J.T. Whitehead lives with his wife Julia – the founder and Executive Director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis – and their two sons, Daniel and Joseph. Whitehead is a Pushcart Prize-nominated short story author, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and the winner of the 2015 Margaret Randall Poetry Prize. He also is the Editor in Chief of So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. His first full length collection of poetry,The Table of the Elements, published by The Broadkill River Press, was nominated for the National Book Award. Whitehead's travels have taken him to Vancouver, Hong Kong, Oxford, Munich, Paris, Beijing, and Amsterdam. He has worked as a pub cook, delivery man, liquor store clerk, and grounds crew member. He practices law by day, and writes poetry by night.
Sgt. Pain never could bluff
Sergeant Pain’s new girlfriend was 15 years younger than he was. She was a real cutie-pie, nice ass, great legs, former cheerleader with awesome flexibility. She was very lithe and she loved the Army. Her Dad was Army and her uncle was Army and she thought Pain was the greatest. She loved Pain. They were a perfect match. Except her tits weren’t quite big enough. So he asked, and she agreed. Even put his dog tag number, in a tattoo, on the left one, when it was done. And she caught a discount on the deal from the cosmetic surgeon, who was allegedly a former Navy Seal, once he learned that she was doing it all for the love of her man in uniform, for the love of Pain. So Sergeant Pain had about 400 dollars still sitting around, to play with. That meant poker, of course. He could have taken his woman -- his words -- on a trip somewhere, or banked it, but his brother-in-law -- his sister’s husband – hosted poker nights every fourth Saturday, and Sergeant Pain decided to take part. He had only heard about it, up until now, but this time, he took up Jim’s invitation. Jim was a District Attorney, and he warned Sergeant Pain, there are going to be a lot of lawyers there, so be careful about what you admit to having done, what you say, trust me. Sergeant Pain committed the unpardonable sin of cheating, that night. He asked if he could bring a deck of his own. Jim told him, Not only should you, I was going to ask you to do so. We need decks. Long after the fact, Pain thought his brother-in-law had set him up, that he knew Pain or knew this about Pain. Great shame, now greater, for Sergeant Pain, after the fact. Some of the cards were marked. Jim was the one who grabbed Pain’s wrist, and called him out on it. Sergeant Pain wanted to work his way out of it in his usual way, which was simply to start kicking ass and putting folks in the E.R. But you can’t really beat the shit out of a District Attorney. It’s not a bourbon bar in Hillbillyville with a D.A. It’s a Brain Game. Now whenever Sergeant Pain’s woman says, “Play time, Daddy?” and takes off her bra, Jim’s words bounce around in his skull -- “Sarge--” (that was what Jim called him) – “You’re as honest as fake tits.” Poor Sergeant Pain. He left 612 dollars down, not counting the original 400. That’s not counting all the playtime he lost – hearing those words ring in his ears – every time he read his number on the left one.
Sgt. Pain, Ret.
Later in life while drawing his pension compliments of the communist government of the United States of America, Sgt. Pain took a job as a supply room manager at the Wal-Mart in the north-side rural suburb of Monrovia, named for the fifth president of the United States, before it was communized by Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, & Barack Hussein Obama, and not to be confused with the capital city of the West African nation of Liberia. Sgt. Pain spoke often to the young men there about his heroic exploits in Operation Desert Storm & other exotic places, like, for example, Granada, in an effort to edify them on the virtues of pursuing heroic exploits for their own sake. He would tell the shirkers it was gasket-blowing time, boys, in a loud voice, when they were shirking, or remind them that he was about to go bat-shit crazy, and if they weren’t going to do the work, then they should at least pretend to do it, to avoid the shame. & they would say -- “Go batshit crazy, old Sergeant Pain,” & -- “Yeah, Dude, you pretend we’re working.” “You always pretend you’re some kind of hero and not just an asshole. . . . so you can pretend we’re working.”
What counts for Sergeant Pain
Handing Sgt. Pain the forms,
the recruit says, laughing out loud,
in anticipation of his own joke:
On the sheet it asked me –
ARE YOU OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN
A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY?
Yes, says Sgt. Pain.
Well, says the recruit, smiling,
regaining his composure:
I’m a Democrat . . . does that count?
Sgt. Pain is not laughing.
It’s never too late for Sgt. Pain
Sgt. Pain kept the grunts out on the Island past 3 a.m.
Repeating the drill.
“Too little,” he said.
Base addresses included “Reservation Road” . . .
Sgt. Pain lived in a place on base on –
Wait for it –
A Jewish recruit
Joked with an offended Black recruit –
Don’t take it too hard, my Black friend.
The only reason
He took it is because
Somebody put in
A better bid
For the house
On Concentration Camp Court.
When a bumper sticker inspired Sgt. Pain to start his own business making bumper stickers:
Government didn’t build his business.
Pain did. Without any help. The finesse
Pain displayed negotiating the loans
he lent to himself with the bank Pain owns
marked Pain’s second greatest accomplishment,
after the hours and labor Pain spent
assembling, piece after piece, the car
Pain designed, manufactured, then sold. Man
is no island, according to God’s plan
but God did not design this man. This guy
did it all . . . himself. An I for an I.
Pain drove roads Pain paved without help,
with maps Pain charted himself, of lands Pain
surveyed himself. Every point means “Pain
is here.” Pain traveled to meetings in planes
he flies himself, using radar Pain reads himself.
It’s safe, on account of regulations
Pain passed and then enforced all by himself.
Pain kept his payroll on the computers
Pain built himself. And Pain designed the apps.
Pain sent every letter through a post office
with one employee: Pain. Plus or minus
this presence of a few million others,
all of whom helped to make Pain’s business,
Pain built it. Pain did it all by himself.
And Hell raises itself by its bootstraps . . .
About the time Sergeant Pain confused a psychological diagnosis with a new muscle car
Sgt. Pain took the call collect. His friend was Corporal Jimmy, & Jimmy had just wrecked his car, a GTO, same as Pain’s. Jimmy was having monogamy issues as well. What sustains Sgt. Pain with a woman doesn’t work so well for Jimmy. Sex alone could work for Pain. It wasn’t enough for Jimmy. Pain’s ex-, as Pain told Jimmy, managed to keep Pain at home with only good head. Pain said to Jimmy “she scratched wherever it itched.” But Jimmy said, talking about his own woman, “she scratches too much.” Meaning: Others. Silence on the other line, at Pain’s end. He was thinking about it. “Since you mention it, what gave it away?” Jimmy tried to get to the source. “It was down on me. We’re done in bed. Because I got the PSD.” “I see, I see.” But Pain still spoke, of course, about the car crash. “Tell me,” he said, to Corporal Jimmy, “about the PSD.” Jimmy said “It’s bad man, and it comes on hard and fast.” Pain imagined something better, meaning, better than his own GTO. Something faster. Believed the woman was jealous of a new set of wheels. Jimmy always put more time under the hood than under the covers. “Well, man, how do you take it?” Jimmy said “Barely, barely at all.” Pain said, “She left you for this?” Jimmy said, “No. I mean yes, maybe. See, I got it. I have it. She left. I can’t explain it.” Then Pain said “Shit. Maybe she’s jealous of your new PSD.” Jimmy said, “if she’s jealous of us, meaning me and my PSD, she’s a goddamned fool. There is no us. It’s just me and the PSD.” Pain of course knew full well what PTSD was. But Jimmy had a new PSD. Pain, who drove a GTO, was not to be outdone. As soon as the call ended, Pain began calling every dealership in town. Not one of them carried the new PSD.
When Sgt. Pain (Ret.) worked part-time for his girlfriend’s brother’s moving company
Pain had always moved himself whenever he had to move from one place to another. He failed to understand anyone who wouldn’t do it for themselves, no matter how much shit the dead-beat owned. Still he agreed to work part-time for his girlfriend’s brother, who owned a small business, a moving company, named “2 Dudes in a flat bed” (“flat bed” written in two words, as they named, marketed, and painted it). He needed the money. He owed it to his brother-in-law after a bad night of poker. So he agreed to help his girlfriend’s brother out, working part-time, moving dead-beats. Hung-over, he met them at the property instead of riding out in the truck. After some hassles at the gate outside the gated neighborhood, he showed up, about 20 minutes early. The house was four stories, including the basement, and Pain walked the yards, checking it out. The truck showed up, the girlfriend’s brother barking orders to the other two as they stepped out of the truck. Inside, the sheer quantity of possessions and the sheer quantity and weight of the furniture failed to persuade Pain that people might, sometimes, need help moving. Even if they paid him for it. The man who owned the home was an enemy, as far as Pain was concerned.
Pain would come to adore the man, eventually. It wasn’t on account of the man’s needs. He had a 1.2 million-dollar home, full of possessions, and clearly he could not move it all himself. It certainly wasn’t the wine cellar, which Pain helped pack wrapping bottles in cloth and paper, with names he could not pronounce. The vineyards were unmanageable, but Pain had difficulty even getting “merlot” or “cabernet” or “tokay.”
He knew “port” however.
It wasn’t on account of the wall of safari trophies, though Pain had an unspoken respect for anyone that had killed so much . . . life.
“At least he can shoot,” Pain told another mover.
When the owner stepped down to the second level, while Pain and others were wrapping art work by artists whose names Pain would never know, never even pronounce correctly, Pain asked,
“Who do I have to work for to own this much shit?”
“I don’t work for anyone,” the man said. “People work for me.”
Pain really had it in for the customer, now. Even the gun-rack wasn’t enough to make him see the customer as just another man. But then, when he was asked to dismantle the patio, Pain had his Eureka moment, and recognized that, yes, he is part of a bigger family, he’s part of a larger cause, he has friends, allies, even something resembling kin, and this millionaire was among them. Out back, just at the edge of the two-level deck, near the stone steps that led down to the boat docked at the reservoir – named “Margin Loan” – he found his sign. It was the flagpole, and flapping in the breeze at the top was not, as one would expect, the flag of the United States Marine Corps, nor Old Glory, but the yellow Gadsden flag, and its motto:
Don’t tread on me.
Pain was lost in reverie. Pain, whose income consisted of his military pension and his Wal-Mart Assistant Manager’s salary of 17.25 thousand, annually, plus his part-time work this day, as a mover, had found his ultimate ally, his ultimate friend, someone, he just knew, who was on his side, and that man was the man with the wine cellar and the 1.2 million-dollar home. Pain couldn’t stop reveling in it. “No wonder he’s so good at shooting people,” Pain said to himself, out loud, on the deck, immediately correcting himself, “Animals. Shooting animals.” Pain remained locked in this dream state, rapt about the fact that someone understood what was really wrong with the country, that there was someone in the world who understood what he, Pain, understood. He remained fixed in this dream-like, almost meditative state, staring at the motto on the flag on the pole outside the back of the house –
Don’t tread on me –
And so he remained, until his girlfriend’s brother ruined it with a shout:
“Hey, Sarge, we’ve got a kitchen and two game rooms with about six chess sets and a pool table to pack up in here, not counting an entire upstairs. You gonna help, or you just gonna stare at that stupid-ass snake on that stupid-ass flag? If you like that flag so fucking much, take a picture, it’ll last longer.”