This is an excerpt from my new book, Nights in the Pink Motel: An American Strategist’s Pursuit of Peace in Iraq. To set the stage, I have been evacuated from Baghdad with a massive deep vein thrombosis in my left leg and wake up in a medical hospital constructed with tents on the Balad Air Force base 60 miles or so north of the capital. In this excerpt, I am identified as a writer by a former pro basketball player who is a poet. We talk about our literary lives and writers we have known amidst the strange violence of war. The chapter from which this excerpt is taken is entitled, Not a Place I Want to Be.
I wake up because they’re serving food—terrible food—but I eat it because I’m famished. Then, I inject myself
with Lovenox, and a nurse swoops in to take my used hypodermic needle from me.
“I’ll dispose of that.”
I watch her trot to a biohazard bin; before she drops it in, she puts it in a baggy, and after she does that, she spritzes her hand with chemical disinfectant. This isn’t a comment on me; I am simply one more Falstaffian sack of guts, and this tent complex, from a hygienic point of view, is a disaster.
I take my book about Saint Paul, my black leather notebook, and my toiletries with me to the bathhouse. Afterward, I descend to the smokers’ hooch and sit in a chair as far away from both the smokers and the sun as I can get, though neither really bothers me. It’s early, only 7am; the sun isn’t yet fierce, and I grew up in a smoker’s household in the 1950s. The smell of cigarettes is autumnal to me. I enjoy the hoarseness in two nurses’ voices as they talk about what each likes to do on vacation—shop, party, sleep, eat, and give up smoking. “These,” the one closer to me says, staring at the cigarette in her hand. The other nods and hisses out a lungful of cloud the color of the Atlantic along the Jersey coast.
It’s nice out here in this ghastly hooch. To my right, the view is blocked by the endless giant worm of the field hospital, but to my left it’s just desert airfield, hardscrabble nothing. I can’t do anything about the war anymore. I’m heading out.
A humming inserts itself into the throb of the generators that inflate the field hospital, and a praying-mantis–like Predator rises into view. Wait till I tell Nick, I think, watching the drone majestically rise to make its surveillance rounds, streaming video of the desolate landscape back to a windowless control room somewhere like reams of electronic silk.
“I’ll tell you what,” the ugly man who massaged his face with his thumbs says to me from a picnic table across the way. “That thing’s going to see nothing that’s there and everything that ain’t.”
I regard him against my will. He has a cut across the bridge of his nose and the rotted quality of meat left out on the counter too long.
“The bad guys go out in the night with frozen mortar tubes and leave ’em loaded in ditches,” he continues. “The shells can’t fall because the tubes are contracted, but when the sun heats them up, they expand and down go the shells, boom, coming our way. Meantime, Muhammed’s amscrayed.”
I absorb this information for its story value. Nothing would surprise me in Iraq where death is concerned, but I feel death not just out in the ditches; it’s in this dude, too. I open my notebook. Soon I’m absorbed in describing all this even as I experience it. Then, I hear another voice.
“Are you a writer? Could you give me some advice?”
An enormous black man is pulling up a beach chair so he can get closer to me. Does he think I’m a writer because I’m the only person in Iraq he’s seen sitting by himself making notes? His right leg is encased in a walking cast. When he sits down, he doesn’t fit, but he makes do. His name is Jamal McGregor. The first poem he ever wrote won a ten thousand dollar prize in Frankfurt, Germany.
“I really thought I was going someplace,” he tells me. “I thought poetry was my destiny. I’d just torn my ACL in the other leg and was lying around when I wrote it. Couldn’t do anything else.”
“Were you in the Army?”
“No, way too big for the Army. I was playing basketball in the European leagues.”
“Really? What was that like?”
“It was like I was the only guy on the court who could really shoot.” Jamal grins although he clearly by nature is a somber man. “That’s what I could always do—shoot.”
He tells me he dropped out of the University of Cincinnati and heard about the European leagues so he paid his way over, tried out for the team in Berlin, made it, then was traded to Hanover. He is six feet ten so they put him under the basket for four years despite his whizzing jumpers in practice from out on the perimeter. Low post in Europe was rough with all these granite-bodied Germans, Czechs, and Poles thumping on him. “They couldn’t play worth a lick, but man, they could hit. One guy out of Dortmund I really hated, name was Simmel. The refs let him do whatever he wanted because the fans loved him. Ouch, he made me sore.” Jamal kept asking to go out to the wing, but no, the rigid German coach saw him as a center until one night in Frankfurt, he got fed up, went outside and hit seven shots in a row. The coach was furious but couldn’t take him out when he was on fire like that. The next day Hanover traded him to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt let him do what he always wanted to do.
“Man, it was easy. I was too fast for their big guys, too big for their little ones. Shoot, shoot, shoot. My best year I averaged twenty-six a game. The next year, that’s when I tore the ACL. Guy fell on me.”
“No, not Simmel. If it was Simmel, I’d have lost the whole damn leg.”
“Is that what you wrote your poem about?”
“Ah, my poem!” Jamal says, savoring the memory of his poem in the enviable way poets have. “No, I wrote my poem about my German girlfriend. I took her home with me to Virginia once, and she didn’t speak English that well, so she spent all her time drawing my family. I wrote about that—how she made me see them for the first time in my life. It was amazing.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw how people were strong and weak. My uncle, how he was older but weaker than my father, and not wiser. I always thought he was the wiser, but Rachel showed me that wasn’t the case. If you really looked, you could see in my uncle’s face that he was very weak and foolish. Drank too much. Died drinking, in fact. Truck crash.”
I close my notebook carefully, not wanting to drive Jamal away by appearing too interested. To me, playing basketball in a European league and having a German girlfriend who could draw seems like the best of all possible worlds. But this is not where he is at anymore, and before I can lure him further into the glossy hardwood and idiosyncrasies of Rachel’s pencil work, he asks, “Do you know Maya Angelou?”
The question seems either vastly naïve or preternatural. Why would I know Maya Angelou? Is there anyone in Iraq who knows Maya Angelou? Does my holding a black leather notebook in my lap qualify me to know famous authors? “I’ve met her, yes.”
His eyebrows rise. “Where did you meet her?” he asks quickly.
“Well, I met her in Frankfurt.”
“Because of your poem?”
“Yes, they invited me to a luncheon in the town hall during the book fair, and I was asked to read it. She said it was wonderful and told me to contact her if I ever needed any help with my career.” I know where this is heading. What poet doesn’t need help with his career? Jamal tells me a Frankfurt publisher has printed three books of his poetry but no one in the United States is interested. Can I contact Maya Angelou for him, or tell him where to write?
“I’d try her publisher, I guess, or her agent.”
No good. Jamal has tried that. “When you met her in Berlin, what did you talk about?”
I tell him that she came to the Amerika Haus, which was part of my operation, and gave a reading and answered questions. I recall an anecdote she told about touring Yugoslavia with a theater troop and going out into the Serbian countryside for a picnic. The locals had never seen a black woman. An old man came up to her and touched her face to see if the blackness would come off. “‘It wouldn’t,’ she said. People loved that.”
“Have you met any other African American writers?”
“Let me think: Toni Morrison, John Wideman, and Ernest Gaines.”
“Man, how did you meet all these folks?”
I tell him I was a diplomat who sponsored a lot of events for American writers and invited them to my house to meet local authors, scholars, and critics. But this didn’t mean I registered with them as a writer myself.
“Jamal, you’ve made more money with that one prize than I’ve ever made in my life. My first novel just went out of print after five months. I have never once heard from anyone who read one of my short stories in a literary magazine.”
Jamal is nonplussed. He doesn’t know what to make of my confession. “What’s Toni Morrison like?” he asks eagerly. “What did you talk about with her?”
“We talked about her house up on the Hudson and how she learned that beneath the surface river, there is another, deeper river, right below.”
“And we talked about how Ralph Ellison was afraid to publish another novel after Invisible Man. She said he couldn’t face falling short of what he’d done the first time out.”
Jamal grimaces as I say this. “I know the feeling. No poem I ever wrote was as good as that first one.” He prevents me from consoling him by raising his large hand, the carnelian palm facing me in the universal stop symbol. “It’s okay. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I probably would have been better off if I never won that prize. I mean, I thought I was made!”
We laugh the way hurt men laugh. It’s not easy.
“What are you doing here in Iraq?”
“I’m a shipping and receiving clerk,” he says unhappily. “I fell off a container. Now I’ve got the other ACL snapped. We’re called Red Ball Worldwide, out of Frankfurt.”
“This pays the bills?” I prod, not letting him completely disappear as a poet.
“This pays the bills,” he agrees, “till Maya Angelou bails me out of it, I guess.”
“Still with Rachel?”
Jamal purses his large lips. There must be a child involved, I think, regretting the quick way I rifle through people’s lives.
“You hear about black and white working better in Europe, but don’t believe it.”
“So was I. Wrote a few poems about that, too.”
It’s getting hot, and I feel my concentration crumbling. “I think I need to go lie down a while,” I say.
“Can you get in all right?”
He asks this because I don’t move. I am heavy with a kind of horror. This is only a nightmare, isn’t it? I tell myself it is. I tell myself I am not forcing myself to limp into the tent. I’m not weak, not dizzy, not the person who didn’t properly say goodbye. I barely make it to my bed.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund