'Hell,' a Short Story by Benjamin Nugent
A professional interrogator teaches frat boys how to run a proper hell week.
It was peak foliage, horned red leaves adrift on the duck pond, two-hand touch in the stadium's shadow, ripe-legged girls shivering in miniskirts under a harvest moon. It was the time of year for planning new debasements to perform on the pledges during Hell Week, the final test before their initiation. But we were short of ideas. Previous Gamma Phi upperclassmen had made their pledges do the elephant walk, in which they were marched through the house each holding the dick of the guy behind him, but we knew that that would no longer fly. It would be filmed on a phone and posted, drawing criticism. Previous upperclassmen had stripped the pledges to their underwear in the back of a van and dropped them off in what was thought to be gang territory in Springfield, but we considered that insensitive to the people who lived there. And the classic procedures—blindfolding the pledges and making them fellate cucumbers or eat bananas out of the toilet—had lost all power to surprise and deceive. The pledges had read online about any torment ever conceived by any pledgemaster. The exec board convened at its round plywood table, trying to think who might have some suggestions, when Glines, who was older than the rest of us, having taken time off after junior year to stretch rubber bands over the claws of lobsters and pay down his loans, mentioned a guy we'd never heard of: Michael Poumakis. When Glines was a pledge, Poumakis had been a house legend, spoken of in hushed tones by the seniors who remembered him. ROTC, hockey, rugby, Honors, Young Democrats, religious but still did something with girls in his room.
When Poumakis graduated, Glines said, he accepted a Navy commission. He was Lieutenant Poumakis now; Glines showed us the alumni database entry on his laptop. He lived in Crystal City, Virginia, a day's drive south.
"If he's an officer outside DC, guy's probably been through Navy Hell Week," Glines said. "That's SEALs Team Six shit. That's the state of the art. That, plus hazing in the Navy is probably harsher than anything we would ever come up with. They're preparing you for war."
I was with Glines. A Navy guy would know how to take an assortment of pledges and put them through something so strenuous that it would bind them into brothers. They wouldn't want to post a picture and get us all in trouble, because they'd be proud they got through it. They'd be proud to be one of us. That was Hell Week's whole point.
We composed the Facebook message as a group, with Glines's laptop on the table between us. We thanked the lieutenant for his service. Regretting that we couldn't provide travel money or accommodations, only Chef Bill's chili, no doubt the same as it had been back in the day, we invited him up for a weekend. "Please consider helping us plan Hell Week this year," we wrote. "We would be incredibly grateful to draw on the insights you have acquired in your military training as to how to make it an extreme experience for every pledge."
A response balloon with three dots appeared immediately in the blue window. "I would love to come."
We had seen full-body shots of him on Instagram, but he looked smaller in real life, stooped by eight hours at the wheel. Since the last picture, he'd grown a beard, and he petted the beard often, the way you would if your beard was new. He dressed like one of those hikers who strive always to be comfy: furry fleece hoodie, nubby fleece pants, canvas sneakers, moisture-repellant runner's socks, all shades of dun and brown. He petted his upper arms the same way he petted the beard. He was on the cusp of old, about 30. He kept his hoodie up over his head and walked with his hands thrust in the front pocket, like people our age.
There was nothing about him that resembled the ads we'd seen for the Navy, buzz-cut sailors in starched whites, legs spread to shoulder width, hands clasped behind their backs on the deck of a carrier, links in the World's Strongest Chain. But his handshake had soft strength. All six of us in exec board showed him around the house, though our presence was unnecessary. We followed, while Glines led the way, walking backward as he talked.
Not much had changed in the house since Poumakis lived in it, so Glines didn't have that much to announce, and Poumakis didn't ask any questions. It was we who had questions for him. As we toured the ping-pong room, Glines finally asked, "So what's it like, being an officer in the military?"
Poumakis spoke in a high, quiet voice with his hood up. "The most important thing we do now," he said, "is try to change people's minds. Say, 'Hey, we know it's been hard in your country, we know you've been taught to view America as an enemy, but listen, we just want you on our side. We want you to help us create a world where people can vote, and there's basic human rights, and some kind of economic opportunity for everyone. You don't have to be like us, but please, join us.'"
Poumakis touched things: the sage and gold Gamma Phi letters painted on the dining room wall; the wooden owl mascot, carved by a chainsaw artist at the Three-County Fair; the air rifles racked on the back porch; the little bedrooms carved from larger bedrooms and crammed with loft beds. When we reached the threshold of the president's room, he touched the chin-up bar in the doorframe, said, "Yup, still here," and lifted off the ground, legs limp and straight.
Glines started to count Poumakis's chin-ups out loud, and then the rest of us had to join in, or Glines's love of Poumakis would be dramatically exposed. It was only fair; we were all a little gay for the soldier in our midst, and it would have been unbrotherly to let Glines stick out, like leaving an injured comrade behind. As soon as the group counting started—as soon as we all went, "Four, five" in chorus, like cadets—Poumakis dropped to the floor.
Glines gave Poumakis a beer from the fridge and guided him to the black couch on the back porch. He sat beside him and said, "So level with us, dude. How real are the movies about Iraq and Afghanistan and everything? Is that what it's like?"
What Glines was trying to ask was, Have you been in the shit?
Poumakis wore no particular expression. There was a slot in his beard that opened and shut.
"I thought Zero Dark Thirty was OK," he said. "They showed it was a lot of people coordinating instead of one person doing everything. But they never showed anyone being funny, except for Chris Pratt at the end. I liked Chris Pratt because he's funny. Still, when they were working in the office in Pakistan, none of them were ever funny. They were always serious. They were never like, 'OK, it's 11 o'clock, who wants donuts?'"
The sun had set over the decrepit unaffiliated green Victorian that backed up against our yard. Rumor had it that it was all high-school dropouts living off a grandma they kept in the attic. Their living-room lights came on, and then music, a dance remix of a song about being famous.
"But was it typical," Glines asked, "of how people go undercover and find terrorists, and take them?"
What Glines meant was, Have you gone undercover? Have you killed?
Poumakis picked at the label on his beer. "I wouldn't say typical," he said.
"I want you to know," said Glines, "that we're your brothers. Whatever you say never leaves the porch."
"I can neither confirm nor deny," Poumakis said.
We sat there for a second and no one said anything. Poumakis took a breath through his nose. He might have resumed talking for no other reason but to fill the silence.
"The first mode of cover they teach in training," he said, "the one that's most typical in the field, is called You Me Same Same. I don't know where the name came from. I think it's probably African or Caribbean, but some people think it's from this Vietnam movie from the 80s. There's this Vietnamese girl, and she's really hot and she's Viet Cong, and they've got her captured. And you're like, Are they going to rape her? And she points to her eyes, and she points at the eyes of an American, you know, his white eyes, and goes, 'You, me, same, same.'"
We all looked at one another and pointed at one another's eyes. "You, me, same, same," we said, making come-hither faces.
Poumakis looked amused. We waited, rapt.
"If you're doing You Me Same Same," he said, "the first objective is to research the target's passions and interests. The second is to persuade the target that you're like her, only more confident, nicer. Which is all she has ever wanted in a lover or a friend. It's like dating."
Glines was grinning like a fool, like a shit-eater. He was grinning like a guy who's just asked his high-school sweetheart to marry him over the Jumbotron at Fenway and she's moaning, yes, yes, yes. I felt it too. I felt like my life had been a dream in which nothing mattered, and finally I was waking up into a world that was real, a world where people fought. It was really true that I was alive.
"So who would do that?" Glines asked Poumakis, his voice shaky with joy. "The CIA?"
"An agent who's doing You Me Same Same is usually conventional military granted temporary status as intelligence," Poumakis said. "CIA guys tend to take advantage of how everything kind of loosened up after 9/11 by farming out the fieldwork to us. The CIA is good at intelligence gathering, intelligence analysis, and planning paramilitary operations. But not when it comes to doing the actual ops. We're better at fieldwork than they are. It's there in the statistics. So what are we going to do? Tell them, like, 'Fuck off, I signed up for the Navy?'"
We were all nodding as if we related. We needed some way to express our exhilaration, and nodding was the available vehicle. But of the six of us, only Glines was so high on Poumakis that he could overcome his shyness of Poumakis, and ask him what we all wanted to ask.
"You've done that?" asked Glines. "Ops? You Me Same Same?"
Poumakis drew a vaporizer from a pocket of his sweatpants and puffed. The smoke was scentless, pleasant when it hit my cheek, like the breath of a girl.
"My first target was in Sudan. He loved the Canadian Brass. He was obsessed with these two albums, Bach: The Art of Fugue and Live in Germany. I bought them on old-school cassette from a University of Khartoum student at the Agriculture and Veterinary campus in Shambat. I sat in my apartment and listened to them for hours.
"I bought a new wallet, which was tan, not black like my real one. I bought a Paul Smith suit with subtle stripes and vintage Nike sneakers because my research indicated my target thought that those things were cool. I rented an apartment and got the kind of furniture he would've bought."
"So you knew you were going to get him to come to your apartment?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I knew that it might happen, but I didn't want it to. It's something they teach you to do, getting the furniture, so that you feel like a different person. And you need everything you can get that will make you feel like it will work, because you're not an actor, and here you are acting."
"It's all in the preparation and training," I said. I wanted to be the nuts-and-bolts guy, who didn't glamorize, so that Poumakis would pull me aside and say, "You seem like you've got a good head on your shoulders, have you ever thought about intelligence work?"
Poumakis didn't acknowledge what I'd said. "When I hung out with this guy, in my striped suit—we went to this cafe on Nile Street—I was worried I would spill my glass of tea down my suit because I was faking. I thought faking would be stressful. But then this weird thing happened. I found out I was more relaxed in cover than when I wasn't in cover. It was easier than being not in cover, kind of."
"That's because you're a natural," said Glines.
It brought me no end of relief that Poumakis also declined to acknowledge this comment. It meant that I was not the only one whom Poumakis found unanswerable.
"In cover, daily life wasn't that stressful at all," Poumakis continued. "Sometimes I liked pretending to enjoy horn quartets with a target more than I liked talking about, like, Arcade Fire, my actual favorite band, with a person I actually liked. It was just easier. The awkwardness of trying to be real with someone just went away. You didn't have to try to be real. I'm pretty sure I have mild PTSD, and I get this depression that comes for a little while and then goes. That didn't happen when I was in cover. It was like being drunk."
Glines gave himeself a neck rub. "If it's like being drunk, sign me up," he said. "I'm going to Sudan."
No one laughed. Next door, someone threw a Frisbee into a tree, and water fell from the leaves, the sound of sudden rain.
Glines looked panicked now that his joke had bombed. To save him, I dove in, started talking. "It's great to have you here," I said to Poumakis. "But besides just getting to grill you about all the badass shit you've done, we were kind of hoping you could give us some advice. I mean, you've done Navy Hell Week, probably, right? Tell us the tricks you learned. How do you make things shitty for a bunch of pledges?"
Poumakis vaped again. "Navy Hell Week," he said, "is, you're swimming in the ocean on four hours of sleep catching hypothermia and there are drill instructors with megaphones telling you it's cool if you want to quit and go have coffee and donuts. They're shouting at you about how there's no dishonor in quitting, go set yourself free. They want 75 percent of you to quit, they expect you to bail. You're not trying to make these pledges quit. You're just trying to make things shitty for them, right? Because if 75 percent of your pledges quit, you don't have a fraternity."
We conceded that this was the case.
"Right. You want to make things shitty for a guy? Lock him up and leave him alone."
Glines seemed to see a chance to redeem himself here. He put on a serious face and nodded, as if he were about to take notes.
"Have you done that?" he asked. "In the field?"
"I've done interrogations," he said. "And the weird thing is, people can't stand it when you leave them by themselves. They bang on the walls until they elicit a response. Or they pretend to be sick until they elicit a response."
Glines was getting excited again. He had fully recovered from his failed joke. He rubbed his knees a little as he spoke. "You put them in a shithole?" he asked. "A box kind of thing?"
Poumakis shook his head. "With the guy in the Sudan, I put him in a room for a week. Not in a shithole. In a clean, plain room with food and water. Then I'd bring him out and You Me Same Same with him. He was always up for small talk, even to me. The next day, I offered him a sparkling water. We went for a walk, under guard. The day after that, I said, 'Come on up to our quote-unquote kitchen, we've got some cabbage, some yogurt, some eggs, some fruit. Let's see if we can slap together a real meal, because neither of us wants to be here but while we're stuck here, might as well, right?'
"The next thing you know, he's like, 'It's better than the food at camp.' And later, he's like, 'You think your rifles are shit? You should see the shit rifles we have.' Gradually, he gave me more and more of what I was after. He wanted to keep it going. He wanted company.
"He had to know what I was doing, but he went into denial about it. That's how much he hated being by himself. That's how badly he wanted some You Me Same Same. Can you imagine how he felt, when I put him back in his room and he thought about the information he'd given me in exchange for a little bit of bullshitting? It must have been torture for him. I tortured the guy, in a way, is I guess what I'm saying."
"He sounds like a pussy, though," said Glines. "It wouldn't have been torture for a guy with balls. It would have been dinner."
There was something about this last word, the way it hung in the air. Glines was just trying to be supportive of Poumakis. I knew him well enough to know that. But he had started to sound like an asshole. Glines, whose acquaintance with torture consisted of the lobsters of Vinalhaven snapping at his gloves, talking about what you would and wouldn't do if you had balls.
For the first time in the evening, Poumakis showed annoyance. He didn't look aggressive. It was more like he was shutting down. The lower half of his face disappeared into his hood. Instead of stroking his beard, or his fleeces, his hands lay still in his knees. His posture was erect.
"If you want to make Hell Week bad for a pledge," he said, "I'll tell you what you do. You bring him into this house, and you lock him in one of the bedrooms. Throw in some milk and bananas, throw in some water. Give him a bedroom that has a bathroom, with a toothbrush, a shower. Paint over the windows, take away his phone, don't let anybody come anywhere near him. For the first few days, he'll beg and plead with you. He'll say, 'Please, take me out of here.' Then he'll stop, and for the next few days, he'll cuss you out. He'll say, 'Fuck you, I don't care what you do to me anymore. I hate you. Don't come near me.'"
Poumakis drew the hood back from his face. He swiped at his cheeks as if there was a mosquito trying to bite him. His eyes were bright and brown and he raised his scant eyebrows, settling into his lecture. The music was different now, a song about going out and having a good time. It sort of fit the sagging house from which it issued. As the singer discussed a night in the club, the dance floor, the VIP, the labels on his clothing, a kid with a shaved head and full-sleeve tattoos had slouched out of the house and lit a cigarette. With the cigarette in his mouth, he got on a bike that was too small for him and rode it in a circle around the yard, one hand on the left handlebar, the other hanging at his side. His shin hairs were golden in a yellow light that shone from the garage.
"When the week is over, you let him out of the room. But don't let him out of the house. Let him take a walk down the hall. Let him look out the window. Let him walk up and down the stairs. Invite him to dinner." Poumakis emphasized this last word.
Glines looked at the grass. He had his head down and was fiddling with the brim of his Sox cap. Without meaning to, I shook my head at Poumakis. I didn't want him to keep going, because I didn't want Glines to be further shamed. But Poumakis wasn't looking at me. He was looking out over the yard, tugging his beard into a triangle.
"Offer him the best food you have," he said. "Chef Bill's chili. Pour him a nice cold beer. Gather round the table, and say, 'Welcome, brother. Pull up a chair. We're the ones who did that to you, and we're in charge of everything. No need to be shy. Please, join us.'"
© 2016 by Benjamin Nugent