If something seemed almost redeeming about the start of the Second Iraq War, it was being at my grandma’s house and controlling access to her fridge full of cokes and microwaveable sour cream and bacon potatoes from the frozen food home delivery truck—mainly because I was full and had the windy feeling that something might happen. MTV had lots of cameras capturing crowds, some shots showing the immensity of the plaintiffs from several stories above street level as they protested in London, in New York, in LA. There was the Armenian-American band System of a Down leading the charge against violence and bombs. They were broadly against the system. They were bearded as their yodels crashed against guitars and exuded the vibe that they were weary of it all or weary of most of it except the bleak truths found in songs, which was enough for me to scoff since the plants and animals were part of the way the world worked and could not be resisted by any sensible person.
Sports could be extreme but never extremist and so as time ran out before the war started that professional skateboarders were unhappy, too—no word from skaters who also skated for Christ to save themselves. The rapper P. Diddy, formerly known as Puff Daddy, was on the screen complaining that the war was basically evil. The MTV host claimed at a speed that sounded both controlled and rushed by my rural standards that there were more people against the war than they had time to talk to, many of whom were stars.
Days later the bombardments began according to the infrared cameras of embedded journalists. Green bursts of light and heat against the green-gray horizon. For reasons that seemed too important to go into, they were playing hit music on the broadcast as the missiles made contact. Or at least songs that had once been hits: tracks like the Michael Jackson song “They Don’t Care About Us” from 1996 that did not elaborate what was going on aside from some combination of fiendishness and power. They offset this with the melancholy “The Freshmen” by The Verve Pipe and a song about the lights being off on Broadway that sort of implied something not quite explained about New York City on 9/11. For reasons that were artistic and too private to share with anyone except in a Live Journal note of track and title at the end of a post, I muted and listened to Sigur Rós’s breakout album and remember that the original name of their seven or eight minute ballad “Vithrar Vel Til Loftarasa” translated as “Good Weather for Airstrikes.”
I set my screen name to “it’s just us old folks at home,” talked to exactly two people on Messenger while claiming to be my grandma with a weary hands-in-the-air demeanor that I suspected was funny to no one, and I tried to download the schoolwide favorite “Bombs over Baghdad” off a file-sharing site in the adjoining room. It was maybe a joke song but had finally become topical enough. One file froze in mid-air, then the bytes began to trickle and it was projected to finish in something like thirty days…the next download turned out to be throaty oohs and ahhs placed over what was clearly a foreign version of the Pokémon cartoon theme song—but which one wasn’t clear.
I decided maybe I would just watch one of Saddam’s palaces explode and smolder in the distance as I ate caramel popcorn that my grandma had bought from the Boy Scouts of America chapter that met in the basement of her church. I looked back down at the driver’s permit manual.
Maybe I should have bought weed but I knew I would not and shouldn’t and I didn’t want to spend money either since I knew I had too much homework to get a job. The kid who sold it in my art class would lift up his clean white tee to reveal a set of baggies held in place by his boxers several inches above his enormous pair of jeans. I told no one in particular that he seemed like a toughkid. If one were to read: tough kid, the intonation might come out wrong. It was raw from the mouth. Tóugh kíd. There was a whole culture of toughkids that made some beautiful sense: they had no idea what was going on. One told my geometry class that the Earth’s light made the moon glow. They sulked. They said, “Man, shoo,” regardless of who their great-great-grandparents were.
I had never shot a deer or been to a sweaty concert. I had never seen snakes handled or swooned at church. My friends or whoever ate lunch with me nodded appreciatively at these details even though it maybe meant I was doomed. Tough kids, deep down, at least had immense networks of tough kids to rely on. It was the truth expressed in the wifebeater undershirt logic of “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem, that they were everywhere and somehow slovenly but ready to do anything for the slouchers. If something happened to them, like they didn’t connect with someone or were rebuffed as they shouted at women, they were at least tough enough to handle it. Some suggested at lunch that the tough kids would go to war. They would be in infantry. That they would feel like fighting since there was no draft. I offered that they had a war: it was all toughs in the dance of love and hatred of all toughs. This comment received no engagement.
I went for a run after school while no one was looking and decided it was my last run. I could not be so sure what would happen. I was already out of shape from the end of cross country season. Somewhere in the middle of it I willed myself into being able not to participate in track season. The distances were too short. The argument would also land that many on the track team were in fact tough kids and dangerous in a way that involved heavy drug use. But that argument wouldn’t work at all. At a crucial moment later that week, I claimed to have mononucleosis. I almost believed it, and came to understand that I had to get some cardio while no one was looking. Then I could seem refreshed and straight faced.I mouthed the words while doing sit ups: mononucleosis. The doctor denied it and I came into knowledge of a rare condition that prevented me from competing. My movements became slow and I tried not to overdo them. In secret, the only place where I could exercise, I had reason to believe the foundations of our culture were at risk.
Somehow this argument was sufficient.
With each explosion, back in the easy chair, in subsequent weeks on cable news, grandma’s dog Duchess the Shetland sheep dog cowered and shivered. I stared at her and lunged out of my seat. I didn’t actually stand up, but she ran away from the television and pooped in the corner. I said nothing and left the poop there as a memorial to her then thought to corner her and put her nose in the kinked ropes:
Grandma had bought Duchess after seeing an ad for Shetland Sheep Dogs in the newspaper. We drove an hour one way twice to pursue the matter, the first time to take a look at the dogs. The second time to pick her up. She was the runt of the litter held in the pen of someone’s basement, which grandma said was the wisest way to get a pup who was tiny and manageable. I was awestruck at the medianness of the breeder’s family. The man of the house wore a blue and white shirt. The basement smelled ruinous and ammonia rich like a barnyard. The dogs ran in circles inside a pen where there were light brown stains with either the fragility of watercolor or maybe would never be expunged. Items on the stairs seemed to refer to the University of Kentucky and Jesus: the tan but golden chestnut icon and the wildcat. These people did not want to make visit and I thought this was maybe because they lived in a different congressional district in this town with too many stoplights and red dirt instead of brown, pine trees instead of maples—I could almost sense that if they said anything at all they would give away some fact that contradicted their normalcy, or maybe that was me. It was possible their folksiness had programmed them to want this over with as bad as I should have, though I wanted to look at their stuff and think: they’ve got something going. My eyes were everywhere: Coca Cola-fueled and not even sneaky.
A copy of “You Forgot It in People” by Broken Social Scene appeared in my life the next week in the immensity of time not filled by sports. The emotions seemed finer and more mysterious than possible. I bobbed my head and realized that I needed to make a feeble gesture in grandma’s presence. It was possible to say vague things, to cover one’s voice in static at lunch. Incomplete sentences. The heart of teen juice. Woman cult. If I were disorganized like them, I would be artistic. The band looked ugly and somehow too aspirational to be punks. Too cool to be my friends but still accessible and public. I made a mental note about the scruffy mongoness of people who moved to cities and formed bands, and I remembered in a little leitmotif that nibbled at the edge of my consciousness throughout the day that I did not play any musical instruments.
The war almost made sense. People in government listened to bad music. It was a cultural issue. No hearts on fire. Something mystifying came over people in government and they were obligated to like whatever the saccharine equivalent of The Eagles was at a given point. No one involved in the war could understand Broken Social Scene or the other Canadian supergroup, The New Pornographers. If someone were to listen to them long enough, their language would become mysterious—maybe symbolic or vivid. If anyone in the federal or state government claimed to like this music or appreciate it, they didn’t understand it. That simply wasn’t how it worked.
I was aware that most jobs were likely out of reach in the public or private sector: I could not stop pirating music and was therefore a criminal. The war reminded me of certain dangers, maybe there would be martial law soon. Tough kids would fall in line to the extent that their violence would become inoffensive tough-housing. And there would be an alliance of the stinky and traditional, Japanese steaks and hands covered in cheesy poof orange. I absolutely had to stop downloading songs from major labels (if I had ever done so), so I fell so easily into pirating music from indie labels only. They seemed too weak, too effete to do me any harm. The fact that indie rockers’ voices and instruments were so often out of what I suspected was the right key told me that they did not care too much about conventional success. It was also possible they secretly would be my friend if I understood fashion and music and whatever their deal was. Or they would remain haughty and distant but would at least enlighten me. But the federal government would be after me whatever was true. Large corporations would too. I would feel a dark bargain come over me when I remembered: Haydn’s “London Symphony” trickled in and by that point I had committed to downloading all the thousands of pieces of music by him from the same boxed set to spread my criminality thin. I hated his music. The least offensive music ever. No drugs. No alcohol. Leaden and geriatric. I set about listening to thousands of hours of it anyway so that I could get cultured and get Haydn over with. I sent smirking messages on Messenger. I complained that the kids on file sharing networks had denounced me for not sharing any files. My friend kept typing. :(, ;). Somehow it almost made sense for me to pretend to be my grandma on Messenger, hands shhhhhhakkkking. Feeble.
I ate fruits and vegetables: but not at grandma’s. I took the driver’s permit written test and waited way more than the requisite time to take the driver’s test. The proctor got in the car with me, and I immediately sped up to ten miles over the speed limit, the normal speed to go down the main avenue that everyone observed and was ordered back to the parking lot where my mom was waiting.
I ate stale granola with whole milk.
After a point I forgot about why I avoided corporate music: somebody had burned me a mix with “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child on it. I may have listened to it ten times. Pathetic music that reminded me of school dances and illegal dance moves featured on the national news, which claimed that the dancing was dirty in my town. It was clear that a band like Ratatat had crafted something fine and complex or whatever and would outlast these teenyboppers like ringleader Beyoncé Knowles, who seemed trapped.Softened by the weeks, I would decide in short order it was a good song. It was their dozens of other songs that weren’t odes to reality shows that were the problem. I made myself watch 106 & Park to see Beyoncé’s stuff, but was always repulsed. Maybe there was a reason why powerful people had allowed her to be popular? It was even better to download classical music: I knew in my mind’s eye some wizened old man was watching online traffic and was so desperate for young people to like classical that I had a broad mandate to get gigs and gigs of symphonies from dead men like Brahms who to put it succinctly had maybe anticipated Ratatat’s “Seventeen Years” or “Ce Matin-Là” by Air.
The president of the United States exuded such a depressing sense of white Hanes briefs and golf those days. It would make zero sense to him especially after all the brain capacity he had lost from doing cocaine in the 1980s. Especially after his mysterious and likely cynical relationship with Christianity. Businesspeople could not grasp indie lyrics. I couldn’t either. But I failed to grasp them in such a beautiful way that could only be encoded in long, wending descriptions of dreams, as though I were fragile, would strike a single rung of a glockenspiel with a mallet once in the morning, enter a pure white room in a white caftan and write down visions that were free of corporate influence. That may have been part of the problem. If anyone understood these lyrics, maybe the world would end.
I ate frozen broccoli with orange cheese on it.
Grandma called her house just a little “higgledy-piggledy.” She would drop a package, a book, a newspaper, an empty can of Sprite, and chuckle “I’m coming back for you later.” This somehow seemed related to her insistence that picking the runt of the litter was the right choice: “They’re supposed to be really good. You always pick the runt so they won’t get too big,” she kept telling other old women on the phone a few feet away from me in a sun room she had built facing north for reasons that did not compute. Duchess shivered and pooped everywhere. She nipped at grandma’s heels. She was getting bigger on account of grandma keeping her bowl full, long silky fur. A plastic tub dispensed the kibble and came out of the bottom. It was just one of those things.
This routine was normal. She would do it in front of me if I let her stay in the same room as me. Just skulk off into a corner and act like she was doing nothing wrong. I got up and smelled her stinky ropes of feces and was satisfied and more than a little put off. Her diet of table scraps from Grandma meant that there was a variety to the smell of her poop. Sometimes a little sweet. Sometimes acrid. But I would get one of those diseases maybe somehow. The pathogens would travel up through my nose and attack my brain. Mouse turd plague. So I mostly stopped.
At least there was the tummy cat in the house, Britches, who also had unlimited food. He would come into the room and Grandma would say, “That cat. He’s got a case of Dunlop’s disease. His belly done lops over his belt. Heh-heh.”
You’re a precious tummy cat.
Your fur is white and long.
When I touched your belly trap.
I feel like I’m a song
You’re a greedy mink.
A sneaky fink.
I want to crave your truth.
You’re a precious thing.
WIth famous teeth
I’m gonna get you
I’m gonna eat you
I brought this food issue up at school and no one would say anything and then I said: Clearly grandma is afraid she will be incapacitated and the noblest thing she can do is make sure the animals can stay alive for a month or so. And maybe this line worked. At least it was treated as funny the first time I said it (and I did say it every once in a while).
There was a week when my grandma was gone, I had the whole place to myself, was drinking the regular Coca Cola classic and the half sized baby Coca Cola and brought the Abercrombie pictures out in the open on the second floor. I meditated. The young men and women were so wise beyond thought and quiet and comfortable with themselves in these pictures from the store catalog, though it must have been easy given that they had no blemishes. Something to aspire to and do push-ups in front of.
Somewhere along in the spring season, I came to imagine that it was too late to force me to join the track team. My parents were gone and I went out in a rowboat on the lake nearby where my family had a dock and frontage and wondered if this was an Abercrombie thing to do, to imagine that the lie would be detected at any moment. The ruling class was a mysterious thing. They usually had, maybe as a rule had, close friends who did these things with them. It was too much for me to row, oars squeaking, and not think that this feeling was rare and impossible, like a song that could never be downloaded. I had maybe fished fifteen times in my life and at some point had decided it was needlessly complicated. I just went out there and thought the most sacred Abercrombie thoughts, ones that were impossible. It was obvious to me that the Abercrombie models were playing characters in a story in which they were not actually that curious about the world. They would never be toughkids but they also could not see a white dove descend from the moon in a dream or know that the bird’s flight corresponded to the trickling of notes from a piano.
I ate Chicken Kiev and pop tarts and looked at how thin I was.
I took the driver’s test again and had no clue how to parallel park.
One Abercrombie guy looked out in an unbuttoned flannel shirt at perhaps a wilderness. It made perfect sense that he had rented a cabin or owned one or visited one belonging to someone on…who knows…the heavyweight crew team from one of the other issues of the catalog. Or an elder. And I endorsed his vigor and calm resolve. I did 200 sit-ups. Then went up above the garage and did chin-ups from the rafters.
I would have tried finding weights to lift but that was known to stunt growth. And then I might be 5’8 instead of 5’11”. By the middle of the summer, I could not object to sports because, after all, cross country was enough of a nonspectator sport to become a form of art. I tried to explain to whoever would listen that I was becoming strong again; my health was somehow akin to a character who had gone to the mountains or sea or sanatorium. My family seemed to take this not as news or as an event but as just a little fact, like a sugar pill that altered some chemical in their body and then I was better. And I went to practice. In theory I should have been faster than ever but in reality I had gotten three inches taller and all the growth had been up top; I was a whole three minutes slower than before. Coach said: “You don’t need to starve yourself. This is just the pickle we’re dealing with.“ We would go to the school weight room once that season as a team, and the football team would wait patiently outside, phenomenally smelly, chicken soup arm pits and rotten feet, as we saw how the machines worked. And I felt sorry for the big boys knowing how troubled someone had to be to think they needed to get knocked around like them for no reason or gain that much weight, very little of which in many cases seemed to be muscle. I gazed out at the little boys gathered up to chest height who walked over from the middle school lugging enormous monogrammed backpacks and large binders full of retail-priced CDs: These, I told them, are tough kids who were going through a program to keep them off the street in the afternoon.
Nearly everyone on the football team was fat or skinny. I made no secret of my appreciation of all the forms this took: tummy children, popinfreshmen, bellymasters. An aspiring mom with an eerie shadow of a future at keggers around her blonde hair, I told everyone what I did was called “a celebration.”
After doing cardio every day without having to worry about my feet sounding too heavy on the second-floor carpet, my abs appeared, they would almost look good when the steam from the shower had just about fogged up the mirror.
It was so much easier to talk about the connoisseurship of pooping. There was a connoisseurship of pooping inaccessible to practically everyone. Women on the team and at lunch found my explanation of this upsetting. And I had to assume I was losing people in my journey to growth and the expansion of my self esteem balloon. No blog could allow me to explain that I was in the lost quadrant. I stopped going to Sunday school when my teacher insisted that Moses had actually written the Pentateuch after going up to heaven. I went to church and it made no sense because we lived in a deist universe—yet the nature of capitalism made it clear that alcohol and drugs were bad. Somewhere between the people who went to parties and the people who actually went to Sunday school was a place where I could recognize certain truths.
I felt relieved that I had not signed any anti war petitions. I made a note of this at church in the endless scribbles made over the program and inked into the palm of my hand, half my plan for the week, half key words from a sermon that was so bland that my mind would go blank trying to remember it later. Ephesians. Corinthians. Compassion. Heart. Hope. I knew nothing about anything but could appreciate the lack. It was a complicated situation. There would maybe be an independent Kurdistan and they would have a cool way of life not being bombed with tear gas from the dictator in the south. Reality had given me a broad mandate to figure this out on the game board of a single house. Duchess would come bolting into the room to poop near me, shiver near me, pee near me. She would avoid the newspapers laid out for her. She would look at the grass outdoors when laid outside with confusion. She had never known such a thing and reminded me of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. In the pay of someone good…ish at some point but maybe sowing destruction everywhere. I knew she wanted me to feel I was not in control, for one thing. She wanted me to hate my way of life given all the pooping I did. I could never own a pet, or she wanted me to believe this.
I had little idea who the Desert Fox was exactly (the North African theater was covered in history class for exactly two minutes) but I saw a system in her maneuvers too that involved training at a house in Somerset. The confrontation with the breeders had been silent. They knew things about being country. Silent and smelly and a twang hidden in her bark. No internal monologue in their brains. Ready to turn on the evening news and watch the Wildcats without a thought dislodging them from the peace they felt. The dog was from a foreign country. Her town was more redneck than my town. They were products of their raisin’ there in ways I was not allowed to know about.
Duchess would circle me and I would think of war movies that were so dark my grandmother had only preserved the most saccharine parts of this era: Shirley Temple musical comedies about little curly haired girls who overcame great odds and did tap dances. The breeders had liked sports—or their walls were covered in sports paraphernalia—and they were desperate to have anything in common with anyone when something was already creepy about their basement smelling like a barnyard with sheepdogs circling.
I was so happy to be able to bolt around on my feet again, I pursued her like the warlord that she was.
Someone told me the dog was like the Zapatistas. I tried to be quiet and feeble instead of hyper when I thought about the drama being described. It was a leftist liberal who sat with me at lunch, who smelled like blue ice Speed Stick gel deodorant, but not too strong, in such a way that wowed me with the fact that he was in truth entitled as a leftist to be just a little stinky and didn’t need to be this way. Marxism made no sense to me. The Zapatistas were beyond me as a reference point. Something about factories owned by the government.
Wikipedia was the answer.
The Wikipedia articles that were popping up all the time, edited from around the world by weirdos who I sensed were forty-year-old men mostly, genuinely with the potential to buy expensive colognes or be soupily smelly, were utterly beyond me. I tried to keep up. They would describe the events of September 11, 2001, planes kamikazeing into skyscrapers and then veer into some note about how “sales of the Bvlgari the luxury items tripled” at the end of the paragraph. This is the way things would be.
I was informed that the singer Britney Spears had kissed the singer Madonna onstage at the VMA awards on MTV at the end of a duet while I wasn’t paying attention. Several people suggested that it made little sense that I was aware that this had taken place months earlier. I tried to explain that I had switched to watching the Canadian music channel Much Music. My friend, a lady, told me in the chat window that this was big, said it in a half-robotic way that was qualified with the statement that “this is what the real folks are sayin” . I respected her in that moment for adopting this countrified patter that assumed that we were both so overwhelmed by reality that we were perpetually guessing in fear what the parody of normal rednecks were thinking. It was a tribute to my relationship with slang and the spirit of places with doublewides and filthy diners, after all, but in response after trying “what’ll we do now when they’re sayin it’s the way” I broke character and said it was cheap and disgusting and silly. It was fundamentally illogical in my mind for a woman to wear that much makeup or be preserved in that much surgery. The whole order of things made no sense. These women were like clowns. Clown songs about dumb emotions, gestures that were “larger than life” as though they were actually trying to get some point across to an alien, it was vapid in a way that could not be communicated to my almost-friends at lunch without them lapsing into an unrelated song about being larger than life and drifting into an unrelated topic. I could force myself to find it interesting. Nothing human ought to have been foreign to me.
I watched a lot of TV after cross country meets and practices, ate Raisin Bran, and Duchess pooped just a few feet away.
Duchess did not need to conquer during those months, she merely had to hold her ground. The local population would not stand for her destruction. A long-neglected animatronic Furby doll presided over the TV room on a shelf, droopy sedated animal eyes that seemed to warn about something when it woke up from sleep. I was urged to make love, not war, like Britney and Madonna at the VMAs. And I said yet another time that those so-called ladies were disgusting, and everyone at lunch fell silent.
Grandma walked in at one point and cackled. “That cat has Dunlop’s disease. Look at his belly. It done lops over his belt.”
I kicked over a chair another day. I took a dowel of cheap fabric bought at a thrift store or snatched up by grandma from a closed textile plant and unwrapped it to cordon off an area, wrapping it around the base of chairs and tables. I shouted “Shame. Fiend. Shame. Shame. Shame.”
I chased her upstairs. She hunkered down in a corner, staring back at me with robot eyes. I bowed to her for just a split second. I had been accused of being too rough on her: but when she froze and exuded contempt and piddled. Then I told her in no uncertain terms that we were like two warriors who could only understand each other, with a higher respect blooming in the midst of contempt and rage.
I went downstairs and ate cheddar popcorn that may have been made by the Amish (I don’t remember).
More Abercrombie models came out of the printer. Black and white and rassling. Holding towels over themselves after a swim. They had had a party. That was for sure. They were definitely in college but never at school if you didn’t count the steamy old locker room where they did pull ups from the century-old pipes. They were fundamentally inscrutable yet again.
I went into the corner and picked Duchess up. She peed over my arm. I leaned over and let her slide onto the ground from my hands. And she just shivered under a stool.
I looked around at the mess. The place had been invaded.
I did not kick her but she got the impression from my body that I had intended to.
For a while I brought up this struggle, then I decided this was just mean. I thought about her in the nest of filth, me implicated in her violence like a fighter greased by a pig and I guess I wouldn’t bring it up until I graduated. I would bow to her sometimes. Get angry. But bow.
I allowed myself that day to listen to a mix CD featuring the band Creed to imagine myself as someone else completely and the indignity made me feel bad. A girl with a locker next to mine all six years would get misty eyed and claim one of the band’s songs was written when the lead singer found out he was going to have a son. And she would pause and trail off as though this were all that needed to be said. I repeated her line “when she found out he was going to have a son” in a fragile falsetto and she told me she could tell my health was improving.
If I were someone else, I would not be in the fineness of an identity so unknown there had not been a song about it that I had heard. Nothing I did had been done before. No one’s grandma’s dog had run down the hill away from me when I grabbed hold of a tarp and ran crunching over deadened grass with it behind me like a twenty-foot cape so that Duchess would finally understand that at any moment I could blow up to tremendous proportions if she pooped and peed in the house. It was not an important event, I realized, though, since it barely made an impression at school and no one was impressed with me. I was going around in a supermoderm car just before Christmas of 2003 when I finally passed my driver’s test: an ice-teal 1998 Toyota Sienna: it drew on a tradition of minivans dating back to the redesign of the Dodge Caravan for the 1996 model year or so. The Caravan had morphed from a sharp, geometric box into something more like a bullet, but a gentle bullet, domestic, endless cupholders or maybe something like sixteen. Every minivan on the market in the US seemed to be from the future, with a subtle variation as if they were each meant to be prized: Honda Odyssey, the even tinier Mazda: the Plymouth Voyager of course, the suspiciously similar Chrysler Town and Country, the seemingly inferior Kia Sedona, and last of the list but far from the last in reality, the Oldsmobile Silhouette (which had looked like a boxy shark before, a striking outline as the name promised, but now felt so…beyond, heftier, grander, like the Toyota Previa (one of the last great minivans of the pre-1996 age, full and bulbous like an orca).
I did not trust myself to give anyone rides. And maybe no one asked. There was nowhere to go—and some said gasoline was the cause of the Iraq War.
Somehow no one seemed sufficiently impressed that I had sort of passively memorized the make and model of every car that students and teachers drove to the high school. I would hold their disinterest despondently in my heart as a sign that there was a b-side and rarities quality to my speech, and I would walk the hallways at school with my face burning with the stray pimple of the month and not look from side to side to see if there were some acknowledgment I was getting. I was a musician of ugly music being created and the lack of acknowledgment that I was doing this suggested I was soaring.
The war was less interesting to watch on TV after a point on some level. I did not need to watch CNN with closed captioning turned on plus Brahms. The progress of the operation was something I should have been interested in. The embedding of journalists in battalions meant we were getting the most realistic depiction of war ever. I suggested to kids under a cross-country team tent that the war was what happened when a mysterious song played that I refused to describe. Several women scoffed. Several guys my age bobbed their headphones heads and made some pretense of doing homework.
Somehow I still got in the habit of waking up every Sunday morning to hear George Stephanopoulos read off the names of everyone who had died in the land wars in Asia. My communing with the names of the dead was idiotic, I realized, or maybe simple like a fruitless prayer. Some of the writing on the war seemed to put all tv to shame—that was part of what was going on. I kept reading a series of articles in Rolling Stone where the author was on the dusty terrain, khaki-color horizon of Iraq, with US men who were overheating in brown combat gear who had nothing to do but do push-ups, chin-ups, all of that, armwrestle and razz each other about women until they patrol or do raids. The quiet one who never was quoted directly who the main group joked was more solidly built and gentle than the rowdy interview mainstays dies under enemy fire. They tear up and say he was sexier than them.
Maybe it was true they were toughkids.
The dog went down the driveway, nipping at grandma’s heels and she chuckled. “Herders will herd.” I chased after Duchess again and put her nose in her poop and she ran away from the giant, lowered her ears like some expensive equipment she was putting out of circulation for the night, and may have peed in mock submission. And it didn’t seem to matter. It was, in the words of certain leaders, a matter of inspiring “a generational shift in behavior.” She went and shivered and peed on the oatmeal carpet day after day.
I did not eat the fudgesicles. But I did eat the creamy peanut butter.
I read the Rolling Stone articles again.
Some weeks later, a warm spell, I wanted to be out on the lake shirtless and developing moles and a burn and who knows? Pimples? And maybe despite it being cloudy. It sucked that no one would be interested in being out there with me. I had to go for a run instead. The boat was out of water for the winter. Too far from town, no alcohol that I felt comfortable stealing, nothing to talk about but Wikipedia and homework, a certain fear that I would say too much about where I got the music on my mix CDs. I felt more terrified than anything—I had been busy enough with cross country not to worry about life, but now there was a vacuum and I was terrified not by war, not by becoming an adult, but by the sense that I had conceded too much by no longer claiming to have a rare genetic fatigue syndrome and it was being said that I needed to join the track team. I would do something like join the academic team or the speech team. Somehow no one would see my pimples. The Books, Brian Eno, The Polyphonic Spree, Philip Glass played on my CD player as I held it up like a tray to keep it from skipping. It was still better than TV. Better to be in the rain. I ran to a bridge by the railroad tracks and did pushups and tried to visualize being a different person.
From somewhere above me, maybe on the edge of the field to my left or further down in the mess of bramble came a kuntry voice, a tough voice that I knew was on the younger, fighting side: “Git outta here…ya pervert.” Or it was a voice willing itself to sound country, tough enough to try anything, a little thin inside itself like a body that didn’t get enough food on his lunch tray. My accent fluctuated between impressions so I could hear the way some guy was trying to sound scary but also maybe like a comedian on cable a few years later who needs to know how to git ‘er done. I booked it out of there. Thinking ya pervert. Ya pervert. And when I told people at school, just my friends, or the people I ate lunch with, no one had any idea what the guy could have meant. Or they said nothing for quite a while.