The night of the same day in downtown Nha Trang, Izzy kept wondering when he would wake up. Soaked in sweat, his nerves like bees inside his body, he hadn’t wanted to come here, but Gregg and Robert David and Mikel had insisted. They didn’t want him staying at the villa alone and Izzy didn’t make them ask twice.
He was too afraid to be alone. If they left him now he would collapse right here, enveloped by the soft warmth of a tropical night that saturated his nostrils with the scents of flowers, food, shit, beer and marijuana. His vision felt assaulted by neon and a moving carnival of honking cars, jeeps, and three wheeled cycles while Magical Mystery Tour blared in the background. The streets were full of GIs in jungle fatigues and men in gaudy aloha shirts openly soliciting baby girl prostitutes dressed in barely anything.
“Nha Trang is where the troops and contractors come to avail themselves of some R and R, Izzy.” Robert David was talking to him now, acting as tour guide and his cultured Southern accent, with the way his R and R came out soft like “Aah” and “Aah,” seemed even more preposterous than it had during rounds before the world fell apart and Top got murdered and Mikel killed Derek before Derek could kill him and Gregg.
He should be dead right now, his first day in Vietnam. He should be in a body bag while his fiancé sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone and lit candles. If it wasn’t for Mikel, his blood would be all over the floor instead of the vomit that got cleaned up with Top’s brains and—
Izzy lurched to the side and dry heaved into the street. There was nothing left to throw up. He hadn’t been able to eat all day. He didn’t think he could ever eat again.
“C’mon.” It was Mikel, his hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Let’s get you drunk.”
“I don’t…Agent Mikel, I don’t think—”
“That’s a very good idea. Don’t. Think.” Then next to Izzy’s ear he whispered sharply, “Don’t call me `Agent’ again and make me regret getting in the way of that gun. It’s just J.D., okay?” A slap on the back and Just J.D. announced, “I say we could all use a drink.”
“I concur,” agreed Robert David as he grabbed Izzy by one arm and Gregg took the other, moving him out of the flow of traffic and down a back alley street. That’s when Izzy noticed that Gregg’s hand was trembling, and so was his go-easy voice that picked up the travelogue.
“Troops come in from all over and try to forget where they are and what they are going back to out there. You can buy anything and anyone you want on this street, and it’s what, five minutes from our quarters?”
The street was packed on both sides with small shacks made of tin cans and cardboard and plywood. Izzy numbly watched a couple of men who could have been at a stateside barbeque with their tropical Hawaiian shirts stretched across big bellies and big gold watches that yelled Jersey, each latched onto two little Vietnamese girls. Even made up like whores with little pushed up breasts and tiny skirts they couldn’t have been more than twelve years old.
“This is a nightmare.” Izzy closed his eyes, willing the grotesque vision to go away. It did, only to be replaced by the sight of a little boy, also made to look pretty, leading another fat middle-aged pleasure seeker past a shack’s door. They disappeared, to do only God knew what.
God could know. Izzy didn’t want to know. And then J.D. apparently thought a little history lesson was in order, as if that put it all into some kind of perspective.
“This old alley has existed since the Indochina War when the French were here. The visitors that look like they should be roasting on a spit are mostly civilian contractors behaving badly away from their homes. Money is precious. They have it. The families do what they must to survive.”
“I want that drink,” Izzy told J.D., told them all. He honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass if he threw it up immediately as long as it bought him even a moment’s respite from this…this…
He couldn’t even give this a name.
The bar they entered was full of drunken soldiers and more prostitutes. Izzy never thought he’d be grateful to see girls who were closer to twenty than ten selling themselves on a very open market. “B girls,” J.D. explained, as if that explained anything about the inflated cheap boob jobs that made Izzy wish he could do a lobotomy on the surgeons responsible—though he’d lay dollars to every Red Cross Dolly donut not one board certified plastic surgeon had performed a single one of the surgeries.
A terrible really loud band played Proud Mary and that’s when Izzy was jostled by some drunks, got turned around, and was suddenly lost in the smoke and neon.
Frantically he scanned the room for the guys. No luck. Everyone around him was in the same green uniform and he didn’t recognize one face from the hospital. His nausea, momentarily forgotten over the “Scotch rocks, make it a triple and make it your best” J.D. had ordered for him, returned with a vengeance. And it wasn’t from the few sips consumed.
Homesick, that’s what he was. Literally physically sick with his longing for home. He would easily give up all the years of his later life just to be home right now. No wonder everyone was obsessed with counting the days.
“Three hundred and sixty-four days and a wake up,” Izzy said aloud, wondering if crazy people talked to themselves because it made their alternate realities more real. Perhaps this would make a nice clinical trial test at the end of the impossible tunnel of days where reality glittered so wonderful and precious Izzy could not believe he ever took it for granted.
The bodies pressing all around took on the substance of fluctuating quicksand that pushed Izzy one way then another. The bass of the band thundered into his brain until he found himself standing in front of a ridiculously big and very drunk Warrant Officer, shouting at him.
“What, what? I beg your pardon,” Izzy shouted back above the din. “I’m lost. Did you say you could help me find my friends?”
“I said Welcome to the Nam you fuckin idiot new guy!”
And then J.D. was dragging the fuckin idiot new guy away, shouting, “Try not to antagonize the animals,” as he plowed a path to the relative safety of a back exit door.
Outside it was hot but thankfully quieter and Izzy wanted to apologize, though for what he didn’t know. “I wasn’t, wasn’t, I did not say…”
J.D. silenced him with a glare that had the effect of a double slap.
“Listen up and listen good, because I need you and you are no good to me dead. Wake up and quit feeling sorry for yourself. Nobody here gives a shit where you come from, or where you are going. What will get you killed faster than anything is pretending you are still what and who you were in the world. You are not in the world anymore, you are not anywhere near where there are rules you can still live by. So I am telling you: Wake the fuck up. Are you with me so far?”
Izzy managed a creaky nod.
“Now the second most dangerous thing besides the danger you pose to yourself are the other idiots who were sent over here. If you were not a shrink and an officer, if you were just some grunt in the field, your own guys might have shot you already because your head is so far up your ass it’s still in New York and that makes you too dangerous to be around. If you don’t wake up soon, one of ours is far more likely to kill you than Charlie. Just about every third guy around here is about ready to snap, go psycho. You got a real life introduction to it this afternoon. So take note, Doctor Moskowitz, because this is your first, last and only reality orientation that just might keep you alive long enough to help me out and get you home.” J.D. gave him a little thumb to forefinger ping on the bridge of his black horn rims. The ones J.D. had fished out of the blood and brains and puke, then cleaned off with his shirt before perching back on Izzy’s nose. “Now tell me, doc: What’s The Big Message?”
“Wake the fuck up.”
“That’s right. Now follow me.”
J.D. took off down the alley. Izzy followed as instructed, muttering robotically, “Wake the fuck up, wake the fuck up…” while he tried to wake the fuck back up in New York City where everything and everyone he’d ever cared about existed on some alternate plane.