Friday, May 09, 2008

Eastern Promises

How do we free ourselves from the past? Can we do it through will, or do we need to be altered? Maybe it's both. Here's a new story.


We are out for the kill, but it is a different kind of kill. There will be no dignitary in the cross-hairs of my scope, no operative to immolate inside the volcanic heat of an exploding car. Tonight we are out to kill in quantity. Thousands, perhaps.

My host and caretaker for the last 60 days, Suwan, leads me into a field between a rice paddy and the jungle. Where we are, I still don't quite know. It is, I think, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Lots of pig smuggling in the area. The occasional ivory smuggling, too. I carry the car battery, and Suwan carries the lamp. His two sons carry four large panes of plexiglass.

“Watch for cobras,” says Suwan in rough English.

“Cobras?” I ask, my head on a swivel.

“They bite,” he says.

His sons laugh.

We place the lamp--a halogen light wired to an old broom set in a bucket of cement--in the shallow water, then go about surrounding it with saw horses we retrieve from beneath a rubber tree. The boys work the bottoms of the plexiglass panes into slots on the tops of the saw horses. Suwan takes some plastic sheets out of a beat up satchel and I help him arrange the sheets under each of the saw horses. I slosh back and admire our handiwork. The plexiglass panes glint with a ghostly glare. I can't escape the feeling that they are windows to a place that is peaceful and otherworldly.

A certain giddiness overcomes me. That is, perhaps, my first glimpse of what the Buddha has to offer even a sad case like me. I, of course, am an athiest, bred to kill for my country. But since convalescing in the jungle with Suwan, a former Buddhist monk, I’ve learned a thing or two about introspection. It takes me past the hollow musings of Aristotle and St. Aquinas to the possibilies of the now.

My handlers wouldn't like what I'm thinking. It occures to me that my karma is in ruins, and I don't have enough good deeds to balance out my bad deeds. Do I believe in reincarnation or ghosts like Suwan? No. But I realize that the gunshot wounds are the least of what I suffered in South Africa. I feel weighted down. My college professors once raved about Sarte. How did I go from Sarte to contract killing?

Suwan hooks up the battery and turns on the light, and we all back away from the frenzy. Insects hurl themselves at the light. It looks and sounds like popcorn popping as they hit the plexiglass and fall onto the sheets of plastic.

Watching the swarm, I feel lucid for the first time since my arrival. In that moment, the decision comes easy. I won't go back. I want to eat bugs and catch snakes and become such a completely different person that not even my mother will know me. I want to learn the 227 rules monks are supposed to abide by. This, of course, means that I have zero chance of seeing the next year alive. But I can't commit my soul to being stained anymore. I am done being the Shirpa who carries other's sins on my back.

In the morning, we will wake up before dawn and fry the ciccadas, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and other flying insects. We’ll take some to the temple as offerings to the monks, and the rest we will take down to the market to sell. This is about as far ahead as I want to look. Whatever will be will be. I'm becoming a good Thai.

I get a text on my satellite phone. "They're coming."

Suwan sees the look on my face, asks what's wrong. How can I explain what I've done? A couple of days ago I told my handlers that I hadn't quite healed yet. That is a lie. My leg is fine. They told me to move because the enemy is getting close. You see, there is a hefty price on my head. I eradicated a diamond magnate who has powerful friends. They are scouring the earth for me so that they can exact their pound of flesh. I ignored the warning. I refused to look that far ahead into the future.

What was I thinking? Suwan’s plot of land is no paradise. There is no hot water, and the toilet is a hole in the floor. The air constantly smells of burning trash, and I’ve developed a cough. But I feel serene. Serenity is nothing I have ever known, and I don't want to give it up. So what am I to do? I can't decide.

They come through the jungle. There are three of them. I can fight, because that is what I am trained to do, but Suwan and his family will be killed in the crossfire. I wait by the altar at the edge of the jungle. When they see me, I am sitting in the lotus position. “Hello, my brothers,” I say, happy.

They look at me like I'm mad. Perhaps I am. I've shaved my head and donned the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. They raise their Kalishnakovs.

"As you must," I say.

I close my eyes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


What is the greater crime against democracy? Telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear? Or giving people facts and making them turn away from the political process out of boredom and frustration? Simple: Sound bites are crimes of omission. But we can't complain because our emotions are dialed into sound bites, and our reason has taken a collective vacation. Politicians are forced into a game of "inspiring" voters. As a result, we are under-inspired, and we make choices that are the lesser of two evils. Is democracy about being the best? Or about being the least bad? I hope for the former and fear the latter.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Milk of Paradise

A little warning: Africa is a dangerous place for a stripper with visions of upgrading her life style. That's all I'll say.

The Milk of Paradise

As they drove through the business district, Obafemi gave Vanessa a new name. “I’m going to call you Lubabah. It means ‘the innermost essence.’” He kissed her on the forehead, and she knew she’d done the right thing. Just an hour before, as her plane was descending into Lagos, Nigeria, Vanessa thought about her little boy. She’d cried, knowing what a terrible mother she was. Damon had been sleeping when she left him on her mother’s couch in South Central Los Angeles. Vanessa hadn’t even said goodbye. She’d taken a taxi to LAX and left the United States forever. But as she looked at Obafemi—his powerful eyes, his gold watch, his tailored suit—she felt happy, and magically peaceful.

She examined her wrist again. The diamonds on the bracelet sparkled like a thousand pieces of a broken mirror. “This is too much. It’s. . . .”

“Don’t you like it, Lubabah?” His voice was deep, like some ancient, African instrument.

“I love it!”

She nestled into Obafemi’s arms in the back of his limousine. His dark hands rested on her chocolate skin. Men had given her gifts before, but those gifts had been cheap and meaningless. That was when she was a stripper named Mystic and shook her ass in a strip joint in the City of Industry. She wasn’t that person anymore. She never would be again.

Charlotte, Vanessa’s sister, invited Vanessa to an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority dinner. Why she went, she still wasn’t sure. Maybe she’d wanted to feel normal. Maybe she wanted to see what those black society bitches were like. With freshly manicured nails, new hair extensions, and borrowed shoes, she looked just like a black debutante. And that’s exactly what Obafemi took her for. He’d flown to the United States to exchange ideas with black leaders from coast to coast, and he was the guest speaker at the Alpha Kappa Alpha dinner. After dinner, he approached her, told her he’d noticed her.

They’d spent a week together in Los Angeles, and that’s all it took. He said he wanted to make her a princess.
Now here she was, in paradise.

People in the street wore harsh faces, and their eyes were downcast. She was above their misery, and it made her feel special.

“See that?” said Obefami.

Vanessa followed his finger to a tall building that blocked out the sun. “Yes.”

“I built it last year.”

She felt as if she were in a dream. And the life she’d left had been a nightmare.

Obefami checked his watch. “Mukailah will drop you off at your apartment. You can rest for a couple of hours. At one, he’ll pick you up so you can join me and we’ll have a nice lunch. I took the liberty of buying you some clothes. Put on the green dress. I’d really like to see you in it, if you don’t mind.”

“Anything you want.” But then her face clouded. “What’d you mean when you said, ‘your apartment’? I thought we were going to your village to meet your family?”

“No,” said Obafemi. “I’m having a late breakfast with my wife.”

“Your wife?” Vanessa stammered. “You never said you were married.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Bandits!” cried Mukailah. He slammed on the brakes. Up ahead, there were hundreds of cars.

“Out.” Obafemi pushed open his door.

Vanessa’s eyes narrowed. “Out?”

The air smelled like hot rubber. Mukailah was already running back the way they had come. Obafemi held a hand out to Vanessa. “This is no place to be,” he said.

Armed bandits had blocked the road. They were going to car to car. Vanessa looked at Obafemi. “So why did you fly me here?”

“We must go, Lubabah.”

“Don’t call me Lubabah!”

“Stay, then,” Obafemi growled

He ran from the limousine.

Vanessa pulled the sparkling bracelet off her wrist. She got out of the car, her cherry red sundress brilliant in the African sun.

She walked toward the bandits. As she neared them, she yelled: “Here, take this!” She tossed the bracelet at the nearest bandit.

He shot her in the chest.

As she fell to the hot pavement, she thought: Fuck paradise.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A little caviar

Check this out.


Miroslav steered the Queasy Jim into the slip, his rheumy eyes focused on the lanky Japanese grocer who stood on the dock. As his crew began tying off, Miroslav clambered over the side of his boat, wisps of fog billowing around him. His hip hurt; it always did when it was foggy. He took a deep breath. “You have leverage,” his wife Jasna had said. “Don’t be a chickenshit. We deserve a bigger piece of the pie.” Miroslav wasn’t sure about Jasna’s plan, but he was more afraid of her than the grocer. “What are they going to do?” she’d asked. “They’re goddamn grocers, not the Yakuza.”

As Miroslav walked to the grocer, a seagull cried out overhead. The Golden Gate Bridge was a ghostly outline in the distance.

The grocer’s stony face didn’t crack. With his soul patch and stylish clothes, he looked like he was Yakuza. “I hear there’s a problem.”

“Thing is, with the shortage of Russian beluga, we’re getting top dollar for domestic caviar. I think I should get paid more.”

The grocer’s eyes turned hard. “What’ve you been smoking?”

Miroslav didn’t want to push things. He had a good gig. But Jasna had warned him to be strong. He absently fingered the burn marks she’d left on his forearm. “Where else are they going to get sturgeon?” she’d asked. She’d gotten out of Serbia by killing a soldier, taking his uniform, and making her way to the Dalmation Coast so she could bribe her way aboard a cargo ship. She told Miroslav that she was going to have a better life or die trying. He’d tried to leave her once and she put him in the hospital. He knew not to cross her. “If I get picked up for poaching, I’ll loose my commercial fishing license. I need more compensation for my risk.”

“Let’s get the fish unloaded. Then we’ll negotiate.”

“No new deal, no fish.”

The grocer arched an eyebrow. “Are you really that stupid? Did you come up with this convoluted bullshit on your own?” He put his fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. In a flash, two men appeared out of the fog from down the dock.

Miroslav tried to remain calm, but his voice cracked. “The fish isn’t here. So no, I’m not stupid.” He cleared his throat, and his voice got stronger. “They’re in a safe place. And if you don’t want to negotiate, I’ll start farming my own caviar. I’m not bluffing. I’ve already talked to some restaurants.”

The grocer’s assistants were now at the grocer’s shoulder, looming there like pestilence and death. One looked like a Sumo wrestler, and the other had a scarred up, shaved head. The grocer waved them toward Miroslav. The man with the shaved head leapt into the air and spun. His foot connected with Miroslav’s jaw. He was unconscious even before he hit the dock.

“Revive him,” Miroslav heard.

The Sumo wrestler picked Miroslav up by his ankles. He tried to protest, but it didn’t matter. He was dipped headfirst into the cold, bay water. Salt water went up his nose. He sputtered as he was lifted up and then plunged back down into the iciness.

Miroslav’s head once again cleared the water. He saw the gray, foggy world upside down. “Okay! Okay!”

“The hold is empty.” It was the man with the shaved head. He was standing on the edge of the Queasy Jim, his face angry.

“Big mistake,” the grocer said. To the Sumo wrestler, he said, “Bring him up.”

The Sumo wrestler hoisted Miroslav up and tossed him on the dock. Miroslav landed on his neck and shoulder. Pain seared his consciousness.

Miroslav looked up. He felt sorry for them. He really did. “Yes,” he said. “Big mistake.”

Jasna appeared from out of the boat’s cabin holding an M5. She began firing. First she got the man with the shaved head. Then she cut the grocer in half. She got the Sumo wrestler as he lumbered down the dock. When he fell, the dock dipped and then bouyed back up. All that was left was the cold, muted sounds of seagulls in the thickening fog.