The helicopter that delivered us to Ramadi climbs to a hover, becoming a dark window in the night sky. Once, on a night like this, I stood below a girl’s window, a girl I thought I loved, listening as Peter Frampton spoke to her through his wah-wah pedal. Now the war re-creates everything but the girl.
“All right!” says the soldier who greeted us on the landing zone. “Follow me!”
We follow him off the LZ and into a shadowed culvert, where I manage to jam myself in a thicket. Holding my rifle like a plow, I push my way through the thorns. I’m scratched, but it’s not until I climb a hill to a corner under a streetlight that I feel scratched.
Under the streetlight is where I get my first good look at my fellow travelers. It’s safe to say that the bearded men with the submachine guns are assaulters, and that Bob, in his ridiculous helmet, is a contractor. The old lady with the white purse, however, is something else.
Because she pays attention to the moths orbiting the streetlight, and to the manta-ray shadows they cast upon the blacktop, I presume she is a SME.
SMEs, or subject-matter experts, have private offices in the Pentagon where they can never be found. They specialize in such topics as whale brains, French horns, and dark matter. They are notoriously difficult to locate, unless you walk the A-ring, the Pentagon’s innermost, between the hours of 7 and 9 a.m.
Warfighter talks occur at this time, meaning the building’s decision makers are sequestered behind closed doors. Therefore, SMEs can wander the wide halls without fear of a chance encounter.
“Warfighter” is the term used for a general officer who, through no fault of his own, has never been to war. The few who have are called warriors.
In fact, thinking back on when I used to attend warfighter talks, I can only remember one warrior. He was a short Marine general from New Jersey who’d fallen down the stairs and broken his leg. This general drove around inside the Pentagon in an electric scooter, which also served as his chair during warfighter talks.
All that was visible of this general above the warfighters’ table was his pink face, which turned red whenever the discussion turned too hypothetical for his taste, which was often, and which would prompt the general to recite the times and locations of actual battles in bloody and crushing detail.
But it was difficult to take the general seriously from the low saddle of his electric scooter, and the discussion would inevitably float back to the impossible, such as action without reaction, or an escape from the tyranny of distance.
I stopped going to warfighter talks around the same time in my speechwriting tour that I became an enigma. I’d cultivated an enigmatic persona by writing with my shoes off and never answering the phone. I also kept a dictionary open on my desk, and rumor was I could write an entire speech out of just one word. This was bullshit. Regardless, the mystery afforded me choices.
So between the hours of 7 and 9 a.m. I chose to wander the A-ring with the SMEs. When the sun shone through the tall bulletproof windows onto the portraits of the secretaries of war, I’d find the SMEs staring into the canvases at points where the pigment blackened. Elsewhere, they’d look through the windows into the shady courtyard, resigning themselves to the mindless habits of pigeons and smokers.
Likewise, the old lady with the white purse watches as bats swoop in to eat the moths that orbit the streetlight, and she sighs as the moths replenish themselves out of nowhere. Meanwhile, the soldier who brought us to this spot asks that we clear our weapons.
Following the assaulters’ lead, I point my rifle into the culvert and action the lever that ejects the bullet from the chamber. Some of these bullets are caught; others fly like Tiddlywinks into the night.
We are assigned to sandbagged trailers to sleep. Bob and I share a trailer that is equipped with a shower and a toilet. We also have a big-screen TV with a satellite hookup. I figure it’s just a matter of time before the assaulters kick us out, yet Bob starts to unpack.
“You might want to wait,” I tell him.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because they’ll probably kick us out.”
“I doubt it,” says Bob.
Each item Bob unpacks I see tossed into the thicket at the bottom of the culvert—his alarm clock, his pillow, his bread machine.
Meanwhile, the assaulters shuffle themselves into lesser trailers. I hear their footsteps in the crushed gravel, then one of them approaches and knocks on our door. I open it. It’s a sergeant major whose lip is stuffed with tobacco. He looks past me to Bob.
“You Dr. Chung?” he asks.
“Yes,” says Bob.
“You got everything you need?”
“I could use a transformer.”
The sergeant major spits into the gravel outside our door. “You mean an adapter?” he asks.
“No,” says Bob. “A transformer that converts 240-volt alternating current to 120.”
The sergeant major spits again. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Bob leaves the lights on while waiting for his transformer, so I unpack my book. Lying on my bed, I pretend to read.
The sergeant major comes back with a heavy black cylinder, which he plugs into the wall. Then Bob plugs his bread machine into the cylinder and it starts to hum.
“Thank you. I can’t sleep without it,” says Bob.
“Easy day,” says the sergeant major, and flakes of tobacco fall from his lip.
After the sergeant major leaves, I say to Bob, “I thought you were a contractor.”
“No,” says Bob. “I am a scientist for the secretary of defense. My specialty is the atmosphere.”
I have questions for Bob, among them this business about the last breath of Caesar, how it has spread itself out so that every breath we take contains some part of it, but he turns out the light.
“Good night,” he says.
“Good night,” I reply, as the bread machine kneads air.
Later that same day, around noon, I wake to sunlight pouring in through the seams of the trailer, and through the drain in the center of its concave floor. Bob is still asleep, so I dress quietly and go outside. A layer of dust as fine as talcum powder covers everything under the still blue sky. I make tracks in the dust to where a group of soldiers are playing Bitch. Further down the road, some Marines are playing basketball. Sunlight falls straight down on all of us.
In Bitch, two soldiers square off about 10 feet apart, tear off their Velcro nametags, and throw them at each other. The goal is to stick your nametag onto your opponent’s chest, hook to pile.
In the contest I observe, one of the players is named Hearn. The other’s nametag I can’t read.
So Hearn and Not Hearn dance around, then stop. Hearn takes aim and Not Hearn flinches.
“Hold still,” says Hearn.
“You hold still,” says Not Hearn.
Hearn and Not Hearn flick their nametags at each other. Not Hearn’s nametag paddle-wheels to the ground, while Hearn’s goes end over end and sticks to the pile strip on Not Hearn’s chest.
“Bitch!” yells Hearn.
Not Hearn bends down to pick up his nametag from the dust, muttering unhappiness, when down the street a basketball player’s legs buckle and he drops.
The rest of the players scatter for cover, and the basketball bounces to the curb. The player in the street tries to push himself up with one arm, and another runs to his side.
“Medic!” he shouts.
The injured player rolls onto his back.
“Medic!” Hearn relays.
The medic comes from behind us, covering all sorts of ground per stride. For instance, in just one leap he says to those of us assembled, “There’s a sniper out there. I wouldn’t stand in the middle of the road if I were you.”
Afterward, I feel every spot on my body where I don’t want to be shot. I crouch and move out of the street to the T-wall perimeter. I follow the perimeter to what used to be a rose garden. There’s a broken fountain and a dead tree full of sparrows that scold me for trespassing.
Along the way, I look through spaces in the T-walls and all I see is a field of reeds. No puff of smoke, no attack, just a breeze through the reeds.
Past the rose garden there’s a plywood hut. Inside are phones for calling home. I take a seat on the couch provided for waiting. The TV before me is dark. There’s one soldier on the phone.
“Listen,” he says into the receiver.
A minute goes by in complete silence, during which I read a sign on the wall explaining what can be talked about on the phone:
DO: Give support and love to family.
DO: Talk about weather and holidays.
DO: Discuss family issues.
“I’m not gonna call if you won’t let me talk!” the soldier says.
The door to the hut opens and shuts. It’s Bob. He sits on the opposite end of the couch, dressed in a collared shirt. His hair is wet and combed.
“You hear about the sniper?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says. “Only I doubt it was a sniper. There is no vantage point high enough for him to take that shot. Unless there’s a bullet that can go up and over walls.”
I’m not sure if he’s kidding.
“Listen!” says the soldier on the phone.
“The Marine was shot in the neck,” Bob says.
“Is he going to be OK?”
“I don’t know.”
“FUCK!” yells the soldier and slams down the phone. It rings like a fight bell. Looking at him, I see he’s got a list of dead friends tattooed on his arm. There are only two, but his arms are long. I wonder how his long arms make his other friends feel.
The soldier lifts his wooden chair above his head and breaks it on the plywood floor, over and over. The noise is as deafening as gunfire. A splinter of the chair falls in my lap. Dust leaps off the floor and shakes from the walls and ceiling.
When the soldier is finished destroying the chair, the room is so clouded with dust I can’t see Bob. The door opens and shuts again. I listen as the soldier stumbles across the crushed gravel toward the road.
“I don’t suppose that was necessary,” says invisible Bob.
The dust swirls, collapses, and blooms. I get the feeling that none of this surprises Bob. And I think if I ask him to explain it he could, just like the last breath of Caesar, taken in disbelief.