Joe Kirk lost a leg. Lonnie Blifield lost his eyes. Victoria Roundtree lost her skin. “Zan” Zander lost his mind. Four homeless and hopeless Iraqistan vets who accidentally end up living together on an old school bus. With nowhere to go, and nothing else to do, they lurch from one VAMC to another, getting no help because, like the thousands of other Iraqistan vets who are homeless, unemployed, and suicidal, they do not trust the system and refuse to “come inside.” After another fruitless stop, at the VAMC in Iron Mountain, Michigan, a doctor is found dead, and the vets are accused of his murder. Distrustful, strangers to America, to each other, and even to themselves, they must become a unit to learn who really murdered the doctor, so that they can stay free. In doing so, they uncover far more, about themselves and about their country, than they even dared to imagine…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Vets by John Robert McFarland, Joe, Zan, Lonnie, and Victoria are four homeless and disabled Middle-East war vets, riding around in Zan’s old school bus. They may not have a permanent address, but trouble seems to have no problem finding them just the same. They get attacked by Indians, refused medical assistance by doctors at the VMAC hospitals, and finally accused of murder. A murder they didn’t commit. And until they can prove their innocence, they can’t continue on their way in the school bus, but how can they prove it with no money and no way to get any? But while they may be disabled, they aren’t stupid and it doesn’t take them long to figure out they are being used as scapegoats.
This is a great book. It’s sad, funny, poignant, and heart-warming—sometimes all on the same page. It’s a story anyone who’s ever been a vet or known a vet will definitely relate to.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Vets by John Robert McFarland is probably the best book I’ve read in quite some time. I absolutely loved it. I can’t remember the last time I laughed—and cried—so hard. Vets is the story of four disabled and homeless Iraqistan vets. Zan has PTSD, well, they all do, but his is extreme. Lonnie is blind. Victoria is disfigured. And Joe has a prosthetic leg—in which he hides a Beretta. Did I mention they all have PTSD? They ride around in an old school bus belonging to Zan. None of them are sure exactly how they all got together, but they make the best of it. Sort of. When they get into Upper Pennsylvania, things go from bad to worse, including their luck, and they end up accused of murdering a doctor at the last VA Medical Center they went to in Iron Mountain. Since they are innocent of the murder, they have to, somehow, pool their meager skills and resources and prove it. Not an easy task, especially when they often break minor laws just to survive, such as breaking and entering, accidentally kidnapping babies, escaping from custody, resisting arrest—just to name a few.
Vets is extremely well written. McFarland has a way with words that makes reading the book a joy. It’s the funniest, saddest, most heart-breaking and heart-warming book I’ve read in ages. This is one you will want to keep around to read over and over again, just for the sheer pleasure of it. Bravo, McFarland. Well done
“Victoria has to pee.”
Zan kept his eyes on the road, holding at a steady forty-three miles per hour, the maximum the bus would do before it began to shake.
“Zan, Victoria has to pee.”
Zan’s eyes swept from side to side. I knew those eyes. They were scanning for roadside bombs. In the middle of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Zan, there are no IEDs here.”
Zan’s eyes kept on scanning. “I know that,” he said.
“I can see your eyes, Zan.”
He slowed more than he needed to for a gentle right curve. “You never know what those Canadians might have snuck down and…”
Good. He was returning to the UP, returning from his slide back into Iraq. Otherwise I was going to have to drive. Not easy with one leg and a cantankerous clutch.
“Victoria,” I reminded my best friend. “She has to pee.”
“Victoria always has to pee.”
I felt my neck muscles tightening. I didn’t want this again, the constant struggle between Zan and Victoria.
Zan never wanted to stop the bus, even though there was no need to keep moving. We had no place to go. We drove just because we had no place to stay, either. But Zan felt safe from enemy fire in the old school bus when it was on the move. Or what passed for on the move at forty-three miles per hour.
Victoria did not feel safe in the bus, or inside of anything else. She had been trapped in a burning Humvee. She was claustrophobic and wanted to get out of the bus as often as possible. She used the need to pee as an excuse. Why she ever got into the bus in the first place was one of life’s great mysteries.
I was caught in the no-man’s land between my best friend and a woman I hardly knew. It was definitely not a demilitarized zone.
“Shoulders aren’t wide enough to pull off,” Zan said.
“Victoria doesn’t like to go behind a tree anyway,” I reminded him.
I glanced over my shoulder. Victoria flashed me the sign language P symbol again. I didn’t like to sigh. The one time I tried it at home, my father knocked my block off. I could feel one coming on, though. I should have thrown Victoria off the first time she got on the bus. Now I couldn’t get rid of her, because of Lonnie.
Then I saw salvation, just ahead on the right. It was one story, with a drunken roof line, mostly tar paper on the sides, with some crooked furring strips and beer signs to hold it on, and two gas pumps out front. It also had a chipped concrete statue that looked like a giant pig with antlers. A faded wooden sign followed the roofline and proclaimed, Eat at Moe’s and Get Gas. Another sign said that Moe featured Pasties and Smoked Fish Fudge. I hoped that smoked fish was not the flavor of the fudge, but I couldn’t tell from the sign.
“Look, Zan, a convenience store. We can stop there for Victoria to pee.”
I had put up with Victoria and her frequent “need” to pee because she made dealing with Lonnie a lot easier. As long as we had Lonnie, I needed Victoria, and I didn’t know how to get rid of Lonnie.
Zan wasn’t slowing down, so I repeated: “Look, Zan, a convenience store. We can stop there for Victoria to pee.”
Zan didn’t slow down. “It doesn’t look that convenient.”
“Probably our last chance for beer before we get into the next county. It’s dry.”
I didn’t think Michigan had any dry counties, but Zan wouldn’t know that.
He took his foot off the accelerator. “We got any money?”
We didn’t have enough money for beer, not if we wanted food and gas, but what the hell?
Then it occurred to me that if we got beer, Victoria would have to pee again that much sooner, for real, so we really should go on, but Zan was already slowing to pull in.
I grabbed my leg and strapped it on, then zipped the lower part of the pants leg onto the shorts part.
“Which side is the gas fill on, Joe?”
If I could just zip Zan’s memory on as easily as that pants leg…“The other one.”
Zan had already pulled in beside the gas pumps. “Oh. I guess we can turn it around to get gas after we get the beer,” he said.
After we get beer we won’t have money for gas. I thought it, but I didn’t say it. Albert Zander was my best friend, but Zan sometimes forgot that, too.
“Maybe they’ll have Leinies. They ought to have Leinies. This UP thing is part of Michigan, but it ought to be part of Wisconsin, for God’s sake. Didn’t they look at a map when they started parceling out the states? You shouldn’t ever give a state a name with sin in it, because the people will take that as an invitation and drink light beer. Ought to have Leinies in a place that ought to be Wisconsin…”
With that, Zan was out of the bus and heading for the door of the store.
I got out and hobbled a bit as I got worked onto the leg. I tried to make it look like I was just cramped up from riding. It bothered me that I was that vain. Hell’s bells, there wasn’t even anybody in sight, and I was acting like Miss America might see me and be turned off by my leg, instead of everything else about me that turned women off, like quoting my grandma and saying stuff like hells bells.
Lonnie was getting off the bus. Victoria was behind him, his controls hidden in her hand. I hoped she would leave Lonnie outside. I hoped she would stay outside with him. There were several cars in front. That meant customers inside. I didn’t know how Yoopers would react to a semi-black woman with no hair and lots of pink splotches. Or how they would react if their women went ga-ga over Lonnie.
It was the kind of place that would have a lunch counter and some tables, maybe even a pool table. I didn’t want to deal with the stares of people inside. I definitely did not want to deal with Lonnie if anybody made a smart remark about Victoria’s looks.
“The bathrooms are probably around back, Victoria. Probably have to get a key inside first, though. No point walking around there first. I can get the key. You and Lonnie can hang around out here–”
“No need for that, Joe,” Lonnie said, too loudly, in his best man-about-town voice. “You know how I love to look at the wares. Let us enter yon establishment, my controlling woman.”
He laughed, a beautiful sound, except I was getting fed up with…people. And I was fed up with myself for caring about people and what they might think.
“There’s nobody out here, Lonnie. You don’t have to make anybody think you can see–”
Oh, hell, what was I doing? I didn’t care what the hell Lonnie did, or what happened to him. Or Victoria, either. Let him walk into a wall. I had no business playing nursemaid. That was one of the nicknames the guys in my unit had for me, Nursy. That was until they found out I had spent a year in theology school before I joined up. Not a whole year, but enough that they called me Preacher. I didn’t like nicknames. There were too many of them that went with the name Joe already.
Zan was no place in sight, which meant he was already inside, either grabbing Leinenkugel beer and telling them I would pay, or complaining that they didn’t have Leinies. Lonnie and Victoria were headed inside. I stopped at a wooden map board just outside the door.
Hell, we weren’t even on the right road. We were supposed to be on US 2 going east toward the Mackinac Bridge, so we could go down to the lower peninsula, the ones Michigan people called “the mitten.” Instead we had gone west on 2, and Zan had made a turn up Michigan 95, and I hadn’t even noticed. I followed Lonnie and Victoria into the store. The story of my life–always on the wrong road, but I just keep going along.
When I stepped through the door, the place was pretty much as I figured it would be. I’d been in redneck hangouts in Indiana and South Carolina and Texas. They were all the same. They came out of a catalog–the same tattoos and Harley shirts and pool tables and beer signs and antlers and smells and beef jerky sticks. And the same women.
This one also had the promised pastries and smoked fish and fudge, and rows of low, dirty grocery shelves with cans of beans and sacks of snacks and everything from WD-40 to fan belts, plus a Blue Bunny ice cream freezer beside the cash register at the end of the lunch counter.
It didn’t have the sounds, though. It had no sounds at all. There were plenty of people–some pool players, some folks sitting at tables, a couple on stools at the counter, a big-bosomed woman behind the counter. But they were frozen in place, like they were in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting.
Zan was at the back, peering carefully into the oversized refrigerated drink cases. He didn’t seem to be aware of anything except his search for beer. Lonnie was started down the aisle between the potato chips and anti-freeze, Victoria close behind him, but they had stopped still. Lonnie was looking straight ahead, toward the back of the store, if you could say that a blind man was “looking,” but I could tell that he had tuned into the silence and was waiting for something. Victoria was edging up close to him, trying not to be noticed.
I was a little bit embarrassed that the one thing in that whole tableau that I noticed most was the bosom of the woman behind the counter. It was really noticeable, though, at least in part because there was a portrait of the forty-fourth president of the USA on it, with a smile wider than the mouth of the Mississippi River.
“I told you to get that thing off!”
That from a guy standing beside the Blue Bunny case, wearing a floppy Aussie hat, one side tabbed up. His voice wasn’t real loud, but it didn’t need to be. I had heard voices like that before, often enough from my father, just before he began pounding on my mother.
There were two other guys who were obviously with him, because they were all dressed alike, and they didn’t look like anybody else in that place. They were outsiders, not Yoopers.
The three of them were outfitted like dude hunters, all new stuff, all expensive. Guys from the city out for a week of “roughing it” with ten thousand bucks’ worth of gear.
Except these weren’t city dudes. These guys had that special soldier look. Not just any soldier. Mercenary. The hard type. I’d seen plenty of that type in Iraq. They weren’t soldiers anymore, though. They were the civilian contractors. Civilian, but there was nothing civil about them. They sneered at those of us in uniform, because we were taking all the chances, and they were making all the money.
The one doing the talking didn’t need to worry about his back. The two others had stationed themselves at strategic points so that they had control of the room. It was an automatic squad configuration.
That was when I noticed the TV suspended above the counter, up above the rows of cigarettes. Or what was left of the TV. The front was smashed in, and there was a can of Havoline oil sitting in the middle of the shards. Probably 5W-30, considering that 5W would be about as heavy as a motor could take most of the year in the UP. There was a pyramid of oil cans beside where the talker was standing, without the top can.
I finally looked at the face of the woman in the Obama tee. Maybe forty. Probably real pretty once. Eyes as big as her headlights and getting bigger. Full lips without lipstick, beginning to tremble. Shards of smoky glass in her midlife-red hair.
“Easy everybody. Nothing going on here. Go back to your pasties. Let’s get going, Jay. Profile down.”
It was the guy at the other end of the counter, beside the pool table. He sounded to me like the number two guy, trying to placate the leader of the bunch. I didn’t see a weapon on him, but I was pretty sure all three of them were armed. And I was pretty sure “Jay” wasn’t the guy’s real name.
“I told her to get that nigger traitor off her boobs and she’s going to do it! That’s the profile here that’s coming down.”
The woman just stood there, her eyes blinking. The man called Jay took a step toward her. She made a little whimpering sound and reached down and grabbed the bottom of her shirt and began to pull it up.
Everybody was watching the woman. I reached down and began to unzip my pants leg. I glanced left. Zan had disappeared. Lonnie had squeezed by Victoria in the narrow aisle and was sliding his way back toward the front of the store.
I knew what Lonnie had in mind. I don’t know how, but I knew.
Victoria didn’t know what Lonnie was going to try. But I could tell she recognized the mercenary. She didn’t know the man, but she knew the type. She was desperately working Lonnie’s control pad, trying to get him away from the guy, back down the aisle, into the chips or dips or something.
The woman’s shirt was coming up, and so was Lonnie, behind the guy called Jay.
“Behind,” the number two guy said softly.
Jay whirled, saw Lonnie’s lifeless eyes, frowned, a moment of confusion on his face. He wasn’t the kind who would mind slugging a blind man, though. He turned full toward Lonnie.
Guns appeared in the hands of the other two guys. I had gotten up against the end of a counter and gotten Judas unclipped and had the Beretta out. I needed to stop this now. I put a bullet through the can of Havoline in the TV, hoping the noise and the flying oil would get attention. It didn’t. The number two guy pointed his gun right at me. He was left-handed, so I put one into his left shoulder, then shot off his left earlobe just to show off.
I didn’t think, just did what came naturally to me. I didn’t exactly aim a gun, short or long. Gun barrels and triggers and bullets just sort of followed my eyes. I thought about knees, but these were hard types. If they still had guns in their hands, they would use them, regardless of knees. I took out the number three guy’s right shoulder with the same sweep of my eyes.
Their guns clattered to the floor. There was some moaning and cursing, but these guys were pros, and the pain hadn’t really hit yet.
It was all the distraction Lonnie needed, and when Jay yelled “What the fuck?” that was all the locating he needed. His hands were just a blur as he clapped them full onto Jay’s ears. Jay let out a cry of pain that I suspect he couldn’t even hear. The force of Lonnie’s blow probably blew out his eardrums. Victoria grabbed his gun arm, wrenched it around behind him, and pulled it out of his hand, dislocating his shoulder in the process.
Victoria waved the gun in the air and went into full combat command mode.
“Cleanup,” she called. “Lonnie, stay where you are.”
She turned to the woman behind the counter, who had her shirt about half-way up.
“What are these guys driving?”
The woman just looked back at her, still too petrified to talk.
“I saw ’em pull up in a black four-by-four. Parked out back.”
It was an old man, raggedy gray beard, greasy Stormy Kromer cap, looked sort of like a rutabaga. He was sitting at a chrome-edged table with a woman who looked quite a bit like him.
A sixteen. It figured that they would be in a sixteen. It also figured they would leave the keys in it. They were the type to be ready for a quick getaway, any place, any time. Victoria must have figured it the same way.
“Go get it and bring it around front,” Victoria said to the old man.
He didn’t hesitate, just got up and went out through a back door.
“Help me get these guys out front,” Victoria said.
I was busy putting the Beretta and Judas together so that I could walk. I kept the Beretta out, though. Zan was back at the beer case, like nothing had happened. Where the hell had he been? No time to think about that.
A couple of pool players stepped up, grabbed Jay by his good arm, and dragged him through the front door. The number two guy was bent over and moaning, but he was able to give me a hard stare. He grabbed the last guy by his good arm and led him outside.
I followed them.
The old man had their black sixteen out front. It was a Lincoln MKS. At least they had a Michigan car in Michigan. Well, Ford was Michigan, and Ford owned Lincoln, but no telling where the thing was built, probably Timbuktu or Kentucky.
Another older guy, with a gray ponytail, had followed us out. He had a tattoo on his arm that spelled out MOE in little anchors.
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance, or the sheriff, or something?” he asked.
“I don’t think they want that,” I said. “Too much paper work.”
I didn’t know who these guys were, or why they were there, but I knew how they operated. They wouldn’t want the law involved any more than we did.
I nodded at the pool players, and they rammed Jay into the back seat. He had recovered enough to try a glare at me as I pushed number two into the suicide seat. I didn’t bother with trying to put a seatbelt on him. The first guy I’d shot still had his right arm so we pushed him in behind the wheel. He drove off with one hand, heading north up Michigan 95.
Victoria emerged from the store with a gun in either hand and another under her arm, 9 mm Glocks, the merc’s best friend.
Lonnie stumbled out the door behind her, looking more like a blind man than I had ever seen him. “That was good, Victoria,” he said. “Did you hear what she said to that woman, Joe?”
I could tell he was upset that Victoria had forgotten about him and was trying to cover it up.
“No, I don’t think I heard her. Kind of loud in there.”
“She told that woman to keep her shirt on. That’s what my grandpa used to say when somebody would get too excited.”
He kept chuckling. I liked him for remembering his grandpa.
© 2015 by John Robert McFarland