I cannot even find my picture of you, sitting in your
favorite chair, the place you would go to eat your peanut butter sandwich after
Damn you for getting old, for stinking, for dying, you old
mop, slopped about the house, black and white, tail curled, licking peanut
butter off the roof of your mouth.
You loved to walk, scratching the wall, the leash hanging
above, still like death but standing in heartbreaking anticipation. The
restraint that so often muted your collie instincts marks your grave, hanging
on a green stake above. A small but stunted tree struggles right next to it,
above you. Was it the noose that held you back, or have you finally broken free
of stinking, aging, and dying?
You were more than an old mop to me; you were my childhood,
my youth. You were my companion and friend. You were a sweet animal among the
cruel human and the psychopathic nature of Nature. The sound of your nails
tapping the floor, the sound of you scratching, and, yes, licking peanut butter
off the roof of your mouth. You, it, had a rhythm that gave predictability to
the unpredictability of life.
Your eyes, that of a Border Collie, big and brown, full of
feeling, teared up once, when I yelled at you.
You died alone; I remember patting you on the head, your
labored but soft puffing. You tried to hang on to the beauty of life, an
oft-stealth flicker in this vast and timeless universe.
I remember the day I got you. You cried for mom, and my
fleeting child parenting skills went awash when you peed in my bed. My mom put
you next to hers, in a box we got from the dollar store, and you became her
fourth son and my third brother.
And I let you die alone; I couldn’t handle death, the death
of my friend, brother, and of my childhood. I turned up the radio to block out the
sound of the approaching reckoning for you and for all of us. Being denied
leave for a dying son, my mother went to work while I went numb and blocked out
As silence engulfed my room, I no longer heard breathing
from you. There you lay, a fragment of the brother you were, but I summed up
courage and mummified you with the discount plastic garbage bags from the
dollar store. One over your bottom, and a plastic bag over your head—a head I often
kissed and pet; I taped the middle shut and carried you, like a sixty-pound
baby into the freezer we call Buffalo, New York. I moved on the autopilot that
abuse and harshness perfects.
We would put you in the ground, when life was awakening.
[Reflections from the Brig: Kids Are Not Meant to Be Puzzles]
“Is that one over there peeking out?” I say, waving to a gunner. The dirt just under the toenail smiles at me. Or is that a frown?Silly me, I think, I am looking at things the wrong side up.
These, though, are independent digits. Like reddened slugs or overfed worms. Their status miniscule, yet their usefulness has helped rule the world. Here they appear to be shitting red on the ground.
“These didn’t have a chance … yet.” I say it to the seasoned boy-gunner, whose searching for friend number 5. Having walled off shock, he looks at it. It’s smiling at him.
“This is what’s called a tragedy, if I am getting my
Shakespeare correct.” I say.
is what we call it, Zoomie.”
He nods decked out in cammies,
and I think that this is what a philosopher would like if 23 and a Marine. I am
too numb, and he too young to know the digits’ effect on us. It will come soon.
At present, one survives with humor or acronyms.
There is one, and another. The last digit I wrestled from a feral. Pulling a John Wayne, the gunner shot it. I thought, then, of my cat, who’d nestle on my bed and affectionately nip at my own toes.
Maybe that feral is not a feral but the girl’s cat wanting her back? I do not say this to the gunner though. I push it in like a toe stuck in the crack of a dam. Even Marines have their limits, their heroic vulnerabilities. But I must have looked at him like Puss in Boots.
“Don’t be a Wookie,”
said the gunner thoughtfully, “Come to think of it, that’s a promotion for you,
I smile. I think he’s connecting with me.
Feet are safe. I recall driving next to an SUV. The girl on the passenger side had her feet stuck out the window. She was young, a minor, but I don’t have any idea how old. She had black stockinged feet, transparent, the kind guys like me like. I looked at them and then at her face. She looked at me looking at her and smiled, approving my approval of her. The moment is still vivid, though I , too, was young then.
They are supposed to be safe, even for a fetishist. They are
seen everywhere. Yet, if emphasized,
shown off, they become the most intimate parts of us. I recall the red-faced
dad scolding his beautiful daughter for having her bare feet up on a public
table. I liked them; mad she took them down. I accused the dad for being
embarrassed. When I was gunner-young, like the Marine, I was not so corrupted.
Trauma, the eighth deployment, has taught me otherwise.
There is a humanity in them, in feet, and especially with
young girls. Both are taboo yet in plain sight. I knew that the girls liked my
uniform more than I. With age comes such a realization. We all like what we
cannot have, so we pretend and accuse others. Like bare feet, we dress up what
strip away. The terror of our bodies, of death. Each pair is different, a
unique history in a commonly fearful world. If I love or admire them enough, I
know whose feet I am looking at.
I need more than digits. Not all match either. When together,
each toe is unique, that is if they are on the same foot. One must look at the
other foot to notice perfection, to get it right. Yet no pair is alike. Some toes, when together, form an arch, while
with other feet; a toe pokes above the others, almost awkward. They are the
narcissistic toes. Toes, though, need arches and soles.
I find one on a roof and the other the gunner found, sunning
itself near a well. Marines are multitaskers. I like them like I like feet. They
can smell good or bad and are shaped differently, but you always know a Marine
is a Marine, just like you always know a foot is a foot, whether barefoot,
socked, or booted.
There are others scattered about. I learn to compare them. After
hours, we find and match carefully preserving them under the immense heat.
Through the carnage we peer for more toes, feet, and body parts with mechanical
I think that is a head there with a colon on the side; no that foot is the wrong hue, the other worn. It must be an adult’s. If the feral was still alive, it could have that one.
No worries, the gunner found friend 5 intact, sound in body but the threat of TBI after effect. He simply rose up among the ruins. After getting him in the chopper, we continued. His friend telling him to carry on.
“People are not meant to be puzzles,” the gunner says.
“Don’t you have an acronym for that?” I blurted back,
fighting against the depth of the statement.
I nod, wondering what the difference is between FUBAR and
TARFU. Who thinks of these things, I
wonder. Is there a Marine board of
officers that debate the nuances and how each are applied?
I try to reconstruct, recalling the picture of a little girl. Her tentative face shown behind all ten toes ending just below the balls of the feet. She was sitting in a car posing for daddy. They were going to the park. The beauty of that image, the vulnerability of it was intoxicating. I think she didn’t like the picture but did not know why. Daddy did and posted it, not seeming to mind the sexual comments like, “I came a lot.” She is just a kid, I thought. Thrill knows no boundaries, pain becomes a permanent shadow.
I blurt out, “Maybe seven or eight?”
“Negative, we have eight.”
“I mean the girl, about seven or eight?”
The gunner is silent for a moment, then looks at me
sincerely, “This is a different kind of Shit Storm,
Zoomie. You can tell the age of a toe?”
“When you see enough of them, gunner, you can see the whole
person,” I reflect.
The Marine observes methodically what’s in his hand, “Kids
are not meant to be puzzles.”
Girls have beautiful
feet, I thought. These, too, were so. There is no time for fungus,
calluses, hammertoes and yellowed nails. These, though, are no longer so
natural. We tag them, put them in a Ziplock, and put them in the cold. On a bad
day, we wrestle the remnants of girlhood from her grieving mother, our weapons,
“Lock and Load.”
Without thinking, words flooded out of my mouth, “I sniffed a girl’s sock once.”
“I mean, a woman’s,” now sounding more stupid and perverted.
Walking in front of me, the Marine turned, equal in rank but
younger in age, “SNAFU,
we all have our poison.”
The gunner, turning back and scanning forward, “I sniffed a
ass once, not a Jarhead’s,
too much respect for the latter, but like feet, an ass is an ass.”
He turned back, “What did it smell like Pouge?”
“Nylon and sweat. The only high I ever got. They were those
little black, transparent socks. You, know, like pantyhose but socks.”
“Yep, SNAFU, it is. But I guess not all feet are the same
“Yes,” I agreed drawing parallels, “All asses shit and all
feet walk, but they look different, some prettier than others. The high,
though, is daring and intimate. It can bring the person back to life, so to
Seeming to read my mind, the gunner asked, “Why … girls?”
“Because there is a thrill in having what I cannot have. I
am not someone that would hurt them, you know.”
The gunner grinned. “Even though you’re a Zoomie, I won’t tell. I didn’t smell a Doggie’s ass, though. I like belly buttons but try and focus on tits to make me feel normal. I get the girl thing, PeeWee, little chicks.”
We moved toward the beach, spotting someone buried in the
sand. Only the head was shown.
The gunner turned to me, “Now regardless, Zoomie, this is a
perfect example of a new kind of Shit Storm. Who gets to find out?”
I pulled a coin out of my pocket, a child’s toy I found on
my last deployment, and said, “Heads or Tails?” I won or lost, depending on how
one sees the world.
As we approached the person, the age and gender became more
“That appears to be a women-child” the gunner said,” That’s
the worst. Sorry Pouge, given your predilections.”
There was no blood. IEDs are weird that way, one moment we
trudge through liquid bodies and blood, the next is a perfectly enact human
being or body part that rises above mounds of human grief and anger.
The face is pretty, as little girls’ faces are, and the eyes
are open, large and sad. I gently grab the dark wavy hair, hold my breath and
A blood-curdling screech came from somewhere, a scream that
sent both of us back to boot camp. I fell back on my ass, dropping the hair. The
Marine almost pulled another John Wayne. Getting my senses, “I yelled, “Don’t
Fire! Hold your fucking fire!”
The gunner froze. The head’s face was trembling, tears
running down the cheeks.
“She’s buried!” Without further instruction, the gunner
covered me and called for assistance. I dug and dug thinking what to say to a
I knew Arabic as much as a smartphone, but I repeated the
words, “Aman, mamun, hob” as I dug. The girl was trembling, but the warmth of
the sand may save her. As we pulled her out, the gunner pointed, below.
“Her fucking feet. They are gone.”
Otherwise, the girl was as intact as if she dropped from the
sky. I could tell the gunner was startled. I’ve seen many dead kids, but not
the living dead. I put her in my arms, all eight years of her, and ran toward
the approaching buzz of the chopper. I looked down to see if she was still
conscious. She peered through me toward heaven. I repeated, in panting breaths,
“Aman, mamun, hob.”
It then came to me suddenly. “Devildog,” I yelled, her feet!
We have them tagged in the Ziplocs.” Get them to the Medics.”
I knew they were hers.
In the two minutes I held her, she felt like my own. I
pushed her toward the medic and motioned that we have more of her in a bag. The
Marine, handed over the cooler. The girl’s hands clutched to my body and would
not let go. The medics put us in the chopper.
I saluted the Marine below and would never see him again.
Walking toward me, stumbling on what makes us conquer the
world, was Ayda with those big eyes. I held an American flag. It was The Long Walk
toward me. I tried to stop from crying but could not. She was crying, too. As
she got near, I gave her the flag and told the translator that this was from
Sgt. Brian Forthwinger’s family. He was the Marine that helped me save her life
and put her body back together. Sgt. Forthwinger was severely wounded by an IED
a few months ago and penned this letter just before he passed:
When carrying you to
the chopper, my friend, the Zoomie, with his poor knowledge of Arabic (to be
expected from Zoomies) kept telling you, “safe, secure, and love.” We have an
acronym for secure, because, for service members, security is everything: we
lock up, close, take care of, and finish up for the day. We don’t have an
acronym for safe because there is nothing safe about our mission. To be safe is
to put others in harm’s way. We can make things secure. Making things safe is
what a puddle jumper
would do (I love you guys, really). I think I am dying, and will not see you,
but you make me feel secure in dying, in knowing I played a part in saving you
when having to kill others. You are not an enemy but a friend. Life may be
TARFU but security makes them SNAFU. We don’t have an acronym for love, but in
the Marines, love is something that is understood. The love of country,
freedom, family, and God, or Allah, as you say. For this Devildog, the acronym
for love is you, Ayda. You are indeed “one who returns.”