Peace of mind was not something I was afforded in life. When Walter Mabry had lined up the row of us young bastards after the war, deep down in the ‘Glades northeast of Miami, all of us ragged degenerates dressed in olive-green raiment, I was the one he chose as an example. Mabry placed a nickel plated .45 in my palm and told me to shoot one of my former compatriots.
“I can’t do that,” I said.
“You will, or I’ll do it twice for you.”
“What does that mean?”
“Means I’ll shoot two of your snot nosed friends and then bore a bullet between your eyes, cowboy.”
I felt the sheen of the .45 in my small palm. The sun had been high in the eastern sky and sweat dappled my forehead.
“Can’t I prove myself some other way?” I said. Walter looked at me incredulously, and through wisps of ghastly smoke from his Newport that curled against the glare of the sun, he grinned the way a wrathful interlocuter smiles before the kill.
“You do it my way, or I code blue you.”
“You’ll kill me, you’re saying?”
“You’ve got it, skipper.”
I leveled the .45 with both hands and stepped into a small crouch, as if Charlie would emerge from the underbrush and ack-ack us with rippling brass from an AK. The Colt was affixed with a red-dot sight.
I lowered the weapon.
“Can’t do it,” I said.
“Why are you doing this to us, Mabry?” one of the other young bucks said.
“Because I can,” Mabry answered, stubbing out his Newport and then firing up another, the lit end glowing as a strobe of fire would in the dregs of night. Except this was morning; the morning of a Friday in 1977, the Fall of Saigon just two years behind us. Mabry, who was our CO, had tracked our unit down. Evidently, Lt. Walter Mabry’s mind never made peace with the atrocities us seven had committed.
I squeezed tight on the Colt and swung it up, so the red dot sight beamed between Esther’s eyes and then I pulled the trigger. Esther didn’t blink; just watched me do it. The click of an empty chamber and magazine was what I got in return for my damned services.
Walter guffawed. Yes, I said it. The man fucking guffawed and slapped his stomach while the chuckles roared from his deep-set jaw. He was a mean acidhead with a penchant for self-destruction and had deliberately emptied everything from the Colt to test my loyalty and my patience. We had once been compadres in the service, tearing through Vietcong villages as though Vishnu were dangling threads of gold out there for us to wonder and grasp.
I can easily believe this is the person Walter Mabry turned out to be. A protean figure with baloney cheeks, he seized my shoulder as I dropped the Colt to the gravel and isolated me from the others.
“You did good, kid. You did great, in fact.” His breath reeked of smoke. His salt and pepper hair, wild and obscene and full bodied, brimmed with an ineluctable fire only I could see but could not elucidate for fear of retribution.
“Why’d do you make me do that? Those kids are going to hate me, now.”
“Ya’ll aren’t kids, Hunter. Ya’ll are grown fucking men. Start acting like some. Pump iron. Do pushups. Get ready for World War Three.”
“You’re insane, Mabry.”
“I know,” he said, and gave me an irksome smile in conference with the Devil. Mabry led me by my frail shoulders to the rest of our unit and gave us each Red Solo cups brimming with Coors.
“Raise em’ up!” he yelled, and I wished that the horizon would cave in on itself and reveal this hellish ceremony to be a dream. But that was not the case.
We all complied with his order.
“Drink it down!”
We chugged the Coors with the same zeal with which my unit had shot up Opium and then raped farm girls, who were usually later killed because witnesses drag an army down. Our unit was a force to be reckoned with out in those rice fields, and truth be told, we burned down villages with the moral compunction of bedlamites.
Jimmy, muscular and full of a ferocious energy, used to scrounge for cheap brown skag and moor himself to any tribal outcropping that could provide him with drugs, a bed, and a young maiden to slip his shaft into. Whether they were of age was not something he thought about or cared for. One dusky day, as the maroon sun slid lower over a jungled ridge, he regaled me with stupendously horrific tales.
“You got no fuckin’ idea, Hunter,” he had said with the excitement of a six-year-old on a merry go round. “This one little chink, she was a beauty. I tore her hair out with my bare hands as I pummeled her from behind…” etc. etc. I don’t want to recount what he told me he did to her after that.
Our elite military unit answered to nobody by Mabry and his superiors, who we had never been introduced. The summer of love was a decade behind us, Jimmy Carter was president, and the Nixon years had birthed in the American population a desire to root out corruption wherever it reared its sordid head. The problem was, corruption was all around us, and Mabry was a gross manifestation of it. We had all come under investigation for what we did over in Vietnam, our conduct unbecoming of a soldier, and had hidden out in the Miami where the Dolphins sang and the waves clapped against the Intercoastal like the surf of servicemen rushing across the beaches of Normandy toward the Nazi fortifications on D-Day.
Miami was the perfect place to hide out and begin a new career. Mabry had found us; had proved us wrong; had become our bloodstained nightmare and a new criminal kingpin in South Beach whose grizzled features betrayed an opium riddled addict puppeteering our desolation to satiate his avarice.
Our force was a special recon unit meant to conduct surveillance on the enemy, but we did much more than that, often subverting the efforts of our commanders, who tried to reel us in and help us conform to the normal standard of warfare, as though Vietnam was a battleground whereby Napoleonic and British soldiers stood in lines and fired at one another with some twisted form of dignity.