By: JP Miller
The bus ride from downtown San Francisco across the Bay Bridge to Oakland was long and choked with diesel fumes. The sudden stops and starts never bothered me much. I must have nodded out at some point. I dreamt that I was still in Karbala, covered with broken off reeds, hiding behind a crumbling wall made of goat shit, straw and dried mud. I was firing my weapon at Hajis, who raised their heads and their AKs like carnival targets at about 200 meters all around us. Klinger was there, spraying them down with the SAW. DC was fumbling, reloading his M-4. Robby had a blank, thousand yard stare on his face as he slipped on all the brass piling up around us. Even the XO, Major Mahorn or Horny as we called him, was discharging his 9mm with his right hand over the flimsy wall. Although he never dared to look over the chipping mud. Then, as the bus jerked to avoid a roaring motorcycle, I opened my eyes. For a moment, a very brief moment, between REM sleep and reality, I saw Wilson sitting in a seat far beyond me, looking me straight in the face, smiling, although he was most certainly dead, having met his end with a head butt on an RPG. I smiled at Wilson and he disappeared. I knew it was a dream, not a nightmare, even before I woke. My nightmares always revolved around what had happened that day when we took the suicide bombers down what we called Dead kid Street, the place where insurgents coordinated attacks and really hurt us.
The bus air conditioner was buzzing like a blow fly over a dead body. It was fucking hot. I thought Frisco was supposed to be cool. Those stiff, pomaded weather men had been preaching on local news about the unusual heat and the long drought all across California. The end is near they intimated. True.
I get it. I’ve seen it.
There were multiple fires in the hills above Los Angeles that now were stretching north and south to create a wall of destruction inching down toward the coast. San Francisco and Oakland had been spared the fires so far but the heat wave was taxing the utilities while everybody and their brother were running their air conditioners on max creating brown outs. The homeless were dropping dead all around San Fran as the cops tried to roust them off the street. Tempers flared at Haight Ashbury as old hippies and suits bumped shoulders. Road rage became a common past time on the highways like a Mad Max trailer . Everyone was in a hurry to get nowhere, it seemed.
The bus was sweaty and smelled like body odor mixed with cheap perfume and scented soap. My VA issued cane clanged on the floor and I quickly grabbed it and stowed it between my legs. The more I tried to hide it, the more the fucking silver walking stick became part of me. I didn’t see myself as disabled but the first thing others noticed about me was my limp and a silver colored extra leg.
I looked around the bus which was filled to capacity, people standing, holding on to those plastic rings, swinging back and forth with the movement of the bus like they were on a ship, pitching and rolling. Then I saw a young woman, around my age, and for an instant saw sympathetic eyes. Was she looking at me? Me? I looked at her quickly and noticed that she was a foreigner–a Haji woman. What the fuck? Was I dreaming again? She wore a modest light blue Hijab with blue jeans and a long white blouse. She had no make-up, as if she needed it. No jewelry. I stared. On top of all this, she was exquisite. Her face revealed her olive skin with dark, large almond shaped eyes. She must have known I was a veteran since I carried my army pack, used a cane and was a couple of years older than the other students. Did she simply hate me or possibly pity me? She sat across from me and we both were as still as possible, trying to ignore each other. Most of the others on the bus were oblivious to anything but their ipods and the heat.
I could sense her fear. And why wouldn’t she be afraid among all these “support the troops” types—walking, talking zombies. She had a stiff and awkward sitting stance, one foot in front of the other, looking like she was tip-toeing across lily pads. Her legs were ready for flight at the first sign of trouble. I could tell she had seen the shit. Maybe her family had been smoked or she had been raped in Iraq.
The Hijab framed her face. After two tours in Iraq, I could detect threats in an instant. I could see she was surely feeling a threat in this bus, on this continent and in this country. She was scared. That was OK. So was I. I stole a long look and she was a diminutive girl and looked like Tinker Bell among these American giants.
We rode the same bus to the same University.We exited the bus at 5212 Broadway in Oakland at the California College of the Arts. It was a small college offering Fine arts degrees to students like me who fought off the final necessity of work. We both got off at the same stop and I leisurely followed well behind her until she entered the Literature building. I waited a few minutes and committed her face to memory, an Iraqi face. For some reason, her appearance did not bother me. On the contrary, it seemed familiar. While in Iraq, I saw the older women, mothers herding children around, making the run to the water hole. Yet, the whole of my two deployments, I rarely ever saw a girl my age unless they were dead. My entire two tours there were female free. I never even chimed in about the girls back home, mostly because I didn’t have any girl to Skye with like the rest of the platoon. I caught a lot of shit because of that. My platoon called it my gayitude in place of solitude. And, I didn’t mind that shit because it was all nonsense and boredom. Even jerking off in the porti-potti became just a ritual to relieve stress. I ran out of actual girl episodes and the same old magazines didn’t do it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like beautiful women. I did and I lusted over them. Then the war even took that from me and the endless patrols consumed my thoughts. Frankly, I was practically a virgin. I had that dry hump with Kat at the Drive-in and an actual penetration with Wanda, the fuck and suck queen of my hometown of Piney Knot in Oregon. In high school, I fell for all of them, hence I had none.
The college classroom was small and hot. No surprise there. The chairs were torture racks for a man six foot and 2 inches tall at 205 pounds. I found a larger chair and desk in the back and planted myself there. I saw Haji girl sitting up close to the blackboard and when the professor entered the room, she sat primly, stately, eagerly awaiting an education that surely must have been an event for an Arabic woman. I knew that many females were educated in Iraq, the lucky ones. Most never had a chance. And, the dead ones…well, they never cracked a book.
We were both students in the literature department and we had one class together on American Literature and fiction writing taught by an eccentric woman who took breaks continually to smoke and occasionally went into long silences followed by deep sighs. Guess she had a career of deep disappointment or she was just tired of trying to explain to dumb ass kids the genius of Jack Kerouac.
When the professor called roll, I could barely hear Haji girl’s acknowledgment. Her name was Ahlam Tahan. “Dreams” was the best interpretation I could come up with. I gave the professor her due and took in most of the lecture. But, I could not help but steal looks at Ahlam’s buxom body and mysterious dark hair sneaking out of her Hijab.
When the lecture was over, I was sure she turned and looked at me briefly. But, I sat in my chair while the room was clearing. Walking with a cane is a lesson in humility and I never left a room until the rest were gone. How could I approach an Arabic woman who was a bona fide beauty, with my grotesque limp, with my crimes. I may have killed her brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers. That was beyond obscene. It was unforgiveable. But, the more I saw her, the more I regretted my reticence.
Soon, I noticed that some students were pointing at her and others glanced at her and spoke to themselves softly with a smile of distaste. The ire in my darkest heart made my hands shake like they did before a patrol. They came at her like flies in the desert. I went over to where a few tow headed morons had surrounded her desk and prevented her from leaving. She was still seated and I towered over her, holding my cane loosely to the floor. She looked at me and I looked at the students harassing her. They were throwing around insults and posturing in a threatening way. They wouldn’t let her up. Man, I thought this shit was over by the end of grade school. The students looked at me, looked at my cane which I briefly held in a baseball stance. They left and I moved the cane to the floor.
“You ok?” I asked Ahlam.
She looked at me in terror then at my cane and relaxed a bit. People are less afraid of a gimp. Fact of life.
“Yes. Thank you very much. I must go now.”
She stood to leave.
“Look, I can walk you, well limp you to the bus stop or your next class if you like.”
She got that terror look again.
“No. I mean, no thank you, Mister.”
I didn’t give up. I knew those fucking grade school assholes would be waiting.
“Are you sure? Those jerks are going to be looking for you.”
She smiled for the first time. Her face looked at least a little relieved if not somewhat grateful. She thought a few seconds.
“Well, ok. Please, that would be nice.”
Her English was better than mine.
She followed me across the campus, one step to my left side and behind, over the bricks with right turns onto the concrete walkways. She would not take a short cut across the grass. I get it. Follow the rules. Don’t cause any undue attention. We stood at the bus stop side by side. Once we boarded, she disappeared to the back and I just left it alone.
On the ride back to Frisco, I watched her fumble with her books, head always down. I remember, as if I could ever forget, that eye contact was a dangerous thing in Iraq. After I had infilled, it was soon obvious that anyone who stared into your eyes was a potential threat and thus an immediate target. If they were holding a cell phone then double that. Cells were used to detonate IEDs and car bombs. We kept our weapons trained on them as we rolled through the dirty streets, itching to get some.
My days at school were certainly a relief for me. If being born in a small dead end Oregon logging town isn’t shitty enough then the Army taught me that the benefits of being above ground were well overrated. I never expected to be a great writer like Hemingway but to be able to pursue what I loved was enough for me. The way I figured it, the Army owed me something. I joined at eighteen, did six years and two long deployments in the great big suck that was Iraq, and gave up a tiny but essential piece of my spine. Now I had four years of education coming, paid rent, health care, and a stipend on top of my VA benefit check. I was almost content with things. But a twenty four year old almost virgin in a city like San Fran was monkish. Because of my injuries and that fucking silver cane, I guessed my odds of finding a girlfriend were minimal.
Living in San Francisco is like being immersed in a primordial soup of super-diversity, politics, protests and parties. It’s crammed with Bohemian types—artists, writers, movie stars and great chefs. I made my way over to Francis Coppola’s place once and the parade of talent and tourists was overwhelming. I drank a couple of glasses of good wine and left. Really? I would never fit into that scene. Yet, it was a dream of mine to publish a story in Zoetrope, Coppola’s fiction publication. When I did crawl the streets, I was always checking my six, identifying choke points until I was safe in my apartment watching porn, trying to feel something.
Living in an FOB in Iraq is one big suck storm with days of mind numbing boredom surrounded by dirt and stone filed Hescos. Mostly, I read novels while I wasn’t patrolling, watched movies or drank myself to sleep. But when the Mortars and rockets come at you over the wire, the scramble happens. If you’re sitting on the shitter all you can do is hope there is enough toilet paper. What you do is make a wish that it hits the next porta-potti, the other guy. There is no reason to run. By the time they are landing inside your AO, all you can do is remain where you are and wait for the last burst. All the time you’re trying to shit while chanting “ain’t nothing but a thing, ain’t nothing but a thing”, that mantra that we all used to tell ourselves, waiting for deliverance. Sounds cowardly but “there it is”, another slang expression of hopelessness. When the rockets and mortars stop, it’s a race to the medical team to see who was hit. Then, if a buddy is lying there without his legs or his face is gone your trigger finger starts itching real bad. The XO cooks up some damn stupid patrol like we are really gonna get some revenge this time. But it comes out as just another green inch of the war right up your ass. We roll out, radios crackling, packing grenades, 203 rounds, Javelins and ammo everywhere we can stuff them. Your hands are shaking with the full bore adrenaline rip and the .50 Cal is whirring around, looking for a target, any target. And, all the time you are hoping that we miss the IEDs, speeding down into the shit, hoping to smoke somebody, anybody. Three hours later you exchange some fire with someone too far away to see and all of a sudden everything goes dead quiet. The radio chatter stops and we look at each other like “fuck”—recognizing our own stupidity. Your adrenaline rush is over and the CO says we are going back to the FOB. Then you unloose your muscles as you make the FOB alive but with a mouth full of grit, your eyes like a raccoon. Your dead tired, dirty, and stink. Then you drink Jack Daniels out of the bottle and try to sleep.
My days at school were getting better as we mused about the great American novel. We went through O’Henry, Fitzgerald, Twain, Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller, to whom I could really relate. There was William Faulkner, who seemed overly happy to slowly point out how fucking stupid and evil man could be. Already knew that shit, William. I read Hemingway, expecting some epiphany but noticed he didn’t know a damn thing about war. It was Ken Kesey and “One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest” that got to me. Then I zoomed through Jack Kerouac and realized I didn’t know a thing about literature or writing. Secretly, I wanted to write but my scribbling read like advertisements, throwing around adjectives and settling on a form that was like a diarist. I wrote about the war but knew no one in the Wal-mart world would want to hear what I had to say.
When I was asked to present my work to the class, I missed school that day with a pity party for myself. But, the day it was Ahlam’s turn, I sat close to her and hung on every word. After she had completed her reading, I grabbed my cane and went out the door with a red face and mind spinning out of control. She knew. She knew it all. The trash, the open sewers, the dirt and shit in your teeth, the rotting corpses. She had written about it all but managed to pull some HOPE from the whole thing. And, I was mad! Hope? There is no goddamn hope in Iraq. There is no fairy tale ending. There is only death covered with dirt and shit and those big ass bugs. The best you could say about the war was that if enough people killed each other maybe they would run out of objectives, targets, and bombing runs. Maybe one day we would kill enough people to create a frigging pile of the dead that reached the moon. That’s how it is. During my second deployment, I saw it out of the corner of my eye. I listened to the boots talking about what they would do when they went home with all that enlistment bonus money. I didn’t say anything to them. I ignored them because making friends in the suck is not a good idea. Fuck their aspirations and reverie. Most of them will learn while in country and then die. They will get shipped home to their loved ones, body parts all rolled up in a flag. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope will get you and your brothers killed.
On a Saturday, I took the 101 bus to the Golden Gate. They let me out at the foot of the bridge. I sat on one of the benches at Fort Point and watched the bridge with a set of binocs. The traffic was steady but I was there to watch the jumpers. I had seen this documentary about how 2-3 people jump off the bridge every single day. There is usually a film crew from the other side to document their plunges. They jump and disappear under the icy waters and never return creating a show for the commuters. What got me was how they jumped. Some just ramble up the walk, to the center, where it’s higher and fall over. Others make a great production of it. They do flips or swan dives into the murk getting a last bit of attention. And, I guess that’s what they needed–a little attention. No one tries to stop them. There is no reason for that. If you gonna jump off a bridge or eat a 9mm then there is nothing anyone can do about.
I sat and I watched. One kid in a tie-dye shirt finally makes it to the center up the walkway and crawls over the barrier. He looks around, his arms backwards holding the last rail. Is he waiting to be saved? Most likely he is getting one look at the world that has tortured him for so long. I can tell he is ready and he starts to drop, and at the last second, he pushes his body in an oblique, outward plunge. He certainly deserves style points. I watch the interminable fall and the tiny splash as he goes under head first. The Bay eats him up and the water seals over nicely as if he was an Olympic diver. Greg Louganis has nothing on this dude.
I remember when I was stop-lossed on my second tour. Just as we are about to exfill, the order comes down that we get another eleven months of the suck. We exit the Osprey and take a convoy back to our FOB. We ask for no explanation. There is no mercy here. There are no answers here. After the stop-loss, my platoon wanted to smoke the CO and fantasized about it for days while we secretly discussed how we could frag the son of a bitch. One HE grenade dropped in the shitter and the fucker would be mince meat. I mean, the motherfucker never left the FOB, never went outside the wire, so we couldn’t frag him while on patrol, during a firefight. We dropped the plans and gave up our murderous fantasies to endless patrols and IED hunting. The whole thing was a bag of dicks. Back to the abnormal-normal.
In Frisco, I didn’t go out much. When I did take to the night life, I went to a local dive and drank Irish whiskey with ice. Lots of ice. The heat would not let up. The fires spread northerly to Yosemite and Oakland was beginning to get small wafting puffs of grey ash drifting like snow from hell. The heat was drier here but still reminded me of the relentless heat of an endless desert.
The school of arts was starting to interest me. I participated in discussion and wrote stories in my apartment, which was in the shitty section of Frisco by the 101. But mostly my eyes and thoughts went to Ahlam. I always felt like I owed her an explanation, a very long apology. But that was fucking stupid. What could a stone cold killer say to a girl who might have been on the business end of my M-4? Had she been in my sights? And, had she planted an IED? My mind raced with absurd possibilities. I had been in Karbala. The chances she was there while I was, were astronomical.
Ahlam continued to read her stories to the class. They were full of daily life in a worn torn country. But she made them simple and profound. I never imagined the love these terrorized families had for each other. She never glossed over the tragedy but somehow brought them around to a simple kind of tenderness. Some idiots snickered and made disparaging comments under their breaths while others slept, banging their empty heads on their desks. I ate her stories up now. They were far superior to my own. Mine were full of Ali Baba that fell under our superior fire power. They were horror stories filled with walking skinnies that were like ghosts and roamed the streets of Karbala in blood-stained dishdashas. My stories were part fiction, part non-fiction. And, really I couldn’t recall which was the truth. Maybe both. Maybe neither. But I wrote. I wrote for Ahlam–some kind of explanation. Some kind of redemption. I was seeking a bookend to her stories.
The next time I spoke to Ahlam was on the bus back across the Bay Bridge. She was reading, book in lap when I sat in the seat next to her. She jumped and I apologized. I wanted to touch her arm to tell her I wasn’t a bad guy. But, I figured that was taboo. So, I talked as softly as I could on a bus filled with American haters.
“My name is Matt. I already know yours. Ahlam, right?”
I could see from her face that this was a highly uncomfortable experience. But I soldiered on.
“Yes, um, yes. My name is Ahlam.”
She squirmed in her seat. I held out my hand to shake hers. After some trepidation, she complied and I felt that soft warm palm in a limp embrace. I felt energized. She must have been the first woman I had touched in a year. She smiled.
“You ok?” She offered while looking at my cane.
“I’m fine. Nothing serious.”
I had to ask although I knew the answer.
“You’re Iraqi, yes?”
I immediately regretted the question as she squeezed herself as tightly in a ball as possible. Yet, while looking around the crowded bus, she answered.
“Yes.” She whispered.
“Do you live in San Francisco? What a stupid question. Of course she lived in Frisco.
The rest of the ride to my stop on 101, we talked about the heat, the fires, her family, and San Francisco. She was loosening up. She lived with her Father and Mother in the Tenderloin, which is one expensive place to live. She must be rich.
Before I got off at my stop, I asked her what I had been dreading and yet wanting.
“Are you able to go out?
“I mean, does your family allow you to spend time outside the house…alone. No, I mean with an escort?”
Then she surprised me and said:
“Of course. I am not a prisoner. We have lived here for years now.”
My heart screamed with joy and surprise.
Just before I got off, I asked her “With me? I mean…could you go out under my protection. Would your family allow it?”
The last thing I heard before I exited the bus was her mumbling….
“Yes, of course, Matthew.”
I stood on the sidewalk as she rolled away in the bus, totally still as she waved at me and smiled. For that moment, I felt a strong connection to the earth again. That was something I thought had disappeared forever in Iraq.
During the weekend, I went back to the Golden gate and watched with my binocs. It was a busy day at the edge of the world. Through the heat and the ash I saw, one girl, dressed in a bikini walk to the precipice of a flat earth, a disappointing earth and hang off the rail. She looked around. For what? A savior? No one came to her and she eventually let go and grabbed her nose as if jumping into a pool. What the fuck. I have seen many people die. But that girl got to me. Did she expect to come back to the surface and swim to shore? I didn’t get it. Why hold your nose? She was gone and for good. The next contestant was a small, balding, office type. He kept dropping papers and chasing them. He tried to stuff them in his briefcase until it opened fully and all his papers flew away like a flock of seagulls. He tossed the briefcase over and stood on the walkway looking at the water. From his pocket, I could see that he pulled some photos from his back pocket. He took a last look at them and tossed them over also. He must have stood there for an hour until he climbed over, holding the rail. He loosened his tie, took off his shoes and placed them over on the walkway. People had gathered. But no one approached him. They must have understood. Then he let go and arms akimbo, fell to his end. The people moved on, seemingly unaffected. His shoes were all that was left of his existence.
I felt nothing. If a person wants to die, who am I to stop them. The death and destruction I had seen in Iraq was often the same. Ali Baba will walk slowly towards the Humvee, hands behind his back, smiling, hiding a grenade. If we are lucky and recognize the threat then he dies like a bag of melons, his head and chest exploding into chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe. Or perhaps, he tries to throw the grenade and slips on the rocks and debris, the grenade bouncing out of his hand and detonating at his feet. His legs disappear into a spray of red, all whats left is a whole lot of nothing. We pass him by while he bleeds out, begging for help. Then he shows another grenade that we missed and holds it to his chest. Poof, gone. I guess he really never really existed at all, just like the people on the bridge. Just another ghost in the wind.
After some time being around Ahlam, I began to relax and she did also. Her father was a surgeon, who had testified at the UN about atrocities. The family was granted a residence visa. The family then emigrated to the US and settled in San Francisco. They were Muslim but quite westernized They held on to very few of the strict Muslim values that had sustained them during a repressive regime.
Ahlam showed me what Frisco had to offer. We went to cafes and cheap restaurants as well as certain clubs where she felt safe. I even watched her drink alcohol which I thought Muslim women never did. The whole time we became as close as I could allow. Carrying around a mind full of apologies and explanations kept me at some distance. When would I let her know?
At some point, Ahlam and I became close enough to touch each other. It shook me up as we held hands walking the streets of Frisco, chattering on like kids. We paused often at the outdoor vendors to look through their offerings. We tried clothes on at the thrift shops and vintage stores. I was worried this would end before I could explain my crimes.
It was a couple of months before she visited my apartment. We drank wine and watched Korean and Chinese television series on Netflix which brought her to tears many times. I would change the movie to one of those chick flicks where the ending always culminated in a marriage. Happily ever after shit.
It happened as naturally as I suppose all affairs happen. A little wine, a movie, desire and kissing and then you’re in a full size bed in a crappy apartment making love like you have known each other forever. Ahlam was not shy or reserved. We tangled the bed clothes into knots trying to get into each other as far as possible. And, when the sun came up, she was still there, lying on her side, her hands together, under her face. For the first time in my life, I was in love. There were no other words for this feeling. Some of my bitterness from the war seeped out of me like sweat. I actually looked forward to the day—a day with Ahlam. I cooked her breakfast and we ate on my tiny balcony, smiling at each other, and laughing together at our union.
At the college, I found a seat near her and the school days flowed into exciting nights. I was as bound to her as I could get. Her stories amazed. My own flowed over me like a waterfall. I could write after all. She read hers to me and I finally reciprocated with stories of the war and confessed most of the things I had witnessed. Still, I kept the rest to myself. Sometimes she would wince at my gritty prose but she never dismissed my stories as hate. How could this be, I thought. Why did I get this? How did I deserve this happiness while some of my friends had died in a dry wadi, lying on their backs, crying for their mothers, zoned on morphine, without even a drink of water to cool their throats. It was like a dream—a dream that I suspected would someday conclude on it’s own, slowly and painfully. When I told her about my Golden Gate outings, she timidly turned her head in shock at my bizarre habit. But mostly she seemed concerned and asked me to go to the VA hospital. I just couldn’t do that. The VA hospital held too many ghosts, too many ghosts that I had known and too many ghosts I had smoked.
Towards the final week of class, the fires had reached parts of the valley rim and jumped the Napa River. San Pablo wildlife refuge was beginning to burn. Oakland and Frisco were now under threat. The air had turned to acid while the heat pushed on into new heights. People loosened open fire hydrants and stood in the spouts to cool off. It was getting desert hot and this played on my mind.
I had been pushed by Ahlam to read for the class. I resisted until she threatened to stop reading her work. When the day came to read for the class the heat burned my head and my heart.
It was my birthday that day. I watched the orange sun come up over the Hesco barricades and into a purple sky. I felt Ok. Nobody dies on their birthday, right? I had received my sergeant’s stripes the day before. My mission had changed from taking orders to giving orders—from following to leading. Was I ready? I had no idea.
As we loaded up the Humvees with every bit of ordnance we could carry, I just stared at my guys doing their thing. We were death machines and school boys. We actually did this shit for a paltry amount of pay, health care for our families and the crazy idea that, if we lived through this, then we could go to college. Fucking stupid. I took one last look at the sky as it brightened with high flying cirrus clouds. Was it cool up there, I wondered. Because down here it was becoming hotter than Beyonce’s ass.
I called out on the comm into everyones ear…
“Comm check, Alpha 25, Bravo 25. This is Bravo 25 actual. How copy?”
All members of the Squads reported the same.
“Roger Bravo 25.I’ve got you Lima Charlie, over.”
“Bravo 25, Alpha 25, this is Bravo 25 actual…Load up. Lets do like horse shit and hit the dusty trail.”
We went on patrol outside the limits of Karbala looking for Ali Baba, inching along the main roads fearful of IEDs. But we saw nothing. It was eerie quiet, like it was Ramadan. No kids, no skinnies. There wasn’t even a fucking goat out there.When we turned north and moved back toward Karbala some of the greens relaxed a bit. Wrong move. The moment you relax an IED blows you to fucking Allah and the seventy two virgins.
For some stupid reason, the XO wanted to check out Dead Kid Road for Intel, which I supposed came down from the CO who was playing with his damn maps. Dead kid Road is rated as a full asshole pucker. We had lost so many down that road that we were accustomed to losing at least two of us and ten of them each time we went into that territorial slum. We smoked what seemed like endless bad guys each trip and left the area looking like an earthquake had hit it. That’s the only way we could see it then…good guys and bad guys. But inside of me, I kind of respected Ali Baba. They came at us relentlessly. This is their country after all. We are the invaders. Yet, I killed them over and over until it was as natural as breathing, or as it is here, not breathing.
We had a convoy of only two Humvees, ( Charlie team had gone back behind the wire saying their vehicle was smoking )moving slowly, the forward vehicle with Armor was checking out debris for wires, and Hajis for phones or weapons. The inside of the Humvee was so hot, we drank bottle after bottle of water until a piss stop was necessary. There is nothing quite as absurd as desert warriors stopping in a known choke point so you can piss. We all took our turn to piss while the rest of us provided cover, scanning rooftops and doorways for threats. Horny called on the comm and said he wanted to continue further up the road to check out insurgent strength. Well, I could tell him from the back Humvee. There’s a lot of them you dumb fuck. Everyone was bitching and complaining. We exited and made a perimeter around the vehicles, every weapon trained on possible threat areas. The rooftops were silent, the doorways were clear. There were no other vehicles coming at us. Then, while watching Horny walking back, he threw up his hands as if, what the fuck, the place is deserted. Then I noticed two figures following Horny as he leisurely sauntered back toward us. What was it? They kept on coming, getting closer to Horny as he retreated to us. I pointed to Horny, made a walking motion with my fingers and he turned around. They were getting too close, walking heavily, up the center of that shitty road. Something was wrong and I ordered my boys to take positions against the town walls and continue training their M-4s and SAWs across to the opposite rooftops. Standard procedure. SOP shit. Klinger slapped the SAW shut and wrapped the ammo belt around his arm looking upwards. Wilson pulled out a Javelin and watched our six. Robby and DC took a knee beside me, sighting on the two white, wind blown unknowns following Horny. I moved Bravo team back to the second Humvee and they took defensive positions. I moved Alpha team back behind the second Humvee. We had a strength of nine experienced warriors minus Wilson who had been a replacement two weeks ago. But he seemed to have his shit together.
I looked over our position then back to the fucking trio of white figures approaching us side by side now with Horny. I looked through the binocs and he seemed to be smiling and gesticulating, trying to explain not to continue. Horny looked at us and threw up his arms. What could he do? Then I noticed that the tall person was a woman. She looked pregnant. Fuck. That’s a vest bomb under her clothes too. I looked at the kid and he wore one also. I had seen many of those bomb belts before. Damn. I got on the comm.
“Alpha team, Bravo team, we’ve got two bomb vests on those Hajis approaching our AO at twelve o’clock. Over.”
“Roger Bravo 25. We need to pop smoke and soon. Over.”
“Roger Alpha. We have to get Horny, over. Shit, that walking sand-bag.”
“Roger, Bravo 25 this is a goddamn Charlie Foxtrot, over. We can just leave him. Can we?“
”That’s a negative, Alpha. ? Bravo team, get sights on those Hajis, now. Alpha team stay back and get ready to cover an exit, over”
“Roger, Bravo 25, but who is gonna smoke her, them? I mean a pregnant woman and a dumb ass kid…fuck me. And, Horny is right beside them. Over.”
Damn. I looked through the binocs and my ACOG. They were getting too close and I had to do it. I had to smoke a woman, pregnant or not, and a idiot kid.
I dropped the comm talk and went forward of the first Humvee. I took sight on the woman. Fuck. Fuck. Then I looked at Horny, the dumb fuck walking with them. Cant he see their wired? I yelled at Horny through the comm and gestured for him to come to us.
“Come on XO, come on, run.Their wired!”
He just waved off my warning and kept coming beside them. They were close enough now to blow our balls off.
I thought about my older sister and the shitty town where I lived. Now I wished I was there. That stinking little town with all those log trucks. Goddamn it.
I moved forward to the back of the Bravo Humvee, sighted the woman and fired. She dropped with a round through the head, dancing to the dirt. Horny checked her out, saw the vest, looked toward us and started running. He was hauling ass, dirt kicking up all around him with his arms pumping like a piston engine. Come on Goddamn it.
The kid just looked at the woman..his mother? Then he kept coming, breaking into a run on those short legs. He was just trying to outrun his own bomb. Stupid little cunt.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I sighted the kid. Pop, Pop. He dropped like liquid shit. Through the chest and quick.
Then, as if my mind knew it, the bombs went off one right after the other.
Woooom ka, Woooom ka. They were on timers and the blast lifted up the forward vehicle and slammed it back down. Horny disappeared into a huge flower of dirt and shrapnel. He would probably get a silver star and a nice empty silver box with a dirt rack at Arlington for simply being a dumb ass. His family would be so proud as they received the folded flag and those words “grateful nation”. More of the suck. Bravo team took the concussion and fell back 20 meters to the second humvee. I could hardly hear a damn thing but scrambled back behind the following Humvee. Then as if nothing could get worse, all hell zeroed on us. The insurgents opened up with AKs over the rooftops. Puffs of dirt were dancing all over the ground and the second Humvee was taking fire. I yelled on the voice comms.
“Everyone move back to Alpha and pile on. We are gonna try to back out of here. Hurry the fuck up.”
I heard the Javelin go off…whoosh…turned around and a tech had been obliterated by Wilson’s shot off the Javelin. We had a path out. We let loose with all we had at the rooftops and scared them away for a moment. We threw grenades over the rooftops and they had disappeared. Wilson had a wild looking grin as he took another Javelin out of the Alpha Humvee and blew a hole into a compound’s outer wall. Shit. Then the entire wall came down in clouds of smoke and dirt. Ill be damned. It was a AWR—Allah’s Waiting Room. All the Hajis were congregated in that small room having escaped the rooftop. We opened on them with M-4s, both the SAWs, 9mms and tossed in grenades for insurance.
“Load up”, I yelled. We kept firing while backing out. When we got some distance, I looked back and saw Wilson just walking toward us, still firing at the rooftops. Then he took a RPG from above and it hit his k-pot. It sheered his head off and the round burst harmlessly in front of us. He dropped to his knees and just sat there, perfectly upright, his hands together, as if he were praying for his head back. I went back for him. I heard another RPG go off and hit the dirt. Oh, fuck. I could barely hear the blast but I felt the shrapnel cut my legs, back and head. Then, as I tried to get up, I couldn’t move my legs. DC and Robby lifted me onto the hood of the Humvee. DC held my face in his hands. His black face was covered with dirt. He looked me into the eyes and said “You’re gonna be ok, Sarge.” Liar. I had told many men the same thing. Then they bled out.
Then the greatest show on earth came raining in. Someone had called Arty and as we made the turn to the main road, we watched as the artillery gave them a “shake and bake”. It was rounds of white phosphorous and 155 HE shells. The blast concussion bounced me off the Humvee. I remember breathing dirt and and I then I was out. Blackness. The kind of blackness that has no time and no dreams, just a heavy black blanket of nothingness.
Sitting on the bench at Fort Point, I watched for jumpers. It was early and just like the rest of us, suicides like to sleep in.The coming fire storms could be seen eating up the valley and the national park. The air smelled like brimstone. I thought about Ahlam and how shocked she had been after I read my story to the class. She almost ran out of the class, dropping books and papers. I knew it. I never doubted it. Most people can’t handle the truth. It breaks up your sense of being and changes the entire narrative of your life. It’s the truth that no one can believe but never forget. It’s the great big suck, where all hope goes to die.
The first jumper of the day was a large black woman. If anyone had the right to jump it would be her. Probably her whole life had been filled with racial attacks, racial slurs and expectations that turned into lies. I’m sure she had weathered years of fat jokes and finger pointing. I thought about DC, my soul brother, who had practically saved my life. Was he back in that Washington ghetto that he said he would never go back to, ever? Anyway, the woman had trouble getting over the first rail and off the runners track. She was dressed in purple stretch pants and a matching blouse. Guess purple was her favorite color. She managed to hold there for a good bit of time. Then looking around as if someone would come and save her, she just gave up. She went end over end and disappeared in a purple haze.
I had given up on Ahlam by now. The semester was over and I registered for other classes if only to keep my VA benefits. I kept writing however, only because it filled the time left by Ahlam’s exit which I had expected would happen all along.
I sat the binocs on the bench and walked to the Golden Gate’s on ramp for runners and bikers. I wouldn’t be watching jumpers any longer.
The walk up to the center area of the bridge was hard on my back and legs. Yet, I almost enjoyed the pain. It gave me the punishment that I needed. The pain made me think of Iraq, the pain I had seen, the pain I had caused. I limped up the walkway, dodging cyclists, looking down at the boiling water. After an hour, I reached suicide central. There were quite a few people around, looking for a show.
I reached over and dropped my cane into that great liquid body of hopelessness where people went to validate their suffering. Some watchers helped me over the rail to the outside. I held on to that last lifeline wondering about Ahlam and my family. Could I really do this?
Then before I could jump, the clouds came and settled over what I could see of California from that high perch. Then, I felt a drop, and the entire sky opened with the kind of power rain that I knew from Oregon. It kept coming, stronger and stronger. Then even so strong, I could hardly hold onto the rail. I looked down at the bay and then two short arms grabbed me on the shoulders. It was raining so hard that I could hardly see…it was Ahlam. She was smiling at me, pulling me back, digging her nails into my flesh. She managed to pull me over and embrace me. The onlookers had left.
“Matthew, Matt…I’m so mad at you.”
I held her close and felt some strength in my leg and back, a strength I had not had since that firefight in Iraq.
“I know. My story. I did awful things.”
She kissed me and we both looked up to the glorious rain clouds. We were soaking wet.
“No, dummy.” She said.
“I’m mad at you for coming up here. I need you. I saw your binoculars on the bench. I ran up here. And, it’s raining. It’s raining for you, Matt.”
The wild fires were practically out. Looking out the window of my apartment, there was still a light rain. I really missed Ahlam. She had gone to New York with her parents so she could attend NYU and her father take a much better position at a teaching hospital. Her stories were well received by the finest magazines. I read them over and over. And, then one day I received an unfamiliar letter in the mail. I opened it slowly and saw that one of my stories had been accepted for publication by Zopetrope Magazine. Ahlam had sent it off without my knowledge.
We skyped nearly every day and she planned to visit once the term was over. Hope? Well, I hope Ahlam is safe. I hope she is happy. I hope she gets here soon.
I hope it rains some more. I hope.