Friday, August 24, 2012

why we say 'you' instead of 'thou'

'you' was originally a plural pronoun; the ordinary singular pronoun was 'thou' or 'thee.' but to show greater respect to another person, the plural 'you' was often used in 17th century England. Quakers, as a radical sect opposed to 'worldly forms' such as honorifics, rejected status distinctions in their 'plain speech.' in their view, all were equal before God, and so such distinctions were false. the fact that they raised the ire of non-Quakers was accepted as part of the suffering necessary to prove that one was following the Truth for the right reasons (ie, not to curry favor with other people). one ultimate result of Quakers insisting on the familiar 'thou' was many non-Quakers, in order to distance themselves from the sect, insisting on using 'you' exclusively.

in utah, july/august 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

eating 40 year old dreams

as the move approaches -- 3 weeks to go until we are out of my parent's house -- strange situations arise. my parents have stored emergency food supplies ever since i was little, some of it unchanged: large cans of dried peaches or potato flakes or margarine. they have no intention of lugging this 40 plus year old food to Utah, so we have begun eating it. yesterday i opened a large can of 'baco dices' -- bacon bits made of soy protein. there was a soft 'whish' of decompression as the can opener bit into the metal, and crisp, reddish, gravelly bits appeared. delicious! what an amazing sensation: eating something produced 40 or more years ago. even stranger was eating apple bits, soaked in water. to think that decades ago, this very fragment was part of a real apple hanging on a tree somewhere! the cheery advertising language on the cans reveals the old optimism about science and guaranteed progress of decades ago. 'life insurance in a can,' 'fresh taste,' etc. there was a kind of amazed bedazzlement, as if imagining that the country's rising wealth were solely due to an automatic bounty of science that would inevitably spread throughout the whole world: a utopian vision that know-how could surpass any natural limit. so the right technology could allow potatoes and margarine to taste the same today and 50 years from now: no old fashioned 'time' could get around american expertise, no worries about 'freshness' need trouble the house wife. food could be made impervious to time. timeless. in a way i guess such cans were one small example of the way science, manifested in consumer products, became metaphors for modern civilization as a utopia without limits of time and space. we still regard science with amazement. but with the decline of the american empire, and the degradation of the earth, we are well aware that science is not a panacea. in fact, science can be a destroyer, if harnessed to political and economic forces bent on short-term gain only. my wife will not eat the mashed potatoes with bacon bits. being chinese, she does not regard these products with amazement, but rather as bizarre and unnatural. for her, freshness is the chief guarantee of both flavor and healthfulness in food. for her food is a metaphor for a whole other set of ideas and emotions. she does not relate to that youthful exuberance of the 50s and 60s. she simply asks, 'why?' and she is right. what is the point of using science to divorce people from fresh, natural food and divorcing food itself from ordinary human contexts like cooking? where is the deeper value in it? and what sort of society is envisioned behind this odd product? while i agree with her, i can access that utopian wonderment of the previous generation. i can admit the project of freeze-drying food is odd -- but i can also enjoy crunching into those unnaturally red bacon bits.

Friday, May 4, 2012

sneering at 'hippies'

a couple of students in my undergrad anthropology classes have made sneering references to 'hippies' or 'dirty hippies.' i wonder what is behind this contempt. first, do the people referred to in this way also refer to themselves as 'hippies'? or is the term merely meant to smear those so designated? i wonder at the roots of this contempt. why is a group so intentionally and deliberately harmless nonetheless so hated by some? is this harmlessness and sense of openness threatening to those who adhere to another definition of what 'american' identity entails? is lacking a defensive, security-oriented attitude taken to be a betrayal of american values? a couple of nights ago, a young man walked down wall street in madison, carrying a couple of sticks of lit incense and loudly reciting something -- song lyrics, maybe -- to the silent house fronts. he perfumed the air as he walked. seeing me and my son, he quieted, greeted us, and began shouting again once a safe distance away. declaim on, gentle sons of the night!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

congratulations, connecticut

connecticut has just abolished the death penalty. this is excellent news. governments should not be in the business of killing people outside of wartime. the death penalty just doesn't work. those states with the death penalty do not have lower crime rates. the death penalty does not deter. all it really comes down to is the blood lust for vengeance. which might be acceptable, if honestly stated (which it usually is not). except for the tiny detail that the creaky legal system is unable to prevent innocent people from being convicted and, probably (in a few known cases) executed. congratulations, constitution state.

to a student supporter of empire

how are you? there was something i meant to mention to you today, but forgot. remember how, a few weeks ago, you commented about the seemingly frozen nature of the country's political system? ie, the government seems unable to get anything meaningful done, sort of like China's one-party system? then i was recalling what you said at the beginning of the semester, about how you thought having an empire was a good thing. do you think it possible that some of the stagnation and incompetence in DC is due to the weight of the empire? my view -- my personal view only, which i tell you because you might be interested -- is that the empire (ie, the massive complex of military, intelligence, and industrial components, with their politician backers) is harming the republic fiscally and politically. fiscally, because it is draining funds for purposes very tangential to the needs of ordinary americans -- that clinic in iraq might be of use to iraqis, but is it helping us? politically, because this entire complex is unelected, and essentially influences politicians to support it at all costs. after all, there is a massive amount of money in the empire and its bureaucracies -- and how many politicians are beholden to it? money-wise, just look at the 'Joint Strike Fighter' -- already 10 years behind schedule (!!!) and predicted to cost 1.5 trillion dollars over the life of the jets, far more expensive than the planes we already have but only marginally (if that) better than our current planes. politics-wise, look at all the low-hanging policy fruit Obama could have done something about, were he really as serious about dealing with real issues as he is with managing the workings of our bloated empire. foreclosures -- nothing, or almost nothing done. tens of millions affected. and the money needed to deal with that issue? peanuts, compared to the money sucked up by the military-industrial complex. the empire is not the only problem, not by a long shot. but look at history: what happens to all empires, and the governments that struggle to shoulder them? eventually, massive cost overruns, and huge mission overreach, because the government is unable to limit what it (the military apparatus and its allies) is doing. spain fought dutch independence for, what, 80 years? was that war really necessary to the interests of the spanish people? no more so than our many wars (no longer declared or managed by congress) are necessary to us. institutional paralysis. aren't we doing what they did? in a recession, yet the military budgets grow every year. hundreds of bases in most countries on earth! all necessary? i doubt it. is it because we are more threatened than at any point in our history? of course not. al-qaeda, that diminishing gang of thugs, more dangerous than nazi germany? no way. the empire is just taking what it wants, and the politicians can do nothing about it -- most of them are in on it! (even liberals! look at joe courtney, in the 2nd district). for sure, welfare entitlements (medicare, etc) are also huge fiscal factors. but at least that money is going to ordinary americans and is cycling through the economy, not fattening defense industry bottom lines or the campaign coffers of the politicians who support them. and medicare doesn't corrupt the democratic process the way the imperial apparatus does. money aside, morally, what do empires do to republics? they ruin them. look at rome. it went from being a republic with some democratic traditions to a plutocracy run by noble families. which is where we are now, or pretty close to it. just my opinion, of course. some food for thought. (right at the moment when you are ready to stop thinking for a while, probably. sorry about that). congratulations on graduating, and good luck to you,

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

the fantasy of control

the visual focus of our market-guided society leads to an obsessive focus on control of one's surface image. in other words, control and manipulation of one's body, especially how it looks, is the aim to which successful people aspire. this aspiration reached, we congratulate ourselves on having achieved a state of alienation from ourselves: we see ourselves from the outside, as an object. control is reached as a symptom not of inner strength, but of inner terror and insecurity. a recent Lexus commercial (for a 2013 model) reminded me of this negative facet of our culture. it used a camera technology which aims the camera at the front corner of the car -- one of the headlights -- and captures the car's progression across the city. what is amazing about the images is how still the car is, even while the city around it, the lights and buildings, dance in frenetic motion. the contrast is mad, captivating. i think this visual trick is a good metaphor for the contemporary ideal American self: an eye in the storm of history. of course this controlled stillness is an utter -- and destructive -- fantasy. what we need to liberation from the cage of the self. it has become merely a platform from which to sell ourselves and our 'brand.' to hell with that!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

old, old friend

through a peculiar series of coincidences, yesterday i came face to face with a friend from more than 30 years ago -- from 1st and 2nd and 3rd grades! we continued on through high school together, but not really together. not like we had been before the age of 10. we still saw each other in the halls of high school, but as strangers -- strangers with a secret.

the secret was, that we had once been very close. and it was hard to understand how that friend had morphed into this stranger. mike became very big, and heavily muscled, and stern. he wrestled, and walked very straight.

i didn't recognize mike at the youth theatre rehearsal (to which another long-lost classmate had invited me). if it hadn't been for Lara and Mike's daughter -- my fellow cast member -- pointing at him, i wouldn't have known it was him. in high school he was still rather narrow-faced, serious.

as we talked -- with an excitement strange in light of our subsequent decade of indifference (and inner wondering and confusion) -- his smile came back to me. and he said wise words. such as, that people don't change at all in their unique traits. he was referring to me, but i recognized that it was true of him as well: that soft, merry smile -- that smile lost to me in middle and high school, when we obediently went where the higher-ups told us to go academically -- struck a memory chord.

it was moving to hear him talk of his daughters, one of whom, fellow actor, curled long-limbed up on his lap at breaktime in pink tights and a purple plastic flower in her hair. he asserted that the idea that a second child will just divide the first child's love in half was a myth. 'you grow more love,' he said. he described the pleasure of sitting on the sofa, a daughter on each side of him watching a disney movie, smiling as he talked. he said he would like more children; maybe they will adopt. 'my arms are long,' he said, and the vivid phrase powerfully and simply called up the image he had just given me, of him sitting on the sofa, and reworked it. this is the poetry of ordinary life!

once we had talked of our post-third-grade lives, and struggled to come up with the names of those long-gone classmates, and revelled in a few crisp memories of fighting the Red Ant enemies on the school playground, or fighting the British in my back yard, uphill with muskets, we talked of history. and it came back to me that that was one thing we had shared way back then. i had voraciously read all the history books in the school library; he had too. and our play was steeped in the stories we read. even as proud Black Ants, as we got a bit older the Black Ant mythology took on American symbols. the fort we fought to defend in third grade we called The Alamo! one of the pictures i dug out of a box in the basement -- pictures he waxed nostalgic for -- depicted 'Ironclads of the Black Ant Wars,' no doubt drawn after reading about the American Civil War's iron ships.

he talked of the intensely spiritual experience -- pilgrimage, really -- to the beaches at Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. he marvelled at how he was able to stand in particular spots where he knew, from a photo in a book, or from the words of an old man who had been there and was returning -- something significant had happened 60 years before.

i realized Mike was politically conservative. that is just a simple mistake some people make, a superficial error in judgment stemming from lack of experience, from my view. but i realized, decades after we wrote each other off (do all kids feel that same confusion, to realize people once friends have changed to something else?), that he really was a man of integrity, feeling, and conviction. and i hope he also saw me again with the wisdom of an eight-year-old's eyes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

between new haven and shandong

i am waiting, still in limbo. my parents are closing a deal to sell their house by mid-june. i applied for a job in Shandong, China, paying the university there a visit a month ago. the new anthropology department seems interested in hiring me, but bureaucratic issues seem to be holding up a contract offer. so my mind flits through the night sky to Shandong, already imagining living and working there. but the possibility remains that the snarls will not be untangled -- in which case we will move 18 miles west, to New Haven.

i like new haven. but a move there means an end to my academic career, which can only be revived by more and better research than the anemic batch of hash i produced for my dissertation. this is one factor (there are many others, as well) which most impels me to go to shandong. new haven would be clean air, interesting cultural activities, new friends and neighbors, a predictable life. but it would be a dead-end: a prospect of decades of 30K a year in income, teaching 3 or 4 classes a semester.

i also miss living abroad. new haven would be placid. i like the intensity of being abroad -- even if that intensity comes in the form of misunderstandings, and annoyances, and friction, and bad air. i like a challenge. and china's culture is one such challenge. i like being an outsider trying to peer in, and talking to people, and attempting to bridge the gaps between us. that daily tension makes me thrive; even in small interactions, that gap looms. like a high-wire walker, the potential danger makes me stand straighter, all senses on high alert, balanced, taut as the wire i stand on -- alive!

you might think: sounds exhausting. yes, it can be. but inevitably, you find perches of comfort, places and people with whom you feel at ease. and then, the sense of relief is even greater than finding a place of comfort in your own country. in your own land, you expect to be at ease. but to find a place of ease in a foreign land -- yes, that feels amazingly good, an achievement, a miracle! like finding a feather bed in a wintry forest, a sofa in the sky, a cocoon in the ocean. and you feel really like a person of the earth, not a person of any particular country. there is a stretch, and then a reclining, that is a beautiful combination.

it reminds me how good i felt sometimes riding the greyhound bus, back when i rode it across the country. a day or two of misery and discomfort past, gradually the bus would subside into a sleepy peace, and how good that felt! we are angels all of a sudden gliding across the land, our bus purring softly and sun angling in from the west and a quiet conversation or two just barely reaching the ears. . .

there is something in me that loves repose in foreign places. my heart is a nomad. if there was a way financially to just keep moving -- not always to new places, but looping between old routes and some new places -- i would do it. looping around the world. maybe by bike?

don't get me started.

but for now there is Jinan, Shandong, repository of all my dreams.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Friends are for Favors

The dentist walked slowly while they were in the ravine. It widened out into a canyon after a day, and the trail straightened. He saw crags, and cliffs shining in the sun, or plunged in shade, everything wild. Crag, a Celtic word, he thought: craec, or craic, something like that. He felt a pang. He was in Afghanistan, Logar Province. It wouldn’t do to let his mind float just because the earth was opening up at last. No celtic etymologies. No Boss Pizza. No past.

One of the Afghans had a goiter. It was hard to not look at, even though he didn’t want to, and he told himself not to. It was an eruption happening slowly underneath the skin. But the guy was handsome. That made it all the stranger. He wondered. Jude Law, that’s who he looks like he thought, after a long time walking. Yes, give Jude Law a scruffy beard and tormented brown eyes and – here he is. They wended down the canyon under crimson-leafed saplings.

Not one drone gleamed up there. Just as well, he thought: It’d kill us all.
Later when they sat on a knoll fuzzed with golden grass he listened to the four men talking. He must’ve been tired. He suddenly realized he was understanding them, just like that, eyes closed to orange darkness. He caught the word “buscando comida” and was amazed that Pashto was so close to Spanish. Could it be? Am I slipping?
When the canyon walls finally softened, earthen shoulders swallowing the rock and slumping low -- just as the sun flared with despair in the West, orange light smothering them -- he felt it there in his abdomen. Oh god no: a shit. He had dreaded this.

He remembered the word. “Kheler.” They paused, squinting quizzically at him. They thought he was acting up. Insulting them. Quick! He squatted, worked up his face to a grimace. kheler is the word, right? He farted through parched lips and Jude Law smiled and said, “kherel.” He had mixed up the goddamn sounds!

They yanked down his pants and half-turned, eyelids drooping against the setting sun. They didn’t undo the white electrical cords around his wrists and he was preoccupied with terror that he would have to stand up ass unwiped. And then walk like that, stinking, itchy. But the palpitation and gush of relief that came after, forehead red down between his knees and long slow grateful breaths, fingers clasping a tree root for balance and breezes brushing his scrotum, were so massively good that for a moment the fear faded. They grinned knowingly. Owl-eyed gramps walked around behind him and kicked dirt up his ass, bent over and rotated a gnarled stick under there, deftly pulling away the silt and shit-berries. Jude Law hauled him up.

They slept in a ruined house they came to later, stars buzzing against his retinas like fragments of dry ice where the roof had fallen in. Their combined breath clouded the starlight. They had caught him and Davis and their escorts, Nasr and Nasrallah, with only six days left in their dental mission. Melissa had begged him not to go. He shied away from that scene at the CVS, looking for anti-itch cream the night before departure. Everything she said, whispering when other people passed by, had been proven right. They really were enemies. They didn’t care about his good intentions. Instead of dwelling on those moments, he recalled the kid with the abscessed molar in that last hamlet, mother in faded burqa cradling his head.
The gunmen had appeared just as he finished. They had dragged the others the opposite way, and beaten the kid -- perfunctorily, he thought, turning over the scene with the luxuriant slowness and clarity only granted the sleepless. “One day at a time Gary!” Davis had called. “We’ll get out of this. Stay strong -- remember the good things!”

In the ruined house he finally shifted, the crick in his neck unbearable, doing his damnedest to not remember the good things. Their bodies tremored as he moved. Even with Melissa he hadn’t been able to sleep with her leaning against him. And now enemy knees and elbows were jabbing him, bodies exuding not Pantene Florals but an invasion of sweat and sagebrush and turmeric and something else, something troubling. He breathed in the starlight. Dying teeth, that was the smell. Even breathed through their nostrils he knew it. He was like one of those beagles able to sniff out cancer, or bedbugs. He had smelled his father’s lying as a kid at the dinner table. Dad had hoodwinked the other senses perfectly, his hand shaving knife-curls of Parkay with utter casualness. But Gary had smelled something wrong -- long before his mother did.

They held him in a windowless house. The last few hours walking they had covered his eyes. He had figured out then it was the tall man who had the rotting teeth. Eyes covered, Gary had matched the duct tape flapping on one of his boots to the odor.

They sat with him by twos in the plastered room. His hands were freed. Wind guttered in a rectangular vent high in the wall, and he watched the sunlight angle in for a few hours. He dozed on the floor, pretending he wasn’t listening. In the awful weight of hours yellowing and darkening it was impossible not to imagine he was one of them. He lay in the drumming rhythm of their conversation, every sound crystalline and right-angled, and they realized he was awake under the closed eyes. They were on their guard then, only whispering occasionally. Knowing they knew, he gave up the act and sat up and watched them. Gramps, Jude Law, and the Italian barber just averted their eyes delicately when he repeated a word for clarification -- as if he were the brute in their midst and they refined people, shrinking from him. Only the tall one with the boyish but old face responded. He learned:

At-u-sat: back and forth.
Pes pes: whispering.
Wali: why?

Lacking a pencil he developed a rolling list over the coming days. They laughed. Thank god for these lessons. They took his mind off the man’s lower jaw. He couldn’t stand it. Even with the lessons it grated on him. He noticed him wincing after meals, tongue worrying a molar. He waited for him to yawn, but he always yawned diffidently, turning slightly away. Finally one day Gary gestured at it, opened his own mouth, and said ching, “open.” The tall one glanced aside at gramps, and complied.

“Oh God,” Gary said. He mimed extracting. How was this guy still alive? But they demurred.

The barber was elusive, the one he could not predict. Jude Law asked him to sing a Celine Dion song whose tune he hummed, and Gary sang with his own words. Enemies are people after all. Gramps’ hands were in ceaseless restless motion, shelling peas and beans into little piles, or smoothing and twining and untwining carpet fringe, building up little balls of fuzz. PTSD no doubt. On trips to the latrine across the compound Gary slowed and put up his face into the sun. The mountains powdery with distance got the tall one loquacious. Gary stood listening and shivering and imagined, believed the man was describing trees and vines and their respective properties for burning and healing, or the birds whose calls told of approaching special forces or the vibrations of drones, or nearby berries, or was it about their months hiding in caverns and drinking ice melt, or was it unimaginably mundane things, the price of kerosene maybe?

He had been there a month maybe when the barber in one of his garrulous moods produced a video camera, screwed it atop a tripod, and waved him closer to the trapezoid of sunlight on the wall. He sat against the plaster, breathing quicker, remembering fragments of video from the Iraq War, men captive on camera and losing it, begging for peace or for rescue, knives at their necks. And yes it was happening, to him, a black banner with Arabic script rigged with double-sided tape to the wall behind him. The lazy, ambiguous days were done. The four worked with the efficiency of auditors, or his receptionist Terry on caramel latte. His hands were pulled behind him, and the barber held a well-creased piece of paper in front of him and jabbed a finger at it. Nobody will ever see this, he thought. I’ll be on Youtube under Arabic words and no one will ever see me.

He began reading. “You America goverment have better get lost Afghanistan, forever, otherise Taliban is kill me. In seven days. I am reading this,” he added keeping his voice even.

He counted the days, and watched the tall man’s jaw swell. He couldn’t stand it; he forgot his own longing for floss. By the third day afterward the tall man was sitting head in his hands and his turban wrapped over that side of the face. The odor was strong. His bread sat uneaten on the carpet. The others nudged opium bits into his mouth.

Gary went on his knees to the middle of the room. “Let me do it,” he said. At Gary’s voice the man winced and tucked his chin more tightly against his chest. More softly Gary said, “The tooth can kill you. Bring my tools.” He gestured again, his hands miming an attack on his own mouth. He knelt there brows knitted; the man couldn’t even spare a hand to hold his gun.

Jude Law left and returned with Gary’s bag and tugged the tall man onto his back like a sack of dried leaves. Gary had a hard time easing the hands away from the jaw and getting the mouth open; air itself pierced the man. Gary scanned the black-clotted teeth bases and winced. A picture came to him of a drawer in his mother’s house solely for old toothbrushes -- dozens of them -- hoarded for cleaning tile grout or dog-shit-pasted sneaker soles.

The others circled around and Gary asked, “OK?”

“Yes,” the man mumbled, decisive English word ready for the moment of crisis. Gary picked up the mandibular posterior forceps and breathed deeply. The metal bit slowly. The body stiffened. He had to be sure it gripped. If he was off, the wounded man would not give him a second try. He couldn’t stand looking at him like that another day. With a terrified surge he clenched the forceps and wrenched hard. He heard hissing and gurgling in the throat, and a pop, and the light dimmed as the men bunched forward and the body under them jerked, and the head, slick with everyone’s sweat, slipped from their grip -- and thrashed! Holding the forceps above the scrum Gary glimpsed a bloody tooth. Gramps stuffed a strip of fabric into the mouth. The man heaved -- groaned.

Fumbling for his curette, he held it up and mimed flame. The barber produced a lighter and lit it wavering under the tool. First blood spilled, Gary was possessed by a ferocious calm. He pried open the jaws again without seeing the face and cleared the gap welling with blood of corrupted tissue and tooth fragments. He hardly noticed the neck muscles fighting him at every moment. He hardly noticed his own hand clamped under the man’s jaw, steering against the man’s convulsions this way and that like a wild horse breaker or a sailor at rudder in bad seas.

When it was done and the tall man was curled crooning softly in the corner, Gary felt faint. He had never trained to subdue an unsedated patient. The violence ebbed from him and he closed his eyes, whirling.

Two days later the tall man was sitting up and gingerly chewing bread dipped in amber tea.

The barber, the only one not to smile at him for what he had done, held up two fingers that night when his watch was done. Two more days. “America no, NATO no!” he said accusingly. “No money!” Gary tried imagining people somewhere frantically talking on cell phones to save him, but all he could conjure was Melissa with her forehead against the window, wanting him to help her out of her rain boots, and himself on a Youtube post with 13 hits. He hadn’t seen a single one of his captors holding a cell phone – and how could he be saved without one?

The room wavered with an oil lamp’s tiny flame, and Najibullah’s tall shadow slumped against the opposite wall. Gary thought of the day when the camera would be set up, the banner hung, the shiny sword brought out glittering, their faces wrapped, himself placed kneeling, just so. He was weak – suffocating – at the thought. In the shroud of Najibullah’s face two shadow-holes were watching him. “Help me,” whispered Gary. “I can’t face -- that.” Najibullah leaned forward, listening, while he whispered his request. There was a smile there in the gloom. He had a friend. Friends do you favors.

Somehow Gary made it those last two days without collapsing. Najibullah would come through if NATO didn’t. The other thing that calmed him somewhat was pulling wool from the battered carpets, inspired by Gramps’ obsessive fiddling, twisting them into strands, and then tying them around a bit of twig he had found. His captors eyed his handiwork curiously and finally he brought it to his mouth and demonstrated brushing.

How good it felt, even tasting of dusty wool and clay floor. The last month and more he had been scraping gunk off his teeth by fingernail. Some fibers caught in the gaps or clung to his tongue, but it was a marvel anyway. The twig was firm. He held it up grinning, pointing at their teeth and shaking his head No, no; they laughed, nodding.

The sixth evening Najibullah appeared to guard him and the barber left. Gary’s bowels were straining. He handed the toothbrush to Najibullah. “Dost,” he said. “Friend. Thank you.” This was it. He stood up, and wobbled out into the courtyard. There were stars, and he shivered and breathed in deeply. This was it. He could hardly believe it. It was true what they said about the end: he saw Mom, and Melissa, and childhood friend Chris. His bare feet negotiated the rutted earth and led him into the latrine. An oil lamp showed the two uneven boards for his feet above the stinking pit. He turned and found Najibullah’s eyes and nodded.

“We’re good then, right?” he asked heart racing, and Najibullah patted his back, and Gary squatted, dropping his pants and feeling the rush he had been craving. He groaned with pleasure. It had been hard waiting for the barber’s watch to end. And under the rush of blood to his face, under that deep breathing relief and his own stink there was the click of Najibullah’s gun.

“Get it right, Najibullah baby,” he whispered. How he had needed a friend. He pressed his palms tightly against his eyes and saw the pictures laid aside for just this moment, the canyon blazing furiously in the sun, the ice-chip stars winking through the roof of the ruined house.