The War is Over, Let's Go Shopping
by Paul A. Toth
They came and they kept coming, making the Seaside Inn profitable, when it was supposed to fail. They came and came, soldiers mostly, male and female soldiers with their wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends. They brought no children; maybe they came to make them. But now that the war was almost over, winding down, it was getting worse. Tom Schimmel had planned for years and years to run a failing business, but still they came, pushed to the edges by suburbs, pushed by socioeconomic reasons beyond his understanding, pushed by events, by generational tides, by who knew what, but pushed, pushed, pushed on him.
They came with full pockets. They shopped in the giant mall not far away. They left the motel empty-handed and returned with bags and bags and bags. They were loud. Man, Jesus, they were loud. Loud and boisterous. These were boisterous people, full of fuck you, fucking right, fucking A, get the fuck out of here, fuck and fuck and fuck fuck fuck. Driving pickups, jeeps. Bullying. Bullying air and space. Well, this is what you want in a war, fillers, occupiers, takers, pushers. He could admire that. But not here. For Christ's sake, not here.
This was a place that wanted to be left alone. It wanted that. Psychics and psychologists would know this. Shrinks, palm readers, they knew. Painters, maybe. Architects, especially bad ones, would have recognized the signs. "No one will come," they would have told him. "They won't come because look at it. This place hates people. See? See how it hates people? It doesn't need or want them." And the real estate agents could have had a field day. "Empty on purpose," they'd tell prospective buyers. "Pared down. Rotten in a good way. You can't age wood like that. It takes time and wind."
And that was what the place was supposed to be about, time and wind. He planned to sit at a desk, with the door open, and through that open door and the angle of sky and sea it formed, to stare, to stare into time and wind, and to disappear one grain of skin at a time, to blow away in slow motion.
It wasn't much to ask. The previous owner told him, "You don't need money, do you? Because if you do, don't buy this place. You know how people go to 7-11 every day and buy a dozen lottery tickets, not because they hope to win but because it gives them an excuse to hang around and bother the clerk? That's the only reason to buy this place. Except you're the clerk."
But now, staring through the open door at the angle of the sky and sea it formed, he saw three almost naked men chase a basketball across the sand, and then two of the men tackle the third, punching him, screaming, "You fucking asshole. Gimme the ball, you fucker." And when the two men had torn the ball away from the third, they held it between them for a moment, then let it fall and roll across the beach and bump along the sand to the shoreline. Then the third one said, "Who's going to the store?" And one of the other two said, "Fuck, we're out of beer?" And they all said fuck several more times, went to their room for fifteen minutes, then passed in front of the open door and the angle of the sky and sea it formed. Tom heard the truck doors open and slam shut, then the rumble of the engine.
Twenty minutes later, he again heard the rumble of the engine and the doors open and slam shut. The men passed in front of the open door and the angle of the sky and sea it formed, carrying paper bags and cartons of beer. One of the men said "fucking A" and something else, and someone else said something else. Tom Schimmel looked at his watch, saw that it was not yet ten o'clock, and waited for the other soldiers to awake.
He read the newspaper. The war was over. At eleven o'clock, a cheer went up, the women louder than the men. There was crashing into walls. There were thumps and thuds. The women were louder than the men.
He liked the women. He appreciated a woman who could beat him senseless. It was a comfort to know that should some darkness one day rise within him, these women could defeat it. It made him feel close to them. It made him surrender himself, perhaps the way certain criminals finally relax within a cell, knowing that the cell is lifeless and they cannot defeat it. Was that the feeling he came to know as the open door and the angle of the sky and sea it formed?
Over the course of the victory day, the soldiers came to extend their stays. They arrived in groups, and each group had a leader. The extension was not requested, but demanded. Tom understood. It was a deserved extension. He had done nothing toward the war effort besides endure the business of soldiers. He owed them a great deal. He knew this. There was a flag that hung fifty feet high because of this awareness. But it did not seem enough. So he told each leader, "Tonight is free." And almost every leader said, "Fucking A" and high-fived Tom.
But they stayed much longer than one extra day. Tom had to turn away new soldiers fresh from the front lines. These soldiers said, "Fucking A" in a different way. Tom knew they wanted to say much more. He could fill in the blanks. Their strength did not comfort him.
Each afternoon, the original soldiers extended their stay another day, while more and more new soldiers arrived. The old soldiers sat on lawn chairs outside of their rooms. They sat with their arms folded and rolled their eyes at the new soldiers. The new soldiers whispered, then muttered, then finally said, "Fucking A" to the old soldiers, who did not delay at all in saying, "No, fuck you." Then there was silence and much turning away.
One night, Tom was awakened by the sound of smashing glass. He ran outside and saw a dozen new soldiers tossing shopping bags out of the old soldiers' trucks and jeeps. There was litter everywhere. When Tom emerged from the office, he saw a soldier staring straight up at the flag. Noticing Tom, the soldier said, "We should stay here free, forever if we want."
"Fucking A," the soldier said.
By now there were several fistfights taking place in the courtyard. Tom went to the office to phone the police. As he held the receiver, a woman placed her hand on his. It was his wife.
He hadn't talked to her in days. She spent most of her time shopping and visiting friends in town. But now she held his fingers, touching his knuckles, his fingernails, brushing the tiny hairs.
He heard the recording instruct him to please hang up and try again. He heard the voices of the fighting soldiers. He knew his wife was watching him and wondering how he would stop the fighting. What would he do? What would he say? There was no stopping them. They were loud. Man, Jesus, they were loud. Loud and boisterous.
Tom knew that should some darkness one day rise within him, his wife could not defeat it. It made him feel distant from her. He was like certain criminals who cannot relax in love, knowing that love is full of life and they can defeat it.
He pulled his hand away and set the receiver down. His wife walked away, through the open door and the angle of the sky and sea it formed.
About the author:
Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His fiction has appeared in The Barcelona Review, Exquisite Corpse, The Antigonish Review and many others. The American Journal of Print recently nominated his story Crime Writers for Best American Mystery Stories. A short film based on his novel Fizz has been directed by special effects wiz John Tissavary (The Matrix). For more information and complete credits, please see www.netpt.tv.