Jasper 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 whose inhabitants still call it Saigon. It has not rained in months, but tonight it will, and the rain 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—playing pool and drinking beer and sometimes, when we 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 Caravelle is one of those places, and the Rex, and now these fancy new restaurants appearing block by block, almost overnight. There is a swimming pool on the roof of the Rex, and it is often full of corpulent Russian tourists, suntanned like scraped cowhide. They are loud and 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.
The government here is renting Jasper from Australia so he can teach young Vietnamese pilots how to fly passenger planes. He is part of a contingent of Qantas boys—another of whom has managed to woo me into bed, which really didn’t require all that much effort. This other one looks vaguely like Jim Morrison and has a room at the Rex, with aircon and a bathtub. 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 bathtub is nice. It slows down the process of going crazy.
Back in February, during Tet, Jasper drank so much it almost killed him and they had to send him home. The day after the hospital set him loose, I waited on the steps of the Rex with him while they put his gear in a cab. He didn’t want to go. He’d found his place. He was almost in tears; big, broad-shouldered, rowdy Cairns bruiser, barely able to get the words out.
“Nothing for me there,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
“It was in the air,” I said. “Couldn’t be helped.” He patted my shoulder. The street was still littered with mounds of pink paper from the millions of firecrackers that had gone off non-stop for three days.
They let him come back last week; he promised to behave. If he fucks up this time he goes home for good. A little while ago he headed across the street to the Apocalypse Now, a serious bar where people go to get seriously drunk. He was shaky, even after three beers. I won’t see him come out. I won’t see him ever again.
It’s slow tonight, and since she is not needed to flirt and serve drinks, Phuong 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 can be found perched there, gecko-like, trying to blend in. 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 warplanes. I wonder about a lot of things at this window. Last call is still hours away.
It is April. In a few short years, Bill Clinton will mark the middle of his first term by reestablishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and Americans will turn up in droves; some for the first time, some not. For now, we are few and far between, and except for one in particular, I have not yet missed us very much.
This American (the one telling this story) is almost, but not quite, old enough to have been here the first time around. I don’t know where the years have gone. If I didn’t have to count the ones I don’t entirely remember, I would actually be a lot younger. This is not all that funny. I know. But it was not deliberate either. Some things just happen. Shit happens. Everyone says so.
“Gone to Cu Chi already?” Phuong asks, “Visit brother?” By which she means have I gone by now. She says this without looking directly at me, because she knows. I have not gone. One of these days, though, maybe I will surprise her.
Mick has been away more than half my life, 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 they were when he found them. I can still see, set on the palm of his hand, a chunk of quartz etched with tiny filaments, like hairs. He tells me the etchings are the imprint of 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 think maybe this time he is telling the truth.
Remember this, Riley, I tell myself. Hang on to this.
To Phuong I say, “Not yet.”
She looks at me and rolls her eyes. Just up, over 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.
“Diên cái dau,” she says. Crazy in the head. I agree: I have seen photos of the Madame soon after her husband and his brother, South Vietnam’s President, were assassinated in 1963. She is holding court in LA, blaming Kennedy, not a hair out of place. The woman had some nerve; you have to give her that.
It dawns on me that Ph??ng might not be talking about the Dragon Lady. If she isn’t, I can’t argue. Crazy is clearly my comfort zone, my DMZ. And as for visiting ghosts, the Vietnamese are used to that; it is no cause for commotion.
My brother, if I am being honest, is only one of the ghosts I have come here to visit. By which I mean the shadows in my head and not necessarily dead people, because I still don’t know. Show me a body; maybe I’ll believe.
© 2017 Marian Palaia. All Rights Reserved.