A “powerful” novel of young soldiers in Afghanistan and on the home front (Esquire).
A Florida Book Awards Gold Medalist
Longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
Winner of the Military Writers Association of America Bronze Medal
Wintric Ellis joins the army as soon as he graduates from high school, saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Kristen, and to the backwoods California town whose borders have always been the limits of his horizon. Deployed for two years in Afghanistan in a directionless war, he struggles to find his bearings in a place where allies could at any second turn out to be foes.
Two career soldiers, Dax and Torres, take Wintric under their wing. Together, these three men will face an impossible choice: risk death or commit a harrowing act of war.
The aftershocks echo long after each returns home to a transfigured world, where a veteran’s own children may fear to touch him and his nightmares still hold sway. Moving backward and forward in time to track these unforgettable characters from childhood to parenthood, from redwood forests to open desert roads to the streets of Kabul, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is a work of disarming eloquence and heart-wrenching wisdom from “one of the very rare authors who writes with authoritative insight into the warfare of the twenty-first century” (Robert Olen Butler).
“Bracing, riveting.” —Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone
“Add Jesse Goolsby to the list of promising military-experienced writers including Phil Klay.” —Military Times
“One of the best works of literature to come from these wars.” —storySouth
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|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Be Polite but Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet
Wintric ellis, newly arrived, pushes his size 8 boot into the spongy ground and feels the subtle give of the earth run through the ball of his foot, up his leg, and settle in his camouflaged hip. Green grass in Afghanistan, he thinks, water somewhere. He smells damp soil and grass, unexpected but familiar — Little League center field, Kristen in a California meadow — and attempts to make this thick-bladed greenery stick alongside the everywhere, suck-you-dry desert he had imagined.
"Eyes open, everyone," Big Dax says.
Although Wintric knows today is a low-risk humanitarian mission, the words slide him back into his default, visceral nervousness: Bombs, somewhere, everywhere. Already he has been told that roadside means nothing in this country. Big Dax and Torres have shared stories with him — everything from far-afield livestock to massive diesel trucks igniting the barely buried hell, not to mention the bombs strapped to men, women, children, dogs. Bombs the size of tennis balls, soccer balls, tackling dummies. Under the rising sun Wintric replays the refrain repeated among his platoon for each of his eight days in country: Don't go looking for a fair fight.
Wintric watches the relaxed movements of the most experienced soldiers and he feels his body breathe. He pulls out his knife and crouches in the valley amid a mist of gnats. He plunges the blade into the soil and levers up a clump of grass. Silently he rises and collects his first sample of war in a plastic bag that he fists into a cargo pocket.
Nearby a group of mangy goats bleat in a grove of white-blossomed almond trees, their shepherd talking with the interpreter. For the first time since Wintric arrived the wind doesn't howl, and he wonders if any kind of omen awaits in the warming air, but he pushes the thought from his mind when he can't think of a single positive forecast. The size of tennis balls, soccer balls. He breathes and rubs his eyes. The shepherd laughs and nods and moves his hand to the interpreter's shoulder, then hugs him.
"Ten minutes till the party starts," Big Dax says. "Going to be hot. Hydrate now."
Wintric observes the men start toward the small mountain of bottled water. Torres passes by and slaps his shoulder.
Wintric isn't thirsty, but he keeps his mouth shut — when they say drink, he drinks. He straightens up, pats his cargo pocket, and steps and stops. He looks back at the straightening grass and watches the indentation of his boot print disappear.
Ten-thirty and the children and limbless adults are starting to arrive, and Wintric scans the group heading his way, wondering if he'll be the one ordered to pat them down before the inoculation and prosthetic limb giveaway. He pushes his index fingers into his temples, then removes his camouflage blouse and tosses it on the hood of the dusty Humvee. Big Dax and Torres have been decent enough to keep him out of trouble for his first week, but they outrank him, and each has only a few months left, so he knows he'll soon be the one palm-to-body with these incoming strangers.
Wintric studies his two superiors as they watch the arriving crowd. Big Dax towering and thick-shouldered, brick of a chin, dark, random freckles, scarred forearms, hands on his hips; Torres slim and handsome, black hair, sideburns, flat nose, outline of a mini-Bible in his pocket, hands interlocked on the top of his head.
"Ellis," Torres says, "check them. Old ones first."
Wintric nods and slowly walks over to the now settling group. The interpreter has his arms up, directing traffic, shouting at the dirty and quiet kids to stay in a single-file line along an outcropping of beige rocks. The adults are told to wait behind. On his short march over Wintric focuses on the adults, most missing a foot, a leg, or a portion of an arm. Light layers of clothing shield their bodies from the late-morning sun; various pant legs and shirtsleeves hang limp. He will have to touch all of these people.
Before Wintric begins the pat-downs, the interpreter says, "Don't touch ass, crotch. Easy with kids. No problems here. Medicine here."
"You know these people?" Wintric says.
"So you don't know shit."
Seventeen pat-downs later Wintric comes to a man who seems whole, tiny sweat streams around his eyes.
"Thank you," the man says before Wintric has touched him. Wintric glances back at the interpreter, who nods, then shakes his head.
"No problems here," he says.
"What's he doing here? He's not missing anything."
"Thank you," the man says.
As with the others Wintric starts with the man's shoulders, pats down his arms to his wrists, up his sides, down from his clavicle, chest, to his belly, where Wintric feels something bulging, soft, ball-shaped. He pauses for a moment, and when the bomb vision arrives, he whirls around, head down, and sprints. In the slow-motion frenzy he hears the man yell something, sees his own arms reach out in front of him, and he knows he will die, right now, that the searing blast will take him from behind, open up his back and skull, liquefy his body. He is all heartbeat and screams "Bomb!" takes two more strides, and dives to the ground.
Behind him the man has lifted his shirt up to his neck, baring his torso, pointing at a fleshy protrusion.
"Na!" the man yells. "Na!"
"No!" the interpreter says. "No. Please. Nothing. No. Only." He pauses. "Skin. How do you say it?"
Wintric lies face-down in the grass, eyes closed, body flexed. He hears skin and pushes himself up onto his elbows. Big Dax and Torres run toward him.
"Crazy cells," says the interpreter.
Wintric still hears his heart in his ears, and he squeezes his hands, then opens them. He cut his left hand during the dive and wipes the fine line of blood off on his pants. He stands, still dizzy, and peers back at the man, who cups the ball of flesh below his ribs. Wintric shakes his head and glances down at his palm, where fine dirt is mixed with coagulating blood.
"Goddamn," says Big Dax. "Deep breath, Ellis. Breathe."
Big Dax touches Wintric's arm and Wintric shakes him off.
From the side, children's laughter.
"Cancer," Torres says. "Could be cancer."
"Ah, yes," says the interpreter, nodding. "Cancer."
Wintric stands in between Big Dax and Torres as they plunge syringes into children in the narrow valley. Three more soldiers from their squad occupy a similar station several feet away, and a med tech shuffles back and forth, observing.
The girls and boys come forward with lesions and growths, unhealed wounds.
"What day is it?" Wintric asks, still trying to shake off the embarrassment and confusion. It's been twenty minutes and nothing has worked.
"Doesn't matter," Torres says.
"School not in?" Wintric says.
No one answers.
The interpreter laughs.
"Universities all on break," the interpreter says, grinning. "Maybe U.S. builds one right here?"
"I got candy bar in my pocket. Maybe bomb?"
"I got dick in my pants. Smack your face?"
"Easy," says Torres. "Dude is with us."
The interpreter smiles.
"Build one or not, I don't care. After this war I get my visa. I will move to Nevada."
"You're not moving to Nevada," Wintric says. "I've been to Nevada."
"You'll lose all your money," Wintric says. "One, two days of slots. Good luck with that."
"No. You misunderstand. I will work at the casino."
"Work there. Roulette. I've seen it. Wave your hand, put white ball in the spinner. Easy."
"There's more to it," Wintric says.
"No. That's it. Wave hand. Spin ball. Money."
Wintric lifts a boy's sleeve up to the nub of the boy's shoulder joint and fumbles with, then drops, the cheap syringe. He selects another syringe and drops it.
"Hey. Relax. Focus on the kids," Big Dax says. "Hold their hands, sing, do whatever you need to do. Keep your mind working on the good shit."
"I don't need friends."
"Careful, Ellis," Torres says. "It's a long walk back."
Wintric pushes a new syringe against the boy's shoulder, presses the plunger, and the clear liquid slides in.
"It's not that long," he says.
"These kids," says Big Dax. "This one right here." A young girl missing her left nostril rests her neck in his hand. "She risks getting her arm cut off to come see us. It's why we only see the worst."
This seems like an exaggeration to Wintric, though he isn't sure of anything in this place. Another boy steps up for his shot.
"We're as safe as we'll ever be," says Torres. "You can almost relax for a few hours. No one ever shoots when the army inoculates and clothes and hands out money."
Wintric sees Torres glance over at the meandering goats.
"Still," Torres says, "stay close to the kids, especially the boys. They hate losing boys."
"That makes no sense," Wintric says. "We're safe, but stay close to the boys?" He glances at the naked mountain peaks above them.
"You from San Francisco, right?" Big Dax asks Wintric, hoping to help.
"Four hours north."
"No. California. The good part."
"Redwoods?" Torres chimes in.
"Two thousand people. A lake. Think Montana, but Bay Area assholes in the summer."
Wintric takes a drink of bottled water and motions to the next in line.
"They take our water," he says.
"A's or Giants?" Big Dax asks.
"You like Barry Bonds? 'Cause he's a prick. Probably got nuts the size of gnats."
"Hit three-forty-something, forty-five homers. He'll beat it this year. You'd take him in a heartbeat."
"Shit. Yankees don't need him. Don't make a hat big enough for his planet-sized 'roid head."
"Oh, damn," Wintric says. "Yankees fan."
"Maybe that's what we're giving these kids — some nice, fatten-you-up steroids," Torres says and rips another rubbing-alcohol pad from its wrapper. "Creating a superrace of Afghanis that can hit a baseball a mile."
"Torres, you dumbass, have some compassion," Big Dax says while tending to a girl with a goiter. She stares at him as he tries to wave her on.
"You're done," he says.
She doesn't move.
"Done. Go. Now."
She blinks twice.
"She wants candy," the interpreter says.
"No candy," Big Dax says. He joins his right thumb and index finger, brings them to his open mouth, and shakes his head.
"No. Candy. No. Candy."
The girl stands still. The goiter bulges from the side of her neck, the flesh brushing her deltoid.
"No. Candy." He nods at the interpreter. "Translate, please."
"She understands you."
Big Dax grabs the girl beneath her arms, lifts her, turns her away from him, and sets her on the ground. He places his huge hands on her lower back and pushes her just enough so she takes her first step away.
"Come on now," Torres says, "where's the compassion for the greedy one?"
"They have nothing to do with us being here."
"You don't know that. These kids could have plenty to do with this," Torres says.
"Don't piss me off, Torres."
"Doesn't take much strength to dig a foot down, put something in the hole, cover it up. Bet some of these arms have done some digging."
Wintric sees Big Dax's left boot tap the ground.
"Fight your urge to be a little bitch," Big Dax says.
"We got staying-alive problems," says Torres. "So you're right, I'm a bitch. Guess I'm a scared bitch that wants to live." Someone off by the goats laughs. "I don't want the fucking dirt road exploding on our way back."
"Don't listen to him, Ellis. The road's fine. And Torres, don't talk shit about these kids. You know the life expectancy of these dudes?" Big Dax asks, straightening his six-foot, eight-inch body. He pauses, and Torres scratches his neck. "Low thirties."
"I must've checked the Doctors Without Borders block instead of the U.S. Army," Torres says. "My mistake."
"If it was your kids in line here, you'd think different. If it was your kids that wouldn't see thirty-one ..."
"These aren't my kids."
Stretching his arms above his head, Armando Torres examines the diminishing line of children. Not a single child appears nourished, and as he touches their arms and hair and holds their hands and the anger inside him, he thinks of his two daughters. His mind goes to Camila, his oldest and the prettier one, who refuses to eat anything unless she has a dollop of crunchy peanut butter on her plate. Four years old and tearless at his base sendoff. He was proud of her strength, but now he fears the indifferent expression she wore as he walked away.
Torres used to sing the ABCs to his girls every night while he tucked them in, and the tune comes to him now, in this gorge. It calms him. After a while he leaves out the letters and hums.
Wintric says, "You know any Metallica?"
Torres ignores him and continues to hum. He considers the minuscule amount his daughters are growing each day, how Camila will be old enough to play catch when he returns, how they might want to tuck themselves in.
After delivering the shots, the men wait around with some of the now antibodied kids and a collection of Afghan amputees. The wind has picked up, and the injured glance up every now and again, waiting for their limbs to fall from the cloudy sky. The C-130 is late.
"Jim Abbott had one arm," Big Dax says as the men sit and pick at the ground.
"Who?" Wintric asks.
"He had an arm," Torres says. "Was missing a hand."
"Threw a no-hitter," Big Dax says. "For the Yankees."
"Did he use?"
"Why would you use if you have one arm?"
"One hand," says Torres.
"Jesus, Torres, who cares if it's an arm or a hand?"
"It's a big difference."
"He didn't use," says Big Dax. "Not like your boy Bonds."
"They'll never prove it," says Wintric.
"Look at a photo of him with the Pirates side by side with one of him on the Giants," says Big Dax. "I'm a Jersey-educated man and I can tell the difference. It's not broccoli."
"Your Yankees signed Giambi," says Torres.
"Yep. And he's sure as shit dirty. You see, that's how it's done. Just admit the worst and move on. What's jacked up is that everyone on the West Coast wants to believe. No one trusts their eyes."
Nearby an old man unfurls a red-and-brown rug as the children gather around and join the limbless adults in prayer, their voices echoing off the valley walls.
"They know not what they say," Torres says. Wintric guesses he means the children, repeating the chant they've heard since birth, but maybe he directs the jab at the entire group, kneeling and bowing and rising in unison.
"And they'll kill that one before too long," Big Dax says, nodding at a young man, maybe sixteen, standing and running his fingers through his dark hair as the others pray. "'Motherfucking infidel' is what the rest are thinking. They seem like they're praying, but they're begging for that dude to be hit by lightning."
"He's not praying," Wintric says.
"Holy shit, Ellis," Big Dax says. "You're a genius."
"Think about it, brother," says Torres.
"But the dude is ... local."
"Do you know there's someone, right now, playing the trombone in Afghanistan?" says Torres.
"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"
"There's an Afghan right now, in this country, looking at porn," says Torres. "Someone planting a bomb, reading Hemingway. Someone building a bridge, listening to Celine Dion, getting off, not praying."
"Don't let it surprise you," Torres says.
"Fine," Wintric says.
"Not everyone wants to kill us," Torres says.
"Seems like they do."
"You haven't been here long enough to say that. You haven't done shit. You're a baby."
"I'm in this valley," Wintric says.
"You're a kid."
"I'm here like you are."
"You heard of the saying 'Be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet'?"
"Too bad," Torres says. "It's some Marine shit, but it's perfect."
"There are a ton of people praying that we all die," Torres says. "Enough to keep us sharp."
But Wintric has stopped listening. He eyes the young man combing his hair with his fingers as the others rise and bow, rise and bow, not twenty feet from him. The move is something Wintric performed a thousand times before his enlistment, and he raises his right hand and rubs the stubble on his shaved head, still sensing the phantom weight of his once-long hair. Wintric wants to know what the young man is thinking, wants to ask him how he can just stand there, doing nothing. Is he afraid? Bored? Something else? The young man scratches his crotch and the atmosphere of wonder lessens. Still, Wintric wants to rise and walk over to him, but he fights the impulse and stares at the grass between his knees. He digs a clump up and inspects the individual blades.
Wintric isn't yet aware that Torres's comment will stay with him: occasionally, in the future, when he witnesses something out of the ordinary — in this country or his own — he will think, Someone's playing a trombone.
At last a C-130 lumbers overhead, drops a flagged transmitter, then circles back. High above, a parachute opens. Two crates full of prosthetic arms and legs float down to them. Torres recalls watching Air Force Academy cadets drift under blue parachutes, then he wonders out loud if the Afghans think Allah is a C-130 pilot, or the plane itself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them"
Copyright © 2015 Jesse Goolsby.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Be Polite but Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet,
Top of the World,
Resurrecting a Body Half,
Two Things from a Burning House,
Wyoming Is a Gun in His Waistband,
About the Author,