“The Nest of His Love” – Fiction by Jon Savage

Kennedy Motorcade - Audrey Flack, 1964
Kennedy Motorcade – Audrey Flack, 1964

A boy navigates early-60’s America raised by his damaged veteran father in “The Nest of His Love,” Jon Savage‘s exquisitely brutal contribution to our Winter 2016 issue.

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’62 was the year My Old Man retired from the Army, and without the daily routine of the service, he took up a series of habits—wrapping his lips around a bottle of hard liquor like he puckered-up for a kiss; cleaning his pistol during the night’s late hours in the strobing light of our color TV while telling a story about the wars that still raged in his mind; and last of all—smoking through packs of Embassy’s, complaining about their new filtered cigarettes, about how he had to try too hard and always got too little.

A Mode of Crisis

Near the end of ’62, My Old Man talked about the Russians a lot. He went on about Soviet Scud-A missiles and the spread of Red across hemispheres. He drank beer and screamed at the nightly newscasts. Lost control and waved his pistol around while shouting, You think Stalin is dead, you mother fuckers between puffs of his Embassy’s.

Then, in October, it happened. The face of John Fitzgerald Kennedy flashed across our television screen. He talked like a steady drum. He said the Soviets were moving missiles.

My Old Man never stopped to say I told you so. He took a series of precautions that bled into the rules of our home, all in the case of disaster. My Mother was required to keep a certain ration of canned goods in the cabinets. We kept our shoes lined up near the front door. He backed the Buick into the driveway any time he returned from the hardware store to pick up more matches and candles.

This went on for almost two weeks—our family halfway out the door with cans of peas and navy beans in the crooks of our arms. My Old Man would run into the house with a whistle clinched between his teeth, blowing his alarm for an evacuation. He screamed like a gym coach. He yelled for us to move our asses as we hustled out the door cradling blankets and jugs of water.

And when the three of us were packed away in the Buick, My Old Man would put the keys in the ignition, check his watch, and say, That was slow. Lucky for us it wasn’t real.

A War Story

He said he’d seen four big, borsch-eating Ivans rip a Jerry limb-from-limb after the Kraut sonofabitch was found snoring-drunk in a liberated Belgium brothel. They tried to weasel some information out of the poor bastard, but the Kraut was drunker than a skunk, and the Ivans didn’t speak a lick of Deutsch. They put the Jerry’s own P38 to his head and shouted Roosky like it would make a difference.

They kept straight faces as they stripped him naked and dragged him through the street. They announced him to the freed citizens and the soldiers, paraded him around for the Belgians and the Tommies and the Americans and the other Ivans to spit on and kick. They threw him in the farm mud. Pushed his face in it. They rolled him around in it til he was coated with pig shit. They beat him for hours, til they got tired of playing around. Then they took hold of the Jerry’s arms and legs.

Rooskies had the biggest hands. Bear hands. Fingers swollen with hatred for the Nazis. They pulled the Kraut in separate directions like a wishbone. It was a literal Tug-of-War.

The Rooskies sometimes lost their grip ‘cause of the mud and shit on the Jerry’s arms, but they would quickly pick him up again. Over and over the naked Kraut was flung about like a ragdoll. The skin at the Jerry’s shoulders and hip turned translucent white from the opposing pressures. He would have screamed but his face was so swollen his lips would not budge. Blood trickled from his eyes and dried on his cheeks in red lines.

Grunts—that was the noise. The Rooskies grunted. Heaving. Huffs of Communist breaths. The sounds of young men hard at work, deep in the act of killing. A soundtrack to war.

And it wasn’t the Jerry’s shoulders or hip that broke first. It was the weaker tendons—the ligaments in the knees and the elbows—that snapped under the skin. The Jerry’s flesh swole up purple and bruised, and for just a moment, in that split-second between the tearing of flesh and not-flesh, his face went from ghost-white to a painful, auburn brown like the life of a vegetable—blooming, ripening, and spoiling—all in an instant.

The sonofabitch popped. The crack of his bones was like rifle fire over an empty field. The Rooskies quartered the bastard with nothing but their bare hands. No ropes. No horsepower. Their grunts turned to deep, growling laughter, and they fell ass-backwards in unison, as if their laughs had knocked them over. But even after they rolled all afternoon in the mixture of muck and blood and their own amusement, the Rooskies had not finished their joke.

They tied a hammer into one of the Jerry’s lifeless hands and a sickle in the other. Then, they nailed the two together on a signpost near the liberated border. As a punchline. Or as a warning maybe.

A Murder in the Daytime

In ’63, My Old Man drove me to Dallas to see President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, so my first taste of Texas air reeked of oil and death.

My Mother wouldn’t go. In Germany, she’d seen enough of the damage caused when large groups gathered to praise one great man.

I remember the Buick’s front seat—the interior colored a sterile cream color, the sagging ceiling fabric, My Old Man’s ashes and cigarette burns littering the seats. My Old Man loved that car because My Old Man loved anything that could carry him to a world that wasn’t his own.

I remember those first seconds over the Red River, into Texas, when My Old Man kidded with me and told me to hold my breath, to take a little of Oklahoma with me into the Lone Star State. But I just opened up, excited about whatever new air would get into me next.

Dealey Plaza was the center of the world. The grassy knolls formed a bright symmetry, and the whole street was covered in collective chaos—a million minds forming a single idea about a single man. The tight-lipped, white-smiling image of a leader, built by the people, for the people.

Motorcycles roared down the road, and necks craned. Everywhere, eyes squinted through the sun. I felt the pressure of My Old Man’s hand in the small of my back, pushing me toward the front of the crowd that sweated and smoked and snapped cameras all around us.

Then, I saw it—the Lincoln Continental, a convertible. I looked back at My Old Man’s face, all fleshy and growing pudgier with his years and his delusions, all pitted from the cigarettes and the liquor, but smiling all-the-same. I knew that to him, the Lincoln alone made the three-hour drive worth it. My Old Man loved anything that could carry him far from where he was, and that Lincoln was pure, automotive mastery.

Then, I saw him—in the backseat with his hand in the hot hot air; his face was as big as the sun and so bright I couldn’t look at him for long; his whole, comfortable body was a composite image of a hundred-thousand eyes. I imagined the cells in his body were long lashes, batting against one another to create the humming shape of a man. Our Man. The man we created and lived for.

Jackie O could have never looked better, pink as the roses still growing along the knolls.

Then a bang. Like the sounds of bones breaking. It sounded as if someone lit a firecracker, but My Old Man knew the difference between an Independence-Day prank and the boom of a bolt-action rifle. I felt his hand on my back again, but harder, then the grip of his fingers, grabbing and pulling me up in the air, if not for safety, then for a better view. I’ll never know why he did that—put me on his shoulders like we’d finally gotten what we paid for.

Then there was another crack in the air, a snap in the American backbone.

All around, I saw men and women scream and run in different directions like cats in the rain, all of them without any destination beyond standing still. And closer—speeding faster still, along the curves of Elm Street that wrapped just in front of my own set of elevated eyes—John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s shining, stately grin, bored-through like someone had put a big-bitted drill to his temple, and I saw Jackie O’s pink pillbox hat splashed in screaming red.  John’s presidential blood. Everything fast-forwarded. I saw the whole world revolve, the endless, unknowable Earth occurring there, simultaneously. I saw what History would later only describe with books and with memories. I saw the still-life of America being drawn—in the immortal Kodachrome, in the collective lens of the public eye, in the cameras of the world, just shooting and shooting and shooting.

An Invisible Explosion

It was at dinner one evening when My Old Man heard it. Just feet away, in the living room. He screamed as if he’d been shot at again. He flipped the dining room table and told us to take cover. He said the shells were coming. He yelled German curse words to his imaginary enemies a room away.

I don’t know what he saw, peeking over the overturned table, but whatever war his mind waged must have been real to him because he sweated and beaded his eyes like our sofa was a range of mountains on the horizon, crawling with Krauts and turret guns.

My Mother crumpled into a sobbing heap in the corner.

The artillery blasts from Fort Sill pounded in the distance. The practice shells formed our echoing routine, that drum of war we’d never escape. They helped My Old Man realize his hallucination. The rhythms of violence forever ringing, invisible in his mind.

An SOS & a Punishment

The only thing My Mother rose out of her weeping swoon for was church, and every Wednesday night, she attended the potluck at our Lutheran Church. If I was lucky, My Mother left beef rouladen for My Old Man to heat up, but during those times I was unlucky, My Old Man had the occasion to cook dinner. He prepared what he called a Mess-hall Delicacy—SOS.

SOS stood for Shit On a Shingle.

Shit On a Shingle was ground beef in gravy slopped on burnt toast. My Old Man added his own secret spices, usually cigarette ashes and a war story sprinkled with bitterness.

One Wednesday night, I refused to eat the SOS. I kept my smug lips tight against one another. I wasn’t the obstinate type, just practical; it truly did look like shit that night.

My Old Man sat silent across from me at the dining room table. Just waiting. He once told me he’d waited days in the muddy pits of a French field. Just waiting for the Jerries to march through so his company could ambush them.

My Old Man smoked cigarette-after-cigarette, watching me like I was a bug scuttling across the floor. He squashed me with his eyes. Down on my plate, the beef relaxed into its congealing juices, the toast receded into its own black crispiness. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the mess up.

We stayed like that for an hour-and-a-half—my lips stitched together, My Old Man frowning through a wispy cloud of disappointment, and the SOS on the table between us.

My Old Man reached the filter of another Embassy and stamped it out, right into the wood of our dining room table. There was a sizzle in the hushed air. He reached across the table for his pack and opened it, only to find it empty. I watched his frown sink further down his face, if such a thing was even possible. He put the pack back down and rubbed his chin, running his nicotine-tipped fingers up and down along the curves of his scruffy cheek.

You got one more chance, he said.

I said nothing.

Get up and go wait in the living room, he said.

I figured I’d get the belt, but the punishment on my ass was nothing compared to the SOS in my stomach. I shuffled off to the couch and stripped down to my underwear, preparing myself for the flesh-reddening lashes of My Old Man’s leather belt, his snake-like switch, and without my pants, the couch’s rough fabric scratched against the scarred backs of my thighs, where My Old Man usually struck me under the guise of aiming at my bare behind.

In the kitchen, I heard him clanging with pots and pans. A moment later, the echo of his anger formed in the doorway. He held a cast-iron skillet in each hand. Two twelve-inch disks of gunmetal gray, nearly twelve pounds apiece.

Gimme your hands, he said.

I held my open palms in the air and My Old Man placed a skillet in each. The dark, forged grain felt coarse between my fingers. One still dripped grease from the SOS. The other was clean but still blackened with age.

Get up, My Old Man said.

I stood and he positioned me in the center of the room. I could barely hold the heavy skillets, and they hung low, dragging aside my ankles. Then My Old Man held his arms out wide, spread-eagle-like, and he told me to do the same. I tried, but my muscles burned with that first attempt, and I could only hold the skillets outstretched for a few seconds before dropping them to my side in a huff.

Put em up, My Old Man said.

I held the pans up once again, and they shook in the air as my arms fluttered like the wings of a fledgling bird in their strain against gravity. After some seconds, my arms fell to my sides.

Put em up and keep em up, he said.

So that’s how it went—sweat and agony bleeding into my eyes as I lifted the skillets over and again, punished second-by-second with the pressure building in my shoulders; the pans rose and fell like I flapped dense black wings. Wings too big for my body. My Old Man sat on the couch, nursed an Old Fashioned, and watched me until he heard My Mother pull into the driveway. Just watching me—his pleading baby bird—wobble and fall far from the nest of his love.

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Jon_S_Bio_PhotoJON SAVAGE is a writer from Texas and the recent recipient of a nationally-distinguished arts award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, in recognition of his short fiction. He currently lives in Brooklyn and is an MFA-candidate in Fiction at New York University. Jon enjoys the music of John Fahey, sunsets in the South, and a good pair of cheap sunglasses. The vignettes included in “The Nest of His Love” are excerpted from Jon’s novel-in-progress, The Rise & Fall of Sourdough.

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