The first Hacket house was off-white and square, with a shallow roof and tall mangy grass in the yard. The block was stuffed and squeezed with cardboard looking shacks that each faded like tired dogs into the dirt. None of the buildings seemed like homes from the looks of things, and I imagined the properties were giant burdens to the owners, and shelters of strange moments and fleeting chaos. We smoked and smoked and smoked before working up the courage to approach the porch.
Wheeler knocked vigorously and someone ran to the door and it sprung open. A small Asian man in high-waisted light jeans and a loose button up shirt squinted into the sun, measuring us carefully.
"Yes? You here for facial? It ten o'clock. Facial at eleven thirty. You come back."
He began to close the door.
Wheeler interjected. "Wait, wait. Sir, we're actually here looking for our friend. You have a daughter named Caitlin? Caitlin Hacket?"
"Yes. Cait? She here. She watch TV. You come in?" He held the door open and we walked into a narrow foyer behind him. He was a short man with a mop of curly black hair that sat just below his ears. He had it slicked towards the back of his head and it bounced lightly while he moved.
"Leave shoes here," he said.
We took off our shoes and followed him around a corner into a living area. The carpet was soft and brown, and yellow patterned wall paper sprung from the level of our toes and up into the low ceiling. A coiling red interlock of waves twisted together, and the paper vines moved against the yellow walls. The oriental furniture looked rich and delicate, and a hodgepodge of couches and dining room chairs formed a semi-circle around a small boxy television. A robust Asian girl sat low in a plush orange chair.
"These your friends, Cait?" her father said.
"Um.. no?" Her voice was full and American, a generation apart from the choppy English of her father.
He stood erect and talked loudly. "You not Cait's friends? You no here for facial! Why you here?"
"Ah Sir, we're actually looking for a different 'Caitlin Hacket.' We came all the way from Chicago to find her. I'm sorry to bother you guys man, but were just looking for our friend." Wheeler's voice was harsh and smoky, and he looked British in the light of the room.
"From Chicago? I live in Chicago once. Ya, I live there ...TEN years ago man!" He held up both hands and all fingers and smiled widely. "Where your friend? She live up here?"
"She used to. She left and we're just trying to find her," I said.
"Okay okay." A loud cell phone rang and he walked away, trailing into a foreign conversation.
"You think that's Japanese?" Wheeler whispered.
"It's Vietnamese, actually," the girl interjected.
"Oh nice," said Wheeler, enthusiastically. "So, Hacket. That's not Vietnamese, right?"
"It's my step mom's last name. She's white." She didn't look at us while she talked, but kept her eyes focused on the TV as she flicked through channels rapidly.
"Ahhh, okay okay. So do you know any other Cait Hackets around here?"
"Nope." She reached down and ate some chips from a bag in the nook of her arm.
Her dad re-entered the room and the two exchanged words in Vietnamese. The conversation became angry and the girl walked away.
"You two want beer? I have Pabst Blue Ribbon? I have Sam Adam?"
We accepted the offer, graciously, and followed the man into the kitchen. "Come, come!" he said.
There was a barber chair in the center of the kitchen floor, and mirrors were placed sporadically on the walls. He opened a can of beer for each of us and we sat down at a metal table in the corner. We introduced ourselves, and the man smiled largely. "I am Tuan," he said.
Tuan told us about his life. He told us about the two-week journey he took from Vietnam to America in 1971. We asked idiotic questions, ignorant and oblivious to this thread of tribulation, to a history we had no concept of.
Wheeler sat erect in his chair. Beads of condensation fell from his PBR and trickled into a cylinder pool on the kitchen table. "That's fucking crazy, man," he said. "That's really fucking crazy. Like, two whole weeks? From fucking Vietnam? It's crazy." His leg tapped lightly on the tile floor, and his eyes scanned Tuan with an edge of fever.
Tuan had a goodness about him that I'd never quite experienced. So many of the people I'd met in my life had fallen flat to me. So many encounters with strangers and acquaintances had never resounded past the moment of formality. Tuan had this heaviness to him that wasn't accompanied by grumbling or tired complaints. He just seemed to be. He told us story after story, some a little lost in translation, some a bit sad, some without having any known point at all.
He told us he had permed his hair since the 80's. He told us his ex-wife was a model in the early 90's and his new wife was a poor cosmetologist. "She's ugly," he said. "But a nice lady." His children were "too American," he said. They didn't understand him and he didn't understand them. He was happy he came here, he said. He'd lived in California and Texas, and Idaho for a short time. He'd divorced his Vietnamese wife in Chicago and moved to Minnesota with Mrs. Hacket and their children.
His youngest daughter was bullied in school and he said that he babied her. "I tell Ginny to do homework? She say- Daddy I love you- and doesn't have to do her homework!" He laughed uproariously in between his stories. "But that's okay," he said. He said that Cait was too fat. She hadn't been that fat before but she's so American, he said. "But that's okay," he repeated.
Tuan was sitting in front of a small square window leading into a fenced in backyard. The sun cast shadows on his face and beamed in to capture dust swimming slowly in the dry air. There was a bird feeder in the yard filled with plants and rain water. The fence around the square plot was high and old looking, and I watched a squirrel balance on the wood grid and bounce playfully in the bright of the sun, disappearing fast into a neighboring lawn. The wholeness of Tuan's voice made each word hold validity that permeated the moment. Even the simplest of his details propelled me into a contemplation of much bigger proportions.
He said that he had a lot of money in Chicago. He'd lost it all in his divorce, which he accepted. "I'm rich, I was rich, I'm poor, I'm rich, I was rich, I'm poor," he said. "The moon changes, but that's okay," he said.
Wheeler asked him more questions about his trip to America.
"We had 1 bowl rice a day on the boat," he told us. "And when you had to take a shit, you leaned over the edge of the boat!" He had a gleaming smile on his face, but it wasn't slightly moronic or arrogant, it was just unburdened, and perhaps innocent.
"People fell in that way! I saw TWO people die," he said. He held up two bold fingers.
"Shit," said Wheeler.
Tuan opened more beers and lined them up on the kitchen table.
"I think about that, man. Dying," said Wheeler. He took a long drink of his PBR and slouched deeper into his chair. "Well, not dying I guess. I just have this fantasy, like, sort of just sneaking out of my skin. Just kind of tip-toeing away from my skin and my bones and my body and stuff. You know? And just floating off as a-- well a blob, or a puff of smoke or whatever. You know what I mean? God that sounds crazy, man. But do you know what I mean? Just sort of escaping. Not into nothingness though- just as me, without... this." He made a circular motion around his body.
Tuan looked thoughtfully at Wheeler for a moment and then burst into a real laugh. I thought about the idea, and I could see a certain appeal in the fantasy. I too, felt somewhat trapped inside my skin sometimes. I hated to agree, but I understood.