An alley fed into the busy street with vendors soliciting the same fruits that littered the ground. Hundreds of motorcycles jutted from all directions, their drivers’ hands pressed firmly against the horn. Sun damaged faces speckled the crowd, dodging the motorbikes fearlessly as they crossed. A mixture of smoke from the exhausts and dirt, dislodged by the heavy traffic, floated through the air. Most wore cotton masks over their nose and mouth. Mr. Tran stood tallest of the group of four, smiling with his thick, dark hair combed to the side and his arm draped over the thin shoulders of a woman. His right hand rested on the top of a little boy’s head whose hair mirrored his. In the front was a little girl wearing sandals and laughing at whatever was said moments before. To their left, a group of children sat barefoot folding large sheets of newspaper into various shapes: a spider, a boat, a crane. Behind them stood a soldier in uniform, a gun dangling beneath his arm.
Mr. Tran traced the image of his wife with his thumb as he stared at the black and white photograph, its edges torn with a crease running diagonally across the center. The roaring sounds of the motorcycles speeding by and the continuous honking of the drivers heard in Mr. Tran’s head minutes ago were drowned out by a laughing crowd coming from the TV.
“Why don’t we get a frame for that picture? We can put it here in the living room.” Twenty years had passed since the picture was taken, and Mr. Tran’s daughter now stood taller than him.
“If it is here, I can only look at it when I am here.” Mr. Tran’s Vietnamese was light, song-like. He slipped the picture into the front pocket of his shirt and stood up to clear the table.
“Don’t forget to pack for the cruise.” She told him in English.
“I’ll stay home. We can return it and save the money.”
“We can’t return the ticket, and it’s for your birthday. It’ll be fun. Everyone has fun on a cruise.” She kissed his cheek quickly and left the apartment. Mr. Tran’s son and daughter preferred American food to his steamed fish and rice. Every night he made enough for the three of them, but the children usually ate at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, and Mr. Tran would eat the leftovers the next day. Putting away the food, he raised his voice so he could be heard over the TV, “Pizza, con.” The metal frame of the futon squeaked as Mr. Tran’s son stood up and walked to the oven. Slipping on mismatched oven mitts, he grabbed the pizza and sat back down in front of the TV. Mr. Tran turned off the oven and finished cleaning. He sat down at the table and pulled the photograph from his pocket. He yawned, but because there was only one bedroom in the apartment that his children shared, his twin-sized bed was in the corner of the living room, and he would have to wait until his son was finished watching television to go to sleep.
An alarm sounded. Confused, Mr. Tran threw aside the blanket that covered him and felt around for the light. It flickered three times, alternating between blinding white and complete darkness, before staying lit accompanied by a dull hum. He opened the cabin door only slightly in case it was noisy in the hallway. He was always quiet and mindful of his movements at night, even after twelve years of sleeping alone. He had slept only a couple of hours; it was late when he boarded the boat, and he had been too tired to unpack his things or walk around. There were a few people standing in the hall, while others poked their heads out of cabin doors searching for the cause of the siren.
“Safety drill. There’s always one on the first night,” said a large, blonde man pulling out a box of cigarettes while leaning against the wall of the hallway. “Everyone’s got to go outside and learn how to put on life jackets and shit.”
Mr. Tran shut the door, making sure to turn and hold the handle to minimize the sound. A large gap between the door and the cabin floor allowed a square of light into the darkened room. Mr. Tran was too tired to investigate anymore about the alarm and went back to sleep.
It wasn’t a big boat. There were three decks: the lowest housed windowless rooms with bunk beds shoved against one wall, the middle deck was the promenade with one restaurant and a showroom doused in red velvet, and the top deck, cluttered with colorful plastic lounge chairs, was open to the salty sea air. Mr. Tran had unpacked his suitcase early this morning, neatly folding each of his three shirts and two pants into the top drawer of the wooden dresser, leaving the bottom drawer, the one with its handle still attached, for his wife. With a slight limp that betrayed his otherwise youthful stature, Mr. Tran strolled the upper deck with his hands clasped behind his back, his eyes wide with intrigue. When the noise of the growing crowd became too much, he walked down the stairs to the promenade. The double doors of the showroom stood open. The silence of the empty room was inviting. Diamonds of light refracted by the glass chandelier danced on the velvet backs of the endless rows of chairs. Mr. Tran sat, marveling at the wide stage ten feet in front of him. The smell of wet cloth rose from the seats beside him. He wondered how everything was held in place. The cloth on the chairs looked seamless, the chandelier showed no visible hinges, and the stage, with its matching velvet curtains bunched on the sides, revealed a dull black screen. He stood up. The chair cushion resumed its puffed, rounded shape. Curious to know what went on behind the screen, Mr. Tran walked behind the stage. The light was reduced to a thin sliver making it difficult to see anything more than darkness. He took a step forward, and then another, and another. He aligned his right foot with the faint line that was left of the light, ready to explore the back of the stage further, when suddenly the line disappeared.
Mr. Tran was left in utter darkness. The strong smell of gasoline flooded his nostrils and burned his eyes. The air was unbearably hot; his arms and shoulders felt slick with sweat as they pushed up against the people beside him. Loud rumbling noises from the engine drowned out the younger children’s cries and sounds of retching. He hoped that one of those cries was that of his daughter. His wife and two children had left with the first group twenty minutes before the men could leave. As he waited for the signal for the men to make way to the boat, he lit incense, held the thin bundle between his rough palms, and knelt on the ground to pray. When he had finally arrived at the boat, there was nobody in sight but the three men of the work crew. His family had already been taken below.
“I would like to be seated next to my wife,” he had said. Mr. Tran’s Vietnamese was heavy with the southern pronunciation. The crew man’s eyebrow twitched at his request, but his face remained expressionless.
“A funny man, I’m sure the people below have saved you a prime spot and will appreciate your jokes,” he flicked his cigarette into the water. “Shut up and get down there or I’ll leave you for the damn Việt cộng to find.”
The under carriage of the boat where he now sat was crammed full of people, lifting his arm was impossible, let alone trying to sort through the others to find his family. He thought of yelling for them, but the engine’s roar would drown out his cries. Not knowing whether they had made it to the boat without raising suspicion or being captured, Mr. Tran wept. He thought of his mother and father who were too elderly to attempt the trip, of his stubborn brother who refused to leave and would stay and fight, and of his home which he had no choice but to flee. He thought of his three year old daughter and seven year old son. He hoped they would have the opportunity to go to school and become proper doctors educated by the American school system or wherever it is that the boat would bring them far away from his country. But, it was no longer his country, not the country he had known as a child, where he had bought Matchbox cars with his lì xì money every Lunar New Year and played in the streets, dirty and barefoot but content. It was no longer the country where at sixteen he tutored adults and children alike, spending all his earnings on science books, and it was absolutely no longer the country where he had practiced medicine, delivering babies and providing home-made remedies for the local villagers when their backs and legs ached from a long day of selling fruit or collecting rice from the flooded fields. The crowd shifted as the boat leaned to the left. More retching and cries could be heard clearer than before. The engines had suddenly cut off. Sounds of running and commotion leaked through the floorboards above Mr. Tran’s head. An urgent scream pierced through the darkness and created an uproar. Suddenly, everyone was screaming and rocking back and forth trying to free themselves.
A cold hand wrapped around Mr. Tran’s upper arm, startling him.
“Sir, are you lost? The show doesn’t start for another thirty minutes.” The man wore a red jacket with gold frills on the shoulders and stared at Mr. Tran. Mr. Tran looked around, expecting to see the frantic crowd he had heard just seconds ago, but only saw a handful of brightly dressed passengers sitting near the stage, laughing and holding large, colorful drinks with paper umbrellas cocked to the side. He had been sitting against the back wall behind the stage. As he braced himself to stand up, the man asked, “Do you speak English? Where is your family?”
Standing upright, Mr. Tran answered in slow, careful English, “My son and daughter are inHouston. I would like to wait for the show.” The man stepped aside as Mr. Tran walked to the first row of chairs and sat down. The chair hissed, puffing out air from beneath it as he crossed his legs.
The show was spectacular with all the glittering colored costumes and dancing. Mr. Tran was sad his wife had missed it. She would have liked it, he knew. He filed out of the room and followed the crowd up to the deck. There wasn’t too much to do on the deck. It was a wide open space encased by metal railings that reached about waist high. The wooden floorboards had hopscotch blocks painted on them, though the paint was chipping, so eight looked like a three, the nine a seven. Mr. Tran lowered himself into a red plastic lounge chair next to a woman and her son. The mother had straw blonde hair. Her skin, dark and wrinkled, glistened with oil. Smacking her gum, she held a long, hot pink acrylic nail that matched her two-piece, against the boy’s chin scolding him about his schooling.
“Joseph, you need to get your shit together. I don’t wake up at five to go to work every morning so you can sit around and do nothing.” She turned and glimpsed at Mr. Tran before speaking in a lower voice, “You got to stay on top of things in school, otherwise all the little foreign kids will take over everything like their parents are doing now. Do you know who I have to listen to everyday?” She blinked twice before continuing, “It’s bad enough they can’t speak English right. And what’s this I hear about you skipping English class? You’re American; how hard can it be? You speak English don’t you? Don’t you?”
The question rang in his ears. Mr. Tran lowered his eyes. He did not want to be called on by the teacher. Last time he was asked to state his name in a complete sentence and he did, only he arranged the words of his sentence as was correct in Vietnamese: name of mine is and he finished the sentence by stating his last name first, followed by his middle and first name: Tran, Van Dung, as was custom in Vietnam. The teacher laughed, but the classroom was quiet.
“My name is Tran. I am fromVietnam,” the instructor guided, but Tran was his surname, not his first.
His classmates were all refuges fromVietnam. Among them sat doctors, professors, once prosperous business owners, and lawyers; but now, they all stared forward, listening as they were being told how to state their name. He had taken additional lessons as suggested by the teacher, but he still felt his progress was poor. His written work came back with angry red slashes on every line. InVietnam, he had tutored those who didn’t understand biology or chemistry, but here no one offered to help him. After the lesson, a graded assignment was returned to each student. Mr. Tran had used his daughter’s old English textbook to help with the sentences.
“Good Job, Tran. This is a big improvement.” On top of the paper, sixty percent was written and below it, in the same red pen, were the slashes. They ran through the letters that Mr. Tran had spent hours writing on scratch paper and overpowered the neat, careful penmanship so that at quick glance all that could be seen was red. The sound of paper shuffling and books closing filled the room as the students began to leave. Mr. Tran walked to the door.
“Good bye, Tran. I will see you next week.” His teacher waved.
“Good bye. Thank you.” Mr. Tran left, but didn’t return the following week.
Cold drops fell against his tanned forehead. The clouds were large and full, rolling across the darkened sky. The others on the deck were snatching up discarded garments and towels, leaving behind candy wrappers and beer cans that were no doubt snuck on board in their luggage, wedged between a weekend’s worth of underwear and cigarettes. Mr. Tran slowly stood up from the lounge chair which began to shake as the winds picked up. It was about five in the evening. The restaurant would serve dinner soon.
It was a large open room with old wooden floors that might have belonged to a grand ballroom once, but was now scuffed and partially water damaged. Round tables with white tablecloths were crammed close together, almost touching, in no particular lay out. Tables were crowded with people seeking refuge from the escalating storm. Mr. Tran scanned the room for two empty chairs. As was habit, he would save a seat for his wife. There was vacancy at a table where a shirtless corpulent man sat with his round arm and fat fingers resting in a much younger woman’s lap. The woman’s eyelids were heavily colored blue and her lopsided painted grin revealed two jagged incisors with more than half of each tooth missing. Mr. Tran pulled out the metal chair from beneath the table and sat down. The topless man smiled at Mr. Tran, beads of sweat collecting in the cleft of his fat lips.
“Hello there!” He spoke with a booming voice, the sweat drops quivering.
“Hello, friend.” Mr. Tran’s voice was much quieter, but equally friendly.
“I’m Georgie, and this is my girl, Ashley.” He pointed with his sausage-like thumb.
“My name is Tran Van Dung.”
“That’s a mouthful. How come y’all gotta have such complicated names? I’ll call you Sam. Remember that ok? You’re Sam, now.”
Mr. Tran did not understand who else it was that Georgie was referring to with his phrase “you all”. Perhaps he meant all the patrons on the boat. As Mr. Tran unfolded his napkin, the boat began to shake. The room hushed in an instant and the hum of the vibrating china took over. There were no windows in the restaurant, but the rapid thuds of falling raindrops indicated the storm had become violent. The custard colored napkin slipped from Mr. Tran’s lap as the boat rocked with the storm. Georgie’s freckled arms and stomach rippled with the rocking, while Ashley’s breasts threatened to show themselves from under her low cut swimsuit. The bow of the boat dipped deep and was pushed up quickly by the oscillating wave. The glassware atop the tables slid over the edge orchestrating the sound of shattering glass followed by high pitch clinks as the silverware followed suit.
Glass littered the floor. Display stands fell heavily, scattering their contents which were then crushed noisily beneath booted feet. Bags were swept off the shelf in one quick, vicious movement. Buttons on the cash register squealed as one of the men beat on it trying to pry it open. The open register button was clearly labeled, just south of where the man was pounding, but he was in too much of a hurry to notice. The barrel of the gun was cold against Mr. Tran’s weather-beaten skin. If he looked down, he could see it protruding from under his chin, the gun bearer’s gloved fingers wrapped tightly around the end. That evening, before coming to the gas station to start the night shift, he had asked his daughter to cover for him. He had not been feeling well. His chest felt tight, and it was laborious to breath. But she insisted she was busy. There was to be a rally that night, she told him, to draw attention to the growing Asian American community. She left the house carrying a sign, her fingers red from the paint. He would have liked to ask his son if he was too busy to cover his shift, but he was rarely home. He had met a girl at school with blonde hair and green eyes and had then dyed his hair blonde and wore blue contacts, disguising his own dark eyes. But now, the cold metal digging into the soft flesh above his throat, he was glad his children were too busy to have come. The man at the register opened the drawer and was pulling out the day’s earnings. Twenty-nine dollars and thirty-eight cents: two cases of beer, two Cokes, one Sprite, an orange Fanta, and a pack of Wrigley’s winter mint gum.
“What about him?” The one with the gun asked.
“Just leave him, he probably don’t even speak English.”
The three men ran out the door laughing, kicking flattened chip bags and soda cans as they went. They had shot through all the glass so only the metal frame was left. As they drove off, the one with the gun stuck his hand out the window and pointed. Mr. Tran held his breath. The sound of the shots pierced the still air and made contact with the metal pump. The smell of gasoline drifted in through the empty window panes.
The fried catfish sat idly on the plastic tray, but the steamed broccoli and small salad plates were cleared. It wasn’t that Mr. Tran didn’t like fish, he just preferred it steamed. Because the restaurant was a mess after the turbulence of the storm, dinner was handed out on trays at the bar. Walking back to his room, Mr. Tran had come across Georgie. He and Ashley, cigarette in hand, were sitting in the hallway eating. Georgie balanced three catfish fillets on top of one another and finished each with just three bites. Mr. Tran slowed his steps in case there was to be an exchange of greetings, but they didn’t notice him. Ashley had looked up from her plate, but it was only to blow smoke out of the corner of her fire-engine red lips. Now, back in his room, Mr. Tran washed his brown, spotted face, paying particular attention to clean the corners of his aging eyes that tended to leak throughout the day. He gargled water to rinse out his mouth and used the small soap bar provided to scrub his nails. His day clothes were folded and put away in the top drawer. He wore only his under shorts and a thin white tee shirt that had a pink stain on the bottom left. As he sat on the bottom bunk bed gazing at the creased black and white photograph, the smell of burning incense wafted into the room.
Motorcycles, approaching from all directions, blared their horns as they weaved in and out of traffic, dodging people carrying colorful fruits and the vendors who sold them. Mr. Tran stood by the window in the storefront, his arms crossed behind his back, smoke from newly lit incense rose from the altar behind him. Mrs. Pham placed a small plate of fruit by the picture of her father.
“It’s good he’s not here to see this, the way the country is changing.” She scooped up the gray ash that had fallen on the table and straightened the bowl of rice, a food offering to the spirits. Mr. Tran continued to stare out the window. His family was outside the store. His daughter ran in circles in her pink sandals while Mrs. Pham’s daughter chased after her. “Do they know they are leaving?” She moved toward the door as she spoke. Her Vietnamese was slow, every word drawn out.
“Only my wife. The children know nothing.” Mr. Tran watched his daughter squeal with delight every time she slipped through Phuong’s fingers.
“Come, take a picture with your family. A keepsake, so you don’t forget home.” She pushed open the door. Mr. Tran nodded and stepped outside. The air was thick with debris and hot against his skin. He stepped beside his wife and pulled his son closer. Mr. Tran called for his youngest who came running and stopped abruptly before the group, kicking up dirt from the road. It floated in a cloud around them. Mrs. Pham held up a small, simple camera and counted, “một, hai, ba!” Phuong, at her mother’s side, stuck out her tongue at the little girl in front as the camera clicked. The small sliver of pink flesh was the last thing Mr. Tran saw before the busy street melted away to a million glimmering dots.
Mr. Tran brought his hands to his face to try to clear the flash from his eyes. He blinked and lifted his arm hoping to feel the weight and warmth of his wife against it but was met with only the cold, stale air of the cabin. The smell of incense still hung in the air, stronger. He breathed in deeply letting the smell and warmth fill him. Closing his eyes, he was ready for the vivid memories that always came so abruptly to take him back to his family. But nothing could be heard except the dull hum of the light. No motorcycles. No fruit vendors. No little girls laughing. Only the smell of incense. His eyes opened. A faint haze drifted in beneath the door. He breathed in again. It was the scent that stuck to the walls of his apartment, to the clothes of his children. He opened the door and followed the haze across the hall.
The door to the room was slightly ajar. The handle of a wooden broom leaned against the door frame, keeping it from closing completely. Inside, a man with thinning, dark hair and round gold-rimmed glasses sat picking the fried batter off the catfish. Mr. Tran knocked softly.
“Let me finish,” he waved his hand. “I will clean,” he took a bite of the bare fish. “I will clean.”
“Sorry, but are you Vietnamese?” Mr. Tran spoke the common Vietnamese phrase with his southern Vietnamese accent. The Os were flatter, the Is more like Ys. The man looked up, startled.
Hesitantly, in Vietnamese, he answered, “I am. What do you need?”
“Nothing, nothing. I smelled nhang. May I light one for my wife?”
The man pulled a stick from the pile on the dresser that had been made into a makeshift altar. He handed it to Mr. Tran along with a lighter. Mr. Tran lit the incense, placed it between his palms and brought his clasped hands to his forehead. He bowed his head and lowered his hands three times and then planted the lit incense into a small pot. It glowed for the people memorialized in the photographs on the altar. “Are you going toFloridatoo?” He asked.
“I work on the boat. I have been to Floridamany times. Every week I go to Florida,” the man opened a small glass jar that was sitting beside his bed and poured the contents onto his fish. The smell of fish sauce accompanied by lime, garlic, and shreds of carrot filled the room and made Mr. Tran’s mouth water. “The fried fish is no good, but a lot of nước mắm makes it edible,” he wiped his mouth with the custard colored napkin from the dining room.
“I wish I had brought nhang and nước mắm. My daughter said they would not allow either.”
“Maybe on the big boats they wouldn’t. This isn’t a big boat.HoustontoFlorida,FloridatoHouston. That’s all. Every week.”
“My name is Dung.” Mr. Tran held out his hand.
“Hai. My name is Hai. I came over about a year ago. Sponsors brought my wife and son toTexas.”
“I have a son too and a daughter.”
“A good boy, he is learning English so he can go to school, take care of his parents.” Hai set the tray and its empty plates on the sink, “Everything tastes the same here. There’s no variety of seasonings like in Vietnam.”
“My wife would make me bánh mì chả muối tiêu. The salt and pepper here is not the same. The flavor is not as complex, but if you put the right proportions of each it’s close enough.”
“When did she pass?”
“ ’80, five years after we came over. My children say she died of an infection, but I know it was because she didn’t want to leave. Her parents were buried there,” Mr. Tran picked up his photograph from the dresser where he had set it while lighting the incense. “If it was an infection, the American doctors could have fixed it,” he showed Hai the picture.
“Is that the photo developing store on đường số sáu?” Hai smiled.
“Yes! You know it? Is it still there? Mrs. Pham and her daughter, Phuong?” Mr. Tran sat down next to Hai and looked longingly at the photograph.
“The store changed owners many times. It sold shoes, then toys, then books. It is now an office. They sell paper. Mrs. Pham died many years ago, and her daughter is inEurope, I think.” Hai handed the picture back to Mr. Tran, “Everything is different now. The street hasn’t looked like that for a very long time.”
“Everything is different now.” Mr. Tran echoed, staring at the people in the photo.
“You have been gone a long time.Vietnamis not the same as it was before the fall or even five years ago. It is always changing. Fast, but not likeAmerica.Americais so big,” he rubbed his knee. “And so fast.” The ship rocked forward and came to a stop. The engines quieted. The tray slid from the sink, but Hai was quick enough to catch it before it could fall.
“Welcome toFlorida,” he said. Mr. Tran stood up slowly from the bed, his hand clutching the picture. “You have a few hours to seeFloridabefore it gets too dark.”
“Will you come? Maybe we can find some decent food, canh chua, cá kho tộ?”
“That does sound delicious. I will meet you outside on the dock after you get dressed.” Hai opened the cabin door picking up the broom that had fallen when Mr. Tran entered.
Mr. Tran shuffled out and across the hall. He turned, “I will introduce my daughter to your son. She is a good girl. And my son too. They can help him with English.” Hai nodded and shut the door. Opening his cabin door, Mr. Tran was greeted by his reflection in a small, cloudy mirror against the back wall. He had forgotten he was wearing only his under shorts and shirt. He was not embarrassed, however, because it was normal for Vietnamese men in Vietnamto walk the length of the neighborhood with nothing more. Hai understood.
Mr. Tran dressed carefully, buttoning every button slowly and pulling at the creases in his shirt, the photograph in his front pocket. He walked off the ramp and onto the dock where Hai was chatting with a man dressed in bright floral patterns. A large camera hung around his neck, the strap covering the name on his cruise line name tag.
“Welcome toFlorida! A picture?” the man said to Mr. Tran, holding the large, black box against his face. Mr. Tran moved next to Hai and smiled. The camera clicked and a photograph slid out from beneath it. The floral-shirted man waved the photograph around, blew on it, and handed it to Mr. Tran. The two men stood, slightly hunched, next to each other, their matching black hair thinning in different places. Hai’s gold-rimmed glasses sat high on his cheekbones as he smiled beside Mr. Tran. Mr. Tran’s hands were clasped behind his back. Brightly dressed people holding large colorful drinks sipped and laughed in the background and behind them, the boat.
Mr. Tran patted Hai’s shoulder. He slipped the photograph into his front pocket and walked toward the high, white arch at the end of the dock. In green block letters, painted in the center was “Welcome”.