Yeah, Kid. I Was in the Shit. Bowling Green, Man. Haunts My Dreams.
This reporter encountered a hero in an unexpected place. Sheltered from a late winter drizzle on the outskirts of the imagined — vividly, though, like WELL imagined, swear to God it feels so real, you know? — town of Bowling Green KY, a grimy elephant-ish creature with a downy pink pelt polishes off a concoction of his own devising he calls a Bowling Green Blitz (3 parts rubbing alcohol, 1 part Red Bull, contents of 3 Pixie Stix, sprig of fresh mint, the chorus of Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream,” muddle at bottom of rusted bucket).
He tosses the bucket aside, and, instead of dropping with a hollow ring, it erupts into starburst of glitter that drifts to the sodden ground with a pixie-ish chime.
He stares after the dissipating bucket.
“Pssht. Whimsy. Can’t fucking shake it, man.” He pushes his bowler back on his head to spit on the ground. His loogie lands as a hard candy wrapped in cheery cellophane.
“I wonder, sir. Could you tell our readers: were you in the shit?”
“Yeah, Kid. I was in the shit. Bowling Green, man. Haunts my dreams, man.”
“Thank you for your service. If you don’t mind — and if it’s not too painful — could you tell us your story?”
He falls silent and stares off for a moment so long, this reporter felt certain he would say nothing. He seems to gather himself, to summon the same kind of courage it must have taken on that fateful day.
“Started out as a routine patrol, up along Neverland Ridge,” he began, pointing off to the west of us. The rain picked up. Lightning forked out of the clouds. He waited for the gut-shaking rumble of the thunder to pass before he continued.
“We were doing recon on a platoon of Babadooks that were hunkered up near Wonka’s factory. We’d skirmished with ’em before — scary-looking for sure, but not a lot of spine, so none of us was too worried. Besides, we weren’t supposed to engage — just move in quiet along their flank, observe and report.” He looked like he couldn’t go on. This reporter won’t lie. It was moving. I put a hand on his shoulder, which felt super-cozy.
“Too goddamn many of us were too goddamn green for that kinda operation. I was on point, but I knew what I was doing, goddammit. Not like… Slightly.” A single undulant band of ribbon candy tears slid down the fluff of his cheek.
“Slightly. He was the first Lost Boy to fall that day. Is that right?”
It took him a long moment to compose himself.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “That Slightly was a good kid.”
“Can you tell us how it happened?”
He closed his eyes, seeing it all unfold, as he no doubt had countless times before.
“We took position on the ridge. The goddamn Lost Boys all made a big deal of taking out their brass spyglasses and shit, making a goddamn racket, like usual. That’s on me. Unit discipline was my responsibility.” He paused to light a cigarette — a trail of pinwheels and cartoon flowers rode away on the wind.
“We didn’t know. How could we know? It wasn’t just a platoon. It was a goddamn regiment — Babadooks and Demagorgons and werewolves and all kinds of shit.”
“When you saw you were so badly outnumbered, why didn’t you simply retreat?”
“We tried to. I was leading us back toward base when it all happened.”
“How did it start?”
“Stupid. It was stupid,” he hissed, dragging on his cigarette. “It’s always stupid, I guess.”
“You’d begun your retreat to safety — how did your platoon get detected?”
“Slightly. He farted. Not sure if you ever heard a Lost Boy fart, but it is LOUD. Like those noisemakers you see at kid’s birthdays? Like that. So Slightly farts, and the rest of the platoon — Nibs and Curly and all the rest of ’em — lost their shit. Started laughing, playing grabass. Like a buncha goddamn kids. Which is what they were. But it was all over, they were on us in an heartbeat. I hadn’t had my rocket ship, I never woulda made it out. I was singin’ my ass off to power that thing. Looked down through my rainbow trail to see ’em gettin’ torn apart.”
He dropped his cigarette and mashed it out with a stripy foot, drew out a long strand of particolored hankies from his jacket pocket, and blew his nose.
And it was the most mournful slide whistle sound this reporter has ever heard.
You can find longer essays, satire, fiction, and info on the workshops I teach in Chicago on my site: ianbelknap.com — also, check out the WRITE CLUB podcast