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Short Story
2206 words
SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Vietnam Johnny Meets the Human Barbie

by Neal Fandek


That second cup of coffee at McDonald’s seemed like a good idea at the time. Now every place he passed had big signs that said NO PUBLIC RESTROOM. To the north, down the hill, people were going in and coming out of an official-looking building, so Tiny walked down there, hands clamped firmly in jeans pockets.

In the building, people were waiting in line to show their driver’s license and get a big weird sheet of blue paper from a panel of superannuated folks, fill it out furtively then return.

“That’s the best you can do, a goddamn sticker?”

“You want a medal for doing your civic duty?”

“Got more goddamn medals I know what to do with.”

The old man dropped the sticker to the floor.

“Just like John Kerry them Vietnam vets the Pentagon. You’re Vietnam Johnny, right?”

Tiny shook his head, walked through the double doors that said, FIREARMS NOT ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT, down a darkened hall to the bathroom. It was old but clean. He’d slept in worse in the desert.

What Tiny saw in the mirror.

Tiny took a look at himself in the mirror. He saw an old man with flyaway dead hair in a cleanish sweatshirt and jeans that had seen better days. The man had long gaunt lines on either side of his face but a tight upper bod, no potbelly. He looked like a fit 70. Who was that?

He took a closer look. There. Those grayish eyes Amelie had said were piercing, You make me feel naked. Good, he’d said.

How old was he? 35, 36? He’d lost count between the shelters and the wards and the rooms where you had to introduce yourself, Hi, I’m Timothy and I’m an alcoholic, before you could get day-old donuts from the church ladies.

Why Illinois does not look like Khandahar.

Coming back wasn’t like in the movies. There were no banners and ancient vets struggling out of wheelchairs to give wobbly salutes and racing kids and soft wet wives. They didn’t even fly from Khandahar to a military base but to Krutmeier Airport south of town, never heard of it. It wasn’t even in an Air Force transport like going over there but with a carrier he had never heard of, Global Air or Global Airways.

“That’s the CIA’s airlines,” said a beefy white sergeant to a short, slender Hispanic-looking private in the seats in back of him. He didn’t know either of them. “They’re watching us. We’re lucky to be going back to Illinois not Gitmo or something.”

“Really Sarge?” The private looked bored.

Out the window, it was green and flat with creeks everywhere. From the air, in the daytime, it was hard to pick out Khandahar. The base was a mass of low gray buildings and soft gray runways surrounded by desert. When the wind picked up, which it did a lot, it became invisible. At night it was a different story, lit up like nothing he had ever seen, a screaming galaxy, a whirlpool of light with absolutely no lights at all nearby.

The captain said the U.S. had built Khandahar in the late 1950s for a war with the Soviet Union. At the same time, the captain said, the Soviet Union was building an airport in Kabul, in the northern part of the country. Neither of these things made sense. No one ever found any old American anything—a major swore he’d found an old World War II carbine under some floorboards, but no one believed him—sometimes an old Russian newspaper with that crazy writing or old Russian Band-Aid brittle as dead skin. Tiny knew the Soviets got bogged down just like they were, got kicked out then the USSR fell apart. 80s, 90s? Tiny wasn’t sure.

Wais, the old Afghan Air Force maintenance chief, said the Soviet invasion hadn’t affected the airport much. “Dirty troops,” he said, grinning. His teeth were yellow but perfectly straight. “Always sick.” There were few attacks and life was peaceful, he said. “Then come Taliban time. Airport peaceful! Taliban never problem for Wais. Peace in Khandahar, peace in country—some UN, Red Cross. Then, America comes.” He shrugged. “War, peace, Khandahar stay, Wais stay.”

The captain said that Wais meant “night wanderer” in Afghan but no one believed him.

Where would he spend the night? Tiny had no idea and didn’t much care.

The Biblical basis for zombies.

The reading was from Psalms.

“I am surrounded by enemies, who are like lions hungry for human flesh. Their teeth are like spears and arrows; their tongues are like sharp swords.”

The pew was hard under his butt. The service was supposed to be in Latin. Why was the service not in Latin? The priest looked tired.

The gospel was even worse.

“They have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they desire.

“And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.”

Said so right on the church website. St. Rose of Lima, first church in the diocese to resume the Latin mass after Pope Benedict XVI issued the Summorum Pontificum.

“For three days and a half men from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.

“But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.

“Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up hither!’ And in the sight of their foes they went up to heaven in a cloud.

“At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth part of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people perished in the earthquake, and those remaining were terrified and gave glory to God in heaven.

“The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.”

“Praise be to God,” the congregation said. The priest smiled.

James Bond in Illinois.

Tiny dreamed he was back in high school. Not the dream where he walks into class all sweaty from practice, sits down and they’re giving a test he hasn’t studied for, didn’t even know about. The one where he and Sandi are alone in detention.

He woke up cold and alone with weak winter dawn not in his eyes. But over there it was fiery red and you had to look away. Why was Illinois dawn not in his eyes?

A big rock right above him. He touched it. Cold and smooth. WTF?

By craning his neck—ow!—he could see what it was. A tombstone and it said,


No LOVING FATHER or DEVOTED HUSBAND or plastic flowers or any of the other crap you found on tombstones. Did they call him James? Had people given him shit all his life about being James Bond?

Tiny yawned, looked down the rolling hillside. He didn’t remember the cemetery like this.

In memory, it was as elegantly spaced as an Army barracks, gleaming marble rolling gently down to a mellow Mississippi, not this chaotic concoction of crooked tombstones tumbling down steep bluffs to a salt-scuzzed river highway and dirty lifeless river and what the heck was that?

At the base of the ravine was a crypt built into the hillside. A real honest-to-God crypt. He didn’t remember any crypts. An old lawnmower peeked out of it. A crypt used as a storage shed? That was just, fucking, wrong. But life didn’t give a shit what you thought, went on any old how. Why should death be any different?

The Human Barbie insults Oprah.

“Shut up! I want to hear this.”

Carin pointed the remote at the TV and turned it up. A large doll’s face filled the screen. The camera panned. The doll was life-size with perfect skin, impossibly large breasts, a wasp waist, green eyes. She was wearing a garish 60s-inspired outfit that looked pretty good on her, actually.

The doll blinked.

“It’s alive!”

“In my home, Moldova,” the Human Barbie was saying in blurred English.

“Many are beautiful women.” Oprah nodded. “I am not so, so—”


“No. Yes, I unique! Because I out-of-body traveler.” Oprah nodded.

“Is international school where instructor show how to leave physical body, travel in spiritual body, yes? This is future of mankind, Oprey! It has huge potential, make all industry no good, all things old, how you say—”


“—car and airplane and war. All ob-soh-lite!” Oprah nodded. “Visit any place on planet, anytime. Any planets! We are not physical being and this body is just—”

Oprah’s perfect eyebrows shot up. “A shell? If you are not a physical being,”—she gestured—“why Barbie?”

Barbie shook her head, annoyed. For a moment she looked like an ordinary, overly made up young Russian woman.

“It have nothing to do with looks. Many are good-looking young women everywhere, Russia, Moldova, Germany, USA, yes? But why they are completely unknown? Because looks are not, if you forget about inner self, people will not be interested in you because they look at you and they feel nothing.”

Oprah shook her head. Her curls jiggled, her breasts didn’t. “Okay.”

“I become Barbie to show this to world. Soon we all perfect within and no one will look physical body anymore, they will not care, all life within. Yes? Also to become Barbie is to show how ridiculous is concept of beauty, yes?”

“Ridiculous alright.”

“On celestial plane all peoples perfect. On celestial plane, I am time travel to Tibet in 16th century. There I meet exalted master who makes me teachings.”

Oprah’s eyebrows shot up.

“An extraterrestrial?”

“Yes—no! Impossible to say when space and time have no meaning, he is who give me these power.”

Oprah’s eyebrows went down.

“Tom Cruise? We’ll find out right after these words.” The audience howled.

The tiny brass bell on the door ching-linged and the women in the antique aqua, fuchsia, maroon chairs looked up.

“Hey, Tina, can I—”

She nodded and went back to snipping Aunt Mary’s hair. “Sure Tim. You know where it is.”

Tiny slinked by the hot vinyl, shampoo and burnt hair stink and conditioner, disappeared in the back room.

“Vietnam Johnny. Think he’s a celestial being?”

“Time travels to Saigon for lunch.”

“It’s Ho Chi Minh City.”

“Why they call him Vietnam Johnny anyway? He isn’t old enough.”

“Smells too.”

“Girls!” They shut up.

Tiny came back yawning and rubbing hands on jeans of an indeterminate color. He nodded at the polychromed women. They ignored him.

“Well I, thanks uh, Tina—”

“Shh!” Oprah sprang back to life.

“We’re back with Ola Ratochenko, did I say that right? More or less? Okay, who people call the Human Barbie but who says looks are superficial, that she is a time traveler and became the Human Barbie to show the world just how futile the pursuit of beauty is.”

Tiny grinned.

“Shut up Tim,” Tina snapped.

Tiny was sweating in the superheated salon and took his coat off. He wore only a tight T-shirt under the coat. Many of the woman eyed him, Aunt Mary too, frowning.

“No, that is not what I am saying.” Barbie looked annoyed and human again. “Perfect the soul, perfect the body.”

“Uh-huh.” Oprah looked straight at the camera. “Well.”

“You are ignorant black woman of material world! I am pure white woman of spiritual world.”

Oprah looked amused.

“Okay! Let’s have a big material hand of applause for Ola Ratochenko the Human Barbie who is not afraid to speak her mind. Good for her, right?”

A smattering of applause. A hiss or two and Barbie teetered away on monster heels.

“Next up we have Professor William Tecumseh Allison of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Professor Allison will talk about Wools Worth, who was a—is that right?”—she looked off-camera, nodded—“okay, Wools Worth, a 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony Pilgrim who wrote this book—”

Oprah angled the book and the camera zoomed in on the embossed cover. The illustration was of a winding path through steep rocks leading to a brilliant sunrise, on either side of which were shepherd’s staffs, one crowned with a laurel wreath and the other a crown, all in gold.

“—about the life of Christ in Latin, just reissued, The Woeful Tale channeled by an early twentieth century housewife in Quincy, Illinois named Mrs. John H. Curran.”


—Previously published in The Broadkill Review, Volume 7, Issue 1 (2013)


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Neal Fandek

lives in Missouri. His short fiction has been published in The Village Writer, Grand Tour, 42nd Parallel, The Broadkill Review, Crimson Tide, Penthouse Forum, and others. His nonfiction appears in travel mags, trade mags, college mags, newspapers, and smut mags (he was senior editor at Penthouse, New York, for three years).

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury