Kham Duc

by Bobby Burnett Lee

You’d think living with the ghost of Janis Joplin would be all jangly beads and scratchy singing and slobbery drunk making out on the sofa. It ain’t.

Look at the pictures and see. One kind of Janis has frizzy hair, a cigarette and some bourbon, maybe a nipple poking out, a big-tooth smile you can hear squawking blocks away. The second type is Nam.

I know Janis didn’t do Nam. I’m saying sometimes it’s Nam in her eyes. Scorched huts, cut-off legs and shit. Lumps that used to be babies.

Mostly Janis sits on the sofa we don’t make out on, hunched over to the side, staring out the window.

“Tell me that story,” I say. “That Jimmy Page story.”

“I have to?”

“Course you don’t have to.”

“Okay,” she says. “I kinda don’t want to right now.”

“You kinda never want to right now.”

Shit. I was just trying to cheer her up.

“Come sit with me,” Janis says after a while. “I don’t feel so good.”

It’s all Janis wants when she’s in one of her funks. I sit down, put my hand on her head, try not to look at her eyes. The sofa points out the third-floor window over the shoe building to some bunched-up traffic.

“There used to be a tree,” Janis nods. “Right there. Big ole pecan. I climbed it one time. Had this cat in here, brought it from Beaumont, but I wasn’t supposed to have it, see? In this apartment, I mean. Landlord had allergies or something, so I kept that cat inside. He’d sit here on the sofa with me and look out at that pecan with birds and squirrels in it. Tree was about eight feet away, maybe nine.”

“Where the shoe place is?”

“Wasn’t no shoe place then,” Janis says. “It was somebody’s yard. Yard full of pecan trees, but I’m talking just this one in particular.”

I stroke her head. Janis likes it when I stroke her head.

“I didn’t think much about keeping that window open,” she says. “I wanted that cat to at least smell the world. But this one time we’re sitting here with that window open and this motherfucking cat leaps straight out from that sill to a branch out there––horizontal-like, like an actual goddamn panther.”

“Eight feet?” I ask. Janis embellishes sometimes.

“I ain’t lying,” she frowns.

“Okay,” I say. “Okay.”

“Damn cat was more surprised than me. Probably never been in an actual tree before. Couldn’t get himself down. That’s why I had to climb it.”

“You drunk at the time?”

“No,” Janis says. “This was before the drinking.”

Janis leans her head in my arm, tells me she can’t remember anymore after that. Maybe that cat ran away or something. And I listen, but I never look in her eyes. Kham Duc’s in her eyes.

“I was scared,” Janis says, fingers lacing into mine. “When I was up in that tree, I was scared.”

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