War Story Time — I know this one’s a little long, and I know it doesn’t necessarily resolve everything at the end, but if anyone has suggestions for it, I’d be glad to hear them.
* * * * *
“Thompson! Get that damn boot outta my face! Why the hell are you shining it here anyway?”
Dirt-streaked cars honked and screeched while men behind windshields screamed at one another. Gun truck blazing the way, our convoy plowed right by it all. My headache was most definitely back.
“Awww, come on now,” Thompson drawled from the middle seat on the bench, “you can use it soon as I’m done. After what happened last night, I tell you I’m gonna be just a tad bit—that’s a tad bit— more professional about all this soldier stuff.”
He had his black leather boot shoved over his left hand and gently swirled a blackened cotton-ball over its scuffed surface. The pungent tin of boot polish balanced delicately on his lap, and he let a dribble of spit into it every so often to keep it moist.
“You got your desert boots months ago,” Shoultz said, “and in the truck you’re probably putting just as much of the polish on your hand as on your boot.”
Thompson stopped to sniff his cotton-ball hand. The Humvee in front of me swerved to cut in front of a tiny truck with a flat nose. I honked and veered our five-tone behind it—getting to the middle lane before the upcoming overpass.
“Why the hell are you wearing those black ones anyway?
“Yeah! I guess when the colonel sees me next time with my shining boots and blackened fingers, he’ll know what I’ve been up to.”
I gritted my teeth and tightened my grip on the wheel. Outside, the Iraqi noon was white and scorching. Blow-dryer current poured through the windows, laden with dust, and the traffic on the freeway buzzed over dirt-caked earth like summer flies on a bull’s sweaty shoulders. My head was throbbing, and my eyes itched bloodshot veins behind mirrored sunglass lenses. The freeway squirmed with Baghdad traffic—bicycles and donkeys, Mercedes and semis, and now Humvess and Five-tons and Deuces from our convoy.
“Hey Machus, you mind scoochin’ over a bit. I mean, I’m just a tad bit cramped here in the middle.”
I scooched without remark, banging my hip against the metal door.
“I said, ‘Can you scooch over a little?’” Thompson repeated. I can hardly move my elbows here, and I wanna finish her up before we get there.”
“So you think we’re close?” Shoultz glazed from her window seat. From her voice, I thought her eyes were closed. But then cellophane shuffled, followed by a slapping plastic sound, and I knew she was grabbing another cigarette. You wouldn’t expect it from looking at her, short and blonde and pudgy, with her lazy eyelids always half-closed. She looked more likely to have a skittles addiction than cigarettes. She also looked like someone who’d smile every so often, but appearances are often deceptive.
But now I was looking ahead at the upcoming overpass and scanning the lanes beside me. A gritty Nissan was chugging along my left, its back seat piled high with bony kids staring through the windows. On the right, another flat-nosed truck loaded down with miles of hose and pipes was slowly nosing past. In front, Goshen’s Humvee took a sudden swerve to the left as it crossed the shadow of the bridge. I stomped the brake and took to the right, narrowly missing the back bumper of the pick-up. In the mirror, Beetle rammed his deuce straight through the center lane. It’s supposed to minimize your odds of getting rocks or grenades dropped on you from above. Slamming into the glittering white noon on the other side, we growled and bullied the swarming cars, hammering our convoy into line again.
Buzzing traffic hummed in my ears, the sunlight glared through the sunglass’s tint, and the rectangle blocks of the buildings lining the freeways flashed past in a blur of gray and tan and spaghetti strings of power lines zig-zagging a deadly web overhead. We were headed north to Taji, loaded down with tools and materials and every bit of gear we’d been issued or had purchased back at BIAP. The sudden exodus of our entire platoon had prompted a worlds-gonna-end bacchanal the night before. My throbbing skull was killing me, but for other reasons.
Through the crooked grid of the city’s steamy maze, on a knife-edge of highway slicing through the brittle crusts of sun-cracked dirt and squiggling asphalt heat, we rolled. In my stupor of sweat, exhaustion, headache, and a nagging twinge of bile in my throat, it felt like I was not only balancing that clumsy truck on that knife edge of a highway slitting through from the underworld, but that I alone realized the danger buzzing on every side, bubbling through the teeming blocks and buildings and walls and squares and all the thousands of existences sweating through a spring afternoon in an ancient city of sun and blood, that I alone noticed the hostile glares shot from beaded brows forced to the highway’s shoulder one more time for one more passing convoy for one more yoke to bow their chafing necks to.
“You know, Machus,” squeaked Thompson’s rabbit voice, “next time you ought to get a map and a compass before we head out. I mean, what if we’d get lost or separated or whatever from the others? I mean, a good soldier thinks ahead to stuff like that. Yours-truly knows a thing or two about handling a map and compass. Yep, I ain’t no slouch at the old land-nav game.”
“Why won’t you shut up?” said Shoultz, exhaling her own acrid cloud into the dust pouring in the windows. “Like you’re going to navigate yourself through Baghdad with a map and compass. And if you’re such a hard-ass soldier, Tommy, why didn’t you grab that shit and ask directions and get the radio freeqs before we left?”
“Hey now, don’t you start with the good soldier stuff with me! Who’s the only one in here polishing his boots? Huh? Yeah!”
A scuffling noise ensued, bumping my arm and jerking the truck into the lane beside me. The gritty Nissan with the bony kids honked, swerved, and fell behind as it slammed on the brakes.
“Hey! Hey! My boot! You’re gonna get ashes on—Hey you did that on purpose! Look at it!”
“Goddam slut! You fucking burned my goddam polish! Lookatit!” He screeched. “It’s all melted and—and, and fuck you, whore!” His can of polish and spit tumbled from its cradle between his thighs and bounced around on the floor. He wriggled himself suddenly to the floorboard in search of it. His stiff shoulder rammed into my knee, forcing my leg down onto the accelerator. A mighty lurch ensued from the five-tone; it jumped down a gear and hammered forward. I struggled to free my leg from where he’d pinned it to the accelerator, the Humvee’s tailights rolling nearer.
“Thompson you idiot!” screamed Shoultz, furiously slapping at his shoulder. I jerked the wheel to the left, into the other lane again, and would have plowed over a boxy gray car with three men in milk-colored robes, but their driver skidded to the left shoulder, swinging a front tire from the pavement and slamming the frame and bumper onto the asphalt in a torrent of sparks. Horns and screams blasted through our dusty cab. In a panic, I somehow slid my legs out to the left, ramming my knees into the hot metal door, twisting body almost perpendicular to the wheel, and jerked back into the center lane, scarcely a meter from the Humvee’s tail. Skinner in the gun turret ahead was staring wide-eyed at me barreling down on his rear bumper.
But my foot was off the gas, and we were slowing now, and Thompson was back in his seat, rubbing his hand. Sweat was pooling between my back and the canvas seat, dripping out from under my Kevlar, and my heart was racing. Slowly I watched the taillights in front recede to a normal following distance. Skinner laughed, then stuck out his tongue and held rock-and-roll horns in an uplifted hand.
“You didn’t have to kick me.”
“The hell I didn’t! You almost got us killed!” Shoultz sounded hysterical.
“Yeah, well, it’s gonna leave a bruise.” He rubbed his calf. “And you didn’t have to throw my shoe polish out the window! That’s considered a piece of the uniform, and I ain’t gonna be running around a goddam battle zone without a piece of my uniform. What would the colonel say if he saw me without it?”
“He’d probably slap the piss outta you for almost getting us all killed.”
I sat panting and sweat-streaked in the whistling heat, my knuckles white on the wheel. The traffic ebbed away a moment, leaving us quiet in a pool of white light and churning motor, a calming eddy in the current. Shoultz sighed and began slapping her cigarette pack against her palm again. I breathed deep of dust and diesel fumes, planted my elbow on the window and began massaging my temple once again. “Honestly, Tommy, being such a high-speed soldier was almost the death of us,” I finally said. “Or of those guys in that car we ran off the road.”
He stared ahead, rank and half-polished boot still plastered over his hand, eyes glassed a long moment. His lips quivered, stopped, and quivered again before he burst. “And I thought you was high-speed, too. I thought I could count on you to stick it out, but you’re just as hung-over as the rest of them, just as sloppy and useless. I used to think you was the most high-speed one of all. But now you’re sellin’ out to side with Shoultz and them. ”
“Who’s ‘them’? Whose side am I on?” Shoultzwas livid. The slapping pack of cigarettes intensified. “Tell me who I’m sidin’ with.”
“Are you kidding me?” Thompson laughed, “You were with Remi and Beetle and half the platoon down by the forklift doin’your damn jaeger-bombs and ‘hajji shots.’ Don’t even act like you don’t know.”
A deep exhalation of the smoke filled the cab before she answered: “And just how do you know all this?”
“Yeah! I know. You think just cause you stick me with all the weapons and shit that I don’t see what’s going on? You think that I, that I, ain’t gonna see nothin’ more than a stack of rifles and uniforms? You think a guy like me can’t notice a little more than that? ”
“I see exactly what a guy like you is all about, and I’m sure you noticed more than that.” I’d never heard her voice so sharp, so icy.
Another overpass was coming up, I started scanning the lanes around me.
“Yeah! And I bet you’d like to know exactly what I seen goin’ on over in the motor pool. I bet a drunk-ass little whore of a sergeant never stops to think who’s gonna be seeing her and who she sneaks off with.”
I rubbed my pounding temples and racked my drowsing mind for a way to shift the conversation. The cigarette puffs were coming quicker and quicker, and Thompson had dropped his half-polished boot to the floorboard.
“Yeah! I betcha a lot of people out there don’t know what a sober man with a trained eye can notice in a scene like that.”
“So when did you notice the colonel strolling in?” I interjected before Shoultz could reply. I swung the five-ton to the left, following Goshen’s tail this time. Beetle yanked the deuce over to the right. The overpass shadow slapped us blind a moment, then we slipped back into line in the sun.
“Whose side are you on, Machus?”
“What sides? I’m a soldier with all you. Don’t you think we’re—?”
He snorted. “There’s a helluva lot a difference in a soldier like me and a bitc— and some others.” He’d flouted her rank twice already, and he thought better of doing it again. “But I seen him ‘bout the time you did. Course I was also watchin’ you and Remi and Beetle there. I was interested in that—I wanted to see if you was gonna’ take that beer or not. I just don’t get how you got so hungover if they couldn’t get you to take even that drink. You kept mumbin’ something about lookin’ for Skinner.”
I blinked my eyes again, and tightened my grip and pulled myself more upright. In the pounding blur of the beating sun and the buses and vans and motorcycles wheeling around us, again I felt myself balancing on the knife-edge of destruction. I wanted to change the conversation again.
“Where were you anyway?” Shoultz tried to sound casual in her question, but it didn’t come off relaxed, “while we were all… enjoying our last night at BIAP?”
“You kiddin’ me? This guy here,” butted in Thompson, “this guy here was freakin’ passed out on his cot already. Yeah! Some soldier—he musta been hittin’ it early. Yeah, and that’s why he’s so hung over now. He told me, get this, he said he had just a tad bit of a headache and curled up and slept. Then he shows up down there at the party with his uniform and weapon wonderin’ just what the hell’s goin’ on just when the colonel pulls up. You’re just a tad bit—a tad bit, I say— lucky there, Machus.”
I really needed to change the subject. Just then an ancient station wagon swerved between Goshen’s Humvee and our five-ton, prompting me to stomp the brakes yet again. Skinner swiveled in the turret ahead to put the barrel of his SAW right on the station-wagon driver and jerked his hand toward the other lane. The station wagon was already on his way out, lumbering past the Humvee; Skinner kept his rifle on it the entire time. I rubbed my temple with one hand, holding the truck steady with the other. . “Hey, if we ever do this again, do you think one of you could take over driving?”
“You just back the hell off, Machus, you know the deal. You ain’t gotta rub it in our faces or anything.”
“Shit. You know I can’t drive—I ain’t never had a license. And Shoultz, damn, she probably ain’t done with half her time for all those DUI’s she’s had in the states.”
Thompson was leaned over in the floor, trying his half-polished boot when he said this. In the corner of my eye, I saw Shoultz start to jab the cigarette at the back of his exposed neck, but then she stopped. She saw my eyes on her, turned, and glared out the window, flicking the stub at an old man driving a donkey and a few goats on the shoulder.
“I tell you what, though,” Thompson was saying, “that was somethin’ else when that colonel showed up. “Yeah, buddy, just flashed that full bird and went right to work in no time.”
Shoultz giggled contemptuously. “Tommy Boy, you might want to be a little more careful when you throw names around and say they were flashing the full bird to everyone.”
“Whatever. That guys is high speed, I tell you what. He could just grab your face and snap it like a… like a light bulb, or something. You could just tell he was hopin’ for someone to smart off—his fingers was just itchin’ to slap some respect into somebody… And did you hear the way he can yell? Oooo-weee. He got everyone scurryin’ around real quick.” He was bouncing his rifle in his hands now.
“Yeah,” huffed Shoultz, “it’s just too bad you couldn’t see him rolling up with all his entourage, with all your spec-ops observation skills going on.” She enjoyed twisting that comment in. And I was drunk, but I thought a saw a little tear in your tough-man eye when they kicked over all those nice stacks of uniforms and Kevlars you made for us all while we were there. Did you cry a little over that one? Did you?”
“Shoultz… sometimes I wonder how you ever made sergeant. Look here—of course he can’t act happy with anything when he comes in like that. Why, he’s gonna break up the… the party, you know, and show some order. He can’t fuckin’ stop and compliment me on organizing all the gear you guys just threw down there—even though he’d like seein’ that. Of course he’d like that. But he can’t show it, ya see? No, he’s gotta play it hard, just so we all know he’s pissed and he’s in control. I tell you—sometimes I think so much like a colonel that it’s scary. Just a tad bit scary.”
I suppress a laugh and turned out the window, but Shoultz exploded, incredulous and mocking. “You? A colonel?”
“Thompson,” I laughed, “you’re enlisted. You can’t be an officer. That’s a whole other world you know nothing about.”
“The hell I don’t! Did anyone else think to pick up the gear? Did either of you pick up the map and compass of the radio freeqs or the… or polish to shine your shoes with? I thought of them things. I tell ya, man, I’m gonna work my right up to that other world. I’m gonna be a general. You’ll see. You gotta pay attention to these little details, you know. Like having my boots shined—it’s right there in AR670-1, but how many guys here are actually polishing their shoes. No one, right? You see? Who you think they’re gonna bump up when the time comes around to it? The general of the army is gonna see me one day, is gonna see me with my shined boots even here in the desert, is gonna see me stacking up uniforms in rows while everyone is pourin’ alcohol down their throats and actin’ like idiots. He’s gonna see me with my radio freeqs and my map on all my convoys, and is gonna notice exactly how I wear my uniform—even my hair—exactly according to every details in AR-670-1. And when he does, he’s gonna say to me, ‘Thompson, son, come on up here with me. Come up here right beside me. Sit on down and let’s talk about how to fix our army.’ And when that day happens—when that day happens you’re all gonna see that my workin’ for all those tiniest regulations paid off. You’re gonna see me lookin’ back down at you and smirkin’.”
A crackling pause ensued. Then another peel of cackling broke out from Shoultz. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed too. I laughed until my eyes felt hot with tears. I laughed until my sides ached and my hands shook on the steering wheel and the five-ton drifted wide into another lane. I laughed until I could scarcely see the Humvee in front of me, until I forgot about the swarms and buzz of angry traffic whirling around our truck. And every time the laughter lulled, I gasped and Shoultz would snicker again and send me rolling right back downriver.
“Thompson,” Shoultz finally said, still forcing down a few last giggles, “look at yourself. You’ve worn your fucking boots like goddam mittens almost the entire convoy, you don’t have any map or compass or radio freeq, you only stacked the clothes because you were too scared to grab a beer and join the party, and you’re such a great soldier that you can’t even take over for your buddy in the driver’s seat because you don’t even know how to drive. You honestly think a general would possibly come down here and give you a battlefield commission? He’d shake his head and wonder what these damn recruiters are doing for their pay, enlisting dumasses like you. You can’t even ride in convoy without almost getting all of us killed—how the hell would you ever, ever, manage to plan one out? You don’t know the first thing about being an officer, and the last thing any general wants to hear is your squeakin’ voice on his shoulder telling him about how you were an honorable mention all-conference wrestler in eighth grade. You’re ridiculous. You’re fucking hopeless.”
An uncomfortable silence droned on under the weight of Shoultz’s words. My headache crept back into my mind, and in the tension, even in the shouts and whistles and whining motors of the milling traffic around us, it slowly began to envelope and displace everything else. Electric silence hung in the air, waiting for Thompson.
“If I ain’t a good soldier,” his voice was shaking, “at least it’s because I don’t got the experience or the know-how just yet. It sure ain’t because I been drunk and flingin’ my body at my platoon sergeant. You was so drunk, Shoultz, you was so drunk you could hardly put your uniform on there. You had your buttons all crooked, your hair was a filthy mess, you forgot your LBE and Kevlar, and I’ll bet anything that rifle you picked up ain’t your own and you don’t know how to do a battlesight zero on it and you’ll never fire an accurate shot. You couldn’t even stop your drunken babblin’ when they made you crawl back under that fence back to the camp. Yeah, I was there. Yeah, I saw you sputterin’ with the sand in your mouth and you started to blubberin’ about how sorry you were and how you wanted to call Chester and it was all a big mistake and you still wanted to marry him and you’d make it up to him. No one knew what you were talkin’ about. They thought it was all just babblin’ cause you was drunk. I knew it was babblin’ because of what you done when you was drunk. What you always do when you get drunk. Don’t you dare tell me, Shoultz, that I ain’t high speed. I may not be a general yet, but I know I’m better than you.”
“Thompson,” Shoultz’s voice came level but rippling a suppressed rage. “I was there when you crawled under that fence, too. They stood there with the flashlights on us, watching us all crawl back over to the tents. I was drunk, but I saw you, you little worm with the tears in your eyes and trying to sound like a man but your voice was cracking like in fucking puberty. I saw you there dig your face in the dirt. And I saw you blubberin’ apologies and I saw you try to kiss his boot. Yeah—I saw that in the flashlight—you literally tried to kiss the damn colonel’s fucking boot, but he wouldn’t let you. Yeah, you’re right, they’re gonna make you an officer any minute now. You talk big, Thompson, about what you’re going to do when a general sees you. But he’s seen you already. You’re pitiful. You—”
I slammed on the brakes as the Humvee’s tailights suddenly leaped forward. The wheels locked up on the sizzling asphalt, and we screeched on the pavement until I was sure we were actually going to plow into their bumper. My teeth clamped like a vice and my knuckles locked on the wheel. In their turret, Skinner was wide-eyed all over again. Thompson and Shoultz beside me were both shouting nonsense, and I braced for the impact of Beetle’s Deuce from behind. But the hit never came. I opened my eyes and unlatched my jaw’s vice-grip.
In the still heat, before the sounds erupted, the world paused a moment in the dazzling white blaze. In my right-side mirror, I saw the metal snout of the following truck jutted half-way into the lane beside it. A small bus sprawled alongside with a dent and a gouge in its back fender. A Daewoo to our left was rolling steam from its hood, which had plowed under the bumper of the truck before it, and a motorcycle lay turned on its side in the median, rear wheel still puttering in circles in the air. Its two riders were gingerly plucking themselves from the dust, looking to one another, waiting for the pain to register.
Thompson was rubbing his forehead, inadvertently smearing the leftover boot polish all over it. “That was just a tad bit – a tad bit – quick, there, Machus.”
Civilians were milling around the street now, gesturing at their wrecks and growling. Then the honking began, and the shouts. I unbuckled and massaged my screaming forehead. Dust swirled in the hazy air, and I reached for my water bottle on the dash—warm as bathwater. LT was out of the lead Humvee, already in the streets, motioning to the platoon; we were setting up a perimeter.
Asphalt that hot almost feels gummy under boots. Crowds of civilians were milling around our strangled convoy. Rifle barrels and hand signals pushed them back, but still they gathered, forsaking the shade of a nearby grove of date palms to gawk at the soldiers trapped in their midst. Blacks beards waggled in torrents and shouts; children cried in the back seat of a tiny, boxy car, and LT, I saw in the Humvee’s side mirror, was back in the cab and working the radio hard.
Sgt. Goshen was the ranking man in the front Humvee—he got Skinner from the turret to help keep the crowds back. Shoultz, the only sergeant in our vehicle, stared wide-eyed around her, cigarette smoke curling to the blazing sun.
I wiped my brow and swung my gaze around the mess of sprawled traffic, gripped my rifle.