“How do you know,” Willy asked the black man next to him at the bar on Lombard Street, “I’m not a spy who checks out guys who try to get soldiers to desert?”
Willy was in the early stage of drinking, three beers for him, when body and mind are treble and bass, and nothing too weird to deal with.
“Because I'm the spy who checks out guys who try to get GIs to desert,” said the man, an officer of some kind (Willy could tell) who had for the last half beer been suggesting that desertion was acceptable military behavior.
“So — you’re practicing being the guy you’re looking for so you’ll know him when you see him? Or aren’t there enough deserters that you gotta drum up trade?” Beer can be a scientific instrument.
The alarm on the man’s watch went off again. He shot it out of his sleeve. The watch was an underwater, overwater, stratospheric, military chronometer with six dials, cased in rubber-steel alloy, and powered by a dime-size nuclear power plant.
“Six minutes,” he said. “A GI deserts from the U.S. Armed Forces every six minutes. You’re still here, so it must not be you.”
“You hang around in bars and every time your thing goes off you look to see if someone’s splitting for Canada?”
“A joke, Willy.”
“And you know my name because.”
“You sort of stand out.”
“Why do you think because.”
“Because I’m the only soldier at the Presidio who’s two months out of Basic and never gets sent anywhere for active anything.”
“Almost gets sent but at the last minute isn’t.”
They drank in silence for what had to be six minutes because the man’s thing went off again. Willy jumped.
“Bothering you?” asked the man. “Point is, I got no shortage of deserters, but in your case I’ll make an exception.”
“Because?” Willy’s certainty was losing its chemical edge.
“I didn’t tell you to desert, I told you your first thirty days of touring the mountainous beauties, and you do appreciate mountainous beauties —”
Willy wished the man would not bring Mona into the conversation.
“— of British Columbia are considered an absence. After which, contrary to myth, you have not deserted, but administratively deserted, so long as you have in your possession physical evidence of your intent to eventually return.”
“Army belt, fatigue cap. You cannot be prosecuted for desertion. Better here than Nam.”
“I’m never going to Nam.”
“How do you know?”
“Sorry. Need to Know. ”
“I need to know.”
“You’ll be the last to know. Like dying. Everyone knows you’re dead before you do.”
Willy worked on that one until the next man deserted from the Armed Forces. “Will you shut that thing off?” he asked. “Makes me nervous.”
The man pressed one of seven chronometrical buttons.
“Were you in Nam?” Willy asked. The man nodded.
“Kill any gooks?”
“Never ask that.”
“You'll either get punched or told.”
“Do I get to choose?” For some reason Willy thought that hilarious.
“In your case, it’s relevant.”
“Who you killed?”
“Goes to motive.”
Willy assumed auditory at ease. He might learn something. Guys out of Basic used to meet Vietnam vets, but now the brass kept them segregated, hustled vets off the plane to bases where there were no boots to talk to.
“First guy I killed was a U.S. Marine.”
“Ran over him. 65th Engineers sent us up by Ca Lu to carve out an LZ for the Marines. LZ Ball Sac, after the CO’s favorite author. We drove in after dark, didn’t know anyone was there, nevermind Marines asleep by the trail. I ran one over, squashed him flat. Funny thing was.”
“We came up there to help them and I mashed him with a Rome Plow.”
“A Cat with a plow type thing. Second guy I killed was a retard.”
Willy stuck his index finger in the neck of the Bud, rolled the base of the bottle back and forth on the bar.
“Gook from the vil. They weren’t allowed out at night.”
“Gooks. He came out across the rice paddy and his low IQ didn’t exactly glow in the dark. His gookness, however, was obvious, so the lieutenant said shoot him so I did.”
Willy tried to regulate the flow of beer from the bottle, held aloft upside down on his finger, by wiggling the finger and sucking the beer as it flowed down his knuckles.
“The third guy I killed was a ARVN. Couple of them was hitching with us. They’re all queer, the ARVN.”
“They’re little, like girls. Hold hands with each other. Keep their wives on base. Don’t fight VC. Get their asses kicked when they do.”
“Nah. You swish, you’re not a fag, cause you got the courage of your convictions. You know they’re fag cause they’re chicken to act fag.”
“So this guy.”
“Put his hand on my knee. Like this. I pushed his ass off the back of the truck and he went under the half-track behind.”
“Are there more?” asked Willy.
“You don’t have to tell me all of em.”
“That wasn’t the point anyway. The point was after those three I noticed the change in my platoon. No. It was after we stomped the baby.”
“Really you don’t have to.”
“The baby, see, was funny in a sort of hmmh and I think the humor was what made the change, or made me see the change.”
The baby story seemed unstoppable. Willy signalled the bartender for two more.
“We were riding through a shithole friendly vil which we were supposed to destroy so the gooks could move to a New Life Village. Slum clearance really, and a halftrack knocked over a 50-gallon, a 50-gallon thing —”
“— they were cooking in and it set fire to this hooch. The mamasan was all bent out of shape so we ran inside and stomped out the fire like a volunteer fire brigade. But the mamasan went nuts screaming like she didn’t appreciate the gesture but we stomped the fire out anyhow and it turned out we didn’t know it but in the smoke and shit we stomped all over her nine-month-old baby and killed it.”
Willy pursed his lips for more than a moment, a moment and a half, maybe two moments.
“You have to see the humor in it,” said the man.
“What I meant was did you ever kill any VC?”
“Not what you’d call combatants. Anyway the point was how the platoon changed”
“First was a Fucking New Guy, white kid from Arkansas, that I noticed was different.”
Willy did not say, “Different?” but the man answered him anyway.
“Yeah, different. He was the same guy but different.”
“Same acting. Same talking, same everything. He was Bud Sanders but he wasn’t Bud Sanders. He replaced Bud Sanders and the new Bud Sanders was someone else.”
“Who?” said Willy, or “Hoo” or “Whew.”
“The guy I squashed with the Rome Plow.”
“If I meant ghost I’d of said ghost. A fraud, a pretender.”
“Posing as Bud Sanders.”
“Like a spy?” Be helpful.
“You’re not connecting. The next guy was the Sergeant in my squad. He was all a sudden not himself.”
“Funny in the head?”
“Stop trying so hard. Replaced. Get it?”
“Your sergeant was replaced. Are you talking about the soul? Somebody else’s soul in the sergeant’s body?”
“Could be. I never got the science down. But I figured out who it was.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“Cause how it happened is not the explanation. The explanation comes at the end, not when some asshole in a bar asks for it.”
That made a kind of two-thirds-of-a-six-pack sense to Willy.
“The third guy was my buddy Cliff. You can’t fool a buddy. We had the same birthday, March 24, we were like white on teeth, he was meaning to introduce me to his sister in Detroit. So when I knew he was replaced, I kept my eye on him, come up on him from behind, catch him unawares, try to get who he was.”
“How would you know to recognize who it was?”
“Stop it. Stop stop stop. This is not your story. I don’t know. Maybe who it was would turn out to be a movie star or Jackie Robinson. Who knows? Moms Mabley. But who it turned out to be totally fucked me up.”
Under torture, Willy could not have explained anything at this point.
“The baby. The one we stomped.”
Nuts, dingaling, wacko, fruitcake, bughouse, bonkers, screwball, loonybin, squirrely, nobody home, not all there, bats. Willy was pissed.
“You never saw the baby,” said Willy. “It was burned up. You said so. You wouldn’t have killed it if you saw it, so you didn’t see it.”
“Have you ever seen Australia?” the man asked.
“But you know it’s there.”
“The baby was Cliff. The baby was impersonating, faking, being my buddy Cliff. He was Cliff and he was the fucking baby being Cliff.”
Willy did not ask the man at the bar on Lombard Street if he had consulted professionals on this matter. But he did say, “You don’t even know if the baby was a boy.”
“The only reason I’m telling you this is for another reason,” said the man. “And it don’t matter if the boy was a boy or a hermaphrodite or spoke English or was dead. Think about it.”
Only if he had to.
“I studied on them all the time, because what could be more important than who was impersonating them? Usually I had to look them straight in the eyes, which spooks guys, so I’d pretend to have something in my eye and ask them to look in or put eye drops and then I’d get a good look. But once I got on to the pattern, I could just get up close and sense it out. Bud Sanders, the FNG, was impersonated by the GI I mashed. The retard from the vil was doing the sergeant. The engineer was replaced by the queer ARVN, Cliff was the baby.”
“That is a pattern.”
“So you comprehend the implication. When the entire platoon was replaced by people I killed, which it was in about eight months, then either the next one I killed replaced me, or I would have to kill myself and replace me in order to stay me.”
He knows my name, thought Willy. I can’t bash him in the head with the bottle and run.
“So I deserted. I deserted so well, from Ca Lu to Hue to Saigon to Bangkok to Tokyo to Paris to Stockholm, that they sent representatives to visit me in Sweden offering to drop the charges, give me a promotion, put me in charge of detecting deserters at the most beautiful Army base in the world.”
Willy agreed as to the Presidio.
“With top secret security clearance, which is how I know about you. The war is evil. It must end. I want you to desert.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Am I?” said the man.
Willy stumbled professionally down Lombard to the base. Past the wall, the sheer ancient preserved beauty of the Presidio hit him and he threw up and lay back against a eucalyptus tree. He pretended it was a public park and not an Army base, smeared his eyes on his sleeve, looked up, and saw The Girl.
She was also The Cunt, The Twat, The Bitch, and The Major’s Daughter, depending. She wore short shorts and a silk blouse or jeans and a plaid shirt or a peasant dress, depending. She wore her hair Audrey Hepburn style, Jean Seberg style, or hippie style, depending. She was the object of lust, puppylove, envy, scorn, or fantasies of rape, depending. She hated everyone on base, including her father, with whom she lived, not depending.
That’s all Willy knew about her.