Look at Me: A Short Story

“Look at Me” was originally published on The Good Men Project on February 19, 2011.

weekend-fiction-look-at-me-

Switch on the spotlight, see him blink and squint. In the camera’s display, the executive is a wretched sight, a frightened man of late middle age in a muddy red tracksuit, mouth duct-taped shut, wrists and ankles bound with thin, strong cord. His Roman nose is crusted with blood where you clubbed him  with the wrench, the fatty nape of his neck a blackish shade of blue, bruised where you jammed a knee to it. Slide in front of the camera and kneel next to him. Neither of you are photogenic. You are as bald as Humpty Dumpty, but even as sick as you are, you overpowered him easily on the jogging trail in the woods behind his house, pinning him to a carpet of moss, the autumn air tingling against your neck.

Chemotherapy, you say. You rub your hand over your head, your fingers rough as sandpaper, the skin on your head moist with sweat and oil. Are things adding up yet?

He shakes his head vigorously, ear against the dirty floor. The reporter you have told to be here tomorrow morning and the people who will watch this video will make all manner of judgments, even from the dinginess of this van. Their misjudgment fills you with a sorrow nearly overwhelming. Pretend to be Walter Cronkite when you look into the camera, the one you gave to your daughter for her fifteenth birthday two months ago. She wants to be a filmmaker. Somehow.

Hello. It doesn’t sound like the right thing to say, but keep going. Hello, America. His eyes widen in fear, then contract in grief. It has been nearly four decades since you have seen that look. Sammy gutted by AK-47 rounds, Lionel blown in half by a booby-trapped howitzer shell. Following fear and grief was always surprise, but about what, you never knew. Continue. Tell him about how you were born in 1950, served your country proudly and have been married faithfully for 37 years, even if to three different women. Apologize to the third, the final, the dearest, Maribeth, the one you met through the mail-order service, the only one of your wives who loves your daughter nearly as much as you do. You are thankful every day for a decent, dignified woman like Maribeth, knowing as you do that she would not even be married to you if her country was not poor, if she could have stayed at home. Say I’m sorry. This isn’t what I promised you in Manila, but it’s better this way. You won’t have to take care of me, even if I can’t take care of you.

Blame your tears on the hormone therapy that has smothered your testosterone. You checked to make sure that the hormone therapy was not produced by this man’s company.

You’re involved in a little bit of everything, aren’t you? Fertilizer, adhesives, polymers, fabrics, varnish, proteins, pharmaceuticals, resins, plastics. The world can’t live without you, can it?

His brow furrows. Punch him in the eye. His head bangs against the floor, he bleats, he closes both his eyes even though you only clipped him in one. Blame your anger on the hormone therapy, too. You haven’t hurt anyone in 40 years. You have helped people, in a fashion, as an insurance adjuster. You assign values to damages, determine what things are worth, decide what should be replaced, repaired, or refused. Wonder how much your life is worth relative to this man’s. Severely overestimate the value of your life. It is an act of delusion you have seen too many times among your clients. Try to deny your delusion. You can’t.

The executive is supine, paws in the air, crying.Pull out your wallet to show him pictures of your daughter. His eyes moisten with hope once more when he sees Ana’s yearbook headshot.

A pretty girl, isn’t she? He nods enthusiastically. Has her mother’s blonde hair and freckles. Those green eyes are mine. Here’s another one. I took this at a picnic.

Flip over the picture. The executive flinches, eyes squinting with horror and disgust. Those two emotions do mix. Remember them in the eyes of people seeing Ana for the first time, in the eyes of her own mother, your second wife, in the eyes of those people stumbling across the corpses of their countrymen that you shot and left out in the swelter to bloat and blacken, festering with flies and maggots.

She doesn’t have arms and legs, does she? He nods his head, then shakes it. Tears well in his eyes. How Ana plans to use this camera, I don’t know. All that poison your company pumped into her didn’t ruin her mind. She believes she can do things, and I always tell her, yes, you can.

Take the .38 snub-nose from your waistband. Spin the chamber. He begins thrashing like the other human beings you have seen trussed and waiting for certain interrogation, probable torture, and possible execution. In a courtroom, he would never have his throat tilted back like this, soft and white as Sammy’s exposed intestine. Before a judge and jury, he would have said we’re not responsible. But you know how responsibility works.

Inform him of your autobiography, beginning with how you volunteer as soon as you graduate from your father’s high school. You do your basic at Fort Dix, get your graduate degree from Tigerland, ship out from Oakland on a Pan Am flight, doing your best to memorize the shape of the stewardess in her pale blue uniform. You know you will not see a creature like her for at least another year, a year you spend on the verdant Ca Mau peninsula, where the hideously hot country dips its toe into the waters between the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, where even the water buffaloes are Communist, where unknown numbers of guerrillas, grown men and women with the bodies of children, hide in the tangled thickets of dipterocarp forests and swamps. Potbellied Air Force planes skim overhead, trailing herbicidal clouds. Sunlight glitters in the drifting dioxin mist. The luxuriant boscage of mangroves and cajuputs begins withering away. Count the days to your 20th birthday, marinate in your own sweat, dream of your first wife, a teenager just like yourself, and then, one day, wake up, survey the land from behind sandbag fortifications, and marvel at how God has taken His razor and shaved away a millennium of virescent flora from the earth’s clay face, leaving only the ashen stubble of dead, denuded trees.

Years after I came back to the States, I start getting these skin rashes. I start developing allergies. I start having dizzy spells. I didn’t add anything up. I just thought I was unlucky. Then I had my daughter.

His eyes are closed. He is sweating. It is hot in the van with the spotlight on. Feel a twinge of pity, because a human being might fake emotions, but cannot fake sweat. Unzip his track jacket. He smells human, an intimation of the way you reeked after a week, a month, three months without a shower or clean socks or clean underwear—indeed, any underwear at all most of the time—nothing clean about you except your rifle. He opens his eyes and mimes speech with new energy, grunting and moaning. Press your finger on his forehead until he stops trying to speak.

You’re saying that you were just a law student way back then. Well, if you’re not accountable, who is? Look at me. I killed people during the war. Even then I knew some of them weren’t really the enemy, just frightened people caught up in someone else’s war. Women, kids, old people. I pulled the trigger. But I didn’t pay for the bullet. Who paid for the bullet? We all did, didn’t we?

Cock the revolver. He screams, only a series of strangled huffs against the duct tape. He shakes his head as if a rat has a grip on his ear. Face the camera. Ignore him. His face is not the last thing you want to remember. Press the barrel of the gun to your temple. Breathe, and hope. Or is it pretend? That you will not simply fade away? That you will force a million people to think twice and discuss you on news radio, that a hundred thousand will feel the pull from the invisible filaments binding your fate and actions to theirs? All those people have forgotten something that you will remind them of. Something has been forgotten. Even you feel that you have forgotten something, but you don’t know what it is. You see Sammy’s face, and Lionel’s, and the faces of those people in that country, those people whose names you never knew. You see that the camera cannot see any of these things. Make this count. Hope—

Then it comes unbidden, a memory of this morning. Maribeth scrambling eggs and squeezing fresh juice from the Valencia oranges, plucked from the trees you planted. You own two acres of an orchard, visible from your kitchen window. You fed Ana spoonful by spoonful, sipped your coffee black. Kissed Maribeth and told her mahal kita. Kissed Ana and when she said see you tonight, you said goodbye, darling. The hardwood floor in the living room creaked as you walked across it. When you opened the front door, the sight of your maples stopped you at the threshold. You planted this grove years ago, and the leaves are turning, aglow in brilliant shades of red and gold. This happens every fall, but your wonder never ceases. Even though you know what’s coming, you know you’ll still be surprised. You turn around, wanting to tell them to come and see, but you can hear them in the kitchen, laughing about something you didn’t hear, and you close the door, softly.

Category: Fiction

 

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