Pancake’s original outline from Thomas Douglass’s book A Room Forever:
“‘Conqueror’ is a story of alcoholism and war. A fifty-nine year old disabled Vet takes his son on one last camping trip before the boy goes off to college, and for the first time in the boy’s history the man goes off on a bender of vodka and Pepsi. In his stupor he raltes to the boy why he once drank (due to the things he saw men do to one another in Germany), why he now drinks (because of atrocities he has never related to anyone), and why he expects the boy to do his duty in Vietnam. A tussel (sic) ensues while the boy pours out the hooch, then the old man retires to the tent, leaving the boy by the fire all night. The boy is not afraid, except perhaps for his father.”
Patrick Trotti is a freelance writer and editor living in Rochester, New York. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a few dozen literary journals, both online and in print. He’s the author of several books, including his debut novella The Day The Cloud Stood Still, the short story collection Come Tomorrow You’ll Regret Today, and the novels That Was A Long Time Ago and A Stranger At Home. While his work has transcended multiple genres and various themes, Trotti’s main focus is on literary auto fiction that delves into the classification of gritty realism. He is currently, and perpetually, at work on another novel. The following piece is his interpretation of Breece D’J Pancake’s outline for his unwritten story “Conqueror.”
He knew this would quite possibly be the last time he had a chance to impart some wisdom on the little guy. His son would be off to college soon enough. Out from under his admittedly stiff hand, his boy was now supposedly a man. The pressure was palpable. This camping trip had to go off without a hitch. It had to be perfect. His boy deserved that much from him.
It used to be a given that whenever the man had pressure applied to him, even before his time in the war, he folded, acquiesced to his surroundings and took solace in a bottle. That was a lifetime ago, though. All of those hazy, alcohol-fueled decisions were long in the rearview mirror. Since the very idea of his boy came to be, in the last eighteen years and seven months and two weeks and three days, the man had stayed sober through sheer force of will. The man would never admit to the boy that his very presence was the reason for his mid-life turnaround. That would be showing too much emotion. That would relinquish his sense of ownership and power. It was all very murky and grey. The man liked to try and keep things simple as possible, especially since having put down his final drink.
The man still lived dangerously, as he carried his flask with him everywhere he went. It was the same one that his father gave to him before he was sent over to Europe a lifetime ago. It was the only thing of any value that the old man had given to him. He didn’t want to make the same mistake with his boy. He even brought some reinforcements with him on this trip. Cheap vodka and warm Pepsi, his favorite, just in case, he told himself. The boy didn’t know about his contingency plans. If he did, he’d never had agreed to be alone with him.
As soon as they got near the site things had already begun to go wrong. The old man’s beater of a truck had broken down again. He’d been told it needed a new transmission. There was no money for that though, not since his boy had chosen to go out of state for school. It took them an extra few hours just to get to the campground because they had to abandon the vehicle right there on the side of the road and hoof it the rest of the way. Up one side of the hill, bags on their back weighing them down, the man had a flashback to his time in Europe. He gripped his hunting knife tight with both hands. It shook so much that he almost lost it in the brush beside him. The man stopped and dry heaved into the bushes. He needed an escape from his current surroundings. He reached for the flask and took one quick gulp without a second thought. He chased down his bad decision with a can of Pepsi. The buzzing between his head came rushing back and replaced the wicked thoughts that bounced around just a moment ago.
By the time they unpacked their gear the boy knew something was wrong. The man was tipsy. He visibly wobbled from side to side. He slurred his speech as he began to impart some knowledge on the boy. He was the man’s only child, his only chance at passing down something worth anything. The kid had grown increasingly difficult to talk to, let alone relate to. He grew his hair out, down to his ass, and had little regard for any form of authority.
“The only thing missing from that march was the palpable stench of death.”
“Funny how it’s the smallest things that bring you back to a certain memory. It’s like yesterday that I could feel the warm rustle of the tall brush tickle my shins through the army fatigues outside of Berlin.”
“You feeling alright, pop?”
“What? I’m fine. Can’t a man think out loud for fuck sake?”
The boy pointed to the empty flask, which poked out from the man’s breast pocket, and took a step towards his bag.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“The rest of what? That’s the end of the story, I’m afraid.”
“The rest of the booze. Where is it?”
“Why can’t we have a decent conversation before you leave for good?”
“I’m going to college dad. It’s not like I’m leaving forever.”
“What if you get drafted for ‘Nam?”
“Not this again. I’m going to school. I’m not dying for some no name country halfway across the world.”
“Watch your tone boy. You have a responsibility to your country, to your fellow man if called upon.”
“It did you wonders,” the boy scoffed.
The boy knew full well that because of the old man’s age and injuries from the Great War that he was an easy target. The old man had been present for his childhood and sober, a real turnaround from decades past but that wasn’t enough for the boy. The two had nothing in common. Nothing shared other than blood.
The man deflected this comment as he reached into his bag and uncapped the vodka bottle. No need to hide it anymore. He’d tried to make things right, tried to play the part of loving dad, but it just wasn’t for him.
“It was the right thing to do, to serve. There’s no two ways around it. You get called to serve and that’s what you do. It’s part of being a man, doing what’s expected of you. If you really want to be treated like a grown up you won’t dodge your responsibilities just because you disagree with something. There’s going to be plenty of times in your life that you’ll have to do something you don’t want to do. You hear?”
“But what if it’s a question of morality? If it’s more than an inconvenience, if it’s a fundamental departure from my firm set of values, then what should I do?”
“And those values are what exactly?”
“That taking a life is wrong no matter what.”
“Even if that life is trying to kill you?”
“Not now they aren’t, not while I’m here.”
“Well you can’t just hide behind your fancy textbooks all your life. Someone is gonna have to pay in blood for you to sit there on campus and enjoy the perils of student life,” the old man said, this time a bit louder. Forget it, we’re just going around in circles.”
The boy nodded silently.
“Were you scared when you fought?”
“Had no chance to be scared. Was too young and dumb, thought I was too indestructible, for those type of thoughts to creep in.”
The man took another swig from his bottle.
“Why’d you do it? Why now of all times?” the boy asked, in his feeble attempt at filling the silence with something, anything, other than the chirping of the crickets in the woods behind them and the tapping of his old man’s fingernails on the glass bottle.
“The noise gets to be too loud sometimes. You wouldn’t understand.”
The boy looked at his father and mumbled the words, “try me” as the two sat down in front of the newly lit fire. The sun had begun to set in the far off mountain range to the west. The air had gotten cooler.
The old man continued, “It could be anything, really. Sometimes it’s just a sensory recall, you know? A smell, a vision, anything really and it’s like I never even left the war. No matter how many days I put between all that death and me it just doesn’t seem to make a difference because it’s always lurking in the background.”
The boy nodded along but he didn’t have a clue. The closest he’d come to hardship was when his record’s skipped a beat on his player in his room back home.
“Those Nazi bastards were so concerned with losing their dignity when they were forced to surrender. They didn’t realize that they had no dignity left after what they’d done, the old man said, more to himself than his boy. He continued, this time looking the boy square in the eyes, “I was just a fucking kid. Sure, I had a decade on you right now but maturity wise I didn’t know shit. I was charged with looking pure evil in the eye and fighting it hand to hand. The bloodshed never stopped. The end was the worst. There’s a manual for combat but no one wrote the book on how to deal with the afterwards. No one told me this was a lifelong battle I’d be waging.”
The man took a swig from the bottle. He was no longer worried about hiding his former self from his boy.
“Even the best parts of it, the times when we did our job and should be celebrating I couldn’t. You should’ve seen them, the captives, huddled up behind the fences in their cages like animals. They had no meat on them. Just skin and bones. Their ribs jutted out like daggers threatening to poke through the skin.”
The old man looked away off into the distance, far away from his problems there at the campsite. A lone tear formed in the corner of his left eye. He’d opened up a spigot of emotions, of truth telling, of baring his soul, and now he found he couldn’t plug the hole back up. He continued to get forty years worth of silent demons off his chest.
“At least with the piles of dead bodies you could close their eyelids so we wouldn’t have to look at them. With the still living they were so happy to see us that they wanted to hug and kiss us and just look someone in the eye that wasn’t intent on destroying them and their families that they didn’t even seem to blink, like if they did they might miss something and this dream rescue would end and turn back into their living nightmare.”
“That ain’t gonna to make it any better, though,” the boy said pointing to the bottle.
“Yeah but when you come from where I came from your options are limited.”
Unsatisfied with his old man’s response, with his acceptance of his current situation as his unquestioned destiny, the boy lunged over the fire and pawed at the bottle. The man, bad back and all, put up a valiant fight momentarily but he was too old, too worn down and broken to match the boy’s intensity. The old man had shrapnel lodged in his lower back. He’d jumped on top of one of his buddies that was left out in the open while the bombs began to drop an afternoon a lifetime ago. The boy grabbed the bottle away from the old man and drained it of what little remained. Too much had already been drank in the eyes of the boy and still not enough in some ways for the old man.
The old man had no more words. He was a man dejected. He’d opened up more that night than he’d had in the other fifty-nine years of his miserable life combined. His boy was surely tired of hearing him complain, much like his string of bartenders had been at his usual haunts years ago. He limped towards his tent. The boy was left with the diminished fire lighting barely enough for him to see the creases in the palms of his hands just a few feet in front of his face. For the first time all day the boy was no longer scared of what may happen on the trip. A part of him was relieved that, hopefully, for the first time in years, his old man would be able to blissfully pass out and temporarily forget the chilling past that still haunted him.
The boy heard a wolf cry out in the distance but he wasn’t afraid. It was the sobs that came from the tent that terrified him the most.
* * *
Patrick Trotti is a freelance writer and editor living in Rochester, New York. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a few dozen literary journals, both online and in print. He’s the author of several books, including his debut novella The Day The Cloud Stood Still, the short story collection Come Tomorrow You’ll Regret Today, and the novels That Was A Long Time Ago and A Stranger At Home. While his work has transcended multiple genres and various themes, Trotti’s main focus is on literary auto fiction that delves into the classification of gritty realism. He is currently, and perpetually, at work on another novel.