THE MARINE I KNEW
I'm running through the desert. I know it by the sound of my breath.
Caustic air scours my lungs as I settle into a panting cadence opposite the rhythm of the rifle bouncing against my chest. My flak jacket doesn't quite fit. The straps float an inch off my shoulders, bringing thirty pounds of armor plate down hard against my spine each time a bootheel strikes hard-packed dirt. The Kevlar around my neck traps sweat and grime that froths into an abrasive paste. I feel patches of skin behind my ears start to rub away.
The afternoon sun washes out my vision; other senses compensate. Desiccated shrubs strewn with garbage bags and empty plastic bottles crunch under my boots. Farther up my body, the gear clipped to my webbing clatters like a tinker's cart. The tourniquet I always keep in easy reach of my left hand taps against my uniform blouse. Thirty-round magazines rattle in ammunition pouches around my waist. Thirty-round capacity, but never loaded with more than twenty-eight, I know. Save the spring. Prevent jams.
It all moves with me in a way so familiar, so exact, that for a moment I think this could only be real.
My eyes adjust and I see the convoy in front of me. Four Humvees and two seven-ton trucks. I understand suddenly, and with queasy certainty, why I'm running. I need to warn them about the pressure switch, hidden in a crack in the road. It's a length of surgical tubing stitched through with copper wire. The driver won't see it. They don't have a chance.
The lead Humvee rolls over the crack. The front tire collapses the tubing. Wires touch. Voltage from a hidden battery reaches a length of detonation cord wrapped around artillery shells, buried with jugs of gasoline and soap chips.
I wave my arms, a heartbeat before the whole nasty serpent shrieks to life, and fill my lungs to cry out.
And then, like always, I wake up.
I kick the sheets from my small mattress and search across the dim corners of my studio apartment. Thin bands of morning sun seep through the window blinds. I'm still tired. I consider going back to sleep, but the nine empty beer bottles on the kitchenette counter promise me I'll only twist and groan, searching for a position that might ease my headache without putting additional pressure on my bladder. Better to get up and face it.
It's a trade-off, drinking to fall asleep. I used to come out ahead in the bargain, but lately I've hit a point of diminishing returns. Three or four won't do the job anymore. Worse, I've taken to rich, hoppy craft brews that I supposed would make me feel better about the whole sad routine. No committed drunk would waste money on topflight beer, right? I'm a young gentleman. A distinguished veteran entitled to some relaxation during this brief, graduate-school interlude, after which I'll emerge fully formed into the business world, armed with a new vocabulary by which to describe the more intense flavors of these nice, heavy ales. The hangovers are more intense, too. A price to pay for the sake of my self-respect, certainly. And with self-respect in mind, I decide to punish myself with a long run.
The air carries an unfamiliar chill. It's the first morning of true winter in New Orleans. Dew clings to the cool grass of the St. Charles neutral ground. I weave to avoid the green streetcars. The damage bleeds away, and pushing into a fourth mile, I feel good.
These morning runs once formed the cornerstone of a meticulous program meant to burn away that small, but persistent, gut of mine. The mark of weakness that made me stand out against the phalanx of impossibly lean lieutenants back in Quantico. I've abandoned that dream, and running is more enjoyable for it, a way to center my thoughts for the day ahead.
I think through my course assignments. Finance. Accounting. Marketing. Papers coming due at the end of the semester. Readings for class discussion and outlines to review for exams. I should find the time to call my mother and father, back home in Birmingham. And my sister in Mobile.
Wait. Do I have a social commitment tonight? Someone coming into town?
Zahn. Damn it. I told Zahn I would meet him out.
Zahn found my e-mail address a few months back. I'm not sure how. I've kept myself off the Internet as best I can, but out of nowhere he started sending me notes about coming to New Orleans for something. A wedding, I think. Rambling notes untouched by punctuation, all lowercase. Only a few years younger than me and it's like these kids speak a different language. I always thought they hated me, Zahn and the other corporals. I'm surprised he wants to see me.
I go home, shower, and spend the rest of my Saturday finishing term papers, idly thumbing through class notes while staring out my open window. The cold breeze feels good, and the idea of a beer resting on the windowsill grows to an urge.
I resist the temptation. A beer or two in the afternoon will only blunt the six I'll want before bed.
I've finished studying by the late afternoon. I imagined that business school would offer more of a challenge. Now I wish it weren't so easy. With more coursework, I might have a legitimate pretext for canceling on Zahn.
I spend a few hours crafting excuses. Evaluating the feasibility of various lies. But like an automaton, I pull into my boots at the appointed hour and dig through the pile of books next to my bed for something productive to read on the streetcar. My Advanced Finance text, heavy and intimidating, anchors a messy heap of notes and paperback case studies. Next to it, in a neatly organized stack, rests my ever-expanding sailboat research library.
John Vigor's Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere sits atop the pile, catching my attention first. A compendium of Albergs and Bristols, Pearsons and Catalinas, all readily available for salvage in the marinas of America. A legion of boatyard derelicts just waiting for rescue, left behind by the downturn, or in the case of New Orleans, the storm.
It wouldn't take much work to bring a derelict back to life, or so I've read. Start with a fiberglass keel, punctured and scarred. Fill the divots with fairing compound and apply fresh topside paint above the waterline. Sand and oil the teak brightwork. Polish the brass. Mend the lines and refloat the hull. Stock provisions and hang new sails.
A resurrected sailboat can take you anywhere, and quietly.
I reach for Vigor's book, though I know it almost by heart at this point. But before closing my grip on the glossy cover, I take a moment to consider the tattered paperback behind it. It's a novel. Wedged, almost hidden, against the baseboard trim. I shake it loose from the stack and inspect its yellowing pages, the scarring left behind by its missing cover. Grains of sand slide out from between the pages.
It's Dodge's copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, complete with his insane brand of marginalia, half in Arabic and half in English.
Leaving sailboats behind, I slide the ragged, coverless orphan into my back pocket. I chastise myself, knowing it's something of a ploy. I'm hoping Zahn will notice it there, rolled up and dog-eared, and mention Dodge. It would give me a chance to talk about him. Who knows? Maybe Zahn's heard from the guy.
I walk to St. Charles Avenue and, after waiting for the streetcar in the cold, arrive at the bar thirty minutes late. It's one of those drop-ceiling places. Uptown, near campus. Pool tables and nasty fluorescent lights. It's cold. I pull the jacket tighter around my shoulders and push, with my hands in my pockets, through the thick, plastic sheeting that serves as a door.
Zahn's voice hits me all at once, like a belt to the face. It's how I remember him. Barking orders into a pack of young men. But I don't see him. Just young guys in suits, all huddled around a touch-screen trivia game on the bar. A shaggy giant shoves his way through the pack, unhemmed pants making an untidy mound of fabric around his shoes.
His wide frame towers over them, and he shouts, "There! There! The bottom's a different color!"
With a sinking heart, I realize—it's Zahn.
He paws at the screen with the thick, limp digits of an all-day drunk, light beer sloshing from the plastic cup in his other hand.
I walk over and tap him on the shoulder. He spins around, takes a moment to place me, then smiles and wraps me in a bear hug. My head settles in the middle of his chest. Beer spills down my back.
"Sir," he slurs softly.
"No," I mumble into his shirt. "Not anymore." And I realize, suddenly, how happy I am to see him.
The rest of his suit fits worse than the pants, like he borrowed it from his dad. He's gained weight and grown a beard. The Zahn I knew kept his blond hair close-cropped against his scalp. Now it's so long and knotted, it's hard to tell where the hair ends and the beard begins.
He's not wearing his wedding ring, or the dog tags to which he once kept his wedding ring taped. I search for the Marine I knew, behind the bad suit and the swollen face. I can't find him.
Zahn introduces me to his friends. High school buddies who haven't seen him in years, apparently. They've all just come from a rehearsal dinner, but I get the sense that Zahn's the only drunk one.
"I'm buying you a beer, sir," he says. "Whatcha drinking? I'm drinking beer. Let me go get two. Stay put, all right? Don't go no place."
He lumbers down the bar and leaves me with them. Salesmen playing the part of young gentlemen. They take turns keeping me occupied. Square up, one at a time, and launch volleys of firm handshakes. Practiced eye contact learned from their fathers. Glowing praise for the potential customer.
"Hey. Really great to meet you."
"Walter's been talking about you. Talking up a storm, man. You two and the war, you know?"
"Hey, it's really great that you came out to see him."
They step away in twos and threes to convene hushed, impromptu meetings, as if these councils of war are out of earshot. Or that their one-on-one, fraternity-rush routine has me too distracted to listen in. They aren't, and I'm not.
I hear them discussing Zahn. What to do about him.
It's killing their buzz, this depressive oaf in their midst. This almost-forgotten interloper who's hijacked their night. All these guys in their midtwenties with their nice suits. Zahn snuck his way in, and they don't know him anymore. I see it clearly. Zahn does not.
It dawns on me why they're being so affable. Why they're in such a hurry to make a friend of me, asking questions about my life, questions about business school, questions about New Orleans. They act genuinely interested, but always bring the conversation back to Zahn, mentioning offhand "his problems," inching closer to the clinical with their language. Problems. Issues. Disorders.
They're manufacturing a bond, I see, for later in the night, when Zahn inevitably passes out or puts his hand through a window. One of his friends will take me aside and say, "Hey, man. You mind taking him home with you? We can't get him into the hotel like this."
I'm overcome by a wave of nausea and begin constructing an excuse to leave early and take Zahn, my old corporal, with me. Something that won't embarrass him. Something that makes sense. Anything to get him out of here.
Which is when a fight breaks out at the back of the bar.
A pint glass shatters against the cinder-block wall and a young voice shouts, "You wanna throw down, motherfucker?"
Immediately, I suspect Zahn, missing on his trip to the bar for over five minutes, has found trouble. I hustle over to the standoff with the rest. Five of them and five of us. But Zahn is nowhere to be seen.
I assess the situation. A Tulane undergraduate threw the pint glass, I gather, by way of response to a perceived slight from one of Zahn's meeker friends. The undergraduate has the collar popped on his ratty polo shirt and his baseball cap turned around. Brown hair falls loose from his hat, draping across his forehead just so.
He advances menacingly on Zahn's friend until the poor kid is backed up to the wall. Then he leans into the kid's face with arms extended, flexes glamour muscles big and useless from long hours at the Tulane gym, and smiles like he's been waiting all day for this.
I step closer, thinking maybe I can reason with the guy. Maybe he'll guess by my age and demeanor that I'm a graduate student. Maybe he's even seen me around campus. We're classmates, of a sort, and surely that's enough to sidestep a pointless bar fight. I put a hand on his shoulder, about to say something like "Hey, calm down, okay? We'll leave. No problem."
But before I can speak, he turns around and shoves me. Hard, with two hands firm to my upper chest. Happy for the escalation. He smiles, and I know he's going to have this.
So I set my back foot.
Then Zahn appears. Like a bowling ball striking a fresh set of pins, he pushes through the crowd and positions himself between me and Popped Collar.
Immediately sensing the situation has changed, Popped Collar moves to throw a punch. But Zahn steps inside and takes him by the wrist. Then, while Popped Collar tries to fix his feet, Zahn reaches around with his other hand and takes hold of his upper arm. With a quick pivot outside, Zahn locks Popped Collar's elbow and shoulder, bending him over at the waist. The poor bastard gasps. How embarrassing.
But that's just the opening salvo. Just a quick burst of pain to distract. With a palm firmly in the small of his target's back, Zahn applies the full weight of his frame as unnatural torque against the ligaments and connecting tissues of Popped Collar's shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints.
Popped Collar lets out a high-pitched groan, almost a whine, as new, more urgent pain shoots through his arm, this burst delivered without regard to gentlemen's rules. Zahn, controlling his target as he would a bicycle, walks Popped Collar into the corner and pins him there with a knee deep to the inner thigh.
"The difference between me and you," Zahn tells Popped Collar with a scary kind of calm, "is that I'm serious about killing you."
And I finally recognize him. The Marine I knew.
Popped Collar recognizes Zahn, too. A blood memory, a cold dread crawling up his spine, carries the realization that this is a predator.
I glance back at Zahn's friends, gamely keeping their poise. But they can't hide their constant, nearly imperceptible steps backward. They're terrified, and it makes me smile. It's Zahn who's the grown man now. And his friends? Children wearing their dads' suits.
I take note of my pulse. It's steady. Hardly elevated at all. Most people, Zahn's friends for instance, would call this a fight. But I would never think to call it that.
We're in the wilderness. The place without rules. I discovered it on the day when I knew for the first time, really understood, that a stranger was trying to kill me and nothing would change his mind. No words to save me. No police to call. And in the end, nothing between me and the dead man in the ditch but the will I had to put him there, to break his body into wet pieces without taking the time to wonder, what happened? Where'd that spark go? That soul? An animal doesn't think about that. It doesn't cross his mind.
Popped Collar makes a move to get free, like he might still have some fight left in him, some pride. But Zahn just tightens his grip and puts more weight in his knee. Popped Collar winces.
"Listen to me," Zahn says softly. "I'm gonna let you stand up, now. And you're gonna walk straight out that front door without looking back at me."
Zahn wants to say more, I can tell. He wants to explain to Popped Collar how easy it would be to crush his windpipe. Zahn wants to teach, dispassionately, the method. How to step inside your target's stance and gouge for his eyeballs. How, while your target is in a panic trying to save his eyes, he'll leave his throat open. How to sweep the legs out from under your target while keeping a firm grip on his arm. How, while your target is defenseless on the ground, you can send the edge of your bootheel into his exposed throat, just so.
But Zahn's not a corporal anymore, and the man he's pinned in the corner isn't a junior Marine in need of instruction. So, Zahn keeps it simple. "I'll watch you die and not feel a thing," he says. "Understand? Stuff like this? It's fun for you. To me? It's nothing at all."
Excerpted from Fives And Twenty Fives by Michael Pitre. Copyright 2014 Michael Pitre. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
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