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An excerpt from a novel called BINDLESTIFF



Frank shuffles inside. 

A big man, but shy, he holds himself like a small one. 
With him is his dog, a frail old Labrador.

Frank looks like a bum, with unkempt hair, 
solid clothes, big open high-top sneakers.

He checks his watch out of habit.

Shakes his wrist.

A delicate, antique autowind model,
it doesn’t look like it’s told the time in a
long time.

FRANK opens the fridge door. 
It’s not cold.

He looks over at MR KIM, the skinny old 
Asian guy behind the counter.

    Generator been out since     yesterday. FRANK grunts, picks a bottle of red from the shelf. The bottle has a hand-written label, it’s local. He approaches the counter and hands over some crumpled scrip notes. MR KIM wraps the bottle in brown paper, hands it back. MR KIM
    You got a letter this morning     Mister Frank.     Post drop working at least. Mr KIM hands him the letter. Finger jabbing at the postmark. MR KIM (CONT’D)     That’s two this year, both from     Detroit, Michigan.     Very popular man. FRANK scowls, as in where the fuck else would Detroit be? He doesn’t respond, puts the letter in his pocket. MR KIM comes round the front of counter and feeds the dog some treats. An antique jukebox sits silently against the wall. MR KIM (CONT’D)     When you going to fix it? FRANK stares at the jukebox.
    Soon. MR KIM
    You been saying that for months. FRANK
    Can’t fix a jukebox without     electricity.
    New battery coming tomorrow.
    How about I come in on the     weekend and look at it. Thing     sits there long enough, I’ll     get to it.
    You eaten anything today?
    Me? I’m just wasting away.     Come on dog. FRANK wanders out. The DOG hesitates, looks longingly at MR KIM,hoping for another treat, then follows FRANK out.                 CUT TO:
INT. STORE—DAY—2036 FRANK pushes past the crowd of men. We can hear the generator humming. MR KIM
    Here, I saved you some food, it     cold but... FRANK
    Cold hell, I’m hungry. FRANK unwraps a parcel of dim sum, eats it with his fingers. Palms one to his dog who gobbles it up. FRANK (CONT’D)             (To dog)     Told you dim sum taste good,     hot or cold. MR KIM     You get bad news in that letter?     You don’t look so good Frank. FRANK
(Eating) Just news,     person reading it choose what     kind it is. Mm. Tastes good Mr Kim.   You tell your wife from me. MR KIM
  Wife? My wife can’t cook for   shit. My mother makes dim sum. FRANK
  Well, you tell her,   these shrimp balls are insane. He pulls out the letter, carefully wiping his hands on his trousers first. It’s even more crumpled than before. FRANK (CONT’D)   Letters are strange, they tell you some things, hide others. Was a time when there was no need for letters. You remember when you could talk face to face on the phone? Shit I half brought up my kids on that damn thing. MR KIM
  Only time you need to worry about Frank is right now. My   mother tells me that and she eighty-five. FRANK
  That’s some deep shit right there. MR KIM
  You being funny? FRANK shakes his head. FRANK
    No sir. He folds the letter and puts it back in his shirt pocket. FRANK (CONT’D)     I ask you something? MR KIM     Sure. FRANK
    You like my dog? MR KIM     Sure, I like your dog. Why? FRANK     She too old to travel far, gets     out of breath walking up and     down the boardwalk. MR KIM
  Where you going Frank? FRANK pats the letter. MR KIM (CONT’D)     Detroit, Michigan? FRANK
  She likes you.   You look after her for me? MR KIM
  Sure, you mend that jukebox.     We got power this morning. FRANK     Deal. FRANK pulls the jukebox out from the wall and gets to work.

                CUT TO:
EXT. CHECKPOINT—DAY—2036 A line of what looks like refugees queue up outside the barbed-wire fence/checkpoint. Two very young looking soldiers are checking ID’s. One of them hands back some papers to a frail looking old man. SOLDIER
    Sorry sir, says here you     retired from active service     in 1998. Our quota cut off is     2000. We let you in, what about     the others? OLD MAN
    I served my country for twenty years... SOLDIER
    We all suffer, sir. With all     respect, this isn’t the same     country sir, now move along. OLD MAN
    I got a purple star, injured     outside Fallujah, came home and     worked for KFC minimum wage     fifteen years. I was a chef. SOLDIER
    Thank you for the story, sir.     Now move on. OLD MAN
    It’s not a story, soldier.     That’s my life. He doesn’t move. SOLDIER     What’s the difference? OLD MAN     Move on where?     Where exactly should I move on to, sir? An officer appears from the guardhouse. OFFICER
    What’s the holdup here, soldier? SOLDIER
    Nothing to worry about, sir.     This gentleman just telling me his life     story. He finished now. OFFICER
    Move it along, soldier.     Just move it along. The soldier turns back to the line, but the old man he was talking to has already shuffled away, another one takes his place. SOLDIER
  Papers please, sir.                 CUT TO:
INT. STORE—DAY—2036 Close up on finger pressing jukebox select button. Mr KIM chooses an old favourite, an old jazz track crackles to life. MR KIM
    Worth the wait, thanks Frank. FRANK shrugs. FRANK
    Jazz. FRANK leans down to his dog. FRANK (CONT’D)
    Now girl, you know how much we both like that         dim sum.     Well, here’s where it’s at, every day.         (Beat)
    Don’t look at me like that damn dog. FRANK buries his face in the dog’s ear, whispers, hides his tears. FRANK (CONT’D)
      You know I love you, and I be back,     you and me come a long way together       already,and this ain’t the end of the     journey, this isn’t goodbye, no sir,     it’s just a vacation, something I gotta do. FRANK stands up, hands the lead to Mr KIM. Digs around in his bag and hands him a dog coat, a tin bowl hangs from his backpack, he unties it. FRANK (CONT’D)       She gets cold nights.     And this here her bowl.
    She be fine with me,     you just come back, Frank.
    She’ll eat anything,     ain’t no trouble, just sit her in the     sun out front.       Hates the damp, loves the sun.     That’s my dog.     Now stay girl, stay. WE TRACK IN ON DOG’S FACE AS FRANK SHUFFLES OUT THE DOOR.                 CUT TO:
FRANK approaches the checkpoint from the inside. He’s the only one looking to go out, all the traffic is coming the other way. The SOLDIER checks his ID. SOLDIER
    You sure you want to go out     into the public domain, sir?
        (More) SOLDIER (CONT’D)     It’s dangerous, especially travelling alone.         Corporate compounds won’t take military,     kind of a tit for tat retaliation.     All you got left is the street sir,     and that’s no protection at all. FRANK
    Well, that’s where I’m headed.
    You armed?
Guard pulls a face. SOLDIER     Scrip ain’t legal tender on the outside sir,     nearest military compound east is Fort Irwin,     you make it that far. Anyway, your funeral.     Papers are all in order, says here you’re some     kinda hero.
  I look like any kind of hero to you, son?

After a long beat the Guard hands him his papers. SOLDIER
    Well, good luck, sir. FRANK
  Ain’t no sir either. Now open up. The guard opens the gate and FRANK comes outside and is immediately lost in the milling crowd.                 CUT TO:
 North-Western Iran, 2022

 A boot kicks through the embers of a dying fire.

Oily black smoke washes across the scene. Collapsed and collapsing ochre walls lie in mounds everywhere, obscene termite hills of bloody clay, ancient dust clouding above them. Breathe that in and its ‘Mummy’ time for you. Soldiers in uniform stumble, bent double like old men with walking sticks over their stubby, magically light ceramic assault rifles, hawking black phlegm, tears running freely down their cheeks, black mascara rivulets rendering them Alice Cooper lookalikes or Juggalo fanatics of the Insane Clown Posse. In the movie this overture features Twiztid singing ‘We don’t die’ from a beatbox on the dash of an armoured troop carrier, channelling classic Vietnam films from back in the day, mixing up into full 90’s nostalgia soundtrack as the camera pans across the landscape, revealing grunts digging in and digging the nihilism of the lyrics, on this their never-ending tour, joining in the defiant sing-along chorus:

    Axe murderers we don’t die,
    Serial killers we don’t die,
    Freaks of the night we don’t die,
    We get high, we don’t die.

The scene plays out/under/over this, the afterglow, the aftermath of an artillery strike/infantry firefight one, two combo; from the Pompeii poses of the dead soldiers dressed in a couture of burnt potato skin flakes, to the bleached bones of children whose soft flesh evaporated, (none on show today, this being a relatively minor and outlier skirmish, but these are connotative observations) leaving behind oddly out-of-place white skeleton fragments in the dirt; more gagging, more tears, more slimy, shiny, black snot frothing from darker clown faces. A buzzing in the ears, a drooping of the soul. A bad comedown, a drug without a half-life.

This is victory today, and it comes in many flavours.

A boot kicks through the embers of a dying fire.

‘I mean that fucking fire had been going for thousands of years, right? Tended by generations of priests and we just put it out, extinguish it, just like that? And you think there is no consequence to this, no fallout, no payback? Shit, this may be a fucked-up country, but it still has its own karma, you know what I’m saying?’

Private Kenny Hatchet from Corpus Christi, Texas. nineteen, white, skinny, weaned off a weekend meth habit during basic training, face weasel thin and scar-pitted, has always been prone to exaggeration. This fire had been going for perhaps fifty years, in a Zoroastrian temple founded a few hundred years ago and the two priests tending the fire had been evacuated the week before, along with the rest of the civilian population which amounted to around seventy-five people. After what happened in Homs/Aleppo/Raqqa/Mosul and the rest, both sides, reflecting the more patchwork topology of this war and its many tactical or humanitarian ceasefires, most parties to any given facet of each specific flare-up, allowed for the provision of civilian corridors of safety, at least on paper, that is until they didn’t or there were errors. 

In old war movies Kenny is the southern white trash kid who talks slow but stands tall, sacrificing himself for the usually better fed and educated northern officer type at the beginning of the third act. Like waiting for the black ‘buddy’ to die in most genre movies, Kenny had that sense of the foretold about him, had something of the doomed idiot savant about him and in his running off at the mouth. In other variations on a theme he’s the platoon champion sniper, cradling his cherished heirloom rifle wrapped in oilskin, on account of all the racoons he got to shoot growing up, pinned down under heavy fire he would jerry up a mirror fragment attached to a wire on the end of the gun barrel, allowing him to see, if not shoot, round corners.

‘It’s written in American as well as Arab, look here. A Zoroastrian fire temple. Dar e Mehr. I heard of this shit before, was a tourist attraction I guess.’

Frank, an energetic black officer in his early thirties, holds up a broken fragment of signage. He’s tall, a big man and his voice carries, piercing the outro of combat, reading what he can of the visitor blurb.

 ‘It’s Persian not Arab you heathen.’

Frank reads, ‘Before entering the temple all visitors must take off their shoes.’ He looks around, scuffs through the ashes of the fire once again. The fire of war he had help make.

‘No shit,’ sighs Frank and throws the sign into the remaining corner of what once was a room, now a rubble triangle. In the middle of this space, in a pile of whiter, purer looking ash than the rest, lies a crumpled mass of bronze, a flat edge poking reflected dully. Amongst the dross this worked metal reveals it had once been part of a brazier. An iron spoke sticks out from this mess of bronze, and other spokes are lying in the ash.

The word ‘archaeology’ flashes through Franks mind, the first time he has any cause to think of it, with the sense that he is here making it for the future.

This according to Zoroastrian custom was the remains of a ‘Fire of Victory’, tended night and day by....

Frank stops thinking and responds to Kenny, an easier and more comfortable register than thought/reflection, and one that as an officer he is confident with.

‘You talking shit, Kenny, a pile of shit as always.’

Frank walks away, out of this somehow claustrophobic room without walls, to face the sunset.

‘Well at least we’ll be warm tonight, heat not going out of that for days.’

Kenny keeps it up, all he really knows how to do is talk. ‘The Koran says the Devil came from fire, Adam and Eve from clay. Allah said, “What prevented thee from prostrating when I commanded thee?”

He said: “I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, andhim from clay.”’

‘The Koran my ass! Ain’t no Koran in Corpus Christi soldier, just a load of sheep with real good hearing.’

‘Heard that one before, sir.’ Kenny smiles nervously, lights up, match flaring against the fast fading sunset. The rest of the squad have gathered in the ruins, drawn by the smouldering fire.

Sinclair, all freckles on milk skin under red cropped hair, a country boy, as far as the warrior stereotypes go, squats alongside a much darker Madero, Mexican, female, short and muscled like a bull, peeling valuable Kevlar body armour from a corpse. Companions of Ulysses. Two sides of an American coin being spent frivolously in the deserts of wherever.

To consecrate a ‘Fire of Victory’ you needed to blend sixteen different types of fire, including fire that comes from lightning and the fire from a funeral pyre.

Madero fingers a hole in the Kevlar. ‘Where they get this

shit? Brand new and useless.’ There’s a hole right through the middle of the breastplate, her finger wiggles out the other side in disgust. She chucks it back on the corpse.

‘Fake fucking Kevlar. Keep it.’

‘On your travels across the River Styx.’

‘Private, dispose of that corpse right now!’ bellows Frank

from outside, now distracted by messages on his iPhone.

‘What and where the fuck is the River Styx?’

Kenny drags the body out of the temple and ditches him

by the side of the road. Puts the broken Kevlar vest over his face, makes the sign of the cross and bounds back to his spot by the fire. Frank sits off to one side, an officer alone with his responsibilities.

‘I’ll have you know we got a well-stocked library in Corpus Christi, yessir.’

Frank loses his patience. ‘Kenny, just shut the fuck up, time to eat and get some sleep.’

‘Come to think of it sir, I am hungry.’

Each type of fire is consecrated separately before being mixed together, this process can take up to a year. There were nine of these super fire temples in the world, all at least 250 years old. Now make that eight. Types of fire. Think about that, like types of snow. You have to look to see it. Different physical qualities, colours, temperatures, not just fire, but an intensely observed phenomenon. Different metaphysical qualities.

Bravo company, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, dig in for the night at the Takht E Soleyman fire temple in Western Azerbaijan, in north-western Iran, not far from the besieged city of Tabriz. Spillage from the fighting in Syria, which has doubled back into Iraq and on into Iran, an endless chase, the splinters of one insurgent/terrorist/freedom fighting group becoming the nucleus of another, a war characterised by shifting allegiances, the ebb and flow of munitions, sporadic firefights, sequences of precision extraction and insertion, miraculous appearances and disappearances. An overextension of logistics provoked by rapid advances in technology. In reality, the most overdeveloped army in the world chasing its tail, chasing the fire that won’t be put out, the unquenchable fire of human agency.

Kenny was a long way from home, but as he would tell you himself, Corpus Christi was a fucking shit-hole, life in or out of the army just as FUBAR as it ever was. He still flinched when the ‘copters came to Evac them, he’d been flinching since he could remember, an outgrowth of childhood ‘shying away from’, an aftershock hangover of his meth anxiety, now just how he was wired, raw, sensitive, the antennae of his survival instinct.

He was a twitchy motherfucker.

Previously Kenny had been in wannabe Alt.Punk band The Scarecrow People. He played bass because it was simple to learn and he dug the low notes which drowned out his tinnitus. Tinnitus caused by being hit upside the head throughout childhood; the sound of silence for him was hissing feedback. They played mostly Depeche Mode covers, daring to play a few of their own songs usually early on in the set to an empty room. Corpus Christi audiences were hard as nails, ultra conservative, who still ate freedom fries in 2020, a grudge held over from another war, so mostly they just stuck to the chord changes they were addicted to.

Kenny kept a journal, something he had seen somebody do in a movie, and he thought that was pretty cool and amongst other things he wrote lyrics in it. It was in his kitbag and every day he put something in it, a drawing, a poem, some sentences. ‘A record of who he is,’ he would say to anybody who cared to ask. ‘You wanna know more about Kenny Hatchet, then read this.’

He never actually ‘said’ any of this because nobody ever asked, but it’s what he felt. Kenny inscribed himself into each day that passed so there would be a record of him in the world is also what he would never say, but still. . .

He had been a vet long before he joined up, had all of those syndromes, all of that apartness, going into the marines; the army was a perfect fit for fucked-up teenagers. From the PTSD of childhood to that of combat, the same ringing in the ears, the same wariness of respite. Made him a good soldier, he took to it like a fish to water.

Warmed by a dead fire, stripped down to T-shirts, they ate supper. A black billionaire Boys Club T, lettering in red, a Trump/Pence 2020 campaign T, raggedy and almost worn out on white. Various sports T’s, all faded colours and cartoon sports mascots. A Vegas resort T. An odd intrusion of off-world differentiated personalities, a scene that Kenny would later draw in frames for a comic strip of his tour.

Kenny rips the top off his MRE ration, peers inside like it was Christmas morning and he a child in a family that wasn’t the one he came from.

‘Meals refused by the enemy.’ Kenny licks his lips. ‘It’s mac and cheese and look some of that new Perky Jerky.’ He eats quickly and without pleasure with his fingers, chewing over the caffeinated beef.

‘They gave us Prevetin so we could fight, fuck and hell knows what all night long, then do it again and again till we drop down dead and then they just resupply the equipment with new recruits instead of the other way round. Hitler had ’em all hooked on it. Maybe that’s what they put in Perky Jerky, a kind of watered down meth. Shit, they probably got their own labs making the shit.’

‘Shut up and eat,’ comes from the gloom.

‘Funny they wean me off that shit in basic, only to deal it back to me in combat.’

The others eat, as night shadows fall on the ruins, they eat and look out through the now clearing billows of smoke. Mostly they can tune out Kenny, aided by post-combat zone out.

‘Fire worship oldest form of worship there is. Makes sense, right? First guy to make a fire, shit he woulda got a lot of pussy. Predates all organised religion, it all comes out of the fire.’

He rekindles a small fire in the ashes of the old one. Low guttering flames, as there is too much ash for this fire to take properly, poorly fed as it is with the cardboard packaging from their ready meals, a sickly fire.

Kenny talks too much and he’s happy to tell you why that is. Way he tells it he kept his uncle alive one winter when they were out hunting and got caught in a snowstorm. The weather broke and his uncle got knocked down by a falling branch. Drifting in and out of consciousness and with a broken leg, Uncle Pete was in a bad way. Kenny ‘kept me alive by talking me to death’ is how he liked to tell it ever after. The storm passed by dawn and Kenny could see they were only a hundred yards from their truck. He was eight. The talking habit took root.

Madero, eases down next to him, decompressing herself around the fire. Kenny keeps talking, offers a cigarette. Madero shakes her head and starts rolling a joint instead, Kenny barely misses a beat.

‘I hear this whole valley is cursed. Whole patrols gone missing up in the mountains. It starts with electrical interference, their phones go dead and then, nada, they gone. We seen some spooky stuff, right? What we think are men, sometimes children, out beyond the perimeter but when the patrol goes out, nothing. Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, nobody strays far from the road now, probably why we caught them here, all that space to hide in, to disappear into, shit, why else they trap themselves here?’

Kenny shrugs, pokes a stick in the fire to light their smokes. ‘Where you hear that anyway? I ain’t never seen shit like that, ones I kill, you better believe they stay dead.’

‘A farmer we interrogated in the last village, perhaps he was trying to spook us.’

‘Sell it to Hollywood.’

‘They be making films about this war for years to come.’ Night falls and the light from the meagre fire dials up incompensation, its dark audience thickening.

‘You tell me you ain’t superstitious, not just one bit? You ain’t feeling it in a place like this, the cradle of civilisation we’re blasting to hell? Man, I feel like a baddie in Raiders of the Lost Ark or some shit like that.’

Madero shakes her head, but her eyes remain agnostic. She closes them and draws deep on the joint which she passes silently to Kenny.

‘Shit don’t give him the J, don’t do it!’ somebody shouts out from the darkness.

Madero smiles, almost giggles, but says nothing. Kenny tokes deep off the joint and passes it back.

Wayne HOLLOWAY is a writer/director currently working in advertising. He shot his first movie, Snakes and Mongoose in LA in 2013. His second movie The Canal, based on Lee Rourke’s prize winning novel, shoots in London this year. He is the author of short story collection Land of Hunger (Zero, 2015). Bindlestiff is published by Influx Press.


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