Featured Prose | July 18, 2019
Jonny Diamond: “Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!”
Jonny Diamond is the editor in chief of Literary Hub and founding editor of The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine. He lives in the Hudson Valley. “Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!” appeared in TMR 41:1.
Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!
by Jonny Diamond
We were somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, between Puerto Vallarta and Puerto Quetzal, and Tyler wanted to go ice skating. It was a little before midnight.
I don’t know. It’s hard to to keep track of the hours at sea when you’ve been drinking.
I told Tyler it was a bad idea, but I didn’t try to stop him. It’s easy to sneak around on a cruise ship. No one cares what you do, and at least half the people onboard are shitfaced at any given moment. And anyway, watching Tyler try to skate drunk seemed like a fun thing to do.
We tipped Carl, our favorite bartender at the Royal Flying Viking Lounge, and stumbled out into the warm tropical night. Darkness. The white noise of the ship’s engines. The teens-only disco on the deck below long since shut down for the night.
“The rink is down on deck two, right, next to the Broadway Dreams Theater?” “Yeah … I think?” We passed Shogun’s Sushi and the Windjammer Cafe and were briefly tempted by the kids’ Candyland Carousel, but Tyler pulled a tallboy of Heineken from deep within his cargo shorts and we soldiered on. “Soldiered on.” Ha.
We took the elevator down past decks thirteen through six, the creepy residential decks that look like the hotel from The Shining, and got off at deck five. We wanted to see if the Pig and Whistle—which is an authentic British pub—was still open. It wasn’t, which was a pretty authentic touch, so we broke into the ice-cream parlor, Sundae’s Best. Tyler came out with a giant cardboard cylinder of ice cream, Caribbean Chocolate Hurricane, some of it already on his shirt. My heroic husband.
We started gulping down ice cream but got spooked by faraway sounds of laughter. Down the stairs to deck four. The casino deck. The casino deck is always open. Tyler doesn’t like the casino because of the lights, because of the noise. I don’t really like it either because of the sad fat fucks who sit there all day and all night, ignoring the ocean and nature. At least we can take in views of the jungle coast from our barstools in the Royal Flying Viking. We can sit there and imagine a lone jaguar making a long journey through the thick, dark jungle, coming to the edge of the forest, dizzied by the endless, sparkling brightness of the ocean and the sky, looking out across the water and seeing us, this giant object, moving across his field of vision. Hi, jaguar! And when they open all the windows in the Flying Viking, the sea air rushes through and it’s beautiful. The fucking casino deck might as well be on the outskirts of Reno.
The ice cream was almost all melted into soup, so we left it at the casino entrance.
Anyway. At least there’s a bar on the casino deck.
We had a couple shots at the Haunted Schooner—Jack or Jim or Jose, I can’t remember—and headed down to deck three. Did you know that a “schooner” is both a kind of boat and a kind of beer glass? I didn’t know that.
You can see the ice rink from a balcony on deck three. We sat down, our legs dangling through the railings like little kids watching a grown-up party from the top of the stairs. The rink was quiet. Perfect. Like coming upon a bright frozen lake after walking through the dark woods. Tyler was covered in chocolate ice cream and appeared to be somewhere in the middle of a slow-motion sugar crash, though maybe the buckets of alcohol had something to do with it, too. Oh, Tyler. Sweet Tyler.
Then, a loud bang, maybe the slam of a security door, echoed across the ice. That’s when Tyler lost it.
We were making a run from Tikrit to the hospital in Samarra. Not quite a convoy, one Humvee out front, us in the middle, two behind. This was a few weeks before I met Bonnie, the Bloody Summer, 2006. We had four casualties in back, and one of them was real loud; we called them “singers.”
So this singer is wailing and I’m driving, hungover, and I can smell Jim Beam on my sweat, and I start to notice more and more people on the side of the road. I ask Fitch if he can tell what’s going on, and he can’t. I mean, it doesn’t really matter, you’re ordered to just drive fast, do not stop or slow down for anything. But guys are human, right? And sometimes there are children, so you slow down, you swerve.
So there are more and more people walking in the same direction as we’re driving, on both sides of the road. Fitch asks me if maybe it’s Hadji Christmas or some shit, and I laugh and make a joke about all these people lining up to see Hadji Santa. Fitch laughs. I look over at him, laughing, for a half second. The Humvee in front of us swerves hard to the left, and I turn just in time to see a little boy, maybe six, maybe ten—it’s hard to tell with these skinny Hadji kids and their big fucking eyes.
His head is level with the bumper. We’re going seventy-five miles an hour. There’s no time to stop or swerve or anything. He looks me right in the eyes, and then he’s gone. The singer’s wailing the whole time, and there’s barely even a thud when the kid’s head, just, you know, disappears into a thousand pieces against the giant bumper. That’s it. We keep driving, in silence.
The thing that is strange is that I didn’t feel that bad about it at the time. I’d seen dozens of dead kids, seen them killed, tried to save them, ignored them, wiped their blood off my hands, given them candy, literally scared the piss out of them. I even found a single tiny hand once that must have been separated from its kid for no more than a few hours. I thought about making it into a necklace or something fucked like that, and then I picked it up and looked around trying to see if there was any way it could be reattached to whoever’d lost it. But then I gave up. I gave it a little high five, dropped it, and kicked some dirt over it.
But this was the first time that I’d killed an Iraqi child.
Fuck. Just saying it that way, “Iraqi child,” I start to sound like some weepy civilian who doesn’t get it. But I know that’s fucked, because nobody can really get it. I don’t get it.
Nobody knows what to say. In a place where silence predominates, it is easy to pick out the awkward ones from the peaceful. Tyler looks at Bonnie, but she’s looking down. He looks over the shoulder of Satiyama, who’s been leading the session, out through the open side of the pagoda to the foothills beyond. And then Bonnie speaks.
The cruise wasn’t our idea. We were going to drive, road trip it: neither of us had ever been to New Orleans, so, you know … San Diego to Clearwater, to visit Tyler’s parents in Florida. It was Tyler’s dad’s idea, and when he offered to pay for it, we couldn’t think of a reason not to. Maybe it would settle us down, give us room to breathe. Ha.
We were docked at Puntarenas, in Costa Rica, for a full day ashore. We were still drunk when the ship’s klaxon woke us at seven am. Tyler wanted to go back to sleep, but I opened two Heinekens, put a cold one on the small of his back. I really wanted to get off the boat. He screamed, laughed, told me to fuck off, and got up.
The cruise had some jungle zip-line adventure shit organized, but we wanted to do our own thing, seek adventure elsewhere, in a bar, maybe. Puntarenas gets really excited when a cruise ship pulls up. People gather around the pier to sell stuff—shirts, bananas, marionettes, ice cream. I ignored them, but Tyler feels like he has to say “No, thank you” to everyone because he’s from Minnesota.
“I really want a Bloody Mary.” I told him it was unlikely we’d find a Bloody Mary in a small Costa Rican harbor town at seven in the morning, but Tyler can be stubborn.
Puntarenas isn’t the kind of shithole you think about when you imagine a small Central American ocean town. It’s more like a nice little spot in the Florida panhandle or something. We went into three restaurants, which were mostly empty, and talked to confused waiters in terrible English/Spanish. Tyler kept saying, “Me gusta Bloody Mary, me gusta Bloody Mary” to anyone who would listen. And they listened, and they offered margaritas and micheladas, but by now Tyler was obsessed with finding someone to make us real Bloody Marys.
We walked for an hour, fortified by a six-pack of Modelo. The further we got from the cruise ship, the poorer things looked, at least to two white assholes in search of a cocktail. Stray dogs floated along the road like trash in a gutter, shying from people, searching for food. Children clustered up and down the street, most of them wearing oversized American T-shirts that came down to their knees, Aeropostale, the San Francisco 49ers, fucking Gap. It reminded me of Tikrit. I told Tyler I was getting tired. “One more try, babe, I think there’s a hotel up here; let’s see if it has a bar.”
The Hotel Rei Del Mar had a bar. It was almost all bar, with a half-dozen rooms upstairs. Tyler waded through the cool dark and flashed a big warm smile at the bartender, who said, to our relief and surprise, “What can I get you, mate?” I love Australians, I really do. His name was Garnett, and he made two of the biggest, best Bloody Marys either of us had ever had.
I don’t know if any of you have ever been big drinkers—like, daily, all-day drinkers—but there’s a sweet spot you hit, after you’ve chased away the hangover, when you start to feel balanced: all the happys are rich and bright and all the sads are deep and important. Your laughter is perfect and warm, and nobody quite understands the heartbreaking, tragic beauty of the world like you do. You become a virtuoso at feeling things. This sweet spot, which lasts for maybe two or three drinks, is what you end up chasing for the rest of the day, long after it is gone.
Garnett the Australian’s Bloody Marys pushed me and Tyler into the sweet spot. We talked about names for the three kids we were going to have and about landscaping details around the house we were going to buy and where Tyler’s workshop would go. We talked about traveling, about taking a cruise ship to Australia. We talked about everything we didn’t need to talk about and none of the things we did.
“Should we get another round of Bloody Marys?” This would be our fourth. I resisted. “No, why don’t we see if we can get out of town for a couple hours, see some mountains or some jungles.” “Or some junglemountains?” “Or some mountainjungles!”
Garnett sent us to a little tour company a couple blocks away, run by a friend of his girlfriend’s father. The old man seemed relieved to have the business and was very nice to us. He even “loaded” the fresh six-pack Tyler was carrying as if it were a fine piece of luggage. It was just us on the tour, an hour up the mountains, an hour there, then back again. Plenty of time to make it to the ship.
Our tour guide, whose name was Marlon, wore a large headset that was connected to the van’s audio system—he started to read from some note cards pinned to a board on the dash. Some kind English speaker, maybe Garnett, had written out phonetic notes on local sites, and despite the clear safety risk, Marlon was carefully sounding them out in a flat monotone that filled the back of the van.
“Here on the right is the beautiful beachfront walkway that we Puntarenans love to walk on in the evening after dinner or maybe early in the morning also. And now we are getting on the main causeway that connects the beautiful city of Puntarenas to the mainland of Costa Rica, where we will start our beautiful ascent into the mountains and the jungles of the land.”
We began our beautiful ascent into the mountains and the jungles of the land. Marlon ran out of cards, so we opened him a beer. The road narrowed as it snaked up the side of a hot green mountain. I looked out over the valley and wished that the credits would roll, that this brief moment of happiness, this feeling of balance, could be held, somehow, forever; that we could rewind whenever we wanted and watch the tiny old van chugging up the tropical mountain, see the broken couple journeying deeper into nowhere in search of something lost and for a moment feeling it was found again. I see that couple now, and I hate them.
Bonnie stops. Tyler looks straight ahead, holds his pose perfectly, deep in meditation. People around the room start to shift. Bonnie continues:
Marlon said something to us over his shoulder, but I guess his mic was off, so he turned around to talk. Except we couldn’t understand him, so he started gesturing at the valley, making a thumbs-up. We returned his thumbs-up with our thumbs-up and told him to watch where he was going. He turned around just in time to see a dozen sheep scrabbling down a jungle path and into the road. Bang. Marlon hit a sheep and veered into a ditch.
It wasn’t really a bad accident, I guess, but it was enough to set me off, enough to interrupt the shallow, alcoholic illusion of happiness. Fucking sheep.
More silence. Then Tyler starts to talk:
I remember my first run with Bonnie, after the mortar attacks on the outskirts of Samarra. She’d been transferred from Fallujah a couple days before, and we’d already made Bonnie Tyler jokes, singing lines from “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Most of the time over there you call people by their last names, but we were “Bonnie” and “Tyler” to each other from the start.
We were loading a full wagon of casualties, and there was a lot of noise and screaming and Bonnie was bloody, and she caught my eye in the mirror with an almost smile, like she knew she shouldn’t be smiling with some guy’s guts on her gloves. And that was it, for me at least. I never saw Bonnie lose her shit, or crack, or anything. She was so calm.
I guess I hadn’t been paying attention to where her head was at after we got home. I don’t know. I had my own shit. We hadn’t been back very long before the cruise, and we kept telling ourselves we were enjoying a little downtime before starting our civilian lives. But our downtime seemed to just mean drinking right after breakfast. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when you think it’s okay to be clinking beers, ten am at the kitchen table. It’s easy to keep celebrating that you made it out alive.
So anyway, we’re on the side of this mountain in Costa Rica and there’s a dead sheep in the road and the van’s hit a tree or maybe like an old gatepost, and Bonnie starts screaming. Marlon is freaking out because he thinks she’s impaled herself on an armrest or something, and he’s yelling, “please do not die, please do not die.” I tell him to shut up, and I check for blood, for anything, and there’s nothing, but I can see she’s really far away. I tell Marlon she’s not going to die, and Bonnie looks over my shoulder and yells, “Down!” so I duck, like an asshole. I grab a ratty old blanket from the backseat and throw it over her shoulders, put my arms around her, and say, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
She stopped screaming eventually and started crying and then saying she was sorry. After half an hour convincing Marlon we weren’t going to say anything to anybody about the accident, his cousin showed up and drove us back to town, Bonnie staring out the window the whole way. We forgot the last two beers in the banged-up van. I was sad how sad that made me.
I’d love to say the accident sobered me up, that it pushed me to take care of myself so I could take care of Bonnie. But for us, at that moment, taking care of each other meant pouring another drink. We made it back to the ship just in time. Just in time to hit the bar.
I didn’t want to talk about the day. The accident. Losing it. Carl the Wonderful Bartender could see how badly we needed to desoberize, so he poured three shots of tequila and joined us.
It wasn’t that late, and we could hear thumping bass lines rising up from the Optix Teen Disco—I think at one point I heard a techno remix of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Tyler was trying to be extra sweet to me, attentive, but he wasn’t very good at it. I think he kept going to the railing to watch hot teen girls, the ones who go straight from poolside to disco, who just throw a miniskirt over their bikini and call it evening wear.
Up to that point on the cruise we’d moved from bar to bar, deck to deck, as much as possible, so no single bartender would be able to figure out how much we were drinking. But Carl the Wonderful Bartender never judged: maybe because we were vets or maybe because he liked us, I don’t know. Tyler and I found a drinking rhythm, draining adrenaline-flushed systems, refilling with alcohol: shots of tequila, chasers of beer.
But I wasn’t able to get drunk, or at least it didn’t feel like it. People think alcoholics can hold their liquor, but that’s not exactly true: I always felt perfectly drunk after two drinks, the addict’s brain rewarding the addict. But sitting there at the Flying Viking Lounge, beer in one hand, highball in the other, I felt trapped in sobriety. Not so my heroic husband, Tyler.
He was drunk. Drunk drunk. We never used that word. We used words like tipsy, buzzed, boozed. But not drunk. It was amateur and ugly. We weren’t drunks, we were drinkers. We were out on the lounge deck, and a techno “Macarena” floated up. It sounded like the DJ was trying to get the teens to do the actual Macarena. But the actual Macarena was a hit when they were all babies. This seemed like a tragic error to me, DJ suicide. But it turns out the “Macarena” remix is a guaranteed hit among shitfaced thirty-something veterans of the Iraq War from Hibbing, Minnesota.
Before I could stop him, Tyler was bouncing down the stairs, a little Macarena in each wobbly step, making for the Optix Teen Disco. Even Carl came out from behind the bar, onto the lounge deck. We stood at the railing and watched it all happening. “Oh, shit,” Carl said in typical understatement. Carl was wearing a sarong.
The closer he got to the Optix Teen Disco, the faster Tyler moved. A group of girlteens, barely covered in tiny scraps of neon yellow and white, scattered in his wake, clucking and screeching as he yelled “macarena” at them over his shoulder.
Tyler entered the Optix Teen Disco. Carl and I froze. A few seconds passed, and then teens of all genders, shapes, and sizes began to exit the disco, some with tears streaming down their sunburned cheeks. For a moment it reminded me of civilians fleeing a firefight, and the thought made me queasy. The music stopped. Still no Tyler, just the sound of horrified teen chatter, operatic pubescent outrage amid the glow of dozens of bluish cell-phone screens live-updating the current drama: “Omg this old dude ran onto the dance floor and puked in like every direction for a minute and then fell down in his own puke. So gross.”
Yeah, pretty gross.
So. Yup. I puked on a twelve-year-old girl. A lot. Like, a lot of puke. She was terrified and screaming, and it reminded me of little Hadji kids, and I got really angry. So I yelled something stupid like “You have no fucking right to be scared right now!” I was mad at that girl for getting in the way of my puke and making such a big deal out of it. So when security guards came and found me bouncing around doing the Macarena, covered in my own vomit, I was ready for a fight.
They weren’t normal-looking mall security types; they were superfit and blond, and they were the same except for one guy had a mustache. You wanna dance? I bounced and ran around the dance floor. They tried to stay cool and maintain dignity, didn’t run at me or tackle me—they just kept walking toward me, cutting off angles and trying to calm me down.
I was lucky Carl showed up to talk to the guards. I remember insisting we all shake hands, as if we’d just played a really great game of pond hockey.
“They could have thrown you in the brig, Tyler.”
“Like, cruise-ship jail?”
“Yup, there was a child involved.”
“I bet it’s really nice in cruise-ship jail.”
“You should go find your wife, Tyler.”
Some people can’t see their low points until they’re looking back from recovery. But sitting in the Optix Teen Disco, listening to an extended remix of the best of Abba, I turned to Carl and said, “I think I’ve hit bottom.” But Carl wasn’t there. Neither was Bonnie. Bonnie wasn’t there. I’d finally done something to chase Bonnie away.
They call us deadwood: soldiers who can’t handle it anymore. At least dead wood floats, right?
I went to clean up the puke, but the terrified cleaning lady wouldn’t let me near the mess. I looked over at the DJ booth. Dude was still spinning, to an empty dance floor. He gave me the old double six-shooter and motioned for me to wait as he faded to another track, “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” with a heavy, nasty electro beat. I smiled, gave him the double six-shooter right back, and went to look for Bonnie.
She wasn’t at Johnny Rockets, the fake all-night diner, but when I stuck my head in, a group of horrified teens let out a rondo of “oh my gods,” and one of them gave me the finger. I paused at Adventure Beach, which seemed small and sad with nobody there. No Bonnie. I walked by the arcade to the main stairs, thought about ducking in for a quick game of Frogger, but resisted—I had an idea where she might be. The Voyager Dunes.
You might think the Voyager Dunes are a big, fake set of endless rolling sand dunes, put especially on the cruise ship so you can lose yourself and have outdoor sex or a picnic. But it’s a minigolf course, just a minigolf course. Bonnie was the base-wide ladies’ minigolf champion at her first posting, near Tikrit. After a bloody day on the job, she would always head straight to the putt-putt for some golf therapy.
So there she was, at hole 7 (a nasty par 3 with an ancient Mayan vibe), sitting down with her back against the Ziggurat of Ixtmal, drinking from a tallboy of Heineken.
“Do you want to play a round?”
“I’m sorry, Bonnie.”
“That was pretty fucking sad, Tyler.”
“Bonnie Tyler!” Silence.
“A total eclipse of sobriety!”
“Tyler, are we broken? Like. Individually and as a couple?”
“I don’t know. I think, umm, we just need to start our lives, you know? Settle into jobs? And stuff?”
“Yeah, sure. But this isn’t good, is it?”
Bonnie handed me a Heineken tallboy. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was. We made our way through a twelve-pack, sometimes talking, sometimes not. It was a clear night, soft ocean breezes and all that, right out of the brochure. Or, I guess, homepage. Right from the homepage. I wanted to tell her about my nightmares, about all the blood everywhere all the time. But it was nicer to talk about the future, to tell ourselves those great stories of who we would be once we got our shit together. So we kept drinking. And then Bonnie put her head in my lap, her beautiful sweet head, hair soft, scent of meadow and peach tree. I leaned back, breathed deeply of the ocean air.
The next thing we knew, a little girl was screaming to her mother: “Mommy, there are people sleeping in the putt-putt!”
Maybe we needed to hit a low point together. We jumped up from hole 7 saying sorry sorry sorry to the horrified parents. “Who the fuck plays minigolf at dawn?” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you people ever relax?” But I didn’t yell those things. I put my head down and let Tyler lead me and my hangover out of the Dunes.
We ran past the FitzCarraldo Riverboat Gambling and Fish Fry food truck, took the stairs down past Steinhof’s Brauhaus, stumbled by Amy’s Apothecary, the Reading Rainbow Children’s Library, and all the other places where we’d bought drinks, snuck drinks into, sat down by and had drinks. … And then Tyler stopped, so abruptly I almost fell.
“Let’s go in here,” he said.
I don’t know what made me stop. I didn’t want to go back to the cabin, and I didn’t want to drink. I wanted to die right there. Or live. One or the other. And then I saw these people in gym clothes—doing yoga, I guess—and they looked all right.
Early that afternoon, when we both sorta started wanting a cold beer, just to wake up, I said instead, “Do you … do you want to go just see one of those classes? Like, maybe try it?”
Fucking yoga. We went in our bathing suits, me with a T-shirt, Bonnie wearing my shorts bunched up and tied with a shoelace. We used to make fun of yoga.
But after that, instead of getting drunk, we’d go to a class. I still can’t fucking believe it. Sorry. Yoga.
The room is silent. Bonnie closes her eyes. A gentle Texan breeze fills the pagoda as Satiyama begins to chant, inviting the others in the session to follow along. Bonnie and Tyler are at this retreat because Tyler’s father thought it would be good for them.
They still don’t really have jobs. Bonnie’s picking up some gardening work—she tells people she’s “landscaping”—and Tyler is part-time at Home Depot. Tyler is more into yoga than Bonnie is. He does it every day. There’ve been a couple times since the cruise that Bonnie’s gone pretty far off the wagon.
The session ends and Bonnie gets up. Tyler stays in his meditation pose, eyes closed. Bonnie tells herself it’s better he’s addicted to yoga than Jack Daniels, but seriously, he thinks he’s some kind of yoga master now. She thinks about getting a plate laid out for Tyler but doesn’t. He can get his own lunch.
Her tray is heavy. She can’t seem to get full on these earnest vegetarian meals. A friendly group of women gestures to Bonnie to sit, but she just smiles and shakes her head, keeps walking to the door. All they ever talk about is how handsome the instructors are and how much better yoga is than Pilates. She takes her lunch outside.
This part of Texas is all rolling hills and grassland. Bonnie goes out to the edge of the property, as far she can go, and sits down against a tree facing the neighboring farm. Bonnie’s eaten lunch out here by herself the past few days, watching the farmers make hay. There’s one young farmer, occasionally shirtless, who drives his old John Deere close to the fence. He’s not exactly handsome but he gives Bonnie a big friendly wave each day, and his smile holds together nicely under the brim of his Texas Rangers cap. He’s coming closer now, and Bonnie, if such a thing is possible while eating black beans and rice under a sycamore tree, tries to arrange herself into a casually sexy position.
But the tractor stops, and the young farmer gets down, starts banging on the engine. Bonnie waits. She will leave the next morning, two days early. Tyler will stay for three years, doing yoga and attempting to write a memoir—he won’t ever get past the terrible title he loves so much, “Blood Grooves,” named for the little runnels in a bayonet’s blade. Bonnie will go home, her real home, back to see her mother in Saginaw. She will drink. She will do yoga now and again, but nothing regular. She will work for a landscaping company, then as a waitress. She will have nightmares about blood and dead children. She will be okay, but barely. She will barely survive the war.
The tractor won’t go. Bonnie waves at the young farmer’s back as he begins the long walk to the barn.
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Jonny Diamond: “Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!”
Jonny Diamond is the editor in chief of Literary Hub and founding editor of The L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine. He lives in the Hudson Valley. “Deadwood Soldiers Take a Cruise!” appeared in TMR