Nhi Huynh and Minh Nguyen
The smell of roasted peanuts takes over our one-room thatched hut. My stomach growls and churns. Numbers from the multiplication table bounce around. I close my eyes picturing the glossy golden peanuts waiting by the open fire pit. The fire pit is five steps away from Bu’s wooden box. My mother keeps her dry goods in the box. She sleeps on it with her three youngest children.
“Recite!” Bình raps my head with his knuckles. I should call my immediate brother Older Sixth Brother. But we call one another by name from number three down to number nine. I like it. I feel equal.
“Six times seven is forty-two. Six times eight is . . . ” I try to pick up where I left off. But the aroma pulls me into a trance. My sisters are chopping and dicing and slicing. So no one is tending the peanuts? If only I could sneak into the kitchen and grab a handful.
“Finish it up,” Bình urges. “Still have to fetch water.”
“What are sisters cooking? I smell peanuts.”
“Your chicken,” answers Third Brother with a sideways grin as he enters. He has to bend his head to get through the door. His hair is slicked up just like Elvis Phương’s. My brother is taller and leaner and much more handsome than the Vietnamese Elvis. Lots of girls from the church pinch my cheeks and say what a cute little boy I am. But they can’t help sneaking a glance at my brother. Sometimes they give me candies so that I will pass their notes to him. I often eat the candies and dump the notes. The poems all sound the same.
“They can’t kill White Dragon!” I shoot an angry look at Third Brother.
“Your chicken is not laying eggs. She’s dead meat.”
“Maybe Bu will let you eat her butt,” Bình chimes in.
I take the pencil out of my mouth and aim it at Bình. If not for the sound of Bu’s slippers dragging on the dirt alley I would make fish sauce out of him.
“Fat Minh!” my mother calls before reaching the gate. I love the way Bu asks for me when she comes home. She always adds her northern twang to the word “fat.” Her voice rises and falls like singsong. My mother never thinks that I’m a pig. She brings lumps of brown sugar and slices of fresh fruit from the market for me.
“Bu, you’re home early.”
“We have a guest tonight.” Bu rushes inside. With two baskets on each end her shoulder pole bends like a bow. She tucks a few loose strands of hair into her bun. My mother works day and night. She has no time to pretty herself. Except for Tết and Christmas and Easter. She doesn’t dress up for my father. The drill sergeant is too busy toughening up the recruits to be home.
“Who’s coming, Bu?”
“Don’t ask too much. Go to the river and fetch water with Bình.”
Bu sends us out to play. Through the window I see our parish priest Father Hoạt sit on my mother’s wooden box while she stoops nearby. Third Brother must have lined it up against the center of the wall. Right under the Our Lady of La Vang 1973 poster calendar. September 8 is marked in red. Three days before the Mid-autumn Festival. Can’t wait for lanterns and mooncakes.
The military chaplain in Dục Mỹ is our special guest. His thinning black hair is pomaded like my father’s. The heat in the hut bothers him. He twists and turns. He fixes his stiff collar. He smooths his shiny hair. Sweat oozes out of his skin. I want to go in and help Bu fan Father Hoạt. Maybe take a sip from his ice water. But she has told us to stay outside. She will call us after our guest leaves. I’m sure the food will be all gone by that time.
“It’s your chicken!” Bình whispers. He keeps craning his neck to catch a good glimpse.
Father Hoạt laughs. He pretends not to look at the bowls and plates of food and three bottles of Beer 33 that my sisters are bringing in. How did they make seven dishes out of White Dragon?
“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” Father Hoạt says. “This is enough to feed the whole village.”
“Please forgive us for this meager meal. We will never be able to express our gratitude to you.” Bu stands with head bowed down and hands clasped together. My mother has on her best áo dài. The one with the reddish purple of ripe mangosteen that she wears only during Tết. Her hair is braided and rolled into a bun. In the shape of a lotus.
“I’m only doing God’s work. Your boy is the best in the village.” Father Hoạt crunches a piece of rice cracker and dips a piece of grilled meat into the bowl of shrimp sauce. The dip drowns chunks of pineapple and lemongrass and snippets of garlic and hot chili.
I recognize that pinkish gray sauce.
“No!” Bình screams as he pushes me away from the window. “My dog,” he cries. “My dog,” he whimpers and slouches against the clay wall.
You don’t eat the seven dishes of dog meat without shrimp sauce.
Father Hoạt leaves. We fight for the leftovers. Everyone except Bu and Bình.
The hut no longer smells of peanuts. Late at night everything smells like my mother. Rice. Beans. Sugar. Everything she sells at the market follows her home. They stay with her until the next morning. On rainy days — I wish every day were a rainy day — Bu comes home early and makes red bean soup with her soaked sugar. This is the smell of my mother that I love the most. I can’t bring Bu home to live with me when I’m old enough to build my own house. I’m not the first son. But my mother has promised to let me keep that smell wherever I go.
Tonight everyone sleeps on the floor because Bu has some packing to do.
“Is Third Brother leaving tomorrow, Bu?” I ask my mother.
She shakes her head and continues shuffling through the wooden box. She takes much longer than usual to pack for Third Brother. Maybe he’s going to the mountains this time to spread the Gospel to the Hmong. I hope he will take me with him one day. The stories he brings back keep getting better and better. Like The Adventures of Tintin. I ranked number one in kindergarten. If I rank number one in first grade Bu may let me go help him.
“Why two bundles, Bu? Is Third Brother taking one of us with him?”
“Fat Minh, go to sleep!”
Bu blows out the wick lamp. My mother reaches into her pocket and pulls out a rosary. She makes the sign of the cross and chants the Our Father and Hail Mary. I climb up onto the wooden box and recite the prayers with her.
Bu gets off the box. She takes my hand and leads me outside. The moon hangs below the sky’s gray face. Everything is prettier with a coat of moon. Our hut looks newer as if painted with yellow limewash. Our roof is tattered and won’t be fixed until my father’s next furlough. Tonight it looks shinier as if covered with tin plates.
Bu walks past the clay jug holding rain water. The jug hides in the shade of guava trees. My mother stops to check a shirt on the clothesline. She smooths down the shirt and repins its shoulders. Nearby her herb garden is bare with stalks bleeding from fresh wounds. Spearmint and perilla. Culantro and coriander. Basil and balm. Their leaves were plucked for the seven dishes of dog meat.
“Tomorrow you’ll go to the boarding school with Father Hoạt.”
“Third Brother going too, Bu?”
“No, but you’ll live there with other brothers.” Her palm circles the crown of my shaved head. “I won’t see you for a long time,” she mumbles.
“No!” I dig my head into her belly. My hands cling to her shirt.
“It’s final, my son.”
“Bu. I’ll eat less. I promise.”
“That’s not why I’m sending you away. We have little we eat little . . . ” My mother chokes up.
“It is an honor,” she continues. Her voice lingers like a church bell. “You’ve been chosen from thousands of children. You’ll be a priest and bring honor to our family. To this village. To your parents’ villages in the north.”
“Father Hoạt made a mistake, Bu. I’m not smart. I’m not good.” I try not to shout. A child is never to carry anger. My mother has taught us.
“Shhh!” The moon and the trees play with Bu’s face. She becomes pale green like a house lizard. The tan glow of mud walls no longer there.
My mother turns and walks back to the hut. I rush after her and hold onto her legs. I want to tell her that I’ll be a good boy. “Can you pack me a can of condensed milk?” I say instead.
Bu squeezes my hand. “Of course, I’ll pack two.”
I try to think of other things to demand from her. Nothing seems big enough.
The crickets crack up a trill. Mocking me.
I wake up and go wash my face. It’s sunny so why isn’t Bu at the market? My mother waves me over and asks me to sit down by her side. She doesn’t hug or kiss me. My parents hug and kiss only babies.
Third Brother takes out his guitar. He may be more handsome than Elvis Phương. But he croaks like a frog.
Seeing you off at the station
Never felt so sad
Paris in winter
Separated from you forever.
Third Brother doesn’t just sing. He makes clowny faces.
“Son of a bitch!” I blurt out. First time I’ve ever cursed. It feels right. It feels good. I don’t care if my mother springs to her feet and drags me to the kitchen and gives me a beating.
Everyone looks at Bu. They all burst out laughing.
“Phở for the priest-to-be,” Fourth Sister announces as she brings in a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup.
I turn my face to the wall. Why is everyone so happy to see me sent away?
“Maybe Fat Minh doesn’t want to be a priest, Bu.” Second Sister lets out a heavy sigh. “You have the soup!” she says to Third Brother.
I drop my head. But my eyes are fixed on the thin slices of beef floating in clear broth under a smattering of scallion and cilantro and basil and above layers and layers and layers of white rice noodles. The aroma of star anise and charred ginger plays with my nose.
“I want to be a priest,” I mutter.
Another roar of laughter fills the hut.
The army jeep totters out of Dục Mỹ. It zigzags through the valley leaving a fortress of mountains in the dust. Along the river the tires spin. They climb out of one muddy pothole only to stumble into another. The stocky soldier who serves as Father Hoạt’s driver fights with the wheel. His legs are barely long enough to pump the pedals. He could use a pillow.
The jeep slows down as it enters Sài Gòn. Wide boulevards packed with cyclos and bicycles. Some bear names I recognize from history books. Hai Bà Trưng . . . Trần Hưng Đạo . . . Lê Lợi . . . Nguyễn Huệ. Great rulers and great warriors. Others bear names I can’t pronounce. Pasteur? Yersin? Calmette? De Rhodes? The jeep pulls up in front of a white building. The stocky soldier steps out. He opens a rear door for Father Hoạt, who wears full military uniform. He comes around and swings me out in one swoop.
A rush of cool air hits my face. What a palace! Cool air from nowhere. The chamber a gleaming cast of white. White walls . . . white windows . . . white high ceiling . . . white sleek floor. Tables and chairs dressed in white silk. Even the two servants who take Father Hoạt’s order wear white uniforms. I can’t wait to tell the boys back home. Father Hoạt must have won the lottery. Or Jesus loves him very much.
“Coca-Cola for the boy,” Father Hoạt concludes his order.
One of the servants comes back with bottles and glasses filled with ice. He places a bottle in front of me. The bottle is tall and slim and curvy and fizzy. It has “Coca-Cola” scripted on its cold skin. The color is so beautiful. Ruby brown with sprinkles of gold and copper. I have my first sip of America.
“I bet you don’t get this in your village.”
Halfway down my throat America tastes sour. I hate what the stocky soldier said. I want to tell him that nothing is better than my village. But Bu won’t be happy. Children should never talk back. I push the bottle of Coca-Cola away.
The name is nice for a boarding school. “Phú Quý” means something like rich. There is no sign of riches here though. There is an iron gate. But no fountains or statues or flower beds or special trees. There are no trees. Phú Quý is one gray mossy building a few blocks from Vĩnh Nghiêm Pagoda. From the ground to the fourth floor I see twelve windows. Inside the building a musty smell hangs in the air. At least Bu’s hut smells of food. On the walls of the main office are black and white photos of old priests. A chill comes over me as I glance at the faded pictures. None of the priests smile. Some raise their eyebrows as if to say, “I’m watching you.”
A lanky brother with an underbite holds the door for me. “Call me Nam,” he says. At the top of the first flight he stops and looks back. I catch my breath. At the top of the second flight he stops and looks back. I catch my breath. The building doesn’t seem that high from the outside. “You’re the youngest one here,” he says as we reach the end of a dark hallway. Bu may light a lamp at night but my mother’s hut is glass-cut bright during the day.
Brother Nam pushes a swinging door. He leads me into a giant room. Eyes dart. Tongues clatter. Hundreds of boys on wooden boxes like the one Bu has. Some as young as Bình. Others even older than Third Brother. In shorts many with legs barely bigger than their ribs.
I lift the lid of my box just a crack to slip my bag in. The two cans of condensed milk are hidden in the folds of my trousers.
Phú Quý is no boarding school. It’s a boot camp. Teachers walk around with big thick rulers. They bang your desks. They hit your hands. They strike your heads.
I make it to the dining hall without any red horn. The boy sitting opposite me stares at his lunch. His eyes are not dark but a few shades lighter than Coca-Cola. One hand hangs onto his chopsticks. The other cranks up his chin. I bet he’s one of those who get to go home after school and have duck for dinner.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?” I ask.
He pushes his bowl of bitter cabbage soup toward me. I guess he’s not used to eating bitter cabbage. Bu often brings home the tough outer leaves of cabbage that people buy to feed pigs. Especially on days when sales are slow. My mother can make a dozen dishes with bitter cabbage. Some are not so good. But with eleven pairs of flying chopsticks we always finish everything.
I finish his soup.
“All you need is a little fish sauce,” I tell the boy.
A brother blows a whistle. We rush to line up. According to size. He makes the count. He reports it to Brother Nam. Brother Nam smiles.
We follow four brothers dressed in long white robes. They lead us into the prayer chamber. Dark and quiet. There’s no light except a few candles. There’s no noise except our faint footsteps. The brothers approach the altar. They make a deep bow. They go to their seats and kneel. We go to our seats and kneel. Everyone is to pray by himself.
The prayers sound like whispers and moans of ghosts. Phú Quý is next to a funeral home. Things move in the chamber. Shadows lurk behind the doors. I shut my eyes.
“Hot delicious fried bananas . . . hot delicious fried bananas . . . buy one . . . buy all!” an evening street vendor chants as she rings her bell.
I try to hear nothing but . . .
“Hot delicious fried bananas . . . hot delicious fried bananas . . . buy one . . . buy all!”
I wonder if Jesus likes fried bananas.
Wak! Like a fly swatter striking against a wall.
“What are you smiling about? Pray!” Brother Nam withdraws his hand from my face.
I pray. I try to. All I think of is red bean soup and brown sugar.
Sunday morning is special. Visiting hours. I can’t wait to show Bu all the one hundreds. A boy inches over to give me a piece of the gate. My head is too big to fit between the two iron bars. It’s only seven but the sun is roasting my face. I like Sunday sounds. Everyone is laughing and chatting. Hugs and kisses all around.
The noise dies down.
I have the whole gate to myself.
My nose begins to leak.
Smog fills Sài Gòn. Wearing the sun out and slowing it down. The sun races faster in my village. I jump into the river to cool off and the sun already crosses the sky. Bình hurries me to get the water and catch up with him. I’m sick of tracing the sun in Sài Gòn. On the back cover of my notebook I draw a domino and fill it with dots. Six dots for six school days of the week.
Twelve dominoes filled with dots . . .
Bu, where are you?
I’m sick of praying. I want to hear the vendors. I want to stuff my mouth with fried bananas. Let Brother Nam slap me. Don’t tell me he doesn’t think about fried bananas.
A boy stands alone. He leans against the wall near the gate. Arms crossed. Right leg up. A cigarette dangling from his mouth. He is a head taller than I. A thick scar runs across his forehead. His right eye glares at his left. Wide open and bright like a fire.
The office door creaks open. The boy takes a drag off his cigarette and grinds it out against the wall. Brother Nam steps out into the bare schoolyard. The boy’s eyes follow Brother Nam and sweep past me. Brother Nam yells at a bunch of kids pushing one another to get on a visitor’s bicycle. The eyes return and land on me. I freeze. I stare at his face. He begins to make the Bruce Lee moves. His hands twist and twirl. They pass over his shoulders and under his arms like a pair of nunchucks.
The boy walks to the opposite wall where I stand. Is he going to make salted fish out of me?
“Little Việt Cộng, go back to the north.”
“I’m no Việt Cộng. I’m from Dục Mỹ.”
Kids quickly surround us.
“I hear your northern twang. Back to your rat hole!” He sends a solid blow to my ribs.
I land on my butt. “My father . . . my father fights for . . . ”
“You can’t wash off blood, Việt Cộng!” He bounces back and forth around me. Throwing jabs and swinging hooks.
“Bad Long! Bad Long! Bad Long!” The crowd cheers him on.
I push myself up from the dirt. I hop around and poke the air with my fists. The kids look at one another. They shake their heads and laugh.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” The crowd goes wild.
“Knock it off!” screams Brother Nam.
The crowd unravels. Bad Long disappears.
“Look at you!” Brother Nam roars. He pulls my ear up and drags me to the wall. He strips down my shorts and whips me with his belt. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five lashes.
I wish I could go home. Bu will be mad. But after I tell her about Bad Long and Brother Nam she’ll understand. She’ll never let me out of her sight again. Not for her. Not for her village in the north. Not even for Jesus.
It’s Saturday evening. I lie on my box staring at the ceiling. Barely anyone around. Weekends are supposed to be fun. When will I get to go home for a weekend like the rest? Not a chance. Dục Mỹ so far away. Tomorrow . . . visiting hours . . . Bu won’t come. Sunday . . . worship and prayer . . . Jesus won’t make Bad Long rest.
I pretend to sleep with a blanket over my head. My heart almost stops beating. I hold onto my last can of condensed milk. Looks like I have to give it up to Bad Long and his gang.
“VC,” Bad Long hisses.
“Go to sleep,” someone growls.
“Shut your mouth!” Bad Long thunders. He yanks my blanket off. Hands crawl all over me.
Something I learn from Third Brother. If you’re too short to leap over a mean wave you have to launch your head straight into its belly. If you let it drag you to shore you won’t be able to stand up. It will drag you back out and throw you into the onrush of the sea. Mountains of water will crush you until you’re a jellyfish.
I spring from my box. Gripping the milk can I swing. Left . . . right . . . up . . . down. At anything that moves.
“Mother, he breaks my skull!” Bad Long squeals.
“My legs!” one of his coolies shrieks.
Blood rushes to my head. I clench my hands facing the thugs. They back away.
The story makes its way to the classrooms. No one spits when I pass. No one shouts, “VC!” No one yells, “Việt Cộng!” No one twirls invisible nunchucks. In the middle of the schoolyard Bad Long slings his arm over my shoulders. “Fat Minh is one of us,” he declares to his boys.
Brother Nam turns off the lights. He takes one last look and leaves. The five of us crawl down from our boxes. We tiptoe to the farthest classroom down the hallway. From the window I see three military jeeps parked in front of the funeral home next door. Mourners in white clothes and white headbands plod out. One woman leans on another. Several children trail behind.
“Shut the door!” Bad Long pulls a matchbox from his pocket. I tip the half-burned candle and three incense sticks forward for him to light. While I hold the candle he plants the incense sticks in a coconut shell of sand. Squatting in the middle of the classroom he unfolds a handwritten sheet of paper. He takes a deep breath and flattens it on the floor. Alphabet letters flow in two arcs. They bridge over a line of numbers from zero to nine. A circle lies beneath the line. He places a coin inside the circle. We huddle and pile our hands on top of the coin.
Bad Long mumbles some rhymes about spirits. Other boys join in. They chant the names of the dead. Dead grandpas and grandmas. Dead aunts and uncles. The coin starts moving. Bad Long starts jerking. My heart beats fast. My lungs breathe fast. I withdraw my hand and clutch my chest.
Eyes rolled back Bad Long grabs my ankle and tugs. “Give me back my leg! Give me back my leg!” he screeches.
I shake him off. Bad Long sits up and stretches out his hands to catch me. Something warm trickles down my thighs. Everyone jumps to his feet and races to the door. A few steps out I turn my head. He glides straight into me like the wind is behind him . . .
Someone slaps my face.
As I open my eyes Bad Long puts his hand over his mouth.
“Better get back to your bed. Not a pretty sight if Brother Nam catches you here. “
Bad Long and I sneak back into the giant room. I lift the lid of my box and hand him my last can of condensed milk.
“How long did you wait for me?” I ask.
“Until I felt like taking a piss.” Throwing his arm over my shoulders he says, “Let’s drink to the spirits.”
We walk to a corner. Bad Long slams the can into a nail sticking out of the wall. Glossy cream oozes out. He puts his mouth on the hole and sucks. He smiles and gives me the can.
“Your turn.” I tilt my head back and raise the can over my face. A stream of sweet cream rushes down my throat.
“Hey, don’t drink it all! There’s still tomorrow.” Bad Long snatches the can.
Sunday morning. Visiting hours. I lie on my box holding the empty can on my chest. I close my eyes and take one more sniff. The aromas of red bean soup and steamed sugarcane return. They drift in from Bu’s kitchen. From her hair and skin.
I’m not the only one who likes the smell of my mother.
“You’d better eat all the ants in here, stupid kid!” screams Brother Nam as he yanks the can out of my hands. Dozens of red ants with bulging eyes and pincers fall off. I sit up and reach for the can. He draws a big thick ruler from his cassock. Father . . . Son . . . Holy Spirit. He strikes my hands three times. Adding one to my head he yells, “Look at you! You have bites everywhere!”
Red bumps spot my arms and legs. Quite a few are watery bubbles. I don’t care about the bites. I don’t care about the strikes. I just want my can back.
I stare at my dinner while others slurp. Rice congee with bitter cabbage again. No fresh ginger no fried shallots no green onions. The slimy stuff looks like snot. Smells worse than herb medicine. I push my bowl away. Bu must know I’m turning into a stick.
Brother Nam glances at our table. He descends the three steps that separate his from ours. Heading toward us. What now? Why is he holding a bowl? The lanky brother with an underbite sets the bowl down on our table. Right in front of me is the fish sauce prepared for him and other brothers. Not watery green like ours. Floating on the clear, reddish brown liquid are lemon pulps along with crushed garlic and minced peppers.
I lower my face to get a sniff. Sour and sweet. Sharp and strong. Someone grabs my hair and pulls my head right before I drown my face. It’s just too good for the dark bitter cabbage leaves. I dip a finger in the sauce. The nine boys at my table join me. We suck our fingers as if they were drenched with honey.
From the dining hall we march to the prayer chamber.
“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” proclaims the priest.
“Thanks be to God,” responds the congregation.
I rise and sing the closing hymn. Mass is fast today.
Back in the giant room I huddle under the blanket when Brother Nam turns off the lights. Don’t feel like calling the spirits tonight. A sniffle comes from the dark corner. God, take care of the boy. Thank you for Brother Nam. Thank you for the fish sauce. Please give me a can of condensed milk. Good night, Bu.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
We leap from our chairs and race to the window.
Balls of fire bounce off a bank building and turn into smoke monsters.
“Choppers!” exclaims the bald-headed boy to my left.
One of the choppers tries to land on a roof. It swirls and wobbles in the air. A stream of smoke oozes from its tail as it dives and plunges into the street.
Another string of bonfire explosions. This time near the boulevards that bear the names of kings and heroes. Blast and blast of sirens. Horns and whistles all over the place.
“Everyone back to your seats now!” Brother Tu screams.
Our classroom shakes.
We run back to our desks.
Brother Tu gazes at the crucifix above the blackboard. He says no prayer. He makes no sign of the cross. Jesus is nailed and dead and gone.
Brother Tu is not our teacher. Our teacher is somewhere with his mother. Our classmates are somewhere with theirs. Only four of us left in a class of twenty-five.
Bu has forgotten me.
lt doesn’t matter. Bad Long doesn’t have a mother and he survives. I turn to the back cover of my notebook and cross out all my domino sketches.
Only Brother Nam stays with Bad Long and me. Father Hội is nowhere to be found. No priest no mass. No headmaster no class.
New souls come and stay in Phú Quý. At night I hear footsteps up and down the stairs. During the day laughter goes off every now and then. The sound doesn’t come from any place. It comes from nowhere like cool air in the white palace.
I mill about the yard. I slump against the wall. I coil in the corner.
Someone flicks my ear with his finger. Fast and hard. Bad Long! With nothing to prey on a beast is still a beast.
“You’re having your period?” Bad Long laughs. One hand on his bloated belly and the other on his shaved head.
“It’s spooky in there,” I groan, pointing to the bathroom down the hall.
“Get in there,” Bad Long orders. “I’ll stand outside and guard the door.”
Sitting in the pitch-black bathroom I wait for bangs and flashes and explosions. For anything that puts an end to this darkness. I wish there were more kids here. I miss my village. The river. The waves of the sea in rice paddies. The bodhi tree where we play hide-and-seek. The pagoda keeper who gives us water after our soccer game.
“Uhhg!” I scream and headbutt through the door. My shorts dangle below my knees.
“What’s the matter?” Bad Long asks.
“Hands . . . ” Clutching my butt I stutter, “From the hole . . . they reach up . . . ”
Bad Long pulls me to the middle of the hallway. Putting his hand on my back he pushes me down on all fours. All of a sudden he reaches into my ass and yanks out my guts.
“No! God forgive me! God forgive me!”
“Calm down. It’s nothing. Just stomach worms.”
Bad Long waves a handful of long slim blood suckers. He throws the whip-like monsters on the floor and squashes them with his feet.
The April sky is filled with black clouds. But there’s no sign of rain. No breeze to cool the heat.
Bad Long swings his sweaty shirt at my shoulder and says, “Let’s go swimming!”
“Where?” I ask.
“In the tank.”
“In the tank? That’s drinking water. Brother Nam will castrate . . . ”
“Castrate who?” Bad Long cuts me off. “He left. The gate is open.”
Holding our noses, we count one-two-three and jump into the tank. Kicking our legs . . . paddling with our arms . . . blowing strings and strings of bubbles. Water has never tasted or felt so good. While I float on my back, Bad Long hangs onto the side of the tank. The city boy floats like lead.
In the empty schoolyard Bad Long and I grab each other by the shoulders. Head ramming into head we throw each other to the ground. The sand sticks to our damp clothes like brown sugar.
The sun returns. We jump back into the tank. To cool off and fill our stomachs with water.
Not a crumb of rice in the kitchen. Nothing in the brothers’ quarters. Nothing in Father Hội’s chamber.
I follow Bad Long into the room behind the main altar.
He ignores my question and keeps on looking.
I approach the small wooden table where they put the sacred vessels.
Nothing on the tin plate. Nothing in the cone cup. Bad Long takes the lid off the round cup. Nothing inside.
Thank God for no communion wafers. My sins have tripled since coming to Sài Gòn. No need to give the Lord another reason to damn me to hell. With no one here but Bad Long I won’t make First Confession. I won’t go to heaven. I won’t see Bu again.
The sun beams up the sky like a projector. Bad Long and I head out the gate. To the market! We’ll find something.
People are everywhere. On the sidewalks. In the roadways. Pushing and shoving. Trying to get someplace. “Tân Sơn Nhất”? “U.S. Embassy”? “The Seventh Fleet”? Some clench their jaws. Some raise their fists. Nobody buys. Nobody sells. Amidst the sirens and whistles and screams and curses is a sea of eyes. Reddish . . . yellowish . . . hollow.
I trail Bad Long while he tracks two barely bigger boys. The one with a bag slung over his shoulder turns around and looks. Leaning forward, he whispers to the other. A few steps before the end of the market aisle both speed up and dash off. We chase after them like a pair of kite tails.
Behind the wall around the corner a soldier drops his knapsack and takes off his camo. As he unties his boots the boy with the bag darts out and snatches his knapsack. The soldier yanks the boy’s shirt and the boy trips over. While he tries to pin the boy down his friend sprints out drawing a pistol from his pocket, and fires four shots. Blood gushes out of the soldier’s eyeballs.
“Oh Jesus!” I blurt as Bad Long grabs my hand and runs.
We roam and roam and roam. Finding nothing I sit down on the curb. In the gutter on the side of an abandoned shack I see an avocado. A flat-headed spoon with a ring attached to its side is stuck into the top of the fruit. I rush to it before Bad Long claims, “That’s mine.”
The avocado is heavy in my hand. I don’t care for the metal case. But the spoon must be worth something. If I can’t sell or trade I’ll use it as a toy shovel.
“What’s that?” Bad Long asks.
“Umm . . . nothing!” I hide my hands behind my back.
Bad Long comes around to check. To my surprise he doesn’t order me to hand it over.
Walking behind Bad Long, I try to pluck the shovel out.
“Hey Bad Long, it’s hot!” I throw the avocado to him. He catches it with both hands, crouching to take in the weight.
“You motherfucker!” Bad Long screams as he throws it down the empty street.
Whoooooooooooosh . . . boom! The thunder blast sends both of us flying into the air and crashing down the concrete.
It’s over. I can’t see. Can’t hear. Can’t feel a thing. Somebody help me! I can’t say a word.
The brightest white light. Floating from above pure voices sing “Glory to God in the Highest.”
I look up. But find no trace of angels. Just Bad Long’s scarred and pimpled face.
“Stupid bastard, why are you trying to kill me?”
I hold up both hands to shield myself from the blows.
“Goddamned Việt Cộng, if these hands weren’t quick there wouldn’t be any tadpole to make any frog.” Bad Long puts down his hands to cup his teeny tulip. The clothes on him have been blown into strips.
With me trailing behind Bad Long mutters curses all the way back to Phú Quý.
It starts to rain when I finish my night prayers. I cover my head with a blanket to shut out thunder and lightning. The storm doesn’t make the sirens go away. The police must be sweeping the streets looking for me. The Việt Cộng who blew up the city.
The smell wakes me up. Where am I? Baguette stuffed with grilled pork! Sugarcane juice on ice! Are these for me? I grab the bánh mì.
“Shouldn’t someone say grace?”
“Ha ha ha ha!” Sitting on the wooden box behind me Brother Nam and Bad Long nudge each other’s elbows like buddies. With his ear-to-ear grin my partner in crime must have forgotten about the metal avocado.
Brother Nam gets up and sits next to me. “Eat! Father Hội is back and you’ll make your confession,” he announces. “Stay out of trouble. See me in the chapel at four.” He takes his hand off my shoulder and leaves.
I wolf down the bánh mì and gulp down the sugarcane juice.
After the meal I follow Bad Long to the balcony. The city coughs up flames like a fire eater. Things keep on falling. Choppers. Houses. People fleeing the houses. Bad Long pretends to put out the fire with his spit. I aim mine in the same direction.
“Who’s the devil spitting on me?” Father Hội looks up and yells.
Bad Long pulls me down as we chuckle at our headmaster wiping his bald head.
Father Hội limps through the schoolyard toward the chapel. His cane in one hand. His black book in the other.
“The funeral home is a torch!” Bad Long woofs as he runs down the stairs. I stay put. Sadness weighs me down. Father Hội. The funeral home. The broken woman. Bu. Thầy. Our hut in Dục Mỹ. The earth is shaking. The sky is falling. Nobody can fetch me now.
“Why are you lying there?” Brother Nam asks. “Change! Your clothes stink. Hurry up! Father Hội is waiting.”
“All my clothes are dirty.” I get up from my box. My nose keeps on leaking. Still no sign of Bad Long.
Brother Nam lowers his eyebrows and presses his lips together. With the chin boss pulled upwards his underbite appears humongous.
I open my box and change into another shirt. Though damp it doesn’t reek of vomit.
The hallway bustles with people scurrying about. Most come in ragged clothes. With grimy faces and matted hair all could use a bath. Who are these people? Fleeing the war zone?
“Brother Nam, that’s not the way to the chapel.”
“We’re going to the office first.”
The door screeches open . . .
“Bu!” I scream with all my breath.
“Son!” my mother cries as she springs from the couch in Father Hội’s office. Pulling me to her chest she hugs and kisses me. The smell of red bean soup and brown sugar fills my stomach. From behind the sofa my brothers and sisters cross the room and surround us. Some pinch my cheeks. Others lock me in their arms.
“Fat Minh . . . you’re so . . . thin,” Bu stammers. Tears drip from her eyes.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” says Father Hội as he picks up his cane. “See me in the chapel when you’re ready.”
Second Sister brushes my teeth while Fourth Sister gives me a bath. Bu dresses me in a white long-sleeve button-down shirt and a pair of navy blue pants. The snappiest I’ve ever seen. No hand-me-downs. The thread is new and the smell is new. Fifth Sister tucks the oversized shirt into my shorts to keep the pants from falling. Third Brother pomades my hair with the same green grease which my father applies to his own.
April 25, 1975. My march comes to a halt as I enter the empty chapel. None of my First Communion classmates are here. Bu walks up to me and holds my hand and leads me to the confessional.
Another bomb goes off.
My heart beats faster. The booth grows bigger. I turn to look at my mother kneeling only an arm away.
“What should I say, Bu?”
“Anything, son. Anything from your heart and God will understand.”
I smile as I enter the booth and kneel before Father Hội.
“Forgive me, Father, for I spat on your head.”