Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Tell Me a Story - an Eric Wilder short story


When a burned-out reporter buys a drunk at the bar a drink in exchange for a story, he hears a tale of war he doesn't expect.
Tell Me a Story
“Hey, Mac. You've had enough already. Why don't you drag your ass outa here and go home?”
“Leave him alone, Clancy, why don't you?”
Clancy, the big bartender, turned to see his nephew Tim standing on one foot in the half-opened doorway, bracing himself with an elbow against the wall.
“You wanna close up for me?” Clancy said. Not waiting for an answer he threw his bar towel across the counter, removed his apron and grabbed his coat from the rack in the corner. He dropped the keys to the door into Tim's hand as he passed. “Lock up when you've had all the fun you can take. I'm going home.”
Tim watched Clancy disappear down the deserted sidewalk, and then glanced at the drunk sitting alone at the bar. Grabbing a bottle of Clancy's bourbon, he took the stool beside him.
The man seemed oblivious to his stained shirt and day-old growth of beard. As Tim filled his empty glass, he opened one eye and glanced up from the table.
“And to what do I owe this honor?” he said, alcohol slurring his words.
“Clancy decided to let us borrow a bottle of his best sipping whiskey,” Tim said.
Raising himself into a slumped sitting position, the unshaven drunk hiccupped, glanced at the bottle and grinned. “Well I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
Smiling at the tired old joke, Tim raised his glass and the drunk did likewise.
“Here's to you. What's your name?”
The man, after draining half the liquor in a single swallow, said, “Harris. John Harris.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harris. I'm Tim Sullivan.”
“And a fine Irish name it is,” Harris replied.
After tapping Tim's barely touched glass, he finished the remaining drops of his own whiskey.
“To what do I owe the honor, Tim Sullivan?” Harris said again, refilling his glass from the bottle.
“Curiosity.”
“And what might ye be curious about, lad?” he said in his drunken imitation of an Irish brogue.
Tim smiled. “I'm a reporter. I haven't slept in thirty-six hours and I can't remember the last time I ate. I just covered a murder so grisly and sordid my editor's not gonna believe it when I give it to him.”
“If I could make the past go away, I would do it for both of us,” John Harris said.
Tim nodded, and his grin remained acerbic when he said, “I guess you can't. But there is something you can do for me.”
“Name it,” Harris said.
“A story,” Tim said, resting his head in the palms of his hands. “Tell me a story.”
Staring with drunken, rheumy eyes, Harris raked five bony fingers through his matted hair before pouring himself another shot of whiskey.
“What story?”
Shrugging noncommittally, and glancing at his watch, Tim said, “You name it, John. Everyone has a story. I'm too wired to sleep and too numb to talk. I gave you whiskey, now tell me a story.”
Harris nodded and leaned back in his chair, watching Tim Sullivan light his cigarette. For a long moment, he stared at a point above Tim's right shoulder, making him wonder if he’d passed out with his eyes open. He hadn't. He was trying to recall a past moment, and the exact nuance and inflection to convey that memory. The cogs in his drunken brain were turning. Finally, he blew a wisp of smoke at the ceiling and began in dreamy, broken sentences.
“Pale, washed-out sky. Butt on a canvas seat and back against a metal vibrating wall. Half-dozen expressionless Vietnamese Nationals across the aisle, staring at nothing with nervous eyes, inside the droning monstrosity.”
Harris' words seemed to emanate from a different person. Before three sentences passed his lips, he had stopped talking, and held his own cigarette with a palsied grip. Slowly, he sucked at it, as if he might never taste another. Tim thought he was done. He wasn’t and soon began again.
“Glanced out the porthole. Endless connecting craters surrounding a forest of defoliated stumps, many still burning. Wisps of yellow smoke curling up from decimated earth. Pale tropical sky back-dropping freshly churned dirt—like a coffin's velvet lining around an ashen corpse.”
Harris paused again, as if remembering the vision with vivid recall.
“Ruined jungle. Rice paddies. When the Caribou banked its wing, I saw the South China Sea for the first time. It looked like paradise.
“The plane began a downward spiral, and I saw a short stretch of man-made gray surrounding an eternity of tropical green. Heat devils danced on the concrete runway. Greenhouse heat and outhouse stench hit me when they opened the door.
“I was soon in a green army bus winding down a seaside road surrounded by endless vegetation. They let me out at an Army base by the sea.
“I hit the base on Friday for a three day stand-down, and the place was jumping. Stowing my duffel in one of the tents, I followed the noise to the beach. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, standing on the whitest sand, beneath the bluest sky, beside the clearest water I’d ever imagined.
“Half-naked Vietnamese girls with seamless copper skin and flowing black hair were everywhere, and they all had sensual lips and dark eyes that could burn a hole through your heart like a cutting torch.
“G.I.'s were also everywhere. Young, drunk and laughing. Grunts, straight from the jungle, wearing cut-off fatigue pants. Bodies the sun hadn't touched in months—bleached by sunless, triple-canopy darkness. Martha and the Vandellas blasted from a quad-speaker radio in the background.
“I pulled off my boots and shirt and tossed them behind a concrete wall. A squeal behind me. A beautiful Vietnamese girl walked by, and I watched her tanned legs and bikinied ass. She left the beach with a lifeguard, and my heart.
“Drunken, dancing Aussies. More girls. Tropical colors, loud music and alcohol. I should have felt happiness, but the throes of melancholia entangled my neck with icy fingers. Still, after an hour in paradise I had yet to speak a word. Feeling strangely invisible and ignored, I changed clothes and took a Lambretta to Vung Tau, the village beside the sea the French called the Vietnamese Riviera. Tall palms, tranquil breezes and long stretches of white beach were everywhere. On a back street that swarmed with bicycles, buffalo, and little yellow people, I met a grunt. The man, no more than nineteen, had the hard edge of someone that had already experienced more life and death than most ninety-year-olds. With him, I went to a whore house in an old French villa, with a red tiled roof, surrounded by creeping greenery. A mama-san, her tongue and lips black from chewing betel nuts, smiled.
“Got two baby-san,” she said. “Numba one. You like?”
She wasn't lying. Neither of the girls looked older than thirteen. When I shook my head and backed out of the room, the young G.I. grinned and took both girls. I never caught his name.
After returning to the base, I slept till late the next morning on a cot in a muggy tent, returning to the ville that afternoon. I visited a bar and met Hoa. G.I.'s and boom-boom girls crowded the bar. A smiling Vietnamese waitress approached me through the throng when I sat down.
“You buy me tea?”
Dark hair. Tight yellow sarong slit almost to her waist. Ruby lips and amethyst mascara surrounding dark eyes that glowed in the dim room like coal in a hot furnace. She was beautiful, and I was in love. At least in lust. I nodded and patted the empty chair beside me, waiting as she signaled someone across the noisy bar before putting her arms around my neck.
“G.I. alone?”
“Not now,” I said.
A little man brought her a glass decorated with a single cherry. ‘Saigon tea’ was just that—tea. Holding the cherry by the stem, she touched it suggestively to her tongue and closed her red-painted lips around it.
“What name?”
“Harris.” I said.
“Glad to meet you, Hawis. My name, Hoa,” she said in broken English.
Between patron noise and jukebox, blare I drank a half-dozen gin slings while she consumed a like number of Saigon teas.
“You spend night with me, Hawis?” she soon said.
“How much?” I asked, not naive enough to believe she was offering charity.
“Ten dollah, MPC.”
I'd already paid twice that much for drinks, and ten dollars in military payment certificates were about all I had left. “Five dollars,” I countered.
Folding her arms tightly, she crossed her legs and shook her head. “No way, G.I.”
“All right,” I conceded. “Ten dollah.”
When I gave her the money, her oriental smile returned. “How many rubbah you need?”
“Ten.”
“G.I. numbah one bullshit. Give me dollah,” she said, holding out her hand.
I dug a dollar out of my shirt pocket, handed it to her and watched her disappear through the crowded bar wearing a mile-wide grin. Checking my wallet, I found I had less than twenty dollars left. Five minutes had elapsed when I spotted Hoa standing by the door. She motioned me, and I followed her outside to the dark street.
“Give me dollah,” she said. “Taxi man charge you five dollah. I talk.”
I fished in my pocket for another dollar.
We weaved a circuitous course through the ville to a three story apartment complex, and then walked up to the second floor. Holding my hand, she led me to her one-roomed apartment. Inside, sweating plaster was peeling off the walls from the humidity. There wasn't a single couch or chair in the room, only a large bed.
“You hungry, Hawis? Give me dollah. I get food.”
She took the money and disappeared for ten minutes, directing me when she returned to the bathroom. “Brush teeth,” she said, handing me a well-used toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. I wondered how many G.I.s had used the same brush.
Tim Sullivan waited for Harris to continue. Instead, he slumped in his chair. Thinking him too dry to talk, Tim refilled his glass. Harris didn't seem to notice. Producing a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, he fished one out. It was only slightly bent. Smoke wafted slowly from his nostrils. Although he stared at the ceiling, his green eyes became glazed as if he were envisioning something far away. After a long, unbroken silence, he stubbed out the cigarette and stared at Sullivan.
“Have you ever gone five months without seeing a woman?”
Tim Sullivan shook his head.
“I had thought about having sex so long, when it finally came to pass, the act paled beside the dream.”
“No problem, G.I. Happen all time,” she assured me.
“Someone knocked on the door, and I almost came unglued. Hoa patted my shoulder and got out of bed, not bothering to dress. An old man, totally unmindful of her nudity, handed her a steaming bowl of fishy soup through the door. We shared the spicy soup and rice with a single spoon.
“You married, Hawis?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Wife very pretty?”
“We were only married five months when I got here. I can barely remember what she looks like.”
“You love her?”
“Don't know,” I said. “Are you married?” I said, changing the subject.
Shaking her head sadly, she said, “I have lover. He beaucoup love me.”
Hoa pointed to a glossy 8 by 10 on the stand beside the bed—she and a young American airman, holding a tiny baby.
“Is he stationed at the air base?”
Again she shook her head. “He go home six month ago. He send for me soon.”
“And the baby?”
“He our baby-san,” she said, smiling. “Leonard take us to America. Baby-san grow up become rich man, very smart like father.”
My heart skipped a beat and almost seized up. While I longed for a woman far away whose face I could barely remember, Hoa longed for a man who’d fucked her, taken her love and gone away, never to return.
“The war will end soon, Hoa. All the G.I.'s will go home. What will you do then?”
Even as I mouthed the words I knew they sounded cruel, though I couldn't prevent myself from saying them anyway. With sad eyes darker than ten years of war, she stared back at me.
“I check on baby-san,” she said. “You stay. We make boom-boom again when I come back. Better this time."
After ten long minutes, waiting naked and alone in the dark, paranoid thoughts began to overload my brain. What was I doing in a Vietnamese village swarming with Viet Cong, with no weapon, alone in the middle of the night? What if Hoa returned with a little black-garbed man armed with a demon spitting AK-47? I got dressed and peered out the door, seeing nothing but darkness.
“Fear is a strange emotion,” Harris said, smiling up at Tim Sullivan.
When Tim topped up his drink, Harris continued his story. “I abandoned the apartment and hurried down the stairs to the deserted street, finally managing to hail a surprised Lambretta driver passing in the night. When I reached the base beside the sea, I fell into a fitful sleep in the airless tent.
Lingering guilt overcame me the following morning. After checking my wallet and finding it nearly bare, I took the army bus back to town and waited in the hotel lobby that housed the bar where I’d met Hoa. Although the place seemed deserted, she soon appeared through a door from the bar. She was wearing a lime green sarong and looked exotic and beautiful.
Glaring at me with accusing eyes, she said, “You leave door unlock. Why not tell me you go? I very much worry for you.”
When I reached for her, she pulled away, shaking her head.
“I'm sorry, Hoa. When you left, I got frightened. I didn't mean to leave the door unlocked.”
Hoa's features softened, and she touched my hand. “You miss wife very much?”
Cradling my face in the palms of her hands when I nodded, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me.
“You remember me always, Hawis?”
“Always,” I said.
Though she turned away, attempting to hide the tears streaking her amethyst mascara, I caught a glimpse of her sorrowful smile.
I never saw her again.
Upon returning to the base, I found it nearly deserted with all the Aussies and Line Company grunts gone. Despondent, I took a walk on the beach, alone with only an old papa-san picking up yesterday's litter using a nail protruding from a broom handle. I sat on the concrete wall, feeling like the last man on earth.
All alone, listening to a whistling ocean breeze and watching distant gulls, I sat there.  A G.I. dressed in camouflage fatigues, walking along the beach alone, smiled when he saw me, joining me on the cement wall. He was a sniper, trained to lie in wait for the enemy and kill him with a single shot from his specially modified M-14.
He asked, “How far away do you think you can kill a man?”
Shaking my head, I answered, “I don't know.”
“I killed one once from nine-hundred meters. Believe me?”
I shrugged.
“I was on a hill overlooking a rice paddy when I saw a papa-san plowing behind a water buffalo. He was so far away he looked like an ant. I raised my sights and squeezed off a round.” Raising his arms to show me, he added, “A second later, papa-san dropped and never got back up. I killed him from nine-hundred meters.”
When I nodded appreciation for his feat, the camouflaged man acknowledged my silent praise with a smile and walked away down the beach without speaking another word, relieved for the moment of more guilt than one person should ever have to bear alone.
“People do things, you know. Sometimes terrible things. They may live long enough to regret it. They never live long enough to forget about it.
***
Tim Sullivan waited as Harris became silent. When he reached for his glass, he found not a single sip missing from the last pouring. Returning it to the bar, he watched as John Harris dragged himself sullenly off his stool.
With a wry smile, he left Tim alone with his thoughts, never speaking another word as he opened the barroom door and vanished into dim morning light.
END



Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma with wife Marilyn, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans. Please check out his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.

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