The Last VC
Wayne Karlin, Lexington Park, MD
"And what exotic isle d'ye hail from?" the innkeeper asks.
"Florida, muthafucka," K-K answers. The other girls crack up; the innkeeper has his act, she has hers. He wears white kneesocks, leather apron, rough looking red shirt, white wig. K-K wears black. Sweatband, t-shirt, jeans, beach shoes. Other people dressed in old history-type clothes parade back and forth on the lawn outside the window, melting long and tall and fat and thin like candles through the wavy glass. K-K there to see Historic Maryland with the other girls from Ruth's House, daffies, Disturbed Adolescent Females, the counselors think they don't know that label. They already finished the Nature Walk and the Founders' Ship, an old-time three masted ship, you can go aboard but nothing happens on it like Pirates of the Caribbean or anything, you just look at the sailors' hammocks and some barrels and go uh-huh. There wasn't much else. Just a visitor center that looked like a barn to K-K, and the inn where they are now, and a brick building supposed to be the first capital only she figures the historic people looked around said oh shit, the boonies, and moved. That was it. Except for some little roped off places with signs telling you to believe that buried under the dirt is a tavern or a plantation or a slave house or whatever they say is there. One little sign saying trash midden which to K-K's surprise is just what it says, trash: this window set into the ground like the glass bottom boat, what you see through it is four hundred years of dirty oyster shells and smashed up plates and cups, old chewed-on bones and pipes. This garbage under everything.
"A saucy wench," the innkeeper says, winking at K-K. She gives him her hooded, cool look, she in her all black, VCWA: Viet Cong With an Attitude, and then looks away, staring around the room: big dark beams in the low ceiling, stubbly white walls, long tables with wooden benches next to them. The room blinking into existence like the Star Trek holodeck where you can have any scene you want. For a minute, she plays with the room being different for each group or individual that came in, fitting these holes in their minds. She did a theme park, that's what it would be.
"K-K no saw-see 'xotic eye," Tonetta says to the innkeeper, putting her palms on both sides of her head and pulling up the skin, tilting her eyes up to show him what K-K is. "K-K jus a gook."
The other girls giggle, say gook, gook, like a flock of daffies, these disturbed dyslex-iac-assed ducks who fuck up their quack, K-K thinking Tonetta must have picked up the gook from the tape they watched last night, Platoon, Tonetta pushing her, K-K figures, to start Physical Confrontation so she'll lose her privilege level. She is cool though, smiles at Tonetta while she flips Mario mushrooms out of the top of her head. They arc through the air, smack Tonetta, she puffs to nothing with a blip. On K-K floats, to the next obstacle. Which is, Tonetta smiles back at her, rubs and pats her rounded tummy with lovely tenderness. Bam. King Koopa zaps Mario, all five lives blink out. Tonetta came into the program too late for an abortion and now she rubs her big black melon belly in K-K's attitude every chance she gets, whenever she can't get at K-K with words or hands. Every chance, all the time, knowing the counselors were giving K-K BC pills, standing over her and watching her swallow because they knew she would swell, put a new mutant out in the world, she got the chance. She would too.
"Ladies," Louise the counselor says, "Behave. No verbal abuse."
"K-K started it," Tonetta says.
"That's Kiet, please," Louise says.
"Shee-it, whatever," Tonetta says and the other girls laugh again. K-K is pissed at Louise for bringing it up. Her name. She was Keisha when she came to Ruth's House from Crownsville Detention, but Larry got hold of her exotic-I-land papers and he found Kiet, drew that name up out of the muck at the bottom of the sea, this old bone-memory he had he wanted her to wrap her new skin around. She had to explain to him that name was all drowned, all blue and shriveled up and fish nibbling its eye sockets, so she tried being reasonable and said go with K-K, but he tells her no, you need to be proud of your heritage. Meaning the gook part she didn't know fuck-all about, meaning, she said to him, he was telling her not to be proud of the African part what came on a different boat. One at a time, he said, Larry, he's black but he's a vet, you peel his grape skin and what you see is green. Anyway in her head she was and still is K-K. Half-a-dink, half-a-splib, her third foster dad had called her, both his way of saying nigger.
But meanwhile the bana-gana bonana name game further pisses Tonetta off, Tonetta getting her name from the cat in the first or second or whatever foster home had tried to keep her. The way she had left that place, Tonetta the kid had hung Tonetta the cat with a lamp cord to which K-K can relate, but still it wasn't the cat's idea. Animals get fucked over. Like, her last ex-foster father she'd run away from, in Florida, he let her go to Sea World once and she'd smoked some dope before she went and then watched the Flipper show. Flipper this dolphin who did all these kissy-ass doggy tricks for these people in wet suits that were supposed to be its TV family, though she never saw the sitcom, it was supposed to be famous. She watched and she started to identify and cry from the dope opening her up to things, lighting up things it touched like a pinball game. Like what do you suppose that dolphin's real name was? Something like Glub-Click. Or Fuck Luck. Or Kiet. Swimming around. Thinking to itself: what's this Flipper shit?
"Come on, ladies," Larry says. "We'll be late for the Historical Reenactment.
They shuffle out of the inn. Near the door they pass a woman wearing a white hood and an apron sitting in front of a kind of small barrel, stirring a stick in it. K-K stops, to look, but really to let Larry get in front of her. She feels Larry's stare on her neck-skin like dirty spiderwebs, this kind of pretend sideways interest in her he got, like always looking at her for something, booby traps, she doesn't know what.
Stir, stir, stir. Like last night, they were watching the Platoon tape and she had just not been able to take this scene where the bad sergeant Tom Berenger blows away this mother and threatens to kill her kid. The other daffies going burn or giggling, they're so bone ignorant, but K-K thinking what if this was some scene they sucked out of the garbage under her memory and that was how someone did her real mom? On the screen all the GIs fighting with each other whether they should waste the gooks or not and she started wondering which side her real dad would have been on, some of the splib soldiers in the movie on Berenger's side, some on the good sergeant's side, and she was Charlie Sheen, split in half, she could feel them all inside of her. Stir, stir, stir. Willem Dafoe, he played the good sergeant.
So she got up and out of the room and sat on the couch in the office upstairs, in the dark. Sure enough Larry came up after her. He went to switch on the light. Leave it off, she told him.
"Bad movie," he said, sitting down next to her, big and heavy, and kind of leaning into her, not in any kind of coming on way, but like he was really trying to see her, in the dark, moonlight coming in the window, splitting her face, Keisha blacked out and only the tipped-up Kiet eyes showing, like the eyes of his enemy. Or maybe a woman he remembered, some lover he left swollen with a half-a-dink half-a-splib mutant to come swimming after him one day. When she'd run away from Florida to DC, she'd run to the Wall she'd seen on TV. The Wall took the high yellow out of her face and gave it back to her black, black with the white names scrawled all over it. She had walked along it slowly, letting the names write themselves across her skin, if her daddy's name was there it would have stayed on her skin when she turned from it.
"Who cares," she'd said.
Larry shifted his weight, a creaking black heaviness next to her, the sounds of the movie drifting up to them in the darkness like a Historical Reenactment, screams and explosions and voices from this place where they each had first become some kind of garbage under each other's life.
"Know what I read?" His voice was a whisper tickling inside her brain under the sounds from the other room, screams and laughing and the crack of gunfire. "Read where this preacher in Florida wants to open a new theme park for the tourists, going to have a village, booby-trapped trails, everything. Hire local refugees to play the villagers and VC. Come on down."
K-K just sat there.
The sound of gunfire and laughter came into the room.
"Don't mean nothin'," he'd said, a saying from the war.
Now a couple, the man in a leather shirt and baggy canvas pants, the woman in a bonnet and hoop skirt, drift by K-K, talking "ye's" and "doth saids" to each other, not breaking out of it even though their backs were to her, their act swallowing them. She drifts after the others. In the Visitors' Center, Larry and Louise herd the daffies into a little room that says Sensurround Theatre over its door. The inside walls are covered with pictures that show the inside of the old time Founders' Ship. The daffies sit on benches. The doors shut. The light goes out. A voice starts whispering, trickling into her brain like Larry's whisper. The movie plays on all the walls around her. Sensurround. Creaking ropes. Waves. A voice says: "Hardship and starvation." She sees flickering people packed into the thin space of a wooden boat, hears their screams and moans, smells their sour puke, piss, the stink of nuoc mam fish sauce. Sensurround. "The New World," the voice says.
The lights flash on. The movie's over.
"Let's go," Larry says.
They go to an open lawn in front of the big brick government house. A thick old man wearing a steel helmet that has feathers on it like a rooster's head struts by K-K, his armor-plated chest puffed up. "They really get into it," she hears Louise whisper to Larry.
"Playing war," he says.
K-K sees some white tents set up in a row, little fires and pyramids of three old time guns leaning against each other in front of each tent. People are taking pictures of other people, some in the tents, some bent over, their heads and arms held in wooden gates. "Stocks," Louise whispers, explaining the New World to K-K. A man is stuffing a little boy into the mouth of one of the old cannons. The kid's mother is taking pictures.
"Look terrified, Jason," she says. "Stop grinning like a dork."
A group of men dressed up in helmets and armor march by, led by the roostery old man K-K had seen before. Some of the them are carrying the old time guns. "Muskets," Louise says. Others carry long spears. "Pikes," Louise says. A voice comes over the PA system and explains that this is the volunteer militia, here to protect the settlers from Indian attack. The volunteers are all white and waddley, fat bellies pushing out their armor at the cracks, fat old men daffies led by a rooster. They're too old to be soldiers. Or they're like soldiers kept forever in the army for a forever war.
Somebody beats a drum. The militia gets into a kind of raggy box formation, facing K-K. The half of them with muskets point them at her. The three muskets, barrels leaned against each other in front of the tent near her, are the same model. The old men with the pikes point them at her. For a few seconds, nobody says anything. Then the rooster man pulls out a sword and yells, readyaimfire. The flash and the noise split her in half. Blow Kiet away from Keisha. Dink from splib.
She looks back at the militia. They load and fire again. If she worked here she'd play a VC. She'd squat down near the entrance to a reconstructed straw hooch, rocking her baby, waiting while the tourists, dressed as GIs, came into her village. Then she'd rise up, reveal the weapon hidden under her baby and pretend to blow them away. Then one day she'd forget where she really was. She'd put real bullets into the gun. She'd have a flashback and shoot a tourist, thinking he was a GI come to rape and murder. Then, before anyone realized what happened, she'd run. She'd hide in the marshes. She'd be the last VC.
The militia load and fire again, shooting invisible Indians. Then they lower their pikes, point them at her and charge, yelling, their faces twisted.
She backs up from the faces and stumbles into Tonetta, who cusses her and pushes her into the stacked muskets. They fall with a clatter. The militia men stop a few feet from her and threaten with their pikes. She picks up one of the fallen muskets.
"Look terrified, bitch," she says to Tonetta.
"Kiet, put it down," Larry says. He steps in front of her. For an instant, she sees herself reflected in his shades: black-clad, holding a weapon.
"We're here now," she tells him. She points the gun at him.
He looks at her and backs up, funny smile on his face.
"Don't mean nothin,'" she tells him.
"For your own safety," the announcer on the PA says, "please do not handle the weapons."
The musket is heavier than she thought it would be. She wonders what will happen. Everybody is looking at her. You can't trust the gooks, she'd say. Then she'd pull the trigger. The flash would leap out and hit Larry's chest. Maybe he'd have a heart attack and die, his last sight: her face. Or maybe he'd jump at her. She'd club his hands and turn and run.
Even as she thinks this, she clubs down at his hands and she's turning and then she is running, a part of her still running in her head but her feet really pounding against the grass. She zig-zags in the direction of the parking lot, holding onto the musket. Behind her she hears Louise and Larry calling K-K as if to please her, but she keeps on running: what's this Flipper shit? If she looks over her shoulder now, she knows she'll see the two of them and the volunteer militia chasing her, pikes and muskets in their hands, their faces red and angry, their armor flapping. She knows she'll see armies of mad old men, all dressed like soldiers, all chasing after her.
Wayne Karlin served in the Marines in Viet Nam. He co-edited and contributed to the Free-Fire Zone anthology, and has written four novels: Crossover, Lost Armies, The Extras and US.