Spr/Sum 04

Tough Day for the Army


     The army waits, nerve jangled, for the word.
     Waiting, the army sits, awkward and uncomfortable on the molded orange plastic waiting room chairs. The chairs offer little cover from ambush or sniper. In normal times (which these are not), the army would never willingly choose this location.
     Forward scouts were dispatched long ago to the window by the counter, (behind which the bun-haired woman sits), to retrieve the word, and they are much overdue.
     The army thinks a little air support might be nice, just in case, a little softening up of a couple of thousand tons of high explosive, maybe a dash of incendiary, clear some clutter, strategic-like, surgical. Air support, despite the noise, the chaos, the debris, despite its origination with a rival branch of the service, has always been oddly comforting to the army. In times past, as the concussion from the air support bombs would wave over them, the army would think: take that suckers. Bet you didn’t bargain for that, suckers. You are dead dead and dead, suckers. Suckers.
     But their radios broadcast only static now. They know that it is possible (probable?) that headquarters has been compromised, but they soldier on because this is what soldiers do.
     Perched on the tiny, scooped out chairs, the army is clumsy in its bulging packs, dangling entrenching tools and various weapons. The army tries to be as silent as possible, but this is, in reality, not silent at all. Truth be told, the army makes a racket. Their boots are thick and hard at the soles—with the slightest twitch, the leather creaks unagreeably around the ankle—and it is a fact that because of an excess of design, ingenuity, and Yankee know-how, the average infantryman is well overloaded, poundage-wise, with “necessary” gear. (Note: In battle, when the actual deadly exchange of flying metal commences, it is well known that pretty much only the rifle is deemed necessary. Maybe the helmet just a little, in case of a glancing shrapnel blow, but mostly just the rifle, and yes, the helmet if possible, but only if possible, lets call it an extra, a bonus.)

     Other guests of the waiting room stare as the army accidentally knocks stacks of old magazines from end table to floor. Carefully, the army picks up the magazines, restacks them, then casually, very casually, so as not to attract attention, leafs through one and rips out colorful recipes that look suitable for cooking over sterno.
     An old woman says: Those are old, the magazines. There’s newer ones somewhere. The receptionist hides them. It’s like a game to her.
     The army thanks the woman kindly for that advice and asks her if she thinks the pictures accompanying the recipes look good. Don’t they look good? the army says.
     The woman shakes her head, smiles ruefully, says: Sure, of course the pictures look good, real good, good enough to eat, ha ha ha, but they don’t look like that when you cook them. Don’t look like that at all, no sirs. If you ate the actual objects that were used in the composition and creation of that photograph, you’d be...well I sure wouldn’t want to...what I’m trying to say is...pain... you’d experience some pain for sure, explosive pain even... we’re talking toilet hugging for sure kind of pain, maybe...who knows?...worse?... hospital pain, real gurney-clutching-tear-your-own-heart-out, tunnel-vision-blackout kind of pain. You see what I’m getting at?
     The army nods in the affirmative. Armies know of these things, these things and worse.
     The woman says: that picture there is what’s known as professional food photography, wherein you substitute the food with something that looks more food-like when photographed in two dimensions under controlled lighting conditions. The nibblet corn is really spray painted rubber and that there asparagus is made out of retired fake Christmas trees dragged out of dumpsters. The chicken is old eraser bits molded under precise heat and rubbed shiny and golden with dandelion extract, which is well-known for this kind of thing. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of this.
     We’ve been away, busy, the army says, casting shameful eyes downward.
     I’d just hate to see such nice boys fooled is all. It’s all a trick, you see. Sometimes now they use computers too. The idea is that one thing becomes another, then it’s not lying.
     The army nods, sees its hulking reflection in the office glass, and thinks that, tactically speaking, this all could be a mistake.
     But what choice?
     Near the receptionist’s desk, the forward scouts softly clear their throats, and tap their fingers near the dried up pen permanently chained to the counter, but the receptionist remains glassy-eyed and unmoved.
     Amongst the army, Lumpkins clicks open the bolt on his carbine, removes the bolt, eyes down the barrel, clicks the bolt shut again, clicks open, removes, eyes down, shut again, says to Henderson:
     What do you think the word’s gonna be?
     Word’s never good, Lump. Never.
     Maybe today?
     Nope. Never.
     Let me tell you, I once had a sister she was so pretty that...
     We all did, Lump. Get in line. Take a number. Get over it.
     This is an army’s life, hurry up and wait.
     Lumpkins works his poem...

I once had a sister
she was so pretty that...

                                    ...but can’t get any further. Words fail, frequently.
     At least, in times past, I’ve done some pretty fine talking with my gun, Lumpkins thinks:

take that.

     The army worries about the forms. They filled them in as best they could, smiled as they were handed to the receptionist, but it is always so hard to know what might be appropriate, what, precisely, they are looking for. Under the heading for “Competencies” they recorded the following:

I guess you could say that mostly, we’re an ultra-efficient killing machine. We have our problems, our inevitable shortcomings, sure, but we’re probably the greatest killing machine the world has ever known, although this is tough to say (meaning difficult to gauge) since we’ve been underutilized, occasionally misused, and, in recent times, when thrown into battle, have taken on mostly the backwards and overmatched, because, really, what’s a spear or a bunch of rocks against a smoothly bored chunk of lead and other metals fired from a precision, gun-type instrument wielded by a soldier trained to a razor-fine peak of physical and mental fitness? In any hands, untrained hands even, these gun-type instruments are deadly, very much so deadly, rocks and spears, especially those wielded by the nutritionally deficient with their spindly arms and depleted musculature, are not so much deadly, not these days anyway, so when you’re talking the combination of deadly instruments and a force (Again, physically and mentally quite quite primed; this cannot be stressed enough) that is ready/willing/able to use said instruments for their designed purpose (And let’s not mince words, that purpose would be killing), well, and you must agree, you’ve got something pretty potent happening there.

Meaning, we are not something you would like to mess with in that kind of situation. And sure, you have what is known as the historical/ technology factor, say if you had a time machine and you sent us back to face, for example, the Huns, or better yet, the Mongol Horde, on their own terms, their turf if you will, well that might just be a tough bitch to crack, (We sure as hell wouldn’t go down without a fight, though, you can bet on that, last man standing etc...etc…etc…) but you bring the Horde here, to our present day reality, you bring them here, invite them inside our house of pain (Don’t bother taking your animal hide covering off because you won’t be staying long!) and by the time they finished rubbing the surprise from their eyes and said the shortest prayer possible to whatever it is those godless fucks hold dear, we would give them a serious stomping. We would wrap up those stinky, inbred, slant-eyed motherfuckers in a shit storm of truly biblical proportions, real Book-of-Revelations-Wrath-of-God shit rained down upon them, by us, because we are more than qualified (eager even) to do so. So all that aside and everything taken into account, ergo, it is more than fair to say that as of this moment, we can’t be touched in terms of killing.

     The response went well past the five or so crowded lines provided on the form, lines that would be insufficient for any answer, let alone one as complete as the army’s. This meant the army had to write in the margins and on the reverse side, and use arrows and write “over” and “cont.” and all manner of things, and the army felt as though their warning sensors detected a scowl cross the face of the bun-haired sentinel when they slid the finished product through the slot, beneath the protective glass.
     Eventually, the forward scouts return, heads hanging, sans word. They say the word will come when it is ready, in essence, when there is word, but as of now, no word. Who knows when? They don’t, so stop asking.
     This is the soldier’s life, hurry up, then wait. Mostly wait... wait... wait... wait...
     Do you remember? Lumpkins asks Henderson.
     Yes, says Henderson.
     Do you remember when we were on that mission in the far away country where there were the skinny brown men with the stained teeth from the betel nuts who carried their antiquated and slow-loading rifles beneath unbuttoned cloth shirts that billowed behind them as they charged toward us, heedless of our ability to cut them down with well-placed volleys of withering fire delivered from strategically situated vantage points that maximized the shooting field, but at the same time minimized the danger of injury or death due to friendly fire?
     Yes, I remember. We were fighting in the streets to establish order and subsequently to banish the feudal warlords and install the properly organized democratic government. Also, to provide food to the hungry of which there were very very many. Those men that charged at us held bullets in their teeth so they could reload as quickly as possible. The bullets looked like metal fangs. On the other hand, we could reload by changing ammo clips in approximately 1.6 seconds.
     Do you remember how the men sometimes, as they charged towards us, shielded themselves with children, thinking that we would not shoot children? Lumpkins says.
     Yes, Henderson says.
     It’s fortunate that we are such good shots that we were able to shoot the men but avoid harming the children, Lumpkins says.
     What were we supposed to do? They were trying to kill us, after all, which despite the practice and training we’d endured was sort of surprising, how much they could want to kill us, Henderson says.
     And do you remember the special rounds we used that were designed to go through armor, but had the unfortunate effect of passing too cleanly through their human bodies and thus failed to knock these charging men down upon impact as more traditional small arms ordinance does, and how the men, clutching the small children would continue to advance even as they were shot again and again and again?
     Yes. I remember the same way you do. I remember terribly and often.
     Do you remember the liberation? The time we went to give them their rights as declared by God and the United States of America and they kept trying to blow us up?
     Yes, they hated us too.
     I didn’t hate them.
     It wasn’t our fault, or theirs.
     Do you remember how I carried that old Royal typewriter everywhere, how I would bang out paragraphs of memories even as they happened, how once, as I crouched behind an overturned car, getting something down, that old Royal deflected a bullet destined to deliver a mortal wound and lost only the use of the nearly non-essential X key in the process?
     Yes, yes, and I had the old transistor radio with the foil wrapped around the antenna that we would set up in barracks and dance to Rhythm and Blues music and get high and share good times as our smooth-muscled torsos flashed with sweat and…

     In the waiting room, as the varying people wait for their varying reasons, wait for their varying orders to send them into the various recesses of the building (or beyond), wait to be hurled to their varying fates, throats are cleared, sideways glances exchanged, legs crossed and uncrossed, foreign bits are surreptitiously picked from teeth while no one (in reality, though, everyone) is looking. A child grips an empty plastic cup in one hand, and with the other, rubs the corner of the cardboard cover of a worn out picture book, peels the layers until the cardboard is frayed and soft as tissue. The child lifts the book to his face and sniffs between the paper layers, thinks: no one has smelled this before. No one but me.
     The army wonders if it should amend their answer on the form and mention the looting prevention, the quelling of the garden variety civil unrest, or the dam building—sandbagging—how they deliver food and supplies to the poor and war-ravaged. These are the peace missions, but of course even the fighting missions are in the interests of peace meaning that they are there to establish peace where there is none, working as the handmaiden of peace, if you will, a peace forged out of their irresistible might. Does that seem contradictory?
     A slash of light on the carpet disappears as the sun moves behind a more impressive building outside. Not darkness in the room, exactly, but somehow a room without light.
     Henderson thinks: Maybe a warning shot. Just to juice things up. But does nothing, just like the rest.
     Lumpkins tries his poem again

I once had
a sister
she was
so pretty
that I could

     Tired of waiting, the child throws the book down and totters across the floor, banging its hand over its mouth, whooping like an Indian.
     Finally, the receptionist looks up and it is clear, the word is here. The whole room sits at the edge of their seats. Breaths are held.
     Something is coming, and it’s heading this way.


John Warner writes fiction, humor, and non-fiction, and is co-author (with Kevin Guilfoile) of My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook of George W. Bush. His work has appeared in 3rd Bed, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, and Salon, among others. John teaches in the Department of Communication at Virginia Tech University and is editor of McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and as such, is one of the co-editors of Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's, Humor Category 1998-2003 coming out in August of 2004 from Knopf.

Mr. Warner writes: "Part of this story (the first 400 or so words) was previously published (in somewhat different form) in Issue 7 of McSweeney's Quarterly."