The Coward's Purple Heart
Trang Vance walked into my office at seven on July 3rd. Seven is my quiet time when I can sip coffee and actually read my e-mails – during the day the best I can do is scan them for catastrophes. I was shooting for the three o'clock ferry, which I try for every holiday eve but never make. In Human Resources the day before a holiday is the worst. Seems like there's always an employee returning from lunch staggering drunk or a pain in the ass manager who wants to fire someone who fits into three or four "protected categories" under the anti-discrimination laws. So when Trang appeared, I assumed it was starting already. I pretended not to notice him and kept on reading my e-mails. Maybe he'd get the hint and go away. Maybe I'd win the Mega Millions jackpot.
"Tony's out to get me," he said. In HR this is not exactly an unusual way for a conversation to open so I kept on reading. "So's Phil. It's gotta stop," he said.
Trang worked in Systems for Tony Marino who reported to Phil Jacobs, the head of Systems. I doubted that Phil even knew who Trang Vance was, but I did not say that of course. I also knew that Tony had put Trang on the last layoff list before I removed him, and I was guessing that Trang had found this out.
"What's the problem, Trang?" I continued to scan my e-mails for A-bombs. You have to multi-task in my line of work or you'll be toast.
"I'm tired of their racist comments. Last night they called me a gook. They said they're going to get rid of Trang the gook."
"Who said that, Trang?" I swiveled my chair around to face him. He looked sick. Hunched over in the chair, sweaty forehead, clothes wrinkled like he had slept in them.
"Tony and Phil call me gook. I can hear them."
Trang was from Vietnam originally but his adoptive parents had raised him in California. Amerasian is what he called himself on his employment application. His biological mother was Vietnamese and his father was an American G.I., he said when I met with him on the day he was hired. If Trang had not blurted this out to me, I would have thought he was just another kid from California and forgotten all about him. But having served in Vietnam the year before he was born, and having visited as many short time girls as any other scared silly American teenager there, I tried to look out for him.
I knew Tony and Phil, and I doubted they would call anyone a gook. But one thing you learn in HR is that everyone has a dark side. Sometimes that's all they have, and then it's easy to figure things out. Mostly it just peeks out from time to time. But some don't show it at all until it erupts, and then it's bad. So I never take anything for granted.
"You're talking about Phil Jacobs and Tony Marino?" I said.
"Yeah. They were saying it's karma like they know what that means. It's karma. We have to get rid of Trang because it's karma."
"And you heard them call you a gook'?"
"Where did this happen?"
"They were in Tony's office."
"When was this?"
"Last night, this morning, I could hear them clear as day. They said I was a crook, that I steal things, and that's a lie. It's karma they said. Cause and effect. Action reaction."
"I thought they called you a gook?"
"They called me worse than that. Ho Chi Minh, Lyndon Johnson, karma chameleon . . . ." "I don't understand, Trang. Where were you when you heard them call you a gook?"
"This morning in my office."
"Is your office next to Tony's?"
"It's around the corner. But I could hear them. They said I was stealing from the government, that I was spy. It's all lies."
What the hell is going on here, I thought. None of this is making sense. Is he yanking my chain?
"I could hear them calling me a gook. They were laughing at me. Last night Tony said he hired a hit man. To kill me. He's friends with the mafia. They all know him. They're doing it for him as a favor. Trang the gook, Trang the gook, Trang the gook, they were all chanting it."
Trang was rocking in the chair, staring at the floor and hugging his chest. Something was very wrong here.
"How are you feeling, Trang?"
"What's that got to do with it? They called me a gook spy and threatened to kill me. I want them arrested right now. Or else."
"Or else what?"
"They'll see what karma means. And that's all I'm going to say because they can hear us."
"Who can hear us?"
"Phil and Tony and the others. They're talking about me now. Maybe I shouldn't have come here. They're on to me now."
"How do you know they're talking about you now?"
"Can't you hear them?"
"Phil and Tony. They're chanting it now. Trang the gook. Trang the gook. Trang the gook. Listen."
The way he said it, like he really thought I heard the voices, made the hair on the back of neck stand up. Our offices are on the corner of John Street and Broadway about two blocks up from where the World Trade Center used to be. In the nine months since 9/11, I had spent a lot of time trying to help distressed employees cope. You don't get that close to hell and not show it. But a full blown psychotic episode with hallucinations and delusions — this was a first for me.
"I can't hear them, Trang, but that's okay. I believe you hear them. Maybe you should get some rest while I look into this. Why don't we walk over to the nurse's office across the hall? You can rest there while I sort this out. Does that sound like a plan?"
"We have to hurry. I have to stop them before the hit man gets here. He's CIA. The mafia use him all the time and he never fails. They put something in my head so they can control me. It's shaped like a palm tree."
"Okay," I said. "Come on. Let's take a walk."
Joan was in, thank god. We got Trang settled on a couch, and I briefed her outside her office. But as we were talking, Trang came out of the office and ran down to the elevator bank. "I'm going to make them stop," he shouted. Joan went back to her office to call an ambulance, and I went after Trang, but by the time I got to the elevators he was gone.
I went to Tony's office first. He hadn't seen Trang. I put our head of security, Tom Higgins, on the box, and after I briefed him, he agreed to send people up to find Trang. Higgins said he'd call NYPD too just in case.
"Just in case what?" I said.
"Did you see a weapon?"
"A weapon? No. But I wasn't really looking for one."
I turned to Tony and asked if he knew whether Trang carried a weapon.
"Just the knife," he said.
I put Tony down for a major HR beat down after we got through this. How could a manager let his employee walk around with a knife?
"What kind of knife," Higgins said.
"Switchblade. He said it made him feel more secure after 9/11. He only opened it once to show me. After all that happened, I didn't think it was a big deal. And it seemed to calm him down."
"I'll be up there after I set everything up," Higgins said. "Meantime, I would lock your door and not let him in if he shows."
"How big was the blade?" I asked Tony.
"Oh about yay big." Tony held his hands about six inches apart.
"You said the knife seemed to calm him down," I said. "What was his mood like before the knife?"
"He seemed agitated, restless. When he came back to work after 9/11, he spent most of his time wandering around. At one point he was just pacing up and down the hallway. I didn't make too much of it because everyone was so stressed out. I remember he came to me and said something about he couldn't get any work done in his office because it was too loud. He could hear people talking in other offices or something. Then one day he came in with the knife, and he was much calmer. He stayed in his office all the time after that with the door locked. You know if we had gotten rid of him during the last round of layoffs like I wanted to, none of this would have happened. I'm just saying."
"We didn't let him go," I said, "because you couldn't articulate a reason for letting him go. Has Trang ever threatened you or anyone else in the firm?"
"What does that mean?"
"He's always been a little funny," Tony said. "Like yesterday. He came up to me in the cafeteria and said something about being able to hear me and Phil talk about him. He wasn't making a lot of sense, you know? He said something about gooks or crooks, and he wasn't going to put up with it. Then he wandered away. Anyone else I might have called him on it. But he's always been a little weird."
As I walked away I heard Tony pushing his desk against the door, which right there captured Tony's management style.
Trang was sitting in his office looking at a pistol on his desk. A black stainless steel Smith & Wesson M1911 — the same model I had in Vietnam in 1968. I should have backed out of the office and called security, but I didn't. My bad.
"Hey Trang. What's going on?" I walked up to his desk. To the extent I had a plan, it was to get the pistol from him before he did something stupid.
"They won't stop," he said.
"The police are coming to arrest them, Trang. They'll be here any minute. So just sit tight until they get here, okay?" Every time I went into someone's office after 9/11, I found myself checking to see if they had a view of the space where the Trade Center had once been. He must have seen me glancing out his window, and he started talking about it. Everyone had their own stories of that day, and we traded them as if we were trying to figure out what it all meant. I know about the terrorist stuff and all that, and I hope they nuke Bin Laden. But we were looking for something else when we told our stories. It was as if we were trying to slice the horror up into wafers, like the hosts the priest distributes at mass, and share them with each other so we could even up the load and get on with our lives.
"I saw them, you know," Trang said. "They dropped from the towers like little toy soldiers. And one of them was on fire. Like a Buddhist monk. They told me about Tony and Phil on the way down. Now they won't stop. They won't leave me alone. It's out of my hands."
"I got you covered, Trang. The police'll be here any minute. They'll take care of it for you. Hey, cool gun. I didn't know you had one. Where'd you get it?"
"E-bay. It's my father's. My real father. I could tell when I saw it online, and then he left me a message in the box that people here wanted to kill me, that I should use the gun to stop them."
"You mind if I take a look at it?"
He picked it up and said something about God telling him who I was and then he reached across the desk to hand it to me. I saw he was holding it by the handle and his finger was on the trigger and I grabbed the barrel and fell to the side, and there was a really loud sound, and I was on the floor of his office wondering if I was dead yet, and there was a pain in my side, and my hand was burning because I was still holding the barrel and it was hot.
I was shot once before — in Vietnam. I wish I could say I got it humping down a jungle trail on patrol, but the truth is I was stationed in Saigon and shuffled motor pool paperwork for my entire tour. But I could not have been more afraid if I had been on active combat duty. I was a coward. I lived in fear of the Viet Cong every minute spent outside our compound, and in the compound I lived in fear of being transferred to infantry. But in February 1968 the war came to me. A group of Viet Cong infiltrated our compound during the Tet Offensive. I was alone in my office at the time, heard automatic gun fire and searched frantically for the service pistol in my desk drawer, praying that it was loaded and that I would not need to use it. When I looked up a Vietnamese teenager in shorts and an open shirt was lifting an AK47 into firing position in the doorway, and I dropped to the floor just as he sprayed the desk and the wall behind me. All those shots and I was hit only once — in the left elbow. While he was tearing the desk and the wall apart, I held the pistol over the top of my desk with my right hand and fired it toward the doorway until it was empty. It felt like a pathetic gesture. Something a little kid would do in a game of guns. It got quiet then, and I knew I was going to die. I knew he was sneaking around the desk to finish me, and I could not reload because my clips were in the filing cabinet by the door so I was dead. I held my bloody elbow and wept and waited and heard gunfire in other parts of the building. Could he have left me for dead? I peeked around the side of the desk and saw the boy lying sideways on the floor with his eyes staring in shock in a spreading pool of dark red with an angry dot in the middle of his bare chest. The odds of my getting off another shot like that were a billion to one, but one was all it took to get me out of Vietnam alive. His feet were still in the doorway so I pulled him inside, gently closed the door and turned off the lights. If any more VC ran by, I didn't want them to notice me. I reloaded my pistol from the file cabinet and shoved spare clips in my pockets; I took his assault rifle, even though I had never used one before and was not sure how to fire it. I should have gone out then to help defend the compound and my buddies, but instead I tip-toed over to the desk and hid underneath it. And for being a coward I got a purple heart and a commendation for bravery that I threw off the Verrazano Bridge when I got home to Staten Island, and what I was left with was the boy's eyes staring at me in disbelief. I saw them in my dreams for years afterwards. To this day I can still see him staring at me, as if he's trying to tell me how unfair life is – how he trained hard for his mission and displayed incredible valor and fought for what he believed in while a pampered American paper pusher hid behind his desk like a coward and still killed the heroic boy warrior.
I was bleeding but when I pulled up my shirt, I saw that the bullet had merely torn a small chunk of flesh out of my side so I went after Trang. I knew he could not get to Tony in the barricaded office, and then I remembered that Phil got in late because he took his kids to school and may not have heard about Trang yet. Phil's office was on the floor above. I took the back stairs and got there just as Trang was dragging Phil out past his goggle-eyed staff. He had an arm around Phil's shoulders, and the flat side of the knife pressed against Phil's throat.
"Leave me alone," Trang shouted at me. "You're dead." I stopped about five feet away.
"Trang, you have to kill Phil and Tony together. It's the only way to make them stop," I said and moved a little closer.
"What?" Trang said.
"I'll help you, Trang. Here, I'll trade you the gun for the knife. It'll be easier that way." I moved closer and held out the pistol.
"No. You're one of them now. They told me. You're trying to kill me because I'm a gook."
"All right, you keep the knife." I moved still closer as I spoke. "But take Phil down to Tony's office. Then you can kill them all."
Phil moaned, no doubt wondering what he had done to piss me off.
"I have to throw him from the roof," Trang said. "That's what I'm supposed to do. That's the signal for the CIA that the hit is off."
"The roof? You can't get up there. It's locked. Your best bet is to go back to Tony's office." I was now about three feet away, locked on Trang's eyes. Was he deciding whether I was lying? Listening to the voices? Getting ready to slice into Phil's jugular? Assuming there was another bullet in the pistol, I think I could have shot Trang in the head without hitting Phil, but I didn't want to kill Trang. At that moment his life was as precious to me as Phil's or the boy I had killed decades earlier. So I inched toward them and held my right hand out toward the knife very slowly. I got my fingers between the blade and Phil's neck, held the blade tight and then jerked it out of Trang's hand. Trang and Phil both looked shocked, like I had woken them while they were sleepwalking, but I had the knife and the pistol, and this time no one was dead.
Higgins was there then with two of his security guards. He took the pistol and the knife from my hand. I noticed I could not bend some of the fingers on the hand that had grabbed the knife and that a pool was forming on the floor from the blood pouring from my hand and side.
"Christ," he said. "You look like you've been in combat."
"Just in time," I said. "What were you waiting for? To see if I could get myself killed before you got here?"
This time, instead of a medal, I got bawled out by my wife when I awoke in the recovery room following surgery to repair the sliced tendons in my fingers. That plus a stern memo from my boss when I returned to work because I had not followed the proper protocol in dealing with an incident of workplace violence. The fact that my pal Higgins complained to senior management that I had endangered the lives of employees by not allowing him to handle the situation may have had something to do with the warning memo. And Phil Jacobs had me transferred to another division because he said my presence exacerbated his post traumatic stress syndrome caused by the incident. And you know what? I was fine with all that. In fact, I preferred it that way.
by Michael Enright
... who is a student of military history, and most recently has had fiction published by Lamoille Lamentations, Thieves Jargon, and See You Next Tuesday.