created by john shannon


Copyright © John Shannon, 2000

For several years now, an unforeseen premonition of death had been ambushing him out of the blue--a sudden sense as he drove toward an appointment that it was a shame the person he was meeting would sit there waiting for hours and not know he had died on the way. But this feeling was a little more concrete, tied to real memories, and just to nail it down, a V of four Marine F/A-18 jet fighters came over low, booming all of a sudden on the air.

There was a peculiar impression of safety in the immediate area of his car, maybe just the familiarity of the Concord or a promise of quick getaway, and it was hard to force himself to walk away from the car up into this other world. The first sing-songy voices he heard sent his palms clammy and then the smells--sesame oil, mint and that fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam.

He strolled rigidly through the crowds, past an older woman in an ao dai and younger ones wearing jeans with beautiful features that were perfectly symmetrical in their small faces, a thin old man in an outsized homburg, teen-agers with their hair cut into extreme fades who offered him the same sleepy contemptuous eyes as the cowboys--pronounced cowboys with a lilt--who’d haunted Tu Do Street a generation earlier, and he thought, If I stick around long enough, I’ll find the guy who stole my watch. It had been done from the back of a motor scooter, snipped right off his wrist as they gunned past with a proficient bite of something like a bolt cutter. It was a mean thought, but he knew damn well that a lot of the refugees who’d come over in the first wave were the same people, by and large, who’d fed off the American troops in Saigon.

He found the East-West Bookstore between the Viet My Bakery and Bao Tram Cosmetics. Paperbacks on shelf after shelf were as brightly colored as the storefronts. There were two dozen newspapers, scores of magazines, even girlie magazines. All the titles were in Vietnamese, except for two wire racks out in the middle of the store with romance novels and self-help books and a few classics. A distinguished looking man in an open-necked blue shirt watched him from the glass counter. His temples were just beginning to gray.

Ong Minh?” Jack Liffey asked.

The man smiled tightly and Jack Liffey got what he deserved for showing off, a flood of Vietnamese washing back over him.

Xin loi. I’m sorry. I only remember a few words.”

“It’s not an inflected language,” the man said didactically. He spoke with an almost mincing precision and a strong trace of a British accent. “You cannot make a question by changing your tone. More likely, it will change the meaning completely. You might set out to say, Do you think it will rain? and end up saying, I want to eat your elbows.” His voice shifted gear. “Yes, I am Mr. Minh. Ong Liffey.”

“Pleased to meet you.” The man shook hands with that unnerving limp grip Asians used.

“Let me close up here and buy you a cup of coffee.”


Minh Trac did something beneath the counter, locked up the register and led him along the lane of mini-mall shops into the covered mall proper where Asian pop music was blaring away, a cover of some American tune he vaguely recognized. The white plastic bucket chairs from a pho shop spilled out into the atrium, facing a record shop, a dress emporium and a gridded-shut jewelry store. A group of middle-aged women with shopping bags sat and laughed and gossiped, and toward the back a number of sullen male teens in flattops eyed the world resentfully. There were no Anglo faces anywhere.

They sat at a table out in the mall atrium and a woman in fluoresecent blue pedal pushers appeared instantly, bobbed a little and spoke softly with Minh Trac before gliding away.

“So you were in Viet Nam, Mr. Liffey.”

“I was stationed in Thailand, but I went to Saigon several times for R and R.”

He raised an eyebrow. “The traffic was usually in the other direction.”

“I was sent all that way because of a war,” Jack Liffey explained. “I figured I ought to see what it was about.”

“Are you one of those Americans who feel it wasn’t worth the candle?”

Jack Liffey considered for a moment. It wasn’t hard to guess the politics of anyone in Little Saigon but he wasn’t about to sign onto a doomed exile crusade, even for conversational purposes. “Every country is worth it,” he said. “I think what people mean when they say that is more complicated. It was a civil war and America was a big clumsy oaf who did more harm than good, and it probably couldn’t have been any other way.”

The cafe au lait arrived, with a lot more milk than he liked, but he could go that far for politeness’ sake. The waitress gave Jack Liffey a curious look before leaving again. The boys at the back asked her something as she passed and she shook her head.

“I agree with you, Mr. Liffey, but not many people here in Little Saigon would do. Actually, that is an understatement.”

Copyright © John Shannon 2005. All rights reserved.

Copyright © John Shannon 2015. All rights reserved.