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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 9: August 2021
Flash Fiction: 768 words
By Robert L. Dean, Jr.

Napalm Girl and the Boy Next Door

 

The whiteboard is inches above the Purell dispenser, but still she has to reach her hand up, up, up, beyond “Goals: 10x hr. I.S.” which are for me and have yet to be met; above “Grill: 4567” which I have just called to order grilled salmon with steamed rice; above “RM: W105,” which I gave when the lady at the grill asked for the room number; to the letters “RN:” after which, standing on tip-toe, she writes: “Thuy = Twee.”

When she un-springs her body, she is a short woman, the hunch of her back making her seem even smaller, the way Lon Chaney does when he steps into Quasimodo’s skin to toll the bells of his broken heart. She turns in the shadows of the sun-downing room, one ray from the dying day falling across the inward-turning gnarl of her right arm, which, only one moment before, had reached for the heavens, or at least the top of the marquee, and I wonder, how does she do this job? This business of angel-work, moving and shifting and tugging, pulling bodies like mine, bodies twice her size, bodies bearing the dead weight of mortality?

As she parts ways with the shadows, I see the broad roundness of her face, the almond shape of her eyes, the crow’s feet trailing away from them. She stops, turns, hunched, almost as if bowing politely, and says: “Twee. How you say it.”

I tell her it’s a lovely name, a name like a bird taking flight.

“Vietnamese,” she says.

And suddenly time/space slips a groove and I see Napalm Girl, naked, arms flapping like plucked wings, flesh on fire, silent scream scorching the ears of the world, Trảng Bàng 1972, running off the front page towards me.

And I want to hug her, tell her things will be alright, this war can’t last forever, but don’t, too afraid I will steal her skin.

“Buddhist monk,” Twee says, tapping the Thích NhẤt Hạnh calendar I have brought with me to know what and who in the next few weeks of my life will need cancellation. “Vietnamese.” She repeats the name, syllable by syllable, but I can’t quite catch it, my tongue not contortionist enough. She laughs. Though 50-ish, she’s probably too young to be Napalm Girl. But maybe she knew her, knew her family, knew another Napalm Girl.

I ask Twee if she was a girl during the war. “Oh, yes,” she says, checking my vitals. I hesitate, ask if she saw napalm. “Oh, yes,” she says, no hesitation, keying the statistics of me into a laptop. I want to apologize, but for what, I’m not sure. My draft number was never called. And yet I feel responsible. Responsible for Napalm Girl’s blistered skin.

I tell Twee I think Vietnam has recovered well. Economy good, citizenry good.

“For tourists,” she says, adjusting the tube under my nose so the prongs fit better in my nostrils. “Beaches good, hotels good. People—” She raises a hand to whiteboard height. “Few here, most here,” dropping her hand to knee level. “No one between.”

Twee glides a plastic-gloved hand over Thích NhẤt Hạnh. For a moment, I think I see awe on her face. “He found monastery. Almost hundred year old.” She taps the name on the calendar. “He knew that other one. He burn himself.”

And I see it, another photo, page one, a Buddhist monk, sitting calmly in the middle of the street, head and shoulder just visible through the flames consuming him, gas can just out of reach.

“Napalm smell like that,” Twee says, hands momentarily still, gaze far away. “Vietnam smell like that.” Voice almost a whisper: “Heart not burn though.” Suddenly she’s staring directly at me. “You go there?”

I take a deep breath from the cannula, tell her no. Tell her I was lucky. Tell her it was an unjust war. I think I see her nod as she turns away. “You are OK.” I’m not sure if she means my pneumonia, or, literally, me. I lose her in the deepening dark. “You sleep now.” She leaves the door open a crack, a sliver of hallway light scarring the night.

I dream of Napalm Girl, still running, still burning, still screaming her Edvard Munch scream, still just a girl, still just collateral damage; of the great bell swinging silently above the lifeless Quasimodo, once upon a time crowned King of the Fools; and of Johnny Roebuck, Class of ’68, who went there and never came back.

Robert L. Dean, Jr.
Issue 9, August 2021

is the author of two books: The Aerialist Will Not Be Performing, ekphrastic poems and short fictions after the art of Steven Schroeder (Turning Plow Press, 2020), and a poetry collection, At the Lake with Heisenberg (Spartan Press, 2018). Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019 and multiple times for Best of the Net, his work has appeared in Chiron Review; Flint Hills Review; Heartland! Poetry of Love, Resistance & Solidarity; I-70 Review; Illya’s Honey; KYSO Flash; MacQueen’s Quinterly; October Hill Magazine; Red River Review; River City Poetry; Shot Glass; The Ekphrastic Review; and the Wichita Broadside Project.

Dean is event coordinator for Epistrophy: An Afternoon of Poetry and Improvised Music, held annually in Wichita, Kansas. He has been a professional musician, having played bass for, among others, Jesse Lopez, B. W. Stephenson, Bo Didley, The Dallas Jazz Orchestra, and the house band for the Fairmount Hotel Venetian Room. He grew up in Topeka and Wichita, Kansas before spending 30 years between Los Angeles and Dallas, where he worked at The Dallas Morning News. He now lives in a one-hundred-year-old stone building in Augusta, Kansas, along with a universe of books, CDs, LPs, an electric bass, and a couple dozen hats. In his spare time, he practices the time-honored art of hermitry.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Hopper and Dean: Interview and poems in River City Poetry (Fall 2017).

Metal Man, ekphrastic poem inspired by a 1955 photograph of Dean’s paternal grandfather in the Boeing machine shop; published in The Ekphrastic Review (28 July 2018) and nominated for Best of the Net.

Windmill, ekphrastic poem inspired by Dean’s maternal grandfather; published in KYSO Flash (Issue 11, Spring 2019) and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. This poem is among half-a-dozen of Dean’s ekphrastic works published in KYSO Flash (Issues 11 and 12).

Llama, 1957, ekphrastic haibun inspired by Inge Morath’s photograph A Llama in Times Square; published in The Ekphrastic Review (13 January 2018).

 
 
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