Hymn to the Chaos
Even before it was clear they were bankrupt, Mike described the American economy as a hideous gargantuan lawn mower—the creation of some Deist’s god who set it roaring across the lawn and ambled back inside for a beer—all cogs and gears and whipping blades, stopping for nothing. A start up like his and Pam’s was tantamount to attaching another small machine into the mammoth jumble of constantly moving parts: if the little guy wasn’t well-oiled and cranking away from the beginning, it’d be churned under, mangled and sprayed away in pieces like a toy hidden in the grass. For a small business owner, the stuffing that scattered and drifted was life itself.
That song “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille” kept reeling through Mike’s head, with the lyrics he and his friends sang in junior high: you picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel. Now he had three boys, the oldest just eight, and Pam was gone, with only her clothes. That damn song kept rising up in his head; stupid as it was, it filled him with despair; he had to swallow hard every time to keep from breaking out in sobs. One night he rented that movie Because of Winn Dixie, and had to leave the room twice, pretending to go to the bathroom, to keep from crying in front of the boys.
Mike had a free hour after the breakfast rush. He would have to bust ass on lunch prep. Pam had finally agreed to meet him. She picked a coffee shop called The Daily Grind.
The two big tables in the middle were pulled together, full of stay-at-home mommies: muffin crumbs, toys scattered across the floor, strollers parked along the wall, diaper bags and shopping bags leaning together, babies on laps, babies sitting, crawling, ripping apart sugar packets on the floor. One woman was nursing without so much as a cloth diaper over her shoulder. She had on Gucci glasses and fingered a Mercedes Benz key ring with her free hand. The mommies all talked at once, no one listening, like the adult conversation was at max pressure and they were determined to bleed some off before naptime.
The girl behind the counter reluctantly left her homework to help him. He ordered a black coffee and drank it, had his free in-house refill then got another cup. He was sweating and needed to piss. His lunch prep time was being gnawed away while he sat on his ass. Twenty minutes, thirty-five minutes. He sat staring at the cup, empty but still steaming, he’d sucked the coffee down so fast. The mommy club prattled on. College kids came and left. Forty minutes.
“Excuse me,” Mike said to the girl. “I was supposed to meet my wife here. Did anyone stop in while I was in the bathroom—a Chilean woman?”
“No,” the girl said, “but we have another location across town. People get mixed up all the time.” She closed her Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, on her ink pen. “You want me to call over there?”
“Would you?” He turned and looked out the front doors. Each one had espresso, backwards from inside, in fancy little black letters.
“No problem.” She poked one button on the handset and waited.
Mike needed to piss again already. Lunch was going to be hell. Jerry, the owner, would try to prep him and get it all dicked up and half-done and Mike would be chopping peppers and onions in the middle of the rush with a bread knife while waitresses stopped their running for long instants to stare at him with their arms crossed.
“Katie?” The girl turned and smiled at Mike. She had freckles across her nose. “Is there a woman waiting for somebody over there?”
She picked up another ink pen and twirled it in her fingers. She said, “Not Mexican, Chilean… she’s there? Hold on.”
The girl held the phone across the counter to Mike.
“I specifically told you the new one.” Pam said.
“I’m sorry. I’ll come over there.”
“I have to leave.” She asked her barista for a to-go cup.
“When are we going to talk?”
“I don’t know.”
“The boys cry for you.”
The mommy club burst out into laughter. One of them was holding up a piece of notebook paper with writing and stick figures drawn on it. A timer started buzzing in the back of the store and the girl behind the counter jogged back.
“Just come over tonight, we–”
“That’s no good.”
“Why the hell not?”
“It’ll give the boys the wrong idea.”
“The idea that their mother abandoned them?”
“I love those boys—”
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“This conversation is over.”
“How about we just meet somewhere for dinner. We can go out of town so your lover doesn’t see you with your husband and kids.”
Pam hung up.
The girl was on her way from the back clutching sleeves of to-go cups like a farm girl carrying corn stalks. He put a dollar in her jar. She said thanks and gave him a scrunch-nosed grin.
The lunch rush kicked Mike’s ass, and didn’t end until after three. At 4:30 he went home. The smell in the old rented house was familiar—what his mom called cowmoomush, but it was just chilimac with potatoes in it. It was something the boys would eat so she made it at least once a week.
“I have to run,” she said, putting on her sweatshirt, “I’ve got Vacation Bible School this week.”
“We were building the new sanctuary this summer, remember? So VBS is now.”
Mike collapsed on a kitchen chair and Baby Andy scrambled from the back of the house and climbed into his lap. There was a single orange dreadlock down the side of Andy’s head; it had that tangy tomato smell of Kroger spaghetti rings. Andy wriggled back out of Mike’s arms, took a few wild half-running steps, dove to his hands and knees, which were already paddling before he hit the floor, and scurried like an alien down the hall to the bedrooms.
As Mike’s mom backed out of the driveway, one of the older boys started howling. Mike reached down and massaged the throbbing behind his knees. There was a heavy thud, a long pause, and the other one started crying. Then a slap, and Baby Andy joined in and they were all three crying, and baby Andy wailed, “Mommy.”
Mike decided the American economy wasn’t like a machine at all. It didn’t have that kind of control. It was the Serengeti, like that poster about getting up running every morning, where each cruel moment was an intense focuse on survival. Pam and Mike had kept the restaurant open for three years.
Somehow, during that time they’d added Andy to the brood, popping him out and turning right back to the business, leaving him in the back office with sippy cups and potato chips and cheese slices and Barney videos, while Mike busted ass on the line and Pam stalked in and out of the kitchen yelling instructions to the wait staff. They had done this for an entire year already knowing it was doomed. The predators and scavengers alike—vendors, banks, government agencies, insurance companies, creditors—were circling in the high grass. They all wanted to get what they could before there was nothing left but a pile of cleaned bones.
Mike’s mom came at five the next morning. She lumbered in the door and said, “Mike, it’d make my life much simpler if you’d put the dinner dishes in the sink, and pick up their clothes off the bathroom floor. And drain the bathwater. Please”
“I was tired last night.”
“You’re tired every night. I’m tired. Everybody’s tired.” She limped to the table and started gathering up the plastic plates. “Doesn’t look any worse than it did when Pam was here,” she said. “She wasn‘t much on housecleaning.”
Mike’s mom came in every morning wearing the same sweatshirt, with an embroidered pot of flowers on the front and pills all over the sleeves and dirty cuffs stretched loose from being pushed up her arm. She then crashed on the couch till it was time to get the boys up for school. Sometimes she overslept. Arturo—Mike’s oldest, named after Pam’s dad, told him. Arturo and Allen had missed so much school that a letter had come telling Mike he had to come to the school for a truancy meeting or further action would be taken. They’d scheduled the meeting in the middle of his breakfast rush and he hadn’t had the energy to respond. The date came and went.
He said, “Sorry, Mom.”
She waved and sank into her spot on the couch as if someone were pulling on her shoulders.
“See you tonight.”
She waved again and swung her legs up onto the couch, hugging that sweatshirt.
On his way into work that Talking Heads song came on, and when the guy said in astonishment, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife,” Mike had a surreal, head-spinning sensation that this wasn’t his life. He never in his strangest dreams would have found himself here, but here he was without question, and the most astonishing thing was that this which was not his life, sure as shit was his life. He pulled onto the shoulder of the road and pounded his steering wheel and growled and shouted. He sat breathing heavily for a few seconds, but pulled himself together quickly. Breakfast prep was waiting for him.
Instead of stepping out back for a smoke after the breakfast rush, Mike went into the office, closed the door and called Pam. The carpet was so matted down with tramped in food and grease a wire brush couldn’t have picked apart the fibers; right beside the white tile of the kitchen floor the carpet was as smooth and black as a tar patch in the road.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Please just come over and see the boys.”
“I could come and get the boys. Take them to McDonalds’s play gym. Right now, I don’t think it’s the best idea for us—”
“To just talk?” Mike took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”
“It’s not getting us anywhere.”
“Just tell me if there’s a chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“For us to be a family again.”
“We haven’t been a family for years, Mike.”
“That’s not true.” Mike put his hand over his eyes.
She was silent for a long instant, and then said, “Too much has happened. We’re both different people.”
“I don‘t believe that.”
“This is not a productive conversation.”
A box of new water glasses was flipped open with a few yanked out on the old wooden file cabinet beside the desk; the desk was stacked with paperwork and a flipped-open box of clear plastic condiment bottles. Mike hadn’t taken off his apron. It smelled like Italian vinaigrette.
A waitress walked into the office to get linen napkins off the back shelf. It was Ashleigh, the twenty-four year old with two kids. She’d just kicked her boyfriend out.
She cut the twine off the bundled napkins with a wood-handled steak knife and pulled out two folded stacks of twenty-five napkins. She said, “You’re so intense on the line. It’s like you’re an artist, the way you concentrate.”
He didn’t say anything.
She turned and smiled at him, holding the napkins curled in her arm like a baby. In the dark office her face almost looked like an apparition—light eyes, small nose, pale lips—like there was no face there at all; it was more a suggestion of face than actual face, a reference to face, something that makes you think of face. Her ears turned out just a little. She kept her hair, so blonde as to add no real border to her fair face, pulled back in a ponytail. She never wore makeup.
“Oops, sorry, dude,” she said when she saw he was on the phone. She curled her fist in front of her mouth as if spitting out watermelon seeds and was gone.
“Hello?” Pam’s voice said.
Mike told her he was trying to be productive, he just didn’t know where to start and she could tell him what she needed from him, he’d do anything to save their family.
Pam said again that this was getting them nowhere so she was going, and he said wait, but she’d hung up the phone.
When Mike stepped out of the office into the bright kitchen, Jerry was rushing through. He told Mike that his dish bitch had just called in and quit with no notice, so his plater was on dishes for the next couple of days and Mike would just have to plate for himself. He’d better get prepped out the ass.
Mike decided that having a small business in America was like being on a jet ski in the middle of the roiling sea, with tankers and cargo ships looming and heaving on all sides. The forces that buffeted his little business hadn’t had the kind of purpose that animals did: winds blew here or there, seas rose and fell, all in total indifference to Mike and Pam. It was chaos.
Chaos had been Pam’s word. One day Mike and Pam had tried to waterproof their basement. They staffed the restaurant with their best people, though they could hardly afford the payroll hours, and stayed home all day working on it. Mike ordered nine tons of fill dirt and carted it with the neighbor’s wheelbarrow around the house load by load, all day long, then raked it and seeded it in the dark. Pam scrubbed down the cinderblock walls and concrete floor with bleach, and painted the walls with a sealant thick as muffin batter. That night Mike lay in bed with a dull ache in his legs and a sharp pain jagging across his spine. Pam wheezed and coughed and struggled to breathe, having bleached her lungs.
That same night it stormed so hard that the boys ran and crawled into their bed. Holding his back, Mike eased down the basement steps just far enough to see, not only water running in, but water swirling brown with the fill dirt he’d just spent twelve hours shoveling against the back wall. It broke through the still-damp sealant and trickled in little brown streams down Pam’s fresh white walls.
“The basement’s flooding,” he whispered as he sat on the edge of the bed and tried to pry his pillow from Arturo.
Pam shot him a hate-filled glare.
Pam cried, “You do everything you can to get it together and push back the chaos, and there God is to shove it right back in your face.” She rolled to face the wall and was silent. The boys stirred and nuzzled and fell right off to sleep.
Chaos. An ocean of it. That was it. The two of them had held on to their tiny craft in the crashing storm, and eventually Pam had run out of strength. It was that simple: she’d lost her grip and was swept away in a blinding white squall.
Mike finished the rush, did some prep for the next day and went home. He fed the boys Kroger spaghetti rings and meatballs for dinner, bathed them, played roughhouse on their beds, rolling over the dirty clothes on their floor. At bedtime, all three crawled into his bed. He lay down with them.
After they were asleep, he swung himself out of bed and called her. He told her everything he’d been thinking about the Chaos and how it was like the ocean and it had ripped them apart, but now they had the chance to hold it together. Someday when they were old and sitting together at a boy’s college graduation or wedding, they could raise their hands with fingers intertwined and shout fuck you to the Chaos because it didn’t win.
He was out of breath when he finished.
After a long pause, Pam said, “You are thirty-five years old and you have no retirement.”
Mike did not say anything.
“No retirement, Mike.”
He hung up the phone and wept until he was exhausted. He crawled back into his bed with the boys, rolling Andy out of his way like a twenty-five pound sack of sugar.
The next morning’s breakfast rush was steady. Mike got in a groove. When it ended, he did the lunch prep without even taking a smoke break. The lunch came early and built in successively heavier waves until they were swamped and the waitresses were skipping around each other, raising hell at the new dish bitch. He’d just gotten out of prison for possession with intent; he was slow and nervous at the Hobart.
“It’s okay, dude,” Mike yelled across the line to him. “Two hours, tops. You can do anything for two hours.”
“No shit,” the dish bitch said. “You can do anything for two years.” He was skinny and tall with a shaved head. The back of his neck was covered in tribal pattern tattoos.
The rush intensified. Mike drove the line like a ship’s captain, yelling out orders, setting up his own plates so the platers could run food and bus for the waitresses. When it died down, he grabbed a bottle of water from the bar and stepped out the back door to smoke.
Halfway through his cigarette, Ashleigh bounded out the back door holding a five-dollar bill toward him. “A guy told me to give this to the chef. He said it was the best steak he’d ever eaten.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “It was a grilled piece of meat, for Christ’s sake.”
“Shut up and take a compliment for once.” She shoved the money into the pocket of his smock, accidentally knocking his thermometer onto the asphalt.
“Oops,” she was down and back up before Mike registered what happened. As she handed him the thermometer, she said, “You were hot today, dude.”
“Every now and then it’s in sync.”
“You really are an artist on that line. It’s like you control the chaos.”
Mike jerked his head and looked at her. Her eyes were a striking light blue up close.
“What?” She pulled her head back.
“You just said chaos…”
“That’s what it is in there. Controlled chaos.”
Mike flicked his cigarette in a high arc. It bounced once and disappeared down the rusty iron grate in the middle of the back lot.
Ashleigh pushed a string of her blonde hair behind her little ear and said, “Can I buy you a beer sometime?” One of her black plastic shoes was cracked down the side, and the other had a dried gravy spill chipping off it.
She looked down at her shoes and her blouse brushed against the sleeve of his smock. “Just to hang out,” she said.
He said, “A beer sounds great.”
They watched cars curve around the freeway on-ramp that ran behind the restaurant.
She said, “Well, I’m going to get on my side work.” She patted his shoulder.
“Okay.” Mike lit one more cigarette.
“When can I get you the beer?”
“I have to see when mom can keep the boys.” He didn’t make eye contact. Pam had had the affair, she’d run out, and he was the one feeling guilty about Ashleigh. He set out to walk a wide circle around the parking lot before getting on prep.
“Okay,” Ashleigh said. “Let me know.”
He waved and kept walking.
On his way home, Mike took the five dollars into the dollar store and bought cheap toys for the boys; blinking pumpkin flashlights left over from Halloween for the older boys and a whistling ball for Baby Andy. He’d want a light too but he’d try to gnaw on the bulb.
His mom saw him coming, was pulling on her dirty flowerpot sweatshirt as he entered the house. She said she wanted to have the boys for four days the following week, at her house. She was taking them to a special Veggie Tales thing at her church and it would be easier if she didn’t have to drive an hour every morning to get them and then drive all the way back when the church was right down the street from her house.
Mike sat down and picked up Baby Andy. He gave him the ball. When it whistled Baby Andy tried to imitate the sound. The older boys bounded down the hall like dogs to the whistle. Mike gave them their blinking pumpkins but they wanted to play with Andy’s ball.
“Dinner’s in the oven,” his mom said as she opened the door.
“Smells great too,” Mike said. It was baking, but it smelled like cowmoomush.
Later Pam called to talk to the boys. Mike gave the phone to them and let them talk. Rage rose inside him as the boys chatted away with their mother. When they were all finished, he hung up without saying anything at all to her. He paced through the house holding the phone, taking air slowly in through his pursed lips, trying to calm down, trying not to do something stupid, like throw the phone through the window.
He played roughhouse with the boys, and then they crawled into bed with him. He was so tired he slept all night, not awakened by the boys once.
Ashleigh’s shirt had stains down the front from a busy lunch; there was a smeared green stain on the back of her shoulder too, Mike recognized that. It was from a baby’s mouth. She’d stopped at the line during a lull to chat with him. He’d watched her come and go all morning, waiting for this.
Mike told her the boys were at his mom’s house. He was free for three whole evenings. The house was too quiet when they weren’t there. It made him feel like crawling out of his skin, he told her. Just as he’d hoped, she said it was her chance to get him that beer. They agreed to meet at La Hacienda for margaritas and dinner. Ashleigh’s mother lived next door to her and would be happy to keep her two girls.
Mike had a date. The strangeness of it all made him laugh out loud a couple of times while he showered and got ready. She was in the bar waiting for him. Her hair was down, and she was wearing makeup, and Mike had to consciously not stare at her, she was so beautiful. She had on a silky jacket/blouse thing that showed light freckles on her chest. She had on jeans and sandals. She got up and hugged him. She felt thin and fragile, her breasts soft against him.
Their waitress was a short Mexican lady with a square body and pockmarked face. She spoke very little English. Mike ordered a Negro Modelo, and Ashleigh ordered a frozen Margarita.
They talked as they ate dinner, and ordered more drinks afterward. It was comfortable. Eventually Mike asked about her girls’ father.
She talked for a while, then said, “He was a total leach. It‘s hard to believe I allowed myself to be so systematically used. I decided taking care of two little ones would be easier than two little ones and one big one.” Ashleigh was on her second margarita, her blue eyes moist, mirthful, aglow.
Mike was on his third Negro Modelo. He took a long drink. It was cold and went down easy. “Would you ever take him back? I mean, if he changed.”
“I couldn’t. I’ve worked too hard to finally have enough respect for myself–no, I could never take him back.” She dipped a chip in the leftover guacamole on her plate, held her hand under it while biting, and said with her mouth full, “My mom told me when people show you who they are, you’d better believe them.” She chewed and swallowed. “He showed me for five years. He’s not going to change.”
They ate without talking for a while, then Ashleigh asked, “What about your ex?”
“She had an affair for eight months and then walked out on me and the boys.”
She shook her head. “I can see leaving a man,” she said, “but your children? I don’t get that.”
“I don’t know.” Mike took another long swallow of beer.
“She can’t be well. Not to run out on her children like that.” Ashleigh was getting less careful, letting her blouse drop open as she reached for chips; Mike caught glimpses of the lacy black bra cupping her right breast.
He waved the waitress down and asked for another beer. Then he talked himself into another aha moment. “She’s not well,” he said. “I don’t know what her childhood in Chile was like, she never talked about it, but she was a leach too, like your ex—an emotional parasite. She latched onto me and sucked me dry. I was so empty for years and she kept on sucking until it felt like my ribcage was pressed against my backbone, like my soul was a milk jug with all the air sucked out.”
“That sounds miserable,” Ashleigh said. She picked up her glass, held it near her mouth, but didn’t take a drink. Her fingers were long and thin. “It might not feel like it right now, but maybe she did you a favor.”
Mike liked where this was going. “We were both miserable. We were both empty. Her need was ravenous and I had nowhere to go to replenish myself. Eventually she went scurrying off to find someone else to bleed.”
That was it. Ashleigh was talking, but he was thinking of this: the Chaos was something people rode every day. He did, and much of the time enjoyed it; their dysfunctional relationship was the problem all along. Ashleigh had just used the word dysfunctional.
She said, “I had to get myself into therapy to find out why I let him treat me like that.”
“Why did you?”
“My dad abused my mom,” she said. “And, you know…”
She waved it off. “We all have our shit, don’t we.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “We do.”
“Enough depressing talk.” Ashleigh flipped out her hand, accidentally backhanding the waitress, who had slipped in to clear away plates, right in the face. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she said, putting one hand on the lady’s forearm and the other over her own mouth, “Like your job’s not hard enough without people smacking you.” Her voice was muffled through her fingers. Her eyes were wide with horror.
The waitress laughed and shrugged and said, “No problem,” and asked if we wanted more to drink.
Mike was ready to stay and have another.
“Actually, I have to get home soon.” Ashleigh’s hands were shaking and she didn’t look up.
“Just the check, thank you,” Mike said, then tossed back the last sip of beer.
The waitress nodded and was gone.
“You have to get home?” Mike tapped his empty beer bottle on the table.
“Mom doesn’t want to keep the girls late tonight.” She covered her eyes and said, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Forget about it.” Mike leaned back and took a deep breath. “You have to get them tonight.”
Ashleigh nodded. “They’re with their father tomorrow…” She shot him her attempt at a naughty grin, then looked immediately back down. “For the next two days they are,” she said, working her purse strap like a rosary.
“You want to do something tomorrow night?” Mike turned his bottle, rubbing stripes in the condensation.
“I was already planning on it.” She paused while he signed the credit receipt. “God, here I was supposed to be buying you a beer, and I’m beating up the waitress while you pay for dinner.” She threw her arms up. “Guess I might as well make a true impression from the start.”
He said, “It’s been worth it.”
“You like salmon and roasted root vegetables?”
“I like anything.”
“I’m cooking for you tomorrow night then. You drink wine?”
“Sure.” He didn’t, but he would.
At her car, Ashleigh leaned out and kissed him. He pushed a strand of her hair behind her little ear and then touched her face. It was a much too familiar gesture, something he’d always done with Pam. But she leaned her head into his hand and smiled.
“I’ll make up for tonight,” she said.
He said, “Shut up.”
They kissed in the dark parking lot until the restaurant doors swung open and an entire family jumbled out, talking loud and laughing.
As she got into her car, she said, “Tomorrow night for real? You’re not just getting rid of me?”
He said. “I hope for real.”
When he got home, the house was eerily silent, there were no dishes piled in the sink. The kitchen trash reeked of shitty diaper. Mike walked down to the boys’ room. The Game Cube Mike’s dad shipped them for Christmas was in the middle of the floor with the lid open, controllers pulled toward the beds over the piles of dirty clothes. Arturo’s desk had four empty juice boxes on it, squeezed in the middle like toothpaste tubes.
The phone rang in the kitchen.
Pam’s voice said, “Can I talk to the boys?”
“They’re with Mom this weekend.” Mike tapped out a cigarette and lit it. “You want me to call over there and have them call you?” He made a loose O with his lips and blew out smoke. Baby Andy’s stuffed raccoon lay under the open dishwasher door; it was on its side like road kill, nose gummed and sucked to a spindly point.
“No, that’s okay. Just tell them I called and I love them.”
“I will,” Mike said.
Twelve years they’d been married. Mike almost passed out giving her enemas when she suffered a third degree tear pushing Arturo into the world—the jagged scabs and purple flesh swelling against the stitches, her caught breath and cries as he tried to be gentle, tried to hold it together. So long ago. A different life. This voice on the phone was a stranger’s.
“Can I ask you something?” the voice said.
“Sure.” He flicked ash into the sink.
“Are you dating Ashleigh Conner?”
Out in the backyard the boys’ bicycles lay where dropped, handlebars twisted flat on the ground, front wheels sticking straight up. Baby Andy’s blue and white scooter dangled where it had been wound up in a swing chain.
There was no breeze. Everything was as still as a photograph.
“I went on a date with someone,” he said. He didn’t know Ashleigh’s last name. “Why’s it matter to you?” He couldn’t remember seeing anyone who might have called and told her about his date.
Pam was tentative. “I don’t know if this is a good time, but I’ve been thinking. About the boys, and you and everything. I’m ready to talk about reconciliation.”
Mike said, “Where the hell did this come from?”
“It might be hard to believe, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
“What about what’s his name?” Mike took a deep hit of his cigarette and held the smoke.
“It wasn’t right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She was crying. “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I hurt the boys. You’re my family.”
Mike had been down between swells for so long he was only used to looking straight up; but he was finally rising—on this wave named Ashleigh. He could still smell her perfume on his shirt. He wouldn’t stop it, not for a stranger on the phone.
“Mike?” the voice said. “You there?”
He tapped ash in the sink again and turned on the water. The ash looped and hovered, looped again and twirled down the drain.
“Hymn to the Chaos” was originally published in Blue Mesa Review
Originally posted on Vic Sizemore:
The joke goes like this: What does a lesbian drive to her second date? A U-haul. What makes me think of the joke right now is my girlfriend Elaine. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a lesbian.
This morning Elaine and I lounged in her loft and watched CBS Sunday Morning over coffee and blueberry scones, we ran by Barnes & Noble for a new crossword puzzle book. I priced new cell phones. Right now we’ve just finished an early lunch at Nawab. I got my mutton red masala Indian hot, and it lit me up, so I ordered a second 22 oz. Taj Mahal. I have a buzz going in the early afternoon and not a single thing I have to get accomplished today.
Taj Mahal isn’t bad. It’s beer. You know what they say about beer and sex and pizza: when it’s good it’s great, and when it’s…
View original 3,155 more words
The joke goes like this: What does a lesbian drive to her second date? A U-haul. What makes me think of the joke right now is my girlfriend Elaine. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a lesbian.
This morning Elaine and I lounged in her loft and watched CBS Sunday Morning over coffee and blueberry scones, we ran by Barnes & Noble for a new crossword puzzle book. I priced new cell phones. Right now we’ve just finished an early lunch at Nawab. I got my mutton red masala Indian hot, and it lit me up, so I ordered a second 22 oz. Taj Mahal. I have a buzz going in the early afternoon and not a single thing I have to get accomplished today.
Taj Mahal isn’t bad. It’s beer. You know what they say about beer and sex and pizza: when it’s good it’s great, and when it’s not good… it’s still not all that bad. I told that one in the office once and my paralegal didn’t even look up from her desk as she said, “There’s a man’s perspective.”
The thing about the lesbian joke. Since my wife and I split, I’ve been out with a few women, and let me tell you, at my age, it ain’t just lesbians ready to load up the U-haul—it’s all of them, brother. That’s a punch line too true to be funny. Like the one about which food reduces a woman’s sex drive by 99%. Wedding cake. Right. You tell a married man that one and watch his laugh trail off into a gloomy sigh.
I haven’t heard any, but I suppose the jokes about gay men would have something to do with hit-and-run sex. What I’m thinking right now (while the Indian man at the register swipes my VISA and perfunctorily asks if my meal was okay without making eye contact) is that maybe lesbians and gay men have it easier in one enormous way: there isn’t all that Mars and Venus nonsense; they are wired to want basically the same thing their partners want. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
How I come to all of this is from musing on my good fortune at dating Elaine. She is physically feminine and sexy, but she interacts like a man, deals in facts, doesn’t manipulate. She is professionally successful, has her own money, her own place, and obviously needs no one to take care of her. She’s blunt, which I like; you know where you stand with her. Elaine is quite simply the best of all possible worlds.
I walk out of the dark restaurant full of food and booze. Our morning has been pregnant with sex humor and innuendo–afternoon delight back at her loft is the only other thing on the agenda for today. I can stay the night if I want, or go sleep in my own bed. No pressure, no responsibility. I laugh when I think about it.
Opening the door, Elaine says, “I need to swing by Burlington Coat Factory and pick up a gift.”
Air sucks into the entry as we open the door to leave, and it’s as hot as a blast of exhaust behind a city bus. This is the middle of October, and we should be riding the long, balmy descent into Fall, but the temperature has spiked into the low 90’s. The day is bright and shimmers like a mirage. Cars are inching around looking for spots. Thumping bass rattles from a car stopped at the light out at the edge of the parking lot. The light changes, the car turns, and the thumping recedes behind the Long John Silver’s across the road.
“No problem,” I say. “We’ve got all delightful afternoon.” Corny, I know, but I don’t care.
She reaches back and puts her palm lightly on the crotch of my chinos. I pull her back and she bares her neck for me to kiss. Her silky brown hair is cool from the restaurant, and at the base of her skull it still smells of her lavender shampoo from this morning.
“It’s a baby gift,” she says. “By the way, we’ve got a baby shower next Sunday.”
“A baby shower?” I say, “With men?”
“Yeah.” She takes my arm and leans into me. I have to lean back so she doesn’t drive me off the sidewalk. “I’m glad husbands are coming. Maybe there won’t be all those stupid little games.”
“Men at a baby shower?”
“Things are changing, old man.” She teases me about my age. I’m 47. I read in an Atlantic Monthly article several years ago that the average life expectancy for a man at the turn of the last century was, no shit, 54. Now 40 is the new 30, the life expectancy is still rising. I’m a young and fit 47. She’s an even fitter 32.
Men at baby showers. There’s something else that’s changed. A symbolic gesture, I guess. A nod to the way things are now—men expected to not just provide but actually nurture: to dip food from jars with rubber-tipped spoons, throw a cloth diaper (or whatever they use now) over the shoulder to pat out a gurgling burp. Change shitty diapers.
I say, “God, I’m glad those days are over.” My two are teenagers.
Elaine talks all the way down the sidewalk about silly baby shower games. We walk past the coin laundry, the CVS Pharmacy, The Sally beauty supply place. A man cruises by in a Jeep and it’s obvious he’s checking Elaine out from behind his sunglasses. I put my arm around her shoulder and smile at him. She describes game after game. Her tone is derisive, and her voice carries, has an assumed authority that takes effort to question. Elaine practices corporate; she’s the youngest member on the city council. She has a reputation in town: she’s not to be trifled with. I love it. I laugh again.
By the time we get to the doors at Burlington, she’s jumped to bachelorette parties. Once she won a door prize that was a pink pacifier shaped like a penis.
“You sure men are supposed to be there?” I ask.
“It’ll be fun. Come on.”
I follow her. On either side are brown-carpeted areas filled with rack after rack of clothing. Down the middle is a tile floor that gleams like the yellow brick road. I lag so I can watch her walk.
Her fit round butt fills the khakis just right. This morning I watched from the bathroom where I was toweling off as she pulled on a conservative pair of cotton panties. My impulse was to go out and pull them right back off. I’ve learned at least one important thing about women from being married though, so I resisted the urge. I move up and take her hand. People glance at us, and I can see them doing the math in their heads. I can’t stop smiling. The hot food, the beer, beautiful Elaine—this moment is a fuzzy and floating dream: not long, not long now and we’ll be back in her loft making love.
The lady at the Baby Depot desk is pregnant. She has on a loose purple flower-print dress and her cheeks are puffy as a chipmunk’s. There are two other women shopping. One is pregnant and one has a newborn hanging from her shoulder in what looks like a knotted piece of burlap. They both lean back and flip their toes out like duck feet when they walk.
As we sit at the desk, Elaine says, “How far along are you?”
“Eight months.” She leans back and cradles the mound of her stomach.
“Are you ready?”
“Lord, yes.” She taps the space bar to wake up her computer. “With my first, I was two weeks late. This one. Lord help me…”
Elaine leans up and puts her hands on the desk. “Do you know the sex?” Her voice sounds strange. It’s changing in pitch, going high and soft.
The lady winces. “Yes,” she says, “it’s a boy.” She puts her hand on the side of her belly. “And he’s a soccer player.”
Elaine laughs and stands up and leans out over the desk. “May I feel?”
She takes Elaine’s palm and slides it around the side of her belly. “Feel that?”
“Oh my god,” Elaine says. “Wow. Yes. Yes I can.”
“That’s his foot.”
“Oh my god,” Elaine says again. She sits back down and puts her hands in her lap.
The lady taps something on her keyboard, then looks up at us, ready to get to business. “Are you expecting?” She looks from Elaine to me, and then back to Elaine.
Elaine laughs. “Us?” she says. She looks at me and her whole face blooms in a bright bemused smile.
“If you wait till you’re ready, you never will,” the lady says. She raises her eyebrows at me. She looks back to the computer screen. “Registry?”
Elaine says, “Yes.”
Elaine gives her the name of both husband and wife.
The lady says, “I remember her. So pretty.”
“Isn’t she,” Elaine says. “And so tiny. From behind, you can’t even tell she’s pregnant.”
“I hate girls like that.” The lady tears off a printout and holds it out over her belly.
Elaine takes it, turns to me, smiles.
I smile back. The booze and the Indian food aren’t mixing well.
Elaine stands and pulls her shirt down at her slim hips. The fabric goes taut on her breasts. She takes my hand and pulls me from my seat. She says, “You ready to do this?”
The first item we come to is a stroller. Not the kind my kids had. This thing has bicycle wheels, spokes, air-filled rubber tires with heavy tread like a mountain bike. Baby Trend Expedition it’s called. It has black rubber grips and a cup holder on either side of a flip up wipe box.
“Honey,” Elaine says. (We haven’t said I love you yet, but somewhere we fell into using endearments.) “Honey,” she says, “look how nice.” She grips the handles and stares down at it like a teenager in her first car. “It really is perfect for staying in shape after the baby comes.”
“Is this woman pretty active?” I ask her. Over the top of the racks, on the other side of the store, a good football field away, is a brown restroom sign. My stomach gurgles.
It’s so comfortable,” she says. “Try it.” She takes my hand and puts it on the grip.
There is a Velcro flap over a plastic sun window on the roof of the stroller, the kind that get cloudy and brittle with age. On the top of the flap the warnings are indicated by a yellow exclamation point inside a triangle. My gut is starting to feel like boiling oatmeal.
“Sweetheart,” she says, picking up a Happy Hippo Gym, “isn’t this cute.”
One of those plastic arches you put over a baby so it can grab and bat at the colorful dangling shit. Her voice has steadily gone high and soft, and now it’s occasionally tipping into falsetto.
The indigestion is getting to me. I feel a little dizzy as I follow her around a corner to the next aisle, which is extra-wide to accommodate cribs and changing tables. Purple and pink and blue pastels all around. She looks at a Duchess Collection 3 in 1 crib, she checks the printout.
“Someone’s already bought them this,” she says. “I’ll bet the new grandpa, by the price tag.”
My oldest is seventeen. She’s sexually active. Her mother put her on the pill a year ago. My being a grandpa is by no means out of the realm of possibility.
While I’m thinking about this, the smell hits me. It comes from the dresser beside the crib. Elaine has just picked up a Johnson’s Bedtime Sweet Sleep Set: liquid bath soap, baby lotion, wipes, a goddamn stiff-paged copy of Goodnight Moon.
It’s the wipes. Somehow I smell that sickening perfume of baby wipes, and it doesn’t bring back specific memories, but nevertheless fills me with… I’m at a loss here, not sure what I’m filled with, but it’s unpleasant in the extreme.
“That smell brings back memories,” I say.
“Did you change diapers?”
She smirks at me and says, “You’re a good dad.”
She puts the bedtime set down and picks up a picture. She almost sings, “Honey, this is the cutest thing.” It’s a baseball glove with fat little fingers, and a ball in the pocket and in blue letters the word, champ. That’s all it is, a picture of a baseball glove and a baseball.
At this point, two memories do hit me. One is of driving down Boyd Avenue with Elaine toward her loft not a week ago. I saw a woman with a red-headed baby and said, “Look at that red-headed baby,” to which Elaine responded, “I want a red-headed baby.”
The second memory is of our first real date. We were having an after dinner drink and talking shop. She made the statement, apropos of nothing we were discussing, “I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to. I’m ready to make some changes—take on different challenges.” At the time I didn’t consider what she meant by that.
She holds the picture out at arm’s length and says, “I love little boy stuff.” She’s positively cooing now.
I saw an article just the other day in The Economist about how younger women and older men prove to be more fertile than other pairings. My two are beautiful and in the Governor’s School, the both of them. Elaine adores them—no, she adores what they represent, the promise, the prize they offer. Elaine’s ovaries are humming, honing in, chasing down my wiggling sperm. She probably doesn’t even like me.
She says, “A little boy would be so much fun.”
The churning in my gut is unbearable, I’ve reached maximum capacity. I drop the Happy Hippo play gym into the Duchess crib and say, “I’ve got to run to the little boy’s room.”
She says okay and looks away from the picture. Her eyes are fuzzy, her whole face the same big dreamy smile she sprang on me at the desk.
At the far end of the aisle I have to maneuver around a whole shrink-wrapped pallet of Pampers. I make for the restroom sign on the other side of the store, ducking off the shining tile path and zigzagging through racks.
I push a button at the restroom door and wait for someone somewhere to buzz me in. I stay. I’m not sure what else to do; I’m not thinking clearly. I wait. The bathroom is cool and echoes every step and cough and belt jingle. I don’t feel better. I’m starting to chill. I need to get some sunshine.
Stepping out of the men’s room I am facing a bunch of rugs and runners draped over poles. I turn and there looms a monstrous rack of boy’s 2-T clothes: dress shirts with clip-on ties right inside the package, suit coats with sleeves sticking out at 45 degrees, no longer than a ruler. Beyond that are puffy ski coats so fat they could already have chubby little humans in them.
I quicken my pace and turn toward the front of the store. The merchandise goes by me in a spinning blur. Towels, shower curtains, yellow and blue women’s towel wraps.
I turn the corner and see the exit, and right there beside my head is a display for Burlington’s Sheer Legacy pantyhose, with tummy control and crotch panel. Just past that is a rack of baby Halloween costumes. There are front-zippered cats and bunnies. A dog costume with a nose and floppy tongue that hang over the baby’s forehead, and of course, long drooping ears. A strawberry costume with green leaves and a stem on top of the hood.
I pass the baby costumes. My gut hasn’t settled. I’m sweating and chilling. Food poisoning maybe. I skirt the edge of the entry where all the round tables full of seasonal stuff are and head for the doors. Then I make the mistake of glancing over at the registers.
Elaine is jabbing her card into her wallet while the girl is bagging up baby stuff. I see three bags. The one with the Hippo thing in it has a fat baby face on it big as a hubcap, drooling grin and rosy cheeks. She looks up and sees me. At first she smiles, but immediately sees that something is wrong.
I lose my cool. I break for the door.
“Honey?” Elaine yells. “Are you okay?”
I don’t answer. This Burlington used to be an Ames, with the entryway like a long hall with two sets of double doors on either side. If I go toward my car, she’s going to cut me off before I even get out of the store; if I run to the other doors, I’m shot out headed the wrong direction. I run away from her, to buy time to think.
“Honey?” She yells it this time. “What’s wrong?”
I run out the doors and down the sidewalk a ways, cut out into the parking lot. My Caddy is at the other end of the shopping center, in front of Nawab. Out in the middle of the lot, I turn and slalom between parked cars toward my own.
It’s so damn hot. The gurgling in my stomach has morphed into cramps. I need to stop and vomit, but I can’t. I pace my breathing, in for two steps, out for two steps. I focus on breathing and running. Elaine comes into my peripheral vision, running at a good clip along the sidewalk. She passes the Sally Beauty Supply, she passes the pharmacy. She’s carrying two bags by ropy handles and has the big baby-face bag cradled in her left arm.
I angle toward my Caddy, I see it, gleaming red in the bright lot. I get out my keys and unlock the doors on the run. She’s too close. I can’t make it. She’ll be there before I can back out of the spot. If a car is in the way, I’m done for sure.
Elaine pulls even with me, glancing my way as she runs. She steps off the sidewalk without changing her pace. A car has to hit its brakes for her. She’s too fast. She’s cutting off my angle now. She’s going to catch me before I even get to the car.
Like a kid playing tag, I have to hook out wide and abandon my bid for base. I run to the outer edge of the parking lot, where the Burger King building is. The restaurant, closed, and now there is a yellow and green sign in the window announcing, Need Money Now? No Hassle. Pay Day Loans. Checks Cashed. A woman is leaning into the back of a car, strapping a crying child into a car seat. I pick up my pace. Now I’m breathing in and out with every step.
I reach the stop light where the car with the thumping bass was. I stop and wait for the walk light, trying to catch my breath, and then run across the road. I’m in the Long John Silver’s parking lot. The smell of fried fish makes the mutton and beer percolate inside me.
I slow to a walk. I turn around, trying to breathe and swallow down bile. There she is, jogging across the street, closing in. I pull up and stop. I lean over and slap my hands to my knees and breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.
“A Hot Day in October” was first published in Sou’wester.
A couple of blog posts in response to Frances Stonor Saunders excellent essay in the London Review of Books:
Riders on the Storm
The truth has to be told, so I’m finally going to tell it.
It was 24 FEB 91. The USS Tarawa was off the coast of Kuwait. At 0430, Gunny Reed shouted, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks.” The berthing area lights blasted on and every Marine jumped. Nylon and canvass hissed, gear popped, ALICE packs thumped on the deck. Murmured talk and laughter rose, undulating. An excited buzz was in the air, like a locker room before a big game. They were going in-country, going to get combat action ribbons.
Corporal Kline was packed. He lay in his rack and recorded everything in the journal he kept in his cargo pocket.
At 0440, they ran through the ship’s passageways and chugged up stairwells—gear swishing and thumping, rifle butts banging against steel bulkheads—and ran into the dim hangar bay and curled around the heavy bulkhead and up the ramp to the flight deck and across the tarmac and onto the 46’s; the helicopters lifted and swung out over the Persian Gulf. Out the back of the 46’s, the Tarawa’s two and a half acre flight deck shrunk to the size of a breath mint. The ship disappeared as the helicopters swung toward the sandy theater of war.
Corporal Kline had found Red Badge of Courage in the ship’s library: glory was a whore. Every one of the reservists wanted a piece of that whore, especially since the air war had softened Saddam’s troops and the ground war was going well and the risk was light. It meant breathing real air and seeing the sky as well as getting a combat action ribbon.
The helicopters jerked and lumbered. Their ass-ends bounced like being dragged—as if they might fall out of the sky any minute. Sometimes, they did: the Tarawa’s search and rescue helicopter had crashed during training op’s, killing all four men on board.
They flew in under the brown-black smoke of burning oil wells. The wells were glowing dots on the horizon with smoke widening upward like still photos of tornadoes. The smoke drifted and spread low and wet as they flew farther in—it was as if they were under water looking up at a heavy oil slick; through the oil, the sun was a pale dish. They ran off the 46’s and stumbled under their gear in swirling sand. They fanned out and set up a perimeter. Nuclear winter it was being called back in the States; it looked like a movie-set surface of some bleak alien planet.
Combat engineers, they were reservists from Cross Lanes,West Virginia—college kids and working guys. Gunny Reed was the sheriff of Wayne County. The platoon was to be pulled apart and attached by squad to Golf Company platoons. With real ammo this time. Not only did they have permission to kill—to actually take human life—it was a stated part of the mission.
Corporal Kline dropped to his knees in the sand and fell forward, aiming his rifle out to the barren sand. His 60-gunner Ski dropped to his right, followed by the rest of his squad, dropping as well rehearsed as a chorus line to the prone position and aiming outward, fanning into a circle to spot threats coming from any direction, though there was nothing but dunes and wadis for miles.
Gunny Reed shouted, “Squad leaders, count your Marines.”
Kline’s squad was accounted for, curved at his right in the same order they stand in morning formation.
Then PFC Quinos—Kline had forgotten about Quinos—dropped heavily at his left. The helicopters lifted and withdrew toward the Gulf, their engines’ hum chopped by rotors; from a distance, it sounded like boys hollering through window fans. Kline pulled his olive drab bandana over his face and straightened his tinted goggles. Quinos lay beside him like a sea lion; he looked down at the sand and wheezed through his bandana.
Kline felt his cargo pocket for his journal. He planned to write a history of Desert Storm, an insider’s perspective. He was studying history at WVU; he was going to teach high school and coach, just like his dad, except his dad coached wrestling, and his sport was soccer. His dad had edited history texts; he was going to provide the actual account. He was carefully studying everything to be accurate with the facts.
“Here we are,” he said to Ski on his other side, “watching history happen right in front of us—and we’re part of it.”
“Damn straight, we are,” Ski said. He set his M-60 machine gun on its tripod, and swiveled it around to scan the empty desert.
“Dude, I ain’t supposed to be here,” Quinos said. “I’m a truck driver.” His goggles cut into his face. He coughed. The ejection port on his M-16 was open.
“If you don’t want to fucking die, you’ll take better care of your rifle,” Gunny Reed said as he strode behind them.
Quinos flipped the ejection port cover closed. It made a gritty scrape.
This was it. They were in-country and when the Hummers got there, they would be heading into real combat. The categorical moral imperative had been suspended: their rifles were loaded for men.
It was 15 NOV 90 when the platoon Gunny Reed had cobbled together from the Cross Lanes unit of the 4th Engineers flew out of Charleston. They arrived at Camp Pendleton, California one driver short of a full platoon, so an active duty platoon sent them Quinos. He was a driver; he was as wide as a hospital door, fat and unsat’. As he stowed his gear in the squad bay, Gunny Reed said to his squad leaders, “In the old Corps, we didn’t mind the big boys. Those big fuckers can hump the heavy loads.”
On 1 DEC 90, the platoon loaded onto the Tarawa and sailed for Hawaii to load an air wing. Christmas was spent in the field at Green Beach, Subic Bay, Philippines. New Years
Eve, they partied with the bar girls in Olongapo City. The morning after, the platoon was in formation on the dock in front of the Tarawa, still drunk and reeking of booze, but clean-shaven and in uniform. Gunny was going over general information: third squad was on head duty, the chow hall needed two PFC’s for scullery duty.
“Kline?” Gunny said.
“Send two of your Marines down to the chow hall this morning.”
Then Gunny’s eyes rose and looked out over the platoon, his creased face distorting into astonished disbelief. Kline leaned out and looked down the row of Marines. Quinos, wearing shorts, a stretched white t-shirt and tennis shoes with no socks, had just stumbled in from liberty and fallen in at the end of his squad. He had an embarrassed grin on his puffy pie face.
Gunny Reed marched over to Quinos, grabbed a fist full of his shirt and bitch slapped him. Hard. The crack of it echoed back from the iron hull of the Tarawa.
He shouted, “Where the fuck do you think you are?”
“Sorry, Gunny, I—”
Gunny slapped him again, harder, and shouted, “Shut your cock sucker.” He let go of Quinos’ shirt and slapped him on the other side of the face, making him take a step back. “If you’re ever late for formation again, I swear I’ll fuck you up.”
Gunny took two steps back, looked down at the deck, and then said in a quiet, almost conversational voice: “What do you think we’re going over there to do, Quinos?”
Again Quinos began, “Sorry, Gunny—” but shut up when Gunny stepped toward him cocking a fist behind his hip.
“Some raghead is going to put a bullet right in your fucking skull, and it’s not going to change your brain waves.” Gunny put his finger in Quinos’ face. “I’m not going to let
you get one of my Marines killed.” He returned to his place in front of the platoon, letting his shoulder slump. “Go square yourself away,” he said in a calm and weary voice.
“Yes, Gunny.” Quinos ran for the Tarawa’s loading ramp, loose civilian clothes and fat swinging on his frame.
Ski stood beside Kline shaking his head. “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” he said. “How’d that sack of shit even get through boot camp?”
Ski was what Gunny Reed called a hard-dick Marine. His grandfather had been in WWII and his father in Vietnam. He was tall and lanky, all points and angles, as if he’d been drawn with a ruler. He kept his hair cut in a high and tight, a sharp horseshoe on top of his head, the stubble above his ears only slightly heavier than that on his jaw in the evenings. This was his war, as he’d said, just the way things were supposed to be, each generation getting their shot at glory. He was in ROTC at Bowling Green and was planning on going to OCS. He studied his Green Monster; he worked out with Kline in the ship’s gym. He was collecting memorabilia:
a desert camo New Testament, letters addressed to any serviceman coming from the patriotic frenzy back home, any extra gear he could pick up.
Gunny Reed turned his back to the platoon; he seemed to be addressing the gray side of the ship, “In ‘Nam, we fragged unsat’ motherfuckers like that.”
Ski nodded his enthusiastic agreement.
After formation, as the other squad leaders walked up the loading ramp, Gunny Reed stood almost touching noses with Kline, breathing his boozy breath into Kline’s nostrils; snuff
spittle flecked Kline’s lips as Gunny carefully annunciated: “Corporal, don’t you fucking ever make me square away one of your goddamn Marines again.”
The next two months were spent in periods of classroom instruction: minefield breaching Vietnam style with the obsolete mine detectors they still humped; first aid topics, such as how to use an ID card to treat a sucking chest wound and how to use a gauze bandage to put internal organs back into someone without getting sand in the body cavity; desert survival classes, like how to make a solar still to purify urine for drinking.
In his free time, Kline tried to read what classics he could find in the ship’s library. He wanted to be ahead of the game when he got back to school. He worked out every morning with Ski, trying to stay in shape for soccer. He kept notes in his journal for his history of Desert Storm. It was a Moleskine and fit in his cargo pocket. Tetris on the new Gameboy was the rage in the berthing area. Marines were obsessed with the hand held video game. When scullery duty came back around to Kline’s squad, he assigned Quinos. Quinos didn’t show, and instead of letting Gunny Reed find out about it, Kline went down and washed pots for twelve hours himself. When he came back up to the berthing area, Quinos was in his rack playing his Gameboy.
The berthing area reeked of body odor. As Kline sidled into the berthing compartment, Quinos lifted his leg and farted. His berth was the bottom of four, flush on the deck.
Kline bent over, grabbed him with both hands and dragged him out. “I just pulled your scullery duty, Quinos.”
Quinos’s rolled onto a knee, then slowly stood and mumbled something in Spanish. He was suppressing a grin and his breath was hot and moist and smelled of beef jerky.
Kline hit him with an uppercut into his solar plexus, which doubled him over, then hit him again, square on the left eye socket. As he swung he said, “I am not your fucking baby sitter, Quinos.” He made contact with Quinos’s gut on the not and with his eye on the fucking.
Quinos fell back against the bulkhead, ripping one of the girly pictures that were taped up. His Gameboy hit the deck with a sharp crack. He slid down, pulling the photo with him, and sat on his ass, his hairy knees out like frog legs. He put both hands over his face.
Kline’s squad had all taken off their earphones and stopped playing Tetris to stare out of their berths. Ski nodded with a satisfied smile.
“You cannot do this to me,” Quinos said into his hands. “I got rights, Corporal Kline. You know. I got rights. You and Gunny. You got no right—”
“You ain’t got no rights, Queeno,” one of Kline’s squad members shouted.
Quinos was silent.
Ski’s grin stretched tight and toothy across his skull. “You fell, PFC,” he said. “I saw it. Corporal Kline wasn’t even here—were you Corporal?” He gave Kline a nod of hollow-eyed innocence.
“Yeah,” another squad member said. “Nobody hit you.”
“You fell, Quinos.”
“Tough shit, Quinos.”
“Lose some weight and maybe you wouldn’t fall down, dude.”
Kline silently unlaced his boots, pulled them off, threw his shower shoes onto the deck, stepped into them, grabbed his toiletry bag and towel, and stalked to the head. His shower shoes slapped at his heels.
On 24 FEB 91, after the helicopters were gone, Gunny shouted, “Form it up,” and they fell into platoon formation and humped across the desert hour after hour, following the boots in front of them, heels chewed down from snappy marching on Paris Island parade decks. “Keep it moving,” Gunny Reed shouted. “You’ll pass out before you’ll die.” He made long strides; everybody made long strides; the war was going well and they didn’t want to miss it. Seven endless hours of humping through soft sand, then the platoon crested a wadi, and the staging area appeared out of the blank desert, from behind a dune. Hummers and six-bys and heavy equipment all surrounded by concertina wire and 50-cal gun emplacements built of fresh blond timber.
The platoon hummers were waiting there, gassed and staged, ready to roll. They staged their gear and slept in and around the trucks and set out at 0430 the next day. Kline sat in back with his squad on wooden benches. Quinos drove. They fell into line with the other two Hummers and the platoon from Cross Lanes, West Virginia, joined the race to the front. It had already become a running shooting gallery as Saddam’s troops collapsed and waved white flags and abandoned their tanks to flee.
The minefield was breached as wide as a four-lane highway, and they cruised through at 60mph. The terrain was hard and uneven so that Quinos kept hitting spine-jarring potholes. Marines listened to their Walkmans and played Tetris. On either side of the breach, three-pronged anti-personnel mines perforated the stretching desert. Six-bys coming the other way were loaded so full of surrendered Iraqis that in the dark of the oil smoke, their heads looked like piles of black melons stuffed into the backs of the trucks.
An endless line of trucks. Scuttlebutt was that Sadam’s tank army was crumbling, his elite Republican Guard imploding.
“Combat action today,” Ski leaned over and said to Kline.
Quinos hit a bone-jolting hole.
“God damn you, Quinos,” a Marine shouted.
Ski pulled his headphones down around his neck. “I’m going to frag your ass, Quinos.” He pulled his headphones back on and looked back down at his Gameboy. He said, “Shit, I wish we’d get there.”
“The war’s gonna be over,” another Marine said.
Kline rifled around in his asspack and pulled out ForWhom The Bell Tolls. He hooked his flashlight in the chin strap of his Kevlar helmet and began reading. They pulled through a fueling station and everyone got out and pissed and grabbed bottled water from a pallet beside the tanker as the Hummers refueled.
The day was not getting too much brighter with sunrise because of the oil smoke; the dark was shifting from black to brown-black. They pulled back into the line of trucks racing toward the war. It was as busy as an interstate highway, headlights one direction, blurred red taillights the other.
At 1200, for reasons known only to Gunny Reed, their three Hummers veered out of the line of trucks and drove across the dunes for a while and stopped.
“Form it up right here,” Gunny shouted, and the Marines clambered out of the Hummers and fell into formation. Quinos unfolded himself from the front and rubbed his back and his eyes and fell in at the end of Kline’s squad; he let out a wide yowling yawn and stretched his arms into the air. Ski slung a bandoleer of M-60 rounds over his shoulder and stood tall.
“Shut your pie-holes and listen up,” Gunny shouted. He had his 9mm out; he waved it towards the dark shapes behind him, twisting on his toes like a ballerina, and said, “Behold what’s left of the fifth largest tank army in the world.” Iraqi tanks, Soviet model T-62, sat abandoned all around in the midst of small square structures with their gun barrels pointing off in every direction; some were intact, some had huge charred holes bored into their centers. Some were ripped in half, the turrets popped off like bottle caps.
“Fuck with the bull,” Gunny said with satisfaction, “you get the horns.” He turned to the platoon. “Our job is to clear these bunkers. There isn’t likely to be anyone left alive, but don’t
let your guard down. Booby traps are always a possibility, so if you don’t want to leave a leg here, watch yourself. And I said there probably aren’t any ragheads left alive. We don’t know that for sure—that’s why we’re here. Ackmed might be hiding down there waiting to Jihad your ass.” Gunny paced, stopped, and waved over the area again. “Spread out
and clear these fuckers.”
The bunkers were dark squares against the rolling dunes; whether the wind had uncovered them or there was rock under the sand here, they were half exposed. Shelter from sandstorms maybe, but certainly not aerial bombardment.
Ski adjusted his goggles and said through his brown bandana, “We have arrived.”
“The supply bunker is mine,” Gunny shouted. He pulled his empty pack out of the front of the first Hummer and strode toward what appeared to be the center structure; it looked like eight or nine of the small bunkers pressed together, the roofs not quite matching up, like shantytown row houses.
Marines rushed to empty their packs into the backs of the Hummers making room for war booty. Then the only movement was the members of Kline’s platoon, spreading from the parked Hummers, half-running, stumbling over sand, toward the abandoned fortifications to gather or kill any hangers-on and to collect souvenirs. As they moved away, they lost detail under the oil smoke, becoming shadowy, ghouls in the dark, out rummaging for loot.
Quinos settled against his Hummer’s back tire and started eating something—beef jerky—yanking at it with his teeth; he twisted a bottle of the Saudi Alwadi health water into the sand beside him until it stood on its own.
Kline yelled, “You coming, Quinos?”
“I been driving since zero four thirty,” he said. “I’m tired.”
Kline pulled out his light and trudged to the nearest tank. It had been blown in two: the turret was upside down beside the tracks, a burnt and hollow shell. The tank itself was peeled open, wires and metal melted together, a light coat of sand blown over it. Beside one of the tracks were several metal ammo boxes a little bigger than car batteries. One of them was open with a white plastic grocery bag in it, full of dirty potatoes and one tomato gone soft and black on the side and ready to explode. Other ammo boxes actually had ammo, what looked like 20mm rounds, big as a man’s middle finger. Strands of rounds were strewn all over; old pineapple shaped fragmentation grenades lay apparently where they’d been dropped.
Ski jogged up and stood beside him. “Corporal Kline, if we find any ragheads alive, let me kill them.” He held his M-60 at his hip.
Kline pulled his goggles up onto his Kevlar helmet and readjusted the Velcro on his Kevlar flak jacket. “Do you have your G-2?”
“Your Interrogator-Translator card. From 1st Marines.”
“I’ll let Christine here translate for me.” Ski patted his 60. “She knows the international language.”
Kline shook his head and stepped over the scattered ammo and walked toward the bunkers to the right of the supply bunker; they dotted the sand unevenly about every two-hundred yards, running out into the dark desert. Jets roared overhead above the oil smoke.
Ski skipped up beside him. “Tell me she doesn’t, motherfucker.” He squatted and hefted the machine gun onto his skinny leg as if ready to let the rounds fly.
They approached two dark humps on the sand, piles of rags or something. Ski pulled his goggles up and his bandana down and squinted. Kline trained his light at them.
“Mary, mother of God,” Ski said. “Kline, you see that?”
The two walked up to the first humped mass and stared down.
“Ackmed don’t look too good,” Ski said.
The Iraqi soldier lay on his back with his hands at his waist as if hiking up his pants. His face was black and crusted like the charred skin of a roasted pig. His open mouth was full of sand. At first it looked like his head was half buried inside a little hole, but it wasn’t. His head lay flat—shrapnel had clipped off a clean chunk right behind his ears. Other than that, he was intact.
Kline stared at the dead man, running his light slowly over the figure.
“Shit, Kline, come look at Hagi.” Ski had moved on to the second clump.
Kline stared at the spot on the sand lit by his flashlight as he walked the small distance until the other Iraqi slid into the beam. The dead face bore a maniac grin, all top teeth and gums. The bottom teeth, lips, and chin were gone. One leg was gone altogether. An arm lay about thirty feet away, with ragged clothing and meat hanging off one end of it; at the other end, the hand was curled into a gentle fist with index finger out, like a sleeping baby’s; there was a thin white stream of sand along the crease of the palm.
Ski turned toward the other figures moving behind them among the bunkers and tanks. He shouted and waved his arms until the figures began to turn and move in their direction. Kline’s squad arrived first.
Ski said, “This is Hagi.” He pushed the carcass over with his boot heel. The torso was ripped open, and as it stiffly turned, a twisted bundle of intestines and organs blobbed out, picking up a coat of sand like fish rolled in corn meal. The Marines fell into a party of hoots and cheers. A Marine squatted and dug in Ackmed’s pockets. “Hell yeah,” he said when he found Iraqi coins and dog tags. He stood and shoved them into his own pocket. Another Marine nearly had to take the laces out of Ackmed’s boots to get them off his hard feet. He shoved them into his pack. Two other Marines took Ackmed by his arms and shoulders and lifted him like a piece of lumber. They both dug in their ass-packs for cameras.
Gunny walked up and stood at the edge of the revelry, setting down his pack, now stuffed full, and crossing his arms. He blew a burst of air out of his nose, which appeared to momentarily throw his head back; then he stood and watched with an expression of bored indulgence.
Upon seeing Gunny Reed, Kline counted his Marines; his squad was all there, except for Quinos, whom he’d left sitting on the ground beside the Hummer.
One of the Marines with Ackmed accidentally pulled out his Gameboy. He laughed and said, “Wrong thing,” shoved it back in, and found his camera.
Kline’s platoon took turns standing with their arm around Ackmed’s shoulder like he was an old school chum, his dead eyes squeezed shut in his cooked face, his sand-filled mouth open.
A Marine pulled the boot off of Hagi’s one leg and set out looking around. “If anybody find’s Hagi’s other leg, I call the boot,” he shouted.
“Kline, here.” Ski was holding out his camera. In his other hand was the severed arm. He stepped back and posed with it as if he and the arm were shaking hands; he had a wide toothy smile on his sharp face.
“Okay,” Gunny Reed yelled. “Fun’s over.” He stepped in between the two Iraqi’s. Ackmed was again on his back. A Marine unzipped the pants and tugged them off Ackmed’s hips, then alternated legs, jerking the pants off.
Gunny stepped to Hagi. With the heel of his boot he rolled the teeth-grinning carcass over and stood with his hands on his hips looking at it.
Ski said, “My dad said that in ‘Nam they’d cut off ears and dry them and wear them around their necks as trophies. You ever do that Gunny?”
A Marine unsheathed his K-bar. “I’m gonna get me an ear,” he said.
“I want one,” another Marine said, also unsheathing his K-bar.
I told you,” Gunny said, “the fun is over. Get back to the mission.”
“Gunny,” another Marine said. “Let me get a shot of you and Ackmed together.”
Two Marines again stood the cadaver up, now naked from the waist down. The penis skin had shrunk up tight with rigamortis, and the thing looked like a hard little mushroom cap under a mat of black pubic hair.
Kline turned and looked out at the desert; the bunkers stretched on. The platoon dispersed back toward the shattered tanks and the supply bunker, laughing and chatting.
Gunny put his arm around Ackmed’s shoulder and said, “Fucking cheese.”
Two hundred yards and more between them—Kline walked past two bunkers, then three. Then four. He walked into the dark desert. He came to the last bunker in the chain; there was nothing visible beyond it but white dunes and wadis under a brown sky. Jets flew above the smoke. Kline stood till the last of their sound had been swallowed by the gusting wind.
The last bunker was like the others: square, cinderblock with a corrugated tin roof held down with more cinderblocks thrown across the top. Above the entrance, the tin roof was ripped; it banged against itself every now and then when the wind picked up. Two more pineapple shaped grenades lay on top of the bunker roof, and a bent piece of pipe with a bicycle handlebar grip pushed onto one end.
Down four cinderblock steps was the entrance. At the opening, a plywood floor was visible with a threadbare rug on it. The rug had an orange and yellow pattern of lined up diamonds with four smaller diamonds inside each one.
Kline stepped silently down to the entrance. He shined his light in, backed away and waited.
He shined his light in and turkey-peeked. Two cots. Shadows.
Again he leaned back and waited.
After a couple of minutes he shined his light in and looked around: cots, rug, a blanket folded on one cot, a small box under the same cot. Nothing else. Kline stepped inside. The air was heavy with the smell of human sweat; the animal gone from the lair, but its smell still strong, the living dangerous animal—sweat: not the smell of dead men, but men very much alive.
He sat on the cot and let his eyes adjust. From inside, the weak, smoke-filtered sunlight appeared as a pale rectangle at the door, brown sky on the upper half, cinderblock steps on the lower. What Kline thought was a folded blanket turned out to be a wool sweater; it had the imprint of a head on it. The sweaty smell rose from it. Kline shoved it into his pack. He pulled the box from under the cot. There was a coffee mug behind it. It was white and said Ovaltine on one side. The other side said presumably the same thing in Arabic. The name Benny was scratched with an ink pen on the bottom in English. He shoved that into his pack too.
The box was a green cardboard box, six inches square, bulged out on the sides from having something stacked on top of it. Kline stuffed the flashlight into his armpit and gently shook the top off, the bottom dropped onto his lap. It was just full of toiletries. A tube of toothpaste, the old kind in the aluminum tube that holds its shape when its rolled up. The brand name Amber was also printed in both Arabic and English, made by the Iraq State Enterprise for Vegetable Oils. Smelled like mint: smelled like toothpaste. There wasn’t any toothbrush.
Two old razors, both with faded and cracked plastic handles, one red, one green —the kind with a two-piece metal top that screwed apart and off the handle for changing blades. The blades were the old flat kind people in movies used to slit their own wrists. They were rusted in spots and there were no replacements. With the razors was a lather brush with a broken wooden handle, blue paint crackling and breaking off in tiny chips.
Papers with Arabic writing. A small leather bound book in Arabic, the title on the back, the back of the book being the front, the language so indecipherable that Kline couldn’t begin to guess what it was, as he could have with German or French or Spanish.
Kline undid the Velcro of his flack jacket and pulled his Alwadi water from his pack. Inside the book, possibly being used as book marks, there was a 25 Dinar bill, crisp and unfolded, and a flyer that had been dropped by aircraft. The 25 Dinar was turquoise and had a picture of a young Saddam Hussein looking out over a mass of Arab warriors on horseback riding hell-bent into battle.
On one side of the flyer had two cartoon pictures: in one picture, an Iraqi soldier is surrendering and presenting that very flyer to an Arab-looking Coalition soldier; in the second picture, the surrendered Iraqi soldier is with other Iraqis, wearing now instead of helmets, turbans, boots off, sitting around a huge tray of fruit, drinking tea. The Arabic Coalition soldier stands with his arm out, apparently having just finished a joke, as they all seem to be laughing.
The other side of the flyer was covered with writing over a watermark of the Joint Forces symbol: the earth under small swords and cradled by what looked like fern fronds—olive branches. Kline took out his journal and slid the papers in.
The only other thing in the box was a small photo of a soldier. There was some kind of rank insignia on the collar of his white shirt. He had a thick mustache like Saddam Hussein. He was attractive, had chiseled jaws, a cleft chin, and serious, deep eyes. Impossible to know if he was Hagi, but he wasn’t Ackmed. His jawbones were too thick and strong.
Someone approached above, heavy boots and rattling gear. Kline flipped off his light, buttoned his journal back into his pocket and sat in silence. The boots pounded, a purposeful stride.
Kline laid his journal on the cot and pulled his M-16 around and sent the bolt home, chambering a round. The ejection port cover flipped open on his thumb, the crack of
the bolt rang in his ears. He set it on three round burst.
The boots stopped.
Kline slowly raised his rifle and aimed at the rectangle of brown light. His rifle smelled of CLP cleaning oil. He twisted to better face the door. His heart pounded in his ears.
The boots took a few more scuffling steps and were above the entry.
Kline sat in silence. Breathing. Slowly breathing. The person above shuffled with gear, un-slung a jangling weapon; it sounded as if he were sitting down, settling in. It could be an Iraqi coming back from the desert, unaware that his comrades have died or surrendered, the man who made the sweat smell that seeped now out of Kline’s pack, the owner of the toiletries spread beside Kline on the cot, the owner of the cot. The strong-jawed Iraqi in the photograph.
Kline’s back began to ache. He stood slowly, slowly as to be silent. But the plywood warped up and banged the cot pole. There was sudden boot-scuffling movement above. He was trapped. One of those grenades chucked down is all it would take—Kline would be done for, his carcass ripped open and his guts spilled out like Hagi’s.
There were more interminable minutes of silence.
By the time the wide, backlit form came huffing down the cinderblock steps, Kline was in a state of sheer, unthinking panic. He pulled the trigger four times.
Quinos’s Kevlar flack jacket was hanging open, but at such close range it wouldn’t have stopped the rounds. All twelve cracks hit his chest. The dull light seemed to wrap around Quinos as he fell, his head canting back. He landed on his knees so hard his jowls jerked and shook back into place. A slimy wad of chewed gorilla bar was lodged between his teeth. Carbon hung heavy in the bunker like fireworks residue.
Kline climbed over the body and ran out across the dark desert screaming over and over again, “Shots fired, man down,” as if he were in a television cop show.
Operation Desert Storm ended on 28 FEB 91. The platoon of reservists from Cross Lanes, West Virginia, went back to the staging area and set up their hooches in tank traps. They celebrated with Tetris tournaments and football. They sat around drinking the bottled water from Saudi Arabia, Alwadi Wadi Fatima Water Makkah, as if it were cold beer.
Kline sat on his Kevlar helmet and watched his platoon playing ball against a Golf Company platoon. The other guys were skins; their upper torsos were sweaty and covered in sand. The field was marked off by tent poles with olive drab skivvies shirts flapping on top.
Gunny Reed strode up from behind him and squatted, balancing elbow on knee. He had traded his Kevlar helmet for his soft cover, and his desert camouflage uniform was clean and pressed. He brushed sand off his shined boots, took out a can of Copenhagen, dipped out three fingers full of snuff, and pressed it between his bottom gum and lip.
Through snuff-tightened lips, he said, “Kline?”
“Yes, Gunny?” Kline stared at the football game. Gunny held the open can of snuff in front of him, and he said no thank you without looking away from the game.
“Here’s how it happened,” Gunny said. “Quinos was ordered to stay back at his Hummer. He didn’t. Those two ragheads shot him, and we blew the hell out of them.” Gunny chuckled and said, “You should see what a SMAW can do to a body at thirty yards.” He flicked snuff off his fingers and almost lost his balance. “The report’s been filed. It’s already in the books,” he said, “Understand?”
“Goddamn it, Corporal, get your shit together and listen to me: This was war and these things happen.” He dropped his snuff into the breast pocket of his camouflaged blouse and shifted his weight to the other knee. “Nobody has to go down over this. It’s over and we’re out of this God-forsaken shithole. You hear me? We’re headed home.” He spit and it rolled to a sandy pebble in front of Kline. He said, “Lance Corporal Kawalski has already testified.”
“You change your story, and he goes down. I’ve written the report. You’re going to sign it. Understand, Marine?”
Gunny said, “Where’s that little damn book you write in?”
“In the raghead’s bunker?”
Gunny Reed nodded. He watched the ballgame. A short PFC from Golf Company made an end-run and streaked down the sideline and scored.
Gunny laughed and said, “You see that motherfucker run?” He stood up and adjusted his cover. He said, “Good God, he’s a fast little fucker.”
The teams separated to their respective ends of the field and lined up between the green skivvies flapping on the poles. A Marine kicked the ball and it wobbled high over Kline’s platoon. A PFC scurried back and snatched it up, and the others formed a wall for him, and he curved in and ran behind them. Gunny Reed laughed and shook his head and slapped Kline hard on the shoulder. The two sides came together, grunting and slinging one another down in the sand.
My name is Robert Kline. My life since has been a good one: two pretty good marriages, three fantastic children, two of them up at WVU, and one at Poca Middle School. I don’t believe in heaven or hell.
PFC Quinos—I never knew his first name—has been dead for almost twenty years. I shot and killed him.
“Riders on the Storm” was originally published as “What Really Happened to PFC Quinos” in Story Quarterly.