2002 Graduate Fiction Winner
Dennis C. Martin
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean:
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Since Shawn Hardin had only three weeks left to serve on his tour of duty, his company commander told him he could spend his remaining time in the company area, cleaning weapons, filling sandbags, and shoring up the battered flack walls that surrounded the hooches. Returning from the mess hall with a large bag of sausages for the dogs, he decided to work outside on the walls in the morning and then come in to clean the weapons when the Vietnamese sun became insufferable.
Shawn turned toward the last hooch, planning to feed the dogs on his way. He knew where they would be. Alkie, the big female, and her constant companion, little blond-haired Smitty, would be found lying in the limited shade on the north side of the fourth hooch. A wooden box containing rat poison sat near the corner of the building.
“Chuot Chat Doc,” it read, spelled out in red letters on a yellow background. He laughed. It didn’t work. He had seen the rats gorging themselves on the white powder like it was buttered popcorn, and in the rainy season, when they were desperate, he’d even seen them eating the wooden boxes.
The dogs were where he thought they would be, and as he fed them the sausages, he sat in the sand talking softly to Alkie, telling her how much he was going to miss her.
“You’re one tough old girl,” he said. “I sure wish I could get you out of this hellhole.”
Alkie was the company dog, arguably the toughest dog on the Nha Trang airbase and she certainly earned her keep. She was always sure money in a dogfight, but more importantly, she just loved to kill rats. Alkie was big and broad-shouldered with short caramel hair. Her neck was thick and she was powerful, and when she walked she strutted with a swaying stiff-legged gait.
He remembered one night during the monsoon season; a large rat had fallen from a beam crossing the middle of the hooch and landed on the floor, scurrying about until finally lodging itself behind a sheet of plywood nailed to the screening of the wall. The startled men jumped up on their bunks in a fright, grabbing their weapons, wanting to shoot at the rat until they realized the damage that a ricocheting round glancing off the concrete floor could do.
“No! Don’t shoot!” one soldier cried out. Finally, one of the men ran outside yelling, “Rat, Alkie, rat!” The door was held open. Alkie suddenly appeared out of the darkness, strutting wide-legged and wild eyed with spittle already running from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were bulging and searching, and she suddenly started whining loudly in a rising and falling wail. She could hear the rat crawling and tearing at the wood and screen. She knew it was trapped, but she couldn’t get to it. She started whining and wailing, higher and higher in frustration, and when the rat heard her cries, it started clawing and scraping about in a panicked frenzy.
The men, still standing on their bunks, started egging her on. “Rat, Alkie, rat.. .get him, Alkie, get him!” they screamed. Alkie started rearing up, whining, and clawing at the piece of plywood, trying to pull it off the wall. Suddenly, she leaped up, sinking her upper canines into the top edge of the wood, and in one swift motion, she jerked her massive head and body backwards, wrenching the plywood from the wall. It crashed to the ground with a swift thud, and Alkie was on the rat in an instant, biting it right across its big body. She shook it three times; each time crushing shut her muscular jaws. Then she turned toward the men with the rat in her mouth to proudly display her handiwork. Dark blood and milky fluids oozed from the rat’s wounds and dripped from the sides of Alkie’s mouth. One man after another cried out in disgust— “Oh, God!”—“Oh, shit!”—“Get it out of here, Alkie. . .get it out!”
One soldier, standing like a stork on the end bunk, pushed open the back screen door with the end of his M16, and Alkie pranced out into the night with her prize, trailing a stream of guts and blood across the concrete floor.
“Ah, Christ,” another soldier said, “I can smell that already.”
As the nauseating odor started rising from the floor, one man after another recoiled from the stench.
“Hell, let’s sleep outside,” Shawn said. He and the other men gathered up their bedding and poncho liners, climbed up on the flack walls, and then stepped onto the tin roof of the hootch. They settled in, wrapping themselves up like mummies from head to toe so the ever-present swooping bats wouldn’t land in their hair, and went to sleep in the lightly falling rain. All through the night, the fresh, wet drops of rain fell softly on his face. Shawn didn’t mind the rain. It made him feel clean.
Yes, he’d miss old Alkie, he told himself. He left the dogs and walked on toward the last company hootch, which bordered the medic’s row of hootches. Just as he started nailing the flack walls, he saw his medic friend Howie pull up in a jeep on the backside of the hootch.
“Howie, what’s goin’ on?” Shawn yelled as his friend approached.
Howie went tearing into his hootch crying out, “Where’s my camera! Where’s my damn camera when I need it! Shawn! Shawn!” Howie called out from inside.
“You’ve got to come with me! You’ve got to see this! You’re not gonna believe it!” Howie came flying out of his hooch, sliding the strap of his Nikon over his head.
“Put that stuff down, come on!” Howie demanded, grabbing Shawn by the arm pulling him toward the jeep. “I’m going to show you the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in your life!”
“What is it?” Shawn asked.
“Oh, no. You’ve got to see this with your own eyes.”
They jumped into the jeep and went whirring down the orange dirt road toward the dispensary. Shawn’s curiosity began piquing quickly, because he could see that Howie, who was not usually excitable, was worked up to a fevered pitch over whatever it was.
Howie pulled the jeep up next to the back door of the dispensary, placed his finger to his lips to indicate silence, and motioned to Shawn to follow him. Moving down the empty hail, they opened the first door on the left, and Howie, then Shawn, entered. Both men stood still as their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room. At first Howie was blocking Shawn’s view, but as Howie moved to the end of a large bed to adjust the focus on his camera, Shawn beheld a remarkable sight. In front of him on a wide gurney lay a Montagnard with his muscular arms resting by his side and his short legs spread open.
“We put him out,” Howie whispered.
As Howie began taking pictures, the flash of the camera acted like a strobe light, giving periodic illumination to the scene. Shawn could see bottles hanging off the bed and two tubes running into the man’s arm. He moved closer, seeing better with each flash of Howie’s camera. From his head to his crotch the man looked normal, but where his testicles should have been, a big bulbous sack of dark wrinkled skin now existed. It ran down well below the man’s knees, rose above the height of his thighs and covered all the area between his widely spread legs. Both men stood silently looking on in amazement, gazing at the pulpy mass. After a few moments, Howie moved to the door, tugging the back of Shawn’s fatigue shirt as he went by. Both men left the room as quietly as they had entered. Driving away, they said nothing at first. It was Howie who eventually broke the silence.
“What’d I tell you? Is that the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?”
“What the hell is it?” Shawn asked.
“It’s called elephantiasis,” Howie said.
“What causes it?”
“An infection from parasitic worms.
“Worms made his skin thicken and grow like that?”“That’s right,” Howie said.
“It did look like elephant skin. How’d he get here?”
“The ROKs heard about him from some Montagnards up in the highlands. They found him laid out in his hut and wanted to help him, so they called us for a medevac. We brought him in a few hours ago.”
“What happens now?” Shawn asked. “What are they going to do to him?”
Howie pulled the jeep to a stop, turned toward Shawn, and said, “Cut it off.”
“Cut it off!”
“That’s right. That’s all they can do, now. It’s gone way too far. It’s that or he’ll die.”
“The poor bastard,” Shawn said, as he stepped from the jeep, shaking his head in disbelief. Howie drove away, throwing up a swirling cloud of red dirt behind him.
Shawn had been nailing the wooden slats back on the flack walls for only a short period of time before he stood up and leaned back into the wall. Clusters of sand burrs stuck to his sleeve. He carefully pried one after another free from his arm, working unconsciously, lost in his thoughts. He was thinking about the Montagnard— and about going back to that world called home. He unconsciously dropped the hammer in the sand, then turned and started walking down the road back toward the dispensary. He had something that needed to be taken care of. He needed to see Howie.
Trucks and jeeps, belching nauseous black smoke, passed him in both directions. He pressed on, stepping over shallow holes and gullies of oil and diesel fuel. The air tasted like creosote as the acrid scent of napalm drifted over from the airstrip. It crawled up into his sinuses, stinging and burning. The smell swirled in the air in a fight for dominance with the disgusting stench of rotting fish heads. The villagers that lived near the perimeter were cooking with nuc mahm, that pungent oil born of fish decay and fermentation. He wondered if he would ever get that rancid taste out of his sinuses or if he would carry that foul scent imbedded in his skin and the cells of his mucous membranes forever.
He slowed his pace as he approached the long white building of the dispensary. To the left, a road ran a short distance to the side gate of the airbase. The Siclo girls were there already. Their black silk slacks and colorful red and yellow aoi dais stood out starkly against the white walls of the guard shack. Their perfume wafted seductively in the air, and from under the colorful umbrellas that they held up against the midday sun, their dark luring eyes tempted and invited.
“Stay away from the pretty ones,” his friends had warned him when he first arrived in country: “They all have the clap.”
He turned away from the scene at the gate and closed the short distance to the medics’ building. “Howie’s good with a needle,” he kept telling himself. “Howie’ll take care of everything,” he kept saying out loud. “Home’s only three weeks away,” he kept repeating. And he thought, and he thought, and he worried.
He was worried sick about going home. He was worrying about the whores, the Siclo girls, and the jungle. Lately he had been having dreams about Becky, his girlfriend back home. He kept remembering that summer day at the quarry when they made love for hours in a sleeping bag and how they walked naked, hand in hand, to the rock edge and jumped into the cool green water. He kept remembering how he hung on to a rock outcropping while she wrapped her legs and arms around him and clung to him as he kept them both afloat. He kept remembering how fresh and cool and clean they felt dangling there.
He entered the building, walked down the hail, and turned into Howie’s small office. “Howie, you alone?” he called.
“Yeah, come on in—close the door,” Howie answered.
Shawn sat in a chair next to a big metal desk. Howie stood gazing out the window at the gate and the Siclo girls while carefully putting vials of medicine into a wall rack.
“Look at those girls,” Howie said. “GIs bring them in here to get shots for the clap, and boom—three weeks later, they’ve got it again.”
Shawn said nothing, but looked over at the wall rack with all the vials.
“Christ! It’s amazing we don’t flat run out of penicillin,” Howie continued, pointing out the window. “Some of those girls out there have chancroids. . .most have the clap.. .why, some even have syphilis. God, I can’t wait to get out of this filthy country.”
“Howie, that’s why I came back up here to see you. We’re both leaving here in a couple of weeks, and I’m worried as hell about going home.”
“Worried about what?” Howie asked.
“Look, I don’t want to take any diseases back to the States. I don’t even want to think that it’s a possibility.” Shawn kept eyeing the hundreds of vials in the rack on the wall.
“You’re probably all right,” Howie said. “You’re probably already clean. I’ve pumped enough penicillin in you this last year to clean out a water buffalo.”
“Maybe so, but I want to be sure. I want to be certain,” Shawn said, his eyes transfixed on the rack of vials.
“Howie is there some kind of super shot that will kill everything?”
“Well...” Howie hesitated for a moment. “Ampicillin is pretty strong. It’ll damn near kill anything. But it’s a nasty, painful shot. I’ve had people get sick, pass out, and have bad reactions to it.”
Shawn gazed at the rack of vials again, running his fingers across his lips in contemplation. He looked down at the floor and closed his eyes. He could almost see the streets that ran down to the water in his hometown. He could almost smell the balmy spring freshness of Lake Erie blowing inland on the northwest wind. He slowly opened his eyes as if awakening from a dream.
“I want the shot, Howie,” he said. There was a tone of pleading in his voice. “I don’t care about the pain. I need to be sure. Do it as a last favor for me.”
Howie told him not to look at the needle. Shawn leaned over the large gray metal desk, with his pants around his thighs, holding a big metal wastebasket in his hands. He felt the needle go in.. .and in.. .and in. He felt a sensation of mass as the fluid was pumping into him, a feeling as if a baseball was being forced inside his left buttock. A hot flash ran up through him to his head. Sweat poured from him as he sagged, forcing his head into the wastebasket, gagging and heaving. He collapsed on the desk, fighting for consciousness. He felt Howie’s hand on his back, and from somewhere distant he heard his voice saying, “Hold on, Shawn. . .not much longer.” The needle felt even longer coming out. His breaths turned into short gasps. Soon, Howie had cold, wet towels on him and was pouring cold water on his head and neck.
He had been a mess, sprawled over that big desk, throwing up into a cold metal wastebasket. But it was over now. He felt much better. His mind was at ease. He knew he was clean.
He left the dispensary, favoring one hip, and turned away from the road to the gate, intending instead to go the back way to the company area, hoping for some fresher air. He was locked in his thoughts as he neared the outside perimeter and the fickle wind shifted, carrying toward him the sickening rankness of rotting flesh from the shallow graves of a Vietnamese cemetery. His tongue curled up in the back of his throat and his eyes squinted shut. He gagged, put his hand over his mouth, and quickly moved on. As he walked, he kept thinking about the last year, replaying it like a bad dream that would not end, with scenes turning over again and again in his mind.
There was something happening to him, something he couldn’t fully cornprehend. He wanted to leave— et he really didn’t want to go. And he couldn’t stop thinking. He thought about the dogfights, and he thought about the Siclo girls. He thought about the young kids playing with a lizard amidst the dirt and barbed wire. And he thought about the poor Montagnard with the elephantine balls. He thought about the rats and the bats. He though about the first time he saw that woman dressed in black silk pants squatting on the side of the busy road, pulling her crotch flap to the side and pissing a single yellow jet of water into the orange dirt. He thought about how he knew at that moment that he had entered a whole new world—a world that would change him forever. He thought about himself, and he was worried. He thought about where he was going in three weeks, and he thought he just might be more afraid about going home than he was about coming over here to begin with. And he thought about his neighborhood with the neat houses and trim lawns and clean streets with curbs. And he thought about the street-cleaning machine with its big brushes and its jetting streams of water. And he thought about his house that his mother kept immaculate. And he thought about Becky. And he thought about Becky, and how she would be coming through the front door of his house to see him again very—very—soon. And he thought about Becky, about the fresh, clean, smell of her.
He entered the company area. The dogs were still lying in the partial shade. No one was about. He walked toward the latrine as if pulled by an undertow. He stopped at the door, untied his boots, and took them off. He slipped off his socks, shed his shirt, pants, and underwear, and stood there dark-skinned and naked in the sweltering Indochina sun. He absently let his clothes drop in the sand.
As he entered the latrine, he kept saying to himself, over and over: “Home is only three weeks away...home is only three weeks away.” He needed to take a shower. He needed to take a shower. He wanted to feel the cool, fresh water washing over him. He wanted to feel—clean.
Dennis C. Martin, winner of the 2002 Touchstone Graduate Contest for Fiction, received his Master of Arts degree in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University. Mr. Martin is also a Vietnam Veteran.
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
May 1, 2003
May 1, 2003