The First Congregational Church down on Main Street tolls its ancient bell in the high clapboard steeple whenever there’s a funeral. No matter what I’m doing, I freeze, hunch my shoulders, flooded with melancholy as I struggle to catch my breath. I am back in old Saigon, leaning against the chapel wall, out in the dusty street under a tropical sun, and the awful peal of bells in the small La Vang Chapel—creaky and broken at the edges— makes me shiver. At that moment I know I have to run away.
Maybe I’m ten years old, I’m not really sure, but the good Sisters toll the bell when one of the boys in the ramshackle orphanage dies. The heavy hand of Sister Do Thi Bich, the severe nun who calls me “Satan’s bastard.” Scared, I run.
But there’s nowhere to run, really. I need to be in bed when they walk through the corridor, counting bodies in a singsong voice: mot hai ba bon.
Five was Diep, the boy who died in the morning.
Sau bay tam chín. Six seven eight nine…
Muoi. Ten. I am number ten in the decrepit wing at the back of the building. The end of the line, in the dark corner, shuttled there, next to the sewer pipe, where the smells from the black water gag me, make me heave.
Good night, Vietnam. Goodbye, old Sai Gon. Hello, Ho Chi Minh City.
I run away for the day, though I know I’ll pay a price. One more beating. It doesn’t matter anymore. The good Sisters with the bamboo switch or the other boys who hate me—they shove, trip, or batter me. Slap me in the face.
Bui doi. Dust boy. Impure. Mongrel. American blood. I run.
I run away from District 4 where the Most Blessed Mother Catholic Orphanage is, that grubby quarter of the city, an island, isolated, the squalid streets where the conquering VC shepherded all the Southern army fighters, the rejects, the poor, the defeated—shacks and makeshift hovels and polluted water. On the main street, Nguyen Tat Thanh, folks push and jostle, curse the motorbikes and cyclos and sputtering cars jockeying for space. Food vendors cook noodles and rice over low flames, kneeling in the hot dust next to the black sewage that seeps into the river. Green-bottle flies swarm and bite, and an old woman, her face hidden under a non la, a conical straw hat, sells durian and dragon fruit in the shadow of a crumbing brick wall built when the French ruled the land. I sneak across the Saigon River, listen to the groan of a water bull. When a vendor turns away, I grab a chunk of stale bread, gobble it down. I run.
I go to find the only friend I have. Tranh Xan Vu most likely is working somewhere in District 1, the land of the rich Viet Cong, the victors, five years after a war that ended on April 28, 1975. Vu will be near the square across from the Rex Hotel on Nguyen Hue Street. The hotel where the American military ran operations. Where the lipsticked taxi girls winked and loved all night long. Here now dark Cuban women with heady perfume and harsh eyes mingle with the blustery Russian tourists who smell of sweat and motor oil and anger.
I like my friend Vu, I suppose, because he likes me. Perhaps fifteen years old, a stringy, skinny boy, dark as old wood, a tiny boy with a pushed-in face, he found me months ago when I’d been sent by the nuns to the marketplace to carry back bundles of lemongrass and a bag of rice. He’d been lounging under the shade of a banyan tree, sitting on the cyclo he used to make money, waiting for some insolent VC to nod at him, sneer a destination, and hop onto the three-wheeled machine. He’d seen me walking past, loaded down with bundles, sweating, the boy always chosen for the horrible task, and he’d yelled, “Hey, America.”
That had startled me. I ignored him.
“You, America.” Again, but with a laugh. “You, American boy in blue and white.” The uniform of the schoolchildren: white shirt, blue shorts.
He’d spotted me as a forbidden boy with American blood. Perhaps the deep blue eyes that glanced at him. The rigid chin. The wavy hair. A pureblood Vietnamese, someone who should have shunned me, instead he sought me out—because he was all about America. “And of the freedom,” he’d stammer in thick English.
Mockingly, he sputtered his familiar line to potential custom- ers: “Where are you off to?”
Ban muon di dau?
It was a time before Tet, the New Year, and the Buddhist monks shuffled in the streets. People sat and communed with the ghosts of their ancestors. Bowed, honored, prayed to.
I didn’t answer at first, but finally, weighed down by my weekly load, I climbed in, and he shuttled me to the orphanage. After that first time, we watched for each other.
There were times when I sneaked out of the orphanage, late at night, alone, miserable, running through the alleys, scrounging for food discarded by the street vendors—food that the wild dogs hadn’t found. Vu, it seems, was always out and about, hanging against a post with a cigarette bobbing in his mouth. That is, the stubble of a discarded cigarette from one of the Russian tourists—a few intakes of smoke left.
He lived with his father and grandmother in District 4 in a shack with a corrugated tin roof and twisted boards. I met his father once because he demanded I do so. I bowed to his grandmother who sat on a wobbly chair by the doorway, an old shriveled woman noisily chewing betel nuts. Her few remaining teeth were stained dark red, which told me she’d wanted to be a beauty as a young woman—those dark teeth a mark of loveliness then. She barked at Vu but he bowed, smiled at her.
Vu’s father, Tranh Kan Tan, frightened me: a hard-muscled little man, all sinew and bone, he’d been a soldier for the defeated South, and after the surrender he’d been sentenced to a re-education camp. Re-education: prison. Nha Tu Chi Hoa. Beaten, starved, recorded propaganda blared into his ears day and night, weakened by malaria during bao, the monsoon season, he’d been dumped back home, and tried to pick up a life as a cyclo driver. His stony silence alarmed the Soviet tourists he met at the Rex Hotel, or he’d lose his way, stare off into space. He’d throw up his hand as though to fend off attack. Vu told me he machine-gunned birds in the sky. He ducked from showers of napalm as he hid in the elephant grass. At night he heard B-52s circling overhead.
So the cyclo remained unused until Vu appropriated it, though the few cents he earned barely paid for joss sticks needed to honor the ancestors.
I could never get Tranh Xan Tan’s haunted face out of my head. He was what was left when the American helicopters sailed off for good from the roof of the American Embassy.
He was the dead country, labeled ke phan boi. Traitor.
I met these men all over the city. Frozen men, I called them. Men whose inner clocks had stopped and their faces told you they’d lost the will to live. Ice men. Blocks of stone.
Today I find Vu sitting on the cyclo near the Ben Thanh market in District 1. A policeman is yelling at him, telling him he is not allowed there. But Vu stares him down, defiant, his lips trembling. I’ve seen him in such moods before—dangerous, scary. The policeman has a deep Northern accent that especially jars, and Vu answers back, imitating the blunt demands. Infuriated, the man strikes him in the face. I watch from a corner, nervous. Then I realize what is happening. Vu sometimes wears an American army fatigue shirt he’s found, some tattered military issue remnant with torn sleeves and a hole in the shoulder. A soldier’s nametag on the breast—Johnson—the words U.S. ARMY, and a patch of stripes on the sleeve. Taboo, this shirt, of course, and cursed. The policeman demands Vu remove it, but Vu doesn’t move.
My eyes travel to a poster on the wall behind him—Ho Chi Minh at his most imperious: that awful stare. Revered Uncle Ho. His signature words are emblazoned across the top, though the VC has tattooed them to all our souls: Independence and Freedom. Doc lap va Tu do.
One afternoon I’d been forced to hand out leaflets in the marketplace. Freedom and Independence. Over and over. The cheap broadside printed poorly with smudged ink, Uncle Ho’s face slightly contorted so he looked even more menacing.
Now, looking up, Vu spots me. He starts to mouth the word America as a greeting, but stops, frightened. He looks away. He cannot save himself but he can save me.
Immediately a couple of soldiers appear and Vu, surprising them, pedals away like a madman, though they try to block him. He breaks through, sails past me, a triumphant look on his face, and disappears. The soldiers look angry but they start laughing.
I will never see Vu again.
Late at night as I roam the streets, stealing food from bamboo baskets in the stalls—there is never a time when I’m not hungry—he is nowhere around. One afternoon after I am beaten up by the other boys who call me the son of a whore mother and an American cowboy, I run away. My left eye is bloodied, throbbing, already black and blue. I have nowhere to go, so I seek out Vu’s shanty.
The grandmother sits out front, but she refuses to look into my face. I call out, “Vu.” Nothing. I want to hear him call my nickname, “America.” I like that. The land of everybody’s dreaming. His father steps from the shack. Tranh Xan Tan stands still, eyes squinting against the sun, a man who has taken a vow of horrible silence. The frozen man I have trouble looking at. He watches me closely. I wait. “Vu?” I ask.
Nothing. But his eyes shift toward a narrow space alongside the home, and there, mangled and twisted, is the cyclo. He disappears back into the shack.
I start to back up, my throat dry, my eyes wet. But the grandmother mumbles something and reaches behind her. She hands me a tight bundle wrapped in old newspaper. I take it.
The American army shirt. I can tell by the hint of khaki color, the buttons on a sleeve.
Back at the orphanage while I wait for the beating from the nuns for running away again, I open the package. There it is, that precious shirt, but the front is bloodied now. I jump back, cry out. Nearby one of the boys, not at his chores because he’s ailing, looks up, and smirks. He sees the shirt.
“Are you crazy?” he yells.
I will hide it under the cot, but of course it will be gone soon. But I want to keep it a little longer, cherish it. Vu and the dream of a land he would never see.
As I tuck it away, I feel something in the breast pocket. A folded over, crumpled handbill. The same one we all see in our nightmares. Uncle Ho, whose features are now wrinkled out of recognition. I spread it open. There is that mantra to our defeat: Doc lap va Tu do.
Independence and Freedom. But Vu had scribbled one word after the line, though he’d misspelled it: “Amrica.”
When I sent flowers to Marta Kowalski’s funeral, I considered it the last contact I’d ever have with her. It was my way of paying my respects to the woman who’d cleaned my small apartment twice a month. I’d even skipped the funeral. After all, we’d never been friends. Friendly, yes, because she knew people I knew in the small town. And she also dusted my furniture with a loving hand. A chatty woman, a little too perky for my tastes, she was small and round, with too much powder, too much drugstore perfume, and too many jangling bracelets. Worse—a smug church-going gossip who reveled in the vices of folks I’d never met. When she straightened my messy apartment, I made sure I was out. When she ran a cloth over the leather-bound books on my shelves, her eyes shone, happy. I liked her, I guess. After all, I did send flowers. That says something, doesn’t it?
So I was surprised one night when her niece Karen phoned as I was getting ready for bed.
“Rick Van Lam?”
A good beginning. Not Rick Lam or even Mr. Lam. Not even the way some souls mispronounced it—as lamb. My full name—the way I like it.
“I know we’ve never really talked but we have met. I don’t know if you remember me.” She stopped, drew in her breath, waiting. “Do you remember me? I’m sorry. I’m nervous. I’m Karen Corcoran.”
I did remember her because, well, I remember people. That’s what I do. Pretty, almost waiflike, blond and slender, with razor-thin lips, she was probably in her mid-thirties. I remember that she was wearing a peasant-style dress, too baggy, unflattering, the kind of dress women wear to avoid being looked at.
We’d been at the same party, but some time ago. Somebody’s birthday. An instructor at the college. We’d talked for a minute— she was a little flirty, I thought—and before she drifted away, she’d said we should get together for coffee. I never answered her. Later on, at one in the morning, lonely and a little desperate, I thought I’d approach her. But something kept me away. She stood in a corner, arms folded over her chest, head tilted. Her eyes darted about, unsettled and edgy. Those dusty blue eyes looked pale as old faded paper flowers. She wore her hair long, straight, uncomplicated, and, as I watched her, she pulled at a strand, nervous.
I’d seen her around town, of course. Sometimes when I saw her at a convenience store at night, picking up milk or pumping gas, or when I spotted her driving down Main Street, she wore her hair in a casual ponytail, almost sloppy, with strands flying loose. Even careless—especially careless—she was pretty. Cross- ing paths, we usually said “hi” or nodded at each other—but that was it. I was always planning future conversations with her, but I held back, afraid I’d be disappointed.
“I remember you.” I was smiling, waiting, happy to hear her voice. “Of course.”
“It’s business.” Matter-of-fact, blunt.
I kept smiling. I felt a flush of pink rush to my cheeks. “Business?”
“I want to hire you.”
That surprised me. So late at night for such a call. “You need an investigator?”
“To investigate my Aunt Marta’s murder. Marta Kowalski.” A melodramatic pause, calculated. “Murder,” she whispered.
The rawness of her voice alarmed, chilled. I glanced at the clock on my desk. Midnight. Maybe she’d waited all night to get the courage to call. But midnight?
I could hear her suck in her breath, a small cry escaping from the back of her throat.
When I still didn’t answer, her voice gained urgency. “I want to hire you to find her murderer.”
Marta Kowalski, the woman who cleaned my carpets. “You don’t think it was a suicide?”
A thin laugh, almost mocking. “No, I don’t.” “Why?”
“Can we have lunch tomorrow?”