John Sullivan received the "Jack Kerouac Literary Prize," "Writers Voice: New Voices of the West" award, AZ Arts fellowships (poetry / playwriting), Artists Studio Center fellowship, WESTAF fellowship, was a featured playwright at Denver's Changing Scene Summer Play (Changing Scene Theatre), and an Eco-Arts Performance fellow from EMOS / University of Oregon. He was Artistic/Producing Director of Theater Degree Zero, and directed the Augusto Boal / Theatre of the Oppressed focused applied theatre wing at Seattle Public Theater. For the past decade, he has used Theatre of the Oppressed with communities in the Deep South to promote dialogue on cumulative risk / environmental justice issues between communities and NIEHS environmental health scientists. He was selected as a juried poet for the 2016 iteration of the Houston Poetry Festival. He has had work published in various journals including: Hayden's Ferry Review, The Lucid Stone, Black Bear Review, OVS, Oddball, California Quarterly, Steel Toe Review and Tumbleweeds: Writers Reading the West.
“If I thought my life could cleanse you
of the hurt, of the memory, I would open
up my shirt and let you take it from me.
But it won't – we’re too much the same now …”
Manny runs his finger up and down the furrow of his long scar. Across his left cheekbone and down his lower jaw, he runs his finger up and down, and strokes the vestige of his left earlobe like fur down the back of a nervous cat.
He thinks: I can still feel it. Smooth and cold, like rubber, yeah … rubber. The scar tingles underneath his finger.
He thinks and strokes and his fingers remember that ghost ear that once hung down full from his skull. Before he prowled the La Drang Valley twenty years or so back. He feels that steel kiss his ear like a barbed tongue, again … and so hot it was all around, so hot, and that flash of light, too.
He smiles at that old ghost in his mind, and that old ghost smiles back.
He thinks: good thing I ain’t a woman. No place left up there to screw in a bangle. He smiles and runs a knuckle back and forth against his chin.
Ear’s such a sweet spot on a woman, he thinks, and smiles.
He strokes the scar again. He always plays with his scar when he’s jumpy, or feeling stiff and froggy for a woman, or drifting in a sea of ghosts that sham as memories. Right now, he’s on edge for his plans to payoff. He plays his scar up and down like he’s vamping up and down the long neck of a standup bass.
Manny set up in the burned ruins of the Boree Market a full two hours back. With a clear view of Main Street from one of its punched-out glassless windows, he scans the street in quadrants, slowly, north from the old Territorial Hotel to the Exxon station out along the south highway that leads down to Tucson. He hears those crazy flying pinto beans – monster, brainless June-bugs – whack against the same block wall he leans against, and imagines them knocked-out on the pavement, then kicking on their backs until they lurch over upright, take off in another drunken spiral, and smack into another wall. He hears the deep thrum of ghostly Luna Moths swarming: hears them, first, as a low pervading echo. Feels, then, deep vibrations like their huge wings are beating inside his own body. He can almost gauge which storefront bulb harbors how many moths by the cast of light and the depth of that communal hum. He learned to see and hear, that precisely, shooting from a sniper-blind along the DMZ.
He squints through a telescopic sight mounted on his .243 Marlin. The Marlin rests on a bipod, propped up on the sill of a square hole that once held a window. He adjusts the sight’s focus and squints through it again. The sight is trained on a pale fire of reflected halogen light a few feet south of the front door of the Idle Spurs, open late on this Saturday night.
He thinks: this shot’s in my blood. I seen this shot every night I spent inside, behind the walls, and the wire. You hear me, Peso Man? I seen this shot every night when I closed my eyes. I seen it on the walls when I woke up. All the while I took the fall you rigged for me, I seen this shot. I don't need no scope for this shot.
He fiddles with the focus ring, and smiles again.
He thinks: this shot’s in my blood. I just want to see your face up close. When it hits you.
As he watches, a black El Camino pulls into a parking space in front of the bar, and sits there with the engine still on. Two young Pima girls climb out from the truck bed and reel toward the door like blind, crazy windmills. One falls, and the man that’s running them leaps out of the cab and picks her up, and cuffs her through the door into the bar. Then a man and woman come outside to jam their tongues into each other’s mouths, and paw skin in a corner where the jagged light from the neon bar sign doesn’t show much, and the streetlight doesn’t reach.
He thinks: you’re a damn horny bastard, Frank Short.
Here you are about hosin’ Rae on the street while your old lady steady frigs herself out in Valley Farms. Least I know you’ll keep your mouth shut ‘cause you ain’t supposed to be here, and I just cut the phone. But that won’t save your ass from the long haul. I still owe you a good one, deputy, and it’s coming down.
And not ‘til you’ve forgotten why.
Frank Short throws his head back, and laughs. Rae stands up against him, on tip-toes, and kisses, then bites, his exposed neck. They tussle; they walk away from the bar and its lights, north, toward the Territorial Hotel. He watches, as they veer back and forth across the sidewalk, clasped together on unsteady legs.
He imagines a big drunk insect, and laughs.
He watches other people come and do their business, and their passions, but none of these are the right people. He waits specifically for Tommie Borquez, the Peso Man of Florence, and his latest main puta, Trink.
The front door of The Spurs opens, and another, this time just slightly wrong, person steps into the crosshairs. The Suicide King stretches out his spidery arms underneath the light, reaches into his shirt pocket, pulls out a smoke and lights it. He balances on the curb and looks around - cautious cat that he is - to his left, to his right, then stares across the night toward Manny’s invisible set up in the Boree ruins, and sniffs the dusty air laced with acacia and creosote. He steps off the curb and walks toward his jacked-up 4X4, all in one easy move. Like he’s always got that strut going on, you know, he’s always got to stick it out like he owns it all. There’s no one on the street, but he waves his cigarette around like he’s talking to someone while he walks.
Manny thinks: stupid mother-fucker don’t own a thing he ain’t strong-armed or borrowed on the sly. Not a thing.
He laughs. It comes out like a soft sigh.
Look at how he holds that smoke and waves it in the air like a damn piece of chalk.
He looks like a damn school teacher pointing that piece of chalk at one face, then another, holding forth, reading it all off the ceiling.
The Suicide King opens his Silverado and hops in. Manny watches him ease out onto the street and cruise away south. He sees that King has kept the same logo on his driver side door: a pointy looking full face King of Hearts: the Suicide King that jabs himself in the neck with his own sword. But he’s changed that Red King’s look to suit his own delusions. This new version on the pick-up door has sharp cheekbones, red, white, green and yellow plumage like an Aztec king, and black eyes with no bottom, just red points in the center. But just like in the old school, that broad sword in the King’s neck is still up to its hilt in blood.
Manny thinks: Ol’ King’s gonna’ shit real blood when he finds out I’m back. Yeah King, it’s you and me and the Peso Man, moving back into balance, once again. Staying close to prophecy. Just like time was.
Now, a moth hums a few inches from his own ear. The thrumming sound reminds him of a bad pulse. A thready pulse you get from someone who’s lost a lot of blood, whose body is sliding into deep shock. Manny reaches out to wave the moth away. It’s soft body snags against his spread-out fingers. He holds the moth in his palm, close to his face. In the strong glow from the halogen streetlamp above Boree’s storefront, he sees flecks of soft dust coating the moth’s body, wings covered in the same dust, and one of those wings is bent over, and damaged. He drops the moth on the concrete slab, regards it for a moment, and steps on it, grinding a little with his boot heel. He leans back into position at the scope and retunes the focus. At that moment, Tommie Borquez and Trink step into that ring of light outside the Idle Spurs.
Manny grinds his tongue against dry lips, breathes deeply a few times for balance, and shifts his head, shoulders and hands into position.
He thinks: a hot night for crazy bugs, for soft, dusty moths and Kings that don't know nothing. A night for steady hands to brew up a big old surprise for the Peso Man. This shot’s in my blood, Peso Man, this shot’s good as done. Written down in prophecy, already.
Tommie and Trink survey the main drag, it would seem, self-consciously, and adjust their hair, and hats and other accesories. Tommie lights a smoke for Trink, one for himself, and moves his smoking hand through the warm night air in a slow spiral. Like he’s telling a story.
Playing to the crowd, again, thinks Manny. You never make a move without the jive-weight and cheap-ass elegance of you – just you! – being there for all eyes, smack in the first row center of your mind, do you, Mr. Peso Man?
A hot itch moves across Manny’s scar, but his fingers are busy elsewhere. Like a magic harp that plays itself, my own scar, he thinks, my instrument of memory, my bad need, my hammer. I hear you playing them old pay-back blues, he thinks and smiles. His scar burns and itches as he calms his body down for the real work.
He checks the scope a last time.
So beauty reaches out to life just a little, now, Peso Man, he thinks. And we both understand how much this ride is worth, no?
He breathes out slowly and squeezes the trigger. Tommie Borquez’s left knee explodes in a welter of blood, bone and jagged tissue, and he collapses hard onto the sidewalk, his face twisted up in a knot of pain. Trink screams and grips her ears and her temples tight with open palms, looking to block the reverb from that shot, Tommie’s groans, her own full-throated scream, maybe, looking up and down Main Street like a scared cactus jenny wren.
And just a quickly as it all went down, she stops.
She bends down and falls to her knees, and gently cradles Tommie’s head in her lap: worried mother, aching lover, loyal soldier. Like love, need and loyalty could even help.
Manny smiles a tight, no-kind-of-fun smile, all lip and way too tight. He removes his shooting gloves and smells his hands, instinctively, for powder trace, as if no one would know.
He can’t decide, so after he stashes his weapon and his other gear beneath the false bottom in his Trans Am’s trunk, he washes his hands in gasoline from a Gerry can. He dries his hands on his jeans, climbs into the driver’s seat and fires up the engine. He crawls through the alley behind Boree’s on fast idle, and pulls out into Main Street.
He thinks: now comes the sweet part, Mr. Brother Peso Man. Now I get to do this part quick and hard. You and me both know how it goes. Like the last time … at China Wash, that’s how.
He pulls up in front of the Idle Spurs. He gets out and puts on a long, black canvas duster, deliberately. He notices the jumpy crowd of faces in the glass window in the front door of the bar. Different people shove their heads in the window, jostling for a peek at the scene on the sidewalk. They look all spooked like stupid, nervous horses, peeking out timidly, just a few seconds each. So he adjusts his coat’s lapels, again deliberately – we all got to strut our bad presence for them first row seats, my brother - and pops a new white Resistol on his head, adjusts it in his side mirror, just-so.
He thinks: they all need a good look. They need to see how quick prophecy can come down on a man. Let ‘em all know where it’s coming from, and who’s the Right Hand of The Word, now. They’re going to keep their mouths shut, ‘cause that’s the rule, but they’ll hold this moment in their minds for years.
Finally, he cranks up the volume on his car stereo: something with a bass thwap, wrangling lead arpeggios in sheets like a hard monsoon rain, with a lot of gnashing teeth in the mix. He leaves the window down and the engine at idle, and swagger-steps over to the stricken pair, huddled on the pavement. He looks down on the bleached-out, bloodied form of the Peso Man and his woman on the sidewalk. Looks down on them like a horned owl with the ache of hunger in his belly.
“Peso Man,” he says. “What’s this funky-ass mess you making on the sidewalk?”
He points at Trink and talks to Peso Man.
“This your bitch’s time of the month, huh? Shit man, you best get you a better class of bitch than this one. Tu sabes.”
Trink cries harder. She winds her arms tight around the Peso Man’s head.
Manny leans his long body close to the Peso Man. He bends a little at the waist so they can both get a better view of each other’s face. The Peso Man’s brow, cheeks and hair drip sweat. His pupils are near blown, and his body jerks now and then, as if a strange electric rhythm pulsed inside it. But not too damn strange, and certainly not fatal.
He thinks: you should die so easy, Peso Man. Can’t rightly screw a man if you just kill him outright.
“Don’t sweat it my man, you gonna’ make it. I wildcatted that load my own self. Just enough juice to make its point.”
And stay jammed up in your memory, he thinks.
He nudges the Peso man’s left leg with the toe of his boot. Tommie Borquez screams in spite of his instincts. He bites down hard on his lip to stop that sound and opens another wound. His face returns to its blurred half-focus. His eyes seem to wander somewhere off behind Manny’s right shoulder: toward the dark mass of the old Boree Market, or Gibby’s Restaurant, or the harsh glare of the Arizona State Prison…
“I see you get the point,” he says and crouches down in front of the Peso Man. He runs a finger up and down the length of his itchy, burning scar and looks directly into the Peso man’s eyes.
“You shoulda’ finished it, brother. When you left me in the sand out in China Wash with three big bags a’ chiva, when you cut my leg out from the back … I remember you said, King, you said, c’mon man, leave the motherfucker. He’s gonna’ bleed but he’s gonna’ make it. The county’s comin’ real soon. Got it direct from la chivata, but you already know that.”
“Then you laughed at me. You turned to King and laughed at me, and you said, “maybe Frank Short’ll find his ass before the ants do. Whatever’s left of it. Ha – ha – ha.”
Manny pries Trink’s arms from around the Peso Man’s head and pushes her aside. She lays there on the sidewalk in a tense ball and squalls as he grabs the Peso Man’s “lapels” with both hands and jerks him up, abruptly, into a painful sitting position, and pulls Tommie’s contorted face closer to his own and whispers.
“I heard that laugh every night and every day when I was inside. I can hear that stupid laugh right now.”
Again, abruptly, he drops the Peso Man back onto the pavement. He crouches close to Tommie’s face, runs his pointing finger up and down the length of his scar, and watches as the Peso Man’s chest heaves up and down. Tommie Borquez makes a weak, barely audible groan, and Manny smiles.
“You didn't finish me when you had the chance. But you’ve got to see how nothing but fair this is. I know you ain’t one to get all rattled by a little fair retribution. Your heart’s been weighed in the balance, and you come up a tad short, brother. And now, this dog’s done runnin’, that’s all.”
He leans closer, breath to breath.
“My brother, this dog is home again. Resurrected. Changed by war and prophecy, and two years in the tomb. This dog is home and, now, this dog wants back in. You gonna’ take this ol’ war dog back in, hermano?”
He pokes his pointing finger into the Peso Man’s ribs, sharply. Tommie Borquez exhales another groan, and another. Trink crawls back over to him, keeping one arm over her face. She kneels behind him and carefully places his head back in her lap and rewinds her arms around his neck, and rocks slowly back and forth on her knees, and moans as she rocks.
Manny gazes down on Trink as if no one else existed on that street. His lips curl upward into a weird, abstracted smile, and he winks at her. Then he turns his concentration back to the Peso Man.
“You got that, brother? This ol’ war dog wants back inside the big man’s house. You go ahead and tell King, the dog is back and it’s all gonna’ split three ways, again. You hear me, Peso man? We all gonna’ live close to prophecy. Just like time was.”
He reaches into his duster and pulls out a clasp knife, and unfolds it, and holds the point close to the Peso Man’s face. Trink gasps and cringes back from his slow extending knife-hand. She nearly drops the Peso man’s head in her scramble to move backwards.
“But first, I got a little more work to do. Time for this motherfucker to count some coup.”
He cuts away the Peso Man’s eponymous sterling belt buckle with the Mexican gold piece circled by turquoise and silver flute players with their jet eyes, and their lightning. Then he saws off the silver coins that Tommie Borquez keeps tied around his booted ankles like slave bracelets. He stows these relics in his duster pocket, folds up the knife and slips it back in the pocket against his chest. He lowers his head, again, face to face with the Peso Man.
“Now I gotta’ borrow your bitch for a minute, too.”
Manny grabs Trink by the hair and pulls her head toward his mouth. She drops Tommie Borquez and his head hits the pavement. He twists her around to face the Peso Man. And slowly, with deep concentration, even delicacy, and a glazed-over look, he licks her earlobes. He pushes his fat tongue deep inside her ear and, again, pushes, and again, even harder, pushes and sighs from inside his chest, while Trink shivers, and her eyes jerk open and shut in r.e.m. -like spasms.
He finishes, and shoves Trink back onto the pavement. He wipes spit from his lips with the back of his hand and stands up, looking down at the Peso Man.
“Now it’s almost back to steady, eh? Close to prophecy. Like back in the day.”
Manny spreads his fingers, pushes out wide with his splay-fingered hands and his arms as if swimming though the parched air and the dust.
“I love you, my brother. I love you so much more that you can ever know. But without this, the world ain’t never steady, never balanced, and we can’t leave it go. Sun might never rise again. Think on that.”
Manny spits carefully onto Trink’s smeared and rouge mottled check.
Trink cries softly, now. She presses Tommie’s head against her chest with one hand. She presses the other hand against his wound to stanch the bleeding.
“You and me, Peso man. It's up to you and me to raise the sun.”
He walks deliberately back to his vehicle. The song on his radio is a slow love ballad, Townes van Zandt or Billy Joe Shaver or … something like that, something he can always come on to but can’t pin why, and he smiles, now, like a cat that’s caught something sleek and awful, and killed it slow, as he removes his duster and the white Resistol, and tosses his props in a heap on the back seat. He closes the door, carefully, and burns rubber down two blocks of Main Street, heading south. He turns off the main drag at Butte, and heads down the mostly empty Adamsville Road toward Coolidge. He turns off the radio to plan his next move in peace.
He thinks: I’ll stop at the 7-11 in Coolidge and buy ol’ Peso Man a get well card. I’ll send it to him care of County Hospital. They’ll cart him over there and, hell, them little chica nurses won't know how to keep their hands off his cute little butt. I’ll drop it in the mail before I leave town. Then I’m movin’ in with Cheree Antone up in Olberg. Pimas up there know me. And they know better how to keep their noses out of my business. No one will find me back in those hills. Or, maybe, up top the Estrella’s: a man can see all the way south to Tubac, all the way east to the western edge of El Paso del Norte. I’ll wait ‘em all out. I’ll wait up there and just see what comes to pass.
Manny smiles as he imagines and rehearses his next act with Cheree: all her naked goods spread out across the bed, throbbing like a hot star just for him. He barrels through the creosote and acacia flats alongside the Adamsville Road. He sees, then feels, the sick pulse of Phoenix, its thick haze rising just off behind the curve of the San Tans. And sees the lights of the Attaway gin in the cotton fields, southwest of the highway. And, always, always, the bitter quadrangle and gun towers of the prison ride shotgun with him in his side mirrors.
He thinks: we keep goin’ around, Peso Man, you and me, like we’re dancing or something, like we’re dancing and we can’t stop the music. Don’t forget, my brother, the righteous man, the beauty boy, the lame dreamer, who forsakes his own body, even the broken fighter, all live outside prophecy. All just limp along together like hungry ghosts following the same sad beat. But we catch ghosts. We got proud and deeper music, and we got that dance down cold. It won't stop until we’re dead, brother, the both of us. It’s how we stay steady. Living close to prophecy. It’s up to us to raise the sun.
Again, Manny glances in his side mirror. The joint seems to float above the horizon like a bright cloud of evil, or the glow of a steel furnace, for sure, all the time lit up like the inside of a boiler or a furnace.
He thinks: you left me there, Peso Man. Two years, you left me there naked. It’s goddamn bad to be so naked in a place like that. Those lights bore through your eyelids all night. Even deep down in the block, the buzz and whine from those hot lights scald your ears. Pretty soon there’s nothing left, outside, inside, nothing but naked … and that hot light … always, just that hot light.
Manny runs his fingers up and down the length of his tingling scar. He passes through a forest of hoodoo cactus, their arms frozen in his high beams as they gesture at the moon and the stars, maybe gathering their nerve to spring out and snatch him from his car. He barrels through this strange frozen forest, and the dust, laden with the acrid whiff of creosote bush and devil’s claw, opens and closes around his passing.