Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Christenson, Peter: Journal Entry #12, recorded on January 19, 2015.
The problem is, everything is tied together, all of it. Langford dead, Lopez in pieces, and Miller a walking corpse, except no one knew it then. All because of the fight my dad had with my mom, the one where he slapped her, maybe just once, but probably more than that. Most likely, it was the fight where he broke her wrist, the one that landed her in the hospital. Then the old lady who came to get me and my brother acted all nice, but really didn’t give a shit about anything other than the paycheck she got from taking us in.
I know this isn’t Millie’s problem. In marrying me she didn’t know the shit she was taking on. I was old enough then, when I was still a kid, to know it was a shit situation, it wasn’t what the kids on the black and white television talked about when they said childhood was the happiest time in their lives. My little brother though, he hid in the closet when she, that old lady, whipped my back with the belt she kept for only that purpose. It was a man’s belt and there wasn’t a man around, or rather there wasn’t only one man around. No one stayed long enough to leave a belt, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t stay that long, not if you could help it.
So, yeah, my little brother is still fucked up because he stayed to see the whole thing implode. Well, he didn’t so much stay as get left behind. By our dad, then by our mom who said we would end up just like him. We looked just like him and I think that was our greatest fault, because let’s face it, we were kids, how the fuck were we anything like our old man? Then I left my little brother - had to get out, couldn’t wait around to see if the next time the belt flew it would find new skin to tear, break open, call out for some fault I still can’t figure.
I ran to the only family I knew had to take me, couldn’t turn me down. Not a scrapper like me, with no home, no ties, ready to fight, ready to listen to anything that wasn’t like what I knew before, which wasn’t much. I found a whole new band of brothers. These guys were fucking nuts, just as crazy as me, maybe more. I wrote about all this already once, ten years ago when I was there and it was fresh, seared in my thoughts, my nightmares that wouldn’t let me sleep, not fully. A different journal for a different therapist about the same shit. Except it’s still fresh. I still can’t sleep sometimes and that’s why Millie asked me to go with her, to talk to someone, to work this out so it doesn’t ruin us, take her with me when I implode. She told me she won’t be a casualty of my war.
I like to think that if things had been different, like if my dad had let a few more kisses fly and less fists, maybe I wouldn’t have been there, shit for luck, in a godless country where AK-47s come standard issue when you’re old enough to fucking walk. They hand you a rifle and show you a picture of guys like me, tan cammies, red, white and blue-blooded, and teach you how to rip into me and my brothers. That’s what happens over there, which does make me think maybe I didn’t have it all that bad. Maybe.
Here’s what the Marines taught me first: nothing is what you used to know, nothing is called the same as it was before. A bed is now a rack, a toilet is now a head, food is now chow and I was Christenson, no longer Peter, no longer homeless, no longer alone. There’s some other things that are different in the Corps than the civilian world. Acronyms for everything. Then take the acronym and make it a word. Change something so completely, no one knows what it was to begin with, teach us a different language no one else on earth speaks. Make us foreigners in our own country because when we get back home, those of us who make it back home, we call our bed a rack and tell our friends we’re Oscar Mike, on the move, and once again we’re homeless. Except this time there’s no catchall group of misfits for us to join. No one who gets that when you talk about the FOB, you mean the F-O-B, you mean the forward operating base, you mean the place you go for resupply. People look at you sideways when you talk about IEDs and VBIEDs and ROEs. You might have thought the rules of engagement were one big CYA maneuver, some pansy-assed way of the brass covering their asses, but you fucking knew what they were. So did your brothers. Once you had that many brothers, being an only child is the loneliest fucking place there is. CYA is my only link to the rest of them, the civilians, the guys I used to be. Everybody knows how to cover their ass.
In the desert, if you were a lucky sonuvabitch, you’d get a space for your rack by a wall. A real, no-shit wall with an electric plug. Made you feel like you were back in the states for a minute when you charged up your DS, rocked some Zelda, and if you plugged your ears and couldn’t hear the rockets lighting up the real world around you, it was almost normal. Almost. Except when you were the unlucky, low-ranking schmuck who was on the opposite side of the wall, the real wall with electricity and you had to daisy-chain together a bunch of power strips so you could play your DS and pretend you were normal too. All those connections though, and you knew your game was fried if one of them, just one, blew up.
I was part of a squad, which was part of a platoon, which was part of a company, which was part of a battalion, which was my big-ass family away from home, my only family anywhere actually. A thousand brothers from the same shit-story I thought my biological family wrote the book on. A thousand broken into four groups, which was split into three, which was divided into four again. My squad—me, Miller, Benson, Hill, Lopez, Langford, Doc, and Conner. Eight of us who did everything together, were tied like our power strips, waiting for one of us to short out and take the rest of us with him.
Going back to how it’s all tied together. Me and my guys, all of us there on the shitty day, shittier than the rest, making it memorable if only because life was normally shit for all of us so one day that stood out from the others must be really fucking moronic. All of us were one long daisy-chain of fucked. This is how I see it, how the lit fuse worked its way down, lighting us all up, blowing away everything we knew.
I guess it began in the two-bedroom apartment that bordered the creek, that isn’t really a creek as much as it is the small rocky ditch my brother hangs out in and smokes weed with his friends who probably aren’t friends so much as other people who have no idea what to do with their shit lives. But that story, that start, connected link by link to there, to that day. The other guys in my squad have different first chapters of their lives, but somewhere along the line their connections met up with mine and we all found ourselves part of the same story at just the right time. Or the wrong time depending on how you looked at it.
Hill was our staff sergeant and he was a real sonuvabitch. All fake-moto, hyped up on the rocker pinned to his collar, but with none of the cojones that came with real motivation, real oorah. Lazy fucker too. Came up with every excuse in the book to stay inside the wire. Fucked up bowels, needed to stay close to Doc, except Doc was no coward and spent every day out on patrol with us. None of us had the rank to tell Hill to go to hell, but we all thought it. Tits, ass and telling off staff sergeant, that’s what went through our heads when we were out
on patrol. That and twitching at every glint of metal on the road. Turns out it wasn’t an IED that lit us up anyway. We got blown up by a fucking donkey and a hajji kid. I’m sure someone else was behind it, but how do you explain to your friends back home who want to hike the Grand Canyon that as long as there are donkeys, you’re staying up top. Who has a fear of donkeys, they want to know, and I wish I could explain what I saw that day that Hill abandoned us and let us face the wrath of the jihad and singed fur by ourselves.
Miller saw the kid coming down the road, donkey on a lead and told us to get ready, this was it. I wanted to tell him to fuck off, that no kid and no animal would be the thing we were waiting for, the thing we knew was going to happen because the air was heavy with it, the waiting. Except I knew, somewhere in the place the Marine Corps made inside of me, the place where fear triggered a gauge that let me know the metal on the side of the dirt road was a trigger, not just a coke can like the other three had been. The gut of a Marine is the most sensitive, most calibrated instrument we carry with us. The M-16 is just an extension, told by the gut where to shoot and when. My gut and Miller’s and probably the rest of the guys’ all said the same thing – this kid and donkey meant to kill us, or at the very least fuck us up along the way. How they’d do it shocked the hell out of me, more than seeing the small shoe, the one covered in blood outside the shell that used to be a school, which is a different link in this same chain of shit. I didn’t think about kids as casualties here until I realized they were the ones carrying the weapons half the time. They knew we wouldn’t shoot a kid, not if we didn’t have to and we always hoped we didn’t have to.
When I got back from there, after all this shit went down, I went to visit my brother and the family he somehow made in between time in juvie, then time in prison when he was too old for juvie, and time on probation where he had to meet with a PO every week. I met his kid, a four year old in converse who knew how to tell me to “fuck off” when I asked him to stop hitting my leg with his plastic baseball bat. Real sweet kid; no question where his vocabulary came from. In fact he sounded like Langford, which made me queasy for a minute until I figured out who else he reminded me of. His anger, his attitude at having to face the horror his childhood was turning out to be under the not-so-watchful eye of my brother and his girlfriend, when she was around anyway, all of it made me think he was just like him. Just like the little hajji who tried to blow us up, half succeeded. What the hell kind of future were these kids gonna have, if the only thing they knew was hate? I thought then maybe I could kill a kid. Maybe.
So it was Miller who told us to dive that day, to get out of the road and find cover. Fast. It’s weird what your body does when fear breaks the gauge, floods your system, takes control of your senses. First it shuts down your limbs. You freeze, just long enough for your sight to slow almost to a stop so you can see every particle of dust kicked up when your men listened,
overrode the system shutdown and dove out of the way. I saw the donkey, tongue out, eyes bulged, pupils dilated. Yes, I saw his pupils because let me tell you, he got fucking close before the kid pushed the buttons that told the bomb tucked in the saddlebags on the donkey’s back to explode, taking that poor beast and Lopez with him. I saw Lopez lift his
arms to the sky, weird smile on his face like he was ready - ready to end it - sick of the waiting, sick of something bigger than I knew. I saw the metal fly towards him, mixing his flesh as it separated from his body with the donkey’s, all spread out in the dust.
The dust in the desert is like a giant etch-a-sketch, erasing everything with fine particles that crawl up your nose, into your lungs, layering all of you. When you walk across the desert, rifle raised, pointed west, your men flanked around you, their rifles pointed different directions, covering the land with fire support, when you walk your footprints are gone in minutes. It is always like you were never there.
The same time Lopez was disintegrated, Miller’s leg was fileted at the knee, hanging by a tendon, the joint and not much else. He sounded like an animal, like what the donkey might have sounded like if he’d have had time to feel anything before he blew up. The sound reached my ears, but didn’t register as human. Just echoed in the back of my skull, reverberating
back and forth and making me think I was responsible for the noise. It stopped when I heard the second explosion, smaller than the first, followed by a thud muted by the air that was now heavy with dust and the smell of flesh on fire.
Doc had his hands full, because as usual he was with us, not at the FOB. Lopez was a lost cause. His wife would get the knock on her door in a few hours, she would want to see the
body, she wouldn’t be allowed. His left foot would make it back in a different shipment, fur would be found in the metal casket at Dover, taken out with care by those responsible for tending to the body. Could you even call it a body anymore?
My brother told me I was a sellout, that I was part of the problem, not the solution, like answering to the government was somehow less honorable than selling pot to minors, than selling cocaine when that paid more, than spending time behind bars when he got caught. I wasn’t proud of what I’d done, scared myself with how little I thought of the call for air support I made to take out the southern building filled with hajjis shooting at us, and how our guys painted the elementary school to the north with fire meant for the building next door. Had to double back to get it right, but it wouldn’t be right, would it? Still, I wasn’t my dad, wasn’t my brother either, and that counted for something. Millie didn’t get that, said it
wasn’t enough, that I couldn’t be just a little fucked up. I had to work on getting past it, work on sleeping the whole night through. I was trying, but the images were there, the damage done. I might never be all right, whole.
While Miller wailed and keened and Lopez lay in pieces, at the same time that all happened, I saw Conner grab Langford, a cocky private who walked around like a gunny, but who Conner liked all the same, said Langford reminded him of himself until he realized being in charge wasn’t all that great after all. Conner threw him out of the way, even though Langford outweighed him by a weight class at least, got a slice on his cheek from a piece of shrapnel but otherwise blocked Langford’s body with his own, keeping it safe until he kept turning, kept spinning on his axis until Langford landed on a patch of ground by the tall grass, the grass we’d find the donkey’s head in a couple months later, stripped of everything but fur. Conner looked at Langford, told us later their eyes met right before the second bomb went off, a daisy-chained IED we didn’t know was there, that could have lit any one of us up because it was linked to three more in the grass. Instead it took off Langford’s left leg all the way up to his groin and ripped a hole in his abdomen so wide nothing Doc could do would’ve saved him. Conner roared, dropped to his knees, moaning and rocking forward and back in the dirt littered with scraps of too many used-to-be-living things. He sobbed openly when he found out Langford had died as soon as the IED exploded, that maybe he’d killed the kid he’d tried to protect on every patrol, every convoy, every mission, because hell, he was going to be a great leader someday. What if he had killed Langford? What if they all let that get to them, get under their skin and worm its way into their hearts, making it impossible to make a split-second decision because what if this time, it was the wrong one?
The problem with seeing all of this—the time my dad slapped my mom, then the time he punched her, and that shoe, that small red shoe that was probably blue to begin with before the kid from the school spilt his innocence all over it, and Langford, laying emptied in the field—the problem with seeing all of this is I can’t un-see it. Which makes it hard to sleep,
because yes they aren’t roses and Lakers games and sunshine-filled images, but also they make me wonder. What if my dad kissed my mom, told her he was sorry for breaking the dish and meant it, didn’t take it too far and throw another dish at her this time, ask her if that was what she wanted, when of course it wasn’t. What if he loved her and didn’t drive her away, didn’t make us orphans, didn’t make me want to leave so badly, which made my brother feel abandoned and want to smoke, then shoot up to forget his childhood that wasn’t really a childhood. Then maybe I wouldn’t have searched out different brothers, ones who were like me, old enough and tough enough and angry enough to do some damage to the world. Then maybe I wouldn’t be here, with Millie, unable to love her, let her in, tell her I actually do think about the kid’s shoe, wonder if it was a boy or a girl and if their mother cried when she found out or if the mother was long gone like mine or beneath her own pile of rubble.
I think about that, about the connections that are hard not to blame, and the woman helping me with these issues, helping me see past my past, tells me the connections are there, absolutely, but they only link me to my future if I let them. I can break free, be the cord that shorts out all the rest, I just have to want it. I have to want something different. She points to my wife’s belly. Don’t you want a future, she asks? Yes, I do. Then choose, she says. It’s as easy as that. So I look at my wife, the one who might be able to understand about Lopez in pieces and Langford as a torn open sandbag and the little girl or little boy who lost their shoe and their childhood as well. She might.
So I blow Millie a kiss, let it fly till she feels it hit her cheek with all the force I hope will knock the rest of it out of orbit, unable to infect our son. One blow that will hopefully change the course of history, give a child his future without worrying about the barrel of the gun he’ll be staring down, the end of his story. It is all connected you know, chained together, linked stories that all begin at the same place - the time when. Always just the time when.