Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2008
Fiction: Like Father by John Farris
Her name was Susie.
They were all named Susie.
Kontum. An Khe. Bong Son. Cam Ranh Bay. And wherever the hell I was now. They all looked alike. Young. Petite. The bones of little birds.
Half a mile away from Susie’s hooch a trio of F4-C’s lit up their afterburners in climb-out and the frail hooch shook moments later from their shock waves.
A kerosene lamp was on. It was a moonless night.
Her purple dress hung over the back of a chair. She looked at the folding money I had pinned to the tabletop with my knife and climbed into my lap.
“Me love you very long time!” she said gleefully.
They’re prettier somehow when they stick to their own tongue and don’t mangle English. Vietnamese is a beautiful language, easy on the ears. Some of the country is nice too. What we were doing to it was a damn shame.
I drank from the bottle of Scotch I’d brought with me from the officer’s club. It wasn’t up to me to pass judgment on LBJ’s policies. I just worked for him. Indirectly. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, I wasn’t even in Vietnam. That had its advantages.
Joan Baez on the stereo. It wasn’t a bad hooch. Sparsely furnished, but clean. Too many shadows to suit me. I turned the lamp higher. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last seen the giant spider. Creeping at me from the darkness. No reason for it to show itself now. I was in control again.
Susie took off her bra and put her rosebud mouth to one of my nipples. Odor of sandalwood, blue highlights in her straight black hair. Her skin was humid. Sweat drizzled down my face, my naked body.
“In a little while,” I said. “First I tell you a little story.”
“What story?” she said, lifting her eyes to my face.
“The same story I tell all of you,” I said. “Before I do it. When you’ve heard the story, you’ll understand why I’m here.”
“You have many girls?” she said, making a face and probably wondering if I was clapped-up.
“None as cute as you. You my number one girlie all-time.”
That made her giddy. She straddled me like a pony, both hands embracing my woodie as if it were the pommel of a child’s saddle. I had another drink and put the lip of the bottle to her lips. She licked a few drops to please me, but obviously she didn’t like the taste.
“The summer I was six years old,” I began, “I took a trip with my father. He was a custom knifemaker who made his knives eight months of the year in his basement workshop.” I reached out and lightly drew my left index finger down the edge of the knife sticking in the table, but although I barely touched that meticulously honed blade I drew a thread of blood. Susie’s eyes got big. She shuddered when I licked the blood from my finger. “Like this one,” I said. “Modified Bowie, seven and a half inch blade, mahogany-and-ivory handle. And when he’d made his knives he traveled around the midwest in his Plymouth Coupe selling them to collectors or hardware stores in places like Ottumwa, Galesburg, St. Joe.”
There was a rattle of small-arms fire a mile or so away, as Charlie probed for weaknesses in the base perimeter. Susie studied me for a few moments. I didn’t say anything more.
“Okay,” she said. “We fuck now?”
“No,” I said. “That was just the beginning of my story. I didn’t get to the giant spider yet.”
Susie wasn’t understanding much of this, of course. But she relaxed against my chest when I put an arm around her. With a small hand she fine-tuned my erection. Hoping she might bring me off and save herself extra exertion. But I was in my prime, thirty years old, and pacing myself for a big night.
“I don’t remember the names of all the towns I visited with my father that summer. But the only one that really matters, the one I’ll never forget, is Bluff City. Overlooking the river in the middle of Missouri. That’s where my father decided we could both use a haircut. And after that, he said—
(My father said, rubbing a hand up the back of my neck and making me squirm, “We’ll take in that Tarzan movie you want to see.”)
The Lobby of the Central Hotel is furnished with square Oxblood leather Chairs. Each Chair has a standing Ashtray Beside it. The floor is a Checkerboard, squares of black And White. Black and white. A Man in a gray pin-striped Suit with a floral Tie has fallen asleep over his Newspaper, Snorting gently in the quiet desuetude of the Lobby on a Saturday afternoon. A Saturday afternoon at the end of July. One notices the unfanned air, the coarse linger of Cigars. There are three high Windows on one side of the Lobby. The green Shades are up.
This is after Pearl Harbor. There is an American Flag in one Window, as big As the Window itself, the Sun shining through it. The light Around the Window with the Flag is fiercely rose, with Bars Of Indigo. And Stars that swarm like Flies in the blasé Sunning.
A young Woman is waiting for the Elevator. She is Wearing an organdy Summer Dress. White Pumps. White Gloves. A close-fitting Hat. She is slender, with good Legs, and standing very still, a flat, white, square Purse Under one arm.
In the Barbershop of the Central Hotel, off The Lobby, my Father is having his hair cut in the middle Chair. My Father is a handsome Man. He wears his Hair Combed straight back, and parted on the left; uses plenty of Rose Oil Hair Dressing. I’m next. Looking up, I see Myself in the Barbershop Mirror. And also the Woman Waiting for the Elevator. Waiting. The Woman with Gloved Hands, and interesting calves. I see my Father’s Eyes in The Mirror. My Father is looking at the Woman too. I look Down at Field and Stream, at the short-haired Pointer Dog On the Cover and the Men in Leather shooting Vests. I wish I had a Comic Book. All of mine are in the Car.
Some of my Father’s cut-off Hair drifts down from his draped Shoulders To the Checkerboard Floor. There is an Animal of Hair on The black and white Floor, no Head, no Tail, but an Animal. I sit on my Feet. The Elevator comes. The brass Gate snaps Open. The Woman gets on. My Father watches. The Elevator Man is an old Negro with red Suspenders who sits on a Stool Inside, never getting up, never getting off. Lives in the Elevator. He was born before the Civil War. My Father is Laughing at a whispered joke of the Barber’s. Loud laughter After whispers. The Elevator
Conveying the Woman Upstairs. To the unimaginable Upstairs of the Central Hotel.
(My father said, setting me down on the board the barber had placed across the arms of the chair, “I’m just going out for coffee. I won’t be long. Then we’ll go to the movie.”)
“But I knew where he really was going,” I said to Susie. “And I was so scared I went in my pants sitting on that padded board with the barber’s sheet draped around me.”
Susie’s head was on my chest, her eyes half-closed. Her hand was lax on my penis. She’d made me come, but five minutes later I was getting hard again.
“You some Superman,” she murmured.
“The barber knew, but pretended he didn’t. When my father came back for me as I was getting dusted behind the ears with talcum I whispered to him what had happened, and told him I just wanted to leave, get away from there, get out of Bluff City and never come back. I remember how I trembled. My father laughed and told me it was nothing. An accident. Then he took me to the men’s room, hiding with his Panama hat what everyone would have seen otherwise. He had me wait in a stall while he brought me clean shorts from the car.
“Tarzan was my favorite comic book and movie hero, but I didn’t want to go to that movie any more. Tarzan’s Desert Fury. I imagined that everyone else there—the theatre was just across the street from the Central Hotel—would know I’d wet my pants and would start laughing soon as they saw me.
“But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to go. Because my father’s hands—his hands, Susie: they were soft and very clean from soaping and soaping, clean under and all around the manicured nails. But no matter how carefully he had scrubbed I could smell the blood. I can smell it to this day.”
The firefight on the perimeter had escalated. From what I was hearing it was apparent that Charlie had brought some 50’s to the party. Through a slight gap in the bamboo shutters over the window I was facing I could see tracers in the moonless night like arcs of lightning. Up close a 50 tracer was the size of a yellow baseball. Fifty-caliber machine gun bullets are a half inch in diameter and an inch long. Four bullets—the ones you never see and usually don’t hear except when they go snipping through foliage—are fired between each tracer round at 3000 feet per second. A solid hit could remove most of a grunt’s brains and a fist-sized piece of skull. But that was the way everyone wanted to get it if he had to go tango uniform in Nam: clean hit to the head. Never know a thing about it.
Susie shook a little in my lap and I held her closer. Her shudders most probably a reaction to the rapid gunfire. She wasn’t cold. It was muggy inside the closed-up hooch. We sweated together, slippery, electric in the flesh as nesting eels. The mosquito coil on the table had nearly burned out.
“Time fuck now?” Susie said drowsily.
“Just listen. Here’s the, I guess you could call it, the nitty-gritty part.”
“Hm. I listen.” She snuggled closer.
“In the dark of the Capitol Theatre, eating popcorn, feeling secure with my father’s arm around me, I almost forgot what I had been afraid of. Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan again. I forget what the storyline was: something to do with Nazis in the desert. But the part of the movie that startled me, that was so upsetting, had nothing to do with the bad guys. You see, there was this huge spiderweb in a cave where Tarzan was trapped. He couldn’t reach his knife to cut himself free. Because of the size of the web, even though I was only six I should have known what was coming. But I didn’t cover my eyes in time.
“Then, there it was: the giant spider.”
“Ohh,” Susie said softly, as if responding to a tremor in my body.
“Too late to look away, to close my eyes. I just stared at the movie screen in shock. But I wasn’t in a theatre any more; I wasn’t watching a movie. I was literally transported to that dim cavern, strung up in a real, not a make-believe web, and no Tarzan to come to my rescue. It was just me and the giant spider, creeping my way. The spider, I understood instantly, as if some dark god had whispered in my ear, that was to be my companion for the rest of my life.”
I was silent then. Nearly talked out. Parched. Numb along one side of my tongue. A tingling at the back of my neck. I had another drink of scotch.
On the perimeter the firefight had cooled off to sporadic bursts of gunfire.
“No understand,” Susie said. A note in her voice as if she wanted very much to understand me. Some of the others, they just hadn’t cared. I almost fell in love with this Susie because of that rare moment of empathy.
Then, childlike, she yawned. “Story make me sleepy,” she complained. “No more talk. No more scare Susie.”
“But I—I have to finish my story. It won’t take long.”
She put her head down again, cheek on my breastbone, reached up to push my dogtags out of the way. Hair falling across her face.
Round two was underway on the perimeter. Mortars. Solid heavy thumps we could feel in our bones.
“Talk, but don’t scare. Enough scare all time. Why you soldier here? No ask for war here. I love you long time, but all soldier need go away, leave us.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t ask for it either, any of it.” It wasn’t the war I had on my mind, hugging her so close, but she couldn’t have known. Would never know.
“This is how the story ends. Because of the sudden appearance of that giant spider in a movie house a long way from home, suppressing the knowledge of who and what my father really was, something went haywire in my mind. I had a seizure there in my seat. Arms flailing, foaming at the mouth. Or so I was told later by my father, on one of the few occasions I was allowed to visit him. Before he was executed. In the candy-striped death house of the penitentiary on the highest bluff of Bluff City.”
Susie moaned slightly. I wondered if she could possibly know the meaning of “execute.” In my father’s case it had meant the electric chair.
“My father,” I said to Susie, “carried me out to the lobby. A doctor was found in the audience. He recommended that I be taken to the local hospital. Which is where I spent the night, sedated, with my father beside me in a chair. Never leaving me for more than five minutes at a time. I’ve wondered often what was going through his mind, knowing the danger he was in, that increased minute by minute. But he was still there at my side in the morning when they came. Two detectives. They put handcuffs on my father, and took him from me.
“So you see—it was my fault. If we hadn’t gone to the Tarzan movie instead of leaving town immediately, if I hadn’t been scared into a fit by the sight of that giant spider, my father and I would have been a hundred, two hundred miles from Bluff City before the woman’s body was discovered in her upstairs room at the Central Hotel. The woman who had caught his eye, and mine, in the barbershop mirror.
“Long gone, just as we’d left all the other towns in a timely manner, left his other women behind. Fort Dodge. Falls City. Those are two more places I remember. But they’re all in the newspaper clippings, with the names and photos of the—. Of his—. I still have the clippings, but I never look at them any more.”
I kissed the crown of little Susie’s head. She smiled as I rose from the chair and carried her to the mosquito-netted bed and placed her on her belly. That’s how we did it, Susie’s backside to me, her petite head turning side to side in what seemed more than let’s-pretend ecstasy.
No English, I had told her, so she celebrated my vigor in soft Vietnamese, not lewd American words. The satisfaction of her sighs belied the ugliness over which I had no control. Foaming at the mouth had always been just a part of it. But I didn’t let Susie see me do that. I never let her look at me again.
This time was no easier, nor more difficult, than the other times.
Before getting dressed I sat for a few minutes at the table again, ritually cleaning and re-honing my knife. Ritual, precise repetition, was important. I looked often at Susie’s body, slack now, shadowy within the netting. Outside the war went on. I had been in firefights that should have killed me. I’d asked for it, again and again. I’d done heroic things. But no medals for valor, please. Because of course I wasn’t there. Officially I didn’t exist. Believe it or not, that was a source of comfort to me.
I had yet to die in combat, or so the spider had explained to me, because there is a form of luck more potent than blood, thicker than shellfire.
Call it the devil’s luck.
I had finished dressing and was spreading the kerosene from her lamp around and on what was to become Susie’s pyre when I felt the spider’s enormous presence; she nearly filled the room behind me.
“Will this be enough?” I asked the spider.
“There is no ‘enough,” the spider answered me.
“But I don’t understand why.”
“There is no ‘why,’ either. Did your father know?”
“He said he didn’t. He said he thought—certain women were selected for him. By who or what he didn’t know. So he just had to keep on cutting throats until he was caught.”
“There you have it,” the spider said.
“Will I be caught?”
If the spider knew the answer, she kept it to herself. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. Black, hulking, brutal.
Then I used my lighter.
Before the hooch turned into an inferno we left together.