SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Paul Hellweg
Damn. I hear him in the bedroom whistling “Hey Jude,” and my shoulders tense.
Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, the old Beatles’ song pleads, then continues with the legendary advice on how to make it better.
“Anyone here?” Chang’s voice carries poorly through the bookshelves that line my office. He knows damn well I’m home. I’m not about to give him an answer, and I’m not going to answer his next question, due any second.
“Hey, man, where are you?”
Chang drifts through the wall, materializing in front of my Oxford English Dictionary. For a moment, I think he’s going to zip to the ceiling, but he doesn’t. He’s wearing the same black shorts and bloody shirt he’s had on for over forty years. His hair is cut short, and his ears, as always, look too big. He cocks his head to the side and fingers the frayed hem of his shirt. His legs, if he still had them, would be skinny and brown, and his feet would be dusty.
He’s found me sitting at my computer desk, but I’m not working. I’m browsing through a travel guide to Vietnam. I don’t usually dread his visits, but some nights are worse than others and my nose tells me tonight is going to be bad.
I still rebel at the notion that a ghost can smell bad, but I swear to God, Chang stinks. He smells like unwashed boy, as if he never quit playing in the mud or wading through rice paddies fertilized with human waste. When he opens his mouth to speak, I detect the stale, rotting odor of nuoc mam, the oily fish sauce he once loved.
“So, did you finish the story about Tommy and Doc?” Chang asks. His English is nearly perfect. It should be—I’ve been tutoring him for decades.
I concentrate on my book and don’t say a thing.
“It isn’t working for me,” he says, smiling. When Chang smiles, he shows only his upper teeth and they have a little gap.
He knows, of course, I want that story to end, but fear it never will.
“I’ll turn on the TV for you,” I say at last. That’s my hint for him to leave me alone.
He’s quiet for a minute, and I begin to think that tonight might not be so bad after all.
“I’m not in the mood,” he says. “Let’s play Trivial Pursuit.”
Not tonight, you little shit, I think. There’s nothing worse than being beaten at Trivial Pursuit by a dead eight year old boy.
“How about a DVD?” I suggest, knowing that’s something he can’t resist.
His eyes light up. “Vampire Lovers?” he asks.
I take it back. There is something worse—Chang’s taste in movies.
“Why not?” I say, giving in. I follow him out to the living room, slide the disc into the dusty machine, and watch the first scene with him.
“Let’s order a pizza,” he says. That’s his idea of a joke. He can’t eat, and he knows damn well I’m trying to lose weight.
“Not tonight—I have work to do,” I say and leave him hovering in the living room, engrossed in Peter Cushing’s hunt for lesbian vampires.
“At least turn up the heat,” Chang hollers. “I’m cold.”
You’re always cold, I want to tell him.
The travel guide to Vietnam is open on my desk. The photos capture the land’s haunting beauty and make me want to go back. But all that was a long time ago, and I wonder if anyone still cares. I try closing the book and turning on the computer, hoping to get some work done. But I’m too slow. I’m already gone.
* * * * *
There’s very little that makes Chang’s story and mine all that different from the others—but our story was ours and it will be ours forever. The war was the war. People either survived, or they didn’t. The land was the place where it happened, that was all, and whether we lived or died, we became its ghosts.
Chang was eight when we met. An orphan, he didn’t really have a home, though the village school teacher tried to look after him. Nineteen and already a widow, she was tired. But who wasn’t in those days?
My platoon was stationed in Chang’s village for several weeks, using the old French-built schoolhouse for our headquarters. The cliché that we owned the day but the night belonged to Charlie was as true in Tho Lam as it was anywhere else. Nobody really slept once it was dark, and moving around at night was dangerous. I’d sit quietly on the school’s concrete steps, maintaining radio contact with the patrols I’d sent out, questioning my decisions, and dreaming every soldier’s dream of going home.
When the sky was clear, stars burned overhead in eerie splendor, and all those long, lonely nights are the nights I still sleep with. The whitewashed schoolhouse seemed to glow in the dark, and its ghostly silhouette always made me uneasy. The air was oppressive, and all I could think of was getting away—away from the warm breezes that carried the reek of dead fish off the South China Sea, away from the stench of rice paddies, away from Tho Lam, away from the war.
During the day, Tho Lam was a different world. We could relax our guard. We could eat, sleep, shave, read paperback novels, and pretend there wasn’t a war. Sometimes we even played with the kids who lived in the village. I don’t care if I am bragging: It’s true. I was their favorite. I was the Lieutenant, which translated into Vietnamese as Trung úy, or in their pidgin as “numbah one honcho,” and being a friend of the numbah one honcho carried a certain prestige.
The village kids flocked to me—partly for the handouts, partly to practice their English, but mainly for the male companionship. Most of their fathers were gone, either killed by the war or off fighting it, and I didn’t want to know on which side.
I liked the kids and used to go on walks with them. I always armed myself to the teeth and took my radioman along for security, thinking some of their fathers might not be all that far away. We made quite a sight marching around Tho Lam—a skinny American lieutenant playing Pied Piper to a dozen underfed Vietnamese kids, all scrambling to walk next to me.
Chang, on the other hand, was a little smartass who hated American soldiers. He would shout obscenities, flip us off, and make pidgin comments about our ancestry. He tagged along on my little strolls not as a participant, but as a lag behind heckler.
“Trung úy numbah fuckin’ ten,” was his favorite taunt.
To be honest, he irritated me, and I took my revenge. I made a water balloon from a condom and concealed it in a C ration box, which I offered him.
My ruse worked. When Chang reached for the box, I flicked it open and nailed him with the water balloon. I’d thought we’d laugh it off, like the joke it was supposed to be, but he didn’t laugh or cry or run. He just stood there staring at me, eyes wide with shock and rage. It would be a close call: I could’ve made an enemy for life, but one of Chang’s friends snuck up and nailed me with a bucket of water. I broke out laughing and Chang smiled, the first I’d ever seen. Soon he was second in command on my Pied Piper patrols.
He began to guide me everywhere after that. He’d march ahead in his black shorts and dirty white shirt, all skinny brown legs and dusty bare feet. I taught him English, he taught me Vietnamese. I introduced him to my men, and for a few weeks Chang had a lot of round-eyed older brothers, the first family he’d ever known.
Doc, a college dropout from Galesburg, Illinois, taught us both the song. Of all my photos from the war, my favorite has always been the one of us three—the Lieutenant, the medic, the orphan—singing “Hey Jude” while sitting on the concrete steps of the old French schoolhouse.
Hey Jude… I wanted so bad to make it better.
* * * * *
“He just killed the last vampire,” Chang says, floating in. He used the door this time.
“You want to look at the pictures?” he asks. Does he know I’ve been thinking of them? I have nearly as many photographs of Chang as I do of my ex-girlfriends. Chang loves looking at all of the photos, but especially those of himself.
“Too late for a pizza,” I say, and Chang smiles.
I get the Vietnam albums out and sit on the couch while Chang hovers next to me. I don’t like it when he floats over my furniture; I know what he is, but his thighs—which disappear in a mangled mess at his knees—look so real that I keep expecting blood to drip over everything.
When I open the first album, I’m surprised to see a picture of Natasha. Of all my girlfriends, she was the only one Chang let see him.
“Did you put this here?” I ask, wondering what he is trying to tell me.
“I liked her,” Chang says.
“She liked you, too.”
“She thought I needed a bath,” Chang says.
Natasha actually gave him a bath. Once. She was always trying to clean up my life, so it wasn’t surprising she would attempt to clean my ghost too. It was impressive to see him drift down—clothes and all—into a bathtub full of hot, sudsy water without disturbing a single bubble. He emerged the same as ever—dirt on his face, grunge behind his ears, grit under his fingernails, and smelling like rice paddy and nuoc mam. Natasha never tried again.
“She liked you anyway,” I say.
“Why did you break up with her?” Chang says.
“I thought we were going to look at the pictures.”
“So how come,” Chang asks, “you’ve never been able to keep a girlfriend?”
I ignore him and turn the pages. You wouldn’t believe how many photographs I have of Chang with legs. They’re mostly photos of him decked out in military gear: My helmet, fatigue jacket, M-16, ammo belt, all that shit. He’s smiling in all of them—the same gap-toothed smile that began our friendship.
“That’s my favorite,” Chang says, pointing to the picture of him trying to lift an M-60 machine gun. He has the gun’s linked ammo belt draped across his shoulders.
When I don’t respond, Chang looks at me, then reaches over to close the album. I do it for him.
“You look sad,” he says. “Thinking about my death?” It’s strange to hear an eight-year-old sound so mature, but he’s learned a lot since he died.
“What else?” I say, wondering if I’ll ever be able to tell him the truth.
“It’s OK,” he says. “I know what you did the night Tommy died.”
Yes you do, I want to say, but that’s not all of it.
“I know how Tommy died, too,” Chang continues.
Of course you do.
The firefight took place within fifty meters of the schoolhouse. Not only did Chang hear it all, I’ve told him what it was like. Doc had been seriously wounded and was unable to help. It was up to me to save Tommy’s life, but he was a mess—gut shot with an AK round, blood and feces oozing from exposed intestines. I tried to stop the bleeding, tried to keep him from slipping away, but he kept whimpering, begging me with that sound, begging me to make it stop, and my soul turned inside out. I couldn’t think, I kept praying he’d shut up, and a part of me stepped away so that his pain, his face, his blood were like a photograph, a show, anything I didn’t have to feel.
“I know about the grenades too,” Chang says. “I never gave them a second thought.”
“Not ‘til one of them killed you.”
“Say bro, y’all got me on that one,” Chang says, imitating my radioman’s drawl.
Chang has told me all about it, how he was sloshing along behind an old woman as she worked her paddy, listening as she cursed both her wooden plow and the black, mangy water buffalo that pulled it. The plow’s steel blade dug deep into water covered mud, then with no warning, it struck a buried grenade. The blast killed the woman instantly, disembowelled the water buffalo, and took off both Chang’s legs above the knee. He’s told me about how he lay in paddy muck, staring up at the blue blue sky, slowly bleeding to death while the buffalo stood nearby on wobbling legs, bellowing in agony as its entrails slipped into the water.
“Let it be,” Chang says.
“You know what I mean,” he says. “You’ve got to let go.”
“Like that’s an original thought.”
“Come on, man,” he continues, “let’s play Trivial Pursuit. I haven’t beaten you since last night.”
I’ve got three college degrees and nearly enough credits for a doctorate and still he beats me.
“Let’s watch Riverdance,” I say. It’s my favorite DVD, and over the years we’ve watched it more times than I could possibly recollect.
“Right on, bro.” My radioman’s accent again.
The atmosphere has to be right to get the most out of Riverdance. You need candlelight, incense, a beer or two. Soon fourteen candles are burning and smokey wisps of sandalwood have begun to camouflage the unpleasant aroma of fish sauce.
I put the disc in, crank the volume way up, and we listen in anticipation to the opening narration. Dancers in green skirts and black leotards are poised on stage, just as I am poised to forget myself in the swirling rhythms, to drown what I’m feeling in the river of their dance.
The music begins with a drum roll, fiddles pick up the beat, and the dance finally starts with a vigorous step-kick to the left.
I sit on the couch next to the rock fireplace, drinking my beer. Chang amuses himself by floating up to the open beam ceiling, then ricocheting around the room like a balloon losing air. He’s good. His flits and darts are in perfect synch with the lively music.
The dancers link arms and make a star formation. A cymbal crashes, and the dancers, holding hands, begin to circle the stage.
Chang keeps pace, cutting perfect circles around the living room. I finish my first beer and head off to the kitchen for another. When I return, Chang is bouncing up and down in mid-air, hands on hips, swinging his thighs out and back in a legless attempt at Irish step-dancing.
Never, I think. Never will I forgive myself.
The dancers move into an ever-widening V. Chang hesitates; this is something he can’t do alone. When madrigal singers enter stage left, Chang gives up and settles down on the couch next to me.
Two beers later, Riverdance shifts from Irish to Spanish tone, and the magic is gone. I excuse myself, telling Chang I’ve got to get back to work.
“I don’t like this part either,” he says.
“Want to watch something else?” I ask.
He requests Night of the Living Dead. Like I said, he really does have terrible taste, but so must I—I’m the one who bought these DVDs. I find the disc he wants.
“Maybe I’ll like the story you’re working on,” Chang says as I leave the room.
Depends on how it ends, I want to say.
* * * * *
How could he like it? This story is about March 13, 1969, three months and seventeen days after Tommy died. My platoon had three bridges to guard about five klicks south of Tho Lam on Highway 1, the infamous Street Without Joy. On the night of the 12th, the enemy—those little assholes in black pajamas—probed our positions, and the mortar detail attached to us fired illumination rounds for support. Two of the rounds failed to ignite, burying themselves in paddy mud.
The next morning, my new platoon sergeant called an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team to retrieve the lost rounds. I asked what the big deal was. The rounds were harmless, right? They were duds, right? But before he could answer, I was somewhere else, remembering Tho Lam the night Tommy had died.
Red and green tracers had crisscrossed through the night as the staccato popping of enemy AK fire was answered by M-16 rifles and the rumble of our machine gun. Men were screaming all around me; shouted commands mingled with a single frantic call, repeated over and over: “Medic!” Doc caught it in the leg, Tommy was shot in the stomach, and I struggled to maintain control of my platoon, to protect our flanks and rear while I fired my grenade launcher. Not all my grenades had detonated. Some just sank into paddy mud, exactly like those illumination rounds, while Tommy made his begging sounds, and I could do nothing but fire into the tracer-laced night.
I’d forgotten all about those grenades, but on the afternoon of March 13th, three months later, I could’ve said something. As sunlight glinted off the windshield of the arriving EOD jeep, I could’ve told them about Tho Lam, about what was buried in the mud up there.
I didn’t, and I don’t know why.
* * * * *
On June 29, 1969, an orphan boy named Chang would lie in a rice paddy near the village of Tho Lam in the same mud I had stood in. He would look up at the deep blue sky and grow cold, very cold, as he bled to death.
It was my grenade that killed him, but I didn’t know. I’d left Vietnam by then and wouldn’t know until he showed up three years later, hovering over my television set, asking to change the channel.
* * * * *
As I type away, I become aware of him. He hovers behind me, reading over my shoulder. A hand reaches for me; I feel it.
“I was afraid you’d never get around to this,” he says. The movie can’t be over, I think.
“Chang,” I say. I want to tell him so much, but I can’t find the words. My hands shake at the keyboard. How do you tell a dead boy it was your silence that got him killed?
I turn to face him—he’s floating at about the right height for an eight-year-old, making him look like he still has legs. His eyes are as dark as a jungle night, and before I can glance away, he says:
“No sweat, bro, I’ve known all along.” Then he smiles, exposing that gap again.
He’s been haunting me forty years, and he’s known all along? I look into his charcoal eyes and I see love. There’s no doubt. He forgives me. Somehow, he does.
“But,” Chang says, “why didn’t you tell the EOD team?”
“You think I haven’t asked myself that?” I say.
“And?” he says.
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do, bro.”
“I was traumatized. Tommy, Doc, all the others,” I say. “I couldn’t feel anything.”
Chang glances away momentarily, then looks me in the eye.
“You don’t know you’re still in denial?” he says. “You think you’re perfect? You think you have no flaws?”
Chang’s words open the door, but I’m frozen. I can’t go there. That door has been locked almost all my life.
Chang waits. I need to respond.
“Let’s play a game of Trivial Pursuit,” I finally say.
Chang cocks his head to the side and gives me a look that says everything. “Not tonight,” he says.
“I’ve got a frozen pizza in the fridge,” I say. “Let’s heat it up.”
“It’s never too late,” Chang says.
“For pizza?” I ask.
“Why make everything a joke?” he says. “You know it’s not too late. How could it be? When you’re dead, you’ve got a lot of time. Look at me. Look at you.”
I’m not as dead as you are, I want to say, but I know what he means. I’m scared. What if I can’t find that paddy? What if I can, but don’t feel a thing? Isn’t that why I have to go—to feel the pain and by feeling it be free of what I’ve become?
Chang is hovering in front of me, bobbing up and down. He’s expecting an answer.
“I can’t do that,” I say. “Not yet.”
“You’ll never know,” Chang says, “unless you go.”
He’s staring at me, but I look away. Not enough money. No one to go with. Fear. I want another beer, right now, right this minute.
“You are,” he says, “the best friend I ever had.”
The room fills with ocean air, like a fresh breeze off the South China Sea.
Before I can respond, Chang begins to fade. No! Stay.
He smiles, exposing just the top row of teeth. He has become mist over paddy, smoke over mud. I can see right through him to what I must do, because if I don’t, neither of us will be free.
“Chang,” I start to say, but it’s too late. For the first time in almost forty years, I’m alone. He’s gone.
“You were my best friend too,” I say.
The whistling begins again, faintly.
I know why he’s doing this, and I know what it will take—stubborn boy that he is—for the whistling to stop.
“Okay, bro, okay. See you there,” I say.
Paul Hellweg is the author of eleven nonfiction books and more than 100 published poems. His short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of journals including The North American Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, 400 Words, Short Story Digest, and others. He produced the movie Dead Letters (formerly Cold Ones), which was named an Official Selection of the California Independent Film Festival as well as Honorable Mention at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. For more, visit www.paulhellweg.com.