How Hard the Ground

“No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.” Dan Baldwin

Even at slightly after one in the morning, the air out here is neither hot nor cold. Tepid, maybe. I like that word. The air is tepid, and fueled with a particular kind of dread.

It’s the fear of the expected. The ripe anticipation of knowing what we’re about to see, and knowing we can’t look away. We can’t just gawk and go on about our business. This is our business.

Red, blue, red lights slash in rotation through the moonlit darkness. They chase each other across the ground and up over the scrub brush.

We’re in the desert on an anonymous tip that came in a little before 10 p.m. There are still a few folks out there who support us. Not everyone’s afraid of us.

All around are scrub mesquite and creosote along with a few reddish prickly pear cactuses. Here and there, a dying yucca. Now and then, a withered fishhook barrel cactus. The kind of stuff that grows where there’s no gentle rain but maybe a deluge two or three times a year. Everything is harsh.

Nothing thrives out here. Old or new, ancient or modern. Growing or recently deceased and interred.

Small rocks glint everywhere in the moonlight.

The ground is mostly flat, mostly imbedded with rock of every bland color. Mostly a chalky off-white, but also tans, browns and every shade of black—all pitted like little moons with impact craters.

To my left front is a growing pile of dirt and rocks. To my right front is another. In front of me, side to side, stretches the hole that originally held all that.

The tip said she was at least three feet down. Said it would be easy digging. He forgot to mention the rock.

The sounds, human and otherwise, that fill the air are quiet. Respectful without meaning to be. Even the quiet rumbling of the river, some forty feet to the west and three hundred feet straight down.

If I killed somebody out here, that’s where they’d end up. Over the edge, a quick brush of the hands and no looking back. But somebody took the time to do all this.

Two vehicles are parked some twenty and thirty feet to the east of the grave.

The far one is a brownish-gold SUV, with Sheriff slashed diagonally across both doors. It brought me and the deputies to the scene.

This side of it is the white meat wagon. It’s the source of the red and blue lights. For some reason Mitch Billings left the emergency overheads on.

This side of the meat wagon are three men.

Mitch is next to the driver’s door, the driver’s side rear-view mirror to his back. The guy’s meaty and has a gut, but he’s not fat. Mid to late thirties and maybe 5’9”, close-cropped hair and a flat top. He’s the boss.

His arms are folded over his chest, and a camera dangles by a strap from his left hand. He doubles as the county crime photographer. As he talks quietly to the two other men, he alternately leans up on his toes, back on his heels.

The second guy is skinny as a rail and a head taller than Mitch. Mid to late twenties. Hair to his collar. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his butt leaning against the meat wagon. He’s bored, but he bobs his head now and then to prove he’s paying attention.

The third is the youngest by at least a few years. Probably in his early twenties. Close-cropped hair with just enough to comb on top. He’s a little shorter than Mitch but meatier than the other guy. He leans on the meat wagon with his right shoulder and his head bent slightly forward, like he’s paying attention. He probably is.

Or maybe he’s just avoiding looking at what’s going on to his left. His hands were in his pockets too. His fists are clenched.

Behind him, a nylon stretcher, poles together, is leaned against the wagon just ahead of the back bumper. Behind that, the white tailgate extends away from the back. It’s swung open sideways to the driver’s side.

The guys are all dressed in the black trousers and white shirts of the coroner’s office. They all have a little badge, and all they have to do is cart off the bodies.

2

Me, I’m Jack Tilden. I’m the director of this evening’s symphony.

I’m dressed like I’m always dressed. It’s always brown or grey trousers, a brown or grey jacket and tie, an off-white shirt, and a brown or grey fedora. Tonight everything is grey.

Down in the hole in front of me are the two deputies. Their current task is another reason I’m glad I’m a detective. My job is to watch and listen as the deputies work. I can do that.

The guy to the left is Pete Mason. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a brown and green Sheriff’s Department ball cap. On his feet are brown combat boots with thick hobnail soles.

A sweat stain stretches down the back of his t-shirt. It forms an elongated V from his neck to his belt.

The other one is Joe Mangum. He’s in jeans, a western straw hat and a long-sleeved khaki shirt. The sleeves are rolled midway up his forearms. Sweat and dirt glint in the hair on his forearms. His shirt’s soaked from beneath his left shoulder halfway down the side.

I can’t see Joe’s feet, but he’s probably wearing round-toed western boots. Probably with the dogger heels.

The guys are earning their sweat. They both have shovels. They’re bent to the task in a hole they’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty minutes.

The shovels clunk, scrape and chink on rocks. The shovel handles leap into the rotation of the lights. They sweep up, then over and down. Up, then over and down. A discordant kind of rhythm.

Moonlight and red and blue flashes glint off hands and knuckles over and over again.

Now and then, the deputies grunt softly. Now and then they curse.

An almost ethereal whump sounds as each shovel load of dirt lands on a pile, one to the left, one to the right. The piles peak a little taller each time. Each time a few rocks clatter quietly down the far side.

And the smell that hangs in that tepid air is as quiet and uncomplicated as everything else here. It’s simple, and it’s stark.

The strong, acid stench of rotted onions.

It evokes a childhood memory.

For a moment I’m standing in an old onion field. One that was picked over two weeks ago and everything healthy shipped to market. Only the dead and dying left behind.

Then picked over again ten days ago by the poor. Only the dead left to rot.

Then plowed under last week to make the ground ready for the next crop.

It’s a stench that lingers on your tongue.

And it isn’t onions at all. It’s beauty unearthed.

The deputies are getting close.

3

I wet my lips with my tongue, then reach inside the left lapel of my jacket. I fish a pack of Camels from my shirt pocket.

Even now I can’t look away. Even knowing what’s coming.

By rote memory I turn the pack up and tap out a cigarette. By feel I catch it between my thumb and forefinger, put it between my lips.

I return the pack to my shirt pocket and pull my lighter from my trouser pocket. I strike the lighter, another raspy, hushed sound.

My palm lights up as I focus beyond the flame and inhale some nerve.

It’s all right, I know. Just keep your distance. I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re all the same.

But no. Each one belongs to itself. Each one is different.

Just as I slip the lighter back into my trouser pocket, Joe says, “Oh.” It’s more a sigh than a word.

Pete stops. He looks over at Joe and nods. Quietly he says, “Yeah. I’ve got her too.”

There’s an inadvertent moment of silence.

Then a shovel scuffs on the other side of Joe as his shoulders hunch and twitch. The reds and blues flash off his khaki back.

The underside of his shovel scrapes lightly on a rock. It screams in the night before he tips the handle lower. Then he twists around, looks over his left shoulder.

I don’t see his face, but I catch the motion as he turns. I’m still looking past him.

“Here she is,” he says quietly. “We’ve got her.”

He says it like an official announcement. Like I didn’t know. Or maybe like it was a rescue mission.

In a way I guess it was.

I have to look at my feet for a moment, and I nod and take a drag. Then I look over at Mitch and gesture with the cigarette.

He says something to the guys, then starts toward us. He stops at my side, looks down and to the left, then moves around the hole. Now it’s a grave. He starts taking pictures.

The flash alternately enhances the moonlight and scares off the reds and blues.

When he’s through, he glances at me and nods.

I look at the deputies, then gesture again with the cigarette.

Both their faces are aimed up at me now. Is this what it’s like to be God? Am I waiting for a prayer?

As if they need to hear me say it, I say it. “Okay. Bring her up.” I pause, then, “Just go careful.”

That’s someone’s little girl. It’s someone’s wife, daughter, sister, mother.

I don’t have to say that part.

Joe knows. He nods and sighs as he turns his head back to the front. He lowers himself to one knee.

I can’t tell you whether he’s near her right shoulder or her left. The slope of the side of the hole lets me see a shadowy orb just past his side. But I can’t tell whether it’s her face or the side or back of her head.

At the other end, Pete knows too.

He half-stands and tosses his shovel up on the far side of the hole. A little harder than he meant to.

It screeches a little on rocks when it lands. It slides.

Then he crouches again, heels together in the small space, and bends forward with both hands extended. He has to grasp the ankles.

He lifts them a little, gently. Shakes them a little. Only a little.

Dirt rolls off bare calves, bare thighs.

In my periphery, a shooting star, falling. A grain of something, plunging to the earth. A flash, extinguished.

Mitch crouches to my left, raises his camera. It flashes a couple of times, blinds the night.

Pete lifts again, shakes again.

Some cloth shifts and more dirt falls away.

The way the body refuses to bend—so she’s buried face down. Still in her clothes. A skirt or a dress. Blue, maybe.

Mitch takes another picture. Another. Says, “Okay.”

Pete lowers her ankles, lets the toes of her white canvas boat shoes rest.

The dirt has turned them tan.

He leans back out of the way.

Mitch shoots a few more pictures, then stands and moves behind me to my right.

I take another drag on the cigarette, then expel a stream of smoke. Inside it, I say to Pete, “Easy, now. Easy.”

The back of Pete’s head nods as he shifts, twisting his body to the right. He adjusts his position with a step, too, moves his left foot across her feet to the other sloping side of the hole.

It was a silly thing to say. None of this is easy. None of it can be. But she’ll still come out of the ground more gently than she went in.

4

A friend of mine wrote one time, “No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.”

The line accompanied a picture he’d taken of a pretty little wild flower. A pretty little weed.

Guy’s weird for taking pictures of nice things, pretty things. Things that persevere against all odds.

Like little flowers pushing their way up, striving through rocky, hard soil to reach the air.

Life wants to live. Beauty strives to be restored to the light.

He didn’t know how right he was.

To the right, Joe’s still down on his right knee. His left is bent up almost under his chin. He arches his back, swings his shovel up and to the right.

It lands in a creosote bush on the other side of his pile of dirt and rocks. A few dry twigs snap, return to the earth.

He turns back and his shoulders twitch in little repeated movements as he dislodges her right shoulder.

Then he twitches again and tosses something underhand, behind him.

It turns out to be a fist-sized chunk of rock. It flies up out of the hole.

Something about the chunk of rock catches my attention as it flows through a low arc.

I track its progress, and for an instant in the moonlight there’s a bright yellow face. It’s a few inches above the ground. Petals surround a mottled center. A thin stem extrudes up from black olive drab leaves. Those spread in a flat circle on dirt and small rocks on the ground.

And the face, stem and leaves disappear as the rock hits with a satisfying thump.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

But there’s no guarantee the ground won’t come back to spoil it.

5

A few minutes pass, and Joe has the shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Free of the soil.

Did you catch that? The shoulders and torso. That’s distance.

Did I say I’ve seen a lot of these? Did I say they’re all the same?

Distance does that.

But each one also belongs to itself. Each one also is different.

Every shooting star is a different grain of dust.

A few minutes pass, and Joe has her shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Her shoulders and torso are finally free of the soil.

He and Pete begin to shift someone’s little girl into the right position so they can bring her up.

They lift someone’s daughter gingerly.

They turn someone’s sister gently on her side.

They lift someone’s wife carefully, at the same time.

They ease someone’s mother down to rest on her back.

Mitch moves about in a different dimension, takes a series of pictures.

When he’s through, to nobody at all he breathes, “Okay.” Then he looks at the meat wagon, shatters the night with a few rapid fire snaps of his fingers.

The two men there straighten and look at him.

He points toward the stretcher and wags his hand at them.

The young one picks up the stretcher and the two start toward us.

The taller guy looks at the other one and utters a short laugh at something.

I jerk my head around and frown. Quietly, I said, “Hey.”

The taller guy looks at me and his smile evaporates. He averts his gaze.

Silence pervades the night again.

Rocks crunch beneath the men’s feet as they approach.

I step back and gesture toward the ground at my feet. It’s level there, and not so rocky. The ground on the other side of the grave is occupied. A mesquite and a creosote bush. Both scraggly, in need of rain.

The younger guy steps past me, offers one end of the stretcher to the other one.

Together they pop it open and kneel alongside the grave to receive the body.

Joe and Pete lift the body clear of the ground and the other two take over. Pre-chastised, they move her gently into position above the stretcher.

They lower her onto it just as gently.

It’s my turn to crouch. There’s no distance now.

A blue skirt and a white blouse. No belt. The white canvas boat shoes I thought I saw earlier.

A necklace of some kind just above her collar bone. The pendant, if there was one, is behind her neck. Dirt and rough pebbles mar her dark brunette hair.

She’s probably around twenty-five.

There’s a large, horizontal dent in the flesh of her forehead above her left eye. There’s another, diagonal dent in the flesh from her left cheekbone to her jaw. Other, smaller indentations dot her forehead and the other soft tissue on her face. No bruising though. Not there.

So at least she was dead before the killer put her in the ground. At least that was something.

Once we figure out her name, I’ll be sure to tell the family.

The only bruising is around the ligature marks. The thumb prints. The crushed larynx.

I straighten and gesture.

As the men lift the stretcher and move away, I glance around behind me. I need to find that rock.

There it is. I lift it gingerly, lay it to the side.

The yellow flower is crushed, bruised. Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it’ll be back.

Behind me, I hear Joe and Pete gathering their shovels. I turn around, say, “You guys ready to head back?”

They both nod and start for the SUV.

I glance one more time at the grave, then back at the flower, and send a thought its way.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

* * * * * * *

 

The Spring

the-spring-180In jeans and an olive-drab t-shirt, Mark Smith sat on his front porch in the late evening hours of November first.

His M-14 rifle—well, the civilian version, a reasonable facsimile still in 7.62 millimeter—lay across his lap. Over the past half-hour, he’d disassembled, cleaned and reassembled the rifle. It was a weekly chore, and it kept him connected.

The sounds of some inane sitcom filtered out through the door, complete with the laugh track.

He shook his head. Half the time the laugh track didn’t even make sense. Or at least where they inserted it didn’t make sense. Overall the stupid show was about as funny as a turd in a punch bowl of frothy lemonade. He grinned. Mmm. Enticing.

He took off his cap—an olive-drab with the Marine Corps emblem embroidered on the front—and ran the palm of his hand over his head. The cool night air felt good on his scalp. His hair hadn’t been cut that short for years. He’d done it himself, mostly to see whether he still could.

He put his cap back on and tilted it back slightly on his head. The poor cap was about as faded as he felt, but unlike him, at least it still fit.

He reached toward the small table next to his chair and took his corojo wrapped toro cigar from a makeshift ashtray he’d cut into an old soda can. He looked at it. Almost half was still left. He took a long, satisfying pull on the cigar, then leaned over and carefully positioned it back on the ashtray as he released the smoke and watched it waft away. On the other side of the ashtray lay his cleaning kit—already closed—and a rag.

He didn’t fit anywhere. Hadn’t for years. It was as if the whole world had turned upside down.

He picked up the rifle. The grip felt good in his right hand as his fingers flexed around it. The weight of it felt good as it caused the muscles in his right forearm to tense.

He set the butt plate it in his shoulder and lay his cheek along the stock. Then he sighted along the barrel at the street lamp on the corner. The sights looked good. He curled his right index finger into the trigger well and squeezed lightly as he concentrated on the front sight blade. His breathing automatically smoothed out.

He grinned. Quietly, he said, “Y’still got it, Smitty. Some things y’never lose.”

The spring on the screen door complained with a long squeal behind him to the right. Marcy must be coming out.

Beneath the sound of the spring were the strains of a commercial. Some actor pretending to be an old guy repeating all the things he “accepts” because some moron told him to. All to sell some drug or other.

Whoever wrote that ad was an idiot. Just the sound of it made him want to growl. When the rule of three worked well, the listener wouldn’t even notice it. But an old guy who had done significant things in his life repeating three times he “accepts” that he can’t do them anymore was just annoying.

He made a mental note to never buy that particular product. And under no circumstances would he take the actor’s advice to “consult with your doctor” about whatever the drug was. He’d rather “accept” the risk of dying from whatever the medicine proposed to cure. Probably the same drug company had dreamed up the problem their medicine supposedly alleviated.

Ah good. Here comes the list of “possible side effects” the medicine might cause on its way to depleting your bank account.

Marcy said, “You coming in soon, Mark? It’s late. Put away your things and let’s get some sleep.” She hesitated. “I wish you wouldn’t do this. You always overreact. It’s just politics after all.”

He took the rifle from his shoulder and put his rifle on his lap. “What are you talking about?”

“You, sitting out here dreaming of shooting someone with that thing.”

“I ain’t dreamin’ of shootin’ anybody, Marcy. If I wanted somebody shot, he’d be layin’ out there bleedin’ somewhere right now. Two to five hundred yards out, dependin’ on the field of fire.”

“Whatever,” she said derisively. Then the sing-song started. “This happens every time you hear a politician. Every single time, you overreact. You pull out that stupid gun and….”

She droned on as he took another puff on his cigar, then held it a few inches from his face and looked at it as he released the smoke.

Could the enemy see the glow off the tip of a cigar from seven miles away? That’s what they always said about cigarettes. When he went on patrol back in the day, he left his cigarettes back in the hooch and carried a couple bags of Redman. Never did care for the plugs.

And if he’d bothered carrying the cigarettes, chances were they’d be smashed or broken anyway. Besides, if things were calm and he wanted a smoke, he could always get one out of his C-rats.

Probably not, though, on the cigar thing. Cigarettes glowed more brightly. No ash hanging in front. Wouldn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t have risked carrying a two- or three- or five dollar cigar on a hump either. They broke easier than cigarettes did.

He was vaguely aware Marcy had stopped talking.

She punctuated the fact with, “Well?”

He carefully positioned the cigar back on the ashtray and shook his head. “No. See, that’s what you don’t understand, Marcy. You’ve never understood.”

She crossed her arms. “What? What have I never understood?”

“It’s never been about politics, Marcy. At least not the kind of politics you’re talking about.”

He looked away for a moment and shook his head. There was no way to make her understand. Still, for some stupid reason he felt compelled to try.

He looked at her again. “What I mean, it isn’t about what people like you call ‘politics as usual.’”

She frowned and crossed her arms, a smirk suddenly on her face. “But it is politics as usual. And people like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You wanna pull up a chair? This might take awhile. Besides, I’m not through with my cigar yet.”

“I’ll stand, thanks. And I wish you’d get rid of those filthy things. It’s a nasty habit.”

“Oh? How many have you smoked?”

“I wouldn’t touch those filthy things!”

“My point exactly. Hard to criticize something you know nothin’ about.” He grinned. “Besides, I’m gettin’ rid of ‘em quick as I can. About time to order more.”

“That isn’t funny, Mark.”

He shrugged, then picked up the cigar and took another puff, though he didn’t really want one at the moment. But a blatant exhibition of a man exercising personal choice wasn’t entirely uncalled for either.

He released the smoke in a bilious cloud. As it wafted away, he put the cigar back in the ashtray. “See, this isn’t some cutesy giggly thing where it’s all my guys against your guys and everybody gets a participation trophy and then we all go get pizza. That’s what you don’t understand.

“It isn’t even that either my guys win and the constitution is upheld or your guys win and you get four more years to push the country down the toilet.” He paused, then picked up the rag. More quietly, he said, “All the while safe in knowing someone like me will pull you back from the edge just in time.”

He’d already wiped the stock down with linseed oil, but another swipe or two wouldn’t hurt it.

“Oh Mark, that’s complete and utter bullshi—”

He raised the hand with the rag in it and pointed at her. “No! No, it isn’t bullshit. It’s always been this way. I’m just sorry our generation was the first to push it this close. I’m ashamed of us for that. You people don’t seem to realize, there comes a point of no return. You get past a certain point on the slope and nobody can pull you back. You get beyond a certain critical mass and—”

“What? What ‘critical mass’?”

He sighed. “The critical mass. That point where the timid little people who vote for whoever says what they want to hear those of us who have to do the dirty work of pulling them back.”

Marcy’s hand went to her mouth and she gasped. Under arched eyebrows, she said, “Timid little people?”

He stifled a grin and nodded. “They come in two varieties. In the first group are those who can’t say what they mean because they’re scared to death of ‘offending’ someone. The second are those who vote on soundbites because it’s the fashionable thing to do. They know who they are.”

“Is that right? And who exactly does the ‘dirty work’?”

“Ah.” He nodded again. “Now that’s easy enough to explain, as if you didn’t know. Guys like me. The ones who make it possible for everyone else to spout off and contribute nothing but their uninformed, soundbite-in-an-onion-skin-wrapper opinions. Everybody enjoys the milk and honey, but guys like me queue up and carry the buckets.” He laughed.

“We’re the ones who understand there are certain things out there that are bigger and more important than they are. Like the freedom to make the most out of your own life or the freedom to say what’s on your mind or the freedom to defend your own life by whatever means necessary.

“We’re the ones who understand that what matters is what somebody says, not what somebody else turns it into. We understand that living on handouts is just another form of slavery. We understand that one guy’s rights stop where the next guy’s rights begin.”

“You preach a good game, given that you’re sitting there getting a weapon ready to use on ‘people like me.’”

He scowled and color rose in his cheeks. “You’re damn right I do. And yes, I have a rifle and I know how to use it. But the difference between me and people like you is that I’ll use it to defend what’s mine, not to force someone else to believe the way I want them to.”

Marcy stared at him, wide eyed.

He paused and took a calming breath.

“Look, Marcy, I’m just saying, when people think that way, one day they’re gonna look up and wonder what happened.”

“When they think what way?”

“Like I said, when they’re afraid to speak their mind for fear of offending someone. Or when they vote for a particular person just to be fashionable.”

“People don’t do that.”

“Really? Are you gonna stand there and tell me people didn’t vote for the last guy just because of the color of his skin? How is that not racist? And are you gonna tell me people didn’t vote for that woman just because she’s allegedly a female? How is that not sexist?”

“Well of course I can’t say that nobody—”

“You sure as hell can’t. Tell me this. Faced with what this nation’s become over the past eight years—we’re more racially divided, more people are unemployed, and we’ve lost our status all over the world, even to the point that our enemies are flaunting their power and our allies no longer trust us—how can anyone say the guy did a good job? Of course, he did fix it so men could go into women’s bathrooms as long as they say they ‘self-identify’ as women. Now seriously, how does any of that make sense?

“Look for once, Marcy. Just look. In this country today, if one biological male decides he wants to ‘self-identify’ as a woman, suddenly everyone else in the country—every business, every public venue, and every individual—is required to allow him to use the women’s bathroom. How do you not see how crazy and backward that is?”

“How is it ‘crazy and backward’ to allow a transgender person to assert her right to privacy?”

He laughed. “Okay, first, how can you call that person a ‘her’ when it has a penis? You’re a woman, aren’t you? Do you have a penis?”

“Oh, you’re just confusing the issue.”

“Okay, drop that part. Just tell me this. Why is it all right to stop all the other actual females in the country from asserting their right to privacy just so that one guy can assert his? You seriously wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the women’s restroom in a bar or a restaurant or a ball park?”

“Like I said, for you it’s all just politics as usual.”

“Right. Got it. So answer the question, Marcy. You really wouldn’t have a problem with a man following you into the ladies’ room? Or what about in a department store where they have a section of changing rooms for women and a separate section of changing rooms for men? You wouldn’t mind if a man who ‘identifies as a woman’ follows you into the women’s section?”

“I don’t have to answer your stupid question. It isn’t about me. It’s about the transgender person.”

“I guess that answers it then. See? That one man’s right to privacy is more important to you than everyone else’s.”

“That isn’t what I said!”

“Fine. Then put it in your own words. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

“I’m just saying the transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person does.”

Mark nodded. “Oh. Well good. Then we agree. The transgender person has as much right to privacy as the non-transgender person—not more. So it follows that the non-transgender person has as much right to privacy as the transgender person does too, right? And each person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin.”

“You’re impossible! You’re twisting everything around. A person has the right to do anything he or she wants.”

“Again, I agree. As long as one person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin. Nobody has the right to force anything on anyone else. Anything. Himself, his ideas, his philosophy.”

“Okay. So? What’s that have to do with a transgender person wanting to use the appropriate bathroom for the gender he or she identifies with?”

“The transgender person has the right to pee wherever it wants to pee. But it doesn’t have the right to force others to put up with it. It doesn’t have the right to make others uncomfortable.” He hefted his rifle. “For example, I have the right to own this, and to fire it. But that doesn’t trump someone else’s right to continue breathing, right?”

“But the president must have done some good. After all, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for—”

Mark wagged one hand. “So now we’re back to participation trophies, right? What did he actually do to get that award handed to him? Nothing. All he did was show up.

“And that woman, if she actually is a woman. What did she do that qualifies her to be the president of the United States? Let’s see.” He held up his left hand, the fingers extended. “She used an unsecured server to send and receive classified state secrets, she and her worthless husband gutted the American military when he was in office, and she took millions of dollars from regimes around the world whose motto is Death to America and who call us The Great Satan. But worst of all, she abandoned men in the field.

“Hell, Marcy, she even watched on TV as the administration’s own ambassador was raped and  tortured to death in the streets with cattle prods. And all of that after those men begged for months for an increase in security! Now how in the hell can anyone vote for that woman? And then she turned around and blamed the whole thing on a ‘spontaneous’ uprising over some film somebody made. The woman is despicable. And you want her as the commander in chief?”

“Mark, watch your blood pressure.”

“Know what? Screw my blood pressure. That’s my whole point, don’t you see? I don’t matter. You don’t matter. And those men who call themselves women to gain access to women’s bathrooms and those snowflakes in colleges who are always being ‘offended’ and crying for a ‘safe space’ and those spoiled millionaires who play games for a living and refuse to stand for the National Anthem definitely don’t matter. What matters is the Constitution and this once-great nation. Damn it, that’s what matters!”

“Well, I’m going in to bed. I hope you’ll come along soon.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because I love you, Mark.”

He looked at the street lamp again. Finally he shrugged. “Yeah. Well, I love you too. You go ahead if you want to. I’m gonna sit out here for awhile. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and some of those ICE police will come up in their black uniforms to confiscate my rifle. ‘Course they generally only travel in pairs. That wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

“Hey, I know! Maybe they’ll bring a passel of those UN guys with them. A squad, maybe. If they even know what a squad is. Or maybe they’ll bring a whole damn platoon. At least that way it’d be a fair fight. I’ll bet I could take half of ‘em with me.”

He laughed. “I can just see the headlines the mainstream media would slap on it tomorrow: Crazed Man With Rifle Murders Innocent UN Troops In His Front Yard.” He laughed again and gripped his rifle in his lap. “Hey Marcy, did’ja hear that? Whaddya think? That’d be the headline, wouldn’t it?”

He turned to look up at Marcy. “Marcy?”

But she had already gone inside.

He frowned. “Now how in the world did she do that without that spring makin’ a racket?”

Maybe it was stretched too far.

* * * * * * *