Imaginary Enemies

Iowa State FlagElbow and I ducked out of our nephew’s birthday party and drove to Walmart to check on ammo prices. I didn’t care about ammo prices. I was along for the ride. Elbow was married to my sister and just out of the Marine Corps. His hair was still high and tight, and he strutted around with a purposeful intensity that I had a difficult time keeping up with.

He stood at the ammo display—closed and fortified with a brass lock. He peered at the inventory. “Figures,” he said. “They’re out of .22 and 9 mil—everywhere in America’s out of .22 and 9 mil.” He put his hands on his hips and looked around. I stood behind him, pretending to care. .22, 9 mil? I had no idea. All I’d ever shot was a Red Rider BB gun at a friend’s twelfth birthday party. Elbow glanced at the clerk. “Shit’s going gangbusters with the current anti-gun, anti-ammo administration.” The clerk—a dopey-eyed teenager with spots of acne—nodded and then went back to reading his Fur-Fish-Game magazine. Elbow marched over to the counter. The clerk looked up.

“When’s the next shipment?” Elbow said.

“Tuesday,” the clerk said. He spoke slow as an elephant. “But all the dudes in this department buy up the ammo and sell it for a premium.”

“Fucking horseshit,” Elbow said. He fidgeted with his hands, then leaned over the glass counter and plucked the magazine from the clerk.

“Dude,” the clerk said. “I work in Auto. They just sent me over here to cover the desk while everyone’s on break. I know nothing.”

Elbow handed back the magazine.

“Hey,” he said to the clerk. “Look alive.” Elbow jabbed toward the clerk’s face. The clerk flinched, dropped the magazine.

“Easy does it,” I said to Elbow.

I looked around, conscious of other people. This was a college town that sat on the border of Iowa and Minnesota. My friends shopped at a food co-op and voted Obama. I wanted to avoid seeing anyone I knew for fear of what Elbow might say. On the way over, he’d asked what I did.

“You mean for a job?” I’d said.

“That’s right,” Elbow said.

“I’m working for a branch of the AmeriCorps,” I said. “The Energy District. We retrofit homes so they’re more efficient.”

“You mean you work with silver-spoon do-gooders, prancing around old-ass homes caulking windows and sealing air-strips around doors.” He hit me on the shoulder. “A feel-good project.”

I looked out the window. It was that time of year when the mounds of snow were brown, receding, melting into the gutters, and the sun put forth more effort, guiding us into spring. “Something like that,” I said.

Elbow continued to stare at the clerk, straight faced, frustrated.

“Dude,” the clerk said.

“Don’t worry,” Elbow said. “If I was gonna punch you, it would’ve happened.”

“Wonderful,” the clerk said.

“Look alive,” Elbow said, shadowboxing around the clerk.

Elbow led me to the toy section where he grabbed a plastic Uzi and handgun for our six-year-old nephew. He inspected each like he might inspect his own military issued M-16—with meticulous detail and care. “Fucking sweet,” he said, holding them up. His eyes were focused and determined. I was bored and craved something to snack on.

“I might need a Big Mac,” I said. There was a McDonald’s attached to the Walmart.

“You shouldn’t eat that,” Elbow said. “Shit’ll rot your stomach.”

“Getting hungry,” I said. “Let’s stop somewhere on the way back.”

“Hungry?” he said. “God, you civilians are weak. Talk to me about hunger when you haven’t eaten for four days.” He mumbled something else under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Fucking pussy,” he said. He swung his cart toward my thighs.


“Never mind,” he said. He shook his head. “It’s been a rough few weeks.” His face scrunched together, turned red. He moved his cart away from me, down the aisle toward checkout.

By the time we got back, the party was pretty much over. Elbow darted around the living room with our nephew, Jack, son of two lawyers. They rolled their eyes at Elbow’s gifts.

Jack held the Uzi proudly, aiming at every man, woman, and child who entered his sights. Elbow armed himself with the pistol. Together they formed a team—two Marines. They took cover behind furniture and shot at imaginary enemies, making gunfire sounds. Elbow shouted instructions to Jack. “Cover me while I crawl to the piano.”

“Got it,” Jack said. Jack pointed his Uzi and started unloading. I was in the kitchen with the other adults, forking into dense, flourless cake, and wishing I could play alongside these guys without worrying about what the others thought. I wondered what Elbow would say of this dessert.

“Good shooting, Private,” Elbow said, nodding affirmatively.

I sipped coffee. They were closing in on the kitchen, ready to take us hostage.

“Jack,” Elbow said. “When I say ‘attack,’ make your move—I’ve got you covered. Roger, that?”

“Roger that,” Jack said.

Elbow motioned his pistol in our direction. “Attack!”

Jack stormed the kitchen and started blasting at everything. As promised, Elbow covered him, sending bullets through all of us, yelling, “Die motherfuckers!” Jack grinned, looking pleased.

He pointed the Uzi at my chest and said to Elbow, “I’m taking this one hostage.”

“He’ll be useless to us,” Elbow said. “Might as well do the deed right now.”

I pleaded my case. “I’ll be useful to you,” I said. “I’ll cooperate fully. I’ll fight the good fight.” They looked at each other to decide my fate. Their sneers told of my chances. Their confidence in me was miniscule, smaller than the distance between Jack’s finger and the trigger.


Keith Lesmeister was born in North Carolina and raised in Iowa. An MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, and Monkeybicycle, among other publications.

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