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Michael Mandlin


Macaroon [detail] by Kit Williams
The tall man left his car by the pumps and started towards the station store. Sam called from the curb. Always good to give them space.

“Hi, excuse me, sir, are you heading to Seattle?”

Of course, he was; there was nothing between Ritzville and Seattle but Moses Lake, and this man wasn’t a steelworker. But it was always good to hear “yes” first thing.

“I am,” said the man. He was at least six and a half feet tall, broad at the shoulders, and muscular. He had light brown eyes and skin, black hair buzzed close, wore an orange tank-top, khaki shorts, and flip-flops, and smelled faintly of cannabis.

“Oh, hey great,” Sam said. “I wonder, may I have a ride, please?”

The tall man stepped forward, smiled, and held out his hand. “Yeah, sure. I’m Marvin.” His grip was firm but not demonstrative. “I’ll be a few minutes. Can I get you anything to drink?”

It was awfully nice to ask, Sam said, but he was just fine.

When Marvin entered the store, Sam took a longer look at his car, an early nineties Hyundai coupe, boxy and strangely small for such a man. Sam sat on the curb and tugged at the straps of his hiking pack. It would be a tight fit, but it didn’t matter, he had his ride.

“Ready?” Marvin said. As they walked to the car, he handed Sam a bottle of spring water, just in case: “It’s good to stay hydrated.”

There was room enough in the trunk for Sam’s pack next to a blue gym bag and a worn Army sack, and just enough to wedge himself into the passenger side of the small vehicle. Though almost a foot shorter than Marvin, he was long and thick from the waist up and had to slouch to avoid the roof. Marvin seemed perfectly comfortable, folding his limbs as needed and extending where there was space for it. This achieved, they pulled out onto the highway.


“Are you a tiger?” Marvin said, filling the car with a deep, warm voice.

“I’m sorry?”

“A tiger. Your shirt.”

“Oh, this, nah,” Sam said. “I was just in South Carolina a few weeks back, picked this up at a Clemson game. I like to wear something bright when I’m hitching. And also, I figured it might help me get rides with older folks if I wore something to cover up the ink.” He pulled up the long sleeves of his shirt to show a constellation of black birds on his forearms.

“Hey,” Marvin said, smiling, “those are great. I haven’t seen anything like it before. Where did you get them?”

“A friend of mine makes woodcuts,” Sam said. “These were part of a bigger project she did a few years ago. I loved the birds, so she made me a print.”

“Beautiful. Like they were carved with a knife.”

“Yeah, she’s good.”

“Shame to cover them. Does it work?”

“What’s that?”

“Do old people give you rides?”

Sam chuckled. “Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes they do. I never really know what’s working or not. I shower and shave clean before heading out, wear a bright shirt, keep my pack in order. But it seems pretty random, who picks me up.”

The chuckle was calibrated for the audience, for the moment. It was a light, mirthful sound, but measured: he was a jovial fellow, but not a clown. Fifty thousand miles ago such artifice had bothered him. Now it was reflex, and not entirely disingenuous, just the accouterment of the affable traveler.

“Nothing is random,” Marvin said. “We’re all exactly where God wants us to be.”

“No doubt,” Sam said, nodding. So he would be a God-fearing man for a few hundred miles.

“Do they mean anything, in particular, the birds?”

“Not really. Never wanted a tattoo until I saw her birds and it just felt right.”

“Mmm, that’s the way to do it,” Marvin said.

The sun was half gone, and in the gown of orange light, Sam took in the landscape. A hitchhiker’s habit; the right observation could help move through an awkward silence—though that was hardly a possibility in Marvin’s little coupe. The interior was tidy. Not immaculate, but well kept. There was a carefully sealed crack in the dashboard above the glove compartment, which featured a lock in doubtful condition. The floor mats were an imperfect match for the upholstery, which was worn, but unstained and unabraded. Altogether, the modest two-door had held together nicely—but no glue or mechanic’s sure hands could suppress the intrusion of the highway. The floorpan seemed to provide as much protection from the rumble din of the road as a cafeteria tray on wheels, and Sam could imagine a good swipe with a boxcutter making the coupe a convertible. But rides were seldom posh, and he saw no rippled welding marks, no rust, no mold or perforations. No reason for concern. If there was the slightest discomfort of rushing along at 80 miles per hour in little more than a die-cast shell, Sam also enjoyed the sense that there was only the thinnest membrane between him and the plains of blanched shrubs and low yellow grass that stretched out to the horizon in all directions.

“Are you from the south, originally?” Marvin said.

“Oh, no, I was just hanging out there. I’m from New York.”

“New York City?”


“Oh yeah? Why did you leave?”

“I guess twenty-six years seemed long enough.”

“That simple?”

“Pretty much. I had a shit job as a paralegal for two years after college—good money, but a shit job.”

Just two small mistakes, but Sam was annoyed with himself: never complain, unless they’ve already complained, and then you commiserate, just a few words; and never swear first.

“I hear that,” Marvin said. “You don’t need to tell me about lawyers. I could tell you about some fucking lawyers.”

“Yeah, seriously. But I had loans and it paid well, so I did it for as long as I had to. And then I left.”

“You just left. That’s great. To be able to just leave.”

“Well, no wife, no kids, and I don’t mind couches and hostels. I didn’t have a car, so just buses and hitchhiking—which is fun.” Sam never complained about hitchhiking. “When I run low on cash, I stop and do some temp work—paralegal, clerical, whatever. I pack a couple button-downs and slacks. Work for a few weeks and move on. If it’s someplace fun like Miami or Austin, a few more weeks.”

“And that’s it? You’re just going?”

“For now. I’ll stop at some point, but not yet.”

“How was Miami?”

“Really good. I was there for a while. My friend has a brother in the Coast Guard, and they had him in a one-bedroom right on South Beach. I was on his couch for a few days, and then he got restationed to Maryland. There were two months left on his lease, so he just gave me the keys.”

“Ahh man … stationed in South Beach.”

“Yeah, seriously.”

“Jesus. Army put me in Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, Bahrain, Germany, C.A.R., Italy, Korea, Panama—too many. They sent me fucking everywhere. But not South Beach.”

“Woah, I knew they moved people around, but I didn’t think it was quite—“

“It isn’t. You go where they need you, and I trained guys, so they needed me everywhere.”

“What kind of training?”

“Self-defense, hand-to-hand combat.”

“Oh, intense. But not now?”

“Mmm, that’s the question. I don’t think so. Now I’m training guys here.”

“You mean private companies?”

“Nah, I train fighters, MMA.”


“Yeah, I got a few guys, ex-Army, one Marine. And I fight too.”

“Oh wow, how does that work?”

“We’re a team, D.E.S.T.R.O.Y. Inc. Though we might change it because I can’t figure out what the letters should stand for. Too long, you know?”

“Mmm, maybe.”

“There are circuits. You have to jump through some hoops to get sanctioned. Permits and licenses.” And rules, Sam thought. And a ring and a ref. Not an underground fight club. Good. “We’re just getting started, still working out the details. But there are open tournaments too. So you do that, get some matches, build a reputation, a war chest for training.”

“How are you doing?”

“Well, like I said, we’re just getting started. So far it’s just me and Ray fighting. The others aren’t ready. Ray’s doing all right. Needs to get smaller, faster, drop a class. I’m 19-0, though only eight matches count towards my record. It’s kind of bullshit—bullshit and paperwork.” He shook his head. “I’ll have another pile waiting for me when I get back from Tacoma tomorrow. But we’ll get there.”

“What’s in Tacoma?”

“More bullshit, that’s what,” Marvin said. “Bullshit and fucking lawyers is in Tacoma.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“You like music, Sam?”

“What? Oh, music, yeah, sure.”

“I want to put something on. You mind if I put something on?”

“No, definitely, I love music.”

“What kind do you like?”

“Oh, I like everything.”

“Everyone says that. What do you actually listen to? Or do you just turn on the radio?”

“Not really. I’ve been listening to a lot of old rock and blues, lately. Good road music. But I’m game for anything from hip-hop to classical.”

“Classical? Yeah, all right, you’ll like this.” Marvin flipped open the center console and withdrew a cassette tape adapter. Sliding it into the stereo and plugging the cord into the jack of his phone, he glanced down at the screen, moved his thumb around, and electronic music pounced from the speakers.

Amid the industrial grinding, blurting, spasming–where there might have been horns–Sam could hear method; each emission was in its own time, but they met every few seconds on the beat of a plastic drum machine. And then a beeping sound, like a truck backing up, out of place, just another gear for no reason. Finally, a horn blast, an actual horn, or a sample of an actual horn, signaling, drawing the whole mess together for another round. And again. Marvin looked over at Sam and shouted, Right?”


“You’ll hear it, just wait for it.” Marvin’s eyes were wide as he beat his chest in time with an open hand. “Okay!” he said. “It’s…yeah, here it is!”

And there it was: Pachelbel’s Canon, right out of a box, laid over the top of the mayhem like cellophane.



It went on for longer than Sam would have expected and moved directly into the next track, even faster, featuring the unmistakable sound of an air wrench and a pounding beat that made every surface of the car tremble, the blurred dashboard shimmering in the last of the sunlight. When it finally ended, Marvin turned off the stereo. Reaching across to the passenger side with one hand–“Excuse me.”–he opened the glove box and removed an Altoids tin.

“Okay if I smoke? I was going to roll a joint.”

“Oh, of course. Thanks for asking.”

With one hand, Marvin opened the hinged lid, displaying the shallow container’s contents: rolling papers, a small Ziploc bag of marijuana, and a lighter. Never taking his eyes off the road, he placed the tin on the flat surface in front of the gear shift, removed a double-wide sheet, and flattened it gently on his right thigh. Taking a copious pinch from the Ziploc, he gently gathered the finely crushed buds the length of the paper–only once glancing down to approve the distribution–picked it up, and started rolling. It was remarkable, with just three fingers, each the length of Sam’s whole hand, he swiftly formed a perfect cylinder. Twisting one end closed, Marvin had produced a stout, firm joint. He licked it, sealed it, and held it out for Sam.

“Oh, no thank you. Gotta say though, that was amazing.”

Marvin lit the joint and took a long drag. “This? A lot of long drives, I suppose.”

“No, really, I think that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Marvin laughed. “Yeah, I got pretty good at it. But I can’t roll for shit when the music is on. I get into it, you know?”

“Definitely,” said Sam. “So are you from Seattle?”

“Nah, just where I’m stationed at the moment. I’m from Kansas mostly, but Spokane for a few years now, whenever I’m back in the States.”

“Spokane, nice place?”

“Some people like it. My kids live there, and my ex-wife. She’s from there. It’s okay, but it’s not really for me.” He took another pull and nodded as he exhaled. “That’s a conversation we’ll have as a family. Soon.”

“How many kids?”

“Two, a boy and a girl.”

“Oh, wonderful. How old are they?”

“You ever been in the Army?”

“Sorry? Oh, no. No, I thought about it once, but no.”

“I can tell. No offense doesn’t mean anything, just I can always tell.”

“No, of course, none taken.”

“I only mean, you’re not a kid. You’re younger than me, but you’re a full man. But if you just graduated from college a few years ago…”

“Yeah, it took some time to finish school. I was working.”

Marvin nodded. “A working man, I respect that. So why Seattle now?”

“Well, I’ve been hiking backcountry for a while and just felt like it was time for a city again. And a girl I met in Clemson said I had to go to Seattle to see the clouds.”

“The clouds?”

“Yeah, she said they were like Tiepolo clouds.”

“Tiepolo, that’s a type of cloud?”

“Nah, a painter. He painted the sky a lot. I was going to go somewhere, so why not Seattle?”

“Just, why not?”


“It sounds great. It sounds like a great life.”

“Yeah, it’s fun. Even when I have to stop for a few weeks and paralegal, it’s okay because I know I’m leaving soon. But I don’t know, sometimes I feel like it was a life at some point, and now it’s what I’m doing instead of a life.”

Marvin nodded. “Introspection. I respect that. Shit, being around lawyers all day without going crazy? I respect that, too. That’s what the Army is now: lawyers. Lawyers and lawyers. Fucking lawyers. You can’t do shit unless an Army lawyer says you can. Stepped right into the chain of command, straight to the top. You know there are more lawyers in the US military than there are in the rest of the country?”

“Huh, that so?”

Marvin chuckled. “Nah, not really. I mean, I don’t know, but sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But sure seemed that way in Iraq.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

It didn’t. It was just something to say. “Oh, I don’t know, just—”

“Nothing makes sense over there. They’re animals. Just look what happened when we left.”

“Huh,” Sam said. Long ago he had mastered the sounds of neutrality: “huh,” “uh,” and “mmmm,” among others.

“There are good people over there too,” Marvin said. “But mostly animals.”


“What kind of birds are they, on your arms?”

“My arms? Oh, I don’t know. I just thought of them as blackbirds.”

“I was thinking doves, but you know, that’s kind of corny, right? You’re not a corny guy. They don’t look like grackles. Tails aren’t long enough to be magpies. I think larks. What do you think?”

“I never thought of it.”

“Thing is, I can’t picture larks in my head. I don’t know what they look like exactly, but did you know the plural for larks is exaltation?”


“Yeah. An exaltation of larks. Isn’t that beautiful? My son learned that in social studies.”

“Yeah, it is. I’ve never heard that.”

“Hundreds of years ago a poet just decided that’s how it was and it stuck. It makes them different from other birds, I think. What do you think? You think they could be larks?”

“I’ve never thought of it, but yeah, an exaltation on my arms—”

“An exaltation of larks.”

“An exaltation of larks on my arms. I like that. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Marvin said. “Just keep those fuckers jacked up. A lot of saggy-ass tattoos dragging around this country.”

“No doubt.”

As dusk receded, and with the moon tucked behind a thicket of clouds, the features of the landscape were reduced to their essential forms: a black line off the side of the highway, ahead—a small paved road, or gravel or dirt, curling, sloping down into the foreshortening darkness, toward or passed a huddle of small structures: a barn and sheds, or perhaps a church and adjacent residence, or a post office and storefronts. Sam had seen a sign a ways back, Green—something. Greensburg, Greensboro, Greenwood, Greenfield, Greenville—so many Greenvilles. The first roadside advertising. Good land here. Good grass. Good rainfall. Plant a crop, why don’t you. Settle down. Start a family. They might have been anywhere in America—and at any time. Without vehicles abutting or lit windows, only the utility poles, stringing electricity across the cooling plains, distinguished the cluster of buildings from ruins. And then they were gone, far behind, and all Sam could see was the broken white line running before them in the gleam of the old coupe’s headlights.

“You grew up doing this stuff? Martial arts?”


“Teach before the Army?”

“Nah, I started training men the first time I was overseas. It felt like, how could I keep that knowledge to myself when it might save their lives? Any time I wasn’t on duty, I was teaching. It was all bullshit, though.”

“How’s that?”

“No hand to hand in combat anymore.”

“Mmm. Guns and bombs.”

“Guns, rockets, missiles, bunker busters. Mines in the middle of the fucking road—not Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu. Military cares about hand-to-hand like they care about CPR training. Doesn’t do shit, but they say it empowers a soldier. Nah, I wasn’t teaching men how to fight.”

“So then?”

“I was teaching them to kill.”


“More precisely, I was teaching men to be able to kill.”

“Ah, I get it.”

“You don’t. No disrespect. I didn’t get it either. I thought I was hot shit, training guys on my own. Army taught me to teach better—efficiently. Give a soldier everything he needs, but only what he needs. They don’t have years to train. Don’t get me wrong, I did them right. It doesn’t mean shit in war, but you’d rather face five Rottweilers than any one of my students.”

“So then—”

“You know in World War II only twenty-five percent of M-1s were fired?”

“What’s that?”

“Only twenty-five percent of M-1s were fired in World War II. And the kill rate was nothing. All these soldiers, pure marksmen in training, couldn’t hit the side of a wall in combat.”

“Wow, that’s crazy. I never heard that.”

“It sounds impossible, but it’s true.”

“They know why?”

Marvin relit the joint, took a long pull, and then pinched it dead again.

“My wife’s a potter,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“Mattie, my wife. She’s a potter. Makes bowls, vases, other things—pretty good too.”


“She tried painting, watercolors, drawing. But it didn’t work for her. She said she couldn’t feel the paper. She needed to have her hands in it.”

“In it.”

“The first time she let me watch her, mmm… So beautiful. You ever see a woman play the cello? Just like that, her body around the wheel and hands on the clay. So everything you see on the bowls is her hands, is her fingers. Everything. This pure connection. I married Mattie five months after seeing her at the wheel that first time—I know it sounds crazy.”

“No, not at all.”


“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “Not when you’re in love. So your wife—sorry, did you say Mattie was your wife or your ex-wife?”

“Well, both, really,” Marvin said. “I mean, Mattie’s my ex-wife, but she’s still my wife, you know? That’s forever. Shit, don’t tell her that, though.” He chuckled. “Talk about lawyers. Nah, she doesn’t always understand. Sometimes… It’s complicated. But she knows. We can’t always be together, but she knows who she is. And she knows I’m her husband.”

“Yeah, definitely—so the combat training and M-1s and World War II, I don’t understand—”

“People don’t want to kill.”

“What’s that?”

“At first they thought it was just adrenaline and microtremors. But that wasn’t it. The problem was that the soldiers didn’t want to kill. So they didn’t fire at all or just aimed at the sky, most of them.”

“Really? That’s wild.”

“I was so moved, when I learned that,” Marvin said.


Ahhh, but the Army, smart motherfuckers. They spend all this time and money to find out that people are inherently good, truly God’s children. So what do they do? They spend more time and money figuring out how to break it, how to take the humanity out of people. And they did. Figured it out well enough by Vietnam to destroy a generation of men.”


“And we get better at it all the time. That’s why PTSD rates keep climbing, every decade.”

“I read that somewhere.”

“Detection is part of it,” Marvin said. “Better mental health awareness. But mostly it’s me.”


“Training. See, it’s like Mattie at the wheel, with her fingers in the clay, soldiers have to feel it. If you want a soldier to aim at center mass with calm hands and pull the trigger, first you teach him to grapple in the mud and choke a man to death.”


“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“What’s beautiful?”

“People,” Marvin said. “People are beautiful. At our core, in our genes, we’re not made to kill. Takes a guy like me getting up inside a man, ripping out all his goodness, dipping it in poison, and putting it back inside him. That’s how I make a soldier.”


“And I’m really fucking good at it. Tricky to mimic real combat conditions, but I have methods. Even created new techniques that became standard.”

“Like what?”

“Like men can do things with their teeth you couldn’t do with a hatchet.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“Nobody expects it, but the human jaw can bite with almost three hundred pounds of force.” He chuckled softly. “Remember to floss, Sam. Your teeth are your best friends. Take care of them and they’ll take care of you.”


“Amen. By the time I teach a man to use his teeth as easy as brushing, there’s nothing he can’t do. When he’s holding an M-4, he’s just a kid with a water gun.”

“Yeah. I see.”

“Yes. Now you do.”

Marvin tucked the half joint behind his ear. Then he rolled down his window to clear the smoke and Sam did as well. For half a minute there was only the roar of wind tearing through. He closed his eyes. It felt wonderful.

“I want to tell you something, Sam. Something I don’t tell anyone. I don’t know why.”

Sam did. He had heard many confessional stories from the passenger seat. Drivers would reveal to him what couldn’t be said to a friend or spouse. There was security in speaking with a stranger who would disappear forever at the end of the ride.


“I think…well, I don’t know exactly—but I know you’re here for a reason.”

“Oh yeah?”

“It’s not full yet, not clear, but I want to tell you this thing.”


“My first tour, in Afghanistan, I was a kid. Even with two kids of my own, I was a kid. I was so excited to get over there, to be a warrior. I had trained hard—hard. I felt like I could do anything. I had fucking claws and wings and fangs. The baddest motherfucker in the baddest motherfucking army in the world. No fear, no doubt.” He nodded. “From day one I was an effective soldier. Nothing could touch me. Nothing I saw. Nothing I did.

After, I went home, and I was fine. Some people have problems. Not me. Just happy to be with my family. I still trained, stayed strong. But relaxed. Played with my kids, took Mattie out to the movies, ate bacon double-cheeseburgers, watched the Jayhawks. Everything was okay, until a week before I went back. I was in the shower one morning and suddenly I started shaking, just shaking—my whole body trembling, and I couldn’t stop for I don’t know how long. I didn’t understand, I thought—I don’t even know. And then it came to me—I was terrified. And it didn’t make sense. It didn’t make any sense at all. I went for a long run, finally shook it. But it happened again that night, worse. Couldn’t sleep for hours. Again the next day, shaking, while I was sitting on the can. I thought, what the fuck was wrong with me? And it felt—it’s hard to feel like a man when you’re lying in bed, shaking, trying not to wake your wife. I couldn’t let her see me like that. Mattie didn’t marry a man who trembles. So the next day, I spent some hours meditating, just sitting on the rug in the living room, trying to clear my mind and let the answer come to me. And it did.”


Meditation, good. Not uncommonly, obvious remedies for what plagued a driver were contained within their confessions. And often enough for Sam, allaying their concerns was as simple as reminding them that they had been wearing ruby slippers all along.

“What I realized was, I wasn’t scared of dying or getting hurt. I was scared I was going to lose my soul over there. I’d get cut loose from God and become a monster. So I had this idea, and it seemed crazy, but I knew it wasn’t. So when Mattie was out, picking up the kids, I went to the pet store, bought a cat, brought it home, and I squeezed it to death in the kitchen.”

Oh fuck!”


“Oh fuck. Sorry, I’m just—”

“Nah, nah, it’s cool,” Marvin said. “I understand. I know what I did was awful. But I had to. I had to do something evil so I would know what it felt like—or if it wouldn’t feel like anything at all.”


“I did it slowly, skinny orange cat, looking right in its eyes the whole time—one hand around its neck, the other on its chest, so I could feel its heart stop. I didn’t even realize I was crying until after. Cat scratched the shit out of me, too. Didn’t even feel it. Watching its agony—it was in agony and—” He paused, mouth open. Then he took a deep breath. “It did. It hurt. Still does.”

Marvin stopped speaking, and Sam couldn’t fill the space. It took will enough to resist the urge to roll down the window, to force air into his lungs and get away from what was in the car.

“When it was over, I threw up, right there. Couldn’t even make it to the sink. But I—it was like I got all the poison out of me. Or something. Buried it back in the woods.” He took a deep breath and nodded once. “Evil, only word for it. A true act of evil. But I had to. It was necessary. I know it’s hard to understand. It’s okay if you don’t.”


“See, some people think soldiers get orders, so they don’t have to make decisions. All you do is make decisions. And you’re there in the first place because you believe, but you can’t just take orders on faith—or you can follow orders all the way to Nuremberg. Or My Lai. But for real, some shit in war can get tricky. And you never have the full picture. So no matter what, you better have your own moral compass. And because violence was always easy for me, I had to go deep to find mine. I did. And it worked. No more shaking after that. No fear. Last three days before I shipped out, I slept well, I played with my kids, I loved my wife. I was good to go.”

“So it worked. That’s good.”

“Yes. And now I understand why we’re here tonight.”


“You’re here to help me finish.”

“Finish? Finish what?”

“I told you I’m going to Tacoma tomorrow, but I didn’t tell you why.”


“They want to give me the fat boot.”


“Army—really Navy mostly. They want me out.”

“But you’re their guy.”

“Yeah. That’s why it’s not going to go down like it could go down, like some people want it to go down.”


“I’m their guy because there aren’t many of me, what I can do. It’s not like I’m the baddest warrior in the military—no doubt, I can throw down with anyone. But it’s a big military. There are other guys like me in that way, for-real serious bad motherfuckers. But not many who can teach like me. And even fewer who can teach the teachers. That’s what I do. I teach combat instructors how to train their men.”


“So yeah, I’m their guy, true enough. Which is why I’m going to walk out of there tomorrow with a big fucking grin on my face—and I’m going to be stoned the whole time too because fuck them.”

“Oh. Hey, great.”

“The whole thing is bullshit. It’s because I fucked a guy up.”


“But I was in the right.”


“It was all on him. And over nothing—over pussy.” Marvin shook his head. “I was sparring at a gym off base with this cat, Naval pilot. God knows why his girlfriend was there.”


“And it was going fine, except his girl’s being all flirty with me. No joke, not even trying to hide she wanted me to fuck her. Fucked up, right?”

“Yeah, for sure.”

“So I’m working with her man, and this cunt’s working me, right in front of him. Way out of line. But not my place to say, right?”


“He didn’t say shit, but I could see he was angry. Me? Respectful, didn’t encourage anything—no one could think I was. So we finish up, I give him a pound, turn around, and the motherfucker kicked me. I mean, his girlfriend wants to suck my dick so he comes after me? Fucked me up, fucked my shoulder all up. Almost a year and it’s still not right.”


“And with this, there’s no question. Uniform Code says, ‘Soldiers have the right to defend themselves against bodily harm.’ So I did. And I ruined him.”


“Fuck it. I gave the U.S. military over two-hundred master instructors—that’s tens of thousands of soldiers. I took back one.”


“But the thing is, I get to the hospital for treatment, and the blood tests showed oxy and weed in my system. And that makes it complicated. Fuck a man up, there are questions. Fuck him up, ‘under the influence,’ and it’s a crime.”

“Doesn’t seem right.”

“Right? That’s what I’m saying. I go for months at a time practically no breaks, flying all over the fucking world, to train their men up. You take a pounding. Imagine NFL players going at it like Sunday, five days a week. That’s my life for nine years, and they’re going to give me shit about what I need to heal my body? Fuck them.”

“No doubt. So…Tacoma?”

Shit, Tacoma nothing.”


“Not a goddamn thing. I’ve got support, all up the line, officers who know me and what I’ve done for this country. So I’ll be fine tomorrow.”


“Yeah, but I’m out. Fucking Navy, they like their pilots. Want me locked up for twenty years. Tough shit. They can’t touch me. But I’m out.”


And I’ll get my honorable discharge. But no pension. Just thirteen years.”

Oof. But still, it sounds pretty okay, right? Now you can do anything you want.”

“Yeah. I guess. I’m making some money. Shoulder doesn’t limit me, just makes me fight meaner.”


“But like, that’s it? Fighting’s fun, and it’s an honorable living—but the Army meant something. Now… Maybe, I don’t know, maybe bring Mattie and the kids out west? Seattle’s cool, right? Got those clouds.”

“Right, definitely. That sounds like a great idea.”

Marvin didn’t respond, so Sam silently sifted through what he knew of Seattle—rain, hills, Needle.

“No,” Marvin said. “It’s not going to work. Even if I could…be okay with it, MMA’s not big in Seattle, not yet. If it was just me, fine, but with my family—for breadwinner money, you need to be in L.A.—maybe San Diego, they’re coming up.”

“I hear San Diego is great.”

“But really, ah fuck it.” Marvin shook his head. “I’m fooling myself. None of this matters anymore.”

“Wait, why not? Why wouldn’t it matter? San Diego, now that sounds like a great—”

“I tell you, man, I’ve been fighting so long. My whole life, the solution to anything that came at me, muscle up.” Marvin suddenly flexed his arms and tightened his grip on the wheel until his forearms quivered with effort. “Bear it, fight it. But this time, this last thing—gotta say, it hurts. And after I gave my whole life to them. It makes me feel like, fuck it, I don’t want to fight anymore. I just want to let go.” Marvin released his grip on the steering wheel with both hands, so that only the lower portion of his palms maintained contact, holding the car steady.

Woah Marvin, woah, wait, wait, wait just—I mean, just, woah, yeah, right? I mean, there’s, because, like, there’s all this—hey, you know I really hear San Diego is greatreally great!”

“Hmm, yeah, I’ve heard that too.” Marvin smiled slightly and again took hold of the steering wheel. “Everyone says that.”


“You know, I was trying to convince myself it could be ok,” Marvin said. “Not just now, I mean, all week. I can focus on building my team. Be with my family.”

“Right, exactly!”

“Mmm, nah. I’ve played it all out in my head, again and again. Even tonight, just talking it through with you—it’s been clarifying. I appreciate that. It’s why you’re here, why we met.”

“Totally, I totally get it. That’s why I’m here, so we can clarify, right? Let’s keep clarifying.”

“I feel like I understand why everything’s been so exhausting. Because in the end none of this earthly shit matters, you know? He’s got a plan, and that’s all there is. That’s the truth of it, the whole point, just to understand what His plan is for you, and I have. I’m done my work, and now I’m just tired of this shit.”

“But it all sounds good, what you’re telling me. Everything you’re telling me, it all sounds really good. There’s nothing—tired of what? Everything’s great!”

“Man, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. Maybe the Navy’s right. I’m just—you know, we lost 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam. They lost two million—and they won. I just mean whatever happens in your life, dying isn’t the same as losing. You learn that as a soldier.”

“But—San Diego!

“What about it?”

“Marvin, I think San Diego’s the way to go, definitely. I mean, you should at least try it. So like, after tomorrow you should—in fact, even better, why not tomorrow afternoon? Just because it’s nice to have something nice right after some annoying bullshit, right? So let’s see, let’s figure this out. In the morning there’s Tacoma—fuck Tacoma, whatever. So Tacoma, right? Then you drive back up to Sea-Tac, catch the first flight down to San Diego and just look around and see if it’s right for you. Spend a few days. I hear the zoo is amazing, right? So then if you like it, you can fly your family down and take them around, go to the zoo. Because why not, right? Take a little vacation together. Or—oh wow, even better, you could have them come out to meet you in Seattle and drive the long way down. You ever go down the coast on Route 1? It’s gorgeous. It’s like, I mean, it’s why Americans went West, right? You’re right on the Pacific. Just right on the Pacific. And let me tell you, the sunset setting behind the Pacific, just beautiful. And then spend the night in Monterey. There’s the aquarium there! It’s beautiful. Not the building, but inside the building, they have—fish, a lot of fish. And turtles—big turtles. Also these jellyfish—they’re wild, like balls of light floating around in nightgowns. And seahorses and seadragons that look like little horse dragons. Your kids’ll love it! And there’s Hearst Castle somewhere, which is what Shangri-La is based on—or Xanadu rather, from Orson Welles. They’ll love that too! Then there’s Carmel, which has this great art scene, all this sculpture, and pottery, so—and there’s Big Sur and Point Reyes, or Lobos, ooh so beautiful! Just the whole thing, something your kids’ll remember for the rest of their lives, the whole trip. Yes, this is gonna work, that’s the way to do it. Fly down to San Diego tomorrow, check it out, then fly back to Seattle, meet with your family. Next day you all drive all down. And—oh, and in between L.A. and San Diego there’s Laguna Beach, which I’ve heard of, and it’s supposed to be really nice—they even made a TV show called Laguna Beach. And hey! If you get to San Diego early enough in the day, you guys could hit the zoo in the afternoon and then catch a Padres game! How about that, a real cherry on the top for your kids, and—”

“Do you know Schubert?”


“Schubert. The composer. You said you like classical music.”

“Schubert? Oh, Schubert, yes! I fucking love Schubert! Do you love Schubert? I bet they have great Schubert orchestras in San Diego!”

“I didn’t. I’d never heard of him.” He took up the last of the joint and held it up. “Want to hit this?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Yes, you are. No doubt.”

“Yeah, and you know it occurs to me, I actually think San Diego is kind of famous for their orchestras and concert halls—tons of Schubert.”

“I heard this track last week and it just blew my mind. It’s called Death and the Maiden. You ever heard of it?”

“Absolutely! One of my favorites,” Sam said. Also the only one he knew.

Ah ha!” Marvin, suddenly excited, grinned and slapped the dashboard, startling Sam. “See, I knew it. I knew you would. That’s what I’m saying, right?”

“Right! Yes! What do you mean?”

“I’m saying, how many fucking guys you meet–just random shit–at a fucking truck stop, and you both dig the same music? I mean, not some radio shit everyone listens to, but the exact same music that practically no one listens to. The exact same song?”

“Right. Right!”

“This is confirmation, Sam. You were meant to be at the truck stop. I was meant to give you a ride.”

“Right! Confirmation?”

“So last week, I was driving and turning the dial on the radio and just…boom, right there, on NPR, this amazing sound, like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was right at the start of the second part. You know what I’m talking about?”

“Yeah—with…the strings.”

“Exactly! Suddenly I didn’t even remember where I’m going or what I was doing. It didn’t matter, I just had to hear this. So I pulled over by the side of the road and listened. It was everything I’d been thinking and feeling. Everything. It was the Army, Mattie, my kids, my shoulder, all of it, right there.”

“Right, okay, right.”

“Listening to it, somehow I knew, something’s going to happen. I don’t know what, I don’t know anything, just something in the music. Got me so excited, chills down my back, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for.” Sam didn’t either. It had been years since he’d heard the quartet. Back when he had CDs: Only the Best of Bach, A Rough Guide to Romanza, Classics of Classical, If It Ain’t Baroque. “I thought I heard it, but it was gone so fast. And then again and gone, back and forth, and I’m getting anxious—I needed it, whatever it was. But it felt good, too. Needing makes you alive, you know?”

“Yes, alive.”

“I felt alive. And right when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, it suddenly got really intense, and loud—the violins get louder and louder and then boom! It happened! Everything was together, all at once, and it was perfect! It was perfect. Nothing’s perfect, but this was. It felt so good, I was so filled with everything.”

“When the cello comes in.”

Yes! You heard it too!”

“It gets louder and louder, then the cello comes in, and boom, fireworks.”

Yes!” Marvin slapped the dashboard. “Yes! Ah ha! Tell me—tell me you aren’t supposed to be sitting right where you’re sitting, right now, in this car on this road, at this time, talking with me about this shit!

“Yes. Yes! Yes, I am!”

Sam the man. Sam the man.


“Oh, shit, I tell you. Aw, yeah, now we definitely gotta listen to it.”


“But first, I have to tell you what I found in it—you’ll hear it, too.”


“See, I read about it online. Did you know Schubert wrote this when he was dying? These were his last four quartets. How beautiful is that?”

“Yeah, really.”

“It’s actually sad at first because it’s about Death coming to take the Maiden, and about how she doesn’t want it, and she’s fighting it.”


“Yeah, you can hear it, the way the music comes together and goes apart. Like sometimes she’s fighting Death and sometimes she’s dancing with him—right? And all the time she’s getting closer to Death and doesn’t even realize it. And then she does, but it’s too late, she can’t fight anymore. And it’s okay because in her heart she knows it has to happen. Death is a part of life. You can hear it when she gives in. The music gets soft like she’s getting weaker, and weaker. And then she’s done. She lets go. It’s beautiful, to be able to do that.”


“But then the music picks up, gets loud, and right at eleven minutes it happens, that perfect moment when everything comes together, and then boom, there He is—God in full, revealed to the Maiden. That sound, that perfect part, that’s her reward. For doing her service to God on Earth, and then letting go when it was time. And then the music comes apart so sweet, as her soul flies up.”


“I know, right? I’m not talking—I mean the Bible can suck my dick, the Koran too. I’m talking about divinity, right? With music, there’s no translation, you hear it directly, the direct forces, you know? Right from the source, the stream, the artery—drinking it straight from the heart.”

“Mmm, yeah.”

“That’s that real shit, that old-time religion.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And not even the God my grandmother prayed to for eighty-five years. I mean the God she found in her last minute, like the Maiden, when all that other bullshit was washed away and it was just Him and her—that God.”


“Then it hit me.” Marvin lowered his voice, almost a whisper.

“What did?”

“I realized, all along it wasn’t just Death and the Maiden who were fighting and dancing—God was there the whole time. Because Death is just God guiding you home. God is Death. See? All the time the Maiden’s dancing, it was God, killing her.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Yeah, sounds different that way, right?”


“And you know what?”


“The timing, it’s perfect, tonight. You and me, we’re joined.”


“And it makes sense.” Marvin nodded. “It really does.”

“What does?”

“My sins. I gave the army thousands of soldiers. Took good, decent men and ripped their souls apart, so they could kill on command. And they do. My work’s killed more people than I can imagine. And I knew it. I knew all along what I was doing. And I kept doing it—because I liked it. I liked teaching. I liked making monsters with people inside. And I don’t even feel guilty about it—even right now, at the end. I don’t know what that makes me. But it’s something…not right.”

“But that doesn’t—”

“For my sins, it’s only fair. So God sent you to ride with me tonight, so we could do this together.”

“Do what, Marvin?”

“I’ve done all the work the Army needs from me, dropped my evil seed all over the world like Genghis Khan. And now my task is done. It’s time to go home”

“But Marvin, what do you—”

“Let’s listen to the music.” Marvin touched the screen of his phone and the four musicians began to play.

At first, Sam could barely hear it, the quiet stirrings, the initial trepid bowing, above the ambient noise in the car. The subtleties of the opening bars were lost. But then in one full drawn motion, the music escalated and filled with anxiety. And then speed. And more. Then the violence. The threat of discord emerging, of everything falling apart—almost. But then the sounds were gathered and mastered. Sam listened carefully, as though the music would instruct him. So many times, it would climb and almost take shape, before abating, until Sam thought he couldn’t take it anymore. And then it happened, just as Marvin had said. It might have lasted twenty seconds, so full, so entirely complete—layered, entwined, but each instrument was distinct as they slid across each other. It was perfect. And then the quartet let go, burst apart, gaily cheering their own success. And Sam was overcome, exhausted, feeling nothing but that he was entirely inside the gale. Then it was over, and before the next part could begin, Marvin touched the screen.

“Beautiful,” he said. “Isn’t it?”


“It makes me so emotional. I haven’t even listened to the rest of it. Just that second track over and over.”

“You should listen to the rest of it. Should we listen to the rest of it?”

“I was a teacher, Sam, a leader of men, and I didn’t protect my students from destroying themselves. Time to pay up. I just have to hope when I’m through, God’ll forgive me. And if not, then that’s His plan and I have to accept it and—”

Well, wait, hold on Marvin, that’s…see Marvin, I can see where you’re coming from, with that, I definitely do. I understand. I understand how on a certain level, I can see how there’s an argument—an interpretation. But something you also have to consider—”


“See there are different interpretations that you have to understand fully before you can fully understand everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you don’t have it yet. That’s why I’m here, that’s why He put me here—so we can figure this shit out together. Because I hear it! You called it right, He’s in there, in the music. But it’s one thing to hear His voice, a whole other thing to understand what He’s saying, right? People spend their whole lives trying to understand His—His will, and we’re trying to do it all tonight?”

“I’ve tried, man. I’ve listened over and over and over again.”

But we haven’t even listened to the whole thing. How do you know there isn’t more in the rest of it?”


“And even what you have listened to, Marvin, I’m hearing things I don’t think you’re hearing.”

“Like what?”

“Like a lot of things. Like, I mean there’s so much, like—oh, did you know it wasn’t even called Death and the Maiden until after he died? By someone who never even knew him?”

“But Wiki—”

Notoriously unreliable on classical music. No, no, no, that title’s just bullshit commercialization by publishers and lawyers—fucking lawyers! Just trying to sell sheet music. It’s actually just called The Four Quartets. I mean, Schubert was dying, right? You have time to fuck around with titles when you’re dying? That bullshit title was never Schubert’s intention. Instead, to get it right, to really understand the music, we just have to—no words, right? No translation, like you said. You just have to listen and feel it—just the music, Marvin, just the music. Ignore all that other shit. And tell me, what do you have when you just listen to the music? What do you really feel, in your heart? What does—I mean, what’s in your soul?”

“You mean, I hear…God.”

“Yes! Exactly! Exactly right! And what do you know?”

“What do I know?”

“Yeah, like the way philosophers, you know—knowing and knowing, right? Philosophers like Gandhi and Moses and Aquinas. And you know what Aquinas said?”

“No, what did he say?”

“He said, I’m just saying, if you want to start with a good place to start, think about what he said, right?”

“What did he say?”

“Multiple worlds! Theoretical infinite universes! Yes, Thomas Aquinas! Way before his time, Aquinas. It was like, he said that because the universes, because they’re infinite, everything that can happen happens, and because God is who He is–he’s God–we know we’re living in the best one, the best dimensional vortex. Aquinas said–it’s especially beautiful in Latin–he said, to quote in translation: ‘I don’t always know how to please You, Lord, but I want to and I know You know it. And I don’t always understand, but that’s why I believe, so I’ll just go with my heart to guess which of the infinite universes and multiple dimensions You have created is the true and righteous path for us, Your children, and that all is bound by Your love in peace and harmony.’”

“He said that?”

“He did!”

“That’s beautiful.”

“Fuckin’ A yes it is! Aquinas was a genius. And that’s why I’m here, so we can listen together to the stream of the river of the core of the artery—of the heart. And we have figured it out, Marvin, we have!”

“We have?”

“Yes, yes we did! This music, it’s kind of like—it’s really like, like a love song between Schubert and his Maker.”

“Huh. How’s that?”

How? How is—it’s because you can hear it. You know what I mean, that feeling that something’s going to happen, right?”


“Yeah, and Schubert’s not just giving you a little sip from the source. As you said, he put everything in this one. He’s saying fine, fuck it, you want the sublime, I’ll give you the sublime—and I’m going to show you how I made it, too. So he lays out all the different parts, right? You can see all the pieces. And he lets you listen to him building, building, building towards it—getting close, slipping back, trying again, and you get nervous like he might not make it.”


“But then you start getting these hints like holy fuck he might be onto something.”


“And then it gets quiet, so you can hear him, and Schubert says: do you understand, now? Do you see what it takes? The terrible risk, trying with everything he’s got to create the sound of God with some fucking wood and string and getting nothing? He’s saying thanks for the support, folks, but let’s be serious, it doesn’t matter where you’re going if you never get there.”

“Oh, snap.”

“That’s right, but he says fuck it, and takes the plunge—and it’s wrenching, listening to him work, a feint here, a try there, stick and move, stick and move.”


“And then he goes for it! Throws everything at you! And it’s big, fucking big! Almost everything, almost complete, and you don’t even realize that’s it not everything until the moment—”

“The cello comes in,” Marvin whispered.

Yes! Right! Exactly! All the pieces! Everything together! And just like that, he has shown you what God sounds like!”


“And what is it? What does He sound like?”

“What? Like…what?”

“It’s—Marvin, it’s everything together, the balance. Four instruments, perfect harmony, everything balanced together.”


“Because harmony is balance right? And controlrestraint.


“Like, if the violins went off and did some crazy violin shit, what the fuck is the viola going to do, right?”


“They could go all nutty and bust everything up if they can’t stay in control—and God didn’t give unto violins to bust shit up, right?”

“Right, right.”

“Because music is creation, Marvin, always creation—never destruction. Violins don’t get to choose—”

“God chooses.”

“That’s right, Marvin! And Schubert’s got that shit locked down—violins, viola all under control, holding on, holding on, just a few more seconds. And then the cello comes in and there He is.”


“It’s all about the harmony, Marvin. Even Schubert couldn’t do it alone, right? He needed the musicians—their hands, right? Their hands on the wood, fingers on the strings like—like Mattie’s fingers in the clay.”


“You’re a creator Marvin, a teacher, a leader of men—”


“Marvin the leader of men, with hands to mangle evil, but the heart, the heart to restrain yourself, to stay in control. Always in control! Other strong men destroy, Marvin. But not you. You never fight to destroy. You fight to create!”


“Marvin the motherfucking warrior ninja for God and country, leader of men.”


“Do you see how it all makes sense, Marvin? How it all fits together?”

“I think so. I think I do.”

“Yes, you do! Why were you put on this earth, Marvin? Instructor Marvin, teacher Marvin.”

“I teach. I lead.”

“That’s right! That’s our work, Marvin. That’s our task—getting you back on that path.”


“Tell me, do you believe it?”

“I believe it.”

“So what do you need, Marvin? What—who needs a teacher?”


“Right! And you don’t need the Army to find students, Marvin. Just keep kicking ass in the ring and they’ll find you, your students, your flock—your exaltation.”


“No randomness, Marvin.”

“Yes! Yes, I see it!”


It was awfully generous, but Sam really didn’t need a place to crash. Marvin had already been so kind. Sam could find his way to a hostel—he’d take an Uber. It was too late, Marvin said. Sam would never get into a hostel at that hour. He would end up sleeping at the Greyhound station or a McDonald’s. No sweat, Sam said. He had done it before. He was grateful for the offer, but he just couldn’t put Marvin out. Additionally, he snored like he was revving up a chainsaw. But it was no problem. Marvin assured him, it would be his pleasure. Anyway, Marvin could sleep through anything smaller than an M2 Browning—and he had plenty of space.

It was true. Marvin’s one-bedroom apartment was on the twenty-third floor of a high rise. In the foyer, they removed their shoes and walked into a large open living room.

“I hope you’re not allergic to cats?”


“Good.” Marvin nodded towards the fat, long-haired calico ignoring them on the loveseat. “Matilda pretty much runs the place.”

Down from the loveseat was an L-shaped couch, the shorter side extending almost to floor-length windows that spanned half the room. A sliding glass door led to the patio, from which Marvin had an unobstructed view of the Space Needle and the black water behind it. The wall opposite was lined with three tall, matching bookcases, almost full. To one side of them was a hallway, down which Sam could see two open doors to the bedroom and the bathroom; on the other side was an eat-in kitchen. On the walls were several photos. There was Marvin’s wife in a hospital bed with a baby swaddled in pink in her arms. There was Marvin, much younger, smiling, each of his children perched on a shoulder, secured by his enormous hands. There was his daughter a few years later, on stage in a purple tutu: the Sugar Plum Fairy, with several little Dew Drops about her in pink.

“Let me get you some sheets,” Marvin said. “And I might have an extra pillow.”

“I’m okay with anything. Thanks.”

Marvin went down the hall, calling over his shoulder: “Beer and water in the fridge. You’re welcome to anything else in there, but smell it first.”

“Thanks.” Sam went to the windows and looked out at the night, clear and expansive, the cloudless sky.

Marvin returned with a stack of folded sheets, a blanket, a quilt, and two pillows. He put them on the couch and walked over to the bookcases. “I have something for you.”


“Yeah.” Marvin withdrew a large hardcover from a top shelf. “I want you to have this,” he said, handing it to Sam.

The cover read: The 800 Methods.

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

“This has eight hundred deadly moves,” Marvin said. “It’s the most comprehensive monograph on the subject. Most of the strikes kill with one blow, once you master them. I’ve dog-eared some of my favorites. It’s actually padded with a few techniques that are hard to use outside laboratory conditions. But they’re still good to know.”

“You don’t need it?”

“Nah, do ‘em in my sleep. You take care of it, it’s gotten me out of some real jams.”

“I will. Thank you, Marvin.”

“Absolutely. Thank you.” He turned and went into the kitchen. “Take a load off. I’m going to grab a beer and then I’ll get down the air mattress. You want one?”

“Great, thanks.”

“By the way,” Marvin called from the kitchen, “the line, it’s not Aquinas. It’s Merton.”

“I’m sorry?”

“No need,” Marvin said, returning with two bottles. “The line is: ‘I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.’ That’s Merton.”


“Thomas Merton.” Marvin smiled and pulled the cap off one bottle with his fingers, handing it to Sam. He placed his own on the bookshelf and turned to face his guest. Looking up, holding his hands out, Marvin closed his eyes and recited: ‘My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you.’” He opened his beer, and they toasted.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes. It is.”

Marvin took a swig, then placed the bottle on a coaster on the coffee table. “If you’ll excuse me, gotta wash up.” He waved towards the couch, the kitchen. “Have a seat, a snack, relax, whatever you like. Don’t take any shit from Matilda.”

He didn’t. Nor did Sam take The 800 Methods when he slipped out of the apartment some hours before dawn, leaving a note: “Marvin, thanks so much. But books are heavy and I travel light.”


About the writer:
Michael Mandlin is working on his first novel and serves as the Fiction Editor for Consequence Journal. “Larks” is his first publication.

Image: Macaroon [detail] by Kit Williams (contemporary). Oil on canvas(?) No size specified. No date specified. By free license via Tigerfry.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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