“Blackleaf”

by Richard Alexander

Moments after May Lin and her son, Steven, stepped down from the bus, a pick-up truck pulled up next to them.

The driver yelled, “Howdy, ma’am,” through the window, climbed down from his seat, and walked around and greeted them.  “I’m Timothy Jenkins,” he said, leaning forward and shaking their hands. 

Timothy was tall and broad.  May Lin felt tiny next to him.  Like a Vietnamese doll.  As she introduced herself and Steven to this man, she noticed his large belt buckle gleaming in the sun and his tall, fancy boots.  Steven’s father used to tell her about living in Wyoming when he came to see her in her village, and now, here she was seeing Wyoming for herself.     

“So,” Timothy asked, eyeing May Lin and Steven curiously, “What brings you two?”

May Lin looked up into Timothy’s bloodshot eyes.  “You want to know why Steven and I are coming to Blackleaf?”

“Yes, ma’am, yes I do. That’s an affirm. Case ya ‘aven’t noticed, when the two a ya stepped down offa that bus, you were steppin’ into th’ middle a nowhere.  How ’n th’ world…”        

May Lin pulled Steven close to her. “The reason we are coming here to Blackleaf,” she said, “is so Steven and I can see where his father Steve Casey grew up.”

Timothy’s eyes lit up. “Steve Casey?” he shouted. He threw up his arms. “May Lin, Steve Casey an’ I…” He pounded the hood of the truck. “Steve Casey an’ I grew up ‘ere t’gether. Steve Casey an’ I… We were best friends.”

Timothy asked May Lin and Steven if they wanted to go get coffee and a bite to eat over at the Blue Light Diner. “Reckon we ‘ave a lot t’ talk about, eh May Lin.” 

Inside the diner, May Lin felt people’s eyes on her. Why is a woman who looks like me coming in here, they were wondering.  And why is she with Timothy Jenkins?  And who is that boy with them? Well, if you are a Vietnamese woman who lives in Los Angeles you don’t take a trip to Blackleaf, Wyoming if you don’t want people looking at you. 

May Lin and Steven slid into a booth and Timothy sat down on the seat opposite them. When the waitress came by, Timothy ordered coffee and a danish for May Lin and him, and french fries for Steven. “You know what this is?” Timothy asked Steven, patting the small jukebox hanging on the wall. 

Steven nodded, watching, as Timothy moved a panel with the names of songs on it back and forth.  He placed a quarter in the slot, and then turned to May Lin.  Folsom Prison Blues,” he said.  “One a Steve’s all-time favorites.”  And as the familiar voice of Johnny Cash washed over them, May Lin thought of how Steve and other soldiers in the platoon used to tease her brother Nguyen about being a rock and roll expert. Nguyen had heard lots of rock and roll songs while he was at Fort Bragg training to be a scout. Songs by Johnny Rivers were his favorite and maybe some of those songs were playing inside his head when he and the other ARVN soldiers were waiting to make their last stand against the communists.

The waitress came by with their food.  While she poured coffee into May Lin’s and Timothy’s cups, Steven sat still, eyeing the french fries. “Go ahead,” said Timothy, watching him. Timothy pushed the plate over in front of the boy. “They’re yers,” he said. 

Steven cautiously removed one of the french fries on his plate. He bit it in half, chewed it and then swallowed. He did the same with the remaining half, and then reached over and grabbed another. He did this several more times, and then finally started stuffing whole fries into his mouth.

“Easy,” said Timothy, watching.  “Take yer time. Nobody’s gonna come an’ take those french fries away. Not anymore.”

Steven slowed down and Timothy apologized for making him feel self-conscious.  “Don’t mean to cramp yer style there, young man,” he said, “it’s just… I wanted te make clear they’re yers. You go on an’ eat them fries anyway ya like.”

May Lin liked hearing those words. She and Steven had been though a lot and Timothy seemed to know this. Maybe he does not know that we were almost starving to death in a refugee camp, but he knows that things were not going so well for us when we were still in Vietnam, that’s for sure.         

 Watching Steven, Timothy said, “The night before Steve left to go t’ Vietnam, he was doin’ the same thing Steven’s doin’ right now, eatin’ french fries. We sat…We were sittin’ right here, May Lin, in this very same booth.  Ain’t that somethin’? Steve went to Vietnam first. I ‘ave the letters he sent me. He talked about the heat. That’s one thing I don’t miss about bein’ over there, May Lin, the heat.”

May Lin nodded, and then wiped her brow. “Steve does not like it when he is so hot,” she said. 

“Tell me somethin’?” Timothy asked, “How…”  He regarded May Lin closely. “You an’ Steve…”

“How are we meeting?”

“Yeah.”

May Lin took a deep breath. Maybe this was a test she was having. “Go ahead,” she heard her English instructor tell her, “just start talking.”  He was watching her.  So were the other Vietnamese refugees in the class. Some of them were still saying “talk, talk,” the way she used to when she was with Steve. “Talk,” Steve used to tell her, “just say talk, not talk, talk,” and they would both laugh. She had come a long way in learning English, but she wondered how it really sounded in the diner.

“We are meeting at the Playboy Bar,” she told Timothy, then explained how at first she was afraid of him.  Maybe he was another American bully who did not like Vietnamese. But when she looked into Steve’s eyes, they were telling her something different. And she was right. He was not like so many soldiers who came to the Playboy Bar and gave her a hard time.

Timothy was back in Vietnam with some bargirl he knew. Or maybe a movie was going on inside his head featuring her and Steve. She did not like what he was watching in that movie but knew there was little she could do to stop him. She wondered about Steven, too, about what he was thinking as he heard all these things about his mother.  From being in school, his English was much better than hers. And even though he was shy and not saying too much, he was not missing a word coming out of Timothy Jenkins’ mouth… or hers.  

“How…” Timothy looked up from his coffee.  “Look,” he said, “I know how Steve…how he…There was a newspaper article. An obit. In the Blackleaf Chronicle. Now, there’s a publication I don’t reckon you’ve ‘eard about. His convoy…the convoy he was in was ambushed.  Right May Lin?  Just outside’a basecamp if I recall.  I ‘ave the picture from that obituary somewhere. I’ll see if I can find it. I’ll tell ya one thing though, Steven, yer daddy ain’t smilin’ that big ol’ smile a his. No, no. On accounta that picture was taken right after he got outa basic. Anyhow, outa the three of us who went t’ Vietnam from this giant metropolis, Steve’s th’ only one who didn’t come back. Well, he came back alright. It’s jus’…” 

May Lin felt dizzy.  Too many things were going on inside her head.  She saw Nguyen walking down the street in Xuan Loc to give her the bad news. But as soon as she saw him, before he even said anything, she knew what he was going to tell her. And then, Steve’s body, that was lying on the floor of the personnel carrier…she imagined…she imagined Steve’s body flying across the ocean to…  

“It’s true,” May Lin said, “Steve was killed…One moment he is shooting his machine gun, and the next, boom!  He is lying on the floor of a personnel carrier, bleeding. Nguyen and Derek Holmes are trying to stop the bleeding, but what can they do, there is too much.  So, they are crawling out the back and leaving him there, and this is very hard for them.”    

May Lin looked at Steven. “One day,” she explained, “a few days after Steve was killed, I woke up and was feeling funny. Pretty soon I know that I have a baby growing inside me and the father of that baby is Steve Casey. I know this.”

She told him how all the time Steven was growing up, getting bigger and bigger, Steve was up there watching she was sure. Looking down from heaven. And he was watching when the Americans left in 1973 and Steven wondered where all the soldiers were going, and May Lin did not have any good answers for him. He watched while she and Steven were escaping from the communists; then during those endless days and nights when they almost drowned while floating on a raft in the stormy South China Sea before finally being picked up by a Dutch freighter; while she and Steven were being beaten and nearly starving to death in the refugee camp at Dakar.

All this time, all those months, Steve was up there watching them, May Lin was sure. And then her brother, Nguyen, after whichever big battle he was killed in, was up there watching them, too.

May Lin gave a little shrug. Nguyen was just joining the group. Her father, who had been killed — executed — by the Viet Cong in 1965 had been up in heaven watching her now for twelve years. Ever since two young men had dragged him from their hut one afternoon and shot him in the head as she and her mother and younger sister watched. Her mother, who had died shortly after, had been up in heaven for a while and looking down too. And her younger brother, Binh, killed while fighting with US soldiers in the Ia Drang Valley back in 1966, and her brother, Van, killed also, but a little later, in another battle (so many battles), and her sister, Lin, and her aunts and uncles and cousins. All these people were up in heaven, looking down, watching. And how happy they all were when, looking down one afternoon, they saw the big jet May Lin and Steven were riding in landing in Los Angeles. All those people up there, May Lin could see them waving their arms and cheering as they rode by happily on a cloud.

“When Steven and I are arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, a man named Thieu is waiting for us. He is our sponsor and he is a kind man who has been looking out for us.  He owns a restaurant and I am a waitress there. ‘Hello, my name is May Lin…’I say all kinds of dumb things to the customers who are coming there. Maybe they would like a drink to start things off. Thieu is like a father, Timothy, an uncle, and he is not happy when I tell him that Steven and I are coming to Blackleaf, Wyoming. But finally, he sees how much I want to go, and he tells me, ‘go ahead.’ He gives me permission to be a crazy lady if I want. So, he drives Steven and me to the bus station, buys us our tickets and — well,” May Lin gave a little shrug, “here we are.”

Timothy leaned forward, crossed his arms, and asked May Lin and Steven if they wanted to be his guest in a little house that he has, a trailer, instead of going to a motel.  He tells them he has a television they can watch, and when he asks Steven what his favorite show is, Steven says, “I Love Lucy,” and Timothy pretends he is Ricky Ricardo. While Ricky is yelling at Lucy, Steven is laughing and pretty soon, Timothy and Steven are talking about more television shows, and then Timothy says to Steven, “Listen, wha’d’ya say you, me an’ yer Ma get up outa our seats an’ boogie th’ hell on outa here.”

So, that’s what they did, they left the diner, climbed into the truck and boogied the hell on outa there.

“Thar it is,” said Timothy, parking the truck by the side of the road, “that’s it. That’s the house yer daddy grew up in.” Through the truck’s windshield, May Lin and Steven studied the small weather-beaten house at the edge of town. Two birds shot out of the tree in front and flew over to the crumbling roof. “Those’re crows,” said Timothy. “They’ve got thar eyes on a critter er two. Down in them weeds an’ tall grass. Whooie. Place is a mess, ain’t it? Sorry ya ‘ave t’ see it this way.” 

While Timothy rambled on about Steve and him growing up together, spending time in the house — back in the day — May Lin wondered what Steven was thinking.  She pointed to a hawk circling around in the sky, two of them. They both watched and then their eyes settled on the distant mountains.

“By the way, May Lin,” said Timothy, “case yer wonderin’, Steve’s parents. Yer in-laws I believe that’d make ‘em. Steven’s . . . grandparents? Steve’s father died when he was in high school. Before Steve went to Vietnam. An’ his mother…well, she’s…she’s a bit dinky dou I’m afraid. Lives…I’d take ya t’ see ‘er, Steven, but…”

Steven nodded shyly. In America he wasn’t an outcast — a “child of dust” — the way he would have been if they’d stayed in Vietnam. It didn’t matter that his eyes were different than his mother’s. He was just a boy with big wonderous eyes who wanted to know about his American father.            

Timothy drove past the high school Steve and Timothy went to, the hardware store where Steve worked. He drove them past the stadium where rodeos were held so Steven could see where his father rode a bucking bronco. May Lin asked Timothy if he could do this, please, because sometimes when she and Steve were together, Steve was telling her about this.

“’Ave te admit,” Timothy told Steven, “yer daddy was a much better rider ’n I was.  Was able t’ stay on much longer ’n me.” Watching the boy, seeing the excitement in his eyes, Timothy said, “So, wha’d’ya say there, buckaroo, you wanna try it?” 

May Lin and Steven both shook their heads and the three of them laughed. 

And then, they were driving up a hill to the cemetery. As they’d left the little stadium, May Lin felt uneasy. She and Steven wanted to see where Steve was buried, but…she felt a sense of dread about leaving town. 

At the gravesite, Timothy loomed over May Lin and Steven as they ran their fingers back and forth over the letters and numbers on Steve’s tombstone. He was gaping at them.  Well, at her. And there were no tears streaming down from his eyes. Maybe he hadn’t been as good a friend as he said he was. Perhaps he was numbed – or hardened. She put her arm around Steven. She was shaking. Timothy came over and helped her to stand up. His strong arms helped to steady her, but she was shivering as if ice water was running through her veins. She looked around at the trees, the other tombstones. And then they were back in the truck again.

***

“Nice an’ cozy, ain’t it?” Timothy said, as May Lin and Steven stepped into the trailer behind him. It was dark inside, dark and gloomy, and smelled of rotting food, cigarette smoke, and alcohol. Noting how his guests’ eyes had settled on the disarray surrounding them, Timothy picked up a box with several half-eaten pizza slices in it and set it down on the counter. He kicked a pile of clothes out of the way. “Look,” he said, “The place’s a disaster, I know. Looks like a tornado struck. But ya gotta understand. Had I known…if I’d known you two were comin’. Here. Let me show ya.” He carried May Lin’s suitcase into the bedroom. May Lin and Steven followed. “This is yer…” He glanced at the unmade bed. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you some clean sheets. Meanwhile, make yerself at home. I’ll try an’ tidy the place up a bit while you and Steven…You’ve had a long day.  A couple’a long days. Nothin’ like sittin’ on a bus fer — fer what May Lin? Sixteen hours? Damn. Anyway, get yerselves settled. Freshen up if ya want…take yer time. I’ll put out somethin’ we can snack on. We can ‘ave a drink er two an’ then I’ll cook dinner.”

May Lin looked at Steven. She should have said no. She knew that now. Should have had Timothy drop Steven and her off at that motel she saw in town. But, how could she? It was a kind offer he’d made. She wanted to take a shower. Let the water…she’d been dreaming about taking a long, hot shower since they left Los Angeles. But she knew she couldn’t. What if… With horror, she thought of what the guard at the refugee camp had done to her. She was tired. All she wanted to do was lie down on top of that unmade bed and go to sleep.

May Lin and Steven washed in the filthy sink. Timothy was not a good housekeeper for this place. When they’d finished, they returned to the bedroom and put on clean clothes.  They sat on the edge of the bed for a long time. Finally, they stepped back into the other room. Timothy was standing in the kitchen, over by the stove. May Lin watched him taking long swigs from a bottle. He turned and seemed surprised to find them standing there. “Damn!” he said, staggering back against the counter, “I thought I heard somethin’.  I was jus’…” 

May Lin felt trapped. Her heart was hammering. The way Timothy was watching her…that look! She’d seen it many times before, and knew, knew with a bone-chilling certainty, that if she and Steven didn’t find a way to leave the trailer while they still could, they’d end up being his prisoner.

“I was jus’ cookin’ up some rice. Threw some chicken in th’ oven. Help me make sure I don’t burn th’ damn thing. There’s some chips on th’ table.  So, sit down an’ make yerself comfortable. Now, as you can see, I’m all set in the drink department. What can I get ya?  Coca-Cola?”

Later, Timothy was asleep. He’d barely touched the chicken and rice. May Lin and Steven hadn’t eaten much either.

In the bedroom, May Lin told Steven they were leaving. She spoke to him in Vietnamese, telling him not to argue, she’d explain later. They had to leave quickly and quietly, like when they were in that sampan going up the Saigon River. 

As May Lin was opening the door, Timothy woke up. But then he was snoring again. “Steven, go,” she said, and he stepped outside. May Lin followed, lugging their suitcase.

***

Twenty-four hours later, May Lin and Steven arrived at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Los Angeles, and the chilling view of the trailer silhouetted against the night sky as they were fleeing, seemed like a bad dream. 

“How come you’re back so soon?” Thieu asked when he saw them.

“Well,” said May Lin, recalling the relief she felt as she and Steven were climbing onto the bus in Blackleaf, “it’s a long story. And I will tell you.”