Smitten Gate (Chapter 10)
Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved
Camp Virtue, Afghanistan
July 10, 2010
Sergeant Baines was careful of his uniform as he wiped down stacks of juniper-green metal file cabinets and storage containers with lemon Pledge. He couldn’t remember all the whys or hows of finding himself backstage in this press room, eating shit from Major Carroll, bein’ this yellow motherfucker’s boy. Baines was supposed to have been a light-wheeled vehicle mechanic. His plan upon enlistment was to get out of the goddamn Army and make thirty dollars an hour repairing cars back in DeFuniak Springs. They needed one really good black mechanic there, but by the time he’d gone to Airborne School and worked for a couple of months at the SOCOM motor pool, he knew the Army had set him up with some bullshit. This was paint-by-the-numbers mechanics — just turn on the computer and follow the step-by-step instructions, look at the little shitty pictures in the manual. This was no skill at all, no more than you learn working at KFC. Fuckin’ Army!
He wished he’d never learned the dubious art of looking like a recruiting poster, of acing his schools, and earning superlative evaluations. That’s what got him his interview for this fucking job, one everyone told him was a step up, a golden opportunity to be the PAO’s assistant and driver. It got him his sergeant stripes . . . then cursed him to become this redbone Tom’s serving boy.
“He’ll be here in ten, Winston” she said, startling Baines. Anita Barber, Major “Tom’s” office flunky. A Staff Sergeant, she acted like Baines was her bud, but in this weird, rehearsed, almost mechanical way. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something wasn’t right with this white woman. She was here, but she was aimed somewhere else, like a candidate for town Mayor or something, always on guard, trying not to leave tracks. Cute though.
“Got it,” he replied, returning to his dusting. “Thanks.”
Inside that perfect uniform is an ambitionless country fuck. Major Carroll braced himself to inspect the press room and face his subordinate, Sergeant Baines. An embarrassment . . . a kind of stubborn refusal to see anything beyond the horizon of some small town in the Florida panhandle, a pig-headed inclination to remain a stereotypical Negro wearing a well-pressed uniform. Carroll tried to anchor his resolve to be civil to Baines, continually confused and a little guilty at how easily he found himself losing his temper with Baines’ seemingly unfocused existence. Today he would be charitable with Baines, find something to praise him for.
When Carrol came out of his backstage dressing room, the house curtains were uneven. His water pitcher was on the left side of the podium, and the glass on the right. His notes were lying on a storage container! The press was already filing in, God damn it!
“Sergeant Baines,” he said ominously, motioning Baines out of sight of the four reporters. The press reps were already at the refreshments table, dribbling coffee on the white tablecloth, and gulping down canapés while two of their cameramen — one white and one Asian, both looking like bored teenagers — were setting up their tripods and pointing their lenses at the podium.
“Sir.” Here it comes, Baines thought.
“This should be very simple by now,” said Major Carroll. “My papers are left-center and squared.” He handed the three sheets to Baines. “Because I turn the pages to right. The curtains are exactly six feet on either side of center. Pitcher on the right, because I am right-handed, glass on the left.”
“Yes, sir.” Why you talk so white, motherfucker? ‘My papers are left-centered on the podium.’
“Don’t yes sir me unless you understand, Sergeant.”
“I understand, sir.” Understand you got that Colonel’s dick in your mouth.
“Then why wasn’t it done?”
“Sir . . .”
“No! No excuses. They’re already out there.” Baines was silent, expressionless, standing now at attention. “Well, get it done, Sergeant.”
Baines went to adjust the curtains, pulling his humiliation in close to him like a hungry baby. Through the open door of the dressing room, he glanced Anita checking her appearance in the mirror over the sink, tucking an escaped strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. Baines switched the glass and the pitcher of water on the podium. So this yella-ass suck-up can read his fuckin’ lines.
Five more noisy reporters entered the room whooping at some inside joke. Two of them, cameramen, naturally, headed to the front row of perfectly aligned folding chairs and began assembling kits. The other three — a fortyish man who could stand in the prop blast of a C-130 without a hair stirring on his gelled head, and two self-consciously blue-jeaned women, one a skinny bottle-blonde and the other a redhead with a high-in-the-back yuppy cut — headed straight for the gourmet coffee and the canapés.
Major Carroll knew the redhead, Rosemarie something, stringing for Fox. She always looked at him like he was a slice of spiced bread with mango jelly. The blonde was Connie Mason — a stringer, too, but she got her name in the New York Times more often than some people who were on staff. The gel-head was George Yowell, from TCN International — a twit, thought Carroll, but an important twit. No one’s stringer, he was a bona fide news personality “reporting from the front lines.” The man had an audience, including now and again the Commander-in-Chief. Be nice. George was going to be in Kabul for the next week to consolidate his chops as a “war reporter.”
They couldn’t care less about the fuckin’ curtains, Baines brooded, watching from the wings as reporters crammed smoked salmon and goat cheese into their mouths and masticated like cattle.
Carroll was in the dressing room, checking himself in the mirror. Baines watched from the wings. Vain bastard. Got this job because he was pretty. Oh, and willing to bury his lips deep in that Colonel’s ass. Always tryin’ too hard not to be scary-black. Like maybe a tennis player or one of them friendly, harmless homos.
Will Carroll went to stand in the semi-darkness off-stage-right, Anita Barber on the left. They’d done this countless times, or so it seemed. Four more reporters filed in: a very serious-looking white guy who looked like he belonged in a college classroom teaching political science, and two darker guys — Al Jazeera stringers, maybe, or Gulf Weekly. Carroll had seen them before. They took notes and never asked anything.
But then he seldom said anything.
The last reporter in had the look of a man nursing a hangover — fifty-something, crew-cut gray, face hadn’t seen a razor in a few days, wearing sandals with socks, shirttail out over a bloated gut and sweating circles into his armpits. Taking a long pull on his cigarette before the sergeant at the door, name tag — Roof, could tell him to get rid of it, the reporter pushed the door back open and snapped the butt outside, exhaling a dense stream of smoke that drifted toward the coffee dispenser.
That commie prick from France, Gaston Villeneuve. Carroll sighed. Villeneuve was what they called a “spring-butt” back at West Point. Always got a question that’s not in the script.
Sergeant Roof directed reporters to the feeding trough for their canapés and coffee as if they didn’t already know where they were. Same shit, different week. Roof yawned, suppressing the urge to pick his nose.
A Master Sergeant ambled in with wrinkled ACUs, sidearm on, wearing his tactical vest, and carrying his M-4. He strode past Sergeant Roof before Roof could respond and headed to the back. Special Forces patch, but Carroll couldn’t see his name tag. Fucking seriously? Who the hell is this guy? You can’t just barge in on a press briefing! In his battle-rattle, carrying a weapon?
Older guy, Carroll guessed, in his early forties, week-old beard, black hair with gray at the temples, weather-brown over a naturally pale complexion, strangely blue-green eyes. Kind of short and solid. The E-8 went to the back of the room, stood his M-4 in the corner and dropped his chest rig in a heap. Then he strolled over and drew himself a cup of black coffee, strolled back, sat down in the very back of the room, crossed his legs all the way like women do, and blew gently on his coffee, apparently ignoring the activity around him, including the two women in front who’d both fixed their eyes on him.
One minute. Carroll would have to decipher this afterward. He looked up at Staff Sergeant Barber. She was already watching Carroll’s reaction and shrugged to signal “I don’t know.” They held each other’s gaze for a half minute, then he gave her a covert thumbs-up.
Sergeant Barber took a deep breath and advanced onto the stage with a well-rehearsed false self-assurance, centering herself at the podium. Reporters drifted toward their seats. She switched on the mike, gave it a light tap that reverberated like a shot, waited another beat, and put on a professional smile.
A cargo plane came in close overhead and drowned the room in the familiar din, giving the journalists another moment to choose their seats. Nothing momentous coming. The plane receded, tires squawking in the distance as it touched down.
Anita looked down for an instant, recovered her welcome-face, looked up, and leaned almost imperceptibly into the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Major Carroll will be out momentarily. Please find a seat and make yourselves comfortable.”
Her lines. Delivered.
As the final journalist sat, several still murmuring, she nodded a kind of thanks, then retreated smoothly back behind the house curtain, stage-right. Carroll strode confidently to the podium. The reporters fell silent.
Slim and athletic, Major Will Carroll had presence. Rosemarie and Connie both suppressed lascivious smirks. The Public Affairs Officer’s very serious mien as he initially pretended to review his notes was transformed into pure charm as he raised his face to his audience with a so-happy-to-see-you-all smile.
“Good morning,” the press corps muttered back, several instinctively returning the smile, Rosemarie crossing her legs extravagantly. Major Carroll averted his eyes a moment late, and her eyes narrowed with satisfaction. His smile faded decorously as he launched into his presentation.
“I’m Major Carroll, Public Affairs Officer for Special Operations Task Force Bird, and on behalf of Colonel Boyd Thomas, the Task Force Commanding Officer, I’d like to welcome you again to our weekly operations briefing.
“This week, we have continued to train with Afghan Militia Forces and Afghan police as well as conduct local reconnaissance operations West of Kabul. There have been no major incidents this week, and our work with local militia and the constabulary is progressing.
“Two minor engagements between local Afghan forces and suspected Taliban have resulted in one enemy K.I.A. and no friendly casualties.” Paused a moment to hint at another smile. “I’m aware that such an uneventful report might disappoint our friends from the fourth estate . . .” Mild, polite laughter from the press corps, on cue. “. . . but we welcome this lack of theatricality as a sign that our joint operations are successful in maintaining stability in our sector.”
“Theatricality is a sign that our joint operations are successful in maintaining stability in our sector,” mocked Baines under his breath, standing in the wing.
“So, with that out of the way, my friends, what questions do you have for me today?” Rosemarie’s hand went up like a schoolgirl.
“Rosemarie.” Smile still plastered on.
“Thank you, Will.” Gaston Villeneuve coughed wetly and conspicuously, tugging at his crotch to relieve some apparent discomfort. “I wonder how morale is among the troops right now,” she asked, never losing eye contact. “Has the ambiguity of statements from Washington or the lack of recent combat activity taken the edge off them?” Perfect softball pitch.
“Thanks, Rosemarie,” he began, his smile appropriately emerging and disappearing like little clouds crossing the sun. “Morale is great. As you know, aside from the government contractors who manage the installation and coordinating staff, Task Force Bird also has a Special Forces contingent who work with the AMF’s, and a Ranger Company with Special Ops aviators on standby as a quick reaction force. Our troops are mature, quiet professionals. Our current stability is evidence that their work with Afghan forces is making progress, and our secondary mission of supplying Forward Operating Bases has been running very smoothly.
“As to Washington, I’m not sure I’d characterize their statements as ambiguous. I think you’ll find the administration is careful not to generalize about a complex situation. Next question.”
Villeneuve’s hand went up.
Fuck! Springbutt! No smile this time.
Villeneuve’s English was accented but clean.
“Thank you, Major. Gaston Villeneuve with Nouvel Observateur.” Major Carroll acknowledged with an expressionless nod. “This February, the President suggested that NATO and American forces would begin leaving Afghanistan. Your government is also saying that this departure will coincide with a transfer of leadership from the Americans to the Afghans. The progress you speak of — that was your word, progress — is not as evident in the field as you suggest. Roadside attacks continue. Green-on-blue and green-on-green attacks are becoming more frequent. Kandahar is blowing up. Your President just fired his main commander, and you were attacked this morning. Aren’t these claims of progress contradictory?”
“Sir, I’ll begin by noting that I am a small Task Force PAO, and I am neither authorized nor inclined to speak on behalf of the Theater Command or the National Command Authority.”
“Isn’t that what you just did?”
Carroll blushed and noted that the Master Sergeant in the back of the room had finished his coffee, quietly geared up, and was treading silently out the door, dropping the empty coffee cup in the trash as he left.
“No, Mr. Villeneuve,” replied Carroll. Colonel Thomas had instructed him to avoid the topic of the rocket attack if at all possible. “And what happened this morning was a single desperate round, with zero casualties. The attackers were dealt with, and there’s been no disruption to operations.”
Dale stepped out of the press hooch and walked into the alley between rows of bunkers. His head had gone all woolly again listening to that muppet inside. His heart pounded like a drum in his ears, and he stopped to let the breeze cool his face. He gazed up at the electric line running between the press hooch and the Task Force ops bunker. A green bird the size of a house sparrow perched there, tilting its head to watch Dale watching it. Long slender black bill with an orange throat and pale blue lines under its eyes.
Transfixed, Dale didn’t know how long he stood there gazing at the passerine. The muffled drum receded. The breeze raised the bird’s back feathers, then died down, then raised them again. He found himself wondering if the bird was enjoying the wind. A gaggle of reporters came out and climbed into a Chevrolet van, when he was startled by a tap on the shoulder.
Though momentarily startled, he felt an odd sense of tranquility now oozing in through his legs like little minnows. Major Carroll was facing him. The briefing was over already? How long had he stood there?
“Master Sergeant . . .” Major Carroll paused to read his name tag, “. . . Dale. Master Sergeant Dale, would you mind telling me why you showed up uninvited to my press briefing?”
Dale gazed back into Carroll’s eyes for a beat, Dale’s brow suddenly plowed with lines, appearing to think very hard about the question he was asked.
Carroll’s cheeks had begun to color when Dale finally answered.
They stood there, Carroll waiting for a reply.
“Well, what were you doing with a rifle in the press room?”
“They just issued it, Major. I’m headed to the range to zero.”
“But why were you in my press room? You weren’t authorized to be there.”
“Oh, I just peeked in. I saw the coffee and figured I could use a cup, sir. Haven’t slept for shit in days. Jet lag, maybe. Very good coffee by the way. I mean, wow. The snacks looked great, too. Are there any left? I skipped breakfast.”
“Where are you assigned, Master Sergeant?”
“Oh, I just got here late last night. I’m taking over Detachment 649.” Carroll’s face darkened even more. “Are you alright, sir?”
“Master Sergeant, I’m the Task Force PAO. I suggest you begin to learn how we do things here before you take over anything.”
“Couldn’t agree more, sir. Always good advice. Do you see that bird, sir?” He looked up, but the bird had flown. “Oh shit, you missed it. Well, you see them all the time, I reckon, but that was a blue-cheeked bee-eater. A songbird. Never see that bird in the States. Maybe in a zoo.”
“Sergeant Dale!” Dale was silent, still apparently unperturbed and curious about Carroll’s agitation. Dale waited. Carroll waited. Carroll broke the silence.
“Sergeant Dale, you’re not to enter any building on this installation without authorization. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly, sir.” Dale was tilting his head and gazing at Carroll’s face like he was reading a recipe, or doing a math problem. “Very sorry. Didn’t mean any harm. Won’t happen again.” Carroll waited, unsure for what. “Is that all, Major?”
Another moment passed.
“Yes, that’s all, Master Sergeant.”
Dale offered the Major his hand. Carroll looked at the proffered hand like a live Gila monster.
“Pleased to meet you, Sir,” said Dale without sarcasm, keeping his hand extended. Carroll looked around and grudgingly grasped the hand. Dale gave him one firm squeeze, then snapped to attention and started to salute, catching himself at the last instant. “Silly me. Downrange, right? No saluting. My bad. Been in language school for a year. Tight-assed as hell, those people.”