An All American Short Story with a twist, The Protest is the perfect read for stormy summer nights or those snowy winter afternoons when you’re dreaming of summer.
After Jordan parties his way through his Freshman year of college, he’s not exactly thrilled to go home. Jordan’s small town is an annoying place to spend summer vacation. His father and stepmother don’t understand what makes Jordan tick, and vice versa. Jordan’s mother works long hours, leaving him with plenty of time to implement a plan to bring up his grade point average.
Enter The Protest, where small town Vietnam veterans, university professors, anti-war activists, and a college boy who thinks he knows all the answers intersect on Memorial Day, 2016.
May 15, 2016
Jordan got the idea for the protest from Dr. Brandt. Not literally of course. Even though his aversion to Memorial Day was obvious, Dr. Brandt would never actually suggest that any student protest a parade. Jordan knew he would approve though.
Brandt’s students referred to him as Crazy Creedence. This was due to his penchant for playing Fortunate Son on his iPod at the start of each class. The song was his anthem. Brandt never bothered to hide his distaste for anything related to the military. If Jordan managed to pull off the protest, Crazy Creedence would probably cut him some slack next fall.
Jordan’s GPA wasn’t what he’d hoped for. He was a psych major at East Thorncrest University of Pennsylvania. Crazy Creedence taught the pottery class he’d chosen as an elective last semester in hopes of an easy A. It didn’t work out. Though Jordan learned quite a bit about American history in class, he didn’t learn much about pottery. His final grade was a D. His GPA needed to be higher by next Christmas. If he continued to do poorly in school, his mother wouldn’t shell out the bucks for next year’s spring break. She’d threatened to cut off funding for Jordan’s trip to Key West if Jordan didn’t buckle down.
Hence the plan. Jordan’s mother Macy, with whom he resided during his breaks from school, lived on the outskirts of Chandlerville, a forty minute drive from East Thorncrest. Creedence and his wife also lived in the Chandlerville area. Creedence’s wife Cordelia was the founder of Chandlervillians for Democracy, a local political group. The group always seemed to be in the weekly papers for one reason or another. They made themselves heard in many different ways. Chandlervillians for Democracy had clout. If Jordan’s plan was successful and the group learned that he was the brains behind it they would probably wish to reward him in some way as long as the reward could be kept under the radar.
Crazy Creedence would be teaching Art Appreciation next fall. Jordan had enrolled in his class. If everything worked out Jordan was sure his GPA would meet his mother’s expectations. He stared at the ceiling of his room, where he had retreated for a nap after breakfast. His mother had gone to work. He thought about what he would need.
“Somebody needs to be taught a lesson. Enough is enough.”
The four Vietnam Veterans were smoking Lucky Strikes and playing poker. The ceiling was invisible in the haze. The chips were piled high.
“Red, come on,” said Paulie. “You know this crap goes on every year now. Just let it go.”
“No. My father’s buried in Chandlerville Acres. His grave’s not gonna be touched.”
“Red, you know that little punk doesn’t have enough balls to go through with this,” said Rocco. “Let’s just let him think about it. Nothing’s gonna happen.”
Big Nick stared at Red through lazily curling smoke. He gestured to Paulie and Rocco and nodded.
“See? Even Nicky agrees.” Paulie squinted across the table at Red. “Let’s get back to the game. I’m winning.”
May 24, 2016
Jordan drove to Dover for supplies. It was only an hour from home. He decided to stop at his father’s place on the way. Jordan’s parents had divorced when he was three. His father, Joe, had remarried two years later. He and his wife had two sons, Joey, age ten, and Matty, eight. They were were Jordan’s half-brothers.
As he pulled into his father’s driveway, Joey and Matty came running around the corner of the garage carrying bright orange squirt guns. They jumped over the flowerbed and onto the pavement before squirting each other in the face. The boys caught sight of Jordan’s Nissan and waved.
“Hi Jordan,” Matty said through the window. “Do you want to play? There’s another gun in the garage.”
“Yeah,” said Joey. “You can stay for dinner, too. Mom’s cooking spaghetti.”
Jordan smothered a smirk as he got out of the car. The last thing he wanted to do was spend time with his father’s other kids. Dad’s not bringing them up right. Nobody should let their kids play with squirt guns. What the hell is Dad thinking? Jordan also had an aversion to his father’s wife, Jeanette. On the infrequent occasions that Jordan was in her company, Jeanette made it a point to ask him to eat with the family, or join them for Church and other activities in which Jordan had no interest. Jeanette tried too hard. She’s a freak. Look at this place.
A bright new American flag flew from the corner of the garage. The sidewalk leading to the front door was edged with a bed of red and white geraniums. Blue pansies were sprinkled at intervals, and the front door was embellished with a wreath made of red, white and blue ribbons.
Jordan shook his head and rolled his eyes before saying hello to his brothers. “Thanks guys, but I can only stay a minute. Is Dad inside?”
Three hours later he was back at his mother’s house. The supplies he had purchased with the money his father had given him were safe in the garage. There were poster-boards, black skull and cross-bone stickers, magic markers, and wire frames with which to make the small signs. There was a large white plastic banner which he planned to drape above the entrance to Chandlerville Acres. He had also bought ten cans of black spray paint. All of the items were hidden in a large plastic storage bin in the corner. Jordan’s mother never poked around the garage. Even if she did it wouldn’t matter. None of his purchases were illegal, and he had plenty of time to finish the “decorations.”
Red, Paulie, Rocco and Big Nick continued their never-ending poker game.
“They’re doing something different this time,” said Red. “Did you hear?”
“Yeah.” Rocco leaned back in his chair. “Kind of nice, isn’t it?”
Paulie flicked his Zippo, which was engraved with the following: When I die, bury me face down, so the whole world can kiss my ass. He took a drag on his Lucky Strike. “Yeah,” he agreed. “A parade before sunrise. That’s really special. The cemetery’ll be peaceful at dawn when the parade arrives.”
Red stared at his hand. The jack seemed to smirk at him. “That kid’s gonna think this is an advantage. You know that, right?”
He looked around at his buddies. Big Nick tapped ashes into an old beer can.
“So,” Red continued, “you still think we should let it go?”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Rocco. “You win this hand and I’ll help you teach the little punk a lesson.” He looked around the table. “You guys in?”
Paulie shrugged. “Okay,” he said. “I’m game as long as whatever we decide to do is okay with the boss.”
“That goes without saying,” Red replied. He looked at Big Nick. “Nicky, you in?”
Nick nodded. Then he showed his hand.
“Two pair Nicky,” Rocco said. “I got you beat. Look. Full house. Red, you know you can’t beat that. Paulie, what you got?”
“Four of a kind,” Paulie answered, laughing. “Okay, game over. It’s just as well. The boss is tired of having to get involved in these disputes. He has more important stuff to do.”
“Not so fast.” Red laid his cards on the table. “Royal flush,” he said. The four of them stared. The ace of spades seemed to scream up at them. They sat with their cigarettes for a long moment.
“Who’s gonna ask the boss?” Paulie was still staring at the cards.
“I will,” said Red.
William and Cordelia Brandt sat in the gazebo behind their restored eighteenth century farmhouse on the outskirts of Chandlerville. They sipped Chardonnay and watched the sun disappear behind the trees at the top of the hill. Sandy, their golden retriever, lay on the bricks leading to the back door. Their home sat alone in a little valley eight miles from the center of town. The driveway was long and overgrown, and the house was completely hidden from the road.
Bill and Cordelia liked living in the country. The hustle and bustle of each working day was perfectly balanced by peaceful evenings and weekends in the quiet Chandlerville countryside.
Theirs was the best of both worlds. Bill’s teaching job allowed him to really make a difference. The young people in his art classes, many of whom had been brought up in backward circumstances, were usually completely changed by the time they left school. Bill was proud of his record.
Cordelia was proud of herself, too. She had battled breast cancer in 2003, and won. After the battle with cancer Cordelia decided that she needed to make her mark on the world. In 2006 she founded Chandlervillians for Democracy in response to the wars in the Middle East. Since its inception, Chandlervillains for Democracy had grown from its original seventy-two members to over five hundred.
“What do you think of the plans for this year’s parade?” Cordelia asked. “They’ve changed the time. Did you hear about it?”
“Yes,” Bill replied. “I’d rather not discuss it though. We won’t see or hear it; we’re too far away from town. That’s a good thing.”
“I thought about filing a complaint, citing the early hour,” Cordelia said. “A parade at five o’clock in the morning? Very inconsiderate. Most people are still asleep, especially on a Holiday weekend.”
“Why don’t you file it? I could do without all the flag waving.”
“It’s not the right time. With all the protests over the past year I think it’s best that we let up just a little.
“I suppose you’re right,” Bill said. “What difference, at this point, does it make? Let them have their little rituals. Such things will die a natural death soon enough.”
The Vietnam Veterans sat smoking and waiting for their boss. They were nervous. The boss had been busy lately with other matters, and he didn’t take it kindly when he was dragged into what he considered trivialities. Still he had agreed to hear them out after Red contacted him.
The four were on their third cigarettes when the boss entered the scene. They waited for him to speak.
“What is this about? Why do you summon me? I resent being called here at this time.”
“We need your permission to make contact with someone we once knew,” Red said. “This person is contributing to the loss of many who might become followers of your commander and our King. We know we’re not permitted to take any action without approval.
“My commander cannot be bothered. He is much too busy. I took the liberty of requesting an audience with him earlier and he is already aware of your dilemma. The King made it known to him. Our commander does not have time to attend to it, and he gave me leave to make the decision as to whether you will be permitted to take action since I am aware of your history. Of whom do you speak, and what is the nature of his offense?”
Red began speaking about the upcoming parade. The boss listened intently. Then in a flash he gave his order.
“Do what you will in this matter. As one of your brothers once said: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Such times call for extraordinary measures. Do what you will. There are two stipulations, however. First, you must appear to him as you were on the day you came here, and second, Nicholas must speak to the offender.”
The vets exchanged nervous glances. The first stipulation didn’t matter to them in the slightest. The second one would be a problem.
“Nicky? He can’t,” said Red.
“Do you dare to argue?” the boss thundered. “This is the order. You must obey. If you do not carry out this particular order I will know in an instant. Then I will have no choice but to tell my commander. You do not wish to anger Michael, do you? He is the fiercest of all warriors. His orders come from the top. Do not disobey.”
The boss left them then. Big Nick looked helpless. He hadn’t uttered a word in almost fifty years.
“Boys, we have no choice.” Red’s voice held a note of determination. “We’ll help you Nicky. You know why it has to be this way, right? I know none of you want to go back. I don’t either. But we have to. You can do it, Nicky.”
Big Nick nodded. Then he touched a hand to his throat.
“Nicky, you have to do it,” Paulie said. “No reason why you can’t. We all left something in Nam. He touched his midsection. “And look at Rocco. You know what he left at Khe Sanh.”
Rocco nodded. “Yeah. We were there for each other that day. We’ll be there for you in this too, Nicky.”
“Okay,” Red said. He took off his cap. “I don’t know why you guys didn’t find a different nickname for me. I lost every bit of my hair that day.”
They each lit another Lucky Strike. They sat in the room they loved. They rarely left the room, which had no walls or boundaries. It was a beautiful room that had been prepared especially for them. They continued the poker game that had begun on January 21, 1968, and never ended.
Memorial Day Eve, 2016
Jordan had been busy during the previous week while his mother was at work.
The signs would make a statement. They all read: “WAR IS NEVER THE ANSWER. THESE DEATHS WERE IN VAIN.” The plastic banner read: “BECAUSE YOU CONTINUE TO SHOW REVERENCE FOR A DAMN FLAG, THE BLOOD OF YOUR FATHERS, MOTHERS, BROTHERS, SISTERS, SONS, AND DAUGHTERS IS ON YOUR HANDS.”
The signs, banners, and cans of spray paint were already in the trunk of the Nissan. Jordan placed a small stepladder and a few tools on top of them before covering everything with a tarp. Then he went into the house. Before going to sleep he set the alarm on his phone for three o’clock. He made sure the volume was turned down low and then placed the phone under his pillow. Before he fell asleep he decided which slogans to spray paint on the road outside the cemetery.
Memorial Day, 2016
Bill and Cordelia Brandt hadn’t shared a bed in years. The intimate part of their marriage was nonexistent. They had their own separate sex lives and stayed married for strictly practical purposes.
Bill’s bedroom was quiet. He was just beginning to doze when he heard the downstairs clock chime twelve. That’s when the voice came out of the dark.
Dr. Brandt’s eyes popped open. The voice was a harsh, strangled whisper. It was barely recognizable as a voice; it sounded more like some sort of wheezing. Then there was silence. Bill glanced at the window, where moonlight shone through tree branches. It fingered its way onto the floor and lay in patterns. I must be dreaming. It’s as quiet as ever around here. He turned over and closed his eyes.
“Billy,” the voice came again. This time Bill sat up in bed, eyes bulging.
In the moonlight next to the window stood three young men dressed in ripped and filthy camouflage. On their heads were battered helmets. Their boots were covered in mud and blood. The largest of them held another man in his arms. Bloody stumps ended below his hips.
“Billy,” the large man wheezed. “Do you remember me?”
Bill rubbed his eyes, thinking he was hallucinating. He reached up and pinched his own cheek until his eyes watered but the figures remained where they were. With the exception of the one who had spoken they were silent.
“Who…who are you?” Bill whispered. “Get out of here. I’m armed. He grabbed his gun from the nightstand. “Get out or I’ll shoot.”
Harsh laughter rang through the room.
“You?” Big Nick choked out. “You’re a bigger piece of shit now than you were in ’67. You own a gun? You? Mr. Everytown?”
“Who are you?” Bill demanded. “I don’t know you.”
“Maybe you don’t remember me, but you damn well know me,” Nick wheezed. “These are my friends. We were in Nam together. Do you remember them? You should. We all went to Chandlerville High School.”
Bill stared at the other men standing in the moonlight. Try as he might he didn’t recognize them. The legless man stared back at Bill as the other two stepped toward the bed. Bill saw that one man was missing his stomach and the other was missing his skull. Blood and guts and brain matter dripped. Bill shrieked. Then he pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through Paulie’s chest and slammed into the wall. Paulie laughed in response.
“Too late to shoot now,” Nick wheezed, inching toward the bed. Brandt could see his open throat working as he struggled to speak. Rocco rested in his friend’s arms.
“And don’t bother yelling for your wife,” Nick screeched. “She’s getting it on with your neighbor. She snuck out of here an hour ago. Now shut the hell up and listen.”
Dr. William Brandt, respected professor and anti-war activist, sat on his bed in shocked silence. He thought he might be having a flashback even though he hadn’t dropped acid in over twenty years.
“Okay,” said Nick. “I’ll tell you how you know me. Do you remember going before the draft board in ‘67? Remember what you did? You told them you were a homo. Your words, not mine.”
Bill’s eyes widened. All of a sudden he knew who was speaking. “You…Nicky?” he whispered in horror.
“Yeah,” Nick croaked. “It’s me. Your cousin Nicky. Damn you Billy, you forgot me, didn’t you? We hung around together for years. Until we were twelve and you decided to go your own way. You missed out on a lot.”
Bill stared. He opened his mouth to scream, understanding that he was listening to a dead man.
“Don’t try it,” Nick wheezed. “Shut up and listen. I was there that day when you dodged the draft. I was behind you. I heard you telling one of your punk friends what you were going to say, you lying bastard. I didn’t speak and you didn’t see me. After they said they wouldn’t take you, you walked out before I could catch you. Then it was my turn. You know I didn’t pass the physical, don’t you? You know my right leg is a half-inch shorter than my left. But I talked them into taking me. They knew we were cousins. I didn’t want our family name to be mud in town, so I told them I’d go in your place. And for some reason or other they let me in.”
Bill stared, open-mouthed.
“And here’s something you might be interested in Billy, even though you’re a cheating bastard when it comes to your marriage,” Nick wheezed. “You know that doctor from Penn who saved your wife? Doctor Russo? His father was part of our company. His name was Frankie. The day of the battle he was right next to Paulie here.” Nick nodded at Paulie, who smiled. “Anyway, Paulie ran the doctor’s father to safety after his leg was blown open. Frankie was a tough bastard. He didn’t want to leave us, but Paulie saved him before coming back. You know how that day ended for us. You’re lucky though, aren’t you? Frankie went home, got married, and raised a family. One of his kids saved your wife.”
“But war is never the answer,” Bill shouted. “That war—”
“Shut the hell up, Billy,” Nick roared. The walls of the room seemed to tremble. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t know shit.”
Bill shut his mouth.
“And that’s not why we’re here, anyway,” Nick barked. “Let’s go. You’re coming with us. Get your lying ass out of that bed and come on. There’s someone you need to speak to.”
Jordan managed to get out of the driveway without waking his mother. He figured he had at least an hour and a half before anyone would be up and about. If by chance someone was at the cemetery he could always turn around and go home.
He was driving down a lonely stretch of road about three miles from town when it happened. All of a sudden four men materialized and stood in a row in the middle of the road. Jordan slammed on the brakes, and the Nissan skidded to a stop about three feet away from them. He realized the men were soldiers, though he had no idea which branch of the military they represented. He knew they were soldiers because of their uniforms and the flags they carried. The flags were folded into triangles.
Jordan figured he was caught and hoped he could talk his way out of any repercussions. One of the men came toward the car and took off his helmet. He was a young man with bright red hair. Jordan could see it in the light of the moon.
“Hello, Jordan,” Red said, smiling.
Jordan was too shocked to reply.
“These are my friends.” Red gestured to Paulie, Rocco, and Big Nick. All of them appeared whole now. They looked young and healthy and confident. “Jordan, there’s someone you need to speak to,” Red continued. He shifted to the side a little, and Jordan noticed another man standing in the shadows.
“Come here,” Red said to the shadowy figure. “Tell this boy the truth. He deserves to hear it.”
Jordan sat stiffly, assuming the man was a cop. He waited to be arrested, wondering if his father would post bail as the man stepped out of the shadows and came to stand directly behind Red. Red looked at Jordan and said: “Listen to him. He’s got quite a story to share.” Then in the blink of an eye, Red and his buddies disappeared. Jordan stared out the car window in shock. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Standing in the road, looking like the living dead, was Crazy Creedence.
The veterans were back in their room playing poker when the boss showed up.
“Greetings,” he said. “You are to be commended. The mission was a success. Come. Let us watch the Memorial Day Parade.”
A microsecond later, Red, Paulie, Rocco and Big Nick were gazing at their own tombstones. The boss rested next to a large statue representing the King. The King’s presence surrounded them in warmth.
Just before dawn, Jordan parked his car by the side of the road and walked toward Chandlerville Acres. He carried four small American flags that had mysteriously appeared on the passenger seat of his car while he was listening to his former teacher tell his story. He could hear the band playing in the distance. The parade would arrive in twenty minutes. Jordan cut through the Little League field, thinking he heard something as he passed the large statue of Christ next to the old hand pump. You are a good child. You have done well. You are loved. He glanced at the statue. A blinding flash of light glinted off the base before disappearing in the dimness.
Jordan thought about Crazy Creedence, happy he would never see the man again. He was also glad that he knew the truth. The truth, as ugly as it was, had opened his eyes. He walked to the first grave. He wasn’t sure how he knew where to go, but he ended up in the right place.
John “Red” Stinson. November 15, 1946 – January 21, 1968. Died a hero. The grave was decorated with a new flag and a vase full of daisies. Jordan said a prayer and placed his own flag next to Red’s marker. As he turned away he glimpsed a flash of red. When he blinked it was gone. Then he moved on.
Jordan visited each grave in turn. The date of death was the same on each marker. Paul David Jenson, Jr. Peter Anthony “Rocco” Marcusi. Nicholas James “Big Nicky” Brandt.
Jordan said a special prayer for Big Nick. He crouched next to Nick’s marker and placed his hand on the stone, hoping he was doing the right thing. Nick’s grave was beautiful, as was the entire cemetery. The sun was rising. Jordan felt a sensation of peace.
A few minutes later he stood up and began walking toward the road. In the morning sun at the edge of Chandlerville Acres stood Jordan’s father, stepmother and brothers, waiting for the parade. He knew they would be surprised to see him. He joined them just in time. They watched the parade in silence. After the ceremony honoring those who had made the ultimate sacrifice Jordan told his family that his plans had changed.
“I wanted you to be the first to know,” Jordan said. Joey and Matty stood on either side of him. They were holding Jordan’s hands. His father and Jeanette were smiling.
“What is it, son?”
“I’m leaving college,” Jordan said. “I don’t belong there. I’m enlisting in the Marines.”
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Thank you for reading The Protest. I hope you enjoyed it. Remember our Veterans and their families, and please pray for the U.S. Military. Without them we wouldn’t be free.