My award-winning novel of 2006, “Nate,” is still in the final stage of preparation. I’m designing a new cover for it (I don’t think the old one is adequate) and making corrections in the old text. And since I’m still struggling financially to keep afloat I have to bump the date of publication ahead to January 4, 2018.
Also note: I am preparing a series of essays to be published sometime in 2018 (an exact date has not been set) about the current state of affairs in Black America. It is not exactly a response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me because I have not read his book. From what I have heard about it, and from the few excerpts I have glimpsed of it, Coates’s book is not saying anything particularly groundbreaking. I have my own views on this subject, and as you know they are considerably less compromising than those of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In the meantime here is another excerpt from “Nate” to whet your appetite.
When I regained consciousness, I felt like I had been on a five-year acid trip. Life around me slowly took on some fearful shapes.
Well….they frightened me at first. Then they disgusted me: a big tent, a dirty floor, half-empty plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, scattered papers, a bunch of grimy backpacks and battered clothes, and, last but not least, the unwashed asses of six or seven men, all looking at me, and all hating me.
I wasn’t high; I knew I had woken up where I had always feared I would wake up: at the bottom of the world. Hadegouine, Numidia. The hot spot of America’s war against international terrorism. More Marines than gooks had lost their lives here. But we weren’t about to take their irons out of the fire. It was the eighties, Reagan was in power, America was back—and if anything, we had to prove it to the world. The 3lst Ostrogoths had trained for this mission for over ten months before they transferred me to the unit, all with a “recommendation” from that same vicious black bastard, whom I’d smirked at some months ago.
Of course, he was right; I didn’t so much as smile the whole time I was stuck there.
Shortly after my arrival, I tried to muster some sympathy from my fellow Marines by telling them what happened to me at Fort Jejune. They merely laughed in my face. Every night from then on, they joked about it in the cruelest way, usually where I could hear them. They sounded like obnoxious little schoolgirls.
We passed a number of months just sitting there, in the desert, talking about nothing—or, rather, THEY talked to EACH OTHER. Not to me. After several months drilling with them I let them know just what the fuck I felt about them, and they had grown as suspicious of me as the last unit had. Some actually thought I was insane. Well, I thought, at least that’s an improvement over the old situation: they may hate me, but at least they fear me. I can handle that.
Everybody was scared; they all knew that Death was at the lining of their assholes. The Royal Numidian Army (of King Ahmed) had been assigned to do our dirty work, but they were the most inept, undisciplined fools anyone had ever seen. And the Pakistanis working alongside them had their hands tied behind their backs. When our officers heard this, they exploded in rages that filtered down the ranks from general to major to lieutenant to sergeant to corporals to sorry, smelly us. All trust had broken down on all sides; all enthusiasm was dead. (Meanwhile, the other side, what with their shells and bullets growing louder and louder and popping and whizzing and kA-blooming through the night, seemed to have an infinite supply of ammo to burn. They made it impossible for you to sleep. I sat and waited and hopelessly twiddled my thumbs and clattered my teeth as the hours wound down.)
I heard we were headed for Adjrar, to indulge in a little “light guerrilla warfare,” as soon as the other units (U.S. and U.N.) cleared the way for us. We had a whole load of goodies and treats and tricks piled into trucks we planned to give the gooks to keep them happy. I peeped into one of these trucks just as they finished loading it; it was filled with nothing but—refuse. Whatever happened to the food? “They got enough Purina cat-chow, and besides, we ran out,” one soldier explained to me. “They shoot at us whether we feed them or not, no matter what side they’re on….it’s crazy, isn’t it?”
He was one of the few soldiers who even bothered to talk to me, and I didn’t even know his full name for several months. In fact I still didn’t know half my company’s names, no matter how often I’d heard them repeated, no matter how often I’d seen their arrogant, childish, grimy faces.
The worst of my fears came true after two absolutely sleepless nights, hearing the increasing chaos and contemplating my own death. The sergeant came in before five o’clock, hysterically whipping our asses to the strains of “Reville”. Sergeant Sanders: A big, loud, ugly ape from Edgeville, South Carolina by way of Chicago and Sing Sing, six foot five and medium-to-dark complexioned, with eyes as hard and cold as diamonds. “Up!” he screamed, “up! Up! Up! Up! Up! Get your asses the fuck up! Ten-shun! Ten-shun! Camel-coon time!—”
After standing up like robots, during which time he inspected the human meat to be roasted by the rebels (or “Camel-coons,” as we had to call them, or get thrown in the stockade and make penis-necklaces for the general’s wives), we got into uniform. We had to be quick, because because because because; we didn’t even have time to wash our asses, so we all smelled. I got into uniform with deathly, quaking motions, as if I was putting on my funeral suit, and preparing to step into a casket. I already saw myself dying, bleeding and totally helpless on some God-forsaken road….like the one we were eventually forced down, unpaved, muddy, filled with deep craters and oceans of quicksand. I barely knew where anything was, it was so dark; I seemed to be surrounded, yet utterly, despicably alone. Dead tired, I made my way with them as the sun began to break through the darkness; the only thing that kept me awake was the sound of enemy gunfire. It terrified me, as did the endless roar of the tanks—but after a few hours of the unnerving monotony, I ignored everything but the gunshots.
They had two kinds of tanks—brown for the Marines, and for the U.N., the white kind, with bold, black lettering on the sides. Their drivers were having a ball, knocking over palm trees and plowing through oases and huge, dark sand drifts that were as long and deep as canyons. Something was wrong. I was sitting in one of these vehicles—a convoy called the “Black Bastard”—when I heard some guys groaning in disgust. The vehicles suddenly stopped, and some soldiers leaped out to see what was wrong. My body pulsed with anticipatory fear. When I finally got out of the convoy myself and saw what it was, I was so shocked, I nearly went blind. Some youth had been crushed flat under a tank. The soldiers said “rebels” did it, but they said it in such a strange way, so casual, and yet so embarrassed, I immediately knew they were lying. How on earth could anyone be so cold? Were these guys just so shocked that they had to laugh, or was this all a grandiose hallucination, brought on by my hunger and exhaustion? I didn’t want to know.
The hours drummed cheerlessly on. The further we made it down the road, the more corpses began showing up. They were not our victims; they were obviously those of the rebel army, but I was revolted nonetheless. Soon I was seeing so many of these ugly, gummy, blasted up things in the road that my mind, long accustomed to nude girls, now kept on relaying back to me faces half-shot away, bodies with no heads, no arms, no legs, sometimes fully intact with heads looking every which way, eyes opened, but mouth cracked as if in stupor….
Peeping through the mud brick walls of the villages, gathered about the doorways of their crumbling souks, were Numidian peasants. They watched us pass along the battered road beneath them. They saw us kicking ourselves in our own asses, our officers routinely abusing us, thrashing us, spitting on us, even threatening to kill us—and from what I could see, they were quite amused. They went about their business while we tried to impress them with our helicopters, airplanes, tanks, and our posturing, smelly asses, flexing muscles but really dying of the heat and exhaustion and aching feet and the hordes of mosquitoes which were so voracious that sometimes, if you listened carefully, the air sang with their shrieking wings.
The Numidians said nothing. After awhile, they didn’t even look our way; I guess they were thinking, “They all look alike to me”….
It was a real revelation. On T.V. they always seemed to be cheering at the sight of U.S. soldiers; we always saw swarms of them fighting, clawing each other savagely for food that these big-hearted, generous Americans had brought them. But the only thing I saw were these peasants just indifferently passing through—even with Marines stopping them, questioning them, searching them with hands raised. It was increasingly clear to me that we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing; it was also obvious that, even though no blood had been shed on our part, the Numidians had won the war. Just look at our outfit! Everybody hated each other—the honkies hated the niggers, who hated the spics, who hated both niggers and honkies, themselves included, but the Numidians?—They may have been frequently hungry, their homes non-existent, they may have been fighting each other and the ruthless Touraegs and Bedouin slave-runners and hash gangsters from the deserts, but they were working in one breath, in ways that we super-individualists couldn’t even do under pain of death. (Or, rather, they—I don’t even know what I mean when I say when I say “we,” because it wasn’t my war.)
The unit kept on listlessly marching through, till I could see the town for myself—or what was left of it, because the place was nothing more than a series of smoldering shells with their walls standing oddly erect, supported by seemingly nothing at all. Everything was gray and black, ashen earthenware—the colors of an air raid’s aftermath. The only things left to show that humans had lived here were a few pathetic shreds of clothing scattered about, along with some shards of pottery—but I didn’t look too hard. I didn’t want to see any more dead bodies. So we passed on to Ben-Ounif….
Ben-Ounif fascinated me. Not much had happened to this town, except that a bomb had landed in the local mosque and hadn’t exploded. The buildings looked odd, like enormous, bright-red beehives. Hemming this little molten town in was a huge, oblong, terra-cotta wall with about five or six openings at either end. Coming out of them, occasionally, were women, children and elders, in white turbans and long, flowing colorful robes loosely draped about their bodies. As I was passing idly up the road, I saw one of the peasants say something to another. That other peasant rushed back inside one of the odd-looking beehives for a few seconds and soon, very timidly, some of the fellaheen began gathering about the openings of the wall to watch us. Some climbed up on the wall, mostly children, who seemed to be making faces at us rather than cheering us on.
Had it not been for the pebbles some kids pitched at our procession, perhaps we would have never stopped. Perhaps: I don’t know. I understood that the guy leading our battalion, Lieutenant Malthusiano, was preoccupied with other things. He spent an inordinate amount of time inside his tank. And what with those strange groans that often came from it, one had to wonder about him. Not that the soldiers gave a damn. Most of them were already stoned out of their minds….
Meanwhile, the longer we paused, the more fellaheen (peasants) began gathering on the road.
Jugs of water balanced on their heads, clutching sticks, with bulging bellies and sealed lips and sullen stares, they faced our company. Their numbers quickly mushroomed. More people got up on the wall; they started nose-thumbing, just the way we Americans do. Once “Tank”—that’s what we called the lieutenant—saw the hold-up, he zipped up his pants and got out of the tank. He had very black curly hair that hadn’t been cut for weeks. He had a hooked nose, Dravidian mouth, thick eyebrows, and sunken eyes; olive-complexioned to begin with, his being in the sun so long made him look almost African. But, appearances notwithstanding, he spoke with a strange redneck drawl, didn’t like blacks, had a rebel flag tattooed to his left arm and an iron cross to his right—‘nuff said.
“Tank” insists he isn’t scared of all these hundreds of peasants. Of course not. War isn’t even on his mind. Case in point: every now and then, some graceful, lean, hard fellaha passes lazily through his field of vision, talking loudly in harsh, guttural, South Numidian dialect….“Tank” absentmindedly licks his lips.
“You know she wants it, they all do,” he barks, watching one girl’s arrogant buttocks mock him and the rest of us through a bright pink robe….“They’re whores, I can feel it. They’re not even Christians! Did y’all hear about it? No? Welllll….down here they don’t believe in all that hocus-pocus WE believe about not havin’ sex. Hell, no! This is a different world, folks….A different culture, so while we’re here we can do a little enjoyin’ of ourselves! Why not?
“You know something, boys,” he adds, louder, in his horrible New Orleans accent—he takes his hand off his crotch and turns to us….“You know something? With no men here, you’ll get so much pussy you’ll fuckin’ hate it. You’ll hate the shit. I ain’t lyin’, kid. Stick around. But in the meantime, stay on your goddamn guard, ‘cause these motherfuckers could hava lotta grenades up their fuckin’ robes.”
He sees another one pass, he starts to get hard. Unbeknownst to him, a banner, displayed by two young women gathered in the road and written in very crude French, read: “DON’T KIL NUMIDIAN PEPLE, WE LOV YU AMRICANS”. I didn’t know that until the funny-looking guy who’d spoken to me earlier mentioned it to somebody behind me. The other somebody sucked his teeth and laughed. “Shit,” “Tank” went on, he being what he was….“Who needs R & R with babes like this around? See….what I usually do is bribe ‘em. Yup. Throw ‘em a pair of Twinkies or something—they’ll eat fuckin’ anything….They’re likea buncha goddamn dogs. Then you ask for what you want—an’ you’ll get it. Trust me. Sometimes all you gotta do is hold your hand out….”
“Oh, Jesus,” snorted the funny-looking guy, “I don’t believe this.”
More and more villagers gathered up on the road. I noticed that they were actually sitting in front of the tanks, strategically placing their bodies in such a way that completely obstructed our movement. Sergeant Sanders popped his head out of his convoy and cursed. He could do nothing, because Malthusian was too busy trying to see what he could see through a small hole in the wall…. “Yeah? No, Sanders, don’t do anything yet, y’all keep cool, keep cool….”
“They got us completely blocked, lieutenant. Now what the fuck we gon’ do?”
“Lissen, motherfucker,” he casually snarled, still peeping….“I’M the one in charge of shit around here, so you just fuckin’—ouch—GODDAMMIT!!
And then this filthy beige covered jeep drives up towards us. The jeep stops. It’s Colonel Dachausky. We all salute the master when he opens his door, steps out and strides over to the scene, frowning, looking strangely befuddled. Tank is raving about the blood running from his eye. The whole left side of his face is red with blood; you can’t tell whether or not they really did poke his eye out, but the colonel…. “Lieutenant, what the hell’s all this?”
“I, I, uh, I dunno, sir—ouuuuuuuch!! I can’t see! My eye! My eye! Those nigger motherfuckers poked out my eye!—”
“This is crazy,” the colonel drooled, watching all of them in his haze….“Oh, I see what the hell’s the hold-up. You got all these goddamn gooks sitting every which way all over your mother-freakin’ convoys an’ tanks. Lieutenant, get the goddamn gooks off the tanks an’ let’s get movin’, shall we?”
“But I’m wounded! I’m wounded! I can’t—I don’t even know if I gotta eye anymore!” Tank cried.
“Well, you got one goddamn eye,” the Colonel snorted, coldly watching Tank cry bloody tears….“That’s good enough to keep. See, you’re gonna haveta use some damn diplomacy, lieutenant. Flex your brains….You know, if you have ‘em! Move ‘em with your bare hands! C’mon! What the hell’d they put you out here for, anyway?”
“Oh, God,” he sobbed….“Where’s a doctor when you need one? Medic! Medic! Medic!! I can’t see out my eye!!—”
“Fuck your goddamn eye!” the Colonel suddenly screamed, up in his face—then snatched his face away and strode casually back to the jeep. He picked up his walkie-talkie and mumbled some shit I couldn’t hear, and then turned right around and sped back the other way clumsily through heaps of dirt, sand and battered road. Tank turned livid. He fumed, jerked his head around, as the blood dripped from his chin. He wiped it away, gagged, and strode over to Sanders in the convoy directly behind the Black Bastard and shrieked, “Fuck it! Fuck it! Let’s do it! Let’s kill these motherfuckers!” he shouts, trying to rile us up….“Fuck diplomacy!! Sanders, get ‘em ready—they’re gonna be fryin’ some gook ass tonight if I can help it. You see all these gooks blockin’ the road here? Run ‘em over! Kill ‘em! They’ve just insulted an American! How’d YOU like it if some goddamn nigger poked you in the eye with a stick? Huh?”
“I can’t even answer that,” the funny-looking guy snorted out loud in back of me; he sounded like a white beach bum, almost. “Hey, man,” he said, nudging me, “you think he heard what I said?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered, “what the hell are we supposed to be doing now, anyway?”
“You mean in this war?”
“No, just right now, with all these women and children out there. What the hell are we supposed to do now?”
“I have no fuckin’ idea, man,” he replied, shaking his head. “No idea.”
The both of us got down off the top of the “Black Bastard” and began to amble around as we talked. I finally learned his name: Marv Manchley, of Cincinnati. Like me, he was Private First Class, and, as it turned out, he despised the war. He admitted he only came into the service because he “needed the eggs”. He never cut his hair, and in fact was trying to make dreadlocks out of them. He wore rectangular-shaped spectacles perched at the end of his nose; he actually looked very much like a North Numidian with his Semitic features, except he was so brown-skinned. I joshed to him that if he kept on growing his hair like that, they would mistake him and have him killed. “Oh, no,” he snorted, “no way. I never take my uniform off, I just wouldn’t put myself in the position of being killed by these motherfuckers. That why you joined, too?”
“Yeah, ‘cause you don’t look like the Marine type at all,” he said. Tell me about it, I thought. “I kept on wondering why the fuck you were in this outfit if you couldn’t get along with anyone. But I’d watch it if I were you. Just about everybody here hates your fuckin’ guts, man.”
“Oh, I could tell,” I murmured, looking around at everybody standing about, waiting for their commanders to give them the signal to push the people away from the tanks. I mentioned something to Marv about it. “I think we should go back,” he said, suddenly, “bad vibes, man.”
Then I asked, worried, “we’re not authorized to kill these people if it comes down to it, are we?”
“Oh, yeah, we are,” Marv blurted out, to my horror…. “Not that I’m doin’ it. I’m above that shit, man, that’s not me….”
“But what if they told you to?”
“I wouldn’t do it. I’d just push them, you know, to the side. But maybe they’ll give up an’ go home, looks like they’re tiring out—”
“But how can we just kill them?” I kept on asking, idiotically. “They’re not the rebels!”
“Well, they’re in the way,” Marv murmured, “that’s all I gotta say. But with that ‘Tank’ guy around, man—you know something’s gotta give. ‘Tank’ thinks he’s still in his fuckin’ New Orleans police uniform an’ shit. Or L.A.—wherever the fuck he was, I dunno. All I know is, you can expect just about anything from that motherfucker.”
“Even the kids?”
Sergeant Sanders saw us loitering about and angrily strode over towards us. I didn’t know what the fuck was his problem, for he began violently lunging out at me, screaming, “shut the fuck up, retard! Git your ass over here an’ line up with da restuf ‘em! C’mon! Get—” He pushes Marv roughly on the back. “You, too, hippie nigger! Get your goddamn asses in line or else!”
By this time, the scene was crazy. Marines would carefully remove the Arabs from underneath the tanks and shove them to the side of the road, but for every Arab they removed, another one quickly took his place. It happened, repeatedly, until Tank literally howled with rage. Major Lewison tried to reason with Tank….there was nothing else to be done, they had us swamped. Using “force” would send the wrong message to these people. But whatever Lewison thought about the effectiveness of non-violence, it most certainly wasn’t working for us. Whenever we got out the convoys to get them off the road, they would climb inside the vehicles and fuck around. One even swiped the keys to two jeeps; another expertly cut the wires to a humvee and rendered it worthless. Indeed, they were so obnoxious that I couldn’t be sure whom to hate or who to side with—they, or these asshole Marines….
Dachausky was hardly ever seen by any of us. Still, we already knew he was at the end of his rope. He really didn’t care anymore; it was as if he’d given up all hope of ever keeping this operation under wraps so the folks back home could think of this as being nothing, just a football game. He kept little round mirror shades over his eyes as he rode around in his jeep, making sure everything was in order, like the general manager of a restaurant dutifully inspecting his dishwashers and busboys. The sounds of occasional rockets and mortar in the distance didn’t faze this hardened veteran of the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the Dominican Republic; his expertise in dealing with unruly Ay-rabs in Beirut was the prime reason why he was picked to oversee this operation. This time, Dachausky came back to say he’d summoned some “help”. The “help” hurriedly arrived in an outdated green U.S. Army jeep, a tall, gaping, sickly-looking, gangly Northerner who reputedly spoke six languages and worked for King Ahmed’s hated intelligence department. His brilliant off-white silk djellaba was unbearably bright in the harsh African mid-day sun. He cocked his maroon fez on properly and stumbled out of his jeep into the dust, a comical fool. Marv and I mocked him as he was handed a megaphone.
Huge explosions rocked the earth beneath our boots.
More reinforcements quickly arrived, in strange wide helicopters that flapped right down a few yards away from us, their propellers blowing sand and grit up into our faces and hair and eyes. I thought they were coming to take us to Adjrar so we could stop all this stupid-ass marching and bear wrestling, but as it happened, dozens of khaki-clad, pith-helmeted and very well-strapped soldiers rolled off them. I was surprised to find that most of them were coal-black. Marv told me it was the brutal 9th Battalion. The 9th Battalion got themselves together and began to take their positions, while the peasants, immediately catching sight of the helicopters, grew even more obstinate and swelled their numbers to what seemed like a thousand or more. The sickly-looking Arab came forward and directly faced the bidonville. With a surprisingly firm, almost vicious voice, he pleaded for the villagers to remove themselves. The fellaheen merely jeered and threw stones….I sucked in my breath watching the verbal see-sawing between the sickly man and the village elders; the way they were arguing so, it appeared an explosion was imminent. But I was not familiar with the Arab-African temperament and their joy of having a great argument over nothing, for I was puzzled to see how quickly their tempers flared and died. And that was that.
The elders, adjusting their turbans and flinging their robes about their shoulders, got their people out of the road. The sickly man had done it. We al let out our war cries of relief and reassembled our unit. I was struggling back on top of the tank when I saw three jokers perched on the terra-cotta wall. One of them nudged the other, and picked up a rock and threw it at Tank’s helmet. Tank jerked around with that one wild eye; he bit his lip….
“Who threw that?” he hissed.
Corporal Jerome Gates pointed to the wall where the three jokers had once been but were now gone. Instead, Tank saw a ten-year-old boy who wasn’t on the wall. He roughly seized the boy’s arm while the other Numidians were dispersing. He gave the boy a loud slap in the face with an open palm. When one of the Arabs looked, another Arab looked, and soon all were watching when Tank pushed the boy back over the wall. They all thought he was crazy….
“They can talk if they like,” he panted, his face disfigured by the blood-soaked bandage….“‘Cause the first punk who throws another rock is fuckin’ fried meat.” Then he cuts his eye at the dispersing Numidians. Two more rocks shot out the breaches in the wall and knock him upside his head again. Marv and I were suddenly overtaken with wild, uncontrollable laughter. I clutched my stomach and fell to the ground, looking about to see if Sanders was looking….instead, I saw Tank with his head raised just far enough for him to bark:
“Okay, let ‘er rip.”
I didn’t think he was serious, but when I saw those guns suddenly being raised at the wall, I saw there was no stopping it. It sounded at first like millions of extremely loud, malfunctioning lawnmowers. The blast of guns was deafening; the stench of smoke and grit hit my nostrils; the air was filled with screams. One by one, their heads shattered in gobs of grey and pink and red; their arms, intestines, livers, kidneys, lungs spattered the wall like sludge from a sewer. My head felt like I’d been in a disco for six hours….And then I looked back, at the hands pulling the triggers, and how those hands didn’t twitch once; not a one hesitated to grind ‘em all down to shit. And then the dust cleared, and there they were, all over the ground, all over the walls, about a hundred of them, men, women and children, elderly, dead or dying.
It didn’t even take ten minutes.
When it was all over, I stood guard to make sure Bedouin thieves didn’t swipe the bodies to sell them on the black market to French universities. All along I was completely flabbergasted. Did they really have to kill all of them? What was the point in all that? I thought I was dreaming, that maybe it was a horrible coda to the joke I shared with Marv. Until I began handling the corpses. One guy’s brains slid out of an eggshell of a head that had its face intact. I dropped the body, stumbled blindly over to the “black bastard” and heaved up what seemed like everything I had ever eaten. I couldn’t go through with this shit; I had to run off. This was just totally crazy….
Ben-Ounif was in ruins; it looked like a big pile of dried clay chunks. And within them were these few people, limping, bleeding, pulling themselves up from the wreckage to face “reality”—the machine guns. The Marines laughed, or cracked jokes, or vomited, turning over bodies, cutting off the left ear of dozens of shattered heads. Those men who were still alive were being herded onto military trucks; once a name was read off a roll by an Arab soldier, the “guilty” party moved, his hands tied with plastic like a garbage bag, across the killing fields, where the Arab assistants rudely pushed him in. The women and children were forced onto a bus—the refugee bus. They will go to Adjrar, where they will forget about their village, and live in the “real world” where, deep down in the filthy basements and fetid tent cities made of plastic and swimming with garbage and excrement, they will become animals—just like the rest of us.
Excerpt from “Nate,” Back House Books, 2006.