[The following short story, “Doing Delilah,” was published by Midwestern Literary Magazine in November 2010, and subsequently in their volume, Bearing North. I must admit I rushed the story to publication before it was truly ready. The beginning needed some work, and you can tell I have never myself seen battle. Some of it is based on accounts I have heard from those who have seen battle. I keep this story as a learning experience. I figured I could share it as one too.]
by Caleb Coy
“Can’t you see, oh, can’t you see,
what that woman— she’s been doing to me?”
Was a long, hot day, and there was fighting through every minute of it. We had a whole battalion stationed just outside Fallujah to secure the rail yards North of the city. It took about two days, even with help from the Iraqis. The snipers and booby traps were the worst part for us. Heavy infantry poured into the city. Infantry. Infants. Some mother’s baby each guy was. Patrolling in an unarmed jeep and thinking about his own babies. His own infants.
I could talk about it all day. But that’s one of the unwritten rules. You don’t talk about it. You don’t talk about the fighting and you don’t talk about yourself. I could talk about myself anyway. But I’m not. I’m going to do what any good, self-respecting man does when he returns. I’m going to tell stories about someone else. I’m going to talk about Special Officer Martin Caporaso.
But to get to him I have to start with myself. Grew up in Virginia. That’s the funny thing. People always hear about soldiers coming from the armpit of some southern state—that, or Ohio or Indiana. Like it’s the all-American kid from Ohio, Indiana, or some hole-in-the-wall town in Tennessee. That’s where Martin Caporaso was from. Tennessee. Me, I was born in Virginia. It’s no armpit.
Back home I wasn’t much of anything like Martin Caporaso was. I wasn’t a quarterback. I wasn’t on the homecoming court. Didn’t sleep with the Queen and her two friends, start my own indie band, or manage to out-drink every adult in the county. I worked at an arcade and had a girlfriend for two weeks. What did I do for fun? I played lazer tag after work until the glowing vests needed recharging. I didn’t have it born in me to be a soldier, but I thought I would be good at shooting things. Without a thought about college I enlisted, and the next thing I knew the towers fell and we were at war. I had two weeks before going to Fallujah.
It wasn’t long after that I met Special Officer Martin Caporaso. It sounds like some Renaissance painter, Caporaso. Or like some Don Juan lady’s man from an old play. Martin Caporaso was a lady’s man, but he didn’t look Italian at all. He also wasn’t a painter. But he was a masterpiece. He was a big guy. Tall. Proportioned, except for his feet. He had a walk to him; he had a way of standing, too. It was a wonder he was almost never promoted. I think it was because he always seemed in charge anyway. Everyone forgot his rank. You didn’t look at his sleeve; you just looked at him. And you listened to him, too. We weren’t sure what Caporaso was going to do when he got out, and he never told us, but we all knew he could do anything he wanted.
There was always plenty going on at the base where we first met him. There was always a basketball game, a couple guys wrestling, a movie showing in a tent, some guys making a video to send home. But what drew the biggest crowd was “Ross-o,” as we called him. All he was doing was telling stories. Everyone had stories to tell; there were enough to go around and fill volumes. But nobody told them like Ross-o.
There was the one about the guy who had lost his hearing from a grenade, and started talking like a real deaf guy. Then they gave him surgery and put this thing in his ear that gave him his hearing back, and one of his friends showed him a tape of himself talking after his hearing went out. The guy flipped out— said he sounded like a retard. The best part was hearing Ross-o do the impersonation.
There was the one about the guy who would go around and p— on everybody’s uniforms when they weren’t looking. When they finally figured out who it was, they finally stripped him down and all took a turn p—ing on him. Then the guy p—ed himself. I don’t know how they knew that.
But the one story he always loved telling was the one I got to witness myself, even though nobody tells it better than him. It was after I first joined up with him. We were in Fallujah for the first time. Vigilant Resolve, they called it. Our team was up on a balcony, clearing it out to set up our sniper. Caporaso stood straight up for one second to take a look at the adjacent rooftop. Out from nowhere a bullet hits him right in the chest. He fell back and if he was anybody else I would have forgotten he had a vest and thought he was dead. He kept his eyes open, looked up at the sky, and put his hand to his chest. He coughed and there was no blood.
I myself only got shot once, and it was in the vest too. Got hit in the back and fell over. Felt like a brass knuckle punch. I thought back to those days playing lazer tag, and expected some robotic voice to come out and say: “You are hit.” There is no voice. There’s only pain. Maybe when you die you hear a voice, like, “you are dead.” Like you wouldn’t know if you were dead. The faces on some guys when they die—they know they’re dead. Or they’re in Hell.
Anyway, so Caporaso wasn’t hurt a bit. Our sniper would have taken the guy out for him, but Ross-o just got back up, raised his gun, and killed the very guy who shot him. At least he said it was the same guy. I don’t know. But that just proves my theory about Caporaso: He’s just got this air about him. Like you just know he’ll get out of this whole mess without a scratch somehow. He still carries that bullet around his neck. Says it’s a good luck charm. Charms don’t work in war. But it’s his charm. And it’s his story. And like I said, he tells it better.
But as much as he loved to tell stories and draw attention to himself, Caporaso spent a lot of time by himself, standing around with his mouth shut and his forehead wrinkled up. In fact, I think he always made an effort to set himself apart from the rest of us whenever he could. Maybe you have to do that to be a man like Caporaso: you have to stand alone and brood, show everyone you’re not made from the same stuff they are, and they wouldn’t understand what you are made of. For a man who seemingly lived off the company of others, it also seemed like he thought we were all parasites. Maybe there are only so many stories to tell before he has to get around to talking about himself. Then he shuts up.
Officer Caporaso was about ten years older than us, it seemed. He said he had joined the services not long ago, but he had the instinct and attitude of a staff sergeant.
“Well, if I’m gonna be stuck here in this sand-trap I might as well enjoy the company of fine privates like Caporaso, Jenkins, and Flaherty,” said Private Burch, who was from Georgia and always tried to show himself better than the rest of us by attempting to speak like an old-fashioned gentleman. He mostly only did it around Ross-o. He gestured an over-dramatic toast with his canteen that was unreturned.
“If I’m gonna be stuck in a Hell-hole with anybody,” said Caporaso, “it sure wouldn’t be you, Burch.”
We all laughed, and Burch laughed too, because even if Caporaso was dead serious, he was also kidding, and nobody would disagree with Caporaso.
We gazed up Eastward at the pale blue sky, away from where the pillars of black smoke and white phosphorus weren’t billowing upward and dampening the sun in a grey and merciless cloud. We marveled at the vastness of the unbroken blue Southward. The desert we had seen enough of—it was all a flat, yellow sea that stretched toward the mountainous islands ahead. We couldn’t hear the wind through the screaming voices in the middle of the city, the bursting crackle of gunshots, the humming of engines. We heard the crying of a woman who had been evacuated despite her refusal to leave her husband’s corpse. A donkey wandered by us and Jenkins aimed his gun as if to shoot it. Still, there was a deafening silence all about us, even as our ears adjusted to the end of the battle, and the noise beyond had further stories to tell.
Caporaso had strategically spread himself out and lifted his feet up on his helmet. Sweat glistened on the top of his shaven head, and his unscratched aviators shielded his eyes. He lit a cigar, took a lazy puff, and passed it to me. It was an honor for Ross-o to give you a complimentary puff. You didn’t say no. We started checking our gear and emptying our helmets of the grainy sand that had gotten into our hair. I still felt a ringing in my ears from the hours of shellfire all around.
“I think I my blister’s bleeding,” said Jenkins.
“You’d rather be dead instead?” said Ross-o. “Go check out the guy they just carried over to the med tent. He’ missing an arm. You wanna trade?”
“Lucky to be alive, we are,” said Burch, as if it was a new idea.
“Think we’ll have the city by tomorrow?” I said to Ross-o.
“We already do,” said Ross-o, looking in the opposite direction. “They’re just sending in the cleanup crew. She put up a good fight though, this one. Wouldn’t take my boots off just yet, Jenkins. They might change their mind about not needing us.”
Jenkins stopped, embarrassed to be called out by Ross-o, and started tying his boot back on like a schoolboy.
Burch scratched his head. “What makes you say that?”
“Just look at how many we got over here. We ain’t just guarding the rail yard, buddy. We’re the reserves in case it’s still too dicey in there.” He took another swig from his canteen and swallowed. “This thing’ll never end, boys. It dudn’t matter how many cities we take. East is East, and West is West.” He paused and looked back to the city. “And never the twain shall meet.”
The sound of a tank firing echoed in the distance, quickly followed by the sound of a building splintering into stones and broken masonry.
“Hey, I know that from somewhere,” Burch said. “That’s from a poem or something.”
Burch. Always trying to show himself the smarter one. But he was right. I remembered reading a Kipling poem in high school.
“It’s from that guy who wrote Jungle Book,” I said, trying my best not to show off like Burch. “Kip- something.”
“Kipling,” said Ross-o, taking another toke. “Did I ever tell you boys my dad used to read that to me when I was a boy?”
“What, that quote?” said Burch.
“No, you idiot. The Jungle Book.”
“I saw the movie,” said Jenkins.
“Everybody saw the movie,” said Burch.
“What about you, Flaherty?” said Ross-o, turning to me. “You ever see the movie?”
It was an honor for Caporaso to ask you a personal trivia question out of curiosity.
“I was real little,” I said.
“Hey,” said Jenkins. “Hey. You remember that part at the end where he meets that girl? And she starts singin’?”
Jenkins burst out laughing at this. I looked to Ross-o next to me, who merely shook his head, and I shook mine, hiding a chuckle.
“It wudn’t like that in the book at all,” said Ross-o. “No cute girl walking in like that. That’s a Disney lie right there. And if there was, I would’ve stayed in the jungle. You think it’s a happy ending when the girls shows up. Hell, no.”
Ross-o hung his head and blew smoke all the way down his uniform, staring toward the ground with his shaded gaze.
Behind us a jeep drove past, one of the soldiers inside proudly singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” off-key. The gunfire continued. The heat of the sun continued pounding on us mercilessly, making us wish we had found a shadier spot.
“Every woman’s got her price, and love ain’t no victory,” Ross-o murmured, his mind hanging on whatever afterthought came from our conversation.
“What’s that about?” I said. I almost didn’t want to ask. For all that Ross-o was, I knew he only told the stories he wanted to tell, and that there were ones he wasn’t telling on purpose. Everything he said had a purpose, but I usually found that purpose was always the same: he was filling his role. He was being Caporaso, and Caporaso was here to tell us stories and be Caporaso. But he was sneaking in a tone I had never seen in him, like he wasn’t sure of the purpose of his words, but he knew he had to say them now and he would probably never say them again.
“I been with you boys the longest,” said Ross-o, putting his cigarette out. “But I never told you this: I was engaged once.”
“You were engaged?” said Jenkins. “You? Martin Caporaso? Engaged?”
“I always figured you for a bachelor,” said Burch.
“Let me finish,” said Ross-o. “I was engaged. Now, I know I gave you boys the impression that I’ve been in the service for a couple years. Well, it’s more like six. I joined the reserves right out of high school. I just never figured we’d end up in a war like this, you know.”
Jenkins spat. “Six years, huh? Why you still in this mess?”
“Her name is Delilah.”
“Ooh. Delilah,” said Burch, as if it didn’t sound sexy enough.
“Delilah Shirley. It’s because of her I’m not getting out of here.”
“You gonna tell us all about this?” I said. “Start at the beginning.”
It was only because I had spent so much time around Caporaso that I was comfortable enough with telling him how to tell his own story.
“Guess you boys probably want to know how I managed to do a stupid thing like get myself engaged,” he said, and sighed a long sigh.
At once I felt an anxiety that, after being around him a while, I began to tell had been eating him for a long time, longer than I’d known him.
“I thought you fell in love with a girl named Ashley,” I said.
“I was engaged to her when I got into this mess,” he said. And the way he consistently spoke her name the third time told me how damned he was before he had to say any more. But he went on.
“Women have learned to hate me, even when they loved me. Ashley loved me. But I had been datin’ a bunch of women on-and-off before I met her, and I wasn’t ready to get serious with anybody. I mean, I was in love with Ashley—at least I told her I was. But that Delilah was a wild child. Poor Ashley. She was sweet, though. But you know, a guy’s gotta have somethin’ more. And I’m a go-getter. Okay, I’ll just say it—I was pretty cocky back then. So I had to show myself up. I think that’s why I joined the service in the first place. Man in uniform ain’t what it’s all cracked up to be. Ain’t that right?”
We all nodded our heads, even Jenkins and Burch afraid to interrupt. It was as if a war movie was just playing in the next room and we were a thousand miles from the real thing. Only, the heat was still very real through the whole talk. We didn’t stop sweating as we listened. We could have been in the center of the city, bullets and bombs and blood all around us, and these guys would have sat down and listened intently if they were to hear a story Ross-o never told before.
“So I was a fool. I joined the reserves, went through the routine. Put in my two years, came back, got a job, and next thing I know I met this girl Ashley Billington at a military ball and in four months I was engaged. But this girl was bangin’. I mean she was it. A guy tried to fight me for her. I fought ‘im. Never done that before. I broke his collar bone and he said I could have her. That should’ve been the sign. Guy gives a girl up in a fight? Either she’s not worth it or he’s not a real man.
“I don’t know what came over me. She had, like, the most perfect shaped head, you know? I know that sounds weird, but you ought to ‘ve seen her. Her body was great, but her face and everything—it all went together. She had blue eyes too. You know how hard that is to come by. Laughed like a saint an’ everything. I don’t gotta be poetic about it. And she could walk on a hardwood floor and not make a sound. But that was the problem. I don’t know if it was her fault or mine. Well, it was probably mine. She made me think I was in love with her, and I fell for it. Never tell a girl you don’t care about that you love her if you don’t mean it. Better to just not tell ‘er.”
We all nodded our heads in silence as he took another swig of his canteen and wiped his forehead. It was probably instinct for us to mimic his actions, even if we were just as hot.
“Ashley was only eighteen. And the reason she was at the ball was because she was Miranda Billington’s daughter.”
“Miranda Billington?” said Burch. “The senator?”
“That one,” said Ross-o. “She was a senator’s daughter and a colonel’s daughter. And she was young and single. Why wouldn’t she‘ve been pimped out by her mom and dad at those military banquets? They wanted her to marry an all-American boy. It reflects good on the royal family, you know? Some knight in shining armor. Well, just so happened she thought I’d be her all-American boy.”
He took a swig and continued:
“Momma saw right through it. Knew I wasn’t made up to be much. Knew I went in the service out of high school because I wasn’t gonna be a scholar or anything like that. Messed around too much in high school. Maybe she did her research, too. She had her people. But her dad grew on me like a vine. Treated me like the son he never had, you know? Told me he could get me posted wherever I wanted to go. Shoot. With in-laws like that I could go anywhere in the world—uniform or not. That girl was worth marryin’ just for the prospects. But it was too much, ya know? I mean, I never gave that much thought to a future like that. All planned out and they pave it for you? Maybe that’s why I wanted to back out.”
A crowd of civilians rode by in an evacuation truck. A woman was crying and holding on to her son. A little girl stared at us without movement. I wanted to wave, but I didn’t. I felt too hot and exhausted to even raise a hand and remember that I was somewhere other than in the midst of one of Caporaso’s stories.
“But you can’t say no,” he said. “You can’t leave a girl and a family like that and not regret it. So what do I do? I ran off for a while. And I did some thinking. I hit the road for a while on my own. I just had to get away from it all. That family always in the spotlight or shaking hands with politicians an’ high-rollers. It was suffocating. Nerve racking. They thought I’d run off with some girl. Maybe that’s when the rumors started. But I came back. Like a good boy, I came back. They said I made her cry. I got in a fist fight with her brother. I licked him good, too. They all tried to sit down and have a talk with me. Try to tell me how to behave. I guess I got spooked. Got to feeling like someone was always on my back. So Ashley and I—We got to talking about running away. But if you run away with a girl you gotta marry her. And she liked the marrying part, but she didn’t like the running part. She loved her daddy too much. And she spoke too sweet. I figured if I ran off without her and came back, I must have loved her. So I asked her to marry me.”
“I guess you didn’t marry her then,” said Jenkins.
“Of course he didn’t marry her then,” said Burch. “Didn’t you listen to him at the beginning? He said he was engaged once, not married. Just shut up and listen.”
“Thank you,” said Ross-o. “Well, anyway, word got around and suddenly my name was in print too. It was me they were taking pictures of. It made the family look all perfect, you know. All-American senator married to a corporal with a daughter marrying a good man who fought for his country. I was a fool to get wrapped up in it all. I was an even bigger fool for doing what I did next.”
“Uh oh,” said Jenkins.
“Went to some party and had a bit too much to drink. I mean, I wasn’t hammered, but I just had to unwind more those days. And then there was this girl—Delilah Shirley was her name. Ashley was on my mind, but this girl was wild and every guy at the party knew it. For me, she wasn’t the hottest chick I ever came across. And I wouldn’t‘ve been surprised if every guy in that house had been with her once. But I knew one thing: She wanted me. I didn’t think it was her so much as the fact that to her, I was the biggest prize in the house. And that flatters your ego. I wadn’t no knight in shining armor to some sheltered virgin daddy’s girl and I knew it. Delilah knew what kind of man I was. And I knew what kind of girl she was. That didn’t stop me. Actually, it made me keep going.
“I told her I was engaged. And when you tell a girl like that it turns her on. She’ll think it’s so sweet that you have yourself a honey, but it’ll also make her jealous. Maybe that’s why I said it. I knew how she’d feel. She asked me if I was afraid to be with another girl. I wasn’t until she asked. Then I lied. And then we flirted around a bit. She kissed me. She asked me what it took to get me to screw her, and I told her. And then she took my shirt off and I took her pants off. Not much more to say about that.”
“Not even gonna tell us the details?” said Jenkins. “What kind of story is that?”
“Would you put a sock in it?” said Burch. “Ross-o’s not finished yet.”
A breeze came our way and barely cooled us off, but the sand that came with it gave us no relief. We shielded our eyes and continued listening to Ross-o, who by now had decided to ignore Burch and Jenkins.
“And I pretended it didn’t happen,” he said. “But I couldn’t get my mind off of her. Was then I realized I didn’t love Ashley like I thought I did. But I ran out and left that girl lyin’ there. Sick to the heart, man. And I’d never been sick to the heart. But I did it to myself. And I deserve everything comin’ after.”
“And what do I do? I go runnin’ to Delilah. Cuz she tells me she fell in love with me that night. Turns out she’s havin’ my baby is all it is. I had to do somethin’ to keep my dignity. And I think the Billingtons were waitin’ on that. They weren’t through with me yet. Week after Delilah tells me she’s pregnant I get a Stop-Loss letter. I knew it was Colonel Billington who had it done. They got me back, all right. And I guess they had to get Delilah too. Been in this God-forsaken country ever since. Been stop-lossed three times. Haven’t heard a thing from either of them girls. Don’t even know if that baby’s really mine or if Delilah was just playin’ me. She was playin’ me that first night. The devil’s playin’ me now. Whattya think a that?”
He had sped up and slammed the breaks on his story like he was trying to squeeze in his last words in before dying. It was so abrupt that almost a minute went by before we really felt safe to react. But how do you react to something like that? And when a battle’s going on the next city over.
“I said: Whattya boys think a that!” he belted out, startling us. Jenkins and Burch had been in such a trance, you wouldn’t know they had been paying full attention the whole time. And I almost felt that he was only telling the story to me, that Jenkins and Burch just happened to be there.
“Man,” was all Jenkins could say. “You mean you got a kid, too?”
Burch placed his chin on his fist and dared to offer a trite proverb. “Better to’ve loved and lost than never loved at all. Ol’ Alfred Tennyson said that.”
Caporaso huffed bitterly. “Better to never been borne than to have to live damned and cursed. I said that.”
And he said nothing else after. He just lay there against the wall like a fresh corpse. No longer an enlightened master piece—just a broken fresco bleached by the sun and hung over from endless night. I wasn’t sure why he picked a time like now to tell us all this, or why he picked us, of all people. He told me he had known me the longest. Jenkins and Burch, they were just there. He needed an audience. They weren’t worthy to hear it. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be told either. I didn’t feel like I wanted to hear it. But maybe he just needed to tell somebody. Get it off his chest. I don’t think it worked, though. Some things are just too heavy.
I heard about this guy that was a real hero early in the war. He’d rescued some little kid and a journalist was right there to take his photo. Real iconic. Made everybody feel better back home. What the papers didn’t talk about was the rest of the story. Guy comes home, settles down, can’t handle it. Checks his car for bombs before heading out. Looks out the window all day. Starts sitting with his back against the wall when he goes out to eat. Next thing you know he’s snorting gas fumes in his garage and his wife and kids don’t know him anymore. Well, he put a shotgun to his head. But it didn’t make the papers because maybe it’s been told before, and nobody wants to ruin a good iconic photo like that. A good ol’ boy like that goes off to war; his body comes back but his soul stays behind and it’s not him that his wife and kids hug, it’s just hollow and broken.
I think Caporaso is the opposite. He’s out here in The Suck and he’s never coming home. He takes a beating here and his soul’s back at home, and the worst part is I think his soul’s the one having a worse time. I think about maybe taking him while he’s drunk asleep and stuffing him into one of the freight trains nearby, letting him have his escape from all this. Doesn’t matter where it goes, so long as it’s away from here as Hell from Heaven. But he wouldn’t want it. He knows he’s supposed to be here now. He’d get caught anyway, because the long hand of something—fate, God, the desert, Senator Billington, some curse, whatever—was slowly and sorely gripping him on the inside where none of us could see it. And he couldn’t dare say that none of it was his own fault.
Not long after it started to get dark we were called back in to camp. They put us on a truck and sent us to the other side of the city, where there were probably too many soldiers already. Ross-o managed to clamber his drunken self onto the truck without arousing any suspicion, and when he did he just sat there as if he hadn’t moved at all. We crammed ourselves in, all sweaty and stinking and bruised and bloody. The ride was bumpy and most of us were tired. As the rest of the boys carried on inside the truck I kept gazing at Caporaso, who might have eventually fallen asleep. I couldn’t tell through his shades—dark and concealing, like a blind man was cowering underneath the cold face of stone. I wanted to take them off to see if he was awake, to see if maybe he had cried. But I knew his eyes were dry. Even if he had wanted to, he knew he was expected not to be that kind of guy. Normally he would have been carrying on with everyone else, telling jokes and stories right and left, but he just sat there without a word, no reflection in his dark glasses, too drunk for the facade we usually saw.
I just kept staring at him, watching his chest rise and fall like a sick man, lonely even when a whole platoon would be by his side. A proud, hollow facade. And he looked like that guy from Greek mythology, with the crows tearing at his liver, over and over again. And I knew Caporaso would never die out here. He was just one of those guys you could look at and you knew he would make it out without a scratch on him.