To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.
— Viktor Frankl
Slim’s Famous Burger: lettuce, coleslaw, sliced tomatoes, a burger patty, American cheese, avocados, a second patty, a fried egg, ketchup and hot sauce, Texas Pete to be precise

Chapter 1

Chapter Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

Chapter Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

I’m going to tell you about a man named Slim. Who he is isn’t important. It’s who he was that matters now. Now back before your eye pads and blue tooths and tweeting pages, not too long ago but long enough to make a difference, if you wanted to get to know someone, it was through honest conversation, not with smileys or emoticons. The only kindle was to light a fire, the nicest cell phone was called a razor, and even though Facebook existed you couldn’t avoid sitting down for a drink. During that first decade of this here century, relationships took time and strayed away from brevity. You went to bars for civilization, whatever that was, maybe some music and a bit of whiskey. You could go for other reasons too, but only the loneliest of folk hoped to be seen.

Sgt. Dykes was particularly fond of the skinny kid with a sharp tongue and a proclivity for aggression.

Not that Slim was one to shy away from attention, but he was self-conscious on account of his scar. He’d taken a bullet through the jugular during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but lost faith in the cause during his second tour. He’d grown up as the afterthought of a deadbeat mother and spent his formative years at Stoke Ridge Military Academy, where the pedophiliacally-inclined Sgt. Chandler Dykes obsessed over Slim’s naked torso and the other cadets’ sturdy frames. But all in good time, as a wicked witch once said. Suffice to say Slim didn’t enjoy his time at Stoke Ridge, not the least ’cause Sgt. Dykes was particularly fond of the skinny kid with a sharp tongue and a proclivity for aggression. Dykes also had a tendency towards self-pity, abusing Slim, and drinking Johnny Walker in the bathtub; he may not have taken baths with his cadets, but I’d venture to say he thought about it a few times. See, Dykes was fond of convincing young teenage boys to do shirtless pushups in his office, late night. He didn’t abuse ’em in a sexual way, at least I don’t think, but it remains a sign of the times that most scars have to be seen. And though Slim left Stoke Ridge with plenty of physical scars, they didn’t keep him up at night like Sgt. Dykes’ brutality.

A one-story cabin with a rickety screen door, built on a once-fertile piece of land that’s now hardened earth and brown grass.

But if I’m going to tell you about Slim, I’ve got to take Dykes’ scars into account too. These were deep and invisible—more engrained, somehow. See, he used Slim and the other cadets—“Dykes’ Tykes” as he called ’em, a well-toned troupe of at-risk youth—to help quell his demons, watching them pump out more shirtless pushups than any cared to count. Under the insectan buzz of a fluorescent light, Slim often fell asleep in Dykes’ office, too exhausted to move from the stale carpet. And while the sergeant enjoyed all of his tykes, he was particularly fond of the skinny kid with a single name. Maybe it’s ’cause Slim seemed to enjoy doing pushups, or perhaps ’cause he had a kind of fight about him; but whatever the reason, Dykes became obsessed, and it wasn’t until the Welcome Back Heroes! event when Slim was nineteen, in that barren town of Stoke Ridge, NC—the town’s main attraction being a brick building with a white steeple—that this story either commenced or drew to a close, depending on your preference for happy endings.

The Welcome Back Heroes! event was a sign of things to come, for it was the day Slim reached the top of Sgt. Dykes’ B.A.M. LIST.

The Welcome Back Heroes! event was a sign of things to come, for it was the day Slim reached the top of Sgt. Dykes’ B.A.M. LIST. The Belligerents According to Me list, filled with the names of Dykes’ mother, father and other supposed enemies from his fallow past, was first displayed in his Stoke Ridge office (which, according to Slim, smelled like an unkempt microwave) and was later hung in the sergeant’s home off Exit 263, in a one-story cabin with a rickety screen door, built on a once-fertile piece of land that’s now hardened earth and brown grass.

“Welcome back, son,” Dykes said.

Just a few days prior Slim had been in Iraq. The white bandage around his neck had to be changed every evening. He stood with his hands held behind his back, accepting an award for Outstanding Service to the Stoke Ridge Community and Nation as a Whole. The auditorium was packed. A true hero’s welcome.

“Congratulations on your medal.” Dykes faked a smile and spoke into the mic. “Now state your name and rank, son. Good to have you back.”

Dykes stuck out his hand. Slim didn’t reciprocate. “I ain’t your son, Chandler. Give me the mic.”

They stood on an elevated stage in the middle of the basketball court. Dykes’ voice bounced off the banner-less rafters. Chairs scuffed the floor and leaned on the back wall. The aluminum roofing rejected the echoes, sending them back down to the podium where Slim took control of the stage.

“What a pleasure it is, what a pleasure it is.”

Slim shook the sergeant’s hand and gripped it tightly. “Seeing you slaving away behind the mike like that? I thought I’d never see you again, Chandler Dykes…”

“I’m a war hero now,” Slim laughed. “More than you can say for yourself. Careful now Dykes. You don’t want that forehead vein popping out…”

Dykes was upset. Slim had now called him by his first name twice. “Name and rank son—and you address me as sergeant.”

“I’m a war hero now,” Slim laughed. “More than you can say for yourself. Careful now Dykes. You don’t want that forehead vein popping out…”

Dykes laughed nervously, trying to distract the audience. He put his arm around Slim as if it were a friendly conversation, turning away from the mic to say something in private. And whatever Dykes whispered, Slim fell silent. Dykes turned back to the audience with a yellow-toothed smile.

“Sorry about that folks. Technical issues. Now give it up for Slim—the hero of Iraq!”

The audience applauded but they did not roar. Dykes tried to corral Slim. Slim didn’t abide.

“Get your goddamn hands off of me,” Slim said into the mic.

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

Dykes’ face twitched. The audience squirmed. And perhaps knowing their history, or perhaps ’cause he liked the spotlight, the academy’s directora bear of a man by the name of General Haith, who’d die in a house fire a few years down the linescrambled onto the stage, took Slim’s place on the podium, positioned his broad shoulders between Slim and Sgt. Dykes, and laughed loudly. The mic gave feedback. The video footage corroborates it. A child in the front row stuck his fingers in his ears; other spectators squinted at the stage as if staring at the sun, wincing from the feedback as they waited for what came next.

“Let’s give it up for Slim!” General Haith boomed. “Our hometown hero. Maybe the finest soldier we’ve ever had!”

The tension escaped the gymnasium amidst the clapping and the noise, after which General Haith proceeded to give a long-winded speech about what-it-means-to-be-a-member-of-the-Stoke-Ridge-community-and-how-it’s-men-like-these-that-define-our-nation-et-cetera-et-cetera. Now you might be wondering how Slim got himself onto that stage, and though the details are unimportant (at least for now), the whole hoo-ha surrounding his return was mostly ’cause of his reputation as a formidable killing machine. See, when Slim started at Stoke Ridge he was a string bean cadet, a timid child without much physical promise: chicken legs and noodly arms and a chest that was vacuum-packed. Slim’s mother, Wilhelmina Jenkins (who we’ll get to) was a drug addict who subsisted on re-heated Hot Pockets, hardened Kraft Mac N’ Cheese and frozen mozzarella sticks. As a child Slim always looked a bit sickly, always scrounging for food in the cupboards lest he be forced to reheat something in the moldy microwave, but by the time GW Bush decided to play his daddy’s game, Slim had become the finest warrior Stoke Ridge had ever seen. Of course Slim never knew his dad, but he must’ve benefitted from some hunk’s formidable genes; though his hairline was receding by the time he was eighteen, his six-foot-five frame, accompanied by four years of bursting biceps and peck muscles filled out on four hundred plus pushups a day, made the man quite a sight to behold.

And while the doctors said it was a miracle he’d survived, Slim said it was a miracle they’d gotten him out before he could reload his M60.

His newfound body led to his award for bravery in Iraq during the First Battle of Fallujah—a hell of a fight for those boys in the red, white, and blue—for killing an entire platoon of alleged al-Qaeda operatives and taking a bullet straight through the jugular. And while the doctors said it was a miracle he’d survived, Slim said it was a miracle they’d gotten him out before he could reload his M60. He was a hero of sorts (as far as modern war heroes go), but warriors these days are often shamed and quickly forgotten.

“And this man right here,” General Haith said as he put his arm around Slim at the podium, “we’ll never forget what he’s done for us!”

The crowd applauded. Sgt. Dykes didn’t. Once again Slim took back the mic.

“Or else,” Slim remarked, “those bastards would’ve felt a wrath they hadn’t experienced since Genghis Khan came at them with his hordes! I’m not done, mark my words: I’m gonna get back there. Just wait and see.”

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes

A few audience members gasped. A few others cheered. Many were confused ‘cause they thought Genghis Khan was some kind of ethnic dish.

“That’s right,” Slim continued. “Unlike some of us, I’m willing to fight! I don’t just sit in my office all day watching kids do pushu—”

Dykes grabbed the mic. “Thank you for that Slim. How about another round of applause?”

While there were some grumblings in the audience about what Slim was talking about, the crowd cheered nonetheless ‘cause that’s what crowds do. After Dykes was unable to answer any questions about the war, Slim took back the podium. “As you can tell, I learned to fight once people started shooting at me. But as far as Stoke Ridge goes? Well, let’s just say I didn’t learn much at all…”

Sgt. Dykes bit his fingernails. His fake smile faltered.

“The thing is, it’s not hard to develop fatherless kids into killers,” Slim said. He was laid back and confident. “And now we’re the ones killing fathers in Iraq. Of course, a lot of these officers,” Slim looked directly at Dykes, “don’t have to do any killing at all, right? They only know about sending us boys out there while they sit behind simulators with whiskey and whack off.”

General Haith blushed. Dykes tried to take control of the mic again but Slim managed to push him off. “Most of ’em, like Dykes here, have never been to Iraq. They can give us orders, sure. But then they all just sit back with their hands behind their head like they’re getting some kind of patriotic blowjob.”

By the time Slim arrived at the hospital he’d lost over three pints of blood. He remained in a coma for three straight weeks and spent another month on heavy morphine drip.

The audience fell silent. Flies buzzed around the gym. A squirrel or a cat scampered across the aluminum roof. Slim sneered at Dykes and the military brass, handing General Haith the mic as he stepped back. The general quelled the situation by bringing up freedom and the good fight, and after a final round of hesitant applause, brown-fatigued cadets escorted the spectators onto the brown lawn, where sweet tea and lemonade were served in red plastic cups. As for what happened next, there are only two people who know the story, and neither Slim nor Sgt. Dykes ever told me exactly. Whatever it was, it was violent and quick. Slim almost died. Here are the facts:

After hearing a commotion in Dykes’ office, a group of cadets found Slim writhing on the floor, clutching his jugular, gurgling in agony. A crimson fountain spurted from the wound—the sergeant had tried to pop Slim’s Adam’s apple like bubble wrap. Dykes was right beside him, curled up on the bloodstained floor, whispering the same phrase to himself over and over again: “Never listening. Never playing. Never so much as a goddamned hug. Never listening. Never playing. Never so much as a goddamned hug.” As soon as the cadets piled on top of Dykes, he began to thrash and kick around, breaking noses and shattering adolescent bones. Slim would’ve died if it hadn’t been for General Haith, who came in just in time to apply pressure to the wound. By the time Slim arrived at the hospital he’d lost over three pints of blood. He remained in a coma for three straight weeks and spent another month on heavy morphine drip. General Haith was there every day to check on the young war hero; even though Slim was unconscious, the general stayed by his side. If you’re wondering why, your guess is as good as mine; maybe it was ’cause General Haith felt responsible, or maybe it was ’cause he hated Sgt. Dykes.

It took two surgeries and three months to rewire Slim’s vocal chords

It took two surgeries and three months to rewire Slim’s vocal chords, but Slim kept his promise and soon returned to Iraq. As for Dykes, after being treated for three cracked ribs and a pierced eardrum, he was released. Needless to say, the attack effectively ended Dykes’ career. And while Slim wouldn’t file any charges ’cause this is the military we’re talking about, he did acquire a five-year restraining order, more than enough time, he thought, to get Dykes out of his life. In later years, Slim told me putting Dykes in prison wasn’t an option: no one could prove who started the fight, technically Slim’s neck was already wounded (and so it could be deemed an unfortunate accident), and the military is one of the best in the business when it comes to protecting its own during a scandal. Still, Dykes didn’t get off easy. When he returned home that night, his relationship with Slim forever tarnished, Stoke Ridge’s former prom kings and defensive linemen were waiting for him on his front lawn. The attack had been the final straw, in a sense: what with his nasal voice, puppy dog eyes, and proclivity for whiskey and young cadets, most of Stoke Ridge didn’t take kindly to the sergeant. Upon seeing the angry mob, Dykes somehow managed to sneak in the back door. He spent the evening in a locked bathroom, drinking Johnny Walker in the bathtub, and cried himself to sleep in a naked fetal position. The following day he awoke to General Haith’s voice on a loudspeaker—Dykes had exactly one hour to get out of town. With his bags packed but not ready to go, Dykes began driving away in his rusty brown pickup, leaving only the second home he’d ever known. On his way out of Stoke Ridge he passed three burning effigies and a mob of angry townspeople. They threw cups of iced tea at his windshield and old basketballs under his car. One man used a baseball bat to smash a side-mirror and another shot out his break lights with an assault rifle. As Dykes watched the church steeple fade in the mirror, his car thumping forwards, the back tire slowly losing air (metal shards), he felt like vomiting and crying at the same time, which is exactly what he did off Exit 263.

They threw cups of iced tea at his windshield and old basketballs under his car

For a time, while Slim recovered and prepared to fight once more, Dykes lived as a vagrant, seeking refuge in homeless shelters and the occasional motel, where he often slept naked with Johnny Walker. Though Slim faired better, it wasn’t by much: during his second tour in Iraq he became distraught and disillusioned, not unlike the sergeant after the award ceremony. Still, Slim tried to move on while Dykes impatiently waited for his return.