John Shaw

The young woman glided past me into the house when I opened the door. The older one thrust her hand into mine, maneuvered around me, and poof; we were inside the house with the door closed. I may have closed it. I don’t remember. It was before morning coffee.

I may have said "Hey" a few times. I did not have the feeling that I was being menaced.

"He knew me as Co Van," the older one said. She released my hand and asked if they might visit.

I told them they seemed to be visiting already.

"We are here on my account," the young one said. "I and Ly Thi Lien and I feel it is time my family knew me."

"You’re Chinese," I said.

"I am Chinese," Co Van said. "Lien is Amerasian–half-‘n-half–what the Vietnamese call con-lai."

"I was conceived in room 602 of the Park Hotel, 35A Nguyen TrungTruc, Saigon," Lien said. "My father was an officer in the United States Navy."

I said, "What?" and she repeated, word for word.

"Jimmy," Co Van said. "Your husband."

"What hocus-pocus is this?" I asked.

"No hocus-pocus," Co Van said. "You husband and I had a relationship and Ly Thi Lien resulted." She tugged Lien to the door, opened it and held her in the light.

I said, "Not James." After coffee I might have said something memorable.

Co Van pivoted Lien into profile views and a long full face. "The eyes," she said. "The way the chin curves. The whole look of her. Who can argue?"

I shook. James. Including the off-key smile. The longer I stared the more of him I saw in the young face.


"Not James," I said again and reached past the two of them and shut the door.

"I called him Jimmy," Co Van said. "May we talk?"

All the way to hair–the same soft brown.

"Jimmy had vigorous sperm," Co Van said. "Out standing."

We went into the living room. Lien sat immediately. Co Van stood until I gestured her toward a chair. She dug into her canvas bag.

"Pictures of me and Jimmy in Saigon." She passed them to me. "Notice how close Jimmy then is to Lien now."

"I can produce much other proof," Lien said.

"Good pictures?" Co Van asked.

Good pictures.

"Great PX camera."

I returned them. Co Van shuffled them and told me, "These things happen."

"Would you like coffee?" I asked. They followed me into the kitchen and sat at the table.

I had trouble with the stove. First, I turned the oven on, next I twisted the dial that sent the cleaning operation into action. Finally I got a top burner going.

Co Van asked if she might smoke. I passed her a tray and watched her light the cigarette and exhale smoke onto my ceiling.

"We had an honest friendship," she told me. "I did not feel betrayed when Jimmy left Vietnam without me. I knew about you."

I put sugar and cream on the table without accidence. Likewise, in a second wave…saucers, silver and Danish.

"Jimmy was a kind person," she said. "He got me a job as interpreter in the American Embassy. I had studied at a British school in Singapore and spoke good English by the time my family moved to Cholon, so I was a great interpreter."

"Where did you meet James?" I asked.

"The hotel had a roof garden. I met him at a party up there."

I kept my eyes off Lien, I found it difficult.

"In 1975 I married Mr. Hall, an Embassy official, and he brought Lien and me to America. Mr. Hall died last year."

"So did James," I said.

Co Van nodded. "I kept in touch with Commander Luu Van, Jimmy’s counterpart who lives now in San Diego.

I recalled informing a Vietnamese in San Diego of James’ Death.

"Jimmy tried to get me out of Vietnam," Co Van said. "He enrolled me in the Katherine Gibbs school in Maryland where I could learn to be an American secretary."

"There is a Katherine Gibbs here in Rhode Island," I said.

"Jimmy thought Maryland would be better."

I poured the coffee, sat and attacked it.

We couldn’t’ raise enough money to bribe Vietnamese officials for an exit visa. So I didn’t get out until I married Mr. Hall."

"Where do you live now"

"Boston," she said.

"An hour’s ride away," Lien said.

Yes, indeed.

"Was it only one night?"

"I have nothing to do with any of this," Co Van said. "I am here only to accompany Lien and lend support."

I waited.

"One year," she said. "We had a friendship for his full tour."

"Did James know about Lien?"

"I wrote immediately and told him. He did not answer my letter."

"Did you contact James after arrived in America?"

She nodded. "He said he would commit suicide if I intruded."

Generally coffee picks me up. "Now what?" I asked.

Co Van waved my question toward Lien. "Has it been established?" Lien asked.

I nodded. What else except to nod?

"Now we begin a relationship." Lien said.

"Cards at Christmas? Things like that?"

"Don’t be angry," Co Van said.

I was not angry. I was looking in on all this from a great distance. I felt rather tranquil.

Co Van shrugged. "I advised against this. I told her it was crap."

"What do you want?" I asked Lien.

"Do you know how half-‘n-halfs are treated in Vietnam?" Co Van asked me. And told me, "Lousy. Lower than dogs."

Lien seemed to be trying to stare Co Van into silence.

"I’ll tell you the problem," Co Van said. "My daughter is beautiful, an American citizen, makes money, pays taxes, has American boys pestering her into marriage…and is still con lai. In her mind she has never left the streets of Saigon."

"What do you want?" I asked Lien again.

"She wants family," Co Van said. "She thinks problems don’t exist when you’ve go a family." She extended her hands, palms up. "I’ve told her that’s all crap."

"I want you to announce me to my father’s other children," Lien said. "After that, whatever happens, happens." She grimaced. Had she cried I might have reached out and held her and I was not ready for tears or holding.

"I have much respect and affection for my family," she said. She blinked. No tears.

Co Van said, "Is it asking so much?"

"Tell them, " Lien said, "that I have been to college. Tell them my mother and I have our own business."

Co Van passed me a card. "Delta Oriental Herb and Grocery company," she said. "Two retail stores in Boston."

"Busy stores," Lien said. She pointed to the address and phone number at the bottom of the card. "You can contact me there after my family makes a determination."

Tom was predictable. There would be screaming when I told him: "Not Dad…Not my Father…lieslieslies…" On and on.

I was not sure of Debby or Joan. I would say, over and over, "Wait till you see her. My God, wait till you see her!"

"Tell them I will not dishonor them," Lien said.

"Did you love James?" I asked Co Van.

"I don’t think you should ask that kind of question."

I waited.

"I was seventeen. I loved him."

"Did he love you?"

"For sure not."

"Did he say he loved you?"

"Of course. Saigon was all love talk."

"Will you contact me when you’ve spoken to the others?" Lien asked.

I told her I would.

"When do you think that will be?"

I figure a week.

"We can leave," Lien told Co Van.

"Did he talk about his children?" I asked Co Van.

"Probably. They all did."

"Did James?"

She butted her cigarette and fetched another from the pack she took out of her bag. She struck a match whose flame died before she could use it. "After Jimmy," she said," there were years of American friends." She lit another match and, this time, got the flame to the cigarette in time. "I have trouble separating memories of Jimmy from memories of the other," she said. "Were it not for the photos and for Lien I might even have forgotten what he looked like. All I remember of Jimmy are Katherine Gibbs and Lien."

"And Dad’s boats," Lien said.

Co Van tapped her hands against her forehead. "Jimmy was in charge of building boats out of cement in the old French shipyard on the Saigon River. They kept sinking and his honcho yelled at him. Lots of nights Jimmy couldn’t sleep because of it."

"He told you about he cement boats?" she asked gently.

"He told me about the cement boats." More or less.

"So," Co Van said, "Lien, Katherine Gibbs, cement boats. That’s all I remember of you James. No offense."

No offense taken.

"Cement boats," Co Van said. "Imagine."

At the door she told me, "It is Lien’s concern now. We should try not to meet again."

Lien kissed my cheek.

With the door open, Co Van said, "You are a strong, calm woman. There are some who would have been upset." She shook my hand. "All so long ago, right?"



I swung a towel about in the kitchen and drove the smell of Co Van’s cigarettes out the back door.

I took the wedding album out and for a short while watched James and me happy in there. I thought I might weep. I did not.

I called Tom.

Predictable. He screamed and I held the phone away and waited for him to stop.

While waiting I began my own sounds. I’d sung church choir soprano parts but these now were not high tones–moaning, rather, with aspects of honk and groan, snort and denture click…a hiss here and there.

And language. What dark words I owned spilled into the mouthpiece.

Tom said, "Mother, you are talking about Dad. You are talking about my father."

So I was.

"Mom," Tom said, "it will be all right. Honest, Mom, it will be all right."

It took a while to flag me down and I hung up aware my lips stung from stretching, and that I was out of breath.


When I pass the word to Debby and Joan I shall be Co Van’s strong, calm lady.

It is entirely possible.