Bull's Eye

From the anthology Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, 2009


What nobody knows, really, is that I went to Iraq to break loose from my brother Jake. I was twenty, Jake eighteen, and we’d always hung out together, had a good time. We had a little posse since high school, me and Jake and his friends Cliff and Manny. I was big and built, didn’t work at it, just sort of came naturally, and had a pretty good beard, so I could get beer at a couple places out on the highway and we’d grab some sixers and drive out and party. We live in Plumas County, in Northern California: mountains and forests, loggers, truckers, mill workers, Republicans; nice little downtown strip in Quincy, the county seat, and just a hint of yuppie tourism starting. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter, it’s a simple place, really. Nice to live in, tough to leave. Took the war, in fact—and Jake, of course—to get me out. Didn’t plan to leave again once I got my discharge.

Jake and Cliff and Manny were all straight-A students, which I surely wasn’t, but they could be light on the common sense. “Well, Einstein,” I said to Manny once, “you could’ve driven home two hours ago and maybe not dragged me out here if you’d checked this loose battery cable.” They seemed to kind of like having me around, though, which was good because I wouldn’t have known what the fuck to do otherwise. My class was all cliques and politics, nobody worth the time of the damn day far as I was concerned.

Since our dad left, my mom did her best to rule us with an iron hand. Jake got ideas and stepped out of bounds, but I never crossed her. Never had ideas like he did, like telling her he was sitting with Manny at church, but really spending the whole hour in the parking lot deflating people’s tires. Who would think of doing that?

Anyway, this thing with Jake had been in the back of my mind for awhile, thoughts and wonderings about how he always seemed to pick the brand of beer and decide between burgers or burritos, a swim or a hike, the lake or the river. I started thinking, damn, who’s the big brother here? Him or me? Then one day Cliff says to me in the garage, “Hey Kyle, what do you think about doing that bungee jumping? Those Tahoe guys are setting up down at Oroville next Saturday, that bridge on 162.” Now I wasn’t a daredevil, scariest thing I’d ever done was ride a bike fast through high grass, but we’d talked about bungee jumping, and I’d imagined freefalling toward water, all control abandoned, what would happen to your insides, what would happen inside your head? Curious, sure, but never serious about it, and I knew my mom would kill me if she ever found out. Anyway, Jake was sitting on a crate in the corner, and it was what I did next that made me realize. It was just a glance, really. I just looked at Jake, made eye contact. But in my mind I was like, asking permission, or at least “What do you think, Jake?” In the next instant, though, I thought, what the fuck am I looking for permission from my punk-ass little brother for? And that’s when I realized I’d been doing what Jake decided on for as long as I could remember.

It was hot in the garage and Jake was overhauling the hub on his rear bike wheel. He drags a clean rag across the back of his neck, and then he gives me this look, no words passed at all, he just kind of looks down at the wheel then back up with his left eyebrow raised, and I know he doesn’t like the bungee jumping idea. So like a dumb-ass I say to Cliff, “Yeah, let’s do that. That’ll be fun.”

So Cliff and I went out to Oroville the next Saturday, the view of the bridge ominous as we approached from the south. Cliff parked his truck and we walked out, glancing over the side every once in a while, hundreds of feet straight down into gray blue water, all that curiosity about floating in freefall long gone. The sun was already beating down, cooking the asphalt and making us squint against the light and heat, and now I was having practical thoughts, like imagining that tether strap around my ankle and wondering if those hundreds of feet down would really be enough.

The bungee-jump guys were set up on a support span underneath the roadway. You had to climb down on a ladder. I stopped at the ladder and said to Cliff, “I don’t think I’m doing this, man.” I expected some shit, being all gung-ho before in the garage, but he didn’tsay anything, just looked down at the tethers and straps hanging from the bridge. I imagined a messed up ankle or worse, limping into the house and explaining myself to my mom.

Then we heard a whoop and looked down and a small little woman with dark hair and hiking boots went off. She was falling, falling without a sound, getting smaller and smaller, and you were sure, just dead certain she was going into the drink. And I was saying to myself, there is no fucking way I’m doing that shit.

I looked at Cliff. “Yeah,” he said, still looking down, “I don’t think I need to do this either. Let’s go get us some beers.”

And so Jake was right, again. Another decision I couldn’t make for myself. And that’s when I knew I had to break loose. I had to tell my mom first, though.

“Jake?” she said.

“He decides everything. It’s not right.”

“So don’t let him. Decide some things for yourself.”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“Decide something a little smaller first, Kyle. Going into the service is the deep end of the deep end, don’t you think?”

“It’s more than just Jake, Mom. I need to get away, I need the money, I need to see some things.” She was quiet for a long time. I realized I hadn’t come up with an idea that big on my own ever before.

“Your Uncle Prentice was in the service,” she said, “Vietnam. Three years. I was just a kid when he came out, but he didn’t seem to have any problems like a lot of the boys did.”

“He died of cancer, though.”

“That was his one problem, he smoked a lot. Couldn’t ever quit.”

And with that, she let me go; became a big supporter, in fact, even bragging around town. She’d never said much about the world before that, but now she had a son, she told everyone, who was going to help us win the war.

So I enlisted, joined the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, and got placed in a transportation company because I’d driven and worked on trucks at the mill. In January 2007, we were deployed. We went from freezing our asses off in Kansas, took a short stopover at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for immersion training, then found ourselves sweating and scratching in Kuwait, running convoy missions up into the battle zones. After a while, our unit—Lt. Towson, Sgt. McPherson, Wally and me—got a nickname, “Bull’s Eye,” not because we were such bad-ass convoy protectors, but because we tended to hit a lot of IEDs, one every other goddamn mission it seemed like. The surge was on and those Sunni fucks had joined the good guys’ side, but somehow that didn’t matter for us. We were Bull’s Eye, because the bull’s eye was on us.

One day in the canteen, some sergeant from the 32nd made a crack about this and Wally made a speech. “Due respect, sergeant,” he said, standing at attention, “but we are Bull’s Eye and we are proud. In fact, we are legend.” I stopped chewing. “We walk this FOB with heads held high. We are marked for certain death, but we do our jobs.” The sergeant was locked in a stare-down with Lt. Towson as Wally addressed everyone now. “We drive out again and again into the heat and sand and dust and dissolution. We are in purgatory like everyone in this canteen, but we embrace it.” He turned back to the sergeant. “And with every doom-scattering dead dog or pile of dirt or leaves or shit that ignites under a vehicle in our line, sergeant, purgatory embraces us.” He sat, and there was applause, but I have to say I didn’t like all this talk of certain death and purgatory. McPherson shook his head and kept on eating and Towson just kept staring down that sergeant.

I tried to convince myself our luck would change and we’d start having clean runs, Sunday drives. Iraq kind of reminded me of driving down in Mexico, the highways between Tijuana and Ensanada. Barren landscapes, heat and sand blowing across the roads. But then a load of stereos three vehicles up would go up in a 40-foot flash, and we’d dismount and take up positions to cover for the field corpsmen, and I’d just think, shit, here we go again.

And then they finally bull’s-eyed the Bull’s Eye. A short run up to Nasiriyah, Shia country, supposed to be friendly, 90+F and air coming off the empty landscape heavy with grit. Two Humvees in front, then the transport trucks, then us, then Sgt. Hagar’s Humvee behind us. Rolling through the southern desert, I’d gotten to that place, that numbness where I was beyond sweating. There was never much need for Towson to bark at us, because with our crappy luck, we tended to be on permanent alert from the minute we mounted up, even when it was nothing but road and dust for thirty yards on either side of us.

“Spearhead rider 3, checkpoint 2-6 alpha.” Towson called the checkpoints into the radio. We sat surrounded by hot metal and dust, the grunge on us more dense with each mile, glasses, skin, the vehicle itself covered. We didn’t have much to scan for, the cloud from the vehicles in front pretty much blinding us, but we scanned anyway, giving every person, building, and vehicle as close a check-over as we could at the speed we were going.

On the outskirts of Nasiriyah Wally said, “You know, if we started a pool, we could pocket some cash I’ll bet.”

“Fuck you, Wally,” McPherson said.

“Seriously,” Wally said. “Guys from the 32nd would pony up fifty a square I’ll bet.” He laughed. “Hajis’ll never touch our asses, we’ll just keep piling it up every mission.”

“I’m about to pile you up,” McPherson said, and then Towson shut it down.

“You are hereby ordered to put a sock in it, gentlemen!” he said. “In case you haven’t noticed, we got a mission going on here.”

Fuck!” McPherson veered sharp right. I grabbed for a brace. Flash-boom! I was crunched upward and sprayed with heat, my chin snapping into my chest. The sound was beyond sound, my ears blown out like a subwoofer. Then no sound at all, and no light, an imposing lull pulling at me. I was floating, falling. Clank! Feeling again, and vision, smoke, jagged edges, the back of Towson’s head moving, hissing sounds. “Medic!” Release, the doors opening, space and light, too much light, then the piercing, the hot poker to my side, stabbing, more stabbing, the hissing sound again. What’s that smell? “Uh-oh, funky.” Sergeant Harris, the field corpsman. “Okay, Stanton, easy now.” Shots of pain, out the vehicle door and into pain, every nudge, every bend, every extension a pang, a stab. In the dust, reclined, weight rising up, my head free, my Kevlar open, lifted. “Fuck! Sucking chest wound. Fernandez! Oxygen!” No air, only dust. Panting, but no breathing, no air, panic. “Stanton, you need to relax, soldier. You’re going to be fine. We’re going to get you the fuck out of here, but you need to stay calm.” Calm. Stay calm. Relax. Stay calm.

Either in the chopper or in the CASH I found out about McPherson. My left side, lung punctured and shoulder blade cracked, was the agony zone. Moving, breathing, anything was like a body blow. Wally and Towson both had broken bones, and looking across in the white light, I saw fucked up faces. All three of us. Thirteen rounds with Holyfield. And McPherson? Fucking flash burns and brain damage they told us, and then he was just dead. In the field, the only white we ever saw was the dish-dashes some of the Hajis wore, long white linen shirts standing out against the dull beige of the desert and the unpainted houses. This is what I was thinking when the captain looked across the white sheets and told us about McPherson. “He’s better off, really,” he said. “He wouldn’t have had much of a life. Brain function severely curtailed, and badly disfigured from the burns.”

Towson and Wally were royally pissed. First thing was, we were well back in the line, and the Hajis typically boom on the front of the line, not the back. Second thing was, we were in Nasiriyah. “Excuse me,” Wally said, talking to an imaginary Shia, “but who again is your sworn fucking enemy? Oh yeah, the fucking Sunnis! And who again was the biggest prick of all the Sunnis that you hated more than anyone? Oh yeah, Saddam fucking Hussein! And who again kicked Saddam’s fucking army out and rousted the slimy bastard out of a hole so you could execute his ass? Oh yeah, the U fucking S of fucking A, motherfuckers!”

Bottom line was, why? Wally had some ideas, and Lt. Towson even agreed, and they started talking about some shit, some stepping outside the lines, some vengeance even, which wasn’t my kind of talk. I laid back on the crisp white sheets, nice AC in the CASH, well out of the heat and flying sand. I hit my morphine button, and thought about home, and I have to admit, thought about Jake, too. I could see him glancing up at me. What do you think, Jake?

So they sent us home on leave, and now I’m in Plumas County telling you this story of how I broke loose from Jake. Funny thing about Jake, though: I’m coming home and I’m in the USO lounge at DFW waiting for a connection, got a buzz going from the painkillers, sort of a glide really, alert enough to read the signs and navigate the terminals, but above it all, lighter. So I settle back on a couch there and get my mom on the cell phone, feeling my cheeks sort of locked into this permasmile, and mom tells me Jake’s getting married.

“What the hell!” I said, sitting up. “He never told me about no girl.”

“Watch your language with me, Kyle,” she said. I’d had a few e-mails back and forth with Jake, so this was a shocker. In the last e-mail, he wrote:

Well, it sounds like you’re keeping your nose clean and sticking to procedure. I don’t know how you do it myself. Being good at following orders comes in handy, I guess. I’m trying to do better with that myself, with mom, but you know you left some pretty big shoes to fill there, brother.

That was two days before we got hit. He could’ve mentioned something about getting engaged. “The thing is,” my mom said, “there isn’t a girl. Jake’s marrying a man.”

I just sat for a second. What’d she say? No, I was sure I’d heard it right, and then I was cracking up. Sitting there in the USO lounge busting my guts, my lung hurting, soldiers looking at me. “Oh, shit!” I said through laughter and tears, then, “Sorry, mom, but you got me. That’s a good one.”

“I can’t tell you how much I wish I was joking, Kyle, but I’m not. Jake’s really marrying a man.”

Then I was back to What’d she say? But the connection was clear. I said, “What?”

“He’s a nice boy, too. His name’s Phillip. Jake met him over there in Guerneville.”

“Jake’s a faggot?!” I said, and then the entire lounge was staring at me. I made eye contact with a few of them and realized I was in no condition to stare anyone down. Feeling my neck go cold under the blasting AC, I hoisted my gear and pushed through the door into the terminal.

“Now, Kyle,” she was saying, “that word is as foul as any other cuss word you can use. Don’t you let me hear it cross your lips, and I certainly don’t want Jake to hear it. You understand me?”

I wouldn’t shrink from a bar fight with the biggest, baddest lumberjack in town, but my mom could put me in my place with a whisper. I shut up, but what I wanted to say was, Like hell Jake’s marrying some faggot, ‘cause I’m about to take that boy out back and wrap his ass around a big aspen tree!

“He went in and had a long talk with Father Lawrence,” she said, calmer now. “But it didn’t change his mind a bit. And I told him it would just about kill you, Kyle, but he didn’t believe me. He said you’d understand. He said he knew you would, so I told him to go in and e-mail you then if he was so sure, which of course he never did.”

Understand? What kind of crazy shit was going through Jake’s mind? I flashed on our dad for a minute, the day he finally left for good. His words that day I hadn’t thought about for a long time. “And Kyle,” he’d said, “you can tell that pansy-ass little shit brother of yours I’m never coming back.” And then I heard Jake from behind me, must’ve just come through the door. “That’s fine with us, old man,” he said, “since I think Kyle would take my pansy-ass over you any day. Right, Kyle?” I just grinned at the old bastard. Strange to be smiling, for sure, kicking your own father out of the house after years of torment, but that’s what I did. And now that word, pansy ass, just got stuck there in my mind.

“Anyway, I know this is hard, Kyle,” my mom was saying, “but I just thought you should know. The wedding’s in a couple weeks, on a Sunday.”

After I hung up the phone, and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I started thinking...started thinking about a man’s hand on another man’s dick. Couldn’t get it out of my mind. On the plane I drank bourbon, ignored the instructions on the Vicodin label, rammed my knee into the seat in front of me. Big bastard sitting there got all turned around, glaring, until he saw my fatigues.

My mom told me I had to go the wedding, and now that day had come, and I’m out on the porch running it all over in my mind again. Quincy was a different town to me when I got home. The mountains, the sense of being so high up, the sky a place for forest canopies and open blue, not FA-18s, Blackhawks, and lonely utility wires; the sweep and color of the trees in the distance, green in shadow and sunlight, rays of light slicing through magnificent stands of redwood, aspen, madrone, so different from the constant, colorless, stifling heat of the desert; it should have been good to be home, friendly, familiar, but it wasn’t. It just made me feel worse somehow. My mom didn’t have anything for me to do, wanted me to relax and heal up, so all I was left with was time, and I couldn’t shut my damn head off. Images kept coming; a Kuwaiti driver, his left side black and purple with flash burns right up to his thick black hair, half of it singed off, the blood soaking into the Kerlix as the medic pressed it on; the back of McPherson’s head right before the hit. “Fuck!” he’d yelled out, then he’d veered the truck, which meant he’d seen it, and I couldn’t get out of his head, the fucking terror he must have felt in that last split second. The mountains and the forests and the clean air couldn’t help me, and now I had Jake to think about, too.

I refused to wear my dress uniform even though my mom wanted me to. That was the line I drew—though, truth be known, I wasn’t really sure why. I remembered the time Father Lawrence had railed on the evils of sodomy one Sunday, and how Jake and me had laughed about it. “Fuck do I care what they do?” I’d said. “Thins out the competition, can’t argue with that.” He’d just grinned and shook his head.

“Fuck do you care?” he’d said.

“That’s right, peckerhead,” I’d said, and put him in a headlock and started noogyin’ his ass.

When I landed after Dallas and first saw Jake, he had his jeans and his boots and that dark green fleece he always wore, and his hair was kind of scraggly like always. I don’t know what I expected. Eye make-up or something? Anyway, I got up in his grill right off. “Fucking peckerhead,” I said, “what the fuck?” This was unusual. I knew this immediately as the words passed my lips. I thought of Wally. We are legend.

“Come on, Kyle,” he said, “don’t start in like that.”

I was about to yell, but then I remembered the USO lounge, all those soldiers staring, and I lowered my voice. “Married? A faggot wedding? Is that even legal?

He just glared up at me, and I guessed my mom was right about that word. “It is now,” he said, then he turned and walked away. For days, he held on hard to an unyielding silence. And it was worse because the images in my head were making me feel scared all the time. All it took was a pile of leaves in the gutter and I’d be sweating until we passed. Also, and I don’t like to admit it, but I thought about that gayster sex, couldn’t get it out of my mind sometimes. Hard muscles against each other, stubble against stubble. The whole thing just made me sick. Then, a week or two into this, the silence broke. Like he was reading my mind, Jake looked across the kitchen and said, “It’s like oysters, Kyle.”

“What?”

“Oysters. You never eat oysters, right?”

“Hell no, you know that.”

“Yeah, but other people do, right? Other people actually love ‘em, right?” Then he stopped and looked out the window. “It’s like that,” he said, and that’s what he left me with.

Gayster sex is oysters.

I started e-mailing with Wally in New Jersey. Well, Champ, he wrote in the first one, Carla gave me the toss.

I think that’s the biggest problem with getting deployed these days. Too many hard dicks with too much freaking money left behind. When my Grampa was over in Germany, my Gramma worked in a factory just like everyone else who wasn’t deployed. Now you got college boys and rich geeks and Wall Street clowns riding all over town in their goddamn Beamers looking for pussy. Man in uniform doesn’t have a fucking prayer, Champ. I do hand it to her, though, because at least she told me to my face. And that was a risk, too, because I almost cracked her jaw open.

Good soldier like Wally couldn’t keep a woman, but now, my mom told me, the Supreme Court had made it so gays and lesbians could marry. Jake wasn’t kidding, it turns out. It was legal now.

“Kyle, I want you to meet Phillip.”

I turned from the computer and saw Jake and this other dude standing in the doorway to my room. Phillip had his hands in his pockets and kind of a half-smile pasted to his face. I was sensitized to panic, maybe over-sensitized, because I could see it there in his eyes, or thought I could anyway.

“Phillip,” I said finally, and rolled forward in my chair and shook his hand. He was, like Jake, a normal looking guy, wearing regular jeans and boots and a gray sweatshirt. I don’t know what I expected of these guys. Tattoos? Pink corduroys? He had light hair and looked to be about Jake’s age.

“So which one of you is the girl?” I asked him. This was not a question I had planned to ask.

“Don’t be a dick, Kyle,” Jake said.

Then Phillip put in, “It depends on what we’re drinking, and what kind of mood we’re in. I mean, that’s the nice thing, right? We can go back and forth.”

“Phillip, please,” Jake said.

“And of course when we have our massive fuckfests, you know, where we invite all our gay friends over, then we can just be whatever we want. Boy, girl, sheep!

“Phillip!” Jake was pissed, but Phillip just kept right on.

“It just never ceases to amaze me,” he said, “that when someone meets a gay or lesbian person, the first thing they think about is sex. Why are all these people so fixated on gay sex?” Phillip was animated now, turning, hands on his hips, shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. “When you meet a straight person, you don’t automatically picture them having sex, do you?”

“Phillip, please!” There was silence for a moment. Now I was glaring hard at the faggot punk blocking my doorway.

“Since you asked,” I said, getting up from my chair and taking a step towards him, “no I don’t, Phillip. And do you know why I don’t, because those people are normal, Phillip. Like passing a car on the road, you hardly notice it. But when you pass a fucking car wreck, you slow down and rubberneck, you little piss-ant. Because it’s not fucking normal!

Now Jake had his arms on Phillip’s shoulders and was motioning him out of the room. “Come on, Phillip, this was a stupid idea,” he said.

“And there’s something else you should know!” I yelled down the hallway. “Since you’re going to be Jake’s...” I had no idea what word to use. “...whatever! He’s a fucking liar, Phillip! And if he can lie to me, he can lie to you!” But they were already gone. My heart was banging away, like it would crack through my sternum any minute. 

It wasn’t working. I wanted to kick ass, but then I didn’t. I wanted to make sense, to get some into Jake, but I didn’t have any. I wanted the posse back, but not without Jake. It just wasn’t working. And now, many more days of silence later, on the day of Jake’s wedding, there was smoke in the air. 

Yesterday, thunderstorms had hit and now hundreds of wildfires were flaring up around us. My hand was white-knuckled and slid off the patio chair when I pulled it away. I wanted to run—all that smoke—and pretty soon I started to smell myself inside my suit.

“Ready, honey?” My mom stepped out onto the porch, dressed real nice in a light purple dress and carrying a little sweater on her arm, brushing something off the front of herself. She was a pretty lady, slender but strong, stood up real straight. Further proof how much of an asshole my dad was. She seemed to have gotten a lot prettier since he left. It hit me for a minute how strange it was: of the three of us, Jake was the one getting married.

In the car, it was good to be in the AC, and I thought we’d be driving away from the smoke, but down 70, and then across on 80, it just seemed to get heavier. In Iraq it was sand and haze blowing across olive groves; here it was smoke from wildfires blowing across fruit orchards, and my mind started playing tricks. I’d see garbage by the road, then none. The entire three hours to Vacaville, where we stopped for lunch, I was fighting an urge to do something, but I didn’t know what. Maybe slam on the brakes, maybe run from the car, but none of it made sense, so I just kept driving.

When we walked out of the Chili’s, the smoke was worse, sweeping across the lot heavier than the worst day I’d seen in Iraq. Luckily, my mom was just rambling like she does, going on about Jake and the landscaping business he and Phillip were running out in Guerneville and the little old house they were fixing up. It was the steady sound of her voice that kept me in the moment, in the real time and place, even though my mind was still at it: I swear I saw a smoke plume rising up from a car in the lot.

“Are you alright, honey?” she said, and I looked her in the face for the first time since we’d left. The lines around her eyes were set in deep creases. “Oh, Kyle, you’re staining your collar.” She loosened my tie, unbuttoned my shirt, and ran her fingers between the collar and my neck. Her hands were cool and soothing. “This whole thing with Jake has just got you upset,” she said, but she was wrong. I actually hadn’t thought about Jake since we left the porch.

In the car, she said, “I heard what you said to Jake and Phillip, Kyle. I was walking in from the garage, and you weren’t exactly subtle about it.” I turned and saw that she was grinning ever so slightly. This was a surprise. “I have to say, though,” she said, “I agreed with what you said, even if you could have picked a better way to say it.” She paused and her face went quiet, vacant. “I think of those boys and all that dirty—well, you know. I think of it too. And I think it’s like you said: your mind just goes to it. It’s the human thing to do.” She put her hand to her mouth and turned to the window. I saw the smoke outside her window and felt my hands tense up again. “But we got to find a place, Kyle,” she said, “some way of dealing with this so’s we don’t lose our boy.” Now she turned to me and I could see her eyes full of tears, holding them, until finally a stream ran down the side of her nose. She dug in her purse. “I’m not losing either of my boys, Kyle.” She pulled out a tissue and blew her nose.

As you drive toward the bay, it’s the supermalls you see first: the road gets wider and faster, and local stores with Italian and Spanish names are replaced by Safeways, Costcos, and Wal-Marts. I couldn’t understand how the sight of a Wal-Mart would calm my nerves, but then I realized it wasn’t the Wal-Mart itself, but the fact that I could see the fucker. The smoke was clearing. Already, I’d been thrown into the dumps by what my mom had said—just too much shit to deal with all at once—and the clearing air just settled my nerves completely. I was numb, just pinned under the weight of it all.

There’s a ship graveyard off to the left as you approach the Benicia Bridge. Thousands of tons of military garbage floating, rusting away. I’d never paid it much attention the few times I’d driven by, before I was in the service myself. But this time it got me thinking about war and the planet-sized mounds of trash it leaves behind. Best to stay near the top of the pile, I decided, avoid getting buried under all that shit.

In time, we were out on the Bay Bridge, surrounded on both sides by the gray-blue glistening of the San Francisco Bay—American waters, the edge of the country nearby. Into San Francisco, we passed old warehouses and factories with hundred-year-old painted words fading in the red brick, buildings in reuse, the bright new signs mounted overhead, a steady digital roll of ads for shit I didn’t recognize and probably wouldn’t understand. Then we reached the Civic Center, where the clean, gray, stone buildings looked silvery in the sunlight. The old City Hall was pristine with its massive dome and its columns, statues, impossibly wide front steps, and blue iron lampposts along the front. “City Hall,” it said in the glass above the door, the paint the same aging, chipped, bronze color you’d see on city buildings anywhere, even in Quincy.

But here, there was a mob scene, people everywhere. I parked around the corner on a quiet street, beeped the car lock and felt myself drawn down the sidewalk, pulled forward by the brightness and the cool, clean air. I felt the breeze fanning my neck and ears, then my mom was reaching up and fussing with my collar until I brushed her hand away and did it myself.

My Aunt Sadie told my mom they were doing the weddings inside, in the rotunda. My Uncle Roland stood next to her, and I noticed he had a flower on his suit. Then someone I didn’t know, a very pretty girl, was pinning a flower on me. I almost pulled away, but then I noticed my cousin Nicole was with her.

“This is Caitlin, Kyle,” she said, “Phillip’s sister,” and I saw the resemblance and watched her concentrate on the job of pinning the flower on me, a very pretty girl with blue eyes and dimples in her cheeks, the breeze playing at her fine light brown hair.

Across the wide street, there were Bible-thumpers with signs on the sidewalk—“You Will Be Damned,” “Jesus said go and sin no more,” “Leviticus 18:22.” Some were singing God hates America, the pervert’s hoooome, and some were just screaming and yelling. I stood still and unworried looking at them, a protest crowd, the faces clear, unmasked, easily seen in the sun and the clean air. Then I noticed the sign above them: War Memorial Opera House. And I wondered for a second, which war, or wars? Did Operation Iraqi Freedom count? Was McPherson memorialized here?

Then Jake was there, and I reached out my hand. Phillip was peaking at me over his shoulder. Jake shook my hand.

“I didn’t lie to you, Kyle,” he said. He kept on shaking and so did I.

“Well, you didn’t tell me the truth neither,” I said. The handshake ran its course.

“Yes I did, Kyle. You were just too stupid to see it. What fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-old doesn’t talk about girls, Kyle?” Behind him, Caitlin was pinning a flower on Phillip. “What eighteen-year-old hasn’t had a date, let alone a girlfriend? What kid doesn’t ask his big brother, somewhere along the way, about girls, Kyle?”

And then it hit me, Jake never even knew he was the boss. You were the boss, Jake! I thought. What could I ever tell you?

I would go back soon, to Kuwait, to the convoy runs. Wally and Lt. Towson would want to go back there and whack that Iraqi platoon, the fuckers who were supposed to patrol the stretch of road where we got hit. They were stationed right there, a hundred yards away. In the CASH, Lt. Towson was like, “They’re embedded dissidents. They have no sense of their mission. No commitment to it.” And Wally was like, “They’re lining their wallets is what they’re doing.” And they explained, it’s so much green for every U.S. Humvee, if we don’t go in there and kill every last goddamn one of ‘em, that shit will get out of control. We hadn’t done any killing, and here was a chance to kill the right people. Something simple, like the smoke blowing away, a clearing of the air.

“Congratulations, Jake,” I said to my brother, “I hope you will be very happy.” There were eyes on me and I could feel them. My mom, Aunt Sadie, Nicole, Uncle Roland, Caitlin. 

Phillip.

Then a voice called out from the top of the steps, “Stanton!” and our group started up. But I didn’t follow at first. I stood looking up at the gable and the two flags blowing in the wind up there, the San Francisco flag and the Stars and Stripes. And just a few white clouds were blowing over, and it looked for all the world like the great silvery structure was falling on us, like a moment would pass and the tons of stone would be there to crush us in an instant.

Copyright © 2009–2015, Bruce Overby