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Postcard from Chinguashi

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Joey Mottolli began drinking seriously in Vietnam in 1967.  After he was discharged, he told people at O’Neal’s it quieted the static in his head.  O’Neal’s over by the East River had Guinness on tap and solace in its darkness.  Now, if he could only drown out the chants of the peaceniks screaming, “One two three four, we don’t want your fucking war.”

He wished he still had his grenades, but the army had removed them from his hold baggage before he boarded the flight home.

Two women entering O’Neal’s disturbed him with a flash of sunlight.

“So Susie had a problem with Dillon saying he truly loved her,” one said, the one wearing a T-shirt with Che Guevara’s picture over her boobs.  “She says to him, ‘No you don’t.  It’s infatuation maybe, or some psychic high from getting into my pants or elation at ejaculation.’”

“I like that,” the one with the butch haircut said.  “Elation from ejaculation.”

“Shut up, I’m telling the story,” said Che.  “Susie says Dillon insists, ‘No, I really do love you,’ and she says, ‘No you don’t or you’d ask me sometimes if I want to be on top.”

“That is so deep.”

Joey cringed.

“Two Chardonnays,” Che said to the bartender.  “C’mon, I gotta use the can.”  The pair click-clacked to the ladies’ room in their leather boots.  The barman put two glasses of wine on the bar and rolled his eyes at Joey as they passed.

Joey honked up an oyster and spit into one of the wine glasses before going back to the street.  He tried to ignore the “One two three four,” wishing they hadn’t taken his grenades.

*  *  *

The banging on the front door roused Joey on the fire escape where he was smoking a joint.  “Open up,” Richie shouted outside.  “I got sumpin’ important to tell ya.”

Richie was his father’s war buddy, a surrogate father when Joey’d been younger, and now a drinking partner.  The old man burst into the flat and grabbed Joey’s shoulders in his gnarly hands.

“Joey, you ain’t gonna believe what I’m gonna tell you.  The butcher of Chinguashi that killed your father.  He’s here in New York.”

He wondered if Richie had started drinking early.  “You’re always seein’ him.  It’s ghosts, Richie.”

“Don’t be a smartass professor.  I was there with him — with ’em all — for two years.”

“And I spent a week of R ’n’ R in Taiwan trying to track the bastard down.  Like you told me.  Forget it.  He’s long gone.”

“I was walking down Canal Street and there he was, stan’in’ in the sun lookin’ over some Chink vegetables.  I pulled his sleeve and says, ‘Don’t I know you?’ and he walks away.  ‘Sure,’ I say, ‘I know you even after twenny-fi’ years.  You’re the bastard from the prison camp.’  Then he takes off runnin’.  I can’t run so good and I lost him.”

“What do you want me to do?”  Joey sat down and lit a cigarette.  Richie was flinging the nightmare in his face again.

“Kill the fucker, goddammit.  He killed your father.  I’d do it but I got this bum leg.  From him.”  His voice wheezed.  “You got somethin’ to drink, Joey?”

Joey pointed to the fridge.

“Every fourth man died,” Richie said, rewinding the story.  “I tried to take care of your Dad, but it was no good.  He died in my arms.”

“You said this guard done it,” he prompted.  “Killed my dad.”

“I’ll never forget him, ‘One-Ear’ Huang.  He only had half an ear.  He beat Alfie within an inch of his life for falling out of formation.  Wasn’t nothin’ any of the other men could do while we watched him gettin’ kicked.  Your dad was bleeding from the ears, the nose.  Concussion.”

*  *  *

Joey crawled back out his window and sat on the fire escape with his back to the sun-warm bricks.  Nobody out there on Elizabeth Street now except the Mustache Petes sunning themselves and old ladies in black with their market baskets.

Chinguashi was a gold and copper mining town.  Richie told him Australians and English prisoners served as slave labor when Singapore fell in ‘42.  American POWs — Joey’s dad and Richie— followed.

Richie ordered Joey to go see Chinguashi as soon as he was given an R and R from ‘Nam.  “Why Taiwan?” his platoon sergeant had asked, and Joey snapped.  “Lookin’ for gold.”

Joey met a guy on Taipei’s main drag who said he could tour him around cheap.  “I want to see Chinguashi,” Joey said.  “Twenty bucks a day for two things.  First, give me the tourist crap.”

“What’s number two thing?” the guy asked.

“I’ll tell you later.”

Out in the hills, the guide explained what had happened back then.  “Every day, starving soldiers, they walk down 1,186 steps to the mine.  Then they walk more steps to working level.  At night, they go back uphill —1,186 steps.  You see ocean, past those green hills?  They see it too, maybe think it’s a dream.  Know they will die here.”

“My friend said their skin was turned yellow by the hot water in the mine,” Joey told the guide.

“I think so.  Then no more gold in 1944.  No more work.  Prisoners sent to the jungle camp, near Hsintien.  Only ones still alive.  Taiwanese and Japanese honchos sent to the army, waiting for final attack on Taiwan.  Only two big shots ever face war crimes.”

“Now, my number two order.  I’m looking for one of the guards.  ‘One-Ear’ Huang.  Maybe he still lives here.”

“You friend?”

“The best,” Joey said.  Four days later, the guide opened his hands to say Joey was out of luck.  Reluctantly, Joey said goodbye to his Dad, goodbye to the horrors of the past.

He’d never forget the smells, however.  Smoke from charcoal cooking fires, open benjo ditches, and camphor wood lumber mills lining the road back from Chinguashi.  Had his father smelled them too?

*  *  *

Joey told his boss on Monday that he had to take a few days off for a funeral.  His boss said, “You don’t work, you don’t get paid.”  So Joey told him.  “Your choice, asshole.”

Joey started spending every morning following Richie up and down Canal and Mulberry, Mott and Bayard.  Richie wore dark glasses and a gray fedora, angry when Joey asked if he was pretending to be a Mafia don.  “I don’t want him to see me again and take off.”

“You look like Marlon Brando plus fifty pounds,” Joey said.

On the third day, they saw a man with half an ear coming out of a bakery.

“Huang.  It’s him,” Richie said with an elbow in Joey’s ribs.

“He’s not so big,” Joey said.

“Everybody’s bigger when they got a gang backin’ them up.”

“Get out, Richie,” Joey said.  He’d made his decision, or maybe an obligation had been thrust on him.  “You don’t want to be with me.  You want an alibi.”

Richie gave him a queer look, then walked away down Canal.

Joey followed the Chinese man up East Broadway and across the four lanes of Pike Street to the red brick projects.  The buildings looked like a vertical jail.  He wondered whether he was any more a prisoner here than Huang was — one a kid from Elizabeth Street and the Chink an immigrant from the other side of the world.  Didn’t matter, he thought.  The clasp knife in his pocket made him everyone’s equal.

Huang let himself in the metal front door as Joey walked two steps behind, acting like any of the Chinese and Spanish guys hanging out on the sidewalk.  He followed Huang into the elevator, whistling.

The old guy didn’t look at Joey as they both got off on the fourth floor.  Joey smelled the cabbage as soon as Huang opened his apartment.  It smelled like Taiwan.

“Hey, you.  ‘One-Ear’ Huang.”

The man squinted, looking at Joey for the first time.  “What you want?”

“Remember Chinguashi?  The prison camp?  The Americans you killed twenny-fi’ years ago?”

A cloud of fear mixed with defiance crossed Huang’s face as he scooted to get inside.

“Remember Alfie Mottolli, the guy you kicked to death?  He was my father, you Chink bastard.”  Joey’s foot held the door open.  As Huang leaned forward to press his weight against the door, Joey jammed his knife blade into the man’s chest, twisting it through the shirt pocket.  “Here’s your postcard from Chinguashi.”

Joey leaned over to wiggle his knife out of the man’s ribs.  When he raised his eyes he saw a girl — young woman, really.  Her mouth formed a great big O of horror before her arm covered her face.

*  *  *

“Anybody sitting here?”  The woman pointed to a bar stool next to Joey.

He nodded, not caring who sat down.  O’Neal’s was a public place.  Didn’t see many Orientals here, but they were pushing the Italians out of Little Italy now.  Even the Vietnamese, moving in everywhere.  The ABCs — American-born Chinese — got to be bank VPs and moved to Flushing, put on suits, and their women wore high heels like this one.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“Nah.  Elizabeth Street.  I come here to be left alone.”

“Italians don’t come over to South Street?”

“What are you, a wiseass Wall Street girl?”  He turned to look at the woman, with her blue suit, red lipstick and black hair piled on top of her head.

“You not Italian?”  She flipped the St. Joseph medal and crucifix hanging from the chain at his neck.  “You got more gold than a pawn shop.”

“Mike, another beer!” he shouted.  “I gotta take a leak.”  He recalled the girls and spitting in their wine, but dismissed the thought.  The Chinese chick was still sitting next to his stool when he got back from pissing O’Neal’s beer.

“Still here?  Can’t take no for an answer?”  He took a long swallow from his glass.

“Sorry.  Long day.  Got off on the wrong foot.  My name’s Holly.”

“Sounds like Christmas or something.  Holly and mistletoe.”  She didn’t smile so he had another hit of the beer.

“Holly like in Hollywood.”

“I’m Joey.”

“I know.”  She stared into his eyes.  “I’m Holly Huang.  Same name as the man you killed.”

“What the fuck you talkin’ about?”  Joey became very alert.

“Murder,” she said.  “You left your postcard.  You said my father killed Alfie Mottolli.  How many guineas around here named Mottolli?  Not so many.”

“You can’t prove a thing.”

“Don’t want to.  You didn’t ask proof when you killed my father.”  Her voice was low and direct.  “He wasn’t the best father.  He beat me sometimes, but he was my father.  Understand?  That means I have to kill you.  See, I’m against revenge and that kind of stuff.  But, inside,” she said placing her hand over her heart, “inside I will feel very good to see you dead.”

“Who’s gonna kill me?”  This Holly looked like the bar girls he’d met in Saigon, Cholon and Taipei, but better dressed.

She smiled.  “Why, me, of course.  You already a walking dead man.  Don’t you feel it?  Pressure in your head?  Your face on fire?  Your eyes feel like they ready to blow out of your head?  It was the poison I put in your drink.”

He became aware of the pounding in his temples.  “This is a public place.  You can’t….”

“I bet lots of guys fall off their barstools here.  Think anybody cares?”

“You ain’t serious!”  His eyes were popping out of his skull now.

“You say that, but I am.  A girl can’t just let her father be knifed by some hoodlum.”  She tossed five dollars on the bar and got up.  “See you around.”

“Holly, don’t do this!  What kind of poison is it?  I gotta get to a hospital.”  Richie, he thought!  He wanted to kill Richie for getting him into this.  “Holly!”  People were looking up and Mike had stopped wiping glasses.  “Don’t kill me!  I’m sorry!”

“Truly?  Really, really sorry?”

“Get me to a hospital,” he shouted.  “I’ll tell you who made me do it.”

Her heels went clickety-clack to the door.  She turned and faced him as the sunlight backlit her like an angel of death.  “See, you think my father did something to your father so you had to kill him.  That means I have to kill you, right?  But I’m not going to let anybody pull me down, use the same evil methods.  I’m sick of violence.  I’m tired of war.  Tired of evil.  I called the cops, told them what you did, where to find you.  Guess they’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Joey felt grenades going off in his head, felt death staring at him.

The bar patrons had their mouths open, staring first at him and then at the girl in the sunlight.  A very large New York cop pushed by her to get in.

Silhouetted with a halo of sunlight wreathing her head, she said, “Oh, by the way, that wasn’t poison in your beer.  It was nitro, my father’s heart pills.  You’ll live, I guess.  Till you’re executed.  See you in court.”

#  #  #

 

Bio: Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pill Hill Press, Pulp Fiction, r.kv.r.y, Short Fiction World, Short-Story.Me, The World of Myth, and other publications. He also writes on military history and social phenomena. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers

 

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