Kabul / Saigon

the Hand

I have to press the skip button on the news feeds, now that every other story is about collaborators and sympathizers fleeing the Taliban.

In my story, our story, the handprint in my brain as permanent as Mount Rushmore, it was the communists.

When William was still in the air force, Janie once cried in frustration, “Why can’t Uncle Sam just drop a bomb? That bomb won us the war against the communists in Japan!” But she hadn’t said anything like that in a few years, since 1972, when William went to work for a defense contractor. They sent him back to Vietnam and sent the checks to her.

He took up so much space in our little house. He filled the entire top third of the airspace with smoke from pack after pack of Cool Menthols. There was no place to escape, nowhere I could find air.

He sat barefoot, clad in boxer shorts and a clean white t-shirt. He sat like a mountain in the big red chair that none of us could comfortably sit in, it was so big with its pristine red cushions. I thought that chair was just for show. But he sat on it in front of the window. The NM light beamed across his giant shoulder onto the typewriter sandwiched between coffee mug and party-sized glass ashtray on one side and the big red phone on the other, its cord dragged and tangled all the way across the green shag carpet from the master bedroom.

The three of us had rules in that little house, our house of three girls/women, not one of us bigger than a petite size 5. Janie guarded the phone. It lived on the pink night table next to her canopied bed, and that was where it was required to be returned and to stay after 9:30pm. Its 20’ cord, that could reach anywhere in the house, I wadded up in the corner next to the French Provencial dresser each night as part of the bedding down process, an hour before the cold cream make-up removal ritual. The rest of the time that phone was mine, the receiver in my left hand the big chunk of it in my right, that damn cord snagging on every damn thing as I walked from my bedroom to the kitchen or across the living room and out the front door to the porch, when I really needed privacy. Privacy was short work as I had no place to sit out there but the dusty concrete.

But now, the connection to my world sat in front of William, the receiver cradled between his ear and massive shoulder. It didn’t matter anymore. I had to get out of there. His voice took up as much space as his cigarette smoke.

“We need to help these people. We couldn’t have done our jobs over there if they hadn’t stepped up and helped us.”

“What can we do?” He boomed back against this stupid question, “We can get the public behind this mission. Regular civilians need to sponsor refugee families. Business owners need to hire these people, they are hard workers.”

He looked at his watch, his eyes squinted against a column of smoke as he took a drag on the cigarette in his other hand.

He ran a finger over a wet eye as he exhaled. “Yes, I’ll talk to him, send him over in 30 minutes.”

I hoped he remembered to put some pants on. He was a mess. I’d never seen him this agitated. Ever since he arrived at the big airport in Albuquerque, three days ago. Ever since we drove him hours across the desert to “our” little home, the one we comfortably fit in without him, he sat there in the big red chair, banging away on the typewriter. He was there when I went to bed and there when I got up in the morning, writing to officials from the city government all the way up to the president.

“We have to help them. We have to get them out of there!”

At this point, I was confused and numb. The only Vietnamese person I cared about was sitting on the couch, just trying to be close to her daddy. None of us needed anything as much as we needed him to lean back, open his arms and let all three of us climb into his big lap.

He had been away 9 months, this time, and he might as well still be there. I had written, “Yay, Daddy’s home!” in pink nail polish on the underside of the toilet seat and he hadn’t even mentioned it.

How could Ann sit there so still? Every time I paced through the living room, on my never-ending quests from the bedroom to the kitchen, there she was on the couch, skinny little brown legs stretched out, nothing moving but her sandal-clad foot, waving side to side like a metronome, like a cast-away waving at the big boat still hoping it might somehow see her from across this big ocean of…what? What the hell was this?

I was leaving, I picked up my leather fringed purse. Keys in my hand, I kissed his craggy cheek on the way out the door.

“Goodbye princess,” he said, never looking away from the typewriter.

Later, I sat on the stone wall surrounding the park with my best friend, Sherry. I wet my finger with a little spit and dabbed it on the runner that was threatening to split the joint we were smoking right in half. God bless her, Sherry couldn’t roll a decent joint to save her life.

“Well, at least he’s home now. You can tell him and maybe he can finally get your mom off your back.”

I didn’t know where to start to tell her. No, I didn’t even possess the words to tell her, she had absolutely not the slightest grasp of what was going on at my house. How could she? I didn’t.

“There’s Eddy,” she said, her spirit lightening. She sat up straight and ran her hand through her hair. “Who is that with him?” she asked waving at two boys barely visible on the other side of the park.

“Everybody I know has cable,” I mused out loud. “None of them watch the local news. I wouldn’t, if I had cable.”

When I caught the tail end of the news piece the next day, I was relieved to see he was wearing a nice sports shirt, at least. And instead of a crazed obsessive on the verge of some sort of breakdown, he sounded strong and important.

Every day for the next two weeks somebody came up to me in the hall, between classes, “I saw your dad on TV,” their tones varied from concern, to indifference, to scorn.

For days Janie acted just like the cat. She skulked in the background, a lit fuse following her around like the cord on my telephone.

Before the fighting began, she told me something. I had become her confidant in the months before he came home. She told me things then, too. She wasn’t supposed to tell me things like that. Even I knew it was wrong. But it made me feel something that was better than the terrible powerlessness I felt before, while we tried to avoid the scenes of war every night on the TV.

“I think there’s another woman,” she had told me in those anxious weeks before he came home.

 I sort of knew that. And I knew there had been many before this one. He was like that, like the kind of man that flirted with me, a 15 year old girl.

But what 15 year old girl didn’t want to be on someone’s side? Yes, I wanted to be a warrior on the side of virtue, even if the evil was my own father…I think. The same way I wanted to be declared the most desirable, even if it was by Coach Jamison, who taught social studies to freshman.

But the secret she told me after he got back was so much worse than all the secrets she told me before.

She told me this secret after he got back to the USA but before their fighting began.

Before I ran away from home that spring.

Before he and Sherry’s daddy drove 200 miles to pick us up from a juvenile detention center in west Texas.

Before he drove all the way to camp Pendleton to pick up two refugees who barely made it out of Saigon alive, (a woman who worked in his office and her teenage daughter).

Before he stayed at Camp Pendleton, week after extending week, offering up vague reasons why they couldn’t leave yet.

Before he brought them to our house, then changed his mind and drove into the night with them, leaving a heartbroken Ann crying alone on the sidewalk.

Before we found out the refugee was more to him than just a beautiful woman who worked in his office in Saigon.

Before Janie had an emotional breakdown, leaving me as the only parent in the house.

Before Janie made me promise, “Don’t tell anyone!”

Before I graduated from HS at 16 years old.

Before the boyfriend Janie hated and his older sister (who kindly folded me into her posse of intravenous heroin users.)

Before I decided I couldn’t abandon Janie and Ann (and the boyfriend) by leaving for college.

Before Janie was served papers asking for a divorce.

Before I drove through the night to their last known address and confronted him, then drove back home with the heartsick knowledge that he was never coming back to us.

Before the loser boyfriend’s sister looked into my exhausted yellow eyes and said, “Little Sister, you got hep!” and laughed so hard I thought she would fall out of the car.

Yes, before all that happened, Janie pulled me out of that smokey house onto the driveway and whispered, “when the Vietcong invaded the city, they found his young friend, Hue, who typed in his office…” she broke, then, to gasp back a sob, “when they found out she worked for the Americans they cut off her hand.”

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