The Cafard 1
She'd walked in when I was naked. I mean full frontal naked, dig?
"Jacques, I must speak with you now."
I ain't shy when it comes to my body. These are the parts with which God, in His infinite wisdom, have equipped me, but that day those parts were dirty. No bathing for two weeks dirty. We'd just returned to the F.O.B. from Al Anbar province and we'd been so busy taking cover from fire, returning fire, standing post between fire, that we'd barely had time to wipe our asses clean after a class one download, not that the downloads were clean or classy. Always we'd had the shits. Always the hot, acrid taste of cordite in our mouths, on our tongues; always the stink of gas once in a while strangely mingled with a strong puff of perfume - there a female somewhere? - which we'd finally figured out was coming from a roof top flower garden. Yep, how's that for fucking weird in a warzone? - goddamn garden of flowers being maintained by an old lady whose house squatted smack dab in the middle of Jolan Park, one of the seven districts into which we'd dissected the province. There'd been (1) Hospital (2) Brooklyn Bridge (3) Main Bridge (4) Jolan Park (5) the Pizza Slice (6) Government Center and (7) Muhammudia Mosque. These districts had been grouped into "burroughs": (1) Jolan (2) East Manhattan (3) Industrial Sector and (4) Queens. Using this blueprint an operational battle plan had been compiled and coordinated specifying the mission, forces and tasks. Our mission, as told to us by our squadron commander who'd told it to us as it'd been told to him by the regimental commander, had been to "kick the shit out of any enemy encountered and keep pushing east."
The last encounter before we'd returned to the F.O.B. had been a hot one. Literally: on the roof of one house a cistern of fuel had been heated so the goddamn muj could cook his meals. We'd shot a hole in that cistern and waited . . . waited . . . wait . . . ed . . . wa . . it . . . ed until the fuel had drip drip dripped into a pool in a corridor of that house, then we'd tossed in - real casual, real quick - an incendiary grenade and burned to death the muj motherfuckers inside. I'd had a smoke while listening to them scream.
So, you might think I'm an asshole for doing that. Think what you will; if you're a female I'd still hold the door for you, if you're a male I'd still buy you a beer.
The mademoiselle who called me Jacques would've slammed the door in and thrown the beer at my face. A French civvie, she'd come as part of some kind of save-the-children organization, you know, another Le blah de blah au blah, and somehow she'd convinced herself that not a child would be wounded or killed if only I'd pack my shit and get the hell out of Iraq. Me. Sergeant First Class W_____, J, T_______, U.S. Cavalry. I call her a mademoiselle but, really, she was a madame. Too old to be a mademoiselle, though I ain't sure that age has anything to do with those titles. Anyway, she'd stormed her way into the barracks and my fellow troopers, probably too stunned and happy to see a white female, hadn't stopped her. I heard her yelling, "Jacques, where is Jacques? I must see Jacques!" and she'd come to my door, opened it like a child expecting to find a stash of Christmas presents, and found me dirty and naked, my skin damn near as dark as my hair (dark brown, almost black), my mouth full of grit, on the brink of giving myself a quick wipe down before getting some hot, fresh chow. Wanted a decent meal more than I wanted a shower. You never realize how hungry you are until you have time to realize that you're alive and need to eat to stay alive, to fuel your life. I intended to take a hot shower after a hot meal but she'd destroyed my intention - the bitch - with her uninvited, unexpected appearance, "Jacques, I must speak with you now."
"Well, hello to you too, sweetheart."
This response probably hadn't done much to alleviate her impression of me as a chauvinist, a mysogynist (did I spell that right?) but that's all in retrospect; at the time, in the moment, I just called her what I always called her. Sweetheart, darling, baby doll, humma humma, and her immediate response had always been phlegmatic with a rolling of the eyes.
"You are killing children where you are!"
"Where I am? I'm here, darling, and I ain't killin' no kids."
"You know the place I am speaking of. Boys shot to death, burned."
"The 'boys' you're talking about were given two weeks to leave where I was if they didn't want to be shot to death and burned. What do you want from me?"
"Where you was is their home. Why should they leave under penalty of death?"
I started to dress. Cover my dirty stinking body with my dirty stinking B.D.U., cover the filth with filth, layer the stink upon itself again. The bitch. Couldn't she see that all I wanted was to get a little clean, just a little goddamn clean, so that I could enjoy a meal and then get all the way clean? Clean the dried caked shit from my anal hairs, clean the grease from under my fingernails, clean cordite out of my mouth, off my tongue, out of my gums, clean the metallic tang of blood from my skin. War is hell, roger that, but more than that, war is dirty.
"That's real poetic, sweetheart, you should write that into a poem."
"We are loaded too much."
"Too many children come to us. You bring too many more."
Nearly fully re-dressed I ran my hands through my hair and they'd come back blacker, greasier than they'd gone in. It'd seemed so wrong. Just goddamn wrong. Wrong the way our watery shit was wrong, like pissing out of the wrong hole; wrong the way our stepping over wounded people (fucking muj) to give water to dogs was wrong; wrong the way that frou frou bitch barging in to yell at me was wrong. Who the fuck was she? And who the fuck was I that she'd considered me so goddamn important that I should be the one she yelled at? Just an N.C.O., baby doll, my authority doesn't go beyond my platoon and that authority only counts if the lieutenant agrees. But who was I shittin'? Lieutenants always agreed. They were advised: watch the sergeants. They know what to do.
"Bullshit," I' said, "there weren't any wounded left to bring back."
"You kill them all?"
"Two in the chest, one in the head, gotta be dead."
Hadn't meant to be an asshole. Believe me. I just wanted to get rid of her. Get rid of her by insult, my outrage, by anything so that I could clean off and eat. And she ain't been to clean herself. Could tell that her hair ain't been shampooed, could see some grime on her cheeks, her chapped lips. A handsome woman, yes, not beautiful, not fragile and feathery, not petite and pretty. Thick eyebrows, heavy down on her forearms, big feet, broad more than slim, still . . . I would've overwhelmed her right there and then on the floor just to shock her into a fight, a struggle, a desperation to get the hell out and leave me to my clean up. I would've put my mouth against hers, made her taste the war she hated, made her smell it, feel the aftermath of combat against her, inside her, this is the weight and the pressure, the stink and the taste of what brings the children to you, the too many children, this is my trigger finger, the one that I'm trained to keep on the trigger guard of my rifle, discipline, goddamn it, and it's the same finger that's in your mouth, taste it, suck on it, this is war. She was the kind of woman who hated war because war is the domain of men and she hated men because she hadn't been born one. Shit, honey, I've carried rucksacks that weigh more than you, handsome and broad though you are. She was the kind of woman who thought men waged war because they'd rather be women and war was their way of menstruating. I've seen men bleed from the crotch and there ain't no tampon in the world that would've staunched their bleeding. She was the kind of woman that my fiancé paranoid. Small, dainty fiancé. I could bench press her. No challenge. She'd convinced herself that I'd leave her for a challenge.
Joke was on me.
She'd left me.
Ignoring my last comment she'd said, "Why do you hide behind your orders?"
Fully re-dressed, "I don't hide behind them. I carry them out."
"You carry them out and bring out bodies of children."
"I ain't never killed a child."
Never before that moment and never afterward had I wanted to hit a female so badly as I wanted to hit her then.
"Don't you see?"
I sat down on the floor. Started chewing on my bottom lip. Wanted to chew a piece of it off, gnaw it, swallow that piece. Consume myself. Had to eat something warm. Had to clean off and eat something warm. Eat at my leisure. Chew slowly. Actually feel the bolus of warm food go into my stomach. Had to clean off and eat. Eat because the living eat. Survivors must continue to survive. Eat to convince myself that I was alive. As alive as that fucking muj sniper was dead.
A long wall with a mosque on the far side. Our left flank under heavy pressure. To relieve that pressure we'd zeroed in on a two-story house (no flower garden) with a balcony that led to an open aclove. A sniper had been harrassing us from that aclove for a couple of hours. Hadn't come close to hitting us, but, Christ, fucking aggravating! An added nuisance to the pressure.
"Can you hit that?" I'd asked one of our gunners.
He'd looked through binoculars, nodded, gotten an azimuth and a laser read of the distance to the target, "Roger that," and put fifty rounds of 40mm explosives into the aclove. That sniper wasn' a nuisance any more.
That French civvie was a goddamn nuisance.
"Don't you see?"
"I see you keeping me from getting clean and getting a decent meal. That's what I see."
"You will never be clean enough. Don't you see?"
I'd seen Sunni rebels trapped in Fallujah and Shiite rebels trapped in Najaf. I'd seen both rebels fuckng run into bullets. Simple: use a laser range-finder to select aim points on either side of a street at six and eight hundred yards from your position; when a target appears, running across the street, fire at one of the aim points and the fucker will run into the bullet. I'd seen all kinds of shit. But -
"Don't you see?"
I couldn't answer. Not just because I hadn't entirely understood the question but also because it hadn't been in my pay grade to answer. The chain of command was clear: the Secretary of Defense issues a directive, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs writes a formal tasking, the order goes to the theater commander as a directive from the Secretary of Defense, the theater commander issues a directive to the JTF commander who issues a directive to the MEF commander who issues one to the division commander, humma humma, and it eventually comes to my lieutenant who issues it to me. The directives would include precision bombing against targets identified by forward air controllers assigned to rifle companies, would also include 105mm artillery shells and majors who quietly obeyed the directions of sergeants - watch the sergeants, they know what to do.
None of them directives would've included a French civilian working for a children's aid organization in the barracks of an American forward operating base, confronting a sergeant - that'd be me. All 5'11" of me, all dirty stinking 180 lbs of me. All dark-haired, brown-eyed exhausted hungry me. "You're eyes are light brown," mama always says, "they got a sunburst to them," but that day they'd had a darkness to them, an exasperated darkness. Exasperted and exhausted from spending hours, days, firing from prone positions, usually along the lip of a roof, dashing, wiggling, crawling, humping from spot to spot, popping up, snapping off a burst, crawling away under a return hail of bullets - the death blossom. Exhausted and exasperated from the mere seeing, just fucking seeing bodies bodies bodies and bodies and bodies like a female body we'd seen among the many hacked-up mutliated bodies (we ain't done it) next to a merry-go-round at Jolan Park. We'd buried her, that nameless female, we'd buried her mutilated hacked-up body. We'd stopped firing, stopped wiggling and crawling, humping and snapping off rounds to bury her.
And here was this named female, not at all hacked-up, yelling at me, asking me, "Don't you see?" I saw her un-hacked big feet in comfortable shoes, saw her un-hacked shoulders covered by a shirt, her un-hacked legs protected by slacks. I saw her and she asked me, "Don't you see?"