“Cantina Band, Black Ops” by Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ryan G. Van Cleave


I was in a bad place when I visited Tony in Grand Forks, ND,
        emotionally coked to the gills from a break-up
with a live-in girlfriend who once devoured the world with
        sweetness but now wanted to sleep with the stars
not in Hollywood or LA, but in Branson, MO, where my cousin

Frank, played the congas with a Donny Osmond imposter named Stu.
        Tony, an O-3 in the Air Force (Captain) who likes to
lecture me in Spanish, said Más que una pobre vida resbaló por tus brazos/
        more than one poor life slithered from your arms. I said
hey thanks, and felt blind, like my eyelids were errant, wooden. I know

what’ll make you feel better, Tony said, then ushered me onto the military
        base through Star Trek security, retina-scans, the whole she-
bang including a body cavity search station (he vouched me through)
        and a crimson laser system that scanned you for weapons.
We stepped out into a subterranean dome, and there in its dark belly,

the tremor of the world, a US Polaris A-3 nuclear missile, a glorious
        harpoon large enough to spear the moon, it seemed. Tony
nodded as I trembled like wheat on a plain; he said they took me here
        the day I was assigned to special assignment. You know, spy-
stuff, but it’s mostly boring. No missiles or death-lasers or anything. This is

much cooler. I asked Special assignment? Is that something like black ops?
        He laughed and told me that was a term only in the movies.
Go ahead and touch it, he said, meaning the inert, mock-up missile. It’s just
        the casing, but this baby once could’ve taken out Cleveland.
I touched the rather mundane steel, thinking more of my friend at a com-

ops station, speaking the same silent language as the stars, a binary thrum
        that inhabits the sky like lightning. We went to an off-base bar
called The Cantina which sizzled with energy from a five-piece combo
        blasting out old Ellington tunes to a handful of uniformed
officers, a couple of locals in jeans, and two women who took turns

applying makeup to each other. First, lipstick the color of slag lava,
        then eyeliner and powder and something else that involved
a wicked-looking brush. Great music here, huh? Tony said, ordering us
        a screwdrivers as he shuffled atop the cracked peanut shells
that carpeted the floor. We drank and watched the trumpet player wail,

his cheeks puffing wide like Dizzy’s in tempestuous blue as he launched
        note after note into the stratosphere, and I could almost see
myself arcing through the clouds like a US Peace Missile II, or a Soviet
        SS-23, everything around me scorching into flame as I burn
across the sky, Tony tracking me on a screen as I strike my old apartment,

where my ex is packing, planting kisses on her autographed photo of Andy
        Williams, Wayne Newton, Yakov Smirnov. Ground Zero.

from Rattle #21, Summer 2004

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