Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Great Jack Stout

 

 

 

With a little luck on the last two tests in Finite Math, Jack Duke would be a college graduate in May, the first in his family.  He knew of Dukes in Little Rock who were well-off, but his branch of the family was centered around the little rural community of Pankey, west of the city, and they were redneck and poor.  “What are you going to do with all that ‘edumacation’?” his father would ask him with a sneer.  Years ago, Jack would have answered him at length, but more and more lately he wasn’t so sure.

 

It was sobering to realize that, whereas once he’d had big dreams, now he’d settle for so little:  a house of his own, a car that would start, and a woman in his life.

 

Of immediate concern was the house.  Jack was thirty and still living with his parents.  If he stayed there much longer, you’d have to measure him for a straight jacket.  His house didn’t have to be anything big or fancy, but it did have to have air-conditioning.  There was a window unit in the living room of his parents’ house, but he couldn’t remember when it’d ever worked.  His father said that was fine with him because air-conditioning gave him a headache and he wouldn’t turn the thing on if somebody gave him a brand-spanking-new one, but that was a lie.  He’d lost his job at Busbee Ford when they went to all that computer stuff and he just couldn’t get the hang of it, and he didn’t make enough janitoring at the big Baptist church on the freeway to pay the electric bills on an AC, that was the truth of it.  Jack was damn tired of sweating his way through Arkansas summers.

 

He had a car.  Just having a car wasn’t the issue.  The problem was having a car that didn’t eat batteries.  At one time he would have told you that he had good luck with vehicles.  That was after he got rear-ended by a UPS truck, was in the hospital for two months, and made enough on the insurance settlement to quit his job at Jiffy Lube and go to school full time for three straight semesters, plus buy a used Toyota Corolla.  But that money was long gone by now, and Jack was back changing oil and taking a class every now and then.  The Toyota, which would suddenly go comatose just about anywhere, was long gone, too, replaced by an ’86 Trans Am that ate batteries.  Any week he got through without having to jump it at least once was a good week.  At the beginning of every semester he’d tell his professors that he’d probably be late some because his car would be sure to eat a battery.  The only one that ever seemed sympathetic was Dr. Fu in Finite Math.  That’s the reason Jack thought he had a good shot at finally passing it and getting his degree.  Of course there was the chance that Dr. Fu hadn’t understood him when he explained about the battery.   Dr. Fu was from China and hadn’t really gotten the hang of English yet. 

 

So the house and car were important to him, but it wouldn’t come as a shock to any red-blooded American male that the real prize was a woman in his life.  Jack had never been very good in that department.  He was short and slight and walked with a hitch from the car wreck, and he thought of himself as homely, with good reason.  The only way he’d ever gotten anywhere at all with women was to sit in a bar and drink until he worked up the whiskey-courage to talk to some woman who seemed even drunker than he was.  The strategy had worked well enough in the decade he’d been employing it that three times he’d attempted sex with a woman, the first two failing miserably and the third succeeding to the extent that he was able to penetrate his partner an instant before ejaculating. He was so grateful that he wept and confessed to the young lady—well, not so young—that he’d finally lost his virginity, and she said, “Honey, I’d advise you to go find it again because you ain’t for shit at screwing.”

 

He wouldn’t have to get boozed up to talk to a woman if he could ever think of anything to say, but what could he talk to them about?  Living with mommy and daddy in Pankey?  Changing oil part time at the Jiffy Lube?  Switching majors four times and dropping so many classes over the years that if he was real lucky he might graduate before he had to sign up for Medicare?

 

The only halfway interesting thing about his life was his job—not his paying job at Jiffy Lube but his volunteer work at the VA hospital in Little Rock.  It was connected to his major, social work.  (He’d tell anyone who asked that he majored in social work because he wanted to help people down on their luck, but the truth was that after he’d bombed out on three other majors, someone told him to try social work and if he couldn’t pass that he might as well raise the white flag.)  One of the graduation requirements for social work was a community service internship.  He’d put in two hours a week at the VA last semester and was doing his final two a week this semester.  The old vets there were an interesting bunch.  Some day when he found the right woman, he’d tell her all about them.

 

*  *  *

 

He did his volunteering in the 3-east ward.  The fellas there had injuries too severe to allow them to live by themselves, and they had no relatives living, able, or willing to take care of them.  No home, in other words.  The VA was it.  There were lots in other wards worse off, though, so Jack didn’t feel too sorry for them.  They didn’t want pity.  They just wanted somebody to talk to once in a while, and Jack was happy to oblige. 

 

There were twelve altogether in 3-east, but Jack had gotten especially close to four and spent most of his time with them.  Their beds were at the far end of the ward as you entered, and when Skip Norris saw him, he’d call out, “Double-time on down to our bunker, young private!”

 

Skip, a drawling Kentuckian, was the oldest, an eighty-three-year-old Korean War veteran.  He was buddies with the youngest of the four, Willis Patterson, an Afghan vet, black and bitter.  As best as Jack could tell, their bond was their injuries, similar in a way, “friendly fire” of sorts, Willis caught between a mosque wall and an M-1 Abrams and all chewed up by the treads and Skip falling out of the back of a deuce-and-a-half and getting run over by another deuce-and-a-half coming up behind.  “I prayed for God to protect me from the gooks, but I forgot to ask him to protect me from the United States Army,” Skip would say good-naturedly.

 

The other two were Vietnam vets, Emmet Oakley and Lyle Harms.  Emmet could talk a little bit but couldn’t really carry on a conversation.  He’d taken a mortar fragment through the right ear, and it’d left him simple.  Mostly he wanted Jack to read him nursery rhymes.  By now Jack had grown quite fond of them himself.  Jack couldn’t tell what Lyle’s injuries consisted of, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t talk, and his only reaction to any comment directed to him was to look disgusted.  Still, Jack always devoted a few minutes to Lyle, although he had to admit it was a relief to get that part of the visit over with.

 

Generally, Jack enjoyed his afternoons at the VA.  It’s always nice to spend a little time around people who are worse off than you are.  Today, though, things hadn’t gone so well.  Maybe it was Jack’s fault for coming on Thursday instead of Tuesday like he usually did.  The fellas would get out of sorts if their routine was upset.  It was about all they had, after all.  The probable was Rachel Esser, who sat in front of him in Finite and was so cute she made his chest hurt, said why didn’t they get together on Tuesday afternoon to study for the last big test before the final.  She said this not just to Jack but to everybody in the vicinity, but that was good enough for him.  When he showed up at the student union the next afternoon at 3:00, though, Rachel wasn’t there.  The only ones from his class who showed up were two camel jocks who couldn’t speak English any better than Dr. Fu.  Jack walked out, pissed and depressed.

 

“Camel jocks” is what Willis called Afghans.  He hated all of them.  Each day he’d scour the newspaper for reports of Afghan casualties—best were accounts of accidental bombings of civilians—and when he found something especially gruesome he’d be as happy as a kid on Christmas day with a new bike under the tree.  When Jack went to the VA on Thursday afternoon, then, and found Willis in an even more crotchety mood than normal, he thought he’d get on his good side by complaining about the camel jocks who came to the study session Tuesday.

 

“They come over to our country, but they can’t speak English for crap.  And stink, I’m telling you.  I don’t know what those camel jocks eat, but I can’t stand to be in the same room with them.”

 

“What did you do?” Willis said, leaning forward in his wheelchair as far as he could without toppling out.  He’d lost his left eye, left arm, and most of his left leg.  His head was lopsided, and he had a flap of skin where his left ear should be.

 

“Do?”

 

“Yes, do.  Did you stomp the shit out of them?”

 

“Well, no, I . . .”

 

“Did you stand on their nuts?”

 

“Well, no, we were in the student union, and I couldn’t hardly—”

 

“Aw, shit!”  Willis shook his head violently as if the disappointment were almost more than he could stand.  Then he turned his wheelchair around—with only one arm it took him several jerking motions—until he had his back to Jack.

 

Willis’s buddy Skip wheeled over to him and patted him on the back.  “It’s all right, you didn’t know,” he said.  It took Jack a second to realize that Skip was talking to him and not Willis.  “You’ve never been in combat, so don’t feel too bad about it.  What you’ve got to understand is, when you get your chance, you’ve got to take it.  Right that second.  If you don’t, like as not you’ll wind up dead.  There was this time when we were skedaddling away from the Yalu . . .” and he went on to tell about seeing three or four figures across a ravine, but because there were no trees or buildings or anything for a frame of reference, he couldn’t tell how big they were.  They looked like kids to him, so he didn’t fire, and the “kids” disappeared only to pop up later throwing grenades into a bunker and killing several GI’s.  Skip told it good naturedly, like he did everything.  He was always in a good mood except once in a great while when he’d start to cry and shake, and Willis would try to comfort him, but it wouldn’t do much good.  He’d just have to cry his way through it.

 

When Skip finished his story, Jack nodded and said, “I see what you mean, I surely do.  Get a chance, take it.  Gotcha.  I surely do have a lot to learn from you combat veterans, I’ll tell you what.”

 

He was speaking to Skip but hoping to mollify Willis at the same time.  But Willis turned his head back toward him as far as he could without losing his balance and spat, “Aw, you’re a pussy.  You’d crap your drawers and cry for your momma in combat.  I spotted that the first time I saw you.  Shit.”        

 

Emmet Oakley, who hadn’t made a peep since Jack came into the ward, wheeled over to him now, put his arm around his waist, laid his head against his side, and said, “You’re my hero, Jack.”

 

“Hero, shit,” Willis said to the wall.  Skip patted him on the head, the side the hair grew on, and whispered into the flap of skin where his ear had been.

 

Jack would just have to make it up with Willis later.  There was no rush.  Willis wasn’t going anywhere, that was for sure.  Jack turned his attention to Emmet.

 

Emmet could walk, but he was very frail and spent most of his time in a wheelchair.  He trembled constantly.  Despite this, there was a serenity about the man that Jack found comforting.  Emmet was quite content to wait patiently until Jack finished with the others, after which Jack had to do no more than read him a few nursery rhymes to be showered with a gratitude that bordered on adoration.  That’s why he always saved Emmet for last:  he would leave the VA feeling good about himself.

 

Today, though, another foul-up:  he couldn’t find Emmet’s nursery rhyme book.  He looked through all of Emmet’s things, under his bed, between the end of the bed and the wall it was pushed up against.  Old Skip joined in the hunt, wheeling from one end of the ward to the other, asking the other fellas if they’d seen Emmet’s nursery rhymes.  Nope.

 

Not that it was a complete disaster.  Jack remembered some nursery rhymes from his own childhood, like “Mary Mary, Quite Contrary” and “Jack and the Candlestick,” but he had to be careful with that one because once he’d tried to put a little something extra into it by suddenly springing up in the air like a Jack-in-the-box when he came to “Jack jumped OVER the candlestick,” at which Emmet gasped “Oh!” and rolled out of his wheelchair onto the floor and covered his head with his arms.

 

There were a few others that Jack had read so often to Emmet that he now had them memorized.  Emmet’s favorite was “Ding Dong Bell,” which Jack could recite in his sleep.  He recited it now.

 

As always, when he got to “pussy’s in the well,” Emmet stared around in dismay, and when Jack intoned,

 

                        Who put him in?

 

                        Little Johnny Flynn,

 

Emmet closed his eyes and shook his head as if he simply did not believe a person could be so evil.  At the next lines, though,

 

                        Who pulled him out?

 

                        Little Tommy Stout,

 

Emmet pounded the arms of his wheelchair in joy and relief and sang out, “Great Jack Stout!  Great Jack Stout!” and then nodded toward Jack as if indicating, yes, there’s the man himself.  It made Jack feel good.  Why wouldn’t it?

 

The last few lines were Jack’s personal favorites.  He recited the

 

What a naughty boy was that

 

Who tried to drown poor pussy cat

 

 in a machine-gun staccato, then slowed to a loving, gentle croon,

 

Who never did any harm,  

 

But killed the mice in the farmer’s barn,

 

at which point Emmet smiled and nodded, his head drooping as if he were about to drop off to sleep.  Jack felt like a daddy reading his little boy a bedtime story.  Once he’d even leaned over and kissed Emmet on his head.

 

Today, though, Emmet didn’t fall asleep.  He looked up and said, “There Was a Cooked Man.”  Jack started to recite it.  He would have bet he knew it as well as “Ding Dong Bell,” but a few lines in he forgot what came next.

 

When Emmet saw his confusion, he frowned and swung his head around as if looking for help.  Then he barked out, “Ding Dong Bell,” so Jack started to recite it again.

 

“You already said that one, goddamnit,” Willis declared, furiously jerking at his chair to turn it around so he could face Jack.

 

“No harm,” Jack said.  “I don’t mind saying it again,” but Willis was in a rage, slinging his arm as if throwing something at Jack and spittle flying from his lips as he shouted, “You already said it!  Just tell him! Tell him you already said it!  Don’t be such a goddamn molly-coddling pussy and tell him!”

 

A nurse came over and, standing on Willis’s left, armless side so she’d be more difficult to strike, gave Willis an injection.  Jack took the opportunity to get the hell out of there.  Out on the parking lot, though, he remembered he hadn’t said a word to Lyle Harms.  He’d never paid a visit to the ward without saying at least a little something to Lyle.  Well, he wasn’t about to go all the way back up there.  He wasn’t at all sure that Lyle understood him when he talked to him, anyway.

 

Jack’s car acted like it didn’t want to start, but it finally caught fire, and he drove home, where his mother was making wieners and sour kraut, one of Jack’s favorites, and his father eyed him sourly and said, “Well, I’m just pleased as punch that somebody likes it.”

 

 *  *  *

 

After dinner, Jack tried to study for the big Finite test on Tuesday, but his father kept trooping past Jack’s bedroom door every few minutes, clearing his throat and snuffling like he always did with his allergies, and one time putting his head in the door and saying, “Yeah, keep on hitting those books, sonny boy.  One of these days they’re gonna hit you right back!”  Then cackling like a ruptured duck.

 

Jack stuck it out until 9:00 and then headed to Sparky’s, a singles bar on Highway 10 halfway between Pankey and Little Rock.  It was his favorite place to hunt women because they didn’t seem to have very high standards there.  High standards pretty much kept Jack out of the game.

 

Tonight, though, he hadn’t come for women.  He was there to drink—lousy day at the VA and then his old man riding him—and Sparky’s was good for that, too, with two-dollar PBR all night long.  He’d already had several when a hard-looking bleach blond sat down at the bar beside him and said, “Hey, cowboy, isn’t it about time you bought this lady a drink?”

 

He ordered her what she asked for, a strawberry daiquiri, his voice shaking—in fact he was trembling all over and breaking into a sweat because, although he’d drunk quite a bit, he hadn’t drunk with the idea of talking to a woman.  A guy couldn’t be expected to operate being caught off guard like that.  He considered the possibility of beating a fast retreat out the door.

 

Before he could get his legs to work, though, the woman said, “Hey, fella, you’re shaking.  What’s the matter, are you cold or something?”

 

Maybe it was the “fella.”  That’s what Jack called the men on the ward because that’s what they called each other.  “Hey, fella.”  “Yo, fella.”  “Move your fanny, young fella.”

 

Whatever the reason, without the slightest premeditation, Jack found himself blaming his “jumpiness” on a flashback he’d had right before coming to Sparky’s.  “Afghanistan.  Kandahar province.  You have to understand, there are no trees there, hardly any buildings.  You see somebody at a distance, with no frame of reference, nothing to compare them to, you can’t hardly tell how big they are.  So there I was taking a bead on three or four figures across this gully, but then I decided they were kids so I didn’t open up and . . .”

 

A variation on Skip’s story, of course.  When he finished that one, he told Trish—she’d given him her name after he bought her a second strawberry daiquiri—about how you get jumpy just looking at a rock because there might be an I.E.D. under it, and then he told her about seeing a fella get caught between a tank and a wall of one of those Arab churches.  He felt a little bad about borrowing other men’s experiences, but not too.  The stories were just a sort of line in a way.  Nobody expected some guy’s line in a singles bar to be totally on the up and up.  And apparently it was having some effect because Trish for the first time seemed to be paying more attention to him than to the daiquiri.

 

“That guy, the one who got caught between the wall and the tank, I just saw him this afternoon at the VA hospital,” Jack went on.

 

“Ew,” Trish said, wrinkling her nose and leaning away from Jack.

 

He was afraid he’d made a mistake.  “No, really, they’re a bunch of great guys there.  I go over once a week just to talk to them, try to cheer them up a little.  They don’t have anybody in their lives, you see, and you just feel so damn bad for them.  Old Emmet Oakley, now, what a sweet old boy.”

 

And he went on to tell her about Emmet, and reading nursery rhymes to him.  He got so into the spirit of things that he began reciting his favorite part of “Ding Dong Bell”: rat-a-tat-tatting the “What a naughty boy was that” lines and purring the “who never did any harm” ending.

 

Jack had no sooner finished than a man with tattoos up to his ears sitting a couple of stools on down the bar from Trish shook his head wonderingly and said, “Buddy, you really know how to sweet-talk a girl, don’t you?  Are you for real?  I mean, ding dong fucking bell!”

 

“Aw, lay off my soldier boy, jerk,” Trish said, then pulled Jack close and whispered in his ear, “Let’s go out to your car, soldier boy, and I’ll give you the best blow job you’ve had today.”

 

He began to shake again.  He’d never experienced the particular sexual act offered by Trish.  He wasn’t at all sure he could do any good with it—he’d drunk too much tonight.  What if Trish started it and it didn’t go anywhere.  The humiliation would be too great.  He’d have to commit suicide.

 

“Oh, you’re wonderful, you’re wonderful,” he whispered, at the same time pushing himself away, “but let me go move my car first.  It’s right under a bright light.  Let me go move it to a darker area—where we can have more privacy.”

 

Trish tossed her head, sending her blond hair flying, split ends highlighted in red and blue from the neon Budweiser sign over the bar.  “Bright lights don’t scare me,” she said.  “For fifty dollars I’ll do it right here on this bar stool.”

 

“I know, I know, but—” Instead of finishing the sentence, though, he turned and ran out of the bar.

 

He was backing out of the parking space when his cell phone rang.

 

The whole day had been strangely disorienting, and now he could hardly understand what the man on the other end was trying to say.  Finally, Jack figured out it was someone from the VA hospital.  He didn’t catch the name and didn’t recognize the voice.  There was a problem, though.  Someone—Emmet Oakley!—was up on the roof, threatening to jump.  The guys on the ward had said that Jack was the only person who might be able to talk Emmet down.  Would Jack mind coming in and seeing what he could do?

 

Jack observed no speed limits barreling across Little Rock to the hospital.  If a cop came after him, he’d just have to chase him all the way to the VA.  The only time he slowed down was when his eyes filled with tears at the thought of Emmet killing himself because of Jack.  Because that’s what it would be.  The only thing he had to look forward to in his sorry life was his nursery rhymes, and today Jack couldn’t remember “There Was a Crooked Man.”  And he hadn’t even had the guts to recite “Ding Dong Bell” again just because Willis had hollered at him.  If he didn’t get there in time, if Emmet jumped . . .

 

Jack had parked his car and was walking toward the VA hospital when his cell phone rang again.  It was the same voice.  He apologized for bothering Jack.

 

“Hope I caught you before you started in.  Turns out we don’t need you anymore.”

 

“Hell!  You mean he jumped?”

 

“Naw, one of his buddies talked him down.  Old Lyle Harms.”

 

“You’re kidding me.  Lyle can’t even talk.”

 

“Lyle Harms?  Lyle can talk up a storm when he wants to.  He was probably just playing you.  You don’t want to let these old bastards get in your head.  Just because they got fucked, they want everybody else to get fucked.”

 

Jack started to protest, but the bitterness and, yes, somehow, disappointment of the night were too much for him.  He closed his cell phone and returned to his car. 

 

*  *  * 

 

On the long, slow drive back across Little Rock, he began chanting “Ding Dong Bell.”  By the time he got to Highway 10, he’d reduced it to the last two lines, which he whispered over and over, “Who never did any harm, but killed the mice in the farmer’s barn.”

 

He pulled on to the parking lot and got out.  As if she’d been watching for him, Trish came out of the bar.  Right behind her was the man with the tattoos.  He put his arm around her waist and pushed his face into the angle between her neck and shoulder.  She leaned against him drunkenly.  When the man saw Jack, he pushed Trish away, pointed his finger at Jack, and shouted, “Hey, numb nuts, what about the mice?  Did you think about that, huh?  What about the fucking mice?”

 

The bartender came out—yes, the neon Sparky’s sign had gone dark; the bar was closed—and said to Jack as if he were the one hollering, “Here now, none of that, fella.  Go home and sleep it off.”

 

Jack got back in his car.  The battery was dead.  He got out and walked to the highway and turned toward Pankey.

 

“Hey, what about your car?” the bartender called after him.  Jack kept on walking.

 

*  *  *

 

He made it as far as the kitchen before collapsing into a chair, his chair, the one where he’d sat for lunch and dinner since he was a child.  He didn’t eat breakfast.

 

He didn’t know what time it was exactly.  Late, though.  There was a clock on the wall—a black plastic cat whose eyes popped open and shut and tail swung back and forth with the seconds—but it had stopped running long ago.  It had frightened him when he was small, and in his teenage years, after it had stopped working, he’d said to his mother, “Why don’t you take that thing down, Mama?”  She stared at him as if he’d blasphemed.  “Why, Jack, that clock was a present from my husband,” she declared, saying present and husband as if the words themselves were holy. 

 

Even if the clock had worked, though, Jack wouldn’t have looked at it.  Cat, ha!  I’m not having anything more to do with puddy tats tonight, I’ll tell you that, he said to himself, trying to give it an ironic inflection, something he could laugh at.

 

Instead, he began to cry.  He laid his face down on his crossed arms to muffle his crying, but it must not have worked because in a moment he heard the soft flop flop of slippered feet padding down the hallway toward the kitchen.  His mother.

 

He kept his face hidden in his arms, tried to stop crying.

 

She pulled the chair around from her side of the table, positioned it beside Jack’s, and sat down heavily, because she was a heavy woman with arthritis in both knees.

 

He felt her staring at him a minute, and then she said, “Do you want to pray with me, Jackie?”  She asked him that every few months and never seemed upset when he declined.  “Someday when you need him most, you’ll come back to the Lord,” she’d say.  This seemed like a pretty good time for it, Jack thought, but, still, he didn’t want to pray, so he rolled his head back and forth across his arms to indicate, no, not now.

 

She sighed and, gently, began to massage that knot of muscle between his shoulders, then ran her fingers through his hair, trailing her fingertips back and forth over the crown of his head where the hair had begun to thin—just like his father.

 

“Jackie boy, my Jackie boy,” she whispered, then began humming to him, a lullaby of her own invention, one that had brought him comfort when he was a little boy, frightened of the world and unsure of his place in it.  In fact, it brought him some comfort now.

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including GHLL, Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and five collections:  This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press, and Rockaway Children: Stories and Flamboyan: Tales of Love and Other Mysteries, by Rising Star Publishers.  His novel, Around Centralia Square, was recently published by Cave Hollow Press.