4 We Don’t Usually Act This Way by Kathryn Mockler

When the loud speakers say, Go, the war will begin. There is us and there is them. From our point of view, we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. From their point of view, they are the good guys and we are the bad guys. The war is over land. If we win, we occupy the land; if they win, they occupy the land. There will be death and blood and guts. There will be three phases. In phase one, we will fight with sticks and stones and bows and arrows and our fists. In phase two, we will fight with handguns, machine guns, and rifles. In phase three, we will fight with grenades and cannons and dynamite. These rules have been established and everyone will follow them.

 

I am a soldier. I wear army fatigues. Around my neck are my dog tags. In my pocket is a locket of the one I love. Her name is Sally. On Saturday nights, Sally and I used to go to the movies. Once we tried anal sex. Sally didn’t like it, so we didn’t try it again. I worked at the bank. I quit the bank and signed up for the army. I am on the front line because I am prepared to die for what I believe in. This is what I learned in training. I also learned how to shoot and run and jump and how to sew up my own wounds with a little first aid kit. I learned how to make bombs and how to detonate them. I learned how to plug my ears so I wouldn’t lose my hearing. All of this information is valuable. But the most important thing I learned in training was how to obey orders and how to pay attention to the person in charge. Once at the bank, I was reprimanded for not listening and sent to a workshop. Then I was promoted to manager. The pay for being in the army is half of what I made at the bank. This is okay. I don’t have children. I only have Sally. Sally wants to get married, but we must wait until the war is over. When the war is over, everything will be better. No more rain, no more clouds. Only rainbows and the blue, blue sky. On that day Sally and I will marry.

 

 

Last week I got a postcard from Sally saying she attempted suicide. Her next-door-neighbour, a quiet man with a limp, found her in a pool of blood in his garage and took her to the hospital. She slit her wrists in the way that tells psychologists she really wanted to die. They stitched her up and gave her a complete psychiatric evaluation. Sally says there is a man in the psych ward who thinks he is Jesus and she is Mary. She spends most of her days avoiding him. She spends the rest of her days smoking and watching TV. Sally doesn’t smoke but has taken it up to pass the time. Not everyone is in the psych ward because they tried to kill themselves. All of this is on the back of a postcard, which I am reading in the Port-a-Potty. At the bottom of the postcard, Sally writes, Please write back soon. Wait for the rainbow, I say out loud, but Sally can’t hear me because she’s a million miles away.

 

The war has begun. They are standing on one side of the line, and we are standing on the other. It is as if neither side knows how to proceed. Like pubescents at their first dance, the soldiers are whispering and giggling to one another, biting their nails, and shifting their weight on their legs in equal measures of awkward embarrassment and sheer terror.

 

Someone has to do something. Someone has to get this whole thing started. On the sidelines, on their side of the line, stands a ten-year-old boy and his young, pretty mother. I lift my bow and position my arrow so that it is aimed directly at the child’s head. This action has roused the attention of the command leader of the enemy forces. The tip of my arrow pierces the boy’s temple like a dart in a pumpkin, and the boy collapses. His mother weeps. A crowd gathers and the medics drag his tiny body away.

 

A few days after I arrived at the training camp, Ben arrived. He was the leader we had all been waiting for. Ben slept in the cot beside me during training. He helped me become a better shooter. Every morning Ben did a hundred push-ups and a hundred sit-ups. When I first arrived at training, the others were wary of me. Sometimes they punched my shoulders. Sometimes they taped my shoes to the floor. But Ben was nice to everyone and treated everyone the same. No one felt ostracized. No one felt left out any more.

 

The battlefield resembles a football field in length and width and a mini-golf course in its abundance of Astroturf. We battle from six am to ten pm. When it becomes dark, the lights cast a noonday glow on the field. At ten pm sharp, the lights flash the way they do in a pub when the owners want to kick everyone out, and the two sides stop fighting and leave the field. Medics come in and take the dead away.

 

After the long workday, the men return to the mess hall where they eat and then to their bunkers where they sleep. The camp is set up a fifteen-minute walk away from the battlefield. It’s like working in an oil field or a mine. The work is long and backbreaking. When you go to work in the morning, you are not certain you will return at the end of the day. This is what the commanders refer to as the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the cause.

 

We are not supposed to keep track of the days. All we know is that it is either day or night. But I keep track by placing a pebble in a hole I’ve dug behind a tree on the way to the battlefield. Because I’m a banker, I like to count. I like to have information at my disposal that others might not, which may come in handy down the line.

 

This morning on the way to the day’s fight, we ran into a nudist colony located on the beach behind the battlefield. The leaders had told us the area had been secured. They told us no civilians were around for miles. The nudist’s bodies are rail-thin. Their arms, legs, and faces are covered in pustulant sores. They are toothless. Their toenails and fingernails are brown and yellow and curled. And they stink a wretched, foul smell of filth and feces. When we inform the nudist colony they are living in a war zone, they seem shocked but not surprised. They thought they were being hunted because they are nudists, so they stayed in hiding. But due to lack of provisions, they are starving and on the point of cannibalism, so they decided to turn themselves in. The ones that are able hold their hands above their heads pleadingly. There are five women and five men. They are in their eighties and all went to high school together. The men were football players, the women cheerleaders. As I cannot look directly into the sun without burning my eyes, I cannot look directly at the decaying bodies before me.

 

We’re on our way to battle, I say. Perhaps one of us should take them back to camp.

 

A wimpy soldier named Henry offers to escort the nudists and everyone agrees.  I glance at their wrinkled and dimpled bums as they shuffle along the dirt road to our camp, and for a fleeting moment I feel something close to pity.

 

They better not steal anything, someone says.

 

They better not eat all our food, someone else says.

 

Then Ben asks, why would anyone want to be a nudist anyway?

 

My thoughts often drift to the boy who I struck with an arrow through his skull in cold blood, the bystander, the child with the pretty mother.  We put up gates to prevent the innocent from coming to any harm. They saw me, and they didn’t stop me. One can only assume the child was bait. His sentence came long before I struck my blow. They are the barbarians. They are murderous. Ben thought I would be congratulated. Given a medal. Made to stand out. And now he fears that I will be hung out to dry, made a scapegoat. I was doing my patriotic duty. That child was bait. He was planted. He served unknowingly for his people as I am serving knowingly for mine. I have thought about this through and through. I will think of it no more. Tomorrow morning Ben and I will rise early and kick around an old soccer ball we found on the way home from the battlefield this evening. We will play in the dawn light like small children.

 

There has been much controversy about the nudists. Some are for them and some are against. They have been nudists so long they have nowhere to go. They have no family, no friends. No money. No occupation but nudism. When they got back to camp, the nudists were hosed down, scrubbed, clothed, fed, and their sores attended to. The ones capable of contributing to the cause were assigned a variety of tasks. The women work in the first aid tent and in the kitchen, and the men have been put in servitude of the commanders catering to their every need from polishing boots to mending blankets.

 

To improve morale, the commanders have sent for boxes and boxes of oranges. They are worried that we are not getting enough vitamin C.

 

But I want apples, one of the nudists says sadly looking down at the navel orange in her hand.

 

Henry, the wimpy soldier, turns to the nudist and says—you know what lady?

 

What, she asks?

 

Beggars can’t be choosers, he says.

 

She puts the orange down and walks away.

 

Can you believe that? he says to me. Last week they were about to chew off their own arms and now she doesn’t want an orange. He shakes his head and laughs.

 

It was two weeks ago that the nudists came to us, I say.

 

Really, two weeks ago? Wow. Time flies.

 

It does, I say. But I wouldn’t worry about the nudists, I tell him. I would just focus on the task at hand.

 

The task at hand? he asks.

 

Yes, I say.

 

What is the task at hand?

 

It’s killing as many as we can as fast as we can, I say.

 

You really want to do that?

 

Yes, I say. It’s expected, and we all have to do exactly what’s expected.

 

To what end? he asks.

 

I think for a moment. It’s a good question, a fair one. Well, to end the war, I say.

 

You think that will end the war? Henry asks.

 

Yes, don’t you?

 

I’m not sure, he says.

 

I’m sure of one thing, I say.

 

What’s that? he asks.

 

We’re certainly not going to win the war if we spend our time worrying about nudists.

 

 

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