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The M1 By Eric Thornton – Chapter 1

First in a series of four chapters from Eric Thornton, winner of the Postmodernize Winter 2013 Writing Contest.

M1A Schematic

If people knew how easy starting a new life was, everyone would do it. Granted, it’s not starting the new life itself that’s difficult, so much as destroying the old one. The war had already accomplished the latter in my case, so the former was really just a matter of paperwork.

* * *

The moment I saw the house I knew that I wanted it. I think my realtor could tell, and that was why she was willing to be so upfront about the neighborhood. Also she wasn’t wearing pants. It didn’t have any bearing on the situation, but it was very noticeable at the time.

“Hardwood floors, track lighting, central heat and air conditioning, and that’s plaster, not drywall or sheet rock. You will notice that this particular unit is situated in an area that has an usual concentration of metaphors. Living here will mean coping with all manner of similes, parables, symbols, and tropes, some more subtle than others. I’m obliged to let you know that the lease does not cover property damage or lost value resulting from any and all literary conceits.”

I told her that my life had always had some kind of subtext, and I didn’t expect my new one to be any different. Then I asked her where her pants were.

“Let me show you the bedroom.”

* * *

I take my M1 Garand. I remove the clip loaded with eight .30-06 Springfield rounds. I unscrew the butt plate. I unscrew the butt swivel. I detach the receiver. I detach the rear sight. I remove the bolt and operating rod. I remove the follower rod and operating rod spring. I remove the follower arm pin. I remove the trigger housing group: the trigger assembly and trigger pin and hammer spring housing and hammer spring and hammer spring plunger and hammer pin and safety and trigger guard and clip ejector, disassembly only authorized under adequate supervision, see par 8b (2)FM23-5). I swivel the stock ferrule swivel. I remove the barrel and gas cylinder. I wrap each component in an oily rag and place them in an airtight plastic bag. I dig a hole two feet long, one foot wide, and four feet deep. I place the bag containing the oily rags containing the components in the hole and cover it in dirt that I tap flat with the shovel. I dig a hole three feet long and one foot wide and one foot deep and I place the shovel in the hole and cover it with dirt I move with my hands. I go inside, wash my hands, and watch TV.

* * *

A pattern emerges. I find myself lounging in my solitude, swimming in it like a man who’s crossed a desert and reached an ocean. The sheer novelty of sleeping and eating and shitting without being surrounded by dozens of heavily armed soldiers doing the same thing is staggering, while having an entire building dedicated to this bizarre luxury feels like an elaborate joke. I spend every waking moment expecting MPs to smash my door to splinters, stampede in and drag me away while my sneering NCO says Are you shitting me, Private? You thought you’d get a gigantic box of wood and glass just so people wouldn’t see you eat your Lunchables? Then I again remind myself that my NCO is dead, along with my Lieutenant and the rest of my platoon and the soldier who was me.

I spend my nights on the roof, watching the horizon smolder and reminding myself that the war is far away. My fellow homeowners don’t share my perspective. For them the war is close, closer than it’s ever been. Part of me wants to tell them that this is in fact a very comfortable distance, that war doesn’t count as close until rubble is playing timpani on your helmet, but then I remind myself that war, like love, is where you find it, be it ripping through your flesh or loitering on your skyline, and what is comfortably distant today has a way of slitting your throat tomorrow. Still, I find myself entranced by the distant smoke and fire, almost hypnotized by it. I can’t fathom how what is a holocaust up close can be so benign at a distance. In my mind two distinct formulations of the war start to emerge, two distinct wars for two distinct people.

May the twain never meet.

* * *

I search online for news of my platoon’s slaughter. As if searching for my own obituary isn’t bizarre enough, I suffer the surreal disappointment of not being able to find it.

There are military forums you can mine for information when civilian channels fail. Technically they aren’t allowed, but any sufficiently dedicated or bored trooper can usually find their way around the firewall.

Heracles8: Did anyone hear what happened to Romeo11 platoon? They called themselves tiger platoon.

Fubar1138:Is that the red tigers or the blue tigers?

Notajoke77:Which fire team?

Heracles8: We didn’t have a color, we were just the tigers. Our call sign was Romeo11.

Grapezorath: Why you asking, H8?

Heracles8: Fire team Charlie 935. I heard they got wiped out 2 a man on another forum. My brother was supposed to have been absorbed by them after he lost most of his unit. Anyone hear what happened to Romeo11, the tigers.

Meanjoegreenie: Man, I’m in Romeo11. I think I woulda noticed if I died. Granted some days it’s hard 2 tell.

Slugga1: He probably means the Romeo11 in the eastern theater.

Heracles8: No, definitely the western theater.

Fubar1138: Which 1? There R like 6 western theaters now. Where U been man?

Notajoke77: Also ally X calls Y a western theater, then ally Z calls A a western theater, shit gets confusing.

Meanjoegreenie: BLUE TIGERS RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUULE! KILL MANY MOTHERFUCKAS!

>Moderator< Finger off the caps lock, biznitch.

Heracles8: Anyone hear about platoon Romeo11, the tigers, taking heavy losses? 100% KIA.

SuntzuU2: Dude, that describes, like, fifty platoons off the top of my head. You gotta be more specific.

It soon dawned on me that so many companies and battalions had been wiped out, that the military bureaucracy was in such chaos, that the list of names of those confirmed/presumed killed/missing was so long, the loss of my meager platoon had gone unnoticed.

I supposed it was good news, if only for me.

* * *

Every Thursday professional looking men in the glowing vests and jumpsuits of extraterrestrial visitors in made-for-TV movies collect my refuse from brightly colored plastic boxes and dump it into an enormous steel machine. It strikes me that trash is the most communal aspect of our post-industrial society besides war. In a world where all our interaction is sterilized and formalized and digitized it is our trash that mingles freely, that is in fact crushed together until their identities become indistinguishable, fused in a singularity of used tissues, coffee grounds, and shredded bills.

Our trash leads a bacchanalian lifestyle of free association and contact without consequence that we can only dream of. It is also buried and forgotten.

Then again, so are we, eventually.

* * *

I carefully covered the spot where I buried the M1 with sod so it was indistinguishable from the rest of my yard. Now there’s a yellow patch on my lawn, an expanding region where the St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum) withers into a scabrous yellow blotch. I watch from the second floor as one of the Mexican groundskeepers stops, crouches down and surveys the yellow area with detached professionalism, his chocolate eyes seeming to deepen as they trace its withered contours. He comes to an internal conclusion, stands, and orders his fellow workers to get back in the truck.

I open the door moments after he presses the bell.

Hola.” He says, removing his hat.

Buenas tardes. ¿Hay un problema?” He nods solemnly.

Si. Soy sir apesadumbrado, pero no hay nada I o mis asociados pueden hacer para ayudarle.” It’s been a long time since High School Spanish, but I get his general meaning. He can’t help me.

“I see. Thanks anyway.” He places a hand on my shoulder, and I can feel the work of a thousand yards tattooed on his palm in calluses and scars.

I gather he knows what I’ve done but, before I can tell whether the gesture is one of consolation or condemnation he’s withdrawn it, climbed in his truck, and driven away.

* * *

The dead zone in my yard kept getting worse. I called my realtor and told her about the problem.

“What’s the expanding yellow spot like?” She asked.

I knew her game. She wanted me to say it was marching across my lawn like an invading army, that its presence throbbed in the back of my mind like a mosquito bite, that it was befouling my lawn like a dark cloud in an otherwise clear sky. Well, I was having none of it.

“It’s like a spot of dead grass. It’s exactly like a yellow spot on a green lawn and nothing else.”

“If it’s not indicative of some greater dilemma—some indictment of society or exemplar of human nature—then watering, fertilizing, and aerating should be sufficient.”

“Perhaps you just sold me some inferior property.” I countered.

“Perhaps,” She said in a tone thick with cloying indulgence.  “but perhaps life itself is the inferior property, perhaps your problem is just one crack in the shattered mosaic of contemporary existence.”

“Are you going to do something or not?”

“I’d like to, but I’m afraid your lease doesn’t cover metaphors.”

“My lawn isn’t a metaphor!” I protested.

“But this conversation we’re having is. It’s a metaphor for several things, not the least of which is metaphors.”

“That’s ridiculous! I’m speaking completely literally about a literal dead patch on my literal lawn!”

“Now who’s being ridiculous? Everything has subtext. Even subtext itself has sub-subtext, and if you looked beneath that sub-subtext you’d undoubtedly find the sub-subtext’s subtext, and so on, and etcetera.”

I sighed wearily.

It often seems that the world is filled with people whose sole occupation is telling me they can’t help me.

“What are you wearing?”

I hung up.

* * *

I was starting to get bad looks from my neighbors. When I moved in I had to sign a contract to keep my lawn in pristine order, and now my yellow spot was driving down property values for the whole block. If I didn’t get rid of it they could sue me for breach of contract or even have me arrested, at which point my desertion would no doubt be uncovered.

My sanctuary was dissolving.

I dug up my shovel and approached the dead spot, determined to excavate my M1. With each step I took toward the dead zone the sun seemed to burn more ferociously and the shovel seemed to grow heavier.

As I came within reach of the dead grass it felt like the sun was pouring fire on me from it’s entrenched position in the sky, while the shovel had taken on the dead, leaden weight of an assault rifle.

In a single instant the world crystallized into something intensely, horribly real. Every blade of grass either burned with its tiny, indivisible life or radiated agony as it withered and died.

The realization that I was responsible for each and every one of these unique lives flooded my mind, distending it, corroding it.

My body was the anvil, my mind was the steel and the hammer striking again and again and again and again was

  • fear of returning to the front
  • shame of being left alive
  • hate of the other side
  • fear of death
  • fear of being left alone
  • fear of having to kill again
  • fear of letting my friends down
  • fear of being branded a coward
  • fear of going mad with fear
 

When I came to it was night, and lightning bugs were orbiting my sunburn.

As I crawled back inside my house and smeared aloe on my skin the remains of my mind settled on the belief that what I had experienced was part flashback, part part panic attack, and entirely something I did not want to experience again.

So digging up the M1 was out. I’d have to redirect my efforts.

I turned on the television.

On the news there was a story about a Mexican gardener who had been abducted by the government to be tortured.

* * *

They came the next day, as if summoned by my panic attack, as if my neighborhood’s bizarre character had transmuted my pain into a signal flare that lit up the night sky, inviting intrusion.

Nobody cared when they repealed the third amendment.

I didn’t even know until an army major arrived at my door and blithely informed me that I was going to be hosting a platoon of soldiers for an indefinite period of time, and I may want to put the kettle on.

He’d barely completed his sentence when Sikhs, Punjabis, Bengali lancers, Patavian horsemen, Syrian archers, Sicilian slingers, Hoplites, Mamluks, Cataphracts, Condottieri, Janissaries, Samurai, Aspis, Peltasts, Clibanarii, and a squire or two all poured through my door and commenced sleeping in my bed, washing in my shower, playing with my Xbox, linking to my WiFi hotspot, and being entertained by my premium cable channels.

At first I was afraid they’d identify me as a deserter, but I soon remembered just how invisible civilians were to soldiers, that as long as you weren’t in the way or a potential threat you effectively didn’t exist.

It wasn’t due to any malice or hubris on the soldiers’ part, it was just a byproduct of situational awareness.

It goes something like this:

Figure 1. Endsley's model of situation awareness (adapted from Endsley, 1995b).

 

A soldier lives or dies according to how he rations his attention, and between the war, military grooming standards, HBO’s Award Winning* programming, and the old foosball table they found in my basement, my existence didn’t warrant comment.

I had mixed feelings about the thirty odd soldiers that suddenly inhabited my house. On one hand it was nice to be once more ensconced in esprit de corps. There’s a certain vitality that comes from so many men dedicated to a singular goal being concentrated in a single place, a communal energy that hangs in the air in dopamine cobwebs. Yet my new position fostered a profound disconnect.

The men who disassembled their weapons on my coffee table, poked at their static-laden radios in my foyer, watered their horses with my hose, amputated their gangrenous limbs on my kitchen floor, and drilled on my lawn, goose stepping fearlessly over the dead patch, inhabited a world I could no longer touch.

I moved through my house like a ghost, experiencing displays of camaraderie and violence by proxy. It was behavior I could scrutinize and dissect at my leisure, but had long since forfeited my right to participate in.

It was like watching the news.

As time passed I found myself absorbing their anxiety and plugging it into my new life. It was a fear I recognized.

When you’re a soldier no one tells you anything besides “Go there” “Kill that” and “Shut the fuck up.” You live your life in a phantom zone of trepidation, never knowing when you’ll be deployed, where you’ll go, and what you’ll do when you get there.

The FNGs are willing to speculate, but the regulars tend to resign themselves to uncertainty and fear, inhabiting it like a survivalist who’s crawled inside the carcass of a dead animal on a cold night.

The air of free floating military anxiety suffusing my house functioned to nurture my new brand of particularly civilian paranoia, and I found myself increasingly anxious, increasingly fixated on the dead spot on my lawn that seemed to grow more conspicuous the more the soldiers failed to notice it.

* * *

I find a magazine that’s been discarded by one of the soldiers.

Judging by the stuck together pages it was bought for the photo spreads of Clara Bow and Tallulah Bankhead, but I find myself more attracted to the articles. One details how, in an attempt to re-popularize the war, several of the battles are being choreographed by popular designers.

Maurice Benayoun designed a battle based around light, a gigantic game of flashlight tag choreographed to form symbols when viewed from above. Peter Grzybowski arranged a battle of topiary, where opposing armies shaped bushes with bursts from their assault rifles.

Koji Ishikawa choreographed a battle based on calligraphy, where both sides bombed the landscape until it had been reshaped into Kanji and ground soldiers swiped at one another with brushes.

The article seemed amazed at how game the soldiers of both sides were for the project, the author repeating his wonder at how opposing parties could occupy the same battlefield without killing one another outside specified conditions.

I couldn’t understand their failure to understand. They were soldiers. Their entire life was taking direction, whether it was setting villages to the torch or painting themselves gold, standing very still, and only fighting each other for a few seconds when passerby gave them change.

The article gave me an idea. I ventured outside my house for the first time in weeks, skirted around the ever expanding dead spot on my lawn, left, and returned with a wealth of gardening implements. I cleared the ground around the yellow patch.

First I transplant a Yggdrasil ash, surgically coaxing its obstreperous roots out of the earth and drawing its branches out of the sky until I can finally move it onto my lawn. The moment it touches the ground its roots dive into the soil, luxuriating in it like someone pushing their toes into warm sand while its branches stretch up in turn, piercing the clouds and vanishing into the heavens. The trunk rotates and expands like clay on a potter’s wheel until it resembles a gargantuan Grecco-Roman column as much as an ash tree. Thus is one quarter of the dead spot obscured.

Next I grow a Bodhi fig, luring it into temporal existence with the earthly delights of water and fertilizer. After that I plant an Ein Sof seed, compost with old bible pages and a few apocryphal gnostic texts, and holy water regularly. Overnight a lovely Sephirot tree springs up from the dirt, with the Hod and Netzach bulbs coming in especially nicely. Last but not least I grow a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and while it doesn’t bear fruit, it completes the arboreal ensemble surrounding the yellow patch on my lawn, isolating it from the healthy grass and obscuring it from the street.

Relieved of my burden, I go inside, wash my hands, and watch TV.

* * *

I awake the next day to find Buddhists assembled under my Bodhi tree. I try to shoo them away, but a startling number of them know Kung Fu.

They offer me no alternative. I call a scarebuddhist.

They arrive fashionably late, the sun dancing across the impeccably waxed hood of their Lamborghini 350GT. The tires squeal in agony as the car stops, and out steps a gorgeous woman clad in designer ornaments.

Hello boys and girls, she says, prompting them to fall out of their lotus positions. Can I tempt you with worldly desire in the form of sexual intercourse with yours truly, or perhaps a twenty dollar gift card for Wal-Mart?

Always low prices, always. Save money, live better. Plow the attractive female that is myself. The Buddhists make a run for it, scattering in a mad dash to find a Sangha less likely ensnare them in the wheel of Samsara.

I have her for three more hours. I worry that I don’t have the means to accommodate her refined tastes, or even a house that isn’t full of rowdy soldiers watching Satyajit Ray films and drinking sake, yet she surprises me by taking a seat under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, smoothing her Versace dress and tucking in her legs. She pulls out a comic book and proceeds to quietly read. I sit down beside her.

“What are you reading?”

“A comic book. It tells a story with pictures as well as words. Unlike pictographs the conceptual symbolism of the alphabet itself remains distinct from the art, which illustrates the action.”

“Is it good?”

“I’m trying to reserve judgment.” She says distantly, turning a page.

“What is it about?”

“A woman.”

“What does this alleged woman do within your comic book?”

“She punches. She is punched in return. She punches back. Punches are exchanged.”

“Oh?” I say, lifting a hand to shield my eyes from the sun as I squint up through the branches to look at a cloud shaped like a fetus.

“She’s a hero.”

“What does she do in the course of her heroics?”

“She gets her costume torn and gets tied up.”

“That doesn’t seem very heroic.”  I say thoughtfully.

“For some. For others it is the work of angels.”

“I guess it’s not without precedent.” She nods without looking up from her segmented world of technicolor violence.

“Structural functionalism. Symbolic interactionism. Conflict theory.”

“Those also serve who pout and wriggle.”

“Also I just like reading it.” A windowless black van drifts past us, and I can’t help but start and turn my head away. Will it stop? Will faceless government agents pour out and drag me back to the front, all under the impassive gaze of this strange woman? No. It keeps going, turns the corner and vanishes from my life. The Scarebuddhist is staring at me.

“Are you okay?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” I stammer.

“I can go, if you want.”

“No, it’s no problem.”

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“It’s no bother.”  I insist.

“I would go home, but a hundred legionnaires are flash frying a camel in my pool.”

“Stay as long as you like.”

“Thanks. I like the setup here. All the trees on my estate died when I had them gold plated.”

“You had your trees gold plated?”

“The bigger ones, yeah.”

“Why?”

“I have a lifestyle to maintain.” She explains as she returns her comic to a hidden pocket her figure-hugging dress shouldn’t be able to sustain.  “As a Scarebuddhist, I’m obliged to lead as opulent and vain a lifestyle as humanly possible, to embody both the transitory and futile nature of material existence.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

“It was pretty damn sweet, until the war came. Now I have to share everything. Eating caviar isn’t the same when there’s a dozen infantrymen next to you smearing it on their hardtack. Luxury isn’t luxury unless it’s withheld from someone else.”

“Do you hate Buddhists?”

“No, of course not. It’s just a job. Are you a Buddhist?”

“No. I bought a book on Zen once, but when I went to read it all the pages were blank.”

“I don’t get the joke.”

“Then you have gotten Zen.”  I say, speaking as if I know what I’m talking about.

“You’re very strange.”

“Is that bad?”

“Given the current status quo, no.” She says in an appraising tone. “But if society ever improves your deviancy could prove less salutary.”

“Do you always plan so far ahead?”

“It’s part of the job.” An apple lands between us.

“That’s funny.” I say. “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil never bore fruit before.” She picks it up.

“Have you been inspired to recognize any new scientific principles?”

“Nope.”

“Then I guess I should eat it.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“I’ll just take a bite and throw the rest away. Waste more want more, that’s the Scarebuddhist motto.”  An eerie silence as her teeth break the fruit’s skin.” Speaking of which, I should go. I like to leave people wanting more.”

“Can I call you?”

“I’m in the book.”

“But I don’t know your name.”

“That’s in the book too.”

How very Zen, I think, as her car rips out of my driveway.

Continue reading with Chapter Two »

Categories: 2013 Winter Writing Contest, Fiction, Long Form.

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4 Responses

  1. Yeah, okay, maybe Eric should have won first, second and third prize, one for each part of this. Fuck. Nice.
    Fuck!

  2. Message [from the bubble]

    Kudos from random Redditors as well (poor little fellas, they’re trapped in that bubble and their comments can’t quite bridge the gap).

    END TRANSMISSION

  3. @Fabius. Wait. It gets better. Must. Resist. Will. To. Comment. Further. Must. Not. Divulge.

  4. Very nice;)

Got insight?