“You looking for a room?” came the sandpaper voice from above.
I looked up and saw an old man, Western and worn, hanging out of a second-floor window.
“Yes,” I replied, arching my neck further.
“Try the owner of the house on the corner; I rent this place from him; I think he has other places,” the man said. His face creased into what could have been a smile and then disappeared from view.
The sprawling neighbourhood was a mess of small alleys and narrow buildings, jumbled together heedless of symmetry. I wondered which corner he meant and backtracked to a corner-shop cum drinking-den, where I gingerly asked for a room from a toothless Vietnamese hag, who was serving bottles of beer to fat-bellied locals. Suddenly he appeared again — the white man from the window — materializing at my shoulder, like a wisp of smoke, now on my level where I could get a better look at him. He had evidently lost half an arm some time ago — the withered stump was hanging grotesquely out of his tee-shirt. He waved the stump back towards his own building and said that he sometimes sub-let the spare room in it; would I like to look at it. His gravelly words were spare and direct.
We stepped back along the alley, and into his narrow, four-story house.
“My wife told me to go out and get you; ah! here she is; Kim,” he said, introducing the middle-aged Vietnamese woman who had just hopped down the stone stairs in her bare feet .
She smiled, sparkled her black eyes, and then dropped her bottom jaw like the gate in a dam, letting forth a torrent of unintelligible English words. It was as if she had been taught English by a maniac, who had tutored her in backward speech. After a few minutes, as the floodwaters of her discharged words were rising, we politely maneuvered ourselves around her and headed up the stairs to dry land, to see the room, leaving her in ferocious monologue.
My partner liked it, so we agreed on a price and moved in.
Then we got to know the family and that was the best part about Saigon. We forgot about all the sights to be seen in this culturally-rich city and received a lesson in life itself. We were beguiled at first, the family life seemed fun, laced with minor domestic discord, that’s all — twenty-first century Saigon, after all, is a pretty hectic place. But soon we realized that we were witness to more than just discord, the family was dysfunctional, with behaviour verging on the sociopathic. And that diagnosis seemed terminal. Over the days and then weeks, my partner and I became more and more impressed with the abject chaos and despair in which they lived.
Gary, I finally got his name from his wife, was a character from the pages of a Graham Greene entertainment. With fact always being stranger than fiction, I am never surprised by the misfits and wierdos that I meet in exotic parts of the world. Saigon Gary, however, blipped brightly on my radar and he really does deserve the attention of a great storywriter. The facts about him came slowly, owing to his taciturn nature, which in turn could have been caused by his physical health, his mental health, or his lack of wit — I never did figure out which. During the first week he revealed that he was from Canada! Later I learned from which part of that vast country — out east, where he had spent his life working in saw mills in the raw wilderness. One balmy, monsoonal afternoon, while we were standing together on the rooftop, Gary suddenly turned around as the scrawny house-cat, the runt of the litter, jumped off a wall and onto a flower pot, his withered stump swinging through the air in an arc. Then, in a rare moment of conversation, he said that was how he lost his arm: he had turned quickly when something had caught his eye, and sent his left arm into the teeth of a power saw. His biography was slowly coming out and I was taking mental notes.
Some things were pretty obvious. Like countless lonely old men in the rich world, he preferred not to live out his days as a poor nobody in the cold; so he moved to a place where the living is cheap and the girls accommodating, and the weather is warm.
Gary made the family, not by the labor of his loins but through the work of his bank account: his money held them together, however loosely. No Gary and his monthly pension checks, no family.
His age was impossible to gauge, but luckily his wife told us how old she was and then later how much younger she was than him. He came out at forty seven — he looked more like fifty seven and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had said he was over sixty. (She, by the way, was fifteen years younger.) Gary was a wispy man: frail, thin, and gaunt. His skin was grey and his hair was white. His eyes, metallic blue, sank deep into their sockets, tired and withdrawn, given up with the world. He was sedentary to the point of slothfulness, and it seemed that movement was only a way of letting you know that he was still alive. The strongest part about him was his voice, which he rarely chose to exercise.
Gary spent most of his days horizontal and inebriated, two symptoms (or causes) of his obvious depression. About midway through our stay, he hid away for a three-day ‘rest’ in bed, getting up only to piss — the house maid bringing up the bottles of Saigon Beer from the fridge and changing the videos. His wife, garrulous Kim, meanwhile, had fled to the safety of her hometown (somewhere in the middle of Vietnam), leaving him to his own private hell. Other, more ‘normal’ days were also mostly spent lying on the bed drinking beer and watching videos, but with irregular trips to the Saigon Café, a nearby traveler’s hangout, presumably for food or a chat with other foreigners.
After a week or so, I suddenly realized that I had never actually seen him eat anything: drink, but never eat. It seemed odd; the rest of the family were always frying and stewing fresh produce from the local markets and eating the resulting colorful dishes around a big circular table on the ground floor; so I asked him if he liked the Vietnamese food.
“I usually go my own way,” he said.
Then he told me of a time when he was in a coma for three days after eating some rotten local food. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said, “You don’t want to get food poisoning here. Now I go my own way.”
This revelation contradicted what his wife had already told us about his recent near-death experience. She had caught us on the rooftop illicitly drinking penny bottles of local beer, which were much cheaper than bottles of drinking-water. “Don’t drink too much of that,” she admonished, “no good; my husband he died three times in one night after drinking too much,” she blurted out in her quick-fire manner, leaving us to extract the meaning. From her next verbal eruption we deduced that Gary had gone on a drinking binge of the cheap local beer which ended only when his heart had stopped, not once but three times; each time, or so she claimed, she had resuscitated him. He had then lapsed into a three-day coma.
Gary loved videos and pulp fiction, and if he did indeed love his wife, as a near third to those two, he certainly kept it hidden. His devotion was complete. He devoured videos at a considerable rate, an addiction that depended on the industrious efforts of three people: the housemaid, who had to scurry to and from the store with the tapes; the video store owner, who had to constantly rotate his stock in order to sate Gary’s voracious appetite; and the electrician, whose job it was to keep the antique VCR in working order. The piercingly loud volume at which he watched the videos led us to believe that he was almost deaf; we later had this confirmed by the man himself: “The saw mills,” he said. The main course was always an action movie, the gunfire, yelling, and police-car sirens from which perpetually filled the house with noise — his bedroom door being left open to help clear the smoke. The pulp fiction was a kind of dessert, something to savor during the quiet times when the VCR was out of order or the tapes being changed. He would roll over to the other side of the mattress with a dog-eared paperback and let the electrician work his magic, digesting what he had just consumed.
Gary’s body was in full retreat, driven back by the relentless assault of noxious fumes — he was a prodigious smoker. He smoked as if his life depended on it, puffing his way through pack upon pack of cheap, local cigarettes, tearing at them through his wispy lips, filling his narrow bedroom with billows of blue smoke. Strangely, his lips were the only part of his ashen face that showed any sign of animation — those two faint lines — they curled when he smoked; they rose, perceptibly, at the ends when he smiled; and they quivered when he spoke. Overflowing ash-trays, empty packets, used matches, carelessly flicked ash, and the stale stink of a smoker and his habit, certainly gave the house-keeper a hard time. The effort of smoking, however, was wearing him out: his body was like the ash at the tip of his cigarette — grey and used up, drooping, the strength having been burned through. During his morose days he would habitually succumb to sleepiness, dropping into slumber without any forewarning and with no sign of resistance. The film had failed to hold his attention, or the paperback had bored him; or perhaps sleep was the next level of escape, more rewarding and thus desirable than either films or books. For whatever reason, Gary would nod off and drop his cigarette on the bed, burning a large or small hole in the sheet — I seriously wondered what was going to kill him first.
My attempts at delineating the family failed, utterly: the nuclear concept doesn’t seem to exist in Vietnam, and it is never clear who belongs where and who is a permanent part of what. Gary, I hope without a rigid western conception of family life, had entered into this confusing domestic millieu by marrying Kim. They hadn’t had their own children, for obvious reasons, but the house was always full. Various people seemed to pop out of her extended family at odd moments, turning up to occupy a part of the house for a few days before disappearing again — a brother, an uncle, a second cousin’s nephew, and so on.
The ‘housekeeper’, Tweek, was the first enigma to be solved. At first Kim proudly presented her as her daughter, I presumed from a previous husband. Later, Gary, after giving her a severe scolding for some minor domestic offence (the cat hadn’t been fed or more full beer bottles hadn’t been refrigerated), called her the daughter of that bitch, Kim’s sister. The girl herself only told us that she was Mi Mi’s sister — Mi Mi being the other girl who seemed to be in more or less permanent residence in the house — but with her plain looks and slow mind, she couldn’t have been Mi Mi’s sister. Tweek added to the drama of our stay when she suddenly disappeared with all the available cash in the house; apparently she had run away with her boyfriend — one of the neighbours. This caused another bout of fierce screaming between husband and wife at the end of which Kim fled again, back to the safety of her hometown, and Gary retreated into his fantasy land of action videos and pulp fiction.
Mi Mi was a pretty little schoolgirl, vivacious and mischievous, who bounced off to school every morning clutching her single, worn exercise-book, full of the mistakes in the previous night’s homework. I suppose the money budgeted for her tuition was meagre because she always bounced home again two hours later.
A mysterious old man, whom Kim referred to as ‘big brother’, often appeared at the end of a day, stumbling out of the driver’s seat of a dilapidated rickshaw. His routine varied according to the level of his drunkenness, but was always undertaken somberly and with a dearth of words. If he was sober enough he would silently maneuver the rickshaw through the door and into the living room, steal a few bottles of Saigon Beer from the fridge and work diligently on his sobriety. Usually, however, he would collapse already drunk through the front door, motion somebody out to chain up his livelihood, and fight his way up the stairs — again without words. Not until he was safely asleep on the barren rooftop, stretched supine on a reed mat, would the words start coming forth. He would mumble his way through the night, occasionally screaming out, in fitful sleep, and he would always be gone by the morning.
The family thoroughly entertained us in such a manner for weeks, as they lurched forward from crisis to crisis, never fully recovering from one before the next one hit.
Gary didn’t say an awful lot but there was an undercurrent to what did pass from between his lips, in that abrasive voice of his. Hints, a hidden warning in everything he uttered; he was trying to tell me something — Don’t marry the locals.
© Paul S. Davey, 2000