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Friday, September 13, 2002

A Pizza Man

Red Dixon


Red Dixon is a missionary kid. MK in those circles.

"Have you seen Mosquito Coast?" everybody asks Red's dad. He hates that. Why compare this Godquest to that movie, goddammit?

Red wouldn't see that film for 13 years, but then it's so clear why the movie moved his dad like that. The missionaries are nuts and daddy Harrison Ford follows them to the funny farm then the grave. No, in 1988, Red's dad is into Emerald Forest and Red watches it over and over with his younger brothers.

The Dixons are selling all they own, packing a little into varied houses of friends, giving the car the old $1 station wagon to the recyclery, moving from the house with its fields of long grass, and selling the goats. Plane tickets for a family of six, plane tickets and visas and passports cost so much money, money and time so dad quits his job at juvenile hall he hated that job he quits his job and they get on Greyhound and head to their first stop. Eugene, Oregon.

Summers, Eugene's got the linguistics school for Bible-believers of all stripes. Eugene's also got lice, like you'd expect when hundreds return from third-worlds to mingle with the would-bes to learn Serenghetti clicks and Korea's multi-layered noun system. But MK Red hates lice and that summer after two delousings they cut his hair to stubble.

From Eugene, it's Kona, Hawaii for more training. MK Red loves Hawaii.

The first stop out of Kona's lava moonscape is four hours in Guam. Red looks out of the terminal windows, struggles to see jungle.

The first plane into New Guinea cannot land in Lae engine trouble they later learn. In Papua New Guinea, fog, sheep, or cattle can keep the runways shut for hours. Tribal farmers don't care for planes that bother their herds. They carry steel machetes and airframes aluminum is thin.

The Dixon five, father, mother, and three brothers, land in Rabaul, an island ruled today by volcanic ash. United Airlines feeds them, but the hotel swimming pool is just getting refilled so they sleep early and fly on come morning.

Red's "hang loose" hand sign means nothing here.

Within a month, Red is running half naked through the jungle, he's running barefoot along city borders where the defoliant meets crawling vines and bromeliads are climbing from every tree, sucking sap and life in the steamy dry season when rains come only three times a week. The missionaries have a compound here and Mr. Dixon is the head gardener. When the old caretaker comes back to pick up his stuff, he's bitten by a huge black Labrador. A dog trained to bite.

The missionary boss, Red calls him "Sir," he gives the old guy two kina that's more than two dollars and watches to make sure he leaves. There's a clinic down the road and they wouldn't want to have to buy new first-aid supplies. "Two-kina merrie," that's Papua pidgin for whore.

Mr. Dixon is chopping back the jungle downhill of the compound.

Red thinks when Sir's kids come back from their winter vacation in Australia things will get better. His 10-year-old libido is up for the young daughter.

Nothing changes.

They've got a private tutor and a cook. One from 'Straya and the other a New Zealander.

That cook can't cook.

She makes pizza. Tomatoes smashed on flatbread covered with corn. No cheese. The dog eats better. One day there's a bolt in the dog's soup meat and the Super King market gives them a real cut of meat in exchange. Cook Joyce makes a real meal, a Beef Wellington.

Cooking up one decent memory.

Missionaries are like freelance writers and grassroots politicians. Stop producing, stop writing and calling the home church with more updates, and the checks stop coming. The checks are never big and New Guinea hot dogs are covered with a thick red skin, taste like plastic, and stain the boiling water a weak purple. Tomato jam is widely available, as is canned mackerel. The shreds of red skin on toast and the pressure-cooked bones take adjustment. Boxed foods are stale off the boat.

Mr. Dixon's tan is getting deeper out there cutting weeds with a machete. He walks alone at dusk and plays his electric guitar into the night.

The Dixons live away from the compound, coming back to care for the lawn and take dinner.

Sir's younger kid is a bit violent, the violent adopted son. He's bigger than the Dixon boys and likes to play rough games and his parents think they are saints because they chose him, a boy darker than they are.

Red runs home from Sunday school barefoot while the smaller kids hang their feet from a covered truck. He's running as fast as he can to keep the truck in sight and doesn't even see the dog. The scar on his arm is from an American house pet, because the dogs out here are better trained and this one has little owners, a brother and sister who call off the mangy yellow blur inches from Red's soft white ass.

He keeps a bat for a week while the owners are off in the bush. It's an orphan bat, mother hit by a Jeep. The bat eats from a bottle and it sucks chunks of fresh papaya, dripping orange papaya, from Red's fingers. Bats hang from the trees throughout the city, big bats the size of owls all black skin and orange fur. This one makes little mewlings like a kitten and sleeps upside down on a clothes tree in the hall. The bat freaks convert Robbie out, because back in the bush these things are bad luck, deathly bad luck. He holds it to prove his faith and the baby latches onto his shorts with stubby, clawed wings and he has to drop the shorts in the laundry. Those safari shorts stay with the bat.

The bat is walking the walls and it settles next to Red's littlest brother. He's got a nosebleed that night and mom wakes up to check the little one choking on blood and this fist-sized fruit bat is nuzzled up next to him on the pillow.

Some of the beaches are filled with sand fleas and the waters are hot and cloudy. Some are sparkling and boys are coming out of the surf with devil rays affixed to the ends of their spears made of clothes hanger wire and fired with bicycle inner tube. And sometimes the jungle is sunny and the boys are running and jumping across the drainage ditches along every road. Other times the jungle is dark as bat's blood and ex-pat kids are raping young neighbors, vacating big houses for fumigation, and lighting ants nests and cane toads on fire. Lighting fires in warm rain.

Red and his brothers are playing with Legos when Sir's boy comes in. They're all in the open garage under the compound waiting for Cook to finish the curry and rice. He's a violent child and he hits Red's littlest brother a sharp knuckle rap to the head.

And there's Mr. Dixon, shaking the boy until he cries in fear and runs to his dad, the missionary boss. Mr. Dixon drives Sir's wife around town because God is going to heal her eyes and she will never wear her glasses. He cuts the lawn faster than the jungle takes it back.

The boy's screams are enough to send the Dixon five back on the plane to America, where everyone thinks they know what happened and no one can see the bitten caretaker and the boys with their homemade spears and all the pain is so much more familiar, so much more domestic, and so much easier to judge.

Two images are trapped in Red Dixon's brain, one the shaking and another Sir's son slapping into a support post. Those tears might have been fear and they might have been pain.

Red wants those images to live on and he wants them to die. He doesn't want to talk to his father. He wants to relive those days without outside comment but he somehow knows that there is too much in there and not knowing grows like the jungle so he picks up the phone and he asks.

Red Dixon PizzaManDixon@aol.com