When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbours
AS IT turned out, he took his son Henry along to the veterans hospital in Iowa City.
Being honest with himself, it was to piss off Henry’s mother first and to spend time with the boy second. Maybe. Henry’s mother had said something about not wanting it, something about not having Henry around those people. She said this in the middle of a load of laundry, with a bandanna holding back her hair, less vibrant than before but still silken. A tightness to her face now that had not been there in her youth, but she was still notably beautiful. Dwyer thought about it. I am those people, he decided. I was not a good one but I was a soldier. It felt bad to be so honest with himself. It felt bad but Dwyer had a theory, which he’d read somewhere, about the best kind of life being the examined one.
When he woke him at 0500, Henry didn’t want to get up and Dwyer thought this might be the boy’s way to honorably bow out. But at the last second his son got dressed. Until the moment the boy climbed in the SUV, Dwyer was planning on canceling, phoning Iowa City saying he had to reschedule.
It felt good to drive the interstate seeing with his son the open Illinois prairie. The stars blued out and died as the sun flared beyond the horizon. Its first fingers lit the clouds, then it continued its route to cast long sharp shadows across the country. With the sun he could see into the harvested fields. The sheared corn got darker the closer it ran to the gravel shoulder. Dwyer turned to look at the boy to see if he was seeing it. The little boy face amid the aged interior of the SUV, and the Bloomington library’s Tao Te Ching and two other books which promised answers laying disregarded at his little boy sneakers.
When they refueled at an Amoco, Dwyer bought a black coffee. Steam poured from the cup and was torn away by the crisp wind. He returned and soon the coffee smell filled the vehicle.
Coffee’s bad for you, the boy said. His mother had told him this.
Dwyer looked at him and grinned. That might be true, old-timer.
The interstate unfurled before them, vast, endless.
Is it true a man was killed at your factory? Henry asked.
Dwyer looked at him. Where’d you hear that?
Henry looked at him.
Listen, this is one of those ‘Life is hard’ things that I don’t know if you’re old enough for, Dwyer said. But, I mean, life is hard. It might be wrong of me to not be teaching you that. I don’t know.
Henry was still looking at him.
It’s true, Dwyer said. A guy on first shift went to make a repair on the line. You’re supposed to leave your ID card in one of these little boxes when you do that. It pauses the line. But this man didn’t do that. He didn’t do that and the assembly line was still going and he was crushed. That’s not going to happen to me, if that’s what you’re thinking, he said.
Henry turned his attention to the yellow Xeroxed map of Iowa City that the Veterans Administration had mailed to his father.
Oh, Iowa City, the boy said to himself.
You’ve heard of it?
That’s one of the places mama said she might want to go to school. The university there.
The boy looked at him again. Yes.
She wants to move you guys up there?
It’s one of her possibles, she said… Let me think… It has a good art department, is what she said.
Already Sophie wanted to move again. Her apartment still smelled like fresh paint. Yet she was ready again. That’s how it was with them. They both couldn’t stay still.
How’s the new place?
The water, the boy said. He made a face.
Let me guess. It’s bad.
You always say that. Didn’t you say that about the last place?
That water didn’t taste right either. Is it a big school, the one in Iowa City?
Yes. I think so. This was all news to him, and Dwyer shook his head slightly. I don’t really know.
The land went hilly for five minutes on either side of the river and Davenport. Then in Iowa it opened bigger than it ever had. Truly now it was like an ocean of harvested rows.
DWYER PULLED the SUV into the next lane. Interstate 74 became 80 West.
It was light enough now for some of the oncoming headlights to be off. There was oncoming traffic across the prairiegrass center divide but hardly anybody was traveling west with them. There had been nothing then only Peoria then Galesburg then nothing again all the way to the border. In summer it was country that made you feel full with the hard work that went into the crops and the life everywhere that would be supported by them. But harvested and snowdusted now, it was country that could make you feel beaten. On this drive it would have beaten him, Dwyer decided, if the boy were not with him.
Henry was observing the land with a serene acceptance.
You know, you look smart for someone your age, old-timer, Dwyer said. I think you’ve been around once or twice before. Don’t start speaking Farsi or Mandarin on me.
Manda-what? Henry continued to watch the flowing tan and brown and white of the prairie for a while. Then the boy moved on from whatever he was contemplating and now reached for the black CD organizer on the floor mat amid the books. He lifted it to his lap, then flipped through the translucent sleeves. Dwyer knew the boy was not going to choose from the classical CDs he was authorized to listen to. Instead he would pick something he was not allowed to listen to in his mother’s apartment.
Dwyer looked at his son, at the way his hair was as fine as cornsilk and how when it was combed forward neatly like now it showed the shape of his cranium, his healthy little boy cranium. He had a healthy son and that is a wonderful thing. Why don’t we listen to Mahler? You said you liked it.
No, this one. I like the picture. That’s a spider?
Dwyer took the CD and fed it into the slim black player.
Quickly before the music began, Dwyer said, I haven’t memorized the tracks on this disc with the words you’re not supposed to say. Anything you say around your mother that you’re not supposed to is going to get back to me. Remember that. The boy laughed then the music started machinegun fast and low.
They listened to the album. Dwyer thought the boy had good taste in music for someone who wasn’t allowed to listen to it.
AFTERWARDS, HE said, You know this is a hospital for veterans we’re going to, old-timer. This morning you’re probably going to see people with bad injuries. You might see some real rough cases. You understand?
The boy looked up from reorganizing the CDs in the organizer and nodded, but how was he truly supposed to understand?
Dwyer thought of Henry’s mother. This was a realm she would never understand. He thought of her clique of friends, how there was nothing in their lives that they were loyal to including each other. Again he remembered her doing the laundry, her ‘Barrel of Monkeys’ T-shirt tight against her chest, sipping a glass from a nine dollar bottle of wine, and how she spoke of the possibility of this trip to Iowa City. Then later, her vaguely fearful Don’t-know-what-you’re-going-to-do-next look that shamed him.
Those people, he thought. It chewed at him. Really he should be immune to that now.
The boy’s mother. She was still pretty though. Yes. Thankfully, her genes was where the boy got his looks. She always seemed to have her hair pulled back now, when not with a bandanna then with sunglasses. Before the pregnancy, she had painted her own illustrations for her book. She had worked on the canvases on the kitchen counter, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, sometimes smoking grass, wearing overalls with one of his old shirts or sometimes nothing underneath and then at some angles he could see her palest skin.
Later at the Shell station, the only other vehicle was a white pickup with a camper top. A black and white spotted hound with a doughy face eyed them from a side window as they stepped across the concrete. Henry walked over and reached up to put his hand on the glass for the dog.
Not your dog, Henry. You can go ahead and look but leave him alone.
As they walked to the store to pay, the door opened and a hunter in insulated coveralls and a camo hunting jacket and cap stepped outside. The man was going to pass carelessly close beside Henry. Men walking too close to his son always got Dwyer’s attention.
This man vaguely reminded him of an aged version of a particular corporal in Alpha Company who had been his spotter for a while. He saw the faces of the men from his company everywhere. Sometime after Samarra, this corporal’s orbital bone had been crushed in a fistfight in Kirkuk; he’d been sent to Baghdad so a plastic disc could be surgically installed to keep his eyeball from slipping into his skull. After being discharged, Dwyer lost track of him and didn’t even know if he’d survived the war. He’d heard a bad story about an IED, but had never gone to the Web to confirm it. Maybe it was just a story. Cohen…
The coveralled man noticed Dwyer’s stare and his back reflexively straightened then he stepped away.
The boy’s mother would halfway not like it but it’s natural to feel protective, Dwyer thought. Mammals are strongly protective of their young. And some can protect their young and some can’t. Still, the moment was not something that gave Dwyer pride.
Inside, the boy inspected the rotating wire display of humorous bumper stickers while Dwyer fixed himself a cup of coffee from the machine. Dwyer glanced at the bumper stickers (Caution: Frequent stops at your mom’s house) and saw most of them had been in stock for a long while. Some were sunfaded in long angles. He saw the sun continuing to rise blinding white over the mustard and ketchup bottles on the shelf. He closed his eyes and felt the warmth on his face. Things changed but it was always the same sun.
The boy followed him to the checkout counter. On the countertop was a cardboard display for Copenhagen tobacco. On it, a stream snaked from a mountain and beside it a bear reared on its hind legs triumphantly. The hockey puck tins of tobacco were loaded in the back of the display and dispensed out a slot in the front.
If you grab the last one in back it’s freshest, Dwyer told his son with a grin. He showed him. The metal puck was a cool, solid weight against his fingers.
He counted out some dollars for the fuel, the coffee, and the tobacco.
AT FIRST in Iowa City, Dwyer thought the Xeroxed map from the Veterans Administration was just poorly drawn. On the map, First Avenue was supposed to turn south onto Route Six. In actuality it never did. After driving blindly for a while and seeing the university hospital not marked anywhere, Dwyer realized the map was wrong.
Normally this would have been just one of those things, but now it was fourteen minutes until his appointment time.
He pulled into the lot of a BP station. Seeing him step inside with the yellow map in hand, the attendant called from behind the counter without hesitation, You’re looking for the vets’ hospital, right? Maybe it was the haircut. Three lights back, turn right, then three more lights, the attendant said.
Dwyer leapt back into the SUV he’d left running. Leaving it running with Henry inside was something he’d promised never to do. Not after the Harold Roberts carjack/murder story on the news. But it was 0850 AM now. And he did not know how the VA handled tardiness.
The directions took them around the far side of the veterans hospital. With two minutes to spare they found a parking space beside the main entrance of the outpatient clinics.
Inside, they followed the signs and walked briskly through the main lobby. In the lobby Dwyer saw Henry get his first glimpse of the rough cases. There were two. They would have been better off if their sacrifice for their country had been the supreme one. Better for the boy to go ahead and see that up front. At least it was a quick first look.
Dwyer checked his watch. 0901.
At the reception counter for Clinic Four, a man with one good arm was rasping into the phone: But, sir, I’m a disabled vet too. I was a Marine in ‘Nam. I know there are things to do this time of year, he said. But there are people who wait a year or two for these appointments. I guess it depends how much it means to you.
Dwyer remembered it was almost him calling early that morning to cancel.
The man with the arm and a nest of gray hair hung up the phone. He said, I’m Luke.
Okay, Luke said. Got you right here. He went directly to a folder resting sideways in a wire file holder. He picked it up and transferred it to a shallow wooden box on the counter. Have a seat there if you want. He pointed with the one arm. His bad arm hung atrophied at his side and part of it was wrapped.
Dwyer and Henry sat next to each other on the plastic chairs in the narrow corridor. Then a nurse walked in escorting an old man in a hospital gown. The old man stepped awkwardly, hunched over, slow like a crab. The nurse sat the patient in the only empty chair, beside Henry. Once at rest the old man hugged himself tightly. He smelled like sour milk. The man had a strange face. It was the face of a seventy-year-old but somehow because of the vacant doe eyes and wisp of hair it was also the face of an infant. Dwyer leaned forward to look and his wristband read: ‘Thacker, B’.
The nurse said something to Luke, then left.
Dwyer did not want to be so rude to ask directly to switch seats with the boy. So he kept the patient in his peripheral vision. After a while Thacker had not moved and just when Dwyer thought it was safe to look at the stack of magazines, the man lunged for Henry.
Like an electric shock Dwyer’s first impulse was to reach over and punch and to keep punching. But this initial rush lasted only a second. Dwyer realized the man meant no harm and was only trying to steady himself. Thacker stayed locked onto Henry’s arm, staring into space. Dwyer thought it must take something very bad to make a grown man cling to a child like that.
It’s okay. Henry used his free arm to give the man reassuring pats on the back. It’s okay. It’s okay. He looked at his father questioningly. Dwyer nodded back at him.
Come on, Thacker! Luke said. Luke slapped down the papers he was working on and walked around the counter. He crouched and unbraided Thacker’s arms from Henry’s and returned them to their original position crisscrossing his chest. Luke exhaled a long, resolved sigh. Then he said, halfway apologetically, halfway expositorily, Thacker’s another old jarhead.
The doctor opened the exam room door. Edwin Dwyer, she announced.
Dwyer looked at Thacker. The old man was now hugging himself fiercely like before. Thacker was gone and the name was only a label that no longer applied to the contents, Dwyer thought.
Luke said, Won’t be no more trouble from him. I’ll keep an eye on things.
Wait here and be good, Dwyer told his son. It could be a while. He gave Thacker one last look.
No problem, Henry said, but Dwyer could tell he was still a little afraid. This bothered him. But the only other option was to have him accompany him into the examination room and that would do no good. Someday the boy would hear about Samarra but not today.
I’ll watch him, Luke said.
Inside, the doctor asked, What do you like to be called? Ed? Edwin? Mister Dwyer? She consulted his file. Sergeant Dwyer?
Ed or Edwin. But only my father calls me Edwin. Sometimes. I don’t care.
You’re the one with the shattered femur.
I’ve read your file, the doctor said. Her hair was cut short like a lot of thoughtful women do at a certain age, when they get tired of the game. I bet she was once a heartbreaker, Dwyer thought. She looks honest, which is a lucky break.
We’re missing some papers on you, she said.
I’ve got copies of everything here.
I know in combat it must be hard to keep the records in proper order. You have to treat the patient and move on to the next.
Dwyer did not know what to say. He looked at the examination table with the white paper unrolled over the vinyl padding. On either side of the table were stainless steel medicine cabinets. The slit window with the view of the parking lot bore a tinted coating that let you see outside but not in.
I’ve got a lot to ask you, Sergeant Dwyer. My first question is why you’ve waited so long to file a claim?
Because of the boy. Now it’s important for me to put away as much money as I can.
That sounds like a good father talking, the doctor said.
Dwyer did not know what to say. Of course he could not say: I wish I was, but you could not be more wrong. For all your schooling and attunedness you cannot peg a man better than that? I wish I was a better father. Instead, he said, I try.
Later when they finished, the doctor opened the exam room door.
Can you make sure Sergeant Ed here gets copies of these? she asked Luke, handing the three page evaluation to him. Then make sure he knows how to get to X-ray?
Everything okay? Dwyer asked his son.
Thacker looked like he had not moved an inch.
Fine, Henry said.
The boy walked away to consult a human respiratory system poster. Text warned of the hazards of smoking.
Dwyer leaned over the counter toward Luke. I heard you say on the phone you were with the Marines in Vietnam, he said.
Yessir. First Division. ‘Sixty-eight.
Almost the beginning.
Not quite the beginning. But I had an older brother there in ‘Sixty-five, Luke said. You could see him go back to it in his eyes.
Where were you stationed?
That as bad as advertised? My father- well…
Luke glanced down at the paperwork in his hand. Dwyer knew what was being checked was his old Military Occupational Specialty, and he knew his MOS was one of the only ones that allowed him to ask this question to any vet anywhere. There was a protocol.
Henry returned and stood next to his father.
Luke considered the boy. He thought about things. Then he said, Yes. A lot of it was because of the things going on at home. But you know how it is with combat arms. Some guys get the bad assignments and some get the safe ones. I got a middle of the road one.
Dwyer nodded. By luck he himself had also been given a somewhat safe one. Not as bad as the guys who spent their days and nights driving back and forth in Humvees, slowly going insane, waiting to draw contact from the countless doorways, windows, and rooftops of Iraq, as if their superiors had decided to invert all accepted doctrine of how not to lose a war.
Most of the time he thought it was luck. But sometimes when he looked at Henry and thought how the boy was for his age, he figured maybe it was something besides luck. He had lived for years before the birth being as good about some things as he could, paying attention to details, learning the specific names of plants and trees, machine tools, and breeds of dogs, horses, and livestock, appreciating this chance to exist as well as he could. Maybe some of that had transferred through the blood.
Henry wandered back to the wall of medical posters and consulted another.
Luke finished making the photocopies. He handed them over and said, Says here you were Second ID.
Those three guys in the paper, they were also grunts with Second ID. You catch that?
Murdering locals, other stuff, murdering an officer, it said, Luke reported. He shook his head. All three of them missing now. Court martial’s going to try them in absentia at Fort Lewis. Luke continued to shake his head slowly and think. He considered his bad arm. War does things – his pupils swung around and locked – you know?
The JAGs ought to factor that in. But they never do, do they?
No. Nobody really does, do they?
Luke snorted in agreement, nodding. Then he said, See that doorway with that wreath at the end of the hall? There’s an alcove with an elevator around there. Take it up to the second floor and work your way around clockwise to Radiology.
The doctor wants me to have an X-ray, Dwyer explained to his son.
The two of them traversed the doorway then stepped into the elevator.
Is it bad? the boy asked.
It is what it is.
Vietnam was where that man fought, Pa?
That’s right, old-timer. Do you learn about Vietnam in school?
No. But I’ve heard of it, Henry said.
The doors opened.
Hurry, Dwyer said. From what I know, it was bad. Remember the you-know-what that we’re not going to tell your mother for a couple years that I let you shoot? He approximated the length of the assault rifle with his palms.
The big gun?
Mister Kalashnikov’s rifle, yes. Remember how I told you with iron sights Mister Kalashnikov’s design is better at under three hundred meters than the M4s we used?
It was Kalashnikov’s rifle some of the Vietnamese were using, Dwyer said. This is all complicated stuff, old-timer. He looked at the boy and shook his head to himself. Furthermore, he thought, many years later the Egyptian model certainly did a fine job on my leg. Fine right through all the meat and bone. Plus the Vietnamese had a lot of practice at fighting by the time Americans got there, he said. And like the man said, there were things going on at home. People were unhappy about things.
Dwyer stopped. He thought, Like what happened to the Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was a complete manipulation. There is such a vast disconnect in the brains of men who manufacture wars. How do I explain this to the boy? he wondered.
Dwyer figured there was no way to explain these thoughts to Henry. The boy would someday either figure how his genetic line came into jeopardy because of Vietnam and Iraq, because of the Gulf of Tonkin and magical WMDs, or he would not.
What a world I’ve born this boy into, Dwyer thought. The city of Samarra left him with an entry hole in the cargo pocket of his DCU pants, an exploded paperback of Clear and Present Danger, and one substandard leg. Could have been much worse. Someday he’d talk to Henry about war. But not today.
They checked in with the X-ray receptionist. After a while waiting in the chairs, the nurse called his name.
Dwyer looked at the only other patients, on the far side of the waiting area. They were not Thackers. Yet they were old men sitting without wives.
STAY HERE and be good one more time, Henry. I’ll be right back. Just a few minutes.
Inside, the nurse adjusted Dwyer’s leg on the light tray. The X-ray machine hummed, spinning and twisting nimbly on a giant mechanical arm to achieve the angles it needed.
On their way back to the elevators, Dwyer remembered the desert heat. He remembered the growl of the Caterpillar engine, the reek of diesel. How the Stryker’s eight wheels would shudder as it crested a rise. The pocket of cooler air in the depression on the flipside that smelled of cookfires and animal shit. He remembered how through the thermal-cam the little larks looked white like a photo negative as they slept on the stored heat of the roads. Then later watching through nightvision as the one-hundred fifty-five millimeter shells rained on the city like divine wrath. Sometimes the briefest glimpse of shrapnel blossoming amid the false green day. For a second he remembered the war so vividly he was both back inside it and at the hospital. God, he wanted to live only in the constant. To possess the constant always.
THEY’D ESCORTED their new lieutenant colonel to a government administrative building in the Samarra city center, then pulled security while he met with some Iraqi aristocrats inside. It was all secretive. S2 had told them to keep quiet about it.
Dwyer remembered hearing the wire door open across the street and the eruption of pigeons taking flight into blue sky then the rips of automatic fire. He remembered realizing the pigeons must have been the signal to initiate the ambush. Pigeons. We fought men who signaled each other with pigeons…
He knelt down and took his son by both shoulders.
Henry, your grandfather and I had a plan where we were going to communicate this without having to say it, he said. So if you rebelled you wouldn’t go do the opposite of what we told you. But I am going to tell you, Henry. Don’t you get yourself sent to war. No matter what happens. No matter who we fight. Our family has paid its dues.
Then a nurse walking past paused. Dwyer realized he was squeezing the boy’s shoulders tight and the boy was gaping at him and instantly he let go.
They resumed walking to the elevator.
If Dwyer’s willpower alone could effect anything, his boy would choose a different path. Henry would find another way. He would never know the quick over-the-shoulder glance that revealed the Iraqi delegates’ bodyguards – some of them local policemen – had vanished, and the subsequent cold, hollowed-out sensation in the gut. He would never see Dirty poking out the squad leader’s hatch, spaghetti cord kinking to his CVC helmet, the back of which exploded in pale dust then he dropped, a marionette with strings abruptly cut. He would never know leaving the convoy for the apartments, taking the stairs three at a time to find an angle on the insurgents not blocked by civilians, Cohen’s boots stomping after. He would never know thinking: What kind of men would jeopardize their own civilians, firing through them like that? The gritty scrubland wind surged outside. Grit everywhere on him, even crunching between his teeth. The smell of sunbaked clay. No, don’t think like that. All it is, business. If you look for more to it than that you miss everything. Sunni and Shi’ite, al Qaeda, Ba’athists, Halliburton, Bechtel, Blackwater, only business.
But, Dwyer thought, the boy would never know the ecstasy of slapping the bipod legs onto the sill, the M24 a sturdy, bowflaged instrument of great importance before you. The rush and smoketrails of two rocket-grenades tracing the street below. Return fire from multiple Strykers’ .50-cals. Insurgent snipers with Dragunovs, faces balaclavaed, smoothly ghosting along the distant, bombed-out tier. Locking your man in the crosshairs, you justify your actions by this and that, preservation of comrades and self, duty, whatever, but really the shot is going to be for all the things wrong in your life. You did not realize this at the time but now, much later, the realization is a dividend of the stock you have in the examined life. The bolt slides, the metal oiled lightly, perfectly; the steel sticking for an instant, fitting cleanly. You doublecheck the parallax, thinking: Cold bore, elevation, windage, breath control. Through the scope and with Cohen calling the targets, you fire a needle into the hearts of each of the hadjies – one, two, three – and they die. Boxy sandstone buildings and the giant, alien, ninth century minaret beyond.
The colonel’s voice crackled over the radio. It warped in from far away. I’m hit, he said. Mother- motherfuckers. I’m hit. He said it in that Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me tone. The adrenaline and shock sinking in and he must’ve been realizing many things. Priorities being restructured. Driver’s dead. Medic. Oh my God. I need a medic.
Another voice on the net, one of the young riflemen, was shouting about not having a good angle on the shooters. Nobody except Dwyer and Cohen really did. The insurgents were using the civilians for cover, deploying and displacing amid them. Usually they wore darker clothes but it was tricky to tell. Of course this is highly effective if you are willing to play along and not fire into a crowd of civilians.
The colonel said, overriding the other chatter: I was meeting with the mayor. We’re negotiating to have contractors build a new soccer stadium. His voice warbled amid static swirls. One point three million. I’m not – he coughed wetly – not dying for some fucking stadium.
Get off the comms, sir, the company XO’s voice, businesslike, interjected.
Fuckface, an anonymous, younger voice added, You ain’t the only one hit!
The colonel was fresh from the Pentagon and everybody had been operating under the impression that he was a zealous careerist.
What’s that lifer sayin? We get shot at and IED’ed all the time in this shithole. Corporal Cohen spat then wiped his mouth with his scarflike Neckgator. We’ve been hitting it with everything – one-twenties, one-five-fives, JDAMs – for weeks. Now they want to build a fucking stadium here? Is he shitting us?
Washington says an Iraqi with a shovel in his hand can’t also be holding a rifle, the colonel was continuing, oblivious, now almost a murmur, drunk from the shock. His breathing was heavy. The medic’s voice began snapping rapidfire orders to his assistant in the background. Somebody else was trying to convince the colonel to surrender his headset. This isn’t a war, the colonel said forlornly. That’s the wrong noun. Suddenly his mic cut out with a squelch. For a moment the entire net was quiet, then all at once the regular traffic resumed.
Cohen had opened the breech of the 203 grenade launcher mounted beneath his M4 and was loading a round. An extended burst from something heavy, maybe an RPK, stitched the outside wall around the window. Two of the shots burst through, snapped past above their Kevlars, and punched the far wall. They both sprang away. Tiny plumes dripped from the ceiling like stalactites, like sand grains in an hourglass, then disintegrated in the crossbreeze.
Goddamn, Cohen hissed. This building better not collapse.
Dwyer was crouched now with his arms shielding his face absurdly, simian. The smells of gunshots and particlized masonry. He looked down. Two new coins of sunlight on the tile. He lightly booted the sleek, forty millimeter, high explosive 203 shell across the floor back at Cohen.
Don’t say shit, Cohen said. I know.
The story was, as a civilian, Cohen had been disrespected by a cashier at Long John Silver’s. He hopped the counter in a franchise full of witnesses. Cohen operated under the beliefs of personal honor of a bygone century. Later, the judge gave him a choice, jail or the military.
Echo echo, the colonel ordered. Repeat, echo echo. This meant the ROE were changed and now all Iraqi males were fair targets. They announced the new code in briefings conspiratorially, wary of outsiders monitoring the net. The colonel’s voice warbled out again, going far away to other worlds then returning: -wife and my daughter. Light em up.
Dwyer and Cohen glanced at each other.
What do you think, Ed? The Colonel’s hit.
He called echo. Call the targets. Dwyer returned to his position and worked the rifle bolt.
Through the scope, the projectiles left twirling wakes like double helixes as they tore the moisture from the air. 7.62 x 51 millimeter, one-hundred seventy-five grain, designed to expand and fragment upon impact. Traversing the curvature of the planet at two-thousand five-hundred eighty feet per second, vectoring on meat and bone.
Guy in the courtyard runnin, eleven o’clock, five-hundred meters. Got im, good shot. That car haulin ass, white Toyota. The car behind em. Reload. See that road into that gate? Follow it straight over to two o’clock, six-five-zero meters, technical parked in the ditch, two guys settin up an RPK. Both down. You hear that? Kiowas are inbound. The runner in the blue shirt, running along the wall, got an RPG. Is that guy MOI? Hit that motherfucker. Too high. Dead on. Reload. Group of three- check that, four, all runnin now, one o’clock, eight-hundred meters. Good. Good. Good. All down.
YES, HE wanted to possess the constant always. But he knew part of him would always be in Samarra, time frozen in that upstairs hide position, seeing the ricochets, the second before the bullet slapped his leg, his mind on the verge of a great expansion.
Glimpses of reeling on the tile, shrill tone shrieking in his ears, leg not responding, and somehow all the breath sucked from his lungs. He tried to recover his weapon. Something kept it slipping from his grip. Cohen pushed him back down with a Nomex-gloved palm, and for one moment neverending the corporal was firing bursts from his carbine one-handed through the interior wall. Mouth agape in a howl unheard. Spent casings twirling end over end amid pulses of muzzleflash casting veering shadows.
Later, tourniquetted, dragged by his vest straps by Cohen past the corpses on the stairs, then carried, then dragged again, back to the convoy, toward their Stryker. Greasy smoke leaked from its hatches. The sickening stink of burnt flesh. The scene in the troop compartment was unforgettable. Good men gone. For what?
THE CASHIER at the window beside the hospital’s main entrance handed Dwyer thirty-two dollars cash in travel pay.
The cashier was a grandmotherly woman. She looked so somber Dwyer tried to joke with her. He said the first dumb thing he could think of. She barely acknowledged the joke or his existence. He realized to the left and right of them were rough cases. The rough cases were beyond laughing at anything and the vibe traveled with them. This lobby was a collecting area for them.
The rough cases drank a lot of free coffee. The coffee sat in five gallon stainless steel tanks in the break rooms. Styrofoam cups. They drank against Agent Orange. Coffee against Chinese infantry spilling like termites over the hills outside Unsan. Coffee against the nights when the walls bowed to push the density of the night down onto your chest and from the darkness came whispers from a pitiless void, when all you were seeking in this world was a little rest after a hard day’s work and knowing tomorrow would bring more of the same.
Dwyer put his hand on Henry’s shoulder. These rough cases either had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or their bodies had turned on them in old age, or they were poor. It was the rough cases who populated the cave and now so did Dwyer’s mother, and it was only a matter of time before his luck gave way and he joined them and then eventually his son.
Dwyer envisioned himself passing from bright sunlight into the earth. All around, the dreamy dim. Before him, a flash of movement in the vaultlike gloom. Then, wordlessly, at least sixteen woolyhaired desert men advanced to surround. Staring with vestigial eyes. They had been waiting for him, patient as animals. Would they greet him as the brothers they had always been, or something worse?
Because people had made him think about it, his leg felt sore, straight through to the marrow.
ON THE drive home, the boy said, I’m going to draw those patients in the hospital. The way they looked and stuff. He turned to his father.
Okay, Dwyer said. He smiled and relaxed. Make sure you show it off to your mother. I’m joking.
The boy sat very still in his seat swallowed by the seatbelt crossing his chest. He was thinking hard about it.
Thinking those shots were for all the things wrong in my life was incorrect, Dwyer decided. I went to Samarra willingly. I was destined for that ambush. Duty was served, if in no other way than fighting alongside my brothers. That some of the same men who manufactured the war then joined or formed businesses to profit from it takes nothing from that duty served.
Dwyer thought about the first time he’d ever truly bonded with his father. It was during those late night phone calls from Old Harmony Church at Benning, talking about the life of a sniper. That is something else the boy should never know. They would find another way to bond.
Dwyer looked over. He thought the boy looked aristocratic like his grandfather. But had his mother’s freckled paleness.
Dwyer said, Henry, I am so glad you get to know your grandfather and we three get to spend this period in time together. Someday we will not, but I am glad now we do.
Henry looked at him.
At the Illinois border they drove parallel to railroad tracks. After the bend beyond the river, the tracks carried a train that stretched to the horizon. When the caboose came up at last there must have been at least sixty identical gray cargo cars before it. Henry rolled down his window. They heard the wheels clacking above the rush of the SUV’s slipstream.
Have you ever seen a train that big? Henry asked.
Not even close, Dwyer said. I didn’t even know they made them that big.
The train cut the croplands along the arc of the railroad with a vast rolling shadow. Dwyer pictured all the cargo riding inside and thought, With such riches how can this country ever be defeated? But he knew what his father always said: All empires fall.
Not in my lifetime, Dwyer thought, and not in the boy’s. But it was the truth.
DWYER HAD seen his father drink countless times, but drunk only twice. Both times during the weeks after the old man was laid off from the air filter factory then crashed on his couch.
Some ville in An Giang, his father had said then thought about it. Eyes unchanged in an aged face. Phuoc something. Vinh Phuoc. He lifted the bottle from the kitchen table then watched the caramelcolored liquid rise in both glasses. We were there on a snatch, some guy that some other guy put on the blacklist, he said. Claimed he was a VC tax collector or something, I don’t remember. I didn’t feel sorry for those guys, because you heard about the things they did. Plus they had us pretty wound up about the Communist menace. Some of our guys would’ve kicked your ass for those books you read, Ed.
But this Vietnamese guy had a dog, ran right out to meet us. Some scrawny Shepherd mix, head tilted to the side, barking to wake the dead and staring at us like, Huh? Black snout and around his eyes. I know dogs. This wasn’t a bad dog. He was doing his job. I thought, What has this dog ever done to me? But he was going to compromise us. We had these suppressed .22s, about this big. The old man held up two fingers. He sighed. He sipped his bourbon. What could I do? Then he made the pistol gesture with his thumb and forefinger and pantomimed the shot. Everything that happened over there, and I’ll never forget that damn dog. He shook his head forlornly.
So what happened? Dwyer asked.
The snatch mission? The guy?
There were two guards and we took them out. Then we kicked in the Vietnamese guy’s door and said, April Fools, motherfucker. We threw a sandbag over his head and took him into custody for interrogation. In a year and a half, I never saw anybody survive an interrogation.
The old man considered his glass. I… He shook his head again and waved his hand as if to say, forget about it.
I dream about that dog. And I bet I’m not the only one.
DOOR-TO-door service. He dropped Henry off at the stairs to the boy’s mother’s apartment. He was glad she did not have a window that overlooked them. He hoped she would not move him as far as Iowa City as she had pledged. But he figured their connection was strong enough to survive even if she did. Probably.
When’s your next day off? the boy asked through the open door.
Dwyer looked at him. The eighth.
Henry returned the wave once. Then he placed one discount tennis shoe on the bottom step then looked at Dwyer who had just glanced away and was thinking deeply again.
The boy climbed the wooden stairs quickly.
Dwyer watched until the door opened with a flash of Sophie’s hand, then the boy was allowed into the apartment.
Dwyer sat in the vehicle for a while. Sometimes he thought letting go of the boy’s mother had been an ill-conceived plan. But he only felt this way when he was away from her for a while. Nonetheless, he had a memory of her chemise falling down her sacrospinalis that was the most perfect thing he had, or would ever, see. He thought of this now then made himself think of something else.
At first Dwyer thought he would drive home then he remembered the gas station adjacent to the apartment complex. He decided to buy one or two bottles of beer. Tomorrow he did not go into Mitsubishi until the afternoon shift. He parked the SUV at the next building over in the complex and stepped outside. He shut the door of the vehicle, which was rusting from the bottom up. Opened, unpaid bills and a threatening letter from a collection agency were scattered across the back seat.
The apartment complex was on the outskirts of town. It felt good to stretch out after driving so far. But the winter wind was blasting unobstructed across the prairie into his face. It smelled of the harvested crops and the earth. He had a short walk so he decided it did not feel unpleasant. He saw how the inverted moon reflected knifelike off the rippled surface of the manmade pond. After the asphalt, he paused to consider the weird angled shadows the streetlight left in the contours of the wet, mossy earth. He could step in a manner that did not make the faintest sound. He pictured how his apartment across town would look when he got home. Dim, silent, and clean.
As he walked, Dwyer packed the tin of Copenhagen with his thumb. To know harmony is called the constant, he remembered from the Tao Te Ching. To know the constant is being wise. To overly add on to life is a bad omen. Dwyer had a theory about the examined life. He heard the rush of cars on the interstate like breathing then he came around the corner of the Circle K and saw the taillights smearing along the overpass. Lives rushing, crisscrossing obliviously, through the unending night. Traversing their routes on interstates and highways branching like a circulatory system across the vast, sleeping cropland. The wind howled between the brick buildings. He slipped a wad of tobacco against his teeth, tasted its chemical bite.
Inside the Circle K, Dwyer glanced at the front page of the stack of Pantagraphs. In Iran, the death toll from the earthquake on December 26th was now double the original estimate of twenty thousand. Overhead, florescent tubes flared. He missed the boy already.