The song ended as fast and hard as it had begun—heavy slap bass, double kick pedal moving strong, and the singer screaming through the final shredded chord. The gravel stirred by the pit lingered high in the air even after the cheering quieted and the local punk band left the stage. “Fucking killer;” “Yeah, way dope,” the crowd commented while the next band hurried to set up their gear. Ryan cognitively kept his mouth shut so as not to inhale the dirt that slowly settled—a first for a guy who’d gone to several outdoor shows with pits in his early youth. But after thirteen months of sand storms and monsoons in the desert, he hated the idea of feeling any such grime in his teeth.
“Dude, didn’t I tell you? That band kills it!” Kelbo jumped on Ryan’s back, the whiskey strong on his breath. The gravel lot just north of the highway had been rented to house the biannual Sunday punk rock flea market and bands that accompanied the event. “And if you think they were great, man, the next set is going to be even more sick. Burning Wire mixes a lot of great covers with their own shit—makes for a fun ass time!”
Ryan grabbed Kelbo’s wrist and playfully twisted it until Kelbo jumped down and laughed: “You fucker.” Kelbo stumbled for a second. “Still glad you actually left your house and came, even if you are an asshole.” He gave a slight push to Ryan’s chest, the sort of gesture Kelbo had made since Ryan first met him nearly ten years ago in Coach Dan’s government class. “Wait, wait, wait,” Kelbo said after taking a long swig of his Jim Beam and coke. “There’s that girl I want you to meet. Hailey! Hailey!”
“Seriously, Kelbo,” Ryan said underneath his breath as the girl—electric blue hair, cut-up Sniper 66 shirt, torn fishnets, and classic vans—approached.
“This is my friend I’d been telling you about,” Kelbo slurred. “Best guy I know. Solid, sensitive, loyal, war vet, a real son of a bitch.”
Kelbo had very actively been trying to set Ryan up ever since he himself had settled down with his own lady six months ago, and no matter how many times Ryan said to drop the war vet shit, Kelbo never excluded it from his pitch.
“Ryan, Hailey. Hailey, Ryan,” Kelbo made a drunken curtsy. “I need another drink. Can I grab you two anything?”
“I’ll take another IPA.” Hailey’s voice was deep and husky as she slightly lifted her nearly empty cup. The smile that formed on her face unveiled cute little dimples and straight white teeth, an offset to the dirt and sweat she’d acquired in the pit. Her mannerisms and style reminded Ryan of his first serious girlfriend.
“Naw, man, I’m good,” Ryan said as he put his hands wrist-deep into the pockets of his black denim vest still covered in band patches sewn on in his early twenties. Ryan had become accustomed to the line of reactions he usually received when others learned of his status as an Iraqi veteran. There were the meatheads that quickly switched to their most masculine demeanor, automatically expecting that Ryan had busted down doors while wearing riot gear rather than working in amnesty recovery during his service. Then there were the punks that looked at him with confusion. A member from a primarily anti-establishment scene in the Army? Then the pseudo-intellectuals that wanted to start a debate about the ethics of our involvement nearly 12 years after the initial bombs were dropped in Baghdad; the pseudo-sensitives whom Ryan should feel free to talk to, if ever needed; the ones who loudly and proudly thanked Ryan for his service with their altruistic motives and five dollar American flag T-shirts from corporate Wal-Mart; the ones who just looked at him uncomfortably, like they had no clue what to say in response to this information; and then there were the occasional assholes who immediately wanted to know if he’d ever killed anybody while overseas.
Another girl had run up to quickly give Hailey a hug before running off, so he couldn’t exactly judge Hailey’s own reaction. Kelbo gave Ryan another push. “Come on, man, not even one beer? It’s not like you got a job to go to in the morning. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’m straight, dude,” Ryan said. Kelbo shrugged and headed towards the bar leaving Ryan and Hailey alone in a sea of kids with mohawks and studs.
“So,” Ryan said, unable to mask his discomfort. “Did you have your own DIY booth in the flea market today or just come out for a good time?” Ryan felt like a fish out of water in the scene these days—but isn’t that what the army forgets to tell you during recruitment: that the most familiar spaces will turn foreign upon being discharged.
“Both,” Hailey said, “I closed up my booth about an hour ago with the other vendors and all the shots I’ve taken since then were in honor of having a good time.”
“What’d you sell?”
“I make jewelry.” She pointed to the dangling grenade earrings gracing the second piercing in her lobe, next to her ½-inch gages. “I actually made a necklace once from some old bullet casings my great uncle, or maybe it was a great second cousin or some family member like that, had left over from Vietnam.”
Ryan nodded his head. “Cool.” Counter-culture is full of war remnants turned accoutrements—a fashion statement Ryan didn’t quite know how to handle after returning home.
“So, you on leave or something?”
“I got out about a year ago.”
“Have any old war memorabilia you might want to barter for? That shit, once turned into jewelry, sells.”
Hailey laughed and chugged her beer, a little dribbling down her chin, probably from the shots she mentioned having taken.
“Yeah I guess that one family member of mine like lost an arm or a leg or something in Vietnam. Good job keeping all your appendages.”
“Thanks, I tried.” Ryan thought about the guilt he sometimes felt seeing the amputees down at the V.A.—their wounds clearly visible, their stories clearly told. He thought about the children amputees he’d seen in Khalis’s impoverished hospitals tarnished with bullet holes. Ryan couldn’t bring himself to talk at the V.A. support groups the one or two times he’d gone.
“So, what made you want to join?” Hailey asked.
Ryan looked for Kelbo, who had two drinks in hand but was still talking to the bartender. “Money, I guess. The 30 POGs I oversaw were mostly poor, thick-skinned kids: broke kids wanting to go to college, broke kids not feeling like they had any other good options, broke, rural kids presented no real option by a local judge.”
“Which one were you?”
Kelbo finally came back over and handed Hailey her beer. “Burning Wire is almost done setting up. Let’s head to the front of the stage.” Ryan reluctantly followed Kelbo and Hailey as the band did their mic checks. He stood their awkwardly while all the others seemed at ease in the crowd, drinks in hand, randomly making jokes. It wasn’t until the lead singer greeted everyone from the stage, signaling the beginning of their set, that Ryan felt slightly relaxed.
“What’s up, Tulsa!” the singer said. “Before we kick off with some of our new songs we must pay some respect to the Godfather of punk.” The rhythm guitar and drums kicked off the opening chords and beat of the first single from Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ Raw Power. Then the melody guitarists led the singer to the opening: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of Napalm. I’m the runaway son of a nuclear A-bomb. I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys. Honey got to help me please. Somebody gotta save my soul.”
Ryan caught Hailey looking at him. He hoped she wasn’t thinking he’d get spooked by the loud bass and drums. While incorporating that raw sound—which had to have helped with the album’s title—the dissonance no way resembled the mortar shells that used to get fired into the army base day and night.
Ryan leaned down the foot or so to meet the height of Hailey’s ear. “I guess this song goes out to your uncle, or cousin or whoever,” he said as the singer repeated the chorus: “I am the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys.”
Hailey let out a laugh/grunt and said: “I guess that’s you.”
“What?” Ryan asked.
“I guess that’s true,” Hailey repeated, slightly louder.
Those around Ryan continued to dance to the chorus over and over: “Honey, I’m the world’s forgotten boy, the one who’s searching, searching to destroy.” The singer was throwing himself and the mic around the stage. Kelbo had joined in the pit forming to the left. Someone lifted up Hailey to crowd surf. Ryan had heard this song a million times before, but this time it hit him differently. “Forgotten boy. I said forgotten boy!” The lyrics now seemed a question more than the chorus of a song as the words floated underneath Ryan’s skin—somewhere near where the instability of his post-Iraqi identity harbored quietly, away from the crowd’s eyes, away from Hailey and Kelbo, away from all his other friends, away from his family, away from everything he’d once easily known.