Agent Orange


The idiot boy waiter with a shock of bowel-cut black hair surprised us like Mr. Spock beaming up at our table. He first asked if we were German, then showed off his discolored teeth resembling winter corn crammed into the mouth of a scarecrow.
When I reluctantly admitted “American,” the slimy salamander smile slid off his face abruptly--closed like a hooker’s smile. Dramatically, he announced with a piping castrato voice, “Spring roll with nuoc mam!!!”
What’s that? I thought. At least it wasn’t one of those icky evil snakes languishing in ghastly sideshow solutions within large jars on the bamboo bar.
I craned my neck to thank him. But I was startled, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, by the fact that the Vietnamese waiter was a midget.
In the Graham Greene “Quiet American” gloom of the café, I was sitting next to a tall confident guy with curly black hair who had identified himself matter-of-factly as CIA. (Did he mean “Culinary Institute of America”?) He commented, “Man, when you think your life sucks, it could be a thousand times worse. . . .” He took a long lingering sip of his imported Carlsberg beer. “You could have ended up a frigging midget!”
Uproarious laughter.
“Agent Orange must have stunted his growth,” was his informed finding.
“Careful, he might hear you,” I said sotto voce, looking around uneasily. Vietnamese spies, I imagined, were everywhere. I’d heard stories of waiters (no matter their size) “spiking” the food of travelers they didn’t like. Even though I’d stopped taking the antimalarial Larium, which was causing me to see delusional sepia dragons and spaceships in the sky, resembling the lame water puppet shows in Hanoi, I wasn’t feeling too chipper. I was subject to the occasional delusion here in the Indochinese former imperial city of Hué.
This was the place where I did not want to be.
“Mo beer?” the Lilliputian waiter asked again.
“Actually, I’d like a Coke?” I responded.
“No Cock!”
“What what?”
“No Cock, Fanta!”
Eventually the dastardly dwarf brought out a bottle of Fanta Orange to the table along with the piece of resistance—some stew resembling cannibalism, accompanied by sticky rice.
This restaurant hadn’t made the Lonely Planet guide. But it was a good place to meet other travelers. And face it: let’s be honest: we’d much rather sit around and swap tall tales with other travelers, than squander hours making spastic sign language with poor ignorant villagers just to get across what country we are from: “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Rambo.” Get the picture?
The animated CIA agent ordered another round of Carlsberg beers for us and began discursing humorously about the midget-tossing contests they had in Great Britain.
I commented on how that didn’t seem very humane, keeping an eye out for the rascally runt, whom we’d dubbed “Agent Orange.” The little lad reappeared briefly, eyes glinting like sudsy cutlery, asking, “Mo beer, mo beer???”
“Oh,” I added quickly, “I went to the Royal Palace today.” I wanted to change the subject. “In my guidebook it says that here in Hué, the palace used to be a forbidden zone. All male intruders to the palace were castrated in the past, and only eunuchs were allowed around the emporer’s wives.”
“Man, that sucks!” the CIA guy commiserated. “I think I’d rather be a midget than a eunuch.”
“Me, too.”
Once again the little guy came around: “You want Fu__?” This soup which sounded like a come-on swear word was the Indochinese pronunciation of pho, Vietnam’s signature dish, which isn’t much: just a bowl of scalding hot water in which weird stuff (usually “meat)” is dropped.
Like the protagonist of a Per Lagerkvist novel, Agent Orange walked off with an evil grimace, eyes embers.
I imagined in the kitchen among the short-order cooks, Agent Orange (a.k.a., “Baby Hué”), the vertically challenged waiter, plotting his dark dream of revenge against the big people who had made fun of him. Carefully, he cackled with evident hilarity and surreptitiously added a secret ingredient from a phial to our pho.
I was flat on my back for the next three days. I would not recommend this restaurant. Anyway, I’ve forgotten the name and it might not be there anymore.

J M Edwards

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