Frankie the Coyote
I wake with a start, jolted from a dream about the ocean. I am
still in the backseat of the truck. The dawn, which has only now
begun to crest the rocky scrub hills flanking the road, floods the
cab with a reed-thin early morning sunlight that has the faded and
tattered poignancy of Super-8 film. I must not be fully awake
because I am convinced this moment, this awakening, has already come
and gone and I am reliving it for the first time with both pleasure
and regret. I know this notion will pass as the day grows full, but
I hope it won’t. Curled up beside me, Huong, flush with the smell of
wood smoke and sand, rests her head against my shoulder, the Indian
poncho I bought in Tijuana three days earlier draped over her as a
blanket. Up front, Vinh navigates the truck along the narrow highway
with one hand, his other thrust out the open window, a cigarette
dangling in the wind. The light plays off the acute angles of his
gaunt face, his bristly silver and black hair, washing out his brown
The meandering two-lane highway switches back and forth in
seemingly random fashion as we head south, more with the natural
sinuousness of a river than a road. Each small change in direction
dramatically alters the landscape; an inland jog places us in the
desert: a mountainous terrain lunar in its desolation, dusty and
littered with the wrecked heaps of crumbling boulders, Joshua trees
stretching to the sky, the air burdened by haze and wavering seams
of heat. A mile later the road cuts west to the Pacific and a
brilliant seaside emerges. Jagged cliffs dotted with wild primrose
and flannelbush in crimson and coral and gold sink dolefully into a
tangled sub-stratum of richly green and tan chaparral; and beyond,
an expanse of shimmering blue-gray ocean that is hugely, impossibly
radiant with prismatic sunlight arcing off the distant white caps.
Huong begins to stir beside me. She utters a small moaning yawn
and lifts her head to plant a frail kiss on the side of my neck. She
pulls the poncho close and works her way further into the folds and
creases of my body. Again I catch the scent of yesterday’s beach in
Ensenada: the long swim in the frigid water, the hours spent drying
in the sun, our skin roasted dark brown and covered in a fine sheen
of sea salt.
Vinh turns around and says, xap den, Phuong-oi, using my
Vietnamese name, Phuong, because he knows I don’t like it. He smiles
when he realizes he’s spoken too fast for me to understand.
We’re almost there, he adds. Time to wake Huong.
We reach Ejido Erendira not long past seven, chilled by the wind
and ready for coffee. There isn’t much to the place. Haphazardly
arranged huts, each a fifteen-by-ten cement pillbox painted some
strenuously optimistic shade of pink or sky blue or peach, sit on a
bluff overlooking the ocean, exposed to the wind on all sides. The
sturdy-looking clay tiles used to construct the roofs were
inexpertly laid and show signs of wear and imminent crumbling. The
front doors hang at strange angles and the windows appear drafty and
are covered in dust. Each hovel supports a meager farm plot cut into
a scabrous stretch of rocky soil. A withered crop of organic
vegetables and obscure herbs pokes lamely out of the ground.
Chickens and pigs and the odd duck share small pens next to the
houses, no more than ten feet from a ramshackle privy. Just outside
the hamlet at the extreme edge of the bluff, a group of surfers have
made camp. Laundry set to dry on sagging lines rigged from a truck
to a camper whips in the breeze; I watch a bath towel suddenly cut
loose and disappear over the hill.
We stop the truck at one of the huts and get out. The first
person we meet is a white woman in her mid-50s, a Berkeley type with
pale blue eyes and long gray hair pulled back in a wavy bun. She
stops pulling weeds in her garden when she sees us, waves neutrally,
then brightens into a wide smile when she recognizes Vinh.
Vinh-oi! Co khong gap anh lau qua roi! Vui qua! the woman
says in perfectly accented Vietnamese; a Vietnamese far better than
mine, better even than Huong’s. I am so flabbergasted by her speech
that it barely registers. White folks don’t speak Vietnamese, I
think; therefore this woman doesn’t speak Vietnamese.
It’s good to see you, Dahlia, Vinh says.
Dahlia pulls Vinh close for a hug, then turns her attention to
Day la ban cua Vinh, ha? Rat vui gap em, nhe, she
The best I can do is nod hello, make a failed attempt at a smile.
I hear her speak, the same pleasantries I’ve heard since I was a
child: A friend of Vinh, huh? Very happy to meet you, but my
brain continues to balk.
Huong, never out of sorts, steps forward, claps her hands
sideways across her chest and gives two short bows—a ritual sign of
respect from a Vietnamese youth.
Xin chao co. Em ten Huong.
Dahlia’s smile widens. She’s flattered by the formality.
You must be hungry, she says. Cold, too. Come inside. Let me feed
Breakfast is fried duck eggs and stale tortillas, canned black
beans topped with salty farmer’s cheese that Dahlia says she gets in
trade from another ejido not far away. Dahlia keeps a pot of
coffee full and puts out chunks of sticky brown cane sugar to
Her bungalow is sparsely furnished. Dahlia prepares breakfast on
a wood-burning stove. There’s no refrigerator or sink. After we eat,
she washes the dishes and skillet at a spigot outside. A single
photo hangs on the wall. In it, I recognize a much younger version
of Dahlia posing with a group of Vietnamese peasants.
Kontum, the Central Highlands. 1969, she says. Oskar and I were
in the Peace Corps.
Oskar must be the cavernously thin white man standing next to
Dahlia in the photo. He’s done up rather absurdly in a Balinese
smoking shirt, black peasant pajama bottoms, and Mao sandals. His
hair has wandered below his shoulders and he shoots this half-manic
noblesse oblige grin at the Vietnamese surrounding him. I get a
distinct whiff of car salesman off him.
My folks own an Asian grocery in Dayton, Ohio that sells imported
jasmine rice and salted fish and bamboo shoots in a can, among other
Asian necessaries. We used to live behind the store in a tiny but
immaculately clean two-room suite off the cold storage locker, but
that was before my parents went into real estate and bought their
big oak Dutch Farmer’s desk, which necessitated a house fit for it
to reside. The Family moved with the desk into the new house.
If I had not quit my job analyzing commodities on Wall Street, my
desk would still sit in a suitably tall glass and steel high-rise
named for a robber baron. It would be nestled neatly within a
six-square-foot cubicle butt up against a housing tract style grid
of other such cubicles. Fluorescent lighting and ivy-league MBAs
would abound. Behind my desk I would sit and crunch numbers, secure
with my place in the world and the evening’s choice of which sushi
takeout shop to favor. If I had kept my desk as my Family
expected—required—my mother would now weep no tears of shame and my
father would happily sing my praises to his ARVN cronies when they
came for Christmas to slug down beers and tell lies about their
salaries and wolf my mother’s just-fried crab spring rolls and
complain about the new generation’s miserable Vietnamese.
But quit I did, and now my desk calls a converted 1930’s-era
Spanish colonial mansion in West Hollywood home. It occupies what I
believe was once a large bathroom. The office opens onto a
sun-kissed interior courtyard garden where the janitorial staff
spends countless hours tending the bougainvillea and hibiscus and
roses. I suppose this is a nice environment in which to work,
although it really isn’t. As second assistant to an entertainment
agent, I make twenty-five thousand dollars per year, medical covered
but no dental. That this sum is considerably less than the new real
estate agent my folks hired last year earns is a fact my parents
have not withheld from me. Although Thuan—the agent—never finished
high school, the Family is wild about him. He sells a house just
like a Chinese, my mother says, her voice heavy with respect. Cat
khao. Cut throat.
The auction is held in Southgate, on a tarred expanse of cement
the size of four football fields that Huong says was once an
airstrip and later a truck parking lot. The lot sits behind a
ten-foot metal fence bordered by a wide skirt of concertina wire.
Inside its perimeter lies an apocalyptic wasteland of rust and
chrome and rubber. Car parts spill from every conceivable orifice of
the corpses of these obliterated Fords, hobbled Nissans,
long-suffering muscle cars, misused minivans. I have five hundred
dollars in my pocket—among my very last dollars on the planet—and I
intend to buy a truck with it. Huong assures me this is more than
enough cash for our purposes.
The grounds teem with young Southeast Asian men, Vietnamese,
Khmer, Thai, and Lao. Huong seems vaguely irritated I can’t tell
them apart. She tells me they are from LA suburbs like Monterrey
Park and Downey, Arcadia and Monrovia, remote Asian enclaves so
alien to my experience they might as well be on the moon. They sport
fashion gear I recognize only from public service announcements and
bad movies about LA’s Latin gangs: flannel button-downs, wife beater
t-shirts, Raiders and Laker paraphernalia, even bandanas. I tell
Huong I thought people dress like this only in the paranoid
nightmares of Orange County’s landed gentry. She smiles.
So you were wrong, baby. Not the first time for that, I’m sure.
Now let’s buy you a car.
The auction ends with me the proud owner of a 1986 Toyota 4
Runner. The cost comes to a little more than four hundred and fifty
dollars. Huong introduces me to Vinh just before the bidding. His
complex network of enduring friendships with the Asian Mafiosi who
run the auction help keep other competitive bids safely in line with
my financial limitations. New rear tires are provided as a token of
appreciation. Remaining improvements include new spark plugs, wires,
and distributor cap, an upper radiator hose, pads for the rear drum
brakes, a thermostat, motor mounts, universal joint, and sway bar. A
second group of Vinh’s friends procure these items at dramatically
reduced prices: one hundred and fifty dollars, labor included. Vinh
fronts the fifty I am short. He assures me I can pay him later. Then
he calls me a motherfucker.
Of course he didn’t call you that. Why would you think such a
I know my Vietnamese isn’t quite up to snuff, Huong, but someone
says fuck your mother, you know it.
A taco van has pulled up outside the auction yard and Huong and I
are waiting to buy food. Cliques of Asian men cluster along the
inside of the fence, passing beers in brown paper lunch bags.
Bottles of ruou thuoc, rice wine flavored with medicinal
herbs, a traditional liquor that looks like brackish swamp water and
tastes like mildewed scotch, emerge from the coat pockets of the
Vietnamese. My father always buried a two-gallon jar of the stuff in
the backyard every summer. He liked to dig it up just before
Christmas and force a thimbleful on me, to improve my "understanding
of Vietnamese culture."
Troi oi, Franklin, didn’t your father teach you anything
about Vietnamese men?
Not too much. Except that thing about not calling people
motherfuckers. That part he emphasized.
We reach the front of the line and I order two fish tacos and a
pastrami quesadilla. Huong asks for a bean and cheese burrito.
Wetback food, she says, grimacing. No flavor.
She pulls a small Ziploc bag from her back pocket. Inside is a
sizable amount of tuong ot, Vietnamese chili sauce spiked
with garlic and vinegar.
Mom’s recipe, she says. Singe your eyebrows right off.
I notice several other Vietnamese with Ziplocs doctoring their
food. I don’t know what to make of this. It has an anthropological
feel to it: the Asian as primeval barbarian, with me as the hippie
scientist in the sandals and the Patagonia shorts, the video camera
meticulously capturing each cultural quirk. One man, a chubby
Vietnamese wearing a tattered golf shirt and ancient penny loafers,
catches me staring.
Food here taste like shit! For cholos and niggers.
I wince at his language, look around to see if anyone is
Khong sau dau. No problem, anh-oi, he says. You among
Huong laughs and pulls me away.
Vinh’s all Vietnamese, Frankie. Talking to you like that, it’s
his way of being friendly.
Calling me motherfucker. That’s friendly.
I notice he’s a lot friendlier to you than me.
Do not be jealous. Not for a second. He’s my cousin, for Christ’s
Your cousin-but-not-really. Not a blood cousin.
You are the least Vietnamese Vietnamese on the planet, Franklin.
What does it matter that he’s not blood? He’s a cousin.
The day I am fired my boss calls me a cocksucker six times.
Home is a dingy by-the-month studio apartment in Jefferson Park
(there’s no park). The place reeks of mold, roasted chilies, and wet
dog. The carpet is purple and stained and serves as a refuge for
roaches, termites, and the occasional mouse. The landlord sprayed
the ceiling with acoustic foam, which resembles cottage cheese. A
two-foot stain sits in the middle of it, evidence of leaky pipes.
The air-conditioning unit has no knobs. On rare occasions it will
turn on when I smack it, spewing dust and hot air for a moment or
two before switching off again. I own a futon couch, a Salvation
Army coffee table, the obligatory halogen floor lamp, and a flat
screen television, a gift from a plastic surgeon uncle in
Bloomington when I finished my MBA (yesterday, I sold the television
on Craigslist. It will be gone in three days.) My one window faces
south toward Exposition Boulevard. From it, I have an inspiring view
of a Korean funeral home, a fetid carniceria, and two gas stations.
Outside, I can hear the cholo gangbanger brothers from 3-A curse
as they work on their ’72 Impala. Mexican oompah-oompah music
emanates from a nearby boom box. A passing car blasts de rigeur
hip-hop from powerful speakers as it rolls past, rattling my window.
A woman marches up Harvard Boulevard shouting tamales! I
crane my neck out the window to catch a glimpse of her: a
slope-shouldered Latina with a sun-reddened face, dressed in
hand-me-down Diesel knock-off jeans and a white blouse embroidered
with tiny red roses. She pushes a stolen grocery cart filled with
tamales, which I can’t smell (the single male reek from my apartment
and the smell of oil from the cholos’ car and the industrial edge to
the smog and the tang of the uncurbed dog shit littering every green
space in a one mile radius make for formidable competition) but I
can see the steam rise from the slender yellow corn husks as she
drops a couple onto a paper plate and covers them with a generous
portion of chili verde. Two chubby Latino adolescents accept the
food, along with a familiarly affectionate cuff on the side of the
head. I can’t stand tamales but I am hungry and I simply can’t face
any more package ramen. I hustle out to the street to buy some.
Then it is later and I am inside again and it is dusk and cool
and I am in bed and Huong is with me, on top of me, her legs wrapped
around me. She has black eyes and her skin is the color of lacquer
or possibly caramel. Her short red-brown hair forms an oval frame at
the edges of her narrow face. A slender golden cross dangles from
her naked chest. She looks down at me and smiles as she grinds her
hips into mine.
Time passes. There are no stars in the Los Angeles sky, but it is
so late they would have set by now anyway. I never stay up all night
but Huong does all the time, or so she says. I turn from the window
to stare at her, nearly overcome with the wonder of her body. The
revelation of her breasts. The mysterious thighs. Sacred rump. She
of course notices nothing, her attention limited to plying the final
shellac of spit needed to twist tight the blunt she is rolling for
us. Pleased with her work, she lights the number and passes it to
So you’re fired for good, huh? No going back and apologizing or
I am fired for good and plenty. Nothing to be done about it.
Your boss is such a bitch.
No argument there. Ex-boss, though.
I am asked to make a run to the house of my boss’ most important
young client. His name is Zach Braff, a popular television actor and
independent feature film director of some note. It is eight-fifteen
on a Thursday and this is not a particularly late hour for me to
still be at work, nor is it a particularly late time to be ordered
to make a run. My boss hands me a script and informs me that it is
of earth-shattering importance that Zach receive it this evening.
Tomorrow morning, he is scheduled to read for the lead in it and the
director has added a few last minute wrinkles to the role, which he
wants Zach to incorporate into his audition. My boss can’t stop
saying how spectacular an opportunity this is and how essential it
is that Zach win the role. He must get it. Steps must be taken to
assure he gets it. My boss, always astute, smells Big Shot Agent
Opportunity, smells victory, blood, a cult of personality that will
spring up around her with the speed of crabgrass in an unkempt lawn
or the value of her stock portfolio. She calls Zach. She tells him
the script is on the way and that he must not worry. He will be far
better than fine tomorrow. He is Superman and Batman and the Silver
Surfer. He is incapable of error and the earth orbits him. He has
laid Natalie Portman and doesn’t need to be reminded what that means
in this town. She tells him not be a pussy. Then she hangs up the
phone and shoots me a look and out the door I go, a delivery boy
with an MBA.
This is my first run to Zach Braff’s personal residence. The
house, I have been told, was designed by some thoroughly reputable
Danish postmodern architect whose name I would recall if I still
lived in New York. On the drive up, I imagine it, nestled discretely
on a dark and quiet lane flanked by brown desert shrubs and
twenty-foot evergreen pines. The air redolent with a rosemary bush
top-note, and just beneath, an elusive molasses-scent of dried earth
and pavement soaked by water from an errant lawn sprinkler. The
house stares with architectural condescension on the cramped
laser-lit ant colony of automobile lights and deadlocked freeways
and splashy billboards selling Botox gift certificates that passes
for a view in Los Angeles. The address, which I have scrawled on a
small square of yellow sticky paper, is 26345 Airway View Lane.
When I arrive, I am pleased to see how close my mental picture of
the house matches the reality: a glass-box mansionette, Nordic in
its austerity, with massive front windows reaching to the hazy sky
and languid, practically aquatic lines framed by immense old-growth
Douglas fir beams. A famous personage of a bygone Hollywood era
would have owned and forsaken this home long before Zach Braff. His
grip on it is as tenuous as his hold on the better judgments of the
Nielsen stooges. One oddity exists: a set of faux-Chinese Village
Gate door-pulls, clearly a recent addition, plucked for too much
money at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in all likelihood. They hint at
an originality of character I find unnerving.
I glance at my watch: nine-fifteen. Traffic on the 110 North was
unbearable. Exiting at Figueroa to use surface streets was no help.
It is late and I am tired and hungry. I half-fall from my car, then
lurch to the door and ring the bell. Once and once again. I wait a
moment. Then one more time and again. No answer. I take mental note
of the house’s somber darkness. Actors are so resolutely odd, but to
sit in a dark house? Knock, knock…knock. Still no answer. I wait and
then I am back to knocking and shortly thereafter I realize I am
pounding on the door and further that I have given it a stout sharp
kick that I immediately regret with a flash of pain. It is very
quiet, a quiet I associate with emptiness.
My cell phone rings. Huong calling. Dinner awaits me at her place
and she wants to know where I am. She promises crab soup with rice
noodles and lemony basil. Bitter melon stuffed with ground pork and
wood mushrooms. Chicken thighs slow-stewed in lemongrass and chili
and cane sugar. Sweet rice flour dumplings in a caramel sauce for
dessert. Delicacies my mother assured me I could expect from
whatever upright, respectful Vietnamese young lady I someday chose
with her explicit approval to marry. I have not eaten since a stale
five-grain muffin scarfed at twelve-thirty while responding to my
boss’ emails. My GPA at the Ohio State University School of Business
was 3.85. I was the captain of my high school soccer team, and
junior year I was named Secretary-General of the Model UN gathering
in Dayton. My employer steadfastly refuses to pay overtime. I kick
the door again and pound on it with my fist but still there is no
answer. I reach a decision. I place the script on Zach Braff’s
doormat and rush to my Honda Civic, which desperately needs a wash
and wax. I hurry away.
Later, I learn that a gnarled oak tree has partially obscured the
street sign at Elyria Canyon Drive and Airway View Terrace—not
Lane—and that I have mistakenly delivered the script to the door of
a preternaturally tanned real estate developer rumored to have made
his fortune in the drug trade. In the morning, an unprepared Zach
offers a reading far below his standards and reputation. He does not
win the role. It goes instead to Tom Welling, the musclehead who
plays Clark Kent on Smallville, who is simultaneously rumored to be
gay and to have fucked my boss.
And I get fired.
That’s too much, Franklin. You were not banished from the halls
You don’t think CSA represents power? My boss’ boss has a Rothko
hanging in the hallway outside the bathroom. A Rothko outside
See, Frankie, when you start saying things like Rothko and all
that and emphasizing it but not saying what it is and expecting me
to know and getting all condescending when I don’t and then all hurt
when I finally ask you what it is and you tell me and I’m not
impressed—it’s not good for your sex life. Not good for your
Not another word.
That night, Oskar sends us to the water to dig for mussels and
collect driftwood. A few Mexicans from another ejido help us light a
giant bonfire, and we steam the shellfish and some potatoes and ears
of corn in a rusted cast iron Dutch oven one of the surfer hippies
has dragged all the way from Santa Cruz. A cold wind has blown away
the clouds, and the moon is astonishingly silver and gold. The waves
crash loud as airliners so there isn’t much talking until the tide
slips out; just sit by the fire and blow smoke into the air and push
sand between your toes. The hippies’ beers, ice-cold from a
fifteen-minute dip in the seawater, are salty and crisp and sour. We
gorge on the mussels until Dahlia arrives with a casserole dish
piled high with enchiladas. As we eat, Oskar keeps on about
conditions in the ejido when he and Dahlia first arrived.
Wasn’t fuck all here. Just a half-ass pack of senors growing
calabacita, hunting bighorn ram, and munching peyote, he says.
Dahlia and me, we put this place on the map.
I do not ask which map. I consider this discretion. Vinh likely
would call it fear. I am uncertain what Huong would call it.
In the morning, Oskar and Dahlia lead us to the bluff, where a
nearly vertical path has been cut from the beach bur. Halfway down,
I stumble in a patch of soft dirt and nearly tumble the rest of the
way. My noise flushes a scrub-jay and what Oskar tells me is a
California quail. Vinh, tracking the slow-moving fowl as it scoots
to a new safe haven, forms an imaginary shotgun with his hands and
bags the quail with one blast.
The mighty hunter, he mock-growls.
Watch your step, Oskar tells me. Break something and I’m the
closest thing to a doctor for one hundred miles.
At the bottom, we set off along the beach. In the becalmed water
offshore, I can see the surfers, the waves swelling and receding in
serene rhythm beneath them. With their black wetsuits and white New
Age long boards, they remind me of penguins preening in the sunlight
off a receding Antarctic island.
Aren’t you worried about them making trouble for you? I ask
Not really. They’re good people.
Doesn’t hurt them being too stupid to understand what’s really
going on, Oskar adds.
The surfers disappear from view as we round a bend along the
beach, entering a tight inlet in which the bluff is particularly
steep; it towers high above us, almost overhanging, blocking the
late morning sun. Strangely, no waves crash into the bay.
There’s a sand bar just offshore, Oskar says. Keeps things nice
and quiet. Funny thing, too. It’s twenty feet deeper ten feet out
than it is a hundred. What with the no waves, a man knows what he’s
doing can push a heavy draft boat right into here, not put a scratch
Apparently, that man has been here recently. A hundred foot steel
clad workboat hunkers sleepily in the middle of the small bay. Green
sea slime coats its sides; laundry hangs from the railings. On the
fore deck, I see Sterno ovens and bedrolls, but no people. The boat
is cleverly positioned. The drastic pitch of the bluff makes it
invisible from above, and the sharp fashion with which the coast
juts into the ocean blocks a seaward view.
You’d need a helicopter to spot that boat, Oskar says, an eye on
me. His perpetually grinning face breaks into a full smile. And it
would take a spy satellite to see the cave.
At the inlet’s deepest point a twenty-foot-high black oval
fissure rises from the base of the hillside rock face, leading into
a large natural cave. Inside a full-fledged squatter city exists.
Close to one hundred Vietnamese are crammed into the cave’s gloomy
recesses—men in ragged high-water trousers and faded t-shirts swiped
from some long-ago UNICEF program; exhausted mothers minding
half-wild naked toddlers with dirt-smeared faces; teens and old
folks crammed into little eddies within the cave, rocky offshoots
that provide a wan semblance of privacy. They have constructed
lean-tos from rice sacks and driftwood. Their coal-fueled campfires
heat steaming food pots.
The Vietnamese studiously ignore our presence except for one
bleakly emaciated old man, who greets us with a hostile
obsequiousness. He makes a great ironic production of offering his
hand for Oskar to shake, which he refuses to do, instead
watching—with evident pleasure—my reaction.
Welcome to Ellis Island, he says.
I spend my days in the cave among the Vietnamese fine-tuning a
nascent ability to withstand cold, damp, hunger, and discomfort. At
first, Huong tries to bring me food but stops when she learns I give
I’m worried about you. I don’t want you to starve, she says,
sheepish in her concern.
I’ve been here a week. The Vietnamese have been here three
They don’t mind. It’s probably better than what they had at home.
They? Who’s the non-Vietnamese Vietnamese now?
I find myself adopted by a small Family who cooks me chao ca—weak
rice gruel with fish—in exchange for minding their two knee-high
daughters. A place to sleep is set aside for me in their small
settlement. The old man keeps his distance, but never lets me get
too far out of sight.
The nights are dark and bitterly cold. I hardly sleep, listening
to the astral baying of coyotes on the bluff, the gentle pitch and
roll of the boat in the bay, the pop of a burning log in one of the
campfires. The Vietnamese ask few questions and speak no English. I
can’t tell if I am happy, delirious, or deliriously happy.
On the tenth day, Oskar and Vinh come to visit. We venture
outside the cave and down to the beach where Vinh hands me a bar of
soap and tells me to get clean. I wash in the seawater and dry in
the sun, eat the oranges Oskar hands me. We sit beneath a giant
felled tree on the beach, safe from the wind.
We’ve sold the truck, Vinh says.
In Rosarito, Oskar adds. I have a mechanic friend there cuts
Japanese autos to pieces and sells the guts in Guatemala. Got a good
They pause. I wonder if a thank you is expected. They watch me
Huong say anything to you about the border, Vinh asks.
I don’t answer, focused instead on a tiny brown and white
sandpiper that emerges from a low-slung cloud and makes a diver run
at the water, popping up seconds later with some tiny bit of seafood
in its maw.
Of course not, Oskar says. She doesn’t understand any of this. He
gestures at the boat, the cave, me. She thinks you should take your
money and run back to LA. Write a blockbuster.
You haven’t given me the money, I say.
Don’t worry about that, Oskar replies, laughing. You want your
money, you can have it right now. Or you can have something else.
Something bigger, Vinh says. You can make three, four times the
I don’t care about the money.
We know that, Oskar says.
You care about the Vietnamese, Vinh says. And you should. You’re
one of them.
I know he believes he’s lying but I keep quiet.
I arrive in Los Angeles armed with little more than the rough
draft of a screenplay and a suitcase full of graduate school debt.
As such, my first task is to find work. Luckily, I soon land a
three-month temp job with an elderly above-the-line agent who works
in a decaying building in Century City that looks like a dentist’s
office. The agent’s name is Myron Schacter, a short, scowling fellow
with limp gray hair, an endless supply of earth-tone turtlenecks to
match his polyester sport coats, and exploding liver spots covering
his trembling hands.
Few of the over-age soap actors Myron calls clients continue to
work. Most subsist on their SAG pensions and the odd commercial spot
that needs a geriatric. Myron keeps them on as a courtesy. He has
only one successful (living) client, a rainmaker of a director
credited with several blockbuster action films and numerous
sickeningly charming romantic comedies. Myron swears that when the
director, a spry sixty-something and four years his junior, retires,
he will follow suit. I am dubious. I imagine Myron’s last working
day accompanied by the flashing lights of the ambulance on Wilshire
Boulevard, his meekly wheezing figure in the gurney on the freight
elevator, the electric paddles on the Santa Monica Freeway, and a
flat tone upon arrival at Cedar-Sinai’s emergency room.
Myron is particular in his clerical needs. When I arrive to the
office in the morning, I am expected to illuminate the four rooms to
a particular pitch that Myron demonstrated to me in fetishistic
detail on my first day. He likes his faxes brought to him in a
purple laminated folder, his letters on a Chinese lacquer tray, and
his tea—Sleepy Time apple spice with milk—served on factory reject
Fortunoff’s china. Outgoing correspondence is typed—on a typewriter
not a computer—on Myron’s elegant, bone-white stationary and folded
neatly along well-creased lines he insists I make with a ruler. I
deliver him a daily report on the Nielsen television shares at ten,
send headshots to casting agents for any likely roles in the
breakdowns at eleven, and order Myron a lean corned beef sandwich on
pumpernickel to be ready for him to eat-in at this ridiculous
septuagenarian Hollywood royalty deli on Little Santa Monica at
One day, I receive a call from the rainmaker director, Joel
Black, as I am rolling calls to Myron in the early afternoon. Per
instructions, I place him on hold and tell Myron via the intercom
that Black wants him.
Put him through, put him through. Joel calls don’t ask just put
I put him through.
Myron, Black says, his voice oddly tremulous. He sounds as if he
has been crying.
How’s the rough cut, Joel? Tell me you have it near to done. I
promised Paramount my second granddaughter for those three extra
weeks. Were you able to edit your way around Mr. No Talent,
Heath Ledger, I suggest, for some reason, though Myron means
Bradley Cooper, a B-list actor who took the lead in Black’s movie
while on hiatus from his television show, Kitchen Confidential.
Dead silence descends on the line. Myron manages an outraged
guttural animal noise from somewhere deep in his throat. A surprised
sigh comes from Black. He certainly must know I listen to Myron’s
calls—every agent’s assistant does—but it’s an open secret sort of
thing. No one is supposed to acknowledge it. Myron has no idea what
to do. I can hear him swallow a few times, his brain trying to catch
up to the reality of my transgression. Black recovers first.
Myron. We have to talk.
Joel, allow me to apologize. The boy’s new and he’s stupid in
ways the scientists haven’t even invented yet. You can’t blame him.
He’s Vietnamese. How many times have I told Cindy at Friedman no
more ethnics but does she listen?
What’s wrong with hiring Jews? Is it so wrong that I prefer Jews?
Myron. Listen to me. Alicia is dead.
They don’t have to be Ortho—what? Alicia? What do you mean? I
just saw her last week at the house.
A stroke. The neurologist said she had an inoperable mass in the
pons and it gave way. The blood thinners for the angina didn’t help.
I’m crushed. Devastated.
But she works out like a fiend.
I know, Myron.
You were married, what, twenty years?
Twenty-three this February.
Oh God, Joel. A tragedy. I don’t know what to say. I’m
speechless. Utterly at a loss for words. That a woman in the flower
of her life, the blooming rose of her very existence, is taken from
a man like you, a man of such character and intelligence, snatched
Myron, I need you to tell Lauren.
I’m sorry, what? Lauren.
She’s up at Cal. You must have her number somewhere.
You want me to finish the rough cut, don’t you?
That’s hardly the point.
It’s exactly the point. You have to do this thing. I can’t
stomach a scene like this. The dorm room, her weeping, the sunlight
through the window catching each tear as it falls—I can’t handle it.
She’s your daughter. Joel.
And you’re my agent, Myron.
And we’ve been together a long time.
And we’ve never worked with a contract.
Handshake business. Men of honor.
Exactly. As a man of honor, you’ll take care of this miserable
business, with the customary tact. If you don’t, cross my heart,
Myron, I’ll take my business to CAA. I’ll do it. I swear I will. And
what will become of you then, Myron. Tell me.
I’ll do it, Joel.
Orchids, not roses. Roses are tacky.
Black hangs up.
Silence reigns in Myron’s office for nearly an hour. The phone
still rings. A television executive regrets to inform us that she
isn’t interested in one our few non-comatose clients. A maitre’d
wants proof that Myron and wife will be prompt for dinner that
evening. The wife herself calls. She wants an SUV. I try to put the
first call through but Myron ignores it. I take messages after that.
Finally, Myron emerges from his office. He looks like an old
shirt that has been pressed one too many times. I can see the
deteriorating thread count of his life. His eyes are glazed and
distant, and I wonder if a freak stroke has come to claim him as
well. Then, drawing a giant breath, he pulls himself entirely
together. He reels in from the distance and is back. He fixes me
with an unfriendly smile.
Lauren’s number is in the Rolodex. Class lets out at two-thirty.
Call. Convey the condolences. The heartfelt whatever. Use the
Chinese florist on Roxbury. They’ll give us a deal.
Myron, you can’t be serious.
He walks calmly over to my desk and pats me on the cheek.
Shit rolls downhill, sweetie-pie, he says. Way of the world.
Oskar has me bundle the Vietnamese into a beat-up panel van. Then
he cross-examines me to see if I still remember the twisting
sequence of spur roads I must follow to reach Tecate avoiding the
I forgot. You only told me fifty times. Once more ought to do it.
Don’t be funny.
Moments before I leave, Huong decides we are on speaking terms
again and favors me with a warm kiss and two fish sandwiches. I
gobble them hungrily moments after departing the ejido.
Oskar likes Tecate because it is a quiet, forgotten place. Few
foreigners set foot in it, except for the odd beer executive hoping
to cut deals with the brewery for overseas distribution rights or
line up small-batch microbrew orders. The police here are reputed to
outdo their Tijuana compadres in corruption and institutional
apathy, and Oskar has a few key members in his pocket.
We are to cross at four in the morning. By then, the swing shift
Federalis will surely be deep in their tequila cups, the Minutemen
dreaming of beautifully dry-cleaned blue jeans and cut-price ostrich
skin cowboy boots, and even the US border patrol drowsy from the
cool and the pitch black sky. I am to wait at a dingy motel on the
outskirts of town whose owner has been paid handsomely not to notice
the ingress of oddly chattering Vietnamese. We have three double
rooms—with cable—reserved, but the only luxury the Vietnamese are to
be allowed before they pass into the promised land is a carnitas
torta and a warm coke from a nearby taqueria that I am expected to
fetch. As coyote, I am awarded pride of position in the motel. An
entire bed is mine, and I also choose the television
program—cartoons followed by Mexican professional wrestling.
At ten-thirty in the evening, I remind myself that the next
morning I might die, or go to jail, or go to jail and then die, or
cause the death of one of these blameless Vietnamese with whom I
have shared the cave and who now refer to me as Uncle. I decide to
head into town for beer.
The road from the motel leads to the town square, a small
tree-dotted plaza ringed by shuttered groceries and hardware shops.
Not much going on. A few stray Mexicans stumble out of the
drowsy-looking bars opposite the town church. Some climb onto
motorscooters and zoom away, while others linger at a food stall,
working on steaming bowls of pozole. I choose a bar whose neon sign
offers Bohemia, a brew I prefer to Tecate. On the television, the
Mexican national soccer team is sticking it to the U.S. The
bartender floats me a self-satisfied grin with my beer and bowl of
tortilla chips as Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Mexico’s striker, lightly
places one in the back of the net.
Americans don’t like soccer, I tell him.
Futbol. Here is futbol.
I shrug. Whatever.
Your friend. He is having?
I turn and see that the old man from the cave has followed me to
the bar. He smiles, revealing a mouth largely devoid of teeth.
What are you doing here, I ask him in Vietnamese. You shouldn’t
Neither should you, he says. He turns to the bartender. Cerveza
We drink too much and the old man chats up the bartender in
pidgin Spanish, both well pleased to describe the myriad failings of
the U.S. team. I try not to laugh when later a Mexican defender
twice takes down a U.S. player in the box and they give up two goals
on penalty kicks.
You should speak English, I tell the old man. You’re going to
Bac di qua ben Cali, he says. I’m going to California.
Todos hablan Espanol.
The bar closes at two and we wander outside for pozole. The old
man tells me he is from Ca Mau, the southernmost province of
Vietnam. He says it is a fisherman’s paradise, blessed with deep
rivers stocked with Vietnamese species of trout, carp, and bass. Off
the coast, boats pull in heavy nets full of shrimp, which are dried
in cottage-industry shops in town and then exported to China,
Malaysia, and Japan.
Ca Mau dried shrimp are the best in the world, he tells me. So
Why come here, then, I ask, repeating myself several times until
he understands my pitiful Vietnamese.
A few years back a powerful typhoon blew across Ca Mau, wiping
out the shrimp fleet and destroying most of the province’s homes and
businesses. The old man lost his two grown sons to the storm, and
not long after, their wives stole off to Saigon with the
I am alone, he says. I have nothing to lose.
We pay and begin to make our way back to the motel when I notice
a group of Mexican men following us. Among them is a police officer
in uniform. He seems the drunkest of the bunch. We speed up and so
do they. We take a series of lefts and rights through the maze of
winding residential streets on the periphery of town and so do they.
A beer bottles whistles by my ear and the old man sucks his few
teeth and spits, unimpressed. He looks ready to turn and confront
the men until I grab him by the arm and hurry him along. They
overtake us in an open field next to an abandoned school. The police
officer does the talking.
Where you go, amigos? China?
The men consider this funny. The police officer pulls at the skin
next to his eyes, slitting them tight. Ching chong chow fun chang,
he says. Comprende? Es funny, si or no?
The old man calls the police officer a motherfucker in
Vietnamese. That I find this ironic tells me how frightened I am.
The police officer asks the old man why he doesn’t laugh. The old
man tells him in Spanish that he is a faggot. With this, the
amusement ends and the men beat us thoroughly and enthusiastically.
Before he leaves, the police officer collects my wallet and
passport, then says something about his close friends in the INS and
his possession of their private emergency phone numbers, and then
bids us good night.
I call Lauren on my cell phone from a back corner of Samuel
French’s bookstore on Sunset boulevard. A heavily pierced movie geek
restocking the shelves with shooting scripts of French New Wave
movies glares at me as I make the call. I finger a copy of the
newest edition of the Syd Field to appease him.
Who’s this? Lauren picks up on the third ring.
Lauren. I need to speak to you.
Dad? Is that you? Do you have a cold? I’m late for class.
This isn’t dad.
That’s embarrassing. You sound just like my father on the phone.
Well, I’m not.
A silent beat passes.
Should I hang up on you? You’re breathing a wee bit heavy for my
No, no. I’m sorry. This is very awkward. I’m from Myron
I figured. Myron and my father are the only ones who have this
Hmm. I don’t think my father was supposed to come visit, which
means you aren’t calling to tell me he’s not coming.
Am I expected at some sort of Industry gala? My mother hates
galas, you know, which means I get invited to one occasionally when
she refuses to go. Me, I like galas. The canapés are great, and it’s
an excellent excuse to buy new shoes.
It’s not that. Actually, well, the reason I called is, I don’t
quite know how to put this…
You must be new. The old ones don’t get weirded out making phone
calls to the client’s daughter. Give it six months. What’s your
Let me guess, you’re the sort who doesn’t like to be called
My mother and my girlfriend call me Frankie.
I’m a sculptor not a psychic.
Lauren laughs at that, and I am feeling worse by the second.
Seeing as my mind reading skills are sorely lacking, you want to
go ahead and tell me why you called?
Lauren is a senior, a fine arts major, and fabulously good
looking, according to Myron, which means she could easily be a
freshman, psych major, and two hundred and fifty pounds. Judging
from this short conversation, she seems thoroughly likable.
No, Lauren, I say. I really don’t want to.
I hang up the phone.
We go anyway. Our connection on the US side expects us six miles
within the border prior to sunrise, which means the pace must be
quick. The men hustle the women, women carry the children—I hesitate
to think about the old and infirm. I speed-hobble at the front, the
old man just off my hip. He seems not to have suffered any ill
effects from our beating. I suppress a wave of irritable frustration
at this, as each square inch of my body sings with pain.
The map Oskar gave me seems accurate, and would perhaps be more
so if I had any idea how to use the compass. For a while I allow
myself some near-aimless wandering among the brambles and cacti and
hardscrabble desert land, head down, chilled hands shoved into the
depths of my pockets. I try to ignore the night’s damp, which sits
heavy on the skin exposed by the rips in my shirt, thanks to the
tender caresses of the policeman and his friends. I glance up at the
sky. The moon has set, exposing a crowded and glittering expanse of
Eventually, the old man sniffs my incompetence and snatches away
both compass and map, and with a surprising surety of purpose,
assumes the task of navigating us. In response to my questioning
look at his expertise, he barks, with toothless shit-eating grin:
We move on.
Oskar has explained to me that these Vietnamese are already
spoken for in the U.S. After crossing, they will be transferred to a
warehouse in the industrial vastness of downtown Los Angeles.
Shortly after that, rested, fumigated, and well-warned against
absconding into the immigrant-hating American hinterland, they will
be put to work. Some will be trained as sushi chefs and pose as
Japanese fish experts. Others will roll dumplings in the dim sum
palaces of Chinatown. For the rest, nannying, lawn-care, home
construction, and other laborious pursuits. Most of their earnings
will be used to service their debt to the supply chain that imports
them to the U.S.: the people-purveyors in Saigon, the boatmen who
carry them across the sea, the organized criminals, the restaurant
owners, the fake identification makers, the bribers and the bribed,
the professional lookers-of-the-other-way, Oskar and his dependents,
As we march, the old man tells me of a distant cousin he hopes
still lives in Iowa. At the first opportunity he will melt away from
the other Vietnamese and make for the Midwest.
And you? the old man asks.
What will you do?
I am not concerned about the future. It will wait for me until I
am ready to return to it. I will write my blockbuster and spend my
spoils unwisely. I will hire my boss as an agent and fire her with
gusto. I will send my Family envelopes stuffed with cash that they
will spread around the Vietnamese restaurants and cafes in Dayton,
my success proof of their great virtue. I will make my way to
Huong’s home in Los Angeles, draped in glory, and I will claim her
as my own. I don’t know why I think these things will happen but I
The rendezvous point is a small clearing amid the densely tangled
green-line blanketing the first miles within the U.S. border. We
reach it an hour late, the sun already threatening in the east. Our
contact, a Cambodian from Long Beach that Oskar claims is a former
Khmer Rouge in love with the idea of selling Vietnamese into
slavery, has already been arrested. The border agents flood the
clearing with their lights when we enter it. Some of the Vietnamese
dash madly into the undergrowth, sprinting headlong to nowhere. Most
squat beneath the lights and wait.
The agents find the runners, herd us into a small pen they’ve
made by ringing their jeeps in a circle, and fix us with plastic
Fucking A, one guard says when the Vietnamese answer his Spanish
queries in their native tongue. Not another Chinese shipment. God
What’s the problem? another guard asks.
Can’t just turn these Chinese fuckers right around and escort
them back to Mexico, now can we? Damn. Damn. Damn. Gotta bus them to
SD, process them, house them, feed them, make sure they ain’t
fucking terrorists or Moslems or persons of goddamn interest, then
arrange a nice slow boat back to Beijing for them. Gonna be bleeding
paperwork out my ass for the next month.
I have no identification. I am as Chinese-looking as my travel
companions. I squat like a bird in the wind-swept clearing much as
they do, although I am grown so American that it pains my knees. I
know I could speak up, assert my citizenship, claim that this is a
lark, a prank gone too far, demand legal representation and clean
socks. I hold my tongue.
With great efficiency we are loaded into the vans the agents have
called to transport us. We depart the clearing just as the sun
bursts above the horizon, setting the desert on fire. The exhausted
Vietnamese soon drift into sleep despite the violent shaking from
the road. They have gambled and lost and they accept this with
stunning equanimity. I force myself to imitate them until I am no
We reach San Diego at the height of the morning rush hour and
immediately bog down in traffic. I pass time watching the
Californians rest easy in their stalled cars. I feel no sense of
return, even as we venture into parts of the city I have visited. We
finally reach the gates of the detention center and the vans pull to
a halt in a large cement courtyard. Corrections officers come
outside to greet their colleagues and cast their fatigued eyes upon
us. It takes two hours to issue each Vietnamese a yellow jumpsuit,
plastic flip-flops, a wool blanket and thin pillow, and a piece of
paper with a number printed on it, which will serve as our names
until we can be properly identified by our government. The officers
are not unkind, but there is little to say. Finally, a guard with a
bullhorn announces that we are ready to enter the detention center.
He instructs us to form two lines, which we do, and then we begin to
file inside. I am among the last to go in, and just before I pass
through the large metal doors to this prison, I hesitate to make
certain the old man is not among our number. When I am satisfied
that he is not, I smile, then hurry to be with my people.
Theodore Ross' writing has appeared or is forthcoming in
Harper's, Tin House, the Believer, McSweeney's, and
elsewhere. Mr. Ross was raised in Gulfport, MS. He now lives with
his wife and son in Brooklyn, NY, where he is an editor of