by Seth Harp

Javier joined the military because he was drunk. Not at the time he walked into the air-conditioned office with the cardboard cut-out soldier in the window, but generally at that age.

A year out of high school and he was still getting drunk and stoned five nights a week, still riding around with the same strip-mall thugs who stole cases of beer from filling stations, carried guns in their trucks for no reason, and bragged about getting arrested.

Sitting around some gray apartment with a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, morose amid the pandemonium of drunken conversations, he longed to disappear without a word, to pack lightly and set off into the world early one sober morning. He had never been outside of Texas in his life and he dreamed of open roads, empty railroad cars, cargo ships, the high seas.

Most of all he wanted to forget one particular girl, one who plucked her eyebrows, wore gold hoop earrings, carried Marlboro Lights in her purse and left him catatonic with suffering after she had sex with a drug dealer in the bedroom next to his, while he was blackout drunk.

And indeed, fifteen months after he boarded the first plane ride of his life, to basic combat training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and seven months after he stepped onto a Baghdad tarmac wearing body armor and holding an assault rifle, when he thought about her eyes, or the smell of her perfume mixed with cigarette smoke, or the press of her jeans against his, the wound no longer felt mortal. And in all that time he hadn’t had one drink.

Then, halfway through the deployment, his name came up for two weeks of leave. Riding in the back of some troop carrier, or lying on his cot listening to headphones, he would unfold the piece of paper that entitled him to a round trip ticket anywhere in the United States and daydream about Alaska or Hawaii, someplace he could be alone on a deserted beach, camp out under the stars, build a driftwood fire and watch the waves roll in, slowly draining a bottle of bourbon. He thought about it, but in the end he flew home to Austin, and the first thing he did when he got there was call her.

He hung up on her voicemail. He lit a cigarette. He was at his old shared place in Montopolis, a rotting two-bedroom cottage on skewed piers, a jungle of weeds in the back yard, a patch of bald dirt in the center where the sun beat hardest. He called his old roommate, whose car was not in the driveway, though the fridge had groceries. He didn’t answer either. Javier looked at his watch. It was four in the afternoon. He went in the kitchen and cracked a beer.

He woke on the floor the next morning and reached for his rifle, groping around the linoleum without finding it. He sat up with his head in his hands, remembering that he wasn’t in Iraq. The counter was lined with beer cans and there were beer cans crushed on the floor, beer cans strewn in the yard amid the cinderblocks, charcoal and tires. He checked his phone to see how many times he had called her. He counted six times, the latest at midnight.

He went out and ran hose water over his buzzed head and stood in the front yard dripping, shirtless, barefoot in the warmth of the sun, his brain throbbing with every heartbeat. It was late spring and thousands and thousands of wildflowers bloomed in the vacant lots across the street, where sodden mattresses and exploded couches existed hyper-real in the saturated colors of the humid day. The curbless street ran down to a row of little board houses with half-collapsed porches and small fenced yards abounding in rosebushes, cacti, honeysuckle, flowering weeds, and chickens pecking at plastic wrappers in the dirt.

For seven months straight Javier had been riding around the slums of Baghdad tooled up head to foot, popping shots in the ramshackle alleys of concrete blocks and corrugated tin, where trash clogged the open sewers, where the dawn smelled of mud and burnt plastic, and the sunset rattled with automatic gunfire and calls to prayer. Something in the homely quaintness of this poor, peaceable neighborhood gave rise to an uneasy contempt in his breast, which was newly tattooed with crossed rifles, the symbol of the infantry. More than anything else at that moment he wanted his weapon. He itched to slap a magazine into the well, to drag back the charging handle and feel the spring-loaded bolt slam a round into the chamber with a satisfying metal crunch, like stomping on a beer can.

He sat down on the concrete stoop and stared at the screen of his phone. After a while he pressed the redial button. He listened to it ring, five times. He hung up on her voicemail, flipped the phone shut and stood.

“Fuck it,” he told the pit bull across the street. “I need a beer.”

In the days that followed he transitioned to sleeping through the day and drinking all night, beginning soon after he woke in the evening. He wandered the streets of Montopolis, a beer bottle dangling in his hand, calling her, crashing house parties in search of her. The warm summer nights in the neighborhood passed in a drunken phantasmagoria of honeysuckle and tree flowers, their fragrance mixing with the smell of motor oil, grass, barbecue smoke, marijuana, and cologne, under sickly yellow street lamps where June bugs bumbled, walking to the rhythm of slowed-down rap from rattling car trunks.

Eventually he found her. It was at some backyard party, a deeply drunken crowd around a keg in the grass, red plastic cups everywhere. He remembered standing there, the sight of her slightly thinner, slightly older face, and the smell of her perfume, but the words they said were forever lost to the undersea silence of extreme inebriety. They might have talked for five minutes and they might have talked for an hour, but at the end of it she threw down her cigarette, punched him in the eye, and left with her friends.

On the afternoon of the fourteenth day, Javier sat alone at an airport sports bar, flagrantly drinking in uniform. He was trembling and poorly shaved. The swelling around his eye had gone down, but a purple wine-stain remained. At one point a gray-haired couple in sweatpants came over and offered to sit with him if he wanted company. He demurred and they went back to their booth. When he got up to board his flight he found his seven beers had been paid for.

The alcohol wore off quickly, and midway through the thirty-hour flight to Kuwait in a chartered jetliner, he was stretched out in the aisle clutching a felt blanket to his chest, grinding his teeth in the grip of febrile nightmares, vivid visions of sunless oceans, waves churning in the darkness, garbage tossed on dirty foam breakers. Amid the broken glass and sharp rusted metal in the littoral mud, white crustaceans crawled. He woke, turned over and stretched out, flipped over again and curled up, tormented by an electric restlessness in his legs and stomach.

He disembarked in Kuwait, drew his rifle and ammunition at the armory, and boarded a cargo plane to Baghdad. Without trying or expecting to he slept the whole way there, clocking a good three hours of dead, dreamless sleep, awaking to a refreshment he had not felt for the duration of the two weeks behind him.

The hatch yawed open with a high-pitched hydraulic whine over the roar of propellers, letting in a blinding white light. It was like an oven door opening, and the extreme heat stilled his trembling limbs at last. He squinted out over the broiling tarmac, the hazy layers of the airbase visibly simmering in the exhaust of the plane. He was far from happy but cinching up his body armor, snapping his chinstrap into place and checking his weapon, he was at peace again.