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TheCurveOfAYellowCheek

I loved her a lot. But then, everybody in the company did, except maybe
Private O'Day who was too stoned to take notice. Sergeant Cole had it
the worst. We pitied him. Us Deck Devils had been in Vietnam long enough
to know it could never work out. But the Sarge tried anyway, and that's
when the trouble started.

Cole was a big black guy in charge of a ship platoon that unloaded
freighters at the Newport docks, a couple klicks upriver from Saigon. He
wasn't too bright and had been busted back to E-5 for taking a swing at
the Top Sergeant during an EM club brawl. But he was a sweet Georgia boy
with a low soft voice, and the mama-sans who cleaned our hootches and
made the beds liked him a lot, especially Hyunh. In the hot steaming
mornings when the night shift of stevedores drifted in from port and
flopped onto their bunks, she would turn down Cole's poncho liner and
tuck him in, then squat next to the bed and quietly polish his boots.
They'd murmur pidgin English to each other until he finally fell asleep.

"Sergeant numba one G.I.," I whispered to her one morning as he snored.
"You his girlfriend?"

She scowled. "Hyunh no taxi girl. G.I. numba ten, boocoo dinky-dau." She
ran slender fingers through her long black hair and the smile returned.

I felt my blood pulsing. "Sergeant go back to the world in tee-tee
time." I pointed to his short-timer's calendar pasted to the outside of
a wall locker. "Maybe take you to America."

Her smile vanished. "My father caca dau G.I. No can go."
"I think the Sergeant will ask you," I warned.

"No can go. No can go." She brushed harder at a jungle boot's black
leather tip and coyly cut her eyes at me.

"Sergeant be very sad," I said and moved off to my company clerk job and
a blank morning report waiting to be typed out.

Like most days, Hyunh wore a long-sleeved rose-colored tunic above the
ubiquitous black silk pajama bottoms. She was slender, willowy, built
like a J.C. Penny manikin with high cheekbones, warm playful eyes and
ivory teeth - unlike the older mama-sans whose teeth were black from
sucking on betel nut all day. She moved like a young girl, seemingly
unaware of us GIs watching her.

"Yeah, she must be part French," Specialist Stoker had said one night as
we watched Armed Forces TV in the dayroom. "No gook has a nose and
forehead like that...and man, that tight little ass!"

When it came to Hyunh, there was plenty to think about. I tried scraping
her image from my brain with only limited success. At 10-hundred hours I
unlocked the mailroom and sorted letters from a crammed-full canvas bag
into 278 slots. A crowd of grumbling GIs gathered outside, waiting for
me to open the mail window and give them their tidings, hoping for
letters from girlfriends, wives, or even from mothers and fathers. It
was a morning ritual filled with trepidation, joy and despair, a daily
reminder of the tenuous nature of our connection to people we loved,
thousands of miles away. I hurried to get it over with. I was reading
The Great Gatsby and was eager to get lost again in the glittering world
of East Egg, New York during the Jazz Age. Most days I could get my work
done in two or three hours, leaving plenty of time to tear through every
novel the USO sent us through the mail - romances, westerns, detective
stories, and the classics. I devoured them all.

At lunchtime I volunteered to pull CQ duty while the two other clerks
went for chow. I'd reached the exciting part of Fitzgerald's book, where
Daisy slams into Myrtle with Gatsby's car, and didn't want to put it
down. Suddenly, a high-pitched scream echoed through the quiet company.
I cocked my head and listened, hoping it was just my imagination. A
minute later, a flat-as-a-board mama-san ran into the office and pushed
through the counter's swinging door.

"DUC WY, YOU COME," she ordered and grabbed my arm and tugged.

I was the mama-sans' paymaster and Duc Wy was the nickname they gave me.
But they wouldn't tell me what it meant. For all I knew, they were
calling me asshole and all I could do was smile and bob my head, none
the wiser.

"I'm comin,' I'm comin,'" I complained, clapped on my baseball cap and
followed her out the door.

We hustled between the boxy corrugated metal hootches toward the showers
at the rear of the company, the mama-san's sandals clacking on the
boardwalk as we ran. A crowd of coolie-hatted women squatted in the
shade of the water tower. They surrounded Specialist Stoker, who wore
shower thongs and a towel wrapped around his white rash-covered belly.
At his feet cowered Hyunh, a blood-soaked T-shirt pressed to the top of
her head. The mama-sans fawned over the girl, stroking her arms and
shoulders and chattering.

"What the hell...happened here?" I demanded, wheezing.

"Don't look at me," Stoker said. "I was just talking with Hyunh, ya
know, real nice like, and that damn Cole - "

"Yeah, real nice like. Sure, I believe you," I muttered.

"Ain't no law against it, Gorski. So shut the fuck up."

I knelt down and brushed the mama-sans' arms away from Hyunh's trembling
body. Her breathing was fast and ragged. I reached toward her head but
she pulled away.

"No hurt, Hyunh, no hurt," I said.

She gazed at me with wet scared eyes but said nothing. I removed the
T-shirt compress. Blood had flowed across her scalp and the shiny black
hair was a matted mess. Close to the center part was an inch-long gash
that oozed scarlet. When I tilted her head to get a better look, thick
red droplets spilled onto her cheek. I quickly wiped them away.

"So how'd this happen?" I asked Stoker.

"Cole yelled somethin', then heaved that at her." He pointed to the
ground and a bloodied piece of concrete about the size of a child's
fist. "That spook is fuckin' crazy, man."

"And you weren't messing with him?"

"No way. I was just bullshittin' with the mama-sans like I always do."

I bent and slipped the chunk of concrete into the deep front pocket of
my jungle fatigues. Placing a palm under an elbow, I helped Hyunh to her
feet. She wobbled a bit, trying to hold the T-shirt on her head while
regaining balance.

"We go first aid...you numba one soon," I told her.

She looked at me and dipped her head. "No cut hair, no cut hair," she
mumbled.

"We'll see," I said and smiled. But she looked more frightened than before.

The first aid station was a quarter mile down the dusty red clay road. I
thought about commandeering the First Sergeant's jeep, but decided to
walk her there. Top would want to know all the gory details and he
didn't need to know anything.

The aid station's reception area was filled with soldiers waiting to get
penicillin shots in the ass after a weekend spent in Saigon's finest
brothels. Hyunh and I sat on the bench and watched the wall clock's
minute hand slowly circulate. Everybody in the waiting room eyeballed
Hyunh and stared at me, as if thinking how can a fat, big-nosed Polack
like him ever get close to a pretty girl, even if she is yellow?

A brown corpsman dressed in whites came forward. "All right, baby-san,
what seems to be the problem?"

"She's got a nasty gash on her head," I answered and removed the
compress. "I'm no medic, but it looks like it'll need stitches."

"Rat on," the medic said and grinned. "Bring her in back. I'll give her
a tetanus shot, some Novocaine, then stitch her up. You can help keep
her quiet."

Watching the medic stick a syringe in her arm wasn't too bad. But seeing
him jam a needle three times into her bloodied scalp was something else.
My ears rang as the blood drained from my face. I focused on my lap
where Hyunh's trembling hand clutched mine, her fingernails perfectly
filed. She didn't make a sound but I smelled the sharp, vinegary sweat
that stained her blouse.

The medic disappeared for a few minutes to let the Novocaine numb things
up. He returned with a safety razor and a bowl of water.

"I'm gonna shave the wound area," he said.

"No cut hair, no cut hair," Hyunh whined and struggled to stand.

"Only tee-tee, baby-san. Only a little."

Hyunh sucked in a deep breath and shuddered.

"Yeah, I've patched up a few mama-sans before," the medic explained.
"They're embarrassed to lose any hair. It's a big fuckin' deal with 'em.
Ah, are you okay, Specialist? You're lookin' kinda green."

"I'm fine, man. Just get it over with."

The stitching job went slowly, made my skin crawl watching him suture
the pale yellow skin and pink flesh. At least the bleeding had stopped.
When finished, he pasted a butterfly bandage over the gash and gave me a
bottle of pink and gray capsules.

"Have her take one of these three times a day until they're gone. Bring
her back on Thursday. I'll check for infection."

"No sweat, man, and thanks."

"So how'd this happen, anyway?" the medic asked.

"Just a misunderstanding. It's no big deal."

The corpsman stared at me then shook his head. "It never is...for us."

I walked Hyunh back to the company. She whimpered and shook really bad,
clinging to my arm the whole way. I left her with the clucking mama-sans
polishing boots in the officers' barracks.

Backtracking to the ship platoon's hootch, I slipped inside. It was
gloomy, stifling, and filled with soft snores from the night shift. I
let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Sergeant Cole sat hunched over on
his bunk, elbows on knees, dog tags dangling. As I approached, he looked
up. Bands of light through the slatted window awnings cut across his wet
mahogany face. An open bottle of something sat on the floor within easy
reach.

"Ya fucked up, Sarge," I muttered. "Why'd you do it, man?"

He stared at me for a few moments. "Yeah, y'all got that straight.
Hyunh's the best damn thing ta happen ta me."

"So why, man? I mean, Jesus fucking Christ!"

"Asked the bitch to come back with me to the world. She fuckin' turned
me down. Then I sees her with that white trash Stoker, and...I's just
lost it."

"So if you can't have her, nobody can. Is that it?"

"Somepin' like that...I knows, it's messed up."

"Just stay the hell away from her 'til you catch a freedom bird out of
here. If you don't, I'll report all this to the CO and you'll get your
ass busted back to Private."

"Don' care. When I leave Nam I'll be outta the Goddamn army. Gonna
forget all about this shithole."

"Yeah, well, use this to remind yourself."

I reached into my pocket, grabbed the piece of bloodied concrete and
tossed it at Sergeant Cole. He dove to the left, as if I'd thrown him a
live grenade. The stone clattered across the floor. I picked it up,
dumped it on the bed next to him, and walked out into the white-hot
sunshine. I turned and peered back into the darkness. Cole huddled on
the bed, hands covering his face, shoulders shaking. I quietly shut the
door and shambled down the boardwalk toward the sound of chattering
mama-sans and Hyunh, to try and make it work for us all before it got
too late.



Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one fat cat (his in-house critic). He writes
full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than
85 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies (both print and online) including the Houston Literary Review, Birmingham Arts
Journal, Boston Literary Magazine, and Underground Voices. 

  

Copyright 2009