The Combo by Matthew Robinson

Editor Kirsten Larson, Fiction, June 8th, 2015

"These men are fucking soft. The girls are all saying yes."

matthew robinson writing nailed magazine
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It’s my nineteenth birthday and I’m on fucking guard duty. At the main gate, no less. Sergeant Mills must hate me. Instead of sitting in a shack on the roof, just me and Burnside, some goddamn alone time, Mills puts me here. With him. And Burnside. So I know exactly what I’m not getting. It’s like Mills knows too: Hey Napes, I heard it’s your birthday but I’m a total asshole so let’s hang out for six hours while I just sit here and mope and watch you and Burnside stand ten feet apart the whole night wishing you were upstairs or anywhere else really and oh have I mentioned that I hate you?

Fucking prick.

But at least Burnside is standing ten feet away. He’s huge in his gear. All shadow under the streetlight but I can see his eyes, the brown of them. He’s goddamn beautiful.

“Napes,” Mills says.

I’ve been staring. I rub my eyes with the hand that’s not on my rifle. Maybe he’ll think I’m just zoning out. “Sergeant?”

“Who’s walking up?”

I go out past the last barrier, where the serpentine starts. The prostitutes are coming. A bunch of them. At least they’re a distraction, something to speed up time. “Hookers,” I say. Mills just sits against his piece of barrier.

Burnside comes out, looks the women up and down, then looks at me. He’s close, his sleeve brushes my sleeve. Too quiet for Mills to hear, he says, “Happy birthday, you.”

I feel melting down my neck and back like ice water leaving my body. What’s left is dry heat held in by my vest. I push my sleeve into his, my muscle against him. He smiles but steps away. In his arm’s absence I stifle a shiver, squeeze my M-4 to my chest.

Over the next hour the prostitutes inch closer and closer until they are standing among us, along with several others who were coming or going from the Baghdad Hotel to or from the Sheraton and Palestine Hotels, but who stopped when they smelled perfume and shampoo and cigarette smoke and women. The more soldiers gather, the farther away from me Burnside stands. It’s my fucking birthday and by achingly small bits, it’s getting shittier and shittier.

I’m not the first to start in on them, the coaxing of language from these women who if pressed will attempt to repeat any phrase. Or to get actual dollar amounts quoted for specific acts. Blowjob, someone says. Two girls, says another. Four, says another. How much? Say cock. Say cunt. These men are fucking soft. The girls are all saying yes. The boys are standing with their dicks in their hands, money stuck in their wallets. I’m not buying either but goddamn, I feel like pressing, past where everyone else stops, I want things to be awful, to be ridiculous, to be a different kind of awful than this wanting, so I keep fucking going. I’m the last one in the ring.

“Listen,” I say, “I’m not paying for one. I’ll pay for two—for the mother-daughter combo. But that’s it.” I’m talking to the head woman in charge, Skeletor. She’s the spitting image of the cartoon character except her face is soft brown, softer in this yellow light. “Take it or leave it.” I see something spark behind her eyes and she heads to the edge of the light to confer with her stable.

“What are you doing?” Burnside says.

“Passing the time.”

“And what happens if she says yes?”

“Look at them. They’re all my age, there’s no way she’ll find a combo.” His eyes are brown and close but I said look at them so he turns and looks and I can’t see the brown of his eyes and the heat beneath my vest is gone.

The men are all smiling at me like they’re rooting me on, like what I’m pressing for is exactly what this birthday boy needs. But I’m not soft like them. I’m made better, stronger. I can push this. I don’t want any part of it but goddamn if I’m not hard enough to go on.

Except for Burnside’s eyes. They track Skeletor as she walks back into the light. “You are in luck,” she says. “I have just what you want. Pretty girl, pretty lady, you like, you like.”

Of course she fucking does. Why did I think there were limits to how terrible this could get? A woman comes out of the dark wearing a blue dress, her hair covered, eyes downcast as she walks. Burnside’s eyes widen as she approaches and a slow nod begins in his helmet: no.

The woman in blue stops at Skeletor’s arm and looks from soldier to soldier, up to Burnside, down to Mills, over to me. Her eyes are black and crying.

“This is Napes,” Skeletor says, “he very handsome man.”

The cold at the base of my neck runs down the backs of my arms and settles in my palms. Where my hands are holding my rifle, I can’t feel my pistol grip, my hand guard. The skin around my mouth squeezes tight and my eyes pinch and I’m looking at teary eyes and I’m smiling as hard as I can for fear that I’ll start crying too.

Without looking away, the woman in blue says something in Arabic. Skeletor says something back. It sounds sharp. The woman in blue speaks. Skeletor screams. She screams and screams and pushes the woman in blue back into the dark before she comes back over to me. From down the alley I can make out sobs. “I make mistake,” Skeletor says, “not this one. Her daughter gone, taken today.”

My face falls slack and I feel a tear well up. “Gone where?”

“Just gone,” Skeletor says, “taken, wherever women go when they go. It’s okay, I have idea.” When I look to Burnside I can’t find his eyes and a fat tear runs clear to my chin. I turn away from the group and brush my face dry with my sleeve. I keep turned away until I think it looks like I’m scanning the serpentine. When I turn back there is a tiny girl in front of me and Skeletor has a hand on her shoulder. They both step close. The girl is young, maybe fourteen, shiny, like she’s made of wet clay. She’s wearing heavy eye makeup but it’s ragged around the edges like she’s just learned how.

Skeletor says, “This is my daughter.”

Burnside’s helmet is still slowly turning back and forth: no.

The girl smiles. Skeletor smiles. I can’t feel the rifle, it’s lost its mass, my hands numb. We look at each other, on and on. Skeletor’s mouth is moving but I’m sitting on the roof of the Baghdad Hotel in a guard shack and my knee is pressed against Burnside’s and our rifles are laid up on the sandbags and we’re taking turns looking out over the city and I’m calling in the sit-reps and he’s telling me about how we’ll move to Portland when this is over and our enlistments are up and we won’t have to be hard anymore and we’ll be soft but soft together which is way stronger than the kind of hard we have to be now and even in the dark we can hear each other smile and the first few minutes after each sit-rep he’ll hold my hand and in his hand my hand isn’t cold and that’s when I feel the tear fall clear to my chin.

“Napes,” Mills says.

The girl and Skeletor are right in front of me and they aren’t smiling. Skeletor’s mouth is closed. I turn to the serpentine and wipe my face on my sleeve.

“Do me a favor and go to the Baghdad, bring be back a couple of those melty sandwiches. I haven’t had chow yet.” When I turn to him, he’s getting up from his seat against the barrier. “Can you handle that?”

Burnside is looking at me, helmet no longer turning.

“Yes, Sergeant,” I say.

“And take Burnside with you. In case they only let you sign for one sandwich. Don’t come back without two, I’m fucking hungry.”

Burnside and I move down the serpentine towards the Baghdad, him keeping his distance as we walk into the dark. The men immediately start back in on the soft talk. I hear their laughing and the girls cooing responses until it’s only our footfalls thudding in my ears.

“What the fuck was that?” Burnside says. He sounds more scared than angry and he slowly inches closer as we go.

“I don’t know, I was just fucking around and everything fell apart. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

He keeps coming until our sleeves touch. “Are you okay?”

I push into him and my hands quiet. My rifle becomes solid again and its weight steadies me, his heat steadies me. “I was just fucking around.”

In the hotel we order the sandwiches and go upstairs to wait. I drop my gear and lock the door and slide furniture in front of it. We spend ten minutes lying down, Burnside tracing with his thumb the still-shiny lines left by my tears, our legs wrapped up together. I want him to talk about after, about the big what-next, but he’s quiet and brown-eyed and goddamn beautiful so we just lay quiet. When it’s time, I wash my face and put my gear back on. We slide away the furniture and I touch the lock but before I can turn it he takes my chin lightly in his hand, leans in and with eyes closed, we kiss.

Ice water runs and beneath my vest, the heat comes up.

He unlocks the door by turning my hand with his and he pulls the door open and before he goes out he says, “Happy birthday, you.”

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Header photograph courtesy of Erik Meharry.

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matthew robinson writer nailed magazineMatthew Robinson’s words have appeared online at Word Riot and elsewhere, in the literary magazine Gobshite Quarterly, and in the short-story anthology The Night, and The Rain, and The River, published by Forest Avenue Press. He completed his MFA at Portland State University. More of him can be found: here. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

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Kirsten Larson

Kirsten Larson is a Contributing Editor at NAILED. She lives near Portland, Oregon. She loves words and is very curious. She received her MFA in writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She writes for The Huffington Post, and is an Adjunct Instructor at Portland State University. Her work can be found in NAILED, Huffington Post, Pathos, M Review, and several other places. She is currently working on two books.