BY ALEX PRUTEANU
That’s not war out there come to the barracks, though clearly it’s the sound of ferum screaming through the atmosphere. That’s iron to you and me. Atomic number 26. Whistling Dixie as it scratches out a parabolic sound curve through the air. That’s 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, and throw in a smidgen of carbon dioxide, mhm. Metal bed guts shaking it is, then. It’s settled. That’s the noise bleeding through the dreamworld. Sounds like the bowels of an inside-rusted saltimbanque are rebelling from too much spoiled waste flowing through, making their way downward. (Man first rots from the organs out, to the skin, then to society.)
In focus, it’s...S-Slothie leaning in, severely altering Lt. (O-2) Bradshaw’s depth of field. Slothie: Private, first class...lowercase f lowercase c. Leather face, gaunt, pomade heavy in hair (Murray’s, $2.89 per 3 oz., © 1926) a la Burt Lancaster in that seminal war movie with Ol’ Blue Eyes as Maggio. The metal springs of his own bed moaning at the insisting pressure of the Pfc. merrily jolt O-2 Bradshaw into this reality. The Now. Christ, the Lt. says, just in time Slothie. Patrol sir, the first class (lowercase f lowercase c) pomade pushes out, breath heavy with smoke and faux cheese. How in hell did he have time to grab breakfast? And a cigarette. Patrol ASAP, he says again, now a whiff of green onion and radishes sneaking out of his nostrils. Christ, what they’re passing off for chow nowadays. Why so alarmed, Slothie, Bradshaw rubbing crust from his eyes and dried spittle from the sides of his lips. It must’ve been a raucous night for the sinuses. Imagine the moaning. Imagine the morning. He runs his tongue over his teeth. Over nasty film. (Film at seven/eleven.) Plaque’s got your tongue? Jesus Slothie, why so ambitious. It’s barely morning. Isn’t it. Pomade Slothie as Mother Superior. Pomade as worrier. Pomade as warrior. You’ll never guess ol’ Slothie what kind of dream you’ve pulled me from. Go ahead, I’ll give you two shots then you’re out. But Mother Superior pushes on with this patrol routine, pulling at the O-2’s clavicle and delivering all the news that’s fit to (s)print.
Bradshaw sucks his teeth, large-ish morsels of last night’s mess hall slop drawn in from between the crevices and down the pipe tumbling into an abyss of gastric acid. That’s a composition of hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride to you and me, chum. Any chance at a new toothbrush from the supply room, Slothie. Need those stiff bristles for this job. The entire squad now warming up like lizards from the un-nerving night lets out a big, cohesive laugh followed by savage morning noises coming from awakening orifices, organs, machinery. There’s that metal screech again, though now Bradshaw has established that they all need new beds. Or a good lube from a tub of WD-40. Amigos, nobody get up suddenly or the Komandant’ll think the spooks are lobbing mortars onto the barracks.
Who the hell’s in charge here anyway.
Ain’t it you.
There’s paperwork to go with this. Always paperwork, says Bradshaw climbing into his Army Combat Uniform (ACU). Flackjacket: check. Name tapes: check. Rank insignia: check. IR IFF squares sewn to shoulders to help identify friendlies when night vision devices are used: check. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ moment, this is a day patrol innit. Slothie, remind me to tell you the alternate reality from which you woke me. Something to do with a crucifixion, making a French delicacy with twenty-five layers of pig intestines, and a suicide bomber whose detonation device triggers a spewing out of confetti instead. Helluva dream or parallel universe if you ask me. Only the P to f to the c is gone. Probably slipping into his own A to the C to the U: OGIO flak jacket, 1950CU…good ol’ Rocinante, standard U.S. Army issue. You can ride that to Parnassus, mhm.
Outside the Green Zone everything is brown. Will you look at that, Cim Boldo now, staff sergeant, peeking out the hole of the HMMWV. (“Mobility Solutions for Cost-Effective Client Needs”) Don’t listen to him. Keep your eyes on the… what is this anyway, says Bradshaw to the driver. It’s an RHD, sir. Right-Hand-Drive Humvee. Jesus Age Christ, what are we patrolling here Sutton-in-Ashfield? Who the hell ordered this vehicle backwards like this? Cim Boldo the Historian inserts a wad of dip into his lower gum and laughs: maybe the Eye-talians. Ya know driving on the left side o’ the road comes from ze Romans, don’tcha. They found that tracks pon the left hand side leading into towns wuz deeper than them there coming out o’ them, pon ze right. Meaning? Meaning: shit was being carried in. Heavier loads in the carts. All them keeping to the left. Carts coming out of towns were empty. Shallower tracks. All them keeping to the right, suh. And then, changing vibes, Cim Boldo cogitates: Everything is solid brown don’tcha know. Shit brown. But shittier. Like war shittier. Brown like the corduroys your mama stuffed you in back in Missoula in ’76. Brown like Buster Brown shoes. ‘Member those? Got ‘em out of the Sears catalogue every September. Don’t listen to him. Keep your eyes on the road, says Bradshaw to the melancholic driver who’s homesick for the yearly mailer Richard Sears first used to advert watches and jewelry in that 1888 Book o’ Bargains. A Money Saver for Everyone. Keep your eyes on the road, private.
Is that what this is. A road.
Organization of the patrol: two fireteams of four soldiers each; the squad leader is typically a sergeant or corporal, only Bradshaw rides with them this time so he gives out the orders instead. Locotenente is how Cim Boldo spins it, tenente for short. (Boldo must have a thing for the Eye-talians.) That suits Bradshaw just fine. As long as everyone’s got their minds on the IEDs and the IEDs on their minds. So merrily they go along, hop-skipping through the Helmand province north toward Lashkar Gah.
At Bost Airport ze panzer stops on the service road to jettison three saps with bursting bladders. Relief comes to each in the form of a green, rolling meadow—a suspect oasis in the middle of a brown lunarscape, a steppe peppered by trapezoidal fields of dead locoweed and land mines. Aaah… (Flushing Meadows, ahahaha…)
What kind of name is Slothie? Dimitri (from Paris) playing cultural anthropologist with his pimmel in his hand. Short for Slothberg. From the mother country. You mean you ain’t slow like that…monkey creature, Cannonball Adderall, the other Pfc. taking care to piss with the wind. For that comment, he extracts a backhand cross the shoulder blades. Jewish then, Dimitri playing the ignorant cultural anthropologist. From Paree.
Slothie to Cannonball: Mind your stream, amigo. To Dimitri: No, German.
Jesus Age, Bradshaw bellowing through the porthole of the panzer. He sticks out a hair-singed forearm and points at a wristwatch. The pissing squad pushes to finish out the job, knowing full well they’re out in the open like quacking ducks. But there is always that little bit left in the bladder. That little bit that haunts a man’s psyche an hour down the road. That’s what the squad is dribbling out now in various stages of success. Under duress. A mess.
So it’s out once again, faces morose with boredom and the realization that walking in Alexander the Great’s footsteps ain’t what it’s all cracked out to be, no matter what the CO said at that meeting back in the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave.
Bradshaw looks ‘round at the faces of his patrol squad, heads bobbing in comical unison: yessuh yessuh. What? Yessuh yessuh. A bigger band of discontent half- and adopted brothers he hasn’t seen. They could all be double-agents. At least double-agents. Yees, you’re down here now, down here with us. Get your sniffles and your shame out now. Get them out the way, young fellas. Because we don’t make a practice of indulging that for too long. Cannonball Adderall would like the all-you-can-eat extravaganza at the Red Lobster in Grand Island. Is that over by the Platte River in that Nebraska, Slothie hears Bradshaw pinging ‘round the neurons on the inside, only the tenente doesn’t actually move his mouth. What the hell now, they can all communicate extra sensorily like? Rily? No, really. Dimitri (from Paris) is melancholic for the days he sang in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois. A capella. Eye-talian for in chapel style. Oh what I’d give to sing again in costume. Cim Boldo scoffs, you ain’t got no skills for the second harmonic, never mind heterodyning, kiddo. And holy shit, thinks Cannonball Adderall who’s just heard the back and ‘fro between the staff sarge and the Pfc., they really can all communicate extra sensorily like. E to the S to the P.
It’s a sack of shit, is what it is, says the driver pulling up to the burlap irregular mass left in the middle of a nowhere road. Maybe it’s potatoes, Slothie feeling a bit Pavlovian. A bit Watsonian. Feeling a bit tingly in the taste buds. Back home in Crapalachia Uncle Cliffie’d slice them tubers all up with his hunting knife and dump ‘em into an iron pan crackling with oil, mmm. But Watson’s experiments back then in the Jazz Age with that lil’ Albert cherub who wasn’t afraid of no ghost, no rats either, yielded something else: classical conditioning as the impetus for phobias. Elementary my dear Pavlov. So now Slothie is afraid. Paranoia sneaks up the femurs and into the hips. From there she’s off for the spaces and the tangents and the hidden crevices.
The war boys get out. Our usual suspects: S-Slothie, Lt. Bradshaw, Cim Boldo, and Cannonball Adderall. Hold on to your scrotums, fellas. This might be a boobie-trap job. High angle, establishing shot, omniscient point of view: brown, camo-ed Humvee in the middle of [motherfucking] nowhere Helmand province purring next to four saps PokingProbing the sinister contents of a brown sack left on a road half a click southwest of Gereshk. We’re ready for a close-up, Mr. DeMille. And so down we crane for a better look. And a better hear.
It’s soft-lookin’. Squishy-like maybe.
Watch for clear fishing gut.
Jesus Age, this ain’t the movies.
Slothie’s fantasy of potatoes au gratin squashed now by an intolerable cruelty of the present. The bitter, dry end of his psychic reflex. End of the road for Pavlov. Cim Boldo draws a mental short straw, steps up and opens the fetid pouch. Clearly he’s repulsed. Surely, Shirley.
The fuck, O-2 Bradshaw peering inside at the mess. Jesus Age. And head retracts all turtle-like
Hell is it.
The hell is it is a person is what it is. Broken down in segments of scantily covered bare bone. Crushed, mutated-like. It’s a woman. Was, more like it. There’s the hair. There’s a leg. Hey Henry here’s a wing.
Bloody shit, Cim Boldo now. Lookin’ like someone took a sledgehammer to her. Slothie steps in and clarifies: it’s a stoning. They stoned her. Dead. Dead-dead-good, all right. The savages.
And then it comes: Bijjjjou. It’s small and quick and hits dead on, lickety-split. They all see it but the first second after it happens, the image doesn’t make it ‘cross all the axons to register true meaning. To the boys it looks like a rock. Someone from inside ze panzer musta thrown a rock at S-Slothie’s helmet and hit ‘im square on. Hey man, nice shot. Helmet spasms and dents and Slothie feels like God’s giant index finger done just poked him in the back of the noggin. Zip, zip, zip, the electrical impulses now making quick sense of the sniper bullet that just said Hello Boyz Howya Doin Michael Corleone Says Hello.
High angle: omniscient point of view: four ants scrambling back to an iron box on inflatable rubber wheels, spewing gliding metal, cupronickel, copper alloys, and steel whistling through the air. Jacketed lead. (That’s bullets intended for higher-velocity applications to you and me, chum.)
Jesus Age, tenente Bradshaw inside the HMMWV. (“Mobility Solutions for Cost-Effective Client Needs”) Lucky as shit they’re using low-caliber pebbles. Prolly a 6.5 Grendel. Or a 6.8 SPC…
Funny. P to the f to the c Hans S-Slothberg doesn’t feel lucky as shit. But maybe that’s just Pavlovian paranoid pessimism.
Dissolve to: high angle: ze panzer disintegrating into the brown lunarscape as the fellas inside sing:
Way-ell it’s a darned good life and it’s kinda funny
How the Lord made the bee and the bee made the honey
An’ the honeybee lookin’ for a home
An’ they called it Honeycomb
Got a hank o’ hair and a piece o’ bone
Way-ell honeycomb won’t ya be mah baby
Way-ell honeycomb won’t ya be mah own
Fade to black.
Alex Pruteanu is author of novella Short Lean Cuts, available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's Books. He is also author of Gears, a collection of stories from Independent Talent Group also available at the aforementioned retailers. He has just recently finished his first novel The Sun Eaters. Alex has published fiction in NY Arts Magazine, Guernica Magazine, [PANK], Specter Literary Magazine, and others.