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Randy Dalzell
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earsssssss.jpg
Art by Jeff Karnick 2010

Face

 

Randy Dalzell

 

 

Kate’s dad and his buddies high-fived as browned bodies and charred bones were bulldozed into mass graves, then set on fire. They kicked what was left over into the flames—loose eyeballs, hands, intestines, whatever.

 

“Then they’d head into Saigon for a week or so,” she said to me, “and just get shitfaced. Do prostitutes and party. Do it all again the next week.”

 

          “Pretty wild,” I said.

 

“Yeah. He still talks about it like it was yesterday.” She smiled. “For some people, Vietnam was fun.”

 

          Beside us, a table of four Asian men chewed drumstick meat and skin, still dripping in boiled animal fat. I leaned in toward Kate, rolling my eyes toward them. “Ix-nay on the Nam-Vay.”

 

          She shrugged, then mopped extra ketchup from wrinkled wax paper with a chicken strip. “Dren, are you going to do it or what?”

 

          I looked at the front counter. A girl stood at her register, blowing thin, pink bubbles as she stared into space, letting the remnants explode into her pale, freckled nose.

 

          “I don’t know.”

 

          “We didn’t come all the way to this Popeye’s— again—for nothing.”

 

          “I like Popeye’s. I would come here anyway,” I said, with a shrug.

 

          She took a long, greasy lick, wrist to the tip of her middle finger. “Yeah. Me, too.”

 

          “But isn’t that weird?” I said. “How does a person taking your order know you’re hitting on them? What if someone gets in line behind me? How much time would I have?” I rubbed my beard with an open palm.

 

          “Don’t order anything. Just talk.”

 

          “And if someone gets behind me?”

 

          “Keep talking. Then, if they make a gesture like they’re pissed, turn around and say something badass, like, ‘Just a second. I’m doing something.’ Then they’ll know who’s boss. Girls like when guys are the boss.”


          “Yeah?”

 

          “You’ve got to think of her as inhuman. Not a person you want to know, just an idea you want to conquer.”

 

          “I’m not motivated enough to do that.”

 

          “Me being here with you makes you look like someone who’s accepted by the female gender. But we should have brought a guy with us for you to pretend to beat up or something. She’d like that.”

 

I sucked the skin off a wing, then knuckled my eye, taking in a whiff of the greasy air which had taken on a mist-like indoor quality. “The air in here is sick.”

 

          “I don’t think so,” she said. “No changing the subject. When do you talk to that girl?”

 

          “How did your mom meet your dad?”

 

          “He didn’t act like a little bitch.” She puckered her lower lip, as if to mock my sadness.

 

         

***

 

          Kate and I were roommates who had casual sex with each other.

 

          After we made it, I’d always say something I pretended to think was funny, and at the same time, true. A way to ease the tension. We usually kept the light on, and I’d bury my face in the mattress next to her face, making sure not to kiss.

 

          Kate wasn’t racist, but she used to play a game called “Find the white people in Popeye’s” on our walks to the local bars. The idea was, there were no white people in Popeye’s. She thought it was funny. She said it was okay because we both knew we didn’t actually hate black people. It wasn’t about the people. It was about the joke. “My dad. He’s actually racist. He really hates Asian people,” she’d sometimes say, with a laugh.

 

          “I think hating Asian people is okay,” I once said back to that.

 

          “Why?”

 

          “Because there’s really no reason. They’re just prosperous. Hillbillies who hate black people, at least it’s in their tradition to do so. When you hate Asian people, you’re just a person who hates other people.”

 

          “So it’s okay to hate without regard for things like reason?”

 

          “Sometimes.”

 

          “My dad’s not like that. He has a reason. He used to kill them and they killed his friends.”

 

***

 

         

She went back to her bedroom early the next morning. I spent the day watching Simpsons DVD sets, keeping an eye on the sun through the window. If the sun was at least setting before I began drinking, I wasn’t an alcoholic. At least that’s what I told myself.

 

          Still in bed when the shadows came through the shades, I knocked on the wall I shared with Kate. “What do you want to do tonight?”

 

          “I don’t know.”

 

          “Want to come over?”

 

          “All the way to your room?”

 

          “The kitchen.”

 

          “Okay.”

 

          “I’ll open beers and we can figure it out.”

 

          “It might take a little while.”

 

          “What are you doing?”

 

          “I have to do my hair.”

 

          “No you don’t. You’re just going to the kitchen.”

 

          “I guess.”

 

          “Just come in.”

 

          “What if we go out?”

          “Then we go out.”

 

          “Maybe I should do my hair in case.”

 

          “Don’t worry about it.”

 

          A half hour and three beers later, Kate opened her first.

 

          “You want to hear something?” she asked.

 

          I noticed her hair, softened and straight. Her oft-pale cheeks were bright and her eyes had a hint of purple.

 

          “What’s wrong with your eyes?” I said.

 

          She laughed. “Let me tell you what I was saying.”

 

          “Okay.”

 

          “My dad called me today. He said Vietnamese women call having sex with American soldiers a ‘short time.’ ”

 

          “Why was your dad telling you about this?”

 

          “He just likes to talk about it. When I was growing up, he and his brothers used to do reenactments for everyone on holidays.”


          “Are you hinting you want to start calling it a ‘short time’? ”      

 

We went out. I said I’d find Kate a guy that night. But I had no idea how to pick up guys. We stood around and talked while 80s music blared from fuzzy speakers and 20-something dwellers dwelled.

 

She went to the bathroom. “You want me to get you something while you’re gone?” I asked.

 

          “Blue Moon.”

 

          She walked and I stood alone. I made eye contact with a black-haired girl wearing thick-framed glasses and a white beret. I told her about Kate. “We’re trying to find her a guy tonight,” I said.

 

          “Any luck?”

 

          I looked down and she wore dark jeans up on her ankles and flat slip-on shoes. Her arms curved in as both hands clasped her clear drink. “Not really. It’s weird when a guy and girl are hanging out together. What guy is going to hit on her that way?”

 

          “Maybe I can help you guys,” she said. “What kind of guys does she like?”

 

          I put my arm around her as we scanned the room. “Well there’s that guy.” A blond-haired guy with a flat nose and black T-shirt stood in a dark corner of the reddish room, sipping a draft brew. “No,” I said.

 

          “How about that one?”

 

          I looked up and saw Kate, standing, frowning. I took my hand out from behind the girl. “That’s Kate,” I said. I nodded my head back to draw Kate in.

 

“She’s going to help you get a guy,” I said to Kate, to the telltale response of rolled eyes.

 

          “What’s your name again?” the girl asked.

 

          “You never got it in the first place.”

 

          She laughed. “What’s your name?”

 

          “Dren.”

 

          “Did you get my beer?” Kate asked.

 

          “Shit. No. Forgot.” I handed her money. She stared at me, then stormed toward the bar.

 

          “What’s yours?”


          “Tenaya.”

 

          “Awesome name.”

 

          “I know.”

 

          “Want a beer?”

 

 

         

On the way home, I couldn’t shut up about getting Tenaya’s number. “She was so fucking hot.”

 

          “I’m happy for you.”

 

          “I know you’re pissed . . .”

 

          “—I’m not,” she said.

 

          “. . . that we didn’t find you a dude. And we had to leave early.”

 

          “Yeah, what was that?”

         

          “If I didn’t leave immediately, she might have come up with an excuse to not accept my phone call later in the week.”

 

“Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”

 

          “Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”

 

          She put her thigh over my crotch after ten minutes of pushing pillows into comfortable positions. “Should we hook up?” I asked.

 

          “I don’t know.”

 

          That morning, I said, “Popeye’s again today?”

 

          “I don’t know.”

 

          “Maybe I’ll really do it this time. Maybe I’ll talk to her.”

 

          “What about Tenaya?”

 

          I shrugged.

 

          A buzzing came from the floor. She leaned over, taking the sheets with her to cover up, and grabbed her cell phone. “It’s my dad.”

 

“Are you going to pick it up?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“I kind of want to hear one of his stories. Want to put it on speaker?”

 

          “No,”—She pushed a button on the side and put it down—“He’ll leave a voice mail.”

 

          “Is it really your dad calling, not another guy? If you sleep with another guy, I won’t care.”

 

          “I know.”

 

          “You can tell me.”

 

          “I know.”

 

          She got out of bed and picked her clothes off the floor. I watched her pull her white and blue panties up from her ankles, and the way her handful of breasts hung as she did so.

 

          “Are you mad?”

 

          She stopped dressing and stared at me. Then she turned around while she flipped her bra to her chest. “You don’t get it.”

 

          “Get what?”

 

          “Exactly.”

 

          “Oh.”

 

          She shook her head. “How long do you think this can go on for?”

 

          “I thought the cool thing about you was that you weren’t like one of those girls,” I said.

 

          “What girls?”

 

          “You know. Those.”

 

          “You mean a normal girl?”

 

          “No.”

 

          “You don’t get anything,” she said. “I’m treated like this by every guy. You know what it’s like to see you go out of your way to get someone’s number in front of me?”

 

          “It’s not like that.” I got out of bed and walked up to her, naked. “I respect you,” I whispered. I hovered in for a kiss, watched her eyes close and lips pucker, but she turned away.

 

          “Maybe you shouldn’t. Because if this is the way you treat people you respect, then I don’t want to know how you’d act with someone you didn’t like.”

 

          “What? We’re friends.”

 

          “You and me? We aren’t friends. I thought you could be but obviously this is not going to work.”

 

          “It works. It’s working,” I said, following her across the apartment’s cold floorboards.

 

          She stormed to the door and grabbed the handle. I jumped in front of her. “Don’t go. Let’s settle this. Normal people settle things like adults. They don’t just go into their rooms.”

 

          “It’s called cutting your losses and for now, that’s what I’ve got to do. Move out of the way. If you think this is the way normal adults act, there’s something wrong with you.”

 

          I let her go. Through the wall I heard her answer her phone. She said, “Dad, stop calling me. I don’t want to listen to this anymore.”

 

          I picked up my phone and called Tenaya. She didn’t answer, so I left a message.

 

          An hour later, the sun started to go down and shadows on my windowsill begged me to head out to a bar. I’d kept the window open, laughing loudly at Simpsons episodes I’d seen a hundred times, hoping Kate would hear me and change her mind, maybe come in and watch. I’d kept my erection tucked into the waistline of my thin jeans all day. It stood up and wouldn’t ease, no matter how many Simpsons breaks I took with pornographic websites or closed-eye reenactments of past sexual exploits.

 

          At one point I was deep in thought, touching myself and remembering a particular scene in college, when I’d convinced a girl I’d just met to go down on me in the common room of my dorm with all the lights on. I thought about Kate, too.

 

And I remembered a story Kate had once told me about her dad. “You don’t understand,” she’d said, “You had to make all the people leave to secure that area. So you burned down all the huts, whether people were in there or not. You made all the people come back with you to Saigon, to the camps. If they refused to come, you killed them. Dad said he once shoved a medic tube into an old man’s lungs, and filled them with water, and drowned him. That wasn’t considered weird.”

 

          My erection faded as I thought.

 

It wasn’t weird because they weren’t human. We boiled them, caged them, slaughtered them. They were statistics and trophies. Soldiers played a game called “ears for beers.” The idea was, when you killed some gook, you cut his ear off. When you got back to base, you traded ears for beers. More death, more fun.

 

I picked up the vibrating phone. “Hello?”

 

          Tenaya agreed to meet me at Popeye’s, then we’d hit some bars. “Popeye’s,” she repeated after my suggestion. “That’s so retro.”

 

***

 

I pushed open the fingerprinted glass door and felt the sharp greasy air. Tenaya sat at a table with a plastic soda cup. She waved. I walked over. “Hey,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if Popeye’s was really your place, or if you were just being nice on the phone.”

 

          “I haven’t been here in a while. But it’s nice to get back to the people sometimes. You know?”

 

          I smiled. “Yeah.”

 

          I took a hot breath and looked around. We were the only white people in there. The same four Asians who I’d seen with Kate sat in a corner booth, slurping the breaded skin off their chicken.

 

          “What should I get you?” I asked.

 

          “Just, anything.” Her face was thin, bony-soft, and her black hair hung straight, well past her shoulders, bangs across the front.

 

          I got on line, staring at my sneakers. When it was my turn, I looked up – and there she was. I should have thought she’d be here, chewing gum, her splash of freckles slightly darkened by the sun’s rays over the last week. “Hey,” she said, “is there anything I can get you?”

 

          I stared at her eyes, green and round. Her black uniform, though loose, fit her nicely and her breasts were settled. “Hey. Yeah,” I said. I saw her gaze lurk behind me.

 

          “Actually, I was wondering . . .”

 

          “Yeah?”

 

          “How long have you been working here?”

 

          She chewed and leaned her head back, shrugging. “I dunno. Less than a year.”

 

          “I come here sometimes. I just started seeing you here, I think.”

 

          “Yeah,” she said.

 

          I let out a nervous laugh. “I’m Dren.”

 

          From behind me, I heard someone: “Come on, man. Just order.”

 

It was one of the Asians from the table. The skin around his mouth had grease-stained to a shine. “Just a second,” I said. “I’m doing something.”

         

          “What?”

 

          “You heard me.”

 

          The girl behind the counter asked, “Do you want to just order?”


          When I heard her say that, I knew he’d ruined it for me. I swung at him.

 

“What the fuck,” he said, taking forced backward steps. His friends got up out of their seats and walked toward me.

 

“Fuck you,” I said.

 

          “What’s going on out there?” I heard from the back.

 

          I walked toward the greasy glass door. “Come on outside, little man.”

 

          He wiped blood from his mouth, little eyes transfixed on me. “You got it.”

 

***

         

Outside we circled, staring, while his friends stood amongst each other. “That’s it,” he said. “I feel bad doing this, but this guy started it.”

 

“Take your best shot.” He came in close. I could taste his breath. When I flinched, he knocked me in the stomach. I leaned over, holding my knees, coughing. I blew a ropey yellow snot rocket onto the pavement and coughed, forearms on my knees.

 

“Aw! Look at the little crybaby now!”

 

I coughed some more and two balled fists knocked the top of my back. I went down to a knee.

 

My vision was blurred with thick, salty tears. He swung and made hard contact with my right temple and I heard a horrible deep ringing.

 

“Fuck you, motherfucker!” he screamed at me. “Eat my shit!”

 

My legs were wobbly but I stood up straight and he punched me across the jaw. It sounded like someone demolishing hard candy, and the sound made my whole body vibrate. I was leaning against a Volvo, bleeding all over it, so he wrestled my skull into his palm and forced it into the old metal bumper.

 

From the ground, I heard, “Get up!”

 

I put my hand to my face and brought back a palm of gore. I got up and saw him wind up for one final punch to finish me off.

 

He must have taken a pretty good swing, because as I collapsed in exhaustion, he lost his footing, tripped over me, and tumbled into the street.

 

It happened so fast. As I lay down on my back, over and over again, I pictured what I’d just seen: The oily Chinaman’s face kissing the fender of that public bus. His head snapping back, leaving a sharp tear through that fatty throat with all his stuff popping out like a jack-in-the-box. And face caved into itself, leaving behind bagged skin.

 

When I touched it, it was like fingering a Ziplock bag of broken seashells. 

 

Snakes of blood slithered out his nostrils, down the sides of his cheeks, forming a pool around his dead face.

 

          His friends caved around him, crying.

 

I got up and ran. And I didn’t stop running. I wondered what would happen to Tenaya, if she’d be a witness and if she’d remember who I was. I felt my nose and I thought it was broken. When I looked at my hand again, it was full of blood, skin, bunches of hair.

 

          I can’t blame myself because I wasn’t thinking of who this guy was. How human was he? What was he fighting for? If nothing, then there was nothing I could do. Two men fighting for nothing still means one has to win.

 

In strides, I took my cell phone out and called Kate. One ring. “Yeah? What do you want?” she said.

 

          “Kate, you have to help me.” Sirens.

 

          “Why?”

 

          “I killed someone.”

 

          “No kidding.”

 

          “I’m serious. I killed some Asian guy. His blood is all over the street. His guts came out of his neck.”

          “I know.”

 

          “Kate. Do you understand what I’m telling you? I need you to pick me up.”

 

          “I don’t think so. I’m sick of this. You’ve killed lots of Asian guys. We all love you for it. Calling in the air support. Dropping napalm. I’ve got to tell you something, Dad. It’s old. It’s tired. And you know what? No one gives a shit.”

 

          She hung up.

 

 

 

Randy Dalzell stays up really late and gets pretty lonely.

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