The Dying Man Says Only: ‘Red’

The man with the goiter and the one half-mast eye takes my order at Pho Nam Cali. I’m due at my Grandma’s house within the half-hour.
“I’ll have the ‘41’,” I say. “And—excuse me—how exactly do you pronounce that?” I ask, referring to the Vietnamese subtitles. I’m earnest in my inquiry.
(C’om bun tom nuong, mind you, is the ‘41’).
The man pronounces the words carefully but not condescendingly, and then points to each of the individual words in turn.
“C’om is rice,” he says gesturing to the accompanying photograph, “Then ‘bun’: it means pork—or meat—and ‘tom’ is shrimp.” He circles the picture with a forefinger. “Nuong means grilled.” I nod my thank you as he disappears into the kitchen and while Finn in the meantime tries to climb into the lap of another restaurant patron. The patron is wholly amused and laughs as Finn ineffectually tries to navigate the man’s calves. Finn ultimately finds no purchase.
I hoist Finn into my arms and bounce him up and down to settle his busyness. Finn’s eyes find the TV, which is broadcasting an early afternoon news segment. A tongue-tied anchor interviews a transgender military colonel; the anchor cannot keep his identifiers straight. He/she. There are apologies.
The man with the half-mast eye casually returns from the kitchen, glances up at the television, then back toward me. He’s been thinking about my question.
“Vietnamese is very much like French. The first words—‘c’om’, ‘bun’, ‘tom’—they’re modified by the last word, ‘nuong’. ‘Grilled’. The pork and shrimp are grilled.” He has his arms casually crossed behind his back, and I like this exchange. I explain how I’m familiar with this manner of modification, Spanish being something similar.
He takes a rhetorical left turn while I wait for the bun nuong–the shrimp already done I’m sure–and the rice something to be ladled from a pressure-cooker in back.
“Imagine a dying man,” he says, “Knifed in the back and bleeding. And you crouch down and ask him: ‘who did this to you’? If he responds in Vietnamese, it is: ‘the man,red-haired.’ Imagine he dies after one word. You at least know it was a ‘man’. If he responds in English, you only have the word ‘red’, which might mean him referring to his own blood.”
(On the television, I hear another apology and the military colonel doesn’t flinch).
Grammar is not generally this mortal, but it’s an interesting conversation and once given my c’om bun tom nuong, I nod thankfully, tip extra, and carry a now tired-eyed Finn back to the car. There are wafts of fish sauce and I belt Finn into the seat; he’s smiling, albeit with purpled eyes.
At my Grandma’s, everyone is there but–most importantly (to Finn at least)–my uncle, who has frites. French fries. Jack in the Shack shit. I give Finn some shrimp and some spoonfuls of rice, but French fries ultimately win, there being something of historical tongue-in-cheeked-ness at play here. French colonizers governed Vietnam for years.
(A recent restaurant I went to served frites with nuoc cham).
My Grandma’s uncomfortable.
This is the signifier I allow myself: ‘uncomfortable.’ ‘Painful’ is certainly more appropriate, but I use tame words as the necessary analgesia; I’m actually the uncomfortable one, the one not in actual or marked pain. Such are semantics. My Grandma, meanwhile, has a chart with many check marks next to medicines like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘morphine’. The times in between administrations have trended shorter and, when my grandma tries to sit up, I understand why.
She doesn’t smile for the entire hour I’m there, except when Finn taps the velour footrest of her La-Z-Boy and tries, for the second time, to climb into someone else’s lap. Grandma couches her packet of French fries to playfully tease Finn; she then neglects to uncurl her fingers in recent forgetfulness of her own body. Finn can’t find the fries, yet still hugs Grandma’s thighs in some reverse apology. He rests his head on her knee. All’s well even as the fries grow cold.
We shouldn’t be unhappy if some have a lot and some have a little, or vice-versa: it’s just semantics.
(That’s most certainly a lie; I haven’t yet convinced myself).
The RN arrives and I shrug on my jacket and interrupt the nurse.
“I just wanna say good-bye real quick, ok?”
“Of course, Honey,” and she has on colorful scrubs because that’s the required uniform.
I kiss my Grandma just above her mouth and tell her that I love her, then atop her head where she is now white and on a scalp that used to be red. There are scattered hairs on her shoulder, chemo-sheddings, and I illogically kiss her temple and feathers of her white hair stick to my upper lip; all this while the dying man pools in his own mortality, and in which case the dying man says only: ‘red.’


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