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Down in the Dirt v066

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Ink in my Blood (prose edition)
In Their Shoes: Five Lessons

Adam Dennis

Lesson 1:
    There’s a middle-aged Iraqi man, just past fifty, opening his general store for the day. Although everyone has called him Akmad for so long that they cannot recall his given name, his brothers can. He hasn’t seen them in months though.
    Akmad pours ice into a Styrofoam container and checks the condition of the coolers. Often he finds them raided in the morning or puddles of water on the floor and spoiled drinks due to another dead generator. He makes sure to keep his store alcohol free except for a private cache kept in a locked cooler in the back room, hidden inside the trunk of a burnt car. He used to operate a gas station and auto shop, but the government kept raising the price of petrol, and though he’d met their demands, even that wasn’t enough to ensure sufficient and consistent delivery for his often impatient customers.
    It is 5:00 A.M., so he unlocks the front door and turns on the fan resting above the Styrofoam container. In an hour the temperature inside the store will drop to 106° as it rises outside, stopping at 133° a little after 2:00 P.M.
    Outside the store one sees nothing but desert until it meets the horizon thirty miles east. Three roads intersect by his store, and he stands in the doorway admiring the rising sun as it pulls away the dark cloak over the sand and quickly reveals brilliant flashes of deep red and violet, colors so foreign they make Akmad tremble though he sees them every morning, and then they are gone, and the sun begins its day of dry punishment and a plume of dust billows up from the north; his body tenses and unconsciously his hands clench and he slips into the back room to retrieve the hidden cooler. Only government men come from the north, he knows, only Saddam’s men.
    As he nervously punches numbers into the old cash register to force the drawer open he hears the echoes of rumbling tires over the broken dirt road and guesses there will be two cars, for he sees two great dusty clouds approaching and he manages to fill the register with a few hundred dinars, crisp new bills with the president’s familiar moustache staring up from the drawer, just as the men like it. He reaches for a magazine, lighting a harsh, hand rolled cigarette with bits of tobacco spilling out, and sits on his stool behind the counter, waiting.
    The cars arrive minutes later. Two men in dark sunglasses enter while two stand guard outside and two more walk around to the former auto shop and rummage for any hidden treasure. Akmad flips his magazine and smokes his cigarette while the two men laugh and take a few items from the shelves.
    “Akmad, you’re getting lazy,” one calls from the back in Arabic.
    “Yeah, and your store’s gone to shit,” says the other. “Perhaps the President should be made aware of the state of things outside his capital, wouldn’t you say?”
    The man looks at his partner so that they do not see Akmad’s sigh. He has left the register drawer slightly open. When the two men reach the counter they find a pint of Turkish whiskey and six beers dripping sweat, and a smiling Akmad.
    “Please, forgive the current state of my deplorable store,” he says genially and bows slightly, hands pressed together against his lips, as if in prayer. “You all must be thirsty after doing the good work all day, praise Allah.”
    He takes a small box, moves a step to his left, and puts the drinks and stolen items inside, leaving his magazine flat and cigarette burning and a clear view of the register drawer.
    “You know,” one man says to the other, “this place really does look shittier every time we come. It could do with a good torching, start over with someone new, someone who won’t let it turn to shit.”
    Akmad bows again, repeatedly, pleading in gibberish to please not speak of such a thing, to spare his family, especially his wife and starving infant son, and he inches closer to the register, then stops. He looks at the register, then the men, then the register and he moves quickly, throwing the drawer back hard and it catches with a sharp thud that makes Akmad jump slightly, his first unplanned movement of the ordeal, and the men laugh, thinking they’ve scared the old man into submission, so that when he hands over the drawer contents and resumes his bowed pleadings, they tell him not to worry, that they’ll see to it his store stands for at least another month, and one grabs the box and the other gives Akmad one final glance, smiles, and walks out. Car doors slam and he sees nothing but the dust clouds for miles.
    The whole “inspection” takes ten minutes and when they have gone Akmad returns the cooler to its hiding place and says a silent prayer of thanks that it worked out well this time despite his nervous tremor, and a prayer of hope that he’ll be able to restock the cooler and the register before they come again.

Lesson 2:
    It is past sundown and Akmad is closing the store. He locks the gate and stares at the shattered window to his right. Some kids came by the other day, chanting that he was a traitor like his brothers, throwing rocks until the sounds of shattered glass pacified them. He’d stayed on his stool with his magazine and cigarette while one hand rested on the gun taped to the belly of the counter.
    Once a man walked in wearing tattered and dirty robes and a scruffy, haggard beard, and pointed an old Russian .9mm gun barrel to his face and demanded he empty the register. Akmad stared hard into the man’s eyes and did not move. He gritted his teeth and flexed his feet until his weight rested in the toes so he’d be ready to spring, but he waited too long, and the impatient thief hit Akmad with the handle of the gun, breaking his nose, but he didn’t go down, and the gunman became frightened. He lunged for Akmad and in one motion lifted him from the stool and threw him through the window. Akmad lay dazed and bleeding while the gunman tried and failed to open the register drawer, and not even a hard shove to the floor would crack it. Finally the man gave up. He spit on Akmad and ran into the desert.

    With the store closed he finally begins his walk home. His wife and children wait in their three-room home. Some of their neighbors have fenced yards and flowers, walls lined with paintings and shelves filled with expensive stereo equipment, but Akmad’s home has no fence and only barren dirt greets him on the path to the front door. The walls inside are bare and the shelves contain a few books and photographs, all of his children. He buried the photos of his brothers behind the store.

Lesson 3:
    The next morning Akmad gets to the store and feels so good he starts humming absentmindedly, humming a song he couldn’t name if asked, some melody picked up at the market in Baghdad perhaps. The previous night he entertained his children with wild stories and he and his wife made love after they’d put the kids to sleep. He’d slept wonderfully, waking early to bathe his hands and face and to watch his children sleep for a little while.
    After checking the generator he grabs a broom and goes to the auto shop to chase out any stray varmints taking refuge. What he sees makes him gasp and drop the broom. He is too shocked to scream so he simply stares. His hands shake. It is the first time he is unprepared and truly frightened since the day his brothers did not return from their trip to Turkey. The words barely escape his lips, and though he as not uttered them in months, they come to him effortlessly, for he has thought about this moment every day.
    “Al-Nimr,” he whispers, his older brother’s nickname (for Amir).
    Then he dashes to the unresponsive man, who lies against the door of the burnt car, drifting between some dream-unconscious state and consciousness. Quickly, Akmad scans him for wounds, bullet holes, knife cuts, and when he touches his brother’s leg, the man shoves him off violently though he remains virtually unconscious. His lips are cracked and scabbed, and Akmad drips water onto them. His brother’s beard is matted and clumped and missing chunks.
    For the next few days Akmad hides his brother in the front seat of the burnt car and nurses him back to health while appearing to run his store with normalcy and typical routines. He watches his brother in his delirium, occasionally moaning, often swatting at something invisible around his groin. Finally, on the fourth day, after closing the store and locking the front gate, under desert darkness, Akmad sneaks to the auto shop and hears his brother’s tale.

Lesson 4:
    Akmad greets the Americans as they start their morning patrol of his now working gas station and store. The auto shop has become an oasis to the Americans, the burnt car replaced by an old broken couch, the fan and Styrofoam container moved to a shelf just above the couch, where it blows less hot air on the men’s necks. The line of cars stretches endlessly to the horizon on the east road (the Americans use the north and south roads), all waiting for petrol; some will wait in line for five days.
    Two Americans guard the front door and allow only one person at a time to enter the store. They stand with their backs against the wall, guns at their sides, feeling the sweat soak their dirty fatigues as the temperature holds steady at 124°. The customer inside raises his voice and begins shouting at Akmad. The two soldiers give a cursory glance inside, determine the man is not an immediate threat to them, and turn back to face the brutal sun and endless sand. One of them reaches in his pocket for a cigarette. A moment later one of the soldiers feels the barrel of a gun pressing into his neck, the hot, ripe breath of a hajji crawling up his nostrils, and before he or his partner can reach for their weapons, Akmad pounces on the man with a scream, knocking him to the ground with a two fisted blow. The gun falls from the man’s hands at the soldier’s feet. Akmad curses at the customer and chases him down the road, kicking dirt and gravel towards the running man, and walking back to a shaken and embarrassed soldier, who picks up the gun and flicks the trigger, sending a small orange flame out the barrel. He uses it to light a cigarette.
    “Mistah, you help me, I help you,” Akmad says and offers each soldier a cold drink. “Even tricks like this can be bad for you, yes? I protect you, you protect me. And he no come in my store no more.”
    Akmad tells the Americans stationed at his store in broken English that he hasn’t been robbed since they showed up in Iraq and sent Saddam into hiding; not the President no more, Saddam, Akmad tells them.
    One group of Americans stays at Akmad’s store for two months and a few of them become cordial to the store owner, naming him Chuck Norris after his now infamous charge, and going so far as to invite his children to organize a soccer game behind the auto shop and rewarding them with whatever trinkets they had picked up. Business is booming for Akmad and he and Amir often discuss opening another station down the northern road, though they wade carefully through the Halliburton-dispersed petrol and oil, spending some of their profits to ensure sufficient and consistent delivery.
    A soldier everyone calls Lew spends more time than the others talking with Akmad and Amir. Amir is distrustful of the Americans and says very little beyond grunts, but Akmad believes if he gets the Americans to like him, they will continue to protect his business, and one of them might even think of marrying his oldest daughter and taking her to America. Akmad excitedly tells Lew he knows of some troublemakers in his village and he will identify the homes of these men if Lew agrees to accompany him, and eat dinner with his family.
    Lew tells his bunkmate, Cedric, that he’s doing some recon work to bring back something special for the boys, and not to say a word to anyone. Cedric agrees with the promise of first dibs, and Lew and Akmad head off to the village. With the store fading behind them, they walk away from the angry taunts of the line of customers and Lew asks a question.
    “Chuck, what’s with your brother, man? Dude doesn’t say shit, just grunts all the damn time.”
    “That is my brother’s way since he return from Turkey border. They hold him prisoner, him and younger brother. Get shocked with cables here,” he says and motions to the groin, “get no food, no water, get beat and dragged. Younger brother dies. Amir runs away one day and come back here.”
    “Jesus. Why would they beat him like that for?” Lew asks.
    “Who knows. Saddam is crazy, his men worse,” Akmad says. “Here is the village. We go to my house and eat and I show you where silah [weapons] are hidden.”

Lesson 5:
    Lew and Cedric’s company moved on shortly after raiding a series of homes in Akmad’s village, and another company took over patrols of the store and gas station. This company came from southern Iraq where resistance remained violent and strong, despite the President’s assurances to the contrary. They had lost more than a dozen men, five in a roadside bomb two days earlier, and had been assigned to Akmad’s store to give them a break.
    Akmad and Amir had recently purchased an abandoned gas station forty miles north, and Akmad spent most of his days there preparing for a grand opening. His oldest daughter had started school at a new girl’s school near the station, and he kept an eye on her while overseeing the repairs. Amir stayed behind and tried to assume his brother’s role with the new company of Americans, but his smiles came out wrong, looking crooked and painful. He rarely spoke to the soldiers and they eyed him suspiciously.

    One scorching afternoon, two men stand guard outside the door. They both lean against the wall and feel their agitation grow as the sweat drips into their fatigues, as they remain stationary while other soldiers even the score.
    “What a fucking dump,” one soldier says and spits black tobacco juice into the sand.
    “Fucking hajji, same shit everywhere. Today they line up to get the shit, tomorrow they use it to blow us up,” says the other.
    The first man nods in agreement. “And we sit here and protect this shit and make sure they fucking get it.”
    Both men were on duty when the roadside bomb had exploded two weeks earlier. The explosion had temporarily deafened them though they’d still seen two legs and an arm get blown off, and a man’s insides spill out into the street. The blood pooled in the street and with the dirt formed a thick dark mud that no one would touch.
    “Enough of this shit,” says one of the men and sticks his head in the doorway. “Hey, hajji,” he yells, and then turns to his partner. “What’s his fucking name again?”
    “Amir,” comes the reply and suddenly there is a tall, bearded, older man in a long white robe standing before the soldier.
    “Step out here for a minute. We’d like a word with you.”
    Amir crosses his arms but remains firmly in the doorway. The two soldiers look at each other and shake their heads, then reach for their weapons simultaneously. “What do you wish to know?” Amir asks in slow, careful English. He squints hard at the men and his thin eyes and furrowed brow make the men uncomfortable and itchy.
    “We want you to step out here from that piece-of-shit store,” says one of the men, “and that’s all you need to know.”
    “This is my store,” Amir replies, “and I will not leave it. I am no terrorist. But what belongs here, belongs to Akmad and me.”
    One soldier steps inches from Amir’s face and tries to pull him forward, but Amir pushes the American hard and he falls to the ground. In a moment they are on him. He is thrown into a corner while the two American soldiers destroy the two shelves and smash all the glass coolers. Amir dashes behind the counter and rips the gun from its hiding spot, but before he aims it the Americans open fire, sending dozens of rounds into the Iraqi man and obliterating what is left in the store.

    The gas station closes temporarily. A report is filed. The long lines begin to disappear, venturing forty miles north through the series of checkpoints. The company leaves with nothing to protect. The store never reopens.

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