A Hiroshima city bus, marked RADIATION EFFECTS RESEARCH FOUNDATION in both Japanese and English, worms its way in low gear, sliding up inside acid rain-ravaged bamboo groves on a dank mountain that blots the sunrise from Ground Zero every morning: a sinister peak of pre-rational alchemy plunked down, among rumors of genetic engineering run amok, at the edge of a necessarily modern metropolis.
All but one of the passengers are townies, hibakushas--those unlucky Hiroshimites who were within a kilometer of the epicenter at the wrongest possible time, and must, twice yearly, for the rest of their lives, report to the to the labs on top of this mountain, to be prodded and skewered, solely for the selfless sake of increasing mankind's store of knowledge. No healing is done up here; otherwise, the joint would lose its funding as a pure research institution.
The bus empties out near the main entrance of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. The bomb victims file into a large corrugated aluminum structure, a Quonset hut-like affair, unrebuilt since Douglas MacArthur's GHQ tossed it up a few weeks after the brimstone chastisement of the Hiroshimites. Everybody, save one (and a very large one at that), disappears behind flapping doors marked with bold polyglot signs:
FOETAL TISSUE SAMPLES
The sole straggler, an outsized American named Sam Edwine, wanders bravely out back and approaches a second metal structure. It is rumored that a certain ex-Soviet witch, if not her bubbling cauldron, can usually be located here.
The place is marked by a rectangle of gray cloth with three brownish words scrawled on it:
RADIATION EFFECTS CAFETERIA
In order to attain the Ray Conniff-hissing entryway, Sam is forced to pick and cringe his way through a medical wasteland: a forest of grandma-headed mops planted in buckets of chlorinated rinse-water like crucifixes in jars of piss; a maze of garage door-sized sheaves of exposed X-ray film, warping and flaking in the green dew that drains, like peritonitis fluid, from the withered fronds of barren date palms.
Stooping inside, he scans the rows of pastel aluminum tables, and has little difficulty picking out his mark from among her lab-coated colleagues. She's the only one waving a bottle of cut-rate Choya plum wine in his direction.
Valentina is fleshy and, one would suppose, more-or-less voluptuous, at least according to the lights of men more emotionally developed than most far-western Americans: big protuberant breasts, wide hips and a round, pale face suffused with a shrewdness seen infrequently in Sam's corner of the world; and, true to type, the sadness, the eyes gazing off into the clouds after some lost memory of haunts less gelid.
With no preliminaries, Sam establishes his phony journalistic credentials by turning his pockets inside out and allowing his cub-reporter paraphernalia to tumble helter-skelter into space. A precious micro-cassette recorder splorts down onto a trencher of the house specialty, cold instant macaroni and cheese, which Valentina has evidently taken the liberty of ordering on the interviewer's behalf.
As he folds himself into one of those form-fitting plastic chairs found usually in bowling alleys, Sam's massive kneecaps jostle the table. Clunking noises issue from the fist-loads of opaque, jawbreaker-sized ice cubes, which are stacked like kiddy blocks inside a couple of the Mason jars that pass, here at the Radiation Effects Cafeteria, as wine glasses.
His assignment: invite himself to the foundation on the pretext of interviewing this creature for a non-existent weekly back in old Salt Lake City (assuming Russkies still consider themselves exotic enough in the free world to make the request for such an audience seem plausible).
"Just feel her out," he was told. (Not "up," mind you.) "There could be a free lunch and drinks in it."
Valentina starts feeding her face, without a word. Disdaining chopsticks, she digs her aluminum spoon out of an old Kunming batik bag and grasps it like a cement trowel. She makes no use of her presumably opposable thumb, but sticks it out straight to nudge her left nostril with each bite, as if to flaunt her proletarian credentials.
Even the more recent snapshots of her grandchildren have a yellowish, dog-eared look when she gruffly deals them out like pinochle cards across the table, not troubling to avoid the ketchup puddles.
"A budding anarchist, that one," she growls, finally breaking the silence. She thumps the face of a red-haired picturebook fairy perched on a cast-iron trike in the snow. "But very clever."
Valentina must strain her deep contralto to be heard over the chaos of the other international biophysicists' feeding--a real chore for her. She obviously prefers to speak in a profound-sounding murmur, all ears cocked toward her.
"The words 'amoebic dysentery' seem not to be in his physiological vocabulary," she observes, apropos of nothing.
"Huh?" Sam says, still looking at her grandchild's picture. "Whose--?"
"You know who I am talking about."
Sam follows her eyes across the cafeteria. With a Morinaga candy bar, a lab assistant looking distressingly like Jerry Lewis is tantalizing and coaxing someone, or something, into a scary-looking back room. Bawling for the sweet is a blackened and bent native, a locally famous river hobo, dressed in frayed polyester golfing attire, several sizes too large and a few decades out of fashion. Rumor maintains this small monster was in his mother's belly at the moment of the glamorous detontation.
Valentina says, "Our pinhead lives on a raft in the river, and virtually subsists on raw sewage. If you're looking for some evidence of mutation, tag a few of his leukocytes and trail them like rafts through his bloodstream."
Her own genetic material having been scrambled during two helicopter rides over Chernobyl, Valentina was inspired, by way of selfless commiseration, to lend her gifts to this august institution. That's the Roosky party line. But the word around the so-called "intelligence" community is that this babushka is interested less in the wretches' chromosomes than their white blood cells. She's supposedly been pumping them full of human immunodeficiency virus and requisitioning whole quarts of serum from their veins in the name of AIDS research.
The pseudo-interviewer is temporarily speechless at the sheer horror of this situation he's bumbled into. But he realizes that he can do no better than to continue the investigation, as craftily as possible under the circumstances.
"Tagging leukocytes, oh yeah," he says through a yawn, feigning boredom, swirling plum wine around the crusty screw-top of his Mason jar.
He obviously hasn't a clue how to go about this subtle sort of interrogation. He's got no idea how to ask leading questions and make insinuations that will bring this chunky Bolshevik out into the pitiless light of incriminating self-revelation. Back home on the sun-raped Salt Flats, subtlety was considered an effete, rarefied art, like harpsichord playing or versifying. Sam and his cousins never needed to be subtle when swatting brine flies off their elongated shins. So today he must fake it.
"You know something?" she bellows around a mouthful of macaroni, while staring straight at two Swiss geneticists who are having a dispute over the last saucer of brownish banana jello. "When I was next door in China during the seven good years, the workers would usher their thinner comrades to the front of the lunch line, saying, 'Here, Comrade So-and-So, this month there is a shortage of oil for our fried noodles, and you have the most ribs of anybody among us. You go first.'"
"I'll have to take your word for that. I wasn't around, as you can probably tell."
"Oh, that's right. The Maoists also had a shortage of Americans in those days."
"What I meant," says Sam, offended, "was that I was in diapers. Rolling around in the dew on my mother's Kentucky bluegrass. Pulling adorable faces for the Brownie."
"Kentucky? But I was told you would be from the Rocky Mountains."
"Never mind. As a mere non-taxpaying American expatriate, I have no access to the agencies that could tell me what republic you're from. So we're even." First explicit lie of the day.
"Anyway, it does not matter. Look at us--" She grabs Sam's arm and twists it, so the soft, sunless underside is visible. Then she holds out her own equally flounder-pale forelimb for comparison. "See? Identical shades. We are the same. Onaji-da, as the natives so primitively put it. Even our leaders are clones. Ignorant clones both of them, handsome performers with red ball noses, like in the circus. Just clones."
"Clowns or clones?"
Again, Sam is temporarily at a loss for words. For the lack of anything better to do, he swigs down his wine, pours more and inhales that, even though the taste is turning his tongue and teeth inside-out.
Valentina refills both of their jars, and is about to offer a toast to clones and/or clowns, when something, or someone, looming up behind Sam catches her short.
"Oh, God," she murmurs. She grabs up a few of Sam's cheese-gloppy papers and tries to hide her face. "Extreme unpleasantness approaching," she whispers to her table-mate. "Hide me, Samsha."
Sam turns and sees Jerry Lewis, again. No question, it is him. And not the current grave, wise Jerry Lewis, but the 1950's one: the crewcut, the cross-eyes, the overbite, the muscular-distrophied knock-knees, and the smelly-socked feet that trip over any object in their path. Lugging a huge pyrex beaker brimming with something as viscous as the wine, it's Jerry Lewis, right down to the idiot yell--
"Ooo-wow! Look, Dr. Val! We got it down! Ooo-wow-wow! It's ninety-nine and forty-seven one-hundredths percent pure!"
Of course, the nutty guy slips on a discarded surgical glove about ten feet away and falls flat on his face, smashing the beaker and splashing gray syrup all over the arms, faces and hair of a dozen lab-coated diners.
"Oops, sorry," he simpers, gathering himself up sheepishly. "Uh, maybe you fellas better drop by de-contam later on and take a shower or so. That's concentrated--"
"Silence!" screams Valentina. Unbelievably quick on her overburdened feet, she leaps up and pitches her research assistant out the door like a snowball. She weaves a wide circle around her puzzled, gagging colleagues, and returns to the interview, muttering unhappily under her breath in Muscovite gutter lingo, "God-damned zipperheads. Who is needing them?"
This does not bode well. Christ knows what these polar totalitarians are capable of. Sam got a miserable C-minus in high school biology. With only a little prodding he can be persuaded to imagine townies diced to a gray froth and smeared between the jagged panes of this Muscovite's microscope slide.
Settling back down to her lunch, Valentina resumes her commentary, as if nothing untoward has taken place. "Yes, now is indeed a time for clones. You and I, Samsha, we can be big blue-eyed clones, too. We must mount a performance. We have a responsibility to let the readers of your hometown weekly gazette know that the cold war is really over, so they can get back to their births/ defecations/ deaths in a peaceful frame of mind. And we have an equally weighty responsibility to notify our imperious Nipponjin hosts that they are now redundant. A Pacific buffer between our two great Caucasoid civilizations is no longer necessary. These island dwarves are on their inevitable way down. Their pitiful spit-bubble has burst. Soon you and I will be riding rickshaws to work, Samsha, and paying the fare with half-smoked cigarette stubs. The natives will dive and scramble to suck the simple carbohydrates from our discarded chewing gum wrappers.
"So, please, come." She pauses, belches, hammers back her fourth jar with grace worthy of a Bolshoi ballerina, and continues. "This is not Ukrainian spiritus in our glasses. Far from it. But, no matter. Friendship is the only intoxicant we need. Together, let us now sing the Internationale."
"Um, I never really learned that one."
"Never really learned that one?" She heaves the saddest sigh of all history. "What are you doing here on Honshu besides wasting my time? Ignorant American cowboy, if they were going to insist on sending you to Asia, your party cell should have kept you strapped in the plane until it reached Mongolia, where you'd be at home with the horses. And I am saying this with an affection that wells up from my depths, Samsha."
"I know Chinese who were internally exiled there during the Ten Years' Chaos, and they had the time of their lives."
"Internally exiled? Where? My depths?"
"Yes, yes. I know the tale already. They learned how to ride the very mares whose milk they got chubby on, correct? Well, here is our mare's milk, Samsha. Let us get chubby on it. And meanwhile we will sing something else, just as good, in duple time."
She licks her spoon clean, puts it away, and slings her Kunming bag over her shoulder. Unflinchingly, she gropes into the coagulated mass of macaroni and cheese on Sam's trencher to switch on Mamoon's micro-cassette recorder. Then she takes both of Sam's forearms in her hands and looks deep into his eyes.
"Please tell me you're not too immature to have heard of Pyotr Seeger. And his smash hit--"
But Sam is way ahead of her. He calls the key, and they stand up. They toast each other again in sugary Choya wine, link arms, and croon across the strange-smelling cafeteria, Valentina conducting with fingers that fling strings of cheese in wide arcs over and around their heads.
May there always be sunshine, May there always be blue skies, May there always be mommy, May there always be me!
Together their rib cages swell. In unison, they suck in several dozen Nipponjins' worth of moldy Boomtown air, then exhale it, with twin facial expressions of something resembling disdain.
When the inevitable climax of physical contact does come, it's in the form of a hearty back slap: her fist explodes between this full-sized gentleman's shoulderblades like a tactical nuclear device in far-western Xinjiang. Sam only manages to stay on his feet because their elbows are intertwined, and Valentina is strong as a water buffalo. They remain coupled, their bodies swaying with fruity alcohol.
"Yes, we are indeed two of a kind, my Samsha. Both heartlessly betrayed by our own cultures. But here we are, like your famous Lemuel Gulliver in Lilliput, more or less productively stranded among our inferiors. I understand why I can't get a job in my country: chaotic as it is at the moment, it's hard enough to procure turnips, much less tenure. But what is your problem? What could have possessed you, my full-sized friend, at the start of such a premature decline into middle age--" She pats his gut and strokes his pate. "--to leave the golden land of football stadium-sized supermarkets, which Yeltsin has so heartily recommended to my people, and to come to this stunted, withered islet, with its fleshless citizenry, whose ribs you can catalog a city block away? You cannot tell me that all Doctors of Creative Novelization in Kentucky must leave their homes to eke out a livelihood among the yellow people."
Sam begins to wince as the subject of his unemployability in the real world is broached: the one aspect of his existence that turns him livid.
Valentina, of course, doesn't notice. She presses on, and even begins to wax rhapsodic. "I thought America was supposed to be the land of gushing milk and spewing honey, the proverbial horn of plenty, embarrassing plenty, humiliating plenty, oozing from the very skin pores of the lumpenproletariat--"
As she goes on and on, it becomes apparent that she is a slightly sloppy, oral-type drunk. Off-white triangles of suds are whipped up in the lipsticky corners of her mouth. But the overall effect of her enormous buttery presence is not so much disgusting as too rich, in the culinary sense, like certain continental steak sauces.
"Samsha, be frank with me, your fellow Caucasoid. Are all your Ph.D. classmates languishing here on the wrong side of the International Date Line? What about the women? The Hispanics? The Negroes? What about the quadriplegics and the mainstreamed mongoloids? What about the oppressed practitioners of alternative lifestyles, such as members of the gay community and pedophiles? And what about you? Don't you crave the company of other creative novelizers? Don't you miss your friends, your family, your culture?"
Sam glances around at the other diners, who, perhaps, are staring and snickering at him. "My culture?" he says. "There are whole platoons of Mormon missionaries in this town. They congregate at our place on Saturdays to watch Little House on the Prairie reruns on the bilingual TV. They force us to look at pictures of their big soft moms back in Provo. My culture? I get more than enough of my culture once a week. I fucking gag on it."
"But everyone knows that you Americans do not expatriate well. You become precious and catty and insufferable. I have this on good authority. It is written by your own Mr. Hem--"
The raw spot has been rubbed too hard. It wasn't in search of himself that he climbed the mountain and consulted this boozy sibyl.
"Fuck him!" screams Sam. "All the way up his tight asshole! Who's interviewing who, anyway? Jism Crust hung on the crotch!"
Of course, he is immediately chagrined at his own appalling, and slightly weird, outburst; so he starts to grovel out an apology. But, when he looks up from his sheepish shrug, he sees that Valentina's whole head, indeed, her whole upper body--not only the face, but the neck, the foot-long cleavage, the flour-sack arms, even the pasty fingernails--are flushed a phosphorescent red. She is delighted by his toilet mouth.
"Now, my Samsha," she hisses huskily, pupils steaming, "yes, now you are beginning to behave like the full-sized gentleman you truly are! Come, let us visit my personal space. I will show you secret things--ah, look! As if on cue, one of my, so to speak, patients is arriving."
An aging day laborer is just peeking into the cafeteria, his cretinous elder sister drooling and vocalizing at his trembling elbow. Her hoots echo over the snakish sounds of Ray Conniff's golden-oldy, "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," which slithers from the Muzak.
"Let me dispose of that miserable creature, and then--ah!--we have so many things to discuss, Samsha!"
Sam's eyes are not focusing properly--grains of fructose seem to be abrading the insides of his lids--but he could swear that he sees squares of white gauze draped and patched across the woman's infant-sized face and neck. They signify, to his inflamed imagination at any rate, unrestrained tissue sampling.
He thinks he hears Valentina belch again behind his back and sigh, "Back to work. Come, Samsha, you can assist." He feels her hand on his shoulder.