Detroit, Michigan Early December, 1956
He came awake in darkness, the sounds of street life and the neon flicker interrupting another one of his dreams. Dream, hell, he thought, another nightmare. But he felt vaguely human now, still tired but not the same bone-deep exhaustion that brought him here.
He dragged himself to the bathroom down the hall and splashed water on his face, badly in need of a shave now. Strange to see. Even during the war, he had to take the razor to his cheeks everyday. Part of the image. Five o’clock shadow just didn’t fit with the steadfast superman. Ragged glory was okay for the enlisted men, but General Public had to project a magazine-ready picture of stoic male perfection at all times.
His eyes were bloodshot and faraway, looking inward at the pictures of his action-packed past, all those mental images that looked like adventure to everyone but him. To him, it was just endless fear and anxiety stretching back as far as memory would walk him. But as he stood there in his sweat-gray undershirt, shy of the costume that had consumed his identity for so long, he gave his shoulders a shrug and could feel the new lightness, the freedom that came with laying down a heavy burden.
He dressed in the clothes he’d stolen off a Chicago clothesline–just a simple plaid workshirt and chinos–and the hobnail boots he’d taken off a sleeping hobo on the freight train and made his way downstairs, passing the man behind the bullet-proof front desk glass.
“You leaving? You owe me two more nights, pal!”
“Just going out for dinner.”
“Yeah, well, much as I hate to cut into your liquor fund, how ‘bout you pay up first?”
Brock straightened to his full height, squared his shoulders, and gave the man the same look that froze Rudolf Hess in his tracks when he and Buck Private brought down his plane over Scotland. The desk man’s inert expression didn’t change, but Brock detected the motion of his hand clenching around something out of sight. A revolver? A bat? An axe-handle? No matter. Brock turned up one corner of his mouth and shook his head ever-so-slightly, his signature “Don’t even think about it” look. Worked like a charm. He may have ditched the persona, but General Public was still inside him. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but he was willing to work it.
The desk man relaxed and turned his full attention back to his crossword puzzle. “Enjoy your ‘meal.’”
Brock relaxed too, shrinking back into the shape of a solid citizen, just another regular Joe.
As he headed for the street, the desk man called after him. “Hang on a second, mister!”
Brock tensed, ready for trouble, if there was going to be any.
“What’s a seven letter word for ‘freedom from tyranny’? Last letter’s a ‘y.’”
“Liberty,” Brock said without hesitation.
The desk man counted silently on his fingers, nodded.
“Liberty it is.”
As the desk man put pencil to paper, Brock turned and walked out into the cold night of a strange town.
Brock found a greasy spoon half a block from the flophouse and figured he had enough pocket change–also lifted off his sleeping hobo friend–to afford a cup of coffee and the pork chop special, which turned out to be decidedly less special than advertised. Still, it was the first food he’d put in his belly since Chicago, and for that alone he was grateful.
In spite of his disheveled appearance, he was easily the most normal-looking patron in the place. The rest were an assortment of late-night street life types, probably a few fellow flophouse guests, a couple of streetwalkers and their “management,” and a guy slumped in the far corner booth who could easily have been that poor disenfranchised gent from the train, but more than likely just wore the same standard-issue hobo uniform. Either way, he took no notice of Brock, lost in a private reverie that almost definitely included memories as bleak and strong as Brock’s own, and nearly as bitter as this joint’s awful coffee.
He didn’t know if it was boredom or if he really just looked that much better by comparison, but the waitress took a special interest in him almost from the moment he sat down.
“You’re not one of my regulars,” she said, pouring him a refill that had to be at least his sixth.
“Just passing through,” he said, and tried his damnedest to smile.
“On your way up, or down?” she asked, and he found himself enjoying her brutal frankness.
“Too early to call,” he replied, smiling for real this time.
“Well, it ain’t gettin’ any earlier.”
She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had an offhand, seen-better-days sexiness about her, the sort who didn’t seem to mind that life hadn’t exactly served her up its most generous portions, or at least wasn’t going to let you know if she did.
On the way up to his room, the desk man cleared his throat and jerked a thumb at the sign behind him:
NO GUESTS AFTER 10 PM.
“I’m his sister,” Dinah the waitress said.
“Well, Romeo here owes me four and half bucks, sister.”
She slapped a five on the counter and pushed it toward the desk man. “Family takes care of its own,” she said.
“Well, for half a saw, I hope he takes care a ya real good,” the desk man sneered, until he caught Brock giving him the look again.
“Keep the change,” she said, grabbing Brock by the bicep–which she gave an admiring squeeze, purring low in her throat– and leading him toward the stairs.
The desk man started whistling and it took Brock until they reached the landing to call the tune: “Just a Gigolo.”
Once she got him upstairs, she made sure she got what she paid for. Now he knew how the ladies felt, rented by the hour. Still, it was a relief. He thought sure he’d be paying her.
She didn’t leave right away, even though he got the idea that she wanted to. In a strange way, she reminded him of the army nurses, the ones who saw the wounds in your eyes before they noticed the ones in your flesh. He sensed that it didn’t come naturally to her, this nurturing thing, but she could tell he needed someone just to be there for a little while, and with an inward sigh, she bit the bullet and stayed.
She kept herself interested marveling at his musculature, and fetishizing his scar tissue, caressing every bulge and ripple, lightly touching and tickling every starfish-shaped bullet entry point, jagged knife wound, and miniature railroad line of battlefield surgical repair. The fleshy topographic map of his Euro-Asiatic world tour of pain.
“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a shitbox like this?” she asked him finally, taking the cigarette they were sharing from his lips and inhaling a lungful.
“Reinventing myself,” Brock said. It was a mildly diverting game, telling the truth without giving anything away.
“You looking for work?”
It hadn’t even crossed Brock’s mind yet, oddly enough. He’d known where his paychecks were coming from for nearly two decades now, and even though he was stone broke, where the next wad originated wasn’t yet among his concerns.
“Guess I am.”
“What can you do? Big strapping guy like you, I’m guessing it ain’t gonna be poetry or folk songs.”
“I’ve done a lot of work with my hands.”
“Auto industry’s always hiring. Nice cushy union gig. A year or so on the assembly line, you could buy yourself a sweet little house, wife, kids, maybe even a dog. The whole American dream.”
“I guess I could do worse.”
“My husband’s got a cousin, union shop steward over at Vanderbuilt ‘Motives. I bet he could fix you up.”
Brock gave her a hard look. “Husband?”
“Oh c’mon,” she pressed into him, her fingers tracing the old, appropriately lightning-strike-shaped wound from Die Ubermensch’s blitz-rifle just below his left ribcage. “Like you care.”
The fact was, he did care. He didn’t want to think he was the kind of man who played other men for fools, or consorted with spoken-for women. But as she moved back into him, he didn’t have the will to push her away. Who was he to say no? After all, she’d paid for it.