I wrote this on the plane back. It was Inspired by my seat neighbor, who popped three or four Ambien about three hours ago. A largish man in Bermudas, singlet and flip-flops, he snores with what could be described as symphonic relish. The highs remind one of the whine of leaf-blower; the troughs of his infernal splutter hint at the buzz or stir of hungry, wheezing animals deep in his pneumothorax. None of it, of course, is paced regularly. The girth of his neck insures that some valve is closing improperly within his nasopharynx, so that ultimately, after repeated, increasingly panicked requests from the brain, the airway finally blows open like Old Faithful. It just as violently gaskets shut again. And for his neighbor, our time to wait again.
So here’s what I wrote:
We are the shorts-clad men
We are the stuffed men
Ballcap filled with weed. Alas!
You will know us when you meet us,
Just as we know each other,
when we nod to one another,
across countertops, at gas-stations,
in bar-rooms or holy churches..
We are the men.
Of many races and creeds,
The Superfluous Men,
in a mood to pick up whatever’s at hand,
be it broken bottle, bazooka, or hand-to-hand,
to defend the cause of freedom.
I scratched out “freedom,” and replaced it with “liberty,” then scribbled over that and wrote, really small (I was using one of those impossibly tiny Moleskine notebooks my mom had got me), Western Civilization.
There, I’d finally said it. Or thought it. Well, at least I wrote it down. It seemed fairly obvious.
The thoughts kept coming.
You will know us.
You will feel us.
And when the time comes,
we will resist you with everything we’ve got.
Impossible. There’s no way to convey… the absurd seriousness of it.
I tore it out and rolled it into a pill, soaked it in my beer and swallowed it. And the rest of the beer. The attendants made ready for landing.
I get off the plane and it’s like nothing’s changed for these people. I left ‘em on a playoff Saturday, and I return on a playoff Saturday and everybody’s all kind of distracted by the possibility of the Steelers getting in, just like when I left.
Well, it’s changed for me, let me tell you, after what I saw over there.
In fact, let me not tell you.
J.B. and Bill picked me up at the airport, and we headed for home. Bill’d grown a moustache. J.B., like always, never said very much.
“There’s the hero,” Charlie said after the shock of the surprise party wore off. I held it together, but seriously, maybe, folks, maybe don’t surprise a returning soldier?
And I hate when they call me that. “Hero.” I ain’t no hero. I don’t know what they think I’ve done that could be considered any kind of heroic. Half the shit I can’t even remember I was so scared. That’s kind of why I dispensed with my dress uniform and went with the civvies.
Macy was at the house, and Deena, too, trying to look pretty for me, her soldier-sweetheart. Mom, Mama Rae and my half-sister Lou Ann. It was all decorated up for the holidays, even some of my old hand-drawn Xmas cards I’d made back in elementary school up on the mantle. Good ol’ Charlie Chiswell came by, too, which was great. Hadn’t seen him in a long time. Man was like a second father to me after Dad took off. And he’s a good dad to Lou Ann. No hard feelings for divorcing Mom. She’s a tough one. Lot of wired-in bleakness in her.
I could tell Charlie was kind of disappointed I didn’t show up in uniform, but he’d never let on, just like I didn’t let on how “Surprise” almost put me in a “Don’t let this happen to you” situation for an adult diaper brand.
Charlie’s as proud of me as my real dad would be. Actually, more so, since I never had a real dad.
Charlie and my brother went back to watching the game and I ate a hamburger standing and kind of half-watched the game but I also looked outside, into the slow snow and thought how different it all was from overseas and all the usual clichéd claptrap.
I went to get a drink and maybe to change into something more presentable than the sweats that had become my default garb of late. I went into the kitchen where the ladies had the game on a smaller flat-screen and they’re cutting salami and hard-boiled eggs and veggies to go with the monster roast bubbling in the oven. The kitchen fills the house with what to a carnivore like myself could be described as the odor of promise. Long experience has perfected Mama Rae’s roast. It hits hunger with the precision of a laser-designated JDAM.
Maybe I could sell that line to Hungry Man or something.
My phone vibrates. It’s Percy.
“Yo.” Mom looks inquiringly at me. She’s watching me, Her Johnny Came Marching Home.
“Coming out tonight?”
“Sure, see you tonight. Pick me up?”
“You got it.” I click off.
Mom’s still looking at me. She doesn’t like me going out. Especially not with Percy.
“You’re not going to go out in this weather.” Not a question. She didn’t bother saying, “You just got home.”
“Just for a couple, Ma. Back in a jiffy.”
“But the Cincinnati game…”
“I’ll be home before it’s over.”
We hate the Bengals. Cleveland, too. Paul Brown started both teams. That was a coach.
“You want a new job?”
“Not if it’s like my old job.”
“Nothing like that,” said Percy, his dark eyes smiling over a large beer. I palled around with a gin and tonic with lime.
“My ma’s wondering what we’re up to, I can tell.”
“Well, she doesn’t have to worry. Ol’ Perce’ll take care of you.”
It’s odd seeing the Colonel, again. He’s sort of my Paul Brown.
He sat just as he had in-theater, half-seated on a folding chair, intentionally recalling the repose of Lord Buddha with a low, wide table in front of him, maps, papers and fat reference books both open and closed, the tensor lamp throwing light in a cone on the table, leaving the rest of the room dim. He wore khakis and a dark sweater, almost what he wore back there.
I’d traveled a long way to see him, but that didn’t matter, the same formalities prevailed. He was my mentor, had been since the Academy. I felt for him in some ways as I felt for Charlie Chiswell, but with a greater, instinctive emotion, for we had seen some shit together.
He let me stand there awhile, and then he aimed the cone of light at me. He was inspecting me.
“You put on a ‘Freshman Fifteen’ since you got out of uniform?”
“I guess you could call it a ‘Civilian Sixteen,’ Sir.”
“Good one. I’ll pour you a scotch. No carbs.”
He poured it; I took it.
“You’re back active.” That was it.
He’s the only guy from over there I would ever work for again.
My thinking was to approach Arthur first. I shall not use anyone’s real names, not even Percy’s.
Arthur lived two blocks over from Ma’s house on Sycamore and we’d been teammates on our high school football team, he a linebacker and I a defensive lineman. He made noises like he would join up but he didn’t, and I can’t say I blame him. He dated Lou Ann for a while. He was my best friend.
He’d worked at a healthcare marketing firm until about a year ago and had been working on and off around town, since. This was the first time I’d seen him since returning. He’d put on a bit around the middle. But as the evening wore on and he continued his usual rant, it was clear he hadn’t changed. He was still a crazy fuck, and that’s what’s important.
“Want a job?” And I started to outline it.
Counter-counter-insurgency’s a tricky game, to put it mildly. It helps to be indigenous, for sure, but watching the watchers is always a sketchy business. You must not be seen observing. Better, you must not be seen. I’d learned the importance of this for myself, back when
I was looking for the rival’s glass, some fuck hidden away as snugly as I, searching for me with just the same unblinking intensity as I sought him.
Just the job for Kirby, my old partner in crime.
I hate Caliyuga City. But that’s where Kirby lived with his mom and dad, up on Riverside Drive. So I drove out there and I waited in the Diner on 79th Street for three straight mornings and then he came in.
He spotted me right away. I had on shades and the moustache was new. Didn’t matter. He slipped into the other side of the booth.
I didn’t bother offering him a job. I just told him: We’re active again.
The Big Day’s coming closer. People are mad. The demonstration at the State Capitol is supposed to be peaceful.
Jake Barlow and Orestes Garcia will be joining our merry band. Both of them are electronics-signals guys. We’re all going to demonstrate.
We’re all going to demonstrate cohesion, and we will pledge our lives and sacred honor on it.
It is a Hollywood cliché, the returning veteran gone mad. And indeed, few of us evidenced any of the variously named mental disfigurements our time abroad may have inflicted. But there is no question that Percy, Barlow, Garcia, Kirby and I possessed a special bond, one that shared no unit number but united us forever in a special kind of nastiness that… well, as I asked before, how about if I don’t tell you about it? It’s just more fuel for vengeance.
Arthur was a different case. I could tell that he envied us the bond of our experience overseas. If he’d known what we’d been through, what we’d seen and couldn’t forget, he’d not have sought so ardently for this honor. But knowing him, I knew he would gladly have shared our burdens, as well as the swelling weight of our memories. He in fact probably would not have come back. His gentle demeanor masked a man of considerable idealist passion, and the one thing he loved was his country, a love he stuck to stubbornly, even in the Ivy League school he attended. He’d have made a good soldier. He, like us, did believe, deep down, Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori.
Naturally we razzed him about his rank civilianhood, made him do rookie stuff. Joked at the expense of his manhood and love of country. It burned him and embarrassed him, but I think deep down, he appreciated it, really, recognizing it for what it was: initiation. We all knew he was with us, but we wanted to keep him on razor’s edge.
Arthur quit smoking and drinking and started working out. He was rounding into shape by the time of the demonstration.
A few days before this all went down, I received in the mail a set of temporary tattoos. They were one-inch-tall decals of a coiled rattlesnake. A kids’ thing, really. Percy, Barlow, Garcia, Kirby and I all applied them to the inside of our right arms, just above the wrist. Once they’d set, we set off to find Arthur.
We invented a ritual. Made it up as we went along. Stood him at attention. Suddenly realized we needed a blindfold, which Percy provided in the form of a not-necessarily Bounce-fresh bandana. Garcia improvised some Latin words which we improvised repeating. Then we each of us started punching Arthur the arms and body for about minute. He had us laughing when he said, “Not the face! Not the face!” We soon stopped hitting him. We didn’t try to kill him, but I assure you, he felt it. And he took it.
Then we made him swear unto death silence for the cause. We told him our secret slogan, “Liberty or Death,” and made him repeat it. Like I say, we made all this stuff up.
We took the blindfold off him then rolled back our sleeves. You are initiated, we told him, save for one detail: the mark of our brotherhood. He gazed at the tattoos with envy.
Well, Arthur drank that night, as did the rest of us, as we ginned up the courage in our civilian comrade to get his own ink at the tattoo shop adjacent the bar. We hang out at swanky places, you can tell.
He sat and gritted it out, his wrist getting all punctured and such.
We returned to the bar and toasted Arthur.
Then we showed our wrists, from which we’d cleaned all traces of our fake tattoos while Arthur was receiving his real engraving. Arthur looked confused as we exploded in laughter, then he started laughing (What else could he do?).
“Rookie!” we jeered.
That’s when we all got up, except Arthur. He looked red-faced and surprised.
“Where are you guys going?”
I smiled at him. Said it real nonchalantly.
“Next door. We all want snake tattoos.”
The look on his face said it all: surprise, gratitude, honor, jubilation, deep emotion.
How happy he truly was as we each squirmed beneath the needled snakes.
He was one of us, now.
As we’d expected, the trigger-happy police provided the cause for the next great demonstration of rage from the people. An unarmed youth was gunned down by two undercover officers… the kind of thing you always seemed to read about.
The Governor was planning to address the protesters, assembled at the State Capitol, and we were going to go along, in solidarity against the hyper-militarized police and their civilian intelligence programs… and sow a little confusion along the way.
Now, “confusion” can be a loaded word. Let me unload it for you. We meant at no time to do actual harm: We merely wanted to confuse things, a little. But no action of ours would cause harm. We were Hippocratic. Not hypocrites.
We never, ourselves, would raise an actual hand.
We wargamed it out-county, way out in the Wetlands, away from any sort of anything: high-frequencies, repeater towers and such. From what we remembered of our old jobs, we knew we’d have be purely off-grid for the detailed practice of this mission. No EM in or out. To reduce visual signature, we drilled in camo (to Arthur’s delight). We slopped through the freezing mud beneath the trees of the wetlands. We froze our asses off and ate shitty backpack food. Arthur excelled.
It was good to get back out in the field, reading maps in soiled map covers, building the dioramas, planning it out. Kirby was totally in his element, just like old times.
It brought us back to when we were kids, playing army. Monte Cassino. Stalingrad. Guadalcanal. The Bulge. Depended on the season. Oh, how we kids loved to play it. Oh, how we still love to play it, even though it isn’t, and never was, “Cool.”
Night came earlier and earlier.
The day of celebration was at hand. And we met it very near soberly, except for the six-pack we split that morning.
We all knew what it meant, so there wasn’t much to say. We each saluted each other, shook hands, and went our destined ways.
Only Kirby finished his beer.
Well, they shot Garcia. They’d heard enough out of him. Crazy fuck! He’d climbed the big old copper beach near the podium, I mean, he fucking ran up the tree before security could grab him, and from there he kept heckling and heckling the governor. The cops kept trying to get a bead on him with the taser, but then, even the crowd understood that could kill him, so they turned on the cops, who backed off.
Got to get closer. Next thing, Orestes makes the move, reaching inside his jacket and withdrawing a narrow, cylindrical object, which he brings to his eye and I hear “GUN” from off to the left and almost simultaneous, Orestes jerks back and the glass in his telescope sprays, then I hear the glass breaking and he starts to drop, hitting branches on his way down.
“No!” I roar, and begin to run towards fallen Garcia. I am highly, even suspiciously bundled up. I carry a long black umbrella, using it to shoo the fleeing protestors to the sides as I work against their panicked flow. There lies Garcia. He did not survive.
I have arrived at his resting place first and am now being told to get away from the suspect to keep my hands behind me down on the ground and I decide to whirl on them with my best form, as I used to, breathing just so, the furled umbrella riffling with a touch of left-right crosswind.
“You!” I accuse and then the syllable wheezes off, for I’ve been ventilated. I fall back and my head turns towards the capitol steps, and there’s Arthur! Our Arthur, leading the way up the steps. Kirby gets hit. More shots, but Arthur continues the charge.
He carries the flag.
I am dying.