For Vietnam veteran Jesse Pasadoble, now a defense attorney living in San Francisco, the battle still rages: in his memories, in the gang wars erupting on Potrero Hill, and in the recent slaying of two women: one black, one Vietnamese. While seeking justice for the young man accused of this brutal double murder, Jesse must walk with the ghosts of men who died on another hill... men who were his comrades and friends in a war that crossed racial divides.
Gods Go Begging is a new classic of Latino literature, a literary detective novel that moves seamlessly between the jungles of Vietnam and the streets of modern day San Francisco. Described as “John Steinbeck crossed with Gabriel García Márquez”, Véa weaves a powerful and cathartic story of war and peace, guilt and innocence, suffering and love - and of one man’s climb toward salvation.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.89(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
Read an Excerpt
the amazon luncheonette
For a time, they both held on to their lives, gasping softly, whispering feverishly, and bleeding profusely, their two minds far, far away from the cruel, burrowing bullets that had left them mere seconds away from death. Face to face, they spoke their last words in crimson-colored breaths. Theirs was a withering language, one for which there are no living speakers.
Then, like warriors abandoned on the field, they lay in unearthly calm as the things of life deserted them. They had seen the mad commotion boiling in the air above them. In bemused silence, they heard the alarms, the screams, and the growing wail of sirens.
Pronounced dead on a cold city sidewalk, they held on to each other as the gurney rolled from cement to asphalt and into a waiting ambulance for a long, anonymous ride. In the end it was clear to every onlooker that neither dying woman would ever let go of the other. Leaves of lemon grass had drifted to the ground from the dress pocket of one of the women, marking their trail to the ambulance. Some of the sprigs and blades were bloodstained, adding spice to the liquid life that had trickled away.
Now they lay nameless on a long metal tray, two cooling women, breastbone to breastbone. Struggling together in motionless travail, they had become wholly entwinedtheir arms, their fingers, their final breaths; even their histories had become entangled. The tags tied to their toes bore the same name.
From a growing distance the dead women watched innonchalance and saw in the swelling dimness the chief coroner and his assistant doing their lonely work. Unashamed, they saw themselves stripped naked in an airless, comfortless room and they felt dispassionate probing and bloodless cutting as if it were being done to bodies far, far away. From that great distance they watched their own innards sliding out like roe.
Devoid of cushions and warmth, it was a room of numbing dimension, a room made of corners, certainly not a place meant for living things. It was an empty, airless space with walls that concealed gleaming, heartless edges carefully arrayed within rows of silent drawers. Its hidden compartments were lined with finely honed contrivances, sharpened saws, and suction pumps. That nature that so abhors a vacuum must detest a sterile straight razor even more.
It was a chamber of stainless steel and sanitized white tile backlit by banks of lifeless light. Even sounds were frightened to death in a room like this one; bold timbres and shy tenors alike were suffocated, haunted into silence by a legion of echoes. A hall of mirrors for the spoken word.
"My wife says that music happens whenever you take the time to look carefully at another human being. Well, no one on earth looks closer than I do," he said. He grunted as he shifted the large object beneath the cloth and rudely tugged the material to his right and away from the table. "And I have yet to hear a single solitary note, much less a melody."
The assistant medical examiner grabbed a stiffened brown shoulder with his right hand and an ivory-colored one with his left. To get a better grip, he pushed his hands between two brassieres and toward the two breastbones. As he pulled, his words reverberated from the walls around him. The sound of his own voice coming back at him again and again never failed to make him dolorous. It was a dolor that had tormented him for three years now. He had consistently mistaken it for a migraine headache. So many echoes, yet no voices ever overlapped in this room; no matter how many spoke at once, each voice always sounded alone.
"My wife keeps telling me that there really is a melody in the slow, shifting weight of a mature woman walking on the beach, the easy metronome of her breasts; that if you watch a child quietly playing alone, you can detect definite musical tones and the overtones of an imagination running wild. Personally"he shrugged"I think my wife is worried that I've handled too many women. Maybe she thinks it'll make her body less special to me."
"What is your wife anyway, some kind of poet?" asked the chief medical examiner, his voice a mixture of humor and disdain. His own wife was waiting at home, and the very thought of her evoked at least a dozen reasons to work late. He nodded his head, indicating his impatience with his assistant. It was a common gesture. The subordinate quickly stepped back, allowing the chief to attempt a solo separation of the women.
"Not really. She's a dancer and a painter hidden inside the body of an office manager. She's in a modern dance troupe here in town, but she needs to keep a day job." The assistant paused to let an image of her form in his mind. "She hates what I do for a living."
With all his might the chief medical examiner strained to pull the two shoulders apart. He set his legs farther apart on the tile floor, then tried again, holding his breath for strength.
"Give me a hand, will you?" he said, finally exhaling his fatigue and exertion into the room. His assistant moved forward and reached out with both hands, placing one palm in an armpit and the other on the top of a shoulder.
"If the truth be known, I've seen a lot more men than women while I've been here," said the assistant. "I guess it's the nature of this business."
"I've got half a dozen specimens of manhood laid out and cooling in back right now," answered the chief. As he spoke he nodded toward the darkened morgue. Behind the wall to his back there were five males lying stretched out on refrigerated metal racks. One poor soul had been a bystander at a botched drive-by shooting. Another one was the victim of a carjacking; his body had been found by a jogger in McLaren Park.
Two other bodies were those of homeless veterans who had expired of unknown causes during the night. The corpses had been found beneath the elevated freeway near Potrero Hill. Their dark skin had been hardened by exposure and their knuckles and knees had been indelibly discolored by dirt and grass stains. The fifth body was that of a young schoolboy who had been driven over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge by years of unnatural affection from his own father. His brother before him had done the same thing.
"Did you hear about John Doe 39? He came in about three hours ago. He was working underneath his classic car when his wife and her boyfriend lowered the jack on him. We got a full name for him just about an hour ago. The guy still has a brake pad embedded in his skull."
The younger man secured the shoulder closest to himself and the two began pulling in opposite directions, each with one foot on a bar beneath the table for leverage. They had been straining for twenty or thirty seconds when one of them released his hold suddenly and without warning. The other almost fell to the floor, just catching himself by hanging on to the stiffened arm of the smaller woman. The two embracing bodies hung precariously over the edge. The long hair of the smaller woman was hanging down like a shimmering tent, enshrouding their frozen faces.
"Let's get them back onto the table," said the chief, out of breath and a bit embarrassed at the crudeness and clumsiness of their attempts. "My wife never lets me touch her anymore," said the chief. "I think she's projecting." He gasped. "I've noticed that sometimes she's repulsed by my hands. She pulls away from my touch." He examined the mutual death grip more closely. "I think we're going to have to cut them apart. Is there family listed, any claimants? Someone to object?"
"If we knew the answer to that question," said the assistant, who nodded toward the toe tags, "we wouldn't have to Jane Doe them." The assistant laughed uncomfortably. He had lost his mental balance for a moment. During his three years in this office the chief had never once mentioned his wife or his home life. He had never shared even a single personal opinion or feeling. The assistant knew that his glib remark had offended the chief medical examiner, so he added quickly, "Cut the fingers? Should a procedure like that be included on the protocols? What if the relatives do show up?"
After thinking about it for a moment, the chief shook his head. "We have to do what's necessary. Cosmetics are the least of our worries. I can see now that just one of them has her fingers completely interlocked. I think we only need to cut her at the tendons. Let's put that on the 36 protocol. After they're separated you can work on 37. Well, what do you think?"
"About what? Number 37?"
"No, damn it, about my wife!"
"She's afraid of you," said the assistant in a lowered, more respectful voice. "When she's alone she imagines what your eyes must see when you look at her. She may take her clothes off in front of you, but she knows you've seen women far more naked. You've seen women stripped of life."
The chief medical examiner did not respond. There was deep regret in his eyes for having said anything about it. He might have responded a decade ago, before death had become so completely empirical to him, so damned quantifiable. Lately his wife had stopped wearing makeup and she was letting the gray in her hair overrun the auburn. She had even stopped buying wrinkle cream.
"Fire them up!" he snapped.
His assistant nodded, then moved to the console near the back of the room. There he turned on the amplifier and tape recorder marked table 3. The first doctor tapped the microphone softly and watched the VU meters jump. Satisfied, he began to speak.
"Refer to crime scene investigation this date regarding original location of Jane Does 36 and 37, both pronounced dead at the scene. They are two women, one black and one Asian, both dressed, though number 36 has no panties and number 37 has no shoes. They are in a face-to-face position, each with their arms wrapped tightly around the other. Number 36, the larger woman, has her fingers interlocked in the small of the back of number 37. Number 37 has her arms around the neck and head of the other."
"Do you think they were lovers?" asked the assistant, who was testing his own microphone. The chief medical examiner shrugged and continued his examination. Then he slowly nodded his head, yes. He disliked looking beyond the bodies to the people who were once there, and now he was beginning to dislike the assistant.
"The police and the paramedics at the scene were not able to separate the two. No medical intervention was attempted." He slid open a drawer and withdrew his favorite scalpel. "I shall do so now by cutting ..."
"Must be old age," said Persephone Flyer. "My fingers are simply aching." She flexed them and grinned. "Luckily there's never been any arthritis in my family." There was a frightened but hopeful intonation in her voice.
Her friend in the next room laughed. "You will never have arthritis. In my country an ache in the fingers means that you want something very badly; your hands are aching to touch something."
"Certainly not these tomatoes." Persephone laughed, tossing a large pile of tomato skins and seeds into a small garbage can beneath the sink. She cut the skinned pulpy flesh of thirty tomatoes into squares then tossed the pieces, dividing them evenly, into two eight-gallon pots. She walked to a second stove, where she used a wooden spatula to plow under a tall mound of steaming Italian sausages, rotating the cooked ones to the top and the uncooked to the bottom of an enormous black frying pan with a diameter that spanned two burners. The powerful fragrance of fennel and oil filled the room.
"How are the spices coming?" she called out, as she drew a sleeve across her sweating brow. Outside her makeshift kitchen the glorious scent of her handiwork had commingled with a breeze and was prying at her neighbors' windows, pushing in over the usual smells of Potrero Hill and the housing projects and overwhelming everything with the combined perfume of Palermo, Baton Rouge, and Saigon.
The sublime aroma broke up baseball games in the street. It silenced a heated game of dice and caused a substantial lull in the local drug traffic. In the projects, the street gangs stopped cleaning their weapons to inhale the scent. Like all armies, they marched on their stomachs, and the boys on the hill were always hungry. For a moment, the Up the Hill Gang, the Down the Hill Gang, the Wisconsin Street Posse, and the Prisoners of the Projects called an uneasy armistice in order to breathe in a few molecules of the sauce. For a moment no one on the south side of the hill looked warily over his shoulder, then checked his waistband for the comforting bulge of a gun.
The aroma even found its way into the nostrils of a drunken sot and momentarily kept him from hitting his cowering wife.
It wafted down afternoon sidewalks and into nearby warehouses where greasy auto mechanics and squinting printers stopped working to anxiously peek at the time clock. Women in nearby houses and apartments were soon busy washing Mason jars, soup kettles, and hermetic cauldrons in which to carry the source of the magical smell.
Children at the Potrero projects ran to tell their weary mothers that something was cooking at that lesbian place up on Missouri Street. Excited shouts were traded over back fences, and telephones were ringing everywhere on Potrero Hill, as the good news was passed from Texas Street to De Haro: "Miss Persephone and Miss Mai are cooking again! The Amazon women are at it again!"
"Is it that cellophane chicken? Never tasted nothin' on God's earth like that cellophane chicken!"
"Is it that beautiful jambalaya? Is it okra stew and dirty rice? Did you taste that corn pudding they made last week?"
"Could it be them chicken necks in coconut milk?"
"No, it's that spaghetti sauce again! Smells like heaven!"
Mai came from the back room, her small hands cradling a large wooden bowl of spices. She was always careful to prepare the spices out of public view, as the recipe was a valuable and closely guarded secret. All of their collected recipes were precious. Only she and Persephone knew what lay hidden beneath the piles of bay leaves, oregano, and thyme, that down under the sun-dried tomato flecks and the basil there were dark little chiles from the Louisiana bayou and West African peppers.
"The seeds for these angry little peppers were brought here three hundred years ago in the intestines of slaves," Persephone would explain. "It's how they kept warm in the holds of those ships."
Beneath these peppers were still other secrets: long, tender shreds of aromatic lemon grass and a pint and a half of pungent nuóc mám nhi, the ultimate Vietnamese fish sauce. Mai had mixed it and fermented it herself in a small wine barrel on the back porch. She would always smile as she mixed these spices. There was a little nook near the rear door of the house that smelled of her beloved homeland.
She shoved a small stepladder closer to the stove, stood precariously on the top rung, and using her delicate fingers, began to divide the wondrous spices between the two pots of simmering sauce. She put a small bouquet of lemon grass in her pocket for good luck. Using a huge wooden ladle, she stirred both pots, scraping the bottoms to keep the thick liquid from building up and burning. As she descended the ladder, she adjusted the flames beneath the pots.
"Won't be long now," she cooed in a raised voice filled with joy and anticipation. Her gaze fell onto the shiny new Sub-Zero refrigerator that had been delivered just two days ago. "Không cólâu dâu. Won't be long now." It had become one of her favorite English sentences, almost a prayer. "Tomorrow they'll deliver that beautiful eight-burner Wolf stove and that three-horsepower range hood and then we can really start cooking! No more of this part-time stuff."
Even as she said it she began once again to imagine how the little restaurant would soon look. Just last week the workmen had knocked down two walls to create a large comfortable front room. A single bay window had been installed to replace the three double-hung windows that had been facing the sidewalk. The solid front door had been replaced by one made of thick glass.
To the right of the door there would be a new Formica counter and a line of stools. The stools would be bolted to the floor and they would have soft, red cushions. They had to discuss everything about the business, but on the subject of stools, Persephone and Mai heartily agreed. To the left would be six, maybe seven tables, each with its own intimate lamp and starched tablecloth. Mai imagined the paintings of a local artist hanging on the walls.
"There will be flowers everywhere," she said aloud. Those words had been her mother's, too. In Vietnamese, Mai's name meant yellow cherry blossom. Mai smiled to herself. How Persephone loved flowers! Each spring the earth and air of her garden would be filled with them. Coaxed by the slightest breezes, the scents of jasmine, wisteria and fuchsia would mix and remix into an ever-changing display of novel, weightless perfumes.
The restaurant would be just about the same size as her dear father's noodle café at the corner of Công Lý and Lê Loi Streets in Saigon. As she took a moment to daydream, the scent of bò viên, beef ball smothered in chile-garlic paste, filled her nostrils and her stunned soul. On her tongue is the sweet taste of cà phê sua, the sweet Vietnamese iced coffee. In her ears is the ping-ping sound of smoky Lambretta scooters, the huffing of shirtless men peddling cyclocabs, and the buzz of tiny Vespa trucks overloaded with brown packages, brown children, and white ducks.
For a moment the street outside is much wider, a grand boulevard filled with the spinning wheels of hundreds of old bicycles. Beautiful women are window-shopping in colorful aò daì dresses of flying silk flowing beneath wide sun hats. The sidewalks are jammed with noisy vendors and with lines of schoolchildren in their bleached uniforms. Shelves are ablaze with fresh fruit, candles, and cloth. Across the street, a bright-orange queue of mute Buddhist monks is winding its way through stalls of betel nut and spices.
For a moment her dear father is alive again and darting attentively, happily between the cloth-covered tables. There is his gold-toothed smile, preserved perfectly in her memory. There were his large-knuckled hands, his fingers bent crooked by year after year of honest work in the kitchen. There they are, his old French-style pantaloons and Chinese military-surplus shoes. There, in the air about her face, is the pungent, painful odor of his infamous Câm Lê cigarettes. Mai's mother always hated those cigarettes, their bitter, black tobacco and brown paper. Now her daughter was in San Francisco, straining to recapture the scent.
His precious café had been called the Tu Do Café, the Liberty Café. It had been an open-air café in the old French style, with blue canvas awnings that hung down over the sidewalk. Beneath this awning, customers could linger for hours, sheltered from the sun or the monsoon rains. Mai's older brothers had labored there as waiters and cooks, but that was before they left to fight in the war. Hong and Kien were there in her memory, working happily side by side in the days just before they became mortal enemies.
"What do you think about naming it the Amazon Luncheonette?" It was Persephone, calling her tiny friend back from her reveries. The temporary business license tacked to the front door had a blank space where the name of the new establishment would eventually be officially entered. Some unknown, midnight scrivener had already written in "The Amazon Luncheonette." It had probably been meant as an insult, but Persephone liked the name. Since then, someone had spray-painted the name on the east wall of the building.
"You know it's what everyone up here calls our little unnamed restaurant-to-be. All the folks on the hill think we're lesbians." She laughed. "My God, Mai, if they only knew what it is that you and I have in common. The Amazon Luncheonette," she repeated with a laugh. She liked the name. "If they only knew."
Mai smiled at her tall friend while allowing her gaze to run the full length of her Creole body, from the glaring nail polish on her brown toes to her thick, curly black hair. Persephone had piercing green eyes, expressive, acrobatic lips, and a cinnamon-colored face filled with vital electric energy. There were brilliant sparks in her face in her moments of enthusiasm and there were bolts of lightning in her moments of anger. Mai smiled to herself. There was no one like Persephone Flyer in Vietnam. In the letters that Mai sent home to her youngest brother, her only surviving relative, she had tried in vain to describe her beloved friend. In her next letter she would send a photograph. Imagine, thought Mai, Persephone had three sisters. In this world there were three more women just like her!
Mai had been astonished to learn that both she and Persephone had taken classical ballet as young girls. Even more amazing, they had both rejected the extreme discipline of that dance and longed for some freer form of expression.
"Jane Doe 36 is an African-American woman in her mid- to late forties. The head is symmetrical and there appears to be evidence on the scalp of heavy trauma. The head hair is long and curling. The ears are intact and unremarkable. Using the scalpel, I am reflecting the scalp. Lifting the pericranium, I note contusion and bleeding above the left ear. Upon opening the skull, I expect to find a subarachnoid hematoma and possible contra-coup from a sharp blow to the head.
"As expected, there is diffuse bleeding present; therefore, the blow is definitely antemortem. As I noted previously, there is an entry wound four centimeters behind the left ear. It is a distant wound in that there is no visible stippling or powder burns. As there is no marginal abrasion apparent, the origin of this gunshot was directly from the left side at ear height. I note no exit wound."
"Before the sauce is done, I want to take a shower and shampoo my hair," said Persephone, as she left the front room and picked her way down the hallway toward the small, crowded apartment behind the cooking area. She lifted her blouse over her head as she walked. Her march to the bathroom was soon marked by a trail of clothing.
"I won't put curlers in, though, and I'll cut the facial down to twenty minutes. I won't wear that green mudpack out into the front room. We can't be scaring the customers away, now, can we?"
In the makeshift kitchen Mai heard the shower coming on, and beneath the floor of the Amazon Luncheonette the ancient plumbing began to chatter and complain as hot water was pumped through its brittle and clogged arteries.
"I'm shaving my legs now!" yelled Persephone from behind a curtain of plastic and steam, "dragging a blade against the grain." Her forceful voice could be heard half a block away. "Now, let's see, I'm shaving them because I'm not really a mammal and these follicles on my legs are biologically meaningless!" Between Persephone's sentences Mai could hear soft, nervous humming above the rush of the water.
"I'm shaving my armpits now, and the whole damn neighborhood should know it! These hairs were obviously placed here in a tight bunch so they could be forcibly removed en masse by an old, rusty single-edged razor. Oh yes, I am a natural woman! Oh my, did I forget the bikini line? Heaven forbid! How could I dream of serving spaghetti sauce without shaving my pubic hairs? Now I am using harsh detergents to rob my hair of every life-giving drop of natural oil."
The shower water stopped. There were two or three minutes of absolute silence as Persephone stood dripping beneath the showerhead, remembering the day the waters had run red. Years ago she had miscarried while bathing. For a decade she had only taken sponge baths, but recently she had returned to the shower, filling the air with words in the same way that a boy walking through a cemetery fills the air with whistling.
"Now guess what?" she announced. "I'm plucking my eyebrows, second-guessing my maker's plan for this lovely face!" There was a moment of silence as selected hairs were strategically uprooted.
"Next, a couple squeezes of the lash curler. And now for the foundation. I am applying some thick, colored putty to my skin so that my poor pores will have absolutely no way to breathe. And on top of that I will daub on a couple of slashes of rouge here and there to add some emphasis to the high, exotic cheekbones that I've never had! Now some eyeliner, a lip liner, and voilà, a completely organic woman! Here I am stepping naked from the half shell. And oh yes, the final touch, un audace de bleu, an audacity of blue!"
There was a second or two of silence as Persephone dabbed, then spread, an azure eye shadow just above her lashes, lining her upper eyelids.
"Did you know, Mai, that some anthropologists think that makeup and lipstick are just a visual echo of the erogenous zones? It seems that some female monkeys somewhere in the wilds of Tanzania have faces that look like their hind ends. Hell, some of our customers look exactly like that, but they're all men!"
Persephone's laughter filled the building. The door of the medicine cabinet slammed shut. Some final facial condiment had been applied, then returned to its shelf.
"What a ridiculous process! Why do we women keep putting ourselves through this?" Even as she said it she glanced at the front door and imagined her young husband standing at the threshold and taking in her beauty with his eyes.
"None of my three sisters used makeup until their thirties. Of course, they didn't need it until then. Mai, have I told you about how my three powerful sisters tried to keep their men from going off to war? They tried to use the one power that no man can resist: desire. My poor sisters. They didn't know that desire is the essence of war."
Persephone fell silent suddenly and Mai knew why. Once again, her friend's eyes had fallen on the photograph behind her. Its reflection was there in the bathroom mirror. It was one of only two photos in the entire house. It was in a silver frame just to the right of the bed, resting on a small vanity. They are both there on that light-sensitive paper. Persephone and A. B. Flyer are smiling and hugging near the dazzling, child-filled carousel at the entrance to the San Francisco Zoo.
Persephone raised her hand to touch the reflection of the photo in the mirror. In truth she was reaching beyond the paper, beyond the developer, the fixer, and the stop bath, and finally, beyond the image. With all her heart she yearned to reach past everything to touch that precious living instant. Her other hand settled on the flat plane of her abdomen, the place where no child would ever be.
It is Christmas 1967 and the Têt offensive is just a few weeks and ten thousand miles away. It is Christmas 1967 and Amos is so tall and handsome in his dress greens and class A shoes. His left breast is covered with badges, ribbons, and decorations. At the very top of these is a new Combat Infantryman's Badge, his proudest possession. The air is clear and cold. His breath is a white cloud frozen beneath his chin. In his dark eyes is the gleam of twisted desire.
The restaurant in San Francisco was A. B. Flyer's idea, his dream. His parents had run a small café in a tiny town called Happy Jack way down in the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana. It was his grandfather who had changed the family name from La Fleur to Flyer. A. B. Flyer and his new wife had begun saving all their money to buy a small house somewhere in the City. Just one more tour of duty and they'd have the money to pay for a complete kitchen and a food-service permit. The second-tour bonus, along with hazardous-duty pay, almost doubled a staff sergeant's paycheck.
Amos had considered locating the restaurant in Hunter's Point or in the Mission District. He would never have believed that a place on Potrero Hill would become availablea hilltop location with a view of the entire bay, from the Richmond Bridge to the San Mateo.
"You're so lucky, Mai," said Persephone in a soft, dreamy voice. "You've got no hair at all on your body." Persephone was hearing what the photograph could not portray: the beautiful, unearthly blare of the carousel's organ pipes playing "Over the Waves." "Not one hair," she continued. "None of these depilatories and tweezers for you. No chemical creams. Girl, I swear, your skin is like Italian marble. All you do is put on a little lipstick and comb your hair and you're done! You're ready to break some hearts. I tell you, there's no justice in this life. No justice at all. Even your feet are so petite and pretty. Just look at mineso damn big, and my husband never did like my breasts. Too big or too saggy or something. You're a real heartbreaker, girl. If I was a lesbian, honey, I could do a lot worse than you!"
"Jane Doe 37 is a small Asian woman in her mid- to late forties. I can see no adipose tissue. Her breasts are soft but not pendulous. She is well muscled and unremarkable except for the fact that I can detect no remote scarring or injuries on the epidermis. She has beautiful skin. Delete last sentence from written text. There is significant bruising to all fingers, the palms, and the side of the hands opposite the thumb. There are small lacerations on the bottom of the feet and some evidence that she had recently run without shoes. These injuries are consistent with defensive wounds or with an attempt to escape some sort of captivity. See crime-scene report this date.
"There is a blurred tattoo noted on her left forearm. The tattoo is unusual, and judging from the diffusion of the ink, seems quite old. The words found there are barely legible but do not appear to be Asian script. I can just make out the words 'San Francisco,' and the word 'Persephone.' It is clearly not a professional job. There is some discoloration around her waist and across her back that is the result of the pressure applied by the arms of Jane Doe 36.
"There is a single punctate wound of entry on the midline of the back in the upper quadrant. The larger wound of exit is noted in the throat area just below the chin. Examination of the wound path shows impact with the spinal column at the sixth cervical vertebra. The spinous process is shattered and the dura mater and spinal cord are insulted and severed. There is significant hemorrhaging at the vertebral artery.
"The wound path shows a slight deflection upward, penetrating the thyroid cartilage and exiting at the hyoid bone. The bullet was found at the scene by this examiner. It was spent and resting on the chest of Jane Doe 36, on her dress, between her breasts. The nose of the bullet is severely deformed."
There was a second picture frame hanging directly over the center of the headboard. It was a black-and-white photo surrounded by a handmade frame of lacquered bamboo and hammered brass. The last photograph ever taken of Trin Adrong was trapped there behind the glass. There is a brightness in his eyes, the beginnings of some strange desire. In the background is the Tu Do Café. Mai was smiling now. Two soldiers from opposite sides of a terrible war were now sharing space in the same bedroom in San Francisco. All of the old thoughts that were flooding back to Persephone had also caught Mai in their thrall. As it always happened, the deluge of thoughts was hers, too.
Mai cooking in the kitchen and Persephone dressing in the bedroom were soon loving at once, swaying softly at a heart's rhythm and pace to supple patterns, edgeless shadows, enchanted glimpses of times long past. Here, in this memory, is the click of a heel on pavement, the dissolving ghost of a warm breath against glass, the confident taste of a man's voice, now the sharp pinch of bamboo grass beneath her naked back, now the wistful shadow of an unknowing last glimpse ... graceful, graceless, awkward ... suddenly over. There is a glimpse of Hong Kong and of the French Quarter. Here, in this memory, are the faces of four sisters: a bride and her bridesmaids. There, in that recollection, is a tattoo in the shape of a spider and violin. Candles flicker on pavement in this burst of memory. There is asphalt and heat and the blinding flash of a reflection from a passing windshield.
There is shapeless, weightless longing in their captured souls, the last enduring embers from the furious and desperate friction of moistened skins. The two standing women are sighing, sweating lovers now, stretched out in far-flung beds, caught in the thrash, pitch, and lurch of the single being with two bodies. They are surrendering simultaneously to the living, dying thing above them, beneath them, between them. In their ears are the voices of two recumbent males, two separate tongues whispering promised things into the cooling darkness of two bedrooms, worlds apart, and into two sets of symmetrical, unremarkable ears.
"When the war is over for me, we can open up the restaurant," said a deep baritone that resounded with the elongated drawl of the Louisiana river delta and the bayou. "This time my paychecks will be sent directly to you. That way I can't spend it all like I did on my last tour of duty. This time, when I leave the Nam, I'll rotate out at Fort Lewis and jet straight on down to you, Persephone. I ain't gonna re-up again, I promise. No more U.S. Army for me. I've had it. I'll even do the cooking every other day. You know my crab cakes are the best."
These joyous, chameleon words always made Persephone so sad. She had seen through his promises to the true color of his feelings. A. B. Flyer had seemed almost anxious to go back to Vietnam.
"When the war is over, I will march victoriously down Lê Loi Street with my comrades." It was a soft Thuong dialect from the Central Highlands, the voice of an excited, nearsighted young man about to leave for Hanoi. "I will return and reclaim my bride when the new order has come to power. And I will protect your family and the Tu Do Café, I promise."
The two women's spirits met as they strained to reconstruct that final glimpse. Was it on the gangway? Was that Amos smiling through that small window of the airplane that would take him so far to the west? Was it the front door of the Tu Do Café? Was it a hasty salute, or had it been a final wave of Trin's hand when the cadre leaders came at midnight to take him so far to the north?
Neither woman had ever seen or heard from her man again. There had been a few letters from Amos, but they had been strange and rambling. His last letter had gone on and on about bebop ballet at the Pas de Calais. Try as she might, Persephone could not decipher the meaning of it.
They both knew in their minds, if not their hearts, that their men were dead. Neither woman failed to fall asleep each night without wondering how her husband had died. Neither knew when they were killed or under what circumstances. Sergeant A. B. Flyer was listed as missing in action somewhere near the Free Fire Zone where Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam converged.
Twenty years after his disappearance, the army moved him from the missing-in-action category to the missing-and-presumed-dead. Persephone had received some of his personal effects, but aside from that final letter, nothing from his last days, and nothing truly personal to him. The things that came in the mail were from his hooch in Dong Ha. There were letters and books, things that Persephone had sent to him. There had never been a grave site to visit; there was nowhere to place a bouquet of flowers.
Along with most of his company, Trin Adrong had never been found. His entire battalion had been annihilated somewhere in the highlands. A small, unmarked package of his belongings had been left at Mai's home in Saigon just before it fell. There was no information in the package, just a few small personal items that were charred black and smelled of cordite and damp earth.
There had been a pair of melted Russian-made wire-rimmed spectacles, a melted Chinese watch, and a small Catholic Bible whose cover had been removed and replaced with a cover from a book of Chairman Mao's bad poetry. Communist or not, Trin would always be a Catholic. Trin and Mai had been married by a priest. Inside the package, Mai had also discovered a single bloodstained scrap of paper with some strange incomprehensible writing hastily scribbled on it. The yellowed paper had been wrapped around a small, smooth sliver of dark-green jade.
Though she could not read the printing, Mai felt that it was something of great significance. At first she had attempted to memorize the strange writing, but its intricacies eluded her. She had even placed Trin's piece of jade on her tongue, but even then, the scribblings would not reveal their secrets. When the writing and the paper began to decompose, in desperation she had located a sewing needle and some black ink and she had tattooed the markings into her own forearm. A year later the captain of a company of Vietcong would demand to know what the letters and numbers meant. Wasn't it written in English? Wasn't she a spy? Three years later a Thai captain in a squalid refugee camp in central Thailand would place a gun to her head and demand a translation ... among other things. Wasn't it proof that she had been a whore for the Americans?
While Persephone and Mai grew a day older with each rising of the sun, their two lovers were still trapped in that time before the Têt offensive, green and adamant and sheltered by a callow shield of youthful immortality. They had become men steeped in strategies, clandestine movements, radio call signs, azimuths and quadrants. They were men who kept secrets that inevitably leaked out, made meticulous plans that always fell to pieces, played hunches that invariably ended in misery. They were romantic men who had pushed their women away to go groping for a weapon.
Both Persephone and Mai hated that moment in their memories, that moment when young men left to prove themselves, to prove something. As a result of this hatred, neither woman could bear to watch most American movies. "Soft rape," Persephone would call them, countless movies about postpubescent men winning sexual license by rescuing the once unattainable, now helpless girl-woman, by using daring and violence to skirt around acts of intimacy, words of communication and commitment.