AN INTRODUCTION BY MARY MILLER
Looking back at our emails from the past year, Odie Lindsey and I have chatted about everything from Quito, (the town in Mississippi), to how our names are popular among the elderly, to birds — he sent me a picture of an American Woodcock that blew through his storm door, and I told him my mom had recently referred to a Boston Oriole as a “Boston Oreo.”
During these periods, my parents were worried. I could hear them talking about me from downstairs, knew it was happening when their voices switched from a normal volume to whispers.
Colleen’s parents should also be worried, but they’re trying to give her some space as she readjusts to civilian life (oh, yeah, Colleen was in a war). They don’t say anything about the cigarette smoke. We don’t know if they give her a hard time when she stays out all night or if they’re discussing her in whispers or at a normal volume. And as anyone who has been in a similar situation knows: the time when you want space most is when you need it least.
We don’t know if they give her a hard time when she stays out all night, or if they’re discussing her in whispers or at a normal volume.
“Colleen” is both intensely focused and sprawling. We tag along as she visits the VA Clinic in converted a Motel 6, a white-columned fraternity house, the VFW, her life pinned “between Highways 7 and 15” as it has always been.
The first time I read “Colleen,” I hoped there was a love story somewhere within its pages. I held out hope, despite growing evidence to the contrary.
There is no love story here. This story will crush you, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. I mean pulse-racing-aw-hell-no-I-need-to-lie-down-for-a-while crushed.
Welcome to Colleen’s world.
Author of The Last Days of California
Colleen by Odie Lindsey
Colleen lay awake the nights, staring at the popcorn-textured ceiling. Her bedroom window was propped open by a box fan, its draft blowing out against the thick Mississippi air. She smoked in slow, labored sighs, a glass ashtray on her tummy as she sprawled on her old twin bed. Now twenty-two, she’d gone from high school straight to Basic Training and AIT, then on to deployment, before circling right back to that rural, postwar starter home, and to her childhood bedroom, a chorus of graduation tassel and sapphire-paneled basketball trophy, her parents biting back the demand that she smoke outside.
She’d get her own place soon. A job and whatever. Sometime.
She could picture the desert, barren and pocked by missile char. Fighter jets rented the vast gray horizon, cracking the sound barrier, shredding the calls to prayer. She had watched them deliver payload on the beige city in the distance, a city almost shorelike against a gulf of sand, and with minarets capped in turquoise. From her platoon’s staging area she saw the explosions, and the tufted clouds that rose silently afterward. At distance, it took several seconds before the concussions of the blasts had arrived to buckle her knees; the space between visual and physical was like being stuck in a riptide, a schism of cause and effect. Colleen could not get over this dead interval. She was terrified of it, but more than anything wanted to find it again. To somehow crawl inside.
The beige city in the distance. The goat herd that wandered onto the edge of the formation. Their bellies distended, their hip bones propping hide. Gray and black goats with stringy beards. Their shepherd, a lanky teenage boy in a beige caftan, wielded a dry reed. His face was smooth and feminine. One troop had laughed about the goats acting like stray dogs, trotting in a pack, starving, their dusted tongues bobbing from the sides of their mouths. Their shrill bleats and neck bells. Starving and trotting toward the soldiers.
Colleen and the platoon had loitered in the sand, having exited the vehicles despite orders to stay put, to remain on the outskirts and wait. They were heavy with equipment, tactical armor to tempered steel plate; their sweat was quickly shed to the oven-dry air. The guys pissed at the back bumper, and cut up, and listened for the order to engage the city. Now and again they’d seen the small, muted blooms of smoke rise from a frag grenade or IED.
They had spot-welded scrap metal to the floorboard of the Hummers. They had not live-fired their A4s. They were staged at distance from the action, on the periphery, waiting. And the goats had charged at them for food. And pop-op-op, brass casings hit the sand. They dropped half of the herd within seconds, and then Colleen and Van Dorn and the rest of the squad had held the shepherd kid back at gunpoint, his face a squall of Why?
This was early in the tour. They still held indoctrinations of faith, honor, manhood, love, remorse, reunion, memorial. Yet after the episode, the simple killing of goats, Colleen had sensed something sensational about herself, about all of them: They were free. Of obligation, code, or history.
Of land. Day upon day, staring into the void of sand, surrounded by it, coated in it, the talc-like granules circulating in her lungs, deposited, expelled, she was divorced from her lifelong relationship to land: how it had defined her, and her parents, and even how earth itself had been defined by others before she was even born. How the passing down or manipulation of soil determined both who you were and what you weren’t.
Yet looking across the desert, ridiculous in its capacity, all direction marred by only what was temporary, truck to tent to trailerlike CHU barracks, to the drift, even, of landmass, the dissolution of history by wind, Colleen understood that for the first time she was rendered landless — but with total authority. There was nothing to accumulate, to pay down, to pass on. No demarcation, save sand and rock and horizon, and the ability to navigate it at will.
The void was lawless, and gorgeous with opportunity. They were able in theory and by firepower to traverse the space as deemed fit.
It was strange to her that the majority of her unit still stoked the narratives that they felt relied upon them: the things they owned or could potentially own; the foods they had always eaten, or the women and kids who depended on them. The talk was not of transcendence, but of combat pay and mortgages and church; of the predetermined highways that would guide their new, postwar pickups. They yammered about GI Bills and VA loans, and the fixed-rate rewards of making it home in one piece.
Again, this was early on. By the end of the tour most of them didn’t care if they ever redeployed.
One morning, a few months into that first tour, Colleen had requisitioned a Deuce-and-a-Half truck, then veered off of the asphalt two-lane and into the gut of the desert, alone, carving the sand, fishtailing wildly. She looped the vehicle a time or two, marking great quarter-mile circles, and then cut deeper into the expanse, weaving in snakelike curls. Her vision and hands forged new pathways with the wheel; her tires left ruts where none had rutted. She ran out of gas in the middle of everything, and then watched the sand-drift devour her tracks. She was scared. Thrilled. She wriggled out of her clunky, ill-fitting body armor, and she squatted and pissed in the sand. Laughed so hard that she teetered onto her backside — and then laughed even louder, and applauded for nobody.
The roads, she thought now, as she stared at that popcorn ceiling. “The land,” she whispered as she looked to her pink bedroom walls.
She got out of bed, and tiptoed across the room. Chewed on her thumbnail and looked out the window, to the moonlit pines that walled the edge of the property. In memory, she again heard the bleating of the goats, the hobbles, the pop-op-op. She remembered the balance of the herd trotting over their dead.
They had given the kid a wad of USD for the damage, joked, “Get along, now, little haji.” When he had continued to protest they waved him back with rifle barrels. Corporal Van Dorn then razor-wired a nanny to the hood of the Humvee.
Picturing Van Dorn made her eyes well. Colleen shuddered, and wiped her palms against her cheeks, and then rocked on her heels to try and strangle his memory — though she knew this would never, ever happen. She smoked another cigarette, and stared at the lighter. She flicked it and flicked it, then hurled it across the room.
Cried, Beat Each Other
She had come home on a chartered United 777, landing at Fort Bragg after a stopover in Ireland, a layover at an airport terminal full of whiskey kiosks, and with windows that showcased a green landscape shined by rain. It was the loveliest place she’d ever seen — a judgment aided by the daze of jet lag, and the lens of the Occidental: lipstick, skirts, 3-D movie ads. Colleen, swollen with optimism, swore she would return to Ireland one day . . . if she could remember the name of the town.
Stepping onto the tarmac back at Bragg, she felt nothing, save annoyed. Everyone else’s lovers and wives kept bumping into her. They carried handhelds and placards, and children who wagged tiny American flags. They knocked her about, not even an “Excuse me,” as she cut across the steaming black asphalt, looking for recognition.
Her mother stood in back of the melee, in Dress Barn denim, crying. Colleen walked up and accepted a too-long hug, and was told that her daddy wasn’t there because of work, because the fields back home were snowing in cotton.
“Of course,” Colleen said. She wondered, though, if maybe her mother, Janette, hadn’t encouraged this arrangement. Or, conversely, if her father hadn’t tempered his own desire, in order to let the two vets share their moment.
Janette hugged her several more times, and then returned to the crusty, base-side motel when Colleen’s unit was beckoned to their barracks. She told Colleen that she was going to stay for however long it took to finish things up. That they would drive back to Mississippi together. Janette then insisted that Colleen name the food she had missed the most, and Colleen couldn’t really think of anything, because missing food was a frivolity that had vanished months before, when the actual missing of anything could no longer be satisfied by shit concept or dream. When pushed, Colleen threw out that the catfish plate from Cracker Barrel would be awesome, thanks, and Janette said she’d bring one back ASAP.
The subsequent communion, a to-go catfish dinner on a weather-beaten picnic bench, soggy batter and Sysco-esque bins of tartar sauce, was meant to bridge a lifelong rift. The squeak of plastic fork on Styrofoam, the straw-suck of sweet tea and the sticky glaze on fried apples brought the brokering of her mother’s own National Guard deployment, Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
“You know, Mama, you never talked about your mobilization,” Colleen said.
Janette glanced up and smirked, then stabbed at her fried okra. “Well. You were a toddler when I was called up. Too young to understand what — ”
“I could feel it, though. After you came home. Always.”
“That’s dramatic,” Janette said, rolling her eyes. “Hell, Colleen, my greatest regret is that I joined the Guard even though I was plannin’ for a family. That I spent a year of my life gone. I cried every single day over there, then smothered you with hugs when I got back.”
Colleen said nothing.
“What?” Janette asked.
“Only two times I remember you even talkin’ ’bout the war, Mama. One was the screaming match you and Daddy had after you refused to attend church in uniform for Veterans Day. Two, when you gave me your campaign service medal after we lost at regionals, seventh grade.”
“You were so good at basketball. Why didn’t you pick it back up in high school?”
“You said I was your hero,” Colleen continued. “And Mama, you pinning that medal on my chest was awesome. But, like, that was it. That was all.”
“Well. Just try and — ”
“I still feel shut out by the silence. The specter. The feeling that Daddy and me was holding you back. Were keeping you held — ”
“Hey!” Janette barked. She stared at Colleen, then reached over and patted her hand. “There was just nothin’ I could have told you about war. Nothin’ I could say. You know that now, right?”
Colleen stared at her lap.
“Wadn’t about you, babe,” Janette said, then opened the Styrofoam boat that housed their dessert. “You know that now.”
They moved on to commentary about double-fudge cake.
Two days later, Colleen told Janette to go on home, that out-processing was going to be another week of standing in line, of hearing tests and head evals, of forms and formations and who knows what else. Her mother assured her that it was no problem to wait, and asked Colleen if she wanted to talk.
“Naw. I’m good,” Colleen said. “Promise.”
They left it at that. Janette hit the road.
That night, Colleen and her squad went to the base PX, and bought handles of whiskey and tequila. Within an hour the guys were pissing on the hedges outside the white clapboard barracks, and, jokingly, on each other. Two guys from the motor pool beat each other to pieces, then got up and hugged, and cried, and pushed their foreheads together, blood smearing, then clacked their bottles and swapped I-love-you’s, and everyone else called them dick-lickers. Colleen and her cohort had laughed at this spectacle, because they needed to laugh, and more so to hug and kiss, and even more so to demolish each other, to make sure the hugging and kissing didn’t spread.
The lot of them then decided to go into town and lay waste some whores.
The club in Fayetteville had been loud, smoky, nameless. Beneath the drench of knockoff perfume was an air of mop water and puke. Uniformed were everywhere: drunk, loud, immortal. They were immune, still, to the bill cycles and family reunions, parent-teacher meetings, gas prices and cuckoldry that would quickly re-latch and debilitate.
Colleen sat at a small lacquered table while her squad members embarked with various shades and shapes of women, in and out of tiny, makeshift rooms partitioned by floor-to-ceiling curtains. They’d laughed at her as they left her alone; “So sue me,” they’d say, and then ask her to wish them luck. She did. The whores periodically came around to Colleen, and asked her to buy them a round. She did. The women hung around long enough to brag about their ability to make anyone happy — wink, wink — and Colleen grinned and was flushed, and looked to the table but said nothing. The women moved on. She sat alone and stared around the room, and drank. And drank.
At some point a couple of way-gone roughnecks, Airborne, arm in arm and staggering toward the door, stopped at her table. They stared down at her, their heads keeled to the side like confused dogs. Seconds later they burst into laughter, one falling to his knees in hysterics while the other giggled through an apology. “Really. We’re sooo glad you’re here,” he said. “Like . . . hoo-ah, sister!”
Colleen betrayed no expression. The roughnecks laughed harder at this, their rage and amusement so clear on their skin, their combat so real through their diaphanous skin. They laughed at her until a grizzled first sergeant came out of nowhere and shoved them out the door — deaf to Colleen’s protests that they be left the fuck alone; she didn’t need any son of a bitch looking after her.
During the brigade’s final day of out-processing, she informed her CO that she would no longer drill when they got back to Mississippi. She told him to transfer her, no questions, to Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR), whereby she was no longer responsible for any Army anything, save waiting on word of her honorable discharge and VA bene fits. He agreed to this. The CO had heard rumor of what happened between Colleen and Van Dorn back in theater. He’d heard enough to know that things would be simpler without her.
She signed a handful of forms and the war was done. She got on the bus back to Pitchlynn, Mississippi.
Some months after redeployment, Colleen was in a dark room traced by the odor of sweat and cologne, and maybe semen. She and the boy kissed a little and then she broke off laughing. The red glow of alarm clock digits spread across the white dorm refrigerator, which she opened in order to take another beer. The boy leaned in and bit her neck as she gulped. His hands then slid over her, grappling her breasts, and she wobbled over and rested against what she guessed was a large padded recliner. A La-Z-Boy like her father’s, situated across from a television, as was his. The beer can on her lips, the boy’s lips on her neck, she stared at the slip of white hallway light at the bottom of the door, and she thought about her CHU trailer at forward ops, about the hairline fissure of light that had poured over the tall concrete barriers outside, and into a crack between the corrugated metal wall and corrugated housing of the air-conditioning. She remembered being lodged in that trailer, hour after hour, ordered to wait, to stand down, practicing Arabic commands while aiming her M16A4 into the mirror — La! Ogif, shithead! — listening to small-arms re and to the men mobilizing outside, packed in too tight to pace, too tight to scream, the fracture of light was salvation, a way out.
The boy turned her and walked her backwards, until her calves hit the edge of the bed. “Hold up, grunt,” she said, teetering. She drained the beer and dropped the can on the linoleum. She giggled, then pulled him onto the mattress. His breath was a fashioning of alcohol and smoke and fading spearmint gum, and his fingers fumbled to unfasten her bra. She guessed he wasn’t more than three years younger, probably less than two. Yet he moved with the inept, throaty greed of a fifteen-year-old. Colleen refused to let this bother her, mostly, and finally reached back and popped the bra clasp for him. He said nasty things and she ignored him, wanting only another beer. His t-shirt came over his head, and then hers the same. He clenched her dog tags for a second, without recognition. She stared at that strip of white hallway light and tried to remember how she’d picked him up. She marked the smell of unwashed sheets; the feel of a handed-down comforter sent from home. He moved on top of her, nearly muzzling her with his mouth, his hips and penis grinding into her. She reciprocated to a point, the puddle growing inside, aching, her body soon wetting his fingers.
She’d spent that morning at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic, Pitchlynn, Mississippi. It was her first time visiting the converted Motel 6, and she had since determined it her last.
Under the clinic’s gum-colored portico, two passenger vans had idled, waiting to shuttle the fucked-ups to the big VA hospital in Memphis. The van’s civilian drivers had cut their conversation in order to ogle Colleen’s approach. Her eyes hit her feet as she stepped past them and through the sliding doors.
Coughs, wheezes, wheelchairs on commercial carpet. Beyond the reception desk, middle-aged and old men loitered in clumps, reeking of body musk and tobacco. Synthetic-blend jeans and nylon jackets, insignia on black baseball caps, had memorialized their service.
An hour later she’d been lying to — no, corroborating with — the VA claims investigator — who grilled her for one, tiny complication of her tour. Physical or mental trauma. Anything they could claim.
“Surely there’s somethin’ you can hang your hat on,” he’d prodded, his wiry steel hair and pilled black turtleneck. “Some kinda pain worth anything?” His paneled office wall featured a poster of a Stryker vehicle. A plastic ficus tree was wedged in one corner, its leaves muted by dust.
(A Stryker, Colleen remembered. Bodies on bench seats, crammed and jostling, the wheels crunching landscape, the lull of engine strain and the rhythmic clash of gears. Your helmet clacks the armored panels behind you. Clacks the helmets of the troops sitting on either side. Heavy with web gear, mask, Kevlar, weapon; the air-conditioning always out, the cooling vests not worth shit, you can’t believe the constriction, the hour after hour in 125 degrees. In 130, 150, gulping water, so much water; everyone but you can piss without removing body armor. Banging along, pressed against each other, their cock tips dropped into empty Gatorade bottles, sweating, unable to do anything but listen to the chatter of the driver and the M2 operator, trying to dodge the cube of sun blaze from the open hatches above. Sweat and gears, and the trembling need to piss, the consideration of pissing in your BDU pants, terrorized by shame but having to piss so bad you buckle in contraction, so bad you can feel the first blossom of tract infection, and you pray for the strength just to wet yourself. All of this alongside the constant, practical concern about what faceless object will kill you. Not if, not when, but what.)
“Think, girl,” the man had ordered. “Let’s get paid.”
“I,” she had whispered.
He cocked an eyebrow.
“The, um. Warts?”
“Gotta speak up.”
“Plantar warts?” she’d asked. “My feet are still screwed up from them boots.”
“Warts!” The investigator laughed into his lap. “We can work with this. Now, if we was talkin’ Vietnam, hell, it’d just be part of the deal. But today?” His pen slashed at the appropriate form. “Warts it is.”
She had come to the VA seeking counseling. Someone to talk to. Someone who could explain and then exorcise her compulsion to hurt, to trash herself, to do whatever she could to get back to the elating brink of trauma; to random, visceral, adrenalized trauma.
But you couldn’t just walk into the walk-in clinic. You had to go through the process like everyone else: intake paperwork, biomed overview, financial evaluation, wait; benefits categorization, primary physician assignment, claims screening, wait. Instead of seeing a shrink, or even a nurse prac scripting SSRIs, Colleen wasted half the day being humiliated for her postwar weakness . . . then shamed into filing for a payout over warts.
Leaving the claims investigator’s office, she’d been dispatched to give blood and urine, meeting the requisite demand of a physical before her claim could be filed with the federal government, perhaps as an action against the federal government, in part because the Feds gave out unnecessary handouts. This was Mississippi, of course.
The men who sat around her in the VA clinic lobby were black and white, using canes or in wheelchairs, their pajama pants legs tied in a knot. Elderly wives in cheap wigs sat beside them. The Weather Channel beamed from a wall-mounted television.
They stared at her. She sat in a row-bound chair, adjusting her legs, her ass and her everything, until the clerk finally called her number. He gave her a plastic cup, and pointed to the unisex restrooms. She went inside, noting the chrome handrails by the toilet, her nose sorting the communal bodily smells. Read the posted instructions on how to give a sample: WASH HANDS THOROUGHLY BEFORE TOUCHING PENIS. PULL BACK FORESKIN IF APPLICABLE. URINATE FOR 3–4 SECONDS INTO TOILET. DO NOT TOUCH PENIS TO INTERIOR OF CONTAINER. FILL CONTAINER BETWEEN 1⁄4 AND 1⁄2 FULL OF URINE FOR DOCTOR.
She pissed on her fingers and knew she’d contaminated things. Wiped herself off and tugged her panties up, and then stared into the mirror until the urge to cry had passed. She returned to the clerk, placing the sealed urine cup on a Tupperware cake tray at the edge of his desk. He ordered her to wait, said they’d call her in an hour or so for the blood draw.
“No worries,” Colleen responded, and marched out the sliding doors. She drove to the string of cheap bars near the campus.
Cast in the seam of hallway light beneath the dorm door, she flipped herself from under the boy. They peeled their clothes off, and she mounted his thin frame. She positioned his erection behind her; he struggled to place it inside.
“No,” she ordered.
“Condom?” he asked.
She moved her pelvis in a slow, circular rhythm, her hands palming his hairless and slightly muscled chest. She pegged him a high school sideliner, only recently divorced from dreams of further athletic pursuit. He groaned and again tried to penetrate. “No,” she repeated, moving atop him, circular and fluid. She reached between her legs for a few seconds, then used her self-slicked hand to cradle him outside of her body; she rocked up and down, his penis gliding between her buttocks and wetted palm. Slipping against each other, he so desperate to enter, she so intent on rupturing this need, so insistent on receiving the pleasure, the puddle, as generated by only exterior heat. His cock lodged tight between her hand and buttocks, Colleen bucked back slightly so that her vagina remoistened him, her hand stroking him as she rode up and down. Her climax began in waves that radiated outward, downward, inward as she grasped him, the tide of elation moving her to spasm; her pelvis backing into him, her gasps her kneaded breasts her hand sliding faster, up and down and up and . . . The tickling warmth on her back as the boy came in an apex of deprivation.
He gulped like a child. She shushed him and gripped his involuntary pulses.
Buried in the darkness was the sound of a tiny gear. Colleen knew exactly what it was. Because every troop seemed to have taken the same shots: Vehicle, sand, mortar fire; helicopter, sunset, the Coke logo in Arabic. Interiors of CHU barracks, blast scenes, bloated dead goats and hajis . . . as frequently cut by the automatic shutter closure of a dead lithium battery. The tiny rev of a camera gear. Click.
(She had no idea that war and campus were conjoined by a love of slut-shaming.)
She got one good punch in before he covered his face, and another few about his neck before he threw her to the floor. She was silent as she got up, focused on finding the device in the pitch-dark. She kicked open the small refrigerator, using the light to check the closet. He called her a white-trash bitch, and considered forcing her into the hallway, where she’d be poised for ridicule by the brothers. His eye closing from the punch, he instead covered himself with the comforter.
She found the camera hidden in bunched clothes atop a hamper. She threw it against the wall, splintering the darkness with the scatter of plastic shrapnel. He cursed again as she grabbed her clothes and stormed out. She ducked into the men’s hallway bathroom, dressing inside a filthy stall — her bra and panties and one sock absent — then marched back into the hallway, toward the exit. When the boy’s face peered out from behind the metal door she kicked it into him, and he howled in pain. She flew down a flight of stairs and through a large front room, a space defined by worn leather couches, by crest-like insignia and Greek letters on the wall. On a large flat-screen television, SportsCenter chattered away for no one. She marched out of the house, between the white columns and onto the front walkway. She did not know the campus, and was unsure of how far it was back to the bar, and her car. She had not remembered to grab the memory card. She marched past the genteel university buildings, wondering how many more nights out she could take. Headlights passed over her, those of SUVs mostly, stuffed with drunken, privileged kids, kids that were her age give or take, a few of them teasing her clumsy stride. Her footfalls were hobbled by plantar warts. Her shirt clung to her back.
Colleen pulled into the oyster-shell parking lot of the VFW, then killed the engine. Buried by moonless night, she sat and listened to the snap of the flags in the hot breeze, American, POW, state flag with stars and bars, and to the clank of the metal fastener and guide rope against the aluminum pole. She lit a Misty.
The building looked more like a machine shop than a clubhouse: blue corrugated exterior and white metal door. A quartet of pickup trucks dotted the lot, and a trace of country music seeped from inside the canteen. She had passed the hall all her life and never paid it any mind. But she couldn’t do another night at an in-town bar, in Pitchlynn or even Oxford or Tupelo. Another morning coughing up phlegm, reeking of stranger.
She wore her desert boots and a denim miniskirt. She paused as she reached the building, took a deep breath and pulled the door open. Stepped into the tight room of damp, orangey light. The walls were adorned by dime-store trinkets and bumper stickers, guide-on pennants and cardboard crosses of Malta. Walking toward the bar, she watched herself in the large mirror on the wall behind it. She saw a handful of good ole boys with beat faces, whose VFW caps lay at on the bar by their drinks. There were black plastic ashtrays and a small television in the corner. Fox News, muted. A thick drift of smoke.
They stared and waited for her to ask for directions, or maybe to ask for her boyfriend. One of the men, Vietnam-era, bit the side of his lips. The bartender, tall and gray-bearded (also Vietnam, or maybe Desert Storm), nodded at her. The few elderly men, Vietnams, maybe even a Korea, looked to the television, or into their drinks.
“Help you, ma’am?” the bartended asked.
“Wouldn’t mind a drink.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. He looked to his colleagues, as if wanting someone else to reply. “Um, darlin’, I don’t mean to be unkind. But you know we’s a private club, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”
“Well?” she asked.
“Guess you’re a vet?”
He lit a cigarette. “We appreciate that. And we glad to have ye. But the thing is, you have to join up. Not just qualify, see?”
“Didn’t know that part,” Colleen said. She nodded, and started to turn back to the door.
“Hell, Edwin,” one of the men said. “Give her a goddamn drink. She’s earned it.”
The bartender pinched at his ear. “Sure. Yeah. But after tonight, you’ll have to apply, okay? Ain’t some social club. You’ll, uh, have to apply.”
She pulled a stool from the bar, ordered a Jack on ice. The room was mostly quiet. One of the men looked at her. “Desert?”
The men talked of the coming harvest, of Southeastern Conference football. They smoked religiously, the exhalation clouding a string of red Christmas lights that ran along the bar shelves. Colleen ordered another drink, then another. She chimed in on their conversations of farm equipment, and cursed harder and with more flourish than their wives or mothers or daughters. With whiskey-watered eyes and rounded consonants, they found that the binding link between all was the stinging legacy of plantar warts — a recognition that had them all guffawing. Someone suggested Colleen might like to apply to found a Ladies’ Auxiliary. She figured that she was qualified to join any VFW post — Ladies’ Auxiliary or not — and considered stating this. But she also gauged intent, and let it slide, Thank you, and then ordered a round for the house. The men raised their glasses.
Beyond the drift of the recorded pedal steel rose the sound of car wheels skidding outside, and the thump of bass from a loud stereo.
“Aw, hell,” the bartender said. “Here comes our newbie.” The men snickered. The Maybe Korea paid his tab, noting that he was gonna get out before it got too wild. His body just couldn’t take it no more.
“Y’all still got all that crazy in you,” he said to Colleen. “Still don’t know how to be home.”
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
Corporal Van Dorn walked into the bar, desert boots on the floor, a boisterous How-dee! to all in attendance. She turned to face him and he froze for a second, before breaking into grin.
“No way,” he said. “Thirty-fuckin’-eight? Whatchoo doin’ here, girlfriend?”
Colleen turned back to the mirror. Van Dorn walked over, sat at the opposite end of the bar, slapping one of the men on the back. “What damned cat dragged ole Three-Eight into this joint?” he asked. “She’s a sight for soreness!”
“She ain’t no thirty-eight years old,” the bartender responded, handing Van Dorn a Bud Light. “Looks about twenty to me. I mean twenty-one!”
“Naw.” Van Dorn snickered. “It’s a joke we have. Right, Three-Eight?”
“Sure,” Colleen said.
“Thirty-eight is the MOS job number for Civil Affairs,” Van Dorn explained. “Desk jockeys. Now, y’all geezers don’t recall that because you never had to consider chicks. Army puts most of the girls in Three-Eight to keep ’em safe and shit.”
“So you’s Civil Affairs?” one of the men asked her.
“Just a joke.” Van Dorn snickered. “Right, Three-Eight?”
Colleen turned up her drink, and nodded for another. She lit a cigarette, the flame of the lighter quivering. A couple of the men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling — his or anyone’s — cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.
So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.
Van Dorn snatched the silence from her. “I tell you one thing y’all ain’t never seen, and that’s a woman in full web and chem gear, middle of a combat zone, tryin’ to cop a squat!” he bellowed, and some of the others chuckled in response. “Hey, Three-Eight? You remember th — ”
“You so interested in stories, why don’t you go on ahead and tell ’em?” Colleen asked.
“How’s that, girl?”
“Go on, hero,” she said. “Tell ’em about us. ’Bout you and me, and what we done.”
“Huh-oh!” One of the old vets snickered. They turned to Van Dorn, eyebrows cocked in wait for steamy detail.
“Hell, Three-Eight,” Van Dorn said. “Nothin’ to tell.”
Colleen sucked her cigarette, and watched the flash are in the mirror. She slid one hand to her lap. She could picture the cubes of sunlight through the small APC inlets. Could almost feel the weight of his torso, heavy, his body pinning her against the vehicle’s padded bench seat, his hands cuffing her wrists.
“Come on, stud, tell it!” she barked.
“Whoa, girl,” the bartender said. “I think maybe it’s time we — ”
“I said there ain’t nothin’ to tell, Three-Eight,” Van Dorn fired back. “Nothing in the world I can tell these men about war that they ain’t already lived. I mean, look around you.”
The bartender continued, “I think our new friend has had a bit too — ”
“Who do you think these men are?” Van Dorn asked. “What don’t you think they know? Hell. You think they don’t know killing? They know killing. You think they don’t know heartbreak? Terror? Torture? What on earth am I gonna tell them?”
Her eyes watered, so she stabbed her fingernails into her palm.
“Shit,” Van Dorn continued. “You know what, though? I guess I could tell ’em what it is to have to stare at a blood spot on the ass of your fellow troop ’cause she’s up and run out of Tampax. Remember that, Three-Eight? Huh? Guess I could talk about having to stare at stupid brown roots growing out of dye-blond hair. About having to negotiate combat while flanked by someone verifiably weaker than you.”
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Woman with hairy legs? They prolly don’t know about that. That the kind of thing you want me to talk about?”
After it had happened, she’d been unable to confide in anyone. She had walked around camp bowlegged for days, wearing no undergarments. When she could no longer stand the pain of mobility, Colleen had claimed flu to get off of rotation, then stayed on her cot for most of a week. She did not eat much, and she was silent, and she swabbed herself with aloe vera sunburn gel.
Staring at Van Dorn, she still couldn’t understand why.
“Was I the first?” she asked. “Or did you burn other girls?”
He looked at her as if she were crazy. “Like I said, girl. Nothin’ there.”
The men jostled around on their stools. One motioned for another drink.
Colleen lifted her glass. “Okay, I’ll get you started. So we’re in the Stryker vehicle, just you and me. And I don’t know about you, Van Dorn, but the fact that you were supposed to, well, babysit me ’cause I wasn’t supposed to engage in combat was a bummer. Pissed me off, bad. Still does.”
“True, that,” Van Dorn said. “I was — ”
“Shhh. Hold on, I’m settin’ the scene here!” Colleen waved him down, and a couple of the men chuckled. “It was kind of a blur, all so fast. ’Cause I tell you what, Van Dorn, when you pounce, you’re quick, man.”
He sipped his beer.
“Oh, and y’all, that vehicle stank.” Colleen looked at Van Dorn. “You smell sour, dude. And your chin? I can still feel your stubble scraping my neck — ugh. And, let’s see . . . Oh. The screams. My screams in that goddamned Stryker were intense, right? Couldn’t even hear the firefight. Couldn’t hear nothin’ but me screaming. Hell, I even wanted me to shut up!”
The bartender cleared his throat to try and break the story up.
“And my god, your erection!” Colleen said. “Now, there’s a short story these men haven’t heard. Your erection, still in your pants, pokin’ all up against me while you pinned me down. I mean, one minute you’re one of us; the next, your little pecker is jabbin’ all over me!” Colleen forced a laugh. “You wanna take it from here?”
Van Dorn stared at her.
Colleen rolled her eyes. “Okay, be a chickenshit.” She continued, as if setting up a joke. “So, boys, he’s pinning me down, right? He smells like a sow and his boner’s poking all over creation. And somehow, despite everything I’m still, like, Okay, here it comes. We all know what’s up. This troop is gonna do his biz. Gonna rip my pants off, and then his down, and then he’ll spit on his fingers and la dee dah, whatever, right? I’m thinkin’, like, Let’s get it over with, Stinky.”
“Sorry, gal,” the bartender said. “This isn’t the type of — ”
“But this crazy mother didn’t even unbuckle his pants! Shit, y’all, he just shoved his hands down my panties and, no kidding, um . . .” She blinked back tears for a second, then caught herself. “I mean, I thought an IED blast had seared us from beneath the vehicle! It burned somethin’ awful down there! I flopped like a fish on a bank. Flailed so hard I threw him off of me. And guess what?”
“This perv had a Zippo lighter in his hand. You believe that?”
Colleen snickered, sniffled. “Yeah. Like, he didn’t even wanna rape me. He just wanted me on fire.”
(Afterwards, she’d pushed her BDU pants down to her knees, and peeled off the rayon panties that had melted to her pubic hair. When she wailed like an animal, Van Dorn screamed for her to shut up, saying, “Jesus, I’s just fuckin’ around.” The air in the vehicle was clotted with the smell of singed hair and flesh.
Colleen had lain on her back, on the bench seat, rocking, bawling. She’d been confused when Van Dorn gently handed her a bottle of water, then stared as she doused the blisters. “Just fuckin’ around,” he’d repeated. Gripping the corrugated black plastic of his rifle barrel, he began to bang the butt of the weapon against the Stryker’s metal floor, ordering: “You” — bang — “calm” — bang — “the” — bang — “hell” — bang — “down” — bang. “Now!” In the silence that followed, he smoothed her hair with his fingers, muttered, “I barely even flicked.”)
Through the bar’s smoke and neon, Colleen stared at him. She wished to god she’d had the old Browning .22 her father taught her to shoot with. She’d inhale, hold her breath, line up, squeeze. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Center mass, as the Army commanded. She figured Van Dorn might even laugh when he saw the .22. Might hold up a hand and charge her, convinced of his ability to absorb the rounds in his palm. All the better, she thought. All the better he forget the kinship between her Browning’s 5.6mm bullet and the 5.56mm round of the carbines slung in theater. Forget that the U.S. military chose the minuscule 5.56 round for a reason; forget that instead of a fist-sized cavity left by an AK-47, that counter to any Cold War profundity, the sole intention of the 5.56mm round is to ricochet: off the bones, sinews, spine. Forget that you can in fact shoot a man in the legs, or the ulna, and the round may well bounce all the way into the abdomen, shredding muscle and artery. She’d give it all to him, center mass just as trained, secure in the pinball-like reflection of the bullets inside his rib cage.
“That about right?” she asked him. “Anything I forgot?”
Van Dorn looked to the mirror behind the bar. The men turned their eyes from his reflection.
“What I thought,” Colleen said. “Anyhow. I’ll just let you get back to tellin’ these boys what a badass you are.”
She fumbled in her skirt pocket for her keys and some money.
“Hey?” the bartender asked, startling her. “You good?”
“Well,” she said, pausing to consider. “I’m better.” She threw a $20 on the bar, got up and walked to the door.
“Come see me,” the bartender called out. “If you need to talk or somethin’.”
Within a minute Colleen was stomping the gas pedal, kicking up a hail of oyster shells as she peeled onto the county road. She was drunk, and the car drifted across the yellow centerline now and then. No matter; she was heading deep into the countryside, nowhere near anything, let alone a cop. The clean night air pushed like a river against the mildewed odor of the Cavalier. The tires squealed as she took a curve, and her headlights ashed over vast fields of row crops, cotton and soybean and corn, and the end- less steel trusses of center-pivot irrigation arms. She was not Civil Affairs. It didn’t matter what her job was, anyway. She held an intimate knowledge of every weapon at the company’s disposal. She could break down and clean and refit and reassemble any standard-issue rifle — SDM, A4, M16/AR-15, M203 — any of it, faster than anyone in the battalion. M60 and .50-cal. “What the?” She pounded the wheel as the tears came, then gunned the accelerator, the car lilting as she hit the dips in the road.
Her life was pinned between Highways 7 and 15. It always had been; whether as a child riding to town with her father, or on the middle school bus, or while tooling around with handsy high school boys. Her homeland had been carved up before Colleen was even born. Driveway to asphalt, highway to interstate then back again, she ran on a track forged by someone else, by men; a map, a guidance system, a grid, thrusting her from point to point, repeat, repeat, the cycle punctured only by trauma.
She whipped the Cavalier off the road at full throttle, thrusting into farmland, nearly rolling the vehicle. The tires threw gravel, then dirt, and then the windshield was gummed with plant life. Young corn stalks lashed the window frames, their row spacing a drumroll, their shorn silks and tassels, confetti. She then steered the vehicle into wide arcs and curls, exactly as she had in the desert.
As the car shaved the crops, its engine near redline, Colleen knew that nobody had ever forged that particular pathway, in that particular way. She laughed at the landlessness of it all, at her authority in motion, and then yelled out in glory with the choir of snapped stalks . . . until the Chevy smacked dead into the irrigation tower and her face cracked the steering wheel.
Blood streaked her chin as she processed the pain. She listened for fighter jets, or the bleating of goats, her muscles locked in anticipation of a blast concussion.
When nothing came to engage, Colleen let go of her fear. She lay her head on the wheel as her body went slack. Her consciousness drained out to the wobble of gooseneck pipe that spanned the quarter-mile sprinkler truss.
She wasn’t dead. She was twenty-two years old, and very much alive.