In search of the American experience

Michael Collins introduces three stories by two writers he has mentored, army veteran Steve Carlsen and SJ Dunning

 SJ Dunning and Steve Carlsen

SJ Dunning and Steve Carlsen

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A central part of a writer’s life these days, with the proliferation of writing programmes and festivals offering master classes, is teaching. Since I retired from Microsoft, I’ve led a transient life, living from the west to the east coasts, and like a travelling salesman hawking cures, I’ve advertised my arrival in the local newspaper, offering free weekend writing classes. It’s a way to establish a sense of place, to find friends and to give back.

I do it less now, with four adolescent children, but this transience defined our life for a time. Given the advent of online home schooling, it wasn’t difficult to circumvent so-called normalcy and the anchor of place. I’d unhitch the family from normal life, and we’d hit the road.

We roamed America in an RV (a 14-metre bus) which I bought on the cheap from an elderly couple whose retirement was truncated by the husband’s terminal illness. We met the couple along the Oregon coast in the misery of a windswept winter storm, along miles of Pacific beach. I was then training for the 2010 World Championships. The couple was enamoured by our transience and courage, by the fact that we had four kids at the time, and were sharing the isolation of a beach with them, in what we then owned – a small caravan.

It was one of their last trips together. The interior of the RV’s bedroom was set up like a mobile infirmary. The couple were in the last year of goodbyes, a deeply personal road trip of memories that would be carried into eternity. In so observing them, my wife and I took measure of our own strength, our own endurance and what matters – family.

We agreed to financial terms on what was an extravagant RV, really, a rock-star affair with appointed track-lit mahogany cabinetry, granite countertops, satellite TV and a tow package to drag a car. It was the couple’s gift bestowed upon us for simply being there with them in our collective aloneness that solitary weekend.

The old man played solitaire with an attenuated feebleness, in the lick of his thumb and the unfolding of each card. He smelled of liniment and was dead less than six weeks later. We picked up the RV after the disbursement of assets at a giant hanger where so many of these dreams are auctioned off in the failing health or death of those who had envisioned a longer run of years.

Encounters like this inform a life. I’ve found that the act of dislocation reunites people, that in the off-chance of meeting someone, someplace remote, a bond is thus formed. You are at once commiserates on the same journey, mutually paused along the way station toward some indistinct endpoint. I believe there are appointed moments of revelation. You just have to go find them.

It’s how I’ve managed life as an immigrant and ultra-runner in the second act of my post-Microsoft days. Much of it is wanderlust, but there are the pragmatics, too, of preserving my legs and joints. As a family, we’ve ventured to remote locations along coastal waters, then turned inland for the mountainous Northwestern, ventured further west, down along the Rockies.

I’ll leave at some appointed trail and then disappear for the better part of a day for one of those solo 75-mile training trail runs that provide the foundation for 24 hour ultra-running races.

Out around Montana and the Dakotas, it’s different. I go there for the scorch of summer, for the punishment of miles and the reach of my own limits. The terrain is less steep, but more remote. It’s Big Sky country, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski territory, I call it – a land occupied by outcast characters, pilgrims of a modern displacement who end up embracing a Thoreau-like solitude.

I’ll come upon them encamped on outcrop vistas, ever vigilant. You run enough like this into the wild and eventually you feel the trained eye of a sniper tracking you. I’ve come to accept the terms of the terrain and the potential cost.

Many are ex-military, taciturn and equipped for solitary survival with their rucksacks and bibles. Yet, if encountered under the right circumstances, at a trail head, or a mountain pass at 9,000ft, you can find a point of commonality, probing eventually what is almost always a psychological wound of some distant war.

In between these runs, we park at a campground or a Walmart parking lot and I start answering emails from prospective parties interested in my weekend writing sessions. Most will have vetted me as the genuine article, as runner and writer, offering this once in a lifetime encounter to begin mapping out their life story.

I could describe countless such encounters and characters, but in the waning days of this month-long extravaganza of posted articles by myself and various associate writer friends and academics, I thought I might simply introduce two of the most enduring characters I met during these encounters, because I feel that the full reach of the American experience rises from the lived experience of those unselfconscious characters who sometimes emerge and begin a story. Sometimes, the greatest asset a teacher possesses is the simple act of listening.

I’ll not take from the stories which The Irish Times has so generously agreed to publish, but to say that the voices which find their way into my own work are informed by a realism and backdrop of the characters I’ve met throughout my American travels.

I met Steve in a bleak Rust Belt mid-American town. An imposing military figure, he showed up under the utilitarian glare of a community college night class in a winter of deep snow

The first writer is Army Specialist Steve Carlsen, who, as a member of the 1st Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, served on a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo from 2001-02, then redeployed in the wake of 9/11 to Afghanistan between 2002-03.

I met Steve in a bleak Rust Belt mid-American town. An imposing military figure, he showed up under the utilitarian glare of a community college night class in a winter of deep snow. I was asking people to tell their stories. He was a high-school graduate and army veteran. That was his bio. There was no small talk.

Steve came with a horrific story. Early into his deployment in Afghanistan, he witnessed a father bring a burned five-year-old girl to the edge of a US military base. Defiant, the father demanded compensation for an alleged missile attack by US forces. The girl, burned almost beyond recognition, yet still alive, was simply set before the barracks as a grim effigy of America’s overreach in its indiscriminate capacity to maim and kill. Steve had a poem memorised which he had written about the child. He cried when he read it.

The actual story proved more complicated. After extensive investigation, an assessment of military operations, and an interrogation of the girl’s mother, it turned out that the daughter had been doused in gasoline and set ablaze by her father. He had been anticipating a $2,500 compensatory allowance the US military was authorised to distribute under the unfortunate and regrettable circumstances of civilian casualties.

For Steve, the young girl defined his time in Afghanistan. Her eventual death revealed the stark underlying truth of what a people or a father might do to survive. There was no rebuke of the man’s religion or ethnicity. Steve Carlsen, prototypical warrior, career-hardened soldier, would see and endure the loss of three comrades, and yet back home, in the aftermath of his service, he used to drink and have nightmares about that little girl.

What Steve produced in my time with him, and what appear here in the selected stories published by The Irish Times, are instances of compassionate insight that were forged in the firmament of battle, where a young man, wrest from a winter’s bone existence in the dead-end of the Midwest, assumed the valorous role of soldier in his deployment into the atrocities of Kosovo and then the mire of Afghanistan.

Steve Carlsen bears the burden of America’s greatness. When called to serve, he did so. In the fallout of a post-military life, he returned home and sustained himself by his wits, providing for his family as a mechanic and hunter. He flies the American flag proudly and voted for Trump. There is nothing braggadocious in his person, or in how he speaks of his military past. Nor is he incendiary in his politics, save that he believes each man should provide for his own, that a sense of independence is lost in a welfare state of big government. For this abiding belief, he votes a conservative ticket, not out of ill-compassion, but because it’s the American way.

SJ Dunning was delivered to me in a trip into the Northwest. She will forever remind me of one of those provocative – dare I say feral – waifs who inhabit the Pacific Northwest

SJ Dunning was delivered to me in a trip into the Northwest. She will forever remind me of one of those provocative – dare I say feral – waifs who inhabit the Pacific Northwest, the sort of mysterious, brooding individual made famous under the glare of grunge music. Then the world looked away. She remained.

I say feral in the sense that she knew everything and yet had a shyness about her, a containment. Her instincts were toward a rural homestead self-reliance. She wore workmanlike jeans low on her hips and a plaid shirt, or she did when I knew her.

She was young then, still finding her voice, and though our encounter was brief – a transient series of classes offered at the University of Western Washington, and some mentoring over drinks at shabby bars – I understood she was in search of the sort of story that eventually arrives if one is patiently attentive and willing to endure long suffering. She was.

We kept in touch over the years. A writing teacher, if honest, will be brief, advance quiet direction, and be guarded in the absolute praise of a writer still on a journey. What we developed was a truthfulness, an ability to simply correspond from time to time, Sonya emerging from the chrysalis of deep hurts, edging ever closer to that defining story – first, her parents’ divorce, and later, in the emergence of her own fate as writer, amidst the seismic shift of what can happen when devoid of family and friends, the American economy tanked, leaving her bereft of home and money. What she did was pick up her pen.

The piece published here by The Irish Times reckons with the fallout of the House Crash, a calamity familiar to Irish society, but in this memoir-in-progress, Notes from the Field of Foreclosure, it’s a story of physical and social integration, peculiar in its American telling.

To describe the style – it is mercilessly objective, mercenary in its details, in what a daughter and father signed up to do in the foreclosure aftermath – trashout properties, removing the belongings of people whose homes had been repossessed. There’s an abrupt matter-of-factness, a daughter and father measuring the “lives of others in cubic yardage: the washing machine in the garage is one cubic yard, and the projection television anchoring the living room is probably one and a half. The more trash we remove, the more we get paid.”

And yet in the dissolution of other lives, there’s an absolute honesty, a self-reckoning with what one must do to survive. There is no artifice, no apology. All is documented in the aperture of a camera lens, per the bank’s demand, in shots a daughter takes to pictorially document the loss.

We learn eventually that the father is dying of cancer. It’s a stated fact. Little sentimentality is allowed. Time is money and money is what is needed, so nights are spent in rundown motels in the advance of a new day and a new trashout, in the scavenge of others’ lives.

Perhaps it is why I chose to share these two writers with an Irish audience – for the moral agency and immediacy of what each conveys, how each situates their stories within a stark, unsettling realism. At times, I believe America asks more of its citizens, or challenges them with the simple act of trying to survive. In the best American writing I’ve come upon, the stories register a moral accountability, and a self-awareness that doesn’t necessarily end in righteousness, though, in their telling the stories are always direct and so well observed, so well witnessed, that the least I can do is listen!

SJ Dunning on the road
SJ Dunning on the road

For(e)closure
By SJ Dunning

I want to say I am an expert on foreclosure – I feel an onus to provide a sturdy framework for what follows, to be more well-read on the subject than most – but even reviewing titles of books chronicling the mortgage crisis and foreclosure proves painstaking. The Rise and Fall of the US Mortgage and Credit Markets: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Market Meltdown. The Foreclosure of America: The Inside Story of the Rise and Fall of Countrywide Home Loans, the Mortgage Crisis, and the Default of the American Dream.

For the past couple of years, I‘ve been maintaining foreclosed homes throughout the northwest with my father for a property management vendor contracted by mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. My expertise is hands-on. But all I’m certain of is that foreclosure is damned laborious.

***

Entering a foreclosed home is usually straightforward enough – my father retrieves a key from the lockbox, opens the door – but sometimes we must “break and enter”.

It‘s 2010 – a mild day in June, and my father is wielding a giant screwdriver in one hand, a wrecking bar in the other, breaking into a split-level home through a basement window (we couldn’t get in through the door).

“This damned window!” my father says, his whole body in a lunge.

To lighten his mood – this window is more stubborn than most – I regale him with my imaginary soap opera version of foreclosure, an absurd spin-off of soaps my mother watched when I was a child. In These are the Days of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Fannie and Freddie are unwed lovers sharing a mansion with marble floors, ornate chandeliers, gold-plated trim and baseboards. Fannie collects Fabergé eggs, gestures dramatically when she speaks. Freddie smells of scotch, likes to gamble. In each episode, the couple hosts a party for Wall Street bigwigs “in their ballroom the size of this split-level,” I tell my father. When discussions of foreclosure arise, Fannie and Freddie are nonchalant. “Let them stay at the Hilton,” they say, seemingly oblivious to the personal hardships of those whose homes they’ve repossessed.

“Commercial breaks are for home loans…” my father adds.

The camouflage-print bandana he has tied around his bald head is saturated with sweat.

“Realize your dreams through home ownership,” I say.

But reality ensues in homes like this one, and it rarely matches those dreams. Upon notice of eviction, men and women wander through bedrooms, and living rooms, and kitchens, hurriedly packing up what they can of their belongings.

“Lights flicker, televisions turn to static,” I explain.

“Power service disconnect,” my father says.

I‘m peering over my shoulder now, hoping nosy neighbors won’t mistake my father for a burglar, and me for his accomplice. Or what if the former residents of this home happen to return for something they forgot?

The latch snaps.

My father crawls through the window, and I prepare the camera, waiting for him to open the front door.

***

What we do is called Initial Services: securing the property, completing the “trashout” (removing what remains in the home) and performing the maid service, miscellaneous seasonal maintenance, and an inspection for damages (sometimes homeowners flood or burn their homes in an act of defiance). For three days, we’ll become surrogate-residents of the split-level. The photographs we’ll take before we begin our labor, as well as during and after, will prove to the lenders its transformation.

“The photographs have to tell a story,” my father reminds me. “Shoot the address outside. … then the entry way from the front door … the living room … every room … from different angles.”

He demonstrates, and I follow him, snapping the photographs in stride.

“And get LOTS of the trash!” I photograph the messes we‘ve been wading through, and I open drawers, cupboards, and closets, photographing what’s inside them.

The “before” photographs document the story of a homeowner’s departure. Some take with them as much as they can; I’ve photographed ceilings with wires hanging down like frayed nerves from holes where light fixtures were, and walls with gouges the size of a man’s chest where bathtubs once concealed a network of pipes. We decide a family of four or more lived in the split-level, and they took only what could be hauled in armloads – the suitcases are gone, but we find clothes hanging to dry from the shower rod, a couch, bookshelves lined with books and photo albums, children’s drawings taped to the fridge, the shelves inside the freezer filled with moldy TV dinners.

In this line of work, most everything becomes trash. We measure the amount in cubic yardage: the washing machine in the garage is one cubic yard, and the projection television anchoring the living room is probably one and a half.

The more trash we remove, the more we get paid. But our pay isn’t anything to brag about once we’ve subtracted the costs: fuel, U-Haul rentals, dump fees, our nights at Motel 6, general wear and tear on the pickup – not to mention upon us. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure why we keep doing what we do.

We’ll remove two 17ft U-Hauls’ worth of trash from the split-level: we’ll photograph ourselves lifting 68 cubic yards – approximately 3.75 tons – into the truck by hand, and then we’ll take photographs again as we unload it, some of it at local charities, the rest at the dump, where we’ll turn heads, tossing contractor bag after contractor bag over the edge as fast as we can grab hold and let go, and heaving the furniture the charities turned away. It’s probably frowned upon to keep things for ourselves, but I’ll stuff a letter a mother wrote to her daughter into my pocket, anyway, and a child’s drawing of a bird, imagining my creation of a website called Foreclosure’s Lost & Found.

We‘ll return to the split-level to photograph our performance of the maid service and to check for any trash we might have neglected to remove before. Every property must be as empty and as spotless – inside and outside – as humanly possible before we take the after photographs. The real Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are picky: no footprints across the floor, not a hair in the sink, not a streak on a windowpane or mirror, not a trace of ash on the sidewalk from where one of us might have stamped out a cigarette.

***

“We’ve got to get this damned thing out the door!” my father says.

He‘s hunched against the upper half of the split-level’s staircase, bracing the projection television against his back – a Levi’s-clad Atlas holding up the world.

I’m squatting above him, gripping the bottom corners of the monstrosity, hoping the slip-grip on my gloves won’t give. Together, we weigh less than the television – it’s at least 300 pounds. If gravity wins, if we let go, it will crash down the stairs, taking us along.

Two days ago, when we unloaded furniture at The Salvation Army, the delivery driver said he’d pick up the television but that his insurance “doesn’t cover stairs.” So for two days, we have pretended the television wasn’t here.

You’d think that after lifting 3.75 tons (twice) moving a television would be child’s play, but the thing’s sheer magnitude – its potential to project life-sized cinema upon its screen, to frame our reflections in full – lends it substantial animus, as though it were purposefully resisting our efforts to bring this trashout to closure.

“Don’t try this at home,” I joke.

I support the television with a knee. I grip it with all my strength.

***

SJ Dunning as a child
SJ Dunning as a child

Memories of my own childhood home, of my once-whole family, are framed by a flashing television screen.

In a video labeled Christmas Eve at Home 1987, my older sister Tyrah and I tear open presents in the living room as my mother spins the knob on the stereo, searching for a station without static. When my father hands her the camcorder, she films Tyrah holding up a boxed Barbie’s Dream House, its cross-section glossy, its walls colorful, every room filled with furniture. “Daddy will have to put that together,” my mother says and then turns her attention to me and the china doll I’m unwrapping. “She’ll get broken,” she warns. “Don’t take her out of the box.”

How am I supposed to play with a doll I can’t touch?

My parents hand off the camcorder again and my father films my mother as she slides tiny earring-backs onto earrings he bought her, diamonds surrounded by deep red gems. He zooms in on her ear, and she tucks her soft blonde hair out of the way.

“They do something in the light,” he says.

My mother films my father in his new summer blazer, and he insists it fits him just right.

“Everyone gather around Mommy,” my father says.

Tyrah and I cozy up to her as our father rests the camcorder on the coffee table and enters the portrait he’s staged.

“Smile,” he says, and we do.

***

The footage is suspect.

I can guide that VHS tape into my VCR, push play, and I’m inside that home, inside that portrait again, but not long after that Christmas, off-screen, my father told me it was over – that he and my mother were getting divorced, that all I once thought to be wound so tightly had come undone. He sat on the steps of the front porch in a T-shirt and cut-off Levi shorts, with his bare feet planted on the bottom step, our two-storey country home rising behind him, its windows placed like eyes. A cigarette dangled from one hand as he gestured with the other, trying to explain what had happened. I sat beside him, wondering what it would mean to hold fire in my hands as he did, what would become of the little girl I knew myself to be within the home behind me (a home I wouldn’t be able to call my own much longer) when the flame he was holding burned out.

***

The corners of the television pinch my palms.

“Screw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!” I say. “Let‘s just leave the damned thing here: ‘Spacious split-level with complimentary television’.”

“We‘ve gotten it this far,” my father says through a half-laugh.

I ease down a step, letting the television slide toward him.

I ease down another step, fearing how this all might end-the television slipping, its screen fracturing, mechanisms of projection spilling across the floor.

By a haphazard method involving a nearly empty five-gallon bucket of paint and a block of wood – items we forgot to haul to the dump – and our own sheer will, we manage to get the television down the stairs. We alternate resting it on the bucket, and then on the block of wood, moving it stair by stair until it lands on the floor of the entryway with a thud.

“Will it fit through the door?” I ask as if I’ve forgotten what we’ve already maneuvered through this door and so many others.

“I’ll unhinge the damned door if I have to!”

But we’re able to tilt the television, turn it, and guide it at last over the doormat my father put down over the threshold.

If my father isn’t Atlas, he’s MacGyver, I decide: we’re making do.

“That’s that,” he says.

***

My childhood home stood in the mouth of a canyon in the outskirts of Ellensburg, Washington, a small town in the center of the state – “the Heart of Washington,” according to the local newspaper. The quarter-section of land where it stood can be traced in title transfers back to the 1800s, to the popularity of manifest destiny, to the roots of home ownership as a coveted characteristic of the American Dream. The earliest available record indicates that the US Transcontinental Railroad sold the land to Byron and Stella Chisholm in 1894. Three years later, the Chisholms sold the land to a mortgage company. Information on the heads of the mortgage company is scarce. According to newspaper archives, there was a lawsuit (decided in their favor) about a race track near the river, and one of the two heads of the company was noted for hosting a Euchre party at his home – I imagine poker instead, cigars and scotch. Maybe I am just a cynic, but other records seem to indicate that the pair’s business practices weren’t entirely scrupulous. At one point, for example, they attempted to use their mortgage company to pay off unrelated debts in the Sandwich Islands. Does this behavior suggest a 19th-century prelude to 21st-century predatory lending as I’ve interpreted it? The scenario seems fitting, if not entirely accurate.

The mortgage company eventually sold the land in 1911 – fair and square, as far as I can tell – to Francis M Standley. According to a penciled note on one of the home’s original boards, and from what I’ve been able to learn, dizzying myself reading microfiche, the home must have been built by Standley in 1912 – back when homes didn’t have foundations, when insulation was made of newspaper scraps, if there was any insulation at all. My father says Standley might have ordered the home from a Sears catalogue. Sears’s model no. 115 (1908-1914), a 6-room Modern Cottage “with wood foundation, not excavated” bears a close resemblance.

My family enters the scene in 1928 – specifically, my grandfather’s second cousin, Lily (Dunning) Pope, and her husband, Gil Pope. The Popes owned the home and raised sheep on the surrounding acreage for the following forty-five years – until Gil died of cancer. My grandfather had been close to the Popes for much of his life; having no children of their own, they considered him a son. Lily sold the property to him and my grandmother after Gil’s death in 1971, and they rented it to friends and family until my parents bought it in 1980, the year Tyrah was born and two years before I entered the scene.

***

Lily’s estate sale drew hundreds of buyers. The headline for the article published in the local newspaper described the sale this way: “It was a Great Day for an Auction – Bargains Galore and You Name the Price.” Lily described the event in her journal differently: “This is a day I will never forget, and I never want to go through another like it again.” She stares out from a small photograph in the article, her lips slightly pursed, a cap covering her short white hair, wrinkles running deep around her eyes.

Lily relocated to a mobile home set in a field bordering the home where my grandparents lived, a few miles down the road from “the home place”. She recorded the coordinates of her “tin can,“ as she called the mobile home, in the same journal where she recorded the serial numbers of her pistols and rifles and the births and deaths of her animals. According to the newspaper article, the mobile home “had less than enough room for all her possessions”; she took her horses and dogs “and every fine piece of furniture she could fit”.

Tyrah and I slept in beds Lily left behind.

***

During the first few years of my childhood, the home still had no insulation, no foundation – it couldn‘t hold the heat. My father woke up late one winter night, tiptoed past our bedrooms, and checked the indoor thermometer downstairs, which read 39 degrees, even with the woodstove loaded and hot. The next morning, he cut a pillow-sized hole in the floor beside the chimney so heat would drift directly upstairs where everyone slept.

I remember lying near the metal grate he set there, staring through to the floor below, being told I’d fall through if I wasn’t careful, and I remember the makeshift steps that led up to the front door when the house was lifted so the foundation could be poured.

By the time of “Christmas Eve at Home 1987”, the house had been set back down and the interior remodels were in progress. It‘s possible to see a large piece of plywood masking a hole in the wall where my father removed the original fireplace – the plywood decorated by pages torn from a coloring book. Insulation is exposed where other sections of wall have yet to be replaced. The doors and windows are new, and plastic covers the lampshades of shiny brass lamps atop matching oak end tables on either side of our new blue shell-backed couch.

The living room of my home today is a partial replica of that one-those end tables and that couch have followed me into the present. But, here, on this side of the television screen, I am a spectator; I can no longer believe there is a foundation beneath me that holds everything in place.

***

The deed to my childhood home went back to my grandparents after my parents divorced. Friends of the family rented the home until my cousin and his wife bought it recently. But its floors had sloped, and its ceilings were bowed.

“I guess you can’t lift a whole home up and expect things not shift when it’s set back down,” my father said.

It wasn’t long before my cousin and his wife and two young children moved into a new home they’d had built not twenty feet behind the old house, which still stood there like a grand addition missing only a connective hallway.

My cousin’s decision to demolish my childhood home shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it did. Part of me resented him, though I understood he was doing what he believed was best for his family. He said he’d thought about moving it to the nearest field instead: “But I don‘t think it would survive.”

“You’d have to tie it up to keep it from falling apart,” was my father’s take.

I wanted to believe my father could do it if anyone could, that opening up the walls of that home all those years ago – and seeing how they fit together – had been practice for just such a feat. I pictured it wrapped and ribboned, like Barbie’s Dream House, or like Sears’s model no. 115, sliding heavy into the field.

***

Almost 100 years after that home was first assembled it was torn down – January 16th, 2010. I rented a camcorder to document the event.

When I entered the living room early that morning, camcorder in hand, I half-heartedly hoped I’d encounter traces of Christmas Eve at Home 1987: Barbie’s Dream House on the floor, perhaps, its rooms filled with furniture, scraps of wrapping paper insulating its cardboard walls. But the light was too low to register anything other than the beam of my flashlight, clouded by breath.

Tyrah and I stood in the snow catching windows our father pried loose, my cousin’s oldest son peering curiously through the front window of his home behind us.

Throughout the day, we loaded the back of my car with bricks, boards, banister rails – all of which weighted it in the months of snow to follow.

I filmed Tyrah removing a layer of wood paneling on the bathroom wall that covered the wallpaper which, she reminded me, had mesmerized us as children. As we’d bathed, as we’d brushed our teeth, as our mother had combed and braided our hair, we‘d projected our family onto the figures framed in its black & white antique newsprint advertisements for remedies and hygiene products.

“The bald man in the ad for Dr. Scott’s Electric Hair Brush – $1.00 – was our bald father,” Tyrah said, pointing to him.

Our mother was the beauty in profile for Procter & Gamble’s Vegetable Glycerin who wore a floppy-looking hat that resembled the one our mother wore when she gardened. Lily was the woman in the rocker reading a book in the advertisement for The Electropoise Company.

“She was reading us a story,” I remembered.

Gil was the man with a mustache in profile for Cuticura, a remedy for “humors of the blood and skin”. Tyrah and I were the young girl standing on a rock at the water’s edge in John Collier’s “Water Baby” painting (appropriated by Pears Soap). I studied that figure closely as I tried to peel her off the wall.

“I always thought the light shining on the rock behind her was a pair of wings,” I said.

When she tore in half, I told my father to take the whole wall.

He started his chainsaw.

My mother had called at 3:00 a.m., sleepless, asking us to save a door for her – with the hinges. We didn’t ask why she wanted a door, where she might display it. We figured she just wanted closure and believed a door might suffice.

We took every door.

***

I’d wanted this event to make the local newspaper like Lily’s estate sale had – “Historic Home Demolished” – but it was to be strictly a family affair.

My father performed half the demolition. I stood inside the living room and filmed him through a jagged frame of splintered boards where a wall used to be, and Tyrah snapped photographs from a variety of angles. Without a mask to protect him from the insulation spilling from the walls and filling the air like static on a television, our father worked the excavator with both hands, both feet, pulling at the layers of our home, shaking the floor beneath us, reaching further, not yet telling us to get out.

I remembered “Christmas Eve at Home 1987” and my mother’s warnings: “Leave the doll in her box,” she’d said. She’d kept the plastic on the lampshades, too – as if she’d somehow sensed this was coming.

“Not many people get to stand inside a home while it’s demolished,” Tyrah shouted over the clamor of the excavator.

“It feels like an earthquake.”

I zoomed in and out on the scene, imagining the footage as a continuation of the scene my parents had filmed, the cinematic equivalent of double exposure-two disparate scenes framed as one by a fluke of light.

***

The debris from the demolition didn’t fit into the hole my cousin had dug the day before for its burial. He drenched the mangled heap with gasoline and lit it with a torch. My father carefully nudged the trail of debris into the hole as it burned-the excavator’s arm an extension of his own.

In the photograph my father took of Tyrah and me later that evening, we stand four feet apart, facing each other. We are hinged at our hips, our arms forming a roof above our heads, our hands palm to palm-an apex. We are a silhouette the shape of our own once-home ablaze behind us. Tyrah took a photograph of our father standing ten feet from the fire, his back to the camera, his arms straight above his head. He is a beam, a candle-the flames live and leaping high above his fingertips. What shape would my mother have made if she‘d been there, beside him?

Rocks exploded in the embers like gunfire.

I told Tyrah that Lily was shooting all her pistols and rifles from beyond the grave – whether in commemoration or defense of her property I refused to decide.

My father spoke eloquently when I asked how it felt to tear down what he and my mother had worked so hard all those years to prevent from falling apart: “I could see the old and what we once considered was the new…the layers blended together as time rushed through it once more.”

And I wonder, as I study the remains of the bathroom wall hanging above my television today, if what has become of my childhood home had been written there all along as we bathed, as we brushed our teeth, as all that water rushed from unseen places in the walls and swirled down drains behind the figures whose faces Tyrah and I pretended were ours, and we just didn’t know how to read it yet. There is no remedy for the passage of time – no magical hair brushes, no jars of Vegetable Glycerin, no bars of soap, no turns of the faucet. Not unlike the pages of the newspaper my father nightly crumpled, whatever we didn’t one day cut out of this home was destined to be reduced to ash.

There we had stood, warmed by the flames, their reflections, like our own, flashing upon wet mud.

***

The Salvation Army truck arrives as my father and I roll the giant television down the sidewalk. The truck is a hefty white steed branded with a large red badge I initially see as a heart. The driver backs the truck in front of the garage. He nods hello to us as he walks to open the trailer, his jeans baggy, cuffs frayed from dragging upon the ground. My father helps him strap the television to a dolly. Once the television is inside, my father releases his grip. The driver straps it to a bar lining the trailer’s wall, steps down, nods goodbye.

I pull a cigarette from my pack, hand it to my father, and pull out another for myself.

If only the loss of home really could be measured this way, I think – in washing machines and televisions. If only there was a message of condolence that could do that loss justice, and a fleet of baggy-jeaned angels who could haul it away on a big white steed branded with a heart.

I wish foreclosure was just an absurd soap opera – that one could change the channel – and if there is a dream to be realized through home ownership, I wish that such a dream‘s realization could prove to be as good as the dream itself had been. I know my father is thinking this too as he watches The Salvation Army truck merge onto the street and takes off his gloves.

***

From foreclosed homes, we‘ve removed books like So, You Want a Divorce? Do it Yourself and Understanding Human Behavior and Practical Problem Solver. Perhaps the abandonment of these books tells the same story as books chronicling the mortgage crisis and foreclosure have told: the loss of a home, as I’ve come to know it, is, indeed, a default, a meltdown, a fall. But is there a way to analyze comprehensively the so-called trash my father and I have hauled away from foreclosures, or the human behaviors and foibles that might instigate the loss of a home – no matter the circumstances of that loss?

As a child, I believed my home was braced and battened, strong enough to shield me from all calamities. What book could have soothed me when that belief was shaken? What book might my father have read from all those years ago to explain what would happen once we left? And what words might bring me solace now? That place is gone. Who am I without it?

We couldn’t endure this labor if we weren’t once-removed from the heartbreak. I don’t think we could even feign the strength required to overhear some other father tell his daughter that he isn’t really Atlas or MacGyver, that he can‘t hold her home, her world-his dream for her-together anymore, that he can’t save the day with the tools beneath the canopy of his pickup.

I take the photographs of our labor with artistic intent. I zoom in as my father muscles appliances and televisions into U-Hauls. I zoom in upon his calloused hands gripping contractor bags, wiping windowpanes and mirrors, placing new keys into lockboxes – evidence of a supposed transformation. I suspect the people reviewing these photographs for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, hundreds of miles away from where we labor, won‘t think twice about their quality, let alone about the deeper story I want the photographs to tell – the story of a dream’s inadequacies, so often taken out with the trash.

***

Once we’ve taken the “after” photographs, secured the split-level, and loaded our equipment beneath the canopy, we climb into my father’s pickup, and he types the address of the Motel 6 near tomorrow‘s foreclosure into his GPS with an un-clicked pen.

“I hope our friend Tom Bodett forgot to turn off the light again,” he jokes.

“Proceed to the nearest road,” the GPS says. My father shifts the pickup into gear, and I realize this must be why we keep doing what we do: we could be at any address on any road, and these homes we drive away from-and the stories of those who once lived in them-both are and are not our own. This business of foreclosure has become a business for closure.

But into how many homes must I watch my father break and enter? Onto how many of foreclosure’s forgotten television screens must I project my own memories of loss, before I am able to stop the loop, push eject? No matter how I frame them, won’t all renderings of that place I once called home eventually turn to static?

Hotel California, a makeshift holding cell where US soldiers in Afghanistan kept enemy combatants that they had captured.
Hotel California, a makeshift holding cell where US soldiers in Afghanistan kept enemy combatants that they had captured.

The Hotel California
By Steve Carlsen

I put my fleece watch cap on under my helmet as I walked over to the Hotel California. It was two in the morning and freezing cold. I wanted desperately to go back to sleep. The Hotel California was a make shift holding cell where we kept enemy combatants that we had captured.

The prisoners were usually held for a couple of days while they were being interrogated by U.S. Government Spooks. When the prisoners were no longer full of useful information, a helicopter would fly out to our remote mountain outpost and pick up the prisoners, and fly them to a bigger base in Afghanistan and eventually on to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Hotel California got its name from the Eagles song. A hand painted sign hanging above the door that said “Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.“

It was my shift to pull guard. I looked at the two men that stood in front of me shivering from fear and from the cold. They both had sandbags over their heads. Their hands were zip tied behind their backs and their feet were zip tied together to prevent them from running away.

It was December and cold in the mountains. I could see my breath when I exhaled. The two men shook uncontrollably. They were completely naked. One of them had shit himself. He had shit on the back of his legs and there was shit on the ground. He was standing in it, and he was crying.

***

The Spooks oversaw the combat outpost. There were just a few of them, high ranking members of a secret US Government alphabet agency. But we did the grunt work. We kicked in the doors, went into the compounds, captured the militants. We died and got wounded in the process, and those of us who survived, we guarded the prisoners.

They gave the orders, they got the credit.

My orders were to splash the prisoners with water every few minutes and make sure they never got dry. I was told to intimidate them by yelling and to hit them with the barrel or the butt stock of my machine gun.

“Scare the hell out of ‘em,“ the Spook said as he put his cigarette out on the chest of one of the prisoners.

I stood there and watched the two prisoners of war. The Spooks believed that these two prisoners were part of the Christmas day assault on the outpost that I had survived several days prior. They wanted us to break these men. Break their spirit and their will to live.

The one that had shit himself stood there shaking. He would let out an occasional sob like a child that had cried himself to sleep. I could tell by his actions that he was either young or not as hardened as his partner in crime.

I refused to follow the orders. I refused to splash them with water, it was too f--king cold. I refused to hit a man who was completely naked, zip tied with a sandbag over his head and suffering from hypothermia.

I was not opposed to knocking someone‘s teeth out with the butt stock of my machine gun. I had done it in the past, but these men were tied up and helpless. I sat there in silence trying to stay warm, wondering what thoughts might be running through their heads. Fear of the unknown. They probably thought they would be executed. If the situation was reversed I knew they would execute me by slowly cutting my head off with a big knife.

They must have thought they were alone. The quiet hajji said something to the one that had shit himself. I ran the few feet to him and grabbed the sandbag that was covering his head and shook it violently.

“Shut the f--k up,“ I screamed as I threw him to the ground. “Shut the f--k up or I‘ll kill you.“

I put the barrel of my machinegun to his head. “Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.“

The Haji repeated a prayer over and over as I dragged him to his feet. The hajji that had shit himself began to cry out loud. I grabbed the sandbag on his head and shook it once and said. “Shut the f--k up now!“

I sat back down. I looked at my watch. The two-hour shift was only half over. The sky was clear and there were more stars in the sky than I had ever seen in my life. I lit a cigarette and took a long drag and inhaled deep. I exhaled and watched hajjis.

The one was still crying and it was beginning to get on my nerves. The other one held his composure. He was trying to be strong. He wasn‘t shaking. I figured the adrenalin rush he had from me getting in his face must have made him oblivious to the cold.

I smoked the cigarette down to the filter, then rolled the butt between my fingers to get rid of the ash and what little tobacco was left and put it in my pocket.

I saw the bottle of water out of the corner of my eye and thought about throwing water on them, but I couldn‘t justify it. It was so f--king cold and they were probably at the lowest point in their lives and I didn‘t see how it would help the situation.

I heard footsteps behind me and turned and saw the sergeant of the guard walking up. He asked me if I had a cigarette.

I lied and told him I just smoked my last one. I never liked the sergeant. He was in another platoon and he was a d--k from the time he woke up till the time he went to sleep. He was a sadistic f--k. I saw him throw a zip tied hajji out the back of a speeding Humvee. When they took hajji to the medic for a fractured skull, he told the medic that hajji had jumped out of the truck.

He walked over to the prisoners and slapped them both in the face. The one that shit himself started to cry again.

“How come they‘re dry,“ he shouted. “Have you been throwing water on them?“

“No Sergeant,“ I said. “No one told me to.“

He started to get pissed because the prisoners were dry. “You gotta‘ keep them wet,“ he said, throwing water on them.

The hajji that shit himself began to cry louder and that pissed the sergeant off more.

“Shut the f--k up,“ the Sergeant said, first hitting the hajji in the side of the head with his fist, then kicking him in the nuts with the toe of his boot.

Hajji screamed, lurched forward and fell flat on his face. The sergeant of the guard jumped on top of him and punched him repeatedly in the head and body.

Haji screamed at the top of his lungs during the attack.

Finely tired, the sergeant got up off the ground and kicked hajji once more.

“F--king faggot pussy,“ the sergeant said as he pulled out a cigarette and lit it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

The Hajji that had shit himself laid on the ground. He was cradled in pain, moaning, rolling back and forth. His dick was bleeding.

The Hajji‘s wails attracted attention and a medic came over to see what was wrong.

I told the medic what the sergeant of the guard had done while he worked on the prisoner.

The medic took the sandbag off hajji‘s head and I saw his face for the first time.

The Hajji that had shit himself was obviously retarded. His eyes looked out of opposite corners of his eyelids, like a reverse of cross eyed. His nose was pushed up his face and his cleft lip exposed his nostrils and what few teeth he had in his mouth.

He moaned and cried out in pain as the medic examined him.

“He has a severed urethra,“ the medic said. “The tube that piss comes out of is severed inside his penis.“

With bare hands, I held a white gauze bandage on the haji‘s penis trying to stop the bleeding. The medic gave him a shot of something to help the pain. The white gauze turned dark red and his blood felt warm in my bare hand.

Time passed.

The Spooks came and another medic gave the retarded hajji more medical attention.

They cut the zip ties off both the hajjis and took the sandbags off their heads. They gave them their clothes back and let them get dressed.

The spooks apologized for arresting the wrong people. They said that America was grateful for their cooperation and understanding. They gave the hajjis several hundred dollars apiece to help smooth things over. They walked the father and his retarded son to the front gate and released them.

I watched the father help his son hobble away.

***

The Spooks came over and started asking me questions. They took me into a room with a desk and two chairs. There was a single glairing light bulb hanging from a bare wire. It reminded me of a spy movie.

The Spooks told me that the sergeant of the guard had told them that I was abusing the prisoners.

I told them my side of the story. They acted like they believed me.

“Do you really believe that, that retarded hajji had something to do with the Christmas day attack.“ I said it sarcastically. “He can‘t even f--king talk.“ This was nothing I had ever signed up for.

The spook handed me a piece of paper. “Sign it,“ he said, staring directly at me.

I defiantly met his stare, then looked away.

I read the paper. It said I was not allowed to talk to anyone or write anything about what I had seen, or the name and location of the firebase, or the names of any person or Government affiliation involved. By signing my name, I would be agreeing that none of this happened and if I talked I would go to prison.

They made me write my name, and my social security number on the piece paper, and they wanted my parent‘s home address in case they ever needed to find me.

I didn‘t have a choice so I signed my name, and just like that six months of my life no longer existed.

I never saw a retarded hajji with a sandbag over his head, his hands tied behind his back, lying on the ground bleeding from his dick.

Steve Carlsen in his US army days
Steve Carlsen in his US army days

The Zatenge Church
By Steve Carlsen

The old church stood grey as the sky from which the rain fell. All that remained of what it once stood for was a tall steeple reaching heavenward. Built by the hands of man, every stone had been reverently placed to pay homage and glory to God.

Now bricks and mortar fill the void that once held colorful stain glass windows. The large wooden doors chained shut, are locked with a heavy bolt, a spray of bullet holes is testament to the violent history of this old house of worship.

Surrounding the church on three sides is the cemetery. A limestone statue of the Blessed Mother stands amongst the headstones. Weathered by the elements and time, her once delicately carved features are as worn as the headstones she watches over.

A tall tree line around the cemetery creates a natural barrier. On the outside perimeter, two rows of triple stacked concertina wire prevent any unwanted visitors. Thirty feet inside the perimeter, facing the trees, is a daisy chain of claymore mines waiting to welcome anyone that makes it through the razor wire.

***

The ethnic cleansing that went on in Kosovo, the former republic of Yugoslavia, during the 1990s was largely based on religion. Christian Serbians living in Kosovo, with help from the Serbian government, attacked Muslim Albanians also living in Kosovo. The Christian Serbians were the minority in Kosovo at the time, and quickly found the tables turned when the majority, Muslim Albanians retaliated against their attacks. They killed each other, blowing up schools, churches, mosques and entire neighborhoods.

Neither group was by any means innocent. Digging mass graves, they would execute an entire town by slitting the inhabitants’ throats or shooting them in the head.

Women and young girls were brutally gang raped. When the soldiers were done rapping their victim they would usually kill them, but it became common to allow young girls to live.

After the rape, soldiers would stomp on the girl’s stomach, and pelvis, crushing their pubic bone and hips, preventing them from ever having children and causing them to walk with a limp for the rest of their life.

***

All churches, schools, and mosques in Kosovo had to be guarded twenty-four hours a day. Our sector had two churches. The more dangerous church was The Zatenge Church. Seven miles from base camp, instead of rotating guard shifts and risking the daily journey, we lived on the small OP for a month at a time.

In late February, our platoon drew the short straw and we were assigned The Zatenge Church. We sullenly packed up our gear and drove seven miles into the country side, past bombed out houses that stood as sullen reminders to the recent war, arriving eventually at the small outpost that we would call home for the next four weeks.

“You don’t know how glad we are to see you,” the soldier guarding the gate said.

A group of men gathered around our trucks. Their faces looked tired and disheveled. They reminded me of castaways on a deserted island.

“There are ghosts here, this place is haunted. I ain’t shit’in you.”

They shook their heads in unison and started talking all at once, each man telling his own story of ghosts and supernatural happenings. They told stories of bodies and skeletons in the grave yard. Three of them swore that they saw the statue of Mary walking around after dark.

“I shot her with my M4, swear to God.”

“After he shot her, she ran back and climbed on her stone base.”

“We’re not f--king with you. All three of us saw it.”

Fear was written on their faces. Their stories were hard to believe, but it was evident that they were convinced they had seen something.

The men helped us unload our gear and gave us a tour of the small compound.

Two olive drab GP medium tents would be our sleeping quarters. They were crammed with cots lining the walls. Each soldier was assigned foot locker. Centerfolds from Hustler and Penthouse hung inside the tent. This was a man’s environment, harsh and dirty - the only women that could thrive here were the ones on our walls.

***

A GP large tent served as our chow hall and recreation area. Neatly tucked into one corner of the tent was a white plastic picnic table, a refrigerator filled with soda, a freezer filled with frozen pizzas, and a microwave that had never been cleaned. Four bag chairs sat next to the picnic table, arranged in a row facing a TV tuned to the Armed Forces Network. The other three quarters of the tent was set up like a gym. There was a treadmill and a weight bench and ten thousand pounds of weights.

The Lieutenant giving the tour stopped and pointed to the weight bench. “This is where I saw the thing.”

“What thing?”

“I don’t know. It sat there with its back to me, hunched over sitting on the weight bench. I watched it for a few seconds and then it vanished.”

“Good thing you guys are being replace by the ghost busters,” I said.

We all laughed.

He led us back outside into the drizzle and showed us the guard towers, motor pool, and fuel point. There were hundreds of black crows cawing in the trees surrounding the cemetery. He showed us, too, the perimeter and the placement of the claymores. We had to yell over the noise of the birds.

“The crows show up when it rains. The water erodes the graves. Sometimes old bones or a body gets washed out. The crows will pick pieces of flesh off whatever washes up and eat it.”

“This place is a f--king Edgar Allen Poe story.”

The Lieutenant reached into his pocket and pulled out a large key with a parachute cord. He unlocked the oversized lock, pulling free the chain holding the large wooden doors. The church was empty, no pews, no organ, nothing, nothing but mold and bullet holes on one wall.

“Story goes… the Albanians lined everyone up on the wall one Sunday, men, women and children. F--kin killed em’ all. Retaliation because the Serbs blew up a school or something.”

We stared at each other in amazement. Soldiers trained to kill without a second thought were terrified of this place. We left the church.

Outside, I walked over to the statue of the Virgin Mary. I watched the ground to make sure I didn’t step on a body. Headstones were strewed about. I stared at the statue of the Virgin. Her hands were folded in prayer. In the center of her chest was a bullet hole, the white pock mark contrasted against the grey, weathered stone.

***

I sat in the guard tower over the front gate. The rain had stopped, briefly, the air cold and heavy with moisture. Through the fog, I saw the labored gate of a lone figure, slowly trudging its way up the hill towards the church. I watched the silhouette grow the closer it got to me.

I climbed out of the guard tower and walked over to the gate.

A woman in her mid-twenties greets me in Serbian.

“Zdravo.”

Even a beautiful woman couldn’t make this language sexy. When she talked, it sounded like she was hawking loogies. Dirty fucking language, I thought to myself.

“Hi. Are you the cleaning lady?”

She had been through the drill before. She saw a new face on this gate every four weeks. She smiled. It was a kind gentle smile. She was missing some teeth. She reached into a pocket of her sweater with her left hand and pulled out a yellow and white KFOR ID card.

I look at the picture, then at her.

She was holding a brown paper bag in her right arm. She set the bag on a bench and removed the shawl covering it. Self-conscious, she tried to hide her right arm from me. Her hand was missing just above the wrist. She had scars on her arm, a hack job. The missing hand and limp were courtesy of an Albanian gang rape.

The brown paper bag had ten fresh baked loaves of bread in it. She smiled and handed me a warm loaf. I smiled and thanked her - this girl, not much older than me, butchered and damned, her life completely devastated by war and hate.

I grabbed the radio hand mike and pressed the button. It beeped.

“The cleaning lady is here. I’m letting her in.”

The radio beeped again. “Is she hot, does she have big tits?”

I looked at her again – the grimace on her face every time she took a step - the teeth that were busted out of her head, the brutal rape she had endured, her shattered hips and pelvis, her missing hand. She smiled again showing me her missing teeth.

I pressed the button on the hand mike and said, “She’s miss congeniality.”

***

Soy Sauce was born in Japan and immigrated to Hawaii with his family when he was young. We used to f--k with him about being Japanese and living in Hawaii, and Pearl Harbor. He was very superstitious. He said it was an Asian thing. It was how he was raised. He was the first person in our platoon to see a ghost.

Screaming into the radio, he said there was a ghost in the tower with him. He was hysterical, walking around in circles, chain smoking cigarettes. He refused to get back in the guard tower.

They told him he would be court marshaled for disobeying an order, but his fear would not allow him to follow the order. His slanted eyes were round with fear, he couldn’t stop shaking and mumbling.

We laughed at him. None of us had ever seen anyone so scared.

“F--k you, you don’t believe me. F--k you.”

It was the middle of the night. They told him to go get something to drink and eat a pizza.

They told him when he calmed down they would put him in a different tower. He refused to be alone. He was the first, but not the last to succumb to the fear of the Zatenge Church.

Our twelve-hour guard shifts passed slowly, each hour felt like a day. Every man did his time is solitary confinement different. Some chain-smoked cigarettes, inhaling smoke every time they took a breath, going hours without breathing fresh air.

Boredom and complacency constantly tugged at our eye lids, beckoning us to give up the fight and go to sleep. Some men read books and magazines to make the time pass. Others did pushups or masturbated. All of us stared blankly out the windows of the guard tower for hours.

Eyes bloodshot and clothes smelling like smoke, we climbed out of our cells, and tired we stumbled toward the chow tent or towards our cots.

***

Miss Congeniality plunged a rag into a bucket of soap and water, rung it out with her left hand, and tossed the rag on the white picnic table. She used her nub, what was left of her right arm to scrub at a spot of dried pizza sauce.

Her hair, black as the crows in the trees over the graveyard, was hidden under a bonnet. She wore a faded blue, simple homemade dress and an apron that was grey from being washed in the river.

She cleaned the entire kitchen, everything except the microwave. She probably didn’t know what it was. She helped herself to a can of soda in the fridge, the one fringe benefit of her job. Putting it in her pocket, she didn’t open it. She took it home to drink later. She cleaned our bathroom and showers, taking any bars of soap that were left behind. She was not a thief. She knew that if she left them, they would go in the trash. She was poor and supported her entire family with this job. She would use the left-over soap.

She came twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, limping up to the front gate, always with fresh baked loaves of bread. No one ever gave her money for the bread. She never asked for any. She had a motherly way about her, even though she was just a few years older than us.

We gave her things, things we were going to throw away, worn out running shoes, half empty bottles of shampoo, socks with holes. She always smiled her toothless smile. I think that was why she brought the bread.

I took a picture of her once. She was outside the chow tent empting a bucket of water. She had on the faded blue dress and apron she wore every day, her hair under a bonnet. She saw the camera in my hand, put the bucket down, stood up straight and looked at me without smiling.

I got the film developed in Vitina a few days later. When she came to work that day, I gave her the picture I had taken.

She cried. I felt like shit. A few hours after, she left for home.

She returned toward the end of my shift. I saw her limping back up the hill towards the church. There was a man and three children with her.

I walked over to the gate.

She was wearing a green homemade dress without an apron, and a white knitted shawl.

I asked, “Is this your family?”

I knew she wanted me to take their picture. They were all dressed in their best cloths. Her husband wore faded corduroy pants and a brown sweater. She had two boys and a girl.

I positioned them where the old church and the barbed wire wouldn’t be in the picture. I used up an entire roll of film and gave her all thirty-two pictures I had taken. She sat at the white picnic table and looked at them. Holding the photos to her breasts, she sobbed.

***

The rain fell in torrents and I was glad I was in the guard tower. The church was blurred by the precipitation. I read a book trying stave off boredom. It was no use.

I was going stir crazy in an eight by eight prison cell. When the rain finely stopped, the big black crows flew out of the trees and picked at something near the fence. I called it up on the radio, and they told me to go check it out.

I lit a cigarette and walked down the hill toward the birds. They were cawing and making a ruckus, tearing at pieces of flesh and fighting over what was on the ground.

When I got close, I threw a rock and the crows scattered. Caught in the barbed wire was a rotted human torso and most of an arm. Rib bones were visible through holes in the flesh. The arm was held on by rotten bits of skin and decomposing muscle.

I yelled up to the nearest guard tower. “It’s a f--king body.” I looked back at the torso. Most of the organs were gone, eaten by the birds.

Soy Sauce walked down the hill carrying a shovel. He said, “Sarge says to put it back in its grave.”

I thought I was going to puke. I stuck the shovel under the torso and picked it up. It fell off the shovel. When it hit the ground, the arm ripped off.

Soy Sauce threw up.

“Fuck you,” I screamed at the top of my lungs, to no one and everyone. “Fuck you for making me pick up a body like its dog shit.”

***

Lost in thought, I watched the rain through the windows of the guard tower. Most of us don’t give a f--k about this place. We don’t care about Kosovo, the people or this f--king church. We are doing our time, until our parole is granted and we are sent home.

Only later in our lives will we look back and allow our thoughts dwell on this place. This place the rest of the world forgot. We are young men, in our late teens and early twenties, cutting our teeth on life. Old age is a long way off, but old age comes quickly even for young men. Regret makes the heart ache. All the good you have done never seems good enough.

The violence is still something we don’t fully understand. It is impossible for us to wrap our minds around. The hundreds of thousands of people tortured and murdered, all civilians because they call their God by a different name. No wonder there are ghosts and demons here. Each has a story to tell, each as tragic as the next.

This church, this empty house of worship was built as a sanctuary where God and man came together. God is all but forgotten, no longer trusted to protect and watch over His people.

The only time the church is used is when someone dies. Superstition compels them to bury their dead. None of the nameless dead buried here will be nominated as a saint.

Each corpse is piled one on top of another as prayers are said, and the heavy chain goes back on the heavy doors, and the church is locked.

The body lies in the ground, but never rests in peace. There is no peace here. The body lies in limbo, between heaven and hell, waiting for the next heavy rain, when it will be regurgitated by the ground. Only then will it fly with the birds.

scarlsen2@hotmail.com

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