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.

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