Inventory

            Patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon. Done, thought Stevie, who now ate only cooked meals, showered daily, wore fresh fatigues, polished boots. Except for the tropic heat and menial work, life on the base was considered pleasant.

            “So, you the one they sent me,” said Worth. The sergeant bit down hard on the toothpick lodged in the right corner of his mouth. A brawny, heavy-set man with a permanent scowl, and prone to drink, he stared at Stevie, hands on hips. Apprised him up and down, as Stevie, in turn, surveyed the forest of shelves which lined the Quonset hut end to end, row upon row, stocked with uniforms, boots, canteens, all manner of gear.

            “Chaplin says we gotta inventory their personal effects. Send that shit home.”

            Worth pressed the tip of his pale tongue to the roof of his mouth, quickly drew it back, producing a slight clicking sound.

            “I hate this fuckin’ job,” he muttered. “Fuckin’ hate it.” He nodded dismissively at the green duffle bag which sat atop his gray metal desk. “Lennox. You know him?”

            “No,” said Stevie. “You?”

            The sergeant walked unsteadily to the desk, reached into the top drawer, pulled out a pair of shiny dog tags, dangled them in front of Stevie, watched as they fell and clattered noisily upon the smooth cement floor.

            “Lemme see...lemme see. Got his orders somewhere.” Worth’s thick white fingers

plundered a drawer crammed with daily reports. “One of mine!” he shouted, waving the neatly typed page like a checkered flag. “Ain’t that a son of a bitch? Cocksucker’s one of mine!”

            Crumpling the page into his back pocket, with great deliberation, Worth lifted the engorged duffle off the desk, partially upended it, kicked and spread apart the myriad contents which fell to the floor.

            “Well, my oh, fuckin’ my,” he said. “Will you look at that. Jesus H Christ, this boy got enough shit, outfit a whole fuckin’ army!”

            When Stevie did not move, did not flinch, though his jaw muscles could be seen to clench tight, Worth narrowed his rheumy eyes, worked his pale tongue once more upon the roof of his mouth, momentarily looked sideways, and spit. Slowly turning his head, he fixed his gaze upon Stevie.

            “What’d you say your name was?”

            And Stevie said his name.

            “Well, what’s your fuckin’ job, Sammy? You drive truck? You cook? I ain’t never seen you before. No sir. I don’t believe we’ve met!”

            As the two men gazed upon each other Worth, at least twenty years Stevie’s senior, lowered his head, sniffled, retracted his upper lip to poke lightly at the small gaps between his large irregular teeth.

            “Now, Sammy. Stanley. Whatever the fuck your name is. What you been doing before you got here?” As if startled from a dream, Worth looked up; his upturned eyes tacking left to right. “Hey!” he exclaimed, “you wanna work in Supply?”

            Inside the sweltering hut, a rigid caterpillar of canvas stretched upon immense steel ribs, the alien structure resting heavily upon the dry red earth, his shrill laughter echoed loudly.

            He would frag him. That’s what he would do. What any good grunt would do. In his minds eye, Stevie went through the steps. He would find a bowl and fill it with diesel oil. He would take a frag, a grenade, and carefully pull the pin while holding the safety handle, “the spoon” tight. He would wrap a half-dozen elastic bands around the live grenade, around a thinly curved metal spoon, which rendered it safe. He would sit the frag in the bowl of diesel oil. Submerge the fucker. Stealthily, he would put the bowl with the live grenade beneath the sergeants bunk. Cover it with a plate to hide the acrid fumes. Five hours later the diesel would dissolve the rubber bands, BOOM. Stevie imagined the violent flames and wispy smoke, the spray of red mist, the quivering flesh. He would do that. Do it.

            Worth cleared his throat. “Boy, I’m talking to you. What kinda work you done all this time?”

            “Medic,” said Stevie.

            “No shit! You infantry?”

            A slight hesitation. “Yeah.”

            Worth bunched his lips forward, thoughtfully jutted his narrow chin, rumpled his brow. Priestlike, he raised his pointing hand toward the arched dome of the canvas roof, boldly shouted, “Well, Christ all fuckin’ mighty! As I live and fuckin’ breathe. Yes, sir! Yes, ma’m! What we got here is a grunt with gauze humping the boonies! Someone sick, shot, wounded, oh, they all fucked up, they call you, right? They call medic! Yes, sir! They call MEH-DIC!”

            The sergeant rolled his bloodshot eyes, spread his muscular arms, loudly repeated the heralding word, then stepped to the upended duffle and fervently kicked the green bag, stomped it, buckling the heavy fabric, which crumpled like a living thing.

             “Well, give a look, Mr. Medic,” he said, catching his breath, eyeing the battered sack. “You take a look see. You tell old sarge what you got.”

            Stevie knelt at the canvas bag. He pulled from it a half dozen white towels, two pair of shined boots, six pair of socks, three unused poncho liners, four immaculate fatigue shirts and pants. A small red box tied with string. As he did this, from the corner of his eye he saw Worth pull the crumpled sheet from his back pocket and carefully scan its secrets.

            “Fuckin’ no good black bastard son of a bitch. Neeehgrow!” Worth shouted. “Says so right here! Right fuckin’ here!” He stabbed the rumpled page with his index finger, shook it roughly, steadied it with both hands.  “Neeehgrow!”

            Beads of sweat bloomed and clung to his reddening brow, trickled down either side of his brightening face. “Ain’t that a mothafuckin’ bitch?” In despair, he shook his head, causing large salty droplets to scatter between himself and Stevie. “Well, ain’t it?”

            In the eye of his mind, in the heat of the ambush, Stevie had sprinted, then crawled to the dying man. “Lieutenant,” he whispered, “Everyone loves you.”

            “You mean black,” said Stevie. His voice was not pleasant.

            Worth glared at him. “Don’t you gimme no lip,” he snarled. “This ain’t your fuckin’ jungle. This here is my world,” he said. His pale hand swept an unsteady arc across the hut’s

dismal interior, proclaiming the row upon row of his power. “Yes, sir, he declared, “Mine,” and

he worked his mouth to hawk spit, the enormous gob whizzing just past Stevie. “Don’t fuck with me, son,” he scowled.  “Don’t you do that.”

            Unafraid, Stevie retreated into the safety of himself.  Patrol. Jungle. Ambush. Monsoon. There’s a rhythm to it. We walk into them. They walk into us. We ambush them. They ambush us. Or they fire rockets, we call in artillery. Between kicking ass or getting our asses kicked, the tension starts small, builds and builds, until secretly grunts pray it will happen. Days, weeks go by. Then terror, instant and deep, then relief, like paradise, until BOOM, it starts all over again. Look at him. Look at this fat old man who spends his nights drunk, his days in the safety of dry good supplies. What does he know about war?     

            Stevie looked to his left, to his right, forcefully breathed in the stagnant air. Forcefully, let it out.

            “That’s better,” said Worth. He swept his hand through his hair, coated with the stench of rum and cigarettes. “Now, you take a look-see, Mr. Medic,” he said, jutting his chin to the small red box. “Yes, sir. That shit right there.” 

            Slowly, Stevie undid the frayed white string, carefully raised the lid, dipped his hand inside, fished out a shiny rectangle.

            “One Zippo,” he said, his voice barely audible.

            “Say it right,” bellowed Worth. “Say it loud and clear like you got a pair. One genuine made-in-fuckin-America cigarette lighter!”

            Blood crept into Stevie’s face. Warmed his cheeks. Hambleton. Hamilton. Everyone mixed it up. “Call me Soul Brother,” said the new man. On his first patrol, a soft fiery cloud

lifted him up, tumbled his body, sheathed it in light, his face, his dumbstruck tumbling face, the saddest sight. Stevie managed to subdue himself, again dipped his hand into the box.

            “One US Army ID card,” he said. The sepia man in the one-inch photograph had stared directly into the camera, defying its mechanical logic; he seemed to choke back tears.

            “One official United States Armed Forces identification card,” roared Worth. “Tell it right, Mr. Medic. Goddamn it. Tell it right.” Worth closed his eyes, winged his right arm to his head, raked his forearm across his brow. “OK .OK. What else you got?” he panted, blinking away sweat.

            Once more, Stevie lowered his hand into the box, tenderly scooped up the angular object as if it were a rare butterfly, some delicate thing, which he obediently held forth in the palm of one hand.          

            “One lucky charm,” he muttered.

            On the twenty-third day of his tenth month in combat, the lieutenant had said to Stevie, “Stay behind. We’ll be right back.” And he winked and smiled. Stevie, one month to home, stayed back. Minutes later, a single ear-splitting shot rang out, the platoon returned hectic fire, killing her, loudly shouted for Stevie, shouted, and Stevie ran pell-mell, zig-zagged through the jungle, low crawled, beheld the officer who everyone loved, whose right hand clutched tight the stick figure, would not let it slip from his grasp. “Lieutenant,” he whispered...

            “Jesus H. Christ,” said Worth. “It’s a fuckin’ crucifix for Christ’s sake! Don’t you grunts know anything?

            Livid, Stevie plunged his hand into the box. As if it was poison, he held the object away

from his body, pinching the strap between his thumb and index finger. “One wristwatch,” he said.

            A woman’s name was inscribed on the back. “Love you always,” it said.

            “One fuckin’ First Cavalry gold-plated commemorative wristwatch!” Worth howled. Wake up! Mr. Medic. Wake up!”

            “One...”

            Stevie unzipped the small leather pouch. Poked his finger into it. Shook his head and did not, could not and would not speak.

            “Well, what is it, Stanley? It’s HOT. Fuckin’ HOT! We ain’t got all fuckin’ day.”

            Overcome by the heat and the previous nights drink, Worth swayed, moved incautiously closer to Stevie, fumbled, snared the frizzy clump to his palm, proceeded to pinch, to prod it, coaxing the tangled fibers to partially un-mat. His eyes widened as he stared at the darkened thing. His mouth formed a widening oval, his eyes widened in lunatic glee.

            “ What we got here...What we got is... It’s a ball of cunt hair!” he roared. “Motherfuckin’ cunt hair!”

            Hurling the frizzy black knot to the floor, Worth stormed to the desk, removed the crumpled page from his back pocket, slapped it upon the desk, thwack, picked it up, ferociously pondered, screamed at Stevie,“Son-of-a-bitch! The black bastard was married! Says so right here!”

            Enough thought Stevie. One last time he stared at Worth with all his strength, mumbled indecent words, turned around and walked away. Upon opening the door, for several seconds the blazing sun shot past Stevie, trembling the air, illuminating every nook and cranny inside the hut.

            “Hey!” yelled Worth, his right hand shielding his face from the light. “Where the fuck you think you’re going? Hey, Mr. Medic! Who the fuck you think you are?”

 

Marc Levy's work has appeared in New Millennium WritingsStone Canoe, MudfishChiron Review and elsewhere. He won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Prize. He recently published How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories, and Dreams, VietnamOther Dreams is forthcoming. Two of his war photos will be featured in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. His website is Medic in the Green Time.

Maladjusted Techies Gone Wild

Chapter 16

                                    Maladjusted Techies Gone Wild

“Who would like to start?” Michael says as he taps his pencil on his notepad. 

Alexandra reaches into her purse, grabs a journal and holds it triumphantly into the air and exclaims, “I will start.”

I recognize my journal and sink into my chair. The journal contains an idea I once had for a work of satire, maybe for the theatre, perhaps the big screen. I was sure my Orwellian piece would go further than my now estranged wife using it against me in couple's therapy.

She shows the cover to Michael, our therapist, and I cringe. What must he be thinking as he reads, “The Butt Sniffer.” written in black marker.

          “Nick told me,” she says in a voice that sounded rehearsed, “I don’t know, what’s it’s been now, for close to a year, huh, Nick? That he was going to stop paying his credit cards go so he can work on his writing, to follow his dreams, to show our kids what it means to sacrifice for… what did you call it Nick? A higher vision? What was it Nick? That without paying your credit card bills you would have more time to write?” 

 “Michael, can we start with a feeling check in?” I say. “Maybe we can all begin with "I" statements. Here’s mine: I feel violated… give me my fucking journal.” I spring from my chair and snatch it out of her hands.

“See Michael, see this is Nick. It’s scary.”

“You bring my journal into therapy!”

“Alright, alright, everybody, let's calm down. Let’s regroup.” 

         “She thinks this notebook is some kind of indictment on my character. Why don’t we read it out loud, so we can all be the judge  –“

         “I don’t – “ Michael says. 

         “No.” I say, interrupting him. “Thank you, Michael but no. This is client-driven therapy and I will read my journal like Alexandra wants.”

         Alexandra folds her arms and looks at me like I am filth.

I begin with my Acknowledgement Page. Thank you and fuck you very much to Care Credit - you predatory-lending, high interest bastards so I could get my teeth fixed. Fuck you and Thank you Costco Card for all the diapers and baby wipes. Thank-you Visa Platinum and any creditor I forgot. Debt is an illusion and means nothing to me. I shall not pay thee.

Dedication Page. I dedicate this work to my children. Kids, it is more important to be creative than kill yourself working to pay off credit card debt.

  I clear my throat and begin with both pride and trepidation.

There was this... this creature... this girl, this woman running around with a child having fun, laughing, swinging, playing. I knew right away she wasn’t the mother because what mom at Lafayette Park in Low Pac Heights acts so spontaneous, free and joyful? To be fair, what dad does? And she had these--I don’t know what they were--some kind of workout pants or something. But they outlined a young, round healthy backside and you could almost, well you could damn near see her ass through her pants. 

I witnessed three dads in the span of a half an hour stumble over to where she was and strike up a conversation with her. Yeah, whatever, not me. She said something to my Angela. And then to me. I remained (seemingly) aloof. We left. 

That night I thought about that ass and prayed. I prayed earnestly to Jesus. Not to the evangelical Christian Jesus but to the mystical Jesus who whispered into the ears of a Jewish, atheistic Professor of Medical Psychology. That persistent, nail-biting Jesus whispered into the good doctor’s ears for a period of over seven years in iambic pentameter until the metaphysical masterpiece A Course in Miracles was completed. Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God is what Jesus said. Meaning this world ain’t shit. 

I went to the bathroom and got on my knees resting my arms on the toilet clasping my hands together in the prayer position. Oh Lord Jesus, I know that that sweet ass does not truly exist. But I sure do believe it does. Please show me the way through that butt. Amen. And Jesus, if the way out of the butt is through the butt, well, I will accept whatever mission you have in store for me.

The vibe in the room is riveting.  I think I have captured my listeners’ attention.  Ha.  Reading my notes for a screenplay in therapy!  I win again.  Oh, how I love myself. 

I clear my throat: 

The Butt Sniffer by Nick Freeman.

Synopsis: The city of San Francisco is plagued with fear and chaos thanks to a demented, maladjusted techie. A coder or developer (it is believed) has been going around the city pulling down the pants of women or lifting their skirts, smelling their asses and running away. He usually strikes during morning commute times and it is believed that after he commits his crime he then runs to a waiting Facebook or Google commuter bus and makes a luxurious, air-conditioned, Wi-Fi enabled getaway to Silicon Valley.

I look up and Michael is looking down writing notes. I hope he doesn’t think I am the butt sniffer and is deliberating whether or not to report me to the authorities. Who would pick up Angela at preschool if I were in jail? I continue:

The mayor has seized this opportunity to divert the public’s attention from the housing crisis and growing income inequalities which make the city unaffordable for the working class, teachers and, public servants. The mayor holds press conferences relating to The Butt Sniffer, admonishes the tech community for their culture of sexism, praises the SFPD for their progress on the case, and thanks to the good citizens of San Francisco for coming together and rallying against The Butt Sniffer.

The Chief of Police introduces the lead detective to a room full of patrol cops--a transgender (F to M) from Germany who speaks four languages and is on methadone for chronic hip pain. A former child and teenage prostitute in Berlin, Detective Lamb is mocked by his peers.  Detective Lamb stands, introduces himself and when he addresses the nature of the crimes, he involuntarily twitches his nose. This involuntary action of Detective Lamb will become uh… the butt of many jokes among the red-blooded butt patrol officers. 

The national media has been camping out at City Hall, The Mission and SOMA, interviewing victims, witnesses and residents. One male reporter from FOX News is ostracized for asking one of the victims who was wearing a skirt at the time of the incident if the perpetrator actually touched her. “So, when he put his head underneath your skirt and sniffed did he make any skin contact at all?” The impetus being perhaps a crime was not committed. Is it really a crime to approach a skirt, peer underneath and inhale through the nostrils? FOX News, under pressure, fires the reporter but he quickly lands a job with Breitbart.

 I clear my throat again. Michael is looking at me and I think, but am not sure, that he is smirking. I feel so stimulated by my screenplay pitch. I am actually grateful Alexandra brought it the session. I decide not to embarrass her by asking her if she sees the irony in her bringing my screenplay to the session when she, not too long ago - before my credit was shot to hell - asked if I would finance a pair of butt implants. It’s all coming together now. Like butt cheeks squished in a pair of yoga pants:

Somewhere in the city, a client has told his therapist that although he is a highly paid tech employee, he does not know how to interact with women and wishes he could just make out with their sweet asses. Like ‘just make out with a butt for like an hour,’ he says. And talk to it. He feels he could really open up to a woman and make progress as an individual if he could just process his fears and insecurities while kissing and licking an ass. The therapist does not know if he should report his client to the authorities and makes a mental note to confer with a colleague.

         I look up at Michael.  “Divinely channeled material, everybody.”  I’m such a liar.  Well, maybe everything is channeled from an abstract collective mind and downloaded to our individual brains.  Through that lens, I speak the truth.  Alexandra’s arms are still folded and her legs are crossed.  She looks at me like I am the anti-Christ.  I look back at Michael.  I get the sense he is deliberating on what to say. Meanwhile:

Kim Kardashian has come to town in the name of activism, social justice, and me-tooism. She publicly taunts the butt sniffer to come do his thing in The Mission after she eats a carne asada burrito at a Taqueria. This causes a backlash, as…

          “Okay, Nick, I think we get the picture.” Michael says loudly. 

“No.” I say, “Alexandra wanted this.  We are going to finish.  And it’s very therapeutic for me to do this. I have never shared my idea with anybody until now. And ultimately it is about looking at my own thoughts, attitudes and, beliefs in order to become a better man and father to my children, my daughter especially.”  I say. 

I’ve got the decoupling therapy session in the palm of my hands.  “As an example of my growth, I used to resent Alexandra for watching The Kardashians.  Then I realized it is all simply material for my own change, creativity and, transformation. Thank you, Alexandra.”  I say in a pious voice and bow my head, again redirecting my focus:

A gay men’s group has petitioned City Hall demanding a public park be opened that makes it legal for consenting adults to sniff each other’s asses. The lesbian community is outraged and old wounds between the two communities are reopened. The Detective Lamb of dog jokes make the rounds.

A group of citizens filed a billion-dollar class action lawsuit against multiple tech companies. Their claim is that they do not feel safe on the city streets and have developed PTSD-related symptoms. Tech, the lawsuit claims, has allowed a toxic, sexist culture to thrive, and it has oozed out into the streets and created The Butt Sniffer. A group of mental health workers hired as expert witnesses for the case has demanded the American Psychiatric Association add PTBSD (Post Traumatic Butt Sniffing Disease) to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Copycat Butt Sniffers have surfaced and now the city has multiple young white maladjusted techies going around San Francisco smelling women’s asses.

A feminist group plans a parade with blow-up butts and signs such as ‘Come smell this’ with a big turd coming out of a giant inflatable ass. 

The far-right attorney general is licking his chops as discussions in Washington involve sending in the National Guard to keep San Francisco safe from all the butt-sniffing going on around town. Once the Guard is in San Francisco they will have no problem infiltrating less liberal cities and the dystopian vision of America as a totalitarian police state will be closer to fruition. The deep state toasts The Butt Sniffer.

         I stop reading, spent, awash in a scene of achievement with even greater potential. “You get the gist. It is actually a pro-feminist, a pro-social justice piece of umm... satire.”

         “It’s ridiculous!” Alexandra says, “And such a waste of time.  There is no way a Hollywood studio would ever want to turn your disgusting little screenplay into a movie.”

         I ponder sharing my film production company idea. BackItUp Productions. A collective of progressive filmmakers who are committed to their craft, who take the principles of movements seriously, while maintaining a general attitude of irreverence towards anything of this world. Non-dual filmmaking.  

         I look over at Michael and am pleased to see the corners of his lips curl upwards and for half a second, he actually chuckles. I win again. I am not a loser.

         “Michael! He’s sick. He is so sick.” Alexandra says, her face red with anger. 

Michael looks stumped.  I feel a little disturbed.  Are we hopeless?  Have Alexandra and I reached a point where a therapist can’t even help us break up? Did he just give us up by laughing?

“Nick, you will eventually be looking for an apartment or room to rent soon.  How do you think your now low credit score will affect you getting permanent housing?” Michael asks.

“Yeah, Nick, how do you think this will affect our children? You blowing off your credit so you can write screenplays about guys going around smelling asses. What is wrong with you?”

Stimulated by the first public reading of my unfinished screenplay, I check out of the session and daydream of new scenes. I hope Michael doesn’t try to steal my idea.  Maybe I should not have abandoned it.

 

Gunnhild Øyehaug

Gunnhild Øyehaug

The dynamic between light and dark is also important in how I edit the texts, in terms of what’s going to follow. I put a lot of weight on getting the balance right. I’ve always been fascinated by a passage from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, when the artist Lily Briscoe talks about composing her pictures. She says that shadow here needs light there, and she realizes in a sudden insight that she has to put the tree in the painting further to the middle. And that’s been my guideline, really, for how to compose: I have to put the masses in the correct balance, and there has to be a center.

Miranda Mellis

Miranda Mellis

What kind of writing excites you?

I am excited by writing that functions at once as art and philosophy, and that works carefully and in an unexpected way at the level of the sentence. I am excited by writing that jokes compassionately and writing that I am on the very edge of understanding, that oscillates in and out of clarity, and that can’t be exhausted in a single reading or even multiple readings, and that takes formal chances.

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Marzano-Lesnevich uses the great gift of empathy to explore her subject, instead of only relying on rhetorical flourishes. The facts in this work provide a vehicle for a deeper exploration of human emotion in the aftermath of an evil act—indignation, forgiveness, fear, resentment, understanding, etc.

Joy Williams’s Ninety-nine Stories of God

Joy Williams’s Ninety-nine Stories of God

Reading Ninety-nine Stories can be a disjointed, disorienting experience. It’s accessible, subdivided into bite-sized, fast stories that serve to chill or humor or unsettle. But these segments, extreme in their brevity and hyper-precise in their language, are often deliberately contradictory, confusing the book’s own ideas and the reader’s understanding.

Lee Matthew Goldberg

Lee Matthew Goldberg

What are you working on now?

I’m always working on a few projects at once so I never get bored. Lately I’ve been switching between novels and screenwriting. I have a series of Sci-Fi-ish books I’ve been writing for years about a cult in the Ozarks, along with a YA time travel book and a YA novel set in the grunge 90s. I’m also collaborating on a Sci-Fi script based on the Malaysian flight that disappeared and a TV pilot that reimagines Norman Mailer as a P.I. I also just finished a draft of a script set a hundred years in the future about a Trump-like villain as our President. Wait, did I say the future? I meant now.

Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth

Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth

 Unferth is unable to write a boring sentence. She denies her creations cliché resolution, is resilient to heroic evolutions, permits no godly miracles. We anticipate these ill-fated characters will succumb to their predicted dead-ends, but Unferth time after time demonstrates a remarkable gift for conjuring the unforeseeable, and the restricted scopes of her worlds miraculously give birth to expansive possibilities and ambient revelations through a voice ignited by its own humanity.