other urged me to find my brother Otto. He left without warning, and we didn't know which side of the battlefield he was on. We couldn't send him news, chocolate, or cigarettes. His absence did upset me, but his fiancée confided in me so much that I imagined myself responsible for her unborn child. She asked me not to leave her, but with mother moping about and clutching her belly, I felt compelled.
At the war office I demanded information about my brother's location. I emphasized that his fiancée was with child and it would be best if I found Otto soon, so he and Christine could be secretly married. I asked her if this were the same office where I could obtain a marriage certificate. Perhaps if my family paid a larger amount, the date could be adjusted, and we could avoid shame. She smiled and asked me for my name. I told her I had no secret designs on Christine and didn't wish for my brother's death. She gave me a box and said thank you.
I exited the building through a blast hole and found myself in an alley. I tried to pierce the tape on the box with my recently trimmed fingernails. A piece of cardboard severely stung the skin beneath the nail on my right index finger. I couldn't look at the wound, and the tepid release of blood made me woozy. Angrily I picked up a broken bottle and stabbed the box several times. Inside I found a military uniform and a lighter.
I put on the clobber immediately, even though it was a bit snug. I thought about returning to the war office and asking the clerk if there was a tailor nearby, but decided against it. Several shots were fired through the blast hole, not necessarily at me, but in my direction nevertheless. I hustled to the street hoping to find my fellow soldiers. Noticing one of my shoes was untied, I knelt carefully, not wanting to tear my trousers. I had to balance my weight with my right hand on a recently salted patch of ice. The anguish of my wound caused my muscles to tense, and I fell, the back of my trousers splitting. I managed to salvage some tape from the box so I could repair the garment. Even though there were bystanders, I removed my pants. Due to the water shortage, I was unable to wear clean underwear, so I had gone without. Perhaps some people thought the spectacle some sort of artistic/political expression, others that I needed to relieve myself. A one-armed man mockingly saluted me then threw a grenade at me. I darted off with my trousers in hand, but couldn't help but slip at the moment of detonation, my fiery bottom spinning on the ice.
If the city was being bombed, I failed to notice. My mind was focused on meeting up with my fellow soldiers and finding a place to dress without being harassed. I remember whistling, but couldn't say if it was a nationalistic tune. I had a strong desire to return to the war office and speak with the friendly clerk. I felt I should inform her that in the unlikely event of my brother's death, I would wed Christine and raise the child myself. However, I kept moving, the road behind me nothing but swirling blackness.
There was a smell unlike normal smoke, and someone or something was making a clattering noise and booming his voice from on high. With a slight pain in my leg and an excruciating pain in my finger, I waddled toward the battlefield, ignoring the odd murmurs of the people gazing at me in fear. I tried to remain in fog, smoke, or shadow, so as not to contribute to the general confusion in the community. Someone who I believe once loved my mother shouted: “Traitor!” I recognized his voice, but kept pushing on. He probably thought I was someone else. I'm certain he followed me.
At the edge of the city the elderly man of shady reputation, according to mother, approached me and told me to be careful. He said he always knew I was one of the true. I could smell liquor on his breath but tried to seem captivated by his words. He spoke of corruption and government, things I knew little about. His passion sickened me. He called me son and walked with me awhile, his sweaty arm around me until he collapsed. He grabbed hold of his stomach and vomited a dark liquid. Opening his mouth wide and spewing, he called me imposter. I didn't have time to nurse him and sort out why he was insulting me, so I set him upright so he wouldn't swallow his tongue.
As I left him I couldn't help but become enraged. I turned around and considered kicking him in the head, but due to the commotion of odd sounds and flying metals, I wouldn't be bothered. Stumbling over bricks and fires and indistinguishable fleshy objects, I made my way intentionally oblivious, if such a thing is possible.
I thought of Christine, her thighs, her breasts, my niece or nephew sloshing about inside of her. It would be nice watching the little one grow up, spending every Sunday with the family. Perhaps I'd marry Christine's younger sister, Olivia. She would be of age next year, and even though she was a bit frail and sickly compared to Christine, we might be happy.
A young swaddy approached me. He said that if I knew what was good I'd follow him. I told him I was ready to report for duty but didn't know where to go, and asked him if Otto was alive. He said nothing. I told him Otto enjoyed patriotic songs and had left home without notice. The boy pointed his gun at me, so I kicked him in the groin and ran.
I found a ditch in the middle of a black field and was able to dress. Although the trousers gave me a bit of warmth, I had no scarf or overcoat, and I'd lost my hat at some point. I lit a cigarette with my brother's lighter and noticed by the decoration of my uniform that I was a general. I felt slightly embarrassed for having streaked through the streets, knowing I was such an esteemed asset to the cause. I considered weeping but did not.
I nestled up against something warm and unmoving, perhaps a croaker. Soon I was asleep and dreaming. I was in bed with Christine when Otto walked in cursing his life. We told him we were happy and took him out for breakfast. It was all strangely comfortable, as if family were more important than understanding or possession. From the window of the café we could see a bright town with repaired buildings. I told Otto that I had done the respectable thing by marrying Christine, and that before he was mistakenly proclaimed dead, I'd behaved in his interest, not my own. Perhaps you should marry Olivia, I suggested.
Someone shook me. I opened my eyes but couldn't see. Perhaps I temporarily lost my eyesight or was blindfolded. I couldn't move my hands to check. My ears were impaired and the muffled world could only suggest things to me. It may have been night. It is also possible that my dreams had infiltrated daylight. Perhaps on some level I was aware of what was going on, but wouldn't allow myself to see. I do remember blackness, and I was growling or being growled at, and there was warm slobber on my face. I cried out Mama, Christine, Otto. I felt suspended between ditch and sky, and through my darkness I could sense my name being spelled out by the flack.
Although my fingers were numb, I could still feel the sting of the cut from the cardboard. It helped me ignore my pressing thoughts, such as how I hadn't been properly trained, the box, my brother, where I was being taken, Peggy Lee singing about smoke in her eyes. I focused on the pain in my finger, but eventually it vanished. I imagined Christine, brandishing a machine gun coming to rescue me.
Inside of a small church of an undisclosed denomination, I was bound and a sort of interrogation began. All was a white sucking color. They gave me coffee, massaged my body, and then threatened my family as they beat my face in. I repented for my impure thoughts, but explained that I had not acted on my desires. They asked me for my papers. I told them I loved my brother and never wanted to upset him. They made fun of what was left of my finger and stabbed it with a pen. I mentioned the war office and asked if I could see my brother. Someone inserted a gun into one of my orifices and fondled my goolies with a razor blade. I could hear writing, laughing, licking. There was a knock and a rustling of paper. I told them I needed to relieve myself. I heard a gunshot.
A man who looked similar to my father draped me in a quilt and carried me to a house. I could hear church bells. The home was similar to mine, except for the blast hole pattern. Passing a postman, we entered the gate. I asked the man to take me to another house, Christine's. He said nothing and dropped me on the doorstep. Someone's mother opened the door. She looked up from her letter and shrieked as her flabby arms pounded my chest. I told her that I was mistaken. I removed what was left of my uniform and staggered away.
J. Michael Slama is an MFA student at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
His story "Volatile" has recently been published by The Barcelona Review.
Currently he is at work on his first novel.
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story copyright by author 2003 all rights reserved