By the time he had become a man, everyone Josh Andrews had ever loved or who had ever loved him had either died or had abandoned him. Everything that mattered and every place he had ever truly loved had been changed in that understated way time allows slow provision or had been unilaterally torn down, as if to eradicate itself from his collective present, only to exist in implausible, distant corridors of memory, one day too to be swept clean.
In much the way autumn leaves amend their color, at first almost indiscernibly, then radiantly, in brilliant passions of magenta, burnt umber and of crimson, so too did the scenes from his life fall from the tree, like so many discarded leaves; pallid shadows of their former selves.
His father had died ten years the previous April. He never got a chance to say goodbye. As he drove in the snow and the rain to his mother’s house, he was reminded of the old Native American belief that when there is snow and rain mixed, it meant that the soul of the dead has made it to Heaven.
One last final request of his old man came in the unexpected form of picking his father’s car up from the country club where he had succumbed to the heart attack. Josh drove up with a friend that same day and to pick up his father’s car from the parking lot and drove it back home one last time. The quirk of fate was not lost on him, as his father never let anyone drive that car.
“Oh, God.” He said as he opened the car door and stepped in and sat down as the snow and rain continued to descend. The smell of his father’s cologne was still fresh in the car, even many hours later. Josh fought of any emotion and turned on the radio to take his mind from the obvious. He let out a teary laugh. The radio was still tuned to the static AM stations he always kidded his old man about.
Images of his father came to him in curious manner. There was little else he could do as the banal countryside rolled by his window. Everything had changed and only one thing had changed, he knew. It was as complex as his relationship with his father. Their rapport was sometimes cold and distant, while other times, his father let his guard down. He looked up to his father and now he was gone. He had always thought of his father as a sort of god-like being and now he had become one.
The brother who had told him of his father’s death would only last eight more years, himself also becoming a shadow of memory. His brother was a gifted, if not tormented artist, the way all creative people are tormented in one sense or another. His anathema was the straight-laced patina of life, instead expressing himself in the colorful splotched pallet that was his life and the beauty of his landscapes and portraits. His brother had taught him to embrace absurdity in life, to challenge those who would try to control his life and that life was a gift, responsibility not to be taken too seriously and that seriousness to be laughed at and death to be taunted by living life to the fullest. It was always a tragedy that his brother could only maintain order and stability in the beauty of the worlds he created within his canvas and not outside the frame. He recalled one of the last portraits his brother had painted, a portrait of the artist in gray, black and white, the color gone from the life lived; unable to escape from the shadow he was about to become.
He thought about it now as he crouched in front of the doorway. He looked back over his shoulder and waved his men on. One by one they ran hunched over, carrying their heavy field packs over their shoulders. As soon as he counted every man, he signaled that he wanted two men to enter at a time, one team to go in front, another to the side, one to the roof and another around the back. Just two months ago, his unit was still at home, enjoying civilian life, only pulling occasional guard duty on the weekends. Then things heated up and his unit had been called, the price of being in the service during desperate times, he thought. Not more than a year ago, most of them were carrying backpacks, rather than field packs, cramming for mid-terms at the local Starbucks, he thought.
With weapons drawn, he and his men search the house, room to room, but found nothing. Intelligence had been a bust, as usual he griped. It’s true that there had been people here, possibly the very insurgents they had been looking for, but there was no one here now. Just a sea of overturned and splintered chairs and a ratty couch, he noted.
He and his men began to file out the front door. Just as he was about to step through the door frame, he heard Busch calling him.
“Sarge, in here!”
He signaled and doubled back. “Company about face.” He said wearily as he trudged in through the discarded and broken furniture. He hoped Busch was right this time. He had been routinely wrong in the past, so wrong in fact, he may make a fine non-com some day, he chuckled.
“Sarge.” Busch said with that newbie expression other soldiers discarded back in basic. “Whaddya think of this?” He said in his heavy Texas accent.
“It looks like a cigarette butt, Busch.” Andrews said and looked at him. “This place is littered with ‘em. Broken bottles, too.”
“Well, if you look, it’s still, uh, slightly smoldering.”
“C’mon, Busch. You know yourself that it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Sir, if I may, I think the insurgents are still here.”
“Busch, we’ve searched this place up and down. No one is here, trust me.”
“Busch, trust me. If someone was here, we would have found them, not a discarded cigarette. Nice try kid. Who ever was here is long gone now.”
“With all due respect, I still think…”
“Get a load of this guy…” Andrews said and turned to leave. A loud bang fell against the closet.”
“Nobody move.” Andrews said and held up a hand. “Did you guys hear that?” He asked. All of the men shook their heads in unison.
There was an almost imperceptible footstep, followed by an even lesser: “Shhh.”, then the wail of an infant. Andrews signaled his men to investigate. Upon closer scrutiny, it was obvious a false wall had been put up, rather crudely, but from a distance the construction was almost perfect. Whoever put the piece together was a skilled craftsman, only the materials had been lacking to complete the artifice.
As the men tore open the false front, Andrews ordered those inside to come out. Initially, it was a stand-off. Andrews stared into the darkness, seeing the lost and frightened eyes of those looking back. He repeated his order for them to come out.
He peered into the room. It was filthy and reeked of less than sanitary conditions. He had no idea how people could live in such a way. He did not agree with this whole stinking war, the antithesis of democracy, of it being enforced on a people, but he had a job to do, regardless.
“Pat them down; search them for weapons of mass destruction.” He joked to his soldiers. “Any contraband, anything they should not have, large amounts of money, drugs, hell, Bin Laden himself, well, fellas, you know the drill.”
“Do we get to keep anything this time?”
Anderson smiled but said nothing while his men grilled the scared and frightened guests as intelligence called them. There were a couple of old women, a middle-aged woman, two men, one infant, a teenaged girl and a man with a broken arm.
His men went through the usual routine, trying out various words and phrases to communicate with the detainees. Even this provided the usual confusion, as language was a body politik, as it were, spoken by all, but understood individually. The men finally resorted to the most American of language skills: raising their frustrated voices and asking: “You speak English?”
Andrews looked over the frightened group and knew these were no insurgents, just probably some poor, terrified family who got caught up in a situation they didn’t fully comprehend, not unlike Andrews and his company. Few of the men in his outfit could pronounce the endless streams of towns, let along grasp the true nature of the political situation that brought them here. It went deeper than politics, terrorism and personal beliefs. What they were doing here was based on an ancient tradition: hatred.
The search turned up the usual items, some money, a few trinkets of jewelry and other family heirlooms sown into clothing, maybe a talisman or two, but there was little else. These people were clearly terrified, not terrorists.
Andrews had his medic check out the man with the broken arm. The cast had been set awkwardly and the man seemed to be in some slight discomfort. The medic took advantage of one of the many scattered planks of wood and began to reset the old man’s arm.
Andrews noticed sweat bead on the man’s forehead and how he grew increasingly agitated as the medic undid his poorly designed cast. A few of the detainees gestured and one of them tried to stop the medic, but was immediately repelled by the soldiers. It was odd behavior; thought Andrews as did many of his unit and it soon became apparent as to why. As the medic unwrapped the stiff gauze, a small caliber pistol hit the dirt. All hell broke loose as a contained situation became a classic snafu.
Andrews knew he had lost control as soon as those who were once contained ran free into the desert and his men after them. “Hold your fire!” Andrews barked and could see Busch take aim at the man with the broken arm and shoot him as they both ran out back.
“Damn it! I said hold your fire! Hold your fire!”
His command was of little consequence. Those who had not been shot dead had made it out into the desert. It didn’t matter, Andrews reasoned, as he knew either a squad would find them or the buzzards would later. Ill humor aside, he radioed ahead and let HQ know about the escapees. He wanted no more bloodshed. Neither did command. It looked bad in the press, Congress had been impatient with the direction of the campaign and it meant more paperwork for Andrews, personally. He tried to remain calm and assessed everything that had just occurred. Only the elderly and the women and the infant remained.
“Let’s regroup at the billet, ladies.” He radioed his men. “I want a full report when we get back.”
His new group consisted if an old man, an old woman, presumably his spouse, a woman in her forties who was being held by a woman slightly younger, a girl of about sixteen who held a child in her arms. All of them stared angrily at Andrews with dark, accusatory eyes, except for the woman in her forties who wept uncontrollably as the slightly younger woman embraced her.
Although not personally responsible, it was his leadership that allowed the situation to escalate into the unthinkable. Certainly, there would be charges and a military tribunal, of sorts. He knew Busch was screwed and would most likely be court-martialed if he didn’t get himself killed out here first, Andrews smirked. As he looked over at Busch, the recruits were glad-handing him, asking him to tell the story again and again. He knew Busch saw himself as some sort of hero in all of this; the great terrorist-fighter. Andrews knew his kind before, a man with a gun, a coward without one.
“Round everyone up, ladies. We’re heading back to Gitmo.” He said in an aside to Cuba’s notorious Guantanamo Bay Base where some of the suspected 9/11 terrorists were held.
“Take them outside.” He growled.
“Sir?” A recruit asked.
“Outside! I need time to think.”
He took off his helmet and rubbed a grubby hand through his sweaty hair. Had he thought about it at the time, he would have taken that small caliber pistol from the dead man’s hand and shot the proud bastard Busch himself. A genuine smile came across his face for the first time in a long time. It was like something Patton would have done, he thought.
“Sarge?” A voice broke the silence. Speak of the devil, thought Andrews. “Yes, Busch, what is it now?”
“One of the prisoners here to see you.”
“Busch, they are not prisoners. How many times do I need to remind you of that? Until I buck you down to Private again?”
Busch remained quiet.
Andrews enjoyed his quizzical stare, knowing full well if given the chance, Busch would put one right between his eyes and assume full command. Andrews knew that Busch had no idea of the trouble he had gotten himself into, nor the impending court-martial or probable time for murder he faced.
Andrews knew he himself probably faced some disciplinary action, the most stringent of punishment was a dishonorable discharge, which was extra fine by him, he did not want to be here a second longer. In his mind, his tour was already over a long time ago. He had joined the Guard for college, not this.
Andrews looked up as he heard Busch’s fumbling footsteps walk out of the room. “Sarge, here is the prisoner, um, I mean the captive, sir.”
He shook his head. A worthless soldier like Busch would have never made it through real basic training, just the abbreviated basic that was warranted by a war on terrorism, a war that could never be won globally, but only mitigated to be kept out of the States, not the aggressive manner that won wars.
Busch walked in with a slight figure. He prodded the shadow with his gun. This angered Andrews until he could feel his blood boil.
“Busch, you’re some hero, mission accomplished. Stand down, you gutless wonder.” He growled at his subordinate as he looked at the guest. It was the young girl.
“Oh, knock it off, Busch. Knock off the phony heroics for once, ok?” He spat bitterly. “You’re no more of a hero than any soldier here.”
“Her name is-”
“Busch, I don’t care to know her name.”
The girl yanked her arm from Busch’s hand and gave him a defiant scowl.
“You speak English?”
“Of course, I can.” She snarled. “I’m not stupid.”
“I didn’t say you were. What can I do for you?”
“I wish to talk without him.” She said and pointed at Busch.
Busch looked at her, alarmed. “I think we should both be here in case, you know…”
“In case of what?” Andrews griped.
“In case she’s carrying, sir.”
“Did you search her, Private Busch?”
“I found nothing, sir.”
“Then get the fuck out.”
“But she was outside, sir.”
“Busch…” He sighed. “I know you want to take command of this regiment, if it was up to me, I would gladly let you have this bunch, but it’s not up to me and besides, I wouldn’t do that to my guys.”
“With all due respect, Sarge.”
“Yes, what is it?” He groaned, his patience wearing thin. “Spit it out, already.”
“The prisoner, I’m sorry sir, the guest, sir. If the guest is carrying any concealed weapons she might have confiscated from the ground, it would not be prudent to be in the room alone.”
“We’ll settle this once and for all.”
“Are you carrying any concealed weapons on you?”
The girl looked at him in a confused manner but shook her head she had none.
“She’s lying.” Busch interjected. “They’re all liars, these people. Born liars, if you ask me.”
“What makes you so sure?” Andrews looked at him. “Did you see her bring anything?”
“No sir, but that doesn’t mean…”
“Busch, Busch…” He chided him. “I’m gonna have to stop you right there.” If this girl, how old are you?”
The girl looked at him with a blank stare.
Andrews asked her again in her own language.
“Right.” He said and turned to Busch. “If this eighteen year-old attacks me with sage brush, I promise, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Out, Busch!” He roared as the Private slammed the door behind him.
“Please sit.” Andrews sighed and gestured to a small stool. The girl shook her head and defiantly remained standing. “Okay, what can I do for you?”
“You let go my family.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Please, you have power to do.” She pleaded. “You shoot my uncle.” She said as she wiped at a tear with the back of her hand. “You not welcome here. Please let go my family.”
Andrews stared at her. “I’m doing the right thing. I’m following orders. I know you’re too young to see it just now.”
“I love always America. Hollywood most. I dream of going to Hollywood, be big star. No more. I hate America now. Yankee dog go home.”
“I agree with you that we don’t belong here. You should be in school, not here being held against your will.” He tried to smile, but his exhaustion only allowed his mouth a quick twitch of a grin. “I agree. Send me home.”
She sat on a makeshift chair and confronted him. “Officer. Are you religious man? God watching you. God watching all us. You kill my family, arrest my people. My peoples say Americans devils. You think I’m devil?”
He looked her, ruminating on what she was trying to convey. “No.”
“Let go my family.”
“I cannot do that. I’m sorry.”
“We fuck, you let go?” She propositioned him. “You fuck, family go?” The girl repeated as the bare light shadowed her weary, young face. The dappled light was also playing tricks, masking her youth, making it a shadowy pretense as to her actual age.
There were rules against fraternizing, he knew. He was a soldier above anything, but a male, first and foremost. His fevered mind ran amok. It had been so long since he had been with a woman and the more he looked at the girl, the more she became less ordinary and more exotic.
She somehow managed a slight smile and raised her eyebrows, waiting for his response as she stood and began to nervously run her hands along her hips and touch at her belly. “Me fuck, family go?” She bartered.
He remained silent, watching her, his eyes darting to the door. She reminded him of the newbie strippers off base, the way she trembled. Shit, she was making him hard.
She tugged at her jeans and pulled up her shirt. He could bang her and no one would be the wiser, he thought. The girl was now putting on quite a show, singing a border corrido, running her hands up and down her body, giving him the practiced looks she probably had learned from watching all of those Hollywood movies and smiling nervously. A single tear ran down her quivering face.
“Stop.” He said and stood. It was all wrong.
“Get your pants back up. Get dressed and get out.” He said, not believing his own ears.
“You like, no?”
“Yes, that’s the problem.” He said without answering her. “This is all wrong. I’m here to protect my country, not take advantage of a young girl. We shouldn’t be here.”
“My family go?” She asked in a worried tone.
“Yes.” He acquiesced.
The girl’s face brightened up and she ran over to kiss him and hug him. It was more sisterly than anything erotic, he said to himself.
“You okay, GI.”
The door flew open and Busch barged in with a surprised look. “Oh, I’m sorry, Sarge.”
“Busch, what the hell?”
“I uh, didn’t mean to interrupt you two.” He smiled. It was obvious by his expression he had expected to catch the two of them in the act. Instead, he caught them in a slight embrace.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Busch.” He said as the girl released her embrace and shot the Private a dirty look.
“Oh, sir, I, uh, wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“I’ll take the insurgent, uh, I meant guest.”
“That won’t be necessary. We’re letting these people go.”
“That’s an order, Private.” He growled. “We will load them up in the Humvee and we’ll accompany the family back over to their side and out of the quadrant.” He said sternly as he walked outside. “We’ve done enough damage here.”
“With all due respect, sir.” Busch sneered in his most controlled, sarcastic tone. “But these people are the enemy. Each one of them are potential terrorists.”
“Private Busch…” Andrews sighed. “I am getting really tired of your whiny, little voice second-guessing me on my direction when you know nothing of war. But your arrogance in the face of my orders tells me that when we get back I should put you up for a promotion.”
“Sir?” Busch smiled kiss-assedly.
“Yes, Busch, the desert does strange things to a man.” Andrews shook his sweaty head and put his helmet back on. “I meant remind me to put you up for a court-martial.” He snarled and walked ahead. “Everybody out, get this family on the truck! Get that casualty in a body bag in the second vehicle.”
“Fine.” Busch whined. “You do that and I’ll say you raped that young girl. She’s young, probably fifteen. You know what they do to guys who sleep with underage girls, Sarge?”
That was enough. Andrews bashed Busch in the face, sending him reeling to the sand.
“You broke my nose!” He cried as blood streamed between his fingers as he held his face.
“She’s eighteen, you son of a bitch.” He snarled. “And besides, I didn’t do so much as touch her. If you want to file a report, a medical check-up at the crossing will clear that up. Don’t you ever try to one-up me. Lieutenant Williams! I want you to place this piece of shit in custody.”
“Yes, sir!” The man doubled-back and sprang into action, prompting two other privates to assist.
“For what?” Busch cried.
“Insubordination, failure to follow a direct order not to fire your weapon, failure to carry out orders…” Andrews rattled the charges off. “And lastly, murder of an innocent, unarmed civilian by shooting him on the back. “Lieutenant, relieve this man of any and all weapons.” He said as the color washed from Busch’s face. “Well, you wanted to find the terrorist out here and you did. It’s you, Busch, you son of a bitch.” He spat. “Now, get this sorry-ass solider out of my sight!”
“Oh, one last thing.” Andrews called out. “Being this occurred between the zones, I am going to do you the favor, as you wanted to do for me, back there. I will let you forgo the embarrassment of a military trial where good, loyal Americans would have to waste their hard-earned taxes. Instead, we’ll hand you over to their authorities in the morning. You know what they do in prison to people who kill their nationals, don’t you?” Andrews smiled in a wicked payback as he boarded the Humvee. “Let’s get a move-on, ladies. There will be a lot of paperwork on this one and a full report.” He sighed. “All in triplicate. Shit.” The vehicles started to move. “Let’s get these people back over the border and return these people to Mexico. I want to be back at base in Texas by 0-600.”
(C)opyright 2008 Joseph Grant All Rights ReservedSend us your comments on this article