|5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There was only one bench in the shade and converse went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse's nature to worry about his health.
The other occupant of the bench was an American lady of middling age.
It was siesta hour and there was no one else in the park. The children who usually played soccer on the lawns were across the street, sleeping in the shade of their mothers' street stalls. The Tu Do hustlers had withdrawn into the arcade of Eden Passage where they lounged sleepy-eyed, rousing themselves now and then to hiss after the passing of a sweating American. It was three o'clock and the sky was almost cloudless. The rain was late. There was no wind, and the palm crowns and poinciana blossoms of the park trees hung motionless.
Converse glanced secretly at the lady beside him. She was wearing a green print dress and a canvas hat with a sun visor. She had offered him a weary smile upon his sitting down; he wondered if there would be compatrial conversation. Her face was as smooth as a young girl's but gray and colorless so that it was difficult to tell whether she was youthfully preserved or prematurely aged. Her waxen coloring was like an opium smoker's but she did not seem at all the sort. She was reading The Citadel by A. J. Cronin.
The lady looked up suddenly from her book, surprising Converse in mid-appraisal. She was certainly not an opium smoker. Her eyes were clear and warm brown. Converse, whose tastes were eccentric, found her attractive.
"Well," he said in his hearty, imitation-Army accent, "we'll have some weather pretty soon."
Out of politeness, she looked at the sky.
"It's certainly going to rain," she assured him. "But not for a while."
"Guess not," Converse said thoughtfully. When he looked away, she returned to her book.
Converse had come to the park to catch the cool breeze that always came before the rain and to read his mail. He was killing time before his appointment, trying to steady his nerve. He did not wish to appear on the terrasse of the Continental at such an early hour.
He took a small stack of letters from his case and looked them over. There was one from a Dutch underground paper which published in English, asking him for a Saigon piece. There were two checks, one from his fatherin-law and one from a newspaper in Ireland. There was also a letter from his wife in Berkeley. He took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket, wiped the sweat from his eyes, and began to read.
"Well, I went to New York after all," his wife had written, "spent nineteen days there. Took Janey with me and she wasn't really much trouble. I'm back at the theater now in time for a brand new beaver special which is the most depressing flick this place has put on yet. Everybody here says hello and take care of yourself.
"New York was pretty scary. Forty-second Street is incredible now. It makes Three Street feel nice and homely. You'll find it a lot less pleasant the next time you go buy a hot dog at that place on Broadway you used to go to. I went there out of spite anyway — shit like that doesn't bother me as much as it does you. Also I rode on the subway which I bet you wouldn't do.
"Took Janey up to Croton for a visit with Uncle Jay and his Hudson River Bolsheviks. We went to a National Guardian party and that really took me back, with all the folk singers and the tame spades. We ate somebody's idea of Mex food and there were mariachis from the Puerto Rican Alps and people telling stories about how Sequeiros was their buddy. No spicy stories for you this time because I didn't make it with anybody. If Gallagher was there I might have made it with him but he wasn't. Everybody's pissed at him up there."
Looking up, Converse saw a street photographer in a Hawaiian shirt advancing toward his bench. He put up his hand in a gesture of refusal and the man turned back toward Eden Passage. The Tu Do Street cowboys had come out from wherever they spent their siestas and were revving up their Hondas. There was still no breeze.
Converse read on:
"The heaviest thing that happened while we were in New York was we went to a parade which was for the War. Three of us — me, looking relatively straight, and Don and Cathy looking modified freaky. We weren't too well received. You had to see that action to believe it. There were eight million flags and round little Polish priests goose-stepping around with their Boy Bugle Corps, Ukrainians with sabers and fur hats, German Veterans of the Warsaw Ghetto Battle, the Brotherhood of Former Concentration Camp Guards, the Sons of Mussolini, the Baboons Union. Incredible. My flash was that these people are freakier than we ever could be. One tends to think of them as straight but when you see them they're unreal. I had this snoutface meatyard accost me — 'The rats are coming out of their holes,' he said. I told him, 'Listen mother, my husband is in Vietnam.'" Converse looked up from the letter again and found himself staring vacantly at the lady beside him.
The lady smiled.
"Letter from home?"
"Yes," Converse said.
"When I was up in Croton, Jay asked me if I knew what was going on. With everything. He said he didn't understand anything that was going on at all. He said maybe he should take drugs. Sarcastically. I told him he was damn right he should. He said that drugs condition the intellect to fascism and came on about C. Manson and said he would rather die than surrender his intellect. He also said he didn't need dope which is a laugh because if there was ever one man who needed it bad it's him. I told him that if he'd turned on he'd never have been a Stalinist. He brings out the sadist in me. Which is weird because he's really such a nice man. Our argument reminded me of when I was a kid me and Dodie were walking with him when we passed an integrated black and white couple. Jay dug the shit out of that naturally because it was so progressive, and he wants to show us kids. 'Isn't that nice?' he says. Dodie, who couldn't have been more than ten says 'I think it's disgusting.' Dodie could always play him like a pinball machine."
Converse folded the letter and looked at his watch. The lady beside him had set down her A. J. Cronin.
"Everything fine with your folks?"
"Oh yes," Converse said, "fine. Family visits and things."
"It's easier for you fellas to do your jobs when you know everything's all right back home."
"I find that's true," Converse said.
"You're not with AID, are you?"
"No." He sought for a word. "Bao chi."
Bao chi was what the Vietnamese call journalists. Converse was a journalist of sorts.
"Oh yes," the lady said. "Been here long?"
"Eighteen months. And you. Have you been here long?"
Converse was unable to conceal his horror.
There were faded freckles in the gray skin under the lady's eyes. She seemed to be laughing at him.
"Don't you like this country?"
"Yes," Converse answered truthfully. "I do."
"Where I make my home," she told Converse, "it's not nearly so hot as it is here. We've got pine trees. People say it's like northern California, but I've never been there."
"That must be up around Kontum."
"South of there. Ngoc Linh Province."
Converse had never been to Ngoc Linh Province; he knew very few people who had. He had flown over it, and from the air it looked thoroughly frightening, a deep green maze of iron-spine mountains. The clouds were full of rocks. No one went there, not even to bomb it, since the Green Berets had left.
"We call it God's country," the lady said. "It's sort of a joke."
"Aha." Converse wondered if all the flesh of her body were the same dingy gray as the skin of her face and if there were any more faded freckles in it. "What do you do up there?"
"Well," the lady said, "there are five different languages spoken by tribespeople up around us. We've been doing language studies."
Converse looked into her mild eyes.
"You're a missionary."
"We don't call ourselves that way. I suppose some people would."
He nodded in sympathy. They never like the term. It suggested imperialism and being eaten.
"It must be ..." Converse tried to think of what it must be ... "very satisfying."
"We're never satisfied," the lady said gaily. "We always want to do more. I think our work's been blessed though we've certainly had our trials."
"That's part of it, isn't it?"
"Yes," the lady said, "it's all part of it."
"I've been to northern California," Converse told her, "but I've never been to Ngoc Linh."
"Some people don't like it there. We always loved it. I've only been away for a day and I'm already missing it so."
"Going to the States?"
"Yes," she said. "For only three weeks. It'll be my first time back."
Her smile was mild but resolute.
"My husband was back last year, just before he was taken from us. He said it was all so odd. He said people wore wide colorful neckties."
"A lot of people do," Converse said. Taken? "Especially in the big cities."
He had begun to sense a formidable strength in the lady's bearing. She was quite literally keeping her chin up. Softness in the eyes, but what depths? What prairie fires?
"In what sense," he asked, "was your husband taken?"
"In the sense that he's dead." Clear-voiced, clear-eyed. "They'd left us pretty much alone. One night they came into our village and took Bill and a fine young fella named Jim Hatley and just tied their hands and took them away and killed them."
"God. I'm sorry."
Converse recalled a story he had been told about Ngoc Linh Province. They had come into a montagnard hootch one night and taken a missionary out and tied him up in a mountain shelter. To his head they fixed a cage in which a rat had been imprisoned. As the rat starved, it began to eat its way into the missionary's brains.
"He was a happy man all his life. No matter how great your loss is, you have to accept God's will with adoration."
"God in the whirlwind," Converse said.
She looked at him blankly for a moment, puzzled. Then her eyes came alight.
"Land, yes," she said. "God in the whirlwind. Job Thirty-seven. You know your Bible."
"Not really," Converse said.
"Time's short." The languor was leaving her voice and manner, but for all the rising animation no color came into her face. "We're in the last days now. If you do know your Bible, you'll realize that all the signs in Revelations have been fulfilled. The rise of Communism, the return of Israel ..."
"I guess it looks like that sometimes." He felt eager to please her.
"It's now or never," she said. "That's why I hate to give up three weeks, even to Bill's parents. God's promised us deliverance from evil if we believe in His gospel. He wants us all to know His word."
Converse discovered that he had moved toward her on the bench. A small rush of admiration, desire, and apocalyptic religion was subverting his common sense. He felt at the point of inviting her ... inviting her for what? A gin and tonic? A joint? It must be partly the fever too, he thought, raising a hand to his forehead.
"Deliverance from evil would be nice."
It seemed to Converse that she was leaning toward him.
"Yes," she said smiling, "it certainly would. And we have God's promise."
Converse took his handkerchief out and cleared his eyes again.
"What sort of religion do they have up in Ngoc Linh? The tribespeople, I mean."
She seemed angry.
"It's not a religion," she said. "They worship Satan."
Converse smiled and shook his head.
"You don't believe in Satan?" She did not seem surprised.
Converse, still eager to please, thought about it.
"It's always surprised me," she said softly, "things being what they are and all, that people find it so difficult to believe in Satan."
"I suppose," Converse said, "that people would rather not. I mean it's so awful. It's too spooky for people."
"People are in for an unpleasant surprise." She said it without spite as though she were really sorry.
A breeze came from the river carrying the smell of rain, stirring the fronds and blossoms and the dead air. Converse and the lady beside him relaxed and received the wind like a cooling drink. Monsoon clouds closed off the sky. Converse looked at his watch and stood up.
"I've enjoyed talking to you," he said. "I've got to move on now."
The lady looked up at him, holding him with her will.
"God has told us," she said evenly, "that if we believe in Him we can have life eternal."
He felt himself shiver. His fever was a bit alarming. He was also aware of a throbbing under his right rib. There was a lot of hepatitis around. Several of his friends had come down with it.
"I wonder," he said, clearing his throat, "if you'll be in town tomorrow would you care to join me for dinner?" Her astonishment was a bit unsettling. It would have been better, he considered, if she had blushed. Probably she couldn't blush. Circulation.
"It's tonight I'm leaving. And I really don't think I'd be the sort of company you'd enjoy. I suppose you must be very lonely. But I think I'm really a lot older than you are."
Converse blinked. A spark from the Wrath.
"It would be interesting, don't you think?"
"We don't need interesting things," the lady said. "That's not what we need."
"Nice trip," Converse said, and turned toward the street. Two moneychangers came out of Eden Passage and moved toward him. The lady was standing up. He saw her gesture with her hand toward the moneychangers and the arcade and the terrasse of the Continental Hotel. It was a Vietnamese gesture.
"Satan," she called to him, "is very powerful here."
"Yes," Converse said. "He would be."
He walked past the moneychangers and on to the oily sidewalk of Tu Do Street. Afternoon swarms of Hondas crowded in the narrow roadway, manned by ARVNs in red berets, mascaraed bar girls, saffron-robed monks, priests in stiff black soutanes. The early apéritif crowd was arriving on the terrasse; an ancient refugee woman displayed her cretinous son across the potted shrubbery to a party of rednecked contractors at a table overlooking the street.
Across the square from the terrasse was the statue of two Vietnamese soldiers in combat stance which, from the positioning of the principal figures, was locally known as the National Buggery Monument. The National Buggery Monument, as Converse passed it, was surrounded by gray-uniformed National Policemen who were setting up barricades on a line between the statue and the National Assembly building beside it. They were expecting a demonstration. They had been expecting one for weeks.
Converse walked the several blocks to Pasteur Street and hailed a taxi, taking care not to signal with the Offending Gesture. As he was compressing himself into the ovenlike space of the little Citroën, the rain broke.
"Nguyen Thong," he told the driver.
The monsoon battered them as they drove in the direction of Tansonhut; the rain darkened the ocher walls of the peeling villas and glistened on the bolls of barbed wire along the curbs. The Arvin sentries in front of the politicians' houses ducked into their tarpaulin shelters.
It was a drive of about fifteen minutes to Nguyen Thong, and by the time they pulled up to the end of the alley where Charmian lived, the potholes were filled to overflowing.
Blinded by rain, Converse waded through the ruts until he stood struggling with the latch on Charmian's gate. When he was inside he saw her sitting on the verandah watching him. The bleached white jellaba she wore, with her straight blond hair hanging back over the cowl, made her look like a figure of ceremony, as though she were there to be sacrificed or baptized. He was glad to see her smiling. When he came onto the porch, she stood up from her wicker chair and kissed him on the cheek. She had come from the shower; her body smelled of scented Chinese soap.
"Hi," Converse said. "The man been here?"
"Sure enough," she said. She led him into the enormous room where she slept and which she had filled with Buddhas and temple hangings and brass animals bought in Phnom Penh. Her house was half of a villa which had been owned by a French brewer in colonial days. She was always finding old family photographs and novena cards in odd corners of the place.
"The man been," she said. She lit a joss stick, waved it about and set it down in an ashtray. They could hear her washing lady singing along with the radio in the wash house across the back garden.
"You're high," Converse said.
"Just had a little hash with Tho. Want some?" Converse shook his head.
"Weird time to get high."
"John," Charmian said, "you're the world's most frightened man. I don't know how you live with yourself."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dog Soldiers"
Copyright © 1994 Robert Stone.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
About the Author,