In 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.”
“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.
* * * * * * *