Saturday, August 20, 2011

40 minutes of flash fiction

I've got 40 minutes left at the Shippensburg, PA public library. It's a Saturday. Shortly after noon. The day is nice and sunny, temps warm, but not hot, an idyllic summer day. I'm waiting for my truck to be repaired... still... and probably will be until Monday or Tuesday. In the meantime I'm taking long walks, reading, and fighting off a looming depression brought on by restlessness and being somewhere where no one knows my name. And since I have nothing else to write about, I will do a little extemporaneous fiction. We'll see where it goes...

They called him the Colonel, though during his 4 years in the Army back in the Vietnam era, he'd never risen above Sergeant. They called him the Colonel because he wore a Civil War era Cavalry style hat with a yellow bolo. He wore it low and hit its cap with the edge of his beer can when he took a deep swallow.

They, the other drunks and users at the Augusta Inn, called him the Colonel because he liked it, and he bought 30 packs of Busch, sometimes two or three times a day, and shared freely with everybody because he was lonely and needed company of and the numbness of beer and weed to fight off the wraith-like insistence of the sorry reality of his existence.

And he liked how the party ended when the beer ran out, dismissing the notion that anyone stayed just for the beer and not to be in his august presence. He bragged about confirmed kills in Vietnam and showed the photograph of his younger self to anyone who hadn't seen it, the photo so smudged and dirty from showing and his current appearance only bearing a passing resemblance to the young punk in the photo holding the skull. But the proud smirk was a tell. He hadn't lost that over the years. This illusion of greatness sustained him even then.

Tolly hung out with the Colonel in his room, but felt self conscious about all the pictures of the Colonel's son hanging on the wall, amidst cutouts of curvaceous women from magazines and flyers for shows the Colonel had seen at local bars. The photos of his sons were color on paper, printed off a friend's computer.

"Where's your son now?" Tolly asked.

"He's on a naval submarine keeping our country safe," the Colonel said. "I can't even write him, the stuff he does is so top secret."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

The Colonel puffed on his Meerschaum and looked thoughtfully, self-consciously wistful, away from Tolly, and said, "I can't fairly remember."

Tolly was going to ask why, but thought better of it. Although it was early in the day, the Colonel was known to go on an angry rant, usually by the third 30 pack. No one ever got hurt, but the cops had been called a few times. He'd done community service for drunk and disorderly. The cops knew him by name, George Broosten. They never called him The Colonel.

Tolly excused himself. The day was young, he'd a slight buzz, but there were some errands to be run before he could forget his name. The Colonel dismissed Tolly with an, "All right, young man. Don't let 'em bite you in the ass," and searched through a pile of video tapes for one he hadn't seen in awhile. The TV was always on, tuned to the lone crackly channel it received, and only showed clean when it played a tape.

And so it was how the Colonel passed his days, nodding, slowly slurring, sustained on beer, potato sticks, and cans of sardines. When the beer ran out he'd get on his bike and ride a few blocks to the liquor store, pick up a copy of the Argot Weekly on Wednesdays, do the crossword puzzle, smoke his Meerschaum.

In good weather, he'd hang out on the back porch, a coffee can tied to the railing to collect the cigarette butts of guests. He'd tap out his pipe with the coals still hot, and the can would smolder the sweet cherrywood scent of his tobacco. He always wore the cowboy hat, low, and often a short-sleeved flannel shirt, unbuttoned, showing off his still-lean old man belly with only the slightest paunch, a scar running a semi-circle across his abdomen. The Colonel explained the scar: "I got a viral infection once and they had to remove this much [arms spread wide] of my small intestine." And then adding, with an upraised brow, "I only shit pebbles to this day. Haven't had a good rope shit since that operation." He loved to tell that one when ladies were present.

The Colonel loved to gross out the ladies.

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