Going blind saved Elgin from the oblivion being created by a world that was too full of things to see and it stopped him from losing what remained of the world that was worth saving. He held onto the old stories that came with seeing on the inside of his thinking. Kept them safe. Everything Elgin wanted to see was on the inside. There wasn’t much left on the outside for him to look at, and most of what was out there for him to see was being torn down. The old neighborhoods were becoming invisible. Renaissance this, renaissance that. Call it what you want, to Elgin it was a stealing of stories. Memories were dying. Outside, in the world of the seeing, the past was being erased more and more. All that was true was being forgotten. Emmanuel accused Elgin of being nostalgic. Accused him of wanting nothing to change. Freezing time. »Think of all that got torn down to create everything that you’re holding onto. What got bulldozed over to make your house and these streets. It’s the same thing. This used to be apple orchards or something. A forest.« But Elgin did not believe him. He knew what Emmanuel was getting at, but it wasn’t what Elgin was thinking. Elgin just did not seem to have the right words for any of it. A sadness came with seeing not only what wasn’t there, but also seeing what was there. The remains. An architecture of forgetting.
And so much noise filled up all the silence that he was beginning to fear the loss of silence. »I wonder what kids are going to think silence is?« he asked Emmanuel. »Silence is being driven mad by noise, and seeing is being driven crazy by light. What’s going to become of stars in ten years? Imagine living a whole life without seeing the dark dark of night. I didn’t know that until I went to Vietnam. It took a war to set me free to see stars. Imagine what it would be like to only see the lights of the city. You know there’s a problem when light destroys light,« he said. Elgin held tight to the arms of his rocking chair. »And Johnny thinks it’s gone quiet when the television is turned off and when the police sirens stop for five minutes. You turn off a television, and people call that silence.«
Elgin sat for a while on the edge of his old bed. He sat with the image of Thuy in her slippers, her delicate fingers on the knob of the dresser, about to pull a drawer open. He reached behind him, toward the center of their bed and rested his hand there, felt the warmth of the quilt. He looked over his shoulder, as if he were still capable of seeing when he truly wanted to see. He gazed in slow, blind misery at that one place on their bed where Thuy put her body down to sleep, to dream. Even blind, he found himself looking toward the places where memories still lived. The thin fabric of Thuy’s nightgown. The tight fearlessness of her smile. Her perfect skin. All the American bombs that fell down on her family, all those bombs that fell through the trees, onto her home, near her flesh, could not destroy her skin. No man can expect to remain unchanged when he touches a woman that beautiful. She changed Elgin, and that was enough for him, the way he became this other man, even while carrying the fire of that war in him. Her beauty stole him away from those fires. And he remembered the sound that remained in her voice, her struggle to hold onto her past, to never let go of her mother and grandmother and great grandmother when she spoke English.
When Thuy was forced to learn English, she told Elgin that she would never forgive America for doing the damage that speaking English did to the shape of her mouth, the feel of her tongue inside her mouth, the pain that English brought to her lips. Words with more than one syllable posed the deepest threat to her past, so she slowed her speech nearly to a complete halt in order to pronounce each syllable separately, to protect her past from these new sounds, from the pain speaking English caused in her teeth, her tongue, her throat. »Those big words,« she told Elgin, »have too much noise. My teeth nearly fall out when I say them. They dry out my lips.« She feared that by speaking English she would no longer be able to smile the way her grandmother smiled. None of these words that came out of her mouth in English came from those places inside her that truly mattered. The only way to those places was to travel through her native tongue. »I only touch you in Vietnamese, not English.« And she refused to say, »I love you«, to Elgin in English.
She taught Lehuong Vietnamese, insisted Lehuong speak Vietnamese during every meal. She told her that Vietnamese protected the stories of their ancestors and that her ancestors would die in English. »English wants us to die. It violates our mouths, our skin. Your mouth was born to speak Vietnamese.« And Thuy said that speaking in the language of their ancestors while eating was to bless the food as it nourished their bodies.
Elgin knew very little Vietnamese. It burned his mouth. He often bit his tongue attempting to say the simplest words. He was never sure if it was from the memories of the war or from the way the words shaped his mouth, exercised his tongue. And when Elgin said he wanted to learn more Vietnamese so that he could love Thuy in her language, she said, »No.« Just no.
Lehuong never taught a word of Vietnamese to her son, Johnny. »English, woman. Speak English,« the child’s father, the man who broke her ribs, shouted at her. This man told her that Vietnamese sounded like it came straight out of rice paddies and mud puddles, filthy words of earth and sky, that her words were so full of water that they nearly drowned before she could say them. »Speak human,« he told her, while pressing his hand against the back of her neck. »Your father fought that war, killed those gooks, burned down those trees, so none of us would ever have to hear these sounds again, so we could forget about jungles and mud huts.« He pushed Lehuong against the wall of their bedroom, and he kissed her forehead with lips so poisonous that she begged God to strike her dead, to burn down their house while they were sleeping, to not keep her soul or the soul of this man, but to disintegrate everything. She prayed for fire.
Elgin feared some of this thinking back into the past. Any man who thought too much into his past was bound to see all that he had lost. Every time Elgin told stories of loving Thuy, of seeing Lehuong running down the street, of watching Clemente in right field, he could not help but create the feeling of loss with each act of remembering. That world was gone. Each time he took a breath, those memories scarred his heart, burned into his eyes, and made his ribs feel the sorrow of a lived life. The blood of Thuy loving him kept shaking in his heart, keeping his heart awake, open and alive. Emmanuel insisted he let it go. »I can’t help you if you don’t release your memory of her,« he told Elgin.
Time does not heal all wounds; if a man is not careful, time erases wounds. Then what is he left with? The cold and the silence. The pain Elgin suffered from the reality of Thuy not being with him when he remembered her was a pain far more bearable than the pain that dimming her voice or letting her skin vanish from his thoughts, from his dreams, his stories, his memories, would cause. He feared that if he let go of this sorrow, he would be letting go of the joy as well. Some days the pain of missing Thuy broke into his heart and lungs and made his body nearly intolerable, and he swore he could feel a breeze blowing through the hole in him that was created the night she died, but there would be no way for him to go on living his life without her, and that meant he had to be calling up her memory. Some days his heart beat like a boot kicking against his ribs. Still, he did all he could to kindle those memories, to keep them burning, to keep them from turning into ash.
Emmanuel argued that Elgin could not go on with his life unless he put out this fire. That no one could survive such bereavement. »You got to bury it. Call on Pete to shovel dirt on that pain,« he said. But Elgin refused. For most men, the memory of such loss, the living with such loss, leads to anger and disappointment in God, in fate, in something; it leads to simple bitterness with the heart, with the failed promises of love. It did that to Elgin’s father, Clarence, when Ai left him, when Ai said, »I adore you,« then closed her eyes and turned around and walked down Dinwiddie one last time. All living is, is memory, and then death. Elgin knew this.
. . .
By Doug Rice