a literary review
Mama, I’m glad that you kept my oak bed. The little girl you brought home has slept on one side of the bed since she was five. Did she tell you the bed was too large? Now she’s no longer a child, and I am twenty-three—I was twenty-two when I came to Vietnam and now my bones are buried somewhere in this godforsaken land. My bed fits her just right. Chi Lan. I can say her name with ease. But many Vietnamese names are harder to say.
I left America on September 25th, 1966, and have been in Nam twelve months and twenty days. Many of us here are my age or younger. We are young men in body but aged in the soul. Today we had a death in our company. His death took something away from me, Mama. Combat deaths often make me hollow inside and saddened.
I can’t help thinking about the time I was two when you put me in that bed, first with Papa, then by myself. Papa told me he missed the closeness between father and son. So every night he would tuck me in, turn off the light, and lie down beside me. In the dark, Papa would tell me stories about growing up in Georgetown, a few alleys away from a Black neighborhood named Cherry Hill. People there had no indoor electricity or plumbing.
“The reason I’m telling you this,” Papa said, “is so you’ll remember that there’s poverty in the world. There are people not nearly so fortunate as we are. I don’t want you to take anything for granted. Your grandma worked sixty hours a week and took home a dozen shirts to sew on Sunday and earned a pittance. And the sweatshop owner still threatened to fire her and her friends and bring in the Chinese. The Chinese were willing to work for thirty dollars a month. She raised me, put me through college. A cup of coffee and a loaf of bread was all she ate the whole day, and she ate that every day of her working life.”
“Why didn’t she live with you and Mama?” I asked.
“Would’ve been too far for her. She thought she needed to work. Grandma was only fifty when she died.”
“Did Grandma tell you stories at night when you were a child?”
“She was too tired by the time she got home.”
“What happened to Grandpa?”
“He was a soldier. Then in June 1918, when I was just born, his outfit attacked the Germans in Belleau Wood to stop them from taking Paris, and he was killed.”
I was in high school when Papa came back from Nam, though he never talked about it. I knew only what you told me—about his CIA service, and his time in the Green Berets before they came under the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. I knew nothing about the MACV until I went to Officer Candidate School. They trained the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to defend South Vietnam against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese communists. Later on, I learned the MACV carried out a covert operation, Operation Phoenix—to neutralize Viet Cong suspects outside judicial controls, and kill every active Viet Cong cadre and South Vietnamese collaborator. He wasn’t the same man, you said to me, after he came back. Mama, I can’t recall what he was like before he left. He was a reticent man. Even with you, Mama. But he became even more distant. How quickly things fell apart for you and him. You were forty-one then, I remember.
One night I kept tossing and turning. Papa said, “What’s wrong?”
“Why can’t I sleep with Mama?”
“Mama goes to bed late.”
“I don’t mind.”
Papa sighed. “She has insomnia. She needs rest.”
You had insomnia, Mama, during your pregnancy. You could sleep only after a glass of wine. The insomnia got worse after the childbirth. You couldn’t sleep at night. The piano you played downstairs would wake Papa in bed. Go to sleep, baby child, Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry. When you wake, you shall have, All the pretty little horses.
Papa worried about biochemical imbalances in the brain. The doctors suggested a lamp with a bluish luminosity. Rainy days and wintry weather made Papa fret. Did she have enough light? Would she stay balanced? He grew accustomed to seeing the lamp glowing blue, and still there was too much darkness.
When I was a first grader, you and Papa wanted to put me in second grade. But the school didn’t accommodate advanced students. The principal convinced you that the child still needed to develop social skills, because intelligence and maturity went hand in hand. The principal said she was pleased to have me in her school. Then, noting my bony legs, she mentioned the school’s outstanding physical education program.
I rode the school bus every day. One evening Papa came home and found a note from the bus driver—it said I’d pushed a girl in the back on the bus steps. She scraped her knees and hands when she fell. She was the principal’s daughter. Papa sat me down on the couch after dinner and asked me about the incident. I said the girl called me stupid.
“You must’ve done something to her,” Papa said. “She wouldn’t call you names for no reason.”
“I didn’t give her the seat she always sat in,” I said. “She said it was her seat.”
Papa squeezed my hand. “You don’t push anyone in the back like that. It’s uncalled for, it’s dangerous.”
“But I didn’t push her. A kid behind me did.”
“Nicola!” Papa glared at me. “Don’t lie!”
“You don’t trust me.”
“I do trust you, Nicola.”
Papa scribbled a note and put it in my hand. “I want you to give this to the bus driver. I want you to apologize to that girl, you hear?”
Papa hated disorderly conduct. He thought everything would be all right once I said I was sorry.
The next afternoon, I came home with a note from the bus driver.
Papa dropped the note and bent down to my face. “I’m ashamed of what you did, Nicola. Why didn’t you tell her you were sorry?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong! I didn’t push her.”
“Enough!” He grabbed me by the shoulder. “Say you’re sorry and go up to your room.”
“I won’t say it.”
“Go to the basement and stay down there until you do.”
I went to the basement and shut the door. Papa made himself a sandwich and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. It was getting dark. After eating the sandwich Papa came down to the basement. I sat in the dark, cradling my head between my drawn-up knees.
“Stand up!” he said.
I tried, but my legs gave way under me. Papa grabbed me by the collar, yanked me up. “Have you come to your senses?”
I didn’t answer him.
“I want to hear it.”
I stood, tucking my chin against my chest.
“You know why you’re down here, so let’s hear it.”
In a small voice I said, “I think I wet my pants.”
Papa felt the seat of my pants. “Say you’re sorry, then go up and change.”
“I can’t say I’m sorry. I didn’t do it.”
I sat back down, covering my head with my hands.
“Go upstairs! Wash up!”
I went upstairs, washed, and ate dinner. That night in my sleep I saw Papa standing in the doorway like a blanched photograph. I cried, “Papa, I didn’t do anything wrong!” When I woke I heard the piano downstairs.
I climbed out of bed, padded barefoot downstairs, and stood quietly at the foot of the stairs. A night-light as dim and soft as a low-burning candle lit the living room. At the piano, you were singing, Go to sleep, baby child, Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry. When you wake, you shall have, All the pretty little horses. When you stopped, I went to you. Half turned, you saw me and pulled me to your bosom.
“What happened, baby?” you asked hoarsely.
“Nothing,” I said, pressing my cheek against your warm chest.
“Did Mama wake you?”
“Why don’t you go to bed?”
“I’m not sleepy, hon.”
You kissed me on the cheek, and on your breath, I smelled the sweet odor of brandy. I put my arms around you and closed my eyes. I felt not sleepy but dreamy in your softness and warmth.
“Can I sleep with you?”
“I go to bed very late, hon.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“You know you have to get up for school early in the morning, don’t you?”
I peeked at you with one eye. “You won’t wake me up when you come in. Papa never wakes me up. So can I?”
“I’m used to sleeping alone, hon.” Then you looked down at me and gently laid my head in your lap. “I need a drink or two,” you said, “before I go to bed. That helps me sleep.”
“Will you ever be cured?”
“Listen, it’s late. Go on back to bed.” Then you glided your fingers across the keyboard. The sound rippled merrily.
“Can I stay here with you?”
You knitted your brows. “What for?”
“I just want to be with you.”
“I don’t want you to be tired in the morning.”
You lifted my head from your lap, and I knew I shouldn’t insist. You’d get upset.
I went back to my bed and soon I slept to the sound of the piano. Mama, I saw Chi Lan in a white dress sitting by a canal in the Plain of Reeds. She was as cute as a hamster. I know she could only speak English and not many words in Vietnamese since you adopted her as a child. But I heard her voice, Mama. Her voice was Vietnamese. She has serene eyes, elongated and pretty. This orphan child, having been displaced to grow up into a beautiful girl, who exudes liveliness and consideration. Why a Vietnamese adopted child? Did this somehow allow you to hold on to the memory of me, your lost son?
When I woke in the dark, I sat up, looking at the blurred white of the bedroom door, beyond it the hallway and your bedroom. As quietly as I could, I gathered my pillow in my arms and crawled out of bed. The floor creaked as I tiptoed from the room. The smell of brandy hung in the air. Light from the front porch gleamed on the white curtains. The breeze carried in the earth-dry smell of grass. Afraid to wake you, I lay down at the foot of the bed next to your feet under the bedcover. I watched the curtains rise and fall in the breeze, listened to the dry sounds of autumn leaves on the lawn, and no longer feeling the tugging at my heart, I slept.
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize, Many Voices Project, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, The University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize, twice finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, the recipient of The Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, the Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction, The William Faulkner Literary Competition, The Orison Anthology Award for Fiction, and The C & R Press Fiction Prize. His new novel, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream, was named Best New Book by Booklist and a 2019 Foreword Reviews INDIES Silver Winner and Bronze Winner.