A Lucky Son of a Bitch
“High cheekbones. Tight jaw. A big black
motherfucker with a permanent scowl. We
knew from the beginning that Sergeant
Edmunds wasn’t going to take any crap from a pack of nineteen-year-olds like us, but every once in a while you wanted to push the envelope. That’s just how guys are.”
He fiddled with his checkbook as if he were waiting for permission to continue. “Too bad you can’t take a credit card, ma’am,” he mumbled.
“You know I can’t take a card for the rent, Eb. I told you, a personal check the first of the month, and make sure this one doesn’t bounce.”
He looked at me forlornly. “I’m sorry about last month, ma’am. It won’t happen again.” He slouched on the kitchen chair, turning the checkbook over and over. He was taciturn by nature—although I’d seen him cut up with the other boarders a couple of times. Always late at night, after a couple of beers.
I’d started renting out rooms after my son Ignacio left for basic training—nearly always to veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. It helped fill the void. Sometimes they’d tell me stories, and certain scenes lodged in my brain—the blinding desert aglow with reflected sunlight, sweat-soaked bodies atop a rusty truck, a burka-clad woman coddling a simmering lamb stew redolent with cumin and coriander, children crouching in terror, missiles whirring. I knew I could never capture Ignacio’s reality in my mind, but hearing the boarders’ tales made me feel closer to him.
“Go on,” I prodded. “Sergeant Edmunds was a large man, an African-American.”
“No, ma’am.” He sighed and stared at the checkbook, as if the rest of the story were written on the “Pay to the Order of” line. He seemed to have forgotten I was there.
“He wasn’t African-American?” I said after a while.
“The base was outside of Fallujah,” he said finally. “We knew we were going in soon, but nobody knew when. It must have been at least 110 degrees in the shade that day. Drops were collecting on Sergeant Edmunds’s brow, but no one paid much attention. We were all oozing like pigs.
“‘Langston!’ Edmunds barked at me. ‘Your shoelace is untied!’
“‘Yeah, okay,’” I said. “I crouched down to fasten it. Edmunds was hanging over me like some kind of a fucking Goliath.”
“‘What did you say, son?’ Edmunds said.
“I corrected myself: ‘Yes, Sergeant.’”
“She was a staff sergeant, and as the only female on the base, she claimed certain privileges. You had to show her respect. Otherwise, she’d get mad, and you really didn’t want to have Sergeant Edmunds mad at you, because she could make your life a living hell. She could give you all the shit work—literally. I mean, cleaning latrines and crap like that.”
“You mean Sergeant Edmunds was a woman?!”
“She certainly was. A tall, curvaceous woman with long, beautiful legs. Well, I imagine they were beautiful. I never got to see them, of course. But from where I squatted in the dirt that day, her legs looked like telephone poles wrapped in camouflage. Up, up, up they went, unending, until they reached…her torso.”
I smiled. I imagined him crouching in the sand before the majestic Sergeant Edmunds, struggling to tie his laces and simultaneously catch a surreptitious glimpse of her crotch.
When Ebenezer Langston appeared at my door asking to rent a room, I almost said no. Even though he didn’t use a crutch or a cane, I could tell he was missing a leg. I could see the prosthesis sticking out from his pants. He didn’t seem like a very promising tenant, this young, wounded, unemployed veteran. And then there was the aftershave—the heady, herbaceous scent of lavender and coumarin that followed him everywhere. No, I thought. The cologne alone will drive me to distraction.
But then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know, I don’t have to take a desk job. I can do anything. I’m very mobile. Just because I lost a limb doesn’t mean I can’t perform physical labor.” He lifted his jean leg to the knee and pointed to the contraption. “This doesn’t slow me up a bit. It takes me longer to comb my hair in the morning than it does to put on my leg.”
How could I not take him in after that? He was so determined, so earnest. I’ll get used to the cologne, I thought. I gave him the bedroom that had once been my sewing room.
“So…” I began gingerly, “you were fond of Sergeant Edmunds.”
“Are you kidding? I hated her.”
“But you said she was beautiful.”
“She was an engineer, the only woman on a base of two hundred men. A demolitions expert specializing in urban breaching and land mines. She could destroy anything; most of all, your self-confidence. She was tall, probably over six feet, and she had a glare that could melt metal. When she looked at you with those unblinking black eyes, you flinched, even if you were an older, experienced Marine. Which I wasn’t. I was a nineteen-year-old kid right out of high school, and I hated her.”
“‘You know something, Langston?’ she said to me one morning. ‘You stink. There’s always one stinky kid in every unit, and in this one, it’s you.’
“I didn’t say anything.
“‘Do you know that you stink, Langston? Can you smell yourself? You have body odor so bad it makes me gag. Do you ever take a shower?’
“I wanted to kill her. I’m not kidding. At that moment, I wanted to put a bullet right between her eyes. After that, the guys started calling me Stinky. It was ‘Stinky, give me a cigarette,’ and ‘Stinky, throw me a rag.’ Fucking bitch. She made me the butt of everyone’s jokes. ‘White boy,’ one of the guys said to me, ‘you stink so bad my mamma’s asshole smells like vanilla ice cream compared with you.’
“I vowed that when I got out--if I got out—nobody would ever call me Stinky again. That’s why I always wear aftershave.”
“Uh,” I said as delicately as possible, “about the aftershave…”
“Nice, isn’t it?” He blushed and grinned in a hangdog way.
“I…uh…sure. It’s just that…”
“It’s the only luxury I spend money on,” he confided.
“Sure, Eb,” I said. “It’s very nice.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “Edmunds kept on teasing me. ‘Hey, kid, where’d you get the name Ebenezer?’ she asked one day while I was cleaning my rifle.
“My dad’s a preacher,” I mumbled. “He gave us all biblical names.”
“‘Yeah? Ain’t nothing biblical about you, sewer-stink,’ she growled. ‘And be careful with that gun. It’s a weapon, for God’s sake. It’s supposed to keep you safe. Make sure you get all the sand out of it.’ I was wiping off the lower receiver with a rag, lubricating the metal carefully, but the way she was talking, you’d have thought I was flipping it in the air without checking the safety. I could feel the blood rushing to my temples. Suddenly, I blurted out, ‘Where’d you get the name “Missy,” Sarge?’
“She wheeled around and glared at me. ‘What?’
“‘That’s your name, right, Sarge? Missy Edmunds? Only there ain’t nothing missy about you. You’re about as missy as I am biblical.’
“‘It’s Melissa,’ she hissed. I expected her to shoot venom right through my skull with her glare, but instead she just turned on her heel and walked away.
“That evening the order came. We had intelligence that some civilians were harboring Al-Qaeda, including two or three HVTs—high-value targets. Nasty men. Men who put bombs in marketplaces and schools. We were charged with taking the house and, if possible, capturing these guys alive. If we did, they’d be an information gold mine. It would be hard though. They were heavily armed and had intelligence networks of their own.”
I tried to imagine what it would be like to be headed into that nest of brutality. You knew the first guy in the door would get shot. You had to be afraid it might be you.
I wondered if Ignacio had ever been to Fallujah. If he had, he wouldn’t tell me, of course. He never told me where he was or what he was doing. That’s why the boarders’ stories were so important to me. I was struggling to understand the reality Ignacio was living, and all I had to go on was what I read in the newspapers and the tales of these reticent young men, who on rare occasions opened up and talked to me.
“We had detailed maps of Fallujah and, of course, plans of the house,” Eb was saying. “I was nervous, ma’am, I admit it. I stood in the yard and looked at the sky. What if this is the last sunset I ever see in my life? I thought. I went into the shop to get some screws, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I lit a cigarette and took a couple of steps. Suddenly, Jezebel was all over me.”
“You mean Edmunds?”
“Of course I mean Edmunds. ‘You moron!’ she screamed. ‘Put out that fucking cigarette! Don’t you know better than to light a match around fuel? You are an idiot, Langston! You’re a danger to the whole operation. You’re no Marine! You don’t deserve to wear that uniform! Go back to the fucking Boy Scouts! You’re so dumb that if you were a dog, you’d probably try to mount a bitch from the head side!’ On and on she went.”
His tone was fierce as he related the details.
“She grabbed my wrist and yanked away the cigarette. She had a grip like a vise.
“I glowered at her and took off toward the tools. ‘Cunt!’ I whispered under my breath.” He looked up at me. “Sorry ma’am,” he said, “but you have to understand, I was hopping mad.”
He paused a second, and then went on. “I thought I’d said it too low for her to hear, but she had ears like a bat’s. Suddenly, she was right behind me, so close I could feel her breasts graze my shoulders. ‘What was that, Langston?’ she snarled.
“‘I didn’t say anything,’ I whispered. She seized my arm. I thought she would squeeze all the juice out of me.
“‘Yes, you did, asshole,’ she hissed. ‘Repeat it!’
“The guys were all looking at me. ‘Go ahead and tell her what you said, Stinky,’ teased one of them—a lanky kid from Tennessee who was always looking for fun.
“‘Yeah, tell her!’ hooted another one. ‘What difference does it make if she kills you? Tomorrow we’re all gonna die anyway.’
“I was already scared,” Eb told me, “and that talk about dying pushed me over the brink. ‘Shut the fuck up!’ I screamed.
“Sergeant Edmunds was still standing there, arms crossed, hellfire in her eyes. ‘Repeat it,’ she said slowly, as if she were speaking to a doltish schoolboy.
“Suddenly, I twirled around and hurled the word at her: ‘Cunt!’ I screamed. ‘I called you a cunt!’”
Before he saw Sergeant Edmunds lift her fist, Ebenezer Langston felt a searing pain in the jaw. “It was as though someone had scorched my face with a branding iron,” he said, holding his cheek as though it still hurt. “The room was reeling. I could hear the guys snickering and taunting: ‘He got beat up by a broad!’ I teetered and slumped to the ground.
“‘Get up, asshole!’ snarled Edmunds. ‘We don’t have time for this. We’re getting ready for a raid, or hadn’t you heard?’”
They moved out in the middle of the night. “There were six or eight trucks,” explained Eb. “We had infrared and ammo and all the tools we needed, but there wasn’t a guy who wasn’t thinking about his girlfriend, his wife, his mother, or his kids, and the chance that he’d never see them again. The moon reminded me of an enormous candied lemon, and I wondered how it had the gall to look so luscious when honorable young men from Tennessee and Montana and Georgia were about to spill their blood in its filmy beams. My jaw was swollen, but I couldn’t think about it then. I had to push Sergeant Edmunds and her vicious temper out of my mind. I had to focus on the mission at hand. I had to be tough.
“‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ I mouthed the words silently. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…’” I did fear evil though, and God seemed very far away.
“And yet…I don’t know how to explain it, ma’am.” He was looking at me with his huge, earnest eyes. A lock of sandy-brown hair had fallen across his brow. “It’s the adrenaline. You feel pumped. You know you might die, but you can’t wait to get there. It’s weird.”
I smiled. I was tired. I had to get up the next morning for work, yet I wanted him to keep talking. I was thinking about Ignacio, imagining him in a truck on the way to some hellhole in the middle of the night.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Weird.”
“We were creeping along. It was so quiet we could hear our own breathing. Nobody talked. Everyone knew that this road was one of Al-Qaeda’s favorites for planting bombs. And yet, in the light of that lemon-drop moon, you hardly believed that anything bad could happen. It just didn’t seem like the right place to die.
“But every place is the right place to die for someone.
“I can’t remember exactly what happened next. Someone shoved me out of the truck. ‘What the hell!’ I remember screaming. Then, a flash, a blaze, and everything went dark. I mean, totally black. It was the blackest black I’d ever experienced—like being somewhere in the earth’s bowels. I felt a thud and smelled smoke and something like burning meat. I recall hearing a confused clamor—cries, sirens, shots. I thought I was blind…or dead. Then suddenly, I felt myself moving, flying, transported through the air by some extraordinary force. No pain, just a sensation of soaring. It lasted only a moment, and then everything went blank.
“I woke up in a hospital in Baghdad. A Navy doctor and a nurse were fussing around me. It was hard for me to understand what they were saying. My head was throbbing and the words seemed to ooze together, but after a while I grasped that they were going to fly me to Germany. I must be dying, I thought. Landstuhl Medical Center is where they send soldiers to die. I blinked and made out the outline of the woman standing by my bed. She was taking my pulse and looking distractedly out the window. I grunted.
“‘Ah,’ she said. ‘You’re awake. Finally.’
“‘I need to get back to my unit,’ I whispered.
“She smiled and popped a thermometer into my mouth. ‘You’re one of the lucky ones,’ she said finally.
“That’s all she said. It wasn’t until much later that I found out what had happened.” Eb bit his lip and peered at me from under that unruly shock of hair. “The two guys in the front of the truck were blown to bits,” he whispered. He rubbed his chin to keep his jaw from quivering. I could almost hear the voice in his head urging him to keep calm, to be tough. “But the vehicle separated grotesquely in the middle, and the guys in the back survived.” He sighed.
“She saved me,” he said finally.
“No, ma’am. Not the nurse. Missy. She shoved me out of the truck right before the worst of it. Of all the guys who made it, I suffered the fewest injuries. I lost a leg, but they lost…more.”
The evening light had softened his features, giving them an almost cherubic sweetness. His cheeks still had the ruddy glow of a child’s. I was suddenly aware of how young he was. Twenty-three or twenty-four—a boy, really. Ignacio was only twenty-seven, but his angular features gave him a more mature appearance. I had tears in my eyes and had to look away.
“She pushed me out and carried me away from the blast. I was bleeding like a butchered pig. I could have bled to death. But she bandaged me up the best she could, then got me back to base. From there they flew me by medevac to Baghdad.”
“The evil Sergeant Edmunds…”
“When I was in rehab at Walter Reed, she came to see me. She’d left the military by then. She was wearing jeans and a tight red sweater and she looked…well…sexy.” He laughed and blushed. “We joked around, and I promised her that I’d never be stinky again, that the minute I was well enough, I’d buy cologne and smell like…I don’t know…jasmine or lavender…whatever that stuff is made out of. It was a beautiful warm day. Sunlight glimmered through the trees—nothing like that blistering Iraqi sunlight that leaves you debilitated and depressed, but soft, welcoming rays like on the day God delivered Noah from the flood. I hobbled around the grounds with her. Her skin was so smooth, so moist—like glistening chocolate.”
“You’re very poetic, Eb.”
He blushed again and withdrew into silence.
“What happened to her? Are you still in touch?”
“No, not really. She’s married.”
“Really? Who’d she marry?”
“Some asshole.” He laughed. “He’s a vice president at the bank where she works. What a lucky son of a bitch!”
Eb pulled himself up and handed me a check.
“Thanks, Ebenezer,” I said. “Good night.”
“’Night, ma’am. And don’t worry. This one won’t bounce.”