The blast begins as a bright light stabbing my eyes from the window behind the new kid. The thump that follows collapses my ear canals, turning everything into muffled echoes, like being submerged in a bathtub….”
by max andrew
My 35th birthday and I’m piling into the belly of an enormous armored vehicle painted to resemble the desert. The average age of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan is 26. I’m an old man here.
February rains have churned the fine sand into thick brown mud that coats our boots. I haven’t had a shower in two weeks. It’s not worth the trouble high-stepping through the muck to the leaky shower tent. We piss in Gatorade bottles in the middle of the night instead of getting fully dressed to walk to the port-a-john five feet behind our tent. By the time you get back to your tent, you need a shower again.
Knocking the mud off my boots before stepping up, I hear the fellas yelling at the new kid to get out of my seat. He doesn’t know any better. He’s been here less than twelve hours. Not long enough to need a shower yet. Not long enough to even be hungry for rubbery ham or watery rice yet.
They shut up when I climb the ladder into the back of the vehicle. I tell them not to worry about it. I’ll sit somewhere else. It’s a short drive out of the wire to resupply the guard force at the adjacent base. I wedge myself into an empty bench seat between two other guys, facing the new kid.
The truck jerks to a start and then rumbles to the outer gate. The new kid is smiling, looking straight ahead at the window over my shoulder, craning his neck to get his first glimpse of indian country.
He’s hoping for bad guys. I can tell by he way his tongue snakes out and licks his dry upper lip. He’ll write to his mom about his bravery. I don’t tell him there aren’t many bad guys in this area.
I pull a folded envelope from my small shoulder pocket-a letter from my brother. By the time I’m done reading it, the ride will be over. In his looping, ball-point script, he says if he wins the Powerball he’ll save me a few bucks. He’s sure his numbers are solid, even though the odds are 1 in 175 million. The next page talks about my wife, so I’d rather not finish.
I cram the letter back into my shoulder pocket and look down at the grooves in the metal floor. Cigarette butts around our feet jump at every rut, pothole, and furrow in the dirt road. White Marlboro Lights with the tan stripe hop up and down. Light brown Newports with mint green letters shudder and roll. A Red Lucky Strike bullseye is crushed between the slats of my bench.
The blast begins as a bright light stabbing my eyes from the window behind the new kid. The thump that follows collapses my ear canals, turning everything into muffled echoes, like being submerged in a bathtub. The perpendicular force pushes the 24-ton truck into a deadly balancing act, leaving the vehicle poised frozen on its driver-side tires, but the explosion trumps gravity. Our gear-laden bodies bounce and jerk within the biting restraints as the truck crashes on its side. The static of a hundred televisions fills the cab as the steel beast grinds down gravel and dirt to the bottom of an embankment.
I’m looking up through the opposite window, shattered and jagged from the blast, at the cloudless desert sky. A tiny toy airplane moves across the sky, leaving behind a thin white trail.
I’ll be on one of those in a few weeks.
A voice I don’t recognize asks if everyone is okay. The muffled bathtub turns into a piercing ring. Reminds me of the beeping prompts in the cheap headphones during a hearing test, only this beeping won’t stop.
Shit. There’s blood on my shoulder. By the time the third drop of blood plops onto me, I have my rifle in hand and am crawling to the rear hatch of the vehicle. I look up at the new kid, who sits dangling limp from his seat. Two men are unbuckling him, smeared with his blood as they struggle to release his dead weight from the harness.
As I move on hands and knees to the rear of the truck, a jagged strip of metal tears into my shoulder, adding a trickle of my own blood under the already drying triangle of droplets from the new kid.
I stand outside the toppled vehicle, counting all the heads of my people. The new kid is brought out last. He is laid down on the ground. I kneel down and turn his face toward me, smooth skin already cooling under my grip. Not even here long enough to need a shave yet.
I take his helmet off, not sure why, probably because when we rest we take our helmets off. His hair is already losing its heat. It feels like the hair of a baby doll.
A corspman drapes a green wool blanket over him, covering his face until he can be moved and cleaned up to be sent home.
Before the new kid’s done bleeding, before his drops of blood are completely dry on my shoulder, I peel off the shirt. I want out of it.
There was a 1 in 502,000 chance of this type of accident. As our convoy drove by, one bad artillery round sat on a wooden pallet, waiting to be fired at the enemy. The powerful, premature explosion set off the surrounding ammunition like a string of firecrackers, pushing our enormous vehicle onto its side and down the embankment.
American tax dollars hard at work, killing a kid not even old enough to buy a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The doc said there was a 1 in 256,000 chance of the tiny steel fragment embedding itself in the back of the new kid’s skull. The metal fragment penetrated the four-inch opening between the bottom of the kid’s helmet and collar of his flak jacket and drilled into the base of his skull.
I am taller than the new kid. The shard would have bounced off of the thick plates in my Kevlar vest. The new kid would have been staring up at the toy airplane. I would have asked him if he was okay. He would be pissed that we wouldn’t leave the wire until our truck got fixed.
Not even here long enough to have a bad haircut from the Filipino who also washes the trays after dinner. Not even there long enough to unpack his sea bag After talking to the doc, I fish the bloody shirt out of the garbage. My other ones are in worse shape from fading, unserviceable tears, and frayed seams.
We’re flying home in the belly of a C-17, and I’m sitting in the middle seat of a cramped row of five chairs. My kneecaps are pushed out of place from being wedged behind the seat in front of me. When I lean my head back in the awkward seat, my right trapezius feels like it’s being impaled by an ice pick. I can’t sleep.
My captain passes me a brown folder. Over the drone of the jet engines he tells me I should go visit the new kid’s mother when we get home. I have to look again at the new kid’s name.
Joseph J. Henderson- 16 Pritchard Court, Tampa, FL
Odds are I’ll forget and have to look again.
I look down at my pistol holster to make sure the magazine is unloaded for flight. I’m wearing the shirt I tried to throw away. I’ve been commissioned and the brick red circles are my badge to prove it.
Driving in the cracked, leather bucket seat of the Toyota pickup my wife left me in the divorce, the Florida summer makes my back sweat through my shirt. Prickly heat in my back, ass, and legs makes the drive an eternity with a broken air conditioner. The open window only circulates stuffy, humid air as I speed down Highway 17-92.
The shitty radio speakers crackle under a talk-radio voice proclaiming our superiority, using words like “surge,” “democratic republic,” and “high water mark.”
Sitting patiently in the passenger seat is a white Hammermill paper box. It’s filled with things we hadn’t sent to the new kid’s family yet: T-shirts, change from his dresser drawer, letters from a girlfriend, some DVDs, odd socks with no partners, a soft pack of Camels with two cigarettes left, a tarnished Zippo lighter, some worn paperbacks.
The bloody shirt sits in the passenger seat of my truck, too. The new kid coming for a ride with me, riding shotgun. Feels weird to throw it away. It would be like throwing away his ear or his finger or something, wouldn’t it?
I have to look again:
Joseph J. Henderson- 16 Pritchard Court, Tampa, FL
Like having to walk through the deep desert mud to take a piss, I don’t want to step in the dirt. My kneecaps are pushed up into the dashboard under the steering wheel as I sit in the road outside the new kid’s house, finishing my Winston Light. But, like in the desert, you have to move eventually, no matter if it’s for a full bladder or an order from a captain. I step out of the tiny cab and crush the white filter into the asphalt.
I walk up the creaky wooden steps to a screen door without a screen. The small white pennant adorned with two gold stars hanging in the window is telling me, “get the fuck outta here, we’ve had enough.”
I stand at the screen door, looking down at the toe of my left brown cowboy boot digging between the slats of the porch. I ring the doorbell, hoping it’s one of those doorbells that barely rings and the people don’t hear it, so later they say, Oh, I didn’t hear the doorbell, I’m sorry.
But the loud ding-dong carries clearly within the house to announce my presence.
There’s a 1 in 5 chance she’s out grocery shopping or playing bridge.
A tall, handsome woman with dull, auburn hair opens the door, forcing a smile across the corners of her mouth into her cheeks, where smiles don’t go anymore.
I tell her my name is Matthew. I don’t tell her my nickname. I don’t want to be comfortable here. She says she’s glad I came.
We sit and have tea on the worn sofa. I can smell death, stale but sweet, a corpse that won’t leave. A picture of an older man sits leaning on the end table, smiling at me. Pictures of divorced spouses aren’t left smiling on end tables.
She points at a picture of a pretty girl on the end table next to her. A folded American flag lays in front of the frame. She says Joey wanted to be like his big sister, Victoria. She died over the Hindu-Kush Mountains in a C-130.
Odds of a plane crashing are 1 in 675,638.
Chances of a plane crashing in an obscure mountain range that most Americans have never heard of-data unavailable.
We finish our tea without saying anything else. As she sips, she stares ahead at a spot just over the television. I follow her eyes to the spot, but it’s just a smudge on the cream colored wall. Her head cocks slightly every few minutes as she stares. The only sound in the stuffy silence is the tink of our tea cups and saucers. After walking our empty dishes to the kitchen, she takes my arm and leads me to his room. She points to a long pair of white socks hanging on the wall. Each sock has a number written on it in blue fabric paint–42 and 41. She says those socks are the ones he wore during the state championship basketball game last year. He made the winning shot-a fade away three-pointer with three defenders in his face.
A fluke. A Hail Mary. A buzzer beater. A lucky shot.
She walks over the dark shag carpet and sits on his bed, her weight wrinkling the tightly pulled blue comforter. She says she had to sign for him to join because he was only seventeen.
Not even old enough to vote yet.
She picks up a stuffed monkey reclined on a pillow. It says “ZIP” on his yellow shirt. He wears those white gloves rolled up like Mickey Mouse. Clutching him to her chest, and asks about my family. I lean against the doorjamb and talk to the ground, not wanting to see her cry from hearing the things her son will never do.
The toe of my boot scratches designs into the thick carpeting while I talk. O’s and X’s and L’s and stars. The carpet is the deep mud. I don’t want to get dirty but I can’t leave.
She stands up and smoothes the wrinkles from his bed. As we walk back down the hall, she points out a cracked half-moon of plaster about knee height. She says that’s where Joey and his sister were wrestling and laughing before she shipped off.
There’s a 1 in 3 chance she’ll ask me to stay for dinner.
We sit eating crusty meatloaf and cold cauliflower and scalloped potatoes at the round table tucked in the corner of the small kitchen. I have to get up and push the chair in whenever she needs to get something out of the fridge behind me. She says this was her husband’s favorite dinner, but Joey hated it. I choke down the meatloaf and potatoes.
Finally, she lets me leave. While she holds the screen door open, I see graphite lines marking her children’s heights along the doorjamb. Sporadic markings follow their formative years. At nearly eye level, I read the last entries:
Joey-17 yrs…The high water mark of the Henderson family.
She follows me out to my car and stands staring at the cracked sidewalk. I see the white Hammermill box. I forgot to give it to her. Hefting the box from the seat by the cutout triangular handles, I tell her I’ll bring it inside for her. She’s ignoring me and staring at the shirt where it sits on the seat.
She says she can fix it up for me if I have a little time. Not wanting to deny her a few more minutes of company, I say okay.
She disappears down the hallway while I set the box on the couch.
A medicine cabinet squeals and clicks shut while I stare at Joseph’s picture. Same slight smile wrinkles at the corner of his mouth. Looks like he wants to kill bad guys and tell his mom how brave he is.
Water runs in the bathroom while I hold Victoria’s folded flag, rubbing my thumbs over the smooth, satiny stars and stripes.
Drawers open and close, followed by silence, while I sit next to the box and stare at the smudge on the cream colored wall over the television.
A chair screeches on a wooden floor, followed by footsteps approaching from the hallway.
She walks up to me and hands me my shirt. The blood is gone, small wet circles the only proof of their existence. The rip is stitched neatly with tan thread. Mrs. Henderson’s smile fits perfectly now, pushing her cheeks up to her misting eyes.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Max Andrew has spent the entirety of his adult life in the service of Uncle Sam, living in far off northern lands and sunny tropic scenes, with an increasing frequency of desert wastes. Max has several degrees that would enable him to become an exceptional bean counter, but he has no idea as to the whereabouts of these diplomas. With the impending arrival of early retirement, Max has taken no steps to secure civilian employment and has no earthly idea where he will go or what he will do with himself. One thing he does know–his MacBook Air will have to be pried out of his cold, dead hands…