The Geology of Loss
The city of Baghdadi was a green scab wrapped around the muddy wound of the Euphrates. Palms and fronds littered its banks, as did the locals with woven reed baskets and knitted smiles. They were trying, or trying to try. That counts for something. My platoon commander called this place Mesopotamia. We called it the sandbox. He said the first humans lived here. They walked this surface and over millennia ground the rocks into dust. That dust turned to powder. We called the powder moon dust and it was silky like talcum. When agitated, plumes of it would rise and hover like gray nebulas.
“My dad is a postman, Duluth,” Deuce said. “He drives one of them white boxes filled with brown boxes.” He drummed the dash of our Humvee twice with the heel of his hand. Our mission was to deliver our PiTT team’s mail to their compound. Deuce was the vehicle commander. He was tuned up. He looked out the windshield, assessing the situation as it was. The vics kept a wide dispersion between each other in the convoy so as not to present a target of opportunity. We didn’t get close, bunched. Distance keeps you safe. Command says the hajjis are real opportunists.
“They get good bennies, not like us, but still good, and there aren’t people trying to kill them. Maybe you should’ve followed daddy,” I said. The Humvee’s cab bounced and shimmied as it rode over the pocked, gravel road which had a name before we came, but we didn’t know it, so we called it Route Uranium.
“I joined the Corps to be a Marine. Why’d you?” Deuce said.
There had been no rain to keep the dust down. The convoy churned gray moon dust in its wake. I looked out my porthole, north of the city, away from the green, to where the squiggle of horizon touched the sky. It seemed drained in contrast to Baghdadi. The land shades of beige. Our vehicles and cammies beige. The envelopes of the letters Mom sent were beige.
“To see the world and meet cheery fucks like you, Deuce.”
Deuce loaded a pinch of Cope into his bottom lip and positioned it with his tongue. He was rough with the tin. Flecks of long cut fell onto his flak. The Corps taught us to kick in doors, holler real loud, and shoot bad guys in the next zip code over, which was what we both anticipated upon our first deployment. Delivering letters was a poor surrogate for the promise of violence. He turned and looked at me, lip swollen with dip. His hand became a blade aimed at my face. “I didn’t join to be a postman, so why in fuck’s sake are we delivering mail?!”
I looked out the window and for a blink I wanted to tell him to fuck off, find your answers elsewhere. “Letters boost morale, Deuce.”
“Then why don’t you open yours?” he said.
I did, just not any of Mom’s letters. I was upset at my buddy back home for giving her my deployment address. He said she cleaned herself up after hearing about Brock. I told him seeing is believing and I’m blind over here. All the same, I had a stack of letters wrapped in a cracked, rubber band stretched to its limit. The volume of letters is what surprised me. She never brought more than two words together except when she signed restraining orders.
Deuce wouldn’t let me toss her letters. He said I’d find a use for them, but the thought of her made me antsy. An ocean and a war between us and I still couldn’t escape her. I buried my hand into my pocket and grasped the agate. It was naturally smooth, made more so by the burnishing of my oily fingers.
“I’ve got so much morale I donate my extra to the MWR,” I said.
“What do they do, suck it outta your pecker?” Deuce said. The corners of his lips pulled back and he bellowed a fake hardy-har. He brought an empty Gatorade bottle to his mouth and deposited thin, brackish spittle.
“No, only your wife does that.” We laughed together. A real laugh. Deuce was a Corporal to my Lance. He sent home his poker winnings to his wife in greeting cards. The MWR tent had free cards and envelopes. The cards must have been the ones stores threw away because they would get Christmas ones in February and Valentine’s Day ones in April. Around Thanksgiving, Deuce won a decent pot with Kings over Jacks. He sent home a fold of twenties in a ghost-shaped Halloween card inscribed with “Have a Spooktacular day!” Deuce was all I had over there. He was a good person and Marine and friend. Nothing like Mom.
~ ~ ~
We lived in a Section Eight duplex in West Duluth. The bathroom door was perforated like a game of Connect Four. Mom found refuge there when her friends got too crazy, which was too often. She kept a dead bolt on the inside of Brock and mine’s bedroom door after the Zippo incident. I locked it every night, even when she was home.
“I’m leaving. Feed Brock,” Mom said from behind the door.
I didn’t know where she was going. I didn’t ask. She wouldn’t have told me anyways. “All we have are baked beans. Brock won’t eat that.” At the sink, looking into the mirror, she filled cracked lips with pink lip balm. Her hair was bleached and she wore it in a bun at the back. It was perfect; it looked wet, not a hair out place. She was pretty once, although I never remember that. It was June, but she wore a long-sleeved, stone-colored flannel with intersecting pink lines the same color as her balm. The toilet was running. It always ran. From one of the holes, I could see her spoon jutting from her purse.
“Go to the gas station and get something, then.”
“I need money.” I lied. I’d been stealing from her and her friends since I was twelve. I kept it inside a Folgers can in the crawlspace above my room. She threw the lip balm down into the sink so hard it bounced out and into the open toilet.
I pulled away from the door. Brock was reading a Choose Your Own Adventure library book at the kitchen table. He had a mop of curled brown hair that always fell perfectly into place. His blue eyes flitted back and forth as they followed the scene on the page. He was a good-looking kid despite the handfuls of shit life threw at him.
“How about motz sticks and Yoohoos?” I said.
He placed the book on the table. “Where’s Mom goin’?”
“Crazy, like always.”
He dog-eared a page corner and closed the book. I was numb to her absence, but sometimes it bothered me and I’d sit on the porch with the cordless phone. The older I got the less time I spent on the porch. Brock wasn’t numb. Whenever she left, he’d go to bed early. He didn’t want me to see him cry. I didn’t want to either. Brock sat at the couch. He drew his agate from his jean pocket and rolled it between his palms. It was a Lake Superior agate, a banded nugget about the size and shape of a marble shooter and encircled with oranges and reds that met in a cloudy, green center. He found it on the side of the road walking home from school. I asked him if it was lucky. He said it was only a rock. I asked why he always played with it then. He shrugged.
Wild America was playing on the television. I could hear Marty Stouffer drone on about the hunting habits of bald eagles. “I’m not leaving until I know what you want, Brock.”
“Mom is coming back. Right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “sometimes she’s gotta go. You know how she is.”
“Promise. On my agate.” He held it out, perched on his flat hand. I plucked the agate from his palm and brought it to my lips.
“I promise,” I said in a whisper that carried as far as his ears. I sat down next to him. The black vinyl was sliced and worn thin in spots. I picked at some stringy stuffing. On the television an eagle swooped, talons outstretched, grasping at a darting hare. Brock smacked my hand.
“You’re gonna ruin it if you keep picking.”
“It’s garbage, Brock, we just haven’t brought it to the curb yet.”
Mom hollered my name. I went to the bathroom door. Through one of the holes, she held a fifty rolled into a tube. “Do something nice, take care of your brother,” she said.
That was the last time I saw her before Brock died.
~ ~ ~
The jammed ER waiting area squirmed with seated bodies. When the carriage doors spread the sounds of treatment and anguish floated into the room and wove themselves into the knot of my grief. It was everything anyone would expect from this type of place and lots of it, but only one apology and it came from the doctor. I knew it was coming, but it still felt like a blow. He materialized in front of me. I didn’t look up. I picked at the varnish on the chair’s wooden arm where it had begun to flake from the contact of countless sweaty, grasping palms.
I was daydreaming about the time I found a three-pound agate when Brock and I snuck into the Ready-Mix gravel pit off Highway Fifty-Three. I sold that agate to some prick in Two Harbors who tried to lowball me on account of my age. I got enough money to buy Brock his first bike, his only bike. It was a silver Mongoose with black pegs. Before that he used the neighbor’s whenever it was left outside. The doctor must have taken my silence for affirmation because words spilled from his mouth. Words like ‘accident,’ ‘snow plow,’ and ‘hemorrhaging,’ but I was still not fully listening—still picturing Brock’s face open and thrilled when he lit out on that Mongoose for the first time in the dirt alley behind our house, popping wheelies off the pegs. Mom was there to watch. That made it better. For Brock.
I rose from my chair and saw his face. The doctor had gray beginning to creep in at his temples and whispers of crow’s feet. A heavy look hung in his eyes. That look of saying one thing and thinking another.
I couldn’t sort out my emotions, at least not there under the shadow of the doctor. My stomach wrung itself tight. I vomited onto his worn, white Nikes. The acrid smell of bile mixed with the stench of antiseptic and powdered latex blended throughout the waiting area. I went to the head.
Sitting on the toilet, I wiped bile from my chin with toilet paper. Brock was my responsibility. I became his legal guardian after Mom never came home. It wasn’t my fault Duluth had an April snowstorm and the plows were out trying to beat back the snow. It wasn’t my fault Brock fell from his bike at that moment a plow passed. It wasn’t my fault, but I felt it was and sometime that’s enough, enough to put someone on a path. I forced my eyelids back opening my eyes wide as I could. I wanted to cry. To make it real. To show I cared. I was afraid the doctor might not think I cared. I learned you have to put on a show for some people to keep them away. I couldn’t cry. The door to the bathroom squeaked open.
“Look, is there someone we can call?” A twinge of empathy wrapped in the routine resonated in the doctor’s voice. I tossed the toilet paper into the toilet and bent the silver handle down.
“No. It’s just me.” Mom needed to know. I wanted her to know. I was filled too full with sadness for any anger to fit inside me at that moment. She left no way for me to contact her. I didn’t know where she was.
The doctor took me to a small room with a little glass top desk and two chairs. There were paintings of flowers and landscapes and clouds. The light was warm and came from two corner lamps. A silver-haired woman sat in one of the chairs. The room smelled like the same lavender incense Mom burnt to cover up the vinegar smell after she got wrecked. The woman had papers. The last time I signed paperwork concerning Brock, I became his guardian.
The woman and I went over the paperwork. It made things real—a mechanical legitimization, in black ink. She asked me about procurement. I said what? She said his organs. I said it was a heck-of-a-thing to ask of a dead kid. She didn’t ask again. The doctor returned.
“Your brother had this in his pocket.”
I stood and he upturned my right hand with his and pressed Brock’s agate into the thick crease of my palm. Mom—in one of her few, gentle, sober moments— used to call it my lifeline, the crease, not the agate. She said my lifeline was thick, strong, stronger than hers. The agate wasn’t as large as the agate I flipped for Brock’s bike, but a beauty nonetheless. My fist swallowed it. The doctor asked if I wanted to go back and see him. I didn’t.
~ ~ ~
After the funeral, I took the bus to the recruiting office in the Village Square strip mall. From behind his wooden desk, the recruiter leaned forward in his chair.
“That’s a sharp suit. Where you coming from?” The desk was lacquered to a high sheen and one corner held a pewter replica of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. A toilet was running somewhere in the back of the office.
“Funeral.” I stood front and center to his desk.
“Sorry to hear that. Who passed?” His forehead came down along with his high and tight haircut. He must have gotten it cut earlier that day because there were clipped hairs in the well of his ear. I sat down. The toilet still ran.
“Family member,” I said, purposely vague. I didn’t want to have that conversation again. I had it too much over the past two weeks—the pastor, the funeral director, and even the bank teller when I brought in my Folgers can for deposit.
The steady whooshes of toilet water escaping endlessly into a hole made the skin at the base of my skull tighten. I dug my right hand into my pocket, felt for the agate. I ran it between my thumb and forefinger. “Is there something wrong with your toilet?”
“Oh, shit. Yeah. That thing is all jacked up. I’ve gotten so used to it I don’t hardly hear the damn thing anymore.” The recruiter got up and headed toward the back of the office. I heard the toilet handle jingle several times. He came back wearing a big, fake smile. “You must be considering joining my illustrious Corps. What can I tell you about it to help you come to a decision?”
“When can I leave?” That took the sell right out of him. He stood there, hands on the back of his chair, trying to calibrate an appropriate response.
I saved him the trouble. “I know what I want, sir.”
“You don’t gotta call me that. I work for a living. Call me Staff Sergeant.” He bypassed his chair and sat in one next to mine. “How old are you?”
“Twenty in a month.”
“Any criminal history?”
“No, Staff Sergeant.”
“Why do you wanna join?”
I came up with this lie about how serving was in the blood because my dad was a Marine, although I really didn’t know a thing about him. Mom left before I cared enough to ask. “My dad was a Marine. He said I could blow shit up.” I pandered to the lowest common denominator. This man had a quota to meet and I didn’t want to raise more questions than necessary.
“Fuckin-a-right,” the recruiter said.
Three weeks later I was in sunny San Diego covering yellow painted footprints with my own while hollered at by an angry man wearing a green Smokey Bear over what he called his grape. I didn’t know a world like this existed within my own. The Smokeys removed everything personal—my hair, clothes, and the agate. It all went into a rigid, cardboard box that I got back after graduation. Not my hair though, they kept that. The Smokeys allowed one phone call to tell someone who cared enough we made it alive to the recruit depot. I didn’t want to be that person without anyone to call, so I called the theater back home and listened to the show times.
~ ~ ~
Our convoy rolled into the compound under a midday sun. No clouds. Local kids treated the convoy like a parade. Running toward the concertina wire surrounding the compound, they lined up for handouts from the huge, armored Americans who never smiled. At that time, Baghdadi hadn’t felt the war like the rest of Al-Anbar province. Otherwise, the kids would’ve been running away. I imagined they all had parents. It bothered me they’d let their kids near us. I wouldn’t have let Brock near us. Mom would have, probably, if she was around.
Deuce and I dismounted from our Humvee. The ground was throwing the sun back up at us. Under my flak, my cammie blouse was shades darker than my sleeves, my chest a furnace. I opened my flak to liberate the heat. That got the attention of Deuce. “Velcro up, Duluth, don’t let that wire lull you into a sense of safety. Velcro up,” he said.
I closed the gate on my flak. We faced outboard and watched the crowd of kids shake greedy hands. They jabbered and flew middle fingers and other hand gestures taught to them by the Americans who came before us. They looked young by a western measure. It was difficult to calculate the age of an Iraqi kid. They weren’t like American kids. They didn’t eat McDonalds or drink cow’s milk. They didn’t eat American portions. A fourteen-year-old Iraqi could be the size of an American nine-year-old, or even smaller. It was another reason to pity them, or hate them.
The bigger ones kept pushing a scrawny kid back. The kid was a fighter though. He kept making his way to the front. He wore baggy, linen pants threadbare at the knees. He had dark, curly hair broken down the middle by a ribbon of flesh. I thought he was a good-looking kid and he reminded me of Brock. One of the bigger kids gave the smaller one an elbow that laid him out backward. I winced. That tugged something inside of me to action. I sprang forward leveling my rifle in their direction. Everyone speaks the language of violence. Some more fluent than others. They took off leaving the small kid laid out under a cloud of moon dust. I grabbed a hot liter of water from our Humvee. We didn’t have the luxury of cold. Not even warm. Not here.
The kid picked up every bit of himself, which wasn’t much. He couldn’t have weighed more than sixty pounds. We met at the wire. When he moved, the moon dust barely took notice. He held out his right hand halfway inside the throat of barbs that separated us. He was missing his two middle fingers. I placed the water into his deformity. He lit out with his lips peeled back and flashing his teeth for everyone to see.
“Time to mount up, Mother Theresa, you can’t take him with ya,” Deuce said. “They don’t allow trophies no more.” The delivery was complete. Five hours of prep and two for drive time on a delivery that took about five minutes. No half-measures here. Deuce wedged himself back into the shotgun seat and took a pull from the line of the Camelbak he wore over his flak. The convoy headed back on Uranium. Due to the frequency with which we traveled the route, and as vehicle commander, Deuce knew the placement of every scrap of garbage, every vehicle husk, and every boulder. That’s how he knew something was off when he spotted fresh dirt on the side of Uranium.
“That wasn’t there earlier,” Deuce said looking out his window. He pulled the handset of the PRC to his ear and reported it to our platoon commander. The convoy halted. I hated this part. The not knowing. The having to discover. It made my body feel like it was turning inside out. I lived by seconds; otherwise, in the aggregate, the emotional load was too much.
Deuce and I exited the Humvee. We met on his side. The side with the fresh dirt. Before we could check it out, we needed to perform fives and twenty-fives.
“Nut up or shut up time, hard-charger,” Deuce said. Motivation cannot be manufactured. He went one way and I the other. I drew the agate from my pocket and rubbed hoping it would capture some anxiety. It shot out from my slick fingers and landed somewhere in the moon dust. My heart thumped against my ear drums. I slung my rifle and dropped to my knees where I thought it landed.
“Jesus fuck, Duluth. What the hell are you doin’,” Deuce said, about thirty yards away from me now. On my knees, frantic, I swept half-moons into the dust with my flat hands. My throat tightened behind my neck protector. My left pinky hit something that went skittering. It was the agate. I snatched it in my fist and stood.
“It’s okay, Deuce—”
The ground beneath him became a geyser of dirt, gravel, and licks of flame. It blossomed in the long space between seconds fracturing Deuce; a random, violent disassembly. It sounded like a lunch bag bursting in my ear canal. I watched as the pressure closed the distance between us like a giant invisible broom. It swept me over and drew the breath from my chest. Prone, I turned onto my belly and oriented myself against the Humvee. A mist of moon dust, propellant, and Deuce fogged the vicinity. I brought my rifle to bear and faced outboard; sometimes small-arms fire accompanies these attacks. I was taught this. The air tasted sharp, corrosive. I scanned my fields of fire. Nothing. My ears felt wet and hummed like someone held down a digit on a phone inside my head. To my left, Deuce’s Camelback lay torn. Cleared of moon dust by the explosion, the ground rejected the water leaking from the punctures in the bladder. It ran over the ground, dividing itself into thin streams. One stream stopped short of my elbow. It began to pool. I reached over, one hand still on my rifle grip, and placed a finger into the pool. I rubbed it under my eyes. I wasn’t taught this.
~ ~ ~
Back at base, it was a big show between my commanders checking off boxes and the CSH doctors with clipboards. The seats were packed. Command wanted to put me on the next R&R rotation to Doha. To decompress. I pled with my platoon commander to stay. He liked that. He called me a hard-charger. It made me wince. He put the kibosh on Doha, but I had a week of no-duty, no missions. It felt like being grounded, something I hadn’t experienced when forced to be an adult before losing all my baby teeth. Alone between the steel walls of my can, my ruptured ear drums pieced themselves together. I laid on my rack—an aluminum-tubed cot with an isomat for a mattress. My footlocker sat underneath. It contained all my possessions. My whole life fit into that trunk. I didn’t think that was sad though. What was most important I kept on person, or in my head. Not everything important was pleasant. I laid on my rack and pulled the agate from my pocket. I held it between the overhead, fluorescent bulb and my eyes. It lit up orange like the end of an evening cigarette, like it bore a heart of hot light. My ears itched. I rubbed the agate against them then traced it down my jawline. I brought the agate to my mouth, brushed it against my lips. I held it there.
I whispered to it. “You broke my promise.” I bit the agate between my teeth and hissed. I pulled it out, held it over me. I spoke to it. “I did everything you wanted. Everything.” I tossed the agate straight up, over my face. It shrunk. Got bigger. Shrunk. Bigger again. I caught it in my fist. I screamed until my throat hitched and went hoarse.
My voice rang inside the steel walls of that hollow can. I sat up and threw the agate against the steel. It sounded like a gunshot, a ricochet, behavioral shrapnel. It struck the ground and skidded underneath my cot. I dropped my feet to the floor, propped my elbows against my thighs. I was red. My ears were pulsating. If I had hair long enough to grasp, I would’ve pulled every strand and left bloody follicles. I stood, grabbed my rack and struck it against the steel. Over and over and over. Kachink kachink kachink. The legs bent out at right angles. I seethed. My vision narrowed. The footlocker came into focus. I grabbed it by its handles. It was cumbersome and heavy as a tombstone. I swung it forward and back. Back and forward building momentum. I released it against the wall. It broke apart along its seams, splinters of plywood shot from the epicenter. The contents of the footlocker became exposed and scattered along the floor with the broken remains.
I looked at my belongings littered on the floor—a few novels, bootleg DVDs from the bazaar, and Mom’s letters a jumble of beige rectangles spread amongst the mess. There were so many. The return addresses read Alborn, Minnesota; where she grew up. I grabbed one nearest. They were made from cotton. I could see individual fibers; the fanciest envelopes I’d seen. I ran the pads of my fingers over it, felt the fine texture. I brought it to my nose and rubbed the cotton against the bridge. I looked down at the splintered wood of what remained of the footlocker. Then something came out of cold storage; a memory buried so deep in lies and denial that I couldn’t be sure if I was remembering the lie or the truth.
It was in our duplex. Her friends came for money Mom owed them for a jack. She had none. They didn’t like that. A thwacked-out junkie wrapped Brock in a bear hug. They stood inside the door of our room. Mom was in the bathroom wailing behind the door. Another junkie held it shut. From our room, Brock could see a third, sitting on me. I was face down. My arms pinned under his legs. His hands were free—one held an empty, plastic Coke bottle over my bare back and the other danced the flame from a Zippo underneath. Brock watched the Coke bottle disappear onto my flesh under the flame. The stink of chemicals and what smelled like frying sirloin mixed inside my nose. Then Mom’s wailing stopped. I heard something else. From the bathroom; the violent splintering and snapping of wood grain. New holes joined the old ones in the door. I recalled then with clarity that not all those holes were made from outside the bathroom.
The flap glue on the envelope weakened. It opened easy. I was jittery, my hands shook. I told myself it was the adrenalin working itself out, but I knew the truth. The letter was dated six weeks ago. I read. It began with an apology and ended with a number. It felt too good, like someone could have taken the feeling from me and spent it themselves. I didn’t want to read anymore letters.
P. Gordon Beckstrom hails from Alborn, Minnesota. He deployed twice to Iraq as a Marine and currently resides in Florida working as an attorney. Writer of whatever doesn’t escape the clutch of his busy mind, his work has been widely published, reprinted, and anthologized.
I worked on this piece for two years and it went through several iterations before the one now published. Some of it was inspired by real life events I experienced during my first deployment to Iraq where my unit did several missions to Baghdadi. In that town, I met a small Iraqi child. We singled each other out of our respective crowds; his, a group of local children, and mine a grizzled platoon of Jarheads. He watched for me when the Humvees rolled into the police compound in his neighborhood. I’d give him bottles of water and treats. The child and I only knew each other through the barbed concertina wire that separated us. The only contact we made were our hands through that swirl of barbs. I don’t know where he is now, but he has stayed with me a decade later. I hope he does for the next decade too.
What is one thing about you that people assume?
When people see me—my stature and bearing—they assume I’m unapproachable, intimidating. Then if they learn I served as a Marine, they think they have my personality pegged. This couldn’t be further from the truth of who I am. I think people make these assumptions because it’s easier than sorting through the truth. That’s one reason I like writing stories: I show readers unadulterated truth.
What is your spirit animal?
My cat, Annabel. I won the cat lottery with her. Annabel greets me at the door. She wants to sit on or near me, even when I think I don’t want her to (her persistence has a way of whittling away my resistance). She follows me room-to-room and speaks to me in meows, chitters, and chirps; a language that is contextual. Whenever I write she is near, eyes half-closed, slipping me an occasional wink for encouragement like, “you got this, Pete, you got this.” She is near right now as I write. There she goes with the wink. I do have this, Annabel, thanks.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Scissors, because I think of editing when I see them and good writing comes from good editing.