Scott Kaukonen: The Physics of a Bomb

Every time you close your eyes you see shrapnel and shards of broken glass and razor-sharp fragments of iron and it’s all flying toward you at a thousand miles an hour. You don’t think, you only react, and you launch your body into space in the direction where you believe your daughter stands, the last place you heard her laughter, its crystalline waterfall, and all you know is that you must impose your body between the shrapnel and the shards of broken glass and the razor-sharp fragments of iron and her body. All of history, all of your life has come to this. But she is not there, not where you thought she was, and still the shrapnel and glass and metal, the glittering pieces that if put back together might hold the world together again, keep coming. Where does it all come from? You look around frantically and leap again, extending arms and legs in a desperate reach, not even sure where she has gone, just knowing she’s not here and so you must be there or there or there. You don’t think twice about putting your own body in danger, don’t think twice about the impact of the shrapnel on your body, on the skin, on muscle tissue, on tiny blood vessels, capillaries, how it will feel to be sliced by a hundred pieces of broken glass, to feel flesh ripped by hot metal, singed. It’s deafening all around you, the sound of the explosion, of glass shattering, the concussive reverberation of a bomb, the thunderclap of its release, a physics you do not understand. You hear her screaming, crying out for you, and you try to answer her, to call back, but nothing comes from your mouth, only silence, and then you realize you are screaming, there is sound, but it is swallowed up by another noise that consumes the universe, buries you. You are frantic. You cannot find her. The world falling apart around you in a billion fragments. You’re terrified, too, and you know already that nothing can be changed, even if you open your eyes, but you open them any way because it’s all you can do. You lie awake in bed with your eyes lost in the ceiling above you and you try to think about the morning to come, but all you can remember is the sight of a body slashed by shrapnel and shards of broken glass and fragments of hot metal. Ribbons of skin, marrow of bone, splay of viscera. After all these years, you still don’t understand the physics of a bomb.

      A man at the church tries to explain it to you. He was in Vietnam, did two tours of duty, took a chunk of hot metal in the leg, just above the knee, though you’d never know it now by the way he walks, thanks to therapists and rehab. Some evenings in the summer, you see him jogging through town in nylon shorts and running shoes, bare-chested, a water bottle in his hand. If it’s close enough to dusk, the only time to run on certain days in the summer, the heat and humidity intolerable, you cannot see the crude, pinkish scar that slashes across the front of his thigh, a testament to violence. You only see the steady rhythm of his stride, the left-right-left of an eight-minute mile, arms and legs in beautiful coordination, a biological marvel, how everything works together to move him along the street. Such a simple act: to run. To propel one’s own body forward in space and time. He isn’t trying to be cruel, only helpful. He has seen first-hand what a bomb can do, an RPG, a single slug from an AK-47 or an M-16. He’s seen a grenade take off a man’s leg, an ear, a hand—one minute it’s there, the body whole, and the next, the hand is gone, a bloody stump all that remains. There aren’t even pieces. He understands the physics of a bomb. So you’re in the narthex of the church on a Wednesday evening in autumn, and it’s cool enough now for sweaters and jackets, and the men in the church are growing beards for warmth in the winter soon to come. Service has ended, people have begun to leave, they’re rounding up the kids for the van. He’s holding his hands, just so, a few inches apart. You know he’s not a whacko or trying to be cruel—he’s not a sadist—it’s even nice that he has something to say, he’s been so quiet in the years since he’s been back. He feels out of place—he confided this in you once—but now a few others have gathered around you, too, and you’re not sure if it’s because they also wish to understand the physics of a bomb or if they’re there for your own sake, thinking how difficult this must be for you to listen to, the inappropriateness of it all. Doesn’t he know what happened to your daughter? But you’re calm and oddly fascinated with his descriptions, the language clinical, the details matter-of-fact, though there’s a touch of excitement in his voice, an anxiousness, as though he’s both relieved and uncertain to be sharing this secret ritual that ends in blood and mangled body parts and death. He’s demonstrating for you the way the bomb is assembled once all the constituent parts have been acquired, though he reminds you this is just one way of doing it, there are others, he says. You move closer to him. You don’t want him to know you’re afraid now, though you couldn’t exactly state the nature of your fear. He isn’t, after all, constructing a real bomb; his bomb consists only of words, ideas, concepts, and these are not the same thing as chemicals and metals and fluids. They do not have physical properties, the necessary physical properties to maim and destroy, though you know the damage language can do—it’s why some of the men have gathered close to you, watch you, watch your face.

      In a few moments, he will apologize, and even, for a second, weep, maybe from memory, maybe from shame for subjecting you to this—what hot fragments of metal do to the flesh of a human thigh, the burn like no heat ever, the smell of singed flesh that never quite escapes your nostrils, the sight of blood pooled in a village street, the yellow dust and chicken feathers and human urine and dogs on bloody stumps, yelping. Later, someone will yell at him for saying such things to you, the insensitivity of it all. He will apologize again. He won’t return to the church for five months. You will look for him every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night. You will ask your husband to check on him. There will be rumors he is drinking again and smoking weed. There will be an incident with the police in the parking lot of the grocery store, late on a Thursday night, whispers that he’d gone as close to the edge as you can go, threatened to go ballistic, to wipe out everything in his path. Your husband will try to visit but no one will answer the door. Someone will say he’s moved away, gone to live with his brother or to who-knows-where. Maybe they locked him up. Then you will drive by his house and see him on the porch and he won’t even wave. He will just sit there, still as a granite beast. You will wonder what he thinks about, if he thinks about it every day, that afternoon in Vietnam that changed his life forever. You will wonder if he, like you, can’t sleep, if that day plays over and over again on the video screen of his memory, even when he’s standing in line at the five-and-dime or waiting to cash his disability check at the bank. You will be struck by how old he appears, the thinning black hair, the pinched texture of his skin, his weary posture, shoulders slumped, as though this is all he can manage now, and you will have to remind yourself that he’s only twenty-nine; he was just a baby-faced kid of eighteen, barely out of high school, when the government sent him off to a place his mother couldn’t even find on a map, and told him to fire his gun, to throw his grenades, to tear flesh from bone, to sever, to rip, to bludgeon, to kill. To utilize the physics of a bomb, even if he did not fully understand it all—the bomb or why he was there. And then one Sunday morning, you will turn your head from your bench at the piano, and you will see him near the back, freshly groomed, a new tie, a crisp striped shirt, clean-shaven, handsome. Beside him, a middle-aged woman of modest features, rather homely, you think—though who are you to talk?—with freckled skin and wheat-colored hair, a few extra pounds in her face and upper arms and around the waist. You will want to cry, an unforeseen welling up of something inside you, and so you will rise abruptly from your seat and make your way to the back of the auditorium, still not sure why you’re crying, because you’re so happy for him, for the person he has found, and you will stand in the restroom alone, unrolling toilet paper from the dispenser, angry at Mrs. Dutton for always ordering the cheapest kind, the thin sheets shredding in your hands. You are overwhelmed, you realize, by love, though you could not explain how this works either, its physics.

      But for now you watch his hands come together. You imagine the triggers and the shell. The powder. Wires and electrical tape and chemical compounds. The chain of events. Everything in sequence, like clockwork. The spark. The release. And when his hands come together, flat palm against flat palm, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, you flinch. And when you flinch, you blink, your eyes closed for the briefest, most imperceptible moment, but what you see there is beyond your worst imagination, beyond horror, and so you keep your eyes open when you tell him to, “Take good care,” keep your eyes open on the car ride home, the windows down, keep your eyes open until, in bed that night beside your sleeping husband, the angels—or are they demons?—drag them closed.

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