Maybe Our Bodies Are No More Than Jars
(i) The female skin is much too porous.
A young man graduates from high school, same as his father did, same as his mother did, and he joins the U.S. Army. This is not a fallback position. His father was in the Army—Rangers, specials ops of the kind we Tarzaned into under Ronald Reagan. Granada, Panama, ten years of mucking about in the playgrounds of the honorably discharged. The kid is not as tall as his father. He’s not as handsome. You wouldn’t associate him with the phrase “book smart.” But he is tough. That’s no performance. He shot a bull elk with a bow and arrow when he was fifteen years old. Guns and knives are his cousins. He tells the Army he wants the 10th Mountain Division or the 82nd Airborne, either one will do. They send him to Alaska.
But times are good. Dick Cheney is boiling his bad heart in vitriol, and the President knows You’re either with us or against us. The kid keeps his head down and his chin up. He meets a baby fat blonde in a rank watering hole in Anchorage. She’s grown up in a trailer along the Knik River. She’s tired of the shrieks and connivances of ice. She hopes love, or convenience, will be her ticket to the lower forty-eight. Iraq is not Alaska. Baghdad is not Fort Wainwright. Neither young person gets quite what they want, but orders are orders. The kid, the oldest brother, is soon headed for foot patrol in Sadr City. He marries the blonde before he ships out—she’s pregnant by then. And he gets his second tattoo, a band of thorns, etched around his right bicep. His first tattoo, which is on his shoulder blade, is a cowboy riding a bronc. The symbol, such as it is, of his home state of Wyoming.
The kid says all the right things to his family. He only believes the right things, according to my sister. God. Country. Freedom that isn’t free. By the time his unit kits up for what will be a very extended tour, his younger brother—the middle one—has completed basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
My sister is filled with platitudes. Be careful what you wish for. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. My sister is also filled with anger. This means, alas, that she is living with me in a small house across the street from an even smaller house where the three brothers grew up. She likes to look out our windows, my sister does. She examines the lives of others. This is almost an exercise in hope. It’s the sort of habit that could become glorious if my sister had any commitment to generosity or curiosity. She does not. My sister, Adrienne, is committed to the kind of fevered bitterness that feeds upon strong people who suddenly find themselves weak. She is my younger sister, by the way. I probably ought to mention that.
Adrienne has been dismantled by tragedy. There’s no other way to say it. She’s always been a loner, but of the very functional sort—with a job, acquaintances for laughter and sex, able to pay her bills, a regular reader of the Times. She works for the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. She’s trained as a biologist, and her most recent project was a survey of lynx habitat. She spent the summer living in a tent in the Shoshone National Forest west of Cody. Did she meet Kevin last summer? I think so. But she doesn’t talk about Kevin. From what I was told at the memorial service that was not supposed to be a memorial service, Kevin was even more of a misanthropic mongrel than my sister. He was a very skilled rock climber. He didn’t talk much. He made a little money doing freelance projects for the Forest Service, everything from scrubbing toilets to monitoring rainfall. He never had “regular” girlfriends. Were they lovers? Probably. Adrienne likes to get that out of the way as soon as possible. Was it his idea to take her ice climbing along the South Fork of the Shoshone River? Yes.
It’s really impossible to be eloquent about what happened. That’s why the memorial service that wasn’t supposed to be a memorial service became such a cluster fuck until someone had the good sense to open a bottle of tequila. A simple, simple ice climb. Kevin is leading. My sister is following. They are roped together. A cornice of son-of-a-bitching snow collapses far above them. Kevin has the attitude of an IRS auditor when it comes to safety. He won’t climb unless the conditions are right. The conditions were perfect. And then the snow dropped, lots of it, right onto Kevin, hard enough to break his neck. He went without a sound. He wasn’t the kind of man who would shout except to warn another person. He didn’t even have time to do that. My sister was protected by an overhang in the ice. And there she was, screwed into a frozen waterfall a hundred feet off the ground with a dead man dangling above her.
I won’t go into the details of her escape except to say the Park County Search-and-Rescue crews will talk about it for the rest of their lives, what Adrienne did and how she did it.
So, the brothers. We need to get to the part where the second one is also sent to Iraq.
(ii) He is young and intent on eating poison.
The Surge. We came, we screwed around for a while, we surged. You know the drill. You’ve sung the tune. We got to Iraq, and it took us some time to find our inner waterboarder.
Meanwhile, the middle brother is ready to rock. He just wants to get going. He’s taller than his older brother, better-looking. If the Army recruiter hadn’t stayed on his heels, the Marines would have swiped him for one of their shiny posters. He’s never cared about school. But he loves to mess with machines. Dirt bikes. Snowmobiles. Chevy pickups from the 1970s. This kid can clean your points and mount your engine. And he’s awarded his heart’s desire: Second Infantry Division, Stryker Brigade. He’s going to sit in one of those video-game-starring motherfuckers and drive its Hadji-peeling tires all the way through Mosel and back. He’s young enough to believe his life will always be synced with a death metal soundtrack. And why not? That’s what the President and the U.S. Army are selling. It’s exactly what he wants to buy.
He reads the emails from his brother in Baghdad. They are mostly about the sand and the heat. His brother is a father now. Fatherhood has really cleaned up his language.
The Second I.D. arrives in Iraq, and they get right down to kicking ass. Yes, they have some lieutenant colonels who have learned to speak Arabic and sip that sweet mint tea. There are subtleties. But once subtlety has paid its visit, it’s time to roll out the Strykers. The middle brother couldn’t be happier. Until they take him and everyone in his unit out of their hell-proof vehicles and stash them in the tiny sandbag-lined Boy Scout camps they call Forward Operating Posts.
My sister says anyone could have predicted that the middle brother, Justin, with whom she now smokes cigarettes whenever the Laramie weather allows her out of the house on her crutches, would end up a ruin. It couldn’t happen to the older brother. The older brother, John, has a blonde wife waiting back home with an infant in her arms, a daughter who has never seen her father, so John has to be safe. He has to make it back. He has to enroll in college (engineering, no less) under the new G.I. Bill. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, John is mostly deaf in his left ear. And his wife will leave him more than a year before he musters out of the military. It turns out she’s the one driven over the edge by the war—married too young, feeling too horny, not ready to sacrifice her good times to bottle-feed a damn baby. The cops are called to their apartment more than once. They fight. But we can’t say war did much of anything to John, other than make him a hero. Can we?
Justin, on the other hand, is lucky to be alive. They were like ducks on a pond, the three of them in that post. Ducks. Even an untrained terrorist/insurgent/freedom fighter can hit something with a mortar shell now and then. The guy next to him, Shiffler, has his head blown off. Justin’s right leg is shattered, his right hand is mulched, he gets fragged in his belly, the hot shrapnel lancing its way through his Kevlar vest. The third guy, Ruiz, who was on comm at the time, in the back of the post, facing the other way, loses big chucks of his thighs and ass, but he doesn’t die, either.
Justin doesn’t remember the flight to Germany. Or the flight to the U.S. The drugs are that good. The drugs are still good. He likes to share them with my sister, especially when she’s pretending to be righteous. If she starts one of her wind-ups about Barack Obama, Justin digs into his shirt pocket next to his Camel Lights and flips her a Vicodin. Nineteen-years-old and one hundred percent disabled. He can’t be a real mechanic, because he can’t hold tools in the crab-claw of his bad hand. My sister, Adrienne, likes to help him with the tools. She says it’s her idea of rehab. They mess with one of Justin’s vintage Chevys when the temperature is high enough. The truck is aqua-blue. It’s parked in the Hobarts’ garage. Justin and Adrienne keep the doors closed. They want everyone to believe they are up to something.
They are not up to anything you’d want to know about. Guaranteed.
When people ask, I supply the gentle lies. They are good for each other. They are healing together. My sister lost three toes in the accident that killed Kevin, and the ends of her fingers are still hard and black. She likes to freak me out by tapping those fingers on my kitchen counter where they sound like knife handles rapping against stone. She also tore up a knee trying to carry Kevin out of the river canyon. So she really does need the crutches. But I don’t know if my neighbor, former PFC Justin Hobart, needs what my little sister imagines she is offering.
(iii) Rust never sleeps.
This is how bad it can be:
Adrienne out on my front steps wearing snow pants and a flannel nightgown patterned with holly leaves and berries that give off a definite Fuck Christmas vibe. She’s got on one sock. The other foot is bare below the walking cast that’s strapped around her knee. She is monkey-swinging her body between her crutches while she smokes. Her hair looks like it’s made a bad marriage with a porcupine. It’s five in the morning.
Adrienne is trying to tell if Justin has passed out in his new truck. He’s bought himself a loaded Silverado with his disability payments. There’s too much fresh snow for my sister to easily cross the street, however, so she is trying to mind meld with Justin. She’s trying to send him a mental message. If he’s in the truck, stupored or not, she’s sure he’ll wake up to hang out with her.
Are they lovers? I don’t even want to know.
John, the oldest brother, comes out of the house a little after five. It’s dark. But the Hobart house sports its share of high-wattage holiday decorations. John can see Adrienne as clearly as he can see red Santa and his lone reindeer. She can see John, too. And she’s not unhappy about that. John is a good guy. He’s headed to his janitor’s job at the bank. It’s what he can fit in with his class schedule now that he and the baby, Pearl, who is almost two, are living in his parents’ basement.
“You seen Justin?” my sister asks. The neighborhood is a quiet one. Adrienne doesn’t have to raise her voice.
“He’s not frozen in there, is he?” My sister swings her bad leg toward the truck. The Silverado is black and gleaming, just like Saddam’s.
John, to his credit, peers into the cab’s tinted windows. “Nah,” he says. “Must have crashed elsewhere.”
“I worry about him,” Adrienne says. She manages a tone of utterly cold irony.
“He’s just wrestling with his demons,” John says, shrugging again. John hasn’t slept well. You can see that on his face. He’s been sharing his childhood bed with thrashing, damp-diapered Pearl.
“Wrestling with his demons? Is that a religious thing?” Adrienne shouts. This time, she means to be loud.
“Is that a churchy gig or a regular person gig—fighting with demons? I’d just like to know. I want to have the right kung-fu when the time comes.”
“Uh, no,” John says, shaking his head in what he believes is a respectful manner. “No, ma’am. It’s just what Justin is doing right now. Going day by day, one at a time. How about you? You ready for the holidays?”
“Don’t make this into a religious thing,” my sister hisses.
It’s time for me to go outside, so I do. My sister is not wearing her logical head.
It’s heartening to know that former Spec-4 Hobart, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, doesn’t have an ear for utterly cold irony. Maybe the war made him deaf in all the right ways. He gives a little wave when he sees me and slips into the scraped-over Pontiac he drives to work. John was in Baghdad when Justin was blown up. Did I mention that? He was in another part of the city, still patrolling, still seeing tripwires in his dreams. His tour had been extended three times. The Army flew him to Germany as fast as it could. They weren’t sure Justin was going to make it. The Army can be very sweet like that.
But we need to move along. I want to tell you about the third brother. I’m going to do that, if you’ll forgive me, without describing the sad, ugly custody battle over the baby, Pearl.
(iv) The bride stripped bare by her bachelors.
“You know how people complain about those industrial hog operations,” my sister says. “The ones that stink up whole counties and neighborhoods? What we’ve got here—right across the street from us—is a military hog operation. Fatten up the boys. Keep ‘em isolated. Ship ‘em off to slaughter.”
My sister’s knee is a little better. She means well. She doesn’t really think the Hobarts are a pen of hogs. Her anger is just so…sermonic that it’s almost a kind of poetry at times, a hitchy, one-legged Kabuki dance with words. She likes the Hobart parents well enough. They treat her gingerly, and they don’t ask questions about the garage where I now understand Adrienne sometimes swaps a blowjob for one of Justin’s pills, though mostly what they do is listen to music. Loud. So maybe we should cut my sister some slack. We can pretend she’s a toddler who’s repeating dirty words just to see if she can get an adult reaction.
Justin has been testing her, despite his deal-making with the pills. He’s been sending her anger right back at her like a boomerang.
Him: You’re a freak. Dave Mustaine is the greatest guitarist who ever lived. I can’t believe you won’t admit that. Instead, you’re standing here in my yard, acting like a fucking snob.
Her: You don’t know what you’re talking about. Listen. You’re not even listening.
Him: I’m listening to you talk too much, that’s what I’m doing. Always got so many goddamn words you need to say.
Her: Like you’re so perfect. Like you aren’t smearing your personal trauma shit all over everybody’s fucking shoes.
Justin won’t let Adrienne work on the Chevy truck anymore. And he’s been cutting his clothes off, even though it’s winter. First the sleeves on his sweatshirt went away. Then the sleeves on all of his shirts. Then one leg of his smudged Carhartts. Not both legs. Justin says nobody deserves to see his bad leg, the one with all the divots and burns and scars. Nobody has the right.
He tells me the medicines he takes are making him fat. He says his body feels hot all the time, like there’s a stove inside him that’s roasting his guts. And the medicines make it hard to sleep. He needs decent marijuana to sleep, the kind that isn’t laced with speed. Do I have a connect for good marijuana?
My sister tries to fight with Justin, she tries to make herself his dark equal, but he won’t give her the satisfaction. To him, a dead ice climber is no kind of medal.
Her: You don’t give a shit about anybody but yourself.
Him: Damn right. I am done with the “Let’s help everybody“ bullshit. I am done with politics and whiney bitches. You don’t know what it’s like out in the real world.
He doesn’t care if she slaps his face in front of his parents. He doesn’t care if she waits for him, practically naked, in the cab of his big, new truck. He’d rather be alone in that truck, sitting silent as a duck hunter, pretending he’s as invisible as he feels.
Meanwhile, the youngest brother. Jacob. He’s shipping off to Afghanistan in a couple of weeks, I kid you not. No jobs for high school graduates around here, not any more. Jacob signed up before Justin was kaboomed in Baghdad. He’s the youngest by less than a year. And they sent him to Korea first, because they won’t do that to a mother in America, they won’t put all of her sons in a combat zone. Just like in the movies.
What do you think will happen to Jacob over there?
Dead or alive?
Whole or in pieces?
Are all of us in pieces?
Adrienne didn’t attend the memorial service that wasn’t supposed to be a memorial service. I brought her one of the tiny blue carabiners that were handed out by a climber girl who wore way too much eyeliner. I thought Adrienne would throw the carabiner at me. Or try to swallow it. Instead, she keeps it close by and fondles it like it’s a worry stone. She taps on it with her black-shelled fingers, and it taps back.
I’m never going back, my sister says.
Back to Justin? Back to her climbing harness? Back to the silent, threatened world of lynx? I don’t know what she means.
Everybody we know ought to have to feel like this, she says, looking out our window at the smaller house across the street that is so full of effort and fallout, so full of sheer belief. The Hobarts have hung a black P.O.W.-M.I.A. flag from their porch. It’s a new addition.
On most days, you can see little Pearl trying to learn how to work the zipper on her coat underneath that flag.
Everybody, Adrienne says, ought to be trapped at the end of this story.
Alyson Hagy is the author of seven works of fiction, most recently the novel Boleto (Graywolf Press, 2012) and the story collection Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press, 2010). She lives in Laramie, Wyoming.