Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 122 in March, 2010, excerpted from a novel in progress.
Slick now understood why he heard artillery fire during the night. It had been aimed at the plane that dropped the leaflet he was holding in his thick, gray glove, the leaflet urging citizens of Alaska still loyal to the American government to find safe ground, which was further defined as “at least fifty miles from the nearest Black Ice enclave.”
“They’re wrong to call this the Second American Civil War,” Sgt. Drywell addressed the troops standing in formation in Drusilla’s town square. “This is the new Crusades.” Whether or not it was merely for show, Drywell projected the confidence of a leader who didn’t know he and his men would soon be firebombed or gassed. He was a man who, at least in appearance, had not received the messages delivered without leaflets: two southeastern Alaska towns obliterated by an American President whose warnings left little room for misinterpretation; and Russia advancing across the Aleutians, effectively declaring that, in severing ties to the United States, Alaska reverted to previous ownership. “America is the Holy Land,” Drywell continued, “and we are taking it back for Christ.”
Even had Slick believed Black Ice held the slightest chance of succeeding, he had no desire to take anything back for Christ. All he wanted was to be warm again, a simple ex-contractor back with the ex-wife who had grown to love him in absentia. He wanted to be far from this stupid, simmering war, a good thousand miles behind what the idiots gathered with him in the square believed to be enemy lines.
A black speck passed slowly overhead, high in the silver-blue sky, another CIA drone. Piloted by computer warriors in the spook-world equivalent of a mall arcade some 4500 miles away, the plane was capable of raining down death or—Slick’s stated preference—spying on troop locations. The speck moved on; he resumed breathing. At least it was warmer this morning in April, though Slick suspected that his own standards for comfort were simply dropping to conform to their surroundings. Crumpling the leaflet and letting it fall to the still-hard ground, he smiled, imagining how tropical suburban Denver would feel to him now.
The price of gas fell as it did every two years when the Republicans were fighting to hold onto the White House or Congress. Precinct captains in rural Florida and Ohio were told to deliver the vote “one way or the other.” And Republican nominee Sumter Bane memorized the name of a blue-collar Everyman, if incorrectly, calling Kurt the tree surgeon Bert in his speeches. Though the liberal Huffingmad blog exposed Kurt as a brain surgeon barred from practice in three states, but still netting over $600,000 a year from his Texas clinic, the mainstream press left the story alone, not wishing to “show bias,” which left Kurt/Bert free to tell crowds evolution was a hoax started by the New York Times “and this is why socialists want to take your money.” The candidate himself was a corporate lobbyist, his party having decided this time to skip the bothersome middleman. Fox News called Bane “an honorable, upright family man,” omitting the fact that like many social conservatives he was on his third family. He also happened to be “the only candidate who can keep you alive in perilous times.”
But despite these best efforts, the “flag-snubbing gay-and-immigrant-coddling” Democrat won the election by more votes than the precinct captains in rural Florida and Ohio could offset. And Lindsay Hearth was talking about “pouring a little Drain-o into the pipes of government clogged by Republican sludge.” She talked, too, about improving healthcare, rebuilding the infrastructure, and preserving both Social Security and the environment, though even non-Fox outlets questioned how she would do this while inheriting debt more than four times the size of the gross national product. And what about Iraq?
Standing between the new Iraqi press and a banner that proclaimed Mission Truly Accomplished This Time, outgoing President Reb Post called the war “an incredible success and the brunt of my legacy” just as a journalist got up from his seat, branded Post a “colonialist dog,” and broke the American leader’s nose with a flying shoe. (“Where are these quick reflexes we’ve heard so much about?” another promptly shouted.) But this didn’t make Post altogether wrong in claiming success. From the perspective of oil and arms merchants, Desert Sunrise had gone well. For Vlad K. Hammersmith, President and CEO of Black Ice, the occupation had gone very, very well.
Eight years earlier, Post had restored Republican rule to the White House, taking it back from “an irresponsible socialist” who had reduced the federal debt while putting real tree surgeons back to work. As with Republicans before him, Post took advantage of America’s short collective memory, knowing that after eight years voters had completely forgotten how contemporary GOP administrations tend to mock the Constitution, loot the Treasury, and drive the overall economy into the ground, after which they keep applying downward pressure.
Right from the start of the Post administration, Hammersmith had been a prominent ally, generously funding Post’s “crusade” for school reform (vouchers to Christian schools), Social Security reform (vouchers to brokerage firms), and making absolutely certain no gay person whose father wasn’t a Republican in high office would ever raise children. In return, an appreciative Post started a war and gave Hammersmith $20-billion dollars in military-assist contracts. Conveniently, Hammersmith had only just founded Black Ice, an army of mercenaries dedicated to forcing stability on our godless foes. Reports indicated that a typical Black Ice contractor earned $125 an hour for driving supplies and weapons from one line in the sand to another. As for how much Vlad K. Hammersmith received for each of those hours, this could only be estimated, because no one outside of Black Ice and the Post administration knew the contract details.
The most common guess: one hell of a lot.
Right before handing the reins of power to Hearth, which Post did with two black eyes and a bandaged nose, the outgoing President funneled fresh contracts and funds to Black Ice.
Concurrently, the outgoing Vice President, Pulvis Tweed, blasted the incoming Democrats, saying, “Bring on the wealth redistribution.” Of course, like other Republicans, Tweed and Post privately believed in wealth redistribution, so long as it flowed the right direction.
“With the help of our loyal allies,” Post told Fox only days before he left office, presumably referring to contractors like Black Ice, since the US no longer had loyal allies in the form of other nations, “we have forged a strong future for the world’s newest democracy in Iraq.” This was fortunate, because “All an outgoing President has is his legacy, and this is what I’ll be remembered how.”
J. Hieronymus Slick had witnessed the election and transfer of power from the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq.
Thirty-eight and overweight when he signed with Black Ice, Slick was a failed pornographic romance novelist. His first book, Slit Stream, had entered the world in a paperback run of 20,000 copies, encouraging Slick to quit his job administering phone surveys for America Thinks! Data Compilation. But the book soon “went limp,” as was said in the business. Pube-lishers Weekly called the sex scenes (two thirds of the novel) “forced and unrealistic,” a quote Slick had mistaken for a compliment, given the nature of porn, when first skimming the review. But when he reached the conclusion, he was glad to have used a pen name. The final line: “Dick Tweezer doesn’t seem to possess firsthand knowledge of sex.” Slick blamed his wife, who’d been withholding that knowledge for some time.
“If they only knew,” he said to her, “how hands-on my knowledge was.”
“You’re just lucky I let you sleep in this house,” Wyntre hit back, correctly seeing no need to append, “you know, the house we bought with money from my parents.”
Slick mumbled an apology, and went back to thinking about Pube-lishers Weeklyand the other obstacles to his dreams of independent wealth and never having to apologize to anyone ever again. “An impassioned orgy of fantasy, feeling, and sex, sex, sex,” the starred review above his had proclaimed. “Joy Klitt’s Pussy Hollow is hot, hot, hot.”
His publisher moved a total of 9,100 copies, which meant Slick would have to produce 110 more books in order to call himself a million-selling author. He did have fans, but the emails forwarded to him were anything but motivating. Slick would have bet his slim royalty checks that Dickens never once received a letter declaring anything on the order of, “I got myself off five times after finishing your Pickwick Papers.” The ones from prison were especially disturbing.
Slick needed a female audience, and blamed PW for keeping him from such. But then, how to explain the absence of a female audience in his own home, where Wyntre, who only made it fifty pages into Slit Stream, asked, “Do you even like women?”? He’d wanted to respond, “Yes, of course. I love women.” But while she was asking—her eyes dark slits, her flesh turned stone—he really wasn’t sure.
He thought it accurate to say she despised him by that point in their marriage—and not without reason. The one-time child beauty contestant had grown more depressed each year they endured, having accepted she would never get her biggest wish, that of being called “Mommy,” thanks to Slick’s dribbling the ball while her biological clock ticked away. “Kids make noise,” he’d said, setting up her retort: “They can’t whine any more than you do.” And so the battle raged. Since Slick wouldn’t have sex without kid-preventing condoms, she wouldn’t have sex.
He knew he despised his own life in suburban Windridge, ten minutes south of Denver, where neighbors considered dandelions a greater threat than crime. The Smythes to his left and Conlins to his right paid Vietnamese immigrants to mow their dandelion-free lawns, then paid the local rec center for the privilege of exercising on lawn-mow simulators. Slick did neither, and the dandelions loved him for it.
The Smythes and Conlins glared at him on the few occasions a Smythe or Conlin was actually outside one of their homes when Slick drove into the garage that overheated the bedroom above it in summer and helped keep it freezing the other months. Some of the glaring was, admittedly, assumed, since his neighbors always hid their eyes behind dark glasses. But never did they wave or smile. Not that Slick did either. He refused to wave or smile at people who were glaring at him.
Lying awake in that bedroom, Slick wondered what happened to all the things he’d started out wanting. Yes, he was a published novelist, but not in a genre he’d even heard of when he was younger. And yes, he was married to a passionate, beautiful woman—but his original description had continued with the clause: “who didn’t despise him.” He and Wyntre had started out so happy, squeezed into a one-bathroom rental in northeast Denver and enjoying the squeezing. Though every bit as poor as their neighbors, neither minded, given all the prosperity and other rewards coming their way as the result of his writing talents. With her slim upturned nose, her wavy, dark hair and darker eyes, Wyntre could have been a model, in New York or the Italian Renaissance. But there she was, living to please him in northeast Denver. It was more than he deserved, a disparity he grasped only a year or two before she did.
Not long after his first novel stiffed, Slick received the sad news that he was “fricking unemployable.” This happened on a Monday morning, when he reapplied at America Thinks! “How fricking hard is it to read from a script?” the Second Shift Manager with an inconveniently good memory asked. “You sure fricking couldn’t. Listen, Slick, we’ve got jokers here who can’t tie their damn shoes, yet they fricking manage to stick to the scripts.” In Slick’s defense—which he probably shouldn’t have presented during the interview—the prepared survey questions had been incredibly boring, leaving him no choice but to improvise: Which is worse: that 45% of Americans admit to urinating in the shower; that someone thought to include this question on surveys; or that people are stupid enough to answer such questions?
Though Wyntre didn’t think one person’s opinion should keep anyone from “getting off your lazy butt and finding real work,” Slick was more of a realist. When he didn’t respond to her harangue, she said, “Oh, jeez, you’re going to write again,” her words coming out as a sigh. Then, “Is this going to be a real book, you know, one that won’t embarrass me?”
He could have asked, “When was the last time you read a real book?” But what he said was, “Yes, I’m going back to my novel. The real one.”
Slick had not intended for his answer to be sincere. Still, he ended up keeping his word, at least to the extent of turning on his laptop the following afternoon and pulling up the humorous, literary novel he’d set aside before writing Slit Stream. Unfortunately for Wyntre, Slick found none of its twenty-six paragraphs to be either humorous or literary—and this reminded him why he couldn’t compete with the folks who wrote real books. Thanks to his parents, Slick had been deprived as a child. There had been no homelessness or abject poverty, no sexual abuse from uncles or priests. (He didn’t even have the advantage of being Catholic or Jewish.)
There had been no bipolar disorder or dysfunctional family. Goofy, yes. Creepy, no. Though his dad currently resided in prison, Damon Slick had lacked the fundamental decency to commit his crime and break up the family when Slick was still a child. That would most certainly have messed up the young Slick—just enough to plant the messed up seeds that would later blossom as great fiction.
Neither had Slick known the anguish of growing up gay in a homophobic society, meaning, goddammit, he could never be as funny as David Sedaris or Armistead Maupin.
The pampered only child, Slick felt cheated and bitter. That he had no gripes was his one big gripe, and it didn’t make for interesting reading. It only made for anger, page after blank page of anger. His parents had ruined everything.
Staring at his laptop screen, having honored his promise to Wyntre, he closed the file, greatlitnov.doc, and firmly pressed Delete.
Slick opened a new Word file and started typing the one thing he knew. Weeks went by, then months. He put on weight, shaved every third day. Wyntre made him happy one night by telling him she no longer wanted to have a child. His joy was extremely short-lived, however, snuffed out when she added, “with you.”
Shortly before Cock Throbbin’ debuted in hardcover—a first for Slick—the hugely successful sci-fi author Stephan Porter contributed a glowing endorsement, “Slick lifts the genre to a new plateau, taking the lurid and giving us lit; see if you don’t climax when you reach the burning hot climax.”
Pube-lishers gave it a starred review. But one issue later they ran“the world’s first-ever retraction of a book review,” incorrectly alleging that the original reviewer had been paid by Slick to write the review. (It wasn’t true. The publisher had done this without Slick’s knowledge.) Worse was the scroll on CNN’s Headline News, “Dinoscare Author Stephan Porter Enters Rehab after Seeing Blurb on Book Jacket.”
Humiliation hit closer to home when Slick submitted a self-penned article to the Windridge Hub, a shoddy insert produced for his suburb by the Rocky Mountain News. “Praised by sci-fi titan Stephan Porter, Slick has delivered a novel sure to become a classic on the scale of Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22,” he’d boasted, figuring no one at the Hub would bother reading his Word file attachment before posting it online or running it in print for the Smythes and Conlins to envy. Having skimmed a few of their previous articles, he assumed the Hub had no one resembling an editor, let alone one who would do even minimalist tweaking—or research. The editor did both. Along with substituting “smut peddling hack” for “novelist” each of the three times the original noun appeared, she proved she’d completed a ten-second Internet search by ending Slick’s profile with, “The numbers on Amazon are impressive. 286 pages. 853,922 in sales. Wait, sorry. That’s 853,922 in sales ranking. Ouch.”
When he mailed out two review copies of Cock Throbbin' the morning “Hub Exclusive: Local Novelist Shatters Expectations”appeared in print, the clerk at the Post Office asked, “You want me to just toss these, Mr. Slick, and save you the grief?”
That night, Wyntre came home from her work at Fluffy Bunny Daycare holding the Windridge Hub issue. She was barely in the house when she issued her own retraction, taking back the “Gee, Slick, this time it looks like you’re getting somewhere” she had proffered upon seeing the handwritten letter from Stephan Porter. (Dinoscare was one of the few books, real or not, she’d read as an adult.) “You’re a fraud,” she added now. “Get out of my house.” She held the rolled up Hub as if it were a flyswatter, a gesture leaving Slick in the role of fly. “Get out of my house.”
He got drunk that night and did something stupid, even in the context of being drunk. He inflicted $2,000 damage on a car worth half that. This happened one block from the house while returning from All Tapped Out, his head spinning with plans to beg for a second round of absolution. The radar-triggered sign in the parking lane told him Your Speed was 28. Having always wondered what would happen if he rammed one of these signs at eighty miles per hour—would it read 80 or 0?—he resolved, right then and there, to find out. After backing up one full block in order to build speed, he hit the sign hard, getting his answer—68… 74… 81… then nothing—before the sign fell backward and slid into a telephone pole, breaking apart quickly in the process, leaving it to Slick’s ’98 Taurus to absorb all that remained of the impact.
Wanting to get as far away as he could from pornographic romance novels, and wanting to know how it felt to make $125 an hour, Slick signed with Black Ice. He didn’t ask the smartly dressed recruiter why Black Ice was trying to take the Dark Ages out of the Middle East, when its infamous founder, Vlad K. Hammersmith, was trying to take Western Society back to its own pre-humanist roots.
“Why would you be a good subcontractor?” the recruiter asked.
Slick studied the framed Impressionist artworks that looked more like paintings than prints, while sliding his hand along the cool leather surface of the couch and thinking, This is no strip mall setup. And when he replied, “For $125 an hour, I’ll do anything you ask of me,” he couldn’t have been more sincere.
Two weeks later, Slick was on a plane. He and his fellow freedom fleecers, as they jokingly called themselves, rode business class, none of this troop transport humiliation. It felt like the start of a vacation, albeit a nicer one than he’d ever paid for in his life. This first impression wouldn’t hold.
He found Iraq—specifically, the millions of acres outside the Green Zone—hot and unfriendly. But while regular soldiers were out getting shot and blown up, the Black Ice contractors avoided situations that even hinted of danger. Slick played the wartime equivalent of a UPS delivery guy, taking tobacco, liquor, porn, and eBay curiosities far stranger than any he had ever bid on even deeper into the fully secured Green Zone.
Making $125 an hour didn’t buy him an enviable life, however. He was bored and, more to his surprise, lonely. Very few women helped make up Black Ice, and the ones that did seemed to belong—yes, that was the word—to senior officers. As for the men, senior officers included, they were like most people Slick had met as an adult in that they had little in common with a pornographic romance novelist. Worse, most emulated founder Vlad K. Hammersmith by talking the talk of socially conservative Christendom.
Slick liked them at first, but mostly in contrast to his liberal parents who, throughout Slick’s childhood, had listened to NPR when not participating in protest marches against the death penalty, during which they carried posters bearing the faces of sadistic killers who really needed to be dead. Slick’s mother still cast her votes for perennial third party candidate Chuck Nadar. She couldn’t grasp the argument she had somehow helped Democrats lose two elections against Reb Post, all the while complaining that Post was destroying the world and had to be stopped at any cost. Slick’s father, for the record, would also have voted for Nadar had the federal prison system permitted him to do so.
Though Level 1 Subcontractor Slick was even more apathetic about religion than he was about politics, he grew increasingly impatient with the conservative Christians who, when it came to Jesus, endlessly vied to outlove and outworship each other. “America is a Christian nation,” one would say, to which another would add, “It’s supposed to be anyway.” Yet, the more Slick observed them, the more obvious it became their true religion was Social Darwinism, at least as exhibited in conversation and behavior toward others. In their world, the strong prospered because they deserved it, while the weak lost their welfare benefits and got waterboarded, again because they deserved it.
During a lengthy sandstorm when Slick was getting $125 an hour to stay inside and loaf, he read one of the Bibles printed for distribution to the infidel Muslims, and found nothing to back up what everyone around him was saying. If anything, Jesus despised wealth and those who obtained it, the eye of a needle being much smaller than a camel, however conveniently one chose to interpret that warning. The only other thing that seemed to get Jesus riled up was divorce, which only made sense since every freedom fleecer over twenty-five had divorced at least once.
The only thing these covetous idol-worshiping materialists seemed to remember from Sunday school was an oblique Old Testament reference or two to same sex marriage and abortion, stuff Jesus never really seemed to fret about. Christ, clearly, needed to improve his own churchgoing habits so that he could better understand what he’d really meant to convey.
That way, Jesus might have recalled proclaiming, “My Father created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Before coming to Iraq, Slick had never heard the bumper sticker slogan attributed directly to Jesus. More puzzling than how Slick had missed this passage in his reading was the homophobia itself, because none of the men stationed with Slick seemed to mind being thousands of miles from their families. Had Wyntre been able to resubmit her question, “Do you even like women?” Slick would have been able to answer, “More than anyone else here.”
Preston Pilcher, one of many Class I Subcontractors who’d been in a militia before signing up, spoke fondly of life back at his Idaho compound. “Our women don’t show their faces in at worship. ‘For a man ought not to veil his head, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.’ Corinthians, brother. Look it up.”
When Slick asked, “How’s that different from wearing a burka?” Pilcher responded, “How is that different!? How is that different!? Goddammit, Slick, we treasure our women, something you can’t say for these godless sand ticks.”
And then there were the three subcontractors who let everyone know they were dues-paying Promise Keepers. After long air-conditioned days spent “defending our loved ones from the Antichrist,” Bill, Burt, and Gabe showered awfully close together, a choice made all the more conspicuous when made against a backdrop of individual shower stalls. These Promise Keepers had their own bumper stickers everywhere, on walls, on bathroom mirrors and bed frames, all proclaiming I HEART MY WIFE. Slick was always tempted to find a marker and add, SHE LOOKS GOOD FROM A DISTANCE OF 6500 MILES.
When away from the cleansing downpour, the three men stood as one in a different sense. Then, the only man they loved was Jesus, and their Jesus hated queers every bit as much as he loved the nice cars and flat-screen TVs his believers were meant to enjoy. As Burt Bastion decried: “Girls marrying girls. Fags marrying fags. You can darn well bet He ain’t too happy to see the way our nation’s gone down the toilet.”
Gabe went so far as to say, “I’m so hetero, I don’t just hate the male body, I hate women ’cuz they allow themselves to be penetrated by men. They disgust me even more.”
The one time Slick voiced his concerns—“Did Jesus really stand for any of this?”—he promptly regretted his infraction.
By questioning the tenets of Black Ice Christianity, Slick inadvertently cured himself of his Iraqi boredom. Because starting the next morning, he was required to make deliveries to far ends of the city, and even outside its borders. Slick dreaded these assignments. He didn’t like the sand. He didn’t like the brightness, how everything looked like an image on a computer screen, each dot a source of light, much harsher than mere reflection.
Nor did he like the prospect of being shredded like hamburger. His superior officer, Sgt. Toole, had denied his request for armor, making him no safer than the conventional troops denied that luxury by President Post.
“I found Jesus today,” Slick fervently declared each time he returned to the safety of his still comfortable barracks. “You guys were right about everything.” But no one seemed to hear.