It’s early Friday afternoon in rainy Midtown and the Expendables are trying to get a table. Everyone save this reporter makes a go at the restaurant’s beautiful but stern hostess, dropping names and single entendres and recounting the tales behind faded blue tattoos, but soon we are squeezed back into the narrow foyer, pressing other hopeful diners against the terra cotta walls. Trench—technically not part of the gang, more of an orbiting heap of space junk (and the one who recommended this restaurant and claimed to know the owner)—is holding a blinking module that will buzz if a table becomes available.
Barney Ross is about to tell me what it means these days to be a Man in America. He lights the split ends of a cigar stub.
“You know you can’t do that in here,” says the hostess.
“Things used to be different,” Barney grumbles.
“Not really,” says the hostess.
“I used to own a restaurant,” he says. “Me and Trench over there and Church and Church’s ex-wife.”
I remember, I say.
“I’ll get you the bomber jacket,” he says. “Real leather. There’s a box of them in my garage.”
I call my editor at Trop to see about getting a reservation somewhere else close by and when I hang up, all of the Expendables are asleep, berets pulled down over their eyes. Eventually we repair to one of the area’s many Make-Your-Own-Salad establishments. Once seated, the chatter runs from the trademarked to the unintelligible. Gunnar Jensen (“Girth” to his friends, “Mr. Jensen” to his children) forgot his wallet. He sucks on a discarded packet of French dressing. Yin Yang says he recently spent the night inside a bag of wet mulch and highly recommends it.
It’s Friday night and the Expendables are standing in line outside a nightclub without any girls. Blame for this oversight lands briefly on each man, then devolves into brutish acts of sexual frustration. Hale Caesar pries a loose chunk of cement from the sidewalk and dropkicks it across the street. Toll Road pulls Barney aside. “Where’s the gash, chief?” he asks, lip quivering.
The bouncer, with his taut muscles, unlined forehead and monochromatic goatee, peers down his clipboard at the mass of desperate men before him. They strike awkward poses, wear ribbed black tees and white sneakers. He tells them to try another night. Barney looks to grease the wheel with a leather bracelet. Booker—a tangential member with ferret-like features—brandishes a small knife and makes a move for the bouncer’s hamstring. The bouncer catches Booker by the arm and cranks it back at a painful angle until the blade is lodged two inches into Booker’s own haunches. A splotch of blood appears, staining the ironed denim.
It’s early Saturday morning at the dusty airstrip outside town. The Expendables have a wedding to attend, and they are running late. Gunnar Jensen is rocking an ancient RC Cola machine back and forth, hoping to knock loose a free soda. Lee Christmas fans the plane’s smoking engine. Someone left a box of fiber bars on the roof of the Econoline when they left the Park n’ Ride and everyone’s blood sugar is running low. Barney is wearing an old Armani tuxedo. He sits in the still cockpit, tugging on his bolo and staring out the window at a dim horizon. He says maybe this is his last job. He says he always says that, but this time it’s truer than usual. He says frequent bureaucratic snares (the gang has operated under various federal agencies since its formation) make it difficult to manage payroll. He says the years are catching up to him. Maybe karma, too, if you believe in that stuff. He says karma seems to have a particular interest in his lower back. He says he went hiking years ago—actually, he got lost on a friend’s ranch—and when darkness descended he found a root to chew for nourishment, and this led him to see enough of the “other side” to know that he’s mostly in the clear.
“Things used to be different,” he says.
Christmas gets the blades spinning. The Expendables climb aboard, grousing about the dry heat and the fiber bars and rumors of a cash bar at the reception. I ask who’s getting married. There are various theories: a favorite dancer, a missionary turned mole, an ex’s kid from a previous marriage. Nobody’s blood.
Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut. Visit him at www.mikeymcgrath.com.