American Book Review
American Book Review
- University of Alabama Press
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- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)
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the fall of saigon
When Dennis met Angel she was pregnant and seeing two men, only one of whom knew about the other. There was no question which one was the father; it had happened, she was sure, that night in the tiny booth at the topless place where, for a quarter, you could have privacy and three minutes of flipping channels from orgies to masturbation to scenes with whips and leather and complicated equipment. You could hear what channel was playing in the next booth, so it really wasn't all that private. They'd had to be quiet, especially in the inbetween seconds when the time ran out on the loops and they had to stop and put more money in.
But now all that was over. A couple of hours after seeing Dennis walk into the bar where she worked, serving him shots of schnapps and watching how his left hand occasionally, unconsciously, moved to stroke his chest, at last call Angel had scrawled her address and phone number across the front of his white T-shirt. The next morning she made two short phone calls to tie up the loose ends, and Dennis put his scuffed black combat boots next to her spike-heeled thigh-high leather ones, and the two of them proceeded to drink and fuck their way through the rest of the week.
Meanwhile she was throwing up in the mornings.
"It's cool," Dennis said. He loved her ass. He loved the black tattooed thorns that circled her waist. When he put his hands there, he thought he could feel them, pricking him slightly. He was twenty-four and had never been in love. Beforemeeting Angel, he'd been bored out of his mind. Being with Angel was better than any drugs he'd taken so far.
"I have to go to the clinic," Angel said.
"No problem," Dennis said.
"I can't have a goddamned baby." She was crying. He loved how she cried. He loved wiping her face after she threw up, as he was doing now. She crawled into his arms in her bathroom, and he stroked her red hair. Angel's bathroom was filthy. There were brownish rings around the sink and inside the toilet bowl.
Angel made little whimpering sounds as she cried, and rubbed her eyes with her fists.
"I'm so fucked up," Angel moaned.
Dennis took one of her hands in his and marveled at itplump and white and sweet as cookie dough, with daggerlike nails painted metallic green. He loved her brown roots, her smeary black eye makeup. He rocked her in his pale, skinny arms and thought, I am your man.
They had to stop twice on the way to the clinic, so Angel could get out of Dennis's old Chevy and kneel by the side of the highway, gagging and sweating. When they got there they still had some time to kill, so they went to a bar and had a few beers. The bar had doll parts hanging from the ceilingheads, arms, legsalong with bicycle wheels, jack-in-the boxes, model airplanes, and other childhood detritus. "I am going to burn in hell for this," Angel said. It wasn't her first abortion. More like her third. The first was at sixteen. She was twenty-two. She calculated that by the age of thirty, she would have killed seven babies.
"I'm a murderer," she said.
"Don't think like that," Dennis said. "Have another beer."
The clinic was full of couples. Framed posters hung on the wallsGeorgia O'Keeffe flowers. Everyone stared at their shoes. One by one the girls and women were led away. Dennis expected to hear screams any minute, but there was only the sound of the fat girl behind the counter, sniffling and shuffling papers, and the radio playing softlymusic from the seventies. It was the same station his boss listened to at work. When his boss took off, leaving Dennis to clean up and make cookies for the next daythat was all they sold, thirteen kinds of cookiesDennis would roll down the corrugated metal door, change the station and crank up the music. He hadn't made it in much in the past couple of weeks, since meeting Angel. Maybe he would get fired. That was usually what happened.
A nurse came through a door that had a tacked-up chart about birth control on it. There were pictures of diaphragms, IUD's, condoms, a diagram of a penis showing what a vasectomy was, a thermometer for the rhythm method. The nurse called his name, and Dennis got up and followed her down a hall, to a room with a dozen or so beds in it. Angel was lying on one. Her eyes were closed.
"Hey," Dennis said.
She sat up, then got shakily to her feet, the nurse helping her.
"She'll be fine," the nurse said.
"They gave me Valium," Angel said. "They said, would you like something to relax? And they gave me Valium. I love Valium," Angel said.
"Let's get out of here." Dennis took her arm and they walked slowly outside, where the sunlight hit them hard. They stood on the steps, blinking.
"Murderers," someone said. A tiny woman with a blotchy face emerged from the shadow of a tree and came hobbling towards them, leaning on a steel cane. "Murderers," she hissed.
"Fuck you," Angel said, and they headed for the car.
It was a while before they could fuck again, but they did everything else in the meantime. Angel insisted that Dennis go to work every day, so he wouldn't lose his job. She took a couple of days off from the bar and then went back. Things were settling down. The nights Angel worked, Dennis would come in and drink for free and play video poker and sometimes pool, though he wasn't any good at it. On her off nights she came to see him at the cookie stand after it closed, and would sit in the back room on a box of sugar while he baked. He told his roommates to find somebody else and moved his stuff into Angel's.
He didn't have much, just some clothes and a boom box and the war strategy games he liked to play. He had a map of Vietnam he spread out on Angel's threadbare living room rug, with NLF and ARVN and American troop movements represented by different-colored markers he moved around. His father had been in Nam and had talked about it sometimes, so a lot of the place names were familiar: Da Nang, Long Binh, Quang Tri. Dennis wished he had been there. Not with his father, but with other guys. Once he'd seen a group of Gulf War vets walking up and down Broadway; where the strip places were, and he tried to imagine himself walking with them, his hair cropped short, looking as tough and world-weary as they did. His father had tripped a mine and gotten two toes of his left foot blown off, a deep divot gouged out of it. Dennis hadn't done shit. He'd moved von Blucher's soldiers toward Waterloo and MacArthur's forces across the 38th parallel, sitting stoned and crosslegged on his bedroom floor. He had a World War Two bomber jacket he'd bought in a thrift store. He had a nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson in a black case he hid on a high shelf in the closet, so Angel wouldn't know about it, and two envelopes of money he'd stolen from the cookie stand, a thousand dollars in each, that he put in Angel's underwear drawer.
"You shouldn't steal," Angel told him. "What if you get caught?"
"I won't get caught," Dennis said. "I'm smarter than he is."
They were watching TVthe siege of Stalingrad, in black and white. Tanks fired into a snowy haze. The German soldiers hardly moved, it was so cold. Angel didn't want to watch. She slid down under the covers and took Dennis into her mouth, trying to get him hard. Just when she was about to give up and scoot back out from under the blankets, he started responding.
"Keep sucking it," he said.
But Angel wanted to fuck. She pulled the blankets down. She got on top of him, moving against his hips, her hands on his chest to raise herself up.
They'd been using condoms since they had started up again. Dennis thought they should use one now, but the truth was he didn't like them, and Angel felt really good without that latex between them. He lay back and closed his eyes and let her do him, thinking of what it was like before he knew herpicking up stupid girls in clubs, girls he couldn't stand after he came in them, or jerking off by himself listening to tapes on the boom box, then feeling a big hole open up inside him like a bomb crater, feeling like a moony landscape where nothing could grow anymore because everything had been napalmed to shit. He opened his eyes and there was Angel, her beautiful tits bouncing, her head thrown back. He reached for the thorns around her waist and pulled her harder into him, jamming her body against his. He was powerful as a king. He pulled her down to his chest and stroked her hair.
Where's that at? Angel thought, her ear against his pounding heart. I didn't even fucking come.
Milk chocolate chip, dark chocolate chip, either of those with macadamia nuts or just plain. Plain chocolate, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter. Peanut butter milk chocolate chip, peanut butter dark chocolate chip. Oatmeal milk chocolate chip, oatmeal dark chocolate chip. Chocolate milk chocolate chip, chocolate dark chocolate chip (Angel's favorite). Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, 7Up, Root Beer, Mr. Pibb. Dennis must have drunk gallons of Mr. Pibb. Lemonade or coffee. He drank a lot of coffee, too. He took a square of wax paper, reached for the cookies and put them in a paper bag with a picture of a happy-faced cookie on it. The Carpenters were on the radio, Karen Carpenter singing "We've Only Just Begun."
The stand was in the middle of the tourist districta cheesy pier on the bay filled with ripoff restaurants and souvenir stores, a few mimes and clowns that worked the crowds. Dennis hated tourists. He hated how they spent their money on crap, like singing along with prerecorded pop songs with the vocals dropped out, and stupid hats and sweatshirts. He was saving his money. Before he met Angel, he didn't know what he was saving it for. Now he thought he'd like to take her someplace nice for a vacation. Club Med sounded cool. There were Club Meds all over the place. You could just lie around all day, eating and soaking up rays, and no one would hassle you.
He pocketed the next few sales; his boss was off hitting on the girls at the hot dog stand.
On his break he went out back of the buildings, where he could watch the seals. A bunch of them had settled in on an old, unused dock that was half-sunk into the bay; they lay there sunning themselves, glistening with salt water, massively at peace. Dennis lit a joint and took a deep drag. He thought about Angel, standing in front of the stove in a black undershirt, heating a can of Bean with Bacon soup. Angel at work, expertly freepouring shots, or raising the silver shaker high in the air when she made martinis. Angel in bed, her little mouth half-open, her eyes glittering up at him through the fringe of her black lashes, thick with mascara.
Back at work he decided to try stealing right under his boss's nose. It turned out to be easy; all he had to do was point out some girl walking by in shorts, and his boss would ogle her until she was out of sight, by which time Dennis had hit "No Sale" so the register would ring and taken the money. Dennis's boss was a fat pig. He reminded Dennis of his fatherhis boss was bald like his father, and had a nice-guy attitude Dennis knew was fake. His father had fucked anything that moved, including the babysitters. He'd stayed with Dennis's mother, pretending he loved her, patting her ass in the kitchen. Dennis used to follow him when he left the house. It gave him kind of a sick feeling, to see his dad kissing other women, going into their apartment buildings or houses or some motel, but he couldn't help it. He wondered what they thought when they saw his father naked, saw that mangled foot with its mess of scar tissue.
"Wouldn't you like to get into some of that?" his boss said.
Dennis looked. She must have been thirteentight jean shorts, a white halter you could see her baby tits through, white nylon knee socks. Scumbag.
"Nah," he said.
After work he drove downtown to Angel's bar.
"Oh, hi," she said, flipping her hair back. She looked tired. Dennis slid onto his usual stool.
"Why don't you pay for a drink, for once," Angel said.
"Okay, cool," Dennis said. He took out some of the money he'd stolen that day. It was mostly ones and fives. He usually waited until he got a big wad, then went to the bank and changed them into hundreds.
Angel was in a bad mood. She ignored Dennis, moving to the other end of the bar to talk to a couple of guys. They cheered her up, and pretty soon she was laughing with them. Dennis went over to the pool table, which was empty, and put a quarter in the slot. It took him quite a while to sink all the balls. The whole time, he heard Angel laughing.
When the guys left the bar, he followed them. They drove to a liquor store and came out with two big grocery bags. One of them put his bag on the hood of the car, lit a cigarette, and glanced across the street. Dennis slunk down below the steering wheel. Once his father had caught him spyingDennis had tailed him from the bowling alley, where he'd picked up a girl, to a field behind the junior high. Dennis had been very careful after that. The two guys burned rubber leaving the liquor store and drove fast to another part of the city, where there were run-down houses set close together, with hardly any yards. They pulled up at one with a twisted mesh fence out front that looked like somebody had rammed into it.
Dennis parked farther down the street. He took the gun out of the glove compartment, where he'd kept it for the past couple of days. He walked back to the house and crept up to the window through a bunch of tall weeds. He looked in and saw a girl in a short shiny black skirt sitting on the couch, leaning forward to take a hit off a bong sitting on the coffee table. One of the guys went over and sat next to her and put his arm around her They started making out.
Dennis pointed the gun.
"Bang," he whispered.
The couple on the couch writhed around. The girl's shirt was off now. Another girl came in and said something Dennis couldn't hear. She started taking off her clothes, dancing around, and doing a theatrical strip-tease. She looked kind of drunk. It was like watching TV with the sound turned downsome late-night soft-core cable channel. Dennis felt queasy. He stumbled back to the car and drove aimlessly, the radio up as loud as he could stand it.
When he got home he hoped to find Angel in bed watching TV, but she wasn't there. He waited up, but she didn't come home until the next morning.
"So, like, what happened?" Dennis said.
"None of your business," Angel said. She was sick of Dennis coming in to the bar all the time, hanging around. Like she was supposed to entertain him or something. It was too much responsibility. I mean, she thought. Get a life.
"Where were you all night?" Dennis said. "I waited up. I was worried about you."
"What are you, my fucking parents?" Angel said.
Then she went to the bathroom and threw up.
A few nights later, Dennis dreamed about their baby. It was the size of a pint bottle, and it smiled at him. But then someone lit it on fire. He watched it burn, its little face crumpling like paper. He woke up sweating and turned to Angel, but she wasn't there.
At five a.m. Dennis was naked in the bathroom. He stood with his legs apart and his arms held straight out in front of him, pointing his gun at the mirror. He heard the key in the lock, heard Angel drop her big heavy purse to the floor Then she was in the mirror, screaming at him.
"Where the fuck did you get that?" Angel said.
"I didn't want to freak you out," Dennis said. He put the gun down next to the sink.
"Is it loaded?"
"Well, what are you doing with it?"
"Nothing." He gazed sullenly at a lipstick lying on the bathroom floor.
"You're crazy," Angel said.
He picked up the gun and tried to twirl it on his finger like they did in Westerns. Angel snorted and went into the bedroom. Dennis stood in the bathroom doorway and aimed the gun at her.
"Bang," he said. "You're dead."
"I don't think so," Angel said. "I just came back to get some clothes." She had to get ready for work. Dennis was in the way. He was always in the way lately; she'd turn from the refrigerator with a carton of Coffee-Mate, or be pulling a tray of Ore Ida Golden Crinkles from under the broiler, and he'd have snuck up behind her and be standing right there.
Angel went through her dresses, trying not to feel Dennis watching her. She had to be at work in half an hour On Sundays she did the six a.m. clubthe real goners, who had to have a couple of shots to steady their hands. Angel never drank until after five p.m. If she was working, she had whisky from a coffee cup. She was giving free drinks now to a guy named Mismo, who rode a Harley and wore black leather pants. They had screwed once right on the seat of the Harley.
Dennis had watched them from the bed of a pickup parked nearby. He had aimed the gun at Mismo's crotch, Angel's ass, the moon, a broken streetlight.
Dennis came into the bedroom.
"I love you, Angel," he said.
"Oh, please," Angel said. "I have to go to work."
"Just let me put it in," Dennis said. "Just for a second."
"NO." Angel had her dress on already.
Dennis went into Angel's closet and rummaged on the shelf until he found one of the round happy-faced cookie tins he'd taken from work, where the clip of bullets was hidden, wrapped in a piece of blue felt. He took out the clip and shoved it into the gun. He was standing among Angel's dresses and blouses, inhaling the sweet flowery scent of her perfume.
He came out of the closet. Angel was sitting on the bed, pulling on her pantyhose.
"It's loaded now," he said.
"Go away, Dennis." She drew the nylons up her legs, stood and lifted her dress to adjust them.
"Lie down," Dennis said.
Angel put her shoes on. "Grow up, asshole," she said. "It's over" She picked up her purse and slung it over her shoulder.
After she was gone he lay down on the bed and watched TV. He put the gun beside him on a pillow. He watched the Today show, and then the Jetsons and the Flintstones. He turned off the TV and went into the living room to his map of Vietnam and sat down, studying it. Hue was in ruins, the buildings destroyed, the big park a smoldering mess. Hue was going to fall. Eventually, Saigon was, too. It was all pointless. People had died for nothing. Innocent people. Stupid soldiers. Women in rice paddies. Before that, people in concentration camps. Babies.
I have killed babies, Dennis thought.
He felt better and worse. He went and got the gun and put it to his head.
"Bang," he said. He took the clip out and set it next to the gun, on Angel's dresser. He put on his black fatigues, his T-shirt with the picture of William Burroughs on it, and his combat boots. He opened Angel's underwear drawer to get his money; the envelopes smelled of rose sachet. He stuffed them in his green canvas duffel along with a few clothes. There wasn't anything else he needed. In the living room he kicked at the game on the floor, scattering the armies to the corners of the room. He picked up his boom box, then set it back down. He decided he had enough to carry, wherever the fuck he was going.
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