Freedom – Excerpt
THE FIGHTING NEARED Hué, artillery thudding and rumbling in the distance, a far glow of napalm in the nights, crackling radio traffic of Marines pinned down, wasted.
The North Vietnamese Army was trying to shut Highway One north from Hué toward the DMZ. It made Troy worry for his former platoon and for Su Li, and fearing he might die and never see her again. Three times now they’d come to Chez Henri, he’d even kissed her once in a godown alley slipping on chicken shit, she giggling then slapping him softly then angry for some reason she wouldn’t explain. The kiss was still on his lips, he could summon it any moment, see her lovely chiseled face, hear her entrancing half-taunting voice.
The first night she’d been friendly, asking him about life in the States, his regiment and what they thought of the War, did he think the Americans would win, with funny questions about growing up on the farm, why his brother was not fighting. “He’s a leader of the opposition against the War,” Troy said.
“So he is coward.”
“He’s just doing what he thinks is right.” It bothered him saying this.
She shook her head. “He should come here too, help save us.”
Her doctrinaire opposition to the Communists was more intense than other Vietnamese he talked to, even the ARVN officers who had the most to lose. But if she hates the Communists, he told himself, then many other Vietnamese must too; we must be doing the right thing. “Why do you hate the VC so much?” he said the second night.
“They kill my father, destroy everything.”
“Why did they kill your father?”
She looked away as she always did when avoiding emotion. “Want to make everyone same-same them.”
Cantilevered over the Perfume River, Chez Henri had been prosperous before the War but was now serving only the simplest meals, when it could get food. The patron was from Vichy, with its echoes of defeat and betrayal, and had a Vietnamese wife. The piano player sat at a tuneless piano tinkling at movie love songs that somehow did not seem out of place.
For a slender person Su Li ate like a tigress; the far rifle fire and sucking thud of bombs the third night did not bother her, “I love this French food – better from Viet Nam food,” finishing his plate after she’d cleaned every scrap of fish and duck from her own.
He took her hand. “We’ll go to Paris, then. You can have real French food.”
She stared at him. “I not go anywhere with you. You thinking I simple Viet Nam girl, make làm tình like other Viet Nam girls.”
He smiled happily at her, took her hand. “Just kissing your hand is better than làm tình with any other girl.”
She snatched it away. “You say anything to get what you want.”
He could not stop smiling, she was so lovely. “What do I want?”
She hunched her shoulders, looked at the Perfume River green fast and smooth beyond the rail, glanced at him darkly. “I think you like just bother me.”
“Do you want to go to Paris? As soon as my tour’s done?”
She shook her head. “You make fun. And my students? Who teach them if I go? Who take care my family? And you make talk only, not real.”
“Would you marry me?”
Her eyes were a deep spring, unfathomable. They widened, glistened. She stood, threw down her napkin. “You leave me alone. Forever!” She crossed the patio and he leaped up to follow her, remembered he hadn’t paid, went back and threw ten bucks on the table. When he reached the street she’d vanished.
DAISY WAS TORN between cognitive neuroscience and paleoanthropology. It drove her crazy day and night that she wanted to do both and felt a kind of divine link between them, but she had to choose one discipline for her PhD.
“You have to be selective, my dear,” said Leon Jacobson, the bearded elderly head of the anthropology department. “I trust,” he pushed his rimless glasses up his long narrow nose, “you’ll select us?”
“Don’t listen to them,” Dr. Vargas, the head of the neurosciences department, told her. “Those guys, what they do is like religion. What we do is facts.”
The paleoanthropology was exciting because you were looking at human behavior from twenty-five thousand years ago. Or a half million years. You picked a time and concentrated on it. And for her it was the emergence of Homo sapiens on the European continent, followed by the eventual die-off of the existing humans, the Neanderthals.
And the real question was, were our paleolithic ancestors less warlike than the agriculturalists who supplanted them?
In the end, however, she chose cognitive neuroscience because it allowed her to pursue this deep inner inquest she couldn’t get rid of, into how the brain works. Her brain. The brain.
Know thyself, inscribed on the Temple at Delphi. From all the way back to Luxor and even before. Because, as Socrates wasn’t the first to point out, till you do you can’t know anything else.
Can I see my brain work?
To map the places in the brain responding to certain stimuli, and to note the effect of altering those stimuli?
Like alcohol does.
It was true, she knew already, that she was looking for a way to save her Pa. To bring him back to what Mom said was “a fine man” before this bizarre drug called alcohol took him down. True, as Mom said, he’d had a tough early life, beat up all the time by his dad, et cetera.
We know what causes such behavior on the environmental level. But what does it do to the brain?
Can environment change DNA?
And is there a way, a chemical, that can help to reverse it?
Or make it better?
“IF YOU’RE GOING TO PARIS,” Seth told Mick, “you should register for grad work at the Sorbonne. It’ll get you out of the draft.”
Mick shook his head. “I thought you supported the War.”
“Not enough to die in it.”
“Aren’t wars always waged by the powerful and died in by the poor? Ducking the draft with a deferment is just leaving the poor in the trap. It’s the draft itself that has to be defeated. Without it the War can’t go on.”
“You get a deferment and you can keep working against the War. Without one you’re either in jail or hiding: either way there’s nothing you can do to stop the War.”
“My skyscraper’s done – my tiny part of it anyways. I’ve made good money and I’m going to France to have fun. Not to duck the draft.”
TUCKER SHOWED UP at Mick’s that night with a half gallon of Chianti in a paper bag. “Went out to Coney Island. That Ferris wheel, roller coaster, the one with the wings – prehistoric monsters crouching over the beach, coming toward you, and you’ve got your back to the water. So I went way out to the Bronx Zoo, you know, as far from Coney Island as I could.”
He opened the Chianti with the corkscrew of his Swiss Army knife. “Lions and tigers pacing their cells, caged wolves. Everybody doing time. All of them innocent. But they never finish their time, not till they die. Ocelots that can run seventy miles an hour across those endless savannas – what was their crime?”
Mick washed two jelly jars. “Just like on a firebase,” Tucker said, “in life you have to lay down your free-fire zone. Napalm your perimeters till everything’s ash. So you don’t get ambushed.”
He put down Mick’s new guitar to take his jar of Chianti. “In Vietnam we don’t have any territory. The Vietnamese people are the enemy. There’s no rear lines. So for an infantry operation we have to set up artillery bases to support us, and soon’s we withdraw those firebases are sitting ducks.” He raised his wine jar. “To the gods of war.”
“I won’t drink to that.”
“Come on now, where’d we be without them? We’d be chewing on leaves in some swamp like chimpanzees.” He struck a G on the guitar. “Besides, if you revere them enough, maybe the war gods won’t kill you.” He hit a D and it hovered, expectant. “Operation Paul Revere, this huge new attack on Pleiku province.” He fingerpicked an A minor, moving his left little finger up and down the top E string. “Imagine what Paul Revere would think of us naming the slaughter of thousands of farmers after him? He who helped to free the farmers of America.”
He sang, “The Farmers of America,” a song he’d made up, to the tune of “Stewball,” “keep our country strong. So we always do good, and we never do wrong.”
“You sound worse than shit,” Mick said.
“All day in Coney Island I’ve been afraid of going crazy. Hoping if I distracted myself enough.” He sat back, the guitar’s neck against his forehead. “The War just keeps coming back. I don’t want to remember. At night I wake up in some hutch somewhere, hear the bullets, smell burning thatch – acrid and sweet at the same time – the dung in fields and paddies. A little girl crying, an old man weeping –”
“You ever try to talk it through?”
“Can’t, man.” Tucker smiled, took a hit. “It’s into your bones.”
“Why was she crying, the little girl?”
“Just her family, all shot and thrown into the hut and set on fire. Started last summer.”
“No, the program. Search and Destroy. Find the enemy and destroy him and his supplies. At first we patrolled with Marvin ARVN, that vicious little chickenshit, wandering the countryside and every village we came to they’d go in and kill everyone and burn the place down while we stayed on the perimeter and pretended nothing happened. Then we got into it too, you see, we had to, because every Vietnamese – every farmer, every baby on his mother’s back – was the enemy.”
Mick felt worn down, nauseous with Vietnam. “You shouldn’t drink so much.
Tucker drained his wine, poured more. “Coney fucking Island. My first patrol, in the Central Highlands. Mountains like the Poconos but steeper, thick forest. In the valleys villages with farm fields. I was so afraid, tried to stay in the middle of the column, you know, step where the others did. One guy laughed at me. ‘You won’t lose your cherry today,’ he told me. ‘This place been pacified.’”
His fingers sliding up the strings made a faraway whine. “In the first village maybe fifty people dead, in the burnt huts, on the terraced fields going up to the hills. Like some magazine advertisement of this beautiful tropical place except there’s teenage girls with their intestines spread out on the ground and bearded old men all torn apart by fifty cals. Funny,” he hit an E minor, a soft strum, “how we humans do things so automatically – those women trying to shield their babies with their own bodies, when they musta known the bullets were gonna blow right through them.”
Again Mick felt like throwing up, wanting to turn the thoughts away as if one could avert one’s eyes. The War was no longer a vast and horrible mistake we would soon recognize and halt. No, the slaughter of civilians, like the War itself, was deliberate and intentional, and the self-absorbed righteousness with which it was enforced was its greatest evil. The scorn of the SS officer for the girl kneeling before his pistol, the generals and politicians with their body counts and tactical programs.
It was just a simple melody Tucker played, a C to A minor to D and then G, with a walking thumb line, hammering on the inside string, singing
“Jesus, who watches over everything we do,
Have you seen the slaughter, is it true?
So tell us, Jesus, what to do,
And when it happened, Jesus, where were you?”
Baby Moses, down by the river born,
Have you seen these children burned and torn?
These people all cut down like corn,
So tell us, Baby Moses, do you mourn?
“My answer,” Tucker grinned, “to ‘Ballad of the Green Berets.’ Don’t have a chorus or bridge. Can’t find the next verse. And some of the lines, man, they suck – like the one about corn.”
“It’s good, the one, When it happened, Jesus, where were you?”
“That ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’ – how it goes?” He sang falsetto, “Back at home a young wife waits, Her Green Beret has met his fate, He has died for those oppressed, Leaving her his last request –”
“That his son should grow up to be a Green Beret too, and die just like his dad –”
Tucker laughed, shook his head. “What kind of a father is that? But it’s sold more records this year than the Beatles or Stones. How you going to reach people like that?”
He ran through a few chords. “I thought it was Marvin ARVN – our brave Vietnamese allies – had killed those people. But it wasn’t ARVN.” Tucker slammed his wine jar on the table, it shattered and he held up his right hand in surprise with the shard of glass sticking out the side of his palm. “Sorry, man.” With one hand he swept broken glass from the table into his other palm and dumped it in Mick’s trash.
“You dumb fuck.” Mick tied off Tucker’s hand with a torn T-shirt and scotch tape.
Tucker shook his bandaged hand a few times, picked up the guitar. “It was our guys. First Cav, on search and destroy. Part of our strategy now in II Corps is to wipe out the villages so they can’t shelter and feed the VC. Like Ferlinghetti’s ‘Coney Island of the Mind’,
Heaped up groaning with babies and bayonets under cement skies,
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees . . .
“He already knew, didn’t he, ten years before it started?”
“You suppose,” Mick said softly, “someday Vietnam’ll be all forgotten, forgiven?”
“This kind of sin, it lasts a thousand years –”
“I think most humans are dangerously stupid. When grouped together they’ll run to war and religion and hatred and ignorance intentionally, determinedly, and will destroy you in the process. To live wisely it’s essential not to trust or have faith in one’s fellow humans, to watch out for them as one might a rabid bear. At the same time to not hurt or degrade or denigrate them, to push forward toward the light, toward friendship, understanding, love and peace, but never be so foolish as to expect what you hope for –”
The telephone rang, harsh and insistent, a girl named Beverly. “You sleepy?” she said.
“Talking with a friend,” Mick said.
She sounded hurt and he realized she’d think he was with another girl. “Guy from Vermont.” Back from Nam, he started to say, then remembered her husband out there somewhere, blown apart.
“Can I come over,” she said half apologetically. “For a while?”
He glanced at Tucker who with a frown of concentration was busily rolling another joint. “I’d love to see you.”
“She’s a nice, crazy girl,” he told Tucker.
“When he get it, her husband?”
“About a year ago. Never got out of his plane and there was nothing but a crater where it hit. She tells me that, straight-faced.”
“Then she gets feeling guilty, that he might still be alive and she should be keeping the faith.”
“And not balling you?”
She was wearing a long red scarf down the front of a golden raccoon coat, her hair full of dampness and electricity from the street, her lips chilled with mist. She circled Tucker keeping her distance, taking the joint and fingertipping it back. She swung on Mick. “I never know if you’re going to call or not.”
Neither do I, he wanted to say, annoyed at her, himself. She wore small oval glasses and had to tilt her head back slightly and peer down her nose to see through them, and this, combined with her irritated coily hair, gave her a peremptory inquisitive air that made him angry.
“You work with him?” she snapped at Tucker. “You’re wasting time. This bastard’s not reliable. He never calls.”
Mick found another fruit jar, washed it and filled it with Tucker’s Chianti and gave it to her. “When I do you’re always out.”
She opened the reefer. “Nothing but hypothermic roaches. Mick, you should clean them out. You’re wasting your time,” she repeated. “Never will you stop this War.”
Tucker grinned, cradling his bandaged hand. “We have a fucking oracle here.”
“Mick you should clean your floor.” She scuffed the carpet with her boot, swirled her skirts and flounced down cross-legged, wine jar by her knee. “Everything’s so easy for you. So you think it is for everyone.” She huffed her blouse up round her shoulders.
“Think so?” Tucker said.
“You don’t trust anybody,” she added. “Maybe from how you were brought up. But don’t you see how easy it is for you not to trust the War? Your government?”
“Shit,” Tucker said. “I don’t trust it either –”
“So you look down on my husband Tim,” she said, “and on Tucker here, for getting into the War – but that was easy for them to fall into – they’re nicer than you.”
“That’s not true,” Tucker said. “I’m not nicer than him.”
“They trusted their government, were willing to risk the supreme sacrifice . . .”
“You mean die,” Tucker said.
“. . . to protect their country.” She bit her lip hard, her eyes shiny. “You shouldn’t look down on normal people, Mick.”
“And what were they –” Mick tried to keep irritation out of his voice, “protecting the country from?”
“There you go again,” she said. “Can’t you see it doesn’t matter? That the thought was, I love my country so much I’ll die if it asks.”
“Now I wouldn’t.” Tucker pulled out his glass eye, popped it in his mouth.
“That’s gross,” Beverly hissed.
“Gift of our government –”
“Before I risk losing this ecstatic mystery of life,” Mick said, “I want to know what I’m losing it for. What’s everybody, or somebody, going to get in return for my being erased from the rest of my life? For my not having a family, and kids and growing old with my grandchildren around me, a lifetime of days?”
“For you, Mick, maybe life’s too important.”
“Otherwise we can get a scenario where there’s little booths on the street and if you want to show your love for your country – or your wife, for that matter, or Macy’s or Howard Johnson – you go in and shut the door and it executes you.”
“You can even do it painfully, if you want, maybe get the Congressional Medal of Honor.” He glared at her. “Or, how about if you can choose to go in there and just get wounded – lose a leg, or a bullet in the balls – and then you get a Purple Heart?”
“Mick you’re sick.”
“If you buy someone a gun, knowing he will use it to kill people, by law you’re as guilty as he. Americans are buying weapons for an Army that has to commit war crimes every day just to follow orders.”
“That’s true.” Tucker put back his glass eye and gulped his wine.
“In a pig’s ass!” she turned on him. “You, who were paid and trained to defend your country, who enlisted to –”
“You know how easy it is to kill someone?” Tucker stood, put Mick’s capo and tuning fork on a shelf. “The human body’s soft as protoplasm – bullets go right through us.” He reattached the guitar strap and shut the guitar in its case. “You know what children look like after people like your husband burned them alive?”
“Fuck you, coward.”
He smiled at Mick as he stood in the door. “Tomorrow’s a phone bank night.”
“Oh shit.” Mick said. It was awful talking to strangers on the phone, trying to motivate them against the War.
Tucker turned to Beverly. “You don’t really want to fuck me so don’t say it. I’m probably not a coward, as I got three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. I think we should use words accurately or they lose their value. Like when I say, you are a dumb bitch, I mean two true things: you’re stupid, and you’re a nasty vicious woman.”
Her mouth opened. She said nothing, then, “You’re a goddamn Benedict Arnold.”
He saluted her and his voice faded down the stairs singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” making Mick worry about his neighbors.
She dug fingernails into Mick’s wrist. “I’m sorry. I just can’t live with people.”
“Neither can Tucker.”
“I get lost in ideas, nothing’s what it seems. All my ideas are wrong, don’t represent what is.”
“But what’s is?”
“That’s what ideas are for – to find out what is. But they go astray like horses, like bullets that hit someone else.”
He held her closer. “Stop thinking about this.”
She kissed him hastily, pulled back. “Mick I don’t want to sleep with you tonight.”
“How come you always make such a sex thing between us? Why can’t you just once, for one night, be my friend?”
“I said that’s fine.”
“Yeah but you didn’t mean it. And now I came all the way down here to see you and you just want to fuck me!”
“Hey, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“You’d sleep on that couch? It’s filthy, Mick – what’s wrong with you?”
He pulled her near, feeling her tense against him. “You know,” she murmured, “you were the first guy I slept with after Tim? That bar where you gave me your Guinness because they’d run out. I was alone but I didn’t want you to know. So I pretended to be looking around –”
“For your brother –”
“I was really looking for Tim. In a dream the night before that bar was where I found him – so I looked around and he wasn’t there and I said okay I admit you’re dead, Tim. And as I sat down beside you – there was that open stool – my tit brushed your arm and it was like stepping on a twelve-volt battery. You ever have a cattle fence? Bare wire connected to car batteries – wow I was zapped. And I said to myself I was going to fuck you that night whether you wanted to or not. I was going to fuck your brains out.”
“I swear you did. I’ve been stupid ever since.”
“You were before.” She shifted her legs, a thigh bronzed by firelight. “I didn’t like that song you sang.”
“Yeah, you told me. ‘Masters of War.’”
“That’s why I got so mad at your friend, just now. Because that song’s true.” She brushed a tear from her cheek with the side of a finger. He took her hand feeling the tear’s cool damp streak and the sharp edge of her engagement ring. “If I admit he died for nothing,” she said, “it’s like losing him all over again.”
“It was random as a car accident. Stop digging it up.”
“Ever since he was little he wanted to fly. Sent away to all the plane companies for pictures and manuals, did ROTC at Bowling Green and went straight into the Air Force in ’64. Never heard of Vietnam, thought he’d be flying over Europe.”
She looked straight at him, holding in the tears. Mick glanced down, found himself turning her engagement ring round her thin finger, its sapphire the color of the sky at forty thousand feet. “And then he finds himself,” she said hoarsely, “flying F-105s napalming peasants.”
“How’d he deal with that?”
“He finally talked about it in Waikiki. I told you that was the last time I had sex before you, but Tim and I in those four days’ leave we only fucked twice. He was so crazed by this War. He sat on the edge of the bed with his elbows on his knees and his head down between his shoulders like a condemned man – I can see it now, the pink scalp under his short blond hair. He had to keep the TV on, said he needed the voices.”
With a palm she angrily rubbed tears from her cheeks. “People on fire, running out of their homes . . . That’s why I got so mad at Tucker – because Tim’s dead, and he did bad things, things that drove him crazy, this lovely sweet boy like you, and now I know too he died for absolutely nothing.”
Mick felt weighed down by incorrigible loss. Since the beginning of time what had there been but sorrow? He touched her forehead with his, kissed her wet cheek. “Honey you’ve got to let your heart rest.” He tugged a pillow from the couch for their heads and pulled her down beside him. “Got to stop wounding yourself.”
“He wanted to look down on the pretty little fields and villages of Germany, to see what God sees.”
“God doesn’t see.”
“I tried so hard to understand. Did God love Tim so much He had to have him? But wasn’t that selfish? Doesn’t God care about the sorrow of all the loved ones? Or does God think sorrow’s good for us?”
He kissed her tears, holding her close. “Forget God.”
“Then I thought maybe Tim was a sinner, that’s why he had to die. But if he was, it was the War that made him a sinner. God made him a sinner then punished him. Why?”
Perhaps because it’s only through pain that we learn, but he couldn’t tell her that. For a long time he held her watching the fire’s glow till it cooled and he pulled her raccoon coat over them and the glow of the coals faded on the ceiling into the dawn, voices and radios and arguments in Spanish and food smells rising up the lightwell.
In three days he’d be in Paris. And all this far behind.