The Smoking Barrel/Love Letter

As soon as I climbed the ladder into the tower I was warned: an attack was imminent. We had been intercepting Taliban chatter on the LLVI.  As I waited, I swung the M240 machine gun back and forth on its pintle. At its northernmost limit, the barrel presses up against the wooden frame of the window. The wood is charred where it touches.

It was just over a month ago that I burned the window frame. I had taken paper up to the tower with me to write a letter to Michelle. There was contact to the north, and though my sector of fire couldn’t reach the origin of the small arms fire, I rotated the gun as far north as it would go, pressing the barrel against the frame, and laid down suppressive fire for the mortar pit. I could smell the wood burning. My left hand pulling the trigger was between the grip and the rough concrete of the wall. As I fired, the vibrations rubbed my knuckles raw and they started to bleed. I still have the faintest scabs left there.

And today, sure enough, we took indirect fire from the southwest.  The first round of the 82mm Recoiless landed near my tower, I spun my head around to about 70 meters away, where it hit a backhoe, and yellow scraps of metal were thrown into the air. Another one hit closer, and two more landed just outside the walls. I got the general idea where they were firing from, and lit it up. I shot with my left again, but because my right is still in a cast.  So my broken right hand hung limp at my side while I threw bullets a click away. The thin film of CLP oil burns off the barrel, making a thin mane of smoke swept back by the wind.

After the first round there wasn’t much shock to it- there usually isn’t. But the contact was drawn out, and took up most of my guard shift. At the end, picking up spent brass and links off the dirt floor of the tower, I thought of that letter again, how that other night I didn’t clean up the brass until the last minutes of my shift, to keep my hands, and therefore the letter, clean.

I wanted to keep a copy of that letter for myself, so I photographed it before I mailed it to her. But those pictures are sitting on a non working computer now, after the leaky roof poured rain down on to it. So all I have is what I remember.

“What makes this hard is that I am not counting down the months, or even the days until I can see you, but the hours and sometimes the minutes. Hours spent in the tower, or at the gym, or reading in bed. You are a faint sweetness cast upon the convolutions of these hours.”

The last sentence of that is what I remember verbatim. But the end of the letter I remember so well because I was so careful with it.

“When you are in back seats staring out the window, I cannot gaze at your distracted face until your eyes meet mine. When you walk on rock in a starlit night, I cannot double the soft crunching with footsteps of my own. Your hand will hang at your side, unaccompanied by mine, at least for a little while. Stock your heart with the moments we were meant to share, so that, someday soon, I can see them there.”

By the time the letter would have arrived, she had already told me she was in love with someone else. She didn’t mention receiving it.


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