We are excited to include “The Rounds at Blanding” by Tom Sokolowski in our New Voices catalog. “The Rounds at Blanding” follows Selena, an MP at a military training facility in Florida, a protective single mother to PJ, not interested in anything more serious to come out of her fling with her fellow MP Julian. Sokolowski’s earnest prose takes on a tour through the rounds at Blanding, a site known for its extreme weather.
Selena parks the patrol car in a spoon-shaped alcove that brushes Kingsley Lake. The tires spit mud at the Military Police decal. She slides her seat back. There’s no cage in the patrol car, an old SUV with cloth seats and sun-grayed interior plastic. Julian clambers over the elbow-worn center console to kiss her, untangle Velcro, lower the zipper, and part her camouflage blouse. A vine-netted stretch of lakeshore creeps a dozen feet away. The lake water is morning-smooth. This is Camp Blanding, the largest military training facility in Florida.
There’s not much activity for the MPs—Selena and Julian have already completed most of the day’s work, blocked the main county road with their patrol car so an infantry convoy could depart to a shoot house. The radio crackles, a call from the Provost Marshal Office. “Fuck,” Julian says. Selena’s blouse drapes around her elbows, her shoulders exposed.
Julian responds over the radio. Apparently, some strange man is wandering the front gate’s perimeter fence.
“Does he seem like a Sovereign Citizen?” Julian asks. These are hillbillies, if they can be called that in Florida, who don’t believe laws apply to them. In the summer, near Georgia, a father and son pair gunned down two cops with assault rifles over a traffic stop. Some have made conspiracy theory videos about Camp Blanding.
Halderman, the MP running dispatch, says, “No, he just seemed crazy.”
Selena buttons her cargo pants, weaves a canvas belt back into the loops, starts the car. She’s fooled around with Julian for a few months—almost immediately after being hired. If the MP job wasn’t so boring, perhaps she’d be more professional. Still, this is a far cry from struggling to support her son as shift manager at a Jacksonville Wendy’s.Around a dozen soldiers manage shifts. All are National Guardsmen, but Blanding is their full-time work. Four shift at a time—two patrolling, two at the Provost Marshal Office. The entry gates are contracted to private security. Primarily, the MPs are a presence. The night shift watches Conan movies on repeat. Sometimes the MP Humvee is taken for mud runs on land navigation trails. Once, an IED was called in. Someone had thrown away training supplies in a dumpster near the helipad; they left a Vietnam era combat vest with wires and old camera film canisters hot glued and duct taped—a simulated suicide vest. Selena had to evacuate the nearby fire station, call EOD. They had a good laugh.
The patrol car rambles over windfall on the muddy path before reaching paved road. Selena and Julian pass FLYCA, a school for troubled teens that focuses on pushups. They pass a gear-filled warehouse and weave alongside Kingsley Lake where a company of soldiers do jumping jacks in a rectangular formation near the water. Across the lake, on the north end, are big civilian houses and docks. Civilian Jet Skis slice the water.
Kingsley Lake is almost perfectly circular and the focal point of Camp Blanding’s northern end. Selena has been told that the lake looks like a coin from the air. Silver dollar, pilots say. She’s heard the lake formed from an asteroid strike. That the alien metals cause the extreme weather. It’s not hard to believe because lightning has turned earth in the camp to glass. Somewhere by the south shooting ranges, there’s a lightning-studying facility from the University of Florida.
Near the welcome center, Julian asks, “Wouldn’t sex be nice in a bed?”
“All the parts fit just as well in the car,” Selena says. She makes a right, and the lake obscures behind a row of barracks.
Julian pulls the coiled radio wire that attaches to the speaker on his chest like a suspender. He gets like this. “I want to be with someone I can see a movie with. Get a taco with.”
“I’m raising my son.” She wishes she could be straightforward, tell Julian that the chances of them becoming a little happy family is low. Life isn’t a fairytale. “I’m very busy.”
Julian presses his head against the passenger window. “What toys does he like?”
“Scotch and cigars.”
“I want to get him something. You can say it’s from you.” Julian makes this face where his eyes widen, scrunching his forehead like a French Bulldog’s—his pleading face, love-stricken face.
Close to the front gate, Selena thinks about her son. PJ is better off with no father than a broken one. Selena’s father was twice her mother’s age. Her strongest memory of him comes from her mother’s funeral. Selena was eleven. Her father showed up shaved, hair pulled into a ponytail, and fitted into an old suit a size too large. He looked like he’d done his best to be presentable to a jury.
PJ’s father is completely out of the picture. When Selena moved in with Russell, a poltergeist of love possessed them. They said fictions to each other: I love you. I wonder if everyone has felt this way. No. No one has felt this. This is just for us. The pregnancy was a mistake—Selena had been living with Russell for less than six months. Still, she thought they’d be a family. From Russell’s screenless porch, she’d look at a little jungle gym, a half-dome capping dead grass, beside an overgrown crepe myrtle that always drooped with rain, dripping flowers onto an old trampoline’s rusted springs and canvas. The canvas had turned halfway to powder. Russell had said the toys were there when he moved in. Once, they fucked on the jungle gym. The bars, cold and dewy, were less comfortable than the worst pull-out mattress. But Russell liked the sex. She was nineteen, Russell twenty-eight.
The man who has been wandering about the perimeter fence is a hundred yards from the gate, between the fence and the public museum that explains how many German POWs were housed on the camp in the forties. Selena and Julian approach on foot. The man lumbers away from them, looks like he’s trying to pick flowers until he reaches the fence. He attempts to fit his head between fence bars. The man has long white hair and a deep widow’s peak. A gray stubble covers a jaw that, without many teeth, looks infantile.
“Sir,” Julian says.
The man doesn’t react until Julian and Selena get close and nearly shout. He straightens, struggles to hold his balance, then lunges to hold Julian.
“Whoa, man. Hold up,” Julian says, taking a defensive stance, holding out his forearm. “Sit on the ground if you can’t stand.”
Selena palms her pistol grip.
“Sit,” Julian says, leading the man down in a crouch.
He smells of body odor, but not alcohol. The man looks up and smiles with maybe three teeth. The right side of his face lags in expression.
“He’s fucked up on something,” Julian says.
“I haven’t been fucked up since eighty-three,” the man says.
“What are you doing here?” Selena asks.
“I haven’t had a drink since eighty-three,” he says. “You ask anyone.” He slurs his words, stares in wrong directions.
“Sir, you’re going to go on your way in the other direction,” Selena says. “You can’t be on this property.” She points toward Starke, a town ten miles west with the only active execution chamber in Florida.
Julian shakes his head. “Sir, you have ID?”
The man flops onto his back. “This grass is itchy,” he says.
“Should we call the cops?” Selena asks.
Julian pats the pockets of the man’s stained jeans. “Sir, hand me that wallet.”
The man does. Julian finds a scuffed ID. He says, “The address is close.”
Selena fetches the patrol car, pulls onto the grass. They lift the man and pack him in the back.
The address on the ID is a little shack with a collapsed porch. The man has fallen asleep. Julian asks Selena to watch the man as he knocks on the door. A young, heavy woman answers. She nods and follows Julian to the patrol car. After Julian opens the back door, the woman shouts, “George. Get the fuck up.” She yanks George from the patrol car and drags him as he lurches to the shack. She thanks Julian and Selena with a wave.
On the way back to the camp, Julian says that it’s good they kept George from getting arrested. “Waste of time and taxes,” he says.
“You were good with him,” Selena says. “You handled that well.”
“He had some kind of disability.” Julian looks shaken, broken down.
Selena knows he has a disabled brother. Once, with glassy eyes Julian explained that his brother is a quadriplegic, that he moves his wheelchair with a joystick. Often, she wants to ask Julian about this, but she doesn’t know what to say. She pictures Julian lifting a man from a chair to lay him in a bed. She pictures Julian feeding him, taking him to the bathroom.
They pull the patrol car into the outer gate lane, avoiding cars in line to check in. Julian waves to the gate guard, and Selena drives to the PX, a small store that’s a gas station, gift shop, and liquor store rolled into one. Julian asks if Selena wants anything. She shakes her head and stays in the car.
When Selena was seven months pregnant, she left work early with a suspicion, found Russell entangled with some woman on the jungle gym. She was ugly. “I should fucking shoot you both,” Selena said. The woman retrieved her yard-strung clothes. “I’m not touching you,” Selena said to Russell. “I’m not touching you ever again. Did you think about the baby’s health?” Then she stayed in a shopping plaza parking lot for the night, too embarrassed to go to her grandmother’s, unsure what to do about Russell.
Julian emerges with two Gatorades dangling in a plastic bag. He jogs to the patrol car. He doesn’t, at all, resemble Russell. Julian is dark—tan, brown eyes, black hair. Russell was pale with green eyes like kiwi slices. He’d stand shirtless in the kitchen, his chest somehow whiter than the palest part of his arms, eating children’s cereal from a big bowl.
Julian is good, but he lives in Middleburg, maybe fifteen minutes from Camp Blanding—the middle of nowhere. Men like that fall in love with anything that breathes.
As Julian hands Selena a fruit punch Gatorade, she asks, “Want to finish what we started?”
He opens the driver’s door. “Why don’t we do our job?”
Selena steps out and takes the passenger side. Julian drives south, to the first stretch of ranges, which are mostly dead. Only one range has a red flagged poll. There, soldiers lob nonexplosive 40mm grenades from M203 launchers through the windows of a plywood building that looks looted from a cheap movie set. On the adjacent range, little mounds concealing pop-up targets—plastic green men—extend in rows every hundred meters for a kilometer downslope. In the distance, there’s smoke; an infantry company must have set the .50 cal range on fire. Fires start from lightning or molten bullets.
“This isn’t what I thought when I joined,” Julian says. The commercials never show the boredom.
“Why’d you pick the Guard?” Selena asks.
“Family,” he says. “It’s important to me.”
Selena doesn’t ask him about his brother, on purpose.
“I thought I’d use the GI Bill to pay for school,” Selena says.
“I’ve done a little.”
They finish the stretch of ranges and Julian takes them to a huge, old warehouse that used to store space shuttle parts. The parts arrived by train; the tracks lead through the center of the building. Julian takes the patrol car into a field alongside a tall fence, which goes around the warehouse. Long-stemmed, antennae-like flowers cover the field. Behind the patrol car, the flowers bow like a boat wake.
“A new spot?” Selena asks, smiling.
“Just check the fence.”
Julian gets like this: serious, driven. She likes him like that.
They finish the loop, return to the paved road. “Where’s our next patrol, commander?” Selena asks.
“I don’t know anything about your life,” Julian says. “I’ve seen one picture of your boy.”
“I’ll show you another.” Selena takes out her phone, scrolls to a picture of PJ from the previous Christmas. He’s wearing a little Santa hat and red pajamas, torn wrapping paper in hand. Selena’s grandmother had given PJ Avengers toys. After tearing the paper to reveal a Captain America, he danced with the box held to his chest, singing that Captain America is like his mommy.
* * *
At the Provost Marshal Office, Selena and Julian unload their pistols at the clearing barrel out back—the major in charge is big on rules. He stays secluded in his office. At the front desk, Halderman watches YouTube on his phone. He asks, “What happened with that guy?”
“Just a confused old man,” Julian says on the way to the break room.
Selena fetches a salad from the fridge as Julian heats pasta in the microwave. They sit across from each other with plastic forks in hand. It’s noon of their twelve-hour shift.
“Me and my grandmother took PJ to the zoo last weekend,” Selena says. “My son.” Selena’s grandmother raised her. Now, the poor woman pulls more than her weight helping raise PJ, though she would never call PJ a burden. Still, Selena can’t help but think she is throwing PJ to her grandmother the way her mother did with her.
Selena scrolls through photos on her phone. PJ poses near giraffes, orangutans, and a leopard asleep on its back. She slides the phone across the table to Julian.
“My mom would take me and my brother, when we were kids. I always liked the lions,” Julian says, handling the phone. “Even though they’re always sleeping out of sight.”
When they finish eating, Julian tells Halderman that he’ll take over the office. That Halderman can do patrols or traffic stops or whatever with Selena.
Halderman says, “Sure.” He and Selena gas the patrol car, park in bushes, and watch Humvees and privately-owned vehicles drive along the lake. Halderman holds the radar gun like a kid pretending to shoot lasers.
The evening seems to come early because dark clouds move in. A breeze kicks up. The lake chops. Before they return to the office, the radio sounds with Julian’s voice. He tells them that George is at the gate again.
“Christ,” Halderman says. “What’s the deal with this guy?” He moves the patrol car from the shade.
At the gate, George wanders the side of the road. The gate guards stare at him, no longer amused.
“What are you doing?” Halderman asks.
George looks around, surprised to see Selena and Halderman, as if they walked into his living room. “I’m trying to get to the beach.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Daytona,” George says.
Halderman laughs. He unhooks a flashlight from his duty belt. “I’m going to need you to blow.”
George stumbles forward and leans in, arching his spine. He labors to breathe onto the flashlight bulb. Halderman flicks the light on and off. “Oh, it looks like its picking something up,” he says. “Keep blowing.”
George leans closer, his mouth almost touching the flashlight. He sucks in like he’s about to dive deep below water, then he blows hard and long, his cheeks collapsing into his toothless mouth. The flashlight illuminates his neck like he’s sharing a ghost story, shadows his face making the weak-muscled side obvious. Halderman flicks the flashlight on and off, beeps his radio. “Keep going,” he cheers. “Go, go, go.” Halderman makes a look that Russell made—an angry smile. George stops, huffs for life—coughs, misting Halderman in spit, before plopping onto the asphalt.
Russell would play a game where he’d try to run down squirrels. They’d dart away at the last minute, and Selena thought that was part of the game—him aware of the impossibility of killing a squirrel. Then Russell crushed a turtle. She had shouted for him to watch out. He claimed he didn’t see the creature. But he had that smile.
“Get up,” Halderman says.
George goes to all fours before wobbling to his feet.
“You walk in that direction, and you don’t come back,” Halderman says pointing west. The sun glares just below dark clouds. “If we see you again, you’ll be arrested.”
* * *
In the Provost Marshal Office, Julian, organizing electronic reports in the office, asks, “That guy okay?”
“I sent him back to where he came,” Halderman says. “If he comes back, we’ll call Clay County Sheriff.”
Selena and Halderman take to the break room for chow. Outside, the world gets dark. Thunder booms. A couple of the MPs for the night shift arrive early and, rain-soaked, shoot the shit with Halderman. Selena takes herself to the office where Julian still fixes reports. She says, “You want to do dinner after shift?”
“I’ll have to get back to you,” Julian says.
Selena takes a seat. “We’ll get a taco.”
Lightning flares with a thunderclap on its heels that shakes the building as if a space shuttle landed close. The power cuts for a moment, juicing emergency generators, before everything flickers to normal. Julian looks up, then back at his computer. Selena worms frantic fingers below his ribs—his ticklish spot. Julian jumps like ice water doused him.
“Don’t play hard to get,” Selena says.
Julian says nothing, pretends to get back to work while suppressing a smile.
“I think you’re a good man,” she says.
“I feel like I need to keep the world away from my son.”
The phone rings. Julian answers. “Christ,” he says, looking like someone died. When he hangs up, Julian explains that as the infantry convoy returned, they almost hit a pedestrian—an old man in the road. He tells Selena they need a report.
He retrieves the patrol car keys, tells Halderman to handle the office.
“Shift is almost over,” Halderman says.
Julian gives him a look that says, I’ll flatten your face.
Selena says, “I’ll go with you.” Her duty belt around her shoulder, she trails Julian as he slides into a Gore-Tex jacket.
In the patrol car, Julian asks, “What did you two do to that man?”
Selena hesitates, stumbles over words. “We made sure he was okay, then let him walk home.”
“He wasn’t okay.”
The infantry convoy slugs through the main gate. The vehicles are desert camouflaged: Humvees with poncho-covered turret gunners, LMTV’s with four-foot tires, an ASV.
A mile away, two Humvees are pulled over. The rear of the first Humvee is scuffed and dented. The front of the second bends in, a tire cants inward. Two soldiers connect a tow bar between the Humvees as a flashing ambulance loads a sheeted stretcher. The rain has died down, but water makes the side of the road a river.
Julian asks a paramedic to see the body. He climbs into the ambulance and one of the paramedics pulls the sheet back.
A lieutenant waves Selena and Julian over, says, “They’ve got that handled.” Then he explains that the Humvee in front smashed its breaks because the man lay on the road, that the paramedics don’t know what happened to him—maybe hit by lightning? The lieutenant tells Selena and Julian they’re going to tow the Humvee to Blanding. He asks if they can complete the report there, to get out of the weather. Julian sights the damage, notepad in hand, and nods.
In the patrol car, following the damaged Humvees, the first pulling the second, Selena trembles.
“Why didn’t you take him home. Or call the police?” Julian asks. “You should have taken him home.”
“You should have stayed on patrol,” Selena says.
The setting sun is now visible, but rain returns in bursts, obscures the world as if a water-balloon exploded on the windshield.
Even after Selena left Russell, she would have nightmares. She’d be trapped in the honeycombed space at the base of the jungle gym as Russell and the woman embraced—leaned on the multicolored bars until their flesh flattened around the jungle gym like a peel over fruit. Sometimes, she would dream she never got pregnant. Then she would wake, tiptoe to PJs room so as not to wake her grandmother. She would smooth PJ’s hair and kiss him in apology.
At the barracks Julian inspects the Humvees, annotates the damage on the accident report. Julian says he can get the rest of the report in the barracks.
As Selena steps into the barracks, a sergeant shouts, “Female on the floor.” Toweled privates scurry back into the latrine. There are probably fifty bunks in the hall, rucksacks at each one. Tattooed soldiers scrape carbon from rifle parts. The place smells like the sweet alcohol of gun cleaner, AXE body spray, sour towels, and shit.
Julian sits on a bare bunk as the soldiers explain what happened. The stained mattress positions, without a box spring, on a metal frame that looks like a chain link fence. The mattress sinks with Julian’s weight. Selena stays standing and replays how Halderman toyed with George, his smile as his flashlight strobed to radio beep staccato. Why hadn’t she done anything? Julian would have.
When Selena was in labor, Russell came to the hospital. She didn’t want him near her, so he stayed in the waiting room. When PJ was born, Selena permitted Russell in, told him he could hold the baby. He said he first needed to know when Selena was coming back. Selena said she wasn’t coming back, and Russell got loud, called Selena crazy. She screamed for the nurses.
* * *
The sun has set when they leave the barracks. The road shines in headlight glow.
“You would have saved that man’s life,” Selena says. “If you had been the one to respond.”
“Maybe he had a heart attack or something,” Julian says.
“No.” Then, “It’s my fault.”
Pines close in after they leave the field of barracks. Ahead, frogs skitter along the road, thousands. “Holy shit,” Julian says, slowing the patrol car. The frogs are tiny, look like babies, and, bouncing independently, make the road look like a rain-pelted body of water. He lets off the gas entirely, afraid of killing them; still, as the patrol car crawls, its tires must squash dozens. Julian turns left to escape the frogs. Away from the swarm, hundreds still popcorn.
Julian parks near a netless volleyball pit. A hundred feet ahead, the lake glints in the headlights. “I’d catch frogs when I was little,” he says. “Before my brother got really sick, we’d catch them together.” He leans back and seems to get lost in nostalgia, says that he and his brother were resourceful little savages. He explains they’d make forts in the woods from anything, build whatever from anything. Once, they made bows from twine and scrub hickory switches. Another summer, they looted, in broken chunks, nearly a whole bathroom vanity from their neighbors’ curb and fashioned a bike ramp. That same year, maybe, they weeded neglected planters and dumped the dark dirt in a backyard patch raked free of dead lawn. There Julian and his brother grew miraculously red tomatoes, and the tomatoes tasted all right. They harvested a basketful for their mother, who boiled and peeled the tomatoes before teaching them how to make a sauce. Julian tries to recount the recipe as Selena pictures a garden, PJ squatting between leafy stalks.
Tom Sokolowski earned an MFA from the University of Central Florida and is currently working toward a PhD at Florida State University. He has work forthcoming in Prime Number Magazine. Tom has also served in the Florida National Guard. He grew up in DeBary, Florida.