a short story

Schaefer clutched the black permanent marker in his hand, focused his eye on the target and crossed the street against the traffic. The angry driver of a silver Lexus slowed and swerved to miss him.

He cut a remarkable figure in the black leather knee boots and swirling black priest’s cape looking like a cross between Rasputin and Fagin.

His sun-browned complexion gave him a swarthy pirate look. Occupants of honking cars gave him quizzical looks and obscene sign language.

After several near misses, he reached the corner and the object of his quest. The silver signal box, his newest tabla rasa, was an excellent medium for Schaefer’s message to the masses passing this intersection each day.

Pausing for a moment, he assembled his thoughts. There was so much to say, so little time, so little space to write. He must warn them. He must take a stand, and he must speak out against…for a moment he wasn’t sure, but then he remembered the message and wrote it in the largest letters he could on the silver signal box.

He turned to the street and watched the people in passing cars. Mothers shuttling spoiled children toward soccer games and dance lessons. Gray-haired retirees puttering along in the Cadillacs wondering which body part was going to fail them next. Yuppies driving Infinities and BMWs raced by taking no notice of the poor folks waiting in the noonday sun at the bus stop. Yes, he thought, the materialists are in power now, but one day the world’s workers will rise up against the capitalist pigs who run this country. He wrote.


Cats. That’s what he used to call Catherine. Catherine with her black satin hair, her warm brown thighs, her one green eye and one blue. Catherine had written every day while he was in boot camp, drawing a peace sign on the back of each envelope. How many pushups had he had to do, grinding his tailbone into the concrete, to pay for those peace signs while the drill Sargent screamed, “You dirty lily-livered hippie, hit the ground and give me fifty for each one of those cowardly obscenities. There’s no peace for a member of the United States Marine Corps.”

Home on leave, after boot camp, she came to him smelling of flowers, nutmeg, summer rain, and the musky fragrance of her own skin.

“Marry me,” she whispered.

When I come back,” he told her.



Catherine wrote him every day while he was in Nam. He survived shrapnel, blood, mosquitoes, boredom, death, and man’s inhumanity to man because he had to be alive when her letters came.

The chopper crashed in the jungle one lazy Thursday afternoon. Wallace was already dead when they hit the ground. Carter was still breathing but there was a hole where his stomach should be. He died calling for his mother. Schaefer couldn’t move and his leg was broken in three places. The doctors at the hospital put it back together with metal pins, but there were things broken in his soul that the doctors couldn’t mend.

Catherine wrote again. This time on thick white vellum paper embossed with bells and two rings, saying, “Gene and I got married, I know you’ll understand and be happy for me.”




The three years of Bible College and ten years of preaching still haunted Schaefer. For once he believed he knew The Answer, he knew all the answers, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

He could still see the faces in the audience thirsty for a message from God, from Schaefer, from anyone who could give them answers.

He worked from dawn to past midnight every day for God and for the people. He was the bus driver, Sunday School teacher, nurse, counselor, Dear Abby, minister, friend, brother, painter, janitor, chief cook and bottle washer to the congregation of one hundred in the small Georgia town. But when his time of darkness came and he couldn’t leave his room, couldn’t leave his bed, no one came to see him. No one stood with him. After ten years of service, they fired him just because of that one incidence when he, having gone for days without sleep, lost it one Sunday morning and stood before the congregation, unzipped his pants, and peed into the baptismal pool.



A young kid with a shaved head drove past in a blue pickup. He rolled down the window and shouted at Schaefer, “Hey, buddy, get a job.

How many times had he heard his father say the same thing? His father would have loved that guy’s haircut.

“Quit playing around with all this anti-war shit, cut your hair, and get a job. Men didn’t run from battle when I was your age. We fought to keep this country free,” his dad had said.

“But, Dad, this is my job. To take a stand for what I believe in. And I believe this war is wrong,” Schaefer had answered.

“Your job is to go to college. If you go to that yellow-bellied sit0n, don’t bother to come home,” was his dad’s final words to him.

The sit-in was a failure. Those who’d come to the meeting the week before and smoked pot and talked peace, love, and revolution, didn’t show up this time. Later, they gave excuses, too much homework — I met this girl — my parents were in town.”

The four who stayed were thrown out of the administration building in less than twenty-four hours. It didn’t even make the newspapers. Not even the school newspaper. But during those wonderful hours of trying to make a difference, Schaefer and his buddies, his cohorts, his comrades, his compatriots, had stood, or rather, sat together. The failed sit-in forged a friendship between them.

But where were they now? Bill Evans had disappeared, crossed the border into Canada and never came back. Not even after he was pardoned. Jerry Fortenberry died his first day in Viet Nam, killed by a war he hated. Gen Wilson was now CEO of the Megatron Corporation, a full-blown member of the same Establishment they’d all wanted to bring down.



Catherine called him and begged him to meet Gene to talk about a job. For the chance to see her again, he agreed. And somehow Gene talked to him and sucked him into the vortex of corporate America. Seems he had a knack for selling anything with a price on it. Hell, he could sell someone his dirty underwear and make them feel like they got a bargain.

Soon there were three-piece suits and six-digit paychecks, three martini lunches, two vibrating pagers, and a mobile phone. He served only one master, the God of Mammon.

Catherine and Gene, Schaefer and Catherine’s friend Rita, made a stylish foursome at all the fancy restaurants and clubs. He was a big man now, making big money, but he had sold his own soul and bought the American Dream.

Deep inside a voice was murmuring, “Hypocrite!” He could not silence it with whiskey, sex, Valium, or the big checks he made out to charity. The time came when he felt like he was going to explode.



The government had no right to bomb Iraq. America was supposed to be above imperialism. Schaefer tried to organize a march downtown. He distributed flyers and advertised the rally in the newspaper. No one came this time either. He couldn’t understand the apathy. Was Baghdad so different than Hanoi? Where were the flower children of the Sixties who put flowers in the soldiers’ rifles? Would no one take a stand?

War was still wrong.

Schaefer walked into Gene’s office the next day and told him that he was quitting.

Gene laughed, “Now, what are you going to do?”

Schaefer, the ex-hippie, ex-Marine, ex-preacher, ex-super-salesman, didn’t know.




Rita was a good woman, maybe too god. And now she was pregnant. He was pleased. “Let’s get married,” he told her.

“But you just quit your job. How will you support us?”

“I don’t know. I’ll find a way.”

“NO,” she told him. “This baby needs a home, it needs roots. You don’t even know what you’re doing or where you’re going.”

And she left. He heard later she married a rancher down in Texas. All he knew was that somewhere he had a son, but no one would tell him where he was. He hired a private detective to search for Rita and the baby. He suspected someone paid the man off because he found nothing at all. Not a trace. Rita and his son had vanished.




Sartre was right about hell. It was right here on earth. It consisted of nothing but guilt and one’s own accusing eyes staring back into one’s soul.

He could see the stabbing guilt in the eyes of all the other patients, too. They tried to run from it, but it followed them, too, wherever they went.

Days, weeks, maybe months passed in whiteness: white walls, white clothes, white floors, sheets, and uniforms. But in his soul, it was all darkness, Failure whispered in his ear in the nighttime accusing him.

At first, the drugs helped, and he could go blank as the white walls and think nothing. But, later, the thoughts came no matter how much they gave him. And he could not run from them.

He and Crazy Ray were playing checkers without a board. He won every time, but Ray would promise, “Next time I’ll win.”

“Someone is here to see you,” the nurse said.

And suddenly his father stood there looking at him. They hadn’t spoken to each other in over twenty years. Now his father was here to tell him that he had cancer. Six months the doctors said.

“Son, I have a message for you. Better you learn it now rather than too late like I did.”

Schaefer sat up and listened and concentrated for the first time in months or maybe years.

“Your life is a blank sheet of paper. Every day is like that. You wake up in the morning and begin making marks on it. Only these marks, they can’t be erased. They are set in stone. You can’t change a single one of them no matter how much you might wish you could. But, if you are lucky enough to wake up the next morning, you have another clean sheet of paper and a chance to start over.”



Schaefer left the hospital He knew what he must do now. He had the answer, He was a Prophet of the Truth, a truth no one wanted to face, but a truth nonetheless. The message must be proclaimed. He must tell them.

Schaefer turned dramatically, whirling the black cape and began walking across the street again. The cars were all stopped for a red light. Faces peered at him curiously behind the safety of the windshields.

Schaefer spied a painted white board covering the window of a closed storefront. It would make an excellent place to proclaim his message.

Reader, Writer, Critical Thinker.

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