Tree of Smoke

A Novel

Denis Johnson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Excerpt
 

Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed. Seaman Houston and the other two recruits slept while the first reports traveled around the world. There was one small nightspot on the island, a dilapidated club with big revolving fans in the ceiling and one bar and one pinball game; the two marines who ran the club had come by to wake them up and tell them what had happened to the President. The two marines sat with the three sailors on the bunks in the Quonset hut for transient enlisted men, watching the air conditioner drip water into a coffee can and drinking beer. The Armed Forces Network from Subic Bay stayed on through the night, broadcasting bulletins about the unfathomable murder.

Now it was late in the morning, and Seaman Apprentice William Houston, Jr., began feeling sober again as he stalked the jungle of Grande Island carrying a borrowed .22-caliber rifle. There were supposed to be some wild boars roaming this island military resort, which was all he had seen so far of the Philippines. He didn’t know how he felt about this country. He just wanted to do some hunting in the jungle. There were supposed to be some wild boars around here.

He stepped carefully, thinking about snakes and trying to be quiet because he wanted to hear any boars before they charged him. He was aware that he was terrifically on edge. From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far-off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head.

He propped the rifle against a stunted banana plant and removed his headband and wrung it out and wiped his face and stood there awhile, waving away the mosquitoes with the cloth and itching his crotch absent-mindedly. Nearby, a seagull seemed to be carrying on an argument with itself, a series of protesting squeaks interrupted by contradictory lower-pitched cries that sounded like, Huh! Huh! Huh! And something moving from one tree to another caught Seaman Houston’s eye.

He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey, not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog. Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. Seaman Houston took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.

The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratch its back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness its convulsions there. It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.

Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkey’s fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon. The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen.

Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its head and black eyes from side to side like some-

one following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle—the morning—the

moment—was having with itself. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkey and laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didn’t seem to hear.

As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.

When he got back to the club down near the water, Houston saw that a school of violet-tinted jellyfish had washed up on the gray beach, hundreds of them, each about the size of a person’s hand, translucent and shriveling under the sun. The island’s small harbor lay empty. No boats ever came here other than the ferry from the naval base across Subic Bay.

Only a few yards off, a couple of bamboo cabins fronted the strip of sand beneath palatial trees dribbling small purple blooms onto their roofs. From inside one of the cabins came the cries of a couple making love, a whore, Seaman Houston assumed, and some sailor. Houston squatted in the shade and listened until he heard them giggling no more, breathing no more, and a lizard in the cabin’s eaves began to call—a brief annunciatory warble and then a series of harsh, staccato chuckles—gek-ko; gek-ko; gek-ko . . .

After a while the man came out, a crew-cut man in his forties with a white towel hitched under his belly and a cigarette clamped between his front teeth, and stood there splayfooted, holding the towel together at his hip with one hand, staring at some close but invisible thing, and swaying. An officer, probably. He took his cigarette between his thumb and finger and drew on it and let out a fog around his face. “Another mission accomplished.”

The neighboring cabin’s front door opened and a Filipina, naked, hand over her groin, said, “He don’t like to do it.”

The officer shouted, “Hey, Lucky.”

A small Asian man came to the door, fully dressed in military fatigues.

“You didn’t give her a jolly old time?”

The man said, “It could be bad luck.”

“Karma,” the officer said.

“It could be,” the little fellow said.

To Houston the officer said, “You looking for a beer?”

Houston had meant to be off. Now he realized that he’d forgotten to leave and that the man was talking to him. With his free hand the man tossed his smoke and snaked aside the drape of the towel. To Houston he said—as he loosed almost straight downward a stream that foamed on the earth, destroying his cigarette butt—“You see something worth looking at, you let me know.”

Feeling a fool, Houston went into the club. Inside, two young Fili-pinas in bright flowered dresses were playing pinball and talking so fast, while the large fans whirled above them, that Seaman Houston felt his equilibrium give. Sam, one of the marines, stood behind the bar. “Shut up, shut up,” he said. He lifted his hand, in which he happened to be holding a spatula.

“What’d I say?” Houston asked.

“Excuse.” Sam tilted his head toward the radio, concentrating on its sound like a blind man. “They caught the guy.”

“They said that before breakfast. We knew that.”

“There’s more about him.”

“Okay,” Houston said.

He drank some ice water and listened to the radio, but he suffered such a headache right now he couldn’t make out any of the words.

After a while the officer came in wearing a gigantic Hawaiian-print shirt, accompanied by the young Asian.

“Colonel, they caught him,” Sam told the officer. “His name is Oswald.”

The colonel said, “What kind of name is that?”—apparently as outraged by the killer’s name as by his atrocity.

“Fucking sonofabitch,” Sam said.

“The sonofabitch,” said the colonel. “I hope they shoot his balls off. I hope they shoot him up the ass.” Wiping at his tears without embarrassment he said, “Is Oswald his first name or his last name?”

Houston told himself that first he’d seen this officer pissing on the ground, and now he was watching him cry.

To the young Asian, Sam said, “Sir, we’re hospitable as hell. But generally Philippine military aren’t served here.”

“Lucky’s from Vietnam,” the colonel said.

“Vietnam. You lost?”

“No, not lost,” the man said.

“This guy,” the colonel said, “is already a jet pilot. He’s a South Viet Nam Air Force captain.”

Sam asked the young captain, “Well, is it a war over there, or what? War?—budda-budda-budda.” He made his two hands into a submachine gun, jerking them in unison. “Yes? No?”

The captain turned from the American, formed the phrases in his mind, practiced them, turned back, and said, “I don’t know it’s war. A lot people are dead.”

“That’ll do,” the colonel agreed. “That counts.”

“What you doing here?”

“I’m here for helicopters training,” the captain said.

“You don’t look hardly old enough for a tricycle,” Sam said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two years.”

“I’m getting this little Slope his beer. You like San Miguel? You mind that I called you a Slope? It’s a bad habit.”

“Call him Lucky,” the colonel said. “The man’s buying, Lucky. What’s your poison?”

The boy frowned and deliberated inside himself mysteriously and said, “I like Lucky Lager.”

“And what kind of cigarettes you smoke?” the colonel asked.

“I like the Lucky Strike,” he said, and everybody laughed.

Suddenly Sam looked at young Seaman Houston as if just recognizing him and said, “Where’s my rifle?”

For a heartbeat Houston had no idea what he might be talking about. Then he said, “Shit.”

“Where is it?” Sam didn’t seem terribly interested—just curious.

“Shit,” Seaman Houston said. “I’ll get it.”

He had to go back into the jungle. It was just as hot, and just as damp. All the same animals were making the same noises, and the situation was just as terrible, he was far from the places of his memory, and the navy still had him for two more years, and the President, the President of his country, was still dead—but the monkey was gone. Sam’s rifle lay in the brush just as he’d left it, and the monkey was nowhere. Something had carried it off.

He had expected to be made to see it again; so he was relieved to be walking back to the club without having to look at what he’d done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldn’t be spared this sight forever.
 
 
Excerpted from Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2007 by Denis Johnson. Published in September 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.