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What Was True Then

I try to imagine a specific reader in time and space. Sometimes I imagine myself. Not the current one, but a recent one: Steven back in 2011. And I write for him. He is twenty-three. His head is shaved, skin is darkly tanned, his temperament is easily aggravated. He lives in a remote valley in the Hindu Kush mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. Steven—let’s call him Steve, actually, he’d be fine with it: Steve carries a standard black M-4 carbine, firing the standard 5.56 millimeter, packing the standard 210 rounds. He likes the idea of standards. It reminds him there are people outside this valley, carrying the same precise amount of weight as him. In other valleys just like this one, all through these mountains. The people in his unit are not the only ones who are alone.

Steve hasn’t shaved in a couple of days because the outpost has a limited supply of bottled water and they have been told not to waste it shaving. The outpost, too, has limited official oversight, so this minor transgression can happen. His every meal is an MRE chased with instant coffee. His every solid waste must be splashed with diesel fuel and set on fire, then stirred with an iron poker till it’s gone. He sleeps in a sandbag bunker dug into the ground, because the outpost doesn’t have enough walls yet to offer any protection. Instead, there are loops of concertina wire that separate the known from the unknown. The unknown: according to recent intel, the unknown includes between 100 and 500 Taliban fighters in this immediate vicinity. Which means Steve and his unit are outnumbered either 2-to-1 or 10-to-1, depending on what you choose to believe. Steve chooses not to believe these reports at all; he simply respects them.

The previous platoon here did most of the digging on the bunker where he sleeps, but Steve dug a little further so it was large enough to bring a cot inside, and when he’s off duty he lies on the cot and puts on a headlamp and he reads. He dug a shelf into the side of the bunker where he keeps the book. It’s a hardcover with a dust jacket. The dust jacket is smeared with actual dust. He likes that, too.

The inside of the bunker is dark and cool, about as big as the interior of a car. Metal beams cross overhead to hold up the double-layered sandbag roof. He has not been attacked here yet, but he expects it will happen soon, and he is right. The previous platoon that lived here was hit more days than not, but right now the fighters in the hills are feeling out these new people, waiting to see what they’ll do. But it’ll come. Until then, he takes his shifts on the guns, watching over poppy fields, villages the same color as the rocks, roads that are merely parallel tracks of dirt. Then he goes back to his bunker and reads, then sleeps, then starts over.

So there is a lot of unfair pressure on this book to be a really good book. It’s the only book he has. He used to have more room to keep books, but he’s living out of a ruck sack now, and the ruck is full, there’s only room for one at a time. He mailed the rest home, back when there was still access to mail, and now he reads this one on his cot, in his hole. The headlamp takes AAA batteries, which are rare. So the amount of time spent reading is also known as the amount of time spent using up AAA batteries. So it is extremely important what is actually inside the book. Shipped all this way to read in a dark hole in a dangerous valley where often it is better to just sleep because it may be a while before you will have another chance. What is actually inside the book: It feels silly to say, but it seems like the first time this question has ever occurred to him. What are the words in there, and what do they do, and could we get by just as well without them? Never while studying literature did it seem like stories were responsible for anything. People simply like to tell them, it’s a cultural thing and it’s fun and it goes on forever. But here the book has its own shelf dug into the rock. Dirt is smeared onto the dust jacket. The book is full of words, as if for the first time. Really, he needs this book. Not simply as a distraction, but he needs the book to tell him something he can keep. He doesn’t know what he needs exactly, only that he needs.

Turns out, the book is crafty and smart, but if there is anything to keep, the meaning is so far down he can’t get to it. So he gives up and shoves it in his ruck. He sleeps more instead.

I try to imagine him as a reader because it is discouraging to think that a book had made it so far but wasn’t enough. And I understand that plenty of books would’ve been, but still: I want to hand him something of mine now. A stack of paper. An essay. And say, try this one. To see if he’ll like it. And I know this is a dramatic example, but honestly, what was true then is still true. The words ought to matter in just that big a way, and I think dramatic examples can clarify issues that we might obscure or take for granted when we have the generous privilege of time and resources. My less-than-rigorous criteria being, if I handed some writing to Steve way back then, would he give a damn, or would he use that paper as a fire starter for the trash pit? Which is to say, I believe in nuance, but I also believe it is possible to hide in nuance, use your literary knack to ensure only the most elite, patient, indulgent readers will have any idea what you’re talking about, because it is scary to think of a truly desperate reader looking you in the eye, across time and space, asking, what can you do for me?

I try to act like it’s my job to have an adequate response, which might be arrogant as all hell, but I remember being in that bunker and thinking fuck this book. And coming back from that is not a very graceful thing; it is not very easy.

So I try to think about how the language would happen in the space of that bunker, beneath a flashlight. What length each passage might need to be to hold the attention of a reader under some psychological distress. What do you give someone who doesn’t know what they need, but yet needs. What made him shove the book so deep in his ruck, and what could make him dig it back out?

Born and raised in southeast Iowa and served seven years in the Iowa National Guard. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review online, the Georgia Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and BOAAT, among other publications.