He paid for his fried rice and spring rolls with a twenty, tipped a dollar, went back to his motel room. The key card reader flashed green, beeped. Guvinda stepped in and snapped the deadbolt home. With the light off he parted the curtain half an inch and peeked out the window. Nothing.
“Dead town,” he said, saw the white Monte Carlo in the parking lot, left the light off, switched on the TV, channel surfed, looking for something vapid. End credits of Deadliest Catch, one of those Yankee deer hunting shows on next. His phone charger was plugged into the socket in the base of the lamp and his phone was plugged into the charger. Next to the bed sat his duffel bag, unzipped, shaving kit open on top, plastic grocery bag full of dirty socks and underwear next to the duffel bag. He used whatever needed using then it went back in the duffel.
Guvinda looked around at the motel room, felt pent up, hemmed in, dropped and did forty push-ups, stood, did a whole lot of burpees, sat on the floor and did as many Russian twists as he could until his abs burned, got up and pulled the desk chair over, did some tricep dips and that’s when the shoulder started hurting—
—from his platoon’s forward operating base, tendrils of campfire smoke had been visible intermittently on successive nights, rising from crevices in the ridge they’d been patrolling since the FOB was established. Their mission was to locate insurgents in the area who maintained control and command networks in the Baghran valley. A road followed a wadi and forked away on the side of the ridge facing their FOB. The wadi continued behind the ridge, tracing out a narrow valley. The other squad was tasked with disabling IEDs along the road where burnt-out husks of Toyota Hilux pickups lay mangled in moondust. Guvinda’s squad split off in their Humvee and advanced along the wadi behind the ridge. If there were machine gun emplacements in the area, as they suspected, and if they could get Taliban fighters to engage, they would plot target reference points and call in artillery with grid locations. As they proceeded, the low rectilinear edges of a qalat sharpened in front of a ragged slope. It seemed abandoned. Guvinda dismounted, didn’t bother with NVGs. The moon waxed gibbous, provided adequate light. Their turret gunner, Cornell, covered him with the .50 cal as Guvinda walked toward the building. No door, no windowglass intact. Could be a supply depot, could be insurgents sleeping there. Within the dark recess of a threshold he saw a muzzle flash, then the crack of a Dragunov’s report. He stumbled, looked at his arm hanging there, sleeve wet with blood. Cornell shredded the qalat with the .50 cal. Another crack and his head rang like a cathedral bell and all was dark void and the ringing was the Chinook turbine as he lay on a litter at the casualty collection point in a cloud of dust whipped up by the back rotor, specks of dirt stinging his face as medics carried him into the back hatch that led to Landstuhl, Germany, and the specks of dirt were cold needles of water as he stood in the shower still wearing his track pants and gray-green digital camouflage t-shirt with a crest that said FACTA NON VERBA, no memory of how he got there, let the icy shower jet punch his bad shoulder. The sniper round shattered the humeral head and exited the scapula. The other round just clipped his helmet. But the surgeon at Landstuhl put him back together again. A nurse brought him the best lemon cake he ever had. It could have been worse. Bad shoulder wounds sometimes resulted in amputation. He wore the external fixator for three months. Physiotherapy lasted a year. By then bin Laden was dead. Guvinda was never re-deployed.
A woman served him at Link’s. She was masked up, in her early-thirties, had a husky build and a sweet disposition. What face he could see was pretty.
Guvinda ordered the ribeye, medium rare, add fried onions, add garlic prawns, with a side of mash potatoes, gravy, Caesar salad as an afterthought.
“Can I bring you anything to drink?”
“A pint of lager and a shot of Jameson.”
“Boilermaker,” she nodded.
“That’s correct.” Guvinda didn’t say please or thank you but he used his gentle voice. As she walked away he rotated the shoulder that would only ever hurt.
A table along the banquette ordered shots. Three men, one woman, all in their mid- to late-forties, raucous and ribald, one of them especially loud and self-important, who wore his hat low and cocked to one side as if that said something. He had a black beard and horse lips and a gigantic nose, was a bit taller than Guvinda, slightly thinner.
“Trouble with the Federales in Cancun,” he boasted, his table laughing on cue.
“You forget more than you remember,” the woman said.
“That Federale smacked my wife’s ass, so I fucked him up. I don’t give a fuck.” His booming voice made him the focal point of his table and established him as the pub’s center of gravity.
“What were you doin when I called you last night? I was here,” he told his buddy, who told their female friend about his previous automobile: “That thing had a nasty system in it.”
“Hey! Where were you? Pullin yer pecker, er what?”
“I was at church.”
“As if. Be straight with me. Don’t be frustratin me.”
Guvinda called over to the loud, aggressive one: “Hey.”
“What,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be rude—”
“Well shut yer mouth and fuck off,” the guy said. Guvinda nodded, pretended to be timid. The server brought the boilermaker over, looking warily at the other table.
“What time is it? Time!”
“It’s eight o’clock.”
“Holy shit. Eight? I thought it was fuckin midnight. He hammered on the table. “Shots!”
“Ma’am, can we have another order of shots,” seconded the woman.
Guvinda didn’t know what the music was, couldn’t recognize the song or the band. It sounded like some late-era Metallica rip off.
“We were down in Corpus Crispy Texas hangin with the Bandidos.”
“Corpus Christi,” his buddy corrected. Guvinda couldn’t have said what his buddy looked like or what he wore. His crosshairs were on the belligerent one they were calling Mike.
“Fuck. I know. It’s a joke. I know,” Mike growled. “Don’t frustrate me.”
“Excuse me, bartendress,” the woman called.
“Shots!” Mike barked.
“Four,” added the woman.
The server was busy with another table. After finishing with them she went to the pass and ran Guvinda’s food. It was a big oval platter of good. He politely asked the server for some HP sauce and another boilermaker. She brought these over along with four more shots coloured acid green.
Guvinda cut the steak and tried it. Not bad at all. He faced the man and chewed with the serene visage of Buddha, felt the protein metabolizing, tried a prawn, sucked the butter off thumb and forefinger. Also delicious.
“Keep lookin ya fuckin homo and see what happens,” Mike said to Guvinda.
More calls for shots. Talk around the table about shit government weed.
“Cutting back!?” Mike shouted at one of the other men. “Cutting back so you can smoke everyone else’s dope.”
“Shut the fuck up or I’ll hand your ass to you—” And then Mike’s interlocutor muttered something Guvinda didn’t hear.
“Say that again bro.”
“Say it again.”
“I’m stoppin you right now. Don’t fuckin say that to me. Fear and common sense. What the fuck are you talking about?”
“You don’t have to prove yourself with us,” insisted his buddy.
“I got nothin to prove a hundred percent. But don’t go there, bro. Don’t talk shit to me. It was a war. I watched friends die. Don’t ever say that: Fear and common sense.”
“An outsider doesn’t know what that means, Mike,” the woman added.
“I don’t care about no fuckin outsider. It’s us! Right now! Don’t ever say that. My bros died and I killed guys cuz my bros died!”
“Excuse me,” Guvinda said.
Mike looked over at Guvinda like so much vermin. “Didn’t I tell you to shut the fuck up and fuck off?”
“There’s other people dining, trying to eat a meal.”
“Go eat at home then.” The guy dismissed him with a snide tone Guvinda had not heard since Drill Sergeant Frost at Basic. He dipped a piece of steak in a dollop of HP, chewed, stared.
“Keep gawkin at me and I’ll knock yer fuckin teeth out bro!”
Guvinda chuckled as he stabbed at the caesar salad.
Mike turned back to the offender at his table: “What I got into the last ten years is between me and God amigo.”
“Sorry, forget it.”
“I’m not cool with that bro. I went to war!” Then he went to the restroom.
Guvinda polished off his meal. When Mike came back he eyed Guvinda: “Mind yer business, eat yer food, and fuck off.”
“Chill out, Mike,” the woman said.
“This is me. This is the real. I call it, umm, true-true. Got it? This is what you get when you spend the day with me. It was a Biker. War.”
All that was left on the oval were a few pieces of gristle and the prawn tails. He put back the whiskey and chased it with half a pint of ice cold beer, cleared his throat, said: “You never went to war.”
Mike’s head swivelled over in disbelief: “What the fuck did you say?”
“You never went to any war.”
Mike sprang up from his chair and swaggered tipsily over to Guvinda’s table.
“I rode a Harley for ten years in the Hell’s Angels. That was the life I lived!” He poked himself in the chest with each syllable. Saliva droplets hit Guvinda’s face.
“You never went to war.”
“Well let’s go outside right fuckin now and fuckin see!”
“Okay, meet me outside. I just have to pay my tab.”
“Rock and roll. You’re gonna spit Chiclets motherfucker. I feel sorry for you. I’ll go easy, though, won’t kick you when yer bleedin on the ground.” Mike sauntered underneath the mistletoe and went outside. Guvinda peeked through the window at his adversary in the parking lot, rocking his head back and forth, doing some kind of bobbleheaded neck stretch, and then shadow boxing. He walked up to the bar, laid down four twenties and asked the server for the taxi number, called. They’d be five or ten minutes. Plenty of time.
“I’ll let you have first punch,” Guvinda said outside in the parking lot. “That’s your Christmas present.”
Mike threw a haymaker that went way wide. Guvinda stepped aside, opponent lunging at him. This was easily parried and Guvinda chopped him in the windpipe, poked his eyeballs, not to hurt, but to provoke. Another right, more accurate. Guvinda ducked, smashed his elbow into Mike’s jaw, crushed his palm heel into that big schnozz. Blood cascaded down Mike’s face and shirt front as he flailed around. Guvinda slipped behind and leg swept him to the pavement and dragged him by the collar snuffling and gagging round back to the dumpsters where the dishwasher sat on a milkcrate vaping. He pressed his bootsole into Mike’s cheek and pushed the beaten face into the frozen piss, dirty snow, cigarette butts and wilted vegetable scraps.
“You didn’t fight any war,” he said quietly, glanced at the dishwasher, who, unsurprised, regarded the one on the ground, blew out a great meditative mass of sweet nicotine vapor.
The cab waited as Guvinda walked around to the front. He got in.
He almost said The Stagecoach, then told the driver: “Just cruise me over to The Pomeroy.”
“It’s a ten dollar flat rate.”
The driver didn’t leave until he got it.
— Dustin Cole is the author of the novel Notice (Nightwood Editions) and the poetry chapbook Dream Peripheries (General Delivery), as well as the unpublished Run the Bead, from which this story is excerpted. He has also contributed writing to APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Maximus Magazine, The Crank, Rango Tango, Version (9), Expat, Safety Propaganda, BC BookWorld, Heavy Feather Review and the British Columbia Review.