I drive the 5-ton to the field every morning. This time my TC is P____ and Jackson. Last night it was two other privates.
I have to zone out the conversations around me.
One of our best Platoon Sergeants took one of our worst privates out into the woods and smoked him, then punched him in the head.
Afterward, the Private was sent to the Troop Medical Center.
Graffiti on the porta-jon wall:
“The only sensible way to live life is without rules.”
It is easier to compete with each other indefinitely then to compete with an abstract army. 'Some don't get military culture and the concept of battle buddies.
This time my TC is my Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Denton. He tells me I’ll be the gunner for the armored supply truck. I'm accurate with the fifty cal.
SSG Ledger likes to place his hands on top of my head like he is touching an orb.
“If only I could tap into that knowledge,” he exclaims.
Due to Robert, I am fast with numbers, can sense them instead of count them, as if money, as opposed to humans, remains predictable.
SSG Ledger is passed out in the driver’s seat. He smells of alcohol and sweat. 1SG Hall prefers SSG Ledger, while SFC Denton, the state-side Readiness NCO, leans on me. Meanwhile the commander, Captain Kenley, leans on SFC Denton, the hardest worker in Delta.
I choose to listen to SFC Denton.
“Use less,” I say to my peers. “Always.”
More and more SFC Denton is perturbed that we aren’t blood thirsty.
Most are more worried about the battery in their IPOD.
There is a Specialist named Boyd who is popular with girls and who likes to be my TC. Everyday he walks up to the supply truck grinning, waiting. I say what I always say: “So tell me your adventures today ...”
He jumps up on the water buffalo hitched to the five ton and begins telling his stories. Sometimes Moser, one of my battle buddies, will stand behind him with exaggerated gesturing and mouth the words: 'he is so gay.'
So now everyone in the unit calls me Chuck.
I wash up and shave out at the water buffalo, which I have parked at a corner of the training field.
My two best pals here, Moser and Sears decide to do the same. Laughing and joking and horse playing, we finish as the dawn breaks pink.
“No-No” Moser says. “Wait--Chuck!” He pushes Sears away in order to force me to listen. “No--you can do it.” He turns back to Sears. “Listen to him,” he turns back to face me, “Do it Chuck--something crazy.”
“You know the reason why babies aren’t born talking … They could be, you know.”
I start to laugh, because my voice sounds different. Sears’ eyes sparkle.
“But they aren’t,” I begin again in the low baritone. “So they couldn’t be, not in this environment.”
“Huh?” Sears says with his smile, “Say that again …”
“You cannot be human and have forgotten what it was like to not have a language.”
The guy who has disliked me the most this month, SFC Denton, finds me exiting the breakfast chow line with my tray, about to find a table.
“Come sit with us,” he says.
The table is filled with Sergeants and Officers.
In a battalion, the flow of money can be disheartening: first HHC, then Alpha, then Bravo, then Charlie, then, finally Delta company receives the least money to work with.
“Meet Delta Company’s actual Supply Sergeant,” he says to them as he sits down and grabs the salt shaker.
She tells me the road is her favorite place. I decide I want to sleep with her.
On the ride to the hotel she is a little drunk. She looks out the window and talks about Jesus.
“I feel like I have this higher level of energy or something,“ she says. “It's kind of why I left him. Anyone else would've been happy.”
As soon as I arrive home I sit in the recliner and fall asleep. I wake up in the dark. I hadn’t realized I was that tired.
I shower and lay to sleep shirtless in the cold, feeling like some lover boy.
(New Year’s Eve)
The twelve block walk through historic downtown Raleigh is worth it: first a poet, then violin, chello, then fiddle at the concert.
Moser’s parents adopted him. He has a half-brother who hangs out with us.
Moser gives me a beer; he shows me his house. I meet his parents, an elderly Caucasian couple.
“It’s called Facebook,” he says, showing me how fast the internet has gotten. He lets me check my email.
We basically deploy for real tonight, for maybe the third time. Our next stop is more drinking at Hooters, then the armory where Sears will baby-sit us onto the bus.
We notice the wind blowing. There is no scenery but dark, muggy delta land.
“No listen,“ Moser says excitedly, turning around to face the backseat of the HHHMWV. He gives me another huge smile only matched by the huge black goggles he wears just under his Kevlar.
“And you think they’re talking about me … ” I say trying not to sound accusing.
“Yes, of course … “ he says, as his grin is making me smile.
“I heard him say it myself,”
“What … “
“Think about who else could he have been talking about --”
“But you overheard it.” Moser says.
“They’re not talking about me--Moser--” I shake my head.
“--Chuck--listen-’He has this way of getting people to work--’”
“-- said that about someone else earlier. He didn’t want to be believed--”
“I’m telling you, all that happened in my day was those three conversations -- No -- it was different than the way he always says it.”
“He’s educated -- he’s the -- CDR – He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That’s what he thinks -- the best thing you can say to about a person -- is.”
Moser exhales, exhausted.
“Are you sure we never met before … “ I say.
I lean back into the seat, then lean my torso forward. He looks down to speak to me.
“I’m his driver, Chuck -- Listen to me -- And then later -- only in a different conversation --”
I start chuckling. “Moser, stop--What does it matter.”
“No -- and then he practically said--like it was edited or something -- I know-- because he said it twice--that‘s not eloquence. I know … “ he says.
We notice the Commander stepping out of the building.
Moser is my best friend right now. He is the Commander’s driver in HQ platoon, D.
While Moser is the one who will go outside the wire the most, I am in logistics. That’s where you put the suicidals who know they are suicidals, because the Commander’s vehicle is the obvious spot the enemy will hit while logistics is the weakest, most distracted point. The logistician is incidentally the last man standing; he came to his final conclusions an eternity ago. The Commander is America’s representative, so he can come across to me a kind of jester, a kind of actor, but Moser cannot lie, he is all instant emotions, confidence, and movement.
“I’m just -- “ I say, then look back up at him. “An efficient person.”
“Uh -- huh.” SPC Royal says, leaning his back against the mortar barrier as he pulls on his cigarette. He has just given me some pills to fight the fever I break each night.
“Ummm…” I look back down. “Overly decisive -- quick.”
“A hard worker.”
“Hard work is human dignity, itself. You can’t go wrong.”
I know that Royal and I are to be friends because my double life has been known to throw me a bone. He's the friends I would've had all my life. I compete and compensate and try hard to make the difference between the tough one and the brave one.
I’m being considered for promotion to a slot two ranks higher than the one I am in right now.
My Military Occupational Specialty keeps me busy, so in the end I was the last to know. Moser, Sears, and Royal have heard dramatic rumors of it.
In the dark shadows of the connex yard Sears pulls me aside and forces me to listen.
"I think they like how you give information," he whispers. "Like there's no such thing as hope."
Sergeant First Class Denton and Commander Kenley chuckle as I wait for him to sign documents.
The Captain finds an error, handing one back to me.
“You understand these are legal documents,” he says in his low, soft spoken way. “Right, Chuck?”
Em____, talking about his stepson’s douche of a father, while the two of us are on guard duty:
“Don’t you hate it when your father is a douche?” I say.
“Yeah, I’ve had a douche life.” Em__ says. “My step-father raped me from when I was seven to eight, then molested my sister. Actually she was molested first by our biological father, then again by him. Then I told my Mom and she chose him … “
“The key to starting a business is to know ahead of time that you‘re starting a family,” I say to Royal.
I don’t know what that means.
I am alone in logistics; there is no supply sergeant or armoror. I was trained at both jobs during the four-week class in Arkansas, so things seem fair enough.
My XO worries about things high-and-mighty -- officer stuff -- while I pay personal cash for Gatorades and scrounge up MRE’s for training events … I manage, but some in my own unit find it convenient to label me ‘Thief.’ I’d never heard the term with such honor before. Distrust has formed around me, one that feels convenient to me also, because it happens to help protect the supply room.
Royal leads me to a secret, proper restaurant he’d heard rumor of, half a mile down from the Delta CQ.
“Basic was fun,” Royal says as we walk.
“I seemed too passive.”
He pulls on his cigarette; looks at me.
“I had this Mandella meets MLK meets Ghandi way of handling it.”
“I think most of these guys just need to kill somebody.”
In the evening I disagree with Royal. I think Nature versus Nurture is elementary. People can surprise you because they are not two dimensional.
“Once you‘re aware of nature and nurture‘s power, it‘s not a part of your identity anymore,” I say at some point. “It’s something you’re aware of. It‘s part of your human experience. When you’re born you open your eyes and begin to react. You see what’s in front of you. What if you had been born something else instead of human. You’d do the same thing, and you’d still be you, and you‘d still be just as connected to ancient genetics. You’d just keep reacting to what’s in front of you, deducing this and that, until you remember yet again that none of this dust has anything to do with who you are.”
Royal doesn‘t buy it. He shakes his head as he looks for more fever pills in his combat medic bag.
“The fever is getting better, I think,” I say.
“Good thing I've been giving you placebos,” he says.
“Who is Andrews ...” I ask SFC Denton.
“A punk,” he replies gruffly.
We have been drinking because it’s Super Bowl Sunday and First Sergeant Hall is encouraging it.
The Commander is not as spiritually oriented as the First Sergeant. He’s not good with people.
“I mean, when I heard about deployment,” Royal says while sitting in the CQ. “I really looked into pacifism.”
Everyone laughs but the Commander.
Em_____ has wanted to talk with me for weeks. I never had the time. Now he’s locked up in the military’s mental hospital.
That evening, I pause to lean against Royal's bedpost to hold myself up, flush with fever.
“You haven't been taking the pills?” Royal exclaims from his bottom bunk.
“You said they were placebos,” I manage quietly because we are in the barracks.
“I was joking,” he says, quickly getting up. “How could you think I wasn't?”
In the small vault, SFC Denton has remnants of tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t get promoted,” he says lowly to me, as if it were a secret he wishes to quickly get out of the way. He means he only got promoted one rank higher than his present one, instead of two.
When he looks me in the eyes it’s as if we’re on the same team, as if his loss were my loss.
Later, I find out I won’t be promoted either. According to Moser, the Commander’s dream team was a 1SG Denton and Supply Sergeant “Chuck,” but after Battalion sends 1SG Trenchton and SGT Andrews to fill those slots, the Commander changes his story concerning Denton and Trenchton, while going out of his way to still seem to favor me over Andrews.
“Andrews might only be here for a few weeks,” CPT Kenley says sternly to another Sergeant.
SGT Andrews seems to be waiting to be promoted before he takes over the unit’s logistics.
With constant movements of location the supply room is a method of madness while SGT Andrews is like a bull in a china shop destroying whatever systems may have already been in place.
We butt heads as he takes charge of some things, doesn’t take charge of others, choosing what he wants to put his signature on.
“You are not allowed to say anything negative about your own Sergeant‘s work,” 1SG Trenchton demands of me.
“I must report discrepancies,” I reply.
“You just don’t know who you’re dealing with do you?” he taunts.
(In the hotel room)
“See, being American,” I say to him. “Being inebriated with information all the time …”
Royal looks at me with a thoughtful expression.
“All it would take is a virus. The whole mass of people can be quickly manipulated,“ I say to him, the only one of us who isn’t brainwashed.
“I mean they keep going on about how they don’t brainwash soldiers,” he says. “But they do. They keep trying to tell them that this is a life, when it’s not, it’s not natural to wake up in sweat because you think you’re late for some formation. And why would you then discuss the issue of brainwashing with the Army, why would you deal with the people who are telling you what to think. You should think naturally and never f_ck with the rest.”
Royal plays the First Sergeant’s guitar in the CP. I’ve never seen him play before. I’ve never truly watched his expression.
I remember Tom Joad waking in the camp, stretching, then standing as he yawns.
I remember those relaxed days in the old blue house when I would stand on the bed half-asleep in the mornings playing violin. The balls of my feet would wake first keeping sleepiness from keeling me over, quickly-followed by the calves.
When Royal plays his guitar he goes from his soul to his body to his guitar and blocks everything else out.
“Just sociopath enough, to make it work,” Elise whispered to me once.
(hanging out with Royal at the local Walmart and Captain D’s)
“Do you ever miss being a kid … “ I ask him.
“I don’t really see the difference between my days then and my days now,” he answers.
“I don't think I ever was a kid.”
“They teach that there are two forms of violence,“ comes Royal‘s baritone from the dark as we wait for the van. “Physically violent, and non-physically violent.“
The flame on his cigarette brightens, as he gives commentary of his college education.
“Supposedly, non-physical is the correct way. But non-physical is done structurally to a population. It can be just as incorrect.”
“Matt Damon was a part of the older crowd I used to compete with as a teenager.” I say to Royal as we stealth to our seats in the dark. “Meanwhile … as a teenager I read books that would happen to later be turned into Matt Damon movies.”
It was the first real clue he gave me about himself, out at the FOB, discussing SFC Denton: “I think he’d let us get away with a lot ...”
Royal likes weed ... Maybe you’re not supposed to earn confidence. Maybe it’s a human right, part of the original human condition.
They call me Sergeant now.
Though I’m not one.
As we are waiting in the van in the Walmart parking lot, Royal keeps asking why I won’t entertain the idea of going into writing when I go to college. He’s gotten excited about the idea. He won’t let up.
“I’m nothing like them,” I whisper to him. “They are on that track because they want to be writers. I write because I have to.”
His blue eyes widen.
While I prepared Delta for the next movement, SGT Andrews loaded our sensitive items connex with our new armorer, Mace, fresh from military school.
After Andrews and Mace left for NTC in California, turns out no inventory was kept of what sensitive items were placed in the connex before it was officially sealed and sent overseas ahead of us.
Over the phone, Andrews instructs me to make a packing list out of notes and tick-marks on an old print off of Delta’s sensitive items rollup. I do as he says but silently refuse to actually sign the document before sending it on its way.
(driving to Orange Beach)
The orange sunset is difficult to see through.
“It’s just -- you can -- a … “ I say toward the road. “Come across as kind of a con-man,”
Royal continues working on his laptop in the passenger seat.
“That’s just the reality of being in this world,” he says. “It‘s not who I am.”
When I think of Royal I think of Saturday morning cartoons.
Royal’s words from the other night are jarred in my head. We were discussing Malcolm X and Thoreau at the bar on the beach.
The idea to act free, want freely, feel freely, despite not being free … How could that possibly work out.
(National Training Center, California)
Another clue Royal gave me about himself is when he talked about his girlfriend. “Her social skills, man, sometimes she says things and I just look at her like … How did you just say that … ”
Social skills are his natural talent. We sit at the Mexican restaurant we’ve been using as a chow hall as he looks at me saying, “Um …” Socializing must commence. As he says “Um …” he’s thinking of something to say.
I stood up to Andrews when he called me a liar.
I step into the Alpha company barracks and Forester says, “I heard your voice out there and I was like, that’s Chuck. Sounded like you were really giving it to someone ..”
Afterward, in the cigarette smoking area, Royal laughs and says, “I’m living vicariously through you, Chuck. Oh my God ...”
There are strong whispers in the dark. I collect my toiletry bag and towel and leave to take a shower.
First Sergeant Trenchton and Sergeant Bryon both have voices that when raised, sound like a part of a scene in a restaurant.
Staff Sergeant Lowery looks around for some other Headquarters platoon leader. He’s angry, I think to myself. Pissed.
The shower water is ice cold, it’s like showering in shavings of glass.
When stepping back into the warehouse building I again maneuver around Royal asleep on his cot asleep with his knees bent and in the air.
“Since we have no -- fucking -- equipment for this training,” Captain Kenley hisses angrily, looking over the heads of the others toward me.
He assumes because he is an officer his anger is worth more than mine. With casual, silent resignation I sit with the First Sergeant, Sergeant Andrews, and Captain Kenley and finger the same paperwork I had already pieced together at Camp Shelby. The First Sergeant is talking quickly, using his usual foreign-sounding logistic terminology. He begins spouting numbers confidently.
I recognize the sound of his voice to be a salesman’s. I watch as he uses the same tick marks and random notes SGT Andrews used over the phone at Camp Shelby. I notice the Commander’s same attitude of resignation as he watches 1SG Trenchton and SGT Andrews.
“So you can see here, now,” 1SG Trenchton says in his usual Southern rhythm. “Everything is accounted for.”
He glances down at the floor. He heard my toes making that sound where my right big toe keeps popping the muscle on the toe next to it with rhythm.
Scratched into the Porta-Jon wall: “Peritus Veru”
“Tell them to stand down … “ asks Sergeant Thomas lowly because half the TOC is sleeping.
“Yes, stand down. Mission canceled,” answers the Lieutenant from the shadows.
“Tell them to stand down,” says SGT Meadows to me.
“Stand down, Bravo,” I say over the radio in wee hours as Royal works on correspondence courses beside me. I had been reading Vonnecutt by the light of his laptop.
“Yes, Stand down, Bravo,” SGT Meadows says into the mike in my hand.
“Roger. Standing down,” Sergeant First Class Stewart replies.
SFC Stewart is the immaculate one, the youngest E7 anyone has ever come across so far, like he was born to be promoted. A “burner” they call them.
Next morning, turns out Bravo did not stand down, but stayed in-the-ready over an hour before Stewart commanded them back to their bunks.
“So what do you think I should do about this … “ SGT Andrews says, pacing before Royal, Mace, and I standing in a row at Parade Rest.
“I think we deserve vindication,” Royal says, somehow knowing the sound of his voice alone would trump SGT Andrews. Andrews, yet again, cannot get any of us into the front leaning rest.
SFC Stewart covered his tracks, rising early to tell his version to anyone worth the trouble. I recognize his movements, as he does mine, us natural enemies. I know the reason he can see other storytellers is that he is one.
Sat with Royal in the uncovered back of an LMTV in the motor pool for an hour talking, then sat in the back of the LMTV later on that night, talking for another hour. I think we might be friends.
“But why can’t people live as if we were at war … “ I ask him. “Why not … ”
“Exactly, ocean waves at war, crashing into each other,” Royal laughs in agreement, “All that mismatched information. Why not.”
“Still everything deadly relevant.”
He follows me into the tent; he always tries to be around me. His eyes always find me, like how it was with Willahford.
Royal made up the idea of my doing an IV, just to keep me around him. He implied like an OC was pushing it, but really he just came up with it. Afterward, I tried to leave to relieve Andrews but Royal called after me and stopped me.
When Royal’s tired, he talks more and more quietly to the point I can barely make him out. He doesn’t know he does that.
(am First Sergeant’s gunner; first time out with him)
I ask Royal if he found any of this soldiering difficult.
“Well, it isn’t simple ...” he says.
“I’m going to teach you how to think,” 1SG says.
Me and Royal are so close 1SG thinks we’re gay.
“Well, as long as it doesn’t freak you out,” Royal casually retorts to Highsmith.
Wish I could’ve seen Highsmith’s face.
Royal hates incompetence. It angers him that he’s going to war with incompetent people. “I'm not doing that,” he says. “Dumbing down so we all get along with our superiors. It never ends.”
I’m not a good driver. I’m good enough, but not a good driver.
Meanwhile Royal keeps leaving the lights on in the HMMWV after he drives it. I regularly notice he's back and step out to turn them off.
“Did you have a lot of acne as a teenager or something?” Sergeant Simpson asks as I drive the HHMWWV during the convoy.
“Yes ...” I say uncomfortably, glancing at him in the TC seat.
“.. But, Chuck, dealing with the 1SG is risky,” Royal says.
“Yeah, you risk getting yelled at for nothing.”
“No, it’s not that, it’s being tasked out again.”
Royal often goes out of his way to make the point that being treated like sh_t doesn’t affect his mood.
“They weren’t mad?” I ask Royal at the smoking area, laughing.
“Like I cared,” he says. “That unit was a bunch of pushovers. I got to do whatever I wanted. I worked hard but there was never a point where I had to do something.”
(Royal and his girl, as we rode up I-95, crossing into God‘s Country at the beginning of pass.)
They have country voices, they smoke, they drive a beat up car, they are both good looking.
They remind me of God’s Country yet they’re normal …
More and more I’m becoming the guy I would’ve been. It makes my chest hurt.
“With gays one guy is the permanent bottom,” she is saying to him. She has a kid-like manner, even talking like a little girl, though she's just finished her bachelors. “The other guy the permanent top.”
(Tuesday night, 07-08APR2009)
Royal's girlfriend smiles as she talks from the front passenger seat of Royal's old Honda. I am crushed with mine and Royal's gear in the back. “You're either better than all men or you're less than …” she is saying. “One's a top, One's a bottom.”
“You haven't noticed a few things?” Royal says as we walk back from having sneaked off post.
“I’m socially awkward. Maybe I don’t see it because of that.”
“You’re not socially awkward. I mean, you say things differently than others, yeah, like you say ‘absolutely‘, and that night where you let Moser and Highsmith have it, that was a little different. You’re just so direct and to the point when you speak.“
“Girls like that – ones who don't have friendships with other girls,” I say later in the conversation. “Seems like they always come from rape.”
“What are you psychic … “ he mutters.
Royal and I wonder Camp B______ at night, when the temperature is better.
I have been asked by the XO to be concerned about another rumor concerning a job position in my AO: that SSG D___, already-deemed untrustworthy with money, would be flying in from America to fill it.
Royal told me that I shouldn’t care anymore. “Haven’t you learned yet,” he asks.
What he says seems profound to me, like some new revolutionary idea. To be a sh_tbag without being a sh_tbag.
“Just be happy,” he says casually, as we walk to the USO to play ping pong, same as we do every night.
“But once you learn comedy you never come back … ” I say bluntly, as if it were the worst crime.
“Well, yeah … “ Royal says, as he pulls on his cigarette, as if all were decided.
“Well, no wonder than … “ I say.
“What?” he says, with the beginnings of smile.
“Shakespeare Should be writing about us … “
He looks at the sky, then back at me.
“While everyone mistakes the hero to be anyone other than the jester. Shakespeare would save the role of the jester for himself.”
Royal is talkative on a pill as we wander the PX at midnight after watching Scorsese' s Taxi Driver.
Afterward, we discuss it outside, over cigarettes. “You know what I did not long ago? Just guess,” he says, chuckling. “I bought a unicycle.” He laughs. “I woke up in the morning; found I wanted a unicycle, so that same day I went and got one.”
“I think there’s no such thing as morality,” I say.
He looks at me, pulling on his cigarette.
“At all?” he asks.
“At all. No one is moral. They’re giving the perception of morality according to how the human race perceives morality at that time and place.”
We continue walking.
“There’s just loyalty to a few people, and then some more through them. But it doesn’t make sense that there’d be one right and one wrong per every situation in every context. Because every person’s point of view is biologically unique – and should be, like every star in the sky.”
We walk in silence.
“I don’t think Mace likes me much,” I say lowly.
“I don’t think I like Mace,” Royal says loyally.
“He's into football; I don't know football.”
“I never understood people who root for a team like that,” he replies.
“I don't know football I mean … “ I begin, wary because Royal is a natural athlete. “I get how athletic movements are of the highest forms.”
My hands have a mind of their own. They will make a fist while someone is talking to me.
I’ll simply notice my right hand’s position and wonder what on earth.
(Sunday night, 26/27APR2009)
“I mean, when I do something,” Royal says as we hike the three miles from the connex yard. “I want to excel, like in the connex earlier, Mace wouldn’t lift the box, he wasn’t even really trying to lift it. You come along, move him out of the way, see that it has to be done and then change your footing and position so you can. You know? People just aren’t like that here.”
As Royal and I are walking to the DFACT for lunch chow he talks about how he overheard PFC Null talking shit about him.
We stop at the mortar barrier for him to finish smoking.
“It doesn’t hurt my feelings, not at all.” he says convincingly.
I had to hold onto the shower head and close my eyes as I took the pain of it.
I don’t understand last night’s two shifts or what one had to do with the other.
I step outside the shower trailer to Royal with his arm raised doing his best, most honest, joke, sending someone the peace sign like he's casting a spell to everyone.
Royal and I are still trapped in the HMMWV at the connex yard during the sand storm.
He chose to be here -- college-student money problems … We talk about our early twenties because the film Into the Wild has made us nostalgic.
I step inside a Hodgie office in the ‘Training Set’ trailer. I meet hospitable professionalism, am offered a seat, and am told to make myself comfortable.
Several minutes later I am handing a phone to one of them and suddenly all of them, conversing, go silent at my rude interruption.
A female E-6 picks me up as I am walking to the SSA. She is attractive in an athletic way and funny. She says she is the logistician for her unit who just left for up north. She will meet up with them in Iraq in a couple of days.
“I’m trying to drag it out,” she says laughingly, “’Cause I hate those fuckers.”
Played ping pong with Royal.
“Competition is always with the opponent first, not yourself,” he says.
“It's one thing to be the winner,” I reply with a countering spin, “Another to be the best.”
Shifted to the Camp B___ logistics offices. The air conditioning is unusually sufficient.
“American?” she says. “That people is on their way out.”
The old, Arab woman’s behavior is Western, but her voice had cackled with ancient desert.
I stand in silence, confused.
She steps to the printer, then looks over my paperwork. She has long salt-and-pepper hair down her back.
“They follow rules and live peaceful,” she continues. “They are culture-less. In the end they will have nothing to fight for.”
“I don't understand,” I reply.
“The language isn’t structured well.” she says. “It’s wild -- it collects oral histories -- but its structure doesn’t make logical sense. At some point that people will fall.” She wears a blue uniform similar to what janitors wear in America.
“Fall … “ I manage.
She looks up from the papers as the printer kicks on again.
“Because their language will inevitably -- their oral histories -- will become jibberish.”
“My first language is English,” I say.
“Hence,” she says without looking up from the printing papers. “War.”
“Someone has to do Earth's housekeeping,” I reply. “Either America or someone worse. Your people are no candidate for the position.”
Her startlingly blue eyes look up at me just steadfastly enough to get away with the fearful politeness she uses to hand me my unit’s paperwork and send me on my way.
“I have a novelist’s blood,” I say to Royal as we walk across the promenade. “It means I’ll be forced to decide exactly where literature and nonfiction meet.“
Pigeons flutter out of our way.
“Decide for myself I mean. Shakespeare is English -- England -- Royalty came before democracy because it's less complicated -- the people are reflected by the royal family and vice versa in balance -- as far as a present state of things. And they love each other. Meanwhile people study Shakespeare and they think they've got it all figured out: like Women Rule and Men Lead. The royal family has to be healthy, the people have to be healthy ..."
“You know what I heard,” comes Royal's classic joke-telling baritone. “Thing about literature, old age is in its infancy.”
As I’m packing for the next movement, I realize I can’t find my FORSCOM ammo. I recheck my steps, starting with where I smoked cigarettes last night. I walk to the USO where we played ping pong last night.
I walk to the MWR theater, which is where I think will be the best spot for the job. Inside, I see a few people sleeping -- waiting for the film to start. Their ammo is in good position.
I run out of time and make my way to formation. Luckily, the formation time had been changed to 1530. I check with SSG Meadows who tells me to find the ammo and he’ll cover for me.
I walk back to the MWR theatre, with the sleeping three. The place is packed because “Miss March” is playing.
I sit on the floor same as a crowd of other people because there aren‘t any seats left. I sit behind an old man, one of the three. The butt of his weapon is in my crotch as I sit Indian style. I wait for what I know is the funniest scene of the movie.
She has an epileptic seizure as she’s giving the bl-w job and locks jaws on his d-ck. The audience goes wild. I rip the Velcro, even drop the mag, am still fine. There were compromises, like Willahford being in the theatre, but when I run into him later he seems oblivious.
I whisper the whole story to Royal over cigarettes by the mortar barriers. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard,” he whispers back.
Having waited in line for two hours so Royal could use the phone, the soldiers in the call trailer look at me for not using a phone myself. I only know one number by heart.
Her voice still sounds young; she seems very calm and unsurprised, taking the call in stride. I continue lightly brushing off sand-fleas.
She tells of the laundry mat, and of how Rachael Ray has taught her how to cook a few things. She says her and Flower have been emailing back and forth for a month now.
She says Grace is casually mean to her. She told Grace if she didn’t enjoy her company, she shouldn’t do what she didn’t want to do. She says Flower has been trying to hunt me down. I think I was right in figuring that was Flower checking my MySpace everyday.
(Movement from Kuwait to Iraq)
An American soldier enters the Troop Medical Center and opens fire, killing 5 soldiers.
A mortar attack occurs in a neighborhood just outside our wire.
There is always the sound of sporadic gunfire.
The day started with me waking up to Royal still awake on Aderoll.
“All I could think was, I’d never say that to a guy,“ Royal laughs concerning Moser when he complains we don’t hang out with him anymore.
We‘re now in our new home, in the middle of nowhere.
The FOB is one mile in circumference.
“So exactly how self-aware are you trying to get?” asks Royal.
“The book acts as if you just keep getting more and more self aware forever until you're looking at your own reflection.”
Royal pulls on his cigarette as we walk to chow,
“Until I become self-aware enough to make out the morality behind emotions. Once I get there, then I‘ll be done with Tolle.”
I am a first person fighter in a video game.
I fight both Mace and Royal back with a knife.
It turns out unfair of me and I shift back still trying to explain to Royal:
“I had to make room for myself so I could fight off the truly bad guys.”
Yesterday Royal brought me a water out of the blue, and today he saw me in the chow hall and sat down.
I understand that I will never have a best friend. It goes against reality. Even a best girl, maybe.
I step into Royal’s tent and wait.
SGT Preddie is bothering him. Royal rubs his head obviously having just woken up.
He wears a grey A-shirt.
He keeps looking at me with a wry smile like he wishes we could talk.
“Yeah, I guess we’ll get together each night before my shift to make sure I leave the stuff you need like movies and gear.” Royal says.
He acts as if it is a given.
He tells me about a workout band system he is going to get “in case you want to use it.”
Three died today.
Royal doesn’t go right to sleep at the end of his shift, because the electricity is out. He tells me about his Bravo platoon adventure as we step to chow. He doesn’t understand why I assume everyone likes him.
“Well, they at least know you’re cooler than them,” I say.
“Well, yeah, of course,” Royal cracks.
Everyone is sick, always in the latrines or unexpectedly puking.
There are birds here, about the only live thing around.
“I've got you beat,” I say to Sears. “I've done bench for five days now.”
SGT Thomps had set up a bench, bar, and a hundred and fifty pounds just outside. I bench pressed under the night stars.
I see a slight turn of Royal's chin in the corner of my eye.
“If I’m living here,” Royal says to me, suddenly thoughtful. “This is changing.”
He starts moving things around, making certain spaces.
“This is all being rearranged,“ Royal exhales before he makes another quick movement.
Royal walks up to my AO yesterday in PTs so I ask him if he was on his way to doing Physical Training at the make-shift gym.
He says no, he is picking up some medical supplies.
Later I am instructed to find Royal. Sergeant Lowman says Royal told him hours earlier that he would be at the gym.
I walk into the gym to let him know about the medical supplies. He is there.
“Hey …” I say, awkwardly.
I think my pinky finger is broken. I busted it while working. Everyone has something broken or busted. Uniforms torn up, pieces hanging.
We look pretty scrappy.
As I work alone in the connex in the dark, heaving Guardian totes bigger than me, I feel present for awhile.
I remember those early years after having left God’s Country, how effortless being myself was despite having little memory.
Royal knows he’s cooler than the XO and he knows the XO knows it.
“I mean, when he gives out those little safety briefings,” Royal says, “And has those little punch lines, none of that stuff is original.”
Royal’s been present for so long I don’t know if my white-knuckled toughness can keep up with his sheer effortlessness.
Maybe Royal talks so much -- and so well -- because he’s not much in his head.
He needs to talk, or otherwise he’d never articulate at all. It gives expression a whole new definition.
Royal went out on his first mission outside the gate last night and tells me the story.
“How do I fall asleep while my heart is pounding?” he says through laughter, “I can’t believe I did that.”
Shifted from Big Nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won’t let me at the bird to deploy because she says I have failed too many times.
She changes to the cashier window at a college where she says she won’t allow me to enroll. “You’ve failed schooling too many times,” she says.
The anger at Royal is present when I lay down at night and when I wake in the morning. I don’t understand it.
Out of the blue, Royal steps into the CP and tries to start talking to me. I excuse myself and go to the latrine. When I step out of the porta-jon, he is sitting against a mortal barrier, smoking a cigarette. He is turned the other way and doesn’t see me as I walk by.
He has this look on his face that looks hurt and confused and I wonder about it.
I am relieved from the CP and go to the chow hall to smuggle out some Gatorade shakes. They are a hot commodity for one of our platoons because mission times and chow times almost always cancel chow out. The smuggling job works well enough but for carrying the forty-eight-can pack across the FOB to the barracks.
Royal is at his bunk. I give him the sheet set I had gotten for him before they sold out -- the make-shift PX can rarely restock itself.
My voice is different, I notice, less rehearsed, lower, measured, as we talk. He insists that everything he owns and has received in packages of late -- like ping pong paddles and balls, PT mats and food -- are all as much mine as his.
He seems genuine to me, not con-man like at all.
This place must be Markland, I catch myself think, but I call it Novia Scotia, because it reminds me of that place. I live here alone as a backpacker.
Across the river is a wooden bridge leading to God’s Country and the House, where Mom still is.
One day a girl my age crosses over the bridge. We never speak to each other. She stays because she prefers my company.
Born on land he assumes automatically claims him, he later realizes this same land is his mother. He would have to fight to keep it that way because true soldiers are indigenous.
Ironically living like a foreigner in his own land, the CIA agent lives in fear because he knows what a secret really is … his loyalty, his greatest weakness, the known secret he keeps to himself.
Selfishly, he sticks to his one experience of the true America, his true home, the one he remembers, the one that worked.
“And how is it that you’re indigenous,” he is asked by a stranger.
“Because this is where I’m standing,” he says, always undercover.