John Milas spent four years in the Marine Corps before studying creative writing at the University of Illinois. He currently studies creative writing at Purdue University as an MFA candidate in fiction. His other jobs have included working as a lifeguard, composition instructor, alcohol awareness discussion facilitator, local arts journalist, film/TV production assistant, and live television newscast director. His work has appeared in O-Dark-Thirty, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere.
"Tide Roll Away," by John Milas
Tide Roll Away
Here we are wasting time, sprawled around the meeting room listening to Otis Redding in desert camouflage with our eyes closed. The lights are off and we’re going deeper and deeper. That’s what Dr. Worth says when he tells us how to breathe. In two three four. Out two three four.
“You’re going deeper and deeper.”
I hook my arms around the two front legs of a chair to fit my head and shoulders underneath while I lie on the carpet. Some of the others lie on the floor too, but Sergeant Lopez the C-130 loadmaster sits up on a chair with his eyes closed, hands folded against his stomach. He hasn’t gotten a haircut this week and I can’t tell if he’s shaved today. Nothing to live for. Wife and baby burned in their Midway Park house. They’re dead and we’re all he has left. At Friday morning regimental PT a couple months ago, the colonel tells us Sergeant Lopez lost his family. They burned. He left his home and that’s the last time he saw them. Pray for him, the colonel says. Give him some space.
“You’re going deeper and deeper,” says Dr. Worth.
Sergeant Lopez drank a fifth every morning before his junior marines caught him drunk at the shop. He doesn’t want to talk about it now, but we have to talk about it while we’re here don’t we? He doesn’t want our sympathy or our prayers. He wants to roll away. Give him some space. Don’t tell him he has something to live for, that he’s not alone tapping his boot to the music Dr. Worth brings in every day. Same song on repeat, the one Otis recorded right before the plane crash. Plays it over and over while we breathe. In two three four. Out two three four. Deeper.
The rest of us lie on the floor in our uniforms. If a staff NCO walked through and saw us he would say you’re all sleeping on duty wake the fuck up. He would see me on the floor with my head and shoulders stuffed underneath a chair. We’re safe here, but he wouldn’t understand that. I’m too tall not to lie under the chair, otherwise my legs would block everyone in the middle of the room, Corporal White for instance. And I’m supposed to close my eyes, but I don’t. The bottom of the chair’s got some staples punched into it and Sergeant Lopez’s eyes twitch, lips tremble. Dr. Worth’s Santa Clause beard bobs up and down as he murmurs in the corner. And Seever’s curled up on the floor next to me. Seever the air delivery specialist was soon to be a sergeant, but now he’s a lance corporal. And by the way, Sergeant Lopez might not be a sergeant for much longer, but we’ll see. Give him some space. Pray for him.
“You’re going deeper and deeper. Maybe you’re outside, in a park.”
Seever got pulled over for a DUI in Aberdeen after his deployment, but he ran away and the cops caught him and they called back to Lejeune and now he’s a lance corporal again. The cops in Aberdeen told Seever welcome back to the states, thank you for your service, but fuck off and go back to Lejeune. That’s your home, Seever. That’s where you live. Go home. He’s on the floor next to Sergeant Lopez, next to Kramer, across from me. She and I both heard about Sergeant Lopez before we met him at SARP. Heard about him from the colonel at regimental PT before I checked myself in with the substance abuse counseling officer. Kramer the bulk fueler checked herself in too. She’s draped like a curtain hanging over the edge of a few chairs lined up against the wall and her right hand and boot drag against the carpet. Can’t imagine it’d be comfortable with her hair done up in a regulation bun like that, but maybe it feels like a pillow under her head. That’d be nice. She says she wants to be done with it all, the drinking in the barracks and everything else. But it’s all tax free at the PX, baby. It’s not on the Marine Corps though. It’s on our dime, but it’s not on the Marine Corps even though we get what they give us. Nothing will change for Kramer when evening comes, or Seever, or me. Now breathe. In two three four. Out two three four. Dr. Worth says breathe from your diaphragm.
“You’re going deeper and deeper. Maybe you’re outside near some water. A lake perhaps.”
Kramer wants things to change for her. That’s what she tells us in group at least. Never thought I’d be talking about group like they say in all the movies. Never thought I’d wake up on a floor of glass or lie in a circle on the carpet and listen to Otis Redding. Never thought I’d roll away.
Corporal White the landing support specialist rolls away, lying on his stomach, arms outstretched flying like Superman. He rolls away down at Kryptonite in Myrtle Beach. He rolls any weekend he can. He bumps his way through Kryptonite. Bumps his way through in a bathroom stall. They don’t care as long as you tip the guy who dispenses soap into your hand. I used to drive down there. They don’t care. They want you to roll away on the floor when the DJ kicks it up a notch. When you jump and bump and roll. But the Marine Corps can smell nights at Kryptonite on a piss test. Then they’ll cut you with everyone else they’re cutting since there’s not enough room left for everyone in the war. They’re the tide rolling away. And then whistling like a kettle. Whistling.
“You’re going deeper and deeper,” Dr. Worth says. And we drift again. Ships rolling in. Staples under the chair. Sergeant Lopez clicking his boots together like Dorothy. No place like home. I left my home. I leave my home every weekend. I leave my home to go to Driftwood or La Mirage or The Cave or Toby’s with the others who don’t get caught. I leave my home and wake up in a motel down in Wilmington on a floor of beer cans and glass and blood. I leave my home and lie under a chair at SARP where the SACO staff sergeant told me I didn’t want to go because staff sergeants always know what’s best, like Staff Sergeant Smith, piece of shit. He knows you want to be administratively reduced in rank when you fall out of the platoon run the day after the Thanksgiving ninety-six. That’s what he says.
“Where are you now? Deeper and deeper.”
They won’t leave me alone, all the staff NCOs like Staff Sergeant Smith or the SACO staff sergeant in his office when I said I wanted to check myself in to SARP, but he said trust me you don’t want this for yourself. Like the Taliban wouldn’t leave us alone shooting rockets at Delaram II. But the Taliban didn’t say you don’t want this like the SACO said even though I never said I wanted it to begin with. The Taliban don’t ask you what you want, if you want them to shoot rockets at you while you’re trying to sleep off a twelve-hour shift on the runway. The Taliban don’t try to convince you of anything. When I told Staff Sergeant Smith that Robinson got a speeding ticket because that’s what you’re supposed to do when someone in your fireteam gets a speeding ticket, he asks, “What should I do, First Sergeant,” because he’s too fucking stupid to tell me to counsel my own marine before asking the first sergeant what he thinks he should tell him to tell me to tell my marine as if you need to say anything to someone who’s gotten a speeding ticket other than, “Don’t do it again.” Now breathe. In two three four. Out two three four.
“You’re going deeper and deeper.”
Nothing will come my way when I leave home. When I’m not under the chair, when I leave the concrete shelter, when the alarm stops and they say all clear and they stop saying fucking Miller what a dumbass because I wore my PPE in the shelter after the SOP changed without my knowing the SOP changed and it turned out I didn’t need to wear PPE during the IDF anymore. But what am I supposed to do after reading the nine-line reports on mIRC, after seeing the instant messages where guys get their legs blown off in Marjah and rest their bones? They say don’t wear PPE when the IDF comes. They say don’t check yourself into SARP when you bandage your knuckles and buy the motel in Wilmington a new mirror for the room you tried to sleep in.
“Where are you going now?”
Now my eyes roll away to Camp Wilson. The can. CAX. Mojave Viper. December. Coldest I’ve ever been. The lieutenant’s blocking the door. He won’t let us leave. The corporals scream at the platoon to get on line. And then we’re on line and Staff Sergeant Fleming says Miller, front and center, and I walk in front of the platoon and go to attention and the lieutenant’s standing right in front of me stone-faced blocking the Quonset hut’s door and first everyone’s screaming at us and then everyone’s silent and then Staff Sergeant Fleming says about face and I about face and there he is with his shirt off, holding an MRE coffee cake in his arms. He dances back and forth down the aisle with each row of LS marines standing at attention, everyone trying not to laugh. And he sings Happy Birthday Mr. President to me since yesterday was my twenty-first birthday and then he stops in front of me and holds the cake out and then the lieutenant scoops his hand in and shoves a fistful of cake into my face and the next thing I know I’m tripping backwards over a cot and everyone’s laughing and smashing the cake all over my face and in my ears and nose and there’s no runway or mIRC nine-line channel yet or any IDF or any liquor in my barracks room or glass on the floor in my motel room in Wilmington and I’m not on the floor at SARP lying under a chair with my eyes rolled back dreaming about being somewhere else. I’m on the cold floor with my boots up on the cot and we’re all laughing and my nose is full of coffee cake and the skin around my ears is sticky with sugar and still burning from the jagged Camp Wilson haircut like the ones we got the first night at Parris Island.
And then it’s my turn to have my head shaved, but it’s not one of the barbers at Parris Island and the Drill Instructors are not in my face screaming. I’m only eight years old in the upstairs bathroom at home and my mom’s got the clippers against my head real light while little tufts of hair collect on the tile floor. Then it’s her turn. She says be gentle and go slow after she takes most of it off with scissors in the mirror and I start buzzing her hair off and laughing and she starts laughing too even though she looks so tired from the hospital where she says she doesn’t just get to rest all day. Then Sergeant Lopez sneezes and I’m in group again and the song is almost over and Dr. Worth is about to turn the lights back on and all I can picture in my head is Sergeant Lopez alone in his flight suit and a C-130 full of caskets on a dark night runway while I try to go back to Mom. But I can only roll away to the Quonset hut at Camp Wilson on the floor with my head covered in coffee cake and we’re all laughing, but we’ll never all be in the same place at the same time ever again. Now breathe. In two three four. Out two three four. And then whistling. Whistling. Whistling.