by Jonathan Tennis
Husaybah, al-Anbar Province, Iraq
Four of my Marine Force Recon teammates lay spread-eagle in deep sleep on the dusty concrete floor beside me. As they recovered from physical and emotional exhaustion, Brian and I stood watch, scanning the city from the blasted-out windows of the building’s top floor. Before dawn, our team had clandestinely occupied the abandoned Saddam-era Iraqi government office, known to us as the “Crack House.” Miraculously, we had remained unseen from the vigilant civilians and combatants by low-crawling in through a weed- and shit-filled ditch which ran next to our new hide site. Like hunters eager to kill a trophy buck, we searched the alleyways below with high-powered optics, hoping to catch our prey off-guard as the sun rose.
by Chad Pettit
On a Sunday afternoon drive with my family
I stop the car in the middle of the road.
My wife panics, asks what’s the matter?
On the side of the road sits a trash bag.
It’s just plastic, but I can smell smoke
and hear the squelch of a radio.
The other drivers pass me, heads shaking.
I sit paralyzed, white-knuckling the steering wheel,
foot trembling on the brake pedal.
My wife tells me to breathe, but I’m
hypnotized by a wire that isn’t there.
My boots heel-to-toe step on mortar-shelled roads.
The radio on my shoulder demands a report.
Do I hear the choppers hovering? Hovering overhead? No.
No support this mission.
I spot mud huts and trash pile homes on the road
to the landfill city as I
figure-eight–scan freshly paved
My wife says it’s a trash bag, tells me to drive.
My heart beats to the rhythm of incoming,
and the boom of outgoing
steals my breath.
I see starving men with zip-tie bound wrists,
and sandbags covering their heads on highways of rubble.
“All clear, nothing to report, over.”
I look for the rifle they took away,
replaced with a gear shift.
I push my sunglasses up my sweating face,
take my wife’s hand, waiting in my lap
and drive past the trash bag slowly
Chad Pettit served in the Army Infantry for ten years, including two combat tours to Iraq. He teaches high school English and has a B.A. in English from Texas A&M University-Central Texas. He lives with his wife and four children in Copperas Cove, TX. His poems have appeared in The Lookout and The Anuran.
by J. Scott Price
There’s this valley someplace
that looked like
all the rest
though none of us knew
it contained our death.
A simple shithole of a spot
with no name on a map–no
grand historical battle space.
So there’ll be no consolation,
no transferred dignity
for our beloveds
when reverent whispers ask,
Where did they serve, how did they die?
Thankfully, though, no unmarked graves for us.
Our buddies brought our bodies back.
But I’ve met others
since that day I named the Paradox of Pain
without that seemingly simple,
remain where they fell
and turned to dust
in some other Nowhereville.
J. Scott Price served as an infantryman in the Virginia Army National Guard from 1986 until 2011, and deployed for both OIF and OEF. This poem gestated from events in Afghanistan and emerged seven years after his return.
by Travis Klempan
Red Merrill chewed the gum not on account of its breath-freshening capabilities, nor because he had food stuck in his teeth. (Protein shakes left behind a filmy grit but he washed this away with overchlorinated Iraqi water.) He chewed with no intention of blowing bubbles—it weren’t that kind of gum either—but just because it gave him something to do, and he’d grown sick of dipping tobacco.
by Garland Davis
He could see the cruiser in the mists at the end of the pier as he walked toward it, his seabag rocking lightly on his shoulder. Funny he always thought it was heavier than this. Although the pier was in golden sunlight, the ship was blurred, the gray almost silvery in the cloudy mist.
by Kama O’Connor
1. He’s been lying on top of his cheap, cotton comforter, staring at the walls that still have nothing on them—what would he hang that won’t remind him of the life he’d given up?—for three hours now. The clock reads 12:01 a.m. He had to stay late at the office to make up for the mistake he’d made on the quarterlies. What a joke, he thinks. None of this matters—the reports that told companies where their fractions of a cent were going, and when those fractions were dropped because of a loss in an arbitrary market half a world away. His fucking twenty-two year-old supervisor, just out of college, who kept coming by his small-assed cubicle, whining about shit he’d messed up…. Sometimes three times a day he had to listen to this desk jockey spout off about the importance of these reports and not shove his fist down the kid’s throat and tell him what really mattered in this world. It wasn’t a fucking report, that was for goddamn sure. So he gets up, walks to his closet, takes down the box he doesn’t let himself open often. His old life, the life he was proud of. Would always be proud of. He brushes the dust off the box with the heel of his palm, unlocks it, opens the lid, and stares. Each piece pokes at the pale, soft man he’s become since he took this job a year ago. His retirement certificate. Twenty years of drills and deployments and killing and not dying and broken relationships and training training training with only half a pension and a piece of paper to show for it. Still, he takes it out gingerly, places it beside him, and uncovers more relics. His service medals. A NAM with a combat “V.” A good cookie—ha! He should show this to his supervisor. Afghan service, Iraq service, OIF, OEF, Desert Storm. All conflicts, wars that showed him what the world really looked like. Ugly. Painful. Unfair. Underneath the medals is his grandfather’s old service revolver. He decides to play a game. Roulette, with only one player. The thrill it gives him sends shocks of an old—almost forgotten—feeling through his veins, charges him in a way he hasn’t felt in almost two years. He smiles, digs for the case of ammunition. Retrieves one bullet. A .22 caliber slug that he places in the chamber. Spins it, locks it in place. Holds the gun to his forehead and closes his eyes, excited that this is a game he can play and win, even if he loses. Because it reminds him what matters. This feeling. This. He starts the game.
by Elizabeth Hawes Unangst
“Forget it,” the big man said, chuckling. “Out of the question. Far too dangerous for my clumsy little wife. You’re not exactly athletically inclined, you know, babe.” He gestured beyond the villa’s veranda to the lush green terraces sweeping down to the ocean below. “Besides, silly girl, why would you want to leave this gorgeous view?” Without waiting for an answer, he laughed, kissed her on the nose, slapped her on the bottom, shouldered his clubs, and left, calling, “Wish me luck on the links, babe!” as he went.
by Martin Nelson
Somewhere in the shadow of two mountains, every Hunter lives. It is a strange place where the inhabitants are bold but most are weak. They want to be strong like us, smart like us, but mostly accepted and bound together, like us. They are more educated and sophisticated but seem to want the experience of everything except sacrifice; which is the difference between us.
The smartest hold their families close and quietly craft rich lives by gathering together the fruit of the land; indifferent to the malicious, who incessantly shout battle cries from their roof tops. The continuous call to arms startle those who have already fought countless battles on their behalf. Together, we three have created a safe, trendy, and bustling little society where the gatherers and protesters know nothing of the evil outside the city walls while the Hunters know nothing of the peace and freedom within.
As time passes, the gatherers have slowly gleaned the fields, leaving nothing behind. In the middle of the night, the sharp eyes of the malicious slowly open and from their perch they abruptly unleash a barrage of pointed words; protesting the inequity of society. The Hunters stir in their beds. Alone they are fighting sleep, fighting in their sleep, until finally they are fighting to sleep. There is no peace. Not even at midnight in their own land.
With a blanket tightly wrapped over sweaty shoulders, a Hunter ventures deeper into the valley. Under a star lit night, the two mountains loom. To the left, the mountains base is inviting and gradually goes vertical. In the Hunters youth, the rocky face was climbed for fun with other young Hunters. Now, the path is more difficult and the trail more treacherous. On these cold nights, the Hunter makes the journey alone, stumbling in the dark. The path has become over grown as the trips become fewer. Thickets that were trodden and beat back in the hunter’s youth, now get revenge by tearing at clothes and flesh as the Hunter passes. With each cut, a memory and each trickle of blood, a face remembered. Some of the thorns stick in the blanket and will provide torment for tomorrow. It’s bittersweet remembering lost hunters, but better to own the pain then to forget a friend. At the trails end, the hunter reaches out to touch the cliff. All the hunters started here, touched these rocks, committed to each other -here. Some went to the top, some climbed for a while and went home and a few fell. Some found trails over the mountains to adventures we will never know, but we all started here. We remain committed here.
Across the valley, the hunter can see the forbidden fires and palaces on the other mountain. It is a decadent land where the tribes thrive with much to eat and abundant comforts. The tribe is said to have left the Hunters own land generations ago, but the Hunter cannot be accepted as a Hunter there. Hunters are disarmed and only welcomed as slaves. As the moon rises, another fire is revealed at the far side of the valley. The Hunter makes his way down the mountain base, through the thickets and rocky paths until the sight of the fire is lost. Guided only by the beat of a drum the hunter creeps through the softening brush. Dew drops roll from tender leaves, slowly soaking the blanket and cloths, but soothing the many cuts and scars. The Hunter presses forward as the music gets louder and familiar voices can be heard.
As the Hunter boldly steps in to the fires warm glow, several of the figures rise. They begin dancing closer, each with a different erratic rhythm. Their faces and scars become visible and they all have blankets riddled with thorns wrapped around their shoulders. Their unique dance steps are products of their unique injuries. They look into each other’s eyes momentarily and know they are all the same. Silently, they return to the fire; the only comfort in the shadow of the two mountains.
Martin Nelson is a retired Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician and their 251st helicopter rescue swimmer, with over 23 years of open water rescue, federal law enforcement and executive security missions. He writes fiction and non-fiction pertaining to his military experience, as well as technical and grant-seeking documents. A recent cancer survivor and Texas A&M graduate, Martin now resides peacefully in Corpus Christi, Texas, with his wife Veronica and four children: David, Ian, Thomas and Sydney.
She sat most days in that chair on the porch. Like everything around, it never really seemed old. It must have been put there on that porch, in the same place by Grancy. Neither she nor the chair would have been young at the time.
It is placed to catch just enough sun and shade. Sitting there, you never get too hot to stopping shelling peas nor too cold to go inside. Each woman of the house shaped that chair. You could feel the tiny form of Grancy. Each generation a bit larger made its own form, blurring the harder edges under them. It took years to mold the seat to fit each larger bottom.
Sitting in the chair, you can, must look up to see the interstate. Its wall dead-ends the street so everybody who passes by speaks. Some come to the steps to look toward the chair. These are the gossipers, salesmen, mostly men with eager eyes. Not so often now, when they learn the girls are grown, living on their own.
The chair stays on the porch. It is smooth and dark, as are the women who sit there. Enough happens in front of them that the newsboy never stops. All the stories are shared more with chair than either lady. It’s like it has been in the same exact spot for over 100 years. One woman sits there as if she has become royalty and the chair is her throne. It will be hers as long as she is able to get up in the morning.
And the chair now is occupied with the great-granddaughter. She stares over the railing of the porch. A few brown and near-brown children play in the hot, dusty street. It is summer and they come out early. Their parents are asleep. Most count on someone in the chair keeping them quiet.
A few sharply dressed women head for the dead end which traps all on this street. A path through one unfenced yard is the only escape to the bus stop. Their stride, more plodding than teetering. Their good heels, carefully wrapped in tissue, lie next to their umbrella in oversize handbags. A few have only a shopping bag. These women work as house cleaners, child and health care workers. The factories closed years ago.
The only real sounds are from the flowing rush hour cars above the wall. It is mid-morning before the gawking-eyed men come to the steps with gossip. Who is sleeping with whom? Why the eighteen year old boy at the corner hasn’t been seen? He was in jail for a week before he died. Who is making, selling or using drugs?
Nothing ruffles the mood in the chair. The rhythm of shelling peas never stops. The stories are always the same. But yesterday was different. Sirens, banging and speed on top of the wall just as sunlight faded. It changed everything.
For once, the chair was empty for something other than chores or church. No one took her place. The siren and flashing lights lit up the air. A huge SUV tumbled side over side, front over back, end over end down the wall into the dead-end street.
You could just see the top of a long truck. And parts of cars on top seemed caught in the concrete as the car descended the wall. It drew a crowd because no one ever knew what went right or wrong on top where cars raced at rush hour. In the crowd were the children. A few on bikes. A few mothers with toddlers quickly left the bloody scene. “Bedtime,” they said, gathering them close.
As always the gawking men had started the evening with a few drinks. They ran back and forth as a telegraph service. Women were coming back from work. At first, no one knew what to do. A man, the driver, got out easily. He seemed uneasy facing the crowd and hearing the sirens of police, fire and ambulance. This was going to be a new story.
“Get the chair,” she ordered one of the larger boys. The chair! It had never moved off its spot on the porch for over a hundred years.
Some one was needed to settle the man. Some one to decide what was needed. Others in the car had to be checked until an ambulance could come. It was amazing anyone survived. Then she said to a crowd, “Let us pray.” And they did.
Suddenly the driver got up out of the chair, confessing his sins to her, sharing how it happened he found himself falling in a large SUV over a wall into their very laps. The police came first. The wrecker cleared most of the SUV except what remained on the wall. An ambulance arrived last. It got lost because ever since the interstate came, the street was an alley. All the people in the car rode out in the ambulance.
She took her chair. She put in its place on the porch as near as she could remember. Then she sat down, as someone always did. She was royalty and the chair was her throne.