Within a few weeks of his return from Viet Nam, Butchie’s older brother gets a job as a heavy equipment operator and a girlfriend, in that order. Jack enlisted to avoid an assault conviction and says this is more luck than he’s had in his life. The job lasts until he runs his back loader into an equipment trailer for reasons he’d rather not explain, but the girlfriend sticks. She thinks he’s a catch.
Jack builds a coop and raises chickens in his back yard. Some neighbors buy eggs and occasionally a whole chicken. Others disapprove, complain, and the city threatens fines. He loses some to hawks, some to neighborhood cats, some to disease, but he keeps getting more. When Animal Control comes to his house he doesn’t answer the door, but moves the chickens into his basement and burns down the coop. He says there is no law against having them as indoor pets, but he lets them enter and exit through an open window. The girlfriend refuses to use the washer and dryer in the basement and does the laundry in the sink, hanging it on the line, the old fashioned way. She doesn’t complain. She says Jack is being harassed and that’s no way to treat a war hero.
All thirty-seven of Jack’s chickens die on the same day. Jack thinks he knows which neighbor poisoned them but keeps his counsel. A week later the man’s car catches fire in the night and firemen just watch it burn. A few days later the man’s porch erupts in flames and the firemen use their hoses to save the house. This time the neighbor seizes the hint and moves away. The girlfriend says Jack is a man of action and says she loves him more than ever. Butchie thinks the girlfriend poisoned the chickens, but doesn’t mention it, because he knows Jack deserves all the luck he can hang on to.
I work a machine that carves the shaft of a forty pound slip gear out of rough cast steel. Next to me is a twenty year lathe man who cuts the gears with a fifty micron tolerance. I am easily replaceable, but he is not. Wade is a pleasure to watch, but his only outside interest is “The Russians”. He will talk about little else. He is obsessed with nuclear payloads, deep State Department moles, and creeping atheism. He insists there are Russian mini subs in the river spying on our industrial capacity and says he has photos to prove it. When he shows me they look like the grainy pictures of the Loch Ness monster and are equally convincing. He reads my face and is disappointed. For several days he does not look at me but then asks if I want to go out on his fishing boat for more evidence. He tells me to bring my camera.
On the boat Wade is more relaxed and more personal. His father was from Hungary, his mother Cuba, both refugees from the totalitarian wave which he feels is growing stronger. When I tell him my family is from Germany he asks if I know Hitler and Stalin once had a pact. When I explain both sides of my family arrived in the nineteenth century his mind is eased. It’s a pleasant day and he is a good fisherman. I catch nothing worth keeping, but he hauls in two good sized Channel Cat. At first the sun is enjoyable, but as the afternoon wears on I develop a headache from the harsh glare off the water. I keep thinking he will show me something to bolster his theory, but he seems content to only talk about fishing and drink beer, and doesn’t seem to notice I didn’t bring a camera. When the sun begins to fade we head back to the marina without a peep about Russians or submarines. My head is splitting and I ask him if he has any aspirin. He pulls out a large bottle, hands me a couple, and takes several himself. When we step off the boat he says, “Well, wha’d I tell ya?” When I don’t respond Wade says, “The headache. Your head. You think that’s natural? Why would you get a headache from a relaxed day on the water? I get one every time and it’s from the sonar and radio waves. They’re down there communicating and it affects you on the water. You ask around the marina and you’ll find plenty of folks get headaches, dizziness, nausea after a day on the water.” I tell him I was expecting to see something. Again I have disappointed him. “I’ve already shown you the proof!” he spits. He rubs his temples. Maybe it’s all the beer, but I tell him his pictures were of tree limbs and sandbars, not submarines, and the Russians have better things to do than fuck around in this dirty river. “What you think they’re gonna see with a periscope anyway? They got satellites and spies to get the shit they want.”
At work Wade stops talking to me and surreptitiously inspects my finished parts, presumably to look for industrial sabotage. He reports to the line boss every time I take a few minutes extra on breaks, which is just about every break. In return, I slip notes with Cyrillic letters around the area. He reports this too and I get called in to the section supervisor’s office, but nothing comes of it beyond a warning to shape up. I complain to the union rep and loudly call him comrade, which the rep thinks is funny. The personal Cold War continues, but this is the beginning of the end for me. I get fired several months later for something I didn’t do and I’m sure it’s Wade’s doing. I leave a beat-up copy of the Communist Manifesto with crude maps of the plant on the inside cover before I depart, because, who am I to get between a man and his hobbies?
It’s my golden birthday and Butchie gives me a box of cherry bombs, M‑80s, and Roman Candles he picked up across the state line. He’s got a list of things he wants to blow up and most of them sound like fun, though I draw the line at his father’s gravestone.
Cinderella gives me a copy of The Watseka Wonder, an 1887 book about Lurancy Vennum, a local medium, who claimed to have been to heaven and back. Lurancy also said her body had been possessed by the deceased, including a Sauk chieftain, Sieur de la Salle, and the dead children of several city luminaries. She regularly outdrew the vaudevillians flocking to local theaters and dance halls, but when she was exposed by a local journalist she cursed the town by quoting Lamentations:
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
Cinderella buys me a beer in a tavern sitting at the site of Lurancy’s last known performance, where she spoke with the voice of the journalist’s dead mother. Cinderella tells me she stole the book from her father, who long ago lost interest in the paranormal, transferring it to the Illuminati and Freemasons, and then alien invasion. He’s begun attending a Pentecostal church and speaking in tongues, so she thinks he’s about to shift again.
I give myself a beat-up brown bomber jacket I find at Salvation Army. A name, M. DeAngelo, is engraved on the outside. Inside I find a crumpled snapshot of a girl standing in her underwear between a lamp and a bedpost with a phone number on the back. There are also a fragments of a Sassoon poem:
Lord Jesus, ain’t you got to more to say? The battle boomed, and no reply came back.
Butchie blows off the explosives but only manages to chip the marble, Cinderella’s dad joins, then leaves the Pentecostal church and begins studying Homeopathy. I call the number, but it is disconnected. Nothing changes. I am a year older, But my birthday contained the best this town has on offer: explosions; charlatans; seekers; poetry; brief melancholy connections with a trace of desire. Who would not be delighted to live somewhere so splendid. There was even a beer involved.
J.W. Goll is a writer and artist currently working as a Patient Advocate at a large hospital in Durham, North Carolina. His stories and poems are informed by experiences as a photographer in Chicago, the Dakotas, and Central Europe. He has a degree in photography from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. As a sculptor and installation artist, he has been represented by galleries in Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, New York, and Chapel Hill, NC.