IV. Blood and Guts
Dolan had cracked under the pressure of Green Beret school—that was the general diagnosis. We referred to him as the “psycho” and the “fucker.” The Army did its best to keep a lid on the situation, but the Fayetteville papers ran a few stories tracking Dolan’s E and E, his Escape and Evasion. The same night as the goat massacre, several motorists reported a rider on a stolen black motorcycle with no lights on racing south on I-95. At dawn the cops caught sight of him near Atlanta but Dolan had seen the cops as well and exited the highway and lost them in the back country. There was another sighting in Mobile, Alabama, and apparently in Little Rock, Arkansas, which turned out to be a red herring planted by a woman who claimed to be Dolan’s common law wife.
The Rangers picked up his trail in Laredo, Texas, where they found the smoldering remains of a campfire. The fire, the papers reported, “had been started with a copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” When I read that, my hands shook so terribly I had to drop the newspaper. It was certainly Dolan; Darkness was his favorite book and there’s no way he would have torched it unless he was in a tight spot. There was a shootout at the Mexican border and then the news stopped coming.
As for the goats, Dolan didn’t actually kill all of them. My goat, Balls, was alive and well where I’d tied him to the fence—to prevent him from having sex with the other goats. The rest of the herd escaped through the open gate and we found them dozing under pine trees like little Buddhas. They were extremely gratified to return to their pen. It’s a characteristic that also exists in human beings: a safe predictable prison is preferable to the possibilities that come with being free.
That was DolanThink; he’d infiltrated my mind and I’d never be free of him. Dolan did diffuse over time, of course, but I tenaciously clung to the part of me that changed because of him, even when I forgot it was him who changed me. Consider your first concert t-shirt. That t-shirt started off as a statement to the world, “This music is who I am.” But over time the shirt washes out and the fabric grows thinner and the writing wanes until one day you don’t remember the concert or maybe even the performer but you keep the t-shirt around because it marks a place and a time when nothing was routine, when everything was possible, when you knew what you stood for.
My turn in the operating room came on a lovely spring morning in ’93. It would be Balls’s last day on earth. He was intentionally shot in order for us medics-in-training to practice surgery on a goat. I didn’t feel pressure; instead I felt as if I were on a leisurely walk, cooling down after a long run. I fixed Balls his favorite meal: Captain Crunch with Crunchberries and a pair of Granny Smith apples. Balls was so happy to be untied from the fence that he galloped the entire way to the shooting chamber, bucking and kicking like a kid goat. He didn’t even look back when I handed him over to the instructor. Balls pranced up to the guillotine as if I’d dropped him off at a day spa.
When the O.R. was ready, I pulled on my gown and stood over the operating table like the conductor of the philharmonic, a scalpel in one hand and a stethoscope in the other. The gunshots rang out and a moment later four stretcher bearers tumbled into the room with Balls splayed out on the stretcher, soaked in red open by a gunshot wound through the ribs. The bullet had exited through the shoulder blade. Another shot shattered his femur. Red froth issued from Balls’s mouth. I’d tucked some tissues inside my pocket thinking I’d shed a tear or two—but nothing! Instead I calmly intubated him, easily sliding the plastic tube under Balls’s tongue and into the trachea, as if guided by an unseen hand. “More anesthesia!” I cried. My assistant Sergeant Stewart turned up the gas. Balls immediately settled down and his breathing slowed, shallow and regular.
The femoral artery required a tourniquet. The bleeding eventually eased to a trickle but the leg was useless, hanging on by a few strands of pulverized muscle tissue.
“I have to amputate this leg,” I said.
Roberts, the O.R. instructor, peered over his box of donuts at Balls’s leg flopped over the edge of the table.
“Consider the leg amputated, Sergeant,” Roberts ordered.
That was Roberts-speak for you’re doing well enough, so let’s get this over with so I can grab lunch at KFC.
The bullet wounds were ugly, but not fatal. I inserted a chest tube, sewed up the wounds, adjusted the flow on my IVs, and packaged Balls for transport to “long term care.”
In Balls’s case, long term care was the incinerator.
“I’m done,” I said.
Roberts circled the operating table, poking and prodding, pulling on IV lines, checking vitals, jotting down notes.
“Patient stable?” he asked.
“Stable,” I said.
“Stable,” Stewart said.
“Clean up,” Roberts said. He stripped off his gown and dumped it on the floor and left the room. I opened the donut box. It was empty.
“He didn’t even leave us an Old Fashioned,” I said.
“Old Fashioned are that fucker’s favorites,” Stewart said, using Roberts’s gown to mop up Balls’s blood from the floor. “After the white crème filled with chocolate frosting. Not vanilla filled. White crème filled. There’s a difference.”
I drew up a lethal dose of morphine and injected it into Balls’s IV port. Balls’s pupils blew out in slow motion. As his heartbeat eased to a stop, I swear he shrugged, like he was saying, hey, you win some, you lose some.
You could never accuse Balls of being a sentimental goat.
He was strictly a sensualist.
“Bye, Balls,” I said.
“Thanks, Balls,” Stewart said.
A pang of guilt hit me. Why couldn’t I have thought to say thank you?
After graduation I was assigned to a battalion in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart was a funny place. The old city was flattened by the Allies during the Second World War. A few buildings survived, like the palace near the Fussgängerzone; everything else was new construction. There is nothing worse for the German sensibility than new construction. Germans are an old people, an original tribe. They need to attach themselves to old things or else their German-ness has no place to root.
I’m of German descent and there is a tremendous quote about Germans I like to use, though my long lost kind would take offense. It goes something like, “Germans make the best Americans, though they certainly make the worst Germans.” And Stuttgarters made the worst Stuttgarters, at least from a young American soldier’s viewpoint. Stuttgarters lived in their new city like a commune of obsessive-compulsives. Every train was clean and punctual, all the taxis were Mercedes, and if you jaywalked they glared as if you’d farted in church. Tssk, tssk!
Stuttgarters also bore a legendary hostility toward American soldiers. A G.I. like me couldn’t get a word in edgewise with a woman unless her family immigrated to Germany, usually from Greece or Turkey. As for the blue-blooded German girls, if I so much as smiled at one, she’d laugh in my face, or a couple of strapping Kraut boys would suddenly appear—to protect the purity of the bloodline.
I recall my three years in Germany as a time of terrible loneliness. I spent my free weekends driving the countryside outside of Stuttgart alone, stopping in old villages far where the people were friendly and inviting. I drank their dark beer in the local kneipes and ate huge steaming plates of sauerbraten and kaesespaetzle. There were liberating aspects to my solitude, as well. I had my own suite of rooms—a bedroom, a bathroom and a small living room.
Next to the bed I stacked my collection of unread books I’d bought on Dolan’s recommendation. The books solemnly stood on the nightstand collecting dust, like a neglected tombstone with the epitaph worn off, and the once-hallowed body buried beneath almost forgotten entirely.
Perhaps my best friend in Germany was Tony Wendt, also a medic. He and I learned quickly that if we wanted any interaction with women, we’d need to find a decent watering hole away from base. We found an Irish bar downtown where ex-patriots from various countries would congregate. Our chances of picking up a girl there were about the same as in America, which weren’t terrific, but at least we had a fighting chance.
It was at this Irish bar where I met a woman who taught me my first real lesson about war—more than the U.S. Army had done up until that point. I was standing near the bar when I first met her. She was trying to catch the bartender’s attention. She was six feet if she was an inch and I was one of the few people in the bar taller than her. Some tall women don’t mind if a guy is taller or shorter, but others need a taller man or else they feel like barbarians. This woman fell into the latter category. She immediately pushed her way next to me and asked me in German to order a beer for her, because the bartender was ignoring her.
I caught the bartender’s eye. “Three Guinness,” I called, holding up three fingers. He nodded and started filling the pint glasses.
“Ooooh—you’re American!” the woman said with a heavy accent. She had a wide mouth with strong white teeth, like a healthy lioness accustomed to feasting on whatever she liked. “That’s so much better. I thought you were German.”
“You’re not German?”
She gave me a sour look. “I’m Danish, thank you. You’ve heard of Denmark, haven’t you?” Her name was Bergitte and she owned a wedding gown shop on a fancy street near the Fussgängerzone. Tony immediately started a charm offensive.
“What a gorgeous country, Denmark,” he said. “You know, I’ve been there a dozen times. I love the people. Such generosity, and the most beautiful women in the world, of course.” Tony was as tall as me, so I wedged my shoulder between him and Bergitte. I was in a drought, so to speak. I hadn’t been horizontal with a woman in months and I wasn’t about to let Tony saunter up to the watering trough without a fight.
As it turned out, Bergitte had eyes only for me. My blond hair, most likely. Nordic types get a kick out of seeing themselves with foreigners, especially Americans. Whatever her reasons, Bergitte completely ignored Tony and stood close to me. She practically purred as she spoke. “Where do you stay in Germany? Is it nearby? I’m fascinated to know everything about you. You know we Danish are very happy to have Americans in Germany. It keeps them under control. The minute you leave they’ll start it up again. You know it’s only been 50 years.”
As a good American, until that moment I’d bought the official line that we Yanks were in Germany to keep the Soviets from crossing the Fulda Gap. But practically speaking, it was the Germans who needed watching. Twice in a century they’d demolished Europe. Germany’s neighbors were sitting on tenterhooks waiting for them to start it up again—third time is a charm, the saying goes. The Polish, I’d learned, were certainly nervous about Germans. And the Dutch and French too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Germans were scared of themselves. Maybe that’s why they’ve let us stay as long as they have.
“So you don’t like Germans?” I asked. I didn’t care, but it was a subject that would keep her talking. A real live woman, and a beautiful one at that, was a rare find. My job was to keep feeding her drinks. Bergitte, I quickly found out, liked to run the conversation, which was fine by me. She took her jacket off and handed it to me. I draped it over my arm. The smooth silk lining brushed against me and immediately her scent filled my nostrils, a mixture of lilac and frankincense and perspiration that made me want to bite her neck. She was wearing a matching miniskirt and tank top. She blushed at my bold appraisal of her. She made a point of leaning over to reach for a bar napkin, so I could get a good look at her ass and legs, which looked like two plums dangling by the stems. Her hair was chopped short though not in a boyish manner, just enough to accent her high cheeks and strong nose. She had a white scar over her brow that looked like a check mark that gave her an experienced appearance. I thought she was flawless.
“The Germans are a terrible people, absolutely horrid,” Bergitte continued. “I don’t care if one hears me now. They think they are better than anyone on Earth. Trust me on this. You don’t know them the way we do. All they think of is money, the Germans. They are like Jews that way, which is why Germans hate the Jews. Don’t look so surprised! Of course the Germans still hate the Jews. They talk nice now but if they could, they’d wipe them out. Only it’s politically incorrect to say it now. Trust me, I’m Danish. We know these Germans. The only reason I stay here is for my business. The Germans have all the money. If you want to sell something, you must sell it to Germans. Stuttgart is an absolutely loathsome place, but I will make my money and go home and to hell with them.”
She finished her beer and I ordered her another. While the bartender filled her glass, I pulled her next to me and planted a kiss on her neck. Her skin tasted like mint oil. Bergitte beamed at me drunkenly.
“You see what I mean! A German man would never have the courage to do that. He would wait and wait all night and never try anything. And if I made a move on him, he would sulk. Germans don’t know that a woman likes to be pursued.”
“You like that?” I grabbed her again and this time kissed her on the mouth, our tongues meeting briefly before she pulled away.
“I like it,” Bergitte said, her voice husky. She took me by the hand and led me through the crowd. We passed Tony talking with a pair of Irish girls.
“Don’t wait for him,” Bergitte said, pushing me ahead of her. “We’re getting married.”
“He’s all yours, honey,” Tony said. When Bergitte turned away, Tony twirled his finger next to his ear to indicate she was nuts.
We took a taxi to a pleasant suburb in the hills outside Stuttgart. Her apartment was tiny, but clean as a whistle. A little too clean, actually. When she went to the bathroom to shower, I had a look around. All the books were alphabetized, as were the CDs. The glasses were organized in the cupboard, tallest in the rear, shortest in front and there were eight of everything: knives, spoons, forks, cups, saucers, napkins. I decided I was hungry so I opened the fridge. It was spotless, shining white like an operating room. There was a jar of Nutella, two bananas, a salami, some gorgonzola, and a shelf full of beer. I opened two of the beers and went to work on the salami and cheese, sitting on the couch. When she reappeared in her robe, a flash of anger passed her face momentarily, which she smoothed over.
“Why don’t I get you a plate, darling? And a napkin, too.”
She set the food on the plate and tucked the napkin in my lap and nestled up next to me like a cat, purring in my ear and quietly picking the crumbs of meat that had fallen on my shirt. “Oh you Americans are such barbarians,” she purred, stroking my hair. I picked up the last morsel of cheese and before it reached my mouth, Bergitte jumped to her feet, grabbed the dishes and ran to the kitchen and frantically scrubbed, dried and put everything away. She dashed back to my side as if nothing happened, purring in my ear again about what a brute I was.
Her O.C.D produced a natural aggression in me. I slipped a hand between her thighs, running my fingers into the breach. She groaned and grabbed my wrist. “No darling, we can’t. Not tonight. It’s my cycle.” I pressed her shoulders back down and pried her legs apart with my knee, all while working deeper inside her. I felt the warm blood slipping through my fingers like machine grease.
“Darling, the couch!”
So I picked her up with my right arm, still going at her with the left and carried her to the bedroom. Her struggle, I figured out, wasn’t with me, but with herself. By the look on Bergitte’s face, you could see her O.C.D was battling with the desire to get fucked. I can help there, I thought, and spread her legs wide until the trickle from her wound spilled out like red paint. Before she could stop me, I shoved my cock in and clamped my teeth on her nipple. The wet slap of blood on our hips made me slip in and out like an eel. She was biting and scratching me to the bone. I was going to have marks up and down my back from the crazy Dane if I didn’t do something, so I grabbed her hands by the wrists. “Now keep still,” I ordered her. I held her wrists in a tight grip and went down on her.
“You can’t!” she cried, mortified.
Americans are barbarians, and I was going to prove it to her. I licked and nibbled and cajoled her clit until it stood nearly upright. She was moaning crazily and I had no idea if she was coming or dying. Suddenly I got the idea she was going to pass out, so before she lost her senses, I flipped her over and three strokes later I burst into her—against the red tide—and immediately started laughing.
Blood currents? Counter-currents? Whirlpools? Tsunamis? Germans? Danes?
Bergitte eyeballed me with a mix of adoration and horror that could only be described as love. I immediately got nervous.
“Let’s take a shower, okay? I’m sticking to the sheets.” She followed me to the bathroom, docile as a lamb. In the bathroom, we looked together into the full length mirror. The blood had dried on us to a flaky burgundy crust. My pecker was stuck sideways in my pubes. This time we both burst into laughter.
“You really are a barbarian, you know? Just like I said. For some reason, though, I think I like it.”
The hot water washed the blood away. I took a bar of soap and a wash cloth and lathered her up. She leaned against the tiles and sighed. “That is so nice. That is really wonderful.” Then I soaped her tits and her neck and the crack of her ass and all the way down her legs. She took the rag and started working on me, washing my entire body before going to work on my cock, lathering it with soap and stroking it until it slowly started stiffening, as if it had just finished a race but could muster another mile or so, if duty called.
I untangled myself from her embrace. “Now I really have to go. If I don’t show up for PT at 00:06:30, I’m toast.”
She grabbed hold of my waist. She was terrifyingly strong. “You’re not leaving,” she said sternly. “I’m going to stay right here in this shower and fuck you until you love me.”
Bergitte was clearly plastered. She was talking uninhibitedly and would probably regret all of it in the morning.
“We can get married and move to America. We’ll leave these awful Germans behind. You don’t have to work a day, darling. I’ll support us. My dresses would sell in New York the same as Stuttgart. You can stay home all day and watch TV and I will be your American wife.”
I negotiated my release by promising that we’d see each other soon. We did in fact see each other often for the next month or two but it was doomed from the get-go: I had no intention of getting tied down and Bergitte was determined to get out of Europe and as far from Germans as possible. She intimated at different times that her family had suffered greatly under German occupation. I sympathized in an abstract way, though not enough to marry her. The break up went badly, at the Irish bar.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I know,” I kept repeating as I inched my way toward the door. “You’ll find someone else easily—” “Who will I find? A stupid German boy? He won’t fuck me bleeding, I guarantee you that. They are all terrible cowards and assholes. I know that you are the man for me, my American. I know it.”
Bergitte was weeping and clinging to my leg on her knee to keep me from walking out. It was a major scene and I was certain the cops would show up. When she realized I wasn’t changing my mind, Bergitte relented. She stood up and brushed herself off, to recover her dignity.
“You can’t love me, I understand,” she cried as I made for the door. “But don’t forget Bergitte, who loves you.”
I went off quickly down the street without looking back. The neighborhood was dark and there were no taxis to be found. I didn’t care. A long aimless walk is the best medicine after a breakup, though on that particular occasion it left me hollowed out. There was an image in my head that wouldn’t let me rest—of me taking the last hop out of Paris before the Nazi invasion and poor Bergitte was left to the Huns.
I drifted along for a few years until the decision to quit the Army was made for me—one dark night, on a parachute jump in Ost Ulm. I recall stepping out of the airplane into a dark cold sky. Canopies swooshed past above and below, voices cursing in the darkness, both in German and English. “Too many jumpers!” someone cried. Suddenly, above me, fingernails scraped over my parachute silk, or maybe it was the soles of combat boots. And then I was falling. And falling. And falling until the soft loam of a Bayerisch cow pasture reached up and grabbed me and pulled me deep into the ground. I found out later that if I’d fallen a dozen feet to my right, I’d have landed on a fence post and been split in half.
X-rays revealed a series of clean breaks in my vertebrae. The Army offered to let me stay. I took the doctor’s advice and got out.
I started college at 26 years old and finally read Dolan’s favorite books. Those books led to new books which in turn led to new authors and more books, a universe with exponential implications. I got a job and got laid off and barely blinked except to remark to my sister one day that yes, I was poor, but now there was no work to interfere with my reading. In my opinion, I’d come out ahead.
The end of my unemployment benefits coincided with September 11, 2001. I managed to borrow some money to get by for another year but my options were growing thin. Initially I had no intention of participating in the wars—seven years had passed since I’d gotten out of the Army and ten years since I’d seen Dolan—but I did the math and decided a year in Iraq would give me two years of freedom.
So I spent a year over there, working security in Turkey and then Kuwait and then Basrah, Al-Rumaylah, Amarah, and finally Baghdad.
By the end of my stint I’d seen enough drama to fill a book. So I moved back to New York and took a small room in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side and wrote a novel about Iraq. A well-known agent, Jim Pinn, read a few lines and swore he could sell the book—too late, as it turned out. The Iraq fortune had run dry. To make ends meet, I grudgingly signed on with a small security outfit known as Principle Risk Management. They faxed me a contract, which I signed and faxed back. Two weeks later I arrived at a secluded compound near the Baghdad airport called Area Q.
“Just until Jim Pinn sells the book,” I reassured myself. “A month at most.”