STATIC (AN ILLUSTRATED SHORT STORY)

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We were sitting in a half-moon booth at Pierre’s, nursing pitchers of cheap beer. It was the last day before winter break and everybody still left on campus was winding down before the time off, feeling giddy and confident because we were in the homestretch of our educations, ready at long last for the real thing. A group of frat boys with worn-out baseball caps turned around backwards shot pool on the other side of the room, sorority sisters perched here and there on stools like flamingoes, homogenous, giggling. They were all good, young people.

            The three of us – Jan, Jenny and I – had met our sophomore year, each of us English majors. Jan wanted to be a writer, like me, except she wanted to write books for children – stories about pirates and magical frogs and Prince Charmings. I liked pirates and fantastical stories, too, but what I was really after was the heart of the matter, the heavy-duty stuff, dramatic things like life and death, where a lot of the time the endings to the stories aren’t happy.

            Jenny was interested in French literature. She said the language was romantic, but I never got that from it. Jenny was hoping for grad school and then maybe a PhD so she could earn her living teaching somewhere. What I think Jenny failed to understand, though, was that that somewhere would most likely be a small community college deep in the South, or out on the West Coast, a long way from family and friends.

           

A gaunt, disheveled man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and chin whiskers approached our table and stood there silently, at attention. In one hand he held a large, frayed duffel bag and underneath his other arm was a crumpled stack of the free weekly newspapers – called LET’S GO SHOPPING – distributed in the entryways of businesses all around downtown.

            “Pardon the interruption,” he said finally, having lingered there at the edge of our table for some time, erect, like he was waiting to be noticed. “I just wanted to make sure that each of you got one of these,” he said, carefully placing copies of LET’S GO SHOPPING in front of us like a distinguished waiter presenting dessert menus. After he’d arranged the papers perfectly, he straightened back up and smiled, though it was a strained smile. “Colonel Gerald Allan!” he hollered, snapping a salute to his forehead. “At your service!”

            I looked over at Jan. She was sort of laughing quietly, staring at the Colonel there at the end of our table. Jenny sat wide-eyed, partly because she was a little bit drunk, but mostly because of the Colonel.

            He was wearing an Army surplus jacket with holes in the elbows. His bluejeans were no better off and his tennis shoes had once been white and new, but they weren’t anymore. It was four below zero that night outside Pierre’s, too cold even for it to snow.

            “Care for a glass of beer, Colonel?” I asked him, a private citizen’s way of telling a rigidly saluting soldier: At ease.

     “Nope. Don’t touch the stuff,” he said, lowering his arm. “You ever tried to howl at the moon for too long?” he asked me, leaning down onto our table, looking me square in the eyes. “I have,” he said, “so I simply don’t touch the stuff anymore, that’s all.”

            A frat boy broke a rack of balls across the room with a crack and the Colonel whipped around into a jaguar-crouch stance. He surveyed the room, stood back up and faced us again, at ease, satisfied that the coast was clear.

            “What do you have in the bag, Colonel?” Jan asked him, still laughing quietly. I shot her a look as if to say: Are you crazy?! The guy’s obviously armed to the teeth! Jan sent me back a look that said: Oh come on, he’s a teddy bear. The Colonel looked down at the large, tattered bag he was holding as if he’d forgotten it was there at all.

            “I’m a veteran of sixteen foreign wars, but you’d’ve only heard about just the one of ‘em,” he said.

            With a jerking motion he set his canvas bag down on the black-and-white tiled floor and worked at the zipper holding the thing together. He dug around for something and stood up, back into the yellow light of our booth.

            “I got this one for valor in the first secret foreign war I ever fought in,” he said proudly, holding up a soot-stained rabbit’s foot dangling from a thin length of chain. He smiled that half-smile of his again, watching for our reactions. He set the rabbit’s foot down on the table and leaned in close: “You know that murder is not death, don’t you?” he said, watching each one of us very closely. “Murder is stealing,” he moaned.

            Jan let out a little giggle and Jenny sat stone-faced and wide-eyed. Somebody’d put another dollar into the digital jukebox across the room, on the other side of the pool table. The music was loud and rhythm-driven. The Colonel stood upright slowly, burying the rabbit’s foot in his pocket.

            “I’ve been a lot of things in my life,” he told us, “just like you all. I’ve been a son and a brother and a cousin and an in-law and a student. I’m still a very good student, too, I’ll have you know.” He adjusted the collar of his jacket with both hands, signifying his dignity.

            The waitress came by and asked us if we’d like another pitcher. Neither Jan nor Jenny answered, fixated and slightly unnerved, I think, by our uninvited guest. The waitress looked at Colonel Gerald Allan out of the corner of her eye, projecting an assumed annoyance on our part in his direction.

            “Sure, we’ll split another one,” I said. We were on vacation, after all, and I was heading to mom and dad’s the next afternoon for some home cooking and laundry. The waitress walked away, watching the Colonel over her shoulder.

 

“JERRY!” One of the pool players saw me sitting there on his way to the john. He lunged over to our booth, holding out his hand. “Merry Christmas, buddy! Haven’t seen you around! Where ya been, man?!”

            It was Luke, a chubby, die-cast member of the fraternity, about to be unleashed on the adult world. He was tall – over six feet – but had pudgy little hands. Luke was all about whatever was happening now. I’d known him from an Intro to Philosophy class we’d taken freshman year but, by design, hadn’t seen too much of him since.

            “Man, you missed a great one last night at the Kappa Delta house. Oh shit – you shoulda been there! We turned the hot tub into Jell-o, Jerry! Jell-o!”

            The Colonel had moved to a squatted-down position, slightly away from the table, in the shadows, out of sight.

            “Alright, man, Jerry! Merry Christmas, buddy!”

            The waitress set the pitcher of beer down between me and Jan and Jenny and I paid her. She looked around for the Colonel as she scooted herself along to the next booth. The Colonel stood up.

           “Like I was saying, I’ve been lots of things,” he said. He bent down and rummaged through his old bag again, producing a thin, twisted piece of metal. It looked like it’d been the frame for a license plate on the back of a pick-up truck at some point. “I’m a translator,” he said proudly, holding the piece of scrap metal up in front of him like it was a blue ribbon at the State Fair. “Do you wanna know what it says?” he asked us earnestly.

           Jan and Jenny sat dumfounded on either side of me. Neither of them had touched their drinks. The Colonel furrowed his brow, moving the index finger on his free hand along the crusted edge of the unusual document, giving it considerable consideration before he continued.

           “It says: ‘We waited for you, but you did not come.’” The Colonel looked at us and then he looked back at the thing he was holding. “I found it by a dead sparrow on the railroad tracks.” He stood there with his rusty Dead Sea Scroll, not necessarily waiting for a reaction from us, but pondering again what he himself had just said, waiting for the meaning to sink in.

           “I’ve been many, many things,” the Colonel said, putting away the piece of metal. “I’ve been the Chief of Police. And I’ve been the Head Bartender right here at Pierre’s,” he said, gesturing towards the bar. “That was a while ago, though.” A dreamy expression drifted across his face, but he snapped out of it quickly.

            “I’ve been a telephone operator.

            “I’ve been an undertaker.

            “I’ve been a bridge builder and a heart stealer.

            “I’ve been a letter carrier.

            “I’ve been a cardiologist.

            “I’ve been a priest, a rabbi and an imam.

            “I rode the Cumberland Gap on a camel and climbed Mount Fuji once upon a time.

            “I’ve been a knee-slapper and in a previous life I was Noah and in a previous life before that I was the Ark of the Covenant.

            “I’ve been tooled and misshapen and then shaped back up again.

            “I’ve been a bricklayer.

            “I’ve been an instrumentalist.

            “I’ve been a talker.

            “I’ve been a listener.

            “I baptized a leopard in the Euphrates River at sundown.

            “I’ve been a secret agent for the Lords of Peace.

            “A very long time ago I was a circus clown.

            “I’ve been a Mercedes Benz.

            “I’ve worked on railroads and spaceships and once I even managed to maneuver through a mine-field in the Pacific Ocean.

            “I was born the King of Ireland, but I relinquished the post shortly thereafter.

            “I’ve been in food fights and late-night panty-raid affairs.

            “I’ve dated the Queen of Monaco (she was nothing to write home about).

            “I’ve been a painter.

            “I’ve been a framer.

            “I’ve been a curator.

            “I’ve been an investor.

            “I’ve bound books.

            “I’ve weathered storms.

            “I’ve sailed around the world in seventy-nine days.

            “I almost died of thirst once and I nearly die of hunger every other day.

            “When I was sixteen I brought a wounded milkman back to life after an accident on a gravel road.

            “I’ve been to all fifty states and six-out-of-seven of the great oceans.

            “Once I was nearly flat-broke.

            “Another time I was penniless, but it didn’t bother me one way or the other.

            “I can play the harmonica, the tuba and the tambourine, and I’ve conducted most of the great symphony orchestras in the world.

            “I’ve been to hell and back and will tell you about it some other time.

            “For awhile I was the Anti-Christ, but I won’t get into that right now.”

            The Colonel paused, nearly out of breath.

            “I’ve been so many, many, many things,” he said, seemingly exhausted. And then that half-smile again.

           

The overhead lights at Pierre’s flooded the room, breaking the spell of the evening.

           “THAT’S IT, EVERYBODY!” the bartender hollered, waving his washrag in the air like a sign of surrender. “I WANNA GO HOME!”

           Our waitress came by the table and collected the nearly full pitcher of beer. Behind her, a busboy with a Tupperware bin collected the half-drunk and untouched last rounds from each table.

           “MERRY CHRISTMAS, JERRY!” Luke ran over and shook my hand again. “MAYBE I’LL SEE YA BEFORE SPRING BREAK! HA!”

           The Colonel didn’t seem to be fazed by closing time. “Wait!” he said excitedly. “One last thing!” He squatted down over his duffle bag again – no shadows now, no dimly-lit stages – and produced a cracked boom-box, the kind we had when we were kids. “Let me play you a song!”

           A familiar din rang in the room as everybody left, slowly, rooster following hen. The Colonel turned on his radio and fiddled with the antenna. A bottle clanked behind the bar and somewhere somebody stumbled out of a bathroom, wiping their mouth on the back of their hand.

           “There it is!” the Colonel said with a harsh whisper. “Can you hear it?!”

           Jan and Jenny were buttoning up their heavy winter coats. The Colonel closed his eyes and smiled – not the strained half-smile this time, but a genuine, relaxed grin. He started humming softly to himself, something slow and familiar:

           Hum-hum-hummm-mmm-mmm.

           Static buzzed from the Colonel’s speakers, almost inaudible at first, growing with intensity as he adjusted the dial.

           “Listen,” he said quietly, eyes still closed. And as the static picked up, crackling and popping, he said it again: “Listen. Can you hear it? Can you hear it?! God, I love this song.”

 

*Originally published in BROOKLYN Magazine, 2010.