Driving south on Federal Boulevard toward the city’s Little Vietnam district, Sonny Blanding passed the third military recruiting billboard he’d seen within the space of a few blocks. All the service branches were working it a lot harder nowadays with no more draft, and this beat up, low-income neighborhood was perfect hunting ground for arms and legs to follow orders, to plow front lines. Fish in a barrel.
The military really had their marketing act together nowadays. Most of the big boards around town looked like movie screens of action films these jobless kids could star in. Smiling buddies triumphant on some stupid hill they’d just captured. Guys jumping out of green cargo planes with bright white parachutes, looking like they were having the bungee-jumping time of their lives and saving the world at the same time.
Sonny knew the story. He’d grown up not far from here, didn’t have to imagine desperate. The last time his parents had bailed him out was the real last time. Whatever. There was a war on then and employment to be had for anybody willing to salute and shoot. In short order, he was through boot camp and deployed to the Long Binh Post next to the Đồng Nai River, pulling a monthly from U.S. Treasury with free room and board.
Vietnam didn’t last, though. Six weeks into loading trucks and waiting to be sent to a combat zone, the war was pretty much cancelled. Sonny was ten pounds lighter from working in the heat and getting sick on the local water. Mosquitoes and what not. But he was still grateful to leave with all his body parts. And his mind, thank God, since he’d never gone with the rest of the infantry pawns to the front, where the minds got lost.
Like all the other FNG’s who were dragged in as late cannon fodder just before the grand retreat, he never got a bigger taste of Vietnam than the view across the barbed wire and sandbags of the base. He didn’t even see Saigon. A few days in Hong Kong on the way out was all, before the eight years in Germany as a diesel mechanic. Now he was back in town with a civilian skill, regular paychecks, and he’d still never eaten Vietnamese food.
Sonny parked at the north end of where the chopstick shopping strips began. It looked completely different from when he’d come around with his dad to buy tacos or get flats fixed. Both sides of the street were full of Vietnamese restaurants, tiny grocery stores, nail salons, and cell phone shops.
Two blocks in, a stiff breeze was yanking down a tumble of clouds from the west. Before he could figure out where to eat, the sky was swept dark, and the rain dropped like a tipped bucket. Sonny hustled himself into Phở 74, the place he was already in front of. The walls were painted a pale green that showed off a giant embroidery portrait of shiny orange carp next to a pink lotus in their silk pond. Potted plants here and there made the place look like a tropical patio.
It was mid-afternoon empty, so Sonny took a seat in a booth for four next to the front picture window where he could see people still scrambling for shelter through the diagonal rain. The brisket and flank pho didn’t look too hard to say in Vietnamese, “Chin Nam,” so he tried it with the waitress, and she didn’t correct him.
Just as he was finishing his noodle soup, a thin Vietnamese man in his late 20s dressed in cook’s whites with a tight, high sides haircut limped out of the kitchen to a break table. He lit a cigarette and stared out the same picture window as Sonny, rotating a teacup on the table with his free hand.
Sonny grabbed a toothpick and approached him. The meal had been a good first experience and the perfect excuse for sharing a story. “That was great noodle soup,” he said, smiling. “I had soup like that in Hong Kong one time. You ever been there?”
Tran Nguyen nodded affirmation. “Please,” he said, gesturing at the chair opposite him. When Sonny sat, Tran held out his pack to proffer a cigarette.
“Thanks. It’s always just right after a meal.” Sonny lit up with a tiny stick match from a yellow box that featured two birds, one holding an umbrella over the other. “Yeah, I’ll never forget that soup. Bigger noodles, but somethin’ seems the same.”
“Probably star anise in the broth,” Tran guessed. “Tea? It’s fresh.” He slid an empty cup forward and started to fill it before Sonny could answer.
“Thank you.” Sonny burned his tongue a little with a fast sip; “Did you try the noodle soup when you were there, too?”
“Not exactly. I was in a refugee camp. A lot of soup but no star anise. No meat.”
“Huh.” Sonny nodded several times, trying to think of what to say next. He’d had exactly one adventure during his short time in Asia, and he was anxious to share the soup story. Now the conversation felt like it was about the cook instead of himself. Everything had been so much easier in Germany.
Tran gave his throat a long clearing, “Excuse me. You wanted to say something about Hong Kong.”
Sonny perked up and started talking fast to get it all out. “Yeah, definitely. And this is connected to the soup, I swear. Yeah, so I flew in, hadn’t eaten all day. I was starvin’. Some G.I. told me to get off the main drags to save money, so I made it to this little side street. You know, no traffic. Tables right in the middle of the road and people on foot. It just rained, so the puddles and everything’s reflectin’ all that colored neon. You know, ‘City o’ Lights.'”
“I didn’t see much of the city. Only a bus ride to the airport.”
“Okay, well, I’m just tryin’ to set the scene for ya—a little atmosphere. Anyway, you know how it is when you’re in a foreign country and don’t speak the language…”
“Yes, I know the feeling.”
“Right, so it’s pretty dim already. Those quick sunsets in the tropics. I don’t know these tough lookin’ Hong Kong guys in baggy pants. No cops or tourists. I’m the only whiteface around, and nobody smiles. I’m feeling kinda edgy, ya know what I mean?”
“Everybody up ‘n down the street’s swingin’ butcher knives big as machetes at fish heads and pork bones. They’re under these big canvas awnings with just a bare light bulb each. It was like dirty little carnival booths in a bad dream or somethin’. So weird.
“Well, I’m slurpin’ up this great noodle soup like what you guys have here, and all of a sudden behind me I hear this crazy squeak. I whip my head around, and there’s this huge rat fallin’ through the air like in slow motion. He finally hits the street, and it’s just the most sickening splat I ever heard, like a dead body hittin’ mud. And I’m not kiddin’, this fat, hairy mother jumps right back up, splashes through a puddle, and cuts into the shadows.” Sonny held his hands a foot apart. I mean huge. Not like around here. Big as a cat.”
“Sure,” Tran said. “Bigger. Cats there…all skinny, but not the rats.”
“How long were you there? In the camp.”
“Four years. Just a kid when I got there.”
“Where did you live in Vietnam before that?”
“Near Kon Tum.”
“Oh wow, close to the DMZ. Did you like it there?”
“It was…” He patted his teacup. “It was mostly war all the time. My parents and grandparents always scared. Sometimes my sister and cousins, we would go away to the forest. It was quiet, no fear. Just played. Listened to the birds, watched the leaves fall. Tried to catch them.”
“No, the big leaves.” He smiled. “Until shooting started again.”
“What did your folks do? Were they farmers or…?”
“I guess farmers. We just lived on what we could grow. But I wanted to get a job with the army when I grew up.”
“Which one? VC or south?”
Tran shrugged, “I didn’t care. I just wanted to protect my family.” He raised his eyebrows.
“But here I am. All the way to another country to get a job.”
Sonny noticed a small scar on Tran’s temple, next to his eye, like one he’d accidentally given his brother, sword fighting with sticks in the mountains. So much blood from a tiny cut. “I’m sorry,” Tran said. “I stopped your story. Go on.” Sonny didn’t say anything. “About the soup, the rat. Please,” he urged, leaning forward and loosing a flake of cigarette ash that twirled like a tuft of young feather to the back of his hand covering his tea.
Ran Diego Russell was raised traveling throughout the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Prior to his teaching career, he worked as a ranch hand, construction laborer, fruit picker, and truck driver. During his non-writing free time, it’s all about jazz bass, carpentry, and serving the Border collies’ energy.