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Country of Asylum

T. Cole Andrews

Chapter 1 4

Chapter 2 11

Chapter 3 21

Chapter 4 30

Chapter 5 40

Chapter 6 53

Chapter 7 65

Chapter 8 86

Chapter 9 98

Chapter 10 107

Chapter 11 123

Chapter 12 136

Chapter 13 150

Chapter 14 167

Chapter 15 173

Chapter 16 188

Chapter 17 202

Chapter 18 216

Chapter 19 219

And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither. Numbers 35: 6

Country of Asylum

Chapter 1

It was just beginning to get hot in Tikrit when I first realized I might have to kill this new man of my wife’s. It’s possible I overreacted to everything. You have to get up pretty early to call the States, if you want your privacy and you want to catch anybody awake at home; at home it’ll be sometime the night before. The desert is cool in the mornings too, or cooler, so that you’ll see the occasional soldier getting his PT in before it gets too hot, but he’s usually far enough away that you don’t have to whisper. I would watch the big black beetles fighting with each other in the dirt (they’re way bigger here than they are at home) while waiting for the call to go through. It always takes so long just to connect that I nearly give up before the static stops and the phone starts to ring. The day I was going home was about the worst: I tried three times and couldn’t get anybody at the apartment to pick up, then tried Felicia’s cell phone four times with no answer. Finally, I called over to Mama’s. Pops picked up after I called the second time. I knew he wouldn’t pick up the first time because he never recognizes the number on caller I.D. I told him I was coming home tomorrow and asked him had he talked to Felicia, and for the longest time he didn’t say anything. All I heard was static on the other end of the line. I didn’t have a lot of time, those Thuraya calls are expensive. I asked him if he heard me. He usually shouted when he talked to me on the sat phone, but this time he was talking real low. He said, “An old soldier gave me some advice…..when I juussst about to come home from Vietnam….like you ‘bout to come home from your deployment just now. He give me some real….good…. advice.” “What he say?” I couldn’t hear him breathe or sigh (if he was doing that), just crackling on the end of the line. “C’mon, I don’t have much time left on this card….” He cut in on me, so low I was afraid I would miss some words. The static would crackle between words and sometimes on top of them. “Just make sure wherever you stop….if you stop at any airports…. or bases on the way, make sure you call your wife.” “Pops, Felicia know I’m coming home. We’ve e-mailed. They sent her a letter on it and everything. She and I talked about it.” Now he had me shouting. I wished he would just come out with what he had to say. I was pressing the phone real hard against my ear, like he was talking and if I listened hard enough I could make it out, but he wasn’t saying anything. He believed the calls were being monitored and anything negative he said would affect my career, so maybe he wouldn’t say anything else. I told him monitoring was impossible on a sat phone, and he always replied, real cool: “NSA.” Here it came again, a whisper like someone was listening. “When we come home from Vietnam, we learned our lessons. My top told us to do it…..said to just look at it as…recon. A dude in my squad…..old Corporal Russert….he come home, see, and found his wife at the house.” “What about his wife?” Him still whispering, me still shouting, understand? “She was with another dude. Laid up in the bed with another dude.” He got quiet again, and this time I wasn’t worried about my minutes. “Well, you don’t have a lot of time, son….” “Wait a minute. What happened to…Russell and his wife?” I couldn’t let him off the hook on this one. He had told me a lot of useful shit, how to handle the war part of this deal, but he had never had too much to say on issues of romance. “Not too much to tell. Russert killed her….and the dude. Went for broke….with a butcher knife….they say he was in the jungle and the living room….at the same time. It’s been thirty years ago gone and…..out of jail just about now.” More crackling on the phone, and then the British lady’s voice came on to tell me I had one minute left on the card or else I could recharge or not and just hang up. “Man.” It was all I could say. “Yeah. James, you just make sure you call. All the way home, every stop. It might not matter, they say the boy is a….faggot…anyway. I’m not even sure she’s still here, I mean we haven’t seen her in…. ” I figured right then he knew something, but I knew he wasn’t going to tell over the sat phone. The phone beeped, and Pops was gone with my minutes. I figured I’d try again after breakfast, when I could get another card at the PX. Major Otto, my boss, happened upon me in the DiFac as I was trying to choke down some apple juice, which was about all I could handle because of the acid bubbling in my stomach over this Felicia situation. Major Otto was short and so skinny he looked like he was made of ropes that had been stretched tight over his bones. He was polite and respectful to the brass, but if you worked for him, he didn’t fuck around. He was fair, but he expected what he expected. “You’re leaving tomorrow, right Trotter? Going home?” “Yes sir.” What was this? “Well, there’s something big coming up. And it seems that I’ll need some extra guys in to provide base security, we’ll have to double or triple the shifts, haajis with mortars and suicide vests and who knows what the fuck else. I need some experience out there.” This wasn’t shaping up to well. “Yes sir.” “Well, I was thinking of extending you, maybe holding you for a week or two while I get everything straight. That all right with you?” Understand, this wasn’t really a question; it was a set of orders which were basically already cut. My answer was clear, as a good soldier. Of course, that wasn’t the answer I gave. “No sir.” His eyebrows lifted. I had about ten seconds. “There’s been an emergency at home, sir. My wife is sick. I was hoping to get home to make sure she and my daughter all right.” The eyebrows came down about halfway, still dangerous, but he calmed down, just that quick. Then, they came all the way down to a point, a “V” right over his nose. He was going to offer me a deal. I was going to take whatever he offered, if it got me home. What I did know is I wasn’t physically capable of waiting two weeks to figure out what Pops was talking about. I could stand thirty-six hours or so to see for myself, but if I had to wait two weeks? I’d go crazy. He didn’t flinch, he just looked me square in the eyes. “I understand. You should go home, you were scheduled to go, your family needs you. Fine, I get it. But you know well this means I’ll have to juggle around duty rosters and what, and someone else is going to get fucked out there at the gate. So--I need you to do something for me. It ain’t no big thing, Trotter. You just gotta escort two communications vans from Anaconda to here.” “Shit.” I know I had a sour look on my face, even though there was no choice here, none at all. Humping vans on convoy is not one of the things senior MPs do if we can help it, but that’s the deal he offered. He leaned in on me and his voice got low, like it always did just before he peeled the skin back on your face. “Trotter, it’s just a couple of vans. That’s all. You need to leave in an hour and be back here by dark.” “Major, I leave here tomorrow.” That was all I said, but I knew I was pushing it to say that much. I’ve seen him tear people’s heads right off about this time in a conversation. His face doesn’t turn red and he doesn’t yell or anything, but he gets real close to you when he’s pissed off, in your face. What did you in when he was up on you was the spitting and his breath, hot breath that would split your nose hairs. We all called him Tic-Tac behind his back. But he didn’t lose it. He just smiled at me and kept his distance. “Trotter, goddamnit, I’m going to make sure you’re well taken care of. You’ll get one of the good HMMWVs with a .50, and I’ll make sure you get to take a couple of troops you like. Shit, take Pineda with you. She’s good company on a lil’ road trip. Handy with a gun, and not bad on the eyes if you know what I’m sayin’.” He gave a dirty old man laugh, this little bird man with his stick legs and tiny beer belly and nasty red blotches all over his skin. Right then, I knew that this wasn’t a milk-run, maybe it was a little dicey and this sonofabitch had some notion that he was sending me into some infantry shit, the day I was leaving. He did it with a smile on his face. I knew I could take him if it was just us in a corner behind one of the C-Huts. But it wasn’t just us, and that’s Leavenworth. He didn’t completely shit on me, though. “Do this one for me, Trotter, and I’ll make sure you get a chopper from here to Victory. There’s a Blackhawk leaving for Victory tonight at sixteen hundred….make sure you’re back and ready by then.” And that right there almost made it all right. It’s a trip leaving the Di-Fac and hauling your M-16 and flack jacketed self into one of the Porta-Johns. You got to wear all that shit because they try to drop mortars right there around the DiFac and the Porta-Johns to make it hard for us to eat and go about our business. The moment you get in the latrine, you wonder why you decided not to use one of the palace bathrooms nearby with the gold-plated toilet flush handles. When you’re in Tikrit, the procedure is to take your weapon inside the latrine with you. You have to try to piss and wash your hands without dropping your weapon down the hole. I always try to hold my breath, and you have to be careful. One time, I don’t know how, my rifle fell in there and I had to clean it just the same as if it had fallen into mud instead of shit. After Major Otto laid it on me, I was sick with the morning squirts. Something about the waffles or the milk I drank didn’t really work with me; more likely it was this Anaconda mission fucking with me. I washed my face off in the plastic sink and looked at myself in the mirror. I had lost a lot of weight at that time; my face looked like somebody sucked some of the juice out of it. I’m fairly dark complected, so my color doesn’t change much, not like some folks, even the high-yellow and caramel brown ones, who get so burned that they have to go to the infirmary and get some cream. Some of the troops, white and black, will get burned on purpose so you have to stay on them about that SPF. I decided to skip the PX and the phone card and go back to my quarters to get my mind right for the run to Balad. I lived in a little modular trailer with three other dudes, all MPs. None of my three roommates was home when I got back from breakfast. Somebody had gone to get the mail and left mine on the bed: a postcard from Momma and a letter from this girl I went to high school with, Tabby. She wrote me pretty much every week. Tabby had a crush on me in high school and the fact that I might buy it maybe made her care about me a little more when I was deployed than she had in high school. She wasn’t nothing special to me at the time, but she did care about a nigga, and I had to be careful with my thoughts about her. Because it wasn’t nothing in my mail from Felicia, she hadn’t written to me in a good long while. Maybe she e-mailed me every now and then, which was all right as far as it went. I figured I would check my e-mail after we got back from Tikrit while I was writing my action report in the MP’s hutch. When I got my footlocker out to get dressed to go the first thing I put on, right over my T-shirt, was a gift from her. I remember getting a big package about three weeks after we got in—she sent me this Kevlar second-chance vest that must have cost her $700. I don’t know where she got the money from and she didn’t send me any long note with it either, just a news clipping about how we were undersupplied and a little piece of paper that said “be safe” on it. She never did talk much.

Chapter 2

I can’t stress to you enough how much of a bitch this Anaconda mission was. We all hated going there for any reason because it seemed like a good way to get hurt and it wasn’t never really worth it. I guess five years ago, under Saddam, the trip from Tikrit to Balad wouldn’t have been no real big thing. The roads are about like what you’d find in the States. You start off with a superhighway, something like you’d find in Jackson with ramps and bridges and everything, and then it gets down to more narrow roads, you know, but real good four-lane black top. You can click along on the four lane at about seventy or eighty miles an hour for maybe an hour and a half until finally, you get to a little diner or country store--I don’t know what they call these places where a bunch of hajjis get gas and chips and kebabs. You hang a left onto this little two-lane country road and that’s the real killing zone where they’ll kill you as dead as you have to die. This place has open fields on each side, so you got good visibility, but it’s known to house locals with bad intentions. There are these big potholes out there which we can’t get to stay marked—they’re never in the same place any two or three days in a row, they move. Four and five feet deep, we think they dig them so we’ll fall in, Hummers, Bradleys, whatever, so you have to creep down this road at about twenty-five or thirty. The Ali Babas put C4 from a Claymore or an old 105mm shell somebody discarded (just waste products to us, we lose track of that stuff) in a milk jug or Coke bottle with nails and whatnot wrapped around it and there you go. Shrapnel sandwich. Or they could come riding up two by two on old motorcycles, brown boys in robes and tablecloth bandannas and moustaches, smiling and waving until the last minute when one pulls an RPG from a little holster on the side of the bike and whoosh! It’ll take out a tank so you know what it does to a Hummer with our little homemade armor plating, just raw steel plates with sharp edges that we have to beg those motherfuckers in the motor pool to put on. Every time I went to Anaconda, I just knew that the next week, in the Hattiesburg American, folks would be reading about how I bought it and bringing food over to Mama’s. You can’t sleep at nights sometimes for thinking about it, but when you’re on that little road you just do what you do. We boogied on down there in a HMMWV, me and Spec Pineda and PFC Jacobs. Pineda was driving, I rode shotgun with my -16 out the window (a clumsy-ass gun to shoot out a window, I really wanted an M4 but couldn’t get the quartermaster to hook me up since Major Otto swore by -16s), and Jacobs sat in the back where his job was just to look like a hard-ass and watch our six. We all wore wraparounds and helmets and the heavy bulletproofs with the metal plates in them, the ones that’ll stop an AR-15 and are heavy enough to make your back hurt. You don’t want to wear them, but you have to; whether you do it because of the regs or out of common sense is up to you. Jacobs didn’t have too much work to do, since we were the middle vehicle in a convoy of three. You have to watch everything when you drive on these roads--everybody in every vehicle has a sector they have to watch--but like anything else if you do it enough the most dangerous shit in the world just gets real normal. It was possible to imagine that that run to Balad was no worse than driving from Hattiesburg to Wiggins to Aunt Pearl’s house to pick up a Tupperware bowl of collard greens and ham hocks. It was possible to get real dead on the way to pick up them greens, but somehow we had been back and forth on that road enough times for the getting killed part to not be top of mind nomore. Pineda and I were flirting a little bit back and forth, but I had my mind mostly on the job—she couldn’t very well play lookout, hide and go get it and driver at the same time. Still, we got to talking a little, and she did what women do in the sandbox: she was talking shit just like a man, just wild enough to get at me a little bit. Telling me what the girls in the medical corps were doing and who was fucking who and who wanted to be fucking who. I listened to her and tried to keep my opinions to myself—I did shake my head once when she told me who the Battalion XO was fucking. It’s a tough line, sitting there above her in the chain where she’s your troop, to make sure you have that camaraderie where you’ll kill for each other. You form that camaraderie with men and women the same way, by talking about pussy. Pineda, when she got going, said shit that would make the oldest whore on the oldest street corner in Russia blush down to her drawers. Pineda had made twenty-two years old a month before we made that run, and Jacobs wasn’t but nineteen. I ain’t really no old-timer myself. Yet we all have to be grown folks, killers, every day just to survive; sex talk seems to be part of it, like the blood and the dust and the oil you smell all the time, every day here. The whole country smells like a tank full of diesel fuel, light a match and this motherfucker will explode. Most of the men and women deployed here have somebody at home, yet one in three women will leave before the end of their deployment, pregnant. It’s the sandbox, and most everybody probably will play with each other’s toys at some point. She could drive, though, and we made good time down to the turnoff. She made this drive a few times a week, so she drove down that potholed road like it was her driveway, swerving all the way off the road a time or two to avoid the holes. I wanted to yell at her a few times to slow down, but she was just following the lead and the rear was right on our ass, and finally we came into the gate area hot. We rolled right through past a long line of civilian contractors, Americans, Brits, Saudis, whatever, and the hajjis who worked for civilian contractors. We tried not to pay them any mind, but I always hoped the boys in contracting know how to tell the good hajjis are from the bad hajjis. The hajjis study us when we come on and off the base, like they live on base and we’re the ones just visiting, and everyone here has the same satellite phones we have, you know? All you need to do is steal one and then pay $15 to charge it up. It’s just a dumb box, that phone. So anyone who wants to report convoy comings and goings to the biker boys with the rocket launchers, they can call ahead just like we can as long as they stand still and face the satellite. We had to wait on the base for an hour for those vans to be ready. I spent my time at the BX, stocking up on water and looking at magazines, trying to catch up on the world before I headed back. Finally, Pineda came and got me and I walked behind her out of the BX. She had a figure that BDU’s couldn’t hide. She wasn’t wearing any make-up and her skin was kind of patchy (this dry air is hell on a complexion) but you didn’t need your desert goggles to see she had it going on if you caught her in the States. I caught myself thinking maybe tonight, it’s my last night here in the box, what happens in the sand box stays in the box, work her out a little bit. You try not to let those thoughts touch you though because that’ll get you an Article-15 faster than you can blink--especially with one of your own troops--but it happens all the time. I thought it, and then I tried to put it out of my mind by thinking about Felicia which made my throat close up. Finally, I just tried to focus on just getting back to Tikrit. The trouble with the vans we were escorting is that they’re pretty slow and very visible. I don’t know where they get them from, but when they get here they’re painted black and have big four-foot gray radar assemblies on the top of them. It’s the kind of gear that draws attention, no doubt, and Ali Baba lies in wait for them. I’ve talked to our interpreters about what their people think these trucks mean, and they say the hajjis know that these trucks control the helicopters which circle the sky every day looking for the faithful and serve as big ears which will listen to Iraqi civilian conversations even in their homes. I’m pretty sure that those antennas can’t do that; but then again, I can’t say for sure what they do. I do know that when the hajjis figure out some of these vans are on the move it’s like deer season: they come out of the woodwork from every direction. Fathers and sons standing on hillsides, or in Nissan trucks and on motorcycles, carrying rusty rifles and shiny rocket launchers, looking to take a chunk out of big, bad Uncle Sam. I know if I were them, I’d fight for my ‘hood too. But I ain’t them. I can see it their way, but I get paid to make sure they don’t get their way. I believe that’s what I get paid for, anyway. We didn’t roll out of the front gate at Anaconda until about thirteen-thirty. While we were waiting for those vans to get fitted out and gassed up, we were on duty, so we couldn’t go grab chow at Anaconda’s DiFac. Pineda and I sat in the shadow of the HMMWV eating cold Chef Boyardee ravioli from little plastic containers. It must have been over one hundred degrees there in that shade, and occasionally we’d have to turn our backs to shelter our food since the hot wind swept dust in big clouds across the base. We weren’t feeling too flirty right then. Jacobs was standing nearby with a portable cd player, listening to rap music so loud that we could hear it coming from his headphones. I didn’t recognize the cut, and I was thinking: a goofy red headed white boy from Idaho is listening to rap I never heard before, and here I am Mississippi Negro, been to New York and everywhere? Most of the hajjis here have satellite TV and you hear them sometimes singing along to the music we play on the radios in the HMMWVs just before we all get down to business. One minute, a man in a dishcloth turban is rapping along to Jay-Z with you, and next thing you know he’s cursing you and your people and trying to send you to hell. Jacobs was standing there bobbing his head, and then he starts to do a little shuffle there in the dirt, his big boots doing the happy feet across the desert. Pineda and I laughed at him, we were trying to clown him, but he didn’t pay us any attention. He just kept on jamming there, moving further and further out of the shadow of the jeep into the light. I don’t know how he stood it out there in the sun but he kept on grooving harder and harder until there was sweat pouring down his face and dark patches spread under the arms of his BDUs. I started to say something to him about the medical consequences of the heat, but Pineda sucked her teeth at him before I could get the words out. She looked at him, disgusted. “He do this all the time, Sarge,” she said. She reached in the HMMWV for a bottle of water and tossed it at him. He caught it without opening his eyes, just snatched it out of the air like a wide receiver. He bent his head over and slid the headphones down on his neck, then bent over a little further so that the top of his head was facing down. He opened the water bottle and tossed the cap at Pineda, then poured half the bottle over his head so that it ran from the bottom of his hairline to the top of his scalp. He let his head hang there for a minute, dripping water the whole while, and then he pulled himself up, smiling at us while he ran a hand through his hair. He looked like he had traveled halfway around the world just to have an excuse to get his hair wet, he was a child with nothing else to do but make a mess and ask forgiveness. At thirteen-thirty two we rolled out of the gates. We took a left at the gates and ran down the long airfield, one HMMWV in front, then the two black vans with those big dishes on top, us, a van, and another HMMWV behind everyone. I don’t know who decided what order we should go in, we just went when the MP at the gate told us to pull out. I didn’t really know the guys in the other HMMWVs too well; they were from a different battalion. We were all the same brigade, I’ve seen them around, but I don’t carry any personal memories of the dudes who ate it—I can’t close my eyes and visualize their faces, so I don’t really know they’re gone. Anyway, we took a left at the first turn-off to go back to the main highway up near the hajji quick stop. We were creeping along on the little road and as we approached one of the potholes, I saw Pineda’s whole face frown up under her shades. I’d never seen her do that before. “What’s wrong?” I asked her. “It’s wrong. This wasn’t….” she said. I guess right about then is when they hit us because that’s all I remember her saying. I saw a flash of light in front of us, and felt some heat after a long time, it felt like a whole minute—when the heat hit my face is when I realized that the first van had exploded. I just stared at the knot of fire where the van had been, time actually stopped; when I came to myself, I saw that the second van was nose first into a big pothole, or rather it was more like a ditch, right in the middle of our little convoy. Pineda had stopped short of running into it, but we were jammed in by the van behind us. Jacobs is standing behind me on the .50 caliber right over our head, doing his business as far as I can tell, but I can’t hear a motherfucking thing. Small arms fire is coming from the left and the right, and I can see the guys in the van in front of us trying to crawl out of it. For me, this type of thing always feels like a movie, like I can just focus on the exit sign and get out of there. The smells are different, though. Movie theaters smell like old butter and the people who sit in the seats before you, the paper from the tickets and air conditioned syrup on the floor. Here I can smell dirt and hot metal and gunpowder, hear the cartridges hitting the floor of the HMMWV from Jacobs blazing away for his life. I can smell Chef Boyardee, maybe on the seat next to me, maybe coming up through my nose and stomach because I’m getting sick. Of course over everything, the whole place smells like oil, when it doesn’t smell like gunpowder and rubber burning. Pineda is trying to pull the wheel of the HMMWV around, she’s crying and I want her to stop crying. I can see the tears running down her face, and I know she would hate me if she knew I saw them. I’m still just sitting there watching the movie; I see guys crawling out of the van nose down in the ditch and I’m trying to remember if I’ve seen the actors before as they crawl. Who are they? Oh, look, didn’t he used to be in all those Die Hard movies? Didn’t she used to play on Law and Order? It stops raining shell casings after a while, and I look back to see Jacobs slumped down, the turret is probably holding his body up but his knees are bent against the seats and he isn’t doing any more shooting. I’d like to figure out how to move him, but I turn my head one last time to see who else is getting out of that van, and something taps me on the left shoulder. That’s what it felt like, a hard shove, like somebody was saying, “wake up, nigga.” The blood was what shocked me, how when it came out of me at first, it was bright red and angry looking. There was no pain, but the blood was what made me move. I wanted to live, I guess, and sitting there wasn’t helping. Pineda was shouting at me, I could barely make her out: “Sarge, what to do?” “Get us moving, Pineda!” Just that little snatch of an order brought me back to myself, and I felt right there again. Control your heart rate, put mistakes behind you. Calm down, try to breathe. Get your ass in gear if you can, above all keep moving if you ain’t under cover. “Back up from this goddamned van!” Behind us the last HMMWV was trying the same shit, backing up to bonk out if we got out gunned. I pulled Jacobs down and shoved him into the backseat, got on the .50 cal and started spraying in a line to the right of us like I was watering grass. Somebody in the vehicle behind me was doing the same thing on the left, and after about three minutes of this, whatever was firing on us popped up--a few flashes of brown skin and red and white tablecloth—and there was no more return fire. I still could hear only a little bit—when that happens, I get completely irrational, I worry that that I’ll never be able to hear again. I was jamming my finger in my ear and hitting the side of my head thinking there was some water or dirt I could knock out of my ear canal. Inside the HMMWV, I saw Pineda talking on the radio. I assume she was calling it in. I stayed up top on the gun, occasionally giving the weeds a burst, but there wasn’t anything out there to hit. Pineda crawled around in the cab to check on Jacobs, and even through the buzzing in my ears I heard her shout “SHIT” and knew there wasn’t any good news about him. We sat there in the heat and the dust, waiting to get hit again. No one moved or said anything out there in the dust and the heat, the air so still you could barely smell the rubber burning from the van they blew up twenty yards away. In a few minutes the cavalry came, Apaches whup-whupping and Strykers and a couple of Bradleys which spit out a squad of Rangers, harder than we were, to secure the area. A couple of medics extracted Jacobs, put him on a gurney, his whole left side dark and wet. Another medic came and just stood in front of me without a word, his left hand stretched out to me, palm up, until I gave him my right arm. He showed me on my left shoulder where the bullet entered and passed through the meat, then wrapped it all up in a big bulky bandage over some ice. One of the Rangers came back from the weeds holding a balled-up napkin in his hand. He put it in the front pocket of my BDUs. “Sarge, you give this to your gunner if he makes it, or otherwise you can keep it yourself. I count five y’all got out here.” He smiled at me without showing any teeth and walked off again into the weeds. I was very tired, tired almost to death. I stretched out in the passenger seat of our HMMWV, shut my eyes and nodded out. You could still smell the gunpowder and the metallic smell of fresh blood. Pineda came through it all without a scratch, she looked like new money as she turned around and drove back the way we came, about a mile or so. I drifted in and out the whole ride. This time around, we didn’t even slow down at the gate to Anaconda—there were no contractors there, Americans or hajjis. All of those people who had lined up at the base to get paid in the morning were suspects in the afternoon.

Chapter 3

In my Daddy’s Army, they drank beer after they came back from some wild shit, got field dressed, jabbed with penicillin, and sent back out on the next shift if they could move. That’s how it went, to hear him tell it, and I grew up wanting to be that hard-assed hooah, not like it really was, maybe, but how it felt to me when he told it. But this here is the new Army. Pineda drove us straight to the infirmary. It’s the only clean place on any base, the place that will most remind you of something you would see at home. They put Pineda and me in the same exam room—I looked around for Jacobs but didn’t see him. The doc came in and it turned out he was from Alabama. We talked about Southern Miss and Crimson Tide football while he was patching me up. I jabbered on partly to make me feel better, but mostly so that he would have a good feeling about me and not hurt me too bad while he was stitching me up. It was just a surface wound he said, pretty clean, I was lucky, no big deal and it would probably scar, and then he made me take a whole handful of antibiotics (it looked like three or four doses to me, big horse pills) right there on the spot. All the time I’m laughing and making jokes, I’m just silly that I’ll try to protect myself that way. I’m scared of shots still, big as I am; but there it is, plus I didn’t want to look like a pussy in front of Pineda. After, they took me to a separate room, and I almost started crying because I didn’t want to leave her. I asked if she could come with me, but they ignored me. Next thing I know I’m all alone in this room and right away they had me talk to this psyche doctor. He asked me a lot of questions about how I was feeling, if I felt I was all right, would be all right. He had a checklist: headaches, chills, shakes, the whole drill. I told him I was fine, just a little tired. He wore his hair long over his ears, and smelled like he was wearing some sort of natural deodorant that wasn’t really doing the job. If it weren’t for the Captain’s bars on the cover he put on the table with the gauze and tape and needles and whatnot before he got started, I’d have told him to tighten up his appearance. I got to yawning a lot and I just wanted to go to get out of there and take a shower. I was trying to answer his questions but now I was totally preoccupied, worried about getting my stitches wet in the shower. The first doc, the one who stitched me, had told me not to get them wet. I didn’t pay too much attention to what this guy was asking me, but whatever answers I was giving to his crazy questions he just nodded and smiled and we rushed through the part where he asked me how it felt to have to kill someone. I’m not really sure if I killed anyone that day or not. At the end of the session, he wrote me a prescription for Xanax and another for Ambien, and passed along a scrip from Doc Alabama for some Percocet. He gave me a little tip on how to take it all. “If you get really anxious, don’t take the Xanax with water and swallow it. It’ll take it thirty minutes to hit your system if you do it that way. Just put it right under your tongue….that way it gets in your bloodstream right away. It’ll take about thirty seconds. You can take the Xanax and the Ambien both together, but you take more than the dosage I wrote here and you may never wake up. For the pain, take the Percocet, take some now. If you need something stronger, you’ll know it soon enough and let somebody know.” They filled all three prescriptions right there at the font desk. I think I took a Xanax and a Perc right away. In the sandbox, they’ll prescribe you pills for diarrhea or some seriously addictive shit like Oxytocin, and then they give everything to you in these Ziploc baggies you can put in your pocket. You don’t have to ask too hard for the shit you want, anything to keep you ready for duty. There ain’t no childproof caps here. No alcohol or weed, though: they test for that. After they patched me up, my first instinct was to call Felicia to tell her what had happened, but I said to myself with the time difference and all, she might not be up, that’s why I didn’t call. I knew I was tripping anyway because I couldn’t figure out what time it was back home, I couldn’t get my mind around it, were we ahead or behind? I couldn’t do the math no matter how I tried, so I ended up to the DiFac with Pineda. There was a Yankee game on the big screens lined up around the edge of the room, you could forget it was a war on; just a bunch of troops kicked back watching baseball. We had missed dinner, all they had left was some chicken legs and hot dogs, but I was starving—I ate three dogs and about twenty wings and knocked down four Dr. Peppers. Pineda tried to conversate a little bit, but I wouldn’t talk, just ate and drank and burped until finally I excused myself and went looking for an Internet connection. Right next to the DiFac was an MP station. I knocked on the door, signed in with the duty officer, sat down at a desk and logged in. I’m taking some correspondence classes, I’m about fifteen hours away from my degree in criminal justice from Drexel University, I’ve never been up there to the campus but I take their classes and they take Uncle Sam’s money, I’ve got just some clean up work to do, you know—they sent me a few e-mails asking me to reschedule a test I had this afternoon, so I responded to those. That’s just where my head was at, try not to rub the shoulder, please, because that shit hurts, thank you. Felicia hadn’t e-mailed me. She knew I was coming home soon but I hadn’t heard from her in a few days. I knew from talking to my Mom and Pops that nothing had happened to her or the baby, they were still alive and well somewhere. But there was nothing in my inbox from Felicia--so no calls, no letters, nothing in the last week or so and suddenly it mattered that it had been a week or so that I hadn’t heard from her and suddenly I couldn’t breathe so well like I was definitely pulling air in through a straw. The last e-mail I had from her was where she sent me pictures of the baby. A little dark, maybe, but she had a nice head of hair and definitely looked like her daddy. No cuckoo’s egg here. There were a couple of unread e-mails from this chick I knew back in high school who I was having some conversation with. Tabitha Beatty. Fine-ass Tabby B. She knew about me and Felicia, knew we was married you know, but she ain’t give a shit. She and I had had a few kick-it conversations back when we were in high school. She was the one I would call off and on when things weren’t going well with Felicia. Sometimes she would be cool with it, sometimes unavailable, sometimes she would want more and I would have to hide out for a while; it was complicated. Every man, if he’s honest, will tell you that early on in a relationship he tries to keep some back-up ass. If he’s really smart, he keeps it all the way through. You don’t have to be fucking the back-up, you know, you don’t have to ever fuck. Still, its very existence keeps you sane. It keeps you from making that leap, a crazy fucking jump off a short cliff, putting yourself in that space where she’s the only one you talk to about the shit that really matters, where you’d be lost if she kirked out. Your main girl assumes you make that jump, especially after y’all get married, and there are times when I’ve come close with Felicia; but in the end I’d have to be silly and a little stupid to not keep a possibility on the side, a whole lot dumber than I’ve been at least since Felicia and I started dating. I’m not stupid and that’s why Tabby and I stayed in touch. I know Felicia had dudes in her life before me. I know they kicked it, fucked, whatever, and might start up again when I was deployed. My thought was: I didn’t want to be completely devastated if some shit should happen. Anyway, Tabby and I had had some conversations over the years, you know, where off and on I talked to her and she talked to me. I felt it was good to keep my hand in with her just in case Felicia hit me upside the head with a stun. It could happen at any time--you hope it doesn’t, but it could definitely happen. Just loose conversation with Tabby, nothing serious, she’s not the person I talked to about the life insurance and mortgages, making rank or assignments and rotations, no all that stuff I talked with Felicia about. Me and Tabby might conversate about the security business I wanted to start when I got out, or she would go off about her ambition to be a journalist at a station bigger than the WDAM, but I didn’t share the real personal shit. O.k., maybe sometimes I crossed the line and told her a little bit more--like about things that Felicia wouldn’t do in bed--just by way of knowing that sort of intimacy was still out there for us, but I really did keep that kind of shit to a minimum. I did call Tabby a couple of times and got big points for that. It’s amazing what it means to a side bitch when you call her from a war zone. You don’t catch any hell about being married, just pure orgasmic excitement that ends with “baby please be careful” and a promise to take care of you when you get home if you can just get home. I didn’t get that from Felicia. Tabby was all sunshine and applesauce; I could always count on a smile after reading her. Felicia might tell me that the pipes were broken or the baby woke her up five times, was dehydrated and couldn’t keep down any Pedialyte. I opened e-mails from Felicia with care: I didn’t ever know if I would be picking shrapnel out of my eyes after reading one of her notes. Many’s the day I bitched about this very thing to my partners, compared my wife to Tabby and said, “now why couldn’t my wife…” offer to suck dick blindfolded or pick me up at the airport in a rain coat and Saran Wrap or whatever else. You go out on patrol with a dude and eventually ain’t shit he don’t know about you and vice-versa, so yeah, it was discussed. Now, just as the Percocet or the Xanax or whatever was kicking in and my head was starting to feel like it was going to float right off my shoulders, I opened the latest of Tabby’s e-mails. Within the first few sentences I knew she was desperate and down for whatever. She offered to me pick up at the airport, make me dinner, essentially to hide me from my wife if I could just spend twenty-four hours with her. She had this fantasy where she wanted to tie me up, take control of me and in the process let go in a way which neither of us thought was possible for her. You’d have to know Tabby. She was always so cool and collected, proper even, the type of chick who wore Mary Janes. I mean what Black chick have you ever met who wore Mary Janes? She was a news anchor, which made her a big deal on the local scene and the trip was--what got us both off--was this notion that I would be at her house tied up on her bed, see her on the newscast at 10:00 and then she would come home to her bedroom and work the bad ass soldier boy out with the candle wax and feathers and God knows what else. As I was reading it, I could hear her saying it; it was so personal and so real and so raw and so beautiful that I could feel myself start to lose it. My throat got itchy and started to close up, and the tears started to come. Here Tabby was, open and raw and down for whatever and my wife was…well she was fucking gone. There wasn’t no other way to say it. I dug around in my pocket and pulled out one of those Xanax pills and stuck it under my tongue. Wouldn’t you know it, doc was right. In a few seconds, I just felt sort of dull; I knew I was still hurt but my body couldn’t feel it anymore. The duty officer must have gotten sick of me sitting there staring at the screen saver, because they sent a PFC to the MP station to take me off to bed. He told me they had some extra quarters for me where the other MPs stayed, and he had had even thought to buy some shorts and a fresh T-shirt, some cheap flip-flops, and a towel for me from the BX. He handed them to me with the wrapping still on. I thanked him and tried to give him some money, but he said a crisp “not necessary, sir” and had me to just follow him down the hallway into some temporary barracks, then he left without a word. At Anaconda, it seems most of the soldiers didn’t live in tents or containers, but in an actual building, sectioned off by walls, panels and big camouflage nets. Guys were walking around in flip-flops and sweatpants, and in one corner a big X-Box tournament was going on, a whole lotta guys playing Halo. I stood in the corner and watched them play for about half an hour, it was mesmerizing. There were four televisions a few feet apart from each other, four X-boxes, four guys at each machine, all infantry, none of them older than twenty-five. I came about five minutes before a shift change: some guys came in from patrol, unstrapped gear and weapons, sat down and began sneaking around rooms of deserted buildings trying to kill each other. The guys they replaced stopped sneaking around deserted buildings trying to kill each other, strapped up, and went out in HMMWVs and Bradleys to go sneak around deserted buildings trying to kill Haaajis. No beer, no weed, no breaks, kill everything all the time. They set up a cot for me in a quiet corner. I took off my clothes, wrapped myself in a towel, and hit the showers. I forgot completely I wasn’t supposed to be getting my shoulder wet, but I suppose I couldn’t do any more to it than had already been done. I soaped off and then stood under the water, trying to hold my shoulder with its wet bandages out of the way. I must have been in there about fifteen minutes, and my mind was blank the whole time. That fifteen minutes in the shower was by far as good as it got for the next ninety-six hours. When I got out of the shower, I wiped off as best I could with the one hand, and then I walked back to my little designated cube to put on my shorts and shirt. While I was opening the little baggy with the Ambiens, out of the corner of my eye I saw Pineda come around the petition. She was in shorts and a T-shirt, the rest of her stuff—dirty pants, grey T-shirt, balled up white cotton panties and socks--was on a cot across from mine. “Hey, Sarge,” was all she said. She looked like she had been crying; she didn’t care if I saw. I popped that pill real quick and then turned to her. “You o.k?” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Yeah, I’m fine sir.” She was quiet for a minute. “Jacobs didn’t make it.” The tears were rolling down her cheeks and she was sniffling pretty bad. I limped over to her, grabbed the back of her head and put it to my good shoulder. She cried for a few minutes, shaking and moaning. Finally, she gathered herself, and said, “I’m all right. I’m going to get some air.” She passed the back of her hand across her eyes and her nose, took a deep breath. Then she was gone. I stood over my cot, about to pass out, but you can’t just go to bed in a strange place with your stuff any kind of way. Soldiers will walk off with all your shit. I cleared the .45 I carried as a sidearm and put it under my pillow. I stuffed my wallet and the clip deep in my boots, and put the boots under the cot against the wall. I folded my pants, and went to fold my jacket of my BDUs when I felt the napkin that the Ranger put in the breast pocket. I pulled it out and unwrapped it--something small and brown fell onto the blanket on top of the cot. I reached for it and held this little brown ear in my left hand. I didn’t feel anything looking at it, I couldn’t feel anything. I put it back in the jacket pocket, wrapped up in its napkin. My shoulder hurt like a sonofabitch, but I didn’t think I should take any more medicine. I lay down and went to sleep right away.

Chapter 4

They got me out of there pretty fast the next day, it all moves pretty fast when it wants to. Major Otto flew down from Tikrit with my gear, he met me at the DiFac with my bag right after I had had breakfast. I checked to make sure everything was there while he was down the hall in the john. He had folded all of my dirty laundry and put it into plastic Ziploc bags, and wrote a little note on the top of it: “Stay Tough, Soldier! Hooah!” I didn’t think he meant for me to see it until I got to Kuwait. When he came out of the john, the bag was just where he had left it, and it was like it was the same old Major Otto who didn’t give much of a damn about your personal business. “I got some papers for you to sign.” He handed me thick folder. “Just sign where the X’s are, you know the drill. Fuck, so you gettin’ outta here, huh?” The papers were an incident report, explaining the action in front of Anaconda and how Jacobs got killed. Major Otto had filled it out, and I didn’t really read them because I didn’t really know what had happened, plus I wouldn’t be writing the official letter to Jacobs parents so I didn’t need to know details. As long as my part in it wasn’t portrayed as something that would burn my benefits; I mean, when I read it, that’s what I was looking for and I read enough to see that. The major didn’t appreciate my curiosity. “Stop fucking reading them! Just fucking sign them! You think I’m gonna let them burn my main man? Goddamn you! Whatcha gonna do in Doha, son? They’re rotating you through Camp As-Sayliyah, you’ll be there tonight. It’s god awful hot this time of year, but there’s a little disco at the Sheraton where the Filipina girls go that’s a gas.” I signed the papers and gave them back to him, and he spent a lot of time checking that all the signatures were in the correct place (“don’t need the bureaucrats on my ass”) and then looked back at me with a big smile. “So what about it, bubba? You gonna be all right?” “Yes sir. I’m going home to see my daughter.” “Well shit, I’ll just bet she’ll be happy to see you too. How old’s she? How long’s it been?” “She’s four months, sir. I haven’t seen her, yet. I couldn’t get home when she was born.” “Why the hell not? Did I know that?” He looked at me like it was my fault. He’d gotten excited and a drop of spit had connected with my upper lip, but I didn’t dare wipe it off. “We were waiting on them to bring us the Jack of Spades, sir. We captured him and everything was on lock down.” He smiled at me, his teeth yellow under his tan bony cheeks. “Yeah, we got that cocksucker didn’t we? Listen to me…you bring them presents, and they’ll always remember you, don’t matter how long you been gone. Ask my kids.” He nudged me in my bad arm with his elbow so hard I leaned away and almost passed out. He held me up by my good arm to keep me from falling over, and was good enough to look away while I lost a little bit of my breakfast on the floor. When I looked back up, he was still smiling. “We’ll put your papers in on your Heart. Right? A Purple Heart, goddamn! So that’s good, we’ll put those in.” He stood there for a minute, thinking. I just wanted it to be over, I was still nauseous. “Now before you check in at Polk…you told me earlier you needed some personal time? Some leave?” “I need some personal time, yes sir.” I wasn’t going to go into it with him, but he just stood there and looked at me, I mean really looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time. I heard he had been married twice or three times. We didn’t really talk about it, because we lived at the job and home was home. “I’ll square it for you. It ain’t strictly procedure, but under the circumstances….we’ll get you about a week before you have to check in at Polk? Is that enough? You’re going straight home then?” “Yes sir.” Another pause. My shoulder hurt no less than it did when he first jabbed me in it. The room was moving back and forth like we were on a ship. “You going to re-up? Aren’t you done after this?” “I’ve got the option.” “So you going to re-up, then?” I’m sure I must have looked terrible by then, but he’d stopped grinning now, this question wasn’t casual and I’d better not move. That’s how it worked. “I…..I think so.” He nodded his head and smiled. “Listen, you’re on the list, you know that, right? E-7. And you’ve been in twelve years, so it’s pretty quick for you and why would you want to blow it up now? You wouldn’t want to fuck it up, would you? No. So you get home, have a drink or three, fuck your wife, and then come on back and help me out and let’s get you that promotion. If you need to talk about it, you know how to find me, call me on my Thuraya. Whatever, e-mail me some time, o.k., Trotter, let me know how they treat you back stateside? O.k.” I saluted him. He acknowledged and left the room without another word. He was gone to me, gone back to Tikrit or wherever he was going back to. If I’d asked him where he was headed he’d have sniffed and told me it wasn’t my business and he’d have been right. He didn’t even look back at me when he walked away because I wasn’t part of his world anymore. I hauled myself out of my chair and walked back to the temporary quarters. I was real tired, I wanted to take a nap, but I couldn’t because it was 0930 and I had to leave at 1000 so there wasn’t time to do much of anything but say goodbye to Iraq. I did see Pineda before I left. She looked like herself again, maybe her eyes were a little read. “You getting out of here, Sarge?” She said it like she was asking me if I was going to get some milk at the corner store. ‘Yeah, Pineda. I’m headed out. You gon’ be all right?” You know, we talked to each other just easy breezy, but I had spent a lot of time with that girl, some of it with metal in the air. She was like a sister and a niece and a lover, a part of what I was breathing; yet and still, I had a Blackhawk to catch, so what to say? I mean, how do you say goodbye to all of that, when it seems like it’s really what’s going on, like nothing else in the world could be real but what you’ve experienced together? She put her hand to her forehead and gave me a little snap salute that wasn’t really respectful. She reminded my sentimental ass that she was still a soldier. “Fine, sir. Just fine. You have a good trip. You need help with your bags?” “Nah, I’m straight.” “Hooah, sarge. We kill every motherfucker moving.” And like that, see, I really was out of there. Anyone who saw me walking out of there with my pack on my back but wearing jeans and Nikes might not have recognized me, you know. I could have walked past a couple of my own troops who wouldn’t ever know me unless I had on BDUs. But--the way Pineda treated me all formal and polite, like I was from another company even though we….well, I was a ghost, you see. I was there, but I wasn’t going back where she was going, I was going to Chicago, not Tikrit. All I had to do was survive the next thirty-six hours and then I was back home, where she had another hundred some days, some of them just like what we just scraped through. She couldn’t stay too close to me anymore because we weren’t the same anymore—what’s worse, she’d have to assume I was thinking “better her than me,” and she wasn’t far wrong. It hurt what I saw in her eyes and heard in her voice, the guilt I felt about leaving her there and how happy I was to be leaving her there. Was she jealous or angry I was leaving; did she hate herself for feeling vulnerable? I wanted to hug her, but nothing to do but throw the salute right back at her. A rule: you can’t get close to anyone here, not if you don’t want to get hurt. When she left, I closed my eyes and saw her laid out in a morgue, saw it like it was really happening, had already happened, and how I hated her for getting under my skin, for getting close enough to me that I cared if she lived, that it would make me have to kneel down with my head in the dust when or if I heard she bought it. It might be a short hop on the road from Balad to the Airport in Baghdad, but fortunately Uncle Sam wasn’t taking a chance on killing me before I got my Purple Heart by driving me down that potholed road again with those cutthroats and killers. Major Otto promised me a helicopter, and damned if I didn’t get one just about all to myself. There isn’t much chance of catching a rocket in the ass end of a Blackhawk if you’re flying in the daytime. I’ve flown on them at night, that’s the real Rambo shit there, flying miles out of the way to avoid the tracers that look like a tiny laser show as Ali Baba tries to erase you. By day it’s civilized, the pilots will point out landmarks over the intercom like you’re on Delta. If you brought along a canteen of green tea and some shortbread cookies, you might as well be on a training exercise back stateside in the reserves. The only tension came from the gunner. The gunner wasn’t saying shit because he was looking for that puff of white smoke to rise up so he could yell out in the three seconds before impact to the pilot to get out of the way. It ain’t a drill if it’s for real. All you do in Iraq is drive or fly around scared to death you’re going to die until you come to a place where you have to shoot or eat or sleep or shit or watch SportsCenter on a big screen in the DiFac. But you can read all about it in the news, you don’t need me to tell you anymore about it. Anyway, as far as I knew Iraq was over for me soon as we touched down at the Airport. I felt pretty good at the Airport; tired sure, but I was on a little high. It felt like high school, maybe after a game where you didn’t get much tick but had a few points and a few rebounds and afterward and forever remember only the good moments. How you snatched that board and didn’t think you could get up so high, or how you made that bounce pass through traffic on the break that was dead nice but your boy messed up your assist. I was never one of those cats who cared if we won or lost--I mean it was just a game--but I loved those times when I was playing the right way. I would focus on those perfect movements during the little snatches of time after the game where the coach was telling us good game and talking about who really hustled this time and what the practice schedule was for the next day. Everybody else rolled their eyes, even the worst scrubs, while this vague bastard was talking, but I liked the structure of his little chats. I wasn’t ever the best player on a team; I was usually the third or fourth option, a garbage option. I knew my role and hustled and boarded, played that tough defense and gave my fouls, so usually that meant coach didn’t focus on me individually while we were debriefing after the game. I could let my mind wander and relive those moments where I was good and let my muscles stretch out and just feel good to be done and breathing again. Then, at the restaurant afterward, while we were eating our chili-cheese dogs and fries, root beer floats or whatever, my boy Lloyd used to have to fill me in on the practice schedule. He rode the pine because he was tall but slow and couldn’t shoot. “You don’t never pay no attention,” he used to tell me. “I start, nigga, so fuck it, just tell me.” Long as coach didn’t hear me say it. I didn’t really realize until after the exit de-brief that I was leaving Iraq that night. I didn’t find out for sure until I was standing in line at the Burger King and trying to decide whether or not I should get a hair cut after I ate. There was a brother standing right in front of me on line who had been at the debrief with me—he was posted here in in Baghdad at the Airport. I asked him whether they could fade me up at the base barber shop, make me look a little less G.I. He laughed at me. I started to cut his ass in half since I outranked him, I thought he was trying to clown me, and then he comes out with, “Sarge, you don’t have time to get a hair cut. You were in the debrief. Didn’t you hear them say we’re going home in three hours?” I didn’t remember the briefing at all, no more than I ever remembered one of coach’s speeches in the locker room during high school. I remembered a Captain standing in front of the debrief with his clipboard in his hand and how the mirrored lenses on his Oakleys were so clean and shiny, I could make myself out in the crowd staring back at him. But I don’t remember what he said, not even that he might have said I was going home. Right then is when I knew I was on the slip a little bit, like maybe everything in my upstairs wasn’t quite kosher. We didn’t leave in three hours. There was more hurry-up and wait. I ate my lunch and then went and got that haircut after all. I read a Vibe magazine while I waited, looking at what Puffy and them have been up to, then thirty-five pages on how the Black community feels about the beefs between random rap crews, and eighty pages of advertisements for camel-hair underwear and leather t-shirts. In the middle of the magazine was a page and a half of opinion on the war written by some hip-hop head from Queens who thought it was “mad wack that brothers and sisters might be dying in the sand for the simple fact of oil.” The troops in the shop were talking about how Eminem was going to do a concert over here in Baghdad and wondering how many troops were going to have to catch it to secure the green zone enough to make sure we didn’t lose a VIP. Still, they were excited for the concert, and right away were off into that ancient argument about the best lyricist of all-time. I’m getting old, because for me it’ll never get any better than Rakim, and Barry Sanders, and Jordan, and Ali and Bonds. Ever. That’s my list. Private Cut-‘em-up did a pretty nice job with my fade, he didn’t give me a Ceasar or try to convince me to put twists in it, so maybe the youth aren’t all bad. Right across from the barbershop was an Internet café with a connection that was slow as molasses. My inbox still had zero new messages, but I got the bright idea of logging into my bank account to see if my latest check had hit yet. Something about the payroll system here went crazy from time to time (so they said) and the paycheck--the normal check (which wasn’t much) plus the hazard pay (which was)-- was slow to hit the bottom line sometimes. It was getting on toward the end of the week and I knew I had to see about it before I left the base because I could maybe get it fixed there at the personnel office, maybe get a physical check or at least get some sort of story to tell Felicia when I got home so that she would know that I cared about the family and whether we ate or not. See, I was just thinking about how to smooth things out when I got home, you understand, because I was taken care of here. I drew after taxes $1100 every two weeks; I took $200 of it myself in cash direct from the personnel office on post in Tikrit so that I had cash walking around to buy gum and magazines and such and a lot left over. The rest went straight to Felicia in a direct deposit, or anyway, it went to our joint account back in Mississippi. Felicia did a pretty good job of managing our money, I thought. It seemed like we always had some left over every month to go into the savings account, which was the start of a house or a college fund or something. She had her job at the Wal-Mart which took care of more than you’d think. I think the only thing she hit my check hard for was my car note and insurance and emergencies, like when the air conditioner went out. She didn’t have to ask me about it, and I didn’t think about it much. I had other shit on my mind and she was pulling her weight, doing her job. Well, when that bank website finally came up, everything I just said went to hell in gasoline drawers, because while that $900 check was “pending”, our whole savings account had lightened up from $12,000 to about $1,500. You can see in the detail below the summary what’s been going on with your checking account and it all came out in one big whop about five days previous. There weren’t any drips or drabs, no mistake or overcharge at the gas station, no Just check #1842 for $10,500. Seven days previous, right in the middle of the pay period when she knew I never hit the system. I only knew it was time to get up and go when somebody behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “time’s up.” I was that thrown that I must have been sitting there for close to half an hour, just staring at the screen.

Chapter 5

I just made the flight to Qatar, and I don’t remember much about it. I suppose it was a C-141, it would have to have been, and I guess there was a circus elephant or space shuttle or something in the payload. I had put another couple Xanax under my tongue, and I just stared into the back of the seat in front of me for the whole flight. It was the worst fucking feeling, not feeling anything, zoning out like that when I should have been happy or sad or something; but come on, who in their right mind would accept that kind of pain if they knew it was coming? I’m no fool, I knew something was up with Felicia before this, but sitting there on that flight, my only thought was that I could…not...take it. I was just out there; I didn’t know where I was coming from or where I was going. I was going home, but it felt way worse than when I was headed to Iraq. It felt like I was going home to die. I did start crying then, and the trooper next to me leaned over and started whispering to me. He asked me if I’d been in combat; I didn’t say shit. He asked me how many I’d killed, and I still didn’t say shit. He told me that it would be all right, and then I guess it felt less awkward for him, so he leaned his head back and went to sleep with his mouth open. It sure as hell didn’t feel any better for me. They rolled out the red carpet for me in Qatar. I guess Major Otto had called ahead and told them I was on the way, and when I got there one of his old home-boy-don’t-you-know-‘em-boys, a First Sergeant MP named Russell, met me when I got off the plane there on the dark runway. “Seargeant Trotter, get your ass into this car, soldier. Let’s get you away from these Air force pukes.” He was medium size, built like a tank and black as an ink spot in a barrel of oil, a brother about fifty years old (and how he and Major Otto’s redneck ass got so close I didn’t find out, but rednecks will surprise you that way). He and two of his troops hustled me right into a Suburban before I really knew what was going on, they basically kidnapped me. I needed a nap in the worst way. “Hot enough for you? Not quite as hot as where you been, but it’s hot as a barbecue in hell to me. Turn up this goddamned air-conditioner, Lanier. How you doing, son? I heard you had a tough time back there.” “I’m fine, sir. Just trying to adjust.” “I’ll bet. Where you from originally?” “Mississippi.” “I used to serve down around there. I was at Polk for two years. You ought to be used to this heat. Still, it ain’t Iraq. Gooddamnit, Lanier!” He reached across the seat and slapped Lanier’s hand away from the air conditioner. Lanier just laughed and kept on driving. “It’s hotter here sir…” “Well, I can see where you’d say that. Maybe hotter than Mississippi, but not hotter than Iraq. It’s a dry heat, but heat’s heat. We’re taking you to Chili’s. That all right with you?” “Yes sir.” I didn’t give the first damn where we went. “Good enough. We’ll get you drunk. Whether or not you get some pussy is up to you.” We left post like a bat out of hell and floated through the desert around four or five circular rotaries, and then past car dealerships and mosques and Starbucks toward downtown Doha. I looked out the window, trying to get used to the streetlights and the chrome. I was nervous because we were off post and didn’t have a rifle in the car, we were off post and I didn’t have on a vest. There was a lot of laughing and joking, just a bunch of guys on their way to happy hour, cars switching lanes and whipping all around us, cutting us off in traffic and bracketing us, nobody in our car making eye contact with drivers who drove even with us for four, five blocks . We slid into the parking lot of the Chili’s and as we got out of the car a brand-new Mercedes-Benz pulled in next to us. A blonde, about sixteen with massive breasts, fell out of the driver’s seat and waited at the back of the car for the guy in the passenger’s seat to meet her there. He was a skinny dude with acne all over his face and hair that went every which way. He stuck his hand into the back of her jeans, right up against the skin, and rubbed her ass as they staggered into the restaurant. Russell clapped me on the back and brought me back to myself. “Close your mouth, son. Welcome back to the world! Makes you want to be an oil exec’s son, though, don’t it?” I looked around blinking and they were all smirking at me--they started laughing and kept popping shit as we walked into the joint. I didn’t talk much at dinner. I had the chicken fried catfish, and I don’t even want to think about where they got catfish from in this desert, but it was pretty good. They talked about any and everything, speculating on the different women in the joint, grading asses, arguing about what kind of cars they were going to buy when they got home, wondering where their next postings were going to be. Nobody wanted to talk about the elephant in the room, not Sgt. Russell, not Sgt. Lanier, nobody but the Warrant Officer, Sumitomo I think his name was, a little Japanese dude from California who looked at me all of a sudden--in the middle of taking a bite of his fajita--and said, “So Sergeant, how is it over there, really? I mean, it’s fucked up, right?” Up until this time, all the talk and the laughter and the cussing at our table had been loud; you know, if it were a regular family place in the States with a lot of kids and whatnot, we probably would have had a tone it down chat with the manager, except this was Qatar and our manger was a Filipino there on a visa and no one was going to say shit to table full of soldiers, not with the two big bases down the road and the dollars we all were spending. But when Sumitomo said what he said, it got quiet around the table; after he asked his question, he leaned toward me, and so did Lanier. Russell sat back, and I could tell he had been somewhere: he wasn’t quite old enough for Vietnam but maybe he’d been to Granada or Desert Storm, something like that. Those two youngsters, though, it was clear they didn’t know shit about a combat zone. They were living on the edge of a real shitstorm, and regular enough it flew in to visit them. As I sat there at that table the dust from Iraq was still on my boots, mixed with a little hajji blood and snot, and there was also a grey ear in my pocket wrapped up in a greasy napkin. “Yeah, it’s fucked up. The thing is, you can’t trust nobody, because they’re all around, they come at you from anywhere. But it’s good to be somewhere like this, you know, where you don’t have to worry about a woman coming in off the street with a bomb in her robes. Right?” Sumitomo and Lanier both jerked around toward the door, it’s natural to be nervous when somebody says something like that to you. Even if you were in Fort Benning, GA, you might look around you if somebody reminded you while you were eating your chicken fingers you were at ThreatCon Bravo and you had forgotten you were supposed to be on the lookout for something suspicious. Qatar, safe as it was, was at constantly at ThreatCon Charlie or Delta (we used to joke in Tikrit we were at X-Ray), so maybe it wasn’t fair of me to hit them like that because maybe they understood their threat level. Still, there’s hajjis in Qatar, too. Russell didn’t look around, he just threw his head back and laughed while he lit a cigar from his pocket. Lanier and Sumitomo tried to laugh along with him, but theirs was more nervous than anything else. I just smiled, but what I was thinking about the question Sumitomo asked me was: if you haven’t been there, and may not be going there, you probably shouldn’t really ask about what it’s like; just check the IDs and bust the drunks at whatever base you’re at and be happy with what you got. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. The bathroom is the first thing that really threw me. It was clean and well-lit, it had stalls and urinals and toilet paper holders and four or five paper towel dispensers. There was a huge mirror against the wall with a dozen large light bulbs over it, none of them burned out. I couldn’t get over the way none of the tile was chipped on the floor or the counter. Soldiers tear up shit, man, none of the Army’s shit is ever nice once more than ten of us have used it, and there’s always more than ten of us. Maybe the Air Force’s shit stays nice, but not the junk we got in the Army, and above all not the shit in Iraq. I mean, Saddam had some toilets, porcelain with brass fitting. I’ve seen them in the palace in Tikrit, even in the regular bathrooms that the brass haven’t reserved; but somehow they felt dirty because you just had a feeling that Saddam and Qusay and Uday didn’t wipe their asses. You always felt like you had to put some paper down before you sat on one of them. Then there’s the average Iraqi civilian toilet, which ain’t nothing but some tile and some flies around a pit, with a hose to wash the away the e. coli. But this Chili’s was built to American spec, because it had a handicapped bath stall, and that’s right where I went. It was heaven I took my piss. It smelled like medicine which made me nervous. You always hope you’re not pissing the antibiotics away, because if bacteria from a toilet flush handle or paper towel dispenser gets into your wound, you could lose your whole arm and come home looking like a Confederate soldier in an old picture, all brave with your shirt sleeve pinned up to your shoulder, lopsided. It would be funny to come this far and lose my arm to something I picked up in a handicapped stall at a Chili’s, right? My people at home would have clowned me into next year once two and two got put together: “this heroic nigga here made it out of Iraq with a scratch and then lost his arm to a shitty toilet in Qatar.” Maybe I could just roll around the floor and shoot for 100% disabled status. I finished pissing and then reached in my pocket for the greasy napkin. It was starting to freak me out in a serious way, this ear from the Unknown Hajji, it made that catfish do flip-flops in my stomach and I thought it was going to come up if I kept looking at that ear, so I dumped it into the yellow water, dumped it quick while my johnson was still hanging out over the bowl. I zipped up and flushed, and you know that ear wouldn’t go down right away--it swirled around six or seven times in that waterfall of a commercial toilet and would not flush. Watching it was making me a dizzy, so I bent over to grab my knees to keep from falling, and what did I do that for? Right there in the bowl, right on top of that ear I blew catfish chunks and corn nuggets and all the water I drank that I hadn’t just pissed out. I felt a little better after I let that go, so I flushed it all down with lots of toilet paper, and there went the ear of the man I might have killed, but probably didn’t. I mean I hope I didn’t. Unless they want to give me a medal for it, in which case I did kill him, and two more besides him. I was pretty much together by the time I got back out to the table, and come to find out the waiter had already taken my plate and the boys were ready to go. “C’mon, Trotter,” Russell was looking at me like I was his son or something. “We’re gonna get out of here and go get a drink. You do remember how to drink don’t you?” I knew my role, “sir yes sir,” and even better I knew I needed a drink after six months in without R&R, six months of being good and watching folks get restricted to post and busted down grades all around me for getting drunk on bootleg whiskey and high on anything non-prescription. Six months of just dealing with it using Paxil and Ambien and anything else in the little baggies they’ll give you if you tell the right story. “Yes, sir, if you’re buying.” So we saddled up and rolled to the Hyatt right down the street. Everything in these sand countries is under construction, the Hyatt in Doha looks like the Sheraton in Baghdad, except they’re reconstructing the Hyatt because of age and that desert sun, not because it’s repeatedly mortared. At least that’s what you hope when you walk in the lobby and don’t see any guns, just smiles as they point you to the elevator. We went up to the second floor, and came out into a lobby where there were some brown kids and some white kids sitting on a sofa and on each other, head rags and baseball caps, Gucci sandals and Jesus slippers. We all shuffled into the bar, white tennis shoes and tight jeans, faded polo shirts and short hair cuts, and we weren’t the only GIs in the place, but we were the loudest, giving shout outs around the bar. The girls on-stage singing Destiny’s Child in broken English--brown skinned broads with slanted eyes shaded against the little spotlights hanging over the stage--waved at us while their lead singer, on her knees like Sam Cooke, tried to bring the house down. I followed Sumitomo and Lanier to a table at the far end of the room, where we sat down and watched Russell work his way up to the stage where one of the singers bent over to talk to him. I couldn’t tell much about her from where I was, but imagined she’d have it going on after a few shots. That’s all I thought right then, because Sumitomo leaned over to me and yells over the singing, “Hey, Sarge, I’m sorry what I asked you. I know it’s a tough subject.” “No problem. I mean, I don’t know what to say always, it’s just Iraq, you know?” “I might be deployed there in a couple months, they’re talking about rotating us either there or through Korea. My wife is hoping Korea. I don’t think she can take another year apart, you know?” “Yeah. My wife hates it too.” “I’ll bet she’ll be glad to have you home?” He was smiling at me and I think he was happy to see me going back to a wife who loved me and back massages and car washes and Sports Center on the couch and everything else. I said what I had to say. “Oh, for sure.” He was sitting there grinning like an idiot, him and Lanier both, bobbing their heads. Those girls were massacring the song, breaking it down to the rims. I a Surrior, I not gon give up, I going to make it, I will work harder. They’ve all seen the video, all the little girls all over the world, and even the ones in Kirkuk and Riyadh shake their asses like Beyonce when their parents aren’t watching. The little girls are why we’ll win this war. Their brothers and uncles are why we’ll lose it. “O.k., pussies, shots all ‘round, and two for the guest.” Russell sat down next to me and put a couple of shot glasses in front of me. He held up his own shot, and we all raised a glass. “Here's to you and here's to me and if by chance we disagree, fuck you and it’s just here's to me. Bottoms up, gentlemen.” I turned mine up, and it’s not like I never had a drink before, but it had been a while. I was on an empty stomach. The liquor had me feeling kinda good in a hot minute. The house band had started in on another number, a slow one this time. The lead singer was pleading with the audience for another chance, and the back-up singers were in full flirt, not paying any attention to the music, just coming into the song whenever they wanted to and sometimes not at all. When you get a quick, ridiculous buzz in a social setting where you can’t drool or fall over, you need something to focus on to keep you steady. Music will usually help. They were giving me nothing. Russell was in my ear. “One left, soldier. Bottoms up.” I picked up the second shot glass and drained it off. It hit my stomach and exploded, it seemed like I could see the fumes rising in front of my eyes toward the ceiling. “Where you from, Trotter?” “Mississipppi, sir.” “Goddamn. Old country boy, huh? I’m from Texas myself.” He smiled at me, maybe happy we had something else in common besides just our skin. He was darker than me, older than me, now he was smiling at me and getting me drunk. I felt safe with him, he was Major Otto’s boy sent to take care of me. “What part, sir?” “Beaumont.” “I’ve been through there.” “Everybody goes through there at some point or other. Rich Otto said you came out of Iraq a brave motherfucker.” He had his arm around my shoulder, now. “I guess so, sir.” “Says you shot a few of them over there….” “I might have, sir…” “But you’re not sure. No, I wasn’t usually sure neither. I was over there in the first war, back in ’89, but it wasn’t like this shit here. Let’s hope I don’t have to go this time.” “It’s a bitch, sir.” “I bet.” Suddenly, there was a loud pop from the speakers in the room. All kinds of electrical feedback and the loudest bang you ever heard in a span of about half a second. I hit the deck, and about five seconds later, Russell tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Come on out, son. I guess it’s just a speaker shorted out.” I crawled back up on my chair. The three pinays had left the stage, there was some piped in music now. The crowd was talking and laughing like nothing had happened. Lanier and Sumitomo were deep in conversation; Russell was studying me, the wise old owl. “How you feeling, son?” “I’m fine, sir. Just, you know…” I was fine, too. I had a scare and it sent that alcohol right to my head was all. The room was spinning. “I know. Listen. You want some pussy? That girl that was on stage, the one on the left….she kinda likes you.” I wasn’t drunk enough to think that she had been able to pick me out of the crowd, but I nodded and tried to look hopeful. “Really, sir?” “Really. Matter of fact, she’s waiting on you upstairs. You up to it?” “Yeah.” He slid little envelope with a hard plastic key card in it into my hand. “Go on up and get you some, it’s all taken care of. Welcome back to the world.” He got up and helped me out of my chair. I staggered out of the club and into the lobby. The brown and white kids were still sitting there, blissed out. I looked at the key card in my hand: 713, or it could have been 418. I called the elevator and rode up to the seventh floor. When I got to the room, I put the key card in the door slot; I was having trouble with it because by that time the whiskey had got to me, had me feeling nice. I kept jabbing the key at the slot and missing and then the door swung open and there she was wearing a little halter top and jeans just like the blonde girl in the Benz at the Chili’s. She pulled me into the room, and I followed her and the tiger tattoo in the small of her back, but I didn’t make it all the way to the bed immediately. I swerved off to the bathroom and closed the door, and began to examine my face in the mirror, hoping to stop the world from spinning. Soon enough it stopped; I have no idea how long it took, and when I came out, she was lying there on the bed dressed in what God gave her. Now that the spinning had passed, all I really wanted to do in the world was fuck this girl. It was like it was possible to connect myself to the world again through her. That’s the only way I can put it, I lost myself in her, she seemed to lose herself right back, and suddenly I was so happy to be alive, happy to be capable of feeling pleasure. I didn’t care about making her happy although she seemed to be enjoying herself. I was just celebrating in the pussy because this was one of the things I would have missed if I’d bought it like Jacobs, my moment could be right around the corner, and I might never again have had another woman like her. I didn’t want to go through again what I’d have to go through to have another moment of release like that. Then it was over. She got up and went to the bathroom and I put my clothes on in the room. She helped me button up my shirt, touched my bandage where it had come loose a little bit in what we were doing, helped me unwrap it and tighten it and set the clips again. So, maybe now I would lose my arm from what we did in dim light on the bed there in the Hyatt in Doha, and wouldn’t that be a story? We came out into the hall, and I had my wallet and everything I came with; I guess she did too. She laughed and said something in Tagalog or Arabic while we rode the elevator back down to the club. When we came out into the lobby this time, the brown and white kids were gone. She grabbed my ass and kissed me on the cheek, and then she was gone. The next thing I knew, she was back on stage again—this time they were the Supremes and she was Flo Ballard. I headed back to our table where once again the boys were a step ahead of me, they were all getting up when I got there. Russell just winked at me and from a knot of bills peeled some money off that he left on the table. We rode back to As Sayliyah in silence. We made it to post at 00:30 which didn’t attract much notice, especially since we were with Russell. We dropped Russell off at his apartment, and then Sumitomo and Lanier took me to the NCO bachelor quarters and set me up in a spare room with all the comforts of home: a desk, a metal bunk, white sheets, a clock radio. Nothing ever looked so good to me. Sumitomo came up to get me settled in. “We’ll be by here in the morning at about 8:00 to take you to a medic to check out that arm and get you ready to fly. Your flight out of here is at 10:30. You got that?” “Roger that, man. Thank y’all.” “Just get some sleep, sir. We gotta catch that plane tomorrow.” I lay down on the bed and the world was spinning again. I tried to focus on the back-up singer, but I could barely remember her, it was really like it never happened. All I could think about was Felicia, how I’d just fucked it up with her by fucking some whore in a hotel in Qatar with a keycard I got from Russell, and how upset she’d be with me when she found out. I decided to call her to tell her I was sorry, that I loved her and would do right and so I pulled the Thuraya out of my bag and limped over to the window to look for a signal. If I leaned out of the window, opened it, leaned out and held my head still, I could just get a signal, and after about five tries, I finally got through to the house. Once again, the machine. I tried her cell phone then, and got through to it on the first try. Voicemail. I knew she’d left me, and I knew I could blame the little broke-ass brown girl who couldn’t speak English. I pulled off my pants--oh God I could still smell that bitch’s pussy on my skin down there--crawled into bed, and went to sleep.

Chapter 6

Sumitomo came knocking, first at 0730 and again at 0800. Between knocks, I was able to get up and put myself together some kinda way, showered and shaved, and just about looked like a soldier (except I was wearing jeans and a fake Polo instead of BDUs) when he came to get me the second time. He had some chow for me from a McDonald’s somewhere on post, an Egg McMuffin, hash browns, and most important some black coffee. Pops used to get that McDonald’s coffee every day, black with three sugars. By the time I got to the bottom of that plastic cup, I felt just about like myself again. He brought me around to the infirmary on post, where the nurse unwrapped my wound without mentioning the funky stains on the bandage. She just swabbed it down with some kind of cream, wrapped it up again, slipped a Percocet and some more antibiotics into my mouth like I was four years old, and told me I was good to go. Sumitomo drove me to the airport. Neither of us said much, but it wasn’t awkward when we did talk--about the Yankees and Jeter and A-Rod--just two guys talking on the way to nowhere special. He parked the car at the curb, got out with me, helped me with my bags. He asked me to hold up a second, reached in the side pocket of the truck, and came with a cell phone. “Sergeant Russell said you’re not to leave here with that satellite phone your Major said you carried out of Iraq. I thought you were going to fall out of the window last night when you made your calls. Sergeant Russell said he knows you’ll need to make some calls on your way home, so there’s a hundred dollars credit on the sim card of this one. ” Truth be told, I had forgotten I had the Thuraya. I fished it out of my bag, and we made the switch right there. He looked a little embarrassed, having caught me out there like that. “So you’ll be all right, sir?” He stood there on the curb with his buzz cut, hand half in his pocket like he was worried about me, and maybe I was something to worry about, a banged up G.I. traveling alone back to the world with my uniform and sidearm in my luggage. I gave him a salute and he stiffened up and gave it back to me, both of us real military; that fixed his wagon. I grabbed my bags and walked on in, I didn’t look back, in an hour I was going to leave Qatar behind me, and the place was dead to me as soon as I walked into the airport. They have a lot more security over here in these countries, not like in the States where you can just drop your stuff off at the curb with a skycap, kiss your girl goodbye and go get in line, see your luggage when you get there and lets hope we can match it to your fingertips when the bomb goes off. No, here in the Arab world, they talk that Insh’allah but they still want to just about see you and your shit get on the plane handcuffed together, so they know who and when and what and how by the time they get your ass to the judge and put you in that little cell where all you can see is dust and all you can hear is the mullahs telling you over loudspeakers to convert or die before they hang you from a crane. When I put my stuff through the metal detector, there was a young skinny dude with bad skin and a creased uniform as well as a chunky middle-aged woman in a head scarf standing behind the scanner looking at me all hard and curious. They don’t provide you a container for your watch and phone: you just lay everything right down there on belt and run them through. Those two started whispering to each other behind the scanner, and I figured out eventually there was something suspicious about my bag. It could have been anything, like Sarge Russell trying to augment his income by sending me home with some half-wrapped hashish. “Sir, please to stand to the side. Sir, please.” Stand aside for what? There was nobody behind me. The woman was talking, smiling that peaches and cream smile the woman have over there in the desert where they never let the sun touch a woman’s skin. Her skinny partner looked at me like I was the devil himself, and now here came their boss. Now this guy was the real deal, shoulder boards on his sweater and his moustache real trim, expensive shoes, and no gun--this here wasn’t just some supervisor, no, somebody had gotten word to the airport brass that there might be trouble down here at the front door and they sent somebody out who could handle himself. Boss Man didn’t even look at the screen, he just guided me over to a table and had peaches and cream to empty the bag. He knew I was Army, just like I recognized the military in him. He painted a smile on his face--not at all the same reaction as his knucklehead boy still ice grilling me behind the scanner--but the situation was still too tense for me by a damned sight. Peaches found what they were looking for pretty quick: wasn’t hashish, turned out it was my service piece, the .45 I carry with me the way most cats carry a comb. Boss Man pulled me a little further aside. “Your identification, please?” I gave him my passport. He pointed at the .45 twice with his first finger and smiled at me like I was a child. “No, I need the identification that says you are Army. United States Army, right?” “Uh….yeah.” I reached into my wallet and pulled out my DoD identification. He took it and his eyes moved quickly back and forth between my face and the picture. Over his shoulder the young fella at the scanner had progressed to giving me that hard look you’ll get in these countries when you’ve shown the bottom of your feet at dinner or flirted with somebody’s cousin. I could also see Peaches looking away and blushing, the power in that ID was turning her on. Boss is my best friend in the world now I’m made. “This is .45 caliber, no? Sig….?” “Sig.” It ain’t no Sig, but I didn’t trust his English, and this wasn’t the right time to confuse him. He held it up in the light, balancing it in his hands. In Tikrit, I’d have thought about killing him for fondling my weapon like that, but here in this little airport under all these lights with the McDonald’s hash browns bubbling in my stomach and my arm hurting, I just wanted to get on the plane. “You have been to Iraq, yes?” “Yes.” “It is dangerous, no? Well, welcome back to life, my friend.” He handed me back the gun and rubbed his hands together in a real delicate way, like he’d gotten some fairy dust on them. I turned around to see that Peaches had repackaged my bag while the young boy had moved on to making life tough on some Germans trying to carry a guitar case into the airport. Boss Man waved a hand in my face to get my attention. “You better check in for your flight over there. You go to America, yes? Thank you for visiting Qatar.” The flight from Qatar to Dubai is a puddle jumper, although Emirates Air is real nice, with these stewardesses from all over the world: ours were from Poland and Australia and Hong Kong, and that’s nice too; the stewardesses were jazzy and reminded me what I’ve been fighting for, I guess. It still felt a little like I was still going through normal routine, I guess I expected to land at the airport in Kirkuk or Baghdad. I knew I was done, but it didn’t really feel like it. When we landed in Dubai, I guess that’s when it hit me I was back for real. You can buy anything you can imagine in that airport and they have a Starbucks there too, not a stand, but a sit-down Starbucks where I paid eight dollars for a triple venti latte, because otherwise I was scared I would have passed out and missed my flight. That airport in Dubai, it’s real wild, it’s like the jump-off for the world. On the one hand, you got dudes walking around in robes and towels on their heads on their way to pray, and on the other hand you got Eastern European women walking around in torn booty shorts and halter tops on their way to sell pussy. What the hoes and the haajis have in common is that they’re not wearing any drawers. I had a couple of hours before my flight, so I headed down to the duty free. My thought was to buy something for Felicia, you know, but halfway down the elevator to the duty free level, I got mad, fuck her, she took my money, why am I buying her shit? I got so mad I swung my good arm around toward the ground, you know, and yelled a little bit, and almost hit a couple of those dudes in the sheets. They jumped to the side and started screaming at me a little, most all of them have these weird quick tempers. I had to say “sorry” and try to calm then down, talking to them real calm with my arms extended palms down like I was at the gate working security. I guess it worked, they walked off mumbling in Arabic or Farsi or whatever. I walked over close to a window to try to call Felicia again, since I wasn’t worked up anymore. The sun was so bright and outside all of these planes were on the runway, these big planes with humps in the front of them, decorated with the flags of countries you don’t think of as having train tracks, much less airlines. I called Felicia’s cell number from the cell phone I had, and when I thought about it later, I know what happened. The country code must have come up different, you know, the whole international number doesn’t come up on a cell phone, you just get the ten digits like normal, or maybe eleven, and the phone Sumitomo gave me had a Texas area code; this is what I’m sure she got on her caller i.d., and that’s why I think she picked up. “Hello?” It was her voice, right, but it didn’t quite sound like her….. “Felicia…Felicia…” I was standing there at the huge window in the airport with my finger in my ear, walking back and forth with my elbow out to the side in the air. “Hello?” There was very little static, I know she heard me. “It’s me, babe. It’s James.” “Oh.” She just said, “oh,” just like that. In the background I heard a high voice--I couldn’t tell if it was a feminine dude or a masculine woman--say very clearly, “Girl you don’t have to….” That voice sounded like it was on top of things, like it was in control. “I know, I know,” Felicia said, and then she hung up. I was still standing there with my finger in my ear. “FELICIA! FELICIA!” I wanted to throw the phone, I wanted to break the big window where all the planes were and jump out on my head or my shoulder, really hurt myself so that I could wake up in a hospital room, all bandaged up but not from combat and she would be there and know it was her fault, that I was hurt because of her, and she would be sorry. I didn’t throw the phone of course, that wouldn’t have done any good. I just went and got in line for my flight. My whole body felt electric, like I had a socket between my shoulder blades and somebody had just plugged me into the wall. Getting on the plane made it worse, I shook and jittered down the aisle, thank God I had a window seat, I was thinking, and then I sat down and somebody sat next to me on the aisle and oh boy. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, you could see I made him nervous the way I was all scrunched up there in the window seat sweating because of the heat from the desert outside leaking into the plane and the sun coming in the window and the freak out while we were waiting to take off. I wanted to get off the plane, run out onto the wing, to bite down hard and scream right there into my seat. I rocked back and forth a little bit, I swear I thought I was going to lose it completely, but I kept my cool and we made it off the ground. Buddy next to me pulled on a sleep mask, leaned back and he was out. I hated him for that, oily skinned bastard, just laid out there while I was tripping. Finally, the Emirates stewardess came down the aisle, she looked Greek or Turkish, a goddess, and asked me if I needed anything. “Yes, Crown Royal please. Two of those little bottles if you can spare them, please m’am?” Maybe it’s my Southern accent, maybe it’s the m’am that does it to them, makes them give me what I want. She brought two of those little bottles of Crown to me, I tossed them both back and suddenly the plug got pulled on the live wire between my shoulders and I felt so much better. On her way back down the aisle, she gave me another little bottle—I guess I must have looked like I still needed it. I told her thank you, she told me I was very welcome. I sat there thinking things through--I decided maybe I would kill Felicia and take the baby to Canada--right up to the point where I fell off to sleep. The little ding-ding noise with about fifteen minutes left in the flight is what woke me up. I grabbed for my rifle, was groping around for it, I couldn’t find it, and then I opened my eyes and there I was not on canvas or hard metal or plastic, but on a padded seat. I swear it felt like my shoulder was going to fall off the peg. I had twisted around in my sleep, you see, moved my legs around to give them a little more room and put all that weight on my shoulder. I don’t know how the pain didn’t wake me up, but I felt like I was about to pass out, I had to vomit and I was dizzy. I actually did throw up in my mouth a little bit, but swallowed it down, only letting loose a burp that was so foul that I just knew it was going to give my man on the aisle hell. He was still under his sleep mask, but his nose wrinkled up and I put my good arm up quick to turn on the little air nozzle up above because I didn’t want him to know it was me. It seemed like it took us forever to touch down in Amsterdam, we were in a holding pattern or something, and my shoulder was screaming at me. I wanted a Percocet but I couldn’t remember how how many I’d taken and couldn’t face the thought of being in another airport crowd without being aware of my situation and my surroundings. The layover was an hour, I could make it through the pain I thought. As for the stress, I didn’t know what I was going to do (I was starting to get that prickly feeling in my back again) until I remembered that third little bottle of Crown. I took little pulls on it—I got to the end of it about the time we made it to the ground, there was an immediate buzz and it seemed like I was going to be squared away. I got off the plane and made it through customs no problem. This was the European Union, as long as you were from the U.S. you were fine, and U.S. military was even better. They hardly glanced at my stuff, all my documents said I was going straight through to Chicago; I mean, I could have broken out of the airport and gone into town to wreak havoc on their restaurants and women, but I was just trying to get home, they knew that. It really felt like I was in one big pipe that picked me up in the Middle East and would spit me out back home amongst my people where there was Luther Vandross and gumbo. I went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and the way I looked, if I was an airport cop, I’d have pulled me aside and asked me some hard questions about drug use right about then, checked my torso for duct tape and my stomach for plastic baggies. I’m just saying I looked like I felt. Whatever. This time I knew I wasn’t going to call her, couldn’t call her. She wasn’t around, so I was going to have to learn to lean on who I could lean on. I called Mama’s house again and Pops picked up sounding all sleepy. “Hello?” “It’s me, Pops. I’m in Amsterdam. What’s happening? Is it early there?” “No, it’s fine, I was sleep but I needed to get up. Go ahead, what’s up?” Cool as a fan, you know. “I need to ask you a favor?” I was trying to get a grip, here. “What you need?” When I talk to him, it always calms me down. I think it’s because our voices sound just alike. From inside my head, I can’t hear it, but when I talk to him, it sounds like he’s saying what I’d say how I’d say it, the same rhythm. He always sounds so calm on the phone. I wonder if it works the same for him. If I help him get his cool back, too, when he’s going through it? I can’t ever tell he’s going through it, although sometimes he tells me he was tripping, way after the fact. “I need a ride. I can’t find her….” I stopped there because I couldn’t catch my breath. “I know. I already talked to your Mama about it. You’re getting in to Jackson at 7:50, on United, right? Flight seven-forty something. I’ll be there to pick you up.” “It’s just that I can’t find…” “I know. I’ll be there at the airport to pick you up.” I was very close to embarrassing both of us. “How did y’all know when I was getting in?” “You know your mama. She called your duty officer at Ft. Polk and got your, whatchacall, your itinerary out of him.” “He gave it to her?” “You know how it is, son. I think she pretended to be your wife or something. So, I’ll be at the baggage claim waiting for you. I’m not gon’ park or nothing, I’ll just ride around until you come out.” “I’ll pay for the parking. I’m gonna need you to come help me with my bag, my arm is about to fall off.” “If you paying for it, I’ll park. Everything else o.k.?” “Yeah, I’m cool.” “All right, I’ll be waiting where you get your bags for you.” In the back, I heard Mama say something. He didn’t wait for me to respond, next thing I knew he was gone to tend to his own house. When I got on that plane to Chicago, I was for sure tired of holding it together. The plane wasn’t very full; I thank God for that, because if I had to prop up on another flight, leaned against the wall of the plane, I probably would have lost my shit completely. I popped a couple of the Percs and an Ambien, and I knew I was playing it a little too close to that Crown, but there was only so much I could take, only so much I was prepared to hurt, I was tired of being conscious. I remember the stewardess giving me a pillow as she came down the aisle, maybe I asked her for one, and as soon as we took off I lay down on the seat, on my good right arm and the pillow, my head toward the window. I closed my eyes and saw Felicia. I almost didn’t recognize her. Something about the light had her looking young again, like she did when she first moved down from Chicago, you know? I used to have to work to see her; it wasn’t like we had class together. The school was big enough that you didn’t even see people in your same grade every day, and she was a grade below me. I met her when we had driver’s ed. together for about a week before I changed my class schedule around for basketball; all of us had to take gym sixth period so coach could have us scrimmage without breaking the state law. I didn’t want to leave driver’s ed., boecause if I did, then she was going to date Ricky Simmons, I was sure of it. Ricky had a tight curl and at the time curls were in, he looked like a member of an R&B group and wore two gold herring bone chains that everybody said were 18K. She did hang out with him for a while, you’d see them walking across the courtyard grabbing ass and him carrying her books out the front gates of the school a time or two, but it wasn’t long before she asked me what happened to me, you know, like I was taken off somewhere, like I deserted her by changing class schedules on purpose. So, we dated all of my junior year, and then broke up during the summer when she went back to Chicago to visit her relatives, and there was nothing between us again until we were much older. I don’t remember her looking like this, all young and smooth and new, this must have been her not long after high school. I recognize the hair, she had it short in high school, but she never had it that short again that I knew of, not after I got back from Germany and we reconnected, got back together. In those early years, if I could have tied myself to her and followed her everywhere, I would have. Now, she was older and we were each comfortable with the other’s body and uncomfortable with our own. I tried to put my arm around her shoulder, you know, but I couldn’t quite make the arm reach around. We talked about Jazmine. That’s our baby, Jazmine, all grown up now and out with a family of her own, a life separate and complete. I’m even cool with my son-in-law. Felicia named her all those years ago, had to name her because I wasn’t there. I complain about it still and we laugh, smoothed out by all of these years. Her hair is grey now but silky and fine, she takes care of herself as she always has, better than I do, better than I’m able to. If we were joined at the kidney like two third-world twins I’d just ease through the years I have left, happy, my God, happy.

Chapter 7

I opened my eyes to bright light that stabbed into the back of my brain. There was a mask of some sort over my face and I was strapped to a chair, hands and feet. First rule, try to identify who you’re with, don’t just assume that the company is friendly. I heard American voices, no, they were speaking English with an accent I couldn’t place, so it might not be us, although there was a female voice so it probably wasn’t them either. The Dutch? The Aussies? I couldn’t see around that light, when the world came into focus, wonder of wonders, I was on a jetway. After they unstrapped me a young guy wearing an EMT jacket was asking me if I knew where I was, which I had to say I didn’t. A stewardess was behind him looking mighty concerned. She told me as they wheeled me off the plane that she only got the paramedics after trying to wake me for five minutes. She told me that for a while I had stopped breathing. A whole little crew, EMT, an airport worker and the stewardess walked me to the infirmary area there at O’Hare where they set me up with an IV—the stewardess was still there for liability reasons, I bet, to make sure I didn’t die before the airline could sign me over to someone else. By that time, I was like whatever--all I cared about was that they got me out of there in time to catch my flight to Jackson. I told the EMT about the Percocet and the Crown--he gave me a long lecture about drug interactions and alcohol, hostile kinda like I was a common drunk. I showed him the stitches on my shoulder and asked him to check them for me; I thought they might have opened up when I was strapped to the chair. He asked me how I got them, I told him, and the temperature in the room changed in a hurry. The stew ran out of the room like something was burning on a stove in the other room while the EMT un-wrapped my bandages all gentle and slow and swabbed my stitches down. He wrapped me back up, quiet and all the while looking at me like I was somebody who stepped out of the Bible or something. He looks at me, and says, “We want you to know how much we appreciate what you guys are doing for us over there.” I just nodded, you know, I mean what can you say to that? Something like, “we appreciate you keeping the lights on for us here and fucking our wives while we’re gone?” No, you can’t say that, and it wouldn’t be fair. I knew most of what I was getting into when I signed up at the recruitment office next to the beauty supply shop in the strip mall. Not all of it, but I had a clue. I just told him, “Thank you.” “No, thank you,” is what he came back with. All I could do was put my head down and grin. I realized that he was holding my hand. The stewardess came rushing back in the room all out of breath to announce that I’d make my flight to Jackson and they’d upgraded me to first class, too, how lucky they are to have me on the airline, and how wonderful it is what I’m doing, what we’re all doing. It was a whole lot in a few minutes; it made me feel like maybe I should have travelled in full dress greens, with all salad on my chest and a hole cut in the sleeve to show my bandage. She was a redhead, tall and pale and lovely with freckles on her nipples I’ll bet, I always did have a thing for stewardesses. Thirty minutes ago she was definitely wondering if I was a drunk who snuck on the plane, and now she was upgrading me. That’s me, fighting for freedom and whatnot--put a nigga in first class, holla at your boy! I probably should have asked her for her number or an e-mail address or something too. That IV did perk me up like you wouldn’t believe, plus the pain had settled down to something I could manage. They brought me my luggage, put me on a cart and drove me through the airport to my gate, even waited for me while they expressed me through customs in the military ID line. SSGT James Trotter, in first class next to executives and rich college bitches sipping orange juice and eating on chocolate cake that looks like it was baked there on board the plane. For the first time in since I can remember, I’m feeling a little hope that maybe I’ll have a reason to wake up tomorrow, maybe I’d turned a corner and get spit up on something that ain’t quite Hell’s beach at the end of the pipe. If I could have hit pause and just lived in that moment, you better believe I would have done it, never gotten any older but never have been pain-free again, if I’d had a guarantee that right then was as bad as it was ever going to get because, believe me, I knew what was coming was going to be a motherfucker. The airport in Jackson is about the size of the one in Doha, maybe a little bigger. Instead of towels and kebabs, there’s jheri curls and pulled pork sandwiches in the lobby, and I was glad to be back on familiar ground. Pops was standing at the bottom of the elevator when I got down to baggage claim. He gave me a strong hug and a handshake, he’s good for that, asked after my arm and everything, and then we stood there silently waiting for my luggage. Right next to us was a soldier, young white dude, an E2, in full BDUs without the desert cap. He was being picked up there at the airport by a young lady dressed to kill on a fifty-dollar budget. Maybe they were middle school sweethearts, maybe they met while he was deployed and he Internet romanced her, typing romantic shit to her until he could finally come home smelling like crude oil and Gold Bond powder. Here she was, prepared to give him the night of his life, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. She wore a hot pink sweater, a miniskirt, long legs; youth and enthusiasm were definitely what she was about, the night of his life, soldier boy just in from the sandbox on a Friday evening, seventy-two hours until he had to report, welcome, welcome, and welcome. We both watched them, me and Pops, but I didn’t look at Pops and he wouldn’t look at me--there wasn’t too much to say. That was you or it wasn’t, it wasn’t either of us, never had been. He had my Yukon parked outside. We carried my gear out to the parking garage in one of those little carts you can get for $1.50. He was being as careful with me as he could: he knocked my hand away when I tried to lift my bags off the cart into the back. “She left the truck, huh?” “You see it here, don’t you? It’s been sitting at the house for a couple of weeks. She brought it over and left the keys.” “She gave them to you?” “No. To your mama. I wasn’t there. She had been having a little trouble with it, it was leaking water. They say it overheated on her a couple weeks ago on Lincoln Road, your Mama’s cousin Rob seen her over there fooling with it by the side of the road. I had to replace the water hose that go to the radiator. You got the money for this parking, right?” He had gotten into it all he was going to that night, there was no smoking him out. The ride between the airport and Mama’s house is an hour and a half, and though it was late, he wasn’t in no hurry, I guess I wasn’t either. Of course he knew there wasn’t nothing at home for me, and I had a suspicion, even then. We talked about the weather, and he asked me a bunch of questions about his army and how it had changed. He wanted to know about the infrared, the bulletproof vests, how we handled the brass and whether we still ran whores for them like he did when he was in. He wanted to know what had happened and what was going on, but he wasn’t asking at a high level, he didn’t want to know about the philosophy behind the whole thing. He did try to talk to me about what I would experience in the days to come, how coming home had affected him, and how it would likely affect me. He told me it took him a year to stop hitting the ground when a car backfired, a lot less time to get used to people dropping plates. He still hadn’t stopped dreaming about it, but after a few years, it stopped waking him up, he could go to the jungle in his dreams without waking up in a sweat needing a glass of whiskey to go back to sleep. He still couldn’t stand for people to creep up on him, but then again, he’d done thirty-eight months, so maybe it would be different for me. It was funny, riding with Pops and seeing doors open in his mind, the doors that, lets be honest, I joined up wanting to open. He was the man to me growing up, I wanted to prove to him that I was worthy of his crown when he passed it on, and I have to say it felt nice that he opened up, more so that it surprised me that it felt that nice. I remembered also that he held a marriage together for thirty-five years, too, so let’s not feel to proud yet, huh son? We were quiet for the last half of the trip, we never did talk too much when we rode together. It struck me how much Highway 49 looked like the main road between Baghdad and Tikrit, trees and fields and the dirt roads heading off to nowhere that was somewhere to Ali Baba or a redneck. There were things I missed about Iraq, too: the bright orange fireballs from the oil rigs that we didn’t cap when Saddam’s boys pulled back, the changes in elevation as the road weaved through rocks and military checkpoints—but then again there were things you didn’t see anywhere else but home: big gas stations lit up like Christmas every few miles or so, and once a huge cross set back in a field lit up with floodlights that made it look like the scene of the crime, Christ himself had just climbed down and gone to the gas station for some Doritos. We pulled up to my parents’ crib where Pops put the Yukon in Park and stuck out his hand. “Well, this is it for me. Good to have you back more or less in one piece, son.” “Thanks, Pops.” “When you got to be back at Polk?” “I got a week. I’ll just call in a few days, but I’m on leave.” “Yeah, we used to have to report in right away. Y’all got it good, huh?” He sat in seat with the door open for a long second, one leg stretched out on the pavement, rubbing his knee, his eyes focused on the center console. “You’ll be all right at your house. I went in and checked everything for you, your water and your air and your lights all work. If you need something, you call, right?” “Yeah. I really do appreciate this, man.” “Not at all. It’s blood, blood. Get it?” He held out his hand and gave me some kind of ‘70s soul shake, then got out and walked around the back of the truck toward the front door. I climbed across the console from one seat to the other. Just as he was walking up the steps, I thought to let the passenger’s side window down. “I need to come in and holla at Mama?” “Lord, no! She’s sleep now, let’s leave her that way. She’ll touch base with you tomorrow. What I was gonna say is…” He came back down the steps and stepped to the passenger’s door. He leaned into the car with his arms folded on the empty space where the window had been—his breath smelled like Coca-Cola. “He’s a queer. The dude she was running round with. I a’int saying nothing is going on between them, but I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else first. Now go get some sleep, son.” He stood up, stretched, and went inside the house, through the living room where I used to play video games, past the kitchen where I used to eat Froot Loops, past my old room where my trophies were still on the dresser, into the bedroom where my mama was snoring. I drove across town to where Felicia lived, where I lived when I was in Hattiesburg, off Lincoln Road, the Park View Apartments. Usually after I’d been gone for a long time, I’d take the long way home and see how things had changed, go by the high school and see what we were doing to keep up with the county schools, see what restaurants and stores were new on Hardy Street. But that night, I just drove straight home, and when I got home, I didn’t remember how I’d gotten there. The complex wasn’t far from the University; it was deserted when I turned into it, most of the college students who lived there having gone home for the summer to Pascagoula or Petal, Lumberton or Pensacola. I locked the truck and hauled my bag into the house—Pops was right not to have let me carry it because by the time I got in the door my arm was hurting pretty good. I turned on the lights, it was as I remembered it, the life I hadn’t quite lived in an apartment which wasn’t quite mine, but I could still recognize the outlines of everything. My certificates and awards were still on the wall, but there weren’t any pictures, no trace of Felicia and the baby, no trace of Felicia and me. When I walked into the bathroom, there were little rings on the sink and the vanity from where her perfumes and lotions had sat. The bedroom still smelled like her, I sniffed at the air to see if it was only her, to see if I could smell traces of another man in the air like gunpowder after a battle, but all I smelled was mold and the last tiny hint of her perfume, and that only when I first walked in the bedroom. The bed was made and I snatched the sheets back, looking away at first, finally examining them closely, my stomach bubbling and popping as I looked for odd hairs and stains. The caller ID had been cleared. I considered calling the phone company and asking them for a record of the last ten calls, thought about calling right away to ask the credit card companies about her last ten transactions. “I’m her husband and there’s been a terrible accident, that’s right she’s dead in a ditch somewhere, I’m her husband, the last four digits of her social are 8178.” I could track her butt down, I’m a cop, I could do it, maybe even before morning…but for what? My old cell phone from before I left was there on the coffee table. It was charged, I was able to check my voicemail but there were no messages from her. Just on an impulse, I hit the speed dial #1. That was her number, my little nickname for her, “Filetofish,” showed up on the color display so bright and familiar that it was almost like she was down the street waiting for me to call. The call went through, so much quicker than on a satellite phone, quicker even than it had in Dubai, it rang one time and there was a pick-up, and a commotion on the other end of the line, and then dead space. I tried again, got two rings, then voicemail. Again, straight to voicemail. Again, voicemail. Again, voicemail. Again, voicemail. I didn’t throw the phone. I kept on scrolling through the numbers, none of them very interesting, until I got to Tabby’s number. “You’re here….” She sounded sleepy, sexy as hell, but not surprised. I wasn’t really ready--I hadn’t seen her in person in a couple of years, so I couldn’t begin to picture what she looked like, what the air felt like in the bedroom surrounding her. She was immediate and sudden and here now, all that flirting and—now, I didn’t want to see her really; I thought I just wanted to talk. I thought I needed her voice to distract me because I was afraid to go to sleep, nervous about my dreams, scared to death of the walls and the bathmat and whether another man’s drawers might have fallen behind the washing machine. “Yeah.” Nothing buried in it, it was just a word. No promises, no lead-on, just information. I’m sure I was flat with it. “You’re still awake.” Her voice was working its way toward me, trying to find me at the bottom of a dark tunnel. Every second of this conversation brought me closer to the door of sleep. I hadn’t hung up on her yet only because her voice was so soothing, because it made me feel like a natural and dreamless sleep was possible. “I’m dead tired.” “I can hear it, sweetie…” “It’s almost too late for me.” Almost. Neither of us said anything for almost too long. I could just hear her breathing. If I hung up at that point it wasn’t an offer, I wouldn’t see her; if I told her to come over it was definitely on me, but if I said nothing… “And your wife? She’s not with you?” “Naw.” “So could you leave your door open.” Her voice was firm and warm. “Is that what you want?” “Yes. Will you still be up?” “Maybe. You know where I live?” “Off Lincoln Road, in those apartments….I just need to know what apartment number.” “7A.” “Are you going to fall asleep before I get there?” “I might.” “Well, leave the door open. I just want to see you. Try to stay awake. Promise?” “I’ll try.” What could I promise her? She hung up and I couldn’t turn back now, I was going to have to play it out. I went in the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I wouldn’t pass parade muster, but I’d been traveling: that had to count for something. I didn’t really like the way I smelled under my arms, and I know I caught some extra sour funk rising out my crotch. It was a dilemma, no doubt about it, to wash or not to wash my ass? I wouldn’t have showered at this point in the desert, plus I didn’t like the idea of going into the apartment bathtub and standing under that shower. Matter of fact, it scared hell out of me about like a child’s monster closet. A man in my situation doesn’t want to take a close look at the bathroom, doesn’t want to flip over the bar of soap worn down in the middle by dripping water and large hands, or dig into the drain filled with gray debris. People who are carrying on some illicit sexual shit clean the bedroom, make the beds and fluff the pillows, but the tub and the toilet are where people are at their most gangster--scars, turds, pus and vomit--and so they never really clean evidence in those areas. I know what Felicia’s pubic hair looks like--damn right I ought to know--but how would I handle it if I found some little curlies that weren’t hers or mine embedded in the soap or whirlpooling around the drain? The dilemma: what if Tabby came in the door and she had been the one for me the whole time and I smelled like I worked on a road gang? Less than twenty-four hours since I flushed an honest to God fucking ear down a toilet and here my stomach was doing somersaults over a hair in the soap that might not be there—that bathroom might as well have been a gas chamber. Still, wouldn’t I want to be scrubbed down? Wouldn’t she just feel I had been home long enough to wash my ass and scrub my balls? I found a clean towel in the closet and hopped in the shower. I got caught up in making sure I didn’t get the stitches wet, so I found I didn’t have to care about finding some other man’s leavings in my bathroom, that any pubics were washed down the drain by the time I thought to look and there couldn’t be any strange hair in the soap, since all there was was liquid body wash instead of a bar. Forensics wouldn’t have come up with much, except for maybe on the loofah which she and he no doubt used to apply the body wash on each other. I poured a big pool of body wash in my hand and wiped my ass with it, and my balls and penis and underarms (both with the same hand, I’m flexible) and neck and feet. At the time I told myself that I poured the soap in my hand so that I wouldn’t get too comfortable and fool around and get my stitches wet, but really to tell the truth I was afraid of the loofah. Folks see a pair of Army shorts and they think Uncle Sam just gave them to all of us soldiers like we play ball for the Army team. Well, we buy this stuff at the PX, I have several pairs of the Army shorts and several Army T-shirts. You might say I’ve got esprit or something, but you’d be wrong: I don’t give a shit about the Army, really --I’m just lazy and it’s cheap gear. I put on a pair of the black shorts--“ARMY” in white block letters on the left leg--and a gray shirt with black letters across the chest, then sat on the couch to wait for her, watching videos on BET with the volume muted and trying not to fool with the bandage on my arm or call her to ask, “where the fuck are you, Tabby?” When you get married, you forget how booty calls work; forget that the person always takes longer than they say they’ll take, you want to call them to harass them like you’d do your wife. Thirty-seven minutes later I’m just about to pick up my cell phone when there’s a quiet knock at the door, so quiet I couldn’t swear there was an actual knock, but I got up and went to the door anyway. I opened it and there she was swatting mosquitoes, looking at me like it was just yesterday we seen each other last. I’m here to tell you, she looked good. I didn’t remember her looking that good. She didn’t hug me, just walked inside, she walked right past me. She smelled like she had just gotten out of bed after a nap. I closed my eyes and sniffed the air behind her as she walked past, took a deep breath to draw it into my nose: I could see her bed with the frilly pillows and the nice mattress and maybe a stuffed animal or two. Her bedroom would be safe and air-conditioned, the bed raised maybe three feet off the floor, with a canopy. She had oatmeal and granola bars in her cabinets and if I asked her to, she would buy popsicles and ice cream for me and keep them in the fridge. She would buy me fuzzy slippers and a cotton housecoat; I would rub her feet with warm oil when she got home from work as well as see that she had the good windshield wiper blades on her car, because oil accumulates on the windshield and next thing she knew she’d be riding down the street and wouldn’t be able to see if a sudden rain came—she might end up in a ditch and then what would people say about me? We would go out together to Chesterfield’s or wherever people go and folks would whisper about us, “look, she’s on T.V, she does the news, she’s so pretty, but who’s that guy with her?” She was somebody, I guess, and she looked it, sitting there on the couch in my little lonely apartment, looking around to see how I was living, to see how I had been left. I followed her eyes around the her, hoping she wasn’t thinking she could do better because it was definitely what I was thinking. I wanted to press reset on the box and start my life again. Just wake up tomorrow with Tabby by my side, I would move my shit over to her house tomorrow after fucking hell out of her through the night by way of saying goodbye to my dingy apartment. She sat down on the couch, close to the edge with her knees to the side and her feet bent up under her. She suddenly looked nervous, which I never knew her to be nervous. My mouth was dry and it struck me that if I went into the kitchen and poured us some water, it would give her time to think, to run away if she wanted to. “You need anything to drink?” “What do you have?” “I don’t really know.” We used to keep some drink over the microwave in the kitchen cabinet, behind the cereal. I remember some Hennessey, certainly Bacardi, but now when I moved the Cheerios to the side there was just a half a fifth of Absolut vodka. I dropped a couple of ice cubes in a glass and opened the fridge which was empty but for some Kraft singles, a broken egg in a dingy grey crate, and a carton of orange juice on the lip of which the pulp had hardened into a bright orange crust. I took the juice out and sniffed at it—it didn’t smell sour so I topped the vodka off with it, poured myself a glass of water, and sat down next to her in the corner of the couch. She accepted what I gave and took a swallow out of it. Seem like it relaxed her a bit, you know, she turned to me and smiled. I was ready for anything. She held it longer than she should have, that smile. “Was it tough over there?” She wasn’t really looking at me as she talked, she was looking at the floor, looking into space. “Yes.” “How bad was it? How do you feel now?” “I feel…disoriented, I guess.” “How so?” “You’re over there surrounded by people who want to kill you.” “Does everyone want to kill you there?” She’s on her game, interrogating me; I could feel my body respond with that tension in my shoulders. I was tired, I didn’t want to play anymore, I was so much more tired than she could know, but what can you do when you have a hard dick and your heart has a soft spot? I wanted her and I knew I had to play ball a little to get at her. Tell her enough to satisfy her, not enough to scare her out of the bubble that she lived in—that was a lot of pressure on me. Nobody really does too well under direct questioning, because the longer you play the more you have to lose. Did she want the war to come into this abandoned living room, did she feel she could experience it as foreplay without having to examine Jacobs’ blood stains on the BDUs still folded in the bottom of my bag? “Yes…because we’re American, I guess. I mean, it doesn’t feel like it sitting here, but there’s a whole world out there that would like to kill everybody wearing a uiniform. A whole world.” “Well, we did try to destroy their world. Their way of life.” “No we didn’t.” “A little, we did.” She took another big sip of her drink and looked at me, her eyes half closed. She leaned against the back of the couch, her shoulders resting on the cushion at the top of the couch, her butt sliding out the edge. She stretched her legs out and put her left hand under her knee. Her other hand rubbed in slow motion circles along her thigh. “I would say we just hurt them. Hurt them enough to let them know that we could destroy them if we want to. Nobody likes it when that happens.” “And all for revenge.” “Revenge? For what?” “9/11!” I couldn’t help laughing a little bit and shaking my head. “Al Qaeda did 9/11. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. Iraq may not have had anything to do with it.” “Well, that was just the justification we used.” “Well, I can see that that’s what people believe. Still, from a practical standpoint, it was something we probably had to do. I mean, somebody had to tell the people something, but I’m not buying anything about revenge.” “A practical standpoint? What was the practical reason?” She sat up a bit now, leaned in toward me. There was nothing seductive about her but her smell, and the way her skin looked, and the way her blouse was open down a couple of buttons so that I could see her chest almost to the curve. “Pax Americanus.” “I’ve never heard of that.” “We live in an empire, sweetie. We are a strong country. Oil is the resource that makes us strong, makes the wheels turn. We are sitting, now, on top of the largest reserve in the Middle East.” “Well, I don’t think it’s right. We ought to get off oil.” “Right. You drink Coke?” “Diet Coke.” She winked at me. “Well, how do you think it gets to you? It don’t walk itself here, and it’s not even produced locally. What you driving these days?” “A Navigator.” “What’s that get, miles to the gallon?” “Well, I ought to change. They’re selling those new cars, those hybrids, maybe next time I’ll get one of those.” She leaned back again, running her finger around the rim of her glass, like little children do with crystal to make it sing. “You know they cost as much as that Navigator and don’t look as good?” “I still should buy one, after my lease is up.” She pushed at my thigh with her hand and left it there. I wish I had more energy, there is so much more I should have done to her by then. All this talk; if I’d had more energy maybe it all would have gone a different way. I hadn’t moved this whole time, squeezed into the corner of the couch as I was--I was tired and dopey, so all I did was put my hand on hers and keep talking like a jerk. “You won’t do it.” “Well, I think someone should pass a law making people understand this.” “What, a law raising the price of oil? A tax something?” “They do it in Europe.” “Well, the Euros haven’t been to war for it. Whoever makes that law is a dead man come next election time, him and his whole party.” “So you’re for the war.” “I don’t think I would say that.” “What are you saying? You’re a Republican?” “I wouldn’t say that either. I just do my job.” “Well, I don’t think it’s right, not if we’re doing it for the reasons you say. For 9/11, yes, but I don’t know that I like this other.” “What do I know? This is why I don’t talk about politics.” “I don’t know enough about it, I guess, and it bores me.” She finished off her drink, squeezed my leg, sighed, put her cup on the floor, and then leaned back on the couch. Her hand remained on my leg during this operation, halfway between my hip and my knee, her fingers hanging down inside my thigh. I stared at dark red fingernails and felt out of breath—it was like the entire room was holding its breath, maybe the world outside was too, everything turning blue and getting ready to cough. I looked at the clock on the wall. I couldn’t see the second hand, and then when I did see it, it seemed like it wasn’t moving and I was afraid that time had finally given up. After I caught the hand’s movement I no longer felt that my lungs were burning, I wasn’t blacking out, what was left was a tingly sensation around my shoulders. I burrowed further back into the corner of the couch. She looked at me, waiting. “What you looking at me like that for?” I felt the time had come for me to push up out of my corner. I hoped she didn’t see the sweat on my forehead, maybe just a drop or two. I was worried about stains under my arms. “I’m waiting for you to tell me that you miss me, and you’ve come home forever to be with me.” Her lips formed a little sexy pout. “Yeah, well, that time might just be here.” “Are you serious? You might really come home for good?” “Well, it’s time for me to re-up or not. I don’t know, I’m leaning away right now.” “Well, that’s good news.” Now she was looking as smoky as it’s possible for her to look--I wouldn’t really call it seductive or nothing, but it was enough. She leaned in and gave up her lips to me, eyes closed, and so I thought “what the hell?” I leaned over more than halfway and kissed her. It took a lot of painful effort, but I didn’t let on it hurt too much, I don’t think. There was no tongue; she didn’t open her lips, didn’t invite me in. After the kiss she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, so I really went for her neck, kissing the front, working my way around to the side, down her collar bone, felt her body get stiff and her breath come quicker. She didn’t move, exactly, maybe she gripped my thigh again, we stayed like that for a while, my lips on her neck here and there, her breathing and moaning to let me know she was still there, still awake. I wasn’t feeling what I had expected to feel, I thought, well, if I just put my hand on her nipple, maybe I can get excited, get to the point where I want to unbutton and pull it out and all the rest, you know? I brushed my palm against her nipple, she arched her back, her breath came out in a rush. It smelled slightly foul, sour; like the orange juice had turned the moment it hit her stomach. She didn’t move, she went stiff as a board, and when I went to pull down her blouse, she let me make five seconds of contact with my hand against her bare nipple before she stopped me. “I’m not sure we’re ready for this,” she says, very business-like. She’d always been just a little too fly, a little too Hollywood, if only in her own mind. We had been in this situation before, years ago in a hotel room in Montgomery which I had driven to at a hundred miles an hour after a lot of late night phone calls when I was younger and wilder and would drive four hours for a night of tickle and kiss, happy to leave without even busting a nut to drive back to Ft. MacPherson to yawn my way through guard duty. That shit got old, and it was exactly the kind of experience I married Felicia to avoid, you understand. Married men have reminisces about their single life like it was all wine and roses, but stick a toe back in the river of single life and it’ll usually come out smelling like shit. What had made Tabby reach out to me in Iraq and fill my head with fantasies—what had made me write back to her knowing that she was for all the bullshit? The notion of coming home to her had ended up being part of what I was fighting for, and now to think that I went through all that shit; that I flew halfway across the world only to deal with a woman who just had to drive across town to sit there in my own house and tell me: “I think we just need to take it slow….I….I just need to get used to you again.” Man……shit. I covered my face with my hand, you know, and what did I feel? Tired. I felt her start rubbing my shoulder without a whole lot of pressure, and after a while the tingly sensation was back in full force, had moved from my shoulders to wherever her palm traveled on my body. It felt like her palm was a belt sander and she was rubbing my arm down to the white meat. I wanted to break her hand. I wanted to shove my fingers into her eye sockets and blind this bitch. But mostly, I just wanted to go to sleep. Still, that hand rubbed my skin away, down through the muscle right into a pool of nerves. You hoped that it would hit the bone and she would stop, or she’d just rub on through the arm and eventually rub her way on through the couch and into the carpet. Honestly, the way she was rubbing it began to seem like she had a nervous condition or something. “Are you o.k.? You want to talk about what you experienced over there?” Her voice was liquid, tears couldn’t be far away. “No, I don’t want to talk about it. And as a matter of fact, I’ve got an early morning tomorrow, so I gotta get to bed.” The hand stopped rubbing, but stayed on my arm. I fantasized about tossing her against the wall to get her hand off me. “Do you want me to stay here with you?” She started rubbing again. I jerked my arm and knocked her hand off me—I’m ashamed of it, but I couldn’t control it. What would you do if you thought someone really was trying to hurt you? I mean how could she not know how much that rubbing was stressing me the fuck out? So, I knocked her hand off my arm, and we sat there staring at each other, both of us mad as hell. She held my eyes as long as she could, then she looked down to gather up her purse and slip her shoes back on. She picked up the glass stained with orange pulp and swung in a wide circle to avoid my legs as she took it to the kitchen. I heard water running in there for a long time. When she came back into the living room, she was still crying a little bit and wouldn’t look at me; she just walked toward the door. I got up quick and met her there. I tried to pull her to me but she pushed me away, and all the while she wouldn’t look at me until she got outside. She swatted at the bugs circling her head with that perfect perm and those blonde highlights catching the light from the security pole across the parking lot—she looked so beautiful outside that I wanted her to stay, I wanted to pull her back into the room and tell her I loved her; but I wouldn’t have meant it, she wouldn’t have believed me, it was all too late. “Look, I’m sorry.” “I hope you feel better. You can call me if you want.” Her voice was soft, maybe even sincere. “Call me when you get home to let me know you got there safe.” She reached out, grabbed my hand and shook it, got in her truck, and pulled out. I returned to my corner of the couch, watching Goodfellas on HBO (the cable still on, toothpaste in the bathroom, paper towels in the kitchen: I felt like the lone survivor in a movie where the aliens come and everyone else just disappears with dinner still on the table). After an hour of watching the phone stay silent on the coffee table, I finally had to put it under the couch so it couldn’t hurt me anymore. I had every intention of staying up to watch Full Metal Jacket afterward, but it just so happened that right after they pulled the Lufthansa heist, I woke up to find it was 1018. I had a bad reaction--I guess it was shock--to seeing our place, which was no longer our place, in broad daylight. I got the sharpest pain in my stomach; after it went away I felt no better but turned my head into the arm of the couch and screamed and screamed. The tears wouldn’t come—I just felt dry in there where the water usually comes from; the pump was on, but no water would come. Dehydration, I guess.

Chapter 8

There came a strong knock at the door a half hour later, when I was lost in the abyss. I was watching Jerry Springer and wishing evil shit on Felicia. For example: let’s say she and I had been fool enough to go on Jerry Springer to put our shit on blast, I would have heard her and dude declare their love, calmly taken my belt off, looped it around my own neck and then Tarzaned over to loop the other end of the belt around the neck of Felicia or her man, whoever was closer; yoked us together so that the beefy dudes with the bald heads and the microphone packs on the back of their jeans wouldn’t have a chance to pull me off and away from them before the belt choked out one of them right along with me, a murder suicide. This is how my thoughts were running: I would catch sight of something she left behind out of the corner of her eye, like a hair poking up between the couch cushions, and I would close my eyes and nearly bite my lip in two, I missed her so much. Then I would get mad again and think of the belt making her face turning purple, veins popping out on her neck. I’ve seen people choked out with ordinary materials; I know what happens to a person in those situations. That bitch took my daughter, and I love them both so much and so on and so forth. My plan was to sit there all day on the couch until darkness came, when I would take two Percocet, two Xanax, and three Ambien, chased with the left over vodka left over because really what was I trying to stay awake for now? I was living for seven o’clock, maybe seven-thirty. Maybe I could order a pizza, hopefully find enough interesting on T.V. to last me to the end of the day--as long as I didn’t have to go out or see anybody I’d be straight. Of course, when I formulated my plan, I neglected to factor in my area of operations. I forgot where I was: I was in Mississippi, and Misssissippi niggadom sent its advance man, my Mama, to come shake my shit up. I was home, the word was out. The truest sign I was really tripping was that I thought they would leave me alone to get my shit right on my own. Mama knocked, and knocked, and knocked some more, knocked calling my name to wake the dead until I answered the door. She pushed right past me into the apartment—she stumbled around in the darkness and then backed up a few paces to where she could look me up and down. She shook her head, and held out her arms. I was lukewarm about it but she hugged me tight, leaned backed to look at me again and said “mmm, mmm, mmm,” shaking her head. “Stay right there, don’t move,” she whispered. She disappeared into the bathroom, leaving me in the living room feeling naked because she left the front door all open so that anybody outside could see into my little hole. I didn’t know if she meant to leave the door open or not, I was scared to move since she told me to stand still. She was gone for a such a long time that I went to the door to close out the sunshine only to be interrupted by the sound of the toilet flushing and her elbowing me in my ribs and slapping my hand off the door knob. “Leave that door open, James; it smells all close in here. You’ve lost a lot of weight…are you sure you don’t have some kind of parasite? Now, just what are your plans for the day?” She looked good, that’s the first thing I thought; naturally it made me feel worse about myself. People say I look like her, and people say I look like Pops. I think it depends on which one they see me with. I’m too close to me to really say for sure which one I look like. I get my height from her. When I deployed, she’d looked a little on the rough side, I think she and Pops had been going through it—they don’t always talk to us kids when they go to war but I can always tell more by looking at her than I can by looking at him, she’ll let it hang out more. She’d lost weight since I saw her last, for one, and her hair was done (short on top but somebody was lining her up in the back). Pops had mentioned he got an increase in his disabled status, he was 100% DAV on top of the secret stash she had. Looking at her it was obvious the lick had come in. She had Pops in line, money in the bank: she could afford to be gracious in my time of need. “Well?” “I didn’t really have any.” I tried not to kick at the ground with my feet. “Well, you get your things together and come on out of this house. It smells in here. We’re having a little barbecue this afternoon. It’s your sister’s birthday weekend, did you forget? She makes twenty-six this year. We’re gonna celebrate you being home, too, she won’t mind! You didn’t think we were just going to let come home and sit here by yourself, did you?” As she was talking she was walking into the bedroom. “James Maurice Trotter! You haven’t even unpacked? What were you in here doing?” Now I was looking at the ground. “I was just sitting here watching T.V. I was going to get around to it.” “What’s in the duffel bag? Stuff you can wear that’s casual?” “Yes m’am. My dress stuff is in this hanging bag.” “Well, grab the duffel bag and let’s go, son!” Somehow she was standing outside the door, framed by the sun and the heat with her hand on her hip, waiting for me. I didn’t argue with her, but did as she said the best I could until she caught me wincing as I carried the bag to the door. She grabbed part of it with me, pulling it down off my right shoulder between us and we carried it together to her car. We wrestled it into the trunk, I wasn’t nearly as strong as the night before. “You’ve come back here all weak…you can get in the car on your own, right?” I didn’t say a thing, just walked to the passenger side and got in, she was already in the car stabbing at the air-conditioning, and we were off. She was on her cell phone immediately; she had of those tiny headsets attached to her ear, sometimes she was calling, sometimes she was being called, the whole ride was one non-stop conversation over the air-conditioning. “Yeah, girl…I went over there…” “Like a pig sty. Well, it was starting to smell like one. Who knows how it would have been?” “Don’t nobody know. Could be anywhere.” “Uh-huh, with the baby.” “She might have been….” And so on all the way to the house. When we got there, Pops came out and gave me a goofy smile before Mama screamed at him to take my bag while at the same time ordering my sister Denise to run over and make the folks at the party favor place hurry up with her order. “Come on in here, James, and take a shower. You smell funky, but I didn’t want to tell you that until you could do something about it. When’s the last time you changed clothes?” “Ain’t those the same ones you had on when I picked you up last night?” Pops offered, probably because he was mad about carrying my gear again. “Lord have mercy! Don’t you have any clean clothes?” We were all in the house where it was cool from the air-conditioning. The living room smelled like pine-oil, potpourri and seasoning salt. Pops carried my bag into my old room, Mama handed me a towel and washcloth and pointed at the bathroom. By the time I looked at myself again after wiping the fog from the mirror, I felt almost like…like…well, almost like feeling good to be home. I stepped out of the bathroom and Pops was walking in the door with a cooler with something sloshing around in it. Mama and Denise were hanging up a banner over the front door that said, “Welcome Home, James!” In my bedroom, I saw that Mama had laid out on the bed whatever clothes she could find in my duffel bag she thought appropriate, right down to the underwear and the socks. Pops was on the couch looking dipped, white shorts and a navy blue button-down (another sign that the lick had come in) trying to steal some time sitting on the couch watching the Braves and the Marlins before he had to go and cook the meat. He got up and poured me some ice tea from a pitcher on the dining room table and we sat there watching for a while. We couldn’t relax—we sat sort of hunched over, trying to hide, but we were found out before long. Mama yelled to him from somewhere in the house to go get the barbecue started and for my lazy butt to go help him. I complained about my arm, she told me to go keep him company anyway so that I wouldn’t be sitting around just doing nothing. Pops had a new gas grill, he used to rave back in the day about the taste of charcoal, when I asked him about the switch he told me this was easier, to have a beer and be glad I was home and shut up. Over the grill and the beer, we talked mostly about Mr. Winborne, our neighbor in the house behind us, who had just built a pool in his back yard and surrounded it with a big fence complete with that green net shit you see at tennis courts—in the last six months, his wife had died, he’d collected a gang of insurance, then immediately got married to a twenty-two year old girl who used to go to Southern but now drove around every in a little BMW and sometimes if you listened real close you could hear moans coming over the wind and maybe that’s what the big fence was for. My sister Denise came out to give me a hug and a glad to see you. I told her Happy Birthday and she mumbled a thank you that might have been sarcastic. I was glad to see her, though; she didn’t look any different, holding an electric blue snowcone in her hands, sucking on it and smacking her lips while she filled in the blanks on our story: Mr. Winborne’s wife was still taking classes over at Southern, there was this foot ball player who might have been what else she was doing, the boy was getting ready for the draft and now she was making Mr. Winborne’s life hell. Pops said he heard them arguing sometimes at night around the moans, that it was good to put the pieces together. Denise said “mmm hmmmm.” We all laughed. “What’s up with you, big brother? Did they tell you about where your wife went?” She didn’t pull any punches, never did, she had a little evil smile on my face when she asked. I know she didn’t usually mean any harm, she knew the situation was a tense one, but I was still her big brother and she couldn’t resist. I stepped right up. “What do you know about it?” She turned her head and laughed a low “heh heh” laugh. “I’m not saying much of anything, I mean, I don’t really know anything.” Pops huddled over the grill like it was a December day in Chicago, not looking at either of us. “What do you know about it? Your young ass, this is grown folks’ business.” I touched her in the gut with that one, I probably shouldn’t have said that last little bit. She snorted, set her jaw, and was off to the races. “C’mon, everybody knows she run off. Everybody. Everybody know who with, too. The funny thing is that you don’t know.” “Yeah, well I was over catching bullets is all…this is some bullshit.” “Oh, poor baby. You off being a hero or whatever, huh? You’re always so fucking good, James, so tough. Maybe if you’d been here to see your baby born, your wife and child would still be inside the city limits! She ran off with your child, bruh! I’ll say it, if won’t nobody else say it. Mama won’t say it, Daddy won’t say it neither. But how can you just stand around here, talking and giggling? If it was me, I’d be on the road now, going to get my daughter!” She was spitting words at me, her face had gotten darker, her hands were clenched into fists—if she’d been that mad at me before, ever, I don’t remember it. “You need to watch your mouth, girl.” I wanted to slap the dog out of her. I remember wondering if she’d said enough yet that I could punch her in the mouth without Pops breaking a beer bottle over my head. “That’s my fucking niece, punk! Where is your pride?!” “O.K. You know you mama don’t allow no cussing in this house.” Pops stood there pointing a chicken breast at Denise on the end of one of those long forks. “You go inside, Denise, and help your Mama with that banana pudding. I don’t want it burnt.” She stared at him, her mouth open like he’d slapped her. “You always take his side! Always!” She stomped off to the kitchen. “I ain’t taking no sides, girl…” he mumbled. He was flustered and poured too much barbecue sauce on the grill. It hissed and smoked, it smelled of burnt sugar and tomatoes. Pops noticed me staring at a little bit of sauce streaked down the front his white shorts. “Doggone it. I just wish…” He poured some water on a cloth he had next to the grill; rubbing it just made the stain worse. I had to pretend I’d gotten some news I didn’t know before, and the worst part is I was starting to realize I’d have to act on what I’d heard. If enough people know about something and are waiting to see what you’ll do, don’t you eventually have to do something? Denise was just the beginning: if this kept up, I could see there wouldn’t be any peace for me. I took a deep breath and started in. “So she left town, huh? Where did she go?” Pops looked at me all exasperated. He threw his hands in the air and dropped his meat tongs. He answered me from ground level while he reached over to pick them up. “Felicia? I don’t know! Well, I know she went off just like you do, but I don’t know exactly….” Some of the neighbors and distant cousins started filtering onto the patio, a group of middle-aged men wearing sandals and webbed belts and teenaged boys in baggy basketball shorts and chunky high topped shoes. They had come to supervise, talk about meat and the weather and root around in the coolers for imported beer. I saw them coming and knew that they knew about my situation. It was some kinda embarrassing, I gotta say. “You not gon’ tell me?” He shook his head at me while he jerked his thumb at our guests. They “what’s upped” and “hey hey’d” as everyone filed by the cooler and then staked out a spot on the patio, one hand holding a beer or soda, the other hand buried in a pocket. The talk immediately ran to chicken breasts and marinades and a bunch of other stuff I don’t give a shit about. I got that electric feeling again between my shoulder blades--I was suddenly scared I was going to start running around the backyard screaming until I was out of breath. Somebody asked me if I was happy to be home, and I didn’t answer, just excused myself and jogged into the house. I thought my chest was going to explode. I almost knocked down Mrs. Shavers who lives around the corner. She grabbed my arm, said, “baby, it’s so good to have you home again, how are you? I want you to tell me all about it.” “I will in a second, Mrs. Shavers, I got to go to the bathroom. It’s good to see you too.” I went right to my room where I started tearing my duffel up looking for my little valet kit, the one the plastic pill baggies in it. I couldn’t find it: “MAMA!” She rushed into the room. I stood there next to the bed holding my empty bag with tears running down my face. “I can’t find my pills!” She made me sit down on the bed; I sat down, bent my head between my legs and kept boo-hooing. She didn’t say anything, just sat there next to me. When I looked up, her hand was hovering just over the back of my head like she wanted to reach out and stroke it I, but nurturing physical contact wasn’t really her style. However, she always was a good talker, so she started right in with the questions. “What you looking for? Your pain pills? Your shoulder hurt? I got some of that Vicodin prescribed for your Daddy’s back.” “No, the other ones….” “Oh, for your nerves I imagine. What they give you, Paxil?” “No. They give me uh…alprazo….uh, Xanax.” She nodded her head. “I always wanted to try those. Do they work? How do they make you feel?” “Just calm all over.” I was starting to get hold of myself, wiping tears off on the sleeve of my shirt. Snot got all over my upper arm, it was disgusting. “I thought I saw those on your coffee table at your apartment. I’ll send Denise over for them later.” “I don’t want her doing nothing for me.” She laughed and laughed, hard enough that tears came to her eyes. “It’s good to have both of you here. She’s evil and you’re stubborn. Y’all are both the same as always.” “Why would she do me like that?” “Like what?” She looked really surprised, even though I knew she knew all about it, she always knew everything as soon as it happened. “Put me out there like that in front of Pops!” “Your Daddy don’t care much about it, and Denise didn’t mean no harm, son. She’s just upset with you, and I think she might have a right to be.” I told you she was a talker. It was starting to work too: the tingle was starting to go from the middle of my shoulder blades. I was still dizzy, though, I had to put my head between my legs again because I was afraid I would throw up. She did put her hand on my back this time, rubbing back and forth between my shoulder blades like I remember seeing her rub on Granny before she died. “You need some water?” Amazing, how soft her voice could be. “No, I’m fine.” I could barely catch my breath. “Why is Denise upset with me? I haven’t even been here.” “Don’t you think that’s kinda the point, James? Remember how she followed you around when you were in high school. People ask her about you all the time and she can’t really talk about what you’re doing.” “C’mon, it’s not like I’m on some secret mission. I don’t care what she says about me to folks.” “You just have to think about your choices. And how selfish they make you seem sometimes to others.” Mama had been a high school guidance counselor, and loved to hit folks with the amateur psychology. I don’t think I ever had a normal conversation with her, either she was pissed and cutting the shit out of me or all detached like this. “Choice? You know I didn’t have a choice.” I could sit up now, but I still wasn’t looking at her. “C’mon, James. How many times have you re-upped now? Two, three? Do we even know about all the times you’ve been able to get out? You like this life. You like being over there, playing in the sand and doing what you do. You’d be bored here, I know that. However, the people you leave behind can’t always forgive you for what you decide to do.” “I don’t care about what they do when I’m not here.” I don’t remember the whole conversation verbatim, but I remember that part crystal clear. Right there when I said that, it was a lie and we both knew it. She stopped rubbing my back and sat up straight, rubbing her palms on her skirt. “Denise is right, you probably need to go find her and talk to her. I can’t tell you where she is. But I’m sure Mrs. Callaway knows. In fact, I spoke to her yesterday and reminded her you were coming home. She’s expecting you to come visit her.” I won’t lie, I felt betrayed. “Y’all still talk?!” “Of course we talk! We share a grandchild. We talk about Jazmine.” She smiled an old woman smile, peaceful, honest and true. “Now can you breathe? You think you can drive?” I took a few deep breaths while I was bent over to see how I felt. I didn’t want to leave the bedroom, but I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in there torturing myself with the not knowing of it all. Somebody dropped a plate in the kitchen and I jumped off the bed and hit the floor waiting for the shrapnel to slice the room in half. Mama looked at me like I was stone crazy. She put her hands on her knees, got up, and walked to the door. Her question was still in the air between us. “Yeah, I can drive.” I said from the floor. She opened the door. “Well, then get up, come on out here and get my keys. You won’t get no rest until you go over there and find out what’s going on.” “What about all these people?” “It’s not always about you, James. It’s Denise’s birthday, most of these people are here for her. Now let’s go.”

Chapter 9

Mrs. Callaway always did like me. I didn’t have any reason to think she’d done me dirty. She lived about ten minutes away in a neighborhood that was decent maybe fifteen years ago, but has really gone to hell here lately. I don’t really remember the drive over there, I just remember that I wished I’d worn my uniform so that I wouldn’t look like a complete mark when I got there. “Uh…excuse me, but has anyone seen my wife? O.k., well did she take the baby?” When I got across town to Mrs. Callaway’s house, the house didn’t look like I remembered. I remember it from when I was trying to make a good impression and didn’t have shit, and I remember it from when I had to show face as the husband of daughter #1 at family events. I remember it crowded and busy, as the lead house on a very busy block full of cars and kids and shouting and gossip. This trip there was no little kids on bikes, nobody braiding hair on the front porch, no loud music playing anywhere. The neighborhood had grown up, all the children were gone, the house looked lonely, the paint was peeling. I parked the car on the curb and walked up on the porch, rang the doorbell, waited a minute, rang it again. When she opened the door, I was shocked: she had gone to pot like the rest of the house. She used to be a really jazzy dresser, you know, she’d put on a pair of knock-off Gloria Vanderbilt jeans in a minute, but there she stood there in the doorway wearing an old flowered house robe and some run over house shoes with blue and white striped athletic socks that ran halfway up the calf. The lines on her forehead and especially around her eyes were deep enough that I caught myself staring at them, not that she noticed. She murmured my name sorta off-handed, then gave me a hug and looked at me, inspecting me to see if I was someone she was supposed to know. I tried to focus my eyes on a point just behind her so I wouldn’t stare. “Well you don’t look as bad as you might be expected to. Come on in,” she finally said. I followed her into her living room which was night club dark. Her little dining room opened right off the living room--gospel music played softly from a boom box on the dining room table. I sat down on the couch while she shuffled off to the kitchen. She returned with a tall glass of water--a paper towel was wrapped around the bottom. “You sweating, it’s hot here. But I guess it’s hot in the desert, too, huh?” “Yes m’am. But there’s no humidity.” She slouched down in an armchair across the room like she had just come home after working a long day. “That’s what they always say, it’s not the heat it’s the humidity. Now they got this heat index stuff, and who knows what else they’ll come up with.” “Yes m’am, thank God for air conditioning.” “And thank God for Jesus!” In the background, I think it would have been the Hawkins Family singing, Walter or Tramaine. I’ve been hearing those songs all my life, you know, but it was just background to me, in certain houses on certain Sundays. For other folks, it was the only music that mattered--the rest was just “mess” to be turned down or off--but I don’t remember Mrs. Callaway being like that: she used to shake a tail feather and drink wine coolers, she could cuss and played spades like a champ. She sat in that arm chair, rocking gently back and forth, and then suddenly she looked at me angrily, like I had come short some kinda way. “I think Felicia still love you.” Rocking back and forth, back and forth, I felt like a mongoose looking at her. “I love her too.” Back and forth, back and forth. “She went a little crazy after she had the baby. It was hard on her when that baby came, you remember, the doctor wouldn’t let her get out of bed for a month. She was right in that room yonder.” She pointed toward the back of the house. The pointing made her cough—she threw her other hand to her chest and pressed hard against herself, making a fist--but she didn’t stop coughing until she put her hand down. “She told me she was sick, but she didn’t tell me how sick.” “Well, you wasn’t here. But he was.” Aretha Franklin on the boom box now. This one I knew, I loved it. “Precious Memories”, she’s singing with James Cleveland, it’ll set your soul on fire. “Now, she wouldn’t leave the room even after she had the baby. We the family, we know she’s just spoiled, we thought it was more of that, but for a couple of months she coulda gone out, she wouldn’t, we couldn’t get her to leave or go out. She’d cry and cut up something awful when we pressed it. Nobody couldn’t find you, over there in Iraq. He’s the one who got her to go out.” It felt like I was hearing about somebody else’s relationship, talking to an ex-girlfriend’s mama. It felt like I wasn’t supposed to care; I did care, I just was really tired of talking around it. “Who is he, Mrs. Callaway? Is this the boy she ran off with?” “His name Jordan. A white boy. We thought he was funny, at first, to tell you the truth, at least he had been with men at some point. He real small, and pretty, you know, he wear earrings in both ears and dress pants and nice shoes all the time. He ain’t really like you. He ain’t tough, you know. But he was here.” He had been there; he certainly had that on me. “What does he do?” “He was a manager at the restaurant she worked at.” “I thought she worked at Wal-Mart.” Mrs. Callaway threw her head way back and laughed. “You really are in the dark, aren’t you? She stopped working there about a month after you left. I thought she told you about it.” Maybe she had. I maybe might have remembered her telling me something along those lines in between listening to her talk about visits to the doctor and the grocery store and worrying about suicide bombers at the main gate. “She met him there?” “She did. They used to go out, get coffee and stuff, he made her feel comfortable. He was a man, but she thought he was gay, so he was safe, you know? At least it seemed that way first off. We all thought he was funny, you know?” There was nothing I could say. We sat there and listened to James Cleveland. “Well, it turn out he wasn’t funny, I don’t guess. She never really said they was doing nothing, but we all figured after a while, he was staying at the house later and later in the evening—it just wasn’t right.” She leaned forward in her chair and got a real serious look on her face. “Wasn’t nothing I could do, I told her it was sinful. I know you don’t like to hear it—I don’t like to tell it.” She leaned over across the room, her arm impossibly long, cocked back and punched me in the nose! The important thing, I told myself, was to remember this moment. There might be more bullshit to come, had to be more, but it was very important that I live through this moment, live in this moment, and let it imprint in my head. Maybe it would teach me to avoid drama in the future; maybe it would make me feel it more next time I had to hurt someone. I thought Mrs. Callaway had actually reached over and punched me, I thought it because I tasted blood in my mouth, but she hadn’t. I just tasted blood because I had bitten through my lower lip. “She told me…the thing was she felt had to turn to him because he was there for her. She felt she owed him something finally, you know?” “How was he there for her, Mrs. Callaway?” “During the pregnancy.” She got up and shuffled toward the kitchen, talking over her shoulder at me while she walked. “He came here every day. He brought her pickles and those little gingerbread cookies she like, the ones with the pink frosting they sell down to the store. You weren’t here, you know?” I heard dishes and glasses clinking and clanking around. “I couldn’t be here.” I shouted that but there was no response for a while. Finally she peeked around the corner at me, a good long look. She shuffled back into the room to sit down next to me on the couch. She smelled strongly of talcum powder and vinegar. She put a hand on my knee. “My cousin Arletha, the one who live in Corinth, her son Ricky came home from Afghanistan when his wife had a baby. So they let you come home if you try hard enough.” “Mrs. Callaway, I’m telling you it wasn’t possible. Felicia knew that. Ain’t Ricky in the Air Force?” She stared at me for a few more seconds, then took her hand off my knee and put it back in her lap. She sat looking around the living room like she was seeing it for the first time, looking at everything and nothing. “Yes, he is. I told her it was different for you, to have faith, but you know how she is. She get something in her mind all of a sudden, and if it don’t go that way, well--you know. She always been that way ever since she was a little girl. I should have broke her of it, but with her Daddy gone, I ain’t have the strength, you know? All she seem to talk and care about these days is—bettering herself. But I don’t know that it’s right. ” I know what she was trying to say. Felicia is an idealist, doing her best to live up to a lifestyle she picks up from celebrity magazines and daytime television shows. She has, to her mind, high standards, standards that sometimes take her over, you never knew when. She has never really let go of the dreams you have when you’re a child, the dreams most of us learn to let go when we see how the world really is. You want to be a rocket scientist but you end up a butcher; most folks can handle that. Felicia always wanted something that was “what she’d always wanted,” and you never knew what the new thing would be. This time a car, next time a certain pair of shoes, down the road a certain kind of house or vacation—nothing was safe. It was the sort of thing you figure would tone down as she got older, but what if it went the other way? What were the limits? “Well anyway, she run off with him.” She turned to me, putting the index finger of her right hand in my chest. “You’re going to get her, ain’t you?” “Me? What you mean? She still want me? I thought you said she ran off. Everybody say she ran off.” “I don’t give a shit what everybody say.” She leaned back into the couch and her housecoat hung open. Whatever she was wearing underneath was thin and didn’t cover enough. The tingle, the walls were starting to close in again—this was never, ever going to stop getting worse. “He acting like that baby his, and she silly enough to let him do anything long as she getting what she think she want. But I know better. She still love you, and she can’t change the fact that’s your baby. You was there first! You been there for years, I remember you when you was just a skinny high school thing, coming up on my porch chasing ‘round after her.” She was smiling now, there was a fire burning in her eyes. “You going to get her, right?” “Where they at, Mrs. Callaway?” “That’s my soldier man. I knew you wasn’t going to be no punk about this. Go get your wife, son. Get my daughter and my grandbaby. They all in North Carolina—Charles…Charleston…Charlotte. I got the address right here. You can do the Internet on it and find it, right?” “I can find it.” “She moved up there with that boy. He got a job working for his daddy, he was real excited and so there they went. She ain’t talked to you since she left, is she?” I didn’t know how honest to be with her. I still wasn’t convinced whose side she was on; this was Felicia’s mama we talking about, and you won’t live long ‘round here taking blood lightly. On the one hand, she was telling me to trust her, but on the other hand she had let the shit happen in the first place. For all I know, she endorsed it. This sorta thing made you question everybody’s motives. You investigate domestic disputes in the Army, which is what I spent time doing when deployed to a peacetime AOR, you learn everybody has a motive, at the end of the day everybody is out for self. My good sense told me to distrust her, not to tell her anything, to just walk out of there and go home to my family, let the next contact Felicia had with me be with my Army-approved legal counsel. But I wanted more than anything to believe that I could salvage it, that I could do right where somebody had done wrong. “No. I haven’t spoken to her.” She was rustling around on the table in a mound of receipts and tiny yellow post-it notes next to the beatbox. “Let’s see…here we go.” She handed me an International House of Pancakes receipt on the back of which, next to a frozen drop of strawberry syrup, was an address in Charlotte written in Felicia’s handwriting. I set my water glass on the table, used the damp paper napkin to dab at the syrup until it wasn’t sticky anymore, then folded it and put it in my wallet. I headed for the door so I could get outside and think, away from the air conditioning and the gospel. “Thank you, Mrs. Callaway. I appreciate you looking out for me.” “The Bible say marriage sacred. Y’all got to try to work it out. You bring my baby home, now. Good luck!” ‘Good luck’ is what we tell troops when we send them out on a mission with some hair on it. Any other time, we’ll say something like “get her done” or “this is the job you trained for” or something corny shit like that, maybe a “hoo-ah”. But when the shit really gets thick: “Good luck.” As in, “we got a tip that Saddam Hussein’s first cousin is eating fish at his cousin’s fortified compound. We’re sending four of you in a poorly armored HMMWV to go secure the area and acquire the target…good luck. “Yes m’am. We’ll see how it turns out.” I drove straight home. The more I drove, the worse it got. If a truly unpleasant job has to be done, I find it best to work up anger and hate against the targets; for example: “fucking towelheads can’t come in our house and knock down our buildings” that kinda simplistic shit. On the drive back from Mrs. Callaway’s, I considered my hate options. I was pissed at Felicia, sure, but why not also get pissed at this bullshit-buster- ass-faggot-ass-motherfucker who convinced her silly behind to take my baby and follow his punk ass to South Carolina? Why not be pissed at the baby for not digging in her heels and refusing to go? By the time I was back at Mama’s house, I was ice cold, no doubt about it. I was ready for war.

Chapter 10

I got out of the car and slammed the door to show I meant business. There were a few people in the front yard standing around talking. Mrs. Ora Mae Jenkins, the math teacher from the high school, put her hand to her mouth and called, “Welcome home, Mr. Trotter!” I didn’t stop moving, just growled back at her “yeah, what’s up?,” waved my hand and kept on inside the house. I went straight to the bedroom and started shoveling my stuff back in my bag. Mama and her sister, my Aunt Colette, came into the room immediately, closing the door behind them. Mama was immediately in my shit. “What, are you packing? You going after that girl, aren’t you? How you gonna leave here when all these people are here for you?” “Mama, you’re the one told me to go!” “Now, Vonda, let’s stay calm here. James, what happened? Did you see Mrs. Callaway? Did she tell you where she was?” Aunt Col was running the good cop. They didn’t need interrogation school, it came natural to them. “Yeah.” I kept shoveling stuff in the bag. “Where she go? Did she run off with that boy with the sugar in his tank? Are you o.k., baby?” So many questions. I brushed past them and ran to the bathroom in my parents’ room. I was thinking, see: that bathroom was always off limits when we had folks over. I just barely made it. Mama and Aunt Col were right behind me and now stood at the door of the bathroom, still yapping. “Girl, we think we ought to take him to the hospital?” “I don’t know. James, you all right?” “Why you let him go over there, Vonda?” “Col, you think I could have stopped him?” “You coulda stopped him. Is he trying to get up? Ooooh, shit, girl, I know he ain’t trying to get up!” I did get up and staggered toward the door. They each grabbed an arm to guide me back to the bowl. I resumed vomiting. “You just stay there until you’re done!” “Somebody gon’ have to clean up this mess.” “We’ll make one of these kids do it. Some Lysol and some paper towel, it won’t take long. He’s gon’ try to run off after that heifer, ain’t he Vonda? Is he drunk?” “I don’t think so. You been drinking, James? You been taking pills, ain’t you? He can’t talk now. Just try to breathe, baby. He’ll try to run up there as soon as he’s able. He just like his Daddy.” I rolled over and lay on the floor, the blood rushing around in my ears so loud that while I could hear their voices, I could no longer hear what they were saying. I lay there until I felt strong enough to roll over, then I crawled down the hallway, until Pops and another guy, I think it was Mama’s cousin Clyde, grabbed me under my shoulders, hauled me back into my bedroom and onto the bed. “You’ll be all right.” Pops said. “I need you to run me to get my truck, Pops.” “Naw, son, you lay right there. Me and Clyde’ll go get it. Where the keys?” Mama protested from the doorway. “I know y’all ain’t putting this boy in his truck, Steve!” I waved toward the dresser where the keys were, I guess maybe he saw me. Then I believe I passed out. When I woke up it was still light outside, maybe about 14:30 or so, the temperature in the room was cool. Each individual ray of the sun was separate and distinct as it came through the window; each ray had the smell of Downy fabric softener. There were also yams and chocolate cake in the air, but no sweat, no foot odor, no desert dust hung in the air. I hate the dust especially, it fills your nose up so you can’t breathe; you have to take a deep breath and force out clumps of blood and dirt onto a tissue. I woke up to the smell of my mama’s cooking, all I had to do was go fix myself some iced tea, get a dish of Blue Bell ice cream, sit down and watch the game with Pops. Later I could just sit there on the porch and let the darkness roll down from the sky as slow as it wanted to, wait there in the purple light, crickets chirping, neighbors driving by slow and waving at my unfamiliar shape in the swinging chair. I would have a few lazy conversations over the next few days with people who would be happy to see me, happy to help me plan my life beyond a uniform and a fucked up marriage. I could maybe get a job selling insurance; maybe get my real estate license. There’s this idea I have for a top notch security service, I’ve got the credentials for it, there’s rich people in Hattiesburg and Jackson, Baton Rouge and Birmingham who’ve been lied to by shysters with mirrored sunglasses and 9mms who couldn’t secure a day care center. I’ve got partners who do security in Kansas City and Tallahassee who do very well for themselves. If I had gotten up that afternoon--feeling closer to human after sleeping some of that poison out of my system, feeling closer to right--gone into the kitchen, got some pecan pie, sat on the porch and done absolutely nothing, I’d have been a made man inside of a few years, no doubt about it. Maybe that was my intent when I got up. Most of the guests had left. They had eaten and they had talked and they had gotten a free show; I guess they hung around for a while to see if I wasn’t going to come out of the bedroom for Act II. Seeing that the show was over, they left welcome-home cards, sang Happy Birthday, and went back to wherever they came from. Pops was in the kitchen washing dishes and Mama was in there whispering to him. In the living room Aunt Col was sitting on the couch with her son Jay. She was the type of mother who was a little too close to her son, if you ask me. She babied him, worried over him; folks said he was the reason that she never got married since they had more of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship than mother/son. No man could compete with him for her attention, folks said, but meanwhile it wasn’t like Aunt Col was a piece of cake. She’d been married to Jay’s daddy, I remember him, Uncle Mitchell. Uncle Mitchell didn’t really interact with us too much, but he was a cool dude, seemed like an o.k. enough guy. It seems that when Jay was about a year old, Aunt Col had come home one day unexpected from a shopping trip or a church social or some such, and caught Uncle Mitchell in her bed fucking a chick from down the street. Drama ensues, he jumps up, tosses out the other broad on her ear, and then he and Aunt Col go at it. Fisticuffs, pushing, fighting, screaming, baby crying in the crib, it must have been a real special moment, but there’s a playbook for this sort of thing. You calm your woman down, explain how you got seduced or hoodwinked, set a blueprint for future clean living, fuck her to sleep, and then wake up the next morning and start fresh. So Uncle Mitchell wakes up, the bed is empty and his hand is jammed down his pants, wrapped around his dick. He tries to pull it out and damn near pulls all the skin off his dick because Aunt Col has superglued his hand there. He had to go to Forrest General and get everything sliced apart, or maybe they used acid; the details aren’t real clear. He wants to kill Aunt Col, but she’s taken Jay and run off to her cousin’s in Chicago. When she returns a month later, the humiliation has forced him to pack his shit and move to Texas or California or somewhere else. As far as I know, he never fucked with Aunt Col or Jay, and that was just fine by Aunt Col. Jay looked happy to see me, and I can’t say I wasn’t happy to see him. Jay was my little sidekick when he was younger; I had about ten years or so on him. We used to talk about basketball and the new songs that came out, you know. He was the kind of kid who seemed old when he was young: he was entertaining to talk to about grown-up things and would try to find ways to engage you. Don’t get me wrong, he did his thing with kids his own age. Jay could always do all the new dances that came out as soon as they hit the videos, which made him a little bit of a trendsetter here in Hattiesburg. That counted for something, although I don’t think he realized how small his pond was until it was too late. He wouldn’t be the first to learn that lesson or feel the disappointment of neighborhood superstardom with no real skills. He still looked the part, his clothes were the latest and hottest, the haircut was tight, a diamonoid or mozonite or maybe Christmas diamond was shining in his ear. But the answers to the larger questions--college degree, gainful employment, car ownership, his own roof overhead--would all come up “no.” Last I heard he was cutting hair, hustling a little bit, there was talk of a baby’s mama and a spare apartment on the north side of town. We said our “what’s ups”, gave each other a hug. There wasn’t any kind of misunderstanding between us, but enough time had passed that it wasn’t gravy like it used to be, which was sad. “How you feeling?” Aunt Col was laid out on the couch, her shoes off and her feet up. She tried to look concerned about me but she couldn’t keep a little smirk off her face. “I’m fine.” “Well…we called over to your mother-in-law’s while you was sleep, babe.” This news took my breath away. All thoughts of iced tea and porch swings went up in smoke. “Is that right?” “North Carolina, huh?” “So it would seem.” “When you leaving?” Mama came into the room from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “What he say about taking Jay, Col? You o.k., baby?” “I’m fine, Mama. Taking Jay where?” “We didn’t get there yet, now, Vonda.” Mama nodded and disappeared again into the kitchen. “Where I’m taking Jay, Aunt Col?” Jay stared at the T.V., his face a blank. Aunt Col’ smile crept further and further across her face. “Well, Jay got a little friend in North Carolina, don’t you, Jay? Raleigh, right?” Jay kept staring at the television, but you could see he was his mama’s child because now they both had the same smile. “I—we--thought it would be good for Jay to get out of Hattiesburg for a while. See the rest of the country. So, I wanted to ask you to do me a favor. I mean, maybe he’d be helping you out too, you wouldn’t have to drive all that way by yourself….” She showed her teeth then, reached her hand out and put it on my back. How was she to know I couldn’t stand to be touched? I turned around and walked back to the bedroom. I intended to pack my stuff as quick as I could, get out of there, before anybody asked me to run to Jackson to pick up a package or get six dozen eggs from the store or help them to make a batch of cookies for church. Any of a million little bullshit, useless tasks people come up with when it’s too much time and nothing to do. And what in the fuck was Aunt Col thinking, trying to get me to take custody of that reprobate nigga? Please. I’ve driven up Carolina way before--it was what, twelve hours? If I left right away, I could have a couple hours sleep in a rest stop, go have breakfast with Felicia and maybe even meet the baby just as she was waking up. We’d get everything straightened out, deal with whoever the fuck had fooled her up to go all the way up here, and then get us a hotel in Atlanta and maybe hang out there for an few days, get a little rest, get reacquainted… “Son, can I talk to you a little bit?” It was Pops behind me, trying to be respectful, trying not to set me off any more than I already had been. No matter what, I’m always going to show him his respect, give him his propers; and so mad as I was--well, Mama and Col sent the right guy in for the job. “Sir?” “Now, it’s none of my business. But you just hurt your Aunt Colette’s feelings.” “So? She was out of line.” “Maybe. Maybe.” He took off his glasses, put his hand on the dresser beside him, and got ready to preach. “But remember, she used to let you use her car in high school when you had big dates, right? Now she been good to you over the years. ” “Yes sir, I remember. But Pops, come on! She’s tripping. It ain’t no way I can take Jay with me!” I was preoccupied because I couldn’t find my .45, I was afraid they’d jacked it at the airport in Doha without saying anything, maybe it was that skinny hateful dude. There was no way I could ride to North Carolina without it—if it wasn’t in the bag, whatever I was saying to Pops was a moot point anyway. “Why not? I think it’s a good idea. It’s a long drive, he can help you drive. He didn’t have much of a male role model, son. I think this trip will do a whole lot for him.” There was the .45: it had slipped to the side of the bag. I pulled it out and laid it on the bed, then went back through the bag again until I found the clip. I racked it back and sighted the chamber at the wall, facing away from Pop, to make sure it was clear. Pop in the clip, rack it, eject the clip, rack it again. One round flew out of the chamber to land on the bed, a little piece of copper on a field of blue bedspread. I pointed it out to Pops. “That’s why I can’t take him with me. I’m going to get my wife and child, Pops. They’ve run off, and I may have to kill somebody behind them. Do you really want Jay caught up in that?” “You ain’t killing nobody. You ever stop to think that what happened to you ain’t go nothing to do with that dude?” I picked the round up off the bed and slid it into the clip like it was the most important thing in the world. It shows how far I’d fallen that I felt I had to big-time Pops, three tours in Vietnam and I’m trying to show him up. He was patient with me which made it even worse. “I want you to do me a favor. Take him with you. He ain’t got much going on here no way. If I thought you had some help, I think it’s what would allow me to let you leave here.” “Let me leave, huh?” I don’t think I raised my voice, but he was right there with me on the edge, in the moment; there was nothing in our past to indicate exactly how this was going to play out. He slow played me again. “No, I shouldn’t say that. You stronger than I am, and you an adult. But I would do all a father can do to stop you from going out there by yourself.” A pause. He gently grabbed my good shoulder. “You think you thinking straight right now? You think you making good decisions?” He didn’t look like he was about to slap me or take something from me. He looked tired and a little scared. “Honestly? Probably not. But I can’t just sit here.” “No, you can’t. Jay has grown up some since you left here. He’s a good guy and you gon’ need some help on this, James. Shoot, I’m tempted to go with you myself, but my prostate…look, I don’t ask you for nothing, do I?” “Pops, if he act up….” “Put his ass on a bus and send him home.” “You get my truck?” “Outside in the driveway?” “Felicia had said it was leaking water…” “No, it shouldn’t be. I hadn’t noticed that.” He was tremendously pleased with himself: we were back on familiar ground. He stood there chuckling to himself, cleaning his glasses with his shirt tail. I sniffed and went to go tell the young fella to be ready and be quick about it. I found no sign of Jay, but I did find Aunt Col in the kitchen laughing with Mama while stabbing at huge slab of German chocolate cake with a tiny fork. “Hello, nephew.” “Aunt Col, I shouldn’t have come at you like that. I didn’t mean to disrespect you, but I wasn’t prepared for what you were saying about Jay.” “I suppose I could have handled it better.” That’s as close as she’s ever come to apologizing about anything, so it would have to do. “Where is your son?” “He went to go get his things.” Mama was silently cleaning a sink that as far as I could see was ship-shape. “Well, I’m leaving in fifteen minutes, you think he can be here?” “Well, you’ll have to go pick him up if you want to leave that quickly. I got to go call him now and make sure he’s ready.” She walked off into the living room punching away at her cell. Mama put her towel down and walked over to me, put her arms around me, held me close for a second. I didn’t hug her back, I was still too hyped up--I wasn’t really feeling it. “Go bring back my grandbaby.” “I’ll tired of people telling me that.” She broke the hug and drove her finger in my chest. “Ow!” “Don’t say that. You don’t get off the hook like that. Now, you been running around here too much, it’s time to grow up and settle down. We all behind you, but you got to know what you want. You got to want it. You can’t half-ass this…now that girl will come home if she see that she’s what you really want. She’s what you want, right?” “I’m going, ain’t I?” I was in the refrigerator looking see if there was any bottled water in there. Wasn’t nothing but juice and Kool-Aid in there. Country-ass refrigerator. “That ain’t what I asked you. You want your family, right James?” I came out of the refrigerator. “I told you, I’m going to get her. I not talking anymore, just look at what I’m doing.” “I’ll pray for you, baby.” She kissed me on the cheek. Outside, Pops made a big show of putting my bag in the back of the truck. When I went to open the glove box on the passenger side to put the .45 in there, he came around behind and gave me a hard handclap, slapped me so hard on my back that my shoulder started hurting again. “Good luck, doc. I know you got that Trotter blood in you, she ain’t got no choice but to come back.” Smiles all around. Aunt Col came running up. “Jay say to ask you if you got your cell phone on you? He say if you got it and the number ain’t changed he’ll call you and tell you just exactly where to come get him. Otherwise, you need to call him at area code six-oh-one…” “Aunt Col….my phone number hasn’t changed. But if he don’t call me in the next two minutes, I’m gone up the road.” I got behind the wheel. “Don’t you leave my baby! I’ll tell him that you….” I didn’t hear the rest because I’d closed the door and turned the engine over—a good thing because she’d have talked all day. They all waved as I turned the corner, Mama, Pops, and Aunt Col. I would’ve liked to say goodbye to Denise, but I’m not sure how well that would have gone. It wouldn’t have left the best taste in the mouth of the family and assembled onlookers, the things we would have had to say to each other. You know, ruined the noble purpose of the mission, and this mission needed all the help it could get. I wanted to get on the road before I started thinking too much. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing, none. It helped me to have a simple task to focus on, like picking up this damned boy without killing him. My cell phone started vibrating in my pocket, damned if it wasn’t the left pocket. I just managed to dig it out but I banged my shoulder up something awful, I was gasping for breath by the time I answered it. “Hello?” “Damn, cuz, what’s wrong with you? Nigga, you having a heart attack?” Jay didn’t sound like he was in his girl’s bedroom packing his stuff. It sounded like he was on a street corner, selling packs. “Nothing. Where are you? You at your girl’s house?” “Uh, naw. Look here, I need you to pick me up somewhere different than where Mama mighta told you. There’s a Shell gas station at the corner of West 4th Street and 38th.” “Yeah, I know where that is….” “All right, I’ma be there in five minutes. How far away are you?” “I’m about five minutes from there, I guess.” “O.k., you sure now? Because if you gon’ be late, you need to tell me and we can meet somewhere else.” “You driving?” “No, I’ma be on a bike. Look, can you meet me there or not?” “Five minutes. No bullshit, Jay.” “No bullshit yourself. I’ma see you there, right man?” “Roger.” Fortunately, it wasn’t too far out of the way from where I was when he called me. If I had been closer to the highway, I would have been mad as hell, but he caught me in time. I pulled into the Shell Station in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds but I didn’t see him. The truck had about a half a tank of gas so I figured I’d fill up--next thing I know here he comes around the corner riding hard on a child’s dirt bike, this thing was tiny, and I mean he was pushing it. Leaned all over the front of the bike, his chain dangling, earring shining, breathing all hard, a huge backpack bouncing up and down on his shoulders. He almost ran into the side of my truck--at the last minute he braked a hard 180 and jumped off. It was a nice little move, some real X-Games shit. “All right, we ready?” he shouted, looking over his shoulder. Five seconds in and already he was on some bullshit. I mean, a little kid’s dirtbike? “Man, I’m about to get some gas. And what’s up with this bike?” “Man, we can’t get no gas. We got to go. It’s motherfuckers after me.” “What, the cops? Man, I can’t abet if you’re a fugitive—I’m a cop myself! How would that look?” He looked at me like I was short and sucked his teeth. “Hell no cuz, ain’t no cops. It’s some niggas!” He stood there with goofy smile on his face like it was all just a playground misunderstanding; yeah, he shit in somebody’s sandbox but it would all be fine if he could just get around the block. I stared at him. We weren’t going anywhere until he explained—he understood that. “Look…I was just over this broad’s house…I had to pick some shit up from her. The shit was a set-up. Her motherfucking man came home, there was a misunderstanding. Nigga, can we just get on the highway? I mean, can we just talk about this somewhere out this parking lot? Man, they was right over there in Point ‘O Woods apartments, and they looking for a nigga!” I couldn’t fix my mouth to say anything. I did take the opportunity to reach over, open the glove box and pull the .45 off the insurance papers and Jiffy Lube receipts and into my lap. Shit I had been through, and now this? “Jay, who are these people?” He really started bugging out, hopping around and pointing like he was completely crazy. I wasn’t having it. “Jay, you need to stop looking at me like that. I ain’t the one who’s out of pocket here. If we got to go, we got to go, but I’m just saying, you can’t just do any kind of way. What about this bike?” “Man, fuck a bike. Here they come!” I followed his pointing finger down 38th and saw four dudes running toward us like we were the finish line of a track meet. They were about half a click away, but I knew I had to look alive--niggas definitely run faster than hajjis. Jay jumped in the truck, rocking back and forth in his seat to get me to take off, but I wasn’t going anywhere until I racked the Roscoe and popped the safety. I didn’t cock the hammer back, but if it came to it I was ready, ready without even really thinking about it. I have to say it was my training showing right there; my first thought was to get heated, get ready before thinking about running. First I got situated, then I hit the gas and we rolled out slowly. Once we were safely out of the parking lot (it was all over just that quickly, no bullets flying or rocks hitting the back window, no cursing in Arabic, I was actually a little disappointed in the local talent), I put the safety on with my thumb, reached over and put the .45 back in the glovebox. Jay really had this wild look on his face, he was laughing “heh heh heh” real low and murmuring. “I knew we had ‘em, man, I knew you was gonna know what to do. That’s what I’m talking about. Did you see them niggas running? And you had the gat, too! Damn, man we was ready!” I concentrated on the road. “Cuz, you don’t mind if I look at your roscoe, do you? It’s a .38? It got to be a .38. It look just like my homeboy’s, his a .38. C’mon, let your cousin have a look at it. I stonefaced it straight ahead. “What, you mad at me or something?” I was at this point doing my best to forget he was in the car next to me and cursing his Mama and my Pops for making me bring him. That’s when he resorted to staring at me, you know, just staring, rocking back and forth, trying to bore a hole through my head with his eyes until it was impossible to ignore him and finally I let his ass have it. Full intensity. “Look, I didn’t want your ass on this trip to begin with, and this sort of behavior is exactly what I was afraid of, son. It will not be tolerated! You understand me?” He gave a little giggle, put a hand to his forehead, and gave me the sorriest salute you ever saw. “Sir, yes sir.” It was such a bad fucking move, at the wrong fucking time—before I knew it, I reached over with my right hand and slammed the side of my fist into his chest. It took all the air out of him, I could have killed him if I’d hit a little higher and harder—as it was, he bent over coughing. “Don’t you throw up in my fucking truck! Breathe!” After his coughing calmed down a little bit (I think he was shamming some, most people who cough that hard cough up blood), he began screaming at me. On every syllable he hit me with spit on the side of my face. Every syllable. “You don’t fucking hit me, you broke-ass toy soldier. I don’t give a fuck about who you are or what you did in the desert, you don’t fucking hit me. I’ll fucking kill you in your sleep like your wife should have….I’ll fucking…” And so on. I let him finish. After I said to him as calm as you please, “Say shit else, and I’ll take you back to Point ‘O Woods, remove you from this vehicle at gunpoint, blow the horn and flash my lights until whoever is looking for you comes out to collect your ass. SHUT UP. And maybe we’ll get through this.” He more or less calmed down after that. It was a hell of a way to get started, let me tell you.

Chapter 11

We headed east on I-59 toward Birmingham and Atlanta. He sat there pouting, but really what was he gonna do? He had to get out of town for at least one reason that I knew of (and who knew what else was going on with him) so mad as he was, he wasn’t no threat, unless he wanted to get dropped off in Meridian or Birmingham and catch a Grey Dog on his own. He wasn’t going to do that—he was practical as all niggas are deep down. Better to get out of town and let it all blow over, better yet if the ride was free. Pride don’t go but so far. I never did have any shit like that happen to me, any of it, when I was his age. I can’t even imagine. Well, when I say his age, I mean seventeen or so, because looking at him, it was easy to forget he was twenty-three. I can’t even compare him to what I was when I was twenty-three. When I adjusted the rear view mirror from where Pops had it (Pops slouches and it’s a wonder he didn’t break my seat, because he weighs more than me and using the driver’s seat as a La-Z-Boy the way he does), I caught a glimpse of myself, what I look like, and Lord it’s depressing. I ain’t cool like I used to be or maybe never was. There are all these little lines around my eyes, my forehead crack up when I smile and frown, my biggest suspicion is that my body is starting to look like a pear no matter what I do; my hips are getting all round and soft. I wear my shorts too high and tight, my ass cheeks make them that way, any polo shirt I own looks like it’s been in the dryer a few times too many, even the new ones. I been looking second-rate like this since I was eighteen, whenever I’m off-duty at least, maybe I went into uniform in the first place because I was tired of competing with folks like Slick in the passenger seat from a fashion standpoint. Jay was a ghetto superstar—never mind it’s all he had to do--lounged out next to me with his $300 headphones, wearing a headband fronted by some company with a label I can’t even read, probably his corporate sponsor. He was not afraid to risk sweating out a velour jumpsuit in this heat, even though he don’t have two quarters to rub together. He was a magazine cover sitting in the car next to me, and I’m what happens when youth dies. As we drove, I tried to figure out what this guy was like, this faggot she ran off with. I don’t know him (and as far as I can tell, no one like him), he’s not from around Hattiesburg, but then again she wasn’t originally from around here either. Her people were from around here, I think that house Mrs. Callaway is living in now was where her great auntie or play cousin or somebody used to live. But she had that Chicago to her, she always was a jazzy broad, it’s what attracted me to her in the first place, what kept me wanting to get at her through those years we weren’t in contact, even after basic and my first posting where I really got my little taste of the world. She always had known more than the little local girls did about things, she always talked about things and places worth knowing outside Hattiesburg, and I never forget that she was the first one who made me wonder what I didn’t know. To me, it was the most attractive thing about her. I caught the fever for her on my first deployment, I wanted badly to have her there with me there in Germany wandering through the little villages, hiking through forests up trails until the sunlight cuts through and you see a castle up on a hill where you’ll have an apple, some cheese, and a glass of wine while you listen to the Germans talk. I began to feel I needed somebody who could understand how much I had grown and changed. I didn’t remember any other girl from home I thought was really capable of sharing that with me without ruining it with a lot of talk and ignorance. Yet and still, I couldn’t do like some of the other guys and marry some German girl with plans and agendas I didn’t understand. Some of them married those Duetsche girls (after a first-class fucking was laid on them) and brought them back to the States, stayed married the three years and then one day came home from work whistling like the eighth dwarf (Patsy) and found their apartments stripped bare except for the piss-stained couch and divorce papers on the Formica counter. The was no rhyme or reason to the German girls: some went back to Germany and worked on a base as AAFES cashiers, others kept working as executive assistant to some grey boy in an office park before retiring to the suburbs as a grey wife (after laying out yet another number one fucking on him). What did these German girls need the citizenship for, what did they think it would do for them? Didn’t they know they lived in a nice country? Did a U.S. passport meet their expectations? I guess it didn’t matter if I knew, or if Specialist Johnson knew, as long as Frau Johnson knew. Who knows why women do what they do? Spec Johnson would sometimes come into our office and report his wife missing; but after taking his report, nodding and showing concern, we mostly went about our normal business. We didn’t try to track the Germans, the Koreans, the Thais, the Filipinas down. We took Johnson’s report and his boss put him right back to work. Sometimes Spec Johnson got right down to it and decided life wasn’t living anymore—he usually made a mean drunk, showed up to work in the morning smelling like he’d drunk a gallon of mouthwash or went completely AWOL and wrapped his car around a tree. I saw Spec Johnson at the middle and at the end of his problems, so I know damned well where all of this could be headed. But what did it feel like when the trouble started? Mrs. Callaway said he was gay, so that I had that going for me, right? Did it mean he was really swished out, that he wore lip liner and plucked his eyebrows? Or did he just have an earring in his ear like the knucklehead beside me? Felicia never did have much time for pretty boys, she always liked me because I was strong and tough. She used to make me go to the living room late at night with the baseball bat if I heard a noise. Was his chest as big as mine, his butt as wide? Was he on some macrobiotic diet while I was stuck eating DiFac food and MREs, living for a trip to Baghdad so I could get some Burger King--moldy beef with a side of cholesterol--as a special treat? He was surely some hardbody who didn’t have a zit or a wrinkle. I was sure his teeth were whiter than mine and he knew things about her I could never by this point, because she’d stopped talking to me so long ago. Again, I felt that prickling sensation but further down now, spreading out around my curvy new hips that I was going to have to run to get rid of, only I couldn’t do any PT until the stitches could come out at the dingy hospital at Ft. Polk. I decided I couldn’t face her. I really did, no bullshit, we were about twenty miles away from Hattiesburg on -59, clicking along at about seventy. I dove onto the off ramp so hard my stomach took a dip. Jay took off his headphones, looked at me sorta concerned, and asked, “you getting gas, right?” I could have gone under the highway, popped back out on the other side, maybe none of what happened later would have happened, maybe. But, the gas station was right there, I was sitting on a little over a quarter of a tank, so I stopped to top off because, you know, it was right there, I would need some gas no matter which way I went. So I stopped. Got out, swiped my card in the machine, punched in my zip code wrong or something and ended up going inside to get the cashier to run the card through. Back to the car, pumping in the gas at $2.35 a gallon (Jesus, it was just $1.95 a gallon when I left, even for 93 octane. The truck runs like a lawn mower if you don’t use at least 93 octane). Quite naturally, while I was out there pumping, that smell of gas was the best thing for me because, it reminded me I had been through worse than this behind something I didn’t have such a personal stake in. Bottom line, by the time I screwed the gas cap on, the prickles had gone, I’d found my nerve again. Hooah. It took another ten minutes to get Jay out of the store. He went on a shopping spree, buying all kinds of Cheetos and Fritos and Doritos, three different kinds of sports drinks, even an air freshener because he claimed that my truck smelled like Pops’ sweat and that when we got where we were going, “no hoes would ride with us in this funky ass car.” He said this while we were in line, you know, cracking jokes so that the whole store could hear him, but he wasn’t really obnoxious with it. The clerk laughed along with him and ended up giving us tips on which air fresheners were the best like we were his homeboys. We picked one that was vanilla even though the clerk was talking strongly against it (“man, that vanilla strong as shit, best believe”). Jay made a big deal of immediately hanging it on the rearview mirror of the truck—to activate it, you’re supposed to slide the little plastic sleeve down the thing a notch per week or per month, but Jay just pulled the sleeve all the way off right there on the spot. It smelled like a vanilla bomb had gone off. We both got to coughing--when he reached up and turned the air-conditioner full blast all it did was take a localized problem and spread it over the whole area. The station was in some little country-ass town, it wasn’t too crowded, so the clerk was inside watching us the whole way and laughing his ass off. He was a good old boy, though: he rummaged around on one of the aisles and came out with some Fabreeze, on the house. He and Jay studied that Fabreeze bottle like they were defusing a bomb—I stayed far away like I’d been taught to do with them real bomb boys—then they squirted away at the seat and the dashboard. It all made for some kind of funk; we had to open all the windows and the doors to the truck and stand outside for five minutes with the air conditioner running full blast until conditions improved enough for us to take a chance in the front seat again. Even at that, we had to ride down the highway for a good half hour with the windows wide open. I gotta say, though, the whole thing put me in a better mood. I reckon I laughed, I mean really laughed, for the first time since a couple of days before when we were getting ready to leave Tikrit for Anaconda. Jay stuck his head out the window and let his tongue hang out of his mouth like he was Snoopy or some shit, being extra goofy to keep the mood light I guess. He made good work of all those snacks—he even offered me some, no hard feelings, c’mon and get at these Doritos. He was careful about folding up the wrappers when he was done and shoving them into the drink containers: “I don’t want to get your shit dirty, cuz.” Pops hadn’t been as careful about putting grease and crumbs all over my car, I appreciated what he was trying to do, and as the miles clicked by on green markers flashing by the side of the car, the little tension between us began to evaporate and we were just two homeboys going to stalk my future ex-wife. He got more and more comfortable, taking over my CD player to put in some music he sponsored that I wasn’t supposed to know anything about. “Listen to this right here. See, while you been gone, they changed the whole game, cuz. I bet you still used to that East Coast shit you used to listen to.” “Naah, I recognize this.” “Man, whatever. How you know about this? This just came out….” “I got a copy of it already. They were selling them at the PX in Baghdad.” “How you gon’ have a copy at a Army base, nigga? They don’t even sell this one at the Turtle Creek mall yet!” “So where’d you get yours?” “Oh, I got connections.” “Connections. Whatever.” “Whatever, whatever, old ass nigga. You ain’t the only one know ‘bout shit.” “What you know ‘bout?” “I know ‘bout it. I’m ‘bout it, nigga!” He was tapping his hands on the dashboard, bobbing his head so low that he scraped the back of his knuckles on his forehead every other beat or so. He was changing the beat up with his hands, double tapping and beat boxing (boom boom [clap]), little drops of spit spraying into the air conditioner vents which vaporized them and blew them back in a mist (hopefully not on the seat or the window) but I was too tired to yell at him anymore. He was looking like he did when he was about nine or ten, when I was home on leave or whatever and we would go to the snow cone stand. Even though he didn’t really have shit, just got off a bike running for his life from niggas on the corner, suddenly he was back on top. I hope Jay never sees the other side of morning. Looking at him right then, I doubted he ever would. I wasn’t looking forward to where we were headed, but for him this was all new, an adventure. I tried to see it from his point of view; as far as I knew he’d never really been farther away from home than what, New Orleans and here he was in a car with me headed toward something new and different, away from a life so boring that to liven it up he hat to almost get himself killed riding away from dope boys on a child’s dirt bike, toward: “Your mama said you trying to go to Virginia to see somebody?” Boom Boom Sha, Boom Sha Ba Sha. “North Carolina.” He didn’t rap it, but he didn’t miss a lick on the dashboard. “Well, what’s her story?” He stopped tapping, leaned back and smiled with about three quarters of his mouth—you couldn’t really call it a smile and it wasn’t a smirk. This particular look had been getting him in trouble as long as I could remember, it branded him as sly and most likely caused every teacher he ever had to either hate him, want to save him, or some combination of the two. I wasn’t sure what effect it had on the little girls he trafficked with, for them it was probably the finishing touch. It made me a little sick. “Fo’ sho’, cuz. She tight as hell. I done seen the pictures, you know, I mean we ain’t met yet? I mean, she ain’t sent me no, you know, real crazy pictures. She a good girl, not a trick bitch or nothing. She smart, too.” “Really? What does she do?” “She a accountant. She always be working on some payroll or something. I don’t really be paying attention. She been to college for it, though, at some school up there.” So this had to be sorta serious, then. He knew more about her than I would have expected; this did seem a bit far to be traveling for just a shot of ass. Well, anything was possible: I traveled that far for a piece when I was his age; but then again I had a car and you know, prospects, when I was his age. “O.k., O.k.? So y’all just going to check each other out?” I was talking to the back of his head because something out the window was starting to distract him. “Mmmm hmmmmm. I guess. She talking about a nigga moving in, but we’ll see.” He tapped me on the leg. ”Cuz, slow down a little bit, they trying to holla at us.” I got a lump in my throat but didn’t panic. I checked my mirrors and didn’t see anything, only after I looked over my right shoulder did I catch a glimpse of sunlight shining off chrome. Whoever he was worried about was sitting in my blind spot--how long had they been there, how many of them were there? How had I not seen them creeping up on me like that? I could be dead right now. “Jay, how long have they been there?!” He didn’t answer. I reached out, smacked his shoulder open handed and held on—he tried knocking my hand away but I wouldn’t let go until he tore his face away from the mirror to look at me. “Man, what!” “I said, did you see them before? How long have they been there? Who is it?” His mouth opened, a small “O”. I could hear my voice echo around the truck, it embarrassed me. Behind him, there were no burned out cars or Soviet tanks, no mosques, no silent hajjis standing by the road nodding and holding AKs loosely by their sides. Behind him was a billboard for a furniture company, as the billboard flashed by I could see an ad on the other side for a room at an Econolodge, $34.00 a night. I wiped the sweat from my face with my hands. “I’m sorry, Jay. I just didn’t see them there.” He licked his lips because he was nervous, because he wasn’t sure what he had just seen. “You o.k., dude? Something wrong? Do we need to talk?” I smiled, but my lips were dry and I couldn’t get more than halfway. “No, I’m fine.” The car was alongside us now and I saw long hair, cell phones, no details but it didn’t look like a couple of dudes next to us. “So it’s some girls there?” He turned back to the car. “Yeah, hold steady. Just stay right where you at.” He made motions with his hands, I felt like I was part of it now, my role was to match the pace of my truck to the target so we could get a good look, establish good communications, whatever it is we were supposed to be doing. “What now? Faster or slower?” “You doing fine. O.k….get ready, they gon’ want us to pull over. Drop back behind them and follow them, I think under this bridge up here.” He shoved around in his backpack, came out with a brush, and started attacking his waves. “What’s the plan here, boss?” He studied his reflection in the visor mirror. “Man, we just gon’ get out and talk to them. Shit, you ain’t got no gum, is you?” I looked around the car. “I don’t think so…” “I forgot to get some from the store. Damn.” He looked at me, shook his head, and rooted around in the bag again. “Here.” He tossed a cherry Chapstick into my lap. “You got white shit all ‘round yo’ mouth.” I looked in the rearview mirror and he was right, there were white flecks all over my lips. The girls were just ahead, creeping down the shoulder of the road in a little silver Accord with Jefferson County plates, finally rolling to a stop under the shadow of an overpass. Jay took a sip of a blue sports drinks, swished it around in his mouth, opened the door and spit to the side as he stepped out. “You got to come, man. It’s two of them.” He leaned in the door, hands on the seat, stretching his legs like he was warming up for a game. The truck was in park but I kept the engine running. “Naw, not this time I don’t think.” “Man, you not gon’ make me go talk to these broads by myself, are you?” “They look a little too young for me. I’ll be right here when you get back.” “That young meat’ll keep your old ass fresh,” he said, running his hand over his waves again. He winked, closed the door, and pimped down the shoulder of the highway to the passenger’s side of the car. I flipped down my visor on my side to put some of that Chapstick on my lips. The white flecks seemed to have disappeared; only now I had little red chunks all over my lips. It looked like my lips were bleeding, the blood tasted like Cherry Kool-Aid. I was thinking this wasn’t a dry heat, lip dryness wasn’t supposed to happen, you know, and I tried wiping it off with the back of my hand while my heart started again with the fast beating, I started in on some breathing exercises. I did the ones where you take a deep breath, count to ten (hold it) and then let the whole thing go. Go ahead, hold your breath a few times, just try it, and watch your stress melt right away. The problem with this is that you don’t remember to do it when you need it the most, but I guess that’s what separates us out: some forget to breathe and some remember in time to avoid the heart attack. And then it’s folks like Jay who don’t seem to need to breathe at all. While I fucked around with my lips, he had enticed some long brown girl out of the car; I looked up and there was skin everywhere except for a patch that might have been shorts and some sort of halter top. I couldn’t remember women being that smooth looking. She was something else, and I got the feeling that her friend on the driver’s side was something similar—one of them would just melt in my mouth if I was feeling that way. They couldn’t have been any younger than that girl in Qatar, I remember thinking that, all of which thinking made my nature rise. Now, I ain’t no regular churchgoer or nothing, but I was back home, in God’s country, on a mission to get my shit right, and this wasn’t helping. Right then is when I thought to ask forgiveness for my sins. No lie, don’t laugh, I said a little prayer there in the truck, asked the Lord to forgive me for my sins (although I didn’t specify because to specify would be to go into detail, details lead to hardness, hardness leads to trouble) and guide me as I contemplated future sins like infidelity. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. But I just had a notion that I needed to purify my soul a bit if I wanted to get my family back. It would be a shame to go all that way and get there in front of her only to be rejected because she looked in my heart and saw a hound because my actions led God to feel that she should look at me that way. I’m not saying it came to me as a simple notion. I’m not sure I really believed all of this. But it’ll show you how your mind runs when you get pressed, you’ll grasp at any straw. Has anyone ever gone on a mission just purely for the sake of getting from point A to point B? Troops have to believe in something at the end of the day, believe in something or be afraid of something enough to kill—I guess I was afraid of another night alone in that apartment and I’d work with whatever or whoever could help avoid that. Jesus, if that’s what it took, deliver me from young ass. Jay came smoothing back toward me holding up a phone number and looking real satisfied. I had it in Drive and was rolling forward as he climbed in. “Slow down, cuz, damn! I ain’t even in this motherfucker yet.” “Well, we’ve wasted enough time here. This ain’t no tour bus, Jay.” “Ha ha, you just hating. I got them numerals. You shoulda seen her girl, dude, you woulda been so on. She was with it, too.” I had purified myself. I wasn’t in the mood for this kinda talk. I tried to concentrate on the road. “What’s the matter with you, cuz? You still tripping?” “I don’t get it. Didn’t you say that you felt like you were headed to North Carolina to be with a woman who you were down for?” “Well, yeah. What’s this got to do with that?” “Well, what are you doing out here on the highway, pulling strange numbers?” “Man, that’s just some bullshit. I’m just out here having fun. I may never see this girl again. I just felt like I had to do something to lighten us up! You ain’t never do nothing like that? Matter fact, I know you did. I remember being with you in the mall, you was still pulling numbers when you was first with Felicia.” “That was different. I was younger then.” “You was older then than I is now!” I couldn’t look at him. The feeling I had was, don’t drag me down with you. It felt like it would be impossible to succeed if he was there with me. He pulled a little travel pillow out of his bag and put it between around his neck, curling it between his cheek and the window. “Old ass players always hating, talking about what they used to be,” he muttered. He slid his headphones back over his ears, folded his arms on his chest, and dropped off to sleep.

Chapter 12

I knew what I was moving toward has been happening as long as men have been soldiering. You hear about it usually in the lives of general officers—you might know it as a romance, like Napoleon and Josephine, how he wrote her when he was deployed, telling her for God’s sake not to wash because he liked the smell of her after a few days, and if she must wash, please to save a bit of her bathwater in a basin so that when he came home he would be able to lather up with, shave with her essence. He loved her that much, dreamed about her and wrote to her with ruined eyes by candlelight on a Spanish battlefield, the smell of blood and dust, dead horses and dying men all around him. There’s duty and safety and passion and death to be found in marriage and armies, each loves and hates the other. The Army loves that a soldier has a wife at home, recognizes that even though it means he’s responsible to somebody else, it means that somebody’s paying the bills, taking the kids to school, keeping a happy home and reminding him what he’s fighting for. For her part, she don’t love the fact that he’s fighting, but she loves the fact that he shaves regular, that he gets those benefits, for God’s sake that he’s on a career path, that he’s a man capable of whipping ass if only as a payroll clerk. Uncle Sam accepts that the soldier has to have some downtime, needs to spend some quality time at home, and she understands that from time to time her man has to run around in a field or swamp somewhere, dressed up all fancy and pointing a toy gun at his buddies. Nobody really wants a soldier underfoot all the time, government and wife give him over to each other for a time and for the most part everyone is happy, especially in time of peace when everything is more or less predictable. Napoleon divorced Josephine. He had to leave that love behind. He went off and married some royal broad for the sake of the empire—the point is, he was an emperor and even he couldn’t balance love and war. That was a different time, but the blood in the dust isn’t much different now than it was then. Major Otto told me about a general officer he knew, loved, and admired: a two star who came home from the desert after a tour during the current conflict to find that his wife was gone, run off to an aunt’s or a sister’s or something, she apparently looked up in month ten of a twelve month deployment after a twenty-five year career with one of the world’s finest soldiers and realized that she hadn’t signed up for this. For me, it’s only been twelve years: I can tell her that I’m getting out, I don’t have to re-up. Of course that’s all just reaching--I’m an E-6, and when I see how that O-8 handled what the Army requires: he got a quiet divorce, saved his career, gathered the Army around him like a blanket; am I that strong? Napoleon had his empire, the O-8 had a combat command. They left love behind but took glory with them. You wouldn’t hear any stories of them chasing some chick across a continent. I like to think I’m chasing love because I’m passionate. The reality is that I don’t have the discipline not to. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, just a flash of glass and a blue dome light there in the median down a little slope, under some trees. He was just on the other side of a rise, when I passed him I tracked him in my rear view mirror while jamming my brakes—later I glanced down at the speedometer and saw “75” and falling which wasn’t good. I saw in the rearview that he had eased out behind me and was closing rapidly, then there he was on my bumper, his pale jaw visible under a brimmed hat, a brim so wide it was a sombrero. We’d already passed a mile marker on the side of the road and now I could see another green marker in the distance—he was glued to my bumper and I got tired of waiting for him, so I just eased over onto the shoulder. He pulled up behind me and only then did put on his blue lights. I was a motorist in distress and he was just helping me out, being neighborly--I knew it was all a lie. The sound of tires breaking loose gravel on the shoulder roused Jay. He came to like a three year old, burrowing his knuckles into his eyes and swiping his hand down over his mouth. “What’s going on….,” he began, then caught a glimpse of the blue spinners in side mirror—he turned all the way around in his seat to look, then snapped back straight ahead. “Shit.” Right away he started fidgeting with the bag between his legs, enough to let me know that there was maybe more to that backpack than cds, toothbrushes, and spare drawers. His eyes gave him away, too: back and forth between the backpack and the glovebox, two and two say he was thinking about my .45 and something else he thought was going to get us hemmed up. You don’t know what somebody’s limits are until you’re in it with them, doesn’t matter if you share blood, uniforms, or training. I knew about what he was thinking, I reached right over quick and grabbed his throat with one hand and squeezed and squeezed until I feel his pulse stop in my hand and he stopped breathing. Well, it’s surely what I wanted to do--but if I had done I wouldn’t be telling this story, I’d be a body on the side of the road right beside his for pulling a murder on an Alabama state highway like that. No, I just had to make the best of it without killing his ass for what I knew he’d done. “Sit the fuck up. Straight, motherfucker, straight!” I hissed this to him out of the side of my mouth, and now on the left was Mr. Officer and his blue uniform and crazy hat tapping at my window with his flashlight. It was just beginning to get a little purple on the horizon, but he needed the flashlight because it might get dark all of a sudden while he’s there interrogating us. It does that sometimes, you see. Then again, he might need to tap me upside the head with that flashlight, in case I don’t answer his questions just right or he and I disagree on what defines probable cause. “License and registration.” I left my hands at ten and two on the wheel until, about a beat before I thought he was going to ask me again, I held them up real slow to reach into my pocket for my wallet. The flashlight shone from his left hand while his right hand crept within snatch of the gun on his right hip. I felt sorry for him a little bit, you know, because when I visited with alleged criminals on the driver’s side, I always got to wear body armor and had a -16 off my shoulder, finger inside the trigger guard. Here he was on a dark highway walking up on a tinted out SUV alone in the dark with a flashlight. You would have to be crazy to do what he did for a living. He was a big white boy, twenty-five or so, more serious and mean than any of my troops could manage to look when they were at the gate unless there was a serious situation on. I gave him my license, reached into the glove box for my registration. As I opened the box, I felt Jay press up against the passenger’s door as hard as he could. Behind me, “Mr. Trotter. Mr. Trotter….” I kept waiting for the flashlight’s beam to play into the glovebox through my fingers, catching the metal of the Roscoe; but in the two seconds I was grabbing my registration, the only light was from the last gasp of the setting sun outside the window and the tiny bulb in the far corner of the glovebox. When I looked up, he was standing straight up outside the open window; his light still on what I thought was my driver’s license. It was an honest mistake--I wasn’t looking to confuse him. Outside the States, your driver’s license doesn’t mean a thing: people care about your military I.D. and your passport. Depending on where you are, these two will let you walk around like you own the country, or get you beheaded; but either way those are the documents people want to see. So it’s understandable I had given him the wrong I.D. “I need your license, sir. Your driver’s license.” “Sorry about that, sir.” “No problem, sir. Did you just get back?” The flashlight off now, the gun hand relaxed. “I was in Tikrit a couple days ago. I’m still trying to get used to being in the world again.” He laughed. “Shit, I heard that.” He scratched away on his clipboard as he talked. “My unit is supposed to go over in a couple of months. Well, that’s the rumor anyway. I’m a Sergeant in the Reserves It’s all up in the air.” “Where you stationed? Rucker.” He sighed and rubbed some sweat off his forehead, kept scratching at the clipboard. If it had his full attention, he would have been done by now. “No, sir, I’m at Benning.” “That’s a hump from here, ain’t it?” “Well, my wife is from around here. But it’s not too bad. Plus, it gives me an excuse to get out of the house once a month for a weekend. Well, at least that’s what it used to be.” “Yeah. Things have changed, that’s for sure. What’s your MOS?” “95B” “No shit. Same here.” He smiled a big goofy redneck smile. He ripped a piece of paper off the clipboard and leaned over into my window. I closed my eyes and could see Jay exchanging numbers with that car of girls a few hours ago back near Hattiesburg. Cars slowed and swerved around the rotating blues and the spotlight, their tires changed pitch on the highway as they passed. He folded the paper and handed it to me. “That’s a warning. I wouldn’t even give you that, but I already called it in. Slow down a little bit, will you? I had you at 80 in a 70, and not everybody is gonna understand that.” “Thank you, sir.” “Yeah. So, it’s mostly guard duty, right? I mean, we don’t really know what to expect.” “Mostly guard duty is right.” “I mean, is it hairy as they say? We don’t get much real info on this end, Captain acts like we may not even go, but we all know we’re getting deployed. You know how that is.” “Definitely. Uhhhh, not too hairy, you handle yourself right. If you can do this, you can do whatever over there.” He put his hand on his gunbelt. “I’m not worried about myself; I’m just worried about my troops.” I nodded, like I hadn’t heard it before, like it’s not what every NCO says. What can you do? He shined the light in on Jay, we both looked at him. He’s light complected, but he looked milky-white and sweaty there in the dark pressed against the door handle. He squinted one eye and tried to turn his head away from the light, all the while rocking back and forth like a mental patient. I could see him scrabbling with his bag to hide it behind his leg, but didn’t think the officer could make it out. I hoped he wouldn’t moan. “He all right over there?” “Yes sir, he’s fine. I think he just got a bad hot dog back there at the gas station.” “Man, just give him an MRE. It’ll fix him right up. Y’all be careful, now.” He tapped the hood twice, crank up and move out, and I didn’t waste any time easing off the shoulder and back down the road. I drove for about fifteen minutes and all the while, Jay is rocking back and forth. He had gotten pretty calm after the first thirty minutes of driving, but now he hadn’t been right since we were pulled over by that cop, and like I said, I had my suspicions. I kept my powder dry until I saw a turnoff with signs for a campground, and I knew it was going to have to serve. I pulled off the highway and down a two-lane, deeper into the pine forest. House trailers flashed by us every half mile or so, but we were pretty far from any real civilization. The campground was further from the highway than advertised, about five miles or so. After a while, I thought maybe I’d been a little hasty, that any dirt road with a gravel pit at the end would have done. I turned the truck onto unmarked blacktop, through a gate and down a hill through a deserted campground and past a lone block building. A path led from the building past a few picnic tables made of rotting wood and rusty metal down to a pier. There was a cloud come over the moon and everything beyond the pier was black—the pier could have ended in water or it could have been the edge of a cliff. Either way it would serve. I parked the truck just outside the glow of a security light, rolled down the windows, shut off the engine, and turned to Jay. “I can sit here all night, but I’d rather not.” He stopped rocking and held himself straight in the seat. “What you talking ‘bout?” “Jay, I’ve really had it, man. What’s in the bag?” He looked at the bag like it was full of snake or wolverine. “It’s my bag, man.” “Yeah, yeah, your bag. I’m in the car with you and your bag.” “It’s just clothes and shit, man.” “Right. So why you looking like a ghost when that trooper pulled us over?” “Man, I was just sitting here. Y’all were doing y’alls thing, with MRS’s and Ft. Knox and shit.” “I’m going to ask you one more time. What did you have to be nervous about?” “Look, don’t put it on me.” He reached out and tapped the glove box. “What about what’s in here? What if he had found your gat?” “That weapon doesn’t concern you. Look, if I have to go through that little backpack, I’m throwing everything in it away. Clothes, jewelry, whatever. Whatcha got in that bag you scared of, Jay?” I didn’t want to have to go in his bag, understand. The whole point of this was to get rid of whatever bullshit he had, and then, I don’t know, leave him with some dignity. I mean, that’s why they sent him with me, right? So he could get a new start, be a man? I didn’t want to leave him completely broken, just maybe a little smarter. I mean, let’s just come out with it, this whole deal wasn’t really much different than an exercise with my troops, and wasn’t that the point? But I couldn’t be traveling in the car, on the D-boy route, with no contraband, and I was pretty sure that’s what he had in that bag. “O.k., so it’s a brick. A sack. Whatever the fuck. Show it to me. At least do that.” Because I knew what it was, if not exactly what it was. I was real tired of being patient. “You gon’ trip. Yeah, you gon’ trip. You a cop, a’int you?” He was all panicky, I could see in his eyes he was thinking about grabbing the door handle and making a break for it, out into the strange dark alone with his treasure. “No. I don’t have any jurisdiction outside of a military environment. Jay, just show me what’s in there. After I see it, we’ll work it out.” He frowned, considering. “That’s right, you a military cop. You can’t really do shit to me, can you? I’m a civilian. All right, cuz, I’m gonna put you on to how I do.” Just like that. No hot lights, no baton to the head, just a little sugar after a whole lot of attitude, we’re on the same team, he’s teaching me. He dove in the bag, delicately placing items here, and there, and here, until he cleared enough space. Finally, he takes it out and that’s exactly what it was--wrapped up in a black Radio Shack bag, and then Zip-locked inside that was a kilo, a white brick, not perfectly formed but close enough. Yet; what are the chances that a brick of pure snow somehow made its way into Jay’s backpack? He held the Ziplock out to me for inspection, mostly pride on his face with a little fear--when I reached for the bag the emotional equation flipped itself so that now he vibed fear mixed in with relief that someone else was helping him carry this weight because it had to have been killing him. I held it in my hands; it wasn’t the first time I’ve held a brick, I’ve held enough of them to get over the “Good God I can’t believe I’m holding this” feeling you get the first time you come into any sustained contact with bricks or machine guns or bare titties. Something about this brick didn’t feel just right to me, maybe it was too solid or maybe it wasn’t solid enough. I started to open the Ziplock to inspect the merchandise, and Jay’s eyeballing me, I can tell he’s just dying to lay hands on me, but he can still remember when I almost caved his narrow chest in earlier. “What you doing? James, what you doing, man?” I keep a little Swiss Army knife on my keychain, just a couple of blades, nothing fancy. I chipped off a little piece of the brick, and put the chip on the wood grain lid of the ashtray in the center console. Jay began to hyperventilate. “The fuck you doing, cuz? That shit’s expensive, man! ” “Hey, would you rather I licked the whole brick? Calm your ass down for a second.” I put the brick back in the bag and carefully ziplocked it again, putting the bag on the seat next to me. He stared at the bag—for once, something had Jay’s full attention. I couldn’t stand it, this single-minded fixation, it’s why I never could own a dog. I chipped a dot off of the chip on the ashtray, licked my finger so I could pick it up on my fingertip, and put the dot on the tip of my tongue. Cocaine has a no taste. When you see the cops on TV “tasting” cocaine, that dramatic thing they do where they put a pinky finger into the baggy: that happens in real life, but what you look for is whether or not it makes your tongue numb, because cocaine is an anesthetic, it takes away feeling in addition to getting you high. I could feel the little chunk rolling around between my gums and my bottom lip—I chased it with my tongue until I lost patience and spit it out the window. Through all of this, Jay sniffed the air and wagged his tail. “It’s good shit, right?” I pointed with my knife blade at the chip on the ashtray lid. “Have you tasted it?” He shook his head. “Well, taste it, man!” He kept shaking his head. “Naah, that’s for hard hitters like you. I know the rules, man, ‘never get high on your own supply.’ I’m not getting started on that shit, man, it’ll turn you out. Hell, to me, you just took a risk you didn’t have to take. I know that shit is for real.” “It ain’t cocaine.” “Bullshit! That’s snow right there, man. I took it from the number one snowman in Hattiesburg, man! Why you think them niggas was chasing me?” “You stole it?” “Well, they ain’t give it to me.” “What you do, take it from them in a shoot-out? That bike you was riding was a helluva getaway vehicle.” “Man, the fuck? He wasn’t supposed to know I had it. I told you about the broad. She led me to his stash, man she was all up on me, down for me, right? But see, that’s what she wanted me to think, they had some Bonnie and Clyde shit going on between the two of them. She was just using me to get to him, see, make his ass jealous, but I flipped it and got out of there with this brick. That shit worth a couple hundred grand, easy, if I can find the right people to move it.” He looked triumphant. He really did believe that he’d pulled a caper, come out on top, and now who was I to blow his high? I pointed at the chip on the ashtray again. “You need to taste that.” “I told you, it ain’t me.” I didn’t say a word, just cranked the car up and put it in reverse. I shook my head at him, but I didn’t say a word. “Man, what we doing?” “What we started out to do. Going to North Carolina.” “O.k., o.k.!” He was excited, again with the rocking back and forth in his seat. “So you cool with this, then?” “Cool with what?” “Man, you know. With the brick and all…I mean I know you ain’t got no jurisdiction, and you can’t turn me in and all but I figured….” “Who says I can’t turn you in?” I didn’t put any heat on it when I said it. We crept back down the dark road leading from the lake back to the highway. It was as if the sun had never, ever shone through these trees. “Man, we kinfolk!” He slapped his hand down on his leg. “I wouldn’t hesitate to turn you in if you did something illegal.” We made it to the end of the little road, all that mattered was getting the truck onto the road and up to speed before a semi made us a statistic. What Jay was talking about wasn’t really concerning me. “Whatever, man. You know I got this brick and you ain’t turning me in. I guess we cool, huh?” “Yeah, sure. Because it’s not cocaine.” “Fuck you.” “Don’t fuck me. You’re getting a free ride. Tell me, where did you find it again?” “It was in his hall closet in a shoebox.” “You think people just keep keys in the hall closet in a shoebox? It’s fake.” “Man, whatever.” The last refuge of the damned. The moonlit white lines in the road rushed toward the hood of the truck, disappearing under our feet. His jaw was set, he was breathing hard. “O.k, question. Why did you bring that brick with you? You going to start a little hustle in North Carolina? You tell your little Internet girlfriend about this?” He rubbed his hands together. “She with it, man. She know a few connects up there. I ain’t in the game for real, but it’s good to have some scrill, you know? Ain’t nobody gon’ give me no real value for it, but I mean if I only get a quarter of what it’s worth, that’s 50 Gs right there.” Simple bastard. “You want to know if it’s real before you sell it, don’t you?” Silence. “You should really taste it.” He considered for about fifteen seconds. ”Fine, fuck it.” The Swiss Army kife was still on my keychain in the ignition. He winked at me and put the whole chip in his mouth. “What do you taste?” He moved his tongue around inside the cheek nearest me. “It taste like…Elmer’s Glue.” “That’s right. And your tongue and lips…do you feel anything?” “You mean like a burning?” “No, numbness.” “Naw, they don’t feel numb, nigga!” “Your lips should feel numb.” “Well, they don’t feel numb.” You could smell the smoke from the gears jamming in his mind. Finally…. “O.k., then Sarge, what is it if it ain’t snow?” “Flour. If I had to guess, I’d say Gold Medal Flour. If I had to guess.” The sound of the tires on the highway as we rolled through the night. The dim lights of cars reflected in the rearview mirror. He put on his headphones and turned them up to where I could hear the bass, leaned his head against the window, crossed his arms over his chest, and gradually was no longer there.

Chapter 13

We drove on and on. Still he slept, arms crossed over his chest, the back of his head resting against the edge of the door. I studied his face, convinced I could find fear in the lines on his forehead or the way his lips pressed in thin upon themselves, but none of these signs were there. In the sandbox, your fellow traveler was a mirror—you could be scared shitless and all you had to do was look at your partner to know that you were both feeling similar stresses, alive to the threat of nameless and stupid death come for you in guise of a dead dog or a shitty little soda can. This boy next to me felt no such feelings, I’m sure of it. He was the soul of relaxation. I was hungry, not really but I felt as if maybe I should be hungry. There was a sign, “Restaurants ahead .5 miles.” Past the sign, on a hill, at the far end of a bridge spanning the highway were huge yellow arches blasting a curved neon “M” into the dark sky. I thought about stopping for a vanilla shake, I felt like I could chance one even though I didn’t have any Lactaid on me, just blow up the car with rotten egg smell and deal with Jay’s complaining--rolling down the window and coughing around my lies--if I thought it would otherwise calm my stomach down. Creeping around on the edge of hunger was the shard of fear that made my stomach hurt-- my worries crept right over the edge of my hunger and stabbed me in the guts. I hated myself for being afraid of anything which couldn’t kill me. Forty-eight hours earlier I had been swallowing sand while someone handed me an ear, just a regular hajji souvenir, hard-ass to hard-ass, hooah and god bless. It’s not like I just dug into some clam chowder at the DiFAC right after that, but I could have, you understand, and that don’t make me a monster. Now here I was back home, and here were the major-league not to be fucked with heebie-jeebies, so bad I’d have been afraid to order French Fries. Heading toward whatever Felicia had cooked up for me, I was so scared I wanted to stop the car and vomit. I kept promising myself I’d fight it off and be o.k.; but in the end I got nervous about the leather and the wood grain. I pulled off the road under another overpass, opened the door and spit out some green shit that tasted like it would have been better left alone to pass out of me on its own. The taste was just awful beyond belief, although my stomach felt better. The “ding-ding” of the door chimes woke Jay up, and he sat there blinking at me in the light. “You all right, man? You o.k. to drive?” “Yeah, I’m copacetic.” Satisfied, he put his head right back on his hand and immediately went back to sleep. There was a godawful taste in my mouth, and I couldn’t think of anything to get it off my tongue. Swallowing was a mistake: some of it ended up dripping down from my nasal passages into the back of my throat and it burned too, insult to injury, the shit was intolerable. My eyes lit on the Chapstick package in the console of the car. I smeared some on my lips and licked them, it took some of the edge off the sour metal taste in my mouth, but it wasn’t a complete solution by any means; so I rolled up a good quarter inch of the Chapstick and bit it off. I rolled it around slowly in my mouth. Instant relief, then the sticky-sweet cherry wax began to make me nauseous again, and the truck felt like a sauna. I thought I might die right there on side of the road (or worse throw up again) until I turned the key over and let the window down. After I spit the chapstick out my mouth tasted just about like cherry-flavored nothing—I took a deep breath, the tension left my shoulders, I didn’t feel afraid or hungry or sick anymore, problem solved. I eased off the shoulder back onto the road and kept on rolling toward the objective. The sound of the tires on the road just about rocked me right off to sleep. Fifteen minutes later my shoulder hurt so bad I thought I was going to pee my pants. I think it was the fear that did it; probably I jammed it against the door while trying not to vomit on my leather. Whatever the fuck had happened, the pain made me grab at the door handle to try to ride it out, holding on for dear life like somebody was pulling a railroad spike out of my arm, but holding on didn’t help much and when I let go the pain was even worse, reaching down to my back and my elbow. It was breathtaking, this pain, it hurt so much it felt beautiful and pure, you say to yourself: “surely this can’t hurt so much, I didn’t get hurt that bad,” but it does even if you didn’t. I guess I hadn’t realized I was hurt like that, since they juiced me up pretty good before I left Iraq, you know, and truth be told I had been juicing myself. I have no idea when or how many pills I’d taken, but whatever I’d done, I hadn’t done it enough lately and the effect had worn off. I was nauseous again, too—it was all so bad that I was swerving back and forth, the tires catching in the loose asphalt and dirt on the side of the road. We were losing speed, creeping down the highway at about forty-five or fifty. On our left other drivers (one, two, three, five!) were mad dogging me around cell phones as they passed. Still the pain kept amping up; I began to think maybe something was really wrong with me. I took the next exit but couldn’t coordinate my feet and my hands enough to make it all the way up the ramp. “What the fuck, cuz? You cool, baby?” We were on the shoulder of the ramp with the front end of the truck tilted toward the sky. I definitely was not cool. I climbed out and hauled open the back door, looking for my valet bag. Now Jay was there beside me, helping me look around in the bag, getting in the way, and Oh! The pain! “What we looking for?” was his contribution to the cause, and then sweet Jesus, here was the Percocet. One, two, under the tongue like the doctor said about the Xanax and wasn’t that more than enough at one time? I reached for a third but there was Jay’s hand on my wrist, he’d seen how many I’d tipped into my palm to start with. I felt a bright edge to the pain and I groped around for it with my brain, on the far left corner of the pain I felt a corner I could reach for to peel it back and shove it away from me, felt Jay reach under my right shoulder and football carry me around the car to the passenger side, his side. The Percocet was kicking in, the edge to the pain was visible, we got to the door on his side—I asked him, “who’s going to drive”—where he tried to ease me in and we stumbled and I fell into the car against the center console and the pain was so bright, it was infinite as I felt him swing my leg in and that was the end of light and memory. Maybe it was black and maybe I dreamed. I’m pretty sure I dreamed but I won’t bore you with that—people always trying to tell you their drug dreams (Mama said she had one one time when she was gone on some Valium she borrowed from Aunt Col where the whole room was full of snake, and then the room itself turned into a snake. She was terrified but took another one the next night. “I couldn’t help it,” she said, “I ain’t never been that high before and it was wonderful, even with the snake”) but I won’t tell you one thing more than I have to as long as this all keeps making sense. After I tell you what I’ve got left to say, it may not make sense no way. And if it don’t (make sense), fuck it and fuck you. Anyway, I wasn’t conscious. So what happened couldn’t have been my fault in any way. I woke up in a sweat, which was nothing new. My very first thought was amazement —sort of a “damn, how the hell did I fall asleep?” I was sitting up so I clearly wasn’t in a cot in the palace, there was the sound of crickets and mosquitoes on the wing, o.k. we’re outside, and pat yourself and somehow, oh shit, I’d forgotten my armor—and where the fuck was my -16? Did I forget to take my Dexedrine? Pat-pat, where in the hell was my .45? No armor, no sidearm, and how is this seat so soft? I finally got my eyes to open, and there I was in the passenger seat of my own truck. Passenger seat: where was Pineda? Sit and think, sit and think--the driver was Jay and he’s not in the seat next to me. I twisted around to look behind the truck; maybe he was taking a leak in the back. When I turned, I remembered why if not exactly how I got in the passenger seat. There was only a dull ache, not so real and sharp any more, if I didn’t move the arm or the shoulder I could pretend the pain didn’t exist. The memory of the pain scared me enough that I wanted to give it a minute without moving to see if St. Agony would return to tap me on the shoulder. He didn’t, not even after three minutes on the clock to be sure the shoulder wouldn’t fall off, so now to awareness of the situation. Dirt road, pine and oak trees all around, dim moonlight through the leaves. No keys in the ignition, I have a GPS but can’t turn it on to find out where we are. The phosphorescent hands on my watch: 0130. I made it all the way back to civilization to get lost in the middle of BFE in the still of the night without any sort of protection whatsoever. If something happens to me, I don’t deserve to live. Then, oh….then, I remembered I had the .45 in the glovebox. I scrambled in there and took it out, and felt so much better, oh my goodness! I ejected the clip, popped out one of the rounds and looked at it. Salvation. I put it in my mouth and sucked on it a little--on some real Gary Oldman shit--before putting it back in the clip, which is probably what saved Jay’s life. He appeared at the passenger window, banging on it. I dropped the clip and squeezed the trigger at the same time, thinking as I heard the hammer click I was done for, that here was a Hajji come to do me violence or sell me a rotisserie chicken filled with C-4, but it was just dumb ass-Jay. I was pleased to see that at least he looked a little less than fresh to death, somehow a little bit of the starch had been knocked out of him. I assumed he’d just gotten lost going into the woods to find a safe place to shit, maybe run into a pack of raccoons while looking for a lonely tree to squat behind. He wouldn’t stopped banging on the window, tapping it so hard with his fist I was afraid he was going to break the glass and I would going to have to kill him. I leaned down and scrabbled around for the clip, all the while yelling at him to quit banging and open the door. He yanked at the door handle five-six-seven times like a child will before he learns to be patient and wait for an adult with keys. “What the fuck, Jay?” I yelled from the floor. “Where my keys?” He mumbled something I couldn’t hear. It was like the volume on his body was turned up high and the volume on his mouth was stuck on low. I opened the door myself, but only after I found the clip and slid it into the .45. “Nigga, WHERE ARE MY KEYS?” Immediately after opening the door, I noticed a terrible sour smell. Jay was as wet as if he had just taken a shower—even though it was June and the humidity was high, he was wet all out of proportion to what you would expect. He stood there, mouth open, breathing hard, not saying shit. In the dark you could see his white T-Shirt was dusty and stained with dark streaks. Now, keep in mind, earlier in the day I’d seen him on the run from drug boys in the heat of the afternoon and he hadn’t been concerned or broken a sweat at all, so to see him like this, something had to be up. He looked like one of my newbies after some really bad shit has gone down, the kind of thing involving a child or an old woman. “What happened to you?” He couldn’t make himself talk. In this situation, the proper thing to do is to keep your calm. If you get upset--as the leader, if people see you lose your shit it’s not going to help anything. Don’t ask obvious questions over and over. If you ask someone who’s been through a trauma “what happened to you”, or some other hard question like “where the fuck is your hand?” and don’t get an answer, it’s not that they don’t want to tell you—they can’t. Ask some other question, give them something to focus on, let them ease back into the world on their own terms. I wanted my keys. He had them, never mind the sweat and the funk. He wasn’t going to tell me where the sweat or the stains came from. So there we were. “Where are my keys, Jay? Do you have them?” Gentle, patient; act like the nurse not like the doctor. His eyes met mine and I saw the light come on a little bit. “They in my pocket. My right one. But I can’t get to ‘em.” Right then I noticed that his right arm might have been hanging a little differently than his left arm. I went to reach out and touch it--that’s a natural instinct--but my arm hurt to lift, which was a blessing. He drew back like I’d shot fire at him from my fingertips. “Don’t touch it, cuz! I think it’s broke.” Now his lights were fully on, you see, now was the time for me to get at part of the real deal. 0130 in the morning, you understand, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with my reprobate cousin. You keep on unwrapping that box, laying scraps of tissue paper to the side until you see what’s delicately wrapped below. “How did you hurt it?” “Old boy who own the sto’. He broke it, I think.” I pressed my lips together, I might have sighed too. Here was violence, vague violence down the road he had just traveled. “How did he hurt it?” “With a bat. I come to get you. To come take a look at him.” “And why am I looking at him? What’s wrong with him.” He didn’t look like you would look if someone hit you with a bat while you were innocently shopping at a store. He didn’t look innocent. “He stabbed. Come see.” Off he ran down the dirt road away behind the truck, holding his arm. The unzipped legs of his jumpsuit flapped around his calves and ankles as he shuffled and trotted and stumbled to the end of the road. At the intersection, he took a left without stopping. I walked after him—I felt myself floating over my body, like I wasn’t all there. Sometimes when it gets deep, you actually do leave your body. You can feel your spirit whisper in your ear, “Look here…I’m out, dog. I can’t cut it. This is me…gone. ” You must call it back, force yourself to be present. Walking on the gravel shoulder of the main blacktop at the end of the dirt road was too comfortable. I marched left-right on the pavement, high stepping until it hurt the souls of my feet and woke me completely up. Over a short hill was a brightly lit gas station on a lonely country road. Crickets, bullfrogs, a woodpecker, an owl sang out into the darkness. Jay stood in the shadows in front of an open glass swinging door, his arm extended in front of him like the emcee at the Apollo introducing the next act. Star time. “Who’s in there?” No one was visible through the door. “It was just him before. I think he still behind the counter.” I peeped inside the door and walked in pretty careful. The light inside the store was smoky, each light bulb covered in a film of dust which also covered the off-brand corn chips and fruit pies arranged on chipped white wire racks in front of the counter. This was the store you stopped at if your car was running on its last drop of gasoline and smoke was coming from under the hood; if you had no idea how far off the interstate you were and couldn’t remember how far the sign said you were from the next two stoplight town, you might stop in here and ask the owner if this was the only gas station around and if you accepted the owner’s lie, you’d wrestle with the rusty pump outside, part with five dollars at the counter, and get the hell out of Dodge . Unless the owner was a redneck, there would be very little love lost between him and the town. If he was a redneck, then he was somebody’s cousin and there’s hell to pay (and just maybe a lynching) for two niggers from out of town who did him dirty. But on the other hand, let’s say he was part of the new South, let’s say he was a Desi or a Paki or some towel-headdress wearing sand nigger… And bless my stars, so he was. A fucking Arab or some such on first glance--I wish I could tell you he had the gall to have the red, white, and black of Yemen hanging in the back of the store, six feet long and five high, I mean that would have been the capper, that would have been just too perfect. No, our boy was too smart for that nationalist shit and he would have had to be, out here on this country road at the end of beyond slinging RCs and Moon Pies to Jim Earl and Buddy Lee. Still, he couldn’t really change the way he looked, couldn’t become white or black but was stuck in between and so was less than either--that sickly beige skin, beard and moustache stubble that never quite goes away except for in the first hour after his knees hit the prayer rug in the morning, the hook of his nose; no, wherever he was from, he wasn’t from around here. He was lying behind the counter under the beef jerky and a huge Georgia lottery sign, propped up against a cabinet. Hot damn, we had a chance if he was dead, every nigger and cracker in town would be a suspect. After the Towers fell, everybody thought they were higher on the ladder than he was. It was a miracle he’d survived this long, I’m not bullshitting. A dark streak ran from his shoulder down to a darker puddle on the floor. I’m no doctor, but I figured he’d bled out—he just looked like a body, and there was so much blood on the floor. So I thought he was dead already and nobody can fault me for thinking that. Anybody in my position would have thought the same thing, you see. Anyway, I was thinking mostly on how to clear Jay out of there, and in the process whether it was possible to muddy up the chain of evidence. That doesn’t mean I was thinking clearly. We were in a store with a dead Arab, dim lights blinking all over the place, the electric hum from the icemaker and the soft drink coolers boring into my skull, and the area outside lit up like Christmas. 0145. There’s a school of thought on how and why you get caught in these situations, if you get caught. Time and space seem to separate, your brain tries to make sense of a situation so far beyond comprehension that it seems apart from reality. No one talks about all the “criminals” apprehended three blocks from the crime scene sitting at the wheel nearly in a coma, or two miles away at the counter in a Waffle House trying to season waffles with salt and pepper and drowning their grits in ketchup while the short order cook steps away from the grill and points them out to the deputies with his elbow. Your body and mind try to disassociate from each other because they can’t make sense out of what you’re feeling. It’s that movie feeling, and I was lost in it, floating above myself watching the scene, fascinated with how the dust particles floated around the reflection of the Georgia Peach in the store owner’s blood. I tried to count the particles floating in the light—it might have lasted another half hour or so, this daze, and I wouldn’t have known any different. There were a few monitors beside the cash register, which fed in images from the outside of the store, behind the counter, and the area in the back behind the building. On monitor two I saw myself standing there in my polo shirt and my shorts, the Roscoe bulged my shirt out where it hung in my waistband. I looked skinnier than I would have thought. 0150. Jay coughed and saved us. He was sweating, his eyes dull, basically out on his feet--and so we were saved. I had to focus on saving my cousin, my troop. That’s where it starts. So you’ve been trained, all well and good, but you must anchor on something meaningful to ease the shock. Jay was out of order, standing there in the doorway; and Jesus the place was lit up like a county fair, there was a dead man on the floor! “Get the fuck inside, Jay! Close that door!” He stumbled inside. “Close the fucking door!” He tried to pull the swinging glass door closed with his left hand, but couldn’t quite get it. I stepped quickly to the door, pulled with my right hand to align it in the doorjamb, and engaged the lock. “You o.k.?” He nodded, he was lying—at that point he couldn’t even have told you his first name. “Are you hurt? Cut anywhere?” I studied his hands, his feet, his arms, there were no rips or tears in his clothes, he was just dirtier and smelled like sour cocoa butter. “Sit down right there.” I guided him to a place against the wall left of the door between the ATM machine and a freezer case. “Sit here for five minutes.” Think now, it’s very important to have a plan. Give yourself five seconds, at least try to plan. First thing, lights. Looking for switches or a circuit breaker, most likely in the back of the store. Find the breaker box next to the exposed plumbing outside the bathroom. Reach for it, barehanded but wait: prints. They’ll find all kind of prints all over the store, so be it, but whose prints should be on the breaker box? Check the hot food station, sure enough there are little plastic baggies next to the ancient wiener stand. Slide them on. Open the breaker box and hit the light switches one by one. There go the main lights. There go the outside pump and entry lights. There goes the bathroom light. There go the lights in the refrigerated cases—turn those back on because no store is ever completely dark since you can’t turn off the refrigerator cases and expect your perishable stock to survive. It’s important to be good, and it doesn’t hurt to be lucky. No one is still alive in defiance of God’s will. Lucky bastards, all of us. So, next, the tapes. The monitor you so admired yourself in, in the worst case feeds directly to a hard drive somewhere off-site, which means you’re unavoidably fucked. In the best case it feeds to…yes…it feeds to a set of VCRs (so old they might be Betamax) which sit in their own console to the right of the monitor that so mesmerized me. To get to them, you have to step around the Arab, careful not to step through the blood, which is giveaway number two (after fingerprints): bloody footprints. Again, things which shouldn’t be there if you’re trying to get away clean, size twelve blood prints leading out the back door. Smart. Under the counter there are plastic bags. On go the bags over your cheap running shoes, tuck the bags into your socks, not sexy but effective. Does the shoe leave a faint imprint through the plastic? This is a case of penny wise and pound foolish, perhaps. The clock is ticking, but you get paranoid and put several packs of disposable Kleenex between your feet and the bags before tucking the bags into your socks and now all bloody footprints are made by a Big Foot. Step over the dead Arab to the tape machines. The monitors are power off, the tape recorder is power off, so back to the breaker box. You could use some help, but Jay sits there staring into space, zonked. Some jobs you’re better off doing yourself anyway, control the details. Jay isn’t trained for this sort of thing. Deep breath and on we go. Turn on the main lights, walk back behind the counter, step over the dead Arab, and suddenly a hand grabs the plastic around my ankle and our dead Arab isn’t dead after all. He’s very much alive, jabbering in Arabic although it might be Farsi. His right arm reaches weakly behind him for a little black baseball bat, a little larger than a billy club; I believe that this weapon is what did the dirty to Jay’s arm. Was our little hajji playing possum, sitting there behind the counter, waiting for me to make a vulnerable step over him toward the register so he could make his move? Did he really pass out there from loss of blood, dreaming of hummus and pita bread, only to wake up to find himself in a cornbread nightmare (this explains the Arabic, because this sonofabitch couldn’t operate here without speaking English). All of this goes through my head as I look at his eyes roll into the back of his skull like a thoroughbred’s, his hand wraps around my right ankle. I am not much afraid or surprised. I stomp my foot down and attempt to shake his hand off, but all of his energy is focused on his fingers and wrist. I doubt he’s even breathing. For him, the test of wills is hand and ankle, win this battle and be free or avenged or martyred, who knows which. In the meantime, his defenses are down in other areas: neck, jaw, temples, nose, throat. Really sensitive areas, these, I begin to stomp down at an angle with my free left foot. I stomp through plastic, Kleenex and rubber, through flesh and cartilage. I stomp until I felt hardness again through all of that, stomp until his right hand slumps back into the blood puddle, his left hand releases my ankle, and his head rests crazily against the cigarette case behind him. Bend over a minute to catch your breath after it’s over. Don’t look at him. He is a side of beef lying there on the floor dressed up in a man’s clothes and leaking blood. Smell the blood, smell it rusting there on the floor underneath him. He is ready to be butchered and hung from hooks or wrapped up in pieces with white paper and masking tape. On the counter above the dead guy are three VCRs and three videotapes—you won’t know until the indictment, but you must be willing to bet your life it really is that much of a chickenshit situation, no digital backup. Pull the tapes out and jam them all around into a waistband next to the gun. What is the narrative? What’s the story here, when they came upon the scene tomorrow morning? That’s what it all has to lead to, evidence finding a simple conclusion: dead Arabs, crackheads, case closed. Make that conclusion plausible. Swipe a few more bags from behind the counter and then back to the light box one more time to switch all the lights off but the refrigerated cases and make the store an empty box on a country road. Sit down on the floor next to Jay double-bagging each of his feet while he moans with more of his back and forth rocking, make sure he gets up and that he follows close behind, he must be guided because he’ll be afraid to stay and afraid to go. Give the register a reach around to get it to open up and take out all the cash, small bills above and big bills below. This will all be a bitch with plastic mittens on, palms sweaty, but it’s necessary since don’t all crackheads come after CASH? Point Jay’s ass toward the back of the store, out the door; walk him around back past the dumpsters, through the little alley near the fence, and then I did inventory. Fingerprints. Footprints. Motive (cash). Video evidence. Eyewitness evidence. Weapon (?) Jay bobbed next to me, shuffling his feet in a square, a triangle, a circle in the dust. He bent over and put his hand on his knees. “Breathe.” “I’m trying.” He was holding his own. We spent so much time on this—I wanted to look at my watch but I knew if the time situation was worse than I thought, I’d panic. We’d be lost. “Where’s the knife?” “I don’t know.” I felt a tremendous urge to slap the shit out of him, slap him hard enough that he would spit out a tooth, spill his blood on the ground, make his mark here. “Think. Where did you drop your knife?” The light came on very slowly, but it came on. I didn’t panic, so now neither did he. He could breathe and he could think. “I think behind that counter. Where he is.” “O.k. Wait here.” So…back into the store, behind the counter. I searched for a knife by the dim light of the refrigerated cases, I found it only after rolling the corpse half over, a case knife with a red bone handle, the kind only country boys carry who don’t know any better, lethal only to immigrant Pakis and Arabs. Jay should have been dead by all rights: at that very second I should have been accusing the storeowner of committing a racist murder instead of covering one up myself. Who owns a convenience store and only has a police baton for protection? Que sera sera. We’re finally out, more or less clean, I resisted the urge to douse the whole place with alcohol and torch the fucker (the thoughts that go through your head in this situation, I tell you. If I’d had a nuke, there’d have been a mushroom cloud). I got Jay to the truck, peeled off all the plastic bags and gloves, rolled them up around the case knife, tripled bagged that, and carefully laid the package in the back section of my truck. All of this very careful understand, like I was handling dog shit. You don’t want smell or taste or particle on your hands or possessions when they come scoping later with the tweezers and the scalpels and the ultraviolet light. No sir, you don’t. Thus, we hit the road. 0224. Job well done and holy shit. It was pitch-black once we left the station, I mean blue-black. The GPS was off, and I wasn’t turning it on. They track every car in America that’s transmitting is my guess, so we’ll find our way out by headlights and feel, thank you. You’d like to ask the man sitting next to you where in hell you are, the one who got you here, how to get back to the main highway and civilization and what was the motherfucking idea of making this goddamned detour in the first place, but you and he seemed to have reached a special agreement that no one better say shit for the next five minutes lest there be another killing. Jay sat and rocked and moaned a little bit. I drove and cussed and waited for that battle buzz to wear off. Thanks to Jesus and brother Percocet for sanity in those troubled times. Tasks, a brief to-do list, general questions: • What to do with the bloody bags and gloves? • Dispose of the murder weapon separate from the bags and the gloves? • Where in the blue hell is my wife? • What does my child even look like? Where did that last come from? I haven’t even addressed it, I don’t believe, but there I was, on that country road, riding away from some dastardly shit and thinking, “you’ve only seen a few pictures of her.” I have a daughter out there--I’ve acknowledged as much, caught hell for her, seen money come out of my check for her, but I hadn’t at that point seen more than maybe four pictures of her. We eventually stumbled onto I-20. I had to make a choice, east or west, home or the abyss? What tipped the scales was my wondering aloud, “why not send me more pictures, what the fuck is she hiding?” Jay didn’t answer as we turned east toward Columbia instead of west toward Hattiesburg. Rage before depression, but not long before. I was crying--crying for my lost love, for the child I felt it was ridiculous for me to claim based on circumstantial evidence--when I pulled up behind a Popeye’s restaurant in Augusta. The Popeye’s was as dark and quiet as the convenience store we left behind. I tossed plastic bags filled with the store owner’s blood into a dumpster.

Chapter 14

Only twenty minutes later, I was much calmer as I stood on the banks of the Savannah River, under the Interstate bridge. I wiped the handle down three times with a Handi-wipe I got out of the glove box of the truck, and then tossed the knife into the water. I heard it splash out there in the dark. 0255. I was still moving, still fighting, still effective. Never in my life have I been afraid to ask the hard questions or make the tough choices, and so I would press forward this time. To return to Hattiesburg at this juncture—it wasn’t that it was unthinkable; it was not liveable. What would I say: that I couldn’t find her or that I got to Atlanta and said “fuck that bitch” or that I didn’t trust myself around her, didn’t know what I was capable of in my PTSD state (Lord, the smell of truth to that last one). Well, then the rest of my life I’d be “po’ James”, the one with the run-off wife. On the plus side, if I ran I would get the benefit of not knowing why, which may save my sanity at the small cost of my dignity. If you don’t know why something has happened, couldn’t any answer be true? If I didn’t go meet my wife, but instead characterized her (aided and abetted by my friends and family) as a loony, a crazy bitch, and so separated myself from her except for custody exchanges, court dates, and occasional cross-country chases to retrieve my stolen child; well, that route would be acceptable, even advisable given my circumstances and her behavior. Yet and still, to be a coward in this was to die a separate death on a thousand different nights, tortured by the alternate reality that I might have saved my marriage, that I might have saved myself, that I might have been cleansed or saved or damned, but at least know. So--on to Charlotte. Jay wasn’t with me, not completely. He’d stopped rocking back and forth after I got back in the car in Savannah, and he never started in on crying —he did better than me in some respects. I believe his arm was hurting him, but he just sat there looking wise and emotionless, his face made of wax-covered stone. I began to worry about his sanity. He finally turned and looked at me. “We can’t tell anyone about this. You know that, right James?” “You’re fucking right we can’t tell anyone. No one can know about this shit. You understand?” I was putting him on notice, you understand. I put it to him pretty forcefully, I think. Like he had to tell me we couldn’t say anything. He stared ahead at the road. His voice didn’t change when he spoke next, and he didn’t look at me; he just breathed hard before he started, like I was slow and he was going to have to take his time. “I’m serious, James. We can’t tell anyone about this.” “Whatever, motherfucker.” I almost told him about himself right there and then, he the one got us into this shit. But to look at him, you could see he wasn’t himself--he might be saying rational shit but he still was further gone now than he was when he came and woke me up in the car in the first place. We kept clicking toward Columbia with the cruise control set to seventy-one. We were in a sixty-five, I didn’t dare go faster or slower. The white lines on the side of the highway blurred and began to fade together. After you run or jump or fight or kick for your life, you will crash; it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. I was one of those survival guys in Reader’s Digest who loses his pack to a mountain lion lost in a wilderness snowstorm. Every instinct told me to just sit down in the snow and take a nap, but that’s death. I knew that I couldn’t just pull over to the side of the road like I wanted to and fall out. Jay and I would be found by a trooper at first light, questioned about my roscoe, then the blood on Jay’s pants, on my jacket. Nothing would hang together, I’d be dishonorably discharged. Nothing ruins a military career like a death sentence—it’s to be avoided at all costs. We had to get close to the big city before we stopped because I don’t want to be remembered by some clerk in Aiken, Batesburg, or Lexington, some joker in a T-shirt behind a glass window talking to me through a vent who never saw anybody roll in at 0200. Give me a anonymous chain hotel right near Columbia, some nice Indian-owned facility with a sleepy grandmother at the desk. I found what I was looking for out close to the airport. I pulled into the driveway of a Days Inn, peeked into the empty lobby at the lights and coffee pots, chairs and chandeliers. I walked in alone, gave my credit card and ID to granny, in due course she gave me a non-smoking with two full-sized beds in the back of the complex, number 244. She showed me on a Xeroxed map where our room was, drew an X with a toothmarked blue ballpoint pen. I paid real attention to her instructions about Internet access and continental breakfasts since neither of us wanted me back at the front desk that night. I thanked her kindly as I walked out. She was grateful not to be robbed and I not to be questioned. The lights in the hotel driveway were what apparently brought Jay back to his senses. “We staying here?” “Yeah. It ain’t the Ritz, but here we are.” “Man, long as they got a bed. I get my own bed, right?” “Roger that.” I drove the car around to a space opposite the stairs closest to our room. We humped our essentials out of the truck and up the stairs—the room was large and clean, it smelled like Lysol and felt like a cocoon. Jay was all set to flop down on the bed but I grabbed him before his ass touched the spread. “You need a shower.” “I’m tired.” “DNA, nigga. Shower. Now.” He gave me that look, “oh yeah.” So many gangster movies these days, TV shows about crime labs, rap songs telling you how to make crack, it seems like everyone in the country recognizes how to do dirt and get away with it. He stripped off right there like we were in a prison locker room. He grabbed two towels off the rack, leaving only one for me, and disappeared into the bathroom. His left his pile of dirty shit there on the floor, drawers, socks, everything. My hands were dirty enough already, I just held my nose, scooped up his stuff, and put it in a plastic laundry bag hanging from a hanger on the clothes rack next to the sink. I stripped off my own stuff and put it in the plastic bag too, but wasn’t comfortable sitting bare-assed on the spread, so I grabbed the towel off the rack and put it around me, then sat leaning against the wall waiting for Jay to get out of the shower. The bath towel had seen better days—it was long enough, but had been washed and dried so much that the material had worn thin and was all scratchy. I smelled and I knew the towel would soon start to smell too if I kept wearing it around my waist, next to my balls and the hair on my legs. Just as I went to knock on the bathroom door, it opened and Jay walked past me without a word. The little toilet and shower room was super clean with a fan that really dragged the steam out of there—these Indians were about their business. The shower water felt hot almost to the boiling point. I got into the shower like I have so many times before. I washed that stink off me, that mission dust and grime, washed myself into thinking about breakfast and movies and songs and whistling and humming and even a few handclaps. I’d have tried a dance move or two if I hadn’t been standing in a wet tub. The tub was narrow so I could stand with my shoulder basically outside the water and still wash the rest of me. I pissed a good bit, the water inspires that. There was no pain as I pissed, a day or so after the fact, which was a good sign. I was pissing pain free, I felt free to reminisce about the girl in Qatar in a way that got my dick hard. File her under “memories: good.” I got out and dried off—turns out the towel hadn’t gotten too funky to use. When I opened the door, the room was pitch-black beyond the cone cast by the light projected from the bathroom light. Jay had taken the bed by the window, his back turned toward me. I turned out the bathroom light, and crawled under the sheets. Everyone with any sense complains about how tight they tuck in the sheets at the sides and the foot of the bed, but I finally felt safe inside that cotton womb, an anonymous hotel on an Airport Highway in a nowhere city. I didn’t really know where I was, which made me think maybe I couldn’t be found. Just before I went to sleep: “Cuz, you got any of them pain pills?” “Is it your arm?” “Yeah.” “There’s some in my toiletry kit.” He didn’t turn the light on. I heard rustling and movement across the room, a curse, and pills shaking in a bottle. “How many I take?” “Two. Any more, you won’t wake up tomorrow.” I don’t know if he took any or how many. I think that on the edge of a black cloud that hovered over my entire mind I saw him stumble back to his bed. I didn’t know anything else. I dreamed about absolutely nothing and no one.

Chapter 15

Then, morning. Air-conditioning covered my neck and hand in ice, right on the edge of uncomfortable. I did stretches there in bed, pointed my toes down toward the edge of the bed, rotated my feet around until the ankle joints popped. I also felt like I needed to pray, to cleanse my mind and ask for forgiveness, because who knew what the day was going to bring? My Mama says that if you don’t get down on your knees when you pray, then God doesn’t hear you; but I don’t subscribe to that, it’s just preposterous to me. I mean, aren’t we all on our knees to God all the time; if we aren’t, shouldn’t we be, if we don’t want him to do us like small boys do ants and flies? When a ten-year old puts his magnifying glass over a worm or slug, does it matter to him that the creature has no knees and can’t bow down before him? Anyway, I usually say my prayers in my cot or in my bed, in private, early in the morning. If you sleep with a lot of soldiers in a common room (or if you’re married, come to that), if you want to do anything in private, fart, pick your nose, pray, whatever, you have to do it in the morning at first light before other folks comes to their senses. I never did like to pray in front of people because my lips move like I’m slow--it’s embarrassing. I prayed for: forgiveness for what I had done wrong, for strength to deal with upcoming trials, for patience with my current burdens. Usually I mean my prayers when I pray them, but then I go out and live my life like I hadn’t prayed at all. I don’t think I’m different than anyone else that way. Certainly no different than my cousin Jay. I looked over and saw him lying spread out all the way across his bed on top of the covers, a smile on his lips, his arm extended from the bed to the floor. According to the clock on the nightstand between us, it was 1015. Checkout was at 1100. No use lying around in bed. When I pushed myself up out of bed my shoulder only hurt a bit, its soreness disappeared into my body and blended in with my stiff back and tight hamstrings. I took a wide stance and dipped at the waist a few times, touching the floor with my good hand, trying to loosen the hamstrings, and probably did more harm than good the way I was bouncing up and down. Jay snorted and looked at me, disgusted, before piling another pillow on top of his head. His muffled voice came out between the pillows. “What time it is?” His question found me in the bathroom taking a piss. “About ten-thirty. We need to motivate on out of here. How’s the arm?” “It’s straight.” “Is it broken?” “I don’t think so. Just bruised, probably. You taking another shower?” My piss was yellow and smelled strong like ammonia: it’s what comes of drinking Cokes and Gatorades and other food-colored poison. In the sandbox, I drank mostly bottled water. I bent over to look at the piss, looking for signs of pus or blood or whatever, but it was just piss. Bubbles and piss. Filipina whores. I flushed the toilet and shouted out that I was going to shower again. “Bet, I’m after you.” “We need to hurry.” “Riiiight, Riiight.” I wasn’t nervous or anything during my shower. I thought about how light and flimsy the bar of soap was, how maybe I needed to trim the hair around my johnson because it was all bushy there and I have so little hair everywhere else, and then I was thinking about fucking Tabby, my dick was getting hard because I was spending a little too much time soaping up the head. You have to finish what you start, plus I needed a clear head for Felicia later, so I stroked one off in the shower thinking of Tabby’s ass bent over my bed and then her legs spread open while she played with the pussy. There wasn’t time to incorporate a big band or a brass waterbed into the fantasy before I shot off all over the shower floor. Soon as I came, I felt everything: fear of jail, guilt about the Paki, anger about my daughter and who my wife was fucking, shame that I jacked off with my cousin in the next room. My hands were all sticky through the soap, and there were little lumps of jizz stubbornly sticking to the side of the tub which the weak shower jet couldn’t wash away. I poked at them with my toe, then had to kneel down and scrape the last of it off the porcelain to join the stream, spin around the drain a few times, and on into the community gray water. I returned to the room clutching my towel around my waist with one hand and carrying my clothes in another, shuffling and slumped over like an old man. Jay jumped out of bed damned energetic. “What time we got to be out of here?” “Eleven.” “Nigga, it’s ten forty-five. You tripping. I got to get dressed, player! That was off the hook last night, huh?” He dashed past me into the bathroom, started the shower, and immediately started rapping some song I felt I should have recognized but didn’t. I dug around in my bag for some jeans and another fake polo. What to wear to meet your daughter and find out if she looks like you, feels like she’s yours? What to wear to find out if you have to beat your wife blue/black across some other man’s yard? Deodorant but no cologne is what you wear. It’s what I decided to wear, anyway, after capping and uncapping my bottle of Clubman’s three or four times. Jay got out the shower at 1059, and then the real fun began. He spent ten minutes powdering and spritzing, another ten on his waves and non-existent facial hair, and then he actually set up the ironing board. Housekeeping knocked on the door twice, a call came through on the phone from the gentleman at the front desk asking if we would be extending our stay--through it all, Jay was just as cool as he woulda been at Aunt Col’s house. Wasn’t no sense in me fighting it--I sat on the edge of the bed, watching television. “I can’t be rushed, man, I got to meet baby today,” he said two or three times. What did I care? I was in no particular hurry to leave the air conditioning or the peace. Suddenly he finished ironing his track pants and announced he was ready. “C’mon, cuz, we got to hit the IHOP and then get our plans together. Let’s go.” He insisted on going into the lobby with me to check out and was flirty as hell with sister girl behind the hotel counter, asking after her man, inviting her to the IHOP and whatnot. He rapped and hummed to himself as we walked out of the lobby to the truck--once he was in the passenger’s seat, he pumped the volume way up on the radio and starting singing along to some chopped and screwed bullshit, poking me on the shoulder a couple of times to get me to sing along. He kept this up even after we got into the IHOP, joking and laughing with the Sunday morning crowd. He managed to talk our way up the list and got us seated ahead of our time. He looked real pleased with himself as we slid into a booth. If he was my troop instead of my cousin, I would have sent him to the medical unit right away. That’s what I was thinking when I watched him tap on the table while we waited to order, “I should just take his crazy ass to the hospital.” And what would we have said when we got there? It goes to show I wasn’t much better off than he was. “So what’s your plan, cuz? You got to go see ‘Licia, right?” “I think that’s what I drove up here for.” “Man, I know that’s gotta be tough on you. Me, I just gotta link up with baby and then I’ma be straight.” He uncapped a saltshaker and poured a little salt between his thumb and first finger. He sucked on the webbing between his fingers like people do when they take a shot of tequila. “Damn, a nigga could really use some water. I’m thirsty as a bitch over here.” An older white couple across the aisle from us showed some concern over his behavior—she turned her head and body away from him, while the husband tried the other route, giving Jay a little nervous smile. Jay looked at the old guy like “what’s up”; the old dude looked away and slid over in his booth away from the aisle. A waitress came by just then, a great big woman with fake braids, gold teeth, and watermelon breasts sitting on top of a gut and skinny little legs. She spoke around a mouthful of chewing gum; “Welcome to IHOP. Let me have yo’ order.” Jay gave her a big smile. “First of all, we gon’ need some water. You need some water, right cuz? Yeah, we need some water.” “He on the way with yo’ water.” She waved behind her toward a short guy wearing a white shirt and dark slacks scurrying around under a large tray filled with glasses of water. He plopped two glasses in front of us. Jay turned his glass up and emptied it in two swallows. He slammed the glass down on the table and smacked his lips. “We gon’ need some more water.” “He’ll be back with mo’ water, sir.” Jay buried his head behind a menu. “Whatcha eating on, cuz?” “I’d like an egg-white omelette, with wheat toast and strawberry jam.” I smiled at her. She sucked her teeth and scratched away with her pen. “You want hashbrowns or pancakes on the side with that, sir?” “Neither.” I watched the white chewing gum in her mouth curl its way around a gold capped front tooth. The gold had a star etched in the middle. Her shirt was opened to the third button. The beginning of a word, “La,” was just visible at the top of the the left watermelon. She stared at the menu in front of Jay for ten seconds, popping gum all the while. “You done made up yo’ mind, baby?” “I believe I have. I’ll have the Denver omelette, I wants the yolks and the whites. I want white toast with that, and some of them Country Griddle cakes on the side. Y’all got strawberry syrup?” “It’s some on the table there beside your hand, sir.” “O.k. And can I get a small milk and a large orange juice? Don’t forget that water, now.” “O.k. Your order will be right up. He’ll be back with yo’ water.” She spun around on the ball of her foot and bounced away. She was very nimble for a big woman. Jay put his menu down and gave me a stern look. “O.k., so we gotta talk, James.” I wish I could tell you what my face looked like when he came with that bullshit, I wish that he wore glasses or that there was a metal napkin dispenser I could seen my reflection in. Perhaps I looked calm. Hopefully I looked at him like he had lost his mind. Maybe I gritted my teeth at him the way Pops will when he loses his temper, the way I remember him doing the one or two times he’s taken a swipe at me, coming from the East with a punch and forgetting I’m his only begotten son. You see red, then you calm down, then you ask a question. You smile if you can. Otherwise, you invite violence and madness. “What are we talking about, Jay?” I didn’t want to ask because I knew any answer would be bullshit, really I wanted to leap over the table and slap his mouth shut so he couldn’t answer. The boy stirred so many emotions, most of them bad. He leaned toward me. His breath had no smell, little drops of spit flew from his mouth as he talked and hit my hands. I rubbed the spit off—he didn’t notice, but the rubbing distracted me and saved his life, left his nose unbroken. How could I have been held responsible for assaulting him after what he got me into last night? He whispered over the table. “Now, I know you got to be shook up after last night. Hell, I am, so I can imagine about how you feel, with that traumatic stress and all. But I feel like we made the most out of some bullshit. The trick now to keep a tight ass. You know, keep it in the clique. You blood and shit, so I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but you know I feel like it had to be said. Y’all might do it different in Special Ops Battalion or whatever. But you feel me?” There was movement on three o’clock. The old white man in the booth had his whole body positioned at a ridiculous angle. His butt and most of his lower body were pressed against the wall to his right, but he had leaned his head and shoulders way over to his left trying to make out Jay’s words against the restaurant noise. The movement I caught was when he finally leaned over so far that he lost his balance. He tried to catch himself, but his hand slid off the curve of the lacquered bench, and so he fell over, his head making a wet sound when it hit the bench. His wife let out a little puff of breath. The little dude who carried around the water tray appeared out of nowhere to lean over the old guy to try to help him up. In the confusion I got up and moved around to Jay’s side of the booth. I scooted him over with my hip, size and leverage, just boxed him out until he was sitting on the inside of the booth and I was sitting more or less right on top of him. I grabbed his thigh with my right hand, my strong hand, and dug my fingers into the space between his quads, into the pressure points where things get interesting. He winced and opened his mouth to holler. I said my peace quickly, breathed it into his ear like we were on a dance floor and he had earlier promised me some pussy after Crown Royal and ginger ales. I was so close to his ear that I had to resist the urge to bite the lobe, to nuzzle it. “Say a fucking word, make a sound, and you won’t be able to walk out of here. If you say shit else about this, now or at any other time, I’ll do you real special. I’ll tie your hands and arms to a tree way out in the woods where no one can hear you if you scream. I’ll rape you slow, it’ll take about an hour, but I will fuck your ass raw. Then I’ll kill you at the end. I’ll drive wooden skewers into your brain, up your nose, with a hammer.” I kissed him on the cheek and then breathed in his ear again. “If you weren’t blood, I’d have killed you last night. Believe that.” I slid away from him and returned to my side. Across the way, the old man was sipping orange juice and talking quietly with his wife. She lectured him, “…and when your blood sugar gets low like that. Wonder why we don’t carry some candy?” Jay stared with blank eyes at his placemat until the big waitress brought all of our food balanced on both of her arms like she was a circus performer. She distributed the plates quickly and gave us a gold-tipped smile. “Y’all let me know if you need something else, now.” I put salt and pepper on my omelet--you better eat if you want to stay sharp. I was only about halfway done when Jay started making little coughing noises from the back of his throat. I saw a question in his eyes, in the way his forehead frowned up. His skin was green with a grey undercoat. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. I nodded my head at him and smiled. “It’s better you don’t ask. You know where I been? Of course I’ll do it. But I don’t want to, and you don’t want to make me. You going to eat?” His food was still just the way the waitress set it down. “No, I don’t guess I will.” “O.k., let’s get out of here, then.” I went up front to the counter to pay. He didn’t stop at the counter with me but trudged along out to the truck. While I was waiting for this fat white woman to ring me up, I could see him standing outside the passenger’s side, kicking at rocks with his shoes. Would I really do what I said I would to him? I’m no rapist; I’m barely even a killer. So I don’t think so. But didn’t I have to focus his mind somehow? Should I have just had a conversation on him robbing a convenience store in the middle of the night, about whether he didn’t feel lucky the guy didn’t have a gun and so now I wasn’t explaining to Aunt Col why her boy got killed on my watch? And just what good would it have done, my explaining his death to her? So many people ask after some tragic shit happens, why, why, and most times it don’t do any good. You want to keep it from happening is the thing. Jay didn’t have no good reason for doing what he did, but as long as he was rolling with me I figured I could give him something to think about if some bullshit like that crossed his mind ever, ever, ever, ever again. He didn’t know that I wouldn’t rape him, and that was enough. He did have the knowledge (had seen that I would) kill a motherfucker, and if I put something to him personally that made him think twice maybe he would keep his fool mouth shut. What choice did I have, really? I gave the fat girl behind the counter my credit card. She looked at it, pressed her lips together, and looked at me skeptically. At the card, at me, back to the card, turned the card over, studied the signature line. $22.36, plus tax, for a bad breakfast we didn’t really eat. “I’ll need to see some I.D., sir.” I smiled at her, I understood. She was trying to safeguard my rights, my credit, my money. I’m not sure she would have done a white boy that way, but it’s all in how you look at it, isn’t it? The Good Negro sees the bright side, he smiles and understands. I gave her the first piece of picture ID that came to hand. “I need to go get the manager, sir.” She smiled and walked toward the kitchen area without explaining. The people behind me in line huffed and shuffled around. One of them said in a voice that got louder the further he got into his sentence, “Man, I hope she don’t be gone long because I GOT TO GO!” No one paid him any attention. He was a brother, I caught house shoes and white socks out of the corner of my field of vision. He wanted a scene to be made for my sake, his voice was begging for it. She stayed gone a little too long, almost longer than my nerves could take. I was under some stress, no doubt about it. I thought about just breaking for the door, leaving my card and ID there, hitting the road. How hard would I be to track down? Wouldn’t that give someone probable cause to stop me down the road, send Jay, me, and the car to the state crime lab for a fiber and fluid analysis? Me, Jay, and the dead hajji on CNN—we’d be the story of the week unless they found some politician in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. Here she came now, the manager right behind her, a beefy dude who looked made out of white and black Legos (with the little blonde hair piece on top). He smiled from the nose down. His eyes were dead under his glasses. “Sir, is this a military ID? Did you just get back from serving our country overseas?” Damn. “Uh, I just want to pay.” His dead eyes looked at the cashier and then back at me. His smile was molded in plastic, it had been injected into his lower jaw. “Not at all, sir. We support our troops, and Cecilia here, and I, would like to make you a gift of your breakfast. IHOP will also take care of your friend that was with you. Was he your son?” “My cousin.” “We support the troops and their families. I want to give you a hand for what you’ve done for us all.” The fool began to clap. A few people around him took it up. People all around were pointing and whispering, trying to catch up to the story. Behind me, the brother in the house shoes spoke up. “You some kinda war hero, huh? You done come back alive and now you get all this free shit?” He wasn’t accusing me; it sounded like he was trying to understand how to get free shit for himself. It was damned awkward. The manager had my credit card and my ID still. I reached out my hand for them and he shook it, those eyes glazed over and looking into mine. He finally gave me my ID and credit card and I got the hell out of there. They were still clapping when I left the lobby, the sound got more and more muffled but didn’t stop as I walked to the car. I hit the button on my key chain and the doors unlocked. Until Jay climbed into the passenger seat next to me, I didn’t realize that he was on the phone. I closed the door and the sound of all that clapping was finally gone—you could still see people staring at us, pressed against the window, you could still see them clapping. I started the engine. Jay spoke into the phone in a monotone. “Yeah, it’s cool…..No, we had to stop we was tired….no, m’am, we was in the same room…no, m’am, we ain’t gon’ to see her yet….I got to talk to him about that…I may take the bus….I don’t know, I just may…here he is.” He handed me the phone. Aunt Col was on the other end of the line in full effect. “James! You ain’t gon’ make my boy go nowhere on no bus, is you?” “We haven’t talked about that yet, Aunt Col….” “Talk, nothing. Now you remember I let you borrow my new car when you went to yo’ prom, don’t you?” “Aunt Col…” “Aunt Col, hell. He blood, James. Do I need to put yo’ Mama on the phone?” “No m’am.” Crackle crackle. The sound of the phone being fumbled around. “James, it’s your Mom.” “Mama….” “Your Auntie is really upset with you. Now, are you going to make your cousin ride the bus?” “I hadn’t really thought about it…” “Don’t ride him all the way up there, James, and then stop short. It’s not right. Now, have you seen Felicia? Have you seen the baby?” “Not yet.” I looked over at Jay, forgetting, maybe I was looking for a little sympathy, but I was out of luck his way. He stared at his legs and feet, waiting it out. “Well, go on and see them, now. You been gone long enough to have seen them by now. What y’all been doing? “ “We just ate breakfast.” “Really? What y’all eat?” “Look, we got to go. Where Aunt Col want me to take this boy?” “He’ll tell you where. And look, James, be nice to him. You know he ain’t have no Daddy around.” Jay looked close to tears, corners and afraid—still, he was capable of a tremendous amount of bullshit at the drop of a hat. I sighed. “Yes m’am.” “You gon’ take him?” “I guess I have to.” The bastard knew what we were talking about but his expression didn’t change. “Thank you baby. Here, say hello to your Aunt Col…” “I got to go.” Static. Fumbling with the phone. Aunt Col sounded a little smug for my taste. “Thank you, nephew. I’ll take you and your family to dinner when you get them all back.” “See you later, Aunt Col.” I handed the phone back to Jay who stuffed it into his backpack, pulled his hat over his eyes, and leaned over into the corner with his eyes closed. “Like you heard me tell your Mama, I’m going to go see if I can pick up Felicia. Then, after that, if there’s time, we’ll all run up to Raleigh and drop you off. So while I’m talking to Felicia, you might want to try to track down your girlfriend and make sure she’s ready, because I’m trying to get back home.” He pulled his hat brim off his face and looked at me for a few seconds. Just when I was about ready to slap the shit out of him again: “Thank you. I won’t be no trouble to you.” He pulled the brim back down and his breathing immediately went deep, his face smooth. I fooled around in the center console until I found the little scrap of paper Mrs. Callaway had writte the address on. The writing was perfect, each letter so evenly spaced that the words might as well have been written on a grid. The address wasn’t Charlotte proper, but some town called Harrisburg. The Yukon had a GPS system I’d never used; damned if didn’t take me fifteen minutes to learn how to plug that address into it. I twice started to wake Jay’s ass up, but he was sleeping that coma sleep. I’d never seen him really crack before, smooth bastard, but now that head was thrown back and his mouth was open. There was a little drool coming down the side of his mouth and from the sound of things, there was a fat man inside him just waiting to come out—his adenoids were coming out one day for sure.

Chapter 16

It’s really pretty up Carolina way, not as hilly as the area around Birmingham--and granted it was summer, there were quite a few dead patches of burned out brown, red, and yellow grass on the side of the road—but there were pine trees everywhere and the roads weren’t too crowded with everyone still at church. It wasn’t but an hour and a half drive to Charlotte, we made real good time, and I wasn’t really thinking too much on the way up there, just playing with the radio and the GPS, the voice told me turn me this way and that, and when it wasn’t talking I was more or less hypnotized by the sound of tires on I-77. Outside, heat waves shimmered off the road, but it didn’t too much affect me until we approached the 485 loop around Charlotte. My hands were all sweaty; I could smell the funk rising up from my lap. Soon I was soaked---my stomach started doing the floppity flop. I wished I had a plan, you know, some step-by-step something to go through, I needed a lot of steps but there was just the one: find her and talk her out of there. I was trying to put my family together with just Jay in my corner. What chance did I have? What choice did I have? As we got closer the little voice in the dashboard spoke out more and more in a command tone. “Advance one mile and turn left.” “In five hundred yards, make a right turn.” “Get in left lane, now.” I overshot one turn: “Turn around at the next light and return to route.” The upshot of it all was that it really didn’t feel like I was driving the car at all; the car was driving me. I expected us to come out on a dirt road somewhere. Somehow I felt in my bones that this Jordan character my wife had run off with lived in a big farm with his seven brothers away out in the country, with dogs, pigs, horses and John Deere tractors. In my mind it played out that I would drive down a dirt road, hit the brakes real hard and slide to a stop in a cloud of dust, have a shouting match with Felicia in the front yard (where she’d be balancing our baby on her hip while taking clothes down from a line ), and then haul her and baby both screaming into the back seat, me and my reconstituted family tearassing down the road followed by Jordan and his brothers in two or three hot rods until we hit the main road and I could give them the slip. Felicia and I would put Jay’s ass out on the side of the road and go find a rest area where she would climb on top of me and fuck me off to sleep. We’d just put the baby in the storage area in the back of the Yukon. That’s what I deserved after the rash of shit I’d been through; it was the only ending that would really have made sense. The GPS’ voice was pissing me off, directing me through suburb after suburb. Finally, it herded us into an area dominated by a big sign, a billboard between two brick pillars: “Harrisburg Estates.” Immediately to the left of the sign a massive gray house took up a space way bigger than half an acre. The house was surrounded by a thick iron fence, the fence was surrounded by massive hedges, but still the house dominated everything, all peaks, chimneys, gables, shingles and dark windows. You couldn’t look away from it. It gave me the chills, I swear, because even though it was broad daylight that house made the feel like it was midnight and spirits were walking the earth. I was mesmerized, coming back to myself only when one of my tires hit the curb, we had drifted over that far. “Proceed straight for five hundred yards and take a right.” Beyond the house were more hedges and a wide paved road with a sidewalk on each side, a couple of uncomfortable looking iron benches set behind each sidewalk, also tall hedges (but no trees) extending in a line behind the sidewalks on each side. I did what I was told and took a right at the intersection. Ahead and behind, as far as I could see to the horizon were houses on small lots with no real separation between them (but not row houses like you’d see in, say, Chicago). Between the houses you could glimpse more houses extending toward what looked like infinity. Every small lot looked exactly the same: all green grass and short white driveways, broken up by the occasional car or American flag hanging on the front porch. But here’s what tripped me out: each of these houses was a miniature version of that big monster at the front of the development. Every house didn’t look exactly like the monster itself (none of them was spooky—instead they looked plastic), but they all looked exactly like each other. Every house had large white numbers stenciled on the front of a gray wall on the right side of the door, but I paid no attention to the numbers. The voice in the console knew which house I was looking for. I’m not sure I would have found the house where Felicia was staying otherwise. I would have just wandered around in there for days until a hand in white sleeves reached in behind the wheel, pulled me out, and laid me on a gurney. I can’t say that getting lost at the point would have been the worst thing that could happen. We pulled up opposite number 3802. There was a brand new purple Honda Accord in the driveway with Mississippi vanity plates: MZLICIA. Jay was still sleeping when I opened the door. I looked both ways before I crossed the street, once, twice, three times, there wasn’t a car moving in either direction, no engine sounds. My legs felt like jelly. Felicia stepped out of the front door onto the gray porch. She wore a navy blue pantsuit over a pink shirt and more makeup than I’d ever seen her wear. She looked like she worked the makeup counter at a department store. I remembered everything about us again just by looking at her: the mole by her right ear, the small gap between her front teeth, the little scar between her right eyelid and eyebrow. Not that she hadn’t changed everything she could change. Her hair was different, she’d lost weight, a lot of it, and she smelled different too. No, wait, she still smelled the same underneath; under the new heavy perfume and the fruity lotion (I was used to cocoa butter and body splash), she still smelled like she did when she was with me. She smiled at me, almost through me--I’d never seen her smile like that. I’d never seen her in the front yard of a cookie-cutter house in Harrisburg Estates. “Hi, sweetie. Mama told me you were coming. Did you try to call?” She walked up on me slowly, kissed me on the cheek, gave me a light hug. She banged into my shoulder while hugging me and I must have winced. She backed off to look at my face. “Did you get hurt?” “Yeah, I got scratched up some. We had a little trouble in Tikrit. I’m waiting to hear on a Purple Heart.” She looked at the shoulder then back at my face. Concerned? Maybe. Genuinely? I didn’t know. She smiled that plastic smile again. “Well, that’s wonderful. You’ll be a decorated soldier. Maybe even a hero. That can’t hurt your career.” “I did try to call.” “Did you? I don’t know; my phone has been on the fritz since the move. Mama said she had to call me five times yesterday before she got through. Lucky she did, or I might not have been here, huh?” I looked over her shoulder toward the house. As women will do, she immediately turned to see what I was looking at. She didn’t find anything interesting in my line of sight; when she turned to me again her smile had curdled at the edges. “Was there something in the house which interested you, James?” “I was wondering if I could go inside and see my daughter.” “She’s not here.” I waited. She didn’t offer up anything more. Overhead, a helicopter moved slowly across the sky. Somewhere down the street, a sprinkler system kicked on. “Where is my daughter?” “Jordan’s sister offered to take Jazz to church while I was waiting for you. I thought it was nice of her. I was just about to leave when you pulled up.” “I don’t remember you going to church back home. Am I keeping you?” The smile faded to nothing. “No, I figured we should talk. It’s wonderful to see you.” “Can we go inside and talk?” “Jordan is very particular about who he lets into his house, so I’ll have to say no. But there’s a wonderful park down the street and to the left, it’s just a few blocks away. It has a beautiful fountain. Do you want to go? “No, I don’t want to go to the fucking park.” She frowned and looked at the ground, while I tried to slow my heart rate down. When she looked back up, the smile was there again. “Did you notice the big house out front?” I felt like my wife had been body snatched. I looked at her like you look at a magic trick, my head tilted to the side, nostrils flared, tightness around my eyes. “What about it?” “Well, it’s a great example of Victorian architecture. It was designed by Dr. Jackson Etheridge, who was a world famous architect in England during the 1800s. The whole development is modeled on it, as you can see. Jordan’s father is in finance, he put Jordan in real-estate and now Jordan is sort of sponsoring me. I’m getting my license—it’s so exciting! So I get to learn all about architecture and the different styles. You should really see this park. Do you want to see it?” “No, I don’t.” “Well, I think you really should see it. Jordan’s Dad did some work on the finances of this development, and Jordan has some of the lots in his inventory. I’m going to help him sell them. Jordan has a finance degree from Southern, he just finished up. He’s really very smart.” “I have a degree. I don’t care nothing about his.” If she’d shaken her head at me, well…..but she smiled and nodded. “Yes, you did get that, didn’t you?” The helicopter kept circling overhead. A bird circled near it, faster and smoother than the helicopter could. The circles overlapped, I waited for a circle of blood and feathers, but the bird and the chopper were at different levels. I couldn’t see that from the ground, but the bird wasn’t crazy, it had known better. “So you’ve moved up here?” “Well, I guess I have. They’ve offered to let me stay. I’m staying here with Jordan until I find a place. It’s wonderful how nice they are to me. I think it’s very cool of him and his family. Isn’t it beautiful here?” She showed teeth in the smile now. Her teeth were whiter than I remembered. Her lips looked great—she wore a tan lipstick, not that red shit she used to wear that I always hated. Maybe she had worn it for that reason. “So you’re not coming home?” “I should make good money here. I bought this car, I had to. Jordan said I had to project a better image—you remember my old car broke down all the time. You didn’t want me to drive yours.” The helicopter dipped and passed just over our heads—I felt the wind from the blades. Behind me, after it passed, was a low hum. I turned around to watch a purple hybrid car slowly make its way down the street, carrying an old couple who peered at the houses with their mouths open and pointed. They both waved at us, hey y’all! They bore witness to the scene on the front yard. Felicia waved back at them, her hand moving side to side in synch with the woman’s. Felicia’s smile was so big it threatened to separate her lower jaw from the rest of her face. The man pointed Jay (who was up and stretching in the Yukon) out to his wife. They waved at him too. He just shook his head at them and settled back in his chair watching us. “It’s amazing how many people come to this place to sight-see. And on a Sunday during church! Is that Jay in the car? Hi, Jay!” She waved at him too. He gave her a thumbs-up and smiled at her. “You took the money from our account for that car, didn’t you?” No frown this time. She had her story ready, you see. “Well, I figured the baby meant I had to work. You know, college funds aren’t cheap, James. Babies aren’t cheap. You don’t make much money, I was worried.” “Are you going to answer my question?” “What question was that? I just told you, yes I bought the car.” “About coming home!” “Well, I came here with Jordan because he needs me. He had a cousin killed in Afghanistan, it’s so dangerous there, you know? It’s so hard to lose someone close to you. I felt like he needed my support. He was so wonderful to me when I was pregnant with Jazz, you know he was there at the hospital with me when she was born.” “This is bullshit, Felicia. I told you I couldn’t be there. They wouldn’t let me go.” She never broke stride. “I know, James. But I feel like I owed him after what he did for me, so I feel like I’ll just stay here. Plus, there are so many exciting opportunities here for me. It’s good for me and the baby.” “Do you want a divorce?” I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know how I thought to ask her that question. I was smothering in the humidity, the sweat trickled down my side from my underarms, I could smell her sweating too under the perfume. I was turned-on. I was terrifed. I almost put my hand on her mouth to keep the words from coming out. I almost strangled her on the spot so she could never talk again. She frowned and looked back at the ground, then at the car. Her face lit up when she looked at that car. I’d always had the new vehicle in our relationship, just like it was with Mama and Pops when I was young. I always have been selfish about a vehicle, but I figured I’d make it up to her when we got old, like Pops did with Mama. I’d buy her a Cadillac or a Mercedes and only drive a truck myself, and then she’d get to be queen of the walk and I’d pay her back for my having been young and proud. This Honda was the first new car she’d ever had that I’d known of. Damn it, she should have asked before the bought the damned thing! She looked back at me now, no smile, no frown, just gave it to me straight. “I suppose we’ll have to. Don’t you? I’m not going back to Hattiesburg.” I couldn’t do anything but grit my teeth, standing there on that lawn in North Carolina. There wasn’t really a thing I could do. She stared at the ground. My eyes followed hers to a brown patch of grass that was yellow around the edges, yellow and brown spreading like a sore across the green. It made me so sick to look at--especially the yellow--that I looked as far away from it as I could to the sky. The sky was incredible and blue, clear except for a single cloud sailing across that didn’t look at all like rain. “I have a lawyer. We just didn’t know when you were getting home.” “Did Mr. Jordan help you there, too?” “No. I got a referral from another military wife. This woman has a lot of experience with military spouses. Apparently, we aren’t the only ones who ran into trouble. It’s part of the deal, I guess.” “I want to see my daughter before I leave.” She looked me square in the eyes. “We really didn’t think that was a good idea. We’re leaving town after church for a while. I was told that you’d be a little…emotional after meeting me here. I almost didn’t do it. I did you the favor of this meeting, but I really don’t think you should meet Jazmine now.” I started toward her. She retreated a half a step, then held her ground and stared at me. “That’s what I’m prepared to give, James. Next time we’ll figure it out? Please don’t make a scene.” “So that’s it, huh?” “For now, yes.” Her right hand moved out from her side a few inches before she jerked it back down. Was she going to hit me? Shake hands? “We’ll figure out a way for you and Jazmine to meet.” “Mmmmm Hmmmmm.” I closed my eyes. My heart raced so fast I could feel it beating in my ears, behind my eyes. I saw a red haze. I concentrated on my breathing. When I opened my eyes, the world was spinning. The grass looked very comfortable, so I just sat down there. I really just wanted to rest; I don’t remember feeling bad, maybe a little light-headed. Jay sat down next to me. “Cuz, you all right?” Felicia was backing out of the driveway. “Jay, you can give him some water from the hose. I’ll be in touch, James. Me or the lawyer. Her name is Clara Boyd.” She backed out so quickly that the front end of the Accord banged against the pavement and threw up a spark. She threw the car into drive, the tires chirped, and she was gone. “James, you need some water?” “No, just help me up.” He put his arm around my middle and pulled me to my feet. He walked me around to the passenger side of the Yukon and helped me in; next thing I knew he was in the driver’s seat, tapping away at buttons on the center console of the truck, fooling with the map,. “Bitches. Problem is, cuz, you ain’t ate nothing. Let’s go get you some food. This map say it’s a Burger King and a Taco Bell around here. Damn, ain’t no Rally’s? O.k….which one you want?” I didn’t say anything. I felt like if I talked, I’d end up crying. “Well, if you ain’t have a preference, I’m kinda full for a burger but I could eat hell out a taco right now. Taco Bell it is, my nigga.” His phone rang. He answered it with a few grunts and then handed the phone to me. “Jay? Jay? Can you hear me?” Mama can never talk into a phone without screaming. “It’s me. I can hear you.” “Lord, baby, you sound awful. What happened? Did y’all get into a fight or something? What happened? Did you and the punk fight? Did you beat his ass?” “He wasn’t there. It was just me and her.” “Did you get my grandbaby?” “No m’am.” She was quiet on the other end. We passed the haunted house and took a left at the main road. It was after church (if you went to the morning service) so there was more traffic on the road. In less than a mile we passed tanning salons and gas stations, Vietnamese restaurants and a computer repair shop. A large billboard with an arrow pointing left toward Lowe’s Motor Speedway, “Home of Family Fun and the Bank of America 500!” She sighed. “Well, we’ll put our faith in God and get through this. We not gon’ just lay down and let her and the white boy raise our baby. You’ll fight it, right?” I saw the Taco Bell sign come sliding up on the right. I rooted for it to get closer, to bring an end to the conversation, to give me something to do with my hands that wasn’t destructive. She kept right on talking. “Yes we will. I’ll put your name in the prayer circle at church. Put your faith in Him. We’ll work it out, baby. My poor baby. Yes, we’ll work it out. Y’all going to get something to eat?” “Yes m’am.” “O.k., you eat something, and give us a call on your way home. You going to drop Jay off still, right?” And here we were, turning in at the little building shaped like a little Mexican house between a massage parlor and a car dealership. Jay used two parking spots to park the truck. “I don’t know.” “Well, now don’t forget your cousin. He’s been supporting you through this.” She was eating something; she was chewing in my ear. “O.k, I don’t have to say good bye to him, do I? No. O.k…now call before you come back. Remember we love you!” She clicked off. I gave the phone back to Jay. He looked at me, shook his head, and opened his door. “You just chill here a sec, o.k.? I’ll bring back the grub.” I leaned my head against the door for what seemed like an hour until he came back to the car. “Man, it’s some bitches here in North Caroliny, for sure. A nigga can’t move for getting holla’d at. O.k, cuz, I got you a Big Beef Burrito and a couple of soft tacos. C’mon, man, you need to eat on this. You’ll feel better.” I don’t doubt he knew what to do: I guess he had plenty of experience shaking off rejection and disappointment. He sat there eating, watching me eat, weighing me up, checking the balance between us. When he saw me gnawing away in the corner of my own car, reliant on him in a sense, he felt he could let some of the old good-time Jay come creeping back in. He didn’t hit me with it full blast right away, but it was clear he was all ready with a plan that included everybody in the world he could include. “O.k. Here’s what’s with it…I’ma drive us to Raleigh where we’ll hook up with Baby. I talked to her about you while you was parlaying out there on the lawn. You don’t mind, do you?” My mind was tired and cramped. I wanted to say something to him, to protest, but where would it all lead? I felt he would talk me into the ground no matter what I did or said. Through the windshield, I saw a family of fat Mexicans in sweat suits come out of the Taco Bell, or should I say four fat Mexicans and one thin one, a girl of about sixteen. She was wearing jeans, a thin T-shirt, and a hooded jacket. She was so thin, it looked like she was trying to starve herself out of her life. Her shoulders were hunched over, her jacket’s hood was pulled over her head; even as she stood still behind the four fat ones bunched together in a knot, she looked like she was sneaking way. The mother, dipped head to toe in pink velour, was arguing with a little boy and a slightly larger girl, maybe five and eight, about how to divide up tacos or maybe a Meximelt they held between them in a greasy paper bag. The little boy pulled at the bag, trying to wrestle it away from the girl, until the bag split along a jagged seam and the food fell to the ground, a nightmare of white and green and brown and orange and red, all of the colors so bright they looked unnatural. The father wore a leather jacket over his sweatshirt and a pair of aviator shades perched on top of slicked back hair. He was sweating like a prize fighter; still, he looked pleased with himself, stuffing a burrito in his mouth with both hands while he opened the driver’s side door and sat inside without looking at his family. His wife reached in the bag and gave each of the little kids another taco. This was cool with the little girl, who walked away from the mess and climbed in the van through a side sliding door, but the little boy couldn’t stand it. He stood there over the spilled food, pointing and crying. It looked like his face was going to explode—he reached that point kids get to when they can’t really breathe or cry and he might have just passed out and died on the spot—I was afraid for him. If Jay wasn’t talking so much and so fast, and my mind wasn’t cramped up, I’d have gotten out of the car and gone to save this little fat bastard, pinched his nose until his mouth opened and he remembered to breathe. His mother came back to check on the boy. She found him nearly senseless, red in the face, and swatted him on his ass so that the air rushed out of him and he let her drag him to the car. As they pulled out of the lot, I could see the father and mother arguing in the front seat, the two little fat ones arguing on the middle bench, and the thin girl staring out the back window at me. I thought, “Girl, it ain’t no more peaceful in this wagon.” Jay pulled out right behind them, talking so fast he could barely get one word out of his mouth before the next was stumbling into it. He beat out a quiet rhythm on the top of the steering wheel with his index fingers.

Chapter 17

“So come, on man. Baby’s friend real cool. I know you gon’ like her. Her girl Persian, too, got a fat ass and Baby say she with it.” He pulled out into traffic; behind us horns blew and tires screeched. He looked in the rearview mirror and chuckled to himself. I remember when I was him (he the way he was at that moment, young, stupid, no possessions) it was easy to put yourself in another man’s shoes. Pops sends you to the store or Sarge makes you squad leader, it’s easy to pretend like it’s all your money and that you’re in control for real. At a certain age, you realize the responsibilities that come with that power. Soon after that, them same responsibilities sit on your chest and squeeze you breathless. “Cuz, you just sit there and relax. That bitch ain’t shit, she ain’t never been shit. She tripping. ” He worked all three mirrors now, easing in and out of traffic, tailgating one minute, laying five or six car lengths back the next. Soon we were out on the freeway. He set the cruise control, speeding up and slowing down using the buttons on the steering wheel until we were in the flow of traffic in the middle lane. He put his elbow on the armrest and turned toward me as if were on a talk show. “Now Cuz, you just been through a bad time. Probably suffering from tramautic stress or whatever…something going on, talking about raping motherfuckers and whatnot. That ain’t the James I know.” Horns sounded again, we’d almost sideswiped a Toyota. He snapped his head back around to the front of the truck and could only cut his eyes at me afterward, his hands lazy on the bottom of the steering wheel. I said nothing. “Well, look. You want to know what happened at the gas station? Motherfucker came at me with a bat. You seen that shit, that bat he had, right? So yeah, I stabbed him. All I asked him for was what was in the register. I didn’t ask him for the safe or none of that, and I know they know to just give up the register, that’s small shit, insured and everything, probably. Man, I wasn’t trying to come up here on Baby broke, I mean, I know you got to see that after what you just had happen. No disrespect, but you got to come at a ho from strength, you feel me?” The pain in my head had a physical form like cotton. It had give to it, but it was everywhere, choking off thought. I leaned my head against the side of the door. “You just chill there, cuz. Be easy in your mind. Baby gon’ take care of us.” That’s the last thing I heard and then Jay was tapping me on my leg as he got out of the car. “We here.” I yawned and tried to stretch; my head felt better, but there was an ice pick in my shoulder again. “Where’s here?” “We in Raleigh.” We were in the parking lot of a condo complex. It was a lot more upscale than the complex where I paid rent in Hattiesburg. There were trees and shrubbery everywhere that had been watered and groomed, BMWs and Lexuses all over the parking lot, and in the background if you listened closely upper crust rednecks shouted: “Fore! Get down!” Jay scurried around the car getting his gear together. “I’m goin’ on up, cuz. She in number 132. Grab what you need and come on!” I got out of the car and started to reach into the back seat to grab my bag, but then I thought, for what? I didn’t know this chick, she was a friend of Jay, and well--I don’t have to tell you what I thought of his decision making at this point. I walked up the concrete steps and knocked on the door of 132, and so was pleasantly surprised. She answered the door her ownself, Ms. Rebecca Jessup. Jay’s girl. She looked to be late 20’s, possibly early 30s, but however old she was she looked like she was going to stay looking that way for a while. She was mixed, just white and black I imagine--or maybe a little Cherokee--with nice lips and a real good shape to her, about five foot six. She had light colored hair, had it pulled back with one of those wide cloth bands, but it wasn’t a nappy mess or anything. She was real pretty in the face and had an outstanding chest. When she turned around it was disappointing because she didn’t have an ass to speak of, not quite ironing board but there wasn’t enough bump for me. Mixed girls and even white girls do have ass these days, even high class ones (of course you always have seen a lot of ass in cornbread fed trash if you ask me, my Army gets big booty white girls in basic fresh off the farm from Eastern Oregon or Southern Illinois and more often than not sends them home five months later with a butterscotch bun in the oven), but she was old school flat in the ass department. It made her look more refined but she wouldn’t have done for me. Still, here’s the biggest thing: she had sense! Because she wasn’t completely crazy, at first I couldn’t see what she was doing fucking with Jay. You’ll have to forgive me; but if he weren’t blood, I might really have killed him long before we got there. But he had an appeal if you liked children, and it became clear this girl was all about taking care of her nigga. She had all the right weaponry, too. We sat down and just chatted, the three of us, for what must have been an hour. It should have been awkward, being the first time they had met, but Jay being Jay and her being cool as a fan as she was, after five minutes together they seemed like a couple married ten years (and not the kind of marriage I had, either). She told us stories about Raleigh, how her Daddy was a big deal at the hospital, he was the first Black this and the first African-American that. You’ve heard it before. As luck would have it, she was in real estate; however, instead of depending on a platonic male friend and a new Honda as the keys to success, her folks had gotten her started (if you have a white mama, you’ll more often than not get a nice chunk when you leave the nest, depend on that) but now she made real good money on her own. Jay had convinced her that he was an up from slavery story, abused by his mama, deserted by his daddy, willing to be saved by the right woman, which was precisely the sort of story to get her to put in work for him. “I’m just so proud of how my baby is trying. Black men…you’re all so capable, but you need help.” He sat there next to her smiling like she’d asked him to show her he had all of his teeth. They were a matched pair, those two. Rebecca drew me a bath, an honest to God bath with Mr. Bubble bubble bath and vanilla-scent candles all around the bathroom. The shit made me nervous at first because I thought she might have been sweet on me, that maybe she was preparing to step out on Jay before they had even properly gotten together, but she was so--I guess the only word to use for it is professional--about it that it was hard for me to look at her sexually (and believe me, she was sexy as hell, flat ass and all, but I didn’t feel that way about her). The way she treated me moved me; after I got out of that bath and wrapped myself up in the big fluffy towel she left folded on the toilet seat for me, she couldn’t have really done wrong by me. I was prepared to put all of my faith in her and told her so. She just laughed at me and said, “First, you’re taking a nap. I got one of my girls I want you to meet at dinner tonight. You need to rest up for her.” Well, I got to thinking of creamy thighs and vanilla skin lotion instead of what had happened with my wife and child. She knew she had me; after she tucked me into bed for my nap, she winked at me before she closed the door. I felt safe and warm and alive in her heavily air conditioned guest room. I slept for about three hours until Jay woke me up, said we were running late and I had to iron up a shirt and shave (but real quick!) and splash on some cologne and hustle on out to the truck so I could drive us all to the Outback Steak House because her girl had gotten there early and was getting her drink on and for goodness sake where the hell were we? All the way to the restaurant Jay and his love chatted and teased and brought up jokes from their old Internet salad days. By the time we got there, you’d have sworn they were high school sweethearts—within five minutes in the car with them it had gotten downright uncomfortable in a third wheel sort of way. Rebecca must have seen I was a little down at the mouth because she started in with a little raunch: it always sends a little shock down my spine to hear nasty shit talked by a woman who looks pure as the driven snow. She couldn’t have been too pure, understand, or else she wouldn’t have allowed Jay in her home on such a humbug. She told me to perk up, and then she winked her eye at me and said, “you better come with it. My girl Cass is a freak.” Jay chipped in, “I seen her picture, Cuz! Baby is bad! You need to represent.” I nodded and smiled; I was excited, you know, and a little afraid. Maybe that’s where the trouble started. I don’t know. It had been a long day. The Outback parking lot threw me. It felt so much like the parking lot of the Chili’s in Qatar. I caught myself looking for the blonde and the little acned skinny dude in their Mercedes; but the nicest car in that parking lot probably was my Yukon. We got out and walked two by one to the front door—inside we found the acne guy at least, if not the blonde. He was manning the front desk, taking names and handing out buzzers. He tried to say something to Rebecca as she walked past him but she just waved and flew past him, her tan bell bottoms swishing on the floor over the click-click of her heels. The greeter would not take his eyes off her chest. The plain white shirt she wore was unbuttoned more than halfway to her waist. Jay was right behind her; he smiled and clapped the acned homeboy on the shoulder as he passed. Jay was in a fresh black tracksuit I hadn’t seen before. My guess is that he saved it for this moment. He wore the same Nikes he’d had on when he jumped off his bike and into my truck, the same ones I’d slipped plastic bags over at the gas station. They were spotless. I expected to be unenthused about this situation with Rebecca’s girlfriend. No one had said any specifics about how she looked, plus even though I had spent the past year in Iraq, I didn’t speak more than ten words of Arabic or Farsi. On the other hand, I had been in Germany for two years and could speak more than ein klein Deutsch, had picked it up within the first month. German broads tend to be a little big boned for me, and their faces look like they’ve just bitten into a lemon, but they are very fuckable. Soldiers everywhere, when deployed, will learn the hell out of a language if it means there’s some pussy behind it; any soldier deployed in Europe or Asia (and Lord knows everywhere in Latin America, even Cuba) will tell you that. But in Iraq it was different. Some blame it on jihad: you can put a woman in physical danger if it becomes known that you’re fucking her, and unless marriage is imminent her uncles and brothers will kill her and stop at nothing to get you. It’s that kind of party. But I maintain the real reason is that Iraqi women ain’t much to look at, you won’t even find a woman there who’s a fraction (for example: a four in the face and a nine below the neck). The women aren’t in purdah for the most part (so you can see what you’re working with) but very few of them will inspire you to call Mama and ask her to guess who’s coming to dinner. I figured Iranians (who as they live to remind you, are really Persian) were on more or less the same level: if you were in Kirkuk with a second chance vest on, after six hours at the gate you’d holla a one of them if you saw her every day and she started bringing you sweets and chickens and giving you a snaggle-toothed grin, but in Charlotte? Please. Now, I should have known better from my limited interaction with Rebecca, but I wasn’t at all prepared me for the shock. There were two of them sitting there. There isn’t much to tell about Rebecca’s friend Cathy or Katie or whatever her name was. She was black work, medium-brown complected, jazzy, nice hair, decent skin, clothes just so; but she was short, too thick in the middle and had an attitude about herself that turned me off instantly. She must have felt invisible standing next Rebecca, but when you saw the monster sitting next to her, it was as if she was never even conceived. They both stood up, and when Cass came up out of the booth….she was a motherfucking monster! I’m such a sucker for tall women, always have been, although I’ve never actually dated one. (To be honest, I don’t know that I could deal with walking in the room with a six-footer, the looks she would get, the looks we would both get as folks tried to size up just who went where and did what when the lights went down. It’s why I ended up marrying a woman who was average in every way). I had to look up at Cass because she was 6’0” barefoot if she was an inch, and here she had on high-heeled boots which brought her to about 6’4”. She had marvelous creamy skin with just enough color underneath to where she wasn’t pasty. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail; it belonged in a shampoo commercial, long and thick, a dark brown soft rope hanging halfway down her back. She had on a white shirt like Rebecca’s (except buttoned properly up the front (which made me really want to know exactly what was going on underneath those buttons for all that Rebecca had on display in close proximity)) and black velvet riding pants. She scared the shit out of me on first sight. She looked me up and down, then nodded toward outside where we had just come from. “Right. I’m dying for a cigarette. Come outside and keep me company, please.” She had a little bit of an accent, I thought it sounded English but it might have been Irish. I can’t tell the difference. Her perfume broke through to me over the smell of fried-onion rings and burnt steak; it reached into my brain and grabbed me--she did the same with my arm, pulling me toward the door. When we got outside, she pulled me from the noise and laughter of the patio into the parking lot. She lit her cigarette and offered one to me. I hadn’t had one since I left Iraq, it steadied me. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could have talked to her. “I don’t smoke often. It’s a shady habit, and it’ll be what kills me, I know. Only on the weekends with friends. Or when I drink. I can drink. Do you drink?” Her words came out slowly; no, really what I mean to say is the words themselves came out pretty quick, but there were spaces between the sentences, spaces filled with these little short raspy breaths. Her teeth glowed in the parking lot lights, so white they kept me from staring at her eyes or her chest. “I didn’t catch your name, really. Is it Cass?” “That’s what my friends call me. You can call me that if you want.” “How is it spelled?” “Cass? C-A-S-S.” “I mean, is it short for something?” She laughed. She was the type who snorted a little when she laughed. You know how these things are, where you notice quirks in beautiful people sometimes it will make them more human. Sexier. “What are you, a cop?” “As a matter of fact, I am. I mean, it’s my job in the army.” “I don’t mind questions. My name is Cassandan. Have you heard it anywhere before?” When people smoke, they usually look everywhere but at you so as not to blow smoke in your face, but she only turned her head just the slightest bit to blow the smoke away, keeping eye contact the whole time. “I can’t say I have.” “Cassandan was the wife of Kurosh the Great. Founder of the Persian Empire. I guess it’s like naming an American child Martha. I hated it when I was younger, and most Americans can’t say it, anyway. And you’re James, so I remembered your name, didn’t I?” We kept on that way, chatting about nothing and everything. Her parents had been a big deal under the Shah, but had escaped well before all hell broke loose. She hated Iraqis, and still loved her country; America, not so much, but what can you do? She’d been back a few times; she thought the best part of any trip home was shopping in Dubai. She was a medical resident at the Duke University hospital over in Durham--this meant she wasn’t going to talk to me about politics. She would look at my shoulder, if I was a good boy. Jay slouched out to tell us the appetizers were gone and we needed to come inside to order our entrees. We walked back inside and I was quiet because once we started walking, once someone else was with us, again I was afraid to talk. I thought at the time she liked me, but I wouldn’t have bet the farm on it. You never know how these things are going to turn out. We sat down on one side of the booth, Cass outside of me, and Rebecca and Jay on the other side. The chick Cathy had a chair in the aisle. Rebecca and Jay were in their own little world, laughing and playing: everything was easy between them. Cathy made a big deal of ignoring them; apparently she thought I was still in play, and tried to spark conversation. There was a half empty glass in front of her filled with green liquid. She began to shout across the table: “SO JAMES, YOU BEEN OVER IN IRAQ, HUH?” “I have.” “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” She turned the side of her head to me, putting her hand up to her ear. I shouted so loud it made my head hurt. Cass leaned over and whispered in my ear, “she’s a little deaf, but we can’t get her to realize it.” “HOW WAS IT THERE?” I was not going to sit there and yell back and forth at this bitch. I pointed at my ear and then up at the speakers in the ceiling. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. “O.K., I’LL ASK YOU LATER,” she shouted, and then sat back in her chair and stared into space. Fifth wheel clearly didn’t suit her. Suddenly, the waiter was there and we were ordering. I hadn’t looked at the menu--I just ordered a rib eye medium rare. I also ordered a Jack Daniels and ginger ale. My intent was to sit there, have my drink and try not to think. I felt like I was floating above myself, I just couldn’t be present, and the worst part of it was I was sitting next to a woman who was just bad, but I was in no mental state to make much of a move. I knew I should do something about her, but I couldn’t see myself lasting through the night without some kind of a breakdown. The food came and the crew went at it like they were in prison: nobody talked or even seemed to breathe for five minutes or so. I picked at my plate, but the thought of eating made me nauseous. Cass noticed I was struggling; I blamed it on the Percocet. She watched me throw back the rest of my Jack and ginger without a word, but when I went to order another she stepped on my words and changed my order to ginger ale. “Doctor’s orders,” she said and everyone laughed. I didn’t mind. Cathy had had a few more lychee martinis and was now having a grand old time, getting louder and louder. She argued with Rebecca about whether or not Colin Powell would run for presidenct in the next election, and then she started in with Jay when he questioned Will Smith’s sexuality. She tried to order another drink, but everybody stepped in with “noooooo.” Rebecca called for the check, Cathy moaned and whined until the check came about how she wasn’t ready to go; then when the check came she snatched it out from under Rebecca’s credit card (“I CAN PAY FOR MY OWN FUCKING FOOD”); then, the waiter had to hustle up a pen and paper so she could calculate her share plus the tip. Jay finally told her to get her drunk ass up and let’s go. By the time she realized he’d fronted on her, he was at the front door and the rest of us were right behind him. We made our plans while she caught up: someone had to take her home, why didn’t Jay and Rebecca do it in her car and drive themselves home after (Cathy was definitely a drunk-driver if she had her car or keys) and besides, Cass had something at her house which would help my stomach, plus she really must check my shoulder (how long had it been since it was looked at?) and maybe she and I could spend some time, regardless. “You’re not a killer, are you? Am I inviting some psycho to my house girl?” This last from Cass to Rebecca; Jay coughed when he heard her say it. So I followed Cass to her house in my truck. You know the rest. We got to her house, she parked me on the couch, next it’s Luther Vandross from the speakers and she comes sailing out of the bedroom in silk harem pants and a T-shirt that would have been tight on her when she was twelve years old. She took me right into the bathroom and without any fuss took off my shirt and changed my dressing for me, swabbed me with iodine and applied some kind of ointment. She wasn’t no nurse, there was no oohing and aahing. She said she was surprised by the quality of the stitching. When she wrapped me up, it ended up a little too tight so that she had to unwrap and do it again. She called me baby when she asked me if it felt o.k. She was so banging, objectively I could say that, but strangely enough she wasn’t causing me to raise any wood. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem if we got to it. The main question was, would we? She put me back on the couch, and there was some rustling around in the kitchen. She strolled out with two glasses of wine and a couple of pills in her hand. I took the pills and a sip of wine before it occurred to me to ask, “what were those?” “For your stomach. How’s it feeling?” Much better, thank you, so there we were on the suede couch, soft music, wine, candlelight I hadn’t noticed until then bouncing off glass and steel everywhere in the room, the whole place smelling of peach potpourri. We talked about the weather, the books on her bookcase, the proper protection to wear to prevent fatality in gun shot wounds, the likelihood of E. coli in Iraqi water, the terrible state of the dating scene in Raleigh/Durham for a young woman attracted to men of color and my lack of gold teeth; which last fact was more relevant than my marital status. She was pulling me back into the bedroom and unbuttoning my clothes before I really knew what was happening. I was in agony. The same feeling I had experienced with Tabby--the electric shock that starts at the hairline at the base of the neck and extends to the fingers and the toe--was running through me so strong I felt like I wanted to run naked out of her room and into the street, screaming for help. My manhood wouldn’t let me leave (what, run out on a beautiful intelligent woman with nastiness in her eyes and on her lips)? It was embarrassing. We tried for a solid half hour. At first she was passionate but she got more clinical about the whole thing as manual, oral, and finally vaginal stimulation (a last-ditch, damned effort) failed to make it happen. I wanted to cry by the time she finally rolled away from me into a corner of the bed and lay there facing the wall. Another ten minutes and I felt her hand move over and find my thigh. Again the shock; I took her hand off my thigh and held it in mine, where it was just barely tolerable. “I try to tell myself it’s not me. You’ve been through a terrible shock, which may make it a little hard to function. And then there’s the wine and the Percocet.” She didn’t say anything else. I lay there thinking about these little nasty black hairs on her stomach I’d noticed that were just a little too long, they were growing all over her stomach, even climbing up between her breasts. When she was trying to ride me to get me hard, I’d realized that Felicia’s stomach didn’t have any hairs. I couldn’t stop thinking about Felicia and how beautiful she was, how comfortable her hands felt to me, those hands were the last comfort I’d found in the world. I felt Cass shaking next to me, and thought she might be crying. A tear rolled down from the corner of my eye until it dripped off my ear lobe. I lay there on my back in that bedroom, watching the ceiling fan go around and around. At some point, I fell asleep.

Chapter 18

When I woke up, Cass was dead to the world, her arm and leg draped over me. I slid out from under quiet as a mouse so I wouldn’t wake her up. The last thing I wanted to do was wake her up. My mouth was dry as a bone, and my arm was hurting. I hunted around for my clothes and put them on, I didn’t have any bad intentions about it, you know, it just felt strange to be walking around someone’s house naked. I went into the kitchen, got a glass from the cabinet--when I opened the refrigerator door to get water, a feeling hit me so hard it almost knocked me to my knees. I sat down by the refrigerator with a dish towel in my mouth, crying and shaking and thinking about Felicia. I smelled her when I closed my eyes, her under all the perfume. I rose, drank the water right down, and walked out the door. I got in the truck still crying, gasping for air, screaming into my fist as soon as I closed the door. It was about 0330. Felicia’s address was still in the navigation system, about an hour away in the darkness. I didn’t think about whether it was the right thing to do, I just drove. I was going to kill him. I was going to fuck her. I was going to kill her. They would never raise my baby. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to fuck her. I wanted to kill her. They would never raise their own babies. And so on. By the time I turned left at the Haunted Mansion in front of her development, I had progressed to thinking that the bitch had stolen my money to buy a car and I was towing the car back to Hattiesburg with me right after I dragged her around the front yard by her hair. I won’t lie: I was ready to do dirt, down for whatever. I eased in front of her house, and saw…nothing. There were no streetlights on the street. No lights on in any of the houses, there were cars empty and silent in every driveway but hers. I could barely see the shadows of the bushes in the front yard, it was that dark. I parked the truck, reached into the glove compartment, and pulled out the .45. I got out and reconned the area. A few sprinklers hissed in the background. I badly wanted some night vision goggles—I wasn’t used to operating in the dark without them (what soldier is at this point, I felt like a fucking amateur). No sign of life anywhere, only the muffled sound of an alarm clock going off somewhere inside the house. No one leaves an alarm clock going off in their house, certainly not a woman: in my experience, a woman will risk death to turn one off. I came around to the front of the house, racked a round in the chamber, and knocked on the door. I was thinking about shooting a hole in it when a light came on on the porch of the house next door. That light shone on me, a fog was lifted; I realized I wasn’t alone. I looked over my shoulder as I walked back to the truck and saw a scared white face in the neighbor’s window. I waved goodbye to the guy as I got into my truck. I wonder what he told his wife when he got back into bed. Jay called me at around 1000. I was right outside of Atlanta, it was a beautiful sunny morning and I could just see the mirrored skyline of the city in the distance. I had barely missed the traffic; Atlanta has terrible traffic, so that was a blessing. It was right at sixty degrees inside the truck, not too comfortable, and there was a really nice throbbing pain in my shoulder. Pain and cold keep you from getting sleepy, and I still had about six more hours to go before I hit Hattiesburg and could try to sleep at Mama’s. Around Charlotte, I’d gotten depressed and thought about taking six or seven Percocets. Maybe I’d have passed out and run into a bridge abutment or drifted into a semi. Maybe. But that would all be too direct, wouldn’t it? I’d have some responsibility for that, I realize it’s splitting hairs but there’s suicide, and then there’s suicide. It’s Biblical, I think. There’s a way you’ve got to go about it. Here’s Jay on the phone: “Cuz, where the fuck you at?” “Atlanta.” Silence, at least ten seconds. “So you rolling back home?” “Halfway there already.” “How did you leave it with Cass?” “I didn’t.” Another pause. “Shit. I’ll have to hear it from my girl. But it’ll be cool. You straight? You o.k.?” “I’m cool.” “We been through some shit, huh?” “Yeah. You o.k.?” “Man, I’m straight. Baby woke me up with some head, we ‘bout to go get some breakfast. Tell Mama I miss her when you see her.” “I got it.” “I love you, cuz.” “I love you, too, Jay.” That night I cried myself to sleep on the couch in my nearly empty apartment off Lincoln Road in Hattiesburg. If it wasn’t completely empty, it was only because Mama was in the bedroom, in my bed, watching T.V. and eating a chocolate croissant from Starbucks.

Chapter 19

Guard duty isn’t really that complex, and it’s most of what we do when deployed in a contingency area. No patrols unless you’re stupid enough to be infantry. You just stand there and check everyone’s I.D. You draw down on anyone who looks suspicious, and you have the permission to give a couple of warnings and then just start shooting if someone looks suspicious. It helps to give a warning shot that means business; there’s a .50 cal behind you to help with that. One warning shot to the side of the car and then just tear it in half if they keep on coming. You really don’t have to give the warning shot, but it’s a courtesy we like to extend. We even do it every now and again to the KBR guys, when they get overaggressive. No one is too big to pay attention. No one. Even the CG slows down when he comes on post, but we wouldn’t shoot him. He’s just setting a good example. Of course, any Iraqi who acts up or looks strange, even if we’ve known him for months, is getting fucked up. “You were home for what, Sarge? A month?” Pineda’s skin is clearing up pretty good. She says it’s because she started washing it with Evian she bought at the PX, although it costs her a fortune. She’s now CPL Pineda, although she pretends she doesn’t give a shit. “About that.” Here’s a hajji approaching the gate trying to sell us a chicken. I just shake my head at him and he steps back, giving me a gapped-tooth grin. “And here you are back. I don’t know that I’d have done that. I get out in three months, and I’m going to look for a job.” She takes a long swig from her canteen. “How’s the job market? Are there jobs in law enforcement?” “You shouldn’t have a problem, depending on where you want to live.” A new E2, Jenkins, is standing next to her. “I don’t know, Sarge. I ain’t trying to live in New Mexico. I hear the job market most places is tough.” “Depends on who you are, Jenkins. Pineda should do o.k. So should you.” Life after the military, dream a little dream. That’s what we talk about on guard duty. “I might re-up.” I look at Pineda, but I can’t read her expression. Her lips are straight and her eyes are hidden behind mirrored goggles. The sand and dust will eat you alive out here if you’re not careful. I wear a pair of fake Oakleys, myself, but hers look like the real deal. “I support that. You’re a good soldier, Pineda.” “What do they give? What did you get when you came back?” She whispers this, a baby soft whisper. Jenkins has gone to the barrier to check the I.D. of a young blonde guy with a deep tan in a BMW. He’s probably an American; most likely aiming for the contract office, begging to sell goods and services. “Ten thousand.” Her head snaps around. “No shit?” “No shit.” She whistles and we keep watching Jenkins. “I see why you came back, Sarge.” “No, I came back here to die.” I hack a few times until something comes up from the back of my throat. I spit it on the ground and swallow the grit it leaves behind on my tongue. Pineda laughs at my answer, and Jenkins comes back and joins in the laughter. He doesn’t know what he’s laughing at; he just plays the fool and joins in.

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