BLIND SPOT – Sample first draft

CHAPTER
FOURTEEN
December
19, 2003
“What
are you scared of?  An enemy who’s not
afraid to die.”
                                                                –
Over There, TV series
The Cav Scout’s job was to be out in
front, and both he and Jason trained together, were stationed together, and
were assigned the job that would mostly get them killed without skill or dumb luck.  Jason followed behind him in another Humvee,
another squad but he was never close enough.
The job would mostly get them
killed.  Jeff would do what he could to
prevent that from happening. Wall was a better shot but he was younger, he had
become more than a brother to Jeff, both melded into a symbiosis of combat
brotherhood and the only remaining trace of regular life and its attachment to Francis
Wall.
 “Anything
going on up there?”
Cigarette smoke wafted up from the cab of
the truck to Jeff.
“Can you put that thing out?” Jeff yelled
below to the cab of the Humvee…  “You’re
not supposed to be smoking.”
“I’m gonna quit, cono.”
“That’s what you said last week.”
“That was before we got that fucker,”
“You didn’t’ get that fucker.  The Guard got that fucker.”
“We all got that fucker,” another voice
clarified from the back of the truck.
It was the same bullshit rambling that
filled the air, same banter, same crappy cassette of Mexican instrumental music
playing low with its heavy horns churning the rhythm round and round with an
energy disproportionate to the depressed scenery.
Sadaam Hussein’s capture made them feel
like caged animals released into the wild, senses so entirely cut off from
pleasure that the craving for freedom morphed into a sort of animalistic
intuition, a set of senses acquired to survive that were frayed and jagged and
sharp.  Some had gone crazy over their
truncated existence, returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, as did
the soldiers before them.  Nelson had
lost his legs, and Smith, his mind to traumatic brain injury. 
When he was first deployed, the safety
net of Jeff’s well-educated mind was redirected into philosopher’s quotes remembered
and recited to himself to ease boredom and relieve the anxiety of its imminent
threat.  But it stopped working.  He abandoned the masters in philosophy at
Brown University, barely into his first semester.  But, he held onto a book or two at boot, then
just a handful of pages stapled together in a leaflet that he kept in a chest
pocket.  George Santayana was both his
most and least revered philosphers.
“Sometimes the most complete historical
enlightenment will not suffice to dispel the shadow which their moral
externality casts over the mind.  In vain
do we discard their fable and the thin proofs of their existence when, in spite
of ourselves, we still live in their presence.” 
History will haunt us, is all that
meant.  Santayana loved that shit.  It was true.
Jeff understood that his illusions and
delusions helped each of them survive, bullshit stories about girls waiting at
home even if those girls had already sent and delivered a Dear John letter to
the sickest and most delusional of the boys who received it, read it over and
over again, looking for a loophole in a clear message that they were being
dumped, some evidence of doubt, of residual girl love that was hidden and
protected by the sender and would somehow keep that soldier alive with the
knowledge that there was something happy to return home to.
“Girls did not love,” Jeff wanted to tell
them.  They fucked you up.  War was to Jeff the only practical thing he
had ever done.  He would never become the
lawyer his parents’ friends wished him to be. 
He would never teach philosophy because he changed his mind about the
significance of that too.  Philosophy was
not teachable.  It only involved reading
and life.  No one needed direct educational
instruction in life.  Direct instruction
was getting the shit kicked out of him and you and them.
Jeff’s squad traveled the road from Ad-Dwar
to Tikrit to Forward Operating Base, Danger. 
Sadaam Hussein’s capture and the rise of insurgents fighting the
coalition made for waves of chaos and silence where American soldiers were hard
pressed to distinguish one man in dirty rags from another.  Everything but an insurgent’s eyes were hidden
under red, blue and white gauzy towels, mouths covered to filter the dust from
infecting their lungs, filters the U.S. soldiers were not issued.  They fought no one in particular but everyone
all at once, it seemed to Jeff and to any soldier on a first mission.  But you learned to identify danger in subtle
movements, and if you couldn’t identify that person, they got shot for holding
an automatic weapon and wearing a turban. 
Despite distance, age, height, weight, family, and especially, God. 
In that moment, traveling on the unpaved
road they were sent to clear for the later transport of Major Jenkins and
various journalists eager to report on the climate of Tikrit where Hussein was
captured.  The fighting had dimmed to an
eerie unrest that hovered above the hot ground and behind structures without
ceilings that would be deemed uninhabitable in the states.  Ruin was more threatening.  It could reunite the past and present with
more gunfire, more demolition, more blood, more explosions and concrete meteor
showers. Every fleck of dust that floated into sight jabbed at a soldier’s
nerves, at least at first, when pulling the trigger required even the slightest
mulling over.
The celebratory mood that followed
Hussein’s capture had lifted as quickly as it arrived.  The harsh sun created vapors of heat that
made the confinement of uniform, suffocating. 
The air mixed with dust, the anxious hours without sleep that they tried
for and failed – it strung them out. 
Nothing in the desert was as simple as the hazy contrast between the sky
and land.  Nothing was as it seemed.   Threats were hidden where there seemed
nowhere to hide.  The trauma of this
zapped their nerves dead.  Assume the
worst and be surprised – surprised that preparation for the worst could be more
devastating each and every time.
The gray steel panels of the Humvee that partly
enclosed Jeff once gave him a false sense of security.  He knew better.  Invincibility was the only choice in his
attitude even though there was no truth to it. 
The alternative and more protective vehicle was unavailable to their
ranks – heavily armored M1117’s, vehicles of the privatized war, were provided to
higher ranking soldiers, men more valuable to the operation. Major Jenkins
would travel the road Jeff and Jason were there to clear.  It made no sense but Jeff did not try to make
sense of it.
Jeff had retrained his mind to ward off
what he viewed as toxic ruminations of self-importance or meaninglessness.  The hellish, vivid open of the desert horizon
could not convey the truth because threats hid everywhere:  insurgents found shelter in tunnels and caves
hidden to the sensibilities of the average American soldier.  Jeff and Jason were just that – average
American soldiers deployed first to the war. 
Their education was instant and steep and solidified their brotherhood –
Jeff, the older of the two, was protective of Jason even though he thought
Fran’s brother the better soldier.  His
primary motivation was to keep Jason in sight or, at the very least, within
earshot.
Jeff spoke into the mic strapped around
his head inside his Kevlar, the government-issued helmet.  He needed Jason in plain sight but the
vehicle he was traveling in had drifted too far behind so he couldn’t see his
friend.  Jeff, lost irresponsibly in his
own mind, failed to realize the second Humvee had fallen behind.  He was instantly pissed at himself.
“Wall? 
Wall?  You there?”  When no response came, he yelled louder,
calling out to Jason, the other cav scout to the squad following [#
yards/meters] behind.  He was too far for
Jeff’s comfort. 
Jason was Fran’s brother.  Jeff’s need to protect him overwhelmed the
instinct to protect himself moreso than the average soldier was inclined to
protect his soldier brothers.  He and
Jason argued lightly about who had the idea to enlist, who dragged who into the
pit of war and why?  Who made the
mistake.
Soldiers were taught to be brothers but
Wall had come with him or had Bridgers gone with Wall?  They never agreed.  They agreed only that they were lost – that
they found a straight line in an Army recruitment office where some structure
came to a direction forward.  Before
then, Wall had no idea where to go next, what to do, no opposing force of his
brother, Ted, to react to, to respond to. 
No one to follow.  Jeff and Jason
followed each other and found themselves at war, a deeper battle that neither
had planned or expected.  “Timing is
everything,” Jeff said countless times. 
Your
last mistake is your greatest teacher.
  If they lived to learn it.
“Where’s Wall?” yelled the driver, seated
in the vehicle’s cab below Jeff.
“The mic’s got dust in it again.  This thing is done.  It’s totally done.  I told them it was totally done.  I told them to issue me another mic.  But, I get the same mic.”
“Shit supplies.  Todos mierda.”  The soldier at the wheel of the Humvee stuck
his head out of the driver’s side window and yelled back and above to Bridgers.  The driver, Private First Class Rafael Acsota,
nicknamed “Fidel,” spanked out words. 
His round, tanned face, pronounced nose and light brown, almond-shaped
eyes deflected the sun with a mix of anger and levity.  He rattled off Cuban profanity without
filter. 
“La sumba el mango, ahora si!”
“Fidel, speak English.  You’re driving the goddamn vehicle and not
everyone understands,” Bridgers yelled.
The Humvee stopped, agitating a cloud of
dust that caught Bridgers and the soldiers at the back of the Humvee in the
face.
“Who told you to stop?  Why are you stopping?” Bridgers yelled below.
“We’ve got to hear orders.  Wall’s got to catch up with Sergeant Ammo so
he can give orders.  You see?”  Fidel elevated his hands in mock surrender.
“Just waiting for him to catch up,”
another soldier, this one with a boyish face and blond hair got out of the back
of the Humvee: Private John Keers.
“Fine, stop,” Bridgers yelled.  “Makes us easier targets.”
“Me cajo en te,” Fidel yelled, “I shit on
you,” then, “Me cajo en tu madra. 
Equipment sucks.  Sand niggers,
suck it.” 
 “Dirty Ears, return to the vehicle.  Get back in!” Bridgers screamed.
“Why the fuck you call me Dirty Ears?”
Keers yelled.  “I’d love to go take a
shit on you.  At least I wouldn’t get my
legs blown off.”
“California boy didn’t come with any
other options,” Bridgers yelled.  “Too
much dirt in your ears to listen.  Get
back in the vehicle.”
You
don’t have a nickname,” Keers replied.
“I don’t have a nickname because I’m
smarter than you.  I’m smarter than all
of you.”
“Oh, yeah man.  Big ass philosophy major from Ivy League
school who dropped out because his girlfriend dumped him and enlisted in the
Army,” Keers replied.  “Rhodes Scholar.”
“Carajo, cono.  Leave it alone, man,” Fidel said.
Keers knocked on the body of the
Humvee.  “Yo, Twitch.”
Private Don Swell leaned toward the back
of the Humvee and peered out the edges of the metal panels, his rifle laid across
his lap.  Long and thin, his face
twitched before the words came out of his mouth.  He looked to Bridgers then to Keers and
forced his lips around stammered words that he kept to himself. 
The second Humvee that followed a hundred
yards back was manned by Specialist Jason Wall and Sergeant Mike Diaz, both who
stood on top of the second vehicle.  Diaz
and Wall were the same height with the same robust stature despite the thinning
effect of the desert, only Diaz was in command; the emblem of the three
chevrons, yellow on black that looked liked three birds in flight was attached to
the battle dress uniform with a Velcro tab at his sternum.  It signified the non-commissioned officer
rank on his uniform, that made him seem larger, his voice deeper.  Diaz had room in his face for lightness, an
allowance for joy, even though it was clenched against the sun and circumstance
and being a man in a war.  His face
terminated in a pointed chin and nose like a bullet, which made for is
nickname, “Sergeant Ammo.”
“Fidel, why are you stopping??” Wall
yelled to Fidel.  “Why are you out of the
vehicle?  Get back in the vehicle.”
“Communication is out,” Bridgers told
Wall. 
 “Communication
is out?  Mic’s broken again?”  Wall’s thick eyebrows lowered and made his
face appear more hallow.  At first glance,
he looked nothing like his sister, Franny, but Jeff found figments of her in
his facial expressions, especially in their dark, serious eyes.  Panic rose from his gut, from the realization
of their vulnerability.  They had to keep
moving.
 “Yep,”
Jeff responded.  “Again.”
“Why are we stopping?  We’re gonna get killed,” Twitch said.  “This road’s been hit already four times in
the last couple of weeks.”  The corner of
his left eye was yanked along a miniscule nerve that pulled like a marionette
string, drawing the left corner of his mouth and eye along the same cord,
pulling and tugging.
“Swell is twitchin’ up a storm,” Keers
said.  “Don’t worry, dude.  Road’s been clear for the last few days.”
“That would make it an opportunity,”
Bridgers said.
 “Maricones
can’t get us.”
 “Bombed
every day for two weeks just before that,” Keers clarified.
“It’s just dust,” Private Swell
countered, as the movement in his face lessened.  He could control some of it but not all.
“Just keep going, man” Wall yelled, and
pointed to the road ahead.  “All we have
to do is get to Tikrit and we’re done.”
“Soldiers need to get back in the vehicle,”
Jeff yelled.
“Why the fuck you out of the vehicle?”
Wall backed him up.
Keers shook his head and walked,
heavy-footed so the sound of dirt ground between land and the rubber of his
boots.  He entered the vehicle through
the passenger door and closed it behind him.
Jeff shook his head at Jason, in the
second Humvee, perched next to the machine gun and his Sergeant. 
“Stay close,” Jeff said.
“Close as Keers’ puta girlfriend,” Fidel
muttered.
“She’s not a puta,” Fidel replied.
“She’s engaged to someone else and you
still beat off to her picture in your pocket.”
“No one fucking beats off in this
place.  Goddamn sand.  I’d love to beat off, for Christ sake,” Keers
said.  “I’ll beat off thinking about your
mother’s titties.”
“Por dios, bro.  You’re going to hell.  Jerking yourself off and talking about
God.  I don’t even do that.  Show some respect, cono.”
“Oh, baby.  Let me slide my sandy cock inside you,” Keers
laughed, grunting out the sounds of humping.
“Shine my helmet, yo,” Fidel laughed.
“Sure as hell would make for some abrasive
sex,” Bridgers said.  “Sounds like my
rebound with the frigid chick at Brown. 
Brrr, makes me shiver just to think about it.”
“Couldn’t have been that bad if you did
her, man.”
“I was wasted.  I don’t even remember.”
“California girls are the way to go,”
Keers said.
“Wouldn’t know,” Bridgers, shrugged,
paused and smiled.  “Trojan should come
out with ‘Desert Grit.’  See how it goes
over in the states.  That’ll be my
contribution to American commerce when I get out of here with my useless philosophy
degree and post-traumatic stress disorder, if I’m that lucky.”
Twitch shook his head.  “Douchebags. 
Like any of you have anyone to go home to.  Fidel, you’re wife’s probably standing on a
street corner.”
Fidel moved to exit the cab of the vehicle,
spitting, “Come mierda.”
“That means, ‘shit eater,’ or ‘eat
shit,’” Keers said.  “I’m from
California.  We know a bit of Español.”
“Shut the fuck up and just get
there.  We just have to get there.  Get it done. 
Get the mission done,” Bridgers said. 
“Stay in the vehicle.  We’ll get
the road clear for Major Jenkins.”
“Another shit mission.”
“We’re good at suicide missions,” Twitch
said.
“Too good.”
“We’re good at not getting ourselves
killed.”
“Wall assures that,” Jeff said.  Specialist Wall was a perfect shot.
“We all do,” Wall replied. 
Jeff looked around him and at Jason.  The soldiers in his squad remained in the
Humvee, muttering about their thirst and water and the road. 
 “We’ll
fuck them up,” Fidel said.
“You’re an idiot,” Keers replied.  “I wanna get home just to play my fucking
X-Box, Call of Duty.”
“That’s what you think this thing
is?  Goddamn games glorify this?  I’m going to go back to playing Pac-Man when
I get home.”
“Centipede.  I wanna go to an arcade,” Twitch said.  “That game was like drug for me.”
“Tetris,” Bridgers said. 
“Oh my God, Atari,” Keers said.
“No killing,” Fidel said.  “Never played X-Box.  X-Box was lame.  Stickball in the Bronx.”
“I wanna go to the arcade at Disneyland,”
Keers said.  “Anaheim, California never
looked so good.”
“Disneyland.  Man, that’s as far from here as you can get,”
Bridgers said.
“The happiest place on earth,” Keers
said, his eyes lowered to his boots and he forced a smile to deepen the dimples
in his cheeks. 
“Six Flags,” Bridgers said.
“They’ve got Magic Mountain in Texas?”
“Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington.  Different company and good funnel cakes.”
“Uhhhh, funnel cakes.” Keers exhaled.  “Pure grease and sugar.”
Bridgers looked toward the horizon, his
eyes never lazy but jumping and fighting the heat that created amorphous
hallucinations from flecks of dust lit with the sun – an illusion of fireworks,
of The Great Independence.
He scanned the territory in front and
around him, swiveling the fifty-caliber machine gun on its axis, examining the
dirt road ahead as the enormous, serrated, black rubber wheels kicked and spun
dust up under the Humvee and into his ears and hair – around the girth of the
massive truck that would churn up a small dust storm for the following
squad.  Nothing compared to a sandstorm
that whipped dust against his face, made it raw, hid granules in every opening
of The Soldier no matter how miniscule that opening was.
 Sergeant
Ammo briefed the squads about the threats along the road, less than a thirty
minute ride made longer with the necessary caution – approximately twenty eight
kilometers already behind them but still under them.  Threats that would hide and wait.  It was a publicity stunt.  It was posturing.  It was war beyond the year 2000.  No one cared what Jeff thought.
There was no philosophy in the
future.  Philosophy dabbled in the past
and theorized the future.  The past crippled
decisions.
Bridgers felt the Humvee
carriage rock under his feet.  He was a
robot.  He was a killer.  He wanted to go home, to his own desert, his
own very few hills in the Austin Hill Country and his own dry air and the
malaise that he hated before the war informed him that malaise was the preface
to death and dying.  He could be anywhere
and be happy in the States where a simple walk on the dead ground could be a
simple walk on browned-out, dormant ground, where the sun’s rays revealed
everything; it did not hide threats below, above or at the horizon line.  It did not kill and bury children who carried
and shot guns.  It did not hide masters
of genocide.  Or the snow – there was the
snow in the northeast – under the black sky with its stars that shone high and
alive, Jeff’s only real proof that there was a god and that it would shine down
and give pause and rest to living.  But,
hell would not cease in that piece of deadened earth, it would continue, with
every day under threat, and every day under siege, and every day boys and girls
dying, losing limbs, their lives and their brains. 
The leaflet of George Santayana’s
words in his pocket did nothing to protect him from the realities of war.  Intellectual spinnings failed to arm him
against getting his legs blown off, his guts spilled out on the ground, his
body split in half by a rocket propelled grenade.  But he still carried those words around with
him if only to remind himself very much not to think too long about it.  Thinking got you killed.  You followed orders.  You stayed vigilant.  You stayed alive while your spirit died of
slowly.
The remaining pages of Santayana’s
book transported what was left of the vestiges of his home in Texas.  He patted the breast pocket of his uniform
where one photo of Fran Wall both consoled and tormented him.  The photo was the delusion that would keep
him alive.  When the desert was new to
him, when he needed to escape from it, he would unwrap the photo to study
Fran’s face and look for a trace of reciprocal love.  Another photograph protected by a Ziploc bag
lined the interior crown of his Kevlar. 
The photo was taken the day Ted died, when Franny, Ted, Maria and
himself last visited Corpus Christi:  Franny’s
hair was wet and slicked back.  She was doused
in the clean, ocean water, the smell of salt and her sweet skin so distanced
from his war torn senses that he could no longer summon that exact scent, only
the release he remembered the closer he was to her.  In the desert, the release was more pain that
pleasure but he’d take it.  The image in
the photo of Francis Wall was embedded in his mind’s eye, and every time he
took off that helmet the white creases like veins became more defined, cracking
and melding into the concave structure of that helmet to examine the lining.  He remembered that playful moment, the day
after the Fourth of July as pleasant and easy and seductive: the small and few freckles
that surrounded Franny’s ski slope nose, her dark, serious eyes that would
never allow him to lie or to compromise ideals that the desert first flattened
then destroyed.  Killing did that to
him.  That transformation was not unique.  It happened to every solider in varied
degrees.
Jeff looked toward her pleasure,
often at the expense of his own.  He
really could never define that need, not exactly.  He wondered if he was stupid for it.  He knew he was stupid but he’d do it again.
Jeff passed a small patch of
foliage, purple hyacinth and juniper, beauty and agitation, something he would
otherwise not consider as anything more than flowers and a shrub if it did not
summon memories of Enchanted Rock, of climbing, of Franny among the varied Texas
topography that existed nowhere in the state, but they enjoyed the massive
growth out of the earth, the pink granite dome uncovered by a long history of erosion
– in the Hill Country – someplace he and Fran could find peace together even
though they enjoyed it separately before they were again brought together under
a night sky that let stars shine, unpolluted by man-made light. 
It
could be just as beautiful here
,
he thought.  But Iraq wasn’t anything
close to the beauty of past memories.
Saddled
into Jimmy, hardhat on, Fran looked up at him as he repelled down to her, a
descent with holds he’d memorized by heart.
 
Her smile was easy when he was
near.  She’d told him this but still left
him.
The Humvee with Jason and Seargeant Ammo
reached Bridger’s vehicle.  Jason cocked his
head up quickly to acknowledge Jeff’s gaze. 
The two friends had managed to survive for the 24 months of their deployment,
with only one leave, and the next break was delayed indefinitely.  Hussein was captured five days before that
leave began.  All Jeff could think of was
that it was too quick and too easy. 
That, despite what they were told, the activity had been heightened, the
roads were charged with landmines, improvised explosive devices.  Their only true immunity was youth and
intermittent shields of success in combat. 
Success meant killing.  Even when
the goal was to get the enemy to surrender, the enemy killed blindly, without
any regard for life because life just sucked for all of them.  They had no comparison.
Fine if you have the armor for it.  Fine if you haven’t seen your friends’ legs
blown off.  Fine if you don’t think.  The more he tried not to let his mind roll
through visions of the dead, the disembodied, the amputated, the shot – those
he’d shot – the more his mind released flares of anger into the heat.  It only made him hotter, more exhausted and
those explosive dashes of light were unrecognizable in the Middle Eastern air
where fire dissolved into a background of blinding light.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,
Sir” Jason said.  “It’s too quiet.”  He cocked his head back and looked around
him, alert.
“Agreed,” Sergeant Ammo said.
Jeff tapped the cage of the
Humvee and yelled to Fidel.  “Go.”
“Why do we get all of the shit
missions?” Twitch muttered from the back, his face convulsing around the words.
“We already went over that,”
Bridgers yelled.
A screaming whistle of mortars
ripped through the air as the Humvee jerked forward – Fidel floored it.
Someone yelled, “Incoming,” too
late, and the Humvee tipped and Jeff fell, his back smashed, his tight and
protected body flailing uncontrollably, eyes closed to the explosion and debris
that scattered around him, the pounding vacuum of sound that purged his eardrum.
The Humvee upended and flipped
to its side, Jeff midair, thrown and smashed against that abandoned car. 
Then there was nothing.