The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Marian Palaia’s “The Given World”

PalaiaMarian_Credit_ Kelly Rae

Two Days, Then a Bus to Cambodia

I hear that now you can fire Kalashnikov rounds for a
dollar a shot out at Củ Chi, and they have widened and
deepened the tunnels to accommodate Western bodies.
Mick had the perfect build for tunneling, and he liked dark,
enclosed places. I still can’t imagine, though, after the sto-
ries I’ve heard, how he went into those things. I have tried
for years to tell myself it was lucky, in some alternative con-
figuration, that he didn’t have to come home damaged and
try somehow to fit in. I’ve known some of his compatriots,
here and back in the States, and not a one of them is right
in the head. They’re light-shy and twitchy, still startling at
certain sounds, still having the bad dreams after so much
time. The suicide rate for the tunnel rats is even higher
than it is for the guys who got to shoot at other people,
and get shot at, out in the open. Sometimes they take other
folks with them when they go. Innocent bystanders, as if
any of us is truly that.
      Meantime, I drink and shoot pool and pretend that I
am helping somehow, with the kids and with my students,
though it really did not take me long to figure out it is not
the Vietnamese who need help here.
      When I feel myself approaching critical mass, I burrow
in at the Rex with the Aussie, who works with the Vietnam
Airlines guys out at Tân Sơn Nhất, training pilots and me-
chanics about airplanes in peacetime. These guys, he’s told
me, know plenty about planes in wartime: their water buf-
falo drink from bomb craters turned lotus-choked ponds;
their kids are born missing limbs, or with their limbs put
on lopsided. By God. Every couple of months he gets a
ten-day leave and goes off to Norway—to hike, to “veg
out,” he says, unwind before he goes berko. When he leaves
this time, one of his pals finally tells me, in as kind a way
as possible, that the Aussie is in Norway because his drop-
dead Norwegian model girlfriend has just had his child
there, a boy, and he is pulling together the paperwork to get
them permanent visas and bring them back to Saigon.
      “So,” this pal tells me, “maybe you should forget about
him now.”
      “Done,” I say, though of course we both know that is
a big, fat lie. I have not had time to forget. Give me some
time.
      “He should have told you.”
      “Should have. Maybe he was going to when he got
back.”
      “Pigs fly,” he says.
      I spend twenty precious dollars on a four-minute phone
call to San Francisco, to my keeper, my tender, my friend—
the one whose heart I took such lousy care of because I still
had no business trying to operate mine, and because there
was nothing dangerous or particularly fucked up about
him. It has been over a year, so clearly he is surprised to
hear from me, and he waits for me to tell him why I am
calling. I listen to his breathing, watch the seconds go away
on the pay phone at the post office. I am standing under
a larger-than-life-size portrait of a smiling, radiant Ho
Chi Minh, in what is officially, at least in name, his city. I
say into the phone, “Do you miss me?” but I have not left
enough time for an answer at the pace we are going. I want
to be missed. MIA like my brother, but with the prospect of
being found. Flags flown and torches carried. APBs out for
my arrest. I don’t care how.
       Finally, I hear, “I don’t know what—” The line goes
bleep, then dead. I do not call back, though I should, to say
I am sorry for what I did, for who I am, for calling, for re-
minding him, for asking for something I don’t deserve: for
someone to want me. For a reason to one day, perhaps, in
this lifetime even, recross the ocean. Selfish as that reason
might be. Crazy as it might be to believe, even for a little
while, that it would do.
       I think about calling home. My real home. I think about
calling.

This selection comes from Marian Palaia’s novella The Given World, available from Simon & Schuster. Purchase your copy here!

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and grew up there and in Washington, DC. She lives in San Francisco and has also lived in Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Marian has also been a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. The Given World is her first novel.

Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.

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