© Robert N. Jennings
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Short Story #1
"The Train Ride"
The train, shuddering over the rails, made a sound like giant chattering teeth.
He had promised his father that he wouldn’t cry, but he felt his strength crumbling with every passing mile. When they had boarded the train the little boy’s breath had turned to ice. Now, countless hours later, he felt hot. The steam engine pulling them along snorted like a hungry monster prowling the railways in search of prey. He tugged at his mother’s arm. “Mama?”
“Keep your coat on. You’ll need it when we get off.”
“It won’t be long.”
He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. For once, his mother didn’t scold him or slap his hand when he did this. She had changed a great deal in the past several months. He could feel her discomfort on this train, so close to all these strangers. Like himself, she had spent her life in big houses with comfortable chairs and servants, and she didn’t like it in here. He didn’t, either. The strangers smelled bad. “Have you ever ridden a train before, Mama?”
At five years old, he hadn’t. They used to travel in the family’s big motorcar, which had a separate compartment for the chauffeur and headlamps as big as the boy's head. The interior provided ample space for everyone, not at all like this crowded thing. He recalled riding in his father’s lap, looking out the window and seeing a train just like this one steaming across the rich green countryside.
(I won’t cry.)
Each clatter of the rails pulled him further and further away from that old place, where his father gathered with his friends in luxuriously furnished rooms and smoke cigars as the servants cleaned up after dinner. They talked of money, of factories, of a future as bright and endless as the sun. All gone now. Gone along with his toys, his mother’s dresses, his father’s hunting dogs, and all the other nice things they used to have. God didn’t want them to have those anymore. The boy’s lower lip quivered. These days, it seemed He didn’t want people having a lot of things. His eyes grew wet. He closed them and breathed deeply, reminding himself that each bump of the train brought him closer to the end of this stupid trip. All he wanted to do was cry. He missed the big car, the chauffeur, all the space….and his father. He missed his father immensely.
A lump swelled in his throat as he wracked his brain for something to talk about. Talking had always helped before. “How come God took Papa away?” He asked, sniffling.
He felt his mother shiver inside her coat and wished he could take the question back, but it was too late for that now. “It was His will. He needs Papa more than we do.”
“I don’t know! Please talk about something else.”
“I’m sorry!” He tried so hard to hold back his tears he thought he would burst. “I miss Papa.”
She sighed and caressed his head gently, shivering again. “I know. I do, too.”
That’s right. She did, too. Other people existed in the world, and only selfish boys thought of nothing but themselves. God didn’t like that. If the boy didn’t change his ways, He might decide He needed Mama, too. This made him want to cry even worse, but he got it under control this time by concentrating on the chugging engine and the incessant clacking of the rails. He rubbed his eyes. “I don’t like it,” he said.
“It’s better than walking. If you want, I can have the conductor let us off, and we can walk the whole way in the snow. Would you like that?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No.”
Thus admonished, he fell silent once again. Shortly thereafter, he felt a lurch and the clacking slowed noticeably. The train shook unevenly as the cars jarred their couplings.
“Mama, are we there?”
“I…I think so.” He felt her hand tighten around his arm, felt it shaking. She drew him close, and he could feel the rest of her shaking too. “Listen to me,” she said in an unsteady voice, bending down to his ear to ensure he could hear her above the excited passengers. “Hold on to my arm when we get off. Don’t let go, not for any reason, okay?”
“It’s likely to be a big station, very busy. If we get separated, I’ll have a hard time finding you.”
“Okay.” Slowly, the clacking rails silenced entirely as the steel monster ground to a halt. The hiss of its breathing said that it too was tired and glad to be done with the journey. The little boy heard people on the platform outside stomping about heavily, the uneven drumming of their boots cutting through the passengers’ chatter. He felt his mother pull him even closer, towering above him, solid and safe. His lower lip quivered involuntarily. “Mama?”
More hissing steam, and up ahead he could hear doors sliding open. Time to get off the train. His breathing hitched in his chest, caught in the fear that congealed there like animal fat. No tears, not a one. Be a man! “Why did we have to come here?”
She held him and swallowed. “Because we’re Jewish.”
The door clattered open, slamming against its stops with a rusty squeal and a bang that jarred his insides. The sea of yellow stars pent up within the rail car spilled now onto the platform into a new world of curved helmets and snarling dogs, of cold wind and black snowflakes, and harsh, unintelligible commands barked in the guttural language of complete madness.
And the boy began to cry.
Short Story #2--no relation to "The Train Ride"
"The Landing Zone"
Troy Williams cleared the garage door with only inches to spare and guided the Cadillac onto Walnut Street, riding on a full tank of gas in the bright spring morning. The sun glinted off the hood, stinging his eyes and making him squint. Off in the distance he heard helicopters, several of them, their rotor blades throbbing as they tore at the sky. He couldn’t tell where they were approaching from, but it didn’t matter. They weren’t here just yet.
At the end of the street, he obeyed the stop sign despite an urge to run it. It wouldn’t do to get caught, not right outside his house. He couldn’t do anything to attract attention. Before long, Anne would figure out he was gone, then she’d lose it. She’d call the police, the FBI, all of them. That wouldn’t do, hell no. If Troy got pulled over, somebody would figure out his battle plan. The police would search the car and look under the seat, or Anne would the next time she drove, and he couldn't have that. Troy had to escape undetected. He loved Anne more than anything in this world, he really did, but she would definitely not go with the plan. Troy had to move; as the Vietnamese would have said, didi mau--in English, “haul ass.” One false step could screw up everything. This wasn’t exactly a long hump, maybe twenty minutes on the outside, but a man didn’t need but a couple of seconds to run a stop sign, plow into a school bus, and attract a whole lot of attention.
Troy heard the helicopters growing louder and his heartbeat increased to keep time. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He didn’t have a second to spare. When the choppers were on the way and you couldn’t see them, didi. You didn’t want them getting there too far before you. Chopper drivers were brave, but not stupid. They wouldn’t hang around the landing zone forever.
About two years ago, Troy went to the doctor and found out he had Alzheimer’s disease. This solved a lot of mysteries for him, so it wasn’t all bad news. A lot of things made sense now, like why he kept finding pens hidden all over the house. Pens under the couch, under the bed, in the toilet tank, buried in the ice cream, everywhere but in the drawer where they belonged. It also explained why the security guards at Wal-Mart busted him in the parking lot with twenty bucks worth of office supplies he hadn’t paid for stuffed in his pants. He didn’t like this. But it explained a lot.
And he hadn't forgotten everything, not yet. He remembered meeting Anne, for example, very clearly. Couldn't remember breakfast, but he could remember this. Of all the places to pick up a lady, he found her at church in college. The first weeks of fall semester, he saw this incredible girl sitting up in the front row of pews, a girl who for some reason kept turning around to look at him. Her long hair, gold as his mama’s wedding ring, glistened in the Sunday morning light streaming in through the windows while her chestnut brown eyes squeezed his throat shut and muddied his brain to where he couldn’t even remember his own name. She looked like heaven.
He lived in fear that she’d get lazy and stop going to church. Her gentle curves filled his every thought. What was her name? Where was she from? Did she have a boyfriend already? Of course she did. That lucky son of a bitch. And he'd bet a hundred dollars she had a disposition as sweet as her face. God wouldn’t make a face like that without a personality to match. Right?
Better find out, he thought. The bugles sounded, and Troy charged.
As church let out one Sunday morning, Troy stopped her outside the door. “Uhh…hi. I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Troy Williams.”
She replied, “I’m...
The light at Walnut and Edgefield caught him, so he stopped and let a school bus full of kids rumble across the intersection in front of him. It confused him for a second, seeing how this had to be about time for their Christmas break and all, but things were changing. They’d kicked God out of government, they’d kicked God out of the schools, and so they'd probably done away with all His holidays, too. Troy wasn’t sorry to be on his way out.
He had his reasons for doing this, good reasons. One of these days, he would look at Anne and not be able to remember her name. Then he’d forget who she was entirely. Thirty-six years of marriage would boil down to “who the hell are you?” He hadn't gone that bad—not yet anyway—but the train was choo-chooing on down that way. Wouldn’t be too long before he had a bib on his chest, drool on his chin, and a diaper on his ass. Anne would be wiping his behind for him.
Another red light. DamndamndamndamnDAMN!
Right when he got the diagnosis, he decided to do it. Why he waited this long, he couldn’t quite explain. He disliked sticking guns in his mouth and pulling the trigger, for one thing. A natural ability to evade reality delayed it even more. A good distance separated the time he got whacked with the Truth Stick and the time he felt it sting. In the present case, it had been about a year. The doctor told him sometime last June, and it was July now.
When Anne dug that pack of ballpoint pens out of the ice cream last night, though, he considered it his go-ahead. He walked into the kitchen and saw her picking pens out of a carton of mint chocolate chip. She didn’t say a thing, just took them out, washed them off, set them on the counter, and then went upstairs and shut the door to their bedroom. Didn’t even put the ice cream away.
So this morning, he dug out his old pistol from the war and stuffed it under the Cadillac’s front seat. He drove off as soon as Anne got in the shower. She didn’t have a clue.
Wal-Mart parking lot, two weeks ago. Sunny day, just like this one, walking out with Anne. They’d been out shopping for something Anne called “wall sconces.” Whatever the hell those were, Wal-Mart didn’t have any. They would have gone on to K-Mart, but Iwannabeacop and Ican’tgetanotherjob, security guards at large, popped them out by the Cadillac. Anne went white as a sheet, having absolutely no idea what was going on when the two young men approached. “Troy?” She asked.
“There must be some misunderstanding,” Troy said. “I didn’t take anything.”
“Sir, perhaps you’ve made a mistake,” said Iwannabeacop. “Maybe you just forgot to pay…”
Ican’tgetanotherjob stepped forward and cut his partner off, smirking. “I think what he’s trying to say is,” he said to Troy, “your mother is a festering boil on the butt of a goat.”
Anne shrugged. “Well, all we want to do is cooperate. Troy, just do as the boy says and show him what you have in your pockets.”
Troy ignored her. He glared at the security men. “What did you say?”
Ican’tgetanotherjob kept smirking, the little bastard. “I said, your sister whores for coke at truck stops!”
Anne, seeing the look on Troy’s face, put a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, dear, they’re just doing their jobs. All he wants is for you to check your pockets. Let’s just do it and get on with our shopping, okay, honey?”
Ican’tgetanotherjob bared his teeth at her. “Your husband, wench, is the worst kind of faggot! He spends all his time in the men’s room at the park!” He turned his beady eyes on Troy and pointed his finger accusingly. “Faggot! Ass-eater!”
Troy couldn’t believe this. “You rude little white-trash brat!”
“Troy!” Anne looked dismayed. “What has gotten into you?” She turned to the security guards. “You’ll have to pardon me. My husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago….I’m very sorry. Troy, honey, please show the boys what you have in your pockets.”
No! Troy shook his own finger in the young man’s face. He wasn’t taking this! “Listen here, you cocksuckers! You motherloving, snotnosed douche-bags! I am a decorated war veteran, I am an officer of the United States Army, and I am going to whip your asses just for suggesting...
He turned right on Green Avenue as darkness fell. The helicopters sounded close, but he still couldn’t see them. His gut ached with anxiety. His foot longed to slam the gas pedal to the floor, turn the big V-8 loose, and pull past all these kids in their Hondas and the soccer moms in their Explorers. Make it to that place he’d scouted so many weeks ago, back when he first got diagnosed and realized if he didn’t shoot himself, he’d end up on his back with Anne wiping his behind and changing his diapers. He would regress through the stages of human development, back to childhood, the disease taking his memories from him day after day until all that remained was a vegetable staring vacantly at the television. Hell no.
Doing it at home right when the urge struck him would have been a safer bet. Rack the slide, eat the barrel, pull the trigger. No worrying, no thinking, no chance to lose his nerve and thereby his opportunity. He couldn’t do that, though, because if he pulled this off at home, Anne would be the one who found him. She’d come upstairs after shopping, and she’d find him there on the carpet, the back of his head missing, his blood sprayed out in a fan pattern on the wall behind him. He could picture her falling to her knees, and he could imagine the crushing weight descending on her when she found him dead.
He couldn’t spare her this loss, but at least he could save her from being the one to discover his body. He chose a spot on the outskirts of town, a quiet little bridge over which few traveled. No chance of someone driving by and witnessing his suicide. No chance of the bullet blowing through his skull and continuing on to kill someone else. He’d shoot himself, drop the gun into the water, and fall over the side with it. Then some fisherman, a grown man who didn’t give two hoots about Troy, would find him floating. Nice and safe for everyone involved. And it was only twenty minutes or so from his house, giving him no time to lose his nerve.
He wouldn’t make Anne wipe.
The day had grown old and tired by the time he pulled over on the shoulder right before the bridge. The motor died obediently, leaving behind only the silence of the impending night. Troy sat for several long minutes before reaching under the seat and pulling out his pistol. He got out and began walking towards the bridge.
“Battalion strength, I repeat, battalion strength! We’re retreating, over!”
“Williams, hold your position, over!”
A bullet sliced through the air an inch from his nose. Gunfire everywhere shredded the jungle like an angry beast. His boys were dying. The enemy outnumbered them, which struck Troy funny because while the commies festered on hills all over the country, this hill was supposed to be deserted, easy as pie. But it wasn’t deserted, no sir. An entire battalion of North Vietnamese Army regulars showed up first, having missed the news that this wasn’t their hill, and they got the best seats in the house. When Troy’s air cavalry platoon dismounted from the choppers and made their way in from the clearing, they walked into the open arms of an NVA welcoming committee.
“Request extraction, sir, over!”
“Negative, Williams, you hold that position or else, over!”
Or else what? You’ll kill me? Troy stared at the handset in disbelief. A grenade detonated somewhere nearby, splattering warm mud all over Troy and the soldier with the radio.
It wasn’t mud.
“Sir, we cannot hold this position, I repeat, we cannot hold this position! I have lost twelve…thirteen men in five minutes, sir! We're retreating! Request extraction, over!”
Troy quit listening. He screamed for his men to retreat, retreat back the way they had come. He grabbed the handset again. “Proceeding to LZ Charlie for extraction! Request air support, over! Coordinates are…”
The soldiers collected their wounded and began to run. Troy called in the mission and let loose a burst from his M-16. What he hit, he didn’t care. He had to keep the enemy pinned, hold them back just a little longer. Give his boys a head start on their hump back to the landing zone, where the helicopters could touch down and extract them. The rifle barked in staccato bursts, three rounds, pause, then three more. Click! Empty! Drop the magazine, slam home another, pull the charging handle, fire. Stand up, retreat ten or twelve yards, turn, fire. Duck, run, turn, fire. Drop the magazine. Repeat.
Troy would never...
He could feel Sergeant Wentworth straining to bear his weight. Blood dribbling from Troy’s leg soaked the man’s back a sticky maroon. Troy's head swam. “Leave me,” he croaked. He didn’t really want Wentworth to do that, but he felt he ought to say it anyway. Just in case he made it out of here.
Overhead, the chugging of helicopter blades filled his ears. A pack of Hueys approached the clearing to whisk the remnants of his platoon to safety while a Navy fighter-bomber roared in above them and blanketed the jungle beyond with napalm. Hot air blasted Wentworth and himself, but the big soldier kept running. Troy weighed a hundred and seventy-five pounds. Maybe a little less with all the blood he’d lost from the leg wound, but Wentworth carried him like kid carrying a Twinkie.
“Is that the choppers?”
“Yes, sir. They’re coming to get us.”
But they weren’t. They were growing quieter now, not louder. Leaving! The rest of the platoon had reached the LZ ahead of them! They were leaving! Leaving them to the enemy! Troy spat out a gob of blood. How did all this blood get in his mouth from a leg wound? “Leaving!”
“They’re right above us, sir.”
“No they’re not!” Tears streaked down Troy’s face. He couldn’t see a damn thing, thrown over Wentworth’s shoulder like a sack of flour. A bleeding, whimpering sack of flour that was about to scream for its mother because it’s frigging leg hurt like a bitch and it was about to miss the last ride out. “They’re leaving us!” The choppers would pick up the last man and didi mau. Troy would never see his parents again, never see Anne. He tried and failed to swallow. He could hear the blades fading into the late afternoon, hear the steaming jungle air go silent, and then he heard nothing at all.
He remembered that feeling of utter terror when he thought the helicopters were going to leave. The Hueys gave them their only way out. God knew the North Vietnamese didn’t like American soldiers. Troy had heard stories of soldiers imprisoned in tiny bamboo cages for weeks on end, of eyeballs being gouged out with spoons. Riding through the jungle on Wentworth’s back, he’d thought about his own eyes being gouged out and realized if the Hueys left without him, he had a lot to look forward to.
But the helicopters hadn’t left. A door gunner with good eyes saw them emerging from the tree line just as the bird made ready to take flight, and he told the pilot to hold it just a little bit longer. Troy and Wentworth got their ride out.
He remembered the sun flashing in his eyes as he lay there bleeding on the deck of the helicopter. He couldn’t be farther away from that now. He stood on the bridge enveloped in a deep night that forced his pupils open wider than dinner plates. This far out of town, there weren’t streetlights every six inches. No cars, no sirens, just crickets chirping and tree branches swaying in the breeze.
Troy stood in the middle of the bridge, backside up against the railing, his heart racing like it had so many years ago. He held the gun straight at his side, resting it against the thigh of his bad leg, breathing deeply. He’d carried this thing in Vietnam. He’d been an officer, so they gave him a nice pistol to go along with his rifle. He hadn’t ever used it. In the jungle, if you had to resort to popping people with a handgun, you’d already lost. But Troy liked having it anyway, so much that he sneaked it back home when his leg healed and his tour was up. He hadn’t fired it in years. But he’d fire it now.
Come on. Didi!
He raised the pistol and took it in both his hands. The dull finish absorbed what little light existed like some kind of black hole, cold and heavy. Right now, he'd stick it in his mouth and blow his head off. Get the hell out of Dodge.
Now. Do it.
He thought again of Anne, the streaks of gray running through the hair that she still kept long enough to reach her shoulders. The laugh lines creeping out from the corners of her eyes, her laugh, and the warmth of her in the middle of the night. He thought of looking into those eyes and not knowing them, and he imagined her becoming a stranger, then an abstraction. He felt the drool dribbling down his chin, oatmeal spooned into his mouth by a woman he didn’t recognize. He saw this very clearly.
He raised the pistol and stuck the barrel in his mouth. His finger caressed the trigger.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, twin light beams pierced the night, accompanied by the hum of an automobile engine. Bad muffler, southbound towards the bridge, coming right for him. He’d have to wait. He’d have to let them pass before he...
It was peaceful to go out for a drive alone every now and then, even if Anne didn’t like it. He was a man, an officer of the United States Army, and he’d go where he damn well pleased. He sure would. He might have been getting sick, but not too sick to drive his own Cadillac, which he’d bought with his own money that he worked for his whole life. It was a free country, free because men like him had fought and died for it. So if he wanted to take a drive to clear his damn head, he’d damn well do it. Screw everybody who said otherwise.
He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there beside his car, breathing in the early morning air, and this made him smile. Out here, this far away from town, peace covered everything. A man could relax, pull over and take a piss in the bushes if he had to, and then stand on the bridge and consider his reflection in the glassy water beneath.
The sun peeked over the treeline as Troy Williams opened the Cadillac’s door and slid into the driver’s seat. He twisted the key in the ignition. The electronic display told him he had forty miles left to go before the gas tank ran dry, but that was all well and good. With town only ten miles or so away, he’d just stop at the Exxon on his way back home. Maybe go to the Hardee’s for a coffee and biscuit. Troy took care of himself, he wasn’t a man to ever skip breakfast, but he must not have eaten enough this morning. His stomach growled like a wolf.
A handgun peeked out of the glove box at him when he opened it to look for his wallet, which puzzled him because he hadn’t put any guns in there. But somebody had. He stared at it for quite some time, blinking at the way its flat black finish soaked up the faint light of early morning. What in the devil was a thing like that doing in his car?
Probably Anne’s. Honestly, with all the silly lunatics running around these days robbing and killing people, it wasn't a bad idea.
He shut the glove box and cut the wheel hard over to the left, easing the Caddy back out onto the road, tires crunching over gravel on the other shoulder as he completed a U-turn and headed back into town. Somewhere in the distance, helicopters beat at the sky. His eyes scanned the horizon for a glimpse, but the throbbing whir of their blades faded into nothing as they flew away.
And soon, he forgot all about them.
T H E E N D