‘The Gifts of Troy’ short fiction by Thomas M. McDade

Thomas McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF-1091).


Jimmy Crew’s high school days were a blur, just Hyerdahl’s epic Kon-Tiki raft adventure, and Conrad’s story about going to sea, “Youth” stood out, but he got into Wellford University through a program that offered trial enrollments to minorities and veterans. His thirty credits of correspondence Frosh English, thanks to the urging of a WAVE librarian at the Naval Base in Norfolk, might have put him over the top. Luck rode shotgun during the entrance exam. He was badly hungover. His roommate Denny Joiner, an Army vet, told wild stories about Nam. Enemy interrogation was his favorite. A Viet Cong prisoner taken up in a chopper, was shown the door if he didn’t cooperate, sometimes if he did. Den had a beautiful Army PX stereo. A jazz fan, he loved sax man Stanley Turrentine. “Little Green Apples” was in the air a couple of hours a day. Jimmy often found himself whistling it. Den was curly-haired, a wiry six-four, hell of a basketball player; loved his cannabis, etc. He often walked around dribbling an imaginary ball or holding up an index finger as if one were spinning on it.

Being 23, Jimmy didn’t much fit in on the fourth floor of the Reginald Dorm. He kept to himself except for an occasional conversation with a sad-eyed kid living at the end of the hall, Troy Doran, a math major. The kid wore a brace on his top teeth a couple of hours a day. Long hair, slight and pale, he was preppy, granny specs to deck shoes. He resided alone. His former roommate got the boot for lifting textbooks from the bookstore that he sold cut-rate. The operation got out of hand when he offered a wish list feature. Some jerk turned him in for providing just half the requests. Jimmy told Troy of his academic situation and the kid offered to help him out anytime he needed any.

One night, Jimmy helped Troy back to the dorm after he’d found him asleep, hugging a bottle of Southern Comfort in a gutter near Thomson Hall. Ever grateful, Troy became more than an available tutor. He followed Jimmy around like a little brother. He opened up about his family. Rochester born and bred, his father owned a retail chain, Troyson Hardware Stores. Troy was an only child. Next time his parents visited, he wanted Jimmy to join them at a fancy French restaurant in Danville, Chez Patrice. The old man owned racehorses that ran at Finger Lakes. One of them, Neat Mystery, shipped to Belmont and won a handicap. 

Jimmy’s ex-sailor status impressed the hell out of Troy and he was always begging for a sea story. Jimmy didn’t have any tales to match his roommate but supplied what he had, improvised like a jazz soloist. He exaggerated the number, frequency, beauty, and sexual acrobatics of women both foreign and domestic. Troy liked best the rescue of the USS Randolph pilot who’d screwed up a landing. Jimmy wasn’t in the whaleboat that plucked him out of the Atlantic but claimed a spot. He did help lower it. When there was an oil spill while refueling underway from the oiler Truckee, Jimmy turned it into a collision just short of a lifeboat situation. He didn’t inflate his ship’s part in the first Operation Sail. Anchored off Manhattan, big shot civilians were aboard to watch the tall ships pass in review. He considered a yarn about climbing the mast of the Norwegian square-rigger Christian Radich on a bet but backed off warning himself he was on the verge of bullshit artist. Troy’s father belonged to a couple of yacht clubs, Watch Hill and Newport. He’d grown up in Rhode Island. The sloop names complimented his business success, Gold Hammer and Platinum Saw. 

One night following an afternoon on his work/study job, taping up Peter Noonan art show posters in town, Jimmy was downing a couple of blackberry brandy shots to fire up his imagination for a Religious Studies paper about Baptists and slavery when Troy walked in. Jimmy offered a nip. It was the kid’s first booze since his shit-faced nap. He spilled what was behind his Dixie “Discomfort.” He was involved with a town high school senior, took her to his room. The door he’d neglected to lock suddenly flew open. The Coke-bottle-lensed dorm warden Fr. Lyle Michelin ran in, grabbed Linda by the hair and dragged her out while shouting, “Thou fair defect of nature.” Troy hated himself for not defending her. Jimmy figured he was so Catholic brainwashed, attacking a clergyman meant immediate hellfire. Troy said Linda was cool about it. No females allowed in closed-door dorm rooms and under no conditions after nine o’clock. She broke the rules, paid the price. Stomping on one of the pervert hoofs was her discount. Jimmy assured Troy that Michelin would somehow get the whipping he’d earned. 

Troy insisted Jimmy meet his spitfire. The introduction occurred at a Beacon Point Party, a bash situation. Jimmy brought a bottle of Abby’s Wild Irish Rose to dump into a communal alcohol trough. Linda was pretty.  Her blue eyes squinted at him a couple of times looking into his soul or trying to catch him avoiding eye contact. Jimmy cringed some, picturing the creepy priest hands on her long ash blonde hair. Her makeup said she wanted to appear older but it didn’t make her look the eighteen she claimed or even seventeen. Tiny, she was just right for Troy’s five-five or six. Her much taller friend, Donna was there, dark bobbed hair, large chest, and a fixed toothy smile, slight overbite. She was the opposite, too old for the party, mid-twenties maybe. She nearly matched Jimmy’s five-ten. Jimmy had a feeling she was a gift from Troy for the gutter rescue. After a couple of belts of the trash barrel potion, Jimmy was happy as a kid that got a herd of Shetland ponies for Christmas. Donna wasn’t a very good liar, sounded like Jimmy exaggerating. Her mother who’d been in Italian films passed on; father was a patent lawyer, brother estranged, a con artist and suspected hitman.  She was part owner of a surreal art gallery in Santa Monica. She kissed and hugged Jimmy often, once he thought she might have cracked a rib. He imagined her bouncing the flaky priest off the wall. She asked Jimmy’s favorite song, which was “Greensleeves” at the time. He’d heard a folksinger do it at the Old Notes Coffeehouse. She wore a yellow bird barrette in her dark hair, “Little Green Apples” nearly slipped out. Donna had a fine voice. Singing and humming Jimmy’s choice became the evening’s punctuation, best as a soundtrack on a blanket on the beach. She’d run to her car to retrieve one that looked Navajo. 

An evening when Jimmy was having a couple of beers at the Driftwood Lounge with an asphalt worker named Eddie Riggs he’d met playing pool at the Nautilus Bar the week before, he spotted an English Professor named Archie Barren who was reputed to be the coolest on the University faculty. A poet, novelist, and author of librettos, he infused sex into all his lectures.  His hair looked deliberately mussed. Eddie noticed Jimmy staring and asked, “You know that guy?”

“No but he teaches at the U.”

“He’s here every Thursday. An undertaker from Cole’s Funeral Home usually joins him. They’re loud, yapping about authors, Joyce, Dickens, and Faulkner mostly. I might get me a degree by osmosis. Some nights the digger brings a dame, sits between them. Honest to God, once they both had a hand on a tit like mugs of beer. Christ, you’d think they’d have moved to a table.” When the undertaker finally showed, grey tweed overcoat, velvet collar, Jimmy was half in the bag. He downgraded to quarter tanked when he saw Donna hanging on his arm.  “That’s the one,” said Eddie, “I heard he had her in a casket.” Jimmy searched for a way to approach the trio just to see how Donna would react.  An answer came shortly. “Hold the fort,” he said to Eddie before walking to the door as if to leave then sidled over to the Barren’s side. “Excuse me. Are you professor Barren?”

“Yes, sir I am.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you

“Good I hope.”

“The best of the best; I wonder if you could help me out. I’m looking for the source of a quote I heard or read somewhere.”

“Shoot.”

“Thou fair defect of nature.”

“Let me finish these,” he said before downing two shots.  I sneaked a peek at Donna. She had a fake beauty mark over the left side of her lips. She winked first with one eye then two, false eyelashes. “Paradise Lost,” he shouted dramatically, then shook his head, looked as though he wished Milton had not written it. He provided a few insights into the epic poem lost on Jimmy. There was a stack of slim volumes on the bar, bottom one looked soaked. It was Barron’s latest book of poems, Tryst and That. He autographed a dry one and presented it to Jimmy. The undertaker mimicked a trumpet. If Jimmy had enough money, he would have bought the three of them a drink. Returning to Eddie’s side, he wished there were a jukebox “Greensleeves” selection. How would Donna have reacted to hearing it? He explained his visit and the Donna connection to Eddie who was most amazed by the bash trash barrel ass kicking potency. Barren and his pals left before last call. Before Jimmy split, Eddie assured him of a summer paving job.  “It’s the Devil’s lowdown work,” he assured, “college guys have a bad staying rep. I’ll put in the good words. Don’t let me down, bro.” He handed Jimmy a business card, “Riggs and Sons Paving.”

Troy never spoke of Donna again. Jimmy met her in a couple of torrid dreams after the Stag Room episode and that was the end of her. Troy wrote a one-act play that aired on university radio; a priest turned thief specialized in lifting pornography books and magazines. Self-named, The Smut King, Father Firestone – no one missed the tire connection – distributed his spoils to a select group of students for discussion at weekly high teas. The ranking in the group depended on the amount of porn a member had digested—prince, duke, earl, baron, viscount. The Administration launched an investigation, placed student broadcaster Neal Roberts on disciplinary probation.  A talented voice actor, he’d played all the parts. He swore the manuscript entered under the studio door, a big “approved” stamp across the cover. Beloved WWL’s dead air rallied the student body to strike for three days. Normalcy returned when an anonymous letter claiming that Troy’s expelled roommate was the culprit reached the President. Troy’s demeanor changed radically. He considered the play cathartic. He joined the Glee Club. He and Linda took up ballroom dancing. She announced she’d be pursuing a nursing career after graduation.  He introduced her to his parents. They fell in love with her. 

Jimmy limited his off campus drinking to just a shot, or two when he needed paper-writing inspiration. He never cut a class but lacked the confidence to speak up when a professor launched a question he could have answered as quickly and correctly as a quiz show champion.  Eddie Riggs fixed him up with his sister Laurel who was a Jill-Of-All-Trades at a plastic surgeon’s office.  She told Jimmy tales of eccentric, wealthy patients who valued her opinion on the worth of the latest lift. She was always kind and that class of clientele rewarded her with wonderful gifts, diamond earrings from Tiffany’s for example. No matter how slight or null the improvement she’d gush miraculous, they felt good. Amen. Her hair was no kidding the black of fresh asphalt, good training for the summer Jimmy supposed. Right off the bat, she confided she was self-conscious of her high forehead, wore long bangs, a style that instilled a habit of manipulating her lips, to blow upward for no reason at all. She admitted it was a silly thing but Jimmy would have to live with it, better than smoking, she’d added.  Laurel had taken a Virginity Pledge: no veil, no tail. Although named after Connecticut’s state flower, Mountain Laurel. Ha! They bowled. She had her own ball and shoes and a perfect game in her resume. She told him once they should name a lane gutter after him. Laurel’s favorite foreign movie was A Man and a Woman. She and Jimmy viewed itsix times. They held hands and she occasionally squeezed his knee.  She often whistled or hummed the film’s bouncy theme. Laurel always buttoned her blouse to the top. She intrigued Jimmy. She could back off an advance with a smile joined by a hint of fire in her bold green eyes.  His tests of her resolve were half-baked, didn’t want to screw-up the paving gig for one thing but on the other hand he couldn’t bear to see her unhappy. Abstinence wasn’t as bothersome as it should have been. His greatest conquest was nibbling Laurel’s bottom lip just once during a goodnight kiss. She pulled him away by the ear like a misbehaving child. He longed for summer to see what the beach might expose.  On the Troy front, Jimmy promised he would join him, Linda, and his family skiing at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire a weekend in February. Who might be waiting by the fire?

December and finals rolled around. Jimmy was surprised at his academic progress. Wasted G.I. Bill and National Defense Loans to repay for nothing gained had haunted him. Jimmy milked a term paper extension granted because his noble philosophy professor, Kurt Dain had taken a week off early semester to go south to help with voter registration. The leeway quickly shrunk. He would have to stay a couple of days into semester break. Troy was leaving for home the next morning. Jimmy figured that by collaborating with the Courvoisier VSOP Cognac an advance Christmas gift from Troy he could rattle on about Plato’s Symposium for fifteen pages no sweat. He was through mourning Laurel’s engagement to a seminarian.  The clergy had struck again!

Troy wasn’t through with giving, more to come he’d announced. He warned against getting him anything. Jimmy decided to break that rule, give Troy a USS Mullinnix Zippo lighter, ship image on one side against a blue globe. He ripped the cover off a blank blue exam book for wrapping. No answer to knocking on Troy’s door, he walked in, slowly closing the door he noticed a framed photo of his ship hanging off a coat hook, a wreath sticker on the stack. “Where the hell did he get that?” he mumbled, “hot ticket.” As he put the gift on the dresser, a throat cleared. Jimmy spun around. On the book thief’s former mattress, was naked Donna Claus, hair sporting a red bow. She was sitting against the wall hugging her knees. She slowly spread her legs, “Merry” penned on one thigh, “Xmas” on the other. 

“Paradise Found, sailor boy!” 

His t-shirt was easy but he almost toppled ditching his gym trunks. Her arms were high resistance steel bands.  Close to tumbling off the bed, they were aboard the Kon-Tiki raft in heavy seas. He thought he’d choke on her tongue. He coughed, she laughed. The bells on her bow jingled wildly. At the end of the bout, she pushed his exhausted weight aside. That last knell of the bow bells falling to the floor summoned “Greensleeves” to her lips. She proudly showed off her smudged holiday greeting. As she gently bobbed, seeking another sleigh ride for them, the door flew open. 

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