Esprit de Corps
David Peak

In front of the garage: a system of ropes, pulleys and scaffolding. And then a five-hundred-pound, seven-foot-tall, antique dresser dangling some twelve feet off the ground.

The house was over a century old—yellow-brick, scaly with ivy.

Big-bellied men in sweat-stained shirts, two of them, their torsos stretching out the half-moon window above the sloped glass of the greenhouse, arms extended, thick brown gloves over their hands.

The dresser was too large to fit through the front door, so they’d had to hoist it through the window. You want that fucker in your master bedroom, right? You get it in there directly.

The workers got their hands on the dresser and tipped it at an angle, pulled it in, Hoo-ah. They’d repeated it again and again. Hoo-ah. Said it together. And he recognized it as something his father used to say—a military man, a real knuckle-beater.

A few hours later, the half-moon window replaced, dresser standing upright against the wall, he’d asked the movers about the chanting, what it meant. The bigger one, his face roasted-red and mouth firm, rolled up a sleeve and brandished the tattoo of an eagle with a severed human head held in its talons. Skulls are gonna get cracked.

* * *

The house was left to him by his father, dead now, a gift that kept on taking, with a property tax attached that, alone, was well above one-third of his income. What little income. Social services didn’t do much for those on either side of the fence, he’d say, if anyone ever asked. But they usually didn’t.

All the years he’d spent avoiding who he was, where he’d come from, only to wind up back where he began.

Over time, those twisting vines of ivy, they bit into the bricks, cracked up and ate away the mortar: nests of earwigs swelling in the window sills, their slick brown bodies squirming through his chest hairs in the morning.

And he’d pick them out, one by one, those loathsome pincer-tailed bugs, would watch them writhe with sleep-fogged eyes, feel their little bodies give way and break between his two fingers.

* * *

He worked with troubled boys, presented them with their options, tried to demonstrate to them the error of their ways—all the while explaining his role in the criminal justice system. It wasn’t because he cared. It was his job. They were all the same—brown-skinned, slouchy, mush-mouthed—their last names so common they might as well have been nameless.

He asked these boys the same questions, one after another, asked them about their previous foster parents, about their experience with group homes, with shelters, how they’d hid the bruises from their teachers at school, how they’d learned to steal cars in the first place—or where to take them after that.

Communication was something closer to the way arched-back animals bared their teeth. He’d let their stares burn into the wall behind him.

He learned to understand the mystery of their eyes—the boys—the blackness of their pupils, the hurt that could be gleaned, that lurked, a snapping-jawed monster sloshing at the bottom of a darkened well.

* * *

It wasn’t difficult for him to understand what it was like to come from nothing, to understand the loneliness of a room full of metal cots and snoring bodies. He’d been one of those troubled boys himself, back when, had narrowly avoided military school by running away, earning money doing odd jobs.

All the years he’d spent shooting crows for a dollar-a-piece, a kid, all the years mowing mango-littered lawns in Miami, a teenager, that smell of the fleshy sticky pulp, all the years of whatever else, the countless mornings spent trying to breathe a deep enough breath to not feel like not-a-success, a young man.

Those cold-sunlight moments: in his bed each morning, pinching those terrible slippery bugs between two fingers, one after another, snuffing out those bitter and barb-wire feelings, until he worked up the steel to slide out from under those sheets.

He’d grown accustomed to the bottomless feeling, the need to try and fill the very bottom of his lungs with air that didn’t sicken with the acidic fumes of mango.

And each morning he’d open wide those dresser doors, ready to once again enter the office, convinced, this time, that he finally understood what all those lost, lonely boys really needed. They needed the same thing everyone needed, what he needed, to toughen up, to want to wake up and enter the fray, to be that guy on the battlefield they blew trumpets about, who parted the endless waves of troops like they were nothing, like they were memories, tiny bugs to be broken.

David Peak is the author of Surface Tension (BlazeVOX Books). He lives in New York City and blogs at

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