The Life Journey of Marion Ramirez Apollo
by K. Marisa Paviso
Searching? Sergeant Marion Apollo snorted as he read the weathered "bon voyage" poem from his ex-girlfriend K. Marisa Paviso, and thought about what a cabron he must have been in City Terrace. He slouched against the splintery corridor bench and waited for Lieutenant Dao to get out of the head. What a phony image we all tried to create, he thought. Searching for truth, Lord, he sure as hell didn't need to search around Korea any more, though he always had this feeling he'd end up back here. This forced enlistment for the death of Chuy Gonzalez wasn't about to end with that massacre at Hadong, was it? No, no, hell, this assignment was just another part of his lifelong penance for the death of Chuy. Maybe.
He had never shaken off the last sight of Chuy lolling against the peeling lapped-wood sideboards of Chanson's Mercado, with Apollo's buddies the Tessa brothers screaming Peencha-ay! at Chuy's face. Ese, ese! the brothers yelled into Chuy's face, yelling for "Ram el Cuchillo"--Ram the Knife--to demonstrate his skill with the blade. And, hey, Ram was happy to show it off, thunking his knife deep in the phone pole next to Chuy's ears, but no one knew Chuy was overdosed. No one thought he'd die on them. Christ, Chuy was once the big chingon in City Terrace, wasn't he? A long time ago he was. Ram's vatos were only screwing with him.
Lieutenant Dao finished his nervous-piss and they got in the jeep and Apollo drove off with the same looseness he'd shown in Colonel Purdy's office. Rolling with the road. When the grooves in the cold dirt swung to the side he'd let the wheel slip lazily with it in natural syncopation, tipping and sluing past the slatboard structures of Eighth Army HQ.
Even this chauffeuring job to Kumsong reminded Sergeant Apollo of Chuy Gonzales, who used to get driven around by his vatos in Chuy's chopped red Ford, before the guy became a gutter-hype. Apollo remembered that last night when Paco Mena found Chuy on the sidewalk: In the spoon by noon, chingon! followed by Paco's dummy asthmatic burro laugh, followed by Paco flashing a finger underneath the street light at Chuy, next to Chanson's Mercado.
Apollo sped up after they passed the secondary outpost and skidded the jeep onto the main road.
"Is your father really a professor of . . . what'd you tell the colonel? Quantum mechanics?" Lieutenant Dao gave Apollo a curious peek. "And you go into that colonel's office drunk?" He started to giggle. "What was it you told him? You were searching for the explanation of existence?"
"Yeah, well, I read that existence isn’t much more than--I dunno--some kind of pass’ve, um, accident . . . I think. Bothers hell out of me, though. Don’ know why."
"What's that mean?"
"Don’ know. ’S no reason to be here, I think--’s why I need to look into that quantum bus’ness, not just because my father... This stuff might be the answer to everything, if I’m readin’ it right." Apollo could hear Paco Mena’s response to that: What’re you, vato, the brainy fuggin’ sunflower in our crappy little weed patch?
"Your father was Doctor Apollo?"
"Mi madre said it sounded like Apollo--took the name from a movie marquee. Then stuck me with Marion because it sounded like somethin' a gringo-professor would stick me with," Apollo looked over to see one of the lieutenant's eyebrows rise. "John Wayne's real name, y'know--Marion," said Sergeant Apollo. "My mother was a movie freak."
"So you want to take up physics too, be another Albert Einstein?"
Apollo clucked his tongue. "Tried t'read Einstein once, like trying to read goddamned Egyptian. Y'know that that people see things different depending on how fast they’re going?”
“What the hell’s that mean?”
"-S'why a space man would come back younger than the people they leave behind. Each second goes zippin’ into space at the speed of light, y’know, so if you go zippin’ out with it you’d stay right with that second for goddamn ever as far as those people watching you . . . ” He stopped, jerked his head to the side, losing his train of thought.
Lieutenant Dao shifted in his seat. "You don't seem to worry much about it--your father I mean."
"Being illegitimate? Nah. She, my mother, met him when he used t'eat at her cafe near downtown L.A. He used t'go there when he'd lecture at USC."
"You know where he's at now?"
"You said your sister was a priest," the sergeant changed the subject. “How can a girl be a priest?”
"In our religion?" The question, as intended, put the lieutenant on a new tack. "Women can be priests in our religion--the Cao Dai--though she’s only a student priest right now. It’s kind of a combination of all religions, ah, Taoism, mainly... " Stopping as Apollo sat up to look over the rock and brush around them, thinly lit now by an approaching dawn. “What’re you looking for? There’s no enemy around here, is there?”
"Looking for a road along here."
"What's wrong with this road?"
"Won't take long. Tell me about . . . what'd you call it? Taoism?"
No answer. The Lieutenant just remembered they were headed toward a battle zone, thought Apollo. The lieutenant had nervously stuck his envelope, the orders Purdy gave them, on the jeep floor behind them, then put his carbine over it.
"What do they really expect us to do in Kumsong?"
"Nothing, probably," said the sergeant. "Just gets some problem o'theirs out of the way." Like Detective Halperin, he thought. Big-jawed bastard wanted me the hell out of the way. Did a good job, too, 'cause here the hell I am. "What were you saying about this Cao Dai?"
"Yes, well . . . " Dao tried to recall what he was saying. "Like the Catholic Church--Christ the Redeemer and all--but Buddha and the ethics of Confucius are all mixed in."
"Then this Taoism-"
"-Glues it all together, sort of." Chau fidgeted his hand over the carbine behind him, through the gap between the seats. "My sister could explain it better if she were here. She's flying up to meet me on Okinawa when we get through here, actually. Maybe you can ask her yourself."
"Okinawa? You goin' to the Rock?"
"Assigned to the 29th now, same as you." Dao reached back to finger the envelope under the carbine. "But, Jesus, until then . . . don't these orders bother you? Just to investigate this they send us to a combat zone?"
"The whole damn world's a damn combat zone, Lieutenant."
They rode on in silence another half hour while a morning glow spread behind them, but they were circling toward the mountains to the west--not the right direction for Kumsong, not as Lieutenant Dao understood it: "Shouldn't we be heading more north, toward that saddleback?"
The answer quieted Lieutenant Dao for another few miles.
"Why're we going toward the mountains?"
"There's a place I went when I needed to think, last time I was here," said Sergeant Apollo. "Like to stop there before we head north."
Well, no hurry, Chau supposed. It would take at least a day, whichever way they went, to get to the Triangle, although they seemed to be taking a high-country route. Through clearings along the road he could see the landscape below running down to the Chaktong River where grey splotches of an army camp appeared on the hills behind the Pusan outskirts. It wasn't really light yet, although Apollo didn't use the headlamps.
They had reached the highest pass in the Ch'ongdo coastal mountains when Apollo stopped, pulled the brake and got out, while Lieutenant Dao stared about him. An unscenic, scrubby place, this: a rock mountain in front of them and a view of the rice paddies along the terraces and valley below, barely seen from where they were parked. No lights anywhere.
Dao reached back for the orders and got out to follow but the sergeant had already climbed up the first section of hill and the smaller lieutenant had to navigate over a ladder of rocks to catch up. Rock to rock, grabbing onto the wiry shrubs speckling the mountain. He could already smell the sharp weed-stink on his hands.
Apollo stopped on an extended shelf a short way farther up the mountain and squatted, facing the coming sun where the wind, only tickling the shrubs on the road below, had started a serious blow. Apricot light from the new sun began to warm his face, reminding him of the hills above City Terrace after the warm Santa Annas had cleaned the air. "How'd you say your name, Lieutenant?"
"Chau . . . is my given name," answered Lieutenant Dao, wheezing from the climb. "Sounds like Joe--Dao Kim Chau. . . . In Asia the family name comes first." He stopped himself from explaining about the Dao name and its reputation, the wealth of his father Dao Phuong and the ugly death of his uncle, Dao Chien, in the explosion at Da Nang. Apollo didn't seem to be paying attention anyway. He was watching the clouds streaking into slivers of metallic reds above them, billowing to enormous bursts of color, into separate copper sunrises. "Bad place to meet anyone," said Dao Kim Chau. "Could be a short acquaintance once we reach Kumsong."
The sergeant frowned and spat. "Don't plan to die in any goddamned Kumsong, Lieutenant. Need to keep that in the front of your mind, all the time."
"Then I don't plan to die there." The lieutenant was trying to smile as he hunched against the wind. "Got too much to learn before I do any dying." Under his jacket he felt the envelope holding their orders, fumbled them out, handed a set to the sergeant. "Might as well keep your set of these."
Apollo took them, weighed them in his hand, then stood and steadied himself, and began to tear the orders. Carefully, though, not with anger. He tore the orders carefully until he held a stack of scraps, while the lieutenant watched him. For someone like the lieutenant, the sergeant figured, this was probably like tearing pages from the Bible. Good analogy. These orders might be his--Apollo's--final penance, one last supplication for Chuy's death.
"I understand all hell's breaking loose around that place--Kumsong," said Lieutenant Dao. "Doesn't that scare you?"
"Almost everything scares me, Lieutenant." Apollo tightened his hand around the scraps and raised them over his head like a banner, and the wind caught his sleeve and flapped it along his arm, and he let the papers go. The wind streamed them to the air.
"These're for you, Chuy vato," he explained to the sky, and the airborne flutter became angry, scattering the scraps toward the cloudmass, along the sunrise.
The heavens winked. Pulses of light, dimmed by their ionospheric reach, sent a glow over the sky for a moment. An electric storm that high up . . . kind of strange in this region, this time of year, thought Sergeant Apollo. Like a special grace.
It happened again, this sudden penumbra, a flashed code that covered the world and then disappeared.
Ramirez Apollo remembered how, when not much more than a muchacho, he had looked up to Chuy. Chuy's collar was always flipped up to frame his slick duck-tail, so damned dangerous-looking. If someone as cool as Chuy could turn into dog crap, Ram remembered thinking, later, then all heroes must end up dog crap. So now the Army wanted him to go trying the hero business again, for--what did they call this investigation? Touchstone? Hell, first he needed to find himself a real touchstone, so maybe he could see some kind of purpose in all this.
Apollo had stooped over Chuy that last day, looking into the hurt of Chuy's face. The injuries were down inside the man, a deep serious hurt, and Apollo remembered how the man's lips opened, and how the air hissed in his teeth. Chuy looked like a run-over animal, and Ram Apollo kept this picture of himself over Chuy, rocking over him, folding his hands on the pavement in front of him. Ram had only wanted to show off, needed to let everyone see how good "Ram the Knife" was with the blade, throwing it so close Ram thought he'd scared the poor bastard to death.
But the coroner said Chuy died from overdose, not from the scare of Ram's knife or from the kicking the Tessas gave him, but that didn't help all that much. Ram had held Chuy's pulse and the man seemed to look into Ram's soul that day, for a moment. The thump of life had stayed for a moment in the pulse on Ram's fingers and then, like all of Ram's heroes since, Chuy Gonzales just flickered away.
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