James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

“Howdy from Upstairs”—2008 SC Fiction Project winner

Captain Mandrake, as he calls himself, strides into the room—a living space, warm, cluttered, three generations’ worth of portraiture and bric-a-brac, the only sound the crackling of a dying fire—and proceeds, as he is wont to do, to cause me no shortage of distress: And it is late, and the chill of January has settled over the world. I am reading; I am at a good part. It is my one escape, this.

But by now, I am used to the routine. I’m just especially tired tonight.

“Go ahead,” I say to him. I look down; my toenails appear dry. I start pulling out the little foam dividers. “What is tonight’s grand revelation?”

He shoots me a withering look, then paces back and forth, his hands jammed into the pockets of our grandmother’s robe. She doesn’t need it anymore. “Ever so impatient,” he says, scratching his stubble. I don’t think he’s changed his shirt for a month, now—I think he just keeps Febreze’ing it every few days. The front of it looks like a Pollack interpretation of my brother’s last couple of dozen meals.

“Yes, but—”

“That book’s eating you alive, that fiction. Take a breather, General Ripper.”

I look down at the volume, a collection of thrilling and implausible stories. Engrossing, unchallenging, chock full of incident; forward narrative momentum that pauses neither for breath nor logic. Gunplay. Betrayal. Intimations of erotic congress, though not explicit. Fade-outs as in tame movies; a diffusion and then black as the bedroom door closes and our imaginations fill the empty spaces with our interpretation of that which the lovers do to one another. (With one another, I mean.) I teach the real stories all day long, “A Rose for Emily” and “Good Country People”; the bad stuff helps me relax. Turns off the brain. Lets me be someone else for a while. My secret shame.

I don’t know that I can take the routine tonight. “Howdy,” I plead.

“Tut-tut.” He turns on me, wagging a finger.

He hates that nickname—Howdy—but too bad, to me that’s who he’ll always be. I gave it to him when we were kids because Howard sounds so stuffy, antiquated, even.  Howdy is more than a name, it’s a cheerful greeting. But in the end the Chamberlain in me chooses appeasement, rapprochement, even: “All right, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. Better?”

“I should say so,” in a clipped, reasonable Peter Sellers. The Captain Mandrake Peter Sellers, that is. “Yes, yes. May I proceed with my report, General?”

I close my book. I sigh and sink back into the easy chair; I gesture in a helpless expression of what other choice do I have?

“Very well, then.”

It’s cold in the room. I swing my feet over in front of the embers. I ought to throw on another shank of cordwood, but I’d have to go all the way out back. Even colder out there. Dark, out in the country. Besides, it’s Howdy’s job to bring the wood inside.

Mandrake—my brother, older than me, back home from the wars, as he tells it—proceeds to regale me with the protracted preamble to his main point, which is always the same point, only with modest variations. The oration rambles on—childhood minutiae, a missing pet, a locker room embarrassment, a failed college romance, a marriage, a divorce… but also nice things here and there: a magical sunset on a Boy Scout camping trip, a ball game in the bright sunshine with an old childhood friend, a walk alongside a field of sunflowers in resplendent full bloom (a new bit—a fabrication?). Various and sundry triumphs, tragedies, impressions, life lessons. My eyes droop.

“But then I truly lost everything.” This is the jumping off point from his near-boilerplate prologue, that which is altered and revised only just so in the telling each night. Now to the main event of the evening, the feature presentation:

The plans for the future. These plans are the meat, the entrée, the main course. These plans, these are what keep the audience interested—these are the surprises, the plot twists, the new material that he’s trying out like a fourth-rate comic working the chitlin circuit before hitting the big towns, refining the material, writing new jokes, creating a theme for the act. That the plans are always words and not eventual deeds does not seem to factor into the telling, this nocturnal ritual. I think he does it to let me know that he’s all right, that he’s not completely lost in the wilderness of his illness. That he’s looking ahead to some positive goal, like any normal person would.

“And the conclusion I’ve now come to, sir?

“Yes, oh Captain, my Captain?”

“Sales. Sales. I have always been a salesman at heart.”

Yes?”

“Think about it.”

“I’m trying.” I squeeze my eyes shut, pretending to concentrate. “Okay, I thought about it.”

“Good. Now: Fuller brushes, vacuum cleaners. Magazine subscriptions. Newspaper subscriptions. Digital satellite television subscriptions. Homeopathic health care remedies. Cosmetics, even—gender specific roles are passé. Encyclopedias. Insurance policies—peace of mind, in other words, and that’s something they say you can’t buy.” He’s wound up now. “Investment opportunities—no, scratch that. Let’s see: Automobiles. Real estate. Foodstuffs. Wholesale goods and services. Cardboard boxes. Styrofoam peanuts. Plastic food wrap. Astringents. Emulsifiers. Manufactured housing. Precious metal futures. Oil futures. Porkbelly futures…! Gah.” He turns as white as a sheet. “Scratch that, I say.”

“But, that is something you know all about…”

He stands there in the middle of the rug with his hands on his hips and looks up to the ceiling. I can hear his neck pop. “Ah. Ah. But here it is, what I was leading up to: The sale of private security, both in the homeland and otherwise. Military hardware and training. Military expertise. Military—”

“Extraterritorial security services?” I feel the urge to help him along. To get to the end. “By private companies?”

“I can’t think of a reason why not. And not just extraterritorial. No no no. The future of America is in privatization. Private armies of well-paid, middle class men…”

I raise my eyebrows at him.

“ . . . and women. The important part: that they be loyalists, focused, with skill sets that are honed to a razor’s edge. The skill sets of warriors. But controlled by private concerns.” He looks over at me; his eyes are shining yet opaque. “The corporate world is now far more disciplined than the military, my dear. Than the government ever dreamt of being.”

“All this seems rather far a field from your background, Howd—I mean, Mandrake.” I try to hint, to carefully jog his tortured memory. “Weren’t you in financial counseling?”

He ignores me. Howdy lost a passel of money for a whole bunch of folks, and they were so mad at him that one day he just ditched everything he had and came skulking back home. The people were so mad at him about his oversight in handling their funds that it knocked him completely off center, so much so that ever since he has shuffled around in Grandmother’s fuzzy green bathrobe all day and all night, acting like he doesn’t remember who he really is anymore. And being glad he didn’t end up in jail, or on the wrong end of a firearm, probably. It was a lot of money.

“Far a field. Far, a field. Far a field. Far a field.” He seems taken with the rhythm of the three syllables, like a poet rolling a line around in his mouth.

He snaps back to the question at hand. “Yes, well, less far from my experience than you might think. I’ve been doing quite a bit of research.”

“So I hear.”

Howdy’s taken the small inheritance from Grandmother and set up a home theatre in his room, which is where he spends most of his time. With the kind of movies he likes—full of whammies, as he calls the explosions—first I made him reposition the subwoofer, then I gave him money for soundproofing foam, then I finally just moved downstairs into the basement, which is damp but quiet as a tomb. Howdy—the Group Captain—watches movies all night, war movies. I would get Howdy another place to live, with other friends in similar mindsets, but I don’t think they’ll let him have his movies there. And that would seem cruel and unusual.

The Theatre of Operations. That’s what my brother calls his room. It is a lonely space, even when he is in it, like I imagine the sky above must be for God, sitting there by Itself watching the world spin around.

Or maybe It sits there spinning around along with a certain point on the globe, God. Geostationary orbit, somewhere far above Howdy’s room. Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea for use with communication satellites—that, and the space elevator that somebody one day ought to build.

All this private mercenary army talk is giving me the willies. Maybe he’s been slipping in some CNN with his movie time.

I don’t know what my brother does during the day, since I’m out of the house: Somebody has to work around here. If anything, my workday is too short, my summers too long: my students are a vacation compared to Howdy—even when the kids are rowdy. A rhyme in my mind means I have tuned my brother out; it is a nightly event without which I would pout.

I rack my brother back into focus; he is winding it up.

“I think tomorrow is day one,” Captain Mandrake concludes with a flourish, dancing the little jig like Hitler in Paris. “I think I have a plan. Wing Attack Plan R, R for Robert. R for Reality. Realities that await to be, to be…”

“Realized?”

He looks dewy-eyed at me, now. His little sister, now the parent, now the guardian, now the sounding board for his plans to alleviate the onset of doomsday. “Yes,” he says with immense gratitude. “Realized, and lived.”

And then he floats back up the stairs, his hair all corkscrewed, his slippers too small for his feet, the robe threadbare and ancient. I yawn as I hear the subwoofer thump; what is left of the fire sputters its last bit of cinder-breath, and then goes out once and for all.

Originally published by the Charleston Post & Courier in its 2008 SC Fiction Project supplement.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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