THE EMPEROR'S THIRTEEN COLONIES AND THE GHOSTS OF BREAKFASTERS
Tariq al Haydar
I know that I'm a character. Even as I write this, I realize that reality is only what I am able to perceive. The author, on the other hand, can see my thoughts. In a way, she gives them to me, although I do believe I have a will, just as I have traits, but then again, she's the one who gave them to me, so what do I really have, at the end of the sentence? For example, she made me adjective. I didn't choose that.
But wait, I should have described a place, a setting for you to feel present, as opposed to this disembodied blathering you've been forced to endure. Pardon me, that's not the first discrepancy you'll find in this text. Discrepancy? Is that even the rite word?
So in the year of darkness and death, when men of valor died and all music faded, I felt the onset of a conclusion. It turned out I was mistaken, because sometimes my feelings feel so real. I need to introduce something, anything. Action has to happen. Conflict has to conflict. At the very least, I need to introduce a character, but didn't I already do that?
Sorry, I've been inside other people's heads before, but how weird is it to have someone in mine. I was once in the mind of Ray Allen, basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth, whose nickname is a fictional character, who once declared that divine gifts insulted him. I don't know why, but all I saw were meatball subs and kids running around playing hopscotch. I don't even know what that means; it's like trying to interpret a dream, and, after all, who can really accomplish that?
Do I sound like a Jacques? Or was it Jack? Please, say it ain't so. I can't stand that bullshit about ghosts and shit and shit. Pardon my language.
Anyway, so this is a story about cancer of the organ. He was only seventy-six, but the people around him didn't know what to make of that number, because they couldn't claim that he was young, but a number is a number any way you slice it.
"That's what I said," said Rick. Who's Rick? Exactly.
So the woman drove the metal stickshift into the heart of the grocery bag, puncturing it and emptying its contents on the sidewalk. A large Japanese woman looked at her sideways as she licked an ice cream cone.
"Why did you delete the word 'oriental,'" asked Rick.
"I don't follow," she said. "There's something interesting going on, but it's just too disorienting for my taste."
"What if you just put it down a minute," asked Rick as he put it down. "Come back later, once you've had your peanut M&Ms and seltzer."
"How did you know my mother's name?" she asked as she picked it back up.
"Rebecca?" said Rick. "We go way back, since the days we served in Iraq. What was your name again?"
"Rebecca," said Rebecca. "And thanks." She waved to the Japanese woman, who was now flinging a boomerang at a baby so big his elbows looked like grandfather clocks.
"This is just too weird," said the Japanese woman in English. "Let's go muffin'," she barked at the plumber by her side.
How did I know he was a plumber? That's the question you've decided to ask? By the way, I'm on a park bench now. Children are walking their dogs while their parents laugh and clink their glasses in celebration.
"Are the wars really ending?" asked Rick as he bent down to tie his shoes.
The Japanese woman glared at them as she emptied a flashlight of its batteries.
Rebecca poked Rick with her elbow, nodded subtly in the direction of the Japanese woman and said under her breath, "What's she doing with that flash light?"
For a moment, I thought she was gesturing towards me, but I should have known, since I'm the one writing her thoughts.
"Did you say 'towards'?" whispered Rebecca.
"Towards?" asked Rick.
"Towards," said Rebecca.
"Towards?" Rick repeated. "I would never say 'towards.' I say 'toward,' in any case. Why?"
"You mean why 'towards'?" asked Rebecca.
Rick kicked the panda and sighed. "No," he said. "I mean why the question."
"Oh," said Rebecca. "Nothing. Nevermind. Forget about it. It's not important, in any case."
"Any case?" said Rick.
"Lower your voice," Rebecca hushed him. "She might hear us."
Sergeant Phillip Kamden sat down on his swiveling chair, looked me in the eye and said, "The question isn't whether this or that action or sequence has an internal logic, but whether it amounts to a coherent narrative."
Dr. Carver bit into a mango and nodded.
Luis threw his wallet like a frisbee. It skimmed the top of the diner table and came to rest by the saltshakers. He sat down and opened the menu in one swift motion.
"Why are you even looking at it?" I asked. "You know what you're going to order."
He closed the menu and crossed his arms.
"As a comedian," I said, "all I want is to know that I'll be safe. I mean, I don't even know how to shoot a gun."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
I said, "I don't want to travel halfway around the world just to have my spleen handed to me in a plastic bag. I can't handle anything more brutal than a bunch of drunk bridesmaids sitting in the front row."
"Look," he said, "you'll get paid in exposure."
"Exposure?" I laughed. "A freckled cunt I met at Holy Cross once told me that if someone tells you that you're getting paid in exposure, it means you're getting fucked."
The waitress appeared at the table at that moment, looking like they do in the movies, with an apron tied at her waist and a pencil at her ear. Without maintaining eye contact with her, Luis said, "An omelette with mushrooms, brie cheese, green peppers and ham; a side of hash browns, three silver-dollar pancakes topped with powdered sugar, three sausages, two turkey links and a clutchful of bacon."
She asked the usual question, "What's a clutchful?"
Luis looked her in the eyes and said, with a straight face, "three or four strips, depending."
After breakfast, we passed the bridges and stopped at a corner of the shore. We weren't sure where we were, but we had a blindingly loyal faith in the rule of law, and the principles upon which that rule stands. So when a man in military fatigues waved his hands at a check-point, we stopped not only in awe of the dire power that had imposed itself upon us all, but also exhibited an eagerness to display appropriate signs of cooperation and perhaps even submission. Later, Luis would tell me that he felt like a peasant entering an opulent church and becoming awestruck by the statues and gold. The soldier scanned our cards with his eyes and allowed us past a roadblock. We were now citizens of the first order, in the loving bosom of our homeland.
Rick knocked on my door and walked in without waiting for a reply. They had set me up in what appeared to be an abandoned gym, with a cot and a makeshift changing room. The toilets had funny hoses set up next to them. Did they use these to wash their asses?
"What are you doing here?" I asked Rick.
"I could ask you the same thing," he replied.
I paced back and forth between the netless basketball rim and the gymnastics equipment. "I'm trying to get my head right," I said.
"Your head right?" laughed Rick. "Aw, poor baby. You realize that you're here to tell jokes, right? You're not expected to actually do any fighting."
"Yeah," I sighed. "I just wish I knew how to use a gun. Can you imagine having your head sawed off on camera? What a way to go!"
We left my room/gym and went out to the mess hall, where there was a chain of restaurant franchises of every type imaginable: Taco Bell, Burger King, Starbucks, Del Taco, Arby's.
"They got a Del Taco here?" I said this in an abnormally high pitch, for some reason.
"They got a Del Taco here!" Rick tried to mimic my high-pitched voice, adding an effeminate affectation.
"Go fuck yourself," I said as I made my way to the Taco Bell. When we got there—it really was little more than a counter—the woman behind the register greeted us with an unnatural cheerfulness.
"Well, hello!" she said. Her smile was so broad that I bet her cheeks hurt.
"Hey," said Rick, "So you got any Corona back there?"
We ordered and took our burritos out to the clay tennis courts, where Sergeant Phillip Kamden was working on his serve.
"Nice serve!" I called out to him as the ball caromed into the net.
Rick barged into the apartment and then stood there, saying nothing, only breathing loudly.
"What are you doing here?" asked Rebecca, who was reading an issue of Entertainment Weekly.
"I don't know," said Rick.
"Don't worry about it," said Rebecca as she put the magazine down. "Here, sit down," she pointed at the loveseat across from her. "Can I tell you about my Game of Thrones theory?" Rebecca's eyes flashed with glee.
"Could I get something to drink?" asked Rick, shaking his head.
"Sure," Rebecca jumped up. "Like, water or something heavier?"
"Double Jack, neat," said Rick, before he realized that perhaps it might be rude to address Rebecca like one would a bartender and added, "please."
Rebecca clunked the glass down on the glass table in front of Rick and plumped back down on the couch. "OK," she rubbed her hands together, "so the politics of morality in the universe of the show dictate—"
"—The what of the what now?" Rick interjected.
"The politics of morality," said Rebecca, "you know, like how what you do might affect others and then come back and affect you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Rick, "but it sounds A-OK."
"Right," said Rebecca, "so basically, Bran is fucking everything up with his time travel. Now, OK, Bran may have good intentions, but fucking up he is nonetheless."
"I don't watch Game of Thrones," Rick sipped his whiskey.
"No, no, that's fine," said Rebecca, "you'll get enough of the picture to get a picture."
"What?" said Rick.
"So basically," Rebecca lowered her voice a couple of octaves in order to add heft to her words, "The Three-Eyed Raven tried to mentor Bran, but because Bran wanted to travel back in time and chill with his fam, he got marked by the Night King, so now what's gonna close that can of fuckery once it's opened?"
"I have to say," said Rick as he sipped his whiskey, "you make a compelling argument."
"And then you have this other Stark, Arya, who is being trained by the Faceless Men to serve the Many-Faced God. So Bran and Arya are both in training."
"Ah," Rick sighed and looked off in the distance, "that brings back memories…"
"So the whole thing is like a song of ice and fire. Morality. What choice would you make if everything came down to you? A single choice. That's what Arya's training for. She's gonna have to decide whether to behead Bran and save the world, or not behead him and watch the world end. The politics of morality in the universe of the show dictate that this has to happen."
"Doesn't sound like much of a dilemma," Rick sipped his whiskey.
"But I mean, he's her brother!" Rebecca looked genuinely saddened, "but you have to cut the head off the snake." She looked at the floor for a few seconds in solemn contemplation and then looked up with renewed vigor and said, "And I mean, look at all the Christian imagery in the show. Baptism. Look at the ceremony where the Ironborn declare Euron Greyjoy as their king. The camera shoots Euron in a way that makes him look like a Christ figure. He's drowned and then resurrected. He wears a wooden crown. The awesome beard. Total JC figure. But then the first thing he says once he becomes king is like, 'Where's my niece and nephew? Let's go murder them.' I mean, he actually uses the word murder, so he's not kidding himself about what he's doing."
Rick's eyes watered, and he began dabbing his eyes with the back of his hand. "Yeah, it might be better to kid yourself sometimes."
"Exactly," said Rebecca. "So maybe the Prince Who Was Promised is not, like, a cool dude, you know. I'm saying that Bran is the Prince Who Was Promised, by the way. But the only difference between him and that asshole Euron Greyjoy is that Bran meant well. Fuck your good intentions. At least the other psycho knows who he is."
"I meant well," said Ricky as he sipped the last of his whiskey.
"So what do you think of my theory?" asked Rebecca.
"Wonderful," said Rick, and then shook his empty glass and asked, "May I have another?"
I sit down at the mess hall table with my bowl of oatmeal. Once you get used to the barracks, things start to make sense. Breakfast is at six o'clock, although I can eat whenever I want. As my eyes scan the empty mess hall, where the soldiers ate only hours ago, I find myself moved, almost to the point of tears, by the bond I've established with these ghosts of breakfasters. Nothing can compare to the bond one forges with fellow military men, even though, strictly speaking, I'm not one.
I slice a banana into my oatmeal.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror: droplets of sweat had begun to form around my hairline. This is worse than my first open mic. No, nothing's worse than that. I balled my fist and hit my chest, "Come on," I whispered at my reflection. "What are you, a pussy?"
You have to look at the audience as prey. Gazelles. Hunt them down with extreme prejudice. I slid on my earphones and closed my eyes. Come on, you cunt. Kill them. You have to kill. You cannot bomb here, of all places. Make this place your bitch. You will kill. Psych yourself up, bitch. You're going to kill these motherfuckers. After you're done with your set, someone's going to have to pick up their remains with a pair of tweezers. Scared to death and scared to look you're shook cuz ain't no such thing as halfway crooks. Scared to death and scared to look you're shook cuz ain't no such thing as halfway crooks. Scared to death and scared to look. You ain't a crook, son. You're just a shook one.
Do what you gotta do. Do you your duty.
A couple of elements came together for this story. The first is Bill Burr, one of my favorite comedians. He was talking about his fear of going to perform for the troops overseas. I found his bit hilarious and filed it away, because I felt like I might be able to use that POV one day. The comedian in the story is not exactly a fictionalized Burr, but I did steal some details from him, and he has similar speech patterns.
The second element is Phil Klay's essay, "The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military." I was writing an essay in response to Klay's at the same time that I started writing this story, so there's some overlap in terms of what I'm after. But one thing that stuck with me (I can't remember if Klay or a friend of mine said this) is that it doesn't matter whether this or that action makes sense, but whether the overall function of the military amounts to a coherent policy. This idea of coherence intrigued me. To me, the modern military's function is only coherent if you narrow your scope, but if you look at the big picture, that coherence begins to unravel. I tried to structure the story in that way: individual scenes have an internal logic, but as an overall narrative, it does suffer from incoherence. It's "unhinged," as you said, because it's an attempt to narrativize imperialism, as it were. Plus, characters are always asking one another, "What are you doing here?" but nobody actually answers that question.