SEVEN BEDTIMES FOR SEVEN BONZOS, An excerpt from a short story originally published in Yeti magazine

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This current issue presents a text by the 2016 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Ben Bush

According to their testimony, the three co-defendants had met while flipping ollies in the drained swimming pools of suburban southern California and a decade later had gone on to serve as graphic designers and principal investors in Abacus 5, their own product line of extreme sports clothing. Without seeking prior permission from myself or my former employer, Black Star Photo Agency, Abacus 5 had printed a series of T-shirts that used elements of eight photographs spanning several phases of my career, albeit significantly altered from their original form. My time documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia had been reduced to shock value, but I felt most violated by the use of an image from my first foray into commercial photography.

'I lost a chunk of my arm to take that photograph,' I said and looked down from the witness stand at the three young entrepreneurs chaperoned by their attorney. 'I almost died. A lot of reporters were getting killed. Each time I took one of those photos I might have joined them. The ghost you see in that picture peeled away a one-and-a-half inch section of my forearm. There are medical records - medical goddamn records - of cases in Indonesia in which people were skinned alive by ghosts. That's what I was up against.' 

I unbuttoned my shirt sleeve, which fell away from my wrist like flayed skin. The judge gasped as he saw the band of scar tissue, smoother and more uniform than the skin around it. My attorney pursed his lips, rumpled his brow and looked downward in order to convey the gravity of what I had endured. A baby-faced investor-designer took a gulp of Powerade and banged his Adam's apple against the knot of his half-Windsor. As if to satirize my suffering, the defendant seated center poked an index finger into the gap between the button and the seam of his shirt sleeve to pick at a wrist scab from a tumble down the half-pipe.

I have toured many war zones, have snapped photos of bodies exploded to mush, women with their hands hacked off, blood streaming down the babies they clutched to their bosoms, but nothing had haunted me as much as the photograph I now held. The image flapped and waggled in my nervous hand as I turned it to face outward and rotated my fully extended arm in a slow horizontal semicircle to show the courtroom. All these years later, it still seemed so alive that it might squirm out of my grip.

I'd already been working in Cambodia for several years when, in April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and conscripted its residents into stone-age agriculture, believing that urban life with its commercial and cultural exchange had tainted the spirit of the pure Khmer worker. For many of these families, it was a cruelly ironic homecoming as only a few years earlier they had fled from their farms to the city to escape the 1972 U.S. bombing runs, known as Operation Menu, which were intended to hinder the armament supply line from China into Vietnam. After several weeks photographing the living conditions of these families, while bluffing and evading the Khmer Rouge, I'd had to be helicoptered out of the Cambodian countryside to Bangkok, where I'd taken a commercial flight into Jakarta.

In the window seat on my right, a regional manager for Proctor & Gamble lowered the shade prior to takeoff. On my left, the legs of a Caltex pipeline engineer jutted into the aisle; repeatedly tripping the stewardess. During the flight, their torsos tilted to form an A-frame in front of me as they analyzed the dilemmas posed by Asian food and the difficulty of navigating a foreign city. Each time I raised a complimentary gin and tonic to my lips, it passed through their conversational crossfire. I had an uncomfortably intimate view of the regional manager's face; sunburned bright pink except for pale intersecting lines of skin recessed inside wrinkles.

Indonesian soldiers gripping M-16 rifles stood on either side as a customs inspector pulled a canister of shaving cream from the regional manager's luggage, rattling it to ensure that it was nothing more sinister. When asked the reason for his visit, the regional manager stared at the rifle's black banana clip, hesitating before he answered. 

Outside customs, a short solemn man was waiting for me. He held a flat rectangle of white cardboard - nearly as wide as he was tall - with my name, Milton 'Blitz' Madison, inked across it in black permanent marker. I chuckled as I snapped his picture. 

For much of the 1980s this photo would sit on my desk. In it, he looks the part of the suspect in a police mug shot, glumly gripping a placard indicating his name and felony charges, except, of course, this assistant to the company driver held my name. His features clearly differed from my thinning brown hair, glasses and trimmed beard. When colleagues stopped by my office, I'd point to the photo and make jokes about 'doing time' in a Southeast Asian prison, which were generally well-received by colleagues. When asked the nature of the charges, I claimed 'indecent exposure' or 'flashing.' Every profession has its built-in quips.

The chauffeur's assistant, Indonesian 'Blitz', carried my suitcase and a heavy bag of lighting equipment to the trunk of a waiting car. In the backseat, I ran my fingers along the leather interior as we drove to a chromium-dioxide magnetic tape production facility in the suburbs of Jakarta's mega-city sprawl.

Rather than the expense of flying a New York commercial photographer half a world away, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Corporation, 3M, had subcontracted with my employer Black Star for images of its first overseas manufacturing facility, which would then be reproduced in a brochure for 3M's upcoming annual investors' conference. It was an instrumental first step towards a new corporate strategy for Black Star. With market globalization and industrial outsourcing, commercial photography would eventually constitute one third of the photo agency's revenue stream. As a correspondent for the Asia-Pacific bureau, I was one of the first to undertake a commercial photography assignment. Because the profit margin for commercial work was far greater than international news journalism, Black Star had offered me twice my usual wages, which already included endangerment pay, for this comparatively tranquil photo shoot. 

Hajar Dewontoro, the public relations liaison, extended a handshake across his desk. 

'Milt, I'm told you're a talented journalist and a skilled photographer. Everyone here at 3M is more than grateful that you've been able to find the time for this project,' and then like a light, his smile flicked off and in the darkened room of his face, he stumbled into a coffee table of sincerity. 'I hold in high regard your efforts to showcase the brutality of the Communist threat,' referring to my photographs of Khmer Rouge atrocities. He fished inside his shirt collar and pinched a silver chain between his thumb and index finger. A pair of dog tags tinkled against each other. 'During my military service I defended our nation against an attempted coup by Partai Kommunis Indonesia, PKI,' he said. 'Your coverage in Cambodia is of the utmost importance.' 

While uncertain that I shared his sense of joint purpose, in recent months my journalism had elicited more physical threats than compliments and I was willing to take what I could get. 'Thank you for your kind words,' I said and felt a thud as he clapped me on the back. With the same suddenness, the bare bulb of congeniality once again beamed from his face. 

LP records, framed and autographed, hung on his office wall. 'Each one of these was produced using high-fidelity audio technology developed by 3M,' Dewontoro explained. I had been away long enough that I was uncertain to what level of rock fame these recording artists belonged and accordingly what degree of 'impressed' I ought to convey. My eye must have lingered on an airbrushed album cover of a woman in ripped tights with a tangle of blonde hair arched across the hood of a powder blue Corvette. 'She's pretty, yes?' he said and paused to stare at me. 'It must be nice to be an American.'

'I'm afraid I'm no expert on it these days.' It had been a long time since I had been anywhere I would call home.

He gestured for me to join him beside the large window which filled the wall behind his desk. Beneath us, rectilinear steel hulls of machinery, linked by thick black ropes of electrical wire, color-coded air ducts and churning conveyor belts, formed a snaking path across the white expanse of the factory floor. 'At this facility, we produce the highest quality magnetic tape currently available on the international market,' he said, 'But I don't need to tell a man with your awareness of regional politics that our most important product isn't our chromium-dioxide, noise-reduction audiotape. It's the people you see here.' 

He gestured downward at men and women in navy jumpsuits and baby blue surgical masks standing on either side of a conveyor belt stacking square cardboard boxes into 10-pack cartons. 'We are creating a nation of skilled workers and broadening their economic horizons.'

He led me to the factory floor for a tour. Dewontoro shouted statistics on Indonesia's recent economic growth over the thunderous clatter of machinery. Noise-reduction technology, or at least the machinery that made it, was about the loudest thing I had ever heard. GDP, exports and average annual wages had experienced recent rapid growth under Suharto's leadership. 

'6.7 percent expansion!' he shouted. 

With lightning precision, a machine wound a reel of audiotape onto the axis of its plastic wheel and I reduced the shutter speed to catch the hypnotic spiral in motion. Shining blades sliced off measured lengths of tape.

During my weeks in the Cambodian countryside, the only sound to reach industrial decibel levels was the unexpected bang of a detonating landmine and so, even with my ears ringing, there was reassurance in the predictability of the factory's percussive rhythm. Whoever claimed that it is more difficult to create than destroy had never experienced the profound difference in stress levels between a magnetic tape production facility and a civil war. I snapped twelve rolls of film without once worrying that I would be shot.  

 

Ben Bush is managing editor of McSweeney's podcast, The Organist, and a 2017-2018 Fulbright Fellow in Bulgaria. His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review and The Literary Review. His nonfiction has appeared in Bookforum, The BelieverSalonLos Angeles Review of BooksPoets & Writers, and the San Francisco Chronicle.


ELIZABETH KOS­TOVA FOUNDATIONTHE ELIZABETH KOS­TOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at VAGABOND are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages

 

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