Fort Hood, Texas
A month before he is due to ship out to Afghanistan, still wearing his Arab dishdash and skullcap from that morning’s prayers, he stopped at the 7-11 for the usual: hash browns, eggs, a joke with the owner about finding himself a bride. He was the son of Palestinian immigrants. An army psychiatrist, a single father of two who never let anyone enter his Casa Del Norte apartment. Until yesterday. Yesterday, when he went door to door giving away his chair, bookcase, microwave, alarm clock, even vegetables. Yesterday, when he handed every neighbor a copy of the Koran. Yesterday, when he told his landlord that he was shipping out on Friday and not to worry about refunding him the six months paid in advance. Quiet and sensitive, a man who once fainted observing childbirth, who spent months mourning the death of a pet bird. He downed his coffee, returned to the apartment one last time to empty the garbage, and put on his uniform. On the drive over, he thought of his patients. How they woke in the middle of the night, screaming, crying, shouting to no one in particular. How they shrugged off each act as an excess of war. How for the past eight years they had stared at his brown skin, winced at his Muslim references.Three hundred of them, all staring at him as he entered the Soldier Readiness Center. He sat down at a wooden table, bowed his head, and prayed one last time.
In his dreams it was always like this: the sky orange, the grass blue, the Ford Crown Victoria pulling into the Circle K parking lot on a quiet Sunday morning. He looked out the window knowing he could fly, that six was eighteen, that language was meaningless. His destination was just five miles away, at a Safeway supermarket plaza in Casas Adobe. Grinning maniacally, his pale shaved head hidden under a black hoodie, he asked the cabbie whether he remembered every passenger he ever drove. People always remembered him, wherever he went. At the bank, sticking his fingers through a gap in the bulletproof glass and laughing. At his friend’s house, wondering aloud why positive and negative magnets attracted one another. At a standard congressional meet and greet four years ago, asking the congresswoman what the government was if words had no meaning. And now at the Safeway on Oracle Road, as he pulled a $20 bill from a ziploc bag to pay for the $14.25 ride, as they walked inside to make change, as he left a 75 cent tip and shook the cabbie’s hand. In his dreams it was always like this: the sky orange, the grass blue, the congresswoman waiting for him at a plastic table outside the La Toscana Village mall.
Had the school administrator been in that day, he would have taught her a thing or two about this country. America: where you could pass unassumingly in your nice neat clothes as they evicted you from your crumbling Virginia apartment. America: where you could fall $23,000 in debt and still gamble away your father’s savings on a nursing school scam. America: where your bother could slam his Toyota into a boulder at 70 miles per hour, torturing your mother a world away until she died too, less than a year later. America: where they could make fun of your immigrant accent, your Korean name, your desire to reinvent yourself at 43. America: where you could bag groceries in the day, cook dinner for your elderly father in the evening, and still sleep in the glittering shadow of San Francisco. Walking into the classroom, stomping over the blue carpet, he would teach the students instead that this, this was America.
He walked into the Century 16 theater alone just before midnight, orange hairs peeking out from his black skullcap. Just last month, he had withdrawn from a doctoral program in neuropsychology. A flunk-out. He was a California native, a Lutheran who occasionally hired prostitutes and posted photos of himself to online dating sites. Dressed in dark pants and a light-colored shirt, he held the theater door open for two others behind him. At the ticket counter, he scanned his phone to retrieve the movie ticket, but the screen beeped. Technical error. He scanned it again, handed it to the ticket collector, and walked to the concession stand towards the rear of the lobby. He would not buy anything. But in the early hours of that humid Colorado night, staring at the golden popcorn in its glowing glass box, the plastic Coca-Cola bottles lined in neat rows like toy soldiers, the individual packages of candy whose names and prices blinked down from the display screen, he spent several minutes contemplating the choices arranged so carefully before him.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin
As he pulled into the temple parking lot, his thoughts returned to his time in the army. It was there that he learned to repair the Hawk missile system, to march in a straight line, to keep his uniform pressed and clean. There at Fort Bragg, where he watched two paratroopers from the 82nd airborne division murder a black man and woman. There in Fayetteville, where he was demoted and discharged for drunkenness. Here in Oak Creek now, staring at his pale shaved head in the rearview mirror of the red SUV that August morning, as the children hurried to their religious classes, the women prepared the communal meal, and the men kneeled their turbaned heads in prayer, it seemed a world away.
For the past few months, they had hardly spoken. He sent her emails, never left his room, gripped doorknobs through tissues, washed his hands and socks 20 times a day. Three loads of laundry exchanged for four shots to the head. Now he left her in bed at 36 Yogananda and climbed into the Honda Civic. He wore dark clothing, an olive green utility vest, sunglasses, and black boots. Put in yellow ear plugs to block out the syllables whispered wherever he went, like a mysterious fog that never lifted: Sensory-integration disorder. Celexa. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Szhizophrenia. Asperger’s Syndrome. Onto Berkshire, less than four miles away, where he circled the high school parking lot, saw cops, and left. Onto Riverside Road, then a right at the volunteer firehouse on Dickinson. He passed the welcome visitors sign, looped around the lot, then stopped against the vertical yellow lines of the fire lane. He parked with the passenger’s side facing the brick wall of the main entrance, a set of heavy glass double doors through which he could see beige carpet, a wooden table stacked with glossy magazines, hard-backed chairs with plush aqua cushions. Four miles and four minutes past with forty feet to go. He left the car doors open and stepped onto the asphalt. Over the intercoms that December morning, as the teachers flicked off the monitors and the students shuffled in their desks, between the monotone of morning announcements and the shrill ringing of shots muffled through the loudspeaker, a momentary hiss of static.
He heard them whispering as he parked the rented blue Toyota Prius outside the Navy Yard. Ever since he watched the two towers crumble before his eyes that raw September morning, they had followed him. Chasing him through hotel rooms, speaking to him through the walls and ceilings, tormenting his sleepless body with microwave vibrations that no pill could deaden. He had tried to quiet them before. Once with four bullets through the tires of a Honda Accord. Another time with a single shot through the ceiling of his Fort Worth apartment. Occasionally with meditation at a Buddhist temple. They grew louder as he crossed Lot 28, as he swiped his badge at the door to Building 197, as he rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and tiptoed across the hallway twelve years and five days after the initial trauma. The noise, as he unzipped his backpack in the mens’ room, feeling the cool metal of the hidden gun against his palms, was deafening. Then silence.
Emily Greenberg is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Her fiction has previously appeared in The Copperfield Review, Rainy Day Literary Journal, Kitsch Magazine, and Ink Magazine, and her artwork has been exhibited or is forthcoming at Phoenix Gallery, New York, NY; Smack Mellon and BRIC, both Brooklyn, NY; ARC Gallery, Chicago, IL; Intermedia Arts, Minneapolis, MN; and elsewhere. “Public Privacy Hotline,” an interactive public artwork about surveillance, was recently installed in Somerville, MA. Find out more at emilygreenberg.net.