I3 Mancilla

Before Uncle Angelo’s Z-28 skids to a halt I jump out the T-top. “Combat roll! Combat roll!” Uncle Angelo shouts. I hit the gravel and roll. I’m a paratrooper landing in enemy territory. Once he cuts the engine, Uncle Angelo slingshots himself out the driver’s side and combat rolls too. He dusts himself off and cradles his head in both hands. Twists back and forth like he’s working a rusted lug nut loose. He lets out a groan. “Good stuff, Maestro,” he says when he finally gets his neck to crack.
            I strap on my army surplus webbing. Pack a flashlight, a .45 cap gun, the wooden ninja sword Uncle Angelo made for me. He crams rations of peanuts into his fanny pack. It’s slung low off his hip like a gunslinger’s holster.
            We’d cruised up north to check construction on the new house he and his girlfriend bought. Raced the old state highway that snakes along the Fox River from Black Hawk up to the forested highlands of Salk Point. Uncle Angelo gunned every hairpin turn along the way and put as much faith in his hot rod’s fat racing slicks as the pine-scented Mary icon dangling from the rearview to keep us on pavement.
            Until it burned down, Uncle Angelo lived a block away from us at the Prospect Arms. WEEKLY RATES, CASH ONLY a sign taped to the front door of the hotel read. Now he stays at the Locust Street projects with his girlfriend. Her name’s Davina Kipka, and she’s beautiful like a cartoon. Sometimes she and Uncle Angelo take me out for White Castles. Davina usually pays. She makes good money dancing at Club Beiderbecke. Calls herself an “artist of burlesque.” Mom calls her a pole polisher.
Davina Kipka’s the most colorful thing about the Locust Street projects. Everything else is gray. The walls, the sooty windows, the doors. Uncle Angelo complained about living there after his apartment burned down. “I need a full palate, Maestro. I got an appetite for the entire spectrum of human life. I got powerful, Technicolor hungers, little man.” No two doors at the Prospect Arms were the same color. Whenever the cops bashed one in to cart out an expired wino or a crook with warrants, the building manager replaced it with whatever he could scavenge from Vargas & Sons Salvage.
            Green is the color of the day for our commando mission. The maples and elms are leafed-out. Spruce stands higher and the hills of Salk Point edge the sky. I’m in camouflage. Uncle Angelo wears a green T-shirt with the cracked and peeling words I AM THE IMPOSSIBLE spanning his chest.
            The mission is to make our way from the drop zone undetected all the way to the build site where half-framed houses bloom in crescents around cul-de-sacs like petals on asphalt sunflowers. Davina and Angelo’s house is an enemy missile base. We’re charged with stopping construction at all costs.
            Uncle Angelo tucks his jeans into his socks. “This is how we did it in the war. To keep the creepy-crawlies off our legs.”
“You weren’t in no wars,” I say and tuck my pants into my socks too. White tube socks with red stripes make me the medic for this mission.
            “Every damn day I march through the universe of battle, Maestro. Davina Kipka’s a war criminal. How else you think she got me to move up here? She lays the kretch on me, says, ‘Black Hawk’s no place to start a family.’ And when that don’t work she shimmies them glorious hips all night long until I throw in the towel.” Uncle Angelo makes a circle over his head. “Look at this place. Where’s the action? Where’s my spectrums?” He bobs and weaves and throws combinations at an imaginary opponent. Uncle Angelo used to box. Started out strong as a pro but never made it to the big time. He looks up at the spruce-lined ridge and takes a deep breath. “It’s a myth that women weaken legs. It’s our free will they work over.”
            All of a sudden he crouches down, gives me a commando signal to drop too. He tugs his ear then palms the ground. Whispers, “Enemy armor.” In the distance a convoy of dump trucks turns off the highway and onto the access road. The dust of a ghost infantry marches in the convoy’s wake. “Take cover, Maestro!” We roll to the side of the road and dive into the brush-covered culvert.
            “Sniper rifles,” Uncle Angelo says when the convoy comes within range. “Affix silencers. Clean head-shots, soldier.” He sights the cab of the first truck in his imaginary scope. Pulls back the bolt to load a round. Fires. “Fffft. Doosh” Reloads. Takes a second shot. “Fffft. Doosh.” Spit bubbles in the corner of his mouth when he makes the shooting and brain-splattering sounds. He flashes two fingers and gives a slit throat sign with his thumb, then I fire off three shots to take out the last of the enemy. We roll to the bottom of the culvert, and like nothing we’re on the move toward our target.
            Uncle Angelo’s on point, hacking his way through brush with the wooden ninja sword. I draw my .45 to cover him. He tamps down the brush as best he can, but branches whip me in the face and arms anyway. We creep through booby-trap burr bramble and thorny thickets. Battle clouds of mosquitoes. A dark oval of sweat forms on his back. “Nothin’s easy, Maestro,” he says in between whacks with the ninja sword. We slog through a flooded patch where Uncle Angelo sinks up to his ankles. The mucky, boot-shaped pools are landmines that I hop over. We climb the far bank of the culvert, take to dry land, and keep to the tree line. “It’s like Father Candeleria says, Maestro. Can’t appreciate the trees of the forest until we wander lost amongst them. Just like Jesus H. Christ.”
            Uncle Angelo started going to Mass with us not too long ago, because, if they ever get married, Davina Kipka says she wants a church wedding. It had been so long since he went to church that Uncle Angelo forgot what to do. He followed my lead on when to sit, stand, or kneel. One time I faked him out, pretended to stand when we were all sitting, listening to Father Candeleria’s homily. He shot up then popped back down. “You shit me good on that one, Maestro,” he whispered. Davina heard him and pinched his ear.
            The air in the shadow of the forest is cool on my sweaty arms. I cover Uncle Angelo’s ten o’clock with my pistol. He covers my two with his imaginary sniper rifle. In the distance, syncopated shots of carpenters’ nail guns pop off. Enemy fire. We take cover. Uncle Angelo dives into a patch of burrs. “Man down! I’m hit, Maestro.”
            When I belly-crawl over to him I can see he’s in bad shape, so I administer green M&Ms. “This big medicine,” I say like an Indian.  While he picks burr shrapnel out of his hair, I recon the perimeter.
            From the branch of a maple I can just make out the build site through the trees. Men climb on the skeletons of the houses like ants scavenging a carcass. Higher on the trunk of the tree is a patch of smooth flesh, the scar of a lightning strike. Someone’s carved BETH NEEDS TARANTULA 4 EVR in the center.
            I trace the grooves of the letters with the barrel of my .45 and dream of the spider tattoo that crawls up Davina Kipka’s thigh. A black widow with lips smacking a kiss, legs wrapping down around her calf and creeping up into the V of her bikini bottom. I saw most of it the time she and Uncle Angelo took me to the Wheelock Park pool. Uncle Angelo practiced jackknives and suicides off the high dive while Davina sunned herself near the shallows. Instead of diving with Uncle Angelo I suffered the piss-warm waters of the shallow end to be close to her. To memorize every last inch of that spider.
            To supplement our peanut rations I forage tiny, bright red berries. Uncle Angelo dares me to eat them. I chicken out. He chews a handful then spits them up. “Poison,” he says. “Sons a bitches sabotaged me, Maestro.” He grabs his chest and falls into the culvert.
            “Not gonna make it this time. Give this to my woman. Tell her I did the best I could.” Uncle Angelo tosses me his dog tags. We won matching pairs on the midway at Brother Underhill’s Big Top last year. He presents the wooden sword and salutes me. “Finish it,” he whispers, and I run him through. Stab the sword between his side and his arm so it looks true. When he goes limp I check his pulse to make sure he’s dead. I run him through one last time. He can’t come back. If I survive, if I get back home, I’ll melt down those dog tags and make a wedding band out of them. I’ll marry Davina Kipka and never speak of this mission.
            Nearby, cicadas wind up their buzzing mating calls. In a minute two stoned teenagers, enemy scouts, will ride by on their Huffys, make us, and laugh until they’re out of breath. Not long after that another convoy of enemy armor will pass, but I won’t get off any shots. In three years, after they’ve moved into their new house, Uncle Angelo and Davina Kipka will marry and divorce without ever starting that family. Many years later he’ll remarry, finally have kids of his own. By then I’ll have moved out of Black Hawk too. First to Chicago, then to Michigan to marry and lose a woman of my own. But now it’s time to abandon this mission and make for friendly territory. I pocket Uncle Angelo’s dog tags and soldier on through this green frontier.

Dan Mancilla lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan where he’s in the final year of his PhD in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s Fiction, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Monkeybicycle, and The Museum of Americana among others. “Prospect Arms” is a story from his book-length manuscript, All the Proud Fathers. You can read more about Dan and his work, here.