The Japanese soldier had spent his ammunition on the mosquitoes and flies. He swung his rifle against a tree and flung it, but the jungle smacked his face, swallowed his helmet, and pushed him down an endless hill. The always moving jungle tumbled around the cloudy sky.
The young soldier wobbled and limped between branches in search of sanity, slapping insects away from his bloody lips, mumbling, screaming. The mosquitoes were as big as the flies everywhere. The flies were as big as the cockroaches that laid eggs in boots, slept in ears, and lived in the food supply. This is all he did in Guam: collect mangoes, papayas, and soursops for the impending battle. However, like planes, tanks, and soldiers, the fruits bruised and rotted without spirit. All he did was fatten insects and wait for the Americans—to heave fruits at them.
The young soldier stood on the beach, in the woven shadows of coconut trees. He peered at the horizon through the tunnels in his binoculars. No ships. No planes. No end to the fact that Guam was close to Tokyo but surrounded by undrinkable water, a salty graveyard of war. He decided to wash his face. Swimming was always refreshing, but he didn’t want to remove his senninbari too. The birds, always filled with bugs, squawked and scrambled out of the trees.
The lowly soldier peered through his binoculars again. For a moment he froze, denying what he was seeing: warships. He limped towards the jungle but stopped short of the treeline. His comrades said Americans made ashtrays of Japanese skulls. He decided to die near the ocean, where the waves would wrangle for his flesh, and his bones would shatter into bits indistinguishable from seashells. Artillery whistled, and orbs of fire and force exploded among the trees, hurling sand and limestone. The blasts marched then ran inland, flashing against darkening clouds and swarms of blinded and deaf birds and bats. Next came the seared, sizzling smell of burning flesh.
While the fire crackled and chewed through him, the young soldier reached out for the truth of it all. He left a pregnant woman behind. Clouds collided with a force much less than the violence in an embrace.
Decades later, three men climbed to the top of Apugan Hill, amid the ruins of Fort Santa Agueda: a Spanish stronghold built in 1800. Gus, Gary, and Gen climbed concrete steps to the observation deck overlooking the city of Hagatna and a chunk of Guam’s west coast. The men leaned on the railing, steadied their knees, and hid their heavy breathing.
Gus had used a bazooka as a poking stick against columns of North Korean tanks, behind which soldiers billowed and ran at Gus with poking sticks of their own. FUBAR. Gus ran backwards up and down hills for days, firing his bazooka, throwing grenades, and scattering the enemy. When Gus returned home, he had the urge to throw beer cans at joggers, and conspirators filled churches and fiestas.
Gary had jumped out of rattling Hueys and rolled into rice fields. BOHICA. Gary was ordered to seek and destroy the Viet Cong’s feet. At night they lived in the corners of his eyes, where they popped out of tunnels, whispered vowels, marched, and fought in orchestrated bands. In the rain they balanced paddy hats on the tips of rifles. Gary planted mines, spring-loaded gags that fed on feet and hands and discarded the rest. When the freedom bird dropped him home, Gary was frightened of walking on the lawn surrounding his house. The grass crawled like ghillie suits, and anthills bulged like landmines.
Gen had ridden Humvees across Iraq. Down range, insurgents watched Willie Pete explode above alleys. The enemy boogied between apartment buildings, coiling inside dark rooms and corners. They fired at sidewalks from windows and roofs and booby trapped homes with propane tanks. Chasing insurgents in and out of buildings proved costly, so Gen used the Humvee’s .50 caliber machine gun to peel walls. Ma Deuce. Ra-ta-ta-tat. But when Gen assessed a building stripped of walls, when he stared at gutted sofas and cracked televisions, at refrigerators, ovens, and tables wrought with bullet holes, when he saw beds burning, he lost his shit. Charlie Mike. For the rest of the night, Gen cut buildings in half. Hoorah.
A breeze climbed Apugan Hill, and the men gazed at two fighter jets scrambling out of the clouds. Gus peered through his old binoculars.
Gary coughed. “Air show for the Liberation Day parade.”
“They’re flying the wrong way,” Gus pointed. “They’re live.”
“Where do you think they’re flying to?”
“Pick any country in the Middle East.”
“Or North Korea.” Gary lit a cigarette and glanced at the binoculars. “They can. Aerial refuels.”
“We can hit China if we wanted to.” Gen bit the dried skin on his bottom lip.
“We already had this conversation.” Gus passed the binoculars to Gary. “Nothing left if that happens. Their stealth subs can claim the ocean floor. Their ACBMs can keep our ships at bay, cities nervous. They don’t need tankers or carriers. They can target satellites too. It’ll be a game of attrition. Like Einstein said, next war after that’ll be fought with sticks and stones.”
“That’ll be my son’s fight.” Gen sneered and tapped his foot on the pavement. Here was the only place his grandfather let others touch those binoculars.
“My great-grandson won’t fight in any war, and we didn’t come here to talk about war. We said we wouldn’t.”
“Can we not?” Gary spat into the grass and aimed the binoculars at the city below.
“Of course we can. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Finish the story, Dad. Gen needs to hear it. You met Mom down there.”
“After the Japanese invasion. Over there.” Gus pointed at the city, but his hand trembled. Clusters of jungle, buildings, cars, and boats swayed and billowed with the smoke from Gary’s cigarette. His cataracts were growing. Soon he’ll see every garden, playground, park, and beach as smoke.
“So what’s the secret, Grandpa?” Gen’s eyes bounced between condemned buildings.
“Magic. Used to be a small store down there.” Gus pointed at a patch of jungle. “You walked in with a list, handed it to a clerk behind the counter, and the clerk filled a basket.”
“They don’t have stores like that anymore. What was it called?”
“The Store. Not many people had refrigerators or televisions, so—”
“—all the kids were sent there often. Laugh it up, but people waited for baskets and talked. You knew who was born, who did well in school, who got married, who worked where, and who died. Real news. We knew each other. Didn’t stare at blinking screens all day. Didn’t talk about ate-up celebrity honchos in rehab or hacked sex videos.
“Nobody walked out empty, but nobody walked out with too much either. The store was also one of the first to sell ice cream. Your grandma was the clerk. She was from a good family. She was beautiful and smart and a talker.”
“You chatted and charmed.”
“I spoke to everyone except her. Took a while. Two years.” Gus scratched the back of his head. “Good thing they sold ice cream. I would’ve looked stupid just standing there, staring. I gained a little weight, though. Became the fat kid in school. Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. You’re both here. Mission accomplished, right? We’re plenty.”
“So, the moment you talked to Grandma felt magical.”
“The store didn’t just sell food. They sold utensils, clothes, toys, and magician kits. All the kids waved wands and wore top hats for a while. She was always trying to make marbles disappear under tin cups. You could hear the marbles hit the floor, or you could see her palm and pocket them. People clapped and pretended to be impressed. We thought she was kidding, making people happy. The first time I really talked to her, I brought up how funny her act was.”
“She wasn’t kidding. She passionately wanted to be a magician. That’s the first time I fell in love with her. Told myself I would work like a carabao. Pull a house and a life out of the dirt for her. For us. When they shipped me to Korea, my thoughts swam back to her. Kept me going when my eyes, arms, and legs burned. Kept telling myself to come home. Come home with both arms and legs. I asked God not to fuck around. I had a magician to see.”
“I remember Grandma’s tin cups.”
“I miss your grandma every day. You need people like her when your helmet’s not big enough to hide in.”
“Or when tracer rounds find your boots.” Gary patted his son’s shoulder. “Like last night.”
“Tell us what happened, Gen. Your father and I will understand. We took out the piss and blood and guts for them. We know better. We know there are kinds of screams.”
“We agreed not to.”
“Isn’t about war. It’s about the things we carried home, needing constant support, constant supply. Things we can’t put in a box in the garage. Besides, need to know and all.”
“I can’t even remember all of it.”
“Try. Tell the little until there’s more. Tell it again and again and reconcile.”
Last night, the roosters crowed at the moon. Gen dragged his wife, Karen, out of bed, by her feet, and shook her. “Quit lollygagging! Let’s fucking go, Marine.” Gen placed a cooking pot on her head. “Keep your helmet on.” He shoved an umbrella against her belly. “Safety’s off. Move out. Move. Move!” He pushed her out of the house, to the front yard. “On me.” They crouched against a rusted Jeep sitting on cinder blocks. Karen wasn’t surprised. She had anticipated this night, but she didn’t expect to be barefoot when it arrived.
“Hold position. I’ll be back.”
Karen hoped he would.
When Gen returned from Iraq, he didn’t take Hollywood showers. He meticulously dressed himself and ate 2,500 calories a day. He slept less and less, and then more and more until he was awake only for dusk and dawn, between slivers of light. Nights out with friends were canxed. When the car needed a new timing belt, it was SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. Gen often paced rooms, repeating “All clear. We’re OK.” Karen learned he wasn’t talking about their marriage. He meant: 0 Killed.
When Gen returned from Iraq, he marched around buildings, between vantage points, among civilians. He avoided the eyes of women and children but scowled at other men. He reconned the neighbors’ daily movements, knew when they woke and slept, and how they lived in between.
Gen constantly covered his lines of sight: entrances, exits, possible entrances, possible exits. Karen watched a half-deaf copy of Gen trying to cook, change light bulbs, tighten leaky pipes, and water the fucking orchids.
“Hold position. I’ll be back.” Gen ran into the garage and returned with two shovels. He jumped down on the ground, looked around, and jumped back up. “Make a hole. Strikes inbound.”
They shoveled dirt, pulverized limestone, and severed roots until their arms and legs trembled. In the pit they curled up against the bleeding roots of nearby trees, and shuddered asleep. When the sun peeked into the foxhole, Karen awoke and studied Gen’s eyes.
“Is it over?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“We’re OK.” Karen climbed out of the pit, inhaled dawn, and rubbed her belly. “He’s not even born yet, and he’s already been in a foxhole. I’m craving mangoes. Find us some.”
Gen couldn’t look at his father and grandfather. “I can’t even remember all of it.” He inspected his dirty nails and sobbed into his palms. “I woke up, and we were in a hole. I live risk-free, but I’m frightened of it.”
Gary embraced Gen and held him up. “We’re not going that way. Tomorrow matters more.”
“We were called home.”
“Grandpa, you never said where you got those nocs.”
“Yeah, Dad, these are antique.” Gary handed the binoculars to Gen. “Steal them from Kilroy?”
Gus chuckled. “I was a kid when I found them chewed and spat out by fire.”
Gen’s son, Yuri, will grow up beside his mother. Yuri will clean out the garage, and among bags and boxes, he’ll find a magician kit. In the box will rattle three tin cups, three red marbles, and a pair of binoculars. Yuri will keep the cups and marbles, to show his sons a cool trick, but he’ll throw the blackened field glasses into fire. “The garage is clean and clear,” Yuri will tell his wife. “Mission accomplished.”