Chapter One

John Crawford woke. Linh lay beside him, sleeping. Morning filtered through an open window, and somewhere far away a helicopter’s rotors chopped the quiet while the rest remained still. The morning flights from Tân Sơn Nhứt hadn’t begun.

He took care not to disturb Linh. Slender and small, she didn’t take much room on the broken mattress. Strands of hair fell across her face in trails of ink, and in her earlobe the bright white of a tiny faux pearl. In her sleep she didn’t look thirty. She’d been a prostitute from sixteen.

They slept naked. It only dropped below the steaming thirties in the dead of night.

Old sweat made his skin itch. His hair two days dirty. Face unshaven for three. Crawford put on boxers. He left Linh in the bedroom for the apartment’s primary room. Here the kitchenette, a single-burner propane stove with no oven, and the shelves not true. He grabbed a bar of Cô Ba soap and a towel and let himself into the hallway. The building hushed.

Four apartments shared a common bathroom. Three apartments were empty now.

The bathroom was a pentagon with two tall windows the size of long-playing records. Dust filmed the windows, mold touching their corners. Mildewy green tiles crawled up the walls to waist-height, and someone painted the rest a mint color a long time ago without it ever being refreshed. Bare concrete underfoot, always damp, because the pipes seeped water.

Once there’d been a toilet. The hole where it stood remained, and a hose ran from a second spigot to spray whatever didn’t make it into the exposed pipe.

Crawford closed the door and set a brick against it to keep it shut. He dropped his skivvies on the side of the sink, squatted over the toilet-hole and took care of things. Afterward he soaked half the towel in the sink and used it and the soap to scrub himself clean. He washed his hair. The boxers clung to his skin when he returned to his apartment. Water oozed along his neck.

He didn’t see Linh, but he smelled her cigarette. She’d a French father somewhere. Linh told Crawford she remembered his cigarette brand: Mélia. She still found them, though Mélia kept no factory in Vietnam anymore.

He passed into the bedroom. She sat naked on the mattress with her back to him. Every night she used a boar’s hair brush with an ivory handle until her long hair glossed. From time to time she braided it to keep the hair from her face, other times she tucked it away in a ponytail. Her hair remained her loveliest feature, the first thing which caught Crawford’s eye.

“You came to bed late last night,” she said.

Crawford got an undershirt from a drawer in his wardrobe. “I got caught after curfew. Came back the long way.”

“Dinh Bảo?”

“Yeah.”

Outside someone shouted chào buổi sáng . Chợ Lớn woke, and the stalls and shops along the street woke with it. A bicycle bell rang and another greeting and then the murmur of conversation in Chinese-inflected Vietnamese.

“What will you do today?” Linh asked him.

Crawford shrugged.

He put on pants, but no socks. A short-sleeved shirt, pale green, akin to the paint in the bathroom. As he buttoned up, he returned to the kitchenette where two packs of unopened Ruby Queens sat beside a stainless-steel Zippo.

Once he lit his first cigarette, Crawford stood by the window and watched the street. The day in Chợ Lớn began with the sun. He watched a vendor named Lạc set up baskets of xoài and chôm chôm, both fresh and days old. Lạc tried to sell the older product first, and charge the same, but one could get deals.

Linh behind Crawford. Still naked, she put her arms around his hips and leaned against his back.

“Get me breakfast?” she asked.

“Sure. From Mme. Vưu?”

“Yes.”

Crawford flicked his butt out the window. He found his shoes by the front door and put them on his bare feet. Linh sparked the stove’s burner to boil water for coffee. The black fall of her hair hid her face.

“Be right back,” Crawford said.

He pulled the door shut. No lock, only a bolt on the inside, and Linh didn’t set it.