Pray

In this excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot (a novel from Paragraph Line Books), Joe Dugan, a soldier recently released from active duty as medically unfit, settles in to life at a boarding house in a small Midwestern town.

Hours lazily glided by. I stared out the round attic window at the quiet little town of Smithville. Robins flitted past. Leaves rustled in the trees. Next door, an American flag flapped from a pole jutting from a front porch. A yellow ribbon was tied around an old oak tree. A Catholic church glowed across the street. I found some tennis balls in a tin can in a corner of the attic and practiced toss juggling. Quick hands, quick hands.

I was summoned from the attic for supper. That’s what they called it: Supper. It was so quaint that I about teared up. Leaving the Army had made me sentimental. The super soldier in the big oval mirror did not approve. Fuck you, sergeant, I told the reflection.

I climbed down from my attic. Heading down, and down, I saw the old payphone again and made a mental note to call home. Or was this home?

When I entered the big kitchen, I witnessed another scene that about made me tear up. Ten people were sitting around the big table, all holding hands, and praying over the heaps of food piled in the center.

….and Lord, please end violence and hunger and poverty, said the gray old man, the Bun’s father. Amen.

I said, I’m sorry I’m late.

That’s okay, said the Bun’s mother.

Fine and dandy, said the Bun’s ancient father in his inscrutable accent.

Sit down, said the Bun, slapping the seat next to her.

I sat down next to her. I was… vibrating.

Everybody, this is Joe Dugan, said the Bun’s ancient father.

Murmur, murmur, grumble, went the boarders, older single men, not professionals. Dirty and chipped fingernails. Graying beard stubble. They were busy stabbing at the pan-fried pork chops with their forks. Mashed potatoes were passed around. Green beans.

Prayer is good for the soul, said the Bun’s ancient father.

I looked over at him and realized that he was addressing me. Yes, sir, I replied. The bucket of mashed potatoes arrived in my hands via the Bun. I plopped some on my plate and handed it off to the next person.

You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ said the Bun’s ancient father.

Yes, sir, I replied.

The Bun’s father was a huge man, with great circles around his glowing-sad eyes. The eyes were becoming sadder every time I called him sir. I wanted to stop. I couldn’t. Some people cry out for respect despite their feelings on the matter.

I’m heading down to the Buy and Bye tomorrow, if you want to come along, said Kenny, who was sitting on the other side of the Bun. The three of us looked out of place at this table.

That’s a scab shop, said the Bun’s ancient father.

It is, said Kenny.

Oh, Daddy, said the Bun.

The Bun’s ancient father stared down at his food. Hmm.

Oh, Daddy, said the Bun.

Scabs, went the Bun’s ancient father, not looking up.

Grumble, grumble, slurp, slurp, belch, went the older boarders. They didn’t like the old man’s leftist leanings. But, I guessed correctly, the leftist old man was the only one in town who would take them in. All of them worked, I found out later, on a cash basis on the other side of Lake Grant, where all the rich people in town lived. They mowed lawns and hacked up bushes and painted fences. They suffered a lot of competition from undocumented Mexican laborers, so they had to keep their wages low and their complaints to an absolute minimum. They felt that everyone else should do likewise. Why should anyone have a better shake than them? Who did the old man think we were? Did he think we were better than everyone else? Hmmph! Slurp, grumble, belch.

For a job? I said at last.

For a job, Kenny said. Yeah. What else?

Maybe for a ten-pound box of macaroni. Or a cubic-ton of Velveeta. Or Chinese slave labor electronics that would short out a day after the warranty expired.

Tell them you want to work in Merch, said the Bun.

Merch? I went.

It’s in the warehouse, Kenny said, peering around his pretty girlfriend, who I couldn’t bring myself to look directly at. That’s what I’m going to ask for.

I didn’t want to tell them this: I had money coming in. I had been TDRL’ed – Temporary Disability Retirement List. I was supposed to get money from the government until I was cured of my injuries, at which point I was supposed to reenter the Army. It wasn’t much. I gave my home address as my mother’s house. The government would sent all my correspondence there.

Warehouse, I said aloud. I wasn’t sure I’d be up to lifting heavy objects, if it came to that. I was only recently out of physical therapy. On the other hand, why not? I’d seen a VA hospital on our way in. I could always drop in there if something snapped. Actually, I was supposed to report to the VA hospital at some point for a check-in. Vicodin, wonderful Vicodin. Sure, I said.

You haven’t taken anything but potatoes, the Bun pointed out. She heaped more food on my plate. More than I would be able to eat. I was missing part of my digestive tract. This is not something you bring up at a dinner table.

After dinner, I climbed up and up and up the stairs to my little attic room. I passed by the payphone in the hallway, slapped at the wallet in my front pocket where my calling card was and continued on upstairs.

I sat down on my bed and watched the world again through the little round window, the sun sparkling through the dark spring green leaves. When the sky outside dimmed from blue to orange to black, I curled up on the unfolded bed and fell asleep.

I dreamt that gunmen had taken over my mother’s fake New England fishing village in Florida. I woke up, grabbed my wallet and tiptoed downstairs. I could hear the tenants growling and grumbling their way through angry sleep.

I pulled a calling card from my wallet. On the front of it was a picture of a G.I. in the nicest desert you’d ever seen, the sun sparkling high in the blue-yellow sky above him, and him on a payphone that had miraculously popped up out of that desert, his head bowed, calling home.

Hi, Ma! Hi, Pa!

Oh, Sonny Boy! How is the war going?

We’re winning, Ma! We’re winning, Pa! Everything’s swell! How’s Sissy? How’s Sparky? How’s our swell mutt Jasper?

Everything here is peachy keen! Biggest economic expansion in human history now that you’ve secured our freedom and protected our country.

That’s swell!

It sure is swell!

Etc.

I punched in all the appropriate numbers. The receiver emitted its buzzing noises. Nothing unusual there. The mother picked up. Hello? I went.

It’s your brother, said the mother.

Hi, I said. How’s it going? Whatcha doing? Is anything wrong?

I picked up a plastic gin bottle on the floor and took the last swig, tossed it into a nearby wastepaper basket.

It’s four in the morning, she said. You haven’t called in three weeks, she said. Maybe everything is going wrong. You wouldn’t know, would you? You’re too cheap to even buy a cell phone that we could call.

My Catholicism sickened me, along with the leftover gin. It’s 3 a.m. here. I guess I must finally be going nuts, like you know who.

Don’t mock your brother, she said.

I think you should call him right up. Invite him over. He can tell you about his doppelgänger from the red universe who’s having all the fun, while he’s stuck in this universe working his ass off like a sucker.

I don’t have to call him. He’s here.

Chess was out. Free. I thought about running down to the front door and locking it, as if that would do any good. A vision of Chess with a fire ax chopping down the balsa wood door. Oh, that’s just swell. Is he taking his meds?

We both take our pills at the same time in the morning.

If you don’t mind, I’ll start carrying a tazer with me. Just in case.

You’re too hard on your brother. He’s your twin. You two should be closer.

If we felt each other’s pain, I’d be hitting myself in the ass with a board all the live-long day. A board with a nail in it.

That’s a terrible thing to say.

Yes it is.

Hello, big brother, Chess said through the receiver.

The sickly mother had surrendered the phone to him.

I was older by ten minutes. If you believed the reports.

So you beat up a dying old lady and snatched the phone away from her, I said. Good for you. Who needs a lawyer when you have ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ in your back pocket?

She waved me over and handed me the phone, he said. Did you know she had the movers bring my weights over from, um, the old house? I’m setting them up in the garage.

That’s comforting. When you stop taking your pills, you’ll be twice as hard to restrain. How’s your double in the red universe doing? Still taking all your vacation days?

Look, I’m trying to be, err, uh. Quit it. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? For me to sit with Mom until she croaks?

Okay. Calm down. It’s ten after four in the morning and you haven’t had your pills yet.

It’s an all-night party over at the Dugan Compound, I thought.

Fuck you, Chess said, in an almost civil tone.

The phone clicked dead. I stared at the phone a moment, and then hung up. They didn’t even ask where I was. Not interested, I guessed.

Quiet out there! one of the angry boarders shouted through a closed door.

I staggered down the stairs to the big, empty living room and then into the big empty kitchen. I turned on a tiny TV set bolted to the underside of a kitchen cabinet and set the volume to low.

On the last half-hour of the network overnight news, the young, white-haired anchor was leading the crew and his blonde co-anchor in singing, “The Late Night News Polka.” They were accompanied by a ruddy, toothless Bavarian in lederhosen playing an accordion. He’d descended from the ceiling, suspended by wires.

When did crazy become the new black? I wondered aloud.

A little later, in a runway-style segment with a New Order song pounding in the background, the newscasters showed off the Army’s latest uniform—much different from what I had been wearing until recently. The new uni looked like a Waffen SS uniform topped off with a Girl Scout beanie.

All they needed to complete the look was a pair of jackboots, a riding crop, a monocle and a box of lemon pastry cremes to sell door-to-door.

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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