A Lean, Well-Painted Face

Excerpted from Doug Bradley’s DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle

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It was late in the war and nearly everyone had left Saigon except a one-time temptress who sat in the window of a building where a bar used to be. Day and night the traffic passed by, and the woman liked to sit late because it helped her remember the old days. She would sit and stare out the window for hours upon hours. Two janitors would watch her because they didn’t want to work and they were attracted to her ancient beauty.

It was monsoon season, late in the Year of the Pig, and the janitors sat together at a table close against the wall near the door of the building. A steady stream of soldiers went by in the street. The janitors made fun of the soldiers who were too young to understand their dialect.

The woman knew what they were saying and she hated them for it. She hated the soldiers, too. She hated all the Americans who had abandoned her in this shattered place. She harbored a special hatred for the young men who fell in love with her, boys really, whose eyes were dreamy, whose lips were dewy, and whose souls were empty.

“The janitors would tease her about having lovers who committed suicide.

“Who would kill himself for you?” they’d ask her. “Didn’t they know you would grow old? That they would have to leave?”

She thought of the tall red-haired boy, the one who swore to the moon and the sky that he would never leave.

“She stays up because she likes it,” said the older janitor.

“She’s lonely. I’m lonely. You’re lonely. We’re all lonely.” The younger janitor spoke riddles to the Saigon night.

The woman looked over at them.

“You do not understand,” she told them. “This was a clean and pleasant bar, well lit.”

Neither of the janitors knew what to say.

“Good night,” the younger janitor, sounding defeated, stood up to return to his work.

“Good night,” the other said.

The woman sat and stared out the window at nothing. The janitor turned off the flickering light. She continued her own conversation. She recited a Buddhist prayer from her childhood, one she used to repeat when her lovers would beg, weep, or shout.

“May all sentient beings have the courage to look within themselves and see the good and bad that exists in all of us,” she spoke to the darkness. “May we open our hearts, shining the light of love into the dark recesses where doubt and fear reside. May we have the courage to step into that light and embrace whatever we find, letting it rise to the surface freed by the act of loving kindness. …”

She thought of her past, remembering the light, which had always been good.

Doug Bradley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based Vietnam veteran who has written extensively about his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experiences. He has more than 30 years of experience as a communications professional in higher education, principally with the University of Wisconsin. Doug was drafted into the U. S. Army in March 1970 and served as an information specialist (journalist) at the Army Hometown News Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and U. S. Army Republic of Vietnam (USARV) headquarters near Saigon.

In addition to writing a blog for the Huffington Post, Doug is the co-author of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience with Dr. Craig Werner, UW-Madison Professor of Afro-American Studies voted a “Best Book of 2015” by Rolling Stone. Doug and his wife, Pam Shannon, are the parents of two adult children. DEROS Vietnam is his first novel.