V. Baghdad Fever
I was in a good mood until I stepped outside into the arrivals area, where I was greeted by the impregnable downpour of the Iraqi rainy season and suddenly remembered, with massive, cheek-reddening embarrassment, that I was wearing sneakers. New Balance 990 series, three years old. The Westerners who’d arrived on the same flight with me were all wearing boots, steel-toed, waterproof, Vibram soles, ten-hole. If war has a motto, it’s “No Guns, No Boots, No Service.” In my rush to take the gig in Baghdad, I’d forgotten about boots. Have you ever dreamt of showing up for the first day of school naked and looking for your new locker? It was like that.
I draped my duffle bag over my feet to try and hide my sneakers. The other men standing under the concrete overhang were too distracted to notice my footwear, but I wasn’t going to take a chance. My self-confidence was already low. I had no faith in my ability to handle war-work anymore, and if just one of these guys snickered at my kicks, I’d probably turn around and fly right back to New York.
Back in the day I had several pairs of boots but I’d put them in a storage unit in Hoboken. When the money ran out, I had to choose between making a payment on the unit, and wine with dinner. You have to take into consideration my situation at the time. Boots for war were very low on the list of priorities, way below things like rent for my room at Stanley’s, books, anti-virus software, and a decent winter jacket.
My gut told me, and I believed it at the time, to go with the wine. In fact, the exact words my gut used were, “Buy the wine first; whatever’s left over, use on food.”
In addition to the lack of boots, I had another immediate worry upon arriving in Baghdad: I had no clue if anyone was picking me up from the airport. The other new arrivals were steadily disappearing into the backseats of heavily armored, prickling-stiff SUVs operated by a crew of hard-dicks with farmer’s tans and various degrees of receding hairlines. The SUVs arrived in fast-moving convoys, which slowed down long enough to snatch up their passengers and zoom off into the leathery-winged misery of Baghdad, doors shut and locked around their pale-skinned, glistening, boot-wearing prizes.
To kill time, I did some people watching. It quickly became apparent that these other men, the Westerners, looked more or less like me: they were ex-physically fit guys. Or maybe a better description was semi-fit guys. Or previously-fit guys. Or pretty-damn-fit-for-almost-40 guys. If you saw us standing there in the rain, you’d know why the Generals send young men and women to war: fresh young faces make a better picture. If we were the face of the war, with five-day beards, chins on the verge of doubling, swelling waistbands, sandpaper faces, salt-and-pepper hair, America would have pulled the plug on Iraq years ago. A trillion dollar war requires some baby fat and a bit of innocence, yet we’d entirely lost our wholesome appearance—not to war, but to the vigorous poverty of middle age.
I mention our appearance to point out an interesting fact: unlike the last time I visited Baghdad, there were no desk jockeys. No smiling accountants in polo shirts embroidered with Bearing Point logos, their noses buried in spreadsheets. No Big Oil executives salivating when the smell of raw petroleum hit their virgin nostrils. No General Electric engineers discussing the latest megawatt generators. No Bechtel luminaries with new ideas for rerouting raw sewage from the Baghdad slums into the Tigris.
Everyone standing in the arrivals area was a security contractor, and no one was smiling.
The sun set at 5 p.m. The storm took this as a sign to double down, to wring out every last bit of rain from the clouds. Despite standing under the concrete overhang, I was soaked. A spattering of street lamps flickered on, making the sky appear even darker. I took out the last of my turkey and cranberry sandwich and ate it slowly. It was two days after Thanksgiving.
As the sun went down, so came recognition that I was the only person left in the arrivals area. A phalanx of Iraqi Customs Agents had assembled in the lobby to assess my situation. They weren’t there to offer a helping hand. They’d come to see if I’d weakened enough to feed off me, darting about like a murder of crows on the side of a highway, inspecting me like a freshly hit ground hog…hop… hop…peck…hop…hop…peck…hoping to pluck a pink quivering band of muscle from my gastrocnemius. Or peck out my liver. Or gouge out my eyeballs to get at the sweetmeats.
The sun dipped further.
The Iraqis pressed their glowing, expectant faces to the tinted window, any pretense of innocent intentions long abandoned. An old man with milky eyes picked his teeth with a twisted paperclip and squinted at my duffel bag. My autonomic nervous system kicked in; I simultaneously felt the urge to move my bowels and run like hell. I was considering how I’d accomplish both when, out of the gloom, a white pick-up truck with red racing stripes barreled around the airport road. For a moment it looked like the driver, a short man with a flaming canopy of red hair and a meaty neck, might roll the vehicle. At the last moment, he wrenched the wheel in the opposite direction and held on for dear life as the truck bobbled left and right and left again before coming to a stop 50 feet away from me.
Quick as a fox, the red-headed driver hopped out of the truck into the pouring rain and sprinted over to me.
“Are you Matty?” the man shouted.
“I sure hope so, because there’s no one else here but you!”
He sprinted back to the vehicle, drove the truck next to me, and hopped out into the rain again.
“Bertrand Shaw,” he yelled. “I’m an ex-Royal Marine and 100 percent cunt bastard.” I soon learned that his favorite word was definitely cunt, which he pronounced more like coont.
Bertrand motioned to a sleeping figure in the front passenger seat. The man had the round face, dark skin, and jet black hair easily identifiable in Iraq as one of the Gurkhas from Nepal, a ferocious though generally well-behaved band of fighters-for-hire in Iraq. Gurkhas were found only in the better private security outfits because of their relative high cost, compared to say, Hondurans, who were cheaper though more likely to run than fight. Just like at the supermarket, you get what you pay for.
“The Gurkha’s name is Dharma,” Bertrand said. “You’d think I was hired to chauffeur him around Baghdad. Look at his fat smug face. I’d thrash the little brown bastard only there’s no one to replace him. He might take a liking to you, though.”
Bertrand heaved my bags into the bed of the truck, where they came to rest in four inches of muddy rainwater. Bertrand turned his back to Dharma and leaned in confidentially. “The man previously in charge of Area Q, a coont named Darrell Tweefontein, has been reassigned,” Bertrand whispered. “Officially he’s on vacation. But everyone knows it’s a permanent arrangement. From now on, I’m in charge of security. You’re my second, Matty.
“And Dharma here—” Bertrand banged on the window “is your second. Don’t let him fool you. He served in the Queen’s army for 20 years. He bloody hell KNOWS HOW TO SPEAK ENGLISH!”
Dharma woke up long enough to smile blankly at me before nodding off again.
“I don’t actually know how well Dharma speaks English,” Bertrand admitted. “In the old days, we forced it down their throats. But nowadays, who knows?”
My new bed was a floppy mattress resting on a trampoline of exposed springs that stretched and snapped if I shifted so much as an inch. The mattress was a twin-size in width, but from head to toe it measured under six feet—with a steel bar at either end. If I managed to stretch out, the bottom bar pressed into the soft spot between my ankle and my calf, condemning me to a non-sleeping sleep, a guilty man’s sleep, a flopping fish in the canoe sleep. It didn’t matter; I immediately crawled under the covers and attempted to sleep for thirty-six hours.
Twice I remember seeing Mohammed, the Bangladeshi cabin-boy (he was 15), dropping off a fresh meal while removing the old, untouched offering. I nibbled just one of the dry tuna sandwiches, and guzzled one box of fruit juice, and used the toilet just once. I did it all with my eyes shut in order to return to my slumber without any lucid intervals.
At one point—I don’t recall which day it was, only that it was dark outside—I woke to see a figure standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips. I whimpered a bit and rolled over. The next time I looked, minutes or hours later, the person was gone.
Later I asked Bertrand if it was him.
“Not me,” Bertrand said, straight faced. “Probably Dharma, hoping to catch you asleep with your knickers down, the coont.”
Even though Bertrand left me alone to sleep off my depression, I couldn’t really relax. The rain fell unceasingly on the tin roof like a snare drum; it was like lying in the middle of a cul-de-sac and being trampled on over and over by a marching band. And then there were the images of Iraq stuck in my head, scenes I’d witnessed on the ride to Area Q from the airport, images of barbed wire, of the broken landscape, of generators, of guns, of the shrugging pace, the foot-dragging pace, the tit-for-tat pace of Baghdad. It made me ache for my comfortable little room in Stanley’s apartment. From that crappy little bed in Baghdad, being penniless in New York didn’t seem so awful anymore. The more I thought about it, the more romantic my poverty there became. There was no prospect of a job, especially not in winter, but if I could just hold out until May, I could probably swing my spot at the farmers market. It was just five months away. Certainly I could get by for five months.
The notion of going back to Stanley’s was enough to get me out of bed and stretch and use the bathroom. I’d forgotten that I’d taken the job in Baghdad because I couldn’t hack it in New York. But that was before I’d arrived in this rainy cesspool. A thought occurred to me. Maybe my agent, Barry Speck, had sold my book? It was technically possible. I’d last spoken with him the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and it was now the Monday after. I toyed with the idea of calling him. He was the first agent I ever had. We barely knew each other. I had no clue how to treat him. Was he a friend, a father-figure, a boss? Whatever, he held my fragile ego in his hand. One dismissive gesture, one unkind word, and I’d be crushed. I grew more agitated. What if at that very moment he was so busy closing the deal that he forgot to phone me? I had a right to join in on the excitement. It was my sweat and tears poured into that book.
Barry didn’t pick up the phone. I left a message saying I’d call back from a 973 area code in ten minutes. The next time he picked up immediately.
“973 is a Jersey area code,” Barry said. His voice was accusatory.
“I know. It’s weird. For some reason the phones here are routed through New Jersey. Trust me, I’m in Iraq. Right now I’m resting my feet on an ammo can and outside I can see barbed wire and there’s a Bollywood musical blaring from the Gurkha’s mess tent. I’m definitely in Iraq.”
“You better be in Iraq. I’m telling all the publishers you’re in Iraq. It’s a major selling point for them. It adds street cred. They’re impressed when I tell them you went back to Iraq to make money until your book on Iraq sells. The whole pitch falls apart if you’re in New Jersey.”
“I’ll email you a picture of me with an Iraqi if you don’t believe me.” I had the sudden desire to carve my initials in Barry’s neck with a rusty nail.
“You could fake it,” Barry said. “There are plenty of Arabs in New Jersey. Newark is practically a separate Islamic state. Do yourself a favor and call from an Iraqi phone next time. I don’t want anyone knowing you’re in New Jersey. And since I have you on the phone, you might as well know that I’m trying my best but publishers are wary of your book. This is them speaking here, not me. They say it has no plot and your characters are weak. I’m trying to convince them it doesn’t matter. I’m pushing for a rush printing. We might sell a few copies on the novelty alone before a good writer comes around. Of course, when that happens the game is over. We’re in a race against time. And another thing – “
The line went dead. I was about to dial him again when I heard Bertrand talking to someone down the hall. I put down the phone and nudged my door open a crack. Bertrand was sitting at his desk with his red hair like a torch under the desk lamp. He was wearing blue boxer shorts and flip-flops and his thick legs bounced wildly as he cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder.
“Yes darling, very busy,” says Bertrand. “Very, very busy. The war is going fine. No it’s not ending anytime soon. Who said that? Taggert’s an idiot darling. Say again…he heard it on the telly? Never believe the telly, darling. Or Taggert. He’s been a liar his whole life. One time in primary school, he…did I tell you that already? Okay then I won’t repeat it. By the way, when did you see the Taggerts? Oh really…”
Bertrand concentrated intensely on every word his wife said. His shoulders and neck were as rigid as obsidian. If he’d fallen from his chair during that conversation, he would’ve shattered into jagged little shards.
“Say again…the Taggert’s have their girls in etiquette class? How many days a week? Three days! My God I never thought it possible...those little bitches will be the talk of the town…hello, darling? Darling? Yes, yes, of course. I’m very sorry darling. Yes, I’ll watch my mouth. Very sorry. But you can’t blame me, darling. You’ll have to be doubly aware when I’m away. The Taggerts are sly. We have to stay one step ahead of them. We should have anticipated this coming. Yes, sign the girls up immediately. How much is it anyway? Twenty pound per girl per day?” Bertrand went pale in the face. He steeled his resolve. “I don’t care, darling. Sign them up for five days. Yes, I said five days. What are you talking about, they need a day off? Do you think Al Qaeda gives me a day off? Do you think the fucking terrorists…darling? Are you there? Yes, I’m through. You’re quite right. Very insensitive of me. Three days is fine. Yes, love you too darling. Bye darling, bye, bye…”
Bertrand carefully set down the phone and rested his head in his folded arms. I shut the door to give him and his marital grief some privacy. Above the door, I noticed, was a paper sign that read “Deputy Security Chief Matt Igoe” in large bold font. That really got me. 24 hours ago I was a chump who’d been fired from a farmers market for dereliction of duty. Today I was Deputy Security Chief! I got a little weepy, to be honest.
Next to the bed going clockwise around the room was a dresser, a desk, a chair, and the closet. The walls were lined with faux wood paneling. The carpet was industrial grade, brownish with a few large oil stains of indeterminable origin. I closed the blinds to shut out the rain and turned up the heat on the electric baseboard unit. It rattled to life and soon the smell of ozone filled the room. I took up position in various points. The heater kept the damp chill exactly nine and half feet from the wall.
I kicked myself for not turning it on two days ago.
Instantly I felt 50 percent better. The thought of quitting opened me up to a more positive outlook on life. I opened the closet and pulled out my newly assigned weapons and looked them over. Bertrand suggested I carry the Glock and hide the AK-47 under the bed. The AK was a big clunky bastard with huge bullets. I hated it. The pistol was very stylish, though. A 9mm. Very light-weight. I strapped it on and pulled on my body armor and took a look at myself in the mirror. Not bad. It occurred to me to check if either the Glock or the AK were loaded.
I took out the magazines but I couldn’t remember how to unload them. I pulled every lever until they coughed up bullets.
Later that afternoon Bertrand gave me a tour around our compound. Bertrand held a Styrofoam cup of steaming Nescafé in one hand and kept his other hand shoved in his pocket. He thrust his brawny chin to point out significant landmarks. Area Q was a couple of square miles surrounded with 12 foot concrete barriers. Our tiny compound was tucked inside, with muddy open desert and ruined buildings and construction sites dotting the landscape around us. We had eight prefabricated living containers and a two-story cinderblock building that served as HQ, all protected by flimsy low walls.
Bertrand was halfway through the tour when out of the gloom and mist, 40 Gurkhas in dark blue paramilitary uniforms and AK-47s appeared, standing in formation.
Dharma stood in front of the formation and saluted us.
“The men are ready for duty, sirrah!” Dharma shouted.
Bernard nearly jumped out of his pants—Dharma spoke English after all!
“Really, thank you, Dharma,” I yelled. “But why not do this tomorrow, when the rain lets up…”
Dharma stared at me blankly. His eyes quivered in hopeless confusion. He’d lost his ability to speak English again! I didn’t appreciate being manipulated, so I folded my arms across my chest, letting him know I’d stand there all day in the rain until he regained his comprehension. To my dismay, Dharma wobbled his head slightly from side to side.
It was the South Asian Head Bob! The infamous gesture among Indians and Pakistanis and Nepalese that meant yes and no and I don’t know and Fuck You all at the same time. The sole purpose of the South Asian Head Bob was to the leave the head-bobber, in this case Dharma, completely inculpable for his behavior. It was a dirty move, but legal. Dharma out-maneuvered me and I had no choice but to concede the point.
“Sorry about the rain!” I shouted, walking the ranks, exchanging forced smiles with the Gurkhas. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“Thanks for coming out.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“It’ll take me a few days with the names.”
“A real pleasure! Again—sorry about the rain!”
When the last hand was shaken, Dharma beamed approvingly.
The men sloshed through the mud and rain for the green canvas mess tent. A Bollywood musical shrieked from inside on high quality, very loud speakers. Dharma saluted and shuffled inside after the men, walking as if he had a thumbtack in each boot.
“He’s got the gout,” Bertrand said, confirming my suspicion. “Comes from drinking too much. Tweefontein buys the booze for them, among other things.” He walked me over to the living containers next to our own. “The Gurkhas live in these four containers,” Bertrand slapped the wall of the last container as we walked by, then looking left and right, and he motioned me down on my knees. Under the container was a makeshift chicken house. A dozen chickens dressed in brown and red feathers pecked and scratched from a large bowl of mess hall slop. We sat on our knees and watched the chickens strut about in their self-important way.
“Nice, healthy birds,” I said.
“The Gurkhas make curry out of them,” Bertrand replied. “A bit of comfort food, like turkey for you Yanks at Thanksgiving. Tweefontein buys the chickens at the West Gate and brings them over. He waits until I’m not around, of course. I’d like to get of rid the damn things, but it’s a morale issue.”
The temperature took a nosedive overnight. Rain and wind and a cold heavy mist collected in my bones. It was bad weather for a first day of war-work, so I stayed under the covers. At 8 a.m. Bernard called me into his room. Our living situation was informal, but I felt the need to pull on pants before walking the ten feet to his room.
“Sorry to wake you, but there’s something you need to see,” Bernard said, pointing to the computer screen. The BBC website had a single headline: Bird Flu Hits the Middle East.
The article tracked chicken-to-chicken contact from Bangkok all the way to Tehran. Every bird from the Levant to the Indian Ocean needed culling. According to the experts there was only one option…a chicken massacre on a global scale.
Chicken genocide. No chicken was safe. Especially the chickens next door.
Bertrand summoned Dharma to his office. I boiled the water for coffee.
“Listen here, Dharma,” Bertrand said kindly. “I know about the flock of hens under your container.”
Dharma grinned. It was the same grin as the Cheshire Cat’s only Dharma was more obvious. A child might mistake the Cheshire Cat for a good kitty, but not Dharma. He was a bad kitty. The problem, I think, was that Gurkhas weren’t media savvy. They still grinned like killers. In the West we’ve become method actors. We reach down deep inside and recall some pivotal place in our youth from which to bring forth an authentically warm smile or a truly pained expression before we lay waste to nations.
Dharma’s smile reminded me of something I saw when I was a boy, probably in the late ’70s. I was watching TV and some Eastern European dictator was on the screen, patting the heads of bawling children and shaking the hands of terrified peasants during a fixed election. That cruel bastard made full-grown men piss their pants when he grinned. Even as a boy I knew, by the way he smiled, that when the cameras stopped rolling he was going to massacre everybody. I couldn’t sleep for a month, thinking about that smile. Dharma had it down pat.
“Normally I’d overlook chickens for the comfort of the Gurkhas,” Bertrand said. “I want the boys to enjoy some comforts of home. But see here.”
Bertrand clicked on the BBC video. It was a factory farm in China. Thousands of chickens sprang to life, a bobbing ocean of red leathery heads and white plumage crammed into a low-ceilinged concentration camp, each quivering beak tapping and probing for loose wires or floor boards, hoping to find an avenue of escape.
Three compact men breathing from respirators and holding machetes entered from stage left. They waded through the cacophonous squabbling birds like dark angels on Judgment Day. One of the men saw the camera rolling and removed his respirator. I nearly fell over. The bastard was grinning exactly like Dharma!
The men raised their machetes to begin the cull. The video ended, leaving the rest to the imagination.
“As you can see, bird flu has hit Iraq,” Bertrand said. “If just one of your hens has a dose and then spreads it to the troops, the entire war machine would come to a grinding halt. The Generals would blame us for losing a war they’d fucked up years ago. Do you have any idea what the penalty for treason is these days?”
Thankfully, Dharma had no clue that treason had been recently demoted to a misdemeanor. You’d get more jail time for streaking through the mess hall than treason. You’d more likely face the firing squad for talking to the Press than for talking to Al Qaeda.
“Dharma, to prove I’m not inflating this matter,” Bertrand continued, “I’m going to ask Matt, our resident Special Forces medic, to give his opinion on the chicken matter.”
Dharma turned to me like a man in need of a hero. A hero willing to stand up to the machine so a small group of disconnected misfits, the Gurkhas, a long ways from home and fighting a battle that means nothing to them, can have a nice stewed bird for dinner now and again. Dharma’s killer-grin softened, morphing into a plea for compassion, for a stay of execution.
“Shoot the birds,” I said. “Douse them in gasoline and burn them to a crisp. Then bury the carcasses.”
Bertrand turned to Dharma.
“Did you get that?”
At first it seemed everyone was on the same page. And then slightly, almost imperceptibly, Dharma bobbed his head. I looked at Bertrand. Bertrand looked at me. Suddenly the whole deal was off. Bertrand’s face hardened.
“Be a good lad and kill the birds immediately,” Bertrand ordered. “Matty will check when you’re through. Dismissed!”
Dharma limped from the room. The gout was doubly bad that morning.
“Do you think he’ll do it?” I asked.
“Oh, he’ll do it,” Bertrand said, “or he’ll be in Kathmandu by tomorrow morning.”
I was sitting at my desk, improving upon the manuscript, when the executions began. The Gurkhas could have lined the chickens up and mowed them down with machine guns. The whole affair would have been over in three seconds. But Dharma was having his revenge. 15, sometimes 20 minutes passed between shots. If I could have set my clock by the shots, fine, but the timing was deliberately random. By the seventh execution my nerves were a wreck. Couldn’t they whistle first before shooting so I could prepare myself?
Bang! Eighth execution.
I waited. No more shots came. I started to write again.
Bang! Nine chickens down.
Whoever said great writing occurs in chaotic environments is a liar and a fool. Try standing by while Nepalese mercenaries massacre chickens. There’s nothing inspirational there, I promise you.
Bang! 10 birds down.
Have you ever shot a chick with an AK-47 at close range? 7.62 mm bullet traveling 2000 feet per second. It would split open a Kevlar helmet at 50 yards. What would it do to a Cornish Cross?
The shots ceased. Through the window, a tongue of black smoke rose forlornly behind the mess tent. The smoke started thin and weak and grew blacker and darker until a 20 foot pillar of carbonaceous chicken clouds scarred the horizon for all to see. Mark the day! A black day. An awful day. A day that would go down in chicken infamy.
Dharma popped his head in a minute later.
“All done, sirrah,” he said.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” I said.
“I trust you, but Bernard will ask if I’ve seen it for myself.”
Dharma opened the door for me. We walked behind the mess tent to a small dirt clearing between the tent and the compound walls. Five off-duty Gurkhas stood at the edge an eight-foot circle of charred, smoldering earth. A few toasted feathers lay smoking, as if a mortar round had landed on a chicken’s head.
The Gurkhas avoided my eyes. To a man, they were too polite to complain to my face. Too many generations of servitude stood between them and me. They’d suck up the injustices until Bertrand or I made their lives unbearable, then they’d slit our throats and drink our blood.
But it will be “yes, sirrah” and “no, sirrah” right up until the end!
Next Up: Dharma’s Lie and the Surprise Reunion