Oliver has just emerged from the Metropole’s air-conditioned lobby and already Hanoi’s damp envelops him. Beneath his shirt, sweat trickles. With a handkerchief he blots his forehead, but it’s unstoppable.
Unstoppable, too, are the boys who accost him each time he leaves the hotel.
“Buy from me,” they shout.
Postcards. Pirated copies of The Sorrow of War, The Quiet American. He once thought of them as entrepreneurs, but now he knows that the boss operates nearby, doling out inventory, collecting receipts. It’s big business, Dickensian.
He waves the boys off and crosses the street, dodging cyclists and motorbikes. His negotiations with the Ministry finished for this trip, he can relax and reflect before flying home tomorrow. He passes behind the Post Office and joins the crowd strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake’s appeal to the locals puzzles him. Litter mars its surface. Shore trees are stunted. A crumbling pagoda occupies a tiny, lifeless island. Each breeze carries the smell of sewage and decay.
More of the postcard brigade assail him and now there are boys with shoeshine kits. He points to his sneakers and shakes his head, but the boys are relentless.
The heat and damp are finally too much and he claims an empty bench. The black water ripples under a hot breeze. His eyes close. His mind drifts to a dark childhood lake, an unexplained accident.
When he opens his eyes he has company, a woman with a swaddled baby. As if on cue, the baby shrieks. He knows the trick: the woman’s hand inside the blanket has pinched the child to draw sympathy and cash. He’s not heartless, but there’s nothing he can do for her, or for the boys who still hover. A fistful of cash will not help. He’s seen it all, wherever he goes, the beggars and the whores and the boys. What the country needs, he alone cannot provide.
The woman shouts over the baby’s cries. She holds out one hand while the other pinches again, screams renewed. He turns away, but she grabs his arm. She lifts the baby and swings it in the direction of the lake. She holds out her hand again, and when he doesn’t move she points to the lake, swinging the baby over the water.
Oliver understands what she intends, knows the bluff. But he knows, too, that poverty here is beyond crushing. It obliterates. What if this woman isn’t a con? What if she’s come to the point where there is no choice: money, or they both die.
The woman shouts again and swings the baby in an arc that will land it in the lake, beyond reach. Oliver imagines the bundle taking on water, sinking, its cries silenced. In the water he sees the placid faces of the baby and his drowned brother. And in the instant before the woman might let go, he leaps, wraps his arms around her and the howling child, and the three of them sink to the hot, hard ground.