No Hero

Jess Walter

My old man was a cop.
“I’m no hero,” he’d always say.
Then, as if to prove it, he’d go rob a bar and shoot someone in the leg.
“I’m beginning to wonder how you can still call yourself a cop,” my mom said.
“Semantics,” Dad said.
I looked up from the backseat. “Yes?”
That was my name. Semantics. My mother was a rogue linguist who named me after her unfinished thesis at the University of Oregon: The De-evolution of Semantics as Both Signifier and Outcome of Cultural Deterioration. She called me Sam for short and said I was always up to antics. She loved two things, my mother, puns and idioms. And Dad. She loved Dad. They had a great love affair, or at least they always sat next to each other on the bench seat of our king-cab pickup truck when we went on these robbery sprees.
“Semantics,” Dad said again, “hand me the Glock.”
Dad’s guns were laid out in the backseat next to me. I handed him the Glock and a box of 9X19 Parabellum bullets. The gun was heavier than it looked. The guns were always heavier than they looked. You’d think I’d eventually register that fact, but every time I picked one up, I thought the same thing: that gun is heavier than it looks. I mentioned this to Mom.
“Better late than never,” she said.
“You know that doesn’t apply to this situation,” I said.
“It’s not rocket science,” she said.
“I’m no hero,” Dad said, tucking the gun into the waistband of his jeans.
We were parked outside a whiskey distillery in Redding, California. Dad mostly robbed brewpubs but he occasionally mixed in a small batch distillery or a craft cocktail bar. He wasn’t anti-alcohol. But he hated what he called “the goddamn yuppies.”
“You mean hipsters,” I used to say, but Dad was set in his ways, committed to what he called his “rules and regs,” i.e., only shoot the goddamn yuppies in the leg (he aimed for the fleshy part of the thigh) and only shoot one goddamn yuppie per place, and only those brew-masters, distillers and bartenders with ear gauges, top-knots or facial hair.
Unfortunately, we lived in Portland, Oregon, so…

What had gone wrong with our family? It’s a fair question. Mom would have said the answer lay in this linguistic anarchy that had taken over the whole country, that our endless lying and selling and outraging and tweeting and posting and pop-singing had led to a complete collapse in representational meaning—starting with words like conservative and liberal and moving to words like patriot and truth and fact and cop and family and love and robbery and… everything. Nothing meant anything anymore, Mom would have said.
My father would have said the problem was the goddamn yuppies.
I would have said, “No one calls them that anymore, Dad. They’re hipsters now.”
The original goddamn yuppie was a bearded guy named Tyler who always wore a knitted skull-cap, and who opened a brewpub in the building next to our house. It drove Dad nuts, the smell of yeast and the sound of bottles and growlers going into the dumpster and the cars always parked on our lawn, and Tyler always telling Dad to “Chill, man.” Then, one day, after someone vomited what looked like a Belgian stout on our porch, Dad walked into the brewpub, pulled out his nightstick and, without saying a word, beat Tyler to within an inch of his life.
“This is exactly the problem,” Mom said, “An inch of his life. This is the kind of hyperbolic throwaway phrase that drains a language of meaning, until nothing has significance except as the empty expression of yet another inanity, until this viral absurdity has rooted in our very brains and infected our phenomenological sense of self. Who wouldn’t resort to violence in such a world, in which a person could lose her house tomorrow, then get online and post how it’s ‘a blessing in disguise’ and get six thousand likes and hearts and yellow smiley faces.”
Perhaps these were good points Mom made, but they weren’t very
effective as testimony. Once Dad decided to represent himself in court and call Mom as his only witness, he was pretty well doomed. He was found guilty and went to jail for six months for aggravated assault. He lost his job, too. Then Tyler won his civil lawsuit and we actually did lose our house, and boy, it was no blessing. Dad got out of jail and we lived for a while with my aunt, then we just… floated.
Dropped out.
One day we got in the truck and simply drove off. Away from the sick society my parents rejected. We were on our way out of town when Dad saw something. He got off the freeway, went into a McMenamins, and came back to the truck with $540 and an order of Cajun tots that had been sitting on the bar, waiting to be delivered.
I was supposed to be starting ninth grade in a week.
“We’ll home school you,” Mom said.
“In what home?” I asked. I had to admit, though, the tots were pretty good.
“We’ll truck school you,” she said.
“That’s not a thing,” I said. “Plus, I’ll get car sick.”
She turned and faced me. “School does nothing but create an army of mindless automatons spouting slogans and sharing memes, dull-eyed consumers and spreaders of a broken, poisonous system. From now on, you will learn to live and not merely study the reflection of life. Sam, your
education will be the thing itself, the earth and the stars, the meat and
marrow of actual, visceral experience!”
It was quiet in the truck.
“What about P.E.?” I asked.
She looked out her side window. “To each his own.”
“Mom,” I said.
“Fish out of water,” she said.
That one actually did make sense. I was a fish out of water. I hated middle school. I was an odd kid, small and shy, with a nightmare combination of a reading disorder and an obsessive, overactive imagination. I had Dad’s sullenness and Mom’s habit of overthinking and I alternated at school between alienation and anxiety, fits of terror and bouts of boredom.
Still, I’d hoped high school would be better—and surely better than hanging out with your parents, looking for hipster businesses to rob.
After that talk about school, Mom had Dad stop the truck at the next rest stop, where she had me do twenty-five jumping jacks and six pushups. Back in the truck, the consensus was that my arms were kind of weak. Dad made sure the handguns were unloaded and then I did three sets of curls with them as we rolled down the highway.

For two months, we traveled this way, up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to San Francisco, Yreka to Yakima, Vancouver to Vancouver, staying in motels, eating fast food, Dad robbing microbreweries and speakeasies and whiskey barns, Mom and me acting as lookouts.
We paid for everything in cash. We used no cell phones or credit cards, because Dad said those were the easiest things to track. We lived on freeway off-ramps and back highways, in double-bed motel rooms with free HBO, in truck stops and diners and Quiznos sandwich shops.
Within a month, I could do a hundred rest-stop jumping jacks and forty pushups.
I went along with all of this, because… well, what could I do?
But if I am being honest, it was more than going along. Every life, on the inside, begins to feel normal in its routines, in its unsightly logic. Imagine if I stared through your dining room window every night; I might begin to see your life as insane—four people sitting around a dining room table, staring at hand-held computers while the television sat paused on some TV comedy you were all binging.
Who can say that one kind of life makes sense and another is insane?
Eventually, I guess, I could.

“You know this is insane, right?”
From the front seat, my parents both looked back at me. We were in the parking lot of that booze barn in Redding. Dad had loaded the Glock and tucked it into his waistband.
“I’m no hero,” Dad said again.
“A penny saved is a penny for your thoughts,” Mom said.
“That’s my girl,” Dad said, and he kissed Mom hard on the mouth, got out of the truck, and went into the distillery to rob and possibly shoot a guy just for having facial hair.
“This can’t go on,” I said to Mom. “You must know that.”
She sighed deeply. “Sam, I want you to listen to me. It’s true. We are out on the edge of something here. Our failed language has corrupted our very thoughts and beliefs—a disintegration caused by endless drivel and pointless exaggeration has us muttering in dialects of outraged victimhood, narcissistic self-pity, social media banalities, worthless clichés. And without language, all meaning becomes random and impossible. Without the words morality and decency and hope, how can we be moral, decent, hopeful? How can I possibly tell you what’s right and what’s wrong when even those words mean nothing? How can I say that your father isn’t a great American when words like America and great have become political gibberish? I mean, that ship has sailed, son. The horse is out of the barn.”
“Train’s left the station,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. “Consider for a moment the old myth that the Hopi had no words for the measurement of time. That they counted time in discreet events, harvests and hunts and births and deaths, and not in months or years. Now the fact that this story is probably a fallacy does not make it untrue. The world we see is the world we see. Do you understand what I’m saying, Sam?”
“I think you’re saying that it’s okay if Dad goes in there and robs and shoots a guy for distilling huckleberry-infused whiskey and having lamb-chop sideburns… but I still think it might be insane.”
“Live and learn,” Mom said, and turned around in her seat.
“Clean-shaven,” Dad said, as he climbed into the truck with $625 and two bags of smoke-house almonds.
What could I do? They were my family. And I loved smoke-house almonds.
It’s all any of us can do in the end—survive those lunatics whose most deranged act is bringing us into such a world. “You don’t pick your family,” as Mom might have said, or “Blood is thicker than water.”
“Goddamn yuppies,” as Dad would have said.
And me? I unloaded the Glock, grabbed a Smith-and-Wesson M2.0 auto and began working my triceps.
And off we sped, to a gastropub in Grants Pass that was featuring as its Pint of the Week a Winterfest Chocolate Dunkle, a job that Mom cheerfully predicted would be “Easy as pie.”

Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.
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