Alex E. Limkin
The Atheist and the Coconuts
V8 juice continues to save lives in Iraq despite fatalities
The explosion at that early hour, jolting us from sleep, makes my stomach convulse reflexively, like a salamander prodded in the belly with a stick. My eyes open to take in the dark room, the grimy walls, the concrete floor. Across from me the colonel is awake, a mirror image of myself with just his face peeking outside his sleeping bag. Together we lie there stupidly, not saying a word, as though it were customary, this breaking loose of all hell. More explosions follow, one after the other. It dawns on me that we are being mortared, that this is what it is to be mortared, and I am touched by a panic that this could be my last moment, lying here naked in a broken cot in a broken building in a broken country with only the colonel for company.
Alex E. Limkin
Am I to die here in this strange land? And for what? God and Country? A black coffin draped in an oversized flag and a stranger’s eulogy? “Sacrificed his life … that others may live in freedom … died doing what he loved.” I’d sooner perish. I’m going to perish. Wriggling like a minnow in my sleeping bag, growing damp with the fluids coming out through the holes and slits in me. If I can just get back to my automatic rice cooker and the little whistling sound it makes when it’s underway. I’ll be happy to rake the leaves come fall. Straighten up the garage. Try my hand at making biscuits from scratch.
Alex E. Limkin
“Roger that, sir.”
The coconuts are our Iraqi charges, police recruits ranging in age from 17 to 65. I approximate the age of the older recruits by the absence of teeth and their winsome leathery aspect, but they could easily be younger given all the sweet tea they drink, the scorching Arabian sun and general lack of hygiene. The older ones are also distinguished by their inability to exit the back of pickups without a helping hand. Our job is to dispatch these men, young and old, to Fallujah to help patrol the streets. Higher has advised us, via the Batphone, that the order can come down anytime. Anytime! It’s easy to picture them being cut down piecemeal and in droves, starting with the old ones incapable of hasty movement—which can factor powerfully in avoiding bullets—followed by the young ones, whose only form of self-preservation is the death blossom.
Despite the name, the death blossom is actually something scary. The explosive powder and gasses propelling the bullet down the barrel erupt in a blossoming of sparks and flame, something best appreciated at night with the selector switch in the fully automatic position. Since the Iraqis are trigger-happy, squeezing off full magazines at the drop of a rupee, they are death blossom aficionados, posing a threat to all things settled upon the earth—from the shepherds to the shepherded, the animate to the inanimate, the nonthreatening to the merely innocuous. Should a stray round from an AK strike a blow of chance against an enemy combatant, flat-footed incredulity ensues. Open-mouthed incredulity. Followed by fierce celebration. Followed by more shooting, the rifles positively coming alive, squirming and protesting in their arms like recalcitrant lovers. KARAKARAKARAKAH! KARAKARAKARAKAH! Until the barrels start to give out and bend like elephant trunks, which, not to worry, can be compensated for by an adroit forward thrust of the hips, which to witness is to marvel at.
Alex E. Limkin
The trucks the colonel wants me to check on are parked in the back, but I’m not going out there without my V8 juice. The savory concoction has served as my talisman for several months, warding off war zone dangers, as well as providing me with the important vitamins and nutrients that come with two servings of vegetables. On my camera I have images of V8 empties posed whimsically in front of scenes of carnage. The fact that I am an onlooker taking the picture and not part of the carnage demonstrates the V8 is doing its job. And so I keep drinking it regularly, two cans every morning, like clockwork. Unless the galley is out due to a hijinxed KBR convoy, in which case I have no choice but to malinger. Which means I’m actually helping, because if I went outside and got shot, the army would have to e-mail back to the States for a replacement, who would likely be unaware of the efficacious nature of V8 juice, and then the vicious cycle would just go on and on without any end in sight.
Alex E. Limkin
The Iraqis have survived the onslaught but are looking sullen behind the concertina wire that keeps them from straying. They’ve spent the evening and night diligently pooping and peeing on the concrete floors of their building, which has seen better days, but not by much. Some of the turds have been stepped in and tracked about, others have water bottles pushed down into their center like candles. This despite the dozen portajohns lined up in front of their bombed-out barracks.
“You people know how to use portajohns? POR-TA-JOHNS?”
They’ve taken their trash and gathered it in piles and set fire to it: styrofoam food containers, water bottles, pieces of clothing, what looks like a mattress, flip-flops, empty packs of cigarettes, chicken bones. One guy is tiptoeing in the embers holding a stick with his pants rolled up to below his knees.
I get the commander to round up his men, or the majority of them. It’s never possible to get an accurate count. Like herding cats. Someone’s always off washing their feet. Or poking around in the remains of a fire. But no one’s hurt. That’s good.
Everybody ready go Fallujah? Check. We spend the morning unloading the trucks and sorting the gear out and getting it issued. I’m hoarse from cursing at their groping hands and disorganization. All they care about are the handguns, the Glocks, which fetch $800 on the street. I get the commander in a tan uniform, and he becomes helpful. He grabs a stick and starts thwacking away at the arms and legs of the recruits, helping to control them as they pass through the line. “Yallah! Yallah! Yallah!” He’s chasing recruits with his stick and I’m slinging helmets and boots and ammo pouches and flashlights and tube socks and thigh holsters and PowerPuff bedrolls in a mad frenzy. The recruits are jabbering away and stripping down to their skivvies in the dirt and getting suited up and tossing their rubbish from the packaging over their shoulders and trying to avoid getting hit with the stick and the commander is sweating and putting on a fine show but there’s no time to celebrate because we only have a few hours to get them lined up in formation, counted and staged for the transport helicopters. Where’s the colonel? Here he comes, pumping his fist up and down in the air to say the choppers are inbound. Time has passed in a blur, darkness is falling.
“You’re doing good out here,” says the colonel. “Getting things done. I like that.”
“Watch this,” I say.
“Yallah! Yallah! Yallah!” This gets everyone clambering to their feet and dusting off their bottoms. They’ve been loading their rifle magazines and discarding the cardboard boxes that the 7.62 rounds come in. There’s cardboard and MRE detritus all over the place from where they were competing for most rat-fucked MRE honors, choosing hunger over the tasteless crap the Ameyriki pawn on them.
The commander has his stick out and there’s more shouting. I’m impressed to see him get the recruits formed and moving toward the LZ. But there’s some commotion in the formation. Some recruits seem to be falling back toward the rear. Then we can hear the choppers and it’s time. Recruits are having second thoughts. A handful are turning their backs on the LZ and facing us, shifting their weight around, looking uncertain. To mutiny or not to mutiny? They gaze from each other back to us back to each other. The one closest is clutching his Winnie the Pooh bedroll and he’s sweating and his eyes are feverish and he’s moaning, “No Fallujah, mister, no Fallujah!”
“You’re getting on that chopper!” I yell at him, stepping in close. He has a thin mustache and a hook nose. “No Fallujah! No Fallujah, mister!” A hot anger comes over me. The choppers have touched down and there’s no time to be dicking around. The recruits could all start running off in the shadows. And then what? We’d have to track them down, live weapons and all. It could be a death blossom melee.
I grab the moaning one and drive my knee between his legs. He sags a little and I yank him to his feet, shove the Winnie the Pooh bedroll in his gut and push him to where the CH-47s are stirring up debris with their rotorwash. “You want to get all your buddies killed, you sorry fuck? Move your ass!" I’ve got him hobbling in the right direction and I see the colonel has his gun out and I pull mine too. The stragglers relent with some head bobbing and muttering and turn toward the open maw of the choppers where their fellow coconuts are getting situated.
No need to push anymore. We’re standing there breathing hard as the holdouts take their seats on red cargo net benches flanking the insides, and then the loading ramp is coming up and the birds are pulling away even while the ramp is still shutting and then they’re wheeling in the dark sky over our heads firing white flares to protect against missile attack. The flares briefly illuminate the nearby rooftops strung with wire, then the noise of the helicopters fades to a dull throbbing, and it’s dark and quiet and wonderful feeling.
“We did it.”
“I didn’t even have any bullets in my gun,” says the colonel.
“We didn’t need no stinking bullets, sir! Come on, now!”
“You’re glad they’re gone, huh?” He slaps my shoulder and leaves it there.
“Fucking A right, sir!”
It doesn’t matter that by the time word gets to Washington, someone will have doubled or tripled the numbers. Our part is done. I feel like a drink but there’s no drinking to be had, nowhere in the whole wide desert. General’s orders, out of respect for Islam.
The cot creaks under my weight. Nightfall. It’s time to escape. I am awake and dreaming of a future away from this place, away from the war. A future that may never come. I think it may never come. Not with the sound of the choppers in my brain, chopping the air into a fine, misty blurriness. There is. I can see. Hear. The choppers are beating the air like great, flying wasps. Diabolical winged creatures. The coconuts are inside them, clutching their blankets tight in the dying light, like children lost in time.
Alex Escué Limkin, who returned from Iraq in September 2005 following a 12-month tour of duty in the Army, has a law practice in the Sunshine Building with an emphasis on DWI defense. Having resigned his commission in order to run his practice full-time, he is non-deployable but fully functional. Aside from traditional war booty, such as slipper boots and gas masks, he has amassed a collection of Akkadian stele fragments carved from greenish alabaster and dating back to 2300 B.C. These fragments, relics of ancient Mesopotamia, depict soldiers escorting nude, fettered prisoners. They may be viewed by appointment. CPT Limkin (Ret.) has no knowledge or recollection of the fate of the Iraqi men he helped dispatch to Fallujah in December 2004.