Barney says this is the kind of heat that makes people in Australia shoot each other. Or stab. Strangle. Run over. Whatever. But we are not in Australia. We are in a once-infamous city, which its inhabitants still call Saigon. And it has not rained in months, but tonight it will, and will go more or less unmentioned, but not unnoticed. It will still be hot, but the relief will be palpable. In Australia, they will stop killing each other, but only if they get some rain there too. We have been waiting for the rain while playing pool and drinking beer and sometimes, when we just can’t take it anymore, finding air-conditioned places that will let us in. In those places you pay the usual dollar for a 333 beer, two more dollars for the air-con. The Rex is one of those places, and the Caravelle, and now these new fancy restaurants appearing block by block, almost overnight. There is a swimming pool on the roof of the Rex, but it is often full of fat Russian tourists, sun-tanned like scraped cowhide. They are loud too. They never come to the Lotus. This is our bar. No air-con. Rats the size of puppies, but they stay in the dark corners, usually, until closing time. Barney is here on a wet lease to Vietnam Air, teaching their pilots how to fly. There is a whole contingent from Australia: Ansett boys. One of them has managed to woo me into bed, which really didn’t require all that much effort. He looks vaguely like Mel Gibson. And he has a room at the Rex, with air-con, this Aussie boy. We are not in love, not by a long shot. If he were one of the French boys, maybe I would be in love. The Aussie is mainly in love with himself. But the air-con is nice. It slows down the process of going crazy.
Tonight, since it’s slow, and she is not needed to flirt and serve drinks, Phượng and I are hanging out at the front window. It is octagonal and quite large—maybe six or eight feet across—and contains not a bit of glass. The sill is fairly wide, meaning a person could sit on it if she were so inclined, and often I am. At last call, Tho, the bartender, will close the rusted aluminum accordion shutters and latch them with a heavy round padlock the diameter of a dessert plate. I wonder if the shutters are made, like so much is here, of metal salvaged from crashed American war planes. I wonder about a lot of things, at this window. Last call is still hours away.
It is April. Bill Clinton has recently re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and I am thirty-eight years old. If I subtract the years I cannot remember, my age is about twenty-three. This is not really that funny. I know that. But it was not deliberate. Some things just happen. Shit happens. Everyone says so.
“Gone to Củ Chi already?” Phượng asks, “Visit brother?” By which she means have I gone by now. She says this without looking directly at me, because she knows. Still, I have not gone. One of these days, though, I will surprise her. Mick has been gone twenty-six years, but this is the first time I have set out to look for him, as I have been very busy denying the undeniable. When I was a kid he would take me into the foothills of the Little Rockies on his motorcycle. He knew where to look for fossils, knew what kind they were when he found them. I can still see, set on the palm of his hand, a chunk of amber. Inside, tiny filaments, like hairs. He tells me they are dinosaur feathers. We are in a cave, and I am holding the flashlight. I search his face to see if he is making it up, but am pretty sure this time he is telling the truth. Remember this, Riley, I tell myself. Hang onto this.
“Not yet,” I say to Phượng.
She looks at me and rolls her eyes. Just to one side and back again, not all the way around. Her eyebrows are pencil-line thin and perfectly arched. I would look ridiculous in those eyebrows. I tell her she looks like Madame Nhu. “Điên cái đầu,” she says. Crazy in the head. I agree: I have seen photos of the Madame soon after her husband and her brother-in-law, the President, were assassinated. She was holding court in L.A., blaming Kennedy, not a hair out of place. The woman had some nerve; you have to give her that. It dawns on me that Phượng might not be talking about the Dragon Lady. I don’t argue. Crazy is clearly my comfort zone. It is my DMZ.
The dive we are in, this flimsy but cozy excuse for a rock’n’roll nightclub, is fairly quiet at the moment—five or so regulars taking turns playing pool, a few strangers and a small flock of taxi girls looking on. On a suitcase-size and decoratively beat-up boombox he keeps behind the bar, Tho plays the homemade cassette tapes we give him. Tonight, Prince dominates the airwaves, with a little Culture Club thrown in to mix things up. Some nights Tho’s box delivers the same stuff American soldiers would have listened to here: Country Joe, Sly, The Youngbloods, Barry McGuire, Aretha. Occasionally we get the soundtrack for Good Morning, Vietnam. We bop mindlessly to the music, and especially love the part where Robin Williams says, “It’s hot. It’s damn hot.” Because it is.
When the conversation about my missing and/or dead brother hits the wall that is my refusal to acknowledge any legitimate possibility, Phượng and I talk about something easier: in this case, the rain. “Trời mưa,” she says, a simple statement even I can understand—It is raining.
I nod. “Rầt mưa.” A lot of rain.
During our nightly conversations we roam haltingly into each other’s languages, my excursions considerably more hesitant than hers. But I am learning, and Phượng has had far more practice with English.
“Wet rat,” she says, and giggles at the play on words. “Wet rat bastard.” She is not really giggling anymore, but she doesn’t sound pissed either, which makes it difficult to know for sure if she has pegged anyone in particular for a rat bastard or if she has been watching more old American movies on STAR TV and this is just another practice persona. Probably a little of each, knowing Phượng. She sounds like Humphrey Bogart in Vietnamese drag. I am pretty sure she is just messing around. I am too dreamy with beer and the heat to care, watching my own movie, the scenes dim and sputtery as a hand-cranked newsreel.
Cyclo drivers on the watch for passengers pedal their three-wheelers kaleidoscopically through fitful patches of brightness. They drift strong and stork-legged, all sinew and bone-skinny. Dangling from their lips or fingers are cigarettes somehow still smoldering in the rain. Firelight gleams off the damp street, emanating from small blazes fed with jet fuel and tended on the fractured sidewalks by itinerant bicycle mechanics who once repaired Jeeps and tanks for the Americans, and who now keep their tools in battered Army-green ammo boxes.
My fake-French bicycle is locked up out front, where I can keep an eye on it. It is how I get around in this city of 5 million to my various English-teaching jobs, to the street kids’ center where I try to offer something of relative value, and into which we try to coax them from the stoops, the rain, the robbers. But the kids are so wild, wilder than wild red pandas, and they find their protection in each other, mostly coming only to eat, and then disappearing again into the night.
I try to formulate in my pidgin Vietnamese an explanation for Phượng of how the cyclo guys look like those mythological birds to me, and how some kids in America are told that storks bring babies, tied up in bandanas dangling from their beaks. It sounds even more ridiculous in Vietnamese than it does in English. It occurs to me how many birds there are already in this story: Phượng, the Phoenix, cyclo-storks, the girls at the bar, a scrawny pidgin that is my grasp of the language, a language I am learning to love, for translations like this one, for barbed wire: “Steel string with thorns.”
Phượng tells me the stork story is so much baloney; she actually says, “Stork babies baloney, Chi.” Chi is what they call me here. It means big sister. Hardly anyone calls me by my actual name, but I’m used to that; I’ll answer to just about anything.
Phượng would know something about the biological reality of babies, as she has recently been knocked up by one of our local British boys. She tells me this as we stand at the window. Ian, the father, is an old Saigon hand, having been here for three years already, captaining some kind of bamboo-furniture enterprise. He is tall and blond and very handsome, and wears a jaded weariness. I hear the first few years it was all he could do to stay in the country and out of prison, for un-committed crimes.
This town is full of romantically hazardous men: Brits, Aussies, Froggies. Especially, maybe, the Froggies, with their Ça vas, their Gauloises, their sleepy eyes and sexy accents that require of a girl perpetual vigilance. Olivier is one of these Froggies, and Phượng tells me he has his eye on me.
“Olivier like you style, Chi. Think Chi beaucoup sweetie pie.”
Olivier has never said more than two words in a row to me. If he thinks I am beaucoup sweetie pie, he has a funny way of showing it. Phượng says this is because he is shy. Shy and adorable. A little young. A hazard, like I said. Besides, there is that Mel-Gibson Aussie, who I became entangled with almost as soon as I arrived, and who will very soon, and surgically, break my heart—able to do that because this is Saigon, not because the reasons I am sleeping with him have anything to do with love. Love would require a part of me that I have not been able to precisely locate or properly identify the remains of for a long time now.
So that is the romantic inventory—the pertinent bits at least.
At least I am not pregnant. I look over at Phượng, who leans her elbows on the windowsill, her chin on her interlocked fingers. I say I am sorry for bringing up the storks.
“No worries,” she says. Then, “Shit.” Softly, infinitely sweetly. She picked that up from me, I think—the word, not the delicate delivery of it. I never heard her say it before we started hanging out together at the window.
“Don’t say shit,” I say. “It’s not ladylike.”
“What is ladylike?”
“Like a lady.”
“Woman?” she asks. She looks puzzled, those fine eyebrows drawn together to meet above the bridge of her delicate nose. Her delicate nose that matches the rest of her delicate self. I feel like an Amazon next to her, all five-and-a-half feet of me.
“Different,” I say. “More feminine. Ladies don’t swear.”
“Merde,” she says. She’s not buying it, in any language.
I swear all the time, though my favorite swear word is not shit; it is fuck. It has been my favorite term of emphasis pretty much since Mick taught me how to cuss properly when I was nine. I try not to say it around Phượng though. I do have some manners.
“What are you going to do, Phượng?”
“Don’t know. Maybe will go away,” she says.
“What? Where?” I am alarmed. For me. I don’t want her to go anywhere. She is the only sane person I know in this town, besides my students, for whom I must keep up some semblance of decorum, meaning I cannot go out drinking with them; and Tho, but I have learned the hard way it is not healthy to become too attached to the bartender.
“Not me, silly,” she says. “Nó.” Nó means It. I’m not there, with her, yet. “Em bé,” she says, and smacks my forehead lightly with her fingertips for emphasis.
“Oh.” The baby. I get it, at least that part. Maybe it’s the beer, but I don’t know what else to say, not sure if she means what I think she means. I realize I don’t have any idea what can happen here, what’s legal or accepted. I don’t know if Phượng is Catholic or Buddhist, Animist or Cao Đài; if she has family in the Delta or the Highlands; if her father fought with the ARVN or the Viet Cong or the Montagnards. I am just an interloper, still uninitiated and incurably dopey, traits Phượng patiently abides.
She straightens her back and casually taps her long, perfectly-pink-shellacked fingernails on the sill like she’s playing a piano. “Maybe keep,” she says, as if it has just occurred to her, but I am not fooled.
“Does Ian know?”
She nods. “Knows. Not happy.” She hesitates, stops tapping. “Very,” she says.
“Very not happy? Or not very happy?” I ask, even though I’m not sure the distinction will be clear to her. As usual, she’s right there with me.
“Not very happy,” she says. “But so, so happy.”
“Really?” I am shocked. I would not have expected him to be any kind of happy; he has always seemed so content, so immutably rooted in bachelorhood.
“I don’t know. I just …”
“I know,” she says, and turns to me. “Người Mỹ.” American. She leans her forehead into mine, locks eyes, then kisses my cheek and floats swan-like away in her silky white áo dài to go back to work.
I get another semi-cold Tiger beer from Tho, watch the cyclos a bit longer as the rain lets up, eventually return to the pool table, where I sometimes belong. It’s getting late, but I am not ready to go back to my place yet, out on Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, Boulevard of the August Revolution, needing something closer to pure exhaustion to sleep in this heat, and the noise that almost never stops. I could probably go to the Rex and sleep with the Aussie and his air-con, listen to his cherished CD collection on his fancy stereo in his hermetically sealed room, but the beers are closer, and warmer by a long shot. Besides, I hate just showing up. I like at least to be invited.
More people wander in—not regulars, tourists—trying to make some sense of this awkward and bewildering city they had surely envisioned differently. Maybe with real sidewalks, traffic signals that people actually abide, or white sand beaches and cabana boys, full-time electricity, food you can eat with impunity. I always say, Where the hell did they think they were going? But I didn’t really have any idea either, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. I was, however, not expecting cabana boys, or a Gray Line tour. After six months, what is here is what belongs here. I have acclimated, planted my little flag, and don’t think I ever want to go home.
Last week one of the kids, hunkered down on the floor at the shelter, paused while scooping rice from his bowl to his mouth and looked up at me, as if he were finally seeing me for the first time. “Where you town?”
At first, I always said California, as that is the place they have all heard about, seen pictures of, imagine America to be, if they imagine America at all. I haven’t tried yet to explain Montana—the perpetual expanse and frigid beauty of it. “Sài Gòn,” I say. “Người Vietnam.”
He looked back down at his bowl, dismissing me. “Nói dối.” Liar. He finished the rice, picked the last grains out of the bowl with fingers that seemed to move independently of the rest of the boy. “Người Canada.”
“Nope.” I shake my head. Not Canadian.
“O đâu, rồi?” Where, then? “Say true.”
“Không biết.” I don’t know.
“You crazy. Maybe American. American crazy. America number one.” He set his bowl down hard on the floor and left me then, without even a fleeting glance back, to wonder if I should even attempt to process either of his pronouncements, or any of mine.
Tonight my pool partner is Clive, of Clive and Linda’s, another ratty expat bar a few blocks over between here and the river. He is another Brit, always barefoot, and at fifty-something fairly old as local gringos go. Linda is his Thai wife, a fading beauty, all business and hard as bone. Rumor has it the taxi-girl trade at Clive and Linda’s is its main concern, not a sideline like it is here, and Linda the presumptive madam. Clive is also rumored to move a lot of drugs through the country, by paying off the cops and the customs, partnering with the right guys from Chợ Lớn, a less risky trade here so far than in Bangkok. Back in Manchester he worked the steel mills, and when they shut down went looking for something better than the dole.
“Shite work,” he told me the first time we talked. “Bollocks and shite not having any.”
“I imagine,” I said, though I knew I couldn’t.
“Bloke I knew in Thailand sent me a postcard. Said the birds were everywhere. And easy. And it was warm. They had this thing called a sun.”
He found Linda in Chiang Mai, conducted a courtship of sorts, then married her in a little beachside ceremony. “Was she one of the easy ones?”
He turned his head side to side four or five times, slowly, as far as it would go. “Nowt easy about her.”
“So why’d you marry her?”
He chalked up, bent down to take a couple of shots, and after missing the last one leaned back against the edge of the pool table, tossed his cue stick hand to hand, and looked up at the grotty ceiling. “The way she said no. Like she’d never been asked such a stupid question. I knew she was the girl for me.”
“What was the question?”
“I believe it was, ‘Would you care to dance?’ ” He grasped the cue with both hands, about waist- to shoulder-width apart, and commenced a spin, his bare feet executing a remarkable semblance of a pirouette.
“Your shot,” he said when he stopped revolving. “Though ya don’t have one.”
He was right. He’d snookered me good.
Clive seems to like me, despite my reticence to snooker him or our opponents when I don’t have a shot. It drove him crazy for a while, but now I get a little grudging respect for trying to hit something of my own, no matter how hopeless it may look, or how many rails I’ll need to carom perfectly off of to get there. We are a good team in any event, and win far more often than we lose. The taxi girls root for us, applaud when we pull out a victory in the final lap.
Tonight we are playing an American from Texas and a chubby Taiwanese businessman who are apparently involved in some sort of rare-monkey export concern that I don’t really care to think too much about. About what they do with the monkeys once they get them out of the country. The Chinese guy insists on yelping “Lucky” every time I make a shot, no matter how simple or how complicated it might be, or how many shots I make in a row.
The Texan responds each time with a lively, drawled “Damn straight, podner.”
I would like to slap them both with one clean swipe.
Clive knows I go off my game when I let myself get rattled by the opposition. He keeps reminding me to focus on the table. “He’s blinkered, mate. And that Texas twat is just trying to wind you up. Ignore them.”
“I’m trying, but that is so fucking annoying. You notice they don’t do that to you.”
“Cor,” he says, “Flippin’ gormless. Keep your pecker up.”
“No pecker,” I say. But I get the gist.
“Shoot,” he says. I do. I make two passably simple ones and then miss a dead-easy four-ball in the side. Clive says, “Quit pissing around.”
“I made two.”
“My two,” he says.
Between shots I lean sweaty and slick against the wall, and the temptation to unlock my knees, just give in and slide down to the floor, is almost overwhelming. Even with the rain it is at least ninety degrees in here, and the humidity is probably that high as well, or higher, if that’s even possible. Tonight I resist the inclination to perch on my haunches and instead focus on Clive’s feet as he pads around the table. No one has ever asked, at least within my earshot, why he never wears shoes, but I suspect it is because he can’t find any here that fit. His feet are not big, in the usual sense, but extremely wide. They look like hairless bear paws.
In the end we win on an amazing cut-back Clive slices into the corner. He misses scratching by a hair. “Brave,” I say.
He pats me on the head. “No. Just good.”
“Not tonight, kiddo. I’m knackered. Going home to the missus.”
“Sounds lovely.” He just smiles and shuffles out barefoot into the dark.
It’s midnight, and the place is now crowded, filling up with overflow from the Apocalypse. Phượng is delivering drinks. Obviously there will be no window time before closing. Ian comes in, takes his usual place at a corner table and nods at me. I nod back. I know I should get on my bicycle and go home, but the idea is just too damn depressing. I don’t want to be lonely any night, but for some reason—maybe the twisted clarity of too many beers, or Phượng’s situation, or the music, or the rain—I especially don’t want to be lonely this night. I wonder where James Taylor was when he wrote that song. Not Saigon I bet. I bet it was someplace he knew and unquestionably belonged, and that he wasn’t really even all that lonely.
Phượng takes Ian his beer. I watch as he puts his hands around her tiny waist and pulls her close for a quick kiss when he’s pretty sure no one else is looking. I don’t count. I am a collaborator. And all of a sudden I am insanely jealous of what they have, even if I don’t get to know exactly what that is. I suspect, though, that it is something along the lines of love.
After a few minutes Ian waves me over to come sit with him. I am caught a little off guard by how grateful I feel, but mostly I am relieved to have at least a semi-legitimate reason to stay a while longer. On the way I pick up a beer for him and a bottle of water for me. I already know I am going to feel like hell in the morning, but I don’t have to hammer the last nail in. Since tomorrow is Saturday, I only have one class—a sweet and somewhat ragtag band of earnest college students I will meet at the park in the afternoon—and then the eight-to-midnight shift at the shelter. I suspect I’ll survive.
Ian takes note of the water, my unfocused eyes, and says, “How many?”
“How many what?” I know what he’s asking, but don’t want to admit to more than I have to right away.
“I was working on my second.”
“Thought better of that?”
A Tiger sandwich is three beers: one Tiger beer between two more Tiger beers. Two or more sandwiches is tilt. Not pretty. He gives me a thumbs-up. Which is nice. We watch the tourists flirt with the taxi girls and argue over nationalities. Eventually I go home.
Ian was one of the first people I met here, the night I found the Lotus, the first time I was brave enough to leave the one square block containing the eight-dollar-a-night hotel I stayed in the first few weeks after I landed. The block I had confined myself to, terrified of venturing any further, of crossing the street. I had been in town only four days, but they had been long ones, mostly spent sleeping, dreaming of mountains and highways and home, fox dens and snow caves, the infinite ocean, waking to wonder what I had done. My room was enormous and timeworn, painted with what looked like watercolor, a peeling and mottled blue—walls, floor, ceiling, doors, and window frames. The filmy curtains were also blue, and the holey mosquito net. It was like being underwater, and finally I had to get out, before I couldn’t anymore. In those four days I had memorized the entry for blue in my dictionary:
of a color intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day: the clear blue sky | blue jeans | deep blue eyes.
(of a person’s skin) having or turning such a color, esp. with cold or breathing difficulties: The boy went blue, and I panicked.
(of a bird or other animal) having blue markings: a blue jay.
(of cats, foxes, or rabbits) having fur of a smoky gray color: the blue fox.
(physics) denoting one of three colors of quark.
It was Ian’s turn to rule the pool table that night, and I watched him win for a long time before I had the nerve to put my name on the board. I was too unsteady to shoot well, but made a few decent shots and earned myself a beer and some conversation, in English, which was a lot like being let out on my own recognizance. But after so much time and silence, it was hard to get used to talking again.
He asked if I was Canadian. Later I would find out the locals did that to avoid insulting anyone by guessing they were American. At the time, though, I just said no.
“Yank.” I laughed. I’d never been called one of those before.
“What brings you to our fair city?”
“Curiosity, I guess.”
“You know about the cat, right?”
“What cat?” He waited for me to figure it out, which took me longer than it probably should have. “Oh, the curious one.”
“I do. We have that cat in America too.”
“Con mèo,” he said. My first lesson in Vietnamese. I knew then that I could easily come to love a language in which the word for an animal was the sound it made.
He asked me how long I planned to stay, and I said I didn’t know. My ticket was open-ended, and my purpose was clear as mud.
“Good luck with that,” he said, but not in a way that would make me feel ridiculous. More than, in a completely indefinable way, I already did.
After a few months, I constructed something of a purpose: getting from place to place, not crashing my bicycle, teaching idioms and Yankee slang, feeding feral orphans. A few months more, and now Saigon’s incessant din and treacly grime and sleepless lunacy have taken me over. It carries me along like a wave. Or an avalanche.
I spend inordinately little time thinking about the reason I came here in the first place, to locate Mick, if not his actual bones then his ghost, or whatever it is the dead leave behind. To find something I can say goodbye to, or at least find a place in me that will accept this: MIA, after all these years means gone, gone gone gone, really gone. I know that eventually I will buck up long enough to go to Củ Chi—so close it is practically a suburb—and force myself to venture into the tunnels where the Army misplaced Mick, probably come out puking. I hear now you can fire Kalashnikov rounds for a dollar a shot there. They have widened and deepened the tunnels to accommodate Western bodies. Mick wouldn’t have needed that. He was a little guy, perfect build for tunneling. I can’t imagine how he did what he did there. I have tried for years to tell myself maybe it was lucky he didn’t have to come home damaged, try somehow to fit in. I’ve met some of his compatriots, here and back in the States, and not a one of them is right in the head. They’re all twitchy, still startling at certain sounds and having the bad dreams after all this time. The suicide rate for the tunnel rats is even higher than it is for the guys who got to shoot at other people, and got shot at, out in the open. Sometimes they take other folks with them when they go. Innocent bystanders, as if any of us are truly that. Meantime I drink and shoot pool and pretend that I am helping somehow, with the kids and with my students, though it did not take me long to figure out it is not the Vietnamese who need help here.
When it is all too overwhelming I burrow in at the Rex with the Aussie, who works with the Vietnam Air guys out at Tân Sơn Nhất, training pilots and mechanics about planes in peacetime. These guys, he’s told me, know plenty about planes in wartime: Their water buffalo drink from bomb craters turned lotus-choked ponds; their kids are born missing limbs or with them put on backward. By God. Every couple of months he gets a ten-day leave and goes off to Scotland—to hike, “to veg out,” he says, unwind before he goes berko. When he leaves this time one of his pals finally tells me, in as kind a way as possible, that the Aussie is in Scotland because his Scottish girlfriend has just had his child there, a boy, and he is pulling the paperwork together to get them permanent visas, bring them back to Saigon.
“So,” this pal tells me, “Maybe you should forget about him now.”
“Done,” I say, though of course we both know that is a big, fat lie. I have not had time to forget about him. Give me some time.
“He should have told you.”
“Should have. Maybe he was going to when he got back.”
“Pigs fly,” he says.
I spend twenty precious dollars on a four-minute phone call to America, where the boyfriend I left behind there is still so angry at me for going away he barely utters a word after hello. I listen to him breathe, watch the seconds go away on the pay phone at the main post office. I am standing under a larger-than-life-size portrait of a smiling, radiant Hồ Chí Minh, in what is officially, at least in name, his city. I say into the phone, “Do you miss me?” But I have not left enough time for an answer at the pace we are going. I want to be missed. MIA like my brother, but with the prospect of being found. Flags flown and torches carried. APBs out for my arrest. I don’t care how.
Finally I hear, “I don’t know how to—” The line goes bleep, then dead. I do not call back, imagine it would be to hear about some new lover, or the current wife, the bun in the oven, the puppies, the re-cohabitation. He already has it all; or rather, when they can stand each other for a stretch, a reasonable, fucked-up, facsimile. A better half, two kids, three dogs. A family. It is what we do. Did.
Clive gets arrested; it is unclear exactly what for, but suddenly his taxi girls have taken up residence at our bar. The cops beat him up. He spends two weeks in jail with a fractured cheekbone, a badly stitched flap of skin covering it, and a dislocated shoulder. When he gets out he is wearing filthy bandages, a sling made of an old ammo belt, and shoes. Linda has already been deported back to Thailand. Their bar is shuttered. Clive has no money—as the authorities have searched and taken what they could find, frozen his bank accounts—so we take up a collection and gather 350 US dollars between us.
When we give it to him, he cries—blubbers, really.
Ian asks, “What’s the plan, mate?”
“Got none.” One-handed, Clive clenches the edge of the bar like it’s a high window ledge and he is outside, suspended over a very long drop. He bends his elbow and leans in to put his forehead against the wood, in a motion that could be mistaken for prayer. We wait, grouped in a loose semicircle around the pool table, while he gathers himself. He turns and eyes the felt longingly. Then he looks at me. “Snooker one or two for me, girl. Can you do that? For me?”
“Only for you, Clive.”
“Might learn to like it.”
Gentleman that he is, he shouts us all a round before he goes. We write our real names on beer coasters so he can send mail to us poste restante. We know it will never happen, know in a few months he won’t be able to match but a few of the names to faces, but it is what we do, send a little fragment of ourselves with him. And then he goes, his new shoes somehow broken in already, molded to his feet like black wax. His shoes are what we look at as he ambles away, how they carry him off, ungainly and unbelievably gone.
Ian and I get a few beers in us a couple of nights after Clive leaves and decide to break into his bar. Olivier, the Froggy Phượng has her eye on, for me, comes with us. We’re presumably going just to check it out, and then Ian says he thinks Clive mentioned a stash somewhere in the storeroom, but he doesn’t know of what or exactly where. Could be money or hash or some other kind of drugs. “Could be girls,” Ian says, not sounding like he’s kidding. We hail three cyclos. The young drivers race half-heartedly, figure out quickly we are not tourists and don’t want anything but a ride. There is no rain tonight and instead just half the moon. The river reflects it, rainbowy with diesel, and it smells like exhaustion and fish. We pay the drivers at the corner nearest the bar and wait for them to drive off before we duck into the entryway. It is hidden in shadow, which gives Olivier time to work on the cheap Chinese padlock. It’s big, like the one at the Lotus, but Olivier demonstrates his wizardry by picking it in about ninety seconds flat. “Voilà,” he says, maybe just a bit theatrically.
Ian makes it through the door without mishap, but Olivier and I sort of fall through it, into a snarl of overturned barstools and sundry wreckage. “Oh la vache, crap, sheet, mer-duh,” he says as we untangle ourselves. I get a bit of elbow in the ribs—deserved retribution I suppose, for taking him down with me—but when he gets to his feet he reaches for me, to help me up. It is dark but for a small bit of half-moon filtering in from the street. I have my little flashlight with me, so I switch it on. The bar looks like the Ia Drang Valley after the First Cav got done with it. Nothing that should be standing is; all of the pictures have been torn off the walls; Linda’s collection of porcelain figurines and other knickknacks is strewn about in fragments. There is broken glass, like shrapnel, on every horizontal surface. It scrapes beneath our feet as we make our way to the storeroom door. I can’t believe Olivier and I didn’t get cut when we went down, but somehow we hit a clean patch.
“Lucky,” I whisper. Neither of them looks at me or asks what the hell I am talking about.
Ian opens the storeroom door and incredibly it looks untouched, almost empty, and meticulous, as Linda would have kept it. There are a few bottles left, unopened, of the local whiskey, and a single case of 333 beer. On a top shelf are a few gallon jars of snake wine, complete with snakes, coiled inside as if they are sleeping off a big night. A hammock stretches across the back wall, attached to rebar-fashioned hooks on either side. I picture Clive in here on a hot afternoon, fanning himself with the day’s edition of the Saigon Times, a beer on the floor, within easy reach of an outstretched arm.
Ian starts methodically palming the walls between the shelves, looking for a secret compartment or a trap door. I hold the flashlight for him, while Olivier sits on the floor, smokes a cigarette, and watches us. “You think you will find some dop?”
Ian laughs. “What ees zees dop?”
“You know,” Olivier says. “Dop. Smok. Hashish.”
“Maybe,” Ian says. “Maybe not.”
After he’s gone over every inch of wall, he borrows my flashlight to inspect the wooden floor planks. He finds a tiny chunk of hash, then another one, then another, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading through a forest. We are stunned at finding anything at all, and wonder how it got, and stayed, here. Olivier keeps saying “Incroyable,” in a reverent sort of way. Ian finds maybe two grams total, divides it up between us, and then he’s ready to go. “Let’s get out of here,” he says, and Olivier gets up from the floor. They start for the exit, but I hang behind.
“I’ll see you guys later.”
Ian says, “Share what you find?”
Olivier says, “Watch out the gendarmes.”
“The gendarmes got nothing on me,” I say, thinking maybe I sound braver than I feel.
My eyes have adjusted to the darkness, so I assemble the few bar stools that are still intact, line them up where they belong. Clear a space around the pool table and find a broom. While I am sweeping up the glass, I see a large patch of dried blood on the floor. I figure Clive caught his cheek on the corner of the table somehow in the fray, and maybe lay there by the table for a time while it bled, watching his Vietnam life pass before his eyes.
I am taking stock of the pool balls that are caught in the table’s net pockets, seeing if they are all there in case someone should happen by at three in the morning looking for a game, when the door opens and Olivier slides through it. He throws the bolt on the inside and makes his way over to me and my broom. “Why you still look? Why you don’t stop looking?” He takes the broom out of my hands and leans it against the wall. “Now,” he says. He sounds exasperated, a little breathless, like maybe he ran here, but that is highly unlikely. Nobody runs in Saigon.
It is not the most eloquent kiss, not what I would expect from a mouth that offers up words like bites of ripe dragon fruit, but it is a kiss. He actually tastes nothing like fruit of any kind, but like cigarettes and cognac and, somehow, butterscotch. I don’t know where to put my hands, and after a minute he puts his on the sides of my face and then pulls tenderly away. He has a pipe, and we smoke some of the hash. I don’t do this very often, and manage to get pretty stoned. We finish clearing a space around the pool table and shoot a couple of games in the near darkness. The smack of the balls as we scatter them across the felt and drop them into the pockets is the only sound, except for an occasional truck or motorcycle or boat motor in the distance. Saigon is sleeping. So rare.
After a few games Olivier looks at his watch. “Time,” he says.
“Time for what?”
He doesn’t answer, but goes to the storeroom to fetch a jug of snake wine. While I lean against the wall and watch, he pours it around the room, over the pool table and the barstools and the bar.
“Are we going to burn it down?”
“Oui,” he says, as matter-of-fact as that kiss, and empties the last of the snake wine, and the snake, onto the floor.
“I wonder what kind of snake that is.” Despite how stoned I am, I know how stoned I must sound.
“A dead one,” he says. “Let’s do eet.”
Snake wine is basically grain alcohol wrapped around a serpent, and it goes up like gasoline. Luckily, Olivier has made sure we are all but out the door when we light it. We take off for the river and smoke begins to pour from the windows and flames climb from the inside out and up to the roof. We find a small, uninhabited boat tied up to a bigger boat, and huddle together in the bow, watching Clive’s bar disintegrate. The front of the big boat is carved into the shape of a dragon and we are in its shadow. No one comes to put the fire out. A few sleepy cyclos pedal up and sit, backlit by the flames, in a row at the curb. They look like they are watching a movie.
For some reason I think about the Aussie, who will be coming back any day, and wonder if I will even tell him that I know about the girlfriend and the son, or just go on until they get here as if nothing has changed, seeking refuge in a room that could be anywhere, in any country, at any time. Or maybe I will take up with Olivier, and we will burn things down. I think about the boyfriend at home, and can only picture his hip bones, the space between those bones and his ribcage, where one side of my face at one time so perfectly fit.
I try to remember what Clive looked like, exactly, how he moved and the way he sounded. Every time he starts to slip away, I bring back that one quick dance, that pirouette, and begin again. I am glad the bar is gone. All those knickknacks.
When the sun comes up we walk up the quay, stop at a phở stand and sit down on low plastic stools under a mesh awning. There is a small, dirty-blond dog asleep under the table. He has many small scars around his muzzle, and his ears and stubby tail twitch away the flies. The soup is good and hot, and we top it off with basil leaves and chili sauce, stir it all together. My lips burn as I eat, but I can’t drink the water, so I just let them. Olivier asks if I have ever been to Củ Chi. I say no, not yet. He says he has a motorcycle. A real one. Russian. I nod. When we are finished eating Olivier pays the bill and kisses me on both cheeks.
“Saturday?” he says. I do not say anything. I do not say no. He waits for a minute, then says, “Ten o’clock.” He goes. I finish my soup. The dog watches.
I teach two classes at the business school, ride my bicycle to the zoo. Two of the street kids I know are selling postcards and “shwing” gum to stunned visitors they have helped cross the wide boulevard, where the onrush of bicycles, motorbikes, and the occasional car or lorry never pauses or breaks for even a second. The kids acknowledge me with almost imperceptible nods, and they don’t try to sell me anything. In one corner of the zoo I find a large black bear in a very small cage. He is not moving and his paws are covering his eyes.
I go home at four to shower, arrive at the bar at six, get a beer from Tho and retire to the window with Phượng. The sun sets as it does here, without prelude, and the sky goes from light to dark as if a switch has been thrown. Phượng leans her back into one corner of the window frame, her fingers laced across her middle and her head turned to gaze outside. Her expression tells me nothing, but I have seen her and Ian in deep conversation, laughing sometimes, sometimes not laughing. They are going to keep the baby, I think. Together.
“Will miss Mister Clive,” she says.
“Đó là sự thật.” It’s true.
She looks at me, one eyebrow raised. “Been study?”
“Some,” I say.
“Phượng think a lot,” she says. “Good on ya.” She smiles, makes a small fist and socks me lightly on the shoulder. “Me too.”
I say, “You are such a knucklehead.”
“Next week lesson,” she says. “Have to go now.”
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” is playing in the background. The line, “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box” is the one that always makes me flinch. I picture my mother, looking out at the snowy buttes, tracing patterns in the frost on the insides of the windows, trying to imagine a place where there is no winter, where it is always hot and when the rains come after weeks of threats and dry thunder and lightning in the west, people pour into the streets and squares to soak it up, literally, to express a kind of gratitude for the one absolute requirement of a country like this one, a place where once all they probably wanted was to grow their rice and raise their families and be left the fuck alone.
I sit on the windowsill and watch Phượng walk away. Her áo dài is blue tonight. (Of a color intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day. The boy went blue, and I panicked.) I know it is a special one she wears when she has a date. I expect Ian will show up to get her pretty soon, in his tattered linen sport jacket, and they will go to the roof of the Rex for dinner, stand at the edge of the terrace and watch the city, the young couples on their motor scooters, riding around and around the circle in front of the Opera House on Nguyễn Huệ, slowly, hypnotically, the cyclos parked on the side streets, smoking, patiently waiting for passengers—someone, anyone who is prepared, however reluctantly and in whatever condition, to go home.