Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place

Leaving: April 1975

by Jamie Beckett

Lights bright as flames. A clatter, like machine-gun fire. Linh-Anh starts from her sleep. The helicopter crouches behind the house, bending the banana trees and tearing at their leaves. It is a day early, and she is not ready.

About Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett was a seasoned journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle, but she couldn't get her interview with Hong Bui, a Vietnamese refugee, out of her mind. His story became the springboard for years of research leading to a collection of fiction that Beckett began to write about the immigrant experience.

Her winning story, "Leaving: April 1975," is a tale that lures the reader into the last hours before the fall of Saigon. A Vietnamese family must make a choice between waiting for a son's return or getting on the last airlift out of the country.
Beckett found kinship with the many Vietnamese families she has interviewed and befriended. Her grandparents, Russian emigres, fled the pogroms of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. "I've always wanted to write about my Russian family, but they're all dead. There is no one to ask about anything," she said.
"I've learned to appreciate their journey. I'm in awe of what many people went through. There is a universal experience of immigration. I've always felt like an outsider ... to some degree, I moved a lot as a writer."

Beckett is no stranger to the Weekly's short story contest. Last year, she won for her story "Journey," another work taken from her collection on immigrants. She is currently editor of a Web site at the Advanced Research Center for Hewlett Packard Co., where she works with people who have emigrated from all over the world.

"My characters become imaginary people who tend to do things that they want to do, not what I intended. I try to make how they behave organic to the story," she said of her process of writing.

"I want to say, 'Pay attention. Have an open mind. Don't judge people. This might be what their life is like.' Most people float by you and they aren't noticed. My stories are showing people things that they don't ordinarily see about other people."

-- Sue Dremann

"Too soon!" her husband shouts over the helicopter's roar. Outside the house, he squints against propeller dust whirling in the night sky. "Tomorrow! Just a few hours."

The pilot shakes his head. "Now. Last chance."

Linh-Anh's husband, four children, herself. Her oldest son, at the university in Saigon, is to join them with his young wife and newborn daughter. Perhaps even now he is on his way. One hundred kilometers between them.

The pilot silences the engine. "Sorry," he says, climbing down from the cockpit. "Every minute is worse. I leave now."

"A few hours!" her husband yells as the man ducks beneath the still-swirling propeller blades. "My son will be here then."

Linh-Anh knows this is not so certain as her husband says. Twenty, thirty times they have phoned Tien these last few days, but there is ringing, only ringing. She must hope he can keep his promise, made a few weeks before, to escape with them tomorrow. His 24th birthday.

"No time," the pilot insists. "Even our soldiers are running now."

Linh-Anh remembers the young men of her village as they went off to war, their limbs whole, uniforms fresh from their mothers' laundering. Minh, nicknamed long bean because he was so tall. Lam, the schoolmaster's son, who could read three books in a week.

Later, when the keening erupted from her neighbors' homes, she thanked the gods it was not one of her own. Her husband's aunt lost two sons, and when they told her the third had died, she didn't believe it. Every night, she cooked a meal for his return. Her husband drowned himself in the rice paddy.

There were not enough tears for crying. Only sometimes were there bodies to bury, rain falling on unblinking eyes, a bitter wind rising.

Tien was old enough to serve, but she would not allow it. Her first born, so like his father -- eyes, calm as jade; fingers, delicate and precise -- but her son, too, his quiet love hers, their twined roots reaching deep as the banyan tree's.

He was the only one of her children who remembered life before the war. She would not feed him to it. Her husband paid the officials so Tien could stay safe in Saigon, deep in his medical books. A fragment of their lives intact.

"Leave now or don't," the pilot says. "Up to you." He is Vietnamese, but has the swagger of an American. He wears the cap of an American airman. Linh-Anh wonders if he took this from a dead man.

He speaks to her husband. He calls him "doctor." Even now, when so much is broken, this pleases Linh-Anh. But it also makes her afraid. Her husband's clinic saved many lives in the war, Vietnamese and American. Too many, Linh-Anh now fears. If the Communists take Saigon, the country will be theirs. Many like her husband will be put in prison or killed.

They will not just kill you. This is what is said.

Her husband has spent all they had left for this helicopter, their transport to the American boat. They are the lucky ones, Linh-Anh knows. Many who worked for the South have no way out.

They will not just kill you.

Her husband stands close to the pilot. He takes the man by the shoulders. "All of my children, not some! Don't you have a son?!"

Our son, Linh-Anh wants to say, not yours. She can still remember holding his damp infant body to her breast. His tugging so gentle as if not to take too much of her.

When they spoke last on the eve of the new moon, Tien told her of the journey he'd mapped out, a half-day's travel he hoped would take them around the fighting. Even then, as he talked of his classes and the dwindling numbers of students, the rumors on campus of another coup, the heat and lack of rain, even then, his reedy voice revealing more than he said, he denied his own needs, the fear Linh-Anh knew he must feel.

"Of course I will be there," he'd said, joking about how he'd always been early, not late -- first to awaken every morning, first at the dinner table, first to steal candy off the desert tray. "I am as sure as the rain," he had told her.

"What do you want? More money?" Her husband, tall for a Vietnamese, stands a half-head above the pilot. "My son will bring what he has."

The pilot shakes his head. "Not worth it."

Her husband's voice softens, grows flatly clinical. Linh-Anh can only pick up a few words -- "agreement," "man," 'medicine." The pilot she cannot hear at all.
Then, her husband again. "Anh khong ne ai ca! You don't give a damn."

He turns to her, mouth strong, eyes weak. After 25 years of marriage, Linh-Anh knows this is his way of asking her opinion. The four younger children at stake, their small, green lives. Something inside her trembles, collapses. She cannot choose. A lifetime, it seems, she has followed her husband.

Linh-Anh sighs, and closes her eyes. Just for a moment. The war has worn her out. They ran from their home and returned to rubble and smoke. Her children choking on the burnt air. For three days, Thuy, her oldest daughter, searched the charred ground for the wooden doll her grandfather had carved. Following behind, Mai-Ly singed her fingers on a pocket of still-warm embers.

When they rebuilt, it was straw and bamboo. The airy rooms, red tile roof, solid stone walls -- it was all gone.

They dug a tunnel under the house where they placed food and blankets. When the soldiers returned, they hid in their airless shelter, squatting in the foul-smelling dirt.

Afterwards, the fear would not leave her. It laid beside her at night when her husband was working. It stared from her children's eyes. It pressed close in the angry air.

A year ago, when spring should have brought rain, Linh-Anh took the car her husband sometimes used as an ambulance and drove her two youngest, Binh and Mai-Ly, to see her old home in the country. Although her parents came often to visit, it had been years since she'd followed the rutted old roads that led to her village. Your place is with your husband, your children, her parents had told her.

The country roads were wider than she remembered, their red dust flattened. In the fields, where there should have been waves of rice seedlings, there was only hardened mud, scarred by tank treads. Sunk into the mud at the far edge of a paddy were broken pieces of a farmer's wooden cart. Beside it, the head of a water buffalo, black with blood.

Shaking, she drove on, drawn by the thought of embracing her father, calmed by the memory of her parents' house, its cool stone floors and even-rowed garden.
"Better to leave too early than die too soon," the pilot is saying. "Even if your son gets out of the city, even if he makes it here, how do you know --?"

Linh-Anh remembers finding the delicate branches of her father's plum trees blackened by fire. The house still. Her mother's basil and coriander trampled. Past the sweet potato plants, a shallow pit. Inside, two rotting corpses embracing.

The pilot presses his gaze into Linh-Anh. He is appealing to her now, Linh-Anh realizes.

The pilot is missing a finger on his left hand. He tilts his head to listen, as if one ear does not hear well. The war. It damaged everyone, but somehow spared her children its worst.

In the momentary silence, Linh-Anh hears the crunch of a truck on the gravel road nearby.

Could it be? Tien? Tien!

Listening, she breathes deeply in the bone-colored dawn, inhales only the greasy stink of helicopter fuel.

The truck passes, then another. The sound fades. No.

"Save what can be saved," the pilot says. "Your husband will not understand. Do you know what's going on out there? Have you seen?" His eyes are hard, like some of the wounded Linh-Anh has seen in her husband's clinic.

"A few hours," her husband says, his voice faltering. "In the morning, my son ---"
This time she corrects him. "Our son. Our son will be home," she says. "He is newly a father. He brings his wife and our granddaughter. Why won't you wait?"
The pilot swears quietly and looks at her as if she is stupid.

"The Communists have taken Xuan Loc," he says, speaking slowly as if to a child. "They are bombing Bien Hoa. It is lost. Lost. Do you think the VC will leave you here in peace? What do you think your son will find here? Soon, any minute, the VC will be in Saigon. There is panic to get out. What I have seen in the city --"

The pilot's eyes meet Linh-Anh's and he looks down. "It is very bad," he says quietly.

Linh-Anh feels something inside her splinter. Her son, her first. A granddaughter she has never seen.

She wraps her arms around herself to keep from shaking. She closes her eyes and draws in a breath. She wonders what would happen if her husband sends the pilot away. If they hide for a few days until the fighting moves on as it has before, until she can gather all of her children around her, safe, whole, together.
"The university," her husband is saying. "The university?"

The pilot cannot say. He does not know.

Linh-Anh leaves the men and goes inside the house. The children huddle by the door. Yesterday, she told them about the journey, by helicopter and boat to a place where they will wait for the United States to take them.

Linh-Anh gathers her children and holds them close. When she tells them about their oldest brother, her second son stiffens. "We cannot leave without Tien," he says. "I will wait and we will escape together."

Second Son Cao is 12, and Linh-Anh knows he has seen too much war. One arm is scarred, splinters of metal buried inside him forever. She reaches for this arm to draw him closer. From outside, she hears the low rumble of distant bombs. Sees the sky flash its deadly lightening. Linh-Anh imagines the newly wounded -- she has seen so many -- choking on blood, dense wet pools of it.
This is the memory she fears her children will have of growing up -- noise, loss, death. MaiLy is crying. Cao's arm, encircling his mother, trembles, buckles.
When Linh-Anh returns to the men, the pilot is climbing into his craft.

Her husband stands at the edge of the garden. All of his body seems bent, small.
"Toi xin anh. I beg you," Linh-Anh says. A mother's plea. "You will wait?"

The pilot does not answer.

"Please, until morning?"

"I can't. I am afraid," he admits.

Linh-.Anh feels her center open like a wound. Her husband weeping.

A village. A home. A family. Save what can be saved. A son. Now she sees.
In the small room she shares with her husband, Linh-Anh removes her wedding ring. It is all she has to leave her first born.

Hoping the ring's gold will buy his way out, hoping he will be here to find it, she stows it in the hiding place under the house. She crouches there a few moments, in the yellow soil she will soon leave behind.

By the time she crawls from the dark cocoon, she is no longer crying. She orders the children about loudly, hurrying so that everything can get done.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.