(This is one of the three stories from The Paris Review that were nominated for a 2008 National Magazine Award in fiction)
The house is just how I thought it would look. Right where I thought it would be. I walked here all the way up Dorset Avenue from the bus stop, sweating like I just ran ten miles, but I should be used to heat. It’s not the heat that’s got me, though. I’m sweating cause I can’t believe I’m actually about to do this. I’m looking at the house now with its white columns, black shutters, and windows with fancy curtains in them and I’m turning the small box with the compass over and over in my pocket, thinking—well, Betty Lu, I see why you didn’t tell your parents. This place looks like it could hold the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family at the same time. Now all I’ve got to do is cross the street, ring the doorbell, and stand at attention. And when his dad opens up the door, step in, sit the old man down, and give him the compass just like Betty Lu said I should do before he died. Simple. Not that simple. How do you tell somebody else’s parents about their son when you can’t even tell your own mom what’s going on in your life? But I can do it though, I keep saying to myself. It’s no different from when we were just busting into people’s houses in Iraq, telling them shit they don’t want to hear like, “America’s in charge now, bitches!” Only we weren’t in charge. That’s why I’m standing here across from this dead man’s house trying to give his parents what I know they don’t want to see. I cross the street and walk right up the flagstone to the front door, ring the doorbell, and then stand at attention with my hat low over my eyes, trying not to shake cause I’m so nervous. Seems like a full five minutes before the chain scratches and the door swings open. It’s a girl who could only be his sister—she has his crazy blue eyes and the same blond hair falling around her face down to her shoulders. She’s a bit shorter than me—which isn’t too short—and she’s wearing boxers and a black stretch tank top that shows just how pudgy she is. She’s got a twenty in her hand like I’m the pizza man or something. I take my cover off real quick and all of a sudden I don’t feel like doing this anymore, but do I have a choice now? She almost drops the phone from between her ear and shoulder, and her lips keep moving, but no words come out of her mouth. I feel real dumb cause I didn’t think about what it must have been like when the death squad came to tell them about Betty Lu. And then for me to come out here, solemn-faced in my uniform. I put it on cause I was thinking if I were dressed like normal—you know these white people—they might not have opened the door. “Come in,” she whispers before I can even introduce myself. “Excuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry to disturb you like this on a Sunday afternoon, but are your parents home?” Some girl on the phone says, “Lyds. Lydia? Babe. I’m late. I’ll call you back.” Then the line cuts. Lydia backs away from me real slow like I’m dangerous or something, so I stay standing just on the doorstep watching how her face looks like someone just pressed some fat onto it. You can tell she didn’t look that way before, cause the way she moves, she’s not used to having all that extra weight. I mean she’s not big big, but she’s bigger than she should be—than she wants to be, at least. “I’m Specialist Andre Wilson,” I say. “I served under your brother in Iraq. I have something to give to your parents. Something your brother wanted me to give to them.” Then real quick she gets all official on me, like a receptionist that always tells you, No, the boss isn’t around or the doctor isn’t in. “My parents won’t be around until next Saturday,” she says, “but I can take whatever it is. I’m sure they’ll be happy to get it.” “Well, ma’am,” I say. “Sorry to trouble you then, but I think I’ll wait for them to come back and maybe I’ll come around next Sunday. I called a couple of times before but . . .” I can’t finish because that’s a bald-faced lie. I wanted to call but I couldn’t. I wanted to call, though. That should count for something. “Well, why don’t you leave your information and I’ll let you know when maybe it’s a good time to come back,” she says, straining real hard to keep her cool. Her hands cross over her chest like she’s embarrassed because she isn’t wearing too much. I take a pen from my pocket and scribble down my name and address on a piece of paper she gives me. “OK, ma’am. Thank you very much. You have a good afternoon.” I take a step back from the door and turn around. I’m kicking myself cause I’m thinking, I should have called first. Should have called. Should have called. As I’m walking down the flagstones again, the pizza man pulls up and gets out of his car with a large pizza. A large pizza just for her? She didn’t look like she was expecting company. It’s funny how it never works out the way you think. I mean, it’s like one moment you’re sitting in the guidance counselor’s office while he’s tapping his pen against his desk like you’re wasting his time and saying, “Well. Hmm. The only option I can really think of for someone with your GPA, Andre, is the army. That’s only if you really want to go to college.” And then the next moment you’re standing in front of somebody’s sister making a fool of yourself like that’s what you were born to do. There’s a lot in between, but most of it still doesn’t make sense. Not wanting to tell your mom that you damn near flunked out of high school, that no college wants you. Sitting down with an army recruiter who’s talking about traveling the world, different cultures, learning skills, infantry, artillery, special forces while he’s fiddling with his buttons like he’s uncomfortable in his uniform. And then telling your mom about how the army is good cause it will help you pay for college. She didn’t say much when I told her except, “But you’re gonna go? Right, baby? You’re gonna get a degree?” Like she didn’t even hear the part about the army. Then there was getting my butt kicked in basic training. Every day shouting, “Huah! Yes, suh!” Shooting. Marching. Shooting and marching all the way to fucking Iraq and all that goddamned sand. That’s where Betty Lu comes in. Second Lieutenant Colin Betford. I met him before I got to Iraq—transferred into his unit while at Fort Hood waiting to ship out. Yeah, Colin was real pretty looking—just like I’m sure his sister was real pretty, until she got all that fat on her. Sandy blond hair, pale blue eyes that used to stare at you like a Gap poster model. Only Colin never got tan like they do. He got real red, and he always smelled of sunblock. Thing about Betty Lu is that all throughout training and even while we were in Iraq, he never raised his voice to yell at any of his men. I mean, he wasn’t soft-spoken, but he sure didn’t like yelling. He let the sergeant do that. And the sarge could yell. Normally—cause it seems the only way to get shit done in the army is if you’re yelling or getting yelled at—someone like Colin would have been fucked to lead a platoon. But he just did everything so much better than everyone else that nobody had the chance to challenge him. We would struggle with runs and he’d be right there with us talking like we hadn’t even run a mile. Betty Lu let the sarge do the yelling and he was the one you went to if you had problems. Can’t remember who said it—probably Morley cause his wise ass was always joking about shit—but anyway someone said, “You know what? It’s like Sarge is the dad, always yelling and shit, and Lieutenant is the mom. You know how women are? They’re always the ones pulling the strings from the back—making you work hard while cooing to you.” Any other platoon leader would’ve gotten all red or something, but Colin just laughed with the rest of us. After that, Morley started calling him Betty Lu cause he said that was a good name for a mom, and everybody kept it up cause Colin didn’t mind as long as we didn’t say it in front of the other officers or his superiors. Betty Lu was real easy like that. I was still pretty much keeping to myself then. They didn’t really pay too much attention to me anyhow, except Morley, who kept trying to get me to say shit. Then one day after we’d been outside at Fort Hood running in the midday heat, Morley looked at me and said, “Andre, you’re about as black as one of the Dobermans I got at home.” I said, “Fuck off, Morley,” but everybody started calling me Dober—even Betty Lu. Isn’t that a bitch. But it wasn’t until Iraq that I really got to know Betty Lu, and even after we were on the ground getting adjusted or whatever, it took about three weeks for the two of us to really start talking. We just didn’t have much to talk about. He was a prep-school white boy—went to a real good college and did ROTC even though he didn’t need the military to pay for his education. I grew up in southeast DC. My life wasn’t anything like his life. Never would have been, except when you’re getting shot at all the time like we were. Shit. You start talking real fast to each other about a lot of things. Even me and Morley—who never left Kansas till he joined the army—could talk. Fucking Betty Lu. I remember we were coming back from this nighttime roundup in a small village just north of Baghdad. Word was insurgents were operating out of there, so the higher-ups sent us to rough some people up—you know, “Put the fear of America’s God in them.” I remember shaking a little bit cause this was the first one, really. I mean, we’d spent some time in Kuwait getting used to the heat, training, receiving orders, but that place isn’t like Iraq. It’s the same desert in both places, but it doesn’t even smell the same. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s true. That night you could smell the sand, the trash burning, sewers flowing into the streets, and the kerosene people use for lanterns and other things. Didn’t smell that way on base in Kuwait. No moon either, so we just came up in that village like the body snatchers—night vision, flashlights, guns out, busting in houses and rounding up men and boys. None of them knew what the hell was happening. They thought they were dreaming. I’ve seen the pictures in the magazines—of us looking all scary and evil. Well, the pictures aren’t half as bad as what it’s really like to see a U.S. Army infantryman standing over your bed in night-vision goggles and holding the barrel of an M4 right between your eyes. I almost shit my pants the first time I had to do it to someone, kept on thinking, What if I fuck up and pull the trigger? Won’t look too good, will it? But try to be nice to these Iraqis and you might get killed. There’s no politeness in war. That shit is for the politicians. The funny thing about that night is we didn’t really find anything—must have been a messed-up informant or something. We did arrest ten people—none of them over thirty—and we found ten old-ass rifles. I remember mumbling to myself as we were rolling back to camp, “This is how people like Amadou Diallo end up shot.” And Betty Lu—I think he just heard me—said, “You’re right, Dober. You’re right,” real soft so Morley and Sarge couldn’t hear it. That was it—I felt like we connected, like we were on the same shit after he said that. Then we just looked at each other right in the whites of our eyes and started cracking up like it was the funniest joke we ever heard, just cracking up and spraying spit all over each other that you could see in the darkness cause the lights of the Humvee behind us caught us like we were criminals or stars in some new movie. Morley and Sarge started laughing too cause they didn’t know what else to do. Soon it was all over the radios, and people were asking, “What’s so funny, huh? Y’all high or what?” Betty Lu got on the radio and said, “You all did good. Let’s bring it in safely, pack up for the night, and get as much sleep as possible. Huah!” I didn’t really sleep that night—or really ever. Couldn’t really. You try it when there’s sand in your butt cheeks, patrols coming in and going out at all times, and all this shit on your mind about what you’re doing. They say it happens to everybody in the first few weeks, that you realize not just you’re in the army but YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW BOY! And you can’t go back. Most people flip out at first cause it’s real hard to take, trying to figure out what it means that you can go into somebody’s house and shoot them and no one’s going to care. Someone will even tell you, “Good job! Go get another one!” like you’re hunting. So yeah, you flip a bit. It’s funny what people start doing, trying to make it seem like normal. I remember this one dude who had a picture of his daughter and a stack of kiddie books by his cot. Every night he’d just look at that picture and read the books aloud softly. He couldn’t read too good so he caught a lot of shit for that. But then you get used to it, just like going to work. Get up. Suit up. Shoot some people or get shot at, and if you’re lucky then you come home and you sleep. The routine makes it OK cause you’re too tired to think most always, except when the order comes to relax a little bit there’s time to mess around, phone home, play cards or PlayStation, or watch whatever movies they got in the rec tent. And that’s my problem now. I don’t have that much time—I’m at the Gap three, sometimes four days a week, but that’s not like being in the army. Half the time I’m standing around staring at all those pastel colors sitting on the shelves and pressing on the laser scanner button like it’s a trigger. I’ve got too much time to think and too much thinking is pretty much the same as no thinking at all. Truth is I’d been by Betty Lu’s house a thousand times in my head before I even saw it, just marching back and forth in front of it with a whole load of what-ifs on my back. It took me so damn long to get over there and make my move. But I guess I made my move today—only my intelligence was all wrong. Should’ve called. Should’ve called. Should’ve called. Lydia calls me on Wednesday—my day off, when I’m sitting at home in front of the TV staring at the local early-morning news cause I can’t sleep. I wasn’t even gonna answer the phone except it woke my mom up. She takes Wednesday off, too, cause she says she can’t go through a whole week out in the suburbs on her knees scrubbing toilets. She’s always saying a woman’s got to have some dignity even if it’s only one day a week. Sunday is for the Lord. I feel bad when she comes down the steps slowly making them creak like they’re as tired as she is, the cordless in her hand and her voice hoarse with sleep, “You know I like to sleep late, Andre. Just one day a week, can I sleep late?” She tosses me the phone, then turns around and grabs her back with one hand while she holds her robe closed with the other, mumbling to herself while she creaks back upstairs. A girl asks, “Is this a bad time? Should I call back later?” Stupid question if you ask me, seeing as she already woke up my mom. “It’s Lydia. You know—Colin’s sister.” “Right. Right,” I say. “Hey, listen. Do you think we can get together today? Maybe for lunch?” I don’t have much else to do today so I say, “Yeah. No doubt. Just tell me where.” “Friendship Heights. Where the movies are? Around two o’clock? Can you get there?” “Yeah. Yeah. I know where it is. I work at the Gap near there. I’ll be there.” Then I hang up and slump back into the couch trying to think what she wants to talk about. The president is on TV walking his dogs to his helicopter. He’s going on vacation again?When I get to Friendship Heights, she isn’t there. It’s so hot even the buses look like they’re struggling, especially with all that exhaust coming out of the tailpipes. The world seems so unreal when you look through it. So unstable. I’m waiting in the shade of the mall, right outside the Saks, and sometimes when someone’s going in or coming out I get some of the AC, but I don’t want to go in there cause they look at you funny. Everybody’s always looked at me funny, even in Iraq. The hajjis looked at me like I was a dragon or something, like they couldn’t understand how I was even living in this world. I didn’t mind it much until one day when we were searching cars, somebody called me a nigger. I didn’t even know what I was thinking before I said, “Well, you’re a motherfucking sand nigger so shut up,” and Morley laughed real hard. That shit made me feel even worse. Lydia pulls up in one of the shiny silver Mercedes that were in front of her house. She looks funny driving the thing, sitting up tight against the wheel like she’s afraid she’s gonna hit something if she even relaxes. When she gets out she smoothes down her skirt and pulls down her top right over the part of her stomach that’s showing. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says. “Just got caught up at home.” She looks to the Italian restaurant across the street. Some folks are sitting on the sidewalk under bright green umbrellas. When we cross, I can see the waiters and waitresses all have dark stains on their white shirts right under their arms, but nobody else seems to care. One of them’s got a square face with a nice goatee. Lydia doesn’t even wait to be seated before she starts trying to talk about it. We’re walking past tables, dodging babies trying to jump from their strollers while their moms talk to each other behind dark sunglasses or underneath golf hats. They’re all too tired to cry, so they just reach out and up, opening and closing their hands like the world owes them something. “So, you grow up around here?” I ask as we sit down. “Yes—well, not really.” She picks up her napkin and puts it on her lap. “New Mexico first. We didn’t move here until I was twelve.” “New Mexico?” I ask, and I’m remembering how it all seemed so easy for Colin—all that sand, all that heat. He complained, but not like Morley or Sarge, who kept cussing, motherfucking hot-ass-stupid-ass-desert, every five minutes. “My dad worked for a defense contractor,” Lydia said. The waiter comes over with his pad and a pen in the same hand. The other hand’s got a pitcher of water that he pours from the side so the ice clinks against the glass and reminds you how you’re so thirsty. He turns around and does the same for the table next to us and I can see he’s got perfect hands, perfect nails—real delicate. “You grew up here?” she asks softly. “Sure did. Twenty years here in DC. Don’t know nowhere else except Iraq. And Germany. But I didn’t see too much of that.” Then she can’t hold out any more. Her cheeks pinch up and her eyes close and then she says, “Andre. This thing you want to give to my parents—can I have it?” “Your brother said I should give it to your mom or your dad. Or both of them. No one else.” “Is it his compass?” “Sure is.” “Well,” she says, holding out that last l like she’s using it to think. Like it’s a diving board she’s bouncing up and down on deciding if she should jump. “I can give it to them.” “Your brother said—” “Look.” She tosses her hair back then slides her sunglasses from her forehead down to her face. “My parents—I don’t know if they can deal with another uniform at the door just yet. When they get back, I can show them. It will be better. It will be easier for everyone—including you.” She sips her water and then coughs cause it goes down the wrong way. Her face turns red starting just behind her ears and then down into her cheeks. She breathes in like she’s drowning. A truck pushes by banging and clacking in the potholes while she’s trying real hard to breathe. It smells like diesel for a moment and I forget about everything except that moment when we were loading up in convoy and the contractors who drive the trucks were idling their engines and sweating in the cabs like they were in a spa. Sarge called Iraq one big, hellish, piece-of-shit spa. Betty Lu always laughed—even if nobody else found it funny. Then the waiter comes back and takes our order. He’s smiling perfect teeth, and his lips look shiny with gloss between his mustache and beard. Lydia points to a salad on the menu cause she can’t speak yet. I didn’t have a chance to look at the menu so I say, “Same thing as her.” He smiles at me, “You sure?” My palm is a little shaky as I hand him the menu and look at him up and down. “Yeah, yeah,” I say. “Give me what she’s got.” He walks off and she’s looking at me looking at him. “Andre,” she says, “I can do it.” “How you know it’s a compass anyway? I never said what it was.” “It’s the only one of his personal items they didn’t return to us. They would have brought that back to us. Unless it got lost.” “I was given instructions. He told me.” “Do you know what’s in it?” she asks. I nod. “Well, so do I. And I don’t want my parents to know. Don’t want them seeing that. Not right now.” She gets quiet and plays with her fork, twisting it so it flashes sunshine in my eyes. She doesn’t look up when the waiter brings our salads and a little bit of bread with oil shining on the top. She doesn’t eat anything either, but I can hear her stomach growling loud as I see the babies’ hands opening and closing and hear their strollers clacking against the ground. I say, “I’m sorry. I made a promise.”“My grandfather gave it to me,” Colin said to me the day it fell from his pocket. We were playing basketball one-on-one. Sweating and cussing—wishing that the tar wasn’t so hot and the ball so flat when we tried to bounce it. His chest was red and shiny from the sunblock. Around the hairs it was redder from too many days in sweaty clothing. I had my shirt on, so I looked like I might as well have jumped in a swimming pool. Even my knuckles were sweating. They had given us some time off cause one of the convoys from our unit hit an IED and not everybody came back OK. I didn’t hardly know them. None of us really did, but it still hurt bad. Nobody wanted to say anything about it. We just did all sorts of stupid things: cards, movies, calling home and writing e-mails. Morley brought out this travel guitar he had, but it was so hot, all the tuning had come loose and he kept plucking it with his grubby-ass fingers even when people kept telling him he sounded like some shit. He damn near started a fight in the tent—everyone was so on edge. You could see it in the arms—the veins solid and throbbing even when we were sitting down. I went outside cause it was better there than inside with all that foolishness. I didn’t have much to do so I just started walking and hydrating, past the mess, past the latrines and the range, which was completely quiet. Everything looked creamy yellow cause of the sun reflecting off the sand. I said to myself, I don’t want to die out here. I was walking and talking to myself, If I have to die, I wanna get shot and I wanna get shot on my block at home so I can fall down in the grass where at least my blood can make something grow. Out here—I would just dry up and blow away. Nothing gained. “You play?” Betty Lu shouted from the court. It was really just part of the lot. Someone had rigged a net up to the back of a container that nobody had moved in forever. It was on top of a long thick pipe a few feet above the metal box. The trouble with balling there—minus the heat—was that if you missed, the ball would get stuck on top of the container and someone would have to scramble up and get it. “A little bit,” I said. “Never really my thing.” He’d already been shooting about for some time—I could see it in the shiny sweat on his chest. “Well, come on Dober. I’ll take you one-on-one.” “Nah, sir. Nah. I ain’t trying to—” “Pussy!” he shouted, half smiling. “I ain’t trying to whup your ass, sir. That ain’t my style.” He tossed me the rock. Hard. I caught it against my chest with one hand but dropped my bottle in the sand. “Let’s go, Dober. I thought you southeast boys could whip a nerdy kid from northwest DC any day.” “In my sleep.” We scrimmaged a little bit, trying to cross each other up, Allen Iversons, through the legs, and all that fancy “and one” stuff, but neither of us took a shot. Then I shot and it went out. “My ball,” he called. I gave it to him at the top of the court—just a line someone had drawn with chalk. He pump-faked and I fell for it. Then he shot. The ball rose up, turning over and over, black and orange. I was squinting against the sun and Betty Lu had his hands up where the ball left them, his head cocked to one side while he whispered, down down down. It rose up and over the hoop and backboard and then landed thunk right on the container. “Fuckin A!” “Ain’t that a bitch?” I whistled. He trotted over to the container, jumped up, and grabbed the edge. “Hey, Dober. Help me up.” I got up under him and pushed on his feet so he could get his knees up on the ledge. Something fell out of his pocket and clanked against the ground next to my foot. I looked down. It was shiny silver but scratched up all over the top. “Damn. I’m on fire up here,” he said. I picked up the thing and started turning it over in my hand when he saw me from the top of the crate. “Hey!” he shouted, and he jumped down snatching it out of my hand before he hit the ground. His face was red, and his eyes moved left to right real quick like we’d just taken sniper fire. My hands stung from the heat. “What? What is it?” Betty Lu’s voice got all proper again. “It’s a compass. My grandfather got it when he served in World War II.” “For real. Your gramps was in World War II?” “Yeah,” he said. I felt like we were in show-and-tell. Then he tucked it back into his BDU pockets right at the hip. He didn’t feel like playing too much after that and later, when I found out, I understood why. When you dodge a bullet once, you’re not trying to get shot at again. We walked on back to Morley and his stupid guitar. It was only a few weeks later that Betty Lu came up to me and said quietly, “I know.” It was the day after another nighttime search—we were doing them all the time now. “Gotta keep these guys guessing as much as they got us guessing,” all the higher-ups said. “It’s the only way.” It sucked so bad. Tired as hell, jittery as hell, popping ephedra to keep awake and busting down doors only to find scared-ass kids. That will mess you up. I remember most the smell. Seems like in every house some little boy peed on himself when we came in. And they were always hiding shit in the same place—in the latrines. AK-47s, grenades, wire—wrapped up careful in plastic and put in the latrine. I swear they were doing it just to fuck with us. Those women may wear veils, but you can tell if someone’s laughing cause of their eyes. The only good part was after a couple of night missions you got time off while another unit took over. Betty Lu came up to me while I was trying to read a People magazine from three weeks back. I had my back up against some wooden boxes and the pages of the magazine spread across my thighs. “What do you know?” I asked. Like I said, we’d become cool since that first night raid—nothing much between us really, but I smiled at him. “Why don’t you ever fuck around with the rest of them when they’re talking about all of that gay stuff?” he asked. I didn’t look up. “Why you asking me all that? I don’t got time for that shit. That’s all. Look like you don’t either.” “Just wondering,” he said. Then he asked, “You’re used to hiding it, aren’t you? That’s why you keep so quiet all the time—always going off to read. You don’t want anybody to know about you.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir. But if you wouldn’t mind, I was trying to—” “You keep it from your parents too? Or you got a girlfriend you don’t want to know?” I was sweating under my armpits real bad and I had that feeling in my chest, like right before the guns start and you wonder where’s it gonna hit. Who’s it gonna hit? What if it’s me? “The fuck are you talking about, sir?” “You left your e-mail open, Dober. I checked mine right after you and you left yours open on the desktop with that nasty message from Kevin or Kermit or whatever the fuck his name is.” I froze. I couldn’t feel if I had shit or pissed myself, or if my head had come off my body. I thought it did cause I couldn’t feel anything below my neck. “Dober. Are you trying to get sent home? Are you trying to fuck up my platoon? You want out?” I shook my head slowly. He got down on one knee in front of me and whispered right in my ear, “Scared the shit out of you, huh?” I nodded slowly. Some drops of my sweat landed right in the middle of the magazine. They wrinkled the page. Betty Lu fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the compass. He clicked it open. On one side behind the silver cover was a black dial with white letters NESW and a red arrow flicking between them. On the other side, tucked behind a thin sheet of plastic, was a picture of Betty Lu with longer curly hair, almost down to his shoulders, kissing another dude with their lips just touching—kissing and smiling but their eyes looking out of the picture like they were afraid somebody was watching. Betty Lu leaned forward and whispered softly, “I know, Dober. I’ve been doing it for years.” Then he leaned back and said, “If I were somebody else—if I were Morley or Sarge or any one of those other fools—you’d be fucked and I’d be fucked cause you’d have fucked up the morale of my men and we’d all be fucked. You understand?” I nodded real slow again. “Don’t fuck up again. Clear?” He squeezed my leg, stood up, and then walked away.I get home before my mom, which means I’ve got to cook, but I’m hardly feeling hungry at all. Plus the kitchen’s so dirty, plates with dinner from last night on them just chilling in the sink, cups and pots, and water right around the sink with bits of food in it. If I want to eat, I’ve got to clean up, and lunch today cleaned me out. No energy left. So I go creaking up the stairs to my room and lie down on the bed, staring at the walls and ceiling. It’s a small room—smaller if you think about the bed and the dresser. It doesn’t look how it used to, though. I took everything down when I got back. First thing I did after dropping my bags was rip all the posters down and put the pictures in boxes. I bought new sheets, light blue ones, yellow ones, and a light purple bedspread. I wanted to paint my walls blue—light blue almost like the summer sky when it’s cooler in the morning, but my mom wouldn’t let me. “You’ve got to rest, Andre,” she said. “Get used to home again.” So I rested and then I got lazy and now my walls are still white and my ceiling is still white and it still has the bulb without the cover in it—throbbing like it’ll pop anytime soon. Took everything off my dresser too; the only things left there are a box with my Purple Heart and the bigger one next to it with Colin’s compass—both closed. It hurts my head to look at them from the bed, but I can’t take my eyes off that small black box they put Colin’s compass in. Black as ever against the white wall behind it like it won’t ever let me forget. Never.When I first came back from the war, I spent all my damn time sitting and thinking, watching the long shadows go by when the sun starts to go down and remembering places and days in the desert when all you’ve got in front of you is your own short, squat outline that can’t even give a rat no shade. Remembering people I’ve seen die, people I killed or thought I did, all like they’re standing right in front of me. It shook me up. I didn’t see anybody, no doctors, nothing. I stopped that once the psychiatrist the army gave me asked if I was gay. I said to her, “If I get one thing out of this shit, it’s gonna be a medal and an honorable discharge.” She said she can’t help me if I don’t trust her. I said, “I trusted the army recruiter and all I got was fucked up. Ain’t see no world, ain’t learn no skills, and all that bullshit they tell you.” My mom told me, “Andre, you can’t go on like that.” She said, “You’ll think yourself to death—ain’t you already been close enough once?” Mom knows what it really is all the time. She said, Get busy. So I started working, just to get a routine: get up, shower, work, home, sleep, and some eating in there too. Most days, it’s the same for me. I wake up, shower, say hi to my mom, go to work, and then come home. Since the summer started, I like to walk as much of the way home as I can. I keep occupied looking at the streets and people’s houses. You know who cares cause they’ve got little flowers in pots or a flag or something that says, I like where I live, and you know who doesn’t cause they leave their trash cans on the sidewalk the whole week even after the truck comes and leaves. And if I walk, when I get home I’m too tired to do anything—can’t cook, can’t clean, can’t think. And I like that. Simple until I opened up my duffle and found that stupid compass in a black box wrapped up in a red bandanna. You don’t even know—felt almost like getting shot again. You just stop and all you feel is that pain. Pain, throbbing like it’s all you are. I unwrapped it real slow, like it was a disease or something toxic. My hands were trembling when it finally started shining and I remembered what it was. I didn’t do anything but cry. Started bawling right there on my knees, my head half in the closet, nose full up with the smell of mothballs and shit. Didn’t even open it—couldn’t bring myself to do that. I tried to hide it from myself, but of course I made a promise. Dumbass me promised and that’s why I got dressed up in my uniform and found out where Colin’s house is. Never do a dead man’s dirty work. If he can’t say it alive—then he can’t say it. You can’t leave shit for wills or diaries. You just can’t say something and not be alive to argue about it. Fuck. It’s all fucked up now. My shit’s all fucked up now—that’s why I’m at home trying to vacuum up the place so it at least looks decent. I’ve been thinking about having to walk up to Betty Lu’s house again, thinking what if it was the other way, him walking up to mine. It’s funny. I took one look around the place—dirty dishes in the sink, dust collecting in the corners—and I could just hear my mom. “You know how them white folks is. You go into one of their homes and they filthy as the world before God. But let there be just one speck of dust on your kitchen counter, one cup in the sink, and they say your home is unclean, that you got a crack house, or that you on welfare.” I know how my hood looks. It’s not bad, but the lawns aren’t always cut and the houses have problems with paint peeling off—couple of homes with boarded-up windows. Different America. A whole other country. “Andre!” “Oh shit!” I shout and damn near trip over the vacuum cleaner and bust my head on the coffee table. There Lydia is, standing in the doorway with the screen door bumping against her back. Her skirt, frilly at the bottom, swings back and forth just above her knees and her stomach folds out a little just under her tank top. I’m not even wearing a shirt—just my sweats. She’s silent and her head’s just shaking from side to side cause she sees me—what Iraq did to me—all the scars on my back from the burns, from the shrapnel. I look like I got whipped good and proper—or like the top of macaroni and cheese you bake in the oven, just after the cheese melts and just before it burns real black, all swirls and dips and crustiness. They spent a lot of time fixing me up in Germany before I even came home. And then it took all kinds of therapy—physical therapists, psychiatrists asking all kinds of stupid questions. The best shit I ever did was quit all that and start working. “Let me just get something on. Come in,” I say, thinking, How’d she find me? As if that matters here. If I could blush I would, but—well, being black means you’re lucky in that regard. I dash up the stairs quick and dive into my closet, tossing out clothes until I find a clean shirt to go over my sweats. I look up and see my dress uniform’s the only thing on a hanger in the back of the closet. Its shoulders are all hunched forward, like it just got punched in the stomach or something. She’s already sunk low in the couch when I get back downstairs and her knees are pressed together with her fingers locked around them. She looks like she’s trying to pull her arms from their sockets the way she’s straining. The flesh of her arms hangs down a bit—it jiggles each time she pulls a bit harder. “You want anything to drink? Soda? Water? Juice?” She shakes her head. “You sure?” In the kitchen I pour two glasses of water, come back out and put them in front of us. We’ve only got the small couch and a coffee table in the living room so I sit next to her, turn a little toward her like we’re dating or something. She leans back and away from me, staring at the lines in her palms like she’s searching for something. “What did you think of him? What did you think of Colin? I mean, he must have trusted you a lot. Why? What did you do?” “I guess—you know it’s all relative out there—who you’re friends with, who you’re close to. A lot of shit isn’t straightforward when you’re out there. You know?” “I don’t know.” “Well, we had a special bond or something. We just understood where we were both coming from.” “Did you love my brother?” she asks real soft and trembling just a bit so her legs knock together right at the knees. Her hands are cupped, facing me like I’m supposed to give her something. But what’ve I got for her besides more pain? She’s trying though—trying hard not to cry—sucking in her cheeks, nostrils in and out flapping like wings, like she’s about to sneeze. She doesn’t look anything like her usual self—round-faced but with that chin, Betty Lu’s chin. I try to look away, but the only thing is her hands. What am I supposed to put in her hands? I look outside. I can see just a bit of pink over the roof of the next house, and I can’t see them but I know the neighbor’s kids are playing ball in the street, bouncing and laughing and sweating in their sneakers cause they’re having fun, not cause they’re scared or angry. And inside, the curtains have lost their glow. All the light in them is gone, but I’m sure they’re still warm, even with the AC. And with each moment I don’t say something she becomes more like a shadow except for her skin where she’s red in spots like somebody shook up a can of fruit punch over a white rug. Betty Lu didn’t tan good either. “Andre?” When I don’t speak she asks: “Do you love Colin? Did you love Colin?” I don’t say anything. “You don’t know? You don’t want to say? Ever since you came by last Sunday, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s made you do this. Why now? He’s been dead ten months. Ten whole months—too long for them to call and say it was all a mistake. And then you show up and you want to kill him again. So if you’re going to, then I want to know why. Did you love him?” “Lydia—I don’t know. We were at war. He was my platoon leader. I don’t even know what to think. Would I have done anything for him? Fuck, yeah! He was my platoon leader. But it’s not like we were thinking the same way about things. Fuck, I don’t even know if I was thinking at all half the time I was out there. You don’t know what you done till after you’ve done it.” “It’s a simple question. You did or you didn’t? You do or you don’t? You don’t need to think about it or have thought about it,” she says. And then she sniffles real soft like she doesn’t want me to hear it. Even if she weren’t making a noise I’d know, cause when someone’s crying next to you even if they ain’t making no noise it’s like they’re screaming and everything around becomes real quiet. I can’t hear the kids running up and down the street, no cars, not even birds. Nothing. I don’t know shit about loving anybody except mom. And even then, sometimes I wonder. Before I left for the war, I met this one dude, Kevon. It wasn’t much of anything—just what it was. We’d go home to his place and sleep in his bed with his arms around me, his knees in the backs of my knees, and his breath blowing down my back. He had a girlfriend. She had braids and perfect lips—plump and curved so they always looked like she was smiling. Never met her, but there were pictures of them all over the apartment. His shiny bald head, mustache, and a sharp goatee next to her lips, dark eyes, and brown braids, both of them smiling. I asked him, “Do you love her?” He didn’t even miss a beat before he said, “Yeah, man.” “Does she love you?” I asked. He stroked my back with his fingertips right from the neck down to where it really tickles. Then he moved away from me and coughed. “Well. She loves the me she knows. And that’s all she needs to love.” “Then why you cheating on her if you love her?” “Because,” he said. “Because. Look you’ll find this out when you get older. Love is only half honesty. The rest is shit made up to make the other person feel good.” So I tell Lydia, “Maybe I did love him. But it’s not what you’re thinking.” Then she lets it all out. She leans on me and starts crying and I can feel the tears run down under my shirt collar and her snot run down my neck. “What makes it so hard for you to just say yes or no? What are you keeping from me?” And each time she takes a deep breath and tries to say something, she squeezes my hand real tight. Real tight and digs her nails in. “It’s OK, Lydia,” I’m saying. “It’s all right,” and rubbing up and down her back with my palms. “Don’t even worry about anything.” “Andre,” she whispers. Her voice cracks up. “If you love him. Do this for him. For me. For my parents. Give me the compass. Please give it to me.” “Shit, Lydia. You know I can’t do that. Colin said I can’t give it to no one but your mom or your dad. He didn’t say you. He said—” “I’ll give it to them. Andre. I’ll do it.” “An order’s an order. A promise is a promise. I promised.” “He’s dead now, Andre. What can he do? When you die the living don’t owe you shit.” Then she holds her breath in real long and squeezes me real hard in her hands. She’s sucking the whole room in and I can’t breathe. Everything feels dry, scratchy—like I’m under the heat of the desert again. “Lydia, I know you won’t give it to them. I known it since the moment you told me what I had. I don’t mean no harm or nothing, but I was asked what I been asked.” “My parents don’t know. They aren’t ready to know. Not yet, Andre. Not now. And not like this.” “And if I give this to you they never will.” “No—I mean, yes. Ah, shit. My father’s not an easy man, Andre. He’s got ways of doing things. You know, ways of how things should be. And my mother doesn’t think anything but what my father thinks. And now that Colin’s gone, she doesn’t know what’s happening in the world anymore. They believe in things that maybe you don’t or I don’t, but they believe that’s how it should be. And that’s the only thing that keeps them right now.” She starts crying again, breathing heavy like an overfilled kettle puffing away. “They love him now. My father’s got a picture of him in his uniform up on the fireplace, smiling. Right next to the flag. He goes into his room every day and looks around. He keeps it super clean, like a shrine. The only reason my mother can sleep at night is cause she knows he’s with God. That’s the only reason. You tell them this and he’s in hell straightaway. Don’t send him to hell.” “Do you love him?” I don’t mean to sound rough, but I do. Like all of a sudden I’m back there searching people, shouting, pushing people into walls. “Fuck you!” she says softly and gets up just like that. She brushes herself down and uses her hands to wipe the makeup from under her eyes. “Lydia. Wait,” I’m begging by the time she reaches the door. “Hold on. Hold on. Let me tell you something.” She starts to open the door but I grab her hand. She snatches it back from me and steps back really quick like I’m about to hurt her and then she looks up at me with those eyes—watery and shining with the light coming in through the window in the door. “You’re all the same in the end,” I hear myself saying. “Hate faggots. Scared of niggers. And people like me, like your brother, get fucked up so you can go on feeling good. You know why he’s dead right now? So that you can have all the shit you have. So you can be who you are. And he can’t be who he is? That ain’t right.” Then I open the door and the light of the evening flows in. It’s not nearly as dark as I thought and when I look at her face, with its black streaks and clumps under her eyes and all of this shine under her nose, I feel bad—like I really did kill someone again. I get real quiet cause she seems so small against the wall like that, like all of them Iraqis did when we were questioning them. Small and weak and only the cement holding them up like they’ve got nothing in their skin to hold them up against all that fear. “I’m sorry,” I say quietly. “Lydia. I’m sorry.” She straightens up and stands right next to me so it’s like I can feel her touching me even though we aren’t touching. And I can feel her breath against my neck and down my chest and I feel weak. “Don’t come to my house again,” she says. “If I see you, I’ll tell your mother all about you. I’ll tell her what you really are.” She clicks down the steps to her car. “Or do you want me to wait until you’re dead?” All I’m thinking is, Look, man, I didn’t ask for this. He came up to me and started this, could have just kept his mouth shut, closed up the e-mail, and been done with it. But no. And now all of this shit. It’s raining. I haven’t moved from the living room since Lydia left. Just sitting on the couch, eyes moving back and forth in the dark, up and down, making a cross of stuff I can see. My mom came back from work and found me, but I pretended to be sleeping—just groaned when she shook me. She creaked up the stairs cause she knows better than to try and move me. The rain started far off in the distance, thundering softly, sounding like someone’s stomach after they ate the wrong shit. But just thunder and silence and maybe a little whisper in the trees. Shit like this don’t feel magical until you haven’t heard it for a long time, until you been out there where it can look like it’s gonna rain, it can smell like it’s gonna rain, and you get all excited like something big is gonna happen. But it doesn’t happen. When we were out there, I always wondered what it would be like to drink rainwater from my helmet, to turn it over when the drops came down and watch them one by one wetting the mesh until it couldn’t hold any more. I wondered what it would taste like—that small black pool—a little sweaty, a little bit salty, a little bit sandy, but something different. Something new. When it got like that—dark and ready—I’d stand outside staring up at the sky waiting, listening to the tents flapping in the wind. Just waiting. All it takes is one drop and the rest will follow. Just one. But it never came. It never came. I’d drink the same old stale filtered shit in my canteen. Hydrating. Hydrating. Hydrating on some military-sanctioned shit—and never feeling no less thirsty. Betty Lu said it best when he found me one day. He never talked bad about stuff cause he never wanted to demoralize anybody, but he had his days. We all did when shit just got to you and you just wanted to roll on home. He said, “Dober, it won’t rain unless the army says it’s OK. So you might as well go on inside and get some rest.” I guess the generals didn’t want no rain. When you get back, it takes a while to understand you don’t have to have official permission to do things. For the first few months I was back, I would ask my mom before I did anything. Can I go to the store? Is it all right with you if I go out tonight? Can I go to the park? Until she told me one night, “Andre, stop all this. Child, you’re a grown man. You can do what you want.” I stand and watch the rain from my front door with my face pressed up against the screen, smelling the wind and water through the mesh, feeling a little spray now and then but mostly just watching the rain go from soft to hard to soft again and then finally it starts drizzling. That’s when it hits me and I run upstairs, snatch the compass off my dresser, and then run outside down the front steps, barefoot, not even caring if the screen door slams. I make right for the gutter where the water’s rushing down to the storm drain at the end of the street. Leaves, grass, sticks, they’re all caught up and carried off. There are some ants too, fat and black and marching along like they don’t even notice the water rushing right by them. And then every few ants, one hits a slick spot, slips, and it’s peace. The whole world is like magic—not too cold, not too hot, and everything is sparkling cause of the drizzle—all the things caught in the streetlight. I put my toes right up against the edge of the gutter and let the water run over them. I stay standing still even when the water makes me shiver. Then I put my left hand in the stream and hold it there while the water splashes up against my wrist and arm. A cigarette butt gets caught up between my thumb and index finger and I start laughing, thinking about myself out here at midnight playing around in the gutter like some overgrown kid. I start thinking about what the cops would do if they found me. Probably think I was a crackhead, cuff me, and throw me in the back of their car while saying shit like, “Kids these days. All strung out. It’s a damn shame. A goddamn shame.” Well, fuck ’em. You don’t act like they want you to and you’re the crazy one—even if they’re wrong. And that’s for you too, Betty Lu. I remember how you looked at me that day you got me into all this trouble in the first place. Came up to me one day after we lost two people. You were scared and trying not to show it but everybody else was visibly shaken. You said, “If I’m doing this for my country, then my country might as well let me talk about fucking guys.” I remember how I didn’t laugh at that. And then how you whispered, “Look, man. I’ve made up my mind that I’m gonna tell my parents about me. Just gotta get home first. But if I don’t. Just do one thing for me. Just give my compass to them. That’s it. You don’t even have to say shit. Just give it right to them.” Then you looked at me like I’m crazy when I say OK, but I don’t ask you to tell my mom anything. Two weeks later you get all blown up and I’m all on fire with broken hands and a broken face thinking, Goddamn it, you motherfucker. You fucking jackass coward-ass motherfucker, while I’m clutching that compass like my life depended on it. I open my fist and let go of the compass, thinking there’s so much water it will get carried right into the storm drain and out to the river where it can’t hurt anybody no more. Keep telling myself—it’d be better that way. It has to be better that way. Dead people can’t get hurt no more, can’t get angry. And if they do, they can’t say nothing about it. So I let go, thinking the current will carry it all away, but shit’s so heavy it sink right to the bottom and I even hear it clink against the concrete. “Shit can survive anything,” Betty Lu said when he took it from me that first time. “Rust. Nuclear fucking bomb. Just do anything to it. It’s gonna be around longer than any of us.” “Ain’t that a bitch,” I hear myself saying, looking at how it just sits there right against the concrete shining with the light, refusing to go. I put my hand in and take it out. “Ain’t that a motherfucking bitch,” I say, half laughing while I wipe off all the water with my hands. A car rolls by slow on the main road and all of the raindrops caught in its lights look like they’re frozen scared, like when some terrible shit is about to happen and time doesn’t just slow down, it stops, and you get caught feeling nothing but pain. I get scared they’ll come down this way so I get up, run across the lawn and into the house. I’m so tired I can’t even make it upstairs. I just fall asleep on the sofa—all shivering wet.I’m actually gonna do this. I can’t believe this. I’ve done all the calculations. First thing in the morning they probably wouldn’t be home. If I waited a week, I probably wouldn’t do it. Besides, Lydia would have told them about me if she hasn’t already. It has to be now. I don’t got much of a choice in the matter. It’s got to be now. Could have been now a week ago, but a week ago I wasn’t operating with the right intelligence. A week ago I went to the cemetery, felt all nostalgic, felt brave and got stupid—then I came here to their house. I’m not saying I’m any smarter now, but then the army never paid anybody to think too much. They’ve got sprinklers on, those spiral things going round and round swirling water out until the stones of the walk are dark and wet. They spit at me as I move up the front walk. Watering rock! Ha! You haven’t seen stupid shit until you come to this country. No gold-paved streets, but might as well be—kills me when I think about it. Shit—America almost killed me for real. I walk up real close to the door cause they have long windows on each side and I’m not trying to get seen by anybody who doesn’t want to see me. I’m praying it isn’t Lydia or her mom that gets the door. I just couldn’t handle looking at Betty Lu’s mom first thing; I keep thinking about what my mom would have done if somebody had told her that I was dead. And I’m just standing there for a minute thinking about that—getting distracted by my mom standing there, hands on her breasts breathing real heavy like the air is cotton. Somewhere in the house I hear footsteps and I think, If not now, and then I press the doorbell. The light inside the plastic goes off, then the noise. Ding but no dong. Just that one note. I step back and get ready, feel for the compass in my pocket, wipe down my forehead with the back of my hand, wipe that on my pants, and get at attention—arms all straight, hands cupped in loose fists with my thumbs straight and feet at forty-five degrees. Nothing like this position when you’re scared out of your mind, don’t think about anything except keeping the form. Betty Lu knew it, kept at us about it when we were in Kuwait, early morning parade formation. Ten-shun! It keeps you in your head, in your body. You know where you are. Lydia opens the door. She’s dressed up like she just come back from someplace nice. Yellow skirt fluttering round her legs, white top but no sleeves. Her arms are red with the sun. For a second I think I see something like a smile on her face, there and then gone real quick, like a cockroach on the counter in the light. I see her dad a few steps behind her and then I can’t see shit cause she comes across my face with the palm of her hand. “Lydia!” her dad shouts. She starts sobbing—the sound comes in right above the ringing in my ears. I start crying cause my head’s spinning and it’s happening all again, face planting in the ground after being thrown up and out the Humvee. I remember it all—watching the ground come up at me, landing right on my face. “Karen! Karen!” he shouts. “Lydia, what’s gotten into you?” Through my one good eye, I see how she’s just slumped up against him crying into his chest, holding her hand out away from his body like she doesn’t know what else it can do. “Are you all right? Young man?” a woman says—Betty Lu’s mom. “Karen. Take her.” “What’s wrong, Peter? What’s happening?” “Can you just take her to the kitchen, Karen? Please! And then can you get some ice?” He breathes in real loud and holds it. Then he touches my shoulder, pulling me upright. “Let me see. Jesus. I don’t know what she’s . . . I don’t know what’s wrong with her.” He’s got soft hands, sweaty palms too. And his shirt is wet where Lydia was crying up against him. Then I see his face. His jaw is round, red, and he’s got large ears. Betty Lu doesn’t really look like him. “Come in. Come in. Please.” He pulls me across the doorway by my upper arm. “Karen. Let me get that ice.” “Sir. I’m all right,” I say. But my face is stinging like a bitch. Lydia doesn’t know what it means for someone to hit me in the face—what it took for them to fix me in Germany—but I follow him in anyway right into the living room, my shoes clop-clopping across the wood floor. “Sit, please. Here, take this.” Betty Lu’s dad puts a cold towel in my hand. I put it up to my face but each one of the cubes is sharp, like someone’s digging into my skin with their nails. Then I sink down into an armchair at one end of the room, right next to pictures of Betty Lu’s family, arranged in perfect staggered lines, his grandparents, his mom and dad, then him and Lydia young and blowing bubbles. My left eye starts to clear up and I can see the flag folded in a triangle right next to a picture of Betty Lu in full dress sitting on the mantel. I don’t feel right in my stomach. And my head feels like it’s full of ants crawling up and down on the inside. He sits down on the footrest right in front of me with his hands on his thighs, back straight, looking like he’s having a hard time swallowing. “Jesus. I’m sorry,” he says. “I just don’t know—” “Sir,” I say, stopping him. “I’m OK. I’m all right. I’m all right.” I reach into my pocket with my free hand, pull out the compass, and set it on the table right next to us. It hits with a clink on the glass. For a second the whole table sounds like it’s just gonna shatter into a million pieces, but it holds. Thank God it holds, and the compass just sits there in the lamplight, steel, shining, black soot in the scratches. No polish job can get that shit out. Betty Lu’s dad leans his head back slow and tips back like he’s almost about to fall off the seat. I want to reach out and grab him, but the ice has numbed my hands. His eyes are open. His mouth is open—just a little—and the lamp’s light shines on the pink of his lips. All of a sudden I want to tell him to close his mouth. I want to reach out and close it for him. No sound comes out, but Lydia is sobbing somewhere in the house and for a moment it feels like he’s the one crying. “Karen!” he finally shouts as his hand goes out for the compass. “Mr. Betford. Sir,” I say. “Mr. Betford.” I take a deep breath and look up at the picture of Colin sitting on the mantel. At all the nice shit they’ve got in this room—books all the way up to the ceiling on one wall, the pictures of the family next to little china figures on the table. A painting of sailboats on the still blue water, sails down, just drifting, the American flag in a triangle pointing out at me. “Mr. Betford. Your son,” I hear myself saying. “Your son . . . Your son . . .” just stuck on stupid saying the same shit over and over again.