Ооо, нас ждёт явление полуголого пьяного Стерлинга. Shirtless. И с tattoos on his chest! И грубо пристающего к девушке-барменше. Слишком грубо.
[Spoiler (click to open)]I heard a crash against the wall of the staircase. Coming down the steps, careening from wall to wall, was Sergeant Sterling. I wasn’t really surprised. I couldn’t have been the only Joe who’d heard about the place. He was shirtless and bleeding a little from the side of his mouth, and in his left hand he held a bottle of some clear liquor. The bottle flashed in the smoke and cold yellow light that fell from the naked bulbs swinging from the ceiling. When he saw me he bared his teeth and yelled, “Private Bartle!” I nearly slipped off the worn leather of the barstool. I could hear a few other people making noise upstairs and I saw Sterling as he staggered for a moment, the flash of recognition settling over his drunken face. I said a silent prayer that he would turn around and go back upstairs, but my prayers were futile, all of them, and I knew it. He came down and jerked a stool as close to mine as he could get it and his breathing was deep and ragged. The tattoos on his chest heaved with his breathing and he put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed hard. He was still smiling through his white teeth, and his eyes were wide and bloodshot and blue like the color of dried sprigs of lavender at the centers.
The bargirl had backed away from him when he came down the stairs, and he let go of me and lurched around the bar. “Not tonight?” he slurred at her. “Huh, bitch? Not tonight?” He grabbed her by the face with his free hand and squeezed and she struggled to get loose and I could see on her cheeks a deep red where he held her. His thumb and fingers made the skin of each opposing cheek sink between her teeth, and she tried to pull away. Tears ran down through the remains of her mascara, but she kept her fine jaw clenched and stood as tall and firmly as she could against the presence of his hands.
“Sergeant Sterling,” I stammered. “Come have a drink with me.” I could see that he heard me—a small twitching began behind his ears and the naked skin on the sides of his head bunched up ever so slightly—but he did not let her go. I pulled the stale air surrounding me deep into my lungs with a long breath and yelled, “Come on, pussy! Drink.”
Before he let her go, he shoved her and her head hit the wall behind the bar and made a loud thump. The plaster cracked a little, and she started to run around the bar, but he caught her by her arm. He squeezed her elbow, forcing her arm straight. “Get back over there.” She was crying softly to herself now and the red marks along her cheeks looked like a sad, painted-on clown smile and her mascara ran in black streaks below her eyes. He sat down next to me and slapped me on the back and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. “Living the fucking dream, Private,” he bellowed.
“This is complete freedom, hero.” He laughed. “God, I love this.”
The warm, astringent smell of the whiskey had begun to clean me out. Sterling sat quietly for a moment before he spoke. I lit a cigarette and the smoke from it hung above our heads in the yellow light. The girl slid her back down the wall and sat on the backs of her calves.
“Hey, you remember the look on his face when that hajji blew herself up at the DFAC?”
“Whose?” I asked.
“Murph’s. C’mon, man. Murph’s.”
“Not really, Sarge. That day was fucked.”
“Shit. That hajji was gone, Private. Poof. Gone.” He put his arms around my neck and squeezed. “Poof. Gone.”
“He had a really funny look on his face.”
“I can’t remember.”
“I thought you remembered everything. Like some retarded genius or something.”
I tried to laugh it off. “You’re wasted, Sarge,” I said.
“Yeah. But now you see how shit ends up?”
“Sure. Yeah. Sure I do.”
“I’m in charge.”
I laughed nervously. “I know that.”
“When I’m in charge, things end up OK. When I let people talk me into shit…we are a fucking no-go at this station.”
I tried to change the subject. “What made you think of Murph?”
I didn’t say anything.
“We know what happened. That’s all we got.”
He was drunk. I’d never seen him like that: on the edge of losing control, morose and somehow sentimental in his own way. It was like you could feel him about to shake loose from something, I wasn’t sure what from, but I didn’t want to be around when it happened.
He put his finger into my chest and then into his. “We know. Me and you. Like we’re married. Don’t you forget. I’ve fucking got you, Private Bartle. UC motherfucking MJ, anytime I want. You see this?” He took his thumb and held it in my face, pushing his fist firmly and deliberately against my cheek. He then turned his hand and pressed his thumb into the dark lacquered wood of the bar top, grinding it against the surface as if squishing a bug. “That’s where you are. I own you. And AWOL, too? Too fucking easy, Private.”
I’d be out soon. My three-year enlistment was up. I was getting out of the army when we got back stateside. “You won’t do it,” I said. I didn’t really believe it. I knew Sterling was capable of anything. “I can give you up too. You were in charge, remember?”
“Ah,” he grunted. “No one gives a fuck about Murph,” he said. When he reached the fricative in Murph’s name, he began to laugh. I could feel his breath on my lips. As he talked, his eyes flashed a little and the color of them seemed to wash out and deaden. “Everybody else, man, they don’t want to know. If they wanted to, they would, right? It’s not like he’s the only bullshit KIA with bullshit medals and a bullshit story for his mother?” He drained the last of the liquor from his bottle, tipping it up slowly above his head. I watched his Adam’s apple move the clear liquor down his throat. When he finished, he threw the bottle against the wall above the bargirl’s head. It did not shatter. The thick glass held and it made a sharp thwack against the wall and fell.
“We could tell,” I said. “Just get the whole thing over with.”
He laughed. “There you go again, Private. Retarded genius.”
When I got back to the base, the LT was angry. He didn’t yell, he just said, “Wash up, Bartle.” I did and when I was finished I changed into a clean uniform and pulled a field jacket over my shoulders and fell asleep on a bench in the terminal. Only a few MPs and officers were still awake.
I was woken by a nudge on my shoulder, then by a harder shake. I rolled over, and Sergeant Sterling whispered to me, “I covered for you.”
“Thanks, Sarge,” I said groggily.
“Don’t go thinking we’re finished, Private.” He walked away.
Глава 4: сентябрь 2004
[Spoiler (click to open)]A runner from battalion headquarters brought us our mail after chow.
Sterling called the runner over to him. “Private,” he barked, “where’s my mail?”
“It doesn’t look like you got any.”
“Sergeant,” Sterling muttered.
“Relax, Sterling, give the kid a break,” the LT said, awake now and pausing from his conversation on the radio. It was the only sound. The runner pushed his body toward the lowering dark in silence, seeming to float above the packed dust as he moved back the way he came.
Мерфи получил письмо, из которого он узнал, что его девушка бросила его. Они с Бартлом говорят об этом.
“Marie’s a good girl. I can’t say I blame her. Too smart to stick with me.”
Sterling had been listening to us talk. He loped over out of the dark on the other side of the tree. “I’d kill a bitch,” he interjected. “You’re not really gonna take that shit, are you, Private?”
“I guess I figure it’s not my call to make no more, Sarge.”
Sterling put his hands on his hips and seemed to be waiting for Murph to say something else. It was as if that line of words had been hung up in a place Sterling couldn’t reach, so he just stood there, disregarding, waiting to be readdressed. But Murph did not respond. Neither did I. We just looked at him, half leaning against the wall. Behind us a streetlamp came on. It was the only one to survive the battle, and it illuminated the field where the dead lay scattered and it shined its light briefly into the scarred earth where the mortars had fallen. It flickered. In the intermittent light Sterling seemed to flicker also, appearing and disappearing. The light went out for a short stretch, and Sterling walked away.
[Spoiler (click to open)]Two young sergeants quickly moved from around the building and spread out to either end of the wall. Then the colonel came, short, red-haired and walking upright as tall as he could. He had a reporter and a cameraman with him. The LT exchanged a few words with him and they both turned to us. “How’s the war tonight, boys?” he asked. A broad smile spread over his face in the darkness.
“Good,” Sterling replied with a dull certainty.
Sterling came over from around the hawthorn where he had cleaned and loaded his weapons and taped down loose and moving parts so that they would not rattle. “Check me out, little man,” he told Murph. He jumped up and down, his hands at his sides. Silence. The only sound he made was the soft humph of his boots tamping down the fine dust. “All right. Good. Bartle, come over here, please.”
I moved over toward Sterling and Murph and watched as Sterling placed black electrical tape over the shiny, metallic pieces of gear that could protrude and reflect a glint of light in through a window in the predawn as we walked. Murph stood there motionless, and Sterling adjusted his equipment firmly and carefully. The look on his face was one of care. He bit at his lip, furrowed up his brow and turned the corners of his mouth down ever so slightly. When he was finished he rubbed his hands along the length of Murph’s body, almost caressing him. “Give it a shot,” he said.
Murph looked over to me and jumped off the ground a little and nothing moved or made a noise.
“Your turn, Bartle.”
He repeated the process for me, the same look of concern marking his face. When I jumped, there was no sound and Sterling patted me on the side of the helmet.
“Sarge,” I asked, “do you think we’re gonna have to fight here every year?”
“Hell yes, Private,” he said. “I was already in the first one. This shit’s gonna be bigger than Ohio State–Michigan.” He chuckled. He could tell I was nervous again. “Don’t worry. We’re gonna do all right tomorrow, OK? Just follow me, do what I say, and we’ll be back on the FOB before you know it.”
He smiled at both of us. He seemed to soften in the strange light from the lamppost. “OK, Sarge. Sure. We’ll follow you all the way.”
Sterling took a small canister of salt out of his ruck while we waited for our squad’s turn to move out. I remember that there was a picture of a girl with an umbrella on the label. Morton’s, I think. He turned the cylinder over and began to shake it over the earth beneath the hawthorn tree. I looked at Murph, and he returned my questioning expression, and we walked toward Sterling. “Uh, Sarge, are you all right?” Murph asked. Sterling spread the salt over the ground where we’d been set up the night before.
“It’s from Judges,” he said, without really noticing us. Then he looked up and seemed to look past us, out into the end of the night, which somewhere over the horizon line prepared to reveal itself as day. “Move out, guys,” he said. “It’s just a thing I do.” So we did. In the distance behind us Sterling walked, just barely in sight, spreading salt over the fields and alleys, over the dead bodies and into the dust that seemed to cover everything in Al Tafar. He spread it wherever he went, the whole time singing or muttering in a voice neither of us had ever heard him use before. It was a pleasant voice, friendly, and although we couldn’t make out the words, it terrified us.
“I think he’s losing his shit, Bart,” Murph said.
“You want to tell him?” I asked.
The mortars still fell. A few times a minute we twitched from the noise of the loud impacts like kettledrums banging in the orchard. Small fires burned. The smoke rose from among the frayed leaves. Once, when it was nearly light, Murph said, “I’m gonna see what Sterling’s up to.” He raised his rifle to use the magnification scope to look back at him.
There was a brief flash of light as the first faint rays crested the foothills to the east and fell along the roofs and walls of the buildings’ pale facades. I looked back and put my hand up on my brow line trying to focus on his figure, barely perceptible in the receding dark. “Well?” I repeated, “What is he doing?”
The figure in the distance was motionless. Perhaps all the salt was spread along this short stretch of the outskirts of Al Tafar. We were very close to the orchard and my legs were still quivering with fear. “Murph, what’s he doing?”
He lowered the rifle. His mouth was open. He closed it, then spoke. “I don’t know, man. He’s got a fucking body.” Murph looked at me, wide-eyed. “And he’s not smiling anymore.”
Он ещё и напевать будет.