If you don't get killed, you'll be fine
(January 30, 1968 Saigon time)
On the day before Tet, Tran Van De prayed to the dead of his family, the many centuries dead and the newly dead, with an intensity he had not for many years. Then he drove the Embassy car five blocks to the auto shop on Phan Thanh Gian Street. Mme. Phe was out back, talking to Bay Tuyen and another man. He waved to them, called out to her in English, “Fill er up,” and borrowed a Honda scooter by the yellow door; faster maneuvering through traffic, and no unwanted attention. In the New Market people browsed heaps of fresh vegetables, selecting fresh zong leaves. His mother would be cooking banh chung. There were more dusty Hondas like his than usual in-city and fewer soldiers. More Hondas, fewer Saigon soldiers, the small significant signs. He arrived at the shop at De Tham and Tran Hung Dao Streets at 8 sharp as the elder Ameen unlocked the door from inside. De’s reflection from without superimposed itself for a moment on the Indian man within, then the door opened and there was only Ameen, perfectly neat, perfectly on time.
“Welcome, De,” he said, and stepped aside. “A creative Tet to you.” Already, the testing use of the unexpected word. “Your family is well?”
“As always, thank you.” De hated the smell of Indian incense, had never dared ask if Ameen disliked the incenses of Vietnam. An interesting cultural question not worth bringing up. He laid two packets of American Express checques, a bank deposit receipt, and a brick of Military Payment Certificates on the counter. Ameen checked the amounts, made no remark as to the amount of money involved, not high for a commercial transaction, but high for De, even on Embassy paydays, when he handled transformations of certain paychecks at the black market rate, or special days about which nothing was said, but this was so much greater than normal and Ameen the elder was so silent in gesture that De took notice, filed it for future reference, if there were a future.
If there were a future. De, you have fallen into American despair.
“Mr. De,” Ameen said, stacking bundles of piastres, “There has been an incident on the docks.” Stacking green fifties.
“Of what kind?”
“A Conex of MVPs.”
“When did this happen?”
“An entire Conex. Two days ago.”
“That’s a big deal.”
Ameen stopped his hands from stacking, clasped them. “I thought,” he said, “that you at the [a glottal click at the roof of his mouth] Embassy might have news.”
“I am but a poor”
“Chauffeur.” Ameen usually let him finish his ritual disclaimer. Not today. “Whoever has that Conex commands respect. The exchange rate would reflect that respect.”
“I’ll bet it’s in Cholon by now. The Chinese.”
“Yes, the Chinese. Should the [tongue-tick] Embassy wish, we have adequate channels.”
“That’s a shitload of money,” De said, referring either to the missing one-ton container of American military cash or to the money now pushed into his beaten leather satchel.
“Indeed. Have a constructive Tet.” Again the odd adjective. How dialectical of Ameen, the generous offer and threat, the intimation of knowledge and admission of ignorance in a single phrase. “There are more than the usual fireworks, it seems,” Ameen added.
“One might stay indoors. Thank you, Ameen.” De entered the street. Did he owe a useful millionaire a warning? He had given away nothing.
The day was bright. He sat on his Honda. A woman in an iridescent ao dai came from the shadows, crossed the sidewalk in front of him, a woman of such beauty he ached. He watched her across the street. His bones hurt. The sky was created to light her face. He might never sleep again, it occurred to him. Will all Saigon be like her someday? What a romantic thought. You are becoming American, De. Under this monument of trash is there an ancient Saigon to rise purified? Tomorrow there would be less of Saigon and more. Dialectics again. Well, it was a day for opposites. Elegance and terror. She walks in beauty like the night. There you go. The chamber of my heart trained and owned by the Americans. I should think, A girl so rare, of beauty by which citadels are stormed. He kicked the scooter into rasping life, jerked onto the street, got cursed by a pedicab driver, told him to fuck off in street Khmer.
Near Philco-Ford he pulled into an alley, not too far in, behind a pile of garbage taller than himself, the smell so strong it was like noise. A pallet of crushed cases of mayonnaise, Hellman’s Mayonnaise, leaking and festered. Mayonnaise, of course; someday perhaps a Saigon without. One revolution, please, hold the mayo. He transferred two bundles of piastres from the satchel to his pants pockets, smoothed his shirt out over the lumps. He figured by rough calculation they equalled the additional amount created (value added, that was the phrase) by the slightly higher exchange rate Ameen had used, no doubt to encourage De in the matter of the missing MPCs. A Conex-full. Boggles the math. Two Cowboys entered 20 feet away from a hidden door. De twisted the scooter around, gunned it out of the alley. Let’s avoid that irony, getting heisted the day before. It is by rich accident I have lived this long.
He asked for Minh at the Philco-Ford motor pool guard house. The guard said he’d been called away and would return ‘soon,’ which meant anything. De sat in the cab of the nearest truck, where he could keep an eye on the guard, whom he did not know, and smoked a cigarette. The sky was too large, too full of expanded possibilities. Brack and rot flowed from the river. A tune was in his head, had been all morning, like an odor you barely notice. Da da dee duuum. What was it? Da da dee duuum. Can’t buy me luuuv. The fuckin Beatles. Everybody tells me so. Lien and the kids: if they don’t get killed they’ll be fine. If they don’t get killed they’ll be fine. There’s a slogan. He imagined a red banner with gold letters flapping across Tuu Do Street: If you don’t get killed, you’ll be fine. Love, De. He rewrote the banner in his mind several times, once signed it Happy New Year, Uncle Ho.
He was not watchful; he missed Minh’s arrival at the gate, felt the step and sway on the passenger side of the truck, turned toward the man’s lean face as he opened the door. Minh slid in, gripped De’s right shoulder, smiled.
“I did not mean to make you wait,” Minh said. “We’re all busy.”
“Only a minute. I was daydreaming.” De pushed the satchel across the seat to Minh, who had placed a briefcase on the floor, a new one, like American executives carried.
“A day for daydreaming, if one has finished one’s business.” Minh tended toward quiet hectoring, older brother style. He unlocked the briefcase with the tips of his sandles, flicked it open, pulled the bundles of cash one by one from De’s satchel, dropped them into the briefcase in neat rows. On his last reach inside he said, “Ah,” and removed his hand. Must have touched the Browning at the bottom of the satchel. “Seems right,” he said, clicked the briefcase shut with his toes.
De had never seen him take notes or count bills. He keeps it all in his head. Real quartermaster skill.
“You don’t think they’ll kill the horses,” said De, as Minh leaned toward the door to leave.
“I thought you sold yours.”
“But they’re at the track.”
“You’re nervous, old De.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“This is the greatest moment in a thousand years,” said the younger man. “But if the Americans bomb the racetrack, I can’t vouch for your horses.” Minh was not the man to come to for certain reassurances. De felt his horses were doomed. He saw them screaming, burning. A gust of diesel fuel blew in at the truck window. Minh looked back at him through the open door. “This Spring far outshines the previous Springs,” he recited, “Of victories throughout the land come happy tidings,” and flipped a quick salute, an imitation of American nonchalance.
De nodded back. Thanks. Quote Ho to me. I need that. And yet, as he walked back to his scooter he thought there was something un-Minh like in the gesture, a covering-over of disquiet, an intimation of what.
Traffic was jammed on Tuu Do Street. De slipped the Honda into the gutter, then was squeezed between a parked car and a black government limousine. Who was inside the smoked bulletproof glass? Vietnamese? American? They ran without insignia flags these days even in the haven of Saigon, since persons unknown rolled a grenade under Thieu’s limo a while back; now fly-boy Ky takes a helicopter the quarter-mile from his home to the Palace to avoid such inconvenience. The jetblack car, freshly washed, exuded authority, normalcy, exhaust. No one stared at it except De, stuck beside its right rear fender. Westmoreland himself? He heaved the scooter onto the sidewalk before a flower shop, kicked the stand down, drawn by the burst of flowers behind glass, spilling from pot to pot through the doorway to the street. In the door, petal-coolness and drunken jasmine perfume washed away the rot of the street. He moved to the window, stared through at a bowl of red flowers like lewd enamelled tongues, watched, behind him and behind the flowers, the reflected limousine pull away toward wherever its encapsulated passenger would be tommorrow, what office, villa, bunker, fate. He wished the driver well.
Like a shot in the back.
What American woman knows me here?
Her blond hair reflected in the glass against bronze red bouganvilla — quick, make the association hair voice accent. He turned, changing personas, toward.
Sylvia, young grey-eyed recent arrival to the classified teletype room, not stupid by half — yes, it was her — adventurous, which brought her here where she should not be, calling his name too suddenly. And her last name is.
“Miss Peterson,” said De. “Mademoiselle.” They loved the French thing. A tip of the head. “How pleasing to see you.” She wore her hair in a ponytail, not dressed for the office.
“Got the day off?” she asked. Her hands clasped her purse as instructed by the printed guidelines for American personnel in Saigon.
“Shopping for Tet,” said De and nodded toward the florist’s as proof. “And you?”
“Free as a bird. I went to the New Market and then caught a pedicab down here. On a whim.”
On a whim. To explain why she showed up here in a part of town Americans normally avoid. What to do with Miss Peterson. If she was what she seemed, which it was prudent to assume for the time being, she would expect attention from him, to guide her somewhere, a special store known only to the natives, a black market money exchanger, a drink even. She was a G-something and he a mere Vietnamese, but he held experiential seniority. Seventeen years a driver at the Embassy, a savvy Saigonese, she may even know about the race horses, the women talk so, and his role of cooperative, slightly corrupt man-about-town, was appreciated. And she, six months in country, twenty years younger, from where? Ah, Minneapolis. Any other day he would have gladly. An opportunity to delve. He shifted the satchel from one hand to the other using the motion to check his watch. There was time.
“You look nice in your gown,” he said of her blouse and skirt. They appreciate the slightly-wrong English word, the touch off, the language glitch. English is what Americans know better than we. The only. To appear to try to speak flawless English and fail. They love it, they who can barely say the word Vietnam and not have it come out sitting-down-duck off the botched inflection.
“Thank you.” She curtsied. Sign of nervousness. “I’m not familiar with this area of the city,” she said. Here it comes. “I thought you might know a nice tea room, somewhere I could sit. You know.”
“Of course, Miss Peterson.” A tea room a chauffeur would believe is fancy. Nearby, so as not to waste time. Stall.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a car. Only.” He patted the Honda.
“That’d be fun.” The native thing to do.
“I know just the place.” De sat, patted the worn cushion behind him. “All aboard, please, Miss Peterson.” And they were off, her arms around his chest. She thinks she’s Audrey Hepburn in Paris.
At the entrance she asked:
“What does Bao Dai mean?”
“Just a name,” said De. He led her to a table near the door. But if she knows, then she knows I should know. “A former emperor. A famous man,” a traitor who never met a foreign invader whose dick he wouldn’t suck. We’ll leave that for a later lesson, Miss Peterson.
“You know so much,” she said.
What did that mean?
A burst of fireworks on the street. They both jumped.
“Fireworks,” they said at the same time. De signaled a waitress.
“Is it true,” asked Miss Peterson, “that you own racehorses? That’s the gossip.”
“I have. Raise and sell. A few. All sold now.”
“You race them?”
“Sometimes at Phu Tho. Not very successfully.” They ordered tea.
“That just goes to show,” she said. “We always say, you know, Banjo is far too smart.” She pronounced it smaht. “Just to be a driver. I mean a chauffeur.”
“I lack ambition,” De said. “My, how do you say, hobbies, are in other places.” He felt he was losing touch with the outer self who spoke faulty English, bred race horses, speculated in currency, and was called Banjo by his fellow Amurricans. A glistening hate welled up in the Vietnamese sector of his heart demanding that he speak perfect English in, say, a flawless Brooklyn accent.
“We always kid among ourselves, Banjo must be a Viet Cong,” said Miss Peterson, and giggled.
De veered his look of surprise into one of mock astonishment, wide-eyed and boggled. He hoped she had not seen the transition.
“And who says that?” he asked, as if the gossip were that he was a bigamist, which he was.
She squinted and blinked, which he hoped meant she recognized that such a statement as hers, in public, in a war, among the people at war, even in jest, might have unintended, lethal consequences. If not, she was either an intelligence agent or a round-eyed cunt too stupid to breathe.
“Of course we never!”
“I hope not.” Faux-wounded, so not as to suggest he had taken her statement seriously.
“Oh, Banjo. You’re more American than the Americans. Everybody says that.”
“San Francisco,” said De. “That’s your most beautiful city, is it not?” Hinting at hurt feelings, but not overmuch.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.” Embassy personnel had been issued printed instructions admonishing them not to act loudly, insult or convey the appearance of disrespect toward the natives during Tet. Rest of the year, ok.
“I understand,” he said. “But really, I do often wonder how Vietnam looks from there.”
“Silly, you can’t see it from.”
She is an idiot.
“Oh, you mean socially, politically. I think it’s full of hippies and people who don’t understand what we’re, what you’re, the war I mean, doing over here.”
“And you, Miss Peterson, you know what we’re doing over here?”
“No, I don’t. I could be working for Coca Cola for all I know. And whenever I ask I get looks that say it’s none of my business. If you’re in a war, it shouldn’t seem prying to ask what it’s all about. If this was World War II, someone’d explain it to me. I went out for a drink, just a drink.” She blushed. She’s not an agent. “With a reporter from CBS. He went on about historic enmities between the Annamese and the Chinese.”
“That’s them. I know Cholon is full of Chinese. Are those the same ones and what does it have to do with the war?”
“Next time you see your correspondent,” said De, “ask him how Cochin China’s doing in the war.” And on that note of puzzlement I take my leave. “I’m afraid I must run away,” he said. “My wife,” He almost said my wives; his concentration flickered. “insists I carry out all my Tetly chores.”
“Tetly,” she said. “You’re really clever. You’re sure you’re not an American disguised as Vietnamese.”
“Oh no, Miss Peterson,” said De. “I assure you I harbor all the appropriate ancient enmities.”
He gave her directions to a souvenir shop absolutely no Americans know about and headed through thickened crackling streets for some Japanese pornography to send to his cousin in Bien Hoa, who was too timid to buy it on his own. That done, he pulled out of traffic, stopped on the curb. The skin of his torso seemed bound in a fine electric mesh and his eyes ached as if thumbs were pressed into them. I need perspective, he thought. I’m losing, what? The Caravelle Hotel was at the end of the block. I need airconditioning. The Indian doorman, who was related to the Ameens in some way, greeted him familiarly, De brushed by the fresh Tet bush in the entrance, entered the lobby, inhaled the hit of airconditioning. Ah, dialectics. I come here for normalcy, the normalcy of American journalists lounging on chairs and sofas watching U.S. Armed Forces TV, and to breathe chilled air. The roof, that’s where. He climbed the stairs, came out on the broad expanse of Landing Zone Caravelle, where the rich watch the war. Not today, there is no war. The heat and firecrackers of Saigon reached him, diminuendo. He surveyed the river, as crowded with boats as the streets with vehicles, stared greedily at the city. I’ve come to say goodbye. I lack faith. I want the sun to go down, I don’t want the sun to go down, I want the sun to go down, I don’t want the sun to go down.
What now? It was whatsisname Greene from the Chicago paper, holding a drink, drenching his foreign correspondent’s tiger-hunting outfit with sweat.
“Mr. Greene, bon soir.”
“Paying your respects?”
“To the dead Saigon that is no more.” Greene was an Old Vietnam Hand, briny and watchful. De had driven him home from Embassy parties, propped him against the apartment archway, opened the door for him, led him to the couch, let him expire.
“Did you know that our fair city leads the world in cholera and bubonic plague?” said Greene.
“I did not.”
“That’s what they’ve done to it, the Americans,” said the American. “Used to be a nice French town, not beautiful like Hanoi, but nice. Don’t see you up here much.”
“It’s a Tet sort of thing,” said De.
“Right then.” Greene looked sceptical. “I’ll freshen this up.” He left De alone to the heat and bubonic plague. De looked toward the shining curl of the Dong Nai River, rotated slowly on one foot until he faced the Embassy, excrescent, in the opposite direction.
The city below him oscillated. He blinked to undo the dizziness, the pop of fireworks seemed inside his ears rather than on the streets, he braced himself, leaned outward, but the fluctuation was unphysical. He saw two Saigons, intermittantly. First the city of absolute realism in which cars went here, ships went there, people walked in directions of the compass, governments decided upon courses of action, blackmarketeers set prices, military operations were planned; a city of reports, councils, wages and funds, ratios of combat to logistical personnel, management. An explanation for everything, the tiling of facts into patterns, somewhere a professor was analyzing patterns of consumption and distribution in a book, a lecture based on ledgers whose early pages were written in 18th century foreign inks. Analysts, purveyors, brokers, units. There were units of currency, action, decisions that flowed from cash registers and personal accountancies, ledgers, records, microfilm, filing cards, indexes, certificates, warrants, vouchers, now American computers chock with data; each action (purchasing lilies) caused another action (bank deposit, ordering of more lilies from the wholesaler), caused another (planting of bulbs, purchasing of land), caused another (let’s have a baby we can afford it), caused another (birth of baby boy), caused another (add a room to the house) and it was all, if not exactly able to be explained, at least accounted, recorded, understood, this interaction of units of money, desire, decision, motion, and if something failed (the store owner died suddenly of a heart attack), the units adjusted so the world was minimally disturbed (the wife took over, a woman hired to run the store), everywhere adjustments perpetuated the system that made adjustments necessary and possible, of which death was one adjustment, a minus unit, balanced with a plus. They adjust for a war, reconciling deaths and profits, converting a war against Tran Van De into the comfort of Tran Van De. The fist of piastres in his pocket pressed against his ass.
There existed, however, no tuning button for the pain. The pain stayed unaccountable, unadjustable. There were no units of pain, no ability to say I feel 3 less sorrowful today, 2 more pain, but 1 less terrorized.
And thinking that, the other Saigon appeared behind the architecture and the balance sheets, as if the pedicabs, Canh Sat kiosks, hotel edifices, shacks, bougainvillea, and transactions were metaphysical concepts, tricks of the imagination, manifestations not of a system at all but a vast indivisible emotion of humans and animals alike, accidents, crazed children, why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life? His horses would gallop in panic in front of the machine guns, into bursts of RPGs, or worse, burn. The bars of the Tiger Cages were not physical, only the pain inside the bones inside, only the roasted nerves were real, not the jellied gasoline, only the shock, not the bamboo in the rectum, only the blank hysterical despair, not the bulldozers and the chemicals, only the humiliation, not the dick before the face. To record the oppressors’ crimes all the bamboos of the Southern Mountain would not suffice; all the water of the Eastern Sea could not clean away the filth.
The pendulum swung. The race track, too far to see from the hotel, was again a place of pure transaction, measured distances, geometrically oval track, tickets that corresponded to fastest times and torn tickets that did not, units of betting, clockworks, odds, ratios, froth and sweat, horse-histories catalogued on racing sheets, and chance no chance at all but a statistical curve beautiful to see, a mathematical construct over time of the ratio of the bettor to the house. If it were chance, how would the track survive? Who would pay if the house lost? The house never loses, the house is built on the rock of statistically permanent rate of return. The house of chance leaves nothing to chance.
The pendulum swung. The racetrack ceased to exist. Horses snorted fear, threw their heads sideways, haunches trembling, galloped burning, the flames not real, only the perception of the flames, the horses ran, beautiful and breakable, like fine china before a shotgun blast, hocks snapped, leg bones cracked, the seared flesh not real, only the belief that their pain, buried alive, was unending. Manes afire, they ran into the machineguns, tripped Claymore mines, crackled, whinnied, screamed.
Tran Van De, in need of an airconditioned drink, went downstairs, pulled two hundred-piaster notes from his roll, ordered Johnny Walker Red, soda back, extra ice.
His purchases made and delivered, his small notebook tossed into a can of burning trash, his memory tidied of loose ends, he pulled into Mme. Phe’s garage, nodded to two young men working on the Peugeot truck, checked the trunk of the Embassy car. One of the two battalion leaders, Ut Nho, was in the kitchen. No, he said, in answer to De’s question, there was no withdrawal plan. If all went well, Ut hoped for reinforcements but if not, not. Polite, even deferential, he still made De feel corruptly urban. But I am corruptly urban, so he’s right. The sapper’s hands were dry and warm, his were cool and wet. He accepted tea. They made small talk. Once “if not, not” had been said, there was scant else to say. The other details had been long memorized. No one would share a doubt. He left at 9:30, drove the black car into the warm night, a languid erotic poem punctuated with fireworks. There was nothing else to do, nothing else to do. He passed the 1st Precinct headquarters a block from the Embassy; the white mice would be no problem; Crazy Bat, the one they wouldn’t issue a pistol to, he was so unstable, was actually ‘on guard’ outside the kiosk by the side gate, chewing gum and looking at something on the sidewalk or on his nose. The two Marine MPs, Dast and Sebring, stood at the steel side gate. De leaned out the window, smiled. Dast, who peered in, was not half bad.
“What’s up, Banjo.”
“You know me, a rockin and a rollin,” said De. That always got em. They would not search the trunk, they never had. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. Got an extra guy on the roof.” Dast nodded toward the helicopter pad on the Chancery roof, six floors up.
“See you in the morning,” said De. Then he added for reasons unknown to himself, perhaps prompted by the chamber of his heart that was occupied territory, “keep your eyes open, boys.”
Private Dast hit the switch that rolled up the steel bars of the gate, stepped back to let the limousine sweep by.