posted by Kevin Mînh Allen
[NOTE: The following is a work of fiction.]
I stand before you in this courtroom prepared to defend him against being cast back into the vagaries of history. There was a time when I too saw him as a foreign occupier and inveterate killer. But, as his only son, I must give him the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many years he’s been on the run.
I never knew my father because, in a way, he barely knew my mother. They met at a local hospital where the wounded were tended to, but who eventually went insane from looking into frozen eyes. My mother had been a recent graduate from nursing school. Her patients were of every size, color and age. They loved when she came by to coo to them as she undressed and re-dressed their bandages and increased their morphine drips.
When lucid enough, her patients would tell my mother about their wives or girlfriends with whom they’ve lost touch or the children back home they were not likely to see again. They would lament the little children they shot, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not, while securing yet another hamlet. They writhed in guilt when they told her of the captives they bayonetted and the women they doused with gasoline and lit on fire because, they laughed, Buddha wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. My mother would pretend to listen right up until her patients choked back tears and sucked in their last, lonely breath.
One afternoon, my father caught my mother’s eye while keeping one of his buddies company by reading this fellow’s letters from home to him. They peered at each other from across the room, neither one able to disengage from their locked-in stare.
My father told me that my mother was very handsome, not exactly pretty, mind you. However, he said her voice seemed to float outside her body whenever she sang to him. He made it a point to return to the hospital again and again, even outside of visiting hours, to read letters from home to any random dying buddy. Even when no letter came, my father became an expert at memorizing important details about each soldier’s background and fashioning a believable account of life back in the States.
My mother slowly noticed my father’s specious talent. She would hear him read aloud about the harvesting of pumpkins or the painting of massive walls inside massive homes with yards that seemed to take up a whole city block. Sometimes the head nurse would catch my mother listening intently to my father and yell at her to get off her duff and administer more morphine to quiet the screams filling the ward.
In time, my father, in his broken Vietnamese, started asking my mother to go out with him to the nearest phơ stall after her shift. My mother was no demure daisy and readily accepted his invitations. But, she was also no prostitute, and never asked him for money when she headed to his place for a night cap. My father refused to talk about those nights because he said that’s between my mother and him. Fair enough.
And then, like the last drop of wine, my mother was gone. She never returned to the hospital. The head nurse had no idea where she could’ve gone when my father asked around about her. He was heartbroken. He stopped coming to the hospital to ease his buddies’ grief with entertaining stories of mashed potatoes so smoothe and girlfriends so true. My father left Việt Nam never knowing about my birth, nor my mother’s death in the market where a mortar landed and ripped through flesh and fruit.
My father returned to work at the local tire factory and finally married his high school sweetheart. But, after trying to conceive a child, and failing each time, his new bride blamed his herbicidal sperm and left him for another man. This other man happened to be his shift supervisor at the tire factory. This turn of unfortunate events left my father dejected and unable to make the monthly mortgage payments on the new house he had built for his future family. As if things couldn’t have gotten any worse, he was laid off from his job and had to move in with his sister’s family where he became the default nanny to her two kids.
Later, my father came down with pneumonia and thought he would never make it out of bed again. After this extended illness, he found that whenever he tried to speak his mouth filled with an iron-rich liquid that would dribble down the front of his shirt and he would be forced to run to the nearest bathroom to throw up the detestable taste in his mouth.
His subconscious became a tape recorder and kept looping the playback of nonsequitor murder. Every bazooka round he shot at nondescript enemies standing in his peripheral vision missed its target. It wasn’t long before he finally engaged one of the faceless demons who tried to ambush him. That night he was in the middle of furious hand-to-hand combat with this impish foe when he suddenly awoke to find his sister lying limp on top of him because, as he quickly realized, he knocked her out as she was trying to comfort him.
Without a job and without a home my father found himself staying with a sympathetic friend. One night, as he turned on the closet light to get a coat before going out to grab a beer with the guys, a heavy, knotted net fell on top of him. His body was scooped up and lifted into the air and set down in an even darker place than what he was accustomed to.
Not seeing any presence of light, my father feared that his heart had just stopped beating and he had keeled over in the coat closet. A feeling of embarrassment struck him and he wanted so much to go back to his pasty old body, drag it out of the closet and prop it up on the couch, in order to give his corpse the proper dignity it deserved.
After what felt like an endless sleep, my father’s eyes adjusted to the dim light that eventually pulsed from above and below. Slowly, layers of yellowing paper blew in and landed in front of him. My father started reading the writing on them and recognized his Army buddies’ names that appeared on the parchment: “Robert”, “James”, “Adam”, “Matt”. Every time he read those names aloud the men’s groans would grow louder and my father would feel their icy hands clutching at his elbows.
My father grew apprehensive each time another long curled piece of paper fell into his lap. The breezes that brushed past his damp skin picked up in intensity. The air swirled all around him, buffeting him until he felt nauseated from the pendulum motion of the enclosure he found himself in. In the still dark, his ears detected the sound of rope strands twisting and then snapping.
Without food or drink, my father would dream that he saw me. He could see himself working in an electronics store and standing in the home appliance department, schmoozing a young couple to buy a washing machine/dryer combo, when suddenly he saw me pass by. He tried to reconcile the reappearance of a lover with the missing memory of a child. I looked nothing like my mother nor my father, but held a striking resemblance to their own parents.
In earnest, my father tried convincing me that when I passed by I was clearly humming the martial melody of the national anthem of the Republic of South Vietnam. I apparently struck every note and every chord as if I had been singing this song my whole life, from sun up to sun down:
Này Công Dân ơi! Quố Gia đến ngày giǎi phóng.
Ðồng lòng cùng đi hy sinh tiếc gì thân sống.
Vì tương lai Quốc Dân cùng xông pha khói tên.
Làm sao cho núi sông từ nay luôn vững bền.
Dù cho thây phơi trên gươm giáo.
Thù nước, lấy máu đào đem báo.
Nòi giống, lúc biến phǎi cần giǎi nguy.
Người Công Dân luôn vững bền tâm trí.
Hùng tráng quyết chiến đấu làm cho khắp nơi.
Vang tiếng người nước Nam cho đến muôn đời.
Công Dân ơi! Mau hiến thân dưới cờ.
Công Dân ơi! Mau làm cho cõi bờ.
Thoát cơn, tàn phá, Vě vang nòi giống.
Xưng danh Nghìn nǎm giống Lạc Hồng.
O People! The country nears its freedom day.
Together we go forward to the open way.
Remembering our centuries of history,
Brothers from North to South reunite,
With hearts young and pure as crystal
Multiply our efforts and do not spare our ardent blood.
No danger, no obstacle can stop us.
Our courage remains unwavering in the face of a thousand dangers.
On the new way, our look embraces the horizon
And who can repress the soul of our youth?
O People! Going until the end is our resolution.
O People! To give all is our oath.
Together we go forward for the glory of the Fatherland.
We fight for the immortality of the Lac Long race.
There was only one person who could have sung the anthem as beautifully as that – the mother of his child. Crying out in joy, my father threw himself at me and gave me such a bear hug. I stood still like a pole, not fully comprehending that this man was revealing himself to me as my father. This couldn’t be, this is all a mistake, I thought to myself. All my life I had been told the only father and mother that counted were the ones who fed, clothed and housed me. The first set of parents were dead and would never come back. My father, reading my thoughts, exclaimed that as long as I was alive, he and my mother were always with me.
He flipped back the salt-and-pepper bangs that hung over his pasty forehead and gazed at me in amazement.
With tears welling up in his eyes, my father took out a yellowing sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and handed it to me to read aloud. I looked down at his hand holding the piece of paper, took it from him, sighed, and read: “The bond between mother and child may be indestructable, but the bond between a father and his son is irreplaceable.”