Tell Me a Story
"Tell Me a Story"
Francisco M. Martínezcuello
The zygomaticus major and minor muscles are better known as the “smiling muscles.” I first noticed my zygomaticus muscles atrophied in October twenty-fifteen while I was at a Vons Supermarket in San Diego when the front swiveling wheels of my shopping cart seized up. The shopping cart was invented by Sylvan Goldman of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sylvan sat in his office one night in nineteen thirty-six and wondered how he could get his customers to move more groceries and yet I was stuck in aisle thirteen not moving shit. The increase in static friction forced my back to round, and head to dip while I shortened my steps still unable to move an empty thirty-five pound aluminum vessel. My thirteen-year-old twins, amused with my struggle, offered comic relief by making faces at me as I kicked and whispered expletives at the winning wheel. I scratched my left wrist and adjusted my memorial bracelet that I had purchased in February two thousand four, while Tavaya, the eldest by two minutes, held a jar of Smucker’s Apple Butter.
“What you got there, Bub?” I asked in between pushes and grunts.
“What do people use this for?” She raised the jar in a synchronized fashion.
“I can’t read the jar.” I squinted, I scratched my hairy face.
“I hate scruffies, Dad.” Nyoka, the younger twin, smirked, referring to my failed attempt at bearding. My zygomaticus muscles did not respond.
My father hadn’t been in my life since I was three and my parents divorced. I cannot comprehend what it’s like to have a father, let alone a lifer Marine veteran who missed years of his children’s’ lives. My daughters were on a repetitive seven stage emotional cycle of deployment. This cycle included: anticipation of loss, detachment and withdrawal, emotional disorganization, recovery and stabilization, anticipation of homecoming, renegotiation of marriage, reintegration and stabilization. Stage One “Anticipation of Loss” came to me when I was sitting in the Transition Assistance Program classes that separating service-members receive. I had received my DD-214 and officially retired from the Marine Corps in September twenty-fifteen, and my mind was going through this seven-stage cycle for the third time. The first time was during my yearlong stay in Iraq two-thousand-and-eight. The second was Afghanistan two-thousand-and-eleven. And now I was deploying from the Marine Corps.
My twins stared at their Stage Two “Detached and Withdrawn” father. A man foreign to them, bound by blood, who made them uneasy, but whom they mimicked and teased to alleviate tense situations. They called me names like “beardo” in order to get a response from my expressionless face. In the Marines we are taught to compartmentalize our emotions and not allow them to interfere with the decision making process. The faster a leader makes decisions on the battlefield the faster the troops can execute to overwhelm the enemy. Emotions cause hesitation which leads to loss of life. But when my daughters would hesitate kissing me goodnight as if they were smooching a porcupine I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me.
“Smucker’s Apple Butter,” I said. “I used to know someone who loved the stuff.”
“Tell me a story, Dad.”
At that particular moment it was hard to tell if my daughter came up with that phrase organically or if she was mimicking me again.
Tell me a story transported me back to a world when my zygomaticus major and minor were flexible and strong; undefeated against sadness and anger.
March two thousand in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. I was a young enlisted man, a Sergeant, and a Marine Security Guard at the American Consulate in Rio de Janeiro. I was the new guy and my immediate supervisor had just returned from Bahia, Brazil. His name was Danton Kyle Seitsinger, but he preferred Kyle for short. Kyle felt it appropriate that FNG’s (fucking new guys) work all the holiday shifts so that the senior members of the team could enjoy life.
I had transferred from Kampala, Uganda, flying from one continent to another—a long flight that caused my short temper to flare—then landed on the eve of Carnival only to go to work the next morning. After three days of shift work, standing in dress blues for most of the watch, I relaxed in the empty Marine House. I was watching TV when Kyle walked in through the front door. A hairy barrel-chested man in a black Speedo, he shouted, “Tell me a story.”
“I’ll tell you a story,” I responded. “I’ll tell you a story about a Sergeant who screwed over another Sergeant by making him work before he even had a chance to acclimate to a new environment.”
Kyle laughed, “It’s carnival son. We don’t have time for that.”
While my initial reaction towards Kyle wasn’t positive, his gregariousness won me over enough to shed tears when his tour ended, and he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps after six and a half years in the summer of two-thousand. Kyle was an infantryman by trade but he didn’t spend much time with a line company as a result of his success on the rifle range. He was an instrument of war and he dutifully mastered his craft with precision so much that he was tasked to train others on the range, becoming a coveted rifle range coach at Edson Range aboard Camp Pendleton.
Kyle was born on October fourth, nineteen seventy-four in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a place I would curse much later in life for giving birth to the shopping cart. He was the product of a cattle ranching family. Throughout his life Kyle moved with purpose and speed as if instinctively driven to explore this world. Kyle found service and sacrifice early through simple gestures like giving his jacket to the cold, poor kid in school. He wasn’t a saint; he was flawed like all teenage boys. His lack of discipline and disdain for authority resulted in his enrollment at the Wentworth Military Academy in nearby Lexington, Missouri.
Later in Rio, Kyle would receive care packages from his community, church and family. The contents of the care packages often included children’s clothes, soccer balls and Smucker’s Apple Butter. Kyle presented the children’s clothes to the orphaned and impoverished children of Rio. He threw soccer balls to the kids on the street from the armored vehicle on his way to work. And he routinely smeared the apple butter on toast or shoved spoonfuls into his mouth every morning and washed it down with coffee.
“Put the jar in the cart. I’ll tell you a story after some toast.”
After she put the jar in the cart, I pushed it with ease, as if the apple butter greased the stuck swivel wheels. We finished shopping and returned home.
In early February two thousand four, I received a phone call from then Staff Sergeant William Pennington. William was stationed with me and Kyle in Brazil, and we continued our friendship. It was my junior year at Cal State San Marcos and the twins were turning two that summer. My girlfriend Tausha, who would later become my wife, answered the phone. I was bottle feeding Tavaya while watching TV in the living room of our nine-hundred square foot apartment. I always admired Tausha’s olive complexion but moments after picking up the phone I noticed her skin had turned pale. “You need to take this call,” she said. “It’s William.”
I exchanged Tavaya for the phone.
“What’s up Pennington?”
“Kyle’s dead Frank, he was blown up.”
There’s no other way to receive bad news in the military, you’re trained to ask yourself
two things when you receive information: 1. What do I know? (The five W’s) and 2. Who needs to know it?
William provided me with the ‘who’ and the ‘what,’ but the where, when and why didn’t matter to me.
After the Marines, Kyle went to Oklahoma Christian University in pursuit of a degree in both journalism and Spanish. He also went into the Army Reserves as a way to help pay for school. He was on his way to graduating but was called to active duty in November two thousand three with the 486th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Back from the store, the twins put away the groceries while I placed four slices of bread in their respective spring-loaded trays of my automatic toaster and I triggered the lowering mechanism. I opened up the jar of apple butter imagining Kyle opening a care package.
On January twenty-ninth, two-thousand-and-four the United States sustained the largest loss of life in Afghanistan at the time. The Army said a weapons cache exploded in Afghanistan and never explained anything more to the eight families that were seventy-four-hundred miles away. Those families absorbed the shock waves and were fragmented that cold Thursday in January. The Army didn’t have to tell me a story; I already knew Kyle’s. I’m positive Kyle went on patrol with his care package and handed out clothes, toys and chocolate to Afghan kids. I’m positive the children were being watched by others just as I watched the orange toaster coils glow. I’m positive the kids fed Kyle information and Kyle acted on it.
My automatic toaster radiated three-hundred-ten degrees of heat on that bread as I was trying to comprehend the effects of three-thousand-degree heat on flesh. The toaster popped; the image vaporized.
“Paper plates Dad?”
I felt the girls’ stares as I grabbed the toast slowly and sat it on three plates. One for each of them and two for me.
“I’ll get a butter knife,” said one.
“I’ll get milk,” said the other.
“I’ll be at the table.” I grabbed the apple butter along with the toast. Moments later we all sat down.
I began to tell them a story about apple butter and how it used to be a family and community effort to make. I told them of the importance of canning and jarring, specifically in the time before refrigerators. I told them that apple butter would last through harsh winters and communities would make it and hold festivals in October. I paused the story, took the knife to the apple butter with my right hand as I held the toast on my left when I thought of Ghazni, Afghanistan where Kyle took his last breath.
The capital city of Ghazni is at the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains, roughly seventy-three hundred feet above sea level.
I elevated my left wrist where the starchy plateau laid flat on my palm, my bracelet in my line of sight. I smeared the deep brown apple butter over the caramelized toast like an explosion coating its path with shrapnel and soot.
“Are you okay dad?”
“No. No I am not.”
I entered Stage Three, “Emotional Disorganization,” when I took a bite of the toast. I was surprised by the sweetness of the apple butter but it didn’t ameliorate the bitterness. I was angry at Kyle for not seeing my daughters or me before he left. I was mad at him for answering the call to serve again even when he’d already done his time. I felt guilty for surviving after twenty years of service and he had been denied his dreams. I was so occupied with anger I was oblivious to notice the twins had dismissed themselves to their room. They put me in timeout.
While in timeout, I thought more about why Kyle continued his service. I think he missed the sense of purpose and the brotherhood that came with it. I missed it too, so I applied to the San Diego Police Department. I was scheduled to attend the academy in November.
I had an appointment with a psychiatrist on the morning of October twenty-second, twenty-fifteen. It was a beautiful Thursday and I woke up feeling more optimistic than usual. The psychiatrist’s office was on Third Avenue in Hillcrest so I decided to get there early for breakfast since it was near a diner that I’d been meaning to check out. At around seven in the morning I got to the gentrified diner made popular by their portion sizes, moderate prices and hip clientele. I walked in with my suit and tie on, sat at the bar, ordered and stared at my coffee. My left wrist was itching and so I scratched it; bracelet exposed. I ate my breakfast and asked the waiter for my check. He said it was already taken care of while he pointed to my wrist. I didn’t know how to respond to a free meal. The loss of a friend was worth more to me than breakfast. I didn’t want to be rude but my zygomaticus muscles were uncooperative so I left a tip instead.
October had been cold, but that day it was sunny and seventy-six degrees. At the psychiatrist’s office I took the battery of tests and waited for the interview. The psychiatrist went into the waiting area where we exchanged greetings. As she led me down the hallway to her office a volley of questions came out of her like a three round burst from a service rifle.
“Are you ready?”
“Are you ok?”
“Why do you look so sad?”
When we got into her office she sat down at her desk as I sat in a chair in front of her. I told her a story about being born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Long Island, New York; often times being the only family of color in the neighborhood. She folded her arms like my mother did when she was dissatisfied with me and not buying my bullshit. I moved past my demographics and continued. I told her more stories about eating government cheese and purchasing food with food stamps or “monopoly money” as the bullies referred to. I told her a story of depression after Kyle’s death to which her response was, “You had a tough life.” I told her that I only know of my life and that I cannot compare it to others. She asked if I’ve had flashbacks and I told her a story about my experiences. She asked me why I wanted to be a police officer. I told her that I sought purpose and I wanted to serve my community. She recommended I find another profession. I was a liability and considered a high risk for the department.
There would be more rejections in the months to come, that was merely the beginning. My email inbox is full of letters like:
“Dear Mr. Martinezcuello:
We have carefully reviewed and considered your qualifications for this position. We regret that we are unable to offer you a position at this time.”
…unfortunately we are going with another person for this particular role. You did interview well and I am looking at other opportunities for you.”
“Dear Mr. Martinezcuello,
We have reviewed your application and found you qualified for the position. However, you were not among the most highly qualified candidates.”
In November twenty-fifteen, a few weeks after my visit with the psychiatrist, I drove up to San Clemente where Kyle’s family dedicated a bench in honor of him at the Marine Monument in Semper Fi Park. There’s a beautiful view of the San Clemente Pier being swallowed by the Pacific. I sat on Kyle’s bench that foggy fall morning. I was slumped over with my head in my hands, rubbing my hair back and forth in frustration. I whispered, “I’m trying,” when my bracelet scratched my forehead. I took off the bracelet and studied it for the first time. It was scratched by Babylonian sandstorms and battered by the Afghan metamorphic rock but you can still make out the engraved print “SGT Danton Kyle Seitsinger OK ARMY Enduring Freedom KIA 29 JAN 04”. I got up off the bench to throw the bracelet when I noticed the fog had lifted and I could see the pier clearly; to the left of beach swings. I remembered a day in March twenty-eleven when I took the twins to meet with William before I deployed to Afghanistan. William and I exchanged stories about Kyle that day. My daughters asked me and William to walk the pier and try out the beach swings so we did. I pushed the girls on the swing, their backs crashed against my hand like Newton’s cradle. Their blond locks danced with the on-shore breeze as their bodies’ defied gravity. “Higher daddy, higher,” they demanded until they were parallel with the heavens; their zygomaticus muscles active, present and accounted for. At that moment I could feel Kyle’s presence. He was there that spring two-thousand-eleven just as he was in November two-thousand-fifteen and for the moment all of us were together again. This realization welcomed me into Stage Four “Recovery and Stabilization” and I felt my facial nerve trigger the zygomaticus minor to draw my upper lip up igniting a chain reaction. My Cranial Nerve fired signals to the zygomaticus major and I felt the corners begin to turn; I got into my car and returned home.