Talisman

by Travis Klempan

by Travis Klempan

27 March 2007

“That Harper Lee,” Mack said, “is full of shit.”

A group of green Army five-ton trucks–three functional vehicles perched around a fourth with its hood open–had disgorged the few dozen members of Second Platoon, Charlie Company, First Battalion, Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. The soldiers waited with varying degrees of patience in the rising Georgia sun.

Sergeant John Mackenzie watched as several men hovered around the engine compartment of the broken truck. Two soldiers from Second Platoon were shade tree mechanics and had offered the Base Motor Pool contractor their pointed and conflicting opinions on the source of trouble. A fourth man–a local on his way to work, bib overalls and trucker hat hinting at his profession–had pulled over and spat a stream of tobacco onto the asphalt, proposing to fix the truck for free so long as they killed him some ragheads when they got where they was going even if they couldn’t say where he understood.

Mackenzie smirked. He’d written that phrase down, though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

A fifth man stood slightly apart from the cluster, a cell phone pressed to his ear ever since they’d pulled over. An hour gone by and the truck still sat useless. Mack turned from the vehicles back to the task at hand.

“How’s that now?” Staff Sergeant Julius Atwood craned his head as he chucked a pebble at a near-full green dumpster.

“Shouldn’t you be over helping the lieutenant?” Mack smiled.

Atwood shrugged and lobbed another pebble at the trash heap. “I told him. Said he should just requisition us a school bus from Motor Pool, get our happy asses back on the trail. Have ourselves a more comfortable ride that way, too.” He looked over at the dead truck. “LT said Kujo was real keen on the battalion all rolling out together, World War II-style, all jumping off the five-tons and running around and rendezvousing at the airfield.” He laughed. “That man’s been watching too much Band of Brothers.”

“Rendezvous? Airfield? He really say all that, Gus?” Mackenzie held a small rock in his hand but didn’t throw it.

Atwood shrugged again. “Who? Lieutenant Cruz? Colonel Kujo? I offered my two cents. Give him another ten minutes and if we don’t got a working truck I’ll offer another two cents, slight more forceful even.” He smiled. “Anyway, Knife, what’d you say about Harper Who?”

Mackenzie looked at the overflowing dumpster. A small gang of mockingbirds picked through the trash–greasy wrappers, coffee cups, half-eaten remains from yesterday’s business–and scattered the debris onto the asphalt. Atwood had been throwing pebbles for the past few minutes, Mack and the birds his only audience. Ping and the birds went flying; few seconds later they returned. Not much of a game, but both men knew that killing time was a skill the Army didn’t teach in Basic Training, least not outright.

Mackenzie scanned the parking lot. Small knots of soldiers were killing time, or trying to. The trick, he’d figured years back, was to engage in something requiring a minimum of physical and mental effort without sacrificing the last shreds of readiness. Playing cards was too mentally demanding; smoking not demanding enough. You could combine activities–dip tobacco and try to spit at something, for instance. Toes of other men’s boots were good targets. Bugs in motion offered a challenge. Napping defeated the whole purpose, and it was way too early in the deployment to crack open a book.

He glanced down at his rucksack, saw the rectangular blocks of stories pressing against the green fabric. He and Atwood had set their rucks up against concrete parking blocks as soon as Lieutenant Cruz had declined Atwood’s advice. The LT was the LT, and the platoon sergeant was the platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Mackenzie was Mack the Knife, but by the end of the day they’d all get to the airport one way or another.

Airfield, whatever. Mackenzie smiled. Kujo had a hard-on for all that Patton-shit.

“Harper Lee, man. You actually are from the South, right? You did go to a school once, didn’t you? She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said, rolling the pebbles in his hand like dice. “You know–classic of American literature? Wrote a classic, said she was done? Anyway, she says in it, talks about how killing a mockingbird’s a sin, because all they do is sing their hearts out.” He pointed at the dumpster. “All I seen them do is rat-fuck garbage cans looking for leftovers.”

Atwood laughed, a short soft bark. “Just remember to be easy with that swearing. You know the LT is keen on polite language.”

Mackenzie nodded. “Yeah, figure he’s gotta have some sort of tic to define him. Leadership and all that.”

Atwood stopped throwing rocks. They turned and watched the lieutenant, cell phone pressed to his ear and pacing, then turned back to the dumpster. Atwood dropped the pebbles from his hand and wiped his palms together.

“Birds just getting their breakfast, right?”

Mackenzie shrugged.

Atwood grinned and looked directly in Mack’s face. “C’mon Knife, what’re they saying?” His head remained still but his eyes darted over to the dumpster.

Mackenzie sighed. “I told you. It don’t work like that.”

A young man walked up and stopped a few feet short. “Staff Sergeant Atwood?”

“What is it, Nuñez?”

Private Nuñez rubbed his hands on his trousers. “Well, Sergeant, me and some of the guys, we were wondering if you knew when we’re getting outta here.”

Atwood smiled and Mackenzie sensed what was coming. He looked at his feet.

“Yeah? Why’s that? You fellas got appointments to keep?”

“Uh, no, Sergeant, we just—”

“You getting bored? Want me to think up something y’all can do to kill time?”

“Not really, Sarge, I—”

“Think the rest of the battalion gonna leave us behind? They get to Iraq before we do, win the war without us? Think we’ll miss the victory parade they gonna throw?”

Mackenzie ducked his chin to his chest to hide his smile.

“No, Sarge, we were just wondering—”

“Wondering is for officers, Nuñez,” Atwood said. Mack looked up. Atwood played his role better than anyone else in the battalion. Tough, strict, but no voice for malice. “The LT’s got his LT-stuff to do, us sergeants got our sergeant-stuff to do, and you privates have your private-stuff to do, and sometimes we all have the same thing to do, and that’s just Hurry Up and Wait. Hooah?”

Nuñez waited for a moment and nodded. “Hooah, Sarge.” He turned, walked to a group of soldiers standing at the edge of the lot.

Mackenzie tossed a rock but not at the dumpster. “Hurry Up and Wait.” He smiled. “Closest thing to a commandment I think I can believe in.”

Atwood looked at him, then at Nuñez and the others and pointed. “Birthplace of rumors right there, all them privates in one place,” he said. “Course that’s a commandment. Got more truth than anything else in this line of work.”

Hurry Up and Wait. Mackenzie considered the inevitability and implacability of the maxim, the combination of dread resignation and heart-pounding anticipation bound up in the four words. He wondered if it had ever been cliché or instead been born with truth in its teeth.

“You think the Minutemen had to Hurry Up and Wait before they saw the whites of the British eyes?” Atwood asked.

Mackenzie nodded. “Sure as shit the Spartans Hurried Up and Waited on the Persians.” He laughed.

“Hell, even cavemen probably had grunts, say the same thing, when they were waiting on a brontosaurus or whatever.” Atwood glanced at Mack, who kept silent. “Ugh.”

A slow-burning truism at once reassuring in its consistency and upsetting in its indifference to the plight of mortals. No matter the meticulousness of the planning–and often in some perversely inverse correlation to the amount of forethought–something could, always did go wrong.

The key was in knowing that, and anticipating how to kill the time once it arrived.

Mack finally laughed.

“What?”

He turned to Atwood. “What if Nuñez were right, Gus? What if the battalion did end up leaving us behind?”

Atwood shook his head and frowned. A couple hours wasted on the asphalt in Georgia could translate into a day lost by the time they changed planes in Germany, could cascade into a week behind in Kuwait, could mean a whole month gone before they caught up to the battalion in Irbil.

“Fat chance that happens,” Atwood said, a smile breaking through.

“Yeah, but think, they could get there so far ahead of us they might actually win the war before we arrive.”

“Even fatter chance that happens.” Atwood stooped and picked up a pebble. “Without Second Platoon Charlie around they’d be lost.” He grinned, white teeth flashing against his skin. “Even with us, how’s anyone gonna win this one?” He tossed the rock, skipping it off the asphalt, into the side of the dumpster. “This ain’t one for winning.”

“Then what’s it for?”

Atwood locked eyes with Mackenzie. “You know. Surviving. Keep the men alive best we can, get us all back one piece best we can.” He turned to the birds. “Then we all go back to what we do, what comes natural. Nuñez, the LT, you, me, Colonel Kujo, the Iraqis, them mockingbirds—” He cut himself off with sudden laughter. “What you figure they ate before we invented dumpsters?”

Mackenzie laughed along with Atwood. “I read that coyotes are one of the only animals that did better once white men closed the frontier. Never died off, learned to eat garbage and poodles and they just kept multiplying.”

Atwood nodded. “Makes sense it wouldn’t be something majestic, like a buffalo. A bear. Had to be coyotes.”

“Coyotes are okay. They’re survivors.”

Atwood nodded. “Couple more years there won’t be nothing left but coyotes and mockingbirds. Rats, too. Cockroaches and pigeons.”

“Won’t that make for a zoo?”

The men turned their heads in unison at the sound of an engine coughing to life.

“Hell of a zoo,” Atwood said, dropping his handful of rocks.

 

“Fuck you guys.”

“C’mon, Nuñez, they don’t care.” Alphabet closed his eyes and leaned back as the truck bounced down the Georgia highway, their bodies rocking up and down.

Nuñez shook his head. “Now I look like a whiny bitch.”

“And yet, you’re still whining.” Stevenson grinned from across the truck.

“Like I got all the questions.”

Alphabet laughed. “No sweat. Not like they got all the answers.”

Greeble elbowed Nuñez. “But you listen to them just the same, hear?” His face loomed close behind the jab and Nuñez recoiled from his acne and lisp. The bodies crammed in to the back of the truck made pulling away difficult.

“Whatever man, so they been over there and come back couple of times. Lots of guys been over there and come back.” He shifted in his seat. “I get Atwood, he’s the platoon sergeant. What’s Sergeant Mackenzie supposed to be? No other platoon’s got an extra sergeant just floating around.”

“He’s a fucking expert’s what he is,” Alphabet said, dropping his smile. “One of the smartest guys in the battalion. He don’t say much but it’s worth hearing.”

“What he says? He’s always spouting off some weird voodoo hippie bullshit, Buddhist riddles. Like he talks to birds and shit. I don’t understand him half the time.”

“Well, the half you do understand, you best follow.” Cristobal, one of the Team Leaders, a two-time deployer, leaned in. Alphabet was also a Team Leader but only had one deployment. “And it ain’t Buddhist riddles. Man’s actually a Buddhist, I hear.”

Greeble smirked. “The hell? Ain’t Buddhists supposed to be pacifists?”

Cristobal shrugged and leaned back. “I heard he’s never fired his weapon, except at the range.”

Nuñez smiled, baring his teeth. “How’s he get away with that?”

Cristobal shrugged. “I heard he was just a dumb private in 2003, same as you dopes now, when his whole squad got wiped out going over The Berm. Hooked up with some guys from Third ID, tagged along for the Thunder Run. In ‘05 he led his squad through the Mother of All Firefights in Ramadi, brought all twelve guys back. Did it all without discharging his weapon once.”

Greeble chuckled. “Yeah, but don’t they call him The Knife because—”

Cristobal cut him off with a look. “You wanna know, you ask him. Don’t ask me.”

Stevenson nodded along. “Atwood’s even crazier, see? During the invasion, he went head to head with a Republican Guard tank platoon in a Bradley. Somehow killed three tanks and sent the rest running. Came out of that one with all his nuts intact. He was there two years ago in Fallujah when shit got real bad, got his men through and back.”

Nuñez grunted. “Heroes, then.”

Stevenson shook his head. “Nope. Just really lucky fuckers.”

 

28 March 2007

“Wake up.”

“But we’ll never make it to the Super Bowl.”

“Jaime, wake up.”

Second Lieutenant Jaime Bustamante Cruz knocked the tray table with his knees, spilling books to the cabin floor. He blinked his eyes, dry and itchy, until he could focus on Tall Paul Berry seated next to him.

“I’m awake.” He glanced out the oval window, dim dawn spilling in. Vague green shapes and patterns below–land? How long asleep? “I’m awake.” He contorted his body, collected the papers, books at his feet. Tall Paul handed a photograph to Cruz.

“That your old man?”

Cruz looked at the makeshift bookmark. A young man stared back across years, eyes fierce. Buzz cut contrasted with a three-day beard. The man skinny, skinnier than Jaime ever saw him in real flesh. Then-First Lieutenant Tomás Esteban Bustamante wore faded green pants and a pale bandage over one ear. Rifle over his naked shoulders.

“Vietnam, ’66.” He yawned, stretched, reaching for the bottle of water in the seatback pocket. Empty. Recycled air, cool as a New Mexico morning but somehow drier. When had he finished the water? Last night? Over the ocean? What day was it anymore? “His second tour.” He shook his head and rubbed the heel of one hand in his eyes to clear the fuzz. “What’s up?”

“Man-zilla just stormed through here.” Cruz looked toward the voice coming over the top of the seat in front. Small Paul Capuano peered at Cruz, eyes and nose visible, hideous mustache–within regulations but still the target of the company commander’s ire–hidden behind the seat. “Captain was worked up. Something about rumors coming through the cockpit.”

Cruz looked at Tall Paul. “Rumors of what?”

Shrug. “Going to Irbil might be off the table. Going anywhere in Kurdistan is probably off the table. Evidently some battalions got caught up in the Surge, had to rotate early out of the east to cover a rougher-than-expected patch of Baghdad. Since the north is pretty quiet we may be getting sent to cover part of Diyala Province.”

Cruz leaned back into his seat. “Awful lot of detail for just one rumor.” Looked at the stacks of papers and books. Since reporting to First Battalion, Thirty-Third Infantry, he’d spent most of his time cramming. Printed out and marked up hundreds of pages of Lessons Learned, After-Action Reports, Significant Activities, State Department briefings; purchased a half-dozen books covering Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds, the history of the Middle East, Iraq, Iran; days and nights of highlighting, note taking, rereading spent in preparation for a mission to Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous northern portion of Iraq, partnering with and training of the Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga.

Two weeks ago Major Eichelberger, the Executive Officer, described their assignment to the officers of the battalion as “glorified parade duty.”

The north was safer than the rest of the country, safer even than parts of America. It was far from the Sunni Triangle and Sadr City, from the sectarian fault lines running through the capital, outside the Iranian sphere of influence. The peshmerga had a reputation as capable, professional soldiers, unlike the New Iraqi Army and the Iraqi National Police. The north was mountainous, far greener, bordered Turkey and Iran…

Cruz consulted his notes. Did he know anything about Diyala Province?

“Buddy of mine from West Point deployed there last year,” Small Paul chirped from behind his seat. “Just started turning into a shit show when he rotated out. Mortars, rockets, IEDs, suicide bombers, standup firefights, snipers…” Cruz couldn’t tell if Small Paul was smiling or frowning.

“But no official word yet?” Cruz asked, his cottony mouth demanding a stewardess with a pitcher. Lieutenants Tall Paul and Small Paul had led First and Third Platoons respective for near three months, eternities next to Cruz and his six weeks. They had nicknames, mostly to distinguish the two Pauls in conversation, as did their platoons–First Platoon Fireballs and Third Platoon Death Dealers.

Cruz didn’t need a nickname for himself but wanted one for Second Platoon, something fierce but not profane. One thing he’d made clear to his platoon sergeant and the men was a low tolerance for profanity. They at least avoided the F-word in his presence. He was still working on the lesser curse words.

Tall Paul shook his head. “This all came down like two minutes ago.” He leaned into the aisle and looked toward the front of the plane. “Man-zilla seemed pretty amped, though. I’d imagine Kujo is even more worked up.”

“Man-zilla always seems amped,” Small Paul pointed out. “And Kujo—”

“Well,” Cruz said. “I’m going to see if my sergeants are awake. We must be getting close to Germany by now either way. No spreading rumors, least not in Second Platoon.” He stood and squeezed past Tall Paul. As he stepped into the aisle Cruz realized they’d whispered their entire conversation.

His sergeants appeared in the aisle as if summoned. Staff Sergeant Atwood, his platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Mackenzie, his…other sergeant. Still didn’t know what to make of the man. Something about him rubbed Cruz in a way not quite wrong, just uncomfortable.

“Diyala, sir?” Atwood usually ignored small talk so Cruz just nodded.

“Nothing official yet,” he admitted, lips pressed tight into a line. “I only just heard from the company commander.” Wasn’t exactly a lie, was it? “Until we get further word from Captain Manzanillo I think we just make sure the men are up and getting what they need. Smokes will have to wait until we’re on the ground in Germany. In the meantime, water, snacks, coffee.” He offered Atwood a smile. “Make sure you get some for yourself, Sergeant.”

Atwood nodded emphatically. “Damn right, sir.” He marched off in search of a stewardess and a pot.

Cruz looked at his extra sergeant. A cipher. Two combat deployments, alongside Atwood’s two, and a number of men in the platoon and the company and the battalion with multiple deployments, all while Cruz had been biding his time in college, summer internships and road trips and semesters spent cramming for engineering finals. At least the two Pauls were first-timers, too.

Cruz gave Mackenzie the same brief smile he’d given Atwood.

“This is your third time over, Sergeant?” Mackenzie nodded. “Well, third time’s the charm, right?”

Mack shrugged. “Or bad things come in threes, sir.” He nodded curtly and went off in Atwood’s wake.

“Fucking Mackenzie.” Cruz shook his head. “Damn Mackenzie.”

 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kujarowicz looked around the small room. It was the best the Exec could do on short notice, but this was not the sort of martial background Kujo had ever envisioned for leading men to war.

He kept his face impassive. He wondered what General Patton would’ve said if he’d had to make his grandiose speeches from an airport lounge. He grunted. Damn sure the man would’ve laughed at doing it in a German airport lounge, Kujo thought.

“Sir?” Major Eichelberger leaned close, his quiet voice even softer with anticipation. “The officers are all here, along with most of the NCOs.”

Kujo nodded. “Thanks, Karl.” He cracked his giant knuckles and tried to meet each man’s eyes. “Men.” He offered a tight grim smile. “Sure by now you’ve heard rumors. Since the cat’s out of the bag we might as well skin it. Kurdistan is out. We are headed to Diyala Province.” He waited, wondering if there’d be mutters or murmurs. There weren’t, so he continued. “As some of you may know, Diyala is to the east of Baghdad.” He nodded at that fact. “It’s also a lot more dangerous than Kurdistan, but all that really means is we’ll get more opportunities to do what our Army and our taxpayers have asked us to do–close with, engage, and destroy the enemy.” He would have paced the room but the combination of tight confines and numerous bodies prevented him. “Since the Army says we aren’t technically prepared for Diyala we’ll be getting an extra two days in Kuwait to requisition additional gear and acclimate the men.”

Kujo swore he heard a groan.

“We’ll be posted to Forward Operating Base Dillinger, co-located with the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team, and a battalion slated to depart in a few months. Make sure you use that time to get with your counterparts and learn everything you can. When they leave, it’ll be just us for the next fifteen months.”

A hand rose in the back. Kujo squinted at Captain Manzanillo from Charlie Company. “Yes, what is it, Hector?”

The younger man leaned forward. “Fifteen, sir?”

Kujo nodded. “That’s the other change. We’ve got two additional months in Iraq to show what kind of professionals we really are. Sixty more days.” He glared around the room, daring anyone else to groan. “I know these are large and last-minute changes. Some of your men may complain. But the United States Government, the United States Army, and most importantly the American people have invested millions of dollars towards reconstituting, training, and equipping this battalion. We now have a chance to go out and make an immediate difference, not just sit on our duffs in Irbil training some militiamen to do traffic stops and baggage checks. Diyala will undoubtedly prove a much more difficult mission, perhaps more dangerous, but we all know Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.”

****

Travis Klempan was born and raised in Colorado, joined the Navy to see the world, and came home to the Mile High State. He has degrees from the U.S. Naval Academy, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and University of Colorado Law. His work has been published in Ash & Bones, Proximity magazine, and O-Dark-Thirty, among others. A short story based on his novel manuscript Have Snakes, Need Birds (“No Mere Storm”) received Honorable Mention in Flyway Journal’s Untold Stories Contest. He lives and works in Colorado.

 


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