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Andy Tran is a writer from Virginia. Follow him on IG: dopestorybroo. 


My Dad’s dead. He passed away during the Pentagon attack on September 11, 2001. I smoke a cigarette for the first time with Mom the next day, a Wednesday. We live in Northern Virginia, in a green townhouse tucked away in Burke, a middle class neighborhood. We’re sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, in plastic chairs, drinking coffee. A dove is flying outside the window, its voice shrill as it flaps its wings. I turn back to Mom and see that she looks frustrated, and when I look back at the window, the dove is gone.

Mom puts an old pack of reds on the table, takes a cigarette out and lights it. Her face is pale, and she keeps her eyes straight ahead, and for the next few minutes she is silent. Before I can ask her for a cigarette, she gives me one. I’m sixteen years old, and I’ve never smoked with anyone, and I have no desire to smoke regularly. Mom always used to chastise Dad for smoking, but he did it anyhow.

I don’t know whether I should say thank you or give her a hug. I know I will not be able to help her, that she will suffer, no matter what I do. Still, I reach over the table and place my hand over her hand, squeezing it. “Chúng ta sẽ ổn thô,” I tell her. Mom shakes her head. “Huy, I will never be okay,” she says, as she blows a cloud of smoke up towards the old chandelier.

The light is muted and I wish I could fly away from home.

It's 4:30pm. Mom smokes a second cigarette while I’m still working on my first. The window is halfway open and the smoke leaks through it, like a breeze permeating the afternoon. As Mom and I smoke our cigarettes, I realize the pack of reds on the table belongs to Dad: the pack is bent and the plastic wrapping has crumpled. 

I remember him telling me that smoking cigarettes is the only way to make friends in Vietnam, that it can be construed as a prerequisite to reaching adulthood, that his father had smoked before him, and that his father’s father had smoked, as well.

Mom coughs, and as she clears her throat, she says in Vietnamese, “I heard the left wing knocked over five streetlamps. That the right wing smashed into a portable generator, making a smoke trail. Then seconds later the plane crashed into the western side of the Pentagon.” Mom lights a third cigarette, hand shaking, the lighter dropping to the table. “64 people died on board, as well as 125 people in the building.” She cups her chin in her hand and takes a drag. “That’s how your father died.”

After her fourth cigarette, Mom stops chain-smoking and goes upstairs to her room, and stays in bed for the rest of the day. I sit at my desk and log onto the internet. I check unread messages on my AIM: 1) Huy, I’m so sorry. I’m here for you. 2) Thinking about you and your family, we miss you. 3) Love you, man.

I deactivate my AIM and close my laptop, which gives me a feeling of control, and it feels like a good decision.

I come downstairs to the basement where Dad would play his acoustic guitar, late into the evenings. I hook up the guitar to an amp, sling the leather strap over my shoulder, and strum a few chords. I am terrible at playing music, and I remember always asking Dad to teach me. But when he took the time to give me lessons, I would always give up. I never feel I am good enough, never think I will make him proud. And now I regret the self-pity party because no one is there except for me. I strum the strings over and over until my fingers ache, and music starts to sound choppy, but slowly a melody forms. I close my eyes before the tears trickle, and as I reach over to his desk for a tissue, knock down a picture frame. The glass hits the hardwood floor, shattering on impact.

I place the guitar down on its plastic stand, and then I pick up the broken pieces of glass with a broom and dustpan. When I am finished dumping the pieces into a trash can, I grab the picture from the floor and see that it is a black and white shot of me. I was one or two years old; I can’t tell. I am wearing a green camping hat and diapers. My face is small and chubby, and I have a huge smile. I turn the picture over in my hand. There is writing on the back.


My son, you’re so important to me and your mom. We love you, so very much. You are only a baby in this picture, but one day you will be a young man. I can’t wait to teach you how to play the guitar, how to tie your shoes, show you great books to read. My son, you are perfect, in every way. I hope we will get a chance to visit Vietnam. I learned how to play my guitar in Saigon. My music teacher Bon assembled the guitar and gave it to me. I know I left during the war, but I want to show you where I came from. We will go back one day. America has been so generous and kind to us. It has given me a job with the government and a house, and a wonderful wife. But one day, we shall see Vietnam again.

I want you to know Saigon.



When I go back upstairs to the living room, Mom is watching CNN on the TV. Talking heads appear solemn, and they look fatigued. They’re talking about the attacks on The World Trade Center. I sit on the couch beside her as Mom sighs, sipping from her glass. She is drinking vodka, which she never drinks. She turns around to face me and frowns. “Where were you?” she asks.

“The basement.”

“I don’t want you hanging out there.”

“I wanted to see Dad’s guitar.”

“Did you play it?”

“Tried to.”

“He was obsessed with that guitar.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Mom smiles. She turns off the TV, drinks her vodka, and then says, “I heard a crash downstairs. Did you break something? Did you damage the guitar?”

“The guitar’s fine.”

“Then what was that noise?”

“It was just glass.”

“You could have hurt yourself. Did you break something important?”

“I bumped into a picture and the frame shattered. I’m sorry, I feel bad about it.”

Mom sighs again and I know she’s getting irritated She taps the rim of her glass with her finger. “What’d you do with the picture?”

I dip my hand into my pocket and fish out the picture. “There was a letter on the back of it,” I say, as I give her the picture.

Mom snatches it from my hand, turns it over, and reads the letter on the back. She places the picture on the coffee table and makes herself a second drink. “We’re never going back to Vietnam. I hope you know that,” she says.

“You don’t have to go back. But I want to see Saigon.”

“There’s nothing for you there,” Mom says. “It’s run by communists. And I don’t want you to leave.”

“Dad would want me to leave.”

Mom reaches over with her hand and grabs my ear, twisting it into a coil. I scream in pain as she says, “Do not talk back to me, Huy.” She slaps the back of my head and then she starts to sob violently like an actress in a film.

I stagger away, reeling from the pain. I raise my hand over my face as if to block a second blow to the head. “I’m sorry,” I say, but I don’t mean it.

Mom stands up from the couch and walks away from the living room. I sit there, alone, my head throbbing, as I look at my reflection in the TV. I am pale and shaking. I pick up the glass from the coffee table and drink the vodka. It burns my throat and I spit it out and the vodka sprays against the TV. My reflection is blurry now and I like it better that way. I walk downstairs to the basement, grab the guitar, and strum the strings, until callouses form on my fingertips. I strum so hard that the fretboard shudders, and the last string bends, snapping apart, cutting my thumb. The string is torn into two pieces. I feel the blood trickle down my wrist as I crash on the floor, cradling the guitar. Closing my eyes, I fall asleep in the basement. 

A year later, board an airplane to Vietnam, a one-way trip, hoping to explore Saigon and connect with my Dad’s past life. I sit in coach and hold on to my carry-on bag as I look out the window. The clouds. A vast blue sky. Maze after maze of buildings interlocking together. All of it is beautiful. I feel overwhelmed as the airplane lands on the runway, thinking about Mom, and how she didn’t want me to come here. I miss her but I don’t regret my decision. And then the wheels grind against the ground, and my stomach starts to clench.

I rent a blue motorized scooter and ride it into Saigon. And then I realize, as I enter the city, that it is no longer called Saigon but has been renamed: Ho Chi Minh City. I wonder if the communists care that I am there, and then I remember that only Mom knows I’m here.

I begin to think I’m wrong for leaving her. I check into my hostel, and I’m given two keys: one for the main door, and one for my room. I walk down the dirt-trodden hallway, and drop my bags on top of my double-sized bed. A thin white sheet covers the mattress, and a blanket is folded in half above a crummy pillow. The room has a wooden desk, a metal chair, and a window that looks out to the street. I open it and light a cigarette.

Smoking, I watch an elderly Vietnamese woman and a small Vietnamese boy holding hands, swinging their arms up as they walk down the road in straw hats, smiles on their faces. I smile too. However, as I finish my cigarette, I feel a pang. But I am here now. I close the window and crawl into bed, slipping under the blanket covers for an afternoon nap.

When I wake up, it is 5pm. I leave my room and walk to the front desk, and then I look through a phone directory book from the concierge. I sit in my chair and look up music stores in Saigon, finding one with an advertisement for guitar lessons. And on the ad, I find the name I’m searching for: Mr. Bon. Now I get this feeling that I’m supposed to be in Vietnam, that I belong here. I’m anxious to meet the man who gave dad his guitar, but perhaps he can give me some insight on who Dad was as a young kid.

I carry Dad’s guitar on my back, the leather strap crossing over my chest. I put on sunglasses and hop on the motorized scooter, heading down the street littered with trash.

A row of trees towers over me, as I weave through crowds of young and old Vietnamese people dressed in white shirts and black pants. Greasy haired teens are selling Banh Mi Sandwiches from tarnished food trucks. Two women fly tiger shaped kites in the sky. The sun is rolling across a cluster of clouds, and a small gust of wind pushes the storefronts. Middle-aged men smoke cigarettes and drink Vietnamese iced coffee on brick patios.

I know I am far away from Northern Virginia, but as I ride my scooter I pass by people who look like me. I also feel at home.

I pull alongside the block and park my scooter between a Subaru hatchback and a Toyota sedan. I step onto the sidewalk, blades of grass sprouting out of the cracks of the concrete. Doves whirl in the air, and I think about the one I saw a year ago. I wonder if they’re all in the same family and then I think of my family and feel lightheaded.

An enormous music store is standing on the street corner. It has a shingled roof, tall glass windows, and two flowerpots with white magnolias. I open the wooden door and walk inside.

A grey-haired man wearing a turtleneck and pleated pants is behind a glass counter, holding a red electric guitar in his hands. His face is round and wrinkled. He wears black glasses and a cigarette is tucked behind his ear. Smiling, he says in Vietnamese, “Welcome to Bon’s. I’m Bon. If you need help, just ask. Feel free to look around. Doesn’t cost anything to look, just some of your time.”

Bon strums the strings on his red electric guitar and hums along to the melody he is creating. It feels light, but vibrant, like something Dad would use to play.

“Hi, my name’s Huy. Huy Tran,” I say in Vietnamese.

Bon nods and raises his eyebrow. “Nice to meet you, Huy. How’d you hear about my little store?”

“My dad told me about you. He took lessons from you. And”— I lift the acoustic guitar from my back and placing it on the counter—“you gave him this.”

For a moment, Bon looks shocked and turns quiet. And then he says, “I remember this guitar. Who’s your dad?” Bon touches the fretboard of the guitar.

“Khang Ngyuen.”

Bon turns pale. “I heard what happened. At the Pentagon. Saw the news on TV. He was the only Vietnamese person to die on 9/11? I’m so sorry, Huy. My condolences.”

“I appreciate it. Mr. Bon, my dad looked up to you. But I feel awful, though. I broke a string on his guitar.”

“He was a good man. And here, I’ll take a look.” Bon places his fingers on the broken string and takes in a breath. He looks up at me. “I think I can fix it.”


“Yup, it’ll take a few minutes. But I can fix it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bon.”

“Please, call me Bon.”

I watch as Bon loosens the tension of each string with a tuning key. Unwinding the broken string from the guitar, he removes the bridge pins from out of the bridge. He faces the groove of a bridge pin toward the guitar’s sound hole and slides the pin into the hole together with the new string. Then he pulls on the new string and pushes the pin through the hole and into place. He tightens the new string through the tuning post and pulls on it, towards the bridge. After he is done, Bon tightens the rest of the strings, stretching them to make sure they are all set. Then, he tunes the guitar, playing each string one at a time and making adjustments slowly. With a wire-cutter, he cuts the excess strings. He hands me the guitar and grins. “Try it now.”

I hold the guitar and strum it lightly. I play a chord and exhale, feeling at peace. “Bon, you’re amazing. I can’t believe you fixed it. How much do I owe you?”

Bon shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. He takes his cigarette from his ear and lights it. As he smokes, Bon reaches into his pants pocket and snags out his pack. He gives me a cigarette. It is a red. I remember smoking reds with Mom the day after day died and I get all emotional in the store.

I stare at the cigarette in his hand, and I remember how Dad would smoke after dinner, out on the back deck, plumes swirling around his bright face. I miss him. I wish he was still here.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I assumed you smoked.”

“I do. Thanks,” I say, taking the cigarette from his hand. I pick up a lighter from the counter and light it, smoke rising from my lips. I breathe in and out, then take another drag and feel calm again.

We sit there, in the store, smoking our cigarettes. And when we’re finished, we smoke a second one. On the third cigarette, I pick up Dad’s guitar and run my fingers across the strings. I play a chord, then another, as the smoke fills up the room.

A month later, I fly back to Northern Virginia and the first thing I do is go to Dad’s grave, in Arlington cemetery. I wear a black dress shirt, black pants, and black shoes. I carry the guitar on my back, a bouquet of white magnolias in my hand. The cemetery is empty. The sun has disappeared under the clouds, and a light rain is falling on the ground.

When I reach Dad’s grave, I start shaking. I place the magnolias besides his tombstone, reach into my shirt pocket and grab out a pack of reds. I place it beside the magnolias. And then I take the guitar out of its case, sling the strap over my shoulder, and strum a song. I stand there in front of Dad’s grave, playing music. And even though it is humid, I feel cold. It’s a cold I’ve never felt before, but I know it somehow—if that makes any sense.

I finish strumming the strings, and suddenly it is humid again. Cloyingly warm. I can’t explain what I’m experiencing, because I don’t believe in ghosts, in spirits, or the supernatural. But I do believe that what I feel is something extraordinary, something like going back home. When I am walking away from the cemetery, I hear a voice say, Huy.

I turn around.

There’s a dove flying.


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