Author’s note: The following story serves as a short bridge between my 2015 novel, The Great Forgetting, and an upcoming tale of Gothic horror.
The TouchTunes machine was playing Zeppelin when Skoot walked into the Driftwood looking for Gordie. The bar hadn’t changed but Skoot had. The bar was still two rooms of dusty chestnut and pine, pool table in back, a couple pleather booths beside a window lousy with neon beer totems. The girl with the scar behind the counter. Yes, the bar was the same. But Skoot was different.
His face was thinner. His eyes, still that dreamy deep blue, peered out now from dark craters. That blond straw hair the townie girls once loved had receded on the low tide of age. Thirty-one, but he wore his life… older.
Skoot took a seat on a thin-cushioned creaky stool. Behind him an older couple sipped on bottles of Dortmunder and didn’t speak to each other. The bartender placed a tall Yuengling Black & Tan on a cardboard coaster in front of him. He sipped it and then licked the suds off his stubble.
“Ain’t you livin’ down Marietta?” The bartender asked him. An old scar snaked under her left eye in a way that was strangely beautiful.
“Whya come all the way back to Franklin Mills? You slummin’?”
Skoot laughed. “Can’t slum if you are the slum, Shelly. I came back for Gordie.”
“Yeah. Gordie. Figured he might be here.”
“Gordie don’t drink no more.”
Skoot sighed. “Gordie drinks. Gordie can’t stop drinkin.”
“Well he’s still over by the BFI. Seen him out there slappin sheet on his roof last week.”
“The dump. Over Deerfield?”
“Whachu want with Gordie?”
Skoot looked back at the old couple just to see if they were watching. They were not. He reached into the pocket of his ruddy brown leather jacket and pulled out a creased photograph which he handed to the bartender. She unfolded it and then stared for a moment, her eyebrows creasing together.
“It’s a bear,” said Shelly.
“Lookit the way it’s tilting its head.”
She saw it then and laughed.
“Damn this bear looks just like Gordie. That’s exactly the way he tilts his head when he’s lookin’ cross the room at you. Like he’s saying something at you but you can’t hear him, something only you and him know.”
Skoot took the picture back and placed it in his jacket pocket again.
“You come all the way up to Franklin Mills to show Gordie a picture of a bear that looks like him?”
“No, Shell. I didn’t come all the way up to Franklin Mills just to show Gordie a picture of a bear that looks like him. I came all the way up to Franklin Mills to show Gordie a picture of the bear that stole his goddamn soul.”
The trailer listed.
It was perched on stacks of cement block but the lee side had sunk into the ground over the course of some years, casting it down on that end. It was one of those sheet-shingled box trailers, not even a double-wide, yellow once but bleached white now. He was using blankets for curtains. Old kids blankets he got from who knows where because he didn’t have no kids anyway. Skoot climbed the rusted wrought-iron steps and knocked on the plywood door.
No one answered, and after a time Skoot nudged the door with his fist and found that it was not locked. He pushed it open and stepped inside.
Living room was dark but not unclean. A space heater clicked in the corner and gave everything a kind of red sickly color. Old couch with a large knitted blanket. Coffee table where some McDonalds’ and a mostly-empty bottle of Wild Turkey sat. No TV. Hot in here even though it was not so cool outside.
“Gordie? It’s Skoot.”
“Humma nah!” came a voice somewhere down the dark hall.
“That’s ooh-rah, staff sergeant.”
From the darkness came the sounds of much clatter, like an animal rolling off a counter into a box of tools. Gordie cleared his throat and spit — into a wastbasket or sink, hopefully. The trailer shifted a bit as he walked out to meet his visitor.
When he appeared from the shadows of the hallway, Skoot recoiled a little even though he had prepared himself for this moment all the way up from Marietta. They’d traded letters, emails, Facebook posts. But the last time he’d seen Gordie was on the tarmac beneath the C-9 after they landed at Camp Pendleton. He remembered a limber Marine, twenty-two and a hundred fifty pounds, gaunt from the war, those intense brown eyes. That was eight years ago.
Gordie had a gut. A big pregnant-man gut. It peeked out from under a Lords of Acid tee as if it were ashamed to introduce itself. His dark hair was too long and had grayed at his temples, except for in that one place where he’d gotten the scar above his right ear, where it was just a strip of hairless skin the shape and size of an unsharpened pencil. The man’s face was bloated. Even from where he stood, and in the red-dark of the trailer, Skoot could see a burst capillary on the bridge of Gordie’s nose. His jeans were caked with whitewash paint. But he didn’t smell bad. Gordie always smelled like just a little Old Spice.
“Take it all in, Skoot,” he said. “Tell me I’m still sexy.”
Skoot stepped to Gordie and pulled him in. He hugged him tightly even though Gordie’s arms just kind of dangled there. Before he pulled away, he kissed Gordie on his stubbly cheek and that made the man laugh. But the laughter was ironic and didn’t mean much.
“You stopped answerin’ my letters,” said Skoot.
“Writing’s a chore.”
“Knew you was something bad. But man.”
“When’s the last time you showered?”
“Today is Saturday.”
“So a week, then. You come all the way up here to tell me to wash my hair?”
Skoot pulled the photograph from his jacket and handed it to his friend.
While Gordie soaked in a steaming tub and smoked a thin joint made of remainders, Skoot sat on the shitter and told him all about the bear and the Indian named Chief Running Feather. Gordie listened, his head tilted back against the lip of the tub so he could blow the blue smoke out a screenless window that gave the room a modicum of circulation.
Skoot had been forced into some action when his old lady left him in 2007, after a particular nasty fight when both of them said some things there was no coming back from. Also, he hit her. Just once, but it was enough. She left him, took William and the cat. Let him keep the arthritic Weiner dog and the truck. The hell of it was, before Iraq, the two of them had been one of those overly-happy couples, the kind you see sitting on the same side of the booth at Applebees or Olive Garden sometimes. To end like that, in anger, in rage, well, it busted their marriage and broke his heart and he came to the conclusion that either he should kill himself or figure out what was making him so mad.
First thing he did was drive out to the trestle off Highway 7 in Mingo Junction. He stopped at the Circle K along the way, bought a bottle of Thunderbird and a fifth of Jack. Finished the bird and was halfway through the whiskey, daring himself to fall asleep on the tracks over the bridge where even if the conductor seen him he wouldn’t be able to stop in time, before he finally passed out. He awoke in the middle of the tracks the next afternoon and took it for a miracle. For five days anyway. Then he learned that the Norfolk and Southern that used to come by there on its way to Marietta had been decommissioned while he was away at war. By the time he realized his mistake he’d already checked into the VA and was taking a first step toward recovery.
Shell shock. PTSD they called it now. Lot of meds at the beginning and that didn’t help much. Sure, the anger was gone. But so was everything else. Worst of all, his pecker quit working. “Got so bad I had to apologize to the strippers and so I quit them, too,” Skoot explained. And then one day in group an old timer from Korea come back from vacation with a big smile, and a big smile in PTSD group is a big fucking thing. Nobody smiles at those things. It’s how you know you belong. Anyway this gray beard come back with this smile and told everyone about this place called Whispering Pines and this man called Chief Running Feather and four weeks later Skoot found himself in a sweat lodge in the middle of Fuck Nowhere, Pennsylvania.
“Somewhere over by the Susquehanna,” said Skoot, when Gordie lifted an eyebrow. “They bused us in from Columbus. Dropped us off on the side of a mountain. You have to trek in. Twenty miles to the main cabin with all your gear on your back. Like that fucking hump we did back in S.O.I. It was rough on some of them. Specially the older ones.”
Chief Running Feather was waiting for them when they arrived. It was impossible to tell how old he was. Something about Indians, Skoot had never been able to really tell how old they were. They were either young or really old. And this one was older than most, but not so old he stooped when he walked. Wrinkly skin. Gray shoulder-length hair. He wore a navy-blue sweatsuit and converse all stars. Chief Running Feather was part Cherokee, part Canadian Cree, he told them. And he didn’t believe in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What Chief Running Feather believed in were the stories passed down to him by his father and his father’s father on the res. And here, Skoot took on the voice of Chief Running Feather the best he could, closing his left eye partially, as if the man he was imitating had some kind of simple palsy.
“ ‘Our soul is a song in our body,’ he said. ‘And it yearns for harmony,’ or something like that. ‘Sometimes a young warrior returned from battle missing his song. The song that makes him who he is. His soul. He has witnessed something so terrible that, in his anguish, his soul fled his body to seek harmony elsewhere.’
“That’s what happened to you, Gordie. That’s what happened to us.”
Chief Running Feather told them they had to return to the place their soul escaped from their bodies because there they would find their soul searching for them.
Skoot spent five days in the Pennsylvania mountains with Chief Running Feather and the other men from the Brecksville V.A. In the mornings they did yoga in a field of clover overlooking the river valley. They ate Spartan lunches and after a short time forgot they were hungry anymore. They smoked a lot. Tobacco. Refer. Every night they stripped down naked and climbed through a tiny hole in a burlap teepee and sat around glowing coals which were doused off and on with water so that the steam would fill up the empty spaces between their bodies. When they climbed out, they were covered in soot. “Soot in my bellybutton, my eyes, my asshole, man,” said Skoot. They washed in a gravity shower beside the sweat lodge and then returned to the main cabin for more smokes and barbeque.
“And then I went back, man.”
“Back where?” Gordie asked, stepping out of the bath and toweling his balls dry.
“Where do you think? Nasiriyah.”
“Wait. Wait, what?”
“I went back to An Nasiriyah. Dhi Qar. I found my soul right where I left it. In that damned bathroom at the Tallil airport.”
He never told Shayna, his old lady, exactly what had gone down in that tiny airport bathroom that first week of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but she’d pieced together enough to know never to ask him about it. All Skoot knew after he returned home was that he felt numb. Like nothing made him happy or sad anymore, even his kid. He’s a for-instance: Before the war he’d been a neat-freak — he kept his clothes pressed and he detailed his Mustang every Sunday afternoon. But now, he didn’t even notice the garbage that piled up in the back of his car until Shayna yelled at him for it one day after she found half a candy bar ground into the carpeting. Before the war he’d been pretty laid back to tell the truth. Took a lot to get his goat. But after he came home the littlest thing could set him off. Once he’d screamed at Shayna for leaving her hair clip on the sink. His emotions, when they finally got going, were a cascading river. Unstoppable. When he was twelve his old man had taken him hiking up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire right before mud season. He remembered watching the ice break up on the Ammonoosuc, how all the ice that had stacked up during the long winter months just suddenly broke apart and a wall of water plowed down the valley toward the old mills on the Connecticut. It was like that. And eventually they figured out it was because of what he’d seen in the bathroom at Tallil Air Base.
“You can’t go back,” she told him, and this was after she’d already left so it was nice that she’d met him at McDonald’s and listened to him talk while William played on the jungle gym. “You can’t really think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m out of other ideas,” was all Skoot said in his defense.
There was problem, though. A flight to Basra would set him back. Skoot only collected $2500 a month on VA disability. He’d tried to supplement by cooking pizza at Pittera’s in Steubenville under the table but one day some old coot’s F-100 backfired in the parking lot and he just froze while a large pepperoni burned to death in the oven. Sometimes his father, who was a contractor across the Ohio, down Claysville, paid him to cart block down to basements but Skoot didn’t like to do that either. When he got up a sweat he started to smell like he’d smelled in the damned desert under his flak jacket and then he didn’t feel like working anymore that day.
Smells were the worst trigger.
There was the sweat. But also certain meats. Like spiced meat, the kind you might smell coming out of the kitchen at Mariachi Loco’s or some cheap Mexican restaurant by the mall. That smell reminded him of a certain open-air grill outside An Nasiriyah where a man named Hakim and his two sons sold Kubba’t Mosul, a minced-meat pastry sandwich, for 250 dinar — what amounted to about twenty-five cents, American. And forget public restrooms. Skoot hated public restrooms. All that ammonia and bleach sent his mind right back to that bathroom at Tallil Air Base.
In the end it was Shayna’s father who fronted the money for the trip. An old soldier turned trucker who’d done a tour in ‘Nam and probably understood better than anyone the future Skoot was facing if he didn’t settle his fears. He sent the check in an envelope to his apartment. No note. Just the check and in the memo line where most people wrote stuff like “groceries,” the old man had written: “one soul.”
Four hours later after leaving Gordie’s trailer, Skoot parked his tan Regal in a turn-off gravel lot somewhere east of Sunbury. He usually left it unlocked. Who’d steal a Regal, anyway? Especially one that smelled of snus and had a bumper sticker that read, Semper Fi?
“How far?” asked Gordie.
“Twenty miles,” said Skoot.
“Well, goddamn it, let’s go if we’re going.”
They got out and put their canvass backpacks on over their leather jackets. Skoot had thought ahead and had bought two liters of water for both of them and some provisions for the trek up the mountain — granola, jerky, nuts, a couple old MRE’s even. Five minutes and they were on the hard-packed clay-and-pebble trail that wound through oak and alders that were only just beginning to turn color.
Gordie grunted as he walked. He was out of shape. All you had to do was look at the way his gut hung over his jeans to know he probably hadn’t run in six years. Had certainly given up the hard weights. “Sometimes,” said Gordie, “sometimes I think about the stuff they gave us, that Doxycycline, you know? For the malaria and shit.”
“And well whether it had anything to do with how we turned out.”
“It’s not the Doxy.”
“It was the Doxy that wrecked my intestines. It’s so good at killin’ stuff it killed all the good bacteria in my guts. Had to eat so much yogurt. Goddamn I hate yogurt. Can’t even look at the stuff now. And that was the Doxy.”
“Wasn’t the medicine they gave us that made us crazy,” said Skoot. “You know what it was that made us crazy.”
“Yeah. I guess I do.”
“Not just us, neither. Everyone who was there in that bathroom. All that made it back, anyway.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Robinstein ran his old lady over with his Renault. She lived but she lost a leg over it. He’s in Grafton, now. Five to ten.”
A young couple in running gear jogged past going the other way and gave the two Marines a wide berth. Most people tended to give them extra room without being aware they were doing it. Ever since they come home it was like they gave off a bad vibe. As if it was ten thousand years ago and they had brought down a Mammoth and come back to camp and everyone could smell the monster’s blood on them.
They stopped at a feeder creek to have a little supper. This was just after five and the sun still had a ways to go before it had to consider the tops of the rolling mountains. The sound of the water was nice and the bologna and cheese sandwiches Skoot had prepared for them was the first real meal Gordie had eaten in several days. Soon he was feeling so good he allowed himself a smile, the first in a long long time.
Skoot came west to An Nasiriyah from Basra International Airport instead of north from Kuwait City with M16s and a Humvee like before. He sat in the back of a taxi driven by a thin man in a taqiyah, one of those hats that looked like upside-down bowls made of hemp. The city had changed but not much. There were several pre-paid cell phone kiosks along Ambush Alley, now. Some of the dirt streets had been widened and paved. But it was still mostly mud brick shanties on the skirts with taller concrete buildings downtown. Not much vegetation except date palms. The city was a box of dust when the high winds came. He remembered how the sand and grit had turned to a talcum powder after the first week of the Push when the tanks and Humvees had pulverized the sand roads. The sand powder would part in front of their caravan like a cloud. Sometime in the years since he’d left, the sand had turned to sand again.
Skoot had not missed the heat. It came at you like a demon, the kind that sucks the lifeforce right out of you. It sat on your chest and pulled the air from your lungs, every last ounce of sweat from a million pores. There was nothing like it in the states. Even the imbedded reporters had no vocabulary to properly describe it to the people back home. It was a heat that made you sad. It was the kind of heat that killed air conditioners; this car’s had perished long ago. All they could do with the Humvees was take off the doors. When they were dressed in full mop gear the heat was so bad you’d risk sniper fire than sit behind closed doors.
“Tallil,” the cabbie said but Skoot already knew where they were. He was amazed at how much Arabic he’d retained — enough to read the street signs, enough even to understand half of what the lady was singing about on the radio.
The air base appeared around a corner, a short brick tower beside a long concrete runway surrounded by several hangers. It was called Camp Adder now, and mostly served as a support Army base. The old sheet metal box shelters near the front were called Yugos, remnants of the Iraqi military airport that had been built by Yugoslavian contractors in the 80’s. But there had been a lot of new construction since Skoot had left. There were dozens of modular offices and a barracks in back. A mobile commissary advertised Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Looming over everything inside the walled-in compound was that creepy step pyramid, the ancient ziggurat of Ur, the supposed birthplace of Abraham.
They pulled up a ways from the front gate where a couple sentries were posted. “I wait here, okay?”
“Yes, wait,” said Skoot, pushing 50,000 dinars under the glass divider.
It was just as hot outside as it had been in the car and Skoot wiped the back of his neck with an already damp handkerchief. Slowly, his hands empty and at his sides, he approached the two armed men at the North gate. A third sat in a wooden pagoda just inside — Skoot had helped build that thing in 2003. They were bearded, skinny, dressed in the gray camouflage of Iraqi police. Looked like Shias. Good. Sunnis were harder to deal with, in his experience.
“Salam,” said one.
“American,” said Skoot. “Marines.”
“Wait,” said the other man. He spoke Arabic into the mobile attached to his epaulette. Skoot smiled at the men and waited.
“Khod!” one of them, the taller one to the left, said. He held out a pack of cigarettes.
Skoot nodded and pulled a cigarette from the package with one hand while he dug into his pants pocket with the other. One of the things you learn quick in country is the need to keep your pockets full of little gifts. He handed a sheet of four pills to the man. Candy was good. Over-the-counter medicine was better.
“Ooo,” said the tall man. “Tylenol Cold and Flu.” He put the meds in his jacket, then lit Skoot’s cigarette with a grimy dime store lighter.
“Why do you all return here?” asked the shorter man. “What brings you back?”
“You seen other Marines come back?”
The man nodded. “You come back like you forgot something. Like you left something…important…behind.”
“Whatever you left is long gone man.”
Skoot didn’t reply, but he hoped that was not true.
After a minute a wide-hipped white man in tan fatigues came out of the doors of a large re-habbed Yugo and walked briskly to them. He was Guard, obviously, but Skoot snapped a salute anyway.
“Sergeant John Scutener, First Battalion, Second Marine Division,” said Skoot.
The man in the tan fatigues shook his hand through the gate. “Captain Benjamin Rausch. What can I do for you, Scutener?”
“Wanted to take a look. Take some pictures. Make some prayers. That sort of thing.”
“You’ve been here before.”
“My unit took this base. March, 2003.”
The captain nodded to his sentry who pushed a button. The gates pulled back on metal tracks. Skoot ground his cigarette into the earth with the heel of his boot and stepped inside. The Iraqi guards shook his hand as he entered. One even patted him on the back. Skoot followed Rausch toward a low brick building near the new radio tower. They watched as a Galaxy, that unreliable favorite of cargo transports, landed loudly on the main strip.
“You in the program?”
“Like A.A.?” asked Skoot. “No. Different program: C.O.M. Cranky Old Marine. Thought coming back here might make me tolerable.”
“You want company?”
“I’d prefer to go it alone, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t,” said Rausch, holding the door for him. Just inside were two more Iraqi policemen beside an outdated metal detector. Probably gave off radiation like nobody’s business. Skoot placed his cell phone and change in a dish and then walked through and the light stayed green.
“We catch a Marine in country without a ka-bar?” asked Rausch.
“It’s a new Iraq, right? Thought I’d just trust you guys this time.”
Truth was Skoot had pawned his knife and his sidearm was at the bottom of Claytor Lake, the abandoned swimming hole in Franklin Mills, along with his dog tags. He never wanted to fire a weapon again, never wanted to feel the weight of that steel in his hands.
Rausch left him alone after that and Skoot didn’t waste time. He walked down the yellow clay-tiled hallway toward the bathroom. That grimy yellow tile. The decades-old Pepsi machine by the weird third-world pay phone that looked like something out of a science fiction movie. The flickering flourescents. All the same. Even the smell; a tangy bleach-and-mildew stank that never quite covered the aroma of old piss.
Without allowing himself pause, Skoot entered the bathroom.
More than just a commode. It was a shower, too. White and black tile. Toilets without stalls, lined up against a wall. A communal trough for pissing, a green garden hose snaked out of the wall, one end lying inside it to provide a flush when needed. Stainless steel mirrors above ceramic sinks.
Skoot looked at the corner, between the piss trough and a sink, where a drain was set in the floor. The blood had cleaned up quick. Like it had never been there. Robinstein had cleaned it up with a bottle of bleach and a mop and some gloves. Should have been him. Or Gordie. Or any of the others. Robinstein didn’t have much to do with what happened in here.
After a minute Skoot walked over to the drain and knelt down. His heart was beating weird. He could hear it, a pulsing in his ears like he was hearing it underwater. He wasn’t going to pass out though.
I’m a monster, he thought. We are all monsters.
“You deserve as much grace as you give to others,” Chief Running Feather had said. And that was true, wasn’t it? He could get behind that. If he could forgive Gordie and Robinstein and Glendenning and Biscuit, he could forgive himself.
We were boys. Only boys. What did anyone expect?
The pulsing in his ears grew louder and now something else… Like a kind of calmness entering his body, the way it feels to push the red button in the hospital to get the morphine, the way it runs through your body like cool steel that quickly moldens in warm blood.
There was something white in the drain. Like a piece of the tile floor but Skoot knew it wasn’t a piece of the tile floor. He reached down and picked up the drain cover. He set it aside and reached in. He brought it out and held it to the light in front of his face.
About the size of a dime, rounded and smooth and white. A piece of skull. The rest of the body was in an unmarked grave behind the ziggurat.
It felt oddly heavy in his grip. He’d seen a special on the Discovery Channel some time ago; a BBC special about neutron stars and how a spoonful of neutron star stuff weighed as much as Mount Everest. This bit of skull bone was kind of like that. It was something more than just bone.
This is where my soul went.
Skoot looked back to the bathroom door. It was still closed.
He put the skull bone on his tongue like they taught him to do with those wafers at St. Joe’s. Then he swallowed it whole. It was gone before he could be revolted enough to stop.
After that, he’d felt better.
Whispering Pines had been condemned and Chief Running Feather was MIA. All the cabin doors were boarded shut with sheets of plywood. Tacked to the outside of the mess hall was a laminated notice from the Northumberland County tax assessor. “Foreclosed,” it said. A red label on the window warned that the building was “unfit for habitation.”
“Well shit,” said Gordie. “What now?”
The walk up the mountain had been hard on Skoot’s old friend. It had taken them an extra hour to make the climb due to the considerable weight Gordie had added to his frame in the years they’d been apart. Every mile they had to stop so he could catch his breath and dab his sweat away with a ragged towel.
“Don’t matter,” said Skoot, nodding over to a trail at the edge of the clearing that led into a nest of red spruce. “They won’t have condemned the sweat lodge and that’s all we really need anyway.”
“What about Chief Running Feather?”
“He taught me what he knows. I can manage.”
Skoot was right — the sweat lodge was still there, though one side of the canvass igloo had collapsed. It only took a few minutes to get it settled again and to clear out the daddy long-legs that had nested inside.
Likely they were alone at the summit for the night but they built the fire a hundred feet into the spruce just in case, digging away the brush and lining the pit with rock. If a ranger came by to check on the old cabins in the dark, he wouldn’t be able to see the fire or smoke without coming down the trail. They’d hear him long before then. You can’t untrain a Marine.
The sun set before the fire got cooking. The twigs snapped loudly and shot off fireflies but they managed to keep it contained. Around eleven o’clock there was a bed of red coals, what Skoot’s father had called a dragon’s bed. They placed a couple fist-sized chunks of granite and sandstone on top and waited for them to warm.
Gordie reclined on his open jacket and looked through the treetops at the expanse of the Milky Way. A frozen river in the sky. It had looked the same in An Nasiriyah though pretty much everything else was different.
“You know what I kept thinking when we were over there?” said Gordie.
“No,” said Skoot. He kept watching Gordie. He didn’t like the tone of his voice. Especially not out here in the middle of nowhere and far from it all.
“I kept thinking that here were streets that Jesus walked on. That those cities we fought in were so old that maybe Jesus or at least Peter or Paul or someone, maybe they walked on the same road. His feet where my feet were. Thought it every day. Couldn’t get it out of my head. That zigger thing, ziggurat, didn’t help. It was so big and it was always there. I got some books from the library when we got back. You know nobody knows how old it is? One guy, an anthropologist, said it had to be at least four thousand years old but that the base of it was even older, maybe ten thousand years, even. That it was built by these people called Sumerians so that they could worship a God called Sin. Can you believe that? A God called Sin.”
“Why were you thinking about all that?”
“I don’t know, man.”
Skoot looked to the dragon’s bed where the rocks were warming. They didn’t look hot enough yet. Soon.
“Here’s another thing I can’t get out of my head,” said Gordie.
“Like have you thought yet about why anyone goes to war in the first place?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well think about it. I mean, seriously. Why did we go to war? And I’m not talking about just Iraq. I mean every war. What’s your answer when you think about it?”
Skoot was quiet for a minute. He didn’t like this conversation much. But he’d brought Gordie all the way up here and talking was a part of what they had to do.
“For liberty,” he said. “For peace.”
“That’s right. Exactly right,” said Gordie. “But what about the other side?”
“Which other side?”
“Saddam’s people. The Ba’aths. The terrorists. Afghanies, too. Why were they fighting?”
“Because they hate America.”
Gordie craned his neck to look at him. “You really believe that anymore?”
Skoot shrugged and pushed at a rock with a dry branch he’d found at his side.
“You know what I think? I think they were fighting for peace, too. I think that’s all anyone ever really fights for. Crazy, right? All the wars when you get down to it were fought for peace. That’s like drinking to get sober. Except, here’s the shitty part: we all have a different idea of what peace means and we hate every one else’s way of seeing it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Skoot.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Gordie, looking back at the fire. “I guess my point is, we’re only heroes depending on what side you’re looking from. And on the other side, we’re just monsters. And maybe that’s what happened to us, because I sure as hell feel black inside. I’ll tell you something else. I think the Iraqis who came at us, especially that one, the one in the bathroom. I think they felt that blackness too.”
“So we’re all monsters? Is that it?”
“Nah, man. Not that easy. We’re all both. Heroes and monsters. Each of us and all of us. All the time. And not just men who go to war. Everybody. You and I and Glendenning and Robinstein and Biscuit, we just were forced to see it too early. Most everyone else can ignore it awhile. Until we’re old and facing our own death. We had to face it before we were ready. And that’s what’s making us batshit.”
Skoot put on his fire retardant glove and began tossing the rocks into the metal bucket from the sweat lodge. Gordie broke off a thick branch from a spruce and ran it under the bucket’s handle. They each took an end and hiked the hot rock back to the canvass shelter. At the entrance they stripped off their clothes and then got on their hands and knees and crawled into the sweat lodge. The low door was a part of it, too, Chief Running Feather had explained. It was about humility.
Gordie’s soul was not in the bathroom. Skoot was sure of it; he’d searched for half an hour. He thought he felt a little Robinstein by the door because that’s where he’d been most of the time but he wasn’t sure. The others’ souls, if they’d escaped their bodies here, they hadn’t stayed behind. After a while Skoot returned to the cab and handed the driver some folded bills and told him he didn’t need him after all.
It wasn’t so safe to walk around An Nasiriyah even so many years later. Not for an American, not even a Marine. It wasn’t the Saddam loyalists or anything like that. It was the opportunists, the kidnappers he had to watch out for. Especially being unarmed as he was. Someone might take a look at his shoes or his jeans and start having covetous thoughts. Or worse, someone might peg him for a spook, a CIA operative or something and think maybe he was worth a ransom. He’d learned long ago to override his fear, though. Hell, that was half of what being a Marine was all about. And so he actually managed a swagger as he walked down the road toward town, through the oldest section known as Mahatt Ur.
This part of Nasiriyah was spooky and had always reminded Skoot of that Star Wars where they were in the desert, the one where they went through that mud hut town and found the alien bar with the funny music. He’d always wondered if they’d filmed that movie somewhere around here but thought maybe much of the Middle East looked about the same. Even the music coming out of the old boom boxes in the screenless windows of the metal-hooded huts sounded kind of like that bar. So maybe if they didn’t film the movie here the guy that wrote it had thought about this place when he did.
A guy in a taqiyah, sitting on a stool outside another one of those prepaid cell phone shops, waved at him. “Salam,” he said. “Rahimaka Allah!”
Skoot just shook his head and kept walking.
Round the next turn was the zoo and he smelled it before he saw it, a rank stank like a wall of flavor. A little zoo, a few pens and a couple yards fenced in by wooden planks salvaged from some American Quonset hut or something. There was even a sign out front that said, “Zoo,” in English and he thought maybe that had been stolen, too. From where he stood he could see a kangaroo rubbing up against the side of a metal shed. Its hide was splotched and it looked awful itchy.
Skoot was about to move on when he smelled Gordie. It wasn’t the stink of the animals. Gordie didn’t stink. He always smelled the same; Old Spice, the kind that comes in that red genie-lookin bottle. Only guy in their company had bothered with cologne. And there it was, on the warm current drifting down this alley. Nobody round here would likely treat themselves to Old Spice cologne. Or maybe they did now they were liberated. Hell maybe the Old Spice was in every corner stand. Maybe they gave a bottle away with every prepaid cell phone. But he thought it unlikely. It was a sign. He walked to the entrance of the zoo where the smell seemed to be coming from.
A skinny boy in a pale galabiyya sat at a booth by the front door, the old cotton dress hanging over his feet. The signs here were all in Arabic but Skoot could read enough to see that admission was 5,000 dinar for adults and 2,000 for kids older than four. He handed the boy eight dollars and told him to keep the change.
“Shokran,” the boy said.
“You’re welcome,” said Skoot.
First thing inside was a dark room with blue lights. A wide aquarium was built into the far wall. It was kind of dirty, this aquarium, and full of skinny mangar and a couple soft-shell turtles, which he’d seen already anyhow. He hurried on. Being in a dark room in Iraq was never a good thing unless there was a hooka in the middle surrounded by olive-skinned prostitutes.
Beyond the aquarium was a narrow passage that ran between two cages fronted with potted ferns and palms. Inside one was a skinny leopard, the black kind he’d been scared of since watching Amityville Horror on the Late Night Movie in Franklin Mills when he was eight. It sneered at him from a corner and he gave it the finger. In the other was some kind of cat called an ocelot but he could tell Gordie’s soul wasn’t anywhere near this particular cage so he moved on.
A door at the end of the hall opened onto the outside paddock he’d eyed from the street. Here was the mangy kangaroo, still rubbing against the wall like it was all it ever did. The enclosure was divided into a few more pens, triangulating out from a center observation area, like segments of a grapefruit. After the kangaroo was an island of capuchin monkeys hollering and fighting and sexing with each other. Beyond monkey island was the bear and as soon as Skoot seen him he knew Gordie, or a part of Gordie, was somewhere inside it.
It wasn’t just the way the bear tilted its head like Gordie did. It was also the way it was looking right at him, its claws on the bars of the cage, like it had been waiting for him for a while. And it had a scarred right ear, a white hairless patch, just like Gordie had, from what happened in that damned bathroom. As Skoot walked toward the animal, that Old Spice smell grew so strong he could almost hear it in his head.
A little hand-drawn sign posted on a stand a few feet from the cage gave the story of the creature but Skoot could only make out enough to see that the bear’s name was Master Bruin and that it had come from Russia.
Was it possible, if you lost your soul, for it to migrate into the body of an animal? Chief Running Feather had never been specific about that part. But if his soul had been hiding inside the fractured remains of a human skull he figured just about anything was possible.
“Gordie?” he asked.
The bear only tilted its head.
“If you’re in there, man, give me a sign.”
The bear roared, a deep, guttural shout. And then it took a dump.
If any part of Gordie ever got itself trapped inside a bear, Skoot figured that’s just about what he would have done.
Three days after the sweat lodge, where Skoot had done his best Chief Running Feather impression while they sat in the stingy smoke, he preceded Gordie onto a 747 bound for Iraq.
“I ain’t got the money to fly back to Iraq, dummy,” Gordie said when Skoot told him about the flight that was already long planned before he came home to Franklin Mills. After Skoot had come home from that visit to the zoo in Nasiriyah, he’d gotten a job detailing cars for a dealership outside Marietta. The manager paid him on the sly and it was enough, on top of his disability, to sock something away. Took three months before he had enough to pay back his old lady’s old man, but he wouldn’t have nothing to do with it.
“I bought something with that,” he told the Marine.
So Skoot had set it aside to for Gordie and he didn’t have a choice in the matter, now. Gordie was going. And that was that. Besides, it would work. Skoot was sure. And when it did, maybe Skoot could pay for some other dumbass to go back to Iraq to get his soul. Not Robinstein. But, someone else. Maybe Biscuit.
“Don’t know that I deserve any of this,” Gordie had said as they were coming off the mountain.
“None of us do.”
And so now it was on Skoot’s own dime they returned to Iraq. And the heat greeted them at the door to the jet like an old friend who doesn’t know he’s over-stayed his welcome.
“Goddamn,” said Gordie. “You can never hide from the sun in the suck.”
“Not anywhere in the sandbox,” Skoot agreed.
“I had forgotten how everything looks out of focus,” said Gordie, peering out at the city as they walked to the terminal. It was the sand particles that were too tiny to fall to the ground except for when it rained. The floating grit dulled the sharp corners of the world. It was an optical illusion, making it seem like you could never quite get a lock on anything your eyes told you was there.
Outside Basra International, they located a cab and asked the man to bring them to An Nasiriyah. It was a two-and-a-half hour drive, but Skoot had prepared for this and showed the cabbie the money.
Soon they were barreling up Route 8, toward that ancient city that rested in the shadow of the ziggurat.
It had only been a year but the zoo was gone. The kangaroo pen was empty, but some scratches on the side of the compound looked fresh. A man working at the cell phone store next door told them, in broken English, how it had all gone down.
“Monkeys got sick. Couldn’t stop shitting. Some Americans come in, close it down.”
“Where’s the bear?” asked Skoot.
The man blinked at him.
“Ursa,” said Gordie. He’d heard the word somewhere, high school probably, and knew it had something to do with bears. He rose up on his feet and put his arms out like a grizzly ready to attack.
The Iraqi nodded. He pointed down the street, where the road dead-ended at the outskirts of Mahatt Ur. A low mud building sat there, its wooden doors open to the heat, dark inside. A sign out front advertised something in Arabic that Skoot couldn’t read. He thought it might be a cantina. They thanked the cell phone man with some Tylenol and then walked toward the building.
“This doesn’t seem right,” said Gordie.
“Don’t sweat it,” said Skoot. “We won, remember.”
Still, Gordie felt naked without his M16, the one he called “Shelly,” positioned in front of his heart, pointed at the alert. Other than his pocketknife, he was weaponless. They’d been taught better than to walk into a dead-end without support.
It was a restaurant, a wide-roomed dining hall with a noisy kitchen. A transistor radio played a kind of clangy music in which a Santur was surely involved. The radio sat on a ledge where the cooks placed plates for the only server, an older gentleman in a white robe who stooped as he walked. Both tables were occupied by men sitting shoulder-to-shoulder playing some version of dominoes with handmade ceramic tiles. A dust-coated overhead fan kicked the heat around a bit and it was just a couple degrees cooler inside. A couple of the men looked over to them but they didn’t stare long.
“Look,” said Gordie, pointing to a poster hanging on the back wall.
It was a hand-drawn bill, two feet by a foot. It showed a shirtless barrel-chested Iraqi man standing in a boxing ring with a big black bear.
“Well,” said Skoot.
“Sabah el kheer,” said the older man, who had trudged over to them.
“Right back at ya,” said Gordie. “Could we see the bear?”
The older man looked over to the poster then shouted for someone in the kitchen. A large bearded man wearing an apron stained with sweet-smelling Jajeek sauce came out and walked over to them.
“Hallo,” the man said. “You want to box the bear? Yes? You come to fight Master Bruin?”
“Can we just see him first?” asked Skoot.
The man nodded. “I am Muhammad Zald,” he said, shaking their hands. “You pay in dollar or dinar alright? Walk with me.”
They followed Zald through a passageway curtained with an old blanket at the rear of the restaurant. Beyond was a larger building made of corrugated steel sheeting, dark except for the diffused sunlight that snuck in through a skylight made of plastic. The arena was packed dirt and in the center was a matted boxing ring like the kind Skoot remembered from the Ravenna Big Brother’s Club. A couple rows of seats made from old munitions crates circled the ring.
Zald walked past all this, toward a shadowed corner where a large dark shape lurked inside an iron cage.
“Master Bruin!” said Zald, knocking his wedding ring against one of the iron bars.
The bear turned its head without moving the rest of its body. It was a big black bear, for sure. Old. Its muzzle was graying and splotchy. Its right ear was gone around a long scar that looked like a dog bite. And God did it stink, like a thick-fibered couch where some fat man ate himself to death.
“You have visitors,” said Zald.
The Iraqi turned back to them then and waited patiently.
“Right,” said Skoot. He dug into his jeans and handed the man 10,000 dinar and a whole sheet of Theraflu. Zald smiled. “You sure you not want to box? He won’t fight back.”
“Maybe later,” said Skoot.
Zald left them alone.
“What now?” asked Gordie.
“You kill it, I think,” said Skoot.
“With your old bowie knife.”
“With my…Skoot! You think I could have gotten through customs with a fucking bowie knife strapped to my leg?”
“What did you bring then?”
“Man, this is your rodeo. I didn’t bring nothing ‘cept for my pocket knife and that’s not going to do more than piss it off.”
“Then I guess you’re gonna have to strangle it, Gordie. Doesn’t look like it would care much if you did.”
But Gordie just shook his head. “What if I didn’t kill it?”
Skoot shrugged. “I’m not sure how it works. I don’t know. You feel anything?”
Gordie looked at the bear. It had gone back to looking at the sheet metal wall. “Hey!” he said to it.
Master Bruin snorted loudly and whined, deep in its chest.
“Hey, damn it. Look at me,” said Gordie.
The bear’s head turned and it licked its lips loudly, perhaps thinking it was time for its lunch. When it saw he wasn’t Zard, it whined some more.
“Shush, now,” said Gordie. “Lemme get a look at you.”
Slowly, Master Bruin shifted onto its paws and ambled toward him. It stood on its hind legs for a moment and scratched its belly then lumbered back down.
“Hey, bear,” said Gordie. “Hey. Are you a bear or what?”
Master Bruin tilted its head then and appeared to smile.
“I dunno,” said Gordie, scratching his ear the way he always did when he was figuring something out. “I see a kind of resemblance…”
The bear scratched its own ear, the one still there.
“Well,” said Gordie. “That’s just a…”
But before he could finish Master Bruin got back on its hind legs, walked quickly to the bars, and held out one paw at Gordie. Its hand, with its filed-down black nails, opened and closed, opened and closed.
The Marine walked over to the animal and after a second’s hesitation put his hand inside the bear’s own. Gently, Master Bruin pulled Gordie closer to the cage. The animal looked into his eyes. Deeply.
“Goddamn. I think you’re right. I do feel something.”
“Not too close, man.”
The bear stuck its snout out to the man and sniffed his long hair. It sneezed.
“Hey there,” said Gordie, reaching out and placing his free hand on Master Bruin’s cheek. “Hey bud. You got a piece of my soul in there? Do ya? Is that what happened?”
The bear began to lick Gordie’s face.
“Thanks for keeping it safe, fella. Thank you. But can I have it back? Could you just give it back to me?”
“Dude,” said Skoot. “Back up a bit. I think he likes how you taste.”
“I need it, Master Bruin.”
The bear registered its name. It stopped licking at his face. Something about its eyes changed, too.
“I need my soul, man. Give me my soul.”
“Gordie,” said Skoot. The bear still had a paw around his friend’s right hand. Its black claws were dulled but still looked dangerous.
“Give me back my soul you stupid bear!”
It happened before Skoot could pull him away. Master Bruin released Gordie’s hand and with one quick upward swipe, tore off a hunk of the left side of Gordie’s face. One of the bear’s nails caught the eye and it slid out, soundlessly. For a moment — likely a second but with the adrenaline pouring through his body it felt like a full minute to Skoot — nothing more happened. The bear simply stood there with part of Gordie’s face dangling from its paw. Then Gordie collapsed without so much as a groan. Fainted cold. Blood began to quickly pool around the man’s head, painting the concrete floor a dark purple.
Then Skoot began to scream.
Zald came running. “Matha!” he shouted. “Oh! Bala’a il a’air!” Without slowing, he addressed Skoot as he jogged past him to a metal cabinet beside the cage. “What the fuck happened? What the fuck? Is he dead?”
“I don’t know. It hit him. It just…God!” Skoot ran to his friend. He pulled off his thin cotton shirt, balled it up and pushed it against the wound. When he looked up at Zald again, the Iraqi was standing beside the cage with an antique Russian rifle, a beautiful SKS, aimed at Master Bruin.
“Aasef,” said Zald. He shot the bear in the temple. The bullet went in through the hole where its right ear used to be. Master Bruin sank to the ground with one last prolonged snort.
“Ambulance,” yelled Skoot. “He needs a doctor! Ahtaju tabeeban!”
There was frost in the wide ditches and it was plenty cold when Skoot returned to Franklin Mills that March. Gordie had moved out of the trailer by the dump and into a duplex behind the bar. He was living with Shelly and their place was close enough that she could walk to the Driftwood for work. Gordie, himself, didn’t drink anymore. He got a job down the aircraft plant in Ravenna. Second shift. Grunt assembly work but he didn’t mind. Kept him busy. Kept his mind sharp. He was grilling two thin steaks on the Weber out front when Skoot pulled up in his Mustang.
Not so worse for the wear, either. The bear, Master Bruin, had taken Gordie’s left eye and a section of his cheek but the graft had taken well. Gordie rocked a camouflaged eye patch, now, and the scar tissue on his face was only a little jagged, only a little bit lighter than the surrounding skin. He looked like a bad dude from some daytime soap. He wore it well, that scar. Better than any he’d been given in An Nasiriyah or Kirkut. He smiled at Skoot and waved at him with the spatula.
That was another thing about Gordie these days, that smile. It was like Skoot remembered from school, the way he’d looked after tackling the quarterback from Crestwood on Homecoming Night. It was one of those things you don’t really notice when it goes missing. Like the Moon. But when Gordie had started smiling again at that Army hospital they’d taken him to in Germany after the incident with the bear, Skoot had noticed right away how long it had been gone.
“It was back when I woke up,” Gordie said. His face had been all bandaged up at that point. “I woke up and I felt like myself again.”
They sat on lawn chairs in front of the house and ate their steaks with ketchup and talked about Biscuit and Glendenning and even Robenstein and waited for Shelly to finish up at the Driftwood. When she got home they were going to drive into Kent to see a movie, all three of them.
“I had this dream the other night,” Gordie said as he washed their plates in the sink. This was after they come inside, about ten minutes before Shelly was due home.
“What sort of dream?” asked Skoot.
“Kind of an odd dream. The kind you can never really understand.”
“What was it?”
“I’m outside Tallil. In Mahatt Ur. Only I’m driving my old Saturn and not one of the Humvees. Along Highway 7 at that place where the stone bridge goes over that creek that feeds into the Euphrates? It’s during the rainy season and so the river is running over the bridge. Looks like only a foot or so. But probably too high for the Saturn so I stop the car right before the bridge. But I can see across the bridge and there on the other side is that boy. The one from the bathroom. He’s hurt. Don’t know what kind of hurt but it’s bad. And he needs my help. And I have to help him but the water is too high. He’s waving me over. Calling out for help. So I decide to try it. And I move forward in my old Saturn. But when I get halfway across the bridge that fast water carries me away. We both die this time.”
Skoot didn’t say anything. He just watched his friend finish the dishes. When Gordie was done, he flipped the towel over his shoulder and looked at Skoot and shrugged. He smiled again. Skoot smiled back.
“That was probably the right thing to do,” Skoot said, finally.