New Work by Elizabeth Eslami
A new story by alumni Elizabeth Eslami (fiction, ’03) appears in The Sun:
YOUR BROTHER sends you letters from Basic Training, where they are making him into someone else.
He is six years younger than you, and, although he’s over six foot now, you think of him still as “the boy.” He takes to the military quickly, memorizing the Soldier’s Creed, believing the army religion that all things can be improved. He eats their food and wakes to their song. Not long ago you sat with him on the school bus on his first day of kindergarten. Now he says he should’ve been born into his combat trousers instead of skin. He’s a patriot, a gunfighter, a warrior.
He speaks a strange tongue, though he hasn’t yet left for Afghanistan: Fire rate. Recoil. Enhanced m16. He has new friends from Texas and South Dakota, places he’s never been to or even thought about. He’s assigned a partner, a “battle buddy,” the second word to soften the first.
Each morning he slips an abridged Bible into the shirt pocket over his heart. When he was a kid, he believed in Kurt Cobain and vampires. But late at night in your family’s trailer, he would kneel on a brown carpet beneath a dusty ceiling fan and say his prayers.
It’s been four months, and he’s posted just one photograph on Facebook. In the picture his hair is shorn down to stubble. He is fresh born. His uniform is crisp. No more huffing. No weed.
For the first time ever he’s standing up straight.
YOU CAN’T TRUST what you don’t understand, and one thing you didn’t understand was those skinny boys in uniform hanging around the sliding glass doors of Walmart and sitting behind folding tables at the tech schools. “If you don’t mind,” they’d say, “we’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your future.”
They came in the spring, when the first flowering pear trees were bursting like clouds. They asked you about your plans, and when you said your plans were to burn a flag while flipping David Petraeus the bird, they asked you about your boyfriend’s plans.
“He’s my little brother, shithead. What makes you think I have a boyfriend?”
The one with the almost-purple face laughed.
You were going to tell them to fuck off, but the boy answered them. He took their shiny brochures and business cards. They shook his hand and offered a solid imitation of respect. A lopsided smile crept across the boy’s face.
THAT SUMMER AT THE MOVIES, the army commercials played before the previews. Troops standing in formation. Between tight shots of the soldiers’ faces, as soft and blank as cotton, there were men and women in camouflage fatigues boarding a helicopter. Rappelling down an icy cliff. Hoisting the American flag.
“What bullshit,” you whispered in his ear.
“You don’t understand. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about something greater than yourself.”
“What’s greater than yourself?” You chomped down on a fistful of popcorn and stared at the jut of his chin. “What else do you have if not yourself?”
“Country.” He said it as if it were the name of some girl he had a crush on, someone he dreamed of walking home after the streetlights turned on along Bucktown Lane.
You couldn’t even ask about college. He was never going to college, any more than you were.
The voice-over meant business: “Strong. Army strong.”
He’s right: you don’t understand. You don’t see the sense in parents giving their children away and getting a flag in return. A giant red-white-and-blue dinner napkin folded into a triangle with sharp corners. Some consolation prize.
THERE ARE RULES for receiving letters in Basic, like in prison. He must do twenty-five push-ups before they’ll hand him the first one. When you forget to use a flag stamp, they yell at him while he does fifteen minutes of squat-thrusts.
From his bunk he listens to the staccato tapping of a woodpecker in a longleaf pine. He takes a mental inventory of the contents of his sack: sleeping bag, tent, helmet, canteen, shovel, bulletproof vest.
The boy doesn’t tell you this, but it’s clear he has convinced himself he is a machine. He feels the euphoria of being dismantled and reconstructed, of becoming part of a platoon. He is more devoted to these recruits than he’s ever been to anyone else, including you, including Mama and Daddy. It’s a devotion that burns up all memory. You are only his sister, a peripheral nothing. Of you he thinks: Go back to Olive Garden and the Startown Cineplex, where you make sense.
You stare at a maroon smudge on one of his letters. Is it food or blood? When you sent him a beer cake it took you four hours to make, they forced him to run six miles after watching his squad leader eat it. The boy wasn’t allowed even a bite.
He says nothing is too bad so far. He adds “so far” to the end of almost every sentence, like a constant flinch. He jokes about getting killed but says he’s having a good time and hopes you are too. You think he must be high. You pretend he’s at extreme summer camp — anything other than what it really is.
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