Training with dead men sucks. Lewis lost his right arm in a factory and can’t do a pushup, while Carlos won’t stop vomiting up his last meal, the same infected cheeseburger that killed him. Ronnie burned to death after dumping half a can of kerosene on his outdoor grill.
I train hard. Run, climb, read. I get high marks on the tests. The ones around me, the living ones, they do the same. But the dead guys, the ghosts, we feel they slow us down. The officers call them sheet-rags, like, hey, ghost, where’s your rag costume?
Sergeant Miller says the army is an equal opportunity employer. Discrimination against the dead is unlawful. But we know how he really feels. He has no use for dead men in the squad.
Some of us left home to get away from the dead. Their absence is conspicuous. A dead dad fills the room until there’s less space for the living. Sometimes you just want to eat a meal without your mother fussing over an empty chair. So I left. And again I’m sharing space with men and women snuffed out by hard luck. I guess the sheet-rags weren’t cut out for the big sleep in the hole. So I try to keep my wits up, follow orders, ignore the heritability of bad habit, the drinking and smoking and pity. I stick to the rules and train harder than the sheet-rags. No rest.
On the third week we practice field positions at the shooting range. I’m stationed next to Jose. He’s missing his left eye.
“Someone shoot it out?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I was home for college break and mowing the lawn for my parents. The blade kicked back a small rock.
I stare at him.
“I didn’t blink in time.”
“It killed you?”
“No, that was next year. Drunk driver.”
“Don’t be,” he says and smiles. It’s a good smile, like a puppy wagging his tail despite his wounds. It makes me smile too. Jose is upbeat like that. Unlike the others, like Thom. Thom died of lung cancer at forty-three and won’t stop talking about it, how unfair it all is, which is true. It’s just we don’t want to hear it all the time. It’s depressing.
“At least you can do things as a ghost,” I once told him. “Not everyone is so lucky.”
“If I could be so lucky to just rest,” he said. “Instead I have to pretend to be alive.”
Jose struggles with marksmanship, not a surprise. After an hour of practice Miller tells us to clear our rifles.
Jose tries to release the magazine.
“Check the catch button,” I tell him.
His rifle fires down the line and strikes Ronnie in the gut. Ronnie drops his weapon and rolls over moaning. The dirt sticks to his still-burnt skin. There is no blood. The trainees around him, the living ones, start laughing. Carlos heaves up his last meal again.
“Who the hell just fired?” Miller says.
His face is deep red like he might re-kill a man. All the rifles are cleared except Jose’s. Miller snatches it from him.
“You lose your brain through that miserable hole in your face? You’re lucky you shot a sheet-rag instead of a living, breathing human being—someone who could actually be of real use to his country.”
Jose lowers his one eye. Miller dismisses us. Ronnie’s dead friends help him to the infirmary. The rest of us grab the equipment that Miller makes us carry everywhere. We jog back toward the barracks. He never lets us walk.
Nobody sees Jose leave after dinner. It’s something the dead can do that we can’t, just leave. Nobody really has authority over them in that way. More than anything, I think that’s what scares us most. The dead scare different though. They worry about how quickly we’ll forget Jose was ever here.
I don’t sleep that night. I wonder about my dad and brother, if their ghosts are out there and what they’re doing. Driving around, looking for a drink, maybe. Drunks don’t give up the wheel easy. I wonder if he blames my dad for it. Thinking about it contracts my chest into hot, tight layers, like a rubber-band ball on coals. I’d do a thousand things to get one cold bottle of beer in bed with me and cool down. Except there are rules as thick as walls here. I sleep between them and the living and the dead in this place we never get to walk. Then I smell smoke. Thom is smoking a cigarette in the bunk below me.
I crook my head down to look at him.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“I’m not trying to be mean. I want to know. What’s in it for you?”
“Discipline,” he says.
“I smoked and drank ‘til the day I died. I never had much discipline. Had even less after cancer.”
“What about the others?”
“I don’t know. Stability, maybe, routine. A lot of us don’t know what’s next, why we’re this way while the others get to rest. I guess soldiering makes sense. You?”
“The same, maybe. I don’t know.” But I do know.
Thom holds out a cigarette and match.
“Screw it,” I say.
I light it, inhale hard. The heat purrs in my throat, and I hold it in there and forget everything I want or worry about, family, love, violence, boredom, liquor, just the submission to heat is enough.
“Why don’t you get to rest?” I ask.
“Same reason I can’t sleep.”
The lights flick on. We crush our cigarettes on the plywood bed frames and stuff them under the mattresses. Sergeant Miller enters. Everyone snaps out of bed to salute him.
Miller is in full uniform. I wonder if he also never sleeps. He stops at Thom’s bed.
“Smoke?” he asks.
“Smoke. I can smell it,” he says. Thom trembles. Even the dead get bad nerves sometimes.
“It was me,” I say.
I reach under the mattress and pull the butt out.
“It’s a bad habit, sir,” I say.
“Covering up for a sheet-rag? Get dressed and meet me out front. Both of you.”
We jog behind Miller’s jeep until he stops behind the shooting range in a patch of yellow crabgrass. Miller’s headlights illuminate a dead man sitting on a bucket. It’s Ronnie. There are two shovels next to him. Ronnie is smiling and rubbing his belly-wound like he’s got a baby in the bullet hole. Miller steps out of the jeep.
“Ronnie here feels like that bullet did it for him,” Miller says. “That now he’s ready to rest. Says he just wanted to die with honor, not be killed by a damn Coleman Grill.”
Ronnie smiles at us. He looks like shit.
Miller points to the shovels.
“Six by six by two should be big enough.”
“Why can’t he dig the hole, sir?” Thom asks.
“Does he look like he can dig his own damn grave? The man wants to rest for eternity, and you want him to scratch his own way there? Christ, Thom, he’s hardly got any skin. Have some heart.”
We stand back-to-back and start digging, the living and dead watching from each side. Miller lights a cigarette. He gives one to Ronnie.
“You know we all smoked years ago. Everyone,” Miller says.
They stand on both sides of us and smoke, keep smoking for hours while we dig, until we’re three feet deep, four feet deep, dirty, sweating, until we can’t remember who’s who, who’s dead, who’s alive, who has authority over who, who we’re digging this hole for, but still, we keep digging.
- The Story Behind the Story: “Dig a Sheet-rag a Hole” - May 15, 2017
- “Dig a Sheet-Rag a Hole” - April 6, 2016