It was a Friday, not that the day of the week had any relevance in the desert. It only mattered to me because tomorrow was Saturday, and I’d scheduled a Skype call with a girl I was talking to back home. She was in college and perpetually horny, and if things went well, she’d probably show me her tits. I’d been gone for six months, and I hadn’t seen a proper pair of tits since before I left. There was plenty of material on my hard drive, but something about live tits—even six thousand miles away—was worth a hundred gigabytes of porn. If anything was worth fighting for, it was live tits.
I told all this to Washington while we were pulling checkpoint duty, checking IDs against the BOLO list, sweeping vehicles for weapons and signs of vehicle borne IEDs. He sucked his teeth.
“Titties on the computer is titties on the computer. It’s all whatever unless I can get my hands on them.”
Washington was from Harlem and I liked listening to him talk. He had a way of cutting through bullshit, and a tempo that made it sound like he was reciting lyrics from a song. We were both twenty-two, but he seemed to have more wisdom than me.
“I won’t be able to get my hands on them for another month,” I said. A silver sedan, a Peugeot, slowed at the entrance to the checkpoint and I waved it forward, keeping one hand on the handle of the rifle slung across my chest. “I’m afraid I’ll bust a nut in my pants.”
I rapped my knuckles on the driver’s window and he lowered it. He was the only one in the car, which meant we had to do extra checks. Solo drivers were more likely to be suicide bombers. Washington was already moving around the car, inspecting the undercarriage with a mirror on a stick.
“It’s just titties, man,” he said, though I could tell he didn’t believe that. He was just trying to help my nerves.
The driver’s ID was in order and his name wasn’t on our BOLO list, so I showed him a laminated card with “open the trunk” written in Arabic on one side. The other side said “get out of the vehicle,” but we tried not to use that one. He nodded and pulled the lever at his feet. I stepped away from the car, rifle at the ready, while Washington disappeared behind the open hatch. The driver had his hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead. He was sweating. Then again, we all were.
The trunk slammed shut and Washington said, “Clear.” Johnson and Sergeant Montez were in the additional search area behind the orange and white Texas barriers, where we sent the drivers of suspicious cars for further frisking and interrogation. I signaled them with a thumbs up. This guy could go through unmolested.
“Yallah,” I said, and the driver said, “Shukran,” and he drove out of the checkpoint.
“Problem is,” I said, as Washington walked across the pavement towards me, “I haven’t fucked this girl yet. I haven’t fucked anything except my hand in six months.” I shivered for comedic effect.
Washington laughed. It felt good to make him laugh. I unscrewed the cap on one of my canteens and drank. The water was warm and swampy, and I tried not to imagine swallowing whatever invisible film had accumulated inside it over the years. A dot appeared on the horizon, another vehicle heading our way.
“You’re putting a lot of pressure on your dick, Franklin. I promise you one thing: she sure as shit ain’t thinking this much about it.”
The car was close enough to see now, another silver sedan gliding on the shimmering road through the desert, getting bigger and bigger. We stayed quiet during the last few meters of its approach. We want to look square-jawed and intimidating, not chatty.
The Toyota’s bumper stopped a few feet from my shins. I moved to the driver’s side and the man already had his window down. In the car with him were an older woman and two younger girls, all wearing hijab, their faces uncovered. The younger girls were in the backseat, and they were beautiful, so good-looking that it threw me off what I was supposed to be doing. I looked from their faces to the woman in the front seat. If she was their mother, she must have been beautiful once, but the desert took that from her. I’d seen it before. Women in the desert reached a certain age and their skin couldn’t take it anymore. It dried up and cracked. The lines of their faces got deeper, and the light went out of their eyes.
“Mister?” said the man.
I looked at him, then found Washington. He had already finished his sweep and stood on the other side of the car, next to the older woman, waiting. He held his rifle at the low ready.
“ID,” I said.
The man handed it to me, and I compared it to the pictures I’d been given, stealing glances into the backseat all the while. When I handed the card back to the driver, I’d already forgotten his name.
“Yallah,” I said, giving a thumbs up to Montez and Johnson.
The car disappeared out the other side of the checkpoint. Washington and I existed quietly in its absence for a few moments, letting the heat bake through our uniforms and into our skin. Washington spoke up.
“They both could get it.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
Something about our proximity to such beautiful, forbidden things made us reverent, as though we hadn’t just been talking about the girl I was going to screw when I got home on mid-tour leave. It was hard to be reminded so tangibly that there were beautiful things in the world as sand whipped at the skin of my neck and the sun sucked all the water out of my body. When you might die, the idea of a woman was better in the abstract.
It might have been depressing, to have those girls—those little lights in the vast darkness of the war—drive away, might have kept us quiet and thoughtful for the rest of our shift, but the radio crackled to life. Washington and I walked closer to the additional search area so we could hear over the wind and the generators.
“Checkpoint, this is White 4—” Our Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Bonner, was calling down from the command post. “—Be advised, the last ten vehicles through the checkpoint have been silver. I say again, the last ten vehicles through the checkpoint have been silver, over.”
I looked at Washington, then we both looked at Johnson and Sergeant Montez. It was evident in our expressions: none of us knew what to make of the transmission. Montez raised the radio receiver to his mouth and said, “Roger, over,” so Bonner knew we’d acknowledged the message.
“Sarge,” I called over, “you know what Sergeant Bonner is talking about?”
Montez shrugged, his body armor almost reaching his ears. The man barely had a neck.
“I’m sure he’s just looking for patterns in the log. Keep doing your checks,” he said. “I’ll worry about reporting to the CP.”
“Roger, Sarge,” said Washington.
Washington and I moved back to our position at the entrance to the checkpoint. We stood, staring down the road, trying to make sense of what we’d heard.
“Sergeant Bonner might be losing it, man,” said Washington. “Ten silver cars? Who gives a shit?”
I laughed. “He’s reaching. Things are so quiet he doesn’t know what to report. What’s the paint color got to do with anything?”
“Like Haji is out there at the dealership, picking out his VBIEDs. ‘Nah, not the blue one. Lemme get the red joint.’” Washington sucked his teeth. Under his breath, he added, “Dumbass.”
I laughed again, then he broke and started laughing, too. I’d saved the pound cake from my lunch, and I took it out of my cargo pocket now, tearing the plastic package open with my teeth. I offered half of it to Washington, and he accepted. We ate the cake quickly, and afterwards Washington took out a pack of Miami-brand cigarettes from his shoulder pocket. They tasted like shit, but I took one when he extended it to me. The road ahead of us was empty and we smoked, bored and indifferent to the damage we were doing to our health.
“Okay. Fuck, marry, kill,” I said. “Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow.”
Washington groaned. “You can’t include one black girl?”
“It’s the cast of Friends. There were no black girls.”
“Who the fuck watches Friends?”
“Okay, okay. Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and Halle Berry.”
Washington leaned back and cackled into the wretched, hazy sky.
“Why’s that always the first black woman white boys think of?”
“I don’t know man! You pick the girls then.”
I waited, but something had grabbed Washington’s attention. His eyes were hidden behind his dark lenses, but his face was very still, like what he saw disturbed him. I followed the line of his focus to see a vehicle approaching. It had just come into view, still too far to make out many details. I could only see that it was red.
“It’s red,” said Washington, just loud enough for me to hear.
The vehicle got closer. Now I could see that it was a truck.
“It’s red,” I said, shouting over my shoulder to inform Montez and Johnson, because suddenly the color mattered a great deal. My heart began to beat forcefully, thudding against my chest. I was aware of how wet my hands were inside my shooting gloves. I wanted another of Washington’s Miamis to smoke. It would mean something to feel besides fear.
So many questions. I couldn’t decide whether the most pressing one was “Why?” or “How?” Bonner’s transmission, now the red truck. It might have been coincidence, but we didn’t believe in coincidence here. Coincidence was the same guy walking past your perimeter twice in an hour. Maybe that was just the route he had to take, but more likely he was looking for weaknesses in your position. Coincidence was talking with the other guys in the HMMWV about the dog you had growing up, then seeing a dead mutt on the side of the road. Chances are there were going to be wires coming out of its asshole and a bomb in its large intestine.
Washington and I stood on opposite sides of the road, our rifles pointed directly at the approaching car’s windshield. We could see now it was a beater, panels eaten at by rust, the shine of the red paint scorched away to a gritty matte coating. The driver slowed. He brought the car to a halt well short of the designated search area. We waited. Nobody moved. A lone bird passed over us, its shadow magnified ten times on the ground. My shoulders began to burn under the weight of my rifle.
In my peripheral vision, I saw Washington beckon the car forward—two quick waves before regripping the barrel of his rifle. The engine clanked as the driver shifted gear and rolled forward. Now just a few feet away, the man’s face was still obscured, the windshield covered in a film of filth and sand.
Six months. Six months I’d been here, and in that moment I had never hated the enemy more. Why couldn’t they just stand and fight like men? They never gave the guys who got killed a chance, not one chance. It was always tricks. Death was always hiding.
“What the fuck do we do?” I asked Washington.
“Just—” For the first time, I saw the facade of his confidence crack. “Just do the checks, man.”
The driver would not look at me when I approached the truck from the side. I couldn’t tell whether he was shaking from fear or because of the vehicle’s poorly maintained engine. Sweat poured down my forehead. I tried to blink it away when it got close to my eyes, but some got in and my eyes burned.
“ID,” I said, hopeful he couldn’t hear the break in my voice.
He handed me the card, still keeping his eyes to the front. His name wasn’t on my list. That fact did nothing for my nerves. The redness of his vehicle, somehow so significant now, was all I could think about. Why was it red? Why had the last ten been silver?
“Undercarriage is clear,” said Washington. “There’s some shit in the bed. It’s covered by a tarp.”
“Hey,” I said to the man. He kept his gaze straight ahead. I tried again with more force. “Hey.” He finally turned his head, and I could see the fullness of his anger. His jaw was set so tightly I didn’t think he’d be able to open his mouth, even if we’d had the means to talk. He barely blinked, and I could only think how painful it must have been. What sort of fury burned inside him that he would subject his eyes to the heat and dryness simply to make it known to me?
His anger made me angry. I took the instruction card from my pocket and held up the side that said “get out of the vehicle.” He didn’t move.
“Yallah,” I said. I took a step back so he could open the door without hitting me, and so I could raise my rifle to the level of his chest.
The driver set his feet on the dusty road, then sidled a few steps with his back against the truck. I beckoned him forward. He walked towards me as I backed away, until we were standing in the sand on the side of the road. I waved at Montez and Johnson. Johnson came forward and took the man by the arm. He showed the man a card like the one I had, informing him of what was to happen next, then disappeared with him into the additional search area.
I became very aware of my teeth. They seemed to be vibrating, becoming numb. On the road, the truck engine still rumbled. Washington stood a few feet behind it, staring into the cargo bed. I joined him.
A thick canvas tarp covered a mass of shapes, boxes maybe. They could have been anything, but I was sure they were something. No such thing as coincidence. I started forward, reaching out for the edge of the tarp.
“Let me,” said Washington. “You back up.”
“I got it,” I said.
“Nah. What you’ve got is a call with that honey tomorrow. Be a shame to die without seeing those titties first, wouldn't it?”
Few things had made as much sense to me in the past six months. I forced a clipped laugh and raised my hands in surrender. I backed up a few meters, then raised my rifle, as though bullets might save us from a bomb.
Washington took a deep breath and moved forward. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him, admiring his bravery and his selflessness without naming them, for fear of jinxing something. He threw back the tarp, then leapt away from the truck. It took a moment before my brain made sense of what I was seeing.
Ice, long rectangular bricks of it, glittered in the midmorning sun. I saw the ice the way it must have looked to someone who’d never seen the stuff before, instantly aware that it was miraculous. How could a simple tarp keep this delicate substance safe from the sun that beat down on us now? Just as I had the thought, a little river of water flowed to the edge of the truck bed and began dribbling onto the ground.
“Cover it,” I said. “Cover it quick before it melts.”
Washington threw the tarp back over the ice. I was so distracted by concern, by a sudden desire to preserve the ice, that I forgot to feel relief at the absence of a bomb or a stash of weapons.
I jogged to the additional search area, a new energy alive in my limbs. The driver was standing, arms and legs spread wide. Sergeant Montez held the man at gunpoint while Johnson searched his body for hidden weapons.
“It’s ice,” I said.
Montez glanced quickly my way, before looking back at the driver.
“He’s transporting ice in his truck. We’ve got to let him get going or it’ll melt.”
I don’t know what I expected Montez’s reaction to be. I know I hoped he would understand why it was so important to preserve the ice, even if I didn’t have the words to explain it. He kept his attention on the driver.
“Get back to your station, Private. Johnson will bring the subject back when we’ve cleared him. Not before.”
The driver was staring at me. Had he understood any of what was going on? Or had the exchange made him think he was going to die? I tried to shoot him a look, help him understand that I understood. It was hopeless. My sunglasses were too dark. He’d never be able to see what was in my eyes.
I wanted to argue with Montez, but he was my squad leader and that would only end one way. I felt heated from the inside out as I walked back to my post. Washington’s right eyebrow arched above the frame of his sunglasses.
“The fuck was that?” he asked.
“The ice is gonna melt.”
He opened his mouth to talk, but just let out a heavy breath before closing it. Then he said, “It’s covered up. Montez will be done with him soon.”
We waited. No other cars approached, but my anxiety grew every minute. The puddle on the road, dark like blood on the pavement, got bigger.
They found nothing on the driver. I’d known they wouldn’t from the moment I saw the ice. Johnson escorted him back to the truck. The driver moved to the rear of the vehicle and we all backed away, watching as he adjusted the tarp, pulling at the edges, pressing until there was no space for the hot air to infiltrate. He did all this with a blank expression. When he looked at the puddle on the road, his expression didn’t change.
The red truck exited the checkpoint, leaving a dotted line of moisture on the ground in its wake. A minute later, it was as though the water had never been there. I wondered how much farther the driver had to travel. The odds were against him. To shepherd ice on a desert crossing would have been a near-impossible task without our interference.
Washington offered me a cigarette, but I declined. He seemed disappointed.
“What’s the girl’s name?” he asked.
“What girl.” He sucked his teeth. He sucked his teeth a lot. “The girl you’re Skyping with tomorrow, dumbass.”
It took longer than it should have for me to remember. When I said her name, I didn’t even imagine what she’d look like naked.