With no job I was pretty discouraged, so I decided to join the military. This was an old, recurring fetish of mine. You know: heroism, adventure, they’ll be sorry when I’m dead; that sort of thing. There was a recruiting center out by the mall south of town, off the highway. I took a bus.
The building was a U-shaped strip mall, with a PayLess, a coffee shop and a dojo all facing the surrounding parking lagoon, and the recruiting offices arrayed around an inner courtyard in back.
First, I went to the Navy. The recruiter was a big horse-faced ruddy peckerwood who looked to be playing snake on a flip phone when I walked in. After making me wait a minute he looked up and smiled wide, right at me. “Good to see ya, brother. What can we do ya for?”
“Well, I’m thinking about joining the service.” I walked over and reached across the desk. His red hand was massive, his handshake smothering. I took a seat across from him.
“You’ve made a bold decision. Boy I’ll tell ya, joining the Navy was the best thing I ever done in my life.” Judging by his folksy accent, he didn’t seem to be from the area. “I’ve been to Hong Kong, Saipan, Australia, the Philippines, paid off m’truck.” He jerked a massive thumb in the direction of the window facing the back lot, where a Dodge Ram was parked, lifted on ridiculously large tires, with Monster Energy decals and a star-spangled Punisher skull on its tinted back window, and an “America’s Navy” sticker on the bumper. Then he leaned forward, looked left, looked right, then straight at me with one eyebrow raised. “You ever been to a brothel?”
“Uh, no?” There was an awkward pause. I looked down at my feet. He leaned back, sighed, and put his feet up on the desk.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. Decision’s yours, but I’d sure like to make it easier on you by having you take a practice exam and get some idea of what you’d be qualified to do for America’s Navy. You got your driver’s license, state ID card, something like that?”
“Uh, I think I left it in the car.”
In the summers it’s always foggy in Santa Carla. I walked back out to the front and looked up at the soupy grey sky. Then I went back around again, but along the opposite side of the building so the Navy guy wouldn’t see me go into the Marine recruiter’s office across from him. I waited there in the front entrance for a couple minutes until a neckless, Sponge Bob shaped little Hispanic Oompa Loompa came waddling intensely from the back in jogging gear and dropped a Walkman loudly on the front desk. Scowling, he pointed at me and asked, “You think you got what it takes to be a Marine?”
“Uh…. Yes?” We each took a seat across from one another at the desk.
“Name’s Marquez, but you can call me Sarge,” he said, self-importantly. “It’s rough out there nowadays. Unless you wanna join one of these inferior branches of service and jack off all damn day, your only other options is pretty much delivering pizzas.” It was clear he had practiced this little monologue many times over. “So, what do you do for a living right now?”
“Uh, I uh, I’m uh….” I paused for a minute. “I’m a stand-up comedian.”
An awkward couple of seconds passed with him staring at me blankly. Then all of a sudden, this taciturn little beaner let out a belly laugh like he’d just heard an incredible joke. “No way!” he bellowed. “Hey Richie, Satchmo, come on out here.” He swiveled around, shouting down the hallway around the corner from his desk. “We got ourselves a comedian!” He turned back to me, smiling ear-to-ear with his mouth agape and a vacant look in his eyes. Before long a rail thin blond-blue farmboy-looking high school jock in fatigues materialized behind Marquez, along with a diminutive black dude in gym shorts, a Marines t-shirt and thick glasses.
Marquez leaned back in his ergonomic chair, arms akimbo. “Let’s hear a joke!” They all had the same open-mouthed smiles, preemptively transfixed in anticipation of raucous laughter.
I lobbed a one-liner. “Uh, I go to hospitals and sell imaginary friends to sick kids.”
Crickets. Same fixed, grinning stares.
“Yeah, that one’s no good. Okay, okay, how ‘bout, uh…. Oh! I know.” I cleared my throat. “You really gotta watch out for undercover cops in this town,” I started. “The other day a homeless dude asked me for fifty cents. I told him, ‘Suck my dick!’ and next thing I know I’m under arrest for soliciting prostitution!” Their faces just stayed the same, all three of them, like wax figurines. Vacant eyes, gap-jawed grins. It wasn’t just that the material was lousy. They didn’t realize they’d missed the punchline.
“Hey, listen guys. I think I left my ID in the car.” I left and walked over to the Army office.
Behind the front desk sat this tall, gangly Asian in coke-bottle glasses with a snide, jaded mug. The name on his shirt was Park. He glanced up from his paperwork, gave me a once-over, then back down at his desk and continued filling out the form he’d been working on. “You sure you wanna do this?”
“Well, I like a kiss before I get fucked.”
“Can you count to ten and touch your toes?”
I gave a demonstration.
“Know how to read?”
“Backwards and forwards.”
“Well then you’ve got the makings of a goddamned hero.” He looked up and motioned toward a chair. “Have a seat.”
Forward: Part V
Back: Part III