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An Excerpt from a Novel in Progress
October 15, 2007

I was asked to read for the fabled Lit Crawl, the all-hands-on-deck final night of readings during Litquake, the legendary yearly weeklong literary bash in San Francisco. I was chosen for a program titled In The Conflict Zone: Writings on War, Struggle, and Strife, and read with Aneesha Capur, Yanina Gotsulsky, Sarah Stone, and three actors from Intersection for the Arts performing a dramatization of an essay by Denis Johnson (one of my idols). We were each given a mere five minutes for our selection, and I excerpted a chapter from my novel in progress, tentatively titled No Direction Home. Here it is:

Godo sat propped on pillows in the mangled bed, his altar to insomnia, while the muted TV flickered across the room and dawnlight hazed the curtains. He licked his lips, which were pocked with scar tissue, but resisted the urge for another beer. He'd downed two six packs since turning in at midnight, plus Percocet for the pain, a Lexapro chaser for the depression, erythromycin for the nagging infection in his leg—so it went, every night, flirting with sleep, chasing off the sickness, the despair, the ghosts.

Gently, he fingered the pitted scars on his face, little ugly cousins to the ones on his arms, his hands, his legs, dozens of them, jagged red clots of seared flesh, caused by shrapnel so hot it had cauterized its own scalding wounds. Still, he thought, things could be worse—his new mantra.

He'd met another marine in the ward at Landstuhl who'd been trapped in a burning truck after an IED attack. All the flesh of his face had melted in the heat. The doctors tried to put something back, but there's only so much magic in the bag. The guy came away hairless, beardless, his face a kind of mask—no chin, no ears, no nose—his remolded skin this mottled smeary waxy pink. Sent home to his hillbilly bride-to-be like that.

A knock sounded timidly at the door. "Godo?"

Roque peered in. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks flushed. He'd run home from somewhere. The big mystery—where?

"You awake?"

"No." Silence. Then: "Take a wild guess."

Roque slipped in, his profile dappled with color as he snuck a glance at the TV. It stung, knowing the sly little twerp wouldn't share the room anymore—couldn't really, because of the nightmares. Neither of them could be quite sure what might happen when Godo shot up in bed in a screaming sweat. But Roque wasn't camped out on the front-room couch either. He was sneaking off at night. Roque, the sad slim Elvis-eyed chivato, getting some action. It was one more thing to hate him for—they were brothers, after all.

Roque turned away from the TV. "It's time to check your leg. The dressing, I mean."

"It's fine."

"Says who? You always say that."

Godo clasped his hands behind his head. "Hey, here's a thought." He belched."When's the last time you looked?"

"Oh, please. Go away, little girl. Better yet? Blow me."

Somewhere outside a car door slammed. A dog started to bark—and like that the thing materialized in the corner of his eye: starving, razor thin, slinking in the rubble, waiting for a corpse to feed on. And then a crippling light as the RPG hit, deafening chaos, tracers vanishing into shadow, ghosts firing back—and the staggering upchuck stench of blood and shit everywhere, men he knew. Himself.

Roque pointed to the leg. "You want to go back to the ER?"

Godo snapped to. "What?"

"You want to go back to Kaiser, have them drain off another six ounces of pus?"

Godo cocked a smile. "I want six ounces of pus, I'll drain your dick. Where you sleeping these nights?"

Instantly, Roque blushed like a virgin groom.

Godo wagged a knowing finger. "Roquito's got himself a mamasota."

"Shut up."

"Got himself a scraggle, a gack. A little bicha."

Outside, another car door slammed. The dog's barking grew more crazed. Godo felt a prickling of sweat on his forehead—hard to explain to people, this thing he had with dogs now.

"Godo, please, I need—"

"Que vergon, chingado."

"I need to check the dressing on your leg."

"Come on, humor me—who's the lucky squirrel?"

For the merest second, a defiant, almost wicked gleam darkened Roque's eyes. Here it comes, Godo thought, a confession. A name. Oh how juicy this will be. But then Roque's expression regained its put-upon blankness, freighted with a sigh.

"I'm not playing, Godo, why do you always—"

"Hey, hembrito, I'm not playing neither. Gotta make sure you're taking the proper precautions. Like, you know, how many bags you put over her head before you fuck her?"

Roque flinched, like he'd been slapped, and Godo almost dared him: Come on. Say it. Have some balls and say it. But by degrees the hate drained from Roque's face, replaced by such a look of sad superiority Godo wanted to choke him. Go ahead and mock, the eyes said. Then look at yourself, check out your face. From now until the day you die, the best you can hope for is a pity fuck—even if you pay for it.

Suddenly, from the front of the trailer, the muffled crash of shattered glass—Tia Lucha screamed.

Roque froze.

Godo scrambled to the edge of the bed, reached underneath, pulled out the Remington pump-loader he kept there—weapon of choice for close quarters—and chambered a round of nine-pellet buckshot. He rose to his feet, swaying.

Outside, the dog fell silent.

Roque reached out his hand, whispered, "Godo, wait, let me check—"

Godo cracked back hard with his elbow, slamming Roque's jaw. To his credit, the kid didn't cry out, just a breathy grunt as he spun down and away with the blow. We'll save our sorries for later, Godo thought. The impact clarified everything—inside, the mental fog lifted, his thoughts turned solid and simple and whole. Outside, the visible shimmered. His skin pricked with sweat, his breathing slowed and steadied. Crouching to lower his center of gravity, gunstock nudged tight to his shoulder, he flattened himself against the wall and inched out into the hallway.

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