Stephen Graham Jones, guest judge for the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, told us that he’s always on the lookout for stories with “a fast start and a real ending.” This year we received dozens of stories with fast starts and dozens more with real endings, but we also saw plenty of fiction that provides both. Narrowing the field was a difficult task. In the end, Jones’ call for “a voice that makes me want to hear more, keep turning the pages” made the decisions for us.
Today we present the second of this year’s voice-driven contest finalists, Carmen Petaccio’s “Militancy,” which follows a lonely border vigilante.
Look for the rest of our story contest finalists to appear in this space throughout September, leading up to the publication of the winning story in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue. — David Duhr
So I’m building an army in the woods there behind the Dollar General. Through the snipped hole in the chain link, past the dumpster where they found the dead baby swaddled in butcher paper, that’s where you can find us, spit-shining our rifles, prepping for the coming war. What type of brand of men are we? American to the bone: taxpayers, fathers, salt of the goshdarn earth. Retired traffic cops who lost their pensions, gym teachers squatting in foreclosed-on trailers, servicemen shipped back from Fallujah nursing Xanax scripts and three blown-off toes. Venerable men with feet like failed pottery. These are my compatriots, my broken brothers in arms.
I am prepared to give my life in their name.
As a unit, we are exceedingly, militantly scheduled. Weeknights after five, in addition to alternating Saturdays, I lead my men along the muck-banked river, that runnel that forms the American southern border. Drought has beaten the waterway down into a belabored trickle of mud, but still — it must be patrolled, defended for posterity. On Mondays, it’s herringbone formation. Tuesdays, either echelon or the vee. Every tactical pattern there is, I’ve drilled it into their muscle memories. Wedge, square, coil. The difference between traditional column and staggered. These movements now come to them as natural as breathing.
It should be said that, to date, we’ve never seen a single border jumper, but believe you me they’re out there, tracking us as we do them, fixing to infiltrate. We find a lot of dead ones, so I know. Cartel men. Hooker-looking women. Stiff, shoeless children with mangled, callused feet. Body after body, torn at by coyote teeth, roasting in the Texas sun. A shame.
We even found a pregnant one, once.
She was so young she could’ve been my daughter, if I had a daughter. O’Brien came across her on what we call a reconnaissance piss. Belly too big for her camisole, dried blood on the seat of her Levi’s. That dark shine Spanish girls get had gone all out of her hair. She smelled as rotten as you felt looking at her, picturing her kid’s first wobbly steps that’d never get taken. For goodness’ sake. We held our noses and said a Hail Mary. You’ve got to tell yourself it serves them right.
You’ve got to ask, who deemed it wise to lead this pregnant child into the brush?
Who abandoned her to wander in circles as if blindfolded, dehydrating herself on unbreathable air, till she and her obvious child both died?
Who was the undeniable root cause of this tragedy?
The same people our government wants us living alongside. Flooding our ICUs. Abusing their women, soon probably ours. Yet we’re crazy to suggest putting up a wall.
Because weeks and months of this can plain ruin a man, I’ve reserved Fridays for R&R. Henley’s wife cooks us all her soda-marinated brisket, and I read the men passages from Sun Tzu, Meditations by Aurelius. I won’t deny it: On those nights, the border is rather porous. And so be it. If we’re fighting to protect the American society, who are we to skimp on its pleasures? Tender meat, low-cal beer, the little condiment cup of ranch Henley’s wife packs for me special. (We used to go together in high school.) It can be real nice.
Can I blame the border jumpers for wanting a piece? Sure I can. Downright happiness is, as any self-knowing adult will tell you, a rare, scarce commodity. Cars were barely a thing last time a recession was this bad; the pie that is America is shrinking by the minute. I say this as a fat, bald widow of nearly forty, a man who sleeps on a cot in a shipping container in the desert. The supply of American joy is in no way infinite. Consider yourself a fool if you won’t die for what little you’ve got.
Sunday before church, I catch a ride with Henley to the H-E-B. He’s leasing that new F-450: sweet on the eyes, tenfold sweeter to sit in. You climb up to the cab like it’s a jungle gym, then preside over the highway like oil money, even in the passenger seat. Today I’m in the back, though, because Henley’s brought along his wife. Usually it’s Shiner Light and cigarettes to and from H-E-B, but with her here we’re on best behavior. She’s seven months along, in Daisy Dukes and a tight blouse that accentuates her belly, clothes a pregnant wife of mine would only wear in private. She’s dying to know about my DWI.
“And how long till you can drive again?” she says. Henley turns down the talk radio. He’d sworn he wouldn’t tell her.
“Seven months, three weeks, two days,” I say. “Not that I’m counting.”
She laughs — a throatier, fuller version of her high school laugh. You can hear the years in it but in a good way, like when Reba sings her early stuff. I find myself laughing, too, Henley’s betrayal already forgotten. The Henleys are good people, I think. When I put my life on the line, I’ll do so for those like them.
We drive on. Flatland scrolls by in every window. The sky’s so big you want a bigger word for it: gargantuan, enormous, heaven-vast. Henley brings the radio volume back up.
On comes “Wagon Wheel,” and suddenly Henley is singing and reaching his arm across the cab. He gives his wife’s baby bump a little magic lamp rub, as if all present parties weren’t aware of her condition. He sends a cheery, brotherly smile back at me, eyes hidden behind the tint of his Oakleys. I remind myself that, technically, I am his superior. My truck was as sweet as his is before I wrecked it.
“Screw those teetotalers,” Henley says. “Pick us up from the hospital in a cab.”
He beams. She puts her hand over his. Again, from all three of us, laughter.
In our heyday, Henley and I could supply run the white H-E-B in fifteen flat and still have time for beers before church, but that location’s long since banned me. Now we go to the food stamp H-E-B, way down 35, to shop among the crackheads and welfare recipients and big-butted black women. It’s mainly mouthy, ruckus-prone families with more babies than anybody needs, but I’m not letting down my guard. Nowadays you can’t send your third grader to school without a Kevlar; the supermarket is no less a threat. I always wear my slim-fits, so my ankle holster shows.
The online order of MREs gets delivered to home base every Wednesday, but all other supplies I buy in the flesh. Though we’ve got sufficient stores for approx 120 days, the ideal I’m shooting for is a calendar year, wives and kids included. That means twenty-five cases of water a week, canned goods, dry cereal, beans and flour and rice, potassium iodide for possible radiation exposure, glow sticks, trash bags, bleach. None of it comes cheap, I promise that. We spend ten times that amount on guns, but they’re an easier sell.
Today, observing the general public means having your gag reflex tested. I fight alongside some great men — guys who just happen to be white — who’ve sacrificed and continue to sacrifice everything for this country. How, then, can’t I be upset when I see the things I see? Like perfectly respectable girls, prom court types, shacking up with street urchins? I’m talking neck tattoos, saggy jeans, scum who drop F-bombs in the frozen foods aisle while my men refresh their ChristianMingle feeds. Tell me that’s fair.
Once through the automatic doors, I distribute the revised shopping lists to Henley and his wife. I charge Henley with the water cases, his wife with zero heavy lifting. We’re in the checkout line within thirty-six minutes, a respectable time given our restraints. There are high fives all around, then I spy them: two jumbo containers of ranch, buried in Henley’s wife’s overstuffed cart. Not on her list, but two for five dollars. A steal. An indulgence. I’ll allow it.
Our turn comes. We load our wares up on the conveyor belt, and every beep of the scanner is a chirpy insult to my manhood. We’re considerably less flush than I let on, for purposes of group morale. Costs are as much a threat as the cartels, but I never acknowledge that. Not in front of my men, certainly not in front of Henley and his wife. I pay with the army’s Discover card, sweating through the authorization. Thank you for shopping with us.
Henley’s wife invites me over to theirs for dinner after church. Chicken and broccoli. Mashed potatoes from her gram’s recipe. We’re walking back to the 450 and I can just tell, from Henley’s focus on his phone, that this wasn’t cleared with him. Put a bullet in me before I impose on another man’s dinner, but I’m eleven months removed from a woman’s home-cooked meal. My wife made these gravy biscuits you wouldn’t believe. I tell Mrs. Henley I’d love nothing more.
Their house is a white bungalow in dire need of a paint job and new roof shingles, an eyesore in an otherwise bougie neighborhood. They rent, so they got no say. I regret selling my place to reinvest in our operation, figure I could’ve let the Henleys live there on the cheap. Heck of a lot nicer than this dump. Henley’s wife heads inside to cook. We load the perishables from the truck to the garage fridge. I thank Henley for the hospitality.
“Anytime,” he says. “She loves having you here.”
I drink too much, in general and before dinner. Henley cues Luke Bryan up on his iPad mini and suddenly I’m six Lone Stars deep. Then I’m at the dining room table, contemplating the intended function of my fork while Henley’s wife serves. She’s changed into a yellow, low-cut dress, and it’s the world’s eighth wonder what pregnancy’s done to her boobs. They’re enormous, heaven-vast. And I’m staring. And I can’t stop staring. And I can feel the fire Henley’s staring at me. His wife says, “Grace, boys.” I bow my heavy head.
I am drunk. I am lonely. I lust after other men’s wives, and I’ve become that sad guy who doesn’t know when to leave. Amen. I am unfit to lead my army, or any army. Amen.
“Dig in!” says Henley’s wife.
Next thing I know I’m back in the shipping container, hearing gunshots. I’m sitting bolt upright, sweaty in my cot, no idea how I got there, and rounds are popping off in the distance. I don’t bother mass-texting my men. There isn’t any time. I load my AR and strap on my Kevlar. I strike out into the murky night, hungover and unafraid.
As a great thinker once said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Is this the invasion we’ve been training for? Why did So-And-So leave me for What’s-His-Face? Does the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback have the heart of a champion? These are my personal known unknowns, and I’ve prepared myself every day to battle them. I’ve led where lesser men would’ve followed. Now I’ve shouldered my assault rifle and struck out into the threatening night, with only righteousness at my flank. I believe this is God’s great test for me. No child on the way. No wife to go home to. I’ve got nothing but my self and my country to fight for. This is what makes me unstoppable.
Sooner than later, my enemies will step forth from that desert darkness. Drug runners, child murderers, simple people who simply desire, as I do, what is just out of reach. I eagerly await them. I believe that I — and I alone — have the firepower to drive them back. And if they truly want it more than me, I pray that I die fighting.