Saturday, November 14, 1970
We walked out of the office and down the corridor; at the end, there were two doors and another hall. A door on the right opened into the main room. On the left was the hallway leading to the back door, Straight ahead was a standard hollow-core door without a keyhole or deadbolt.
“What’s that door?” I asked.
“The janitor’s closet; we dusted it for prints earlier. Nada.” Kane gestured at the fine black powder before opening it. I peered in. It was a little more than a meter square, crammed with buckets, mops, wax, buffer, towels, soap—everything you’d expect. When he moved out of the way, I sniffed. Bleach. Cleanser. Wax. Mildew. And something else that tickled my brain. I couldn’t place it.
“Who’s the janitor?”
Emily laughed. “Mostly me. We have a few guys who volunteer for the heavy stuff, like buffing and waxing, now and then, but the regular work—cleaning toilets and mopping—is done by me. Yardwork’s done by a papa-san.” What that meant was that any help—such as the Vietnamese yard worker—that was paid, was paid for out of Em’s own salary.
“Thanks, Em,” I said.
We stopped at the Jeep so Kane could give Dubois his errands for the rest of the day, and then walked to the 52nd Signal Battalion mess hall. It was used by both the MP station and the Saloon and was located midway between, less than two minutes’ walk. The MP station, like the 369th Detachment and the other small detachments and units on base, avoided KP duties by supplying a permanent cook to the Battalion running the hall. It was a great arrangement for everyone but low-ranking enlisted in the 52nd, since they were the ones who pulled the KP that other units got out of.
Non-military personnel like Donut Dollies, Special Services—post librarians, for example—entertainers and politicians, staff at the EM clubs like the Get Dead Drunk Saloon, and Ilikai East in Củ Chi, were issued special meal cards that could be used in any military dining facility. Most Mess Sergeants, though, would have been honored to provide free meals for civilians—especially round-eyed women—even if their budgets hadn’t been recompensed.
Kane and I went through the line. In Củ Chi, I rarely bothered to walk over to the mess hall. I’d either toaster-oven canned food or C-Rations, or mix a pizza from a box. Or drive down to the main gate and pick up a cold pork and pig-ear hoagie from the Việt vendors just outside the perimeter, where I could also practice my tiếng Việt. This hall served half the number of people that Củ Chi did, but was laid out similarly. Kane and I sat across from each other at the free end of one of the long picnic-style mess tables and put our hats next to our trays. If he’d been a regular MP like the one several tables away, he would have kept his pistol belt on. But CID investigators, I’d come to appreciate, preferred to be inconspicuous.
Today’s menu was hot roast beef sandwich with gravy. Cheap, tough beef with what looked suspiciously like worm holes in it; yellow, dishwatery gravy and limp reconstituted potatoes with a heat-resistant square of government-issue “margarine” on top. Everything was hot, however, except the weevilly bread, which I won’t eat. I prefer Việt baguettes to mess hall bread. They have weevils too, but don’t taste like cotton pill-bottle stuffing.
I picked up my fork. “Mind if I say grace?” I put the fork down.
I put my hands together. I hadn’t said grace since I got out from under Momma’s Bible pages and moved in with Aunt Drusilla, who is a Theosophist, but I remembered what to do. He ducked his head: “Bless us O Lord ...” and crossed himself.
He shoved an entire slice of beef into his mouth. “You’re Catholic,” I said.
He chewed and swallowed. “Seminary student. Three years. I used to think I’d do my twenty years and go back; now, I’m thinking I might not re-up at the end of this enlistment. That’s only another year.”
“I considered becoming a Benedictine, but it was—too restrictive. I ended up going to Loyola.”
“So how’d you end up here, if you don’t mind my asking? Didn’t you qualify for a deferrment?”
“Sure. But my best friend from high school got killed here. He was one of the first, a Marine, at Red Beach. Before that, I agreed with the Berrigans, I thought the war was as wrong as it could be. But José’s death—I hated that it might have been meaningless. It made me rethink my position. Besides, I think I’ll make a better priest, later on, having served in the Military. You know, walking a mile in your neighbor’s shoes. If I return to the seminary, that is.”
“Why didn’t you finish and come in as a chaplain?”
“Frankly, the generic pablum served by chaplains is not something I’d ever want to be responsible for.” Lowest common denominator, suitable for everyone, according to the Army, which meant unsuitable for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
I pushed my food around. He watched me for a second. “How about you? Aren’t you Catholic too?”
“Me? No. What made you think that?”
He pointed at my neck, using his fork, holding it upside down and putting his forefinger on the high point of the arch. “Two chains. One for your dogtags, the other gold. The logical assumption is that you wear a cross.”
I pulled the golden out to show the little white plastic Buddha. “It’s as tacky as can be, but I like it.”
“You’re a Buddhist? Isn’t that illegal in the Army?” He smiled, making it clear it was a joke. He wasn’t Hollywood handsome like Dubois, but he had a far more interesting face. With a voice that deep, in an earlier time he could have been a radio star.
“It makes the lifers uncomfortable, even if it’s not illegal. But I’m not a Buddhist. It’s—a memento. Of a dead friend.”
He waited, but I didn’t add anything. It hadn’t been that long, and I still choked up thinking about Tuyen’s death.
“Even if you’re not Catholic, you were raised in some Christian tradition.”
“Oh, yes: my parents are missionaries. Right now, they’re in Brazil, converting the headhunters. If they can find any. What made you say that?”
Instead of answering, he sang. His voice was astonishing, pure, resonant, clear—and highly trained.
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I joined in on the first because. Voices turned silent around us. Heads swivelled, and the clatter of tinny silverware and idle conversation ceased. I expected some soldiers who knew the hymn to join us—if we’d been in a bar and had started We Gotta Get Out of This Place, every soldier in the place would have chimed in—but instead, they waited to clap at the end. Thanks to my friend Ellen Bowman, I’d overcome my fear of public singing years ago, but it was interesting to see the same lack of stage fright in Kane. “What’s your first name?”
“Renaldo. My moms told me I was named after some movie star. I never asked who.”
“Moms?” I thought the plural might simply be a pet name.
“Lesbians. Hope that doesn’t bother you.” He stood.
“Not at all.” I left the wet bread and half the meat on my plate and followed him. We didn’t try to avoid scuffing the oxblood-colored linoleum under our feet, knowing that the guys on KP would be running buffers over it late tonight anyway. We scraped the leftovers into the garbage barrel and shoved our trays into the window for the dishwashers; the steam in the little room raised the temperature from unbearable to debilitating; if it was thirty in the main room, it must have been forty there. Beads of sweat covered the face of the man who pulled our trays off the counter; he was wearing a headband with a peace symbol and a sleeveless T-shirt with a big hand-drawn marijuna leaf on the front. Outside, we blinked in the blinding sun and heat. “Why didn’t you ask who the star was?”
His boots hit the boards. “I wouldn’t have known who he was anyway. I read.” While there were paved roads everywhere on the base, hooches, offices and workplaces between the roads were connected with wooden walkways. In places, where some of the planks had lifted away, we could see that wooden pallets underlay the walk two, three, sometimes four deep. The same sort of construction was common in Củ Chi, albeit with only one level of pallet. Here, nearly every building on the base was connected with the walkways, mostly for use during monsoon.
I wondered what was going to happen to the bases when the troops started leaving. Back home, Nixon was in the news, proclaiming that more and more units were coming home. He was quietly not mentioning that replacement troops were still arriving, keeping the number of men deployed nearly the same. The deaths had gone down, I’ll give him that. There had been a couple of days recently when there had been no deaths reported incountry. But “Peace with Honor”? I was skeptical.
It didn’t matter, of course; none of the politicos cared what I, or millions of hippies and draft-dodgers and commies, thought. They played to the rich and powerful, parasites infecting the body politic, and they told bald-faced lies to the Silent Majority. I thought of what Hermann Göring had said: “Why of course the people don’t want war. But it is the leaders who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
I broke the silence. “Do we need to canvas? Check with surrounding compounds to find out if anyone saw anything?”
“I’ll send Dubois out tomorrow; he’s busy today. None of the other units are close enough to the club to hear or see, so it’s probably a waste of his time, but it has to be done.” He flashed a quick smile. “If only to satisfy my need to dot every i.”
Emily sent us into her office where we found a tall gangly medic folded into a chair, sound asleep, with an official manila envelope clutched to his belly.
“Yo, troop.” Kane shook the man’s shoulder.
“Grmph.” He struggled with his eyelids; even after he stood, one insisted on drooping. “Sgt. Kane? I need your signature.” He shoved over a clipboard; Kane signed.
“Go get some sack time,” he told the medic. He waved the envelope and said, “It’s the autopsy report from Captain Gilray.” Sitting in Emily’s chair, he pulled out the papers and photographs and spread them on the desk. She kept her desk the way I did; the only time mine was clear was for—infrequent in a combat zone—inspection, which I only passed because they didn’t open the drawers. He studied the first page and passed it to me, but instead of letting me read it for myself, he summarized.
“It’s pretty much exactly what we thought; the killer was left-handed and she must have been asleep when stabbed. The killer either pulled the cover off or she was sleeping without one, because there were no cloth fibers caught in the wound. The killer also knew enough anatomy to go right for the heart in one blow.”
“The fact that he got it in one, without giving her time to defend herself, is pretty conclusive. The killer’s no amateur.”
“It’s couched in a lot of medical terminology, but I think Gilray agrees with you.” Kane studied the second page. “She’d had sexual relations, confirming that part of Ritchie’s story, but all he says about the timeframe is ‘within the previous 24 hours’.” He handed me the sheet and went on to study the photos.
“This is interesting. Even though the examiner won’t commit to a tighter time frame than a day, he says that there’s a higher percentage of ‘non-motile, tailless, sperm’ than is consistent with sexual relations less than 12 hours prior to the exam. I guess those might be Ritchie’s weezy sperm.”
“I thought about getting Chona checked until she and Ritchie confirmed they were in a threesome.”
“Doesn’t seem a lot of point, does there? It might not have been an actual threesome, you know, not if both women wanted to get pregnant.” My imagination was way too occupied with supplying pictures to go with what I’d said.
“I suppose,” he said, “but that’s not a difference that makes a difference. Some i’s don’t need to be dotted.”
We found Emily polishing the bar. “Is Corporal Dubois back yet?”
“About ten minutes ago. He’s waiting in the Jeep. I offered him a beer, but he turned me down.”
“Good, he takes this stuff more seriously than I thought.” He checked his watch. “I want him to use luminol on the rooms. That won’t take long, so when he’s done, you can go ahead and open. You don’t have to wait until 1800.”
“Well, I won’t get much extra business, but thanks.”
Kane started toward the front door. “I’ll be a few minutes,” I told him. “I want to look in the closet again.”
“Should I have Heck do luminol in there?”
“Good idea. Soon as I’m done.”
I pulled open the door. Like nearly all military construction in Việt Nam, the club was built on a slab of concrete. Places lucky enough to have indoor plumbing had water and sewage lines laid under and into the slab. Orderly rooms, hooches and low-end EM clubs retained the bare concrete, but buildings that aspired to a modicum of class covered the slab with cheap linoleum. The military buys it by the linear mile. The stuff comes in four industrial colors; dark green, a grey, oxblood or a brick red. Like the messhall, this place used the oxblood, and it extended everywhere, even to the entertainers’ quarters in the back. A hallway almost the width of the building separated the offices and rooms from the main area, where the bar and the stage were. The closet was at one end of the hallway; I pulled open the door again and looked around.
The club’s floor, and the hall floor here, hadn’t been swept or buffed since last night’s show. Chewing gum wrappers, empty matchbooks, wadded up bits of paper, other litter and tracked in dirt and dust spotted the linoleum. But it was still waxed and highly polished.
The floor inside the closet was the same linoleum, but linoleum in its factory state. It had never been waxed and buffed. A properly cared for lino floor is stain-resistant and easy to clean and sweep. Raw lino, though, soaks up spills like a sponge, and stains can’t ever be gotten rid of. Smells, although they eventually evaporate, hang around long past the time you want them to be gone. Piss, for example, would stain the porous raw lino permanently, and stink for weeks.
I pulled out the buckets, mops and enough other clutter that I could get down on my knees and inspect the surface from close up. There were the usual stains, spills and crud, and the smells I’d encountered earlier. I still couldn’t identify the sweetish smell, but I found the spot it came from. It seemed as familiar as the smell of my pillow, but for the life of me I couldn’t pin it down.
I gave up—the answer would probably come to me sometime when I was asleep—and used the whisk broom hanging on the wall to sweep the floor; a piece of paper served as a dustpan. I found a pair of nearly dry lumps of mud just as Kane came back in with Heck. Heck went back to chase the entertainers out of their rooms.
I showed the makeshift dustpan to Kane. “I found some dirt.”
“I bet that was hard to come by.” He took the paper from me and peered closely. “From the closet, right? I don’t get it.”
“It’s not the same color as the mud the soldiers track in the front door, and it’s not the color of the mud you’d get from the back of the building, either. It had to come from someplace else.”
“Emily said that volunteers from several units came to help clean up. It could come from anywhere.”
“Right, it could. But you don’t have to walk into the closet to get anything out of it. All the hanging stuff is in the front where it can be reached from the door, all the stuff on the floor is on wheels so you can simply pull it out—there’s no reason for anyone to stand in it. Why would there be tracked-in mud in a closet there’s no need to put your feet in?”
“Someone hid in there until it was safe to come out to kill Iryne.”
“Exactly. Now, I didn’t find any piss stains, but if he went in there close to midnight with an empty bladder, he could go four hours easy. And I looked at the back door; it’s set up so that it can be opened from the inside, though you can’t get back in without a key unless you prop the door open. Emily remembers trying the door before she went to bed last night—it was fully closed—and only she and the four women had keys. The only explanation that accounts for mud in the closet is that the killer hid in it during the show, came out after everyone was asleep, stabbed Iryne and left through the back.”
He nodded. “Fast enough and she wouldn’t have made a sound.”
“This guy’s a pro, and strong. Yet he was spooked enought to leave behind his expensive knife.”
He scratched his head. “It’s good to know how, but that doesn’t help with who, does it?”
“Not a bit. You want to keep this dirt?”
“Yeah. Find an envelope for it.” I turned. “And thanks. Thanks a bunch.”
“I just wish I could identify that smell.”
“Will the luminol affect it? Should I have Heck wait on that?”
“If it were me, I’d cut out part of that section of floor and save it.”
“Good idea. Show me where it is.”
I took him to the closet and pointed. He got down on his knees and inhaled.. “You said it was strong, but I can’t detect a thing.”
“I have a good smeller.”
Kane used a pencil to draw a five-centimeter square and sat back on his calves. “How’s that? Do you need a bigger sample?”
He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and cut, going all the way down through the burlap backing and moisture barrier. He pried it out with the screwdriver blade and handed it to me. I dropped the dirt in one of the envelopes Emily handed me and slid the lino square into the other. Kane took both.
I waved at the buckets and other paraphernalia I’d pulled out. “Should I put this stuff away, or—”
“I’ll do it after the luminol is done,” said Emily.
Kane checked his watch; 1600. “I have reports to write up. Let’s call it a day.”
“Sounds good. Need me tomorrow?”
“Maybe in the afternoon. I’ll be at chapel in the morning.”
“I might come back for tonight’s show. Maybe I’ll run into you.”
“I’ll be here.” Only after I was halfway back to the compound did I realize I’d made a date.
Saturday, November 14, 1970
China had a bridge game going in the break room of the EE building. I watched her bid and win five no trump before I asked if anyone had a cold beer I could buy. Her partner was Scanlon’s second-in-command, SSG Yerby, who wore a scruffy mustache that looked like a blond caterpillar. “I’ll get you one, just let me finish this.”
Yerby laid out the dummy hand so China could play it; he was my height and half Scanlon’s weight, with a voice I could barely hear. “C’mon with me. You can’t drink it in here, though.”
Can’t drink in the EE building? What kind of shop was Scanlon running? I followed the E-6 out the door. “If we can’t drink in the air conditioning, where can we drink?”
Yerby pointed to the top of the bunker; two or three people were already up there, enjoying time off in the late afternoon sun. In his room, he handed me a cold Blue Ribbon. “Sorry it’s such crappy beer. It’s all they had left at the PX when I got there for my ration,” he murmured. He refused my offer to pay. The walls of the room were papered with centerfolds. Not a speck of wood was showing; I suspected they continued even behind the steel lockers. Nice scenery for Ritchie, I thought.
I thanked him. “It’s better than a 33. If you get to the club tonight, I’ll buy you a round.” He strolled back to the EE building while I climbed up the ladder to the top of the bunker. The compound was laid out much like the one at Củ Chi, the EE and generator buildings in an “L” shape, a parking lot for vehicles, a bunker, a hooch with showers and a john at the far end. Across from the hooch was a small open area. In Củ Chi, we had the space set up for horseshoes; here, there was nothing but gravel and an OD green container for storing paint. Between the paint storage and the rear wall of the generator building were the four 12,000-gallon underground diesel fuel tanks that kept the generators running day and night. Four big access hatches on yellow-painted concrete tubes poked above the baked mud ground and let the civilian generator operators check fuel levels in the tanks and analyse the water content. The whole fuel area was marked off by orange-painted railroad ties. Even as far away as I was, I could smell diesel and creosote, so I supposed the generator operators here didn’t keep to the maintenance checklist as well as those in Củ Chi.
There, from the top of the bunker, you can see a long way, as far as the single mountain—Núi Bà Đen—on the distant horizon, because the trees aren’t very tall. Things grow faster in the Delta, though, and the jungle here wasn’t that far away, so the trees outside the burned-off zone around the perimeter were tall enough to block a view of the horizon. At Củ Chi, the nearest village was a couple of klicks away, but here, they’d allowed shacks to spring up at the edge of the bare zone. If I stood on the tarps and revetment panels that covered the top of the bunker, I could see the main gate and the shacks amongst the trees.
“Have a seat, Specialist,” said SFC Scanlon. He was wearing civilian clothes; jeans and poncho-like shirt, love beads, peace signs and a bronze marijuana leaf on heavy chains around his neck. I did a double take. He grinned and preened his handlebar mustache. “I was wondering when we were going to see you up here.”
“Right.” I sat in the proffered lawn chair. “How’d she get the name China?”
“Dunno. We’re all afraid to ask.”
He gave a little sideways motion. “Play bridge with her sometime, you’ll find out.”
“I won’t be here long enough. I’ll ask her.”
“That’d be cool. Hey, you smoke dope? ’Cause if you do, Sheber here’s got a nice stash. He buys from baby-san.”
Sheber heard his name and lifted his head to give me a sickly grin. He was acne-covered and pasty white, with the build of a garden rake. “It’s really good stuff. Lots of flowers.” His voice was barely audible, weak and whispery.
“Can’t do it on duty or in the EE building, but I don’t care what you do on your own time.”
“No thanks. I’m a drinker. What’s with this no alcohol inside?”
Scanlon rolled his eyes. “That’s the XO’s doing. He said he’d court martial anyone he caught with booze—or anything else—inside.”
“That’s weird. It is against regs, of course, but no one enforces them. Even in Long Binh, stay in the break room with it and you’re fine.”
“Lieutenant Thornberry’s got religion,” said Sheber.
I opened my mouth to say something, but Scanlon cut me off: “I’m not about to cross Dingleberry.” He swallowed most of a beer and looked off at the jungle. I got the message.
Most officers had the sense not to get between the troops and their booze, so Thornberry must’ve really gone off the deep end at least once, if the higher-ranking NCOs didn’t even try to straighten him out. Officers like that got their way but lost the respect of the people there were supposed to lead. My brother Josh had one of those in his battalion in Germany; as he put it, “Woe betide his ass if some of these guys ever catch him alone.” Here, bad combat officers get fragged in the jungle; the opportunities in Germany were more limited. I was glad Josh had more sense—usually—than I did; in his situation, I’d likely be a betider.
Ritchie climbed up the ladder. “I shoulda known you’d be where the drinking was. I got some stuff for you.”
I got up and followed him down the ladder. “Yerby’s roommate got to go to Australia on R&R, the lucky bastard, so I’m staying with him.” We went in and he handed me the paper bag he’d left on his bunk. “I bought all they had.”
I looked. Three boxes of tampons. If my flow wasn’t too heavy, they’d last me three months. “What do I owe you?”
“Buy me a drink sometime, don’t sweat it.”
I’d been desperate my first month incountry. The Vũng Tàu PX hadn’t had a thing, and I’d used rags until I’d belatedly realized I could ask the mama-sans for help. They’d taught me the words and brought me black-market pads, but wanted a carton of cigarettes in payment. I smoke all six cartons of my ration every month, so I paid an extortionate sum in MPC instead, all so I could wear something that felt too much like a diaper. Momma now sends me little boxes of panti-liners in every care package, and sometimes she’ll remember to tuck in a box of tampons, but I’d rather she use the space for cookies. I hoped we wouldn’t be stuck here at Shannon-Wright long enough for my period to start, but I could stop obsessing for a couple of months. “Ritchie, you’re a gem.”
“No big deal.”
“It is to me.” Rather than acknowledge that women had special needs, the military found it simpler to pretend we were all men. Even our dogtags had ‘M’s on them.
“Eh.” He shrugged it off. “D’you know when the club’s going to open? I was thinking of seeing if Chona wanted to get together. After the show.”
“They’re open now, but I wasn’t going over until after 1800. I have to call Sgt. Hutchens and let him know what’s going on. If you wait for me I’ll walk over with you.”
“Good idea. No telling how long we’ll be stuck here. I’ll be on the bunker.”
I went into the EE building while he climbed the ladder to drink and wait for sunset. Twenty minutes later, I joined him.
“How’d he take it?”
“He said, ‘That Ritchie always was a fuckup. I’m not surprised he went and got hisself mixed up in a murder’.”
Ritchie laughed. “No, really.”
“Well, he wasn’t happy. He said Joel would blame you, but that he’d calm him down.”
Ritchie’s in the RF section, not Tech Control, and Joel Tarrant is his boss. Joel gives everyone shit, but he hassles Ritchie unmercifully. Joel is the reason that Ritchie is still a PFC. He refuses to put anyone up for promotion. Hutch and I were trying to figure out a way to get around that, but we hadn’t come up with a good way to do it without pissing off Sgt. Tantrum. With sufficient provocation he’d go over Hutch’s head and get everyone in trouble.
I looked outward; it was Saturday night in Việt Nam, where, if you’re not out in the jungle or the swamps fighting for your life, the most popular pastime is drinking enough to pass out. In Củ Chi, home base for the 25th Infantry, small ambush patrols would be going out the tiny side gates, big enough to let one person through at a time, heading out to set up in what amounted to duck blinds to wait for VC trying to sneak past. They did a good business.
Here in the Delta, most of the fighting was on the rivers by the Brown Water Navy in their heavily armed riverboats. What dry land there was was relatively safe. Which meant that the need for large bases to support large numbers of infantry didn’t exist this far south.
After a while I scrounged up a hunk of wood and propped it up against a sandbag. It made a decent target for my knife. Ritchie moved his chair so he could face away from me, and Sheber smoked dope, moving less than a snake on a hot rock. Two guys I hadn’t met shared a bottle of scotch without exchanging a word. At dusk, it became harder to see the board, so I folded the blade and stuck it back in my boot. Ritchie followed me to the bottom of the ladder, where the Detachment had put up an old parachute awning over the gravelled area. Lights shining through the cloth illuminated a picnic bench and charcoal grill with an eerie underwater green.
I went into the EE building to find someone to let us out the gate, but rather than leave her bridge game, China tossed me her gate key. “I don’t go out much,” she said. “Don’t lose it and don’t forget to give it back.”
“Thanks.” Ritchie and I walked to the Get Dead Drunk.
He found a table near the stage. “Let’s sit here.”
“Nah, I’d cramp your style. I’ll be at the bar if she uses words you don’t know.” I found myself a stool at the end of the bar where Emily was working.
“You look like a bourbon gal to me,” she said, putting her hand on a bottle of it.
“I like bourbon. I like tequila. I drink vodka and rum and beer and some things you never heard of. Won’t touch scotch.”
She poured a double of Early Times. “Yah. You wait until someday you got nothing else.”
“Already been there. I drank a bottle of Aqua-Velva and left the scotch to poison the rats.” I exaggerated a little. If there’d been scotch, I would’ve drunk it—after I’d finished the shaving lotion. It had not been my best night. Or the next few days, either, as the stuff worked its way out my pores. People edged away from me in formation.
“You’re a hard case, Holmes.” She watched me swallow the drink and hold out the glass for a refill. “China and I are going over to the little orphanage on Green Island—Đảo Xanh—tomorrow morning, to take food, clothing, chocolate. We even have a few toys this time. Want to come along?”
I swallowed my refill. “Mmm, how early?”
“Maybe. Check with me tomorrow.”
“China can wake you up.”
It wasn’t the time; drunk or sober, I almost always woke up at 0600. I didn’t want to be pinned down; I was planning on nursing a heavy-duty hangover. But when didn’t I? “I’ll probably come,” I told her. Someone at the far end of the bar yelled for service, and Emily splashed another drink in my glass. “Leave the bottle.”
Someone took the stool next to me. “Hey, Holmes.”
“Kane. Fancy meeting you here.”
When Emily returned she slid an open Bud over to him; he hadn’t asked. He sipped, and furrows I hadn’t noticed in his forehead smoothed out. “Ah.”
“I assumed you didn’t drink.”
“I’m a Catholic, not a fundamentalist.” I tipped the bottle, filling my shot glass to the brim. He watched while I drank it, not spilling a drop. “How’d you like to go to church in the morning?” In the dim light, his eyes looked grey.
“Sorry, I’ve already agreed to go with Emily to an orphanage.” Emily’s lips moved in a smile and she moved on to the next customer.
Kane drank from the bottle. “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway.”
“Am I that transparent?”
“Maybe when it comes to church.”
“I might have considered going, but only because you can sing. Is there a choir?”
“They don’t have one here. I tried in Dong Tam, but there aren’t enough singers—and not enough interest. I’m not allowed to simply order people to go to services.”
“Free will and democracy will thwart you every time.”
Emily got up on stage and announced that the show was about to begin. It was pretty much the same show as last night without the juggling; Chona didn’t have a lot to do, so she mostly sang backup. It was easy to tell that she was depressed. I watched the show so I could watch Rat.
I watched her until intermission. The bottle I’d bought from Emily was nearly gone; I saw Rat looking at me through the crowd on her way to the bar. I saw her glance at Kane, but he didn’t notice. He swiveled to face me. “How about dinner tomorrow night? They’ve got a restaurant here; it’s not the Loon Foon.” A terrific place on Long Binh post. “But it’s halfway decent.”
“Dinner? Sarge, are you asking me out? On a date?”
He swallowed nervously, the first chink in his composure I’d seen, then nodded.
Despite the utter lack of sexual vibes, I liked him. He was competent, he was good company, he knew his business and was in control of himself and as much of his environment as was in his power. He seemed to avoid trying to control women. He was handsome and muscular without being musclebound, I put him at around thirty, seven years older than me. Momma would have approved; I could hear her voice in my head: “Andrea Kristín Holmes, he was nice enough to ask, you accept graciously like the polite young lady you know how to be.” There was no reason in Momma’s world that I shouldn’t be attracted to him. By this time, Renaldo’s face was flushed; he looked away. I’d been staring at him. I refrained from pointing out that most women feel like sides of beef most of the time, because if I read him correctly he already knew. “I’d love to. Do they offer Vietnamese food?”
“I’ve never asked. I’m willing to try.”
“Ever eat bugs?” I teased, thinking of Long running up the road tossing a smile over his shoulder.
“What have I got myself into?” He pulled a face and waved for another beer.
Emily gave Kane another Bud. “Where’s the other barkeep?”
“You mean Speedy? It’s his night off.”
“Kane, what about Speedy? He was here late, maybe he noticed something.”
“Good thought. I’ll schedule him for a talk tomorrow afternoon.”
I looked around the club. Ritchie and Chona were smiling and laughing. With almost no language in common, they were having fun, with no need for a translator. She was almost as attractive as Iryne had been, and when she put her hand on his, I knew he wasn’t spending the night in Yerby’s room.
I felt a hand on my leg. The leg on the opposite side from Kane. “Hi, Rat.”
Her voice buzzed in my ear. “After the show I’m gonna go for a walk, and I might as well plan on ending up by that ammo bunker with a bottle. You wanta join me?”
“Yes,” I thought, but what I said was,“I’m gonna try to get a little more sleep tonight. Less drinking.”
Rat’s face closed up tight and she turned her back on me. I wanted to shout at her; instead, I grabbed the bourbon bottle and left. I wondered briefly what Kane had thought when he looked around to find me gone.
Vĩnh Long isn’t a big base camp, so there was one EM club, one USO club, one restaurant, one movie theatre. Long Binh, with 60,000 troops, had multiples of everything—including country clubs—but here, there were no other clubs to go to, so the bunker was my only choice.
From the top of the 369th’s bunker, I could see nearly the whole camp. Everyone else had already gone to bed. Most of the place was silent. A few lights, regular old American streetlights, sparked here and there on the base. Dogs barked, now and then, and insects provided a constant background drone. Geckoes scrabbled over the tarp. There was a little light pollution from the nearby city, but surprisingly little noise. Everyone but the VC was in bed, with the exception of a few guards, a few parties in clubs like the one I just left, and hard cases like me.
In Củ Chi I could have watched the war on Núi Bà Đen. Here, there was nothing to see but the darkness, nothing to hear but waves and wind, the whispers of lovers from the city, nothing to feel but the heat and the breeze, nothing to see in the sky but stars. I thought about Rat, I thought about China, I thought about murder. I finished the bottle and caught myself just before I tossed it over the fence into the swamp the way we did in Củ Chi. Here, there was no swamp, so the bottle stayed on the tarp. I fell the last two steps getting off the ladder because I was drunk, but because I was drunk I didn’t hurt myself.
China let me in without complaint, maybe because I was
midnight. She re-locked the door behind me while I fell into my
bunk, which the mama-san had thoughtfully made up.
meant to take my clothes off, I really had.
Sunday, November 15, 1970
At 0900, China and I walked to the club to meet Emily. Shoving between the trestles supporting the old fuel tanks, she knocked on the back door. It was already hot; the ten-o’clock flowers were open, the dew barely burned off their fleshy leaves. Rat, eyes red, answered. “I’m going too. Emily’ll be a few minutes.” She came out into the small yard and closed the door behind her. “Ritchie and Chona are still asleep; they had a long night. And Maxie’s not coming; Maxie doesn’t want to help anyone but herself.”
While China stood a few feet away to avoid the smoke, Rat and I lit up. A C-130 and a loach flew in opposite directions overhead. I sat on a railroad tie and rubbed my eyes. China and I had showered together, but my head had throbbed so much I couldn’t enjoy her tattoos. My mouth tasted like the daily shit-burning had been held there. Rat sat next to me and groaned. “I could offer you a little hair of the dog,” I said.
“No thanks, my hair hurts just fine without your help.”
“Now I don’t have an excuse.”
She started another cigarette. “You hurt my feelings last night,” she said softly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—don’t want to lead you on.”
She was silent a moment. “You don’t even want to be friends?”
I swallowed. “If I can—”
She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. She was opening her mouth to say something when Emily came out the back door, carrying a duffle bag. “Somebody needs to grab this other one,” she announced. I hauled it out. “I’ve called for a deuce-and-a-half to take us to the waterfront. When it gets here, y’all can help me load the rice.”
The rice, donated by the 369th compound, turned out to be in hundred-pound bags, eight of them. “They didn’t exactly adopt the orphanage, but they all agreed to add a few dollars to the mama-sans’ pay, so’s I could buy rice. The place gets nothing from the government. The big orphanage just outside the city gets donations from the whole base and is supported by the Catholic church, but this little one needs all the help it can get.” Emily grabbed a bag and muscled it up into the truck bed. I followed suit, and Rat helped China.
We only had a short distance to go to Vĩnh Long City, but it was a bumpy ride. The deuce driver wasn’t good at dodging the numerous potholes. I wondered if the Army was in charge of the road; most Việt-maintained roads that carried much traffic were paved and kept relatively smooth. The four of us and the guard, Corporal Thompson, bounced around in the tarp-covered bed of the truck, keeping company with the duffle bags and hastily-slapped-together crates. We finally pulled up at the quay on the edge of the Sông Cổ Chiên.
The driver parked the deuce next to the Phưồng Thủy restaurant, where he would guard the truck while we were gone. A blue and white boat, its peeling paint showing grey boards here and there, lay low in the thick brown water; floating rafts of water hyacinth drifted past on the rapid current. A skinny teenager in a loose white shirt was our helmsman; when he saw us, he shouted out, “Dee-dee mau, hurry!”
The driver and an old man with a gold tooth and a permanent lip cigarette loaded the rice for us. Emily, China, Rat and I climbed in. Even when Emily needed help, the kid didn’t stop messing with the motor. I stepped up and shoved one foot in the boat, used the other to steady us, and gave her a hand. The kid got it going and the old man tossed the line into the boat. The pilot backed us away from the quay, out into the river to catch the current. I tapped our guard on the shoulder. “What’s your name, Corporal?”
“Andi. I meant your first name.”
“Call me Raz. Uh, Andi.”
“Raz? What’s that short for?”
“Erasmus. My dad’s a big fan of Erasmus Darwin. He’s a professor.”
The kid lit a new cigarette from the butt of the old one, which he flipped into the silt-laden waters. A klick away on the south bank, I could see a dozen or so beehive-shaped pottery kilns peeking out of the jungle. The smell of rotten fish came from a nước mấm factory nearby. The boat headed away from them, the American-made outboard buzzing noisily as it pushed the boat through the water. It took several minutes to reach the halfway point; the Cổ Chiên at this point wasn’t as far across as the Amazon, but it was as nearly a river sea. Midway between the mainland and the island, the banks became thin green strips cutting the water from the sky.
As we motored into the channel splitting the island, the far shore grew closer and closer, An Bình on our left and Bình Hòa Phườc on the right. I could see that houses and buildings were spaced more widely than in the countryside near Vĩnh Long. We buzzed past the Mục Đồng Buddhist temple and a little further along, a Catholic church. The church was in much better condition than the temple. Most of the population is Buddhist; only 9% is Catholic, but it’s the Catholics that have the money. When Diệm had been president, they’d also had plenty of political power.
Halfway through the channel, midway between the Cổ Chiên and Tièn Giang rivers, the helmsman cut the motor and we drifted to a pier on Bình Hòa Phườc island, the east bank. Little streams and minor channels cut Bình Hòa Phườc into smaller pieces, some of which have names and some of which don’t. The piece we’d come to ground on was named Đảo Xanh. Green Island.
The boat boy tossed the line to a bent old woman wearing a cone hat. She looked at least 90. All of us except the kid climbed out; he stayed put and made no move to help. The old woman offered her hand to Emily and assisted her scramble to the pier. I thanked her in Vietnamese—“Cám ơn nhiêù lắm”—which earned me a sharp look from the boy. Good; I hoped he was nervous about some of the comments he’d muttered about rich American women.
“Không có chi,” the old lady quavered. It’s nothing. I started to ask her about the rice when eight boys around twelve to fourteen swarmed toward the pier.
A small rickety sign, intended for Americans, pointed to a path of hard-packed yellow clay through banana and ficus trees: “This way to Orphanage of Tan Mai 200m.” Emily led Rat, China and me down the path. Behind me, the old lady headed the procession of boys carrying the rice. Thompson brought up the rear. The shade was cool compared to the sweltering oven that the tin-roofed boat had become on the trip across the river sea.
The orphanage, painted a bilious yellow-ochre, stood in a shaded grove; the play-yard contained a swing set with one working swing, a large sandbox minus one wall, allowing sand to leak out on the north side, and thirty or forty small-to-medium children, dressed in blue silk pants and white silk shirts, standing in a circle listening to a thin woman wearing a white aó daì over white pants.
I put her age at around fifty, although her skin was smooth and unlined and her figure was as trim as China’s. Her hair was liberally sprinkled with grey, but she still wore it in a long braid down her back, almost to her knees. I was reminded of my grandmother who had had white hair that reached to the floor when she stood. Every night before bed, she would brush it 100 strokes.
The woman interrupted herself when she saw our group. “Children, children, the Americans are here!”
In tiếng Việt, the word for “American” is “Mỹ,” flower. It’s because of the flag; the stars looked like flowers to the Vietnamese, so now all of us are flower children. The little boys and girls began jumping up and down and shouting and laughing, crowding around us and holding out their hands. Emily dug in the duffle bag she was carrying and handed out Snickers bars for us to distribute. “They hold up better in the heat than plain Hershey’s.” We each took a dozen and got busy passing bars to the yelling children. Rat was sweating profusely; her denim shirt showed wet spots in the armpits, and her bare arms and calves shone in the dappled sunlight. Three tours and she still wasn’t used to the heat.
After the children had spoiled their lunch with the candy, we handed over the toys and clothes in the duffle bags to the woman in charge of the orphanage; she told us to call her Rose. “Hoa hồng, không?” I asked.
She flashed me a sweet smile. “Just Hoa,” she said in tiếng Việt. “But I like ‘Rose’ so much I use it all the time. Even the children call me Miss Rose.”
I’d never heard of anyone actually preferring the name they chose to tell Americans; most GIs had no idea that Vietnamese was a tonal language and couldn’t even say ‘thank you’ correctly. They got along because the words for “how much” are toneless and every Việt knows some English.
Rose insisted we all stay for lunch. She put the four of us, with the guard, at her table. I ended up sitting beside her, close enough to touch, with a tiny girl to my left. A studious, tall girl wearing gold-rimmed glasses planted herself just as close to China, who, with her plain, black-framed specs, could have been the girl’s older sister.
The old woman didn’t join the group, so I assumed she was the cook. Lunch was rice with bits of fish and vegetables, liberally doused in nước chấm, a dip made with fish sauce. I ate just like the kids; hold the bowl up to your mouth and sweep the rice mixture in with đũa, chopsticks. Not eating like an American made them laugh and laugh at me, wrinkling their noses and holding their đũa and bowls as if the bowls would run away, some of them showing their lack of teeth, or combinations of baby and permanent teeth. Emily did well enough, although she left a lot of the fish; China ate everything. Rat and Raz Thompson both asked for only vegetables, and still hardly touched their food.
The children practiced their English: “Where you from? How old? How many kids?”
When they asked, “Where you from?” they meant what state, what big city. I told the girl next to me I was from Chicago, although that’s only marginally true, and she lit up. “Gangsters! Al Capone! Bang-bang!” China was from San Francisco, but most of her family lived in Chicago. I’d thought Rat was from New York City, but she said, no, she was from Long Branch, New Jersey.
“I don’t even know where that is.”
“Not that far from Atlantic City. On the Jersey shore.” She picked at her food, sniffed dubiously at it. “My mother’s a Rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple. Close to Ft. Monmouth?” But I’d never been there, only heard of the Fort because it was a Signal Corps School.
The kids didn’t ask Emily where she was from because she was there most Sundays. I noticed that while most kids wanted to practice English, the girl sitting with China was helping her practice Vietnamese. China looked happier than any other time I’d seen her.
“I know a little about Chicago,” said Rose. “I used to have a friend I wrote to, and she used to send me pictures. Where did you live?”
“With my great-aunt, in Wheaton.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”
I told her where it was, and ended telling her about all the places I’d lived growing up. She seemed fascinated.
After lunch, I lined everyone up for a group photo, with Rose on one end and a teacher on the other. The two grownups held their cone hats in their hands and smiled. The tall, long-haired girl who’d sat next to China edged behind Rose to hide from the camera. But after the group shot, she pulled China to the side and motioned for me to take a picture of the two of them together. She linked her arm through China’s; her delicate features counterpointed China’s strong jaw. In a nearly inaudible voice, she asked me for copies.
When we got ready to leave, the others started down the path to the water, and I held back to talk to Rose. “How much would a new swing set cost?” She took the bills I handed her with a grateful smile. I didn’t make a lot as an E-4; most of what I made I drank and pissed away; but this I could afford.
She held my hand. “I hope you will come back and see it.”
“I’m going back to America in January, so I don’t think I can. But Emily can take photos; I’ll make sure she knows how to get in touch with me.”
“Oh, no, you should give me your aunt’s address now. I will send you pictures.” I wrote down the orphanage address while I was at it.
Rat was waiting for me partway to the boat, wearing an amused smile. “What did you give her money for?”
“A swing set. I saw the old one was busted.”
“Well, that worked out for her.”
“What are you talking about?”
She stopped. “You’re not going to pretend you didn’t realize Rose was flirting outrageously, are you?”
My ears burned. I turned and walked away.
She caught at my arm. “Don’t be mad, I think it’s sweet.”
“She wasn’t flirting.”
Rat interlocked her fingers, held them under her chin, and batted her eyelashes. “Tell me where Wheaton is, darling!”
“She didn’t do that.”
“She might as well have. And it worked, didn’t it? You gave her your phone number, didn’t you?”
“Just my aunt’s address—ahhhh, why do I talk to you?”
Back in the boat, I noticed that China was holding a white flower of some kind. I hadn’t seen her with it, but I was sure that it came from the tall girl. I resolved to send China copies when I developed them, as well as to the orphanage for the girl.
I asked around: “Anyone object if we take longer going back?” No one did, so I spoke to the helmsman in tiếng Việt. “Take us home a different way. Can we go around the island?”
“It takes longer.”
“We’re in no hurry. I want to see what there is to see.”
“There is nothing.”
“Nevertheless, I want to see it.” He shrugged irritably and started yet another cigarette.
Emily didn’t understand what he said, but she could see. “Don’t mind him, hon, he’s always nasty. I think he’s VC.” She didn’t seem concerned that he might overhear.
The kid guided the boat northward along the channel between the two islands. The channel was as wide as the Mississippi in northern Illinois, but here it was a tiny passage compared to the major waterways in the Delta. We stayed near a bank, underneath the overhanging trees and palms. Emily dug in the cooler she’d brought, and offered beers. Rat, Raz and I took one, and Emily handed one to the helmsman, which brought the first smile I’d seen from him all day. Every once in a while, something dropped from the trees and landed on the boat’s tin roof with a rattle and a bang. Once it was a small green snake, which slithered over the edge and into the water, where it swam off.
“Poisonous,” the helmsman informed us around his cigarette. “Very poisonous. Get bit, you swell up and die in about ten minutes.” He seemed positively ecstatic at the prospect. It mellowed him out enough to tell me his name was Vương, which means king. It also means caught, or trapped, as by a spider. He didn’t bother with his family name, which meant it was probably Nguyễn. The name had been handed out as a reward, the way knighthoods had been in England, for service to an early Việt emperor, or the country. I guess the Emperor must have had plenty of help, because over half the Việt bore his family name now. About a dozen other names make up another forty percent.
We pulled out into the Tièn Giang; a thin green line in the far distance marked the shore. Sunlight glared off the water surrounding us, water which came all the way from the high Himalayas. The Mekong is born in Tibet and runs through China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, Laos to here, nearly 5000 kilometers’ travel. In tiếng Việt, it is called the Sông Cửu Long, the Nine Dragon River, because it fans out into countless branches, fingers and talons in the Delta, where every claw and every toe has a different name. Once you’ve met the Nine Dragon River, you can never forget it; from then on, whenever you look at maps of Southeast Asia, all you can see is the Dragon and its claws and its teeth, the Delta in its maw. I put my hand in the flow; it was blood warm, without the ghost of snow from the roof of the world in its breath.
The boat turned left—port—to follow the outer coast of An Bình Island. Although being under the tin roof was like riding in a toaster oven, it cut the direct rays of the sun. The riverine haze had long since burned off. The sky was a flawless clear blue, with not a speck of white. The smell from the river was of a country asleep in siesta; warm water thick with loam, dead fish, dry clay, dusty streets, fetid jungle. Life was slow, luxuriant and certain, the heat constant, the beauty everpresent. As a picture it was seductively attractive—and false: there was a war on, and the Việt don’t have siesta.
But then, most pictures are false.
We motored slowly west, then, following the curve of the island, south, aiming at the city, passing a couple of channel openings, which Vương said cut through the island, like the one that had taken us to Tan Mai orphanage. “Anything to see down there?” I asked, as we drew up to another channel mouth.
He shrugged. “Just as much as any other channel.”
We had rounded the westernmost point of An Bình and were now aiming almost straight southeast. I could see a tiny village on the northern bank of the channel a few hundred meters in. “Take it,” I told him.
He swivelled the rudder and we cut into the smooth, undisturbed water; the way was narrower than the one that led us to the orphanage. I knew he was thinking that there was no telling what the crazy Americans would want. In the village, a pair of women, one smoking a pipe, watched us putter slowly by as they leaned against two mái, the big earthenware pots for storing rice. The thatched roof of the house shaded them from the worst of the glare. No one else noticed us.
Vương spoke. “They say there is an old man, a VC, living somewhere on this island, or maybe on Green Island. A Mr. Tiger. That he fought the French at Điện Biên Phủ, that he is fighting the Americans now. That he will fight until this is one country again and there are no more enemies to fight.”
“He’ll live forever, then.” I lit another cigarette, looked in the cooler and found one beer left. Emily nodded when I held it up, and I opened it, drank. Passed it to Vương. He looked at me a moment, gave me an almost invisible smile, drank, passed the bottle back. I wondered if I could use the snake trick again.
I turned in my seat to face the northern shore, which made it easier to keep passing the bottle, and watched the jungle slip by in the long afternoon sun. We were halfway through the channel when the jungle opened up into a large field crossed by regularly spaced lines of tall coconut palms. Most were connected by three bamboo poles lashed to the trunks, making flimsy bridges from one tree to the next. “Someone out here farming in the jungle?”
“Crazy people. They cut the flowers off so the trees never make coconuts and they catch the sap. Don’t know what for.”
“Ah. I see.” I drank from the bottle. “If you come here early in the morning, are there are guys carrying buckets from tree to tree?” The mananguetes, who knew how and when to cut the flowers, and how to bruise the cut stems to induce the best sap flow.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“They make very strong palm wine—lambanog—from the sap.” The sap is fermented to make awful stuff they call tuba, palm toddy. The tuba is distilled, like brandy, until it’s 90 proof. Distill it twice for up to 160 proof. I considered. “It’s good.” Like drinking lacquer thinner was good, I guess; an acquired taste, acquired years before I was old enough. My family had left the Philippines permanently in 1955, when I’d been eight. Precocious.
“Maybe I can get you some.” He flicked the butt into the water and started another.
“I’d like that.” I watched the plantation. I guessed at least a thousand trees, maybe more. Jungle birds cried as the water rippled past and the motor buzzed. The water flowed around us, warm, brown, turbulent, loaded with silt. Dragonflies and swallows swooped in the air, taking mosquitoes before they could draw blood.
China, who had been listening to our conversation and picking up a little, asked “What made you learn tiếng Việt?”
“I went to the PX to buy this camera—” I held up the Canon FT with which I’d taken shots of the palms. “Afterward, I stood in line for some ice cream outside. The woman selling it was sour and nasty and mean to everyone. Then the guy who’d been behind me started talking with her in her own language. I’d never seen anyone change so fast so quickly. I’d been toying with the idea of picking up a few phrases, but seeing her respond like that made me go right back into the PX to get some language books.” I blew a smoke ring. “So. Why China?”
“My name is Chinatsu. My mother is very traditional; she is issei, although my father is nissei.” That meant her mother was an immigrant from Japan, her father of the first American-born generation. “I’ve gone by China since I was old enough to talk.”
“And your mother’s the only one who calls you Chinatsu.”
She flashed me a grin. “‘That goddamn name China,’ is how she puts it.”
“Momma doesn’t swear, but you should have heard her when she found out the other kids had started calling my brother ‘Red’ instead of Josh. She hates nicknames. Won’t use them.”
“Mothers.” I noticed Rat out the corner of my eye; she was staring bleakly out across the waves, and I wondered what growing up had been like for her. I wished we were alone so I could ask about the Rabbi.
We came to the mouth of the channel where it debouched into the Cổ Chiên, and detoured around a huge flat barge with a crane mounted on it, slowly dredging out buckets of ooze, cleaning out the approaches to the waterway. A few minutes after passing the dredge, we saw the mouth of the Long Hồ river by the restaurant. The old man was still there; as he tied up the boat, I saw the truck driver leaning against the deuce and smoking a pipe. “Hey, Raz, where does he get tobacco for that thing?”
Thompson shook his head. “He can’t get it at the PX. I wish he could, ’cause whatever he smokes smells like he mixes shit into it.”
“He buys it from a Vietnamese smoke shop in the city,” said Emily. “His momma don’t believe in smoking and sends only underwear in his care packages. Won’t even make cookies for him.”
“I’d burn them before opening.”
When we got back to the compound, Ritchie and Chona were juggling the bowling pins the two Filipinas had used in their act. He wore his fatigue pants, an OD T-shirt and his cap. A cigarette in the corner of his mouth made him squint at Chona, who wore three very small iridescent green scraps. They stood on the soft hot tarmac, him in jungle boots and she in bare feet, tossing pins back and forth as if they’d teamed since childhood. “Catch, fucking GI!” Both of them were sweating; it looked good on her.
Yerby peered over the edge of the bunker. “Heads up, Holmes!” A cold beer flew my way and I caught it like a softball in both hands. After I pulled the tab, I watched Ritchie and his girlfriend for a few minutes. Several of the men, including Yerby, watched too. Like me, they mostly watched the girl.
They took a break. “You weren’t lying.”
Ritchie laughed. “I’m still paying my dues to the International Jugglers’ Association.”
Chona wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Turuan ako ng wikang Ingles.” He teaches me English. She smiled at Ritchie, aimed her thumb at him. “Magturo sa kanya ng ilang Tagalog.” I teach him a little Tagalog.
I laughed. “Bumili ako ng wiski.” I’ll buy the whisky.
Chona nodded vigorously. “OK!” She nudged Ritchie. “Fucking GI!”
“I think I just volunteered for something.”
“You’re learning Tagalog, she’s learning English, I’ll buy the drinks.”
He smiled. “I never turn down free drinks.”
Chona said, “Hey, taba boy! Bumalik sa trabaho!”
“There’s a lesson for you.”
“What’d she call me?”
“‘Fat boy.’ Then she told you to get back to work! Now you say, ‘Paglangoy ng batang babae!’ That’s ‘Scrawny girl!’”
He looked at her admiringly. “She’s not, though.”
“You guys are pretty good. Too bad you can’t quit your day job.”
He laughed and caught the first of the flying pins. “Sir! I resign, effective immediately! Sir! Why wouldn’t that work?”
I left them learning insults
and went to catch a shower before Kane arrived for our date.
Sunday, November 15, 1970
Why couldn’t I have said, “Let’s just have dinner and conversation and not call it a date”? By the time Kane, dressed in clean jeans and a tucked-in white shirt, drove up at an hour past sunset, I was on my third cigarette. I locked the gate behind us with China’s key and hopped into his Jeep. “Let’s go, I’m starving.”
A block or so down the road, he said, “Are we going dutch?”
“It’s either that or I pay.” He cracked a smile. “In Ecuador, by the way, they call it ‘estilo Americano,’ instead of dutch.”
“You were in Ecuador?”
“Yah. Three years of high school.”
“A missionary school, right? Was that the last time you wore a dress?”
“No, that was from Chicago to SeaTac, and from Ft. Lewis to here.”
“Dress greens don’t count.” He waited. “You can’t remember, can you?”
“Back in the States they’ll make you wear class A’s again.”
“It couldn’t be any worse than being stationed at the Pentagon. I’m surprised they didn’t make me starch my fucking panty-hose.” He was quiet. I assumed my mouth had screwed up. “Sorry.”
“Are you apologizing for swearing? I’m no fundamentalist.” He spotted what he was looking for a block ahead and signalled, very likely the only person on base ever to do so. “Are you?”
“No, those guys don’t send out as many missionaries as you might think.” He parked and I got out and walked through the door of the restaurant, which looked like any medium-sized single-story house you might find in a Sàigòn suburb, complete with red tile roof. Kane caught up with me and stood at my side until the hostess returned. “Hai ghế, mong bà.” Two seats, please.
I gave Kane credit for not even trying to hold my chair. The harried-looking hostess slapped two menus on the table, poured water and left. The lights were dim, the walls covered with hanging cloth; ceiling fans spun, making the cloth wave, revealing pocked and cracked green plaster walls. He picked up one of the menus and glanced at it. “Is any of this Vietnamese?”
I read over the other one. “No, there’s nothing but Chinese listed. I’ll have to ask the waitress.” She showed up less than a minute later, wearing a white-flowered red aó-daì.
“What you want?” she asked, trying to hurry us. I asked in tiếng Việt if she had a different menu for the Việt người. “No.” She unbent enough to say, “the chef will make whatever you want.”
“Anything? Then seafood soup for me, and beef phở for him. Two beers.”
She brightened. “Good choice, he is from Hà Nội.” She chased off to the kitchen.
“What was that all about?” Kane wanted to know. “You ordered for me?”
He laughed. “Oh, no reason.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“I’m sure I’ll love it.”
A bead curtain over the door to the kitchen rattled apart and Long came through it carrying two huge bowls. “Anh Đi! How are you this evening?”
“Long! How long have you worked here?” I waved toward Kane: “He gets the phở.”
Long put the bowls on the table and smiled at me. “My sister is one of the cooks. She made your noodle soup. How have you been?”
“Good. Can you talk for a few minutes?”
“Let me check.” He disappeared through the curtain.
“You were speaking Vietnamese and he was using English, so you must be practicing each other’s languages. But you forgot to introduce us,” said Kane.
“Sorry. His name’s Long. I met him when Ritchie and I stopped at Đại Tòng Lâm, the monastery a few miles up the road. We wanted to see the sights. I got waylaid by the Quan Âm—Kwan Yin—statue. Have you seen it?”
“No, I’m almost as new to the area as you are; I’ve only been to Shannon-Wright three times altogether. And there aren’t many tourist opportunities when you travel by chopper.”
“The statue’s twenty meters tall; she’s standing on a dragon. If you get the chance, you should see it. Ritchie and I gave Long a ride in exchange for tips on where to eat. Richie said the phở he got at the booth was the best soup he’d ever had, so if you’re not impressed with tonight’s, I could take you to the roadside stand tomorrow for lunch. As long as you don’t mind waiting for the ferry.”
He scooped up a healthy portion of noodles and broth and slurped. “Wow.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t have any reference points, but this is so good it’s hard to believe that there could be better pho than this.” He held out his spoon with the handle toward me. “Here, try it.”
I’ve been on dates where men tried to feed me as if I were a little girl; Kane just handed me the spoon. “That’s darn good.” I gave it back to him. “Hanoi thinks they have the best phở, but I’ve only had it here in the south, so maybe I’m—” I stopped. “Sorry. I’m droning on.”
“No, no, continue.”
“You’re just being polite. Tell me about your moms.”
“Changing strategies, Holmes? I know you’re hostessing. Drawing me out to deflect attention from yourself. Tell me about your parents.”
“Yours are quite dangerous, I see.”
“I’m their world domination project.”
Long brought us water. “It’s American, it is safe.” He poured. “I get a break in fifteen minutes.” He raced off to the next table.
“What about Iryne’s murderer, Kane?”
“For Pete’s sake, call me Ren. Andi.”
“OK, Ren. Who killed the girl?”
“And I’d rather not. Iryne?”
He shrugged. “It’s difficult to see how any of the entertainers could have done it. Emily’s got no motive, and as far as Ritchie goes—he may have had the opportunity, but he doesn’t strike me as psychotic.”
“Is it possible that a different blade killed her and then they stuck the switchblade into the wound? Or maybe the knife was stolen. Just because a hand doesn’t fit a knife comfortably doesn’t mean the killer couldn’t have put up with a little discomfort.”
“The autopsy says that the blade was distinctive. No other weapon could have caused the wound. As far as the other things go, the speed and decisiveness of the blow argue against a killer who wasn’t used to that particular knife. The killer knew what he was doing; Iryne died virtually instantly with no time to scream or struggle. Besides, none of the women would have any reason to hide in the janitor closet. They could have just walked from one room to the other.”
“How about the bartender? Was he any help?”
“Speedy? He was more than willing to talk—at length. Fastest talker I’ve ever heard. ‘Did you see anything odd during the show or before you left, Specialist Trask?’ ‘No, and I watched the whole show, but I never heard anything about anything and I didn’t see anyone suspicious. I just don’t see how I could have missed something like that, I must have been pouring drinks. She was killed, that’s all I know. No one ever told me how. I didn’t see anything suspicious. I wasn’t expecting a murder or anything funny like that. I never saw a thing and I like to think of myself as pretty observant, I’m real sorry I messed up. I’d like to know how she died and I’ll keep an ear out and let you know if I hear anything. I didn’t even know she’d died until you guys told me’.” If I’d had to listen to him any longer I would have taken up smoking, so I gave Heck the signal to tell me we had leave right away.”
If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, my ‘Poor baby!’ might have carried some weight. “So he’s not the bartender to pour out your troubles to.”
“It’s like an accountant with no head for math, or a tone-deaf musician. If he calls with a clue, I’ll hang up on him.”
We ate in silence until I became nervous enough to start hostessing again. “How much training do they give you CID agents in crime-solving, anyway?”
“We get basic, like everyone else. We’re all supposed to have two or more years of college, and that’s one reason there aren’t so many of us. Most guys who come into the Army with degrees become officers. We have to be MPs, so there’s that school, but it’s all about keeping order. How to persuade reluctant GIs to leave a bar and come with you. How to put troublemakers to sleep without killing them with our billy clubs. Once you're accepted for CID, you serve an apprenticeship before you go to school. We get the occasional seminar in Long Binh and I read what I can, but our best training is on the job. Some of us supplement that with Army correspondence courses.”
I knew about those; I was working my way through an algebra course. The fat, blue-bound paper volumes oscillated between too simple for words and too arcane for anyone but math majors. If I hadn’t had help from Sergeant Ngai, one of the ARVNs attached to Củ Chi, I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I had. “The system could use some improvements.”
“You said it. Part of the problem is that we aren’t really centralized; the Provosts for major groups—like the 9th, 4th and 25th Infantry Divisions—are responsible. Some Divisions don’t have CID groups, and they have to depend on others. At the same time, most of our investigations aren’t difficult. Even murders are mostly easy. We just show up and watch for whoever’s so nervous he can’t hold still. 99 times out of a hundred, he’s the one. Then all we do is ask: ‘Did you kill so-and-so?’ and he’ll say, ‘I didn’t mean to do it.’ We arrest him, it’s over.”
When our waitress came back, I ordered Cà phê sữa—Vietnamese coffee—for Kane. “Trust me, you’ll like it.” I poured a double shot of bourbon from my flask into my empty water glass. Kane rolled his eyes.
Long brought the coffee and a plate of lychees, longan and rambutans. “For dessert.” He pulled up a chair.
“Long Quynh, meet Renaldo Kane.”
“Where are you from?” Long asked.
“A small town in Utah. Delta. Sort of in the middle of the state.” He sipped the coffee and looked at it in mild surprise.
“Are you Mormon?”
Long laughed. “No, I am Catholic.”
“So am I. Do you go regularly?”
“If I am near a church. There’s one in Vĩnh Long City. Họ Đạo—” He stopped and looked at me.
“—Vĩnh Long Parish. It is new and modern.”
“Yeah? How many times have you been?”
Long smiled. “Only once, this morning. Before my brother was sent to Sàigòn, he and I went often. But I didn’t like this priest very much, so I will probably only go when Kim makes me.”
“I didn’t go much when I was a kid. ’Course, that couldn’t be helped, since St. John’s in Delta was visited only once a month by a priest. On special occasions, we drove the hundred-forty miles to Salt Lake to go to the Cathedral there, which is where I really got interested.”
“How old are you now?”
“Old. I’m 31.” Kane picked up one of the spiky red rambutans. “How do you eat these?”
“Use thumbnail, push and peel here, pull there, bite, spit out the seed.” Onto the plate.
“This is good.”
I popped the skin off a longan, slid the cool sweet flesh into my mouth, dropped the seed on my plate.
“Hey, do you have pictures of your parents?” Long looked at me.
“I don’t carry pictures on me. What I have are in Củ Chi.”
Kane wiped his hands on a napkin and pulled out a thin leather wallet. “I do.”
Long examined the picture closely for a long time before passing it to me. I held the picture carefully. Two women stood next to each other on the sidewalk in front of Dawn’s Delta Diner, a stucco building painted an unhealthy shade of pink, bearing a “Breakfast Special” sign in the large front window. One woman, a short blonde in her late 50s with a cigarette in her mouth and a pencil behind her ear, was wearing a too-tight pink uniform, a lace apron and rhinestone glasses on a keeper chain. An order pad was stuck in a pocket. She wore white tennis shoes, not the pumps I’d expected.
The other woman was Japanese-American my height, or taller; she towered over her partner. Rail-thin and several years younger than the blonde, she was dressed in a plain black cheongsam that made the most of her slim figure, and hadn’t taken her glasses off for the camera. Her tightly-bunned and chopsticked hair, long expressive face and downturned mouth made her more than ordinarily pretty. The warm late-afternoon lengthened the women’s shadows and emphasized their features. They were smiling so much, Kane had to have been the photographer.
Long asked, “What are their names?”
“Constance Kane and Kimiko Fujimoto. That’s the restaurant they own. American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever sells. The most popular breakfast dish is kim-chi scrambled eggs.” Kane looked at Long’s face. “What’s the matter?”
Long glanced at me before answering. “They are both women.”
“Does that shock you?”
“It is not very common here. No one talks about it.”
“No one talks about it in America, either.”
Kane grinned at him. “I was a very lucky boy.”
Long laughed and the tension was broken. I handed the picture back. Long cleared our plates after we finished the dessert. The impatient waitress, barely older than Long, brought the bill. Kane calculated our shares to the penny; my share was more because I had had three beers to his one. “Món ăn thật tuyệt,” I told the girl. The food is excellent.
She flashed me a smile. “Because you asked for Vietnamese.” She dashed to another table
We were halfway to the 369th compound before Kane asked if I wanted to go to the club. “No, thanks,” I told him politely. “I’ve got some reading I have to catch up on.”
At the gate, he idled the Jeep. “You’re good company.”
I smiled at him. “Thanks, so are you. I had a nice time.” He leaned forward and I let him kiss me; I didn’t want to hear Momma’s voice asking what the matter was with me. It wasn’t so bad; he was gentle and only a little bristly. It was a fine kiss as kisses go, but it meant more to him than me: he drove off whistling.
I read Dress Her in Indigo in the room for half an hour before I walked to the club to buy a bottle of cheap tequila from Emily. Although I tried not to look at the stage, I felt a gaze on the back of my neck. I started back to the 369th to climb on top of the bunker to drink before realizing I wanted to be alone, and turned to go the other way. There aren’t many streetlights in the basecamps, so the roads were mostly dark. A couple of small compounds had a light or two, but most didn’t. Every once in a while a Jeep would grumble by. I came to the field where the sandbagged ammo bunker and the young rubber trees were, went to the far side of the bunker, sat down and leaned against the wall, facing outward toward the perimeter. The sign that said, “No smoking within 60 feet,” was on the opposite side, so I lit a cigarette.
I prefer to drink
it’s ice-cold, but it’s hard to get that way;
I’d have to have bought it the day before. The
flowed down my throat and the fire hit me as if I taken it directly
into my veins.
Monday, November 16, 1970
I looked around for the moon, but decided I didn’t care. No matter how hard I tried to make myself think of Kane, it was Rat’s face I saw. I thought about Kane’s kiss then thought about her, how I wanted to kiss that wide mouth. Every time I thought about her, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I wanted to feel her hands on me, taste her skin, hear her voice. I drank and looked around. I field-stripped the cigarette, dropped it in my pocket and checked the time. I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to be close enough to her to smell her. The night was quiet and cool; a light breeze blew off the river. I slumped down until I was hidden in the long grass, closed my eyes. I imagined Rat’s face close to mine; I put my hand on my belt buckle, thumbed it open—and heard a noise. I closed the buckle, opened my eyes and sat up.
“I wondered if I’d run into you out here.”
My heart thudded. “Hi, Rat. Have a drink.”
She sat close and snuggled up until our arms touched. “Don’t mind if I do.” She took a drink and passed it back. She’d changed her satin pants for a pair of small shorts and the midriff-baring top for a fatigue shirt. “I ought be used to the heat by now. Does it ever get to you?”
I drank, wiped the neck and handed her the bottle. “I like it. Sometimes it’s too warm to sleep, but most of the time—” She leaned over and kissed me. Her tongue probed. I stopped breathing for a while. So did she.
“I’ve wanted to do that since—”
“—The first time I saw you.” It was hard to believe I’d said it out loud. I drank and handed her the bottle.
“Hold this, I need to cool off.” I took the bottle while she undid the buttons on her shirt. She shrugged it off and dropped it on the grass. The sleeveless OD T-shirt she wore outlined her plump breasts tightly, showing her nipples. “Now—”
This time, I kissed her. She put both arms around my neck and I gripped her waist. I was lost in the feel of her lips and tongue, the smoothness of her skin and the taste of her breath. She put her right hand on my left and moved it to her right breast, left it there while she gripped my face with both hands and kissed. We breathed together and I felt her erect nipple on my palm. Suddenly she lifted the T-shirt and I was holding her heavy naked breast in my hand; her hands fumbled at my shirt. We heard a Jeep engine mutter, getting slowly louder. “Whoops. Down,” she whispered. We lay flat, faces close. She kissed me gently and slid her small hand under the cloth. We could see lights approach, round the curve, disappear, but no beams came close to us.
We stayed there another hour, lying flat in the grass, necking and petting, and occasionally drinking. Then she raised up, fed her nipple to me, put her hand on my zipper. I turned my head, put my hand on hers. “No—” I inhaled noisily. “Not—not yet.”
“OK.” She was breathing as hard as I was. “OK.” She lay on her back and tugged her T-shirt down. “OK.”
I tugged and buttoned, had a drink, lit cigarettes and stuggled to relax. It didn’t work. “We better get back.”
She sat up. “I need your lighter.” She dug in my breast pocket, flicked it on near my mouth. “Thought so.” She wet the edge of her T-shirt with a little tequila and scrubbed gently at my lips, then her own. “Lipstick.” She used the lighter again. “Good enough. Next time I’ll take it off first.” She kissed my forehead. “Now we can go.”
We risked a quick kiss when we parted at the club. After walking the rest of the way in a lust-filled daze, I shoved the empty bottle into the flower bed on top of the revetment in front of China’s door. She let me in when I rattled the knob quietly and said, “Must’ve been a pretty good date to keep you out so late.” I climbed into bed.
“Uh-huh,” I said, then wished I hadn’t. Dope. I should have said I was only drinking.
I dreamed about Rat, the smell of her skin, the weight of her breast in
my hand, the feel of her nipple in my mouth.