J. C. said, “Come here for a minute. I want to show you something.”
I’ve told my wife about this moment. I’ve told my dad. I’ve told one friend. Otherwise, maybe because I feel shame, maybe because it has never come up in conversation, maybe because I’m a chickenshit, I haven’t talked about this: J. C. pulled me into a separate room of the church five years ago to show me pictures of him at war. We hadn’t seen each other for two or three years, and the gathering at the small Methodist church was in some way about us coming home. I’d come home from Utah, recently married, recently become a father of three. He’d come home from Afghanistan, the single father of a baby girl. He handed his daughter to his father and asked me into a smaller room.
He said to me, “I’ve gotta show you something. You’re the only one around here who will understand.”
He held a digital camera in front of us the way one might examine a cantaloupe. He showed me some pictures of white sand horizons and vast stretches of white landscape that—to Appalachian eyes, accustomed to a dense green world with factories and French Creek—I can most accurately describe as nothing. He said, “This is where those people live.”
I have thought myself keen in describing tone and emotion, in picking [End Page 109] up on sarcasm or a vexing concern—J. C.’s voice and his face gave away nothing as he scanned the pictures. His eyes betrayed nothing. He might have been showing me his buddy’s pictures of his buddy’s trip, something that was neat, but, let’s face it, just neat. Instead, he was showing me pictures of war. As children, he and I had made machine-gun noises while holding sticks and pulled pins from pinecones to toss at our enemies, but now, J. C. had been to war. He showed me some more landscapes. A tank. A few shots of his Army buddies.
I had figured him for a career soldier, though he’s done now: Special Forces of some sort, a paratrooper I think, fairly decorated, though I have no idea what for. I have no idea what his rank was. He talked about the photos, named his friends, the other soldiers, gave them all one-liners like “This motherfucker would let you run over his stomach with a Humvee.” He showed me a picture of a particular gun that “wasn’t standard equipment.” He showed me a Middle Eastern man, prone, hands tied at his lower back, a yellow dress, an American soldier with the tip of an M16 barrel denting the brown man’s forehead—“We think this one was in al-Quaida,” he said.
Another dark man, in a purple floral-print dress in child’s pose, wrists bound out in front of him, his cheek flat on the flat concrete floor—“This one,” he told me, “cried every night.”
Though I hadn’t had cable or a newspaper subscription for years and couldn’t yet navigate the Internet, I knew what he was showing me. I had seen similar pictures at newsstands, in newspapers left open at coffee shops. I had listened to the stories each weekend on NPR. He showed me more pictures, more tanks, a helicopter, maybe three or four other prisoners—how could I tell?—there was simply too much. The white sand. The dark and deep green weaponry. J. C., the torturer. The knowledge that the horrors of life extend beyond American media. All of these things registered as one, none of them registered.
I have no idea what he thought I’d understand. He and I have been through this and that, some fistfights, some tender moments—Western [End Page 110] Pennsylvania, boyhood stuff. We’ve been blind drunk together and yelled at drunk idiots across the river. We’ve tossed a football between us and mused over late-fall gray days. We’ve shot pool. One time, with a BB gun, we shot a robin...