The Lieutenant Gets the News

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Stoplights change for no one, casting their colors yellow, red, green, yellow, red on streets patched with the night’s snow. The Lieutenant watches the intersection from the hospital, third floor, his gown rubbing against his bandaged knees. The stoplights are new, hung a week ago by Army Corps engineers. Across the street an unfinished parking garage rises below a billboard advertising a phone number, rebar whiskers poking out of the cement. The Deputy Inspector General and the local Chief of Police argue in the windows’ reflection. They are projected on the window against the outside dark, trembling in the eternal morning of overhead fluorescence. DUI, vehicular homicide, two victims in critical care, is this a popular narrative of post-invasion regrowth? that an American Lieutenant cant even obey a stoplight? police belts rattling in the hallway. Soon they’ll cuff his ankle to the bedpost.

“I have an idea,” the Lieutenant says, turning. “Where are the cars?”

“Being towed,” the Deputy Inspector General says.

“Where?” the Lieutenant says.

“It’ll never work,” the Chief of Police says. “Whatever you’re thinking, it won’t work. We have to come clean here. We have to make an example of you.”

“To some police impound, I don’t know,” the Deputy Inspector General says. “Why?”

“Go get them from impound, put an IED in the car that’s not mine, blow it up,” the Lieutenant says. “I barely survived a car bombing.” He turns to the Chief of Police. “There’s your narrative.”

“If the people of this city hear rumor of a cover-up, and they will, it’s my head that’s going to roll,” the Chief of Police says. “I can’t have that.”

“IED,” the Lieutenant says, looking at the Deputy Inspector General. “Car bombing. Happens all the time. Won’t even make the news. Just another car bombing.”

Car bomb. Car bomb. IED. Car bomb, the words spiral in on themselves, harden like diamonds. Repetition leading toward some molten core of language. Fixed words, unbreakable words. The Lieutenant imagines telling his wife, Lydia, I barely survived an IED attack. A car bomb went off. Look, heres a picture of the burned up car. And she will believe him. And the memory of drunkenly running the red light will break apart in his own mind like dry leaves in a clenched fist.

The streelights change red, green, and an American dressed in military utilities appears out of shadow on the sidewalk, bootprints trailing behind in the snow, a stack of newspapers bundled under her arm. The Lieutenant watches the American carry the newspapers to the intersection, where one car, now two, slows to unroll a window.

Somehow the Lieutenant knows that the papers contain the news of his crime. The news is spreading. The somnolent and forgiving night is breaking. Soon they’ll cuff his ankle to the bedpost.

The Lieutenant walks past his hospital bed, brushing the Deputy Inspector General and the Chief of Police in the doorframe, and strolls down the hallway to the stairwell where he descends three flights to the lobby. A bell chimes as the hospital doors slide open and he plunges barefoot into snow up to his shins. He bounces on his naked heels and clutches himself. Fine snow melts in his eyebrows.

The American is walking down the middle of a salted street connected to the intersection in a tunnel of yellow headlights, pressing the newspaper against car windows. Shadowed faces behind the car glass, lit by glowing radios.

“Yep.” A man speaking Arabic stretches his arm out to the American, wearing a chechia, a dollar flapping between his fingers. “Doesn’t surprise me a bit.”

“And he’ll get away with it too!” A man beside him in a green car with purple-tinted windows, the front bumper dented, talking through the passenger window. “Let me get one of those.” The American plucks two papers from her stack and accepts the money. “Just watch. He’ll probably get a promotion.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

The lights change, the cars swim past, dark ice sloshes under tires. Cars collect on the intersecting street.

“Do you believe it?” An old man in a pick-up truck, waving the American over. “Makes me sick, thinking about those poor people.”

“And they just finished construction on that road!” A man wearing a thawb in a covered convertible, the rag top peeling off in strips. “Put the stoplight up last week! And he just mows through it like nothing.”

“Think he’d drive that way he were in his own country?”

“Who knows.”

The lights change. The American takes the old man’s dollar and walks to the sidewalk, the unfinished parking garage behind her.

“It’s not true!” the Lieutenant screams from across the street. “What you’ve written in there! It’s libel!”

Cars collect on the intersecting street. The American presses the newspaper against their windows. The Lieutenant runs to the yellow-painted curb and across the stopped traffic, headlights blinking out behind his body, the gravel below his feet slick and lambent.

“Stop that!” the Lieutenant says, reaching for the American.

His feet go out in front of him, gliding upward. He lands on his back, breaking the fall with his elbows. The American drags the Lieutenant to the sidewalk. The lights change. Cars pass, watching. Cars collect at the red light. The Lieutenant stands, the bandages on his knees hanging off, their pads sopped with blood, and spins the American into the light of the hospital. It is his wife, Lydia, her helmet drooping over her delicate face, the strap cinched around the soft pouch of skin below her jaw.

“What are you doing here?” the Lieutenant says.

“This is my paper route,” Lydia says. “My Colonel assigned it to me.”

“Paper route?” the Lieutenant says. “When did you join the Army?”

Honks.

“Take him down!”

People are screaming in Arabic from their car. More honks.

“Fuck him up!”

“Now wait a minute,” the Lieutenant says. He puts a finger on Lydia’s chest. “No charges have been filed against me. Nothing’s been proved.”

Honks. The Lieutenant can’t think too well over the honks, but he senses that the people in the cars want to see violence. Blood. Carnage. Blood justice. They’re impatient because the lights will change soon, yet no one is getting out of their car. Lydia swings her fist. The Lieutenant falls. The lights change. Cars race further into the city. Silence gathers with the descent of red brake lights.

The Lieutenant wipes his bloody nose.

“Why did you hit me, Lydia?” he says. “Do you believe what it says in that paper?”

Lydia crosses the street to a glowing gas station, the diesel pumps covered over with plastic bags, and waves the newspaper at the cars filling up. The Lieutenant follows. He is cold in his hospital robe, can feel the individual movements of his bones. He taps Lydia’s shoulder.

“Come on, Lydia,” he says, laughing. “You can’t believe that crap. Come on, tell me you don’t think I’m a murderer. I’m over here building roads. You know who puts these stories out there? The enemy. You know that. You’re a member of the United States Army now, for Christ’s sake! What are you doing spreading this crap anyway?”

An Arab man at the gas station removes the nozzle from his Tercel, dabbing it on his fuel cap, and waves Lydia over. She walks to him and he opens the passenger side door for her and she sits in his car while he pays for the gas.

A tow truck stops at the red light. Two cars are hitched behind, one angled above the other. On bottom, a Nissan pick-up with smashed windows and missing its truck bed. Just raw frame and axles behind the cab like a fish eaten to the bone up to its head. On top, its tires turning in cages, the Lieutenant’s car, a dented hood but otherwise unscathed.

The lights change and the tow truck turns into the unfinished parking garage. A bell chimes and the hospital doors slide open for the Deputy Inspector General. He crosses the street, something wrapped in a t-shirt in his hands, and disappears into the parking garage. The Lieutenant watches the Arab start his car and pull out of the gas station with Lydia. They idle behind the red.

“Now wait a minute,” he says again, walking to the center of the intersection. “Now everyone just hold on a second. Things are happening way too fast.” Snow is steaming on the tops of his feet. Cars with a green light honk as they surge past him. “I understand that I did something wrong. I killed some people with my car. At an intersection just like this one, just up the road a little. At an intersection that I put in the request for myself.” He points to the stoplight swinging on its wire. “This very stoplight was my idea! I was trying to bring you people some good infrastructure after the invasion. I thought it was the least I could do.” The Deputy Inspector General runs out of the parking garage, sprinting down the sidewalk away from the intersection. “But I realize now…well, I guess I thought that because I built the roads I didn’t have to bow to the laws of traffic. I thought those laws were for the people I’d built the roads for. But that’s not how a civil society works. We all have to yield, or else…Lydia, if you’d just get out of the car and let me explain. I realize now…”

The Lieutenant feels the ground below him pulse and the parking garage breaks apart into a thousand seismic plates of concrete and rebar, the three-story structure replaced for an instant by an orange flame that licks and swells and falls over the rubble. The Lieutenant crouches and palms his ears. The lights change. The fire from the parking garage devours the sidewalk grass, spreads brightly across tire tracks and oil drippings on the road. It climbs a telephone pole, melts the overhead wires. The bulbs of the streetlight burst and fall on the hood of the Tercel barreling toward him. He sees Lydia in the passenger seat, her knuckles on the dashboard.

“Precisely right!” the Lieutenant says, closing his eyes, bracing for the hit. “Obey the lights! Obey the lights!”

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