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The New World Order

by John Bennett

(C) 1991 by John Bennett. Published by The Smith, Brooklyn New York. Cover art by Jim Kay.

To Jesse Helms, without whose inspiration this collection might never have coalesced.


Piss Christ… 11
An Applicant Works Up His Brief Biography… 13
Torture & Confession… 16
What Have You Got to Lose?… 18
Picture This 19 The Manchurian Candidate & God Go Up the Hill… 20
Mr. Jones 22 Lexicon for Getting Along in the Modern World… 28
Reasons to Drink… 31
Morse Code… 32
Preparing for the Revolution… 33
Typhoid Mary of the Universe… 35
Fire… 37
Choosing… 38
Reading the Riot Act… 42
Crisis Line… 45
A Circuit Guru Does a Number on Dichotomies… 47
Doomsday… 49
Ru-Ru… 51
Gridlock… 65
Sex Dies… 67
Morbid… 68
Due to the Earthquake… 70
Molecular Conspiracy… 73
The New World Order… 75

click the cover if you are interested in buying this book...


What does one say for a bio? The years roll by, and I find I cannot come in from the cold. I find that I am less concerned, as time goes by, with what I am in opposition to than what it is what I have been in opposition to has kept me apart from. Of paramount importance for me in these days of wine and roses is to make an effort to lead my life minute by minute, blow by blow, in accordance with an inner voice and gyroscope that have next to nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age, and progress in general. I live alone with a white German shepherd named Sundance. I earn my keep through simple labor with my hands. I dance like a crazed dervish when the spirit moves me. I write, for the most part, what I seem compelled to write, and let the pieces fall. I am rapidly becoming what in my heart of hearts I always feared I’d become — an aging eccentric — and it ain’t half bad.



The way we make our poets. Inadvertently. In spite of ourselves. Over the years and through the eons. We catch them coming out the far side of polio with a hint of schizophrenia around the corners of the mouth, and then we place them in a nut farm at the age of twelve. Billy Joe, burly boy from Boise, heads the ward and shapes the action. “Hey there, yong thang,” he says, and cups the poet’s genitals. He does it with special gentleness, snake- eyes mesmerizing. “Roll over, yong thang,” Billy Joe says. “Time for ru-ru.”


White Smock comes dual-piping through the ward, his double-Windsor nestled in the pulse pool of his throat like a cobra head, crisp-crease pinstripes down below the smock hem, blocked over Italian imports. Stethoscope hanging from his neck like an earwig clinging to a head of cabbage, clipboard in hand. Consulting bed charts. Humming his way through, every now and then throwing a penetrating glance into the shock- wave eyes of an inmate. The whole ward tranked to the max for White Smock’s visit, every moan and twitch twenty leagues under the sea.

The Steinberg boy. So young to be so fucked. An unusual case. Bronchitis synapsing into pneumonia is one thing, but polio into schizophrenia is a first. There’s a paper in this. A new science. A gold mine. White Smock takes Jimmy Steinberg’s pulse. Billy Joe and his two assistants stand at the foot of the bed, watching.

“One-thousand-one,” White Smock murmurs. “One-thousand-two …”

The poet in Jimmy Steinberg can smell the street in White Smock’s clothing, smell the fresh California air. He can smell White Smock’s mistress, her armpits, her groin. His first off-ward contact in the three months he’s been there. He sends out the message to White Smock with his eyes: SOS! SOS! SOS! Jimmy Steinberg is a little man with a long white beard hanging on to a piece of wreckage in the middle of an ocean, waving at a plane flying overhead. He’s a naked albino in the snows of Killimanjaro, waving to a blind sherpa two ridges north. But eye contact isn’t cutting it with White Smock—send up the flares! Jimmy digs deep and brings up the words. He squeezes ru-ru between parched lips.

A whispered ru-ru isn’t ringing any bells either, so Jimmy lays on the emphasis: “RU-RU!” he roars, and with the strength of the insane gets a hold of White Smock’s tie just under the knot and yanks his face down close to his own so that their snot hangers are touching. “RU-RU! RU- RU! RU-RU!

Jimmy goes off like a fire alarm, while inside his head the little editor with the green visor is blue-penciling like crazy. “No! No! No! SOS, you fool! SOS now, ru-ru later!

Billy Joe cracks the poet’s fingers loose from the Windsor and the two assistants pull the doctor to safety.

Hypodermic ejaculating in the air. The plunge deep into the poet’s thigh. Pa-fummmmm, and he’s gone.



“Jimmy-Gee, Jimmy-Gee,” Billy Joe says. Jimmy Steinberg blinks and backs away. They’re in the rubber room, private and soundproof. It’s hard to tell where the door is.

Jimmy-Gee. Infectious. Endearing. Billy Joe’s pet name for the poet.

“You shouldn’t ought to have done that out there,” Billy Joe says. “That didn’t look so good for the ward. But Jesus! Did you see the look on old White Smock’s face?”

Billy Joe laughs, and Jimmy-Gee laughs too.

Then Billy Joe stops laughing. “Yes, well—that ain’t exactly what I call a show of gratitude,” he says. “Not exactly gratitude …”

Jimmy-Gee leans his head forward, cocks it to one side, waits.

“You know what’s coming?”

Jimmy-Gee shakes his head affirmative—time for ru-ru.

“But look here,” Billy Joe says. “I’m going to give you a choice. You done had a bunch of ru-ru. You want more ru-ru, or you want to be chastised?”

Jimmy-Gee blinks.

“You can have your ru-ru,” Billy Joe explains, “or you can get chastised. Ru-ru or a spanking.”

Jimmy-Gee clears his throat. He advances a preference. “Spa—spa-spank mah-mah-me pah-pah-please!

Billy Joe smiles at Jimmy-Gee like he’s just made a wise choice. Then he takes a common white sock out of his smock pocket. He takes out three bars of sink-size Ivory soap and puts them in the sock, pushes them down into the toe. He wraps the end of the sock around the fingers of his right hand and closes the hand into a fist.

“Okay, Jimmy-Gee,” he says, swinging the loaded sock. “Okay, my good man.”



Things Jimmy-Gee learned on the ward: you don’t walk fast and you don’t talk fast and you don’t make eye contact. You shuffle everywhere you go. You get right up when Billy Joe whacks the soles of your feet with his baton in the morning. And when someone goes off, you slide under your bed or move like a cat to a far corner and freeze.

Tommy the Giant used to go off at least once a week. Most of the time he’d just bash his head into the wall over and over again, setting off a chain reaction of head bashing, but one day after bashing his head five or six times Tommy pivoted and grabbed the man in the bed next to him and threw him across the room. Then he started moving through the ward like a tornado, smashing things, slamming people out of his way. It was genuine pandemonium. Jimmy-Gee did the cat crawl under his bed, and the one known as the Lynx moved with great speed without seeming to move at all straight into the bathroom.

The Lynx was 28 and had been under lock and key since the age of ten. Somewhere in there he spent three months in a sensory deprivation chamber, and when he came back out, they gave him paper and crayons to help make the transition back into the world. The Lynx set to work drawing exquisite landscapes, and then he began writing poems with end rhyme. The Lynx wrote in end rhyme and he spoke in end rhyme and the ward bathroom with the seatless white porcelain crappers was his hangout. He’d stand up against the wall and talk rhymes at you while you took a shit. He didn’t care how bad it stank, stink meant nothing to him. Jimmy used to go in there and sit on the porcelain rim just to listen to the Lynx talk. It was the Lynx got him writing poetry.

But this day the Lynx was in there all alone and Tommy the Giant was tearing the bars off the windows and it was Jimmy talking rhyme while lying under his bed with his eyes closed tight.

Gawd, don’t make it hawd,” Jimmy kept repeating. “Gawd, don’t make it hawd.”

Billy Joe came through the ward door with his cattle prod and four orderlies. The orderlies took one look at Tommy the Giant peeling metal bars off windows and they pulled back. Each of them had a hypodermic with enough shit in it to sink a buffalo to its knees, but they didn’t have the stomach to go up against Tommy the Giant. Only Billy Joe went forward.

Jimmy opened his eyes and looked out from under the bed. Billy Joe was advancing down the ward, swinging his cattle prod. He was smiling and cooing. “Ah, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,” he cooed. “Ah, sweet little Tommy.”

The ward went quiet. Tommy bent one more bar back, just to show Billy Joe (see that sucker? see what I have in me?), and Billy Joe kept advancing. When he got within ten feet of Tommy the Giant, he jabbed a man sitting on the floor with the cattle prod. The man let out a cry and wrapped his arms around his head. Billy Joe looked at the stricken man with wide eyes. Then he looked at Tommy the Giant.

Gain!” Tommy said.

“Gain?” said Billy Joe.

Gain!” said Tommy.

Billy Joe gave the man on the floor another jolt,

Tommy the Giant laughed and clapped his hands, and the Lynx peeked out of the bathroom.

“Gain?” said Billy Joe, and Tommy the Giant shook his head enthusiastically. Billy Joe fired off another jolt, and the man jerked around the floor.

Tommy the Giant got so excited he turned and began bashing his head against the wall again, making uh-uh-uh sounds with each collision. Billy Joe looked at the orderlies at the far end of the ward, and the bravest of them advanced. Billy Joe took the hypodermic from him and jammed the needle into Tommy the Giant’s butt, right through his pajamas. Tommy’s hands shot straight up in the air, splayed out against the wall, and then he slid to the floor. The orderlies dragged him away.

“The crude dude got rude,” the Lynx remarked as they passed the bathroom.

“That’s it, Lynx old buddy. That’s it in a nut shell,” Billy Joe said, and he stopped to pat Lynx on the shoulder and pinch his cheek.



They’re sitting in the cafeteria eating ice cream. Jimmy in his green robe, his mother in her street clothes, her hat on her head, her purse in her lap.

“The doctor says you’re coming along, dear,” his mother says. “He says you can come home soon if things keep going the way they’re going.”

Jimmy slides a spoon of ice cream past his lips and pushes it up against the roof of his mouth with his tongue. He likes the pain behind his eyes, spreading into his temples and then dissolving into a pleasant warmth. He smiles at his mother.

“It makes me so happy I could weep,” his mother says. “This past year you’ve been here has been the most upsetting year of my entire life.”

Jimmy scoops in more ice cream, keeps smiling.

Too much smiling!” the little editor in his head says. “Let it come and go!”

Jimmy lets it go.

“Jimmy,” his mother says, and the way she says it he knows it’s going to be something bad. “Jimmy, how do you feel about Billy Joe?”

Uh-oh! SOS! Ru-ru!

Jimmy swallows the ice cream and wipes his lips with a paper napkin. “Why do you ask?” he says.

“Well,” his mother begins, and then she blurts it right out. “Billy Joe and I have been seeing each other.”

The smile comes back and locks in. He sees himself in his mother’s eyes. “May Day!” the little editor cries out. “May Day!”

“Oh dear!” his mother says, and her hand goes to her mouth.

Blow this and you’re dead meat,” the editor says. “Bathrobes and slippers for the rest of your life.”

Jimmy clears his throat. He puts his hand over his mother’s. The smile limbers and his eyes go soft. “Ma, that’s great,” he says. “I couldn’t have got to where I am without Billy Joe.”



Jimmy’s in the back seat and his mother is up front. Billy Joe is driving. “One big happy family,” Billy Joe says, and winks at Jimmy in the rearview mirror.

They’re going home. They’re on the freeway heading south, weaving in and out of traffic at eighty miles an hour. Jimmy is thirteen and out in the world for the first time in over a year. Two years really, counting the polio. He’s a scrawny thing. He’s forgotten how to cry. His God is Ru-Ru.

He plans to slow poison his mother and Billy Joe. He wants to watch their teeth rot out. He wants to watch them vomit blood. He wants to wait until the last moment before scooping their eyes out with his thumbs. But his very first night in the house, lying awake in his old bed between crisp white sheets, he adopts another plan. He slips out of bed and dresses. Steals the mad money his mother hides in the collected works of Dickens. Releases the emergency brake and rolls the car out of the driveway. Starts the engine and drives down the block with the lights off. Turns the corner, turns on the lights, and turns on the radio. Lights a cigarette with the dash lighter. Drives south, toward San Diego.

It’s been two years since his father taught him to drive, but it all comes back—the driving, his father, the love. Jimmy pulverizes the love. His father is in a coffin of worms, and Jimmy is a thirteen-year-old car thief. He drives for an hour and leaves the car on a back street. Catches the 8:45 Greyhound to New York City.



The old man comes up to him every hour or two where he lies on the cot and puts an ear down close to Jimmy’s mouth. Then he puts the ear right down on his chest. After that he goes back over to the table and drinks coffee and smokes. Watches the sun come up, a golden wash over the mountain of city-dump garbage. The old man gets up and tosses some splintered crate wood into the wood- burning stove. A New Jersey winter. A squatter’s shack on the edge of Trenton. The old man picks up his guitar, an all-metal, self-made thing. He plays some blues.

Thirty-six hours later, Jimmy comes out of it. Even before his eyes open, one hand goes down to his knife in his boot. Both the knife and the boot are missing. Jimmy swings off the cot with both hands in a defensive posture. He and the old man stare at each other.

The old man pulls a little red wagon into town about once a week for supplies, and that’s when he first heard Jimmy doing his thing. Jimmy was standing on a corner reciting poetry, and every now and then he’d break into song. His voice was full of gravel. He was wearing Red Wing boots with flapping soles, filthy jeans, and a gray t-shirt. His arms were covered with crude tattoos, and there were tattoos on his face and the lobes of his ears. A straw hat lay upside-down at his feet, but he was in the wrong part of town to be hustling hand-outs.

While the old man watched from across the street, a middle-aged black woman came out of a shop, walked a straight line over to Jimmy, and placed a steaming bowl of grits at his feet. Then she walked a straight line back to her shop. Jimmy sat cross-legged on the icy pavement and scooped up the grits with his fingers. Then he got to his feet again, wiped his hands on his jeans, and sang praise to the woman who’d brought him the grits. He’d been on that corner for two days, sleeping on cardboard at night. The old man found Jimmy in a ditch a week later. He was unconscious in the tall weeds. The old man wrapped him in his top coat and got him into the red wagon—he weighed about as much as a feather. He pulled him on home.

The old man kept Jimmy Steinberg off drugs and alcohol for six months and taught him to play guitar. Jimmy put on weight and for the first time since the polio, got some color in his face.

“What that scar right across your throat?” the old man asked one day.

“Polio,” Jimmy said. “I had polio when I was a kid. The kind that hits the throat. It usually kills you fast. If it doesn’t, you’re pretty much good to go afterward. They had to cut a hole in my windpipe and stick a tube in there.”

“That’s the damnedest thing I ever heard,” the old man said. “How old you be anyway?”

“Seventeen,” Jimmy said. “Maybe eighteen. Right in there.”



Jimmy Steinberg is sitting in his room drinking coffee and staring out the window at the trucks backing up to the loading dock across the street. It’s a low-rent boarding house in the industrial south-end of Seattle, bathroom and shower down the hall. Mostly taxi drivers, stevedores and Nam vets. Every now and then one of the vets goes into heavy flashback mode and for a short time the second floor is just like the old days. Jimmy lays back on his bed smoking when this happens, listening to it all go down.

But right now he’s waiting for darkness and his gig. Lately he’s been leading off for heavy-metal bands. Mostly he just reads his rants and plays his guitar, but tonight he’s going to try something different.

He walks over to the shoe box on the table to see how his mouse is doing—he’s snuggled down in his rags, sleeping. Sleek, well-fed little bugger. No mouse ever had it so good. Jimmy strokes him with a tattooed finger. The mouse’s ears twitch, but its eyes don’t open. It’s just Jimmy-Gee, showing his love.

Jimmy pours another cup of coffee from the pot on the hot plate and rolls a cigarette. He lights the cigarette and goes down to check the mail. Usually he gets anywhere from five to ten letters a day, hardcore admirers, but today he sifts through the junk mail and comes up with a single letter, a square, pink envelope with three forwards and an L.A. return. He takes it upstairs and rolls another cigarette before opening it.

Dear Jimmy:

Imagine my surprise when Billy Joe showed me your picture in the Sunday paper! I didn’t recognize you! But Billy Joe did. He said he never reads that part of the paper, he just happened to open to it by accident, and there you were. I think that shows how much Billy Joe loved you and still does and how much you hurt him when you did what you did way back then, stealing the car and all. Anyway, let bygones be bygones, that’s what I always say.

Life has not been easy for me.I try to be a good wife to Billy Joe, but sometimes his work tortures him so that he—well, he’s not a cruel man, but his work makes him do things, and he’s always full of remorse after, and very tender. It’s just something I have to live with. Also, it’s hard for Billy Joe because of the age difference, and then with the cancer—I lost a breast and look way older than I am.

Anyway, on the bright side, I am becoming a writer! I go to a group every Tuesday and we read what we wrote to each other and give criticism. Here too I am older, and sometimes I feel “out of it” as the kids say. But last week I had my 60th birthday and I had a cake delivered to the group. They brought it in right when the group was criticizing my work, and it surprised them all! The man who delivered it lit the candles with a cigarette lighter, and then he led the group in singing Happy Birthday! They were so surprised that at first a lot of them didn’t sing, but finally they all joined in and for some reason I started crying like a baby and couldn’t stop. Brother!

Jimmy put the letter down without finishing it and stared out the window at the trucks backing up to the loading platform. He rolled another cigarette but didn’t light it. He left it lying on top of the letter. He went over to his mouse. Stroked it. Picked it up. Decided on a dress rehearsal. He held the mouse in his hand and talked to it while stroking its fur.

“Hey, little mousey,” he said. “Hey, little sleeker. Hey now,” he said.

He walked over to the window again with the mouse in his hand. He cleared his throat, and tilting his head back, slipped the mouse head-first into his mouth. He closed his mouth just enough to keep the mouse from backing out. He stood looking out the window while the mouse worked through its panic, nipping at his tongue and the insides of his cheeks. He felt the warm blood trickling down his throat. And then the mouse grew quiet.

“Good evening,” Jimmy said. “Tonight I’m going to offer you a different fare. Tonight I am going to recite the poetry of Robert Burns.”

It was working. He could talk around the mouse. He could enunciate. With a mike he’d reach the balcony.

“But first, first I am going to sing happy birthday to my one-breasted mother who just turned sixty.”

Jimmy closed his eyes, took in some air, and then opened his eyes again. The trucks down on the street came and went. The traffic roared along on the freeway up the hill. Helicopters flew over, and out in the hallway a door slammed and someone yelled, “Fuck you then, go shoot your veins full of shit, you sonofabitch!”

Jimmy began singing. “Happy birthday to you,” he sang. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear …happy birthday …” And that’s when the tears started.

No, you idiot!” the editor in his head said. “Tears don’t cut it with an audience like this. You’ll blow it with tears. We’re talking hardcore here. We’re talking punk, heavy metal…”

And, as if in confirmation of what the editor was telling Jimmy, the mouse began to squirm and nip again.

Jimmy waited for the mouse to settle down and then resumed singing.

By the time he’d finished the birthday song the tears had dried, but the blood still ran hot and salty down his throat.

Ru-Ru was inspired by the early life of the poet Steven J. Bernstein. The story is also included in the short story collection U-Haul with Dinosaur. Click here to learn more…

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the old values

Uhaul with Dinosaur. Stories by John Bennett

The story below was written in the 70s. It’s included in the short-story collection, U-Haul with Dinosaur, which, if you’re interested, can be ordered by clicking here… or just hit the cover image.

The Old Values

The Phone Call

The call came through from Chicago and caught me sitting at the kitchen table staring out the window at Baron, the dog next door that kept running out of the full length of his chain only to be snapped to a dead stop. Then he’d circle, work his way back to the stake, and make another lunge that ended in a neck-breaking jolt. He’s out there year round, even through the twenty-below winter.

The call was from my friend Clancy who for the past twenty-five years has been writing hard-hitting novels that the Establishment won’t touch. When he does get published it’s by small presses with microscopic circulation. And during all that time Clancy was also raising a family, and they had to eat. So he did PR work for the big outfits, ghost writing and editing to hold things together.

“Yo,” I said into the phone. I could hear the seashell sound in the receiver that meant long distance.

“Treavor,” Clancy said. “the American public has lost its teeth. You gotta feed them mush. They can’t chew a piece of red meat anymore.”

“Hey, Clancy,” I said. “What’s happening?”

“I’m back from my sympathy tour,” he said.

I knew I should say something, but I wasn’t sure what.

“Well, so long Treavor,” said Clancy.

“Hey, wait a minute! Don’t hang up! Jesus man, hold on for a minute, will ya?”

“One hell of a sympathy tour,” said Clancy.

“I wish you’d made it up here,” I said.

“It was the money,” said Clancy. “I ran out.”

“Yeah, the goddamn money,” I said.
“It wasn’t the money,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. After a week in L.A. I’d had it. I had to get back to the midwest. The midwest is the goddamn gut of the country, do you know that?”
“Yeah,” I said. Clancy was big on the midwest.

“Shit,” he said.

Then there was a long silence and I heard him take a deep breath that quivered when he let it out. It was all coming unraveled for Clancy, his life was coming unglued, trying to do it both ways was catching up with him. It was happening to a lot of people I knew, happening to people half Clancy’s age, people who’d tried to bull their way through on the toughness of their souls, musicians and artists and writers, some of them cracking and going Jesus Freak, some winding up in the loony bin, a few suicides, others just disappearing. And now Clancy was under the gun. He was under the gun but he was a tough sonofabitch and he hadn’t been on a sympathy tour, he’d been prowling the city streets like a big cat down from the mountains, looking for something he’d had once and thought he’d always have but that had fallen into serious disrepair, like an old car covered with high grass and weeds in the middle of an Illinois corn field, and Clancy was out there with his tools, scraping at the rust, ripping out rotted wires, looking for a remedy to make it run again, to get it back on the road.

“You know what happened?” he said.

“No,” I said. “What happened?”

“A fiasco, that’s what.”

It always took a long time to get out of Clancy what he wanted to say. He’s the most illusive person I’ve ever met. It used to irritate me, but eventually I realized he was having the problem with the contradictions, that everything came into his mind packing its contradiction right along with it, which makes talk hard, makes it almost impossible, and what he finally came out got sifted through a complicated network of sieves and strainers so that if you didn’t understand what he was struggling with, you had a hard time interpreting his words.

“Yeah, life’s a fiasco alright,” I said.

“Everyone has his problems,” said Clancy.

“Yeah,” I said.

He took another one of those long quivering breaths. “Look,” he said, “I’m going to let you go. Say hello to Sandra for me. Give her my love. Give her the love of an old man.”

“Oh, bullshit!” I said. “That is pure bullshit, Clancy.

He took in another long quivering breath and chuckled. “Know what happened when I went to see my kid brother?” he said.

“We sat there eating supper and talking small talk, and I was getting ready to spring it on him, about the divorce and all, and do you know what he says?”

“I’m getting divorced, that’s what he says. Jesus Christ! I fly down to Atlanta from Chicago to tell him about how my life is falling apart, and he talks all night about his divorce.”

I laughed.

“Well, so long Trevor,” Clancy said again.

“Hey, wait! What happened when you got to Arizona? What did Carol have to say?” Carol was a young English professor who was part of the reason Clancy was getting a divorce.

“You want to hear the whole fiasco?”

“Sure, let’s hear it.”

“She drives all the way to the airport, checks into a motel with me, and then when we’re in bed she says, “We can’t do anything. There’s another man.”

I really laughed then. I laughed and laughed and watched Baron lunge so hard it flipped him over on his back.

“Pretty funny, huh?” said Clancy, and I could tell he was amused too.

“Jesus, what a sympathy tour,” I said.

“Yeah. I told her, ‘Jesus H. Christ, Carol. You come all the way to the airport, check into a motel with me, get into bed and tell me you want a platonic relationship?’ When I woke up the next morning she was sleeping on the floor with a blanket over her.”
Clancy had a coughing fit.

“What happened in L.A.?” I said. “Why the Christ did you go to Los Angeles?”
“My best friend lives in L.A. I hadn’t seen him in eighteen years. We went through some shit together, in the army and after the army and before the army. We grew up in the same neighborhood in Chicago.”

“How’d it go?”

I heard him take a big gulp of whatever it was he was drinking there in Chicago.

“He’s a Jehovah’s Witness,” Clancy said.

“A what?”

“You heard me. A Jehovah’s Witness. Watch Towers all over the place. I unloaded my whole divorce story on him and he told me I was a lost child and that Jesus would step up to the plate and take care of everything. He wasn’t telling me anything new, I knew I was lost when I got on the plane in Chicago and started flying all over the country. But I had my doubts about Jesus straightening things out.”

I didn’t know what to say back, and then Clancy said: “Trevor, what’s happening to the old values?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got one more unemployment check,” he said, “and that’s it.”

I didn’t know he was on unemployment, I didn’t know things had got that bad, and it gave me a strange feeling in my gut.

“They don’t treat you right,” Clancy said. “You have a right to the money, you’ve been paying unemployment all your life, but they treat you like shit. Now you tell me, Trevor: who’s got the old values anymore?”

“Some people,” I said. “Some people have them.”

“I don’t know,” Clancy said, and I heard him light a cigarette and take a deep drag. “Nothing makes sense anymore,” he said.

“You gotta hang in there, Clancy,” I said. “You just gotta hang in. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Things will turn around. Fight.”

“I’ve been fighting all my life,” he said.

“Well, fight some more,” I said.

“Trevor,” he said, and I knew he was done talking. “Give my love to Sandra.”

“So long Clancy,” I said.

He hung up.

Where I Live


I live in Harmony, a small town in the Inland Empire of Washington state, cattle and wheat country. There’s not much here besides a food-processing plant and a state college. At one time, when the railroad first came through, Harmony was a hub of commerce–there were six whore houses and ten bars back in 1897, a sure sign of prosperity. The whore houses are gone now, and the train station is the loneliest place in town, but the bars are still going strong, and unemployment is holding steady at 15%. If the college were to fold, Harmony would fold right along with it.

After Clancy hung up I opened a can of Campbell’s bean soup, wolfed it down along with a slice of stale bread, smoked a number and walked into town, leaning into the wind and heading for the bars. clomping along in the cowboy boots I found in the basement of the house Sandra and I rented when we came up here from the Bay Area. I’m not a cowboy by any stretch of the imagination, I’m an over-aged hippie with a beard and hair down to my asshole, but I was doing my best to fit into my new surroundings, and I thought the boots were a step in the right direction.

It wasn’t how I’d planned to spend the day, but after Clancy’s call, I needed a drink. I walked into the Branding Iron, ordered up a pitcher, and put my quarter on the green felt cushion of the pool table.

By the time Sandra walked in at 8 p.m. I was feeling no pain. The Branding Iron was full of people feeling no pain, shooting pool and putting down the beer. The place was filled with smoke that hovered in a thick cloud just inches above the tallest man’s head.
I was in an expansive mood, striding around the pool table with my cue clutched in my left hand like a club, talking a blue streak, talking about how amazing that last shot was, about how the wind never stops blowing in this god-forsaken place, about how I wished the hell I’d stayed in the Bay Area, and about my friend Clancy who’d called to tell me that life in Chicago wasn’t any different from life in Harmony, how life was the same everywhere, how the little guy gets it in the shorts and what ever happened to the old values?

Blam! I banked the five ball into the corner pocket and strode around the table to where the cue ball had stopped, chalking my stick as I went, talking and talking and talking to a barful of rednecks and Mexicans and old winoes. I was talking and talking and thinking I shouldn’t be talking and then I saw Sandra standing just inside the door in her pioneer dress, her blond hair cascading over her shoulders.

“Sandra!” I sang out. “I’m kicking ass on this pool table! I’m hot as a two-dollar pistol!”
Sandra seemed uptight, but that’s how she gets when I get expansive. And then I remembered–the opening. The faculty show opening. Which was right that moment in progress at the college where Sandra was an art instructor.

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “I forgot!”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll go alone. I don’t mind. You won’t enjoy it anyway.”

“No!” I said. “I want to go!” I was feeling so expansive I was ready to go to an art opening.

“Well, then we have to go right now,” she said.

“Okay!” I said, sank the eight ball in a side pocket and gave up the table.

Then I began inviting everyone in the bar to come with us. “Hey, you’re all invited!” I called out. “An art show! Up at the college!”

People looked at me like I was from Mars and had lost my mind, all except a guy at the far end of the bar. “Do they have photography?” he asked.

“Hell yes!” I said.

“Not much I don’t think,” said Sandra.

“What about Zabrinski and Webb?” I said.

“Yes, well, but I don’t think–“

I cut her off. “You up for it?” I said to the guy at the end of the bar.

“Sure,” he said. “I’m just passing through town, but sure. Why not?”

We waited for him while he got himself organized. He was missing all of his right leg and about half his right arm. He had one of those hooks.

The Opening


The guy’s name was Truck. He stepped on a mine in Nam on the last day of his tour. On the way out the door Truck got two six packs of Bud to go that he handled just fine. He had crutches.

Sandra led us to where she’d parked the van, and we all got in. Truck popped open three beers and passed them around and then lit up a joint. We drove off.

If an opening has spiked punch, it has a chance of getting off the ground, but this one had coffee and donuts. We walked into the gallery which was full of people standing around in clusters, sipping coffee and nibbling on donuts and staring grimly at the art.

We drifted apart once we were inside, and then here comes Truck, swinging my way on his crutches, excited like a little kid.

He tapped me with his hook. “Come look at this,” he said.

I followed him, and he stopped in front of Sandra’s woodpile painting.

“Look at that!” he said. “Will you look at that?”

People moved away from us.

“That’s Sandra’s, man!” I said. “Sandra did that!”

“She can paint!” said Truck.

People staring at us from all over the room.

“What’s happening?” I said in a loud voice, throwing my arms up and turning in a slow circle.

Everyone turned away.

Truck and I started going up to things and touching them, an art-opening no-no. We were touching sculpture and paintings and photographs, and there was one photograph with directions under it to look directly at it and cross your eyes and the thing would turn 3-D. We stood there crossing our eyes, but we couldn’t make it happen, and Truck and I got to laughing and couldn’t stop.

“This isn’t California!” someone called out in a stern voice, which made us laugh even harder.

“You can say that again,” Truck said, and I walked over to a huge vase that the pottery instructor had made. I peered into the big hollow darkness of it, stuck my head inside, and bellowed.

“WAAAAoooo!” I went. “WAAAAoooo!”

“Trevor! Please! No more!” It was Sandra, pulling on my arm.

I came up out of the vase in the middle of a dissertation. “What do you mean, no more? What’s all this pussy-footing bullshit? What is all this subservient mush? What’s art doing trapped in a goddamn college, kissing ass for security and a paycheck?”

The room went silent.

“Let’s go,” Sandra said.

“Suits me,” I said. “Coming Truck?”

“You better believe it,” said Truck, and we marched out in single file–little Sandra with her golden fleece, Truck with what was left of his extremities, and me, full of righteous indignation.

Maggie White Whale


I headed up the valley on the old county road, Sandra next to me and Truck in back lying on the platform and looking up at the stars through the sun roof. We were going to Maggie White Whale’s.

Maggie White Whale is an Aleut. She came down from Alaska for reasons no one knows and she lives in an old far house.

People say a lot of strange things about Maggie. They say she’s crazy. They say she’s a witch. They say she eats rats and spiders and puts spells on little children and curses on the crops and the cows. They blame her for bad winters and dry summers. They blame her when the river floods and when it goes dry. And every now and then it becomes necessary for a bunch of valley people to get together and sneak out to Maggie’s farm house at night and throw rocks through her windows. Or burn crosses on her fields. Or mutilate her goats and chickens. They have to let off steam or who knows what might happen? Maggie weathers these little storms. After awhile she got so she could sleep right through it.

Maggie paints and supplements her income reading palms. The same people who break her windows at night pay to have their palms read in broad daylight.

We drove the van around back. We went inside and found Maggie sitting by candlelight at the kitchen table in a black silk robe with yellow half moons on it. She lit several kerosene lamps and offered to put on coffee, but we told her we had some beer and she said great, let’s get loaded. She broke out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Truck was mesmerized. Maggie was a pretty sexy Indian, sitting there in her black silk robe with her long black hair falling straight down her back and the fine brown smoothness of her skin.

We sat around drinking the whiskey and talking about this and that and then the talk turned to suffering. We looked to Truck to tell us about it, because of what the war had done to him, and he said yeah, he could always count on his missing leg and his hook to get him free beer and a piece of ass, but as far as suffering went, he didn’t know anymore about it than anyone else. The important thing about suffering, Truck said, is to learn how to get away from it–too much suffering will drive you insane. And then he said something interesting. “Suffering is in the mind,” he said. The worst suffering I did wasn’t when I got my leg and arm blown off, it was after, when I was out of the hospital and had to adjust. I was an All State quarterback in high school.” He took a hit from the Jack Daniel’s and said, “I still long for things I can’t have. Different things maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the longing you have to deal with.”

“That’s heavy shit,” I said.

And then Maggie picked up C-FUN out of Vancouver on her transistor radio and began dancing around the room. Sandra joined in and so did I and even Truck got up and hobbled around the room on his crutches. We were dancing around like dervishes in the shadowy light of the kerosene-lamp.

But after awhile Sandra slumped down on the sofa and went out like a light after which Maggie got a little withdrawn. Truck and I got into one of those manly discussions, talking about the wild crazy things we’d done when we were young, all the things with cars and girls and sports and drinking and fighting, and the next thing I knew there was challenge in the air and Truck and me were standing nose-to-nose and then we were boxing. Sparing really, but throwing pretty solid open-handed punches.

It was understood that I would use both hands and that Truck wouldn’t whack me with his hook. All sorts of things were understood without talking about them. And then I connected with a left that sent Truck crashing into the kitchen table and brought Sandra up off the couch and made Maggie White Whale a little grim. But Truck and I were laughing like hell again and we went into the old bear hug routine that guys do after they’ve been slapping each other around.

Sandra was so pissed she went straight out to the van without saying a word and drove home, and Maggie went off to bed. Truck and I finished the Jack Daniel’s, and that’s the last I remember.

I woke up the next morning on the floor with the sun crashing through the curtainless window and into my eyes. Truck was sleeping on the floor across the room. We both had blankets over us. There was a note on the table telling us to help ourselves to whatever was in the refrigerator, and on top of the note were the keys to Maggie’s pickup. Maggie was off painting in the fields like she did almost every morning.

Truck and I drank about a half gallon of orange juice out of the refrigerator, and then we got in the pickup and drove into town. It took us a while to find his car.

Truck got out of the pickup and said something about drop in if you’re ever in Tacoma, and I said, “Will do, and you drop in if you’re over this way again,” and he said sure thing.

Truck smiled, said it was one hell of a night, and made it across the street to his car, a VW fastback.

When I got home Sandra had already left for school I put water on for coffee and stripped down to my shorts and t-shirt. I lit a cigarette and sat by the window, watching Baron who was at it again, racing away from that stake with everything he had in him.

Uhaul with Dinosaurs. Stories by John Bennett

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the night marilyn monroe died


The story below can be found in the short story collection, Life’s Crowning Moment by Peter Halfar. If you are interested in purchasing this book, visit the Vagabond/Hcolom Press web site by clicking here… or just hit the book cover above.


by Peter Halfar

(translated from the German by John Bennett)

When Helma couldn’t stand it at home any longer (her mother was a fat hateful creature with jaundiced eyes), she rented a room in a boarding house on the outskirts of town. It was a ground-floor room with dormer windows that opened onto a garden, a room where we made love on a chair which, because the room was without one, Helma borrowed each time from her landlady, explaining that her guest had nowhere to sit.

Our reason for making love on a chair was practical. We placed the chair against the door, which could not be locked, in the event the landlady decided to pay an unannounced visit. This impediment to her bursting in, we calculated, would allow us sufficient time to straighten our clothing and make ourselves presentable.
The landlady never did pay a visit, but it wasn’t long before she began refusing to lend us the chair.

Before Helma moved to her new place, we made love in my room in the apartment where I lived with my mother, or else on a bench in the park, hastily and under cover of darkness.

One spring afternoon, when Helma was wearing a beautiful white dress with black polka dots, we did it on the banks of the Rhine. She did it to me with her hand, and we had to keep an eye out in case someone happened along. But we both got carried away, and it wasn’t until too late that we noticed the boat on the river, a large touring boat with a live band, its decks crowded with people. I don’t know if the people on the boat could make out what Helma and I were doing, but they were laughing and whistling and waving in our direction.

Helma couldn’t come. Not at my place, not on the bench in the park, and not on the chair against the door. I thought I knew a way to help, but when I suggested it to her, she grew indignant.

One night, quite by accident, we had anal sex, something I’d never even thought of doing. When Helma’s best friend heard about it she was outraged. “You’d better watch yourself, young lady,” she advised. “He’s probably queer.”

The time came when the landlady went away for a weekend, and I was able to spend the night. Helma and I lay in the darkness after making love, listening to the ticking clock. We couldn’t sleep. Helma finally broke the silence with an urgent whisper.

“Did you hear something?” she said.

“What? Where?”

“Outside, in the garden. Someone’s in the garden.”

I held my breath for a long time and then let it out. “It’s the wind,” I said.

“It is not the wind,” said Helma. She put her arms around me and hugged me tight. “It’s coming closer!” she said.

I could feel her heart pounding against my chest.

“See what it is,” she whispered.

Hesitantly, I got out of bed and groped my way through the darkness to the window. I pulled the curtain back a little, and out in the garden, off in the distance, I saw a nebulous form behind the low branches of a fruit tree. “He’ll trample the roses,” I thought, and then I wondered what this man, for I was certain now that it was a man, was doing in the garden at such a late hour.

“Have you heard what happened?” my mother asked the moment I stepped through the door into the foyer of our apartment the next morning. It must have been a holiday, or else I would have been at work.

“What?” I said, taking off my coat. The television was louder than usual.

“Marilyn Monroe died!” my mother said.

“No!” I exclaimed. “What are you saying?”

“It’s true. They found her in bed this morning. It must have happened during the night. The poor woman.”

I had seen all her films. Back then I was attracted to the sex goddesses on the silver screen. I went to the movies often, and almost always alone. For me, what transpired in the darkened theater was an intimate and private thing.

Helma and I worked in the same department store. She was a salesgirl, and I decorated the show windows. We never took the streetcar when we left work together, preferring to stroll through the city–arm-in-arm at first, then hand-in-hand, and toward the end, simply side-by-side.

Money was tight for Helma after she began renting her own room, and so she took on work as a cleaning woman in an office building on Monday and Thursday evenings.

One evening, as we were strolling past the Cologne Cathedral, she came to a sudden stop. “I totally forgot!” she said. “I have to go to work!”

“But today’s Friday,” I said, thinking she’d mixed up her days.

“I know,” she said. “But they’ve changed my schedule.”

I always walked her to the building in which she worked, waiting on the street below until I saw the fourth-floor lights come on. Helma knew I did this, but she never came to the window to wave down to me. She didn’t want to chance someone finding out what kind of work she’d had to resort to in order to make ends meet. But this night she wanted to go alone.

“Go on home,” she said. “I’ll come along when I’m through with work. And buy something for supper. Get some wine!”

I let her go and headed toward home, but I hadn’t gone far before I turned and began walking in the direction of the office building.

I stood for a long time looking up at the dark windows on the fourth floor, and then I crossed the street and began pushing the buttons next to the fourth-floor names. There was no response.

Later that evening Helma showed up at my door with a huge bouquet of chrysanthemums. “For your mother,” she said, her face flushed behind the white flowers.

I took her in my arms, and it was then I noticed a strange cat-like odor, something quite different from any of her other scents. We heard my mother coming down the hallway, and without speaking broke our embrace.



From that point on the changes taking place in Helma were impossible to ignore. She bleached her hair platinum and began dressing more elegantly. She even began wearing high heels, which made me more uneasy than anything else. Until now, Helma had been very unhappy about being so tall.

We began frequenting a little bar in the vicinity of the department store, after work and sometimes on lunch break. Helma was undauntedly gracious, but behind her smile lurked something I was reluctant to look at too closely.

In the meantime she rented another room, again with dormer windows, but this time on the top floor of a very old house, closer to the center of town and not too far from where I lived with my mother. There was no one to disturb us in the new place, but Helma still couldn’t come.

One Sunday morning while she was making breakfast in the kitchenette, I took a book from the top shelf of her bookcase, and as I leafed idly through the pages, a letter fell to the floor. This was not the first such letter I’d come across, and for some reason it made me think of the man who’d approached our table one day while we were having a drink in the little bar near work. He was tall and swarthy and he invited us to join him at his table.

“Just as long as you don’t spill your drink all over me!” he said to me, half jokingly. Then he began telling us about some trouble he was having with his wife, but before he got very far a woman in a mink coat came through the door, walked straight up to our table, and began pounding the man with her fists.

One night I found myself standing across the street from the house in which Helma lived. I stood in the shadows and for a long time stared up at her lighted window. I watched her open the window and lean out, looking up and down the street. Then she closed the window again and pulled the curtain.

A taxi with a single passenger turned down her street and drove slowly along the curb with its lights off. For a moment I thought it would stop, but the driver turned on his headlights and drove off.

I finally went home. My feet were frozen. I undressed in the dark and crawled under the covers. Shivering and full of anxiety, I pressed my ear to the cold wall and listened to the noises in the apartment next door, hot whispers, suppressed groans, the rhythmic squeaking of bed springs.




“Munich?” said the department-store manager. “A wonderful town, but what about your young lady? What’s going to happen to Fraulein Helma?”

“I’ll only be gone a year,” I said. “Then I’m coming back.”

“Do you realize how long a year is?” my mother asked. “What on earth are you thinking? Are you really leaving that girl here all alone? In a city like this? And still so young?”

“She’s twenty-one,” I said.

My mother threw the dishtowel she’d been holding into the sink. It was rare that she grew angry. And then she began saying all the things that women say in such situations.

Helma didn’t answer. We were sitting on a bench in the park. The moon was high, white and cold.
I began to cry. “I can’t go on living like this,” I said “I can’t do it any longer.”
I walked her to the bus. She stood on the back platform as the bus drove away. I waved, but she did not wave back.




It was our last morning together, and I had to get up very early. Helma stood naked at the foot of the bed, her hair disheveled.

“Don’t leave,” she said. “Don’t go,” she repeated over and over while pressing a red cushion to her breasts.

My mother stood in her nightgown in the kitchen.

“Are you coming to the station?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. “You can go alone.”

Her cheek was like ice when I kissed her goodbye.

I went down the stairs with my suitcase. The house door closed behind me. I put on my gloves.
The bus stop near our apartment was under construction, and I had to walk to the next stop at the traffic light on the corner. It had grown quite cold, and the snow on the ground was hard-packed and frozen.

I glanced back to the apartment window as I walked. It was still too dark to make out my mother’s features, but the further down the street I went, the further she leaned out the window, waving and waving as if she would never stop.

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the new world order


The story below is included in the story collection, U-Haul with Dinosaur. If you’d like to find out more about the book, click here:

The New World Order

James was home on a visit. He wanted to know why it was if there was a new world order that everything inside him was imploding and exploding and flaring up into a fireball. He wanted to know why he was filled with dread. He tried posing these questions to his father, but his father kept right on polishing the stock of his gun without saying a word. Instead he abruptly held the gun out to James. It hung in the air, glowing in the workshop’s neon light.

It was a rifle, not a gun. This is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for pleasure, one is for fun. Is that how it went? It was like a haze settling down over his mind. But if the words were wrong, the image was still strong, standing at the foot of his bunk at Parris Island in his white boxer shorts and combat boots with his rifle in one hand and his genitals hefted in the other. Fifty men face-to-face at the foot of their bunks, warriors of the old order.

His cock, that was his gun, his fun, and his rifle, that was his pleasure. The pleasure of squeezing off a round and watching it blow a hole as big around as a baseball through the cardboard heart of the dummy that had sprung up from behind a rock on the firing range. The boys from Kentucky in his platoon could blast those dummies away firing from the hip, but James, he always had to bring his rifle to his shoulder and take aim, and even then he often missed. No pleasure in that, he found out in the Agent Orange boonies. The dummies out there shot back, from the hip, as if they were from Kentucky, and they hardly ever missed. James was living proof of that, the ugly scar across his chest, the howling absence of his right arm.

The pleasure of killing, that was it. The word was killing, not pleasure. This is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing, the other’s for fun. Now he was onto something. If he could hold his concentration for a tad bit longer than a TV commercial, maybe he could get on a roll and piece it all together, get to the bottom of things.

“Take it,” his father said, holding out the rifle. “It’s a piece of work.”




It wasn’t 1969 anymore, it was 2009, and James was 59 years old. His father was in his 80s and a devotee of the new world order, just as he’d been a devotee of the old. An order’s an order, his father told him when James was a child. An order’s an order and meant to be obeyed. That’s the nature of things, his father had said, explaining to James why his older brother had been napalmed to a crisp on the beach at Anzio.

Anzio? Where was that? All these exotic places blipping through the American collective consciousness and fading away again. Whose older brother? His or his father’s? Someone had died in the Spanish-American War, that much was documented fact.

Just a month earlier a young gas station attendant who was studying computer science nights at the community college had yelled at James in his favorite bar back in Idaho that he was an old fool who didn’t understand anything, that Spain and America had joined forces against Communism way back then, and that’s what the Spanish-American War had been all about, that’s where the Communist thing started. And it only seemed that the Evil Empire had toppled overnight, but it was Vietnam where the tide started to turn and Panama was the coup de grâce and now there was a new threat, now it was Muslims. James just stared at him and then he smashed him up alongside the head with his prosthetic arm and spent a night in jail for assault.

Sometimes when James was high on something, back before he kicked the booze and the pot and the drugstore highs, sometimes he would look at his son and think his son was his younger brother who had been wounded and decorated, and then he would think of his older brother who turned into his father’s older brother, and the dread set in.

He had this recurring dream of a flag-draped coffin filled with the remains of an unknown soldier, and etched into the rim of the coffin lid were the words Made in China. It was back before the days of body bags in the dream, before the new world order that just like that was there one morning when the world woke up.

His father had both arms and both legs and pretty good muscle tone for a man his age. Somehow he’d slipped between the wars, a fact that filled him with bitterness, because he was a crackerjack shot, as good as those boys from Kentucky. He had the right stuff and stood ready to fight for his country even now. He belonged to a fitness spa and had a second wife no older than James. He was a temperate man who drank one cup of coffee in the morning and at night had a single bottle of beer with his meal while watching Fox News. He was clear-headed, not like James, and he remembered everything chronologically. He knew what he believed in and he was willing to die for it. If you got him going he’d let you know that Roosevelt was the start of the problem, he brought in Socialism and drained the country’s resources with welfare. He didn’t want to hear about Watergate and the Iran-Contra thing and all the business about there not being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the point was that America was being threatened by terrorists and there were brave, dedicated men both on the battle field and in office who were trying to save the country, and if their methods seemed a little rough, well just look around. What choice do they have? And when James dug into the raw wound of his mind and tossed out some facts about all the lying and corruption, his father just smiled and held his pleasure to the light, sighting down the scoured and ready barrel.

Earlier James had sat on the back porch steps and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. He could roll and light a cigarette with one hand. He blew the smoke out in a pale jet and imagined it going straight through the gap in the ozone, as if the ozone was a smoke ring and he was blowing a jet of smoke through it like he’d seen Rufus do at the V.A. years earlier where he’d stayed for longer than he liked to remember.

“The human mind and body are amazing things, phenomenally adaptable,” this shrink at the V.A. had told him during one of his weekly sessions. “You’ll find you’ll soon be able to do many things that unimpaired persons can do, and some things you’ll do even better.”

And right there his mind opened up like a gaping hole in the earth and James went toppling down into that howling, grinding gash and didn’t hear another word the shrink said. When the shrink was done talking he knew he had to give the impression he’d been tracking, following every word, because that was the only way he was ever going to get out of there. And so he said, “I know what you mean.”

The shrink stared at him, and James knew he’d made a mistake, but he had no idea what it was, so he went back to the last thing he remembered hearing, about impaired people being able to do stuff unimpaired people couldn’t do, and he said, “Like Rufus, right? I mean, Rufus is blind, but he can blow a smoke ring and then drill a smaller smoke ring right through the middle of it. How many unimpaired people can do that? Except the thing is, Rufus can’t see what he’s done. He needs someone there to tell him. Like, ‘Hey, man! You did it! You drilled that sucker dead center!’ So— how much fun can that be?”


** *


For a long time the music and the drugs carried him, and more than he cared to admit, his wife and his son. But there was something he was barricading himself against, something he sensed but could not bear to confront, something spongy and cloud-like that swirled around him and went in through his eyes and ears and up through his nose like vapor. Something that was dissolving something else inside him that he had no words for, but once it was finally gone, he knew there would be nothing left of him, just a blackness with the faintest hum in it.

It began to happen in the late Eighties, almost twenty years after Nam, the timbers and mud he’d used to shore up his defenses became riddled with stress fractures, there was creaking and moaning, as if his fortification was sinking slowly down into a deep water and the pressure was slowly crushing it.

His temper began to flare, and his wife left him and got a restraining order and then went so fucking far away he had no idea where, she feared for her life, for her son’s life, or so she said. And so he was left in the outback in Idaho in his earth house that he’d built into a hillside, doing things with his one arm and his mounting dread that many an unimpaired person would not have been able to do. He’d dug in, literally, he used to joke about it in the bar before his wife and son left, and then he ceased joking about anything and got into loud altercations with the crazy mix of misfits who were regulars at the bar, other vets and survivalists and an Aryan Nation type or two, they all seemed to share the same dread.

Then the music died, all his Hendrix and Stones tapes and LPs from the Sixties, and no matter how much he drank, all he could do was pass out, there was no release.

And then the Nineties arrived, chronological as clockwork, and someone waved a magic wand and the past got erased. What he had been trying to figure out, process, piece together, suddenly it was as if it had never happened, and all his touchstones were gone. The war shifted to the home front, prison populations soared and little black vans with tinted windows and DARE splashed on their sides in dark red letters began zipping in and out of uptown school yards and men in uniform gave lectures to grade-school children, handed out pamphlets, sold them DARE t-shirts. Restaurants began segregating smokers into rooms without windows and then banning smoking all the way, and people of all ages began working out in health spas. But at the same time the nation went from being the world’s greatest creditor nation to the world’s greatest debtor nation, and while some higher ups looked grim, others got on national television and said relax, it was temporary, there was a bigger picture, there was a new world order coming. And as if to prove it, the entire Eastern Bloc that was the rationale for the industrial/ military complex collapsed without a single shot being fired, and just as quickly there were half a million troops camped in a desert somewhere fighting a computer war, and James froze up and could no longer process any of it. Nam went up his nose like dream vapor, circulated through his brain and came back out his mouth in tirades. And then the Muslims blew up the World Trade Center and the country went to war with terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere else they happened to pop up.

And so what was he—estranged? There were tens of thousands living under bridges and on heat vents and in cardboard cities and banks were dipping into trillions of dollars of taxpayer money and the Global Economy was on the verge of collapse. Important men who were experts on the matter got on TV and said that what was going on went way beyond the scope of the average man’s comprehension, but that America was going in strong and coming out victorious, that much you could count on.

It all gelled together inside James’ head into something slushy shot through with an electrical charge, and he began smoking forty cigarettes a day and carrying a thermos of black coffee with him wherever he went, even on the flight from Pocatello to his father’s house in San Diego.


** *


When his father said take it, he took it, and he stood there with the rifle clutched in his only hand. His father stared at him, but his eyes said nothing, and then he took the rifle back and placed it in the gun rack with the other rifles, ran the bolt through the trigger housing of all those weapons and locked it with a padlock.

“Janey should have lunch ready about now,” his father said, and left the workshop, switching off the neons on his way out, leaving James standing there with his heels together in the room gone dim now with low-grade sunlight filtering through the dirty window at the far end of the shop.

When he went inside, Janey and his father were already at the table, eating ham sandwiches on French bread with lettuce and tomatoes and a pickle on the side. His father was drinking a beer, which was unusual for him in the middle of the day, and Janey had a cup of Lipton’s tea with the bag squeezed out on the saucer. Janey smiled at him briefly and then looked back down to her food. James sat across from his father where his place had been set.

“I didn’t know what you wanted to drink,” his father said, “so help yourself to whatever.” And then he snapped open the morning paper that he hadn’t got around to yet.

James looked down at his sandwich and then up at the paper that formed a thin barrier between him and his father. The headline read: Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan.

James looked at his sandwich, but he did not pick it up. He looked up at the newspaper and waited for his father to show his face.

He would sit there and wait for as long as it took.


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