Monday, October 15, 2012

Old-Fashioned Fiction Writing Contest: 1st Place

YOU SHALL BE MY BROTHER
by Bill Lapham

FRANCIS CAME HOME from Vietnam a changed man. He claimed the orange shit they dropped on the jungle made guys crazy. It could have been that, I suppose, or a thousand other things. Who knows what changes a man?
   Francis, not Frank, was my brother. He showed me how to get along in the world. We had fathers, but Mother didn’t know who they were. She said she carried Francis and me to delivery because she was making decent money at the time and thought it would be fun to have little babies around. Other potential siblings weren’t so “lucky.”
   After we grew up some, we started acting like little boys. Francis suffered considerable pain at the belt of Mother’s frustration with us. He was the oldest. I had to watch, she said, to “learn something.” The lesson escaped me.
   Francis drank beer before he went to Vietnam, but nothing like when he came home. There was a Before Vietnam Francis and an After Vietnam Francis. BVF was more or less normal, except for the scars. AVF was not normal, and had more scars. I have never seen a man drink so much, so fast, and not puke. He said American beer was too weak, so he fortified it with shots of Jim Beam and an occasional hit of blotter acid. He bought pot by the pound and sold what we didn’t smoke to buy more of the same. A “non-profit” high, he called it.
   After the Marines discharged him, he moved into a trailer outside Detroit with his Marine buddy Max. Together we called them FM. I still lived with Mother. They set up a big fish tank in the living room. I would usually find Francis staring at the fish, drinking beer and smoking dope with Max, who would be cleaning his gun. I always asked if I could have a beer on the way to the refrigerator, but they never replied. They never knew who put beer in the refrigerator. They never knew what belonged to whom.
   “Fuck ownership and shit, man.”
   They lived on unemployment checks, VA disability payments, pot ‘profits’, ‘gook noodles’, and old potato chips. They had a TV, but they hardly ever watched it.
   Stuart Granger and his wife Mary Kate lived next door. She was young and blonde, and he was young and blonde. It seemed like they were always kissing. When they weren’t working or sleeping, they were at FM’s, partying.
   Stuart was riding his dirt bike one day when he climbed a steep hill in the woods and fell into a newly poured basement. Carpenters found him the next day face down in the dried concrete. They used jackhammers to get his body out.
   Three days of funeral shit took their toll on Mary Kate. She ended up moving in with FM a couple of weeks after the funeral. She said she couldn’t sleep with Stuart’s ghost pacing the trailer in his underwear at night. Somebody burnt her trailer to the ground a week later. Trailer park management hired a crew from Detroit to clean up the melted remains, and nobody was ever charged with the crime.
   One day I brought Mother out to visit. She had wanted to see how Francis had “grown up” during the war, but she hadn’t made it to the front steps before he yelled at me to take her home. I complained that he ought to give Mother a chance to make amends, but he wouldn’t have it.
   “Bitch never sent me a single letter when I was in the shit, man.”
   I saw him in the kitchen cracking a beer and lighting a joint as I pulled out of the driveway. Mother cried all the way home, but it was hard for me to sympathize. You reap what you sow, I figured.
   The next night, Francis, Max, Mary Kate and I did some blotter. Max, who had spent a little time in Germany, was the disk jockey. He started with Hawkwind’s Brain Ticket, a vinyl LP. Max danced with Mary Kate, who looked too young to be a widow. Max looked like he had just come out of the bush, scarred and muscular. He had taken his shirt off revealing a huge spread eagle tattoo on his back. From wingtip-to-wingtip, shoulder-to-shoulder, printed in flowing script, were the words: “Where Were You?” There was a list of his dead friends. Below the list, across the small of his back, it said: Dak Pec, Vietnam, February 1970. Below that, tucked in his jeans, was his gun. Max had been in the hospital in Da Nang having a boil lanced during the battle of Dak Pec. He told me about it once when he was very drunk, and never mentioned it again.
   The music forced me and Francis out of the house; that, and the walls seemed to be melting. Outside, the street lamps showered pixilated glitter bits on the ground. Piles grew into giant cones and erupted in slow flowing lemonade. Our footsteps glowed and never faded away. Everything moved leaving rainbow trails in their wake. When the scene outside drove us back inside, the music would force us to go back outside. The front door revolved. It was a harrowing night. I don’t remember how I got back home.
   Later that same day, sometime after sunup, I think, Francis phoned to tell me Max was dead. He said he woke around noon, toured the trailer. His car was parked in the driveway and Mary Kate was asleep in her room alone, but no Max. He said he walked down to the lake where he and Max sometimes liked to sit and watch the sun come up. He found Max hanging from a tree branch. His gun and a step ladder lay on the ground under his feet. He had shot himself in the head and used the rope for insurance. Francis said they had seen guys survive headshots all fucked up.
   What bothered me most was that Max’s death never seemed to faze Francis. “He’s just dead,” he said.
   The day after we buried Max, Mary Kate, Francis and I were watching General Hospital when the phone rang. I answered it. Mother was slurring, said she had read Max’s obituary and was calling Francis.
   Francis wouldn’t take her call. “I got nothin’ for her, man,” he said.
   “He’s puking in the toilet,” I said, and hung up.
   Mary Kate lit a joint and passed it to Francis. He took a hit and passed it to me. Joints went around for the rest of the afternoon and well into the night. Every so often one of us got up to get cold beers. We ate everything in the kitchen that was edible. We toasted the ghosts of Stuart Granger and Pvt. Maxwell Connelly, USMC, (deceased) with shots of chilled Jim Beam. When Mary Kate passed out on the sofa, I covered her with a blanket. I remember seeing Francis polishing Max’s gun with a soft rag humming along with the national anthem on TV, sipping whiskey. The flag was waving in the black-and-white breeze.
   The announcer said it was the end of the broadcast day.

© William Lapham 2012

Bill Lapham is studying creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. He teaches and tutors undergraduate writing at Davenport University. He lives in Brighton, Michigan.

10 comments:

  1. As strange as this story is, it also seems entirely plausible. I think that's one of Bill's gifts. He pushes his characters to the edge of extreme but not so far that we lose feeling for them. I am glad the judges liked it as much as I do.

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  2. This reminds me of so much. What an awful time it was, too. Best to you Bill. It is a fine story.

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  3. I would salute you for your talent, Sir, but I swore never to salute anything again, ever.

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  4. i'm still mesmerized by the thought that we are (possbily) each of us a before event and after event. and what are we doing to cope with that?

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  5. Mr Lapham, you have become a major voice in my life. I listen, or read, and learn. With everything you produce there is a little more evidence of your growth as a writer, and your keenly observed take on scattered lives. You do extremely well with veterans, but are not limited to those who have served and been overlooked. All your characters live and breathe, and bleed, and now they are written, you've provided them with a certain immortality.
    This was superbly written, and MuDJoB (I am) is proud to present your winning story.

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  6. Here are the casualties of war and family perfectly rendered- congratulations Bill

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  7. I get goosebumps every time I finish one of Bill's stories. His, as always, distinct narrative voice hammers home the harsh realities of PTSD not just for the participants of war but for the "loved" ones coping with the aftermath as well. His simple, matter-of-fact and dare I say Raymond Carever-esqe prose lends all the more reality to his stories. Another haunting success for Mr. Lapham

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  8. This makes me want to smoke...

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  9. I originally thought I'd say something about what a perfect short film this would make, but, no, then I would be deprived of the joy this writer's talent brings me. Besides, 'tis a damn fine job of painting the picture with words. Masterfully crafted, COB.

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  10. 'laconic' is the word that came to mind, but I wonder if it ought to be 'numb' for its tone. Whichever, well done Bill.

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