He lowered the window an inch and the dry air now flowed past his temple. Though he had arrived in Kuwait five days ago, he was still feeling some jetlag edginess. The road stretched out flat and straight. Nature here had the color of an oatmeal cookie, most houses too. Some were a bit lighter in color, like an oatmeal cookie bleached in the sun. They formed an unbroken line right off the freeway, three-story facades with columns and small, frequently shuttered windows. None of this had been here back then. The country had come some way since Mr Sodamn Insane’s drubbing.
They were on Sixth Ring Road, heading west. Gabe Henderson looked at his son. Josh was sitting upright and square-shouldered in the rental SUV’s wide seat. The new tattoo of his regiment number showed, slightly Gothic, on his forearm. He hadn’t said much about why they’d sent him here from Afghanistan for a week; he had to see a few people. New posting still on? Yes, next month. Gabe was glad to hear it and for the opportunity to meet up. Sometimes he wished he could re-enlist.
The freeway began turning north; traffic was thinning out. To the left in the desert, a few large, dark tents sat in vaguely demarcated lots, usually a pick-up or two outside. A spasm ran over Gabe’s face and he reached down to massage his left knee. It had been worse since arriving here. Maybe it really was mostly in his head.
Now, Mr Henderson, when you experience pain, I want you to visualize a scene of tranquility. Maybe a scene of you fishing. You enjoy that, right?
Scene of tranquility. Shrink baloney!
What had Trujillo been visualizing when he put his Beretta under his own chin and pulled the trigger? Hopefully something better than a scene of himself fishing. Gabe’s mouth became a line.
It’s that shit we were breathing back then, Henderson. — Maybe. — Not maybe. It was the air. I can still smell the place. — Could have been the ordinance, the uranium. — Nah, it was the air, I’m telling ya. That’s what messed us up. — But my lungs are fine. — It gets everyone in a different way, Henderson. You’re lucky, just some arthritis….
Tru had looked so old that last time they had met, steep lines in his cheeks, watery eyes. Pale. How was that even possible? As if he’d put on fifty years, instead of twenty-five. He was sitting on his sagging, green couch. Outside, the chaparral hills of South Tucson lay in the white sunlight, but Tru had a blanket pulled up over his stomach. Every once in a while, a hacking cough would shake his frame and then he’d grin. “We Mexicans come in small packages, Henderson, but we’re tough. Tenaz! Gulf War syndrome can kiss my Latin ass.” Tru had not gotten up at the end. “You know the way out, Henderson.” He should have recognized the cramped expression around his friend’s mouth for what it was. Determined resignation, if that made any sense. Should have.
Gabe shook his head and checked an item off his to-do list: “Try calling your mother more often, huh? You know she worries a lot.”
Josh looked up from his iPhone, eyes invisible behind the sunglasses. He slipped the phone into his shirt pocket and scanned the road ahead. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’ll try. How was she when you called?”
“Okay, I guess.” Gabe scratched the stubble on his cheek. His wife’s features–he still thought of her as his wife–appeared for a moment in his field of vision, those large eyes with their disappointed look. She must be asleep now, in their former house; outside, the shoots of the corn seedlings would be pushing up through the snow. “She’s got something new. Kind of yoga in a sauna. Apparently, it’s not enough to throw out your back, you gotta sweat at the same time.”
He realized he was aiming for light humor. Josh gave a grunt, the meaning of which could lie anywhere between puzzlement and mirth. Gabe inhaled, readying himself to breathe more life into the conversation, but then merely reached for the chewing gum in the center console. Josh had always been moody. Maybe that was good in a way; months of going after the Taliban hadn’t changed him. Gabe thought of his father, in his den, empty beer cans at his feet, Credence Clearwater Revival on the record player, flipping through his photo album of jungle scenes, not to be disturbed for days on end. Odd that your son could make you think of your father.
The western edge of the bay came into view, the water like tinfoil. They passed a white-domed mosque with a single minaret. The road dipped and then began to ascend. Maybe five-hundred yards to their left, the Ridge was taking shape, a dun-colored escarpment with boulders at its foot.
Gabe felt his son’s eyes on himself. He made a gesture with his right hand from his shoulder to the horizon. “Around here it started.”
Josh nodded. “I looked at some pictures. They slaughtered them.”
“Yeah, the F-16s just kept going at them.”
“Ain’t called Highway of Death for nothing, I guess.”
Gabe didn’t like the expression. Highway of Death. Sounded like some trashy movie. Nothing wrong with trashy movies, but this hadn’t been one. People weren’t supposed to die this way, not even bad guys. Incinerated from above by the hundreds. The smell of scorched metal and burnt flesh was in his nostrils. He reached for the button to raise the window, before realizing that the smell was not outside.
“We could take that off-ramp,” he heard Josh saying.
About a quarter mile ahead, a bridge crossed the freeway. The concrete structure shimmered light grey, without blemish, as if it had been plonked down yesterday.
“You wanted to walk around a little, right?” his son continued, doubtfully.
They traversed two thirds of the circle at the end of the off-ramp. The Ridge sat squarely ahead. The road curved right, then petered out in a dirt lot. A few dune buggies sat forlorn under a makeshift tarpaulin.
The Chevy Tahoe moved quietly over the gravel. An elevation of perhaps three feet, manmade and saddle-formed, marked the end of the lot. Gabe let the SUV roll to the top of the wave of earth and perched the vehicle there.
In the distance, almost a mile away, where the Ridge sloped down toward the desert, stood a tiny human figure. Dark specks surrounded it. A herd of animals. Gabe looked left toward the freeway. A white Porsche zoomed into view and disappeared under the bridge they had just crossed. The freeway seemed very close. The smell lay on the back of his tongue like some vile pebble.
He chewed his gum more vigorously and nodded toward the terrain ahead. “Doesn’t look too loose.” He eased the Chevy down the small incline. They followed the curves of a track to the bottom of the reddish-brown cliff. Gabe put the SUV in park.
“Thought it was higher somehow,” he said. The Ridge plateaued off maybe eighty feet from where they were. In some places the rock face was vertical, in others the run-off from the winter rains had cut gulches into the soft stone.
The sound of Josh closing the car door startled him. Gabe pulled the key from the ignition and got out. He was fumbling with the lock switch when the pain left his knee and clawed its way up his leg into his groin. There the pain gathered heat and thorniness, before burrowing through into his spinal column and pushing on up his back. Gabe slammed his left palm against the car window. For a good five seconds he stood, head bowed. Then he opened the door again and pulled some tissues from the box of Kleenex on the dashboard. He wiped his face and when he turned Josh was staring up at the Ridge.
They walked the last few yards. Embers of an old bonfire lay in a depression, some bottles and dented soda cans scattered in the vicinity. The man in the distance had begun moving up the slope of the Ridge with his animals. The image looked biblical somehow. The bark of a dog sounded faintly. Gabe felt the warm air around his shoulders. The sky stretched out, placid. By May, the sun would be burning with unforgiving fury, or maybe April already; he wasn’t sure anymore. It had been a long time. On the day back then, the sky had been grey from the fires to the south.
Gabe looked over his shoulder toward the freeway, then nodded at the Ridge. “You go ahead.”
“Sure you want to go?”
His son hesitated a moment. “Okay.”
Josh scanned the rock face, spared another look at Gabe, and made his way toward a gulch. They scrambled up a dozen yards. The gulch ended in a step, and Gabe watched as Josh angled his leg, placed his foot on the edge, reached forward with both hands to grasp outcroppings in the sidewalls, and levered himself up.
“Go.” Gabe motioned him on.
He readied himself to duplicate the move. He succeeded in placing his right foot on the step’s edge and immediately pulled himself upward. The motion was surprisingly easy. He had expected the pain to strike the moment he had all his weight on his left leg, but the pain seemed to have retreated to its lair, as if exhausted after the recent outburst. He smiled. The side of his neck throbbed, but he was still in decent shape.
Josh followed the ledge, Gabe a few yards behind. He watched his son place his steps with precision. The ground hardly crunched beneath Josh’s sneakers. He had been walking mountain ledges where the air was far thinner, with a seventy-pound load on his back. Fear for his son touched Gabe’s heart like a wet rag, and as always he pushed this fear aside.
The angle of the path increased and then it began to zigzag. Soon they were on all fours, little avalanches of gravel sliding down behind them. Gabe felt something inside his knee becoming denser and colder. A coppery taste filled his mouth. The path curved behind a rock, and as he rounded it he saw Josh standing a few feet ahead on a level patch. In front of his son, the wall was vertical. It leveled off at the edge of the Ridge, perhaps a foot above his head.
“Think you can get up?” Gabe said, pulling his T-shirt away from his chest.
“I guess, but….”
“Don’t underestimate your old man.”
Josh pressed his lips together in a smile.
Stepping closer, Gabe saw fissures in the rock face. Josh dug the tip of his sneaker into one of them about a foot from the ground. He lifted his arms above his head, then pushed himself upward in a vertical jump. His forearms clamped down on the top of the Ridge. He shimmied forward, pulled his legs over the edge, before getting to his knees and turning to look down.
Gabe nodded. The cold had spread all the way to his hip. Josh’s features were indistinct, the sun behind him. The coppery taste had gone, but the smell was there again, taunting in its unreality. Gabe pushed his sneaker into the fissure. When he launched himself into the air and his knee connected with the rock, his bones seemed to shatter and he saw only white.
“Damn, Dad. Try to push a little.” Josh’s voice was small and far away.
Gabe willed his vision to clear. His forearms squeezed against the edge of the Ridge; Josh’s hands were locked around his upper arms. Gabe probed for a hold with his right foot. His weight was pulling free of his son’s fingers. He found a point of resistance and pressed down. Josh gave a grunt, and Gabe felt his body being dragged upward until his torso was over the edge. Then he was lying flat on the gravel, dust in his nostrils.
He felt Josh’s hand on his shoulder.
“You okay, Dad?”
“Yeah … yeah.” Gabe rolled over and pushed his upper body into a vertical position. Everything below his stomach felt numb. He looked east toward the downtown skyscrapers, with their tips floating above the smog, then traced the freeway, an asphalt line in the beige emptiness, the Highway of Death scrubbed clean….
The smell everywhere, rancid smoke rising from the sea of wreckage ahead. He hits the wipers to clear dust from the windshield of the Humvee. The first wreck they pass is a Mercedes that has veered off the freeway and lies on its side. He doesn’t slow down. ”Jesus,” mutters Tru. The night before, they’d found a group of civilians in a villa, all shot in the back of the head. Tru had looked sick. The orders are to pick up a prisoner and deliver him to intel. A few car wrecks now in the middle of the road, a T-54 with its turret hanging off. There is no way forward. “Holy moly,” he says as he lets the Humvee roll to a stop. “Don’t mess with Uncle Sam….” He will have to reverse. “Like a fucking junkyard,” says Tru and slowly opens the door. To the crest of the hill the road is covered with burnt-out trucks, cars, tanks, buses. He gets out too. The smell squeezes his intestines. Two Black Hawks pass overhead, one with the cabin door open. He glimpses a burly man in fatigues. Top brass on reconnaissance. To his left, an odd-looking ridge stretches north, the first thing resembling elevation he has seen in this country. Mutla Ridge it says on the maps. How would this whole mess look from up there? Tru is stepping up to the wall of twisted metal. A pick-up, once silver, lies bent against a semi, as if kicked there by a giant. The door of the pick-up stands open a few inches, the ash-grey window is down a little. Tru tries to peer inside, hesitates, then pushes against the edge of the door with the sole of his boot. “Tru, what are you doing?” Tru ignores him. The door doesn’t move. Tru leans in stronger, and the hinge gives with a creak. A black thing spills forward, its shoulder raised, still pushing desperately against the door, and collapses over Tru’s leg. Tru shoveling air as he falls. And then shooting, emptying his entire magazine at the thing, which bursts into a cloud of black and red. Tru screaming and scrambling backward, away from the goo on his fatigues. “Tru! Tru! For heaven’s sake, get a grip!…”
“How’s the pain?” His son is on his haunches next to him.
“Help me up.”
When Gabe was back on his feet, the ground felt not quite there. His chewing gum was gone; he must have swallowed it. He took a step and then another.
“You really wanted to see this from up here, huh?” said Josh.
“Let’s look along the ridge. There must be an easier way down.”
Green fuzz, product of the rains, speckled the dust. They walked slowly with the wind from the desert in their faces.
“You think this spring is going to be rough?” Gabe asked.
“I told you they’re giving me some desk job in Kabul, right?”
Gabe nodded. Maybe he’d wanted to hear it again, he thought.
They rounded a bend in the Ridge and saw a figure coming toward them. It acquired definition and became a Bedouin with a long, thin stick in his right hand. His stick touched the ground on every other step. Next to him trotted a dog, an Alsatian it seemed, though reddish in color. Ahead of the man and his dog moved a herd of bleating goats. The Bedouin wore a grey kaftan and a bleached blue windbreaker. On his head sat a baseball hat. Josh’s stride slowed and Gabe felt something below his rib cage coil up. The Bedouin’s lean, dark brown face was impassive, his age hard to tell. Grey flecked his short beard, but his bearing was that of an adolescent, sure of himself, nervy somehow, derisive. The dog stopped in its tracks, then barked and ran toward them. It came to a halt two, three yards away, head lowered, front legs parted, barking furiously. The hooves of the goats clicked on the gravel as they sidled away. Josh took a step forward and the dog lowered its head further and growled. Its teeth gleamed dully. The animal was past its prime, Gabe thought, its snout almost white, one tooth broken. He heard himself say “Wait.” Josh turned toward the Bedouin, who was looking at him. The dog barked in a mindless rage. The wind had dropped.
Josh took another step, and the dog leapt for his arm. It was not an impressive leap. Josh made a quick, almost dancer-like move to the side, and the dog’s teeth closed with a smacking, empty sound. The Bedouin yelled “Ta’aal!” and rushed forward, too slow. Josh was sliding to the ground. His forearm closed around the dog’s neck, wrestling the snarling animal off its feet. He pinned it to the ground with his knee. Next moment there came a crunching sound as the dog’s spinal column snapped, and Josh was up again. The dog lay before them, its tongue hanging out, touching the ground. The Bedouin looked down as a final spasm passed through his animal. He raised his eyes. A thought flitted through Gabe’s mind: Hollywood directors sometimes told their actors to keep their faces blank–the audience would see what it needed to see. Am I seeing his hatred? My own? Is there anything to see?
The Bedouin’s eyes moved slowly back and forth between Gabe and Josh. The goats, Gabe noted, had gathered some twenty yards away and were watching intently. He glanced to his side. Josh held his arms slightly angled. His lips were pushed outward, his chin up. The Bedouin’s grip on his staff tightened. He looked at his dog and then again at them. Finally, he made a small gesture, a hardly perceptible sideways nod along the Ridge that seemed composed in equal parts of disgust and contempt.
“Go,” Gabe said under his breath and pushed Josh against the shoulder. “Go!”
They kept glancing backward as they moved along the Ridge. But the Bedouin was looking at his dog. When they were maybe a hundred yards away, he kneeled down and laid a palm on the animal’s flank.
Soon they were sliding down a dune to the bottom of the Ridge. They walked in silence to the SUV. Gabe got behind the wheel and waited for Josh to enter on his side. The car seat felt strangely soft. Gabe had a sense of his own weight, of being burdened by his insides. Josh settled into the passenger seat.
Gabe started the engine and as he maneuvered the SUV back to the road, he heard Tru’s fast, deep voice, as it had been all those years ago: “I’ve had it, Henderson. Basta! I’m going home and staying home, if it means washing dishes. Fuck this shit!” And then Tru started laughing, and before long they were both laughing, nonsensically, hysterically, as if nothing that happened here could possibly matter in the end.
Image – Highway of Death – TECH. SGT. JOE COLEMAN [Public domain]