Hometown Hero

The sound of snails cracking beneath his bike tires went unnoticed by Abelard, who was listening to his discman with the volume all the way up. The Ride of the Valkyries. Wagner. It made him feel like he was conquering kingdoms, pillaging villages, raising goddamn hell. The crescendos made him pedal harder, more thoroughly as if saying: This is my land. I'm conquering it in the name of Abelard!

Pigeons fluttered away as he drew near, flowers crumbled under bike tires and puddles spished in the agony of defeat. Dogs barked their pleas of surrender. Abelard the Warrior took no prisoners, had no mercy, knew nothing of compassion. He silently roared, flinging his head to the side, squinting.

The neighborhood hadn't looked quite the same since he'd come back -- everything had a greenish tint to it. It was six months since he'd been back home. That trying time was spent in Flint. He had met a girl on the internet, datonalovr69, who invited him to live with her. She'd forgotten to mention that she was addicted to meth, lived with her stepfather, and for some inexplicable reason collected used styrofoam plates in the hall closet. Abelard didn't want to complain, she was an alright girl. Nothing like Julienne, though.

Julienne was his real girlfriend. The night before he left to Flint, he had stayed over at her house. He'd snuck in through her window and she'd told him that she loved him without blinking, without hesitancy. There was something too clean about it. Abelard would have preferred her to stutter the words, for her heart to skip a beat, for her limbs to go akimbo. Nothing made him more nervous than steadfastness. The next day, he packed up the few things he owned, and left.

Abelard told Julienne he had joined the army. He wrote her a long letter, dipping it into tea, wrinkling it and drying it on a radiator to make it look war-torn. If need be, he could fictitiously die in combat. He concluded the letter with: "In the jungles of Kuwait, where I am, the world seems empty. The only thing that keeps me sane is Sonny playing his harmonica late at night and the memories I have of you. Please don't ask me why I left. I can't really explain it, my dear, but I think God had something to do with it. I'll mail you again when we get back to camp."

The day he got back from Michigan, he bought some fatigues at the Salvation Army a few towns away. They were a size too large. As he rode his bike, the wind made him flap in the wind incessantly like a sail. The stitched tag on the shirt read: 'P. Parkington.' Abelard had told Julienne a great story about how the typo had made him a beloved member in all the ranks. He'd told her how he approached his sergeant, casually bringing up the mistake, saying that he'd been A. Rizer for twenty years, he wasn't in any rush to go back to it. Abelard wasn't sure if she'd believed him, she'd laughed a little, but that night she didn't let him touch her breasts when they made out in her car.

Abelard wore the fatigues everyday. They came in handy. He got discounted meals at Jake and Bake's. Old men, who seemed to collectivize in afternoon chat circles, saluted him with slow, shaky hands. He'd nod at them, then lifted his own hand to his head, deftly acknowledging them. It made Abelard feel important. Before he turned soldier, most people in town had ignored him. They didn't trust him on account of his shifty eyes. Now, if he was ever caught picking his nose or smelling his armpit, people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The town of Stockbrook loved their soldiers, especially when they returned missing a limb or even better, two. Dead soldiers were gods amongst men. Their pictures were permanently displayed at the town hall next to Jesus and the mayor. Special prayers were given every mass for the souls in Iraq. The newspaper ran poetry dedicated to those in combat in a section called: Verses for Soldiers. Last month, a poem by an 11-year-old neighbor girl ran. It was about Abelard.

My Neighbor, the Hero

He is as good as Abel.

With a heart as strong as a table.

He is a soldier, true and true.

He loves the red and white and blue.

Abelard was touched. He cut out the poem, folded it and put it into the small pocket in his wallet. He read it every so often, before going to bed. Once he read it aloud to Julienne as she knitted. He thought about how he was as good Abel - his name was derived from Abel after all. He'd press his hand against his heart and feel the solid beating. If any heart could be described as a table it would surely be his. Of course, he wasn't exactly a soldier, but this seemed a small detail. After all, he had the fatigues, all he really needed was to enlist. In a sense, he'd been a soldier his entire life. His mother told him that he was born at 6:00 a.m. - on the dot. 0600 hours. In elementary, he played the toy soldier in the school's production of The Nutcracker three years in a row. He'd run miles a day in high school. He ran from enemy fighters, bullies with large fists and little temper. He'd taken a soldering class at the community college and soldering was just one letter away from soldiering. He was a soldier all except for title. And he did love the red and white and blue. He loved it so much that he'd pray to it. He'd pray in front of a tattered American flag, kneeling before it with his head bowed low. When prayed to the flag, he asked for a job and for Julienne to marry him. He asked for her to get pregnant so she'd forgive him. He asked for a good enough lie to tell to the town that'd leave him in their good graces, but allow him to change from the uniform that had grown cumbersome and dirty.

He was tired of pedaling. He wished he had a car — the car he'd sold before leaving to Michigan. A little silver '88 Tracer. He learned to drive before he learned to ride a bike. His mother's boyfriend kept promising him that'd he'd teach Abelard come summer when Abelard was a child, but summers came and went until finally the guy left the day after school let out when Abelard was twelve.
Julienne wasn't expecting him. He wanted to surprise her. She'd grown sadder looking since he'd left. She never smiled or laughed. Only a look of concern fractured her face. She grew pudgy. Julienne was never a pretty girl, but she had attractive qualities — she liked Abelard for one. Her parents were relatively wealthy, they were able to buy her anything she wanted. Her breasts were perfectly pear shape like tears. She didn't mind being ignored. Abelard called her 'Julienne Fries' in high school. She was a cheerleader then, but not a very good one. She was used mostly as a lifter or the bottom of the pyramid. She bore the grunt of her peers. It was a surprise to Abelard that she even noticed him, that she took any interest in him whatsoever. He wasn't good at anything, except making perfectly round spitballs. The trick was good saliva consistency, attained with the potent combination of coffee and hot sauce. But all in all, Abelard wasn't worth waiting an entire year for. Even he knew it.

He was almost hit by a large truck. He thought about how he'd fly in the air, how the ring he'd stolen from his mother would slip out of his pocket. He thought about his picture being posted on the wall next to Jesus and how Julienne would cry and wear black for a month or so. Maybe the neighbor girl would write another poem about him. He'd like that. He'd like that very much.

Julienne lived far from him. She lived in a studio apartment near the university. The apartment was decorated with collages of Victorian ladies, crepe paper, lace, and roses and it smelled like weed even though Julienne didn't smoke. She had cheat him. With some Philosophy student. He once made her stay perfectly still, not making a sound or a move. He wanted to know what it was like making love to a cadaver. It made perfect sense to Julienne, but most things did. She took a roofie and rested on her bed. The next morning, she woke up to find her bedsheets covering her like a shroud. Her body was ritually painted with highlighter and rose petals were logged against the inside of her dry cheek. She took a shower and drove to Abelard's.

"I've fucked another guy. He's Philosophy grad student. He might be a necroph-. I think he might get turned on by doing it with dead people."

"Okay. But you're not dead. He didn't hurt you?" Abelard asked, unscathed.

"I drugged myself. I'm sorry. Aren't you a little bit upset?"

"Did you like it?"

"Aren't you upset?"

"Did you like it?"

"I was asleep. He did it while I was sleeping."

She kissed him right after that. She frowned as she placed her hand on his scruffy chin. She unbuttoned his uniform silently, then put it on. She cleaned the house wearing it. She got on her hands and knees and scrubbed the tile, the toilet, the tub.

Abelard's mother was passed out in her room. She slept most of the day, only waking up to watch daytime court television and to eat. Julienne looked into his mother's room like a parent asking, "How did I make this?" It was at that moment that he realized he wanted to marry Julienne. That she was something special -- not like that nut, datonalovr69. Though she had cheated on him, she also revealed that she was Abelard's. She put on his guilt-ridden skin without knowing the burden of the uniform. She put it on for him. She scrubbed for him. She loved his mother for him, too.

Abelard got startled as a kid rode up beside him. The boy had large blue eyes and ice cream staining his mouth. His hair was messy and overgrown. Abelard had seen him riding on the streets before. He rode a Huffy with rainbow streamers and liked riding in front of cars. He was the Evil Knevil of Fifth Grade. Abelard stopped momentarily to put his discman into one of the large pockets in his cargo pants. The boy stopped alongside him. They stared at each other like they were in some spaghetti western about to have a pistol duel. The boy's eyes narrowed as the sun hit his face and instinctively Abelard's did as well. He wished he had a toothpick in his mouth, just so he could spit it out.

When Abelard kicked the ground for a quick start and began to pedal fast, the boy did as well. His small haunches pushed down with ease while Abelard began to sweat. There was something so exhilarating in the pick-up drag race. The wind softly beat Abelard in the face, the sun whitewashed his view. He began to stop looking left and right when he got to stop signs when he realized that the boy never did. The boy's face remained in its jutted, forward position with his tongue sticking out. He looked like a gargoyle.

Abelard didn't turn on Julienne's street. He continued on, not wanting to let the boy win. It was until he had gone ten blocks too far that he finally decided to head back. He dismounted and positioned the bike in the right direction and as he started to push his pedals, he looked back at the boy, who didn't seem to notice Abelard's absence, who didn't slow down at all.

Abelard put on his headphones once again, fumbled around with his discman and pushed play. Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3. He'd always liked that one. As a child, he detested classical music. His mother would play it on her boombox as she cleaned the house in the fit of rage she felt when she had to clean. To Abelard, Phillip Glass would always connote Windex. Stravinsky, wood cleaner. The urn containing the ashes of his grandfather, which had tiny filagrees that were hard to dust reminded him of the indulgent chords of Mozart's Funeral March.

His mother used to received a cassette every month in the mail. She belonged to a club -- The Harmony Listeners. Abelard liked the sound of it. He'd write it on his binders and on his sneakers. He whispered it as he walked to school. The club was his mother's way of culturing Abelard, but he'd much rather watch television or read the funnies. He only liked Liszt, who he called 'Lists' and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. As he waited at a stop sign, he imagined Julienne walking down the aisle to it wearing a dark blue wedding dress, almost violet. The jazzy inclinations of the music twisting her legs and hips in smooth gyrations.

As he pulled into Julienne's apartment complex, Abelard began to wonder if he should go down on bended knee or not. It was hokey, he always thought so. Every time a guy did it in a restaurant or football stadium, he couldn't help but roll his eyes and laugh. But because he had on his army uniform, there was something respectable about it. It was a classy maneuver when it was done wearing camo, although -- in hindsight -- he wished he'd gotten a Navy uniform instead. It would be better with a Navy uniform. He'd take off his hat and put it against his chest. He'd pull out the ring from inside a breast pocket. He'd get down on a knee, slightly hesitating about the condition of the floor and its effect on his pristine white pants. If he could do it again, he'd have bought a Navy uniform. Julienne would be so proud of her seaman and so would the town. Being a private in the army was becoming an increasingly common thing. Abelard wanted to be special

Abelard decided against chaining up his bike. It was always so inconvenient undoing it, he'd much rather bring it inside. Julienne never minded. It took up an entire corner of her small living room and one time it crushed her cat, Judd when it toppled over, but Julienne didn't mind as long as it didn't track in any mud.

Before Abelard could knock on the her door, a guy rushed out. The guy had a worried look on his face. He held the top of his shirt closed with his clenched hand as he huffed past Abelard, pushing him against a railing. The guy ran to his compact, brick car and left. Abelard turned back to the apartment where his girlfriend lay sleeping on a row of couch cushions set up on the floor. She had on a pretty floral dress, the dress she wore to the prom. Her hair was curled in thick ringlets. Abelard nodded his head as Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5 began to play in his headphones. The music reached a caesura and there was silence. Abelard knew that the music notes would fall though once again, but he felt nervous about it. The crashing sound, the continued moment of existence. I've been A. Rizer for twenty years. Violins, horns and vibrating cymbals attacked the air. Abelard the Warrior was defeated by one measure of music, by the pitiless inflections of staccatos and triplets.

Abelard took off the large, smelly shirt with 'P. Parkington' stitched on it and placed it on top of Julienne. Bare-chested, he would ride home, put the ring back in his mother's jewelry box and take a nap. His old high school was going to present him with an award and an honorary diploma that night and he was going to accept it wearing denim overalls, a white tee shirt and a look of contentment. They'd forgive him and cite the war as the cause for the damage in his brain.