What’s Happening on the News – Chavisa Woods
When I was in the fourth grade, our teacher’s twenty-year-old son visited our class to present an educational show-and-tell. He brought in a helmet full of sand. He was a soldier. It was a Desert Storm helmet. He poured the sand into a plastic Ziploc bag. He said, “This sand is from Iraq.” We were awed. Iraq was so far away and on the news. We had our simulacra experience. We were ten and didn’t know what it meant. He passed the helmet around. We all touched it with our hands like it might be healing us or transmitting some wisdom from far off, soon-to-be-conquered places through war armor osmosis. There was an indentation in the helmet. Our teacher’s son said the indentation was from a bullet. The helmet was bullet proof. We imagined his head in the sand in Iraq as we placed small hands silently on the helmet. We laid hands on it. It was an act of worship. He was a warrior and we were worshiping his headdress.
He told us a story about another head, not his own; Saddam Hussein’s head. He said the army had secretly put a bounty on Saddam Hussein’s head: one million dollars to any soldier who delivered. I raised my hand. I wanted to know if Saddam Hussein’s head should be delivered on a platter or a stick. I was a child familiar with the Bible. In biblical stories, heads are often delivered on platters, and sometimes left as warnings on sticks. He said that “the bounty on Saddam Hussein’s head” wasn’t literal, that it just meant the government wanted him dead, but if a soldier brought back Saddam Hussein’s head without the body, that would probably have been acceptable, too. That soldier would have still received the million dollars. This information about the bounty, he told us, was a secret, because it wasn’t technically legal. It would be a war crime. But it shouldn’t be, because Saddam Hussein was a very bad man.
The soldier opened the Ziploc bag of sand. We formed a line, and, one at a time, we walked up to him and poked our fingers in the sand. Now we could say we’d touched sand from Iraq; so far away and on the news.
Tyson was in line right in front of me. Our last names began with letters at the end of the alphabet, so we did everything last, together. Tyson poked his fingers in the sand solemnly, then pulled his finger out and stepped away. I stepped up next. I poked my finger in the sand, fingering a souvenir of war below the fourth grade blackboard. It was miniscule and cool like the sand of any beach. But it was desert sand, Desert Storm sand. I pulled my finger out, then followed Tyson to the back of the room where we sat in our end-of-the-alphabet seats. He turned around and said, “That’s a great movie idea. Someone should make a movie about a soldier cutting off Saddam Hussein’s head.” I nodded, but couldn’t immediately think of any part I might play in this film of his. The role of “soldier’s wife” would most likely only include the most minimal side scenes, and I was interested in major roles.
Tyson wanted to be a film director, but like the kind that writes his own scripts and then directs them. His family was Italian, although hundreds of years removed from Italy, so he loved The Godfather, and Goodfellas, and Scarface. He loved Quentin Tarantino, and Spike Lee, and Woody Allen, too. He loved any director that a kid who wanted to be a serious film director in the U.S. was supposed to like. He’d wanted to become a serious yet entertaining film director since he was eight years old. That’s all he wanted to do and mostly all he talked about, except for one girl who he’d been in love with since he was like five, and the fact that his family was Italian. Those were his three subjects: films, Emily Spencer, and being tenuously Italian.
We got along. I wanted to be an actress, and Tyson said that when we grew up, I could definitely act in his movies. Most of the types of films he was interested in making called for a quirky and fiery red-headed female lead. I was a shoe-in. I wanted to be a Christian actress, and the first thing I wanted to know when we began discussing this collaboration was whether he would be making any Christian films. There aren’t really any Christian gangster films, and he said he probably wouldn’t be making the breakout Christian gangster film, but that he wouldn’t be making any anti- Christian films, either. That was good enough for me. Tyson and I had a plan.
When I was ten, I wanted to grow up to be a Christian actress and live in the little yellow house next door to my parents. That was my plan. With Tyson, I had at least one other person besides my parents invested in some portion of my plan. Dialogue-driven gangster movies were okay, as long as I didn’t cuss in them. In order to be a good Christian actress, I didn’t have to do only Christian films, just as long as I didn’t do any anti-Christian films, and I was a Christian myself and spread the word of the Lord through my fame. That was enough to keep me qualified as a Christian actress.
It is hard to be a Christian actress. My mother warned me that when I got to Hollywood, I would have to contend with the Gay Mafia. If I didn’t sometimes pretend to be gay, she warned me, I might not get any good roles because of the Gay Mafia. But even if it meant struggling for years, I couldn’t pretend to be gay, because the fate of my immortal soul rested on not doing that. When she invoked the Gay Mafia, I pictured men who looked and dressed like the people in the movies Tyson wanted to make: large men with scarred faces wearing tailored suits, mysterious fedoras, and ostentatious gold jewelry, only being much nicer to one another than those men. That’s what the Gay Mafia was in my head: Al Pacino giving Marlon Brando sweet little kisses on the cheek.
There were many other reasons it was going to be hard to be a Christian actress. I watched a lot of Christian talk shows with my mom, and they interviewed a Christian actress on one of these shows. The actress told the hosts everything about just how difficult it is to be a Christian actress. She couldn’t get many leading roles because she refused to do any nudity or profanity. This made it hard, she said, because so much of Hollywood was working for secular values, which often intersect with the values of Satan. She traced her path to Christianity and talked about coming of age in a family of “holiday Christians,” Christians who only went to church on Easter and Christmas. These horrible people—her family—didn’t practice their beliefs in their everyday life. She was now living a true Christian life, imbuing each choice and moment of her life with a Christian conscientiousness. That’s why she wouldn’t do sex scenes in movies.
She told the hosts that because she was raised by holiday Christians, no one had ever talked to her about the evils of sex when she was younger, so she had sex outside of marriage when she was in her late teens. The hosts gasped and guffawed. She told them that the first time she had sex, she didn’t even know what it was. “The first time I had sex,” she said, “I didn’t even know I was having sex. I had sex and didn’t even know I’d had it. I didn’t know what it was. I found out after the fact, when I told a friend about what had happened. I was like, ‘Huh, that was sex?’”
This revelation by the Christian actress made my mom very nervous. My mother made sure I knew exactly what sex was so that I would never accidentally have it.
There are many types of sex not to have. Sex is when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina, and that is basic. Basic sex not to have is basic sex outside of marriage. Just because you are married though doesn’t mean you can have sex with anyone. Adultery is sex not to have with someone you are not married to if you or they are married. There is sex never to have under any circumstances, for which there are grave punishments. Homosexual sex is sex never to have, and no one ever explained to me the exact functionality of the majority of homosexual acts, except to occasionally invoke male anuses and cringe. Worse than homosexual sex is sex with animals, and in the Bible, dirty women who committed bestiality with dogs were led on chains like dogs before the king and stoned, righteously. Worse than this was sex with one’s self, or masturbation, which is the dirtiest, lowest form of sex never to have, ever, and, I have found, the easiest of all of them to have accidentally.
I spent some serious time wondering how the Christian actress could have had basic sex not to have accidentally. After she divulged this information about accidentally having sex in her late teens, the Christian television talk show hosts looked at the Christian actress like she had two heads, and with deep concern. I could tell they were thinking she wasn’t smart. But I knew she was.
I knew that in order to be an actress you have to be very, very intelligent, because acting is the highest form of art. Getting the expression just right. Manifesting another’s consciousness, emotional history, and mannerisms, and blending all of these factors into one perfect moment of realizing you are in love with the man you thought was an oaf, or that the world is about to end because of a meteorite that’s headed directly toward the Earth, or deep surprise, wide-eyed shock at the revelation of a long kept family secret about a faked-death inheritance. Acting is pure alchemy. It is an art that is so near a science, and nothing deserves more reverence, which is why we celebrate actors above all other artists. Actors preserve and illustrate our history and are the harbingers of our future social, emotional, and intellectual evolution. Like Andie McDowell.
Andie McDowell is a serious artist. If only she’d used her power and fame for good. Not that she used it for evil. It was just hard for me to respect and admire her as much as I did while keeping in mind the basic fact that she did not imbue her daily actions and choices with Christian conscientiousness.
She’d never even publically proclaimed that she was a Christian, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape was arguably an anti-Christian film. But Curly Sue, Green Card, and Groundhog Day: those films were works of high art also worthy of moral respect. When, in Groundhog Day, Andie McDowell first views the ice sculpture Bill Murray has impeccably chiseled as her face, what other portrait of Cupid’s sting has been so authentic as her brown eyes jutting like two blushing twins skating upon the realization of love in the apocalyptically repeated dusk of that eternal night of romantic comedy? None so much.
It was hard for me to boycott Sex, Lies, and Videotape because I loved Andie McDowell truly and respected her as an artist, and I had to forgive her, because I knew it was part of the artistic temperament to make less than scrupulous decisions on occasion. It was not hard to boycott Madonna. She was never an artist. She was just filthy for the sake of being filthy. It was slightly difficult to boycott K-Mart, which was a boycott led by the entire Southern Baptist church for nearly eight years. That boycott occurred because K-Mart sold novels in which basic sex outside of marriage between teenagers was portrayed in a positive light. Some secular people also said that the boycott happened because Jerry Falwell and other members of the Southern Baptist Convention owned stock in Wal-Mart. That, though, was a coincidence, and Wal-Mart was a righteous store, so it would make sense that righteous men would invest in it. The first few years of the boycott of K-Mart were hard because sometimes there were things at K-Mart that we couldn’t get at Wal-Mart. Soon enough, though, after the boycott spread to other Christian denominations in our area, the local K-Mart shut down, and Wal-Mart grew into a Super Wal-Mart, and they always had everything we needed in stock. So that was a boycott that was only mildly inconvenient to me.
Almost all of the boycotts were easy for me: Barney, Dungeons and Dragons, karate, yoga, the metric system. Those boycotts were fine. Only one boycott truly shook my devotion: the boycott of Troll Dolls. Troll Dolls were a difficult boycott for me.
Like I said, I was very familiar with the Bible and was raised Southern Baptist, which involved a lot of boycotts. It also involved a lot of protests and a lot of paying attention to what was happening in the world in order to try and guess how near the end times really were. My parents and I watched a lot of Christian talk shows and Christian news shows on the Christian News Network, which is not the same as the secular CNN, which is a fact I found out the hard way.
When I was seven, “CNN” reported that the Russians had dug a manhole too deep, and they had dug all the way into hell, and a demon had risen out of the hole bearing a sign that read, in Russian, “I have risen.” I was obviously very upset by this. An open hole in the world letting out the demons of Hell is very upsetting to a seven-year-old. I went to school all worked up, and, in front of the whole class, I asked the teacher if she’d heard the news on CNN. She couldn’t exactly debunk it, because it was part of my religion, but I gathered from her tone and response, and from the looks on the faces of the other students, that I wasn’t getting the same news they were. When I returned home, I learned that this demon rising out of a Russian manhole had been nothing more than a prank by some graffiti artists. They’d made a fourteen foot tall paper mache statue of a demon holding a hand painted sign and placed it in a hole at a construction site. Blurry images of this had been mistaken by CNN for the real thing. It was still possible that the graffiti artists responsible were Russian Satanists, and we should let this be a warning that the Russians were, as always, up to no good.
This misreporting did not dissuade my family in any way from our adamant devotion to Christian news and talk shows. We liked Christian talk shows so much, we even attended a live taping of Action Sixties in 1990, as part of our summer vacation. Action Sixties was a Christian talk show that was partially responsible for the boycott of Troll Dolls, Dungeons and Dragons, and Barney. The episode we attended was on the theme of occult toys, and featured a teenager who had attempted to kill his parents because of a sort of Dungeons and Dragons-inflicted dementia that was not unlike demon possession. He had actually spent time in juvenile detention for this attempted murder of his parents, and was on the show to speak out against the evils of magical role-playing games.
Two years after we attended the taping of this show, a friend of the family bought me the Dungeons and Dragons board game as a birthday present. Mom had told me to be polite no matter how I felt about any gift I received, but opening that was hard. I was terrified. This game made kids kill their parents. I didn’t want to kill anybody. I thanked the people for the gift, but when everyone left, Mom and I had to decide whether it would be best to return Dungeons and Dragons and replace it with a more wholesome birthday present, or to burn it and so subtract one object of evil from the world.
We burned it in the trash pile behind the garage. I expected to hear the wailing of wayward spirits making their way up to the starry country night sky as the cardboard crackled. To my disappointment, I heard nothing of the sort. Just some smoke and the non-demon-possessed sound of plastic popping.
Action Sixties did quite an in-depth series on occult toys over the years. It is a little known fact that many members of the pagan occult own toy manufactures, design companies, and movie studios. There are real witches in the world, real pagans running the gamut from Wiccans to Satanists to demonologists, and they attempt to subliminally influence children through cartoons and by imbedding magical objects in their homes.
This is what happened with Troll Dolls, and I have to admit this was difficult for me, as this occurred at a time when I was beginning to waver in my constant, righteous devotion to Christ. An adamant Evangelical Christian with an obsession with perfect grammar, and an unfortunate perm, was a difficult thing to be in junior high.
I was being unfortunate in multiple ways in the seventh grade when Action Sixties featured interviews with three kids, both teens and pre-teens, claiming that they had been woken up in the middle of the night by demon-possessed Troll Dolls. All the kids said the doll’s eyes glowed red. One boy said the dolls told him to kill his parents. Another girl said that the dolls spoke to her in an unknown language, which her mother believed to be a demonic language.
I had quite a large collection of Troll Dolls, both brand name and generic, as well as three collector’s edition Cabbage Patch Kid plush Troll Dolls. I loved these dolls.
The smoke from that fire, I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t stay to hear if I could catch the sound of wayward spirits leaking out of their beady eyes or seeping through their bejeweled belly buttons. I walked away, head hung, arms folded, mourning a pile of much wished upon plastic tokens of nineties kidhood, soon to be Christian righteousness goo.
For some reason this is not how I described the incident to my friends. I guess I felt that if I had to burn all my Troll Dolls, it might as well have been of my own volition, and, furthermore, everyone else should have to do it too. I told my friends that they were walking on thin ice keeping those dolls around. I told them about the kids who shared testimony on Action Sixties after the Troll Dolls had told them to kill their parents. I told them the dolls were tools of the occult, that they were possessed by wicked spirits, and that they should be burned.
Two days before seventh grade graduation, I opened up my locker, and an avalanche of Troll Dolls spilled out. Green headed and rainbow belly-button-bejeweled plastic, pot-bellied trolls fell around me like pop-fad raindrops, landing at my feet and bouncing along the tiled floors of the locker room. Everyone pointed and stared and started laughing, shouting out mean things like, “Be careful. They’re going to get you!” “They’re possessed.” “She thinks Troll Dolls are real.”
They hadn’t understood a thing I’d said.
The fact that they were in my locker meant one of my good friends had been part of it, because they were the only ones who knew my combination. I was completely betrayed. They were all Christians, too. But sometimes I felt like we didn’t worship the same God. My God was much more serious than theirs, and at the same time, my God was a joke to them.
My God had been coming under more and more scrutiny by godless members of my now godless nation. When George Bush was president, there was God in the White House. I cried both times Clinton was elected, sobbed like someone was dying. Someone was dying: thousands of unborn each year, and Clinton and Gore were baby killers, out and out, unapologetic. Under their rule, the persecution of Christians increased tenfold. This was no surprise. Since I could remember, I’d been told that I should expect increasing persecution as a Christian as we approached the end times. But it was hard to take. During one of the pro-life rallies I attended during the eighth grade, several women attempted to rush our life chain. In case you don’t know what a life chain is, it’s when pro-life demonstrators link arms to form a human chain around an abortion clinic. These women shouted obscenities at us and flipped us their middle fingers and tried knocking us over. The police intervened, but I couldn’t believe the brazenness of the women. All the years before, when I’d attended rallies at abortion clinics, the women shuffled in, heads hung, hiding their faces. The only way to commit knowing sin is with your head hung. These women, though, during the Clinton administration, they acted like they weren’t even doing anything wrong. They acted like we were the ones who were wrong. It was real religious war. The other side was fighting for their damnation.
My absolute favorite talk show host, Jan Van Impe, and his wife and his co-host, Rexella, the founders of Ministries International, had warned that this sort of fighting would begin to occur. Jack Van Impe is a Revelations scholar who broadcasts a Christian news show out of Michigan. He knows about holy wars and the increasing persecution Christians will be facing as the second coming grows nigh. Christians have to fight to make way. As it is foretold in Revelations, when Israel controls the Dome of the Rock, which is currently controlled by Palestine, the Muslim nations will rise up against the reigning Christian nation, and Jesus will return. This is why it is so important that Israel take back all of the Palestinian territory. George Bush hired Jack Van Impe as one of his foreign policy advisors. That made us feel very comforted, knowing someone we trusted had the president’s ear. Bill Clinton only gave lip service to Israel’s cause, and, as far as I could tell, did not seem concerned with events that needed to occur to bring on the second coming of Christ.
When I was in the eighth grade, Clinton was president. There were no wars in the eighth grade, save the ongoing unseen holy war between good and evil. There was no Desert Storm. The surface of the sand stood still. America was engaged in no war, so there were no wars. The road to the rapture was on pause. The hourglass frozen in midair. The sand stood still. A soldier stood before us, once again fidgeting with a duffel bag.
“Boys,” he told the boys, “in about four years, you’ll be old enough to be drafted.” Usually if something was only available to the boys, the girls protested the unfairness of the situation. Everyone kept quiet here. “Boys and girls,” he told us all, “in about four years, you’ll be deciding whether to go to college or get a job. There are a lot of big choices ahead of you.”
He produced a gas mask. It looked like an elephant head. He asked for a volunteer. One of the boys went up, and the soldier showed us how to wear and use the gas mask. He placed it over the boy’s head. The boy looked like a weird elephant headed god. He waved his arms, clowning. We giggled.
“How many of you want to go to college?” the soldier asked us. Less than half of us raised our hands. I lived in a rural farm town of a thousand people. There were two hundred kids in my school, which housed the seventh to twelfth grades and combined the populations of three towns. Most of our families didn’t have money for us to go to college. Most of our parents hadn’t attended college. Some of our parents hadn’t even completed high school. There were a few farms to be inherited. There was the cement factory, and there was the car parts factory in the next town over. There were two gas stations and one dollar store. There was also nursing and teaching. These were mostly our options. In my entire class, two people would go on from graduation directly to a four year college. One of them (me) would drop out the first year.
“For those of you who raised your hands, and also for those of you who didn’t, college is a great opportunity. You know, if you join the military, you can go to basically any college you want, and I mean for free. We pay for it. If you go to college, that means you can get whatever job you want when you’re older. Think about that.”
We thought about that. We were thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds thinking about it.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” He pointed to Josh. In two years, Josh would be dead. Beginning my eighth grade year, each year, one student in my school would die, and also one girl would get pregnant, so I guess it evened out. It was a stable population.
The deaths were all unrelated to each other. My freshman year, Justin drowned in the creek while swimming with my two boyfriends. My sophomore year, Josh got depressed and rammed his hot wheel at eighty in a twenty, twisting his car around the American flag pole in the town triangle (we didn’t have a square, we had a triangle) set between warring gas stations. He was sixteen, and they say his head smashed clear though the hole in the steering wheel like the wane reduction of a cat slipping between impossible openings. The girls got dressed up to cry in the tiled halls like a russet of distressed school birds, and we all discovered who had really loved him before they slew each other over which one had worn the most scandalous skirt to his funeral. My junior year, Blaine sucked the barrel of a shotgun after blowing the fine white globe of his two-year-old daughter’s skull to bits. His ex-girlfriend and baby’s mother threatened the school populace with unnamed punishment if they attended his funeral. Her daughter’s crib was so small, and the mother only eighteen: a thin succession of lines meeting at a shivering torso, bent mourning a dead child over SATs. My senior year, my brother’s best friend died because of a broken arm. His arm got an infection under the cast where it had been stitched. His mother had spent so much money from the initial emergency room visit that she didn’t want to go back to the hospital, thinking it would heal on its own. He died in his sleep from gangrene or something. Two years after I graduated, the valedictorian of the class below me overdosed on heroin and meth in her living room with her one-year-old daughter in her arms.
But this was not yet. None of this had happened yet, and live Josh, handsome still-living Josh, sat with his mop of blond hair and his hopeful fourteen-year-old eyes sparkling as the soldier pointed, commanding him to contemplate what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to be a veterinarian or an engineer. He wasn’t sure. The soldier told him he could learn engineering in the military. He pointed to Tyson and asked him the same question.
Tyson puffed up his chest. “I’m going to be a film director and write my own scripts,” he proudly announced.
There is a moment for every child when the adults around them, either one by one or collectively, decide that the child’s dreams must be obliterated. Adults do this so that they can replace the noble and ridiculous aspirations of children with the ignoble and ridiculous aspirations of grown-ups. They do this because they too, in the moment when they were on the other end of this awful thing they are doing, were taught that only the most ignoble and ugly things are attainable. Disappointment with one’s life became the much more believable outcome. And, as Americans hate failure, this actually becomes the grudging goal of how one’s life should be lived; passing the time with hated tasks, thankful and even possessive of the most basic aspects of survival: family, roof, clothing, food. This is the moment the child must choose whether to believe: whether to look with the eyes of believers at the possible shadowy nightmares steeped in the dark recesses of fear, or with eyes that look to see what is true when the light is on. In this moment, to learn not to fear the dark is actually the moment one chooses to remain a child, not to become a functional adult.
The soldier turned his jealous eyes on Tyson’s dream. “You need to go to college to learn to direct and write scripts. How do you plan to pay for that?”
“His family owns the grocery store and the bar,” Emily, Tyson’s life-long love, chirped from the front of the room, shooting Tyson an approving smile.
“That’s great.” The soldier nodded. “But have you thought about this realistically?” Tyson shifted in his chair. “Do you know how many people want to go to Hollywood and direct films?”
“I guess a lot,” Tyson croaked out. The wrecking ball was swinging toward him. He wasn’t ducking in time.
“Millions,” the soldier answered, as if accusing Tyson of something. “And do you know how many people actually get to go off and direct films in Hollywood?”
“Not a lot.” Tyson said, dejected.
The soldier pursed his lips as if in apology. “About point zero, zero, one percent of the people who want to do that.” And then he added: “Every little girl wants to be a ballerina. But there’s only one part for the swan.”
The class giggled. Tyson looked like he’d been punched in the gut. I prayed that the soldier wouldn’t ask me any questions. The soldier turned to the black board and chalked the words, all in caps: BE ALL YOU CAN BE. “What do you think about that?” he asked the entire class.
The first time I ever saw the line in the sky that airplanes make, trailing steam behind them, I didn’t know what it was. I saw the trail, but not the plane. The plane was long gone, but the trail was there. I didn’t know what it was, but I thought I did. I was eight years old. I was raised preparing for the apocalypse. I saw that long, thin white line in the sky, and I thought the sky was splitting open. I thought it was the tear in sky that Jesus ripped and was about to come flying through occurring right over my house. I ran inside screaming, “The sky is opening! Jesus is coming down! Come look!” My family shouted “Dear God!” and “Praise the Lord!” They waved hands above their heads and held their hearts. Four of my adult family members ran out on the lawn with me. We all looked up for Jesus flying down on a horse through the torn sky. “Where?” Mom shouted. I pointed to the line. The air was let out of everyone. They shook their heads. The blush began to leave their cheeks. They told me what that line was. It was not the apocalypse coming of Christ. No rapture for the saved, no tribulation: just steam from an airplane. An airplane was not the end of the world as we knew it.
When the first plane hit the first tower, I was eighteen and becoming a nonbeliever. When the first plane hit the first tower, I was asleep in my room, dreaming that I was a black, male vampire in a coffin and someone was slowly running a wooden stake through my heart. When the second plane hit the second tower, my Dad woke me up, screaming about what was happening. Nine-eleven was happening. I went to the television. I watched the smoke billowing out and the little specks of bodies leaping and falling from the buildings with the sky-blue sky behind them, doing nothing to help. The part of me that still unwillingly believed expected them all to halt in mid-fall and begin ascending up into the blue, into His arms. It was the rapture in reverse; everything was falling.
Just months before high-school graduation, Tyson signed up for the Army, along with one other boy in our class and two from the class below. The average class size in my school was about twenty kids per grade. Each year, at least two kids joined the military. That means that at least ten percent of the students every year left high school from my town to join the military. They signed up at lunchtime. Twice a week every year during the last few months of school, the military set up an information and recruitment booth in the lunch room. One after another, year after year, the boys would turn eighteen and start eyeing that booth over their ham and cheese sandwiches like it was a girl they were afraid to get fucked by. Then finally, one day, one of them would have too much Coca-Cola, and he’d swagger over to the corner of the lunch room and sign up for a private appointment at the recruiting station in the next town over. The next morning, he’d come in and announce proudly, puffing his chest, “I’m in the Army now. I’m getting outa here, fuckers.” I think that’s what they thought, that they were getting out of this podunk town. Going to see something beautiful. Going to see the real world. Even if they were just there to bomb the real world, at least they’d get to see it first: something that wasn’t cornfields and Wal-Mart, and bent-over grandparents heading to factories, and teen moms trying harder than anyone could bear to look at long, and church potlucks, drunken bonfires, strip mall parking lots, and all that.
They wanted to see something spectacular. Everyone wants to live a spectacular life, live something anyone would ever make a film about. Who wants to make a film about bent-over grandparents still struggling to pay electric bills after sixty years of working, just struggling to pay bills? They probably thought bombing the real world, like the one they saw in movies, would save them from that fate, too. They didn’t have access to the kind of storyboard life where people walk around great cities falling in love at museums, or become rich spy-thieves and go on high-speed car chases, only to discover the meaning of life was hidden in a jewel right where they started, behind a secret door; or get rich by starting an exciting but quirky business; or make academic dialogue over complex personal entanglements. Hell, they didn’t even have access to college road trip films. But they did have access to Marlon Brando. They had access to “this beach is clear to surf,” and the tanks rolling over a moral dilemma, where either way, whatever they decide, they are the hero, shooting or not shooting the shivering man, the slant-eyed man, shooting up the family cowering behind torn couches and searching for the armed men hiding in the closet, trudging through the desert, Hurt Locker, Jarhead, pounding your girlfriend against the wall, legs spread, on leave, for God, for country, for fuck’s sake, what’s the other option? Either way, pull the trigger or not, they are the hero, because they just had to do it or just couldn’t bring themselves to, and everyone feels compassion. There’s so much weighing on their dumb, brave heads.
I remember the day Tyson made the decision. We sat on the bleachers in the gymnasium. The gym was empty. They’d begun hanging the decorations for graduation. There were sequined trestles lining the basketball goal. We were eighteen and this was the most adult conversation we would ever have. He told me he was going to sign up. I asked about his life dream, the one he would be ditching. He told me that was all it had been, a childish dream. He told me he had no experience with film.
“You,” he told me, “you could really be an actor. You’ve been acting in the community theater since you were five. You have real experience to put on your resume.” This, of course, was ridiculous. What credit would a rural community theater, where my starring roles had been gossip lady number two in The Sound of Music and a very lesbionic Peter Pan, have on an actual acting resume, except perhaps to give me a small leg up with the elite Hollywood Gay Mafia?
“Maybe that’s your path. With everything that’s happened in this country, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about everything you’ve said over the years, and you were right. We thought it was a joke. It’s not a joke.”
“What’s not a joke?”
“I mean, like, I’m a Christian. I’ve always been a Christian, but not seriously, like you. I always believed. I go to church and all. But now, I see what you meant. I always knew it was true. I just didn’t think it mattered as much. But I was wrong.”
“What makes you think you were wrong?” Over the last year, I’d begun to privately question all of my beliefs. It’s hard to describe the feeling when you realize what you thought was reality was just a mirage of a demented fishbowl you created to keep yourself, for whatever reason, from seeing that you’re living in a vast ocean, and what you thought were walls were just reflections of light cast through the endless ripples.
“What makes me think I was wrong?” He huffed, dumbfounded that I wasn’t getting it. “They attacked us because they hate our God, they hate our religion. They hate what we have. Thousands of people just died, on our soil.”
When people begin to talk in words you’ve heard before, it’s easy to know who’s writing the script. I’d seen these words on pamphlets, and the meaning of them in my own speech as a child. I’d heard these words on the real news, the Christian news, and from the mouths of young military recruiters who stood in the corner of the lunch room below helicopter explosion posters trying not to look like they were checking out the high school girls. And now it was coming from Tyson, the aspiring serious- yet-entertaining Italian film director. And I realized what I always should have known when I looked at the certainty and question battling in Tyson’s wide, baby-blue eyes, and his dimples showing even when there was no glimmer of a smile on his face, his boyish face with the impossibly clear, smooth skin, and his wavy black hair ending in curlicues on his forehead. He wasn’t a director at all. He was the leading man. He was the one everyone was rooting for.
And it was a Christian gangster film he was doing, after all. The movie opened up before me. I could see all the scenes:
Tyson in Iraq pressing buttons and buildings miraculously exploding hundreds of miles away. Tyson standing in uniform in Bagdad, machine-gun armed, passing day after day, just watching out. Tyson running in combat boots, the sand scattering in clouds behind him.
He wrote home, sending a letter addressed to all of his friends that Emily transcribed and emailed. He told us how he guarded a building in Bagdad that the military had taken over. At his post, he made friends with the local kids. He taught them about America. He talked to the Iraqi children about owning cars and houses, about loving Jesus, and about playing video games. He taught them how to say the word “tits.” He taught them what it meant. They thought it was awful, and then they thought it was hilarious.
This movie he starred in, it had side characters as well. Their stories would not end in triumph like the leading man’s. A year into service, another boy from our town who served with Tyson would be sent home on permanent leave for mental instability. He would get a job delivering pizza in the next town over. He would be fired after six months for repeatedly telling customers gory details about the war, how his job in Iraq was to shoot his fellow soldiers in the ankles during house raids. This was his job because he never “froze” during raids. (He would always be proud of that.) Many of his fellow soldiers just froze during crossfire, stood staring dumbly into the oncoming blaze. So his job was to notice when this happened and then shoot his friends in the ankles so they would fall down and not get shot in the head and killed during crossfire when they froze, which he never did, which he was always very proud of. Now his brown eyes sparkled with lunacy over incoming pizza orders.
A boy from the class above me who became a military medic would be dishonorably discharged for servicing a wounded Iraqi civilian before servicing a wounded US soldier during one of these raids. He would come home to the town he had grown up in and live in the house he purchased before leaving for Iraq. Within a month, his wife would leave him for another man, the one she started seeing while he was in Iraq. He would get drunk at local bars and tell people the story of his dishonorable discharge, over and over. He would tell them that the Iraqi man he tended to was an unarmed civilian, shot in the guts, bleeding out on front of him, about to die. He would tell how the US soldier had been shot in his right shoulder, and it was not a fatal wound, so he provided medical attention to the Iraqi man first. He would tell how he hadn’t even given it a second thought. It was the obvious thing to do. But it was against protocol. You always tend to the wounded US soldiers first, and then, if there’s spare time, the medics are allowed to tend to wounded civilians. In the bars, men would stare at him blankly, trying not to show their judgment. Some would tell him outright that what he’d done was the same as treason. Some would ask him if he loved Muslims, if he sided with the terrorists. People in the town knew him and what he’d done. It showed in their eyes on the street and at the store as disdain or pity. Five years after losing his home to foreclosure, he would swallow a handful of pills and simply be gone.
Tyson got shot in the leg and returned with a Purple Heart. The leading man returned a war hero. The town put a sign up for him in front of the high school, welcoming him home. He was famous in the town. He got loans. He bought a nice house and married Emily. He took over ownership of his family’s grocery store. He had three children. They were baptized in the Catholic Church. He bought a Jetski. He stayed fit, except for a beer belly that formed in his thirties. In his thirties, the war was still going, going like a crusade against an ever expanding enemy. Victory had been declared numerous times. And he thought it was a victory, in a way, for himself at least. His house was two stories tall, with a swimming pool, and a game room, and shiny new cars always in the lot. He was a local hero. He rode at the head of the military float in the town’s bicentennial parade. He stood next to the mayor when the ribbon was cut in front of the new library. And once a year, he visited the fourth grade class in the school he’d attended as a child. He brought in his Purple Heart. He brought in the bullet shell that had been imbedded in his leg. The class passed it around from one to another and awed. It was an Iraqi bullet. It was a freedom bullet. It was an Operation Iraqi Freedom bullet. The children turned it over in their hands. It was a miraculous token of war heroism, manifested before them from overseas, from a place that seemed so far away, and sometimes even, on the news.
Chavisa Woods is the author of two books of fiction, The Albino Album (Seven Stories, 2013) and Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind (Fly by Night Press, 2009). Woods was the recipient of the 2013 Cobalt Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award, as well as the recipient of the 2009 Jerome Foundation award for emerging authors. Woods has appeared as a featured author at the Whitney Museum, City Lights Bookstore, Town Hall Seattle, The Brecht Forum, The Cervantes Institute, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Her writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, New York Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, Cleaver Magazine, and Jadaliyya. She is currently completing her third work of full-length fiction.