Image courtesy of USAF Art Program and Victor Juhasz, artist
There’s no clear connection between the time I spent liberating Iraqis who never asked me to liberate them and my broken jaw, but it wasn’t until I woke up with my mandible askew that I decided to experience The Banana Show before I died.
The glowing red room where the show took place felt like the inside of a giant heart that beat to the rhythm of Diana Ross’ Everything is Everything. Bead curtains dangled behind the stage and a woman (aged precisely somewhere between thirty and seventy) burst through them. Her straight black hair and red-sequined skirt swished in tandem, always opposite her chin and hips. A couple guys new to the island sat in the crowd with me that night, but Paul did not. All he’d talked about before he went to Saudi was getting home to the states, and once he rotated back to Oki he talked about it more. I was happy he wasn’t with us because that meant he made it home. And I was ready to follow him—even though we’d never talk again. Paul was introduced as The Banana Man. That nickname faded a shade or two each time someone PCS’d. And one day he was just Paul. Maybe he was glad his nickname died before he did, and maybe he wouldn’t want me to say any of this. But I can’t afford to care what dead people want. This is what I do.
The night I arrived in Okinawa, Paul advised me that the drinking age was 20, so I bought a case of Guinness and Paul drove me and a couple guys around while we drank. After time had crumbled into bladder-pressure and fatigue, he dropped me off. And when I stumbled into my dorm room, it was littered with paper scraps. No one had a key except the dorm manager and myself, and the window was closed. I didn’t own a single sheet of paper, so it was clear that the specter of an Okinawan scribe had torn apart a collection of Haiku and left the trash for me. I vowed to never write haiku, cleaned up the mess, and then passed out.
Paul showed me an article in Time “Geeks vs G-men”. The quote said he was above webpage hacking because, “It’s too easy,” and, “It’s the younger kids who do it—13 or 14-year-olds.” This verified his maturity in print. Paul was so mature that one day he shouted “Bingo” and stamped a guy’s forehead with a blue bingo marker. Veschek, the guy, was twice the size of anyone in the shop, and he snapped the top off the marker and poured ink all over Paul’s face and uniform. Paul plopped down in the ink, smeared it across the floor tiles and laughed like a baby. Then, like an adult, Paul mopped the mess up. Veschek still looked angry when the mess was gone. Hopefully he’s over it by now; it’s been ten years.
—What if he isn’t?
—What if he is?
One year the commander brought Collective Soul to the island. They play that song “Shine”. The concert was supposed to boost morale, but they would’ve had more success with a staticky recording of the chicken dance, an open bar, and hot wings. After the show, we all got drunk. Not because of the show or because it was a difficult day. It was just another day on Okinawa. And in typical fashion, we marched out the gate together, lost track of each other in the fog of booze, and retreated to the dorm when we’d squeezed out all the day’s possibilities or ran out of cash.
The next afternoon Paul told me about his encounter with one of the guys from the band. I’d like to say it was Josh. But according to Wikipedia there is no Josh and never was. So maybe it was Joel. What matters is that Paul bumped into the band at one of the Gate Two bars.
Paul bought a drink and Joel-Josh initiated a conversation with something like, “Do you know who I am?” It’s douchey for a celebrity to initiate a conversation this way.
—Do you know who I am?
—What difference does it make?
—I thought that was the point of this?
—There’s a point?
Paul says, No. Who are you?
I’m Corn Ball from Collective Soul.
Paul drinks, wipes his mouth on his forearm, and says, Wow. You guys used to be pretty cool. Now you suck.
Ending there would have made me think Paul dreamed it all up—the kind of thing a guy embarrassed about his past would create to appear like someone he’s not—nary a banana man. But the story wasn’t over. Corn Ball says back, Yeah. We’re trying to work on that. Then he and Paul go drinking together, and music and celebrity aren’t mentioned again.
I still don’t listen to Collective Soul or care what the band members’ names are, but thanks to Paul, one of them seems like an alright guy.
—So is nothing when you shine the right light on it.
—I hate every thing about you.
Paul drove me around for eight hours one night so I could look at the lights of hotels and Pachinko parlors. We sped over slippery Okinawan roads—blue, yellow, green, and red flashed in the muggy darkness, and I drank beer after beer and tossed empties into the backseat. He liked house music or whatever that stuff is that’s an arrangement of pre-existing sounds. And I refuse to say it isn’t artful. Someone made the things we play with, but just because we manipulate those things in a way different than the creators intended, that doesn’t mean we’re cheating. But that night we listened to Lateralus. And Paul didn’t complain that I wanted to hear it loud or that I sang in my nasally voice. He didn’t complain that I wanted to see the ends of the island even though it was dark and I never left the car. He didn’t ask me, “Why?” once that night. And if he had I couldn’t have told him much more than that I was drunk because I drank a lot of beers, or that the road was wet because rain had fallen on it. He didn’t even ask for gas money. But not many people asked me for gas money before I went to Saudi.
—Nice back in the old days moment.
—Uphill both ways sandwiched between a blizzard and snow that erupted from holes in the ground.
—This isn’t a fable.
Mike Manchin is a friend of mine. Another veteran I served with in Okinawa. Some might laugh that I call it service, and I’m fine with that. Mike polished red apples on his sleeve in the manner of nine-hundred-year-old rutabaga farmers.
He called and said, “Paul got killed by a drunk driver out in Vegas.”
This was the first I’d heard of Paul in years; I’d barely talked to Manchin. He told me everyone was married and having kids. I told him I was still in school—to learn; I think. A drunken single mother had slammed her car into the back of Paul’s while he was stopped at a red light. He was on his way home from printing copies for an online class.
—You’ve driven drunk.
—Not that drunk.
—Hold on to veracity.
—The tighter I grip, the easier it spills through cracks in my fist.
Paul went to Saudi the rotation before me. He brought back pictures of the Batwoo—a Daewoo with a tape-altered name. He brought back gigabytes of music and probably a ton of stuff I never knew about. But the most important thing he brought back was tech control knowledge. “Shit breaks over there,” he said. And he was right. It wasn’t like Okinawa. I couldn’t show up for my eight hour shift at 1300, check my spam-filled yahoo email until 1630 and then call the person on the pager and tell them to call me at home if any circuits went down. In Saudi the uniform wasn’t just a fashion statement.
When Paul came back, KBEM was scrawled across the outage board in black dry-erase marker. That circuit had been down long before I ever showed up. It must not have done anything important because no one ever raised much hell about it. But Paul strutted into the shop his first day back and said, “Let’s fix that bastard.”
“Kay-bem?” I asked. “Why?”
“There’s no such thing as ‘kay-bem,'” he said. “Kilo. Bravo. Echo. Mike.”
“Calling it a different name won’t change anything.”
He went behind the frame—the first spot circuits touch as they enter a facility and the last spot they touch before they leave. Then he came back to the console holding the Fireberd and said, “Grab your hat.”
Soon it was well after 2100 and the circuit was up. We jiggled some wires, reset a couple circuit cards, and ran a bert, often referred to as a “bert test” and, as Paul mentioned with regularity, “The fucking T stands for test. It isn’t a bit error rate test test.” And after the test came up error-free, we erased the outage board, went to the dorm and drank a bottle of Bacardi 151 listening to house music so loud that it rattled my chest.
The next afternoon KBEM was back on the outage board. We ran tests at every point we could. Some Petty Officer on the navy end of the circuit called and asked what happened on our end, and we said, Hell no, Squidberg, the problem’s on your end. Before long the workday was over and we said, Fuck it, went home and drank another bottle of 151. Now I have trouble believing the circuit was ever up. Far as I know, KBEM’s still down and not doing what it was designed to do with near 100 percent efficiency.
My final week on Okinawa I junked my car, had the wires removed from my jaw. I said goodbye to my friends at Jack Nasty’s and the kids I talked with at their Yakitori stand. There wasn’t much left to do, and still it took a whole night of drinking to wind up in that bar. We swarmed down side streets. Someone would say it was in a certain door, and we’d enter and be escorted out by irritated locals. Someone would decide it was in the other direction and we’d crash into a dead end. But we found it. And maybe I wouldn’t have found it alone. Maybe that would’ve been for the best.
—Nothing bad happened.
—It sounds good that way.
Inside the Banana Lady gyrated and men and women in the front row snapped to attention, mesmerized by her movement and her sequined skirt and high heels. I ordered two beers, but the waiter informed me that I could only have one at a time. So I consumed the first one hastily and then ordered a Jack and Coke. A group of men with high-and-tights sat in the front row with a couple American women; marines and their wives—no doubt celebrating an anniversary.
The round-bodied, thick-thighed Banana Lady unsnapped her skirt and slung it off stage. She shouted, “Hai,” then grabbed a roll of coins and presented it to the crowd. Each motion was exact, swift, and punctuated with a sharp, “Hai.” She placed a metal ashtray between her feet and squatted over it. Next she made the coins disappear and, one by one, released them into the tray beneath her. Klink. Klink. Klink. And so on—until she was out of change.
The bartender stared at me. I felt it. And when I looked at him, he scowled. I’d seen The Karate Kid Part II a hundred times, and this guy reminded me of Mr. Miyagi. Pat Morita, as you’re surely aware, was ethnically Japanese and merely played an Okinawan. So thinking this Okinawan looked Japanese made me more uncomfortable; it meant I was accidentally racist.
I gulped down half my Jack and Coke and caught the end of The Banana Lady’s first act. She dispensed change into the ashtray she hovered over and then snatched that tray and rattled it around to audibly verify her accomplishment. After scattered applause, she set the ashtray back on stage and then held up a bill for everyone to see. I was too drunk to make out the denomination. She crumpled it, stuffed it inside herself, and then squatted: four loud plinks followed. “Exact change,” was shouted from somewhere and that’s when I felt my mouth was open. My face was twisted into a shape that could indicate nothing other than disgust. I looked over to the bartender; he still scowled at me. So I took small sips from my drink to keep my mouth busy and, hopefully, mask my shock.
Then The Banana Lady grabbed a banana and held it up like Excalibur or some other phallic symbol that’s resonated for centuries and will resonate, pointedly, for centuries more. She performed over-exaggerated filatio on the fruit in the mode of corny pornography. And after a few moments of non-climactic fruit sucking, she pointed to people in the crowd and asked them, “Ne? Ne?” One of the men in the front row nodded and his wife play-slapped him. People whispered something about a blowjob and I think I mumbled, “Relax. It’s a goddamned banana.” I’m not certain I said anything intelligible. I am sure that the woman sat on the floor, legs spread enough to offer a gynecologist’s-eye view of her vagina and inner thighs. She peeled the banana half way and shoved the unpeeled half into herself. It resembled something like a yellow and white flower—a floppy banana lily. The white of the inner peel draped over her thigh glowed in the red light. Some laughed. Others cheered.
She plucked the banana, peeled it completely, tossed the peel aside, and shoved the meat inside her vagina. Next she contracted her muscles in such a way as to slice the banana into chunks that plopped into the ashtray. This was a process I had difficulty understanding. Not because I didn’t know that vagina’s have contractible muscles. For some reason, likely poor sexual education—I blame schools and parents—I thought those muscles could only be used during childbirth. So, at the very least, that woman had the decency to teach me something no one else had the stomach for. I looked away for a moment and saw that the bartender had stopped staring at me. I felt I’d redeemed myself. A goal of mine in Okinawa was to avoid being “one of those” Americans, and whenever I received approval, in many cases just being ignored rated as success, it made me feel like an ambassador for my country. But as I turned back in the direction of the stage, applause erupted throughout the room and a tiny blob of banana smacked my table, skipped toward me, and then landed on my crotch.
I can’t confirm what The Banana Lady does after that part of the show because I jumped up and power-walked back to base. I flashed my ID to the gate guard and hailed a cab. Once inside my room, I tore those jeans off and stuffed them into my trashcan. No one had forced me to watch that show, but I stayed until The Banana Lady fired or tossed a banana chunk at me. I was there when it splattered on my crotch. If I’d have watched the stage instead of the bartender, I might’ve dodged it. But if she’d seen me watching, she might have aimed at someone else.
—One problem with not looking is that you don’t see what hits you until you’ve been hit.
—A worse problem is that you’ll never see how it got there.
—Of course, if you get hit, you get hit regardless.
—And this circle is the circliest.
My first night on the island Paul drove me around while Tom Paige snuck in through my window and scattered paper all over. I had let them into my room, and Tom unlocked my window while I wasn’t looking. Tom said he had to go home, but instead, crawled into my room and trashed it. Two years went by and no one said a word. When I finally brought it up and said how weird it was, Tom explained it. We had a beer and laughed and he said it was too bad Paul PCS’d before the prank played out. But I bet the reaction Paul imagined I’d have was better. All I did was shake my head at Tom, puff a laugh out my nostrils, and, lovingly, call him an asshole.
Eulogies are terrible—almost without fail. So and so could have been much more. He died too young and never got a chance to blah. Who knows what any person could have done with another day on this blue-and-green orb? I don’t. And I don’t care what Paul could’ve been or done. He did things. And one of the things Paul Maidman did was lie down beneath The Banana Lady while she ejected chunks of peeled banana into his gaping mouth. That’s probably not a story he’d want his kids to hear, but Paul never had kids. And now Paul’s dead and nobody cares what dead people want. They don’t buy anything. They don’t vote. And it’s not a shame. It’s not too bad. It just is. If it wasn’t, I’d have no reason to say any of this. So I go on. So Paul does not. All the What Ifs can rot in hell.
Brandon Davis Jennings is an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia and currently a PhD literature student at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Crazyhorse #78, Black Warrior Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle and is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review. He is hard at work on a collection of short stories, a novel, and a memoir.
Read our interview with Brandon Jennings here.