The Education of Evan Nock

When Evan Nock was growing up, an awful lot did not happen to him. His father did not beat him. His family did not require food stamps. He was not abused by the local priest. He did not over-use drugs or alcohol as a teenager. He did not rise to be the star quarterback on the high school football team. Evan Nock did not rise above average, by any measure.

So what did happen to Evan Nock?

As a white man coming of age in America in the 2000s, not much happened. Not at first. But Evan Nock had free will, so while not much happened to him, there was an awful lot he could still make happen. He would not have described himself as a “free agent,” but in fact that’s what he was. Free to roam about the country, live anywhere he chose, work in any field.

Evan Nock’s ace in the hole was simply this: he was a white man in possession of the right to self-determination. That’s what he had going for him, though again, he didn’t think in those terms.

So Evan did what millions of men in his position did. He made some choices. One, and then another, and then another. He decided to remain in the suburban town he grew up in, roughly 200 miles from Chicago. Why mess with a good thing? He decided to skip college; he just didn’t see the point of putting his butt back in a chair after doing that very thing for a dozen years. He decided to take a job that he found congenial, as assistant manager in the local branch of a chain hardware store that his community truly loved.

One of the more important decisions Evan made was to marry his high school girlfriend Janine Esterhaaz, who had made a series of decisions quite similar to Evan’s and so she too had remained in town. She worked for Meals on Wheels, visiting elderly shut-ins throughout the county, several of whom she and Evan had known all their lives. Evan was proud that Janine “did good” and he very much appreciated the easy and convenient sex that marriage offered.

And then something finally did happen to Evan Nock. After four years of marriage, he and Janine discovered they could not have children. Both had fertility problems that could not be remedied within their financial means, if at all. They quickly ruled out adoption; a child coming from “outside” simply would not be theirs and they did not think they could ever get beyond that.

For the first time in his life, Evan felt betrayed. He never imagined he would be incapable of siring a brood of little Nocks when the time was right. He himself had two younger brothers and a sister and Janine had four sisters. Having a family of one’s own was part of the natural order. Like the sun rising and setting, Evan had no reason to doubt this would come to pass in his own life. Thus, suddenly, in his 28th year, Evan felt that a large, heavy obstacle had been dropped in his path. He and Janine stewed about this setback for months, lying side by side in bed late at night, trying to find a reason that would explain the situation.

“How could I fail at this?” Janine wailed, not for the first time. “My body is designed to do one thing, and I can’t even do it. Maybe it’s just God’s will, is all there is to it,” Janine said, after they’d gone round and round.

“Bullshit,” Evan said. “God didn’t make you or me sterile, or barren, or whatever you call it. That’s a punishment we don’t deserve.”

“You sure don’t, babe,” she said, patting his arm. “You’re a good man. And don’t you ever think different. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. It could be something they put in the water when we was kids,” Evan said. “We’d never know, would we?”

“I’m more worried about the vaccinations they made us get,” Janine said. “You hear all kinds of stories.”

“You’re right. That is a real possibility, right there.”

“The things they do to innocent people,” she said, her voice rising in the dark.

“Innocent kids, especially. At everybody’s mercy. My parents couldn’t’ve known any better. Or yours.”

“Well, they call it mercy, but Evan, I think maybe it’s all lies. I was bringing lunch to Mrs. Conroy the other day. Remember her? She taught us in kindergarten.”

“She was old even back then. She had a mustache.”

“Right, well, poor Mrs. Conroy is really old now, probably dying. But anyway, I went to heat up her meatloaf in the microwave and she told me not to use that, to heat it in the oven instead. She said there’s proof now that microwaves put radiation in your food.”

“Jesus!” Evan said, sitting up. “Radiation causes sterility. You know that, right?”

“That’s why I’m telling you. She made a very convincing argument.

“So this is how they get us, then,” Evan said, yanking the covers. “Between the vaccines and the radiation, they poison us, they lie about it, and then they cover it up.”

“The politicians and the suits, thinking they can run our lives, when we’re out here doing all the real work.”

“Bob Horgan’s not so bad,” Evan said, referring to their State House delegate. Neither he nor Janine had actually voted for him because neither of them had registered to vote. It just wasn’t on their to-do list.

“Because he’s one of us. He’s good people, from here. We know where he’ll draw the line. But for every Bob Horgan, there’s, like, ten other guys selling us out. You know I’m right.” By then, Janine was sitting up too, and neither of them got much sleep the rest of the night.

At the hardware store the next day, Evan’s boss, Peck Wilkerson, whose heavy white beard and large gut had earned him the nickname Santa, approached Evan at the loading dock.

“I’m worried about you, Evan,” Wilkerson said. He’d hired Evan straight out of high school a decade ago, made him assistant manager right away, and never regretted the decision. “You been awful down in the mouth, lately.”

“I’m okay, Peck,” Evan said, scanning barcode labels on several pallets as a forklift took them off the truck. “You know me and Janine can’t have kids, and that’s weighing on us. But, y’know.”

“That is a burden, Evan. I’m so sorry. God knows, you deserve better, you and Janine both.”

“If we could find out why, if we just had some answers, I think we could maybe make peace with it,” Evan said. “Janine thinks it could be the vaccines we got as kids, or even all those years microwaving our food. I don’t know. Maybe that’s crazy talk.”

“Honestly, Evan, I think that’s barely the tip of the iceberg,” Peck said, giving a nod to the forklift operator as he began moving the pallets into the store. “The shit that’s goin’ down these days. We gotta step up. You, me, all of us around here.”

“What shit?” Evan asked. “What do you mean, step up?”

“Listen to the news, son. Educate yourself. You want answers? You need to know what’s going on, I mean really going on. It’s not just what you see in the headlines.”

That night at dinner, Evan suggested that he and Janine weren’t kids anymore and it was time they started taking an interest in the wider world.

“We need to know what’s going on, so that when shit happens to us, we can, I don’t know, see it coming, or get prepared, or something,” he said, bringing a forkful of chicken to his mouth. “You didn’t use the micro, did you?”

“I took that thing out with the trash this morning, Ev,” she said. “I know we could’ve sold it, but that just seemed evil.”

Most evenings from then on, before watching NCIS, Pawn Stars, Blue Bloods, or a game show (and before Janine occasionally peeled off to watch a movie on the Hallmark Channel, which Evan couldn’t stand), Evan and Janine tuned in to Fox News for an hour or two, which Peck had recommended as the most reliable among the major TV network news programs.

“This is just gruesome,” Janine said one evening, early on in their Fox-watching habit. “And so fuckin’ depressing.”

“They should say something positive once in a while,” Evan said. “Otherwise, they just make you wanna shoot yourself, right?”

“”Don’t say things like that, Ev,” Janine said, snuggling against her husband as they sat together on the couch. “It’s not funny.”

“OK, what I really mean is, those two-faced turkeys in Washington are the ones who should be shot.”

“Scared straight, maybe.”

“Where does Tucker Carlson get all his info? How does he know all that shit?”

“They have researchers and writers, Ev. He just reads the teleprompter.”

“No, he’s smart. He’s not some parrot, not just a reader. You can tell. I bet, Janine, if we knew what he knows, we’d understand why we can’t have kids. We’d get to the root of the problem.”

“I’m going to make popcorn,” Janine said. “I’m in the mood.”

“Extra butter on mine.”

“I know,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen.

Evan continued watching and he felt as though Tucker Carlson was speaking directly to him, explaining how the world really works, who the good guys are, and the bad guys too. Evan hadn’t realized the extent to which he didn’t know the score — the score for the world, in a way. Sure, he could talk intelligently about the Chicago Bears all day long, and often did with co-workers and customers at the store. But suddenly, that didn’t seem like enough.

“I’m tired of being a sheep, Janine,” he said when she returned with two big bowls of popcorn.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s an expression. You know how sheep stand around, grazing or whatever. They don’t even know when they’re being led to the slaughterhouse. They have no fuckin’ idea that they’re about to die. They just do what they’re told. Follow the crowd.”

“We’re not sheep, Ev. Look at all we got going for us. This house, good jobs. I know things are crazy out there, but I don’t feel like anybody’s telling me what to do. Not exactly. Is that what you really think?”

“Peck says we gotta step it up.”

“I don’t know what that means, either.”

“I’m not sure. But if things are half as bad as they’re telling us on the news, you gotta see that we stand to lose everything we’ve worked for.”

“But we’d never let that happen, would we? And it’ll never come to that, will it?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said, shaking his head. “We need to wake up, babe, and take a good look around.”

“Stay sharp, you mean.”

“Yeah,” Evan said. “Sharp and smart.”

Separately, and without further discussion, Evan and Janine each embarked on an informal program of self-education. Both of them saw it as a welcome distraction from the hole in their hearts they’d hope to fill with children. Peck invited Evan to join him after work once a week at Cunningham’s, a local bar in town, where Peck met up with a group of guys to knock back a Miller or three and blow off steam. Always on a Wednesday — hump day. Evan knew most of them at least by sight. Tim Howard worked at the post office. He took a lot of shit from the other guys for being “a fed,” but Tim always pointed out the benefits couldn’t be beat. Jack Little ran his own local carpet installation business and never let a conversational opportunity pass without railing against the taxes that were “literally” killing him, he’d say to anyone who’d listen. There was also Al Baker, a physician’s assistant at the community hospital, whom everyone called Doc.

Evan was flattered that Peck had invited him to join this cadre of older guys. At first, he mainly listened to them talk. He hoped his silence would come off as a combination of wisdom and respect for his elders. But also, he was afraid of saying something stupid — something that would show him up as naïve. He was determined to soak up some of what these guys knew, as all of them seemed to have tapped into a much deeper vein of knowledge and information than Evan had available to him. He had never felt like such an idiot until now, and he hated it.

“I’m telling you,” Tim Howard said, hunching forward over the scarred wooden table where they were gathered, picking from a communal bowl of peanuts, “the communists and socialists are infiltrating Congress and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. They’re in there to tear up the Constitution and God knows what.” The guys all shook their heads in solemn agreement.

“Oh, we know what,” said Al. “They’re in there to overturn the Second Amendment. I read the bill online. I even watched some of the speeches. It’s terrifying. And I tell you what, when a GSW — sorry, a gunshot wound — comes into the hospital, it’s never anybody like us who pulled the trigger. Never. It’s always some drugged-up criminal, usually Black, I’m just sayin’, because he’s usually Black. But who does Washington blame? Us.”

“It’s like a goddamn free-for-all out there,” Peck said, jabbing a finger into the table. “Anybody doing anything they want, with no blow-back. This country has lost its way, and it makes me sick.” Evan had never seen Peck in this light — righteous and principled. He was proud to work for the man.

While Evan was learning from the guys in the bar, Janine found herself flicking on the TV whenever she could at the homes where she delivered meals. She’d keep an eye on Fox and an eye on her clients, none of whom seemed to mind, as long as they were fed and enjoyed a few minutes of cheerful conversation. Sometimes, they’d watch together until Janine would jump up and exclaim she was going to be late to her next client.

This is how Janine discovered Laura Ingraham, who was not only gorgeous, but so passionate and authoritative, Janine felt a stab of envy. What must it be like to be somebody like that? Somebody who understands the world, explains it all so clearly, and looks amazing every day? Janine knew that TV hosts had professional make-up people working on them, but still, the combination of brains and beauty got Janine thinking about her own shabby wardrobe and her state of mind as well.

Janine pushed herself. She taught herself how to use Twitter on her phone, and once she did, she realized it was much easier to find and follow the best news sources, and the president, of course. Twitter made it easy to stay up to date on what people were saying, including Rush Limbaugh, whom she didn’t much care for (she found him repulsive), but then, you don’t have to like your teachers to learn from them. She couldn’t wait to teach Evan to use Twitter, though she suspected he wouldn’t stick with it like she did. He was more of a face-to-face guy.

As the months passed and the pain of their childless state settled deep into their bones like a dull ache, Evan and Janine were drawn closer than ever by their newly shared passion for politics and what they came to call The Sorry State of the World. They all but stopped watching fictional shows on TV. Janine even cut way back on her Hallmark habit. They kept the big-screen TV in the living room tuned to Fox all day. At breakfast, even with Fox droning in the background, they checked their phones for new developments. Janine was right about Evan and Twitter, but he had nonetheless bookmarked several websites on his phone, including Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and Newsmax, among others.

“You won’t believe this,” Janine said, absently gulping coffee. “Twitter just cancelled the accounts of four people who spoke out about what’s happening in D.C. Kicked ’em right off.”

“Let me guess: not a single Democrat.”

“Not a one,” Janine said. “You know what this is, babe.”

“Fascism. That’s it, plain and simple.”

“Yeah, and flat-out discrimination. This is insane.”

“But I think we have even bigger problems, honey,” Evan said, pushing away his plate. “China is almost for sure getting ready to declare war on the United States. Fucking China.” Over the last several days, Evan had seen an alarming uptick in headlines mapping out this impending disaster. “China Repositions Nukes,” one headline said. “China Forms Shadow Government to Plot Invasion,” read another. The accumulation of these warnings alarmed Evan to the point where he hesitated to share the reality with Janine, but Fox had been covering this as well, so she was at least aware of the outlines.

“Evan, I can’t even…I gotta go to work. I can’t process all this now.”

“Hey,” Evan said, wrapping Janine in his arms. “It’s gonna be okay. We’ll get through this together. I promise I won’t let anybody hurt you or take anything away from us, ever.”

“Maybe we should buy a gun?” Janine asked, looking at Evan in earnest. “I don’t know the first thing, but I could learn. I just want to feel safe, you know, with everything that’s going on.”

“I should have thought of that sooner. I’ll go by the gun shop on Highland after work.”

They kissed and parted for the day.

In the summer of 2020, two more things happened to Evan Nock, both completely outside the scope of his playbook. First, on a Monday in mid-July, Evan got a call at work from his father, Neil Nock. His father rarely called him; it was usually the other way around. And when they spoke, it was usually to hash out a Bears or a Cubs game, unless Neil Nock was complaining that Evan’s mother was driving him crazy. But this was different. Neil wasn’t even stringing sentences together and Evan worried he’d had a stroke.

“They’re…gone, Ev. Gone. Can’t picture where to. So stupid.”

“Dad? You okay? Should I call 911?” Evan went into the break room and shut the door.

“Gone. It happened fast, they tell me,” Neil said, his voice weak but level.

Bit by bit, Evan got his father to verbalize what had happened. At the risk of seeming cruel, he asked him to repeat it, twice. Evan’s mom, Gloria, and all three of his younger siblings had died instantly in a head-on collision with a Lexus apparently traveling fast in the wrong lane. They’d been on their way to a cabin in the Wisconsin Dells for a week-long vacation, Neil having opted to stay home and putter (an arrangement that suited everyone).

“But I spoke to mom yesterday, when she was packing,” Evan said. He heard his father take a shuddering breath. “And Carol just got her, whaddya call it, cosmetician license.”

Evan did all the things he was supposed to over the next several weeks. But every night when he closed his eyes, he imagined the crash and how it must have felt: the skidding, the shattered windshield, the exploding air bags, the torque and crunch of metal on bone. Peck gave him two weeks off and said they’d have a talk when he returned. Evan didn’t relish reliving his family horror with his boss, but he owed Peck so much, he’d tell him whatever he wanted to know.

Evan was more grateful than ever for Janine during this difficult period. She was thoughtful, tender, and kind, cooking for him after her own long days, and not saying a word when he told her he wasn’t hungry. At the funeral for all four of his family members, she practically kept him upright, her arm crooked tightly through his. By that point, they knew the gist of what had happened. The driver of the Lexus was a sophomore at Northwestern. She came from a wealthy, liberal Chicago family who never once reached out personally to the Nocks. Their lawyers handled everything. The girl suffered a few bruises and a broken nose, and for reasons the Nocks could not understand, she somehow avoided a conviction for vehicular manslaughter. They heard, through the lawyers, that she’d have to do 2,500 hours of community service and pay a fine, all of which was absorbed by the Nocks’ own attorney, who worked on contingency.

Evan’s grief was laced with a seething rage shared by his father. They did not need to speak about it; their shared anger was palpable in their flushed faces, quick breathing, and the way father and son both appeared to walk with a slight hunch, as if they carried something on their backs.

The second thing that happened took place in Peck Wilkerson’s untidy, wood-paneled office at the hardware store on Evan’s first day back at work. A photo of the U.S. president hung on the wall, flanked by a photo of State Representative Bob Horgan and one of the Wilkerson family, clearly taken several years ago.

“Evan,” Peck said, seated in the cracked leather chair behind his desk, “you’ve been through hell, son, I know that. It kills me to tell you I’m only going to make it worse.”

Once again, Evan needed to hear the news twice to understand it. He watched Peck’s mouth move and caught mainly words and phrases. “Consolidation.” “Corporate resizing.” “Amazon, the category-killer.”

“I can hardly believe it myself,” Peck was saying. “They’re kickin’ me to the curb as well, the bastards, after twenty-four years. All of us, swept clear out like dirt under a broom.”

Peck handed Evan a check, which he pocketed without looking at it. In the back of his mind, he knew it was probably the last check he’d see for a while. A high-pitched drone settled inside his ears, or maybe his skull, muffling the sound of the real world. He couldn’t stand the idea of letting Janine down.

Evan redoubled his focus on the country’s problems, rather than obsessing about his own. He considered this a healthy alternative to drowning in grief and self-pity. Each morning after Janine left for work, Evan found himself hypnotized by the news. He sat in front of Fox with his laptop open — the laptop he’d bought a few years ago and had hardly used until now. The Internet was slow but he didn’t care. He consulted multiple news outlets, deepening his understanding of the events and trends that clearly — increasingly clearly — pointed toward the unraveling of the United States of America.

Janine came home one evening and found a fragrant beef chili bubbling in the slow cooker and Evan seated on the couch cleaning the gun he’d purchased months earlier. A box of bullets sat on the coffee table.

“You cooked!” she said, kissing the top of his head. “Oh, my God, I’m tired.” She plunked down on the couch next to him. She watched him oiling the gun with a rag.

“Doc said he’d take us out to the woods and teach us to shoot,” Evan said.

“Great,” Janine said, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. “I’m picking up an extra shift, Ev. On Sundays.”

“Don’t, Janine. Look at you. You’re already exhausted.”

“Just until you find something.”

“Well, so, Jack Little said he’d bring me on part-time, installing carpets.”

“That’s great!” Janine said. Evan began loading bullets into the Kel-Tec PMR-30. “But you don’t seem very happy about it.”

“I know we need the money, Janine. It just doesn’t feel relevant. Like, not what I should be doing right now.”

“What should you be doing, Ev, besides making me dinner every night?” She ruffled his hair, trying to coax him out of his semi-permanent funk.

“I’m not sure,” he said, “but something that matters, y’know?”

The guys still met every Wednesday at Cunningham’s. They refused to let Evan buy his own drinks, after everything he’d been through. Evan was more confident now that he had a handle on what was going on. Nothing the guys shared really surprised him anymore. And since Peck was no longer his boss, he felt he could express himself freely.

“I’m mostly worried about China now,” Evan said, drinking his Miller. “Every day, they’re coming closer to launching a nuclear weapon straight at us. And that’s just phase one. Phase two is turning the U.S. communist. That’s game over, right there. And you don’t see a thing about this in the lame-stream media, in the New York Lies, or in the Washington Pissed.”

“The Chinese are godless,” Tim said. “They worship Mao, that corrupt fucker. Our pastor was telling us, on Sunday, that Christians are way outnumbered by the communists, the rag-heads, and them others. Pretty scary shit. And I’ll tell you something, just you guys, nobody else, not even my wife. When I see a letter come through the mail sorting room that’s from one of those libtard anti-racist, anti-white-supremacist-or-whatever groups, I trash it.” Tim leans back in his chair, letting this sink in. “Federal offense, right there, but it’s the patriotic thing to do, in my book.”

“That takes balls, Tim,” Peck said, putting his stamp of approval, as the group’s elder statesman, on the confession.

The thought of Tim taking a risk like that electrified Evan. He knew instantly he needed to find a way to make his mark. He thought of the Allman Brothers song, where the guy was “tied to the whipping post.” That’s me, Evan thought. Not a sinner, but sinned against, expected to just stand there and take it, whatever anybody wanted to dish out, whether it was a rich bitch who couldn’t drive straight or a slant-eyed commie coming to destroy his home and his way of life.

I’m a patriot too, Evan thought, and that’s gotta mean something.

Evan drained his beer and stood. “Gotta go,” he said, though what he really meant was that he felt like moving.

“See you tomorrow, bright and early,” Jack said. “Meet me at the warehouse.”

“Yeah,” Evan said, absently. Pounding carpet nails into floors was the last thing on Evan’s mind.

The fall of 2020 passed by in a blur. Evan did show up for Jack Little because he had to; he couldn’t let Janine be the only breadwinner, though Jack barely paid him enough to cover a week of groceries. He spoke to his dad on the phone every day. The calls were short because neither of them had much to say. And Janine was preoccupied, all aflutter because she’d had her very first letter to the editor published in the local paper. It was on “the China question,” which she and Evan had discussed several times, at length. Now the local chapter of the Republican Women’s Club wanted her to come give them a talk about it.

“I can’t believe it,” Janine said to Evan, as she flipped hamburgers in a skillet for dinner. “I feel just like Laura Ingraham. What should I wear, Evan? I need a whole new outfit for this. I know it’s a splurge but…oh, I’m so nervous!”

“I’m really proud of you, babe,” Evan said. “You’ll do great. Are they gonna pay you?”

“Oh, that’s the best part, Ev. I forgot to tell you! They’re going to pay me two-hundred-fifty dollars. Can you believe it? Me!”

Evan kept his real feelings about this to himself. Janine was only going to talk about the greatest existential threat facing the nation since the Civil War. Whereas he was preparing to actually do something about it. A concrete threat called for concrete action, not just talk.

The presidential election was a few weeks away. Evan had a plan that he’d shared only with Tim Howard, so far. Not Peck or the others, not even Janine. Evan sensed that Tim was willing to act on his beliefs, based in part on his mail-sorting stunt. He’d found a handful of other like-minded guys online, who lived in surrounding towns. They texted back and forth until everything was decided.

One of the guys a few towns over had a step van that could fit them all. They were going to drive to Washington, D.C. on election day, storm the U.S. Capitol, and occupy the building. They knew Congress would not be in session. They were all well aware that the election itself was totally rigged against the nation’s real patriots. But they were unanimous in believing that wasn’t the biggest problem. After all, what good was voting if Chinese Communists overran the country by force?

“First things first,” Evan had said to Tim, when they discussed this crisis by phone quietly one evening.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Tim had said.

Once inside the Capitol, the men, all armed and equipped with enough food and water to last several days, planned to defend their position until the president, the vice president, every Cabinet member, and every member of Congress publicly acknowledged the China threat — and explained to the American people how they planned to protect them.

Evan knew they very well might have to shed blood to make their point. A necessary price, a small sacrifice in the grand scheme, Evan felt. His family had been murdered for nothing. If he himself had to murder someone, it would be in service to the most important cause of all — protecting and defending the sovereignty of the United States.

Evan did not tell Janine what he was up to until 4 a.m. on the morning of his departure. He kissed her awake; he had not slept at all. She followed him downstairs and saw the full pack propped by the door.

“The gun?” she asked.

“I have it.”

“Oh, Evan.” Janine burst into tears and threw her arms around him. “I get it. You need this, don’t you? But honey, promise me one thing.”

“Anything, Janine,” he said, wrapping her in a bear hug.

“Come back to me, please, safe and sound, all in one piece.”

“I promise, Janine,” Evan said. “I promise I’ll come back to you and love you ‘til the day I die.”

THE END.

Image by Lisa Fotios for Pexels

I write to learn — how to think, how to live, how to be — in a world that has never made much sense to me. Novels, essays, poems. Whatever the moment demands.

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