STOP BOTHERING THEM!
WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AND CONTENT.
It was a cold November day, with the feel of the coming holidays in the air, the big Thanksgiving feast only a few days off and then the home stretch to Christmas, and everything that that little illusion which we gather into our hands out of the river that takes our lives away, means to us. The man looked like some kind of creation of a mad movie-maker, the image was perfect, his raggedy coat blowing around in the wind like a huge black cape, his arms expressive and disconnected as he muttered things significant to himself, the sky gray and threatening like a sky Eisenstein or Kurosawa might have waited weeks for. Rain had heard the silent consternation of the shoppers and was rushing in to drive him back into his hole, but it had not yet arrived. Only the grim sky that made the city seem like his mood, only the sky that made the city kneel before his agony.
"Christmas displays already, what about Thanksgiving?!" he raged. "Santaís like Giap, heís got the French by the balls at Dienbienphu! Donít blame the French for not backing us on Iraq, blame them for getting beat by Ho Chi Minh. Hey kid!" he gasped, lunging towards a teenage boy walking by in a family of tourists. "Ever hear of Ho Chi Minh? The Ho Chi Minh trail?"
The kid shook his head with a frightened look on his face, while his mother drew him away from the man, and put herself between them.
"Oh, god bless you, youíre an angel. My mother told me it was cowardly to get a deferment. It was like the day she pushed me into the swimming pool at the Y because I was afraid to jump in. I could not resist the flag in our yard. Tread softly, parents, you are like giants! For you I die! I loved history, and wanted to go to college to study it, but honor intruded before I could learn the lessons that might have stopped me, and afterwards, I had no patience to sit in a classroom, any more than a fish could bear listening to inhabitants of the Sahara describe the sea. Well, forget about it, then, Ho Chi Minh was like Darth Vader, or whoís the bad guy in the Lord of the Rings? Someone you might have heard of? Or you could call him the Communist George Steinbrenner, but I was comparing Santa Claus to him because they both are known for their beards and the color red, and he was expanding, you see, he was expanding from his strongholds in the north, and the French blew it and left him with too much power, so we had to come in. Imagine, dragging all that heavy artillery up the mountains? Yeah, they got the Viet Minh to concentrate and fight a pitched battle, all right, but guess what, those god-damned rag-tag guerrillas beat the French, the heirs of Napoleon, and you see, I compared Santa to Ho Chi Minh because, even though his trail is in the sky and not through Laos and Cambodia, and he delivers presents rather than rifles and ammunition, he is expanding into the Thanksgiving holidays and muscling in on the territory of the pilgrims and the kindly Indian who planted the fish in the ground, and soon, reindeer shit will be covering Plymouth Rock." The madman discovered himself talking to a lamppost, the tourists were long gone, "Good day!" he said to a passing petticab, tipping an imaginary hat. "Good hookers?" he called after him in Vietnamese. "Good hookers? Oh yes," he told a passing couple, "I am an accomplished linguist. I can take care of all my basic needs in Vietnamese. Bathrooms, restaurants, girls." And in Vietnamese he asked them, "Any land mines down there? Better say now, or trouble. Viet Cong down there? Donít say you donít know. My brothers here. If anyone dies, trouble. Understand? No land mines?" And he told the couple, "The worldís going crazy. They call the brontosaurus the Apatosaurus, they say Plutoís not a planet anymore, the Baltimore Colts are playing in Indianapolis and Johnny Unitas is dead, and they call Saigon Ho Chi Minh City. Well, f**k that! I am loyal to the brontosaurus, I stand by Pluto, Iím waiting for the game to start in Baltimore and number 19 to walk onto the field, and Iíll be damned if I call Saigon anything except Saigon. Lo-an was the sweetest thing," he told the unshaven, wild-eyed face looking back at him from the window of a store filled with sensuous manikins in underwear. Tears came, like diarrhea from his heart, his sentimentality mixed with the dirt of two weeks without a bath. "She wasnít like you cold bitches," he told the manikins. "The way her hands caressed me in the bath. ĎTake me home to America, Bob Boy. Take me home.í Why didnít I? The airplane flying away, what was I celebrating? I made it back. Jimmy and Eddie and Big Hank and Fonseca all came back before I did, in boxes. What was I celebrating? I saw the green land I hated and loved, hated like the jungles that wouldnít share what they knew, loved like Lo-anís thighs, I saw the green land falling away, falling away from the wing, and I knew it wasnít right, the angel went AWOL, deserted the living and deserted the dead. They say when the male dog mounts the female to have a good time, his d**k gets stuck inside her and he canít pull out until heís finished. Heís held prisoner by her vagina until heís done what he was supposed to do. My d**k is still in the p*ssy of Vietnam, and I canít get it out. Because I didnít get the job done, I didnít impregnate it with the future it was meant to have. BOO!" he shouted, turning around to harass a family whose reflections in the window were looking at him disdainfully . "I am the ghost of Christmas past! The chains you forge in life you are condemned to wear forever!"
"Look, you just better watch it," a big, strong man said stepping up to him while the rest of his family kept on walking. "Iím from Oklahoma, and if people put up with this kind of shit in New York, I donít. You leave my family alone."
The wild man smiled at that, a smile that came from far away, from when he thought he was going to die and answered it with a grin, dressing his heart in his Sunday best for the machine gun that had them pinned down on the river bank. "Do you know what itís like to have nothing but marsh reeds as cover when bullets are flying at you like a swarm of locusts straight out of the Bible? Itís like standing outside f*cking naked in the winter. You donít scare me, Oklahoma. Ever been any sick person in your family, waiting for the ambulance, and youíre thinking, when will they get here? When will they get here? You know what our ambulances were? Helicopters. Our ambulances, and our angels. Hear those rotating blades coming? Itís like a choir singing Bach, itís also like a hand grenade, youíve just pulled the pin and are hoping it wonít blow up in your hand, hoping that theyíve got the positions right, and that when they rip the jungle to shreds with their guns and rockets theyíll leave that little island youíre in alone. I hear the helicopters around the South Street Seaport, and the police helicopters flying around over the water, and I feel like Iím in Godís arms, and Iím thinking, ĎNow weíre safe, baby, now weíre safe!í Even though my heart starts pounding, because itís all coming back, at the same time I know I am going to be saved. All these cold buildings, these self-absorbed stairs to heaven. The helicopters are going to save me."
The wild disheveled man found himself some blocks away from where he last remembered, as though he were a piece of paper, the discarded wrapper of a cheeseburger that the wind had blown down the street, and now he was talking to a long-haired man from Europe and his girlfriend, instead of to the angry man from Oklahoma. "Hey, love the long hair!" he said. "Can I borrow your comb, Iíll give it back to you plus some lice!"
"I am afraid I do not understand English much," the man said, beginning to lead his girl away, although she had a romantic impractical heart that made her slow to flee from strange and wounded souls.
"Ever been to Woodstock?"
"No, no," the European said, struggling subtly with his girlfriend, whose passion was to reach out to the broken, and who would one day probably have her hand bitten off as a result.
"I donít blame them, the fact that they were dancing naked with joints in their hands while I was crawling in the mud with a gun in my hands. I just wished I could have f**ked Grace Slick; and they say that Janis Joplin was ugly, but when she sang she was like a god damned siren, and she could have ridden me and I would have felt blessed to make her feel like living for another day. I just donít know why I had to be left out of it all - Haight Ashbury and Santana and John and Yoko and even Altamont, which come on, was nothing, I mean the Hells Angels wouldnít have lasted a day with the Viet Cong, let alone the North Vietnamese regulars who shot all the professors at Hue - or why I counted as less of an idealist than those who didnít fight. Couldnít they have invented some machine to see if someone didnít fight because he had ideals, or he was just afraid, so that I wouldnít have to come back at the very bottom of the moral totem pole, like some blood-soaked Genghis Khan, or Heinrich Himmler, even; yeah, some girl who I tried to hit on in my first days back, with a face as white as a lily and hair as black as a raven like she was Miss Folk Song Material from the days when people said Ďthouí and Ďdothí, compared me to Himmler and it was like everyone of us had raped and scalped peasant girls at My Lai, and come on, the worst I did was to fire into some huts because we were taking fire and to discover later that there was a dead woman in there with no gun. Well, thatís war, god damn it, and I havenít written it off as collateral damage in case you were wondering, standing by my map at the press conference, I have blown my brains out every day with thoughts no mortal could stand, and with drugs that are like Draino, so I can lie down there beside her on the dirt floor of her hut, like I was her husband. And we sleep together, not touching of course, like two corpses loyal to the end, one killed by a bullet and one by a trigger. I donít want to postpone my karma, isnít what I am now better than a cockroach? I just wonder how I got the cold shoulder that never ended, the girls who treated me like I was f**ng Richard Speck and my only welcome came from mother and father who scattered my ashes into the sea by being proud of me, and the god-damned Veteranís Hospital that was like walking through the Grand Canyon when what you really want is for someone to hold you. And I never like to say I fell between the cracks, because there wasnít nothing but a crack, everything was just a great big void, there wasnít even thin ice there. And Lo-an! Damn it, she was so beautiful! I could have been a phoenix for her! The way she loved, it could have put those footsteps in the jungle to sleep, like a baby. In the cradle of her body, they would have slept."
The madman felt the first blows of the cold rain, the storm had caught up with him, again, the rain felt hard but it was also giving him fair warning that more was about to come, torrents and torrents being loaded into the great gray machine gun in the sky.
"Full of shit!" he heard someone saying. "He wasnít in any war, heís probably been in Bellevue his whole damned life."
"Excuse me! Excuse me!" he exclaimed, rushing up in pursuit of the voice. He caught up with two young office workers, the kind who look like they spend their day making photocopies and sorting through mail for a major corporation. Leaping in front of them, he demanded, "Not in the war? Not in the war?"
"Yo, get out of the way," one of the young men said. "Youíre whacked man, no one would ever send you into a war, you probably couldnít tell one end of the gun from the other."
"And you, what do you know? How to turn a photocopy machine on? You want to punch me, go on. You probably need some proof that youíre a man. Feeling all tight and constricted in that shirt and tie, got to look all tame and obedient for the CEO, makes you want to punch someone, doesnít it? Itís hard to swagger when you know that the bravest thing youíve ever done is handle packages in a mailroom. But one of them might be from the Unabomber! So step up for your medal!" And suddenly, to their shock, he pulled down his pants.
"Someone, call the police, itís a flasher!" a horrified woman screamed.
But his underpants were still on, and he pointed to a scar on his leg. "M16, a f*cking gun the ARVN probably lost the month before Ė it was a nice flesh wound, a lot of blood but it didnít do more than help me tell when the rain is coming. You see, the moisture affects it. The pain is more accurate than W.I.N.S."
One of the young men said, "Yo, take a bath you god-damned bum. Nobody can see a scar, just a f*cking dirty hairy leg." And they sidestepped him with a look of disgust while he, trapped by his fallen pants, could not follow.
"Ulysses!" he exclaimed, as he excavated the ancient wound from his flesh and filth. "You must be Ulysses! It is where the boar gored you, I remember, so many years ago! You have returned! Returned for Penelope! Returned for your son! Returned for your kingdom!"
"Yo, pull your pants up," a man said, opening up an umbrella as he hurried past. "Thereís women and children out here. Have some respect!"
As he tugged on his pants, he said, "Women and children! Women and children! This is warÖ No! No, I wonít let the full moon of war to do that to me; chain me to the goodness in my soul, what profit it a man to gain the world?! Chain me to my humanity, donít let me run off into the night! Why couldnít I be a pilot and just drop a bomb? All I would see is those beautiful patterns of explosions, I could make origami from the air. I wouldnít have to see the people! Why couldnít I just be back home, and pull the lever in the voting booth? I donít want to see their faces! I donít want to be the one who has to carry the cross of their eyes. I donít want to be sentenced to life in this dinky little hamlet! Itís too much to bear! You can go to Bloomingdales and Macys without stepping on a landmine inside your head! Women and children! Why didnít they tell us there was an ambush up ahead? They gave rice to them. No, I wasnít there, I wouldnít continue down the path, but I didnít stop them! Who could? Caligula tried to fight the sea, and Xerxes and Cuchulain, too. But you canít fight the sea, you canít! I said, ĎDonít do it, thatís not what weíre fighting for,í and then I watched them go down the path and I heard the shots. I only might have killed the woman in the hut, the week before, and all the soldiers before and after were fair game and they were trying to do the same to me, but the woman, my karma wifeÖ We fired hundreds of bullets, how do I know that one of the five that hit her was mine? Maybe mine sailed above her like white doves refusing to leave the sky! Maybe they just made holes at the top of the hut. I didnít go down the path when they said, ĎItís time to take down the waspsí nest from inside the barn.í I stayed back with the faggots, because in war thatís what beasts call men. But who can fight the sea? Who can fight the sea? Yes!" he told a passerby in a raincoat, thinking that the man had been startled to hear him mention the names of Xerxes and Cuchulain. "I am a learned lunatic, as the asshole told Cyrano de Bergerac who was buying time while the tongue-tied man was marrying his girl. I have a crush on books, I canít stop reading, I canít, are you surprised? I am like a man whoís had a giant hole blown in his gut by a Kalashnikov, but keeps shoving pieces of chocolate cake into his mouth. They have to drive me away from the dumpsters behind The Strand! Yes, me! Itís not my fault that the world does not share its showers equally. I have spent many days in the public library; the lions have not eaten me yet, their stone stomachs are satisfied with watching the homeless!"
And he suddenly became aware that he was drenched and alone, and putting his head down, he walked with frightening speed like a plague spreading through a city towards the sheltering descending steps of the train station. "Bullets of water," he said, "Iíve been killed a million times by bullets of water."
And he was down among the commuters, who parted for him like schools of fish before the shape of a prowling shark, although he felt less like a shark than a Jew in Hitlerís Germany, wearing the yellow star of his unraveling before the worldís eyes. The loudspeaker separated him even more from the world than he already was: "Train to Port Washington, boarding on Track 20 Ė Train to Babylon now arriving on Track 16." Where were those strange, distant towns beyond the territory of his tormented wandering, where busy, important people rushed with attachť cases, gifts and shopping bags? He saw a bag that said Zabarís pass by, and imagined wonderful Brie cheese and goat cheese inside it, and salami to go with the cheese, and maybe a couple packs of Sushi also. He wiped the drool from his mouth, saw a beautiful rack filled with train schedules of many different colors, one for each rail line, and reached out for some, as if he might find the way home. "Oyster Bay. Cold Spring Harbor. Central Islip. Patchogue. Wouldnít it be nice if I had a house out there to go to? If Lo-an was there waiting for me, and a hot supper cooked with love was sitting on the table? If I could walk through the rain and darkness and see a house with a light on, and know it was mine, and she was there." Noting the hard, concentrated look of a policeman on him, he moved along, he knew how to amble away like a bear retreating into the woods. He knew how to disguise his staying as leaving.
Further down the main corridor of the station, he smelled soup and pizza. He put his gnarled hands into his pockets, he dug like a prospector into the empty mine. He had to be in the mood for begging, and right now he was not. An attractive middle-aged woman deterred him just by being there, she triggered some part of him that was still not resigned to being pitiful, he would go out and search the garbage cans when the rain slowed down.
As he continued on his long, slow walk to nowhere, he passed by the arcade, filled with games lit up in the darkness like glowing bottles of liquor in a bar, and with the throb of music, and the sound of guns firing, planes flying, martial artists kicking and punching, and bells ringing. It was a great place to spend some time if you missed your train or just wanted to delay going home, and it was frequented by middle-aged commuters Ė frustrated office workers with sedentary, demeaning lives but the instincts of boxers Ė as well as by loud and adventure-starved youths going to and from outings in the city.
With a slight smile on his face, he shuffled in, past a guard who was looking the other way, and looked over the playersí shoulders to see what treasures they were finding in the machines. One pair of hands was battling dragons with a huge barbarian armed with a broadsword, and another was moving the New York Jets downfield against the New England Patriots. There was a girl kung fu fighter beating up a ninja garbed in black, and then he stumbled upon a game with five teenagers gathered around it, in which soldiers were running across a field as one of the kids aimed a large metal and plastic rifle attached to the machine by a cord at them. The sound of automatic gunfire came from the speaker, and the sound of screams as the soldiers running across the field were cut down like wheat. "Look out, you missed one!" cried one of the kids to his friend. "You got to get him before he throws his hand grenade!" Another friend pushed down on a button, there was the sound of an artillery shell whistling through the air and then a boom. They all laughed as the hidden soldier flew up into the air. "Get ready for another charge!" one of the boys shouted.
"Set up the antitank gun!" his friend replied. "This time, theyíre sure to come with tanks."
One friend was now hovering over a button that said "AntiTank Gun" and one over a button that said "Mortar."
"Scott, get us air support," said the lead boy.
Another friend grabbed up a joystick that was also attached to the machine by a cord, and reported, "A10 tank killers in the air, sir!"
But it was only another infantry charge. The boy with the automatic rifle opened fire again, as he told one of his friends, "Set the landmines!"
"Yo, theyíre too crowded together!" said the wild man, who they were aware of looming over their shoulders now, but were trying to ignore so that they did not lose their concentration. "Nobody attacks like that! All bunched together! They come in low, and spread out, and they donít cross open terrain like that unless they have artillery support. Theyíll make you show your heavy weapons and neutralize them before the infantry comes in to mop up. Or better yet, theyíll pin you down with heavy fire and outflank your ass. This is nothing like the NVA! This is like the f*cking Assyrian hordes in the days of spears! And what if they donít even send an army at all, what if all you see is peasants with water buffaloes in the field, and next thing you know, a bullet comes out of nowhere and your best friend is dead?"
"Yo, mister," complained one of the kids, "donít mess it up!" And he fired away with his rifle as the attacking horde was mowed down like grass on a lawn and then began to step on the landmines, and to fly into the air screaming without arms and legs.
"Oh shit, itís Cripple City Central!" laughed one of the kids, as body parts flew all around.
"Hey, stop laughing, kid!" exclaimed the wild man. "What the f*ckís funny about that? Thatís how Big Hank went down. Poor Big Hank who pushed the jeep out of the mud. Thatís how strong he was. A god-damned landmine off the path. They fired on us and we just had to run for cover without looking for mines, and thatís how he stepped on one, and this big strong man who could move a jeep was off the ground with this little flash of fire biting him like a cobra, and then he was on the ground all covered with blood and crying like a baby and then his eyes just looked up right into mine and he told me, ĎTell mamma I love her.í" And the madman began to weep, then threw his weeping away as the horrified kids watched him, like the Soviet engineers watching the meters at Chernobyl, and he cried out at them in anger: "Stop laughing! Itís not funny!"
"Hey, mister, leave us alone!" exclaimed one of the kids.
"Yo, dude, you stink," said another. "You need a bath!"
"Shut up, Harry!" his friend shouted in a whisper.
"Yo, do we need to call the cops?" another kid demanded.
"Here come the tanks!" yelled one of the kids. "Quick, open fire with the surface-to-surface missiles. And get those A10s back in action!"
Flashes came out of the firing gun barrels of the approaching tanks. "Stop laughing!" the wild man was continuing to shout, even though nobody was laughing any more.
"Shut up, and leave us alone, mister! Harry, get the cops, god damn it, this dude is f*cking crazy!"
One by one the tanks erupted into flames as the kids cheered. "Toasted marshmallows!" said one.
But a big boom sounded and a light on the control panel lit up and one of the kids exclaimed, "They just knocked out my antitank battery!"
"Keep firing with the A10s!" urged another.
"Yo, youíre dead," the wild man told the kid by the antitank battery. "Youíre dead. But I donít see no bullethole. I donít see a missing arm or leg. Chances are, if you were hit by a tank shell, your body would not only be dismembered it would also be charred. Ever seen a burned body?"
"Hey, guard!" shouted one of the kids, as they saw the uniform drift back into the mouth of the arcade after a few minutes of goofing off. "Hey guard, thereís a bum in here! Tell him to leave us alone! Get him out of here!"
As another wave of infantry charged, the wild man, who could not figure out how to disconnect the game, knocked the boyís rifle away, causing him to miss. "Yo, mister, get the f*ck off, touch me again and Iíll sue your ass!"
"Theyíre overrunning our position!"
"He messed us up! Yo, you owe us 2 bucks, mister, weíve got to start over now!"
"Two bucks, him? He canít even afford a bar of soap!"
"Whatís the problem?" the guard asked coming up to them. Then, seeing the wild man, he knew at once, though the kids insisted on telling him in loud, competing voices.
Feebly, the wild man protested. "You should take this game out of here!" he said. "You should cut it down like a tree with Asian long-horned beetles. You should pull it up like a weed from a garden, and burn it! Warís not like that! Theyíre laughing! The kids are laughing!"
"Sir, you have to leave and right now," the security guard said, "or else Iím going to have to call the cops. And theyíre so close, I wonít even have to use my phone to call them."
"The cops? But I was in Vietnam!" the man cried out. "I fought for this country! My friends died for this country! If someone goes to jail it should be the idiot who invented this god-damned machine! Itís like a f**king landmine! A f**king landmine for the whole god-damned nation!"
"Mister, Iíll ask you once again," said the security guard in an unwavering, determined voice, in spite of the absurd pretensions of his uniform. "This is your final warning. Youíve got to leave the arcade. These kids are our customers. Youíve got to stop bothering them. Youíve got to stop bothering them!" Then, to make it clear that he wasnít being given a second chance, the guard said, "You need to leave now."
Stunned, the wild man looked at him for a moment. He could not understand, it was like he was in Iran and everybody was speaking Persian, or in Pakistan, and everybody was speaking Urdu. He was a foreigner, an utter foreigner in his own land, he belonged with Lo-an in a dingy building at the back of an alley on a bed on the floor that was like a holy altar. Vietnam had loved him enough to want to cover him over with its forgiving earth, to fold his arms across his chest at the bottom of a rice paddy. Here, he was nothing but a gust of wind, nobody wanted to love him and nobody wanted to kill him because they loved something he had come to take away. They just wanted him to disappear.
"But they were laughing," he protested one last time.
The guard pointed towards the exit. "You canít bother the kids," he said, explaining himself again so that he would be justified, and be more than just his raw authority.
Shaking his head in disbelief, the wild man turned and slowly left, as the kids taunts followed him. "Loser!" "Loser!" "Nut job!" "Irish Spring Ė I like it, too !" "Camay, the beauty cleanser!"
"They were laughingÖ They were laughing," his lips mumbled as he vanished into the corridor of the train station, a little cavern of warmth and light below the whole world raining.
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents