“The wind that carried us from Troy,” said Ulysses Laertiades, “drove us to the Cicones–to Ismarus. And we sacked the city, terminating the defenders and dividing the women and plunder up equally. And there was much plunder.
“Then the men got stupid, ignoring my orders to set sail at once–barbecuing sheep and steers on the beach–feasting on wine, mutton and beef . . . till the Cicones summoned other Cicones from the interior, more numerous and better fighters.
“So at dawn they came on, thick as the leaves and flowers that spring up in the springtime. And God damned us with black fate and evil luck and woes for the future.
“All that day we fought; and as long as the divine light of morning and noontime hung in there, growing ever brighter. . . we beat them back, though they outnumbered us. But towards sundown, about the time when oxen are unyoked, the battle tilted against us. And they killed us–many of us. But we got away in the ships, heartbroken, calling out aloud to our dead companions–calling out each name several times.
“Then a storm from the north drove us far out on the sea.”
* * *
In their boarding school in north-central Alabama, Benedictine monks had taught Conn and others to parse out Greek classics with the help of a “pony,” a word-by-word literal translation. And later he remembered how they sided with the Cicones, driving the buccaneers back into the sea, not one of them destined to make it back home . . . only their chieftain.
In the Deep South, boyhood cloud nine was defending TV and home. . . lest ships from Andromeda or other galaxies stealth in behind Hale’s Comet. . . or other transients through the solar system.
Almost everyone thumbs-up a defensive war. But invasions? Unprovoked? The Trojan War had the excuse that a lady’s honor was violated–sometime around, say, 1003 B.C. In A.D 2003, a different Middle-Eastern war lacked that particular justification, but Conn and the other Marines who went up from Kuwait that March needed none. Following orders–not theirs to question.
“Look at it this way,” Walton had said. He was tall and skinny with hazel complexion and hazel eyes. “Something like–I don’t know–four out of five German U-boat sailors died in World War Two. Right? And kamikaze pilots? They all died. So if the odds of biting the sand here are like one in say twenty thousand, and that makes you a hero, hell with it. I say, Go!”
“Unless that one in twenty thousand is you,” Ramiro said.
“Me? What are you talking about, man? I don’t die. No way that one in twenty grand is me. Those kind of odds can scare you.”
Everybody was laughing.
So that evening at twilight they were going up through a landscape just off the color of their Kevlar. And it was not until a week later that the sandstorms began in earnest, blotting out the earth-sky distinction–making you breathe the earth.
* * *
Conn could remember better sand: that winter on extended leave with sandy-haired Charlene–“Charlie.” Pale eyes and slowly darkening skin–built for speed like a racehorse. Although longing to go the distance with her, doing so, he knew, would be playing the long odds.
Hardly mattered. No time any more, no existence–nothing. No time and all time. . . nothing at all except empty days on that nearly deserted beach in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Lingering sleep in the drowsy late mornings when sun’s clarity glazed and dazzled. It was like always being love-drugged. Coffee and rolls and fresh orange juice.
And all the rest just time, sky, sea, azure hypnosis. The ocean Columbus dreamed of but never found. Blue all the way west to the East Indies. Bodies of Fletcher’s and Spruance’s downed torpedo crews. Kamikaze graveyard. . . and her skin so close. . . the blackness stretching nearer as the sun sank, lengthening the shadows of the old ruined stone boathouse.
Coppertone tang and the smell of reddish-brown seaweed. . . and the shade approaching ever closer as the afternoon wore on. The dark patch creeping across the diamond-brilliant sand towards the blanket she and Conn were lying on. . . languid in the dry light. . .
* * *
One afternoon, hungry and out of water, they sailed into a cove they hadn’t explored before. Small, narrow, shallow: with just this one little blue building. And God is Merciful–it was a restaurant. Not another structure, no houses, no wharves, nothing. No cars and not a sign of life or human being or other habitation.
Only some sand-colored large factory or processing plant or something much farther away, up on the high ground. But here on the cove only this little blue box of a restaurant, dropped–it would seem–by the last hurricane.
Too much to hope that it was functioning, still in operation. But Conn furled the sails and hauled the boat up on the beach and went up to the front door. . . . Front door? The only door. . . and it opened.
A small L-shaped room with some small neat tables and a kitchen area walled off by a kind of bulkhead–one small door in it. Charlie had already hogged a table by the only window overlooking the cove. Then they waited, not even talking. . . lest the fantasy around them vanished.
A small bald man in a dark suit came out of the door.
“Buenas tardes,” Conn said.
“Buenas tardes, Senor, Senora.” In a moment there were tumblers full of ice water, and huge triptych menus like relics of the Berlin wall. Conn ordered cool wine and snail salad for starters. What was the Spanish for that? Ensalada de caracol? Hard to remember now in an Arab land.
Then the eating came, like Conn had just arrived from an asteroid famine-struck for aeons, so the food was simply out of control. This was Food Planet: course upon course and bottle upon bottle. A good-looking, sort of bullfighter-looking young guy served. Ramiro, nineteen. So there were at least two other sentient beings on this satellite of the Sun.
Everybody became friends. The kid joined Conn and he worked his lunatic guide-book Spanish on him, even though Ramiro spoke much better English. And it all seemed crazily real–like a bond already tighter than with the telemarketer-to-be buddies Conn had grown up with and known all his life. Ramiro–bumped into by chance here at the end of Nowhere.
But the twist came only two evenings later when Conn drove back alone to the small detached suite he was renting–they called it a “villa”–just in time to see Ramiro step out. And Conn was so slow in connecting the dots that he were still smiling to see him there. . . even while some other emotion swept over Conn faster than a blush.
Faster than understanding. Because the heart has already thrown half its life away before the mind knows what it’s lost. . . what’s causing the raging fear rising in yourself.
On the kid’s face? A kind of smashed up uncertain grin. As if not even knowing what just happened was wrong. Though he’s beginning to suspect it. Then the grin dissolves and seems to follow him through the twilight as he turns away–gone, loping easily down the beach.
Conn wondered if should even go in the door, the goddamned door?
“Why, baby?” His body slumped, shrugging–arms out. “Why, Charlie? Sure–he’s a good-looking kid, but…”
“It’s just me. When I’m with you, sweetheart, it’s just as real. It’s just as good, always–but it’s just me. Just the way I am.”
Her smile–as reassuring as “Have a great day.”
No other questions. It was all written out in Braille and Pig Latin and every fucking language on this earth. All there at once: instantaneous. No need for the video.
Every detail to stay fixed in memory–total recall for a long time. Large checked pattern of the floor carpet: black and tan. Black leather sofa she’s sitting on, legs drawn up under her. Head thrown back languidly against the black back of the sofa; blonde hair against the wall’s tapioca stucco–a serious color clash.
Bitch. Whore. Slut. Every word in the litany–ultimately useless and disgusting.
* * *
You know a thousand ways for them to die, he thinks.
And aren’t you in a country where people do that kind of thing?
* * *
No: in her case totally impractical–one hundred percent definitely. But the kid? He trusts you. Just arrange to meet him somewhere down along the shore. . . to help you with the boat. No witnesses. No evidence. Everything destroyed. No him. All wiped away.
So Conn did it. He just goddamned did it. Left a nineteen-year-old body in the ocean and came back stateside with the girl. And when it was over he felt either worse or better but it was at least goddamned done–and maybe some purgation came with the exhaustion.
Only, it didn’t happen that way. He flipped a coin, settled the tab at the “villa” and left $500 in Charlie’s passport. He found the kid and wetbacked him into the States and ultimately into the Corps.
* * *
Then on the afternoon of May 1st, when they were in the narrow shade of some big beige storage facility near the Tigris, the sniping was incessant, even though Washington had declared the war won.
Beige? Everything was beige. No color except the dazzling sky overhead and this long rectangular black strip they were crouching in. And some black rectangles high up in the building where the fire was coming from.
“Give it up. It’s over, assholes,” Junior was shouting. “The goddamned war’s over.”
Walton was suddenly up out of the protecting shade, waving his arms, shouting, “Hey, it’s over, Sahib. Go home to your babies.”
“Watch out.” Ramiro had jumped up too, pulling Walton down. Then he was all over the air, his arms flung out–spread like a beige bat’s wings. And it was only then that Conn heard the thump of the round going into his neck.
Conn had grabbed him before he hit the ground, and Gunnery Sergeant Mitchell had him too.
“I think I’m hit,” Ramiro was saying. “I think I’m hurt bad.”
“Don’t talk, ‘Miro,” Mitchell said. He was a big man, so black he seemed immortal as basalt. “Just hold on. You’re going to be all right.”
“No. No, I got to say something. Arlington, right? I get Arlington? But can I have dual citizenship, Gunny?”
“Yes, you can.”
“Then that’s what I want. Dual.”
“You got it, Ramiro. But not for Arlington. You’ll have it till you’re a hundred. Just don’t talk any more.”
“No, I got to.” His voice was faint now: “Tell me, Conn, was this war right?”
“It was right, man.”
“No, tell me the truth. I need to know. Was it all worth it?”
“It was worth it, ‘Miro.”
* * *
In the air above: a thought. . . passing like a girl’s shadow, hair like pale smoke, hovering insubstantial as a whisper.
As if whispering, “I held you too young. . . but I’ll still cling to you. . . always. . . till you’re old. . . never…”
And Conn was still holding him as life flew away faster than love can.
* * *
“He’s gone,” somebody said.
Conn had his MP-5N unslung and would have been gone too–running out towards the big building, if Junior and Mitchell hadn’t held him down.
“I killed him,” Conn was saying. Shaking his head and saying it over and over again: “I killed him–back there in Mexico. I wanted to do it and I almost did do it. And instead I did it this way. God’s damned me for it, because I was going to do it. And now He’s made me do it this way. Can’t you see? Instead, I killed him this way.”
“Easy,” Mitchell was saying. “Easy, Conn. He was your friend, and you’re just crazy with grief is all. Nobody has any idea what in the world you’re talking about.”