I must be fucking cursed.
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Godâs punishing me. He always has. Thatâs why things come so easy to everybody else and why I have to fight like hell to just hold on to the little I got.
âYou shouldnât talk like that,â my mother says. She whispers it, like sheâs afraid God might hear us. âYouâre just on the pity pot,â she says. Oh fuck me. I hate when she talks like this. She started going to Al-anon years ago, when my dad was still alive. Now, she can hardly hold a slogan-free conversation. She sounds like sheâs in a cult or some shit. âYou know what you need?â she says. âA gratitude list.â
âMom, for chrissake.â
âOkay, okay. Sorry,â she whispers, tiptoeing out to the kitchen, like thereâs a sleeping baby in here. Or a bomb.
I moved back in with my mom about a couple of weeks ago after Vikki threw me out. Me and Vikki went to couples counseling. Once. One time. I couldnât take it. I stormed out. The guy wouldnât let me talk. He kept fuckinâ shushing me, telling me to keep my voice down. Vikki does that all the time, too. She thinks I have a hearing problem and thatâs why I talk so loud. But if people would just fuckinâ listen . . . Anyway, after Dr. Kiplinger shushed me, I said, âIf we canât talk about her meddling parents, then Iâm out of here.â And I got up and left. I knew Vikki was gonna be pissed but I didnât think sheâd fucking leave me.
That was around ten a.m. Later, just after lunch, when I went to pick up Frankie from day care, there was Vikki, sitting in the passenger seat of her motherâs Town Car with Frankie, our three-year old, in the childâs seat in the back. I could see his little face, sucking on a sippy cup in his car seat, but I was afraid to go near the car. I didnât want her mother ganging up on me too. I motioned for Vikki to come over.
âRonnie,â she said, âIâm giving you the weekend to get your stuff out of the house. I want you gone.â She didnât even seem pissed. Just cold. And even though her mother was still sitting in the car waiting for her and couldnât even hear what we were saying, I still felt like they were ganging up on me. They always ganged up on me. I think her mom wanted to split us up from the beginning. Thatâs what I wanted to talk to the coupleâs counselor about. But then it felt like he was ganging up on me, too.
I went straight home and packed my shit. Right before I left the house, I called my brother-in-law Brian at work to tell him Vikki and I were getting a divorce. I donât know, maybe I was hoping he and Lisa would put me up for a while. But he didnât offer. Shit, he didnât even sound surprised that Vikki threw me out; it sounded like he already knew all about it, like maybe Vikkiâd been talking to her sister about our problems for a while. âDonât do anything stupid,â Brian said right before I hung up. âThat boy needs you.â I bet they were all in on it together, all of them, pushing Vikki to leave me.
My momâs out in the kitchen now, emptying the dishwasher, it sounds like, and I can still hear her mumbling her Al-anon slogans, some horseshit about âletting go.â Then she calls into the living room to me, âHey, Ronnie. Why donât you go pick us up some take-out for us from Sierraâs? Thatâll make you feel better.â
I say okay and I jump in my Celebrity and drive over to Sierraâs. I place the order at the bar, think about ordering a beer, but instead walk outside to wait, maybe have a smoke. In the strip mall across the parking lot I see this store Iâve never noticed before. Itâs called âAmerican Preparedness.â Thereâs a huge camouflage hummer parked out in front of the shop, with American flags waving from it. I donât know how I couldâve missed it.
I walk over to the shop. The glass door has these red, white, and blue streamers draped over the top corners like itâs the Fourth of July. In the front window thereâs flier advertising a course in âTotal Home Prep–Surviving Disaster Without Leaving Homeâ and a sign that says âGrand Opening.â I walk in to take a look around. The lanky guy standing behind the counter nods to me.
I stroll in to the middle of the store and say, ââAmerican Preparedness?â What are you guys preparing for?â
âAny and all eventualities,â the guy behind the counter says with complete confidence, like heâs giving a speech. âFinancial crises, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, Ebola outbreaks, marauders, you name it.â He walks out from behind the counter and extends his hand. âWeâre just trying to keep alive all the know-how our grandparents had. You know, the common sense stuff.â He introduces himself. âRuss.â
I shake his hand. âNice to meet you. Iâm Ronnie.â I look around. There are food rations, machines to convert urine into water, gas-powered electrical generators, safes, ammo, firearms, knives like you wouldnât believe. My grandparents were Canadian. I donât think they had this kind of know-how.
âWhat can we interest you in today, Ronnie?â
Then I get to thinking. I ask for a job application. I stand at the counter and fill it out as Russ and I chat. I finish filling out the application and am just getting ready to leave. Russ looks down at my application. âEx-military?â he asks. âHold on just a minute. Let me show your application to Alan,â he says, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. He walks back through a black curtain behind the counter.
I walk around the store. Itâs a small shop, cramped really, and packed with stuff. In the corner by the front counter thereâs a mannequin in full body armor with a sign that says, âProtecting the ProtectorsâTogether in the Fight.â Across from that, against the wall, are some âJet Boil Stoves,â whatever those are, and above them a glossy poster advertising âGourmet Emergency Foodâ with a woman in the ad who looks just like Marie Osmond. Iâm staring at it, thinking, âIt canât be her, right?â when Russ comes back from behind the curtain with an older gentleman walking behind him.
âHi,â the older guy says. We shake hands. âIâm Alan Sickles. Russ here says youâre interested in coming to work for us Mr. . . . ?â He glances down at my application.
âErbie,â I say. âRonnie Erbie. Yes, sir, I am.â
âHowâd you hear about us?â
âWell, I was just picking up some food across the way there and thought Iâd take a look.â
âAre you familiar with Survivalist culture, Mr. Erbieâ?
âNo, not really. You can call me Ronnie,â I tell him.
âOkay, Ronnie. Well, prior knowledge isnât essential. Russ says youâre ex-military?â He looks down at my application again.
âYep. Naval Air. Four years. Active.â
âWhatâd you do in the Navy, Ronnieâ?
âPower plants. I worked on airplane engines. C-2s. Prop planes. I worked down at Hartsfield, too, for a while when I got out.â
âOkay. Well, can you start next week? Why donât you just come in next Tuesday around three and weâll get ya started,â Sickles says. âYou can be reached at this number?â
âOkay,â Sickles says, shaking my hand again, âweâll see ya Tuesday then. Thanks for coming in.â He walks me toward the front of the store. âAnd here,â he pulls a little magazine from a display behind me as I open the door of the shop to leave. âTake this with you and have a look.â
âThanks,â I say, curling up the magazine and raising it in the air in a kind of salute toward Russ as I walk out.
Me and my mom eat our Sierraâs take-out in front of the TV watching âCelebrity Wife Swap.â Some woman I never heard of who used to be the kid on a sitcom back in the â90s is switching families with the wife of some former boy-band member. The families argue about stupid shit, like one of the families is vegetarian or healthy or something and the other one isnât. I start thinking about Vikki, and about how much she told her family about the problems we were having. Iâm pretty sure she told her parents about that time she called the cops on me.
Sitting there in front of the TV, I start thinking about back when Frankie was really little. I used to get pissed off about how much Vikki was feeding him. It seemed like she nursed him all the time. Sheâd sit with him up in the glider in our room for what seemed like hours. No way was the kid eating that fucking much. I started thinking that maybe she was always nursing him so she could get away from me.
One night, I insisted on putting Frankie to bed myself. You know, just to get it over with. But he wouldnât take the bottle. Vikki got all up in my face, telling me to give him to her so she could nurse him. I dropped Frankie on our bed, and I grabbed Vikki by the arms and shoved her backwards out of our bedroom, pushing her down on the floor in the hallway. Then I locked the bedroom door and tried to get Frankie to go to sleep. But he just kept screaming.
Then I heard the cops at the front door. Vikki mustâve called them. When I came downstairs holding Frankie, he was all red-faced and beaded with sweat. These two fat cops were standing in the kitchen with Vikki, and she was showing them where I grabbed her. The inside of her arms were all red and blueish, and you could see outlines of my fingers where Iâd gripped her. âShe bruises really easy,â I told them, but those fucking cops didnât want to hear my side of anything. Nobody ever–
âRonnie,â I hear my mom say beside me. âYou okay?â
âIâm fine. Just thinking.â
Thereâs a commercial on the TV now, so I get up and take our plates out to the kitchen and dump âem in the sink. I come back to the couch and tell my mom about the job at American Preparedness. She asks me how much it pays and I just shrug.
âYou know,â my mom says, âVikkiâll be real happy youâre working again.â I start yelling that Vikkiâs not taking me back and sheâs probably gonna make me pay child support and then Iâll never be able to move out of here. My mom starts in again with her bullshit about counting blessings and putting something or other in my âgod box,â whatever the hell that is. Thatâs when I say Iâm going to bed.
I lie down on the sofa in the little room where my momâs letting me stay. Itâs her sewing room. Thereâs a sewing machine near the closet and a tackle box full of little scissors, needles, spools of thread, and what she calls her âfat quartersâ sitting on the end table. On the wall thereâs a picture frame and inside it, written in baby-blue yarn, it says, âLife is hard by the yard, but by the inch itâs a cinch.â
Iâm not really tired so I just lay back and smoke a cigarette. My mom doesnât want me smoking in her house, so I crack the window, and flick my ashes in a coke can I keep on the floor beside the couch. I start flipping through the magazine Mr. Sickles gave me.
âThe New Patriotâ itâs called. Itâs kind of like a newsletter. Thereâs a column entitled âThe Sword and the Covenantâ and articles about âprepperâ culture and something called âPosse Comitatus.â I donât read the articles though, just look at the pictures. Thereâs all this cool stuff, ads for âHome Defense Fundamentals,â all kinds of camping gear, and an ad for food that boasts a â25-Year Shelf Life!â The ads reminds me of when I was a kid and Iâd come across those cool ads at the end of comic books for stuff like the â10-in-One Optical Device,â the âMess Kit/Canteen Combo,â or, my favorite, the âX-Ray Visionâ glasses that promised you could see through clothes or even skin. (âAmaze and embarrass everyone!â the ad said). But I never ordered any of that stuff. Iâd just sit and look at the ads for the x-ray glasses or for the hypnotist lessons, daydreaming about the ads more than I read the comics.
I show up at the American Preparedness store a little before three on Tuesday, like Mr. Sickles told me to. I wear khakis and a button-down denim shirt I got at Target, trying to look like Mr. Sickles and Russ. Mr. Sickles wears those brown loafers with tassels on them. Girl shoes, I call them. I donât wear those. I wear my black Reeboks like I used to wear when I worked at the airport. They look like dress shoes if you donât look too close. Russ wears hiking boots.
Mr. Sickles has me fill out some forms, and then he has Russ show me around the shop. Thereâs a lot of cool stuff, like a âPandemic Flu Kit,â a big squirt bottle of yellowish liquid labeled âFire Suppressor,â and fully stocked backpacks, stuffed with flashlights, light sticks, a compass, a poncho, waterproof matches, and even a kids coloring book.
The coloring book starts me thinking about Frankie, about how much heâd enjoy the scouting equipment and camping gear. That day I talked to my brother-in-law, the day Vikki kicked me out, he said, âThat boy needs you.â And I start thinking that maybe heâs right. I mean, thatâs what people are always saying, arenât they? That kids need their fathers? Especially boys. Maybe thatâs just what Frankie and I need, a little father-son weekend, a camping trip. Maybe some fishing. But Vikkiâll never go for it. She can be such a bitch. I can just hear her now. âRonnie, heâs only three years old. Itâs September!â Heâs my fucking kid too, though.
Around seven oâclock I take my break. Mr. Sickles has already gone home, so itâs just me and Russ. I go out back for a smoke. Russ comes out too for a minute, and I tell him I want to get some of this cool shit that the store has.
âOh, Alanâs real cool about that,â he says. âHe lets you take stuff on credit.â
Man, Iâd sure like to get one of those backpacks, and maybe a little stove. Maybe I could take Frankie up to Tallulah Falls.
I get home from work about nine thirty. My momâs still up, sitting on the couch watching âAmericaâs Got Talentâ or something. I go into the kitchen and call Vikki.
âHey, Vik,â I say when she picks up. âHowâs Frankie?â
She starts right in with the bitching about child support and then I tell her about my new job and how I want to take Frankie camping on Saturday.
She doesnât say anything at all. For a second I thought maybe she hung up or we got disconnected. Then she just says, âRonnie,â sounding all exasperated, like she has a headache or something. Like Iâm some big headache when all I wanna do is spend some time with my son. âQuality time,â they call it, right? And Iâm saying this and sheâs not saying anything. Itâs like she runs out of things to say. Then she says, âno.â and I ask her why and she just says âbecause I said soâ like Iâm some fucking kid. âWell, we see about that,â Iâm about to say, but sheâs already hung up.
I slam down the phone and walk out to the living room. My momâs still sitting on the couch. She asks whatâs wrong. âNothing,â I say. âFucking Vikki,â I say to myself. âI donât want to talk about it.â
âQ-tip,â she says.
âQ-tip. Quit. Taking. It. Personally.â
âOh, for fuckâs sake. Iâm going to bed.â
I pack up the Celebrity with some old camping gear. I throw in the new backpack and little stove that Mr. Sickles let me take from the store after my third week. I also pack the Lightning McQueen lantern I got for Frankie at Target and the animal crackers and juice boxes that I bought. Then I drive over to Vikkiâs house.
Itâs Friday afternoon. Iâm going to pick up Frankie and bring him back to my momâs to spend the night. That way, he can spend some time with his grandma, and then he and I can get an early start tomorrow. Iâve timed it so Iâll get to Vikkiâs right around the time I know sheâs getting home from work. Surprise her. I want to catch her outside. Talk to her a minute. Show her the stuff I got, how much thought I put into this trip. If I donât get there before her and sheâs already in the house, she might just pretend sheâs not home or not let me in. But Iâm taking him. Heâs my kid too. Even my mom said that.
I wait down the street in my car until I see her SUV pull up in the driveway. She pulls in the garage, and I get out of my car and start walking toward the house. I walk up the driveway and see Vikki. Sheâs lifting Frankie out of his car seat. She hears me walking up and looks up. Then she ducks her head right back into the car to grab Frankie. I can already tell sheâs not happy to see me.
She pokes her head out of the carâs back door again as I approach. Sheâs still messing with the car seat. âRonnie, what are you doing here–. No,â she says. âNo Ronnie. â I push her out of the way so I can grab Frankie from the backseat. I hear her fall backwards onto some cardboard boxes that are sitting on the floor of the garage against the wall.
âHeâs my kid too,â I scream. âHey Frank,â I say, turning and bending down to look in the backseat. âDaddyâs gonna take you camping. Wanna go camping with daddy?â
He looks happy to see me, I guess, but he looks a little scared too. Heâll calm down once we get on the road. I try lifting him out of the car seat but I guess one of his seatbelts is still buckled. I crouch down to take a closer look. Then I feel this crushing pain on the back of my head and I drop down onto the floor of the garage. Jesus Christ! What the fuck? I think Iâm bleeding. Did she just hit me with a shovel? I lay down on my back, stretch my legs out under Vikkiâs Range Rover. I look up at the ceiling and see a naked light bulb, gleaming in the darkness. Pain shoots down the top of my head and down my spine and through my jaw. Then I get this overwhelming smell of grape jelly, for some reason.
Iâm lying there on my back, and Vikki steps over me and grabs Frankie. She carries him out of the garage. I can hear her keys jangling over the sound of Frankie screaming. Then I hear her go in the house and slam the door. Sheâs probably gonna call the police. I just lay there, staring up at the lightbulb wondering what I ever did to deserve all this. The whole goddamn universe is out to get me. I better get outta here before the cops come. But I canât move just yet. I stare up at the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and it starts to flicker.
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