“Drill sergeant never told us how much louder guns are when they’re shooting at you.”
They bought a single-trunked dogwood tree for each dead man in the brigade against the groundskeeper’s advice since it was Brigade Sergeant Major’s wife that liked them. She’d seen them along a highway in Virginia and got her mind set. And they looked fine in April when they first sunk them in rows at the far edge of Spartan field, rows spaced too far apart, but they had turned a sour yellow-brown come early June. We were headed to Afghanistan next— nothing official, but we all knew— and every man baking in formation at that Purple Heart ceremony looked over at the cool shade under those tree rows and thought year after next we’re gonna run out of field for these trees.
Sergeant Major’s wife wanted the edges of the canopies to be just touching overhead, which they did for a week, before the trees settled and the boughs sagged, leaving a couple feet of daylight between them. Some of them had a fungus that blighted the leaves and their replacements didn’t look the same as the others. Even though they planted them straight they all canted at angles after a few weeks, like men staggering about. You might have asked for a bald rock with your names on it, but the commander didn’t want it to look like a cemetery. In the midst of death comes life, he said and he said it wrong. In the midst of life, we are in death. Of whom may we seek succor. I grew up under a pew as you know.
And for that matter, like a spindly forest of bare-branched, dead man dogwoods hanging long-shadowed in the gray sunrise at winter PT formation ain’t just as creepy as a graveyard, at that early hour when you’re feeling ugly enough about the world as it is. It’s only a real sorry line of work like soldiering that can make a sunrise that ugly.
So I volunteered to work on the trees with Ed the groundskeeper when the tasking came up so that when they came around later asking for escorts for the gold star widows, nobody would bother me. Nancy and Marie and all them girls asking why all of us hadn’t visited more since we’d been back. Ed stood me at the far end of the field and asked me to take a look at the lay of the trees.
“Well, that one’s growing in cock-eyed,” I told him and pointed at the right end by the A Co barracks.
“And half of them in the back,” he said.
On the east side of the front row the trees were starting to cant outward more and more toward the edge of the field, like they were still frames of a falling tree.
“Maybe they all don’t need to be standing at attention anymore,” I offered.
“Well, they ain’t goddamn gonna be, but they don’t need to be laid out neither, uprooted and dead.”
He gave me a grave look and said, “It’s these goddamn woodchucks. We gotta smoke them out or Sergeant Major’ll have my job and I got two kids starting Montessori.”
So we spent the last days before the ceremony desperately seeding gopher poison. The morning prior, I came out to give the trees a last look, to make sure they were still standing, and Ed’s blue hound came galloping over to us with what looked like a field mouse in his teeth. And behind him there they lay spread out across the cart path, dead little tow-haired gophers. Ed came running over from his truck with Sergeant Major behind him.
“Drop it!” he hollered. “Goddamn you drop it!”
And that dog thought he was playing, so round and round they went across the field, Molly with a poisoned gopher pup flapping out the left side of her mouth. Sergeant Major stood beside me examining the crater she had just gouged out in the middle of the dogwood grove.
“I hope you and Ed can patch this spot up or Misses—” he looked down at the nearest memorial plates, “Randolph and Private Humpheries’ mother will be needlessly distressed about this. We need to get this patched up and looking uniform with the rest, ASAP.”
“The mother’s probably still down in there, dead,” I said. “She’s gonna stink in a day or two. We should dig her out if we can.”
“No, that’s not gonna happen. Not enough time. Just do this: fill in the hole, move some grass with topsoil from around the motor pool and cover this up. This can’t look all dug up like this.”
And I started to get hot for no good reason, because I knew nothing would make it look un-dug up in a day, but I kept quiet because it was Sergeant Major. It ain’t a goddamn grave, I wanted to tell him, there’s nothing down there but dead gopher and roots and who cares if it’s dug up. I just nodded and got a tarp off Ed’s truck and some rubber gloves and gathered up the chewed-up gopher pups where they lay. I couldn’t tell if the warmth was still their own or the June sun. I gently tapped each one on the side of the face just to make sure they were dead and they were. So I put them all in a Wendy’s bag I found in Ed’s cab and set it carefully in the dumpster.
We did as Sergeant Major said and moved a small carpet of earth from the motor pool to the dogwood grove and shaped it to plug the hole. The bright green weedy mat stood out like a cheap toupee against the yellow nap of the field, but that was as good as we could do. There were still lumpy bands through the trees where the gopher tunnels were caved in and uneven, clear to any eye for what they were. All of them running back into our patch of grass transplant.
It looked no better the next morning and that was when I first smelled her. It hadn’t got warm yet so it wasn’t so bad. I thought, maybe the sun’ll bake it off and nobody will notice. Maybe none of the families will notice the smell. I got to thinking about this, pacing around the trees, and then I walked back to my truck and knocked a couple one-shotters of vodka in my OJ. I figured they would come in handy that morning. It went poorly with the Kodiak, but it was needed. Like most true disasters though, I tried to remind myself, it was likely that no one would say anything and no one would really remember.
I stayed down there in my truck all morning, away from the company area since I knew who would be coming to visit. There would be plenty of time for bullshitting afterward, when I would be worn out and calmed down about things. I didn’t need to go reliving all of Mosul in the next thirty minutes, but your last day came back to me then as I was sitting in my truck thumbing at my cross. I saw the wind high above heave. Thin stretches of cloud streaks ran faster as if it were time speeding up, rushing me toward that ceremony. I remember you putting in that yellow mouth guard when the lieutenant said where we were driving the gauntlet again, all those easy jokes you had. I remember finding it in your things when we packed them up, like leaving it behind was the secret of your demise. I could see the shape of a filling in the indent of your molar, the pits left by your canines.
And it’s not that I believe in good luck. I watched too many men die to think there are any simple tricks to missing a bullet or a bomb. But I know there’s something out there moving beneath the surface of things. Something that’s told me this life isn’t just a wound up clock we’re watching run its certain ways. I know we had a choice in what we done after you died or else I wouldn’t still be thinking about it all these months and years later. I know you never would have let it happen.
Mo walked out of the double doors of the company building and spied me in the parking lot, sulking in my cab. He made a straight line for my truck. They gave him second squad and I stayed to run first, both of us pinning on staff sergeant after getting home if you can believe that. Your two no-nothing flunkies are now sitting at the platoon table, calling the shots. And I can’t run the squad like you did. Didn’t take no straw poll for me to figure that out, but I tried to do like you told us. I tried to say things the way you used to. Mo’s a bit more natural to it than me. I couldn’t tell if the platoon sergeant sent him to fetch me or if he had the same idea to hide out in the parking lot himself. He came around the front of the truck and got in the passenger seat.
“What you been drinking?” he asked in a easy way.
“Orange juice. A double,” I said.
“Don’t be falling out of formation, now. They gonna smell it on you.”
“Your big ass’ll go down before I do.”
He took a sniff and downed the dregs of the cup.
“What’s it like up there?” I asked him.
“I guess like you must’ve been suspecting. You got Quinones’ and Bunting’s kids all up there,” he said. “Six boys and a girl, all of ‘em wearing their faces around. And you got Bunting’s girl, whats-her-name, and Amy just gold-starred up. I think Amy heard about Sergeant Drummond’s divorce and they’re sniffing backsides in the operations room.”
“Drummond and Quinones were just friends is all,” I said.
“Seem like she’s looking for a friend. Beau came by earlier, too.”
“How’s he look?” I felt like I had to ask.
“His girl tried to put make-up on him. Looks like he got a silly putty neck. He’s wearing long sleeves. Looks like he got a doll’s hand too. He kept doing one-arm push-ups and all of us were standing around like, yup, there you go. Good on ya, Beau. Each one he did we heard that hollow plastic Ken-hand of his knocking on the ground, but he kept on it like he was waiting for us to say something real nice. He lost a lot of weight in rehab, you could tell. Got a whole new face now, lean looking. I think he said he’s getting some college or something.”
“Anybody else up there? Walker?”
Mo rubbed his face, “Nah, they got the pity parade down at brigade. Y’all gonna see them wheeled out at formation. You won’t like it.”
“I heard Metz was coming? Did you see him?”
“Man, they’re all out there waiting. We should probably get going.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess you’re right.”
We watched the first couple of guys walk out of the building and toss their berets on. We didn’t move at first, but then we saw first sergeant come out with the guidon bearer so we eased ourselves over.
A hot wind rolled down between the buildings as I walked out into the gathering formation. I guess you know what that black beret tight on your scalp feels like under the mid-day sun in June. All across the back end of the field they had a 1st Brigade banner hung up with all that Greek crap on it. This was a whole summer before that 300 movie came out and they bought out a whole dumb theater for the Brigade to watch it in class Bs. Everybody dies looking good, great story. The podium for the speaker had a couple of fake acropolis columns stapled onto it like they had decorated for a theme party.
Being 1st squad leader of 2nd platoon I was front and center of that whole formation, under all the eyes of the official party. I looked down the row at my kids, all of them new. I know there wasn’t much left of the old squad, but now it’s just me. By the time I got back to the unit from BNCOC the last four had ETS’d out or got shuffled around the battalion. They gave me baby faces, every last one of them, and goddamn them for it.
“We got everybody?” I asked.
“Now that you’re here,” Poole says from the row behind me.
I turned around to look at him. “I’m sorry, sarge, you know how much I was looking forward to today.”
“If you bothered to turn your cell phone on you could always check the time on there. You own a cell phone, Fields?”
“Am I late?” I asked.
First sergeant came around front so we all locked it up. Then they brought out the pity parade.
They put Bellows from A Co in front since he looked presentable and could walk straight. He got shot in his right shoulder in a cemetery. Another round hit a magazine on his chest, which made his kit look all blowed out when they drug him into the aid station, but he was all right. He was ETS by then but he wore his old uniform anyhow. He was the only one. Behind him was Metz with his mom walking next to him, in case his wheels got caught up on something I guess. I didn’t let my eyes rest on him too long. It’d been a year and he still had bandages, probably for the sun. I know it’s ugly of me to say I wished he hadn’t come, but I’m just saying it to you. I felt something heavy set over me and I wished he hadn’t come.
After him was beanpole O’Dell who got tossed from a turret when his driver rolled their gun truck off an embankment and he was a couple inches shy of being a dogwood tree himself. Somebody said they heard some gunfire in the distance so he got a purple heart for Gilliam’s shit driving, like the battalion was short on real ones. His hips were full of pins and he had a limp.
Behind him was Sergeant Rose grinning and waving from his chair like he was running for office. He barely had time to push with all his vamping, but Metz kept the procession slow so we got a nice long look at everybody before they got to their seats. Sergeant Rose had on a purple suit with his jacket hanging off the back of his chair, with side burns and a goatee that seemed meant for a younger man, or maybe a younger looking man.
At least he still had his legs I guess. He cursed everyone out while we were waiting on that medevac, that’s what I remember about him. I never heard of anybody acting that way before. This was a couple weeks after you bought it, during a raid on some farm houses. At first we were finding nothing, then we heard shooting break out all over the objective. I was at a blocking position by the road and there was nothing for us to do, but listen and then I heard over the radio that Rose was down.
It was dark and silent out in that wheat field and everybody in the platoon just listened to him rave until the birds came. He couldn’t feel his legs and he already knew how it was and he was calling us every name he could think of, especially Lieutenant Durant. The way he was grinning at the ceremony I guess all was forgiven.
Then came Beauchamp with that plastic hand and it could’ve been worse. Rogers was next with a cane, and he was the only one that lived in that D Company truck whose engine block wound up on a roof. We saw the mushroom cloud from the guard tower, right after breakfast, and we all knew who was out there so we just wondered who was coming back. Who knows what was under that hat and shades Rogers had on, but he looked all right from a distance.
Then Alford, fragments and brain damage, from April. Starr, brain damage and probably fragments, from May I think it was. Then Walker and I’m sure you remember that medevac. Two boys from A Co, can’t remember their names, one with forearm crutches. That platoon sergeant from D Co with an eyepatch and nothing under it, I think it started with an R. Then three of the four boys from Charlie that got shot at that intersection in September, since Thorpe recovered and stayed in. Diehl, more TBI and fragments, was looking all right behind them. Then they had Stringer bringing up the rear, whose arm was all tore up from an RPG. And that’s just who came.
After seating all the WIAs, they ran out of room in the grandstands for families, so there were girls bouncing babies on their hips pacing around and kids sitting in the grass for half the ceremony while the CQ runner ransacked the company buildings for more folding chairs. They had the speakers set too close so every time a speaker got started he was accompanied by a chorus of crying babies.
They started out with the valor awards, the last of which had just been approved by some Pentagon dungeon. They gave Sergeant Rice a silver star which most of us thought was out of pity for losing his boys that day, but he was more than man enough to earn one. Hell, they gave me this pocket change ARCOM-V for when you died, just for doing my job. Just for bagging you up and driving us home. A lot of them felt like pity prizes for that whole year we spent eating bombs. Rice didn’t much want it, but Sergeant Major wasn’t much interested. Five other Bronze Star V’s got handed out for shooting a couple or three guys each, maybe none.
Then they saved your award for last, since there was no one there to pin it to. After all that time it got downgraded to a Bronze Star V for you running by your stupid self into that courtyard. They found that uncle of yours in Iowa that you had on your next of kin sheet who you last saw at your high school graduation I think it was. He came in his best jean jacket with a white pony tail spill out the back and a Spartan brigade ball cap he wore flat-brimmed. They mentioned him being in the Navy Reserve something something back in the day and he was all stiff at attention to let you know it and a ten dollar salute to boot. He had his chest all puffed out like they were going to pin it on him, but he just got the box and a handshake. I heard the Colonel say something about “your son’s service” and I didn’t hear Uncle Cornflake correct him.
They read your citation and it was just some words. I think they had a committee of O’s in the adjutant’s office write it up like monkeys hunt-and-pecking Hamlet. The gunfire was ‘withering’ and we all seemed to wither like it was going out of style in those citations. Some ‘fog of battle’ rolled in all of a sudden. You got all ‘selfless’ above and beyond, once again. Your courage under fire inspired all us withering daisies. And then it got to the part about what you did.
You charged into the ‘enemy position’ that was shooting up Bravo Two’s ‘disabled and exposed’ truck ‘heedless of the danger,’ which sounds pretty dumb come to think. You weren’t the heedless sort. I saw you at that wall next to that open gate from where I was hunkered down behind the door of my truck. I saw you paw your left side and I know you were looking for a grenade and realized you left them in the truck. I saw your eyes float out in front of you for a second and you were thinking if you were dumb enough to charge into the courtyard without any bangs. You were doing some heeding. But then you went and I still say it was dumb and if those motherfuckers could shoot for shit we’d of been shaking our heads the next day at your bayonet between your boots in the FOB chapel. Nobody said nothing about Dunne froze right next to you, letting you charge in by your lonesome. We all chose to forget about that.
Listen to me rewriting history. Sitting at my truck looking at Dunne, thinking ‘yeah, Dunne, go get him.’ I didn’t come running after you. Not right away, I guess.
Drill sergeant never told us how much louder guns are when they’re shooting at you. They never tell you how in the city those gunshot echoes make them sound like they’re everywhere.
The new brigade commander, Colonel Whitlock, handed out all the awards even though we were the only battalion on the parade field and he was working at the division headquarters during our tour. Somebody should have let him know he was grinning a little too much, especially when he got up to the podium afterward to give that speech of his.
“Spartans,” he addressed us, like it was a pep rally and I think my thoughts were drifting before I heard him call us that. I could taste the sweat running past the edge of my lips.
“Spartans, we are gathered today to reflect on 12 months of heroism, valor, and service in Iraq above and beyond the call of duty. When they told me I would have the honor of taking over the Spartan brigade, well, there are few moments in my life where I have felt so grateful. Of all the brigades in the army, there is not one— not a single one— as battle-proven and fierce as you Spartans.”
And by battle-proven he meant most blown the fuck up in MNC-I and God praises.
“So as your commander I have nothing for you to prove to me that you have not already proven. I only ask that you live up, once again, to the high standards you all set on the plains of Ninewa in Iraq. In a fictional account of the battle of Thermopylae—“
Cause he read Gates of Fire, which is like Twilight for infantry officers.
“King Leonidas, the Spartan King addresses his troops and says: A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them…A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example…” And it went on like that for a while, I kinda spaced a bit, but then he says:
“393 days in theater from the first man arriving to the last departing and over that time we had 44 Spartans fall in battle–” Some of them had a connex topple on them or got shot by their buddy cleaning a gun, but sure, close enough. “17 of them in this battalion: Bunting, Stroup, Coffman” and hearing your name stirred me again. “Tuttle, Lake” and it sounded a little like he said Turtle Lake, “Monroe, O’Connell, Dunbar, Simms, Quinones—”which he pronounced wrong “Borden, Covey, Olinyk—” also wrong, “Kennedy, Jones, Samoza, and at the very end of your tour Specialist Lane.” Cause of that connex full of gym equipment that fell off a flatbed on him and poor little Lane was short enough already, haw.
“I’d like to thank Mrs. Gray, Sergeant Major’s lovely wife, for being the inspiration and driving force behind the new Spartan grove. Each of our fallen brothers is commemorated with his own tree and memorial marker, which is a new tradition for the Spartans to honor a new generation of American warriors.” And for a second I thought he said a new season of American Gladiators. The speakers echoed back in confusion from the barracks walls all around us.
The chaplain came out to read his benediction, which was good, since Private Lee was starting to do dizzy little swirls with the company guide-on like he was a couple minutes from hitting the grass. Somebody went down like a sack of shit during the chaplain’s final prayer and it took all our military bearing not to look back and see who it was. He read the test of faith from James, which was the chaplain’s sawhorse, him being the by-your-own-bootstraps and rugged individualism sort of preacher. The good news is you can go suck it up.
“In honor of today’s event, from the book of James,” he said and I saw him skip some introduction he had wrote up, owing to the heat.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Not just some joy brothers, but all.”And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And my eyes turned on Metz, perfect and complete. Praise be to steadfastness.
“If any of you lacks wisdom,” That’d be all us walked into the recruiter’s office, skipping ninth period, “let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” Guilty. “For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man,” if not triple “unstable in all his ways.”
“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.” So moweth the Lord “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass” Amen “its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” At least that last one ain’t about us.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life,” or the kevlar dome of obedience “which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
“Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
A gust and its dead grass smell lifted the flags and whistled in the microphone at the podium. The chaplain cupped his hands around it, but his voice became a cheerful muffle while describing the good and perfect gifts. From the back of the crowded bleachers, the families had retreated in ones and twos to the thin noon shade under the edges of the near barracks buildings, a step off the hot brick walls. Some watched from their air-conditioned cars in the far parking lot, waiting for it all to end.
At last, the colonel took the formation and handed it back to the Sergeant Major. The color guard high-stepped off the field in their fussy way and the battalion, what was left of us, was dismissed. The better sort headed over to the line of wounded boys, enough to let the rest of us slink off and I felt like giving a good word to Walker and Beau, maybe Diehl too, but Metz kept me standing where I was. I put in a dip and rubbed the sweat off my face.
There was a good crowd forming by the bleachers so I malingered under the dogwoods to take in some shade and there were mothers and wives walking through them reading the plates, looking for somebody. The not wanting to talk to Metz got so sharp it made me realize it had to be done and I’d have to find some dumb guts to do it somehow. I saw his mother fanning him with her brochure and holding an umbrella over him. I imagined the long life ahead of her of thankless nursing or maybe not so thankless. Maybe not so long.
I thought about my parents’ spare bedroom at their new condo on the Outer Banks, the one that wouldn’t fit my grandfather’s grand piano which broke my mother’s heart, sold to some Suzuki prodigy in Chapel Hill, never to play a godly note again. While I was gone, my father had a heart issue as they described it to me which made him retire from teaching shop class a couple years early and they wouldn’t say it was about me, but looking at the calendar it wasn’t hard to figure out. He went to the hospital the week after I got out of it and called them, shouting at them on the phone with my hearing loss. I probably sounded as crazy as I was. I’m sure you remember how I was since you talked me down from it. You got me back on the line, seeing things straight again.
I stayed at my folks’ new place for a week when I got leave after Iraq. Through the mosquito screen on the bedroom window you can see the crooked planks of their privacy fence, foot tall weeds working through the cracks, and all the cheap roofs and chimneys running away from the shore toward nothing worth heading to that I could figure.
In the disappointed mood of my return I imagined that convict view as what waited for me when I wound up like Metz, the son in the attic. I imagined a number of crippled outcomes of either mind or body or both that would lead me there, stuck in that guest bed forever, surrounded by dusty childhood mementos, JV trophies and appreciation certificates, quietly grinding my folks into their early graves. Most days I lay there thinking of what happened to you and trying not to think about it until I felt I should keep up appearances downstairs at the breakfast table.
Metz started driving his way over to me and I felt my pulse jump, like he had seen me and had something to say to me or some well-composed letter he would just hand me. Then I realized I was standing by your tree. Samuel D. Coffman. Parents dead, beloved nothing to nobody anymore. I mean, for all anybody else seemed to have to say about you. When Metz came up I stepped aside like he might wheel on past, but he came to halt when his mother said something in his ear and pointed out your trunk. He didn’t notice me at first.
I thought up about a dozen ways to ask, ‘How are you?’ which all sounded terrible.
“Hey, Metz,” I said at last.
He turned his head a little to the side and then he wheeled the rest of the way around with his joystick.
“It’s Sergeant Fields,” I said.
I couldn’t tell what his eyes were doing behind those shades or if he was even looking at me.
“Hey, s—” he said and I guess he gave up on that second word.
I kept myself from asking how he was again.
“The old place ain’t changed much,” I said, gesturing toward the company barracks over my shoulder. “Things are pretty much the same around here as they used to be.”
That felt stupid to stay. He nodded and twisted up his lips.
Few things will make a man reflect long on the nature of brain damage like our year long concussion rodeo in Mosul—or rather a year for us that finished it, nothing against all you that got put on permanent DL prior to. And not that it matters a wit what it looks like when you don’t have it, but only what you are now that you have it. But that’s not the right word. You don’t have it. You are it. And I got off easy. If I have memory trouble it’s from the distraction of these thoughts, not so much neurons knocked loose. So I had to wonder how much was left firing on the other side of them grandpa shades of Metz’s knowing that the first rule of having brain damage is learning to act like you don’t have brain damage.
I thought about asking his mother how much he could talk, but I thought it might make him feel bad. I put another dip in the other side of my lip and then I figured I looked dumb and scooped out the old side.
“This your first time back at post?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
I figured yes no questions were all right.
“He just came home a month ago,” his mother said. “Back home to Franklin.”
“Well that’s something,” I said.
“We might get him his own apartment next year,” she said. “Nearby.”
“Your own bachelor pad, eh Metz?”
He grinned quick and it fell right off. All his grins were quick like that, like they hurt.
She was dressed in black with white pearls, but nothing too fancy. Like you might for the funeral of someone you don’t know too well. Maybe she dressed like that every day. She seemed very friendly and tired. I couldn’t tell if this was a hard day or an easier day for her.
“Well you’re looking better than the last time I saw you,” I said, dumb again. “I’m sure you don’t remember, but I told you I’d give your IPod back when I saw you again. You probably don’t remember me saying that when we were waiting on the birds. You were laying on the skedco and I said that to you. You remember?”
“Nathaniel doesn’t have any memory of the day it happened,” she said.
“Just,” he said.
“Huh,” I said. “Well, not much worth remembering there.”
“Just,” he said.
I tucked my thumbs in my belt and nodded for a bit. I looked over to the bleachers, but I couldn’t see Walker or Beau anymore.
“Just,” he finished, “Quiet Riot Two.”
I forgot all the dumb names we called those company missions, but I guess they stuck with Metz. Even after what happened to him. They all blended together after a while for me. I guess you have to call everything something. I couldn’t quite remember when Operation Quiet Riot Two was, but it sounded like something from the summer. Then I remembered it from the papers I brought to the TBI clinic when I got home. That’s where we got got.
“Just Quiet Riot Two, huh,” I said. “Oh yeah.”
“Up to. Then.”
“I guess you remember what happened to me and my truck during that one. Bunting and Stroup,” I gestured at their trees down the lane.
“You were—” he started.
“We were blown up on that one, yeah.” I said.
“You were lucky,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess that too,” I said.
Metz had adjusted sideways so the sun came over his face and I could just make out his eyes squinting at me behind his shades, the irregular new shape around his sockets. Fool as I am, I realized he was hoping to hear somebody say something to him. He had nothing to say to me. This would be it for him, the last look at the old life, at the old boys, what were left of us and it occurred to me it was just me. I’d been in seven years at the point, but this must have been a blur for him. Maybe not even two years in, but what am I saying. He’s in for good.
There were a few guys left from the platoon, but he came back to put eyes on the old squad one last time. And I was the old squad. We were still downrange when he was in Walter Reed and then in the burn clinic in Texas. Maybe some of the guys made the trip down there, but I couldn’t remember. I sure didn’t put together any road trips to go see Metz. I know you would of. It would of been the first thing you’d done.
Brother, what is wrong with me?
“You did better than we ever could have asked for, Metz. You always did your job and then some. You should be real proud of what you did over there,” I said. “We kept thinking about you the rest of the tour, hoping you pulled out okay.”
Yeah, well I didn’t. Take a long look, Sergeant Fields.
Why don’t you pull these shades off and take a picture. It’ll last longer.
“Thanks, s-” he said.
Which is when I saw the other chair heading our way, like the two of them were magnets pulling together. Here came Sergeant Rose with that red-eyed grin, wheeling himself our way as best he could. We went to PLDC together, but he was always riding me in the platoon, asking me if I was finishing ranger school by correspondence course, reminding the boys I didn’t make it. He seemed to think of me as his confidante, talking shit on the company leadership, even if I wasn’t much interested.
“I heard somebody say lucky and my ears started burning,” he called out to us.
“Howdy, Rose.” I said.
“How about one of you heroes push a goddamn disabled veteran so he doesn’t blow his triceps out?” He said to a private mulling nearby and the kid came rushing behind his chair.
“Attaboy,” he said. “Now how about you just hang out there while the grown-ups are talking until I’m ready to depart.”
“Yes, sir.” The private said from behind his chair, just being polite.
“Try again. Yes, sergeant,” he said. “Do I look like some mouth-breathing O to you?”
“Yes, sergeant. I mean, no, sergeant.”
He turned his bitter grin my way, “Guess they lowered GT Scores again for infantry.”
“How you been, Rose?” He seemed good enough to ask it.
“From the waist up?” he asked. “Not counting the cock? Excuse me, ma’am, I forget there was a lady present. You know how us boys talk.”
“Are you a friend of Nathaniel’s?” she asked.
“Specialist Nathaniel Metz, yes indeed,” he said. “And I see you’re doing about as well as I am. Eh, Metz?”
“Yeah,” Metz said.
“I figured I’d come visit since everybody’s been too busy cleaning their rucksacks to come see me,” Rose said, grinning at Metz.
I just chewed on that. I guess I deserved it.
“You getting chair sores on your back side like I am? I should have got a ride like this. What’s that a V-6 you got under there? They could’ve at least wired up a couple cooling fans for the trouble or maybe that’s on the deluxe model the VA won’t pay for, huh? I’m sweating my ass off pushing this thing around.”
Metz’s mother blinked at him like he was speaking some other language.
“Maybe you should’ve dropped a couple more dollars at Goodwill and bought a suit made for the heat,” I said to turn his attention off Metz.
“What are you, a fashion critic now? You’ll be lucky if they bury you in a suit half this nice. Oh, excuse me, I forgot, they’ll be laying you out in class A’s in,” he looked at his watch. “Twelve months from now is it? When are they shipping you clowns out to Afghanistan?”
“Nothing’s official yet,” I said. “Next Spring maybe.”
“Don’t write me in as a pall bearer on your pre-deployment preferences, I’m gonna be busy that week.”
“How long you in town for?” I asked.
“I got a real job now, so I’ll be flying back tomorrow,” he said.
Now that I’d taken his eyes off Metz, Rose was sizing me up. He was his same savage self as before, but something a little more intense in his voice. I knew that the best way to keep on his good side would be to keep busting balls. If I got any pity in my voice I had a feeling he’d get real dark on me. He seemed like he might get that way. He had a CIB pinned crooked under the flower on his lapel. Metz’s mother offered Metz a drink from a water bottle with a straw in it, but he shook her off. She stood up and smoothed out her dress.
“Well,” Mrs. Metz said. “I shouldn’t keep him out long in the heat. Are you about ready to go, Nathaniel? Is there anyone else you would like to see?”
Metz turned his head toward the barracks slowly. Then he turned his face back toward me.
“Is there anyone else you wanted to see, honey?” she said again.
“Fitz?” he asked.
“He got orders for Korea,” I said. “Left last month.”
He took another long look over at those old barracks walls.
“Was there anybody else?” she said.
I thought about him in the hooch back in Mosul with the boys, reading his MMA magazines. I tried to think of who he was tight with from the platoon, but he wasn’t there long. He came to us after NTC, just a couple months before deployment.
“No,” he said, but he was still staring at the building.
“Well, good luck and godspeed, Metz,” Rose said. “I think we’re going to retire over to the chapel for some of the refreshments I was promised. Sergeant Fields, I’ll be needing a ride back to my hotel later so if you’d be so kind as to accompany me.”
“Stinks,” Metz said.
We all looked at him.
“Something,” he said. “Stinks.”
His mother perked up, “Yes, what is that terrible smell?”
“Oh, that,” I said. “There’s a dead gopher. We didn’t get it out.”
Rose’s chair pusher spoke up, “Sergeant, I’m going to have to get back to my section. I’m late for the safety brief. It’s a long weekend.”
“Well, aren’t you worthless?” Rose said. “You’re lucky I’m stuck in this chair, son.”
“I’ll push you, Rose. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
“You’re goddamn right you’ll push me. Let’s go, Fields, mush,” Rose said. “Adios, Metz. We’ll miss your sparkling wit, but wheel by anytime, huh? Don’t be a stranger.”
Metz wheeled around to go and I called out to him as he made his way back to the footpath leading to the parking lot.
“Good luck, brother,” I said. “I’ll keep you all in my prayers, ma’am.”
And as she turned to go I saw her lips get tight, and she nodded without making eye contact. It seemed like she had kept all that anger under a lid the whole day. Maybe she was the one who couldn’t take it anymore. I started going through the conversation I just had with Metz, and started thinking of things I could have said better to him. I tried to think about things you would have told him. As they got to the pavement, she balled up her brochure and hurled it in a trashcan.
“Holy shit, what a Metz, right?” Rose says. “You need to pray that kid swallows his tongue in his sleep, for his old lady’s sake.”
“I’m gonna wheel you into that fucking turtle ditch and beat you with your chair for the rest of the afternoon. How about that?” I said.
“Hey, it’s just shits and grins, Fields. Lighten up. You want to hold hands and share feelings, go fuck yourself.”
“Just take it easy, all right.”
“I didn’t come here all the way from Philadelphia for this to be an all day downer. I get enough of that at the VA hospital. You want me to cry all day over Metz? You want me to cry like a bitch over this?” he said and gestured at his chair. “You think you’re making him feel better by getting all mopey?”
“Keep it down,” I said.
“If you don’t start wheeling me toward the chapel I’m gonna make a crazy vet scene right here in morbid orchards. How about you get me outta here?”
“Yeah, all right. Just shut the fuck up.”
So I pushed that chairborne griper across the ruts of the groundhog tunnels, leaving a deep pair of wheel tracks in the soft sun-baked lawn. The little white clapboard chapel our brigade inherited hasn’t had a renovation since Pearl Harbor other than a thousand layers of private-slathered government paint—also, thankfully, a plywood wheelchair ramp– though they tried to church it up for the ceremony, with some streamers and deployment photos on poster board tacked to the walls. When I wheeled Rose in the front door they had some card tables set up with a spread of muffins from the mess hall kitchen. They had a bank of industrial size fans running to ventilate the place.
“I guess this is about what I should’ve expected,” Rose said. “I can smoke in here right?”
“No,” I said as he lit his cigarette.
“Well they can come get it if they don’t like it. Find me something to ash in.”
“You want something else?”
“Yeah, get me a coffee too. Extra black.”
I poured him a coffee out of the stand-up thermos and got him a cup for his ashes.
“Just when I thought the misery was over,” he said, looking over the memorial posters, “I couldn’t take another minute with those other chumps. Alford wouldn’t stop with the waterworks and the stories in the brigade conference room. I kept telling him, why don’t you take a minute and pull yourself together outside, but he kept saying ‘I’ll be all right.’ It’s hard to have a decent conversation with that going on. They’re all getting steaks at the Roadhouse afterward, but I said count me out. The food there’s shit anyway. Goddamn army towns.”
“I can give you a ride back anytime you want,” I said. “We’re cut loose for the four day, but I got shit to do later.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Fields. What makes you think I’d want to go drinking later with a mopey drunk like you anyway.”
“Yeah, well I’m not offering.”
Rose wheeled himself over to the memorial poster boards and I wasn’t real interested in what he had to say about them.
“Enrico Quinones,” he read, real loud, and the mixed handful of soldiers and family all looked over at him. Nobody’s going to yell at a vet in a wheelchair I guess. “Did you know this kid?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t remember him.”
“I failed him on his EIB test for putting his batteries in backward on his NVGs. God, I got sick of grading those bullshit tests all day. And he starts crying and arguing about it, but he can’t make a real sentence because he’s blubbering. Over a fucking expert infantryman’s badge, some useless uniform candy. I said you’re going to get you CIB soon enough shitstain, show some spine. Are you going to cry like bitch when the bullets start flying for real? Over some goddamn batteries.”
“I can wait outside,” I said and I noticed everyone else making their way toward the door of the chapel.
“So you’re going to leave a fallen ranger behind, oh right, I forgot, you failed out in Florida phase. I mistook you for a ranger for a minute there,” he said. “Did you start crying when they gave you the boot, is that why I touched a nerve?”
“Least I went,” I said. “I went all through once. I figured no point in doing it all over again. Not that you’d know anything about it.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I can starve myself sleepless in the woods on my own time. It’s called deer season with my near-sighted stepfather. All that bullshit hooah, you fell for that shit, bro, didn’t you? Well, goddamn–” he said as something caught his eye.
Rose rolled to the far side of the chapel and the floorboards creaked under his wheels. He ashed on the floor as he came to a stop in front of Tuttle’s portrait.
“Would you look at a country-boy-can-survive his very self. I’ll bet he gave them this picture himself, he told his mom, ‘After I die in Iraq I want everybody to see a poster-size photo of me dolled up like a rhinestone cowboy retard in my thrift store Stetson.’ I haven’t seen a soldier dressed this stupid since I was back in the ville in Korea. How much you think that leather vest cost, half his base pay for a month? For an E-3 demotable like Tuttle? I’ll bet he sewed them racing patches on himself at night in the barracks like the little boy scout he was.”
“You never did like people much, did you Rose?” I said. “That wasn’t your thing, huh?”
“Come on, I’m not laughing at the kid. It’s the shitheads in the chaplain’s office that picked the photo. Every dead twenty year old kid has got a stack of pictures you wouldn’t prop up in a chapel. I loved that kid, you know that.”
“So who’s next? Which picture you gonna talk shit on next?”
“Aw, well look at Bunting here and I know you were there for that one so I won’t say nothing about poor Bunting. But look at the shit picture that S-1 kid took, looking startled with his eyes half closed. I’ll bet he did that on purpose, that evil fuck. Like right before he took the picture he told Bunting, ‘Your wife is crying in the sergeant major’s office,’ click. All he had to do is take a decent pre-deployment picture, war face, steely-eyed, little grin, whatever you want, just eyes open and decent looking, am I right? I mean, I’d take a brainless grin in a cowboy hat over looking scared and stoned in my memorial photo any day.”
“Bunting wasn’t married,” I said. “He didn’t have a girl. I mean, he had one he was writing to. From high school.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t really meant as a solid hypothesis, Fields, but thanks for the useless fact check.”
We were alone by then. I think they overloaded the fuse with the fans and the coffee pots, because the power cut out. The chapel darkened and the air stilled. It became suddenly very quiet and hot.
“Or maybe you’re just wondering what I’m going to say about you next year when I’m staring at your ugly mug on a Kinko’s poster. Hold on, I’m going to take the picture for it,” he said and I tried not to look uneasy as he pulled a small camera out of the inside pocket of his jacket.
“One, two, three, I’m dead, Mah,” he said and the camera made a click noise. “Oh that’s a beauty. Angry, sweaty, and dead, and look how perfect. I got Coffman’s poster in the background behind you.”
So I turned around real slow and I saw you when I came in, but it wasn’t until then that I took a long look. They had a picture of you from Ranger Regiment, before you came to our unit. It was from Afghanistan in the early days. It was nighttime and you were on a flight line with the birds waiting behind you, you and a bunch of batt boys looking keyed up. You looked certain of something.
“The good die young, don’t they Fields?”
I get these headaches now. I could tell I was getting dehydrated in there. I was getting a bad one.
“Actually, I’ve got some advice for you Fields. Are you listening now that the fans are dead? Go get a job in the three shop or up at brigade. Don’t take Coffman’s squad to Afghanistan, because I’m going to lay some hard truth on you. You’re a great soldier, but you’re no squad leader. That right there,” he said, and he pointed at you. “That’s a squad leader. And don’t take it too personal, the real ones aren’t that common. Three quarters of these lifers in the battalion aren’t meant to be squad leaders, not for a place like Afghanistan. The army attracts too many guys who couldn’t do nothing else. Failed out college, kicked out of the house by mom and dad, and leading eight kids against Al Qaeda up in the mountains? You just hang around long enough and they’ll put stripes on anybody now that everybody’s getting out and you know that. You’re a softy, Fields, and you got nothing to prove. You did your time. And with that head injury of yours? You know how it is. It’s the second one that ruins you. You already scrambled those brains once. It’s gonna be bad for you if you live through another one.”
“Well, goddamn. Now who’s the downer? This is your goddamn advice? You know what, Rose? I think that chair has got you twisted. All you got is ugly for everybody now. I’m sorry for what happened to you and all, but some of us gotta go back and do it again and that’s just how it is. I feel for you brother, but how about you just give this shit a rest?”
“Oh you think I’m being a downer? Were you paying any attention during those speeches today? You didn’t see how excited your new brigade commander was when he counted all those dead bodies? He almost knocked the podium over with his hard-on. He’s dying to go get you all killed over in Afghanistan so he can beat his chest over his lost boys the rest of his life. He’s gotta start losing some boys to get in that club. He’s already planning his noble speeches for your memorials in that West Point brain of his. The single tear. The slow salute. And if he can actually be there when one of you is death rattling on a field litter and watch your eyes unfocus, well that’s just a Super Bowl touchdown.
“This is just a job for guys like us. But those O’s have been waiting twenty years for their war and it’s gonna be every bit as miserable for us as they were promised. They’re gonna put you in some little shit firebase that won’t make a lick of sense and you’ll be thinking, why would they put us out here in a shitty position like this? Like in Iraq, why are we being told to keep driving the same roads we know are full of bombs? Why are we being told to drive the speed limit and only use approved routes? Is it just because they love us so fucking much?”
I started pushing him out the door and he put on the wheel brakes, but I just kept pushing him anyway with his locked wheels sliding across the ramp in a loud dull moan of rubber on rubber. I pushed him all the way across the parking lot like that because after keeping it together all day I couldn’t take another word like this and over the screeching sound of his wheels I couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore, all his cursing and ugliness. And from the beginning of the day, but before that, from the time I got back I wanted to do it over again and be better than this. I would’ve driven Metz here myself, all the way from Texas, and I would have said what it was that he came here to hear and I would’ve shaken hands with Beau and told him how much we missed him and I would have put my arms around Amy and told her how strong she had been and how much Brian had loved her and I would have called Bunting’s mother like I meant to, since I’ve had her number in my wallet all these months, and told her what happened, even if it meant telling her what I should have done, even if it meant telling her how ugly and stupid he really died and the awful things he said to me dying. I could have looked Mo in the eyes and told him how clear it was that I did everything wrong that whole fucking year, or not that I did everything wrong, but that there were a thousand things I could have done. I would have taken back every bitter joke I ever told and every time I acted like it all just didn’t matter to be numb. I’m telling you now because I have no one else to tell this to, no one else to listen, and because I’m the only one left with the memory of you disappearing into that black cloud and leaving me all alone, so I’m going back by myself brother and I know that. There must be a reason for this, for me being this way, and feeling this weight on me because there is something I have to make right, if I can just find the will for it. If I can just be somebody that I wasn’t before, somebody better. Even if I die, even if I’m ruined, even if I’m trapped in a senseless brain box for a hundred years, there’s something so terrible about my memory of all this that there must be something I can replace it with even if it’s nothing.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.