Hanoi, Vietnam, January 2013
The sleeping pills had not done the job. Sybil Fleischer lay on the bed, sunny side up, fat and fanned out. Her head hurt. Her legs ached. She was still wearing her compression socks and orthopedic walking shoes, bought special for the occasion.
Sybil tried to remember if this was what a hangover felt like—the furred mouth and the pulse pounding behind her eyes, the sour stomach, the disorientation. She felt lost. Shipwrecked. Beached.
She sat up and rubbed her eyes. The room was a mess. Her suitcase lay open, with its contents scattered across the room. A silk scarf, a city map, Swiss face cream, a box of panty liners, and several bottles of pills were tossed on the floor and over the bed. The sliding glass door to the balcony hung half open, and the curtains stirred in the breeze. It occurred to her that if someone saw her, a maid or room service, she might look like the victim of a violent crime, dead on this bed with her belongings ransacked and pilfered.
A man’s gold watch was lying on the bedside table. Sybil picked it up and turned it over. To Paul, it said, engraved on the back. Happy 40th Anniversary. She set it across her wrist, fastened the clasp, and checked the time. It was almost six o’clock in the evening. She counted on the tips of her fingers to figure out what time it was back home in West Plains, New Jersey, but she lost track. She thought of her house far away on the other side of the world, silent and still at the beginning of the day.
Sybil levered herself off of the bed. Pain shot through her body from her feet up. Her legs were even worse than usual. Spider veins clustered around her knees, and her ankles were lost in a casing of waxy flesh. She steadied herself and stepped carefully through the debris of her suitcase over to the sliding door. She pushed it open wider, but it jammed, and she had to squeeze herself through the narrow opening and out onto the balcony.
It was sunset. Windy clouds roiled the sky, and high-rise buildings stood darkly against the faint blue of a distant sea. Sybil inhaled and tried to catch the ocean scent, but instead she smelled only diesel and soot.
The balcony was carpeted in Astroturf. A pair of lawn chairs faced out toward an apartment block. Sybil eased herself into one of the chairs, propped her legs up onto the railing, and took in the view. The building across the road was spangled with satellite dishes, and a Soviet-style hammer and sickle were strung in Christmas lights between the fourth and fifth floors. On the balcony across from hers, several pairs of underpants hung on a washing line beside a stuffed bear that was clothes-pinned to it by the ears.
Sybil had not expected Vietnam to look like this when her plane touched down at Noi Bai International Airport earlier that day. Before she arrived, her idea of this country had been a collage pieced together from war films, old newsreels, and the kind of curly-roofed temple landscapes that were printed on Chinese takeout cartons. She had imagined willows weeping over arched bridges and mustachioed dragon kites unfurling their silk tails against the sky.
Hanoi, though, was a modern, low-slung city sunk deep into a river delta. Sybil looked out at the gritty morass of buildings and billboards that advertised soap, Pepsi-Cola, and condoms. She felt homesick. Everything here was so cluttered and chaotic. A million motorcycles zipped through the streets, and dilapidated French colonial houses in shades of butter yellow and cat-tongue pink were wedged between newer buildings and parking garages. Down on the pavement below, vendors hawked Mylar balloons, plastic shoes, cigarettes, and toilet brushes. It was hard to believe that not so long ago, bombs had blown this city to pieces.
Sybil felt hot. She undid the button on her shirt and fished around for the letter she had smuggled inside her Playtex Ultimate Lift 18-Hour support bra, all the way from New Jersey. She found the edge of the envelope and extracted it with care. The paper had gone soft with age, and it was damp from spending so long pressed against her body. Sybil held the envelope up to what remained of the light. The fine cursive on the front had faded. It was addressed to Miss Sybil Lyle in Paul’s unmistakable handwriting.
Poor Paul. Four months dead in the ground. In all their years of marriage, Sybil had never been able to reconcile the Paul who was her husband with the Paul who had fought in Vietnam. Paul the soldier; Paul the grunt. Her Paul was a nebbish, big-bellied, bald man who smelled like Altoids and Old Spice. He stood five foot six in shoes and wore bifocals around his neck on a chain. His legs were mangled and hairless, and a keloid scar ran halfway around his middle from his paunch to his back. He was deaf as a doorknob in one ear, and he got winded just going up the stairs.
Sybil would have preferred marrying that other Paul. First Lieutenant Paul Fleischer had been young and almost handsome. The few photographs from his war days showed a sun-browned man made of cow muscle and cast-iron guts, and he still had all of his hair. But by the time she got him years later, all traces of that young Army officer had been erased by male-pattern baldness and thirty extra pounds. And now he was dead, him and a whole generation of other men who had once been young and lovely in the war too.
The sun had slipped behind the city skyline, and in the new dark windows blinked on in the apartment building across the road. Sybil took the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it. The paper was creased, and the edge of it was frayed from where it had been torn out of a notebook. It was dated March 2, 1968, a few months shy of forty-five years ago, almost to the day.
I wouldn’t be writing if I hadn’t made Henry a promise, but I did and so I am sorry. Because of his delicate situation, Henry knew you couldn’t be counted as his next of kin so he made arrangements with you in mind. So I regret to inform you that 1LT Henry Salt was Killed In Action.
Sorry to put it that way. I thought it would be easier to write it out all official like the Army does it, but I guess that doesn’t make it easier. I don’t have any specifics either. Sorry about that, too.
Henry was a good man. It’s always the good ones that seem to go while assholes like me keep hanging around. I wish this was a better letter. I am sorry for your loss. I know what Henry meant to you.
1LT Paul Fleischer
It still moved her, that picture she had in her head of the boy who’d written this letter. Paul, twenty years old, with leaves jammed into his helmet and war paint on his face, hunched over in the back of a jeep, writing this letter out of a sense of duty to his dead friend. Paul, who was such a quiet man, had tried to put it to her in plain English. Just the facts: Killed In Action. Henry was a good man—while gently avoiding other facts: Delicate situation. Next of kin. I know what he meant to you. Such manners.
Henry Salt was the one thing she and Paul had shared in common, but after they married, they never spoke of him again. Sybil figured there was too much pain there, so she obliged Paul, and for all the years that they were together, she did not so much as say Henry’s name. She held it in her mouth and rolled it around behind her teeth and touched it with the tip of her tongue many times, but she never said it. Not once. Not ever.
Sybil slid the letter back inside the envelope. When she’d buried Paul a few months ago, she’d realized that she needed to finally put Henry to rest too, but she needed to do it properly. With Paul there had been a funeral to mark the end of his life, but with Henry there was nothing. She had no body to bury, no gravesite to put flowers on, not even a set of birth and death dates to measure his life by. All Sybil had left of him was this letter, so she thought it would be only right to bring it back to its approximate point of origin, burn it, and scatter its ashes.
Forty-five years was too long to carry around such a burden, but no matter how much time passed, she hadn’t been able to let him go. The world had always remained full of Henry. He was everywhere and in everything. Salt. It was common enough to throw over her shoulder. To shake over slugs. It crusted at the corners of her son’s eyes in the morning and when he’d cried as a child. She spread it over stains. She licked it off her fingers. She poured it on potatoes and into pasta water. She sprinkled it over the sidewalk in the snow. Rock. Kosher. Table. Sea. A pinch of it for bakers. A grain of it for doubters. Rubbed into wounds. Held in secret on the tip of her tongue, all this time.
Fort Benning, Georgia, July 1967
Henry Salt was married. He did not try to hide it. It was very nearly the first thing he said to Sybil Lyle when they met at that hick bar in Georgia.
The bar was called the Cleft Peach, and it was a block from the back gate of Fort Benning. Henry hated it on sight. It smelled sour, like yeasty beer and a filthy toilet, and it had a jukebox that needed to be thwacked on the side in between songs to keep it running. Chewing-tobacco spit stains were splattered on the sidewalk out front, and inside it was crawling with hollow-legged horn-dog officer candidates who seemed to be half his age, even if they weren’t. Not quite.
Henry sat at the bar. Two stools over a couple was necking. It was hot, and the dim light was marbled blue with cigarette smoke.
“What are you drinking?” asked the girl sitting beside him.
Henry looked at his beer bottle. “Nothing special,” he said. “You?”
“A whisky sour. But they forgot the egg white.”
“Well, we’re not exactly at the Plaza Hotel, now are we?”
“You can say that again.”
The girl was tall, even a touch rangy in the way athletic boys often are, and she was struggling to twist herself into a ladylike perch at the edge of her barstool. In the dark, the only detail Henry could make out was her hand slipped around her drink. It was pale and clean, but the fingernails had been chewed down to the quick.
“Trust me,” she said, “if I had known what this place was like, I wouldn’t have come. My cousin dragged me here against my will.”
Henry nodded to the necking couple. The girl was thick in the middle and wore a crown of plastic flowers on top of her bouffant hairdo, and the boy had his hand stuffed inside the back of her dress in between the buttons. She nipped at his earlobe.
“Is that little blonde number your cousin?”
“Well, I guess that makes you and me the chaperones. Her date dragged me here too.”
“Lucky us.” The girl sipped her drink. The ice clicked against her teeth.
“Buy you another?” Henry said.
“This is my third.”
“Make it four?”
“I’m not a lush.”
Henry turned and looked at her full in the face. She had a wholesome, Breck Girl thing going on, a look he usually thought was boring in a woman, but she had nice eyes. She blinked at him slow and drunkenly.
“You have beautiful eyes,” he said, for want of something else to say. “Are they blue or green?”
“Sometimes they’re gray.”
“There’s a word for that.”
“For eyes that change colors. Glazé. It’s French.”
“Is that some kind of line you’re working on me or what?”
“It’s not meant to be.”
The girl made a face. “My aunt warned me about you Army boys.”
“Yeah? And what did she say?”
“That y’all were a bunch of walking Petri dishes and if I kissed any one of you, my nose would fall off.”
This was a pleasant surprise. The girl looked so prim and young that Henry had thought they were going to be stuck making small talk all night, but here was an intriguing lick of fire in her belly.
“Well, aren’t you just a little pistol,” he said. “I’m Henry.”
“And you are?”
“Oh. Like the Oracle.”
Sybil swallowed what remained of her drink and grimaced. She set it down on the bar and pushed it away. “Whatever you say.”
A kid tapped Henry on the shoulder. His acne-pitted face was slick with sweat, and his uniform was cut too large for his lean frame. He had a Polaroid camera slung around his neck, and he held it up for Henry to see. “How about it?” he said. “I’ll take your photograph for whatever loose change you’ve got in your pockets.”
Henry stretched out his leg and nudged the boy-half of the necking couple with his toe. “Hey, Paul. Do you want to get our picture taken?”
Paul turned around and glared. His mouth glittered with Minnie’s lipstick. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you see you’re interrupting something?”
“Oh, come on,” Minnie said. “It’ll be fun!”
Henry and Sybil stood up and scooted beside Minnie and Paul. The kid raised his camera and counted to three. Henry felt Sybil’s arm slide around his waist, and at the last minute Minnie took the wreath of plastic flowers off her hair and draped it over Paul’s head.
Pop! The flashbulb sparked. Henry’s pupils puckered against the light, and he saw stars, haloes, moths. Neon inkblots backlit against his brain.
The camera made a noise and spat out the Polaroid. The kid took it, flapped it back and forth, and blew across its surface. Everyone crowded around to watch the image bleed up out of the black film. Blurred bright dots became four faces.
Henry squinted to see himself more clearly. He was jammed in at the far end of the frame, and the half of his body that hadn’t been cut out of the picture towered over everyone else. Paul was gleaming with sweat and happiness, and Minnie had turned her face at a calculated angle to look slimmer than she really was. Sybil, in the middle, was fuzzed in motion. Her smile was half made, and her eyes were blurred with blinking.
The kid with the Polaroid camera slapped the photo onto the bar. Henry gave him a quarter, and Paul pitched in with a dime and two bus tokens. The sight of Paul turning his pockets inside out made Henry feel old and absurd, the lone adult among a gaggle of drunk children.
Minnie shouted above the noise, “It sure is hot in here!”
“So let’s split?” Paul said. He took the flower crown off his head, hung it around his neck like a lei, and tugged Minnie toward the door.
Henry watched them go, and just as Minnie disappeared into the dark swarm of people, he felt Sybil take his arm and pull him through the crowd.
Outside the air smelled like cigarettes and magnolias. Boys in spiffed-up uniforms loitered on the sidewalk with girls in homemade dresses. Someone dropped a beer bottle, and it shattered against the pavement. There was shouting and laughter from a group of particularly drunk officer candidates. A taxi was parked at the curb with its meter running. The driver drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
Paul checked his reflection in the dark bar window and adjusted his cover, careful not to press his fingerprints into the patent-leather brim. Henry took out a pack of cigarettes and offered them around. Minnie and Sybil helped themselves, but Paul demurred. “I don’t smoke,” he said.
“You should start,” Henry said. “You’ll need every kind of comfort you can find once you’re humping up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
Henry flipped open his lighter and cupped the flame. Sybil leaned in, and as she touched her cigarette to the fire, she kept her eyes steady on his for a moment too long before glancing away and flicking the ash out into the night.
“I know a diner that’s just around the corner,” Minnie said. “It’ll be less crowded, and we can get something to eat.”
Behind him, Henry was aware that something in the crowd had changed. Several of the inebriated officer candidates leaned against the wall of the bar, too far gone to stand on their own feet. They were singing an obscene song, a scrap of cadence. Out of the corner of his eye, Henry saw a beefy, redheaded soldier point at Paul. There was a brief commotion. Someone swore, and someone else whistled, and the big redhead ran up and knocked Paul’s cover off of his head.
“Hiya, Heeb!” the soldier shouted, and his friends exploded into laughter.
Paul’s cover lay on the pavement. The soldier gave a limp Nazi salute and did a few corny goosesteps. He kicked Paul’s hat across the ground, turned on his heel, and followed the others inside the bar.
Paul’s face was splotched white and crimson. Henry thought he might be sick right there in the street.
“What was that for?” Minnie asked.
“That was a bunch of kids who can’t hold their liquor,” Henry said. He picked up the cover and handed it back to Paul.
“But what’s a Heeb?” Minnie said.
Paul fussed with the brim, which was dented and scuffed. “Don’t you know anything?” he snapped.
“It’s what they call him because he’s the toughest kid in the company,” Henry said. “Once he gets to Vietnam he’s going to save all their sorry asses, and they know it.”
Minnie hugged Paul’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder. “Isn’t that right? My brave little Paulie.”
They didn’t go to the diner. Instead they wandered. Without meaning to, Henry led the way. They walked away from the bar out toward the firing range, where the soft pine forests grew out of red clay. Cicadas shimmered in the trees, and fireflies sparkled. The moon came out from behind the clouds, and Minnie lifted up the back of her dress and flashed her lace underpants. She ran off laughing, and Paul chased after her, slipping on the grass in his spit-polished shoes.
Henry and Sybil walked on in silence. He waited for her to say something, but she was quiet and cooler than she’d been back at the bar. The sound of her skirt swishing against her legs filled the space between them.
“So,” Henry said when he couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “Where’s home?”
“Not here. You?”
Henry caught the quick thrill in her voice. “No. Upstate. In the mountains.”
“Funny,” Sybil said, “I think of New York as only a city. All those skyscrapers seem so beautiful.”
“The mountains are beautiful too. Supposedly they’re full of gold.”
Somewhere ahead of them, Minnie chortled. “Lord,” Sybil said. “That girl is crazy.”
“Paul doesn’t seem to mind.”
The silence returned. Sybil’s skirt snagged in the grass, and she tried to gather it around herself. Henry picked a burr out of the tulle.
“And what did you do up there in New York?” she asked. “Before you joined the Army?”
“I was a professor.”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“Yeah. If I was a professor living on some golden mountain, I wouldn’t up and join the Army. Especially when a war is going on.”
“But I want to go to war. That’s the whole point.”
“Well, if that isn’t the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
For the second time that night, Henry felt the pleasant electricity of surprise course through his blood. This girl had a quick tongue.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Henry said.
“You won’t laugh?”
“If it’s funny, I might.”
“I want to write a novel.”
Sybil looked incredulous. “A novel? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I want to write a war story. But it’s got to be true, so I have to experience battle for myself. That’s why I joined up.”
Henry stopped and sat down in the grass. Sybil sat down beside him. Her skirt belled out around her legs, and she tried to smooth out the layers of tulle and taffeta.
“That’s not much of a secret,” she said.
“I’m sorry to disappoint.”
“I was hoping you were on the lam or something. Like a bank robber running off to war to escape the police.”
“What’s that smell?” Henry said.
“You’re such a Yankee. Don’t you know? You plopped us down in a patch of onion grass. We’ll stink until we bathe.”
Sybil lay down and made an onion-grass angel. Her arms and legs flattened the grass. Henry lay back too. It felt good to stretch out. They stayed like that, side by side, for a long time, listening to the cicadas in the trees and watching the clouds slide over the stars.
“Kiss me,” Sybil said.
“I’m married,” Henry answered.
“And I’m drunk.”
Henry was stunned. He’d heard there was a new model of female running around in the Village and over on the West Coast. She was supposedly a totally new breed, wanton and unbridled, but he didn’t think they were making them like that down here in the deep south.
“Kiss me,” Sybil said again. “What’s the harm?”
Henry considered this. Maybe she had a point. What was the harm? Everyone else in America seemed to be getting high and naked these days. He’d heard the stories. Flower Children and the Merry Pranksters. There was a war on, and Jesus was probably coming back any second now, either to smite or to save, depending on who you asked. But he had a wife. But she was far away and he was lonely, and ignorance is bliss, and bliss is rare, so why shouldn’t he dig in and drink it up? Tomorrow everyone might be dead anyway, on account of the atomic bomb or the Vietcong or a hematoma.
So he kissed her. Her lips were dry, and her taste was strange—not bad, just new—and the smell of her skin was on the lovely, rich verge of ripeness.
“Kiss me,” she said, and so Henry slid the warm weight of his body over her body and ripped the buttons off the back of her dress.
Dusk Here, Dawn There is the story of Sybil Fleischer, a sixty-five-year-old widow who travels to Vietnam to make her peace with the deaths of the men she loved. Henry Salt was a married Army officer with ambitions of becoming a war hero. He and Sybil had an affair on the eve of his deployment to Vietnam, but he was killed in combat. After the war, Sybil married Henry’s Army buddy Paul, and they have a seemingly happy life together. Years later, Paul dies and Sybil is overwhelmed by her unresolved grief. She travels to Vietnam, and once there she uncovers a dangerous secret that has been festering at the center of her life for nearly half a century.
I began writing Dusk Here, Dawn There when I was living in East Asia with the American military and diplomatic corps. I heard a story about an old woman who had recently died. As her children were sorting through her belongings, they found photographs of another man hidden behind pictures of their father. They learned that the man was a pilot who had dated their mother during World War II. He had died in the Pacific, but their mother remained in love with him for the rest of her life. Intrigued, the children uncovered the rest of the story, but instead of a sweet romance, they discovered that the pilot had been married and the affair with their mother had destroyed his family. As I listened to the story, I expected a twist at the end—the man had not died but feigned his death and returned to his wife. I was wrong, but I preferred my ending, so I wrote it into a novel. I set my story during the Vietnam War because that particular conflict’s history of delusion and deceit provided an apt setting for a novel exploring similar themes in the human condition.
Dusk Here, Dawn There is about the stories people tell themselves and the way believed lies matter as much as buried truths. It is about the power of false narratives and the fact that people will tell whatever version of the truth is easiest to bear.
Mae Physioc lives in Washington, DC, where she is at work on her second novel. She has previously lived and worked in Germany, the United Kingdom, and China, and she holds a Master’s degree in Classical Studies from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019