by R. Morris
“Clear,” I say, pulling the 9mm out of the bullet-proofed barrel, re-holstering it on my right thigh before stepping across the safety line. A burst of 50 caliber fire echoes through the hot, dusty Baghdad evening air, although most don’t even hear it anymore. Another twenty steps to the chow hall door and a blast of cool air envelops me as I enter the first step of my nightly routine…again.
By the time I pull up to the table and set down my tray, topped with a Bubba Burger and fries, my five closest squad-mates are already talking about the milestone we’ve reached.
It is marked on every one of our makeshift calendars. The last hurdle in the marathon had arrived, only three months, to the day, until the rotator takes us away to freedom, home, hugs, kisses, and real life.
“The last three months of an eighteen-month deployment is always the toughest,” Lacy says. And there it is, the desert elephant in the room. They continue to talk about stories where people lost it, didn’t quite get to the finish line. Many were found talking to themselves, essentially end up falling into despair, and our buddy Hank is always the example.
Whatever, I’m not seeing it. After successfully navigating the last three months in the last three deployments, I let the younger ones just babble in the nonsense. The dusty Iraq air smells the same. The mundane routine behind the Baghdad wire is still the same. Religiously counting the days until I can get back home to my soulmate and our, no longer a baby, baby. It’s all the same, whether eighteen months to go or three.
Finish chow, off to the shower, sleep, start again in the morning, navigate the journey between sleep and work and work back to sleep.
“Hey Tory, what’s up?”
My right hand palms the 9mm strapped to my leg. My left presses the cold of the cement slab that lines the one-man wide path around the pit, water formed by the runoff of the surrounding military village ripples dirtily below me. I dig my foot in, knowing one step would cause a fall I could not get out of.
I keep my voice as safe and calm as possible, making sure the person behind the voice was not out to harm anyone, to include himself. “Hey brother, hope everything is okay. You need any help?” I say, squinting to see him in the moonless night, fighting off the urge to choke from the stench emanating from below.
“No, I’m good. Just fishing.”
Fishing? In the pit? This guy must be new in theater. Or else he has a warped sense of humor. No one hangs out by the pit on purpose, it’s a pit of despair. Most people went the long way around the base to avoid it. I had, too, when I’d first arrived. When we tell each other it could be worse here, it was the pit we imagined. But as the eighteen-hour days started to take their toll, I often used the shortcut between the ops center and tent city.
“I didn’t realize there were fish here.” I cast a wary eye at the thick, oily, liquid substance covered with particles of dust and small dead flies.
“The pond hasn’t been stocked lately and I haven’t caught anything in some time, so you might be onto something there.” He chuckles.
“But you’ve caught here before?”
“Oh, yes, many times, last one I caught was Hank. Remember? He rotated back home and killed his wife.”
The grip on the 9mm pushes back harder, digging into my hand. Not sure I was hearing right, or if the voice was even outside my head, I just walk on. Thinking the whole way, only three months to go before I can go home to Jill and Conner – probably shouldn’t tell Jill about this little event.
“Hey Tory, what’s up?” I can barely make him out across the late morning haze floating above the pit. I blink away the stinging in my eyes caused by the toxic liquid. No metal helmet, no flak vest, no weapon. Just a pair of jeans, a shirt and a fishing pole, the line leading to a red and white bobber floating in the liquid. If he wasn’t talking, I’d have thought he was a great attempt at humor sitting there, stuffed, in that aluminum lawn chair.
“Do we know each other, brother?”
“Not directly, but we talk to the same crowd and you’ve seen my bounty from the pit.” When he said ‘pit’ his voice was low and booming, much like the sound Michael Buffer makes when he asks if folks are ready to ruummbbllee. “In fact, I think you’re the reason I’m not catching many lately.”
Before I can respond he says, “How are Jill and Conner?” I freeze, narrow my eyes in another futile attempt to see the speaker’s face.
“Fine.” I say, instinctively, but not real loud and somewhat in passing. He knows my family? I start walking again, toward the living quarters.
“Doesn’t sound like Jill’s handling it so well.”
I stop again. I now feel my heart in my head, heat starting to raise up my neck.
“You work in Comm or something? Listening in on people’s phone calls home?” I ask. “Not cool, brother.”
Phone calls home were precious. Once a week or two, depending on operations and availability, thirty or forty of my brothers and sisters would line up in makeshift trailers, waiting up to thirty minutes for one out of a bank of old black pushbutton phones just for a few minutes to talk to a significant other or child. Trying to cram a year and a half into fifteen-minute increments. Talking through any real issues is not possible, let alone any personal soulmate time. Talking about nothing or stupid pick-up lines created out of country songs, trying to get a laugh out of her, picturing her with her glass of wine and my son, being one with the two in the room. All just deep yearnings, too far to reach.
I’m sure many times Jill says everything is fine just so we don’t delve into something significant and end on a bad note. Those bad notes are the ones. Ignore those, I tell me soldiers. Your significant other is handling it the best they can on their own, I say often. It’s different than they are seeing it.
Couldn’t convince Hank, though.
“Sounds like Conner has a permanent seat in the principal’s office and the family finances aren’t all in the black,” the stuffed fisherman says.
“Fuck off.” I start walking. My foot slips off the edge, scraping mud and stopping about eight inches down. I catch myself, cement now under my fingernails from the slab’s help. I try to slow my heart down. I look down into the darkness, imagining the thick pool of sludge awaiting its catch, and carefully pick my way along.
“I’m sure Jack is taking care of everything Jill needs…and I mean everything.”
His last comment resonates deep in my soul as I round the last cement slab.
The piercing alarm warbles of incoming. I deploy the flares, take a hard bank to the left. The C-130 seems to react in slow motion, as they all do when the pressure is high. The missile’s on its way, turning to hit the heat of the flares instead of the plane. The bone-rattle of my gunner’s 50 caliber startles me awake. I feel the heat on my forehead and the sweat dripping down the side of my head. I fight to gain control of my breathing. Now I’m a damn Pilot? Great…just great. This tour can’t get any worse.
Now awake, I can’t get Jill out of my mind…and Jack. We ended last night on a bad note.
“Who’s Jack?” I’d asked.
“My counselor. I had to start seeing one in order to cope, Tory.” Sniffling and the muffled tone of a Kleenex over her nose were loud and clear in the phone.
“How come you didn’t tell me?”
“I did Tory. How else would you know there was a Jack? The issues aren’t going away here and you don’t have time to talk them through with me. It’s hard, really hard.” She blew her nose. “You get upset. I don’t want to distract you.”
It’s hard, I’m tired, weak. I just want to get home to Jill and Conner, to hug them for a whole month. The need deep down is to focus on my mission here, but now I’m anxious, angry. I need to talk this through with Jill, but I can’t. I don’t have control over any of it.
“Jill called him a counselor? That’s rich,” he says. He’s sitting in the chair across my room now. He points his fishing pole at me from across the room. “If she wasn’t out with him all the time, Conner wouldn’t be acting out like he is. Counselor, yea right.”
“One little sliver of information is not a complete picture of reality,” I say, using the same words I’ve said many times to my guys. We might know we were a mile or so away from the bomb, out of immediate danger, but the only news families back home hear is that a bomb went off and killed one hundred people in Baghdad. Without any other information, how would they know if it was one of us or not? It’s possible, right?
“So, why would I possibly believe the fake crap you’re feeding me?” And, I don’t know why, but the feelings are real – my heart is racing with anger.
“She’s probably going to sell all your stuff,” he says.
“Wait, what? Why?”
“How else is she going to pay for a nice, well-groomed, well-toned counselor? You know, Jack and Jill did go up the hill, didn’t they?” he says, taunting me.
I need to get home right now and take care of this immediately.
“Sorry to hear your plane home was delayed,” the pit dweller says, as I slow to navigate the narrow passage. He chuckles, deep and vile, as if he’s the one handling the schedule, obviously not sorry at all.
“I’m sure Jack will console Jill with a nice bottle a wine. They certainly can afford a little extra with the recent sale.”
I can’t stand the thought of it, I have to get home and put a stop to this.
Everything starts to move in slow motion. The back of my foot starts sliding toward the edge of the pit.
“I’m sure you’ll get on a plane in a month or so – if they don’t cancel deployments back home all together.”
I barely hear the last words as my ankle turns over the edge. The ground falls out from under me and the rest of my body follows. My feet start dragging down the steep slope toward the pit. Frantically I grab at the side to stop, but only fill my hands with clumps of mud and rock. The descent starts to slow a little until I felt a strong grip on my boot, a large hand, pulling me further toward the liquid vault.
“You’re as easy as Hank! Telling him she sold his sixty-nine Camaro was the best bait I’ve ever used.”
My legs flash rapidly, trying to climb up the steep wall. I hear the splash of large rocks being pushed by my feet, the sound quickly gets louder.
“Maybe counseling by candlelight is a new thing back home?” I hear him bellow.
The chilly damp liquid surrounds my left foot, then reaches my knee. I have no energy left. I can’t fight it. This is it.
All goes silent, the cold liquid slowly closes around my leg. I think of Jill and Conner, how much I love them. I tell myself, deep in my heart, that Jill was not doing any of those things.
That’s when they pop into my head: the made-up pickup lines we created from country songs. “It all started with a beer.” Frankie Ballard singing away. I start singing, softly at first, but then at the top of my lungs. “Baby you a song, you make me want to roll my window down and cruise.” I can’t stop laughing. I can see Florida Georgia Line singing in Hicksville. I can see Jill right there in front of me. Laughing, a loud snort every now and then.
The booming voice becomes angry, yelling, “No, No, No.” sounding like incoming. He tries to continue. “She’s sleeping with…”
“ …My new Chevy with a lift kit, would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it.” I sing at the top of my lungs. His missile-like words hit flares of songs emitting from my mouth, exploding without any impact on me. Completely useless.
Stuffed pants yells a guttural “Nooooo…” The splashing of rocks across the pond quickens. The sound of an aluminum folding chair cartwheeling over the rock and cement fills the air, ending in a distinct final splash. Then all is silent. I stop, my legs feel cold and damp, the uniform pressed against them.
I slowly turn over and crawl, rock after rock, diagonally up the steep wall to the path above. I pause for a minute or two, my breathing slows. I turn and start walking toward the camp, finish my routine: chow, shower, bed.
The next morning, slowing as the path narrows, I’m stunned staring across the pit. There is no chair, no jeans, no shirt, no one fishing in the pit of despair. The only thing there is a red and white bobber swaying in the breeze, hanging off fishing line wrapped around a wood sign I’ve never seen before. KEEP OUT- No Fishing or Swimming
Then it hits me: I’m wearing the same uniform I had on last night. It’s not wet, ripped, muddy…nothing. It’s just the same as any other day here in the desert.
“Hey babe,” I say, finding a morale-phone right away this morning. “You melt me like ice and whiskey.” I silently thank Florida Georgia Line for their timely wisdom.
On the other end of the line, Jill starts gasping in laughter between convulsions of tears. The sound of her hand quickly coming up to her mouth comes through the receiver. I hear a muffled, “Oh my god. Oh my god. I want to be your cigarette...thank you, I love you, I love you, Tory.”