High Culture (flash fiction)

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It’s a Klimt. I think that’s how it’s spelled. It’s called “The Kiss”. In fourth grade, I was on a field trip with my class to the art museum. The curator said it is known as the most romantic painting in history. That seemed like a stretch to me, even then. But when I was twenty-four, a guy was selling art out of the trunk of his car. I figured it fell off a truck some time back. Eighty dollars. That was the charge for a framed print of the painting that I’d long forgotten, but upon sight, the memory of the curator’s comments came rushing back to me. Sixty, I said and we agreed. I’ve had it ever since, rescuing it from the trunk or being bought by a less cultured individual. It has moved with me all over the country. I’ve never lost it, which is commendable, if you only knew me.

I’ve stared at that print of a painting endless hours, studying the woman whose feet are wrapped in vines, soft and supple all over, with round spheres dancing upon her gold dress as she embraces her lover, full of geometric squares that build his black and golden coat. He turns his head down and away to kiss her creamy cheek, as his hand cups her chin and turns it upward towards his kiss, her eyes closed. They are wrapped together in a golden light on the green grass strewn with a tiny field flowers.

I’ve never understood their romance.

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Night March (fiction)

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I don’t know who started the nightly march, but the idea seemed to be working. We all walked back because there wasn’t enough room for adults. We remained in our huts, taking our chances, after escorting the children to town. If the children didn’t go, the rebels had more reason to attack the village at night. Then, they’d steal the little ones in the darkness to man the rebel army. Too young and traumatized to know to run, they were led away compliant. Why didn’t they scream, the little ones? They’d start to cry, but get beaten for it. Instead of crying more, their tears dried up.

We marched the children every night for hours to a town that had a building with a gate that locked. They had lights, too. The wrought iron didn’t seem like much of a deterrent to me. Weren’t they just gathering all the little ones into a farm ripe for the picking? It was hard, the march back, leaving the little ones behind. In the black jungle with the mothers, no one talked.

The rebels had machetes and guns. We had them, too. I also had my M4 with an adjustable butt-stock to accommodate my short arms. So, we marched.

I didn’t speak whatever language I heard them use, but they didn’t speak our language either. I know the look of tired terror and grief on any face. We understood all the same. A woman with no French pointed to the man, angry that he was with us. She had no trust for him. I motioned a little circle around us with my hand, pointed to him and, then, my heart. I pointed at him, again, hit my gun and, then pointed into the forest. She understood, but kept beside me, never fully assured. No one spoke English, except for the Aussie man.

I knew it was about more than just the children. A mother would come, with the children she still possessed, to the camp when the husband abandoned her for shaming him. The gang rapes weren’t enough to conquer these women. Broken they came, but not conquered. They must be the strongest women on the planet.

The scars were the worst. They were torn inside and out. I wasn’t the doctor, but stood guard as she examined them. She spoke French, too. New women arrived daily. Rebels used sticks on them, others penetrated them, and, still, others liked to use the barrel of their handguns. Sometimes they fired. Even some of those women lived. You’d tell me it wasn’t possible and to come home, but I stayed.

Once during the day after the return march, the children played with a soccer ball a little low on air. I had to go behind the hut and out into the bush to vomit. The sight was unbearable and the truth that they’d be alone without us, like they’d been in their villages when the rebels came for them, was a heavy burden. Sometimes, I just couldn’t keep the food down. I rested on my knees next to the putrid puddle and cried, trying not to wail for them, for all the inhumanity because no one greater came. They had no resources to encourage international armies to land on foreign soil, nothing to plunder for themselves. The civil war raged for years before I got there. I usually get paid for jobs, but this was pro bono. I’d collect myself and return to camp or not. That’s when the Aussie stood guard.

I’d take my days to the jungle. I waded through the lush vastness crouched down waiting for a shot. The homemade silencer worked well enough after the manufacturer one broke. They were always close-by, sitting, waiting for the March to begin. They’d try to break it up and run-off with the little ones that they could grab. You remember the woods, the draws, the spurs, the hills, your knuckles. In these parts, the birds stopped chirping. They’d be close then. It wasn’t me. The birds knew me.

In the neck. That’s the spot. Painful, silencing, and efficient enough. They always stood then, gasping. The others’ heads popped up. Easy enough. One, two, three, four, like whack- a-mole. You remember that, surely. I’d empty the magazine every time. They’d retreat, but they wouldn’t know which way to go. I had spares. You remember when they taught us that: attention to detail, back-ups for the back-up. But I’d be solo there on the daily hunt. The Aussie’s excursions alternated with my own. He remembered. But I always found them first. I could smell them; it was in their blood, their crimes. It was a stench different from my own. That’s when I bathed with water, so they couldn’t smell me. I’d stay downwind that week. Remember that?

I was more effective than the Aussie.

“Watch for the broken sticks or flattened leaves,” I’d tell him.

“From their inexperience in the arts,” he knew.

“Makes for easy pickings, but they spread out’,” in case he didn’t know.

“All lookouts,” he’d say.

They watched.

One at a time. That’s how it was. The deeper I’d go, the closer I’d get to the commander of that band. He’d never return. My scope still worked fine. I’d save him for last. Remember, no prisoners. No mercy, they taught me that. I boiled from the inside out. The sun was no match for me. Land nav. I was the best back then. Couldn’t run worth a damn, but I never got left behind, never got us lost. But, I didn’t need to run. I didn’t perch, either. Too obvious. They aren’t’ deer and their meat is worthless. There wasn’t any deer anyway, just chimps and birds. They perched and I protected them, too, making the rebels starve. I’d leave them to rot. Theirs would come to gather them when the stench found them. That way I’d find them, too. Too easy, but slow. They had only numbers on us, few skilled. They’d been the little ones once, but lost and assimilated now. Rebels, every one.

No blood on my hands. I’d return with some rabbits for stew. Everyone was excited. The ladies smiled and the children more. I don’t know how. Dinner was by the fire. They’d dance, those that could. The others clapped. I’d sit and clap, too, before the march. My knees were fine. Finer was the hunt.

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Day Labor (creative nonfiction)

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A friend suggested that I go down to the job pool, which pays daily, even if only minimum wage. I arrive at a rundown warehouse on the wrong side of town at about 4:30 this morning where the black of night still prevails because of burnt out street lights and potholes. The large structure reflects the gray in these days. It bustles with activity. You would never know it’s this early in the morning. I have to register along with my fellow laborers looking for work today at a wooden counter which appears taller than necessary. The man behind the counter has a bald head and also appears taller than usual. I wouldn’t usually notice except I don’t have to look down at him, which is the norm for someone our height. His voice booms over the intercom as he calls out the names of the individuals who registered before I arrived. I fill out the application and take a seat.

Work comes in and the workers shuffle their way out. Have I come too late? Yet, the room still crawls with new arrivals entering through the thick, shabby, metal door. The news, which I find too peppy for mornings, bounces in the background on a TV that hangs in a rusty cage. Wooden and metal chairs riddle the vast space inside the dim, dingy warehouse. I sit watching the news. I’m a first-timer here and it took all the humility I could muster to show up. The longer I sit and wait the more my humility simply turns into pure humiliation.

I once thought, I am better than this. I am better than people who have to find work this way. I am not anymore. I have no one to blame but myself for where I am. As I try to reclaim some small scope of dignity the tall, bald man calls out my name. I am one of the lucky ones because I got on a job today.

Six of us are called to the same job site, but not everybody has a car. Fortunately, I do. Unfortunately, that makes me the designated driver. I pack the rest of my new crew into my red, beat-up car. We head off to the subdivision to work new construction. I feel the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this particular moment of life. Of my five passengers, by far the most vocal is a woman by the name of Gina in the front seat. She’s a heavyset black woman with braided hair and full of bubbly personality. I can’t help but wonder where that bubbly personality comes from this day. I resist the urge to ask her how she keeps herself together. Perhaps joy fills her life. Perhaps she finds satisfaction in her daily work. Perhaps the morning news isn’t too peppy for her. She doesn’t even bother hitting on me. This is one of the worst days of my life and I have one of the happiest people I’ve ever met sitting next to me giving me directions to the job site. This day feels long already.

Upon arrival we receive our instructions from the foreman running the subdivision construction site. He issues us each a wheelbarrow, broom and shovel. They represent the tools of my trade now. If I stay with it, I might get to trade in my broom for a hammer. Being on a skilled crew pays more, but I don’t know a thing about carpentry.

I just want to keep my head down and stay silent. I don’t want to share the normal niceties that accompany polite conversation with the individuals I’ve just met. I don’t want to be rude, but some days it takes all the energy I have just to remain focused on the task in front of me. Some days it takes all I have just to remain sane. Worlds away I reminisce on the life that could have been mine. It evaporated into the aether, permanently. The best I can hope for is a short-term memory of that life, that life that must’ve been only a dream. How I wish I could go back to sleep. How I wish I could be satisfied going back to sleep and never waking up. I’m not many steps away from that kind of sleep. It’s all I can do to hold onto this waking reality, this new reality that I find myself within today. What have I done to myself? These futile thoughts certainly won’t get any of my work finished so I lay them to rest in the back of my mind, locked far and deep away so that I can live this day without the overwhelming desire to kill myself off.

The sun cannot penetrate the gray of my day. Finished homes are for the upper-class built with only the finest materials for multiple stories. Plastic sheets still cover the newly installed imported tile kitchen floors and marble counter-tops. Each bedroom has a private seating bay window, walk-in closet and bathroom. Cedar floors throughout make it smell of fresh spice. Working within this neighborhood I see all that I have never attained for myself, comfort being the most apparent. Coming off a nervous breakdown isn’t the most comforting of experiences. Today I want to keep my head down, shovel debris and sweep the unfinished floors. I don’t want to talk to anybody, but Gina is quite the chatterbox. When I speak I fear all my shame will fall out in between my teeth, my tongue incapable of preventing it.

The hardened concrete sends out echoes from under the broom bristles in a disagreeing, repetitive, scratching noise. Plywood, electrical wiring, exposed framing and insulation speckle the subdivision. Sweeping up the debris after the new construction can be a daunting task. This dust is the gray, fine remnants of drywall that manage to escape my best attempts to rally it. I make pass after pass and still I am unsatisfied. Then, Gina gently informs me to slow down and ease up on the perfectionism. After all, if we get all of our work done today then there will be no reason for the foreman to request our crew tomorrow. I didn’t know he could do that. She has a point and I don’t argue.

As we take a break in the back corner of an unfinished home to smoke a cigarette and waste some time Gina gathers all the crew together and reiterates the importance of our work pace. “We all got selected in the order we showed up today. But now that we’re here, the crew chief can request us specifically for tomorrow so we won’t have to wait in the pool again. This job, if we time it right, could take all week.”

And so it did.

I never thought I’d find myself malingering here today, but I have to eat. Pride can empty any stomach. I’ve starved before and have no intention of trying it again. I imagine the feeling remains the same. The agony of it stays with me to this day.

Am I so different from Gina? I fear I may become her; I’ve never been a masculine man. I don’t want her experience. I don’t want this minimum wage life cleaning up before the privileged move into their new gated community. I must have too much pride, still, and this my penance realized.

Gina is quick to share her amusement about the Mexicans working. She calls them ‘scatterbugs’. Whenever immigration service shows up to the site they disappear like magicians. Gina so amuses herself that she can’t keep her chuckles concealed. She tells stories about watching grown men dive into bushes or into the back of flatbed pickup trucks to cover themselves with tarps and two by fours. Others just run. And while I smile along as she tells her stories I can’t help but relate to them on some level.

These are everyday men and women who are just trying to feed their families. Their goal here today is no different than mine. If my family appears on the job site I might find myself in some obscure nook trying to prevent discovery. I know this shame is not justified. I know that I should be proud of the fact that I take care of my responsibilities and feed myself. I can’t see the shame in that, yet I can’t help but feel the shame in that. At least I’m not running from immigration services, too. I wonder if the stock broker moving in next month feels the same way? After all, all this work is for him. We eat today because he decided to buy a sparkling new home. That’s opportunity cost and that’s capitalism. That’s the system. It’s as simple as that.

I tried and the system ate me up. Now look at me. Stupid enough to try again. It takes more than hunger to make it in this life. While others strive, some skate on by. It’s a bullshit system rigged for the rich, yet dumbed downed so the “educated” can waste their energies pursuing their pop culture civil agendas. They don’t see the prize is a dollar sign, not a protest sign. The honest workers carry the burdens of the rich floating heads because they fall for it. Does that make it their fault? I was an economist and I’d rather push this broom than try to weasel through any more of their secret funckin’ handshakes. The blackmarket isn’t any better. My fingers don’t bend in enough intricate designs to get my beat in for gang money either. One hand greases the other and I’m sick of the sludge. I’d rather breathe in this gray dust. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with that anymore since I cannot catch mesothelioma. Pity. I would go that way. I’m not picky. I fantasize about cement trucks with their rolling bellies running me down at high speeds. That would do it.

Upon returning to the warehouse we receive our checks. I am, again, designated to take the majority of our crew to the check cashing establishment literally across a set of railroad tracks. It’s not too far from where the job pool headquarters is located. Even in this microcosm almost everyone gets their cut. No one chips in for gas.

Gina has taken a liking to me and tells everyone in the car to look out for me. Sometimes people are robbed as they exit the building with their cash. It’s emasculating, but I haven’t the energy left for a fight anyhow. I have my reservations about trusting her intentions, but what choice do I have? I am in the same boat as my new found day labor buddies. But they did keep an eye out for me, the only white boy in sight without tracks or tats to cover them. Once we all have our cash, two of my passengers say their goodbyes and head across the street to the liquor store. Gina offers to hook me up with some weed to take her home. I have a feeling the quality will be less than I’m accustomed to, but we smoke a pinner on the way and I drop her off at her place. My body slumps in the worn driver’s seat on the ride back to my trailer. I had it all and then I lost it. I lost my mind. I lost my friends. I lost hope and hate the word.

All I know for sure is that I can’t show up for another week of day labor. I think there’s only one true solution to my problems: I have to join the Army. I’m half crazy but they won’t even notice at the recruiting station. There are two wars on and they need another warm body for now. People are coming home every day in body bags or wooden coffins covered by American flags, still concealed from the lenses of an inquiring press corps. I cannot bring myself to kill this body, but I can certainly live just long enough to earn my plywood and flag. At least there is a ring of Honor in that. I tried to join the day after dropping Gina off.

I thought I would show up and then ship out. To my dismay, it’s quite the process. There’s aptitude testing, medical testing and fitness testing. I had to choose a job. I could have been an officer with my advanced degree, but that would leave me insulated. What is the most likely job to get me killed? The answer is easy. I am a male and want to be at the frontline. I join the infantry and after basic training I get assigned to a special operations unit. I ship out in May.

I don’t expect anyone will ever understand. I am too ashamed to work at the day labor pool. Who do I think I am? I am too cowardly to end my life on my own so I decide to attempt suicide by enemy fire. I am no hero. I can’t even call myself a mercenary. I am completely selfish. I don’t believe in anything.

I guess all I can hope for is a rouge grenade to pounce upon. Otherwise, I will stick it out. As twisted as my reasons are for joining the Army, the structure actually brings me some unexpected peace. Not the most inspiring story I realize, but the longer I stay in the Army the more I realize that stable and balanced are rare characteristics, particularly among Soldiers. After all, we’re trained killers or willing, able, locked and loaded.

Maybe it’s best to just keep the truth to myself. I’ve never claimed to be a patriot. This realization is my most striking, yet not the most grotesque. Unlike day labor, I finally made it onto a skilled crew.

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