Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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YOUR BROTHER SENDS YOU LETTERS from Basic Training, where they are making him into someone else.
He is six years younger than you, and, although he’s over six foot now, you think of him still as “the boy.” He takes to the military quickly, memorizing the Soldier’s Creed, believing the army religion that all things can be improved. He eats their food and wakes to their song. Not long ago you sat with him on the school bus on his first day of kindergarten. Now he says he should’ve been born into his combat trousers instead of skin. He’s a patriot, a gunfighter, a warrior.
He speaks a strange tongue, though he hasn’t yet left for Afghanistan: Fire rate. Recoil. Enhanced M16. He has new friends from Texas and South Dakota, places he’s never been to or even thought about. He’s assigned a partner, a “battle buddy,” the second word to soften the first.
Each morning he slips an abridged Bible into the shirt pocket over his heart. When he was a kid, he believed in Kurt Cobain and vampires. But late at night in your family’s trailer, he would kneel on a brown carpet beneath a dusty ceiling fan and say his prayers.
It’s been four months, and he’s posted just one photograph on Facebook. In the picture his hair is shorn down to stubble. He is fresh born. His uniform is crisp. No more huffing. No weed.
For the first time ever he’s standing up straight.
YOU CAN'T TRUST what you don’t understand, and one thing you didn’t understand was those skinny boys in uniform hanging around the sliding glass doors of Walmart and sitting behind folding tables at the tech schools. “If you don’t mind,” they’d say, “we’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your future.”
They came in the spring, when the first flowering pear trees were bursting like clouds. They asked you about your plans, and when you said your plans were to burn a flag while flipping David Petraeus the bird, they asked you about your boyfriend’s plans.
“He’s my little brother, shithead. What makes you think I have a boyfriend?”
The one with the almost-purple face laughed.
You were going to tell them to fuck off, but the boy answered them. He took their shiny brochures and business cards. They shook his hand and offered a solid imitation of respect. A lopsided smile crept across the boy’s face.
THAT SUMMER AT THE MOVIES, the army commercials played before the previews. Troops standing in formation. Between tight shots of the soldiers’ faces, as soft and blank as cotton, there were men and women in camouflage fatigues boarding a helicopter. Rappelling down an icy cliff. Hoisting the American flag.
“What bullshit,” you whispered in his ear.
“You don’t understand. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about something greater than yourself.”
“What’s greater than yourself?” You chomped down on a fistful of popcorn and stared at the jut of his chin. “What else do you have if not yourself?”
“Country.” He said it as if it were the name of some girl he had a crush on, someone he dreamed of walking home after the streetlights turned on along Bucktown Lane.
You couldn’t even ask about college. He was never going to college, any more than you were.
The voice-over meant business: “Strong. Army strong.”
He’s right: you don’t understand. You don’t see the sense in parents giving their children away and getting a flag in return. A giant red-white-and-blue dinner napkin folded into a triangle with sharp corners. Some consolation prize.
THERE ARE RULES for receiving letters in Basic, like in prison. He must do twenty-five push-ups before they’ll hand him the first one. When you forget to use a flag stamp, they yell at him while he does fifteen minutes of squat-thrusts.
From his bunk he listens to the staccato tapping of a woodpecker in a longleaf pine. He takes a mental inventory of the contents of his sack: sleeping bag, tent, helmet, canteen, shovel, bulletproof vest.
The boy doesn’t tell you this, but it’s clear he has convinced himself he is a machine. He feels the euphoria of being dismantled and reconstructed, of becoming part of a platoon. He is more devoted to these recruits than he’s ever been to anyone else, including you, including Mama and Daddy. It’s a devotion that burns up all memory. You are only his sister, a peripheral nothing. Of you he thinks: Go back to Olive Garden and the Startown Cineplex, where you make sense.
You stare at a maroon smudge on one of his letters. Is it food or blood? When you sent him a beer cake it took you four hours to make, they forced him to run six miles after watching his squad leader eat it. The boy wasn’t allowed even a bite.
He says nothing is too bad so far. He adds “so far” to the end of almost every sentence, like a constant flinch. He jokes about getting killed but says he’s having a good time and hopes you are too. You think he must be high. You pretend he’s at extreme summer camp — anything other than what it really is.
He doesn’t know who won American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance? Those are the kinds of things you write about in your letters. Hilary Duff’s pregnant. The new Batman movie has that beautiful French girl. It looks awesome, even without Heath Ledger.
His world at Fort Jackson is divided into heat categories and quarts of water consumed. His drill-sergeant overlords sound out his name, allowing him one chance to correct them. His name is all he gets to keep.
THREE MONTHS BEFORE BASIC, he slept with a girl. He wouldn’t talk about it, but you knew she was his first. First girlfriend, first everything.
Summer Belue. Porn-star name, but an upstanding girl from decent parents. Her father works at one of the plants. Her mother is a bank teller at Wells Fargo, chubby fingers sliding twenties from a metal drawer. There are two or three Belue brothers you see now and then, pumping gas or buying cigarettes on a Friday night at the Walmart Supercenter, trying to start up conversations with people in line.
The first time you saw Summer, you and the boy were eating at the buffet. She came in with her parents, stood behind them holding a warm plate against her chest by the steaming mashed potatoes. A reedy blonde with a ponytail, jean shorts with heart-shaped pockets, flip-flops smacking against the bottoms of her feet.
A vein pulsed in the boy’s neck.
“That your girl?”
“Shut the fuck up.” He shoved a dinner roll into his mouth.
Summer sat with her parents near the door, but she kept coming up for more corn on the cob. She looked at the boy through the foggy glass of the buffet. His acne scars were an angry red.
You’re sure he had sex with Summer Belue. You don’t know when or if he used protection. Sometimes they’d just go into his room and play video games or hold hands with the door open, listening to old Nirvana bootlegs. “No, ma’am,” Summer would say if you offered her iced tea or Pizza Bites. You’re only six years older, but still: No, ma’am.
One night, maybe two weeks before he delivered himself to the military, he came out of the room, his hair stuck to his neck like streaks of oil. Summer emerged shortly thereafter, a fresh coat of makeup painted on her face. You clicked off the remote and stared at them.
They both looked at the floor as Summer walked to the kitchen to dump half a can of Sprite down the sink. “Later,” she said to him. After she left, he went back into his room and shut the door.
You thought for a while maybe Summer Belue would change his mind. Maybe he’d stay behind, stay with her on her parents’ water bed, trading kisses. Maybe he’d get her pregnant and decide to help raise the baby.
But she couldn’t keep him here. Nor could his friends, his drug dealer in the vintage Mustang, or the dime bags and vodka gummy bears you left on his bed.
IN A MONTH HE'S DEEP into marksmanship and combat training. Pop-up targets. Dummy grenades. An obstacle course, rifle in hand. Be a sharpshooter. Collect badges like a Boy Scout.
He tells you not to worry; experts guide his hand as he removes the idiot-proof plug on his rifle. War heroes are watching over him: Patton, Schwarzkopf, McChrystal.
While you ferry bread baskets and lunch plates to old women at Olive Garden, he ferries ammo across a broken bridge. Both of you fake your way through it. Faking it runs in the family. Mama pretending she could raise children. Daddy bluffing his way into bed with a bottle-blond surveyor even before he divorced Mama. Nothing is real. No, ma’am.
The boy is eager to graduate to Victory Forge, the climax of Basic: a three-day tactical field exercise. Laser tag and team movements. Soldiers racing past the bones of dead trees and through a stream sullied with sediment.
He is proud when he tells you of his worst twenty seconds: twenty seconds in a real tear-gas chamber, gagging, nose dripping, eyes burning. He managed to cough out his name, rank, and Social Security number better than most. He endured. He thinks if he can survive that, he can survive Victory Forge.
You take that letter from your pocket and feed it down the garbage disposal at work. You push it past sodden noodles and cold grains of rice. When Javier asks if you have another batch of dishes for him, you don’t answer.
IS HE HIDING SOMETHING? What is his fear?
SUMMER BELUE has a new boyfriend, but you don’t write that in your letters. Some guy who looks exactly like her brothers, works as a smoke jumper, fighting wildfires. Walks around town with his hand moving up and down her back like he’s feeling for a lost key at the bottom of a lake.
IT WAS ONE YEAR AGO Daddy came over with his girlfriend while Mama was at work. You all watched The Hurt Locker. Daddy and the boy ate peanut-butter cups on the couch with the cat between them, swishing her fluffy gray tail.
After the movie was over, they sat at the kitchen table, Daddy telling stories of Vietnam. When you were growing up, he would always get quiet when you asked if he’d ever killed anyone. He’d just give you a look, like you ought to know better than to ask. Now he sat there talking about the soldiers in The Hurt Locker. There was chocolate all over his chin, but no one said anything.
You felt bad for the bottle-blond surveyor standing by herself, locked out of the conversation. So you went over to her. But there was nothing to say to this woman who stood on street corners, peering through the lens of her surveying equipment. Mama called her “that bitch with the tripod.”
“I want to work EOD,” the boy said. Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
You smacked him on the back of the head. “That was a movie.”
“No one asked you. I’m going to defuse bombs. Fuck yeah, I am.”
“That guy in the film was a cowboy,” Daddy said. “That ain’t like it is in real life.”
But there was no convincing him. The boy’s gaze had gone blank. You were reminded of a nature show you’d watched together, the look in a shark’s eye as it bit into its prey: eater, killer, death bringer.
Daddy got quiet, disappeared into the bathroom for a long time, kept flushing the toilet and washing his hands. The surveyor brought him some gin and closed herself in the bathroom with him. You could tell by the tense whispering that she was talking him down, trying to keep him from doing or saying something that he’d regret. When they emerged, Daddy looked despondent, and Tripod convinced him to go for a drive.
After everyone was gone, you locked the door and closed the blinds.
“I swear to God, I will kill you before you set one foot in the military,” you told the boy.
He sat there quietly eating the rest of Daddy’s peanut-butter cups, gently kicking the legs of the table where you used to wipe your boogers.
“I’m not joking,” you said. “I will beat the shit out of you before I let you blow yourself into pieces because of some goddamned Hollywood-movie, adrenaline-junkie death wish.”
He didn’t answer. He squeezed the candy wrappers in his fists.
You washed the dishes and listened to him repeatedly tap the table leg with his foot. The neighbors were just coming home, their headlights crawling across the yard, past the monkey grass, over Mama’s wormy cabbage heads.
“You care if I eat this last one?” he asked, his mouth full.
IN HIS LETTERS he writes that he is fine so far. He is constantly going to the shooting range in preparation for Victory Forge. He is proud that he just ran two miles in fifteen minutes flat. He is taking a step forward, but he doesn’t say where he’s going or how long it will take to get there.
His first letter was signed, “Love, Brian.” The last he signed with only his name.