We never chased the troops that made it out. No point. They always came back.
Partly because the cabin was so far out in the woods. We were deep in San Marcos, right before you hit the mountains. But they mostly did it for the attention. They’d slink back to the patio, cheesing. Saying they’d needed a brisk run, some fresh oxygen.
My first job at the VA shelter was fence duty. Five nights a week. Late to early. I sat on the wood, staring at the trees, squinting for whatever poetry popped into my head.
Sometimes the troops visited me. They’d pat me on the head and tell stories. Mostly about their tours. Or the women and the dogs and the sons they had waiting for them.
Waiting’s what we called it. Never that they’d left them. Outdrank them. Bullied them. Clobbered them. Beat their beloveds into submission. Tossed dinner tables. Sliced pillows. Pushed them down stairs. Lobbed jugs of milk, expired, against freshly painted walls.
Everyone was just waiting.
Bobby Ray talked about football. Miller talked about his wife. Chambers talked a whole evening about his truck, once, the first one he ever had. He’d driven it every day since he’d turned sixteen. Right up until he deployed. When he made it back to the States, he’d lost the legs to drive it. And these new things, said Chambers, weren’t real legs, were not meant for driving.
So he just stared at it. Didn’t eat or sleep. Didn’t answer the debtors, the girlfriend, his mother, the girls. Just stared at that truck like maybe it’d wink right back at him, rear itself beneath his toes, wherever those were.
But that’s before I came to the Fort, he said. Now I just get to tell you about it.
I’d pulled the job through connections, through this guy named Martinez.
We shared the same unit. Bandaged the same bodies. Early on, he’d told me about his girlfriend. About this business he’d started in El Paso. How nobody ever showed up on time. There we were, sweating balls in Al Tafar, and he’d school me on his neighborhood, with the women sweeping their doorways, their sons and husbands not showing for work. And whenever they did, they were late. Or drunk. Or both.
Martinez talked about his fiancée. He showed me pictures. She looked tan, young. Italian. I called her beautiful, and this made him proud, and that made me proud, proud that I’d turned him red and smiling, and we sat in our tent, struck dumb by the width of the universe.
We talked about ourselves. How my father was Cherokee, and my ma’s just black. How I used to smoke pot, and horse, and sometimes occasionally sell it. How I finally got caught. How the judge had groaned. He’d clapped his hands and gave me a choice: jail or greens.
Martinez talked about the Iliad and the Vikings and his brother. The kid took medication for his schizophrenia, pills his ma couldn’t afford. So Martinez wired a check from downrange monthly.
Eventually, we talked about the job he had waiting for him, way out in Texas. The veterans’ retreat in the middle of nowhere. He called it something to do until his business started jumping. Just enough to pay for the wedding.
We spent most of our tour inside the tents, playing Uno. The bodies we saw were scraped, nicked, dirtied within reason.
Once, a man came in with a face-wide gash. His whole face. It curved around his nose like a violin’s bow. These were things that tape couldn’t fix. But what we did was tape him and pat him on the back.
Thanks for your service.
Then we sank into Solitaire, Poker, Uno, Bullshit.
This was a little while after The Surge. Our company just didn’t need the labor.
But then there was another Surge, and all of a sudden they did.
Martinez and I joined the clean-up crew. We glanced at the bodies left in the villages. Gave triple amputees an official lights-out notice.
Still though, there were men in heavier boots than ours. Men doing unthinkable things to our left and our right, and sometimes behind us.
Martinez had a joke about this.
He died in a Humvee.
We’d just left a village to drop off some doughnuts. Some of the people were happy to see us, and the ones that weren’t had these looks on these faces, like why don’t you just go back home. I didn’t know what to tell them. We hadn’t asked to be there either.
After an hour, we were back on wheels, speeding over hills of sand. Some joe beside him had made a funny, something about the kids without shoes.
I, too, had started to laugh.
The shells went off when his punch line hit. Martinez was sitting across from me, and then Martinez was taking cover; and then bits of Martinez were on my face, in my mouth, down my throat. That’s when the Humvee flipped.
We experienced flight. True flight. Like rare and colorful birds.
I worked at the Fort for months before they finally gave me a troop. Troops were what we called the men who stayed with us. And they were all men. It took the struggle out of convincing them that they were something new.
Bailey leaned over his desk, poring through the files, looking for a spare one. He’d been a sailor until they cut him, caught holding hands or possibly kissing. Now he was just old. Spoke with a vicious lisp, made no effort to change it, and the troops shadowed him like puppies. They tucked him under their arms. Bundled him over their shoulders. Cradled him like toddlers with newfound Easter eggs.
How about Graff, he said, and I said no.
Hey, he said. Come on. We don’t get to pick who we’re given.
You and I both know Graff won’t listen to you, I said. He hardly listens to Maria. Let alone me.
Because he doesn’t know you, said Bailey.
Correct, I said. He doesn’t know me.
Then fix it, said Maria. She swooped behind the desk, over Bailey, back from under him. She’d woven her hair in a bun, in one of those Aunt Jemima wraps.
You and Graff’ll be best friends, she said. Besties.
She found the file she’d needed and started down the hallway, calling after Bobby Ray. She offered her hand, and he took it, and he started again with whatever story he’d been telling.
I took Graff’s file. Bailey grinned, saluting like a twat.
Maria and Bailey owned the Fort. Except really it was just Maria. She’d had no military service, just a childhood in Puerto Rico. But you wouldn’t know any better with the way the boys treated her. Grown men who’d mowed down whole plazas with artillery. Men who’d picked other men up by their heads and squeezed. When she told them to stop doing something, they stopped. They asked what she wanted them to do next.
Maria spoke four languages. She had one husband in jail, another in Puerto. No one really knew what she’d done before the Fort. Some agreed on nurse. Rock-climbing instructor, pimp, drug czar, mercenary, and headmaster were also possibilities.
She was the one that hired me. I’d flown back to Tulsa after out-processing, sped straight down I-35 until I’d run out of gas. Her interview consisted of a short questionnaire. I’d shut the door to her office and she looked me in the face. She asked why the fuck I was there.
We don’t use commercials and we’re not on Google, so how? she said.
I told her about Al Tafar and my job as a medic, how fucking hot it was. I told her about the Humvee. The burns it gave me. She’d already started to stand before I threw in Martinez, too.
Then she sat back down.
Martinez, she said. He told you about us.
Yes, I said. And all of the wonderful things you’re doing out here.
Liar, she said. But Martinez, she said. A good boy. I know his mother.
I said, Yes, Martinez.
We sat across from each other, saying his name. Martinez Martinez Martinez. Really feeling it.
The Fort was actually just an ugly house. Eighteen rooms, two stories. A kitchen, a lavatory, a staircase. One office, one entrance, two exits, thirty-six bunks, four televisions, the mini-library, two footballs, one fútbol, a basketball, and the whole of Big Ben, the biggest backyard in Texas. It housed between twenty-one and thirty-two bodies a year. Most of them stayed a couple months. They found us through each other.
They’d come in, decompress. Their families usually dropped them off. Some came out just to see if we really existed. No one actually wanted to stay. Everyone slept two to a room, shuffled as needed, but our long-term guys bunked together: Bobby Ray and Chambers and Miller and Graff.
Graff was on his bunk. Graff was always on his bunk. Unless he was eating or pissing. His roommate stood by the door just beyond him.
Miller, I said, and Miller lit up.
Ian, he said. Young blood.
Old soul. I’m here for Graff.
He took his pills already, said Miller. I watched him.
Just to talk, I said. Miller saw the folder and he looked at me. He touched my shoulder.
Miller hadn’t done anything wrong, just burnt his face off under some steam in Afghanistan. He’d been taking a dump. The pipe above him burst, willed by Jesus or possibly Saint Mary.
The scars it left on his face. They were enough to make the medics wince, and then his commander. A succession of making important men wince got him sent home early. His wife stood in the baggage claim, and she rose to hug him, her husband of four years. Then she winced too.
Ian, he said. You’re doing a good thing.
Right, I said.
He is having a bad day, said Miller. A very bad day.
I can still fucking hear you, said Graff. I’m sitting less than five fucking feet from you. I can still hear your stupid fucking voice.
Oh, said Miller. Thought you were sleeping.
I was, you fucking Pop-Tart, said Graff. And because I actually still have ears, I no longer am.
Miller smiled, wincing.
I sat on the bed across from Graff. His feet hung over his mattress, arms across his chest. The bear that ate Goldilocks.
You heard everything, I said. So you know I’m your new guy.
Graff looked at me. He shrugged. It’s just another thing I have to do stay here, tax free, he said. That’s what I know.
Good, I said. That’s a start.
So, I said. You’re having a bad day.
Graff turned his head again. It looked like the heaviest thing. Like this burden he’d been cursed with.
I’m feeling chocolate, Ian, he said. I feel like a big fucking box of chocolate.
A funny thing: Martinez and I worked in the unit adjacent to Graff’s.
If the country were a sandbox, we’d sat on its shittiest corners. We’d heard stories about his company, about the casualties they’d been taking, about their tenacity. We heard that they were big men. Men with dog faces and horse legs. They shot from the hip, blocks away from where they needed to be. Sometimes we took these stories and slept with them, dreaming ourselves into the roles. These were supermen. Spartans.
Doesn’t matter, though, said Martinez. Guys like that are useless.
We tossed cards, sunning in the cots beside our tent. I made some vague noise of assent.
Uno, I said. Explain.
It’s simple, said Martinez. They’re losers. Superheroes are great to read about. They do this, they do that. Save cats from trees. Women in alleys. The Punisher hits three guys with one bullet, and the mayor throws a parade.
But did you ever think about why they do that? he said. Like, what goes on in their heads.
Honor, I said, and he threw a water bottle at me.
Medals, I said. Plaques.
Right, said Martinez. Medals. Plaques. Dumb shit. But no feelings. Did I ever tell you that story about the Vikings?
No, I said. Show your goddamn hand.
He told me about the Vikings. He threw his cards on the table.
Looks like shit’s looking up around here, he said, leaning back, beaming into the light.
I asked Bailey for a switch. He laughed.
When you were assigned a troop, what you were really doing was giving them eyes to look and ears to listen. You went on hikes and you carved wooden animals. You threw the football around. But mostly what they wanted was someone to hear them out. To hear how they’d dug holes for themselves rivaling earthquakes. To hear why it was they were waiting.
They’d say what they had to say and sometimes it took two days. Other times, months. Once they’d said it, all of it, they’d stay maybe another night. But then they were ready to leave. Ready to give life another go.
Graff didn’t tell stories. Graff corrected people and smoked cigarettes. Graff attempted to start a church onsite for Latter-Day Pagans. Graff hid Miller’s prosthetics in the kitchen, inside the oven. He slept and he smoked and he took walks by himself, out in the woods, beyond the limits set by Maria.
Bailey said that I should go with him one day. See what that was about. I said that was a good idea, we should all go together. Bailey blinked and smiled and said of course he’d been joking.
Graff was packing for one of his walks when I tricked him into speaking.
Graff, I said. You ever thought about leaving?
He kept stuffing tuna cans into his pack, bundling socks into the heels of themselves.
Only if it were necessary for the revolution, he said.
What? I said.
No, he said.
Then he grabbed his bag and left.
He’d outlived three counselors before me. They’d written the same shit in his folder. Unresponsive. Unfeeling. Sadistic. Complacent. One note said he should be locked in a zoo. Another said he’d be better off in the ground.
Bobby Ray told me to give up.
I knew guys just like Graff, over there, he said. Meatheads. All they care about’s the ammo in their purse.
Purse, said Chambers.
That’s what we called it, said Bobby Ray. That’s what we carried shit in.
Get the actual fuck out of here, said Chambers. My daughter carries perfume in her purse. Nail polish.
I swear to God, said Bobby Ray.
Lip gloss. Poodles.
I asked Miller about Graff, and all he did was smile.
He just needs his space, said Miller. Some people are like that. Keep their own counsel.
You have to talk about something, I said. You’ve lived together for two years.
Um, said Miller. We’ve slept in the same room for two years.
Miller scratched his face. He was careful to avoid his nose, where it would’ve been.
Well, he said. We talked about his kid, once.
This was news to me. I asked how many he had, what their names were.
One, said Miller. Gretchen. Deceased.
Oh, I said.
About a year ago, said Miller. On visitors’ day. My wife had said something about coming, she’d written a letter. I waited all day in the lobby. Bailey made some phone calls, and Maria drove out to the interstate, just to see if she’d gotten lost. But she wasn’t there, said Miller. And she didn’t answer. So I sat on the sofa ’til nighttime. Graff came in from a cigarette or something. He asked what I doing, so I told him. And he said he’d been waiting for his daughter, too. I asked if maybe she’d gotten lost, and he said no, she’d gotten hit by a car. And he went back to bed.
Fuck, I said. I asked if everyone else knew about this.
Sure, said Miller. But does this mean that now you’re gonna go ask him?
But I guess that’s life, said Miller. It happens.
Every other Wednesday, a group of troops leave the Fort, and three or four replace them. The guys make a ceremony out of it. They form a big circle in front of the cabin. If you’re leaving, you step in from one side, and they cheer you on as you step your way out. The new guys come into the circle last. Then it gets smaller and smaller, until the old troops lift the new ones into the air. They chant whatever garble’s in flavor that afternoon. Then they set them down and go about their day.
The Fort has visitors on Wednesdays, too. For the ones that aren’t leaving. Bobby Ray’s sister came down, and one of Cooper’s fraternity brothers. Other men had girlfriends, and sons, and Chambers’ wife brought the truck up for him to sit in. Bailey’s boyfriend drove up. The troops gathered around and they touched his hair and they asked what Bailey was like in bed. I stood in the corner with Maria and Miller, watching all of it.
Wonderful, she said, smiling. She saved her smiles for family day.
Yup, said Miller. Family’s a beautiful thing.
Eventually the troops made their way outside, pushing the old guys and the new ones into the circle. I stayed back with Miller, by the phone. We were waiting for his wife to call.
We listened for the chanting, which turned into yelling, and by the time we heard Maria shouting we were both outside.
Graff stood in the center of what was left of the circle. Fists balled. Bobby Ray sat in the center, bleeding.
Graff looked at everyone, individually, glazing over us. Nobody used words or made moves. Then he grunted. Graff shouldered his bag and dipped into the woods. He’d been gone a whole minute before Cooper asked if anyone else was hungry.
I made a goddamn joke, said Bobby Ray. How the fuck’s he gonna hit me for me making a goddamn joke?
He shouldn’t have done that, said Maria. You’re right.
I know I’m goddamn right, said Bobby Ray, and his sister helped him up, and they went back inside.
Miller and I watched everyone slink around the circle, what was left of it. He put his hands on his hips and whistled.
I saw Martinez in my dreams.
Most nights, I was the one that killed him. I’d put the barrel in his mouth, and he’d nod, and I’d shoot him. I’d slit his wrists after he’d helped me find the vein. I held a pillow over his face. I drowned him in a sink. I nicked his throat with a shaving razor.
Other nights, he’d just visit. We’d sit and stare at each other. Sometimes he’d tell jokes. Jokes that had been funny and no longer were. Because Martinez was dead, dead, dead.
Martinez was dead.
Sometimes we’d lie in the same bed. I’d cry in my hands, and he’d look at me and he’d laugh. He’d tell me to shut the fuck up. He’d stand to leave. He’d ask if I was coming.
When I sat up, I saw it was actually Chambers shaking me awake. It was still dark out. He put a finger to his lips, motioned me to follow. We’d made it down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into the bathroom before I saw the huddle.
I pushed toward the front, toward Maria and Bailey. Bailey stood in his shorts, writing things down. Maria smoked in her nightgown.
The belt Miller used had already started to loosen. From the weight. He wasn’t exactly heavy, but he must not have thought to tighten it. We watched him sway from the pipe he’d hung himself on.
I asked Bailey if it wasn’t a good idea to send everyone back to bed. He just shrugged. Maria shook her head. Then she turned around, told everyone to call it an evening.
Of course I’d seen dead people and dying people and people that probably wished they were, although no one really wishes they are, not really. But this was something else. A brand new shiny thing. It sat in my throat like a fat cat or a nail. And I sat on the porch, staring out at the trees. Squinting.
It’d been something like hours when Graff came outside. He had his pack on, with boots and a jacket. He looked me up and down. Then he stepped over me.
Graff, I said, and I did not expect him to stop and turn around, but that’s what he did. I’m supposed to say you can’t leave, I said.
Is that really why you’ve been sitting out here all this time? said Graff. You’ve been fooling everyone.
Seriously, I said. We don’t need anyone else going out there and killing themselves.
If I’d wanted to do that, said Graff, I would’ve done it in my own room. On my bed. Left a mess for you and the bitch and her faggot to mop.
Then he dipped into the woods. And I sat. And I thought about where he was going.
So I followed him.
The forest was big. We walked for an hour. When Graff walked, he did it silently, gliding over branches and slivering down hills, branches that I broke and hills that I tripped over. I’d fall, and the silhouette before me would stop moving. It’d start again when I was back on my feet, shaking its head.
We walked and we walked and we walked into the ravine. There were rivers in the Bend, muddy rivers like finger paintings, but this one was blue.
Then we stopped walking. Graff dropped his pack. He took a knee in the mud by the water, pulling things out. A can and a lighter. He coated the bottom of the can with dirt, enough to make it sit up straight, before he finally turned and asked me to fucking help him.
It didn’t take long. When we were done, what we had was a muddy can.
He stuck a match in the can, and fire came out. Then he put the can with fire coming out of it into the water. We watched it not go anywhere, at first, until the current picked it up, and then all of a sudden it was sailing. It looked profound, larger than it was.
I asked if that was for Miller. Graff said no.
Then he said yes.
He was a fuck, said Graff. But a lot of people are.
He wasn’t a fuck, I said.
We watched the can stop and start down the river.
I asked if this is what he did when he came out here, and he shrugged.
It’s something the Vikings would do for their dead, he said. A variation of it.
I thought about that.
I asked if he’d done it for his daughter.
Sure, said Graff, after a while. But she got a bigger can.
It was really moving now, beyond the bend. We watched it dip into the tree line and over some rocks. We watched it sail away.
I asked if he had any more in his pack.
Did I mention that the sunrise in San Marcos is beautiful? It is. It sits like a bluebird on your nose. It stares you in the eyes, both of them. It dares you to sing with it.
I left the Fort a year later. Shook hands with Maria and Bailey, and they told me to come back when I could. But I won’t. I bummed a ride to Austin after that, with a guy whose mother had driven to pick him up. Moped and fucked and drank around the city for months.
Now I’ve got a place with this girl I’m not sleeping with. I work at this grocery store. Every other check goes to El Paso.
I am not entirely disappointed with my life.
One night I went out drinking, though. Alone. Hit all of the old bars, then a couple new ones. The second to last had a funky soundtrack, some new brand of screaming I hadn’t heard before. I asked the tender who it was, and Chambers told me.
Fuck, I said. It’s you.
I know, he said.
He told me how he’d left the Fort a little after I did. Figured it was time to move on, he said. A bartender with no legs! Shit’ll make anyone a drunk!
I asked him about Maria and I asked him about Bailey, then I asked him about Graff, and he just shook his head at me.
But you’re doing well, I said.
And he nodded. He was doing well.
Then I had a thought. I asked Chambers how he’d gotten to the bar.
And he grinned. This big fucking grin, like a musketeer or a baby. He told me he drove.