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Authors: Sam Stewart

Payback (8 page)

BOOK: Payback
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The waiter'd come back bringing ice-cold carafes of Russian vodka. The waiter was a French-speaking Saigonnais with a carefully cultivated ignorance of English and Mack had just rattled off, “
Fromages du jour et un grand café.

Catlin said, “Flashy.”

Mack said, “Yeah. Some flash. I grew up in this flashy little orphanage that's run by the French. French nuns. I know how to say two things in French. I can say, ‘I want a platter of cheese and some coffee,' and ‘You play with your dick you go directly to hell.'”

Catlin gave it thought. “They were right, though, weren't they.”

“Yeah. I got in here on a wang and a prayer.”

Catlin raised his glass now and laughed. Mack didn't, just looked at him coolly out of flat gray eyes. “Cat,” he said slowly. “Think you've got nine lives?”

“No,” Catlin said, then thought a little more and said, “What about you?”

“Me? Do
I
think you've got nine lives? Way I hear it, man, you used about seven already and you're—what?—twenty-one?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen. What the hell,” Mack said. “You got one more death before it counts, am I right?—I were you, kid, the next time I died I'd take it serious.”

“Thanks,” Catlin said, and then waited. “You got any other good advice?”

“Oh Jesus, if you're looking for ad
vice
,” Mack said, “you got advisers all around. You got guys, takes 'em five ten years to lace a shoe, they're advisers. We're all of us advisers here, kiddo. What it's all about. Advice. I'd advise you not to listen to advice.”

Catlin gave it up now and polished off his vodka and poured another shot. He felt pretty dumb because he'd really been serious; he wanted some advice. He felt himself an amateur where Mack, with his steel reputation, was a pro. What he needed was a clue, little pointers, like
Mantle Shows How To Hold a Bat
. There were questions to be asked. How do you kill a guy and make him stay dead, so he isn't resurrected with each rising moon, each slipping of consciousness? How do you do that? How do you keep yourself from screaming out loud on a permanent basis?
How do you survive?
Catlin had to know and he had to know it fast because Mack was on his way. One more week and he'd be out of it; home. He'd go back to being Mitchell.

The waiter came over: platter of cheeses and a basket of bread.

“Story is the cheese here is made out of dogs,” Catlin said. “DeVane told me that. Serious. I said to him, What happens—you think they milk the dogs? He goes, No man, they kill 'em. They club 'em and they kill 'em and they moosh 'em all up.”

Mack raised his eyes. “I'd believe that,” he said. “Dismiss nothing out of hand. As long as it's absurd and disgusting then it's true.”

“Too often.” Catlin said, and then waited once again. “Did you ever kill a sergeant?”

Mack looked away. “You mean Burdick? I don't know. It's entirely possible. Fat little bastard just sitting on the can just waiting to be opened? Could be,” Mack grinned. “But we'll likely never know.—Is the kitty-cat curious?”

“Forget it,” Catlin yawned. “I just wondered.”

“Fair enough.” Mack looked at his watch again, poured another shot. A very old man passed slowly on the street with a cardboard suitcase. He stopped at a kiosk and beckoned for a cab. Mack said, “You know how old he is? Guess.”

Catlin made a shrug. “About eighty?”

“No way. Twenty-one,” Mack said. “You know what this country is, kitty? Shangri-La. Puts the sparkle in your cheeks and the color in your eyes but you leave it, you're a hundred.”

“That, I believe.”

“Well of course you believe it, it's disgusting and absurd. I don't know, man. I get on that plane next week—
if
I get on that plane—I'm gonna look just like him.”

Catlin turned around again, watching as the old man dodderingly climbed aboard a two-seater bike and disappeared into traffic. “You got any plans?”

Mack appeared startled. “Plans? About what?”

“What you'll do when you're at home.”

“Sweet Jesus but you are the little thinker though, aren't you. Plans. I don't plan. I'm going back to war again just the way you are. If I live seven days then I'll think about a plan.”

“I was thinking of Lauderdale.”

“Oh,” Mack said. “Her. Dumb cunt. Thing in her favor, she provides a lot of excellent Tiajuana weed. Now
she's
a little planner. Got a plan we'll get married. Got a father with a fortune so of course the guy's saving her for something very cool. So of course little Ginger wants something very hot, or let's say controversial—a no-name bastard with the future of a bum and wouldn't
that
fix daddy. So of course he has a perfectly predictable reaction, turns purple, grabs his chest. He's concerned—are you ready?—he's concerned about the gene pool. He says to her, ‘You don't know what's
in
there,' he says. So I tell her you can tell him it's a three-to-one shot that what's
in
there is a junkie hooker and a john. Lusty copulations under pink-shaded lamps. Highly degenerative venereal disease. Psychopathic catatonia. Hereditary mumps.”

“Right.—Won him over in an instant there, did you?”

“Yeah. Okay. So fuck him,” Mack said. He looked over at the street.

They were silent for a time. Catlin lit a cigarette and squinted at a couple of hookers on the hoof. “You ever think of going up to Canada?” he said.

“Almost every morning.”

“Right. I mean—”

“No. I figured this was part of my karma,” Mack said. “Did you?”

“Not a chance. I was too fucking stupid. I figured I was stuck, I'd get it over with or something. I don't know,” Catlin said. “I don't know what I was thinking.”

“Or maybe you were thinking it was some kind of game,” Mack said. “Our team and theirs. Halftime, you get a buncha titties with pom-poms.”

“No,” Catlin told him.

“Well, that was me then. Me, I was gonna be the captain of the team.”

“No, I just thought it was …” Catlin shook his head again. “Long dull story. Short of it's I hit sixteen and the road. My old man and I came to partings of the ways, I imagine you could call it. We parted with my finger on the trigger of a rifle and I'm just about to kill him. No shit. It was close. So anyway, I'm gone. I've been gone a few years except daddy knows exactly where to forward my mail.”

“So he forwarded the Greetings.”

“That's what he did.”

“Dear son, drop dead.”

“Yeah, that was daddy. I mean he wasn't even into ‘patriotic duty' or ‘make a big man of you,' he just wanted blood. Vengeance for something.”

“Well,” Mack yawned. “What the hell. That's what war's about anyway, isn't it? Old men at desks getting pissy cuz they can't get it up like they used to. They want to get even. Make certain that youth is getting wasted on the young. Or that youth is just wasted. Period. Christ. It's like some kind of second childhood they go through. They play tin soldiers and the soldiers is us.” He leaned back slowly and yawned again.

The waiter came back with the check.

Catlin said suddenly, “So how do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“What you do.”

“What's that?” Mack said. “Play the good tin soldier? Why? You think I play it any easier than you?”

Catlin felt dumb but he eventually nodded.

“Oh Christ,” Mack laughed. “You want the secret of life. You want to be the sorcerer's apprentice, that it?” He laughed a bad laugh again and pushed back his chair. “Okay.” He tossed a clump of piasters on the table. “C'mon,” he said, “I'll take you to the heart of the lotus.”

***

The sky had gone dark. A breeze, as listless and as tired as a yawn, was approaching from the river at the end of Tu Do, where monsoon rain clouds clotted and churned, circling and growling like dogs in the air.

They corralled a taxi at the edge of Le Loi. Mack gave the driver an address in Cholon and they headed to the north now, away from the river, past the red brick cathedral that was built by the French and that stood at the corner like a roadside monument to good intentions. Between Saigon and the much older Chinese town of Cholon was a jerry-built clutter of urban sprawl. American intentions, consisting of cheap whitewashed buildings, most of them apartments, some of them converted into Houses of Love, and, between them, the thrown-together Vietnamese shacks, the Day-Glo colors of massage parlors, bars. On the outskirts of the airport, American billboards sprouted on the road:
IN SAIGON, TOO, YOU HAVE A FRIEND AT CHASE MANHATTAN.… WELCOME TO SUNNY SAIGON/PAN AM
.

The rain broke the sky. Inside the taxi, it was something like riding in the innards of a drum. In the back of the taxi was symmetrical silence. Mack didn't answer and Catlin didn't ask.

The cab veered sharply to a mud-puddled alley and stopped at a rusty-looking wrought-iron gate before a pink stucco villa. A large poinciana tree drooped beneath the rain, its bright red flowers surrendering, bloody and bowing to the storm.

On the covered veranda, they emptied their boots and shook water from their hair. A girl was at the door now, a girl in a yellow-and-pink
ao dai
, making soft sounds at Mack. “Hoa,” Mack said, by way of introduction, and Hoa bowed her head, introducing them to air-cooled sweet-smelling rooms. Couches and carpets, girls in underwear and fanciful robes with peacocks and bright imaginary flowers, a cinnabar Buddha on a cloth-covered table surrounded by the driftings of incense and grass.

Mack said, “Take a good look now and choose.”

Catlin just stood there, hair still dripping, and looking at the choice as though he were standing at a bakery counter and mentally tasting.

“Take two,” Mack said. “They're small,” and he laughed. The girl in the yellow-and-pink
ao dai
was rubbing his shoulders.

Catlin took his time. He didn't want to choose something hard and stale. He wanted something softer. Younger than springtime. Softer than starlight. Something that wasn't in this or any room. He decided on a girl who had hair like a waterfall spilling down her back, and the girl at Mack's shoulder said, “Yes. Mai-song.” My Song—or something that sounded like it anyway.

Mack said, “Come on,” and the two of them were moving up a carpeted staircase, turning to the left, passing long dark tables with parchment-shaded lamps, little hall trees in pots.

They moved to a sitting room, part of what seemed to be a larger apartment. Mack disappeared, came back, tossed a blue satin bathrobe at Catlin. He said, “A few friends of mine are coming, okay?” and went off to a bedroom, closing an elaborate red lacquered door.

Catlin undressed now and reached for the robe. On a lacquer table at the end of the couch was a silver cigarette box—half a dozen joints and a filigreed lighter. On a table at the side there were crystal decanters with silver dogtags:
Whisky
and
Cognac, Vodka
and
Rhum
. Catlin helped himself to a neat shot of whisky and tasted it slowly. It was polished and warm. He sat on the corner of a tapestry sofa in a blue satin bathrobe, pulling at a whisky and feeling out of place—or maybe out of time, or maybe just definitively out of his skull; off on a star trek; somebody's hollered, “Mr. Spock, beam us up,” only something went flooey and a lot of his molecules had not yet arrived. He finished the glass.

Mack had come back wearing wine-colored silk. His woman, Hoa, made an entrance with a couple of pipes and a bowl, the bowl suspended in an ornate holder with a candle underneath it. Mack was on the floor. The girl kneaded two small nuggets from the opium that heated in the bowl and then pressed them, very dexterously, into the pipes.

Mack looked up. “You ever done this?” he said.

Catlin shook his head.

“Then do it very slowly. This isn't any street-corner shit, this is gold.”

Hoa struck a match. Catlin took a small slow pull on the pipe. He smothered it as deeply inside him as he could and closed his eyes for a second. And yeah, it was gold. A pale yellow shimmer seemed to float behind his eyes; something that was twisted and knotted in his chest was dissolving. He smiled. Mack smiled back. Catlin took a second, more confident pull and the picture in his mind now was Old King Cole with his pipe and his bowl and no wonder he was merry, but it hit him like a flash, like a true epiphany, a secret of the universe resolved and explained.

He suckled at his pipe. A few other guys were now sitting in the room and then Catlin was gone. He was turning into gold now, liquified, purified, floating on a soft gold river of himself. He drifted, going with it.

Then he was alone. Then a girl coming up to him. Hair like a river. The hair washed over him. He swam for a while, then floated on his back and focused, with great concentration, on a zipper. It too was like a river. A long slow journey past exotic canals; little glittering islands with tropical birds that talked sweetly from the trees, and schooners in the harbors and doubloons on the sand. A breast moved out at him. Sweet tangy fruit and he thought it would nourish him forever, that fruit. He sucked it forever. His robe came open. His penis was a tree in which birds were singing. “Very slowly,” he whispered, aware of forever, aware of awareness. Her lips climbed the tree, little butterflies landing on the flowering branches and then he was somewhere in the center of a flower, night coming gently, the soft warm petals enfolding him. Christ!

***

He opened his eyes, thinking for a moment he was sleeping on a boat. A lamp burned beside him in a rose-colored shade. He was lying on a bed. He swallowed, pushing over a small wave of nausea. Somewhere in the distance there was female laughter. He tried to get up, then realized that he simply didn't want to get up. A failure, not of muscles, but simply of the will. He lay there for a time till his need for a bathroom brought him slowly to his feet. He came out into the living room. Three pairs of legs appeared braided on the floor. One of Mack's friends and then two pretty girls. One of the girls looked up at him—merciless, stone-eyed, aware. He could read the full volume of contempt in those eyes and reflexively wondered if the girl was a Cong, but then it occurred to him that politics simply made incongruous bedfellows all around the world.

BOOK: Payback
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