Every Marine Is A Rifleman

Photo: © S. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

Ace realizes he should probably stop drinking one morning in June, when he awakens in another strange bed, in another strange motel room, this time in a town called Birdbloom, Florida. As per usual, he can’t remember a thing, why he’s here, how. Since his last deployment, his memory likes to have a memory of its own, especially after a bunch of beers. He looks around the room, and it isn’t bad at least. There’s a kitchenette, a fridge, a flat screen with cable. His blackout self sometimes has good taste.

Even his phone is still with him, sleeping on the nightstand, under the glow of a lamp. Ace reaches out and unplugs it from its charger just as someone across the room says, “Morning, vato.”

It’s his old squad leader, sitting at the dinette, dusting off his cammies.

Ace thinks, Louie. He thinks, What the fuck—?

—am I doing here? Louie fieldstrips his M9 and cleans it with a rag. “Oh, same old. You know me. You, on the other hand, blacked out again.”

No shit, Ace thinks. He lies back, wondering.

“When?” Louie doesn’t look up from his work. “Ehh, how about we just say a while ago.”

Fuck. A while ago is never good. Who knows what he’s done?

“Yeah. What if you, like, killed somebody?” Lou reassembles his weapon. He checks the action. Finally, he looks up. “Everything all right there, Marine?”

Ace moves his arms and legs, wiggles his fingers and toes. He’s fucking fine.

“Let’s get your sorry ass up, then. How about it?”

Like every other time he comes out of a blackout, Ace finishes whatever beer is on the nightstand. He slips on his shades. Then he looks at Louie and his shit-eating grin.

What the hell is this dude looking at now?

“Nothing,” Louie says. “Just someone who should probably get a job.”

~

Ace gets a job. It’s just south of his motel, at a place called The Happy Fun Park, a dingy little amusement park north of Highway 98. It’s the kind of place even the locals think is lame but occasionally go to anyway because they live in the middle of nowhere and the Tastee-Freez up and burned down. Ace can sympathize. He’s broke as a joke, without prospects. It’s the only place that will have him, too.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, The Happy Fun Park isn’t all that happy or that much fun. It’s pretty sucky in fact. It sits at the edge of seemingly endless coastal marsh, at the edge of constant disrepair, so it’s up to Ace and his boss Bill the Thrill to make sure it doesn’t go over. They fix the rides, caulk the water slide, and open and close the place. The only thing they don’t do is clean the toilets. Management has Cuban ladies do that.

~

Two weeks after Ace starts, he and Bill stand out in the parking lot after closing, waiting for the ladies to finish. It’s dark, and Ace is bored, uneasy, thirsty as fuck for a drink. To pass the time, he picks up a rock the size of a baseball, reels back his arm, and throws it as far as he can. Ace is twenty-three. He does this from time to time. He and Bill watch the rock go up and then slowly hold there, like a moon, in the park lights. Then they watch it come down. About forty yards away, Ace sees what looks like a beaver chilling by the dumpsters and says, “Fucking shit.” Just as he suspects, the rock descends like a comet and hits the thing right in the head.

Bill, who isn’t surprised by this development either, takes a hit off his joint and chuckles. “Vato, how come everything you touch ends up just like that?”

Fuck if Ace knows. He’s only just started at the park, but he’s already fubared some stuff pretty royally, rendered tools useless. Bill won’t let him do anything but hand him wrenches and work the leaf blower now. In the corps, with a service rifle, Ace was sharp, maybe too sharp. Now that he’s out and unarmed, he’s a fucking geek.

He looks back at the animal as it stumbles and then falls on its face near a trashcan swarming with bees. Ace walks up on it, taking off his shades, and for a flicker he’s back in Afghanistan, walking up on a haji whose legs he’s just blown to shit. The kid, brown-skinned like Ace, lies on his back. He anchors his fingers in the dirt, as if he’ll float away. Ace raises his weapon. He aims. It’ll only take one. He slips on his shades, and like that, he’s back, standing over the still animal. He lifts his foot. He thinks about toeing the thing with his boot, but Bill just grabs it by the tail and holds it up.

“Deader than disco,” he says. “But she’ll make a good stew. You ever had nutria before?”

Ace shakes his head. “Homes, I don’t even know what a nutria is.”

“It’s a coypu,” Bill says. “Myocastor coypus. In Florida, we just call them river rats. They’re omnivorous semiaquatic rodents.” He slings it by the tail over his shoulder like a heavy coat just as the cleaning ladies whistle that they’re done. Bill heads back to his truck, the animal bouncing limply against his ass. Ace is studying its orange beaver teeth, its slit eyes, when Bill looks back. He’s a Marine, too, a black Marine, and a windbag. He thinks he knows Ace’s moods better than Ace does. “You’re being a little quiet back there, vato. I think I know why.”

“Do you, great master?”

“Damn skippy.” Bill waddles up ahead, tipping back his trucker hat. “You’re still caught in that vet fog. Am I right? Actually, you don’t have to answer. I can see it in your face.”

For a second, Ace wonders if he can see it or if he’s just bullshitting. There’s a lot of bullshit with Bill.

“You think all you’re good for is killing.” Bill’s colostomy bag, which he hides under his XXXL t-shirt, suddenly groans as he turns around. “And why shouldn’t you think that? You probably had to kill a lot of people. Shit, you just killed this thing by dumb luck.” He holds out the nutria, which spins slightly by its tail. “But it’s not just you, vato. In Vietnam, I killed. It was so shitty I thought only good things would happen to me when it was over. Now look. My wife’s dead. My son’s dead. I got half a colon, and my pecker barely works. Where’s the meaning in that?” He stops and searches the black sky. “Where’s the meaning in any of it?”

~

Ace is only twenty-three, but if he had to guess, he’d say he’s killed more than twelve people. Stateside, he’d be on death row for some shit like that. In Afghanistan, he was just an 0311 with a job to do. Locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver. Repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat. Camp, hike, stink. If need be, kill motherfuckers. When he rotated back this last time, he went through the usual debrief and evaluations. Military docs talked to him, curtly. They asked if he felt different. He’d had three long deployments.

“Nope,” Ace said. “I feel exactly the same.”

A few months later, he was finally off active duty and speeding away from Pendleton as fast as his crusty VW Bus could take him.

His first blackout, he was heading up through Nevada with a beer cradled in his crotch when one of those new Hummers came up behind him and wouldn’t stop honking. Ace tried to wave them past. He was driving a slow forty year-old piece of shit. What did they expect? But the guy, some asshole in a tux, thought he was tough. He pulled alongside and jawed at Ace for good half-mile, thinking he was some immigrant in a crappy car. He said, “Ándale” He said, “Arriba, you fucking beaner.” Ace actually smiled. He was tipsy on beer, now stoned on rage. He stuck his head out the window and told the dude to pull over. “I’m a Marine, bitch. I’ll grind you into sausage meat.” Ace pulled his van close to the Hummer and punched the guy’s side mirror. He vaguely remembers the glass shattering, the blood on his knuckles. Even now, when he thinks about it, he sort of recalls laughing like a crazy person as the guy screamed, floored it, and sped away.

When Ace awakened a night later, he was sitting in a strange motel room, at the end of the bed. There was a cold six-pack next to him. He had a bruise on his right hand, a perfect set of stitches on his left. He checked his phone, and it said he was someplace called Waterloo, Iowa. That was the first time he saw Louie out of the corner of his eye. “Hey, vato. You okay?”

Ace was fine. He just needed a brew.

“Well, crack one, then.”

For the next year, Ace drank himself silly, traveling around the country the way his mother shopped for socks. He meandered through the Northwest, the Southwest, the Midwest. He toured the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic, wandered down into the south. He was running from something or maybe looking for it. The problem was he didn’t know what it was. The whole time he rode a steady wave of blackouts. After one, he awakened in Rhode Island with a gym membership in his wallet and duffel bag of steroids on his coffee table. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but when he looked at himself in the mirror, he was swollen with muscles, veins popping everywhere. After another blackout, he came to on a couch in an old apartment he’d rented in Asheville. He was barefoot, his feet covered in mud. There were footprints all over the floor, even a few on the ceiling. He looked up and his old chandelier was squeaking as it swung back and forth.

That was when Louie came in from the kitchen, a beer in hand. “Goddamn, vato,” he said. “When you party, you fucking party.” He cracked his brew, and for a second Ace swore he felt the spray of suds hit his cheek.

~

After that blur of a year, Ace now thinks putting down roots is probably a good idea, even if he isn’t sure Birdbloom is the right place to do it. The town lies on an undeveloped section of shoreline between Mexico Beach and St. Marks. The Forgotten Coast. According to Bill, it’s called that because at one point it was left entirely off the Florida map. Ace likes this. He’s somewhere and nowhere, in the land of lazy living. And luckily, when it comes to being lazy, Bill is a good companion. Every day, they go out on Bill’s airboat in Apalachicola before work, to fish and not catch anything, after which Bill always says fishing is the practice of hope, usually after they’ve pulled off the road and taken a toot from his pipe.

At the park, being altered on the job isn’t really an issue since not many people go there anyway. It seems for good reason. To Ace, the three rides they have are old, decrepit. Who would want to ride them? To Bill, though, they’re relics.

“I guess being an old windbag and a roller coaster historian go hand-in-hand, huh?” Ace says.

“I guess being young and a shit-talker does, too.” Bill knows the history of each ride, the designer, what kind of wood makes up each skeleton. “And I ain’t afraid of learnin’ ya, boy. The Whopper. The Green Gator. The Mousetrap. They’re turn of the century, vato. Like, last century. The 1900s. But they’re alive, man. They breathe.” This is after they’ve been at work a while, after Bill has sneaked off for another toke and comes back all expansive and poetic and stoned.

When night falls, Agnes, the little old white lady who sells tickets, goes home. The Cuban mamis finish the bathrooms. Bill and Ace retire to Bill’s doublewide. They eat nutria stew, which is actually pretty good. It tastes like chicken. They get high and watch old movies. Bill sits in his recliner with his hand jammed into his waistline, burping, laughing, squeezing the odd fart into the cushions. His colostomy bag, which they’ve dubbed Oscar the Pouch, farts right along with him.

~

Ace’s first payday, Bill gives him a banded roll of ones the size of a soda can, the leavings from the till. Ace says fuck it and gets a tattoo. He’s pretty much wallpapered in them already. His Infantry tat, two crossed rifles, on his forearm. The thorn-wrapped bleeding heart over his own heart. All’s Fair in Love and War on his ribcage. Every Marine is a Rifleman calligraphed across his stomach.

Before he’d ever deployed or even shot at anyone, he’d gotten a tattoo of Rusty Puller on his delt. Then a Viking and a Spartan on each of his pecs. All his boys did, pretending they were tough, pretending they were killers. After his first deployment, after he had killed, he came back weirded the fuck out and had to drink and get lots of tats to forget that he’d have to redeploy and do it all over again. Inevitably, he got the dumbest ones he could think of. The word Corn on one set of fingers. The word Dogs on the other. He got tribals on his arms even though he hates them now and thinks they make him look like a douche. He’s got snakes and naked women, skulls and crossbones. On his neck, in script, his last one just says, Regrets.

Tattoos are the closest to therapy he’ll ever come. The pain of the needle takes him to a soft place in his head. This time, he picks out a huge set of angel’s wings that’ll take up his whole back. He takes his shirt off and lies face-down on the padded table. The artist doesn’t make small talk. He can tell Ace doesn’t want any anyway. Ace is dropping three hundo on this piece, a bargain. He and the artist, a vet as well, have an understanding. I won’t fuck up if you won’t. Settled, Ace closes his eyes and instantly he’s in a red velvet room inside his head. At some point, he feels a prick of pain and opens his eyes. For whatever reason, they want to well up, but there’s no moisture in him. The artist gives him two dog chew toys to squeeze in his hands. A plastic hot dog in a bun in his left. A plastic hamburger in his right.

Ace lifts his shades, expecting to see Louie waiting in a chair nearby, ready to talk shit, but he isn’t there. When the artist is done, Ace stands and checks out the work in the mirror. It’s only the outline, but he likes where it’s going. He looks over his shoulder at his back’s reflection. Then he turns and faces the mirror. For a second, he imagines a large set of white wings spreading out behind him. He almost thinks of himself as an angel. He’s even about to say it. I’m a fucking angel. But he stops. “Yeah, don’t get carried away, soldier.” Instead of his reflection, it’s Louie looking back at him in the mirror. “You and I both know you ain’t even close to being an angel.”

~

In July, Bill starts taking days off here and there for his doctor appointments. That leaves Ace to work the park alone. He really doesn’t do much. No one’s at the park anyhow. He chain-smokes cigarettes in the maintenance shed, watching the dust and smoke swirl in the sunlight from the door. Hours go by like days, sometimes like minutes. He listens to the jangly merry-go-round music, wishing he could blow the fucking thing up. A day or two after his appointments, Bill’s back. Ace doesn’t ask what’s wrong with him. Bill doesn’t tell. Louie used to say, “If you name it, you make it so.” Ace doesn’t want to name much nowadays.

He’s never been the most reflective person in the world, but now that he’s stopped drinking, Ace finds himself at least thinking about stuff. He hasn’t had a blackout since he’s been in Birdbloom. Naturally, he hopes his mind is clearing up. Whenever he thinks this, he hears Louie giggling behind him. “Vato, I’d keep hoping on that if I were you.”

There’s never a feeling associated with his blackouts so much as a drifting away from consciousness, much the way he imagines dying must be like. Sometimes he feels it coming, but usually he doesn’t. Occasionally, he can be jolted out of them by the situation. He once regained consciousness in a bar fight, but only slightly, as a table slammed across his back and some chairs were strewn about. Then he slipped back into the blackout and somehow got home. When he woke the next day, a little banged up, he felt as though he’d had a very strange dream.

Even now, when he’s lucid, his levels of consciousness still feel indiscernible, same with his concept of time. At the park, he can be using the leaf blower, thinking he’s only been at it for five minutes, but then he’ll notice the sun going down and realize he’s been doing it most of the fucking day. Suddenly, his body recognizes this. His back hurts. His feet ache. It’s like getting back to camp after patrol, when the adrenaline wore off and he could feel again. Relax. Smoke your smokes. Drink your Dr. Pepper, Ace thinks. It was what Louie always used to say after recon or in between scraps with insurgents.

That’s usually when Bill comes up behind him and hits the kill switch on the blower. He turns Ace around, puts a hand on each of his shoulders and then lifts his shades. “Vato, how about we stop for the day? What you think?”

Ace asks why, trying to play it off, but Bill just pats him on the cheek. “Cuz, my boy, you done blew all the leaves there was to blow.”

Ace wants to punch himself in the face when this happens. He watches Bill waddle away, whistling some tune, and all Ace can do is put his shades back on and follow, wishing he could whistle like that, too.

~

In August, just as Ace realizes he hasn’t had a nightmare in a while, he fucking has one. He’s second in a convoy of Cougar HEs. An IED blows. Orange flames and black smoke are everywhere. Instant gunfire. Someone’s yelling, “CROWS now. Fucking hit it,” when he hears a louder, more pleasant voice say, “Ace. Wake up. It’s a dream.” He comes to, and Louie is in his room, his legs crossed and kicked up on the dinette. The room is perfectly, almost deafeningly, quiet.

“You okay there, vato?”

Claro. He’s fine.

“Mal sueño?”

Ace shakes his head. Just a sueño. A regular one. He sits up and scratches his head, puts on his shades. He sounds fine, doesn’t he?

“Yeah. You’re still you,” Louie says.

Ace rolls over and picks through his ashtray. He finds half a cigarette still worth smoking and lights it. He wonders if he’s not him when he blacks out.

“No, goofy,” Louie says. “You’re old you. Old Ace.”

Ace finds last night’s roach hiding in the ashes and lights that, too. Bullshit, he thinks.

“I bullshit you not,” Louie says. “You’ve never wondered what you’re like when you’re—out?”

Remarkably, he hasn’t. Why should he?

“You’re you, but you from before the war. When you blackout, you don’t even know you were there. You don’t know you’re—a killer.”

Ace starts to think, How?

Louie shrugs. “I can just tell. When you blackout, you’re a regular person.” He twists up a rollie and lights it. “The mind will do some crazy shit to protect itself, vato.”

Ace stretches out in bed, Bill’s homegrown burning off the dream. He looks at the stained popcorn ceiling and thinks back to his adolescence. Pontiac, Michigan, cutting class, barely getting the grades to start at middle linebacker every fall. That life feels so insignificant now. Girls. Herb. Ball. He wonders if it wouldn’t be so bad if his old self took over completely. It would make things easier on the both of them. Old Ace could be free. So could New Ace. He wonders if it really is possible to lose himself like that, to go back to being someone he used to be, kill off the person he is now.

“Shit yeah it’s possible,” Louie says. “It’s totally possible.”

Ace wonders, How?

“Easy.” Louie shrugs. “Just start drinking again. You’ll stop being you in no time.”

~

In September, out of the blue, Bill asks if Ace wants to move in with him. “I promise. No funny business, vato. But it makes no sense for you to keep staying in that motel.”

They’re at work tightening all the fasteners on the rides, what Bill calls “nuttin’-and-boltin’.” They’re deep inside the skeleton of The Whopper. Ace puts a two-foot open-ended wrench on a bolt, another on the corresponding nut, and torques the shit out of them. Then he moves on to next one. When they’re down here and the ride is going, the whole thing trembles like an earthquake. Every other second, Ace imagines it suddenly flying apart, collapsing on them, because of one loose bolt.

“Hey, you listening to me, vato?”

“Yeah.” Ace lifts his shades. “I hear you. I see you.” He doesn’t say yes to Bill’s offer and he doesn’t say no.

Bill just leaves it out there.

They go back to Bill’s doublewide after work. They eat fried squirrel for dinner, which is actually pretty good. They get stoned. Afterward, Bill shows Ace his plants, explaining the art of cannabis cultivation, what he calls a perpetual garden. There are his four mother plants and then there are the cuttings or clones he’s taken from them. He keeps the mothers in one closet under twenty-four hour light and flowers the ten or so rooted clones in another under twelve hours of light. A few months later, after it’s been dried and cured, Bill’s got some pretty bomb-ass weed. Ace likes this concept, making a new plant from an existing one. “It’s really the same plant. It’s all the same family,” Bill says. “If you take care of them, you can keep them alive forever.” He teaches Ace how to water and fertilize, how to top and prune the plants. Bill then lounges in his recliner, his hand jammed into his waistline and eventually falls asleep.

Ace sits on the couch, studying the framed photos of Bill’s wife and son. There are at least twenty of them on the paneled wall, hung in a perfect grid. There are wedding pictures, graduation, prom, his son’s induction day. Ace doesn’t have one picture of himself or anyone he knows. On his phone, there are a few pictures of people from his travels, but he doesn’t remember who they are. He can never bring himself to delete them. Thinking about that now makes him feel stupid for looking at Bill’s family photos while he’s asleep. Ace should let himself out and walk home, let the man be. But the glow of the grow lights seem to pull him back. He goes over to the garden and stays there, noodling around late into the night.

~

Ace will never know his exact number of kills, but he knows for sure that three of them were kids. Two were by accident. The one was on purpose. He’s never told a civilian that. He’s never told anyone that. He knows how it sounds.

“Yeah, it don’t sound good,” Louie says. “It makes you sound like a psycho.”

It’s nine pm, and Ace is walking the park’s grounds, emptying the trashcans.

What do you know, he thinks. You’re not really here.

“I know,” Louie says. “But I don’t let that stop me. I’m intense, like you used to be.”

Ace doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even think. He doesn’t want to see him right now.

“Fine. Ignore me, but you can see me. And hear me.” Louie stops to sight something in his M4. Then he lowers his weapon and catches up to Ace. “Wanna know how I know?”

How, Ace thinks, without meaning to.

“Because I’m just you talking to you. I’m here so you can talk to yourself. And right now, I gotta say, on your behalf, you’re looking pretty shitty there, bud.”

What’re you talking about, Ace thinks. I’m straight. He thinks, I’m good to go.

“No, you’re just stoned, dude.” Louie was from Kentucky and always has that funny twang. He bounces around on the balls of his feet. His crewcut is flawless. “You’re not good to go if you’re seeing me. And hearing me. I mean, that’s like the double whammy of, you know, being—off.”

Ace looks over at Lou keeping pace with him, like they’re on patrol. Every now and then, when Ace looks at him, he gets a glimpse of Louie’s blown-out head. It happened a lot when Ace drank, his mind playing tricks on him. Ace can never help himself. He has to look. The northeast side of Lou’s dome is a bloody crater. On the western side, there’s just a blemish of a bullet hole. Most times, when he visits Ace, he looks normal.

“Other times?” Louie says. “It’s a horror show. Am I right? I mean, look at this shit.”

Ace wants to say no, but there’s no denying it. It’s ugly. If he looks at it long enough, his mind makes terrible images. Sometimes, Louie’s head is half-gone, and Ace can see the empty, veiny insides. Sometimes, his head is whole but for some reason slightly transparent like an incubating egg. He’s forced to put his shades back on.

“It’s no one’s fault. Got me? Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Lou kicks an oyster shell, and he and Ace watch it cartwheel into the brush. “And just so you know. You were fucking right to kill that kid. He could’ve killed someone else. You blasted the shit out of him like you were supposed to.” Louie sticks his finger in the bullet hole as though into his ear. Then he takes it out and looks at it with disgust. “How old do you think he was? Fourteen? Fifteen?”

Ace arrives back at the maintenance shed and locks it up. He doesn’t want to think about it so he lights a cigarette. So does Louie. They look out at the marsh across the highway.

“It’s amazing you’ve stayed in this town as long as you have, vato. It’s been a whole four months.”

Ace didn’t even stay in Vegas that long.

“Mostly because you kept getting your ass kicked in bars.” Louie smirks at him.

Ace is glad that’s over.

“Yeah,” Louie says, “but what if I told you it ain’t?”

Ace looks at him.

They both look at Bill talking to the Cuban mamis.

“The bad stuff.” Louie takes a long pull from his cigarette and exhales. He spits out tiny bits of tobacco before taking another drag.

~

Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the park is closed, Ace and Bill do what they always do, just without the going-to-work part. They go out on Bill’s air boat and marsh fish and then hang out at Bill’s trailer. When they get bored, Bill busts out his weapons, and they do some shooting.

The first time Bill asks if Ace wants to shoot guns, Ace says, “Where the hell are we gonna do that? There a range around here?”

“Actually,” Bill says, “there is. You’re standing on it.” He looks around at the deserted marsh and field surrounding his property. “You think anyone’s gonna mind?” He brings out his cache of weapons and lays them on his picnic table, a sidearm, a .22, a couple shotguns. Ace’s dick actually gets hard when he sees them. Between deployments at Lejeune, after a day of training, he and his buddies would stand in deserted parking lots, drunk, and shoot AK’s and AR’s they’d bought off the Internet. They’d fire a couple clips in the air, spraying the fuck out of the sky, until they saw police lights in the distance. Then they’d peel out for some bar or another, anxious to do it again.

Bill sets up his homemade skeet trap that he’s made from angle iron and a couple heavy-duty springs. He calls it the Nigga Rig. “I can say that because I’m black,” he says. Instead of clay pigeons, it sends up old soup cans. He sets aside a few empty Chunky’s, and Ace takes up the .22. He pings and dings the first couple no problem. When he turns around, Louie is sitting in a lawn chair on Bill’s tiny deck, giving him a thumbs-up.

“Try the sawed-off,” Bill says.

Ace picks it up and Bill sends up a can. Ace blows it clean out of the air. He looks at Louie, who’s now giving him a golf clap.

“You feel alive?” Bill says.

Ace screams, “Fuck yeah!” and lets off another shot for the hell of it.

“Easy, easy. Try the sidearm now.”

Ace picks it up, a knock-off similar to an M9 he once had. Bill sends up a can. Ace hits it once, and it flips end over end higher in the air. He has enough time to hit it again, and it flies to the left. He goes for a third shot as the can descends and he surprisingly nails it. The can lands yards away, crumpled, a small metal flower.

Bill lets out a hoot. “Goddamn, boy. You’re a regular Herb Parsons.”

“Who the hell is that?” Ace looks to Louie, who just shrugs.

“The Showman Shooter?” Bill says. “He was a trick-shot performer. I got a gang of old VHS tapes about him. We should watch them sometime.”

“Okay.” Ace clears his weapon.

Bill, who is obviously zootie, comes over to Ace grinning. “You know what his motto was? It’s just as important to be a good sportsman as it is to be a good shot.” Bill watches Ace to see if this piece of wisdom will have any effect on him. He’s about to explain when Ace says, “I get it. Life. Metaphor. Awesome.”

Bill gives him a high-five and goes to get more cans. Ace lights a smoke and stares out over the open field next to Bill’s property. Just above the tall grass, thirty yards away, he thinks he sees three young boys. They’re running, just their upper bodies visible. They have long brown hair, brown skin, and they all wear ratty white t-shirts. It takes a moment for Ace to realize they’re triplets.

Bill comes back and hands him a joint. “What you looking at, vato?”

“Triplets.” Ace lights up. “Little vatos.”

Bill shades his face with his hand and scans the field. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any little vatos or any triplets. I don’t even see a singlet.”

Ace lifts his shades. He doesn’t see them anymore either.

That’s when Bill slowly takes the gun from Ace’s hand, the joint from his lips. “Vato,” he says, wincing, “don’t take this the wrong way, but maybe you’ve had enough.”

Ace has to admit he’s already pretty fucking stoned. He goes over to the deck and sees Louie scanning the field with a pair of binoculars. What the hell is this dude looking at now?

“Triplets,” Louie says. “Little vatos. I saw them, too.”

~

In October, Bill tells Ace he might need surgery. All Ace can think to say is “Sorry, man.”

Louie is straddling the bow of the boat, balanced there like a martial arts master. He looks back at Ace. “See, I told ya, vato. Bad stuff.”

Bill plays with his reel as though he has a fish on his line. He seems to blink a lot. “Ain’t nothing to be sorry about.”

For the first time in a while, Ace really wants a drink. He wants off the boat. He imagines diving overboard and swimming ashore just so he can be away from this.

“Bad idea, bud. You’ll look like an idiot.” Louie points at the half a jay sitting next to Ace. “Hit that instead.”

Ace does.

Bill lifts his shirt and shows him his colostomy bag for the first time. A tube goes into his side, met by a grommet in his brown, stretch-marked skin. To Ace, he looks human and machine-like all at once.

“The doctors said surgery just might do the trick. But they gotta look at more of my tests.”

Ace wonders what the trick is.

They don’t talk about it for the rest of their time on the boat. The whole ride home, Ace clenches his fists. He thinks maybe he should move on.

Louie sits between them in the truck. “Negative. You’re locked in here. You can’t abandon your buddy.”

Ace tries to unclench his fists, but they won’t budge.

Later that night, while Bill is napping, Ace goes out to a liquor store and buys a cheap fifth of whisky. He comes home and sets it on his nightstand in his room and looks at it for a really long time, wiping the sweat from his upper lip. He opens the drawer and gently sets the bottle in there. Then he sits on the porch with Bill as the sun goes down. Bill turns and hits Ace with one of his fun facts, something about how people in Brazil clap at the sunset. Ace doesn’t respond. He’s barely heard him. He’s thinking about that bottle.

“You with me, vato?”

Ace nods. He hears him. He sees him.

~

Since Ace doesn’t like hospitals or waiting rooms, when he starts taking Bill to his doctor’s appointments, he goes to the local arcade across the street and plays video games until Bill is done. It’s all Shoot-em-up’s. First person stuff. Seek and destroy. Ace has never been much of a video game guy, unlike just about every Marine he’s known. Reality has always been bad enough. Why add shit to it? Still, he pops in his tokens and holds a surprisingly lifelike M16. He takes out raceless enemy combatants with ease. He holds all ten high scores on each game he plays. Often, as he’s playing, kids watch him, marveling at his kill rate.

Today, when he turns around, sensing eyes from behind, the triplets are there. Usually, it’s teenagers, brats who’re mad he’s playing so long. A quick stink-eye and they leave him alone.

The triplets, though, they say, “Hi,” in unison. They’re only two feet away, but they wave.

Ace is still holding the controller, his hands dripping with sweat. He waves back. He notices the identical spray of freckles on each kid’s face.

They stare at him inquisitively, blinking. They’re nine or ten. With their long brown hair, they look like little vato surfer kids. “I’m Benny,” one says. “I’m Kenny,” says another. The last says, “I’m Lenny.”

Ace doesn’t say anything, just looks from one to the next, realizing they’re one person, one embryo, split into three. Clones. Cuttings. Fam.

“Is your name really Ace?” They look past him at the list of high scores on the video game screen.

“Yes,” Ace says.

They nod. “Cool name.” Seeming satisfied, they leave, weaving through the arcade games till they disappear. Ace turns and sees his reflection in one of those weird funhouse mirrors. It makes another Ace appear beside him. He studies both of his reflections, feeling uneasy. He sets his controller down and waits in Bill’s truck, looking at the liquor store across the street. He smokes a ciggie and tries to remember the little kids’ names. Jerry? Barry? He stops. He gets stuck on the last one. He thinks Larry, but he’s pretty sure that isn’t right. Fuck his mind, he thinks. Fuck it with a rubber hose.

~

When Bill starts losing weight, Ace pretends not to notice. Instead, he takes it upon himself to do all the cooking. He makes the fattiest things he can think of. Ribs and brisket. Pork butts. The biggest T-bones he can find. He slathers everything with steak or barbecue sauce, butter and sour cream. He dumps most of a bottle of Ranch on all their veggies. Occasionally, when Ace goes to Bill’s room to tell him it’s time to eat, he sees Bill sitting at the head of his bed, rubbing his chin. Bill’s doctor’s appointments are few and far between now. The talk of surgery has stopped. Ace doesn’t know the outcome of Bill’s tests and he doesn’t want to ask. “Not a good sign,” Louie says. “You don’t stop going to the doctor unless you’re healthy. And he don’t look healthy.” Each night, Bill stares into the open drawer of his nightstand, stroking his gray beard. Ace wonders if he’s got a bottle of whisky in there, too, but he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t say anything but “Time to eat, old man.”

He lays the food out like it’s the last supper.

“Goddamn, vato. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re trying to kill me with all this food.”

“I’m just trying to keep your size on you. You’re getting too skinny.”

“Shit,” Bill says. “I think I was just too fat before. Now I look like a regular person.”

Ace nods but doesn’t say what he’s thinking: You looked like yourself when you were fat.

“The medication,” Bill says. It makes him not want to eat. And whatever he does eat goes right through him. He taps Oscar the Pouch.

“Well, it’s probably gonna go through even faster this time.” Ace has made a pie. Pecan. It’s sweet as fuck. After two bites, they both have to tap out.

“I like sugar, vato,” Bill says. “But I think I’m gonna need rehab after this shit.”

They watch The Showman Shooter. Then, because they have nothing better to do, they go fishing.

Though Bill is a huge pothead, he was once a terrible alcoholic. The tragedy of him finally having his life rightways this late in life isn’t lost on Bill or Ace. After the military, he’d gotten involved with biker gangs. “Yes,” he says. “Black bikers. We existed.” He did more drugs and jail time, beat more people than he can remember. Now his name Bill the Thrill is solely ironic. “I’m glad I outlived my dumbass nickname. Ain’t you?”

Ace wants to say his name isn’t a nickname. His dad named him that. It’s on his birth certificate and everything. But he thinks, What’s the point? His dad is long gone. His mother is with some dude in Pontiac.

In the marsh, abandoned and derelict boats sit crooked and half-submerged in the muddy water, the hulls rusting, the masts snapped, the water swirly with old fuel and oil.

Ace nurses his reel and the more he looks at each vessel the more he wishes he could just move on. He wishes he could take Bill with him, leave his sickness here.

“Hey, you okay, vato?”

Ace expects Louie to be sitting there, on the other end of the boat, but it’s just Bill.

“I’m cool,” he says.

Bill nurses his reel. “Happens to me sometimes, too. But it ain’t no thing.”

“What ain’t?”

Bill runs a finger from his eye down his cheek, signifying a tear.

Ace lifts his shades and is surprised to find moisture rolling down through his stubble.

“No thing but a chicken wing,” Bill says.

~

While cleaning the house, Ace finds not a bottle of liquor but a gun in Bill’s nightstand. It’s a .44 revolver. Ace pops out the cylinder and sees there’s only one round, its brass casing shiny against the gun metal. The single round surprises him. He thinks, Why one? But then he thinks, You fucking know why. It’ll only takes one.

Ace sits on the bed, thinking of the few people he knows who’ve offed themselves. Most were other Marines in his platoon that he barely knew. This was in Lejeune, between deployments. One day, they were getting fucked up at the bar, doing burnouts in the parking lot with their wives’ minivans. The next, those same dudes shot themselves in their homes or in the gas station or in the shitter at Wendy’s. Surprisingly, Ace thinks, suicide isn’t something he’s ever contemplated. He isn’t sure what he thinks about it. He puts the gun to his temple. He puts it to his forehead. He puts it in his mouth, tasting the metal. He imagines the round taking off the back of his dome.

The only suicide he really knew was his buddy Marvelle, who he’d fought next to for two of his three deployments. Along with Ace, he was one of his platoon’s best guys, their fire team’s head honch. Once, in the middle of firefight, Ace saw him take a round right to his grape. The bullet hit his temple, went under his skin, zipped around the back of his skull and exited. Thirty minutes later, Marv was smoking a cigarette and drinking a Dr. Pepper, his head bandaged. During Ace’s cross-country trip, he visited Marv in West Virginia, where he was running his own duck farm in the hills outside of Wheeling. Just laying eyes on him, Ace could see he wasn’t right anymore.

Marv was once a brick shithouse, six-three, two-fifty, a loudmouth when off duty, a killer when on. “That killing ass country ass nigga” was what he called himself. Now he was quiet and on meds, sedate and gaunt. He probably only weighed one-eighty in boots. He showed Ace the farm, relating everything there with being in Afghanistan. When he took Ace into the duckling pen, he told him to be gentle, no sudden movements. He said he and Ace had to gain their trust. “It’s like the kids in every village we were in, bruh. They think we’re bad news. And they’re right. They just don’t know it.” When he took Ace into the mature pen, the ducks swarmed them affectionately. “See, they’re trained now. I’ve tricked their asses.” He fed them duck pellets from a bucket. “They’re literally eating out of my hand.” Ace was standing in a swirling sea of quacking ducks, watching Marv go into a trance.

As they left, Marv carefully picked up a brown-speckled duck and cradled it. They’d barely gotten outside and closed the barn door when, in one smooth motion, Marv let the duck fall while still holding its neck. Quickly, he twisted the bird by the head three times, until its neck was as limp as old rope. They walked back up to his farmhouse, and Marv kept petting the bird as if it were still alive. He kissed its head and whispered to it. Then he looked over at Ace. “You ever had duck before, vato?”

Ace thinks about this now as he puts Bill’s gun back the way he found it. He’s about to close the drawer, but then he thinks about the bullet. He takes the gun back out, rotates the cylinder so the round is where it should be, next in line.

~

It’s November, and Ace hasn’t seen Louie for a couple weeks. He doesn’t even realize it until he’s getting his tattoo filled in. The artist is scratching away at his skin, the tattoo gun buzzing like a bee in his ear. Ace opens his eyes and lifts his shades. There’s Louie, sitting in the waiting area, reading a newspaper.

“Probably didn’t think you’d see me again, did you?”

Leave me alone.

“Nah, I think I’ll stay right here.”

The artist keeps working. Ace stays still. He tries to retreat to the velvet part of his mind. You’re not here. You’re not reality. That shit is bad enough without you.

“Vato, I make sense of reality for you, remember? I’m just you talking to you.”

Ace squeezes his dog toys now, his left and then his right. Each lets out a sorrowful wheeze.

“You know your buddy’s dying, right? Like, dead-dying.”

Ace opens his eyes. Like I said, Fuck off.

Louie waits a sec before saying, “You know I’m right.” He sets his newspaper down and takes out a pouch of tobacco. “He’s not even going to the doctor anymore, dude. He’s reaching the end.”

Ace thinks, Colostomy bag. He thinks, Oscar the Pouch.

Louie nods. “His insides are fucked.” He twists up a rollie and lights it. “Kind of like you.” He spits tobacco.

My insides are fine, dickface.

Louie nods, almost smirking. “You know he’s gonna do it, don’t ya?”

Do the fuck what?

Louis shapes his hand into a gun and puts it to his head. “Kapow.”

Fuck off.

Louie stands and paces for a moment and then sits back down. “Will you stop him?”

The only thing Ace can think is I don’t know.

“Because that’s a genuine possibility. I mean, you guys are around each other so much. He might just do it in front of you.”

Ace doesn’t think, doesn’t move.

“Fine. Ignore me. But you see me. And hear me.”

~

In December, the park begins its slow slide into the low season, which Bill says is a good thing. When Ace asks why, Bill says, “Because the only constant in life is change, vato.”

Ace hates these kinds of sayings. They’re so simple that they end up sounding meaningless. Yet, they still make his brain hurt. “What do you mean? You can still work here,” he says. “You’re doing good.”

Bill doesn’t seem so sure. He wears suspenders now to keep up his pants. He’s skinny and still a little fat all at once. Most of the time, he seems happy enough, but Ace wonders how much of that is real and how much he’s just putting on a face.

Over the last couple weeks, they’ve started winterizing the park, though outside it doesn’t feel like winter at all. It’s sixty-three degrees. The concession stands have been packed up and closed for a while now. Ace and Bill start locking down the rides, putting away the go-karts. They make checklists and cross things off. When they’re finally done, they chain the whole place up. Bill fastens the padlock. He starts to put the keys in his pocket, but then he stops and lets them dangle from his finger. He tells Ace to holds out his hand. Bill drops them onto his palm. Ace isn’t sure what this means. There are only two keys on the ring. Ace rubs them together like coins and then slides them in his pocket. They both get in Bill’s truck.

At night, Ace and Bill stay in their rooms. Ace opens his nightstand drawer and looks at the bottle. Then he closes it. A minute later, he opens it again and looks at it. He doesn’t realize they haven’t had dinner until Bill knocks on his door. He says he’s making the food tonight. Fried catfish.

“I’m just gonna need you to get some fish meal.” He’s toking on half a jay, a dish towel draped over his shoulder.

Ace sees him look at the drawer. He wants to close it, but he knows it’ll just make him look guilty. Besides, Bill already sees the bottle. He looks at it for quite a while. Finally, his eyes come back up to Ace’s.

Ace closes the drawer. “Fish meal,” he says. “I got you.” He grabs Bill’s keys and heads for the front door. Bill stands there in the kitchen watching him go. He has a thumb hooked into one of his suspenders. He’s so weak he has to put a hand to the living room jamb to brace himself. Ace looks back as he’s half out the door and he sees Bill give him that look, the same one his mother gave him when he enlisted, that I’ll-never-see-you-again look. Ace hesitates. He throws on his shades, and Bill says, “You got nice eyes, Ace.” He’s never called him anything other than “vato” or “boy” or “man.” He walks over and takes the sunglasses off Ace’s face. “You should let people see them.”

Ace nods and looks down. “I’ll try to do that.” They stand there for a moment. Without wanting to, he tears up.

Bill asks what’s wrong.

“You,” Ace says. “You’re dying.”

“I am.”

“And now you’re gonna do it, while I’m gone.”

“Do what? Die?”

Ace shakes his head. He can’t look him in the face. “I found the piece in your nightstand.”

“Oh.” Bill chuckles. “I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but I ain’t really doing it.” Bill pats Ace’s cheek. “I’m not leaving you yet.” Ace pats his cheek back. He steps across the threshold and lets the screen door close. When he gets in the truck, Louie’s already in the passenger seat, just looking at him.

Fuck off, Ace starts to think, but Louie says, “Don’t worry, vato. I won’t bust your balls. That was touching.”

Ace looks at him. That sounds like you’re busting balls.

“I know,” Louie says. “But I’m not.”

When Ace gets back from the store, he finds Bill in the kitchen, standing over a skillet of hot, shimmering oil. He’s wearing an apron that Ace hasn’t seen before. It says, Kiss the Cook, But Don’t Touch the Buns. He says his son gave it to him. Ace is so glad to see Bill that he almost wants to kiss him. Instead, he gets the whisky from his room. He pours it down the sink. Bill just smiles. “That’s my boy.” Then he fries up the fillets.

Chris Stuck is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has twice been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as well as a Callaloo Writer’s Workshop fiction fellow. He was recently awarded a 2019 Oregon Literary Fellowship, and his stories have been published or are forthcoming in The American Literary Review, The Bennington Review, Callaloo, Meridian, and Natural Bridge. He is currently working on a novel and shopping around a short story collection.

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Issue 9

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