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The Nine Steps, Part II
Sean Connolly, Baltimore, MD
"My friend," whispers Doctor Chen, nudging the pack of filter cigarettes across the marble top of the white wicker table, "these, of course, are the very best." What exquisite and delicate hands this man, this papasan, this worldly gentleman has! He pats the money I've set on the table and shuffles it up into his right hand and rubs his thumb across the top bill spreading all the money into a fan. "Eight hundred and seventy," he sighs and dismisses it in mid air. The bills flutter back to the tabletop and he sits back and shakes his head in mock despair. What flair he has! What cool arrogance! What a passionate love of gesture: the man is as elegant as the French who built this splendid Continental Hotel in downtown Saigon, yes, Doctor Chen, PC will soon learn what it takes. "Let's not waste Doctor Chen's valuable time, nor yours, PC. The international money exchange does not trifle with commodities in amounts less than one thousand. Have I made myself clear?"
"Very clear," and I give the sharp bastard a little bow, yes, very sharp. But your time will come, PC--soon, very soon. "I just want to make it perfectly clear that none of this American currency is buying bullets for the North Vietnamese."
"Money is not poetry, PC." I open the pack of cigarettes. Clever little devils, the Vietnamese: they steam open a pack of filter cigarettes, empty out the tobacco, load the paper tubes with the finest opiated buds in all of Indochina, and reseal it like it's never been opened. Yes sir, time to light one up. Poetry or not, this elegant little verse looses all rhyme and reason whenever PC fires up one of these Buddha Sticks; that's right, these are what the holy papasans smoke, the pure stuff, the vision of the all, the one, the Buddha, the very face of God! Now, what's this? The Buddha Stick is laced with a fine white powder and our sharp Oriental poet here notices my qualms. "A mere sedative, PC, a derivative of morphine. It quiets the nerves; takes the edge off, as you American GIs are so fond of saying."
"But isn't it addictive?"
"Yes, if you were to smoke a pack a day. But moderation in all things, PC," and he gives PC one of his French frowns, a little bit of contempt mixed with a little bit of envy. Very tasty these Buddha Sticks, very sweet, very smooth, turns the stomach like a piece of rhubarb pie: heaven never knew such a sour bliss. He nods and rises, slipping an envelope from underneath his jacket, exchanging it for the greenbacks. From greenbacks into the Vietnamese Piaster into Hong Kong into traveler's checks into Military Payment Certificates into PC's Pentagon Savings Account and wired to PC's checking account at the Bank of America on the Bien Hoa Airbase and back into greenbacks with a little bit of profit for all, yes sir, never greedy.
"Begging your pardon, sir, would you please," and the warm river of ease is now flowing through every vein, every vein, a river of hot oily stones, swimming through of river of hot oily stones with Kai Tai and every woman in PC's life, every..."
"Yes, yes?" the face of Doctor Chen, the face of Buddha, the all, the... "Please--please what? But, of course, Kai Tai is here to please you."
"A mere slip of the memory, my friend, a mere slip of the memory. Please explain what you mean about money and poetry?"
"Please correct me if I am wrong, my friend, but does not Western poetry sing the glories of the warrior and the passion of the lover? Money, I am most sorry to say, sings of neither. As you are so fond of saying in your wealthy country, money talks," and he smiles, "as it does in every country."
"Sings the glories of the warrior!"
"Yes, war is not for the prosaic," and he bows and evaporates into the light.
"Sings the passion of the lover!"
Now it is now as it is seconds, minutes, hours before or after Kai Tai opens the shutters to the tall windows and fills the rooms with light. She heats up thousands upon thousands of smooth black and white little stones in sandalwood oil and they cascade into the round brass tub to touch every memory of every woman in PC's life, every touch, every ache and loss drawn through every pore of every touch of every moment thanking every contribution, swimming in the rhythm of every touch of every contribution, of every..."
"PC take picture now?"
"Take picture now," of every woman and Kai Tai in PC's life swimming in a pond of stones, everyone a tadpole slipping and sliding in a pond of hot little stones, black and white, tadpoles wriggling out of every pore everywhere, out of Kai Tai's face, black stones in her eyes, white stones in her mouth, black stones in her vagina, white stones between her toes, black stones on her cheeks, black and white stones all over her face making a death mask, a death mask glistening in the afternoon light, the light of now and forever and yesterday and tomorrow bound up in the stones glistening all over us in the round brass tub, stones...
"PC take picture of Kai Tai in love stones?"
"PC take picture!"
"PC buy stereo for Kai Tai?"
"PC buy stereo for Kai Tai!"
"PC buy apartment and refrigerator for Kai Tai?"
"PC buy apartment and refrigerator for Kai Tai!"
"PC buy best everything?"
"PC buy best everything!"
"PC take picture dead VC?"
"PC take picture dead VC!"
"PC watch GI die?" and Kai Tai sinks beneath the stones and splays apart her knees, her thighs trembling under the stones as she raises up her contribution and opens wide for the camera.
"PC watch GI die and see the face of God!"
Dogdamn, what was her name? Say dogdamn, forget goddamn, no more blasphemy! Dogdamn, screamed Bobby T the day he ran naked into the noonday sun in search of God to forgive him for supplying the wrong firing coordinates to the 101st artillery batteries, yes sir, slaughtered our own troops for five straight days, the pictures prove it. Dogdamn, I'm looking right at her contribution from three years ago and I can't remember her name. What's that? Flash and gone, another brain cell imploding in a black hole. PC does not like black holes, too many leeches, need a booster. Better not light up here in McManus' bar, Wesley's Bar and No Grill, Bobby T calls it. Who is this? I stand up and set my little picture book on the bar and look at it from a different angle. Dogdamn, looks like Bobby T screaming through his new beard. Got him locked up back there in the storeroom growing his beard, stark naked half the time, no use to PC, though, boasts he's a lover of the boys these days. Sure likes PC's picture show, can't get enough. Down in Bien Hoa City in Maya's Mansion he screams and sobs to see all the blow ups of all the dead blown to smithereens.
"What's this?" The greedy drunken face of Dennis Massey never asks, sees and takes he does, sees and takes my little name and picture book.
"Look here, my friend, let's not play with PC's..."
"I'm not your friend, you scumbag, you slimeball. Look at these pictures! Jesus Christ you're sick, they're fucking bloody gashes," and he can't see enough of them, the greedy blasphemous bastard. His eyes are on fire.
"Proof, my friend, proof that I thanked every woman in PC's life for her contribution," and he guffaws and falls back against the bar. I grab my black book and walk right out of the bar and into a black hole, can't see a dogdamned thing in the dark and I fall into a ditch. Dogdamn, I can't even see my hands in front of me. Where are my hands? There's something itching in them. They're coming out of my hands, they're itching me everywhere, they're not The Tadpoles, they're the leeches! They're leeches! Get away from me you filthy slimy leeches! You living scabs! You filthy slimy scabs all over me! Little filthy slimy hot tiny scabs all over me! "Help me, someone help me! I can't see! I can't find my hands! Can't..."
"Come on, PC. Over here. Reach up. Grab my hand."
"McManus! McManus, my friend, thank you. I fell in that dogdamned ditch. I couldn't find my hands. Can you..."
"PC, you better give up those heroin joints," and he wraps his slimy arm around my shoulder, the leeches jumping off into my face!
"Get off of me! Get off of me!"
"PC, you've got to pull yourself together."
"Together. Got to get there. Get the ropes," and I dive into the dirt and dust and wash my face in the dust, no more leeches, crawling through the dust, crawling to my hut, to PC's privacy palace, got to find the ropes, the little ropes, the little threads PC fanned out from the privacy palace like spider webs to find his way home in the pitch dark, can't see them, the threads hidden in the dust, little tan threads, little guides back to PC's hut, there's one, homeward bound! Bound for PC's memories, PC's privacy palace covered with memories, with the proof of every woman's contribution to PC's life, dogdamn! What's this? The door, open the door, open the door and go in and sit down, fire up one of the Buddha Sticks, thank you, Doctor Chen. A year's supply right there on PC's field table next to PC's canvas director chair. Lights! Action! Now, up there on the wall on the right is Susan Malinda's contribution. Right next to Alex's. Almost the same, but, you see, Susan Malinda's bush has more fur, like the fur of a ferret, while Alex, she has... Dogdamn, there's someone sitting off to my left. And someone to his left cutting and clipping and taping something.
"Some gallery you've got here, PC." It's Sergeant West. Dogdamn, just when the big ease is about to settle in he's got to be barging in and ruining my privacy.
"Well, well, if it isn't Sergeant West, and Sergeant Curry back there, can't fool PC. I'd offer you some of this Buddha Stick but I know it's not your style, unbelievable stuff, though: dogdamn, you can see the face of God," and he laughs back there in his dark corner like a hyena feeding on a fresh death. "Yes sir, my contact, Doctor Chen, says the holy papasans smoke these Buddha Sticks, makes the doctor nervous when PC lights up. Loves the money, though, loves the money."
"That's why we've come, PC."
"You don't say. Have you got some American currency for PC to trade on the international money market?"
"Twenty thousand in greenbacks. Twenty thousand every three weeks once we separate McManus from his bar over there."
"Unbelievable, you can actually see the face of God."
"We need a base of operations, PC. We'll turn McManus' little dive into the biggest nightclub in Vietnam. Shows every night, roulette and blackjack tables, the finest women, you'll be able to add a few to your gallery here, PC. All you..."
"Here's the face of God, PC," and Sergeant Curry's saliva is laughing in my face, his slimy hand locked around the back of my neck, the big ease settling in, the slime locked out, the word God spelled out in capital letters he's cut out from the photos of every woman's contribution in PC's entire life and taped onto a photo of a dead Viet Cong with his penis in his mouth. "Blow this one up and we'll put it in your picture show at Maya's mansion," and the man is petrified vomit in my face. He jacks my head down between my knees. He kneels down in front of me and wrenches back my neck. "Put these in next," photos of women and babies cut up into the disemboweled bodies of the dead Viet Cong, absolutely fantastic, the dead rearranged into death masks, the dark made into the light, the brilliance of the stars, a new race of gods shining on and on, and he shoves me back into the big ease and digs his teeth into my T shirt, tears at my nipples and says his prayer, "and there will be no more pain, PC, no more pain," and he melts back into a mirage, a liquid heat rising and rippling into an oily mirage in the dark.
"Listen up, PC," says Sergeant West, "you've got to help us take the bar from McManus."
"He's in his own world. He doesn't care."
"You put a pack of Buddha Sticks in his bunk and we'll see how much he doesn't care. We'll see to it he's busted down to private and the bar will be ours," and he pinches my cheeks, little nudges forcing me back into the big ease, the money and the photos there on my knees, now where did it all come from, what's been forgotten in the dark? What dark? There's no dark in PC's privacy palace, the oily light from PC's battery pack shining up the wooden slats of PC's little hut. Now, there's Alex and next to her glowing bush, flash and gone. What's that? Somebody singing outside, a little serenade. Wait, the oily light is eating through the walls, flash and gone, flash and gone, the place is on fire.
"The slime, the slime, the incredible slime," he's singing it, he's singing his firebug song, Dennis Massey, he's torching PC's privacy palace. Can't move, the nod coming on, the big ease falling into the nod, flames eating in at me, got to get beyond the nod, falling off the chair, rolling in the dust, the money a hive of fire, everything lost, rolling out through the embers, everything lost, Dennis Massey running back into McManus' bar, got to take it now, everything lost, have to take the bar.
"And you say you witnessed this killing?"
"Yes sir, Major."
"You made no efforts to restrain this soldier?"
"There were others, yes sir, three others. Too much for one man like myself, three against one, they wanted him dead. You see, they found the Buddha Sticks, found them right in the bar," not now, dogdamn it, not the dogdamned leeches! "Sir, you have my word on it, a great evil, a..."
"Are you ill, specialist?"
"No sir. Just a rash, an itchy rash. You know what I mean, sir," giving the Judge Advocate a wink, "just something I picked up. Got a shot for it already."
"And the names the clerk is checking, this Sergeant First Class Curry and Sergeant McManus, these are the men who were the principals in last night's incident? Here on..."
"Yes sir, last night."
"Here, on the airbase, or off the airbase?"
"And did you pick up your rash here on the airbase?"
"Yes sir, dogdamn it, get off," the slimy filthy things swarming all over my arms. Must be the amphetamines.
"Soldier, restrain yourself or go on sick call."
"I'm sorry, sir. Do you mind if I smoke? All this has made me very nervous," and he waves his hand, sure. Just a toke, just a teensy toke of the pure dust to take the edge off, just a teensy-weensy toke, just a little bit of the dust in my filter cigarette. The clerk walks in and hands the major a manila folder. Just a toke, yes sir. "Yes sir, PC's not a fighting man, always a lover boy. Can't stand the sight of blood, not that there was any..."
"Trooper, you're wearing the uniform of the 101st Airborne Division and if you are not prepared to fight then you..."
"Yes sir, prepared to fight! You're absolutely right. I witnessed the fight, the killing," and the shaking's coming on, got to have more than a toke, just a couple tokes, waiting for the big ease to settle in...
"Soldier, if you witnessed this alleged homicide then you must have been aware that Sergeant First Class Curry had been court martialed for war crimes and reduced in rank to private."
"Yes sir, but he didn't eat any of those VC heads, no sir, he was just stirring them up in an old oil drum, their eyeballs staring off in a thousand different directions like the stars in the night sky, seen the picture, just stirring them up, no reason for McManus to strangle him dead in the bar, no sir, no sir," and the big ease is coming in like a summer day.
"Soldier, where were you last night: in an opium den?"
"No sir, The Tadpoles had gotten together before I went to the bar to exchange the novels of Henry Miller. Now, you take the Tropic of Cancer, every word is a celebration of life, the man loves life, not some sadistic bastard in the army, no sir, he..." and the Judge Advocate is looking at PC very strangely. He doesn't see what PC sees. He doesn't see the all in one and the one in all. He's excusing himself, going after the clerk to tell him to get the better of PC. But nobody gets the better of PC, no sir, got to leave this office, no other doors, just two windows in a dingy plywood office, air conditioners in both. No escape. Wait! What? Take out one of the air conditioners. That's it. They're just sitting there. Imagine that! Where's the plug? The plug, the plug, wait, leave the dogdamned plug alone. What's that? Dogdamn, the nod is coming on, the sit and nod--wait! Got to get past the nod. Past the nod and pull one of these bastards out of... Dogdamn, the air conditioner fell on the floor. Imagine that! It just fell on the floor. Wait, they're coming! Out the window. Out! Out! PC out the window and into the summer heat and light and running through the Tropic of Cancer. On to Australia! Wait! What is that? There in the dirt and dust, a shimmering glass. I walk over and fall to my knees and pick up the face of God in the dust. The absolute light surrounds me. The absolute all light in all light rises up beyond the livid dust. The absolute peace. The absolute peace and love, the absolute love of life in every life in every...
"Take this man to the hospital unit at Long Binh Jail."