by David Carrington
The Vagrant still felt an urge to eat, though his body rejected even the blandest food. Crackers, cornflakes—minute spoonfuls, chewed slowly—all of it churned inside a hollow abdomen, bubbling over until painful spasms cleared his colon in an explosion of undigested filth. At five-foot-ten, the Vagrant weighed just 113 pounds. Homeless, hungry, and terminally ill, he no longer occupied any permanent address, except a barren liminal zone between life and death, citizen and outcast, the sated and the starving.
Already faint, the Vagrant feared if he went another hour without a meal, he’d pass out—and pass away—there on the cracked sidewalk of Clinton Avenue, otherwise known as Route 14, a disused byway rendered obsolete by I-70. He leaned on a telephone pole to catch his breath. From under his boot came a sharp, wet crunch.
A crushed praying mantis. Insect guacamole stuck to the grooves of his sole. Arkansas folklore held that killing these bugs was inauspicious, a superstition the Vagrant recalled as he examined the twitchy, broken legs. Scraping the corpse against the curb, he snickered in a low, slow drawl, “Well, at least I outlived you.”
Streetlamps suddenly switched on in unison. Mellow amber light cast shadows over the storefronts, shut and deserted at nine p.m. on a late-winter Sunday. The Vagrant squinted bloodshot blue eyes against the glare while he took in the panorama of his birthplace—Kindheart Creek, an unincorporated hamlet in southeast Bogan County. Mathematically, the town didn’t add up to much: 328 permanent residents, plus 1,600 transient soldiers and 7,000 chemical warheads domiciled at the nearby army base, Central Homeland Forces (CHF).
“What a place to die,” the Vagrant said to himself. “Man, what a place to have to live.”
Tiny businesses flanked both sides of the street. Among the shops were two interchangeable bars, Deep Elem and Gypsy Rose, each selling Bud and Bud-Lite on tap, as well as dollar shots of Jack Daniels at happy hour—the shortest hour of the day. Between the boozers lay Razorback Hardware, parallel to the Piggly Wiggly and a Texaco. Grand Ozark Bank abutted Mayfield Accountants. Nearby, a three-story, antebellum brick, and stucco building hosted the post office. Other municipal agencies, even the police, were located at the county seat, more than twenty-minutes to the northeast. Not much trouble occurred in Kindheart Creek, but when it did, folks addressed it privately, without the intervention of cops and social workers—an admirable Southern trait.
Another regional distinction, hospitality, though present on a personal level, never quite took root as an industry here. A quarter-mile from town center was Kindheart Creek’s only lodgings, the Snug Bed Inn, or “Bed Bug Inn,” according to locals. The motel rented singles with thin pink blankets, mildewed wallpaper, and swamp-coolers, accommodations so dank and dingy that even the cockroaches checked out early. Nevertheless, its rates suited the Vagrant’s nonexistent budget; he had recently secured Room 101 by presenting the manager a down-payment of five dollars from his pitiful disability benefit, confident that he’d croak before the final bill came due. If nothing else, the Bed Bug was near J.A. Logan Medical Pavilion, so-named for a pioneer unknown outside Bogan County. Two years ago, the clinic detected anomalies in the Vagrant’s blood count.
“Abnormal,” the befuddled country physician fretted. “Boy, your whole damn immune system’s gone.”
Immediately after that diagnosis, or lack thereof, lymph glands in the Vagrant’s groin swelled to the size and consistency of marbles. White curds coated his tongue. Pneumonia followed. None of these maladies frightened him as much as the weight loss; the thirty-three-year-old trucker’s tough, toned body began to dissolve, and no amount of extra protein kept the pounds from evaporating.
The Vagrant then contracted toxoplasmosis, a parasite that devours brain tissue. This infection actually proved a stroke of luck, insofar as it manifested while he possessed enough income for treatment at University Hospital in Little Rock, where virologists and oncologists debated the syndrome’s origin but concurred on its prognosis: end-stage. Incurable.
After a month in intensive care, the Vagrant’s condition stabilized somewhat. Back in Kindheart Creek, Logan Medical dispensed toxic, ineffective, and exorbitantly priced drugs. Interferon, DDI, Pentamidine, Fluroplex, and CM6, an arcane pharmacopeia with many unwanted side-effects, including poverty. Thousands of dollars in copays, yet not a single remedy. In fact, the only prescriptions worth a shit, as far as the Vagrant could tell, were the gorgeous purple circlets of morphine sulfate, crumbly teal Dilaudid, and, for breakthrough pain, oblong yellow Percodan.
Too fatigued to drive a Peterbilt, he resigned as a long-haul trucker less than six months to the date after he checked out of the hospital. His physical affliction soon became a social disease. Disability amounted to a biweekly pittance, a fraction of the full payout due to the undefined nature of the Vagrant’s malady. Checks bounced. Helpful Hands dropped his insurance coverage. Grant Ozark Bank foreclosed on his dogtrot. Indigence resulted, and dining options became rather limited.
As his health and finances nosedived, the Vagrant became preoccupied with a double-conundrum: where to find adequate nutrition and how to pay for it? Although his waistline shrunk to a skeletal circumference, he still required calories. Comfort foods appealed to him, as well. Yet, what the Vagrant craved most was the stability associated with regular meals.
To eat—to be seen eating, by and with other people—meant that one was alive, another hungry member of a voracious society.
Kindheart Creek’s culinary scene was scarce, however. Few commercial eateries, and not a single soup-kitchen or Salvation Army. Fast food consisted of Delacroix Po’boys and Romeo’s Pizzeria, adjoining shops owned and managed by Paul Lafontaine, a former sheriff and current Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan. Evidence of this affiliation—fiery cross and swastika tattoos—peeked out from under his shirtsleeves.
Approaching the twin takeaways, the Vagrant paused for a second by their doors, propped slightly ajar for ventilation. Lafontaine spotted him, and as usual, the stocky ex-cop grabbed a Ginsu knife and sharpener, honing the blade against the stone, back and forth in a grandiose pantomime of menace.
“No loitering!” Lafontaine shouted. “Diseased meth-head.”
“No problem,” the Vagrant replied. “Racist pig.”
Even this minor disturbance made his hands shake. Whereas he once considered himself capable of landing a decisive uppercut, these days, any adrenaline surge exacerbated his chronic hypoglycemia, resultant from malnutrition and malabsorption. Nervous and nauseated, the Vagrant stopped to catch his breath at the next intersection, Jefferson Davis Place, where the air had a distinct aroma—grilled beef and deep-fried onion, signature smells from The Family Table, Kindheart Creek’s only full-service restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Beyond The Family Table, the town ended. Kindheart Creek dissipated into scattered farms, trailer parks, and miniature subdivisions on the edge of a mythic West. Since childhood, the Vagrant envisioned making a pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean, then perhaps settling in Redondo Beach or wandering further afield to Sonora or Sinaloa. At this point, though, he’d accepted the fact that he’d never retire to a coastal paradise. Fantasies such as physical bodies wither when deprived of nutrients, including cash and credit. Without these essential elements, the frontier’s invitation to rugged individualists amounted to a marketing slogan—an empty promise, vapid as the message on The Family Table’s sign: All You Can Eat.
Neon bulbs sizzled... All You Can Eat... Electric blue letters mocking his hunger... Daring him to partake from the bottomless platter... All You Can Eat.
Haloed by azure light, the Vagrant’s emaciated image reflected off The Family Table’s windows, plastered with advertisements. Glossy printouts showed an ‘81 Dodge Ram for sale. Snapshots of a Cairn Terrier dangled from a flyer marked, “Lost Dog = Heartbroken Children.” Dominating the display was a bold-faced poster.
STATE FAIR – LABOR DAY WEEKEND 1982 – BE THERE
August seemed as far beyond the Vagrant’s life-expectancy as next century; by then, he’d be cremated or buried—ashes or fertilizer unmourned and unmissed by all but a statistically insignificant percentage of Kindheart Creek.
It was that realization that convinced him to do it.
Careful not to ring the bell on the doorjamb, the Vagrant slid sideways through the restaurant’s front entrance, with its Visa and Discover decals as well as an index card that admonished “Food Stamps Not Accepted.” According to the posted hours, he was late for dinner.
Twenty minutes left ‘till closing.
The Vagrant entered The Family Table’s lobby. He crept across the dichromatic subway tiles, past the unoccupied hostess stand, and around the plastic ferns. He peered over the plywood and latticed-glass partitions that divided the buffet from the dining area’s two sections.
Salad bar at the right. Soup to the left. At the center, enormous stainless-steel trays held the entrees—St. Louis ribs, honey-bourbon pulled pork, slow-cooked collard greens, purple hull peas, roasted sweetcorn, glazed apples, crispy fried chicken. Ceiling fans emitted a gentle buzz as they dispersed the restaurant’s various alimentary odors, not all of them pleasant. Country-kitsch décor hung on wood-paneled walls—antique license plates, Norman Rockwell prints, and Coca-Cola emblems.
To complete the wistful Middle-American ambiance, Old Glory occupied a place of honor by the buffet. The Stars and Stripes stretched between two poles, its dimensions bigger than a bedsheet. CHF, the nearby military base, donated the flag to The Family Table in appreciation of its many wholesome, home-cooked memories.
The Vagrant found the restaurant’s layout unaltered since his previous visits, during his previous life. The whole place was arranged for leisurely grazing, unlimited opportunities for Kindheart Creek natives to gorge until they grew bloated and drowsy, slumped in their chairs in blissful stupors. Just as the Vagrant reached the main dining area, he heard a familiar greeting—disgusted gasps combined with a tsk-tsk of contemptuous pity.
“Oh, my Gawd! Look ‘a that bum, so nasty!” Lil’ Olivia Lafontaine shrieked in delight as she shook a blonde teenage bob cut.
She cowered against her much older boyfriend, a singular specimen of chiseled masculinity, Clayton Beauregard III, six-foot-eight inches of pasty bulk. In a single chomp, Clayton bit off three-quarters of his “Superhero Hero,” an amalgamation of four cheeseburgers, coleslaw, pickles, peppers, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mozzarella sticks, and fried eggs stuffed between baguettes and slathered in condiments. Anyone who finished the special a-la-carte sandwich received a laminated certificate, along with a free antacid and coupons for a coronary bypass.
Cuisine preferences aside, Clayton’s manners were a testament to the fact that food loses its allure when you watch someone eat it. He chewed with his mouth wide open; flecks of chyme flew from his lips as he spoke in a sibilant monotone, “Right ugly specimen. Someone ought to put it out of its misery. Like Daddy done when our heifer, Gertrude, come down with the aftosa.”
Snuggling against his bicep, Olivia said, “Clayton, cutie. I don’t like that bum eyeing me so nasty like he’s fixin’ to pinch my titties. Ain’t right him sneakin’ in here to bother decent folks. I feel threatened by his presence.”
Clayton took Sweet-and-Low from a ceramic holder. Meticulous about dental hygiene, he used the pink paper to floss his bicuspids, then sucked the slime off the packet. When he finished, Clayton replaced the sugar in the dispenser as he consoled Lil’ Olivia, “Don’t worry, cupcake. Good people can’t abide injustice.”
A pair of army officers in Dress Blues overheard the couple: Lieutenant Dan Vleier and Colonel Andrew Penner. The former served as adjutant to the latter. Penner oversaw the CHF army base, and every Sunday, he ate at The Family Table, accompanied by his wife and son, as well as Lieutenant Vleier.
As he pointed to the Vagrant’s facial lesions, Vleier nudged Colonel Penner, saying, “Talk about your purple mountain’s majesty… looks like that hobo’s got grapes glued to his head.”
Metal clanged against ceramic. Colonel Penner had dropped his utensils. With a slow exhalation, he lifted a napkin to his precision-trimmed mustache, dyed the same generic brown color as his, high and tight.
“Dee-spicable,” Colonel Penner enunciated.
Unsure of whether the remark constituted a rebuke, Vleier replied, “Uh, yes, sir. Despicable.”
Fixing the Vagrant in his sniper’s stare, eyes cold and grey as liquid nitrogen, Penner added, “That so-called man does not belong here. He’s roadkill. He belongs out on the blacktop.”
Colonel Penner’s metaphor triggered an association for Vleier, who tried to imagine the Vagrant more robust – wheaten hair restored to a bright sheen, wasted musculature replenished. Suddenly, the lieutenant exclaimed, “Wait a second, that’s the truck driver!” He pointed at the Vagrant, saying, “That’s the guy who delivered supplies to CHF. His name was... Kit... or...um—that’s it: Chris Carson.”
“He’s a vagrant now,” Colonel Penner replied.
“Carson seemed a nice, regular guy when he delivered to our base,” Vleier said. “Who’d have guessed there was something wrong with him?”
“He was compromised from the beginning. There were rumors.”
The lieutenant fidgeted in his chair, “Hey... uh... do you think he’s contagious, colonel?”
“Well, therein lies our predicament—exposure to this unpleasantness.” Colonel Penner continued, sotto-voce, “I don’t need another morale problem with Gwynn. Understand, Vleier?”
Gwynn was the colonel’s wife. An aloof Welsh woman, she married Penner during his multiyear secondment to a NATO post in Hereford. Worry and regret had etched deep fault lines across her brow; her black hair matched her moods. After Gwynn’s latest, half-hearted suicide attempt—Prozac overdose—she spent a mandatory fourteen days under observation at Sheldon Psychiatric in Wade County. Dinner, that night at The Family Table, was supposed to be Gwynn’s return-to-sanity party, at least per Colonel Penner’s directive.
Prior to the arrival of the Vagrant—Chris Carson—the Penners’ celebration seemed no different than their other weekend outings. Each Sunday, Lieutenant Vleier drove them to The Family Table in a Ford Crown Victoria with army burgees on its antenna. They took the same table; they overate; they overdrank; they retold stale stories. Conversation focused on ammo requisitions and guard duty rosters, topics closed to Gwynn and irrelevant to her son, whom the colonel habitually and exclusively referred to as, “The Boy.”
That anonymous, categorical description—comparable to the term “vagrant.” While the kid disliked the moniker, Gwynn detested it almost as much as her “army wife” label. Despite occasional salvoes of Welsh, replete with unpronounceable double-L curses, Gwynn had learned to swallow her grievances with Chablis and Valium.
Vleier preferred Coors Lite. After six cans, he’d adopt the “at ease” posture and then amuse his c-in-c with news about the latest army catastrophes—misfiled forms, scuffed boots, or other inane issues that the lieutenant overdramatized as “Charlie Foxtrots,” mil-speak for Cluster Fucks.
Colonel Penner never relaxed, though. An impenetrable stoic and strict teetotaler, he prided himself on control. Within the married quarters or at The Family Table, emotional outbursts were verboten.
As for The Boy, he wilted under the system arbitrarily imposed on him by birth. Repeated moves from base to base, one rural ZIP code then another, forced The Boy to mature fast, but it also instilled in him a furtive, self-contained temperament, as well as a tendency to question authority, one of the many desires he suppressed. Unlike the colonel, he didn’t think Kindheart Creek was quaint, nor did he appreciate The Family Table; its décor matched its menu—uninspired as an army brat’s routines.
The Vagrant’s entrance, as The Boy saw it, posed a possible break in the monotony.
As if on cue, Olivia Lafontaine wailed again, “Oh my Gawd! What that nasty bum doin’? He’s fixin’ to poison the drinks. Gonna get our sody-pop full of cooties.”
To curtail unpaid refills, The Family Table prohibited clients from retrieving beverages from the water carafes and soda fountain. All patrons obeyed the stipulation, except Chris Carson, who poured and gulped multiple tumblers of sweet tea to soothe his raw trachea. The gesture was unpremeditated, but most customers took it as a blatant violation of established norms, and they responded with a barrage of seething, half-whispered invective:
“Speed-freak.” “Perv.” “Bum’s so nasty.”
“Get straight, Carson—Get straight with Jesus, boy.”
Of course, not everyone at The Family Table taunted Chris Carson. Silence prevailed over the majority—dumbstruck by germaphobia, cowed by recollections of an aggressive panhandler, determined to “mind their own.” Some grimaced in sympathy, but the consensus among the diners was to concentrate on their own forks, content in the common fallacy that, in this equitable nation, most people get what they want, as well as what they deserve.
This notion provided regular consolation to Kindheart Creek, particularly in relation to gossip about Chris Carson. Anecdotes about the trucker’s background and predilections were traded, cherished, and embellished, every story an uneven mixture of fact and hearsay. Perennial favorites included: a lethal barfight in Omaha; orgies with handsome hitchhikers in truck-stop toilets; sleepless weeks on the interstate powered by ultra-pure crank; a bastard son who rode with Hell’s Angels; secret sex parties from Shreveport to Pensacola.
Whereas the town had once enjoyed tattle about Chris Carson, his erstwhile neighbors became deaf to the Vagrant, whose labored breath they barely detected over the restaurant racket—the spoons scraped on bowls, a waitress’s indifferent offer of “More coffee, hon?”
Through the noise came clicking heels. On the way to the exit, a tall, dark woman in snakeskin boots touched Carson’s sleeve as she tucked a few bucks into his jacket and said, “God help you, Chris.”
That invocation caught the attention of the Reverend Dr. Jesse Fairlane, evangelical pastor of Exodus Church. Leaning on a dishrack as though it were a pulpit, he quoted, “Thou shalt have no truck with the unfaithful. Ye shall expose and revile their infamy. Ezekiel... 12... 34.”
Carson turned the other cheek to the reverend. “Holy asshole,” he mumbled.
“You don’t need God’s help,” Fairlane sneered. “You need His forgiveness. Look in the mirror, Carson. Those sores are God Almighty’s penalty for your offenses. Get down on those knees again, boy... But this time, it better be at the church altar.”
Carson dismissed the minister with an eye-roll, but Fairlane stepped between him and the fresh dishware. “The congregation might allow you back,” the reverend said. “No, no—don’t shake your head, Carson, it’s true. But first, you’ll beg forgiveness for mocking God, for disobeying your Almighty Father.”
“I mocked you, Fairlane,” Carson replied.
“You’ve done much worse,” the reverend hissed. He turned to the dining area and boomed, “Those who violate the laws of nature, violate the laws of nature’s God.”
“Amen,” chirped five elderly ladies who paid for their pastor’s Sabbath feast. Fairlane depended on this wrinkled quintet to support his ego and his coffers, while the old bags slobbered over the minister, assured that his intercession guaranteed them first-class tickets to heaven. Subservient nods and affirmatory hosannas invigorated the reverend, so he resumed preaching to his choir.
“There you have it, my friends,” Fairlane said as he gestured at Carson. “Be grateful to be counted among the blessed flock. Rejoice in the mighty shepherd. For behold, God’s divine retribution upon this sinner, this criminal sodomite.”
Though he tried to ignore the taunts, in spite of himself, Carson blurted, “Hey, why don’t you go screw one of your geriatric sheep, Fairlane?”
The minister blanched while his octogenarians bleated. Reverend Fairlane stammered, “How... how... dare you use such language in front of these people.” In desperation, he requested military assistance, imploring, “Colonel Penner! Excuse me, sir, this is serious. Someone’s got to rid us of this pariah?”
Penner left his seat. The Boy followed, sneaking away from his mother, now comfortably submerged in her fourth glass of Grand Cru. Concealed behind a plastic fern, he assessed the belligerents—his parent and Chris Carson, soldier versus Vagrant. One gleamed—polished and ramrod straight, upright and uptight, so tense that he seemed primed to snap from chronic repressed anxiety. The other, bent against the buffet, displayed a weary dignity, even a tranquil sense of purpose.
Despite Chris Carson’s appearance, or because of it, The Boy felt an odd, pleasantly aberrant attraction to him. Sunken cheekbones and shrunken eye sockets notwithstanding, he possessed an otherness recognizable to the boy. The two shared certain alien chromosomes—seeds of freakishness, which emitted a power as dangerous and intangible as radiation; and like those exposed to nuclear isotopes, Boy and Vagrant both developed mutations.
The young man stiffened. Whatever appalling offenses the stranger committed, The Boy aspired to the same forbidden acts and sensations—the flavor, scent, and feel of transgression. Liberation came about through rebellion, and emancipation seemed worth the risk of contagion and scandal. Though he couldn’t apprehend the word’s full meaning, the boy repeated it continuously. “Pariah.”
“What did you say, boy?” Colonel Penner asked. “And why aren’t you with your mother?”
Before any answer came, the kitchen doors flew open with a puff of greasy steam. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Billy Lee, emerged, accompanied by nervous waitstaff.
“What the hell’s this commotion?” Lee asked.
Lieutenant Vleier answered, “That hobo wandered into your restaurant, Mr. Lee. He’s scaring your clients and planning to steal food.”
Lee laughed, “Chris Carson? He don’t worry me none. How’s about y’all—”
“Be on the side of virtue, Brother Lee,” Reverend Fairlane interjected. “Do the right thing. Do the responsible thing. Remove this—thing—from your premises... before someone gets hurt. Like Colonel Penner’s son.”
Lee hesitated to evict Carson, having known him pre-vagrancy. Eager to get back to the peaceful privacy of his kitchen, the chef said, “I got no problem with Chris. None whatsoever. And I don’t intend to call the cops either. Why don’t you fight your own war this time, colonel?”
Infuriated by such insubordination, Penner said, “Do your job. Take out the trash. Otherwise, you can expect a visit from a government inspector.”
“My kitchen’s clean as a nun’s undies,” Lee said. “Send your damn health inspector.”
“Are your taxes spotless, too?” the colonel asked.
Taking on the aspect of a disconnected television, Lee relented, “All right, all right. No sense pissin’ into a hurricane.” Turning to Carson, he said, “Sorry, man. You gotta go. This priest, those officers—the folks in the dining room—they’re my regulars. If they ain’t happy, they don’t come back. And if they don’t come back, I can’t meet expenses, and then... well, can you imagine what’ll happen?
Carson laughed—a metallic, rueful expression of ironic contempt. He started to remove from his jacket the few bills he possessed when Lieutenant Vleier shouted, “He’s pulling a knife!”
The Family Table screamed as the colonel grabbed Carson’s arm. Twisting the fragile twig behind his back, he said, “Listen, scumbag. If you can’t pay, you can’t stay. Normal, healthy people obey the rules. Those who don’t, face the consequences.”
“Hallelujah,” whooped Reverend Fairlane. “Regit Publicas!”
From a corner booth, Clayton Beauregard shouted, “Get him, colonel! Shoot ‘em like Daddy done to that heifer with the aftosa.”
“Woo hoo!” Oliva Lafontaine cheered. “No more nasty bum!”
Diners of every description, and in various states of digestion, broke into a spontaneous, syncopated chant of hatred:
“Throw ‘em out!” “Throw him into traffic!” “Kick his scrawny ass!”
Everyone around The Family Table—couples, soldiers, churchgoers—found themselves aroused by the prospect of violence. Most of the diners wore nicer clothes than Chris Carson and consumed richer suppers, but they also coped with some degree of similar privations, the perpetual heartache associated with aspiring to more than the minimum wage. Regardless of their private motivations, the crowd released its collective frustration and disappointments on an acceptable and convenient target, and they indulged in another vice—an alternative to gluttony, intemperance, and greed: cruelty.
Chris Carson smiled. He almost retreated, but there was nowhere else to go for dinner.
In defiance of the mob and his own infirmity, Carson jerked away from the colonel and flung a few dollars onto the floor as he lunged at the buffet and began to grab food. Grits, biscuits, chicken, mashed potatoes, mixed veg, and barbeque ribs—he used gnarled, blue fingers to sample the various selections, stuffing himself with as much as he wanted of whatever he wanted.
All he could eat.
While Carson hurriedly chewed a mouthful of catfish, a fist sank into his spine, followed by several quick jabs to the kidney. He crumpled to the cool parquet beneath the buffet. Both ears hummed. He made an admirable attempt to stand on jelly legs but surrendered to vertigo. Patent leather shoes shuffled through his field of vision. Lieutenant Vleier and Revered Fairlane lifted Carson upward while Colonel Penner cracked his knuckles.
Although he was prepared for this reaction to his improvised protest, Carson had underestimated his own physical deterioration, the diminished ability to fight back. He watched the colonel approach in slow-motion, a parcel of time that barely proved sufficient for him to reorient and regain his balance. When Penner came into range, Carson kicked upward—a steel-toed work-boot aimed at the colonel’s balls.
It missed the mark by a millimeter.
After the initial shock, Colonel Penner looked momentarily amused. Like a pitcher for the Cardinals, the colonel’s favorite baseball team, he took a series of small steps, cocked an arm back, and then pulverized the flimsy scarecrow restrained by Vleier and Fairlane. Five precise punches direct to Carson’s stomach. Through the delicious buzz of unleashed rage, the colonel may have heard someone plead, “enough, enough,” but Penner continued to land blows until his arm went taut and heavy, as though held back by a weight.
The Boy, in fact.
“What are you doing?” Colonel Penner yelled as the boy released his arm. “Goddamn it, what’s wrong with you, boy?
Hot, humiliated tears trickled down his cheeks. He looked and felt much younger than his age, and the more the boy tried to dam the anger and disgust, the faster and harder he cried.
“Stop it,” the colonel insisted. “Goddamn you. Stop crying. You’re making a scene!”
Reverend Fairlane and Lieutenant Vleier loosened their grip of Chris Carson, who dangled in their custody as a raggedy coat on a hanger. The restaurant went mute, save for the whimpering Boy and wheezing Vagrant. To regain composure, Colonel Penner grabbed a napkin. Mopping his mustache, he tried to speak in a calm, even voice. “It’s okay,” he said. “I understand. You’re sorry. You feel guilty about grabbing my arm. But, it’s okay. There’s no need to apologize.”
At that moment, Carson escaped his captors. Every muscle in his body tightened as he staggered forward and tensed his stomach, then clutched his waist and lolled backward, falling into the enormous American flag near the buffet.
Old Glory wrapped itself around Chris Carson. Straight-jacketed in the red, white, and blue, he fought to get free until suddenly he stopped and moaned, “Oh shit!” Curled in a fetal position on the floor, he strained and failed to hold back simultaneous explosions of vomit and feces, torrents rich in green bile and sticky red blood-clots.
“Sweet Jesus,” the reverend said, “This guy’s possessed!”
Lieutenant Vleier observed, “Defaced flags require incineration. Standard protocol, right colonel?”
“That’s enough damage for one night,” Penner replied. “Gentlemen, shall we?”
Careful to avoid the biological pollutants, the officers and the priest hauled the prostrate figure out of The Family Table and deposited the heap on Clinton Avenue. Back by the buffet, Carson’s crumpled money lay on the parquet. Billy Lee picked up the bills.
Six dollars in total—almost enough for dinner––not including tips.
There was nothing left to say—and no one wanted to eat anymore—so the diners exchanged goodnights. Colonel Penner ordered Lieutenant Vleier to escort his wife and son to the Ford Crown Victoria, but both had already gone outside. Gwynn reclined in the backseat, aching head on the window, diazepam under her tongue. The Boy remained on the sidewalk, where he studied the smudged trail of human fluids that extended away from the Family Table—to the West.
The lieutenant belched politely. He opened the passenger-door for Colonel Penner, who buckled his seatbelt and signed the chit necessary for the army to reimburse their meal. Vleier turned on the ignition while Gwynn, as always, pretended to sleep.
David Carrington is an author of literary and transgressive fiction. In addition to a recent novel, The Permanent Assurance, his writing consists of a novella, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, including pieces that received awards from Columbia University Press and Rockefeller Institute. His work has also appeared in The Rutgers Quarterly Review, National Poetry Project UK, The Asp, and other publications. Prior to his current position as a member of the administration and faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY), he lived throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Art by Na Liu