The Military Man ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Gunner was nine. His father died when he was five and his mother married a man named Lindell Blevins and Lindell became Gunner’s stepfather. Lindell worked in a store downtown selling appliances. He didn’t know anything about children and, being a former military man himself, believed in military-style discipline for them. He would be the first person in Gunner’s life that Gunner didn’t like.
Lindell made Gunner mow the lawn and stood over him to make sure he mowed in straight rows, lining up the wheels of the machine with the edge of the row he just mowed. After the mowing was finished, Gunner raked up the cut grass and put in in bags. Then he had to sweep the grass off the walks and the driveway with an old push broom, and when that was finished there were the weeds in the flower beds that had to be pulled out by the roots.
Gunner had to go to bed every night at nine o’clock, Lindell’s edict, even on nights when there was no school the next day. Mother used to let Gunner stay up until ten-thirty or eleven whenever there was something good on TV he wanted to watch, but those days were over. Gunner stopped watching TV in the evenings all together, especially when Lindell was watching. He didn’t want to watch anything that Lindell watched. He didn’t want to be in the same room where Lindell was.
Lindell barged into Gunner’s room whenever he felt like it, no matter if Gunner was sleeping or getting dressed. He wanted to make sure Gunner hung his clothes in the closet and put away any articles that had no business being left out. A place for everything and everything in its place.
On Saturday mornings Lindell presented Gunner with the vacuum cleaner and a dust cloth and made him give his room a “good going over.” When it came to food, Lindell made Gunner limit his sugar intake and made him stop drinking soda, “except on very rare occasions.” Gunner could only have dessert on alternating days and ice cream no more than once a week. He was forced to eat squash and lima beans, no matter how much he hated them. And then there was milk: he hated the taste of it but had to have it with every meal. Sometimes he would take a couple sips out of the glass and then pour the rest down the sink when Lindell went into the other room.
“Lindell doesn’t like me,” Gunner said to mother when Lindell was gone on a weekend fishing trip and it was just the two of them.
“Of course he likes you,” mother said. “He isn’t used to children. We have to give him time.”
“How much time?” Gunner asked.
“He’s trying to be patient with us. You have to give him credit for that.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“He does like you.”
“Has he said he likes me?”
“He doesn’t have to say it. I know he does. He’s trying to be a father to you.”
“I don’t like him. I hate him.”
“Do you know how much it would hurt him if he heard you say that?”
“I don’t care! I don’t want him to ever come back. I hope he dies.”
To punish Gunner for saying such things, mother made him stay in his room and read a book and wouldn’t let him watch TV. Gunner didn’t mind. He was glad he said it; it was finally out in the open. He hoped there would be a phone call saying that Lindell had fallen out of the boat and drowned while trying to catch his stupid fish and wasn’t coming home.
Gunner had a G.I. Joe doll in his toy box that he never played with anymore. He sat on the bed, holding the doll in his hands, thinking about how much it looked like Lindell. He stripped the army uniform off the doll and stuck pins in its head and where its genitals would be if it had any.
Gunner had seen a story on TV about voodoo. He had never heard of voodoo before and thought it was a good idea. In the story, a woman made an “effigy” of her enemy, a woman whose husband she wanted for her own, and stuck pins in the effigy’s back, neck and eyes. The enemy of the woman became afflicted with terrible pains all over her body and it took a long time for people to figure out what was wrong with her.
Every night before bed, Gunner took the G.I. Joe doll that looked like Lindell out of its hiding place and stuck new pins in it: in the heels, the top of the head, up the nose, the stomach—in all the places where he hadn’t stuck a pin before. He began watching Lindell during mealtimes to see if he showed any signs of unendurable physical pain, but Lindell was just his same old terrible self. The voodoo didn’t seem to be working, but maybe he hadn’t given it enough time.
It was autumn. There was a walnut tree in the back yard and the yard was littered with walnuts. Mother had husked some while others still remained in the tight green outer husk, drying in the sun. There’s nasty brown stuff inside the husk. If you get it on your hands, it’s the very devil to get off. If you go to school with brown stuff on your hands, people will think you don’t take a bath.
Gunner had to rake the leaves in the back yard every day, except on days when it rained. If you catch them as they fall, Lindell said, it will be a lot easier than raking them all up at once. After he raked the leaves into a pile, he had to keep bending over to pick them up and put them in trash cans. When he ran out of trash cans, he had to put them in stiff paper bags bigger than he was.
Lindell was in the side yard working on an old Cadillac he had bought. He had removed the tires and the only thing holding the car up in the air was a jack, a thin arm of metal at a slight slant. Lindell was underneath the car on his back, his ankles and feet—big, comical feet like a clown—sticking out.
Gunner had been raking for a half-hour. A yellow jacket flew around his head and he threw the rake down and ran to get out of its way. He knew that Lindell couldn’t see him from underneath the Cadillac, so he was in no hurry to get back to raking. He found a slingshot that the older boy who lived next door had left in the yard. He picked it up and liked the way the grip felt in his hand.
It was a big slingshot, and a walnut in its hard, green husk was the perfect projectile. He shot several walnuts up into the tree and watched them as they came down and hit the ground. He liked the disturbance they made in the leaves and the whump sound as they hit the ground. As long as Lindell couldn’t see him, he could fool around until dark, and then it would be time to go in and eat supper.
He shot several more walnuts at the trunk of a tree, the foundation of the house, the back fence, a broken flower pot and an old upturned bucket. It was a lot more fun than raking leaves.
The yellow jacket flew at his head again and he loaded a walnut into the slingshot and took a wild shot at it. The walnut took out the yellow jacket and continued with ferocious speed toward the Cadillac. It hit the jack holding up the Cadillac with a ping! sound and brought the car down on top of Lindell. Gunner saw the legs twitching. He turned away and screamed.
Mother was in the kitchen close to the back door. When she heard Gunner scream, she came running out the door. A couple of the neighbors came running, too. Mother tried to lift the car off Lindell, but of course she couldn’t move it at all.
Somebody called an ambulance and in less than five minutes it screeched to a halt in front of the house. The ambulance people had to get a special lift to lift the Cadillac off Lindell and when they did he was dead.
Two days later Gunner stood with mother in front of Lindell’s silvery casket at the funeral home. Lindell was dressed in a pinstripe suit with a red rose in his lapel and he looked to be asleep. It seemed to Gunner that he had only to open his eyes and look at him and start giving orders.
“I’m thirty-four years old,” mother said in a soft voice so that only Gunner could hear, “and twice a widow.”
“Who are all these people?” Gunner asked.
“Lindell’s family, friends, people he worked with.”
He looked at Lindell’s ear, at the side of his face where the razor had made a small cut. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“I know you are,” mother said.
“No! I’m sorry! I didn’t know this would happen.”
She looked down at him and he began to cry. She put her arm around his shoulder and pulled her toward him.
“I don’t think I’ll get married again,” she said with a little laugh.
He continued to cry. He didn’t have a Kleenex so he wiped his eyes with the tips of his fingers. People who saw him thought he was crying because Lindell was dead. They would never know the real reason.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp