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by Miracle Jones
For awhile, the kid goes around trying to kill flies, trying to be faster than they are, just a little bit faster. There are six houseflies in the laundromat, all taking off and landing sometimes in unison, but the kid can’t kill any of them: the kid just isn’t fast enough: is just a little too slow. The kid goes back to Ms. Pacman.
The kid stands on top of a plastic chair, watching Ms. Pacman cycle through. The kid is pretending to play. There is no air conditioning in this laundromat, but this is South Carolina, not Texas: in this particular heat, the blood vessels in your brain won’t pop and fry like shrimp in oil if you turn your face up to the sun.
The kid’s mom is reading an Ayn Rand novel, frowning at it like it is a math problem, not turning pages very often.
“What if maybe I got a few quarters, you know? For a game?” asks the kid.
“It is a total waste of money,” says the kid’s mother, stoically and practically. “You won’t win, and how long will it last? Two minutes? Three? And also, we need all the quarters for the laundry.”
“Okay then,” says the kid. The kid walks away; lets her get back into her book. Then the kid returns like a detective with a hunch, practically snapping his fingers, pretending to have a new idea: “Hey, what if maybe I got a magazine or something to read, you know?”
By magazine, the kid means a Nintendo Power, even though the kid doesn’t actually have a Nintendo.
“We can’t leave the laundry here,” says the kid’s mother. “Somebody might steal it.”
The kid gives up, goes back to Ms. Pacman, pretends to play some more.
The kid tries to mimic the movements of Ms. Pacman, needling the joystick left when Ms. Pacman dodges left and bending it up when Ms. Pacman darts up, hoping maybe to trick the machine into letting the kid play by perfectly synching up with the preprogrammed loop. People are nicer to you when you imitate them; maybe this also works with machines.
“How long is it gonna be, do you think?” the kid asks eventually, trying to sound as cheerful as possible in order not to provoke any wrath.
“Another hour or two,” says the kid’s mom, coldly, trying to be as brutal as possible, trying to force the kid to accept the worst case scenario and be into it.
They are living in another tiny apartment again, just the two of them. There is a stepdad, but he is away with the Army. This is his state, not theirs. Everyone in South Carolina is kind of slow; kind of unpleasant. They all seem to be rich and have houses, but they don’t have much sharpness to them. The kid’s stepdad’s mom makes the kid call her Gram, which is bullshit. It doesn’t feel right. Grandmas are Grannys or Meemaws: not Grams.
There are stables at Gram’s house, and old cars to hide in, and dung beetles in the soil to play with. The kid may have accidentally set an old decorative broom on fire by sticking it into the old fashioned radiator to see what would happen. The broom went up in flames and the kid sat there staring at it until the kid’s mom ran in and threw it in the sink and started sobbing and screaming at him. Gram might have possibly lost her shit about all this and slapped the kid with the back of one papery old hand and called the kid’s mom an “Italian Bitch,” and it is possible that the two of them got kicked out of this nice house forever, like some kind of old-fashioned team of lovable con artists. The kid isn’t sure if he is still supposed to call this brittle old woman that he is not related to Gram or not. Anyway, back again to another tiny apartment.
In Texas, the kid’s mom had been pretty, not Italian. She had been Texan, not a bitch.
The kid stares out the big plate glass window of the laundromat. There is a Dollar General across the street. The laundromat and the Dollar General share an empty parking lot full of empty shopping carts.
“What if I went to go buy a magazine, you know, by myself?” asks the kid. “Maybe I could do that?”
The mom looks up from her novel. She looks out of the plate glass window, distractedly.
“Yeah, sure,” she says. She gives the kid four dollars and asks the kid to buy her a Coke.
“Okay, cool,” says the kid. “What kind of Coke do you want?”
“Ginger Ale,” she says.
The kid walks out the door and looks back. The plate glass window is mirrored from this side. The kid feels alone. He is on a mission.
It doesn’t take long to strut across the parking lot, cash in hand, full of leg-piss-trickle levels of excitement at being able to peruse the stax. The kid ponders being the kind of person who is able to buy Nintendo Power all the time, to have an actual Nintendo, to have friends come over and play this Nintendo.
The plate glass window of The Dollar General is also mirrored. The kid sees a presence behind him. It is too close. The kid whirls around, falling over on his ass. The money flies out of his hand.
The kid doesn’t cry out: he is a late responder to physical and emotional trauma, he will discover.
A sweaty, bearded, and wild-eyed man in a grey t-shirt stares down at the kid, holding the cash that the kid has dropped. The man helps the kid to his feet.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” says the terrifying old drunk. “Thought you might be able to help me out a little bit with a favor, on account of the deep spiritual danger we are all in today. It is the anniversary of Antietam, and I think you know what that means.”
The sweaty, smelly, stringy drunk presses the cash into the kid’s hand. He takes a long pull from a tall can of Budweiser he is holding. He doesn’t sound like a South Carolingian. He doesn’t lilt in archaic sing-song like a pampered child reclining on a tuft of silky pillows. He sounds decisive.
“Where’s your mom?” asks the drunk.
The kid points back to the Laundromat.
“You going to buy a soda and some candy?” asks the drunk. “Sure sounds nice.”
“I’m gonna buy a book,” says the kid.
“What kind of book?”
“Don’t know yet,” says the kid. “Maybe a magazine.”
“What kinds of magazines do you like?”
“There’s this one called Nintendo Power. It teaches you all about these games you can play, you know, on your television? There’s this one called Zelda; it’s all about this evil wizard and you have to fight him with arrows and a sword.”
“I know an evil wizard too,” says the drunk. “He’s in that store, as a matter of fact. I trapped him in there. With my legerdemain.”
“Neat,” says the kid, realizing very quickly that he is talking to an insane person. The kid feels pretty terrible for insane people, though. He wants to be insane with them. Also, the kid is sort of starved for the company of any person who can use big words with facility or speak in complete sentences since they left Texas. The kid is sort of addicted to this quality in people.
“He is strong today,” says the drunk. “He grows a little stronger every year, though his tactics remain as brutal and basic and transparent as ever. One would think that with eternity at one’s disposal, one would endeavor to study. Where are you from? Pennsylvania? Michigan?”
The kid tells him.
The old man frowns. “But your mother and father? Northerners? By birth?”
“Um, Sicilian by birth,” says the kid. “But from Galveston. My Dad is Irish, I guess. Just a white guy, you know?”
The insane old drunk looks up at the sky. The kid does too, mimicking him, wanting to be liked. No customers come in or out of The Dollar General: it is just the two of them in the parking lot.
“The clouds have stopped moving,” says the drunk. “He’s stopped time, I suppose. He wants to duel. He always wants to duel on the anniversaries of his battles. I suppose he is gathering strength, manifesting some sort of spectral army. We don’t have much time. Wait, he’s coming. I can feel it.”
The clouds have not stopped moving. The kid stares up at them for awhile, blinking, trying to see them as stopped.
The door to the Dollar General opens up. There is a cowbell on the end of it, and the cowbell clanks and retorts. An extremely tall, severe man steps out, wearing khaki slacks, a belt, and a polo shirt with the Dollar General logo on it. He has a black goatee and shoulder length black hair. He carries a middle-aged paunch in his midriff and he seems proud of it, wearing his shirt as tightly as possible.
He stands on the sidewalk and crosses his arms, staring at the boy and the old drunk for a long time. He hawks something up deep in his throat and then spits it on the ground and then goes back inside, propping the door open with the heel of one black boot.
“Did you see him?” asks the drunk. “Did you see that man?”
“Sure,” says the kid.
“Come here, come over here where he can’t see us,” says the drunk.
The old drunk saunters over to a turned-down paper bag he has hidden behind an ancient ride for toddlers, a plastic choo-choo train that goes up and down if you put in quarters.
“Behold” says the drunk, lifting five more beers out of the bag by the plastic rings. He cracks open one and hands another to the kid.
The kid takes the beer uncertainly.
“Go ahead,” said the drunk. “This is war, you know. I’ve sent children young as you to die against rebel artillery, and killed them myself when they were coming at me, drunk on O Be Joyful, wielding rebel bayonets, leaving me no other choice but to cut them down. Drink up. You’ve been drafted.”
The kid cracks open the beer and dutifully takes a sip. It tastes like warm aluminum. The kid is a little nervous that this man seems to be fine with the concept of murdering children. But the kid looks over at the Laundromat and feels safe mostly.
The kid puts the beer down on the ground.
“Okay,” says the kid. “Nice talking to you. I’ve got to go now.”
“Do you know who that man is? I mean, do you know who he REALLY is?”
“The guy who works at Dollar General?”
The old man grabs the kid’s wrist and holds him tight. They are close enough to kiss. The kid feels sad and embarrassed and scared and guilty for no good reason.
“That man was General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a wizard, far more powerful than I ever was or ever shall be, imprisoned for now inside this Dollar General superstore, and every Dollar General superstore. He divides himself, he walks all worlds. The prison I made for him, a paltry five and dime constructed from the slave gallows of his beloved Savannah, expands each year, pushing further and into Yankee territory. God help us all when he finally breaks free from this temporary bondage and walks the earth again, brutalizing and enslaving the American people. All poor Southerners are his thralls; their blood and treasure are new weapons against the Union he despises.”
The drunk is theatrical, but mesmerizing.
“You are wizards?” asks the kid.
“I have mastered many arcane arts,” says the man. “I was a student of languages and the humanities at Bowdoin College before the War, but I found myself filled with dread purpose as soon as the first shots rang out and I had my first vision of history’s possible parabolas. Back then, I went by the name Joshua Chamberlain. During the war, I was overtaken by Forrest’s men, his Klan he calls them, and I witnessed some of his men performing ancient Scottish blood magic to bind demons to them, bathing in the blood of captured slaves. They thought me dead, but I was still very much alive. I memorized their incantations and cantrips, and once I returned to Union lines, I petitioned General McClellan and later the President himself to allow me to open our own conduits to the infernal powers for the greater good, making our own bargains with the forces of spiritual darkness. Magic is a neutral weapon and I put my will against his, drafting a responsible budget and drawing volunteers from New York, Boston, Baltimore, and even Lincoln’s own Illinois to help me combat Forrest’s elite unit of demon riders, men who summoned and rode devils into battle, bartering their souls for unkillable steeds and the ability to smell the essence of their prey. With ancient totems stolen from the Western territories, we fought the rebels back and burned their death camps devoted to Blood Magic to the ground. Forrest and I met on the field of battle alone, far from Union lines. I narrowly defeated him and imprisoned his soul in a barrel of salt pork. I could find no way to destroy it, so the barrel stayed in the back rooms of the local general store. Come here, let me show you something. Bring your beer.”
The kid follows the old drunk nervously.
They walk through the parking lot. The drunk keeps looking over at the Laundromat and the kid does too. It feels like they are on stage.
They stop in front of a gleaming red Ford f-100 stepside pick-up truck. The old man points at the bumper sticker, a cross with a drop of blood in the middle.
“You know what that is?”
“No,” says the kid.
“It’s a Klan sticker,” says Chamberlain. “It’s their flag. And this is his truck. He doesn’t even lock it. That’s how powerful he is. We could break into it or slash the tires. But he would find out and destroy us. His people would murder us both. Do you live around here?”
“No,” says the kid.
“Which one’s your momma’s car?” asks Chamberlain. The kid points.
“You are very pretty,” says the drunk. “For a little boy, I mean.”
“I’d better go,” says the kid, walking away from the drunk. He walks fast, scampering into the Dollar General. He looks back behind him. The drunk waits outside, pacing back and forth, drinking his beer from the can and peering inside. He can’t see inside because of the mirrored glass.
The kid feels strange. He walks the aisles of the Dollar General, wishing he was back in Texas. But he is here, there is no getting around it. And he has a mission.
He finally pulls himself together and picks up this month’s Nintendo Power. His mom will be disappointed that this is what he wants to buy, such an obviously unenlightening aspirational move, but he really does like imagining what these games must be like to play, what it would be like to be the kind of kid who plays them.
He picks out a ginger ale and takes it to the cash register. The tall man with the hawk face is there. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, wizard.
“What are you talking to that old drunk out there for?” asks the man. “You better stay away from him, you want my advice.”
“Yes sir,” says the kid. “I’m sorry.”
“Boy, you don’t have to apologize to me,” says the man. “I chase him off, but he’s got a right to stand out there, nothing I can do about it. If I call the cops, he’ll just cross the street. What did he want to talk to you about anyway? Got no business talking to a child on store proppity.”
“We were talking about the Civil War,” says the kid.
“Oh, you are a history buff are you?” says the man, grinning.
“No sir,” says the kid.
“Did you know South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union?” says the man. “There was a battle not far from here. Charles Colcock versus some sonofabitch named Hatch, and Sherman himself. We chased them cocksuckers off, killed em fifty to one, course it was mainly blacks fighting under Sherman at that point. Battle of Honey Hill, we call it. Yankees got a different name, I’m sure.”
“Yes sir,” said the kid.
“It’s never too late to learn history,” says the man, looking over the magazine the kid is buying. “How come your momma lets you buy crap like this? You sure that’s what she gave you money for?”
“She doesn’t mind,” says the kid. “She said it was okay.”
The man flips through the magazine, perturbed and agitated.
“I’m ashamed we even carry this sort of thing,” says the man. “Tell you what. Why don’t you go get her and bring her here to me? If she says its okay, I’ll sell you this magazine. I don’t feel right about it. I don’t normally sell reading materials to kids your age without their parents around.”
“She said it was fine,” says the kid.
“Well, even so,” says the man. “You just bring her on over here. I want to talk to her about you carrying on with that old drunk, as well. It isn’t right, him talking to you like that. She oughtta know about it.”
He keeps the kid’s money. The kid slinks out, carrying the ginger ale, feeling defeated, his charge beaten back with heavy casualties.
Back in the parking lot, the drunk sidles up to him.
“Hey, did you see him? Did you look into his eyes? What did you see?”
“Leave me alone,” says the kid. “Don’t talk to me. You are gonna get in trouble for talking to me.”
“Sorry about what I said earlier,” says the drunk. “I bet you think I’m a bad person.”
“I don’t think you are a bad person,” says the kid.
The drunk follows the kid through the parking lot, apologizing, coming close enough to touch him but never quite daring.
Finally, the kid passes some kind of imaginary threshold and the drunk leaves him alone. The kid slinks into the Laundromat, sitting down in one of the plastic chairs by the door. He sits there for awhile, collecting himself. He looks out the window at the Dollar General. The two men…Nathan Bedford Forrest and Joshua Chamberlain…are arguing with each other. The kid feels a sinking feeling in his stomach. He has started some kind of fire, like the broom in the radiator.
The kid gives his mother the ginger ale. She takes it without looking up from her novel.
“Thanks,” she says, sunnily now for some reason. “What did YOU get?”
“Oh, I didn’t end up getting anything,” the kid says.
“What do you mean?”
“There was this homeless guy and I gave him some change, you know,” says the kid. “They didn’t have any magazines. Gave him some dollars.”
“That wasn’t your money to give,” says the kid’s mother coldly. “I would rather you get what you wanted than to waste money on some beggar. They seriously didn’t have anything to read? Man, the South.”
The kid looks out the window. Joshua Chamberlain is holding three or four beers by their plastic rings, waving them around. The two men are standing in front of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cherry red Ford F-100. The kid squints at them. It seems like Joshua Chamberlain is glowing, but it could just be the sun glinting off the truck fender.
“No magazines for kids anyway,” the kid says. The two men are screaming at each other. You can hear them swearing, but it mingles with the sound of traffic from the highway. Chamberlain throws the beer cans at the dashboard window of the truck. The window cracks and some of the beer cans explode, spraying foam.
The kid moves to the far wall of the Laundromat so that his mother has to look away from the window to talk to him.
“Is that your favorite kind of ginger ale?” the kid asks, closing his eyes.
“I don’t think I have a favorite kind of ginger ale,” she says.
The two men are standing about twenty paces apart from each other, glaring at each other. It seems like time really has stopped for them. The kid climbs up on one of the washing machines to see better. The kid’s mother doesn’t even look up from her book. The kid feel like he is watching them on TV, or on an arcade machine.
The men begin shouting out each other. The kid shuts his eyes tight.
Joshua Chamberlain changes into a massive mastodon with two heads. One head of the mastodon is wearing a graduation cap like professors wear in cartoons. The other head wears the peaked hat of a union cavalry officer. The mastodon rears back on its hind legs and bellows. Blue smoke shoots out of all four nostrils in two different directions.
Nathan Bedford Forrest pulls a sword from his belt. He slices open his hand, grabbing the blade so tight that his knuckles turn grey and the bone peeks through the skin. He is half man, half skeleton. Blood pours down the blade and down his arm and then the blood catches flame. He holds the sword high over his head, shrieking. His shirt flies from his shoulders as if it has been sucked into the turbine of a jet and he is revealed in all muscular glory, covered in swastika tattoos and Confederate icons. His mustache becomes a full seven feet long and joins his seven foot long hair behind him, waving majestically like a beckoning finger.
Nathan Bedford Forrest charges the mastodon, raising his flaming sword high above his head, his eyes now also bursting into flame along with his mane of hair. The mastadon leaps up high, coming down to crush Nathan Bedford Forrest, who squats, twisting, trying to plunge the sword into the mastadon’s heart as it falls.
At the last moment, the mastodon turns into a giant bird, a condor, which veers high into the sky, clutching an artillery shell. The condor has steely blue eyes and its feathers are colored and striped like the American flag. The condor wears a crown of laurels, and a cloud of bright purple hummingbirds surround it like a living shield, circling it in a living swarm.
The condor swoops high into the air and its shadow can be seen floating along the ground,
“BACK, BACK TO YOUR PRISON YE HELLSPAWN!” shrieks Joshua Chamberlain. “OR I will bomb thee into ashes and sundry.”
“My people shalt never be thus vanquished you Yankee piss garbage,” shrieks the flaming Nathan Bedofrd Forrest. “My influence shall spread across the land, one dollar at a time, and my people will never be your thralls, but shall always be free to do as they please, as long as there is a Dollar General parking lot.”
“What do you know of freedom, slavemonger,” shrieks Joshua Chamberlain. “Yours is the tyrant’s whip and the master’s fate!”
Nathan Bedford Forrest begins to rise up from the ground. He grows another pair of legs and becomes covered in grey fur from his crotch on down. He is a centaur. His chest hair ripples: he is half man, half horse. All cavalry. His flaming sword becomes a flaming bow, and he takes aim at the condor as the shadow of the artillery shell moves toward him. He lets a flaming arrow fly.
The cloud of purple hummingbirds coalesces in front of the condor, protecting it. The pitch of their beating wings increases in intensity, becoming a shrieking whine. The flaming arrow strikes them and a vast swathe of hummingirds fall from the sky, turning into the petals of a cherry blossom tree. The condor lets loose the artillery shell and it falls at the growling centaur.
Nathan Bedford Forrest falls into the ground like a splash of bloody tar. His flames are momentarily extinguished as he becomes nothing but an infinite hole, about as large around as a farmer’s well. The artillery shell falls right in the hole and torrents of red blood shoot out of the hole as the bomb explodes. The hole ignites once again and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s face, now made of pure flame, rises out of the hole to gnash its teeth and laugh at the American flag bird.
The bird turns into a rainbow waterfall and tries to extinguish the pit of flame, but the pit rematerializes as a shirtless Nathan Bedford Forrest, who crosses his arms and luxuriates in the falling water, laughing and sudsing himself. The water leaps away, forming again into Joshua Chamberlain.
The two men hurl waves of raw blue and grey power at each other from their outstretched arms. The cars around them catch flame. One bolt of Joshua Chamberlain’s magic destroys the giant plate glass Dollar General window.
The two men regard each other across the rubble of the parking lot. Flaming cars and the bombed out, twisted wreckage of shopping carts litter the apocalyptic landscape. Slowly, slowly, Joshua Chamberlain beats Nathan Bedford Forrest back with blue waves of magical force, but then, at the last minute, Forrest disappears into smoke and glides back into the Dollar Store, where Joshua Chamberlain cannot enter.
A single fife begins to play Dixie. The tune is carried and strenghened by virtuoso electric guitar. This Southern rock lick shakes the earth like the monstrous footfall of an unkillable giant reptile. Joshua Chamberlain falls to his knees and begins to pray, manfully.
The kid opens his eyes. The men are gone.
“Did you know there was a Civil War battle near here?” says the kid. “We should go see it.”
“They do reenactments here,” says the kids mom. “It’s like a play.”
(c) Miracle Jones 2015