Zeal

Josh Patrick Sheridan

John Ross is raising an army. He intends to train us himself and to provide us our agenda, our weapons, and our ammunition. He’s announced that our base will be on his grandfather’s land, on a patch of hillside where nothing would ever grow. We will pitch our tents between the rocks and cook meat that we’ve killed ourselves over the campfire. In the mornings John Ross wants us to run twenty miles and in the evenings he’d prefer that we play cards together, that we spit a lot, and that we smoke cigarettes and joke about each other’s privates. He says we will build a watchtower at the top of the hill, manned at all times with two personnel; they will be responsible for proximity surveillance: our early warning system. He wants us to bathe together, which I oppose. He wants a moat dug by Tuesday.

We had a battalion meeting last night during which we discussed provisions. Some of us think it would be nice to bring hot soup along on recon, so we discussed how we might do that. Tabled. Some thought it would be good if we had actual guns, and not just sticks that look like guns. John Ross said he’s working on it. Tabled. I wondered why we had to sleep on the hillside in tents. Why couldn’t we all just go home at night and sleep where we normally sleep and reconvene in the morning? —This isn’t school, John Ross said. —We’re not here to learn our capitals and square roots, goddammit. —While we’re on the subject, Craig Pritchard said, why are we here again? —Goddammit, John Ross said. —We’re here to protect the homeland, soldier. We’re here to raise some American Cain.

(John Ross uses the words “America” and “American” a lot, but he’s only being sentimental. This place he’s talking about, this America, is only an abstraction to us, like the heaven our parents promise if we’re good and the hell they threaten us with if we aren’t. Like the Great Big Back Yard in the Sky, where Craig Pritchard’s mother told him their dog, Alfie, went, even though Craig had seen his father shoot the beast with his own two eyes and strongly suspected they’d eaten it in stew. John Ross’s version of America ignores the reality of what this place always was: a loose affiliation of colonies that housed a looser affiliation of people who had a hard time adjusting to the differences in one another’s beliefs. In John Ross’s version, everyone eats hot dogs and shoots bad guys and smokes Winstons. Well. I can’t blame him for dreaming; John Ross’s America has a lot to like about it.)

In the evenings he stands at the crest of his grandfather’s hill and looks down onto the purple valley. Once upon a time, unconcerned with matters of death and regimen and chain-of-command, John Ross and I, and our littler brothers (who aren’t around anymore to join our cause), would ride down into the gullet of the valley on sleds made from plastic trash can lids. John Ross was convinced that, given enough speed, perhaps an assistant gust of wind at his back, he could make it all the way to the bank of the river, a mile or more down and hidden by a copse of birch trees. No way, we’d said, and he’d taken off toward the woods. As far as any of us knows, he made it. He says he did. The rest of us had watched his track disappear into the birches, but how he managed to not kill himself in a spectacular crash we’ll never know. John Ross has always been destined for greatness.

As of today, there are fourteen soldiers in our army. We’ve begun our exercises in earnest, marching two-by-two down the one-lane road that all of us live on somewhere or another. And it hasn’t taken long for us to look smart: as though we’ve had a handle on this operation all along, as though we are somehow more simpatico than one would have expected, we march in lockstep, our pine-bough rifles unapologetically cinched at the shoulder, John Ross in the lead, chanting, —I don’t know but I’ve been told, and then us: —I don’t know but I’ve been told, and John Ross: —Hillside hearts are frozen cold, and us: —Hillside hearts are frozen cold. (John Ross thinks we should call ourselves the Hillside Dragoons, because it sounds good. When someone pointed out that a dragoon was a cavalryman, and therefore required a horse, John Ross simply said, —Then we will have to find some goddamned horses.)

Our mothers come outside to watch our exercises and clap their hands and chant our jody calls with us, which is not ideal. We throw them sidelong glances, glares really, but they don’t take the hint, and the seriousness of our task continues to go unnoticed. —Well, John Ross says when we get back to camp. —Let Michael come down that piss-bucket street, and let me hear about it. See how serious they take us then. (“Michael” is John Ross’s nickname for the enemy.) He stops to survey his legion: on our knees, tongues out, trying to fit tent stakes together, trying to please John Ross in the quickest and most efficient way possible. —Dragoons! he suddenly shouts. —Yes, sir! we call back. —Are you willing to do what your country requires of you, Dragoons? And we all look at each other for a second, like Jesus, this isn’t a joke to him, and we say, —Yes, sir! And John Ross says, —Even if it means running headlong into the birches? —Yes, sir! we say, unthinking. —Even then, sir!

Author Portrait

Josh Patrick Sheridan lives with his family in upstate New York, where he works for an early college high school program and teaches writing at area colleges. Recent work can be found in Shenandoah, The Adroit Journal, and Coe Review, among others. Follow him on Twitter @belmontfoghorn.

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