Fiction by N.T. McQueen
Time Takes Time
On the nights when the television could not keep him awake, Oney would remove the uniform from his closet, carefully dust off the shoulders, and slip his arms through the sleeves as if he feared the seams might come apart. He wore his white beret with the same precision. The corners of his mouth sagged when he viewed the man before him and his fists tightened into heavy cannon balls. The mechanical motions returned to him and he performed them before the mirror like a new recruit, pacing across the room and back again, arms cradled to hold a phantom rifle. His performance ended and then he would lay down upon his back and smell the putrefaction and gunpowder, hear the screams consumed by fire and the smell the musk of burning palm leaves until the light arrived.
At seven fifteen, he would remove his uniform, shower for six minutes, and dry himself from his head to his feet. Then, he would sit with a towel around his waist at the edge of his bed and hold the telephone to his ear and run his fingers over the numbers, dialing without pressing the buttons. He would speak to his daughter for five minutes about what she was going to do for the day, what clothes she would wear or if any boys sought her attention. When the moment came to say goodbye, he would pause then hang up the dead phone. Holding the phone to his ear prompted him to march to the bathroom, open the cabinet, and roll two pills from his prescription bottle into his hand and he threw back the small capsules with such force they caromed off his molars.
He took the same bus from Tropical Palms Mobile Park toward Gerard Way, a street lined with idiosyncratic houses, churches, and a collection of unrelated businesses parallel to Main Street. He spent most of his mornings steadily pacing from one end of the sidewalk to the other, glancing down each side street, spying glimpses of the bustle just over the buildings. He greeted each passer by with a nod and a smile so exaggerated the ends of his mustache would lift into the sides of his nose. The pedestrians often crossed the street afterward.
When the winter rains crashed around him, he walked as if the drops were a fantasy. He never used an umbrella and the cold water that slid down the neck of his shirt cooled him as he routinely paced the cracked sidewalks of Main Street. The warm, humid rains that snuck upon summer and boomed in a dark, grey sky made his heart race and, when every peal thundered overhead, he ducked and flinched and slapped at the droplets he believed were staining his skin.
The Courthouse was built into the hill and the main entrance opened onto Gerard Way. Oney always peered through the open doors into the spacious foyer and search for anyone he knew. Some face from the jungle or the hospital. Every weekday, he walked by, but never entered. The only instance where he came close to entering was the day his wife divorced him. The metal cold in his waistband caused him to sweat and he felt the handle pressed against his skin. But the open doors terrified him as if a giant mouth were trying to swallow all of him. He never ascended those steps again.
At eleven fifty eight, he rode another bus to the Bends at the south end of Port Lake and got off across from the Tower Mart. At each turn and stop, liquor stores stood stationed. Apothecaries offering sundry tastes of escape. He would survey the area with rancorous pupils. He hated the way the lake reeked of algae and the sight of dead carp in the shallows. He often fantasized about the lakefront homes burning like jungle huts in the night and how the flames reflected off the water and made the lake seem afire. He kept these thoughts in an old, stained journal he had kept since basic, hidden in the air vent above his bed. He wrote the spectrum of his thoughts every evening at twenty two forty five, just before he watched The Tonight Show.
After he thought his thoughts, he would enter the Tower Mart at twelve fourteen, waved to Larry Holliday Jr. behind the counter, and wandered to his precise location, grabbing a clear bottle of Smirnoff and a packet of sunflower seeds. Oney would place the drink and packet on the counter and adjust the bill of his American flag cap. Larry rang up the price and always asked if he was keepin on, soldier? Oney would respond with a brisk salute, crinkle the bag around the neck of the bottle and exit. He disliked saluting, but had no other response. He saluted Mr. Pastor the Pastor by the pulpit on Sundays, Netty the mail woman, and, once, Officer Pribble when he had fallen asleep outside Winkie’s covered in his own filth. It had become expected of him and he did not know how else to respond. If he were to simply speak, he thought a part of him would be lost and his salute preserved him. But on those nights when his eyes began to flutter, he refused to salute to the figure in the mirror.
He then walked along dirt roads named after fish, drinking from his bag and peering at windows shuttered with bed sheets or broken, Venetian blinds. The small shanties separated by acres of scraggly oaks and yellow grass. His boots scuffed the dirt the lighter his bag became and his steps startled blue-bellies sun bathing where the tall, dry grass met the road. He knew the houses and looked for something different each time. A broken play-kitchen on the dead lawn, a cracked TV sunk into the dusty cushions of a sofa on the front porch, the eye of a mongrel staring blood through a chain-link fence. But the more he drank, the more things blurred together until all the houses resembled the first. This result would sicken him and he walked back, ignoring the waves of the illegal children who ran barefoot across the gravel, holding sticks like revolvers, while a man loitered in the garage and the waft of that familiar reprieve floated into the streets.
He would then walk the two lane road further into the Bends until he came to a rotted, splintered dock that jutted into the lake, surrounded by high reeds and littered with cigarettes and condoms. With his hazy goggles blurring his vision, he sat slanted on the porous wooden slats and gazed at the debris littered in the water and reeds and fell back to a time when there was beauty to behold but ached at how it had all been lost. Despondent and drunk, he slept under the oak shade until fourteen twenty six. Then he would open the bag of sunflower seeds to fight off his inebriation. He cracked the shells with his silver molars and then fished out the seed with his tongue, sometimes swallowing the shell and spitting the seed. When he swallowed the shells, he thought of how Glenda had taken her away from him and, for a moment, he blamed her for the bottle in his hand. This made him sweat more and he dumped the rest of the seeds and the plastic bag into the reeds with the others.
He then wandered back onto the road with his belly sour and stinging and returned to the Tower Mart bus station. Larry Holliday Jr. was inside and he would wave but Oney would not return the gesture. Instead, he crossed the street and entered the Chalet Motel, scraping in his pocket for some bills to give to Mouthy Mary who worked from room 9 on the third floor.
She checked her watch and saw he was on time and waved. Oney saluted as he took heavy steps upward and clutched the tacky rail as he neared her room. He smelled the smoke and handed her the bills and entered the room at fifteen forty six. Mouthy Mary drew the curtain and would try small talk but Oney only saluted. Then she would undress in the bathroom, as Oney directed, and put on the night gown he kept wadded in his vest pocket. Oney’s eyes would moisten and, breath heavy with ferment, he would undress to his saggy briefs. His knees trembled and the scars exposed burned again. When the fire became overwhelming, he slipped under the floral comforter and laid on his back, eyes toward the ceiling. She joined him, nestling against his second skin, and remained this way until sixteen forty six. They did not move nor talk but reveled in a momentary peace neither fully understood. Often Mary slept next to him and her snoring droned in his ears. When the time had ended, he rose promptly, dressed, and left with a brisk salute.
Half-sober, Oney would take the five o’clock bus from the Bends to the First Baptist Church of God. The meeting started at eighteen hundred and, since he was early, he would go to the pay phone on the corner and hold the receiver to his ear. Trapped inside, he phantom dialed the number for his daughter. He would listen as if her greeting were real. The phone booth reeked of cigarettes and stale urine and, after the receiver had been returned, the odor would engulf him like the fire on his skin. He pushed the doors and exited into the air where he could breathe again.
The benches outside the church were shaded and he sat on them until the meeting started. Mr. Pastor the Pastor arrived early and always greeted Oney with a hug and a prayer. The cologne he wore made him nauseous but he saluted the man of God with the same respect given to the ones he saluted years ago. When he thought upon God, he envisioned fire and for this, he tried to forget about God.
At seventeen forty five, the doors to the church gymnasium were opened and Oney would go to the refreshment table and help himself to a cup of coffee and a cookie. The twelve chairs were encircled and Oney sat always on the first chair to the left between Mr. Pastor the Pastor and Richard Bauchmann, who only attended two sessions then disappeared. While the others mingled, Oney sat drinking coffee from his Styrofoam cup and waited until all were seated around him. Mr. Pastor the Pastor introduced himself and everyone went around to admit their trials and triumphs for the week. When Oney’s turn to speak came, he would stand, his cup shaking, and scan the faces he knew and trusted, but he could not salute them. Though everyone expected this, the room still changed.
The meeting ended at nineteen hundred and the streetlamps buzzed outside. Moths danced about the glow and bats darted like shadows across the dim sky between buildings and pine trees. Oney left before any of the other members approached him and walked under the yellow, dingy glow along Gerard Way until he reached Winkie’s at the south end of town. Every night, the music and hollers of the patrons drowned the thunderous sound of the train tracks several hundred feet away. Oney arrived their each night at twenty hundred and ordered a pitcher of beer for himself while saluting the broad, muscular frame of Vlado Brinkerhoff, the bar keep, with a lazy hand. He would drink glass after glass alone until twenty one twenty three and then exit as quickly as he entered. He walked back Gerard Way, under the glow of the lamps, holding his hands over his ears and darting his eyes down every alley, suspicious of every hedge or bush, until he would try to run the rest of the way. His leg tensing until the muscles stiffened from the fragments of war embedded in his thigh and he would fall to the sidewalk. After the muscle relaxed, he would limp home to Tropical Palms Mobile Home Park and collapse in his chair, body exhausted, and watch Captain’s Courageous on VHS, then write his thoughts.
The fight from sleep would continue until he caught his eyes fluttering and he would head to the closet and remove the uniform. Sometimes he lost the battle and his eyes closed and he would see the faces covered in mud and blood and hear nothing from their gaping mouths but guilt. An occasional cry like that of a child would escape and the sound ached in his head until he would startle wet awake. Then, at seven fifteen, he would remove his uniform and shower for six minutes, never more, never less.
The following Tuesday, he received a letter addressed to Sgt. Ken Langdon and the name surfaced like a faint echo from chasms somewhere in his spirit like a familiar name without a face. He tore the end from the envelope and saw the official emblem of the Marines printed in the corner of the crisp letter. The letter informed him, due to his condition, his VA benefits would be minimized and failed to cover his pills. He read the black print several times, unable to correlate the name on the paper to the name in his head.
By the time he had dressed and left the mobile home park, he had arrived late to the bus stop and missed the bus that would take him to the Bends. The scars burned as if he received them for the first time and he fought the urge to tear the clothes from his body. He could not wait for the next bus so he walked along the lake and fought the glare that glistened against him. He did not know the time when he arrived at the Tower Mart and banged the glass doors against a stand of Red Bull when he entered. Oney raised his hand to salute Larry behind the counter but stopped his hand midway when a gruff woman’s voice welcomed him. He lowered his shaky hand and grabbed the sunflower seeds. However, an empty hole blazed where his vice had been stocked. He took a meticulous eye to the shelves two or three times until the woman behind the counter informed him the fire in the hills had closed the roads. Oney’s breath heaved from his lungs and he stomped from the store. The glass door cracked as the dome of the bell split against it.
Outside, he raised his hand to his eyes and his senses took in the thick, caustic smoke. Everything quickened. His steady steps walked across the street to the Chalet Motel, up to room 9, but the door was closed. He pounded his cannonball fists against the wood, waited, pounded again. The smoke grew against the sky, billowing and cataclysmic. Black, cavernous eyes peered at him from the folds in the sky and he cast his eyes downward. The bus to Gerard Way hissed at the stop across from the Tower Mart. Oney sprinted down the steps and reached the bus doors just as they closed. He pressed his face to the plastic window until the driver let him in. He tottered to the back of the bus and fell to the seat, still gripping the bag of seeds.
His thigh cramped and he could feel the metal pulsate within his flesh as the bus stopped near the First Baptist Church. He limped down the steps and to the street, the church before him. The sanctuary doors rattled as he shook them. Time encroached on him, called at the back of his skull, but he could not answer. His stomach thirsted. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, his enamel. No matter the distance, he still smelled the faint smoke. The phone booth stood empty feet away, but he only saw wood and nails over the plastic and he turned away. He roamed Gerard Way and passed the Courthouse doors open. Inside, he saw nothing he recognized, nothing to salute. The building loomed over him so that he lost his balance looking for the top. He could not read the large clockface that faced the street. He wandered beyond his surroundings, further from the church, the phone, from Mary and closer toward images buried deep inside him. He saw Hap and Daryl and Pouncy and their rucksacks and then their legs strewn on the jungle floor next to bits and pieces of their platoon. He walked away but closer he came. This new nomadic life terrified him and a constant urge to defecate afflicted him. He fled to Main Street and the brick buildings blended to a jungle landscape. Smoke everywhere. The V8 trucks and bearded Vets on motorcycles roared along the two lane road and Oney lost time and he scoured the sky for black planes. He pulled his issued piece from his waistband, felt the warm handle in his sweaty palm, and slunk against the brick store fronts. A young boy pointed at Oney’s gun and Oney reached for him and told him he would not let them take him. The boy’s mother screamed for help and then all bedlam was released. The shrieks and burning faces melted to a grim symphony and he would not let them burn this time. Through the black palms and noose-like vines, blue and red beacons flashed and wailed toward him. He raised his weapon, aimed. But those fiery lights carried to him and he leaned against a covered trashcan, a crowd of faces behind the blue and red lights. Each face bore the semblance of his daughter and his spirit crumpled within him. The metal clattered on the sidewalk, he shriveled, and wept as Officer Pribble’s arms wrapped around him.
In the confines of the squad car, his head lay placid against the window while life passed in blurs. The hills smoldering and the billows roiled overhead. The faces hidden. The car drove speedily through the yellow hills, past modest homes overcome with land, a score of grazing cow penned by crude barbwire. Ahead, Little View Correctional Facility rested behind high fences. The squad car parked in back and Officer Pribble led him by handcuff to intake. He rested in holding along a slatted bench and covered his eyes from the fluent glare. He breathed easy and did not search for a clock, but listened to the silence encased around him, sometimes holding his breath to get as close to nothing as possible and wondered if this was heaven.
A stocky woman in a polo escorted him from the cell and brought him to her desk, where he signed for his possessions. After removing all he had brought with him and placing them in a bag, he showered with Liceall and slipped into his orange jumper. The watchful eyes cautious of even his lips. A uniformed officer walked him to maximum security where the door slammed behind him. Through his cell door, a round clock ticked on the wall. It was nine twenty seven in the evening.
N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento under the direction of Douglas Rice. He has won two Bazzanella Literary Awards and his work has appeared in issues of The Kentucky Review, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children.