We are dragging it by hand now. The engine gave out days ago in a ravine two kilometers south of the parallel. We managed to haul the weapon out of the deep, fecal muck with two stolen mules, which were of no use to us once we ran out of the dried ice cream, which was the only thing that would get them moving. We killed the mules and ate them, and now we are dragging the Sound Gun by hand, using the last of the rope and medical gauze. No one is happy about this, not even Shaving Gel, who we call Shaving Gel because he always smells like shaving gel, although we should call him Bulk or Keg or Mountain because he is big. I speculated that he, out of any of them, would champion the cause, shouldering the weapon from behind, barking fiercely at the enlisted men. Instead, he just looked at me evenly from the other side of the campfire as I debriefed the group, chewing deliberately at his mule.
Nobody knows what we are doing here. We are not entirely sure that the war is still happening. Since the mules ate the communications array we have had only the color of the sky to guide us. Evenings, it will burst suddenly, shedding a thin purple halo of dense mist. These rings, we believe, must be the fragrant shards of battles occurring elsewhere in secret. So we continue to plow through the jungle, convinced that, any day now, a dark, backlit man in a business suit will descend from the sky in a clear pod and usher us home.
It was fun to drive around in the Sound Gun until it stopped working. Now the people who are fighting with us, and who we are pretty sure are still the enemy, are much more dangerous and harder to kill. They come rushing up at us in the night, tossing sticks and VCRs.
The enlisted men go on about the size of the Sound Gun. Everything else is smaller than in other wars, but the Sound Gun is unimaginably bigger. “Bigger than what,” I ask Danson in a fit, having overheard this complaint for the last time.
“It’s just bigger than it should be, Sir,” says Danson, a slight, wall-eyed Presbyterian who carries his mother’s dialysis machine with him at all times in a bowling ball bag, just in case. “It should be, like, calculator size. The size of a hand-held—help me someone—think of something hand-held.”
“A gun,” says Memorex.
“Yes, exactly. All we ask is that the Sound Gun be the actual size of a gun? Instead of, like, a whole building?”
“Write it down in your Wish Journal, Private,” I tell him. Everyone has a Wish Journal. When we’re sad or upset or feeling violent we write in the Wish Journal. “I wish I could wrap my feelings in burlap and throw them into the ocean,” we might write, or “I wish my feelings up to the top of a scary skyscraper that I will never go up because I don’t like heights.”
The Sound Gun has four settings. The first one is Make Scared. Make Scared makes a big loud noise that makes people scared. It is louder and scarier than the noise a bomb makes as it explodes, because the people we’re fighting have not been scared by that sound for three wars. The sound that Make Scared makes is like a herd of elk tumbling into a cauldron of hot, resonant dung, or, at night, the frail puff of air conjured up by a dying child. Make Scared worked for a while, but then the enemy started putting soaked wheat pods in their ears, so we had to move on to Hurt.
Hurt feels like getting hit hard by a rubber blanket. Not that I’d know. This is what the instructions tell us: “Stay out of the path of the Sound Gun when using Hurt mode; otherwise, you may be struck by the slug with the force of a large rubber blanket.” Hurt worked for a longer time than Make Scared, because no one liked having these rubber blankets constantly hurled at them. But the enemy developed a flared aluminum instrument, worn on the hips, which sprayed a hard yellow foam, so that they could build tall, ad hoc baffles while advancing on us, which meant that we had to switch to Very Hurt.
All of the officers have been given a captured enemy soldier as a pet. I’m sickened by this practice, but own one myself, and have to admit having grown considerably dependent on the little man. In an attempt to ward off some of the more undesirable aspects of the relationship, I’ve named him Constantine. It’s a dignified name, I think—much more dignified than ‘Bastard Face,’ ‘Shovel,’ or ‘Milk of Magnesia,’ names that have been bestowed upon others in our midst. He has not, as of yet, become comfortable with it. He plays the role of slave a bit too heavily as well, leaning into his servitude with an enthusiasm that mars my ability to sympathize with his plight. I want him to be belligerent, or distant—anything but eager. Each morning by the time I wake up he’s already gone off looking for kindling, or turning the spit on which a tube of meat product sizzles over a roaring fire. It is the worst, most diabolical revenge.
Very Hurt mode kept the enemy at bay for a good while. During that time, though, we heard from Headquarters less and less. We started getting stark, austere communiqués like “Swell forest,” “Stab the fabric cone,” and “Fork,” dense, barely pronounceable phrases, rich with untenable code, indicating a new plateau of military strategy no one in our ranks could unpack. Our objective here, once clear and urgent, had faded into obscurity. We’d been outmoded. This made us angry, and tired. No one wanted to deal with all of the Very Hurt soldiers lying around, as they had to be dragged out of the path of the Sound Gun before we could move it. With no one to instruct us otherwise, we cranked up the Gun from Very Hurt to Make Dead. Make Dead ruptures the enemy’s bowels as the blast hurls them twenty feet or more into the air. In Make Dead mode the frequency is so low you can no longer hear the Gun as it fires—only the sound the enemy soldiers make as they sail through the air, limbs flapping like dense cloth.
I do not miss home, but not for the usual reasons. I like home, generally, but I do not like home in the way that it was left, which was with a large wild bobcat living in it. I came home one night and found Gruver on all fours, peering under the couch, where the bobcat was hiding. As the bobcat was a very large animal, this was not the best place to hide. The couch was balanced on the bobcat’s back, seesawing back and forth while Gruver offered up warm, encouraging aphorisms.
“I do not want to hear it,” he said when I asked what was under the couch. I did not then know that what was under the couch was, in actuality, a bobcat. A bobcat, at that time, was one of the very last things I was thinking of.
“I found this beautiful animal in the garbage can, and it is now mine,” Gruver called out from the floor.
“Clearly,” I said.
“I will not hear any arguments against my case.”
I saw that Gruver’s left arm was dressed with a shredded, bloodied Van Halen t-shirt. “It’s nothing,” he said preemptively, cupping the bandaged elbow with his free hand.
I went upstairs and ate a starburst on the bed.
“Why don’t you come down here,” Gruver shouted from the bottom of the stairs. “Why don’t you come down and put your hand on this animal’s flanks. Feel the strength just laying there, dormant.”
“It’s sulking,” I called out. “It is bringing down the whole house with that attitude.”
“He’s been abandoned. I believe that this animal has got a definite right to sulk?”
I had been with Gruver for years. Suddenly, it did not seem like such a good idea.
“Constantine,” I call out from my tent. He sits cross-legged by the fire, facing away from me, worrying the coals with a slender branch. His shadow flickers wildly on the green nylon wall of the tent, the shape of his body crassly drawing attention to itself, showboating there behind him on the makeshift scrim, taunting me with the suggestion that, given half the chance, it might swallow me whole, enveloping the tent itself, the camp, everything we have brought along. “Constantine, bring me my flask.” He does not move. He wants me to call him by his given name, which is Idrissa. He sits and waits.
On my way to the latrine I see Memorex sitting on a felled tree, writing in his Wish Journal.
“Well, hard at work, I see,” I say, trying to amount to something in his mind.
“I’m just writing,” he says.
I kneel at his side, laying a hand on his thigh, giving it a brief, reassuring squeeze. “Sometimes the hurt goes away when we talk, too.”
Memorex rests his pen in the spine. “I wish we weren’t killing people.”
The phrase ‘killing people’ jars me—in my mind it isn’t so much killing people that we are engaged in as pushing them out of the way, except that they stay there, wherever they topple, forever. “Well, Memorex, you know that’s not a Wish Journal wish. That’s not a feeling. You can’t, you know, put that anywhere.”
“I feel something about it though. To see all those people go flying up in the air, all, like, ruptured? I feel something when that happens. It’s like, really a feeling, like getting hit in the face with a basketball again and again—”
“Like the time at base camp—”
“Yes. Just like. What is that feeling?”
“I don’t know, Memorex. But it doesn’t sound like the kind of feeling that winners feel. Is it? Is that the way you think people who win feel? Do you think that General Custer, as he stood atop the mound of enemy corpses, felt the way that you’re feeling?”
He rubs the side of his face where he got the wicked-huge spider bites, from which dried scabs pill and drift. “No, that’s definitely not what winners feel.”
“Well, you’ve answered your own question then Memorex.”
“Yes. The answer is, don’t feel feelings that aren’t winning feelings. Make sense?”
Memorex nods and continues his journal entry. I run to the latrine, filling to the brim nearly five mason jars.
The enemy is getting smarter. They start digging big holes, which they cover up with leafy tree branches. They dig the holes so well and disguise them so carefully that, eventually, we fall in one, followed closely by the Sound Gun, which lands on top of Danson and his slave. All we can see of them are their legs, sticking out from the treads like beefy shards of driftwood. Constantine rushes over to help Danson’s slave, who used to be his wife, but the upper half of her has been squashed. He pulls on one of the legs for awhile, whimpering, desperately imploring us to join in. We all look down or away, or up at the mouth of the hole, anything to avoid his plaintive stare.
If dragging the Sound Gun out of the ravine with four sturdy, if belligerent, mules was difficult, dragging it out of a surprisingly deep, narrow hole with no mules is all but impossible, but in the afternoon Memorex gets the idea that we could blast a path out of the ground. We have never tried shooting at the ground before, but given what usually happens when we shoot the Sound Gun, what with the leveling of trees and barricades, the hoisting aloft of the enemy soldiers, the hurling of the bodies, high and far, and so forth, moving earth seems eminently feasible. We all grab our percussion suits and take off into the brush while Conservarte warms up the generator.
“Okay,” he calls out when everyone is far enough away, “Christ if I’m not going to do this.” He grunts for awhile, fiercely turning switches.
We pull the ripcords on the inflatable suits, biting down on the hard plastic mouthpieces. Air rushes into the stiff fabric, puffing us up like ripe berries. There is a moment of deep, pungent silence, and a faint crackling sound. Then a fierce shockwave knocks us back on our asses. Snakes and other creatures start falling out of the trees. One falls on my face and I jump up, flailing wildly. We are safe because we are in the percussion suits. But still.
Momentarily, the earth settles. The creatures of the forest, those that survived, have been shocked into silence. By the tree line an enormous brown creature lays on its side, twitching. We deflate our suits and make our way back to the hole. Conservarte is peering out over the wide, dual barrel of the Sound Gun. The hole is measurably bigger. We walk its perimeter to make sure.
“Did you put it up all the way,” I ask, but, forgetting to remove my mouthpiece, what it sounds like is “Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh?”
“She’s cranked, sir.”
“Let’s give it another shot.”
It is dark out. The hole is bigger, I tell them. Look. They only look down into their plates of gruel, willing it into anything but the dense, gray assemblage steaming away before them. We can hear the enemy cackling in the distance. I climb into the cockpit and fire off a round into the trees, snapping the trunks in half. The cackling stops.
After dinner, gathered as we are around a pathetic campfire made from Danson’s boots, Memorex carefully draws a small photograph from his breast pocket, cupping it gently in his palm. Shaving Gel and Orange Face sheepishly follow suit. It is against the rules for the men to carry photographs, but who am I to enforce rules? After ordering Conservarte to crank the settings of the Sound Gun from Very Hurt to Make Dead, a configuration that hadn’t ever really been tested, let alone approved? After taking the men deeper and deeper into the unmapped wilderness, following a set of military objectives I’d constructed by vague speculation? Who am I to snatch the photographs the men have carried around with them at great risk, images of their dumb, savage loved ones, and toss them into the dwindling campfire?
I snatch the photographs the men have carried around with them at great risk and toss them into the dwindling campfire.
Gruver whispered something from across the room. It was my last night in New Jersey, one that I had willfully hacked away at on the boardwalk, stuffing myself with sticky buns while standing in line for brightly lit amusement rides which, if successful, would bring the dense, heavy pastry back up. I shouted and growled at anyone who dared occupy the vacant passenger seat of my bumper car—I arched my back like a banshee, if that is indeed what banshees do, and hissed at them, spraying their faces with murky brown mist. I wanted to ward off all human contact, to create the narrowest possible aperture in the world through which to jettison myself, one that would admit, in addition to myself, only the smallest possible form of life, whatever cheap amoebic configuration had started all this nonsense in the first place.
Things had not been going so well between the bobcat and I, so for the last week or so I’d been sleeping in the closet, curled like a fetal chick in the corner. The two of them slept in the big yellow bed, the cat’s disturbing, furry head nestled in the crook of Gruver’s arm. Every night I watched them through the crack in the closet door until I fell unconscious, lulled to sleep by the animal’s heavy breath. On the last night, though, I left the closet door open. Should the cat climb on my back and bounce, repeatedly, as if I were an unsteady outcropping of rock, then so be it. There were more undignified ways to go out than to be crushed by a wild animal.
The cat, though, did not climb on my back. Instead, I woke in a dyspeptic haze to Gruver’s thick, malleable face staring at me from across the room, suspended, it seemed, from the doorframe. He whispered something, this head floating at the entrance to what had been our room. I could not hear him, though; what came out of his mouth sounded like ‘Gretl balls.’
“Come again?” I said, shooting up from the tangled sheets piled up on the closet floor, but it sounded more like a plea than a question, and before it had fully formed he was already gone—the soft head withdrawn into the hallway and out the door.
The Sound Gun was made so that we could fight friendlier wars. The Wish Journals are so that we can fight with clean consciences. The no-pictures rule is so that we forget what we’re missing. The slaves we have made up. Also the deaths. And our reason for being here. That part was made up when the mules ate part of the communications array.
Eating the mules, we made up.
We have started digging a path with shovels fashioned from hollowed out tree trunks. At the rate we’re currently proceeding, we’ll be finished by Saturday. The Sound Gun may not be working, though. It’s settled into the hole at an angle, engine and auxiliary generators submerged in a dark, clammy pool of mud. Whenever we turn the key it only shudders, briefly, offering up a thin plume of green smoke, then dies, leaving a dense, oppressive silence in its wake. Conservarte is inside the cockpit, working with an oversized wrench in an attempt to breathe some life into the machine.
“God, I’m starting to think of my house,” Memorex blurts out suddenly, collapsing to his knees. “I’m thinking of my house with everything inside of it. I’m thinking of a piece of floor inside my house that has junk all over it and if someone cleans up the junk without me there I won’t ever be able to find it again and put it together because it’s not really junk it’s my diabetes kit—”
“Hey, hey” I call over to him, “no need to panic, there. Let’s all take out our Wish Journals, men, and start writing away Memorex’s bad feelings. Get out your Wish Journals—”
“No,” says Memorex, “no, I want to feel this way. I want to. Don’t anybody put my feelings in a canvas bag.” The rest of the men look up from their freshly opened journals, pens carefully poised over the ruled sheets. Memorex slides down the mud ramp on his knees, coming to rest underneath one of the enormous armored treads of the Sound Gun, where he slumps like an old, head-beaten pillow.
“Memorex,” I say, crawling backwards down the steep trail that he has just plowed with his body, a feat requiring significant flailing of the arms and upper body gyration. “What’s this bit of silliness? Come now, your house is not important anymore. Your car, your tile sample collection, your whole life just pales in comparison to what you’re doing here. We’re fighting a war here, Memorex.”
“War? This is a war?”
“Yes Memorex, of course. Christ.”
“What is the war about?” He asks from under the tread. All we can see are his legs. Constantine turns away. “I can’t remember what the war is about so maybe you can just, like, tell me?”
“Memorex. It’s not really our place to ask, is it? I mean, you wanted to disappear, correct? You wanted never to have happened, am I right? That is the reason you and the rest of us are here, correct? We are men in retreat, all of us. We are hiding from the rest of our lives. The terms have always been fairly well defined. Otherwise, they never would have signed you up. Now come on, Memorex, let’s crawl our way out of the mud, shall we?”
The legs don’t move. “I’m going to lie here until I get crushed.”
Constantine turns back toward Memorex’s legs, bending at the waist in prayer.
“What’s that he’s saying,” I ask Shaving Gel, who points the translation gun at Constantine’s head.
“Says he’s not leaving either. He wants to die, too, so that he can be with his wife.”
Memorex starts chanting along phonetically with Constantine from under the tread. Constantine crawls in next to Memorex, so all that we can see are their legs.
We are there for a long time, watching the two of them shudder and yelp like Pentecostals under the muddied tread of the Sound Gun. It is not clear what we should do at this point. There is no dossier, vacuum packed in silver foil, the metal ripcord of which could be peeled back to reveal a set of clear, legible instructions.
“Sir,” Shaving Gel asks, saluting half-heartedly as he approaches.
“Yes, Shaving Gel.”
“With all due permission Sir, can we break from this, like, vigil-type thing?”
“Sir, how come?”
“Because these two are being ridiculous, and we must show them that we, too, can be ridiculous. We must suffocate them with our will.”
“Oh,” Shaving Gel says, looking down at his feet. “Can I at least have a sandwich?”
I imagine the look I give Shaving Gel to be wild with disbelief. “Where did you get a sandwich from?”
“Well, Sir, it’s a dirt sandwich.”
“A dirt sandwich.”
I take a survey of the other men. They are all watching, shovels pitched defiantly into the mud. Their eyes are black and distant, the opposite of stars. “Shaving Gel,” I say, grasping his shoulder paternally, “by all means, go have yourself a dirt sandwich.” He lopes off happily into the brush, disappearing behind a spray of dense, wiry vines. The rest of the men do not move.
In the morning I am the only one left. Shaving Gel has not returned. I can see by the muddy prints left on the crispy shale that the Numismatist has scaled the high cliff wall to the east sometime during the night, last of the mule meat and Fla-vor-ices strapped to his back. Orange Face has left a small shrine fashioned from twigs and diaphanous gauze, the significance of which is not entirely lost on me. Half Brick and his two slaves are simply gone without a trace—they have taken even the fruit boots and the ceremonial hood.
I should not say that I am the only one left, as Memorex and Constantine remain under the Sound Gun, keening like abandoned kittens. As far as anyone that matters is concerned, however, I am the only one left, where ‘anyone that matters’ equals the part of me that does not go off like the others, abandoning the Sound Gun and the mission. Missions are important, I say to myself. They are important, and they are to be carried out. Every bit as important as a person.
I am resting on the gnarled trunk of a felled tree, and it has just occurred to me how comfortable an object it is, how well it accepts my loud, intrusive ass, utterly without condescension, without the attendant grief brought on by contemporary furniture, and how quiet a thing the world is without all these crude, puffy bodies flailing away at it. I long for a cigarette, and for the first time since I have been here, I long, also, for Gruver, towering over me like Reagan at Bitburg, the poor man’s Jack Nicholson, shaking me from my sleep for an early walk. I long for his fierce, stubbled head, his long, recriminatory stares and the way that he would grasp my jaw when we coupled, his filthy fingers in my mouth, clamping my tongue flat, as though he could, by holding down my face, perform a hostile take-over of the turgid, burdensome life I’d absently flung at him, neutralizing, at last, the dull tyranny of language.
Let them pray, is what I am thinking here at the bottom of the enemy hole. Let them pray for atonement, and may the purest heart rise up, out of this flat, irreparable land and back to the first place that seemed a good idea to stay away from.