Numbers Station

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We called him Core. I think it was short for "Corporal," but I guess it could have been short for "Marine Corp" or even "Hard Core." For as long as I'd been hanging around The Outpost, he was Core.

Core was a die-hard patron of the place, going back to when it was a veterans' bar. By the time I started drinking there, The Outpost was full of people like me: black-clad anarchists with patch-covered denim jackets announcing allegiances to various metal and hardcore punk bands. Most of the veterans and aging warehouse workers cleared out as the weirdos poured in. But not Core. Even if there was an ear-splitting crustpunk or death metal show, you'd find him at his bar stool nursing Budweiser.

Everyone knew Core was the guy to talk to for pills. Klonopin, valium, oxycodone, dexedrine. He had a prescription for everything, but he never took any of his own pills. He self-medicated with beer and sold his pills to Outpost patrons. Or, if he was drunk and he liked you, for free.

I used to drive Core around town once a week or so to fill prescriptions and visit doctors. Different ones each time. Sometimes I thought he maintained the pill racket just to give himself something to do.

One summer afternoon I drove him to a few clinics in my AMC Eagle. The Eagle didn't have AC, so we comforted ourselves by chain-smoking cigarettes all whole day, coating our lungs in tar and lighting up our brains with nicotine. Black Sabbath blared from the cars tinny speakers because they're pretty much the only band we both liked. Their slow, sludgy riffs matched the heat haze writhing above the asphalt.

"How come you still don't have a job?" he grumbled.

"They're not exactly easy to come by these days, man," I replied. This was true, though I wasn't really looking hard. I liked getting unemployment checks more than I liked swinging a hammer. It was nice to have the summer off.

"You could join the Army," he said. "No one wants to serve anymore."

"That would mean working for the government, Core," I said. "The same one you're always complaining about."

The tapedeck ate the cassette so I started working the radio dial. I came to a numbers station, one of those weird stations where someone is just monotonously reading off a list of numbers for hours and hours. Supposedly they're a way for spies to send encoded messages. "What do you think these broadcasts are for?" I asked Core.

He grabbed the dial and twisted it away. "I'd rather you turn the damn thing off than play that shit," he spat.

Our last stop was several miles out of town. I had to navigate a maze of back-country roads as Core gave me semi-coherent directions: "We'll go this way a mile or three, past this big dip in the road, then there will be sort of a curve and there will be another road. Take a right on that one. Unless it's on the left side. Just watch for a new road and follow it."

We had to take some gravel roads for part of it, but we eventually reached a smooth, paved road in the middle of nowhere, leading to one of those gates with a little booth for a guard. But there was no guard, I just pressed a buzzer and Core shouted across. It was the first and only time I heard his real name.

Past the gate was a small office building with an equally small parking lot with a few new model cars. I stayed in the Eagle, as usual. I remember Core actually had to press another buzzer to get into the building.

"What the hell kind of doctor's office is this anyway?" I asked him when he got back.

"A special clinic for veterans," he told me.

"What war were you in anyway?"

"None that'd you'd ever hear of."

"The hell's that mean?"

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