by Gina Williams
Vinh Ho won’t tell me his mother’s name.
“It’s bad luck to say the name of the dead,” he says. “It could bring her ghost around.”
I don’t know if this is really true in Vietnamese culture or whether it’s something he believes for himself. But he says it while we stand there. He’s not any taller than me. We’re the smallest kids in high school.
“What happened to her—I mean, if it’s okay?”
Vinny kicks a pine cone toward the curb, pushes his shaggy hair away from his eyes.
“It was cancer. I miss her.”
I put my hand on his shoulder for a moment, feel him flinch a little and quickly remove it. I wonder how many times I’ve brought ghosts around by saying names of the dead out loud.
“My dad’s a good guy. He works hard. Probably too hard. Sometimes he gets really stressed, drinks too much. He loses it, goes crazy, beats on me. But it’s okay. I can handle him.” Vinny spins around in the gravel and does some goofy karate moves, lands like a cat, grinning at me with his hands raised. “Know what? In Vietnam, we wear white at funerals. At weddings, the bride wears red or pink. Red is a sign of good luck, white is a death omen. See?”
We’re walking shoulder-to-shoulder on our shortcut across the sports fields to the path through the woods to town. Now I’m not thinking about ghosts or signs of luck or Vinny’s dead mother or Vietnam. I’m thinking of his dad’s angry fists coming at him in the night. I can’t imagine Vinny fighting anyone off.
“Luck. What the fuck is that, anyway? Real luck?” I say.
Vinny and his father got out of Vietnam in 1982 as stowaways on a fishing boat headed for Thailand. He said the boat took on water halfway there and began to capsize, and they were pulled from the China Sea right before it sank. “I don’t know—a miracle I guess. I thought for sure we were fish food.”
A few weeks ago, Vinny took me to Wizards, an animated post-apocalypse film at the discount theater. He chose seats in the front row. The movie put him in a trance, and when I glanced sideways at him, his face lit up pink and flickering blue, hand slipping from my arm, head tilted back, uneaten popcorn on his lap, cartoon blood exploding. I could see the tears fill his dark eyes.
Vinny holds my hand on the way home from school, but never anywhere else. I guess we’re both too shy. We got “married” at the Sadie Hawkins dance last weekend, but when it came time to kiss under the balloon arch, our lips slid sideways, and our teeth clicked against each other, and it wasn’t a kiss. Not really. Not at all.
Usually, Vinny goes one way, and I go the other after school once we get a few blocks from the sports fields, but today I’m walking with him to the house his dad has rented in old town. The warmth of Vinny’s hand feels good in mine as we walk along the twisting, cedar-lined path. I like the thin layer of sweat between us, the faint twisting of his pulse in my palm.
When we go into his small brick house on the corner, the living room is filled with smoke. Vinny starts yelling in Vietnamese. His dad emerges from the kitchen, fanning a newspaper and yelling back. His uncle is squatting in front of the small brick fireplace, barefoot, blowing, waving his hands.
“I think it’s the flue, Vinny.”
“The what? Nobody’s sick.”
“The fireplace flue, the chimney opening. There’s a lever inside. Push it sideways or pull it down, and it will let the smoke go up the chimney.”
He shoos his uncle out of the way. Vinny finds the handle and pulls it, and smoke begins funneling skyward. His uncle returns to the stack of kindling. Vinny’s scowling father disappears into the back of the house without an introduction.
“Hey, come see my new puppy.”
I follow Vinny into the small kitchen. A cardboard box is in the corner near a mudroom door. He leans inside and pulls out a fat, fluffy, spotted mutt with a red silk ribbon tied around its neck.
“What a cutie! What’s his name?”
“Dirty Harry. My dad loves Clint Eastwood.”
He puts the squirming puppy in my arms. I cradle him and let him lick my cheeks. The pup’s fur smells like wood smoke and incense. When I set Dirty Harry down he scrambles, nails clattering on the old green linoleum, over to a warped aluminum pie tin.
Vinny’s hand brushes mine. I hear the sound of a fire crackling in the hearth.
In the middle of the dog dish is a ball of sticky rice.
Vinny bends down to scratch the puppy’s head, and as he reaches forward, his faded Black Sabbath T-shirt lifts up, revealing welts and a large purple bruise on his lower back, fresh and raw, spreading from his spine toward his ribs.
I feel sick and confused about too many things all at once—innocence drifting like white smoke, our lips sliding in the gymnasium, his mother’s ghost, his father’s rage, sinking boats, mixed-up signs of luck.
Gina Williams lives and creates near Portland, Oregon. Her poetry, essays, and visual art have been featured by or are forthcoming most recently in Carve, The Sun, Fugue, Palooka, Boiler Journal, Black Box Gallery, and Great Weather for Media, among others. Learn more about her and her work at GinaMarieWilliams.com.