Sue Nguyen Sees No Ghosts

Brandon Barrett

Sue Nguyen told me she’s an anomaly in her family. They’d immigrated to San Francisco from Vietnam by way of Singapore. Mother, Father, Anh (later to call herself Sue), sister Diu, Grandmother, and maternal Aunt, all bunched atop each other in a dismal apartment across the street from the deli where Father worked. A hand-to-mouth existence, it would seem, but the real tragedy in Sue’s life was that she saw no ghosts.

The female lineage had been seeing ghosts for generations. Decades of ghosts in the alleys of Hue, later soaring in the skies above Singapore, splashing in the ship’s wake all across the Pacific, skulking about the San Francisco tenement. Grandmother was a particularly accomplished communicator with apparitions, conversing at length with Grandfather every evening, planning the details of tomorrow’s activities. “I will make coffee, you will open the windows,” she murmured. “I will wash the cups, you will bring the paper in.”

Aunt specialized in the infamous: Ngo Dinh Diem came when Aunt called and would answer questions posed to him and was unable to lie, and once she asked Rasputin the secrets of his powers and then fell quiet and withdrew, refusing to speak for three days.

Mother, for the longest time, rarely saw ghosts — mostly quick takes of spectral cats traversing ceilings — until Father passed. At that point the gift blossomed thoroughly in her, and she was visited frequently by skeletal forms wearing white suits. It was not described whether Mother was a reader of Tom Wolfe. The skeletons lived in the apartment in parallel with Mother, drank from wispy cups and slept in invisible beds.

Diu, two years older than Sue, was born simple and learned only rudimentary language, and from age five onwards directed her speech (incomprehensible babble and laughter) exclusively toward individuals not present, leading the family to conclude that Diu saw only ghosts.

But for Sue, not a glimpse. She confided to her father, one time only, her shame at this deficiency. He hugged her and whispered in her ear: Don’t you ever worry about it. You take after me. And he looked at her for a while with love, smiled and seemed ready to cry, and started to say something else. But then Aunt passed through the room and squinted, and that was all he ever said about it. Anyway he died a few weeks later.

With Father gone, her deficit became ever more apparent. It never seemed that Father outright disapproved of discussing the talent, but following his passing the phenomenon shifted from the periphery of their lives right onto center stage. Grandfather’s spirit was now joining them at the dinner table, which he’d never done before. Franklin Roosevelt — via Maternal Aunt — dominated an entire night’s conversation with his postmortem views on the role of modern Vietnam on the world stage. Even Diu’s incessant garble seemed more insistent, awakening the family at night with outbursts of shrieking horror and laughter, alternating in the same breath. And Sue spent less time at home — a place increasingly frenetic with the activity of ghosts she could not see — and more time reading at the library or sitting in the park late into the evening.

Time passed. Sue started high school and found a niche for herself in the world of home economics, cakes and quilting and whatnot, even going so far as to join an unofficial, unfunded Homemakers Club. She’d been invited by a nice pudgy girl named Emily who was timid and shrinking in the way of nice pudgy fourteen-year-old girls the world over, and whom Sue would thank in the dedication of her first cookbook years later. Emily was her first friend, and there was initially a soul-wrenching confusion as to whether Emily was a lesbian or not, or for that matter whether Sue was a lesbian or not. It’s unclear if this ever worked itself out.

Sue and Emily walked to the bus stop from the Homemakers meeting one evening, which had consisted of five adolescent girls deciding that virginity until marriage was a good idea, and Tracy was going to report back as to how vichyssoise is pronounced. They said little on their walk, but finally Emily asked where Sue lived, and offered that she’d like to come by sometime, if that was okay, and they could make some brownies or something, if Sue wanted, or if not then that would be fine too. And Sue said, Yeah, maybe, I’ll let you know, and jumped on the first bus that came by and went fifteen minutes in the wrong direction and cried and wasn’t sure why.

She got home late. The front door was locked and nobody answered, although there was a fair amount of racket from inside. She fumbled for her key and pushed the door open. Diu was rocking on the ground in the living room, pointing at the ceiling and screaming nonsense, syllables drawn out to the very end of her breath. Grandmother paced from the living room into the kitchen and back, looking over her shoulder and crying in Vietnamese: It was your fault, you were never home, what was I supposed to do? Maternal Aunt was scribbling on the living room wall with a pen, stopping every few moments to cock her head and listen for instructions. Mother, unable to live with the ghosts any longer, had slit her wrists hours prior and bled out in the corner of the kitchen.

Sue stood in front of her mother, blood spreading out underneath the body like a shawl, maybe like the one Sue had sewn last week and given to Emily as a gesture of who-knows-what-exactly. Mother’s eyes were open. Grandmother passed by behind Sue every ten seconds, brushing up against her. Sue’s first coherent thought was: maybe now I will see Mother’s ghost. The passage of time has not borne this out.

BRANDON BARRETT is a practicing cardiologist, originally from the Oregon and now living in rural Virginia with his wife and son, writing in his spare time. He has been published in the Literary Review.