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The Jalula Market

On long foot patrols we wanted the chickens,
roasted and bronzed, hanging

from the steel roofs of vendor stands,
the Iraqi sun burning
like a heat lamp. We had seen months 

of Cobra cooking: teriyaki chicken
the color of transmission fluid; mixed vegetables

that broke like Styrofoam
in the mouth; the mush of grits
always cold. This changed, for a day, when LT Stanton— 

a man who once suffered
a week of the shits 

after eating vanilla ice cream
from little Mohammad,
the ten-year-old town salesman— 

walked to the vendor with two Iraqi Police
and pointed to the first chicken in the row 

glowing with warm grease, almost as large
as Stanton’s tan bald head. The IPs sat
at a white table behind the stand; LT joined them, 

setting his M4 like a twig between his knees,
the muzzle face-down 

on the black asphalt. I turned my back
with the rest of the platoon, all of us a circle—
security—around the table, 

the hanging chickens. Sometimes
            you are certain
something terrible is about
to happen, but we just watched the endless

movement of the crowd, the glares
from older men, the women passing 

as if we were only date palms. LT yelled
my name. I took three steps back, turned, he handed me
a piece of the chicken wrapped

in warm pita. Not wanting anyone to see me
without both hands on the rifle, my head scanning 

each detail of the crowd, I pretended
to wipe the sweat
from my temple, my cheek, but instead stuffed 

the food in my mouth: tomato, onion, something
I couldn’t name. On that street 

some bombs had blown so close
our legs and hands shook
for hours; weeks ago, three IPs had been shot 

dead in their jeep. But I just stood there
and chewed, because that chicken 

was the best thing I’d tasted
in years, and somehow
I was enjoying this day— 

though that wasn’t something
I was supposed to show,

so I bit my tongue,
and made sure not one
person in those crowds could know.

This poem appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine.