"Turnaround in the Dark" by Sergio Troncoso

Eat those Mesopotamian roaches, pinche mantis; eat them and disappear into the sand again. Don’t bother me in my sleep. That’s right, crawl under Levin’s boots. Crawl into Levin’s boots. That’ll surprise the bloodsucker tomorrow. I don’t know how that animal sleeps through the dust storms. This trailer-can’s about to fly away into the night.

What is wrong with my leg? Hey, leg, stop jumping. Can’t write. Can’t get the words just right, for Lori. This crappy leg is like a piston, with this crate for a desk, and dust in my nostrils and lungs. God, I can’t breathe. I’m swimming in this dust. Can’t inhale, and Levin’s sleeping like a baby. How can he sleep tonight? Maybe I should shove this Bic up his ass, see if that wakes him up. Bouncing leg, pump the right words out for Lori, words of honey mixed with chile. Just keep bouncing, leg, see if that helps. Need the right words. That’s what matters, isn’t it? Goddamn you, leg. Goddamn everything.

Martinez, Martinez, Martinez, why are you here? Why aren’t you in El Paso? Why aren’t you sipping a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge at Americas High, waiting for them to kiss your ass? Staring at the little glories in tight jeans in the hallways. God, some of the seniors must be incredible lays. What I would give to be back there again. What I would give not to be the culo principal, but a teenager in Ysleta again, my ass after those little glories. Getting old is shit, and getting old in Iraqi-fucking-stan is worse than shit. Martinez, don’t be so hard on yourself. You can still run three miles in less than fifteen minutes, goddamnit. You’re an Army lieutenant, Martinez. Act like one. No, really, you’re in the Army Reserve, with the older yahoo idiots. You are an older yahoo idiot. But yeah, you’re in the Army. And you can still make la Lori scream with dee-light. You can still pop that blond beauty, her eyes rolling, her breath gasping. Everybody’s proud of you, Martinez. Chin up, goddamnit! Get your chin the hell up, and stop your old leg before the crate tips over.

God, it’s so late. Why am I not asleep? Tonto Martinez, you don’t have guts. That’s why you’re here. The glories run your dick. Always. You didn’t want to volunteer for another tour, you said so yourself, you didn’t want to. You promised yourself you would get out, but what does that matter anymore, right? Why does anything? You had the Army’s letter in your hand, you had a choice—at that moment you had a choice, you stupid bastard. And what did you do? Lori squeezed you from behind at exactly the wrong second and squeaked in that sickly sweet voice, “What’s that honey?” You stared into her eyes, with an instant hard-on. After she read the letter, you fired like an M-16, “I’m doing it again.” Just the opposite of what you had been thinking. Just the goddamn opposite! What were you thinking, Martinez? Were you even thinking? You fucked her then and there. You picked her up, carried her to your bed, and fucked la Lori for two hours. The hell with your decision and the world that afternoon. And Lori was yours, has always been yours, as yours as anyone can be. But why, you idiot? Would she have cared one way or the other? Did you even stop to think about what you were saying? And why didn’t you just take it back? Why didn’t you say, "I thought about it without my dick erect, and I’m done with this goddamn Army." Would she have cared? Would anyone have stopped you? Would anyone have said to your face you hadn’t been a man? You are a man, moron. You’re trapped, Martinez, that’s your problem. You’re trapped in yourself, ghosts and Al-Que-se-qaeda in your head. But, god, your Lori was and still is an incredible lay. And now you want to go destroy that too. Glories run your dick, that’s your problem. They run your dick to the sunny side and the dark side. Let’s do it, and be done with it. Who cares why anymore. Write, goddamnit.


I don’t know when I’ll come back. Can’t wait to show these to Levin. That man can’t find north from south in this desert after his girlfriend ditched him for his best friend from high school. Stone cold, man. Look at this little soldier-man, with the flag next to him, green hair. Do these kids from Americas Middle School think we’re Martians? They’re kids, tonto, give ‘em a break. Lori’s got some money now. At least Americas gave her a job. I’m sending her every goddamn penny. Hey, look! Here’s Noah’s and Sarah’s! Knew la Lori would also send drawings from mis niños! That’s us, all four of us. In Ysleta. The house with the palm tree, that big ol’ yellow sun as big as half the sheet of construction paper. Man, I remember that Crayola smell from South Loop School. I bet Pancho and Isela are helping Lori with the kids whenever she’s grading papers. They’ve got to.

I thought about not telling you at all, but then every time I stared at your pictures, at your blue eyes that trusted and believed in me, I felt so guilty. Did that soldier just smile and wink at me? Did she? What an incredible ass. Into the mess tent, Martinez. Go find her, goddamnit. Even if you’ve already eaten, man. There she is. There she is, with that smile from heaven. Oh, and those delicious tits. Thank you, dear Lord, for saving me from this hell.

Jenna, you sweet and incredible fuck. Jenna, you dream. You’re this soldier’s dream. A chingona with a six pack. A Latina Victoria Secret’s model in Iraqi-fucking-stan, and in my tent. In her tent. In the supply room. In the desert at night. In between our trucks. In, in in. She screams her muffled screams. She can’t have enough of me; I can’t have enough of her. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. If this will save me, I don’t care. I want to lick her sweat more than anything else I’ve wanted in my life. I ended it, because I know you didn’t deserve my betrayal. I ended it, because I couldn’t live with myself anymore.

I was lonely. I was bitter about being here again. I felt trapped. Man, it’s goddamn boring in this desert. It’s boring, but I have Jenna. It’s nothing, it’s patrols, it’s preparing for another run, but I have Jenna. Yes, Ysleta too, yes home, but faraway. But not now. Right now I have to survive this heat in la nada, these assignments, whenever they come, wherever they go. Right now I have to squeeze Jenna’s hips, whisper to her about our plans, convince her of what we’ll do when we get home—right?—and yes, fuck her. That’s what she wants. That’s what I want. What promises have we made to each other? She knows. Does it really matter? I have a reason for being here. She has a reason. That’s all that matters today.

I know you will hate me. I know you will think I was weak and stupid and worse. I love you, Lori, and that’s God’s truth. Jesus H! I can’t believe what la Jenna does to me. I can’t believe what she let’s me do to her. This woman is my woman. I give her every ounce of my self in this hot, hanging night air. When I haven’t seen her, when it’s been days, my God, we’re so hungry for each other. Last night, in that supply truck, I mean, it was rumbling. Thought the damn engine would jump start in our heavenly oblivion. I couldn’t breathe in that night heat. She was hyperventilating. Both of us more drained than after any six-mile hike in Iraqi-fucking-stan.

Yesterday I tried to imagine how I would feel if you had told me you had been with another man….I tortured myself, to make me feel how you would feel, to feel that hurt I know I have done to you. She’ll like it, la Jenna. She’ll love this picture of me. Back home in front of my palm tree. Who cares who was next to me? Now with my scissors it’s a new picture. Just like that. It’s me in El Paso. Jenna will remember me when she returns to Kansas City. I’ll be home too. One of these days.

You know, the world as safe. It’s a lie, and it’s not. You try to hang on, you try to make it…I know I’ve hurt you and I’m so sorry. If you forgive me Lori, and I pray that you do, you will save me.


Have to drop this letter with the mail clerk before we start our mission. I’ve got about an hour. What idiot in the Army thought of this ‘Four’? Sacks hanging on a wall? This dopey moron moving packages from one corner to another? That’s Camp Fallujah for you. Okay, Martinez, you idiot, why did you walk out? Why did you walk out? Drop the goddamn letter in the right bag, and get your job done. What the hell is wrong with you? Lori doesn’t deserve it? Is that why? You even know why anymore? You don’t deserve it, Jenna doesn’t deserve it. What does ‘deserve’ have anything to do with it? You just trying to hurt somebody? Is that the sick fuck you’ve become? Martinez, you even know what you’re doing, or why? This moron again. What are you staring at, maggot? I can goddamn stand here and go in and out of this ‘Four’ all day, corporal. Don’t give me your ‘What the fuck?’ look, you bastard. I don’t need to explain myself to anybody. That’s right. Keep walking before I put my boot up your ass. Dumb-ass farm boy, happy to be in the shit. The hell with this happiness. The hell with the mail. I’ll do it later, and leave it right here in my shirt pocket. I’ll do it when I do it, or I won’t and then I won’t. This back and forth has got me by the balls. Know your mind, Martinez. Get back and check the gear and see if the men are ready. Get your head on straight.

Where the hell are we? We’ve been driving for hours. Camp Fallujah to the first checkpoint, a Listening Post, Observation Post. Resupplied. Job done. But where is this second motherfucking LPOP? How hard can it be? Mayhew’s driving too fast, but he hasn’t lost the other trucks behind us. We can’t see shit through this darkness and sand. It’s a secondary road between Fallujah and Baghdad, and six soldiers guarding the road, and the closest point to a company ripping a group of insurgents in Baghdad North. Our flank, our supply line. Where the fuck are they? No messages on the Blue Force Tracker. The GPS says we’re on the right road. Even if we miss the second LPOP, we still have to reach the company outside of Baghdad, supply it with fuel, and dump these ammo pallets. On the way back, that’s when we’ll have to find that second LPOP.

This goddamn Iraqi desert, what a nightmare! The winds shake these trucks like toys. The Night Vision Goggles are useless in these dust storms. Mayhew, Jesus! He can’t see shit in front of him. There’s nothing but a wall of dust going in and out. He’s driving by jerking his head through the side window to the edge of the road. This is so fucked up. The road’s here, and not here. We’re driving blind and I’m in the front seat. The Seven-Bravo NVG’s don’t give you any depth perception. Why did they waste money on these? The tanker trucks and security Humvees are still behind us. I don’t see the rest, but they must be there. Wouldn’t be the first time we lost a truck, or had somebody take the wrong turn. Another night of desmadres in one thousand and one nights of desmadres. But you know, we’ve always found our way. We’ve always found our guys, even if we lost them for a few hours. Last month, that was a scene. A lost gas truck stumbled on an LPOP, unannounced, and the motherfuckers shot out the tires of their own guys. What’s better, to be killed by ragheads or friendlies? You’re dead. But my platoon always makes it back. We’re gonna make it back tonight too. My platoon’s always been lucky, Martinez, don’t you forget it.

This is the road to nowhere. Where is that second LPOP? Is this even a fucking road? We should have reached the company outside of Baghdad eleven miles east of the second LPOP. I don’t see a single sign of the goddamn company. Where the hell are we? I don’t hear anything from our last truck. Are they even still with us? Jesus H. Christ! This wind! Did our truck just tilt? I think it’s getting worse, if that’s possible. It’s like a giant Jesus throwing fistfuls of sand at our windshields. I’ve got sand in my goggles, sand inside my uniform, sand around my eyelids, sand at the back of my throat, sand up my crack, for God’s sake. The windows are shut too. It’s like an evil brown talcum powder, not like El Paso’s grainy brown dirt. Listen to that. Mayhew doesn’t ever listen to shit. That’s the engine whining. The sand’s getting into the engine. It won’t be long before this clunker dies on us tonight in the middle of nowhere. But Joey can fix anything. That’s exactly why I brought him. Joey will get it going again, just long enough to get us home.

Answer, goddamnit! Where the hell is this second LPOP, and why don’t they answer? What the hell was that pop? Oh, yeah. I can’t believe these jerks. Who is doing that? Somebody in the third or fourth truck behind us, flinging goddamn fragmentation grenades out the window. I told these morons not to do that anymore. Told them, but maybe I should just bust their ass like Lieutenant Levin. Then maybe they’ll listen. Maybe I should force these yahoos to clean toilets for three days, see if that doesn’t wake them up. But this is what happens. They’re nervous as shit—who the hell is that?—and they start with their stupidity. But we’ve never lost a single soldier. Never been nailed by a Rocket-Propelled Grenade. Not a single casualty. And what are we doing now? Fighting the dust with fragmentation bombs. Fighting the fear. The enemy’s waiting for us, behind the dust cloud, deciding to strike when it pleases them. They’ll never fight us straight up. They’ll never fight us when we’re ready. They know better. A goat herder not blinking his eyes as we go by his concrete hut on the dusty banks of an irrigation canal. That hard silence in his eyes. ‘Why don’t you get the fuck out of my country?’ Is he imagining what’s around the bend for us? An RPG screeching at us like a motherfucking Dementor? Where the hell are we, and how did we miss that second LPOP?

Martinez, Martinez, Martinez, what has happened to you in Iraq? Three years ago your men saluted you for the first time, and what did you see? They were jittery. They couldn’t keep their eyes in one place. You thought it was like a disease, like an itchy disease you get in the desert. Iraqi gonorrhea. One month later, your ass is deep in that itchy Iraqi disease. "Where’s it coming from?" "Who’s around that corner?" Those questions like bees inside your brain, even inside Camp Fallujah. Some people, like that farm boy at the post office, it’s like they’re on vacation. Still grinning. Not thinking. But that’s what you have to do. Stop thinking. Martinez, that farm boy’s smarter than you. Can you self-lobotomize? But how can you even trust the Moroccans and Somalians spooning out the chow? How can you trust these Iraqi policemen who don’t want you there, who are so goddamn incompetent? For a few dollars and for their hatred of the ‘ulooj,’ the American infidel pigs, those Iraqi shits will sell your ass to hell in the Green Zone.

Martinez, you’ve become the landscape. You go back to El Paso between deployments, and you notice it. You talk faster than you did. You can’t keep your focus, your eyes skip across the landscape with the Iraqi itch, from Lori’s blue eyes to the window, ready for something to happen. And she asks you, “Honey, why are you awake? What’s wrong?” Every "honey" makes you want to scream and pummel her face, but you say nothing. The front door’s rattle freaks you out, for no reason. You can’t say anything. It’s imagination, it’s history. Everything and nothing. You won’t tell her that. It’s shots being fired at you through the dark as you speed by a hamlet engulfed by dust. It’s a soldier carried back from the lines, his left shoulder and arm smoldering. An Improvised Explosive Device nailed his Humvee. Or strange, unaccountable explosions in the distance as you nod off in the Green Zone. It’s stories that aren’t stories, but accounts from men a few miles from where you are now. This bleak and foreign land you’re trapped in. The wary looks of entire families as your platoon drives by. What primal, inscrutable message are they burning into your brain with their eyes? What message are you sending them? Who would ever understand?

Martinez, your brain is in Iraq even when your body is in Ysleta or Kansas City. These days in the desert, like years. These days waiting for nothing to happen, until something does. Your brain on adrenalin, hyped-up, bored beyond boredom, yet still coiled like an angry Texas rattlesnake. What’s happened to you, goddamnit? Seven months in Iraq, seven scars in your brain. Didn’t you get back home? You were back home, you idiot, but then they called you up again. You should’ve learned your lesson, you should have been a man when you needed to be a man. You shouldn’t have let these little glories run your ass back to Iraq. You should’ve done it to save your ass, to get rid of these nerves once and for all. You should’ve done it to be done with this godforsaken land. But you became part of it.

Martinez, mail this fucking letter in your pocket. Mail it before it burns a hole straight to your heart. Tonight, yes tonight, you will be able to promise her anything. Tonight you can fuck Jenna in her tent until morning. You can tell her you told Lori. You can lie and tell the truth and lie again and pray something happens. Anything. You’ll be free for a few days after this mission.

Holy shit. We’re on the wrong road. Just got a text from our first LPOP. We’ve got to turn around, get everybody turned around. They say we’re probably on a side road that’s unmarked, a fucking farm road, I think.

“Hey, listen up! The lieutenant says we’re turning the fuck around! Right here! So keep your fucking eyes opened!”

Okay, get everybody moving. We’re moving. We’re not waiting in the dark like targets in a shooting gallery. Okay, we’re fine. First LPOP, finally, somebody responds. What the hell is their problem? We took the wrong turn. West. We need to head west and find that turnoff we missed. Finally we can see in front of us. The wind and sand at our backs, and not in our faces. Jesus, what a crazy night. The dust storms seem to have died down. God, I can see it now. Mayhew sees it too. We’ve been on a road, not much of a road, next to an irrigation canal. We’re on a dirt road next to what looks like a levee. I can even see smaller canals breaking off from the main canal, toward—what? Fields or farms? It’s like one of those old flickering movies. Curtains of dust appearing and disappearing, giving you a peak at the landscape and then just as quickly yanking it away. You think you see it and your mind makes up the rest. These NVG’s, they’re useless.

We’re okay after that turnaround in the dark.

What the fuck? What just happened? An explosion. Did the engine explode? Blue lights and flashes of fire. We’re on the side. Are we on the side? What just happened? Are we tumbling down a canal? The truck, my God, I think we’re hit. I can’t breathe. From the windshield, a sea of sand pouring in. I can’t breathe. I’m drowning in sand. Why is there glass on my chest? These NVG’s on my nose?

God, my neck. What’s wrong with my neck? Is it glass? Shrapnel? A warm trickle above my left knee. I can’t move my legs. What happened to my goddamn legs? I can’t move my body. Have I lost my legs? Can’t see very well. Yes, my legs. Who’s shouting? Blurry red in front of me, my God, that must be a fire. This milky red a few feet in front of me, but no heat. Can’t feel the heat. My head, I can’t…What? Thump-thump-thump, my boys with their M-16’s. “We got the motherfuckers! We got them!” Mayhew, what happened to him? If I can turn, if I can just push myself…Oh, God. Donny. Donny. There’s not much left of you. God. Al Jarreau, Donny. Won’t forget you taught me about Al Jarreau. God. It must’ve hit on Donny’s side, whatever the fuck hit us. My waist. Am I peeing in my pants? What’s wrong with my waist and back? A hand yanking my uniform. What the…? Chunks of flesh on my chest, fuck. They’re trying to yank me out the window, these motherfuckers. My head, in blue water. Everything blue.

Noah and Sarah, my babies. In the canal behind our house in Ysleta. My brothers Pancho and Mayello, and Julieta, all of us hiding too in the canal. Burning tumbleweeds. Laughing. A voice from behind the rock wall on San Lorenzo Avenue. My mother Pilar, her voice in the wind. Corporal Johnson. Why the hell are you here? What you doing in Ysleta? Jenna, oh Jenna, your brown eyes in ecstasy. Your eyes have always wanted me. Those eyes, my eyes. No pain. It’s gone. Only this cloud. A bluish cloud of dust in the night. Are we in Ysleta? Where are we? Nothing but more words in the wind.


Sergio Troncoso was born in El Paso, Texas and now lives in New York City. After graduating from Harvard College, he was a Fulbright Scholar to Mexico and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. Troncoso was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. In 2014, the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to rename the Ysleta public library branch in honor of Sergio Troncoso. He is a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Conference in New Haven, Connecticut, and an instructor at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Troncoso is the author of five books, including, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence, Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, and the novels, The Nature of Truth and From This Wicked Patch of Dust.

Posted on June 1, 2015 .