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FICTION / Men in Arms / Josh Dale


For great-uncle Jim

I took off my sportcoat and the Pacific Ocean greeted me with a kiss of brine upon my exposed collar. The sun’s position on the horizon simulated a lover’s eye, open halfway as if struck by lust. It was then, upon meeting it’s that I recalled the reasoning for moving here: to marry the sea. The plains of Nebraska were comforting, up until my eyes could peer over the wispy columns of barley. When the crib that preserved, Ibecame a knee-wall to my adolescent growth, that’s when I decided to leave that place; the never-ending expanse of sunburnt gold. It could’ve been my asthma, but the entrapment crept into my young adult life. I turned to writing, as a figment of a new reality. Within this fabrication, I envisioned myself near the ocean, so much so, that I ultimately forced my parents to paint waves upon my bedroom walls. There was no such market for me there. I refused to traverse eastward, for those folks arerobotic for my liking. My lifestyle was already lax and didn’t require muchof a change, yet I was inquisitive as to follow the sun beyond the fields. So, at eighteen, I packed my suitcase with old journals, three sets of clothes, Kerouac’s On the Road and Thoreau’s Walden due westbound on a hazy Saturday morning. My family was far too preoccupied with the farm to care, even after the entire ten minutes of my farewell. They had another man from a neighboring county in-line to fulfill my spot. It was for the best; the best for both parties.

With a flip of my left loafer, I was one article of clothing closer from being inside my lover. That hardy ocean lapped and curled up onthe shore in angst. I pierced headfirst into the orange horizon with just my undergarments on. My body over the years became adaptedtothe styles of the native surfing crowd in San Diego, despite possessing a cornhusker’ssix-foot-three shell. I enjoyed such a swim that day. Yet, there was only one thing I desired more than the ocean’s embrace: the lonely spires looming in the distance, roughly a half mile from the shore. I admired their height, at least twenty feet in height I reckoned. The craggy textures and incongruent angles mystified meas if the very scaling of the precipice signified a carnal desire of my past aside from the ascension from the wheat-field prison. I shook off the queer notion as I gathered my belongings and plodded, soaking wet, to my retreat. 

My hands and legs, now pulsating warmth, traversed the spires with a climber’s dexterity. The clothes reached the top first. I stood against a flat-backed portion which served as a natural chair over watch upon the ocean. Once my breath caught up to me, I rested onto the smoothed-out slate which was whittled down over the years with sandpaper. This formation was mine, for none seemed to have the courage to climb it. For me, this was my childhood reward.

However, that day upon the spires was not typical, for the ocean spoke to me through the sands below. With the waning assistance of the sun, I noticed that within a semi-circleformation of rock in which the tide gleams over flush, a distortion occurred. It appeared as the shape of an Lwhich rose like a pimple on the watery flesh. My inquisitive eye homed in on the oblong shape and descended from my throne. My feet hit the soggy sand with a thump. It was a peculiar unearthing, for my hands were both cautious of a potential threat, yet restless enough to fling scoops of the organic compound over my shoulder. 

Within minutes, I discovered the artifact. It was a pistol, mostly intact I assumed. Tarnish and rust flourished upon the graymetal. I held it close to me like a newborn babe whilst scanning the area with my widened eyes. My heart pounded in my chest, awaiting the wayward voice shouting to disarm myself at once; to seize their rightful property from my wavering hands. However, there was no one in sight, not a soul around. I stuffed the firearm into my damp waistband and scaled my hideout again. Using the collared shirt resting onthe pile of clothes, I cleaned the gun from its sea-encrusted insignia. I knew nothing about the anatomy; it felt quitetiny, almost childish in my hand. But maybe that child was internal as my hands kept caressing it like a bright red Radio Flyer, allowing every small detail to be touched. I revealed that the handle contained grime that was un-removableas if it had traded hands for decades. The gritty sensation it gave my hands was tantalizing. Some rust was impacted into the screws, which dulycaught the light fading underneath the lowest spire. I had to squint to read the engravings upon the lengthy shaft where the bullet shoots out—careful of course not to gaze into the barrel. ‘MODEL OF 1911.U.S.ARMYNº 245866’ I wasn’t familiar with the gun in the slightest, but this one seemed very special to someone. 

I nestled the gun next to me. Coincidentally, a moonbeam shone from above the canopy, which inspired me to write. My lovely ocean blew a cooling mist up to me as I contemplated on how a hypothetical Kerouac-Thoreau dialogue would go. Maybe not quite in his writings per say, but in his mannerisms for traveling the country? His ‘fuck-off’ attitude seems parallel to not paying your taxes? Quite frankly, Thoreau never veered far from Concord so hislens was very narrow, yet that’s what getting high off nature is for, right? I wasn’t sure where I was going with that thought, but it was a kind of a turnon; the power of rebellion pulsated within. Yet my attention was soon diverted from my pen to the gun, and back and forth in that fashion for many a minute. The gravity around the object would’ve pulled all the stars in the sky inward if it allowed such an action. The antiquity, the aesthetic masterpiece, and the lethality areheld in such a humble shell. It was a gypsy of the divine, twirling for my fickle eye.

I imagined a rugged soldier—bogged down, O’Brien cookie-cutter, intangibility. The dirt upon his face intermingling with lush five-o-clock shadow, absorbing the shadowy pits underneath each eye. The sweat beading onhis exposed arms; bulging biceps and deltoids carrying half his weight in supplies and the pistol upon his hip. Yes, that pistol, secured upon his hip, just itching to be drawn from the holster; the weathered grip molding perfectly to his jagged hand. I felt a tingle down my right hand as it gripped the gun with solidarityas if I was staring down the barrel of my enemy. My eyes aligned the iron sight, moving it to the left, right, and upward. It was awkward; inexperienced. Yet, the adrenaline flustering my skin dissipated the anxiety through my nails, itching the trigger. I imagined the rock face metamorphosing into humanoid figures willing to beat me, shoot me into oblivion. It was childish comicality, which dissipated as hastily as it formed. 

I rationalized the phenomenon as a dream; the term surreal was an understatement. The real taste of salt conjuredinside my mouth. It was like a sweet copper tastelike Santiago lost at sea. It was then I felt truly alone atopthe spire, with the chilling twilight breeze hardening the soggy garments that still hadn't wicked. My breathing became raucous. The ocean waves whirling around the beach became white noise. I wondered, with the gun dangling at my waist, about my family. Their own cold departure from my life, and from theirs, my own. The whole world turned icy and I swore my breath could be seen. I felt a peculiar prodding against mycranium. Just another notch in the hero’s gunstock. The trigger was a dandelion, similarly to the endless fields of back home. Innocently, they were picked up, and how violently theywere blown away and spread asunder— 

A seagull shrieked the day alive, including me. My body was smeared with a cold sweat and my heart thumping a marathon in my chest. It was morning, warranted by the surge of high tide and sunshine sliced in half by the horizon. I patted around the rock for my belongings. Everything remained in place, even the gun resting within the crux of my conjoined torso and knees. I cast bloodshot eyes upon it and swallowed hard. There was nothing; no voice of reason to speak on my behalf. My suicide was but a flutter away yet the reaperoverlooked my spire haven for the evening. The gun laid there, mocking me. It was uncanny, seeing both deliverance and salvation in the form of inanimate, lifeless steel. I knew then what my next task was, and it had nothing to do with writing; quelling the requirement of romanticizing the harrowing evening.

I stretched out my limbs, gathered my belongings, and descended the spire. The lukewarm sand perked my senses out of my nebulous state. The waves, my love, greeted me again, but I had not the time to respond to her greetings, no. A flash of inspiration manifested within my heart, and my conscience was nonetheless, clean. After a brief shower and a change of clothes, I took my car down to the local gun shop to get the pistol appraised. The bells upon the door handle jangled the complacency alive as if the other firearms hanging on the walls greeted their brother to their abode. The shopkeeper, proceeding a charitable greeting, congratulatedme on such an ‘archeological dig’ He took to his enormous catalog, and for minutes, hunched over the tomelike a sage lost in theory. A few droplets of sweat trickled down his flaccid chin, wicking upon the aged, yellow pages. An audible grunt perpetrated from his quizzical face before he scoured the pages. Faster. Faster, until he his reddened finger ceased on the bottom of a wrinkle. The gun was no longer an orphan. The name: Charles L. Matusky, retired U.S. Army First Infantry, “Big Red One”. The location: Riverside, CA. The shopkeeper offered an expedited shipping service for the gun, plus a free cleaning, strictly for the love of the weapon. I declined. This was a mission that was undoubtedly bestowed on me. The courier was me, and it was my turn to be a man. 

Typically, a drive to Riverside would be a leisure one, especially down I-5 along the coast. However, this trip was far from scenic, despite the end-goal residing a few miles from Lake Matthews in a well-maintained cabin with a wrap-around deck. The hearty oak door was about as tall as I, yet there was a qualm about the opening it. I reflected on the moment, taking a step towards it, then back again, then forward; clasping my knuckles close to the face that it could sense my pulse. I could’ve abandoned my mission, just like that—slither back into the car like I was not even there. That gun could’ve been my own obsession forever, tucked away into the closet of my attention. I sighed, whilst staring down at the knob, knowing quite well that there werea time and place for everything. So, on that liberating notion, I rapped upon his door with a three crisp, yet gentle knocks upon the door. Within seconds, I heard the muffled thumps of a human in stride. I swallowed hard, my legs became tense; the gun secure in my briefcase screaming for release. The knob creaked and a hint of musk permeated my nostrils.

An elderly man revealed himself to me, roughly a head shorter than me. Despite the aging ofhis face, his hair was cropped akin to a greenhorn in boot camp. His eyes: a steely blue that have hazed with decades of wisdom. Yet despite the imposing figure of the veteran paratrooper that palpitated in my mind’s eye, he beamed a smile that dispelled the insecurities that encompassed me. 

“How do you do, sir?” Charles said invitingly.

He wasn’t like the soldier that I dreamed of the night before, yet I was guaranteed to a cordial audience. I introduced myself and he invited me inside without an issue. He did, however,ask me what was in my suitcase, but only after a tumbler of a potent liquor was poured. For a man of my stature, I was inebriated within the short period in his home; cozy abode, with exposed timber members, stained a light beige. It was an uncanny resemblance to my childhood home. I took note of the goosebumps upon my arms forming. A juxtaposition occurred deep within my mind that I could never forget. I was unsure of the fact that my gracious host would notice my awkwardness emerging, or in fact, he would see the effect his home was doing to me—allowing me to be myself.

“So, Brian from San Diego, what did you come all this way for?” Charles said after what seemed like two hours of friendly banter. I learned so much about him within this short period, it was exhilarating yet, intimate. He gave me the insightof his war campaigns; how much he frankly despised the battles and bloodshed. He was a pacifist at heart, yet was forced to join the draft. Through all his accolades and medals, he feigned a smile. He claimed that he was ‘the least honorable of honored’ and averted my dumbfounded gazeupon the utterance. He, too, had a ghost looming over his head, in which I offered a gentle, consoling hand.

“I happened to have stumbled across something that belongs to you, sir,” I said, slowly and clearly, despite battling the urge of trembling hands upon the suitcase handle. I unclasped it, and like Pandora’s Box, the almighty firearm was revealed. He perked alive through all the dysphoria alcohol could muster. I witnessed the espousal of the hand and gripand the ensuing spectacle that followed. Oh, how he turned it over with dainty ease, inspecting the once familiar notches and scratchesas if they were an ancient code waiting to be cracked. He rose, hunched, with his free hand lifting his torso from an acute position, and assumed the warrior. Suddenly, he hoisted the gun high, both hands assuming an intimidating form. His piercing orb of an eye, aiming the iron sights with the pinpoint precision of the sergeant he once was. I heard it, the click of transcendence. I then felt an emergence of passion within my loins. It was so massive, I couldn’t contain it without drawing attention. It within the extents of my clothing; my very flesh. 

“This pistol is a part of me as much as the lungs that breathe. I have no idea how it ended up so far south. I guess there is one small victory for every man.” 

Charles words echoed through my eardrums akin to mortar blasts. Charles and I were men in arms, for sure. But for his smallest victory, in parallel to my own, I just conquered the world.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Josh Dale is a Temple University alum, bicyclist, and owner of the sweetest Bengal cat in the tri-state area. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in 48th Street Press, vox poetica, former cactus, Huffington Post, Your One Phone Call, and others. He runs Thirty West Publishing House as founder and editor-in-chief and slings words on occasion at bookstores and dive bars.