They shipped Phillip Winston Marlboro to France. The war was raging, and his number came up. He’d stayed in Baltimore, but someone or something bigger than him had a different plan. It wasn’t God’s plan. God doesn’t send men to war. God doesn’t welcome them home either. God just cries. Cries in the form of rain. God cried at night in Baltimore, where sirens and shootings sang all night. God cried in France, even if Paris was beautiful during the day. During the war, it rained every night. God cried, soaking the cold Paris streets.
He was Military Police, trading his Baltimore police blue for the olive drab of the Army. Sergeant Marlboro in Baltimore and now Sergeant Marlboro in France. They wanted him to fight crime. He knew crime. He fought crime with his nightstick, the only justice a crook, pimp, or pickpocket ever needed. Fought crime on the streets of Paris, just like he did in Baltimore. If they wanted him to fight in the war, they’d send him to Vietnam. The war was in Vietnam; he was in France.
The Paris nights were cold, but he was used to it. Besides, nothing can fix or warm a broken heart. A heart broken by a cat who could purr so loud he could still hear that sound across an ocean. A female can do that to a man, especially a lonely man. He took to drinking. He carried a flask in the breast pocket of his coat, and he had another one stashed on his right calf where a backup revolver should’ve been. The occasion to use his backup gun was rare, But the reserve supply of rye was a welcome companion. The tobacco he smoked was from a windowless shop on a small winding street off some back alley someplace west of the center of the city. He rolled his own cigarettes. Of course, he did—it gave his hands something to do. The smoke smelled like the armpit of a lamppost queen who’d been dead for three days. The smoke had a smell that said, “Don’t mess with me, don’t make me use this nightstick.” But it was a smell he was all too familiar with. Sergeant Marlboro didn’t have the safest profession. Some jobs were far worse. That’s why he was there, standing in the rain, in the back alleys of Paris. They needed him much more than he needed them.
It happened in an instant. Being in the war meant danger followed you. It could all be over in an instant. If it was your time. Over in an instant when you’re in the war. Of course, it was raining and dark, and Marlboro had been drinking at Lulu’s, his usual haunt. Lulu’s was on the north side of Paris, in the so-called red-light district. It was also Marlboro’s home. Lulus was his home during the war. Not your average speakeasy, Lulu’s was the watering hole for the worst pickpockets, pimps, and ne’er-do-wells who swam the back alleys of Paris. The red-light district was once home to Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and van Gogh. Now it was a stale, seedy section of a vibrant city. It was also the home to Paris’s best working gals and can-can dancers.
She found him at the bar on his usual stool in the darkest corner. She’d just got off work. It was half-past two in the morning, and the last show at the Moulin Rouge had just ended. You couldn’t miss her if you tried. Her red chiffon dress was too short, and her white leggings went all the way up. She had a small waist, but that was the only thing undersized about her. The tiny blouse couldn’t contain those two perfectly symmetrical mounds. The kind of orbs created by surgery, not Mother Nature. That lace bodice forced her breasts up like the headlights on a Bentley. Behind, she was all Rolls Royce. She carried her six-foot two-inch frame with ease and a carefree attitude. By this time of night, a bit of a shadow followed along her jutting jaw, and her low-pitched voice was a bit hoarse from singing all those Kurt Weill ballads. Marlboro suspected she played for the other team, but that wasn’t his concern. Who was he to judge? Just another Mack, without a knife. And he was just another military cop away from home, away from the war. He was stuck in Paris, his only true love an ocean away.
Not one for a quiet entrance, she gave the night one last kick. One last can-can move to impress her lonely beat-cop friend. Maybe her can-can was a bit too good. Her leg flew up. Her skirt raised like the curtain at the Bijou. Intending to plant her leg on the bar in front of Marlboro’s drink, she missed. She missed the bar, his drink, and almost fell backward into Marlboro’s prospect for the evening—a short gal with tattoos on both cheeks. The stool now hid her tattoos. The kind of tattoos that say, I’ve seen this barstool before. Marlboro’s can-can friend’s steel-pointed dancing shoe caught the side of Marlboro’s face. “Holy sh…!” she said. Marlboro went flying to the left. His secondary maxillary premolar flew right.
For the rest of his life, Marlboro would have difficulty drinking soup. He also talked with a lisp and sounded like somebody had put a bag of marbles in his mouth.
A month after that fateful incident, he was awarded a Purple Heart at the garrison. Well, sort of a Purple Heart. It was some sort of French medal for traffic safety. Sergeant Marlboro did many things during the war. If you work with the French, and you’re in the Army, stationed in Paris, and the war is in Vietnam, you get a lot of medals. French medals.
His last medal and the one that bought him a ticket home was for the tragedy. His tragedy. He was not even on duty. It was not even at night, and it happened far from his beat and the seedy damp smoke-filled back alleys he had come to love.
It was one thirty-seven in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday in June. The year was 1971. My memory is weak, so I might have the date and year wrong, but the tragedy happened at exactly that time. I know this because that’s when my watch stopped. Marlboro and I were walking along the Champs-Élysées. Not soldiers during the day, just a couple of tourists. American tourists. To the French, this might have been their Avenue of Champs, but we were just two American chumps snapping a few harmless pictures of the wandering French girls on a warm summer afternoon. We were hard to miss. We wore Hawaiian shirts and aviator sunglasses to hide our roving eyes. I guess we stood out. Just two ugly Americans, not easy to miss. I guess we were to blame. Our attire was too sleazy and inappropriate for the conservative French couples holding hands and sucking face along the Champs-Élysées.
Every big city has them. Street gangs ready to snatch your purse or boost your wallet. The gangs in Paris were the worst. Cleverly disguised. Paris’ infamous roving street gangs of mimes. A clever disguise for a ruthless bunch of thugs. They lure you in with a charming performance—a silent but deadly skit where you play the hero, then the victim. I’d tell you that we didn’t hear them, but you already gathered that. We were about to ask directions from two legs that climbed to heaven. We were lonely, and this gal’s heaven seemed a nice place to be. The attack was over in an instant, a knife to the kidney and another to Marlboro’s left butt cheek. Marlboro was the mark. I was just the distraction. I thought it all a good show. The Parisians around clapped. Before I realized what had happened, I handed the mimes ten bucks and smiled. They were that fast—that good. Then I saw the blood. Marlboro’s blood. The wounds were deep, and the blood ran fast. Before I could get to him, he collapsed. I went into shock. Shock not from the blood but the humiliation of losing ten bucks to a mime.
We woke up in the hospital. Marlboro, in the bed next to me, was just coming out of a coma. While Marlboro collapsed and fell to the ground from loss of blood, I collapsed due to the overspray and overuse of cologne the mimes were prone to using. My delicate olfactory sense got the better of me. From eye-witness accounts, the sun caught the corner of my aviator sunglasses as I fell. The intense glare reflected into the eye of the mime who stabbed Marlboro. Temporarily blinded, he doubled back on his heels and lashed out wildly. He slashed a fellow mime in his cheek, extending his fake smile and forever ruining his miming career. A melee began as the mimes slashed wildly. It seemed that none of the mute muggers were willing to yell stop. Soon, the entire troupe lay injured. Before it ended, a dozen or more silent smiling thugs were rolling on the ground in silent agony.
According to nurse Claire at the hospital, we were the American heroes of the Champs-Élysées. The mime disaster was what all Paris was talking about. I found this ironic.
Shortly after the tragedy, Marlboro was shipped back to the States. Medically discharged from the Army, he walked with a limp and spoke with a lisp.