Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Standing on the corner of Fact Avenue and Fiction Boulevard (an excerpt)

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of one of the saddest moments I saw during my time in Iraq.  There were plenty of bombings, sniper attacks, and just plain ugly sectarian violence which splashed gallons and gallons of blood across the country in 2005; but of all the attacks, this one stood out.  The event has worked its way into the novel, of course.  Here's how I recorded it in my journal--bear in mind, I wasn't an eye-witness, only a third-hand ear-witness (full disclosure: this isn't exactly as it appeared in my handwritten journal; in the past five years, I've cleaned it up and smoothed it out to a small degree):
Shortly after 10 a.m., a company of soldiers enters a neighborhood in east Baghdad—the section they’re now calling New Baghdad.  As if the name, like a fresh coat of paint, could make a difference.
The American soldiers are there to establish a secure perimeter—a cordon, in military terms—while another unit from a different American division searches for a suspected IED somewhere inside the perimeter.
The day is hot, the air thick with dust carried on the morning winds which have dropped a pale brown curtain over the city.  Along the cordon, gunners behind their .50-calibers scan their sectors of fire, watching for anything out of place.  A wink of metal from a second-story window.  The way shoppers give a wide berth around a dog carcass.  A man dressed in unseasonably heavy clothes speaking into a cell phone.  Anything, anything at all.  The gunners have tunnel vision, their minds buzzing like hives.  Their eyes go all telephoto on them.
The morning is hot, dusty and unravels slowly.  The soldiers mutter quietly to themselves and in the lulls of conversation think they can even hear the tick of their wristwatches.
Some soldiers, not as alert as the gunners, get out of the humvees—not only to stretch and smoke, but to greet the children who have rushed the military patrol, as they always do when the Americans roll through.
“Mister! Hey, Mister!” the children shout, their palms out, their fingers splayed.  They know what these soldiers are good for—automatic candy dispensers.  The Americans always carry plastic bags of taffy and chewing gum wherever they go.  The kids are drawn like ants to sugar.  If they’re really lucky, they’ll get a Beanie Baby or a soccer ball.
Today, the soldiers give fistfuls of candy to the first wave of children, but then they must turn back to the business of keeping the perimeter secure.  The children keep coming with their insistent, spread-open fingers.
“No more, no more today,” the soldiers tell the children.
But still the children persist and crowd around the GIs.  The Americans hate to do it, but they put on their tough-guy masks, scanning the streets and trying not to look at the children, hoping they’ll eventually get the message and go away.  The soldiers, at least most of them, love it when the children come around—reminds them of home, the carefree things in life, Saturdays in the park and all that shit.  But they have a job to do, and it doesn’t mean standing there like candy vending machines for these underprivileged rugrats.
After half an hour, maybe the children have forgotten about the candy, maybe they’re just curiously touching the camelback water backpacks, the heavy flak vests, the flashlights and earplug cases dangling like jewelry.  Maybe they practice some high fives with their American heroes.
The soldiers reluctantly play along as best they can, keeping one eye on the road and the shadowy houses while slapping palms with the kids in a gruff-tender acknowledgement.
But still the children persist.  Now they’re giggling and pretending to play grab-ass with the soldiers.  It’s all happy fun.  Some of the soldiers even crack a smile.
From their perches on the humvee roofs, the gunners hear the frivolity and it distracts them.  It breaks their concentration, but that’s okay because their brains have been on high alert for an hour and by now they’re pretty exhausted after looking at the same doorways and storefronts, over and over.  They glance down at the other soldiers, the darting and dodging kids.  The gunners grin, but then snap back to reality and remember the mission.  They turn their backs on their buddies talking and laughing with the kids, and scan another sector of fire.
That’s when the car, which had been prowling through an alley adjacent to the road, decides to make its move.  For the past ten minutes, it has been making unseen passes through the alleys near the military cordon, watching for a weakness in the line of humvees, waiting for the right moment.  It is like a lion, moving on whisper paws through the shadows of the grass, stalking with professional finesse, before it coils then roars forward, the engine growling as the driver accelerates into the open for the kill.
Maybe one of the soldiers standing on the street looks up and knows exactly what is about to happen, maybe he tries to scream but the “No!” catches like a bone in his throat.  Maybe he raises his hands to fruitlessly push away the car, or maybe those hands grab the two nearest children and pull them close in a protective embrace.
Maybe, on the other hand, no one even notices until the grille of the car is upon them.
Maybe the gunners have been fatally distracted by the burble of laughter and the cries of “Hey, Mister, Mister!”
The explosion sucks all sound into an awful vacuum, turning this one small patch of Baghdad into a silent film full of smoke and gore.  In the silence, the car incinerates with such force that later, much later, when the fire hoses have doused and cooled the scene, the only thing that will remain for investigators to log into evidence is the engine block.
Children fly into the air, cartwheeling, their bodies aflame.  One boy will die with barely a mark on him, but all of his clothes will be blown from his body and that very day, before the sun goes down, his sobbing father will place him in a coffin like that, naked and fetally-curled.  Seven or eight children—who can bear to look long enough to make an accurate count?—are flung against a stone wall in front a house.  Their bodies strike the wall and collapse in a heap on the ground.  If you didn’t look too closely, you might think it was that pile of dirty clothes which you keep reminding yourself you need to wash before the pile grows and gets too far out of hand.  If you did look closely, however, you’d see a little girl abruptly sheared of both legs, her blackened face still cooking.  Another boy, not four feet away, has his hand raised toward his face, as if he is about to suck his thumb.  There is a fist-sized hole in his forehead, a neatly-scooped hole that is so horribly, horribly out of place but yet so undeniably real in its seething red presence.  It insists you look at it and later, much later, when you are on your computer staring at the photograph which has been sent to you by a Brigade Public Affairs Officer recommending that you release the photos because “the world needs to know what these bastards are doing,” when that photo is lividly dominating your computer screen, it insists that your eyes be drawn to that angry, fist-sized hole.  And the only words your own brain, still safely enclosed behind bone and skin, can form are “So young, so goddamned young.”
Back at the humvees, someone is screaming.  But no one can hear him because all sound has been momentarily sucked away and the only thing left is a sharp, high ringing. And, in that silent, ringing soundtrack this is the movie one has to look at: the smoke, the small flames licking the solitary engine block, the now-scattered children, the 27 dead (including one of the American soldiers), the 18 wounded, the charred and mangled bicycle, the empty sandals, the pools of blood, the four half-shattered buildings, and the three Iraqi men rushing up with blankets to cover the dead.

Reading back over it, this "non-fiction" passage betrays even more of its fiction roots. As I mentioned, I wasn't there--I was sitting in my air-conditioned cubicle miles and miles away--so the majority (perhaps all) of what you just read was filtered through my imagination.  Clever words filled the interstices of what I never saw.

When I chose to insert this same (slightly-embellished) passage in Fobbit, I added an additional section which places the novel's characters at the scene.  This is just one of many collisions between the truth of 2005 and the fabrication of my novel.  Here is what comes a dozen pages later in the book:
When it happened, Lumley been turning to say something to Lieutenant Fledger.  Thinking back on it now, he couldn’t remember what it was.  Maybe a complaint about next month’s twelve-on, one-off schedule; maybe a joke about going on ghost patrols.  Must not have been too important.
What happened next jolted everything from his head.
He heard, rather than saw—no, scratch that: felt, rather than heard, the car roaring across the open space.  Lumley was standing about 100 meters away from Boordy, but the vibration of the engine went up through his spine as if he himself had been standing in the path of the car.
He turned away from Lieutenant Fledger, with whatever he’d planned to say still dangling on his tongue.  For one nano-second, he was pissed at this pressure-noise interrupting his comment to the LT.
Then it all uncoiled like a whip.
Lumley caught the explosion in the corner of his eye, the white flash already blossoming in orange petals which quickly curled black.
He heard Lieutenant Fledger say “Fu—” before everything went silent, the detonation sucking away all sound.
Until then, for the past three hours, the day had been hot, the mission boring.  They’d all been lulled half-asleep by the heat waves shimmering off the hoods of their humvees.  The wind pushed the dust through New Baghdad, same as always.  Once the kids’ initial demands for candy had dwindled, there had been nothing to hold the soldiers’ interest.  Sure, they kept scanning the terrain, but honestly, once you’ve looked at the same doorway with four dozens sweeps of the eye, it gets pretty fucking old.  Yeah, they were all feeling the lullaby of the distant, bleating goats and the squeak of the gunners rotating in their sling seats, back and forth, back and forth, scan, scan, scan.
The day pulled onward slowly, like it was dragging iron weights behind it.
Once, one of them declared he couldn’t hold it any longer and relieved himself against the side of his humvee.  That held their interest for a short while—the patter of piss hitting the rubber tire—but when it was over and the soldier said “Aaahhhh…the pause that refreshes,” they all went back to what they’d been doing.  They scanned their sectors of fire and the minutes trickled by.
Lumley went around, checking for heat stroke, squeezing camelbacks to check water levels, commiserating with the occasional “Yeah, this sucks balls, alright.”
One or two of them—including Boordy, apparently—hadn’t been able to resist playing grab-ass with the few kids who still hung around the perimeter.  It didn’t distract them from the mission—not that much, anyway—and they didn’t see the harm in trading high-fives or engaging in a little freeze-tag.  Cross-cultural international relations, that’s what it was.  Boordy, evidently, pretended he was a carnival sideshow strongman and showed off by lifting two thin Iraqi girls off the ground, one on each side of him.  The little girls, kind of cute even with their rat’s-nest hair and snot-crusted noses, giggled as they held on to Boordy’s biceps and rose two feet off the ground when he curled his arms upward.  They dangled like jewelry off this funny American.
But Boordy was always like that, flexing his strength for all to see.  He was a bull trapped in a china shop—usually didn’t know where to turn with the clumsy power of his own body.  He must have thought it was some pretty funny shit to be doing curls with those little girls.  He probably would have laughed at how that sounded: girl-curls.
Yeah, Boordy. He was cool, that Boordy.  Fucking-A, man.  He looked like an ox, but don’t let that fool you.  He came off pretty bad-ass, tough as a cement wall, but deep down he was a give-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy.  He was strong and he took that strength seriously, like it was his personal mission to protect the weaker ones around him.  Generous motherfucker, too.  You need someone to pull your graveyard because you stayed up too late playing Halo the night before?  Boordy was your go-to guy, no questions asked, no strings attached.
That’s why nobody was surprised when they later pieced it together, what they’d seen out of the corner of their eyes.  It was typical Boordy to react like he did, going into protector-mode by instinct.   When he realized the car was leaping right for him, Boordy would have pulled those little girls tight against his chest, wrapping himself around them as best he could.  He must have known it was a useless gesture, that he was flesh and not iron, but what else are you gonna do in that split-second of reflex?  You’re gonna obey the electric impulse of your nerves and the natural pull of your muscles, right?  You’re gonna grab those little girls and hold on tight.  You’re gonna duck your head, let the top of your Kevlar helmet take the brunt of whatever’s coming your way.  You’re gonna tuck yourself over those two little rat’s-nest heads, the three of you breathing together in that tight space for the smallest of moments, and you might even manage to gasp, “Hold on,” to these little girls who have no idea what the words are but who certainly know what they mean.
Hold on, here we go.  Like the three of them had reached the crest of a rollercoaster and were hovering on the plunge.
From where he stood 100 meters away, Sergeant Brock Lumley didn’t actually see the incinerating evaporation of Corporal Nathan Boordy, but he felt it.  Oh fuck yeah, he felt it all the way to the marrow.  As he fell to the ground, pushed there by the concussion and cradled in the vacuum of silence, he thought maybe it was just him, maybe he was having a stroke or a blackout or something, maybe they would all be rushing to his aid in a few moments.  For that little sliver of time, he was embarrassed and thought how his men would make sure to give him a rash of shit for passing out like a pussy.
Then, over his head, he saw the cloud of boiling blooming smoke, and he realized he was probably wrong, that it wasn’t just him.  Maybe it was all of them.  Maybe they were all dead.
But when the body parts and bits of ragged flesh started raining on him, he knew for certain it wasn’t him.  It took him a moment to slide back to the fact that he was still alive, and then another moment to realize this was Boordy falling from the sky.


  1. Ow. My heart hurts.

    Brutal brilliant stuff.

  2. "Another boy, not four feet away, has his hand raised toward his face, as if he is about to suck his thumb."

    Oh man. That's some good writing, David.