The force feeding’s not that bad.  We treat Ramzi like a skinny blonde Hollywood slutlet who’ll spread her legs for the paparazzi, or your Grandma Sue who can’t shit good.  We feed him French Vanilla Ensure every dawn, noon, and dusk, and sure, when he won’t gulp it down from the can, when putting my elbow in his face and pressing my knee down against his chest won’t convince him, me and Corporal Bradbury tie him down to his bed with two inch thick leather straps, straps we bring in from the outside.  We force – and this is the only forcing we need to do – a plastic tube down his throat and pump the goo straight to his stomach.  That can’s worth of Ensure has more protein in it than a falafel sandwich on the streets of Khartoum, but still Ramzi’s stomach rejects it, sometimes.  When it does, the fluid streams back out from between his clenched teeth and lips, and flows along the tube like a malted milkshake on the wrong side of the straw, going in the wrong direction.

We are not proud.  Corporal Bradbury, an otherwise exemplary man, won’t look Ramzi in the face – not when we walk into his cell, and not when we slam his shoulders down onto the metal pan of his bed.  When I give him an order, when I tell him to crack the pull tab on the can of Ensure and put it in Ramzi’s hand, he nods and peels Ramzi’s fist open and rests the can in the hook of his thumb and closes the fingers back around it and holds them there, and this is the one time on this island that I think about my son.  When I see Corporal Bradbury’s hand over top of Ramzi’s, I remember Elliot Park in Muskogee, crouched down and holding my boy’s hands around a little aluminum baseball bat, choked up on the neck a bit because it was too big for him, and smelling the early summer Indian blanket bloomed and crushed under his feet.  But that’s the only time I think of those things, and I haven’t called home in more than three years.

I have no problem looking Ramzi in the face.  In fact, it helps me do my job.  If they’d let him grow his beard in again, I might even skip the offering of the can and go right for the leather straps and plastic tube.  I have that leeway.  I also select the wardrobes for my block of detainees and after a brief three months in classic black and white stripes, I had them back in long white t-shirts with slits cut down from the armpits.  I want these boys to look like who they are, and pretty much they do, though I haven’t found a believable strapless sandal and sometimes when I look down at the orange Crocs on Ramzi’s feet, I feel like I’m hazing a college boy.

The bleaching’s something I learned from Captain Hollis when I was just a Second Lieutenant at Fort Sill, and though I’ve done my best to make this block of cells an island within itself, I still need to do just what he told me, or jump the fuck off.

The bleaching’s got to be done in the open air.  That’s the first thing Captain Hollis told me about it.  At Fort Sill, the best place to go was Cannon Row, an access road lined with the rusting hulks of old artillery, except for the newer replica guns, still painted fresh and maintained, a 150mm trench mortar whitewashed as it was in France in 1917, a camoed 240mm Howizter, and a beaut of a drab M2A2 pointing its dick turret in the air.  After my Drill Sergeant mashed my face in that chalky Okie mud on a hot June dawn my second month in training, I remembered the words of Captain Hollis, a man just passing through, someone aloof from the sadism spread out across the chewed up fields around the bunkhouses, with his shirt tucked in tight, two silver bars on his sleeve.  He called me out from a lineup my first week on base, knew somehow, from some smudged roster, that I was from Muskogee, his own proud hometown, and he spared me a whole afternoon, brought me into an air-conditioned office and fed me a cold tuna fish sandwich and told me no boy from Muskogee could or should have to make it through this shit without some words of advice.

Find a place, an empty place, and get a cigret – don’t care if you smoke or not, just get one – and smoke and let the sun bleach it out of you, boy.  You’ll fuckin explode if you don’t.

And so with worm shit on my lips, I paced the steel rod plank of a Battery Reel Cart, and heard rust fall off the bottom into the white quartz gravel, let the sun bleach out my hatred for the bitch black Sergeant who’d humiliate me every day that summer.  It worked.  I kept it in.  I just about wore that rod down to nothing, ripped it out of the concrete sinker it was pinned to, but better that than what was inside me to do.

On the island, I find an old concrete foundation of a barracks built in 1916, abandoned after demolition and covered with dust blown from the mountains to the west.  It’s a pit I can be alone in, and I’ve got a cache of good Virginia cigarettes, no Ecuadorean bullshit, that replenishes every month, and the sun down here’s even better than at Fort Sill.  It’s closer and heats up quicker, dries you right out, sucks the sin juice from every pore, bleaches you right, the way you need.  Maybe I should tell Corporal Bradbury, the way Captain Hollis told me.  Maybe then he could look Ramzi in the face.  But that advice is for Muskogee boys, and as far as I know, Bradbury’s not even an Okie.  Though I’ve never thought to ask him.

From this pit I can’t see the bay, can’t see the airstrips pinned between the water and the hills.  I sit in my sunroom whenever I have the chance, and see nothing outside.

The third article of the General Provisions of the Geneva Conventions reads like an outline typed in a gaudy font in some PowerPoint presentation with cartoon drawings of prisoners of war, animated GIFs of simulated drowning, French Vanilla vomit splatters dribbling down the projection screen at an ill-attended weekly professional development course, faded blinding lights and tempo.

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) Taking of hostages;

(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

2. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.

Captain Hollis taught me this, too – to know the rules that you might be breaking.  Knowledge, along with ultraviolet radiation, desiccates moral ambiguity.

The island’s not a warzone, so the Red Cross does not collect and care for Ramzi when he stops breathing, and to press my lips against his, to kiss the stomach acid brimming at his mouth, to press the heels of my hands against his breastbone and pump life back into him, such an outrage upon his personal dignity, such humiliating and degrading treatment is beyond me, so I stand across from Corporal Bradbury, his fat bottom lip quivering, his eyes for the first time on Ramzi’s face, and we let our prisoner die.

I ask Bradbury where he’s from and he tells me a little nowhere place called Hermleigh, Texas.  I ask him how’s the sun in Hermleigh, Texas, and he says it’s powerful and I tell him that’s good.

Michael Buozis lives in Brooklyn.  His stories have appeared in Able To..., The Benefactor and 63 Steps.  He reviews fiction for The Adirondack Review and edits The Six-Fingered Hand.

The Bleaching is an excuse, an apology for an unforgivable act, the easiest way out of humanity, the denial we all participate in for the sake of sanity, and most importantly, an experiment in a forbidden perspective.




Copyright 2009