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About the Author
John Kilgore tells us: "I have published a dozen stories previously, in magazines including THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, THE HORROR SHOW, and SPACE AND TIME. Over the past year a new online magazine, THE SCREAM ONLINE, has published two stories, two essays, and a poem. MADONNA OF THE ROCKET, an SF parable, can be viewed online at http://thescreamonline.com/fiction/fiction08-1/madonna.html. In 1999 I won an Illinois Arts Council Artist's Fellowship to support work on my novel RADIO ROGER, since completed. In 1991 my small chapbook IMPROBABILITIES was published by Illinois Writers Incorporated."
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My day is going okay this time, until I bump into Jimmy Abatzaglou. There's the usual fabulous weather, clean comfortable clothes on my back, no hunger or thirst, a busy crowd of Toys flowing past on either side. Their faces, once I get to noticing, are mainly Korean, soft and flat with that secret look to the eyes, but every once in a while there's an American tourist, a GI. Way back I was in the service-it's one of the things I'm clear about-and ended up in Seoul for eighteen months. A dull country, a lonely time, long duty hours and nothing to do otherwise. But the one thing I liked was going out on those incredibly crowded streets and just walking, with all those little people streaming by me. What got me was the way they would head straight at me and swerve aside at the last possible instant, without ever changing expression; or how they'd come up behind and press tight on either side, even give me a polite little shove, without meaning the slightest offense. It was all, I don't know, so cute somehow, like they'd made me a member of their club, but without ever really noticing me.
So today the crowds are Korean, and that's all right. But Jimmy Abatzaglou isn't. He's a face from way back, one of those memories so deep you don't even know you have it. A kid I used to hang with for a few weeks in sixth grade, I think it was. The teacher had white hair, I think, and a name that began with either S or V. There was this phase when Jimmy and I used to put our desks together for "cooperative learning" and sit there with our Math homework done, two model citizens; but secretly we would be checking out all the hot girls in class, and whenever Mrs. S or V turned her back we would start whispering, trying out our very inexact sexual knowledge in fantasies about Yolanda Turnbull and Robin Espinoza and Ann Turner. Just your basic eleven year-old fun. Once we got tired of the game we got tired of each other, too, and went back to being just nodding acquaintances, but there was a month or so when we were pretty tight. It's the kind of thing the Program has been into lately, a whole long riff based on one little germ of nostalgia.
What with the "fine fall weather" a lot of storekeepers have brought their merchandise outside, and a rack of belts is standing there on the wide sidewalk, in a place that is more and more clearly Itaewon, Seoul, ROK. That's where I spot Jimmy. He's a foot taller and going on two decades older than when I saw him last, but you know how it is with faces: I can see the kid I knew, peeking out the eyeholes of this trim thirty year-old tourist in soft jeans and a polo shirt, frowning as he fingers a wide belt. It's so off the wall that it trips me up: I stare at him, raise my hand to wave.
Then I catch myself, but it's too late: he's already giving me the I-know-you and moving toward me, amazed. I duck and try to hurry past, but he's at my elbow. "Excuse me! Excuse me, aren't you-" He has to fumble for the name, a nice touch I think. "Frank. Frank Tomlinson! Yes, you are! I can't believe it!"
There are ways to dodge these things, sometimes anyway, and I try one. "Fuck off."
"Fuck off," I say, hurrying on. He drops out of sight for a moment-out of existence, you could say-but then his footsteps come hurrying up behind. What feels like a hand on my shoulder spins me around. "You can't talk to me like that!"
I give him my kindest, gentlest smile and say, "Of course not, sweetheart. But puppy testicles, all right? Three raisins north of here." Just random gibberish: sometimes fools the Program. Sometimes.
Not this time, though. "It's me!" he says. "Jimmy Abatzaglou! Sixth grade, remember? Mrs. Stimson's class? Math homework and razzing the chicks?"
Chicks, Jesus. "Sorry," I tell him, and try to pull away. But he hangs on to my arm. Starts going on about how we were friends once, which we weren't, but it's what he remembers. He's sort of cornered me, pushing me back against a stone facing between two tiny storefronts, leather goods on one side, embroidered silk jackets on the other. "It's been twenty years!" he cries. "How can you treat me like this?"
"You're not real," I tell him. "I mean, you probably think you are, but you're not." It's an interesting question, actually, whether they think or not. I tell him, "What it probably is, sometime during my tour, years ago, I was getting lonesome and homesick and said to myself, 'Gee, it sure would be great to see old Jimmy.' So the Program got hold of the trace and here you are, but really you're not." Explaining all this to him is illogical and even dangerous, but somehow it's what I do. An irresistible habit.
Every so often the machine-I think it's a machine-hits a rough patch, a gap in the logic that exposes everything, like you're in the wings at a play and can see backstage. That's what happens now. Suddenly Jimmy has backed up about ten paces, his face is purple, and he's holding, so help me, a knife. It's just a non sequitur, preposterous, the Jimmy I knew (I think I knew) would never grow up to be someone who carries a wicked-looking four-inch switchblade. But there it is: from Buddies' Reunion to Macho Showdown, sans segue. He screams, "You always thought you were better than me!" or something like that, so I gather the premise is that he's gone psycho over the years. Just the barest fig leaf for the nutty plot change.
So then my choices get very limited. Jimmy comes at me and I vault a rack of shirts, maybe five feet high, backwards. He darts into the shirts, comes out on my side, lunges with the knife again, so close the blade tears my sleeve as I twist away. Drama, you know. Martial arts. By now a crowd has gathered and is yelling "Joe! Joe!" in a way that means "Look at these crazy Americans!" It's a true detail, they really do yell that, or used to.
We scramble out from behind the shirts and Jimmy comes at me with big, stagey, slashing motions. I do kung fu things, leaps and spins and other moves I don't even know the names of. Part of what is a little bogus is that I seem to see it from every side, like it's been shot with three cameras. Jimmy's nose goes bloody, then a lip, and he starts to get this desperate expression, like he senses the end is near. So I move in. We grapple and get locked up tight against the side of a wooden stall (a key shop, I think; or one of those tiny three-bottle bars that used to appear like mushrooms in the fall, in Seoul)-me with his knife hand in both mine, him choking me. I knock his hand once, twice, against the wood of the stall and the knife goes flying. We race after it and I get there first, kick the knife away, then turn to finish knocking him out with my fists. This is generally what I do, a nice bloodless finale.
Then it all goes loopy and bad. Maybe I didn't really kick the knife. Maybe it hit something and bounced back, or maybe just nothing. There are gaps in the logic, like I said. Anyway there the knife is, right back in Jimmy's hand, and then here it is, coming right up into my gut, before I can do a thing.
Then pain, pain like nothing I can remember. It goes rocketing around in my insides and up and down my spine and I hear this voice screaming and know it's me and Jesus, it's the real thing, pure D, the signed original, no fucking bullshit. Perfect simulation, is what this is.
But what's funny is that after a second it's not that bad. With major injuries your nerves all max out, I read somewhere, so after a second you don't feel it so much. Anyway there's not many nerves deep inside. When Jimmy's knife goes through one of my organs, the liver maybe, I hear a sort of puckery, popping sound, but there's not much sensation, and when it lodges in a bone there's just this strange kind of pressure, like a dentist's pick scratching away at a tooth that's been numbed.
And it's true about the peaceful feeling that comes at the end. I find I'm sitting down. I'm on the curb, the knife still buried deep in my gut, and Jimmy is backing away, blood all over him, bug-eyed. The look of a sated maniac, second thoughts beginning to dawn. There's sunlight, early afternoon, and I'm surprised that I didn't notice till now how beautiful it is. Somebody is sobbing, other voices muttering. Sirens far off, and a bird chirps uncertainly. None of it matters terribly, one way or the other, but it's all rather sweet. When death comes it's exactly the way I always thought it would be: like an old movie, black and white, getting grainier and grainier till at last there's nothing but pure black. Absolutely fucking weird.
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