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“Night Mission”

by Michael Jennings

All that dry season, I lived in a two-man cubicle with a big, swart Italian in whose face a cigar seemed a healthily obscene anatomical part. Arnaldo Buonacone and I worked a twelve-hour shift in an aerial reconnaissance shop by the flight line. We sat on tall dunce stools and hunched over tables that had fluorescent bulbs beneath their glass surfaces and reels at either end. Across our light tables we cranked infrared film splotched with the ghosts of troop formations and trucks and equipment-laden water buffalo and elephants moving in darkness down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

You knew the splotches on the film were not the men or machines or beasts moving beneath the jungle canopy, but only the heat they emitted. Yet as you gazed at these images through your stereo viewer, there grew upon you the conviction that you alone saw their essence, their life. You felt it was daylight photography, dependent as vision depends on merely reflected light, that was superficial. You learned that, however dark the night, however dense the foliage, life’s emanation betrays it to those who possess the proper emulsion. Reeling the film across the tables, plugging the altitude and the angle of obliquity into the formulas that yielded dimensions, you felt gifted with preternatural cunning.

As our sweat dripped onto the film in our sweltering trailer by the flight line, we would sometimes stand upright, cursing and rubbing our eyes, trying to decide whether to call a cluster of blobs one hundred probable troops or four probable elephants. But as the weather grew drier and hotter, more often the nighttime traffic along the Trail sated us with a feeling of overabundance.

Twice each shift, Sergeant Baptiste clomped into our trailer to collect the reports that we filled out in block lettering. He would take them off to be transmitted to targeting teams at all four in-country air bases that sent daylight bombing missions over the Trail. He told us word was filtering back that the F-100 pilots who used our work looked pissed-off when they’d finished their missions. He said they felt as if they’d merely plinked plastic ducks that floated out into their field of fire precisely when we’d predicted. We’d stripped them of what they valued most in their job, its risk and uncertainty.

We would get back to the barracks at dawn and stay in bed until the heat and the screeching of jet afterburners and the blaring stereos and the maids’ gabbling drove us out before noon. We found that putting on life jackets and floppy jungle hats and sunglasses and lying submerged to the ears in the big, elevated concrete swimming pool behind the base library was a fair anodyne for grating sleeplessness.

In the mornings Thi-Thi would move swiftly through the barracks with her splayed bare feet thumping heel-first on the floor. Her smile had a dimpled softness that set it apart from the pro forma smiles the other maids wore. I could not attach a name to what I felt when she swung past, carrying her big feather duster, her round face shining, her black hair in an arched ponytail jouncing. Nameless too was the thrill, like the spasm of a strange, deep muscle, when I heard her pant. She was always softly panting.

There was a rule against putting up plywood partitions in the barracks. Our NCOs told us to nail them up anyway, leaving a central fire corridor, and paint them and present the Marine Corps with a fait accompli. Once we’d built our cubicle and Thi-Thi had to venture into our lair to clean, I began to attack her in playful earnest.

“Oh oh oh, Thi-Thi, he’s gotcha now!” Buonacone would boom when I leapt from my pretended doze toward the sound of her panting and grabbed her ankle or wrist, as she dusted or collected our boots for polishing. “Oh oh, I would say that somebody stands in danger of se-vere and repeated violation, Thi-Thi!” As we tussled, Buonacone would re-light the cigar he had left at dawn in the pewter ashtray, shaped like a baseball home plate, atop his footlocker. With his laughter he would bellow forth the foul fumes of twice-smoked tobacco.

Her smile would widen and her panting would quicken and she would battle me nimbly and well. She would brace a foot or a hand against the bed frame and I couldn’t budge her. She would swat me in the face with her feather duster until, blinded and choking, I let her go. Buonacone would grasp his knees and rock back on his bed with glee.

“That’s dousin’ him, Thi-Thi!” he would roar around his erected cigar. “That’s showin’ him the li-bi-di-nal lamp is out!”

Buonacone was from Jersey City, but he’d played catcher and batted cleanup for a college in Connecticut. In his generous Italian heart he harbored the delusion that his teammates could win without him. The scores of college games would come in about noon at the AFN station on the adjoining Army base, but there’d be too many of them to announce over the air. On days when Buonacone expected results for a Braddock College game, he would saunter forth, rocking upward on the balls of his feet, trailing the pungent blue incense of masculine hope.

One morning, after Buonacone ambled off toward the AFN station, chanting a staccato ditty around his teeth-clenched cigar, Thi-Thi thumped into the cubicle and pulled my big toe so hard that it loudly popped.

“Hoi!” she said with a beautiful smile. Then she popped the other big toe and said “Ha!” Next she went through a dumb show of dusting Buonacone’s footlocker while edging an ankle toward me and gleaming at me out of the corner of an eye.

I can’t call the edging forth of the ankle and the gleam either brazen or coy, for they didn’t register on the glib, daylight emulsion that our work had caused to go stale. What did register was her quick panting. It seemed a breathy echo of our nighttimes, of the secret emanations from men and beasts of burden, from radiant metal and crouching jungle predators.

I grabbed the tiny ankle beneath the black pajama leg. She hopped on the unsnared foot to my bed, and sat with the fingers of one hand pressed lightly against my chest.

“Hey – hey – you buy me PX,” she panted.

I wasn’t disappointed. I had no thought of sleeping with her. She had told me she had a husband in the infantry somewhere, and a child. If I had to be rear echelon, I didn’t care to be that kind of rear echelon. What excited me was not her beauty or her possible willingness, but the dark, faltering emanation from her breast.

“Tell me what you want. Baby food?” Because the Army PX humanely stocked it, for the men who kept mistresses.

“Yes, beh-by,” she nodded. “For beh-by. You buy me cig’rette.” She took her fingers from my chest and unfolded the piaster bills she’d held crumpled in the other palm.

Each week I bought her a carton of cigarettes, which she sold, probably at triple profit, on the black market. The one time I simply gave her jars of baby food, she grew so abashed that I decided her way was better. What she wanted as much as the food was the chance to add value through her own enterprise. I settled for pretending the cigarettes cost less than they did, though not so much less that she’d suspect my charity.

During that long dry season I wrote to my ordinary daylight images of two women, images that had to do with the one’s holding a tough news job and with the other’s being much sought after. I wrote to them in good faith, but their images remained less real to me than the dark, guttering flame in Thi-Thi’s breast that made her pant that way.

After the rains set in and traffic on the Trail dwindled to nearly nothing, Buonacone and I got our commendation medals. For about a day and a half, we didn’t feel too bad about that.

“Congratu-laaa-tions!” Sergeant Baptiste said the next night when he clomped up the short flight of steps into the trailer that housed our two-man shop. His gleaming rack of teeth outshone our light tables.

Since the rains started, the glow from the light tables served only to illuminate the pointlessness of our being there at all.  Our pilots had quit running infrared missions. We’d gotten no film for weeks. Each night we’d go to the shop and shoot paper clips at the geckos on our window screens. It’s tough knocking a gecko off a screen that way, but you can do it if it’s a big clip and it hits close enough to the gecko’s head.

At least we could kill time in some comfort. Once our daily deliveries of film stopped, Buonacone scrounged two swivel chairs with backrests from the AFN station, so we wouldn’t have to perch hour after hour on the dunce stools like parrots in a cage.   When we’d been on call six hours, Sergeant Baptiste would clomp up the steps and tell us we could go.

That night, though, he’d appeared just halfway into our on-call shift, and he’d brought a reel of film. He said it was a few weeks old and it had already made the rounds of F-100 squadrons.

“Lookee, lookee!” he said, waggling the metal film canister at us like a strip-teaser waggling her loins. “Nobody north of the DMZ knows it, but you two probably account for more gook soldiers getting blown ass over pith helmet than all B-52 missions flown since Christ was a cadet.  Difference is, none of those bomber crews has a clue what’s down there in sectors they carpet-bomb. You guys tell pilots exactly where to hunt the live meat.”

He gave the film canister another coy little waggle. “Little mama-sans with their dinky little shovels very much included,” he said. “We’ve got aerial and ground-level intel that shows enough of ’em are getting blown sky-high to make it rain pink.”

Buanocone was leaning back in his chair, poised to fire a paperclip. For a while he seemed frozen in aim position. Then he slowly lowered the unfired paperclip and turned his swivel chair with a couple of toe-taps.

“Hey Sarge, you always say we’re your favorite turds, right?” he said.

Sergeant Baptiste opened the film canister. “That’s rii-ight,” he said soothingly. “Two absolutely primo-grade turds. I’d never shit you.”

He fitted the full reel onto a spindle at one end of my light table. He slotted the film’s free end in the takeup reel at the other end and punched the scroll button. It was daylight photography, shot at low enough altitude to make anything taller than a newborn buffalo calf pop into three dimensions when viewed through a stereoscope. Baptiste nudged the stereo viewer on its spindly wire legs to a spot on the film that was circled with a grease pencil.

“That stack there is mostly little mama-sans,” Baptiste said, tapping the spot with a finger. “Look close and you can see their dinky little shovels.”

Through the viewer I could see the pile of corpses. The shovels strewn around it looked like paint chips.

Baptiste said 16- and 17-year old girls volunteered to come down from the North to make overnight road repairs. When a convoy was headed south, the girls would sometimes march a day ahead of it, he said. That way they could repair bomb damage in time for the vehicles to roll right through. He said the CIA had human assets in Laos who’d heard the girls laughing and singing as they marched past.

“Waste of a lot of mousy little poontang, you ask me,” Baptiste said, shaking his head. “But, hey. It wasn’t like you and me were about to get any of that anyway, was it?”

Buonacone pushed himself up from the swivel chair with enough force to propel it backward against the trailer’s wall. He brushed me aside with an arm, then bent to look through the stereo viewer.

“Next convoy must’ve pulled over just long enough to stack ‘em up like that,” Baptiste said. “Just to get them out of the way, you know.”

“So how come you never told us?” Buonacone said, still gazing through the viewer. His voice was a raspy whisper. Then he turned and squinted at Sergeant Baptiste. “You knew, right?”  he said.

“Need to know, my man,” Baptiste said cheerily. “No demonstrated need to know. You could do your job just fine without knowing that.”

“So whenever you told us we were cutting off the head of the snake, this is what it was?” I said. “When we’d ID a leading element with an open gap behind it, and you’d tell us to make time and distance calculations to a next-day intercept point, you were setting us up to kill a bunch of teenage girls?”

Baptiste’s smile tightened a notch. “What was it the colonel said? ‘You played a key role in the elimination of enemy assets.’ That’s all you need to know, right? Hey, Buonacone — you got any of those fine cigars on you today? Think you could spare one?”

Buonacone gave me a long look. I started to shrug, but that felt like a desecration, so I just stared back at him. Finally he fished a cigar from a side pocket of his fatigue blouse. His hand shook.

Baptiste clamped the cigar in his teeth and grinned around it. “Got a light?” he said.

Buonacone’s hand with the lighter shook so hard Baptiste had to move his head around to keep the cigar tip in the flame long enough to get it lit.

After that, things pretty much went to hell between Buanacone and me. It didn’t help that we made the stacked-up corpses of teenage girls a closed subject. The nights in the shop with nothing to do, and then the days when ten steps outside the barracks could drench you to the bone — all that enforced idleness didn’t help either. Nor did thinking about fifty thousand grunts out there in the rain with nothing much to occupy their minds except the jungle rot eating up their feet or what they might run into beyond the next tree line.

I made out all right for a while. I read a lot of Thomas Hardy. I saw that his work, like ours, amounted to a reading-out of night missions that, in the aggregate, started to look like fate.

I got a very short letter from the woman who worked as her newspaper’s police reporter.

“This job is teaching me to rank men by how much I trust them,” she wrote.  “I still rank you at the top.”

I wrote her back a still shorter letter: “Don’t.”

Buonacone got on a weightlifting and boxing jag. One afternoon he came back from the Army gym reeking of Atomic Balm and lay on his bed with his eyes open and just his chest moving.

“You look like Mussolini lying in state,” I told him.

I’d concluded he might as well have been, for conversational purposes, when finally he said:

“Benito never got the chance, pal.”

His voice was as soft as the last voice you expect ever to hear if the associates of the man you’ve double-crossed invite you to take the midwatch air along the docks.

“Benito lay in state in the tummies of a lot-ta lit-tul alley dogs,” he said.

I felt content to let any existential rings from that go on expanding in silence. But I could tell Buonacone’s gauge was way over in the red, so I was braced against the bulkhead when he blew.

“Stinking, filthy, wind-robbing bastards!”

He vaulted out of bed and gave me one glance. He looked as mean as a rhino with an enlarged prostate. Then he grabbed the box of Coronellas from his footlocker and charged out the door. In a little while I heard a toilet flush once, twice, three times.

In the mornings Buonacone left for the gym before Thi-Thi woke me. He’d get back about three o’clock and lie on his bed without talking until it was time to go to chow and then to the shop. He didn’t even have the baseball scores to look forward to any more. Braddock College had closed out its season with six wins and twenty-odd losses.

When Buonacone quit smoking I waited for the other shoe to drop. While I waited, I ran out of Hardy, and then I was down to zip also. I got my dream filter firmly enough in place to block out that stack of dead girls, but once a dream of marching, singing, laughing girls crept in anyway. Sometimes I would start to dream normally, but then the dream would shift to infrared. I might dream of Thi-Thi’s smiling face, and then, like the waning of a moon and the ascendance of some strange dark star, her smile would fade and I would see instead a nebulous, faltering heart. Then the heart would recede and I would see that it beat inside a gecko’s body. Finally a glittering metal object would hit the gecko’s chin and the lizard would fly off into space. The only time I felt certifiably alive was during my daily tussle with Thi-Thi.

So when the other shoe hit for Buonacone I was in no shape to help. He got smashed at the club and went to the steam-and-cream outside the gate. He’d sworn he’d never do that. When he got back he sat on his bed with his face in his hands. I could see the talc on his neck and forearms. After a while I got sick of seeing him like that.

“Look, what’s your grief?” I said. “She bite you? So hurry down to the clap shack while the marks are fresh. Maybe they’ll give you a Purple Heart.”

When he finally took his hands away from his face I saw how bad it was. His face looked like a bloated, ill-proportioned, roadside-art caricature of itself.

“Do you know what I think of you, Pete?” His voice had the dockside hush but it sounded hoarse and broken now.

“I’m curious,” I said. “But I doubt it’s down there deep enough to countermine what I think of you.”

“I think you’re the kind of little yellow buttercup that would shoot himself in the foot the first time you saw a buddy come back down the hill in a rubber bag. I think they ought to rip your chevrons off.”

It dawned on me that he’d simply scooped up and flung a quick shovelful of the doubts that have assailed rear echelon troops ever since Hannibal’s adjutant rounded up enough sad sacks to hold the elephants’ reins while the grunts plunged on into the swamps at Cannae. I understood that. But my insight didn’t make me feel more kindly disposed.

“Now shall we get on to what I think of you?” I said.

“No, because I’m not done yet.”

I waited for him to pour the pesto sauce over what he thought of me.

“I almost said you were too yellow to climb into a ring with me,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s right, pal. I think you’re the kind that’s too yellow to act like a straight-up coward. I think you’ll go about a round and a half and then take your yellow dive.”

Next morning Buonacone woke me by laying a hand gently on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Pete. I was blinko. You take my apology, buddy?”

Somewhere I loved Buonacone at that moment, but we were past the point where that could make a difference.

“You know, Arnaldo, for the first time in many weeks I regret that English lacks an intensive verb form.”

The tenderness in his face congealed like sausage fat in a cold snap.

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because if it had one I could tell you in it to go get as massaged as possible.”

We went to the Army gym. In a small room off the gym floor there was a boxing ring on a platform with canvas stretched across it and sandbags around the edges to hold the canvas taut. Outside the ring was a rack of gloves, wrap tape and padded headgear. Buonacone wrapped his hands quickly and expertly and tossed me the roll of tape. I tossed it back.

“No thanks,” I said.

He hadn’t touched the headgear, but he glanced toward the rack and then raised his eyebrows at me quizzically. “Let’s go,” I said.

We climbed through the ropes. He unclasped the watchband of his Rolex and looped it over a corner post of the ring. We pulled on the gloves.

“Three rounds, two minutes each?” he said.

From his softened tone I understood that we would spar in a gentlemanly semblance of boxing, and that I could check the watch unmolested whenever I wished, and that after three rounds of this swing-and-shuffle kabuki I could quit without disgrace. I remember thinking: time for a little daylight imagery.

“Hey, Arnaldo,” I said. “That little girl who yanked or sucked you off, whichever it was — was she as cute as the ones we wasted?”

I stepped forward and punched him in the eye. I threw another punch and he swatted it aside. He had that pissed-off rhino look again.

After the first minute or so it didn’t hurt at all. It was like getting pelted with toy balloons while riding a roller coaster that snapped your head back and forth. You were still admiring the colors of the balloons when they were coming up at you out of the canvas.

When Buonacone tried to lift me by the shoulders I managed to backhand him with a glove and pull myself up by the ropes. His eyes narrowed and his breath quickened. It was about then that I figured out where this fight needed to take us.

He feinted left and followed with a roundhouse hook. Blood from my nose spattered the canvas. I pointed down at it.

“One hundred probable troops!” I said, laughing. Arnaldo gave me a puzzled frown. Then he laughed too. He lowered his guard, leaving me a clear shot, and I gave him a hard left to the face. He sloshed the blood around in his mouth, then spat a glob of it that landed halfway across the ring. He pointed at it, spattering more blood as he laughed.

“Eight probable buffalo, yoked two-by-two!”

We kept that up, punching each other and spitting blood and giving it the kinds of names we’d written down in block letters all dry season long, based on nothing but mental coin-flips. Finally, when I saw Arnaldo’s nostrils were clogged with blood, I waved at him to cease fire. I pulled off my gloves, pinched his nose with two fingers and stripped blood from his nostrils into my other palm. Then I flung the blood onto the canvas between us.

“Fifty sixteen-year-old girls!” I said, pointing down at the little mound of half-clotted blood. “Their sandbox-size shovels are down in there somewhere too.” We weren’t laughing any more.

“Probable?” Arnaldo said.

“Confirmed.”

Buonacone took his Rolex off the post and climbed through the ropes, and I tossed him my gloves.

“Don’t we need to do something about the blood?” I said.

“Neg-a-tive,” he said. “They’ve got beaucoup canvas.”

I climbed out of the ring and stumbled across the gym’s tile floor, holding out the bottom of my t-shirt to catch the blood dripping from my nose. I kept that up all the way to the barracks, watching the drops of blood bloom in the blazing sunlight, then vanish into the olive drab cloth.

When Buonacone got back, he was carrying a wooden cigar box twice the size of his usual box of Coronellas. He had a swollen, purple eyelid and splits in both lips, and he’d found cotton to stuff up his nose. He sat on his bed without looking at me and levered loose the nail in the box lid with the flat, slotted end of his gun-cleaning rod. From the box he took a slightly crooked and very black cigar. He lit it, and the atmosphere quickly approached a windless day in Newark.

At six o’clock we took our faces to the shop. At midnight, Sergeant Baptiste came to tell us we could go. He clomped up the steps, and for a while he just stood there, staring back and forth between our faces. He looked like he was about to say something when Buonacone whipped out one of his crooked black stogies, stuck it in Baptiste’s mouth and lit it with a steady hand.

Baptiste took two puffs, then bent double in a fit of wheezing coughs. Each wheeze lasted so long you wondered how he could have any breath left to expire. Buonacone leaned over far enough to get face-to-face with him. They would have been eye-to-eye, too, except that Buonacone’s near eye was swollen shut and Baptiste, still coughing his guts out, was staring bug-eyed at the floor.

“Oh oh oh, Sarge, I forgot to say ‘may I,’ didn’t I?” Buonacone said. “My fuckup, okay? I’ll do better next time. Because — see, now you’ve demonstrated a need to know!”

Halfway through the rainy season they started routing us daylight aerial photography of the DMZ for secondary interpretation. It was a snap. If you saw tanks or trucks or bunkers or people, you just wrote down what you saw. No more staring yourself stoned at a string of blobs and shuffling through intel reports and getting interrogation section on the horn to ask if they had anything new on troop movements or Lao tribesmen in that sector, and finally making a guess that you couldn’t even call educated — and suspecting all the while that there wasn’t really anything at all down there that you could fit a name to, but rather some nameless nocturnal essence. We didn’t see any more piled-up corpses, or any sign of an all-girl road crew.

“Good chance the Girl Scouts in Hanoi quit offering that merit badge,” Baptiste said. “None of those little mama-sans was staying alive long enough to sew one on her sash.”

Thi-Thi still set off her primitive digital alarm each day, until the morning our combative dalliance stopped.

“That’s loosening up the old members, Thi-Thi!” Buonacone bellowed when he heard the twin report from my yanked toes. “That’s givin’ him a foretaste of ecs-tasy untold!”

I told him to go catechize the giant rat that frequented the head. He took his toilet kit from his footlocker and said it was no use trying to pin patrimony on him.

Balanced catlike on the balls of his sandaled feet, Buonacone paused in the cubicle doorway, and Arnaldo and Thi-Thi smiled at each other. Both smiles were subdued, but beautiful. It was like seeing two Florentine Madonnas on adjoining walls of a museum, if one of them had an exhumed cigar shoved into its jaw. Then he was gone down the hall, proclaiming he would serve as godfather only if we agreed to the name Antipasto.

When I leapt at Thi-Thi, she hopped on the unsnared foot once before she froze, her hand to her breast, her shoulders hunched as though she were about to cough. But she didn’t cough. When I heard that she wasn’t panting either, I let go of her ankle and held her shoulders. She was still smiling but her eyes looked dry and lost. Then she breathed again, in harsh gasps, and I heard her teeth grind.

I made her sit on the bed. She rubbed the heel of a hand across her breastbone until the gasping subsided.

“Don’t you have some medicine?” I mimed the unscrewing of a bottle cap and the shaking out and swallowing of a pill. From her breast I felt a secret, halting glow, as I would feel the dark glow when I reeled up a nocturnal convoy.

She gave an abashed nod and tried to stand, but I held her arms.

“No. I’ll get it.”

I tried to make her lie down but she said something quick and imploring and swung her feet back to the floor. I went downstairs to the end of the barracks where the maids left their things, and I hunted in her tattered plastic bag. There were shoe polish tins and laundry powder. A jar of rice flecked with meat and peppers. A brush and metal comb for when she would wash her hair in the evening, swinging her wet hair in a gleaming arc back from one of the big metal garbage cans the maids used for laundry and — laughing and gabbling and splashing — for washing their hair between the barracks where the dust from the street wouldn’t reach them. I found two white tablets wrapped in a torn bit of newspaper, and I got a paper cone of water from the cooler downstairs.

From the head of the stairs I could hear Buonacone speaking softly. I stopped short when I turned the corner of our cubicle, and a little water slopped from the paper cone. Buonacone had scooped Thi-Thi up with one arm beneath her knees and the other below her shoulders. He was standing with his back to the doorway, feet apart in a good batter’s stance, rocking her back and forth. Her little bare feet peeked out when he swung her one way, and a bit of ponytail flipped past his shoulder when he swung her the other.

“You’re gonna be okay, Thi-Thi,” he said, in a tone as close to tender as his gravelly voice would stretch. “I gotcha. I gotcha now. We’re not gonna let you die.”