Working around dead people leaves a smell.
Nobody wants to stand or eat too close to anyone serving in the MAU. And the chow line’s gonna be long. Better to stay behind in the tent to let it shorten. The table in the Mortuary Affairs Unit is strong enough to hold dead bodies. So, it can hold me.
I’m like a bird dog on point. Still as death. My eyes are open, but I can’t see a thing. It’s the heavy black plastic covering my body. It reminds me of the thick wool blanket Mama lay across me on cool nights when I pretended to be asleep. Boots and socks are on the floor beside the table. The body bag? It’s smooth under my heels and on the tops of my toes. It’s weight and coolness? A comforting touch on my naked forehead. Nose. Cheeks. Arms. Stomach. Legs. Feet.
I take deep, slow breaths to try to keep my chest from heaving too much. Won’t matter though. Each breath moves me enough to crinkle-crackle the plastic. It sounds like bone beetles scurrying across the outside surface searching for a way to get in.
Time stands still. No DD Forms wait for a signature. No processionals of flag-draped transfer coffins to watch. No red dirt swirls up my nose. No dog tags lie crumpled on the ground to collect and catalog. No folded “Dear Son” letters to chase as they blow in the wind across the red dirt. No tattered pockets to search for hidden “I love you,” notes from wives. No wrinkled, bloodied photographs of unseen babies to smooth and place in plastic baggies. No suicide notes soaked in blood to send home to grieving spouses. No leg-less, foot-filled boots to un-lace to remove ragged, bloody stumps. And…no dead eyes stare sightless up into mine.
Nothing matters now. Except this brief escape from the random mortar rounds pounding somewhere in the distance. The incessant engine roars and the thick, pungent odor of diesel fuel are all in the world outside the one I now occupy.
Until my unit gets the call again.
It can happen anytime.
And we’ll ride out to the site. We’ll search for and gather up and bag and evacuate and inventory everything. Everything that was once a part of a living, breathing, feeling, thinking, missing, and missed, loving and loved someone. Everything has to be bagged. Everything. There can be no more unknown soldiers. It’s our job to make sure it never happens again.
The air is stale inside the bag. And my arm itches. Willing the itch away doesn’t work. I give in and scratch it. Time to rejoin that other world. The real one.
Unzip the body bag, Jake.
You got to sit up and get outta this thing before somebody comes in.
Damn. It’s Mack.
“Gatlin, that is some creepy shit, man.”
I pull on my socks and reach for my boots.
“Nothing but a thing.”
“Don’t let the NCO catch you doing it. What’s up with that, anyway? You got a death wish or something?”
I finish lacing up my right boot, but don’t look up. My voice barely above a whisper.
“No. It’s just that…” Even if I try to put an explanation into words, I’m not sure I want to. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to open up to anyone. Not since those letters to Gammy Gat more than ten years ago. God, I loved that woman.
Mama would’ve sent me to a shrink if she’d known I was writing letters to a dead woman.
But, that was then. This is now. And I like Mack. We’ve talked before. Mostly junk. Nothing worth anything. But still, we connected.
“It’s just that it’s weird as….”
“I needed to know what it was like. We’ve zipped up so many ‘angels’ in these things. And I can’t help thinking Murph put himself in there. On purpose. For real.” I pause. “He was a good soldier.”
“He still in your head? You gotta let go, man.”
“But he’s got a wife and a little kid.”
“We all got family.”
My family? Sorta like an old deck of cards. A tattered Jack. A faded Queen. A rumpled-up King of hearts. Three solid aces? My sisters.
“Did you read his…”
“Hell no.” Mack interrupts and sits on a stool. “Weapon under his chin? And in the port-a-john?”
Movement through the open window flap distracts me for a moment. But Murph’s note? I’d read it. More than once.
“Want me to tell you what it said?”
“Let me think.”
I told him, anyway.
“He told his wife and son he was sorry.”
“Damn it, I said…”
“He didn’t know who he was anymore.”
“That’s a big, DUH.”
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“Least I KNOW I’m an asshole.”
Not gonna let him skate on this one.
“Last thing he wrote was they’d be better off without him.” I pause. “The guy was a loner when he got here.”
Mack removes his cover and rubs his bald head.
I wipe my nose on my sleeve.
“We should’ve made it harder for him to feel alone.”
“Not our job, man.”
“He killed himself, for God’s sake.”
“There’s a damn burr up your butt about these suicides. What’s that about, anyway?”
An evenly stacked set of DD forms looks like they need straightening. The coffee mug beside the stack holds a handful of pens. One of them needs clicking. Once, maybe twice. Maybe another, just for good measure. The top of the straightened stack of evenly stacked forms looks like a good spot for the pen.
“I knew a guy who killed himself. When I was a kid.”
“No shit. How old were you?
“Jesus! How’d he, you know, how’d he do it?”
“Drank some drain cleaner.”
“That’s brutal, man.”
I finally lean down and finish lacing up my left boot.
“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago.”
“Why’d he do it? Did he leave a note or anything?”
“No. But he was really mixed-up, and his family was messed up. Old man on drugs. Beat him and his mom. I think he figured things would never change or get better.”
Mack puts his cover back on and checks it out in the mirror.
“You sound like maybe you were tight with this guy.”
I smooth the black plastic on the body bag.
“Yeah, I guess I was. He was in my fifth-grade class.”
Mack is quiet for a moment. We both turn at the noise of movement out the window flap.
He touches my shoulder.
“Climbing inside that thing is still nuts. Mack walks over to the table where we all play cards in-between recoveries. Picks up a deck. Starts thumbing through it. “You scare the shit outta me sometimes.”
The tent flap slaps open.
“Get the unit together, girls. And grab your gear. We got a recovery site.”
December 1, 2002
I’m almost ready to mail this letter.
Dear Mama, Daddy, Lisa, Beth, and Mary,
I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas. I know you’ll be getting the tree pretty soon. Wish I could be there to decorate it with you.
Lisa, Beth and Mary–make sure Mama makes one of Gammy Gat’s chocolate pies. Since I won’t get to eat one this year, it’ll give you something to write to me about. You can describe how all that chocolaty goodness looked and tasted.
I do hate to tell you this next thing, but I thought you should know that not too long ago, one of the guys in our company–Private Murphy–shot himself. Our MA unit had to process him. He had a wife and kid back in South Carolina. And now he’s headed home, just not the way his family expected. I really didn’t know him very well, but it didn’t make what he did any easier to accept. You know, I even read somewhere that, counting those who come home, more soldiers kill themselves than get killed in combat.
Mama and Daddy, I know I’ve never sat down and talked with you about everything that happened that year when I was in fifth grade. I guess when Murph did what he did, it brought all that back, big time. It made me realize I owed you a long talk.
I just kind of shut myself down, that year, I know. And it was like I wanted to keep everybody out. I haven’t let anybody in on anything I was feeling for a long time. And I know that wasn’t and hasn’t been fair. Being only eleven at the time, I guess I can convince myself I didn’t know any better. I know I royally screwed the whole father-son thing, and I regret that. Maybe if I’d known then what I know now…but things don’t work that way, do they? Not sure what I’m getting at really, except that I think I’d like to try to talk about it, you know?
Now, I didn’t tell you all this because I want you to worry about me, it’s just that, well, when I get back, I hope we can sit down and get to know each other again. That means even you girls (Ha ha!).
Oh, yeah, one more thing. They say December is really nasty over here. We thought the dust storms had been bad. But all that red dust that builds up turns into a muddy mess because of all the rain and snow. It’s cold, too, and going to be worse than Oxford in December.
We’ve been involved in a few recoveries these past few weeks (not counting Murph), but don’t fret. (I know you, Mama!) Khost has been pretty dull, lately, and the road to Gardez has been pretty quiet for the most part. Before long, the weather will really clog up the road, anyway.
Well, I’ve got to go. Sorry this one had to be so short. Didn’t mean for it to be so mental, either. But it was stuff that’s on my mind, and Christmas is tough enough without family around to spend it with. The holiday won’t be the same without being there at home. I miss you all so very much, and wish I could be there with you. But we have a job to do. Will try to write more later. Merry Christmas!
Love ya and hugs,
P.S. Don’t worry about me! I’ll be home before you know it.
Told ‘em not to worry about me.
But I still see him. It’s only a faded image. Sort of like the time we saw that live sand dollar resting on the sandy bottom in a foot of clearish sound water off of Sand Dollar Island on the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
The ripples had fuzzed up the view.
Randy had been a small, red-headed boy with freckles, crooked teeth, and funny-looking ears. He carried a major chip on his shoulder.
I can will his face away.
But when one of the memories from that fifth-grade year slips back into my mind, it opens up a floodgate.
Damn…there it goes.
Her name was Mary Claire Gatlin. Love those southern double names.
Sitting on her couch in the grandmother suite Mama and Daddy added on after Papa died. Smoking like a steam engine.
That image fades.
Like she did about a year after coming to stay with us.
Through the doorway connecting our part of the house to hers.
Mama and Daddy.
Help her into the car. She turns toward my sisters and me. Smiles. Waves a shaky hand.
Mama stands at the curb with us while Daddy drives her to the hospital.
Until Mama and Daddy make us stay home.
I go to school with an aching stomach every day.
For two weeks.
She never comes home.
And then it’s over.
Right before we moved.
Blanketed by a flowing flower bedspread.
The ones for winning race horses.
Rests on supports.
Covered by the pretend grass disguising that open hole that’s gonna swallow her up in a few minutes.
The funeral home canopy shadows the casket from the graying clouds beginning to crowd the sun.
A drizzle starts.
As if from a water-soaked ceiling foreshadowing the burst that’s coming.
The preacher keeps talking.
Slender water tributaries slither under the shelter searching for my shoes like clear baby snakes looking for food.
I lift my shoes.
Rest them on the slanted legs of my chair.
One slips down into the now soaked pretend grass rug we’re sitting on.
The chilly wetness creeps into my sock.
I mutter something.
Louder than I intend.
An elbow rebuke from Daddy.
A few days after the funeral.
Eddie standing there.
Through the rear windshield.
The moving van has just left.
Daddy pulls out into the streets.
Headed to Oxford, North Carolina.
The moving van creeps.
Like navigating a car through the streets in Ocracoke during the height of tourist season.
Eddie’s body lingers behind us.
Palm open, he raises his hand.
Holds it up shoulder high.
Press my hand against the rear windshield.
Hold it there, like a tiny octopus clinging to the side of an aquarium.
Can’t see if he’s got any tears.
Hope he can’t see mine.
A piece of paper.
Written in my scratchy, scribble handwriting.
December 24, 1992
Dear Gammy Gat,
I need to talk to somebody. It’s got to be somebody who will listen to every word and won’t tell me not to say what I want to say or not to feel what I’m feeling…
Hope the notebook full of these letters is still stuffed in that box where I’d hidden it in the attic. Don’t know what I’d do if Mama or Daddy found them.
Like those lingering ghostly shadows that haunt old lithographs, other images from that year creep into my mind.
Until I shake them off.
Right after chow, I’ll drop my Christmas letter off at the APO.