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John G. Wallace

The Great Destroyer of China

"We're all brutally honest," Bill says, feeling more juice in his old bones than he has felt in years.

Bill looks at Tom, who sifts through the toy cars, bubble gum machine watches, and pristine china doll heads on the apartment floor. Tom stands up and crushes the toys with his right shoe. Bill grins. His whole face and frame look weighed down and drawn out, as if they should no longer be displayed for public viewing.

Tom kneels down, stops sifting through all the cracked toys and—oblivious to all surroundings—takes a shattered china doll's head and begins pulling out its hair.

Tom, the young destroyer of china, sits on a bench across the street from a Catholic grade school. Earlier, Bill, in his bright red smoking jacket, pounded him to a pulp and gave him what he deserved. After the pummeling, Tom blew the china doll hair out of his hand and swept all the toys up off the floor. He left the china doll heads on his kitchen table as a morning reminder.

Bill snickered at Tom, even after all Tom's efforts. Before departing, Bill ate all the food in Tom's fridge and said: "It is this that keeps me young."

Tom sits on the bench and tries to force the earlier violence out of his head. He breathes heavily and sweats.

There were no church parades to wake up to outside his window yesterday. Just kids fighting in the streets after a long Saturdaynight drunk. Those mornings, once so clear, are now lost and murky: The part put in his wet hair just so, wiping the syrup off his fingers, sitting still at the long table in the church social hall, walking down the alley to kneel in a pew, feeling the eyes of the old women on him as he enters the church late, and hearing them whisper about his missing confession.

Tom feels pangs in his stomach as he watches the girls walking down the steps wearing their checkered skirts and knee-high socks.

Bill sits in the pool hall sucking on his pipe. The fire seems to be burning brighter as he puffs on it and watches the kids standing around. He quit once but had to start in again. The pipe was something to cling to. It sat in the drawer of his bedside table. He could not abandon a companion that had lovingly scorched his mouth and throat for so many years. Few things in his life gave out such kindness anymore. He had to get it somewhere.

The kids stand around the tables so dumb, nothing around to model their actions after. They chalk up their cues. They are the same cues from Bill's youth, but fewer and fewer cues remain. The kids seem lost. They do not have one shred of respect and get drunk and start cracking sticks over each other's heads.

Bill and his buddies took it outside and fought clean and steady like life was supposed to be fought. Then they wiped up the blood and went back inside to rack them up.

If thinking it was as bad as saying it, Tom was some kind of unsavory, atheist grave robber. He sat on the stoop outside of his apartment. Perhaps Bill would come by and, with his belt and tough fists, show Tom that he did not matter and that he should never get confused and think he did. For so long after the ringing of the bells on Sunday had faded away, Tom lived without direction.

Then Bill came. He was a saint. The old man sacrificed his time—and there was so little left of it—to give Tom's life a little structure. Tom felt indebted to him. Bill seemed to blossom into the younger and better man that he should have remained, and Tom—only in his late twenties—felt older and more spent as Bill whipped him. Yet no matter how hard Bill pounded, the urge came back and dragged Tom to the bench around lunchtime or at three o'clock.

Bill remained one of the few neighborhood veterans. Tom had moved in only a couple of years ago. At the time he had convinced himself it was a nice building and the rent was not so high, but he knew that the school down the street had really drawn him there. He should work or pray, but so much of the time he sat on the bench knowing the day would end with much-deserved pain.

Bill's wisdom carried him so far that he could read everything rotten in Tom off the lines on Tom's forehead. It seemed as if Tom had a mark there that communicated his worthlessness to everyone around him. The mark could not be washed or rubbed off like ashes. Driving down the highway, he sensed the hostility from other drivers as he sped out of the city to see his aunt in Indiana.

"Oh, you good boy, you're a peach," she would say. Her husband had died ten years ago. She had a hard time thinking of Tom growing up and probably an even more difficult time thinking of him sitting across from the school during his idle hours.

On his way to and from his aunt's, he hunched down in his seat and tried to cover himself up with a scarf and a dark hat, but everyone still saw what sat behind his car's steering wheel. Something in Tom's appearance garnered rage from everyone around him.

On the long walk to the bench, an old woman would give him a knowing and judging tsk. The woman knew his true intentions. Luckily, she did not play bridge with his aunt, telling her about his real side and cutting him off from his last advocate.

As he sat on the bench, a young blonde girl got out of school. She looked so white and pure. Perhaps she just finished helping a teacher decorate a bulletin board. She helped for the good of the school. She would join the Red Cross or help the old or the blind get on with better lives. She would not fiddle her time away on a bench. However, she did this to save herself and ruin Tom. Tom knew it; she knew it. He hated her for it.

Tom never helped anyone.

The fragile doll that Tom ripped the hair out of now marches innocently down the street, hair blowing in the wind and books at her side. Tom decides to follow her from a safe distance and hopes maybe he can catch the faint scent of her hair. She heads in the direction of the old theater and several stores. No one notices Tom following her at this busy hour.

Any old woman would know Tom's intentions in a hurry. Without an effort, the old bag would fill him to the breaking point with shame, and Bill would wring it out later. Mistakes and bad judgments stuck in Tom's mind like gnats imbedded in a screen door. Any old woman with skin pulled tight and wrinkled over her cheekbones knew of Tom and men like him: Those brave enough to stay out until the sunset changed the sky from orange to red and the real men took over the night.

The girl stops at the newspaper stand and Tom, more courageous than usual, moves up and stands next to her.

She pages through some sort of teen magazine. Tom wonders what lies inside its glossy pages. The girl turns and looks at him.

"Hey sir, I'm fifty cents short. Can you spare something?"

"Of course." Tom's hand shakes as he reaches into his pocket to take out two quarters.

At night, he knows she spins around her room and dances with her white feather pillow as her gallant suitor. She puts on shiny black shoes.

She walks away with the magazine under her arm and nothing for Tom. Now he knows she spins around the room at night and that sailors prop ladders against her parents' house to climb in her window for a plate of milk and cookies. Her communion picture, displayed so prominently over her bed, drives them off.

"Stuckup bitch," they all eventually say and leave her in tears while they march around looking for a truly cheap girl and even cheaper liquor.

One Sunday morning, Tom will take a walk through the park to try to refresh himself. The dew will soak his shoes and the morning fog will cloud and conceal any lingering evils in his aging self. After walking behind him for some time, the old women will start to grow in number, coming out of the fog and from behind trees to intimidate him. He could easily run but knows they will eventually catch up with him. They walk behind him slowly and steadily.

They start to gouge and pound him in a manner that would make Bill green with envy. They thrash him until he is numb from the pain. Tom does not raise a hand against any of them. He has no right to. This ritual punishment contracts all his nerves as he tightens himself into a ball to try to disappear. Their eyes are still sharp and the crashing force of a purse—thinly concealing a rockhard bottle of perfume—cracks open his head and releases Tom's memories of the pristine dolls on his sister's shelves. He remembers the dolls and the favor he did for his sister—dusting off the dolls every week and putting them back, high up on the shelves and out of harm's way.

After the old women leave Tom amid the lifting fog all spent and bloody, several younger women with their small daughters walk by and do not bother to offer any assistance. Tom does not ask them to because he does not deserve a hand. The young wives do not stare in shock at him or even point and laugh at his wounds, but merely make their daughters watch intensely for several minutes. They say to the young girls, in hushed tones, "This is the kind of man you watch out for." The girls stare at Tom, trying to remember every detail about him. They watch him carefully, having no idea how much he wants to handle them.

Bill finally comes to the scene and weeps as he watches the pools of blood the old women wrung out and took away from him.

"God damn all of you! Why take an old man's only joy?"

No one remains to answer.

Bill's doctor is a young man. On any given day, Bill could kick his ass. The doctor looks cleancut and has a sharp wit.

Bill feels like a god going in for his checkup. Rejuvenated from his conquest of Tom's young bones, he sits on the examining table ready to challenge this cocky young doctor to some arm wrestling.

"It's not so good, Bill. You've got to take better care of yourself."

"What the hell you want me to do, play shuffleboard?"

"You've got to give up some vices, guy."

Guy? He's a condescending bastard. Tom's good for me, Bill thinks. He can't measure that with his damn tests. He cannot measure how Tom rejuvenates me.

Tom stands in a laundromat restroom. There is a stench coming from the sink where a dozen homeless men wash their hair every day.

If I asked her to let me read the magazine, he thinks, she would scrape the side of my face with her nails and pull me back down the street to the bench. She would tie me to it with her red plastic belt and wait until the brawny kids came out of the pool hall for me.

"This dirty lech tried to . . ." is all she would have to say.

Tom would attempt nothing specific on his walk. Yet all of the local guys would know he had no right. They must keep the girl's honor. They would have the right. The girl would like a pinch, a gesture, or even a hoot from one of them as she walks by the pool hall.

Bill would watch her and listen to them and know that, in his youth, he and his cohorts never did any of those things. In his youth, they walked up alongside a girl and offered to carry her books, and this thought gets Bill to his feet . . . But his legs are not so young anymore, and he knows he cannot catch up to the young girl. He will never come near that purity again. His legs are getting younger, with Tom they are getting younger thank the Lord, but carrying the girl's books is not his place.

Tom sits in his exact spot on the bench and knows he has a home here. As the guys sink their fists into him he does not feel the blows as much as passively accepts them as a fact of his life, something essential. Long, belabored, and exaggerated roundhouses come from the men, along with rips at his hair and ample amounts of encouragement from the girl. Blood from Tom's face stains the girl's white blouse and covers the perfume ad on the the back of her magazine. She spins around and feels so free.

Bill waits for Tom's return on the apartment's front steps. The scuffles go on outside the pool hall. Bill is too good to participate in them. A young couple walks down the sidewalk, and Bill watches, envious of them. He wonders if the boy has bled for the girl. Has he opened up a wound in her honor and let the blood pour out? No way, the kid's a fake little pussy. The first steps of courting fly by and the innocent remarks grow old and twist and turn into violent cries in the heavy summer air. Soon, the girl is no good anymore.

Across the street, there is a sound of the cue ball scattering the neat triangle. The cue ball makes a firm crack. Not since Bill's youth . . .

Back then, guys that had it coming always got a back-alley pounding from Bill and his buddies. They were usually sailors, away from the barracks and trying to conquer their women. Bill and his pals would drag the sailors, all beaten and bloody, out of the alley and show them to the gals at the corner store. "Look what we brought for you honeys."

Bill lights up his pipe and notices how strong it burns. He never smoked like this in school, but he had reason not to. The girls sat on the bleachers and watched him run the patterns and take the ball down the field. The forty, the thirty, he kicked it in and trampled right over the corner back. He saw his progress measured so neatly in the papers the next day.

The embers die out in Bill's pipe, and he walks back up the apartment steps. He knows few take his lessons seriously anymore. Only Tom understands.

Tom buys a Coke from the concession stand and walks into the theater to find a group of attractive kids on screen, milling around at the mall. Two girls stare each other down, one in a bright sweater and the other with bleached hair and a leather jacket tied around her waist. "Slut," the one in the sweater mouths at her.

Three girls from the school sit a couple rows ahead of Tom. One of them turns around and blows a kiss at him. He turns red and thinks perhaps he has not aged so much. Tom sees himself following her into the laundromat bathroom up the street but quickly shoves that thought away.

Another turns around and throws a piece of candy at Tom. Two more pieces of candy fly from the other girls and pelt softly against his chest.

"Can't you see what I am?" he says, standing up. "Throw some of that harder."

"You freak," the leader of the three says. "Like a girl to beat you up?"

Tom insults them and everything beneath their skirts and their mothers and their mothers' mothers and the hail of candy grows harder and harder, leaving welts on Tom's forehead and eventually relaxing him as the girls deliver a hard rain and help the blood flow.

Bill looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, and he seems to fill up less and less of it. He feels so tired. He did nothing but sit on the steps all day. But everyone who passed by looked right through him. He needs to check on Tom. Tom will lift his spirits up. Tom sees Bill clearly and makes him feel like a man, not some sagging and dwindling piece of flesh standing in front of a dirty mirror.

Down the hall, Tom sits on his bed and pulls a doll he just bought out of its box. "Buying it for my niece," he told the clerk. She knew he had no niece. However, she was polite enough not to call him on it and merely discussed it with the old women in line behind Tom as he walked back to his apartment staring at its beauty.

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