The notion that the war—any war, all wars—will end and that there will come a lucid day when peace reigns struck quite a chord with our readers. Over 50 writers took the challenge, submitting visions of the war’s last day that ranged from a ho-hum date between two mismatched singles to a weary woman taking out the garbage on a hot morning to the preordained rise of Britney the Great. The Mayan calendar figured inordinately as did (in lesser profusion) fishing rods, flashing armor and colostomy bags. These were a gas to read.
Special shout-outs belong to those writers whose work wracked the judging team most, including Isaac Lefkowitz, Kevin MacGregor Scott, Kristy Cardinal, Luis Guzman, Trevor McCabe and Robert Feuer, whose final line, “Like everything else that had happened in my life, the end of the war was a big dud,” makes us chuckle every time we read it.
As we do every year, we conclude the Java Jive with a party, this year slated for Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 6pm at our new offices: 847 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. This free event is open to the public and we’d love to welcome you to this reading of the Jive winners. Now that we’ve begun imagining the day the war ended, such fantasy has become irresistible. Here’s to it one day being stuff of headlines, not fiction.
OK with That
SHE LOOKED AS GOOD in her husband’s old sweatshirt as she would have looked naked. She’d probably have still been naked, except it was one of those snappy California days, and she was trying to save on the gas bill.
“Want some coffee?”
“No,” I said. “I used to like it, but now it gives me the shakes.”
“Not that old.”
“I guess not. But 30 feels . . . I don’t know. I never figured I’d be with anybody 30. But I kinda like it. You’re OK.”
“Don’t mention it.” She went toward the kitchen, the sweatshirt riding high. I heard her making coffee for herself.
I rolled over and put my back up against the pillow that was propped on the headboard.
She came back a few minutes later with that ugly Japanese mug of hers in her hand and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“You think we should be doing this?” I could tell it wasn’t a genuine question, just something she thought she should be asking.
“I wanted to. You wanted to. He’s not here. He may never be here. It happened. It’ll probably happen again. You OK with that?”
“I guess so.”
“You still hearing from him?”
“He e-mails. Once in awhile. Tells me all the shit that’s going on over there. It sounds awful, but it’s been going on so long, and I just can’t deal with it anymore.”
“No ‘loyal army wife’ and all that.”
“Can’t do it. I just can’t do it.”
“Don’t feel anything.”
“So it’s over?”
“Yeah, it’s probably over.”
She put down the coffee mug, slipped off the sweatshirt and tossed it on the floor next to my shoe.
“I think I feel sorrier for the poor bastard than you do,” I said, pulling her down on top of me.
“Yeah,” she said, “you probably do. You probably do.”
THE DAY THE WAR ENDED, Joe McCullough took down the American flag from the stanchion on his porch and rehung it upside down. His wife, Evelyn, following him onto the porch, stood silently before the flag, her face contorting with a smoldering anger that consumed her insides. She suddenly issued a loud bellow, like a sick dog, and viciously attacked the flag. Joe grabbed her. “Honey, don’t,” he said. She bolted into the house, found the 8-by-10 photo, framed in glass, of her son’s platoon posing with George W. Bush in front of the new American embassy in Baghdad during the final year of his presidency.
Dozens of proud, weary, ill-fated soldiers. Evelyn confronted the photo in her hands, trembling. She lifted the frame over her head, poised to hurl it to the floor. Joe barreled through the doorway and held her arms aloft until she collapsed, grief-stricken, in his arms.
One hour ago, news of the end of the war had reached them. The crumpled letter on the coffee table informed them that young Charlie McCullough, their only child, was killed two days ago just outside the Green Zone, about 12 miles from the site of the new embassy.
In the White House, there was unbridled chaos. Public sentiment finally swayed the war’s architects, and the reins of assumed power were handed to the Iraqis. Prepared for this day, the Americans would not be denied their foothold; with the war officially over, the new U.S. embassy could be completed.
The Iraqi company constructing the 100-acre compound, unfazed by the war or who won it, vowed that U.S. taxpayers would not be charged more than the estimated $600 million price tag. And despite well-documented malfeasance and incompetence and an enraged “fringe element” of protesters, administration officials counted on patriotic fervor to sway public sentiment toward completion of this monumental U.S. stronghold Not far from the site of the embassy, two cousins, Ahmed and Muzzafar, reunited in the shade of a burned-out schoolhouse surrounded by concertina wire. They passed a dusty bottle of cheap wine. They had grown up together, but with opposing political and religious backgrounds. Despite these differences, they agreed it was good fortune that they had survived the American occupation. They were aware, however, that despite the official end to this war, centuries-old civil unrest would crystallize simmering resentments and recriminations into deeper hatred and endless acts of insane martyrdom.
“Remember our last day of school here, Ahmed,” Muzzafar declared. “One bomb came so close, I couldn’t hear for a week.”
“Right,” Ahmed said. “But I praised the Americans to Allah for saving me from this shithole school.”
They looked around at where they sat. The irony was not lost on them as they grimly toasted the end of the war.
The Bunkers of Graceland
WHEN I RECEIVED the news, I took Sabrina in my arms and ran to the truck, kissing her cheeks as we bounced. “What is it, Daddy, why are you crying, where are we going?”
“Mama’s coming home tonight, baby. We’re gonna round up dinner.” I sped down the street as Sabrina sang her mother’s name, “Mama, Julia, Mommy!”
The news had spread, and the charcoal and beer were ecstatically hauled out in carts. The lines were up the aisles, but no one complained, knees trembling in anticipation, nesting for heroes with candles and sponges. We collected the ingredients for Julia’s favorite meal, king salmon and macaroni. Rolling to the express line, staring wide-eyed at the paper’s headline: “Mission: In Hole, Stop Digging.” Grabbing our groceries, we returned to the truck and flipped on the radio. Mariachi music blared; screaming horns and rapturously strummed guitars shook the cabin. Sabrina laughed and clutched the macaroni. She turned the dial to hear a resolute president declare something about “drinking ice tea in a burning building.” Snickering, the president drew a few more words, interrupted by static. “When the house is floodin’, get a bucket!” I think it was static, it could have been counsel. Sabrina, unmoved by presidential speeches, shut off the radio and went back to singing Mama’s melody.
As we turned off College Avenue onto Humboldt Street, she pointed in wonder at the assembly of crisp American flags flying from the houses. “I remember those from when Mama left.” Without wincing, I replied, “Mama and her friends left because they love America. America’s bringing them home, because America loves them back. Those flags remind us, honey, they connect us to each other.” Good riddance to my last dutiful rationalization; I didn’t need any more. Tonight, Julia would thaw her faithful heart on our wedded bed, fresh from the bunker.
Pulling into our driveway, Sabrina unbuckled her seatbelt and leaped out of the parked truck. She ran upstairs to her mother’s study, jumped on a chair and took the Stars and Stripes from the wall, making sure the flag didn’t touch the ground, as her mother had taught her. “OK, sweetheart, let’s hang it out on the porch.” The sun was setting, the street aflame with candles and fevered conversation. Barbecue smoke billowed into the night sky, wafting the smell of grilled beef and vegetables over fences and rooftops.
After the flag was hung, we went inside and played Julia’s favorite album, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Sabrina turned the stereo up until the windows rattled. “Bet Mama can hear this!” she hollered. Moving to the stirring rhythm, my body trembled for Julia as I squeezed lemon on the salmon. Outside, bottle rockets and Roman candles burst and thundered through the air with the shouts and roars of peace. I almost fainted, watching the fish crackling as it sizzled on the frying pan, the starry night exploding, as Sabrina spun in circles playing her plastic harmonica, waiting for our queen to arrive.
“Dammit.” She cursed as the hot coffee spilled across the chipped formica. She rushed to the small bathroom, nearly slipping on the still-wet tile, into the shower stall, and grabbed a towel. Returning to the other room, she sopped up the steaming coffee that was now dripping off the countertop onto the already stained carpet below. Righting the cup, she poured a second from the motel room’s coffeemaker and dutifully stirred in the requisite pink packs of sweetener. First sip, ugh.
She walked to the other side of the bed and pulled open the heavy curtain. She lowered herself onto the edge of the bed and stared blankly out at the rain that was drowning the D.C. expressway in a sea of wet and oil, trash and fallen leaves. In the early-morning dimness, the fluid flowing across the roads looked strikingly like the coffee that had dripped off the counter moments earlier. Rush hour was just gearing up, cars splashing through the runoff crossing the expressway’s onramp. Just another fall morning in just another northeast city. Thousands of commuters, one to each car, staring straight ahead as they steered their way through the rainy mess.
From down the hallway, she could hear the sounds of children. “Come on, give it back. Casey, it’s mine. Give it back ! Mom, he’s going to get it all wet! Mom!”
“Oh jeez, Sydney, you’re such a baby. Here, take it back!”
The voices rose in volume until they were just outside her door. A knock.
“Mom, you ready?”
She got up slowly and opened the door to see Jodi and the kids standing just inside the drip line of the awning that covered the second-story walkway. Sydney’s towhead gleamed even in the gloom of the rainy dawn. She reached out a tiny hand and pulled her gently out the doorway.
“Time to go, Momma, come on.”
Turning silent, the four of them walked under a huge black umbrella toward the rental car.
Jodi guided the nondescript four-door as it splashed its way down the expressway’s onramp, and they joined the sea of commuter fish heading south.
Two miles down the freeway, they exited. The car weaved its way along the riverside road, and they merged north, heading through a roundabout.
Suddenly, the businessmen in the car next to them began cheering, one punched the air above his head with his fist and started clapping. A car several ahead of them in the traffic honked its horn. Other cars passing in the opposite direction had passengers in various states of obvious celebration.
“Turn on the radio.”
After shuffling the dial through several hip-hop stations and a Spanish language talk show, they caught the special report, already in progress:
“. . . is underway. Completion is expected by the end of the month, and no forces are expected to remain. Chancellor Merkel, commenting at the G7 summit in Geneva, stated it was an action long overdue. Other world leaders indicated their overwhelming support. Again, we report that the president has announced the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. This comes following the . . .”
She turned the radio off and looked over to her daughter-in-law in the driver’s seat.
Jodi sobbed silently as she steered under the stone archway of Arlington Cemetery.
—Lori Lynne M. Brundick
Dedicated to my stepbrother, Scott W. Dyer, who was killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 11, 2006, and to the rest of his squadron who are still in Afghanistan. Too late for Scott. Too late for so many. Peace be with you all.
The Great Sunset Skirmish
HAD I KNOWN it would be the last time I’d put on my buddy’s extra Army jacket, I might’ve said something. The Coleman canteen carving a crevice into my neck, I took my makeshift weapon made from plastic yellow tubes, and followed my friend into the surrounding woods of the park.
The sweltering sun beat down upon a semi hauling Syrah in the late October air. I crept, carefully trying not to let my shoes come down on the dry leaves.
“We hafta be silent,” my friend said. He was older than me and faster than me, so I followed him as the commander of the unit. We waited beneath a young redwood tree, eyeing the opposite hedgerow for enemies.
“Hey, who we fightin’?” I asked him.
“Germans,” he answered.
“No, we fought them a long time ago,”
“Iraq?” he offered.
“No, they’re like really fighting them, out in the Gulf,” I said.
“Well, we could play Vietnam?” he said. The sun was beginning to drift beyond the Mayacamas. I knew I’d get the call home soon.”No, how ’bout Norway?” I asked. I guess it seemed random enough to be true.”Works for me,” he said.
“Over there! Blitttitiitititiratataratom!” My mouth and gun erupted in strafing fire, knocking down the Norwegians’ initial attack.
“Hey, my gun’s a rocket launcher too, look. Pishowwwwwboom! Got ’em!” he yelled.
We beat the first wave back, and the second fell without a problem. But when the third wave hit, my friend was pierced by a shot from a sniper off the rooftops in the neighborhood nearby.
“I’m hit!” he shrieked.
“Blitititititishisihshishsi!” I held down my trigger and continued to fight as dusk crept on us like a crook casing a cottage.
“Geoff, Joey! Time to come home!” Geoff’s mom yelled.
“Cease fire,” he said.
“I’ll see ya tomorrow,” I told him.
But I didn’t see him the next day. And the day after that, we would play Whiffle all day. The rest of the week was spent playing more Whiffle and Rollerblading.
Soon after this, we began middle school. There was no more time for war. Postschool activities became more grownup-like, but boring. “Hanging” out at the park, really not doing a goddamn thing.
In the months following, Geoff was too popular, and he had a girlfriend, and the thought of him playing make-believe war was almost embarrassing. I had gotten into video games more than I would’ve liked to, and the girls laughed at me for being heavy.
Had I known that day was the last, I would’ve said something. “Good luck in life. I’m sure gonna miss this.” Something. But I didn’t, and just like soldiers in a real war, that last skirmish beneath the autumn sunset halted and took with it what once was my childhood.