The last time I stood this close to an Iraqi,
I was inside the skin
of a Kuwaiti ship off the coast
of Al-Ahmadi, zip tying a man’s ankles

to the metal legs of a chair, my pistol aimed
at the bluest vein
in his throat, safety off, finger on
the trigger. Now, we’re standing across

from each other, close as two wrists
cinched in prayer,
only a glass counter to separate us.
Every morning, I purchase

the same things: black coffee, cigarettes.
Every morning he says:
Are you trying to kill yourself? I say nothing.
He whispers something in Arabic,
not hush, not salvo.


The graffiti’s long been scrubbed
from the bodega’s brick façade,

yet a ghost of spray-painted letters
remain: Haji, Towel-head.

Someone’s shot a hole into the pane
glass—it sounds like a sucking

chest wound whenever the wind
hits the window.


From under the counter, he pulls
a long black rifle, new, never fired.

He says it’s for protection; hold it,
he says, pretend I’m your worst enemy.


He wouldn’t forgive me if I told him,
so I don’t. I don’t tell him how the hand

that’s held a rifle remembers its weight
or how, years ago, I watched three Iraqis

drown in the Arabian Gulf. I want to tell
him how I tried to save them all, held

one man’s head above the whitecaps,
our mouths close enough to kiss.

He wouldn’t forgive me if I did, so I don’t.


In the morning, his young son kneels,
scours fresh spray paint from the storefront’s

brick wall: Terrorists. He’s started at the end,
managed to erase all but the word Terror.

I roll my sleeves to my wrists,
cover the tattoo that means Death
Before Dishonor.


God becomes the hour between bombings.

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa, served four years in the United States Navy (Operation Enduring Freedom), and is a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, Guernica, The Journal, Cream City Review, and 32 Poems, among many others. His book, The Grief Muscles, is forthcoming from The Sheep Meadow Press. Thrush Press published his chapbook, Improvised Devices. He is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.