Kenneth Sutton : Fiction : February 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My friend Sam told if I’m tellin the truth I can wander around a little but if I’m puttin out a stretcher I better stick to the straight and narrow and repeat it exact. So I’m stickin to the truth, mostly.
1. I am The Bard of Machipongo Virginia and got the T-shirt to back it up.
2. Machipongo is three miles south of Nassawadox. Hell, look it up.
3. I used to live in Louisiana and worked with Rednecks who did not know the Dukes of Hazard was a comedy.
4. Redneck is a proper noun and takes a capital R.
5. You’re not from around here, are you?

Coach

Snap to Davie! It’s your play. Jack of spades.

David fingered the jack, drifted over to his other spade, the three.

The jack, Davie! I swear you couldn’t count to thirteen without taking off your socks.

The jack took the trick. David gathered the cards, squared them up and added them to the stacks in front of him. He stared at his two remaining cards, both threes, one diamond, one spade. He felt uncomfortably exposed sitting in front of the nursing station. Made of waist high cinderblock, thick glass with heavy metal frame to the ceiling, it looked like a cell block control room. But the table was bolted down. You couldn’t move it. If you wanted to play cards you played at the station. He selected the spade.

No. No. No! The six of spades is still out. You got the last diamond. Play it. If it walks, you’re home free. If somebody spades it, that makes your spade boss and you’re still home free.

David played the diamond. Rooney dropped the six of spades on it, smirked as he collected his trick and slapped the queen of hearts down on the table. David dropped the three of spades on top of the queen grabbed the four packs of Marlboros holding down the score sheet and left the table.

“How about another game?” Rooney wanted a chance to get his smokes back. Like David, he had bet his last pack.

“Can’t. Gotta see the shrink in twenty minutes.”  David found a chair in the day room across from the color TV and settled back in the cushions, bracing his feet against the stainless steel coffee table. The table didn’t budge. It too was bolted to the floor. “What now, Coach.” 

Tabor in the next chair ignored him. He had a mission of his own, rehearsing his psychosis. If he was convincing enough he wouldn’t have to worry about doing half a tour in Nam and coming back in a body bag or fucked in the head like David. He knew David wouldn’t use his whole hour. He never did. Twenty minute at the most and it would be Tabor’s last chance to convince Major Agnostico he was too nuts for Vietnam, maybe even the Army. He envied David. He didn’t have to worry about going back to Nam. He was on his way out. Probably with a full medical. Lucky bastard.

The door opened and a red faced man with bulging eyes named Miller stepped into the day room. He was an officer. He wouldn’t admit it, but he had his own bathrobe. Only officers could wear their own bathrobe. Everybody knew that. You could hear his teeth grind across the room. The medic at the nursing station looked up from prepping the happy wagon and frowned. Spec 4 Serrano was hoping for a boring day. Miller’s teeth argued against it. 

Miller was careful not to slam the door or kick the television. He’d just come off strap down in the quiet room and didn’t want to go back. Not yet. Not till they eased up on his Thorazine and his reflexes came back to speed. The pen he’d just palmed had a metal refill that would sharpen up fine. Shove it in that fucking shrink’s eye when the time was right. The only regret he had was Agnostico wouldn’t have time to feel a thing.

“David Persign.” Major Agnostico’s voice floated into the dayroom, a mellow baritone, dripping with empathy.

David got up. “Coach?”

Don’t say word. Don’t say goddamn thing and everything’ll be just fine.

David waited to sit until the major waved at a chair. He looked at the walls. Diplomas everywhere, A.B., M.A., Ph.D., MD., CCNY, University of Chicago, John Hopkins, MCV. Adam R. Agnostico had been around. 

“How are you feeling today?”

David shrugged and dropped his chin to stare at his hands in his lap. He started counting. When he got to five hundred he’d look up.

“Heard anything from Coach lately?”

“Coach doesn’t want me to say anything to you.”

Shit, Davie! Not another word. Shut the fuck up. 

“Why is that David? Why doesn’t Coach want you to talk to me?”

Not a word Davie. Look at his desk. I want to see what he writes.

David raised his head, focused on the Major’s hands.

“Is Coach here now, David? If I can’t talk with you, could I talk to Coach?”

“I don’t think so.”

Jesus, Davie, don’t make me get your Dad. Shut the fuck up. You’re so damn stupid you can’t even spell IQ, can you?

“I. Q.?”

“What’s that David?”

That’s it! I’m getting your Dad.

“You said ‘I. Q.’ David. What did you mean by that?”

Young man, bite your tongue and don’t let go until I tell you.

His father’s voice was raspy and an octave deeper than Coach’s. David wondered if his tongue was going to bleed. He hoped not.

“Is Coach angry with me? Is that why he won’t speak?”

David kept his face frozen, stared at the desk.

Good boy Davie. Keep it up.

Coach was back. He sounded in a better mode. 

Major Agnostico looked around on his desk for a pen, gave up and got one out of his drawer. He offered David the pen and a legal pad.

“You could write your answers and Coach wouldn’t have to see them.”

Take it, but don’t write anything. Just hold it in your lap and look at his desk while I read the chart. Give me a little time. It’s slow work, reading shitty handwriting upside down.

David took the pen and pad, held them as if he meant to write and waited.

“When did you first meet Coach, David? Was it at Phu Cat, when the V.C. blew up the fuel depot? Or did he show up earlier?” 

Just keep on keepin’ on, Davie. Almost got it. 

“If you don’t look at the paper while you write, Coach won’t mind. He won’t even notice.”

I got it now. Damn he’s good. Start to write something, then stop and give him back his pad and pen. Three can play his game.

David looked intently at the pad, moved the pen slightly, then straightened up and handed them across the desk. The major set everything down to the side and flipped his daily planner open.

“I’ve got you down for tomorrow at one, right after lunch. We’ll try again then. I’m not giving up on you, David. Don’t you give up on you.”

The major voice was soft, warm and a little worried. David felt his resolve weakening. He wanted to explain, Coach was not the enemy. Coach looked out for him. Protected him. But he didn’t have permission to unclench his teeth and let go his tongue.

Up and at ’em, Davie. Time to let Tabor have a crack at the major.

David pulled the curtains open and waited at the dayroom window looking out across the post while Coach conferred with Dad in private. He read the eye level black letters on the grey water tower the other side of American Lake. Watched the traffic fly by on the interstate.

OK Davie. Your Dad says you can let go.

David moved away from the widow to the artificial palm tree in the corner. He knelt beside it to tie his shoelace. When he was sure no one was watching he spat a mouthful of blood in the realist plastic dirt at the base of the tree. He went to the fountain by the nursing station and rinsed his mouth. Nurse McClain was watching him so he swallowed. He’d learned the hard way that swallowing a full mouthful of blood meant puking it back up half an hour later. The little bit that went down following a mouth rinse would do him no harm and stay put. 

He stopped by the card table. Nobody wanted to play. They were shooting the breeze. Speculating about Lieutenant McClain’s bra. Whether she was wearing one or not. Praying for a button to pop and expose the bountiful truth. David knew they were wasting their breath. He’d been on the ward two months and that top button had never popped, not once. He went back to the window. Maybe there would be a wreck on I-5. They had a good one last week. Took hours to clean up.

Davie, you there?

“Yeah.”

Good. You know that fuckin’ shrink’s been trying to kill me since we got here.

“He’s OK. Maybe if you’d talk with him he’d let us alone.”

Keep your voice down. They can’t hear me, but they can damn sure hear you. And Agnostico’s not gonna change his mind if him and me have little heart to heart. What he’s going to change is our poison. He’s putting us on Prochlorperazine tomrrow. We got a placebo this morning and we’re gonna get it again tonight. He wants to flush out our system before he starts us on the new shit in the morning. I don’t know if I can handle this one. Might kill me.

David checked the dayroom in the window’s reflection. No one was paying any attention to them. 

“Damn, Coach,” he muttered. 

Don’t worry. I got it all worked out. We’re not the only one on a placebo. Tabor is.

“How did you find out we were on a placebo? Was it in the chart?”

Bingo, Davie. There’s hope for you yet.

“What about Tabor? How’d you find out about him?”

Un-Bingo, Davie. No hope at all. Do you ever look at the pills they give us? Do you ever look at anybody else’s pills?

“I thought…”

Don’t think, Davie. You’re not equipped for it. We got new shit this morning. It was the same as Tabor’s shit. We’re both on a placebo. He’s been on it all along. But Bathrobe Miller ain’t. He’s on Thorazine. A crapload of it. That’s gonna get us out of here. Tonight. Got a bad feeling about that Prochlorperazine. Tomorrow might be too late. Listen up.

Be first at the happy wagon after chow. When you get your pill, drop it. Everybody will be watching McClain’s ass when she bends over to pick it up. Miller’s meds are dead center on the top row. Tabor’s are on the second row right below Millers. Swap ’em. Can you do that? Or do you want me to take over?

“You better do it.”

Fine. It might be thirty seconds. It might be thirty minutes. When that Thorazine kicks in Tabor will drop hard. Serrano and McClain are gonna be busy. When the crash wagon comes on the ward, they’ll prop open the doors, just like last time. By the time they know we’re gone, we’ll be hitching a ride on the interstate. 

Twenty minutes after pill line Tabor got out of his chair, walked uncertainly to the center of the dayroom and stopped, swaying slightly and blocking the console TV.

Somebody yelled, “Get out of the way, asshole!”

Tabor turned, “Something’s wrong.” 

He had a puzzled look as he fell.

Serrano held the door wide for the crash cart and closed it on their heels. Nurse McClain kept bouncing on Tabor’s chest until they had the paddles ready, then jumped off while Serrano ripped cloth and the crash crew took over. Her top three buttons had popped off. Nobody noticed.  

When she got back on ward from ICU she had on a new blouse, name tag crooked, no rank, no medals. Serrano had already mopped the blood off the dayroom floor where Tabor broke his nose. They let the men back out. The dayroom buzzed with differing versions of what happened. McClain decided not to tell them Tabor died. Major Agnostico could handle that in the morning.

David drifted to the window. The sun had gone down and he could no longer see the water tower. He watched headlights chasing taillights on I-5. 

“What now, Coach?”

Plan B. Just hang out in the dayroom and wait.

A bridge game started forming up. David walked over to the table and sat down.

Tell them spades is your game and give your seat to Miller.

“But…”

Shut up and do it.

David moved back to the window and sulked. He could play bridge. Learned it on the ward. He’d gotten good, a hell of a lot better than Miller. He thought about bringing this up, even if Coach had told him to shut up. Coach didn’t know everything. He was wrong about the crash cart.

I know Miller stinks at bridge. That’s why I want him playing. Plan B, Davie. The cart was only plan A.

“You’re not supposed to listen unless I talk out loud.”

You’re not supposed to think. You’re lousy at it. Now go watch TV. I’ll get you when it’s time.

“Night Gallery” was on its third segment when the argument broke out at the bridge table.

“Who you laughing at Waffle Face?” Miller rose to his feet. His chair skidded backwards and toppled over. He had something in his hand. “Better not be me.”

Tinsley’s face was black with a checkerboard of dead white keloid scars running from the crown of his bald skull down his forehead to somewhere below the collar of his shirt “I’m laughing at anybody stupid enough to go seven diamonds when I’m holding the ace in my hand. So I must be laughin’ at you, Cracker.”

He leaned forward, grinned and flipped a card in the air. The ace of diamonds landed face up. Miller brought his fist down and sprang back leaving two inches of his metal pen refill sticking up out of Tinsley’s skull. The other players jumped away. Tinsley leaned back in his chair. Put his hands to his head, closed his eyes and slumped.

Plan B, Davie.  Get in the corner by the palm tree and wait. I’ll tell you when.

“You simple bastards don’t know who you’re fucking with.” Miller tugged at the table. The bolts snapped. “But you’ll learn, damn you! You’ll learn.” He swung the table at the nursing station. Glass shattered. The metal frame bent but held. The table wedged stuck. Miller grabbed Rooney by the shoulder, bent down, snatched up his ankle, whirled and threw him across the dayroom. Rooney hit the wall below the window and scrambled to his feet just as Miller threw the TV at him. He slammed himself back on the floor. The TV flew over him. David watched the glass slowly bulge, blow out and let the television disappear into the night.

Now, Davie. Let’s go.

McClain and Serrano slammed into Miller from behind and bore him to the ground. No one noticed David walk casually to the window, balance in the empty frame between rippling curtains and step confidently out onto five stories of air.