Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Baghdad to Santa Fe, A Short Story

In 2005 I wrote a short story for the Santa Fe Reporter's yearly writing contest. I won second place for the story. I posted it online on an old AOL account I had and a few years ago AOL shut down its FTP site and I lost it. I had it on an old computer and lost my copy there also. My assistant did me a favor and contacted the Santa Fe Reporter and retrieved a copy. So besides saving it in multiple places so I don't lose it again I thought I would archive it by posting it as a blog post. Its kind of dark so I won't necessarily say I hope you enjoy it.

From Baghdad to Santa Fe
By Greg Solano

Sweat poured down my forehead as I awoke in the middle of the night for the fourth night in a row. What the hell is going on? I glance over at the clock and the red neon numbers tell me that its 3:30 am. I am wide-awake and the adrenaline is still pumping through my veins. My heart pounds and I can feel my chest still heaving for air. Might as well get up, no way I’m going back to sleep. As I step out onto the portal the Autumnal Moon lights up my entire neighborhood, big bright and so large I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The brisk morning air felt good against my still sweating body. I couldn’t help but think how different this was than early morning in Baghdad. Actually, I can’t help but think of Baghdad every day, or every night.

It’s now 8:00 am, time for my morning walk to the convenience store to get the paper. Another day spent looking for a job.So much for “being all that I can be”, I often thought that going into the military out of high school would be the beginning of my adult life. A good start to some kind of career. Boy was I wrong. When I left Santa Fe I was making $7.00 an hour at the auto parts store. This was my after school job while I finished my senior year. Now with the living wage law, that job as many others pays at least $8.50 an hour. But still, what do I do, go ahead and take one of these minimum wage jobs?I sure am not having much luck with anything else. The only job I have been offered so far is from a friend who needs help cleaning Whole Foods parking lot at night. I don’t really think my country owes me a job or anything but is this what I spent two years of my life in the military for? Maybe this is all I can be.

What’s that smell? My mind flashes back again, I can hear the ammo flying through the assault rifle. I smell the gunpowder and hot metal in the air. I hear the sound of lead ricocheting on the pavement around me. Pieces of asphalt hitting my leg, or are they bullets? I look over at the rest of my regimen and realize that Adam’s been hit, several medics are working on him. He looks dead, Damn Iraqis! My fear turns to anger as I empty my weapon in a hail of gunfire. I sweep my weapon from left to right hoping someone ahead of me goes down. An eye for an eye, they kill one of ours we kill ten of theirs. What’s that horn? Oh, all right, all right I’m getting out of the way. Asshole flipped me off. And then you wonder why people have road rage and shoot others. Ok, so I was in the middle of the road. There’s that smell again, oh, ok it’s my neighbor and his welder. Amazing how much the hot metal being welded smells like the hot metal smell of an assault rifle. Or how the smell of meat on the barbecue smells like burning flesh. It’s been six months now. I wonder how long before I stop having these flashbacks. When will I be normal again?

I pick up the local paper and on the cover there is some kids stuffing the head of Zozobra. What a ceremony, thousands show up to see a hundred foot puppet burnt to the ground in a pagan ceremony that is the closest thing to witchcraft I have ever seen. It’s fiestas in Santa Fe this weekend. It used to be a big thing for me. All my friends and I would go downtown and hang out. Used to be everyone had drinks on the plaza and the burning of Zozobra was on Friday night. After the burning we would all walk down to the plaza and eat, drink and drink some more. Even though we were not 21, it wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. We all walked around with beer in our coke cups. The cops were ok with it as long as we didn’t totally get out of hand. Now there is no drinking what so ever on the plaza. Zozobra’s burning has been moved to Thursday, which cuts down on the party’s and drinking afterward since people with jobs have to be at work in the morning.

I go into the convenience store and get a cup of coffee and a lottery ticket. What the hell, if I can’t get a job, maybe I can win a hundred million and not have to worry about it. As I drink my coffee I look through the classifieds. Nothing new today, same ads that I applied for on Monday and Tuesday.

It’s 1:00 in the afternoon, my old high school buddy agreed to give me a ride to Albuquerque for my appointment. Two months ago I decided to call the V.A. Hospital and talk to someone about the flashbacks. A couple of visits and months later I am finally actually seeing a councilor. Man, me going to a shrink. Who would have ever thought this would ever happen to me. I never needed anything from anyone else before. I was a tough young man who prided himself on being a “real man”. I used to joke with my friends when one of them showed up in sandals and I would say things like “real men don’t wear sandals”. I never even went to the doctor. Once when I cracked a rib, I sucked it up. Took some Tylenol and went on telling others, and myself “there’s nothing they can do with cracked ribs anyway”.

The counselor is kind of a hippy looking dude. Turns out he was in Vietnam and came back with the same kind of problems I have. They have a fancy name for it now he tells me. It’s called P.T.S.D., stands for post traumatic stress disorder. According to the doc it’s pretty common for those returning from Iraq. The doc says it’s probably why I can’t get a job. I’m not at my sharpest and the depression I am feeling is probably showing up in my interviews. As we talk about my experiences in Iraq I start telling him about the first time I saw a dead body. I always thought it would be exciting with the moody sounding music playing in the background just like in the movies. But, it wasn’t.

The first body I saw as I exited the back end of a truck just inside Baghdad was lying in the middle of the road. It was an older man who only had a small amount of blood dripping down from the edge of his mouth. It looked unreal, I remember thinking how this was no different than watching a body on TV. At least it didn’t feel different. I had no feelings for this man; I looked at him with curiosity but no feelings. A hundred bodies later, some kids, some adults, some women, and some men, and I still thought I didn’t feel much. But now six months back in the U.S. I wake up in the middle of the night after I see their faces again. Now they matter to me, why now? Well the end of my first counseling session and I have more questions than answers. My buddy asks me if I want to go see old man gloom tomorrow night with him and his kids. Maybe, I tell him. I’ll call him tomorrow and let him know.

It’s 5:00 in the afternoon now, as we cross St Francis Drive and Cerrillos Road I see the protesters out again. This is odd; they are usually out on Fridays. Veterans for peace they call themselves. I wonder how many are actually veterans. Maybe that’s how they deal with their flashbacks. I wonder would that make me feel better? Standing on a street corner holding signs declaring to the world my quest for world peace? They are persistent. Almost three years they have been out here doing this. One day I sat in the old Bonanza parking lot and watched them for a while. Some cars drove by and gave the thumbs up and some gave the one finger salute. Sometimes the protesters didn’t know which was coming as they turned to wave at the latest car driving by honking. Sometimes they were waving to the finger and some derogatory comment, and sometimes they were waving to a peace sign or thumbs up. Would it be hypocritical to have the anger that I do towards those that killed my friends and still promote peace? Is that how I atone for all the people I killed or helped kill? The bible says only say the word and you shall be forgiven. Jesus forgave Judas, maybe that’s what I need, to be forgiven. Maybe that’s why they stand there every Friday holding their signs.

It’s 11:00 at night and I’m feeling a little woozy. The television blares a baseball game above the bar at foxes. One more Bud Light and I’ll head home. The lottery numbers flash across the television screen. My streak of luck continues as I see that I didn’t even get one number. Two beers later and I head to Taco Bell. Thank god for late night drive up windows. As I cruise down Cerrillos Road I try to keep the car centered between the white lines. I’m cool I tell myself, I can drive ok, I’m not that drunk. As I approach Taco Bell a mortar shell crosses in front of my windshield. I swerve right as I reach for my radio to warn the troops behind me. I feel my armored humvee start to roll. It rolls several times and I feel glass and metal all around me. The pain is sharp and sudden but then just as suddenly disappears. Medic, Medic! I can’t believe I’m going to die in an accident, no blaze of glory, no big firefight. I rolled my humvee! I can see myself lying in the street now, thrown clear of the small car that once surrounded me. Wait, small car? Who are those kids running away? Was that really just a bottle rocket?

The cops are around me now. The ambulance arrives and one of the men tells the cop, we can’t resuscitate, he didn’t make it. “Another D.W.I.” the cop says as he unrolls the yellow crime scene tape around my car and body. After all that fighting in Baghdad who would have ever thought the Iraqis would kill me, right here in Santa Fe New Mexico.


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