“I’ll see what I can do.”
“What you can do in the meantime,” I said, “is lend me a hundred dollars U.S. ”
“I’m a little short-”
“Whatever you can spare, then.”
He gave me seventy dollars in crisp tens. “And the Siamese kid?”
“I’ll take care of him. I’m going to keep a promise.”
“I’m giving him the hero treatment,” I said, “right here in Saigon.”
The madam was a fat little Vietnamese with gold teeth and a permanent smile. Several soldiers had assured me her house was far and away the best in Saigon. The rooms were nicely appointed, the girls were clean and lovely, and the price was only ten dollars. She bowed us into the parlor and rang a little bell, and seven pretty things in slit skirts and high heels came tripping into the room and bowed before us.
Dhang was drooling, and his eyes were so bugged out that he looked like a frog. Maybe if one of them let him sleep on her pillow, he would turn into a prince.
He said, “For me?”
“You’re supposed to pick the one you want.”
“I want them all.”
“Well, pick the one you like best.”
“I like them all best. Purick in cunat…”
I counted the girls and recounted the money. Seven girls at ten dollars a girl was seventy dollars, which, providentially enough, was the sum Barclay Houghton Hewlitt had given me. That seemed too clear a sign from the gods to be ignored. But was it possible that little Dhang could possess seven women one after the other?
Anything was possible, I decided. Anything at all. With what Dhang had been through, it was conceivable that he had built up a stock of frustration that all the whores in Saigon couldn’t cure. Anyway, he wanted all seven of them, and he deserved a shot at whatever he wanted. The son of a gun had paid his dues.
“He wants all seven of them,” I told the madam carefully. “They are to go to him one at a time.” I gave her the money. “Tell them to go in whatever order they wish. He loves them all.”
“He is Superman?”
“Seven girls? Ho, boy!”
She relayed the instructions to the girls, who giggled and squealed at the prospect. I sat down, and one of the girls took Dhang in hand and led him away. The madam sat down beside me.
“And you, Joe? What you want?”
I thought it over. “Do you have any betel nut?” I said finally. She frowned and said that she did not. “In that case,” I said, “what I’d really like is a nice cold glass of milk.”
He managed it. All seven of them, one right after the other, and when the last one went up to him, I began regretting that I hadn’t saved a few dollars to bury him. But before long the girl came down, shaking her head in astonishment, and a few moments later down came Dhang. He was positively gorgeous in a Laotian Communist Army uniform. He swaggered like a drunken sailor and beamed like a lighthouse.
“I will never go back to Thailand,” he said. “I will stay here in Saigon forever.”
“What will you do here?”
“Phuck,” he said succinctly.
“You’ll need money,” I said. “A lot of money, at this rate. What can you do?”
“Join the Army,” he said. “Fight the V.C. Get good pay. Eat good food. And phuck.”
He sounded like a recruiting poster. He was sold on the idea, so I took him in tow and scouted around until I found a colonel who couldn’t think of anyone else to shunt me off on. “He’ll be the best motivated soldier in the entire Army,” I told him. “You couldn’t ask for a more dedicated anti-Communist. He may be the only man who really knows what he’s fighting for. He might win the war all by himself. Surely you can find a place for him.”
“I don’t know,” the colonel said. “You say he’s Siamese?”
“That’s right. Didn’t Siam send troops?”
“A token unit. A hundred men, I think it was. Sure, that would be the place for him.” He shrugged. “Hell of a note. Just five, six days ago a few of our planes got their signals crossed. You know how it is, this jungle and all. They hit the Thai volunteers with napalm and antipersonnel bombs, wiped the poor buggers out to the last man.”
“One of those things, can’t be helped, happens in every war.” It seemed to happen, I thought, with appalling frequency in this particular war. “Goddamned shame you didn’t show up a week or ten days earlier,” he went on. “Could have put him in with those fellows easy as pie.”
“I’m glad we didn’t.”
“Show up on time for him to join them.”
“Because he’d be dead now,” I said.
“Oh,” the colonel said. “Uh, yes, of course. Mmm. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right, aren’t you? He’d be deader than hell by now, wouldn’t he?”
I closed my eyes for a moment. Then I talked to him some more, and he wound up finding a way to have Dhang certified as an alien without his ever having set foot on U.S. soil. They got around the requirement by having him stand on a flag in the American consulate. Then they let him enlist in the United States Army. Some genius wanted to send him stateside to Fort Dix for basic training, but we got it through to them that he was a combat veteran ready for assignment to the front lines. He wangled his first month’s pay in advance and received instructions to report to his unit in three days. Then he and I said good-bye and shook hands solemnly, and away he went. I had a fair idea where he was going; I was only worried that his pay wouldn’t last the three days.
That was about it. Tuppence and I caught a military flight to Tokyo and flew to San Francisco on Japan Air Lines, then hopped a Pan Am flight to New York. I ate about eight meals a day and decided that everyone looked hopelessly Caucasian, even in Japan. In New York Tuppence went straight to her agent’s office to request a very safe and simple and square booking, and I took a cab to Kitty’s place in Brooklyn and picked up Minna. She was crazy about the jade cat I had brought her, and Kitty went absolutely out of her mind when I gave her the emerald.
“It can’t be real,” she said. “When they’re that size, they’re never real.”
“It’s real,” I told her. “But don’t wear it in Bangkok. It’s hot.”
A few days later I peddled the three other emeralds I had taken. A jeweler on 47th Street gave me more than I had expected for them. I didn’t think the king of Siam would miss a few stones; if he did, he could blame the Pathet Lao or the CIA, whichever he chose. And it was only sensible that I cover expenses. I had lost a load of cash at the guerrilla camp in Thailand and a flashlight battery full of gold in Tao Dan, not to mention all the pounds of me that had gone down the drain in the course of things. A couple of emeralds and a jade kitten seemed reasonable compensation.
Tuppence, for her part, had appropriated a ruby the size of a robin’s egg, which she wore back to the States in her navel.
What else? The Chief saw me, summoning me to the meeting by having some kid pass a note to Minna. I didn’t much care for that. It was bad enough that he bothered me all the time; I didn’t want him involving the child. She handed the note on to me and told me, in Armenian, that all Turks are the swine-loving spawn of the devil. I told her not to believe everything that Kitty’s grandmother told her, and then I went to meet the pudgy man from Washington.
“You continue to amaze me,” he said. “Everybody goes on a mission equipped with a cover story, Tanner. It’s standard procedure. But only you could come out of a mission with still another cover story. You must have handled the opium job in nothing flat.”
“Oh,” I said. I had wholly forgotten that nonsense about the opium.
“We’re starting to get word already. Whoever your connections are, they don’t fool around, do they? Preliminary operations for the cultivation of opium are already underway in extensive stretches of Modonoland. I hadn’t even heard of the damned country until this came up. It was part of either Nigeria or Tanzania until a couple of months ago, when it seceded. The growers have the full cooperation of the Modonoland government, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t pull the rug out from under the Red Chinese opium trade.” He winked. “Of course, we’d hate to be officially involved. Can’t subsidize the opium trade with one hand and lock up a lot of poor little junkies with the other. That’s why it’s so perfect that you kept the whole thing under wraps with the cover story of the Siamese jewels.” He beamed. “Everybody’s happy about this one, Tanner. Right straight up to the top. I mean everybody.”
But everybody wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy, for one. I went back to my apartment, and I looked at the heroin addicts in the streets, and I walked upstairs and sat down and wasn’t happy at all. I tried telling myself it was a coincidence, and that lasted about three days. Then a letter arrived with a Macao postmark, and inside it was a check for one hundred thousand Swiss francs drawn on the Bank Leu in Zurich. A note from Abel said, “One good turn merits another. Autonomy for the Jura!”
So I had done the world a bad turn, and I had in return a piece of paper worth roughly twenty-three thousand American dollars. It bothered me for a long time. I didn’t know what in hell to do with it. Finally I wound up donating half of it to Synanon – they’ve had exceptionally good results treating heroin addicts. And with the remainder I founded an organization aimed at overthrowing the government of Modonoland and burning the opium fields to the ground.
Evan Michael Tanner was conceived in the summer of 1956, in New York ’s Washington Square Park. But his gestation period ran to a decade.
That summer was my first stay in New York, and what a wonder it was. After a year at Antioch College, I was spending three months in the mailroom at Pines Publications, as part of the school’s work-study program. I shared an apartment on Barrow Street with a couple of other students, and I spent all my time – except for the forty weekly hours my job claimed – hanging out in the Village. Every Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square, where a couple of hundred people gathered to sing folk songs around the fountain. I spent evenings in coffeehouses, or at somebody’s apartment.
What an astonishing variety of people I met! Back home in Buffalo, people had run the gamut from A to B. (The ones I knew, that is. Buffalo, I found out later, was a pretty rich human landscape, but I didn’t have a clue at the time.)
But in the Village I met socialists and monarchists and Welsh nationalists and Catholic anarchists and, oh, no end of exotics. I met people who worked and people who found other ways of making a living, some of them legal. And I soaked all this up for three months and went back to school, and a year later I started selling stories and dropped out of college to take a job at a literary agency. Then I went back to school and then I dropped out again, and ever since I’ve been writing books, which is to say I’ve found a legal way of making a living without working.
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