Jon Chopan is from Rochester, New York. Sometimes he works for C & R Construction. Sometimes he doesn’t.
I’d just laid down for my first nap in forty-eight hours when another firefight broke out. We were living in a civilian home, a one-room flat, that the Marine Corps was renting from an Iraqi citizen.
Bodi was next to me, on his hands and knees, blood on his fingers, his white T-shirt covered in dirt, a pair of cooking tongs hanging out of his pocket. He was smoking a cigarette.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“Styza’s been shot.” Bodi sat down, pulling the tongs from his pocket.
“Is he dead?”
“No, just blind is all.”
I sat up, saw Styza laid out on the floor. He wasn’t making any noise. “He looks dead,” I said.
“I’m fine,” Styza said. “But I can’t see shit.”
Bodi slid forward, leaned towards Styza’s face with the oversized tweezers. “This is gonna hurt,” he said.
One week before this our medic had been killed by an IED, and now Bodi, a community college dropout, the only one among us to have taken any science since high school, was playing doctor until the new guy arrived. He insisted we call him Doc. “I’ve earned it,” he said with a smile.
Just then the firefight ended, as they so often did, without reason or redress. The rest of our fire team sat around in a circle staring at the grotesque scene before us.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Idiot stuck his head out the window and caught one between the eyes,” Camacho said.
Bodi stared into Styza’s face. He ran his forearm over his own sweaty forehead. “Fuck,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” Styza said.
“I can’t do it, man,” Bodi said. “I can’t pull the thing out.”
“Just do it, pussy,” Styza said.
I was confused. “You aren’t trying to remove that thing, are you?”
“It was his idea,” Camacho said, pointing at Styza.
“I’d do it myself,” Styza said, “but my arms are numb.”
On the other side of Styza a whole set of medical devices and products had been spread out. There was gauze and rubbing alcohol and scissors, tubes of morphine, two or three of them uncapped and ready to go.
“You got a better idea?” Styza said.
“Did you give him morphine?” I asked Bodi.
“Not yet, I didn’t know how much he needed.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Styza said.
“That’s a good sign,” Camacho said.
Bodi handed me the tongs, reached over Styza and grabbed a wad of gauze. “You pull it out,” he said, “I’ll stop the bleeding.”
“I’m not touching him,” I said.
Styza said, “Somebody better do something. One of you assholes better do something.”
“Not me,” Camacho said.
“Well, I’m not,” Bodi said.
Styza held his hand up, weakly, “Somebody light me a cigarette.”
“I’m on that,” Camacho said.
“We could draw straws?” Bodi offered.
“Should we drive him to the nearest post?” I said, “Let their Doc handle it?”
“Sure,” Camacho said, “If Doctor Bodi don’t mind calling for a consultation.”
“What do you think?” I said.
“Okay, I guess,” Bodi said.
“We’ll tell him you done all you could,” I said, trying to reassure him, “we’ll tell him you recommend removing the bullet.”
I stood over Styza for the first time. The bullet looked like the ass of a worm stuck in a rotting apple. No one was especially fond of the guy, but none of us wanted him to die either. I grabbed his arms and Bodi stood, grabbing his feet.
We laid Styza across the backseat of the Humvee and the three of us, Styza, and Bodi, and I, took off.
A few weeks before this Styza had shot a civilian, and ever since we’d been coming under fire daily. We blamed him for the suffering we endured, Bodi especially, because they’d never gotten along. Styza picked on him, called him names, belittled Bodi every chance he got. For some reason, a reason only Styza knew, he hated Bodi from the first time they met.
We zoomed forward down a dusty road that ran along the Euphrates. I did my best to hit every pothole I could.
Bodi picked up the radio and said, “Breaker, breaker, one, nine.”
“What are you trying to do?” I asked.
“Alpha, Beta, Omega. This is Tango, Tango, Tango. Over.” Styza stretched across the backseat moaning as if he were a child trying to get someone’s attention.
Bodi played with the dials on the radio, and then there was the faint sound of static like fireworks fizzling out in the sky.
“How you holding up back there?” I asked Styza.
“I think my vision is coming back,” he said, wiggling his fingers in front of his face.
Before us stood a long stretch of flat land that looked like the carcass of an abandoned lake. It was as if God had sucked every ounce of juice from the earth. The sand was sawdust. The heat seeped from the earth in waves. We moved forward but nothing came closer.
There were buzzards circling high in the air above us, and below there were dead things waiting to be eaten. Bodi put the radio down and pulled a pack of Marlboro’s from one of his pockets. He held a cigarette in one hand and let the other dip in and out of the breeze. He seemed happy to be there.
“We might win a medal for this,” he said.
“I doubt that,” I said.
I could hear Styza mumbling something beneath his breath, which gave me comfort, because the kid was never quiet, and I was certain that the only way anyone would ever be sure he was dead was if he shut his mouth.
“You’d nominate us for a medal, wouldn’t you?”
“Why are you asking me?” I said.
“I’m asking him,” Bodi said, gesturing with his cigarette towards Styza.
Suddenly Styza sat up, pressing his head between us. “I got it,” he said.
“Fuck,” Bodi said.
Blood was running down Styza’s face and getting on everything.
Bodi looked at me, and I could see that he’d gone white. “What’d you do that for?”
“It feels better, I think. My eyes are working again. I can see light. It’s not all dark like it was before.”
“Fuck,” Bodi said.
“Calm down,” I said.
“He’s gonna die now for sure.”
“He’s not gonna die,” I said, but there was a lot of blood and Styza had already fallen back, slumped against the seats.
Bodi’s idea, about winning those medals, had gotten stuck in my head. The Marine Corps loved to shower people with awards for all the regular shit, common valor they’d called it. But this was something different, something bigger somehow.
“Don’t die until we get there,” I told Styza. “At least you could do us that one favor.”
Bodi said, “He doesn’t look so hot.”
But Styza survived, though he never regained his vision, and Bodi and I did receive medals for valor, Bronze Stars. Of course, we didn’t know any of that yet.
Bodi looked back at Styza, who was passed out and bleeding everywhere, and then turned and looked at me. “I think I’m gonna be a doctor,” he said. “Someday.”
There we were in the cradle of civilization. If I believed in God I might have thought that there was something profound about what was happening to us. I might have thought that this was some sign about justice and karma and the failed war effort. But I didn’t. There’d been war in that part of the world for centuries, and any hope for peace had been abandoned. No one was waiting for a savior. No one had any illusions about salvation.