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John Jeffire's "Fido"

 

 

            The peak of the roof held him three stories above the earth, the July sun burning just a few feet overhead.  He sweated, checked his balance on the steep pitch for the thousandth time, then looked out into the distance and felt a brief wave of nausea.  Ambassador Bridge, Caesar’s Windsor, some boats on the river, the water flashing back at him in sparks of cresting waves.  It was work.  Forget the fear of heights, the unfamiliarity of laying a roof, the thick blanket of tar coating his nostrils and lungs, it was still work, and work was money, and money was life.  At 23, at least he had a job, unlike most the neighborhood dumbasses he left behind in high school now muling dope and jacking cars.  He steadied himself again, looked at the chalk line he just snapped, and found the box of shingles to begin the next row.

            A car door.  Someone hearing the sound for the first time might think of a car door slammed into a loudspeaker, the metallic crack echoing in the thin, burned air.  But he knew the sound, the pop of a live round, a sound he could not escape lately when he tried to sleep or lay in his bed pretending to sleep—the sound would jolt him, send him rolling to his right for a weapon that was no longer there.  On the roof, though, he was so intent on shingles and his feet not losing their grip on the tilted plane that he registered nothing until he was lit up like he had just brought his hammer down on his finger.  His hand instinctively jumped, and the blood rushed down his palm and the soft inside of his forearm in quick rivers.  A second crack and he was down on the roof, sliding, a baseball bat of a blow to the back of his thigh taking his leg from under him. 

            “Doc!”

            But there was no medic here.  He opened his eyes directly up into the explosion of the sun and then clamped them shut.  A third clack split the air and, looking up behind him with eyes squinted, he saw the box of shingles jump to life with splinters and dust filling the air.  Two shooters, one half-assed accurate, the other a cherry.  Christ.  He was supposed to be a non-com now, no longer a Fucking New Guy with his boots in the sand.  The stinging numbness in his hand and hamstring, though, were real and the rounds were live.  He had been shot, and the bullets were still coming.  He had to move.

            He raised his head and looked straight down at his feet and over the edge of the roof to the street below.  Broken pavement, some parked cars, a dead tree across the street, blocks of wounded homes all the way to the freeway.  Move.  The other side.  The other side of the roof.  He rolled to his right and dug into the roof with his elbows, not wanting to put his bleeding hand down on the seething shingles.  He low crawled it like the infantryman he was trained to be, skittering up the incline to the peak, where he threw his good leg over like a cowboy mounting a horse as a fourth clack echoed off the mute houses.  He flinched, and a piece of the roof next to him blew up into splintery shrapnel.  It was like one of the training exercises at Fort Benning, but these rounds could kill and the blood soaking the leg of his jeans and pain were real. 

He turned his mind off.  FIDO—fuck it, drive on.  He rolled over the top but found himself tumbling too quickly.  He skidded down the pitch, his old army issue desert boots digging, skipping, digging again to slow his slide toward the edge.

            His foot caught sideways in the gutter and he stopped.  He breathed, like he had been holding his breath since he first understood what was happening.  Rivulets of sweat burned down into his eyes.  The skin on his back and stomach and arms had been rubbed raw by the slalom down the roof.  His leg now throbbed and his finger felt frostbitten.

            “Fu-u-u-u-u-uck.”

            There was nothing else to say.  No one really to say it to.  Rich, his boss, was somewhere down below getting ready to haul more supplies up the extension ladder.

            “What the hell?  You bleedin’, partner.”

            Rich.  He looked over and saw Rich’s reddened face and shoulders just visible over the gutter, bug-eyed, puffed-faced from years of hard living, sunbaked so that he looked Arab or Mexican.

            “Rich, somebody fuckin’ shot me.”

            “What?  Naw.”

            “Dude, I ain’t joking.  I’m hit.”

            He held up his wounded hand for Rich, and for the first time he saw the damage since he felt the bullet clip him.  The bottom half of his ringless ring finger was gone, a flap of skin hanging as the blood continued to stream.  The heat suddenly hit him and he pushed back a wretch. He pulled his hand back into himself and tangled it in the bottom part of his t-shirt to create some pressure.

            “Thought it was fire crackers, you know, kids.  Whoa, you bleedin’ from your ass, too, partner.”

            The leg wound.  He could feel the backside of his pants now saturated in blood, the bullet puncture in his upper hamstring flaring and aching into nothingness.

            “It’s my leg, man.  Hit twice.  I been hit twice.”

            Rich looked at him, incomprehension misting his visage.

            “Dammit, Rich, call someone.  We got to get the fuck outta here.  Someone’s trying to kill me on the other side of that roof.”

            “Who?”

            “How the fuck I know?”

            “Crazy shit, bro.  Who you want me to call?”

            “The cops.  Ghostbusters.  Anybody.  Call fuckin’ 911, man.”

            Rich’s eyes registered the magnitude of what was happening.  Someone was shooting a gun.  On the other side of the roof.  Someone had been shot.  His worker, his friend, was shot with a gun.  Something needed to be done.

            “Yeah, yeah, you got it, bro.  Cell’s down in the truck.  You stay right here.  Be cool, partner.  I’m gonna make that call lickety-split.  Got my pistol down there, too.  Ain’t nobody gonna shoot you no more.  I’ll light’em up.”

            “You gotta help me down, man.”

            Rich looked at him, his faced more confused than algebra.

            “Uh, I don’t wanna touch you, bro.  You know, make things worse.  We’ll get you some help here mighty quick, though.  You hang tight.  I’m gonna call and help is here before you know it.”

            “Rich, goddammit, you gotta…”

            Rich sank under the roofline like a clueless submarine captain disappearing below deck.  He listened—no more shots.  He lifted his head and looked out at the bridge and the river.  How long would it take the police?  Were the shooters crossing the street to finish him off?  Dizziness was now starting to combine with the extreme heat, and his temples pulsed in rhythm with his heart.  He tried to push himself back up more securely onto the roof, but when he pushed off with the foot of his good leg lodged in the gutter, the gutter came loose and he slipped another foot down the roof until both his legs dangled over the edge.

            “Rich?  Rich!  Rich, get your fuckin’ ass up here.  Get that fuckin’ ladder over here.  I’m fallin’, man.”

            Rich was somewhere below, out of sight, taking way too long to make a call.

*    *    *    *    *   *

            It was a cordon and knock in Fallujah with a couple hajjis from the ISF.  ISF, Iraqi Security Force, Inch-dick Sorry Fuckers, Idiot Shitbird Farces, Imitating Soldiers For-dollars, Inbred Suckass Fuckheads.   Same old story:  weapons caches and insurgent safe houses hiding bad guys, Mohammad Jihads, but the rules said they couldn’t enter any Iraqi home without an ISF or Iraqi Police Unit present.  Whatever.  As long as the ragheads got them near the house, fuck it.  Same old story—Americans doing the heavy lifting, sorry-ass ragheads smoking Mikados on the sidelines. 

            He chugged a Redbull, popped some go-pills and washed them down with another.  Party time.  Their five man team met with four jarheads and they all humped it a good two klicks outside the wire in and out of slums and back alleys to within 150 meters of the target, where they met two ISFs, not the usual five to eight, parked in the street and smoking in a blue 2008 Ford F-250.  Shit, he could never afford a rig like that back home but these camel jocks were handed them for letting us kick their ass in Desert Storm.  Bullshit.  All of it bullshit.  The trash in the streets, burned out car shells, piles of block and rubble, stinking garbage—any of it could be wired, so you looked where you stepped, you looked where you didn’t step, into every doorway, every window, every rooftop, every man, woman, and child, and every bit of it reflected back your own wasted carcass.

            Just shy of the target, the corporal signaled to find positions, so he scaled the stone outside stairs of the house across the street to secure the roof and play angel eye.  The roof seethed.  The sun overhead absorbed into every inch of him, and his body armor sealed the heat.  He put his discomfort somewhere quiet.  Everyone was in place—jarheads at each corner in full eye contact with the man to his left and right, no one in, no one out, the knockers set up at the front door with the ISFs.  On the far rooftop above the target, the opposite cover man was supposed to have his back, to see behind him for him, and he was to return the favor.  But he didn’t trust it.  He could always feel someone behind him, someone with a knife aimed at the back of his neck, someone that the far cover man couldn’t see or notice because his own stomach was packed with fear and the distraction it created.

            The ISFs knocked and yelled, but nothing was returned.  It was taking too long.  Who knew what was going on inside.  The bad guys taking position, readying their weapons, or stoked to light up the whole neighborhood with the mother of all HBIEDs once enough grunts were inside.  He sighted down his weapon.  No one in, no one out.  No speeding cars, no escalation of force from the neighboring houses.  Ready.  Stay ready.

            The door finally opened, the eyes and a slice of forehead of a veiled woman barely visible in the background darkness.  The ISFs talked some more, too much, looking at each other and then at the woman, and the corporal signaled that it was go time, and he and his team pushed the hajjis ahead and shoved inside.  He scanned the far roof, then both up and down the street.  Faces vanished from every window. 

            Movement—his trigger was already squeezed when he identified a small boy darting across the street from behind an overturned handcart by a telephone poll.  The child lifted then hit the turf in a cloud of dust.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck it.  Those were the rules.  No one in.  No one out.  No escalation of force.  FIDO—fuck it, drive on.

            Then the eruption.  Heavy rock and roll.  Full out beast.  He swung his weapon on the house, the open windows, up the street to the left and down to the right, but there was no one else to take out, not yet.  Silence.  Then voices.  Then wailing.  He hated the wailing.  How many times had they done this, and it was always the same.  Grief splitting his temples, unable to be turned off or tuned out except with something louder, something more destructive.

            The door burst.  The corporal signaled all clear, and the litter team pulled out a GI, his helmet off, an IV already hooked into him, blood on his chest visible from the rooftop, prepped for CASEVAC.  The rest of the team then pushed out a Mohammad Jihad in a mismatched nylon track suit, his hands bound behind him in plastic cuffs.  A rifle butt to a kidney and he took his knees with lowered head.  And then one of the ISFs, also with his hands cuffed behind him. 

            Camel fucking bastards.  Inside job.  No one in, no one out.  Ready.  Stay ready.  FIDO—fuck it, drive on.      

The next day at the FOB after all their reports and been synced, Prick—Pritchard, one of the knockers, but they called him Prick—showed him his scrapbook.  He had caught the trophies on his cellphone camera, which they weren’t supposed to do but no one followed that rule.  Bodies.  Two Mohammad Jihads and an ISF, and then the woman who had answered the door, headless, her burqa a shroud of blood.  And Prick’s signature move:  shaky video clips of him pissing on the faces of the downed towelheads. 

“And hey, I forgot to tell you, man, damn filthy shot smokin’ that little fucker,” Prick offered, still looking at his scrapbook.

He smiled.  The motionless boy in the dirt.  Filthy shot.  Fine ass filthy shot.  The beast.  The man prepped for evac.  A headless woman.  And then the neighborhood coming to life, burning the air with shouts and wailing.  FIDO, bro, FIDO.

*    *    *    *    *   *

            “Any minute, partner, and you’ll be down off this roof and in the meatwagon headed for the hospital.”

            Rich’s voice woke him into the eyeless sun.  He closed his eyes hard.  How long had he been lying here?  How close was the ambulance?  If it was a typical day when dope deals gone south led to shootouts or family hate blew up a living room or a convenience store was shot up for $27 dollars in the register, he would have to take a number on the misery train.  The sun was flaring his mind, detonations of blue and green webs floating against the inside of his eyelids, and the foot of his wounded leg felt like an anchor pulling him off the roof.

            “You call the cops?”

            “The cops?  Ah, no, no, partner, I didn’t.  The fire department.”

            “The fuckin’ fire department?”

            “Sure, what you got against the fire department?”

            “I got nothing against the fire department.  We need the cops.”

            “The cops?  What for, partner?”

            “Because at least two fuckheads are out there shootin’ a rifle at people.  Firemen don’t carry, Rich.”

            Rich smiled and winked.

            “Well, you leave the firepower to old Richie.  Got me the snake charmer right here.”

            Rich winked again and held up his half-assed shotgun hooptied up to a pistol butt.  The shooters would have to be 15 feet away at most for Rich’s piece of shit weapon to be of any use.  Even worse, Rich would be the one firing, and based on how he laid shingles he couldn’t see straight 15 inches away let alone 15 feet.

            He closed his eyes.  He wasn’t angry.  Rich was an idiot, but getting mad at him wouldn’t change that. 

            “Rich, just call the damn cops.”

            “Well, uh, I kinda thought, you know, we could stay away from the cops on this one, specially seein’ how I’m payin’ you under the table and my roofer’s license ain’t exactly up to date.  And ain’t nobody doin’ no shootin’ now, anyways.  Ain’t nobody gonna mess with you with the Rich-man on the trigger.  Things’ll be fine with just a firetruck.”

            Fine.  Everything would be fine.  Hell, the Rich-man was on the trigger.  FIDO, man, FIDO.

            “Outstanding.  A firetruck.  Roger that, out-fucking-standing.”

He tried to open his eyes again but the white sun punched them shut.  The blue and green webs floated and spat in his head and he remembered as a kid being told that if you looked right into the summer sun for five straight seconds you’d be blinded forever, never able to see again.  He could not see it, but the blood from his leg was trickling down the roof and collecting in the broken gutter, where drops of it parachuted down to the burned earth below and soaked away so fast they could not make a pool.  He smiled.  What was he doing here?  What difference did a new roof make?  Here, right here, on this house, or anywhere else in this neighborhood?  What on Earth was he doing here?  What exactly was he doing anywhere, let alone here, this shithole neighborhood, this house?

            He lay on the roof.  He smiled.  Across the street, a little boy rose from the dirt and began dancing.

            He breathed.  A woman in a burqa and a GI hooked to an IV now hovered above him as the little dancing boy readied to piss on his face.

            He listened for wailing.   

            He breathed. 

            He smiled, ready to drive on.

            He imagined opening his eyes and looking up into the sun, feeling its power pour into his sockets and filling him, showing him a filthless world no one would believe was there.

 

John Jeffire was born in Detroit.  In 2005, his novel Motown Burning was named Grand Prize Winner in the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition and in 2007 it won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction in the Independent Publishing Awards.  Speaking of Motown Burning, former chair of the Pulitzer Jury Philip F. O'Connor said, “It works. I don't often say that, but it has a drive and integrity that gives it credible life....I find a novel with heart.” In 2009, Andra Milacca included Motown Burning in her list of “Six Savory Novels Set in Detroit” along with works by Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeffrey Eugenides.  His first book of poetry, Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2009.  Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine called the book “a terrific one for our city.”  For more on the author and his work, visit writeondetroit.com.