Shopping Cart Soldiers: A Novel

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9781880684481: Shopping Cart Soldiers: A Novel

Shopping Cart Soldiers is a modern day Odyssean tale of the atrocities of war and its even more applling aftermath. Set against the brutal realities of the conflict in Vietnam, John Mulligan tells the story of Finn MacDonald, an eighteen-year-old boy who is drafted soon after he emigrates with is family from Scotland. Upon returning from Vietnam, Finn is plagued by the terrible memories of all he has seen and is pushed into a haze of self-destructive behavior that tests his will to survive. Shopping Cart Soldiers chronicles Finn's painful and remarkable journey-- and his triumphant path to spiritual renewal and recovery.

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About the Author:

John Mulligan is an author and playwright who lives in San Francisco, California. He is the winner of the 1998 PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence for this novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

It is dark and a light drizzle falls on Paranoid Park, a small park stuck in the middle of North Beach. The name lingers on long after San Francisco's hippies took their last bad acid trip. Nowadays the park is living room and bedroom to many of the city's homeless. At the edge of the grass, next to the bench where he sleeps, a Shopping Cart Soldier dances wildly as if his feet were on fire. His name is Finn MacDonald. He is an Albanach, a sick Albanach, withdrawing from alcohol against his will. He grabs and pulls at his clothing, and beats himself violently about the face and head until blood trickles from his nose. He crouches behind his shopping cart hiding from demons he can see but cannot touch. He's familiar with the demons, knows them by name. They've visited him often over the last twenty-five years or so, ever since he left the war behind.
"Get away from me!" he screams. "Fuck off, ya bastards."
The fear in his voice makes me want to scream myself. I try to console him, but I just make him worse. After all, he still can't see me. I wonder if he ever will. All I can do is watch him suffer. When I'm about to despair, Arkansas, an old pal of his, now dead, comes running towards him. Arkansas's been sheltering in the nearby bushes, but when he hears Finn's cries he leaves his blanket beside his own shopping cart and runs to help his friend. Arkansas knows what's happening; he's seen it so many times before. He pins Finn's arms behind his back; he doesn't want his friend to hurt himself again.
"Is it the voices, Finn?" he asks. "Are the voices at it again?"
"Aye," says Finn. "It's that bastard Madman. I don't know what he wants wi' me. Do this, do that -- he's drivin' me outa my goddamn mind!"
Arkansas knows all about me too. Madman, that is!
"Here, have a swig at this," says Arkansas, offering Finn a half-empty bottle of vodka.
"Arkansas!" says Finn, "You're a darlin'! I didn't know yae were in there," he says, referring to the bushes.
Arkansas chuckles. "I'm always in there, you know that!"
Finn takes a long pull at the vodka bottle then sits down on the bench.
"I was nearly sleepin' myself," he says. "Then it started! That nigglin' voice tellin' me I'm killin' myself, tellin' me to get it together. Screw it, Arkansas, gimme another drink I'll drown that bastard yet!"
That's about as much credit as he ever gives me. All he seems to think about is how to drown me with his stinking booze. It breaks my heart, because I do everything I can to keep him alive. He should've been dead a million times, but I always manage to keep him holding on another day, just one more day. Because I do love him so.
Arkansas isn't the only one to hear Finn's cries of withdrawal. The police hear him too. They show up a few minutes later, flashlights flashing, nightsticks in hand, wondering what the hell's going on. Arkansas scarpers into the bushes again. They catch Finn, vodka bottle raised to his lips, chugging for all he's worth in a last desperate effort to get enough booze inside him to still the shakes. They handcuff him and, as they escort him to the patrol car, he shouts over his shoulder: "Take care of my shopping cart, Arkansas. Put it in the usual place." Finn is lucky; Arkansas's loyalty is beyond question; he stashes Finn's shopping cart safely in the usual place. But Arkansas's own luck ran out a few days later. A park attendant found him dead among the same bushes he slept under most nights, as rigid and stiff as a railroad tie. His killer had caved his head in, caved it in as if he hated Arkansas, and the contents of his shopping cart were scattered around on the ground beside him. The same miserable bastard stole his boots too. They were good boots, black boots with thick, leather soles. Arkansas was fond of his new boots.
On his way to jail Finn is in a panic. He doesn't have enough booze in his system. It'll be a long night in jail. The withdrawals will get to him. He'll have an alcoholic seizure! DT's!
"Fuck this bullshit," he mutters, straining against the too-tight handcuffs, sick and tired that it's happened again.
Some men aren't meant for war; their souls are far too old. They've seen it all before. The Albanach is just such a man. I knew it and he knew it the very first moment we stepped onto the red soil of Vietnam. I can say this with some certainty, with some impunity, for I am his soul, his spirit. I do know that much at least, though I don't know everything! But Vietnam's a million miles away now, and Finn's busy looking for his shopping cart.
He finds it, safe and intact, where Arkansas left it behind an abandoned building, a safe place they used whenever they needed to.
Finn lives in a small, compact world about ten city blocks or so in diameter. His world is centered at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Stockton Street. He stops to paint and panhandle there every day; it is his favorite spot, his moneymaker. Only rarely will he make a foray into the world beyond; it doesn't make much sense for him to wander anywhere else, because everything he needs exists within the perimeter of his circular world, a world so like the one he lived in while fighting the war. He doesn't have to guard the perimeter of his present world, but he doesn't venture beyond its boundaries either.
He likes to paint, but because he doesn't have a home, let alone a studio, he paints out of doors whenever he gets the chance. He simply ties a canvas or a piece of wood, or whatever other flat surface he might find, to the top of his shopping-cart, takes his brushes and paints in hand, and goes to work as if there were no tomorrow. Today he's working on a canvas given to him by a sympathetic student from the Art Institute. He rarely experiences such kind gestures in the harshness of his shopping cart world.
"Why, thank you, kind sir," he says, with such a condescending tone the student raises his eyebrows questioningly.
"Do you want it or not?" asks the student, his feelings hurt, his hand still gripping the stretcher bar.
"Oh, I do, I do indeed!"
"Then why are you being such a prick? I don't have much either, you know!"
Finn looks hard at the student, then smiles grimly, already regretting his condescension.
"Sorry, buddy," he says. "Maybe I just ain't used to such kindness. But at least yae acknowledged me, saw me; most of the time I'm invisible. People don't see me, y'know, an' they sure as hell don't see my shoppin' cart. I'm what you might call an Invisibility," he says with a throaty chuckle.
The student smiles too, and I burst out laughing myself when I hear Finn talking about being an Invisibility; it's an unusual term certainly, but an accurate term, though not usually applied to the still-alive.
Long ago Finn grew accustomed to the stares and the snide remarks of the commuters, and there are many snide remarks these days; his shopping cart home and his appearance, though threatening enough in themselves, are nothing compared to the intimidating images he paints. Everything he paints is bizarre and disturbingly unreal. He feels sure that most of the commuters are threatened by his presence on the corner, and when they tell him to "Fuck off!" or "Go back to where you come from!" he puts their bellicose barbs down to fear, fear that they themselves may be just a paycheck or two away from the same fate, then he'll shrug nonchalantly and go on about his painting.
He enjoys painting the people in his head, the Visitors he calls them. He's now busy painting a rather frightening image of me with chalk-white skin and a separation at the waist which looks both brutal and painful as if I'd been pulled apart, ripped in two by some awful force. Why the separation I don't know, but he seems to think it's important. He's got my body right though, for I am small, even my breasts, though they're plump and full. Blossoming, if you will, for I am young. He doesn't know who I am of course, since he hasn't seen me anywhere but in his mind; all he knows for certain is that I enter his mind, that my image keeps recurring in his dreams, and that he feels compelled to paint me.
He's putting the finishing touches to this latest painting when, out of the unusually overcast sky, another alcoholic seizure slams him to the ground without mercy, without even a nod or a tip of its hat in warning, his canvas and brushes flying wildly, his arms and legs askew, his head jackhammering against the cold concrete.
The commuters try to ignore Finn and walk around him as he lies on the hard pavement shuffling and shimmying around in his fit. A small pool of blood gathers under his head. When the convulsions subside he reaches out, shaking to his bones and, grabbing onto the end of his shopping cart, tries to pull himself up off the sidewalk. But he falls back exhausted, shattered. He feels as if he's just been stung with a cattle prod, for his body tingles head to toe, and a dull thumping pain pulses in the back of his head. He's pissed all over himself, and for a few long minutes he feels disoriented and confused, not knowing whether he's in San Francisco or lying on a sandy beach on the other side of the world.
"Are you okay, son?" an old woman asks. She stands before him wrapped in an old rag of a coat as worn as Finn's.
"No, missus," he says. "But I'll be fine."
"Should I call an ambulance; you look like you need an ambulance."
"No thanks, missus; I'll be fine, I really will! It's a seizure! Just another damn seizure!"
He feels like weeping. He's been on the streets, homeless and miserable for more then twelve years now, ever since Mary Quinn, his wife, left him, her own heart nearly broken at her inability to help him. When Mary leaves she takes their son with her too. Many a time, in his dreams throughout the years, Finn sees Mary leaving their home with their son, Finn Johnny Quinn. She always carries the same heavy suitcase in her hand, her head bent low, tears streaming down her face as she trudges along the street, away from their home, away from him, the child hanging onto her sleeve, wondering what the hell's become of his quiet, safe life. The look on his son's face when he turns to see his father in the window of their home is etched upon Finn's heart forever. Not even in his wildest dreams could Finn imagine Mary leaving him. He is ultimately filled with wonder when she does, because his most far-out dreams of her have been so fantastic, so poignantly intimate they tell him only that they're meant for each other and that nothing in the world could ever come between them. Then the alcohol does, and so too does Finn's consequent withdrawal into himself.
"You're swallowing yourself whole," Mary tells him as she stands before him, hands on hips, her dark eyes ablaze with anger.
"Bit by bit, feet first, past your gut, and now you're up to your neck. One more swallow and you'll be gone. I don't want to see that, Finn," she told him. "I don't want to see you disappear inside yourself."
Then she left.
She was right too, because I saw the swallow coming myself. In truth, I do the best I can to help him allay the inevitable, to make the inevitable less destructive; it's a hard thing to watch a man swallow himself whole, feet first, all the way up past his stomach to his neck and the last fatal swallowing, gone forever into the hole of his retreat into himself.
He's lost all of his old friends too, and he hasn't been back to Alba since that first time after the war. He hasn't seen any of his family in over twenty years and none of his American friends can take his self-abuse any more either. Their love for him is so much they can't bear to see him continue to kill himself with booze. Not even for one more day. It's too painful by far, because they know that, ultimately, he's a decent fellow with a strong urge to live peacefully. It is too great a burden for his loved ones to witness his destruction. Nor can Mary and the child continue to watch him die so slowly, day after day. He finally leaves all of them behind. His struggle will have to be gone through alone. All that keeps him from swallowing himself whole is his need to paint those wild and bizarre images he loves so much. The painting seems to keep him rooted in something resembling life. He took up painting just after the war and it seems he must paint his life story on those flat surfaces. He knows intuitively that there's something beyond himself which compels him to paint, that there's a reason for his existence after all. He paints for his life, from the inside out, needing somehow to communicate. It's all that's left and he holds onto it with a quiet desperation.
Finn is tall and thick as an oak, yet, at the same time, he's nimble on his feet. He has coal-black hair gone grey, and blue Keltic eyes. At best, he looks ten years older than his forty-five years, though he feels older even than that.
As he picks up his brushes and paints, he wraps his tattered coat more tightly about him. He still has some pride left, and his incontinence embarrasses him. He stinks. Stinks of piss! Piss is a death smell. Dead bodies smell of piss. "I smell of death," he mumbles through a resolute grimace. He's been trying to stay away from the bottle, trying to quit drinking, but without medication a seizure is inevitable. Nowadays at least. He knows that to be true because it's happened so many times before, but he wants so much to quit drinking that he feels the risk worthwhile. Maybe now, he thinks, I'll be okay; I've had my seizure. Then he thinks back to the jail cell.
He remembers having one, probably two, seizures in jail. And he remembers the hallucinations and DT's setting in during withdrawals. Another seizure is certainly possible too, though he's never experienced a doubleheader before, let alone three in a row. He wonders whether his brain will remain intact if he has another seizure. Maybe this time he'll have a heart attack or a stroke, maybe his mind might snap.
But, no, it's just the drunk-tank again, arrested once more, dead-drunk in public, arms and legs shackled to the wall of the cell, his head hanging low, wondering why he can neither live nor die, wondering why he can't stop drinking, why he has to be arrested again and again, marriage broken, life a shambles, drunkdrunkdrunk! Overwhelmed with fear!
I'm there in the cell beside him, filled with grief at my inability to help him. Everything he experiences, I experience, though I see only the pictures, hear only the sounds; I never feel the pain he feels, though my breasts ache knowing what he's going through. I become angry with him at times. "Take me back, damn you, take me back!" And though there's a stirring of loss somewhere inside him, a feeling of something not quite right, he refuses to open up his thick, fat heart.
As I watch him, a cockroach moves across the floor, turning first this way then that, searching, searching as Finn is searching.
He looks up and, seeing a Grotesque walk into the cell, screams with all his might. He can't believe his eyes. She is tall and thin, a hag, as ugly as sin, whose single breast droops to her navel and drips an ugly, green putrescent liquid; her lipless mouth shows long, sharp teeth. Yet even though she's lipless, she can still smile in a chilling sort of way, which she now does as she walks over to Finn who has fallen silent, petrified beyond speech or even sound. The hag smiles her grotesque smile. It is a calm and determined sort of smile which makes it all the more chilling. Then he notices her eyes. They are red, malevolent red, and almondshaped.
She approaches him in a demonically sexual way, first sticking her dripping wet breast into his mouth trying to make him suckle and, failing that, kisses him pas...

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