LIFE SONGS: THE MUSH MAN
We were on patrol.
We were always on patrol.
We’d been walking for days. Drag-footing in the relentless monsoon rain, our hearts beating counterpoint to the soundtrack of pounding water and muffled popping of distant gunfire. Ears ringing, brains shut down. Numb fingers clutching grease-slicked M16’s.
Eyes alive. Wide and bone-white. And dry. Dry from fear. Staring into the torrential darkness, the high grass, the hissing jungle. Senses dulled and dreaming…but so afraid. No choice, no chance. We were looking for death…stalking it where it lived.
Cambodia. In country. The ‘Nam, ’67. End of the world.
We waded through bomb craters filled with still-warm, yellow-brown water and treacherous mud. Everything looking and smelling and oozing around us like mud. It was a scene from hell – steaming and bubbling and cloying — the air so thick it choked you – like a toad forcing its way down your gullet. Slipping, falling, crawling, staggering across the blasted killing ground…looking for death.
We found it.
The Cong body was sprawled across the middle of the trail – melting into the mud. It was all we could do just to walk around it. Not touch it. Not look at it. Not look into the glazed eyes of the ballooning purple thing in pulled-tight, black pajamas. I thought of the Macy’s day parade and those floating balloon people on cables. Y’know…like Snoopy, and UnderDog.
The heat and the rain and the thick monsoon air had sure been to work on it. Hillings nudged me on the shoulder with the muzzle of his gun and mumbled something about “the hrmpf mushy man shmphm gloshm.” That’s when I looked into the eyes of the thing in the mud.
Staring into those eyes – tiny opaque panes of frosted glass reflecting nothing. Revealing nothing. Closing out the world. Hiding secrets – like the clouded glass on Patty Finkel’s bathroom window. Paulie and I would stand outside and listen to the shower hiss and bubble. Gaze up at the steam pouring from the ever-so-slightly cracked windowsill. Waiting. Oh how we dreamed of the secrets behind that window.
I got lost in those cloudy, milk-fogged eyes; Glass Wax on a light-limned Christmas window. I thought about Patty and her window. And the sizzling rain became Patty’s shower. Patty was there, and I was with her, touching her, discovering her, opening her up. No more secrets. No more secrets…………
And then I was falling, reaching, twisting, jerking — trying to fly, groaning with the realization that the purple man, the pajama man, the Mush Man was there, right there. I had slipped in the grasping mud and I was his. Falling into him, my hands pushing through the bloated, apple-pie softness.
The rotting body exhaled with a pop. The smell. God the smell. And then the maggots and putrefaction, bubbling over my arms up to the elbows. I looked at my hand…at the squirming horror and the gore and the bright yellow syrup that covered my wedding ring, trying to get inside me. I heard someone screaming. Someone.
Like a cheerleader in Hell.
(Don’t let it in, Keep it out. Keep it out. Waaaaaay outoutoutoutoutoutoutout)
It was me… Satan’s Song Girl. And I didn’t stop singing until long after Hillings and Stuko and Epstein pulled me out and away from that horror.
They said I was babbling for hours…about the Mush Man.
It was that face…the face that changed and changed and changed again. That ghoulish dead kabuki face became the face of the dead man’s wife, his children, father, mother. Sad, defeated, tired of waiting.Tired of living. Tired of fighting. Tired. Then Patty’s apple-cheeked high school yearbook face…and then Paulie. Paulie Baker’s face. That screwed up, pain-etched, don’t-hit-me-again little monkey face that I remembered from the past.
It wasn’t Paulie. The thing behind those eyes was not Paulie. Something else. Something deep and evil…and ageless. Broken mouth mumbling obscenely, then laughing, then just the clicking and scratching and grinding of diseased teeth — and the Cheshire-cat wheezing noise of a starving predator. Waiting. Waiting.
And I kept falling. Swallowed inside the Mush Man. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the darkness that rushed up at me.
When I opened them I was looking up at mud-grey skies and into hot, pounding rain. For a split second, I was the Mush Man – sightless eyes cast upward, mouth wide open and screaming inside. And then I was back. The screaming pulled me back into the world. Such as it was.
In the days that followed, I carried that scream into the depths of the steaming jungle, into the napalm ravaged slaughterhouse of battle. I killed and killed and killed and killed. And all the while I screamed bloody, bloody murder.
Stuko didn’t make it – taken out by a sniper. Last I saw of Hillings, his shattered bloodsoaked leg was hanging out the belly of a chopper as it rose above the flattened grass of the evac zone. Epstein went AWOL. Just ran into the jungle one night and never came back. Me? Three weeks later I was sprawled on the side of a cane road with a bungi stick in my leg, bleeding and muttering and begging not to die.
I was shipped out soon after, my time in hell finally over. My body intact, but for the dull ache in my leg and the deeper one in my fragmented soul. I was back from the dead. And I brought something with me.
I brought back the feeling that no matter what happened from now on, no matter where I went or what I became, nothing in my life would ever be the same again. I had seen the other side…I had tasted blood. Not just my own.
Some of the time, God forgive me, I liked it.
But there was something else. I brought the Mush Man back with me, too. Back from that wet-shadow place of pain and torment and loss.
And I never dreamed of Patty Finkel again.