I Shot Sonny Battalion
by Mike McNichols
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
I left Kansas City early and got to Barker City just after nine in the morning. The air was crisp: fall had laid its seasonal claim to Missouri, and the trees were edging toward their true colors.
I ate breakfast at a greasy spoon diner that had been a diner — and greasy — back when I was a kid. The town had changed some, but there was enough that was familiar so that I knew where I was most of the time.
The population was about the same — same number of people, around 8,000, same mostly white faces. Not as many farmers as I remember. The streets were paved instead of dirt, and pretty much absent of the mounds of horseshit that I remembered as a kid. I still hate its smell.
After walking off the pile of eggs, bacon, and hash browns — I think they were hash browns, or maybe just hash — I got back in my rented Ford and drove around the old neighborhood where I grew up.
The houses were, for the most part, kept up and well groomed, except some had been replaced by newer construction, which looked to me like a few new, shiny porcelain teeth mixed into a mouthful of old choppers.
I waited for a while to cruise by the old house. I figured it might be gone, replaced by some stucco abomination with a cement fountain out front. I wanted to remember the house and see if I felt anything inside of me. I hadn’t, up to this point, missed Barker City, but I was here now, and I wanted to go back in time just for a minute or two.
As soon as I rounded the corner, I saw it. The house was still there, still standing and even occupied, if a couple of kids’ bikes on the lawn were any indication. The house was in pretty good shape, even if a new paint job wouldn’t have hurt it. It still looked like a home, maybe even a home that a kid might return to visit once in a while in fifty years.
But what I really wanted to see was the alley. The alley was what I remembered the most, the place where my friends and I threw balls and kicked cans and shot BB guns. I hadn’t been a kid in five decades, and I wanted to revisit that brief time in my life when I felt carefree and wasn’t always looking over my shoulder. I drove up the street and turned left, then left again into the alley behind the house where I grew up.
Except for the occasional block walls that had replaced old wooden fencing, and trashcans that didn’t look like giant used shell casings, it looked the same. I stopped the car, turned off the engine, and parked right in the middle of the alley, letting the memories come to life.
I saw Albert materialize at the far end, fading back to pass a flour bag stuffed with God-knows-what that approximated a football. Douglas appeared out of nowhere and started throwing tin cans in the air, and then smacking them with an old broom handle.
I sat for a long time, staring, imagining that we were all there together, all ten years old, Albert not dead, none of us on the far end of life. It felt good. I stayed there for a while, then started up the car and cruised out to the street.
Before I left town I wanted to see the old bakery. Dad had worked there for years, getting up when it was still dark, baking bread and pastries, even making some deliveries. I worked there on and off, before and after school.
Sometimes I liked being there — the smell of baking bread mixed in with the smoke of my dad’s Chesterfields, the dusting of white flour everywhere, the conversations of the men with fresh haircuts coming from the barber shop next door, stopping by to pick up something to fill the gaps at their meager tables. Other times I hated it, wishing I could be off doing something with my life other than shriveling up in a dirt-poor town at the ass end of Missouri.
While I drove slowly down the main street, trying to remember what building was what, I started thinking that I might not be able to recognize the old store or maybe that it had been demolished.
But I spotted the barbershop first, and I immediately knew where I was. In some preordained state of constancy, the barbershop was still a barbershop, and the old red and white pole was where it had always been.
I parked in the diagonal space in front and stepped onto the sidewalk, which had been made of board planks the last time I was there. I looked inside and saw men getting haircuts, old men sitting and reading magazines. It appeared to me that fifty years later, watching haircuts was still a major pastime in Barker City.
I adjusted my sport coat, shoved my hands in my pockets, and walked slowly to the adjacent storefront. The bakery was indeed gone, but the building was intact.
I remembered the brick front that had thickened over the years with endless coats of paint. The large, plate glass windows were still there, but painted over so you couldn’t see inside. I looked up at the sign that stretched across the top of the building:
Sonny’s Bar & Liquor Since 1975
I didn’t think it could be. Not him. Lots of Sonnys must have come and gone in fifty years. His old man had some money, and his kid probably inherited it all. Sonny probably lived in New York or Miami and had retired by now.
Regardless, I went inside. After all, it used to be my dad’s bakery. And I didn’t mind a drink before I hit the road again.
The place was definitely old school, dimly lit, a long bar at the far end, a lot of small tables and some booths with red Naugahyde benches at the back. A scrawny, middle-aged woman with bleached blonde hair was smoking a cigarette behind the bar, the smoke clinging to her head like cobwebs. An old fat guy sat on a stool with his back to me.
I slid into a booth as the woman made her way over to take my order. She looked me over, squinting one eye through a haze of smoke, and asked me what I wanted.
I marveled for a second or two at how she was able to speak while keeping her cigarette fixed to her bright red lower lip. An ash fell and landed on my table. She didn’t notice. I ordered a beer on tap.
She strolled back to the bar so slowly I thought maybe she expected me to take a nap or write a letter before she got around to pouring my beer. The fat guy at the bar said something to her as she filled a glass from the tap. She ignored him and finally returned with my beer. As she walked away, the guy turned and looked back at me.
It was Sonny Battalion. Fatter, pastier, and fifty years older. But it was Sonny.
I knew he couldn’t see me clearly in the dim light. He turned back, apparently not interested in the only customer in his establishment.
When the woman walked by him, he reached out a beefy paw, grabbed her skinny arm, and said something to her in that same whiny voice I’d heard when we were both ten years old. She told him to let go and tried to peel his hand away.
As quick as a fat man can move, he swung his other hand around and slapped her square in the face. Her cigarette let go of her lip and flew across the room. Sonny let go of her and she ran into the back room, whimpering like a dog.
He sat there for a few minutes and I watched him. I started doing some mental math and figured that Sonny’s Bar & Liquor opened up right about the time that Dad closed down the bakery. All these years I thought it had been old man Battalion who sent my dad packing. But it wasn’t him. It was his fat kid.
I jumped when Sonny slammed his fist down on the bar. He slid off the stool and moved toward the back room, pulling his belt off as he walked. The door shut behind him, but I could still hear him beating hell out of that woman. After a few minutes, he came back out, wiping a grimy handkerchief across his sweaty neck, a cigarette hanging in his mouth. I could hear the woman crying.
He must have forgotten about me sitting in the dark corner of his bar. He worked for a while getting his belt back on — challenging work for someone a hundred pounds overweight. He finally completed the job and went toward the restroom door. He hesitated, took a long pull on his cigarette, and then went inside.
I sat thinking about Sonny Battalion and took another sip of my beer. I thought about my dad and I thought about Albert dying on Omaha Beach. I thought about my own life and about that pitiful woman moaning in the back room.
I knocked back the beer and then pulled a pile of napkins out of the dispenser on the table and wiped the glass down. I reached my hand inside my coat and pulled my .22 pistol from the shoulder holster, and at the same time took the silencer out of my side pocket. I connected the two pieces and walked over to the restroom.
When I went inside, Sonny was at the urinal, hunched over trying to pee. I figured it was either flab or a swollen prostate, or both that were giving him trouble. He glanced back at me when I came in, then turned back to his work, cigarette smoke engulfing his bloated face.
I considered starting up a monologue, jogging his memory of our ancient childhood, terrifying him with reminders of his sins against my father and the more recent one against his lady bartender, who was maybe his wife, poor thing. I thought of him swearing and trembling, giving me all kinds of justifications for his life and deeds, begging me to spare him.
Instead, I stared at that same spot on the back of his neck where I had aimed that BB gun fifty years ago. That same little target materialized just below Sonny’s hairline. Back then, my aim was good but I was off a bit on the trajectory.
But on this day, as I once again became one with my weapon, I hit the mark perfectly.
There’s an old saying: You can never go home again. But you can. And it helps if you carry a gun.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike McNichols