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Part one

Mundleson asked if I wanted to come with her. She arched her thick brown eyebrows, used the word latrine without awkwardness. They had taken her makeup away, revealing a drama of settled red pocks. Her dye-blond hair had no benefit of product. I stared at her a little too long. Told her I had a fiancée. “Oh. I’m sorry. It’s just that, well.” It’s just that everybody was fucking in the latrines. Port-o-lets labeled in Arabic whose plastic shells would rock and creak, emitting bathtub sounds throughout the night. Just that we were stuffed inside a corrugated-metal hangar outside Riyadh, were sweating, scared, and unwashed, confined to ordered rows of olive-colored canvas cots and duffel bags. SCUD missiles traversed the night sky and the moon hung sideways. Half a million Iraqi troops were poised for the Mother of All Battles. We stared at each other for days. We picked out the weaklings and placed bets against them. We cleaned, then re-cleaned our carbines. Oiling barrels, breaking down sight assemblies. They knew better than to issue us ammunition. It’s just that, when not an activated Reservist, Evie Mundleson bar-backed at Game Day, a strip mall sports bar in North Tuscaloosa. 


Her body was losing to the free potato skins. Her nights were defined by Misty cigarettes, dead kegs, and tip-outs. And she was okay with  this, there, between walls covered in Crimson Tide jerseys and plastic NASCAR flags. Here, she was scared beyond panic, wanting only to be groped in the community toilet. Many felt the same. They flew us to the front in the belly of a loud C–130. We sat in cargo nets attached to the walls, bobbing in turbulence like babies in bouncer seats, too low to see out the window. We landed in a gulf of dust and were jammed into trucks and taken to the compound, a small collection of tents inside a head-high berm of sand. A rocky desert horizon surrounded. We were ordered to calm down but stay sharp. Drink water. Take chemical pills. Rumor was the pills were untested on humans, yet we stood at parade rest every morning on the Iraqi border in saggy, ill-fitting chemical suits, chewing the pills on command. It had been raining for days, so everything was soaked and beige and barren and slopped. (They had not briefed us on this wet climate.) (They had briefed us that Iraqis use American tanks and planes— we’d supplied them, after all—so the only way to discern the enemy was if he was firing on you.) The chem gear felt like a fatsuit as you lumbered around the compound, your boots sucked into the mud. A–10 Warthogs and F-whatevers ripped the sky, unleashing their arsenal a few seconds north. Concussions from missile strikes buckled your knees, and shook you awake at night. Breathing meant wondering about Sarin or VX asphyxia. A primary concern was whether your gas mask was truly airtight, or whether the atropine needle would break off in your femur when the time came to self-inject. Take the pills. Drink water. Atropine: often fused with opiates, used to quell the death rattle. After a week, one woman refused. She said her body was messing up because of the pills. Actually, she said “fucking up.” She was African American, late twenties with short straightened hair. Thin legs but huge torso. She was ornery, and said fuck that, because the pills were fucking her up. We took the pills. She would die from a SCUD. They told us she was crazy, and told her “Suit yourself.” They snickered in her face, treating her like another loud black chick with fat breasts and fried hair. Like them, I imagined her cruising the mall in Tuscaloosa, talking loud, dragging a baby boy by his arm. 
She refused the pills. A couple of weeks later she had to go to the medical tent. She wasn’t pregnant—they knew that much. But her period had disappeared; she wouldn’t bleed, and nobody could tell her why. The medical tent shipped her down to the battalion hospital, which shipped her down to the main hospital in Riyadh, which shipped her back up to camp to pack. “Mother fuck,” she said. “All I wanted in this life was to serve, then to get home and start me a family. Now I can’t even have no babies.” More tests were required. They sent her home. We never heard anything else. Spec–4 Janette cried about her kids. You went to the motor pool to requisition a truck, ducked in the tent and saw their photos taped to her field desk: two boys, towheaded, in miniature Alabama football uniforms. Don’t ask if they’d been to the stadium on game day, or Janette would tear up and tell you about Mike Jr., singing madeup verses to “Yea Alabama.” (Danny had fallen asleep during the Iron Bowl!) She talked and cried over them to nobody, while sitting near you at chow. Raised her voice to nobody at all about DANNY’S TURTLE DIED OH MAN WHY AM I NOT THERE? She missed them while you ate breakfast, just off of guard duty. For hours you’d sat alone in a hutch at the edge of the compound, in the dark, facing the void through a slot between sandbags, your rifle aimed, your mind confabulating structures from the blackness. (Republican Guard Advance or geometric patterns, the mind must see something.) You tried to forget that you’d spent your entire month’s furlough stuffed into the back of a transport truck, breathing diesel exhaust and eating dehydrated pork, in order to wait to use a pay phone to hear your fiancée’s answering machine. And missiles burst. And the rains passed and the mud turned back to sand and windstorms engulfed everything for days, filling your boots, your eyes, your lungs, covering you in rashes. And Spec. 4 Janette yapped. In our twelve-man tent, talk cycled about her tight, workout body. 
One night, PFC Lomes tells everyone that during guard duty he snuck into the motor pool to smoke and found Sergeant Cross pumping her. Says it just like this: “Sergeant Cross was pumping her, man. She had that good-hurt look on her face. Like, she was bent over her field desk, gripping the corners!” While telling us this he throws his hips like Sergeant Cross, grapples the air. After Lights Out, in the break between jet screams, our tent was alive with fists rubbing against nylon sleeping bags. Everyone coming in silence. When by-the-book Sergeant Motes was sent home for being too old and sclerotic, Tetley Teabag and I became the de facto Supply and Armory leaders. Benefits included our very own tent, just Teabag and me. We bartered goods with other squads, companies, camps, armies, whomever. Extra boots got us a large, in-tent ice cooler; surplus cammies were good for two foam mattresses; tent poles meant a radio, and so forth. We were sultans. Tetley Teabag was a late-twenties, rural Alabama high-school graduate, desperate to be seen as a hard ass. He had the mustache, buzz cut, and accent, but was squat and soft and round. He also had the toe. The Tetley Toe. Stateside, just before deployment, Tetley had thrust a post hole digger at the big toe of his left foot. This earned him an odd reattachment and a relentless wound. The medics made Tetley limp around on a so-called Chinese Jump Boot: an oversized medical shoe constructed of royal blue canvas and white Velcro straps. The roughnecks harassed him for this, as did the officers, and the women. But forget the boot. The thing about Tetley was that he NEVER went to the showers. Night after night he shut the tent flaps and wiped himself clean with a wet rag. In the dim orange lamplight, he’d turn his puppyfat back to me and use this propane-powered camp stove to heat water in a tin basin. (By this point I was taking two, three, four cold showers a day. They kept drilling us for an attack that never came. The sand was everywhere. My lungs wheezed and my breath stank with it.) (This was also after Charlotte had stopped writing me.) As finale to Tetley’s cleansing, he would put pajamas on, then wrap a Tetley teabag around his blackened appendage. His grandmother sent boxes of them, instructing him that a woman’s remedy was the only kind of medicine a man could trust. On guard duty one night I realized I had forgotten my gas mask, and had to come back to the tent. Though Tetley curled up the moment I cut through the flap, I saw what might be described as a mole or a nub, protruding from the thick beard between his legs. I did not care that Tetley had the penis of an infant. 
Conversely, he seemed relieved to be uncloseted, because the next night, during a violent sandstorm he confessed to me that he was a virgin. Said he was worried about dying unfulfilled. “Mundleson is lonely,” I yelled. We had to scream over the wind. We lay on our cots with our goggles on and our mouths covered by Government Issue scarves. Rubbers were unrolled over our gun barrels to keep the sand out. It was no use looking at each other because you couldn’t see anything. “What?” “I bet Mundleson’d be your girlfriend,” I shouted again. “Screw that, man.” He called her pug-ugly, which was unfair, and which failed to trump the fact that he could not expose himself in theater. No two ways about it: to keep his secret and find a willing partner, Tetley would have to get home and marry some Christian. After the nonmenstruating woman was sent away, only two black girls remained. Back home they went to the U. of A. One of them, Davis, had screwed this cheeseball Joe Minetti in the toilet back at Riyadh. So there was that, and somehow that had become attractive. This, too, was after Charlotte stopped writing. Davis was inspiring. Curvy and defiant and laughing, always sharp. One morning, the X.O. ordered the two women and me to burn the latrine waste. He didn’t say as much, but I figured this was my punishment for hiding in the showers. The black chicks did not have to figure anything. Our company was all Alabama rednecks and Spec 4 Janettes, so they knew they’d just been born wrong. We yanked large metal tubs from beneath seat-holes in the plywood toilets and burned what was inside. Having been half-filled with diesel the week before, we found the tubs brim-high with turd and tampax, vomit and ejaculate and toilet paper. And we lit all that on fire, and then walked from tub to tub, hour after hour, taking in putrid black smoke. Diesel burns slow and won’t explode when you light it. Nor will it penetrate the surface of the sewage. So you use a two-by-four to stir the char, to expose the flame to the sludge below. Scorching shit in the desert. You get used to it. 
After a few hours, the three of us flirted around the feces. The sky was beige and gray. The sliver of landscape we saw over the compound berm was as barren as the moon. “Y’all don’t date black girls in y’alls fraternity?” Davis asked. “Probably not,” I said. “But I’m not against it.” “You sayin’ you have dated a black girl?” “Well, no. But I’ve thought about it.” “I bet you have.” She laughed, then coughed. She and I both knew a liaison would follow. She had overnight guard duty, alone, at the far corner of the berm. She said she needed company. I needed company. Diesel will now and again race like gasoline. This happened as I was stirring a tub: a flame shot straight up the two-by-four, which I flung out of panic. 
It hit Davis across the chest, smearing on her desert camo blouse. “What tha hell was that, you?” she yelled. “Sorry, sorry. Fire just jumped.” “You out your goddamn mind?” She wiped her hands on me, then peeled off her blouse and wiped that on me, too. She was not wearing her required T-shirt and her breasts bulged from the top of her olive green bra. “Reaction,” I said. “I—” “What kinda man throws a flaming sticka shit at a woman?” Both women cursed me and left for other fires. Though I tried to apologize several times, and soon bartered them both to the Frogs, neither spoke to me again. This, in slow motion: the soiled board, twirling like a helicopter blade, aflame. 
I strung up a large piece of cardboard across the tent wall behind my cot. I pinned photos on it of women I’d slept with, or whose pictures with me indicated that I might’ve. Drunken hugs at fraternity parties, suggestive poses, kisses on my cheek. These weren’t the only photos I brought to combat. But after word got out that I’d spent a week on suicide watch in the medical tent, it became vital that I not be seen as a weak-ass, a Tetley. Not Pictured: Charlotte, in a royal blue armchair near the window, dressed only in a white cotton shirt that was unbuttoned at the top. Sleeves gently rolled, her tan legs tucked under her on the wide chair cushion. I lay on the motel bed, naked except for dog tags. The windows were open, the transparent curtains billowed. She said we should look forward to being married when I got back. I did.
20 de Fevereiro de 2017 às 17:12 0 Denunciar Insira 0
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