The crooks at the opere pubbliche were sponsoring some new excavation close to our barracks—14 hours a day, rusty orange machines chomped at the paving stones so loud it rattled your skull—and snaggletooth ditches notched practically every calle, fondamenta, campo, and sotoportego. According to my bunkmate Putney, they were salvaging long-abandoned gas pipes, which had suddenly become a big thing on the commodities market. Of course, this made me think of my father’s tragic addiction to futures trading, how he’d eventually blown his brains out, sparing my mother the continued torment of living with him, but how, as fate would have it, she caught a vicious case of the Sky virus and spent six of her last seven years at the business end of a Magic-bed. Recalling my parents’ demise always put me in a funk, and the nonstop din of excavators, seagulls, and church bells was making me even edgier than normal. Aside from Five Card Flint marathons at the barracks and trying not to get eaten alive by a piece of heavy equipment, the local canteens were our only distraction—the candlelit ballrooms in decaying palazzos where, 24/7, channa-heads grinded to Detroit techno.
One raw, drizzly afternoon, I happened to be killing some time at a San Polo club known as Le Chaperon; cold sober as ever (in my humble opinion, the only way to go when you suffer certain mood disorders and have a SIG-P strapped to your chest), I went to open a door I’d never noticed before, thinking it might lead to a toilet, when a stunningly tall girl accosted me and shouted, “Don’t open that!”
I asked her why not.
“Because it stinks,” she said, as if I should have known already. “Stairs to a nasty old canal.”
She was a recognizable type: likely from somewhere down south, drawn to danger and decadence, she’d rejected her parent’s expectations, fled north, and ended up working at a sparkplug or an arcade, hoping someday to meet a real spy. The canteens crawled with these girls, who slinked around looking jaded and disenchanted partly because it was chic to look that way but mostly because they really were. This one had long red hair and wore yellow lizard-jeans with a wide belt, a paisley scarf knotted in a couple of places for a shirt, shiny gold sandals, and big false eyelashes—good enough to eat with a spoon if you could locate a footstool or a friend to give you a boost up. Unfortunately, she spoke Deucio, the West End dialect that mixed Italian agitato with the German jackhammer; she’d said schtoda for “stinks” and unterscalle for “stairs.” It’s a horrible bossy-sounding language, and nothing brought out the bossiness in these girls like seeing an American in NATO garb.
“Sorry,” I said, very puppyish, and put my hands in my pockets till she’d moved on.
We troops, pared down to a skeleton crew, had very little to do in the way of actual duty, our purported mission being to “provide a presence,” whatever that meant. Except for a certain Lieutenant Colonel Bell, who took all the Cold War nonsense to heart, nobody kept any serious tabs on us anymore. It wasn’t hard to fly under Bell’s radar, since he had the worst TBI of any of us, and you could gaslight him so easily, you felt bad about it afterwards. Like the real man I was in those days, I’d gone off all my meds except an occasional patch for cluster headaches. I started each day by wrestling melancholia to the ground, and honestly, it was starting to wear me out. I thought a nasty old canal might be just the ticket, just the tonic for what ailed me, a little blues-chasing adventure. The forbidden door, made of some busy wood like walnut root, gleamed in the candlelight with a spherical knob smack dab in the middle. If in fact it did open onto stairs to an old canal, it would probably be locked, but I didn’t intend to leave without finding out. I backed up to it, pretending to search for something in the pouches of my tack vest, and palmed the knob behind me. To my surprise, it turned with the slightest effort. I pulled the door open an inch and quickly closed it again. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, I actually felt my heart inside my chest. I didn’t know what lurked down there, but if something happened to me, I wouldn’t be found for weeks, if ever. I needed backup, so naturally I thought of my buddy Putney.
I scanned the ballroom and spotted the tall redhead, a lighthouse near a crescent of friends whom she appeared to find boring and short. I figured that if she did work at an arcade or sparkplug, she would have some semblance of a phone, and if she had a phone, she would definitely be pimping it. I moved next to her and indicated that she should lean down so I could whisper into her ear. Once I’d asked the question, she looked at me with contempt. She said something to a heavily inked, middle-aged, and ponytailed man who stood nearest her, and then she motioned for me to follow her, which I did—through a set of double doors into a grand vacant hall, lit only by a single window, its busted-out top panes covered with shrink film. She closed the doors behind us, muting the music, and said, “Uno numero, uno sito, cinque minuti, venti-zwei euro.”
Venti-zwei. God, Deucio drove me crazy.
“What about one number, no site, and two minutes?” I asked.
“The same,” she said.
I said, “Schifoso,” to which she only shrugged, not disagreeing—that was the deal, take it or leave it. I pulled my money clip from my vest, peeled off the euros, and handed them over.
She produced a pink Motofone from her hip pocket, a classier device than I’d expected, and passed it to me. “Calling your boyfriend?” she asked.
I turned and moved away alongside a marble staircase with a naked cherub, bigger than me, atop its massive newel. I stood at the window at the end of the passageway and tapped in the barracks number. I asked for Putney and then waited almost a full minute. The window overlooked an abandoned formal garden, with tall, scraggly hedges.
“Cinque minuti,” called the girl, from behind me.
I thought her boyfriend remark amusing, since my bunkmate Putney was, in fact, gay as a box of birds. When at last I heard his voice, I asked him if there was any chance he could get himself over to Le Chaperon.
He told me he had a card game at 17:30 hours, an excuse I didn’t flatter with a reply, and after a moment of silence, he said, “Can you at least tell me why?”
This meant he was already yielding, and I felt a familiar shame—I knew Putney hated everything about canteens, he wouldn’t want to go down into any stinky canal, he had a preternatural fear of rats, and he found it virtually impossible ever to say no to me about anything. “If you get yourself over here,” I said, “you’ll find out.”
Another pause, after which he said, “Okay, Striker, but you’re going to pay my way in, and that’s definite.”
“Of course,” I said. “And Putney, do you think you could lay your hands on a coyote lamp? And maybe a couple of tramezzini? I’m starving all of a sudden.”
“Jesus, Striker, what kind of fucking tramezzini?”
“Ham if you can find it,” I said. “Are you writing this down?”
“I’m writing it down, asshole.”
“Le Chaperon, coyote lamp, ham,” I said. “And maybe a juice box.”
“Thanks, Putney. Really.”
“Go fuck yourself, Striker, I mean it. Twenty minutes. Meet me at the front door.”
Putney, corn fed, from Pittsburg, Kansas, built like a tank and weighing in at about 220, currently had a black eye. A gifted photographer, he made a habit of documenting demo-blasts—footbridges and other architectural treasures—and recently, at the razing of a kosher food store in the Ghetto, he’d crept in too close. The explosion knocked him back against a wall or something and a piece of debris struck his cheekbone, leaving a spectacular shiner. Like 80 percent of personnel, Putney suffered severe TBI, his memory so damaged that he had to write everything down. He kept a pad and pencil in his tack vest for this purpose, and when I met him at the canteen entrance, he held up the pad so I could see the page where he’d written, CHAPERON, COYOTE LAMP, FUCKING HAM SANDWICH, FUCKING JUICE BOX, a checkmark by each item. I paid his way in and led him across the smoky ballroom to the hall where I’d phoned him; as we passed through the double doors, I glimpsed the redheaded girl watching us with a kind of weird, naughty smile. The hall, darker than before, felt pleasantly cool. I sat on the marble stairs, where Putney joined me after he’d reached up and patted the adult-sized cherub on the butt. He removed his rain-speckled boonie and passed his palm over the blond stubble that covered his scalp. Thin lipped, world weary as usual, he unpacked the various items from the pouches of his vest, including his camera, and placed them between us on the white marble tread. He seemed resigned to his loyalty to me, but he undoubtedly considered it a serious character flaw. When at last he looked me in the eye, I thought I saw 24-carat sadness, but I told myself it was only the effect of the shiner, which had turned greenish. I asked him why he’d brought the Nikon.
“Why do you think?” he said.
“Right,” I said, “but it’s going to be very dark where we’re going.”
“That’s why God created the electronic flash,” he said.
I lifted the baggie with the tramezzini, holding it up by one corner like a lab specimen. “I guess they kind of got crushed on the way over,” I said.
“Here,” he said, snatching the baggie, “I can fix that.”
He squashed the sandwiches flat between his big hands and sailed the baggie down between my legs onto the toe of my right boot. I retrieved it, opened it, and took a bite. “Mmm,” I said. “Grazie mille, amico mio.”
“Prego, ceffo. What’s the big adventure?”
I pulled the foil tab on the juice box and took a swig. “It’s a door,” I said. “In there, in the ballroom.”
“A door,” he said, eyes wide. “That does sound exciting. Very Alice-in-Wonderland.”
“Now, listen, Putney,” I said, “I want you to try to stay calm. I think it’s stairs to an old canal.”
He looked incredulous, but I couldn’t tell if he didn’t believe me or if he didn’t believe this was the reason I’d got him to forgo a card game and come out in the rain. Just then, the hall erupted with a blast of techno and la ragazza alta appeared. She shut the double doors and leaned her back against them, breathing deeply and gazing dramatically at the ceiling. She then cast us a long conspiratorial look, smiled, and said, “Oca! I like your boyfriend.”
I could see she’d undergone a serious channa conversion in the last half-hour. Dilated pupils trained on Putney like ice picks, she glided toward us, parked herself in his lap, wrapped an arm around his neck, and sniffed the top of his head.
Putney laughed. “Who’s this?” he asked me.
“Rachele,” answered the girl, running a finger down the slope of his nose.
Putney told her his own name and offered to shake her hand, but she only continued to explore his face with her index finger. “And what happened to your beautiful eye?” she asked.
She’d said augenho schobelo, and Putney, always flummoxed by Deucio, turned to me for clarification.
“Your beautiful eye,” I said. “What happened?”
“Oh, wrong place at the wrong time,” he said to the girl.
She turned down the corners of her mouth and then kissed the dark half-moon under Putney’s eye. “My father is the mayor of Napoli,” she whispered to him, in italiano. “The biggest stronzo in all of Europe.”
“Le mie condoglianze,” said Putney.
“I really think you should shoot him for me,” she said, patting the pistol holstered on Putney’s chest.
“Senz’altro, cucciola,” said Putney, gently removing her hand. “Next time I’m down that way, consider it done.”
Now she reached for the coyote lamp, switched it on, and aimed it straight into my face. I took it from her and turned it off, but she grabbed it from my hands and clutched it to her chest. “What’s your grumpy boyfriend’s name?” she asked Putney.
“That’s Striker,” answered Putney. “But he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Do you think perhaps he needs to get laid?” she asked.
Putney looked at me thoughtfully for several seconds. At last, holding my gaze, he said, “Yes. I do.”
“He is very serious,” she said.
“He’s very depressed,” said Putney.
“Ah, but who is not depressed?” she said. “The whole world is depressed.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but in his case, it’s pathological. It’s Croatian depression.”
This uncharitable reference made me think Putney might be more fed up with me than I’d imagined. I leaned down and started gathering up the litter at my feet.
Putney bounced the girl once on his knees, and said, “Well, principessa, we’re going on an adventure. Want to come?”
I shook my head and told him in English to button it.
“Sure, come with us, Rachele,” he said and tapped the coyote lamp she still clutched to her bosom. “You can carry that big ol’ light for us.”
Most of the canals had been plugged with landfill and paved over years ago, when the gabions were first erected, but supposedly some had simply been covered with steel plates before the paving. (It was true that here and there in the viali nuovi you caught a glimpse of tarnished brown steel shining through a worn patch of tarmac.) We’d heard all kinds of bughouse rumors about a subterranean system of tunnels: a hideout for tigr-kogot infiltrators; a means of smuggling East Enders across the divide, or fancy wines for republican orgies; the secret warren of neo-Mafiosi waiting for the right moment to seize control of the government; a haven for gypsy shamans who could cure everything from Hughes syndrome to breakbone fever. But the tunnel down the stairs at Le Chaperon appeared to promise nothing so exotic. It was surprisingly dry, though cold and cheerless, and desiccated algae mottled the walls; it didn’t especially stink—smelled only of age and must and brine—and we encountered not a single rat. Rachele walked between Putney and me, now and again swearing in Deucio, and earnestly embraced her lamp-carrying assignment. I had to admit she was growing on me. A few minutes earlier in the thundering ballroom, I’d shouted at her that she couldn’t come with us because it was too dangerous, which of course inspired rather than deterred her; I pointed at her skimpy gold sandals and said she couldn’t come because she wasn’t properly dressed. “Aspetta,” she said, turned, and started making her way through the crowd, grabbing the hand of the older man I’d seen before, the one with the tats and the ponytail, as she went. I was sulking, and Putney was apparently content to let me. We stood without speaking until Rachele returned five minutes later in a denim jacket and a pair of Blake trainers, a pea-green vacuum flask hooked to her belt. She smiled sweetly at Putney and said she’d bought him some spremuta pesca, an expensive delicacy that pleased him so much, I felt myself start to warm toward her a bit.
About 100 yards in, we came to a T, where, because I’m right-handed and studies have shown that right-handed people turn right when in doubt, I led us to the right. Soon we heard the rumble and thump of traffic overhead, harrowing to me and Putney, who kept flinching and ducking. I noticed that he’d pulled a handkerchief from his vest and repeatedly wiped his nose. I stopped to ask him if he felt okay.
“Runny nose,” he said.
“A little nauseous.”
“Not too bad.”
“Do you want to turn back?”
“Not a chance,” he said. “I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Well, I mean, if you’re feeling sick—”
“Since when does a runny nose or a little nausea stop me?” he said. “I’d never leave the fucking barracks.”
Rachele had been oscillating the coyote lamp from my face to Putney’s and back again as we spoke, and now I asked her to please stop doing that.
“And besides, Striker,” Putney said, “don’t wheedle me down here to the creepiest place in this whole creepy town and then act concerned for my health. It’s lame, even for you. Besides, you should be worried about yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
He raised his camera on its strap around his neck and took a shot of my face, blinding me with the flash. “You know what it means,” he said.
I squeezed my eyes shut and said, “No, actually I don’t. Enlighten me.”
He took a shot of Rachele, who quickly blocked her face with the lamp. “Well, let me put it to you this way,” said Putney. “If I was overseeing your mental health care—which, incidentally, I sometimes feel that I am—this isn’t exactly the setting I would choose for you. I mean, don’t get me wrong—it’s lovely, really cozy, full of potential, but it could use one or two windows, don’t you think? Maybe some accent lighting? A couple of throw pillows?”
I wasn’t a hundred percent sure he meant this second reference to my depression problem as an amends for the first, but that’s how I decided to take it. In Croatia, four years earlier, I’d been among those exposed to darkspur, the bioweapon genetically engineered by Estonian scientists back in 2016. Known in Estonia as tum-kan, it was deemed too chaotic by the military even to think about deploying. Most notably, it failed the test of having a treatable outcome for accidental exposures, which of course posed no obstacle for tigr-kogot, who saw all forms of cataclysm as positive. They somehow scored a black-trans cache of the stuff and released it on the eastern Slovenian plains near the Serbian border. Among the almost 3,000 casualties were 243 NATO peacekeepers, stationed 60 kilometers west of Osijek, mostly Croats, but also some Americans and Brits. Darkspur, which looks like the seedhead of a giant dandelion, is propelled by available wind and broadcasts thousands of microscopic spores on the slightest impact. When inhaled, the spores corrupt red blood cells, bringing on blunt porphyria-like symptoms, and assault the nervous system within an hour, causing morbid hallucinations, extreme anxiety, paranoia, and convulsions. Nearly all the plains victims died in the first 72 hours, from cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory shutdown, or suicide. No civilian survivor ever came forward, but a total of five NATO troops survived, including myself. It was initially thought we got our masks on quicker, a theory contradicted by the fact that none of us used a mask, for none of us saw the thing coming. It was also suggested we’d eaten or drunk something that disabled the lethal plasmids in the darkspur DNA, but it turned out we’d consumed the same MREs and powdered beverages as our dead comrades. In other words, nobody knew why we five lucky bastards survived. Across the board we reported an aftermath of euphoria, pseudo-bulbar affect, hyper-alert lethargy, and memory loss—happy diversions that gave way in about two months to chronic fatigue, testosterone deficiency, insomnia, claustrophobia, occasional panic attacks, cluster headaches, and severe depression. In my case, opioids have worked so-so for pain, but antidepressants and anxiolytics do absolutely nada. One GMO I talked to before we pulled out of Croatia speculated that the same chromosomal anomalies that enabled me to survive darkspur probably also accounted for my not responding to conventional meds. Putney, who’d served in the north country 200 kilometers from Osijek on the Hungarian border, saw protracted combat, weathered a never-ending nightmare of AP mines, and pulled a wounded command sergeant major from the Drava during a guerrilla attack near Camp Graywolf, a feat for which he was later awarded a NATO MSM. But all he knew of darkspur came from me, and I’d spoken the actual word maybe twice in two years. We freely discussed our lingering, possibly permanent symptoms, post-traumatic this-and-that, but we avoided citing their origins, which belonged to a past we felt should stay in the past. His earlier “Croatian depression” gibe had violated a tacit understanding between us. Now, inside the tunnel, I thought he probably felt bad about it and was trying, despite any amount of signature irony, to express genuine concern for me. I told him he needn’t worry, I felt okay.
“Are you sure?” he said. “Because, you know, it’s really not worth it if—”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“Oh, boys,” sang Rachele, “I’m cold … it’s cold in here.”
“Well, if you’re really sure,” Putney said to me, “then let’s get going. We’re wasting time.”
I honestly did think I was okay, but as soon as we started to move again, the concept of wasting time struck me as oddly philosophical—I thought its two parts, time and waste, captured the heart of where we found ourselves, both at the moment and in the bigger picture. I employed a trick I’d learned from my mental health specialist in Zagreb: I stepped back from the thought and observed it. I guess I must have stepped back too far, because it appeared fuzzy at best—though I did recognize in it a turn toward the metaphysical, which sometimes preceded a headache.
Now Putney said, “Don’t you think it’s strange that it’s so neat and tidy down here? Wouldn’t you expect to find some kind of debris? Detritus? Bricks? Something? But it’s clean as a whistle.”
Rachele said, “Cosa significa, ‘clean as a whistle’?”
“Neat as a pin,” answered Putney.
“Cosa significa, ‘neat as a pin’?”
“Spick-and-span,” said Putney, which made both him and me laugh.
Peeved, Rachele switched off the coyote lamp.
The three of us halted instantly and fell silent. About 200 feet ahead, candlelight spilled from a recess on the right side of the tunnel and flickered on the opposite stone wall. I whispered to Rachele to leave the lamp off. I heard Putney unsnap his holster and draw his SIG-P.
“I will wait here,” Rachele whispered, but as soon as Putney and I started to advance, she slid in between us again.
Fifty feet farther along, closer to the candlelight, Putney indicated that we should move to the wall on our left, which we did. Another 20 feet forward—just as I was thinking I didn’t like how pale Putney looked—the candlelight went out.
I drew my own SIG-P. Overhead, we heard a screeching of tires, followed by a torrent of horns, then a barrage of church bells. I switched my pistol to my left hand, took the coyote lamp from Rachele, and turned it on with my thumb. I aimed the beam down the tunnel till it struck the recess in the right wall. I called out, “Chi c’è?”
We crept forward again. Twice more I called out “Chi c’è?” to no avail, and half a minute later, poor Putney darted to the opposite wall and launched his lunch. The girl dropped the lamp and covered her nose and mouth with both hands. The lamp cast an ashen horror-movie glow from below. She looked at me desperately, and I shrugged and shook my head, trying to convey that it wasn’t that big a deal—Putney threw up about once a day.
When he returned to us, looking ashamed and wiping his mouth with the back of the hand that still held the pistol, he said, “Sorry … much better now.”
Rachele said she was going back to the ballroom, and I said okay. When she bent to retrieve the coyote lamp, I added, “But don’t think you’re taking our lamp with you.”
“But I need it,” she said. “I won’t be able to see.”
I said, “Peccato,” and she angrily unhooked the vacuum flask from her belt, uncapped it, upturned it to her lips, and passed it to Putney, who took a long draw and passed it to me. The cool taste of fresh peaches nearly brought tears to my eyes, and as I returned the flask to Putney, I observed that he did look much better with some blood back in his face.
Rachele tossed her fiery mane of hair and snorted, exactly like a horse, pointed the lamp along the tunnel again and shouted that whoever the fuck was down there had better come out and show his fucking face.
We moved slowly closer to the recess in the wall, pistols still drawn. The tunnel grew increasingly dreamlike, a diagram in an art book about perspective; it appeared to grow longer to countervail our forward motion and delay us. I suddenly had no idea how long we’d been down there. Something about the light had changed. The compelling thought about time and waste reclaimed me, with the added appraisal that I’d put my finger on the fundamental catch-22 of life on earth. The idea of my having pinpointed something crucial and forever elusive, and pinpointed it with the force of my intellect, seemed somehow attached to an odd and growing weightiness in my limbs. I thought Putney, whom I’d always taken too much for granted, would have an explanation, and when I turned toward him, I was both astonished and sanguine to see him on the floor, legs splayed, his back against a wall. The coyote lamp stood near one knee and ignited his eyes, which, as he looked up at me, brimmed with love and helplessness. Rachele, like a veteran nurse, calm and all business, bent over him and pried his fingers one-by-one from the SIG-P that rested on his thigh. “There’s not enough air down here,” I said to Putney. “I feel weird. Tell me what’s happening, amigo.”
With apparent difficulty, he whispered, “Don’t you know?”
I shook my head and noticed that his pant cuffs had ridden up two or three inches above his speed-boots and exposed bands of bare skin, a poignant sight that prompted me without question to shoot Rachele. My pistol was in my hand, cool and ready, my finger on the trigger, but I simply couldn’t lift my arm. Putney let out a moan, which, surely against his wishes, sounded like pleasure. His eyes, still locked on mine, shifted the tiniest bit to one side. When I turned in that direction, I saw a person from my past, somebody I couldn’t quite place but whom I knew I’d failed to pay enough attention to when I’d had the chance; oddly, he resembled my sad foolish father but for the colorful tattoos on his arms and the long ponytail that fell over one shoulder. I thought that if I could only get off a shot, even into my own foot, it would disrupt things, but the notion of moving my index finger amounted to little more than hubris. Time was just another word for life; wasting it was what we called living: not a game we could exactly win, but one that might send us home with memories of love and beauty for consolation gifts. Even the guy with the ponytail, who held some sort of biblical club in one hand, looked like an avenging god, painted on the wall of a cave. I believed he would smite me—that was the word that came to mind—but as if his mere intention was plenty smite enough, my knees buckled and then he caught me and helped me down, carefully, to the cold stone floor and to a much-needed rest.
Of course, no trapdoor was actually involved in my father’s suicide—he’d offed himself with an FNX 45—but the smack of a trapdoor and the audible snap of his neck were what woke me. Immediately, I thought I was back in Croatia, that the cold hardness beneath me was the frozen ground, and that the dark shimmering shapes above were low evening clouds. My body vibrated all over, a sensation more subtle than shivering; a painful throb on the left side of my head felt as if an icy rod was being inserted through my ear, withdrawn, and reinserted, again and again. I wiggled my toes and realized that I was barefoot and, furthermore, naked except for my skivvies. I heard a muffled toll of church bells and a deep two-pronged thud I identified as cars crossing steel road plates. I touched my left eye and felt tears and sand. I thought, headache, and most oddly, I smelled beeswax. When I rolled onto my right side, I saw a dead body—decidedly male, inches away, prostrate on the stone floor, face averted—and just beyond, the glow of a tawny pillar candle. The candlelight prompted a memory of weakness or dereliction or recklessness, impressions without any concrete image, and I believed that the body next to me, clad only in skivvies, was me, the already-dead version of myself. In my former life on Earth, I’d read that when people died, they sometimes rose out of their body and saw themselves. I lay perfectly immobile, absorbed by an inertia that felt so much like real life, I soon knew I must still be alive. I recalled a door, beautiful and ornate, walnut root, and Putney’s saying, That does sound exciting … very Alice-in-Wonderland. I reached over and lay my hand on his shoulder, cold to the touch but superficially cold, not the skin of the dead, with which I had some experience. I shook him, gently. He startled awake and combat-rolled away from me, just missing the candle, and ended in a fighting crouch, fists protecting his face, and shouted, “Back off!”
“Take it easy, cowboy, it’s me,” I said, and he lowered his fists, looked left and right, looked into the blackness behind him, and then down at his bare feet. I motioned for him to come sit on the floor next to me.
As he sat down, I saw two dark vertical stripes on his back, bruises, I supposed, and once he was settled, I touched them with my fingers and asked, “What are these?”
He dropped his head into his hands and started to bawl, which made sense but also felt alarming because I’d never seen him cry before. “That demo-blast,” he managed to say. “Knocked me back against a fucking iron gate.”
After a minute, he wiped his eyes, laughed, and said, “The candle’s a nice touch. Sweet of them to leave it for us.”
At first I didn’t know what he meant, but then I recalled the candlelight on the stone wall, the girl yelling and cursing in Deucio. For some reason I said, “There’s going to be hell to pay for that coyote lamp.”
“The lamp?” he said. “What about our vests? Our boots? What about our weapons?”
“They took all our clothes,” I said, stupidly.
Putney turned and gave me a crushed look, for though I’d spoken the obvious, it signaled the violation of our having been stripped nearly naked, without our having any memory of it. “At least they left us our skivvies,” he said and started blubbering again.
I wanted to comfort him, and I imagined myself holding him but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. We were sitting cross-legged on the floor, it was bound to be physically awkward, and I didn’t think either of us would really like it. I gave him time to compose himself and then asked, “What do you think they hit us with?”
“Had to be gabba,” he said. “It’s the only thing that strong. Or works that fast. She put it in the fucking peach juice. The last thing I remember … she told me she hoped all my offspring would be eaten by dogs.”
Just then my head stopped throbbing—that’s how it happened sometimes, all at once, as if somebody had flipped a switch. “Right,” I said, and we fell silent for a minute, during which I stared at the candle flame and went blank.
At last Putney said, “I dreamed we met an old man down here, a gypsy … some kind of bussolo who could see straight into your heart and tell you what you were feeling. Even if you didn’t know yourself.”
“And what were we feeling?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” said Putney. “I just remember he could hardly stop crying. He looked into our hearts and it made him cry. He was clutching a framed picture against his chest, that famous Rosalba Carriera drawing. Portrait of a Boy. In the dream, it was the single solitary piece of art that hadn’t been poached and shipped off to some asshole’s palace in Russia or China. It was like a picture of a little survivor … in a gold frame … and this old man was hiding down here guarding it with his life. Then the tunnel started to fill up with water … really fast, like a flash flood … and the old man went under.”
He paused, so I said, “Is that the end? That can’t be the end.”
“I thought I was back in the Drava and had to save him from drowning,” he said. “But then the drawing popped up like a little boat and started to drift away. And you yelled at me, ‘Get the boy, I’ve got the gypsy!’ I thought it was funny that you called it a boy instead of a picture, and that’s when I woke up.”
“That’s when I woke you up,” I said.
“Striker,” he said. “You like me, right? I mean, when we go stateside and somebody asks you about any friends you might have made, you’ll say me, won’t you? I mean, in this whole stinking degenerate world, throughout this whole fucking pointless loveless ordeal, you’ll say you made one friend, right? I mean, if somebody asks you—”
“Sure, I’ll say Ross Putney,” I said. “Ross Putney from Pittsburg, Kansas. Who else?”
Of course this made him weep again, and the odd thing was, I felt like crying too. Despite the unavoidable awkwardness—like trying to hug a girl in a car, way over in the other seat, across the center console—I held him as best I could. He was bigger and stronger than me by far, so I was inclined to make some kind of joke; I said at least now we knew what it was like to get slipped a rape drug. He just wanted to go home, he said, and like an idiot, I first thought he meant back to the barracks but of course he meant back to the States. He asked me what I wanted, and I surprised myself by saying I wanted to earn his trust. I was undoubtedly to some extent still under the influence. “In this whole stinking degenerate world,” I said, “I’d like you to be able to say you could trust me. If somebody stateside asks you, I mean. You could say you found this one fucking friend you could actually trust.” And I told him how sorry I was that they’d taken his camera. I promised to buy him a new one.
The fact of Putney’s MSM saved us from court-martial, but we had to endure a prolonged chewing-out by Lieutenant Colonel Bell (whose nose bled twice before he was done), 45 days’ restriction and extra duty, and two months’ forfeiture of half our base pay—a lenient sentence, really, for loss of weapon. Four months later, a couple of weeks after Christmas, our units rotated back to the States and both Putney and I left the service right after. Altogether we’ve been home now for nearly two years. A witch doctor at the Washington Vaymac has me taking ashwagandha capsules and argentum nitritum pellets, walking two miles every day, and using a powerful sleep gel at night. The ostensible goal is for me to have satisfying sex again before I turn 30, and I’m confident this can be accomplished if I can contrive to sleep through the whole thing. I only need to find the right partner. Meanwhile, the folks at the Vaymac helped me snag a part-time job writing a column for dcpost.ns. Each week I go to a different D.C.-area elementary school and hang out with the kids until I come up with something interesting enough to write about. I like to think about the kids when I’m not with them, which is a lot better than thinking about myself. I often reflect on their basic goodness and the phenomenon of their routine acceptance of things the way they are; because they feel powerless to change anything, they think the world belongs to somebody else and, until they grow up, there’s no use in trying to do anything meaningful. They haven’t learned yet that it’s possible, as with most of our so-called leaders, to gain power without ever growing up.
What else? Yesterday I saw about 20 dead frogs on a sidewalk near Dupont Circle. No idea what that means. Later I cut through Union Station, where a beautiful Georgetown student invited me to join her in a sleep cube; when I told her I had terrible claustrophobia, she nodded and said, “Oh, I’m sure,” as if she’d heard that one plenty of times before. Last month the Republic of China treated the world to a baker’s dozen of live canings on the web, both boys and girls, all under the age of 10, the youngest only four, all charged with “disobedience.” Mostly because of its appropriate-for-all-audiences rating, this global gathering was attended by just over 117 million people, which is nearly three times the number that watched CCP’s moon landing last year, four times the number that watched the Academy Awards in February, and seven times the average number that tune in to tigr-kogot’s Sunday live-streamed beheadings, which are rated “mature.”
Putney, who now lives in Mount Kisco, Westchester County, has been pretty good about keeping in touch—we message each other and send pictures back and forth, but we haven’t managed to make a real visit happen yet and the messages get further and further apart. I think maybe it feels like pursuing a friendship in the here-and-now poses a risk of losing the memory of the one we had overseas. I’m not really sure. And nine months ago, I had to learn from a Starbucks bulletin that he’d eloped with a sculptor named Michael Diggs, son of the famous painter Mason Diggs. He let me know about it himself three weeks after the fact. The two of them, Putney and Diggs, have started to get a lot of attention lately with a series of enormous sculptures they periodically set adrift in different places from ships at sea; I guess somebody tracks them, because whenever and wherever they wash ashore, a camera crew, headed up by Putney, is always on hand to film and stream the whole thing. The fiberglass sculptures, gigantic anthropomorphic figures, are hinged together in a way that causes them, on the water, to roll apart and then roll back together. The landfalls are huge mob scenes, huge media events—especially the one last Easter Eve at Grand-Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire, where the local bishop was holding a sunset Service of Light on the beach for more than a thousand worshippers.
I can see what Putney and Diggs are up to—they mean to offer an antidote of sorts. Only 10 days ago, I received a courier card from Putney, a small print of Carriera’s Portrait of a Boy. Inside he’d written, Per te, mio caro amico, the word perdono (forgiveness), and in Croatian, za tvoje dobro (for your own sake). I’ve thought a lot about it, and I believe he wants to wish me a peaceful heart and freedom from the condition I call hauntedness. Sometimes, usually right before I wake up in the wee hours and go to my desk, I dream of a phantomlike seed, a pod driven by a breeze and sailing under diaphanous plumes, coming right for me. I can neither stop it nor prevent the harm it will do me, and yet it’s beautiful and terrifying at once. I’ve come to think of it as a part of me, a piece of who I am, coming to be healed. I no longer think of it as a nightmare.
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