Cuong woke. Sudden sleeplessness seized his body for a moment, the amnesia of where and when emerging from the surreal imagery of a dream. His arms pressed against a plastic bus seat the color of clementines. His surroundings were blurry, tinged with the remnants of slumber, and he rubbed crust from his eyes. His dream had been of Vietnam.
The bus came to a halt, a loud, abrupt sigh as the doors opened next to Kwik’s Pawn Shop. Metal bars adorned the windows and metal shutters shielded the entrance. The neon letter “W” was out. A man sitting behind him left at the stop so that he was alone with a woman eating a white bread sandwich. The weather in his dream had been heavy with humidity, wet. Sweet juice had dripped down his hands from the xoài cát, fragrant and fleshy, that he’d been eating. Street sounds of Saigon remained muted in his ears, of women haggling at food stands, of rickshaw tires in friction against the road, of afternoon rain. Cuong could still feel the weight of contentedness settled at the bottom of his gut even while the images disappeared as wisps of smoke before his mind’s eye.
The bus’s low light cast the world in golden tint. The dark street sped along outside, tiny windows and passing neon signs shining bright against the black backdrop of D.C. The blur of a Burger King sign on his right. He didn’t know where he was on the bus route. All the concrete and neon of the American city looked the same. He tried to think of the correct words to ask the driver, but they only came to him in Vietnamese. He mouthed what the English might be, but could already feel his tongue bump clumsily against his teeth.
His sponsor’s voice echoed in his memory—flat American accent, too heavy for the subtleties of Vietnamese, its intonations, the lilting ends of words, the underhanded and secretive meanings that permeated his language: these were absent. Shells of words tumbled around, ricocheting inside Shawn’s gummy mouth. He was a good man, even if Cuong could not understand him.
Three stops, Shawn had said.
Every day, Cuong waited at the bus stop a block from Stein’s Diner. He sat on the peeling bench and examined his wrinkled fingers, soft nails, the residue of strangers’ lunches and dinners beneath them. Dishwashing at Stein’s was a long way away from the soft, wet earth of Vietnam’s forests, far from the dull sounds of bodies hitting ground. Soapy water and white faces were even less comforting than the ruins of his homeland. It was amazing to him that a little more than a mere year and 9,000 miles separated him from Saigon. “The Fall of Saigon,” they called it. It sounded so grand, as if the thing had happened in a day. It had been less a fall and more a slow crumble, a gradual chipping away, a leisurely disintegration that everyone had seen happening, everyone except the Americans. The sting of loss was constant, as if 1975 happened daily, rather than more than a year ago.
This new reality, he thought, these neon signs, his own ugly hands, it felt like death was mocking him. This loneliness, this isolation that kept him from the bus driver and the woman eating her sandwich and the man that had left the bus already, it felt like the cold pressing against his chest, just so. When he discovered the South had fallen, he had wanted to die. He wondered about all the times he could’ve died so easily, walking along enemy-dense paths. He could not even take control of his own death, let alone his life.
Three stops, Shawn had said, and then get off at the Burger King.
So, Cuong had done just that every day for the past few months, letting the bus go three stops and then getting off and waiting at the Burger King for Shawn’s car to pull into the parking lot. Never more or less than three stops, and always the same Burger King. But he had passed two Burgers Kings already since he’d awoken; the area did not look familiar, and Cuong sat paralyzed and mute, his punishment for dreaming.
After everything he’d seen and survived, he was the man that would not die. War, the bullets that chased him to the edges of his country, the never ending ocean pushing up against his boat of escape, the hot water and soap that chafed his skin—those things had not killed him. This sense of loss had not yet killed him, but he could feel something dying from his old life, shriveling up and gasping for air. This feeling in his stomach, the bottom dropping away as his dream ebbed into obscurity, was a kind of grief. The shape of neon signs burned into his eyes as he stared out the window, dark tar streets shining like the surface of a lake.
She held the hairy pit of the xoài cát clasped with both hands and gnawed on it, trying to suck every last drop of juice from its body. Her hands were covered in mango slime and remnants of peeled green skin littered the ground near her feet. Her eyes were large, buggy, and so unlike any of the other girls in Saigon he’d met. She threw the pit on a patch of grass and licked the palm of her hand, then dried them on her clothes.
They walked down Rue Paul Blanchy together and Trinh said she’d be in trouble with her mother for how long she’d been away on this errand to the market. They’d left Tân Dinh Market at least an hour ago, walking up and down Rue Paul Blanchy to take up time. They were children, though most of their lives had been taken up with war. Cuong’s family had fled to Saigon just months ago from the North, after the French had lost the last shred of control they’d never really had. His father’s farmland had been seized by the new communist government, and they’d fled over the Bến Hải border before it was too late, only traveling in the dead of night for fear they’d be ambushed by Viet Minh. They were alive but had nothing except the charity of his father’s family, and Cuong at first found it a curse to peddle a distant family member’s mangoes on the streets of a city he vowed to never call home.
“Your clothes are dirty, too,” said Cuong. She had smears of yellow mango gunk on her billowing pant legs. She had bumped into him in the market that first time, his mangoes tumbling out of the basket he had carried. Every day she visited him, now, and he gave her a free mango towards the end of the market day. While she ate, they dawdled together along the crowded streets.
“I was already going to get in trouble. Might as well do as much as I can before going home,” she said.
Cuong decided he loved her, then. “You’re just a girl,” he said. It wasn’t true. He could imagine her body beneath her white áo dài fluttering in the early wet season winds. They were both twelve. Barely girls and boys anymore. “What more mischief could a girl do?”
They turned onto a quieter street, going farther and farther to the edges of Saigon until they arrived before Phuong Lee’s house. Trinh pulled Cuong by the hand down the dirt path to a poorly fenced yard. The earth felt spongey beneath his soles, soft and wet from recent rain, so different from the hardness of the main street. They stood at the edge of Phuong Lee’s barren yard and had to hold their hands up to shield their eyes from the high, bright summer sun. Chickens roamed the yard, pecking at dirt, unaware of their onlookers.
Cuong got off the bus at an unfamiliar stop and walked. The late November chill was alien to his body, his breaths shallow as they fogged the air. Shawn’s wife, Sylvia, didn’t like Cuong. And she didn’t like those first few weeks when the youth minister would leave their house late at night, driving half an hour to Stein’s to pick up the brown-faced refugee whom she couldn’t understand.
So Shawn picked him up instead somewhere in the middle, at the Burger King closer to the neighborhood where Shawn and Sylvia lived and where Cuong’s one bedroom apartment was. It was a compromise that satisfied no one but conceded just enough. Sometimes, when Cuong got to the Burger King, Shawn was already there, his car running while parked in the lot. Other times, when the diner closed earlier rather than later, Cuong would wait inside until he saw Shawn’s wood-paneled station wagon appear out of the patches of city darkness.
Somehow, the dark felt vaster and deeper because Cuong was lost. He walked a few blocks to the glowing red and yellow Burger King sign nearby, the only thing that looked familiar. This new Burger King looked identical to the one where he usually met Shawn. Despite there being miniature walls—orange and maroon with indoor flora planted along the top—dividing the restaurant into various seating areas, the interior design could not quite disguise the sensation of walking into a desolate and barren cardboard box, whitewashed with the glare of fluorescents. The walls were covered in fake wood paneling and a cheap, brown chandelier hung from the ceiling.
The cashier looked at Cuong when he walked up to the counter. Sometimes the cashiers would greet him—“You can have it your way, can I take your order?”—with varying levels of enthusiasm, but other times, depending on the person and how late at night it was, they would offer only a perfunctory greeting. The man behind the counter said nothing at all. He wore an orange and yellow hat over peppery hair. A matching polyester shirt stretched over his belly.
Backlit pictures glowed behind the head of the cashier, lists of prices next to photographs of burgers and shakes. Shawn had told him Americans loved chicken, that you could get chicken anywhere you wanted. Cuong could not bring himself to explain that he didn’t want chicken, he only cared about its feet, that gelatinous delicacy of tendon and skin Americans would never dream of eating. Shawn was wrong, anyway—Burger King did not have chicken.
“Whopper,” Cuong said. He felt his tongue tumble against his teeth at the end of the first syllable and into the second. There was a ripple of frustration that he had so little control over that hulking muscle in his mouth.
“All dressed? With cheese?” the cashier said. Cuong didn’t know what this meant.
“No,” he said. The cashier waited for more.
“So… what, you want certain things on it, or all plain?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. He wanted it with lettuce, tomato, and onion, mayonnaise and mustard and ketchup. He wanted everything except cheese. He wanted chicken feet. He wanted to use the phone to call Shawn. He wanted to go home. How did he get the words from his mind out into the world?
“No… you want it plain?”
Cuong jerked his head in a vague way and pushed a dollar bill towards the cashier.
“Okay, plain Whopper it is.”
He sat at the table nearest the chandelier and unwrapped the waxy thin paper from his burger. It was only a sesame seed covered bun and a meat patty, and it felt dry in his mouth, difficult to chew, difficult to swallow like chalk on his tongue.
“Let’s steal them,” Trinh said.
“Steal what?” said Cuong.
“The chickens,” she said. “Phuong Lee’s chickens.”
“We can’t steal Phuong Lee’s chickens.”
“Why not? You said yourself he’s a mean old man.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean we can take his chickens.”
“You said yourself he’s a water hog and a braggart,” she said.
“I never said it like that,” Cuong said. It wasn’t untrue, though, that no one liked Phuong Lee for those very reasons, phrased exactly the way Trinh had phrased them. He was the groundskeeper at Saigon’s most expensive school, where many French colonials sent their kids. He was unpleasant, known among certain social circles for his general air of disdain for life, known by the restaurant workers and market vendors as a rude regular always ready with a biting and usually unnecessary remark. And he was known in the neighborhood as a water hog—he bribed various beggar boys to fetch water from the neighborhood well to fill his tub with new bathwater every day. While the well still always had plenty of water (in fact, Cuong could not recall there ever being a problem), everyone agreed on principle that Phuong Lee was the absolute worst. His regular baths attended by peasant boys was a source of daily local gossip.
To take the water from the well with hired help was bad enough, but the chickens in the yard seemed an additional sore point amongst neighbors. Phuong Lee could be heard bragging weekly that the chickens were for dinner, that he would have them slaughtered for his weekend meal. They were Đông Tảo chickens, a rare and sickly breed with thick scaly legs, those stout talons a gastronomic luxury. Everyone knew Phuong Lee would not slaughter the chickens because he enjoyed parading them in his yard. He devoted an enormous amount of time caring for them, and perhaps loved the chickens more than anything else in his life.
“Can you imagine having Đông Tảo feet for dinner on any old day of the week?” said Trinh. The chickens’ clucking amid the windblown silence was peaceful. Tiny white feathers floated around them in the afternoon light.
He fell in love with the girl who reminded him of the humid summer nights, the monsoons of Vietnam, who reminded him of coconut dessert and xoài cát. When she miscarried their third child, she cried like she had for the others. When she miscarried their fourth child, she would not allow him to touch her.
“Something has died in me,” Trinh said. “My babies have died in me. You don’t know how having death inside of you feels.” He could not find the words for her so he said nothing, but it wasn’t true, really. Death had filled his lungs and swam the blood in his body.
When he was a boy, six years old, he contracted tuberculosis. The disease traveled person to person in the city and then moved into the countryside, where the isolation of jungle and dialect gave them a false sense of separation from things like city sludge, city sickness. But they were not separate, and soon the houses were full of coughing and the river ran with bloody spit. Cuong almost followed his brother into death except his mother would not allow her last son reprieve of his short, miserable life.
He coughed up blood, could feel it prickle in his throat and pool into his mouth, the salty, metallic taste of his own diseased body. They traveled into Hanoi and his mother brought him to a doctor. His left lung had to be removed, the infected organ that rotted inside him.
The one lung that remained endured much abuse, filling up and blackening with the tar of cigarettes and opium, taking in the air and struggling to use it, struggling to keep his puny heart going. He smoked cigarettes like he was sucking in life. He told Trinh this, thinking it would make her feel better.
“That you think it is the same is why I flinch from you,” she said.
Cuong meant to say “telephone” but instead he said “Điện thoại,” the words intruding every time he searched for English. He stood at the Burger King counter saying, “Điện thoại, điện thoại, điện thoại,” becoming angrier each time. The words rolled off his tongue, unwelcome visitors.
“I told you, I don’t know what that is,” said the cashier.
“Điện thoại,” Cuong said, slamming his fist on the counter.
“Calm down, man. Learn English, you’re in America.”
Cuong left the Burger King and walked on the sidewalk, streetlamps giving off a poor, greenish light. He walked along the major four-lane street back towards the intersection and stared out at the bright spots left by building windows and stop lights and neon signs. His feet hurt from standing at work and the cement sidewalk smacked under him as he walked, angry and mute. He could see the overpass not far ahead, its shadowed underbelly hiding tents and dirty sleeping bags. The homeless people in America reminded him of the homeless people in Vietnam, and Cuong thought homelessness, rootlessness, probably looked the same everywhere. What scared him the most was that he was no better now than he was as that rootless little boy peddling mangoes.
The door to Phil’s Gas and Cigarettes was made of glass but guarded by iron bars. All of the store fronts he had passed had iron bars. The door jingled when Cuong pushed it open. The cheap tile floor was speckled and beige, the color of sand, and it hadn’t been swept or mopped for the night. A layer of grime muffled Cuong’s footsteps. A cashier sat behind a counter separated from customers by a large sheet of Plexiglas. There was a small rectangular hole through which money and goods could be exchanged, and behind the cashier a multicolored wall of alcohol and cigarettes gleamed behind the acrylic counter window.
“Mar-borrow-red,” Cuong said.
“Thirty-five cents,” said the cashier. An open box of vanilla wafers lay on its side near a remote control. Near the entrance, a small television with black and white images of the convenience store’s lot moved in a delayed feed.
Cuong’s change clinked on the metal tray lining the counter under the Plexiglas’s hole. He wondered if Shawn was still waiting for him at the correct Burger King. A few times, Cuong had found Shawn asleep in the driver’s seat, the radio a low buzz. Maybe Shawn was sleeping now, ignorant to his late-night wanderings in this hostile and alien city. What would Shawn do once he realized that Cuong would not appear? Would he call the police? What could Shawn possibly tell them about his whereabouts? He was no one, invisible and voiceless and unknown to the world around him.
He stood outside the convenience store, shook and unwrapped the red and white cigarette package, and crumpled the plastic into his pocket. The end of the cigarette smoldered in the night, its smoke dense.
They took the chickens from Phuong Lee’s yard. They pulled the wire fence down together and chased the chickens into the corner of the yard. They barked and shouted at the things, kicking up dirt and grass, low afternoon sun coming out from behind the clouds and beating on their foreheads. They each wrapped their arms around warm, clucking feathered masses, and they ran down the road to the Saigon River where they would kill and clean them for dinner. Wind wicked away sweat at their hairlines. The chickens’ heads bobbed back and forth, and their fattened, scaly stick feet moved without rest and in futility, wings clipped by arms, bodies entrapped, encircled by hostile hands.
At the river, along Quai Primauguet, they let them down. The chickens were calm, pecking at the ground for bits of food hidden in the low, patchy grass. The boy and girl had to kill the beasts now, and they didn’t know how.
“Put your hands up.” A young man wearing a stocking over his head held a small handgun low, jabbing it towards Cuong’s gut. Cuong could see through the sheer, nude women’s stocking that the man was a boy, round face and hair confined but bulging like a lumpy pillow beneath the nylon. “Hands up!” he said, motioning with the gun.
Cuong put his hands up, the cigarette still smoking in his right hand. The boy went through Cuong’s pockets, shoving all the loose change and bills into his own pockets, taking his near empty wallet and pocketing that too, the barrel of the gun pressed lightly on Cuong’s side. The boy didn’t know what he was doing. Cuong could see it in his stocking-blurred face the moment he’d walked up, could hear it in his voice even if he didn’t know the words he was emitting, could sense it from his tepid approach towards Cuong rather than the money-laden store behind him. The boy’s disappointment was apparent at how little there was to take. He heard the deadbolt click behind him on the convenience store’s door, and his robber cursed, beginning to back away. Cuong couldn’t blame the kid. Who could really blame him for wanting a couple bucks? The robber began to walk away briskly. But he turned around and looked at Cuong for a lingering moment, pointing the gun below Cuong’s waist and pulling the trigger, then disappearing into the night, the patter of his sneakers on concrete echoing in Cuong’s ears as he lay on the hard, cold ground staring at blobs of blackened chewing gum.
After the fall of the South, Trinh and he ran for the coast to a boat they had arranged for escape. There were bullets at his back, bursts of light all around, explosions and wet air. All there was between death and freedom was how fast he could run. Trinh was shot down but he made it, and he couldn’t discern from his distance on the boat on the water where her body lay in repose, face down on the earth amid other bodies.
The gun wound wasn’t fatal. He lost a lot of blood, but he didn’t die from the bullet in his leg. The cashier called 911, refusing to unlock the door of the convenience store even when paramedics and police arrived.
Bullets have been chasing me my whole life, Cuong thought. They followed me to America.
He was bedridden for weeks, almost two months. And then, a clot formed in his leg that became dislodged. It travelled to his lung and blocked blood flow. A pulmonary embolism secondary to deep vein thrombosis. That’s what the doctor put down as cause of death, and perhaps if his children or his wife had lived to see it, they would’ve said something like, I thought the bullet wasn’t fatal? Or, they might say, After all this? But they were not there to say it, and he died alone, no one there to witness it, in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar country, the hospital smelling of jello and urine and death.
He wondered where the boy with the gun had gone, if he was okay. He knew he wasn’t okay. As if from above, he could see himself sleeping in the wet woods. Dead bodies, loneliness littered the soft earth path of his life. Trinh sat at his bedside. When he reached for her, she did not flinch. And when he died, his dreams cradled him into a deep sleep that he could not wake from, would not wake from when roused.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
E.M. Tran is a Vietnamese American fiction and creative nonfiction writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work can be found in Iron Horse Literary Review and Prairie Schooner, where her essay was the winner of a Glenna Luschei Award. She currently resides in Athens, Ohio, where she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and is at work on a novel.
Here is the portion of levee along the Mississippi River in New Orleans' Westbank neighborhood where my sister and I rode our bikes. We'd teeter at the very top of the levee, then race down the grassy bank, gathering momentum as we crashed onto the pavement at its foot, sometimes just missing the bumper of a speeding car gone by.