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Authors: Michael Winter

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BOOK: Minister Without Portfolio
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Curfew, said Tender. We have curfew to maintain.

That's when the Americans moved in. They pushed the last balls in the pockets and instantly had the cues and had absorbed whatever resistance was in John and Tender and Henry.

You guys are the soldiers, John said. But we're the convincers.

They're convinced they want more money for doing the same things as us.

Give that up, Henry.

For Tender was like the Americans on the pay scale.

An American tapped the butt of the cue stick, very polite, and said perhaps you shouldn't raise your voices so. He stared at the women and asked them if they were okay.

We have to get back to base, one explained.

There's a Sikorsky leaving from a pad, you can take that. We'll trade you a ride for the table and no hard feelings.

Let's turn our voices into marches, Tender said. Let us pass by the injured and those that throw stones (he motioned to the Americans) and alter a law through a circuitous route. Come on guys.

Henry and John had no idea what Tender was talking about. Obviously, he had time to read, like a fisheries observer.

Take the Black Hawk, the American said. It's a coalition chopper. We're on leave and this is a no-nookie zone.

You can drink in here but no rendezvousing.

Not with military personnel.

Hurt those you mean to help, Tender said. We'll take your ride and be a member of the steering committee for the marketplace of ideas that fights against the very same structure put in place by your bilderberg group!

They found the helicopter and Tender Morris unfolded the sheet of military paper and handed it to an ISAF lieutenant who
made a hand signal and they piled in while the rotors churned and the heavy lift and yaw of this eight-million-dollar machine came to life and suddenly all of Kabul stretched below their knees as they followed a strip of lights towards the Canadian base. They made curfew.

12

They had to be careful with their drinking as sometimes they were up in the morning before the sun—a jeep full of Newfoundlanders. They were hitting the road at six hundred hours, a regular patrol outside of Camp Julien, so it was bad form to get drunk on illicit rum and Russian vodka supplied in mouthwash bottles and play crib at ten dollars a hand until two in the morning. Henry was riding up front with Tender Morris. Tender had been telling them about life with Martha, the house he had around the bay that had to be fixed up or knocked down. Martha wants to save it, he said, and I feel pressure to save it.

Family pressure, John said.

Henry: Is it worth anything? You could sell it.

It requires a little work.

John: Shit man fresh air is keeping that house up.

I tarred the roof.

Yes as long as you keep the moisture out of it.

For John knew the house in question. He owned the house next to it.

I've got a year left in the army, Tender said. Then I want to
have a kid with Martha and get some work with Rick Tobin. Do what John is doing—John's figured it out.

Each man's shoes, John said. Walk a mile.

Henry listened to these men betray a spirit of making a family and owning something old, of cherishing the past and digging your feet into soil that other generations had also been digging in. Henry admitted he was nervous about that kind of commitment. Was he a strong enough man to pull it off. You like kids, John said. Tender: But it requires growth—it's called seeking roots in a rootless tradition.

John and Tender spoke quietly using these types of words in this type of place, a country landscape completely redesigned by the fact that western countries were occupying it. Henry had none of this attachment to the past or to old things. He was recovering from a hurt brought on by broken love. But he recognized John possessed a judgment of a house that was the same judgment he had once used on him, fresh air keeping it up.

The jeep seats were still cold from the night. John Hynes in the back. There was an erratic disturbance in the road ahead and Tender Morris slowed a little to size it up. Go have a look, Tender said. John and Henry piled out of the jeep and they hesitated at the side of the jeep for a second. They were hungover and empty and knew they weren't supposed to be doing this. They had obeyed Tender and then realized they had no training in reconnaissance. But what the hell, let's do everything. They looked around and then they fanned out to examine the disturbance and scan the horizon. They were civilians embedded in the army, non-combat personnel in their early thirties. Within another set of rules neither of them were supposed to even be in Tender's jeep. And here they were, scouting! The morning still
had a variety in the pattern of light, in an hour or two the sky would be a dull white and very distant, but now the sun was in front of them, it felt like it was about ten miles away. Not a good place to be. The jeep, not following procedure, sort of gunned over the disturbance and Tender Morris made to leave them there. The jeep halted on a rise and Tender leaned over to laugh at them, letting the jeep's weight roll it back towards them. He was only kidding, Henry realized. Tender is a little crazy. Then a shape leapt at the windshield. Henry couldn't see the particular shape except it was an animal lunge. It made the interior of the jeep dark. Is something going on, John called out. His tone of voice was encouraging rules to maintain their order. Henry could see John. It looked like Tender had hit a civilian. Where's my fucking gun, Tender yelled out. The jeep's brake lights were on now and then the horn. Tender was hitting the horn. That guy was crawling around up there in his big grip boots on the wide hood, he was trying to connect two artificially coloured adhesive stickers by his armpit. Someone called out, Cleared hot! It was John, in a panicked voice. Henry took up his pistol and realized it wasn't his, he was carrying Tender's Sig Sauer from the coffee holder by the stick shift. That's where Tender kept it because it got in the way of him changing gears. Henry's own pistol was still in its holster on his leg. Neither of them had a shot at the man and so Henry ran off the road into a gulley full of torn plastic and wire and empty water bottles. John was doing the same thing on the other side and John shouted with some urgency now that Henry was putting them in a crossfire. Henry was thinking more about setting off an IED, what things felt like underfoot. He had never been in a ditch in Afghanistan. He wasn't sure what the ditch was meant to carry as he had never seen it rain here.
The man had bands of plastic explosive taped to his chest. The windshield caved in and a loud crack jetted out a hundred feet from the jeep and made his head split open, the jeep buckled backwards into itself and then blew apart into ribbons of metal lighter than air.

13

At first it was a cloudy day, the sky just ten feet above him and then he knew this sky wasn't open air at all but a ceiling, those grey panels of what looked like tin moulding in John's house but he couldn't be there, he was in Afghanistan and this building wasn't old enough or permanent enough, though he liked the idea that at death earlier rooms were transported to you. That's what happens when you die: vistas visit. The building wasn't a building at all but a prefab unit that could be deployed in three hours. Rick Tobin had told him that. It was fabric. Henry couldn't move his arms or legs though he sensed resistance. He was strapped down. A thin new canvas strapping they did not issue during basic training. He moved all of his bones and nothing was broken. Tender, he said. Henry pulled his head up and looked around the ward. Where's Tender Morris. An arm went up. It was the arm of John Hynes. I've known that arm for twenty years, Henry thought. John was down by the tall brown canvas door—he was sitting up now. They didn't mind having John be able to kneel up on his elbows. Tender's dead, John said. And Henry noticed he'd said it very quietly. The only thing of the jeep they found was the spare tire.

No, Henry thought. They found him. Or I found him. Henry had crawled over to Tender, the trunk portion of him. His face and shoulders and chest. Tender ended at the points of his white hips. The rest of him they couldn't find. But Henry had crawled over to what remained and Tender was alive. Hiya minister, the mouth said. Tender could sense someone near him. It's Henry, Henry said. Do you want a minister. Do you need a religious man.

You'll do, he said.

You're going to be all right Tender. We'll get you out of here.

Yes, he said, I'm getting out of here. I'm going to meet my maker.

As Tender spoke his jaws moved independently, the bottom of his face was broken up under the skin. Henry held the hand. He had all of Tender's fingers and they were solid. The tattoo at his neck, he saw now what it was, an eagle and the words HOUSE OF GOLD on a banner carried in the beak. Then the fingers relaxed.

Henry said to John, I had Tender's pistol.

The next day Tender's superiors visited and received their statements and they went over carefully how contractors on a three-month tour managed to extend that tour indefinitely. They allowed Henry and John to elaborate on the ease in which they drifted from restricted access into sorties out in desert towns rimming the perimeter of Kabul. They went away and Henry was left to lie down and stare at the panel of plastic window behind him and how the birds landed on a temporary power line. The birds were catching the orange light as the sun set, the sun directly on the chests of these birds, and Henry wondered what the birds did when there wasn't a camp here and no wire to perch on. They
probably stood on the highest knoll or rock to soak in the sun. They did that back home, barren hills full of seabirds. He could not see these birds clearly because the plastic distorted the view, but he understood they were together on this project, storing up some heat for the cold night to come.

The authorities returned and at one point they separated John and Henry and spoke to them individually in small white cubicles. He could hear John in the next room. His body ached like bruised elastic—he felt the bends his limbs made. Henry spoke at a level of description that both interested the superiors and made them impatient. He could tell they judged him much more than he judged them. He did not know what they were, but they were very sure about what they had on their hands. When Henry read back what had been written there was a very different story which he did not mind, he knew he had done something wrong, but there was nothing in there about his possession of Tender's Sig Sauer. The superiors said he wasn't remembering that part correctly; Patrick Morris's pistol was blown up with the Iltis. Tender Morris, Henry said, he could have taken care of himself, but he'd reached down and grabbed ahold of an empty coffee holder. They said they found Tender's pistol near his body.

Where'd you find mine?

It was in your holster.

That was the end of the mission for him right there. They convalesced at the hospital and took walks outside in the bright dry air and looked for those birds but could not see them during the day. He closed the big brown door that was like part of a barn and he drank a lot of fluids and hot meals on plastic trays. They talked to Rick Tobin. They were done with contracts for the army. It has to do with the jeep, Rick said. The Americans
won't work in an Iltis. Bombardier got the contract to build those German tin cans. You know what the Germans call them? Ferrets.

John: We were driving around in a ferret.

Tender didn't have a chance and it was only because he was crouched behind the radios that he didn't get his face blown off. Tender was a greybeard and Henry had heard other soldiers call him Old Man. Tender was good at learning things but he refused to move up, he'd been in the reserves for nine years, a lieutenant in the Purple Trades, he read books on political science and sociology and somehow got boosted into the theatre of war and transferred from Newfoundland to New Brunswick to Germany and then Afghanistan where he was meant to be merely assisting a clerk but found an enthusiasm for the outdoor life and got himself on successful scouting missions in the region. Then John and Rick and Henry touch down and he's ordered to back up these subcontractors and man a weak jeep.

14

They flew home tethered to the gutted frame of a Hercules drinking warm bottles of water. It was a series of junkets, first landing at Camp Mirage in the United Arab Emirates. Tender Morris's casket in the belly of the plane with them. In Canada they met Tender's girlfriend, Martha Groves, on the tarmac as they wheeled the casket into a special terminal. They'd flown her up to Ontario for this reunion. John Hynes and Henry Hayward rode in a convoy with her as they took the Highway of Heroes south from Trenton, the solemn civilians standing at attention inches from the gradient and the overpasses three deep, full of bunting, the sumac a blaze of orange on the flared hills that stretched back into November orchards and Dutch farmland of middle Ontario, back to Toronto where the casket was slipped aboard the belly of a domestic flight out of Pearson and flown, with Henry and John Hynes on board, to Newfoundland to bury him. Tender's family at St John's airport. There was some outcry because the casket was delayed and had to be picked up at oversized baggage. They found Tender next to a crate of oysters. Letters were written (Henry wrote one) and a locally televised interview with the girlfriend
went national and that changed military procedure. They drank the night before the funeral and things went on so long and hard that at ten in the morning Henry had to kick John's bed and beat him with his pillow to convince him that he had to get his suit on, that he absolutely must make an appearance at this funeral.

They drove out to Renews, where the family was from. There was a hill of dirt with an artificial green carpet over it and a portable gazebo from the funeral home as the forecast called for rain. They did not lower the casket during the service, but they all walked down the hill to a reception at Rick and Colleen's where the cars were parked.

BOOK: Minister Without Portfolio
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