A young man with wheat-colored hair cut in military fashion looked out the passenger window of an old Ford truck with the Chicago skyline shrinking in the side mirror. The run-down houses of the south side whizzed by in a blur of dingy brick and shabby rooftops as the truck merged onto the I-90. It stopped at a toll booth and the man’s father shoved a few crumpled dollar bills at the woman in the window before taking off again, grumbling something inaudible under his breath.
Crossroads of America
“I just can’t fucking believe you got kicked out of the Army, boy,” Lonnie Lands heard his father clearly that time. “The Army! How do you even do that? I thought they were happy to take any retard who signed up.”
Lonnie Lands continued to glare out the window, though his ears started to burn a bright red. He tried his best to block out the condescending words of his ignorant redneck father, but in all his twenty-two years he had never been able to fully accomplish the task. He took a deep breath in through his nose and closed his eyes.
“They said you were tossed ’cause you clocked some nigger? That true?”
Lonnie finally turned to Buddy Lands, a weather-beaten, thin man in a worn-in White Sox cap that covered his graying hair and an Allman Brothers t-shirt. There was a bulge in his lower lip that stuck out like a tumor.
“Don’t call him that,” Lonnie spat.
“Sorry, your highness, oh Prince of politically correctness and shit. I heard you called him worse than that and then some, but whatever you say, son. Was that Afro-American your friend or somethin’?” Buddy Lands let his beady eyes drift from the road. He gave a wheezing laugh as he grit his yellowing teeth flecked with tobacco. “Well?”
Lonnie furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, which shot daggers at the one man in the world he abhorred beyond all recognition. “Yeah, something like that, so knock it off.”
“Oh, we got a tough guy here!” Buddy laughed louder, burrowing deeper into his son’s nerves. The excitement made him hack into his hand where he caught sopping chunks of dip. He wiped it of on his shirt and continued on like nothing happened. “Mr. Tough Guy got somethin’ to say?”
Lonnie seethed. His body sat as close to the passenger door as he could manage away from Buddy, Bud, the Bastard Dad from Hell.
“OK tough guy, why don’t you tell me what he did to make you go bat-shit crazy enough to throw away the only shot you had at somethin’? What is that little filly you tricked into agreeing to marry you gonna say when she finds out her fiancé is nothin’ but a dead-beat, broke, asshole with nothin’ to offer? Five days. You couldn’t wait five fucking days till you graduated that joke of a fucking boot camp? Boy, I thought I raised you smarter than that.”
Lonnie turned to stare Buddy Lands in the eye. His thin lips curled up into a smirk. “You didn’t raise me at all, Bud.”
Without warning, he was knocked in the side of the head with a clenched fist that felt like a rock.
“What did you say to me, boy?!”
The blue truck swerved, causing the car next to them to honk wildly as the driver thrust up her middle finger. The tires squealed as Buddy tried to right himself again. He gripped the steering wheel and turned around to catch another glimpse of the woman he felt was in the wrong. “Stupid bitch.”
Bright stars danced around Lonnie’s vision as he swayed slightly in his seat. He didn’t turn to look at Buddy. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead, he watched the cows disappear behind them as they exited the highway by the local Bass Pro Shop.
“What the fuck is your deal? You act like you have some sorta skills you’re hidin’ from me that’ll enable you to take care of your fucking self for once, like you have anything else you can do ‘sides runnin’ in circles like a greyhound and shootin’ A-rabs. What in the Sam hell were you thinkin’?” Buddy kept his eyes trained on his stocky, thick-headed son as he merged the sputtering truck onto the scenic route of highway twelve.
Lonnie Lands pursed his lips and kept silent.
Buddy shook his head, worked the crank to roll down his window, and spat the wad of dip from his mouth. It caught the wind and hit the side of the truck, bursting into moist clumps.
“You better get yourself straight, boy, ’cause shit like this can’t happen again. I won’t have it. You’ll be outta the house faster than you can say “hoo-ah”.
Lonnie wished he could remember exactly what happened three and a half weeks ago with recruit Jenkins, but the incident was a hazy, bloody blur. It started off like any other Sunday morning in boot camp. Mail had just arrived. Lonnie had been waiting four weeks to receive something from his fiancée, Amy and it was his lucky day. She’d finally written back. He clutched her letter in his stubby fingers as he searched the barracks room for a solitary place to sit and read it. Behind a row of bunk beds was as solitary as it got. Three other young men were spread out there as well.
Lonnie sat down facing the row of windows, his back leaning against the metal fame of the bed. His hands shook slightly as he unfolded the lined, wrinkled paper. There was the exhilarating feeling of his stomach dropping when he saw the familiar scribbles of Amy’s girlish handwriting. He couldn’t control the smile that tugged at his lips, pulling all the way up to his light blue eyes till they crinkled in the corners. He held the paper in both hands tightly as excitement churned in his stomach and rose through his throat.
I’ve found someone else, someone who’ll be there for me instead of halfway across the world. Please don’t write me or contact me again. I think it’s best if we just move on.
The letter shook in Lonnie’s hands. His jaw clenched together and his teeth ground back and forth. Sharp, small breaths of air burst from his nostrils. His eyes dart back and forth as he reread it over and over again.
How could she do that to him? It had been her idea that he join the Army in the first place, so he could take care of her when they were finally a family. They’d been together since the beginning of high school. Eight long years he’d given her, his best years, and that was how she repaid him? By fucking some other random guy and telling him about it in a letter just before graduation?
A hand slapped Lonnie on the shoulder, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her words. DeShawn Jenkins plopped down next to Lonnie on the warm tile floor and chuckled. His smile reached all the way up to his eyes where there were permanent crow’s feet.
Jenkins had thirteen years on Lands, having joined the Army at the very last possible minute, just months before his thirty-sixth birthday and cut-off age of enlistment. Out of fear and having no better options, he shipped out of Cleveland, Ohio the same day Lonnie left O’Hare airport in Chicago, both arriving at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia together.
The two had bonded in the first few days with talk of their “old ladies” and comparisons over who had the worst dad. Jenkin won that one when he told the story of his old man whipping him with a leather belt when he was six-years-old because he ate the last Oreo in the house. He still had the wide scars across his smooth, dark back.
“What you readin’, man?” Jenkins laughed as he jostled Lonnie’s shoulder playfully with his own. “Finally get that letter from your girl you been whining about for weeks?” He snatched the paper from Lonnie’s shaky fingers, which clenched into fists. “Anything dirty? My old lady hasn’t even tried to send me one picture yet with—”
Before DeShawn Jenkins could finish, Lonnie lunged full-force and landed on top of him with all his muscular weight. His mind fogged over and his fists moved as if they had minds of their own. He saw nothing but red as he pounded away on any tender flesh he could find. Jenkins yelled and tried to block the shots, but they came from every angle. His nose busted, spraying the front of Lonnie’s green t-shirt in a fountain of bright red blood. Lonnie didn’t remember doing any of that, but that’s what they said had happened.
Since his mother died when he was twelve he’d undergone serious rage blackouts, something he didn’t bother to mention to his recruiter when he signed up. The first time it happened, a classmate of his teased him about why his mother killed herself. He ended up in the hospital with a broken nose and three fractured ribs. No matter how hard he tried to fight it over the years, it snuck up on him like a cheetah on a gazelle. He vowed to learn to control his rage. He wouldn’t allow himself to be consumed by the darkness. Ten years after that very first blackout, he was still in the same place, no further along in learning how to stop what he couldn’t get a handle on.
He let his head rest against the cool glass of the passenger window as the truck roared loudly down the two lane highway.