Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SPE: Over and Over

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, kgwaite gave me this prompt: "The road construction was making it impossible to leave the city." I gave SAM this prompt: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." - Samuel Johnson}

There was a forest of red lights in front of me, the frowning rear ends of Hyundais and Hummers, Kias and Corollas, all forced into equality by a traffic jam. The road was narrowing, down to a single lane, with city drivers showing their typical calm and equanimity by trying to squeeze into every square inch at the earliest possible second. I took a deep breath, trying not to white knuckle the steering wheel. There was nothing to be done, I told myself. All the other routes were worse- nearly every major artery had some project somewhere along it. All the road construction was making it nearly impossible to leave the city.

Up ahead, the cones and flashing orange lights and men with reflective vests were out. I knew they worked hard, because eventually the road got finished and they moved on to the next project, but when you passed by them like this, creeping and beeping, I couldn't help but notice how many of them weren't doing anything at all. It was almost mocking, how they stared back at us, knowing that we were there, trapped in our funeral procession. One of them, a tall, lanky guy who looked a little like Mark Sanchez, stretched in the sun, his perfect abs peeking out from under a US Army shirt, then climbed up into an enormous machine.

This journey was foolish. They were all dumb, but I could write volumes, compose page after page of epic poetry about exactly how stupid it all was. I told myself this, every hurried assignation resulting in another long, slow, shameful ride home, combined with promising myself that I would end it, endure the humiliation and rage and simply cut it off at the knees. Stop answering her summons, risking her rage and some twisted revenge fantasy but knowing it would be better to just let it die.

We were creeping forward still, inch by begotten inch, meekly falling into line. I watched the road grader, huge and imposing, flattening down some fresh asphalt. Everyone seemed to just be watching, staring as the big machine did its work. The gleaming flat blackness, shining in the sun, reminded me of riding my bike as a teen, finding a stretch of straight road in an industrial park, pushing myself as hard as I can, high on the thrill of speed. The minivan in front of me had a stick figure family on the back window, along with a decal of a ballet dancer. My mouth was dry.

It was a text message that started this episode. "Come get me," was all it said, and I was up, closing my laptop and sliding it into my bag with one practiced motion. I had the kind of job where you didn't have to always answer for your whereabouts precisely. People snuck in and out of the office all the time, and yet somehow things always got done. That was a blessing and a curse- if I had a more regimented office, the trap I had fallen into would have been impossible. But that's an excuse. I could have said no, should have said no. I just didn't.

She was a student, visiting in the office for two weeks over the summer so that she can get a tiny flavor of what her intended career may be like. We had a routine for our students, letting her sit on some meetings, helping on some projects, occasionally asked to research this or that stubborn item. She performed splendidly, easily fitting into the culture, dressing well, asking pertinent, cogent questions on occasion. All in all, a delightful experience.

Her last day was when the trouble started. I really have got to stop calling it that. The more I think about it, going over and over it like a movie I can't turn off, she was flirting the whole time, laughing too loudly, standing too close, gently touching arms and waists, longing looks across a conference table. I was just too dense to pick up on it.

The boss decided to take her out to a lunch that I couldn't make on her last day, so she came by my office. She was beautiful, long legs and rich auburn hair, an even, oval face with eager, questioning blue eyes. But they always are- people her age are made beautiful, mindless evolution demanding reproductive fitness regardless of society's wishes. After exchanging contact information, she just kept standing there, so close, exchanging small talk, making tiny hair flips, the pointed toe of her shoe making little circles in front of me on the rug.

I have long made a habit of excusing myself from all manner of horrid behavior, but what happened next cannot be adequately explained. I have said "I couldn't help myself," and "I was a slave to my lizard brain," and I have tried every other type of reasoning and justification I can come up with. I was drawn to her, my arms finding the curve of her hips, my hands the small of her back. She was eager and willing, and while I kept thinking that I should stop, that I should wait, that I can't, that we shouldn't, we didn't stop, and we didn't wait, and I could, and we did.

What came next was just the feeding of an addiction. She calls, I come, I leave and feel guilty until she calls again. And then, like the dog chasing the rabbit at the track, I'm off again. I have to do it, it feels like, the way I have to eat or have to breathe. It is a compulsion. I feel an intense, grinding need while we are together. I don't know whether I am reliving my youth or spoiling hers, but whatever it is, minutes feel like seconds, and it is torture until we are together again. I feel slightly nauseous, like when I have had too much caffeine. My nerves feel raw.

Suddenly the traffic loosens up and I'm accelerating onto the highway. The speed after all that waiting feels like I'm making a jailbreak, fleeing from the authorities. I can feel the distance between us, willing her closer even as I hate her for having a hold on me. I know her exit, the tight turn onto the main road, and then the long, slow merging into the mess that surrounds the school. She is with two other girls, the three of them sharing a quick, hard laugh in confidence, as I wait for a bottleneck to clear in front of me.

Drive away, I tell myself. Get back on the highway and go home and get a hobby. Read a book. See a play. Take up yoga. Buy a gun. Do something appropriate for your age. Let her worry about graduation and her upcoming freshman year like her friends do, like people her age should. Let her find her own way in the world, and stop pretending you are anything more than a wallet with feet. Drive past her high school and don't look back.

But I pull forward, negotiating the confusion, pulling to the side along the sidewalk. I'm cursing myself as I do it, swearing under my breath, knowing that there is a wide gulf between what is legal and what is right. I stop the car, and I see her calves first, long and slender, and she is there, bright and alive and clear and smelling like the free summer breeze. She slides into the seat beside me and shuts the door, setting a lime green bag between her feet. I hate myself, and then she speaks.

"I want to go shopping," she says, and she takes my free hand, and I accelerate away.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

FFF: "What I Know"

[The Flash Fiction Friday challenge this week is to rewrite a famous movie scene in 1969 or fewer words. I have chosen the most famous scene from one of my favorite movies, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men", the scene when Tom Cruise's Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee is questioning Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup about the death of Private William Santiago on the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. (It is the scene that contains the meme "you can't HANDLE the truth," which you have doubtless heard in some context, unless you spent the last two decades on a Martian penal colony.) This story is told from the point of view of Nicholson's character, and while I am confident my readers are smart enough to understand this, I feel bound to emphasize that these are not my views, they are the made up views of a fictional character.] [ This story is called "What I Know".]

It was hot in the courtroom, hot and stale in a way fans and air conditioners couldn't seem to stir. I could feel the sweat across the small of my back and on my thighs. I hadn't looked forward to making the trip to Washington for just this reason. Cuba was hot, sure, but Washington got hot the way no place else did. It was oppressive, miasmal heat- it made you wonder just what in the hell they were thinking to put the capital here.

It was offensive, leaving all my work behind to fly up here and have them act like I have to defend my command decisions. But here is where I was told to come, and when you've saluted the flag as long as I have, when they say come, you come. I knew what these lawyers were trying to do. It was that rotten little weasel Santiago, the inquiry into his death suddenly becoming a big affair, when really, it was just as simple as you please. I don't care what the doctors say- those slick lawyers have been throwing around buzzwords like acidosis and metabolism and all that crap I barely remember from high school biology. The lawyers were trying to make me responsible for Santiago's death, but truth is, he died of not being a Marine. Simple.

They told the kid to quit. Kendrick, Markinson, Dawson, everybody. Just leave the Corps and go home. Nothing to be ashamed of if you can't do it. Not everybody can be a Marine. It's hard because it has to be, so the men will be brave, and it's hard to make you a better man. Plenty of kids can't do it. Go home and ring a register, or go to community college. I'm not saying the kid deserved to die- I'm just saying he wasn't a Marine. No shame in that. Most men aren't.

But the little bastard stayed. He stayed, and he still couldn't hack it. He was terrible at everything- drill, PT, cleanliness, shooting. Every time we dressed him down about it, he apologized and promised to do better, but nothing would happen, the same sorry performance, on test after test after test. So if he wasn't going to go, we had to mold him. That's our job, right? Molding men? So I decided to work with the boy. I listened to Kaffee yammer at me, responding to his questions, wishing for just one stupid little breeze to cool off this stifling room.

Of course I knew the Code Reds were illegal. Everyone knew that. Division had ordered it. But whoever wrote that rule either had never faced bullets with his name on them, or had faced them so long ago all the fear had faded. When you're in it, when the man next to you is depending on you to do your job and you're depending on him, you take comfort in the fact that you know he's good enough. He was forged in the same fires you were, so you know he's made of something. That's the kind of toughness you must have in a forward area, that's the kind of toughness you need in a Marine, and that's the kind of toughness that Santiago would never have, and that's the kind of toughness Kaffee, for all his degrees, would never have on his best day.

Look at Kaffee, barking questions at me like I'm some kind of office flunky of his. I wonder about him. What kind of fire burns in a man like that? I can see the sweat gathering on his neck, asking me questions, one after another. They're easy to parry- I know where he is headed, and engaging in a battle of wits with someone this simple barely taxes my brain. I answer his questions slowly to help me think, but also because I think it irritates him. He's not half the man his father was. He may wear a uniform, but he's not a sailor.

I can't help but tense up when he gets close. I have these flashes of jumping up out of the witness chair, flooring the little prick with a right cross, seeing his head snap back, his perfect hair shaking, that golden nose breaking under the pressure, and then getting down on the floor and pounding his head into the floor until the MPs pull me off. Look, he's trying to prove there was no transfer order for Santiago with some nonsense about the tower chiefs at Andrews. How cute. What a child he is. I look at his eyes, the way they glitter and his nostrils flare when he thinks he's got me. Think again. Listen, boy, I've faced tougher enemies than you before breakfast.

He's going to ask me. I can feel it. All he has to do is ask me if I have violated a direct order, accuse me of a crime, and I've got him. Then he'll be on the defensive, and I can just smile and watch the little prick really sweat. He's walked into the trap now, I just have to spring it on him. It's like when you're in a foxhole, and you can't see anything, but you know they are there. It's just a matter of waiting for the enemy to move. Then you bring the rain.

I stare at Kaffee, turning aside his stupid little digs and asides and snide looks. Now he's honing in on the two orders, the one that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and the second sending him off the base. I make dozens of decisions every day, and I can't always explain them afterwards. It's a gut feeling. It's called leadership. It's not as simple as pushing papers. I look at his perfect, shiny teeth and wonder if he is involved with Galloway after all.

Kaffee is close, so close I could punch him, and the thought is so pleasant my arm twitches.

"Did you order the Code Red?," Kaffee finally says, his face inches from mine. No one moves, and I luxuriate in the silence for a split second. It's almost like being on stage.

"Did I order a Code Red? Is that what you're asking me? I think that's what you're asking me, Lieutenant, unless all the gunfire over the years has damaged my hearing. And the answer, son, is no, I didn't order a Code Red. I didn't order a Code Red because my superiors told me I couldn't. I transferred Santiago off the base because he had angered his unit, and because he was a substandard Marine. I did what I did because we exist on a small island with the Cuban Army staring at us, eyeball to eyeball, and to do any less than ensure that the men under my command are the very best they can be is a dereliction of duty. I make decisions all the time, and I admit that not every decision I make is a perfect one.

"Perhaps I should have taken Santiago into protective custody. Or perhaps he needed a more in depth physical exam to figure out why he was performing so poorly. I don't know, and I will go to my grave not knowing what I could have done differently to save Santiago's life. But Santiago is gone, and his death, believe it or not, affects me deeply. Every man I have ever lost does. It is the burden of command. It is not an easy one, but when you accept the rank, you accept the responsibility. I did not order the Code Red, Lieutenant, because I was ordered not to. And at Gitmo, we take orders seriously."

I smiled, watching the words hit home. Kaffee's expression was priceless, almost as good as if I had punched him. Even the dust motes in the air seemed frozen. Then everyone was talking at once, and I knew it had worked. Kaffee was in trouble now, because he had made the accusation without proof, and all I had to do was let things play out. There were things that Kaffee knew that I didn't. The only thing I knew about law was that I had to obey them, and I'm sure he knows every regulation backwards and forwards. But there were things I knew that he didn't, hard lessons about what are truths and what are higher, more important truths and how to distinguish between them. Kaffee didn't know that the integrity of the Corps is the freedom that makes the other freedoms possible. Kaffee doesn't know what I know.