A pair of Brads and a Humvee rolled across the bridge toward the Red Zone. Montauk gave a little wave. They waved back. Out in the middle of the bridge, some guys from 4th Squad were manning the BOB. One of them leaned out the top of the driver’s hatch, flicking a pocketknife open and closed. The other sat in the turret, looking out across the water like a bored lifeguard. Down on priority search, Fields was standing in front of an Opel’s open trunk, facing PFC Lo, who was holding a camera for a “thumbs-up next to the goat in the trunk” shot. The driver laughed as he closed his trunk full of goats and drove off into the Green Zone. There were no other cars in line at Priority, so Fields and Lo sauntered back to the bunker at the foot of the stairs.
As he approached, Montauk saw Olaf inside, leaning against the wall and dragging on a Gauloise. Ant was also inside, manning the machine gun, sort of. You couldn’t spend eight hours a day white-knuckling the pistol grip of a 240, aiming down a street where nothing ever happened. A certain relaxation was normal; effective, even. Fields and Lo had just cracked open a few Mr. Browns. Montauk squeezed in and joined the party.
“LT, I heard you’re next up for leave,” Fields said.
“Yeah, I could use a beer,” Montauk said. “Where you going, sir, just home?”
“To D.C. to see my parents, then a stopover in Boston.”
“I’ve got a friend there.”
“Ooh, I could use a ‘friend’ right about now,” said Lo.
“Ant has a ‘friend’ in D.C., sir. Maybe you could look her up,” Fields said.
“Oh yeah? Good friend?”
Ant gave a sad, lazy smile and looked down Priority Lane.
“Come on, Ant, let’s hear the story,” Fields said.
“Nah, I already told you.”
“LT and Sergeant Olaf haven’t heard it! C’mon, you gotta tell it.”
Ant shook his head.
“Sir, order Ant to tell you his story about D.C.” Montauk looked over at Olaf.
“Private Ant,” said Olaf. “Tell us the story about D.C.”
Ant sighed, and a little mirth crept into his smile. “All right. Gimme a cigarette.”
Olaf handed him a Gauloise.
“Shukran,” Ant said, peeling off a glove and getting the cherry going. Montauk tamped down his Kodiak can.
“All right, so. A few years ago, I’m out visiting my buddy in D.C. for spring break. He’s doing pre-med at Georgetown.”
Fields made the move-along motion with his hands.
“So we’re driving around with his roommates and this car pulls up next to us at a light. It’s full of cute girls, and one of them is leaning out of the car and starts talking to us. So we all start flirting, and when the light turns, we keep alongside of the car. There’s one super hot brunette in the backseat that keeps talking to me. So, awesome. This goes on for like three or four stoplights, until we’re at the last light before we basically have to get on the freeway, and the brunette writes down her number on a wadded piece of paper and throws it in my window before we drive away.
“So later in the evening, we’re back to my friend’s apartment, we start drinking and playing cards and stuff, and they start getting really fucked up and annoying to be around, and at some point I’m just like ‘I’m gonna call this chick,’ and they’re like ‘Cool, we’re drunk, go for it.’ So I call and she’s like ‘Yeah, my friends have gone home and I’m at home, but you should pick me up and take me out’ or whatever.”
“Yeeeah,” said PFC Lo.
* * * *
The Humvee carrying Staff Sergeant Jackson, Urritia, Sodium Joh, and Thomas pulled up to the Green Zone bazaar. It was a tourist trap, yes, but a pretty interesting one—only those with access to the Green Zone could patronize it, and who knew how long it would be around? Not for long, was the general sentiment, since the occupation would be over soon.
The bazaar was spread out in a vacant lot in the center of the Green Zone and was reminiscent of a small flea market in the American South. It was a city block long, and it boasted cheapo knives and nylon “tactical” holsters, T-shirts with slogans, a bunch of knockoff pro soccer jerseys. Sodium Joh was marveling at an electric lighter with Saddam’s face on it. Pressing down on the thumb button ignited a gas flame that changed from white to green to red then back, along with a Casiotone sound system playing some kind of martial melody. Two plastic stars set into Saddam’s eye sockets blinked on and off.
“Jesus,” said Joh. He turned to the guy behind the table, a twenty-something in a fake Manchester United jersey. “How much for this?”
The guy held up five meaty fingers. “Fifteen.”
“Fifteen?” Joh looked down the stalls for the other guys. Thomas and Jackson were across the walkway, picking through T-shirts that asked “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?’ ” Urritia had wandered down to Prince Faisal’s Souvenir Shop, which offered photograph portraits of customers in Lawrence of Arabia getup, complete with scimitar and headdress.
“I’ll give you ten,” Joh said. The guy scrunched his lips as if deliberating. Joh turned his gaze to the sparse crowd of shoppers shuffling languidly down the dusty aisles like sun-drunk tourists at a seaside resort. One had stopped and was fiddling with something under his robe. Joh didn’t notice.
“Okay,” the vendor said. “I do for ten.”
* * * *
“Anyway,” Ant continued, “my buddy lets me borrow his car, and I drive out to this swanky suburb out in Virginia or Maryland—columns on the porch and shit—and I roll up the driveway and ring the doorbell, and her dad opens the door. And I’m like ‘Uhh, nice to meet you, sir, I’m here to pick up your daughter’ or whatever.”
“And then behind him, I see the girl coming down the stairs on one of those power-lift things in a wheelchair.”
“Yeeeeah!” Fields said.
“You’re right, Fields,” Montauk said. “We do need to hear this story.”
“So I played it totally cool,” Ant continued. “Didn’t even blink.”
“And he’s like ‘Okay, well, you have to be back by midnight, absolute latest,’ and I’m like ‘Yes, sir,’ totally polite and unfazed. Turns out this girl’s a paraplegic, but she’s a fucking paraplegic ten.”
“Yeeah, baby,” Lo said.
“So she’s like ‘Take me out to my favorite bar, they never card me there,’ and I’m like ‘Okay, cool.’ And we go to this bar, and I carry her in and sit her on one of the barstools. And we’re flirting, she’s getting drunk, whatever. We stay for a while. Then she wants to go to this other bar down the street, so, okay, I stick her in the chair and roll her over. So we’re carrying on, it’s going well, she’s super hot, but we’re not making out in the bar or anything, I mean, I’m not going to drive her to my buddy’s gross house and try to fuck her on his bed.”
“Why, because she doesn’t have any legs?” Lo asked.
“She has legs, idiot,” Fields said. “She’s paralyzed, she doesn’t just not have legs.”
“Yeah, look, she has legs. I just . . . Whatever, my plan was to be a good guy and take her out and then bring her back to her dad. I mean, she was super hot; if I was actually living in D.C. and had a place to take her that wasn’t my drunk friends’ crash pad—”
Fields made the move-it-along hand motion again.
“Whatever. I’m supposed to have her back by midnight, and I’ve got to drag her out of the bar because she wants to stay longer. So we’re in the car, and I’m trying to get back to her neighborhood. I’m already late. But then we’re passing this big park and she tells me to pull over ’cause she really has to piss. And I’m like ‘Shit, I told your dad you’d be back by now,’ but she insists. So I get her out of the car and she tells me to get her swing out. She’s got this kind of hammock thing under her wheelchair that has Velcro loops that attach to a tree or poles. So I’m like ‘Uhh?’ But okay, I roll her into a group of trees and get the Velcro attached between two of them and lift her into the swing. Then I start to walk away to give her a little privacy, and she shouts, ‘Just kidding!’ I’m like ‘What?’ and she’s like ‘Just kidding, I don’t actually have to pee. This is where you get to do whatever you want to me.’ ”
* * * *
Urritia stood in front of Prince Faisal’s Souvenir Shop, weighing the pros and cons of getting a Lawrence of Arabia picture taken. The cons were that it was extremely lame, that the rest of the squad would give him hell for it, and that it would cost money. The pro was that he’d have something to give Mom for her birthday, and there was nothing Mrs. Urritia loved more than photos of Urritia, preferably cheesy posed photos. Urritia in a baseball uniform, holding a bat; Urritia with a prom date in front of a stylized backdrop of moon and stars. He turned around to look for Jackson and found himself looking at a sweating, wide-eyed Arab who stood about ten feet away. The Arab was looking straight at him and saying something, his head cocked to the side, his dark hair slicked to his forehead, his lips moving and then ceasing to move. Urritia thought: Oh.
The Arab expanded, faster than the eye could see or the ear could hear, pushing out before him a wave of pressurized air filled with carpentry nails and washers, some of which flew straight into Urritia’s body as he was lifted off the ground and pushed onto the table with the loosely folded robes, keffiyeh, and ersatz scimitar of Lawrence of Arabia.
The dull crack of the distant explosion reached the Priority Search bunker.
“BOB, Two-Six,” Montauk said into the mike.
Two-Six, BOB. White smoke plume, looks to be somewhere in the Green Zone.
They stepped outside to look at the tall off-white puff rising over the GZ, a klick and a half away.
“BOB, Two-Six, roger, keep me posted.”
They filed back into the bunker.
“A paraplegic ten on a sex swing in a park? Oh, man, you’re such an idiot,” moaned Fields.
“Yeah,” Ant said. “I know, but I just couldn’t do it. It just felt so wrong, dude. I just said, ‘Look, no, I’ve got to get you home,’ and she gave up and went with me. We rolled back into her driveway and made out for a minute, but I was like ‘Okay, it’s like one-thirty, I’ve got to get you back inside,’ so I roll her to the front door and I’m about to ask her for the key or something, then the door just opens and her dad is standing there in a sweatsuit.
* * * *
Jackson reached Urritia first. A chunk of Urritia’s cheek had peeled off, and there were small patches of blood seeping through his DCUs. Urritia was making a hmmmmm sound that was gradually rising in volume and pitch. Jackson thrust the radio at Joh, who had just arrived, and told him to get a medevac there with a neck brace. Joh called the company, and Thomas ran off to find a medic. Jackson felt around for entrance and exit wounds. Urritia started blubbering something unintelligible, and Jackson told him that he would be okay, then started cutting off his shirt. There was a small hole in his chest that didn’t look very deep and a larger, more concerning one below his navel. No exit, so something was in there, maybe deep. Urritia started crying and squirming. Jackson yelled at him to stop moving his head, then realized that Urritia was saying, “My dick! Where’s my dick?” Jackson put down the knife and started undoing Urritia’s belt and trouser buttons.
“So she rolls past him down the hall,” Ant said. “And he’s like ‘So, what happened to midnight?’ And I’m like ‘Sir, I’m really sorry, it just got late, we were having a good time, and I miscalculated how long it would take me to get her back here. But it’s my fault, I should have had her, you know, back a while ago.’”
* * * *
Sergeant Jackson told Urritia to shut up, then slid a hand down his boxer briefs to feel for damage. Urritia’s junk was sweaty and hot to the touch, and Jackson felt wetness. He craned his head around to try to get a better angle and gently pushed the elastic band of the underwear back as far as he safely could. Urritia was one of those guys who trimmed his pubic hair. His penis was covered in blood. “Uhh,” Jackson whispered to himself. Urritia said, “Oh, no,” and Jackson told him shut up again, a bit softer this time.
He gently manipulated Urritia’s penis to check for some kind of pinhole entrance wound. There was nothing obvious. He went over it inch by inch as fast as possible, but Urritia’s scrotum was covered in hot sweat and blood, and the skin was difficult to hold on to. And then Jackson realized: all the blood down there was from his own hands, from touching Urritia’s belly wound. He’d been feeling up Urritia’s dick for nothing.
“It’s fine. Hey, look at me. Your junk’s fine.”
Urritia looked back at him and said, “Really?” And Jackson said, “Really,” and Urritia started to smile and giggle a little bit.
“Yeah, well, don’t laugh at it, we got to get you on a backboard and back to the Cash. Stay awake and stop moving your head around.” Jackson cut through the thighs of Urritia’s trousers—no punctures near any of the arteries. Just the shallow one in the chest and the deeper one in the lower gut. Urritia’s breathing had stabilized.
Jackson looked back for the medevac, but it was still a minute away. All that remained of the bomber were his legs and pelvis, which had fallen into a kneeling pose over a dark pool in the dirt.
* * * *
“And what he does is, he gives me this long look and puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Don’t worry about it, son. Most guys just leave her in the swing.’”
From WAR OF THE ENCYCLOPAEDISTS. Reprinted by arrangement with WME, to be published by Scribner. Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite.