Tango

for Beauvais


The war was a wash.

We were filthy, the filthiest we’d ever been.

We’d beaten the Yuppies to a pulp but they hit back and they hit hard. Our entire platoon split into sixes and sevens and scattered across the Martian wild. My division holed up behind a Home Depot in a shady boondock. The sky was bloodshot, the air tanged of ylang-ylang and manure.

We lost Private Chávez to a bout of friendly fire. He was standing, laughing profoundly when he put a laser through his moonboot. He was queuing for a Portalet. His suit decompressed and his helmet imploded with his head inside it. The rest of him shriveled like an Oscar Mayer in a microwave. Everyone saw it but no one saw it coming.

We killed the next week in metal folding chairs, killing Buds and spitting tobacco. A few Privates skinned and skewered a giant albino hare procured from a nearby Petco. The others stood and stared into the fire. Then the Yuppies discovered us (their technology was superior) and ran us across town. We regrouped on the roof of a high-rise parking garage on a rundown college campus. A stretch of smoking fumaroles framed the Quad dashed by the shadow of a church in the faint alien sun. The land beyond bore a hue bejeweled with flecks of ash and rhinestone. Life looked at once used up and infinite.

Our Major was the meanest Major in the whole armed force, and the prettiest. She hailed from a reputable whaling community on the Massachusetts coast. Her stringy blonde hair begat her Franco-Lithuanian roots and she ate nothing but brisket and meatballs. The way she stood—dolled up and racy in her moonsuit—woke up my clammy dreams about the perfect thing, not even sex–it was something like her. Our entire unit was in love with her.

When Major leapt off her haunch and prosted her Bud, foam oodling down her wrist.

The time to attack is now, she declared. To Glory and Conquest!

We’d counter when the enemy would least expect it. We’d retake the Home Depot, arm ourselves with farmyard implements and route the Yuppies like angry villagers. Then we’d torch the place.

The fertilizer will flame like napalm, she proclaimed. We’ll melt the snobs’ Lacostes right off their backs.

Most of us assumed the Yuppies were watching us on CCTV, licking their lips and waiting for us on the other side of the Quad with their rayguns drawn. To attack now would mean suicide. But then again–what didn’t in our situation? We were fighting over a territory that had nothing to do with us. And it was war. Beauty and Death were the same things. If our days were numbered we tried not to think about it. We had always trusted Major. Her comeliness coupled with her penchant for animal flesh evoked the troop’s confidence in her facility as a combatant. As long as we were with her, it didn’t really matter if we died.

Plus we’d almost run out of Bud and it wasn’t even noon.

Sausage Boy’s face was three layers of whiskered jowl and chin. His head hardly fit into his helmet. He was our husky radioman with a maintenance man-like manner. He was purported to have attended culinary school in a past life, though all he ever talked about was pumping gas and selling bait at a service station in the panhandle of a Red State.

When Major gave the nod, Sausage Boy jumped and dispatched a chunky Motorola from his hip holster. He pressed the contraption to his head and muttered Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta into the mouthpiece. He asked if anyone could hear him, said we were planning to counter all the while meandering in aimless parallelograms.

Hello? Do you copy? This is Tango Division. Come in? Over? No one answered.

He looked at Major and shook his head, said, I think we’re the only ones left.

Major played deaf and mounted a cruddy dirtbike. The saddle had been melted off by a mortar and she’d tethered a milk crate to what remained of the frame with a pair of bungees to give her hindquarters purchase. She pumped the handlebars and motored around the rest of the troops playing croquet with empty Buds and the butts of the rayguns. She addressed everyone as her Private Parts and announced we were going to attack with or without support. Reinforcements were for fairies that couldn’t get The Job done, and The Job was to attack. If we felt desperate, it was an advantage, she insisted, and it was time we use it.

Sausage Boy stepped forward and advised against this. He said we’d be cut to pieces without a coordinated offensive.

We all remember Chávez, he said. No one wants to end up like that. No one here wants to get FedExed home.

Everyone seemed to agree with him but no one else had the gall or stones to speak up.

Major’s cheeks flabbergasted and she veered her ride toward Sausage Boy. She flipped the kickstand and snickered. The way her blue eyes sparkled through her visor sucked the air right out of my lungs. Then she reared up on her pedals and unsheathed a giant harpoon. She twirled it like a baton over her head a few times then walloped the spiked end into Sausage Boy’s stomach before anyone realized what was happening. I was right at his shoulder and nearly had my ear pierced.

Sausage Boy keeled over and let loose a high-pitched screech. The harpoon ran in and out of him like a spit through a giant marshmallow. The Motorola fell from his hand and shattered on the ground. It was broken and we didn’t have a backup. There was no hope of phoning for a backup or backup in general.

Then Major peeled off riding fast and low around our perimeter, kicking up a funnel of effervescent debris and shouting instructions as if nothing happened. She certainly had our attention. We were smitten with her. We were also terrified.

I sat beside Sausage Boy. He was slouched over and bleeding a little through his mouth. I asked him if he could move. He said no, he could not move. The harpoon was too deep, his moonsuit too heavy. Then he started coughing a lot. He asked me for a Bud and mustered, I’m awfully thirsty.

I think we’re out, I said.

Well we need to get more, he said bobbing like a reed in the wind.

He shivered a little. I told him to take it easy. The way he looked through me through his visor reminded me of Chávez just as the laser pierced his boot and his eyeballs sucked into his socket. But instead of pruning, Sausage Boy merely rolled over and spoke very wheezingly, I’m gonna try to get me some shuteye.

I left him and started walking. The ground felt spongy underfoot, like a spoiled wheel of Camembert that went on forever. I made my way to Major. She was shouting orders at the others as the glittery dust swirled around.

Major, I interjected. I think you killed Sausage Boy.

At first she didn’t acknowledge my interruption, but then her blue eyes went gray. Her cold glare bore through me. There was moisture in her cleavage.

Excuse me Private Quarrel, she said, it’s extremely unbecoming of an officer to address a Superior in such a fashion.

The rest of the troop fell silent. Major crossed her arms. Her expression gradually softened but the vent atop her helmet issued a small plume of steam.

Well, what is it? she demanded. It better be important.

I was buoyed by her mention of my name but bruised by the venom in her tone. My chest tightened. My face flushed. Okay. Our amour wasn’t mutual. Yet, I guessed it was Masshole in her. I thought about all the whales they had probably killed where she came from. She had inherited a steely sense of romance from a long line of seamen. I had seen something similar in a movie once and understood. We’re all products of a past. She had hers. This I accepted. Besides–what good is love if conditional?

I’m sorry, Major, I said, more sad than sorry. But Sausage Boy is dead and we’re about out of Bud.

She looked at me exasperated and exhaled, and as she did, her breath took me to a home away from home.

Well he looks fine to me, she quipped, pointing.

When I turned, I saw Sausage Boy on his feet staggering about like a comic savant, his dizzy face illumed in childlike wonderment. The rest of the troop looked on relieved with amazement as he gamboled in our direction.

Private Sausage, he squeaked and saluted. Reporting for duty.

Major hauled her harpoon from his belly. It left a hole in his abdomen and some of his ribs and internal organs were showing. I stood beside him expecting him to tip over but he didn’t budge. Instead he blinked around looking like a philosopher peering heavenward, his helmet cocked in contemplation of something…the culinary arts…the cosmos. It didn’t matter. His gut was fucked.

Major watched me while she wiped Sausage Boy’s blood from her harpoon with a floral kerchief, giving the blade a pale glow.

And Quarrel, she said buffing the harpoon metal. The next time that tobacco-spitting fairy you got inside you has an idea, keep it in its fairyhouse.

I wasn’t sure what she meant but the others cackled. They cackled easily. It wasn’t like Major to pull rank. It wasn’t as if I needed reminding who was in charge. She knew I knew the score. She could knead any one of our hearts to death with her feet. Ever since the war began we’d moiled like hellions for a second of her attention. I suppose we’d showed her how out of her league we were.

I clicked my heels, bowed and sputtered, Yes ma’am, Major ma’am.

Sausage Boy had begun to sweat profusely but continued to stand at half-attention, tilting from side to side.

I’m hurt real bad, he said. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve it but my head feels like it’s burning off.

Then he fell face first into the diamond dust. I tried to catch him but I missed. He lay motionless for several seconds then clawed toward Major’s feet. She rolled her eyes and a cigarette then licked and lit it.

For God’s sake somebody get me a Bud, she said. That’s an order.

One of the soldiers loitering off to the side perked up, a potato-headed coot with freckles for days. He unzipped a camo satchel and tossed a can—our last—to Major. She caught it, cracked it open and took a long hard swig. She handed what was left to Sausage Boy. He emptied the remnants into his helmet before clambering to his feet, buzzed and bloodied, his moonsuit encrusted with sparkly soot.

Let’s get over to that Home Depot, his voice lolled, and then grew stronger. Let’s start lighting things on fire. I don’t care what happens. Let’s just get it over with. And then he hollered, I wanna see Heaven or Hell by sundown!

Major’s eyes dilated.

That’s the spirit, Private, she said. She flicked her cigarette on the ground and stomped it. That’s the winning mentality.

She raised her harpoon and the entire troop let out a raucous bawl.

Someone tuned a BoomBox and old D.J. Quadberry was on rapping about Reeboks and the way mankind is baited onto coliseum floors where lions and tigers and bears lie in wait hungry to hijack him. Life has funny cycles. This was just another war. When you get down you get down to it, nothing can stop it. Wherever we end up, that’s where we’ll be.

Major braced her arms against her handlebars. The dirtbike purred. When she gave the command, we were off headlong into the abyss. I could feel the ghost of Chávez drawing closer. Maybe I should have stopped at some point before then and assessed my options. But I didn’t. There was a tin of tobacco in the lapel of my moonsuit. I had a laser beam with a Yuppie’s name on it. If my chance with Major was one in a million, I’d liked my odds as long as I survived the next assault. It’s a strange universe and time is short. What’s there to argue? Sometimes a fight is all we ever get.

Front page image by Kevin Dooley.

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