A Pack of Damn Lies

VIII. Behind Closed Doors

Everyone on the roof of the HQ stopped talking to watch Dolan and me, two old friends, reunite. The Iraqis and the Americans reacted nearly identically, lending a warm smile to our reunion and watching unabashedly, drawing energy from it and solace and maybe a recollection of meeting their own long last pal, somewhere unexpected, far from home. Dolan and I broke our bear hug and pushed off to have a look. More than a decade had passed since he’d gone AWOL. We were barely adults then. Now we were men who’d dispensed with the angst of our twenties. We’d crossed the Christ year and were now looking at 40 hard in the face.

Photos by Matt Igoe.

Dolan seemed to have grown even taller and his black hair was thick as ever and longer, with a touch of gray around the temples. He even had a short beard, something that would have been impossible years ago—not because of regulations, but because his baby face sprouted a few scraggily hairs under his chin, nothing more. His face provoked an upwelling of memories, memories that had retreated to a shallow depth, just out of sight but ready to surface at a moment’s notice, like brown trout resting under a rock ledge. With my eyes I was seeing Dolan, but in my mind I was seeing the sandy trails and pine forests of Fort Bragg, the seas of soldiers in various colored berets, the endless days of training, and the goats.

I poured some into two red plastic cups and handed a cup to Dolan. Dolan grabbed my arm and steered me to the waist-high cinderblock wall of the HQ roof, out of earshot from the others. The dark night swallowed us but for the faint glow of the cooking fire and a single distant floodlight. Stars huddled in the black sky in lonely patches as the clouds broke apart. Malik threw gasoline on the fire and our faces glowed orange.

“You have gray in your beard,” Dolan said, accepting the wine. “You’re an old man.”

“What an asshole,” I laughed.

We fell into a probing silence. There was a stark, unspoken fissure in our surprise reunion, one that filled me with uncertainty: it was our appearances. I looked like I’d walked outside of a suburban ranch house to fetch the morning paper and found out I was in a warzone; in contrast, Dolan had matured into his war role beautifully. He was menacing, like a successful tyrant or mob boss, broad across the shoulders and back, thick ribs of hanging meat, a slight belly. Only his legs looked familiar, lean like a bird, and the same small feet.

The others on the roof had resumed talking. Bertrand and Robin stood on one side of the grill and the Iraqi contractors on the opposite side while Malik turned the lamb. Bertrand was talking loudly with Malik over the prospects of building a larger grill, as the current one couldn’t handle an entire lamb. The Iraqis were leaning over the grill and each one had an opinion on which piece of meat to turn and when and for how long. If Malik turned over the ribs and not the shanks, then one Iraqi would congratulate him and three would scold him. Malik would raise his face to the sky and beseech God for patience, smoke drifting heavenward like a sacrifice.

Dolan spoke quickly, lightly, about nothing important.

“Sorry I haven’t made it over sooner. You arrived a month ago, I think. By the way, do you happen to remember, in the arrivals area at the airport, a 30-foot long shrink-wrapped one-story escalator, lying on its side? You don’t? That’s typical of you, Igoe. Always staring at the sky or at your toes. It was an entire escalator, just lying there. Like one you’d see in a shopping mall that takes you from the food court on the first floor to the jewelry store on the second floor. Evidently when you buy a new escalator, it comes preassembled and shrink-wrapped. All you have to do is cut a hole between the floor you’re on and the floor above it, plug it in, and you have a moving staircase.

“I ask if you saw it, and I thought you’d enjoy this, because that same shrink-wrapped escalator has been lying there since I flew into Baghdad in January of ’03!”

“January?” I interrupted. “We didn’t capture Baghdad until that spring, did we?”

Dolan appeared surprised. “Was it the spring? Maybe it was. I’ve lost track. Let me think about it. January of that year I was…well, if I wasn’t here, I was on my way here. I can barely remember anything except Baghdad. I’ve been here since the war started.”

“What do you mean, straight through?”

Dolan nodded; he seemed to enjoy the notoriety while being unsettled by it. Such an unbroken stretch in a Iraq bordered on legendary—and masochistic. “Jesus, man!” I said, “You should go to Cyprus or Amsterdam or Thailand. Three years you’ve been here…don’t you need a break?” Really all I could think was, this guy must have a fortune in the bank! Three years at a rate of a least five hundred per day…the numbers made me jittery. Dolan waved off my words as if a cloud of gnats had gathered in front of his face.

 “Let me finish my story about this escalator, because you might want it for that book you’re writing, which is funny because I remember a time when you couldn’t read two pages without getting bored. Don’t deny it! So there’s this escalator. The shrink wrap has frayed and the machinery underneath is rusted and covered in dust. Brand new it cost forty grand. But it’s useless now. I made a note to comment, at some later date like right now, on what a perfect metaphor the forgotten escalator is for the war in Iraq.

“Now that I’ve said it, I realize how insulting war metaphors are to escalators. Escalators have value and war metaphors are worthless—remember that in your book. But in Baghdad, a brand new escalator is only good for occupying sidewalk space. If it had been a shrink-wrapped tank, well you can bet your ass the outcome would have been different.”

 Dolan kept his gaze fixed on me; his eyes were at once excitable and effervescent and faintly bubbling with psychosis; they glowed with a constant, Buddha-like mirth, as if to say we’re only human after all, and not very good ones at that.

Dolan did his best to put me at ease, but his speech was having the opposite effect. He intended his words to fatten me up, to satiate me, but he ended up carving the meat out of all my little joints. When I tried to get a word in edgewise, he led me off into another direction, flipping my questions like a seasoned line cook flipping an omelet: one minute it’s a runny egg, then, with a flick of the wrist, the omelet reappears in the skillet with a finely browned skin, with maybe some spinach or toasted goat cheese peeking out, and you forget that a moment ago you were dealing with a raw egg.

By Dolan’s third flip, I’d had enough.

“Never mind all that bullshit, Dolan!” I cried. “It’s time to answer my questions. Where did you go when you escaped the cops all those years ago? And why did you do it in the first place? Couldn’t you have just beat Roberts, and left the goats alone? What were you thinking?”

“Give me a minute,” Dolan said, turning serious. “I need a minute to think about it. It’s been a long time and you’ve got the story all wrong anyway. I need a minute. So much has happened since then. It seems like another life altogether…was his name Roberts, the instructor? Are you sure it wasn’t Thompson? The way I remember it, his name was Thompson and he loved apple fritters with his coffee.”

I was certain the instructor’s name was Roberts, but I was getting nervous. Perhaps his name was Thompson? If it was, what did it matter? We were still talking about the same human being, at the same point in time, weren’t we? But then there was the matter of the apple fritter… “He loved vanilla crème donuts,” I said definitively. “Chocolate frosted with white crème filling. That much, I’m certain. I can see Thompson—no, Roberts—eating them in the operating room with goat blood everywhere.”

The past was getting slipperier with each sentence. If I’d known I’d run into Dolan, I would have firmed up my memories, indexed and then buttressed them to stand up to Dolan’s version of events. I glanced over to see that Bertrand was still standing by the grill. He was watching us openly now, cuckolded from his intense curiosity of what we were talking about; it bordered on perversion. Dolan was going on about the instructors. “So it was Roberts, you’re sure of it. I could have the apple fritter wrong but Thompson is the name that sticks in my mind.”

I shifted my weight from foot to foot. A low moan escaped my lips; I had the same feeling you get when the bathroom in Starbucks is occupied and you can hear the person inside chatting on a cellphone while you’re practically peeing your pants. “Forget it!” I said. “Thompson, Roberts, donuts, I don’t give a fuck! Tell me what happened!”

“I did beat up Thompson,” Dolan admitted in a low voice. “Or Roberts as you call him. That much is factual. He was a stifling prick and deserved everything he got. I was the best medic in school, you know that, and they were out to get me. He’s lucky I turned off the incinerator before I dumped him inside.”

I watched Dolan closely for signs of untruthfulness, a shifting gaze, or a tick or some gesture to betray him. Not a quiver in his lips. He was expecting the question. His voice was smooth as velvet, calm and evenhanded as a hostage negotiator. He looked me straight in the eye as he spoke and with such earnestness that I averted my eyes, as if I were the one on trial.

“You probably heard that I ran girls for a few years in Mexico,” said Dolan. “That part is true. A small operation, nothing to get me noticed by the federales. Americans and Europeans passing through would stop for an hour or sometimes overnight, if they had money, which they usually didn’t. Sometimes a rich pervert might score cocaine in Oaxaca and want to share it. Mostly it was poor college kids trying to be like Kerouac, driving around Mexico. A few steady customers had specific tastes, which I could charge a lot for, but that was rare…honestly, I was nearly starving most of the time. Tortillas, beans, cerveza. What a shitty place, Mexico! If it wasn’t for the war, I’d still be there.”

I nodded and kept my eyes neutral. He’s lying, most likely. Nobody was that interesting. Now and again you come across a true sociopath, and Dolan was too good a storyteller to miss the charm of his own narrative. No doubt parts of his story were true, like the starving part and avoiding the federales. Still, I might have been wrong. I mean, what the hell was Bertrand looking at? He’d cut in half the distance between us and his head was cocked to try and catch a word or two. He really couldn’t stop himself; he was in plain awe of Dolan.

“You haven’t mentioned the goats,” I said.

Dolan’s speech stumbled. “Huh? What?” For the first time he appeared unsure of how to respond. He’d been walking and talking like a free man, easy going, confident, innocent of all charges, or at most guilty of only those trespasses that were easily forgiven. I sensed an opening in his defenses and pressed.

“The goats, Dolan! We might not remember names too well, but no one forgets killing a dozen goats.”

“You can’t be serious?” Dolan asked slowly, the smirk gone from his face. “I mean…Igoe! You believe that story about the goats? Shit, that prick Tello made it up. That’s right. I ran into him years ago in San Diego. He’s a state trooper out there now. He told me he made the whole goat story up as a gag. He even apologized to me but I didn’t care. I thought it was funny. I still think it’s funny. I didn’t expect anyone to fall for it, especially not you.”

Dolan smiled at me encouragingly. Now just swallow this, pal, and everything going forward will be fine. There was a twisted nobility in how he smiled, the bastardized kind of nobility. It was like standing in front of Moses, an innocent sent down the river in a basket of reeds, dethroned, cast out to learn the harshness of the desert—only we were still in the desert; there was no Promised Land, or not the kind Dolan had spoken of so passionately—the Good War, the righteous kill, and above all, the enemy.My gaze was too much for Dolan. He looked away, into the darkness beyond the perimeter. “Honestly, of everyone in our class, you’re the last person I expected to see over here,” he said. “I think about the old days a lot. Those were good times.”

I made command decision: I dropped the story about the goats. It was a delicate reunion. Dolan was the only thread I had in Iraq, someone who tied me to some other time and place. I wasn’t about to cut it. “Those were good times,” I had to agree. “I still see some guys, like Schapp and Silva and some others. But I don’t miss the Army. All of that time and training and for what? We get over here and what a goat fuck we made of this place. Everyone knew the W.M.D thing was probably bullshit, but I actually believed we could make it right over here. I know it sucked under Saddam but this is really obscene, don’t you think?”

I sounded like a dirty New York City liberal, biting the hand that fed me—and maybe I was. So what? The war was a goat fuck and I was stating my opinion. But Dolan had recalled his smirk to active duty and it hung on his lips like a flag he hoisted upon hearing the utterance of a hypocrisy. The smirk said, Yes, Igoe, the war is fucked up—all war is fucked up—but you’re banking 650 a day on this particular fuck up, so shut your trap and relax.

That smirk cooled my heels. I took a sip of my wine and waited for Dolan to pick up the conversation but he’d gone quiet, staring into his cup as if he could see truth in the impenetrable scarlet of the black-market Bordeaux. He took a step to the roof’s edge, looked over to make sure no one was standing below, and dumped his glass. The dusty earth received the wine without a sound.

Dolan looked at me with enough good feeling, stored up over the years, to compensate for whatever faux pas I had committed. “I need to go,” Dolan said. “We’re leaving for Ramadi in a few days and I need to organize my gear and write a new will and all that.” Dolan looked as if he didn’t really want to go. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but then smiled and shrugged. “Good to see you, old man.”

We shook hands and Dolan exited down the stairs. I watched him walk across the compound to his SUV. Bertrand joined me at the wall to watch Dolan drive off. The white headlights bumped along the dark, mud-slogged night like a pair of ivory dice tumbling down the black velvet of a craps table.

“So I hear you were in Green Beret training together,” Bertrand said.

“That’s right,” I replied. Where does he get his info? Bertrand was a master spy or a tremendous gossip. Either way, he was a great relief in a way Dolan couldn’t be; Bertrand was a comfort, whereas Dolan was pure enigma.

“Dolan’s got quite a reputation over here, you know,” Bertrand said, his eyes twinkling.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. He was a rascal, Bertrand. He knew how to catch my interest. “What’s his reputation?”

“People say he enjoys it.”

“Enjoys what?” I asked, because it was expected of me, though I already knew the answer.

“Enjoys what, my dear coont? Why, this!” Bertrand laughed, his arms sweeping up to encompass all of Iraq.

For the next two days I watched the construction from the HQ roof. Every hour or so Malik would come up and stand next to me and smoke a cigarette. When the cigarette was down to the filter, he’d say, “Oh well, Mister Matt!” and walk back downstairs and I’d go back to watching the construction alone. Nine of the 15 barracks were completed and three more were in various stages of construction. It was very low tech. Men and boys formed a human chain, passing cinderblocks from person to person, starting at the pallets of cinderblocks at the foot of the cracked mud footpath and passing them hand over hand to the stone fitter, a thick middle-aged man who received the cinderblock and balanced it on his knees. His assistant, a boy, slathered cement in the appropriate spot on the wall. When it was thick enough, the stone setter set the cinderblock in place and scraped the excess cement off with a flattened Turkish beer can.

The repetition was hypnotizing: pass cinderblock, spread cement, fit block into place, repeat. It was ideal for my mood; I used the time to turn over in my head all that Dolan had said and to speculate on what had not been said. I should have pressed him on the goats, but Dolan had wanted me to drop it, that much was clear. Did he or didn’t he, is that the question? Or does it even matter, a few dead goats in light of Iraq, a war for which Dolan was seemingly created, which was his sole purpose in life?

I pushed Bertrand for more Dolan stories. Little by little I pieced together a picture of the man, or at least of his time in Iraq. The more I learned about Dolan, the more his changes made me feel as if I hadn’t changed at all. I remained the same, I thought, while he had grown into some version of the man he’d mapped so often while we were young. He’d worked for nearly every security outfit in Iraq, hopping contracts. According to Bertrand, Dolan was “handy in a fight” and “off his rocker.” He had a small side business running guns, personal protection, and so on.

Three days after Dolan’s visit, I was asleep in my room when I woke to see a tall shadow standing in the doorway. It was the same shape I’d seen in that doorway when I first arrived in Iraq, a rough specter, a devil. My heart thumped wildly in my chest. A soft voice called out.

“Hey, Igoe? You up, man?”

“Dolan?”

“You’re quick.”

“You fuck,” I whispered. “You scared the shit out of me. What time is it?’

“0300. We’re leaving for Ramadi at sunup. I came by to pick up a copy of your manuscript. Something to read in my downtime. I’ll give you some notes, if you want.”

I was instantly alert. My hands went damp and clammy. I sat up in bed. The novel was a great mistake. I should never have said a word about it to anyone. Every sentence was overwritten. Every technique obviously stolen from a better writer. Every metaphor worn out. All of it glowed like circuits on the motherboard. The captain was screaming over the intercom, Abandon ship! Abandon ship! I wasted a year of my life on that novel. There’s a lot of work to be done,” I said. “Mostly grammatical. And some character changes. Possibly a new ending.”

“Come on, man. Let me have it. I can help,” Dolan said earnestly. “I’ve read every war novel in existence, some you’ve never even heard of, I’m sure. I even learned enough Russian to read Tolstoy in the original. I’m positive I can help.”

 “I’ll have to print you a copy,” I said. I got out of bed and Dolan sat down on it. I switched on the laptop and the old inkjet printer. The printer cycled mechanically a few rotations and then chop chop chop chop! It slowly printed page one of 190 pages. We listened in the semi-darkness, the only light emanating from the laptop’s blue screen and the glowing yellow buttons of the printer. With every page printed, I was one step closer to being exposed as a fraud, an illegal, a party crasher.

Far from being terrified, I suddenly felt elated. I was happy to have it off my chest. The book was a failure and now Dolan would know and the farce would be over and I could go back to doing nothing at all.

“You might as well say you told me so,” I said. “About the war. I never thought there would be one, let alone two. You were right all along. Man, I wish I’d paid better attention back in school. I’ve forgotten so much.”

At first I thought Dolan wasn’t going to answer. He was so quiet I thought maybe he’d nodded off. He abruptly kicked his feet out and crossed them and slouched down against the wall, his hands folded across his chest, the cheap mattress springs creaking under his bulk.

“The war is over now,” Dolan said, his voice pitched slightly louder than the soft clatter of the printer. “Everybody knows it. We’re just waiting to go home. If it could be fixed, I suppose we might put some effort into it again. But it’s gone on too long. We could have won, of course, if we’d been left alone to handle things. It’s not that we wanted to castrate them, like sheep, but we needed to take the fight out of them. That’s what we were doing, in the beginning.”

In the scant light, Dolan canvassed my face to see if I was following him, a streak of dead gray running from the pupil through the green and into the eggshell, altering his appearance strikingly as if it were not Dolan sitting on my bed but a sculpture of him, recast by the computer lights into a wraithlike figure, terrible and monstrous despite the faint smile on his lips.

“You know, Igoe, I used to feel like you did. I thought we could make it work over here. But for us, making it work meant everyone was fair game. Everyone. Pretty soon Baghdad was locked down tight. There was a balance, an equilibrium we achieved. Just enough pressure to keep them quiet but not enough to break them. It was going well until we started to empathize. Everything that’s wrong with this war can be traced back to one moment.”

I glanced over my shoulder, out the window, past the floodlights of our compound, into the inscrutable blackness of Iraq. What monsters crept through the shadows, inching their way toward us, drawn to Dolan’s oration like vectors to a torch? Dolan was leading me into his story without my consent, but I was unable to stop listening.

“We were in two SUVs, everyone locked and loaded. We were on the far side of the 14th July Bridge. The sun was setting soon. We had to be back before the sun went down or we’d be stopped at the checkpoint forever, like sitting ducks…everyone is nervous after dark. So far that day had been quiet. We hadn’t seen a jihadi all day. Do you hunt deer, Igoe? I didn’t think so. Well there’s a phenomenon on the first day of deer season. For weeks you practically run a deer over every time you pull out of your driveway and then the season opens and they all disappear, like they know you’re coming. Like Psy-Ops dropped leaflets warning them to clear out.“So we took the quiet as a good sign, that the city was properly subdued and we were heading back to the International Zone. Two blocks from the bridge we took fire from a street level behind us. The rear window glass spidered and we took some dents in the armor, but the skin held up. When you take a hit like that, at the end of the day, it provokes a stronger feeling than early on. It takes time for the tension to build. Early on, you’re still subdued by the calmness that comes from sleep and breakfast and a nice cup of joe. By the end of the day, the nerves have been stripped of their insulators; the nerves are raw, exposed to every sound, every motion; it makes you jumpy. So when the rounds hit us, we whipped around like…like we had no choice, the decision was made for us. A pair of jihadis took off down the street, each carrying an AK. They disappeared down an alley.

“The timing was a problem, of course,” Dolan said, his smirk visible in the half-light. “No one wants to be caught playing in the jihadis’ backyard when the sun goes down. But the shots got our blood going; there was no way we’d let those shitheads get away. When they turned down the alley, we followed. My vehicle went in first; the other blocked off the entrance. We gave them a running fight down the alley, the bad guys would shoot a few rounds, then us, them, us. There was no good solution for them, as the alley was a dead end, and not just metaphorically: it ended in a flat cinderblock wall. The jihadis evidently didn’t know the alley, because they were surprised by the wall, not to mention a group of women dressed in burkas who were hanging out the wash to dry. The women saw the jihadis and then saw us tearing down the alley in our SUV and they screamed bloody murder and ran inside an open door. It was the only door in the only building at the end of the alley. Naturally, we followed them inside. It took us a minute to catch up. We piled inside the building, single file, ready to clear the place. We had no idea how big it was. As it turned out, it was just an apartment, a kind of renovated machine room. Old boiler in a corner next to the kitchen sink, the smell of diesel, a pair of worn-out mattresses on the ground.”

I wanted to get up and leave the room. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Dolan was peeling off the layers of the war, drawing me in, insuring my culpability. The printer abruptly finished its work. The yellow lights flashed once, twice, three times and the printer went dark. The novel lay in a pile on the ground. The abrupt quiet made Dolan pause momentarily. When he resumed his tale, every word stood out in the silence like black print on a white page.

“There were two doors leading into two separate rooms. You could see over the top of the wall just how far the rooms went, maybe 10 feet deep and then another brick wall. There was no other way out, so everyone—the women and the jihadis—had to be in one room or the other. We had no clue who was where. If we went in one door, the bad guys might come out the other. Where were the women? Were they in the same room with the jihadis? Were they in separate rooms? We didn’t know. Everything was completely silent, just the sound of us breathing as we looked from door to door and back again, when a noise—a stifled cough—came from behind the door on the left.

“There was no discussion. We fired on the room on the left. We emptied 100 rounds on it and then reloaded and stopped to listen. There were no sounds. For some reason, I grabbed the handle. I wanted to know who exactly was in the room. I was sure I was going to die. But the next thing I knew, we were out the door sprinting across the alley and into the SUV and racing over the Tigris, just as the sun had dipped below the city and the last line of red was on the horizon.”

The darkness had its hand on me, gripping my neck, forcing me to stare face to face with Dolan. “What about the goddamn door?” I whispered, my voice strangled. “Didn’t you open the door?”

Dolan slid off the bed and knelt next to the printer, collecting the pages of the manuscript from the floor and shuffling them together. When he was finished, he grabbed my shoulder and pushed himself to his feet.

“You don’t open the door, Igoe. That’s the rule. If the door stays shut, then everyone inside is alive and dead. It really doesn’t matter which. You get it? It’s the possibility, that’s what gave us strength. We were winning, man! Because the doors stayed shut everywhere.

“But someone, somewhere, decided to look inside. That’s why the war is over. Some smartass decided to prop the door wide open and now the world can look inside and see that everyone is dead.”

Contributor

Matt Igoe

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