New Package And Empire
By David Humphrey
Lately, my grandfather will talk about his days in the Army.
“Old Starkey,” he’ll say. “Starkey with a voice like honey. He’d be bellowing one of the tunes you heard on the radio every night. But that was before we arrived at the front. When we saw combat, we all changed.”
“You were never in the Army,” I’d say, but he’d keep going on: “Don’t interrupt me when I’m in the middle of a war story,” or, “You weren’t there, you’d never understand.”
“You see,” he’ll say, “Starkey’d woo ‘em with that voice of his. Man, was he something! But during the Battle of the Bulge, he took a bullet through the larynx. Still alive to this day. Don’t talk much though…Sure ain’t singing.”
He’ll even fake shell shock. We’re sitting in the supermarket picking through the toilet paper, then he’ll just stop and tense his fingers around the shrink-wrapped rolls, a pained hiss of breath escaping through his teeth as he quietly scans the aisle from narrowed eyes.
“Did you hear that?” he asks me.
“Like a rat-tat-a-tat, rat-tat-a-tat,” he says.
“Don’t think so. It's probably just some of the machines.”
“Shh! Listen. There it is again.”
“I get this shell shock, you see?”
“Yeah, when I hear things that sound like guns or explosions, I get a real fright—it’s just awful. Oh shit, there it is again. Rat-a-tat-tat. Oh, this one’s gonna be a bitch.”
“Grandpa,” I say, “I think shell shock is more sudden and sort of uncontrollable.”
And then he’ll throw up the toilet paper as far as he can—most of the time it’ll just tumble down over his knees, and he’ll let out a “get down!” rolling gingerly onto the ground.
When my grandfather ran away, he had the two of us holed up in a motel in Indiana for days. If I tried to open the curtains a little, he'd bark something about a tracer and it only taking one bullet.
He let me go out for food at night, even though I said if somebody really wanted to kill us, it’d be much easier under the cover of darkness.
“Poison darts, hit-and-run drivers, cleverly-placed mirrors to blind you when you’re walking down the stairs,” he would say. “These guys don’t play by the rules.”
He spent most of the time on his back wheezing. Sometimes he'd say he wanted to go over and have a look, grasping the air. He’d cling to my arm, taking half steps until we were a good way to the window. He'd rest against the chair for a few seconds and then make a final sprint.
Afterwards, I’d go over to have a look but only see an empty parking lot.
“You don’t have an eye trained for these things,” he said. “But trust me, they’re out there.”
I waited till night to call my parents.
“David? Where are you? Have you heard anything from grandpa?”
“Yeah, I’ve got him here right now.”
“With you? Where are you?”
“We’re in Indiana.”
“Indiana? What are you doing in Indiana?”
“It’s a long story. Anyway, he’s here with me, and he’s okay. I’ll try to get him back in a couple days.”
“Did you know they used to think New Jersey was going to secede from the Union,” my grandfather asked me.
“During the Civil War?”
“No, back in the 50’s—communist infiltration, you know, all those Italians moving down. That’s why me and your grandmother moved there, too.”
“To lead the soda jerk insurgency?”
“Hell no, boy,” he said. “To nip it in the bud. Your grandmother didn’t know it, of course, but it was on orders from Uncle Sam that we moved.”
“Weren’t you a chemical salesman?”
“Cover—my real job was to infiltrate communist circles,” he said.
“I can see how being a chemical salesman would be a good cover for that.”
“You know,” he said, “you think you’re a real smart ass, but it was the blood, sweat, and tears of old farts like me that got you the freedom to be one.”
Past the Mississippi, golden brown fields broke from the highway, and old, red farmhouses sped by. A few children played in an old pickup truck, and the evening sun ran into a line with the missing windows, burning shadows of their faces in the empty space of that rusted metal.
My grandfather never got over the feeling we were being followed. He’d shove over the mirror to see if there were headlights behind us on the flat horizon.
I wanted to stop for the night, but he pressed me on, saying we should make it to Denver before daybreak. We got breakfast at a family restaurant there, and he complained about how bright it was. A night of no sleep, and I looked up at that sky thinking maybe the clouds were closing in on us. We turned towards New Mexico, the desert growing on us.
“It was old Steve Miller that got me involved in the first place. It must be about six years since he passed away. He wasn’t the kind of guy that was meant to live a long life. Short and sweet—that was old Steve.
“The way I am nowadays, I couldn’t get myself to his funeral, just got a letter about it from his son. Seems he knew we were old war buddies, his old man having talked about me a few times—said he mentioned me right before he died and left a message for me.”
“What was the message?”
“’Remember the Alamo,’” he said.
“How about ‘win one for the Gipper,’ did he mention that one, too?”
“No, it was a code—he was trying to tell me there was unfinished business. All these years I’ve been thinking about it—he must have been talking about Los Alamos. We had been doing some counterespionage work there during the 70’s.”
He had me take the US285 exit for Clines Corners instead of the one for Santa Fe, and we were headed deeper into the state.
“Trust me, David,” he said. “I’ve been here a thousand times—it says Los Alamos, but that’s the tricky part. You got to take the south exit.”
And then we were in Roswell. My grandfather says, “No, no. I think we went too far. Maybe you should call them for directions.”
“Grandpa, I am not going to call Los Alamos National Laboratories for directions.”
As the light of morning began to fill the basin where we drove, I started to recognize a meanness in his eyes I had not seen since I was a child.
“It’s not much farther,” he said. “You know, I brought your grandmother here on our honeymoon.”
“How could you bring grandma to a desert on your honeymoon,” I asked him.
“A desert?” He laughed. “You call this a desert? Now, you get past those mountains there where we’re headed—now, there’s a desert.”
And out on the horizon where he pointed, a fluorescent glow filled up the pre-dawn sky, but it wouldn’t be until late morning that we found a dusty road leading up to an electrified fence.
My grandfather was already knocking on the window to the guard post, fidgeting with the doorknob by the time I caught up with him. An MP came out nervously handling his rifle.
“This is a restricted area, sir,” he said.
“Good,” my grandfather said. “Where is this?”
“I am not permitted to tell you that.”
“Good. Let us in.”
“Don’t listen to him,” I said. “We don’t want to get in.”
“Don’t listen to him,” my grandfather barked. “We want to get in here, so open up quick.”
“Alright, that’s it,” the MP said, training his gun on us. “Both of you on the ground.”
I tried to grab my grandfather, but the butt of the guard’s rifle was already in my eye. Another hit over the head, and I was out on the ground with my grandfather over me shouting, “You see, that’s what you get for trying to be a smart ass with Uncle Sam.”
That day when we sat in the hotel, my grandfather looked at his sandwich and said to me, “David, you know what’s wrong with this country?”
The sound of plastic under his fumbling fingers crackled; outside, the engines of a few cars sped by on the highway.
“This goddamn sandwich, that’s what. It says ‘new design,’ but I don’t think this wrapper is one bit easier to open since they first started making these things 20 years ago.
“It’s all the same," he said. "Same sandwiches, same tennis shoes, same movies, same cars. No matter how many times people in this country see reruns of their world blown up on the evening news, they just keep on turning out the same shit.”
David Humphrey is a native of Ohio. He has spent the past seven years traveling between Japan and China, in and out of schools, teaching and translating. He currently resides in Kyoto, Japan.
Photo "Military Toy" courtesy of Nelson Syozi, São Paulo, Brazil.
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