The Rock 'n' Roll Regiment
…in which Elmore gets some warnings from his friends.
Elmore woke on top of his bedsheets, sweating and sticky. The little one-horse window unit in the kitchen didn’t have a prayer of cooling the whole house in June.
The outside light told Elmore that he’d slept till mid-afternoon.
He thought for a moment he smelled burned white bread in a toaster oven. That turned out to be the odor of his own body, sick and sweating out alcohol.
It took him a few minutes to sort things. As hot as it was, Elmore thought briefly he’d awakened in the war zone. Then, he recognized two finger-paintings made by the kids, Will’s spider named Boris, and Mary’s flower, also named Boris. They decorated the door to a closet. The images brought Elmore back to reality.
He swung stiff legs off the bed. Elmore’s faded green army T-shirt smelled of vomit. The floor felt hot under his sock feet. Thoughtfully, someone had untied his work boots and wrestled them off.
Elmore kept very still for a moment with a pounding in his temples. He finally heard faraway sounds. Down toward Snake Creek, the cries of Indians on the warpath filtered through the forest. The tribe sounded lively. Fort Rogers would be quite a scene today.
Elmore imagined that the boys would be wearing a full smear of war paint, their best red clay and mashed blackberry concoction. And Elmore would bet his last dime that Mary wouldn’t be dressed like a squaw… unless Will was, too.
Elmore had a flash of the all-American face of his little action figure, Will. He thought of his daughter’s sweet, trusting little face. Elmore let himself enjoy a smile. He would have one today, at least.
With a grunt – he felt a stab of pain in his right side – Elmore heaved to his feet.
He trundled first to the door frame, holding it for a second until the ship righted. He next relaunched to the kitchen table. To his surprise, Will and Mary had already cleared away the ruins of last night – the whiskey bottle and all of the white melted candle, except for a few wax globs that looked embarrassingly like hardened sperm stuck on the wooden surface.
Even the little Shoney’s match book had been tucked away.
Elmore hated that his kids had to see that.
He now dreaded a hard moment of truth when they saw him today. After the Indians had finished marauding. Elmore had a feeling he would regret the kitchen table and what happened at the back door for the rest of his life. Elmore made a promise to talk honestly with the twins about the terrible condition he’d gotten in last night. The terrible thing they’d seen this morning.
Elmore bitterly thought of something. His head injury made him forgot so much, so often. Why couldn’t that world-class concussion make him forget last night?
But he would remember.
In the bathroom, Elmore wobbled. Burned. More than just his head wasn’t right today.
He emitted a painful stream of urine, red and thick as ketchup. Blood. His damaged kidneys paid him back for the whiskey.
The sight of blood – his blood – locked Elmore’s knees. He felt his head swim, and he closed his eyes and clutched the towel rack.
Elmore leaned over the red water in the bowl and let a surge erupt from his gut. He vomited scalding gastric juice. He had nothing left inside to lose.
Elmore trembled and zipped himself. He now realized how much pain he felt. The ache in his head and lower back and right side had started demolition work with hammers and anvils.
Elmore’s body demanded revenge.
He grimly smiled again. Get a handle on it, Elmore, he sternly ordered himself. It’s just a little blood. And a hangover.
He flushed. The multicolored psychedelic swirl made him close his eyes and grab the towel rack a second time.
He breathed. He breathed. He breathed.
Elmore had lived through worse. This couldn’t be any worse than dying again.
Woodland whoops delivered the latest news from Fort Rogers.
Elmore stared at the man in the mirror. Jeez. Who was that beat-up old boot looking back at him?
Still, that old boot was tough, wasn’t he? Blood in the urine? Nothing new. Liver gnawing a hole through his side? Old news. Bone jabbing from a thigh? All in a day’s work.
Elmore knew one thing.
He wouldn’t be going to the hospital.
Elmore knew he couldn’t get that close to Kelly.
Not with what he felt now.
Elmore changed his clothes. He wanted things normal now. Uncomplicated. Simple.
Clothing. Food. Shelter.
He checked the refrigerator. The inside light flickered, reluctantly came on.
Elmore frowned. The empty Ezra bottle rested on its side on the top metal rack. The mostly melted candle sat on the second shelf. So did the Shoney’s match book.
Elmore shook his head and closed the door, hoping to trap his guilty conscience inside. He rummaged through the kitchen cabinets. Fort Rogers, the big one, badly needed a grocery run. The family had seven cans to live on – three chopped tomatoes, two green beans, two peaches. They also had a box of macaroni and cheese, opened and spilling.
Elmore would have to drive. For fortification, he shook four aspirin into his palm from a giant bottle of Bayer’s.
At twilight, he yelled to the kids. He watched a growing Will and Mary burst through an interstellar cloud of lightning bugs as they raced bikes to be first to the house.
Timmy Wragg trailed, the happiest rotten egg on earth.
Elmore took command. He would be a father to remember in better ways than this morning.
“Will and Mary,” Elmore ordered, like on any normal day of life, “y’all run yonder and ask Mr. and Mrs. Wragg if Timmy can ride with us to the grocery store. Tell ’em I’ll feed everybody Colonel Sanders for supper.”
“Daddy ain’t home,” Timmy answered, out of breath. “He’s at the National Guard. It’s a Sunday Service for Servicemen day.”
Thoughts rolled and clicked in Elmore’s head. Today? Yes, yes… today was Sunday. That was right.
And Sunday Service for Servicemen?
Elmore dimly remembered a rare piece of mail now, something in colors that he found in the roadside mailbox a couple of weeks ago. The overheated flyer mentioned a politician and a preacher and Miss Alabama all visiting the Guard center to meet the Rock ’n’ Roll Regiment and keep patriotic spirits high. Free Champion’s Barbeque would be served.
Now, in a rare moment, Elmore felt a pang of nostalgia for his Guard buddies.
Or maybe it was the headache. And all the other pains.
Just like old times.
The National Guard facility lay just at the outskirts of Lafayette. A big, shiny, new Piggly Wiggly store rose just past that. The two buildings shared a huge asphalt parking lot, cars and pickups crowding one, mothballed tanks and World War II jeeps standing watch in the other.
“Y’all run,” Elmore told the kids. “Tell Mrs. Wragg we’ll be having barbeque chicken, not Kentucky Fried. We’ll bring her a plate home, too.”
A new thought entered Elmore’s mind. What business did Wragg have showing up at the National Guard? Wragg was a Navy man. One of those bottom-feeders.
Well, a Dick Wragg missing in action might be good news to Mrs. Wragg. Elmore had only seen her out-of-doors three times since the Rogers moved here. When Wragg and Timmy went off by themselves, the lady of the house didn’t even turn the lights on. Inside or out.
Maybe she liked the bottle as much as Wragg, Elmore thought.
He felt his head and gut pounding.
Jesus… who am I to cast a stone?
A small battalion of civilian vehicles surrounded the vintage tanks and jeeps around the National Guard center.
Elmore threaded the oversized panel truck, with three kids goggling out its windows, through scores of pickup trucks and oversized SUVs, many decked out floridly with American flag decals and bumper stickers.
Men in uniform streamed out the front door, and here and there in the parking lot red taillights and white headlights flashed as guardsmen departed the event. As Elmore pulled into an empty place, he could see the dignitaries of the evening loading into a white stretch limousine. The woman in the glittering green gown between the two rotund men looked very beautiful.
Elmore popped the door. A smell of hickory barbecue filled the cab.
“Come on, y’all. We’re late. Let’s see if there’s still food.”
Champion smiled and showed his gold tooth as they hurried up.
“Jus’ closing down, folks. Got just chicken, no ribs. Ain’t got no light bread left.”
Elmore had six dollars.
“Both them chickens, please. One for Timmy Wragg and one for these other young’uns.”
Timmy beamed. Lord, that kid seemed thirsty for attention.
“They up.” Champion handed over two brown sacks, grease already darkening the sides.
“Thank you,” Elmore said. “You keep that change.”
“Every nickel count,” said big Champion, flashing his tooth again. “Don’t let them young’uns choke on a wishbone.”
Elmore flashed a real smile, the second all day. “They chew right through the bones, these. They were alligators in a past life.”
Mary looked at her dad, very curious. Gullible. Elmore would explain later on.
“Them’s good-lookin’ young’uns,” Champion said, teasing. “They got that red hair from they mama?”
Kelly. Elmore felt pain like a punch in the stomach. Just another pain in a painful day.
“Our mama’s got black hair!” Will insisted. “We got red hair from the Vikings!”
“From some Vikings!” Mary answered proudly.
Timmy registered this news from Will and Mary with absolute awe.
“Thank you,” Elmore said flatly. “You young’uns tell Mr. Champion thank you.”
Mr. Champion hustled them away.
“Y’all stay close to me in the parking lot,” he advised the entourage. “These folks leaving may not watch where they drive.”
Libations would not have been planned at Service for Servicemen’s Night, Elmore felt sure. But a lot of glove compartments held a lot of bottles in the Guard center parking lot.
They reached the front of the giant Quonset. It had push-handle doors thrown wide to let the twilight cool inside. Elmore and crew jostled through some new guardsmen he didn’t recognize, maybe troops from over at Aliceville.
He ran face-to-face into Mr. Plum, wearing a crisp starched uniform. Elmore didn’t recognize him at first. He’d last seen him in blue overalls, as foreman on the Wood Castle construction. Plum looked different outdoors, without a stub pencil behind his ear and a roll of house plans in front of him.
The major’s stripes made a difference.
Plum stepped in Elmore’s path. Elmore lassoed the kids in his arms and halted.
Man, oh, man, did seeing all these uniforms make Elmore’s head throb.
“The Rogers family. Will and Mary. And Timmy Wragg.” Plum had a head for detail. He made a good construction foreman. He made a good officer.
“Mr. Plum,” Elmore said, ignoring the title he might have used. Major.
“How are you, Elmore?” Mr. Plum’s keen eyes, blue as summer sky, seemed to X-ray, up and down, the wounded warrior in front of him.
“Mostly OK, Plum. I work at Rankin now. Making ends meet.” Elmore lifted the sacks of barbecued chicken as proof.
“Good. Glad to…”
Will suddenly interrupted. “Look! Daddy, look! A bazooka!”
“And Bazooka Joe!” Mary added. Sure enough, the guardsman with the weapon had a stencil on his combat helmet: BAZOOKA JOE.
Elmore started to correct his twins for rudeness, but Plum gave him some kind of meaningful look.
“You young’uns can go and see that,” Elmore said, patting them ahead. “But, Will, you do not touch that bazooka. And Mary, you do not SHOOT it!”
They scrambled away, exhilarated by the warning. Timmy would be a rotten egg again.
“Good lookin’ kids,” Plum commented. His voice sounded the same as when Elmore reported to him at The Castle.
“That ain’t what you’re wanting to say,” Elmore told him.
Plum didn’t blink. Blue eyes scanned Elmore’s brain again. Then, Plum mysteriously glanced to each side and quickly back.
“Listen, Elmore,” Plum said. “I want to apologize for what happened after your fall. Last Christmas. I tried to get you back on the crew. I went to Mr. Wood and spoke with him in person. He’s a hard man.”
Elmore didn’t answer.
“Nobody does that, Elmore.”
“Well… much obliged. That was a bad time.”
Plum nodded, waited, then spoke again, low, out of hearing.
“I don’t know why Mr. Wood had it in for you like that. He seemed to know an awful lot about you, Elmore. Like… everything. Kids. Ex. Your family. Your dad’s sick, right?”
“Alzheimer’s. He’s in the V.A. hospital in Mobile.”
“Well, Mr. Wood knew that. It was like he was reading some book on Elmore Rogers.”
Elmore listened. He noticed some familiar faces smiling and moving his way.
“There ain’t a book out on Elmore Rogers, is there?” Plum smiled. Then, he put joking aside. “That man has a lot of secrets, Elmore. He’s got a secret room under that castle, and he’s got a secret place where he keeps a jet, and he’s got a lot of secrets about you. I couldn’t tell you what that means. But you ought to know.”
Elmore sensed his Guard buddies coming closer now.
“And you didn’t hear one word of this from me,” warned Plum. “You and me don’t even talk. Not even soldier stuff. Are we clear on that?”
“Yes, SIR,” said Elmore, and he gave a smart salute. The sudden movement hurt his side. And his head, a little more.
Then, six or seven of the old buddies mobbed Elmore, pounding him and fist-bumping and embracing. They hurt his liver, but they made him happy, oddly happy. Bitter and sweet, like everything in the world.
“Elmore, you’re AWOL!” shouted Steve Napoli. “You shoulda been here for the preaching! You coulda been saved!”
“He’s been saved!” Tack Cornelius yelled. “The doctors did that!”
The band of brothers joked and poked fun and told stories a few minutes, till the armory flicked its lights. Like at a drive-in theatre, it signaled the facility would shut down in five minutes.
The gang migrated outside. Will and Mary and Timmy trailed, but always stayed close to Elmore. Timmy stretched his neck looking for his daddy, but Dick Wragg had gone.
“Will y’all hold these while I talk another minute?” Elmore held out the chicken sacks. The children took them, sniffing at the bags like three hungry wolves.
The guardsmen whooped and reminisced and told a few whoppers. Hoke Perkins, the smart African-American corporal, told one story about shooting buzzards with a pistol after one scrap in Mosul. That came months after Elmore was home, those days when he lay nearly dying and Kelly was nearly dying and the twins squalled with colic like they were dying.
The war seemed like a pretty good adventure when they weren’t in the middle of it, Elmore thought. Or when you didn’t have ruins inside from what happened.
Eventually, everyone drifted away back to their peacetime lives. Elmore felt a small pang of loneliness as he shook hands with the last of his buddies, Shawn Butler, a kid who somehow got to Alabama by way of New Jersey and joined the cause. He remembered that Shawn had a sideline calling square dances.
Now, only Elmore and the kids remained. Alone. The parking lot was almost empty.
He knew the voice without looking.
He hadn’t seen Dan Neeley in a long time out of police uniform. Tonight, he wore his Guard uniform, and it surprised Elmore. He looked fit, healthy.
“Man,” Neeley said with a low whistle, “look what the cat drug in. Elmore, you OK?”
Elmore thought. It was Neeley. He told the truth.
“Hurting in the old infernal organs today,” he told his friend.
Elmore paused. Were he and Neeley still friends? A lot had happened between them, before and after Kelly Bellisle.
Yes. Friends forever. Elmore felt confident. Maybe not drinking buddies anymore – Elmore would never have those again – but yes, friends.
“This was nice,” said Neeley, waving his arm around to mean the Guard event. He raised his voice and spoke to the kids.
“How you young’uns doing? You keepin’ in trouble?”
All three children looked in confusion at one another.
“Them bicycles working out? You still got wheels on ’em?”
“Yes, sir!” answered Will, on his best behavior with a man in uniform.
“Yes, sir!” Mary followed.
“I got a bicycle, too!” announced Timmy, his little face begging for approval.
“I bet you do,” said Neeley. “And… all of you kids listen. I’m the Sheriff, and I know every time you ride those bikes on the wrong side of the road. Or break other rules. So, DON’T!”
Neeley’s voice thunderclapped the last word, and the kids actually cowered together. Elmore had to smile again. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw Will cowed like that. The power of uniformed authority carried weight with that boy.
Neeley spoke more quietly now.
“A word with you, Elmore? Over there a few steps?”
Elmore glanced at the kids, nodded, moved away.
“Yeah, sure. What’s up, Danny?”
“Over here a little further.”
How weird, Elmore thought, walking with Neeley over to his civilian car. Danny always liked his cars. Now, he drove an old Toronado, all restored. Elmore had never seen it. It seemed conspicuous for a policeman, even off-duty.
“It’s my cousin’s,” Neeley explained, guessing Elmore’s question. “He gave it to me just tonight, for Serviceman’s Service. You know Ferrell, don’t you? He’s impressed by the Guard. He never could join, you know. His mama had measles when she was pregnant. Bad eyes. Can’t see his fingers in front of his face.”
“He sees good enough to drive that?” Elmore asked.
“He only restores cars,” Neeley said. “He don’t drive ’em. I’ll put his ass in jail, if I catch him out of his driveway. He’d be a menace.”
“Too bad he didn’t have a Gremlin,” Elmore teased. “Or a Vega.”
Neeley snickered. They used to make unholy fun of the nerd kids at school who drove those abominations.
They shared a moment, quiet in the twilight.
“Elmore,” Neeley said, “I want to tell you something. As an old friend. And a true friend, OK?”
“You know I work for Mr. Wood, right? I don’t really work for the city of Lafayette at all. No use pretending anything else.”
Elmore felt it deeply strange – foreboding – that twice in 30 minutes, Guard friends had stepped forward to privately mention, of all people on earth, Mr. Wood. The super-rich SOB.
“Elmore,” Neeley said, then trailed off, weighing his words.
“I been in two meetings in the last month with Mr. Wood,” Neeley said. “And both times, he brought you up. By name.”
“How’s that?” Elmore asked.
Something about this news made Elmore’s hairs stand.
“He asked me to keep a close eye on you. On the children. But why’s that?”
Elmore just shrugged.
“El, he knows everything that happens in Lafayette. Shit – maybe in the world. He knew about Kelly going to the Black Warrior trestle those nights, and he told me to keep Turnipseed on duty there. That’s why Turnip was there Friday. She’d be drowned and dead otherwise.”
Elmore felt confused. And more than a little worried.
Neeley spoke again.
“You never heard any of this from me, not one word,” the sheriff said. “Elmore, me and you never had this conversation.”
Elmore asked the obvious question.
“Well, what does it mean, Neeley?”
His old friend looked straight in his eyes.
“Hell if I know,” Neeley said. “But Elmore, you can bet your ass it ain’t good for you.”
They shared a long look, the two old friends. The two old rivals.
Neely clapped Elmore hard on the shoulder – ouch! – and walked to the Toronado. The engine fired, loud, and tires barked as Neeley took off.
“Awright!” yelled Will, the stinking blue burned-rubber cloud blowing toward him.
Elmore inhaled a deep fresh breath, then walked back to the children.
Overhead and unseen, a video camera mounted over the parking lot of the National Guard armory swiveled slowly to follow Elmore.
The device stayed fixed on him until the panel truck lumbered out of sight.