The Taste of Cheap Tequila
My ears rushed with the sound of blood, loud as a tornado.
The platoon Sergeant barked at me to go to the staging area after chow, ready to roll, and I did, still smelling of fried food. The sky was the color of a plastic yard flamingo, and the air was full of sand. The pink reminded me of a girl I’d met at a strip club near Fort Benning. She was pure and ethereal and wore a gauzy rosé dress. When I thought of her, I tasted strawberries, but not in a sexual way. In an actual, physical, way—phantom juice, seeds, and fibrous flesh tickling my throat. I don’t know why this happened, but it did.
When I met her, she stabbed me with her breath, assaulting my ear as she laughed at my jokes and smiled and danced her fingertips on my burning forearm, each fingertip a jolt. My heart belonged to her that night, and I still think of her, and I wonder if she thinks of me, or if I’m just another slack-faced shaved-head recruit with empty pockets. I know the answer, but I pretend I don’t. My friend Ramirez was with me that night, he’d bought me the first lap dance, followed by five shots of the club’s cheapest tequila. Eventually, I threw up between a Dodge Charger (flat black) and a late-model Mustang (red) and our night was over.
The staging area was full of men (boys) and vehicles, and the company gathered around Lieutenant Landers and my heart existed as an open wound. I glanced inside the wound and it was as dark and empty and desperate. An unloaded gun. The emptiness hurt, so I lifted my chin and waved at Ramirez. We made eye contact and I flicked him off. He looked left and right, then he grabbed his crotch, shook it, and blew me a kiss. My unoccupied hand joined its partner in dual one-finger salutes. Ramirez laughed. He walked over and punched my shoulder. The heart wound closed.
Ramirez pinched my right nipple through my shirt, and I yelped. The noise caught my Platoon Sergeant’s attention and he hit us with death eyes, and we giggled like middle schoolers.
Landers stood in front of us, tall and lean. “Tonight a special operations task force is taking out a high-value target in Sadr city. Simultaneously, we’re raiding a shirt factory associated with the HVT, searching for bomb-making materials using a dog.” Landers knife-hand-pointed towards Ramirez.
“Ram, you’re escort and protection.”
Ramirez saluted. “Woof woof.”
Landers dropped the hand. “Also, we got tanks covering our backs.”
The walk to the motor pool was as quiet as the North Georgia mountains after snow. Once we arrived, I jumped in my HMMWVs turret, behind my m249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). When I touched the SAW my mouth turned down. I looked at the gun truck in front of me and its gorgeous weapon, the 240B. I sighed and grasped the SAW and we rolled out.
Out on the Iraqi blacktop, cars got out of our way and people ducked into corners as we rolled by—death on wheels. My eyes narrowed and I scanned for bomb-hiding trash piles. As they appeared, I called them out. “Forty meters ahead on your left, two old tires and a dead mule.”
The driver jerked right and my heart rate spiked like an invisible hand had injected methamphetamine straight into the ventricle, but nothing exploded. We continued to the factory.
We parked one block over and the diesel engines ticked as they cooled. Landers got on the radio.
“This is Panther 5, we’re in position, y’all can get started.”
There was a flash and a chest-suck explosion two blocks east. Then the gunfire started. The special ops started their special things.
We drove the final block, parked, and dismounted our HMMWVs. My squad—very regular and not special—ran to the gate and stacked up to enter. Our team leader was on point, Sergeant was second, I was third, and our driver was fourth.
Landers got on the radio. “Tanks are set, hit the gate.”
The point man kicked the shitty metal entrance and it swung open. We flowed into a parking lot full of mortar craters and one burned-out white Toyota Hilux. There was always a Hilux—not always burned-out. I smelled rotten meat wafting up from a garbage pile in the lot and the scent got in my mouth and I spit.
I looked across the lot and saw the factory. It was beige with a series of low windows. Everything in Iraq was beige and barren. The structure had three tall brick smokestacks, but no smoke.
We picked our way to the structure, heads on a swivel. The point man led us wide around the Hilux. My heart hammered against my ribs and visions of dying in a fireball bopped through my head.
Once close, we duck-walked low past windows to the door. The point man reached for the knob. My sergeant slapped away the reaching hand.
The sergeant got on the radio. “Door might be wired. We’re taking the glass.”
Landers got on the radio. “Fuck the glass. I’ll send a tank to punch through the wall.”
We floated back. From behind and to the left, a high-pitched wheeze started. I turned as the tank lumbered past like a drunken white elephant. It wheezed by my stack and its thick tube penetrated the wall. Brick crumbled and fell, and the tank pulled out. A plume of dust came and it got in my eyes. The tank was gone and as the dust settled, all that remained was a gaping empty void bathed in earth tones.
The tank commander popped out of the hatch and got on the radio.
“That was fucking awesome.” Landers shot the guy a thumbs up. The guy waved at Landers and smiled. His teeth were as straight and very white. He wore the same gold Citadel ring as Landers and they both sported smooth, unlined, faces. Officers were a part of a club, and I was on the outside looking in, but I didn’t want in. Most were pompous blowhards, and I was better off with Ramirez.
The point man stepped into the building and we followed.
The first two men broke left—the driver and I went right. I held the wall and scanned with my rifle, looking for people with guns, people holding detonating devices, suspicious trash piles, anything that gave me goose pimples, but there was nothing.
A cavernous factory opened before me, barren and taupe. The four of us marched forward in a straight line. My throat caught with every step. My ears rushed with the sound of blood, loud as a tornado. I went heel-toe, heel-toe, and my asshole puckered, and the twenty-meter walk was twenty miles.
We reached the far end and my throat and asshole relaxed and the tornado left. We found a set of metal stairs leading to an elevated room overlooking the workspace.
Sergeant got on the radio. “Ground floor’s clear, moving up to the second.”
He motioned and we glided up the stairs and the pucker returned.
Landers called across the radio, “Let’s get the dog in to start its search.”
My sergeant frowned and keyed his mic. “When y’all are crossing the lot, keep the dog away from that pile of rotten mea—”
The air was sucked out of my lungs. A boom came, but it was muted. The factory shook and dust fell from the rafters.
I turned and looked back, through the breach. There was smoke where the trash pile had been.
My mind flashed Ramirez.
I sprinted to the smoke. Second squad was already there. Pieces of the Hilux covered a body. My mouth went dry. Time slowed as I clawed and scraped and threw debris. I felt the Japanese steel slicing through my gloves and deep into my hands, but it was a logical realization and pain never registered.
Someone yelled, “I got one.” And I saw Ramirez’s face.
His mouth was slack, his skin was grey, and his eyes were closed. I held my fingers under his nose—no breath. I punched my bloody hand through the trash and found his neck. I felt for a pulse, but the pulse never came.
The wound in my heart grew to a size that could not be closed. The oxygen left and heat washed over me. Everything went white.
I opened my eyes. I was on my back looking up at a dark sky. Landers stood over me. His mouth was open and moving, but no noise made it to my brain. I saw his gold ring flash and he slapped my face. He gave me a thumbs-up. I returned the gesture.
He ran his hands run up and down my body and showed me his hands. They were clean, no blood. I read his lips. Secondary IED. You’re good to fucking go. Get on your SAW. MEDEVAC’s inbound. Time to work. He squeezed my shoulder and knife-handed towards the perimeter, then he moved to the right. I looked over. My Sergeant was squeezing his left leg, the lower half was gone. Landers was hugging him.
I stood and moved to the perimeter and I got in my turret. I white-knuckled the SAW and hot tears cut through the grime on my cheeks.
My heart wound was as wide and dark as the Tallulah Gorge in January.
I closed my eyes and tried to recall the taste of cheap tequila, but the memory never came.
✽ ✽ ✽
J.B. Stevens lives in the Southeastern United States with his wife and daughter. His short story collection A THERAPEUTIC DEATH is available from Shotgun Honey Books. His pop poetry collection THE BEST OF AMERICA CANNOT BE SEEN is available from Alien Buddha Press.
He is a contributing editor for Mystery Tribune Magazine. He has published fiction and poetry with dozens of websites, magazines, and anthologies. He was a finalist for the Claymore Award, a finalist for the Terry Kay Prize, and won Mystery Tribune’s inaugural micro-fiction contest. His war poetry and fiction were, separately, finalists for the Colonel Darron L. Wright Award. His comedy poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is also a contract reviewer and interviewer for St. Martin’s/Criminal Element.
Before his writing career, J.B. was a United States Army Infantry Officer, serving in Iraq and earning a Bronze Star. He is also an undefeated Mixed Martial Arts Fighter and a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu. He graduated from The Citadel.