In the summer days of 2010, Linh squatted in the back of the kitchen and pressed her bare back to the stone sink. Customers stopped coming in and even the ice melted in their tubs of sweet drinks in the fridge. At the end of the days, cubes of grass jelly shrivelled, growing wrinkled layers of film on their sides and Linh had to throw it all into the bushes at the back of the cafe.
Vegetation was dying. All the glucose and gelatine dumped into the bushes were growing something new and thick into the air. In Hoa Tran’s open courtyard, where Linh had to wipe down sweating tables, she could think of nothing but old skin and wanted to cry from the heat.
Hoa Tran was perched on the cement freeway, just at the border of Ngay Moi. A yellow banner stretched across the entrance, its letters spelt out in red serif. Serifs faded but classic, rippling in the wind. Underneath was the forever-slogan, ‘Karaoke special on Thursday night.’ The Sai Gon girls dismounted their scooters underneath the banner, slid off their driving gloves, and looked around the yard for a table with a view.
The sun favoured Ngay Moi that year and it was bad for business. Families slept on the floor with the fans on. The boys went to drink beer under trees by the riverbank and woke up weeping from hangovers and peeling skin. The Van’s youngest son fell down an old war tunnel and was not found until hours afterward, hot and dead.
Bac Phong found Linh by the sink one afternoon and offered to give her the day off.
‘No, please don’t make me go home,’ said Linh.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll still get your pay.’
‘Please no, my mother will kill me. Let me stay. I’ll clean the tables again.’
‘Your mother will have a problem with it?’
‘I’ll get in trouble for being lazy. Please.’
Linh stood up into the sun and it seared her face, so that he could only see two shadows for her nostrils.
‘How about I close up for the day?’ said Bac Phong. ‘What will Nga think of that?’
‘Can I please use the sink to wash my face before I go?’
‘Heavens, just turn on the tap.’
He turned the tap on and Linh bent to stick her head under the running water.
Bac Phong looked away as she stuck out her tongue to lap at it.
When Linh first came to Hoa Tran three years ago, she was wearing Nga’s saved blouse. She couldn’t fill it out like Nga did, for even though they had similar small bodies, Linh was flatter and harder. The blouse had pointed, conical structures for breasts. It was 14-year-old Linh standing in her conical blouse that Bac Phong hired.
‘You are Nga’s daughter,’ he said.
Bac Phong touched the rim of his glasses and a glint of light leapt across his face into the tree canopies. He spoke slowly and forcefully, unlike the slack-lipped Ngay Moi accent. He stood the same way, shoulders even and arms laid out in front as though he were always waiting to catch something. When Linh answered, ‘yes, that’s me,’ she was taken aback by her own loudness. She always thought of herself as quiet. Never had much to say in classes and answered the other girls clumsily, so they didn’t listen. Not that the schoolgirls were cruel, but Linh demanded so little attention that they could not focus and looked past her like heat haze on the freeway.
‘I can cook,’ she said, ‘I can clean. I help my mum at home.’
Linh soon knew without thinking it that she would be a waitress her whole life. Her forearms were flat and strong, just right for carrying trays. The yellow-andwhite-striped washcloth moved seamlessly about her body: tucked under the armpit, slung over the shoulder, balled up in the fist, pressed between her chin and her chest. When Linh came home, Nga was still sitting at the sewing machine. She swung an arm back and jabbed Linh in the stomach.
‘What are you doing home early? What did you do to disgrace me?’
‘Bac Phong closed the cafe because there were no customers.’
‘So you’re going to sit on your ass like a retard?’
‘Then go cut the grass.’
Behind the taro squares, they used to grow grass for the cows. Bent over, Linh held up fistful of tallgrass and hooked her scythe around the roots. The grass blades, almost as thick as coconut branches, crunched and split like baby hairs. Linh forgot to wear gloves and soon her hands were soaked in sap. She made up a tune as she worked and sung along to it, disgrace-me, disgrace-me, disgrace-me, she said, disgrace-me, disgrace-me, disgrace. The familiar rhythm rocked her to sleep and Linh could not tell how much time had passed before she faded in again, gaping at the sun, and kept working.
The next day, Bac Phong announced that they would hold live music nights. A keyboardist and a traditional singer came that evening. The singer was a woman, who wore a tight ao dai dress, and white powder on her face.
‘Please welcome our musicians.’
Bac Phong introduced them as his old friends from a childhood in Sai Gon before ’75, before communism. With the heat of the night, the powder clumped with sweat on singer’s right cheek and sunk down to her chin, where it crusted slowly.
Twenty customers came and went.
Afterward, Linh stayed back to sweep the courtyard of peanut shells, rice paper spice packets, and cigarette butts. Bac Phong stayed strumming his guitar. Linh didn’t know how to interrupt him when she finished working. She stood staring.
‘Ever seen a guitar before?’ Bac Phong said, picking a chord.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
She had heard plenty of music before, but always from a machine. She never imagined the instruments that wrung sounds out of the air.
‘Do you want to learn?’
‘Do you want to learn how to play the guitar?’
Bac Phong pursed his lips, ‘Yes. Is Nga going to be okay with it?’
He invited Linh to visit on Saturday morning.
His home was in Saigon, a 45-minute bus ride away from Ngay Moi. She had never gone into Saigon without Nga. Linh sat on the bus jiggling sticky rice ball that she brought for her breakfast. The rice warmed up and swelled in the heat and she had to quickly lap it up out of her sweaty palm. But she snapped her sticky fingers together and thought she would die from the heat. The little bus chugged along slowly, all the windows rolled up to prevent the dust from getting in.
Linh got off at a stop just past Cu Chi and walked the rest of the way. The houses sat further apart and finally, from down the road, she saw Bac Phong sitting in his front yard under an old orange tree with a dense green canopy, a bird cage hanging behind his head. Linh had never seen a kept bird before. Bac Phong’s bird’s feathers were green with a splash of red on the neck.
‘Sit down, Linh.’
She stepped under the orange tree shade and found it the coolest spot in all of Vietnam. She couldn’t smell sugar anymore, only the faint bitterness of orange skin, and shivered. He already had the guitar cradled in his lap.
‘Watch my left hand.’
Linh noticed for the first time his grip on the neck of the guitar. His fingers stretched and pressed down, glowing white under the nails. It was the first time she had been alone with a man.
Linh took the guitar and plucked a string. A note rung and floated up on a wave. Linh picked the note again, amazed that she could jerk the strings and make the heat ripple. She plucked again. It could be said that her world was marvellous for a moment, when she touched and the thing sung back. So, so, so, so, so. Jerk and ripple. She forgot her own skin and the heat and listened to the note so without beginning or end. Her little black finger, crooked into the belly of the sound hole, picked until it cramped.
After an hour, a voice called out to Bac Phong from inside the house. Linh watched the open door and the dark, cool hallway beyond. A woman in a white pyjama suit with ruffles at the shoulder, called forth by the cramped note like a bell, emerged. She had a small face and tied her hair on one side. She repeated herself, but her words were still blurred.
‘No, medicine is not till one,’ Bac Phong replied.
The woman spoke again and because the phrase was familiar, Linh could make it out, ‘What are you doing?’ She spoke in a slow, whiny voice.
‘Nothing, I’ll be in now.’
The woman took one step back and blurred into the darkness of the hallway. Bac Phong told Linh that starting an instrument is always difficult and to come back next Saturday.
Over the next few weeks, Linh found her mind slipping to Bac Phong’s fingers, and the vibration of the guitar when she held it, like a live, humming animal in her arms. She could not remember a time when she did not think of the music lessons, and wondered if it was possible that she never had any thoughts at all before. She wiped tables, washed the dishes, peeled fruit, and candied coconut, thinking of Bac Phong’s fingers.
And his glasses too! Nobody wore glasses in Ngay Moi, just squinted if they had to. She wondered if it were the glasses that made his gaze different, or if she’d never noticed anyone’s gaze before. She kept slipping to these images in her mind. She imagined hands inside her head trying to catch a slimy, wriggling fish that always leapt into the water. In the heat of the summer, the little wet thing rolled against the nerves in her skull and cradled into the bony apple of her cheek.
She could not tell anyone about the fish in her head, but one day she asked Tran about Bac Phong’s wife.
‘I don’t know. She’s not from here, I think she’s from Saigon. Why?’
Linh told her about the guitar lessons.
‘Why is he giving you guitar lessons?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t be dumb. Why is he giving you guitar lessons?’
Linh was afraid of getting it wrong again. Tran rolled her eyes. She was pouring sugar into pickled lime juice, her long nails flat against the stirring spoon, this week painted yellow-green like raw mango.
‘I don’t think he’s giving anyone else guitar lessons. How are you paying him?’
‘I’m not paying him.’
‘But why is he doing it? It’s not like—’ Tran clucked and turned around. ’Are you, what, are you touching him?’
‘You know you probably have to.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘You don’t know how to, do you?’ she laughed for as long as she could.
‘Of course you don’t.’
‘What does it mean, touching him?’
‘Heavens, Linh. I’m not going to tell you what to do.’ Tran fiddled with a piece of old lime, spreading its flesh against the side of the tub. ‘I mean, I’ll tell you how to start. He’ll know what to do.’
When Linh squatted in the backyard to bathe that night, she trickled the water slowly down her skin. A joint bulged out on the side of her knees and she massaged it, wondering if she could push it back in, smooth it down. She hooked a knuckle under the knee, where it was softer than bone, like bands of plastic, and she ground her knuckle up and down. If she could just do this every day, Linh thought, her legs might smooth out. She would be soft and smooth. The muscles crunched as she rolled on them. She imagined that every touch was colouring her in, giving her texture.
The next Saturday Linh felt cold under the orange branches. When she arrived, Bac Phong was already sitting in the yard and the front door was open as usual, though nothing could be seen inside. Linh wondered if his wife was lurking out of sight, two steps beyond the door, listening. She wondered if Bac Phong ever taught his wife to play guitar.
She fiddled with the same string while he talked and strummed like scratching a still-healing wound, dry enough and itching to be touched. But she still couldn’t play any chords, couldn’t hold down the strings with her left hand. Bac Phong reached over and pressed his fingers on tops of hers.
She glanced at him and said in her head, ‘I feel very close to you.’ She looked at the open door. There hadn’t been any sound from the house. Linh leaned forward and had unstuck her lips when Bac Phong suddenly sighed and leaned back. He picked up a glass of black coffee perched on the potted plant behind him.
‘What does Nga think of the lessons?’ he asked.
‘She said you are kind.’
‘Do you know, Nga really loves music.’
The heat waves and string vibrations materialised dense in the air between them. Linh sniffed loudly, arching her head back so that they wouldn’t touch her. Beyond them she spotted the glint of Bac Phong’s glasses. She didn’t know when he had begun talking again.
‘… in ’75 when I came to Ngay Moi for the first time. The Communists were looking for families with large estates, so we sold everything and came here. I came to the Van Thuy sugarcane stand every day to see her. It wasn’t just me. She felt something too. We went on walks together. I came to visit your grandfather’s house once and brought eggs for the whole family. Eggs were expensive after ’75. But she wouldn’t marry me.’
A square of light reflected off his glasses, his eyes fixed elsewhere. All the strands that she strung fell limp, soft like cobwebs, and now she sat staring off too, into the canopy of orange. Wouldn’t marry me, marry-me, marry-me, she echoed in her head.
‘Nga wanted to leave Viet Nam, but I still had my family estate to look after.
This estate. Of course my brothers are gone now. Now it’s just me. Nga married Anh Xuan, whose family was going to America. It was very simple to her, she just wanted to be somewhere else and she thought it was a simple choice. She had her baby while he went off on a boat for America, he was going to petition for her after he had arrived, find a place to live, set up a life. Of course she never heard from him again.
Maybe he died at sea, but more likely he left her.
‘I’ve been coming into Ngay Moi for decades now, and she’s been waiting for your father for just that long. Wouldn’t even look at me again after she married that man. Such an honourable woman. In ’94, when you were a year old, I offered to take care of both of you, bring you here, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave her husband’s home, she said. Such an honourable woman. Just the woman to love.
‘Are you interested in what I am saying?’
When Linh stood up and walked away, she knew that she could never come back to the orange shade. Her little heart filled up with shame. She stepped out of the front yard and down the length of the house, forty-two steps. Around the corner, she faced the sun head-on and everything before her swam in white light. If she didn’t count, wasn’t careful, it would all skip a beat and slip away. It was so possible for the heat to melt and dissolve her if she didn’t know when to stop going. There was a lot of road, so much time, and such a dry little body. Linh squinted and walked down the other side of the house, forty-eight, forty-nine, woman-to-love, woman-to-love, onehundred-and-two, woman-to-love, one-hundred-and-three, walking in tight, straight lines.
All the way back to the freeway and down the dirt road, to the other side of the irrigation ditch for the house. Linh held her breath as she reached the door and saw Nga still sitting by the sewing machine, her arms tense and the line of muscle running sharp down to the forearm. Every two seconds a knot unravelled and dispelled from her mouth audibly, th, and the string, which ran from her lips to a frontyard on the edge of town, was plucked and the air shivered.
In an hour, Nga lay down the pieces of cloth in a neat stack, and dragged the table backward to catch the moving sliver of light. She sat down and surveyed her new position in the room. A spider’s web reflected light in the corner of the room, above the altar. Nga stepped over, climbing a shoe rack on her third step, and waved a duster at the corner. Stretched out, she saw herself covering the length of her wall. Her left foot curled and she held her breath, feeling that she had caught the four walls of her life in the sole of her foot.
When the girl came home and asked about Bac Phong, Nga laughed softly, th. Did he tell you about the eggs, she asked, is he still proud of that? You are so dumb, th, when are you going to learn? Believe only 50% of what men tell you, th. Now go light your father a stick of incense and put on the fan, will you, we’re going to die of this heat. Th. She gripped the sewing table as though it needed steadying and went back to work.
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