I Am the Pulverizer

by Brandon Davis Jennings

Winner of the 2013 Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize, judged by Elena Passarello.

Pulverizer (n.)

  1. A device used to reduce things to dust or powder, as by pounding or grinding.
  2. A device used to demolish or crush things completely.
  3. Slang. A device used to defeat, hurt badly, or, figuratively, render helpless.

A number of the wartime documents printed during Operation Iraqi Freedom on Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia were too good for shredding, so one day Master Sergeant Loftus ordered me to haul a stack of Top Secret documents over to the pulverizing shack to pulverize them. I went with someone; I’ll say it was Drews because I rarely talk about him. Drews was a good guy, and even though I haven’t talked to him since we left the desert, I bet he’s just fine.

This was sometime around Easter of 2003, and I’m not big on hyperbole, but the 363rd AEF Comm Squadron received a million care-packages, and they all contained Peeps. So there were a million Peeps packages, and because Peeps come in five, ten, and fifteen-count packages, there were between five and fifteen million Peeps in our shop. Drews ripped open the plastic seal on each of the packages so the Peeps could breathe, and after a couple days of stale-mentation, he ate all the Peeps in one afternoon. He didn’t gain a pound because he is from Louisiana and Tony Chachere’s seasoning trains the body to perspirate un-needed calories. That is why Louisiana has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the nation.Fn 1

Drews and I skipped over to the pulverizer-shack, laughing about its name. I made Looney-Tunes-qualityFn 2 jokes and kicked rocks and wood chips that were scattered about the gray-brown sand. My armpits sweat, my palms sweat; sweat beads rolled down my inner thighs. There was a sweaty bunch of boxer shorts about my nether-region, and the folder I carried was soggy when we arrived at the shack. The cipher combination to access the shack and all its pulverizing goodness was 5-14-21.Fn 3

Inside, the pulverizer-shack was covered in a fine layer of white dust that billowed around our footsteps and then curled in on itself gracefully, ever skyward, until it dissipated and, no doubt, descended invisibly and covered the floor as it had before we’d disturbed it—displaced but the same dust it had always been. We were not ordered to, but Drews and I donned goggles and respirators to ensure we didn’t inhale Top Secret and classified document-dust after the pulverization sequence had been initiated. Once engaged, the pulverizer whined in anticipation, a million teeth gnashing, ready to masticate paper and ink into near-oblivion. We dropped documents into the feed chute—one at a time, a few at a time, then big stacks that made the pulverizer growl and rumble as it strained to choke the information down. We danced as the pulverizer spewed information-dust into the air because: we never invaded Iraq in that room; nobody died in Iraq in that room; Jessica Lynch never fucked up and somehow returned home a hero and was given things that most of the men and women who did their jobs in the desert well would never receiveFn 4…in that room. We said things like, “Stop. You’re stepping all over the truth,” or, “There’s some truth in your hair,” or, “Help! I’ve been blinded by the truth.” Or maybe we said nothing at all because none of the things we did were ironic yet, or things were ironic but we hated being in Saudi Arabia so much that irony was a waste of energy, and since irony is a dead scene, we are retrospectively glad that we weren’t ironic when we had the chance. Maybe we were just pissed that there was dust everywhere and that the documents we’d pulverized most likely contained information regarding the useless IDNX nodeFn 5 we’d installed so some Captain would earn a promotion when he rotated back to the states.

After the pulverizer had pulverized all the documents we’d offered it, I thought about crawling inside and pulverizing myself, which is easy to say, considering I am here right now, and it’s been almost ten years since I was there. But it made sense that the room should be covered in red-black, gory bits of paper instead of white dust; that way people far-removed from the consequences of their actions might consider future options more carefully or at least be forced to wash off all the congealed, fleshy bits before they forget the origin of the gore that rolled off their bodies and swirled into their burbling bathtub drains.

—Why did you want to pulverize yourself?

—It’s healthy to think about putting the barrel of a gun in your mouth, to feel it scratch against your teeth, to taste the bite of metal on your tongue.

—You’ve never done that.

—I can imagine it. I don’t need to do it. But I do have guns. Just in case, Counselor.Fn 6

—You weren’t against the war, then?

—It doesn’t matter. I was there before it started; I was there until Mission Accomplished.

—You have no opinion?

—Maybe this will explain it:

I never told anyone I worked with in Saudi my DOB because I didn’t want any of the perks awarded to Airmen deployed on their birthdays. For instance there was a birthday dinner once a month where birthday boys and girls had the privilege of eating with commanders and various other higher-ups.Fn 7 What that dinner amounted to was me (and some other unfortunate birthday celebrators) sitting across from and next to a bunch of officers and senior NCOs who I could not be honest with while I chewed over-cooked steak and lobster. I was glad the food was rubbery because unless I was praising the mission or answering dumbass questions about my family and my job, there was nothing I could say to those men and women that would have improved my quality of life. So I just nodded and chewed until my jaw ached.

On my 22nd birthday, January 8, 2003, I went to work and kept my head down. I was probably over-correcting, though. Guys might have told jokes that weren’t very funny, and I laughed so hard that I farted. Or maybe someone called me an asshole, and I just batted my eyes coyly rather than trying to make him feel like a piece of shit. I wasn’t being myself, and when half way through the sixteen-hour day MSgt Loftus called me to his office, I was certain that he’d discovered the truth. I thumped over the sandy carpet like a pouty three-year-old and leaned against his office doorframe. He clicked his mouse a few times and mashed some keys, paused a grainy video of a crosshair aimed at an empty patch of desert. The Top Secret safe was open, and that indicated I might be ordered to take the KIKFn 8 to various shops around the base. At the time, that was the last thing I wanted to do—trek all over the base re-keying cryptos for a bunch of dumbfucks who’d cut the power to their comm equipment on accident. Captains and colonels had a strange disease that made it highly likely they’d step on a power strip or unplug a router or a million other ridiculous things that would sever their connection to the porn-ternet.Fn 9 And when I’d show up and fix the problem in fewer than five minutes, I would have to lie about how it couldn’t have been their fault. If I said, “Sir. I don’t know what your dad taught you, but you need to watch where you plant your feet.” Or if I said, “Make sure the cord you unplug isn’t connected to something more important than the coffee maker,” there would’ve been hell to pay. So I usually just said, “Sorry we didn’t have this fixed sooner, sir. This kind of error stumps all the top men.”

“Jennings,” MSgt. Loftus said. His gold front tooth flashed when he smiled. (It was a magic tooth. Or it was battery operated. Or it didn’t flash.)

“Yes, sir.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Cut the ‘sir’ shit.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Those Army grunts in the sat-truck keep pissing beside our bunker.”

“You want I should wallop their asses?”

—You didn’t say that.

—I also could not have walloped their asses (or their persons in total).

“I need you to grab a shovel, go over to the bunker, and spread that piss sand all over the desert. If the Iraqis lob a SCUD at us, I don’t want to inhale ammonia all day.”

“What the fuck, bro?”

—You didn’t say that.

—I meant it.

“Yes, sir.” I started away, squeezed my fists so tight the knuckles popped.

“Jennings,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Happy birthday, Yossarian.”

“What the hell kind of a name is Yossarian?”

“It’s Assyrian,” he said.

“I thought you said, ‘Yossarian’.”

He clicked play on his video and said, “Get moving, dipshit.”

I had no idea who Yossarian was until I read Catch-22 a few years later, and it’s funny how some coincidences grow into ironies if you’re able to hang on to the memories.

I was watching Tina’s cat—Goldie; it’s not an ironic name. I was never an animal person before I met Tina. In fact, I am a Tina person; Tina is an animal person. It’s math. I want Tina; therefore, I want animals.Fn 10

My house in Portage, Michigan, has a vent in the roof that, in some years, birds turn into a nest. When I was watching Goldie, a nesting bird fell into the vent and couldn’t figure out how to flap its way back up the vent it had fallen into. The bird flew into the house and chirped until I let it out. That night I went to Waldo’s and drank because: I = Hero.

—That’s wrong.

—I was hung over all day.

—That’s a different memory.

I had just re-subscribed to World of Warcraft. They made it more solo-player friendly. I play MMOsFn 11 but rarely like to interact with other players because I refuse to build gaming connections that resemble actual friendships. I want to exit the game at a moment’s notice and not feel like I’m letting someone down. I had a few days off from school, so I played for thirty consecutive hours…approximately. When I crashed, I crashed hard. But my sleep was interrupted at times by chirps and flapping. Goldie normally tried to wedge herself under the covers to sleep between my feet. This irritated me, but I never set the thermostat higher than fifty degrees, so I understood why she wanted to be close to me. I didn’t notice her try to do it that night, which proves nothing more than that I did not notice her try.

I woke once and Goldie had the bird in her mouth. My first thought was that the damn bird deserved what it got if it was stupid enough to fly back into the house after I’d saved it from Goldie the first time.Fn 12 The bird didn’t flap or make a sound. Goldie dropped the bird onto the car-pet beside the futon, an offering I suppose, and I closed my eyes.

The next time I woke, the bird flapped and chirped. Goldie was gone.

I woke again later, and Goldie batted the bird around the floor. The bird was silent and motionless—motionless except when Goldie slapped it across the Berber carpet.

I don’t know how long I slept and let Goldie torture that bird before I rolled off the futon. Goldie was gone again. The bird lay on its side, one wing outstretched, splotches of blood on its breast. It chirped sporadically. I took it to the back porch, set it on the concrete step. It tried to fly, but its wing was broken or dislocated; I’m no veterinarian. I shut the sliding-glass door behind me and Goldie sat on the other side, staring at the bird. ItsFn 13 outstretched wing dragged behind as it chirped and bumbled around the porch.

—Say it.Fn 14

—What was I supposed to do?

—You did what you did.

I picked up the bird, and I can’t remember where I learned how to do what I did next. There is the hint of a memory where my father, shirtless, chest covered in thick black hair, holds a deer by its antlers. I can smell wet pine needles and see my dad expel roiling breaths in the frosty air when I think about this. Dad snaps the deer’s neck and nods to indicate that even though he knows it’s ugly, this is how a man gets shit done. But my dad would never have done that. He’d shoot the deer again if there was any question it hadn’t died from the first shot. (It’s dangerous to approach a wounded animal; I know my dad taught me this. To be gored by a deer is deadly; to be gored by a wounded deer is stupidity.)Fn 15 I called my dad to ask about this memory, and now, just like him, I don’t know what the hell that memory is. No man could snap a deer’s neck unless that man was a descendant of Paul Bunyan or Hercules (or Paul Bunyan or Hercules proper). Maybe it was a dream, but I hate dreams. I prefer to tell you that I’m ignorant when it comes to the art of neck-snappin’; I’m a neck-snappin’ fool.

—You’re wasting time.

—Let me try this:

I have the bird in my hand: soft feathers, its breast presses against my palm and then sinks when it expels breath. I see nothing behind its black eyes, but I say I’m sorry anyway. Say it twice. And I twist the head around, but it keeps turning. And turning. The neck does not break, and I want to rake giant bird claws across my face and chest for being so weak, draw my own blood to show the bird how bad I hurt inside because I failed to kill it the first time, because I couldn’t twist the neck far enough, because I can imagine how scary it would be to accept death and then have the death-bringer fail to deliver it. So I have to twist the neck again, and this time I’m too angry to say I’m sorry. I twist until the neck snaps and then tell myself that I should bury the bird, tell myself burying the bird is the right thing to do. But it’s too late for right things. The bird is dead. So I drop it in the trash and head inside.

I sit in front of my computer. I play World of Warcraft—gather digital herbs, kill digital enemies, receive digital compensation for digital deeds. I stumble onto the futon when I can no longer keep my eyes open, and Goldie struggles to wedge herself under the covers for warmth. So I tuck the comforter around my legs and arms, cocoon myself and hope that somewhere in her little cat brain she understands something like regret for hurting that bird and making me finish the job she’d started. The first thing I do when I wake is roll the trashcan to the curb.

I’m no hunter, but I’ve killed one deer. I was ten or eleven. My dad, brother, and I were on my grandpa’s farm. Dad showed my brother and me how to lean over a round bale so that we could stabilize the rifle. The deer had its head down in the grass. Dew on the round bale soaked into the sleeves of my too-short sweatshirt. Cool wetness against my soft, exposed stomach made goose bumps burst down my arms and skitter up the back of my neck, and the chilled air burnt my nostrils. I looked through the scope and lined the crosshairs up on the deer where my father had taught me: just behind the shoulder. Dad whispered some things, but I don’t remember what he said. I remember holding my breath, staring at the deer as it chewed grass. In the moment before I fired, all that existed was my index finger, the trigger, and that deer’s shoulder. When I pulled the trigger, the rifle jumped and the deer made a sound that I want to imitate for you. I want to be in a bar with you right now and make the ridiculous sound so that you laugh or cringe or hate me. I want you to hear it the way I heard it because that noise is the thing I remember best. But I don’t remember that noise so well because I thought it was funny or sad or anything other than what it was. I focused on the noise that deer made because it is what came just before my brother cried. The deer toppled on the wet grass, and my brother cried while we walked down the hill with my father, down to where my father taught us to dress the deer. My brother cried as the knife ripped up through the deer’s belly. He mashed tears from his eyes with his palms when my dad said, “Don’t cut into the bowels.” And after my dad had taken the meat he wanted, he asked my brother why he was crying. That’s when my brother said, “Now I’ll never get to shoot a deer.” Dad laughed and rubbed my brother’s blonde hair, and I want to remember that he told my brother everything would be OK. But I don’t remember that at all.

At AWP in Washington, DC, one night a group of my friends and I were in a hotel room, a suite, not something I’m accustomed to. One of the renters of the room, some gentleman intent on proving his masculinity to one of the women there (perhaps because my friends and I were all larger than him physically and he thought this woman’s level of attraction to a man was directly proportional to the man’s size) asked us all to tell the story of the first time we killed something. My friends gave me a “What the fuck” look, and I shrugged because it was this guy’s room, and we were drinking his whiskey, and what the hell is AWP good for if it’s not good for telling stories? So I told them all the story of my brother and the deer I shot, and how my brother cried and said that he’d never get to shoot a deer. After I finished, that guy said, “See. That’s what I’m talking about,” as if he’d showed us all how to embrace emotion by guiding us down a path that had been there all along, a path he’d equipped us to travel; that bastard opened us up to new emotional horizons with the size of his brain.

That was a lie, though. It wasn’t the first time I killed something, and I didn’t feel anything when I killed that deer. I don’t feel anything for that deer when I think about it now. I didn’t feel bad for my brother that day either, because it wasn’t real. It happened. It’s true. My dad will verify it; so would my brother, although he might not want me mentioning the crying. Maybe he doesn’t care. But I cried reading Slaughterhouse Five, so hopefully my admission to weaknessFn 16 does something to show my brother I’m not trying to prove I am manlier than he is. I’m sure he knows that shit doesn’t matter to me anyway. Or if it does matter, I don’t view it as a competition. But maybe I’m thinking about everything the wrong way.

I’m not from a boxing family. I didn’t grow up sitting around the TV watching fights. Still I knew who Mike Tyson was. There’s something incredible about the way a single person’s ability in a given arena can bring people otherwise wholly disinterested in that arena together. Mike Tyson had that ability in my family, and when he lost to Evander Holyfield, when he bit Holyfield’s ear, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe a man would do that to another man. It seemed unfair. But I didn’t know Holyfield was head-butting Tyson, had done it multiple times. And now that I do, because I can watch the video again and again, and I can see Holyfield slamming his head into Tyson’s, and because I can see the referee fail to acknowledge it, I understand what might have driven Tyson to sink his teeth into Holyfield’s ear. That might not justify the action. But Tyson had a lot more smashing into his face than Holyfield’s forehead; he had a lifetime of ugliness head-butting him that will never be visible in the ring no matter how many times I watch that fight or how much I slow the video down.

Tyson had brought my friend’s family together, too. And on the night Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, I wasn’t watching the fight with my family. I was staying the night at my friend’s house in Spanaway, Washington. His uncle was there, dressed in BDU pants, black boots. His thick beard covered his throat, and his long brown hair hung to his shoulders. Nothing seemed odd about him to me. Dad was in the Air Force, wore a uniform, and I trusted Dad.

Before the fight ended, we were sent to bed. But I wasn’t tired, and when my friend’s uncle stood in the doorway to the room my friend and I were in and asked if I was awake, I felt lucky; I still do. He led me up-stairs to the living room to watch the rest of the fight, and it seemed normal, like something guys do: just another initiation. He said, “Have you ever seen a cock squirt?” I followed him up the stairs, and I answered him honestly, “No.” And for a long time, I convinced myself I just watched the fight, and that nothing else that happened on that couch with that man was real.

—Was it real when your dad punched you in the stomach?

—I mocked him in front of the entire basketball team during his half-time speech. There are times people deserve to be hit. That is one instance.

—But the pain was real; that’s the point.

—Yes. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand.

—When you broke your arm, your finger, your jaw.

—There are a million things that were real because they hurt.

—Then what do you mean?

—I mean this:

See the boy. See him cringe as Mike Tyson falls to the canvas at Buster Douglas’ feet. See the boy flinch when a belt buckle clacks undone and rips his focus from the fight. Greens, reds, and blues from the television dance across the boy’s face and illuminate the man’s uncircumcised dick; it rises from the unbuttoned fly of his camouflage pants—pants earned in war or bought from a thrift store, the boy may never know. The man exhales heavy, places the boy’s fingers on his dick and tells the boy to lick it. The boy says, “No,” but the man says he’ll get angry if the boy does not do as he is told. The boy says, “No,” again but doesn’t tear his hand away from the man’s dick. He strokes on because he’s already started and doesn’t know what else to do. Before long the man tires of the boy’s inefficiency and wraps his own large-knuckled fist around the boy’s hand. And they stroke together—until the man comes, onto his own pants, his own knuckles. Come slides over his fist, into the cracks between his fingers, and then onto the boy’s thumb and the back of his hand.

The boy asks to go to the bathroom to wash it off, but the man says there is no need to wake anyone with the hiss of running water. He orders the boy to wipe his hand on the camouflage pants, so the boy rubs his sticky hand on the man’s BDU bottoms then sinks into the dark couch cushions, sets his crust-covered hand on his own thigh and wonders how long it will be before the hand will be clean again. Colors flash over the man’s bearded face, his long, curly hair, the thick-veined forearms, and those same colors dance over the pale skin of the boy’s hairless cheeks and blonde curls, the unclean hand rested on his thigh like something that might dry up, crumble, and flake away like the come that dries there.

Deep reds drown them both in near-dark, but before this fades into nothing, white bursts from the screen. The room becomes whole, and again a man and a boy sit on a brown couch. They do not speak, and I want to squeeze that boy, crush his lungs until the air filled with his thoughts smashes through his clenched teeth and sealed lips so that the room is shattered by whatever sounds make up the emotions he chewed and swallowed on that night. But I can’t touch that boy. And he doesn’t talk to me. I can do nothing but clench my fists and my teeth each time the boy follows the man upstairs to sit with him on that couch. I try to drown these thoughts before they move any farther toward the moment I know will come. But bars close, distractions head home, whiskey drains out one piss at a time, and the world shuts down and smothers me in darkness. That’s when the TV spits its light onto that boy and that man seated beside one another on that couch. That’s when Mike Tyson falls and then climbs the referee’s black and white stripes, his mouth-guard dangling from his lips. The man’s belt rattles loose, and everything but that man and that boy on that couch melts and trails off into the blackness that surrounds them.

I always hope the boy will see what is coming and run, but the man always grabs the boy’s hand, and the boy always stays. I tell that boy to run into the darkness because I want to believe whatever lurks in any darkness will be better than what I’ve witnessed in that light so many times. But the boy never listens, and that makes me want to hate him: for not knowing things no one wants to teach a boy, for not knowing things I now know a boy should learn, for having had a chance at being some-one different than he’s become. Because no matter what I do, that boy is always me.

I’m sorry for so many things that sometimes I wish my heart would explode. But that would be too easy. It would be easy to say that because of that man and that night all the things I’ve done to hurt people in the past are understandable. The bird I killed, the weak neck I twisted until it snapped—I don’t even know what kind of bird it was. It was just a bird that had a neck I was strong enough to break. Just a bird I threw in the trash. Now just a bird buried beneath tons of glass and junk mail, rotted to nothing more than trash-caked bones. And as much as I want to pulverize that memory and the image that sprouts from the facts, it’s impossible. But that’s just one tiny thing. I participated in a war that I don’t understand—and there are understandable wars. I jacked-off some man when I was nine years old, killed a deer I had no intention of eating, said and did horrible things to people for no reason other than trying to stab boredom in its hideous face because with boredom comes thoughts and with thoughts come memories and with memories—that man. With him comes hate, and hate wakes me up. Without hate, I wonder if I’d recognize all the love around me. It sounds so simple, just another stupid binary: like if there were no criminals, we’d have no need for police. But maybe it can be that simple sometimes; maybe it can never be. What matters most for me about all this, though, is that I’m not afraid of inhabit-ing a space between good and bad. Yes. I killed that bird. I’ve killed more things than I can remember, more things than I’ll ever know because killing is one of the things I, we, must do to live. And I’m not afraid to say, “If you deny that, your eyes are closed.”

That man who I still picture in his BDU bottoms, polished jump boots, his long hair and thick beard, if he’s still alive, he is my friend’s uncle, is someone’s husband, is someone’s son, is probably a million good things to different people, and he is a pedophile. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever met him again—maybe nothing. But I’ve killed a lot of things that didn’t deserve to die, things I didn’t love or hate, things I can’t even remember or never knew to begin with. And what’s funny to me now, because I’m still young, is that as we get older, we become weak again, grow frail after years of growing stronger. Because he was such a strong man on the night I met him, he was so strong next to a small boy.

I wonder how strong he is today. I wonder if there’s enough hate inside myself to hurt him the way he hurt me that night: if he’s grown too weak to defend himself, if he leans on a cane, if he rolls around in a wheel chair, if he’s trapped in bed—his tired heart forced to beat on by machines. What kind of man would I be if I hunted him down and snapped his neck? What kind of man would I be if I hunted him down, shook his hand, and thanked him? For a moment I’d be a murderer, or for a moment I’d be something else—better or worse, I don’t know. What I do know is that no matter how strong or weak I become I will always owe him something. And what I love about all of this more than anything are the words my dad said when I called to ask about the time I thought I’d watched him snap a deer’s neck. He said, “No man could do to that to a deer, son. It would be a hell of a lot easier for a man to do that to a man.” That is true. And I find a lot of comfort in that.

Brandon Davis Jennings is an Iraq War veteran and PhD candidate in the fiction program at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle, Curbside Splendor, Blackheart Magazine, r.kv.r.y, Ninth Letter, and TriQuarterly. He has been nonimated for multiple Pushcarts and was this year’s winner of the Iron Horse Literary Review’s Single Author Chapbook Competition.