After I’d left my wife, after I’d been fired, again, I sat alone in my apartment drinking fruit punch-flavored Kool Aid generously laced with gin. I stared out the window. Out there was Bradenton, Florida, and the heat index, and savage, lumbering alligators unafraid of humanity thanks to construction workers who chucked their gnawed-clean chicken bones at them.
Shortly before my departure, my wife told me that I was like a plain brown paper sack that had been stapled and glued shut. You could shake the sack, and you knew something was in there, maybe something good, but who knew? You couldn’t get the sack open without ruining the sack, so what could you do? She also informed me that she thought I was semi-autistic and I should get checked by a doctor. That’s when I invited myself to leave.
That’s also approximately the time that I threatened my supervisor at Sarasota Art Index Associates with an X-Acto knife, shouting, “I cut you!” I did. It was an accident, a bad joke, but try explaining that to the security guard escorting you out of the building.
I’m unusual—but not unusual looking. I’m so usual looking that no one could pick me out of a line-up. But the mentally ill, children, and police all take an interest in me on sight. I’ve never been comfortable with this. I see people here in the 1990’s making a fetish out of being unusual. They don’t know what it’s really like. It is not an enviable position to be in. I open my mouth and say things and I don’t want to sound like I’m strange, but I am, and I can’t help it and there is no help for me. I cannot embrace my unusualness as a lifestyle, despite the loud propaganda for it on MTV. I love David Lynch—he is my brother, we share a soul—but I wish that he’d never made Twin Peaks. There is such a thing as sharing too much.
Out there amongst the heat shimmers was the letter carrier, a willowy redhead who reminded me of many of the women I’d loved in my life, mostly from afar. I watched her making her rounds from one apartment complex to another, wearing her too short, couldn’t-be-regulation shorts and her sweaty, polyester uniform blouse, her feet encased in clunky work shoes, her thighs and calves curvaceous and delicately white. Her hair was tied up in a tight knot. Let it down, letter carrier! Let your ginger hair bounce in the damp air!
Many years ago, my wife was one of those redheads. She told anyone who’d listen that I was handsome, and I think that she may have believed it. She said it enough that she nearly had me convinced, so I imagine she had herself convinced. She kept saying to me, “I won! I won Buzz!” like I was a prize pig at the county fair. But what did she win exactly? She’d won the unknown contents of a plain brown paper sack.
What she fell in love, I think, were daubs of paint expertly applied to canvas. Or maybe she fell in love with the idea of falling in love with an artist. Or maybe it was my smart mouth. She, perhaps, read one too many novels in which a damsel falls hard for a painterly, soulful wretch. In those daubs, in those stacks of canvases, she might have seen a soul, if she looked hard enough. If she squinted. Could the daubs of paint be describing the contents of the plain brown paper sack? If so, the sack wasn’t talking nearly enough for her to discover if that was indeed the case.
My head hurt. It always hurt, like I had a slow-spreading bruise inside. I needed to score some weed, so I called my old buddy Albino, who was still up at UF, but now a researcher. He was creating a new MRI machine at a magnet lab there.
“So naturally you think of me when you think of illegal substances,” Albino said.
“Naturally,” I said.
“Go to a doctor,” he said. “Tell him you’re depressed. He’ll hook you up.”
“Can’t,” I said. “I don’t have health insurance.”
“What about the Army?”
“I’m not re-upping just so I can score some drugs,” I said.
“What about the VA?”
“Ah,” I went.
But it wasn’t that easy, even with me being, technically, a combat-wounded veteran, 30-percent disabled, having once broken my leg after slipping on the floor of an improvised mess hall in Saudi Arabia. The VA, as a part of our Federal government, required many multi-page forms to be filled out and St. Francis-like calm and patience. I somehow managed over a long week to accomplish this without X-Acto knifing anyone.
Once done, I had to wait with all the old poops from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The Vietnam ones were especially filled with contempt for me, a veteran of Bush’s 100-hour war. “We didn’t get a parade,” a biker-looking dude informed me.
“Really?” I blabber-mouthed. “Our parade was wonderful. I lost count of how many jiggly girls congratulated me on having tamed the savage Iraqis. And, hell, I didn’t even get to fire a shot in anger.”
I saw that he wanted to beat me up, but that didn’t make him unusual. Half the people I meet want to beat the crap out of me. What made him unusual was that instead of punching my lights out, he told me about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The day when I became, or was to become, or was ordained to be, a combat veteran, yes!—fond remembrance. I came back from lunch at ground zero, I was a Pentagon Soldier, and found a set of orders on my drafting table ordering me to the 21st Replacement Depot, King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia via Fort Benning, Georgia.
“What’s the matter, Pep?” asked Ron, the Marine Corps corporal who sat at the drafting table across from me at Pentagon graphics. He drew a comic strip on the sly for an underground newspaper. The comic strip involved the adventures of Rollo, a pig from Hell appointed by Satan to stir up trouble on Earth. Mostly what Rollo did was get slaughtered and eaten, at which point Satan would send him back to the surface for more adventures.
“Uh,” I said, handing Ron the orders.
He read them quickly. “But they can’t do this. Pentagon takes first priority.”
“You’re right,” I said, sensing an out.
I quick-stepped over to my supervisor’s office, an Air Force tech sergeant named Skip Kinney. “I already know what you’re about to say, Pepper,” he said. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“B-But, I’m assigned here—” I sputtered.
“Sure,” he said. “And technically, you’re still assigned here. Look at the orders,” he said, swinging his feet up on the desk, lacing his fingers behind his head. “You’re going TDY. See?”
My hands shook violently. “Where? Where does it say that?”
He snatched the orders out of my hands. He was a weightlifter and Olympic-class wrestler. He wasn’t going anywhere. “Right here,” he said, pointing it out to me. Oh, and he was an Olympic-class douche bag, just in case you didn’t figure that one out.
What I couldn’t figure out was whether the 12-foot-high storm fence topped by concertina wire was supposed to keep people out, or us in. We were in a tiny compound, living in drab Fort Benning barracks straight out of World War II, near a recently unabandoned airfield. Shanghaied commercial jets flew in daily, carting off the people who came earliest. A black heavy plastic rotary dial telephone on a desk downstairs in the orderly room was our only line of communication with the outside world. Some guys were married, and their wives were sure they were fucking around on them. Most would have been, if there’d been any women around.
The first thing they did when we arrived was take away all our clothing and replace it with chocolate chip BDU’s and all the other desert accouterments. We all had tan suede boots and floppy covers. They handed out brand-new TA-50. I’d never seen a new canteen before, or new body armor. Our Alice packs didn’t have any holes in them, no blemishes. They gave us wraparound sunglasses and pumped shots in our arms to ward off anthrax and chemical warfare. They gave us M16A2 rifles directly out of the wooden crates, all viscid with cosmoline. After we cleaned off the purple shit with our new cleaning kits, we zeroed the weapons at a makeshift range.
That night at chow, a guy who decided that I would be his buddy because he was from my hometown described how his wife went about giving him blow jobs, which involved her removing her false teeth and soaking them in soda water.
“Let’s skip the details, Parker,” I said. “It’s ‘Parker,’ isn’t it?”
A sergeant walked into the wooden mess hall. The walls dripped with humidity. No one had bothered to set up a single air conditioner, and we were in southern Georgia in mid-August. The sergeant, who had one of those annoying little Hitlerish mustaches, barked out: “Pepper! Phone call! Five minutes!” I leapt up, waving my hand. It wasn’t so much that I was dying to get a phone call as I was dying to get away from my new buddy, who immediately scraped my dinner onto his plate, chili mac, and continued chowing down.
I followed the sergeant back to the orderly room and picked up the heavy receiver. “Guess who’s tracked you down, you idiot,” I heard over the handset. A baby was crying in the background.
“Sissy,” I said.
“Yeah, little brother, it’s me. The tramp,” she said. “Pipe down! I’m on the phone with Uncle Buzz!”
“Uncle Buzz!” shouted the little girl.
“I can’t believe it,” I said.
“Buzz,” she said. “I couldn’t have you go off and die in a war without telling you how stupid I think you are.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
“I mean, who told you you could join the Army in the first place?” she asked.
“I don’t recall you asking me for marital advice,” I replied.
“Fair enough,” she said.
“Two minutes,” said the sergeant.
“Two minutes,” I said.
“Buzz,” she said. “You blockhead. You dope.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am.”
“What am I supposed to do if you die? Go on and raise my family? Live a normal life?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. A baby hollered some. “Just be quiet for a couple more minutes. Please? Can you do that for Mommy?”
“I don’t want to keep you,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “What am I saying? Who are we talking about here? The idiot who joined the Army.”
“Time’s almost up,” said the sergeant.
“Time’s almost up,” I told Sissy.
“Don’t die,” Sissy said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m an illustrator. How can they send me to the front? They can’t. I’ll be in the rear with the gear.”
“You stupid idiot,” she said. She hung up.
I placed the receiver back in the cradle. “She hung up,” I said to the sergeant.
“It’s just as well,” said the sergeant. He looked out the window. Another commercial airliner was landing and more troops were marching out toward it. “Sixteen thousand body bags.”
“That’s how many they ordered,” said the sergeant. “Sixteen thousand.”
“The Army never gets anything right,” I said.
“Yeah,” said the sergeant. “I bet they under-ordered.”
For more Buzz Pepper-y goodness, pick up a copy of Small Town Punk. It’s in your grocer’s freezer.