ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Force of Habit," a story by John P. Kristofco"



It had been two weeks since the trouble started, and it seemed as though perhaps the worst had passed.  People were beginning to believe that they, that we were out of the woods.

The North Koreans had finally agreed to talk after all, even though they still claimed they had missiles at the ready, even though they still didn’t believe that the American plane they shot down had accidently strayed into their airspace, that the twenty passengers on board weren’t spies, and that this was not the start of some covert strategy to de-stabilize their government. At least those were the points they pounded into the table at a U.N. emergency meeting, points echoed by a handful of their allies, including China.

It was both terrifying and intoxicating as it played out on the television, on non-stop radio coverage, in the papers, in conversations everywhere. But perhaps the dial had been brought back from the brink of war where it seemed to have surged so alarmingly in the first days. Close calls had come and gone before.  The unspeakable worst had always been averted.

That is what Dennis Shepherd thought as he ventured out from the small brick bungalow down McClellan Street after dinner that night, the first time he felt comfortable enough, safe enough to do so.  And there were others out as well, though not as many as before the ‘New Korean Crisis,’ as the networks had come to call this, as they had come to name most everything. ‘They even name winter storms now’ he remembered thinking back in January when the twelve-inch snowfall was named ‘Brutus.’ ‘It was just ‘a foot of snow’ when I was a kid,’ he thought at the time. ‘Brutus my ass!’

That childhood recollection, though,  and others like it were fading farther back for Dennis.  He turned fifty in March, and he had already  been divorced for three it hardly seems possible years.

Mary and Dennis Shepherd had hung on as long as they could stand to, probably longer than they should have. It wasn’t so much that they grew apart as it was that they progressively realized  they had never really been close at all.  He was twenty-one when they were married; she was twenty.  Their daughter Elizabeth came two years later, arriving mainly as an adhesive soul for their fragile union.  They lasted less than two years after she completed college in Chicago and found a job there.

Dennis was convinced that he had tried harder than Mary at the whole marriage task. For instance, after he had determined, with her help, of course, that he was overweight and out of shape, he went on a severe diet, curbed what had become a rather robust appetite for beer, took up exercise, and, by far the most difficult of all adjustments, quit smoking. And though all of this had a fairly dramatic transformative impact on him, it did nothing to accomplish its presumptive goal.  In fact, Mary saw it all as evidence that Dennis was having an affair with Zoey Bracken who worked with him at the bank.  Of course he was not, but by the time that skirmish was over,  he rather wished that he were.  Mary made a convincing argument for it, after all. Oddly enough, Dennis stuck with the ‘new him’ and kept to the discipline, maybe for his own health, maybe to show up Mary in some way, and just maybe on the off chance that Zoey Bracken would one day notice.

So, the Shepherds went their separate ways, Mary to Chicago to be closer to her brother and his family and, of course, Elizabeth.  Dennis stayed in their house until his mother passed away last year, then he moved into the home in which he had grown up, a small brick bungalow on a street of small brick bungalows.

As Dennis crossed McLellan Street, he noticed that the lights were still on at Schnelker’s up at the corner of Parkside. The warming April evening air washed over him, and he thought he’d head up there to grab a Kit-Kat and some ice cream, forget about this whole North Korean business for a while.

The little red brick store had stood on the corner of Parkside and McClellan for seventy years, there before most of the homes on the street were built, though now it was but a tiny island of retail in a sea of houses and apartment buildings, kept afloat as much for its milk, bread, and lottery tickets as for the all-week groceries it once provided in the days before the chain stores, strip malls, Meijer’s, Target, Walmart.  Once it was the place where kids bought penny candy, tried to buy cigarettes with ‘notes’ from their parents.  Once it was the place for Mildred Schnelker’s exquisite homemade pies, a sensory experience that Dennis could still close his eyes and summon to this day.

Now its shelves held the odds-and-ends of what the neighbors needed in a pinch, a potpourri of candy, snack food, anti-acids, pop, beer, and just enough household items to make it worth a stop.

Besides the red bricks and a faded green sign above the door, one of the things that hadn’t changed about the little store was the man who owned it and still came to run it every day, Arlin Schnelker.  He had been coming to conduct business there since the spring of 1962 when the Korean War veteran bought the building and the business from Tom and Betty Brukner.  He had just marked his eighty-fourth birthday three weeks ago, celebrating it by closing three hours early and treating himself to dinner at the Olive Garden up at the mall four miles west.

Three years back, he made the local news when he thwarted a robbery attempt at thestore by throwing a two-liter bottle of Coke at the would-be thief, hitting him in the face and knocking him to the ground which allowed two customers to pounce on the man and hold him until the police were summoned.

Schnelker remained grim-faced and determined when the television camera focused onhim, and a young reporter asked about the experience. “I’m not going to let someone just stroll into my store and take my damn money, no siree,” he declared to the audience.  When asked why he had tossed a bottle of pop at the culprit, he didn’t smile a bit when he said, “because I didn’t want to waste a good bottle of wine on that idiot.”

Dennis grinned at that recollection as he entered the store, hearing the small bronze bell jingle as the door tripped it just as it did back when he was a boy.  Schnelker, who was standing at the counter flipping through his ledger and listening to the radio, looked up at the door.

“Well, hello there, Dennis,” he offered with a small wave.  “Haven’t seen you for a little while.  Been in your bomb shelter?” The old man’s thin face managed a wrinkled smile, a glint in his beady blue eyes.  He looked like a tired old hawk.

“Hello Mr. Schnelker,” Dennis said, though his ears went quickly from the old storekeeper to the voices on the radio.

“Anything new?”

Schnelker shook his head.  “It’s hard to tell.  I think the North Koreans walked out of the meeting at the U.N., a couple hours back, and some of their friends went with them.”

“Oh, that can’t be good,” Dennis managed.  “The Chinese?”                         

“Yes, yes. I think so.”

There was a moment of silence.

“You know, Dennis,” Schnelker took off his rimless glasses and set them on the counter.  He rubbed his eyes.  “This reminds me of those days back in ’62, right after we bought this place.”

“The Cuban business?” Dennis was looking at the radio.

Schnelker nodded. “I remember that one night.  People went to bed not knowing if they—if anyone—would wake up in the morning.”

            “My dad told me about that,” Dennis nodded.  “He said the same thing, said people were sure it was all over.  Some folks started saying their goodbyes.”

“Yes,” the old man said softly.  “Mildred and I sat up most of that night.”

“But, it didn’t happen,’ Dennis tried to brighten the tone. “It didn’t happen because the right people finally realized it would have been insane, and it shouldn’t happen; it should never happen.”

“You’d think we would have learned,” Schnelker said quietly as a new voice came on the radio.  “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Dennis turned toward the candy counter.

The voice on the radio grew agitated.

“Just a Kit-Kat……and a….”

Schnelker reached over to turn up the volume. A loud, shaky voice emerged.

“NORAD has just announced that it has confirmed that ICBM’s have been launched from North Korea and China.”                                                                                               

The two men froze.

“I repeat, NORAD has just confirmed that  ICBM’s have been launched from both North Korea and China.  Targets have been identified in Asia, Europe, and North America. Stay tuned for an announcement from the White House.”

The unspeakable had been spoken; the impossible was happening.  Those words had made it so.

“Oh my God,” Arlin Schnelker breathed out slowly, staring into his small store.

Dennis Shepherd found it hard to move, to think.

He turned, as if to resist those words from the old brown radio and took three steps toward the door when all at once he stopped. He turned to the old man who had sat down on the small stool behind the counter, looking as though he had been shot and propped there.

“Mr. Schnelker,” he called out.

The old man seemed paralyzed.

“Mr. Schnelker!”

Arlin turned toward him as the radio repeated the bulletin, noting that the White House would be on the air in two minutes.

“Mr. Schnelker,” Shepherd said again, this time more urgently. “Give me a twelve pack of beer and some goddam cigarettes!”

As he left the tiny red brick store at the corner of Parkside and McLellan, Dennis Shepherd was assaulted by the sudden eruption of sirens, car horns, and a kind of murmur, a buzz rising from the neighborhood.  He wasn’t sure where he was supposed to go, where anyone was supposed to go, but it felt like he should go back to the little bungalow halfway down McLellan Street. After a few steps in that direction, he heard a collective muffle like some sort of ethereal symphony of radios rising as if everyone had turned to the same page, now all following along, together.  In that moment, it seemed that everyone had become everyone else.

From one window he heard the words “complete retaliatory response” and “three hours to target.”  He felt like running, but then thought better of it and kept his usual long, slow stride. He was both terrified and oddly at peace, like most days, just now with much morevolume on each of those  two settings. The beer dangled from his right hand; the pack of Winstons rested smoothly in his shirt pocket.

When he arrived at the house, he walked into the kitchen and set the beer and cigarettes on the table.  He went into his bedroom, put on his favorite jacket and hat, and returned to the kitchen to take the items out to the small back porch.  It was getting cooler, but the air felt exquisite on his face and hands as he sat down at a small patio table.

He unwrapped the cigarettes and closed his eyes as he took in the sharp, sweet scent of the  pack.  He twisted open a beer and wrapped his hand around the cold, wet bottle. He took a drink and then lit a cigarette, inhaling a long, deep pull.

He set the bottle down and placed the cigarette at the edge of the metal tabletop.  He fumbled in his pocket for his phone.            

And while the noise of horror and anticipation rose around him, Dennis Shepherd calmly punched up Mary’s number.  When it went directly to voicemail, he simply said “Take care of  yourself.” And when the same result came of his call to Elizabeth, he said only, “I love you.”

He sat back in his chair and looked up to the sky that was now nearly dark. He scanned the stars and looked a long time at  the bright, gray moon.

It was almost two hours, four beers, and five cigarettes later when he pulled out his phone once again and rolled through the miscellany of contacts, Facebook postings, pictures, and stray notes assembled therein. He came across the pretty face of Zoey Bracken in a picture taken at the office.  He smiled, sent her a text, and slid the phone back into his pocket.

He lit up another cigarette and exhaled a long line of  blue smoke on its way to the moon, the stars, and maybe someplace off beyond that.

  John P.(Jack) Kristofco, from Highland Heights, Ohio, is professor of English and the former dean of Wayne College in Orrville. He has published over five hundred poems and forty short stories in about two hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, The Bryant Literary Review, The Cimarron Review,  Grasslimb, Iodine, Small Pond, The Aurorean,  The MacGuffin , Sierra Nevada Review, Blueline, Sheepshead Review, Slant, and Review Americana.  He has published three collections of poetry,  A Box of Stones, Apparitions, and The Fire in Our Eyes with a fourth, The Timekeeper’s Garden, just released this March. He is currently working on a collection of short stories for publication next year. Jack has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times.
His stories and poems have appeared frequently in this journal.

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