Ever since he was a child, Ben Singer had despised baseball. It was a game of zero hustle, no meaty physical contact, no flame-engulfing accidents, no perilous flips, spins or even dismounts, a sport of millionaire morons dressed up in children’s costumes, spitting on their own shoes. Not to mention, the food they served at the ballparks was disgusting. For upward of 40 years he’d been making the case against baseball one bar stool at a time, and it was only very recently that he’d begun to wonder if maybe in this he’d been wrong too.
Today, seated in the bleachers of his former high school, watching a brightly colored squadron of young men arranged against a singular opposing batter in a white jersey, Ben was forced to wonder if maybe all his tirades against baseball had been wrongly conceived. Maybe all those baseball-loving fuckheads had a point. On a sunny summer afternoon—the smell of cut grass and citrus mixing with the smell of hot dogs and stale popcorn, the sounds of the kids yelling, the crack of the bat—baseball was proving not all that bad, maybe even kind of great, a form of deep communion with the American grass and earth itself.
In a way, Ben could see, he’d never really had a chance to like baseball. He’d been reared in a deeply anti-baseball household, after all, the son of an anti-baseball father, himself the son of a man who’d certainly never heard of baseball, and thus in a way he’d been brainwashed from the start. His dad—an immigrant from Kraków—had never truly had any feel for the pageantry and passion of the great American sports institutions, nor for the pleasures of American spectatorship in general. Football he could vaguely understand: That was just the violent acquisition of real estate. Basketball: At least that took a certain African dexterity. Those men, his dad allowed, were like physical gods. But baseball—what was that? “They don’t even run,” he’d scoff, pausing to rap the TV’s thick glass with his knuckles. “They just stand there scratching their nuts. This is a sport? This is golf.” Golf being the most ridiculous pastime invented by man.
By adolescence Ben had taken for granted that baseball was a mistake, a hoax perpetrated by stupid fathers on their stupid sons, and over the years his prejudice had hardened, excluding him from many a loud, dudish conversation. Among the guys in his platoons, he’d often been construed as eccentric and deranged, although admittedly he probably would have been viewed as eccentric and deranged by most of the redneck goyim he’d served with anyway, baseball being only the smallest of his differences. But today, at last, leaning back against the dry, chipped wood of the bleacher, the heat of the American sun warming his face, he was understanding many things about America and baseball he’d never known.
The game, as usual, seemed stalled out between events, but for once he felt the low-burning suspense. The catcher, a fluid, blond kid, was madly signaling the pitcher, a mere noodle, who silently confirmed something before averting his gaze. The kids in the dugout were almost drooling, they were so hypnotized by the stasis. In the bleachers, the parents and siblings and girlfriends were also happily entranced. Baseball, he realized, was a mode of group contemplation, a meditative discipline unique to the psyches of America’s soft, defenseless potato people. This was the place the happy people pooled their attention to renew the happy life they knew as their due.
The crack of the bat. A tepid roar. By the time Ben located the ball, rolling in center field, the batter was almost at second, and then, in a snap, the ball was back idling in the pitcher’s mitt, getting fondled and massaged, and the signals between pitcher and catcher were starting up again. The mothers and fathers were pushing more fingerloads of yellow popcorn into their faces. A plane crawled through the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Strike one, the ump called, over the corner of the plate. And at this Ben had been there as long as he could stand.
He made his way through the scalding parking lot, the setting of much long-ago mischief and romance, thoughts of baseball still turning in his head. This was only his third trip back to Sun Valley in 20 years, and, walking the gravel shoulder of the road into town, he was barraged by long-dormant memories. Over in that yard, a euphoric water balloon fight. In those bushes, a bleary kegger ending with police sirens. Over there, an evil brown dog. After all this time, he was pleased to find the local sunlight still recognized him, clapping him on the shoulder with a familiar heat, and the whoosh of passing cars still carried a familiar scent of minerals and gasoline. Soon the first buildings of downtown were passing on either side, bringing more vaporous impressions, and he felt confirmed in his intuitions that the visit was a good idea and that the old haunts might hold the secret not only of his past but possibly of his future as well.
A year ago he never would have been here. A year back, and two, and three, he would have been off at war, fighting on the front lines of America’s campaign for freedom, guided still by the great truism that had dictated his actions since he was 15 years old, the single axiom he’d ever deemed worthy of a tattoo. Even now the words stretched across the taut curves of his deltoids, shoulder to shoulder, in a plain, unadorned, antique typewriter font: “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” A year ago he’d had no reason to question that truth, but, like so many of his truths these days, it was under violent siege.
The sentence was George Orwell. Some people assumed Winston Churchill, but those people were wrong. Others said Richard Grenier and they might have a point. In any case, Ben still remembered the first time he’d read the sentence in the pages of the New Republic magazine at the Village Drug Store, not two blocks from where he currently walked—how electrified he’d been, how deeply and intuitively he’d known the sentiment was correct. Yes, he’d thought, this placid American life is not what it seems. It is in fact as fragile as a soap bubble, an aberration of history, and all these people, these soft-skinned children, mothers, salesmen and professional athletes, exist in their comfort only because their world is ringed with far-off sentries. Most people, he realized, had no idea this was the case. They enjoyed their American happiness in blissful ignorance. But the horror of his father’s childhood had opened him to a different reality. Without armies: ovens. That was a fact. From that day onward, he’d taken the quotation as a fundamental postulate of his life.
One of his goals for the trip to Sun Valley had been to locate that Village Drug Store and possibly even re-create that youthful, epiphanic moment, but, as it turned out, not surprisingly, the building was gone. In its place was a bland plaza studded with concrete benches and a flagpole, which seemed appropriate. The flag, like so many flags these days, was wadded at half-staff, although Ben had no idea what the day’s tragedy might be. When had all the flags in the country gone permanently half-staff? he wondered. And what was the smell that flowed out of Subway’s doors? Was it supposed to smell like bread?
He sat down and watched three teen skateboarders testing their mettle against some concrete steps. They weren’t very good, but they were okay to watch. One of them had those stupid white dreadlocks, and another one wore an oversized T-shirt with a peace symbol on the chest.
The peace symbol reminded Ben of another Orwell quote, also excellent but not deserving of a tattoo: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist.” How could he explain that sentiment to this ignorant skateboarder? What it meant to him—as he’d lectured many times on many continents, mostly to men about to parachute out of planes or storm jungle encampments of insurgent guerrillas—was that the struggle against evil was always already enjoined. Evil was real. Evil was out there, seeking to enslave you, and you had the choice either to fight evil or become an appeaser of evil. There were no spectators in the fight. Those cement stairs where kids wasted their days doing ollies: menaced by evil darkness. The infrastructure that allowed that Subway to dispense its food product: thanks only to the pain and sacrifice of tireless soldiers somewhere off in the shit.
How he would’ve enjoyed pulling the trigger, killing a monster.
For 24 years Ben had been one of the rough men visiting violence in the night in the name of freedom. He couldn’t even remember all the violence he’d visited. He’d visited violence in Honduras, hanging with the last of the contras before Ortega fell out of power. He’d visited violence in Bosnia, eliminating the murderous henchmen of Milošević. He’d attempted to visit violence in North Korea one time, but sadly that mission hadn’t gone off. He’d spent three days in a ghillie suit, sitting in a trench in the DMZ, shitting into a sluice, waiting for the appearance of Kim Jong Il from his bomb-resistant underground concrete bunker, but the dictator had never materialized. Intelligence had been wrong, much to his chagrin. Oh, how he would have enjoyed pulling the trigger on that one. To have killed a totalitarian monster. It would have made for a very good day.
For the past few years, he’d mostly been visiting his violence in Afghanistan. He’d been knocking around in Kabul and the northern provinces, putting the hurt on Taliban chieftains and various recalcitrant goat herders slow to accept the civilizing hand of the American liberation. He’d prided himself on the surgical nature of his violence-visiting and had genuinely enjoyed his place in the hierarchy of his nation’s armed forces, his status as a deadly weapon in the hands of the men who guided his people down the treacherous path of their destiny. He’d lived happily in the darkness, knowing his actions guaranteed the light-filled life back home in the States.
And then, about a year ago, there had been a change. The poles had reversed. Every intuition had turned inside out, and ever since then the light and the dark were no longer so easy to tell apart. The men in charge didn’t seem so unimpeachable, and all those he’d opposed had ideas that weren’t so easy to dismiss.
The change, as far as he could tell, had started in Kunduz during the mission to kill the savage warlord Abdul Rashid Mazari. For two weeks, Ben had been stationed on a rooftop as satellites drifted in and out of position, beaming images to the suburbs of Virginia, accumulating data. He’d been happy enough to wait—that was his job, after all—and he’d packed in enough meals for a month, as well as a smartphone loaded with history tomes. It all would have been easy enough if not for the rancid smell that had plagued him from the start.
The smell had been truly terrible. A dying-animal smell, a rotten-meat-in-the-hot-sun smell. A little reconnaissance had revealed the source to be consistent with the nightly screams emanating from a nearby apartment window. As it turned out, the screaming and the stench originated from the exact same spot, the body of a young boy, maybe nine years old, with an infected wound on his leg, probably the result of an errant IED. Ben’s explicit orders had been to avoid all engagement with the locals, but in this case he’d gone ahead and broken them. The smell was too awful, and one night he’d stormed into the house, tied up the parents, and treated the boy’s leg with some good old-fashioned American antibiotics. He’d done this five more times, encountering successively less struggle and fear on the part of the boy and his family, possibly even some looks of damp gratitude, and by the time the order to debrain the warlord came in, the leg was showing some definite signs of repair. He’d completed his mission with all the attendant pyrotechnics and never saw that kid again.
He should have taken a break about then, but, as it happened, the boy and his infected leg bumped up against another significant event in Ben’s tour of duty, the trip to Bagram and the mission to rescue two SEALs in the mountains of Barai Ghar.
That mission had been a clusterfuck from minute one. A Chinook had been downed on the top of an unnamed peak, and Ben’s team had been assigned to snatch the survivors before the savages arrived to lop off their heads. Their helicopter had followed the first helicopter’s path over the mountaintops, into the navel of the world, as the local dirt farmers called it, and at the designated coordinates had crept downward to the frozen, god-forsaken landing zone. Why the LZ was rutted with narrow tracks, and why there was an unmanned, vintage 1980s Russian-made antiaircraft machine gun sitting there, no one knew, but according to the gunship all was clear. Optical heat sensors picked up no human-size signatures. It was at the sight of the decapitated donkeys and goats hanging in spindly trees that the major sirens went up. Obviously, the LZ was already inhabited by hostiles.
“I’m looking at donkeys and goats here,” Ben’s pilot radioed to base.
“No enemy combatants on the ground,” said the gunship.
“I see goats in trees.” That was when the rocket-propelled grenade punched a hole in the electrical pod, passing through the left mini gun ammo can, and exploded in the interior of the aircraft. A second later, another RPG hit the right-side radar pod. Another exploded in the snow by the right front and peppered the Chinook with shrapnel. Another hit the right-side turbine on the tail.
So much for trusting a screen more than your own eyeballs. The cathode ray tubes spooled down and faded to black. Out went the multifunction displays, the navigation systems with GPS, the automatic flight-control systems, the radios and every other operating component. Out went the generators and down came the bundles of transmission and hydraulic lines, splashing burning-hot liquid everywhere in the cabin. Only when the electricity goes out does anyone get real, Ben flashed. Only when the power disappears does anyone start seeing again, thinking again. This was a new lesson for him.
Ben had survived the ensuing firefight, just barely. He’d been flown to Kabul, then Germany, then D.C., where he’d recuperated adequately enough, though not so adequately that the SEALs were any longer an option. At age 41, he was well past the sell-by date, anyway, and by all standards ready for the downshift into a life of consulting. It was in this period that his moral inversion had become complete. “Consulting,” it had turned out, was another word for “bodyguarding,” and his first client had been an executive for a major multinational construction company. Ben’s job had been to accompany this vice president on his tours throughout Central Africa, visiting various oil fields, consulates, government buildings, river deltas and so forth. In this capacity, Ben had enjoyed a front-row seat to the daily routines of a corporate master of the universe, a very nice man named Michael Holmes, who never said an unkind word to anyone because he had Ben standing next to him with an AK-47. You get up into the upper echelons of power, Ben had been told, and there are basically two kinds of arrangements: a nice guy surrounded by assholes, or an asshole surrounded by nice guys. In this situation, it was the former, and he was the asshole. Back and forth between mind-crushing poverty and mind-crushing opulence he’d traveled with this nice man. To Europe to visit a son at the Sorbonne, to Dubai to make deals with the sheiks, back to Africa to walk the perimeter of the oil field on the edge of the slums of Nairobi.
No matter where he went, the images and ghosts plagued him.
All of these experiences, taken together, back to back, had demolished some of Ben’s basic foundations. When the time had come to re-up his contract, he’d bowed out, and ever since then he’d been wandering alone, his mind a fiery collage of festering leg wounds, burning helicopters, starving babies, prep school graduation parties, greasy blood spurting from a savage warlord’s head. Not to mention the ghosts. They’d become regular visitors of late, these void-eyed apparitions unable to communicate whatever searing message they’d been assigned to deliver. So far they only stood there, mute and terrifying, hovering in half shadow, casting shrieking headaches and stabbing ear pain, but who knew when they might reach out and touch him? No matter where he went, the images and ghosts plagued him. And none could answer his one, simple question: Why was one kid left to die and another sent to play baseball?
Such was his inner turbulence as he stood across the street from his father’s home, a stucco ranch on a Peanuts-style cul-de-sac. He’d been thinking he’d call on his dad today, surprise him with his sudden arrival, but he could see that wasn’t going to be the case. He didn’t want his dad to see him in this state, so fried, so freaked. It was so strange: Here he was, a guy who’d built entire telecom stations in hurricanes, swum miles in the Indian Ocean surrounded by tiger sharks and parachuted from low-flying planes into minefields surrounding terrorist encampments, but he couldn’t make himself walk up and knock on his dad’s door.
The sun was sinking, and the pictures continued to flash in Ben’s skull: bleeding wounds, dismembered goats, suburban parking lots. Every image encapsulated an entire world of experience, and all of them were at war with one another. If only they’d stop for a second, maybe he could string together a thought, but they strobed on and on, ever more harshly, to the point where his head was ringing with pain. He fashioned a mental baseball bat and began swinging at random, smashing the images as they appeared, splintering them into tiny shards. It was almost calming, in a way. Thwack, thwack, thwack. His mind became the sound of wood thwacking hard earth. He stood on the sidewalk feeling the woody report in the bones of his face. He doubted this was happening in anyone else’s brain, this mental smashing. None of his dad’s neighbors were prone to suffering in this way. They were all too happy sucking on their barrels of carbonated sugar water, running mazes on their handheld phones, enjoying the bounty of this good, American life. It was a life he needed to discover some way to join, now that his nights as a rough man were done—he knew that.
His eyes roamed his childhood street, seeking respite in all the old places. He didn’t dare look at the neighbors’ windows because there might be ghosts, and he didn’t want to look at his dad’s house because it was almost vibrating with mysterious, pent-up energies. In his heart he still believed that Orwell was right, but he had to admit, the burning sensation growing in his chest argued otherwise. It was possible the postulate of peace through violence might even have some fatal flaw. Staring at his dad’s roof, imagining flames shooting skyward, napalm spreading over the earth, all manner of burning death, feeling his head slowly separating from his body, he began to wonder the once unthinkable: What if America was not imperiled by enemies on another continent at all? What if all the potato people enjoyed their supersized happiness not thanks to the rough men but simply because? After almost three decades of extreme clarity on the matter, he was no longer at all sure. And without that clarity, there were other big questions to answer, too. Namely, if the enemy wasn’t out there, then what the fuck had all that violence even been for?
From the novel Freebird by Jon Raymond, out in January 2017 from Graywolf Press.