A short story featuring two lifelong friends with exceedingly varying political viewpoints that highlights the foolish lengths some might go for the sake of their “side”…
by: James Hanna
“So you have your troops watching drop boxes now?” Billy Babbitt said.
Joshua McIntyre, self-appointed general of the Brawny Lads, shrugged. “All they’re doing is sunning themselves,” he replied. “They’re growing boys, Billy, and they need their Vitamin D.”
“I spotted a couple of ’em on Main Street this morning, and they looked like a pair of mummies. How will they get any Vitamin D when they’re wearing hoods and face masks?”
Joshua poured himself another beer. “The sun is strong these days, Billy,” he said. “Hoodies and face mask don’t block it.”
It was the eve of the ’22 midterm elections and the two men were sitting in Flakey Jake’s Bar, a dive on the outskirts of Putnamville. Both were unaccomplished men in their forties and lifelong residents of the small Indiana farm town. Joshua, a former high school English teacher, had been fired from his job after a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building on January 6. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had burned his manuscript years earlier when a book publisher dismissed him as a third-rate James Joyce wannabe. Now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, Billy spent most evenings in Flakey Jake’s, criticizing the state of the union and the short-sightedness of the corporate-owned publishing houses. Both men had yet to cast their ballots, and Billy brought this up.
“Why should we bother voting?” he said. “Since you’re a Trumper and I’m a Dem, we’ll just cancel each other out.”
Joshua smiled and patted Billy on the shoulder. The two men were long-term friends despite their political differences, and Joshua was in the habit of softening Billy’s moods.
“If ya don’t vote, Billy,” he said, “ya got no right to complain. With all the bitching you do, I should think you’d still wanna vote.”
“At least my gripes have limits,” said Billy. “I didn’t recruit a bush-league militia and sic it on the Capitol. Nor was I ever arrested for pissing on the floor of the rotunda.”
“I was shaking my chains off like dew,” Joshua said, enhancing a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley.
“You call that shaking your chains off?” asked Billy. “Hell, all you shook was your dick.”
“That was a political gesture,” Joshua protested.
“So, what’s that make you — a Minute Man?”
Billy laughed at his joke while Joshua took a long swig of his beer. “Billy,” he said, “Globalism is nothing’ to joke about. Not when it steals American jobs and makes us fight stupid wars.”
“Isn’t it time you got over Iraq? Your tour ended twenty years ago.”
Joshua rarely spoke of his military service which included a brutal year in Iraq. Drawing a labored breath, he grudgingly replied. “Don’t try to make me feel better. I lost too many friends in Iraq on a fool’s mission for George Bush. You know, the only occupation I ever felt good about was when we raided the Capitol building.”
“It seems to me,” said Billy, “that you’re too hard up for a cause. Do you really believe the last election was stolen from Donald Trump?”
“No, but it’s enough that the Brawny Lads do.”
“So you told them to go watch drop boxes. If that’s not a fool’s mission, I’d like to know what is.”
“It gives us a rallying point,” shrugged Joshua. “Hell, we gotta start somewhere if we’re gonna take the country back.”
“You never had it begin with,” said Billy. “Not that it woulda made much difference. All you and you and your Brawny Lads have to offer is slogans and censorship.”
“Billy,” said Joshua patiently. “You’re just a pissant reporter. You write about bake sales and high school sports for the Putnamville Gazette. Do you really think my militia will bother censoring that?”
“For a man who likes to quote Shelley,” said Billy, “you still need a better script.”
“If yer gonna keep bitching, go vote,” Joshua said. “And if ya wanna use a drop box, I’ll have my lads give you a pass.”
“I won’t need a pass,” snapped Billy. “If your boys get in my way, I’m gonna settle the matter by voting with pepper spray.”
The next morning, Billy drove to Indianapolis, went to a police supply store, and bought a Second Chance vest and a can of pepper spray. That these items were probably unnecessary did not affect his resolve; if a drop box Nazi called him names or tried to stop him from casting his vote, he was going to whip out the pepper spray and blast him in the face.
In his mind, Billy was not a malcontent hoping to pick a fight. He was brave Odysseus about to plunge a hot staff into a Cyclops’ eye. After all, weren’t the Brawny Lads the equivalent of Homer’s one-eyed brutes — a myopic tribe with the singular mission of gobbling good citizens up? Just let ‘em try to stop me, thought Billy as he drove back to Putnamville. The day they mess with Billy Babbitt is a day they’re gonna regret.
Returning to his rented room, Billy logged on the internet and reviewed the proper procedure for using pepper spray. Back away from your assailant, the instructional video advised. As you back away, shout “Don’t hurt me” three times, so it won’t look like you’re the aggressor. If your assailant keeps approaching you, grip the can tightly and spray him between the eyes until he backs off. Once your assailant is incapacitated, immediately call 911 then get the names and addresses of any witnesses that may be around.
Since etiquette demanded a warning that Odysseus was on the prowl, Billy unpocketed his cell phone and called Joshua McIntyre.
“Yeah, Billy,” said Joshua, answering him on the very first ring. Billy could hear Martina McBride’s piped-in voice singing “Independence Day” in the background, so he knew that Joshua was once again drowning his sorrows in Flakey Jake’s.
“I’m on my way to that drop box,” said Billy. “I’m armed and hunting for bear. You might tell that to your Brownshirts if any of ’em are still there.”
“I toldja I’d tell ’em to give you a pass.”
“Don’t do me no favors,” said Billy. “Once I put the fear of God in those fuckers, I won’t be needing a pass.”
“The fear of God?” laughed Joshua. “I don’t think you’ve thought this through, Billy. Do you think those boys are gonna be spooked by a skinny dork with a bad haircut?”
“I’m a skinny dork with rights,” Billy said.
“Well, my boys have a coupla rights too. Freedom of speech and assembly and the right to some Vitamin D.”
“Fascism isn’t protected,” Billy snapped.
“You sure the fascist isn’t you?”
“Just tell ’em I’m armed and I’m gonna kick ass. That’s all that they need to know.”
That afternoon, Billy walked toward Main Street, his ballot clenched in his fist. With his Second Chance vest fastened under his shirt and his pepper spray tucked in his pocket, he felt like the king of the badasses. Just let them mess with me, he thought. I’ll have them pissing their pants.
When he spotted the drop box on Main Street, his pulse began to race. The drop box watchers, a pair of skinny boys wearing sweatshirts with hoods, were still there. They were sitting on the lowered tailgate of a pickup truck parked beside the drop box and the handkerchiefs hiding their noses and mouths made them like look stagecoach robbers. One of them aimed a cell phone at Billy, apparently filming him, but Billy, undeterred, marched up to the box and popped his ballot into the slot.
“Hey, Mister Babbitt,” said the boy with the cell phone. Billy recognized him as Toby Dawes, an airheaded boy who worked at a nearby hog farm. He was hardly Cyclops material, but that made no difference to Billy. Not when Toby had placed himself on the side of anarchy.
Toby pointed at his companion. “Ya met my best friend, Bubba?” he said. “Bubba he’s real good at shootin’ rats at the county dump.”
“Please to meetcha, Mister Babbitt,” the other boy remarked. “General McIntyre, he told us to treat ya real polite.”
Billy glared at Toby, unimpressed by his passive aggression. “So why did you put me on video?” he asked. “And why are you bragging about guns?”
“I’m just foolin’ around, Mister Babbitt,” said Toby. “Just passin’ the time of day. Ya know, it gets kinda boring sittin’ around protectin’ Democracy.”
“Tell me this, Toby. Do ya really believe the last election was stolen from Trump?”
Toby pulled the handkerchief from his face and used it to blow his nose. “Mebbe it was and mebbe it weren’t. It don’t make no nevermind to us. All we gotta do is sit here and make sure that drop box don’t get stuffed.”
Since the boys weren’t packing pistols or wearing MAGA hats, Billy concluded that they were a pair of Brawny Lad wannabes. Apparently, their dropbox duty amounted to an initiation, and the boys were too docile to question the mindlessness of their task. But didn’t that make them the equivalent of modern-day Hitler Youth? Billy thought. And wasn’t that napkin-sized American flag, draped over the truck’s license plate, an obvious indication that the pair had evil intent? As he stood before the boys, Billy felt pumped up by Hamlet’s lament that the time was out of joint and he had been cursed to set it right.
“Mister Babbitt,” said Toby, “me and Bubba went to the county dump, last night. We killed us a dozen brown rats with one of them thermal scopes.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Billy snapped, a question he knew was foolish. The boy was obviously making another subtle threat.
“We’re ridding the county of varmints,” Toby said. “Just thought you might like to know.”
“Well, if you’re cleaning up the county,” Billy snapped, “your colors had better go.”
Impulsively, Billy stepped up to the pickup truck. Elbowing the two boys aside, he ducked under the tailgate and snatched the flag off the license plate.
“Aww Mister Babbitt,” drawled Toby as the two boys jumped from the tailgate. “We was havin’ a nice conversation. Whyja have to do that?”
Billy backed away from the boys. His bowels were about to collapse, but this was no time to shit his pants. This was the time to strike.
“Don’t hurt me!” he hollered. “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!
As the boys strode toward him like gunfighters, Billy tightened his sphincter then he whipped the pepper spray from his pocket and hosed them both in the face.
“Damn,” Bubba sputtered, rubbing his eyes. “It feels like my whole face caught the clap.”
“The General said he was nutso,” cried Toby, “but I wasn’t ’spectin’ nothing like that.”
While the boys stood helplessly, massaging their eyes, Billy lunged at them like a cat.
“Don’t hurt me!” he repeated.
The boys tried to grab hold of him, but with the cunning of Odysseus, Billy evaded their grasp and then kicked them both in the groin. Moaning, the boys fell to their knees. “Don’t hurt us neither,” sobbed Toby.
“That oughta teach ya,” said Billy, and he patted the pepper spray.
How intoxicating it felt to strike a blow for liberty — to snatch the Putnam County vote from the jaws of punditry. As he walked away from the drop box, leaving his assailants on the ground, Billy realized that the flag he had stolen was still clutched in his hand.
That evening, Billy was arrested as he was leaving Flakey Jake’s. A dark-haired city policewoman, whom Billy had dated in high school, stopped him as he stumbled to his car and slapped her handcuffs on him. Mellowed by two pitchers of Heineken, Billy turned the bust into a joke. He said, “Liz, if I’d known you were into bondage, I’d have married you long ago.”
After setting the safety locks, the woman said, “Billy aren’t you a sight. Flakey Jake says you’re of no use to no one. Why are you proving him right?”
Aroused by the pinch of the handcuffs, Billy said, “Let’s go to a motel, Liz.”
The woman laughed, “I might be willing if you hadn’t beaten up those two rubes.”
She eased him into the cage of the squad car and pulled the seat belt over his chest and they talked about their high school days as she drove him to the county jail.
The next morning, Billy was arraigned in the Putnam County Superior Court. After he pleaded not guilty, the judge ordered him held without bail. Since there was no sense in facing a jury pooled from a small Republican town, Billy took the advice of his public defender and opted for a bench trial.
The hearing was held the following week, and the boys he beat up were there. Billy was struck by the passivity with which they testified. Sitting on the witness stand and trying to look brave as they spoke, they seemed more like tornado victims than jingoistic thugs. On top of that, a bystander had filmed the entire incident, so the prosecutor had no trouble convincing the judge that the lads had been sucker punched.
The judge gave Billy a two-year sentence for felony assault. When Billy protested his sentence, claiming he’d fought for liberty, the judge said, “We don’t dwell on polemics here, sir. This court is concerned with facts. The facts are you went looking for a fight, tampered with the boys’ truck, and when they tried to protect their property, as any citizen might have done, you attacked them with a chemical weapon and then kicked them where it hurts.”
It was Liz who transported Billy to the Indiana Penal Farm, a medium-security prison near Highway 231. After depositing him at the reception building, she said, “It was nice catching up with you, hon.”
“Shall we have some fun when I’m out,” Billy said. “I’ll probably get paroled in a year.”
“Billy,” Liz said. “You’re a martyr at heart. I’m sure you’ll have more fun in there.”
After completing his intake, Billy faced the prison classification board, and the board assigned him to work in the prison’s sewage treatment plant.
Feeling insulted, Billy insisted he be placed in the law library instead. “I have a bachelor’s degree in English,” he said. “I can type sixty words a minute.”
The board chairman, a man with an owlish stare, said, “We know all about ya, Billy. You’re one of them anarchists, and you almost castrated a coupla towheaded boys. We don’t need your sort filing briefs in the law library.”
“So you’ve got me stirring shit instead.”
“The way we see it,” droned the man, “is you’ll stir up a lot less shit if you work in the sewage treatment plant.”
A week later, Joshua drove to the prison to see how Billy was doing. As the two of them sat in the visiting room, Joshua shook his head. “You cost me a coupla soldiers, you know?”
“No big loss,” muttered Billy.
“Ya know what those boys came and told me after you beat ’em up? They said they didn’t wanna be part of no outfit that lets ’em get kicked in the nuts.”
“No big loss,” Billy repeated.
“Ya did ’em a favor, I guess. The boys were in over their heads. Hell, they’re better off chasing pussy and shootin’ rats instead.”
The two men sat in silence while Billy digested the thought that he might have done someone a favor for the first time in his life.
After a while, Joshua cleared his throat. “Was it worth it, Billy?” he said.
Billy thought about the two hapless boys and generous tears stung his eyes.
“Yeah, I guess it was worth it,” he said. “I guess it was worth it at that.”
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary Review. James’ books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon in print and Kindle.