Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths From the forthcoming collection, Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories, to be published in June 2008 by Counterpoint Press Some years ago I floated down a stretch of the Colorado River to Lake Powell on a rubber raft alongside other rafts packed with vacationing college girls, airline stewardesses, a grocer from San Jose, and I do not remember who else. It took about ten days. Every afternoon we pulled ashore and set up camp. That much of “Assassin” is true. Otherwise, fact and fiction have become entangled. Ugly things happened in Vietnam, as everybody knows, enough to embarrass the nation beyond deliverance. Who can isolate the cause? Who imagined the sequel? Perhaps only an astrologer could explain how Vietnam and a raft trip and the buried lust of a bantamweight killer drifted into alignment. Koerner tried to remember everything he knew about Harlan. Considering how long they had been acquainted, not much. Harlan grew up in Kentucky or Tennessee, some flyspecked coal-mining town where broken machinery rusted in vacant lots and old men wearing bib overalls sat in front of the general store like tombstones, that sort of place. All across America were towns like that. He had a gaggle of sisters and brothers, maybe six or eight. He played in the high school band, trumpet or trombone. Koerner remembered him joking about the band. He had never gone back to visit. If so, he didn’t mention it. He was a stubby, bald-headed man with colorless reptilian eyes. People were surprised to learn that he enjoyed singing because he looked like a wrestler. “Danny Boy,” “The Rose of Tralee,” “Shenandoah,” the songs of Stephen Foster, and Christian hymns were among his favorites. Soon after LBJ committed the United States to Vietnam he joined the army. Now he limped, his right hand was disfigured, and his wife, Lucybelle, said he kept a leather pouch stuffed with medals and ribbons. Also in the pouch was a human ear. He and Lucybelle had been contentedly married, so far as anyone knew, for at least thirty years. A son and a daughter, both married, and a son just out of college who lived with an older man. Lucybelle, a queenly figure at fifty-something, had grown up in New Orleans and continued to favor bourbon drinks laced with Coca-Cola, pack after pack of cigarettes, a black velvet choker, and tarantula perfume. Everything about Lucybelle hinted at social pleasantries distinguishing the affluent from the rabble, colored servants, private schooling, muggy Southern nights, dances where young ladies wore white gloves. Koerner thought she had inherited money, perhaps quite a lot. Harlan, who showed a sensitive nose for California real estate, what to buy, when to sell, probably added more than a few banknotes to the family fortune. However it came about, they enjoyed life in baronial comfort on an exclusive hillside north of the Golden Gate, reassured by the occasional sight of a security guard cruising by. Ships from everywhere coasted beneath the famous red bridge. San Francisco sparkled like Byzantium. Across the bay, sometimes obscured by fog, Oakland and Berkeley pursued altogether different dreams. Koerner, agreeably stuffed after a catered Oriental supper, took another sip of wine and looked around the table. At opposite ends Harlan and Lucybelle presided. Otherwise, Nelson the vastly rich neighbor with his sulky companion, Bryce—a Renaissance prince with a gynandrous consort. Gussie and Mikki, interior decorators who lived in a Telegraph Hill penthouse. Then there was Wallace, oddly resembling a squirrel, whom Koerner had not seen before. Bryce seemed more peevish than usual. Quite obviously he preferred to be someplace else. He might be very different when he and Nelson were alone, but then again, maybe not. The yellowish cheesy face suggested a decadent angel. Harlan, always talkative, always prepared to tell an unnecessarily long story, was describing a raft trip down the Colorado River. He needed a doctor’s approval because of his age and because it would be a strenuous hike from the plateau to the river. The doctor decided he could make it. Harlan never doubted he could make it. There would be four inflatable rafts guided by local river rats. They would emerge from the canyon on Lake Powell above Hoover Dam. Lucybelle refused to go. When I was a teensy thing, she said, and stopped to cough, Daddy took me fishing. Now I tell you I just plain hated each and every single minute. I enjoyed myself right here, thank you. Harlan laughed. He said the food wasn’t bad, not bad at all. He expected ten days of hard-boiled eggs, stale sandwiches, and canned peaches, but the river rats turned out to be pretty good cooks. Fried chicken one night, sirloin steak another night. Shish kebab, trout, lamb stew, barbecued pork. Soup, salad, dessert. The only thing he didn’t like was drinking river water. They purified it with tablets, so nobody got the Aztec two-step, but it looked and tasted like mud. You won’t believe this, he said. You know who else was on that trip? A bunch of college girls in bathing suits—fifteen or sixteen at least. Blondes, brunettes, a couple redheads. I’m glad I stayed home, Lucybelle said. I just know you made a fool of yourself. Harlan asked one of the river rats if they got paid to escort half-naked girls down the Colorado. Aw, man, said the river rat, this is nuts. Usually it’s old Mormon families. On the fourth night beneath a spooky red moon a herd of wild burros stampeded through their camp. Harlan didn’t know what scared the burros or where they came from. Prospectors used to look for gold in the canyon during the nineteenth century and sometimes a burro got loose. Probably that was how the herd originated. Figured it might be the Last Judgment, he said. Burros raising hell, girls running around shrieking in the moonlight. Nelson and Lucybelle pretended to listen. Bryce inspected his fingernails. Wallace attempted to hide a yawn. Harlan kept going. He described how they would paddle ashore for lunch. He talked about midafternoon rain showers, navigating rapids, exploring side canyons, rock climbing, listening for echoes, searching for Indian petroglyphs. He described how one of the river rats fell overboard while trying to impress the girls by doing a headstand. He described clouds. He described a vulture. Let’s go home, Bryce said to Nelson. For heaven’s sake! Nelson whispered. Gussie and Mikki exchanged significant looks. Koerner thought they had learned to communicate without speaking. You don’t appreciate me, Bryce said. You never have. Nelson turned to Harlan. I’m so embarrassed. As a rule he’s sweet. I didn’t expect this. You found somebody else, Bryce said. I can tell. Nelson sighed, tossing his hands in a delicate gesture of impatience or frustration. We’ve been together three years and five months almost to the day. From the moment we saw each other—fireworks! Isn’t that true? he asked, smiling at Bryce. Come now. Be yourself. You listen, both of you, Lucybelle said. Dessert is a surprise. Chocolate boysenberry trifle with meringue, oodles of pecans, cashews, and peppermint sprinkle. It has so many calories you’ll never speak to me again. What a devil you are! Nelson exclaimed. Lucy, you are! How I wish we could stay, but this dear child is on the verge of throwing a fit. Wallace, leaning forward, smiled across the table at Nelson. I’m told you have a gorgeous estate. I should love to see it, if that wouldn’t be an imposition. Nelson glanced at Bryce, who pursed his lips. Please join us, Nelson said. Mikki and Gussie decided they would share a trifle, although they must be leaving soon. Lucybelle frowned at Koerner. Baby doll, you are not leaving! I forbid you to leave. I love chocolate, Koerner said. I’ll eat three or four. Fairies, Harlan said when the door closed. Oh, stop, honeybunch, Lucybelle said. You like Nelson. You know you do. Fags and dykes! Harlan said angrily. Why don’t they keep that Nellie business to themselves? Why do they advertise? God, they make me want to puke. He had been toying with a pair of chopsticks, now and then pretending to snatch a fly out of the air. Koerner recognized the scene from an old samurai film. The famous warrior is eating when killers burst into the room. The samurai ignores them. They advance, threatening him, scowling ferociously. He does not seem to be aware of them. He reaches out with the chopsticks, catches a fly. The demonstration terrifies them. They look at the sword resting on a mat beside him. In half a second he could leap to his feet and slice off their noses. They nearly fall over each other in a desperate effort to escape. Koerner thought about the first time he saw the chopsticks. Harlan clicked them together, waggled them, and said he felt pretty sure the owner wouldn’t be using them anymore. Then, too, he had played the role of samurai plucking a fly out of the air. Gotcha! he whispered. Koerner understood that he had killed the man. Last time in the city we went to Emilio’s for lunch, he said. Lucy got up to visit the ladies’ room and you know what happened? Some creep patted me on the butt. I should have wasted that sucker! What the hell is wrong with those pansies? Well, goodness, Lucybelle said. Koerner looked at the head and skin of a bear hanging on the wall in back of Harlan’s chair. He had shot it with a bow and arrow not long after returning from Vietnam. He had parted the fur carefully to show a ragged hole. Mean old mother, he said, and laughed. Sucker just about did me in. Who had skinned the bear? It wasn’t important, of course. Or perhaps it was. Skinning the enemy used to be important, like taking a scalp or displaying the enemy head on a pole or shrinking the head until it became a toy, or keeping a Vietnamese ear in a leather pouch. Not so many generations have passed since men huddled around campfires in Ice Age caves, wore animal pelts, and danced and sang, pretending to be deer or bison or tigers or mammoths. Harlan liked to wear a black satin kimono while he sprawled in his chair drinking Vietnamese beer, the totemic head of a wild animal watching over him. If they make you want to puke, Koerner said, why do you invite them to your home? Harlan did not move. What is that supposed to mean? he asked. This is absurd, Koerner thought. He understands the question. He and Lucybelle very often invite gays to dinner. This makes no sense. Why does he pretend? I never thought he would fake anything, not Harlan. There was always some hardscrabble honesty about him. I respected that. Now he’s lying. Those eyes are cold as glass. He looks like a prehistoric hunter in a museum exhibit. Suddenly it occurred to him that Harlan was frightened. This did not seem possible, not after three years in Vietnam. The injuries and medals told it all. If trouble jumped out of the bushes nobody would ask for more dependable company. It might be easier to frighten a fireplug than to scare this man, but now he was afraid of a question. Harlan did not speak or move. Koerner understood that he could only wait for this moment to pass. Whatever he might say or do would make things worse. In the menacing silence he reflected that perhaps it was true, the mind is a world of streaming shadows. Copyright © Evan S. Connell
Some years ago I floated down a stretch of the Colorado River to Lake Powell on a rubber raft alongside other rafts packed with vacationing college girls, airline stewardesses, a grocer from San Jose, and I do not remember who else. It took about ten...