Behind Enemy Lines
by Paolo Dihn
3. Capital City
This is me, behind enemy lines, a homeless, errant spy, lost among the
scum of the earth. Capital City, don't make me laugh. We have a Capital
City, too, but it's worthy of the name. It's a shining citadel of clean
streets and noble edifices. It isn't this crapped-on jumble of broken houses,
littered streets, and silly, sad-looking trams laying on their sides like
dogs that have been hit by cars, waiting to die their dog's death.
I have nothing but contempt for these people. Look at 'em, scrambling about like big-eyed rats, stooped-over like a pack of hunchbacks being herded to the slaughterhouse. Hey, buddy! Ain't you got no pride? Hey, sister! Your country is watching, get your nose out of the gutter! You make me sick.
The snipers, our snipers, in the hills above this piece-of-shit city, pick them off like cardboard ducks in a shooting gallery. I'm asking a guy where somebody can glom onto some free soup, when his head opens up and he goes down in mid-sentence. His future just became stink. The old bitty scurrying for cover folds up in the cross-walk without so much as a whimper. Now she's just a loose-limbed burden. But I don't duck and weave. I don't flatten and suck a curbstone. Bullets kick up concrete around my feet but I know no fear. Those guys in the hills? They won't hit me. They're just saying hello. I'm on their side.
I laugh out loud and stroll down the middle of the boulevard. The enemy civilians gape at me from their hidey-holes or call out to me from behind their ruined autos to get down for god's sake. One old guy with a bald pate and a fringe of white hair leans a little too far out trying to snag my attention. A bullet pops him and he drops to the street, his eyes still filled with concern for my welfare. I laugh again. All's I want to know is, how'd he get so old, being as he's so stupid?
It amuses me to pretend I'm visiting their rotten burg in friendlier times. I come upon a small cafe that our clever fellows have dropped a mortar on. It was all gingerbread and silly colors. The name on the sign had an exclamation point. Now there's a big black and brown hole in the middle of it. Dirty grey smoke curls out instead of the smell of delicious baked pastries. But in one of those marvelous coincidences of war, a lot of the tables and chairs have remained standing in front of the joint. I brush the glass away and sit down at one and pretend I'm waiting for a waiter. I tap my foot and look at my wrist like there's supposed to be a watch there. I glare back into the ruined restaurant and making smacking noises of disgust. I turn to the dead body slumped over a nearby table and ask her if she can believe the service in this bistro.
It's the first time I've really noticed her. She was apparently having herself a double cappuccino with whipped cream when the mortar struck and ruined her morning. Her index finger is still stuck in the loop of her broken cup. The romance paperback she was perusing is still open on her table next to the scone with jam she was a-munching upon. I say good morning but she doesn't reply, the stuck-up enemy bitch. I stand over her and repeat my greeting. Still she doesn't deign to notice me. I ask her if she'd mind if I join her. She doesn't say yes but she doesn't say no so I sit down.
I make small talk, mention the swell weather, ask about the literary qualities of her paperback. I'm pretending we're on a date, see. I ask her if she liked the movie we've just seen, query if she wants anything else to eat and when I judge the time to be right, I tip-toe my hand across the table like a little walking man and take her's in mine. I smile at her, wiggle my eyebrows up and down a couple of times and give her hand a little squeeze. It squeezes back.
I nearly jump out of my skin. I'm up, I'm back, I knock over another table. I stand staring down at the woman who I thought was dead but apparently is not. She still slumps in the same position, head down, unmoving. Now she scares me. I inch forward and reach out like she's an icky thing I don't want to touch. I take the hair at the top of her head between my finger and thumb and pull her head up to look into her face.
She sure enough looks dead. The face is slack, the eyes are dull. Nothing's moving. I just about figure it must have been some kind of dead person nerve thing when a tear wells up and rolls out of her eye and I know it's true. Somebody's in there, somebody's alive in there.
I gingerly let her head back down and that's when I spot the blood on the back of her head. Mucho incongruso, this little dash of nastiness on these shampooed tresses. I delicately dig in, folding the hair aside until I find it, the hole. Just a tiny little thing, so insignificant you wouldn't give it a second thought if it wasn't attached to this limp doll. I figure a little piece of that exploding mortar went in there and cut her strings. She's at my mercy, this coifed lover of romance novels.
The game has changed. I try to set her up, which isn't easy, her detached noggin just won't stay put, darn the thing. It keeps rolling about, flopping over like a helium balloon that's lost its lift. Finally it comes to sort of an agreement with gravity. She's using her own shoulder as a pillow. That clean hair slides aside revealing an ear, a nice ear, rosy and delicate, with a tasteful little pearl in the lobe. I put my mouth next to it.
I'm with them, I whisper. I'm with the guys who dropped the mortar on you. You've fallen into bad company. You're separated from the pack. You thought thing's couldn't get worse, but they have. What shall I do with you, I ask? What does one do with one's enemy?
And that's when the body boys show up.
They come tooling down the street in a beat-up truck, weaving from side to side, stopping for a pick-up here and a pick-up there. The pick-up's pile up in the back of the truck, a mound of the dead. They pull up in front of me. They stop. The one in the passenger seat hooks a thumb at my date. He asks me if that one's dead.
What do you do with the dead? I ask him. We put lime on them and then we put them in a big pit and then we bury them, he tells me. I look into her eyes, imagining the terror in that silent skull, imagining the pleading screams that none of us can hear. Yes, I tell her and him, this one's dead.
They do the old heave-ho with her. She flails up high, comes down hard onto the pile of the dead, like a sack of some strange crop, ending up all akimbo, disjointed, arms and legs this way and that. The last thing to settle is her head, that flops side-wise so that I'm staring into her face up there on her meaty bed. I give her a little salute, you know, like she's been a good soldier and it's a real shame that somebody so super has to have such an ignominous departation. The boys dust off their paws and climb into the cab and my date is over. I didn't even get a kiss good-bye.
I'm watching the truck do its old meandering, stop and go harvest ride down the street, so's I don't notice the guy until he's next to me staring at my face. How are you? he wants to know. So-so, says I. How's about yourself? Come on, I'll take you there, he says, and reaches for my arm. I pull back, but he says, it's OK, it's OK, and, there's nothing to worry about, and, gently, he pulls me down the street. She's gonna be so glad, he says, so glad.
To be continued