Winnepeg

by John Jodzio

       I’m on the wrong side of history and I’ve got a vodka-soaked sea sponge shoved up my ass to help me forget. Reichmann’s got one up his shithole too, but Schliess can drink regular so he’s sipping directly from the bottle of hooch and then passing it to us to douse our sponges so we can asschug some more. We’re hiding in a church rectory outside Winnipeg, all three of us ducking into a large armoire full of vestments whenever we hear the Americans outside.
We know each other from the military hospital in Saskatoon. My tongue was cut off by an American sergeant who liked to collect tongues; Reichmann’s lips and jaw were blown off at the Battle of Thunder Bay. Schliess can’t talk because there’s something wrong with the way his mouth connects to his brain. The doctors wired my jaw shut and wrapped Reichmann’s head in bandages, leaving only a slit for his eyes. After we all got well enough to sit up, the doctors pushed our beds together and tossed us an old sign language book to share. Then the doctors laughed. We laughed along with them, or did whatever each one of us did in lieu of laughing: snorting (me), or stomping our foot on the ground (Reichmann), or laughing regular with a lot of drool (Schliess). We laughed because the Americans had just occupied Montreal and it was only a matter of time before everything that was still considered Canadian collapsed or exploded. We laughed because even though it was only early April, it was already 106 degrees. We laughed because why in the hell would we learn something new when we could just pass our vintage porn mags back and forth to each other and point at some woman’s snatch and give universally understood thumbs up or thumbs down.
A few days after the doctors gave us the sign language book, the Americans shelled our hospital and killed everyone but a few people in our non-talking wing. The three of us hid in the rubble until Reichmann pulled out his sketch pad and drew a picture of a pretty woman with large breasts. He wrote the words “This is my wife!” underneath the picture. Then he wrote the words “She’s in Winnipeg!” Then he underlined both the words and the tits for emphasis. Schliess took the picture and circled her tits and wrote “Does she have any sisters?” and then there was much porkchopping and substitute laughter between Schliess and myself but then Reichmann wrote “I want to see her before I die!” underneath the tits and then there was a long and uncomfortable silence between all three of us that was luckily broken up by an American bomber flying over us and dropping some more bombs and us ducking under some convenient pieces of rubble.

[ / ]

       We all knew getting to Winnipeg was a suicide mission, but what the fuck wasn’t? We loaded up our backpacks and started to trudge. All three of us were still in our early 30s, just old enough to remember how the seasons used to change, cursed with enough years on this tumbleweedy Earth to remember deciduous trees and spring breezes filled with scents of cut grass and lavender. When we stopped to rest on that first night, I got into an argument with Reichmann about how our lives would’ve been much better if they weren’t yoked to these idyllic memories of snowflakes melting on our tongues or jumping into piles of raked leaves. I told him we’d be much better off not knowing anything other than blistering heat and constantly pitted out t-shirts.
“If we’d grown up in this perpetual sauna,” I wrote to him in the dirt with a stick, “the heat would feel just fine to us.”
Reichmann grabbed the stick from me, scribbled his response.
“Humans can get used to anything, no matter how deplorable or sad. We just reset our expectations and find happiness in our revised baseline.”
“And that’s a good thing?” I scratched back.
Even though his face was heavily bandaged I could see Reichmann roll his eyes at me. And when I handed him back the writing stick to respond he snapped it in half over his knee. Face or no face, Reichmann was being a dick and I started to look for a new writing stick to tell him that fact.
“Forget about him,” Schliess motioned to me. “Let’s just have a nice dinner.”
In his previous life Schliess worked at a shelter helping teenagers whose lives had gone awry. While the war had hardened him, there was a part of him it hadn’t touched, something soft in the way he moved his hands that could always calm me down.
“Fine,” I nodded.
For dinner, I smashed up a banana I’d picked from a roadside tree and poked it through the gap between my teeth with the wrong end of a plastic spoon. Reichmann crushed up a mango with his mortar and pestle and once everything was minced into a fruity sluice he used a straw to suck the slurry through that hole in his cheek he was currently calling his mouth. Schliess tore at a piece of beef jerky and then dabbed away all the blood from his gums with his sleeve. The sun wasn’t going down anytime soon, but when I finished eating I tied a rag over my eyes and laid down on that partially melted yoga mat I’d found in a ditch.
Sleep came difficult for me now. Before the war I’d been a chemist, working on cholesterol meds at a pharmaceutical company. When the war started, I immediately volunteered my services to a lab inventing chemical weapons. Like everyone else in Canada, I was caught up in the fervor of defending our borders from the southern invaders who wanted our remaining water and cooler air. While I absolutely understood the potential applications of my work while I mixed compounds and ran my beta tests, it’s a different thing altogether when you see a chemical weapon you’ve invented, one I’d named Black Krezcent, get dropped on a regiment of Americans bedding down near Calgary. I watched on the video screen as the drone’s door opened and the metal canisters tumbled through the sky and cracked open in a field and a mist of odorless microparticles spread through the air and hit the Americans’ skin and then their mouths quickly opened in screams and their skin peeled away like husks and their bodies began to flop on the ground like pieces of bacon in hot grease. Yes, I drank the celebratory champagne just like everyone else in the lab, I screamed “Hooray!” and “Liberty!” with the correct gusto, slapped fives with my co-workers until my palms were nearly blistered, but when I closed my eyes that night and for every night since, those dying flopping fucking skinless American soldiers are the only thing I ever see.
[ / ]

       The three of us were caught by an American patrolman on the fourth day of our trudge. He looked about 16. He’d just shot a toucan and he was filleting it when we came through the brush. The kid got the jump on us, grabbing his machine gun before we got to our knives. I thought we were done for, that we were headed to a prison camp or he’d shoot us in the guts and leave us to bake in the noonday sun, but then Reichmann got down on his knees and begged for mercy.
“Mercy?” the American asked. “Seriously?”
Reichmann gave him a number of exaggerated nods to convince the kid that he should grant us clemency, but the nods were punctuated by a bunch of gritty gauze flopping around on Reichmann’s face which made everything less convincing.
“If you would’ve got the jump on me would you be so kind?” the American said. “Fuck if you would.”
Even though he knew it was a lost cause, Reichmann kept begging. He handed the American the picture he’d drawn of his wife and the kid looked at the drawing and said “Wow–does she have any sisters?” and Reichmann groaned and shook his head glumly and some ropey blood slid off what used to be his chin and onto the ground and the kid laughed at that, laughed at Reichmann’s missing face and his bad luck and the bad luck of the three of us, really giggled and while the boy was distracted Schleiss snatched his throwing knife from his ankle sheath and chucked it into the kid’s throat and then Reichmann jumped on top of him and then we stabbed the American over and over in the eyes and the chest and then we sat around his fire and ate the remainder of his toucan and smoked the rest of his cigarettes.
We trudged on. All the lakes and rivers and marshes had dried up years ago and the ground was newly gouged from tanks and bitten by army boots. There was no such thing as dignity anymore so sometimes we stripped naked and found shade in one of the thicker dead oaks. If the biting flies weren’t horrible we rested, Reichmann pulling out his journal and using a charcoal pencil to render one of many massacres he’d witnessed over the last two years. Reichmann had been an abstract painter before the war, but now he only drew realistic black and white shit. He never saved any of his drawings. Whenever he finished one he’d just tear it up or light it on fire.
“Why don’t you keep them?” I wrote to him once. “Someone needs to document the atrocities we’ve seen, don’t they?”
Reichmann paused for a second, but then he wrote back, “At least none of us has kids,” which was not exactly what I asked him but which was an appropriate response and something extremely fortunate.
[ / ]

       When our ass sponges dry up, Reichmann and I pull down our pants and soak them again. Who knows where Schliess heard about asschugging, but when he saw those sea sponges in that abandoned food coop his eyes lit up.
“Way better than regular tampons!” he wrote. “No possibility of toxic shock!”
While I’m bent over re-soaking my sponge, a priest runs into the rectory. He’s holding a baseball bat but he drops it onto the marble floor when he sees I’ve got a machine gun pointed at his chest.
“What in the fuck, guys?” the priest says. “This is still God’s house.”
The priest is harmless and I lower the gun. Schleiss points the priest at the bottle of vodka and he takes a long swallow. As the liquor passes over his tongue, I see him wince. Then he grabs his jowls and moans.
“Bad tooth?” I point.
“Killing me,” he says. “Can’t chew, can’t drink.”
“Hold on,” I motion and I go into my backpack and give him one of my extra drinking sponges.
“Soak it in vodka and shove it up your ass,” Reichmann explains.
The priest is reluctant, but we all spread our cheeks and show him it’s not a joke and he shrugs his shoulders and pulls down his pants and shoves it in too.
All of us keep chugging. And like usual I get sad. I find a piece of paper and a pencil and I scribble a question to the priest.
“What if we’ve done unspeakable things?” I write. “Can I ever be forgiven?”
There’ve been dozens of Black Krezcent strikes since that first one. I can’t help but think if I hadn’t mixed those chemicals together I might be free of this crushing guilt. Schliess has written me long notes in the dirt trying to absolve me from blame, telling me that if I hadn’t invented it, someone else would have probably made something worse. While I appreciate his attempts to cheer me up, no amount of Schliess’ dirt-scribbling can get those images out of my head.
The priest isn’t answering my question, he’s staring out at a gutted-out train station across the street and so I tap him in the shoulder. I hold the piece of paper with my question on it right in front of his face. You need to have a huge amount of faith to still wear the collar, especially in this heat, and when you start drinking it probably slips away just like everyone else. Schliess and Reichmann shake their heads at me, so tired of how maudlin and sentimental I get when I’m blotto.
“For fuck’s sake,” Reichmann writes. “Leave the man alone so he can absorb the liquor through the blood vessels in his sphincter just like the rest of us.”
[ / ]

       We wait until nightfall to go find Reichmann’s wife. The priest guides us through the sewer tunnels so we can avoid the American patrols. The heat underground is incredible and the rats down there look like loaves of waterlogged bread. We stumble over each other in the dim light until the priest tells us we’re here and then we all climb up a ladder and slide a manhole cover out of the way. Now that he’s standing in front of his house, I can see the fear in Reichmann’s eyes. He’s not sure he wants to go through with this now.
“Maybe it’s best if she thinks I’m dead?” he motions to us. “Or maybe she’s already moved on? Or maybe she won’t believe it’s really me?”
While we’re waiting for Reichmann’s courage to kick in, Schleiss walks over and pounds on the door. Soon a woman yells out to us.
“We’ve got no more bread,” she says. “And no more vodka. And we all have raging cases of the clap. Best to be on your way.”
Reichmann walks over and pushes the note he’s written through the mailslot and in a minute the door swings open and Reichmann’s wife is standing in front of us. She keeps looking up at Reichmann’s bandaged face and then back down at the note. She’s shaking her head like it can’t be true, but then Reichmann holds out his hand and she studies it, takes her fingers and runs it over the lines crisscrossing his palm. And then she throws her arms around Reichmann’s neck and sobs. The priest is bawling now too, as most normal people would, but Schliess starts to giggle and I join him, snorting like I do, because while this reunion is certainly poignant, Reichmann really pulled one over on us – his wife is flat-chested as fuck.
[ / ]

       We’re all hustled inside. Sitting at the dining room table are two other women. Schleiss and I find out that Reichmann’s wife actually does have sisters, nice friendly ones. The dark-haired one is named Elyse and the blonde one is Cara.
Slowly the night turns into a party, not like the drunken keggers we used to have when we were young, but a decent party just the same. At some point Cara pulls a guitar out from the crawl space and all of us climb up to the rooftop terrace. While we stand there there’s a quick northerly breeze full of fresh flowery goodness that fills our nostrils for just a second and Cara starts to strum her guitar and we do whatever it is we do in lieu of singing, we hum or we lightly moan or we slap our knees or we just close our eyes, shut the hell up and listen.