Punch Line

Lance Corporal David Motari and Private First Class Nicole Westerland, before they are caught screwing around in the latrines, drive their gunnery sergeant on a mounted patrol in Fallujah. As they round the last checkpoint, which is always a bottleneck, an explosion rockets the Navy SeaBee in the truck in front of them out of the gunner’s hatch.  LCpl. Motari films it from the truck behind.  He posts it on YouTube and it gets 40 thousand hits in the first hour. The SeaBee, naturally, gets pissed about the video, but he can’t do anything about it, because he’s dead, so the just stays there and everyone thinks that war is about an explosion and how it messes people up.

And people think they get it.  They think they get it because they see a man get blown out of a gunner’s hatch or they see a Motari throw a puppy off of a cliff, and sure that’s horrible, but they think that this defines war. It doesn’t even come close. War is mostly about fear, though there are people who don’t admit that, or want you to function anyway. They will tell you that everyone has fear, and that courage comes from recognizing fear and doing it anyway.  They tell you to do it anyway, and you don’t even know what it is.  They tell you to do it like you’re gonna go out there and tell your guys crazy movie lines like “Let off a few rounds—let them know we’re still here!”  And because those lines are supposed to make you face the fear, you will say those lines. Lines like “If you live through it, someday you’ll thank me for it” and “Give ‘em hell, boys!”—those lines are supposed to make you change.  But they don’t.  They don’t make you face fear because fear can’t be faced.  There are no courageous people in war; there are just the too-dumb-to-know-any-better people, and then there are the I’m dead people.  I was the first kind of person before I realized what kind of shit I was in.  But after Baker and Ortiz were killed, and just before Lt. Maynard choked to death on his flak vest, pinned to the ground beneath 2.5 tons of deuce and a half, I became the second: a dead man. That was good.  When you’re too dumb to know any better, you curl up and cry.  But when I become the second—that’s when I could finally function in Iraq—after I changed into a dead man—and I finally knew it.

#

On the day that I die—well, really, its Baker and Ortiz, but I might as well be along for the ride, so there you go: on the day that I die, it is April and I am not on the streets of Ramadi.  Rather, I am on the base, running.  Before I leave for this run, Melendez asks me why I want to run in the first place.

“I don’t know,” I say. I really don’t.

“I don’t get it…and I swear to God, Steel, if you make a joke…”

“Queen for a year.”

“Fuck off, Steel.” She shows me her middle finger, and proceeds to moisten her dry lips with a tube of Chap Stick and her finger

“I don’t know what I am supposed to say, here.

“Probably for the best, anyway.”

“Why the best?”

“You’ll definitely see. Sooner than you would want.”

“I just want to run.”

“I get that,” she says.

I leave for my run, and from up ahead, I hear a squad of soldiers coming; they are singing cadences:

“A Yellow Bird,” Motari sings. The squad following him repeats.

“With a yellow bill.” Repeat.

“Was sitting on” Repeat.

“A window sill” Repeat.

Blah blah blah, yellow bird still sitting there.  This is war (or Army, maybe): No one can do anything (give orders, talk, dance, fuck, drive) without rhyming.

“I lured him in,” Motari sings. The others repeat.

“With a piece of bread.”

“And then I smashed”

“His fucking head.”

In the cadence, they kill the bird because they think it’s a joke—soldiers are fantastic at jokes like the poor bird. Just the other day, SFC Cyfers told me a joke:

“What happened to the man who went home from the war?” he asked. I think he was actually waiting for my response. “Not a goddamn thing,” he says. “They never fucking come home.”  When I repeat that joke to my doctor in America, he asks me this:

“What do you mean they never come home?  I see you,” he says.  “You’re home, right?”  What a dumbass.

“Naw, man.  I’m still running, crying my eyes out for Russell Brown and Baker and Ortiz.  That’s where I live.  That’s where we all live.  Ain’t none of us ever coming home.”

“But I see you,” Dr. Marquez says.  You’re home, right?”

#

So I die this day in the heat and in the fine Iraqi sand – we call it moon dust, because the moon seems a lot closer than home. And then, a few moments or days later, when I die, I can finally function. I get it: I don’t know if I can get back alive again. My wife, Daley, she tells me she gets it, how Iraq did weird things to me, like made me invent Baker to cope with the difficulties of combat. The difficulties, she says, like I can take a Tums and chalk it up to a rough day at the office.  But she doesn’t get it.  I am already dead.  I am fairly sure it’s not metaphorically, either.  I died that day, and you can die too, for all I care.

#

And then, a few months later, I get back to America. Sure, I am dead, but I can see things differently.  There is the obvious, like how I appreciate a sunset or how rocky road ice cream tastes more fucking delicious than ever.  There is that, sure.  And the too-dumb-to-know-its think that rocky road is all there is.  But there is much more.  Because in real life, I am dead, and I find myself sitting in my car crying for Baker and Ortiz.  I want go back to the before time—the time when I had no army in my life, and no Daley, because she doesn’t get it, and I can’t because I am in a very different place today.  And so, sometimes, I just ignore my deadness, and I grab my pills and I fucking weep before class and I weep when I read Psalms 18:29 and I weep when I travel to Southern California to visit my grandmother in a nursing home and there are dust storms near Barstow and I have to pull over. Someone steps out from behind a small shack, his robe concealing something that he brings to his shoulder. He fires, and I swerve off the road into a field, aiming for the fucker who just shot an RPG right at my fucking head.Problem is, hes just got a hose, and he trying to settle the dust on his driveway, which is surely more legal that rocket propelled grenades in the high desert of Southern California.

So is the problem: I am a dead man. I had accepted this absolute, undeniable, praise Jesus, hallelujah, I got over the wall truth. After dying, I could function. And everyone wants to be dip-top in Iraq, or they are gonna kill you. So I die. I am dead. I am not almost dead.  And it is fucking hard to get back alive again, once you’re dead.

#

Today, Baker will be killed and I will die from it. But for now, he sits in our HMMWV, and I am outside, playing tic-tac-toe in the dirt with six little Iraqi kids.  I keep trying to draw a tic-tac-toe game board, but the Iraqi kids just keep copying me. I draw in the dirt. They draw in the dirt. This happens for a long time, until I finally get across that they are supposed use the dirt as a game board and not a drawing. When I finally communicate this to the Iraqi kids, I draw an x in center square. The kids start copy me, with their own board and their own x. Eight eternities pass us today, until, finally, I get across the concept of three in a row, there you go, and we play our first real game.

So there we are, playing the beginnings of a tic-tac-toe game, and along comes a man in a tan shirt and a white robe that goes all the way to the ground.  I have seen him before, most recently arguing with his children about   He walks up close to the soldiers and the kids and he puts one hand inside his robe and poof, the kids are gone.  But the two soldiers stay, because they were already dead to begin with.  An explosion makes no difference, one way or the other, not to dead people.  It has some effect on the living, but even then, it takes a lot to change somebody, and mostly, you don’t change.

So these guys, who aren’t dead again, are pissed.  Guy one, who was playing tic-tac-toe with the kids, says to this guy two: “Aww man, that fucker blew those kids up.”

“Why do you care?” guy two says.

“Because he blew the dust away too,” says guy one. “Now we don’t know who is gonna win.


This story was originally published in Dirty Chai, a literary journal in which “Punch Line” can be found at https://dirtychaimag.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/dirtychaiissuethree1.pdf