Stack of pallets outside an old building

Pallet King

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Ben was always saying you gotta start stockpiling pallets now. The building material of the future. Learn a little masonry and you can build out of stone but you won’t be able to get Portland cement when the world ends. I tried to tell him you could use cob for the mortar, and you could build a whole house out of cob if you wanted, which I’d read about in Mother Earth News back when I was trying to make a go of farming, but he didn’t hear me. He never seemed to hear me.

Pallets were ideal because you’d always be able to scrounge them. You could build with them intact or you could bust them apart. I spent many a Sunday at his place, using his old spud bar to pry the boards off, then hammering the nails out. He saved the gnarled old nails in Folgers cans in case he was ever called upon to build a pressure cooker bomb. The nails were for shrapnel. As far as I know he was never called upon but he sure did have the supply.

I got the call on a Sunday. I felt bad because I hadn’t gone over that day. I felt bad because I hadn’t gone over on a lot of Sundays. I’m still glad I didn’t have to be the one to find him. It was his neighbor Ann that did. “It’s your dad,” she said. “He died. He’s dead. He shot himself, Paul. You shoulda seen the—lord, sorry. I just thought you should know. The police are here. The coroner is on his way. I don’t know, hon. I don’t know.”

#

“We gotta have a system,” he had told me. “We gotta designate a meeting place. It’s just a matter of time before this society crumbles but you and me are gonna be okay. We’re gonna rebuild civilization.”

“You and me?” I wanted to tell him he was the least civilized person I knew but I never had the nerve to tell him any of the things I really wanted to say. I had been unfair to him in my youth, I had told him too many of the things I really wanted to say, and I always felt bad about it. I was always trying to make it up to him but I never tried hard enough.

“Obviously the first option should be my place. It’s the safest, the most secure, the most well stocked. But as a backup, if my place is under siege or otherwise unavailable, I say we meet out by the falls.”

“The falls? You mean to tell me you think if things are so bad your little fortified compound isn’t safe enough to inhabit that we’ll be able to make it all the way out to the falls?”

“You got a better suggestion?”

“The falls.” It didn’t matter that if civil war broke out he’d last about an hour or that I couldn’t be counted on to risk my life to save his or that I had half a mind to sell out and move to California. Nothing mattered. Nothing I said would matter so I just said “The falls.”

#

We didn’t have a funeral. I didn’t want to organize one. It was enough work just picking out a casket and a plot and trying to make sense of all his papers. I was outside of myself. I was the one that died and I was watching it all from outside my body. I didn’t know who to call. The family was all spread out and his friends were all nutcases. I wasn’t sure which of them had already died of heart failure and which ones were still creeping along. If he had died a couple years later we could have blamed the lack of a funeral on the covid, although all the guys who were mad about me not giving the old man a funeral probably ended up being no-mask-wearing pandemic-deniers. They probably would have been even madder at me. There’s no way to win. That’s the main thing life has taught me.

Anyway the boys were pissed. They showed up one day when I was doing inventory, which consisted mostly of counting Ben’s guns. I knew he’d been collecting them but I had no idea the extent. I didn’t know where the hell he’d gotten the money for all these guns. He was just a recently retired gym teacher. Pistols. Shotguns. Rifles, the big ones that people have Opinions about. Magazines. Cases and cases of ammo. I couldn’t have imagined how much it was all worth. Guns retain their value like pretty much nothing else. “Always keep the box,” he had told me once. He was showing off this pretty new .22 he’d bought and I was pretending to give a shit. “These collectors love to see the box. And the original paperwork. They’ll pay more for a gun with a box.” All those years I had collected baseball cards, laboring under the delusion they’d be worth something one day, giddily picturing myself cashing in my Ken Griffey rookie for a flashy car one day, I should have been collecting guns. The boys had come en masse with an eye toward beating the shit out of me or just putting a little scare into me, depending on which one of them you asked, but Ben’s arsenal mollified them.

There was Monkey and there was Dub and there was Ron and Jon and Don. They were dressed like an LL Bean swat team. Monkey was the mean one. The instigator. The others they just wanted companionship. A club to belong to. But Monkey wanted war. There was death in his eyes. He owned a zero turn lawnmower dealership. I don’t know what the others all did but they all had the kinds of jobs where they could pretend to be working class while still making enough money to buy RVs and custom ARs.

Monkey told me I was a traitor for not giving the old man a proper funeral and if it was up to him they’d string me up by one of Ben’s heavy duty extension cords, walk me up a gallows made of pallets, and let me swing. I didn’t have any kind of response to that, not even to point out that I was big enough and young enough still to whoop all their asses combined. He emphasized his point by picking an axe off the table and throwing it twenty feet or so across the room. It stuck in this target Ben had made out of a pallet. Missed the bullseye by about a foot. Hatchet-throwing had got real popular for some reason lately.

Don, I think it was, although it could have been Jon, said “Don’t pay him too much attention, Paul. Monkey likes to talk tough but deep down he’s just an old softie.”

“He’s got a secret weakness,” said Dub, and all of them except Monkey started chuckling.

Monkey said “Shut your mouth, Dub.”

Dub laughed him down and said, “The national anthem. Dude can’t listen to more than four bars before he breaks down crying.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s true,” said Dub. “Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a patriot is all.”

#

Ben had a three-bedroom house on his one-acre lot but he spent most of his time in the shop. It was a 1,500-square-foot metal building with twelve-foot ceilings. All the furniture in the shop was pallets. Workbenches. Chairs. He’d insulated the walls and closed them in with pallet boards and license plates. Outside there was a pallet picnic table and several pallet deck chairs and a pallet chaise longue.

“We’ll be safe here,” he once told me. “This is my fortress.” All around the property ran an eight-foot-high wall made of pallets. I’d helped him build that wall. I set every post. By then he’d had a couple heart attacks and didn’t have the strength to dig a post hole. We slid each pallet over a four-by-four treated post and screwed the pallets to the posts and screwed the pallets into each other. He painted the street-facing side of the fence black and in blood-red paint periodically scrawled blustery notes of warning like “WE DON’T CALL 911” and “NO TRESPASSING: SURVIVORS WILL BE PERSECUTED.” That typo is his, I never pointed it out to him.

“My castle. Out there the world might go to shit but inside this perimeter there will always be order and civilization.”

“You’re the pallet king,” I said, kind of joking, being a little bit mean. In some ways it was funny, his fixation with the end of civilization, his belief that he could escape it, but it made me sad. I wished he would just take up golf or something. I mean I more or less believed him that the world was coming to an end but not for the reasons he did and I didn’t figure he’d live to see it and he sure as shit wouldn’t survive it.

“You know how to run an excavator?” he said. “I’m thinking of digging a moat.”

#

It was all my fault. He didn’t have anybody. And it’s not like I had anything going on. I was a loser. I couldn’t keep a girl, could barely keep a job. Up to my butt in debt because I thought it was a great idea to buy land. I was going to grow switchgrass and turn it into biofuel, get a jump on the future. Shit. Nothing ever works out the way you want it to. I didn’t talk to Ben for a few years. It’s complicated. Had to do with my mom and things that happened a lifetime ago. After he remarried, which is also after I sort of came back to the church, I started coming back around, but the past was always present with us. We could be friendly but we could never be close. He killed himself because I couldn’t perform the most simple Christian act of forgiving him and I couldn’t love him enough to keep him alive or to keep him from falling prey to the pathetic band of shit-heels he called his friends. It sounds a bit psych 101 but I see now his second wife being killed the way she was is probably what set him on the path from normal boring dude to pallet king.

I asked him about the guns one time, why he needed so many. He said, “You never know but the way it’s going some immigrant is gonna climb over that wall out there and it’s gonna be him or me.”

I was floored. I’d never heard him say anything hateful like that. I know I should have gotten after him somehow, but I didn’t know how and I’m the type of guy that goes straight from zero to ten. You can’t make me mad until you finally do and then it’s too late. All I said was “No, it’s gonna be some paranoid gun nut,” and he laughed and said “You’re probably right.” That “probably right” made me feel like there was some hope for him, like he wasn’t really like the racist dingbats he’d hooked up with in his golden years, but of course I was too timid and polite to push him any further.

The more they hung around the less I did. In my head I gave myself a lot of reasons why he could just go fuck himself. He was a grownass man smart enough to know right from wrong and common sense from bullshit and it wasn’t my job to teach him. I was just giving myself an out. I’ve always been a lazy piece of shit. Just a lazy, selfish piece of shit. I could have intervened but I was too wrapped up in my own stupid bullshit to get involved in his stupid bullshit.

I didn’t even care enough to give him a funeral. I deserve everything that happened.

#

The day after the boys showed up I got a visit from the city. They sent a code enforcement officer out to let me know I was going to need to do something about that fence. It was against code. Too tall and an eyesore.

“My dad and I build that fence together.”

“Be that as it may, you should have taken the time to consult the city’s website or come down to city hall where you would have been provided with a permit and a list of acceptable fencing materials.”

“You sound like a robot,” I said. I had decided to become the type of guy who says what he thinks. I’d kept my true thoughts to myself for too long and in a way that’s what killed my dad.

“Be that as it may,” he said, “you have thirty days to remove this fence and get this property cleaned up.”

“Or else?”

“Or else we will destroy you, puny human.” He had made his voice sound like a robot’s. He was making a joke.

#

I wasted my life. I never did anything. I never stuck with anything. I was just a wanderer who was too lazy to leave home. I always told myself that I still hadn’t peaked in life, which meant there were still good things in store, but I was lying. I peaked in high school when I hit a game-winning three in the first round of state. We still got our asses handed to us the next game. That became the theme of my life, getting my ass handed to me.

I was the sixth man on our team, back in the day, which made me the unofficial captain of the B team, the benchwarmers. We were a bunch of fuckups with shitty attitudes and flat jump shots and we called ourselves Team Anarchy. I got an anarchy symbol tattoo on my left bicep just to show it off in games, but it turns out you can’t have any visible tattoos when you’re playing high school ball so I had to wear a t-shirt under my jersey every game. That stupid tattoo. My mom was like to kill me when she saw it.

#

It was a few days after the robot came to see me that the boys came back. Uninvited. They had brought liquor. I had taken the week off from work so I was there. I was always there now. I was never going back to work. I was trying to get the place cleaned up so the city wouldn’t bulldoze it or whatever they wanted to do but the more I cleaned the more cleaning there was to do. I was flustered. Not in a good head space as some people might put it. I wasn’t in the mood to entertain a bunch of playacting conspiracy theorists but they didn’t give two shits. Ben deserved a sendoff and they were going to give him one. I kept to myself and gave them their space. I didn’t want them there but they outnumbered me and were all carrying. I just kept cleaning. I’d painted “free pallets” on a piece of scrap OSB and I was praying there was someone out there as horny for free pallets as my old man had been. I was dragging spare pallets out to the street and piling them up by the “free pallets” sign when the sheriff pulled up. I was getting real tired of people just popping in.

The sheriff introduced himself, and I introduced myself, and he said “I’m gonna just cut to the chase here. Your pa hadn’t been paying his taxes. The taxes on this place is about six years delinquent.”

“Oh really.”

I didn’t really give a shit.

“I’d give your old man a couple warnings but he always blowed me off. Technically the city could take possession of this property right now. But under the circumstances I thought you oughtta have a chance to make it good.”

“Make it good.”

“You can pay them back taxes and hold on to your pa’s estate. Otherwise it goes to the city and they’ll put it up for sale.”

“Honestly,” I told the sheriff, “that would almost be the best thing.”

From behind me I heard Monkey say, “Over my dead body.”

“This ain’t your property, Monkey,” said the sheriff. “This ain’t your business.”

“My ass, sheriff. You’ve said your piece now you can get.”

“This ain’t about me saying my piece. I ain’t offering my opinion. I’m saying what is, and I’m giving this young man a chance to save us all the hassle.”

“Over my dead body, you hear me?”

“Is your name on the deed, Monkey? Are you offering to give this boy the money to pay the back taxes? He could,” he said as an aside to me, “except he’s a notorious tightwad.” To Monkey, “I’ll thank you to keep your opinion to yourself.”

“Go fuck yourself, sheriff. You got any idea how much firepower we got in that shop? You’ll mind your own business if you know what’s good for you.”

He grabbed me by the arm and tugged me back inside the fence and he slammed the gate shut. The sheriff hammered on the gate and hollered for us to open it. Monkey told him to shut the fuck up. “Look up, sheriff. You see that glinty thing up on the roof? That’s the sun bouncing off the scope of a .50 caliber MRAD. We got a sniper on you, sheriff, and if you don’t believe me you just open that gate without our consent and find out.”

“You’re making a big mistake, Monkey,” said the sheriff. “A big one.” But he backed away from the gate and went back to his car.

The standoff lasted three days. They shined bright lights at us all night. They played loud music all night and flew helicopters over the shop. The sheriff positioned himself as the negotiator and he’d call Monkey a couple times a day. They could have moved in pretty easy and taken us out. There wasn’t anything stopping them. The only hostage was me and as far as the cops were concerned I was one of the bad guys too.

Guns and ammo, liquor and SpaghettiOs and MREs. It was what the old man had spent the last four years of his life preparing for. We had food. We had gallons and gallons of bottled water and five rain barrels. We could last five years if we had to. The boys were using the shrapnel nails to make pressure cooker bombs. Filling empty Fireball bottles with gasoline. Soaking styrofoam in gasoline to make homemade napalm. Cleaning all the guns, making sure every magazine was full of ammo. Monkey was in heaven. The others I could tell were scared, but there was no way out, no undoing this stupid mess. Monkey made it real clear he’d shoot anyone who tried to sneak out or surrender. He wanted to start a civil war. I didn’t understand how us getting killed in my dad’s shop was going to start a civil war and he didn’t make much effort to connect the dots for me.

“This isn’t how we might have seen it playing out,” he said, “but it’s what we’ve planned for. It’s what we’ve hoped for. Total commitment.”

He gave this speech ten times a day. I mostly just sat around and moped about and I did what cleaning I could. Since I couldn’t drag any more pallets out to the street I just dragged them to the burn pile and set them on fire. The boys said I shouldn’t go outside the shop but they also didn’t really care if the cops assassinated me. I wasn’t part of the club.

I thought about volunteering for an overnight watch shift and shooting them all in the head while they slept and that was when I knew I had to find a way to end it. On the third day I plopped my bowl of SpaghettiOs on the pallet table so that it would make a very dramatic noise. I shoved my chair back and stood up and said “Y’all this is not what Ben would have wanted.”

“Yes it is,” said Monkey. “It’s exactly what he wanted except he was always too chickenshit to manifest it into being.”

“Well it’s not what I want.”

“We could give two shits.”

I took a step toward the door and he raised a gun at me.

“Go ahead you pony-ass wannabe outlaw,” I said. “Feel free to shoot me in the back. Otherwise I’m going out there to put a stop to this bullshit.”

Except I didn’t turn my back to him. He was ready to shoot me. You could see it in his eyes. He wanted to shoot me.

“Just give me a reason, shithead. I’m begging you to give me a reason.”

I’ve sort of been sitting on this information but I have the golden pipes of an angel, and they saved my life that day. Probably the lives of all my dad’s dumbass buddies too.

“O say—”

Monkey looked at me, this childlike shocked look, and he said “What are you doing?”

“can you—”

“You little shit,” he said over his sniffles, and he lowered the gun. By the time I hit the C on “see” he just lost it. By the time I was at “rocket’s red glare” he was in a heap on the floor. Sobbing. Heaving. And I slipped out the front door with my hands so high in the air I could have tickled God’s feet.

Naturally we went to jail, but not really for long. About a day. No one was charged with anything that serious. The boys all turned on Monkey and he pled out to a fairly minor charge. He paid a fine and went back to selling lawnmowers. Of course there’s no need to even speculate what would have happened to us if we hadn’t been a gang of white men.

The sheriff didn’t care about us. We did him a favor. Got his face on TV in an election year. Let him feel like a hero. He even got to ride in the chopper. He got a lot of accolades for a quote the papers used in every story they wrote about the incident, where he’s reported to have said, “It’s important to show restraint. We don’t want another Waco.” His restraint didn’t have fuck all to do with morality or justice or the rule of law. He just wanted my stuff. By the time I got out the cops had the house all locked up. There was caution tape all around and they wouldn’t let me in. They gave me my wallet and my phone and my car keys and the rest, they said, was theirs. I got the legal explanation a few days later. The option to pay the back taxes was off the table because the sheriff’s department had assumed ownership of the property through a process known as civil asset forfeiture which means if you do a crime the cops get to keep your shit. All those guns. I could’ve got $10,000 for that arsenal. I could’ve paid off my credit card. I could’ve sold the place and paid off my farm. That shop was full of tools, my dad’s tools, his dad’s old tools. Cops got it all. Maybe I didn’t deserve any of it but they sure as shit didn’t.

#

One evening, a week or so, two weeks, it doesn’t matter, after they let me out of jail, I was messing around on the tractor, pulling up a couple tree roots, dumping some gravel on the driveway, just sort of festering out there in the wilds, and I got a really bad idea. It was more like the idea got me, like it was out there, just looking for a host, and it found me, and I was just an empty vessel. I undid the front end loader and hooked on the hay spear, then I rode the tractor in to town. I only lived about six miles out. The sheriff’s department is right on the edge of town. It was a Sunday night. The place was dead. It looked more like a used-car place that sells cop cruisers than an actual cop shop. I raised the hay spear and drove it straight through the front windshield of a cop car. Not gonna lie, it felt good. I backed out, lowered my implement, and slid the two points of the hay spear under the front of the cop car, then I lifted it up as high as it would go. Unfortunately my little Kubota didn’t have the reach to flip a car over from the front so I just reversed and let the cop scar slide off and crash into the ground. I moved around and approached another cruiser from the side and flipped that son of a bitch over like it was a toy. I speared the side windows and lifted it up and just banged it up and down on the ground. I did more cars like that. Fucking up the windows, flipping every car I could. Speared some tires. I lifted up a dumpster and dropped it on top of a cruiser. It’s all the stuff of legend now. You can watch most of the destruction on the internet from when a passerby started videoing me. The sheriff’s department had just gotten a new toy, a big flashy SUV. I speared it and lifted it and crashed it through the front window of the sheriff’s office. The sheriff finally showed up a few moments after that and I was still laughing uncontrollably as he shot out my tires, a completely unnecessary move since there was nothing left for me to destroy. He just wanted to use his gun.

They charged me with domestic terrorism because of my stupid anarchy tattoo and gave me twenty-five years. Took twenty-five years away from me, I should say. If I make it out I’ll be the same age my old man was when he offed himself. If the world doesn’t end first.

Leave a Reply