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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Fred Andersen: Rito Was a High Number

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Art by Hillary Lyon 2024

RITO WAS A HIGH NUMBER

 Fred Andersen

         

          I was living in a little apartment attached to the back of a Mexican restaurant. This was my sophomore year—1970. I met Muke and Rito at a house party—I didn’t know whose house or whose party. Rito was a tall sort of Jughead or what we’d later call Kramer with a kind of goofy manner that stood out. Muke not so much, but he lit up when he smiled. Then I saw the same two guys at another party, but this one was at Deeterville, the old motel where Muke lived. Rito was with a girl that second night. Muke—it’s pronounced Mook by the way—his real name is Michael Luke, but his baby sister said Muke and Muke it remained—anyway, he wasn’t with anyone at that party, and we started flirting, and after a while we walked across the dirt courtyard and sat on the old car seat in front of his cottage, under a big fuzzy tamarack tree, and just kept talking till the party pooped out. I had to drive the girls home, so that was that.

          I was young and looking for adventure and excitement. My life then was not much more than an endless string of chores and frustrations. There was no magic in it. I wasn’t looking for crazy, just something that went beyond the petticoat problems and set-the-table solutions shown in TV shows and movies and magazines and books. Muke was smart and funny and gentle, and I went for it. We had premarital sex soon after—that’s how people talked back then. Not long after that I moved in with him. This was definitely before living together was considered okay, so I pretended to my family, to the world, that I was still nineteen-year-old Debbie sharing the taco-scented apartment with Shannon.

          But I was becoming the woman Muke loved to call Debba Lou. Our grandparents and even our parents would have called it living in sin if they had known. You could just as easily have called it living in love and made a Melanie song out of it. The sex was messy and not great, but that didn’t bother me at all. I just wanted to have it, to do it. It meant everything about love and passion and all those things you want when you are young.

          We were both going to ASU, me only part-time, Muke full-time to keep up his student deferment from the draft. That was important because this was the height—or depth—of the Viet Nam war. But that spring his four-year deferment ran out. There had been a lottery at some point, based on your birthday. Rito was a high number, meaning he was very unlikely to be drafted. Muke was no. 43, and the draft board started sending him letters months before he didn’t graduate in May.

          The war had become a huge issue. Huge. There were demonstrations all the time. Then Kent State happened. This was when soldiers from the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of war protestors and students and killed four of them. Yes. The protestors threw rocks and refused to obey orders to beat it. So it was rocks vs. guns, and how dare you not follow orders from a man in a uniform. Of course this led to demonstrations all over the country, and these were not “We shall overcome,” but angry. Yes, it was a war, and the other side—the Nixon side—would literally shoot us down. That may sound dubious or even hysterical to you reading this now, but it felt very real then.

          One of those protests took place that Kent State week in downtown Tempe. It was an outpouring of rage and grief, but it was fueled by the couple of pickup trucks that rolled along in the middle of the parade with tubs of ice and beer in the back. Which went fine with the pink Chablis Muke and Rito and I had brought. We shouted, chanted, sang, slapped the hoods of the cars that’d got trapped in the traffic jam we caused. The march ended up on the university mall, and as I was sitting there on a bench with Muke we overheard low, angry voices behind a kiosk. One of them asked, “ . . . how did we let the fuckin’ Twats run away with this thing!”

          Muke and I didn’t get involved or say anything, but as we were walking home I asked him, “Who are the Twats?”

          Trots.” He laughed. “Trotskyites. So those guys must have been Marxist-Leninist, or maybe anarchists.”

          So are communists really behind the peace movement like Goldwater says?”

          Muke shrugged. “You’ll have to go back and ask them. We have reached the limit of what I know about it.”

          But I didn’t have any doubts. The idea that war protesters, hippies, pot smokers and college students were all communists was a load of crap. The guys in the beer trucks looked like bikers or a rock band. It was a crazy time, a scary time, but . . . let’s just say there was a lot going on that never got on the Eyewitless News  or the Ken Burns eight-part documentary. I mean, after the demonstrations, after the acid trips, the love-ins and communist plots or whatever we were supposedly doing, you still had to get up in the morning and get something for breakfast.

 

          Deeterville had started out as a motel or travel court in the 1920s, between the railroad tracks and the old state highway that ran right through downtown Tempe. The highway went somewhere else long ago, and the downtown motels went downhill, becoming rental cottages for poor people and college students. And of course these old places were a natural for hippies when they started showing up.    

          The little cabins didn’t have air conditioning, but they had shade from the big old trees that had grown up around there, and swamp coolers in the windows that blew cool damp air until the weather turned muggy in July and August, then they blew warm damp air—but at least they blew. On one such sticky night Rito was over, and we were sitting sweating on the worn-out sofa and thrift store recliner, tapping our cigarettes on the conch shell ashtray on the cable spool coffee table, all of which together comprised our living room set. Muke said, “I’m going to shoot my toe off, wanna help?”

          Rito chuckled, but I had heard this before, though as a question or hypothesis, not a statement. I had hoped I wouldn’t hear of it again.

          This is the draft thing?” Rito asked, deliberately nonchalant. Once his high number had come in, he didn’t have to worry about the draft, and he didn’t.

          Yeah, they’re hot on my trail. It has to look like an accident. Like I was walking along and tripped or something.”

          Rito began to sing. “Carelessly carryin’ a carbine and climbin’ caliche . . .”

          We laughed. It seemed preposterous. And preposterous it turned out to be, in a way we never could have imagined. We made a plan to go out to the desert on Saturday. Later that night Muke read to me a ditto he’d got somewhere of the army’s Standards for Medical Fitness: “ . . . will be judged unfit if he suffers from absence of one or more toes on one or more feet.” The word that struck me was “suffers.” I thought this was a terrible idea, but I didn’t want him to get drafted either. And if he was going to actually try it, I wanted to be there to talk him out of it. I could do that because he loved me and I loved him.

          And I had done some research of my own—I’d just completed two semesters of intro to human anatomy and physiology. I wasn’t in nursing or any kind of pre-med, but I was exploring career possibilities. Anyway, the dorsal digital arteries either stop at the base of the toes, or enter them as little threads, depending on the diagram you look at. So as long as you don’t cut the bigger ones, the tibial, arcutate or lateral arteries, which are well back of the toes, there is almost no chance of severe bleeding.

          But there is a great chance of severe pain and permanent damage to the foot. But I really didn’t think he would do it.

          On Saturday morning we went out the Beeline Highway. The desert started right away out there, and the Mesa hospital was only a mile or two south of the junction, down Country Club Drive. Muke said he had to go to the emergency room to create “a paper trail.”

          To go with your trail of blood,” said Rito. No laughing now. I had brought gauze pads and bandages which I still hoped would not be needed. Muke drove his Datsun pickup, which is about half the size of a real pickup, so the three of us were crammed in the seat. We went along a rough dirt road, and since I was in the middle, I could only grab the two guys or the dashboard to keep from bouncing all over. I was glad when we finally stopped.

          When we got out we could see nothing but more desert to the north and east, a rocky hill to the south and a smudge of city to the west. A breeze was blowing but it was already hot—and not a cloud in the sky. I noticed Muke was wearing white tennies, not the hiking boots that he wears pretty much all the time. But we weren’t there for a hike. He reached behind the seat and got out a .22 rifle which I’d seen in the closet before, but never seen it out. He had a box of bullets and put about six into the rifle. I began to wonder if he was really going to do it.

          Can you see the hospital from here?” Rito’s joking was getting close to nagging.

          I know where it is.”

          But I don’t.” Rito gave us a sort of pleading look. “Which, if you are passed out, it’s our responsibility to . . . and I can’t drive a stick shift.” He meant manual transmission, which the Datsun had.

          Muke straightened up. “She does.”

          That panicked me. “Oh, wait a minute, I’m not gonna . . .”

          I won’t pass out. And you could handle it.”

          But think about it,” said Rito. “Think about what you’re about to do. They’ve really got you playing their game.”

          Muke shook his head. “I’ve already asked myself all the questions, and here I am. It’s done. Whether it’s smart or stupid or cowardly. And why is this a bad thing when the other option is to go shoot other people? Or help someone else shoot other people. Even if you’re a helicopter mechanic or a clerk or a cook, you’re still part of the machine.”

          He was very serious and heartfelt, which he can be, and my doubt and fear gave way to the other feeling that I had —that he was right and that I should trust his judgement. I gave him a big hug, but I didn’t know what the hug meant. Good luck? Don’t do it? I support you no matter what and care about you and until this moment I never . . . ?

          He hugged me back and smiled and then turned away like brave, handsome movie guys are always doing. He put his foot up on a rock and looked down the barrel. The gun popped—not loud, but we all jumped, including Muke, because he missed, even though the end of the barrel was only about two inches from where his toe was wiggling in the canvas shoe. The bullet went zinging off toward the mountain. All was silent. Muke stood up, shook himself, and bent over again. “Alright. Adios, toe.”

          He fired again and missed the whole rock. I began to giggle, and Muke gave me a cold look, but Rito was snorting too, and Muke had to smile. “Okay this is serious.” He bent over the rifle again for a long moment, but we were all laughing now. This might be a good time to mention that we had already made a dent in a six-pack and a joint, at 11:30 a.m., so this instant release of tension was sort of rocket-fueled.

          Shit!” Muke gave up and fired into the ground, then he lifted the rifle and put a bullet into the flat oval paddle of a prickly pear cactus. “There you have it, gentlemen of the jury. And lady. A bald faced coward who can’t even—"  he gestured at his toe, shook his head and reached into the ice chest for a beer.

          Well, that was the end of that.  We all sat on the tailgate and drank the last two beers. I shared Muke’s.

          So now what,” said Rito.

          Well, there’s Canada, or,” Muke gave me a squeeze. “You’re half Swedish, ain’t ya? You got a cousin Rolf over there who could take us in?”

          I meant,” Rito shook his head. “Are you hungry? Do you want to get lunch?

          We hadn’t brought any food.

          Yes,” Muke jumped up. “I’m buyin.’ Joyburgers all around.”

          It had been an uphill slope to get there, so it was a downhill slope to go back. And maybe Muke was feeling a little exuberant, or intoxicated, but he got going a little too fast and swerved a little off the track, and skidded into a big saguaro cactus. Very big, like thirty feet tall, with two huge arms that curved up almost as high. This was very funny—you could tell the cactus barely felt it—but when Muke tried to back up, all the wheels did was spin, kicking up gravel and dust, but the truck did not move. He tried it slow, fast, and with me and Rito jumping up and down on the tailgate, which only succeeded in breaking the tailgate. Then Muke got a little rusty hatchet out from behind the seat and started whacking at the base of the cactus.

          No, Muke,” I said. “You can’t do that—you’ll hurt it.”

          It’ll probably kill it, but what else can I do? We can only go forward. That’s it.”

          I had to admit he was right. There was no one else around for miles.

          Well,” said Rito, while Muke chopped. “We came out here to make a stump, and so we shall.”

          Muke straightened up, wiping the sweat off his face. “Now when she timbers . . . just don’t be standing downhill of it.” He was huffing, walking toward us, scooping us uphill with his arm. The truck leaned rather heavily on the cactus—the brake slipped or something—and the saguaro cracked like a giant celery and fell. Rito and I were already out of the way. Muke just had time to turn around and see it, and he leaped ten feet. All downhill. The cactus caught him on the back of the head, on the shoulder, and on the ankle. He folded up like a house of cards and slid further downhill. The cactus had got its revenge.

          Rito ran up to the truck, but it only rolled about two inches and then stood there with “Who, me?” plastered on its grill. Muke was bludgeoned stupid. I am sure the first thing the reader of this will want to know is, did he have cactus needles stuck in him? The answer is, no. But he quickly had a lump on his head (which turned out to be a concussion) and a very sore ankle (which turned out not to be broken), and scrapes and dirt on his arms and the side of his face.

          We didn’t think he could sit up in the cramped truck seat, so I sat down in the back—tough to do because the metal bed was hot, and I was wearing shorts—and we got him laid down with his head on my lap. It seemed like a good idea to put ice from the beer cooler on the lump. I wrapped some in a rag and held it on his head as gently as I could.

          We had somehow bent the holdy-up arms on the tailgate when we were jumping on it, so it would not close, and just hung out flat. Muke was not unconscious, but also not feeling good or making much sense. Rito drove around the fallen cactus and back to the highway. Sitting in the back I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or just a bad driver—there was the stick shift issue—or just on a really bad road. But we were really bouncing and tossing around in the back there. I felt so bad for Muke, who was at the mercy of all of this. Finally we got to the highway and Rito floored it. We had only gone maybe a mile when the truck swerved violently—I wasn’t watching the road and would later find out he was going too fast and trying to pass when he shouldn’t have and lost control. All I saw was a flash of a red car, and we spun around, and the back of the truck hit something on the other side. I was able—barely— to grab the side of the box and hold on, but in the spin Muke slid out the back of the pickup.

          The truck stopped moving. A few quiet seconds passed while everyone stopped and got out of their cars. I saw Muke sitting in the other lane, with his legs under a car, and I staggered over to where he was, crawling the last few feet because my balance was gone. I reached out and hugged  him. The window on the driver’s side right above us opened and a man’s head leaned out. Muke looked at him and sort of whimpered, “You ran over my pecker!” He looked at me and sobbed. “He ran over my pecker, honey.” The man, the driver, looked as if he was going to say something. Then he ralphed all over us.

 

          So this is what happened. Muke was banged up but not permanently injured, even in the pecker—I’ll vouch for that. They nailed Rito for reckless driving and he went to the county jail for the afternoon, but didn’t even lose his license. A year later Muke refused draft induction, and was arrested and had a trial. His defense was that, being only twenty at the last election, he had never been allowed to vote for or against the war or Nixon or anything or anybody. That wasn’t allowed as a defense. and he ended up at Lompoc, a federal pen.

          But when Muke was in Lompoc, he and I became lawbreakers for real. On several visiting days I would put about half a 35 mm film can of pot in a rubber—a condom—which I flattened and folded and carried in in my panties, way down there, you know? I would visit with Muke out in the sunny quadrangle. Lompoc is about the nicest prison I can imagine—some of the Watergate big shots would end up there a few years later. Anyway, we would sit on the patio and talk, and there’s supposed to be no touching, but the guards mostly don’t even look. So I would slip the condom to Muke, and as we talk he slips his hand into his pants and slides or unrolls the condom on his perfectly fine pecker. Then he wears that when he goes back in, and even if they patted him, they couldn’t feel it. And he would get four or five joints out of it. We did that three times, then he was released on a technicality—they said he hadn’t been adequately represented at his trial, which was true because he had insisted on defending himself.

          Soon after that the U.S. was gone from Vietnam, the draft was gone, and Nixon was gone. The government just couldn’t be bothered with Muke anymore, and let the case drop. The craziness was over—not all craziness, just that particular brand.      

          We were off and on for a few years—it was quite a roller coaster ride. We weren’t wild, edgy, or far out. Those things we did were just what we had to do or just wanted to do, and I’m not bragging, but also not hanging my head. Life really is a series of little jobs and worries that you have to think about, and sometimes do something about, or don’t. That’s what it really is, and you’d better find joy in that, and excitement, or just check out.

          We finally got together for good, and in 1980 we got married and I got pregs—not in that order. On the day of our wedding. I was late because my sister-in-law was doing my hair and it took longer. The judge was in a hurry because he had tickets to the ASU game that night (it was football season), so the whole official ceremony took about a minute and a half. But then we had a nice dinner and party. Nothing crazy, or even very memorable, except the part about the hair and the football game.

          On his way home, Rito was stopped and given a breath test for alcohol. He blew a high number and was taken to jail. This time he lost his license for six months. From then on he was very careful about drinking and driving. So whenever he went anywhere that involved drinking, his wife drove. Just another thing to deal with. And one of the moons of Saturn may have some basic life form in an underground ocean. The universe is complex and unknowable—a million trees in the forest, and a billion squirrels. Bring your axe and your gun.

 

end

Fred Andersen is the author of Line in the Sand, a thriller in which assassins from a Mexican drug gang take on a janitor and a sixth-grade teacher and lose. Twice. He has also written two historic Hollywood mysteries, including the upcoming What's a Poor Girl to Do? His stories and articles have appeared in American Heritage, Imitation Fruit, Close 2 the Bone, and Yellow Mama.

fxandersen@msn.com

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Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines, and the Art Director at Black Petals Horror/Science Fiction Magazine. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  

https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2024