Editor’s Note: This novel excerpt first appeared here March 11, 2012.
Picture this: A pair of jump-boots, spray-painted silver, tied together by the laces and tossed up to a power-line umbilicaled to my barracks. Short-timer!
After my honorable discharge, my DD-214 in hand, I walked outside the out-processing barracks and whooped and spun my class A jacket round my head.
I wasn’t really happy. But sometimes you have to celebrate no matter how you feel.
An old-man colonel noticed me and tsked.
In the out-processing barracks, I was issued a new military ID, one identifying me as TDRL, so I wasn’t out of the Army. Not completely.
They wouldn’t bring me back. I would disappear, I’d decided–naively as it turned out. I threw away the plane ticket that would have jetted me back to my home of record, Sarasota, Florida, put on my civvies and walked off post, heading away from official Washington, and Fort Myer and the big depressing cemetery, down Columbia Pike, just another suburban street in suburban Virginia, my duffel bag slung over my shoulder.
Somewhere near Bailey’s Crossroads, a van honked at me and pulled over. I hopped in.
The driver announced himself as Kenny and told me he was going to Chicago. His soppy hair was all over the place, his skin like onion paper. He looked like a heroin addict who’d time-traveled in from 1972.
You from Chicago? I asked him.
No, Kenny said. Should I be?
Kenny drove and drove and I looked out the van’s filthy windows. My country was so green. Power-lines and melty blacktop and rolling hills–the lushness of it all was staggering. I’d forgotten. The smell of it, this country of mine! Sweat and pollen and hydrocarbons.
At a Stuckey’s in West Virginia, under a throbbing road-sign proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ, I bought Kenny a full tank of gas, a six-pack of Mountain Dew and a jumbo bag of nacho-cheese Doritos. Night drew down upon us. Summer heat continued to wiggle up off the Interstate.
Where you headed? Kenny asked me.
Chicago, I guess.
You from Chicago?
No, I said. Should I be?
We pulled over in Kentucky, or Ohio, and slept in a strip-mall parking lot. When the sun came up in the morning, I wept as quietly as I could, tears coursed across my temples, a phlegm bubble popped in my mouth. I don’t think he heard me.
Eventually I stopped and wiped my face with the heels of my hands. Sat up.
What’s your name, anyway? Kenny asked. A silver-metallic blob had been jammed through his septum. He was a Descendants fan, according to his t-shirt.
Dugan, I said. I thought a moment. Joe, I mean. I was free to use my first name again. I popped open the back doors of the van and hopped out into all that sunshine. I rubbed my still-wet temples. Where were we? It didn’t matter. A vulture spun in grand wide arcs overhead.
In the strip-mall–a sign. I believe in signs, and good and bad luck. This was a real sign: An Army-Navy store. I pulled my duffel out of the back of the van and took it in. Fifteen minutes later, I was $150 richer and 20 pounds lighter–not that I needed the money, but it was a good sign and good luck. I believe that for one bit of good luck you must pay with two bits of bad luck. So I’d have to watch out for the next couple of weeks. Bad luck didn’t lurk long.
What’s in the little bag? Kenny asked.
My real clothes, I said, shaking the plastic bag. He didn’t want them.
How long were you in the Army anyway?
A while. How about Denny’s? My treat.
Hey, hey, hey, wait: It’s not that I’m ashamed of having been in the Army, or that I have a proto-macho can’t-discuss-war stance, it’s just that I was sick of talking about it. At Walter Reed, that’s all we did. We sat around in plastic folding chairs talking about the war until it died in our mouths.
Sweet, Kenny said.
A quick hike across sticky asphalt brought us to the smallest Denny’s in the world. It was not the saddest Denny’s. Nor the seediest. The manager did not look like Weird Al. The waitress did not keep a pencil in a beehive hairdo. Kenny said to the waitress, I hear this is snake-handling country.
Y’all want something to drink? she asked. She was youngish, maybe 25, but a hard 25.
I’ll have a diet coke, I said.
Pepsi all right?
Fine, I said.
I’ll have a Red Bull if you have them, Kenny said.
We don’t, she said.
Then a Pepsi, please, Kenny said.
Tough crowd, Kenny said.
I shrugged. You could talk about college football, I said. Or NASCAR.
You think she likes me?
She hates you, I said.
Close enough, Kenny said.
When she came back with our drinks, Kenny asked her to go to Chicago with us. I’m meeting my band there, he said.
Uh, huh, the waitress went. I think she’d introduced herself as Cathy. She wasn’t wearing a name-tag. Or maybe she was Kitty. Something like that.
Don’t mind Buster, I said. He has the Tourette’s. You heard of it?
She smiled. I think so. Don’t they shout out bad words?
I’ve known him since we were in kindergarten. He hasn’t said an appropriate thing yet.
Grand slam! Kenny shouted.
His sister is waiting for us in Chicago. They have better doctors there. New drugs, I said.
I want to make looove to you, Kenny said.
Oh my, she said.
It gets sad quick, I said.
Grilled cheese on wheat, Kenny said.
‘Grilled cheese on–’ she repeated. She wrote down his order.
Give him the onion rings, I said. I’ll take a patty melt with fries.
She trotted away.
Man, I was gonna–
You weren’t gonna score.
You interest me, Mr. Joe Dugan, Kenny said. If you need a place to crash when we get to Chicago, I’ll arrange it. He smiled, not unkindly.
We stared out the window for a while, watching the big rigs rumble past. I saw some of the Mexican kids from the kitchen peering out. Free freak show. Kitty/Cathy nudged past them.
Fart, fart, jalapeño poppers! Kenny shouted.
You poor boy, Kitty/Cathy said, setting down our food.
Outside Denny’s, I had a chance to study Kenny’s van in daylight. Someone, back in the 1970’s by the look of it, had loved Kenny’s van, airbrushing it into a prog-rock album cover, replete with a nude woman wrestling a snake, beardy gnomes and other claptrap. I thought of long electric organ solos and flowing girl hair on guys and falsetto voices begging me not to kill my fellow man, or whales.
The tires, possibly retreads, had no treads. The door handles were shiny and sculpted in obscene shapes. The chrome had worn thin, and through, in spots. Rust dots blemished bumpers and the bottoms of doors.
You want some ginseng? Kenny asked.
I could use some ginseng, just to get going. That big meal made me sleepy.
Indiana is more than corn. Indiana is also industrial waste. We drove through Gary, Hammond, haze.
Desolation alley, Kenny said.
I scratched at the shrapnel wounds in my face, which looked like acne and itched like hell. I wasn’t allowed to have an MRI at Walter Reed because of them. The magnets in the machine would have ripped the tiny pieces of metal out of me in a most unpleasant way, my doctors said.
Other than the fake acne, I was feeling pretty good. No obvious limp, nothing. I closed my eyes and leaned my head up against the window. Thump-thump, thump-thump went the tires as they crossed the crumbling and pot-holed highway. I felt no urge to be on the lookout for roadside bombs hidden in refrigerator cartons. None whatsoever. Cured, cured!
I fell asleep and missed Chicago entirely. I woke up and saw a billboard for a station called The Loop. Chicago, I said.
Just passed through, Kenny said. We’re almost there.
Smithville, Kenny said. Just north of Chicago. That’s where my friend’s house is. I called her, let her know to expect an extra person.
Thanks, man, I said.
You sure can sleep, Kenny said. I had the radio on, was talking on my cell and the road was rough and you slept right through it.
It’s a talent, I said. I can also juggle. Back in Sarasota, I was a member of my high school’s circus. I was a toss-juggling clown.
Ha! Kenny went.
Two Interstates merged into one, six lanes of trucks and cars trying to squeeze north together. Kenny inched and inched. Don’t think I’ll be driving much around here, he said. An hour later, he said, Nothing funny about the traffic here.
We got off the Interstate twenty minutes later, trundling through potholes into the small-town Midwest. I need a drink, I said.
You and me both, Kenny said. He unfolded a piece of paper with instructions printed out on it. Can you read a map?
I laughed. He was puzzled. Sure, I said.
We found the house a few minutes later. The house sprawled irregularly on a flowered plot. A Rooms For Rent sign was planted along with the flowers out front, along with a telephone number. I decided it was a gingerbread house from a nursery rhyme, a built-up, four-story maze from Wonderland. In front of the house, most of what would have been a yard was gravel and was filled with dented, ancient econo-cars parked every which way. Kenny pulled into an available space and killed the engine.
An ample girl came bounding out of the front door. She was short with unnaturally black hair that spun out of her head every which way, possibly shoulder-length hair, soft-fuzzy springs of hair. She wore sandals and a peasant dress and big round glasses that made her face seem rounder than it was. She was so beautiful that it almost hurt to look at her.
I hopped out of the van and stretched. She ran around the other side of the van. I watched through the passenger’s and driver’s side windows as she kissed Kenny, her boyfriend I guessed correctly. Kenny walked her back around, his hand clenching hers, to meet me.
This is the Bun, Kenny said. Bun, this is Joe Dugan.
Hi, I said.
Hi yourself, she said, a pink stone sparkling on the side of her nose.
I looked down and saw that she had a tattoo on the top of each foot, both partially obscured by her sandals.
I’ve never met a girl with a definite article in her name before, I said.
You hungry? she asked.
Starving, I said.