‘When you go to Vietnam, tell them about me.’

I’m dreaming of the Mekong delta and reading Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham. Categorization hurts some books. This one got slotted into Travel, but it’s so much more. Pham came to this country when he was eight, just after the fall of Saigon. This is the story of his escape from his broken, raging family by riding his bike from California to Hanoi.

I was happy to have a dentist’s appointment today because I’d get to read it in the waiting room. On my way, I saw Charlie for the first time in years. At the tony Park Avenue church soup kitchen, I’d had the same conversation with Charlie every week as I doled out his breakfast—beef stew, or meatballs, at 6.30 in the morning.

    ‘C’mon, gimme some more fuckin’ meatballs.’
    ‘Jesus, Charlie, what do you want from me? It’s already getting on the floor,’ I would say as I ladled a third helping into his brimming bowl.
    ‘Hey, I served my fuckin’ country, darlin’. Don’t fuckin’ shortchange me now. You got a boyfriend?’

We knew he’d been in Vietnam. He told anyone who asked and yelled it at anyone who didn’t. He was still handsome as Stallone in his trenchcoat and slouchy fedora, and today I recognized him immediately. He was on 35th and 10th, a seedy part of town far-removed from the Episcopalians who told him not to swear over his breakfast stew. He walks macho, as if his balls are so huge he can only drag their weight by leading with his shoulders and swivelling each stiff leg out from his hips.

   ‘How are you, Charlie?’ I yelled from my bike over the noise of the trucks.
   ‘Hey darlin’. Lookin’ for a boyfriend? I served my fuckin’ country!’ he said automatically. He had no idea who I was. I thought of the broken soldier Andrew Pham met in Mexico at the start of Catfish and Mandala:

Tyle says, “I was in Nam.” I have guessed as much. Not knowing what to say, I nod. Vets – acquaintances and strangers – have said variations of this to me since I was a kid and didn’t know what or where Nam was. The contraction was lost on a boy struggling to learn English. But the note, the way these men said it, told me it was important, someplace I ought to know. With the years, this statement took on new meanings, each flavored by the tone of the speaker. There was bitterness, and there was bewilderment. There was loss and rage and every shade of emotion in between. I heard declarations, accusations, boasts, demands, obligations, challenges, and curses in the four words: I was in Nam. No matter how they said it, an ache welled up in me until an urge to make some sort of reparation slicked my palms with sweat. Some gesture of conciliation. Remorse. A word of apology.

He must have seen me wince for he says it again, more gently.

At that, I do something I’ve never done before. I bow to him like a respected colleague. It is a bow of acknowledgment, a bow of humility, the only way I can tell him I know of his loss, his sufferings.

Looking into the fire, he says softly, “Forgive me. Forgive me for what I have done to your people.”

The night buckles around me.

“What, Tyle?”

“I’m sorry, man. I’m really sorry,” he whispers.

The blond giant begins to cry, a tired, sobless weeping, tears falling away untouched. My mouth forms the words, but I cannot utter them. No. No, Tyle. How can I forgive you? What have you done to my people? But who are my people? I don’t know them. Are you my people? How can you be my people? All my life, I’ve looked at you sideways, wondering if you were wondering if my brothers had killed your brothers in the war that made no sense except for the one act of sowing me here – my gain – in your bed, this strange rich-poor, generous-cruel land. I move through your world, a careful visitor, respectful and mindful, hoping for but not believing in the day when I become native. I am the rootless one, yet still the beneficiary of all of your and all of their sufferings. Then why, of us two, am I the savior, and you the sinner?

“Please forgive me.”

I deny him with my silence.

His Viking face mashes up, twisting like a child’s just before the first bawl. It doesn’t come. Instead words cascade out, disjointed sentences, sputtering incoherence that at the initial rush sound like a drunk’s ravings. Nameless faces. Places. Killings. He bleeds it out, airs it into the flames, pours it on me. And all I can do is gasp Oh, God at him over and over, knowing I will carry his secrets all my days.

He asks my pardon yet again, his open hand outstretched to me. This time the quiet turns and I give him the absolution that is not mine to give. And, in my fraudulence, I know I have embarked on something greater than myself.

“When you go to Vietnam,” he says, stating it as a fact, “tell them about me. Tell them about my life, the way I’m living. Tell them about the family I’ve lost. Tell them I’m sorry.”