All along Hotel Street that morning, the men waited in lines for bad whiskey, for tattoos, for their pictures to be taken with the kitschy hula girls. Last night there had been a brawl at Mom Mabel’s dance at the Maluhia, and the fight released a restless energy. At the corner table in Two Jacks’ bar, three Marines lifted the first of their shot glasses. None of the three had been at Mom Mabel’s for the fight, but Willard listened as his friends talked about it.
“The Army boys started the fight, is what I heard,” Archie said. Ever since they boarded the ship in Pendleton four months ago, Willard had heard Archie mouthing off on a range of subjects—Japanese troop movements, the affairs of Hollywood actresses, insider discounts at a Honolulu laundromat.
“One of those army boys cut in during the middle of a dance.” Archie lowered his voice when he spoke and leaned forward, as though confiding, then shrugged back.
Willard looked across the table at the kid, Frank, who held a full whiskey in mid-air, as if he’d raised it but forgotten to take a sip. Willard wondered what Frank thought of Archie, whether he bought the guy’s crap. He assumed so. Archie’s whole song-and-dance was calculated to impress guys like Frank.
Willard rested his own glass on the table. The Two Jacks bartender had unlocked the door just minutes earlier, and Willard relaxed into the moment, grateful for the comparative quiet.
“All I’m saying is you got to give the man his time,” Archie said. He was twenty-two and slippery. Short and wiry, but with a good-looking face: dark eyes, two huge dimples. And Archie made Willard laugh. Not that the guy was funny, necessarily. But you didn’t choose your friends in the Marines; you just learned to live with them. Archie saluted himself with his second whiskey. Then downed it. “Hell, as it is you get more time with a three-minute whore than you get with some sorority prude at a goddamned dance.”
Willard rocked his own glass against the stick of the tabletop. He listened to the soft flat sound of its tapping.
“Not like that sorority tease was gonna give him any. So what’s the rush?” Archie continued, picking up his third glass. They had to drink quickly. The bouncer at Two Jacks was a mean Hawaiian. On a busy day, he’d kick you out as soon as the bartender poured your shots. He wouldn’t even give you a chance to drink them. There were so many men in Honolulu now, each place would pour just four drinks per soldier. After that you had to wait on line at the next bar.
It was still early, before nine, and Two Jacks’ wasn’t too crowded. Willard looked at the big brown man leaning against the door frame, his arms—laced with tattoos—crossed above the curve of his belly. A lei seller walked past him and into the bar. When she approached the first table, her hips swayed away from the drinking soldiers.
Willard saw that the bouncer too was watching her through the slits of his near-shut eyes. They weren’t going to get kicked out anytime soon.
“The Maluhia’s okay,” Frank said.
Willard looked at him with a curled-lip smirk. “You’re a sweet kid. That’s what Evelyn says.”
Frank had met Willard’s wife when they were still in Pendleton, waiting to ship out. The night before they left, she wore a pink dress that dipped in the back: a sharp, deep V. Once when she had bent to pick up her purse, Frank had been able to see the back clasp of her bra strap.
“It’s not like I’m going to get a phone number or anything,” he said. He felt exposed, embarrassed.
The dancing at the Maluhia reminded Frank of parties he had attended as a little kid. The kind where they played musical chairs. Except, like everything else in Hawaii, the game had been distorted. At the Maluhia, when Mom Mabel blew her whistle, only a few men got girls to dance with. Everyone else stood there with their hands in their pockets, watching the girls’ bodies jitter.
Archie scowled gamely. “Don’t you know? Girls’ numbers here are classified.” Frank felt relieved at this familiar banter. It was a running joke among the men in their barracks. Archie, though, had a way of making it sound fresh and clever, like he’d just dreamed up the routine.
Frank held up his hands. “So it’s not like you’re going to get a date. You might as well try your hand at the Maluhia,” he said. “What else is there to do?”
Willard shrugged and swallowed half a shot. Beyond Willard’s shoulder, Frank saw the lei seller bend over the men at a nearby table. By now, she had worked her way around the perimeter of the bar, the space long and narrow as a hallway. Her dress tugged against her skin, and he was aware that Archie also turned to watch her.
“Hey, Sweetheart,” Archie called to her. She was holding her armful of purple leis up for the men at the next table. She glanced up and smiled at him.
“You like to buy?” She strolled the four steps over to their table. Frank saw that the baggy floral of her dress bunched over two tiny tits; he could hardly even tell they were there.
“Yeah, Sweetheart. I’d like to buy you dinner,” Archie said.
She looked over her shoulder, checking for the big Hawaiian by the front door. He followed her with his sleepy eyes, still as a pregnant sea lion sunning.
“Leis cost seventy-five cents,” she told them, and as she spoke, Frank realized she couldn’t be more than fifteen.
“Sounds like a bargain,” Archie said. “I’d have paid five dollars just for your phone number.”
“Oh come on now,” Willard said to the girl, “he won’t take that long. You ought to give him a discount.”
Archie laughed and shook his head at the table. He tilted back onto the hind chair legs and propped his hands back behind the base of his skull in a way that seemed to Frank off-kilter.
“Say, ten cents a second,” Willard continued. He spoke carefully, as though he was performing a mathematic calculation. “He’ll owe you twenty, twenty-five cents tops,” he said, now smirking. The girl turned again to the bouncer.
“He’ll be done before you’ve finished with his zipper.”
“Won’t inconvenience you or anything,” Archie said. But he had stopped laughing, and Frank noticed that his smile had turned into something different, snarling. Archie rocked his front chair legs onto the ground and snapped forward. His feet slapped the floor alongside her.
Now the bouncer caught her eye, and unrolled his giant arms; they were like two cannons.
“It’s alright, Sweetheart,” Willard said. “We’re only playing.”
She held the leis up higher around her waist, so they covered her like a second coat of clothing. When Frank looked up at her, he saw her bite her lip before she left their table.
“See, what’d I tell you?” Archie said with a sort of jocular triumph. “Classified. So what should we do?”
Frank reached for his untouched second whiskey, then fingered the rim of the glass. When the pale liquid sloshed against his skin, he put the glass down and nudged it away with his index finger. “Let’s go see Ecstasy again,” he said.
The three men had gone to see the film at the Paradise movie palace off Hotel Street during their last liberty. Sometimes, Frank still saw Hedy Lamarr’s bare chest appearing in his field of vision at unexpected moments – in the mess hall, or when he first opened his eyes in the barracks’ bunk room in the mornings: her dark gray nipples. “That girl is smooth,” he said.
“She’s not bad,” Archie said. “Except that half the time she’s naked you’re looking at her through a puddle.”
But the truth was that during that entire sequence of the movie Archie, along with all the other men in the theater, had let out a revolving stream of whistles and cheers. “Oh!” they’d shouted and slapped their thighs when her elbows covered her face.
“Besides, I’m not half drunk,” Archie said now, holding his last empty glass in his upturned hand like a pair of dice.
“Trade Winds?” Willard said.
Frank swallowed his last two shots back-to-back.
“Whoa boy,” Archie said, watching him. “Alright, Trade Winds. Let’s go.”
On the way, they passed an arcade. All up and down the block the sound of pinging echoed, as tempting as the smell of movie theater popcorn. Inside the arcade, men played pinball and Pachinko. They stood with their legs apart, or rested their weight on one hip, listless and casual. The arcade reminded them of the bright red Grip Scale Strength Testers in their local bars and barbers or – for men like Archie – of Coney Island or the Jersey Shore.
“Let’s shoot Hitler’s head off,” Archie said.
Frank peered into the dim cavern of the arcade. He’d grown up in a small Minnesota town, so small that for something to do he and his buddies used to pile into one car or another at night and drive up and down the empty Main Street, past the darkened stores, running red lights across vacant intersections. As they drove, they’d lean their heads out the windows and shout. When the war started, this was why he’d joined: he thought he’d rather die of anything than boredom. Except that the war had proven to be nothing but boring. He watched Archie disappear into the dark arcade. His entire life was waiting.
“Guess we might as well,” he said to Willard. “I wouldn’t mind blowing out some brains. At least it’d be a change.”
He handed over a dime to the cashier, a balding Chinese woman with a fat, drooping jaw. “Eight shot,” she said and pushed a slingshot across the dirty glass of the counter.
Frank had been a good marksman in basic training. He hadn’t known that about himself until then, and it was at once a relief and a challenge. He had something to prove, and he’d half-proved it. Now he pulled back the slingshot and aimed it at the cartoon Hitler, with his two black-and-white rimmed eyes, actually two miniature, spring-loaded targets mounted behind the plywood head. Frank shot out the left eye target with the slingshot marble, then aimed for the right. He missed it twice. This made him angry, and he knew when he was angry he lost focus. He stepped back and wiped his face with the back of his arm, the thin hairs already matted with sweat. It was nine A.M. and hot as hell in Hawaii.
He made his next two shots, shooting out Hitler’s eyes once each. But then he missed the next one.
“Aw, too high,” Willard said behind him.
Frank turned around. “I got it.” Underneath his mustache, Hilter’s cartoon lips pursed together, like a barely repressed smile. “You bastard,” Frank said. It was meant to be a joke, but he suddenly felt angry again, and, as was typical now, the anger spread out over everything, became vague and general. He wasn’t angry at Hitler or Willard staring over his shoulder, or at the futile goddamned slingshot. He was mad at all of them, and at the balding Chinese lady, and at the relentless pinging pinball, and at himself standing there in the middle of it all just taking it.
He aimed the slingshot up in the air and snapped the rubber strings, propelling the marble up and over the Hitler game, and down again five feet over, where it hit the Batter Up and bounced, cracking the game’s glass cover.
He turned around and glared at Willard. “How you like that?” he asked, and the question felt bold, triumphant.
But Willard shook his head and took the final marble from Frank’s fist. “I’d say that’s enough,” he said.
He led the way over to the dirty counter, and Frank handed the Chinese lady back the slingshot. She shook her finger in Frank’s face. “You don’t come back here.” She looked at Willard. “You understand me? He don’t come back.”
Willard pulled Frank into the bright sunlight. “Well, that was slick.” They stood there in silence in the sunlight and waited for Archie to come out. “You’re all wet. You know that? You’re a real prick.”
Standing next to Willard made Frank feel childish. Before he’d left for training, Frank’s father had driven him to the train station. It was raining. He’d never forget that. Main Street empty, dark except for the street lights and the traffic signals, which flickered against the windows. His father hadn’t said a word, and Frank had looked out and watched the shapes of the pharmacy and the bank as they passed by. When they got to the platform, Frank’s father held an umbrella over them, and shook Frank’s hand. “Well, son, good luck.” And it seemed like such a letdown, that moment, so much less than it was meant to be.
At Trade Winds the bartender poured each of the men their four allotted three-count shots. Willard watched Frank drink the first and second shots, then cradle the third, untouched, between his palms. The three of them were sitting at the corner of the bar. Behind them men lined up, the bar growing increasingly hot. Even inside, it smelled like fish.
Before they shipped out Evelyn had said to Willard that she’d bet anything Frank had never been laid. “He looks like he’s ready to come every time I shake his hand,” she said.
Willard snorted. “That’s hilarious.”
But then Evelyn put down her sunglasses. “No it’s not.” She twiddled with the seashell purse they’d bought that day at a shop in town. “Poor kid.”
Willard admired the white undersides of Evelyn’s tanned wrists. Alone in their room, she’d take off her clothes, and Willard could see the white skin where her bathing suit had been. He ran his tongue along this naked clothing, the phantom white bathing suit straps, her tits like two exposed light bulbs, the strips of white skin between her brown legs and her pussy. How was he going to get by without her?
“Poor kid?” he said. “Poor me.”
“He’s only eighteen,” she said.
But Willard always felt this, how young Frank was, whenever they were together. Willard had waited to enlist until the last possible second, until he knew without a doubt he’d be drafted anyway. By that time, he was already twenty-six. Now he was twenty-eight and among the oldest of the enlisted men in his unit. The rest of them were boys.
When they first got to Honolulu they’d walk past the stands with all the nudey pictures and Frank would look at them open-mouthed, and then quickly look away. Willard shouldn’t have yelled at him outside the arcade, he knew that. He looked around at the line of men behind them at the bar. Another couple minutes and they’d be kicked out.
“Let’s go get Frank laid,” he said.
Frank drank half of his third whiskey, and then looked down into the remaining seasick liquid in his glass. “Why me?” he said, watching the liquid slosh. He swallowed the rest and then slid the glass out of reach and looked up.
“Why not?” Willard said.
“Hey, I’m game,” Archie said. “I haven’t been to the Bronx in months. There’s a real hot number over there, a real blackout girl if you know what I mean.”
“Sure,” Willard said. “The Bronx’s as good as anywhere.” Among Hotel Street’s brothels, the Bronx Rooms and the Senator Hotel were the largest and most popular.
Archie raised his whiskey. “I figure it’s where I got laid back home, might as well be where I get laid here.” He laughed.
“As long as Frank gets some, it doesn’t matter to me where we go.”
“Hey, hold up now. What’s this ‘Frank gets some’ business?” Frank drank his final whiskey and looked back and forth between the men.
“You tell us,” Willard said.
“I can get some if I want to, I just haven’t.”
“Everyone wants to get some,” Willard said. “You just don’t have the balls to do it.” He passed Frank one of his shots and drank the other one. “Today’s your day, my friend. Today’s the day.”
“Let me tell you guys, there’s this girl there you aren’t going to believe. A real Sheba,” Archie said and slapped Frank on the back.
Out on Hotel Street men in white and khaki lined the sidewalk on both sides of the road.
“It’s past ten,” Archie said as they walked toward the Bronx. “We’re going to be waiting on line for hours.”
The three men walked all the way to the Bronx’s entrance before they saw that the line started a block over and around the corner. They backtracked.
“We should just go somewhere else,” Frank said. “Or come another time.”
“Eh, it’s going to be the same anywhere,” Archie said. “Hey, you’ve waited long enough. Another couple hours won’t kill you.”
Archie looked at the line of men ahead of them. He’d been to the Bronx Rooms once before, shortly after they arrived in Hawaii. Now he shoved his hands in his pockets and shifted his weight. It had been – he didn’t know how to say what it had been like. Besides, it was better than nothing, he figured. Better than Hedy Lamarr in a middle distance blur, running across the screen at the Paradise.
But he’d expected something – some exotic difference – a lei girl wrapped in flowers, one of the hula girls from the photo booths, him parting the stiff green grass skirt. He’d heard the usual rumors about the photo booth hula girls – offer them twenty dollars and you can have them for the night. Offer it to the photo booth man, some of the guys said. He’d arrange it. But Archie had asked once, and had been told to get lost, you haole creep. He’d asked in such a soft voice he hardly recognized it as his own, leaning in towards the photo guy, Hey is she, you know, available… He’d been too embarrassed to wait for the answer, which came anyway, shouted out after him as he turned off down the street. For all he knew, the guy had been her brother. Or her husband or something. Heck, guy could’ve been her father: all those Hawaiians looked about the same.
Instead, at the Bronx, Archie found what all the men in Honolulu discovered in the Hotel Street brothels: San Francisco hookers shipped across the Pacific for a six month stint that had lasted three years, thanks to the wartime travel restrictions. Women he might just as easily have met back home in New York if he’d had to resort to such things then. No, in New York he never had this problem, he’d been planning to enlist, a fact that he whispered to the girls he dated, in the back seats of the city buses. This whispered intention brought enough gratitude – or sympathy or patriotism or dangerous thrill, whatever it was, he didn’t much care – to get him a good hour of necking, or, once, on the actual bus – God, he still couldn’t believe it – his hand in between the buttons of a girl’s blouse, their wool coats screening them from view. And – once he did enlist – he was shipping out, he told them. Men were so scarce by the time Archie turned eighteen that sometimes older women, working girls, would invite him to the apartments they shared with roommates in Manhattan or New Jersey.
Archie’s experience at the Bronx in Honolulu had made him feel desperate and ordinary, like he was no more or less than the hundred other men ahead of him and behind him on line. What bothered him about Hedy Lamarr was her coming on screen, the forearms over her face. It wasn’t part of sex here, not in Honolulu.
Archie slapped Frank on the back again. He turned to the men directly behind him in the line. “Kid here’s gonna make it.” The group of four Navy boys cheered, “Wooo wee!” and exchanged punches on the arm with Archie and Willard and Frank. The Navy boys were even drunker, their punches seldom landing. “This is it,” one of them shouted. “This is what it’s all about.”
Frank stood in the bright, hot sun, sobering. He wanted to leave, to go into some quiet, dark room where he could be alone. And just as strongly, he wanted to be inside that brothel. He imagined a cool room with a ceiling fan, a woman’s silk nighty falling. What he really imagined, what he’d imagined since before they left, was Evelyn taking off her low-backed dress, or Dorothy Hammond, whom he’d dated in high school, lying bare-legged on the plaid blanket by the lake.
By the time the three men got to the front of the line, and Willard and Archie were admitted into the brothel, Frank’s head was a heavy, dull buzz. Behind him, the Navy boys were passing a flask back and forth among the four of them, increasingly indiscreet. One leaned forward and rested his crossed arms on Frank’s shoulders. Then he hugged Frank, a groping, dizzy gesture. “This is what it’s all about,” the Navy boy said; then, off-key, like a sing-song boast, “God bless America.”
Frank shrugged to try to get him off, but the man stayed, resting his bleary chin on Frank’s shoulder, his breath heavy and pungent. Frank felt his stomach churn. Finally the man reeled back a pace, staggering into his friends.
“I’m going to get laaaa-eeed,” he called out, his voice inflected like a police siren.
“He’s too drunk. He can’t come in,” the woman who kept the door of the Bronx told the Navy men behind Frank.
The three Navy boys looked at their friend and then each other. “Oh, come on,” one of them said. “We’ve been waiting hours.”
“Look at him,” the Hawaiian woman said. “He won’t be able to make business even if I do let him in.”
“Hey there, you better watch it,” one of the other Navy boys said.
And the intoxicated Navy boy shouted, “What’chu sayin to me?”
“You’re too drunk,” the woman said, her syllables slow and impatient.
“I’m not too drunk,” he slurred. “I’ll show you.” He ran forward, landing heavily on the sides of his feet, until he was practically nose-to-nose with the woman. He pointed his chin toward the inside of the brothel. “I’ll show ’er.”
“Haole, you just try,” she said, her voice full of threat and humor.
“Let me at’er,” the Navy boy said, his hand over the side pocket of his white pants. He slipped the hand inside, and it re-emerged half a second later with a standard-issue pocket knife. He fumbled with the blade, unfolding it clumsily, then holding it up and waving it in a haphazard pattern by her face.
Here it was: the rumbling aftershock of the Maluhia fight. The tension the men had lived with all morning, concentrated here in this ludicrous moment: the drunk boy, the flailing knife, the woman just starting to laugh; and then, as the Navy boy’s friends yanked his arms back, pulled him away, out into the street, then down it, the tension was diffused back out, absorbed into the crowd of men.
The woman turned her head after the Navy boys for a minute, and then faced Frank. “Your turn,” she said.
At the top of the stairs, Frank handed the lady behind the cashier’s cage three one dollar bills. She didn’t look up at him, just dragged the money back, and shoved a poker chip at him. It was red with white squares spaced out around the edges. Frank picked it up and put it in his pocket, keeping his fingers on it to make sure it wouldn’t somehow slip out and roll away.
He located Willard and Archie among the men that packed the benches on either side of the dim hall. Archie was leaned back, the crown of his head against the wall, his chin up, pointing to the ceiling. Willard sat with his hands on his knees, watching his shoe tap the floor.
Frank sat down next to him. “You doing this too?” he asked.
Willard nodded. “Might as well.” He had never been unfaithful before this, but even that word, unfaithful, seemed so foreign here, so out of place.
Frank leaned back against the wall. The hallway smelled like must and alcohol. He closed his eyes and waited. Willard disappeared into a room on the left side of the hall, and Archie into a room on the right. Then Frank was summoned. A woman in a gray dress, one of the maids, ushered him into a cubicle. “Wait here,” she said. She held out her hand for Frank’s token. “Take off all your clothes.”
Frank let his eyes adjust to the light, which blinked from a bare bulb located on the other side of a plywood partition that only went part-way to the ceiling, like a bathroom stall. There were partitions on either side of the trick room, and from one side Frank heard a man groan. Could it be Archie? he wondered. He got undressed, and sat down on the narrow cot, crossing his arms over his penis.
On the other side of the wall, the voice shouted, “Oh Mamma, oh God.” Frank looked away to the partition on the opposite side. He wanted to put on his pants, but he felt rooted, unable to move.
“Okay, let’s get going.” A woman entered the room so fast Frank hadn’t had time to expect her coming. “Come here.” She waved her wrist to signal him, and stood by the washbasin in the corner, her other hand waiting on her hip.
He walked over and she reached down and grabbed his penis, pulled back the foreskin. He was hard in a second; it alarmed him, and he felt an involuntary leap in his throat, like gagging. The woman – she was naked except for a short synthetic robe, which hung from her shoulders; the tie was missing – sunk a washcloth in the basin water, then rubbed it over Frank’s penis. Frank thought for a minute he might come right then, into the warm terrycloth, like he had so many times back home in the privacy of the shower. But he held out, bit into the sides of his cheeks.
The woman bent down – Frank could see the dandruff at the roots of her thin brown hair – and held Frank between her hands. “We’re gonna do it like this, okay?” she said and then put her tongue onto the tip of Frank’s penis. But he shook his head, then found his voice, a loud crackling, “No.” He remembered their commanding officer telling them after drills once that letting a girl take you in her mouth was one step away from queer.
She shrugged and stood up again, letting herself drag a bit. “Okay.” She pushed against his shoulder, propelling him back a step towards the edge of the cot. Her arms were gaunt and scraggly. She lay down and held onto Frank’s wrists, pulling him down on top of her, then put one hand on each side of his buttocks and tugged him forward, inside. He felt the slow warm heat like being dizzy. But he wasn’t reacting fast enough. She was grinding against him, flexing and squeezing, moving her cunt in tiny, excruciating circles.
“Wait,” he said.
But even as he said it he felt the release, the involuntary coming; her body slid out from under him.
He’d been inside her just over a minute.
“Okay,” she said, and adjusted her robe, tugging it back up over her shoulders.
Frank pressed his face against the rough sheet. When he turned around again she was gone.
The maid stood in the doorway, took a quick, uninterested glance at his naked body. “Get dressed now,” she said. She clapped her hands, two crisp sounds like gunshots. “Other guys are waiting.”
Frank put on his khaki uniform, still damp from the long wait outside under the midday sun. Outside he found Willard and Archie waiting; they cheered him when he stepped out the brothel door. The other men still waiting in line caught on and cheered too. They released a broad, sweaty stink. “You fuck, it proves you can fight,” his commanding officer had said. Frank swallowed, felt the raw tightness still in his throat.
“What now?” Archie said. “You still want to see Ecstasy?”
Frank squeezed his eyes shut, and then looked down the block in the other direction, away from the line of GIs. He caught sight of the tattoo parlor down the street. Over the past few months, he’d seen some of the other men in the unit come back from liberty with matching tattoos: bald eagles and American flags. A couple times he’d taken their pictures afterward, and they would all stand in a close row, their biceps flexed, smiling.
Frank watched the needle in the steady hand of the Filipino teenager, the letters emerging painfully on his arm. He and Archie had picked the same one; three dollars apiece. “Remember Pearl Harbor” it would say, like a battle cry or a promise.
“You getting ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ too?” Archie asked Willard.
“Nope,” Willard said. “I’m getting ‘Evelyn.’” He looked at the lined, loose-leaf pages displayed on the counter. The Filipino had sketched his designs in thick, blurry ink. Willard ran his finger across the hand-drawn images. “With a heart.”
“Heart costs a dollar extra,” the Filipino boy said.
Only later would Willard realize that he had made a mistake. Only when he was lying in his bed in the barracks. Or—even later—manning a machine gun amid the carnage on an Okinawa beach. Only then did Willard realized that the tattoo, which was supposed to mean one thing, instead reminded him of everything else.