Words will keep us together

Fiction, musings and all things writing by Gregory T. Janetka

Caveat Emptor

PART I.

Robert Greenwood lay asleep.  The sliver of sunlight that forced its way through the French doors across the hall could not quite reach far enough to bathe his feet.  His head rested on a pillow of down; the indentation had become a permanent fixture. The pillow rested within the hollow of a bass drum that had had its face removed.

Robert was on the verge of his 29th birthday, and his dog Abraham, a twelve year old German Shepherd, was trying to wake him for it.  Eventually the cloud of heavy dog breath about his nasal passages was enough to do the job.  As he did every morning, Robert’s first course of action was to follow Abe to his food bowl, filling it for breakfast, and then letting his roommate out.

As he peaked through the crack between the door and its frame, Robert could smell the humidity of what appeared to be the breaking evolution of a beautiful Indian summer day.  But this would be the extent of his experience with it, just as had been the past 1,457 days.
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At least on its face, that day had begun as routinely as possible.  Robert awoke, took care of Abe, fixed breakfast for himself, and prepared for work.  He had been at the bookstore for about three weeks.  It was alright, but he found it nearly impossible to acclimatize himself to the suffocating world of retail.  While he had always (and still) considered himself a proud capitalist, the mindless nature of the conspicuous consumer was deadening.

The majority of his time there was spent behind a cash register, accepting the greenbacks in exchange for desires that would never be fulfilled.  Indeed that was where he found himself this day.  Robert motioned to the next customer in line, indicating that he was prepared for the subsequent transaction.

“Hello,” the gentleman gruffly said to the counter in front of Robert.  He looked to be around 50, with graying temples. Clad in a double-breasted suit, briefcase, and glare of a grand old patriarch who spent more than one night in backrooms, he already regarded Robert with contempt.  Placing Tribulation Force on the counter, the customer declared,  “I would like to purchase this…and ,” rooting through his briefcase, “I would like to return this.”  He threw a copy of the Bhagavad Gita at Robert.

Robert took the book, “That’s not a problem, I can do it all at once for you.  Is your receipt inside?”  The gentleman’s glare deepened.  “I don’t have one.”
“Oh, well I’m sorry but without a receipt there is nothing I can do for you.”
“Look, my son gave this trash to me, I suppose it was a thinly veiled attempt to be funny in some sort of blasphemous way, but I will not have this in my house.  So just do whatever it is you have to do and give me my money back.”

Robert hated every single ounce of this man’s being.  Just as he hated all of them.
“Well if your son gave it to you then I can give you his money back, as long as you have a receipt.  Otherwise I have absolutely no proof whatsoever that this company ever took his money to begin with.  Perhaps your son still has the receipt, you can bring it in next time and we’ll gladly return it.”
“I am here now, and you will complete it now.”

Robert’s eyes closed as his body momentarily swayed from the pressure being exerted within his skull.
“I can’t do that.  Here, look, our policy is on every single receipt, on these signs next to and ON every single register, and on the counter itself – I shall read it to you – NO returns without original cash register receipt.  The register will not allow me to process it without the information from the receipt.”

“This is goddamn nonsense! I can see this book on the shelf from here, you sell it, so take the damn thing back.  I’m in a hurry, stop being an idiot so I can be on my way.”  For a moment Robert thought he was going to black out from the pressure, but he transferred it to the counter, which sounded quite angry over the situation as well.  Through clenched teeth Robert managed, “Would you like to speak to a manager?”
“Surely he is as worthless as you, what I want is for you to take this trash out of my sight and give me the money it is supposedly worth.  There is no need for this bullshit, young man.  You look old enough to understand how this works – I am a dissatisfied customer, I bring your garbage back to you and you pay me for it.”

Robert’s eyes grew black to match the anger within.  In one fluid movement he vaulted over the counter, catching only a brief flash of all those in the store who had been watching the engagement with the intensity of gapers who want to see real blood.  The customer and Robert’s noses were about three inches from one another.

“Look here, sir, if there is any goddamn worthless trash here it is you.  Who the hell do you think you are and why are you abusing me?  Because you want twenty bucks for a book you call trash but have never read because you’re terrified of what it might say in it?  Because it might just shatter the precious illusions of the world you have built up because you prefer to live in a shadow of lies while masquerading as an upstanding gentleman but still feel the need to treat me as trash because I am doing what I am told by my employer so that I can kill enough waking hours in the day without creating any more pain to anyone?  Because I am not immediately fulfilling your base and childish desires?  I wish there were a hell so that I could send you there myself!”  This time the built up pressure found release though a right cross directly on the man’s nose, the hollow crack that emanated from his face left the onlookers gasping…and pleased.

Everything stopped, a blanket of silence wrapped up the scene.  The two men starred at one another. Suddenly Robert’s nostril began gushing blood.

In a flurry of applause and cheers Robert tore off his name badge, purposely bled on the man‘s double-breasted, and stormed out the front doors.  He ran directly home, leaving an uneven trail behind him.  Quickly completing the circuit by shutting the front door after himself, the bleeding finally began to subside.  Abe greeted him and followed his master to the bathroom.  Without taking care to examine his nose, Robert laid down in the bathtub, shaking.  He ended up falling asleep, Abe keeping watch outside.  Such was his last day in the world.
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“Abraham! Get in here!” cried Robert through the crack.  Although the dog was well into its twilight years, and his once keen sense of smell was all but dulled, his curiosity remained intact.  Despite any setbacks, Abraham still found it a daily necessity to inspect every leaf and twig that found its way onto the grass.
“Alright boy, that’s enough!”  Abraham knew not to ignore this reverently pitched command, and gingerly returned to his master.  With a quick lock of the door the worlds were separate once more.  As Abraham curled into his favorite blanket on the floor, Robert methodically eyed the kitchen, preparing to begin his shopping list for the week.
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With breakfast over, the main focus was dedicated to the creation of the list, as it was each Wednesday.  Although it took on most of the same similarities (that is, if it was not identical) as the weeks previous, the task took nearly the whole part of the day.

For hours Robert took a precise inventory of items in his cellar, pantry, cupboards and refrigerator.  With this process complete, the list could now be undertaken.  More hours passed as every single meal of the following week was planned out, thus allowing each and every shelf to be empty again after breakfast next Wednesday morning.  Expertly folding the list in thirds and slipping it lovingly into an envelope, Robert wrote “BILLY” on the front and sealed it shut just in time.

Within minutes, Billy, the 11-year-old boy from the neighborhood, would be out of school.  He was the last person Robert had had contact with after shutting himself up in the house.  It was a fall day several years ago when Billy had first arrived on the doorstep.  He, along with all the other boys and girls, had been sent out on a mysterious “fundraising” mission to sell candies and chocolates for their school.  The various stories surrounding that house were the thing of legend with schoolchildren, but as it was with all subjects, Billy paid little attention to his peers.

As the narrow-eyed youngster tried to peddle his wares, Robert quickly refused, but, just as quickly, realized the opportunity.  Robert had been living off of the vast storage of canned goods in the cellar for about three months, and it was all but bare.  With the introduction of personal profit, Billy forgot about the candy order form and warmed up to Robert’s offer – if he gave Billy money for groceries and goods, the boy would deliver the goods and reap a fair profit.  Billy gladly accepted.

The details took a little while to work out correctly, but after two weeks all was working smoothly – Robert posted an envelope with money and the list on the door, whereby Billy would come after school, proceeding to cross off each item in exchange for cash.  Upon returning with the goods, Billy would be greeted with another envelope containing his pay.  He put the goods on the doorstep, knocked, and ran away.

With this final necessity of life taken care of, Robert was free…and he was pleased.
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The Greenwood estate sat atop the highest hill in the town of Greenwood.  Robert’s ancestors had been instrumental in settling this area, proudly leading the charge that drove off the natives for good.  The land was rich and produced a plentiful harvest every year.  The vast fields of cotton were themselves enough to keep the town’s standard of living well above that of its neighbors.

For several generations his tree led the way, often leaving elections as nothing more than mere formalities.  Although the Greenwood name continued to carry a great deal of weight, Robert’s great-grandfather had made the swift decision to remove the family from the dirty business of politics for ever more.  They remained as figureheads, often sought out by locals to settle this matter or that disagreement, but never again threw any rings into any hats.  As stately businessmen they amassed their power in the private sphere, with the ability to use it in the public as they so choose, never again feeling under any obligation.

Growing up, Robert was no different.  While the interceding generation between Robert and his father had all but written off the idea of John Wayne as a hero, Robert spent countless youthful hours idolizing the man whom his father often referred to as “One of the Greatest Americans of All-Time.”  The servants delighted in young Robert, and he in them.  They made great victims.
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The time between Billy picking up the envelope and dropping off the groceries was always the most stressful period of the entire week.  During the hour or so it took this time to pass, Robert would be found in a sort of catatonic state.  Never the same place in the house twice, he laid down and starred into the ether.  The one constant was that the room chosen always had a clock, for it was the one time he wanted to listen to time.  Abraham kept watch.

Today Robert was found in the bathroom of his parents’ bedroom.  As he lowered himself into the marble tub, he was soothed by the simulated ticking from the small digital clock his mother kept on the counter next to her sink.  With his head just above the horizon line, Robert’s breathing fell in sync with the ticking.  For each five clicks, he exhaled, another five and he inhaled.  With Abraham in the doorway and his breath in tact, Robert was immediately lost among the dust, visible only in direct sunlight. His faculties were so that he would immediately return with even the slightest rap on the door, its sound echoing throughout the entire estate.

And so he is.
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On those beautiful days when the sunlight passed through the trees and created endless shadow gardens, he could not resist the call of the outdoors.  His Father and Grandfather had instilled in him a great love of hunting from a very young age.  The numerous sprawling acres surrounding the home always had a wealth of game running freely.  The hunting party consisted of the three generations, along with at least two servants, which operated on a rotational basis.  Robert was trained in all manner of weapons, but he preferred the Uberti rifle.  A magnificent piece of machinery, Robert often felt as though he had been born with it in his arms.

When a target was sighted, the elders would often defer to the boy.  His accuracy had quickly become deadly, normally bringing down beasts with only one shot.  Simultaneous cheers arose, for man had once again bested nature.  The well-trained servants promptly jogged out to the scene, confirmed the death, and made quick work of transporting the carcass to the kitchen for butchering.  All three looked forward to these days, for it was the only time that they all transcended their age.
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There was never any doubt that the newest Man of the Greenwood family would do his duty to his nation.  The one guarantee that Robert asked from his father’s influence was to be able to allow him to remain in the same unit as his boyhood friend Marion Jones.

The men had never looked better than in their dress uniforms.  Overwhelmed by pride (and jealousy), Robert’s father shed a tear as they parted.  Robert, however, did not notice the tear, or much else of the situation that day – the repercussions of the night prior continued to exercise a great affect over his cognizance.

The boys could not have been happier once their long flight was finally over.  They knew their mission and were fully prepared to carry it out to the best of their ability.  Robert and Marion’s unit spent the first few weeks on patrol, seeing little of any fighting.  Explosions could be heard in the distance, but here the locals simply went on with the routines of daily life.  For Robert, however, it was anything but routine.  Each explosion brought the sweep of a smile over his face, and occasionally, physical excitement to his body.

Things were alright, he relayed to his father, but he was getting anxious, longing to be in on the action.  “Don’t worry,” his father assured him, “perhaps soon.”  Fighting was headed their way, he told his son.  Robert twitched.

They had been overseas for a week when the town heard of the first loss of one of their own – Govinda Howard from the Inreac reservation had been killed by a roadside explosive.
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The knock resounded though the cavernous rooms with the force of daybreak.  Robert’s adrenaline raced.  His breath broke rhythm.  Abraham sat up.  Once his master’s heart rate returned to a detached pace, they both knew it was safe to retrieve the goods.
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Although not yet 4 AM, Robert awoke moments before the sirens, his rigid body teeming with anticipation.  Then he felt it, they all did – the walls shook from the impact as dust filled the air.

Robert and Marion were among the first prepared with weapons and gear.  Amid the confusion it was impossible to tell exactly where the fire was coming from, it seemed as though they were cut off on all sides.  As a mortar reduced the building next to them into a barrage of shrapnel, the two men sprinted from their barracks.  Eyeing a nearby crater they slid into the trench, which was the beginnings of a new latrine.  It was sufficiently deep, allowing them to feel a modicum of safety, if only for a fleeting moment.

As chaos reigned down about them, Robert and Marion took stock of themselves and their surroundings.  It was here Robert had his first glimpse of the enemy.   The two men he saw in the distance were moving as one.  Robert had seen the shadow they cast many times before on the Greenwood estate.  With a surge of confidence, he steadied his deadly accuracy and took aim.

The enemy had apparently not seen the two men drop into the hole, allowing Robert to take out the two he had initially seen, along with at least one other.  Marion quickly followed suit.  Their eyes met and reveled in the recognition of their omnipotent power before returning to the task at hand.  Having recognized the men’s position, the remaining enemy redirected their fire.
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As the sun continued its slow descent for the day, Robert carefully checked the list against the items Billy had delivered.  Although he knew Billy was an honest boy, sometimes he would substitute an item if the requested one was not available.  Today, however, was a good day.

Putting away the last of the dog food, Robert scanned the list one final time, his eyes meeting with nothing but checkmarks.  The list was complete and fulfilled, and his anxiety was quelled.  He released a sigh that allowed his entire body to go limp as he pet Abraham’s head.  The day was theirs.
________________________________

The oft admired machinery of death had created a man-made sandstorm, blinding Robert.  Attempting to listen for enemy movement, he continued to shoot, believing he hit at least another three men.  Turning to his right, he could not even seen his boyhood friend, who was some fifteen feet away.  The entire time Marion had been screaming in ecstasy, urging those on the other side of the line to show themselves, even though he would not have been able to see them anyway.

Hearing Marion break into fervent laughter, Robert called over, “How many did you get?”
“At least half of their goddamn army, I’m just waiting for you to pick up the slack!”
“HA! I got more than you and you know it!”
“Well then I guess we can go home!”

They shared a good laugh over their success, and as the dust began to clear they turned to see the remains of their barracks engulfed in flames.  Surrounded by screams of the wounded, Robert was not sure what to make of the scene.  A quick survey of the distance appeared to reveal that whatever was left of the enemy had fled.  Triumphantly spitting and waving a gesture of contempt in the air, Robert pulled himself out of the trench.

“Com’on Marion, let’s get the hell outta here.”
Attempting to follow his friend’s lead, Marion began to pull himself out, only to fall back into the mud below.

“What the hell are you doing in there? Com’on”
“I can’t feel my legs!  Robert! I can’t feel my goddamn legs!”
“Shut up and stop fooling around.”
“I can’t feel my goddamn legs!”

Jumping back in the hole he picked up Marion, and screamed into his face, “You’re fine, now let’s go!”
“Robert I can’t feel anything in my legs, they don’t work, they don’t work!”
Willing to momentarily give in to whatever this game was, Robert looked at Marion’s legs, and found nothing.  Turning him around, Robert immediately saw Marion’s back glimmering wet with crimson.
“What?!? What is it?” Marion cried.

Robert ripped Marion’s shirt off to find a bullet hole right next to his spine.
“What did you find? What is it man?”
Robert regained himself, or at least somebody.
“A bullet.  In you spine.”

The course of events which followed has always been a blur to Robert, then as now.  Marion repeatedly screamed violently against the prospect of becoming a “useless vegetable” while Robert, who had never before smelled the stench of suffering, implored his childhood friend that anything wrong could be fixed.  They fought over Marion’s revolver in the damp hole.  Robert had begun to pull Marion’s body from the earth, when suddenly the body in his arms went limp, and his face was soaking.

A bullet from the distance ended the debate by going straight through the back of Marion’s skull.

Wiping his eyes, Robert watched the blood soak into the sand, and was immediately reminded of the surf from the Atlantic Ocean.
________________________________

PART II.

It was a Tuesday when Robert arrived Home.  This time he could see the tear in his father’s eye, but he did not understand it.

Robert had not told anyone he would be returning.  Despite his wishes, his mother began preparations for a  “proper” homecoming.  Despite her wishes, this was not to come to pass.  Five days after returning to his native soil, Robert was arrested.  A policeman had seen his car on the side of the road and thought the driver might be in trouble.  He found Robert laying across the front seat, with a needle sticking out of his right arm.

Although the town’s jail was already filled with non-violent drug offenders, the Judge was new to the bench and, like so many before him, wanted to make an example out of Robert.  He passionately moralized to Robert’s failings, beseeching him to explain why a young man who had just been fighting for freedom could do such a thing.  Robert remained silent.  He would spend the next five months in jail.  His Father did not offer to use his influence, and Robert did not ask him to.

As Robert was beginning his fourth month, his parents had come out for their weekly visit.  The initial flurry of emotions and disappointment had dispersed over the days, and his parents increasingly attempted to share joy and warmth with their Son, but received little to no response in return.

They left the prison that week as they had every week since his incarceration, with the unrecognizable eyes of their offspring following them.  His mother returned once more to the idea of a “proper” homecoming for the boy.  On the ride home she was envisioning the entire spectacle, perhaps that would snap the sense of responsibility and tradition back to Robert…she could see it all…but then she heard a horn.  She never saw it, but Robert’s Father watched as the 18 wheeler crossed the meridian.  He heard his wife’s neck crack right before their Expedition rolled over the guardrail.
________________________________

Robert and Abraham had shared a meal and it was good.  The ham was cooked to perfection.   The groceries and other goods were all comfortably put away.
________________________________

Robert’s final month had been commuted by the same Judge who had originally sentenced him.  He returned to the Greenwood estate.  To produce a productive member of society, the court had helped set him up with a position in a bookstore.
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The week passed right on schedule, and Wednesday saw Robert once again making out his list for Billy.  Each meal for the following seven days was planned to the last detail and translated to the list.  With the envelope sealed and taped to the door, Robert nestled into the closet of his boyhood room, anxiously awaiting Billy’s footsteps.  But they never came.  No footsteps, no knock, nothing.

Perhaps he had somehow missed the boy.  Robert slowly cracked the front door open, but he could clearly see the envelope exactly where he had placed it two hours before.  The boy had never deviated more than fifteen minutes in either direction of his expected arrival.  Robert thought about the weather, but it was a beautiful evening.  Maybe the boy was dead.

Abraham could sense his master’s quickly rising anxiety.  His catatonia, having gone way beyond blue, left him the impossibility of joining the dust.  And so he paced.  The sun had long gone down and the envelope remained.  The cupboards, pantry and cellar were all checked and rechecked, but there was no food to be found.  As always, his planning for the week had been spot on perfect.  He was happy to see that he had done his job correctly, why couldn’t the boy do the same?

The next day came and went, and again the envelope remained motionless.  Abraham did not understand why his bowl remained empty.  He was accorded three meals a day, shadowing his master.  The dog became resigned after the second day without food, spending most of the time in the corner with his blanket.  On the morning of the third day Robert let him outside as usual, but he had lost all curiosity, returning quickly inside to the corner.

The canine’s example did not carry over to Robert.  He had not slept since Tuesday night, and here it was Saturday.  He had begun pulling out his hairs one by one and had by now worked up a very nice bald spot on the right side of his head.  The immaculate interior of the house was a shamble, echoing what the exterior had long known.

Just over four years to the day since he had created his world, it had fallen.  Robert knew he must leave it, or perish.
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The spot on his head had reached a half-crescent moon, and he had begun a similar one on his left arm.  Suddenly, with his breath heavy and quickening, Robert bolted out the front door.  Alarmed, Abraham crept to the open door to see his master flying down the last of the steps and onto the gravel driveway.  There he froze.

The air was impossibly difficult to breath, as if he were underwater; the sun absolutely blinding.  Robert felt the pressure as it began to increase its influence over every single cell in his body.  The sound of children playing in the distance mingled with the white noise of the nearby road, but the only sound audible was his own heartbeat getting progressively louder and fatally irregular.  A shudder overtook his self, snapping the silence away. Failing to turn around, he methodically retraced his steps.  His head rocked back and forth, as he attempted to quiet his breath with the intensity of a child whose terrors are amassing in the closet.  He was inside, but he had lost all sense of proprioception.  Robert’s eyes watched as his body carried him to the deepest recesses of the basement, until it could go no further.

Images of roller skating on the cement floor of the basement flashed past him with the ghostliness of film that had been subjected to a double exposure.  Keeping his attention solely on the bright green laces of the skates, Robert’s heartbeat slowly returned to homeostasis.
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Robert remained in the basement and formulated a plan.  Abraham came to inquire why his food bowl remained barren, but Robert kindly assured him he was not actually hungry.
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As the sun neared his feet the next morning, Robert awoke, opening his eyes to the perfect curvature of the bass drum.  Not yet recalling anything of the days since last Wednesday, Robert was fully prepared to follow Abraham to his bowl.  Then he noticed a look in his companion’s eyes that he had never seen before. The days past flooded back and Robert’s hunger now swelled up to greet Abraham’s eyes.

After several aborted attempts, Robert bolted out the door, racing to the 1988 Cherry Red Buick LeSabre.  Ostensibly splashing more gasoline on the outside of the car than actually into the tank, Robert hoped against hope, and the vehicle started.  Well below the speed limit, the sedan tasted sunlight and found its way back to the grocers it used to know so well.  The building appeared exactly as it had those many years ago, so did the people.

An hour or so into his stakeout, the hunger reached proportions that led to hallucinations.  Robert knew this was his chance.  As the people began to melt, he quickly made his way to the door.  Once inside, people had reformed, but nothing was the correct color, and nothing stopped moving.  True essence was visible as inherent impermanence had shown through.  His repeated attempts to pick up items was fruitless, for they were all empty.  He feared that tangibility only existed within the Greenwood estate, and had no idea what to do.  Then he saw the boy.

It was Billy.  He was attempting to choose a gum from the hundreds on the shelf.  The boy turned and met Robert’s eyes, but he had no idea who the man was.  Billy returned to the selection process.

Robert dashed for the boy, screaming “What are you doing? Where have you been?  Why did you do this to me?”  Terrified, Billy pulled out his pocket knife, momentarily stopping Robert, who then lunged forward.  A growing number of onlookers watched as they wrestled for the knife, with Robert arising victorious.  Grabbing the boy’s left wrist he plunged the knife into his forearm, dragging it towards his own.  The boy cried out, but the blade remained clean.

Disappointed, the onlookers heaved a heavy and collective sigh, until they saw Robert’s left arm – it was cut clean from elbow to wrist and was making its contents known.  As the mass began to melt once more Robert raced to his vehicle, leaving a trail of blood behind him.  Speeding home, he was greeted by Abraham snarling at him.  His age had melted away, allowing his body the flexibility and speed to chase Robert behind the garage.

“You’re not hungry, it’s just your desires, you’re not hungry!”  Robert proclaimed. Unconvinced, Abraham continued to chase Robert through the field until his Master came upon an old, rusted axe astride a many ringed stump.  With his good right arm Robert deftly lifted and swung the tool at the precise moment Abraham leapt.  The blade hit the neck with deadly accuracy.

-December 2008

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