This is a story soon to be published in Manoa Journal Winter 2010 issue. Here's a segment preview...
At the Love Leather
Mr. Le looked up one morning from mending a vest at the Love Leather and saw a very good-looking Asian kid, his oldest grandson’s age, maybe, seventeen at the most, staring quizzically at him from the sidewalk. When their eyes met across the glass pane the boy’s ruddy cheeks turned an extra shade of red and Mr. Le had to look away.
Behind him, Steven commented, “Ooh a hotty! If he comes in—baby, hide the dildos! We’ll have to shoo our twink for browsing too long.” Then he offered his trademark baritone Lou Rawls guffaw, “Hahha-hah harh hahr.”
“Personally, Mr. Lee, I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-inch pole, know what I’m saying? Not ‘less I want to be somebody’s bitch in the slammer in a hurry.” Mr. Le turned around. “Slammer? Shoe?” he asked, adjusting his glasses. “Sorry. I don’t know this slammer and this shoe you say, Steven.”
“Oh, honey, don’t be. I’m sorry,” Steven said, slower this time, and with mild exasperation. “Shoo—s-h-o-o, as in, ‘chase out somebody.’ As in ‘shoo, you crazy sex pig, shoo, get off me!’ Slammer is ‘jail.’ You know, ‘prison,’ like your re-ed camp? And a ‘twink’ is someone too young, under age, you know? Hairless, smooth, smells like milk?
And ‘being somebody’s bitch in jail’ means...Oh, never you mind what it means.”
An inveterate note-taker by habit, Mr. Le committed “slammer” and “shoo, s-h-o-o,” to his growing vocabulary, to be written down later in his spiral notebook during lunch break. When he looked back out the window, the twink was gone.
He already knew “twink.” And “dildos” he learned right away that first day when he asked Roger Briggs, the storeowner, about them. In a controlled tone, and as he intermittently cleared his throat, Roger Briggs told Mr. Le about their usage, including those with batteries. When Roger left, Steven thanked Mr. Le profusely. “That was
simply precious,” he said, laughing, clasping his hands as if in prayer. “You made RB squirm.”
Roger Briggs, a big and tall man, with most of his blond hair thinned out and a beer belly, once served in the 101st Airborne Division in Nam. He remembered enough Vietnamese to say, “let’s love each other in the bathroom,” and, “how much for the entire night?” When Roger said the latter in Vietnamese Mr. Le inevitably laughed, though why exactly he couldn’t say. Most likely, it was because Roger said it in his toneless accent, and it sounded almost as if someone wanted to buy the night itself.
Still, whenever he listened to Roger Briggs talk of wartime Vietnam, Mr. Le would often get the feeling that another Saigon had gone on right under his nose. Were there many Vietnamese homosexuals? And were they finding one another in the dark alleys and behind tall, protective flame trees?
Roger, who was once very handsome and fit, when he roamed the Saigon boulevards at night, read entire biographies, and concealed hunger from furtive glances in the moonlight, said yes. “There are many versions of any one city,” he said, his eyes dreamy with memories. There was another Saigon that Mr. Le didn’t know, a Vietnam of
hurried, desperate sex, of bite marks, bruised lips, clawed backs, and salty-sweat night and punch-in-the-mouth morning denials, and of unrequited love between fighting men that was just as painful as shrapnel wounds. Just as there was another version of San Francisco that Mr. Le couldn’t possibly have imagined when he was reading from his English For Today! textbooks years ago, dreaming of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and the cling-clanging cable cars climbing up fabled hills.
Mr. Le’s last name is pronounced Ley, but Steven liked Lee better and somehow it stuck. If Roger Briggs corrected Steven half a dozen times since he hired Mr. Le, who had extensive experience working with leather, it was to no avail. Steven was “poz,” he told Mr. Le right away that first day, and his mind was out of control half the time because of
some “cocktail.” It made him “a chatty-patty,” and “so please, Mr. Lee, don’t you mind my rambling roses.” A few days later Steven mentioned aids again, but sounding oddly upbeat: “I’m kept alive by a drug cocktail! Imagine that, Honey Lee. Too many cocktails un-safed me. But now? Now, gotta have me three a day—That’s three, to keep me a-gogoin’.
Well, honey, make mine a cosmo, please!” Then he laughed his Lou Rawls laugh, “Hah-hah-haaa-hhaah.”
Were Mr. Le to run the place, it’d be very different. For one thing, Steven was bad in math, and shouldn’t be working the register, but peddling leather goods to customers. He would have an assistant make some of the leather pieces at the Love Leather rather than order everything from a factory. He would offer wallets and purses as well, and not
just chaps and harnesses. If there was one thing he knew besides working with leather, it was running a business. Back in Vietnam, during the war, Mr. Le was considered prosperous. A two-story villa in District 3, two servants, a Citroen, two shops—the main one in Saigon, on Rue Catina, no less, the other near the Hoa Binh market in the
lovely hill town resort of Dalat—and a small factory making leather goods at the edge of town, employing over twenty workers. Not bad for a man in his late ’30s. That was, of course, before he was deemed a member of the bourgeois class by the new regime and ended up spending close to four years in a re-education camp after the war ended.
When he got out, almost everything he owned was gone. The villa, the factory, the two stores—along with his beloved gray Citroen—were replaced by two rusty bicycles and a small, one-room studio in a mold-infested building near Cho Lon, the old Chinatown section. His wife and three children survived by peddled wonton noodles at a little stand, and the family worked tirelessly on the street, and to scrape together enough money to buy a seat on a fishing boat for their only son to escape. Vietnam had invaded Cambodia and the boy was facing the draft. Older boys from the neighborhood were already coming back maimed or in coffins. The Les’ Their son escaped and, three years and a few refugee camps later, managed to get to America. It took another dozen years after that for him to sponsor Mr. Le and his wife and one of their two daughters to America. The oldest, married and having with a family of her own in Vietnam, was ineligible to be sponsored by her brother.
If he could, even now at 57, Mr. Le would start his business again. He was saving money, taking notes, and talking to potential investors, including Mrs. Tu, their neighbor and landlord. Mrs. Tu was rich, owner of the popular Cicada Pavilion restaurant on Geary and 7th, and a five-story apartment building. With a successful business he could send his two grandsons in Vietnam to college in America. He could even fly his eldest daughter over for visits.
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