First Chapter – Fucking Charlie
© Sternberg Press, the author
First the mosquitoes come. He hears them buzzing and thinks, “Females.”
Then he notices branches and green tropical leaves shaped like upsidedown
hearts with venomous dew-drops gliding down them like tears, and
draws out a long curved knife and slashes them because he has to clear
the way. The swish of the sword strengthens him and he feels muscular in
The air is humid. He turns his head to find his friends. Martin lies behind
him with large black earphones and shakes his head from side to side.
He wears green fatigues, which suit the forest like an evening gown in a
fund-raising gala. Andrew stands next to Martin and peels tangerines, leaning
against a two-hundred-year-old tropical tree. He asks Tibor whether his
parents are home and Tibor doesn't answer, because he is asking himself
– before it's too late – “Where exactly are we?”
The answer comes like a DJ's trick in a trance party and Tibor's heartbeat
starts to quicken – his head transmits short pressure waves and his
diaphragm twists into a spiral. “Oh no,” he thinks, and the answer bursts out
like a baby from the womb and floods his blood with a familiar helicopter
rattle, in long electric-guitar notes, and the noise only gets louder. His hair
gets messed up and flutters and he looks upwards – “Where is it? Is it landing?
Is it landing?” The sky dazzles him although it is dark and grey. “No – it
isn't Marlon Brando and these aren't The Doors, this is not a national park,
nor a hospital.” Tibor doesn't lie down with crushed bones after driving recklessly,
and doesn't drunkenly smash a mirror against the wall. The word hits
him with reality's full weight, and he realizes – “this is Vietnam.”
The forest vibrates with three distinct machine-gun shooting sounds.
Tibor wants to run but there is no way back since he has forgotten where
he came from. He recalls that when you hear shots you should duck, so he
ducks and it helps. The shots sound further away, except for one or two,
which every couple of minutes take a high-pitched ride next to his ear. He feels safe and turns to see where his buddies are – they're ducking down
as well, hiding in the undergrowth.
Martin asks, “What about the tower?” Tibor knows exactly what he is
He turns his head backwards and screams something that Martin can't hear.
Then he is holding a black World War II telephone receiver and, speaking
to Martin and into the phone simultaneously, he repeats orders in a voice
that is washed away by the wind and reports that he has an idea – Martin
will run to the left to cover him as he crawls through the undergrowth and
seizes the fucking Vietcong. He hears Andrew asking, “And what will I do?”
He doesn't know what Andrew is going to do until he hears himself saying,
“Get the sandwiches.”
Suddenly he's relieved of the pressure and his diaphragm rests forgotten,
cramp free, at the center of his body. His breath clears and his vision sharpens,
not because he dies from a stray bullet or experiences life after death but
because he reaches a state of Nirvana and his dream comes true as a
hallucination and the sky becomes clear and he sees the lighthouse that
they need to reach in order to liberate it from Charlie's fucking hands. The
machine-gun rattle is silenced and he's so concentrated on his target that
he doesn't hear the bullets. Tibor waves his right hand over his head like a
trident – signaling Martin to start the operation – and crawls like a lizard
on the wet ground over the dead leaves that have been cut by the curved
All the bullets in the world are being shot in Tibor's direction and he
thinks, “I'm dead,” but he doesn't get hurt and suddenly he isn't scared either
– he's angry. So he points his rifle in all directions like a terrified animal and
from every direction he sees a faceless soldier, with a head, a chest and
It's good, he can hit them like sitting ducks, because they're standing
and he's lying down. He loads his rifle with chubby rounds that freeze his
palm, points straight at a distant figure leaning on a machine-gun and notices
his arms shaking from the machine-gun jerk. Another figure is standing
next to the first.
Everything in the forest looks black – not only the sky, the ground and
the soldiers, but also the branches and trees and the mosquitoes flying
between the bullets.
He shoots the machine-gun operator in the head, and sees a terrified
silhouette ducking down and pointing its filthy gun in every direction because
it can't see anything. “Just don't duck too far down,” Tibor thinks,
shooting the figure in the leg. Before the son-of-a-bitch hits the ground, he
shoots the other leg. Bullets are whistling all around him. He reloads his rifle and mumbles to himself, “No matter how long it takes…” The words give
him strength and he points his gun to the right and sees three differently
sized men – standing at different distances from him – shooting over him
towards Martin, who's standing behind him.
He shoots the most distant figure first – because it's the most difficult
shot, and because this way the two front ones (the bigger figures) won't
notice their friend getting shot in the head and panic.
Here it comes. He shoots and the figure falls, and Tibor doesn't think
about death but about bowling and computer games and a purple vase. He
shoots the mid-sized figure that stands about ten meters from him, and
he probably misses because the figure is still standing. He fires a second
shot, this time at the chest and knows he has hit it, but nothing happens.
He fires a third shot and again the figure doesn't fall, but leans casually on
a branch, like James Dean in East of Eden, and continues to fire endless
bursts of rounds. Tibor loads his rifle again, mumbles, “Son-of-a-bitch”, aims
and shoots – this time in the face.
Before wasting another bullet he realizes that the soldier died long ago,
it's just that his rifle is on auto mode and keeps shooting forward. Tibor aims
his weapon again, kisses Jesus and his virgin mother (on the cross that
hangs from his neck) and three seconds after he has kissed the holy spirit,
he sends a bullet straight through the soldier's left knee, which tears the
guy's leg off at the thigh, bringing Charlie down like a rag doll with his gun
still on auto, shooting bursts of bullets to the trees and the sky.
Where's the third man? He reloads his gun, aims straight ahead and
then shakes it quickly from right to left because the man has vanished. No,
he hasn't – he's standing in the same spot and shoots like a machine towards
the jungle. Tibor must have lost his sense of direction for a moment.
The soldier's desperate shots drive Tibor's mind mad as a bumble-bee, and
he shoots and hits and squeezes the trigger again. The trigger clicks and Tibor
squeezes it a third time, and it clicks again, and the man has fallen down
long since, but Tibor is nuts. He doesn't stop squeezing the trigger, not even
shooting, just pointing the gun in the body's direction and squeezing again,
and the forest calms quietly down and the only sounds are the click and the
click and the rain that has decided to fall like water bombs.
When he realizes that there's nothing more and that it's all over and it's
only him and the rifle and the bodies hiding in the ground, he squeezes the
trigger again, hears the last click and listens to his own breath, heavy as if
from a deep sleep. He bends his arm under his head and rests his chin over
his wrist and almost closes his eyes.
He hears a rustle to his left. He turns in the direction of the sound and a
soldier with a uniform almost identical to his – almost is not enough – rises up over him with a curved sword just like his, and swings it up over him. Tibor
lifts his rifle and squeezes the trigger, hears the click, thinks, “I'm an idiot,”
and looks at the glistening sword, wet, approaching his face. He wants to
relax and stop thinking, but his body shudders with fear, out of control. And
his eyes follow the enemy's hand – his arm, his shoulder, his neck – down
to the Vietnamese face which looks cruel and victorious like a young stock
broker about to hit the jackpot and suddenly a shot rings out.
“I'm dead,” he thinks and realizes he has only shut his eyes and returns to the
Vietnamese face, which is now cramped and purplish yellow like the cover of the
King Crimson album, and Charlie falls back – slowly at first but then faster.
“That was awesome, huh?” Martin stands where the enemy stood, smiling,
his cheeks painted with mud, leaning on his rifle, a thin grey smoke rising
from its barrel. “Martin, what a genius,” Tibor thinks, lying back and breathing
heavily, the relief releasing so much oxygen into his blood that he's flying.
Martin gives him his hand and Tibor clasps it with love. He gets up and they
hug and pat each other's backs with a clumsiness that puffs out baking
powder from their green uniforms.
This is not the end of the story and not even the break – they are now
climbing a wet red-brick wall. Martin uses the rope and Tibor simply jumps
and clings to the surface. With his ten fingertips, he pulls his body up. His
arm muscles stretch and strain but his body is athletic and he's skilled – he
doesn't need the rope like Martin – that's why he's the unit commander. He
lays his stomach over the wall, looks down and sees Martin smiling from the
other side. He jumps down with ease.
When he lifts his head he sees the lighthouse and the dark sky and the
salty sea and the seagulls and pelicans, and he fills up with joy.
He walks towards the lighthouse and he feels like he's hovering because
he can't feel his feet, only his eyes, and they follow the peaceful
landscape – the blue sea; the beige-colored earth; white bird-dots, free of
any concern, flying over the beautiful lighthouse, which is clean and striped
like a sailor's suit. He sees himself (not in a mirror – through his own eyes)
like a Greek sculpture or an actor in some fifties' movie in color.
The mud must have dried up and crumbled off his face and toned it,
blowing off any remains of that horrible battle. Martin marches next to him,
and he also seems to be hovering, his hair fluttering like a shampoo commercial
in the salty sea air.
As they enter the lighthouse, they hear a seagull cry and the door squeaks
shut behind them. The seagull keeps shrieking and although there's nothing
dreadful about seagull shrieks, the sound makes Tibor nervous and he tries
to recall what his mission is.
He looks up – perhaps because Martin told him to or because he knows
that this is where he should look – and sees a colorful glass dome covering
the lighthouse from within – like cathedral windows without figures or stories,
only shapes chosen by one kaleidoscope moment – and he suddenly realizes
that the seagulls are trying to warn him. What of? Of himself.
His pupils dilate and he calls out in an echoing voice – “Father” – without
moving his eyes from the intoxicating sight, but Martin doesn't answer and
Tibor turns around to see where he has gone. He stands solitary under a
colorful kaleidoscope, looking around, and lifts his eyes again to the glass
dome, the pelican and seagull shrieks deafening his ears. Who is about to
arrive? The answer is to be found in the glass dome. He knows that anything
that comes into his mind will actually come to pass at that very moment so
he tries to empty his mind because he knows he has a tendency to think of
disasters. He notices the silhouettes of small symbolic birds over the glass
dome. “Where did Andrew disappear to with the sandwiches?”
There's no movement up there and the stillness is freezing and the gulls
are silent and Tibor knows it's because of the storm that should arrive any
minute now. He tries to silence his brain.
A long seagull beak, and another, and another, pierce the dome forcefully
and cut the glass leaving blue wounds, and the clear, colorful sky falls upon
him with shreaks of terror and he sees the fine metal bars that held the
glass in place crumble too and the whole structure topples down on him. He
cries again – “Father!” – but Martin is not there and a red glass triangle falls
down, determined to injure his heart.
His diaphragm hurts again and he squeezes his eyes shut – then opens
– and he's still alive, surrounded by darkness and the gull screams – “Go
on.” Dim and human, he recognizes his wife lying in bed like a turtle on its
back, cramping with pain, screaming and moaning – “Aough.”
He forgets his dream completely – the war and the lighthouse – and
calms down because reality is very familiar to him. He looks at his wife
groaning until his ears become accustomed to the room temperature and
the bed squeaks, then he asks his wife in a voice weaker than he expected,
“Are you OK?”
His wife says, “No,” and groans. Tibor knows exactly what the reason is
but he's happy to come back from his sleep because he knows something
unpleasant happened in the dream and the blanket feels so good and the
cold on his face and neck reminds him that tomorrow morning or today – he
doesn't know what time it is – the technician should come and fix the heating.
But his wife is sweating, and Tibor throws the blanket off, puts his feet
on the floor and moves from a boiling steam bath into freezing cold water.
End of First Chapter