Fall 2015, Volume 19

Fiction by Samuel Chamberlain


Private First Class Randolph pronounced it Misery, as if discomfort were a natural part his state’s geography, though the place where he’d felt most miserable was in the Army, and which he’d admit to no one. Randy didn’t hate serving and he wasn’t a bad soldier; he’d gotten an honorable discharge, but at twenty-four he had little to show for his time in. The most apparent proof were the letters O.I.F inked on his neck. “Naw, it didn’t hurt,” he liked to say. “Yeah, I did a tour over there—Iraqi Freedom.”

Six feet tall and stronger-than-he-looked because of all the pushups, Randy still had a lot to give to Magnolia Falls, his hometown. And upon returning, his cousin Chad got him a gig delivering for the local food bank. “You’ll be my wingman,” Chad’d told him while Randy was still out-processing the military. 

The job wasn’t necessarily dangerous, especially for boys born and raised in Magnolia Falls, as they were, but still Chad liked to joke, call Randy his bodyguard. Truth be told, most folks were grateful to see the boys coming with a box of free groceries.

Except Tate. Tate made it clear he didn’t need anyone’s help.


“—the hell ya’ll want?” Tate said, leaning forward to spit a dark brown gob into the grass. Randy and Chad found Tate where he could be found nearly every day, plonked on his front porch, watching his property while tending to at least a grandchild or two.

 “Afternoon,” Chad said.

Randy gave a nod.

Chad held a cardboard box stacked full of canned staples: vegetables, fruit, potted meat—a loaf of white bread. Randy let Chad do the heavy lifting today.

“Papa, watch this,” Tate’s granddaughter said, springing on a trampoline out in front of the homestead.  She looked about five and her trick was to lunge for the sky, scissor-kicking.

Tate’s driveway was lined with decommissioned automobiles and Old MacDonald tractors corroding the landscape. Peeking out of the woods were several burned-up tin sheds and a melted trailer. Tate had swaths of seared skin, liquefied-looking flesh on his forearms. The homestead was an hour from Magnolia Falls, far enough away for a man to do what he wanted to do on his side of the mountain.

 “How you doin’, sir?” Chad asked. “Here’s your groceries.”

“Just put it there on the porch.” Tate’s salt and pepper hair mushroomed over his ears and into his eyes; he was weeks unshaven. He wore black jeans and scuffed boots. Shirtsleeves, torn at the collarbone, revealed the faded letters U.S.M.C. on a bony shoulder, cardinal directions around an angry eagle perched on an anchor.

“Ain’t raining in town,” Chad said. “Looks like weather’s coming up from Arkansas.”

The air was sultry, normal for this time of year, everyone anxious for the summer storm to break the clammy atmosphere.

Tate didn’t even peek at the box of food and Randy wouldn’t push the delivery any further, whether Chad took the lead or not. He didn’t think they’d be invited inside. After all, they weren’t family, and around Missouri, family was thicker than Ozark clay.

Randy surveyed the one-story rambler: peeled back siding with waist-high grass that fenced the foundation. It reminded him of the seemingly neglected mud huts and tin sheds they’d searched south of Baghdad. Despite growing up in the Ozarks, he was always surprised to see how women and children lived in Iraq.

 “Sir, how old’s your granddaughter?” Chad asked.

Tate bent, spit another gob.  “Starts kindygarten next month.  You boys want a beer?”


“Wait here.”

Randy wanted to wait in his truck, crank up the A/C. Gray clouds were thickening into a nebulous ceiling that hid the sun; the hot air sunk into the folds of the Ozarks.  The burnt-orange, shiny Lariat sat in Tate’s driveway, the only remnant of Randy’s career making military money. He’d paid cash, pissing away the rest on rum punch, strippers and whores, before moving back home. The pickup’s tags bore the stamp Purple Heart Recipient,the plates free every other year.

Tate emerged from the house with three perspiring cans.

“Yes, sir,” Chad said. “My boy’s turning four in a couple weeks and I been thinking about getting him a trampoline, too. Keep him from being babysat by the TV all day.”

Tate returned to his porch step. The boys remained standing. 

“Randolph,” Tate said. “Junior still ain’t seen you since you been back. What’s it been, couple-three months?”

“Yes, sir,” Randy said. “Figure be runnin’ into him at some point.”

Randy and Junior—Tate’s stepson—kicked around together after high school, but then Randy enlisted, worried some judge would eventually decree Go to war or go to jail. Already they’d gotten in some small time trouble.

“Not likely,” Tate said. “He’s workin’ in the city these days.”

The beer was cold, that first sip satisfying, but just one wasn’t going to quench Randy’s thirst. He wanted more, but not another of Tate’s. 

“What’s going on in town?” Tate asked.

“—in town,” Randy repeated. “They’re gettin’ ready for that revival an’ picnic this weekend.”

“We going to see you there, Mr. Tate?” Chad asked.

“Just Tate,” he said, scrunching his brow.

“Haven’t seen you at church lately,” Chad said.

“No. You won’t see me there much.” Tate sipped his beer, wiped his brow with a sleeve that wasn’t, smeared oily sweat into his bangs.

“Don’t often set foot in church. Not after ‘Nam,” Tate said. “Worst place I ever been was Viet Nam. After that no place I wanted to be but back here.” He stomped the heel of his scuffed boot on the porch step.

Randy finished his beer then kicked his toe in the dirt like he was reseating his foot in the sole.

“Yeah. You know Randy’s platoon killed a couple dozen terrorists,” Chad said. “They all got medals for finding the assholes shooting rockets onto his base.”

Randy pulled his hands from both pockets, crossed his arms, blue and purple barbwire inked near the sleeve line evident now.

Tate brushed hair back over his ear then pinched the scruff on his neck.

“I seen a chaplain die once,” Tate said. “Was with my marines in a foxhole, after chow, stand-to, right at dusk. Time to be ready for Charlie. I saw Chappy sprinkling holy water around that fighting position, heard ‘em reading Bible verses.”

Tate took another swallow of his beer, fished a pack of Marlboros from his left breast pocket. He smacked the pack against a palm, kept talking. 

“Spring of ‘68 and Charlie putting more damn craters on Khe Sanh than the moon. Guess Chappy was planning on coming to my foxhole next—heard ’em say ‘Amen.’ Got maybe three steps and boom. Lifted straight up into the air.”

Tate offered each of the boys a cigarette but neither took one.

“Couldn’t see through the dust. When he landed, the shrapnel ‘bout cut him in half.  We stayed hunkered for a while. Some nights the mortars never stopped falling. Next morning, Gunny made us bag ‘em up and drag ‘em down to the LZ.”

Tate mouthed a cigarette, set a burning matchstick to it. “Ain’t no one safe.” He let the flame near the nubs of his fingers. 

“Better be goin’,” Randy said, afraid that one more beer and it’d be time to start sharing war stories. 

“How long you over there?” Tate asked, his cigarette appeared sewn to his lip but he still hadn’t breathed any smoke yet. His smoke was the air around them.

“Fifteen months,” Randy said.

“What’d you do?” Tate asked.

“A little everything,” Randy said.

 “He was in Baghdad,” Chad said. “Got himself a purple heart, too, you know? You seen that photo of him and his unit, squatting by all them bombs they found in a cache? It was up on the church bulletin board.”

“Ain’t talking to you son,” Tate said.

They were all sweating through their T-shirts. Randy wanted that A/C in his truck.

“You was outside-the-wire?” Tate asked.

“Uh-huh,” Randy said. “Sunni triangle of death, south Baghdad and beyond.”

“He got a combat badge,” Chad said.

Tate watched Chad, said, “Ya’ll lose many?”

“Some,” Randy said.

“Don’t never forget ‘em,” Tate said.

“Naw,” Randy said.

At night, when he closed his eyes, Randy still heard those sobering cries for help. Katyusha rockets had fallen on his FOB like fists from the sky, the explosions close enough to waken him covered in glass slivers and shards. Rockets burned up their barracks as quick as a Missouri meth lab. Wounded, as he lie in the sand beneath a concrete bunker, a medic tended his feet and he wondered if this was enough to send him home. It wasn’t, but he hoped the Purple Heart would make his courage implicit.

“He don’t like to talk about it much,” Chad said. “Ain’t that right?”

Tate glared at Chad one last time, finished his beer and dropped the dead cigarette into the can’s mouth, stood and stuck out his right arm to Randy.

Randy clasped Tate’s hand and thought how tight the squeeze was for an old man, hoped that as they locked eyes Tate wouldn’t see through him. Tate released and walked away, toward his granddaughter.

 Randy’s left arm dangled at his side, the beer limply pinched in his hand.

“You fellas ever need more work, just let me know,” Tate said over his shoulder. “I could always track down Junior.”

Randy raised his can, finished the last swig.

People of the Ozarks figure there are two ways to make a living and Randy was fine sticking with the hard way, no matter who called him stupid, though he knew better than to insult an Ozark nobleman.  “Thanks, Tate, we’ll let you know,” he said, walking towards his truck.

Tate’s grandchild still lunged on the trampoline, as if determined to drive herself into the earth. A fresh wind cut the mugginess and the leaves on the maples lining Tate’s pasture were flipped, exposing their silver undersides to the breeze.

“Best be getting back,” Chad said.

“I need more beer,” Randy said.

Chad half-turned, gave a salutary wave towards the homestead, but Tate wasn’t looking.


“Got ‘er, Randy,” Chad said.

It was the night they always shot critters at the dump, a side job, not a lot of money, but nonetheless fun. Chad stood in the bed of Randy’s truck, chest pressed against the back of the cab, elbows propped on the roof and the muzzle reaching midway across the windshield. The engine was off but the headlights were on, plus extra floods attached to the front bumper. Piles of trash beyond the foothills were silhouetted like the highlands at sunset.

“That makes three possum and one coon already.”

Randy lay prone in the dirt. “I got the next one.” He gripped his .22-caliber squirrel gun tighter and squinted through the iron sights. 

“There,” Chad said.

Randy snugged the stock to his shoulder, exhaled a short breath, and jerked the trigger. The soft concussion sounded like a toy gun. The coon kept running, and Randy tracked from left to right, then fired again, and again. The coon rolled.

“That boy didn’t want to die,” Chad said.

Randy gazed over his rifle and scanned the trash piles visible in the headlights. “No, he didn’t.”

“I got the next one moves,” Chad said.

Randy got up, laid his rifle on the hood then headed for the Styrofoam cooler on the tailgate. Made Chad lean back from his scope when he heard the pisp of Randy’s Coors Light. 

“Toss me one,” he said, resting his rifle on the roof.

The truck’s glare kept them from seeing the stars. No moon crested over the hills, seemed it never would.

“Remember that story about Grandma and them skunks?” Chad asked.

“Which one?”

“How they trapped them skunks in the barn.”

Randy felt like listening, told Chad he couldn’t remember.

“Grandaddy used cages—skunks weren’t looking he set ‘em up. Caught a family of four. Was going to drown ‘em next morning but our moms let ‘em go.”

Randy drained his beer, cracked a new one. He worried the battery on the truck might die, reached through the window and killed all but the amber running lights.

“Get me another,” Chad said. “Can’t believe you forgot this story.”

“Our moms rescued them, dropped a tarp over the trap and carried them down the trail past the creek by that big oak with the tire swing, but your mom, she couldn’t keep up. 

“Skunks pulled some acrobatic shit, grabbed paws, started spraying. Those two stunk for weeks.”

Chad used his armpits, switching back and forth to open the beers, laughing.

“Grandaddy probably made them sleep outside for a few nights,” Randy said.

“Yeah, in the barn with the skunks.” Chad laughed and slammed one of the beers.

“You think they was brave?” Randy asked.

“Brave? Who?”

“For rescuing them skunks?”

“Hey, turn them lights back on. Let’s shoot some more,” Chad said. “What good are skunks?”

Randy thought everything had to be good for something, flicked the truck’s lights on then slouched against the frame, watched the shadows, away from the light.

“I bet you got to shoot some big ass guns over in the war,” Chad said.

Randy squinted, looking away, hoping his pupils wouldn’t adjust to the glow because it would only make the dark darker and everything unseeable.

“Like rocket launchers and machine guns and shit. Man, we could do some damage with them tonight.  Tracer rounds and everything.” 

Randy retrieved his rifle and held it tightly. Fingered the safety, flicked the lever from SAFE to FIRE. Back again, muzzle pointed towards the piles of trash.

“Whoo-hoo, spray down them vermin with full auto!”

“—never shot anything over there,” Randy said.


“Never shot my gun. Never once pulled its trigger.”

“How the hell you go to war and not shoot?”

Randy glanced up, thought he saw some stars, twinkles in the Missouri sky, but thought about how it wasn’t as black as Iraq, a sky littered with light above the dark earth.

Chad gave Randy a stare.

“They wouldn’t let me,” Randy said, reaching for a pack of Winstons on the dash.

“What do you mean?” Chad said.

“First big firefight—I got scared.” Randy fumbled out a cigarette, put it in his mouth then tossed it away. “We was rolling through this village. Kids were out playing soccer. Bearded old men. Women in headscarves on street corners. Then the bombs went off. I mean all hell broke loose. We ran through the blast. Ambushed on both sides.”

“—kids shooting at you?” Chad asked.

“No. Hajji. The kids just ran.”

Chad, stork-necked now, listened.

“I was in the Platoon Sergeant’s truck. He yelled engage. Engage. Had a fifty-cal in the turret, a couple hajji’s in my sights. Should’ve cut ‘em in half, but I couldn’t.”

“Couldn’t what?”

“Couldn’t shoot a man down. They aren’t critters. They’re people. Didn’t matter they could shoot back. I froze. Sergeant jerked me down.”

Randy pulled a lighter from his pocket, held it loosely in his palm.

“Switched me with Rodriquez and he lit those dudes up.”

Chad took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

Randy mouthed another cigarette, brought it to life. The smoke drifted, clouded some of the stars. Randy pinched the cigarette between his thumb and trigger finger and raised his arm high above his head, and slowly drifted its ember across the sky, like a slow-motion tracer round. Like a hunk of rock burning up in our atmosphere.

“Well, how’s about you stop askin’?”




BIO: Samuel Chamberlain served five years as a paratrooper and combat engineer in the Army, seeing combat in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. He is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University and now lives in St Paul, Minnesota, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in systematic theology from Luther Seminary. His stories and poems have appeared in Gravel, Stone Canoe, Line of Advance, and O-Dark-Thirty. He is working on a collection of post-war stories.