Fiction · 02/25/2009

Third Order Effects

When the shells hit the zoo five hundred exotic species spurted like awkward pollen and scattered all across the tan streets and plumbing-covered roofs of Baghdad. The leopards ran for the Tigris. An elephant wandered into the middle of the intersection where I sat in the turret of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, praying to the satellite gods to show me the way to a checkpoint that appeared on the intel photo but didn’t seem to exist in reality. Getting lost had been my greatest fear since leaving Kuwait.

Now the city held death at every corner, and none of the maps matched or made sense. I could only trust the satellites now, and they were betraying me too.

I held the green body of the GPS receiver between myself and the sun, squinting at the unchanging numerals on the gray screen, when I heard one of the crew shout, “Whoa.”

The elephant stood looking at us, trunk lifting and falling as if it wanted to sniff the hot breath of the twenty millimeter cannon swiveling its direction. I dropped the GPS to raise my short-nosed rifle into a firing position and watched the elephant slide into full view. It turned its head, which seemed the size of a small car, so that one forlorn black eye watched me from across the street.

The elephant flapped its ears against the heat, the watching eye as mysterious and innocent as that of a whale. I couldn’t help but assume it judged us somehow.

“Leave it alone,” I told the crew.

“Can I touch it?” asked Bertelson, one of the gunners.

We knew how to respond to guerrilla Saddam Fedayeen and the constant spitting of artillery from random and supposedly secure portions of the city, but this was a situation I couldn’t spare the mental energy to grasp.

“No,” I said. I lowered my rifle and looked back to the satellite photo under the shade of the hatch.

+

“Come on, Chris. Touch it.”

I studied the office vixen under the bar’s rotating police lights and wavered, noting the Maraschino cherry waiting between her lips, stem searching up and down as she rolled her tongue. I wasn’t supposed to fixate on the stem. I was supposed to be watching the nipple revealed from the loose neck of her standard-issue Sexy Professional Blouse.

Being the good public servant that I am, I reached across the table with pincering fingers, paused dramatically, and then ran an index finger over the thimble before twisting it until she squealed and dropped the cherry in her lap.

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“That was a surprise,” she gasped. She turned her face toward where her friend was giggling uncontrollably into her shoulder.

“You’re a mean fucker,” Rob said, raising his glass.

We toasted our noose-wearing selves and then the office vixens, who had explained they were in marketing and sales, brunette and blond respectively. Jane, the blond, turned to face the dance floor and raised her blouse to show Rob the leopard tattooed across the tan small of her back, one paw raised.

+

“Shut up,” I said. “Put away the Gameboy, Hall. Let’s go.”

“What about the elephant, sir?”

“The elephant will take care of itself.”

The Bradley jerked as Hall shifted gears and the track spun in place. We rumbled toward the far side of the intersection, away from the forlorn elephant. Pulling the hatch down behind me, I dropped into the cramped interior of our metal block and stumbled toward the radio terminal, where a LCD was supposed to show the location of other tracks in nearby streets. Squelch spit in my ear as I released the button on the mic.

“Is this shit working?” I asked, banging the handset on the face of the radio. “Did we drop codes again?”

“Sir,” Hall shouted from the front of the track. “Enemy emplacement ten o’clock.”

“Are you certain?”

“Sir?” he shouted, fear filling his voice.

“Engage,” I said.

The Bradley rocked with the concert percussion of the twenty millimeter canon as Bertelson ran through a belt and we all touched sweaty metal surfaces to steady ourselves. We grasped at weapons, ready to dump out the back hatch if necessary.

In the space between the wind-down and Bertelson’s practice-honed motions of reload, three forces hit the Bradley from every direction but that of the emplacement up the street. The word “pow” filled my mind, from my left, back, and right: pow, pow, pow, a concussion like hydraulics. We had entered the struggle of a massive machine. Only bigger than any sound I had ever heard, a sound that reached deep in my chest. From every direction but the emplacement up the street.

I became weightless. I felt myself rise in the vacuum.

+

The church dated from the 1880s and had a stiff bell we pulled together until it tolled. I remember watching Sarah walk toward me between the old pews, our family on either side, in a pearl gown that made her body flow. The veil lay like frost on her hair. When she made the turn into the aisle on her father’s arm and our eyes met, and she smiled such happiness, I felt filled with the confidence of a thousand lives.

At the reception, my friends, all decorated in the dress blues of new lieutenants, shoved a cigar in my mouth and slapped me on the back. We were graduated, commissioned officers. At last,

Sarah and I were married.

“I’m so sick of listening to this bullshit,” Carl said. He pulled himself straighter, balancing his cup of burnt coffee. “You think you know what fucking pain is, Chris? Pain is paying child support while the bitch you loved shacks up with your ex-boss. That’s pain.”

Malcolm the facilitator fixed him with bored eyes. “It’s his turn to talk, let him talk, Carl. Who the hell are you to judge what’s painful? You cheated on her in the first place and deserved what you got.”

“I don’t deserve never getting to see my kid. Chris don’t even have kids.”

“I like AA better than this bunch,” Josh hissed in my ear. “They’re all grateful to be free over there. Here it’s like everybody’s pissed to have been kicked out of prison.”

“Go ahead, Chris,” Malcolm said, flipping a page in his Field & Stream. “What about this girl you met last week?”

“Yeah,” Carl said. “The one with the tattoo.”

“That was the other one,” I said, like it was the most important detail to remember. “Mine didn’t have a tattoo. She had blue fingernails.”

I had no reason to be here other than my mom begged me to talk to somebody: if not a veteran’s group, than this circle jerk for divorced men, where they one-up each other with support payments and what bitches their wives were, forgetting what assholes they were to begin with.

Sarah never asked to be the stoic and forlorn captain’s wife in the Civil War portrait. I never thought I would trade her for a war.

+

“Oh, you want me, don’t you?” Lindsey called, falling sideways into me. Halfway between my apartment and the bar – I lived within stumbling distance of downtown for a reason – she pulled me against the side of the Aurora building and kissed me like I tasted delicious. The friendly nipple was hard in my hand as she pushed her body against me. Her mouth tasted enjoyably like appletinis.

“So,” she said, pulling back and reaching for my belt buckle, pointing her face at my crotch. “So wha-syza cock have you got in there for-mee?”

“What?” I said.

“How big’s your dick?” she enunciated.

“I didn’t ask how big your tits were,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, cupping her breasts and leaning forward like an online dating mugshot. “What I’ve got’s all out in the open.”

“That could be a pushup bra.”

“Trust me,” she affirmed. “It’s not.”

“I should tell you something,” I said, close to her ear. “Usually, I guess, this wouldn’t really come up right away.”

She said something into my neck, kissing inside my collar.

“I got hurt by a bomb in Iraq,” I said. I don’t think she heard me right away, so I said it again, and she raised her eyes to watch me through the alcohol.

“You’re saying a bomb blew your dick off?” she said.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

“Oh.”

“I mean. I think you should know that before we fool around. But we still can.”

“Oh,” she said. “Yeah.”

+

I felt the Bradley rising and falling like a hand slapping a table, and then I was hard on the steel floor of the vehicle, gasping in the white blaze filling my eyes. The turbine was choking and it seemed the track still wanted to move, until the engine suddenly stopped and silence crackled behind the whiteness.

My mind failed to move beyond the static screen in front of my face. One side my mind screamed this is not a movie. This is not the dramatic pause. There is no distance of silence here giving you the gift of perspective. The rest of me was paralyzed. I felt the steel grating against my cheek but my body would not move.

It was an ambush. I don’t know when I realized. They had been waiting. Right now they would see the Bradley smoking, unsure of what was happening inside. The general told us in Kuwait: Do not underestimate this enemy. Doing so will mean your death.

He also said, Think two and three steps ahead. Don’t forget the second and third order effects of every decision you make.

Right now they are coming closer. Right now they are finding grenades to toss through the open turret. They initiated with their most damage-producing weapon.

They will follow with fire.

Outside the static I heard Hall’s Gameboy playing Tetris music over and over again.

They will follow with fire.

+

“There’s something you need to know about my friend Chris, here,” Rob said. It was midnight and this was his closing pitch. Although we worked in insurance claims, he could have beat any sales Vampirella any Ladies Night of the week. “He’s a war hero. He made it through the invasion.”

The vixens turned wide eyes in my direction. Lindsey squeezed my hand supportively.

“That’s why he rides a bicycle,” Rob said. “He doesn’t support oil war anymore. But,” he paused, “and this is totally fucked up.” They waited while he sipped his whiskey. Rob cleared his throat. “Listen to this: his wife left him while he was down range. He was at war and she left him.”

“Oh, that’s totally wrong,” Jane blurted.

Lindsey put her head on my shoulder. I had nothing to add. It was Rob’s fantasy. He gripped Jane’s waist and pulled her toward him as he lifted me on the pedestal that rose like the Tower of Babel every week the story repeated itself. He changed the details: I earned different awards, commanded more troops. I was gone shorter times before she left. Sarah’s name was never her own. I was the war hero who dragged two of his troops from a burning vehicle under sniper fire going plink, plink on the asphalt, to the soundtrack of Tetris.

Rob could not describe the woman with brown hair and green eyes only I had known.

+

“I don’t understand how you can do this,” she said.

“What do you think I’ve been doing the past two years?” I asked.

She looked at the table-top. The kid at the front counter said, “Whopper minus pickle extra mayo.”

“We’re going to have a baby, Chris. Doesn’t that change anything for you?”

Three months in, she liked to sit with her hips forward and her hands on her stomach, as if she could feel the baby growing whenever she sat still. Her womb had become the fulcrum of the universe. The paycheck that bought the solid oak crib, the John Lennon sheet set and matching mobile, the pregnancy library and a hundred other baby necessities she had free reign to stockpile in the last two months, was apparently not important to her new reality.

“You expect me to not go, Sarah? To be AWOL? That’s great until a cop pulls us over five years from now and I go to prison.”

She looked at the table. “Sure.”

“What about the soldiers? Do you think they deserve leadership that won’t get them killed? What about their families who want them to come home?”

“What do I deserve, Chris? I deserve a husband who stays with his wife when she needs him. We’re about to have a child.” Her eyes met mine. “You’re such a hypocrite,” she said. “You don’t even believe in this war.”

+

In the vacuum the war was finally real. I had finally experienced the pain of combat, in the form of three RPGs. All the fear before now had been wasted. My piece had finally arrived.

Anyone can be a parent but who can say they’ve been to war? Who can say they pointed a rifle at a man three hundred meters away and ended his life in a red spray against a dirty tan wall?
I had followed my commander into the Division Operations Center in the middle of the Babylonian desert, six-thousand miles from home, to behold the nexus of modern war: a great dome covered in screens and floored by terminals and workstations, busier than a stock exchange, all focused on the single purpose of exerting one nation’s will upon another. From Alexander to Napoleon to this moment, how could I not feel as though I stood on the cusp of history? The greatest army in the history of the world. The intersection of technology, power and the long awaited mission.

This was the greatest trick they played on me. As unimportant as the baby made me to her, the war made me doubly important to the Army. As she grew to want me less, the organization wanted me more.

It didn’t hurt so much, at first, making the trade.

+

I woke to my commander’s sad eyes watching me. The white liner of the hospital tent stretched behind his sun-burned head.

“You can get the fuck out of here whenever you want, Chris,” he said.

“It’s quiet here,” I said.

He looked down the row of cots at bandaged, moaning soldiers. “They want to keep you,” he said finally. “But I need you back.”

“Was I shot?”

“You’ve got shrapnel in your back. They say you’ll be fine.”

He blinked slowly, like his eyes didn’t want to give up sight. He was from Ohio, and had been an opinionated man before we invaded Iraq. He used to resort to quoting talk radio during arguments. He had three kids. He took every death too personally to make it through unscathed.

“You got a Red Cross message, Chris,” he said

“From who?”

“You didn’t tell me Sarah was pregnant.”

I swallowed, and felt the pillow against my head. I could smell him from three feet away. I felt clean and separated already from his fight. Leaving the bed would involve me again.

“You should have told me, Chris.”

“It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“But you don’t have to carry this weight alone.” He looked down at his dirty Kevlar helmet and the faded oak leaf of his rank. “You’re not the first person to go through this,” he said.

I was not special.

“The two of you can try again,” he said.

+

“Why’d you use that stupid fucking line on her?” Rob demanded by the coffee machine. “I totally had that set up for you.”

“That’s the test,” I said. “If she sticks around, I figure she deserves what she thinks she isn’t going to get.”

Rob shoved a mug at me. “It’s a guaranteed way to get the crazy,” he said. “She was a perfectly normal freak.”

“Of course. How was Jane?”

“Jane and I had a great conversation.”

“That’s good,” I said. “That’s all that really matters.”

+

It was unusual for a captain to lead raids and the platoon I was assigned figured I was suicidal. I should have been happy making PowerPoint slides in a Green Zone bunker. Instead I found myself shining the stark glare of a flashlight at a family comprised of a man my age who spoke the Queen’s own English, his wife and their four year-old daughter, who glared at me with such contempt that I couldn’t look away from her brown eyes.

“What?” the man demanded endlessly. “We have done nothing. Please leave us. We support the United States. We want only peace.”

The little girl stood in the center of the room, soldiers milling around her, as her father and mother submitted to the ransacking of their home. My job was to tell the soldiers what to do if they encountered something outside the battle drill. It was my job to take the blame.

I watched the little girl. Sarah’s answering machine now told the world, “Chris, if this is you, I have nothing left to say to you. Please stop calling.”

The little girl did not blink under the glare of the flashlight.

Eventually her mother hissed at her and she moved slowly to press herself against her black robes, her brown eyes still judging our progress as we tore her house apart.

+++