(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)
The sun is going down as Sergeant Valdez pulls up in the F150 and drops the gate. We offload the ammo and pack it in the back of the MRAP. Fifteen thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the Iraqis. I try to stack the boxes so they will have the least chance of toppling when the truck is in motion. Tomorrow we will drop off the ammo at the IA compound while out on patrol. I raise the back ramp, lock up the truck, and walk back to the CHU.
“Is everything okay?” Raneo asks as I drop my rifle in the corner.
“No, it isn’t.”
“What happened? There is no purpose to life, and the Universe is an empty, meaningless wasteland. That’s what happened.”
I’m halfway through reading Cat’s Cradle for about the fourth or fifth time. This is more than likely the source of inspiration for my feigned tantrum, as opposed to any particular or immediate existential dilemma, along with my chronic compulsion to answer every question with a smart-assed remark or to befuddle people with my nonsensical grandiloquence.
“Where?” says Mies. They’re smiling now.
* * *
The interior of Club Rodeo is a mixture of industrial warehouse and country barn. Sawdust on concrete slab, wood beams, murky lighting. A large dance floor takes up the majority of the room. In one corner, there is a small western-wear shop where one can purchase cowboy hats and boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and enormous belt buckles. This exact combination of attire, incidentally, is the uniform for roughly seventy-five percent of the clientele. Catherman hands me a Budweiser, and the two of us sit at the perimeter of the dance floor, behind a wood railing, and survey the crowd. I’m feeling distinctly out of place and underdressed in Oxford, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The music alternates from country to pop country to vanilla hip-hop. I finish my beer altogether too quickly and step back to the bar.
The bartendress is clad in Daisy Dukes and a plaid shirt knotted above the belly button. She has never heard of Jameson. I order two more Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniels. I drink both shots myself and return to Catherman with the beers. In my absence, four more people have materialized at our table. Gardner is evidently another member of our company; I am still too new to recognize every soldier in the unit. The others are Gardner’s girlfriend and two of her tagalong pals.
Catherman is easy at conversation. He has no trouble moderating small talk around the table, despite the oppressive twangy din. I rely on him to entertain while I thoughtfully measure the precise interval between sips that is necessary to appear pleasant and carefree. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rotate to the bar or restroom. Catherman disappears somewhere, and I start to panic a little. I try to engage one of the girls in conversation.
“So do you live in Killeen?” I yell in her ear.
“No. I’m from Temple,” she looks at me for some sign of recognition.
“I have no idea where that is.”
She suddenly becomes very interested in her drink and turns away. I pretend to be fascinated by the spectacle on the dance floor. About two-dozen people have begun to dance in unison, some convulsive mutation of a square dance and a Broadway musical that is completely foreign to me.
Eventually, Catherman reappears with the third girl, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He leans in.
“I just got a handjob in the bathroom,” he says.
He nods, glancing at girl number three.
Four or five beers later, I drive us back to the barracks and pass out.
It’s taking a considerable amount of effort to fight my natural anti-social impulses and go out drinking every week with the younger guys. My body does not recover as quickly as it did when I was in college. Hangovers are a two-day affair. I suspect I am not as much fun to be around. I feel boring, like I am sucking the cheer out of the room, radiating bad vibes. And any desire to chase women has abandoned me.
The next Saturday, I wake up hung over around thirteen hundred. This time, thankfully, I had the wherewithal to take a cab home. I throw on some clothes and shuffle down to Specialist Lindsey’s room. He comes to the door groggy and disheveled.
“Dude, I left my car at Ernie’s last night. Can you take me to go get it?”
“Yeah. Hang on a minute.” He can’t really turn me down, as I did him the same favor last week.
We’re in the car ten minutes later, on our way to Harker Heights. Lindsey is a chatterbox, so I let him talk and I stare out the window and try to suppress my migraine.
“You want to go to Houston tonight?” he says.
“I’m not sure I would survive. I’m still getting over last night.”
“Aw, come on. I’ll drive.”
“What’s in Houston?”
“These two girls.”
“I’m trying to fuck one of them, and I need somebody to keep the other one busy.”
“They’re kind of big,” Lindsey says. “I’m not saying they’re fat, just curvy, you know?” He fumbles in his pocket and produces his phone, then, completely ignoring the road, scrolls through his photos.
“Here,” he says, handing me the phone. “That’s the one I’m trying to hook up with.”
A husky blonde is gazing up at me from Lindsey’s phone, smiling coyly. It’s a self-taken picture, probably captured for the sole purpose of luring Lindsey to Houston. I suppose she is pretty.
Lindsey reaches over and taps a button on the phone. Another girl appears, this one with dark brown hair. Her pose, while not identical to the last, is definitely in the same vein. She is thick as well, though not unattractive.
“That’s her friend,” he says.
“She’ll definitely fuck you.”
“She’s pretty cool, but you might have to put up with some drama.”
“I don’t know, man. She’s just drama sometimes. But she’s a lot of fun, when she’s not talking about her ex or whatever.”
“So the plan is to get a hotel room and party. Maybe go out to some bars. You in?”
“I don’t know, dude.”
“Come on. I guarantee you get laid.”
“I’m just not feeling Houston tonight. I feel like shit.”
I can’t think of a good reason not to go. I’m racking my brain for a solid excuse, some previous commitment or obligation or something. But I’ve got nothing. I should say yes, but I’m filled with the urge to retreat to my room and order Chinese food.
“It’s cool. You think Catherman would want to roll?”
Lindsey drops me off at Ernie’s Bar, and I drive back to the barracks with a guilty, nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something important. I dial Hunan Palace and fall asleep.
In August, my platoon sergeant informs me that I’ve been reassigned to headquarters. After seeing my test scores, the CO and First Sergeant have decided that I am needed in Supply. My protests are ignored. The XO assures me that it is a temporary situation, that I will only be there for a few months, and that I will continue to participate in training exercises. I do not believe him. I abandoned my home in California and my mind-numbing corporate existence to experience something out of the ordinary. I joined to become an elite paratrooper, and now I am a supply clerk in the armpit of Central Texas. If there is some mystical power at work in the cosmos, then it is surely having it’s way with me for cheap thrills.
I report to Sergeant Harris and try to make the best of things. There is a good deal of driving around post, from one warehouse or agency to another, picking up new equipment here, dropping off old equipment there. We fill out an infinite array of forms and collect signatures from various bigshots at battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. The upside to working in Supply is that there is a lot less pointless screaming and running around. The downside is that my soul is rapidly eroding into a festering ruin of dust and desiccation.
If I believed in a soul, that is.
It might be more accurate to say that all the pleasant chemicals at play in my nervous system are going sour, transforming into bile, while the unpleasant chemicals are experiencing a population boom.
Months go by. I continue to dismiss invitations to go out, to socialize, to interact with humanity, until eventually they stop coming. I withdraw. I spend my free time shut up in my room, making periodic food runs to Walmart, where I glare hate bullets at fat Texans and their gallon jugs of maple syrup.
This is me reacting poorly to adverse circumstances.
October arrives. My cousin is getting married in Avalon, New Jersey. Both parents have separately sent emails insisting I wear my Class A uniform to the ceremony. Reluctantly, I pack my uniform into a cheap garment bag and fly to Philadelphia. From there we drive to the shore. The morning of the wedding, I am standing in front of a hotel mirror, trying with difficulty to squeeze into my greens. I suck in the gut I’ve acquired over the last three months of neglect and manage to get the buttons fastened. I have to sit very straight in the pew to avoid discomfort, and I am all too conscious of the looks from other guests. Overt attention makes me uneasy. I am a fraud. I have done little to earn this uniform.
After the wedding, I change into my suit, which is unadorned and much looser in the waist. The reception is festive. I don’t dance. I linger on the patio, smoking, drinking, politely brushing off the mechanical admiration of family acquaintances. I haven’t done anything, I tell them. They express concern for my impending deployment. I tell them there is no danger, unless I am crushed by a pile of cardboard boxes. I drink more.
A small contingent of friends and family proceeds from the reception to a lounge bar down the shore. My father has pizza delivered to the bar, a feat of unmatched brilliance. I endure further awkward gratitude and continue to drown my fraudulence in Jameson. The crowd dwindles. I am swaying as I stand at the bar and sign my tab. The bartender is a weathered woman in her mid to late forties, a divorcee, I surmise, slender, dirty-blonde hair showing streaks of grey. In an embarrassing fit of delusion, I persuade myself that she is attempting to seduce me by intentionally withholding my credit card. I play along, waiting patiently at the bar and smiling moronically every time she looks my way, until we are the only two left in the bar.
“Something I can do for you, hon?” she finally asks.
“I believe you still have my card,” I say stupidly.
“No, I gave it back to you already.”
I reach in my front pocket and feel the slim sheet of plastic.
“Ah,” I say.
I stagger outside and across the street, berating myself unmercifully, a vile and abusive monologue exploding in my head, stumbling up the steps, and expire face down on the floral-patterned sofa in my father’s hotel room.
Back at Hood, I return to my comfortable rut. I drink whiskey alone in a half-assed attempt at self-indulgent martyrdom. But I fail to make a habit of it. I can’t even summon the discipline required to be an alcoholic. I begin to wonder if I might be experiencing depression—not bummed-out, sorry-for-myself depression, but actual medically legitimate, Prozac depression. The Internet tells me the symptoms include fatigue, sleep and appetite problems, loss of joy or interest in social or entertainment activities, and so on. I conclude that I am suffering from Dysthymia, an idea that persists for about an hour or two, until I throw it aside. This is not genuine. This is a sideshow concocted by my chemicals to distract me.
This is merely self pity.
* * *
Funerals have always made me uncomfortable. It is not the whispers or somber tone. Nor is it the tangible proximity of death. It may be the religion. All the talk of faith and transcendence sets me on edge. I am an atheist. I believe that consciousness, what some might perceive as the soul, is nothing more than a complex pattern of electrical signals exchanged between synapses in our brain. When our meat machinery ceases to function, those signals stop firing, and the lights go out. I wish I could believe in a higher form of existence, but there has never been anything to convince me of this. I suppose that is the essence of faith, to trust in something without the need for validation, but it is a quality I lack.
Apart from two grandparents and my father’s eldest sister, I have never lost any family members or close friends, though I’ve seen my share of funerals. There is something disingenuous about the whole procession. Though maybe this is simply my own cynical filter at work. Are we there for the departed? They are gone. They have no further concerns or suffering. Or are we there to quiet the fear in ourselves? To say, look at this: when you are gone, you will be remembered. People will say nice things about you and drop roses on the ground. When I die, I want no talk of God, or for friends or family to sanctify my behavior with idle praise. I hope they will say I tried my best and leave it at that. Have a drink, tell a story, and toss my ashes in the sea.
The memorial service for Sergeant Altamirano is held on September Twentieth at the COB Speicher MWR. Members of Delta Company and Green Platoon speak fondly of their fallen brother, and the chaplain gives a benediction. We stand at attention as the final roll is called. The honor guard fires three volleys, and a solitary trumpet sounds Taps. It is an appropriate and dignified ceremony.
In twos and threes we march forward silently, the entire battalion, to the constant strains of Amazing Grace, and salute the altar where they have placed his rifle and boots and helmet.
There is one thing I do like about funerals, and that is bagpipes. The world needs more bagpipes. Few other sounds carry such bittersweet resonance.
It is twenty hundred, and I am reclining on my bunk, trapped in a curious limbo between agitation and inertia. I should go to the gym to work off all this annoying useless energy. At the same time, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I compromise and step outside the CHU for a smoke. Mies is burning assorted papers in an ammo can, staring at the fire with his arms crossed.
“Want to sing Kumbaya?” he says.
“You never want to do anything fun.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say, leaning up against the Hesco. “And I don’t know the words.”
We watch the flames for a few minutes. Then I drop my butt in the ammo can and go back inside.