Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

A Matter of Pride

Michael O'Brien


In this hot, stinky parlor, pool cues slapped and old men smoked. The wallpaper curled and yellowed in the dark, shadowed corners. It wasn't the kind of place you'd ever look for. It was the kind of place you ended up, holding onto memories like dollar bills in the wind. The memories that get repeated so often but embellished each time to keep things interesting. Old Richard Cray, a retired Republican politician, would talk about the protest he broke up in Ohio during the summer of '70. Every time he brought it up after a few rounds, the death toll grew, and so did his weapon. This was Willie's.

Like a secret society, these men swore secrets. Women were allowed, but never came. They had better things to do than sit around listening to old men bemoan the world just outside Willie's doorstep. And maybe that was the coincidental condition of "ending up" in Willie's bar. None of
these men had wives. Anymore at least.

Inside the bar, where I first met Jimmy Spinks, it was always night. These men brought with them gray storm clouds. Aside from me, Jimmy was the youngest one. I had heard about his heroism in the highway pile-up that had plagued major media outlets for a week prior. I wanted to write a character piece. Show the world who Mr. Spinks really was. A decorated Gulf War vet. A quiet man with a seemingly unending list of accolades. Honorably discharged after years of service. Lives saved, bullets taken. He, of course, was humble.

When I asked out loud for Mr. Spinks, no one answered or raised their hands. The older men looked at me, to Spinks, and back, but returned to Cray's story of his final filibuster before an anti-climactic
retirement. I sat down at the bar and Willie leaned in.

"Jimmy's right over there." He pointed to a man in his mid-thirties, smoking a cigarette and sipping a whiskey neat. Jimmy looked up at me and seemed to warn me with his eyes to keep my distance. However, as a journalist, I knew those looks well and paid no mind. I bought another whiskey and brought it over to Jimmy.

"Mr. Spinks?" I asked.

"Look, it's been hard enough without you guys botherin' me," he said in a southern mumble between puffs of smoke.

"I know, I know. I'm not here to get the story as they say. We all know the story. I just want to get to know you."

"Idunno," he said with bashful chagrin.

"At least take this." I slid the whiskey across the table to him. I turned away to return to the bar.

The other men were quiet; quieter than I imagined they would be. I wasn't one of them. My life was flourishing and an emotional piece featuring the real life of a modern day superhero would make my name. These men had watched wives die of cancer, friends shot on beaches and in jungles. These men knew pain. I had only ever lost my dog and my great grandmother, whom I had only met once. Death was not reality to me. These men had lived it. It was much a part of them as was their skin. Their scars were reminders. My polished shoes and leather briefcase were barriers. Their eyes followed me like cliché paintings on marble mansion walls.

After a few minutes of watching these men whisper, Jimmy spoke up. "Mr.?"

I spun around on my stool to face him.

"C'mere." He waved me over and leaned back finishing the drink I bought for him.

I sat down across from him at his booth running my fingers through the cool condensation on my glass, writing my name.

"Whaddya wanna know?" He asked.

"What do you do for a living, Mr. Spinks?" I asked, turning on my tape recorder.

"I drive a garbage truck." I began taking notes.

"Is that what you were doing when the accident happened on the highway?"

"Why would I have my truck on the highway?"

"Good point." He threw me off. He was smarter than I gave him credit for.

"Look I don't want to talk anymore about the details of the accident. Anything else but that." He stared down at the table, nervousness taking over him.

"Can I ask you about your Gulf War decorations?" I said.

"Please don't." He lit another cigarette with the burning end of the previous. He called me over, but why. He wasn't answering my questions. Did he simply like the idea of someone listening, even if he wasn't going to talk?

"Well Jimmy, what else is there?" I pressed the stop button the recorder.

Jimmy sat there, not speaking or moving. His cigarette curved and twisted between two work-hardened fingers. I looked at Cray and the other old men. All of them disrupted by my presence. All of them smoking, drinking, and waiting for me to leave. After a moment of silence throughout the place, I packed my recorder and paper away, left my card with Jimmy and walked out.

I rejoined the damp night. Reflected street lamps glanced off puddles and my silver watch. Jimmy Spinks knew the game of journalism. He had fought a war that streamed in the American conscious. Men with cameras recorded his long desert walks, focused in on his chapped, thirsty lips. Men like me, with pads of paper, hoping to cash in on the big new war.

Jimmy wasn't impressed. He did his job and walked out with only one bullet wound in his side.

Jimmy was the focus of a world-famous image that graced the cover of Time magazine, and was reproduced everywhere, finding a home on the fledgling Internet years later. He carried a young Iraqi girl from a crumbling building, bombed by our own planes. I had talked to the photographer a few years back and he told me that it was one of the many photos he took of Spinks walking out of that burning building. Each time, leaving with a dying child or dead U.S. soldier. He followed Mr. Spinks for the rest of his tour but "Jimmy," he said, "wouldn't say a damn thing about that day." The image became the face of the anti-war movement.

I went home and spent the next few days hounding my sources, looking for a story that would make my name. Nothing came up. Nothing worth my time.

I could see that America wanted a superhero. They needed one. Most of the box office was crowded with comic book revisions and superhero meta-films. I wanted to bank on the fad. Show the people that we don't need capes, masks and goofy names. Heroes wore the uniform of the working class. I'd show them that bravery was something tangible. Something we all had.

Jimmy Spinks was my ticket. A few quotes and a signed piece of paper and I could make up the rest. I dreamed that he was sitting by the phone, trying to decide whether to call me or not. I stared at the photograph from the war. Jimmy, covered in a thick layer of hot sand, streaks of blood dried to his face and hands. The young girl in his hands turning the green of his uniform into dark red. She died shortly after from deeply embedded shrapnel. Jimmy's cold, emotionless eyes told me that he wished that he was inside that building when it was bombed. He wanted to go in and never come back out.

___

Michael O'Brien has been published on the nonfiction website 400words.com and continues to study writing and film at Western Kentucky University. Born in the north and raised in the South, Michael has found a way to marry the cultures as an outsider and a proud Southerner in his writing. He plans to continue his education in writing.

© Michael O'Brien

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2008