In my midst are soldiers who have been shot, blown up, burned, and rehabilitated. Whether they chose to return to Iraq or not, I don’t know. In any case they’re here at Camp Anaconda, and unless I see them in the shower I can’t tell them apart from the nonwounded. Likewise, it’s not until I walk a mile with a guy named Eric that I notice the merry-go-round action of his hip.
Eric and I enter the dining tent together. Traffic is one-way through the crowded tent, where food is arranged buffet-style. Our mainline choices are horse cock or triangle fish. Side dish options include raw onion, mayonnaise, grits, and fresh cantaloupe.
I get my cantaloupe and sit next to Eric, such that our arms touch from shoulder to elbow. Eric’s arm feels shrunken and insular. Later Eric tells me that his arm was shot off and reattached, but for the time being we don’t talk. We just eat, wounded or not, like everybody else.
Except this one guy right across from Eric and me, who appears electrified. The trick is to not look at him, but he’s practically sparking.
“Hey, you know when people say ‘the whole nine yards’? You know what that means?” he asks me.
“No,” I say.
The guy proceeds to explain the origin of the phrase the whole nine yards in a way that suggests he’s been made to feel stupid in the past for not knowing it. And I listen because I want to maintain the balance, because the balance offers protection.
Think of a seesaw, with fucked-up on one side and OK on the other. Fucked-up takes care of itself. For example, one night Eric and I were standing next to a diesel generator the size of a boxcar, which shined firelight out of its seams, when from underneath came an enormous beetle. This beetle moved through the dust, dragging a trail of oil. It crumpled like a beer can under Eric’s boot.
“That was fucked-up,” Eric said.
To counterbalance fucked-up, I assign weight to those things that I consider OK. I work close to the fulcrum.
Therefore, the white feather that’s in the same spot on the floor of my tent every morning is OK. And this guy’s story about the whole nine yards is OK. Then there’s cantaloupe.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” is what my mom used to say about cantaloupe, more to give herself permission to eat it than to convince her companion, Ormsby, who hated cantaloupe.
Ormsby hated cantaloupe because the sight and smell of it reminded him of Vietnam, where he did two and a half tours before being shot out of a tree.
While my mom ate cantaloupe Ormsby would go out on the porch and smoke. Smoking was Ormsby’s last vice. All the rest he’d quit years ago, but not before he’d become an expert on trouble. In the summer of my eighteenth year, this expertise came in handy.
Ormsby knew trouble well enough that he could wake from a deep sleep, hop in his pickup, and come find me. I’d be tracking along a fire road through the Pine Barrens, having turned my back on my friends and walked. There was nothing contentious in this parting of ways. It just happened. I was voltage, the night aluminum. Then Ormsby would pull up and ground me.
Times I’d join him on the porch Ormsby liked to debate the tides. His idea was that the spinning earth flung the oceans around like a washing machine. I’d listen to him, then present a case for the moon.
Summer nights were hot and humid. Algae grew in the cracks of our cement porch. Crickets chirped by the billion. Ormsby smoked with his T-shirt tucked in a back pocket. His insides were rearranged, such that he’d inflate above a kidney when he inhaled. A pattern of sinkholes in his torso suggested that he’d twisted as he fell from the tree. Below the sinkholes were bullets cocooned in scar tissue.
Meanwhile Mom would carry a cantaloupe in from the garage, where she kept them stacked like cannonballs. Then she’d chop it into smiles, and eat it over the trash can, into which she’d drop the rinds. The airconditioning would be going full blast, rattling the vents and fogging the windows that looked out onto the porch.
In the dining tent at Camp Anaconda, the air conditioning is not working. It’s over a hundred degrees, and the guy explaining the whole nine yards is generating more heat.
Apparently the whole nine yards was the length of a belt of ammunition fired from something. The details escape me even as Eric and I push away from the table. The guy doing the explaining is still going strong, when a soldier at the other end of the table interrupts, “I thought it had more to do with football.”
“Well, it doesn’t,” says the explainer.
“Well then I don’t believe you,” says the soldier.
“Well then don’t,” says the explainer.
Eric and I exit the dining tent into the night, and toss our plastic plates into a cluster of trash cans. The trash cans are lit by a spotlight beyond which is pitch black .A mile away there’s a fire pit where all the trash is burned. A breeze delivers the smell, and carries napkins away before they’re bagged. I follow Eric behind the spotlight, to the leeward side of a concrete barrier.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asks.
I shake my head.“Mind if I ask you something?”
Eric performs the entire lighting process with one arm, then exhales like a locomotive brake. From a distance of three feet, he tells me how one night his own guys shot him. It was some kind of mistake. He was on a rooftop casting a heat signature. Afterward his lungs filled with blood. And his guys saved him by stabbing him through the ribs to drain his lungs. Which, Eric said, “hurt worse than being shot.”
One night I maintained the same three-foot distance from Ormsby, where the smoke mellowed, when Mom came out on the porch with a knife in an empty jelly jar. She was trying to pack Ormsby a lunch, and we were forever out of some key ingredient. Under the porch light orbited by gypsy moths, she rattled the knife in the jar. “We’re out!” she yelled, twice, because artillery had all but deafened Ormsby.
“OK!” he yelled back.
Ormsby left the volume up on his car stereo.Which meant as soon as he turned the key in the ignition Springsteen blasted from the speakers. Sometimes I took these grocery trips with Ormsby. Sometimes I didn’t.
That night I didn’t. Instead I came in from the porch. At first I could see my breath. Mom was already in the tub.The cantaloupe was still out, so I cut myself some. It was so sweet it stuck to the blade. Sliding it off, I ate the fruit off the rind over the trash can. Fruit flies multiplied over the mouth of trash, out of nowhere. Sandwiches were open on the counter with peanut butter spread on one half. As the moon pulled away, Ormsby passed the grocery store, never to return.
I cut myself another slice. The dull knife creaked through the rind like a rusty hinge, then cracked against the cutting board. I ate that piece knowing there’s maybe one minute in the life of a cantaloupe when it tastes that good.