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Lark and Termite

By Gary Gray,2014-11-04 20:17
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Lark and Termite

ALSO BY JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS

MotherKind

    Shelter

    Fast Lanes

    Machine Dreams

    Black Tickets

LIMITED EDITIONS

The Secret Country

    How Mickey Made It

    Counting

    Sweethearts

for Elie (1974–2005),for Audrey (Boulder, 1975),

    and for Cho,

    infant boy born and died in the tunnel at No Gun Ri, July 1950

    GI’s corrupted the native term han’guk saram, which means Korean, into the derisive slang

    “gook,” which was indelicately applied to all Asians, even in later undeclared wars.

    —ROBERT J. DVORCHAK, Battle for Korea

    Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man

    his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

    —WILLIAM FAULKNER, The Sound and the Fury

    Is your mouth a little weak

    When you open it to speak, are you smart?

    —LORENZ HART AND RICHARD RODGERS,

    “My Funny Valentine,” from Babes in Arms, 1936

    Contents

    July 26

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    Winfield, West Virginia

    Nonie

    Termite

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    Winfield, West Virginia

    Nonie

    Termite

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    July 27

    Winfield, West Virginia

    Nonie

    Termite

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    July 28

    Winfield, West Virginia

    Nonie

    Termite

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    July 31

    Winfield, West Virginia

    Nonie

    Termite

    Louisville, Kentucky

    Acknowledgments

    July 26

    North Chungchong Province, South Korea

    JULY 26, 1950

    Corporal Robert Leavitt

    24th Infantry Division

    He’d shipped out to Occupied Japan in December ’49; whatever baby was a tucked seed insideLola’s sex, a nub the size of a tail-bone. You want to marry me? You going to tell your mother

     His mother wouldn’t care, he told her, his mother was dead, he wanted awho you’re marrying?

    woman who’d been around, he wanted her, he’d got her and he wasn’t leaving her, he neverwould, not really, was she hearing him? I hear you, I’m hearing you. Mother may I, mother me.

    Left you too soon, didn’t she. Left you to me. But he’s gone from Lola now, gone for months;

    the baby is inside her, cushioned and pure, isolate. Winter at the base in Tokyo was likeclocking a job in uniform, all of Occupied Japan an American colony with its own clubs andbars. Tokyo felt fake, soft, a movie set. When Colonel MacDowell invited select soldiers tolearn Korean in a pet project he called Language Immersion Seoul, Leavitt said yes to minimaladvancement and a change of duty. He was in Korea by April, one of sixty LIS army enlisted meninstalled at KMAG. Korean Military Advisory Group was a remnant: a few hundred army brass andtheir support staff of minions and enlisted men. They’d nothing to do but stay put, a supposedsymbol of preparedness overseeing largely symbolic Republic of Korea troops. Leavitt imaginedhis baby moving in a fluid, muscular nest he couldn’t touch or feel while the Americanmilitary flexed its own small fist in divided territory, but KMAG’s isolated outpostdisappeared the June morning North Korea invaded. Four weeks of near-constant combat since area continuous day and night bled into Leavitt’s brain. Battle and the mayhem of retreat havechanged the taste of his saliva and the smell of his sweat, but late July is Lola’s time. Anyhour, any moment. If the baby was already born, an armed forces telegram might follow Leavittfor weeks across the rutted fields and dirt roads of this bloody rout. He tells himself he

    won’t need any telegram. Lola’s voice drifts close unbidden and it’s like she’s standing inthe war next to him. No matter how loud the ordnance or artillery, how loud his own heart

    You found your mother becausehammers, he hears her. Words she said when he could touch her.

    she wanted you to. All those years, her asthma pulled the air from that little store while yourfather stood in the doorway. She wanted you out of there.

    He keeps moving. Near noon of this infernally hot day, Lola’s voice moves him forward. Two orthree emptied villages in the immediate area constitute Leavitt’s detail: “evacuation” ofrefugees whose unrecorded exodus proceeds apace with the American retreat. These double traintracks running west to Hwanggan are a godsend, boundary and direction for what is otherwisepanicked flight and chaos. Replacements under Leavitt’s command are soft recruits fromOccupation forces in Japan, rushed in by boat and train to reinforce besieged American troops.Most have never seen combat or heard artillery fire. They’re raw troops moved out at firstlight into countryside mired in another century. Rifle fire punctuates the darkness before andbehind them; they’ve heard the terms “circular front” and “infiltrator’s war;" they’resleepless and jumpy and they’re right to be scared. Many of them will die before Leavitt canteach them a thing. He has nothing to teach the Koreans in his charge, but the urgent crowd oftwo or three hundred thins and lengthens to a moving column once Leavitt signals the platoon todirect them off the road, onto the tracks. Easier here, a semblance of control, but there’s noevacuation possible, certainly none directed by Americans. No numbered Hangul signatures insomeone’s logbook. No logbook. Everything in South Korea is clogged or broken. Equipmentshipped quickly from American bases in Japan is constantly displaced; troop movementmaddeningly slowed by refugees streaming away from the fighting. The South Korean inhabitantsof numberless rural villages flee behind whatever resistance American troops can offer, theirmud-wattle houses left empty, outdoor cooking fires still warm. There are conflicting accounts:Chinese Yaks or American F-8os strafed the area last night in advance of troop movement. Thatchroofs, saturated by weeks of rain, burn wet and smoky once they’re set afire. Smoke veils theair like souls in drifting suspension, declining the war’s insistence everyone move on.

    The heat is dense, thick, and the rice fields at dawn are bright green emanations, alive withthe sick fragrance they call night soil. Piled waste from countless country latrines, shoveledinto pails and buckets and leaky ox carts, fertilizes the earth to yield and yield until thefields themselves are night. The spongy ground sinks underfoot, ripened and dark as anyfermented secret. The ground breathes. Decay held still too long, Leavitt thinks. He keepsmoving. Lola talks to him. Nothing is wasted, nothing is waste. You think you didn’t need toknow exactly what you know? How many boys your age blow a horn like you can and then enlist in

     Philly is gone. Villages here are encampmentspeacetime? You wanted out of Philly mighty bad.

    sunk in a time before radios or jeeps, before horns or jazz or English words. Skinny, wary dogswolf any shred of slaughtered chicken, duck, fish gut dropped to the ground while women tendoutdoor fires and infants slung in cloth podaegi ride the backs of girls. Older babies stagger

    across the patches of ground reserved each habitation and squat when they like, teachingthemselves, their trousers cut out so the cheeks of their asses plump like cleft fruit. Nowthose babies are gathered up, quiet in the heat. Lola says lines from the beginning, like theycan start all over. You know me now, don’t you. Say you do. Whisper. She’s his own phantom, a

    smoke drifting close to him. The war makes ghosts of them all. Fifty years, a hundred years,they’ll still be here: vestige mist moving along a double rail bed near a wobble of a stream,the South Koreans in their white clothes, the GIs in mud-crusted khaki.

    Since Osan, Leavitt doesn’t think beyond the war. Osan was July 5; Leavitt knows it was aWednesday—he wrote the date and day on a letter to Lola the morning of the attack. Forty-eighthours later, one of three survivors in his group, Leavitt moved to another platoon. He moved toanother, then another, moving up incrementally in rank as his superiors were killed and notreplaced. He commands a platoon now and he sees that war never ends; it’s all one war despiteplayers or location, war that sleeps dormant for years or months, then erupts and lifts itsflaming head to find regimes changed, topography altered, weaponry recast. The Red Chinese andthe NKPA are only the latest aggressors to pour across Korea like a death tide. Leavitt

    imagines thousands of war dead, disbelieving their own deaths, continuing to die and die on thesame swaths of contested land. The American troops press on through heavy air, discountingtheir apprehensions as vague scent, cloud scrim, their own shot nerves, but Leavitt senses thedead furling like smoke from the vented earth, wandering the same ground as the living. AnyAmerican who stood at Osan and Chochiwon, at Kum River, should be dead. The majority are dead.Korea is choked with phantoms who will never get home. The Koreans themselves are phantoms,moving with their bundles and baskets, their children, their old people.

    Even the villagers’ footfalls sound ghostly. Diverted onto the railroad tracks, they keep adull time, their sandals slap-thudding the muddy ties. At least they’re off the road, or whatpasses for a road. The Americans traverse dirt trails they’ve broadened, rutted, bled intowith trucks and bodies. All roads lead here, to these double tracks, to Lola and away from her.

    Married, they’d stayed in her room for days before he left, taking longer and longer as timeran out. He shoved the bed against the wall and put the mattress flat on the floor. There theywoke and slept on a stable continent whose silence never betrayed them, turning each other incircles like a clock whose two hands remained in circular, continuous alarm. Crying, Lola wasnearly impassive, her face wet and still as though she couldn’t or wouldn’t give in to sobs.He’d never known a woman who cried like her, like she’d forgotten she was ever a child.Holding him with her silky hands, her face an inch from his, she breathed into his mouththrough parted lips, and her eyes showed faint lines at the corners when she smiled. In fiveyears, she told him, she’d begin to look her age. Good, he’d said, I’ll be ready. They’vebeen apart now longer than they were together and he feels he’s more than made up the eight

    You found her, didn’tyears between them. He can protect her now, even from herself, from him.

    you, on the floor. She kept vanishing for years and then she was finally gone. You’re here,

     Breathing, he keeps moving. He’d thought death leached air away in gasps, in thelet her go.

    fishlike toneless labor of his mother’s asthmatic wheezing. Death was small then, like theclick of a light turned off, or a sigh of air escaping from a radiator. Not here. Death surgesin the ground like a bass line, vast, implacable.

    The past he remembers, Lola, his stateside time in the service, Japan, even Seoul before theinvasion, seems to have occurred in an adjacent dimension not quite connected to him, and themirage he lived as a kid in Philly is cut adrift. The tenements and storefronts, the glitteryconcrete and asphalt, the chain-link fences bordering throbbing neighborhoods miles from theLiberty Bell, are some dream he no longer believes. Barber’s poles ran their spi-raled colorsin the morning smash and bang, and every deli and bodega pledged its loyalties to a numbersrunner smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at a back table. Dented trash cans stood sentinelby the curbs, agleam in the pinky bronze light of late-summer afternoons. Neon signs flashedhot-pink PIZZA and lime green BILLIARDS all night as smoke borne on jukebox phrases eased fromthe doors of bars. On Shabbat mornings he played stickball, marbles, basketball with theItalian kids, the envy of his Jewish friends because his parents weren’t religious.

    Noon on he worked in the grocery for his old man; they lived in the cramped apartment over thestore. Every school day, three hours after classes, Leavitt worked for the old man. His mothercleared a shelf under the counter for his books, found a swivel stool with a back, told him tostay in it and do his homework if the old man wasn’t there. As he often wasn’t. Mostly, helived elsewhere, and ranted and drank when he was around. She was the one who kept it going.Kept the radio going too, tuned low to Benny Goodman, Nelson Riddle. She was all for thatdreamtime music, played in ballrooms and swank clubs she’d never see. Leavitt learned clarinetin the school band, then played a beat-up cornet until she traded some junkie musiciangroceries and ice cream for his trumpet. You practice, Bobby, she’d say. Sounds nice, she’dtell him. After she died, collapsed on the floor beside the old man’s treasured refrigeratorcase, Leavitt refused to even enter the place. Sixteen years old, he used the separateapartment entrance and narrow stairs that bypassed the storefront until he moved out. The oldman soon changed the locks, and Leavitt lived with friends or girls. Two years later, in ’45,he graduated high school with no family in attendance. Days, for three years, he drove adelivery truck for a liquor wholesaler. Nights he played with one band or another in bars and

    clubs, had a run of nearly a year with a white jazz band that played downtown and wore suits.But he liked playing the black clubs, where he learned more and made less, and the pros calledhim Whitey with tacit affection. He was good enough to patch gigs together, but there wasfinally no reason to stay in Philly

    One cold November day in ’48 he enlisted on impulse and the army bused him south three dayslater; he took to basic so hard the brass kept him on at Fort Knox for seven months, assistingdrill instructors. Fort Knox billed itself as the “Home of Armor,” but Leavitt found he hadno interest in driving tanks. They were dark, heavy, close inside, the men clutched together ina mechanized hole, breathing one another’s air. The tank crews loved the big guns andconsidered themselves invulnerable, but Leavitt wanted out, into infantry, where he could seeand hear and move on his own. He’d come in fit but he trained compulsively, embraced armyhierarchy and chain-of-command etiquette, pushed himself to attain firsts in every drill. Hesaw it all as protection, survival, his own invulnerability: if he attained perfect form, heincreased his options while his mind-set remained his own, and the essential privacy hecultivated was assured. Nights he lay in an upper bunk, silently practicing fingerings, histrumpet fit to his mouth, tonguing the familiar mouthpiece while men snored around him.

    The first weekend basic ended, he made his way to Onslow’s Club in nearby Louisville.Onslow’s offered booze, music, girls who lived upstairs and quietly sold their favors. NotLola. She had three rooms on the top floor and didn’t sell herself to anyone. Onslow playeddecent piano with a dependable no-frills drummer while Lola sang standards and blues. He wasold enough to be Lola’s father and then some, arthritic, “retired,” with his cane and hisbad knees, his once-powerful arms and barrel chest, and his hamlike hands coaxed anunbelievably fluid sound from the best-tuned Steinway grand in Louisville. The second nightLeavitt took his horn and sat in. By the third set Onslow said they should make it a regularthing. He’d pay Leavitt in free drinks and food, girls if he wanted them. Leavitt didn’t; hewanted Lola. When she finished he slipped unbidden up the stairs behind her, honed in on her,completely certain. The sounds of the club under them throbbed in the walls as she ascendedabove him through the narrow stairwell, hips and thighs a gauzy oval in her pale sheath skirt.Moving in near darkness like a slow, detached shape, she turned on the stairs as she paused tolook down at him. Leavitt sees that shape now in his fragmented sleep or behind his eyes,glowing, asexual, like a flicker of light opening into himself. He can’t shake the feelingthat seeing her, wanting her, playing behind her in the club, making love to her days andnights in her rooms that became his rooms, were practice for staying alive. Then as now hemoved in what he couldn’t quite have, get to, reach, until her body gave it up to him likeflames he sparked inside a darkness. She was luminous ground he worked and sowed, sweated forand lost. They found each other in blinding, convulsive instants that seared him open. You sure

     He movesyou want this? It’s not me. It’s you, finding me like I’m your last chance.alongside the Koreans, touches the service revolver strapped to his waist in its snug holster.He can’t control his thoughts. Walking, he fantasizes being with Lola one more time andshooting them both while he’s still inside her, ecstatic, desperate to stay with her, not todie here. He imagines white explosive orgasmic nothingness before he thinks about her body asit must look and feel now, swollen full, the baby nearly born. I’m carrying high and round,

    tight as a drum full of water. I know it’s a boy—he turns like a fish and he sees and hears

     He thinks of the baby enclosed in herfor you, every sound, every thought I haven’t written.

    darkness and hurtles away from them, sucked into a space behind his own eyes where his brainkeeps time and his blood beats in his ears.

    Carefully, he moves on with his tribe. He’s a refugee in his own life, sans family orpossessions. Like the Koreans, he owns what he carries. He thinks of these farmers, old men,women and children, moving across exposed ground with no weapons but his and those of the boyshe commands, and grips his rifle tighter. The flat green rice fields are behind them now. Greenand brown hills in the near distance come together like a landscape of loins and thighs, smoothfrom far off, mud ruddled and steep underfoot. The NKPA had dressed in peasant garb to surroundAmerican forces at Chonan, and command changed twice in one night. Leavitt cut his way back

    alone through barren, rounded hills just like these: tracks and worn trails crossed with runoffand scrub pine and verge, nothing to hold on to, nowhere to hide. What was left of hisscattered company took four days to find their own lines, straggling groups of three or fourretreating piecemeal through barrage and sniper fire and continuous NKPA incursion. The lastday, he’d met up with Tompkins.

    “One minute test,” Tompkins had repeated in Korean, “where are the fucking ROK?” Taejon hadfallen. Eighty thousand Republic of Korea soldiers had simply taken off their uniforms anddisappeared, dressed in white, and joined the southward flow of refugees. Numerous Americankids would have done the same if white clothes had offered any protection. Instead they fledwhile they could walk, leaving M1s and Browning automatics too heavy to carry. “Babies,”Tompkins said. “White man’s gotta have guns. Now command will hump them back here to pick uptheir goddamn rifles, and whoever isn’t dead will get his ass creamed.”

    Just off the transport ship from the States, Leavitt had signed on to play swing at theOfficers’ Club in Tokyo. Dance music and standards, home away from home. The place was acement-block rectangle called the Match Box, fitted out with ceiling fans and a central raisedplatform for the band. That first night, he and Tompkins replaced musicians who’d finishedtheir rotations and shipped out. Tompkins was a drummer; he liked telling everyone straight offhe was Seminole and did any jack man want to discuss it. He was a big guy with a hawklike nose,a nose that could pass for Jewish without the wide jaw, the heavy-lidded, nearly black eyes,the high, broad bones of the face. Leavitt misheard his name; at the end of the first set, heasked why the hell Tompkins’ mother named him Irving if he was Seminole. “My mother was Semi-

    Ervin. That’s Spec. 4nole,” Tompkins said, “and my father was a big dumb cracker named

    Ervin Tompkins, Belle Glade, Florida: inland, near Lake Okeechobee. Plenty of Seminoles withcracker names. What about you, Philly boy, your old man named Irving? He like his boy playingjazz?”

    “His name is Meyer,” Leavitt said, “and no, I’ve not seen him lately.”

    “That so,” Tompkins answered. “Sounds like you might have scratched up a living here andthere with that horn. You twenty-two, twenty-three? You got four or five years on most of theseboys.” Tompkins was nearly thirty, an old man; he’d missed World War II serving time inKissimmee. Involuntary manslaughter, first offense. By the time he got out the musicians he’dplayed with in West Palm and Boca had died in Europe or moved on. The recruiter didn’t seem tomind that Tompkins had gone to jail for hitting a drunken adversary too hard. Tompkins figuredthe peace- time army was a better meal ticket than digging ditches, and here he was, in anOccupation force of uniformed kids. “You and me are senior partners,” he said. “Most ofthese boys are so snot-nosed and soft nobody’d take their money in Hialeah.”

    Florida, to hear Tompkins tell it, was full of towns that might have been named for women:Hialeah, Sanibel, Kissimmee, Belle Glade. Storybook names for storybook places. Korea was nostorybook. After Chonan, he and Tompkins traveled by night and hid by day when the NKPA moved.They found the swarm of the retreat east of Taejon and were told to wait a day forreplacements. What’s left of the 24th moves now in broad daylight, visible as fleas on apup’s belly, flanks exposed, easy to surround on flat, low land. They’re setting upperimeters in a sea of moving refugees, with nothing but bazookas and 4.2 mortars to lobagainst Chinese tanks.

    MacDowell is dead, shot in the chest at the fall of Seoul, but the ROK 6th Division he advisedhad defended the approach to Chunchon through numerous guerrilla incursions. The 6th was combatready and held for three days, until adjoining units on both flanks collapsed and fled, leavingthem no choice but retreat. Leavitt supposes most commanding officers actually fighting thisdisastrous string of first stands are dead; who knew if MacDowell had prolonged their lives ordoomed them by inventing Language Immersion Seoul? GHQ would have shipped the 24th over withindays of the invasion anyway. Leavitt and Tompkins would have landed in Korea as disoriented,stupidly arrogant and panicked as all the rest.

    Instead, relative veterans, they move in a hard scare more like anger than fear. Not so stupid.The first months with LIS were an extension of the illusion in which KMAG functioned: theillusion there was time. Time for a first group of sixty enlisted men to learn phonetic Koreanwhile they “assisted agricultural projects;" time to minimally increase forces withoutalarming politicians happily demobilizing a successful American military that, after all,deserved a resumption of civilian life. Language Immersion Seoul only deepened Leavitt’sbelief in language and sound as the only tincture of reality, particularly in this place; allelse in Korea seemed hallucination, the immense unraveling of a completely foreign history. SixROK instructors drilled LIS six hours a day, six days a week, ten men to a classroom;mimeographed texts on Korean customs and history, tape recorders, timed recitations ofromanized Hangul phrase and response. Daily minute tests were evaluated for tonal accuracy.They were granted weekend leave based on twice-a-session minute test scores; the tests nowseemed particularly asinine and yet vitally important. The slight, finely built ROK instructorswere polite and consenting except during drills and tests, when they betrayed an urgency andfrustration that were infectious. Leavitt heard the hatred and distrust, the discomfort, theresentment in their voices, as warning and knowledge. They were angry and their country wasdefenseless; everyone would pay. Meaning didn’t matter; the real content of the words was insound itself. Leavitt punched out answering phrases in sliding nasal tones that were preciseand nonverbal as musical scales. At night he decoded innocuous phrases about spicy food or theconversion of miles to kilometers, aware KMAG knew nothing. Or KMAG knew and could do nothing.

    IgotThey were minding a volcano. The ROK instructors stood poised like bantams, shouting.

     Which of the following items do you have? They communicated an instinctive,chungeso issuseyo?

    coiled tension Leavitt now recognized as fear.

    Officially the newly imported enlisted men were support staff; afternoons they filed orders andrequisitions, made supply runs for the mess. Leavitt and Tompkins were partnered in their ownso-called agricultural project; they drove a supply truck to the docks for fish, vegetables,freshly slaughtered meat, maekju beer, and rice vodka called soju that could take your head

    off. Tompkins was happy in Seoul. He used supply runs to scope out clubs, bars, brothels; heliked the native food, sushi and barbecued kalbi ccim, pungent ccigae stew. This food is

    healthy, he’d tell Leavitt. You seen any fat Koreans? You notice how they turn seventy beforetheir skin wrinkles? You’re no Korean, Leavitt told him, no matter how much kimchi you eat.But Tompkins insisted they drink ssanghwa tea in the barracks at night; he maintained the

    bitter herbs extended concentration. Their scores on minute tests were always highest; nightsthey were confined to quarters, they practiced scatting Korean phrases just as they’dimprovised swing at the Match Box. In Tokyo they’d watched officers jitterbug with theirperfectly coiffed Japanese dates. The women were child-sized girls in upswept hairdos andsheath-style kimonos. They side-fastened their dresses right up to their chins with a hundredhooks and eyes: a married officer on extended rotation might buy them a little house orapartment near the base. Tompkins scoffed at them: “Fuck the white man and the white man fuckyou.”

    “Like you’re not white,” Leavitt remarked.

    “White like you white, Philly Jew boy. No Florida cracker tell you I’m white, or you neither.We knew how to fight before we joined any army.” Tompkins smiled. “These good ole boys gottheir asses on another powder keg in Korea.”

    “Yeah, well your Seminole ass is here as well.”

    “Ain’t that the way,” Tompkins said softly. “I need me a hell of a whaling.”

    Those weeks in Seoul before the war, Tompkins liked to pretend the Korean whores fucked himinstead of the other way around. Every day around four or five, he’d say, “I feel likegetting out. Wanna talk about it?”

    Leavitt would repeat his stock response: “We can talk about it.”

    “You sweet bohunk,” Tompkins would say. “What the hell, no Jew has hair like that.” He’dgrab Leavitt’s tight blond curls and hold on.

    “ChonThe papa-san at the place Tompkins frequented always looked delighted to greet them.

     he’d grin, payment in advance, no matter how stridently Tompkins insistedbui, chon bui, ”

    the girls ssage haejuseyo, make it cheaper. “You big minam Americans,” he would tell them,

    gesturing with an extended forefinger, “you number one men.”

    Tompkins always demanded a full hour. Leavitt would follow him up the stairs and take theadjoining room. The walls were, literally, paper: floor-to-ceiling screens that turned one roominto two cell-like cubicles, each with a bed, a sink, a chair, a kerosene lamp on a table.Shadows, seemingly those of a giant and his children, moved across the walls as Tompkins stoodor turned or lay down, lifting one partner and then another an arm’s length above him asthough she were a pet or a baby. Leavitt closed his eyes, allowed an angel to kneel before him.He wouldn’t put himself inside them: he adhered to this small fidelity like religion, likeanother charm, enjoying the control itself, the tension and the heat. The women laughed at himand blew him kisses, poised themselves naked over him to tempt him. It didn’t matter whichwoman, which girl. In Korean, he’d tell her what to do, how to dance, moist in the littleroom, not dancing as she did in the bars but as she had in her village, slow ceremonial dancethat was ritual and folklore. They’d all come from a village, years back or not so long ago,all the women and the girls. A girl who’d grown up in Seoul might protest she didn’t knowthose dances, but he’d keep asking, say he knew her mother had taught her, back when she had amother. She’d dance then, as they all did, slowly, a prayer beyond language, a shape moving inafternoon light or near darkness. The swanlike turn of the arms, the flex of the arched feet,were always the same. She would arch her back as the last sequence of movements ended, hertorso very still. Sometimes she would cry and Leavitt would ask her to lie down, open towardhim in his chair, touch herself until the crying stopped or turned to sighs and whisperedgasps. The only sex they responded to was with themselves, and they seemed to think him sostrange or non-threatening they occasionally forgot he was there, or perhaps shared theirprivacy as a gift. Regardless, when the performance seemed genuine enough and time was nearlygone, he’d stop the girl and pull her to him, so aroused he was shaking. Finally she’dminister to him with her mouth, both of them listening as Tompkins rammed himself again andagain into the youngest, most petite girl he could find. Tompkins called her his lucky star.Leav-itt could hear him call out, nearly crying with adoration, begging her, stroking andpraising her. Tompkins paid his favorite girl and her pals with sonmul and tambae, gifts and

    cigarettes, separate from the papa-san, and by the second week the two or three youngest wouldbe waiting. Some nights they all went with Tompkins; they seemed to demand this of the papa-sanas their due if business was slow.

    Afterward, Tompkins would say he felt guilty, but the older ones gave you the clap. “Tight andlight is right,” he’d say.

    Tompkins is right about something; he’s still alive and not a scratch on him. Leavitt isunscathed as well; they’re fucking charmed, Tompkins says, voodoo san, but it was Tompkins’

    voodoo. Leavitt feels a bruised apprehension deep in his gut, like it’s only a matter of timebefore a soft core inside him betrays the hard, fast reflexes he’s honed to a pitch. Tompkinsplays war like it’s filthy sport. I’m not really here, he liked to whisper, but MacDowell hadpicked them both, let them in on secrets that detonated.

    Leavitt supposes MacDowell’s idea wasn’t wrong. If KMAG had imported thousands of infantrytwo years ago, enrolled all of them in MacDowell’s LIS program instead of the sixty they’dimported through Tokyo GHQ, the NKPA might not have poured in so fast, driven their unresistedtank convoys down the one paved road. The Imperial Road, Koreans called it, the old royalhighway from Pyongyang to Seoul, but it was peacetime and the road was empty. GHQ allowedColonel MacDowell his little hobby. Now Leavitt wonders how many LIS guys aren’t dead orcaptured. The few left are all the more alien for their use of a borrowed language understoodin scraps. Rumors are passed on and revised in languages secret from one another. Nearlysecret. Leavitt understands a portion of what he hears until he stops listening, concentratesinstead on getting the Koreans to a secure location.

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