The Angel of the Gardenby Scott Ely
Scott Ely portrays characters that, whatever their situation, all feel a deep sense of loss and alienation from the world around them. The Vietnam War is a major contributor to these feelings and figures obliquely in most of the stories.
"In The Angel of the Garden, Scott Ely takes us from the ordinary to the unexpected, from the real to the imagined, from the known to the illusory in quick, sure moves."—Judith Kitchen
"From the primal ooze of the Mississippi canebrakes to the lush environs of the Mekong Delta, Scott Ely stakes out his own peculiar psychic terrain and nails it down hard. In The Angel of the Garden, he conjures both the mythic and the marvellous in a courageous attempt to wrest some measure of redemption from the mundane horrors of the postmodern world. These are stories to cherish with each subsequent reading."
"It will be a calm afternoon. It will be like when I drank and I'd take maybe my fourth or fifth drink and it was as if I stepped into a pool of pure tranquillity. . . . It won't last long, but I'm desperate. I will have it. I will reach that calm place again." This desperate need to regain peace and security pervades Scott Ely's latest collection of short fiction, The Angel of the Garden.
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I'm having a great night. Folks from all over the Carolinas are dialing me up, filling the air with their howls, like a bunch of ancient warriors gathered about a campfire, working themselves up into a killing mood. Bob, the station manager, as if he knows what I'm thinking, dances a war dance outside the booth, what he always does when I'm really rolling. Peggie, who sells advertising, shakes her head, but she knows that tomorrow will be a good day for her, that she won't have to wiggle her ass or shake her tits to make those sales.
We're talking about gun control. They're calling in from mobile phones as they drive into our signal on the interstate; they're calling from bars and bedrooms and phone booths. I imagine all that hate pulsating through the night like colored gas in a tube.
"Guns could disappear," I say to a caller. "The Japanese did it in the seventeenth century. Tokugawa Ieyasu halted the production of guns and the country returned to the sword for two hundred and fifty years. He lopped off a few heads and folks came around to his way of thinking."
"I got a made-in-America three-fifty-seven right here in my truck," he says. "I got it loaded with Teflon-coated rounds. Go right through a flak jacket. I just hope somebody tries to carjack me. I just hope they do."
In North Carolina it's legal to carry a handgun in a car, and you can carry it on your person if you have a permit. All you have to do to get a permit is prove you don't have a criminalrecord or haven't spent a few months in a mental institution. And take a course in gun safety and pay a small fee. It's easy.
I wonder what some of the callers would say if they knew I don't own a gun of any kind. Once Bob had us do a show from a pistol range that caters to women. The sign advertising the place has a picture of a woman in a firing stance holding a handgun with both hands and filling a male torso full of holes. They had me shoot a few rounds at one of those torsos, but I didn't do well at all, even though I'd qualified with a .45 when I was in the army. Bob told me he was shocked at my ineptitude.
Then the caller becomes inarticulate. He snorts like a wild hog, makes sounds that are half words and half snarls. I let the listeners enjoy a little of that before I cut him off.
We go to a commercial break.
"Ease up a little on the intellectual stuff," Bob tells me. "Ease up. This isn't public radio."
I had enjoyed my job with public radio in North Carolina where I hosted a talk show devoted to the standard liberal causes. Sometimes I long for the slower pace of that life, but I came to work drunk one too many times. I don't hold it against them for firing me. They did me a favor. Now I'm making plenty of money. I still drink, but I haven't come to work drunk a single time. I do that at home. I've got it under control.
"But I'm hot," I say.
"Back off a little."
"Everybody loves me. All those truck drivers and mill hands and hog farmers. You've seen the mail."
"That's right, Luther. Remember that."
I live in the two-story white house I grew up in on one of those oak-lined Charlotte streets. My father is dead. My mother is in a nursing home. I go to see her every Sunday, and she has no idea who I am.
With all the money they're paying me to be a local radio personality, it was no problem to put in a red clay tennis court, the kind surfaced with brick dust like at Monte Carlo and Roland Garros. It's the only red clay tennis court in the city and probably the whole of North Carolina.
I pick up the phone for the next call.
"Every man, woman, and child in the United States should be given an AK-47," a voice says.
I know who it is, although I can hardly bring myself to even think his name. It's a voice I remember well, coming out of the night, wrapping itself around me just as it's doing now. If I speak I imagine that some spell will be broken and that voice will be gone, spinning off into the night, lost out there amid the clamor of the mob.
"Is that you, Thac?" I ask.
I know that voice from when I was in a radio research company in Vietnam. We monitored radio traffic from a base camp near Pleiku. With the help of interpreters, we tried to identify individual units down to the platoon level. That way we could keep track of the movements of regiments and divisions. Everyone in Saigon was worried about losing a provincial capital like Pleiku to the enemy; they all remembered Dienbienphu. It was in the back of command's mind, some bad dream that might come true.
"Where are you, buddy?" I ask.
"Roland Garros," he says.
We often talked about playing a match at Roland Garros after the war was over. Thac had spent some time in Paris as a student at the Sorbonne.
I transfer the call to another line so I can talk off the air, and go to an unscheduled commercial break. Bob is outside the booth looking at me strangely, probably wondering if I've started coming to work drunk.
Thac says he's staying at a hotel in Charlotte. I agree to meet him in the morning. I tell him that I have to get off the line and back to the show. We hang up.
Thac was my counterpart on the other side, a brother officer. He appeared on our tactical frequency one night, asking to speak to anyone who knew how to play tennis.
We became friends in the same way that soldiers in the trenches at Vicksburg or Germans and British soldiers in World War I became friends. Later they would kill each other. Thac and I would have done that if we had met each other in the jungle, but we only met over the radio.
The talk about AK-47s stirs the audience into a frenzy, makes those listeners reach for their telephones. Soon I'm having a conversation with someone who argues that no child under six should be issued a rifle. Bob has returned to the booth with the engineers. He sits there with a satisfied look on his face.
Bob started the show with Jack Perkins, but Jack quit one night, told everyone on the air that he was going to live in Alaska, that he didn't think much of anyone stupid enough to listen to his show. Told his listeners that he didn't much care for Charlotte, that city of trees and churches. Said he wanted to live somewhere where he was not necessarily at the top of the food chain. Bob told me that Jack is up in Anchorage, doing the midnight to six shift, broadcasting the music of the sixties to army guys and trappers and Indian villages. I was drafted as a temporary substitute. To everyone's surprise I was wildly successful.
"Who was that?" Bob asks.
The show is over and I'm preparing to go home.
"Some guy I knew in Vietnam," I say.
"A tennis player?"
Bob worries about me making references on the air to tennis or classical music or jazz or books. He says that elitist talk is bad for advertising.
During those long nights in Vietnam, Thac and I talked about exceptionally good Wimbledons or Paris Opens. He had learned to play tennis in France and claimed to have served once as a ball boy at the French Open. His interest in the game was frowned upon by his superiors, who regarded it as a bourgeois sport.
In the morning I drive over to the hotel. I call from the lobby, and he tells me to come up to his room.
When Thac opens the door he's about what I expect to see, a small man whose hair is turning gray around the temples.
"Come in Luther," he says as he shakes my hand. "I heard your voice and knew it was you. Let me make you a drink. Whiskey and water?"
"Sounds good," I say.
I notice right away that he walks with a limp.
"Bullet through the ankle," he says. "I can run, but I can't jump."
He explains that he is here on business. He wants to import pharmaceuticals into Vietnam, so he's been up around Durham talking with those big companies. That's where he first heard my voice on the radio. I'm surprised, because our signal doesn't usually reach that far north.
We had been talking to each other for a couple of months in Vietnam when abruptly he disappeared. I had promised to play him a new Jimi Hendrix tape. He was playing me The Magic Flute.
Major Wallace, who ran the operation, thought I was a little strange, but he didn't take my eccentricities seriously. After all I was just a reserve officer, and he was a West Point man.
Under his direction we looked for deviations from standard procedure, individual idiosyncrasies, so the operators could be identified. But it had been difficult, because their discipline was excellent. They stuck to standard radio procedure, designed to make one operator sound exactly like another. I told Thac how our South Vietnamese interpreters had made fun of their northern accents, the same way that Major Wallace, who was from New York, had made fun of my Savannah accent.
"It's room, Luther," he used to say. "Not rum. Jesus, but you talk strange."
"What happened to you?" I ask.
"My superiors discovered that I was having those conversations," Thac says. "They did not approve. I was put in command of an infantry platoon."
"No more Mozart," I say.
"No, we had difficult times."
I think of Thac wandering around out in the jungle with his platoon, all because of his conversations with me. It makes me sad thinking that had happened to him, and I tell him so.
"I was fortunate," he says. "A B-52 strike got our bunker. Everyone was killed. I would have died if I had been there."
"Saved by Jimi Hendrix," I say.
"Do you listen to him now?"
"I still love Mozart."
"We'll go to my house and listen to Mozart. Why don't you have dinner? Spend the night."
Thac says he will, so I call Verna at work to let her know that I'm bringing someone home. She moved in with me about six months ago. She works at a health club where she teaches aerobics. I suppose you could say that she's Miss Hard Body. One of these days I'm going to think more deeply about why she's with me, a person who prefers his women soft. Maybe it's her big breasts that attracted me. Verna dislikes them. She'd rather be much smaller, more athletic.
No woman like her, beautiful and twenty-five, would have ever taken up with Luther Watkins, the public radio disk jockey. On the air I'm called The Professor. Bob came up with that name. What the audience likes, Bob says, is to listen to a liberal like me espousing conservative causes. It's like they are watching me being born again every afternoon on the radio. They take a sort of a joy in my denigration, I once observed. And Bob said that I was exactly right. That was what he had in mind but he just didn't have the words to express it.
Verna says that she's dying to meet Thac. She does tend toward hyperbole. I know that simply means that it's OK with her. We'll eat shrimp. I volunteer to pick some up on my way home.
We go to the grocery store where we buy two pounds of king-sized shrimp, fresh from the waters off Charleston, the kid behind the counter tells us. Thac puts a couple of six-packs of German beer in the buggy. I buy a chocolate amaretto cake at the bakery. Verna won't touch that, but I can eat whatever I want.
Thac is impressed with the house. He doesn't say anything, but I can tell he is. He looks everything over carefully.
"They pay you well for insulting people on the radio?" he says.
I haven't told him about the court, which I've saved as a surprise. He sees it through the kitchen window when we bring in the groceries.
"Terre battu?" he says.
"That's right," I say. "If there's another one in North Carolina, I don't know about it. We'll play that match before you leave. You still play, don't you?"
"Yes," he says. "Whenever I can."
I put The Magic Flute on the player and make us a couple of drinks. Thac begins to explain to me what is going on. He knows about the music; he knows about the libretto. He never did that in Vietnam, probably thought it wasn't worth the trouble, but now I can really see that he wants me to understand it, to appreciate it in the same way that he does. The rest of the morning we listen to it, playing sections of the disk over and over until I can feel that music in my bones.
I order us some pizza for lunch, and we drink the German beer with it. We eat half of the cake. After lunch we give Mozart a rest. Thac puts Carmen on the player. After Carmen we play Tristan und Isolde. Every now and then I ask him a question, and he always has the answer. Thac knows those operas backwards and forwards. For some reason I haven't listened to any opera in a long time. Verna likes New Age stuff, which I can't stand.
When Verna comes home from work, we are in the middle of La Boheme.
"I could hear that out in the driveway," Verna says.
I turn down the sound and introduce her to Thac. She's dressed in a spandex exercise suit. Thac looks at her with fascination, as if he has never seen a beautiful woman before.
"So you knew each other in Vietnam," she says.
I explain how we talked on the radio, how we never saw one another, and how Thac had suddenly disappeared. Verna was asleep when I came home after my telephone conversation with Thac and was gone before I woke. I had considered waking her to tell her about Thac but had decided against it.
"We lived like animals in the jungle," Thac says. "We ate such food as pigs eat."
"Tell me about it," Verna says.
Neither Thac nor I have said a word to each other about Vietnam all afternoon.
"I ate steaks," I say.
It was true. We had it easy in base camp. Occasionally the enemy would lob a few mortar shells into the camp or drop a rocket in on us, but mostly it was pretty quiet.
Neither one of them laugh at my comment about the steaks. They ignore me.
"They hunted us from the air," Thac says. "My men died from bombs and malaria and dysentery. We had little medicine."
Thac goes on talking about the six months he spent in the jungle. He tells the story in great detail. I'm not that interested but Verna is riveted. That surprises me. He describes how he was shot in the foot, how he was evacuated back to Hanoi for treatment. He spent the rest of the war directing the repair of a bridge that American planes blew up at least once a week. Thac brags that his men had trucks running across it within two hours of each attack. His wife died in a B-52 raid on Hanoi.
All this flows out of Thac, who speaks it to Verna and not to me. It's like I'm not in the room, or that he assumes it's a story I already know. But we never talked about the war on the radio. I get fresh drinks for Thac and me. Verna doesn't drink. Thac takes one sip from his drink and puts it down. He talks while I watch the ice cubes in his drink melt. He talks on and on. I expect that Verna will get impatient with him and make some excuse to break off the conversation, for Verna is not a good listener. The war was over when she was still a baby, and I can't imagine her having any interest in it. But she sits on the floor with her legs crossed and listens intently, every now and then asking a question. An hour goes by and he's still talking.
I want a cigarette. At Verna's urging I stopped smoking those, but she likes the smell of cigars. I get one for myself and offer one to Thac who accepts. He's stopped talking. He sips his drink. I offer to get him some ice, but he says he doesn't need any.
We light up. There's nothing I want to ask Thac about his life in the jungle. He's told it all to Verna. He sits on the couch beside me and leans his head back and blows a smoke ring toward the ceiling. I don't know why I find that amazing, but I do. I tell him I do.
"I was a great smoker of cigars in Paris," he says.
Verna says that she's going to do something with the shrimp, that we should sit and talk.
"Yawl reminisce," she says.
Thac surely cannot have anything more to say about the war, nothing to add to that litany of disease, starvation, and violent death.
"We'll play tennis in the morning," I say. "Maybe you can wear a pair of Verna's shoes."
"I have shoes and a racket," he says. "I have played every day for a week."
"Do you play in Hanoi?" I ask.
"There are courts in Saigon," he says. "We play on them during the monsoon. Everyone calls us amphibians."
He tells me that balls and strings are difficult to obtain and expensive. He is the number one player in Saigon.
"The level is not high if an old man who cannot jump can be number one," he says.
At dinner we switch to wine. Verna has put chopsticks at our places instead of knives and forks.
"I'll get a fork," I say. "I'm not very good with these things."
I know that Verna is even worse than me. Thac shows her what's wrong with her technique, and soon she's handling those chopsticks like an expert. I stick with my fork.
I begin to tell Verna about my year with the radio research company. I know that my experience is bland compared to Thac's, but once I get started I can't help myself. And Verna seems interested. Thac concentrates on his food and the wine. Soon we're into a second bottle.
I tell Verna about listening to the war at night, of all that radio traffic from companies and platoons, of men calling desperately for evacuation helicopters and those calm, professional voices telling them that they had no ships to send. We were eavesdropping on the war, those transmissions sailing in across mountains and rivers and savannahs. The tropical night was alive with them.
We have ice cream for dessert and then coffee. Afterwards I serve brandy. Thac and I smoke another cigar. Verna excuses herself and goes off to bed.
I turn on the player, and we listen to La Traviata. When Thac goes to sleep toward the end, I turn off the player and wake him up. After he goes off to bed, I drink a beer and listen to the rest of the opera. Then I go to bed.
Verna doesn't wake up when I get into bed. She sleeps through thunderstorms. Last year when the hurricane came through, she slept through that.
As I drift off to sleep, I think of Thac wandering about in the jungle, watching his men die. The army could have sent me anywhere. I never asked for radio research. I have nothing to feel ashamed about.
When I wake to the sound of Jimi Hendrix, it's still dark outside. Verna is gone. I get out of bed and walk out into the hallway. The hall is in darkness and so is the room below, but in the glow from the streetlights outside I can see Verna kneeling before Thac with her head between his legs. He is seated on the sofa. I know his head is thrown back, because the red tip of his cigar is pointed at the ceiling.
I go back to bed and lie there, listening to my heart pounding. It's not that I am completely surprised, but if it happened I expected it would be with one of those young studs at the health club.
I decide to say nothing to Verna or Thac. Thac will be gone tomorrow, and I'll never see him again. In a few weeks I'll start some quarrel with Verna. It will be easy to get rid of her, and I'll be left alone and at peace. Charlotte is filled with women who like the sound of my voice in the night.
Although I try to go to sleep before Verna comes back to bed, I can't. When she does return, she smells of cigar smoke. I lie beside her, pretending to be asleep. Soon she is asleep, and I lie there listening to the regular sound of her breathing. I try to imagine that I can smell Thac on her, underneath the cigar smoke, but all I can detect is the sweet scent of the soap she uses.
Then I sleep too.
In the morning Verna wakes me. I avoid looking directly into her eyes.
"I made you breakfast," she says. "Thac is already up."
When I go downstairs, Thac, dressed in tennis clothes, is seated at the kitchen table eating eggs and bacon. Verna has gone to work.
"Eat," he says. "We can play. I must be on a plane to Atlanta at two o'clock."
It's eight o'clock. We have plenty of time. I sit down and eat. I wonder what I will be thinking the next time Verna has her head between my legs.
Instead of talking to Thac, I concentrate on my breakfast. He smokes a cigarette while I finish.
After I dress we go out across the dew-wet grass to the court. It is already a very hot day, but I imagine that Thac is just as acclimated to the heat as I am.
When we start to warm up, I see why he is the number one player in Saigon. If it weren't for that shattered ankle, I wouldn't stand a chance. But his lack of mobility is going to be the difference, I tell myself. That and the fact that most of his play has been on fast surfaces. On concrete in Saigon.
We both play sluggishly at first, but I win the first set easily. Thac doesn't have much of a volley and can't jump up for overheads, so on important points I bring him in and lob him. Most of his smashes go into the net.
I think play has gotten rid of my anger, but toward the end of the second set it returns as blind rage. I net a couple of easy shots. I have a chance to hit Thac with an overhead, but I miss. Now I wish we were boys on a football field. I would take much pleasure in hitting Thac with a hard tackle.
Thac looks like he's tiring. Perhaps, I think, he is still jet-lagged, and staying up half the night with Verna couldn't have helped. I give him a point here and there until the score is even. We'd agreed not to use tiebreakers, so by the time he wins the second set, the score is 14-16.
And the third goes better than I could have expected. Although I don't give him any points, he jumps out to a three-game lead, which I manage to close. Then it is six all, and we begin to trade games. I'm hoping he'll cramp up. I want to see him writhing on the clay.
At ten-all I can tell that he's close to cramping. He lifts his left leg and pulls it up behind him to stretch out the muscle.
"I am obliged to retire," he says.
"We'll call it a tie," I say.
We drink some water together at the net.
"Sit down and rest," I say.
"No, if I sit I will cramp," he says.
I wonder why I've done this to Thac. I never pretended that I was in love with Verna, and the only thing that she loves is her own body. I think about saying these things to Thac but decide not to.
"You have time to sit in the Jacuzzi," I say. "We'll get some fluids into you."
We leave the court and walk back to the house. Thac has taken off his shirt. A shrapnel scar wanders under his right nipple.
He takes a shower and then gets into the Jacuzzi. I fix myself a drink and give Thac a quart of Gatorade. I sit in a rocking chair and smoke a cigar. Verna likes to make love in the Jacuzzi, to cavort as if we are a pair of porpoises.
Thac and I have leftover pizza for lunch and the rest of the German beer. Then I call him a cab.
When the cab arrives and Thac starts out the door, I offer him the Jimi Hendrix disk.
"No," he says. "I have no way to play it."
There's not the slightest hint, no tremor in his voice, that would let me know that he knows I know.
I walk out to the cab with him and we shake hands.
"Call me the next time you're in town," I say.
"Come to Ho Chi Minh City and play on my courts," he says.
Then he's gone. I go back inside. I call Verna but she's at lunch. I sit on the couch and have another drink and think about tonight's show. We're going to talk about busing.
I kick off my shoes and put my feet up. I set my drink on the table.
Then I close my eyes and think of those nights when Thac's voice would appear, how I'd listen and wonder what the man was like who was sitting in a bunker outside of Hanoi, both of us plugged into the war, listening to the heartbeat of battle. I hear the confused babble of those voices from the past, a great chorus of pain and despair, rising out of those forest-covered mountains, sweeping over the coastal plain, and sailing out above the South China Sea. I sit very still and attentive before my memory, searching for individual voices, as if I am trying to identify the singer of an aria on a faulty disk.
I imagine playing tennis with Thac in Saigon during one of those days of the monsoon, the warm wind steady off the South China Sea, the clouds low and thick over the city, the air filled with a fine mist. The concrete courts are slick. The balls are heavy with water. We move carefully, as if we are playing on ice, but I know that neither one of us is going to fall. We are safe.
I wonder if Verna considers herself safe, protected by her perfect body. Maybe she was born safe, could have wandered through that jungle with Thac and never received a scratch. I imagine touching her, running my hands over those beautiful breasts and thighs. To my surprise, instead of being moved to anger or disgust by thoughts of her and Thac, I imagine something entirely different, something I cannot quite name. All I know is that it will be a good feeling. Then I realize that she will be a connection with Thac, like his voice on the radio.
I am not going to drive her away. I am going to hang on to her for as long as I can.
Meet the Author
Scott Ely is Associate Professor of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of two novels and a short story collection, Overgrown with Love.
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