My mother and brother came up to Washington to visit me in the hospital where I was a guest of our government at Walter Reed. My leg, broken in a mess hall accident an hour after my plane landed in Saudi Arabia, was almost healed by this time, so I was very much ambulatory.

The visit coincided with the National Victory Parade, which involved columns of soldiers and many tanks and stealth aircraft churning their way through and above official Washington, past the White House and Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.

For therapeutic purposes, I was allowed to paint. This was supposed to help me get over the trauma of the war that I didn’t really fight. I painted a photo-realistic self-portrait on the canvas that the art therapist, a middle-aged boomer hugging close her hubristic boomer beliefs, provided. Then, to help her out, I made the unsmiling Buzz in the portrait iguana green and painted leaping flames behind him. She was pleased with the result. “So you’re a professional artist?” she asked me.

“As long as the Army keeps paying me,” I told her. I was an MOS 81E1O, an Illustrator. So I was being paid to be an artist.

To piss her off, because that’s what I do, I painted a portrait of a smiling, avuncular Richard Nixon engulfed by adoring children.

“Is this supposed to be ironic?” she asked me.

“No. Why?”

The photograph on the postcard is black and white, that is to say, the only color in the photograph is varying shades of gray. Hemingway is frozen in mid-smile, looking past the person who took the photograph, looking over that viewer’s right shoulder. He is looking over my right shoulder.

Hemingway is wearing a dark mustache, a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a rumpled, zippered shirt with an arching collar, hip waders, an unbuttoned vest, and a belt around his waist, holding up the hip waders. In his right hand he is holding a string which is attached to a fish, and he is holding his fishing pole mid-pole. In his left hand, he holds a second fish by its left gill. He uses his index finger, middle finger, and thumb in order to accomplish this.

The photograph is cropped at his knees. I don’t know whether or not he is standing in the stream that runs behind him. If he is standing in the stream, I don’t know what depth he is standing in it up to. Could be anywhere from his knees to his ankles to the bottoms of his feet. They are not in the photograph. I am left to guess at their existence. They must exist, he seems to be standing.

Hemingway is smiling. He seems to be genuinely happy about catching the fish, if he did indeed catch the fish. The implication is that he caught the fish. His teeth are showing. That is how happy he is.

The postcard is addressed to SP4 Buzz Pepper of 21st Replacement Depot, King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia. The message is as follows:
Hope you’re having a good time over there in your war. I miss you, believe it or not. I know that’s hard for you to believe. Love, Sissy.

Mom and Sparky showed up at the hospital a little before 9 a.m., or zero-nine-hundred-hours as we Army guys liked to say. I put on my class B uniform―a green shirt and dark green trousers with chlorofram low quarters and anodized brass rank on my collar and an overseas hat, a.k.a. “cunt cap,” tilted rakishly atop my noggin. I was still required to be on crutches, but I didn’t really need them, I thought.

“Look at you,” my mother said. “Don’t you look like a soldier.”

“I am a soldier,” I said.

“You keep saying that, honey,” my mother said. She had on the tee-shirt I’d bought her at the PX, “My son went to Desert Shield and all I got was this lousy tee-shirt.”

Sparky my brother nodded at me and crossed and uncrossed his arms. He needed a pick-me-up in the worst way, I guessed.

We chose to plant ourselves on the other side of the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial, near Arlington National Cemetery. I was a celebrity out there in my uniform. Happy parade goers shook my hand, thanking me for my service.

Sparky found a beer vendor and had two or three to steady his nerves. Sweat dripped down his pale pink forehead. He’d pressed his pants recently. If he joined up, I could see him as one of those career officers who spent most of his life in the Pentagon giving status-of-forces briefs and crunching numbers for prospective wars. No one would even notice what I was noticing then, that he was an alcoholic. If they ever did notice, they would send him to Walter Reed to dry him out over and over―enough to keep him churning out those vital briefing papers and presentations. And then the Army would kick him to the curb the year before he was supposed to retire, just to show him who’s boss. The Army did that with fat guys and functionally illiterate sergeants.

We could hear the low thrum of militaria across the river, preparing to perform a pincer movement on the Cannae of our hearts. Eventually they came. M1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, soldiers in formation wearing chocolate chip uniforms and bearing flags and M16’s, and overhead a vertiginous array of aircraft. A lady asked me what the inverted V’s stood for on all the vehicles.

“Us,” I said.

“Us?”

“As opposed to ‘them,'” I said.

Soon enough, but not really, it was all over and my leg was throbbing. I wasn’t used to standing on it for so long. I picked up my crutches and shoved them under my arms.
“Let’s go eat,” my mother suggested.

“There are fireworks tonight,” Sparky said. “I read it in the paper.”

I led the two relatives across Arlington National Cemetery, past our beloved war dead, past our beloved brain-shot president with his eternal flame, past Abner Doubleday, the possible (not really) inventor of baseball. We scaled a three-foot-high brick wall and, voilà, were on an official military installation, Fort Myer. We made our way over to the bowling alley. Next door were my old barracks, Headquarters Company, U.S. Army, where I lived when I worked at the Pentagon. I told them to make themselves comfortable. I found a payphone at the barracks next door, pulled out a calling card, and called my little sister.

“They driving you nuts yet?” Sissy asked.

“Yes,” I said. “No.”

“Make up your mind,” she said. A kid bawled in the background.

“Which one is that?” I asked her.

“Who can tell?” she said. “The girl tried to swing from the drapes the other day. You should have seen the mess.”

“Life,” I said. “Who can figure it?”

“God, I need a cigarette,” she said.

“You trying to quit?”

“No,” she said. “I’m just out.”

“So go buy some.”

“It’s not that easy,” she said. “You try packing these monkeys in the car.”

“Right.”

“Remind me why I wanted kids, will you?”

“Someone to talk to,” I said.

“I don’t know who’s the bigger idiot. You for joining the Army, or me thinking that kids actually can carry on conversations.”

“I’m still thinking that I’m the bigger idiot,” I said.

“I’m leaning that way, too,” she said.

“Let’s bowl a few frames,” Mom said when I got back.

“Let’s not,” Sparky said.

They were staying at the Best Western. It was two, maybe three, miles away.

“I need to sit for a while,” I said. They’d ordered me a corn dog. It was like eating a cold, salty sponge. I finished half and set it back in its paper tray.

“You’re too skinny,” my mother said.

“What else is new?” Sparky said. He finished his beer and went to get another one.

“He’s a drunk,” I told my mother while he was away.

“He’s not drunk,” she said. “He holds his liquor surprisingly well.”

“No, I said that he’s a drunk. He’s an alcoholic.”

“No, he’s not,” she said.

“Whatever,” I said.

“Whatever yourself,” she said. “I want to bowl.”

All of the characters in this snippet appeared in my novel Small Town Punk, which you can buy in its original, self-published version for the low-low price of $406.12.

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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