The Drifter, The Hooker, and The Girl Photographer | Khanh Ha

From behind the rain-streaked windshield, cleared briefly when the wipers are turned on, I watch the street.

She knows where the Peugeot is parked and she has the extra car key I gave her.

“This Ông Đốc town,” I told her before we split, “has one main street and backstreets are the rib bones. Find the main street and you won’t get lost here.” She dropped the car key into her purse, said,

Chú, you make a good teacher.” Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle. Then sauntering off she threw me a sidelong glance. “Don’t worry for me,” she said.

She came to the inn, 20 kilometers north of this town, where I live and work in the Mekong Delta, with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s nineteen now.

It’s raining hard like the evening I picked them up at the pier when they arrived on a barge. Since then her mother has bought them two raincoats. In fact, I bought them the raincoats in this seaport town on one of the crowded backstreets where you have to duck your head going under suspended wickerwork baskets and sieves and colorful apparel, where the broken pavements were ribbed with green moss in dark crevices, damp year round in a sunless gloom.

Now come the wind-born sounds of an arriving barge’s siren and then just the sound of winds hurling headlong toward the river.

I light a cigarette, rolling down the window just a crack. The window fogs quickly and I wipe it with my forearm. You don’t want to be in this town after a hard rain. When water has receded, everywhere sewer-spewed gunk lie stranded like wet daubs of black paint, and a stink fouls the air. Chi Lan might be sheltering under a shop’s awning on some backstreet, watching rivulets of rain running off the street where its blacktop is so far gone the surface is patched with shorn boles of black mangrove. On the shop’s wall, under the lee of the awning, she might be trying to read some handwritten words in Vietnamese scribbled in black crayons, “Repair nets, see Boat #20,” “Buy and sell jewelry. See Mr. Hưng, Barge #4.” I told her,

“Never pay the price they ask for. Haggle―down to every knickknack, every jerrybuilt gimcrack, for they can tell you’re a Việt Kiều.” She said,

“Overseas Vietnamese? They can? From my accent?” I nodded with a shrug.

“Sure. And because you look different.” She leaned her head to one side, her lips parted with an unasked question. “You just look wholesome,” I said. “Beware. This dog-eat-dog town is full of drifters.”

“Like you?” she said with a chuckle.

“Like me,” I said. Most of them, I told her, rent a squalid room somewhere to sleep in, a pay-per-day room for one or one family whose husband, a hired hand, goes to sea at dawn, sometimes gone for several days at sea, and the wife works the town for odd jobs, sleeping alone at night. Between fair weather and big catches, she hoards money and in time would use his cash to open a knickknack shop and stash away the profit little by little in gold leaves until one day they cash them in to buy themselves a fishing boat. This town abounds with opportunists. Some of them would later own a fleet of fishing boats. One used to own a seafood manufacturer that employed one-third of the town’s population, another a boat-repair factory, and another an ice-making plant, and now one of those drives a taxi for a living, another works as a coolie on the dock, and another died alone in an alley.

I told her when we left the café to come back to the car and wait for me after she was done with her excursion. The café had a red-inked, handwritten sign hung on the door. She noticed the sign when we stepped out of the café. She read it, puckering her mouth in tiny creases.

“What exactly does it mean?” she  asked.

“First,” I said with a cigarette unlit between my lips, “tell me what you understand from those words.” She glanced down at the sign, her finely curved eyebrows raised a little, then turned to me.

“Something about the Vietnamese slow-drip café for serious men?” I thought the figure of speech would be hard for her to understand, but she caught on its figurative language. I pointed at the particular words for which I couldn’t find a comparable expression in English, and she said,

“It means ‘for the birds.’” I put the cigarette back in my shirt pocket, said, “Sweet dreams are for the birds. On sleepless nights real men drink only café phin.” She flicked a smile, her clear, perfectly shaped eyes blinked.

“Like you, chú,” she said. Then, after a pause, she looked away from my gaze. “You go buy your stuff, have your hair cut, and I’ll meet you back soon.”

Walking past the café was a boy carrying on his head a wicker sieve covered with a white cloth. “Sugarcane!” he called out. “Sugarcane!” I stopped him. The boy brought down the sieve and peeled back the cloth cover. Round chunks of pale yellow sugarcane filled the sieve. I bought half the sieve and the boy wrapped the chunks in a moist cloth. We stood, sucking on the cane cubes, and flies came whirring around. I told her it was sugarcane season, and she, wiping the juice from the corner of her mouth, leaned toward me, said,

“What’s that noise I keep hearing in the air?” I listened, spitting shreds of cane in my mouth.

“The chirpings?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “the chirpings.” I took the cigarette pack from my shirt pocket.

“This town is a bird-town,” I said. “They raise swiftlets everywhere and profit from selling their nests. The nests the birds build with threads of their saliva.” Restaurants serve bird’s nest soup, I told her. Quite expensive. Rich people buy them as delicacy and eat them for health benefits. At least that’s what the merchants had them believe in. Credulous people and greedy opportunists. Perfect combination. And the chirpings? They come from those birds, and if the birds stop chirping then what you hear are the mechanical chirpings. The town’s breeders dedicate a whole story of their homes as a bird colony. They lure the birds with the birdlike sounds. They build tubes for the birds to make nests in. Neat, cup-shaped nests. When a nest is built, the breeder would take it away and the bird has to build another one to lay its eggs in. But day and night this town is kept awake by the birds’ chirpings. I stopped and offered her another chunk of cane. She shook her head, wiping the corners of her mouth with her thumb and finger.

“Such a bizarre business,” she said, “which I’m sure I won’t ever see again but in Vietnam.”

Now I take one last drag of the cigarette and flick it out the rolled-down window. In the sound of winds I can hear the swiftlets’ shrill sounds, scattering in tidbits, and down on the windward side of the quay sometimes you can hear them too, the strident notes of those black-billed, black-footed birds now trapped in the man-made bird colonies in the town’s matchbox-sized dwellings.

I hear a rustle of raincoat and glancing up at a knock on the window I see a hooded face. A girl wearing a pink, clear-plastic raincoat bends her head looking at me. I roll down the window. She wipes her face and smiles. I notice her eyetooth.

“Remember me?” she asks.

“I remember you,” I say, nodding.

“What’re you doing in town?”

“Having some business to tend to.”

“Why didn’t you stop by anymore?”

“I might, someday.” Then leaning back I look at her a bit longer until she starts giggling.

“Why’re you looking at me like that?” she says.

“You have lipstick on, so I didn’t recognize you at first.”

“You like it?”

“You didn’t have it on then.”

“You mean the first time you met me?”

“Yeah.”

“So you like me better looking plain?”

“You look fine either way.”

“You’re always polite. You’re not like any of them who went in there.” Then she looks the car over. “This your car?”

“I don’t own a car. It’s the inn owners’ car.”

“You told me about the inn. Well, I’ve never been out that way though.” A wind gust nearly blows her hood back. She grabs the top of it and holds it down.

“Are you on your way up there?” I ask, glancing toward the café, the second story of which has three curtained windows overlooking the main street, the shutters painted pale pink wreathed with red bulbs.

“I don’t have to be there in another half an hour,” she says.

I notice her hand resting on the edge of the rolled-down window glass. Her fingernails painted a gaudy red. I motion with my head to the passenger seat.

“Come sit inside,” I say. “It’ll be clearing up soon.”

She walks around the front of the car, stops abruptly as if changing her mind, then walks on to the other side. I push open the car door.

“I’ll mess up the seat,” she says as she wipes rainwater off the front of her raincoat.

“Just get in,” I say.

She flops down on the passenger seat, shuts the door with a clunk. I look at her peeling back her hood. Wet strands of hair matted on her brow. Her hair is longer now, touching her shoulders. Three months ago it was shorter. Now she wears a rooster’s comb-red plastic hairband, as bright as her lipstick that smears toward a corner of her mouth. She dries her face with the back of her hand, then pulls open the visor to look at her face in its inset mirror.

“Where’re you from?” I ask, watching her wipe the smeary lipstick off the side of her mouth.

“Not here,” she says, her voice cracked a little. “What’d I tell you last time?”

“I wasn’t there long. Didn’t get to know much of you.”

“I remember. You paid. And did nothing.” Then she reaches for the visor again, looks at herself in the little mirror. “You didn’t tell me why. Then you left.”

I say nothing, just watching her fixing up her looks and when she turns to look at me, she flinches then quickly breaks into a nervous laugh.

“Why d’you keep looking at me like that?” she says, stops laughing now, running her tongue over the eyetooth.

“You were too young,” I say. “That’s why.”

“I didn’t tell you my age. I swear.”

“You can’t hide your age with your looks.”

“Looks? Nobody ever told me that. They . . . you think they know? Or care?”

“They didn’t. Obviously.”

“How old d’you think I am?” Then she touches her lips again, clears her throat. “You have a cigarette?”

I fish out the fresh pack, tap it and watch her pinch a cigarette between her red-nailed fingers. I click open my Zippo, light her cigarette. She coughs immediately, waving the smoke off her face.

“This isn’t mint cigarette,” she says and picks some tobacco shreds off the tip of her tongue.

“Not mint, not filtered.”

She checks me with her eyes and grinning she hands me her cigarette. “Not for me,” she says.

I look at the red-lipstick stain of the unfiltered tip, then with my thumb and finger snuff out the burning end. She pulls back a little. “Hurt?” she asks.

“No.” I slide the cigarette back into the pack. “When did you pick up smoking?”

“Not too long ago. All the girls in there smoke. We’ve got nothing else to do.”

“You’re the youngest.”

“Guess how old I am then.”

“Sixteen? Seventeen?”

She brings her hand to her lips, chewing the tip of her fingernail, and peers up at me. “I’ll be seventeen real soon. The three other girls they’re older, one eighteen, the others twenty, and twenty-one.” Now she gnaws at her pinkie’s nail. “You done it with them, didn’t you?”

“I have. Before you were there.”

I crank down the window halfway to let out the cigarette smoke. Rain drums loudly on the car roof, popping on the rim of the window glass. I feel droplets of rain on my face, my eyes. When I turn back I see her gazing at me, her eyes plain, her eyebrows full, natural. Perhaps it won’t take but another year before those eyelashes will be thickened with mascara, those eyebrows plucked, sharply aslant, toward the ears.

“Is there something wrong with me?” she asks, her eyes still.

“You’re just too young.”

My calm voice seems to have convinced her, for she drops her gaze and, playing with her raincoat’s front zipper, speaks into her lap, “Some guys said I was too skinny. Am I too skinny to you?”

“Yeah.”

“So it’s better with those other girls than with me, right?”

“No. It’s just that I didn’t feel right.”

“Why not?”

“There’re certain things you don’t do. Do it and you would hate yourself afterward ’cause you’ve broken some personal rules.”

She peers up, says, “Mmm.” Then she brings her hand to her mouth again, stops as she sees me staring at her gesture. She presses one thumb into the palm of her other hand and speaks, hoarsely,

“Your wife knows what you did, I mean visiting that place?” I chuckle.

She looks up quickly. “What’s funny?”

“What’d you do if you find out the sort of things your husband did when he’s away from you?”

“I don’t know.” She scratches her head with a tip of her long nail, then giggling, raises her voice a notch. “Ask me again when I’m married.”

“I was about to say the same thing to you.”

“So you’re not married. Right?”

I shake my head. Someone is hurrying across the street, stopping to find footing in the running water, then wading on toward the Peugeot. Bundled up in a yellow plastic raincoat, the figure stops at the passenger door and knocks on the window glass. The young girl cranks down the window and a hooded face peers in.

“Chi Lan?” I call out.

“Can I get in?” she speaks in English with her lips hardly moving as rainwater drips freely down her face.

“Open the door,” I tell the young girl.

“Who’s she?” the young girl glances back at me.

“She’s our guest at the inn.”

“She’s Việt Kiều?”

“Yeah. Vietnamese from America. Open it!”

As Chi Lan steps back the girl pushes open the door and struggles to get out. I watch her exit the car, work her hood back on to cover her head as rain falls spouting on the window’s edge, pricking my face with sprays. The girl waves, just one quick hand motion, and turns and walks up the waterlogged sidewalk.

Arm resting on the steering wheel, I turn toward Chi Lan as she flops down on the seat, swinging shut the car door. Rain slants in on the dashboard, staining it quickly. I reach over and roll up the window. The wet creaky sound of her raincoat, yellow as banana, makes me pause.

“Where’d you get this raincoat?” I ask, leaning back against the car door.

“I bought it from a street vendor.” She pulled back the hood and gave her head a shake. Giggling, she watches me wipe wetness from my eyes. “I had to buy it,” she says. “I didn’t know when it’d stop raining.”

“You had any trouble with them vendors?”

“Yes . . . no.” She hung her head to one side. “I walked away and he called me back. Because I remembered what you paid for our raincoats not too long ago. This one . . .” She pauses, looks down at the front of her raincoat glistening with moisture, “is just like the one you bought and he asked for twice the price.”

“Sure,” I say. “But if I didn’t get you that raincoat, would you have paid what he’d asked?”

“Well . . .” She rolls her eyes, her tongue’s tip protruding from the corner of her mouth, and then looks back at me. “I took your advice seriously, chú. I bargained. That’s why I had some money left and bought you something.”

I notice she still keeps her other hand under her raincoat. With her free hand she runs her fingertips under her hair, tangled and damp, gathering it over and behind her ears. Then she unzips her raincoat and I see a purse slung over her shoulder and her other hand holding a brown bag against her purse.

“I bought these near where I bought the raincoat,” she says and opens the bag.

I look as she picks up a styrofoam cup, lidded, and hands it to me with a white plastic spoon.

“What is it?” I take hold of the cup, the spoon.

“Chè.”

I pop open the lid. Longan chè. Inside each succulent pearly longan is a paste of yellow mung bean. I can’t help chuckling.

“Must be your favorite?” I say, remembering what she’d said about eating longan chè in America.

“Favorite?” Her brow creases a little. “I’d only tried one flavor of chè back home. I don’t know it’d be my favorite because I haven’t tried other flavors of chè.”

“I’ll get you some other flavors before you leave Vietnam.”

I spoon a longan, cool, pulpy into my mouth, and chew, letting the faintly sweet taste of mung bean melt on the tongue, then I sip the ginger-flavored, sweetened juice. She stops sipping the juice from the cup, tapping the spoon now against the cup’s rim. She’s looking at me.

“You had your hair cut after all, chú,” she says.

“Something I really hate having done.” I take a long sip of the cool juice. Feeling better in my throat, I lid the cup.

“Don’t you like this flavor?”

“I save it for later,” I say, wanting a puff of cigarette badly as I look at her.

“This flavor’s the only flavor I know. They’ve got like thirty some flavors and they all look yummy. What’s your favorite?”

“I don’t know. I’m not too crazy about sweet things.”

“You don’t have a sweet tooth, huh?”

“What’s that?”

“Sweet tooth. A craving for sweet things.”

“Mmm,” I say, putting the new words away in my mind.

“Did you buy the stuff you came to town for?”

“Yeah. Got the groceries for the inn.”

“Who’s that girl in here?”

“That girl?” I tap the spoon on the lidded cup. “She’s a local prostitute.”

“A hooker?”

“Yeah.”

Chi Lan tilts her head back and looks at me. “She was in here soliciting?”

“You mean her asking me . . .”

“Yes.”

“No. I asked her to sit out the rain. I saw her once three months ago and she remembered me.”

“Saw her where?”

“Above that café.” I motion with my head toward the café up across the street.

Chi Lan ducks her head trying to peer through the rain-smeared windshield. She sits back, nodding.

“I saw the red bulbs on the second-story windows when we left the café. Kinda odd looking, I thought.” The cup raised to her lips, she says, “So that kind of business is legal here?”

“Of course not.” I pry open the cup’s lid and then press it shut.

“So that café is also a brothel?”

“A what?”

“A whorehouse.”

“Yeah. The café’s owner pays off local police. Been like that.”

“She looks very young though.”

“Yeah. Younger than you.”

“So you visit that place every time you go to that café?”

“Only three times since I came to the inn. Will be two years after this month.”

“So it’s roughly every eight months that you visited the brothel.”

“Give or take.” Then I chuckle. “Or it could be three months in a row and the next twenty-one months the river runs dry.”

“If you can quit going there, you can quit smoking.”

Her eyes drop to my shirt pocket through its white color shows the one-humped camel. I watch her tuck in her juice-moistened lower lip, sucking it gently then running her tongue over it. I can see a tiny black mole under the corner of her left eye. She lifts her gaze, blinks, when she sees me gazing at her.

“What else did you buy?” I ask her softly, breaking the silence.

“Nothing else. I took many pictures though. And a few of the town in the downpour when I was waiting it out.”

I glance down at her purse. She always carries the camera in it whenever she leaves the inn.

“You must be very good with the camera,” I say as she spoons the last longan into her mouth. Tilting her head to one side, she chews slowly, lips closed, glistening, then she sips until the cup is empty.

“On the spur of the moment,” she says finally as she drops the empty cup and the spoon into the brown bag. “Anything that captures my imagination in such moment becomes my camera’s subjects of interest. Just like you, chú. You draw, I photograph.”

I nod, smiling, at her statement. I could have drawn the young prostitute and I know someday I might. The subject must first capture your imagination, like Chi Lan said.

“Are you going to draw her, or have you already?” she asks.

“That girl?” I say, piqued by our coincidental thoughts. “I might draw her when I’m up to it. You don’t do it without that special feeling. It’s different with a photographer, though. See, you must capture the subject with your camera on the spur of the moment. Or lose it. An artist waits until a subject matures in him. He has time because the subject has already entered his memory.”

“But they say memory is the ability to forget. Have you heard that?”

“No. If something’s gone from the memory, it’s not worth remembering.”

“Will they be gone after you’ve drawn them?”

“No. All you do is giving them a decent burial. The ghosts are never gone. They just rest in peace.”

“Because they were painful memories?”

“Not really. If I draw you someday”―I pause, nodding at her―“it won’t be from a painful memory. Yeah?”

She shrugs, her lips curl up with a smile. She has seen many of my drawings. Sketches of people and things. Remembered. Unremembered. And that’s how you unburden your memories.

“You draw beautifully,” she says, her eyes softened as she looks into mine. “There must be many stories in those drawings, chú. Like a diary in pictures.”

“Because I’m not good with words.”

“Though I’ve found my creativity through the eye of the camera, I want to write.”

“You’re natural with words.”

“I want to know every story behind a photograph, every story behind a drawing. I love to hear them. And the stories untold in your drawings.”

“Yeah,” I say, taking her in with my gaze. Then turning away I start the car. I’m sure when I finally draw this girl, I won’t forget to dot the corner of her left eye with a tiny mole.

Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.  His new novel has earned a 2013 Leapfrog Fiction Award Honorable Mention. His short stories have appeared in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, Mobius, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, The Mascara Literary Review, Taj Mahal Review,  Glint Literary Journal, and forthcoming in the summer issues of Zymbol, Yellow Medicine Review (2013 September Anthology),  The Underground Voices (2013 December Anthology), and The Long Story (2014 March Anthology).

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