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Station 4. Jim meets his afflicted mother

Wood carving by Susan Hagen, story by Mike Walsh

Jim was an undergraduate art major at a large state college. However, he had to drop out after his second year when his mother, who paid most of the tuition, was laid off from her factory job. She went on unemployment, and since many of the factories in Jim's hometown had closed during the past few years, it wasn't likely that she would find a job anytime soon.

Jim's father had died when he was a child, and Jim felt responsible for his mother and was determined to support her. He decided to forget about art. Maybe he'd pick it up again later in life, but until then he couldn't even think about it. He had to earn a living, so he enlisted in the Army.

His mother was deeply religious, and she felt that the town's sinful nature had brought about its current economic hardship. She cited the thriving liquor stores, topless joints, family planning clinics, and adult bookstores. She decried the rise in drugs, prostitution, and abortion.

"With all the evil on the streets of this town, no wonder the property values are dropping twenty percent a year," she said in her quiet yet intense manner. "Instead of our children going to college, they join the Army. That's the punishment for our sins."

Jim was big and strong, so he didn't have much problem with boot camp. In fact, he enjoyed the military. It made him feel like he was doing something important. It also made him feel older. He was maturing, and he could see aspects of his mother's personality emerging in his-her seriousness, her sadness, her quiet nature. People always said he looked like her. When he looked in the mirror, he could see the resemblance.

One night a few weeks after completing boot camp, Jim went to the base canteen for a beer. He heard a sergeant lambasting a skinny recruit. The sergeant was screaming in the recruit's face and making him march from one end of the bar to the other.

"What do you have to say for yourself, you piece of shit?" the sergeant screamed.

"Uh-uh-uh-," said the recruit. He didn't look any older than seventeen.

A vein bulged on the side of the sergeant's neck. His face shook and turned red. "Twenty-five pushups, you maggot!"

"You don't need to be doing that," said Jim.

"Who in the fucking Sam Hill just said that?" the sergeant asked, wobbling on his feet.

Jim stepped down from his barstool and stood in front of the sergeant. "That's wrong, and you know it," he said. The sergeant was a big guy, but Jim could see that he was drunk.

"You dumbass shitbird, you're going to pay for that." The sergeant swung at Jim and missed, and Jim punched him hard on the side of his head. The sergeant rushed at him with his head down, but Jim nailed him flush on the nose with an upper cut. Momentarily stunned, the sergeant stood looking at Jim completely defenseless. Jim drilled him twice more with full, roundhouse punches, one to each cheekbone. The sergeant dropped to the floor.

Jim went back to the bar. The bartender gave him a free beer. Jim's knuckles throbbed. He knew he had knocked out at least one of the sergeant's teeth and had probably broken his nose. He was in big trouble. The Army didn't have much tolerance for privates beating the hell out of superiors.

The sergeant shook his head and pushed himself up to a sitting position. "Your ass is mine," he mumbled to Jim.

"You saw what happened," Jim said to the recruit. "He attacked me. It was self-defense."

"He didn't see anything," said the sergeant. "Did you?"

"No-no-no, I didn't see nothing," said the recruit.

"You've got to be kidding me," said Jim. He hurried from the bar, packed a few belongings, and left the base. As he drove through the gates he felt as if he had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced. He decided to enjoy his freedom while he could. He drove two hundred miles to the campus of the college he had dropped out of and stayed with friends.

After two weeks, he drove home. He had to tell his mother what had happened. He got there on a weekday evening, but his mother wasn't home. He sat in the quiet living room waiting for her.

She came in soon with grocery bags in her arms. She didn't act surprised to see him. Jim helped her put the groceries away. Afterward they sat down at the kitchen table with two ginger ales. His mother lit a cigarette.

"I went AWOL two weeks ago," Jim said.

"I know," she said. "Some Army guy called looking for you last week. Where you been hiding?"

"State college."

"I figured as much," she said. "I've been praying for you to come home."

He told her about the incident with the sergeant at the canteen.

"That's a crying shame," she said, and then neither of them said much for a while. They quietly sipped their drinks. His mother lit another cigarette. Jim looked at her face, but he couldn't read her. He had never been able to tell what she was thinking.

"You have to go back, you know," she said abruptly, "or they'll come and get you."

She closed her eyes and covered her face. Jim saw the cigarette shaking in her hand, but she didn't make a sound. When she moved her hands from her face, he saw that she was weeping.

"You're my flesh and blood, my only baby," she said flatly and took a deep drag on the cigarette. "I live and die with everything you do."

"They're going to dump me, Mom," Jim gasped, spasms coming to his throat. He laid his head on his arms. "He only got what he deserved."

His mother patted his head. "You never even had a daddy, did you, you poor kid. It ain't fair."

"Those bastards, they're going to dump me, Mom, and it wasn't my fault."

"Don't worry, Jimmie-boy," she said. "The Holy Spirit won't let them hurt anyone as innocent as you. I know He won't."

"You're wrong, Mom. I wish to heck you weren't, but you are. I have to pay for punching that sergeant. Simple as that."

Jim turned himself in a few days later. The Army shipped him off to Fort Bragg. During his court-martial, an officer asked why he had left the base. He said he had felt homesick. He was sentenced to fourteen days in the brink. No one said anything to him about the fistfight. Apparently, the sergeant hadn't reported the incident.

Jim felt no remorse and knew, given identical circumstances, he would do the same thing. Nevertheless, he felt that his punishment was fair. He knew his actions had consequences, even though they were the result of another man's misconduct, but he had performed a destructive act. The punishment was necessary to restore order and balance to his life. He just wanted to get it over with.

After fourteen days, the Army discharged him and Jim went home, where his mother helped him find a job in a sporting goods store.

Stations: [Contents] [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

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