Second to None
an adapted short story from the screenplay 'Killtrout' first published in the 2020 annual anthology 'With Words We Weave' from the Texas High Plains Writers .

Albert's red '72 Ford Super Cab pickup lurched to a stop outside of his single wide trailer. Prior to his arrival, the trailer court had been quiet as a church. He fixed that as he began revving the truck's engine causing his oversized exhaust pipes to boom loudly. Windows in all the nearby trailers rattled from the noise while inside the truck his 8-track played George Jones' 'The Race is On' - also much too loudly. The awaken neighbors were pissed again but Albert's family in the trailer hated it more as they heard the exhausts crackle with every deep depression of the throttle pedal. The digital clock in the truck showed it was 2:20 in the morning - Albert was home drunk once again.

He finally shut it down.

In the back bedroom of the trailer Jim fidgeted in his upper bunk bed hoping that he'd get left alone - he had school that morning. The 1l-year-old's bedroom door was open allowing him to see down the shotgun hallway to the front of the trailer where a light came on. He lifted his head slightly to look better over the end of the bed and heard the front screen and then the front door open clumsily and slam. He pursed his lips as he heard his mom Lilly start trying to settle his father down. Though he could not make out most of the words she was trying he could tell they weren't helping.

"Come to bed Albert," Lilly implored.

Albert mumbled loudly back to his wife and then pushed her back. Jim still looking down the hall saw the large dark silhouette of his father start down the hallway towards his bedroom. He remained motionless in the bed with the dread that had been building in him all day fully realized since his Dad had not come home right after work again. He hoped the nigh''s upcoming events wouldn't involve his 8-year-old brother Max who also wasn't sleeping any longer in the bunk beneath Jim.

Lilly shouted down the hall at her husband, "Albert! Stop!"

Albert's black form grew huge as came down the hall. He turned on the light in the bedroom to look at his two sons in their beds. Jim stirred pretending as if he'd been fully asleep, he got up on one elbow. Max didn't stir thankful it was harder for his dad to see him on the lower bunk.

"Get yer ass up," Albert barked at Jim. "God-damn-it! Let's go candy-ass. Get up."

Max pretended to stay asleep as he watched Jim clamber down from his bunk following their father out the door into the hallway. Jim turned out the light as he left.

Jim thought "Man, it's too bright in here," as he walked into the tiny kitchen-dining area of the trailer. Being a skinny kid he looked even skinnier wearing only his white briefs like he always did to bed. His mom in her robe lit a cigarette up in the front room. She forced a smile of resignation towards him for what seemed the thousandth time as his father pulled a beer out of the refrigerator. Jim ducked an unfriendly open-handed swing at his head as Albert came back to the dining table where Jim stood. He had gotten better at not getting clobbered at least half the time.

"I thought I told you to mow the lawn today," Albert growled.

"I did Dad," Jim replied.

"Did you weed-eat around the trailer?"

"Yes sir."

Albert motioned Jim to take a seat at the dining table.

"Let the boy go back to bed, he has school," Lilly shot from the front room.

Albert ignored his wife saying to his son, "Get the game."

Jim opened the base cabinet of the cupboard next to their rickety Formica-top dining table. He pulled out a cardboard box and set it down on the table. It contained a chess set which he started pulling out and setting up on the table for them. Albert took a drag from his beer while he waited and spotted a book in the cabinet. He reached in and pulled out a worn tattered copy of 'The Last of the Mohicans', an edition printed back in the '40s. Jim warily stayed out of reach as he finished setting the game - since Jim had made him white, Albert made the first move. Jim struggled to stay awake as he began playing against his father who started on a rant - again...

"That stupid son-of-bitch tells me how it was like over there. He doesn't know shit. Officers, all of 'em, over-educated idiots," Albert grumbled fifteen minutes into his tirade to no one. "Are you going to move?"

Jim snapped back to being alert moving a bishop taking a pawn.

"Not bad. Hmmm..." Albert mused as he castled his King. Looking back up he saw Jim nodding back to asleep. Angrily he shouted "God-damn-it! Are you sleeping or playing?"

Straightening back up again Jim replied, "I'm playing Dad." He re-focused on the board.

Albert reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out an oversized bronze challenge coin with the 2nd Infantry Division insignia on one side and a map of Korea on the other. He started absentmindedly twirling it on the tabletop. Waiting for Jim to make a move, Albert also began thumbing through the beat-up copy of James Fennimore Cooper's novel.

After a bit, Lilly came to the table with a white t-shirt, a small plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Jim. She bent down and kissed him on top of the head.

"I've got to get some sleep," Lilly said. "Honey, wake me if you need anything."

"I'm alright Mom. I'll see you in the morning."

"I know you are kiddo."

Albert kept looking over the board seemingly oblivious to his wife but as she passed him he suddenly grabbed her arm roughly. He pulled her down to him and kissed her. She straightened back up and left for bed without a word. Albert's challenge coin sat in front of Jim.

"Where'd you get this Dad?" Jim asked about the coin.

"My company commander gave it to me when I ran into him a couple years ago. Means more than my bronze star and purple heart put together."

Thirty minutes later the chess match continued with Jim wearing his t-shirt now totally awake. The cookies and milk had helped. He sat silently moving his pieces when it was his turn.

"That dumb bastard. Giving me his take on being an infantryman. That sea-going bellhop doesn't know crap," Albert blurted out starting a new diatribe. He moved a piece and continued talking to the chessboard. "Chipyong-Ni, that was a fight. Tell me all about your good conduct medals after you've faced thousands of Chinese charging your position waving flags, blowing whistles and horns for four days and nights."

Jim studied his father's face.

"Most of 'em Chinese I bet weren't 16 years old and there were girls in with them fightin' and all you could do was keep shooting into their formations and hope the falling bodies in front slowed down the ones behind 'em," Albert went on with a voice that started quivering, "One of those firefights... One night a half-track backed us up with quad 50 cals on top. My God, when it opened up. We had at least a battalion of 'em attacking our position and it was good to have that truck firing but... With the whole platoon dug in and all of us pouring it in… We ground them into hamburger."

Albert paused as his eyes welled up.

"They still got too close, the fuckers. There were too many. The lieutenant called in mortars on top of us. When the shelling stopped, I looked up. There on the plank across the front of my foxhole was a beating Chinese heart," Albert went on as he battled back his tears. Albert finally looked back at Jim still studying him. "Do you believe that shit?"

"Yes Sir," Jim replied.

"Well, when that dumbass Lipton at the VFW can prove to me he was ever within 10 miles of a firefight and not in the rear with the gear, he can start jabbering at me without me jacking his jaw."

Jim glanced at Albert's right hand and only then noticed that the knuckles were bruised and cut. He returned his gaze back to his father's weathered face and saw for the hundredth time the sadness there. It wasn't the first time Jim had heard what happened at Chipyong-Ni and he expected to hear it again.

Albert took one of Jim's pawns. "Check," Albert confidently pointed out.

"Checkmate," Jim quietly declared after two more of his own moves. The wall clock showed it was almost 4.

"Son-of-a-bitch," Albert whispered.

Jim got up from the table, went to his seated father, hugged him and kissed him on his whiskered cheek. He then pressed his forehead tightly to his father's forehead and they stared fiercely into each other's eyes for at least five seconds. "Goodnight Dad. I love you."

"Good-night Candy...," Albert stopped himself. "Love you Jim. We'll all go fishing on Saturday."

Albert picked up the 'The Last of the Mohicans' and started reading a passage. "I'm glad I had this in my bag over there. This part I always reminded myself of."

'Every trail has its end, and every calamity brings its lesson.'

Jim spun around as he was leaving for his bedroom. "Oh. Here," Jim held out the challenge coin to his father. He had absentmindedly picked it up during the night and been clutching it.

"Keep it," Albert told his son.

Jim left the kitchen headed to bed but almost tripped over Max who had fallen asleep on the floor in the hall trying to listen to his father and brother through the night. Jim bent down to get his brother up.

"Come on Max, let's go to bed," Jim quietly said.

The End