KR OnlineFiction

Not Here to Make Friends

It’s The Art of War’s Seventh Challenge, and the contestants who are still there are there to win. Joseph stands backstage with his fellow high achievers, waiting for the judges to finish their deliberations. No one is talking because even though they can’t hear the judges, they can track the rise and fall of their voices and hope that this topography will tell them something about their imminent fates.

If Joseph stands at the correct angle in relation to the curtain’s fold, he can see his mannequin out there, waiting for him. The mannequin wears the ironic pool-party gear Joseph finished crafting just an hour before: a camo bikini with gas masks for bra cups. She stands there with lips pursed and camo thong slung around her waist. Joseph tries to copy her stern impassivity because Matt the Producer is about to call them back out under the hot hush of the stage lights, and he’ll have to go up against Rae, the Taiwanese hipster with a different colored Converse sneaker on each foot, and Cindy, the loudmouth Tennessee textile artist who claims to do everything for God and Nico, the Greek glass blower who is too nice for anybody’s good, and RJ, the freakishly gifted painter from Seattle the judges always love.

By this point, even though he can’t see the judges, he feels like he can because he’s seen them deliberating while he waits backstage on the two episodes of The Art of War that have already aired on Bravo. He knows that in the edited version of the show that will air in a month, shots of the judges talking now will be spliced with footage of them throughout the past two days, assembling their outfits in the workroom. Long pans of the garment racks of uniforms in the US army’s three main colors—desert sand, urban gray, and foliage green—along with canvas from tents, nylon belts, and an assortment of combat boots in various sizes. With most of the uniforms, there was some defect in production that left them unfit for their original intent. But a few of them had actually been worn. These uniforms had dust on the knees, the same dust that shrouded all the detritus in the workroom, all the Iraq war castoffs that comprised their allotted materials for all The Art of War’s challenges: artillery shells and bullet casements, lightly singed flak vests and empty plastic MRE containers, punctured tires, and cracked guns. The artists always appear frivolous in the face of the seriousness of the material, that being part of the joke, though no one, least of all Joseph, knows whether the show is fully earnest or utterly cynical. All he knows is he needs to win.

Now they’re back onstage, and Vivian is peering at them with her gold-plated binoculars, one of her many cultivated eccentricities. She dubs Rae’s parachute cape elegant but a little too simple. She tells Cindy, who dyed her material black—a color not found in nature, so technically uncamouflageable—that her concept is obtuse. Now it’s Joseph’s turn. He watches the dark tunnels of the binoculars watch him.

“Joseph, Joseph, Joseph,” Vivian sighs. Vivian is British and gets her world-weary confidence from her past collaboration with Yoko Ono and (reportedly) having an affair with Damien Hirst. “You’re like the camel’s-milk cappuccinos they sell here in Dubai. High potential for innovation that leaves you with a mealy-mouth feel and the sense that you would have been better off with an unhip skim. Know what I mean?”

Joseph does not, though he nods anyway. Vivian’s quixotic analogies are popular subjects for memes. Audience engagement: paramount. He wonders if this one will appear on social media.

“You’ve gotten this far on ironic set-pieces and—admittedly—technical skill,” she continues. “But it’s not enough. Remember the materials we’ve given you. Remember that all of this has been trucked over a thousand miles from abandoned battlefields in Iraq across Saudi Arabia to meet us here in Dubai, all on the dime of our good prime minister. And what do you think the prime minister wants in exchange?”

Joseph decides to assume the question is rhetorical.

“HEART! The prime minister is paying for HEART!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Joseph salutes her, which they’re supposed to do as much as possible to reinforce the military theme. But inside he’s panicking. Back in Chicago he had everything—talent and drive and sculpture commissions for various taxpayer-funded centers to revitalize urban youth. But on The Art of War he’s barely hanging on, scraping by on each challenge with work that he thinks is witty and provocative but never, to the judges, seems enough. They’re hungry for backstory—backstories like RJ’s obsession with his little sister, who died from a brain tumor last year. A backstory that informs all your art, that explains why you’re here.

Vivian has moved onto RJ, who has outfitted his mannequin in camo formal wear, a full suit and tie. In any other situation Joseph would be suspicious; RJ’s idea is a little too close to his own. But the fact is they were given a lot of camo material, and there’s only so much you can do with it.

“Honor,” Vivian says of RJ’s suit, fingering the chain links on her binoculars. “There’s a real sense of honor to the work.”

Joseph catches himself grinding his teeth, lets himself continue even though he promised his dentist he would stop. He watches RJ nod to accept the compliment, impressively stoic. Joseph’s jaw clicks. Five minutes of real time and who knows how much show time later, Vivian voices the show’s exit line: “I’m sorry, but you’ve been discharged!” Cindy is out. Soon after, RJ wins.

 

There are so many rules on The Art of War you’d have to carry around your contract to remember them all: no leaving the Hilton Dubai except to go (chaperoned) to the workroom or the stage, no bare shoulders for the women, no engaging anyone staying at the Hilton in political discussion, no talking to anyone outside the show about the show at all. But Joseph doesn’t need his contract to remind him he is breaking a rule now, in the Hilton’s Business Lounge, opening a G-chat window to talk to Greta. They’re not even supposed to be on the Internet, let alone talking to someone from their life outside the show. But 1) Joseph is horribly insecure after what Vivian said earlier in the day, and 2) Joseph needs to make sure Greta doesn’t forget about him. She’s a photographer, and so invested in the particularities of the moment that he will sometimes return from a grocery trip to find her blinking at him slowly, struggling to remember who he is.

i couldn’t stay away

so you risk your place on the show? i guess i’m flattered.

i feel like i can’t win. i’m failing here. i’ve reached my limit.

you have to win. we’re having a party, with salted caramel cupcakes. i already planned it lol.

i’m so lonely. i miss you.

you know i love you but i have to go. i have to go over photo placement with Marshall.

send me a pic of your face at least

But the selfie she sends is so rushed her face is blurred. The only thing he can see clearly is a glass of sparkling water and a bowl of edamame: her typical computer snack.

Marshall. The guy who owns the gallery that represents Greta. The guy with selvage jeans who photographs urban farmers. Is it to distract himself from the possibilities that Marshall represents that Joseph starts Googling? He calls information onto the screen. The locations of US military bases in Afghanistan. The names of units and regiments. The terms of war.

 

Back onstage. Sometimes the challenges are thematic, as in this one, which is “innocence.” Joseph’s contribution is a version of the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his favorite movie as a kid. He has painted a busted all-terrain vehicle in pastels, with nylon wings made to look like children’s kites, and rubber tires on the bottom for flotation.

The project looks good, and he knows it’s more emotionally resonant than his previous works. But the competition is strong again. RJ made a shrine to his sister out of bullet-proof glass windows. And Rae is upstage now peering out from under the swoop of her asymmetrical haircut long enough to justify her creation, a 1/10 scale-model tugboat made from soldered shrapnel. Because they have reached the point in the competition in which there are few enough contestants to make it possible for them to give speeches, Rae is telling Vivian how when she was a girl her father used to take her to the lake in Taipei, how they’d sneak the ducks breadcrumbs even though it was forbidden, and float boats just like this one—but this one, of course, doesn’t float, because isn’t growing up heavy?

It’s Joseph’s turn. He introduces Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and he senses from the way Vivian forgets to pick up her binoculars that it’s going well.

“There are only two challenges left, but I feel like I’m just getting to know you,” Vivian says when he’s done. Joseph beams, a little delirious. He hasn’t been getting much sleep. Vivian continues, “What took you so long?”

And that’s when he says it. “I retreated, I guess. It’s hard to be around all these reminders when you’ve been in the war.”

Vivian looks at the two male judges who flank her sides, who offer nothing substantive to the evaluations and seem to be there mostly for contrast. Both raise their eyebrows and shrug. “We didn’t know you were a soldier.” Vivian is gratifyingly shocked. Thinking no doubt, How did they miss this in their background screening?

“I don’t make a big deal out of it,” Joseph says, without even a hitch in his breath. “But yeah. I was stationed near Kandahar from 2010 to ’11.”

The other contestants stare at him. Finally, Joseph thinks. Reckon with me. Vivian turns to Matt, the producer hovering off-camera, a pale man with a topiaried beard. “We’ll have to edit this down,” she says, and he nods like it’s obvious. When the contestants go offstage to await the judges’ decision, no one says anything to Joseph. He wonders whether their silence hides their skepticism. But it doesn’t matter—because when they come back, he wins.

 

He wouldn’t have expected this about lying, how exhilarating it is. The sick-making doubts about whether he’ll ever make it as an artist begin to recede. Competition galvanizes rather than panics him now. During the occasional times he leaves the hotel and goes into the city—supervised—Dubai’s surreal architecture no longer sends him into a cold sweat. He can face down the monstrous needle of the Burj Khalifa, the Byzantine indoor malls, the endless artificial islands.

He feels himself growing in importance with the other contestants. People are careful with him now. One of the producers takes him aside and thanks him for his service. Rae says she hopes her anti-imperialist sculpture didn’t trivialize his experience.

 

He realizes he should cover his tracks. He does more furtive late-night research. He figures out what battalion he was a part of, where they did their training, what his uniform would have been. He settles on a standard recruitment story: high school cafeteria, narrow prospects, misguided youth.

He has to tell Greta. Not only because she’ll be confused when the episodes air, but because the show might call her for a friend/family perspective anytime. The prospect of this call is the one unsettling part of Joseph’s plan. Greta is a variable; if she’s called she’ll have to cover for him and do it seamlessly. She’ll have to understand the utility of the lie. She’ll have to forgive him for it, continue to love him, avoid the temptation of falling into the waiting arms of Marshall.

It’s the Hilton Business Lounge, after 10. Families are in their rooms and everyone else is out. There’s one other person behind the partition, probably a Saudi exec. Joseph keeps a Word doc ready to maximize in case someone from the show happens by. He’ll say he’s planning, or journaling.

When he tells her, Greta takes it well. She actually says, “Good for you.” She adds: “You needed to make a change, and you figured out how to do it.” Like she’s actually proud of him.

He tells her she’ll have to make up a story about his being in the war.

no problemo, she says.

just keep it vague. remember that Lifetime movie we saw about the wives of the soldiers in Iraq?

the one where you cried?

i did not cry

you sweet boy

It has gone so much better than he ever could have expected. He second guesses her motives. Why would she do this for him? Maybe it didn’t matter that he was asking her to lie, because HE didn’t matter to her anymore.

He clings to their sign-off ritual. He asks her to send him a picture of her face.

She does, but like last time he can’t see her face. This time it’s because she has a mud mask on.

“Hottie.” The other person in the computer room isn’t a Saudi exec, it’s RJ. He’s pointing to Greta’s mud face.

Gotta go, Joseph types, and closes the chat. “You won’t say anything to Vivian, will you?”

“If I did I’d be a hypocrite. I was talking to my girlfriend, too.”

Joseph realizes RJ is trying to bond with him. This guy with the muscly tattooed arms—like he was the military vet. Who before hadn’t paid Joseph much attention at all.

“Come get some food with me,” RJ continues. “I know a great place on Al Dhiyafah Road. The cook makes a lamb shawarma that’s like eating the body of Christ Himself. None of this ‘molecular infused’ shit they have at the hotel.”

“Speaking of breaking the rules.”

RJ shrugs and looks around. “I have to take care of myself. All this Plexiglas and frankincense . . . I get kind of claustrophobic.”

The doorman opens the door to the outside. Escape is as easy as that. On the street Emirati men are sitting out in umbrella-topped café tables like it’s midmorning; the neon signs are so bright it feels like it really is.

“Is your girlfriend having viewing parties, too?” RJ asks.

Joseph nods. “Artisanal cupcakes and everything.”

RJ laughs and runs his hand along the stubble lining the back of his head. From his haircut or anything else, it is impossible to tell how old he is. The cut is youthful—shaved close on the sides, a few wisps on top—but the little hair that’s there is gray. All Joseph’s artist friends back in Chicago have their hair like that: military chic.

RJ ducks into the darkest awning on the strip, and Joseph follows. Inside, hissing smoke rises from stovetop grills, and groups of men sit at a few cramped tables, smoking shisha and watching Al Jazeera. RJ waves to the cook, who not only recognizes him but quits the stove to greet him, beaming and clapping him on the back.

“Where is Paris Hilton?” the cook asks. It seems to be an inside joke.

RJ introduces Joseph as a friend from the show. He emphasizes that Joseph was an American soldier. Is Joseph being paranoid, or is RJ’s tone a little aggressive?

But the cook claps him on the back like he did RJ and calls him a hero.

They are led to the only free table and presented with a copper hookah. Joseph sucks mint smoke deep into his lungs, listening for the pipe’s babble amid the restaurant’s din. When he manages to forget his own suspicions about RJ’s suspicions, he feels freer than he has in a long time.

Now RJ is talking about the show. “It’s so surreal, you know? I remember meeting with one of those bullshit career counselors in college, and she said Where do you see yourself in five years, and my answer was definitely Not in Dubai weaving a rug out of the shoelaces on some dead soldiers’ boots.”

“It was a good rug,” Joseph says.

“I don’t know if I even know myself anymore.” Now RJ is looking carefully at Joseph. “The things I say for the sake of this show. Like, my dead sister wasn’t the saint I make her out to be. Her ex-girlfriend took out a restraining order on her.”

“Brain cancer excuses any flaw,” Joseph says. But he knows RJ isn’t satisfied. That RJ brought up his own story to test Joseph. That Joseph is now supposed to admit his own exaggerations.

The lamb shawarma arrives before Joseph has to cede ground. The cook hovers while they sample the meat. It’s true what RJ promised: the meat is so good Joseph can taste the lamb’s innocence, the dew on the grass where it was slaughtered.

Maybe it’s to keep Joseph wary that RJ asks Joseph to tell everyone about the scariest memory he has from the war. The cook is still standing over them, and the conversation of the men at the table nearest dwindles in response to the promise of a good story. OK, if you want it this way. Joseph hesitates, a moment to gather himself, but it’s only for show. He knows exactly what he’ll say.

He turns to his audience. “You know we have this cultural sensitivity training in the army, right?” Everyone nods. “So that day we were supposed to take part in worship at a mosque. We had a guide and a translator to tell us about the prayers and everything. It’s a little bit bullshit. I mean, all you Muslims are great, I respect your traditions, it’s just like, what difference is it going to make? No offense.” He turns to his audience. The men immediately surrounding them hold up their hands: no offense taken—though Joseph thinks he sees the men at the back table frown.

That’s when he has the real genius moment. He spreads his napkin across the table and asks RJ to move his plate to his lap so he has room for the demonstration.

“So this here’s the mosque floor. All dirt. Pretty primitive. These water glasses are the doors. Most of the worshippers are already inside.” He tears up bits of pita and places them on the napkin to represent the worshippers. “I’m this fork, here. I’m coming in close to last. That’s what saves me, because the suicide bomber comes in from the opposite door.” He points to the other side of the napkin. Everyone is looking anxiously at the pita bread. “I’m taking off my shoes when it happens. Following proper protocol, being respectful of native traditions. Then: BOOM!”

He concaves the napkin to show the earth mushrooming up. “Everything’s chaos. There’s shrapnel and debris flying everywhere.” Inspired, transported by the drama of his own creation, he takes a notebook out of his pocket, tears up a page and lets it flutter over the napkin. “There’s smoke covering the place, so I can’t see anything. Everyone blow smoke.”

The Emiratis inhale deeply from their hookahs, lean in to puff white clouds over the table. They are loving this.

“That’s more like it. So, of course, my first instinct is to run the hell out of the place.” Joseph moves his fork to the other side of the water glasses. “And I do. But then I remember my soldierly duties, and I run back in.”

Yes, of course, that’s what he would have done. Run back in. He likes thinking about this, his body instinctively heroic against the better judgment of his mind. He moves the pita to his plate now, under and around the meat.

“That’s how it was when I got back in. Bodies everywhere. Limbs

everywhere. Everyone turned to meat—like this lamb but undercooked. Bloody.”

“But you saved lives!” The cook is wild with worry, eager for redemption.

“I don’t know if I’d say that.” Joseph is humble now, a posture befitting a hero. He lowers the fork that represented him in action. “I applied a few tourniquets.”

“How many people died?”

“Four of our own people. Five Afghans, six including the bomber. But they don’t care about losses to their own. It’s just about the message. American infidels don’t belong in our mosques.”

RJ asks if Joseph was hurt. This is the first question that stymies him. Because if he were hurt, he might have to have something to show for it now. But if he weren’t hurt—well, it wouldn’t make sense that he wouldn’t be hurt. “I caught some shrapnel to my leg,” Joseph says.

He waits for RJ to ask to see. He wonders how he would respond.

But RJ doesn’t ask, and the cook, getting back to the grill, calls out, “I’m proud to know you.”

On Joseph’s plate, the pita pieces are still huddling in their carnage. He tries to finish his meal, but he’s lost his appetite.

 

The penultimate challenge. It’s just the three of them now—Rae, RJ, and himself—the only ones who mattered all this time, the ones viewers will remember. The episode with Joseph’s revelation hasn’t aired yet, but when it does he looks forward to the uptick in his Nielsens. Even now, the judges are looking kindly on his submission to the challenge, which required them to design book covers for a new edition of Sun Tzu’s military classic, The Art of War.

Joseph’s version is 3-D, featuring an actual origami dove superimposed on top of a list of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number has by now surpassed six thousand, so of course with miniscule print Joseph can only get a fraction of them on the page. But the effect is as it’s meant to be, to overwhelm the viewer. His artistic instincts are improving along with his lies. So that he knows what kind of somber font to pick for the text. So that he knows to say, now, with the glistening eyes of the judges already primed for a tender moment, with RJ and Rae resigned to the pathos it will provoke, “My buddy Sonny Johnson comes later in the list. He was killed in the attack on the mosque—” Joseph looks to RJ, because RJ is the only one who will understand this reference and because he needs a beat to figure out what comes next.

“It’s for him that I’m dedicating this challenge. Sonny was an artist, too. Drew sketches of some of the local girls with those wide eyes like the anime he loved. Soon everyone in the village wanted one.”

It’s gotten to the point now where Joseph can actually feel the chords in his throat thickening, the grief prickling in his chest. The tragedy of losing your friend, someone so young and full of potential, in an instant. It’s moments like this that justify the lie, that tell him that if he’s really feeling it, some part of it must be real.

Vivian begins a discourse on the importance of remembering those we’ve lost. Joseph notices that since his revelation she’s scaled back her jokes, that part of her is disappointed every time he brings up the war because she can’t use her acerbic wit. Everyone has to be boring around him now. They hate him for this, and they hate him because he’s going to win. He timed his revelation perfectly to give him momentum when he needed it most. He allows himself to think, now, what winning the whole show might mean: representation, commissions, name recognition. Greta would be crazy not to love him.

First, however, Greta has to get through her part of the challenge: her appearance onscreen. Book-cover critiques over, the three of them watch as screens upstage drop down and, one by one, the faces of their loved ones hove into view.

RJ’s father is first. Face too close to the screen, wiry hairs sprouting from moles, he looks to one side and then the other, unused to the camera’s eye. In a halting voice gruffly unsuited to the context, he reminds RJ that, ever since his sister died, his mother has pinned all her hopes on him. RJ puts his head down to listen to his father’s untutored raw emotion, and Joseph suddenly feels for him.

Then Rae’s sister is on: beautiful, long, black hair and makeup, perfectly put together, an artful display of plants in the background. “Rae, you’ve always been the weird one,” she says. “At first I couldn’t understand it, but now I’m jealous of it.” This is supposed to be a joke, but you can tell it’s true, that suddenly her position as the more beautiful, successful, older sister is in jeopardy in a way she never saw coming, and Joseph now feels bad for her, too.

It is in such a climate that Greta makes her appearance. For the first thirty seconds

Joseph grinds his teeth so hard he tastes enamel grit, but it’s soon clear he doesn’t have to worry. She’s dressed conservatively—he’d been afraid to ask her not to wear her distressed T-shirts with silk-screened marine life, but she’d known, somehow, to put on a crisp, poplin blouse with a blue cardigan. She’s talking about how hard it was when he was deployed. About how empty the apartment felt. About running to Google maps to trace the location of the latest CNN tickertape headline in relation to where he was stationed. About getting her hopes up at false rumors of his unit coming home.

She’s better than the wives on the Lifetime show. It’s a little frightening how perfect she is, how sweetly restrained. She lies so well, even better than he does. How does he deserve her? How does he deserve this? Maybe there’s no punishment waiting for them, as he secretly feared. Maybe they’ll just be rewarded.

 

He wins. Rae is so talented, it’s hard to believe she’ll go home. But what other way is there? The logic of the show is such that RJ and Joseph are fated to be the last remaining.

“Let me see it,” RJ says, when they are finally offstage.

“What?” he says, even though he knows.

“Your leg. Where you took the shrapnel.” They are both a little tipsy from the lights and the stress and the faces of their loved ones after so long away.

“Are you trying to get me to prove something?” Joseph tries to mask his fear with righteous indignation. But RJ can’t even say it. He can’t say it out loud: I don’t believe you. Joseph is in awe of the power of this war. The less they know it firsthand, the more they revere it.

“I just wanted to see it,” RJ mutters.

“I’m exhausted.” Joseph waves him off. “We’ll talk in the workroom tomorrow.”

 

“You did well,” he e-mails Greta that night in the computer lab. “You did better than well. And you looked so beautiful up there.”

She responds by G-chat.

is that how you want me to look all the time?

what do you mean

with my little pearl button cardigan. like my only dream is to hang with army wives giggling about how to give the best blow jobs.

that’s not what i mean . . .

this makes me queasy

i was just writing to say thank you

i don’t think i want this anymore

this?

us.

it’s just strange right now. we’ve been apart for so long. they said that reality shows do that to you.

we can talk when you get home.

greta. It’s just weird right now. Just send me a picture of your face.

bye joseph

but I’m going to win!

 

When he does what he does, later than night, he doesn’t do it to prove anything to RJ, though he’ll be ready if RJ ever asks to see his leg again. He doesn’t do it to punish himself for his lie, because it doesn’t seem like a lie anymore. Maybe he does it to punish himself for losing Greta, or maybe he does it to prove something to her.

Or maybe he does it to feel what it would have been like out there. The smoke soupy in your lungs and the quick slap of debris on your leg, followed by the toothsome bite of glass entering flesh. The explosion twinning your life into before and after.

Would you hear screaming, or would it be like being underwater—a deafening hum?

There is only one way to find out. He palms down painkillers. He shatters the drinking glass on the rim of the sink, the one he uses to cup his tooth-brushing water, the oddly, silky water that comes out of the Hilton faucets. He takes a shard, punctures the meaty middle of his left calf muscle, careful to avoid any veins. At the first sight of blood his mind goes white. He presses a roll of toilet paper to the wound. He bites a pillow with such vigor he tears the fabric of the case.

He knows he won’t be able to go on. He meant to make the wound much greater, to use a lighter to singe the edges of it. As his leg hairs charred, he was supposed to feel the heat and the dust and the cries of the dying.

But he can’t stand the prospect of more pain. He douses his leg in peroxide and lies on the cool bathroom floor next to the electrolyzed water bidet that speaks in a British accent, and he knows one thing for certain: he wouldn’t have gone back. He would have left the mosque billowing in smoke, civilians and his fellow soldiers alike bleeding out inside. He isn’t telling lies anymore. This is, in fact, the truest thing about himself he has ever known.

 

The final challenge is theme-less. “Impress me” is the only thing Vivian says. Because the judges loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he develops his final piece along a similar vein. His grandfather was briefly stationed in the Netherlands toward the end of the Second World War, and Joseph remembers the old man telling him about the playgrounds children made from the rubble. Adventure Playgrounds, they were called. It used to be a movement.

He spends hours and hours in the workroom building. He has to win, yes, but he also has to remind himself what he’s good at. Making something, where before there was nothing. Turning an idea into wood and metal.

Now that their competitors are gone, the two remaining can divide the workroom into halves. Mostly they work together but apart, silently, like toddlers with separate toy piles. The silence is not companionable. Joseph can feel it—now RJ really hates him. Is it just that RJ knows that no matter how good his work is, he can’t possibly win?

Joseph paints tire swings, repurposes a plane exit as a slide, attaches Humvee wheels to wooden boxes to fashion pretend cars. He makes a climbing structure with spokes from a downed helicopter and figures out joint angles for a set of monkey bars. He watches RJ drape papier-mâché newspaper strips over mesh molds of heads and wonders what his competitor’s plan is. But there’s no way he can ask. RJ’s resentment, left too long to ferment, has become something living.

They’re both there through the night, RJ finally turning on a stereo to Virgin Radio Dubai to cut the silence’s edge. It’s not until the first sun filters through the cotton-candy fog that covers the city at dawn that he stops to look at what he’s done. He knows this is his best work. He imagines children plummeting down the slide, pretending to be pilots making an emergency landing. He imagines the playground somewhere in Chicago in an empty lot in winter, ice coating the swing’s rope and wood chips scattering in the wind. Then he realizes RJ is finally speaking.

“There’s no record of you having served, anywhere.” His voice is filigreed with exhaustion.

“Those records aren’t publicly accessible.”

“I mean anything. Not anything online. Why not mention it in all the interviews you seem to have done about your collaborative fucking mural projects with inner-city youth?”

“I don’t mention it unless it’s relevant.”

“Show me your leg.”

Joseph doesn’t hesitate. He rolls up his pants.

“Jesus.”

“So?”

RJ backs into an equipment cart. “You’re bleeding. The wound is still fresh.”

“That’s because I did it last night.” Joseph hasn’t thought this through, but true to form it’s having the desired effect. Joseph’s game is up, sure, but now RJ is scared of him.

“That is so fucked up.”

“Who knows what else I might do, if you tell. I might kill myself. My girlfriend just left me.”

“I’m not letting you win on this.”

“Try it and see. Whine about it tonight. See if anyone listens to the guy who’s about to lose to a war hero.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Finally, some conflict!” It’s Matt the Producer, emerging from a debrief with

Vivian. “Just when I turn off the camera. Can you repeat whatever argument you were just having?” He fiddles with buttons near the lens.

Joseph and RJ look at each other. They look back at Matt the Producer.

Matt the Producer looks down. “What happened to your leg?”

Joseph shrugs. “Workroom injury.”

 

Then it’s night, and the stage cameras are on for the last time, and there they stand, next to their final creations.

RJ’s papier-mâché heads sit propped on chairs, angled so the audience sees their profiles from the back. There are maybe a dozen of them, their chairs grouped around an old school projector with a choppy, silent-reel film blinking on screen. The footage is of a war, one of the last century’s two official wars—wars that were real wars, with tanks rolling in and gunfire and cannon blasts. A war, unlike any they’d fought since, that you could get behind.

It’s a beautiful, noble piece. Joseph knows it. Everyone knows it.

But once again, it doesn’t matter, because Joseph has also made something tremendous, and look now at the story he’s telling about it. About that day in the mosque, and the IED. This time there are children. Three Afghani boys there to worship with their father, boys with shiny, dark eyes and dusky elbows. Boys he wasn’t able to save. So this playground is for them. For all the kids who are dying over there. Kids who will never feel the sockets of their arms loosen on a pair of monkey bars.

“You’re a fucking liar,” RJ says.

Joseph turns to RJ. The judges turn to RJ. The cameras turn to RJ.

But RJ hasn’t thought beyond his outburst. Now that all the eyes are on him, he splutters. “He’s not who he says he is,” he manages finally.

“You’re right, I am lying,” Joseph says. He takes back the cameras.

Vivian pats her hair as if reminding herself it’s still there. “What’s going on?”

“I told RJ this story before,” Joseph says quickly, before RJ can say anything else. “But I told a lie. I said that after I ran out, after the explosion, I went back in to tend to the wounded. It’s a lie. I didn’t go back. I ran the hell out of there. I’m a coward.”

As the judges and studio audience process this, he can almost feel the power of this revelation as it will be weeks later when it airs. How across the world audiences will gasp in quiet recognition of times they missed their chance to be a hero, times they pretended to be the person they wanted to be instead of the person they really were.

Maybe even Greta will be moved, for an instant, by his courage.

RJ himself is taken aback. The stage lights hit Joseph’s repurposed Blackhawk slide, which in turn reflects off RJ’s face, and Joseph knows RJ is asking himself what Joseph would gain from admitting to be a coward. That RJ is probably questioning his original conviction that Joseph is lying about his service.

RJ raises his hands in surrender. “I give up.” He actually starts to leave the stage (strictly contractually forbidden), but Vivian stops him.

“Wait,” she says. “Let’s get the real story. Joseph, tell us the story about the mosque again. Tell us the truth this time.”

Joseph smiles. Soon, of course, everyone will learn the real truth. Maybe Greta will be the one to tell them he was never in the army. He’ll be publicly shamed. They’ll take his prize away.

But for now, he feels better having told the version that’s truest to him. The confession that has been weighing on him ever since he lay bleeding next to the bidet. Now he’s unburdened, and he’s about to win the whole damn show.

Matt the Producer gives him the thumbs up. He’s getting the best footage of his life.

Clarence Harlan Orsi
Clarence Harlan Orsi is a graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His essays and fiction have appeared in publications including the American Literary Review, the Believer, Chicago Review, Cincinnati Review, New England Review, and n+1. He teaches writing at Cecil College in northern Maryland and lives in Baltimore.