Water in Darkness

Water in Darkness

by Daniel Buckman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781888451382
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 03/01/2003
Pages: 193
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Danny Morrison walked into the vacant lot beneath the dark girders of the Lake Street EL. His body was lank and hard, warmed by a Marine Corps Field Jacket, his eyes like dirty bottle glass and staring into the wet wind. He kept his hand pocketed, wrapped around a snub-nosed .38, searching Lake Street for the skinny black with the bum leg from being run over by a bus the night he came home from Vietnam. That spic wanted to run down a nigger that night, wanted it like a million goddamned dollars. The man cruised the silent dark in a rusted Delta 88 and sold the void in a vial and Morrison was feeling the twitch, the dull ache that never stayed dull. The Damen bus sped south without passengers down the cratered street and the exhaust hazed in the cold like fog upon wide water.

Two blacks warmed their hands at an old oil drum that burned more garbage than wood. The flames drew and twisted while the sleet turned the vacant lots between the housing projects into mud flats. Morrison spat in the dark gutter water where a bloated pigeon moldered. He sipped from a pint of J&B to hold off his edge even if he knew it would not work for long.

The men at the fire wore a motley of tattered suit jackets and wool coats and odd pieces of clothing stolen at homeless shelters. The tallest of the two was shod in toeless basketball shoes that were wound around with duck tape. He stomped his feet in the mud as if to warm them. His thick glasses were tied to his face with a bootlace and he waved Morrison over from the shadows of the EL tracks. The other man was younger, with bullet scars on both cheeks, perhaps shot by a .22 while he laughed big laughs.

Morrison came into the hoop of firelight, watching their hands, while the kid took a piece of burning cardboard from the fire and held it to an unlit cigarette butt in his mouth. The paper flared and embers fell from his face and he spat the cigarette out on the ground, coughing wildly. His eyebrows were singed, his eyes red and soapy.

I told the kid about lighting a cigarette that way, Danny Irish, the tall black said. I told him just tonight, but he don’t listen to nobody. Not to the police. Not even to niggers same as him.

The kid wiped his eyes and blinked and hacked wet. Morrison kept to the edges of the firelight. The snowy mud was marred by a hundred boot sizes.

You got a taste for James, Danny Irish? The tall black said.

Morrison tossed him what was left in the pint bottle. James uncapped it with his bony hand and drank back more than his share before the kid could see right. When the kid cleared his eyes with his hands, still drooling from his mouthcorners, he grabbed at the Scotch like it was a basketball.

I won’t do you wrong, James said.

The kid called him a motherfucker and took the bottle from his face. His eyes darted like a feral cat’s. James reeled back two steps and shook his head. Morrison looked around the corner of a windowless liquor store for the man’s Delta 88, but saw only the snow-covered filth.

Where’s your cop suit, Danny Irish, the kid said.

He ain’t the police no more.

Why ain’t you the police no more? the kid said. The kid killed the bottle and sent it up at the EL tracks where pigeons whirred on the dripping girders.

He just ain’t, James said.

So he’s down with the niggers? What is it the police say about us niggers—if we can’t fuck it, steal it, or eat it, we break it.

Shut your mouth, James said.

Then what’s he doing here? The kid said. I bet he’s going after booty. Lake Street is full of whores even in the cold. There’s even these niggers fresh out of the jailhouse who dress up like bitches and tie their dicks back between their legs.

Morrison palmed the pistol handle in his pocket, then fingered the trigger.

He ain’t up in here after booty, James said.

Them whores get to fighting in the summer, the kid said. They slice each other with razor blades. One whore bit off another whore’s nose just because she was high. Then some little nigger comes up and runs away with the nose after she spits it out.

That’s some evil, James said. It’s down there all by itself, up on two damned legs.

Danny Irish knows about that place, the kid said. I bet he got his booty for nothing when he was the police.

Morrison backed out of the firelight altogether. His shadow quaked on the weedy mud like fast water and then faded.

You like to fight? He said to the kid.

In the kid’s eyes, the fire was reflected twice and very small and he put them into Morrison’s.

Yes, he said.

James clapped his hands together for warmth.

If you like fighting, he said, you ain’t like the rest of us. You’re like Dracula or King Kong.

The kid spat into the fire and wiped his mouth.

You get that Army coat from fighting, Danny Irish? he said.

Shit, James said. Danny Irish was a war hero in Vietnam before he became the police.

You were in Vietnam? the kid said.

Morrison nodded. The fire was dying down to hot red coals.

I see niggers walking around all day in coats like that, the kid said. They’ll tell you they were in Vietnam, too. You ain’t nothing but a crack-head excop.

You better shut your mouth, James said.

You killed those gook motherfuckers the way you killed niggers around here? the kid said.

Tell him to be quiet, Morrison said.

James put his arm around the kid and tried muscling him away but the kid had none of it. He pushed the skinny James off of him with one hand and sent him staggering through the bottle glass.

You going to shoot me? the kid said.

It’s your call, Morrison said.

He won’t look at me in the eyes and shoot me cold. He’s too sad about fucking up his life to be mean anymore.

Get him out of here, Morrison said.

The problem with niggers, James said, is that they spend too much time listening to other niggers.

I’ve been shot before by a real killer, not a punk ass glaze face, the kid said.

Morrison drew the pistol and leveled it at the kid where the pale shrouds of smoke rose from the barrel. He thumbed back the hammer and sighted the post upon the young, scarred face. The kid was motionless, without expression, like he was carved from an ancient stone.

James ran off through the vacant lot all alone, high-stepping through the slag puddles. He fell to his knees three times before he reached the street. The kid pocketed his hands and walked backwards from the firebarrel, his cat eyes never leaving Morrison’s own until he stepped upon the street and then moved away as if only out to walk among these gutted buildings on the West Side of Chicago still charred from riot fires now twenty year’s past. Morrison was fully in the darkness now, perhaps a shadow without referent, when the fire died to nothing and the metal violence of the Lake Street EL passed over his head and sound not unlike his own suicidal dreams.

Morrison filed with the remains of his platoon through the Thouong Tu Gate at Hue while a twilight rain darkened the ruined Citadel. Phantom Jets cut overheard and left their coarse sounds long seconds after passing off into the clouds gathering out west. He was only one Marine among many Marines, his jungle fatigues ripped by concertina wire and blood-flecked from the assault against the wall that morning. They passed bombed colonnades abandoned these two weeks after the North Vietnamese overran Hue in a night fog and shot shopkeepers dead in the streets. Their bodies lay prone in loose clothing, slumped upon rubble with open mouths, their filthy chattels still tied to backs gored by bayonets. Morrison was the new guy, only in-country for three weeks when the Tet Offensive started, and nobody would talk to him, as if the other Marines begrudged him his survival because so many had died that day with only weeks left of their tours. He knew none of their names; they did not know his.

Half-naked children called to the Marines like barking dogs. Their skinny yellow bodies ran barefoot, gimped legless on makeshift crutches. The Marines looked on darkly while the kids panhandled them with hands missing fingers. They tossed the children C-Ration chocolate and canned peaches that wedged hard in the mud. Morrison saw the wall at the end of the street where the North Vietnamese relieved themselves during the long fight.

The clanking of tanks grew loud behind the platoon. The Gunny, a rawboned Texan with a cheek full of plug tobacco, ordered his Marines to part in the street like that fabled sea. The two tanks passed laden with Marines both wounded and dying while freaked Corpsmen held plasma IV’s tightly into bloody forearms. The wounded were shirtless and mummified in filthy bandages with their heads wagging off the sides of the tanks. The children ran in the tracks the iron treads made in the red dirt and begged blinded men with voices like sick cats.

Rain peened off the Gunny’s steel pot while he shooed the children away from the tanks. A squall of machine gun fire came from the windows above the street and caught him in the neck, followed by rocket propelled grenades against the tank tracks. Morrison found cover behind a rubble pile, but many Marines did not. The Gunny spun in the street like a dancer and more rounds tore open his throat until his head severed and fell into a boiling puddle. The children were shot down in turn as were the wounded. When the tanks turned their turrets to face the attack, the dead and dying were knocked from the iron flanks and not a corpsman was left alive. The men screamed from the muddy street as the big guns reported without echo.

Morrison crawled back against the craggy wall. The cries of the wounded were thin and lost and their bodies jumped and turned from the machine gun bullets. He was with the remains of his platoon, but he felt very alone, as if floating away from the world of men. He closed his eyes, believing stillness would never again befall this ground, then opened them. A wounded Marine without a shirt was crawling towards him, a boy not much older than Morrison, his stomach opened so that his innards were being glazed with mud. He moved his lips, speaking words that went unheard, the rain dripping from his face as if he sweat out a nightmare. He put a finger to his head like it was a pistol. Morrison shouldered his rifle and aimed at his face. The wounded Marine blinked his eyes, a smile forming from his mouthcorners, perhaps dreaming of the hole in the sky that led to heaven. Together, the found themselves in a pocket of calm while this boy with face like his own begged him towards their strange communion. When Morrison fired, his head opened like a melon, the rivulet of blood drowning his twisted neck. Morrison waited to feel outrage at himself but nothing came. He then finished off all of the wounded Marines with well-placed shots to their heads, the bullet sounds dull amongst the clutter of stone and flesh.

What People are Saying About This

Yuri Kapralov

Water in Darkness is a strong, thought-provoking first novel that works on several different levels: life in the army, the day-to-day ghetto life in post-Vietnam America, and a deep humanity of people trying to survive. It is disturbing, tragic, heartbreaking, and heartwarming. A rich canvas bordering on surreal, with a dream-like poetic style—the kind of book that draws you like a magnet to be read again and again.
—(Yuri Kapralov, author of Once There Was a Village)

Larry Heinemann

Simply put, Water in Darkness is a superb novel, a tasty piece of storytelling. Daniel Buckman’s tale is a roller coaster ride, told from that blunt, dark place where the rubber meets the road. And the writing is gritty, precise, and vivid—like a dream. Here is an earthbound 'Chicago' style that harkens back to Studs Lonigan, and reminds one of the close-to-the-bone, walk-the-plank stories of Mike Royko, Stuart Dybek, and Nelson Algren. Buckman speaks for a new, young generation of soldiers who thought they were at peace. Water in Darkness is a sterling piece of work—the best new fiction I have read in a good long while.
—(Larry Heinemann, author of Paco’s Story winner of the National Book Award)

Gerry Nicosia

Daniel Buckman has that power that few writers have, not just to describe but to really make us feel the pain and the joy of this extraordinary life in human flesh. Water in Darkness is not just a book about soldiers, it's a book about what happens to human weakness when it's forced inside a uniform, forced to be strong, forced to live with hurt and loss. This book puts Buckman up there with the big names already.
—Gerry Nicosia, author of Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement

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