling from his cheeks.
It is, for him, the middle of the day. For everyone else, an hour of deep sleep and happier dreams than his own. He dodges the shadows along Garrett Street, a new resolve in his step and a slight bulge in his filthy cords where he's shoved Le's gift.
Whole. It's a strange word for him to hear, when he's been shattered for the better part of his last year.
From the other pocket, he removes his last quarter. One of those special commemorative ones with the drummer boy on the back. Ahead is the only phone booth which still works in the desert of Garrett.
The receiver is sticky; he can only guess what the source of that might be. He lifts, puts the quarter in, and dials.
Four rings, then five. He's about to give up when…
"Thank you for calling A Bushel and a Peck, your source for exotic tropical travel and rare flowers…"
Then, a muffled "'Lo?" interrupts the perky recording.
He's lost for words. That's the voice.
"Who's there?" The voice is thick with sleep.
"Oh, my God…Murdock, is that you?"
"Yeah." His voice is hoarse, rusty from disuse and thirst. "Um…how's everything?"
Face's voice turns from sleepy to deadly serious. "Forget that! Where are you? Are you OK?"
He sounds just like he used to. Big brother taking care of little, since neither of them had a real brother.
"Um…remember you talkin' about me checkin' into that one place?" Just giving it a name gives it validity, and he doesn't want to do that.
"I haven't heard from you in six months! We thought you were still in that little studio in Venice, but your phone was disconnected and nobody knew where you'd gone." His voice breaks at the end.
"I…I think I need to go there. The Place." The final nail in his decision.
"I think that's the right thing to do," Face says after a moment. "Just let me know where you are and I'll come get you, all right? Don't do anything until I get there. You'll be OK. I won't let anything happen to you."
He sounds so convincing, like he always did. Murdock rattles off some numbers from the closed tailor shop next door, then hesitates. "Face?"
"I…I really missed you guys."
"We've missed you too. Hang tight, I'll be there in about fifteen minutes. I'll be driving that blue LeBaron you always hated."
The fear, an unrestrained juggernaut, wants to break loose and do more damage. But he won't let it. Not anymore. For Le.
"Face, will I like it there? I've heard some really awful things about those places…"
"You'll be find. It's just a VA hospital. It's not a jail." And Murdock does know about those places, too. "Just stay where you are."
It's so quiet after he hangs up. No crickets chirping, or sirens, or the soft patter of rain. Just him.
He knows that he will have to be enough, if ever he is to be whole again.
Just to make sure, he pats his left pocket for the reassuring lump that is a Scotch tape dispenser.
It's right where it belongs.