|Star Rose Crown by Sniedze Rungis
“I’m gonna write a LETTER!”
Schmidt’s proclamation hung in the air at the Moose Head a bit too long and gradually dissipated like dust kicked up
by a sudden gush of wind. I was the only other person there besides Colleta. I didn’t answer him. Colleta didn’t
answer him either because she was down at the other end of the bar pouring me another draft. When she came back and set it
in front of me, Schmidt repeated himself; he repeated himself in the same tone as before, like he was nothing more than a
tape recorder spouting off predetermined statements. It was too practiced. Hit rewind and then play.
“Oh yeah?” From Colleta’s tone, I could tell she wasn’t surprised; it was also obvious that
she wasn’t so much interested as she was resigned to the fact that W.D. Schmidt was going to talk whether she answered
“And who are you going to write TO?” The phrase “this time” was implied by the way she asked
“The paper for one,” he began, “and the Governor for another. And maybe the White House,” he
threatened. “Maybe it’s time he heard what REAL people think… not just politicians and those liberal Commies
that’ve highjacked the country!”
I drank my beer in silence and listened. I wasn’t in the mood to get drawn into the conversation; but it was
only a matter of time if I stayed. There was a time when I’d sit and talk politics with just about anybody; but
that was before I understood the problem with most political discussions. Either you end up talking to somebody who pretty
much agrees with you an echoes your thoughts back to you – this is most often referred to as an “enlightened”
discussion – or you end up trading slogans and sound bites with someone who doesn’t agree with you in the slightest
-- which is most often referred to as “confrontational.” I knew the slogans from each and every side of
most every issue, having heard them all at one time or another. Abortion is genocide. If men had babies the Morning-After
Pill would be legal. Keep America Strong. Build schools not bombers. Take a walk on
the dark side for Democracy. It’s not torture when we don’t say it is. It’s not sex when it’s just
a blow job. Buy American. Believe in God. Believe in the Free Market. Unionize. Give a hoot don’t pollute.
After a while, the cacophony became too much and I retreated. Not because I don’t care; but because I know enough
to know that ideas aren’t what makes the world go round. When I taught at a technical college in Cincinnati, I kept the Army recruiters out my classroom and confronted them in the halls.
I asked them why they didn’t try to barge in on classes at the University
of Cincinnati and suggested the large black student demographic at the
technical school had something to do with it. For this I was branded a trouble maker. That was the first time a student –
a white kid from an affluent suburb who didn’t want the challenge of a university education – accused me of being
“one of those damned liberals.” Black students resented me because they thought I was trying to speak for them.
I just didn’t want my class time interrupted by rhetorical bullshit and pie in the sky promises. By that time I’d
lost a couple of students to the war and it made me sick to my stomach.
But that was then. Anymore, I sit and listen. You do that long enough, it all starts to sound the same, and the only
difference is that some of the sound bites are mildly entertaining.
Schmidt was ranting about the latest target of the conservative talking heads: health care. “First they nationalize
the health care,” he was saying. “And then they take away our guns. And THEN they’ll just roll us all over
and we’ll wake up one day in the Socialist States of America!”
He looked like he was about to cry; either that or he’d had too much to drink or was about to die from a massive
coronary. Colleta brought him another beer and allowed him to continue. Whenever it was appropriate she’d nod
or shake her head or laugh. He was a regular and she had probably figured out a long time ago that it was better to let him
run through whatever it was he wanted to say; Mount Arliss is not the kind of town where people tell you to your face that
they think you’re wrong or that you’re being an obnoxious ass. If people actually did that, they’d run out
of other people to talk to pretty quick since there aren’t that many people to choose from. No; rather than make waves,
folks here will generally let you go on until you either wear yourself out or until somebody else manages to change the subject.
Then, after you leave the room, they’ll spend another hour talking about you.
Colleta, to her credit, was just trying to run the bar as a nice neutral place for people to come and drink a few beers.
That’s one of the marks of a decent bartender.
“Fuckin’ Commies,” Schmidt went on. “We shoulda strung all THEM bastards up when we had the
“Sure, Dubya D,” Colleta said.
“If we’d elected McCain, none of this would be happening,” Schmidt went on.
“You just liked looking at Sarah Palin,” Colleta teased.
“Well what’s WRONG with that?” he countered. “At least she KNOWS how to look like a WOMAN.
Not like that dyke bitch Hilary RODHAM Clinton.” He spat out her middle name like an insult. “McCain was the last
hope this country had. Now it’s all goin’ down the shitter.”
“Can I get a scotch?”
I was close to finishing my beer; and even though my instinct was to leave, I didn’t really have anywhere to
go. It was mid-afternoon and I didn’t feel like sitting in the house. The winter weather had finally lifted and I was
enjoying my first real spring in four years. The walk from the house to the bar was accentuated with a pleasant breeze. Flowers
were blooming. Birds were returning. The grass starting to grow. The world took on that particular scent that only comes
when you live somewhere that has real seasons. I expected the walk back to be just as pleasant, except that the spring would
be interrupted by the sounds of the kids out of school and running around. There were a few parks around, but no real activities
– the older kids, the ones who were dating, could be seen walking up and down the streets together holding hands and
talking. A little after that, the new mothers would be out with their strollers, walking up and down the sidewalks.
By dark, the whole town would be sewn up tight and the ones who didn’t go to some mid-week church service would be planted
in front of their televisions until it was time to go to bed in anticipation of a repeat performance tomorrow.
Not that I was any better. Muriel was working late and the only thing I had to look forward to was a television schedule
full of reality shows I didn’t really like.
“On the rocks?” Coletta asked.
“Well,” Schmidt said. “You’ve gotta be pretty happy about all of this.”
“Colleta does pour a decent drink.”
He eyed me and then turned to face me. “I just KNOW you’re one a THEM.”
“I bet you voted for that oreo son of a bitch, didn’t ya?”
I shrugged. He was perilously close to destroying the peaceful mood I was in. “I voted my conscience.”
“Ha! Conscience. If you had one, you’d apologize and go back to wherever you’re from!”
Colleta brought my scotch. She gave me a nervous glance. Not that she was worried about what I might do; but
she was seeing the nice peaceful evening coming to a close. And it wasn’t even five o’clock yet. I gave her cash
for my drink, smiled, and took a drink. “And just where is it that you think I’m from?” I asked.
He shook his head. “You’re one o THEM. These people who come out here from Chicago and bring all their troubles with ‘em!”
He went down the short list of tragedies he saw on the horizon. “Crime and drugs,” he said. “Starbucks.
“Don’t forget about Wal-Mart,” I said.
“Huh?” his nose wrinkled up in confusion.
“Wal-Mart,” I repeated.
“Well what’s wrong with Wal-Mart?” Colleta asked.
“It’s the new war against the individual,” I said. “Wal-Mart moves into a place, under cuts
the competition, and when they’re all gone, they raise the prices. Then you pay whatever they tell you to pay.”
“At least they understand that people don’t have no money,” Schmidt said. “It’s competition,
right? That’s what Democracy is!”
“Sure thing,” I said. “But when you have to buy new tools every year because the ones you just bought
at Wal-Mart fell apart, you can’t say somebody didn’t tell you.”
“You ARE one o them!” Schmidt took a drink to calm himself down. “You think a bunch of COMMIES can
do any better?”
“I don’t think anybody could do any worse.”
“Why don’t you just go back to Chicago?
They got all the Starbucks you need there.”
“I’m not from Chicago.”
“I’m not from Chicago. I’ve only
been there once.”
“But you said…”
“Nope,” I took a drink and released the flavor as it rolled down my throat. “I didn’t say that.
“So where ARE you from?”
“No place you’ve heard of. Trust me. It’s gone. Wal-Mart moved in and built a Super Store right on
top of where the town used to be. Turned the cemetery into the Lawn and Garden
Center. Demolished the high school for additional parking. Now it’s
just Store Number 870756.”
I shook my head and frowned. “Afraid not. Don’t worry, though. That won’t happen here until after
you’re buried under the new Lawn and Garden Department.”
“My granddaughter works at a Wal-Mart, I’ll have you know,” he accused.
“Of course,” I said. “They may let her transfer to the new one if she’s pliable enough.
If she’s got any backbone at all though,” I said with a shrug, “they’ll transfer her to one of new
plants in China or Mexico.
She won’t even need to take her stuff. They’ll supply her with everything she needs and take it out of her
check. She might even pay it all back before she dies.”
“What do you MEAN, PLIABLE?”
“Look,” I said. “Let me buy you a beer. Calm down. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Whoever her
manager is, I’m sure he’s really kind to her. Really. Maybe he even pretends to care about her feelings. I’ll
bet he doesn’t even slap her first around anymore. He might have even convinced her she likes it. You never know.
Sometimes that corporate training doesn’t erase all human impulses.”
“Just WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?”
I took another drink. “Listen, you really don’t want to know. It’s not like she’d admit it
or anything. Just as long as she’s not working the night shift. It’ll be fine. She’ll be emotionally scarred,
sure. But she’ll still be able to bear children. After all, Wal-Mart needs that next generation of consumers.”
Schmidt drank his beer, tossed money on the counter and walked out mumbling to himself.
“He just gets that way,” Coletta said. “I usually just let him blow off steam.”
“Sure,” I said. “He’ll be back tomorrow.”
“What about you?”
“You never know.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“What’s WRONG with you?”
I shrugged, smiled, and finished off my drink. Then I stood up and left respectable tip. After all, Coletta
was just trying to keep things calm. “My wife says I’m bad with people.”
When I walked out of the bar, Schmidt was standing there, smoking a cigarette. He gave me a long, mean glance. I smiled
and waved while I lit my cigarillo and headed up the sidewalk towards home. The breeze was calm and I counted five pollinating
bees between the bar and my front door. After I was inside, I went around the house and opened up all the windows to let in
the breeze and the sounds of the kids and the birds. Sunset was still a couple of hours off. Everything was quiet. Muriel
would be home soon, and I’d promised her I would cook.
Parsons is the author of two poetry collections, Fragments of Unidentifiable Form and
Lines From Another Book of Common Prayer, as well a collection of short stories, Living Broke,
which will be released soon. His work has been featured on semantikon.com and has appeared in Inscape,
The Licking River Review, the Dispatch Litreview, the American Mythville Review, and online at The Smoking Poet. He maintains a blog of his fiction and poetry
at deadmachinefictions.com. He lives and writes in NW Illinois, along with his wife Melissa and their two cats.
He might need a hair cut.
the narrow door.
The rabbit was caught
in barbed wire and my job was to pull it out. This was my new job. The rabbit was dead, decaying in the sun of
Spain in July. Flies flew in and out of its belly.
gave us burn-gear—sad green pullover body suits used during the destruction of classified material: lists of Libyan
Air Force locations, transcripts of translated Mexican phone conversations from drug kingpins, and garbled encrypted pages
of gibberish. The ashes were taken out of a furnace the size of a shack. Then, water was added to create a thick
sludge, which had to be raked to ensure nothing survived. After I finished raking, the lieutenant put on boots to trudge
through four inches of the muck to ensure that no speck of white remained, not the corner of a half-burnt piece of paper,
nothing. It was on the tail end of a 4-on 2-off watch that the lieutenant discovered twenty-some pages of Top Secret
SI material unburned, covered in muck. My muck. My NJP trial was short—Dereliction of Duty, guilty.
In the Navy, punishment
is a skill. How do you make life worse for someone whose job is to scrape out the bottom of furnaces?
the underside of stairs; this way the paint drips down—paint in the eye has a gloriously specific sting. I’ve
gone around the building killing baby birds, crushing partially hatched eggs, with a broken rake handle the week before a
personnel inspection. At the base church, I sat in the last balcony pew with my hands fisted together and pressed to
my forehead praying that God would wipe out the memory. For the first time in my life, I read the New Testament.
I memorized Luke’s The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him—and repeated it cleaning
toilets, over and over, hundreds and thousands of repetitions, making sure not a speck of black appeared in the bowl.
This was what I was thinking, repeating, looking at Johns, who was yanking a piece of fur. The more the rabbit had kicked,
struggled, and fought, the worse it made death for itself. The barbed wire possessed it.
Johns held up a mess,
a wicked chunk of hairy skin, and said, “Bugs Bunny.”
The muck was to our
left—stretching one third of a mile—and beyond, the Naval Communication Station, a desolate circular windowless
white building nicknamed The Bullring. A lone Marine patrolled the entire compound, and in the last three hours,
I saw him once, like a Bigfoot sighting.
It had been days
of this—Johns and I.
Another E-2 like
me, Johns was a pale broad-shouldered redheaded Seabee from Flint,
a nineteen-year-old father of three. His laugh was free and forceful. He liked to talk—about working as
a male stripper for bachelorette parties in East Lansing and
dealing oregano to Goodrich high schoolers. Johns, previous Seaman of the Quarter nine months ago, got caught with Nazi
paraphernalia in his barracks room: confederate flags and red ink swastika drawings. He got off with a verbal reprimand.
It wasn’t until his solicitation of a fifty-year-old prostitute across the street from Bar Pepe, part of a Guardia Civil
sting operation, that he finally got himself a three-week brig stay and now this.
The process was slow, building
towards nothing—empty barbed wire. To our right was a jungled field of drought-yellow grass.
The church was in me, and
so I thought I might save Johns, pull him into some moment with Christ. I waited for an opening, a possibility to pitch,
to invite him. His life was now only punishment, no escape. With Johns, the command had given up. I was
slowly learning my lesson: create anonymity, create silence. The Navy will place its hands on someone else’s throat.
God was the same way.
“Tell me something
about yourself, like stuff that you’ve never told anyone,” I said.
“Do you know
if we fell into this what would happen? You could lose an arm and they wouldn’t even care. I bet they hope
that’s what happens.”
think the world works like that,” I said.
“You know what
would be messed up, if I got up, took a running start, and belly-flopped into this shit.”
The barbed wire,
for the most part, was organized in a perfect twist, a flawless spiral, but occasionally—like the spot where we were
now—it was as if the builders got angry, sick of their job, and threw it into a high pile, one segment choking another,
an abandoned metal briar patch. Here, rabbits were beyond reach. Johns leaned in, concentrating. I saw it
too, but didn’t speak. Another rabbit was trapped, alive, no movement now, meditative, hugged, and suffering.
Waiting, its breath was shallow. Ours too.
Johns asked, “Do
you want to hear something messed up? I mean, really bad.”
I sat back, looking
at The Bullring. The only way to rest was to stare directly at the building, one of us watching the right side, the
other, the left. If the lieutenant rounded the corner, we could look busy in a split-second. We sat on watch,
intent, barely blinking. There were worse possibilities for us, worse futures.
“Do you want
me to really tell you something about me? I mean, something that you might not want to hear? Something that might
get you into a lot of trouble for just knowing. I mean, with the police, with the command.”
The sky was clean.
Jesus Christ was new to me. If Johns and I went to the church together, I might be brave enough to sit with the rest
of the congregation.
“We got all
day,” I said.
Ron Riekki's novel U.P.
was its publisher's bestselling novel for 35 weeks. He has poems and fiction forthcoming or recently published in
Loch Raven Review, Emprise Review, Haiku Ramblings, Flutter Poetry Journal, and Tower
The ruckus coming from St. Peter’s dormitory slammed Adrian’s ears and he flew out of bed. He was
too small to fight the men removing Ellie, his voice his only weapon. Ellie’s cries were not as loud as his
own. Hers were helpless, a gasping. She spent her energy trying to free herself from the men’s arms.
Adrian shouted for help, for Sister Agnes to come, but only
a few boys were roused. Ellie was lifted by her arms and legs down the planks of the staircase. Adrian clung to one of the doctors by the ankle, or one of the assistants, they seemed
too gruff to be doctors, the men draped in white cotton coats. A sharp kick to the chest knocked Adrian to the floor. The room moved around in slow motion. From the slats, Adrian watched her struggle. He managed to grab the banister and
raised himself to his feet. He coughed and croaked at the bastards as Sister Agnes barreled down the hall. She
wrapped her arm tight around his neck and covered his mouth shut with her pudgy hand. He could not stop the double doors
opening and shutting in the hall downstairs. He shut his eyes, listening to the clanging of the iron gate, muffled
men’s voices on the rain-soaked street, car doors clanking.
Deborah Henry is enrolled in the MFA program at Fairfield
University. First-class novelists have already endorsed her forthcoming
novel, The Whipping Club. Her first short story was
published online at The Copperfield Review, was a historical fiction finalist for Solander Magazine
and was recently long listed for the Fish Short Story Prize. She is a member
of the Academy of American Poets.