O-three-hundred hours. Admiral Gas and Tobacco was still open, with the same pot of coffee that had punched in four hours earlier. Jay shifted over to counter, coffee in hand.
“That be all?”
“No. Pack of Marlboros.”
The cashier reached upward, and then glanced down with eyebrows raised. “Box or soft?”
“Soft.” Jay paid, turned, and trudged out into Southeast Michigan winter rain. The kind of rain that, in its infancy, blows off Lake Michigan in beautiful, thick snow, dumping itself on the west side of the state. And then in its middle age, it shuffles through Clare and Midland counties as a torpid slush. And in its twilight over Sanilac County, it’s a cold rain that patiently melts whatever snow might have eked its way across the borderline. You can’t see it, because it’s blended into the grey horizon, and it streams off naked, brown trees, and sponges out of your shoes, and floods the yellow grass, rolling off the frozen ground into brackish sewers underneath the city.
That was his routine now. When he and Rochelle were together, they made their own coffee. When she left, Jay still woke, and, out of habit, made a full pot every morning. More than he needed, but he’d sit in his recliner, send cup after cup flushing down six hour mornings. She wouldn’t have wanted it to go to waste, he thought.
Back at his apartment, he began searching, tearing through newspapers. Clippings fell out of magazine stacks. Waco. Ruby Ridge. Mogadishu. He rooted through the burgeoning mountain of dirty laundry, oil rags, smoke-damaged chaise lounges and bedspreads rescued from his parents’ house before the state seized it. He kept sifting through the mess. One bedroom, one bath, how hard could it be? There were way too many things – nice things – for someone living hand-to-mouth. Rooting through the top drawer, he found a scarf. It was Rochelle’s. He pressed it against his face.
Rochelle had changed her perfume since he left. Her letter, the pictures, the padded envelope – everything reeked of it. The strength of the scent was nauseating, but. It was the first anything since he’d started ‘trolling the Saudi border four months earlier. The first sign of life outside that could cut through his whole world of sand and body odor and oil fires. It bled and soaked his sand-world. So much sand. Sand storms, sand explosions, sand bunkers, sand beds, sand water, sand peaches for breakfast.
And then, in a couple months, it was over.
Jay’s return was normal enough. A night of heavy drinking, a long nap on the plane, only a headache and a little rash on his neck, and then his platoon was parading through a barrage of post-war hyper-patriotism, veterans from WW2 and ‘Nam squeezing shoulders, and talks of church potlucks, welcome-home parties, fishing trips. The accentuated words “slant drilling,” “Saddam’s aggression,” and “economic sanctions,” sent him out with fervor. When he returned, there was only a beaten mass of blandly consistent voices and shouts with words occasionally sprawling loose: freedom, victory, camel-fuckers, and so on.
They were all ignorant, of course, of the fact that the platoon had just spent six months rehearsing “imminent” chemical weapons battles, flicking cards into a hat, staring at the corner of walls, jerking off, whatever. Later, some critics said that if all the troops had stayed in America, more of them would have died in car accidents than how many died in the war. Doubtless, the war was carried out effectively. It was so strange. The most impersonal of all wars had just been fought. It was all radars and air strikes, dusty explosions seen from ten clicks away. What was more, American civilians were seeing more action in their living rooms on CNN than did the average ground soldier.
An torpid malaise seeped into Jay as the following weeks passed. He picked up Rochelle for dinner, a movie, a typically good lay, then sleep. He awoke at five-thirty every morning, drank a cup of coffee out on the cold porch. Then he’d climb back in bed and wake her up with cold feet and morning breath. But that was all that could be said for spontaneity.
Rochelle’s father had guaranteed him a job in Flint putting together trannies at the GM plant. It all sounded just fine to Jay, and he’d start training in March. For now, he’d just wait, and maybe buy some much-belated Christmas presents. It was good to be back.
Her scarf brought back so much. He had figured they’d get married, have kids, a house – all stuff they’d planned since they were tykes in elementary school. There they were, he and his friends watching intently as his father ulcerated beneath a ’72 Plymouth ‘Cuda, which was supposed to have had the power to repair itself. Then he and Rochelle were frenching each other mercilessly underneath a school slide. Must be the eighth grade, and the black girls were playing hopscotch outside. Then dirty boys in pizza-grease shirts skipped rocks across the Cass River, chanting to each other. Jay murmured the words to himself.
Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts!
Mutilated monkey meat!
Chopped-up baby parakeet!
French fried eyeballs floating in a bowl of blood!
All on a platter for a dollar ninety-eight!
Plus three cents taaaaaaax!
And he remembered the flood in ’86. The Cass River rose twenty-five feet and poured into his parents’ basement. At that point, Jay’s father, John Senior, ran a little insurance racket, claiming damages to the upstairs, and rounding up enough money for all kinds of new ludicrous shit. New solid oak cabinets, new carpet, new linoleum floors, new appliances – the works – and of course everything in the basement was covered as well. Meanwhile, dirty little boys in greasy shirts were floating over their forefathers in Riverside Cemetery. Nice while it lasted, but before the new smell of that fabricated American dream had faded, the state was pounding on John Senior’s door, wanting some answers.
Then he found what he was looking for. A phone number. Rochelle’s new one. Supposedly. She was living with her boyfriend now. He had seen her a couple times in passing at the Giant Supermarket. She had cut her hair, dyed it blonde. He wondered if she still wore the same perfume. He didn’t quite get that close. He had smiled nervously once, and she acted as if she hadn’t seen him. The next time, she was warmer. She asked him how everything was, how the family was doing. For a moment, Jay forgot all the fights and depression and felt restored. But after a few more awkward exchanges, she pushed her cart past him. And that was the last of it. She must have moved shortly after, because Jay didn’t recognize the area code. She must have been pretty far away.
He dialed the number and the phone rang. It rang again. It rang eight more times, before he hung up.
I just thought you should know I’m not gonna be here anymore.
People are gonna come by and ask you questions. I don’t want you to tell them anything. Nothin’, you hear me? Nothin’.
– Look, I know I treated you pretty bad, but don’t screw me like this. For all the good times, ‘Roche. The good times, when we were kids. Don’t tell ‘em nothing.
Jay sat down in his worn easy chair. The contents of some Cup Noodles (a Portuguese Man-O-War) were snaking through a hole he’d shot through his stomach with a cartridge of No-Doz. He got up and lit a cigarette off the range and exhaled. He picked at his scalp. More flaking and peeling. Jesus. Then he went to work.
He sloshed past the woodpile behind his house, past rusted propane tanks and car parts, past his father’s ‘Cuda, which Jay had saved miraculously only to have it sit out back and rot with grass growing out of the hood. Such a crumbling beauty.
Out in the shed, Jay was working on a problem. He had all the materials. Nothing difficult in finding them. A two-by-ten piece of threaded steel pipe, caps, powder, drill. He had made them as a kid and come close to death a few times. In the Gulf, he had been an artillery expert. But this was a different circumstance. Ordinary. The difficulty was ignition. A fire-cracker wouldn’t give him enough time. And of course, he couldn’t afford a remote or something more professional. Even if he could, he didn’t know any felons. His Uncle Burt was a felon, but not the right kind. Last Jay had heard, Burt had frozen his ass off for six years up at Baraga for exposing himself to a seventh grader after gym class. Last time he’d seen Burt, he was helping him pack up his father’s house. After that, nothing. No contact when Jay had driven his mother to the clinic. No contact as Jay was saying goodbyes, kissing all the women, boarding a bus for basic training.
Jay had considered that Burt had made contacts and could get him what he needed. But Jay knew about prison favors and criminals and didn’t want to put his uncle into a bind. So Jay resorted to do-it-yourself, while real criminals were using C4 and remotes. It was all remote these days, just like the war. They had called it “technophilia.” Amazing gadgets. Subtle monstrosities. Industrial draft. Jay picked at his thinning scalp.
After he’d been home from the conflict with Saddam for two years, Rochelle up and left him. They’d been going through a steady time – even good, he thought – but his rash was spreading. Plus, his hair was rapidly falling out. Rochelle had suggested he go to the doctor, so he went. The usual. Could be allergies. Could be eczema. Or just a fact of aging. Didn’t look too serious, but if it persisted a few more weeks, come back and he’d prescribe something. Fine. A few weeks passed, and then she left.
“I said I can’t do this anymore.”
“This! You’re depressing the hell out of me. I need to get out, Jay, and do stuff, live life…I dunno…I need to see people.”
“Does it matter? Every day, I go to work and come home and find your lazy ass in front of the T.V.”
“…Is there someone else?”
“Well then what the fuck!”
“Eight years, Jay, and nothing. No plans, no ambition. You haven’t even followed up on the GM deal. Besides, you look horrible. Why won’t you see the doctor again?”
“What’reyounot… fuck… what?” Jay broke into a burning sweat around his temples.
Tears were budding in her eyes. “What about kids? We used to talk about… kids you know… and marriage, and I’ve been wearing this rock for two years now.”
“Fine.” Jay stepped out, slamming the weather door. Inside, Rochelle’s face was streaming, mascara and eyeliner mixed with tears and oil and sweat.
After she moved out, Jay called her parents’ place and left several messages, alternately angry and begging. No calls. After a week or two of pursuit, a few overnight drunks, and a one night stand with a friend of an old ex-friend from high school, Jay sank into a deep depression. He never went back to the doctor, but fell into a morning ritual of picking and peeling. His face was bright red, like the bad sunburns he’d had on fishing trips when he was a kid. More and more of his scalp was visible in the mirror. He stayed in. He left only for cigarettes and beer. Empty bottles scattered across the floor with wet ashes sloshed out when he jerked in his dreams. So many cigarette butts porcupining out of his ashtray, with an occasional quill fired across the kitchen counter when he slammed his fists against unforgiving Formica. Why did he have to look like this? It was as if he was an old man already. What’s left? The abattoir. Fuck that.
Jay remembered elementary school, drawing pictures of army guys. He always saved the head and faces for last, opting to warm up his pencil on guns and bodies. He must have explained it a thousand times, but some dipshit would peer over his shoulder and taunt him, “Why is his head blown off?” And Jay would get embarrassed and crumple up the picture. Oh his headless soldiers. Cut off before their prime, fruition.
Perhaps the war had clipped the wings of his childhood. Now with this shit, but.
Two months passed. Jay awoke to a rap on his door. It was 10:30. He didn’t know what day it was. He was hung-over, hadn’t showered, and couldn’t remember when his last unemployment check had come, which was how he kept track of the date.
“Good morning. Can I have a few minutes of your time?”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Well, that’s good, because I ain’t selling anything.” Jay squinted and tried to focus his eyes in the morning sun. It was a middle-aged man with a bristling mustache. He was of average height, slight, with gray-black hair, and wearing a black nylon POW/MIA jacket. “Are you Jay Lowry?”
“We’re looking for recruits.”
“Me and some other vets are looking to start an awareness group.”
“Can I come in?”
Jay nodded and held open the door. “Sorry about the mess,” Jay said, scooping up bottles and cans and clothes.
“Huhn? Oh…don’t worry about it.” The man fished through the laundry on the sofa.
“Can I get you some coffee?”
“Sure.” Jay cleared out a space for him in his easy chair. The man thrust it backwards. The chair had been broken for forever, and the man laid parallel to the floor.
“Didn’t get your name…” Jay fiddling with coffee filters, trying to procure just one, was that so hard?
“Name’s Dave… Nadolny.”
From the kitchen, “Yeah, I knew Pete. He was my brother’s age, but I remember him all right. They used to work on cars together. How’s he doing?”
“Oh, he’s married now. God bless her.” He shook his head. “He used to be such a happy kid. Started working in a garage over in Fenton four years ago. Such a cut up.”
“Yeah, I remember he stole some glances at my sister when he was over. He was always grinning about something. Good kid. Funny as hell.”
“Well, anyway, the service manager over there took care of that. That dipshit doesn’t give him any gravy. Shit, after only a month, Pete had to apply for a night job stocking shelves at Menard’s.” He restrained his burgeoning irritation with a snarling cough, and then cleared his throat. “Pffft…who gives a shit about a polack, anyway, ehn.”
Dave lit a cigarette. Jay left the coffee to brew. “Shit man, that’s rough.”
“Anyway, me and some guys down at the garage were talking about starting this awareness group.”
“Yeah, you told me. Are you on break or something?”
Dave exhaled as the thickening pall gathered around Jay’s ceiling fan. “What the hell you talkin’ about? It’s Sunday.”
“Right. Awareness about what?” Jay leaned all the way back in his chair, his elbows pointing at the ceiling. His half-crushed pack of cigarettes pushed through the top of his shirt pocket.
“Haven’t you been watching the news?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No man, what?” Dave reached inside his coat and took out a newspaper. The headline: SIX KILLED IN CULT SHOOTOUT. “What’s this all about?” Jay asked.
“Turn on the news.” Jay dug the remote out of the crease of his chair and flipped on the T.V.
…What you’re seeing from the helicopter is the Mount Carmel Complex…It’s been 39 days since the stand-off started… Koresh alleges his is writing a short work on the Seven Seals, which is mentioned in Revelation as the…when he’s finished, he has said that they will surrender to the ATF and FBI officials…
“What’s going on?”
“Did you see the tanks?”
“Fuckin’-a right they are. There’s a couple of ‘em that I saw.” Dave explained the situation. Jay did his best to catch as catch can. “Anyway, the feds started all this at Ruby Ridge.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Wasn’t that guy some batshit white supremacist?”
“So we’re told. It’s more… complex than that.”
“I guess it takes all kinds,” Jay offered thoughtlessly.
“What I’m saying is that this government is looking a lot like China, and this whole situation down in Waco looks just like Tiananmen Square. We’re not living in the best of times. Those who ought to be protecting us are looking more like the enemy. We need to be more vigilant.” Jay listened to the rest of Dave’s appeal over coffee, then restored the conversation to polite good-byes. “Look. We’re meeting up at the Elks Lodge Tuesday night. Eight o’clock. Hope to see you there.”
“Yeah. We’ll uh…I’ll think about it…we’ll see what happens.” After he left, Jay contemplated all that Dave told him. None of it really concerned him in any immediate sense. Dave seemed to exaggerate. Sure, there was some collateral. But that was a fact of life.
Jay showed Dave out, relieved, and trotted quickly into the bathroom. Diarrhea. A fact of drinking.
As he sat there, he looked into the shower. A soggy mat of hair was accumulating over the drain. “Fuck,” he said.
It took a couple more months for Jay to join the living again. Gradually, he began getting together with some friends from high school. He hit the bars and ran into a few of his buddies from combat. Drink, forget, pass out, remember – and repeat. For a time, it was nice to reminisce, to hash out the old days again. It took his mind off Rochelle. It took his mind off his face and head and sickness. Eight years and she had left him for that? Women were fickle that way, he decided. Anyway, why would she want to marry an old man with no future? Yes. It was time to forget.
He got a job down at the Wal-Mart stocking milk at night. It wasn’t good bread. But it was bread, nonetheless. All he really spent money on was booze anyway. Booze and cigarettes. He visited his home again. He went on fishing trips that spring, and as that spring turned to summer he was upgraded to security guard at the Wal-Mart. His skin condition wasn’t getting any better. He liked sitting in the dark, watching surveillance cameras. No one could see him. His friends didn’t really ask about his skin. It was usually people he didn’t know, saying, “You really should see a doctor about that. Could be serious.” To which he would reply that, yeah, he was meaning to, just busy, and so on. And a year passed that way.
A couple of Jay’s friends, Rick Malinich and Joey Tencza, had fought in the Gulf with Jay. They would get together on Saturday afternoons, crack open a beer, and shoot out in the back of Rick’s yard.
“You wanna go to this meeting next week?” Rick shouted.
“What?” Jay yelled. Rick lowered his gun as Jay took out his earplugs.
“They’ve started up this awareness group. They’re calling it the ‘Michigan Militia.’ Thought it might do you well to have something else to do. Me and Joey went down there last couple-a meetings. They drill, too, out on Danger Dave’s property.”
“Dave Nadolny. You remember Dave, right? Steve’s his kid.”
“Yeah, I talked to Dave last year. He told me all about it.”
“I dunno, man…”
“Nah, they’re alright. I mean, sure, some of them have turned in their Social Security cards. But that’s about as weird as it gets. Mostly, we just go down to the Elks Lodge and drink and relive the glory days.”
“Yeah, what about the drilling?”
“Most of us just do it for the exercise. It’s sumpthin’ to do. You seem depressed lately. And you always were a negative guy anyways. Could do you some good.”
“Well, why do they call him ‘Danger Dave’?”
“I can’t believe you don’t know about this. Back during The Flood, he rescued three kids from the river. He almost drowned himself, but they managed to beat the life back into him. Ever since, they’ve called him that. Balls, man. Balls.”
Jay thought about it, and decided Rick was right. He needed something to do. Ever since he had returned from the Gulf, he hadn’t done anything. Just worked and sat around. Of course, that’s what he did in the Gulf, so there really wasn’t any break. And he was tired of sitting at home all day, falling asleep with an earmarked Grisham novel that he had started fifteen times, splayed out on his chest. He looked down at his growing beer gut, which was compounded by months of immobility. “Yeah, I guess I could use the exercise.”
“Can’t we all.”
The meeting was just as Rick had described it. A bunch of vets rehashing the glory days over a brew. That evening, an older man stepped up to the bar’s stage and began reading an essay on the federal government’s secret conspiracy to deny citizens’ their right to assemble. He finished in about fifteen minutes. There were a few murmurs that quickly lapsed into general bar noise and conversation.
Dave caught up with Jay after the meeting had died down. “We’re drilling out at my house this Saturday. You interested?”
“Sure, what time?”
“Probably meet around ten in the morning. If you get so damn desperate for a good meal, my wife, Cath, usually cooks us up something. You oughtta come on over.”
“Yeah, sounds good.” And so Jay got some exercise. He was still faintly depressed. His hair kept clogging his bathroom drain. But it felt good to be back in his fatigues again. Out of shape as he was, he moved through the drills methodically, with ease even. Many in attendance were much older, from older wars. Every vet had his own story to tell as he maneuvered. The Nam vets were instinctively more cautious, every movement more considered than the Gulf vets. Then there was the guy from WW2 who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing anymore. Jay crouched down in position, eyeing targets with his rifle. He checked for the wind. His eyes drew away from his target and fixed on dueling cyclones jackknifed in the summer wind. Dead leaves leaped and fell playfully. He thought about the drilling he’d done in the Saudi desert. He felt like puking.
A few months passed and Jay kept attending meetings and drills regularly. One night at the lodge, a new man appeared. He was about Jay’s age, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Slight was the wrong word. He looked more like a walking skeleton, and his cadaverous skin was drawn taught against his face. He stood by the wall and spoke to no one the whole night. He listened passively to a speech about how Social Security cards and gun control were dangerous to liberty. The speech soon degraded into a rant about the eschatological significance of numbers, the “sign of the beast,” and so on.
As the crowd wound down, Rick and Jay introduced themselves to the stranger. Aloof at first, he didn’t shake their hands.
“I didn’t get your name,” Rick said pushing a conversation that clearly wasn’t going to happen.
The man focused his eyes on Rick and cleared his throat. “Tim… Tim McVeigh.”
“Well Tim, where ya from?”
“New York State.” Tim lost focus, glazed over again and stared at nothing in particular.
Rick shrugged. “Well, welcome to Vassar.” Tim made no response, and Jay and Rick exited the bar.
Jay poured over the fusing of his bomb. Moreover, he doubted his previous target. Originally, he had planned on the court house. Then he thought it would be better to hit the post office, because that target would indicate that his beef had federal implications. He was a messenger, not a terrorist, and he didn’t want to hurt anybody. Of course, he was gonna blow the ass out of that place. But no one was to get hurt. They were just supposed to witness it with ears ringing, eyes bugging, and flames lapping.
The timing of the detonation was crucial. Jay wasn’t going to get into the court house or the post office any time after five-thirty. Plus, there would still be people for…shit…how long do they linger there? ‘til six? ‘til eight? Jay kept fiddling with an old alarm clock. It would time the explosion fine, but it wouldn’t light a match or a firecracker.
Then it hit him. Jay gazed out at his father’s godforsaken ‘Cuda. The ignition switch. More specifically, he needed the coil and spark plug. It all came together perfectly. He’d wire the volume cables of the alarm clock, which produced the hottest signal, to the coil, which would in turn amplify the signal enough to generate a spark in the spark plug. Not only was it the best idea yet, but it was relatively small and failsafe. Jesus, it was good! For the first time in months, Jay felt his own worth well up with in him. Vitality. Strength. Affirmation. God’s own hammer, he was about to be a meteor of conflict, and he liked it.
“Shit, I forgot my wallet,” Jay said to Rick. “I’ll see you later.” Rick waved, and Jay stumbled back into the bar. He found his wallet right where he’d left it as if the bar stool was his own dresser. As he was leaving, he saw his new acquaintance still standing, staring at nothing. Jay dug in and approached him.
“You wanna grab some coffee? There’s a diner down the road….” Unexpectedly, Jay saw him smile wryly. A human being.
“Sure, but if it’s cake you’re expecting, sorry to disappoint. I don’t swing that way.”
“No…no man! Jesus.” A joke at Jay’s expense. Human, at least. Jay laughed. “You just look like you could stand to eat something is all. You look like death-warmed-over.” He did. As it turned out, he hadn’t eaten in three, maybe four days. And he’d spent his last hundred dollars scoring a gram of meth. But Jay didn’t know that.
“Alright,” he said indifferently. They drove softly, not speaking.
They got out. Still not speaking. Jay’s face festered.
When they walked into the diner, no one seated them. They waited. Four high schoolers craned their necks in their direction, staring intently on Tim and Jay. They were bent over the table, whispering.
Jay’s neck broke out into an acid sweat. “Don’t listen to them,” Tim said quietly. Jay said nothing, wondering how Tim knew they were talking about him. He thought he’d imagined it. They both sat down at a table in the back corner and motioned at a sagging waitress. She brought over some menus.
“Just some water,” Tim said.
“Hey, I got this,” Jay broke in, “Two coffees. Lots of cream. Lots of sugar.” The waitress shuffled away.
“Skin bothering you?”
“Shit man, ever since I got back from the Gulf. It’s been worse lately.”
“See a doctor?”
“Pft…yeah. Gave me some cream. It don’t do shit.”
“I know what it is.”
“I got some buddies look just like you.”
“Look, I was in the Gulf too. Remember those vaccines?”
Jay remembered. Sergeant Ames had sent them all down to sickbay to get vaccinated. “You gotta take these shots and a couple pills,” he said. A few guys objected. That is, the couch-lawyers objected, saying that it was against their rights, the Constitution, and so on, and sure, that made sense from a Jimmy Smits-Susan Dey era L.A. Law angle. At least, it made sense to those who hadn’t spent high school government class chasing after a third plateau DXM trip. “Shut the fuck up and do it. This is gonna keep you from getting totally fucked.” That’s all he said. Orders. So they did. Big fucking deal.
“They were bad, man. There are three thousand cases on record. You get the shits too?”
“Yeah. Every morning for the past three months I’ve been shittin’ out my ass with what I thought was dysentery. You’re saying those vaccines did it?”
“Does it surprise you? I figured you’d know about this. It’s called Gulf War Syndrome. It’s well documented. We were all guinea pigs.”
“Should I sue?”
“Pft…nobody’s won a case yet. Well, one guy did, because his family had the money for a good lawyer.”
“How come nobody’s won?”
“Don’t you see? The feds aren’t paying any attention to it. They hope it’ll pass and they’ll save face and chalk it up to psychosomatics or some other bullshit.”
“So there’s nothing I can do?”
“Well, nothing if you just want to go along with the lies.” The waitress brought back the coffee. Tim subsided.
“Look, um, we’ll each have the breakfast special,” Jay said.
“How do you want your eggs?”
“Same,” Tim replied, “and can I get some ice cream?”
“Sure. What kind?”
“Okay, hun.” She left. Tim resumed.
“It’s all part of this thing. The federal government is encroaching on everything our fathers fought for.”
“Ruby Ridge was bad enough. Then Waco.”
“Yeah, that’s some tough shit there, man.”
“They knew all along, yet they kept on.”
“Yeah. David Koresh was pretty crazy, hm?”
“Koresh was framed, man. All those stories of him molesting children and taking many wives – total bullshit. None of those rumors were verified. And the weapons violations weren’t verified either. No one can verify that Koresh actually ordered those grenade shells.”
“No. I mean, the media won’t tell you that. But it’s documented. Just look at the way they handled the stand-off. Every single fucking analyst and scholar, who advised the FBI and ATF, told them to back down. Twenty-one kids, man, under the age of sixteen. The feds weren’t ignorant. They knew exactly what they were doing the whole time.”
“Ignorant of what?”
“Don’t you get it? They were an apocalyptic cult. And laying siege to them like that…Jesus…it just pushed them on in their faith that the government was the agent of the Antichrist. Then of course, though they deny it, the feds flash-grenaded their complex. But those people were so convinced that they were martyrs for God that they wouldn’t come out. Do you think the FBI was ignorant of that? Do you really think they were that stupid? Come on man, wake up.”
“Are you Branch Davidian?”
“No.” Tim’s severe features twisted in the dim light.
“I was gonna say, they are still pretty weird. Weird stories, anyway.”
“Those stories aren’t any weirder than the ones in Christianity or Judaism. Yet the government leaves them alone. They draw a lot of water, you see. People who think the end of the world’s come don’t buy a lot of walkman’s or put a lot of effort in at their job.”
“So it’s a conspiracy?”
“I’m telling you, it is, and they’re trying to cover it up, just like your sickness.”
“But you said Gulf War Syndrome is well documented.”
“Sure it is, but for every report that says it exists, the feds fund some scientist to say it doesn’t. And then they pay off under the table anyone who tries to sue them.”
Jay burned from within. “I gotta take a leak.”
He got inside the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He was almost completely bald. His face was covered in flaking craters, shiny red in the middle. He was old. Twenty-six and he was already an old man. War had stolen his adolescence and war had brought on old age. Shit smell filled his nostrils. He bent over and puked.
He wiped off his face and exited the bathroom. The food had come. Tim was eating ravenously. Jay sat in silence. A cannon ball had taken the place of his stomach. It was now spinning.
“You gonna eat that?” Tim asked, noticing that Jay’s eggs were filming over. Jay shook his head. It was all he could do to get out his wallet and leave some money on the table. “Look, man. Can I crash at your place? I just lost my job last week, and I need a place to stay.”
The waitress came. “Can I get a box to go?” Tim asked.
Tim turned to Jay, “You don’t look good.”
“I’ve been puking.” Jay staggered to his feet. He felt weak and nauseated. The taste of whisky and beer and coffee and bile battled in the back of his burning throat.
“I’ll drive,” Tim suggested. Jay nodded.
The ride to Jay’s house was once again quiet. Jay managed to direct him, but that was the extent of the conversation.
At his house, Jay stumbled inside to the bathroom, puked some more, emerged and slumped down on the couch. He started to feel better.
Tim was creaking softly in Jay’s Lay-Z-Boy. “I wonder what it’s like…” Tim trailed off.
“What what’s like?”
“To know you can influence what happens. To know you have absolute control and make a difference.”
“See this?” Tim fetched a badge out of his pocket.
“Bronze star. Nice.”
“Worked my ass off to get it. Don’t get anything special but this.”
“Better than what I got. At least it’s something.”
“Nah, who gives a shit,” with ennui. “Dime and this and I coulda paid for my coffee tonight. Just means I kept my head down and did what I was told. I can’t better my situation any other way. Everything’s against me.”
They talked into the wee hours of the morning. Jay had thought Tim was a little crazy, but as the night had worn on, it all had made so much sense.
Jay slept fitfully. He saw David Koresh. He saw little children burning inside a building. They were singing hymns like the martyrs of old as the flames licked up their legs. The ceiling was caving in. Horrible sounds assaulted the complex. Koresh stood in the center, head uplifted to God, his voice raised above the roaring of flames and the thickening of smoke. His skin started to flake and turn red. His hair was on fire. Little children staggered to their knees, scooping up their own bowels that were pouring out uncontrollably. Women were weeping and praying intermittently. The sound of machine guns rattled from outside. All was welter and waste as their hymns evaporated into screams and shrieks of women, and death moved in all around them.
Jay woke up feeling that Tim was the sanest person in the world. Previously, Jay had been a little pissed off about Waco. But he’d always figured it was just clumsiness compounded by stupidity. No evil intent. But who were they? Who were they to demand the martyrdom of children? A grown man can disown his own flesh. But children? Women? And the feds had just kept on pressing.
Tim was gone. It was early afternoon already. The box of eggs from the previous night was gone too.
Jay sank to new lows. Many actually have a rock bottom. Jay wasn’t one of those. And Rochelle kept appearing in his dreams. He kept pleading with her. She kept slamming his screen door in his face. She kept mentioning the doctor, his skin. God, she was so perfect before. She was his best friend before she got selfish. Her decision made sense to him, but he still blamed her.
The ensuing weeks had left Jay jobless again. When he finally decided to do something, all he could think of was just that: Doing something. So he decided to do something he was good at. Blowing things up. He felt vital again. And his rigged ignition worked. At least, it made a spark, though he wasn’t sure if it would actually hit the powder.
But for all his newfound vitality, questions rose up in his mind. Was this going to solve anything? Had he exhausted all other options? Yes, he decided. Had she left because of his face, his premature aging? He furrowed his brows. He thought about what Tim had said, and, for once, he doubted Tim’s sanity. Was he suggesting something good? Was it really worth it? Everything was so much clearer then. But now Jay felt like his actions would fall on deaf ears, or that he might get arrested. Then again, getting arrested still made a statement. It wasn’t futile. He would be interviewed. He would explain everything and they’d see. They’d see his face and they’d know. The ugly sonuvabitch on their T.V. would be a living testament to injustice. All those rich warm souls would know that there was more to every story. His own story, just one of many, would be told. He burned. This was the only way.
But was it? What if he accidentally killed some night janitor? No, he’d make it out in time. Besides, what government employee would be in a post office in the middle of the night? Or do they work in the middle of the night? No, there wouldn’t be anyone. But what if the fire spread? There were apartments nearby and children. They’d get out, he reasoned. He argued. He poured. Finally, he fell asleep in his Lay-Z-Boy.
He awoke the next afternoon. It was already three. He made some coffee. His hand jiggled the cup. He went out to the shed past his father’s cannibalized pride and joy. He rummaged around the shed and found some old cardboard wrapping paper rolls. He stripped the paper off and tucked the pipe bomb in. The detonator stuck out, so he wrapped it in brown packaging paper. It would have to do. He’d be in and out anyway. From his workbench, he took the key that opened an oversized mailbox at the post office. He had measured. His bomb would fit fine. He ignited his engine and set the package in the passenger seat and drove down to the post office.
He parked outside and sat in the car. He shut his eyes. Rochelle was crying. Tim was talking, but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. Water was pouring into his basement and turning into sand. Flakes of skin drifted down from his scalp. He saw flames and ashes floating in the air. Meanwhile, a lone snowflake sneaked past the Texas border, drifted for a while, and settled on the ashes of Waco, searching for understanding.