Two years before I joined the Army, and two-and-a-half years before Chess had gone so obviously insane that my mother had no choice but to sign the commitment papers, my father took his three kids in the family truckster over to the Ringling Museum of Art to tell us all about how he was leaving Mom.

And us, for that matter.

When we walked in the museum’s front door, through the glass behind the ticket counter we could see the open courtyard. The museum formed a big U around it. A bronze cast of Michaelangelo’s David stood in the elements with his dick hanging out. My father paid for our tickets and we made our way out there.

My father wasn’t one for the arts, though he had a rough appreciation of Andy Warhol’s work, for the swindling aspect of it.

He brought us there because the museum had guards. If Chess took a swing at him, he had a small army of guards that would tackle his enraged son. He sat us down on a bench out in the courtyard near a sculpture of a woman getting fucked by a swan and stood in front of us, all nervous and twitchy, wringing his hands and trying out his salesman’s smile. My father had an unshakable faith in his ability to convince anyone of anything, save his family, to whom he’d preached the wisdom of not being the sucker. Now he had to make us suckers as his final gesture as head of household.

So how are you kids doing today? he asked us.

Tip your waitress, Chess said. His hand tap-tap-tapped on his knee, which was rapidly popping up and down. We were 17, identical twins who didn’t look a damn thing like each other, who couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

My hands were laced, shoved between my thighs, my head down, staring at my Doc Martens. I’d done my hair up like Morrissey and dressed like him.

What’s going on? Magda asked. She was so tiny then. My mother did her hair in rag curls. Her feet swung, not reaching the ground, patton-leather Mary Janes gleaming in the hellish Florida sun. In high school, she became an artist, painting portraits of circus people and illustrating homemade children’s books on the lives of the saints.

This is it, isn’t it? Chess said. You’re leaving.

He slowly rose to his feet. My father was not a big man. Guile, craft and wit were his weapons.

We were about 5-foot-11 by that time. I was thin. Chess was ripped. He spent his afternoons mowing lawns and lifting weights that he’d bought with the lawn money.

While I lounged around reading and trying to listen to the Smiths in our room, I could hear Chess in the adjacent garage growling and clanking his cast-iron weights, a boombox blasting out CD’s full of Black Flag and the Angry Samoans and Minor Threat, loud music from an earlier, angrier time. A picture of Henry Rollins in full fury, his eyes blazing and neck tendons popped out, adorned the underside of my bunk so that Rollins would be the first thing Chess saw when he woke up in the morning.

Now, son, my father said, his hands raised up, pasty palms out. He was afraid. We were all afraid of Chess, except for Magda. She admired him.

C’mon old man, let’s hear it, Chess said. Shine us on. He was inches from the father, his fists balled up like he was going to knock his teeth down his throat.

I’m your father, he said pleadingly, half in a whisper.

Chess was confused for a moment. He stepped around my father like he was a pile of dogshit and stomped over to the vulgar statue and kicked it. If he hadn’t had steel-toed work boots on, he’d have broken his toes. He leapt back from the statue, like the statue had attacked him instead of the other way around.

Go to hell! he shouted at my father, and ran off.

My father stood frozen and sweating, staring off toward Chess as he flew out of the courtyard.

I stood up and took my sister by the hand. We’ll be by the car, I said.

My father pulled a wad of keys out of his pocket and handed them to me. I shoved them in my pocket with my spare hand.

Get it cooled down, my father said.

I felt sweating drizzling down my back. My father walked in the direction of where Chess had run. He sped up to a trot and disappeared around a corner.

You want to see some paintings? I asked my sister.

What’s happening? Magda asked.

Remember that lady we saw him with at his office? I asked her.

Yeah, Magda said.

He’s taking her with him, I said. Now he’ll start a family with her, just like he started a family with Mom after he left the lady he was married to in Ohio. And he’ll forget Mom and us the same as he forgot the lady in Ohio and those kids.

You’re lying! Magda said. But she knew.

Nobody likes the truth, I said. That’s how Dad makes a living. He tells people what they prefer to hear rather than what they should hear. You want to take the car and get some ice cream? We can go to the mall, too.

Daddy’ll get mad, Magda said.

Who gives a shit? I said.

Yeah, Magda said. Who gives a shit?

This has been another excerpt from Alpha Mike Foxtrot, a novel from Paragraph Line Books. Come visit me on Tumblr.

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About the Author

John Sheppard

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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