NEVER SAY GOODNIGHT IN SAIGON
By Greg Peppard, Jr., 1st Sgt., US Army (Ret.)
(discovered by Jimmy Callaway)
San Diego, California, is a big military town, and lifelong resident JIMMY CALLAWAY has met many retired soldiers in his time. Greg Peppard, a grizzled former Army sergeant, often frequented the neighborhood convenience store where Callaway worked for a number of years. Over time, a grudging friendship grew out of a shared fondness for Lee Van Cleef movies. It turns out Peppard had more than a few stories published—stories he based on his tours in Vietnam during the final ten years of his military service, from 1963 to 1973. His work never cracked the big men’s adventure market, appearing in such forgettable titles as Man Digest for Men, General Macho, and Highlights for Green Berets. This story is one Peppard never managed to sell before he quit writing altogether and bought a small hardware store.
Mr. Callaway would like to thank Matthew C. Funk and Johnny Shaw for their assistance in restoring this piece to a publishable form.
It was 3 a.m. and the VAA Nightclub was enjoying another quiet evening. The rain pattered its soft staccato on the tin roof, accompanied by the dribble-drop of the leaky patches in the ceiling into old gourds. Mama Tu had gotten the children to sleep around midnight and allowed herself to doze in her chair.
But just as she was nodding off, Yen awoke, fussing in her crib. Mama Tu gripped the worn bamboo arms of her chair and hoisted her tiny, wrinkled form up and over to the infant. It wasn’t just that Yen was the fussiest baby she had seen in all her years, it was that she was the saddest. As if the oddly rounded eyes had glimpsed her future and that of her homeland. It pulled at a place deep inside Mama Tu every time the baby girl looked at her.
Wrapping the child in her blankets, Mama Tu picked her up. As she walked the baby around the room, she sang softly:
Vì dầu cầu ván đóng đinh,
Cầu tre lắc lẻo. gầp gềnh khó đi.
But in Saigon, peace never lasted for long. Just as the lines in the baby’s tiny forehead softened into slumber, a big man wearing a burlap sack for a mask kicked in the front door and aimed an AK-47 at Mama Tu. Two others followed, hurriedly closing the door behind them. They were also armed and masked—one an even bigger man, and the other a skinny young woman.
Yen did not rouse from her sleep.
Xuan Loc was forty miles north of MACV, but it took Corporal Mathes nearly an hour to get there. He’d learned to drive on the freeways of Los Angeles, but that was nothing compared to Saigon during rainy season. The greasy rain slid down in lazy sheets. Motor scooters and Renaults slalomed through the traffic, horns bleating and braying. It was a little easier going once outside city limits, and Mathes finally arrived at III Corps and met with Major Le.
“Bonjour, Corporal,” said the little major as he returned Mathes’ salute. “And how may I be of service to the United States Army today?”
Mathes frowned. “I’m sorry, sir, didn’t Major Taylor call your office?”
Major Le cleared his throat. “And how may I be of service to the United States Army today?”
Mathes’ frowned deepened, and then it hit him. He retrieved the transfer papers Major Taylor had given him: yesterday’s copy of Le Courrier du Vietnam wrapped around five American twenty-dollar bills.
Major Le took the papers and smiled. “Please follow me, Corporal.”
Mathes had been in-country for a year, and he still couldn’t get used to these ARVN officers, their accents more French than Vietnamese. But he saluted properly and followed Le to a group of Quonset huts. Two ARVN privates came to attention on their arrival. They held their M-16s to the side, order arms position. Le barked at them in Vietnamese, and one of the privates opened the padlock on the door.
“Sergeant Tinh!” Le shouted in English. “Front and center!”
In the shadows of the hut, through the drizzly rain in his face, Mathes could see several figures stirring from various positions of confinement. And then through the door came the meanest-looking gook Mathes had ever seen.
Like a lot of Vietnamese, he was a little guy, but he stood as though he were Atlas, as though he held up the world without breaking a sweat. His face looked carved from stone—hooded almond eyes and a scar across his brow gave him a permanent scowl. His wide shoulders strained at the dingy tigerstripe cammies. His biceps bulged at the sleeves. His hands were as cracked and dirty as his combat boots. He blinked at the gray light of day, and his eyes landed on Mathes.
“Got a cigarette, Joe?” he said.
“Sergeant Tinh,” Major Le said, “I am temporarily releasing you into the custody of Corporal Mathes. Our American allies have a situation they feel you are well suited to handle. Upon completion of this mission, you are to return at once to serve the remainder of your sentence. Is that clear?”
Tinh grunted. “Mm. Yes, sir.”
Le smiled at Mathes. “He is, as you say, all yours, Corporal. Please extend my regards to Major Taylor.”
Mathes saluted again, doing his best not to show his dislike for this little ratfuck officer. Tinh caught his eye and winked.
In the jeep, Mathes handed Tinh a pack of Luckies and matches, both wrapped in cellophane. Tinh carefully unwrapped them, poked a nail into the corner of his mouth, and lit it, striking the match with his thumbnail, his hand protecting the flame from the wet.
“Mm,” he said, “makes a fine tobacco. Thanks, Joe.”
“Had you in the stockade, huh?”
Tinh raised his eyebrows. “Yep.”
Tinh shrugged. “Don’t know. Could be anything. I was drunk.”
Mathes grinned as he fought to keep the Jeep in the flooded ruts of the dirt road. When Tinh tried to hand back the smokes, Mathes waved him off.
Major Taylor had gotten bored with lobbing darts at the picture of Henry Cabot Lodge. So now Sergeant Kitchen stood in front of the dartboard, doing his best to stand completely at attention.
“Uh, sir?” he said.
Major Taylor closed one eye, aimed. “Hold it right there.” Taylor released the dart and reformed the part in Kitchen’s hair. “Excellent. Yes, Sergeant, what is it?”
“Sir, I don’t mean to, you know…I just don’t understand why this Tinh, sir? Why bring a gook in on American business?”
“Tell me, Sergeant. You’re gunning for the OCS, are you not?”
Kitchen stiffened a bit, allowed a small smile. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, one thing I can tell you,” Taylor said, flinging another dart. It hit the wall just past Kitchen’s ear. “Explaining yourself to non-coms is not a habit you want to get into.”
“On the other hand,” Taylor said, “I am bored out of my mind right now. Sergeant, whatever your feelings about this mission, it’s simply not something we can ignore and hope will go away. It calls for action, not advice.”
“All due respect, sir, but we’re all pretty bored around here.”
“Today, yes, but that will change any minute, if it hasn’t already. That fucking idiot Diem had to go get himself assassinated. And now I hear the reds have made the Gulf of Tonkin into a practice range. If the White House has its way, this war will get hot overnight.”
“That’s great news, sir!”
“Yes, well, officially, I applaud your enthusiasm, Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“Unofficially, I think you are a braying jackass. I may be bored keeping MACV fully stocked with paper clips, but I didn’t join this man’s army to fight phantom commies in canopy jungle. If we go to war, fine, but I see no reason to hurry it along.”
“Can’t we get SOG to take care of this, sir? Isn’t this their specialty?”
“Indeed it is, but without a handwritten invitation from LBJ, the only thing the Studies and Observations Group will be studying and observing is as much pussy as they can handle. Which is quite a bit, to hear them tell it.” Major Taylor leaned back in his chair and hurled a dart into the drop-tile ceiling. It took its place with four or five others, along with a few sharpened pencils.
“So we go to ARVN,” Kitchen said.
“And so we go to ARVN. Let them get what action they can before our Marines come over and hog all the enemy rounds.”
“But this Tinh, sir, he’s—he’s not even an officer.”
“Don’t be a complete idiot, Sergeant. ARVN’s officers run their army like Sergeant Bilko ran his motor pool. They’ll rob you blind, and then steal your smoked spectacles. The enlisted men are the only ones worth a shit, and Sergeant Son Tinh is better equipped for this sort of thing than even an American officer, present company very much included. Any more questions?”
“Good. Now, hold perfectly still …”
Mathes burst into the room, and Taylor’s dart landed point-first in Kitchen’s knee. Kitchen bit the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming. Mathes had to clench his own fists to keep from laughing.
“Major Taylor, sir!” Mathes said in loud, shaky voice. Kitchen stared daggers at him. “Reporting with Sergeant Tinh as ordered, sir!”
“Very good. Sergeant Tinh,” Taylor said, returning their salute, “I trust all is well in the 18th?”
“Lovely. At ease. Sergeant Tinh, as I’m sure you’re aware, we have quite a situation on our hands.”
Mathes glanced at Kitchen, the dart in his knee, sweat beading on his forehead. When Taylor wasn’t looking, Kitchen plucked the dart from his flesh, visibly blanching at the sight of blood on the tip. A strangled giggle escaped from Mathes.
Taylor turned quickly. “Is there something funny, Corporal Mathes?”
“Sir, no, sir!” He kept his eyes on a corner of the ceiling.
“As I was saying, Sergeant Tinh,” Taylor said, “we have a situation here and I feel you’re the only man I can turn to.”
“Mm. Thank you, sir.”
“Yes, well, don’t thank me yet. Tell me, Sergeant, have you ever heard of the Vietnam AmerAsian Nightclub?”
Thuy was trying to think. He allowed his fists to unclench and focused inward, on the formations therein. Once again, he felt serenity and tranquility in his grasp, if only those bastard mongrels would shut the fuck up.
Fists clenched again, Thuy rose from his mat and stomped over to the bastard pen, where the mongrels mewled and whimpered. Father had always told him that he was the most impatient, irresponsible boy he’d ever seen—could never wait for anything, but always late for everything. But even as a young whelp, he could not possibly have made this much noise!
“Quiet!” he shouted, his long mustache trembling past his chin. “You have been fed! There will be no more!”
My poked her head up through the trap door in the far corner. A smudge of dust lay above one thin eyebrow. “Thuy!” she said. “Why do you shout at them? They cannot understand you.”
“They will learn!” Thuy said. “Yes, they will learn their true purpose if I have to beat it into them!”
My climbed into the room and shook her dirty slippers off, revealing her delicate feet. As she approached the pen, a troubled look disturbed her features. “Oh,” she said, sniffing at the air, “no wonder they’re upset. Don’t you smell that?”
“All I smell is the Yankee blood in these … mutants.”
“They need to be changed,” My said, retrieving clean diapers from the bureau, some old safety pins from the glass jar atop it. “Go back to your meditations, Thuy. I will change them myself.”
“Sergeant Tinh,” Taylor said, “as you know, the American military has had a presence in your country for some time, back when your people were fighting the French. Though our government has been careful to stress that we are not here as combat troops, that does not preclude some engagement with the natives. Do you understand?”
“Right. Well, Sergeant, when men—soldiers—are overseas, it does not take long before they miss the comforts of home.”
Mathes dug his nails into his palms. In nine weeks of Basic, he never cracked once, and here he was going to lose it in front of a Major, a First Sergeant, and an ARVN Sergeant on a top-secret mission. Fuck this country.
“Yes,” Taylor said, clearing his throat, “boom-boom. And boom-boom, as history has shown us, leads to children.” The Major actually began to redden a bit. “Now, Sergeant, a man cannot simply bring home a child at the end of his tour. The wife and kids might not take well to a new baby brother or sister.”
“Bụi đời,” Tinh said.
“Yes, I believe that’s the native phrase. Not as harsh as the English—”
“Bastards,” snarled Sergeant Kitchen.
“Thank you, Sergeant. Now, lest you think all Americans heartless, Sergeant Tinh, there has been a sort of enterprise enacted to look after these children, to try to keep them off the streets.”
“Mm. This nightclub.”
“Yes. Vietnam AmerAsians is the quaint label our government gave these little bundles of joy. Despite whatever monetary support their fathers see fit to part with, their mothers often must continue to work, as waitresses, bar mistresses—”
“Whores,” said Kitchen.
“Sergeant Kitchen, do you want to take over this briefing?”
“Uh, no, sir, I—”
“The VAA Nightclub,” Taylor went on, “is the home of an old mama-san who watches over these infants. A Mrs. … what’s the name again, Sergeant Bigmouth?”
Mathes actually whimpered a bit in the back of his throat.
“Tu, sir,” Kitchen said. “Mama Tu, the men call her. Sir.”
“Yes, and unfortunately, Sergeant Tinh, these children have just last night been kidnapped from under Mama Tu’s watchful eyes.”
“How many?” said Tinh.
“Three boys and a girl. We received word that they are being held for ransom at $10,000 apiece. Even if we had the money, which we don’t, there is little doubt these children would not be returned alive.”
“Yes, sir. You want me to find these bụi đời and bring them back alive.”
“Can you do it, Sergeant? We need it done quietly and very, very quickly.”
Taylor smiled down at him. “Very well. We have picked the right man for this job. Dismissed.”
“Yes, Sergeant Kitchen.”
Mathes dared to take his eyes from the ceiling and saw Kitchen glaring at him as he spoke. Glaring and grinning. “Sir, as grateful as I’m sure we all are for Sergeant Tinh’s help, perhaps it would be wise to send one of our men along with him.” He paused, and Mathes could have sworn he was about to lick his lips. “In a purely advisory capacity, of course.”
My hummed as she tended the cookfire, boiling some milk. A loose strand of hair hung in her face and she brushed it back behind her ear. Thuy felt the foolish yearning for her he’d felt when they were but children. He hurriedly pushed it away. “Woman!” he said. “Where is my supper? Must I wait until these brats are seen to?”
“They’ll be awake soon, Thuy,” she said softly. “Even sooner if you don’t keep your voice down.”
“This is my home! I’ll speak as I please.”
“It was your idea to bring these children here,” My said. “Your glorious five-day plan.”
“I will not be mocked, woman,” Thuy said as he strode towards her. “Not even by you.”
Hai ran into the hut. “Sir! The Americans have enlisted Son Tinh, sir! Just as you said they would, sir!” Hai’s broad grin and lazy right eye made him look more like a stupid kid than usual.
Thuy allowed himself a smile. “Excellent news, comrade. Assure Le he will be justly recompensed.”
Hai frowned. “Sir…?”
Thuy fetched a weary sigh. “Tell Le he will get boo-koo reward. The weapons have all been cleaned and inspected?”
“Yes, sir!” Hai said, “I inspected them myself.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll have to hope for the best anyway.”
Hai smiled, but My scowled at Thuy. “Thuy! Hai has done nothing but serve you loyally. Must you be so … so unpleasant?”
Thuy grunted. “Good work, Hai. Go below and tell the men to prepare. We should expect Sergeant Tinh in the next 36 hours. 48 at most.”
Hai saluted and hurried down through the trap door.
My smiled after him. “You see—”
Thuy gripped her by the arm and whirled her around. “You will not chide me in front of my troops, woman! Understand?”
“Thuy, you’re hurting me—”
“Do you understand? Answer me!”
My’s eyes flashed, but then she lowered her head. “Yes.”
My’s lower lip trembled. “Yes, sir.”
Thuy released her arm.
The milk began to burn, and the smell of rancid almonds floated on the air. In their pen, the mongrels awoke and began crying.
The Nightclub was a few blocks away, but Tinh insisted they go up to the marketplace, procure themselves some cigarettes and some bac si de. Mathes glared at him. “Hardly the time for a drink, Sarge.”
“Always time for a drink, Joe.”
“Man, goddammit—my name is Mathes. Corporal Mathes!”
“What’s your first name, Mathes?”
Mathes’ face got redder. “All right, it is Joseph, as a matter of fact. But you didn’t fuckin’ know that!”
“Mm,” Tinh said, the corner of his mouth tugging up a fraction. “You don’t like this mission, do you, Mathes?”
“Following some crazy Arvin Christ-knows-where to save a handful of half-gook bastards? The fuck do you think? That sound like a good mission to you, Sarge?”
“No, it don’t,” Tinh said. “But it does sound like you need a drink.”
Even in the rain, the marketplace was packed, water dripping from the colorful overhangs at each stall. Mathes had never ventured down here, preferring to take his chances on whatever C-rations they had back at MACV. And with good reason, he now saw. Everybody in the marketplace chattered loudly, bickering back and forth. Mathes saw bottles of wine with scorpions in them, fertilized duck eggs eaten with a spoon, and in one lone stall was something called thit cho. Mathes asked Tinh what that was.
“Mm. Dog meat.”
Mathes almost puked right there. “Jesus Christ, man!”
“Mm. Big in Hanoi,” said Tinh.
Mathes followed in Tinh’s steps. No one seemed to give the big Yankee a second glance, but Mathes couldn’t shake the feeling they were all staring. They arrived at a stall, and Mathes stationed himself in the corner where no one could sneak up on him.
The stall’s owner greeted Tinh with a hearty smile, and Mathes was surprised to see Tinh smile back. They took the next minute to scream at each other in Vietnamese and French.
“Hey, Tinh,” Mathes said, “calm down. What’s the problem?”
“We’re haggling. How much money you got, Mathes?”
Mathes shrugged. “I dunno. Fifty bucks.”
“Mm. Lemme borrow it, huh?”
“You want this mission over with ASAP, right?”
“Then borrow me fifty bucks.”
Mathes reached for his wallet. His eyes popped. “My fuckin’ wallet’s gone! Goddammit, I—”
Tinh held up his wallet. “Gotta watch that, Mathes. Lotsa pickpockets.”
Mathes snatched at it, but Tinh removed the cash first before handing it back. Tinh looked at the owner, held up the money.
The owner turned and hollered at the back of the stall. A moment later, a small boy appeared carrying a case of Lucky Strikes. Tinh handed it to Mathes. “Makes a fine tobacco.”
Tinh and the owner spoke some more, their raucous Vietnamese giving Mathes a headache. The owner reached under the table and produced an unlabeled bottle. Tinh took it and they yelled at each other some more until the owner handed him another bottle. Tinh handed over Mathes’ cash.
“Let’s go,” he said.
In the jeep, Tinh pulled the cork from one of the bottles and took a pull, then another. He handed it to Mathes.
“I’m driving here, man.”
“Mm. I know.” Tinh pushed the bottle at him.
Mathes took it and glanced down at the milky stuff inside. Looked harmless. How much bite could there be in whiskey made of rice? He put the bottle to his lips and knocked back a quick slug.
Fire immediately spread over his tongue. Mathes jerked the wheel to the left, almost plowing into a scooter. As Mathes corrected the jeep, a cottony feel dripped down his throat, coated his guts. It felt like a thin layer of Fluffernutter in his esophagus.
“Mm,” Tinh said. “Good?”
Mathes smiled and nodded.
They found Mama Tu on the porch of the VAA Nightclub, bundled up in her chair, watching the drizzle and smoking a cigarette. She didn’t look any worse for the wear to Mathes, except he’d never seen her scowl quite like that. Could just be that he’d never seen her in the light of day.
Tinh bowed deeply to her and nudged Mathes to do the same. Tinh elbowed Mathes again, and Mathes handed her one of the whiskey bottles.
She leaned forward to take it. “Thankee, Joe.”
Tinh handed her the other bottle. She said in Vietnamese, “They stuck you with this round-eye?”
“He’s here in an advisory capacity.”
Mama Tu laughed. “And who’s going to advise him?” she said, smiling warmly at Mathes. Mathes smiled back. The rain came down harder, but she did not invite them onto the porch.
“Mama Tu,” Tinh said, “please tell me what happened.”
She pulled on her cigarette. “I was watching the babies. The boys were sleeping, but Yen began crying. She had a nightmare.”
“About three. Then this big asshole came stomping in and shoved a gun in my face, said they were taking the babies.”
“Him and two others. Wearing masks.”
“What did they look like? Apart from the masks?”
Mama Tu got up from her chair and went into the house. Mathes looked at Tinh. Tinh watched the door patiently. Mama Tu returned with three glasses and handed them to Tinh. He poured as she lowered herself back into the chair.
Mama Tu said, “Mot hai ba, yo,” and they all clinked glasses. Mathes took a sip but saw that they were draining theirs. He held his breath and guzzled his. When he brought the glass down, the rain blurred his eyes. He wiped at them, but they were still blurry.
Mama Tu said, “The leader was big. A scar down his right forearm. The other man was bigger, moved like he didn’t know how his body worked. An idiot. They both had country accents. Farm boys.”
“And the third?”
Mama Tu looked at her glass. “A woman. Small, skinny. Very young.”
Tinh’s glass shattered in his hand.
Mathes said, “Jesus! What is it?”
Tinh said to Mama Tu, “You knew who they were.”
She looked at him. “I know who I wish they weren’t.”
Mathes had no idea what to make of Tinh’s expression. Confusion? Fear? Any emotion looked out of place on Tinh, and Mathes wasn’t sure it wasn’t the booze talking. Jesus, these gooks could brew some whiskey.
After a second, Tinh’s normal blank look returned. “Mm. Thank you, Mama Tu.”
Mama Tu gestured with her glass. “Thank you, Son Tinh.”
Tinh bowed again. Mathes did the same. He followed Tinh to the jeep, pulled his poncho out from under the driver’s seat, and put it on. “Where to?” he said.
“Hell,” Sergeant Tinh said. “But we gotta make a stop first.”
The rain poured down, but the compound was largely dry. Deep in the jungle thicket, the four huts sat under protection of the green canopy. The creek that ran alongside swelled, but was far from reaching the high banks. My knew this would not last if the rain kept up like this.
She carefully walked across the rickety bridge, her yellow ao dai plastered to her lithe form. She stopped and looked up at the gray sky. She thought she heard a plane, her toes involuntarily curling in her slippers. But it was just her imagination.
At the far end of the bridge, Thuy unpacked the case of MON-50 claymores and handed them to My. He was in unusually high spirits, humming as he worked.
“Darling,” she said, “this bridge would collapse under the weight of a large sneeze. Is all this ordinance really necessary?”
Thuy clucked his tongue. “My dear girl, once this war gets properly underway, it’s only the drama anyone will remember. We have to give the fucking Americans a show or we’ll never get rid of them. That’s all they give a shit about: fireworks.”
“The Americans? I thought Son Tinh—I thought he was expected?” My frowned up at the sky, as though the gods were listening.
“Same fucking thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
“But the tunnels will be manned, there will be ground patrols inside the perimeter. Anyone with even half a brain would never use this old thing in a frontal assault.” She batted at the bridge to emphasize her point. It groaned in agreement.
“If this goes like I think it will, no one will cross this bridge until it’s all over. If it’s me, I’ll blow the damn thing myself. If it’s our adversary,” he said, pulling the tripwire tight across the mouth of the bridge, “then he’ll do the honors for me.”
And then Thuy actually smiled.
“Who the fuck’re these guys again?” Mathes said. He had a terrible itch on his nose, but he didn’t dare scratch.
“Old friends,” Tinh said. His hands, like Mathes’, were held high in the air.
The docks on this part of the Saigon River were rotting. Any boats moored were peeling apart at the seams, clinging to buoyancy. As they had approached, they’d seen no signs of life, except for some stray dogs Mathes later realized were rats. The little shipyard looked abandoned apart from the chain link gate, which looked brand new. Mathes had been admiring the action on it, how easily it rolled, when he looked up and there was a pistol in his face.
If the five men holding guns on them were bothered by the rain, they didn’t show it. They stood silent, the rain hammering the hulking wrecks of pontoons and various other boats in the yard. The five gooks were dressed in ratty uniforms pieced together from other armies: a French shirt, a Russian jacket, Chinese hats. The United Nations of Fuck You, Yankee.
“Now what?” Mathes said to Tinh from the corner of his mouth.
A raucous laugh rose from behind the shack in the center of the yard. “What are these vermin we’ve caught?” A voice in Vietnamese. “Too skinny for wharf rats!”
“It’s Son Tinh, you toothless fuck. Call off your dogs.”
A tiny man came around the shack, his rusty M-16 as big as he. When he laughed again, Mathes saw his mouth, as black as the ace of clubs. “Gimme one good reason I should help you, Son Tinh!”
“Because if you don’t, Gummy Ba, I’ll rape that toothless hole in your head right here in front of your men.”
None of Gummy Ba’s men blinked, but they all racked the slides on their pistols.
“Jesus Christ!” Mathes said. “The fuck you say to them?”
“Ha ha!” Gummy Ba said. “Your ladyfriend is jealous, Son Tinh! Better send her back to Hollywood!”
“You like?” Son Tinh said. “I was going to trade you something else for help, but …”
“What’re you talking about?”
“We need your help to fight Thuy. Now’s your chance to get back at him for making you look like a faggot back in ’55.”
Ba pointed the M-16 at Tinh’s face. “Help you? Gimme one goddamn reason!”
“The case of American cigarettes we got in the jeep.”
“Yeah, that’s a good one.” Gummy Ba lowered his weapon. His men lowered theirs. “Hey, Joe,” Ba said to Mathes in English, “you got smokee? Why the fuck you no say?”
An hour before, these gooks held guns on him. Now they were getting him absolutely polluted on rice whiskey and Mu’o’i Bu, the shittiest beer Mathes had ever eagerly guzzled in his life. As the sun went down, they cooked chickens on a spit over an oil drum, a leaky tarp keeping most of the rain off them. The wind whipped rain in at them occasionally, but it wasn’t long before they were too drunk to care.
“The fuck’re these guys again?” Mathes said.
“Các Binh Sĩ Cũ,” Tinh replied, lighting Mathes’ cigarette.
“The Old Soldiers, Joe!” Gummy Ba shouted in his face. Even past the booze and meat, Gummy Ba’s breath smelled like twice-cooked shit.
“Uh-huh,” Mathes said. “Like ARVN?”
“Fuck ARVN!” Gummy Ba said. “Fuck ARVN, fuck the Minh, and fuck fuckin’ Uncle Ho! You like that, Joe?”
“Sure thing.” Mathes smiled. Gummy Ba laughed some more and wandered off for another beer. Mathes turned to Tinh. “How do you know these nutjobs, Sarge?”
Tinh took a long pull from his bottle. “Long time ago, there was the Binh Xuyen. Like ARVN, but not as shitty. We were an independent army inside the VNA. Part of it, but we run our own business.”
“Used to be you boys’ outfit, huh?”
“Yes, a good outfit. We fight the French, fuck them up good. But they drive us south anyways. Binh Xuyen good soldiers, but better gangsters.”
“We fucking owned Saigon, Joe!” Gummy Ba said, loping up to them with a fresh beer in each hand. “We smuggle, run protection, kidnap rich fucks. We owned this town!”
“It’s true,” said Tinh. “We kept the Viet Minh and the Red Chinese cocksuckers out of Saigon. But then our leader, our general, Bay Vien, he fuck up.”
“He try to take out Diem, Joe! How you like that? The fucking president!”
“He fuck up bad. Have to … what you say? Exile?”
Gummy Ba puckered his lips and batted his eyelashes. “He go to gay Paree! Become dancing girl! Make boom-boom with boo-koo French soldiers!” And then he laughed from deep in his chest.
“Bay Vien exiled to Paris. Binh Xuyen all over with, far as we’re concerned. I joined ARVN. Ba stayed with his crew.”
“What’s left of it,” Ba said.
“And Thuy?” Mathes said. “He a part of all that?”
“Mm. He went with Diem. For a time, anyway.”
“Fuck Diem,” Gummy Ba said with a sneer and sulked off.
“The regular VNA kicked the shit out of us. Ran us out of Saigon, pushed us back into the jungle. Rung Sat. And we kept fighting anyway. Had nothing else to do. One night, middle of a firefight, Thuy was about to slit Ba’s throat until I showed up. We fought, but it was a draw. It was always a draw, since we were kids.”
“Mm. He had a knife, gave me this.” Tinh pointed at the scar on his brow. “I took it away from him, though, tried to put it through his heart, but only managed to slice his arm open. And then Ba cold-cocked him and we got the fuck out of there.”
“You guys knew each other when you were kids?” Mathes said.
Sergeant Tinh sighed. “Mathes, it’s late. We got a day and a half hump to talk about all that.”
“Oh, okay,” Mathes said and drained his bottle. Then he spit it all out. “Fuckin’ day and a half?”
It was just over a day’s haul down the Saigon River to the Mekong. Gummy Ba and his crew had a gunboat that had seen its best days in the Big One. There was barely enough room for the eight of them, but they were too wired on booze and impending combat to give a shit.
As they approached Vi Thanh, Ba killed the engines. They left the boat in a meander, the trees creating something like a cave. Mathes had never seen such pitch black before. He longed for the streetlights of the city, any city.
“Let’s go,” Sergeant Tinh said.
They humped through the jungle, Mathes weighed down with a heavy pack full of rations. They didn’t plan on being in the jungle for long but, as Ba put it, “Nobody plans to starve to death, Joe. It just happen!”
Tinh, Ba, and his men each had M1 rifles. Ba was armed with his trusty, rusty M-16. And one man, Lang, had an AK.
They had not walked long when Lang, on point, held up a hand. They all stopped. Ba and Tinh whispered in Vietnamese. Ba signaled to Lang. Lang melted into the jungle.
“Now what?” Mathes said.
“Lang’s going on recon,” Tinh said. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”
“Where are we? Do we even know where we’re going?”
“Well, how? How do you know where this Thuy is holed up?”
Tinh lit himself a cigarette, the light of the flame cupped in his hands. “Because we grew up here.”
Two hours later, Lang was back with the skinny: four huts formed a square in a small clearing two klicks away. Ten men patrolling the grounds. Lights on in one hut, but men in and out of two of the other three. A creek ran along the east of the clearing, spanned by a rickety wooden bridge. Half a klick north of the bridge was a tunnel entrance. There was no way to know how many men were down there, waiting for them.
“Only one way to find out,” Tinh said.
As they approached the clearing, the rain tapered off and then stopped altogether.
“Good deal,” Mathes whispered.
“Mm,” Tinh said, “not so much. We could have used the cover.”
“You want cover, Son Tinh?” Gummy Ba said. “We can do that.”
And he hurled a grenade towards the clearing.
The bullets whizzed above Mathes’ head as he followed Sergeant Tinh to the tunnel entrance, the yellow trails of the bullets in the air like fireflies. Thuy’s men sounded the charge, but Gummy Ba’s crew remained relatively quiet, their bursts of rifle-fire short and sharp. The answering fire was long and scattered, giving Ba and his men plenty of time to maneuver while the enemy fired wild into the bush.
Mathes felt his throat dry up, nearly closing. He wished for the first time since he’d landed in this soggy nightmare that it’d fucking rain again. He held his service revolver in both hands, covering the Sarge’s back. As they neared the tunnel, one of Thuy’s men popped out like a jack-in-the-box.
Tinh was on him with his KA-BAR in an instant, giving the gook another smile under his chin. The next man out of the tunnel got Tinh’s boot in his face. Mathes heard the man’s nose smash into his own skull, and his K-rations started coming back on him. Tinh stomped the man’s face twice more, just to be sure. “Let’s go.”
The tunnel was small, the ceiling so low that even Tinh had to hunch over. Mathes’ knuckles were almost to the ground. There was little light, a low red glow, but Mathes never determined the source. He just stayed on the Sarge’s heels, almost bowling him over each time they came to a cross-tunnel and the Sarge stopped to listen for approaching enemy. Mathes had no idea how long they were down there, time a distant memory, like pussy or joy. The weight of the earth above, the jungle, the foreign men and their foreign war, they all pressed down on Mathes’ head, until he felt like screaming his throat raw.
At the next cross-tunnel, two men approached from their left. Tinh let the first one crawl past, and then jammed his knife into the neck of the second man. He died silently, his windpipe neatly sliced in half, but as his body collapsed to the ground, his buddy turned. He drew in a breath. Mathes raised his pistol.
“No!” Tinh said, but Mathes pulled the trigger and blew the gook’s brains out the back of his hat. The shot deafened them both, and for a second, Mathes wasn’t sure that he hadn’t just shot himself in the head.
Tinh didn’t take the time to explain that Mathes had ruined whatever stealth they’d had. He just worked the strap of the AK off the nearest dead man and took point. He moved dead ahead, heedless of any cross-tunnels.
They turned right, then left, then right again. Tinh caught sight of two more men coming at him from fifty feet away. He put his shoulders up, trying to cover his ears as best he could, and opened fire. The AK tore through both men. Tinh never stopped, stepped right over the bodies in his path. His throbbing ears picked up shouts, but he had no idea where they were coming from. He kept his finger on the trigger.
“Mathes!” he shouted. “Your six!”
Mathes turned and the big gook was on top of him. How they ever fit this boy down in this tunnel was beyond him. He was shirtless, and his brown skin almost glowed. He leered at Mathes as he brought his hands up around the young corporal’s throat. Mathes stared bug-eyed as the boy—he couldn’t be any older than Mathes—strangled him with his massive hands. It took Mathes only a few seconds, though, before he put his Colt .45 under the boy’s chin and painted the ceiling with his brains.
“Jesus,” Mathes said, his whisper loud in his skull. “Jesus Christ.”
“Mm,” said Tinh, “let’s go. And bring your buddy.”
Gummy Ba had killed at least eight of Thuy’s men by himself, the jungle his cloak. He almost laughed out loud as Thuy’s men ran around like cocks with no hens. Thuy must have got these faggots wholesale from Hong Kong.
Lang appeared next to where Ba squatted watching the main hut, the soft light of its cookfire in the window. Lang nodded towards it, but Ba shook his head. “This is Tinh’s fight.”
In the hut, Thuy sat in the lotus position, his rifle oiled and cleaned at his side. My lay on the floor, her sights on the trapdoor in the corner. The mongrels howled now. Thuy had almost succeeded in shutting out the noise, the screams, the smell of smoke. But then Hai burst in. A thin trail of blood was spattered across his face.
“Sir!” he said, “they’re killing us out there! I don’t know what to do!”
“You can start by shutting the fuck up.” Thuy rose. He walked calmly to Hai, the idiot’s lazy eye spinning in uncontrollable circles in its socket. Thuy smiled and then slapped him in the face. “And then you can close the door. We’re expecting our real company any moment now.”
Hai did as he was told and then squatted down in the opposite corner from the trapdoor, his rifle in his shaking hands.
Thuy stood in the center of the room, his hands clasped behind his back. The rain outside started up again, a few sprinkles on the roof, and then sheets of rain. The scar on Thuy’s right arm began to itch.
Slowly, so slowly, the trapdoor opened.
My’s whole body tensed, then relaxed.
A hand poked up through the trapdoor. Then the door itself opened all the way.
My fired, just once. The trapdoor slammed shut, and they heard the ladder snap as whoever it was fell back to the tunnel floor. The babies screamed louder.
Hai laughed. He bounced across the room and flung the trapdoor open.
My had time to shout, “Hai!” before a .45 round tore Hai’s face off.
Sergeant Son Tinh rose from out of the tunnel. He fired Mathes’ revolver at My, clipping her in the shoulder. The yellow of her ao dai blossomed a red flower. She fell to the floor with a cry, landing on her narrow bottom.
Tinh faced his brother. “Shall we?” he said to Thuy Tinh.
Corporal Joseph Mathes once saw a Marine, a big black private, smash another Marine’s teeth into a curb outside a bar in Fallbrook. In high school, he saw two greasers get in a knife fight over a girl, watched as one slit the other’s stomach open. The kid’s guts showed, just a little, through the curtain of blood. A bunch of the guys, just six months ago, dragged him to a dogfight in Cholon, and he watched two scrawny mutts fight until one tore the other’s throat out with its teeth.
He’d never seen anything like this.
Tinh dropped Mathes’ pistol, and then carefully removed and laid down the AK strapped to his chest. He tossed the KA-BAR away. It landed point-first in the floor with a thunk. Thuy kicked away his own AK. He lifted his shirt to show no weapons in his belt. Then they both bowed to each other.
Thuy leapt across the room with a yell. Tinh blocked his punch and then bowled him over. Thuy landed on his back, and kicked up, catching Tinh in the chest. Tinh took three steps back as Thuy leapt to his feet in one motion, landed in a crouch, and swept a kick at Tinh’s legs. Tinh jumped, bending his legs at the knees, and then landed knee-first as he delivered a tremendous punch to Thuy’s face. Both men rolled back into a somersault, onto their feet, and back into a crouch. Thuy smiled at his brother. Tinh did not return it.
This time they came at each other simultaneously. Mathes, crouched on top of the tunnel’s ladder, could not make out their individual fists in the flurry of blows that followed. Each man would block, block, block, every third or fourth blow finding its mark. Blood exploded from Thuy’s nose, Tinh’s mouth. Tinh grabbed Thuy’s left arm and pulled it up behind his back. Thuy stomped his instep and elbowed him in the kidney with his free arm.
Tinh whirled back and around. Thuy spun him further, whipping him into the wall. Mathes looked to the woman still staring at her bloody shoulder in disbelief, and then moved his attention to the bamboo pen where the babies were kept. They screamed and howled. But one baby had pulled herself up and was just standing there. Watching.
Thuy pinned Tinh’s throat to the wall and punched him in the breadbasket. As the air rushed out his lungs, Tinh felt Thuy’s hold on his throat tighten. He butted at Thuy’s face, but Thuy shook the blow off and laughed.
“When you get to hell, little brother,” Thuy said, “be sure to have the devil build a new wing for all your American friends.” And he reached back and drew the short knife he had hidden under his belt.
The baby pointed and said, “Uh-da!”
Mathes said, “Sarge!”
My grabbed the Colt off the floor and fired.
Thuy saw the bullet strike Tinh in the shoulder, but then felt the blood running down his own back and knew it had passed through him first. He immediately released Tinh and turned, and then My fired again, shooting him in the stomach.
Thuy fell to the floor.
Tinh coughed and coughed as Mathes pulled himself out of the trapdoor, kicked the gun out of My’s hand. “Don’t move, lady. We’re taking these kids and we’re getting out of here.”
Tinh looked down at his older brother, watched the blood pool on the floor. Thuy smiled. “You might as well kill them now, Son Tinh. Fucking bụi đời. You know as well as I do what kind of life they’ll have.”
“Your blood,” Tinh said. “I can smell the Chinese in it.”
Thuy laughed, a pathetic wheeze. “Yes, it stinks. You should be used to it by now, though, I would think.”
Tinh reached down and pulled the KA-BAR out of the floor. “Say hello to Father for me.”
“I will,” Thuy said. “Chúc ngủ ngon, Son Tinh.”
“Good night, Thuy Tinh.” Sergeant Tinh cut Thuy’s throat. “You fucking asshole.”
Son Tinh focused carefully on My’s shoulder as he bandaged it but could feel her eyes boring into his face. He said, “Does this mean you’ll take me back, little one?”
My laughed. “Not if you were the last bastard in Vietnam, Son Tinh.”
“That’s what I thought.”
He let that hang in the air. My waited until he’d finished bandaging her up and looked her in the eye. She said, “Once, Thuy Tinh fought with honor for his homeland. But somewhere along the way, he began fighting for himself, and with dishonor. Bringing a knife to a fistfight was the last straw.”
“Mm.” Son Tinh nodded. “Can I get you anything else, My?”
“Yes,” she said. “You can get the fuck out of my house.”
Son Tinh gave a sharp whistle. After a few minutes, Gummy Ba returned it, signaling the all-clear. Mathes and Tinh came out, each with two babies in his arms. All of them except little Yen cried and screamed in the rain.
Even with the ringing in his ears and the screaming bastards in his arms, Mathes smiled hugely at Gummy Ba and his men standing at the bridge. “Well, goddamn, boys!” he said. “Mission accomplished, huh? Let’s go home.” He stepped onto the bridge and Gummy Ba hauled him back.
“You fucking crazy, Joe?” he said and pointed at the MON-50 poking out from under the bridge, glistening in the rain.
“You want whole place go up?” Ba said.
“Sure he does,” Tinh said. “But not tonight.”