Last Night In Twisted River – John Irving
The dishwasher was called Injun Jane, but not to her face.
At both establishments, Mr. Leary tried to see the new striptease shows on the nights they opened-before the censors saw the shows and inevitably “trimmed” them. His regular attendance at these striptease joints made Mr. Leary feel ashamed, although his wife had died long ago. His wife probably wouldn’t have cared that he went to see the strippers-or she would have minded this indulgence less than if he’d remarried, which he hadn’t. Yet Mr. Leary had seen a few of these strippers perform so many times, in a way he occasionally felt that he was married to them.
Dot and May, who were still waiting for their pizzas, had watched everything between Danny and Loretta. It totally killed them that they hadn’t been able to hear their dialogue. “The waitress wants to fuck him, but there’s a problem,” Dot said.
“Yeah, he’s more interested in what he’s writin!” May said.
“She bu de,” the cook whispered to himself in his cherished kitchen at Avellino.
“What’s that, boss?” Greg, the sous chef, asked him.
“I was talking to my calamari,” Tony told him. “The thing with squid, Greg, is either you cook it just a little or you cook it forever-anything in between, and it’s rubber.”
April 1975 had been a bad month for business at Mao’s. There were four drive-by brick-throwings-one of the restaurant’s window-breakers was actually a chunk of cement the size of a cinder block, and one was a rock. “Fucking patriot farmers!” Xiao Dee had called the vandals. He and the cook had canceled a shopping trip to Chinatown because Xiao Dee was convinced that Mao’s was under attack-or, as Saigon fell, the restaurant would come under heavier siege. Ah Gou was running short of his favorite ingredients. (With Tony Angel’s help, there were a few more items from Italy on the menu than usual.)
All that year, the South Vietnamese soldiers were deserting in droves. The runaway soldiers had been rounding up their families and converging on Saigon, where they must have believed the Americans would help them escape the country. In the last two weeks of April, the U.S. had airlifted sixty thousand foreigners and South Vietnamese; hundreds of thousands more would soon be left to find their own way out. “It will be sheer chaos,” Ketchum had predicted. (“What did we expect would happen?” the logger would say later.)
Did we care what would happen? Danny was thinking. He and Joe had a table to themselves at Mao’s, and Yi-Yiing had joined them for dinner. She’d skipped her shift in the emergency room because she had a cold; she didn’t want to make a lot of sick or injured people any worse, she’d told Danny and Joe. “I’m already going to make you two sick-you two and Pop,” she said to them, smiling.
“Thanks a lot,” Danny told her. Joe was laughing; he adored Yi-Yiing. The boy would miss having his own nurse when he was back in Vermont. (And I’ll miss having a nurse for him, the writer was thinking.)
There were two couples at one table, and three businessmen types at another. It was a quiet night for Mao’s, but it was still early. The boarded-up window didn’t improve the looks of the front entrance, Danny was thinking, when one of the Yokohamas came out of the kitchen, her face as white as her apron and her lower lip trembling. “Your dad says you should see what’s on television,” the Japanese girl said to the writer. “The TV’s in the kitchen.”
Danny got up from the table, but when Joe tried to go with him, Yi-Yiing said, “Maybe you should stay with me, Joe.”
“Yes, you stay!” Sao or Kaori told the boy. “You shouldn’t see!”
“But I want to see what it is,” Joe said.
“Do what Sao says, Joe-I’ll be right back,” his dad told him.
“I’m Kaori,” the Japanese twin said to Danny. She burst into tears. “Why am I getting the feeling that all ‘gooks’ are the same to you Americans?”
“What’s on the TV?” Yi-Yiing asked her.
The two couples had been laughing about something; they hadn’t heard Kaori’s outburst. But the businessmen types had frozen; the gooks word held them poised over their beers.
Ah Gou’s smart girlfriend, Tzu-Min, was the maître d’ that night. Xiao Dee was too agitated by the brick-throwing patriot farmers to be safely allowed out of the kitchen.
“Go back in the kitchen, Kaori,” Tzu-Min told the sobbing girl. “No crying permitted out here.”
“What’s on the TV?” Yi-Yiing asked the maître d’.
“Joe shouldn’t see it,” Tzu-Min told her. Danny had already disappeared into the kitchen.
It was bedlam back there. Xiao Dee was shouting at the television. Sao, the other Japanese twin, was throwing up in the big sink-the one the dishwasher scrubbed the pots and pans in.
Ed, the dishwasher, stood aside; a recovering alcoholic, he was a World War II vet with several faded tattoos. The Cheng brothers had given Ed a job at a time when no one else would, and Ed felt loyal to them, though the small Coralville kitchen made him feel claustrophobic at times, and the political talk at Mao’s was a foreign country to him. Ed had no use for foreign countries; that we were getting out of Vietnam was good enough for him. He’d been in the navy, in the Pacific. Now one of the Japanese twins was vomiting in his sink and the other one was in tears. (Ed might have been thinking that he had killed their relatives; if so, he was not sorry about it.)
“How’s it going, Ed?” Danny said to the dishwasher.
“It’s not going too good right now,” Ed told him.
“Kissinger is a war criminal!” Xiao Dee was screaming. (Henry Kissinger had appeared, albeit briefly, on the television.) Ah Gou, who was chopping scallions, brandished his cleaver at the mere mention of the hated Kissinger, but now the TV returned to that image of enemy tanks rolling through the streets of Saigon; the tanks were closing in on the U.S. Embassy there, or so some nameless voice said. It was almost the end of April-these were the last airlifts, the day before Saigon surrendered. About seventy American helicopters had been shuttling between the walled-off courtyard of the embassy and the U.S. warships off the coast; as many as sixty-two hundred people were rescued that day. The last two helicopters to leave Saigon carried away the U.S. ambassador and the embassy’s marine guards. Hours later, South Vietnam surrendered.
But that wasn’t what was hard to watch on the little TV in the kitchen at Mao’s. There were more people who wanted to leave Saigon than there were helicopters. Hundreds would be left behind in the embassy’s courtyard. Dozens of Vietnamese clung to the skids of the last two helicopters to leave; they fell to their deaths as the choppers lifted away. The television just kept showing it. “Those poor people,” the cook had said, seconds before Sao threw up in Ed’s sink.
“They’re not people, not to most Americans-they’re gooks!” Xiao Dee was shouting.
Ah Gou was watching the TV instead of the scallions; he chopped the first digit off the index finger of his left hand. Kaori, still in tears, fainted; the cook dragged her away from the stove. Danny took a dish towel and began to twist it, tightly, around Ah Gou’s upper arm. The tip of Big Brother’s finger lay in a pool of blood with the chopped scallions.
“Go get Yi-Yiing,” the cook said to Sao. Ed took a wet towel and wiped the girl’s face. Sao was as insubstantial-looking as her fainted twin, but she had stopped throwing up, and, like a ghost, she drifted away to the dining room.
When the swinging door to the dining room opened, Danny heard one of the businessmen say, “What kind of crazy, fucked-up place is this, anyway?”
“Ah Gou cut off his finger,” he heard Sao say to Yi-Yiing.
Then the door swung closed and Danny didn’t hear how Sao or Tzu-Min or Yi-Yiing answered the businessman, or if any of the women had tried. (Mao’s was a crazy, fucked-up place that night when Saigon was falling.)
The door to the dining room swung open again, and they all came into the kitchen-Yi-Yiing with young Joe, Tzu-Min and Sao. Danny was mildly surprised that the three businessmen types and the two couples weren’t with them, though there was no room for anyone else in the chaotic kitchen.
“Thank God they all ordered the guinea hen,” the cook was saying.
Kaori had sat up on the floor. “The two couples are having the guinea hen,” she said. “The business guys ordered the ravioli.”
“I just meant the couples,” Tony Angel said. “I’m feeding them first.”
“The business guys are ready to walk out-I’m warning you,” Tzu-Min told them.
Yi-Yiing found the tip of Ah Gou’s finger in the scallions. Xiao Dee wrapped his arms around Ah Gou while the cook poured vodka on the stump of his left index finger. Big Brother was still screaming when Yi-Yiing held out the fingertip, and Tony Angel poured more vodka on it; then she put the fingertip back where it belonged. “Just hold it on,” she told Big Brother, “and stop screaming.”
Danny was sorry that Joe was watching the television; the ten-year-old seemed transfixed by that image of the people clinging to the helicopters’ skids, and then falling off. “What’s happening to them?” the boy asked his dad.
“They’re dying,” Danny said. “There’s no room for them on the helicopters.”
Ed was coughing; he went out the kitchen door. There was an alley back there-it was used for deliveries, and for picking up the trash-and they all thought that Ed was just stepping out for a cigarette. But the dishwasher never came back.
Yi-Yiing took Ah Gou out the swinging door and through the dining room; he held his severed fingertip in place, but now that Danny was no longer tightening the towel around his upper arm, Big Brother was bleeding profusely. Tzu-Min went with them. “I guess I’m going to give everyone in the emergency room my cold, after all,” Yi-Yiing was saying.
“What the fuck is going on?” one of the businessmen shouted. “Is there anyone working here, or what?”
“Racists! War criminals! Fascist pigs!” Ah Gou yelled at them, still bleeding.
In the kitchen, the cook said to his son and grandson, “You’re my sous chefs now-we better get started.”
“There are only two tables to deal with, Pop-I think we can manage this,” Danny told him.
“If we just ignore the business guys, I think they’ll leave,” Kaori said.
“Nobody leaves!” Xiao Dee shouted. “I’ll show them what kind of crazy, fucked-up place this is – and they better like it!”
He went out into the dining room through the swinging door-his ponytail in that absurd pink ribbon possibly belonging to Spicy-and even after the door swung shut, they could still hear Little Brother from the kitchen. “You want to eat the best food you ever had, or do you want to die?” Xiao Dee was yelling. “Asians are dying, but you can eat well!” he screamed at the businessmen.
“The guinea hen is served with asparagus, and a risotto of oyster mushrooms and sage jus,” the cook was explaining to Danny and young Joe. “Don’t slop the risotto on the plates, please.”
“Where are the guinea hens from, Pop?” Danny asked.
“From Iowa, of course-we’re out of almost everything that isn’t from Iowa,” the cook told him.
“You want to see how your mushroom and mascarpone ravioli gets made?” Xiao Dee was asking the businessmen types. “It’s done with Parmesan and white truffle oil! It’s the best fucking ravioli you’ll ever have! You think white truffle oil comes from Iowa ?” he asked them. “You want to come out in the kitchen and see a bunch of Asians dying? They are dying on TV right now-if you want to see!” Little Brother was shouting.
Tony Angel turned to the Japanese twins. “Go rescue the business guys from Xiao Dee,” he told them, “both of you.”
The cook accompanied the Yokohamas to the dining room, where they served the two couples the guinea hens. “Your pasta will be coming right along,” Tony told the businessmen; he’d wondered why the business guys had so quietly listened to Xiao Dee’s tirade. Now he saw that Little Brother had taken the bloody cleaver with him into the dining room.
“We need you back in the kitchen-we want you like crazy back there! We’re dying for you!” the Japanese twins were telling Xiao Dee; they had draped themselves on him, being careful not to touch the bloody cleaver. The businessmen types just sat there, waiting, even after the cook (and Xiao Dee, with Kaori and Sao) had gone back into the kitchen.
“What are the fascist pigs drinking?” Xiao Dee was asking the Yokohamas.
“ Tsingtao,” Kaori or Sao answered him.
“Bring them more-keep the beer coming!” Little Brother told them.
“What goes with the ravioli, Pop?” Danny asked his dad.
“The peas,” the cook told him. “Use the slotted spoon, or there will be too much oil on them.”
Joe couldn’t get interested in being a sous chef, not while the television kept showing the helicopters. When the phone rang, Joe was the only one whose hands weren’t busy doing something; he answered it. They all knew there was no maître d’ in the dining room, and they thought it might be Yi-Yiing or Tzu-Min calling from Mercy Hospital with a report on whether or not they could save Ah Gou’s finger.
“It’s collect, from Ketchum,” Joe told them.
“Say that you accept,” his grandfather told him.
“I accept,” the boy said.
“You talk to him, Daniel-I’m busy,” the cook said.
But in the passing of the telephone, they could all hear what Ketchum had to say – all the way from New Hampshire. “This asshole country-”
“Hi, it’s me-it’s Danny,” the writer told the old logger.
“You still sorry you didn’t get to go to Vietnam, fella?” Ketchum roared at him.
“No, I’m not sorry,” Danny told him, but it took him too long to say it; Ketchum had already hung up.
There was blood all over the kitchen. On the TV, the desperate Vietnamese dangled from, and then fell off, the skids of the helicopters. The debacle would be replayed for days-all over the world, the writer supposed, while he watched his ten-year-old watching the end of the war his dad hadn’t gone to.
The Japanese twins were placating the business guys with more beer. Xiao Dee was standing in the walk-in refrigerator with the door open. “We’re almost out of Tsingtao, Tony,” Little Brother was saying. He walked out of the fridge and closed the door; then he noticed that the door to the alley was still open. “What happened to Ed?” Xiao Dee asked. He stepped cautiously into the alley. “Maybe some fucking patriot farmer mistook him for one of us ‘gooks’ and killed him!”
“I think poor Ed just went home,” the cook said.
“I threw up in his sink-maybe that’s why,” Sao said. She and Kaori had come back to the kitchen to bring the business guys their pasta order.
“Can I turn the TV off?” Danny asked them all.
“Yes! Turn it off, please!” one of the Yokohamas told him.
“Ed is gone!” Xiao Dee was shouting from the alley. “The fucker-patriots have kidnapped him!”
“I can take Joe home and put him to bed,” the other twin said to Danny.
“The boy has to eat first,” the cook said. “You can be the maître d’ for a little while, can’t you, Daniel?”
“Sure, I can do it,” the writer told him. He washed his hands and face, and put on a clean apron. When he went into the dining room, the businessmen types seemed surprised that he wasn’t Asian-or especially angry-looking.
“What’s going on in the kitchen?” one of the men asked him tentatively; he definitely didn’t want Xiao Dee to overhear him.
“It’s the end of the war, on the television,” Danny told them.