Excerpt: 'They Dragged Them Through the Streets' by Hilary Plum
Photograph by Andrew Braithwaite
From 1: “A bullet in an envelope on the doorstep”:
The heat was dangerous. I must have said this too many times because Ford gave me a look. We’d heard there were a quarter of a million people coming. This is what Viv had said when we left her in a square near the business district, a paved park with a statue of a minister, his stone paunch lichening. From there we walked four blocks east to get to the march. Viv wouldn’t come, she was still recovering.
I had said to her that morning: The heat will be dangerous. And who knows what the crowd will be like.
You know I’m already not coming, she’d said.
The four of us said goodbye to Viv and headed across the park. Around us a street theater troupe was gathering, in red, white, and blue spandex and sequins. A man fanned himself with a sequined cardboard top hat. They began a skit, shouting the names of defense contractors, lists of statistics I couldn’t make sense of. It was so hot it was hard to hear.
I wish we were one of those groups that rolled signs from the tops of buildings, I said, looking up at the cool dark windows.
Hot air rises, Ford said.
As we turned the corner I looked back to see Viv talking to one of the theater troupe, a teenager in a red cape on rollerblades. He looked shy before her, who wouldn’t be?
The sidewalks then the street thickened with people. Police stood in rows next to the parking meters, sweating.
Fake coffins wrapped in flags were bobbing down the street. There’ll be a thousand of them, the guy on the end of one said when Ford asked him. There were eight or ten visible on this street, wobbling a little, the butt of one almost hitting a cop car. We’re meeting a few blocks down, the guy said, From above, it’ll be unbelievable. He pointed up as though to show us. There were no news helicopters yet.
A was looking up at the sun flashing off the high windows.
The guy shrugged the coffin back up his shoulders and the flag slipped; Ford grabbed a fistful as it slid and pinned it back into the cheap plywood.
You don’t let that touch the ground, Ford said. The guy nodded.
We walked toward the march. It was hard even to get in, people were already pushed to the barrier, too close to each other.
Excuse us, sorry, A said, angling through the crowd. She liked to be in the thick of it.
Z’s hand was on the inside of my elbow, surprising me.
Nice little show of nationalism back there, Z said to Ford.
Ford turned to reply but the people next to us started singing. Old protest songs—two generations’ wars come together, I thought, feeling the sweat of a man’s arm, middle-aged and furry, against mine. I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, he sang. He had a good voice, a church baritone. The front of his T-shirt was already damp.
A group of kids dressed all in black pressed by us, holding up signs, No meat No murder No war No abortion! Z smiled. One kid paused so close I could have slid a pinky through the plug in his ear. Lifted and shook him.
The march didn’t move forward. We were a mile from the destination, but we weren’t going anywhere. Viv had said: The permit was only for 10,000, but they say it’s a quarter of a million already.
Good, A said.
It’s going to be fucking uncomfortable, Viv had said, looking at us doubtfully.
The heat is dangerous, I said again.
And it was. Around us people jostled each other to take out their water bottles.
A woman pushed past us, leading a child by the hand, so small she could have been lost among hips, calves, feet. Is there a bathroom, do you know? she asked A, who said something and pointed.
There were no bathrooms, though, no water.
A coffin pushed through, sharp-cornered.
Ahead of us there was a float, blood-colored, and people were singing.
We stopped, we took small steps forward, stopped again. Someone hit Z in the face with a sign; a thin paper cut opened along his cheek.
You’re lucky that missed your eye, I said, and took tissues and hand sanitizer out of my bag.
He flinched as I cleaned it. Thank you, he said. His cheeks were so smooth.
When we looked around again, we had lost Ford and A. It was that group of punk kids, I thought; their stupid black in the heat, their dangerous chains. I raised a hand to cover my eyes, tried to spot Ford and A in the crowd.
Are you all right? Z asked me.
Dizzy, I said.
His hand was on the small of my back. Let’s get you some air, he said.
We made our way to the barriers, though it wasn’t easy. The cop shook his head at Z.
Not well, Z said, and something I couldn’t hear.
You can’t go back in, the cop said.
Z nodded, guided me around the barrier. We’ll get back in a few blocks up, Z said. His hair was sticking to his neck, his cheeks.
I think I only made it an hour, I said, shaking my head, looking at the crowd, which didn’t advance, just pressed closer and closer together. We were standing in the shade of a sketchy electronics store.
It’s all right, he said. He had taken off his shirt, wet it, and pressed it to the back of my neck. So kind, I thought, and closed my eyes to listen to the people swarming and shouting, the heat hissing, flashing.
Of course I thought of going over there. I called programs and kept a notebook of the details. But it amounted to nothing. If you can’t speak the language, they said. They said, the training there had been the best in the region, it’s more a question of supplies, and they encouraged me to donate. But as the war went on, everyone admitted, the doctors and nurses were leaving, had left. Patients were left to piss in Pepsi bottles. You might be sent to three hospitals but not find a surgeon; finally someone would just amputate. And there were assassinations, even in hospitals. There didn’t seem to be exceptions, as you might think; doctors were cleared from neighborhoods like anyone else. Like anyone else, their children ransomed; like anyone, a bullet in an envelope on the doorstep. But still it wasn’t my place, still they didn’t want me—it’s not so simple, they said. Who thought it was?
I thought about stealing from the hospital where I’d trained, even from the shelter—everything was donated there, they could have replaced it all. No one even reads the invoices, I’ve seen their carelessness, piles of papers just flipped through. I could slip out antibiotics, needles, vaccinations. There must be a black-market price there for everything, I thought while in the supply room one day. For blood? I didn’t know. I thought of those photographs, fire hoses trained on the streets to rinse them of blood.
These were the sort of photographs Z showed us, what was always up on his screen, he and Ford clicking through. Look, he said.
I could go there, I said once to Ford, I could nurse there. How much can it matter about the language? I have my hands.
They don’t want you because you’re an American, he said.
Ford was the only one I told these things and I shouldn’t have. He never confided in me; it was all speeches with him, he never said one thing to me he couldn’t have said to anyone.
So I’m here. All wars come to the shelter in time. The skin smoothes over the nub of an amputation.
My parents think this is noble work, but they don’t want to hear about it. If they ask questions I sanitize my answers. There’s no way to say how beneath my hands I can always feel the hair on the back where I press the stethoscope, the blood that browns around sutures.
I go to my parents’ for dinner at least every two weeks. Over dinner they talk about the news as though it was something that happened to them and I couldn’t know; they explain to me our own country.
I respond but don’t argue. This is polite, but doesn’t make me a good person.
I wash the dishes gloveless, unlike my mother.
But when I look at them I think they’ve changed, they’re older and anxious in ways I never saw as a child. My mother lets fruit rot in the basket; my father interrupts me too suddenly. It’s their age, or the times.
I stay over because they don’t like me to take the train back at night. To tell the truth I don’t like it either, though I protest, though I always tell them it would be fine. I stay in my old room. They’ve left my textbooks on the shelves, two stuffed animals, the least ratty, poised beside them. From the window of my room I can see into the neighbors’ upstairs, but in my whole life I’ve never seen anything of them I shouldn’t have. There are photographs of me arranged around this room, but nothing recent, nothing after the graduation shot, backdrop of lilacs, and Ford, A, and I were all trying not to squint in the sun.
In the morning I kiss my mother’s cheek and even before breakfast it smells of Shalimar.
They don’t know what other cities I’ve thought to live in, to leave for: there are whole years of me they don’t know. This ignorance manifests as a quiet wariness. I too am wary, my hands never lingering too long on their furniture or silverware, the backs of their hands, a stranger’s skin. We say goodbye in the kitchen, I kiss them both briefly. I know I cannot be free of them. They feel this too.
It was my fourth time in a year giving blood and I wanted to shake a finger at people I passed on the street, people who passed the sign shouting blood needed in red letters. I don’t even like doing it, and the headache afterward lasts days. But people are dying, I should have announced. The blood drive was too timid about it. I’d read that in Fallujah men had lined up to donate, not wanting to wait and so sticking the needles in themselves and pumping their fists. The Americans had just begun the siege of the city.
After I’ve donated I take a pastry and sit in the lobby. I should hurry back to work but today I don’t care, I don’t see why everyone there isn’t here with me. I have to remind them: I leave notes on the refrigerator and bring it up too often. While around me in the lobby are a middle-aged woman in a pants suit with shoulder pads, an old man, too old, I’d have thought. Two teenage girls looking pale, arms linked, drinking Hi-C. Why? I want to ask them all. Who have you lost?
Maybe no one, maybe it’s just an idea of something good. On TV they see doctors hanging the bags, shouting, gurneys barreling, all that.
Those men, pumping their fists.
Most of that blood would have been wasted. During the siege there was almost no electricity, doctors worked by flashlight and cigarette lighter. They ran hot water over bags of blood to thaw them. The blood had been in the fridge where they used to keep lunches. How long does it take blood to spoil?—I don’t know this; I should.
The teenage girls poked at each other’s band-aids. Shiny silver. I’d been given a plain one.
I didn’t want to go back to work, to lunchtime, the other women sitting around that table. This whole week the TV in the corner of the break room had been playing the same clip again and again: a new terrorist statement, according to the news. The terrorist’s face appeared in the background, his beard, his calm hollowed eyes, his musical language, tripping up the throat lightly like a stream over stones, like the sound of a gun cocking. I’ve never heard a gun do this, only on TV. The translation scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
I can’t believe they haven’t caught him, someone said, All these years, and there he is, looking so smug.
He didn’t look smug to me. His words sounded like the caves where they used to say he was. Round syllables one could slip into, then that harsh close in the throat, a dark wall in the back. I liked to hear it. I had always meant to learn it.
If I’d learned it I could have gone to that country.
I wanted to correct the women in the lunch room, I wanted to leave notes on the refrigerator or folded into their lunch bags. The number of ambulances turned back from a checkpoint that day. How long between when a hospital ran out of antibiotics and more arrived. How do you clear the throat of vomit without electricity?
My phone was buzzing. Work, wondering would I be back soon. A patient was asking for me, they said. I got up, started the walk back in the sun. My head throbbed.
You gave blood? one of the volunteers asked when I got back to the shelter. Aren’t you good, she said.
From They Dragged Them Through the Streets by Hilary Plum, published by FC2, an imprint of The University of Alabama Press. Copyright © 2013 Hillary Plum. Republished with permission from The University of Alabama Press.
About the Author:
Hilary Plum is co-director of Clockroot Books. Recent prose and criticism have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, the Collagist, and the Critical Flame. They Dragged Them Through the Streets is her first novel.