Last Night in Saigon
by Eric DePriester
I started with the onion, slicing off three concentric circles and discarding any lingering skin. As it simmered in the pan, I slid two slices of bread into the toaster and shaved a block of Asiago cheese. The onions transitioned from white to translucent to perfectly caramelized, and in came an egg, along with cheese carefully stacked atop the sizzling pile of onions. While the pan did its part, I spread pesto across both slices of bread and readied a plate.
The phone rang, an unknown number with too many digits to be domestic.
I answered. “Hello?”
“Yes, hello? Hello? This Charlie?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“It Tao, in Saigon. You know me?”
“You work at Boston Bar?”
“Yes, yes. Your friend, he drink too much? Matt?”
“Yes.” She paused. “He dead.”
“What did you say?”
“Your friend Matt, he dead. Last night, at hotel next door.”
I smelled burning: a consuming and overwhelming sensation that worked its way through the nostrils, all the way into the head, and left behind fiery visions of chaos and decay; I inhaled a toxic, nauseating cloud of everything beautiful, everything I’ve ever loved, coming to a dark and torturous end; I looked down at the pan, at my blackened breakfast, and let it burn, and waited for the alarm.
The next morning, I boarded a plane back to Vietnam.
With Pop long gone, Ma too weak to travel, and no other siblings to claim, I was the next of kin responsible for the identification and transportation of my brother’s body. Ma told me to extend the trip, to take the opportunity to visit old friends and favorite haunts, but I couldn’t stomach the thought. To spend any more time in that heartless land, in that brutal country that drove Matt to his end, the city that assisted in his suicide, would be courting additional disaster and heartache; another casualty to add to the tally. Instead, I would land midday, proceed straight to the police station, and return the next morning.
The screen in front of my seat malfunctioned midway through the flight, leaving me to complimentary drinks and unwelcome trains of thought. I couldn’t focus on one topic long enough to make any sense of it, to distill any meaning or explanation from the clouded account; I bounced between sorrow for never hearing his cutting laugh again, guilt for not responding while there was time, and anger for his senseless and sudden end. The worst of it was,it violated everything I knew about Matt. For someone so full of life, so full of everything, to decide that death was the only answer remaining, the last card in his hand--that was the hardest part to swallow.
Even in his darkest times, when he devoted himself to disembowelments and head-shots and the other hallmarks of video game violence, when he jumped down the rabbit hole of goth theatrics and became obsessed with visions of grisly death, when he absorbed formerly avant-garde philosophers and their fixation on obliterating the ego, when he declared that no matter how many substances he swallowed or voids he filled, it was never enough to silence his self-derived doubts, through all of the worst I'd ever seen, through the most tortured and twisted tangents, I never thought he could make a decision so selfish and conclusive.
I couldn't shake the first day--he must have been six--he understood that death existed, and that one day it would come for him. He skipped home from school and went straight to the backyard to play with his pet bunny, only to find Shadow silent and still on the back lawn. Ma came outside to find him clutching the corpse, shaking it and screaming at it, begging for it to wake up, to come and play. She sat him down and explained that nothing lasts forever, that even the oldest things once were nothing and that one day they would be nothing again. When I returned from soccer practice, he was sitting on the front porch with dry tear tracks down his cheeks. I asked him what was wrong, and he was no longer mourning Shadow, he said, "I don't want to be nothing.”
I couldn't stew further; I waited until the stewardess took her leave and pilfered the drink cart for as many bottles as I could fist, and guzzled them one by one until thorny thought gave way to blank slumber.
Heat hit me right as the plane doors opened, that exhausting humidity that seeps through your clothes and lives right under your skin, sending up shivers of sweat and ensuring that no single moment of your day will be completely comfortable without the addition of air conditioning or a well-placed fan. I waited my turn and shuffled out with the rest of the passengers – the camera-toting sightseers, red-faced families, cocooned elderly locals, and ethnically impossible to place outliers - off the plane and on to customs.
When it was my turn, I handed my passport and form through the window and waited for the harshly uniformed and featured woman to authorize my passage.
“Business or pleasure?”
She glanced up. “Are you here for business or pleasure?”
I shook my head. “Tragedy.”
She stamped my passport and handed it through the window without another look.
The streets were just as I remembered, full of speeding scooters stacked with entire families, put-upon bikes with overloads of cargo, scattered cars to add sufficient hazard, and a hundred directions all at once; riders barreling down sidewalks of one-way streets and traffic circles where chicken was the only rule, motorists barely missing the street-side carts and trickles of pedestrian impositions, storefronts transitioning from high-class auto dealerships and foreign banks to shanty towns and soup shacks, entire blocks dedicated to one commodity, strips of stores selling only aquarium supplies, mannequin accoutrements, or some other oddly specific commercial subset, finally to the neighborhood that I called home, to District 1 - the central area of Saigon full of aging tourist attractions, modern business institutions, and alleys holding every delicacy and deed open to imagination, the sparkling and exciting and sinister hub that made the entire mechanism run.
At the police station, I paid the driver and stepped outside. I couldn’t face him yet, so I bought a pack of American cigarettes and choked three down. Then, I went inside.
They told me he fell eleven stories to the street. I expected a mangled, unrecognizable assembly of flesh and blood and stripped skin, but when they lifted the sheet, he looked the same as he always did. Fractures to the skull had misshapen his head and crusted blood matted his hair and face, but underneath the slight veil of gore, there he was: the once broken and forever bent nose, the once electric eyes forever closed, the scar on his right brow, the slightest upturn of that goofy grin that he always had, struggling to break free from his solemnly pursed lips. I imagined the mortician would fix that before the service.
There were papers to sign and hands to shake, but all I wanted were answers. They didn’t have any, other than the site of the incident, the height of his fall, and the grease they expected to ensure his safe delivery to a mortuary for embalming and on to the airport the next morning. Too defeated to protest or bargain, I paid their asking price, looked at that little grin one last time, and stepped back into the sweltering street.
At the front desk, the fresh-faced clerk read my passport and switched from congenial to sympathetic in a second.
“Mason. Are you brother of Matt Mason?”
“I was. No, I still am. Yes.”
“I so sorry for you.”
“What can you tell me?”
“He here two nights, check in Monday.”
“And Tuesday? What happened?”
“Tuesday, I work late, I stay in lobby. He come down, two or three o’clock, and talk funny, look scary. He have computer.”
“At five, next door, they come and knock and say, ‘White man fall.’ I go outside, and he there.”
“We have cameras in hall and outside. He alone whole night.”
“So we can rule out murder.”
“At five, he go to tenth floor, with computer. He climb outside, onto balcony. He have no shirt. He climb to roof.”
“He fall, two buildings away. He jump, two roofs.”
“And missed the third.”
“Jesus. And the computer?”
“Where is it?”
“I do not know.”
Since the news arrived, the only solace I’d found was in small suicides, dips into the well of intoxicants and numbing agents destined to end in my doom, that provided the only fleeting present I could possibly bear. With this last wave of Intel, I needed a serious stew, so I headed to the nearest and dearest watering hole: Boston Bar.
First selected for its broadcasts of American basketball, Boston Bar became as much a part of our lives as any friend we drew into our circle. The home-base for every night out, the after-work stop-off point for an evening wind-me-down, the 24-hour joint that housed our latest and darkest behaviors, the venue we represented in the citywide darts league, the one vendor that swallowed more of my paychecks than any other source, Boston Bar felt more like home than any of the dingy apartments we occupied. We met our closest chums there, knew all the bartenders, and held court like we truly belonged with the type of familiarity and privilege that can only be cultivated through dedicated and extensive alcoholism.
None of the old girls were there, and all the better. I didn’t feel like talking; I only wanted a drink. Over a bottle of local beer and a glass of imported bourbon, I alternated between staring at the tip of a constantly lit cigarette and staring off into nothing at all. Two rounds passed, and I felt myself slowly slipping into sweet forgetfulness, only to be shaken by a firm hand on the shoulder. I turned to find Cliff, our English drinking companion, stub nose and beady eyes and closely cropped hair and everything else exactly the same as I’d left him.
“How is it, then? Welcome back.”
He took the seat next to mine and jabbered some local tongue. The bartender nodded and returned with two bottles.
“Look, mate, I’m sorry to hear it. I’m as shocked as you.”
“I had no idea, he’d never said anything.”
“We talked a bit, yeah, before his go.”
“Met him a few times, right here. Fresh from the Philippines, seemed full of it, the first time. Few weeks later, he looked light and scared, like he’d been strung out on something.”
“You know Matt. Could’ve been anything.” He paused to let it marinate. “He was talking nonsense, saying they were following him, they were out for him.”
“He had that apartment, in District 3, last year. Round that time, said his neighbors were keeping eyes on him, telling him to watch his company. He was bringing all types around, whores and dealers and all sorts.”
“He had a knack for that.”
“He left in a hurry, if you remember. Said he had to get out right quick.”
“And they were after him again?”
“I’m not sure they were the first time.”
We finished our round, Cliff jabbered some more, and the bartender brought another.
I lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl around my fingers and float into the ceiling, and fade away into nothing.
Cliff did the same.
“Okay, so what did he say this time? Anything specific? Like, who was after him?”
“No, he was just chattering, just going off with it. Changing passwords, taking his trash out across the street, explaining every little thing he was going to do, but never getting round to what was being done.”
“So you think it was nothing.”
“I reckon he was hopped up on something strong, and he got some odd ideas into his head, and they stuck there, and they rotted out the whole thing.”
I let that simmer while I drained my bottle. “What about those shifty characters, the dealers and such? Any chance he fucked around and stirred up the wrong nest?”
“With Matt, that’s always in play.”
“The hotel said he was alone.”
“Then there you go.”
“It doesn’t mean he wasn’t running from something real.”
“I reckon you’re right.”
He finished his and pointed to the empty bottles. “Another?”
Deep into steamy night, the bar filled with passing tourists, jaded expats, and a scattering of native locals and probable prostitutes. It was the same cast of characters I’d seen night after night, the same moods and modes and moves -- only the faces had shifted. The original cast long moved on, these understudies occupied the same space and ran the same scripts, thoughtlessly putting on the same performance I’d observed too many times to count. None of them knew how bound they were to ritual, how many decisions were made without their consent; context set the stage, and they merely performed their predetermined directions.
Cliff nodded to the dart board. “How about the Bruisers, eh?”
“We had some good rounds.”
“Hell, we barely won. Most of it, we picked fights with the other bastards, and Matt was always first.”
“Remember that brawl at Blue Bar? When he pushed over that old lardass, and Smiley slapped a waitress, and everyone started shouting ‘Mafia’?”
“And Matt, he got pushed outside. The parking kids, they brought out the pipes.”
“They thought he was the ‘Mafia’. I was standing in the back, smoking a cigarette and taking it all in, and I catch him through the window, making the weirdest face. I made one right back like it was a game. I had no idea what was happening.”
“We got lucky there.”
“How about my birthday? That night we took pills and hit the club, first that Vietnamese joint.”
“With everyone standing around the tables, not doing a thing.”
“We got booted for dancing.”
“Then? What, Apocalypse?”
“That’s right. That was my first time, and I couldn’t tell who was a hooker and who just wanted my money. And Matt, he’s grinning through the whole thing, bumping up on randoms and lifting free drinks from table service.”
“That grin, I’ll never forget it. That plastered on face, when he was really into it.”
“His eyes bulging, like they were about to pop right out. You couldn’t say no to that. No matter how stupid the suggestion, you had to agree, just by those eyes and that grin.”
“That’s how we started Winehouse Wednesdays.”
Cliff reeled back. “Christ, I’d forgotten Teboos. Is that how they came about?”
“Matt wanted to send out shots across the bar as a dare, something awful enough to reconsider, but easy enough to accept, and that was the ticket.”
“We’d order them for everyone.”
“I still have one of his drawings, when he was trying to explain to some poor waitress what the hell it was.”
“Half and half.”
“Right. But you say Teboo, and no one has any idea what you’re saying.”
“They did here.”
“Because we trained them.”
Cliff waved at the bartender. For my benefit or due to his drink, he kept to English. “Miss, can we get two Teboos?”
He shook his head. “She’s new.”
I smiled. “That’s fine. Here, it’s simple. Half Tequila, half Malibu.” I pointed to the bottles in question. “That’s it.”
She gave me a hard look, then poured out and delivered our poison. Glasses in hand, we clinked.
Cliff said, “To Matt.”
I could barely feel a thing, I was full of it all.
Cliff looked about the same. “Well, what is it then? Should we keep on it?”
“Those dealers, those shady types you were talking. Those neighbors. Where are they?”
“The people Matt was scared of. Where are they?”
“Look, mate, I don’t know what you want, but this isn’t the time, if there ever was one. And I’d say there isn’t. That’s a dead road.”
“We have to check, ask around. See if anyone knew anything.”
“I know all you need, all right? I saw him. He was on the ropes, barely holding on, chattering crazy. It wasn’t anyone chasing him, he was after himself.”
“That can’t be true.”
“It can be, and is.”
I slammed my palm against the bar. “That’s not the story, that’s not it.”
Cliff cracked his lips and stared.
“You can’t tell me that he died for nothing. Give me something, give me anything. A passing death threat, a person that peeked too close, any scrap of suspicion that made his death more than a drug-fueled fantasy gone wrong.”
He finished his drink. “Sorry, mate, but I don’t think I can.”
I stepped into the pedestrian swell of the backpacker district and stumbled through the masses, scanning each passing face and attempting to pair old memory to new targets. The exact people I was looking for didn’t matter, I simply had to find someone to interrogate, some clever native or engrained expat with a few explanations tucked away, anything more than the nothing they’d served me.
Who did I know, who would possibly be a source? Mao, the mousy dealer who prowled the curb outside his cafe and made the occasional motorbike delivery? George, the big and bloody bastard who fucked with fire and somehow still got along? Thuy, the waitress who blew her way through half our crew? An, the street kid who skateboarded in front of the Cathedral and sold us pot? Tony, the friend who followed us out here, only to be consumed by the city and descend into deep and lasting madness?
I passed through the tanned and burned tourists proudly declaring their skin tone with tank tops and short shorts, through the old and haggard men perched atop motorbikes with newspapers, bottles, and cigarettes, waiting for their next fare, through the street carts full of sandwiches, soups, dumplings, and cigarettes, through the souvenir shops and travel agencies, through the neon bars booming with last year’s hits and serving buckets of tonight’s escape, through the young girls in minimal dresses and maximal makeup, waiting in doorways and beckoning with fingers and lips and hips, through the beggar children carrying briefcases of knickknacks and cigarettes, through the dizzying and sobering traffic running down the middle of everything, through every eye and limb looking for any little trace, and I couldn’t find a single one. Even if I did, it wouldn’t have meant a thing.
I walked the outside of the hotel and the neighboring buildings, looking for any wreckage to indicate a shattered laptop, knowing that if any salvageable parts had survived, they would have been cleaned up and carried off long ago. Still, a forgotten chip or discarded piece of plastic would bring some closure, would clear up one question. Finding no sign, I continued inside.
The fresh-faced boy was still behind the counter. “Hello.”
“How ya doing. Can I get a room?”
“Yes, I check.” He scanned the registry.
“My brother’s room, if it’s available.”
He went white. “Mr. Mason.”
“I don’t care, whatever it is. Just give me the room.”
He looked back to the registry. “706. Okay.”
He handed me the key and I went on my way.
With a little powder picked up from a street peddler, a sixer of local beer, and another pack of American smokes, I snorted and drank and smoked my way into something furious, into a consuming animal of the moment, that fed only on raw experience and ethereal truth, that hunted the next prey with no regard to past lessons or future fallout, the beast that always lurked within and now seldom left its restraints, the ravaging and rampaging alter ego guilty of my most heinous crimes and most joyous pleasures and the profoundest truths I’ve ever found, and I prowled the room, hunting and sniffing and sifting, and snooped around every edge and under every piece of furniture, looked at windows and wall art and into the bathroom mirror, where I saw the red-faced, sweat-stained, crazy-eyed creature I’d become. I took a good long look, then checked the toilet and trashcan and shower, and rounded off the search with another line, another beer, and another smoke.
At the tenth floor, I found the French door and the balcony, and I went outside. I leveraged onto the railing, grabbed the edge of the roof, and shimmied my feet up the drain pipe as I hauled torso through forearms and shoulders, then swung legs and feet over and safe. I stood and looked over the roof, the empty roof with no hiding places or secret nooks, just a vast emptiness that would have been easily cleared by now, and lit a smoke and paced the thing. After a lap and a few cuts through the belly, I came up empty.
I turned and faced the hotel next door, and walked right to the edge. There was a five-foot gap. The next leap looked closer to eight, with a raised height to boot. I wouldn’t even attempt the first, I knew that before even considering it, before even putting the idea out for examination. Instead, I stared at the alley below, at distant and distinct objects, and back up and out towards the city, to the glittering skyscraper lights and veiled construction sites, to the dramatically lit Opera house and the dense fog of fuming traffic, to the brightly colored ants populating the entire picture, to the street itself, to that dark and dooming portal to the unknown; that bridge to infinity, the only tangible object I could ascribe my scorn to, the only possible perpetrator left to blame, to that filthy thing that claimed a young, ripe life, and I spat, and I flicked down my cigarette butt, and I hissed and spat again, and I gave a good long series of curses, and wondered why it didn’t take me. Why the city sunk its teeth into me yet relented long enough for me to run. Why it didn’t pull me down and under and through that abyss. Why it held on to Matt and let me go free.
Another set of hands found the ledge and the fresh-faced boy reached his head up. I walked over and followed him back down.
I woke up midway through the flight, and I couldn't return to that sweet nothing. Instead, I stirred and slurped a series of Bloody Marys and flipped through the in-flight entertainment, praying that one of the B-level action flicks or family cartoons had enough stimuli to distract me -- none of them did.
Beneath me, beneath us, the expansive cargo section held rows of lopsided duffel bags and matching luggage, stuffed with carefully picked and packed clothing and an assortment of cultural keepsakes, the kind of relics and products they needed to prove they’d really been there, either to themselves or to domestic associates; the conical hats and loose leaf green teas and bottles of snake wine and silk shawls and custom-tailored suits and shot glasses and ethnic instruments, the things they’d set on the shelf and never pick up until they throw them out, or bestow upon a friend or family member to do the same.
Everybody had something to show for the journey, and I had my brother. He was nothing more than a memento, another souvenir to shoulder out of the airport and carry off to my final destination, to stow away someplace clever and look in on from time to time, to remind myself of some distant and foreign feeling I’d almost forgotten, that I had tried to forget.
I couldn’t see his face; I couldn’t hear his voice. I only felt his weight.