Stuck in morning traffic, I received a call from my mother. She sobbed quietly into the phone. I turned the radio off. I had to tell her to slow down. She finally choked it out: my younger brother Collin had been killed in Iraq, had been dead for half a day by the time word got to her. I wanted to throw up when I imagined that game of telephone, our family at the other end. The facts: an IED buried in shallow asphalt helicoptered up through the pavement and ripped through the back of his skull. I imagined the way a paring knife cuts through the skin of an orange. The image came to me, and I didn’t want it. For a moment I couldn’t see Collin’s face, only the orange, split apart, splintered with pulp. I sat in the gridlock with my eyes closed and cried.
I wanted to know everything she knew. Mother said the notifying officers told her the incident occurred outside the Green Zone. Collin had e-mailed lots of photos of Baghdad, all of it windswept, desert-speckled. He always wore a smile in the photos. He wanted us to know where he was, to know that he was okay. So I could imagine him when I worked in my carpet-lined cubicle, writing marketing copy.
Before the blast Collin was almost back safe at the FOB. Then his convoy was injured. Burger King, the PX, and the Halliburton terminals he e-mailed us from were on the other side of those blast barriers. They said he died instantly. They wanted us to know that he didn’t suffer. The mundane things I must have been doing while Collin lay in the back of a mangled Stryker, bleeding out, the warmth flooding from his body, his heart a broken pump.
I imagined that sun-softened strip of asphalt, blue-sky overhead, wind kicking up dust devils. Concrete blast barriers lining the pockmarked road. The feral children that ran near the edges of the photos he sent, hands out, begging for chocolate and rat-fucked MREs. A group of Iraqi police standing nearby, manning checkpoints, looking on in ratty blue uniforms playing with thick black mustaches. Maybe a date orchard nearby. A herd of emaciated goats wrapped tightly around their rib cages, another world.
I drove around traffic, sped up the right shoulder. I cut across the grass embankment in my truck until I was on the access road. I met my older brother James at our mother’s house. He was still wearing his tan carpenter’s belt stuffed with tools. We suffocated each other standing in the foyer, held on to each other for how long I don’t know. We sat on the couch in the living room, flanked mother and guarded her because dad had passed away years ago, cancer-struck.
Then we drank yellow-canned Coors until we were drunk. James punched holes in the wall in the laundry room as a pecan pie, Collin’s favorite, blackened in the oven. Mid-day mother went to her bedroom. She pulled picture albums from the back of her closet. They were arranged by year. She couldn’t tear through the pages quick enough, take in every picture at once so that she could piece together Collin’s life in all of the still images scattered around her, make him live there on the carpet of her bedroom as the fan wobbled overhead and the window unit dripped condensation on the driveway outside.
Mother wanted to be alone. It had become a habit of hers after dad passed. She didn’t want to tell anyone the news. She wanted the world outside to know Collin was still alive. Silence, she said, could achieve this. The only thing James and I could think to do was to head to the woods. We finished the beer in the garage fridge, all the cans next to mother’s White Zinfandel. We wanted to convene with Collin out in the woods where we’d split each other’s lips and put notch marks in grandfather’s barn indicating the amount of game we’d killed, breasts we’d seen. We drove out to where the ranch stretched into rolling hills, all of it banded with barbed wire, rhubarb-colored cattle guards punched into dry dirt.
Once there, we squinted our eyes and looked for something to shoot. We carried 30-06 hunting rifles slung across our shoulders. The rock road was close and there was a dusting of white on everything: leaves, dirt, grass. We needed to go further into the darkness where the light started to recede and trees became feeble outlines of what the sun could make them look like at noon. The summer heat drove the June bugs wild in Texas. We slapped at mosquitoes buzzing in atomic circles near our heads.
We disturbed the silence of the woods with reports of aimless gunfire. James wanted to shoot a deer and use his knife to gut it. Hours passed, but we didn’t find anything stumbling through the overgrown wood. Drunk, we called Collin’s name until we were hoarse, until we had driven every bird from the canopy. At dusk we both threw up in an old deer blind that wanted to fall in on itself. We held each other until dawn. We told each other that it wouldn’t be true until the body came home, until everyone knew.