Shepard had just gotten home and all us boys from junior high were glad as hell to see him. We threw a big blowout at Ron Johnson’s place. Ron shared the apartment with his girlfriend who was in Biloxi on a big gambling-cum-outlet-mall trip with her sister. I was a little upset at hearing that sad fact because her sister was get-out leggy and had a pair to boot. Too many nights I’ve stayed up, moving the sheets and kissing sisters. I was glad to see Shep too, don’t get me wrong, but the promise of a bit of playtime never killed anyone either.
I got over to Johnson’s place around nine-thirty and everybody was already all sweaty inside. Ron said that the AC had busted and the landlord, some Yankee Jew from Minneapolis, was refusing to come and fix it. Erin O’Shea handed me a cigarette and a bottle of whiskey. I let his girlfriend light my cigarette and told the mick to stop playing to stereotypes. He asked me what my heritage was and what stereotypes I should be held to. I waved him off.
He slugged me in the shoulder. I spilled a little of the whiskey on my shirt and he sucked it out through his teeth. I liked that guy. In a few weeks, he’ll run himself into a ditch and not run out. I couldn’t remember his girlfriend’s name but we dated briefly in college. Well, she went to college. I was enrolled but never got past the parking lot.
Everyone likes me because I’m a funny guy. People tell me I should be a comedian. I’ve got a friend over in Biloxi who works the ships where the old blue-hairs go to stretch their dough. He told me I could kill on those ships. Told me the pay is right and he could set me up easy. He’s dating a dancer who does the Moulin Rouge routine in the big ballroom at Harrah’s. What a life you got I’m always telling him. What a life.
I left Erin to his girl and his drink and moved through the wet mass of bodies. Sandra Applebaum was there wearing an oversized Corona beer t-shirt that she cut up to be a tank top showing just about everything you could want to see except the pink parts. A big nosed guy I’d never seen before with a close-cropped hairdo was cutting off the legs of her jeans. He was circling around her with a pair of left-handed safety scissors. Pulling on the seams as they gave way to her tanned and toned thighs. She kept yelling out, It’s too hot! It’s too hot!
She saw me. She said, Rando! And slung her arm around my shoulder. The guy with the nose sliced her leg a little bit and the tiniest trickle of blood started from the wound. He licked her leg until the blood stopped. She kept pushing him away and pulling me in, pushing him away and pulling me in but the guy just wouldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop probably. How could I blame the old salt? Put a few drinks in this head of mine and my tongue will end up in a host of strange places. She kept telling me to beat his ass but I didn’t do it. Like I said, I couldn’t blame the guy. I heard she’s got a couple kids with downs now on account of the guy’s shit genes.
Paul Pierce was in the kitchen and waved me over. Sandra had her tongue in my ear. I pried her off and made my way to Paul.
He handed me a beer and asked me how my day was. I haven’t seen the guy in probably two years and he asks me how my day was. He’s, what’s the word, irreverent. He’s a real irreverent guy. He mixes paint at the Sherwin Williams and drinks malt vinegar and cough syrup cocktails. The pucker mingles with the sweet so nice, he said. At the moment, he was drinking one of these and let me have a sip. I’ll stick to beer, I said. He handed me a warm one he’d been nursing and I’ve never kicked a gift horse in the teeth.
I asked him where Shep was because I was beginning to forget why I’d come to the party in the first place. He put his thumb over my earhole so I could hear better over the sound of crashing bodies and rap music. Apparently, Shep was getting his helmet shined in the bedroom by a girl half his age. Christ, I said to Paul, he’s damn near thirty. Paul shrugged and I think he said something about a figure of speech.
The apartment began to sweat and the wallpaper peeled off the walls. People started stripping the paper off and ripping it up into tiny pieces. Throwing it around like confetti. Ron was on the back porch smoking, completely oblivious to the chaos. I got up off the couch and downed the rest of my beer. The big nosed guy threw a handful of sticky wallpaper shreds in my face. I pulled the stuff out of my mouth and my shirt collar. I thought about what Sandra said about beating his ass and considered it. But I’m a pussy. Ask anybody.
I saw Shep standing near the television talking to these two girls who were probably just out of high school. He looked more muscular than I remembered. I guess the army will do that to a guy. His jaw looked bigger and better defined. Like someone had shoved an anvil in his cheek. I caught my reflection in a mirror intended to make the room look bigger and ran my finger across my chin. I took a half full beer from the side table where Sandra and the big nosed guy were making out. Her shirt was off. I walked over to Shep and the girls.
This brunette with charcoal eye shadow was talking about a report she had heard, or been told about, from one of those talkingheads on the TV about soldiers and mental anguish. I came over and put my hand on Shep’s shoulder and said, The only anguish this soldier has is in his pants. Shep laughed but I don’t think the girls got the joke.
Shep put his hand on my elbow and looked at me for a second like maybe he didn’t remember me. I always thought he had green eyes but I guess they were brown. Then he said, Rando! And pulled me in for this big hug. The girls just stood there and sipped something clear and bubbly. Shep wiped the sweat off his forehead and asked me if I wanted to go outside for a smoke. I told him we could smoke inside. He said he really would prefer to go out.
Ron was on the porch, on the phone to his girlfriend. He saw Shep, and me, waved then held out one finger and walked out towards the dumpsters under the streetlight.
Shepard lit a cigarette and held his pack out to me. I plucked one and he lit mine. That was Shep, what a guy. The best guy probably.
How’ve you been, Rando? He said exhaling this big plume of smoke.
I’ve been pretty good, Shep. Been taking vocational classes. Pretty soon, I’ll be certified electrician. Then I’m gonna open up my own TV repair shop.
Do people still get TVs repaired? Shep wasn’t looking at me now. He was looking at the cherry of his cigarette. All I could think of was like, what kind of question is that?
So, I asked him, What kind of question is that? Of course they do, I said. Shit breaks, I said, and then people need to get that shit repaired. I tapped my cigarette into an empty beer can.
Well, he said, it seems like people just throw out busted shit then buy new shit. That’s like, the New American Way. Everything’s so fucking chink cheap; just throw it out if it’s busted.
I dropped my cigarette into the beer can and listened for the sizzle but it never came. Must have been drained pretty good. Shep lit up another cigarette and for the moment, we were just enjoying each other’s company, listening to the cricketsong.
Through the sliding glass back door, the party was raging on. All the boys had dunked their shirts in beer and were waving them over their heads. The girls were crawling under tables trying not to get soaked. Wallpaper hung sad and torn and jagged pieces of it stretched up the sides of the wet walls and I thought maybe the whole place would cave in. Sandra and the big nosed guy were gone.
So what do you do while you were over there? I said.
What do you mean? He said.
You know, I said, like, what was it like?
Slept, ate, fucked, killed, jerked off. A lot of the same shit I did over here but with slow ass Internet. Didn’t eat much red meat, though. That’s the first thing I did when I got back to Shelby. Ate a fucking cheeseburger.
I laughed. He laughed. You got any good stories? I asked.
Like what? Hunting down ragheads in Humvees?
Yeah, sure, anything like that.
Well, there was this one girl— he started saying then he trailed off. He offered me another cigarette and I obliged. He lit it for me again. What a guy, this Shepard.
He started up again: We were raiding this little village on the mountains outside of Afghanistan. We’d gotten word insurgents were hidin’ out there and, hell, you know all that shit if you turn on the news once and a while.
Yeah, so we bust in door to one of these miserable mud huts and I pull out this old guy, I’m talking big bushy white beard, the whole thing, naked from the waist down and smelling like it.
Like a Bin Laden type guy?
Yeah sure, Shep said. Anyway, so we pull him out, he’s got his little peapod cupped in his hands and is yelling something foul and, it turns out, he’s like this bigwig with the Taliban. I’m kind of the commanding officer and all so I give the word— Shep made a gun with his two hands and pointed it at the ground where this shitty plastic patio chair sat half broken—and we execute him right there in the dirt. Bang, bang. Here’s the kick, he said, he’s in there with this beautiful sandnigress. Maybe, like, top fifteen hottest girls I’ve ever fucking seen.
Yeah? I said. My mouth was so dry. Tasted like ash. I was sweating heavy. I wiped my forehead with my hand and flicked salty drops at the pavement. I stubbed out my cigarette on my jeans. Shep offered me another and again I obliged. He lit it for me. I inhaled and coughed hard into my fist. Shep took a long drag and blew out easy.
So, she’s freaking out obviously. I mean, one minute she’s fucking this old bag and the next he’d bleeding out in the sand. But, Rando, let me tell you brother, she’s got the best pair on her that I’ve ever see— Shep outlined her body with his hands, making great show of the large space up top— I’m talkin’, her face might have been a seven, but everything else was nine or above.
My shirt was soaked through. I pulled it sticky off my chest and let it back down. My pants grew tight with my organ stiffened. I dragged on the cigarette, coughed hard again, my knee bounced nervously.
The sliding glass door was fogging up. The party had turned ugly. A boy with a bleeding mouth, a kid maybe no older than my kid brother, held a t-shirt bagged with ice up to his jaw. Paul was trying to get folks to leave but no one was paying him any mind. He gave up and returned to sipping his Heinz and Nyquil cocktail. Kissing women on the small of their backs as they crawled by on their bleeding hands and scraped knees playing ponies. Someone busted all the light bulbs out and half the party was singing a Have You Ever Seen the Rain in the glow of the overturned television, all naked torsos and heavy breasts. Bodies intertwined wiggled on the couch.
You still with me, Rando? Shep said. I nodded yes.
Good, ‘cause you’re gonna love this next part. I tell her, in that ugly language they speak over there, to go back into the bedroom, okay? I tell her to lie down, face down, on the bed, right? Her brown eye is cold in the air and glaring right at me. At this point, she’s saying all these sweet things to me, and I’m not going to lie: I’m believing it. I want to believe it, Rando, do you get me? I want to believe that this sandnigress is pure and is clean. But she ain’t. You get me, Rando? She’s busted. She’s broken. So, you know what I do?
What? I said, sucking on the dead end of a blackened butt.
Shep licked his lips and sipped his beer. Said: I put two rounds into her spine and she bleeds out singing something on the comforter. You know what the fucked up part is? I realize she’s got the same comforter I bought from a SaveSpot seven years ago— Shep shook his head and laughed. Took drag on his cigarette— same fucking one. Small world, huh?
I don’t know if it was the heat or the cigarettes or the beers or a combination of all three, but I swooned. I fell over onto the plastic chair and broke the rest of the way.
I woke up dry on the couch. The party had ended. Ron was moving about the place, trying to pick up the torn clothes, broken bottles and busted light bulbs. He’d load up an armful, stumble and drop it. Load up an armful, stumble and drop it. His phone glowed in his pocket. His girlfriend was on speaker, going on about the one-armed bandits being the loosest slots in Biloxi. He was all, Uh huhs, and Oh yeahs. He didn’t notice me there.
Shep was long gone. Probably off with one or both of those cat-eyed girls he was talking to. He’s good people. We’ve all got some demons to wrestle, Shep’s no exception. They live in busted televisions. They haunt the cars that line the lots of college town. They become genes on the jeans in blackened bedrooms of parties gone wildfire. Shep’s no exception, but he’s good people. I hope he don’t die too soon in some sunburned country absent from the eyes of our God.
About the author:
Remy Barnes Klein came from a swamp but currently resides in Texas. He eats beer and pisses sarcasm. He is somewhere between twenty-seven and thirty-one years old. Roughly. Don't quote me.