Late Saturday night a light sleet pings the old windows of my apartment. Drowsy, I switch on the TV. Midnight: Turner Classic Movies is showing The Deerhunter. Vietnam all over again. It’s a movie I’ve resisted because the fierce gunfire and brutality and napalm-burnt landscapes drag me back to my boyhood at the orphanage in Saigon—Most Blessed Mother Catholic Orphanage.
But I’m a grownup, I tell myself as I wrap up in my warm quilt comforter, a birthday gift from Gracie, my landlady and good friend who lives one floor below me. Hot cocoa in a mug, untouched and now filmy and cold.
My eyes keep closing, then opening, tired but strangely alert. Then, horribly, that chilling scene arrives when maniacal Cong guards and the terrorized American GIs play Russian roulette. One bullet in the chamber. Your turn. Fire. Hesitate. Stark horror on the American faces. The demonic faces of the Cong—eyes hard as flint, twitching fingers.
Do it. Do it. Mau di di.
A pistol to the head.
Hurry. Now. Quick. Now. Do it. Move. Move.
Frantically I switch off the TV.
Those horrible words. Mau di di.
Maybe I’m ten or eleven, living in the orphanage since around age five, dropped off by a weeping mother who disappeared into the ruins of Saigon. Not Saigon…Ho Chi Minh City now. Doc lap va Tu do. Independence and Freedom. The words drilled into our schoolboy souls, our morning mantra. No matter because I’m the hated child, bui doi, a child of the dust, awful breed of that frightened mother and some breezy American GI.
Occupying the far back corner of the barracks, my narrow cot under the dripping walls where the mice chatter at night and water bugs crawl onto my eyelids when I sleep, I spend my days dreading the shoving, the sneers. Satan’s child. Mongrel American. Sister Do Thi Bich uses me as a moral exemplum of failure and some sort of original sin. Me, bastard boy.
On a hot August day, so humid my baggy blue shorts and white shirt melt into my skinny body, I line up with a dozen other boys. A fat man with a piercing laugh points us into two old Russian Malotova trucks. Drivers waiting, cigarettes bobbing in their lips. The nun warns us to behave, to follow orders. To listen and obey. She glances at the fat man and smiles nervously. She’s afraid of the Communists, I know. We all are. The North Vietnamese swagger and spit and curse. Men in hard-pressed uniforms stomp into the chapel during services and watch us. The nuns clutch their rosary beads and look into their laps.
We ride for an hour, bouncing in the truck with bad springs. A boy shoves me when my body falls into his, and the others jeer. “The American can’t sit still.”
I push back and we tussle. Someone punches my neck, another pulls my hair. Disorder. The driver hears the commotion behind him and leans on his horn. “If I have to come back there…” He taps the small window behind him with a pistol. We get quiet.
We’re dropped off twenty or so kilometers outside Saigon, near Long Thanh, near old supply buildings, ramshackle structures with rusted corrugated-tin roofs and shot-out windows. A man shambles toward us, lines us up, and announces our work for the day. We will clean the fields around what he calls the depot, gather the scraps of wood and metal and glass scattered around, half-buried or leaning up against the sprawling buildings, haul off debris, and toss it into a truckbed.
“Americans died here,” he tells us. “Cowards.”
He spots me as I lean on one foot, and scowls. “Americans.”
He’s from the north, I know from his rough, unlovely accent, an old crusty veteran from the National Liberation Front. Uncle Ho’s followers. Missing his right arm, he swings his left wildly. A skinny, leather-faced man, shabbily dressed, he stumbles over his words, looks away, then back, each movement of his face a lesson in what’s wrong with war. His shorn head reveals scar tissue and part of an ear missing. One of his eyes isn’t there. “Captain Le. You will call me that.” Then he repeats it. One of the boys snickers and the man jumps so quickly that we all start, nervous. He’s crazy.
While we work, he disappears into a shed, but soon summons two of the boys. They drag an old metal chest outside, snap it open, and Captain Le holds up a military uniform—or the remnants of one. A moth-eaten shirt with stripes on the shoulders. Boots without laces. A helmet.
“An American deserter,” he announces. “A coward.”
At midday, exhausted under the blazing summer heat, we are given water and a bowl of rice. Captain Le disappears for two hours, but when he returns, he’s blind drunk, staggering. His one lazy eye focuses. “American boy, come here.”
As I stand in front of him, he nearly topples, rights himself, but points at me. Broken fingernails, black, chipped. “You tried to kill me.”
I keep my mouth shut, my heart racing.
He turns to the other boys. “When we capture American infidels we do not kill them. Yes, maybe some torture. A bamboo cage.” A sickly grin. “But we make them into animals.” He reaches back into memory. Then he shouts at me in garbled English:
Xo ren doo dai
A memorized list of brutalized English commands for the captured American soldiers: Surrender. Don’t move. Silence. Go quick.
He spots the American uniform on the ground. “American,” he yells at me, “wear it.”
I don’t move.
“Mau di di.” Hurry. Now. Move.
The other boys, nervous at first, begin to laugh. Tottering, Captain Le yells for them to put the helmet on my head. One of the bullies, thrilled, grabs my arm and twists it. Another grabs my sleeve.
I squirm, fight them, but it’s useless. They lock my arms behind my back. The helmet drops on my head, so large it covers my face. My shirt is torn off, replaced by the wormy shirt. Finally they strap me to a bamboo post jutting out of the ground.
Mau di di. Hurry. Now.
They circle and jab, kick, but then get bored, as the captain demands they get back to work. “You are all lazy. There’s a reason none of you has a mother.” They leave me hanging for an hour, my head dipped from the heavy helmet, my arms hanging by my side. The musty old cloth smells of rat droppings, ancient sweat, decay…
The sun beats on my exposed neck. I pass out.
When a superior drives up, he’s furious, demanding Captain Le release me. I topple to the ground.
Back at the orphanage, delirious, I’m carried to the room where the sick boys convalesce. Alone, writhing, crying, the back of my neck so burned I can’t find a comfortable spot on the cot, I have wild dreams: the American soldier in his uniform looking at me, a maniacal smile on his lips. Mau di di. I can’t lift the helmet off—it weighs a ton. My neck snaps. I hear my mother’s voice as she says goodbye.
When I wake up, sweaty, parched, I look into the face of Sister Mary Chi Hanh. She’s a new nun, the quiet one who always looks nervous. Sitting on the edge of my cot, she dabs my forehead with a damp cold cloth. Seeing me awake, she rushes to give me a sip of water. It dribbles out of the corners of my mouth. When she speaks, she has a slight accent. Maybe French, I think. A whisper.
She anoints my burning neck with lotion, maybe tiger balm, and though I wince and cry, she shushes me.
“The cruel boys…” She is speaking to herself.
I sputter out my name for some reason. “Lam Viet Van.”
“My name is…”
She reaches behind her, glances over her shoulder, and suddenly she is placing something in my mouth. “What?” I ask, my tongue rolling over the sweet wonderful taste.
“Chocolate,” she says with a smile on her face.
I swallow it but the smooth taste lingers, welcome, delightful. I grin. “Wow.”
She laughs quietly.
A voice from outside calls her. Alarmed, she jumps up. “I can’t be here.”
“I can’t, American boy.”
She sits back for a moment, touches my cheek. “You’ll always be a lonely boy, Viet.”
She whispers, “You will always wear the loneliness of the people you meet.”
“I don’t understand.”
“But what you don’t understand is that it’s your gift from a loving God.”
Confused, I stare into her face. “That is not a gift.”
“Our Lord does not make mistakes.”
Anh Ky Trang lived in his own world.
Sometime during the fall semester I spotted the young man sitting alone in a corner of the Student Union, his body angled away from the crowded room, his face buried in a textbook or staring blankly out the window at the campus, his hands folded into his lap. A young man, though I thought of him as a young boy because he was so small and skinny. Once or twice, coming from behind him, I’d see his head follow the movements of passing, laughing students, and when he turned his head I thought I detected eagerness there, a hunger to say something. Maybe simply to have someone talk to him. Loneliness covered him, or maybe I projected that emotion onto him. One time, startled by a group of students who’d bumped into his table, his eyes got hooded, wary.
Lonely. But how was I to know that? Because I also spotted him as Vietnamese—and I suppose I saw myself when I saw him. A boy afraid of others, a boy who felt he didn’t belong in a world where others could point at him and shout, cruelly, Look! There! The outcast.
One day in late September, I thought I’d approach him. I’d been born in Vietnam, I said as I leaned into his table, but he started, his eyes frozen with fear or maybe dread. His lips tightened into a disapproving line, then, surprisingly, into a thin smile, though not a friendly one. I backed off. As I headed to the coffee bar, I watched him gather his books, sling his backpack over his shoulders, and scurry out of the room.
Another time I spotted him heading to class. He hugged the wall, his shoulders dragging against it. His left arm was cradled into his chest, tucked inside his jacket, and his head dipped to the right. Blue jeans, shiny new, but a foot too long, rolled up so that the underside nearly reached his knees. A plaid hunter’s jacket, one side of the tattered collar turned up against his neck. Huge goggle eyeglasses with clunky black frames. A helter-skelter haircut, uneven in places, spiked in the back.
A week later a football lummox, all testosterone and heat, sprinted by, reaching for the waist of a young girl. He bumped into the boy, who jerked back. For a split second his tiny face darkened, his eyes flashed, and that cradled hand formed a fist. A whistling sound escaped his throat. The jock didn’t notice, thank God, maneuvering the willing girl into his sloppy embrace.
What the moment did was make me curious about the lost boy at Farmington College.
Everything shifted at mid-semester when my buddy Hank Nguyen, now a Connecticut state cop, appeared on campus for a six-week, two-hour-a-week semester as part of the State Crimes Investigation course. Teamed with an older lieutenant, the two fielded questions in a practicum for prospective state cops enrolled in the college’s Criminal Justice program. Hank welcomed a return to the campus where he’d been a student a few years back. In fact, the hostile, withdrawn young man who harbored kneejerk bias against me had been my student in Criminal Procedures. Pureblood Vietnamese, though born in America, Hank had inherited his father’s myopic distrust of Vietnamese bui doi like me. Yet, working through his jaundiced view of me, he’d emerged as my buddy for many years now. He was part of my social world—and I was welcomed into his family’s home.
So his stay on campus one night a week was opportune. I’d be finishing my two-nights-a-week course on Forensic Investigations when he’d emerge in his crisp uniform from his classroom, giving us a chance to have coffee or a bite to eat together. My day job was as insurance fraud investigator out of Hartford, working with Vietnam vet Jimmy Gadowicz in Gaddy Associates, another pal of mine, but my adjunct status at the college provided me a few extra bucks for weekends in New York City or, occasionally, a stolen holiday in Barcelona or London.
Headed into the College Union for coffee one evening after class, I stood at the counter and realized Hank was not behind me. When I strolled back from the counter with two cups of coffee on a tray, Hank had settled into a chair opposite a boy who stared unhappily at the uniformed state cop who was leaning into him and smiling.
Hank motioned me toward an empty seat. “Sit, Rick.” Amazingly, in the minute or so he’d sat there, he’d learned the student’s name. “This is Anh Ky Trang. But he prefers Dustin. The name he gave himself. Dustin Trang.”
He smiled at the boy, who did not smile back. Instead Dustin wore a scared look, his shoulders hunched.
Hank laughed. “He thinks I’m gonna arrest him.”
The boy sputtered, “You are?”
Hank pointed a finger at him. “Why? You commit a crime?”
Dustin actually trembled, but shook his head vigorously back and forth.
“Don’t mind him,” I reassured Dustin, nodding toward a beaming Hank. “He’s a jokester. You’d think a man in a state cop uniform would be better behaved, no?”
Dustin didn’t say anything.
“Dustin, do you know Rick? Professor Lam? He was my prof a hundred years ago.”
Dustin still said nothing.
“See where you end up when you take my class, Dustin?” I said warmly, but nervously.
Dustin’s head swung from me to Hank, almost mechanically, but miserably.
“A life of crime or a life arresting criminals.” Hank grinned at me.
I downplayed it. “Don’t mind him.”
But Dustin suddenly found a voice. “He’s scaring me.”
That bothered Hank, who lost his smile. “Hey, sorry. Not my intent, Dustin. I saw you, figured you were one of us”—his finger pointed to me and then to himself—“and…” His voice trailed off.
“It’s all right,” Dustin mumbled.
“You a freshman?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes.” A clipped response, very polite. “Two courses a week.” But he was already standing up, closing his book and tucking it into his backpack. He stepped back. “I gotta go.”
“Hey,” Hank began quickly, “it was good…”
Dustin was already moving away, banging into a chair, hurrying out of the College Union.
“Nice work, Hank. He’s practically running away. You really charmed him.”
Hank, bewildered. “I needed more time.”
“I think your uniform scared him. A cop approaches a solitary boy in a college cafeteria, you know how the story ends—handcuff leg irons. Do words like freeze scumbag come to anyone’s mind?”
Hank sat back and folded his arms over his chest. “As I said, I needed more time.” His eyes followed the departed Dustin. “A strange boy, no?”
“I’ve thought so all semester. Lonely.”
“By Christmas we’ll be friends.”
“Maybe you should leave him alone, Hank.”
Hank tilted his head to the side, a mischievous grin on his face. “State cops save the world.” Eyes twinkling. “It’s a bumper sticker I proposed to my captain.”
“No wonder you’re assigned to freshman KP at the college. You know, sometimes the world doesn’t want to be saved, Hank.”
“Neither one of us believes that.”
● ● ● ● ●
A week before Thanksgiving the solitary life of young Dustin Trang shifted, a metamorphosis I’d not expected. Yes, Hank had persisted in greeting the young man in passing, even dipping into a seat to annoy him, but Dustin had remained stoic, withdrawn, resisting Hank’s charm crusade.
One night, sitting by myself with hamburger and coffee in the College Union, I watched a teacher sidle up to Dustin and loudly praise a term paper he’d just graded. He was walking past Dustin’s table, followed by a swarm of buzzing acolytes, and suddenly he stopped and announced in a loud, enthusiastic voice, “Dustin, I gotta tell you—your paper on local evangelical churches and the New England Great Awakening—you nailed it.”
Dustin sputtered feeble thanks, then dropped his eyes down at his textbook. But the professor wasn’t through. Stepping near, he tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I mean it, Dustin. You nailed it.” Dustin refused to look up.
Ben Winslow—Dr. Bennett Winslow, Professor of Sociology—was the campus firebrand activist and all-around good-natured prof. “Call me Ben,” he told his students, and they did, though some with derision and mockery. A man in his sixties, a roly-poly Falstaffian man with round cheeks, white beard stubble, skimpy salt-and-pepper hair, an infectious laugh, he had the noisome habit of lecturing so loudly other teachers closed their doors in his corridor. An unreconstructed sixties radical—his own Facebook definition and Twitter handle @ socialdemocrat—he was immensely popular, not only because of his dynamic, off-color, pun-sputtered lectures, but because his real concern was his students. A rarity. With his rolled-up work shirt sleeves and Beatles neckties, his corduroy sports jacket with ripped elbows, he was the campus oddity. A claque of worshipful students trailed after him. Twice a week, after his Social Problems course ended at seven, he’d linger in the Union, surrounded by a coterie of students, and the gabfest would go on.
Suddenly, surprisingly, Dustin Trang became a part of his circle. Certainly not one of the boisterous kids who celebrated everything Winslow said as though they were part of the studio audience of, say, Jimmy Fallon on late-night TV. No, Dustin sat on the edge of the group, inordinately happy that someone included him in a party. I doubt whether he ever spoke—the few times I spotted him among Winslow’s followers he sat at attention, ready to bolt if too much notice came his way. The fact that he had found his way there pleased me.
“See,” I nudged Hank one night when we strolled past the chatting students. “Ben Winslow hath charms to soothe the lonely boy.”
“I needed more time,” Hank quipped.
He was pleased, I knew. Passing, Dustin glanced at us, and Hank flicked his finger toward him and smiled. Dustin actually smiled back.
“Professor Winslow wants everyone to love him,” Hank told me.
“So do you.”
He made an exaggerated monkey face at me, which startled a young girl walking toward us. The tall state trooper in dress uniform made a grotesque face. Her eyes got wide.
He leaned in. “I’m gonna have to arrest you, Rick. Otherwise she’ll think the state police are crazy.”
“Perhaps you should assume a more stoic look when you walk through these hallways.”
“I don’t like going out of character.” He raised his eyebrows. “Look.”
Professor Winslow’s group had dispersed, but Dustin was walking alongside the teacher as they headed out the door. His body language was troubling—walking too close to Ben, bumping into his side, talking, his face animated. The teacher was attentive, two short men eye-to-eye, but he kept pulling back, trying to put some distance between them. It resembled a skit from a high-school performance, but there was nothing humorous about it—something serious was being said.
“What in God’s name?” Hank muttered.
“But something is wrong, Hank.”
We watched the two disappear out the doorway.
Bothered for that moment, I put it out of my mind until two weeks before the finals and the Christmas break. I’d been sitting in the adjunct faculty office, reading student term papers and then quietly reviewing a fraud case for Aetna Insurance, my mind numb with the banality of white-collar crime, when I decided to head home. Seven p.m., the late-afternoon classes ended, students swarming into the dark wintry night—headed back to dorms or to cold cars in the lot. I waited until the hallways were clear, then wrapped a scarf around my neck, grabbed my gloves, and walked out of Charlton Hall.
Raised voices stopped me. At the end of a wing of faculty offices a door swung open, slammed back. Ben Winslow’s office, I knew. At first I saw no one, but immediately I recognized the voice: Dustin Trang.
His words shrill, panicked. “You promised.”
Winslow’s answer. “I can’t keep a promise like that.”
The sound of a book slammed to the floor. A hand banging a wall.
Dustin’s voice broke. “You said you were my friend. You acted…”
Winslow spoke over Dustin’s words, hurried. “C’mon, Dustin. Listen. I told you…”
Suddenly Dustin stepped out of the office but faced in. From where I stood I could see his purplish face, his spiky hair sticking up, his fists raised in the air. “You promised…”
“You gotta believe me, Dustin. This is…wrong.”
Dustin cuffed his ears. “It isn’t. It isn’t.” Then, his voice lowering, “I’m sorry I told you.”
“But you did.”
Silence as Dustin breathed deeply. “I lied, Professor. I made it all up.”
Winslow appeared in the doorway. The small, round man with the fuzzy hair appeared tense, his reddish skin now blanched. He pointed a finger into Dustin’s chest. “I have no choice.”
“But you promised.”
“Stop saying that.”
Dustin backed up, then stamped his foot. “You could get in trouble, Professor.”
“No, you could get in real trouble. The cops.”
A long, drawn-out, “Noooo.”
Dustin spun around, his fist in the air, and suddenly he slammed his book bag against the wall. “Damn it all.”
Ben approached him, but Dustin held up his hand, traffic-cop style, and Ben froze. Ben slammed his office door behind him, leaned against the hallway wall. His voice roared: “Damn, damn, damn.”
A few students, walking out of other faculty offices, had bunched in a corner, watching and whispering. One, grinning, had held up his cellphone and was recording the quick encounter.
Dustin stormed away, giving the finger to the kid with the cellphone, and came face to face with me. For a second he paused, deliberated what to do, then caught his breath. A weird smile covered his face as he rushed by me.
An office door swung open, and Professor Laramie stood in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. He frowned at Ben, who ignored him. He was a small, wiry guy I’d never liked—and an avowed enemy of Ben Winslow’s out-there politics. I’d sat at faculty meetings and listened to Laramie and Winslow go at it, their dialogue mean-spirited. Laramie was notorious for standing outside Winslow’s classroom, jotting down suspect remarks and forwarding them to Academia Fact Check, a right-wing alarmist group convinced professors were poisoning the minds of American youth. Winslow was his main topic—which Winslow relished. Indeed, when the shadow of Laramie lingered in the hallway, he upped his sensational remarks.
Now as I passed Laramie, I stared into his face.
“You find this funny?” I asked bluntly.
Surprised by my words, he shot back, “Nothing is funny that comes out of that madman’s office.”
“You have a grin on your face.”
“It’s not a grin, Mr. Lam.”
“What would you call it then?”
He watched me closely. “Did you ever read Hawthorne? The Scarlet Letter? Chillingworth. It’s the look Satan has when he knows he’s checked another soul into hell?”
“And you’re Satan?”
“God, no. I work for the opposing team.”