Michael Howard ~ Paint a Pretty Picture

A small light­ed cruise boat crawls around a bend in the canal. The murky brown water is shal­low today and much of the garbage that’s nor­mal­ly con­cealed is vis­i­ble. It floats here and there. Some is stuck to the mud­dy bank.

The canal’s water is bad but gives off no smell. That’s why I don’t mind sit­ting here. Other canals in Saigon emit foul odors. A few weeks ago, one of them inex­plic­a­bly turned a vivid pink, then a blood red. I read about this in the news. Local res­i­dents were com­pelled to shut their win­dows on account of the smell.

The cruise boat is car­ry­ing a group of tourists who do not appear to be drunk. There’s no hoot­ing or hol­ler­ing. When it pulls rough­ly even with the bench I’m sit­ting on it stops. Someone on the boat, a tour guide I sup­pose, speaks to the pas­sen­gers awhile. Then it push­es on again. I watch its lazy progress until it pass­es beneath a bridge and grad­u­al­ly van­ish­es around anoth­er bend.

Sometimes, while sit­ting here as I am now, I see peo­ple car­ry bags of fish they’ve pur­chased from the mar­ket to the canal and dump them in through gaps in the guard rail. When I asked Chuc about this she described it as a Buddhist tra­di­tion. By sav­ing fish in this way, she explained, one acquires merit.

I won­der what she’s doing now. What are you doing now, Chuc? It’s been a long time but I do won­der. You may not be aware—I gave you no rea­son to be—but I liked you far more than most of the peo­ple who’ve wan­dered into and out of my life. I’m vague­ly aware that, for the last year or so, a good deal more have wan­dered out than in. I’m not yet sure how I feel about this.

I sit with­out think­ing awhile, watch­ing the peo­ple and the dogs.

Many of them, the peo­ple, are jog­ging. The canal is a pop­u­lar spot for jog­gers. I used to jog here. Now I only come when I need some­thing. Like now, for instance. I’ve been sit­ting here on this bench since five o’clock. The time is now a quar­ter to six and the sky is dark­en­ing fast. He told me he’d be here at five fif­teen. But then he’s nev­er been on time. Not once. People in his line of work have that lux­u­ry. Their clients will always wait.

Behind me it’s noisy and grow­ing nois­i­er. The canal, on both sides, is lined with quán ăn—open air eater­ies serv­ing cheap food and beer. These are begin­ning to fill out. The din of motor­bike traf­fic and rev­el­ry is punc­tu­at­ed by street ven­dors adver­tis­ing, with a pre­re­cord­ed mes­sage and speak­er, stir-fried corn and oth­er delicacies.

At six twen­ty he turns up.

Đi vòng vòng nha.” Let’s go for a walk.

We mosey along the wind­ing canal, amor­phous light danc­ing on its black­ened sur­face, until we reach a fork in the foot­path. One direc­tion leads under a bridge coat­ed in graf­fi­ti, the oth­er to a seamy dead end. We take the other.

When we’re done he walks away and I stick around until I see him climb onto the back of someone’s bike and dri­ve off. Then I make my way back to my own bike, which I’ve parked ille­gal­ly on the curb. Then I dri­ve home.

What took you so long.”

Tom says this to me in an agi­tat­ed but not des­per­ate voice. Another day and it would have been des­per­ate. The day after that, frenzied.

You know how it is,” I say, and hand him the bag.

I move to the bed­room while he tears it open and pro­ceeds to do his thing. I won’t return to the liv­ing room until I’m cer­tain he’s fin­ished. It’s not that he wants the pri­va­cy. It’s not that I’m ashamed of him. It boils down, as most things do, to me. This has been going on a long time. My part in sus­tain­ing it is con­sid­er­able and, when I’m frank with myself, whol­ly self-serv­ing. Tom is reliant on that stuff, and on me by exten­sion. If the reliance goes, so might he. So you see, I pre­fer not to watch.

That night we get din­ner at a Mexican place. Tom choos­es a table on the patio.

We share a pitch­er of mar­gari­ta. Tom’s in good form. He has a healthy appetite. His eyes are bright, and his head is full of ideas. He’s going to begin paint­ing again. Tomorrow he’ll go and buy new brush­es, paints, and can­vas­es. I do him the favor of not ask­ing what became of the sup­plies he bought three months ago, just as I don’t ask ques­tions when oth­er items dis­ap­pear from the apart­ment. The impor­tant things I keep locked away.

It may take a while, Tom tells me, but when he starts sell­ing his paint­ings again, he’ll use that mon­ey, togeth­er with my teach­ing salary, to trav­el to Nepal. Don’t I know how much he’s always want­ed to vis­it Nepal? Yes, yes I do. Wouldn’t I like to go there? Of course. Then let’s do it. Yes, let’s.

Hell, I might even rekin­dle with Ngoc.” Ngoc is Tom’s estranged Vietnamese wife, whom he mar­ried for visa purposes.

I laugh good-natured­ly and pour the remain­der of the pitch­er into our glass­es. Leaning back in my chair I light a cig­a­rette, prompt­ing a reproach­ful glare from Tom. Cigarettes, he main­tains, are a filthy habit. I take a cou­ple of long pulls on it before flick­ing it into the street.

Pretty night,” Tom says at length.

It’s true. Stars skirt a sil­very quar­ter moon. A rare cool breeze is swirling ami­ably through the neigh­bor­hood. It fresh­ens the air. It puts us at ease. It’s an ephemer­al breeze, I know, but it’s nice to make believe for a moment or two that it can last.


Michael Howard’s essays and short sto­ries have appeared in a vari­ety of print and dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Mekong Review, Paste, Creative Loafing, The Forge and Hypertext Magazine. He lives in Vietnam.