By Mathew Goldberg
The Private has been working the gate a week. “Better you than us,” his buddies tell him. But the Private likes the assignment. He likes the sense of order. Back home he likes well-raked yards and organized garages, shovels and tools hanging from well-spaced pegs, everything in its place.
He and Sergeant Powell check passes. Check, salute, gate. The gate rises in its own form of salute. The real action comes at night when the gate transforms into IED checkpoint training. The Private surveys pizza delivery vehicles and women headed for what his buddies call ‘barrel cleaning.’
“Your girl in town?” the Sergeant asks from the other gate.
The Private has heard about Sergeant Powell, how this duty is some sort of punishment, but the Private feels lucky to learn from an experienced officer. At first, the Sergeant didn’t talk unless he was taking the Private to task over an improper search. And while the Private asks questions about the job, he doesn’t otherwise intrude on the Sergeant. He knows what it’s like in a small town.
“She got in yesterday,” the Private says. He checks the badge of an on-base therapist. It’s a long line of cars today but the line moves fast. It’s the visitors that slow things down.
“In Europe,” the Sergeant says, “they don’t know how to form lines.”
In the past week, the Sergeant has begun talking. “Over there, everyone cuts.”
“That’s not right,” the Private says.
“Not in every country, mind you. Not in Germany, where you’ll go first. The Germans know how to line up. It’s in their DNA.”
The Private laughs because the Sergeant laughs.
“In France, they mob the counter. But it’s not a mob like they’re angry or anything. It’s like they’re dazed. They don’t know what to do. Like the idea of a line has never occurred to them. Like they never took Geometry.”
Though the Private never did well in Math, he believes in lines. On the interstate, he phones the numbers on the backs of trucks to report erratic drivers. He cringes when he passes wrecks: overturned loads with cars crushed in their wake.
“Italy. That’s the worst. In Italy people push and shove. Even on planes. There, it’s more like a mob. You have to be aggressive. You have to cut off women and children. But you have visit if only for the food.”
“I like pizza.”
“Everyone likes pizza.”
Even when the Private’s parents were fighting, when his sister was acting out, the family was quiet when it ate, the pizza box swiveling on the Lazy Susan. The Private is going to break up with his girlfriend this week but he doesn’t know how. It’s strange when she calls him by his first name; he’s grown used to ‘Private’, to his last name, to being shaved to bare essentials. He doesn’t have to answer the question, “What are you thinking about?” Check, salute, gate. All straight lines. He made it through Basic by volunteering for everything including eating a live cockroach when his drill instructor said bugs were a source of protein. He got his nickname from that: Roach. His buddies pass him mock joints, which bothered him at first. Cockroaches are supposed to be resilient, able to withstand a nuclear bomb.
“Except the pizza’s different over there,” the Sergeant says. “Most people are surprised.”
The Private tries to imagine how pizza can be different and he frowns at the approaching Nissan knowing that it has to be a visitor and that it’s going to slow his line. Most military personnel drive American, and though their plates come from all over, the Private doesn’t see many new cars. There’s a bandage over the side of the driver’s face.
“This pass is expired.”
The guy’s twitching. His face is covered with nicks.
“License or ID.”
The man shoots him a hard stare that suggests the complex shapes the Private could never solve in Math class. There’s a duffle bag in the passenger seat. The backseat has a dog bed and kids’ toys, and there are suitcases in the back hatch. The Private steps back and signals the Sergeant.
“I can’t let you in without ID.”
Over the cars, the Sergeant gets on the horn. The driver’s eyes burn.
“Shut down your engine. Show me your hands.”
The Private has never really considered how the gate’s just a piece of wood, so when the Nissan plows through, the Private stands watching, the gate splintering like a toothpick. The Private draws his sidearm but doesn’t fire.
“Hit the alarm,” the Sergeant yells.
The Nissan makes it a quarter mile before a security vehicle blocks the road. The Nissan screeches to a stop and the driver leans out his window and the jeep tears apart before the Private hears the crackle of the assault rifle. The MPs collapse like dropped marionettes. When base security rolls out in force, the Nissan pulls a u-ey and speeds back to the gate. The alarm blares and loud thwacks close in as the driver fires haphazardly out his back window.
“Get in-front of it,” the Sergeant yells.
In the years to come, the Private will hole up in his basement, draining whiskey bottles hidden in his footlocker, avoiding that girlfriend whom he marries. He’ll redeploy for tour after tour. He’ll wonder about that bug he swallowed and whether it’s still crawling around, for it’s the Sergeant who dashes in front of the gate, sidearm raised while the Private mouths wait and the Nissan completes its perfect, geometric arc.
Mathew Goldberg’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Shenandoah, American Short Fiction, and StoryQuarterly, among others. His short story collection placed as a finalist for The Iowa Review Award, and he received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council and a Special Mention for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Missouri with his wife, the writer Kelly Tate, and his son.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.