VI. A Game of Chicken
A week after the mass slaughter, Bertrand and I were standing on the gravel driveway in front of the HQ. The rain, a steady drizzle and mist, had settled in like white noise; we barely noticed it anymore. Bertrand held his scalding Nescafe like a hot potato, passing the Styrofoam cup from one hand to the other while discussing a job he’d worked up north, near Irbil, Kurdish territory.
“They look more or less like Arabs, don’t you think, the Kurds? But they’re different somehow,” Bertrand mused. “Their faces are more angular, I think, and they drink like Russians. Homebrewed stuff, mostly, though a few bottles of decent Scotch found a way into our hands.”
From our position, we had a clear view of the barracks under construction. Somehow between the work-stops (due to the constant rain) and the hours I spent closeted writing my novel, I’d never seen the project in full swing. I instantly fell into a trance. The Iraqi laborers, men and boys, all skin and bones, slogged through the mud with cinderblocks on their backs or armfuls of spades and shovels. A pair of boys pushed a three-wheeled cart piled with the junk that elevated humans from the other animals: lengths of worn aluminum stripping, old wooden crates, odd flaps of rubber, dirty Styrofoam coolers, plastic chairs, an old radio.
On top of the pile sat a young man with a short beard and a twisted leg. The cripple’s sole job was to encourage the others by singing songs and telling jokes, while the two boys pushed the cart from one construction site to the next.
Guarding the Iraqis in a loose circle like a noose were our Gurkhas. They were dressed in dark blue paramilitary uniforms and AK-47s. The Gurkhas were clearly bored. Digging their toes into the mud. Picking their noses. Staring at the sky and then back at the construction. Both the Gurkhas and the Iraqis understood the situation perfectly: the laborers weren’t the type of Iraqis to make mischief. They had one thing on their minds: food. Where to get it, how often, will it be enough to fill their desiccated bellies.
It was the same scene, I was sure, 5,000 years ago when the pyramids at Giza were constructed. Impassive guards watching over undernourished laborers as placed rectangular blocks on top of each other, erecting buildings they’d never step foot into, lay their heads down to rest, unless they happened to keel over, in which case the others would probably build right over the top of them.
The scene made me agitated and slightly nauseous. My peace of mind had been breached by a fatal infection—namely, empathy. I’d studiously avoided it since arriving back in Iraq.
It’s none of your business! I reminded myself. Remember the novel! I jammed my hands in my pockets and turned my back on the sight. Bertrand was still talking.
“…Of course I prefer it here. The pay up North is shit and the threat is higher, despite the bullshit you hear on the news. And up there, it’s Kurdish food three meals per day, not steaks and Bordeaux for dinner every night, eh, Matty?”
I was about to agree when a trio of brown and white chickens strutted across the yard, all fluff and plumage and attitude, like three drag queens headed out for a night on the town. They passed right under our noses. One bird stopped to peck at my shoelace to see if it was edible. Bertrand watched the procession in amazement as the birds disappeared behind the Gurkhas’ mess tent. Then he turned his gaze upon me.
There was no denying my culpability.Three weeks prior, just a few days after my arrival, the bird flu hit Iraq. The Gurkhas had a small, unauthorized flock of chickens they were keeping for fresh curry. Dharma, the chief Gurkha, had been ordered to kill all the chickens and burn them in case they were infected with bird flu. I had been assigned to make sure it happened.
Get out in front of it, I thought. Take the hit and move on. It’s the only way.
“I was in my room when the shots were fired,” I admitted. “All I saw was the charred pit full of chicken feathers and the sad faces of the Gurkhas. Even the sad faces looked genuine.”
It was my first real mistake, but when one is flying under the radar as I was, all it took was one blip on the screen to ruin everything. If I’d been doing great work for the past month, organizing Gurkhas, suppressing rebellions, advancing the cause—the chickens would’ve been overlooked.
However, my record up until that point was flat, dead even, sea-level. I’d maintained my neutrality like a buoy in the dead center of the war, rising and falling with such acute attention to the tide that I’d become invisible. Three weeks into my contract as a security consultant, I hadn’t stepped foot into Area Q. Nor had I consulted on the security of a single matter of war. In other words, I’d done nothing to earn my $650 per day.
It wasn’t that I was very frightened of the war. I thought I would be, because I’d been terrified the last time around. My fear, I was not surprised to learn, was inversely proportional to my bank account. I was always fearless when I arrived in Iraq because I was always broke. But after the thousands built up in my checking account, I grew afraid because the money meant there was another viable option to Iraq—a normal life back in New York. Of course, it was viable only so long as the money held out, and then Iraq looked tempting again.
Since I hadn’t received my first check yet, in theory I should have been happy to engage the locals, to dive into the war-work. But this time around was different.
It was the novel.
I was writing about Iraq, but not this Iraq. The Iraq I was writing about existed two years ago, during my last stint in Baghdad. You’d be amazed at how quickly war changes a place, even a chalky, constipated war like Iraq. I knew that if I engaged at all in Area Q, then I’d have one foot in the old Iraq and one foot in the new Iraq. The two worlds would be in constant danger of conflation and (because this is how the mind works) I’d inevitably start writing about the new Iraq and the old Iraq would cease to exist altogether.
My answer had been to remain sequestered. But those days were over.
“Well, Hemingway,” Bertrand said. “Round up the chickens and take them to the far side of Area Q. Do it right this time.”
“Why not burn them right here?” I suggested. My voice was pitched too high, like a child clinging to his mama’s leg on the first day of school. “There’s already a fire pit. It would take just a minute…”
“Beyond the abandoned guard shack, mate,” Bertrand said, gently but firmly. “No, closer.”
Dharma was completely unfazed when we confronted him with the evidence of the chickens. If anything, he appeared embarrassed for us for being so coarse as to challenge him over the farce.
“This is the last warning, Dharma!” Bertrand cried. “Next stop, Kathmandu, you insubordinate bastard!”
Bertrand stormed off, leaving Dharma and I with an uncomfortable silence. I was torn between pretending to be angry or cozying up to him.
“Now listen, Dharma,” I started, trying to reason with him. “We’re all in this together. I don’t want to kill the chickens either, but—”
Dharma turned his back on me, barked a few orders into his radio in Nepali, and hobbled into the mess tent. He was an insubordinate bastard, but clever. The first time he’d set eyes on me he surmised I wasn’t someone to worry over. I was merely passing through. A sullen rage shook me. I’d show that prick I was someone to consider. I took a step toward the mess tent and then reconsidered. Inside there would be dozens of Gurkhas watching a Bollywood flick at top volume. When I walked in the door, they’d all turn their incorrigible blank stares at me. I’d look like a fool. It was better to stay put.
I stood in the drizzle, looking around the deserted camp, trying to appear self-assured. Bertrand was watching me from the window in his bedroom. He raised his eyebrows. I gave him a nod, as if things were going according to plan. My luck turned around when Kepi, Rori, and Chundra appeared, each man carrying four upside-down chickens, two in each hand. I gave Bertrand an I told you so look.
The chickens were so calm they might have been sleeping. I grabbed my Glock from my room and found a jug of charcoal fluid and some matches in the tool shed. The four of us walked out of the compound. I hesitated a moment at the edge of the compound. Once I stepped foot outside, nothing would be the same again. I’d have engaged in my environment. I would become part of the new Iraq.
The Gurkhas watched me suspiciously, as if I were about to bolt back inside. I took the step and waited. Nothing happened. I felt the same. Just good old muddy Iraqi soil. A sense of empowerment flushed me. The compound, once cozy and protective, felt small and insignificant.
I surveyed Area Q. Blast walls enclosed a square mile of flat, muddy plains, pocketed like the moon with gullies that were small enough to jump over, but large enough to hide a few skeletons.
“That looks like a good spot,” I said, pointing to a ravine some 200 meters to the north. The Gurkhas climbed in the back of the pick-up without a word. They’re going to shoot and burn me and keep the chickens, I thought, driving slowly, the back end of the pickup fishtailing in the mud. We followed the blast walls until parallel to the gully, then cut a wide left turn. Two minutes later we pulled up to the edge and looked down. It was waist deep and 20 feet long. The drizzle eased and a thick mist swallowed Area Q. Visibility dropped from a few football fields down to a few yards. We’d have to follow the tire tracks home. The idea made me grin. It was my first small rush of adrenaline since returning to Iraq. It hit the same spot in my nervous system reserved for sex and jumping out of airplanes.
The Gurkhas, away from the flagpole, had lightened up a bit. They joked between themselves while tying the chickens together by their feet like a chain gang on death row, though the chickens committed no crime but jaywalking. The rest of the birds, suddenly aware of their doom, made a break for it. We chased them down and tied them up with the others. They pecked about mournfully for something to eat but found only a mouthful of mud and grit.
I pulled out the pistol, chambered a round, and stepped next to the first victim.
“Well, chickens,” I said, raising the barrel. “Sorry it had to end this way.”
The Gurkhas took one look at the gun and exploded into hysterical laughter, slapping each other on the back and guffawing loudly.
“Har har har har!”
“What,” I asked. “Should I use the AK?”
That made them crack up all over again. I started laughing along.
“Come on, goddamn it. Tell me!”
“No gun, sirrah,” Kepi said. He was still laughing. “Don’t shoot chickens. It’s a big mess, you see? Chickens go flying everywhere. Very bad to shoot a chicken.”
The man’s deep brown, creased face was friendly. He motioned for me to holster the pistol, which I did. Then he drew a huge curved black steel knife from a sheath on his belt. The knife was called a Kukri. Only Gurkhas carried them. They looked like boomerangs with a hand grip at one end, and they were equally good for beheading enemies and chickens alike.
He grabbed the first chicken in the line-up and clipped its head off as if pruning a rose bush. He worked his way down the line, popping heads, blood soaking the ground in a deep claret. He finished all 12 birds in 90 seconds.
Chundra and Rori grabbed shovels from the truck. Kepi threw the dead chickens in a pile and doused them with lighter fluid. The corpses burnt merrily. We sat on the edge of the gully and warmed our hands by the fire. I didn’t speak Nepali but the Gurkhas knew a bit of English. We managed to have a complete conversation, full of nuance using a mixture of sign language and theater and a few words here and there. They thought Dharma was a blowhard and had no hard feelings over the chickens. Rori did an impression of Dharma giving orders and wobbling because of his gout, which sent me into hysterics. I did an impression of Bertrand’s face blowing up when he got angry. The Gurkhas laughed respectfully.
“Don’t worry about Bertrand,” I reassured them. “He’s easygoing enough....”
The Gurkhas eyes glazed. Shit-talking the boss man, even good-naturedly, was outside their comfort zone. We piled back on the truck, if not friends, then at least no longer strangers.
That night I joined the others for dinner in the HQ. So far I’d taken my meals in my room so I could continue writing the book. My day of chicken killing had bolstered my confidence. Perhaps I could participate in life here and still write, I thought. What’s a little dinner with my comrades going to hurt?
Dinner was held nightly on the roof of the HQ building, unless the rain was more than a drizzle, in which case it was moved to the kitchen. Bertrand knocked on my door at six sharp, and we walked to the HQ together. He opened the door for me. “Age before beauty,” he said, bowing. A choking tsunami of cigarette smoke exploded into my face, like a tobacco barn had caught fire. Bernard swished the smoke with his hand. In front of us, eight Iraqis sat at a massive conference table, cigarettes dangling from their lips, working at laptops. They looked up at us. Mounds of cigarette butts were crammed into ashtrays. Empty cups of chai littered the floor. Each man was dressed in a short-sleeve button up shirt, cheap slacks and shoes, and thick glasses, with a row of mechanical pencils in the front shirt pocket.
“These are the engineers who designed the barracks,” Bertrand said. “They live three containers over from us. Hello, boys! Looking at porno again are you, you horny coonts?” He punched a young man on the shoulder. “This here is Mister Matt. He’ll be my new sidekick.”
The Iraqis smashed out their cigarettes and jumped to their feet. We all shook hands and bowed to each other and swore our family’s allegiance to each other and wished good health upon ourselves and death to our enemies. I politely broke away and rushed to the next room so I could re-oxygenate. Bertrand joined me momentarily.
“They’re all good types. I vetted them myself. They’re Sunni and Shi’a, but I made sure each one had a family member killed by Saddam. It’s the best life insurance around here.”
“What about the Gurkhas?” They were absent from the HQ building.
“They eat dinner in the mess tent. I’ve invited them up, but they never take the offer. Stuck up little bastards, aren’t they?”
Bertrand introduced me to the Storp Construction employees. Storp was our client. The U.S. Army had awarded Storp the contract to build barracks for the Iraqi soldiers. Storp, an American company, hired Iraqi subcontractors, who in turn hired subcontractors, who hired subcontractors, who hired subcontractors, who hired the poor bastards lugging cinderblocks across Area Q.
Storp also hired security, which was me and Bertrand and the Gurkhas.
A young Montanan name Robin Hall took the seat next to me. He had a sweet young face and an even temperament that slowly disappeared with each new glass of Bordeaux. We were waiting for Malik the handyman to return with a fresh lamb he was procuring from the locals.
By his fourth refill, Robin was very drunk.“Did I tell you I worked for Storp during Katrina reconstruction? It wasn’t as nice as this, I’ll tell you that much. I was green back then. Every day we’d go out with our dump truck, hauling away debris. I stayed in the Ninth Ward. The further the waters receded, the more trash appeared, and the more work there was to do. The funny thing was, all day long my truck was the only one I saw picking up trash. But at the end of the day 50 trucks turned up at the checkpoint. I figured out that while we dumped our trash every day, the other trucks drove out the back exit without unloading. They drank all night and slept until sunset and then showed up at the dump with the same load of trash…every day!
“I was a sucker, but I’ve changed. The name of the game is more money for less work. You want to hear my new motto? I’LL NEVER DUMP MY LOAD AGAIN.”
“That’s your motto?” I asked. “You’ll never dump your load again?”
I watched him closely for any sign that he was pulling my leg. He wasn’t.
“You don’t like it?” Robin asked, looking incredulous.
“It’s better than ‘I’ll never take a dump again,’” I said.
“That’s just sick,” Robin said, looking at me with disappointment. He stood up and stumbled out of the room.
Hakim, a middle-aged, unshaven Iraqi engineer with feminine hips and a broad, flabby behind, took Robin’s seat. Hakim grabbed the bottle of wine and poured himself a glass. Mohammed, who was sweeping the floor at the time, made a face when he saw Hakim drinking.
“Shut up, boy,” Hakim barked. “You’ll drink one day too. When you stop sneaking off to Najaf to see your mama.” Hakim turned to me. “You wonder why I look like shit?” he said, pulling down his eyelid so I could see his bloodshot eyes. “Try sleeping in the same room with Mohammed.”
Hakim made a hand motion like he was jerking off.
“That kid is on it all night, goddamn it. I never sleep for bullshit.”
Bertrand had disappeared, so I continued to get drunk by myself until Malik showed up with a Styrofoam cooler. We walked upstairs to the roof. Hakim showed me the lamb, which fit neatly at the bottom of a cooler that had no ice. I poked the lamb. The carcass was warm to the touch, and purple-ish with recent life.
Lying on top of the lamb was another bottle of Bordeaux and a few tall cans of Hofbrau. We passed around the wine. Hakim opened a beer and took a sip and poured the rest of the can over the lamb and massaged its muscles.
“That’s a nice-looking lamb,” I said, inspecting the animal. It was impossible to tell, but I suspected it to be the same little stinker I’d heard bleating outside my window just that afternoon. Killed without a trial. No jury of his peers. No bill posted in the town square.
Malik gently placed the lamb on the concrete floor of the roof and chopped it into pieces with a heavy cleaver. He handed me the shanks.
“Very nice lamb, Mister Matt! Very sweet.”
I set the shanks down on the grill. The grill was a homemade apparatus consisting of a three-foot long grease pan and rebar welded every three inches to serve as a cooking grate. The grill appeared well used, though the first 40 or 50 meals cooked on it probably had a bit of a petroleum taste.
The shanks were still raw when a pair of headlights appeared in the distance, bouncing along the mud road, slowly approaching our position, driving as if unsure of the terrain. The vehicle parked and a tall figure stepped out into the darkness. A dog who lived around the compound sprinted to the vehicle, barking, nipping at the man’s pant legs. The man landed a swift kick at the dog’s midsection. The dog kept circling the man, though at a distance now.
“Igoe!” the man yelled. “The next time that Iraqi bitch nips me, I’m gonna shoot it!”
“Who the hell is that?” I yelled, grinning. The wind was up, I noticed drunkenly. A war-gust. A war-squall. It was spitting sand in all eyes equally.
“Up here, darling!” Bertrand called down to him. “We’ve got Malik dressed up like a whore and Victoria’s bought a new bottle of Jack!” Bertrand gave me a sideways look. “Sorry mate. He swore me to secrecy.”
A shout went up on the roof. Malik raised the cleaver and hacked off the lamb’s head. The Bollywood soundtrack in the Gurhka mess tent hit a jolly note. The Iraqis clapped in time to the music, cigarettes dangling from their lips as Malik danced a jig before the orange glow of the coals, the wooly lamb’s head raised in the air like a witch doctor.
The stairwell door slammed open and a towering figure turned the corner, his face half hidden in the shadow, a wonderfully familiar smirk on his face.
Jesus H. Christ. I nearly dropped my drink.
It was Dolan!
MATT IGOE lives in the Catskills and awaits your email: email@example.com