Samantha Cole
Highlands of Affliction

When the grocery store doors opened with a hum, a blast of chilly air hit Gene that sent a tremor through his body. It was cold as hell there.

Temperatures like that reminded him of two places: a morgue and church. No thoughts of winter or hushed silence of snow entered his mind at the chill. No holidays spent with loved ones, pumpkin pie, or the scent of wood smoke on the wind. Just a church or a morgue, and how he didn’t care a lick for either of those places. His mommy, Hazel, had tried to bring him up by the Word printed in red and black on onionskin pages. He used to joke around with her, told her that it was the congregants in the church that drove him away from it. They were just a bunch of gossiping grannies and hardheaded farmers. Maybe that really wasn’t such a funny joke.

                                                    Churches seemed to buzz with secrets, sacred and otherwise.

When he was little and his mommy had perched him in slick church pews, Gene couldn’t sit still. The gleaming wood invited him to fidget, smelling of lemon oil rubbed in by women with liver-spotted hands. On cleaning Sundays as they strutted about church, they gossiped like chickens, clucking about absent members. Their open mouths told tales of broken marriages, affairs, hushed pregnancies, addictions, public outrages. It was too much even then for him to keep still. Too often during services the gospel music and old men who called out amens sparked the movement.

Churches seemed to buzz with secrets, sacred and otherwise. Gene’s wiggling became so bad at times that Hazel threatened him. She said she might have to tell his dad when they got home; get himself a belt-whipping. She often swatted at his hands, shushed and scolded him under her breath; took the Lord’s name in vain right in His own house. Even then, Gene had the makings of a hellion. The thought made him grin to himself.

He had decided to head for town to pick up a few things he needed, which wasn’t much, considering most of the time his fridge stayed stocked with Budweiser, lunchmeat, and a bottle of rotgut. He thought he’d go down to Save-A-Lot on the other side of the county and pick up the stuff to have Leslie make dinner for them both. As he tossed a box of cereal into his cart, he ticked through the items he needed in his head: eggs, pork chops, Jiffy corn muffin mix, side meat, milk. After he and Leslie got finished in the bedroom he wouldn’t want to go out, just have another beer, stay in bed and smoke a few more cigarettes. Better that they ate beforehand.

The music coming from the speakers in the store reminded him of some filmstrip from the fifties: upbeat, strings and the sound of chimes every once and again. It bothered him, somehow, as he leaned over the meat cooler.

He imagined a woman in a jumpy frame, pushing a cart down the aisle, dressed like Jackie Kennedy, hair in a bouffant as a voice droned on behind her, invariably one of a white middle-aged male: “New advancement in technologies has made caring for you and your family easier. Ask Mrs. Smith, here. Mrs. Smith, hello!” No doubt it might have some title like: Food and You! Could have been a film shown by the teacher to girls in home-ec classes, a film the teacher might deem an absolute must-see for the officers of the Future Homemakers of America.

So much bull crap. No wonder everyone back then bought into all that junk. After Normandy and Germany, island hopping and Japan, those boys needed a fucking break. And since the Rangers, Gene thought he needed his. There didn’t seem to be any break in this small town, though. Surrounded by ridges on every side, even the roads people used to escape had long ago busted and cracked under the weight of industry, burdened with just taking another truck to the loading dock, the dumping site, the landfill.

People here still lived like they probably might have when Jackie Kennedy held her littlest boy’s hand at his daddy’s funeral. Even that much modernism was probably doubtful the farther from town you got, Gene decided. At least, you’d think so. The only reason Gene stayed here was because of the green hills a man could live his life upon, beside, or between, all hidden away if he wanted to. That and the promise that when he died he could be lowered into the belly of a mountain with the rest of his kin to keep him company. Family and peace were the two things that mattered most to him since he had gotten back. After all, it wasn’t girls. Girls are everywhere, and in this whole town there sure as hell wasn’t any woman there who looked like Jackie Kennedy. Not even Leslie, as pretty as she was, looked a damn thing like Jackie, though Leslie had been sort of an anchor for him since he got back, better to him than anyone else, even his family, at times.

His mom and brother and whoever the hell else just couldn’t understand anything that had happened to him since the service. Somehow, Leslie seemed to understand what made him startle awake at night during bad dreams, or jump at the sound of a gunshot fired down the road. There were times when, after getting off work, Gene felt like punching people in the throat, wanted to pick up a piece of wood from the saw mill and bean some asshole across the face with it. Then Leslie might greet him at the door, or put on some Randy Travis and give him a cold Bud, and everything seemed okay for a while. She might even roll over in the bed next to him after he woke up with the sweats, pull him close, sing “Beautiful Hills of Galilee” in his ear until he fell back asleep.

When the tune of that song entered his mind, Gene began to whistle as he walked down the aisles, scanning the shelves. It brought to mind perfume and the smell of washing powder, Leslie’s hair touching his cheeks. How she looked on the couch with her knees tucked under her, a curious smile on her face.

But memories of church crowded those things out. He could recall that one preacher they had sat under for most of their lives, whose exact name escaped him, though his name didn’t seem important. But in his mind’s eyes, Gene could see him standing behind the pulpit with slicked-back grey hair, a bolo tie and cowboy boots on, some wrinkled linen suit bought from the Rose Bargain Department Store downtown. He seemed sort of smug to Gene. Often jerked his head back and forth like a banty rooster when calling up singers or asking the congregants to the front for prayer, making a point during a sermon. “So-and so? Why don’t y’all come up here and sing us a song or two?”

All the people in the church, however, seemed to adore that preacher. Any preacher, really. Once called, congregants stood to make their way up to the stage, to the altar, or perhaps to throw money into the offering plate placed on the back of the piano. The large women in threadbare dresses, the thin and thick men who looked baked from too much time spent behind a plow. As if their spotted skin had turned to rich earth over the years: dark, turned in rows around their eyes and on the backs of their hands. They gave faithfully, cried when they knelt to pray, sung the hymns and played the instruments that kept the services going. Like saints to a river, they glided up toward the front of the church house, willing to do whatever it was their man of God had asked of them. When the preacher said jump, everybody in the pews asked how high, and tried their damndest to get their feet off the ground.

From somewhere in the store he could hear voices talking that began to fade, replaced by silence, then a loud ringing in his ears.

Only once since he had been back had anyone ever asked him what his tour in Afghanistan had been like, the tour he signed up for three days after the Towers fell. One night, while they were lying in bed, Leslie had asked, “What was that like, being over there? The war?”

As soon as she asked, he looked away, felt as if he couldn’t stare at her when he gave his answer. “It was a lot like hunting, sometimes,” he finally said, rolling on his side. He could see the sandy desert unfurl in his mind as he talked. He remembered the sweat and grime on the back of his neck, half from nervousness and half from heat. The place smelled like fire, and he could hear the sharp staccato of gun blasts on his left side. “A lot like hunting; except we were hunting people and they could fight back.” 


War wasn’t like anything. Not like any stupid videogame or movie.
There was no reset button, no rewind or fast forward.

Even as he thought about it now, his mind throbbed. It was hard to put into words. How could you talk about war? How could you tell anyone what being in that wasteland was like? Express what it was like seeing some man who looked like a killing machine standing near you one moment, then laying in a bloody pile the next? They could never know or understand unless they had been there themselves. War wasn’t like anything. Not like any stupid videogame or movie. There was no reset button, no rewind or fast forward.

His hands were trembling, his chest felt tight. He remembered he needed to pick up some nerve pills later at the Rite-Aid. Slowly, the ringing in his ears was replaced with the retro music above him, the sound of a voice somewhere in the store, yammering.

Without a word, he eased on down to the end of the aisle, put a box of saltines in his cart, and kept going.

Around the bend there was an old lady followed close behind by an older man. He guessed they were husband and wife. Their gold bands on their ring fingers told as much. She was blabbing away on a cell phone while the old man shuffled behind her. They both seemed strangely familiar. Gene decided she was the one he had heard talking a few moments before.

The old lady had on a long skirt, hair pulled back in a silver bun that sat perched atop her head. She was wearing a large grey and black striped poncho that covered most of her bulk, had the little cell phone pressed up to her pale, fat face. Gene thought she must have had her teeth replaced with falsies sometime back because of the shape of her jaw and chin. The shape of her face was somewhat reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West. If only her nose had been a bit longer.

Behind her was a man that looked like so many others in the county. Just like all the other ones who had spent too long outside, maybe trying to eke out a living on a patch of ground. His face was dotted with sunspots, wrinkled and brown as dirt. The way he moved made him look like he might have something wrong with him. Could be a nervous tic but whatever it was, every few seconds one side of his face seemed to morph into a grimace, then a forced smile, and eventually melted back down into a frown. The other side stayed the same. Again and again his mouth and eyes appeared to run through the entire gamut of human emotion, missing the mark. His right side seemed happy, then pained, a bit sinister, very angry, and finally, sad.

The conversation on the lady’s phone carried a long way. To push the cart she was hunkered down over the front bar, shoulders stooped, like those men do when pulling a diesel truck in ironman competitions. Gene ignored them as they moved, but he could hear her. It was hard to escape her booming voice.

“Why, yeah, lordy, honey, those crazy women had their tits out while they was up there at old man Crabtree’s church getting their commodities! Their commodities!” She paused, long enough for Gene to imagine the woman on the other end gasping. “Yep, had them out swinging them all over the place. That’s what Edny told me the other night. Sure was…”

Trailing off, she made a motion to her man behind her at something on the shelf. He leapt over, his face still smiling, frowning, smiling, frowning, and picked up a case of off-brand root beer, slid it underneath the cart. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, now…that’s what she said! Can you believe it? Some people don’t know how the hell to...” Her arm flew in another wild waving motion as she pointed at some bread. That too was picked up by the old man and placed in the cart. “…act in public, I swear, it’s the truth. Bet they was some old trash from the housing project.”

Gene scoffed. Everybody in the whole county lived within a ten mile radius of the housing project. The Manor was about two minutes from downtown. Another project named Crystal Ridge sat on the hill right beyond the Manor. 

Once Gene had a teacher in school that referred to the government housing collectively as “The Marijuana Manor.” Not that always having pot on-hand made those people any worse than anybody else in the county, just more susceptible to raids by the cops. The pot business did them pretty good. And what the hell were all the guys who lost their jobs supposed to do after the factory on the hill shut its doors for good? A man’s got to have something to do to make a decent living. That’s what Gene believed.

When he glanced back down to his own buggy Gene noticed he had filled his cart with junk on the trip from the front of the store as he made his way back to the milk cooler. He started unloading some of it, putting it back on the shelves, weeding out stupid impulse buys from what he needed. He hadn’t come here to buy gum or chocolate or graham crackers. He didn’t need canned peaches, pears, or pineapples, so he sat each can down in a little huddle near some bottled water. As he placed a can of chili back on the shelf near the chips, took a minute to look over them with his back turned, he heard metal against metal. Before he saw her, he heard her.

“Hang on a second, Lola. Lord, somebody done run right into me.” The old lady jerked the phone from her ear, glared up at Gene. She seemed not to notice he had a broad barrel chest or big arms. Not like most women had done, glanced up at him slack jawed, eyes wide. Instead, she looked right into his face before snubbing her nose up at him, face crinkling up in disgust. “Don’t you know how to drive a cart, boy?” Behind her the old man held a carton of chocolate milk in his hand. The brown and white cow on the label trembled along with the rest of his body.

When the old man reached to put the carton in the buggy, the woman shot her hand out. “You wait a minute there, hoss.” She pushed the carton back toward her husband. “I’m trying to have a conversation, here. It seems like.” She looked up again at Gene with burning eyes. “We got us a feller who don’t know how to push a grocery cart. What the hell is this, bumper cars? You think we’re at the motor speedway?”

There was a muted female voice coming from the phone. Gene opened his mouth to speak, heard sound slowly start to fade away.  “I was just standing here, ma’am. I—.”

Handset shoved back up against her ear, the woman cut him off. “I’ll call you back, honey. I got to go.” With that she pressed one of the buttons, flipped her phone into her purse that sat like a black gaping maw in the top part of the cart. The phone sailed in with perfect accuracy. Obviously, it wasn’t the first time she’d pulled such a move.

“Now, you…” She stuck out her finger, pushed the tip right into Gene’s chest. “…listen! You can’t be running around here, crashing into people. You got some nerve.”

Again, Gene began to talk. The ringing was starting, soft. “Hey, I’m telling you, lady, I don’t know you from Adam, and—.”

The old man behind the lady was mumbling from the open side of his mouth. Gene shut up, decided to let him have his moment to talk. Maybe he could calm his crazy old woman down. “Shirley, let’s get this here chocolate milk,” he said. “I like me some, every once in a while. We run outta chocolate syrup, so--.”

Eyes wide, head jerked over to her husband, the old woman opened her mouth and let out what sounded like a roar. “Hang on a second! I don’t care about no damn chocolate milk. I’m trying to teach our friend a lesson, here. Don’t you get that? Always interrupting me. Won’t even lemme talk to people, I swear. Gimme that carton.”

For a few moments everything went silent in Gene’s mind, even the music humming from the speakers above stopped. Hand shooting out, that lady grabbed the milk, threw the carton down into her buggy. The paper container settled into the bread, cow-side up, weight crushing the loaf of Kerns the man had placed near a box of Cheerios a few minutes before.

Sympathy for the man flooded Gene’s chest and he glanced back up to examine him. There was still something so familiar about them both. What was that on the man’s chest, peeping out from his collar? Was that the stock of an anchor in indigo ink? A tattoo?

Gene’s thoughts went back to a hot morning in church, a tall man carrying an f-style mandolin painted with a sparkling tobacco sunburst. Orange, yellow, mellow red of maple trees in autumn.
He had big, work-hardened hands that danced across the small neck of the mandolin with ease, fingers that always managed to find their place at precisely the right time as he and his wife and daughter sang “Working on a Building” in high-pitched voices. Whispered words about the man being left-handed, stringing the instrument upside-down came to mind. When young Gene had whispered back to his mommy, all he wanted to know was why the man had smiled the whole time, and the woman by him only wore a frown.

What had the preacher called him? Nolan… “Nolan, why don’t y’all come up here and sing for us?”

It couldn’t be that the man in front of him was the same smiling musician from church way back then. Even the worst woman couldn’t break a man like that. Proud, strong, the stamp of work and another life in the military or in jail left on his skin through needles. Either way tattoos were markings that belonged to experienced people with pasts that bubbled up under their flesh in letters, numbers, and symbols. Blue and black visible through an almost threadbare white cotton dress shirt. A big smile on his face with gleaming white teeth peeking between lips as he opened his mouth to sing, tattoos visible at the wrist and collar of his shirt as he lost himself in gospel music.

Now the same man, older, seemed to never be sure of his own emotions, face transforming every moment. His eyes met Gene’s and Gene looked away, pulled up his sleeve, and flashed one of his own tattoos. He had to do this, flashed the old man a tattoo of his own: a simple black scroll lined with red. Nolan squinted over.

Gene thought he heard quiet again, then a growing ring, louder
than any of the others before. A loud buzzing right before a scream
flooded his ears, guttural, angry, and mean.

“Second Ranger Battalion,” Gene said. “Afghanistan.” One of Nolan’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m always proud to meet another serviceman, even if he was a sea dog.” Feet moving to one side, Gene stretched out his hand to Nolan for a handshake.

But Nolan never got to shake his hand. Instead, the huffy old crone between them glared over at her husband, then back at Gene. Shot him a look full of absolute venom. “It ain’t any of your business what my husband’s been through. I don’t give a shit if you were a soldier. My man doesn’t like to talk about his time in the service, do you, Nolan? It ain’t important, is it?”

As the pomade-slicked head of the fellow dropped to stare at the tile floor, Gene thought he heard quiet again, then a growing ring, louder than any of the others before. A loud buzzing right before a scream flooded his ears, guttural, angry, and mean. Profane words roared into his mind, came tumbling from his mouth.

“You old bitch. Look at your man. You’ve killed him. Not no war, you! Are you blind?”

Face red, Gene grabbed the side of the old woman’s buggy and flipped it onto its side in one fluid motion. Everything toppled over the metal rim. Some of the groceries skidded down the frozen foods aisle. A silver cell phone went sailing. The carton of milk stopped short of a shocked lady’s feet.

Eyes wide, Nolan’s wife stood, frozen, mouth gaping like a fish that had been drawn from the river. For a split second, she looked even more confused than her man. Gene was glad. Then, like some used piece of newspaper, her face crinkled up, she opened her mouth, pointing her finger at Gene who watched her mouth move, ringing retreating in his ears. “You look here,” he heard the lady scream. “Look here…”

Nolan glanced back up, his one working brow raised. Heartbeat finally slowing, sound completely returned, Gene strode a few steps forward to get the milk, returned to place the hefty, cool carton in the old man’s creased hand, ignoring the woman as she bawled. “For you, buddy. That right there was for you.”

Abandoned cart still in the aisle, the old lady started to howl. Gene walked past the few boys manning the floor who were hurrying over to help her pick up. At one of the cash registers Gene paused, interrupted a young girl smoking a cigarette and gossiping with another lady. From his pocket, he produced a five, gave her the crinkled bill. “Be sure my friend over there gets his chocolate milk.” He pointed with his jaw, and then kept going, stepping out the automatic door toward the hot asphalt of the parking lot.


Samantha Cole is a current resident of Berea, Kentucky, who grew-up in Beattyville, Kentucky. She enjoys reading, and occasionally writes poetry or fiction about modern mountain life. She has published poems in Appalachian Heritage, Kudzu and Still: The Journal. This is her first piece of published fiction.

Samantha Cole on writing "Highlands of Affliction":

"This work of fiction originally grew out of a creative writing class I took while enrolled as a student at Berea College. Basically, it was inspired by all the people I knew, growing up, who had fought and sacrificed themselves for our country. I felt as if I had something to say about the fact that many of our service men who return from war, even though they may be physically unharmed, are changed forever."

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