How Existentialism Almost Killed Me: Kierkegaard Was Right
Fourteen years after their (mis)adventures in the US Max and Sally are settled in Geneva and wondering if their lives of comfort and privilege don’t require they make a contribution. They find token employment with the CIA. This converts to an assignment to uncover the source of counterfeit drugs in Southeast Asia that are killing thousands.
Unprepared, and overly zealous, their every effort seems to result in the death of a friend or acquaintance. The trail leads to remnants of the Khmers Rouges – the quintessence of evil – in western Cambodia. The battle is waged on ele-phant back, in a Thai brothel, in Cambodian minefields, and in Khmers Rouges strongholds. Sally is wounded and Max is forced to carry on alone.
Obsessed with the existence of evil since childhood, Max discovers an unwelcome source of barbarity: within himself.
“Jesus Christ, Max! What happened?” That’s Sally’s greeting as I returned from the weekly soccer match. Advancing age, slowing feet, and consistently mediocre skills had seen me demoted from midfield to defender early in the schedule. I couldn’t keep up with the middies anymore, but the whole business of defense was unnatural. Yes, keep my body between the ball and the goal – got that part. But what about the guy with the ball? Charge? Hang back and anticipate his pass? The life of the defender is one of constant stress. If a midfielder or striker loses the ball, your side’s attack is thwarted. If a defender screws up, it’s a goal for the other side.
The answer to my question about defense tactics was, yes, charge the striker. Repeatedly. Sometimes I got run around; more often just run over. A punishing tactic. The answer to Sally’s question was, “If it’s my nose you’re asking about, babe, it’s not broken. Just ugly.”
Sally had endured – with occasional displays of exasperation – my efforts to cling tenaciously to a youthfulness that, in all candor, had slipped away years ago. Joints creaked, muscles ached, lungs howled, and more than a few minutes exertion set the pulse pounding in my temples with percussive intensity. Would I check out of this world on the tennis court or on the soccer pitch? A vain old dodderer trying to demonstrate that he could still cut the mustard.
Maxwell Smythe Brown IV collapsed today on the tennis courts of the Lausanne Sports Club and could not be revived. An ardent sportsmen, Mr. Brown is survived by his ravishing wife and two equally beautiful but out of control daughters. The widow has announced she will not resume dating until a 60 day mourning period has been observed.
I knew what Sally wanted to tell me. That she continued to love me as much as ever and I didn’t have to prove anything by competing with men half my age. She wanted me to believe that, but did she? To discourage my infantile pursuit of agelessness, she’d stopped coming to the matches. She would offer some transparent pretext, but the message was clear: ‘You’re not fooling anyone, Max, and I’m not supporting this silliness.’ Hers was a clear message, but not a persuasive one. I did have to prove myself to either her – or to myself. To which one of us was not clear.
Sally and I were agreed on a course of action, but this wasn’t shared by our elephants. We poked and prodded their necks with our pistols, but the two pachyderms weren’t buying it. Perhaps they thought our appearance in the forest was the summons to breakfast – it was well past midnight – and they started shuffling back along the path toward the Center, Lookhang and I in the lead. Without our goads we had no control.
“Goddammit, you ornery fucker!” I wasn’t improving my relationship with Lookhang, “There are cretins up there who want to kill us and your hide may not be bullet proof!” No sale. Up the path we continued.
We rounded a gentle turn and I could see the faint pale green glow of night vision goggles forty or fifty meters ahead. They were illuminating one of the KR killers who must have been adjusting the goggles or holding them in his hand. An opportunity? I jabbed Lookhang hard behind the ear with the pistol barrel. It was tempting to just shoot the bastard. He responded to the prodding and broke into a faster shuffle – what passes in the elephant world for a run. The cretins couldn’t fail to notice this; there were shouts. Would they fire? How thick is a pachyderm’s epidermis? I understood how porous my own skin is to bullets, and there’s no place to take cover on an elephant’s back.
“Max,” Sally hissed, “get out of the way so I can get a clear shot.” I guess I could try shooting too, but that would raise the stakes. The KR assholes might not yet be aware there was anyone on the elephants until I started firing – and missing.
I couldn’t clear the path for Sally. Lookhang was bound for the barn and his bales of hay. Sally's elephant, Prathida, was following, single file. Because she’s an Asian woman? There was also the question: how would the elephants react to gunfire? We were now only thirty meters from our adversaries. Better to take the initiative while we still had the element of surprise.
I squeezed off three rapid shots. The two killers were now silhouetted against the lights of the dormitory. Neither of them went down. Of course. Lookhang, however, did react and his shuffle morphed into something close to a trot. I grabbed an ear and held on. I heard two shots. Not from behind me. The killers had opened up. Lookhang took this personally and raised his trunk and trumpeted. Very impressive. We were now ten meters from the thugs who turned and started to run.
Factoid: an elephant runs at about 25 MPH – faster than the fastest human. I looked this up later.
Lookhang quickly overtook the thug with the night goggles and with one swing of his trunk sent him crashing into a tree. The elephant was clearly up to speed on who the bad guys were. The second thug was firing blindly over his shoulder. Lookhang grabbed his arm with his trunk and lifted the screaming thug into the air. Well executed, except that the thug’s shooting hand was free. He was trying to twist around to get a shot off. I fired first. At a distance of seven feet even Max Brown can hit the target. This alarmed Lookhang who seemed to accelerate. I did lose my balance and toppled off, hitting the ground hard. The fall onto my back from a height of ten feet knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t move. I hoped that that simple shit, Prathida, would go around me. No. Straight over the top, but she did lift her feet.
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