The Dust of Life

The children we abandoned in Vietnam are grown now and coming home to the land of their fathers. Will we turn our backs on them again?

  1. Mary Nguyen presides beneath a coconut palm on a grassy knoll in sight of the Pacific Ocean. Around her are a scatter of blankets, her extended family, coolers of generic soda, watermelons, homemade trail mix and assembly-line sandwiches. The kids eat and giggle and gossip in a high-pitched singsong; a foursome plays a Viet Cong card game, the secret of which is never to retreat. The husband is off to one side. He lies on his back, stares up at the sky through aviator sunglasses. He has troubles of his own.

    Mary reaches absently into a bag of Doritos, squints against the glare, the steel gray clouds, searching for Hung. In the distance are a bathhouse, a wide sand beach, the ocean churning with rented jet skis. She sees a boy in peg-leg jeans walking along the sidewalk, head down, loafer kicking at a rock.

    “Huuuuung,” calls Mary. The boy looks up, waves, smiles.

    “Hung!”

    He trots over. “Yes, Mom?” A cigarette dangles at the edge of his lips. Smoke rises into one eye, half-closed.

    “How can you like smoking when it goes in your eye?” asks Mary, her voice rising, fanning her hand in grand exaggeration, making a rubber face of disgust. Hung plucks the butt from his mouth, drops it in the grass. It smolders. Mary’s eyes cut toward it. “These guys!” she thinks. “All of them! They never put out a cigarette! They just drop it, let it take its course.” Now she drops it too. “Can I have a word with you?”

    Hung lowers his eyes, then his head, then his entire body, resigned, floating...