“[There is an] old tale of the farmer who upon hearing that a circus had come to town excitedly set out in his wagon. Along the way he met up with the circus parade, led by an elephant, which so terrified his horses that they bolted and pitched the wagon over on its side, scattering vegetables and eggs across the roadway. ‘I don’t give a hang,’ exulted the jubilant farmer as he picked himself up. ‘I have seen the elephant.'”
-Anthony Kirk, “Seeing the Elephant,” California History 77 (Winter 1998/1999), 176
Seeing the Dwarf
I was attaching the rhino mount to the engine block. The rhino mount was just an empty ammo can that swung out on a lever in front of the Humvee. It was secured by a wire to the running motor of the hummer, so that when it became superheated, it produced a radiation signature that would set off any explosives on the road that were triggered by infrared.
The explosive would still go off if we came across a bomb on the road, but thanks to the rhino mount it would go off a length or two ahead of the vehicle rather than on top of it, and we might only lose an eye or an arm rather than our lives. The situation in Iraq was improving.
“Hold out your hand,” Ski said to me. I was in the process of threading a blue wire around the handle of the ammo can.
“What?” I said.
“Stick out your hand.”
I held out my hand. It trembled vigorously. I figured Ski wanted to see if I was nervous in preparation for our convoy. “You’ve got DSB,” he said.
Ski had full womanish lips and a bulging face that reminded me of an amiable frog. He wore Army-issued spectacles, what we called “Birth Control Glasses,” and his face was heavily-scarred with acne. He was our vehicle’s driver.
“DSB?” I asked.
“Dangerous sperm buildup,” Sergeant Juarez said. He was over by the manmade lake, a golden expanse of placid water that reached up to the banks of one of Saddam’s palaces off in the distance. He had been busy breaking a brick of Ramen Noodles into the water, watching the old Ba’athist dictator’s fish swim up to nibble at the freeze-dried noodles.
He walked over to us, and both he and Ski watched my hand. “Yeah,” Sergeant Juarez said. “You’re not going to be able to hold your SAW on the road. Soldier, I order you to go back to your trailer in Dodge City and spend some time with your wickedness.”
I came to the position of attention and saluted him with a shaky right hand.
“You got this?” I asked Ski. We still had to go through preventive maintenance and hit the turret with WD40 to keep it from jamming. We had to lay out the VS (Visual Signal) panel just in case we broke down on the road and needed to get the attention of a Blackhawk or chinook helicopter flying up in the sky. We had to make sure the human remains kits were in order. “Human Remains Kit” was just a nice way of saying “body bag.”
“I got it,” Ski said, and patted me on the shoulder. Sergeant Juarez nodded and went back over to the remnants of his Ramen, and continued chucking it into the water. His head was the squarest thing I had ever seen, like an Olmec Tiki god or the sculptures chiseled on Easter Island. Sergeant Juarez had grown up in Texas, and he didn’t get along with the other Mexican soldiers. They called him “pocho” or “coconut,” because he refused to speak Spanish with them, even though he knew the language.
I put on my ACU top and gathered up all my gear, including my Squad Automatic Weapon and my M4. The sweat had formed an alkali ring on my shirt and my back hurt from having to wear the sappy armor plates in my vest all day. I wouldn’t be able to wear the shirt I had on now when we went on our convoy tomorrow morning. The moisture-wicking material would melt to my skin in the event of an explosion. I had seen what it looked like when an under armor shirt grafted to charred flesh.
I trudged across a rickety suspension bridge and headed in the direction of the DEFAC and the gym. The dining facility was a massive corrugated steel hangar, surrounded by a wall of concrete T-barriers. I hated that place. It made me ashamed to be here in Iraq. It was Fobbit Central; a Fobbit was someone who hid on the FOB (Forward Operating Base), basking in the air-conditioned shire, surfing the internet and drinking milkshakes while men died outside the wire. I had been a Fobbit for these last few months and my conscience had been eating away at me, until an opening came up on the Convoy Security Team and I got my chance to join.
Specialist Rommel (no relation to the German Field Marshall) had been diagnosed as a narcoleptic, and Staff Sergeant Omero, the head of Convoy Security, didn’t want his soldiers dozing off when he needed them at their most alert. How Rommel had gotten this far with narcolepsy certainly didn’t reflect well upon our company in particular, or the military in general, but Rommel’s condition gave me a chance to be a gunner and also the opportunity to give my guilty conscience a rest.
I walked past the gym, a giant inflated dome of canvas stretched over bowed metallic ribs. Dodge City was a series of tin house trailers arranged on graveled acreage located across from Saddam Hussein’s old horse stables. Aside from the trailers where we lived, there were also trailers that served as Laundromats and bathrooms. The toilet trailers were few and far enough between that we would sometimes cheat and piss into bottles if the urge hit us late enough at night.
The trailer next to the one I shared with Specialist Dunfy had been blown to shit in a mortar attack. The charred cavity remained shredded, open to the desert, a nice little reminder of the war’s temporal factor. After the mortar had landed we had been forced to place cardboard squares in our windows, practicing good “light discipline” so that we wouldn’t make an easy target for whoever had been launching tubed mortars from their position somewhere in Sadr City late at night.
I slid my dog tags from around my neck and opened my trailer door. I was relieved to see that Dunfy was gone. I set down both of my weapons on my side of the room. Dunfy’s side was piled high with enough snacks, DVDs, and porn to make this downrange trailer indistinguishable from the white trash genuine article back in his hometown of Sullivan, Missouri. His guitar was the only thing that he kept well-maintained. The axe was a highly-polished black Fender deal covered with pentagram and skull decals. He liked to shred, play Slayer and Morbid Angel with his headphones on while I slept.
I reached underneath my poncho liner and extracted the closest thing to porn they sold in the PX, a magazine featuring nude celebrities cribbed from various Hollywood movies. I turned to the pages with pictures of Christina Ricci from Prozac Nation, took my Lubriderm out from underneath the bed, and got on my knees. I was roughly the same age as her, and I’d had a thing for her since just before the onset of puberty, around the time that Addams Family Values had hit theaters; I’d also sustained my fascination with her over the years as we both got older.
Ski was right. We had been so busy that I had neglected the basics. It wasn’t healthy, physically or mentally, to go this long without masturbating. I rubbed one out in honor of Ms. Ricci’s beauty and took the rest of the day off. I watched a couple of Dunfy’s DVDs, selecting the first season of Northern Exposure. There was something so reassuring about getting lost in that snowy Alaskan wilderness for a couple of hours, forgetting that I was trapped for a few more months in this Babylonian kiln. I had been in Iraq long enough now that my teeth would be chattering and I would yearn for a heavy winter coat whenever I woke up in the morning to eighty-degree weather.
Convoy Security would be running drills until sundown, so I didn’t bother going to evening formation. I went to the DEFAC instead. I ate a huge stir fry dinner and grabbed a few Power Bars for the trip tomorrow. After dinner I returned to my trailer and cleaned both my M4 and the Squad Auto, breaking down the carbon deposits with my toothbrush and running a cue tip along their front and rear sight apertures. I balled up my poncho liner and drifted off to sleep on my cot dreaming of Christina Ricci, getting lost in the milky plane of her smooth forehead as it ran on forever in my dreams.
There was no hot water and damn little pressure in the shower trailer the next morning. The water tanks were so unreliable that many times I would get myself soaped and lathered, only to have the shower heads crap out on me, sputtering to a slow drip and then shutting off altogether.
Dunfy was playing Need for Speed on his PlayStation when I left him at around Nine a.m. I cursed myself for my damn guilt complex, and then I headed for the Convoy Team shack.
About half of the team was already there when I arrived. Sergeant Juarez was lounging in a hammock strung between two green palm trees, eating a large orange. We were in one of those lush pockets of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, little oases sprouting here and there around the arid oppression. Occasionally I would get overcome by a weird sensation when I considered that a story from the Old Testament could have occurred right where I was standing. Once while killing time at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center I had discovered a copy of Ursula Leguin’s The Word for World is Forest, and I couldn’t help but feeling when I was one the road up in my turret, as if we were rolling along the surface of some inhospitable alien planet.
I walked over to my vehicle. Ski was carefully spray-painting over a stencil he held against the Humvee’s front bumper. “Good morning, Sunshine.”
“Hey,” I said.
“You ready for your first southern MSR?”
“Sure,” I said.
I had been on previous convoys, but this was my first trip to Rustamiyah, a city to our south. Supposedly it was a wilder ride than the minor runs for which I had previously been gunner. “Do me a favor,” Ski said. He put the stencil on the hood and set the can of spray-paint on the concrete.
He went into the passenger seat of the Humvee, dug into an ACU-patterned backpack from which a drinking straw protruded. He handed me a bunch of muffins.
“Put those in your ammo can,” Ski said. “When we pass the madrassa, start throwing them to the kids.”
I shook my head, but I didn’t give him back the muffins. “Sergeant Omero doesn’t want us throwing stuff to the Iraqis. If they think we’re a piñata, they’ll hop out in front of the vehicle. Then your choice is to run them down or throw it in park. You throw it in park, and we’re sitting ducks. And I don’t feel like killing Iraqi children.”
“Fuck all that noise,” Ski said, and moved his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Just throw the food.”
I felt a massive hand grasp my shoulder from behind. I turned. It was Sergeant Juarez. “You seen the dwarf?” He asked.
I said, “Negative, Sergeant,” and hopped up into my turret. I put the muffins in the ammo can. I lifted the bolt on the turret and checked its swivel action. Its motion was smooth and silent from the heavy lubing.
“Who’s the dwarf?” I asked.
“There are all these little Iraqi kids who come out of the school to get treats,” Sergeant Juarez said. “But there’s this one dwarf who pretends he’s a kid. He bullies all the other little kids and tries to get the most stuff. You’ll see him.”
“Can you hand me the Squad Auto?” I asked.
Sergeant Juarez one-handed the heavy weapon and passed it up to me. I secured the weapon to the turret with the metallic cotter pin. I sat down on my sling and bounced up and down to test its resilience. It felt good.
“Ski,” I asked, “You sober?”
“I’m always sober for a convoy,” he said.
“And high the rest of the time,” Sergeant Juarez said.
When I had gotten to my unit in Germany, I had discovered fifteen grown men crowded into a barracks room, weeping as they watched the movie Shark Tale on a large TV. I hadn’t understood why they were crying at the time, but I later found out that Ski liked to go to Hanoi and get Shrooms for all the GIs once a month or so, since psilocybin didn’t show up on urinalyses.
Once Ski got shitfaced drunk and went to a little Hessen farming village and murdered a sheep. He then dragged its carcass back to the barracks and left it in the hallway, where its corpse rotted until someone finally got rid of the thing. Another time he brought a hose from the ground floor up into the barracks and, using Simple Green cleaning solvent and soap, he managed to turn the floor into a paraffin-buffed Slip and Slide.
The First Sergeant had given him extra duty as punishment, but Ski remained unfazed. The next day was an Espirit De Corps run, with an entire brigade of soldiers scheduled to jog the cobblestone track around the parade field. Ski had once again gotten drunk and left his car parked across the cobblestone lot so that an entire element of several thousand soldiers was unable to complete their run, being forced to detour around the old Kaserne Sherman Tank.
He was a good driver, and a crack mechanic, but I was always afraid that we would be on the road when a hallucinogenic tracer appeared before his field of vision and he jerked us into a culvert. I was either dead or paralyzed if our vehicle rolled over and no one pulled me in from the turret in time.
“Rally!” Sergeant Omero shouted. I left my Squad Auto mounted in the turret and slung my M4 over my shoulder. We walked into the cool confines of the convoy room. A massive industrial fan slowly plodded from one half of the room to the other, billowing both the POW-MIA and American flags mounted to the walls.
Sergeant Omero went to sit behind his desk, on which sat a massive bottle of creatine powder. The rumor was that at least half of the Convoy Team was shooting up steroids.
“Alright,” Sergeant Omero said. “Everybody load their COMSEC?”
There were a few tepid cries of “Roger.” Another couple of soldiers groaned. The first time I had seen Sergeant Omero, he brought to mind samurais from the old Kurosawa flicks. He was Mexican, but there was something about the set of his cheekbones and the lined scars on his face that reminded me of a shogun. He spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with his wife about custody of their daughter.
“Dondy,” he said. “What’s the first step in your escalation of force?” He swiveled back and forth in his chair.
“Shout,” Private Dondy said.
Sergeant Omero looked at me. “What do you initially shoot to do?”
I sat up. “Shoot to disable.”
“Aim for a tire or an engine block.”
“Right. De la Douche.”
De La Rouche shot up. “Yes, Sergeant?”
“If he keeps coming on your six, then what do you do?”
“Shoot to eliminate the threat.”
“You don’t shoot to kill?” Sergeant Omero glowered, his scars luminescent.
“We never shoot to kill.”
“Perfect.” He played with a little flash drive stick he held between his fingers like a Chinese finger trap. I felt bad for him. To have authority over basically eleven heavily armed kids in one-hundred and thirty degree heat was not an easy task. On top of that he had to produce evaluation reports on the sergeants underneath him while also fighting his wife for custody of his daughter.
“Oh,” he said. “Everyone’s nine-line Medevac and Dust-Off procedures taped to the inside of your doors?”
“Hooah!” Someone said. It was the catchall response in the Army. It meant anything from “Fuck you” to “Yes,” based on the context and inflection. Marines said that “Hooah!” was how one pronounced “Hoorah!” with a cock in their mouth.
“Saddle up, then. And remember. We’re not Combat Arms, we’re Signal Corps. If we take shots and we can help it, we’re not stopping to engage with the enemy.”
We went to our cubbies to get our shoulder daps, kneepads, ballistic goggles, and Kevlar helmets. I always thought it was funny that we lived out of the same little shelves as kindergartners. I hadn’t progressed very far in the last twenty years or so.
I followed behind Ski and Sergeant Juarez outside. The sun was a white phosphorus Frisbee, spinning, blinding, punishing. If I touched the surface of my Humvee without a glove it would have meant goodbye, skin. I hopped up on the hood and settled into my turret. I glanced at the Otis Spunkmeyer muffins in my ammo can. I had worked at the Spunkmeyer factory in Columbia, South Carolina, some years before my illustrious military career began.
I wondered what Dunfy was doing: probably watching either his I Dream of Genie or Doogie Howser M.D DVD box set. I checked to make sure my crotch protector was in place. We had a debate awhile back about whether it would be better to get one’s testicles or legs blown off. The consensus was “legs,” the lone voice of dissent being De La Rouche/Douche, but he had been a long-distance runner in high-school.
Sergeant Omero spit a putrid stream of Skoal toward the gravel and shouted, “If we have to rally, it’s herringbones formation. Robot’s crew is on recovery and tow, so if you need to be recovered, look to him.”
Sergeant Rowman lifted his right hand before getting into his Humvee. Ski started the engine and Sergeant Juarez got on the Sincgars headset. Juarez looked up at me for a moment. “Either of you guys ever go out with Rowman in Germany?”
“Nein,” I said.
“Yeah, well, that’s a good thing. The guy was ‘roid raging one night in the Luisenplatz. I saw him flip over a VW Bug and beat up two Polizei. And German police are no joke. They’ve got those spring-loaded batons.”
“Jesus,” Ski said.
“Jesus Titty Fucking Christ is right, my friend. There was this girl Rowman was hitting on at the Rathskeller, and this guy comes by selling roses. The Robot takes the whole bouquet and eats them, then spits the heads out at the girl, one by one, just because she won’t come back to the barracks with him.”
I strapped my on Kevlar. It was lined with foam, heavily padded, a great improvement over the steel pots we had been wearing. I couldn’t use the chin strap on the steel pots. We had to “John Wayne” it, as they said, because the old helmets were so loose that if there was a concussive blast the metal would have rattled one’s brain to soup. This baby fit snugly, however.
Sergeant Juarez was still going on about Sergeant Rowman. “They say the guy drinks beaver urine.”
“What?” Ski said.
“Yeah, it’s like, when the beavers are in mating season they get a lot of testosterone going through their systems, so he drinks that to keep himself amped.”
Ski said, “I just do Shrooms, and smoke hash when the Turks have it. It was easy to get blazed during Operation Iraqi Freedom One because they didn’t piss test us back then.”
“We’re moving,” someone said on the Sincgars.
The Lead vehicle with Sergeant Omero at the helm drifted out in front of us. Rowman’s Humvee followed behind them, after which came Sergeant Eaglebear and his crew. Sergeant Eaglebear was a strange character. He was a full-blooded Cherokee who had aced both Survival Evasion and Resistance School as well as the Defense Language Aptitude Battery. He spoke Russian, Spanish, and German indifferently. Whenever mail came around he always got these “Patriot Newsletters,” as well as Rush Limbaugh paraphernalia and magazines advising him on how best to invest in gold. The only other Native American in our unit, Sergeant Morgan, dismissed him as an “Uncle Tomahawk.”
It was finally our turn and we pulled out. Silone was in the turret ahead of me. He was an Italian kid from Long Island who spoke in a broad accent that was an amalgam of all five boroughs, and he reigned supreme in handball against the Dominican and Puerto Rican soldiers from what he called the “Boogie Down Bronx.” He had a large head, which had gotten him and Dondy into a brawl a couple of weeks back when Dondy teased him by saying that he had “Jimmy Hoffa hidden inside his cranium.”
Hesco barriers overstuffed with pink fiberglass appeared on our left, like cotton candy that had implausibly grown from the sand. On the right were soupy brown marshes, thick with sharp reeds. A humid scummy film grew on top of the water and attracted mosquitoes and sand fleas that probably carried Leishmaniasis. I had seen someone get the disease. After getting bitten on the leg by a sand flea he had been sent home minus a large portion of his calf.
“Amber,” Sergeant Omero said.
I oriented my barrel to nine o’clock and aimed the M4 and the Saw both toward the clearing barrels. I went to amber status, chambering rounds but remaining on “Safety.” A little static frisson passed through my body and I felt a mild urge to pee. If I really had to go at some point, it might come down to urinating in a Gatorade bottle, while Juarez and Ski averted their faces and hoped for the best.
I glanced down into the dirt and saw what looked like a man trying to fight his way out from underneath the sand. A hand poked through the clods of mud and I looked for the rest of the buried body, but it wasn’t there. The fingers stretched out like a translucent spider, with bits of blood and lumen peeking from the disarticulated limb.
“Sergeant,” I said.
“There’s a hand on the ground.”
And?! “And, there’s a hand. A fucking hand.”
“Alright, here. Let me make everyone stop what they’re doing.” Sergeant Juarez picked up his handset and barked into the Sincgars. “All Outlaws. Here’s a frago. If anyone is minus one hand, that’s Hotel, Alpha, Niner, Delta, please respond by hot miking your handset for five, count ’em, five segundos. Danke schon.”
“Donkey Shoes,” Ski said. He was already sweating. Sergeant Juarez looked at me.
“Nobody missing a hand. Can you do something for me, Specialist?”
I stood up, coming out of the turret sling. “Good, now jump up and down once.”
I complied, begrudgingly, jumping and landing hard with my desert boots on the metallic interior of the Humvee.
“Now, one of two things should have happened. Either the sand has fallen out of your vagina or your testicles have descended from your stomach. Can we forget about the fucking hand now?”
“Don’t worry,” Ski said. “They’ve got Vagisil at the Rustamiyah PX.”
The gate guards, two Seabees in chocolate chip fatigues, pulled the concertina wire aside with gloved hands. “Now, we Charley Fucking Mike.” Sergeant Juarez clapped his hands together. “Charlie Mike,” meant “Continue the mission.”
I leaned back on my sling and oriented my barrel toward our rear. Camp Victory faded into the wind and sand, the cloudless sooty blue horizon opening up all around us. The secret of convoys and of Iraq was that this was worth death or dismemberment. To be away from America and its laws, its SUVs and TV shows, its petty concerns, to rip through this empty space, this living Bible combined with a mission to Mars- the secrets I was accruing in this year, these secrets I would take to my grave- I knew they were worth the loss of my mind and my body.
“Indian Country,” Sergeant Juarez said.
“Don’t say that,” Ski said. “You’ll catch an Equal Opportunity violation from Sergeant Eaglebear if he decides to report you to the Inspector General.”
“That Uncle Tomahawk don’t care about what my pocho ass says. They call me ‘coconut,’ can you believe that? Brown on the outside, and white on the inside. I guess I should be like Salas, keep it real, bomb my GED and join the Mara Salvatrucha gangbangers.”
There was gang graffiti all over Iraq, underpasses emblazoned with Latin King crowns and pitchforks representing the Chicago contingent of the Gangster Disciples smeared over the calligraphic remnants of Arabic scrawl, our own dirty American laundry aired in the larger crossfire going on between the Sunnis and Shias. The world was a mess, and I was embarrassed by the many times as a young man that watching or taking part in violence had made my heart pump with orgasmic fury.
Ski began singing. “Oh, do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, who lives in Drury Lane?”
“Here’s the madrassa,” Ski said.
“And there’s the dwarf!” Sergeant Juarez shouted. “He ought to be ashamed of himself. One at a time!”
I kept my barrel oriented toward the convoy’s six, but I glanced to my left. There was a mud hut with a red-tiled roof, much like a Mexican adobe home, from which children in flowing black and white dishdashas poured out and rushed toward the convoy. Sergeant Juarez threw cold bottles of water and Gatorade toward the throng of children as they rushed toward us.
The kids’ faces were sullen, incapable of smiles, I thought. There was a seriousness, a grim acceptance absent from almost any face I could remember from America, even those souls who liked to think of themselves as jaded. Their mouths frowned and their brows furrowed. Their skin was brown, made even darker by the sand, the dirt, and the shadows that the sun played across their robed little bodies. I threw all of my muffins toward them, a couple of the baked goods brimming with cheesecake filling, the rest blueberry or chocolate chip.
Their bare feet moved over the sharp rocks of the Iraqi tundra as if it was sweet grass. I had never had kids, never even had the requisite pregnancy scare one’s supposed to have as a teenager, but I felt something paternal awaken in me as I watched one of the little girls reach down to scoop up some of the treats. Her brown hair was matted to her ruddy vermillion skin. She could have been Mexican, or Indian.
I remembered something one of the Iraqi translators had said to me when I was hanging out with him and Sergeant Rodriguez, a Dominican from Flatbush, during some down time. The translator pointed at Sergeant Rodriguez and said, “He is brown, so if he comes downtown Bagdad, as long as he keeps his mouth shut, people think he is Iraqi. You, because you are white, they kill.”
I dug into my extra ACU pockets and threw the Power Bars I had down toward the Iraqi children. Our convoy had come to a halt. I heard Sergeant Omero’s voice on the Sincgars. “If it gets out that we’re playing Santa Claus with these Iraqi children, I’m gonna have to sit on some pretty plush carpet to explain myself. Ski, this is the last time.”
“One at a time!” Sergeant Juarez shouted again. “Back up! Is that where you want to be when Jesus returns to Earth? Move!”
The throng of children parted, scattering as if Moses himself with his winding staff had separated them. A small bowlegged person of muscular build broke through the ranks of the kids. He had a five o’clock shadow and sported a cigarette in his mouth.
I gripped my M4 with my right hand, my finger lightly grazing the selector switch, ready to shift it from “Safe” to “Semi.”
“Look at this cat. He’s colder than a mother-in-law’s love.” Sergeant Juarez shook his head. The dwarf held out his hand.
“Give me!” He barked.
Ski reached over Sergeant Juarez and handed the dwarf a five dollar bill. “Shukran,” the dwarf said, and smiled. He showed gums covered in an inch-thick coat of orange plaque.
“Alright,” Sergeant Omero barked on the radio. He pulled out and the second vehicle followed him. We snaked along and left the dwarf and the children behind.
“Why the fuck did you give him a five?” Juarez asked Ski.
“Because if we don’t pay him, then he steals from the kids. That’s why.”
Sergeant Juarez shrugged, accepted that answer. I turned my attention back toward the road behind us, disappearing into the horizon, the school growing smaller until its brown clay and mud walls became inseparable from the sand of the wide desert swallowing us all.
“Ich bin der kleine pommes in der grosse Kartoffeln Welt,” Dondy said on the Sincgars. It was his mangled German version of a pickup line he used to melt the hearts of girls he wooed in Germany. It roughly translated as “I am but a small fry in a large potato world.”
Dondy was the most worldly of the American GIs I knew. On weekends he wore earrings in both ears, dressed in Milano leather, and moonlighted as a keyboard player in Turkish smoke shops from Darmstadt to Berlin. He wanted to use his GI Bill to study Musical Theory at Berkeley when he got out of the Army. He had an ICE (Inter-City Express) rail pass, and he sometimes jaunted off to the Czech Republic, Austria, or the Netherlands, returning from his trips loaded down with hydroponic marijuana, absinthe, or ecstasy, depending on where his travels took him. He spent a significant amount of time dodging the Muslim descendants of the Gastarbeiter who wanted words with the American imperialist pig scum who had been sleeping with their girlfriend/sister/daughter, and once even a mother.
I spun around toward the front for a moment. Silone turned in his turret and flipped me the bird. “The hell is that smell?” Someone said on the Sincgars.
“Tell your mama to close her legs.”
Black cumuli spiraled into the sky at the terminus of the road ahead of Staff Sergeant Omero’s vehicle.
“Me no like,” I said.
“Relax,” Sergeant Juarez said. “Rustamiyah does waste incineration. They’re burning trash is all.”
I swiveled back around to my six. Ski had been so liberal with the WD-40 that my turret smelled like a mechanic’s bay. The road blurred at my feet, a concrete Mobius strip constantly unraveling. I did what we weren’t supposed to do. I violated the cardinal rule of “Stay Alert, Stay Alive.” My mind drifted, though my sweating gloved hand still gripped the trigger of my SAW.
I thought some more about that Iraqi translator, Matthew. One night we were in his hooch, smoking mint shisha from a crystal vase with a butterfly on it. I asked him, “So, when Saddam was running things, could people talk shit about him behind his back, like when they were at home by themselves?”
Matthew blew out a white volume of smoke and said, “No, and let me tell you why. Because one time there is a parade for Saddam and a little boy says to Saddam, ‘When my dad sees you on the TV, he spits like so, on the rug.'” Matthew spit flecks of white saliva onto the sandy floor. “And so Saddam’s guards take this boy’s dad out of the crowd. So you see why you’re not talking shit about Saddam, even at home. But I honestly liked it more with Saddam because there were no American checkpoints. I go wherever I want, just don’t talk shit about Saddam.”
Ski kicked my leg. I turned around. Sergeant Juarez went ramrod straight in his Truck Commander’s seat. “I guess I spoke too soon when I said they were burning garbage.”
Ahead of us were several combat medics rushing toward a gate guard sprawled out in a grapevine of double-stranded concertina wire. They carried green canvas combat lifesaver bags. The dead soldier’s mouth was open, his nose upturned, but beyond that he had no head.
Off to the side of the body there was a forty-six liter Polar cooler. We’d had one of those next to the guard post back at Victory when I had been stuck on gate duty. It was filled with ice that was melted by the time my shift began around noon. I noticed none of the other guards drinking from the cooler, but as the sun grew hotter and my Camelbak hydration system was drained, I found myself slipping over to the cooler and stealing handfuls of melted ice, spooning the chilled admixture into my sandy, parched mouth.
One of the other soldiers on duty with me had laughed. “What?” I’d said.
About twenty minutes later a group of LNs (Local Nationals) showed up at the gate, ready to leave the base as their shift ended. Before departing from the FOB and turning in their nametags, however, they stopped by the cooler and one after another they dipped their heads inside, wiping the grime away from their darkened Semitic curls, working the arctic melt water over their scalps.
“Shit,” I said, and gagged.
“Yeah,” the other soldier laughed. “They stop by that cooler about three times a day to wash their hair. You didn’t think it was suspicious that some Joes like us, thirsty as we are, weren’t going over there for water?”
I came out of my memory and looked at the medics rushing toward the dead troop in the chocolate chip fatigues. They wore latex gloves and one held an oropharyngeal tube. A piece of the dead soldier’s head was next to the blue Polar cooler. It wasn’t so much a piece as a shard. I marveled at it, a perfect triangular slice, like something broken away from a bit of pottery or cut from a pumpkin to create a jack-o-lantern’s eye. How could something as chaotic as a mortar tear something so symmetrical away from a man’s head?
I glanced at the pulverized, scooped and empty red stump that topped the body, and then I looked away. I kept looking back, though. I wondered what I was getting from it, wondered why I was stealing glances when I knew each moment of looking now would cost me years of regret down the line, assuming I was lucky enough not to end up like him in the next few months or so. In a weird way the experience reminded me of the first time I had gone to a strip club, which was incidentally the first time I had seen a woman naked. I was nervous, jittery, my stomach a swarm of butterflies, my brain clouded by the thought that I didn’t know how much of this I was supposed to be seeing, or if I was supposed to be seeing any of it.
How long was one supposed to look at a woman dancing naked on a stage for money? How long was one supposed to look at a dead man? I didn’t have the answer to either question, and I still don’t, and I probably never will, but one thing was for certain.
I had seen the dwarf.
Joseph Hirsch’s novel Rolling Country was published by Moonshine Cove. His book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, and he has sold fiction to Underground Voices, The Western Online, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction. He was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers competition, and he previously served as a sports journalist with Fight Hype, covering boxing matches around the globe. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Melange Books, and his forthcoming novels The Last Slice of Pizza and Flash Blood will be available this summer. Websites: www.thelastsliceofpizza.net www.rollingcountry.com