The night of the same day in downtown Nha Trang, Izzy kept wondering when he would wake up. Soaked in sweat, his nerves like bees inside his body, he hadn't wanted to come here, but Gregg and Robert David and Mikel had insisted. They didn't want him staying at the villa alone and Izzy didn't make them ask twice.
He was too afraid to be alone. Even now he wanted to hold onto their hands like a child. If they left him, he would collapse right here, enveloped in the soft warmth of a tropical night that saturated his nostrils with the scents of flowers, spices, food, shit, beer, and marijuana. His vision felt assaulted by neon and a moving carnival of cars, jeeps, and bicycles. Vespas and three-wheeled cycles swirled amidst constant honking while Magical Mystery Tour blared in the background. The streets were full of GIs in jungle fatigues and men in gaudy aloha shirts openly soliciting baby girl prostitutes dressed in barely anything.
"Nha Trang is where the troops and contractors come to avail themselves of some in-country R&R, Izzy." Robert David was talking to him now, acting as tour guide and his cultured Southern accent, with the way his R&R came out soft like "Aah" and "Aah," seemed even more preposterous than it had during rounds before the world fell apart and Top got murdered and Mikel killed Derek before Derek could kill him and Gregg.
He should be dead right now, his first day in Vietnam. He should be in a body bag while his fiance sang "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and lit candles. If it wasn't for Mikel, his blood would be all over the floor instead of the vomit that got cleaned up with Top's brains and--
Izzy lurched to the side and started dry heaving into the street. There was nothing left to throw up. He hadn't been able to eat all day. He didn't think he could ever eat again.
"C'mon." It was Mikel, his hand on Izzy's shoulder. "Let's get you drunk."
"I don't think. . .Agent Mikel, I don't think-"
"That's a very good idea. Don't. Think." Then next to Izzy's ear he whispered sharply, "And for Chrissakes, don't call me 'Agent' again and make me regret getting in the way of that gun. It's J.D., okay? Just J.D." A slap on the back and Just J.D. announced to Gregg and Robert David, "I say we could all use a drink."
"I concur," announced Robert David as he grabbed Izzy by one arm and Gregg took the other, moving him out of the flow of traffic and with a quick turn, down a back alley street. That's when Izzy noticed that Gregg's hand was trembling, and so was his go-easy voice, as he picked up with the travelogue.
"Troops come in from all over and try to forget where they are and what they are going back to out there. You can buy anything and anyone you want on this street, and it's what, five minutes from our quarters?"
The street was packed on both sides with small shacks made of tin cans and cardboard and plywood. Izzy numbly watched a couple of men who could have been at a stateside barbeque with their tropical Hawaiian shirts stretched across big bellies and big gold watches that yelled Jersey, held up on each side by two little Vietnamese girls. Even made up like whores with little pushed up breasts and tiny skirts they couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve years old.
"This is a nightmare." Izzy closed his eyes tight, willing the grotesque vision to go away. It did, only to be replaced by the sight of a little boy, also made up to look pretty, leading another fat middle-aged pleasure seeker past a shack's door. They disappeared, to do only God knew what.
God could know. Izzy didn't want to know. And then J.D. apparently thought a little history lesson was in order, as if that put it all into some kind of perspective.
"This old alley has existed since the Indochina War when the French were here. The visitors that look like they should be roasting on a spit are mostly civilian contractors behaving badly away from their own homes. Money is precious. They have it. The families do what they must to survive."
"I want that drink," Izzy told J.D., told them all. He honestly didn't give a rat's ass if he threw it up immediately as long as it bought him even a moment's respite from this. . . this. . .He couldn't even give this a name.
The bar they entered was full of drunken soldiers and more prostitutes. Izzy never thought he'd be grateful to see girls who were closer to twenty than ten selling themselves on a very open market. "B girls," J.D. explained, as if that explained anything about the inflated cheap boob jobs that made Izzy wish he could do a lobotomy on the plastic surgeons responsible--though he'd lay dollars to every Red Cross Dolly Donut not one board certified plastic surgeon had performed a single one of the surgeries.
A terrible really loud band played "Proud Mary," and that's when Izzy was jostled by some drunks, got turned around, and was suddenly lost in the smoke and neon.
Frantically he scanned the room for J.D., Gregg, Robert David. No luck. Everyone around him was in the same green uniform or garish aloha shirt and he didn't recognize even one face from the hospital. His nausea, momentarily forgotten, courtesy of the "Scotch rocks, make it a triple, and make it your best" J.D. had ordered for him, returned with a vengeance. And it wasn't from the few sips consumed. Homesick, that's what he was; literally physically sick with his longing for home. He would easily give up all the years of his later life just to be home right now. No wonder everyone was obsessed with counting the days.
"Three hundred and sixty-four days and a wake up," Izzy said aloud, wondering if crazy people talked to themselves because it made their alternate realities more real. Perhaps this would make a nice clinical trial test at the end of the impossible tunnel of days where reality glittered so wonderful and precious Izzy could not believe he ever took it for granted as he muttered the first of ten thousand small prayers to whatever, or whoever to just let him live, make it home, and he would do anything in gratitude.
The bodies pressing all around him took on the substance of quicksand, and then the quicksand became like fluctuating concrete that jostled Izzy one way then another. The bass of the band thundered into his brain until he found himself standing in front of a ridiculously big and very drunken warrant officer, shouting at him.
"What, what? I beg your pardon," Izzy shouted back above the din. "I'm lost. Did you say you could help me find my friends?"
“I said Welcome to the Nam, you fuckin idiot new guy!"
And then J.D. was dragging the fuckin idiot new guy away, shouting, "Try not to antagonize the animals," as he plowed a path to the relative safety of a back exit door.
Outside it was hot but thankfully quieter and Izzy wanted to apologize, though for what he didn't know. "I wasn't, wasn't, I did not say. . .."
J.D. silenced him with a glare that had the effect of a double slap.
"Listen up and listen up good because I need you and you are no good to me dead," he said bluntly. "Wake up, quit whining and feeling sorry for yourself. Nobody here gives a shit where you come from, or where you are going. Nobody. What will get you killed faster than anything is pretending you are still what and who you were in the world. You are not in the world anymore, you are not anywhere near where there are rules you can still live by. So I am telling you: Wake the fuck up. Are you with me so far?"
Izzy managed a creaky up and down movement of his head.
"Now, the second most dangerous thing besides the danger you pose to yourself are the other fucking idiots who were sent over here. If you were not a shrink and an officer, if you were just some grunt in the field, your own guys might have shot you already because your head is so far up your ass it's still in New York and that makes you too dangerous to be around. If you don't wake up soon, one of ours is far more likely to kill you than Charlie. Just about every third guy here is ready to snap, lose it, go psycho. You got a real life introduction to it this afternoon. This is one giant insane asylum, the whole place. Take note, Dr. Moskowitz, because this is your first, last, and only reality orientation that just might keep you alive long enough to help me out and get you home." J.D. gave him a little thumb to forefinger ping on the bridge of his black horn rims. The ones J.D. had fished out of the blood and brains and puke, then cleaned off with his shirt before perching back on Izzy's nose. "Now tell me, Doc: What's The Big Message?"
"Wake the fuck up."
"That's right. Now follow me."