The Occupied Heart

De raised his left wrist, felt for the button on the watch, pressed. 2:39 glowed green. He listened for the two drivers’ sleeping breaths. Keng came in drunk, maybe he’ll sleep right through it. —Give the boys the night off, De had asked the new night duty office —Who needs three drivers on the first night of Tet? I offer my humble self in their place. No, rules are rules. Rumors of trouble. Extra guard on the roof. I tried, Keng. Snore through it; when it’s over, go home to your six kids. De slipped from bed like a child, fully clothed, cracked open the door, squeezed through. Parking lot lights not too bright. Chancery building dark with spots of dim fluorescence: three guards in the lobby, three CIA, two communications clerks, duty officer on the fourth floor. Can’t stop shaking, rub hands. MP on roof probably only one with an M-16. Piece of Tet cake. Some warrior, me. His skin rippled. Time? Green glow: 2:42. Three gates to the compound. Front gate locked. Police mice no problem. Side gate, no way out. Field of vision, field of fire: parking lot, roof of villa, rear of Chancery, side gate. No matter what, I won’t kill the drivers. Can’t. Not even if they point me out. Can’t do it. Inside the corner villa, Col. Jacobson and the new guy, unarmed. Don’t need weapons in Saigon, Jacobson said, there’s no war here. They can’t see what they don’t understand. Jacobson been here 10-12 years, Old Saigon Hand, still doesn’t understand political war, doesn’t see it, in his face, up his nose like rotting garbage, battles on every block around him, but noiseless, no rockets, therefore no war. Americans. He touched his watch, it glowed 2:45. Amazing what Americans don’t see. Got the shakes, the willies.

At the first burst, he thought, more fireworks. Second -- inescapably automatic weapons in the street, beyond the side gate wall. Third burst, De dropped the car keys on the asphalt by the door, knelt, scrabbled on the ground, found them, kept his eyes on the side gate 50 yards away, sorted out the trunk key by touch. Two MP helmets scrambled under the half-raised steel gate, Dast and Sebring; heard them fumble with the chain as he had with the keys. Total silence, as if that were it; there would be no more. White mice must have scurried to the precinct station. Lights flicking on and off inside the Chancery, men finding their shoes, shorts, sidearms.

Fearful whisper behind him from the room. Cam. “What the fuck’s goin on?”

“Stay inside.” As he said inside, a slam against their ears, the air shattering dark around them. De swayed, Cam buckled against the doorframe. Stupified silence. Cam whimpering. Muzzle flashes from MPs at the side gate, answering fire inside the compound near the Chancery. They’re in. We're in.

He reached the limo, scratched the key in the lock, sprung the trunk, holy jesus mother of fuck the trunk light, I forgot the light went on, ducked into the trunk, heaved the rolled rug to the asphalt, slammed the lid. No one saw. No more shooting at the side gate. Unrolled the AK, four clips, from the rug.

Rapid footsteps to his left. MP helmet headed toward the Chancery from the back gate, who? Sergeant Harper, must have gone for coffee, and me with an unloaded gun. He shoved a clip in, clicked it, pushed the other clips and rug beneath the car. Harper had disappeared. Five quick pistol shots from the Chancery roof. That’s all he’s got up there, a pistol. Check on the drivers.

They were on Keng’s bunk, Keng in underwear, Cam struggling with shoes. Cam saw him come in, “Don’t kill us please don’t kill us,” on his knees begging.

“Get under the beds.”

“Please, please, I never hurt you. I never did anything.”

Keng, drunk as a clown: “That’s Banjo, Cam, he’s your friend.”

“He’s VC, VC.”

“I’m not VC.”

“He’s got a gun, Keng, he’s gonna kill us.”

“Banjo, what you got the gun?”

“Get under the bed, guys, under the bed.”

“Don’t kill me.”

Now Keng was worried. “Whad you do?”

“Get under your beds and stay there. I’ll protect you.”

“You’re VC, you can’t protect us. I love VC. Love VC. I’m one too. Secret, very secret.”

“You’re not VC, Cam,” said Keng, “too chicken. You don’t scare me, De. I don’t care, kill me, it don’t matter.”

On the street in front of the Chancery, tires, brakes, the rattle and whine of an AK, yells, silence. Sniper across the Boulevard, in the apartment I rented.

“Stay under your beds,” De hissed. “Don’t show your faces. Don’t be brave. Americans see you, think you’re VC. Get down!” He smelled shit. Cam in his pants. “I’m on your side.”

Keng: “I don have a side, Banjo.”

“Ok, no side, I’m on it.”

“Thass my Banjo. Under the bed. Going.”

2:56 gleamed green. Wish I could lock them in.

Double-explosions bamBAMbamBAM. Rocket launchers against the Chancery doors. De ran along the side wall to the Chancery front yard, hunched over like they do in movies, past the flower tubs, shouting in a whisper comrades, comrades, almost tripped on a kid steadying his RPG on a flower tub rim. Not Bay or Ut. “Where’s the unit leaders?” he asked. Faint light leaked through a hole punched in the heavy teak Chancery doors.



“At the hole.”


“Dead. Yankees too.” Dast and Sebring.

“What’s your orders?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who knows?”

“They’re dead.” A fact.

“Who knows the orders?” A soldier rose to a crouch five feet from De’s face, pulled the pin from a hand grenade, pitched it behind him over the wall into Thong Nhut Boulevard, waited for it to explode, said, “Bay and Ut.”

“Fuck! You got C-4?”

“20 kilos.”

“Blow the front doors. There’s only three four guys in there.”

“You’re not our leader.”

Tough kids. Men. I’ll say that.

“I work here,” De said, “I know the joint. They got piss.” He used street slang as if that would establish his authenticity. “Ok. Do what you want in front. There’s a back gate open. Give me five six guys, couple RPGs. Gate goes to the consulate buildings. Lotta Marine MPs. They’ll come through there. Please. I’ll show em where.”

“Xa,” the kid yelled into the dark.


“You know about a back gate?”

“Yeah, they said secure it.”

Xa yelled five names. Faces, backpacks, AKs floated out of the dark. “Go with him.”

3:10. Pistol shots near the back gate as they turned the corner of the Chancery running for the parking lot. In the aura of the parking lot light, he saw someone on the ground between two cars, moaning. The soldiers took positions behind and between cars. De pointed them toward the gate, crawled to the figure. Keng.

“I told you to say inside.”

“Need a doctor.”

“We don’t have a doctor.”

“Fuck you. This is your fuckin.”

“Crawl under the car. Stay there. I’m sorry, Keng.”

“I don wanna — ”


“— die.”

A soldier shot out the parking lot lamp. I should have done that. They wouldn’t have seen Keng. Muzzle flash and crack from the roof of the consulate beyond the rear wall. Barrage returned from the parking lot, sound of a body sliding down the roof, thud against the ground. How’d they get him? See in the dark.

American voices behind the rear wall, heavyset shape running past the gate, I'm getting the hang of seeing in the dark, a burst too late from the soldier to his right; his AK braced on the car hood chipped sparks from the steel gate bars.

“There’s a roof behind us,” he whispered to the man, “Roofs all around.” The man grunted.

A dull explosion (inside the Chancery?). Another. The chink-whine of bullets into steel. Americans trying to shoot the lock off from outside. Dast and Sebring locked it, died. We’re inside; Americans blocked by their own security. Dialectics.

Four pistol shots smashed the car window, thudded into the passenger side of the door he was outside. He dropped to the ground, the kid returned fire. I haven’t fired once. “Get up, comrade,” the kid said sarcastically.

“How do you know what direction?”

“If they shoot you in the face they’re in front of you. Cover the gate. Don’t hide.” The soldier moved right, disappeared.

You’d think they’d throw grenades in at us over the wall. Must not have any. He bit into a smile. From the east the whumpwhump of a helicopter. Spray us from a Huey, we don’t stand a chance. Whumpwhumpwhump overhead now, veering northwest toward Tan Son Nhut, didn’t stop for a look. The loudest noise the muffled roar of airconditioners on the Chancery roof. Are we winning?

3:30 and as though the green light of his watch were a signal, a rush of men at the rear gate, slam of shots from the roof beyond. Shoot, shoot. He aimed at the gate, closed his eyes, yanked the trigger, the gun jumped to heaven. Opened his eyes. Crossfire at right angles tore at the gate and the MPs. Short bursts, De. He aimed above the gate at the roof tops, heard tiles crack. Figures pulling back, dragging one.

Calls. Someone hurt on our side. Two soldiers caught by a Marine with an M60 at the gate, others behind. From De’s left an RPG ripped the steel bars, blew off a hinge, skewed the gate at a twisted angle. Behind it, helmets dropping, big men in retreat. Another rocket grenade burst against the wall. Marine with the M60 down.

Out of ammo. I’m not running away, I’m getting ammo. He stumbled sideways toward the Mercedes, pulled out the blanket, unrolled the clips, stuffed them in his pockets. No more coming back.

“Keng,” he whispered. No answer.

Men fired, but he couldn’t see any. Guns shooting at guns. He looked for shapes on the walls, roofs, but the roofs were black, blank against the stars. The air went empty. 3:55. He felt men around him moving. “What’s happening?” he asked a figure.

“Front of the embassy. Men shot. Leaving two with you and a RPG.”

“To cover the only open gate?” But the soldier was gone.

“Where is everybody?” he whispered. Someone answered beside a blue Buick. He duckwalked to the voice. He knew the guy. Taxidriver in Cholon.

“You’re the Embassy guy,” the man said, talking but not looking, scanning the humps of cars, blackness of roofs. “Tam.”


“I think we scared em off the gate.”

They heard firing beyond the rear wall in the direction of the Precinct Station. Yelling in English: Americans! Americans, you fuckers! Don’t shoot! More firing.

“Who’s shooting at them?”

“Sounds like Canh Sats,” said Tam.

“At the Americans? Those cowards?”

“Everyone’s on our side.”

“Not the Mice.”

“Everyone.” Tam believed it. De would not dispute such doubtlessness.

For the next hour, Tam’s certainty seemed true. They heard people outside shooting at other people outside, shooting over the embassy, shooting around the embassy, voices, shooting, jeep engines, shooting, silence, shooting. What does it look like from the Caravelle? Tam said three battalions were attacking Westmoreland’s headquarters at Tan Son Nhut. He had a cousin, a rubber worker, in one. Will we get reinforcements? Tam didn’t know. Were they killing horses at the race track he didn’t ask. Come morning they’ll mow us down with helicopters. That’s not the right attitude, said Tam. Either we’ll be reinforced or. Or, said De.

He meditated on the nature of suicide missions, those in which the partipants were aware and those in which they were not, on whether a suicide mission was possible if symbolism was not in some way involved, and how he was not in a physical compound at all but at the heart of a symbol, on whether they were surrounded and doomed and would never see noon of the second day or would emerge in the morning, minds hollow and loopy, into a liberated Saigon.

Two parking lot soldiers were wounded, one in the left shoulder. Tam tied him with strips of the blanket from De’s limo. The other man’s left ear had been torn away. He bled slowly but continuously and was concussed but conscious. A third was dead, De was told; he did not go near. The dead man had brought chocolate bars, which they ate. They were trained sappers, proud of their skills. To his question about a withdrawal plan, the soldier with concussion answered, you blow your way in, you don’t blow your way out, which almost made sense.

At five AM the sky lit up in a display of flares, red, white, green, whatever the Americans had, rocketing over three walls into the sky like a stage show, special Tet presentation to you troops on the grounds. A massive American helicopter, lights flashing, pondered in, held above the landing pad on the Chancery roof like a space ship. De hit the parking lot pavement with the others, stared at the show of airborne power, and opened up. The copter stood in the air, bullets chinging sparks off it, thudding. A misaimed RPG round blew out a row of fifth floor Chancery windows. Tam tossed clips to the others, they slammed them in, knocked them out, until the giant rotors tipped, the copter wobbled, veered, turned east toward the river, whmpd into the dark.

De cheered and a round slammed past his face.

Chauffeur,” said Tam, “no cheering.” But they had driven the copter off, this broken platoon.

He lay with Tam under a car, smoked.

5:38. False dawn, dawn without light from the sun. Shadows took on bulk, a chimney was or was not a Marine, smoke a figure, noises a movement. The enemy won’t attack until light breaks. Half of us dead or wounded: men of C-10 Battalion, People’s Liberation Armed Forces, this ad hoc platoon of stolid workers doing their job. Not afraid to die, resigned to death, have already died, or hold unreasonable hope. I always thought Victory Or Death was a slogan, not a situation. Now we have to win in order not to die. They have accepted me, call me chauffeur, in French, with humor and respect for my working class privilege, former privilege. They think my standing with the Americans, my Banjoism, is a happy cruel joke on the Americans, but underneath, they know it is also a sad cruel joke on me, which I have accepted, butt of my own gag.

Pre-dawn seeped out of the ground and walls into the sky, producing random shots. Keep us down, test our responses. They haven’t found the hole in the front wall, or are afraid to try. I should check on Cam, make sure he stayed inside. Tam said he’d cover.

The two men rose to a crouch between cars. De turned to make sure Tam was ready, Tam nodded, there was a crack like a club against a brick, and Tam’s face exploded outward, his face split and erupted, his face widened, a geyser of blood and fragments. For a fraction of time he stood faceless then dropped like a sack on a pallet on the docks. De fired blind at the space behind him. Something hit him like the whack of a baseball bat in the thigh; he kept firing.

A moment later, a bullet from a .45 automatic entered Tran Van De’s chest at an angle between the second and third ribs on the left, ricocheted as it struck the third rib, thus by pure happenchance gouging away that sector of his heart occupied by American power, leaving him wholly Vietnamese and dead.