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Thomas Pynchon

web | The Sun Is but a Morning Star


Chapter One

In which Benny Profane, a schlemihl and human yo-yo, gets to an apocheir

Episode 1

Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he'd look in on the Sailor's Grave, his old tin can's tavern on East Main Street. He got there by way of the Arcade, at the East Main end of which sat an old street singer with a guitar and an empty Sterno can for donations. Out in the street a chief yeoman was trying to urinate in the gas tank of a '54 Packard Patrician and five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement. The old man was singing, in a fine, firm baritone:

Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,
Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.
Neon signs of red and green
Shine upon the friendly scene,
Welcoming you in from off the sea.
Santa's bag is filled with all your dreams come true:
Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,
Barmaids who all love to screw,
All of them reminding you
It's Christmas Eve on old East Main.

"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its usual lack of warning, East Main was on him.

Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn't work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he'd care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about: East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night's dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship's propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP's caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody's face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it's dark and there are no more bars.

Arriving at the Sailor's Grave, Profane found a small fight in progress between sailors and jarheads. He stood in the doorway a moment watching; then realizing he had one foot in the Grave anyway, dived out of the way of the fight and lay more or less doggo near the brass rail.

"Why can't man live in peace with his fellow man," wondered a voice behind Profane's left ear. It was Beatrice the barmaid, sweetheart of DesDiv 22, not to mention Profanes old ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Scaffold. "Benny," she cried. They became tender, meeting again after so long. Profane began to draw in the sawdust hearts, arrows through them, sea gulls carrying a banner in their beaks which read Dear Beatrice.

The Scaffold-boat's crew were absent, this tin can having got under way for the Mediterranean two evenings ago amid a storm of bitching from the crew which was heard out in the cloudy Roads (so the yarn went) like voices off a ghost ship; heard as far away as Little Creek. Accordingly, there were a few more barmaids than usual tonight, working tables all up and down East Main. For it's said (and not without reason) that no sooner does a ship like the Scaffold single up all lines than certain Navy wives are out of their civvies and into barmaid uniform, flexing their beer-carrying arms and practicing a hooker's sweet smile; even as the N.O.B. band is playing Auld Lang Syne and the destroyers are blowing stacks in black flakes all over the cuckolds-to-be standing manly at attention, taking leave with rue and a tiny grin.

Beatrice brought beer. There was a piercing yelp from one of the back tables, she flinched, beer slopped over the edge of the glass.

"God," she said, "it's Ploy again." Ploy was now an engineman on the mine sweeper Impulsive and a scandal the length of East Main. He stood five feet nothing in sea boots and was always picking fights with the biggest people on the ship, knowing they would never take him seriously. Ten months ago (just before he'd transferred off the Scaffold) the Navy had decided to remove all of Ploy's teeth. Incensed, Ploy managed to punch his way through a chief corpsman and two dental officers before it was decided he was in earnest about keeping his teeth. "But think," the officers shouted, trying not to laugh, fending off his tiny fists: "root canal work, gum abscesses. . ." "No," screamed Ploy. They finally had to hit him in the bicep with a Pentothal injection. On waking up, Ploy saw apocalypse, screamed lengthy obscenities. For two months he roamed ghastly around the Scaffold, leaping without warning to swing from the overhead like an orangutan, trying to kick officers in the teeth.

He would stand on the fantail and harangue whoever would listen, flannelmouthed through aching gums. When his mouth had healed he was presented with a gleaming, regulation set of upper and lower plates. "Oh God," he bawled, and tried to jump over the side. But was restrained by a gargantuan Negro named Dahoud. "Hey there, little fellow," said Dahoud, picking Ploy up by the head and scrutinizing this convulsion of dungarees and despair whose feet thrashed a yard above the deck. "What do you want to go and do that for?"

"Man, I want to die, is all," cried Ploy.

"Don't you know," said Dahoud, "that life is the most precious possession you have?"

"Ho, ho," said Ploy through his tears. "Why?"

"Because," said Dahoud, "without it, you'd be dead."

"Oh," said Ploy. He thought about this for a week. He calmed down, started to go on liberty again. His transfer to the Impulsive became reality. Soon, after Lights Out, the other snipes began to hear strange grating sounds from the direction of Ploy's rack. This went on for a couple-three weeks until one morning around two somebody turned on the lights in the compartment and there was Ploy, sitting crosslegged on his rack, sharpening his teeth with a small bastard file. Next payday night, Ploy sat at a table in the Sailor's Grave with a bunch of other snipes, quieter than usual. Around eleven, Beatrice swayed by, carrying a tray full of beers. Gleeful, Ploy stuck his head out, opened his jaws wide, and sank his newly-filed dentures into the barmaid's right buttock. Beatrice screamed, glasses flew parabolic and glittering, spraying the Sailor's Grave with watery beer.

It became Ploy's favorite amusement. The word spread through the division, the squadron, perhaps all DesLant. People not of the Impulsive or Scaffold came to watch. This started many fights like the one now in progress.

"Who did he get," Profane said. "I wasn't looking."

"Beatrice," said Beatrice. Beatrice being another barmaid. Mrs. Buffo, owner of the Sailor's Grave, whose first name was also Beatrice, had a theory that just as small children call all females mother, so sailors, in their way equally as helpless, should call all barmaids Beatrice. Further to implement this maternal policy, she had had custom beer taps installed, made of foam rubber, in the shape of large breasts. From eight to nine on payday nights there occurred something Mrs. Buffo called Suck Hour. She began it officially by emerging from the back room clad in a dragon-embroidered kimono given her by an admirer in the Seventh Fleet, raising a gold boatswain's pipe to her lips and blowing Chow Down. At this signal, everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to reach one be given suck by a beer tap. There were seven of these taps, and an average of 250 sailors usually present for the merrymaking.

Ploy's head now appeared around a corner of the bar. He snapped his teeth at Profane. "This here," Ploy said, "is my friend Dewey Gland, who just came aboard." He indicated a long, sad-looking rebel with a huge beak who had followed Ploy over, dragging a guitar in the sawdust.

"Howdy," said Dewey Gland. "I would like to sing you a little song."

"To celebrate your becoming a PFC," said Ploy. "Dewey sings it to everybody."

"That was last year," said Profane.

But Dewey Gland propped one foot on the brass rail and the guitar on his knee and began to strum. After eight bars of this he sang, in waltz time:

Pore Forlorn Civilian,
We're goin to miss you so.
In the goat hole and the wardroom they're cryin,
Even the mizzable X.O.
You're makin a mistake,
Though yore ass they should break,
Yore report chits number a million.
Ship me over for twenty years,
I'll never be a Pore Forlorn Civilian.

"It's pretty," said Profane into his beer glass.

"There's more," said Dewey Gland.

"Oh," said Profane.

A miasma of evil suddenly enveloped Profane from behind; an arm fell like a sack of spuds across his shoulder and into his peripheral vision crept a beer glass surrounded by a large muff, fashioned ineptly from diseased baboon fur.

"Benny. How is the pimping business, hyeugh, hyeugh."

The laugh could only have come from Profane's onetime shipmate, Pig Bodine. Profane looked round. It had. Hyeugh, hyeugh approximates a laugh formed by putting the tonguetip under the top central incisors and squeezing guttural sounds out of the throat. It was, as Pig intended, horribly obscene.

"Old Pig. Aren't you missing movement?"

"I am AWOL. Pappy Hod the boatswain mate drove me over the hill." The best way to avoid SP's is to stay sober and with your own. Hence the Sailor's Grave.

"How is Pappy."

Pig told him how Pappy Hod and the barmaid he'd married had split up. She'd left and come to work at the Sailor's Grave.

That young wife, Paola. She'd said sixteen, but no way of telling because she'd been born just before the war and the building with her records destroyed, like most other buildings on the island of Malta.

Profane had been there when they met: the Metro Bar, on Strait Street. The Gut. Valletta, Malta.

"Chicago," from Pappy Hod in his gangster voice. "You heard of Chicago," meanwhile reaching sinister inside his jumper, a standard act for Pappy Hod all around the Med's littoral. He would pull out a handkerchief and not a heater or gat after all, blow his nose and laugh at whatever girl it happened to be sitting across the table. American movies had given them stereotypes all, all but Paola Maijstral, who continued to regard him then with nostrils unflared, eyebrows at dead center.

Pappy ended up borrowing 500 for 700 from Mac the cook's slush fund to bring Paola to the States.

Maybe it had only been a way for her to get to America - every Mediterranean barmaid's daftness - where there was enough food, warm clothes, heat all the time, buildings all in one piece. Pappy was to lie about her age to get her into the country. She could be any age she wanted. And you suspected any nationality, for Paola knew scraps it seemed of all tongues.

Pappy Hod had described her for the deck apes' amusement down in the boatswain's locker of the U.S.S. Scaffold. Speaking the while however with a peculiar tenderness, as of slowly coming aware, maybe even as the yarn unlaid, that sex might be more of a mystery than he'd foreseen and he would not after all know the score because that kind of score. wasn't written down in numbers. Which after forty-five years was nothing for any riggish Pappy Hod to be finding out.

"Good stuff," said Pig aside. Profane looked toward the back of the Sailor's Grave and saw her approaching now through the night's accumulated smoke. She looked like an East Main barmaid. What was it about the prairie hare in the snow, the tiger in tall grass and sunlight?

She smiled at Profane: sad, with an effort.

"You come back to re-enlist?"

"Just passing," Profane said.

"You come with me to the west coast," Pig said. "Ain't an SP car made that can take my Harley."

"Look, look," cried little Ploy, hopping up and down on one foot. "Not now, you guys. Stand by." He pointed. Mrs. Buffo had materialized on the bar, in her kimono. A hush fell over the place. There was a momentary truce between the jarheads and sailors blocking the doorway.

"Boys," Mrs. Buffo announced, "it's Christmas Eve." She produced the boatswain's pipe and began to play. The first notes quavered out fervent and flutelike over widened eyes and gaping mouths. Everyone in the Sailor's Grave listened awestruck, realizing gradually that she was playing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, within the limited range of the boatswain's pipe. >From way in the back, a young reserve who had once done night club acts around Philly began to sing softly along. Ploy's eyes shone. "It is the voice of an angel," he said.

They had reached the part that goes "Peace on the earth, good will to men, From Heav'n's all-gracious king," when Pig, a militant atheist, decided he could stand it no longer. "That," he announced in, a loud voice, "sounds like Chow Down." Mrs. Buffo and the reserve fell silent. A second passed before anybody got the message.

"Suck Hour!" screamed Ploy.

Which kind of broke the spell. The quick-thinking inmates of the Impulsive somehow coalesced in the sudden milling around of jolly jack tars, hoisted Ploy bodily and rushed with the little fellow toward the nearest nipple, in the van of the attack.

Mrs. Buffo, poised on her rampart like the trumpeter of Cracow, took the full impact of the onslaught, toppling over backwards into an ice-tub as the first wave came hurtling over the bar. Ploy, hands outstretched, was propelled over the top. He caught on to one of the tap handles and simultaneously his shipmates let go; his momentum carried him and the handle in a downward arc: beer began to gush from the foam rubber breast in a white cascade, washing over Ploy, Mrs. Buffo and two dozen sailors who had come around behind the bar in a flanking action and who were now battering one another into insensibility. The group who had carried Ploy over spread out and tried to corner more beer taps. Ploy's leading petty officer was on hands and knees holding Ploy's feet, ready to pull them out from under him, and take his striker's place when Ploy had had enough. The Impulsive detachment in their charge had formed a flying wedge. In their wake and through the breach clambered at least sixty more slavering bluejackets, kicking, clawing, side-arming, bellowing uproariously; some swinging beer bottles to clear a path.

Profane sat at the end of the bar, watching hand-tooled sea boots, bell-bottoms, rolled up levi cuffs; every now and again a drooling face at the end of a fallen body; broken beer bottles, tiny sawdust storms.

Soon he looked over; Paola was there, arms around his leg, cheek pressed against the black denim.

"It's awful," she said.

"Oh," said Profane. He patted her head.

"Peace," she sighed. "Isn't that what we all want, Benny? Just a little peace. Nobody jumping out and biting you on the ass."

"Hush," said Profane, "look: someone has just walloped Dewey Gland in the stomach with his own guitar."

Paola murmured against his leg. They sat quiet, without raising their eyes to watch the carnage going on above them. Mrs. Buffo had undertaken a crying jag. Inhuman blubberings beat against and rose from behind the old imitation mahogany of the bar.

Pig had moved aside two dozen beer glasses and seated himself on a ledge behind the bar. In times of crisis he preferred to sit in as voyeur. He gazed eagerly as his shipmates grappled shoatlike after the seven geysers below him. Beer had soaked down most of the sawdust behind the bar: skirmishes and amateur footwork were now scribbling it into alien hieroglyphics.

Outside came sirens, whistles, running feet. "Oh, oh," said Pig. He hopped clown from the shelf, made his way around the end of the bar to Profane and Paola. "Hey, ace," he said, cool and slitting his eyes as if the wind blew into them. "The sheriff is coming."

"Back way," said Profane.

"Bring the broad," said Pig.

The three of them ran broken-field through a roomful of teeming bodies. On the way they picked up Dewey Gland. By the time the Shore Patrol had crashed into the Sailor's Grave, night sticks flailing, the four found themselves running down an alley parallel to East Main. "Where we going," Profane said. "The way we're heading," said Pig. "Move your ass."




© Thomas Pynchon
© E-publisher LiterNet, 12.09.2010
The Sun Is but a Morning Star. Anthology of American Literature. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. Varna: LiterNet, 2008-2010