blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from The Broken Country:
On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam

It is early afternoon in late April, and Keltin Barney is walking across a parking lot toward the glassed entrance of Smith’s Marketplace. Keltin, a thirty-year-old undergraduate at the University of Utah, is running an errand for his girlfriend, Elizabeth, tasked with buying two new pairs of bicycle tire inserts and a storage unit lock. Located between the university where Keltin studies English and downtown Salt Lake, the Smith’s that Keltin has chosen is the city’s most popular megastore, selling everything from electronics to sushi, cheap produce to children’s shoes. The store is full today and customers flow steadily through the parking lot: mothers with angry toddlers, groups of teens, young men and women off work from a nearby construction site, the occasionally flush panhandler. On the store’s grassy parking strip, several feet from the entrance, a homeless man sits cross-legged, a Smith’s grocery cart beside him stacked with garbage sacks of clothing, a cardboard sign in his hand that reads, “Veteran. Please help.”

The late afternoon sun is fierce. The cool noon temperature has slowly heated up under a thick bank of clouds that trap the sun but block any breeze, turning the air into a muggy broth. Salt Lake is 4,300 feet above sea level: the city’s thin air and intense sun mean that even on a mildly warm day a person can begin to feel slow roasted. Keltin is fair skinned and strawberry blond. He has lashes so pale they look white against his blue eyes, and his skin has already begun to pink. He squints into the glare off the rows of car windshields, the bank of glass that lines the entrance to the store. To his right, a line of cars glides through the Wendy’s drive-thru. He has just reached the entrance to the store when he realizes he’s forgotten the list Elizabeth drew up for him. Unsure what size tubes to purchase, he takes out his phone, dials his girlfriend, and walks back to his car.

It isn’t until he’s reaching for the list on the passenger seat that he hears a man’s voice behind him say, “Hey.” Keltin straightens, turns and sees an Asian man around his age wearing a nubbed wool sweater and three thin coats. The man’s face is impassive, his dark eyes blank as a shark’s, but his hair is stiff with grease and dust, the browned skin of his hands seamed with dirt. Keltin has just registered the oddness of the man’s appearance—three jackets and a sweater at the end of April?—when he feels the stranger shove him, pushing hard at the base of his sternum.

Only he hasn’t pushed Keltin. Blood has begun to pump from Keltin’s chest, darkening his shirt and running down his arms, soaking his pants. Keltin can’t feel any pain, but the blood is warm and pulsing, and as the stranger jumps toward him, he instinctively begins to run. He leaps backward, scuttling behind his open car door to put something between himself and this stranger, but the man has begun swinging his fist wildly at Keltin: at his back and sides, at his left arm. Something flashes in the man’s fist. Keltin shouts in surprise, blood rushing in a thick gush from his left arm, until somehow he’s away from his attacker, half dashing, half stumbling toward the glass entrance of the store.

The man is chasing him, or not; Keltin isn’t sure. He’s focused on the entrance to Smith’s: he wants to get someone’s attention, to disappear into the crowd. But though the parking lot is full of shoppers, no one has stepped forward to help, shocked or terrified as they are by Keltin’s incoherent shouts, which is when he realizes he’s still holding his cell phone. His girlfriend, Elizabeth, has heard everything that has just occurred, though she doesn’t understand what she’s hearing.

“I’m stabbed,” he yells, five, thirty incoherent times into the phone, until he’s finally able to make himself understood. “A man just stabbed me!” he shouts at Elizabeth, who is by now screaming herself, begging him to stay put. She works a few blocks away at the Sam Weller’s bookstore in Trolley Square, a quaintly historic, upmarket mini-mall in the city’s old trolley station that just five years earlier underwent a shooting attack by a Bosnian immigrant. It’s a hard run between stores, but a quick drive: she’s already yelling for a coworker to get his car.

Keltin has dropped the phone. He’s staggered into the glassed-in entranceway now at Smith’s, swaying in the cool, air-conditioned antechamber beside a line of shopping carts. People are everywhere, some running past him through the sliding doors to get back into the store, one or two others rushing to the parking lot where he assumes his attacker must be. Keltin stays where he is, looking over his injuries. He’s too stunned to do more than look: he sways on his feet, aware of his attacker’s movements only through the frenzied activity of other shoppers gathered in the lot. People scatter, the crowd opens, and he sees his attacker lunge at a man who, luckily, is close enough to his car that he’s able to use his driver’s side door as a shield before ducking into the driver’s seat, locking the door, and digging out his cell phone. Keltin’s attacker turns and lunges toward another man, someone much taller than him, since Keltin sees the homeless man rear suddenly upward, one arm raised, then plunge the blade into his victim’s eye.

Keltin slides to the floor. Exhaustion throbs through his body. His left arm is a coursing faucet of blood, the dark red pumping out of the crook of his elbow. He puts a hand out to steady himself and feels cold radiating out of the cracked linoleum beneath his fingertips. Taylor Swift’s “Today Was a Fairytale” whines above him. Keltin unloops the belt through his jeans with his right arm and tries to twist it around his left in a makeshift tourniquet. He hears the snick of the interior glass doors slide open and Keltin looks up to see the tall, dark, slightly stooped figure of his classmate, Jeff Nay, loping toward him. Keltin blinks, but is not surprised: this is Salt Lake City after all, a town so small that even when a homeless man tries to kill you, someone you know will wander by to witness it. Jeff’s black hair swings into his face as he bends to touch Keltin, pausing a fraction of a second as he takes in the belt, looped in a weak knot over Keltin’s arm. Keltin holds up an edge of the belt and stammers, “Tourniquet.” Jeff nods, points to the blood, and says, “I think you need to lie down.”

Keltin has lost a lot of blood. Blood streams from his arm, both sides of his torso, the back of his shoulder, his chest, his cheek. The homeless man who attacked him, Kiet Thanh Ly, stabbed him nine times in the space of two minutes. The push Keltin felt while standing by his car was the force of a serrated blade being punched into the base of his sternum, all the way up to the knife’s hilt. Then Ly twisted the knife so that the blade ran parallel to the ground, puncturing bone and tissue but, miraculously, missing all of Keltin’s vital organs. Keltin will wear a large, L-shaped scar on his chest, and he will also have a small, scythe-shaped scar on his left cheek near his nose, exactly at the base of his cheekbone, so that it will look like he is perpetually on the verge of smiling. Ly stabbed both Keltin’s sides in two vicious swipes that scraped the skin up and off his ribs, places on his body which now feel horribly, frighteningly wet to Keltin, as if he were leaking not only blood, but whatever fluids were necessary for his internal organs to survive. It is these wounds that Keltin worries most over, as they are slowly pricking to painful life, the skin of his torso—pushed up by the blade like plaster scraped up by a putty knife—now almost crackling under his T-shirt, though it is his arm that presents the greatest threat. Keltin doesn’t know that the knife has punctured clean through his arm, shearing the radial nerve and scraping the ulna; the scar he will later have looks like a thin coil of pale, pink beads roped around his left elbow cap. It will take two major surgeries to repair the nerves that have been alternately sliced and frayed during the attack, and even then Keltin’s emergency doctor—like Keltin, a former English major, who will joke with Keltin about books in the emergency room just as his mother and girlfriend arrive, tears streaming down their cheeks—will not be sure that Keltin will be able to regain mobility in his hand.

But right now Keltin is lying in a thick wash of his own blood. He can’t move his left arm at all now, and the belt is both slick and sticky. There is no way someone can lose this much blood and survive, he thinks, and so Keltin knows he is going to die. He is sure of it. Jeff’s grim, determined look confirms this, as does the metallic cold that’s now seized one half of his body. He is going to die, and the thought of it is one piercing moment of terror to Keltin, an icy shard that threatens to split him apart, but which, surprisingly, dissolves almost as soon as it penetrates his consciousness. He is going to die, and now a sudden wave of sadness overwhelms him: for Elizabeth, even now rushing toward him in her coworker’s car, and for his mother, grieving right now at the bedside of her younger brother, dying himself from liver failure. Neither of them, Keltin knows, will be able to see him a final time, and neither of them are quite resilient enough, he thinks, to process the shock that will accompany his death. He blinks at the ceiling where Jeff’s face looms. “You told me I was pretty when I looked like a mess,” a girl’s tinny voice croons through the shop speakers. Keltin groans and turns his head to focus on the black wheels of the shopping carts.

Outside, Kiet Thanh Ly, Keltin’s attacker, is surrounded by people who have blocked off his escape. A man behind Ly swings a backpack at his arms and head, trying to knock him out, but Ly quickly lunges at him with the knife. He backs off, but now another stranger rushes in to swing at the back of his head. Ly turns and turns again. The knife he purchased just ten minutes ago from the store, a ten-inch blade he’d had to ask the checkout girl to cut out of its plastic packaging, is slippery. It feels small and useless in his hand, but still the young men around him panic when he shows it to them. One of them drops his pack when Ly slashes, backs away, and starts to run. But other people are using bags now, heavy sacks and purses as weapons. Ly turns, slowed by the weight and layers of his clothing, whirls like a clumsy bear, but he can’t stop all of them. He can’t see all sides at once, all these wide, white mouths and screaming faces. “You killed my people!” he shouts, and the white faces expand; they waver and elongate like stretched putty, their teeth and eyes shivering. “Why did you kill my people?” he moans. From down the block, the screech of sirens echoes toward him.

Suddenly, a large white man materializes with a gun. Ly has seen this man before, jogging purposefully past him to a truck where he reached into the glove compartment. But Ly had turned away then, busy trying to ward off the blows of another stranger who snuck up behind him. Now he sees this man whom he’d let slip by him has a gun; the man has both hands on the handle and has raised the weapon to Ly’s face. The man is telling Ly to drop his knife, to get on the ground. This man must be a soldier. He stands like a soldier. He sounds like a soldier. He is the reason Ly knew he must come and buy a knife. But Ly can’t kill him now. He is being told to get on the ground and Ly shakes his head but complies. He slides to the blacktop. The sun is a hot vise on the back of his neck, and when he looks up, everything is white.

Across the parking lot, Keltin is being loaded into an ambulance. His friend, Jeff, has gone now, melted into the crowd. Another ambulance has picked up the man Keltin thought was stabbed through the eye but was actually stabbed in the left side of his head above his ear, so swiftly that his brain has begun to swell, which will require him to undergo an emergency five-hour craniotomy. The damage will erase his short-term memory and much of his right-side motor function and language skills. The man, Timothy DeJulis, is in his early forties with a wife and two children; he recently received his engineering license and changed jobs. He was at the store to buy his son a birthday present but now will spend the next several months in the hospital and in physical therapy. The brain trauma he sustained will erase his memory of this day, but the attack will return once as a blistering nightmare in which Ly’s black-eyed face swims into focus. He will remember that face clearly from this dream, which will prove inadmissible as evidence in court, so that at the pre-trial hearing he’ll have to sit on the stand, baffled and discomfited, unable to recognize the other victims from the stabbing, to rely on anything more than a scrap of nightmare for a memory.

But for now, everything is a fuzzy, panic-streaked blur for both men, especially for Keltin, who finds that images from his past and present slip by in flashes, bright and articulated as panels in a comic book. He is aware some other narrative is taking place, something that might fuse these thoughts together, but it lingers just outside the edges of his consciousness. Keltin sees Ly’s face: dead-eyed, impassive. Then this changes, and a flash of Elizabeth appears, a smeary bank of glass, then his mother.

Keltin lies back. Paramedics are cutting off his shirt now, replacing the makeshift tourniquet with one of their own. Lightning streaks of pain burn through him as his arm is twisted gently back and forth. The paramedics have propped his arm so that his forearm is raised. It is to keep the blood flow down, they tell him. Keltin feels wet and heavy, like ripped meat. Nothing like this has ever happened to him, he thinks, stunned. “Hold your arm like this,” one of the paramedics reminds him, moving his drooping arm carefully back in place. “Can you tell me your name? Can you tell me what happened?”

Keltin opens his mouth to answer, but then the pain hits him. Keltin, knocked fully into it, begins screaming.  

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