Furthering my research into the field of creative writing, Dr. Collins and I have continued to look at successful short stories, publishing, and creative writing. I hope to submit several stories for publication within the next few weeks.
Here is a story that I have been working on for a few months.
The plane readies for liftoff. We sat on the tarmac for forty minutes while the crew checked on one of the engines. I must have dozed off. The cabin lights are off. There’s a lot of sound, but it’s muffled. It sounds like the lady upstairs is running a hundred vacuums at once.
There’s something clenched in my hand. It’s my boarding pass. It’s a 10:00 pm flight. The red eye. We’ll be in Topeka early. At least, I think its Topeka, somewhere in the middle of the country. A fly over state. I have a meeting at 9:00 AM. Fred said there will be a car waiting.
The engines rev up and we move forward. The seat next to me is empty. I slip back into a long blink and jolt forward as we leave the ground. I look at my boarding pass again and read the fine print. It’s March 8th. That’s somebody’s birthday. It has to be. I run through my family and friends. Nobody stands out. My eyes close as I search for the relevance of this date. Just before I doze off, I remember it’s the day I started boot camp. Nine years ago.
Garcia was with me, and Jaws. Garcia tells me to check the rifle locks and I tell him to fuck off. We argue, he calls me a turd. Garcia plays the part of the Puerto Rican street tough. I don’t buy it. We are on fire watch. It’s the midnight shift. Each of us carry a flashlight, “moonbeams” we call them, with a red lens. They say the red lens preserves night vision, but I think the color should be rusty. Like a street light.
Garcia tries to make Jaws check the rifle locks. It’s Garcia’s duty, he’s fire watch number two. I’m number one. Not because I’m special. That’s just how it worked tonight. I fill out the log book and stay on the quarterdeck. Fire watch number two roves the deck. Fire watch number three roves the head. Jaws tells Garcia to “fuck off.”
Garcia tries to muscle me into doing it. Jaws tells him one more time, “fuck off.”
I fill out the logbook. Jaws moves into the head. Garcia begins to check rifle locks.
Somebody keeps yelling, “aye sir,” in their sleep. I hear Garcia locate him and shake him. Moore walks past me in his skivvies. He’s half asleep as he turns into the head.
The rear hatch opens up. A silhouette approaches. The footsteps are even, and heavy. I sound off drill cadence in my head, left, left, left right, left.
“Who goes there?” I say.
No response. It’s the duty. I’m certain of it.
It’s one of the Drill Instructors from lead series. The short Spanish one with a frog voice. The short ones are the worst, especially to tall recruits. At just six feet, I stood a full head above him. I report my post. He waits for me to fuck something up. I don’t. Not after the last time.
I reach for the logbook. 1237: Duty NCO Sergeant Lopez tours post. Sergeant Lopez off post at 1240. All secure at this time.
The cabin bell rings, cruising speed. There are a few reading lights on towards to front of the plane. I try to pop my ears by yawning. The flight attendants bring the drink cart down the aisle. I blink.
Jaws and I have the 0200 shift. I never fell asleep standing up. Not until SOI. There’s a moment of confusion when you fall asleep standing up, less than a second, where you forget where you are. Reality only takes a moment to settle in. Then, everything sucks again.
We are at a range in Camp Lejuene. It is August in North Carolina and at this hour it is still at least ninety degrees. The humidity never goes away in August. Tonight, it’s extra dense. I wake up our relief and then wake up Jaws. He almost falls down as he wakes. Jaws could sleep for a while standing up. I never saw anything like it.
“Let’s go smoke,” he says.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“Who cares,” he says. “Sergeant Merritt is asleep, look.”
We turn our heads and look towards his sleeping bag. There is no movement. We have to wake up in another two hours. We’d only bedded down two hours before.
“I mean,” I say.
“Don’t be a pussy,” he says.
SOI offers only a handful of moments to look forward to. It looks really cool in a commercial, and using every sort of rifle, gun, and grenade that our beloved Corps equips should excite us. It would, I’m sure, if only we weren’t pushing exhaustion to the brink each week.
We get some libo on the weekends. Usually only enough time to get a haircut and hit the PX. Sometimes we get a full weekend. I say I’m going to catch up on sleep. Instead, four or five of us pool in some money and load up on beers at one of the local motels. Everyone will talk about girls they’ve slept with back home. After that, we’ll try to find some nearby. That never really works out. Marine corps towns are filled with two types of girls, dependents (trouble), and whores (more trouble). The strip clubs offer consolation to those willing to ignore the C-section scars.
A cigarette, a piece of heaven from the pack that we carry in our crotch to avoid detection during random pat downs, one that soaks up the sweat and all the rest of the fun stuff that lurks in the crotch of a Marine in the field, is more gratifying than a blowjob.
Jaws and I walk away from the camp a ways. He lights up first and smiles. He hands me a smoke. I light it. I stare towards the camp and shake. Jaws smokes slow. My anxiety rises. The nicotine high hits me hard, and the fog starts to feel like clouds. I finish while he’s halfway through. The Sergeants at SOI have all recently returned from combat in Iraq. Few things exist in the world that they hate more than they hate boots. Even fewer things exist that give them the amount of pleasure they get from catching boots fuck up. Once a week, First Sergeant gives us a talk about hazing. Each week, approximately zero of the dozens of incidents get reported to him. My eyes haven’t left Sergeant Merritt’s sleeping bag, but it’s almost a hundred yards away. Humidity lingers over the camp of sweating bodies.
“I can’t wait to get back home, man,” Jaws says.
“We don’t even know when that will be.”
“Reckon it’ll be around Thanksgiving. I just want to see Stacy again.” Stacy is the sometimes girlfriend that Jaws talks about. Sometimes, her name is Wendy.
“She the one with big tits?”
“Huge tits man. I’m talking double D’s. I just want to stick my face in them.” Jaws never describes a girl that he’s been with as anything short of a movie star, big tits, slim waist, pretty face. His jawline is massive. It sticks out and hangs there below his face, the rest of which is relatively small. He has beady, dark eyes that sit real close to each.
“Keep your voice down,” I say.
“Hell, nobody can hear us. Calm down.” Jaws never shuts up.
Something stirs to the left.
“Whose there?” Jaws says.
Through the fog a figure appears. I recognize the slight hunch.
“What the fuck are you two doing, huh? Blowing each other?”
“No Sergeant,” we say. Our hands instinctively cross behind our backs.
Sergeant Merritt sniffs twice. “Smokes, where they at?”
The age old dilemma, deny or comply?
Jaws speaks. “No cigarettes, Sergeant.”
“Give them to me.”
Jaws, that pussy, reaches for his pocket and pulls out the pack.
Sergeant Merritt opens the pack slowly. He puts one in his mouth and pulls out two more. He hands them to us. He puts the pack in his pocket. “Hit the rack soon,” he says as he turns around, “early morning gents.”
Sometimes, even Sergeants aren’t in the mood for bullshit.
The stewardess asks if I want a drink. I ask for a whiskey and hand her my card. I ask her if she can give me two. She nods. I ask how long we’ve been flying.
“Not even an hour yet baby,” she says. I can’t make out her face, but I know she’s older. “Something to mix it?” she says.
“Seltzer is fine,” I say. She cracks a can and places it next to the two mini bottles of Jack. I drink the first. I plan to mix the second. I down the second as well. I take a sip of seltzer. It’s a cheap brand. My head slides to the window and I watch the wings pass through grey clouds.
Twentynine Palms, California, is a shithole. People say there is beauty in the desert. Maybe there is. It’s hot. I lean against my pack and brush my rifle off. The sand sticks back on it the second I stop. The entire company is packed under cammi netting. Corporal Twigg tosses me an empty canteen. I hate him.
“Take a buddy and fill up the squad’s water,” he says.
I look at Jaws and Eubanks. They look at each other and argue. Jaws grabs his rifle and stands up. We grab water bottles from everyone in the squad and head to the water buffalo.
“Fucking bees, man,” Jaws says.
There is some kind of African bee that wound up in the Mojave Desert. They hide in the ground or something. They swarm the water buffalos.
“That’s why I tell you dickheads not to let any drip,” Gunny says from behind us.
“Aye aye Gunny,” we both say.
The spickets on the water buffalo leak on their own. The bees leave you alone if you don’t swat at them. Jaws and I fill canteens.
“I can’t believe we got to run this god damn range three more times man,” Jaws says. “I swear, I was about to pass the fuck out.”
“It sucks,” I say.
The water is hot to the touch. Bees swarm the spigot.
“Why the fuck is second platoon always the assault element?” Jaws says. “And why the fuck is first squad always the assault element for second platoon?”
“Because Sergeant Deptola is the best squad leader,” I say.
Jaws says nothing, for once.
“You think they could get us some ice someday?” Jaws says.
“Gunny said its coming.”
“It’s been coming for three days. This shit is about to evaporate out of the canteen. Look at this, man. There’s fucking steam!” He holds a canteen to my eye level and squints. “I tell you, buddy. I can’t wait to hit Vegas next weekend. Me and you, we’re going to be swimming in pussy.”
“You and all of this pussy,” I say. “I never see you pull anything.”
“I just pulled some in San Diego two weeks back.” I was on duty that weekend.
“Yeah, but nobody saw her.”
“I don’t give a shit, man. I got no reason to lie.”
Jaws and I are the only two still together from our boot camp platoon. I figure he’s some kind of punishment for past sins.
We bring the canteens back and hand them out. I give Sergeant Deptola his canteen.
“Did you get stung by a bee?” Sergeant Deptola says.
He holds out his arm and nods to my rifle. I check the chamber before I hand it to him.
“What are we about to do?” he asks.
“Range 401 Sergeant,” I say. “Our platoon is the assault element. After first and third platoon set in, they will provide support. Before we leave our insertion point, the 81’s are going to fire four mortars at the target. After the fourth mortar, we are assaulting from the west.”
Sergeant Deptola looks up at me. He nods. “Dust this off a bit more around the barrel. You eat chow?”
“Good,” he hands me my rifle. “Go away.”
Outside of the MOUT towns there are a bunch of FOB’s with hooch tents set up. They provide shade, but keep the heat in. The CO gave us two hours of downtime. We are on the last leg of our workup. We deploy next month.
Mojave Viper is the last part of an infantry unit workup. Thirty days in the Mojave Desert. The idea is to live like you are on deployment already.
In the hooch a few guys are sprawled out on their iso-mats. I tried to sleep, but I woke up after thirty minutes covered in sweat and feeling nauseous. Sergeant Deptola is reading a book called The Gates of Fire. Eubanks is fiddling with his flak jacket. Jaws is running his mouth outside somewhere.
I step outside the hooch and get blasted by the sun. There is a breeze. It feels good against me sweating skin. There’s a few guys playing spades. Jaws is one of them.
“I’m telling you guys,” Jaws says. “Gunny is definitely plowing that Staff Sergeant chick from Motor T. He’s going to be the only one getting his dick wet on deployment.”
“That Staff Sergeant looks like the bottom of my fucking boot,” Leone says.
“Bro, over there what’s it matter. Shit man it’s only been three weeks out here and she’s already looking like Giselle. I want to sniff her asshole,” Jaws grins. “I’m getting hard just thinking about it.”
“Shut up, man, ain’t everyone into that nasty shit like you,” Paxton says. “It’s your turn.”
“Paxton, you telling me you wouldn’t eat that ass up right about now?” Jaws says.
“No, man. Shut the fuck up, and go,” Paxton says.
“Whatever, man. Paxton, you’re just a fag,” Jaws says.
Banks, the cook, passes by. “There’s coffee in the chow hall,” he means the ten by ten wooden shed where he warms up the rations.
“Aint nobody trying to drink no god damn coffee when it’s a hundred and three, Banks. You stupid fuck,” Jaws says.
“Well, its there is all I’m saying,” Banks, the cook, says.
I head to the chow hall for some coffee. Sergeant Deptola is in there. He fills his canteen cup with coffee and takes a sip, stepping aside so I can pour some.
“It’s the little things in life,” he says before taking another sip.
Outside, Jaws is still running his mouth.
The plane seems empty in the dim light. No flight attendants are in the aisle. No reading lights are on. The plane dips through turbulence. I feel it in my gut.
Cornfields hold a lot of heat. We’d been in them for two weeks straight clearing out the northern fields. It’s where the Taliban hides its poppy fields. Second squad is getting ambushed to the east. Sergeant Deptola has us pushing North-east to cover their flank. Can’t see shit through the fucking corn. Eubanks is behind me with the SAW.
Sergeant Deptola holds us up to get a sit-rep. We take contact from the North. The top of the corn plants are getting shredded above us.
Jaws, in front of me, starts laughing.
“What’s funny?” I say.
“Man,” he says, and points to the shredding corn. “Is this why they call it the shit?”
“The shit man! We are in the shit!” he says.
“Jaws, you stupid mother fucker,” Eubanks says as he laughs. I laugh too. We shoot blindly into the corn to the north. Sweat pours into my eyes. I reach for the hose of my camel back. It’s almost dry. Eubanks lights up the Saw behind me. I can’t hear Sergeant Deptola right behind me. He grabs my shoulder and motions me to peel off, back towards the east. Sounds like he says we’re getting flanked.
The plane jolts. I wonder what Eubanks is up to these days.
“You know why God made Marines?” Jaws says to me.
“So soldiers can have someone to look up to. Check out this one, a Marine is deployed and his girl sends him a Dear John letter right. So, in this letter she asks him to send the picture of her back because she’s with some new guy and he’s a jealous prick. So the Marine goes around to his platoon and asks them for old pictures of their wives, girlfriends, sisters, whatever they got. He puts all those pictures into an envelope and sends it back with a note that says: ‘Sorry, I forgot which one you were. Please take your picture and send the rest back.’”
It’s dusk. My eyes are playing tricks on me.
“What do you think we got for chow tonight? I hope it’s not franks and beans again,” Jaws says.
“I bet it is.”
“I’m going to shove some franks and beans up Banks ass.” Jaws looks at his watch, “He’s late again, fucking 1800.”
We are two hours into a four hour post. Might get eight hours of sleep tonight.
“LT gave third squad the night off again,” Jaws says.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah I heard Sergeant Gideon in there asking him, and he said ok.”
“Does Sergeant Deptola know?”
“I don’t know.”
Jaws and I were on the ECP. Three other posts that are manned by one guy are up around the perimeter of the FOB. Jaws still hasn’t shut up. Him and I, we’re still stuck together. I don’t mind him so much when we’re on post. Even though stories are bullshit, they usually entertain. Banks finally shows up at 1830 carrying two hot trays.
“Y’all two sleeping?” Banks says.
“Fuck you, Banks. What the fuck did you make tonight?” Jaws says.
“Chicken parm, with homemade marinara. What do you think? Just be happy you eating.”
“Suck my dick, Banks. Piece of shit cook,” Jaws says.
Franks and beans again, over egg noodles and a dinner roll on the side. Jaws dips his into his tray and scoops up a frank before shoving it in his mouth. He talks with his mouth full. The last of the light is fading away and there is a thin orange line on the horizon in the west.
“My recruiter never mentioned this shit,” Jaws says as he finishes his roll. “Infantry, he says. The baddest motherfuckers ever to have existed. He never said I would stand the fuck around for most of my career. Never mentioned getting stuck eating Banks’s bullshit neither. I fucking hate Banks, that piece of shit.”
I step away from the bunker to light a cigarette. Jaws shifts over and stands behind the 240. He drops his NOD’s and looks down the hill at the village. A handful of lights are on, but it’s quiet.
“Aint even shot at us for over a month neither,” he says. “I can’t wait to go to college. I would have went there if my old man didn’t have a hard on about me continuing the old Jaworski tradition.” He tells this story every day at dinner, like clockwork. “Every single god damn war there’s been a Jaworski. It’s like Lieutenant Dan, except Jaworski’s never been killed. Not one.”
“That’s crazy, man.”
“Man I would probably have banged a hundred of them little sorority girls by now. I would have one for each day of the week.” His deer eyes scan the village below. “My buddy goes to Arkansas. He says he bangs chicks all the time.” Jaws had a lot of buddies. All of them are at big schools around the country. Most of them play football too.
“He plays football,” Jaws says. “He’s going to get me tickets.”
My cigarette is almost finished. I pull it down to the filter, and it burns my fingertips. I walk over to the gun. Jaws steps back to go light one.
“All grunts?” I say.
“All of them Jaworskis?”
“Yes sir. Only one who aint seen combat was my Uncle Pete, he was in the Gulf. Had an Uncle Tony who fought at the frozen Chosin.” Jaws says. “He always brought it up at Christmas when someone complained about the cold weather. He was a piece of work, man. I wish you had met him. My old man was in Nam. He don’t talk about it none. Always said the ones who talk about it are lying about it.” This story had always remained the same.
It’s completely dark now, our relief should be out in an hour or so. Jaws and I will clean our rifles for about twenty minutes, and then we will try to get some sleep. We will be back here from midnight until 0400, and after that we’ll prep for morning patrol.
“So a Marine is taking a piss in a urinal and there’s a sailor sitting next to him,” Jaws says. “They both finish pissing and turn to leave. Sailor stops by the sink and washes his hands. Marine just walks on out. Sailor says, ‘in the navy they teach us to wash our hands after we piss. Marine turns and says, in the Marines they teach us not to piss on our fucking hands.”
In the plane I reach frantically for my rifle. My heart stops for a moment before I remember I’m not there. I think about all those Jaworskis.
My grandfather was a Marine. He was in WWII, Guadalcanal. He fought with John Basilone. He told me that when I graduated from boot camp. That was just before he died. He never spoke about it to anyone. Not even my grandma or my old man. He wore a red beret and a red sweater at my graduation. It was one hundred degrees in the South Carolina summer and he stood up the whole time. He shook my hand that day and looked me dead in the eye.
My old man dropped me off at my grandfather’s house the summer after my mom left. He said my grandpa need a hand with a few things and that he would come back in a week. It turned out to be two months. My grandfather woke me up at 5:30 each day and we ate the breakfast that my grandma made. By 7:00, he would give me a task to complete, and I had to complete it before I could go play. I would clean gutters or rake the garden most days. Once, he took me out by the big tree and told me to dig a hole as deep as I could. I dug for about two hours. When he came back, he told me to fill it in.
One night, one of his friends came to visit. They knew each other from the war. They stayed up all night and drank beer and smoked cigarettes on the back porch. I stood by the window and listened for as long as I could. I heard my grandfather laugh harder than I ever had before. The next morning I asked him what they were talking about and he told me to eat my eggs. I think I decided then.
I’m a few feet behind Jaws. He has the metal detector. My rifle is ready and I watch the corner in front of him. He’s looking at the dirt and walking slowly. Our engineer, Curtis, got switched over to second squad two weeks ago. They lost a few guys, and needed a new sweeper. Jaws and I take turns now, sweeping for first squad. Today was my turn, but Jaws insisted.
“Let me do it, man,” he said before we stepped off. “I’m on a streak.” He found an IED yesterday.
Jaws talks as he sweeps. The EOD guys taught us to do that. Always stay calm, they said. Not that anyone had to tell Jaws to speak.
“Remember that girl I used to bang back home, man. Cindy, back in SOI?”
“I thought her name was Wendy,” I say.
“What? Oh, yeah there was a Wendy. She had big ass tits. This one, Cindy, she had regular tits. Nice and perky, just not that big.”
Sergeant Deptola calls up from behind in the patrol.
“Hold up,” I say to Jaws. I turn and step back a few steps. I look at Sergeant Deptola and nod my head. “What’s that, Sergeant?”
He halts the patrol. “What?”
“You call us?”
I shrug. I turn back towards Jaws. He continued on a couple of yards.
“I called Cindy up last night. Tell her I’m coming home so—“
I don’t see Jaws anymore. I see the tree that stands in my grandfather’s backyard. The big one. There’s no noise. The space around the tree is reminiscent of my grandfather’s backyard, yet different. I can’t tell what about it is different. I’m really focused on the tree. It’s so tall. I crane my head back and follow it up. The tree looms over me until I can no longer tilt my head, and still I can’t see the top of it. It’s peaceful here.
Something starts dragging me back, away from the tree.
Sergeant Deptola’s face hovers above mine. His fingers are on my neck. My pulse, he’s checking my pulse. He sees my eyes open.
“Look at me,” he says.
He stares into my eyes. Doc is beside him, he’s looking to. Sergeant Deptola steps back and holds his radio to his mouth.
“–affirmative. He’s ok. It’s just Jaws.”
“What’s wrong with Jaws?” I ask Doc.
“Relax. You know where you are?”
“Yes, Doc. Where the fuck is Jaws.” I sit up. We are inside a compound. Eubanks and Leone are up on the roof. Corporal Twigg is shouting to somebody outside. Everybody’s faces are pale.
“Just relax right now,” Doc stares into my eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Fuck you, Doc.” I hear my voice quiver. “Where the fuck is Jaws?”
“Fuck you, Doc! I’m not concussed. Where the fuck is he?”
Through the window the sun cracks the horizon. The captain says we are landing soon. I have a meeting in a few hours. I’m a salesman for a company that sells hotel furniture.
I’m spending post deployment leave with my grandfather. He picks me up at the airport. My dad says he’s going to get in to see me soon.
At my grandfather’s house, the fridge is stacked with beer. Good beer. For the occasion, he says. We grill up steaks and sit on the back patio. The big tree sits in the corner of the yard, near the fence.
“Remember when you made me dig that hole?”
He grins. “Yep.”
“Why did you do that?”
“You know why.”
I nod my head.
“You know, we had a guy—over in the pacific—this guy Briggs. This guy Briggs never did shut his damn mouth.” He says, pausing for a moment to chuckle. “Always talking about some Susie, or Bobbi-Jill who he had back home. He could never keep the god damn names straight in his stories. He never shut up.”
I look over at him. We each take a pull and finish our beers. The sun is all but set, and it’s a peaceful summer evening.
“Old Briggs, he was the kind of guy who starts a conversation right smack dab in the middle of a firefight. Damn good man.”
“You need another beer, Pop?”
“I’ll grab them,” my grandfather says. “You relax, son. You earned it.”
I light a cigarette as he heads inside. I stare out at the big tree. One or two lightning bugs fly near it. They light up together.
My grandfather walks back out. He has two beers in each hand. He places two in front of me.
“Let me grab a cigarette,” he says.
I toss him the pack. He pulls one out and lights it. I crane my head back and follow the big tree all the way up to its peak. The branches near the top poke out in defiance against the dark blue sky.
“Let me tell you, Pop, about a guy named Jaws.”