Lily’s arrival had many effects, one of which being old Mr. Me having to answer to her curiosity. Since the moment old Mr. Me and May Linh had first agreed on the contract I had written, we each respected each other’s silence. We had that capacity to spend a lot of time together, every evening on the porch for example, with hardly saying anything. It was enough that we were there together and I could ogle her. Indeed, her nudity and the silence, other than the jungle’s infernal ruckus, were like an oasis.
That one evening, we were eating on the porch and I think both of them had done the cooking. They were both nude, of course, but I found them particularly beautiful. Lily had changed the radio station. The radio used to be tuned to classical music, and May Linh had chosen the station. But now, after May Linh had played the piano all afternoon, it was now Lily’s air time and she was playing American oldies: rhythm & blues, Motown, jazz, what the Americans left in their wake in this southeastern Asian country, I guess.
Lily was playing the very station where I had heard that wonderful female radio host’s voice when I was on my way to pick up May Linh, and Lily I know now. So I was paying attention if I could hear that voice again but I guess she was on the air in the afternoon only. In any case, this other type of music changed the atmosphere and made it somehow more casual, more relaxed. Maybe was it also because of today’s events? I didn’t know. In front of me there was the ocean and the night sky and the familiar ruckus of the billions bugs and snakes living on my property and, suddenly, a trumpet or a harmonica or a brass band sounded very different than the first time I had heard those songs.
Lily seemed to know the words of many of the songs though and that was a big surprise for me. And she could sing. I could tell May Linh was curious and interested.
So we were eating, they were drinking white wine, with ice cubes in it, and I was drinking beer, when Lily asked me:
“Say Mr. You, what did you do in your life so you can afford to retire this way? I mean here with us, May Linh and me? Were you a great inventor? An entrepreneur? An investor? An artist? Were you born rich? Did you do something great in your life? Mr. You, what did you do in your life?”
So many questions all of a sudden!
I thought of it for a second.
“Well I did none of these things,” I answered, “and I don’t think I was great by any means.” This was true. I didn’t feel I was special in any way and I certainly didn’t do anything special other than try to pay the rent every month. “No, I was not born rich and if I am maybe a self-made man of sort it doesn’t mean that I ever got any fortune of my own. I’ve been a salary man most of my life, working construction and, later, writing for whatever publication which would publish my accounts of all the shit I was witnessing, and pay me. And what I got I spent on my ‘loved ones’, room and board, education, culture, vacations and what not.”
I wondered if I should tell Lily, so young and so lovely – nude, oh so nude, and May Linh as well, listening – that in fact I didn’t think there was much greatness anywhere. Yes some human beings have reached that level, maybe, but for the rest of us, I was always more appalled by humanity than in awe. From the get go I may say.
I was a child in a small western French town during the war, WWII, and one day, the allied, i.e. the Americans, who were fighting the Germans occupying France, bombed out our neighborhood. I was used to the sirens and the bombings already but this one was real close this time and my father for once relented and took us down in the cave. “This one is for us,” he said. My family and me and every one from the building went down to the cave. And I could tell people were worried and hurrying. I was just a kid but I could tell everyone was scared, even my dad, so I hung to my book. I remember. 20.000 leagues under the sea. Captain Nemo.
And it came. Boom boom boom, the whole fucking building was shaking and you’re breathing dust and lights go off and you’re in the dark, total darkness. So you want to say something to your loved ones to let them know you’re alright and everyone is screaming and, on top of the cacophony of the bombs, allied bombs for Christ’s sake, comes also the cacophony of every one trying to reassure their family and it is totally dark and you’re in the abyss and the thunder becomes unbearable like the shrill screams of women and the stink of fear filling up the clammy air and before all hope was lost I was imagining that one of those invisible animals, the translucent ones like those living in caves or deep in the oceans, would come and float by me and save me and I could almost see its faint light and there was silence at last in my head.
The thing is, decades later – what am I saying, centuries later – this murdering shit is still happening, just about everywhere. I mean, some fucks in Africa are exterminating each other, hundreds of thousands of them, with machetes! Machetes!!!! With a machete, you have to kill the guy while he’s pleading for his life, and his wife, and his kids, and his folks. That’s very hard to do, to kill a man while he’s pleading. That’s why it is a lot easier to shoot him from afar with a Kalashnikov or a bomb. And it makes no difference for the folks whether they’re butchered in many pieces or if they get a stealth bomb coming from bumfuck somewhere exploding their home. Technology? Machete? Who cares? At the end it’s exactly the same. But it’s still a lot harder to kill someone with a machete, up close. So the bombing business is doing well.
Lily was listening intently but I knew May Linh was understanding my line of thoughts. May Linh knew of bombings. We were from the same generation in a way. And each time, friends or foes, it was the Americans bombing us. Now that I thought of it, it is something else May Linh and I had in common.
“Anyway,” I said to Lily, “after that bombing, we were all haggard in a bleak morning of spring. I could see all the destructions; I could tell that those who had taken refuge in the school across the street were vaporized. There was not a single building unscathed but ours was still standing. But what really struck me the next morning was to come upon two girls I knew a little and they still had their white first communion’s robes on and the robes were bloody red and these two girls were very dead. I only then realized the bombing happened on a Sunday because Catholic’s communion is on Sunday. Sunday Bloody Sunday, like the Irish would say later. And I was appalled by the sight of these two young girls in the bloody white robes and I knew right there and then that, if this could happen to them, just like that, no help could ever come from anywhere, man or god. And barbarism, and barbarity, is still happening, a lot, almost everywhere in the world at one time or another, with a machete if you cannot afford a machine gun. And there’s no help coming from the skies. Aliens maybe but that’s a long bet. Anyway my dad died soon after that, not gloriously to say the least, and I’ve been poor, very poor, ever since.”
So I lit a cigarette and had a sip of beer, that’s what I do when I talk too much and don’t know where to go from there. Then I looked around. There I was in my secluded house by the beach, in security at last, and there was May Linh and Lily, both nude, both beautiful, listening. What was I going to do? Lie my heart out?
“So,” I said, “to answer your question, I did what I could to make the world better. I really tried,” and I knew I sounded corny and meek. “And I got a chance to travel and see the world. Everywhere I went it was always the same shit, good guys and bad guys, and you never know who wins. But, as time went by, I came to figure nobody wins, me the least.”
It got me thinking. Back home in the white occidental world, they’re always scared shit of a crisis or another. The 29’ crisis, the oil crisis, the subprime crisis, the market crisis and whatnot and everybody is running scared so many crisis there are. And the very people running round like chicken are the richest people on the planet. I guess that’s why they’re so worried, because they feel they have SO MUCH to lose. Then try to explain to some rich fucks that a crisis, I mean a crisis, is when you have a foreign army coming into your home and killing everyone with a sword. Or when you wake up that one morning in Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Sodom or Gomorra. Now that’s a crisis! Most every other ‘crisis’ is just bullshit.
“Anyway,” I said, “this is how I feel and before I had a chance to be here now chatting with you two, I have met on this planet the best people and I have also met the worst scumbags than ever came out of fish shit.”
“At the end,” I said, “I found that there wasn’t much left of my life. I knew by then that there was no greatness in me, never was, but I do get some pride in thinking I’ve never been a slimeball either, I guess, I hope.”
“But you had kids, didn’t you?” Lily asked.
“Yes,” I said, “but then your kids are gone, so soon really, having kids on their own, and I like to think my kids are good people. Fact remains, they went and so they should. And once that’s done, then what? I didn’t feel like filling the role of nice grand-pa, whom you go ask for pocket money and lollipop. I liked my grand-pa, he’d send me to the store to get his wine and he gave me change for every bottle I brought and he let me go to the movies – I’ve been a big fan of Tarzan, John Wayne right from the beginning – and then I realized how alone Grand-pa was. He had six kids, six girls, and they were all gone one way or the other, and the wife was dead and there was Grand-pa boozing, proud only that his grand-son could carry the booze for him. Every time he asked me to go get him more wine, I was so eager to go get it for him.
The old man died of liver cirrhosis, all alone, all broken and defeated in the dump his apartment had become. He died listening to the radio. My little sister found him three days later – the radio was still on – and she had to deal with the neighbors and the firefighters, the first ones to arrive. But what struck her really, she told me later, is that old Grand-pa was totally naked when she found him. She was 6 y.o. There I understood again about solitude.
I tried, I really tried, to help make the world better but I eventually gave up. Before that, I pretended every day to be happy with wives and kids and family. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a malediction, but I never really succeeded, neither in making the world better nor in giving much sense to my life other than raising kids, which is at the end the level zero of ambition.”
“So what happened?” asked Lily.
“I got lucky, with aliens,” I said with a big smile, to defuse the sadness of it all.
“You did, with aliens?” she asked, perplexed.
“Yes,” I said, “with aliens, and I swear this is true!” and we all laughed.
It occurred to me that they were probably thinking that THEY were the aliens I was talking about. It made me laugh silently in my head. I was more of an alien than they were really. They were both stark naked and I could look at them and they didn’t mind and the house was full of white gladioli. And I could see the ocean and the night sky and the concert had started in the jungle. And I relished the pause that followed and I popped a beer open, lit a cigarette and relaxed.
Next episode: Is the glory of love coming through to Adam?
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Iconography : Captain Nemo’s daughter 2010. Enchanted Doll, by Marina Bychkova