Chapter 20: What Else Do You Want?

Sit down. State your name. Tell me your story.

My name is Duc-Anh. Nguyen Duc-Anh. People always call me Nam Xi.

Why the name “Nam Xi”?

Because I often drink alcohol and I was the fifth child in the family. What else do you want to know? I shift my legs. My fingers start dancing on their own. I’m not nervous: After all, I have taken it this far. And I will be brave enough – just barely enough – to bear the consequence. But those boys –

So, Mr. Duc-Anh, right? What do you know about these two men? The investigator pulls out two pictures – headshots of a man and a young boy in his early 20s. I glance at them and quickly avert my gaze.

Sir, I don’t know.

Surely you must know something? Or you simply don’t remember them?

Sir, I don’t know them.

Mr. Duc-Anh, no, uncle Nam Xi; you do realize by not telling the truth, you are causing more harm for both you and them, don’t you?

Sir, as I said, I don’t know them.

Alright. Uncle Nam Xi, I will just leave you here with a pen and a pad. You can write, draw, doodle – anything you want. I will be back quickly with an iced coffee for you. Will that be alright?

Alright.

The investigator stands up and walks towards the door. As he closes the door behind him, he stresses one last time to me:

You are causing more harm to both you and them, remember? All of it just because you are not telling the truth. Uncle Nam Xi, what is it all for?

Then he slams the door shut. I wait for his footsteps to fade away, then I pick up the pen and begin my story.

“You said you were from Binh Thuan?” The tall, muscular man sitting at the head of the boat shout. His strong accent suggested that he, too, came from Central Vietnam. That part where people always carried poverty on their shoulders. That same part where people were wailing and crying and fighting. For what? I don’t know. Perhaps for a slightly better life, or a slightly safer seaside to hang their fishing net. Perhaps somewhere in the wail, the people want something grander than themselves. Something like a country protected from invasion.

“Yes. So what?” I asked curtly. His strong accent reminded me of the burning heat that sunny day when the people were out on the street, being beaten by the police, yet refusing to muffle their cry. Sticks and stones were everywhere, literally. Among the blurry images in my mind, my daughter was standing there, leading the demonstration that had grown violent too soon.

“How’s Binh Thuan? I heard some terrible news there. I’m no different, you know,” he glanced at me quickly. His nose perked up, sensing my temper rising, “I’m from Da Nang.”

“Is there also a protest in Da Nang?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes glistening with the same painful longing that I had, “I wish I can do something better, you know. At least, something better than these ‘I don’t know’,” he snorted, “My little brother says my mind is just like that of a ten-year-old: knows nothing, sees nothing, hears nothing.” He covered his eyes and ears. I went out of the boat’s hatch, watching the vast rivers and the open landscape before me. It’s weird how life carries itself on its staggering legs after the death of a person.

“I also wish I can do something better.”

“Like stopping the protest?”

“Like saving a life.” He sat there, watching my back silently. Then he drank the rice wine on the small table inside the boat as if to get more courage:

“Who?”

“My daughter. And by the way, that rice wine is mine.”

“Uncle, these types of stories always need a little bit of wine.” He poured himself another cup, ignoring my stare.

“Say, vài xị[1]?”

“What are you, Uncle? A weakling? At least, vài chai.” He laughed. This man really did see the boat as his second home. He looked strangely familiar. Where did I see his hideously good-looking face? I can’t remember.

I pulled out the rice wine bottles that I bought from the market. My daughter would say they are not good for my health; I’m already an old man, withering in my blood bath of blind grievance. But that doesn’t matter. Like this strangely familiar man said, these types of stories always needed a little bit of wine.

Uncle Nam Xi?

Yes, Mr. Officer?

Here’s your coffee. And that’s a nice little drawing. Is that your house? By the sea?

Yes.

And is that your wife? Your daughter?

Yes, and yes.

My daughter would be eighteen years old this coming summer. She was quite a beauty. My neighbors always said that it was lucky she looked just like her mother, not me. Because I was an ugly old man. My skin was only a few shades lighter than the charcoal her mother used to light up the stove. My teeth were crooked and yellow from all the smoking and drinking till morning. But I knew one thing about me that was not the slightest bit ugly: the love that I held tightly in my heart for her. There was an old saying, the snakehead died for its children. I was the snakehead.

But how could a snakehead raise a child? Ironically, by fishing other fishes. That was what I did before the fight broke out. I went to the sea, fishing for months then came home to her. Since the day my wife died, that was all I cared about. I guessed at the peak of my threadbare happiness, I didn’t care that much about my country. People said the Chinese were taking our lands. People said the Chinese factory was dumping their toxic waste into our ocean. People said a lot of things. And I told them, Does that concern me? Does that involve me and my little poor happy family by the sea? I had this very simple thought. As long as I could still go fishing, as long as I could still raise my child with this little money, then I didn’t care much.

But turned out it did matter. And it mattered a whole lot. They asked me, “Have you seen where we lived, Nam Xi?” I looked around, and all I could see were dirt and rocks. The sun was burning our crops, and the plentiful supply of rocks we had couldn’t grow rice. They told me, “We have a better chance of eating dirt and rocks than eating rice. Can you eat dirt and rocks, Nam Xi?” I held the fishing net in my hands. Just two days ago, our fishing boats were attacked by the Chinese warships on the open ocean. Our ocean. My Vietnamese mates were drowning under the dark Vietnamese ocean, and the non-Vietnamese attackers were laughing in my ears, “You are lucky to be alive.” I closed my eyes and asked myself, Why should I feel lucky to be alive? As I opened my eyes, I saw the Vietnamese sea being poisoned, the Vietnamese land being stolen meter by meter. The corpses of my fishing mates were floating by the shore; their hollow eyes stared at my stupefied ones.

And in front of the pile of corpses, the officers stared at us amidst the wails and the cries, asking coldly and calmly, “We told you not to fight against the foreign warships. What else do you want?”

Have you seen your comrades died before your eyes, Mr. Officer?

I haven’t. I bet my father did. He was a soldier. He had seen lots and lots of his comrades died.

But you haven’t? I smiled, gulping down the dark, flavorless water that he called “iced coffee.”

Yes, I haven’t, he repeats, and is that important?

It is, I say, wiping my tired eyes, It is the most important thing.

We wanted no foreign warships in our ocean, officers. We wanted no fishermen’s corpses on the seashore, officers. And most important of all, we didn’t want to die, officers.

“And still you sail out to continue fishing, despite knowing that the foreign warships are controlling of the ocean?” The man asked, gulping down more rice wine.

“There’s no other way. If I can’t get them fishes, then where else can I turn to to get some money? And,” I drank the rice wine from the bottle, slowly mistaking the vast rivers ahead for the immense ocean where the corpses of my daughter and my fishing mates lay, “who else will protect our ocean when even the officers refuse to care?”

“Those damn officers. What’s inside their heart? You think the country should be inside their heart, but turns out it doesn’t. Our country has evaporated, I tell you, and the only thing left standing in its place is the monuments. They are not my people. They don’t feel any pain. And if they can’t feel any pain, what use do we have for them, uncle?”

And he was right. The monuments did not protect us. The Party told us to stay away from the ocean. The Party stood there, silently watching the corpses of the Vietnamese fishermen killed and trampled upon by the foreign warships, and did nothing. They saw us dying, and they said, “We hear your trouble. What else do you want?”

“What else do we want, Uncle?” The muscular man said in his drunkenness, “They mean to say, ‘Besides all the brutal beating, all the coward lying, all the empty promising that will never become true, what else do you idiots want?’ They look at you and me, Uncle, on their high horses, and they see nothing but a bunch of marionettes who are willing to go where they lead. Because we have no real power, and the little ounce of courage we have left in our hearts is washed away by their brutality. What else do we really want, Uncle?”

And what else do you want, uncle?

It’s simple, Mr. Officer. We wanted a home. We wanted a family. We wanted a safe sea where we could go fishing to our heart’s content on the shore. We wanted a decent life. A life where a Chinese warship was a Chinese warship, and not a “foreign” ship, and they could not kill us. A life where the officers were not spewing half-truths and dirty make-believes. Perhaps in that life, my daughter would not have to lead a demonstration against the government to protect our land. Perhaps in that life, she could go to a normal school. It didn’t have to be a good school; an average one is good enough. She could wait for me at home. She could cook a warm meal for me. She could do everything that a child her age anywhere in the world would do instead of lying under eight feet of dirt and rocks. But hey, that’s too much to ask for, right?

So what did the criminal tell you? Did he provoke you to fight against the State?

No, as I said, Mr. Officer, I don’t –

Uncle Nam Xi, you and I, we both know what happened. Don’t make this harder for me than it already is, the old investigator takes back the pen and pad, then proceeds to sit down opposite me, ready to write down what I say.

“Uncle, you and I, we all lost the things that were most important to us. Everyone is losing everything in the fight. But why do we have to bear the cruelest pain, Uncle? Why does it have to be us?” He mumbled amidst his snoring.

Yes, why does it have to be us? I sometimes asked myself that question. It popped up in my mind more and more often since the day the corpse of my daughter was returned to me by the police. They caught her leading the demonstration, they said. They suspected she was the one who encouraged everyone to turn it into a violent protest, they said. They left her alone in the interrogation room and she committed suicide, they said. Half-truths and dirty make-believes. Now you tell me, Mr. Officer, what can an eighteen-year-old girl do to turn a demonstration into a violent protest? What hideous thing can make a happy, patriotic young girl commit suicide? And if you did leave her alone, Mr. Officer, why are there bruises on her frail body? This I did not ask. I did not have to ask. Because the truth from her pale, lifeless body stared at me blankly in the face. They killed her. And at the end of it all, they dared to ask me, “We warn you to not gather around, what else do you want?”

Uncle Nam Xi, not all of us is like that.

Yeah, I bet, I laugh in his face, The same way not all tigers eat meat, right? Sometimes they eat vegetables, too.

Uncle Nam Xi, don’t you want peace? The investigator sighs while twirling the pen between his fingers.

Peace? By being silent?

That’s not what I mean, but –

No, Mr. Officer. I don’t want peace, I lift up to look at him, feeling my throat tighten, I only want my daughter back.

“So you know what I want, Uncle? I want him dead. I want him painfully dead. I sneaked out into the night, chased after him, threw him off his motorbike, and fucking killed him. Now that’s what I want, I told him, that’s my equality. My justice. But he can no longer hear me. He stared at me from under that dark bridge as I ran away in the night. I asked him, laughing at his battered face, What else do you want. Uncle, this I know: If no one can save us, we will be our own Saviors. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

That was also what I did, Nha. I nodded to his unintelligible mutter, knowing now why his face was familiar. The runaway murderer. Both of us. I sneaked out in the night, went to the interrogator’s house, asked him, “Did you kill my daughter?” He snorted and sneered,It’s her fault for going against the Party. What else do you want?” But I didn’t wait for him to finish his sentence. I struck him down with a machete I always carry with me on the fishing boat since the day the Chinese cruises attacked us. I struck his face, his chest, his legs, the places that he had struck my daughter. Seeing the blood slowly covered the brutal face, I struck once more at his heart. The comrades had no heart, they said. And perhaps it was true. Because inside his chest where his heart should be, I can only see a dark hollow. He had sold his heart to the “foreign” country. And the Vietnamese earth refused to sing him to sleep. I walked out of his house amidst the loud screaming of his wife, feeling peace and calm rush over me. The people opened up a road for me, and the earth beneath me carried my feet with tenderness. Just like that, I walked out of the village and went to live on these vast rivers. I want my daughter back. But the killing cannot bring her back. The bloody face of the interrogator cannot bring her back. The loud screaming and the pain of the interrogator’s wife cannot bring her back. Now you tell me, Mr. Officer, my daughter’s already dead. What else do I want?

Uncle Nam Xi, I’m sure we feel the same way about the unfortunate incident of your daughter, but –

No, I shut him down and drink the last drops of coffee, You don’t feel the same way. Heck, I bet you even have a daughter who was killed by the people you trusted the most. You can rely on your uniform and your power, Mr. Officer, but I cannot. I don’t have anything to lean on, to bounce back, to do anything for this, as you put it, unfortunate event to be less painful.

So you helped Mr. Nha escape?

I look him squarely in the eyes. Then, as if the coffee had done some magic on me, I slowly nod.

Yes, that’s why I helped him escape.

A strange noise startled me. Someone was coming down the riverside. The flashlight was flickering fast on the bank. I looked at the sleeping drunk man beside me. The Vietnamese earth cannot cover for us anymore. But I can do something. If no one can be our Saviors, then I can be his. I stood up, dragged him to the edge of the boat, and hurled him down the river.

Amidst the loud barking of the police dogs, I saw my daughter smile a gentle approval.


[1] T/N: A measurement for Vietnamese liquor.

Chapter 19: Only You Know

Sit down. State your name. Tell your story.

This will be a little bit personal, Sir.

Yeah, but will it be relevant to the case?

That I don’t know, Sir.

Then tell it anyway.

Are you saying that you have the authority to judge which ones of the evidences are relevant to the case and which ones are not, Sir?

We will see to it.

I was lighting up the rusty yellow bulb in front of Uncle Hai’s wretch of a door. Hai was late. He was always late.

Like the other day. Uncle Hai told him to come home at 7, ‘cause dinner won’t wait for no one. Or yesterday, when he told me he would be home by 5 ‘cause the café was emptier than the word “empty” itself.

Or like today, when I tugged on his wrist, asking him to come home by 7. “I don’t know, ‘cause dinner won’t wait?”

“Nha, Aunt Sau includes dinner in my employment.”

“‘Cause the café is empty anyways?”

“Only when Aunt Sau doesn’t fire the phong long paper.”

“It never works.”

“Who knows. Maybe today it will.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Then how can you be so sure?”

“’Cause – “

“Nha, we’ve been through this before.”

So you have been through this before?

Yeah. Whatever that was, we definitely have been through it many, many times before. Me putting out the questions. He refusing to stay. All of it all of it. So familiar.

And yet you were still putting out the questions?

‘Cause why not, yeah? Ain’t costing me nothing to try.

I let go of his thin wrist and thought about how the pale green veins lingered on my curious mind. The same shade of green of diluted watercolour, mingled with the feathery purple on a peacock’s tail. All of those forgotten beauties, hidden under the thin, cold human skin. A glimpse of the cold rejection from his hand made me forget my most stubborn reasons.

“‘Cause I’ll be waiting?”

 “You can sleep first, Nha.”

 “‘Cause the night is cold?”

“I have a coat.”

“You know damn well I’m running out of reason here.”

“Then try harder.”

“Say, what to do when one runs out of reason?”

Hai laughed. He put on his long-sleeve T-shirt – his so-called “coat.” Then, he fiddled with the buttons, brushed his short hair, and looked at himself in the mirror for the last time. Maybe he was waiting for me to said it. The right reason, dropping at the exact moment he walked one step out the door. I can imagine his light footstep, hanging on the door frame. And I wonder, How strange. How curious it was.

The way the smallest actions in the most ordinary setting can chip away at my heart.

“I don’t know, ‘cause I’ll be lonely?”

And were you lonely?

Why are you asking?

Because I think only lovers would feel that way about each other. But you were quite adamant in your interrogation in saying that you and him are not, as quoting here, “lovers.”

I don’t know. Is “lovers” the only choice?

Well, I don’t guess there is. But for the sake of convenience, we have to make do with one.

Then for the sake of convenience, we are not lovers, sir.

“Is that a statement or a question?”

“A statement?”

Hai didn’t answer. Of course. Even me, the owner of the embarrassing questioning statement, didn’t know how to answer it. But in a perfect world, he would say that I was right. That loneliness was always a good reason for someone to stay. That no one should never leave a criminal to his own solitude. He would say –

“You know that’s not helping. Loneliness is never a good reason for anything.”

Then he walked out the door. Leaving me waiting for him under the rusty yellow bulb in front of Uncle Hai’s wretched door.

Sometimes, it’s devastating to know that the only thing we can do for the one we care is nothing.

I took down the broken guitar I inherited by accident from Teo, my drinking buddy. The melody was never in tune. But like an old marriage, me and the guitar tolerated each other. And like how any old marriage turned out to be, we tolerated each other quite well.

In other words, the strings had stopped broken and my fingers had stop bleeding on the metal.

I strummed the strings to the melody of Hai’s recent obsession. He had these healthy obsessions with the not-so-healthy depressing songs. I had no right to judge. Though thinking back, I secretly despised the dreary melody of all the bad break-ups, the unrequited loves, and the raspy, sweet-nothing whispers that the singers sang to Hai’s ear each night.

Was that jealousy?

Is that jealousy?

Usually we would call that jealousy, yes.

And is jealousy only applicable to lovers?

There are many kinds of jealousy.

Then again, for the sake of convenience, let’s assume that this kind of jealousy, my jealousy, is not the lovers’ one.

Like the one I was strumming on the damned guitar. Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.

Maybe one of these days, I will learn to love it.

Only you know where the oceans still have desires

Only you know, each and every night, I’m awake

“What are you doing with that broken guitar?”

I looked up at the source of the voice. I thought about how the angels on Heaven would sing to mortal men. For they have sinned. They have sinned from the day they figured out their only purpose in this life was –

“Drowning in this mess.”

“What mess?”

“Nothing. Just a song.”

“A song you can’t play?”

He asked me jokingly, unbuttoning his coat-T-shirt. He meant for me to fight back. And I was meant to be drowned.

“What song is it? Sounds a bit familiar.”

“I don’t know. That thing you played each night on repeat and you forced me to listen.”

“Oh. You have to narrow it down.”

“The one that goes, Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.”

“Oh, that one. You’ve learned how to play it?”

“Yeah. Hear this.”

I strummed the string again, murmuring, Ta-ta-ta-ta –

“That’s not how to sing it. It’s more like this, One early morning, the sun shines through the leaves, and the wind yearns fervently – “

“Right. Don’t ask me to do the impossible.”

“Come on. Your singing couldn’t be any worse than your guitar skill.”

He signaled for me to continue the tune while he sang the first line of the chorus again. His eyes followed my crude fingers on the broken guitar. There was no tune or melody at all, no matter how hard I strummed the two strings left on it. All I could hear was Hai’s voice, leading the pack of flat, tedious sounds, turning the tuneless ta-ta-ta to the bad break-ups and the unrequited loves that I hated.

I watched his lips dance to the soundless music. My lips formed the same words of the lyrics again and again. In all of the impossibilities I could think of, our eyes met.

“So what’s after that?”

“What?”

“The song. How will it go after that?”

“Oh. Let’s see. Where are we at?”

“The second part. It starts at, Waiting for you – “

“Nah. I don’t remember that part.”

“Well, then what’s in your little brain? What can you remember? And don’t ta-ta me.”

He asked in that naturally provoking tone that I was so used to hearing. Anger didn’t work well with that tone. I threw him against the wall once, and it ended up making him more provocative.

But I knew what can work with it. I knew the things that can hang him on a rope, tighten his throat, and carve a beautiful scar on his thin neck. And I also knew I was not meant to use them.

But I used them anyways.

“I only know two lines from the song.”

“Well, go on. Sing it then.”

“Don’t laugh.”

“Promise.”

“It goes, Only you know –“

Only you know where the oceans still have desires

Only you know, each and every night, I’m awake

I suddenly realize I have lost in a strange place

I knew I was singing. But I wasn’t singing. I dropped the tender pain festering in my heart on the paper walls around Hai’s soul. I wasn’t singing. I spoke the words from the old folklore about the prince’s pining for another prince, who was getting married.

I wasn’t singing. It was but a raspy whisper from the despicable singer, which Hai used as an illusion of a lover’s lullaby on his sleepless nights.

I wasn’t singing. All I did was hurting both of us, because I was too much of a coward, and he was too much of an idiot.

“You should sing it to your lover,” he turned away, “you sing that part beautifully.” His long bang covered his face again, and he can’t see it. He can’t see my desire to break through that curtain of darkness and steal those eyes for myself.

Just like how I can’t clearly see him crying. All I did was imposing a feeling of sadness upon him. Maybe he wasn’t crying then. Maybe he never shedded a tear for all it took.

Maybe the saddest part of all my singing, all my acting, all my fervent yearning was just that – his love for me was not high enough to sink the pain in his soul under 8 feet of water, just for him to shed a tear.

“I don’t have a lover.”

“What do you have then?”

“An unrequited love for someone who loves me.”

“That so? I better get going.”

Hai stood up and hurried out the door, leaving me inside our make-believe world of thatched-roof and red brick walls. And by doing so, he protected me from the demons outside while crushing my soul and my existence at the same time. I talked to his fading shadow heading towards the darker side of the small village:

“I wasn’t singing, Hai. I was confessing a love that could never be.”

Was that relevant to the case, Sir?

I don’t know yet as to whether it is relevant to the case or not, Nha, but there is one thing I am sure of now.

And it is?

That this sounds more like a love story than anything I have ever heard of during my years of duty in this line of work.

I laugh. I can already see Hai protesting to the detective’s words, just as in his nature. But not me. Not this coward me. Not this spineless me. Not this criminal me, who the only wish now is just to see his face passing through the windows.

And I will sing to him, on the last of my day, my dearest, dearest little prostitute,

Only you know –

Chapter 18: The Diary of Hai the Reaper

The following events are collected from Pham Van Hai’s diary, which is considered an important piece of evidence for the case. Judging from the content of the diary, the investigators in charge of the case firmly believe that he was the partner in crime of Nguyen Van Nha and acted as the main culprit in helping the criminal escaped.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

I go home when the sky was littered with stars. Nha is sleeping on the bamboo cot in the living room, if one could call the part just inside the metal door a living room. He mumbles his stupid complaint in his childish sleep. Looking at his innocent sleeping face, I hear the distant voice of my ancestors telling me to kick him awake. Not that I know who my ancestors are, but their instruction sounds tempting.

However, I decide to push my ancestors off the bed instead of him. I had business to do. And some businesses are meant to be done in the dark.

Can someone tell me again why I pick this useless piece of meat up from the gutter?

Friday evening, afternoon shift.

New toothbrush: 3. New toothpaste. Shampoo: 2 strings. Rice: 2 kg  5 kg 2 kg. Not enough money. Why is there never enough money? Next time, when he asks you to buy more rice, remember the kind words: “Go fuck yourself.”

Sunday morning, day shift.

He goes to the café. To see me. That fucking idiot with a ten-year-old brain thinks he can go anywhere he wants because nobody knows who he is. He stands by Ms. Sau’s doorstep, smiling, showing all teeth. He must have thought he was the most handsome man in this countryside, showing his hideous face around with pride and joy. Now it won’t be my fault if he gets caught, I tell him. The idiot had the courage to laugh.

“I know it won’t be your fault,” he says, “nothing is your fault. But Hai, if you die of starvation now, who will call my Ma and my sister for me?” he tries to say it with some sort of gentlemanliness and hands me the lunch box, grinning. He must know that I hate his smile; that’s why he’s showing it so damn much. Just to spite me, is all.

Then he suddenly gets all serious, “Got some change with you?”

I glare at him, shout a thousand times in my mind the magic phrase “Fuck Off.” He seems to hear it by some magical channels and shrugs, “Just asking. ‘cause you know what? Your 5-kilogram bag of rice turns out to weigh only 2 kilograms. You have to buy more rice, you know.”

Go fuck yourself. That I didn’t say. How I wish I had enough courage and rage in myself to say it.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

The customer calls. Because it’s a different type of customers, you don’t save their names as the contact. This practice is getting old with you, even when you are no longer in the city. Everywhere: the same old dirty trick. As you venture out into the unfathomable night, you remember the time he whispers sweetly into your ears, “You are so much better than all of this mess.” You laugh, because you are not better than anything. That’s all you have to remember to keep walking on the dark road leading to the worn-out motel near the village’s market.

Thursday evening, night shift.

What’s money for? For living a decent life under the light of the sunny day. Ever wonder about what people do to get that money at night under the shadowy bridge? I don’t think he does. Is it better if he does? Is it better if he doesn’t? But Hai, what does it matter?

He stays up pretty late tonight. I see the dim yellow light through the small window, and I think, How strange. Since when can the light of a small lightbulb make you cry?

I stand in front of the thin metal door, silently wiping my tears, praying to my anonymous ancestors to do something – anything – to stop the tears. As it always happens with my luck, my ancestors always disappear whenever I need them most. Everything you need always disappears when you need them most. I hear his footsteps and I turn to run. But he is quicker. He has that special talent of being extremely excellent at what he does when nobody needs him to be. “Yo, what’s up?” he asks. “Nothing much,” I reply, lowering my head, trying to slip through his underarm to get inside the house.

Nothing much, Nha, just spend my life whoring to get the damn money for living a decent life.

Sunday morning, day shift.

Shower gel: 2 strings. Laundry detergent: 1 bag. Fabric softener: 1 bag.

Remind me why I’m the one who take care of everything in this damn house, please. The day is scorching hot and my evaporated brain can’t remember why I bother to live this decent life at all. Walking by the phone store, I notice that they are having a big promotion for the coming Independent Day. Now I don’t care much for the Independent Day. It is not relevant to my decent life. But the promotion is relevant. Maybe if he has a phone in his hand, he can reach that dream he so often has at night. Should I buy him one? Should I not? What if he asks me where I get my money from?

Buying the phone anyway. Coming home from my day shift, I throw the phone to his face (no, literally, but I miss the target by five centimetres). He asks exactly what I thought he would ask.

“Where did you get the money?”

“Nothing much.” My evaporated brain says. Shit, a simple ‘thank you’ would have suffice, Mr. Genius.

And there’s no more to say about that.

Tuesday evening, night shift.

I’m getting used to the dim yellow light of the lightbulb by the small window in the middle of the night when I come home from my usual business.

And by ‘getting used to it’ I mean that I no longer spend the whole hour standing in front of the metal door only to cry. No. Now I spend it to overthink, too. It might take a few more times until I can face him and answer him in that normal cheerful attitude that is my signature. I don’t even know if that day will come.

But we must hold onto hope, mustn’t we?

He opens the door, and again, ‘Yo, what’s up?’

I avert my eyes with the usual, ‘Nothing much,’ and go inside. Uncle Hai already went to bed. “Did you wait for me?” I ask. “I’m afraid,” he grins, waiting for me to reply.

“Afraid of what?”

“I’m afraid that without the light, you won’t know the way home. In the dark, it’s easy to get lost.”

He lies down on the bamboo cot. His face turning to the red brick wall. He says the red brick walls remind him of home. Why is home so fucking important? I think I know, but I don’t think I understand it. But the important thing to me now is, Does Nha know what I’ve been hiding in the late night?

Sunday morning, day shift.

Sugar. Salt. Cooking oil. Remember the meat. We are making spring rolls. Do we still have rice paper at home? Why does everything keep running out?

Sunday night, staying home.

The spring rolls turns out okay. Not delicious, but okay. He says he makes them the way his Ma always made them when he was still at home. Boy, I doubt his Ma’s cooking skill, and it is not right to doubt a mother’s cooking skill. He says, “Just add the seasoning of home into it, and it will taste better.” Perhaps my ancestors will believe that adding invisible seasoning can make a dish better. That’s why they’re dead.

A customer calls suddenly just when I start to chew the first spring roll. Maybe that’s why the spring rolls are no longer delicious, who knows. I text him a simple message telling him to wait for me at the motel. Nha watches me, chewing the spring rolls noisily with strange intention. Uncle Hai seems to not notice it, or he does notice it but decides to ignore it anyway.

“Where are you going?”

“Meeting a friend at work.”

“When?”

“After I finish washing the dishes.”

“Can I tag along?”

“Definitely no.”

“What for?”

“Nothing much.”

He puts down his bowl and continues staring at me, or more precisely, at my hair, since I keep lowering my head, almost to the point of sticking my face to the bowl.

The chewing noise gets louder and louder; as if he thinks that under the force of his weird staring and loud chewing, I will spill the truth.

It doesn’t happen. Same old trick my madam used to teach me: Don’t look them in eyes, because the eyes have the power of spells. When you are under the spell, you won’t know what atrocity you commit. Like telling a certain idiot what you’ve been hiding in the night when you come home late from ‘work’.

That night, the light is still on, but Nha is no longer waiting for me. Or he is waiting for me, but he doesn’t want me to know. When I walk in, his back is facing me. He gives out a big grunt to let me know that he acknowledges my presence. My being here. My being a whore. My being not caring for him. My not telling him the truth despite what he thinks we have between us.

And I slither under the thin blanket as a way to acknowledge his acknowledgement. That I know despite knowing all of that, he still choose, in the end, to be by my side.

Because of that, I spend the whole night biting my finger, crying.

Monday, coming home in the small hours.

The lightbulb shines on tirelessly through the night. Seeing the dim yellow light by the small window on the way home amidst the cheerful song of the bullfrogs, I feel like I’m some sort of exiled king. Is this what home feel like? When you know that someone is waiting for you, and your heart can’t help palpitating to the rhythm of happiness. Because you know that someone is waiting for you somewhere.

Nha stands there in front of the thin metal door. He doesn’t make any noise but I can still hear his loud chewing in my ears. It sounds a lot like judgement. So he knew. How long did he know? Why hasn’t he say anything? Is this what he meant by ‘getting lost in the dark’? But Hai, what does it matter?

“Where did you go?” He grits.

“Meeting a friend at work.”

“When?”

“Late at night. Every night.”

“What for?” He bellows.

“Nothing much.”

He stares at me in utter silence. No reproach. No yelling. He simply stares at me. Don’t look them in the eyes, I repeat my madam’s teaching. Don’t let those spellbound eyes make you commit the atrocity of telling the truth. They are the eyes of the man who waits for you to come home every night, who lights up the little lightbulb by the small window because he was afraid that you will get lost – and you did got lost. This is the man who brings you lunch boxes on your day shifts, despite knowing that he might get caught. This is the man who always asks you “Yo, what’s up?” because he wants to know how your day went. This is the man who tells you in your struggling sleeps that you are better than all of this mess.

Look at him, Hai. This is the man you love. And every night you whore yourself to others. To whoever that is not him. But Hai, what does it matter?

“You know what, Hai?” I look up as I hear my name, “I really hate your ‘Nothing much’”.

“Why? It’s just words.”

“Because it hides too many things under its pretty petticoat. Each time you say ‘Nothing much,’ I’m reminded of how useless I am. Look at me. Look at this murderer, living on the money of a young innocent boy who sells himself for salt and sugar.” He laughs, wiping some clear substance from his eyes.

“And rice, too. You forget the rice.” I mock, but my voice comes out soft and trembling.

“You are so cruel, Hai. Are all prostitutes that cruel?”

“You bet. It’s in our blood.”

“Don’t do it. Just don’t ever do it again.”

“Alright.”

“Promise me.”

“Alright.”

“Oh Lord.”

He chuckles, then pulls me close for a tight embrace. Feeling the warmth of his chest by my cheeks, his wet tears on my shoulders where he buries his ravenous head, and hearing the loud beating of his heart, I know what will happen.

My ‘Alright’ has replaced my ‘Nothing much,’ and strangely, we both agree to it.

And Even If Love Was Lost: An Introduction

This is a story about a criminal running away.

Nha killed a governor in a faraway seaside village. Hai was a male prostitute in Saigon, the city of beautiful lights and dark, dirty lust. Nha ran away from the crime scene amidst the dreary tune of his mother’s cai luong cassettes. Hai picked him up to save a part of his heart that’s been through far too many wars. Together, they ran away.

This is a story about dream.

Uncle Hai was diagnosed with lung cancer. He always dreamed that the final days of his life would be more peaceful than the two-year suspended sentence for almost killing his wife. Uncle Tu lost his child amidst the greed and riches of Saigon. He secretly hid the dream of having his son back in his arms in the withered, wrinkled old photograph.

And many, many more.

But most of all, this is a story about love

About the secret but not so secret love Hai developed for the man-child-slash-criminal he stayed with. About the same kind of love, on the same level love, Nha held within his heart for the only person who loved him for who he was. About the ocean never truly met the sand shore.

Oh, don’t let me fool you with these sentiments. Check their journey out for yourself by clicking the chapters below. Updated weekly.

Chapter 17: Let’s Play Make-Believe

So, Mr. Nha, do you still stand by your statement that there is no relationship, whatsoever, between you and Mr. Hai?

I look at the officer’s eyes. Today, the one interrogates me is the old detective. You always know it is trouble when it comes to old detectives. Too many pains, or too many experiences, or too many deaths. They have them all under their belt. So I swallow hard, and try my best to be the criminal that I am. Because after all, what does it even matter now? But Hai, oh, Hai – he is a whole other story.

Yes, sir, I say, there’s no relationship, whatsoever, between us.

And as the words escape my lips, I know I am screwed. Because the salt and bitter taste of tears has already befallen on my lips.

Hai came home from his usual day shift, soaking wet. These days, the rain had become some sort of a routine to me. I saw the rain, and I knew it was the end of Hai’s shift. I heard the rain, and I knew Uncle Hai was rushing back home on his old, feeble legs. I count the raindrops, and magically, I knew we were safe. Nothing can touch us, not in the rain that was flushing the whole country away.

I was fanning the fire in the kitchen and enjoying the contrasting warm of the clay oven when Hai walked in with his dripping wet shirt. He stood there, staring at me. His eyes were deep like the hollow at Uncle Bay’s house. I tried to think of something else other than that damn hollow, but Hai’s eyes had captured me, tied me up on a cross waiting for the toll of my death.

“Have you heard about Uncle Tu Ri’s son?” He said while rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“I heard enough of it.”

“How much of it?”

“’bout his missing son.”

“Well, turns out the son wasn’t missing all these years.” Hai leaned his back on the hard wall, chewing the cashew on the countertop, “Hey Nha, ever think of getting rich?”

“And do what? I can’t enjoy ‘em all when I die.”

He snickered, then cracked out laughing. The kind of laughing that makes your legs weak with sorrow and sufferings. The kind of laughing that turns you into a pile of bitterness. The kind of laughing that says, I don’t accept any of it, but here we all are.

“That’s true,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes, “That’s true. After all, we will end up dying.”

Then he stayed silent as if he is contemplating some very deep and intellectual question. The one question to rule out all questions, stuff like that. He’s always been the more intelligent between the two of us, and his train of thought is –

“Say, Nha, if we know we are all going to die anyway, why do we keep on pushing? Why do we keep on living? Why do we keep on hurting each other?”

Weird. His train of thoughts is straight out weird. The kind of weirdness that you can never get used to, because right at the moment you think you get it, it slips out between your fingers like sand.

“I don’t know,” I replied, half annoyed at the hard carrot and half annoyed at the fact that I had to cook instead of him. No one wants my food, but, “Do we have any other choice except keep on living?”

“We can straight out die.”

“That’s way too easy. You listen here,” I stabbed the knife onto the chopping board and turned to face him. But what was on his face at that time crushed my heart to pieces.

“I don’t want to die, Nha,” he said, the fire in his eyes was already dying though, “And I don’t want to live, either. What am I, Nha? If there were really choices, have I been wrong right from the start?”

Then he proceeded to smile. A soft smile, like the touch of a withering petal in the stormy night. He didn’t cry. After all, he never broke down in a tsunami style of crying. No, that was beneath him. All he ever did was –

Okay, I have to stop you there. It seems that, from what you are telling me, Mr. Nha, you and Mr. Hai seems to share a more personal relationship. Is that why he helped you with your escape?

I look at the old detective. He has already stopped writing on his notepad since the first sentence, Mr. Hai and Mr. Nha shared no personal relationship. I smile.

I can imagine it, he says.

Imagine what?

Mr. Hai’s smile.

How can you imagine it without seeing it from the star?

The old detective lifts up his pen and slowly scratches the only sentence on the notepad away.

Because, he says as he writes new sentences on the paper, Mr. Nha, perhaps you are unaware of it, but you are wearing the same smile now. The smile of

Defeat. That was what we were and what we will always be. Hai changed the topic.

“Did you hear about Uncle Tu Ri? His son abandoned him. Happened just like that. Imagine him cutting off a rope with a scissor. A clean cut. Shoo. That’s it. That’s what he said to his father. Shoo. And guess what? Uncle Tu Ri was dropped out of his life like that same rope.”

“What makes him does that?” I asked, bewildered at the image of a rope hanging like a noose in front of Uncle Tu Ri.

“Poverty, Nha,” Uncle Hai said, “Poverty can make people do the things that they once thought they were not capable of doing.”

“Even if they are terrible things?”

“Especially when they are terrible things.”

He looked at me with strange sparks in his eyes. Of course, both of us knew the poverty that was perching on our shoulders too well. Poverty fed on our hopes and dreams, which died a little too soon, and the children who could never grow to be happy. The poverty on our shoulders got heavier each passing day, until it crushed our body into a splatter of blood and flesh. We were only the shape of the poverty on our shoulders. One may ask in the comfort of his blanket, “What is poverty capable of?” The answer was, “Many things.” Like the things that forced people to run away from their life of toil. But I loved my life of toil. A little too late for that; still, my mind wandered back to the poor village by the sea more often than the rain falling on this land.

I chopped the carrots on the chopping board and think about my Ma. She also had poverty weighing down on her shoulders. I remembered the times she made carrot soup for me and my sister. She always counted the carrot pieces and divided them equally between us, but we all knew that my sister would end up getting one or two pieces extra. While dividing the carrot pieces, she would say to me, “Don’t be poor, Nha. Wherever you go, don’t be poor.” I suddenly had the urge to laugh. I don’t have to worry about being poor now, Ma, and perhaps one of these days, I don’t even have to worry about being alive. I guessed I didn’t grow up to be the person she wished for me to be. Did I grow up to be happy? In the end, I was only the shape of my poverty.

I often dreamed that one of these days, I could build my Ma a proper house, and she could sleep with a warm, decent blanket. But my poverty fed on those dreams far too much, and the short-lived dreams only helped the shape of my poverty grow. So I stopped dreaming, and thought about living the day. But there were days like today, when it was raining, and we were safe, I dreamed about calling my Ma, and hoped that the poverty on my shoulders would not eat it up.

Okay, Mr. Nha, I am sorry but I have to stop you there once again. At that moment in time, did you know that your mother, for lack of better words, had died?

And just with those simple words, the old detective breaks me apart. Piece by piece. Atom by atom. Blood by blood.

No, sir, I say while the tears fall down like they want to flood my facade away. The facade of a hero. He is strong, of course, but he is more of a fool than a savior of anything, No, at that moment, I still hope that –

You still hope? Despite knowing that no one survived the flood?

The old detective scratches out a few more lines, adding some more notes. All the while, he never once look me in the eyes. I guess if sorrow ever were a person, he or she must be an ugly one. No one wants to stare at him, or her, in the eyes.

Yes, sir, I smile, I still hope. Despite knowing that no one survived the flood, I still hope.

Because we had nothing. And to the both of us who had nothing to lose and to prove, hopes and dreams were these extraterrestrial things. Too beautiful to be true, too hot that they burnt when you touched them. I laughed, and accidentally chopped my hand instead of the carrot.

“Look at you, genius,” Hai mocked, “What is inside that brilliant brain of yours, Mr. Einstein?”

“Poverty,” I said, holding my bleeding hand and ignoring his mischievous laugh, “and my Ma.”

Uncle Hai staggered, shook his head, and mumbled quietly, “You are in the wrong this time, kid,” and walked away from the trouble that Hai caused.

Hai stood there – his feet planted firmly in place by some sort of supernatural force – and silently watched me wrap the wound with a band-aid. After fumbling for a long while with the band-aid and the blood, I gave up.

“You don’t plan to cook the soup with your blood, do you?” Hai asked tentatively, as if he was standing on the thin border separating an apology and forgivenness.

“Yeah, do you want to help or nah?”

“Nah,” Hai said.

Then ever so gently, he picked up the mess that was my hand. He unfolded the fingers, found the cut, then proceeded to disinfect it and wrapped it up nicely in the neat, white band-aid.

“I thought you said ‘Nah’,” I said, laughing as I watched him focused on my wound with all his attention.

“I meant I won’t help you with the soup,” Hai said as he pushed my hand away, “Not that I won’t help with your wound, since I am partially at fault here.”

“Wait,” I said quickly, fearing that he had changed from the mood of a patron saint to the mood of Lucifer, “Recently I have been listening to this song, but I don’t know the title,” I twirled my bandaged fingers in between his and tugged gently so that he would come closer to me, “Do you mind telling me?”

“Telling you what,” he laughed in his childish and mischievous way and finally gave in to my twirl-and-tug strategy. I don’t know why I am always the wrong one in the arguments between us, “Sing it to me then. Sing it right and I might remember.”

“You might remember?”

“Yes,” Hai said, staring straight into my eyes. The sparkle of hopes and love filled his glistening irises. He pulled my wounded hand gently so not to hurt it, but strong enough for me to followed his lead, “Yes, I might remember.”

So, Mr. Nha, what was the song’s name?

I’m sorry, but that detail is not relevant to the case.

Of course it is relevant, the old detective twirls the pen in between his fingers, We can judge how deep your relationship with Mr. Hai based on the content and the title of the song.

I sit there, silently look at the old detective as he continues to ignore the forceful suffering in my stare. Then, I lean back on the chair, wipe my face off all the remaining remnant of tears and sorrow.

No, sir, I say softly, No, I don’t remember the title of the song.

Hai looked at me with a curious stare. We were in a tug of war. Whose hand gave in first to the gentle force and the invisible border between love and nothingness would be the loser. And it’s fair to say that I tried my best. But who can ever win against Hai?

Who can ever win against the one they –

“Alright, the song goes like this,” I shook my head indulgently, and stared down at his quizzical stare as I tried to mimic the sad voice of the female singer, “Ngày ấy em như hoa sen, Mang nhiều giáng hiền những khi chiều lên, Ngày ấy em như sương trong, Nép bên bông hồng, mượt trên cánh nhung.“[1]

Hai giggled at my fail attempt to be his beloved singer. I felt my heartstring being pulled each time his soft giggle fell on the drums of my ears. A bud of happiness slowly bloomed in the pit of my stomach and turned my whole being into a bundle of fiery torch. Then, just as I began to immerse myself in what I thought was his happiness, Hai lifted up and asked me,

“Your song, do you know the full lyrics?”

“No, but I only meant to -“

“Good, ’cause the next verse goes like this,” Hai cupped my face in his hands and fixed my eyes onto his, “Nhưng năm tháng vô tình, Mà lòng người cũng vô tình, Rồi màu úa thay màu xanh, Người yêu xa bến mộng, Đò xưa đã sang sông, Dòng đời trôi mênh mông.”[2]

He dropped his hands, mumbling a quick goodbye, saying he had a job to do, and left me hanging in the midst of his own sorrow. Oh, Hai, my dearest little prostitute, my dearest little companion, my dearest friend, my dearest –

Lover?

The old detective, for the first time since the beginning of the interrogation, look at me straight in the eyes. It’s as if he had decided that this fact, this label, this name that people put on casual relationship, was what he needed the most amidst the pile of emotions I had just poured out in front of him.

I don’t know, I say, cackling up at his small word, Do we really need a name for it? After all –

“Nha, I will work the nightshift starting tomorrow.” Hai said softly in that gentle voice he used to lull me out of my madness on the day of the flood. We both knew what he meant. But I was too much of an idiot, too much of a coward, to stop him from what he planned on doing.

“The nightshift, eh?” I continued chopping the carrots. Amidst the sound of the knive hitting the cutting board, I dreamed again of hearing my Ma’s voice. Then I dreamed of Hai. And of a happy conclusion that we can somehow draw from this mess miraculously.

We stood there, drown in our thoughts and the fervent hesitation that burnt our hearts on a stake.

“Well, I just want to tell you. So from tomorrow, don’t wait for me.”

“Yeah? That so?”

Hai nodded. He opened his mouth slightly as if he was trying to find some words strong enough to kill this silence wall between us. I can feel his gaze longingly traced the each and every lines on my face. I knew that with just one word, Hai will be able to escape from that dreadful tomorrow’s nightshift. But just like the static noise in the phone on the day I called my Ma, I maintained my silence.

“The static noise.”

“What?”

“You hear that? The static noise.”

“What does it say?”

“It says they are dead. The one-of-these-days we talked about the other day, remember? They are dead.”

Hai lowered his head. His long bang covered half of his face and hid his beautiful pair of eyes behind a curtain of darkness. The eyes that have been through mud, seen blood, and survived a war far too vicious for them. The eyes that I –

“I will wait for you, Hai.”

“Told you not to.”

“No,” I put the knife down and turned to face him. I mustered up whatever courage I had inside me at that time, and felt my voice trembling, “I will wait for you. No matter how late, no matter how dark, I will wait for you.”

Hai looked at me, bewildered. I smiled at his rare expression – a mixture of grateful, relieve, and most of all, fervent love. I wished I had not seen the love on his face, filled to the brim hope and passion and what not. All the things that I cannot give him. Not now. Not forever.

I pulled Hai to the front door pointed at the red brick porch.

“No matter what nightmares you encounter out there beyond the red brick porch, the moment you step inside these walls, you will be safe,” I held his shoulders firmly and kept an appropriate distant. Not too far to turn us into strangers. But not too close to tear our hearts  apart with an open wound, one of these days, “Because I will be here, Hai. I will always be here, Hai.”

He did not say a word. His face did not show the slightest reaction. But those eyes, oh God, those eyes. Those eyes are killing me, torturing me, burning me with my every breath. Don’t believe in me, Hai, please don’t believe in me. And just when I was about to let go of his shoulders, Hai smiled. His beautiful eyes sparkled like the shooting stars I so often saw on TV. “Thank you,” he said, “thank you, Nha.” And ever so lightly, like the touch of a feather, he kissed my fingers. And all of my reasoning faded away. And the sky was never bluer, the wind was never gentler. And I, I was never –

“Believe in me, Hai, please believe in me.”

“After all” what? The old detective turns my attention to the current flow of time.

I look at him, wondering in all of his detective life, how many tragic cases, how many sufferings, how many pains he had to go through to maintain this calm, detached, and cruel facade in the face of love. But no, after all –

Mr. Officer, after all, “love” is too small a word to describe the thing between me and Hai, I say.

And you still maintain that Mr. Hai is innocent.

Yes.

Do you know the weight of your testament? The old detective lifts his glasses up, as if that simple action will make me give up and do the thing that the coward me in the past would have done.

Yes, I do.

And despite knowing that, you still maintain your, for lack of better words, version of the truth?

I look at him. If I had had a father, I imagined he would have grown old like him. Wrinkles-filled face and age-old wisdom.

Mr. Officer, do you know what thương is?

He stares at me in silence for a while. Then he sighs heavily, tears the paper on the notepad, crumbles it up, and throws it in the trash can.

Yes, I do, Mr. Nha, he says, I do.

Then with that in mind, I wish to maintain my, for lack of better words, version of the truth.


[1] Translation: In those days, you are like a blooming lotus, filled with gentleness in the shadow of dusk. In those days, you are like the morning dew, hidden like gems between the rose petals.

[2] Translation: But the days are cruel and the human heart is also cruel. The blooming flower has now withered and died. You had gone away, the boat had crossed the river, and life keeps on moving.

#16. Have You Been Eating Well Lately?

Thursday morning, a nice day.

Because it was  a nice day, I decided to walk instead of riding the rusty bike (the bike was slowly becoming more suited to be in a recycle spot than in my house, but it was an alright bike). I walked to the lottery center (a nice ass word to describe some small tables and a chair) and collect my share of the lottery tickets. The job started: I needed to sell them all before 4 p.m. I looked at the wide open landscape ahead, with the multitude of roads, large and small, and I said to myself, Walk on, Tu Ri, walk on.

It was a nice day, all right. I pulled the old, withered photograph out of my ragged shirt pocket. There he was, my son, looking straight back at me with his innocent, ten-year-old eyes. I smiled at him in the picture, Cha may, whose smile do yours look like?

I counted. It must have been more than ten years since he got lost in that big damn city, because my ten fingers were not enough in counting the years. I put the photograph back into my pocket, and I remembered, I had to walk on.

Sunday morning, a little bit hotter than yesterday, but still a nice day.

I collect my share of the lottery tickets as usual (the owner seems to like me a lot more than usual). (Look at her frown and her wrinkle forehead). (She said something about me owing her the lottery tickets’ fees but well, what can I pay her with?). As usual, I pulled the tattered photograph out of its normal place. It’s weird how my son in the picture never grew up. He was ten. Then he was fifteen. Then he was twenty five. Then he left. He left this poor village, saying he can’t grow to be happy here, and he never went back. Was that why he never grew up in my picture? Because he cannot grow to be happy, so he decided to never grow up at all. I put the picture back in my pocket. I wanted to ask him for luck, but it would feel too much like I had given in and believed that he was dead. (Which people always wished me do). (Which I would never do).   

Wednesday morning, a bit of rain, but still, a nice day.

I stood inside Ms. Sau’s café. (It was an old man’s luck, I thought, when I came to Ms. Sau’s café right when it was pouring). (It was another old man’s luck, I strongly believed, when my ragged shirt became more ragged by the rain, but not the photograph). The young boy called Hai bought two tickets, and thought that he could be an annoying ass to me as always. He started to fuss around with my shirt, saying I needed a new shirt. (Which was not true, the shirt was all right). Then he stealthily gave me more money than what the two tickets cost. (Which was an act we both agreed on). He stood by my side the whole time it was raining. “Isn’t it sad, Uncle Tu,” he said. “What sad?” I asked.

He looked at me and smile. I wondered why the smiles of these young things were always so bitter. He and the girls inside Ms. Sau’s café, they all had the same bitter, faithless, desolated smiles on their face. He pulled a cigarette out of his pants’ pocket and asked me, “Solitude. Isn’t solitude sad?” His eyes looked like they were searching for something in the pouring rain. They looked like my son’s when he was twenty five years old, saying he cannot grow to be happy here.

“Sometimes,” I said, “it was my only friend, and I don’t know how to refuse its association.” I held my shirt pocket, where the old photograph stayed stubbornly in its place. The creeping solitude just kept mounting on my shoulder. (Is it a friend? Is it not? I didn’t know. Did Hai know?).

Tuesday afternoon, sultry weather, but the day was still nice.

I couldn’t wear the usual long-sleeve shirt as the weather was too hot and humid. I settled for the rarely worn t-shirt instead. I salvaged it from a garbage dump a few years back. It had two large holes on the sides, and a dozen little holes decorated on the hem. (It was an all right t-shirt still). (I didn’t mind the holes much, it helped circulating the air). (The only thing I didn’t like about the t-shirt was that it had no pockets, but that was bearable). I went to Ms. Nam’s house, all smiling, “Can I use your phone?”. She put on that same pity face and nodded. It’s strange how everyone grew to look at me with their blatant pity as if they all had known my ending before I knew it. And that ending was not very bright. And that they were in a privileged-enough position to throw pity in my face when I never asked for it.

I dialled the number of the provincial police. Some half strange, half familiar voice answer me, “Hello?”.

“Have you got any information on the missing case of Mr. Tuan Anh?” I asked, a little bit of hope jumped up and down my throat.

“Sorry sir, we’ve got nothing on that case.”

“Nothing at all?”

“Yes, nothing.”

“Not even a picture? Or a letter? Or just a useless piece of paper?”

“Nothing.”

He hung up. I rubbed my eyes. The tiredness of all those years waiting came creeping slowly back the way it so often did on these hot, humid days. Sometimes, it made it so hard to keep believing that the day was nice. I turned to Ms. Nam, “Got a piece of paper?” She stood up and silently walked inside. I lost myself in the dreary humid afternoon. A crow was cawing in the far distance. I thought I had sat there for half a lifetime. Then Ms. Nam came back with a crumpled piece of paper and a pen. I bent down till my nose touched the paper and drew the strange letters that the neighborhood kids had taught me: My dearest son, have you been eating well lately?

Monday afternoon, the sultry weather continued.

“It’s ridiculous how much one depended on an old photograph to live and believe in a nice day,” I told Hai.

“Only you do that,” he laughed.

“You don’t live on a photograph?”

“I live on something else. Something like death.”

“I don’t understand you youngsters and your obsession with death. Is it fun living like that?”

“Is it fun living and breathing depending on a photograph?”

“Guess not, then.”

Hai was silent, his eyes focused on the empty lot that used to be Mr. Bay’s house. I heard some rumours from the old ladies in the village saying that Hai cursed Mr. Bay. I imagined Hai to be an old and shrivelled wizard disguised as a handsome young boy full of life. Look at him and all his talking about death. Who would have thought a boy of such age would carry such burden? “But it was not his fault,” I told the old ladies, “he is a kind kid.” (Of course, it didn’t matter much to the old ladies and their gossips). (However, it didn’t change the truth that Hai was an all right kid). We watched the empty lot in the intense silence of the burning afternoon as if we thought, or Hai thought, that if we continued to watch it, Mr. Bay would suddenly be resurrected from his own grave. Then Hai asked, “Isn’t it sad, Uncle Tu?”

And suddenly, the sadness of a whole century came dawning upon me. It is sad, Hai. Living is sad. Dying is sad. Waiting is sad. Solitude is sad. I turned to him, all smiling, “Got a piece of paper with you?”. He smiled his usual bitter understanding smile. It’s strange how he never included pity in his understanding. Then he gave me a piece of nicely cut paper that he “prepared for the occasion.” What occasion it was, I didn’t ask. It just seemed to me that I didn’t have the right to ask him then (or now). In the heat of the afternoon, inside the café, I wrote with the difficulty of old age and illiteracy, My dearest son, have you been eating well lately –

Sunday morning, an extremely nice day.

Tu Hue – the young girl who just came back from the city – said she saw someone who looked exactly like my missing son. He disappeared into a tall building. (She called it a condo or something). (Imagine it, my son, rich enough to buy a condo-something). I asked her if I could come and see him.

“For what, Uncle Tu?” she said. (She meant to say, If your son needs you, he must have contacted you long ago). (But what did she know? She was not my son’s mother). (Well, even if she was my son’s mother, what good would it do me to care for her words? Them women and stuff).

I turned to her, all smiling, “I just want to ask him if he has been eating well lately.” (And possibly a new photograph of him this time). (Maybe I can be in the photograph. A father-and-son photograph sounds real nice).

Monday morning, rainy, but still a wonderful day.

Tu Hue took me to the city. I asked her if I could sell my lottery tickets there to cover the trip, but she said that was quite alright, she already took care of it. “I want you to see, Uncle Tu,” she said (but when I asked her what did she want me to see, she refused to answer).

She took me to the condo-something. It was tall, alright. And it didn’t stand alone. There were three more building like it, standing together like mountains that people cannot cross. “Oh Lord, how can we climb up there?” I asked Tu Hue, bewildered. She told me I can’t. She told me to sit on the pavement outside the building. She told me to wait and see.

“See what?”. Again, she refused to answer and turned her face away from me. I knew that pity look. It was the same as her mother, Ms. Nam, when I asked her to use the phone. But I didn’t care. Pray thee, my ancestor, I hope my son has been eating well. I hope he eats at least three meals a day. I hope nothing dark and dangerous had befallen upon him. In the screaming noise of the city street and the choking air under the city sky, I chewed the banh mi that Tu Hue gave me with the difficulty of old age and wishful thinking.

Monday afternoon, heavier rain. Isn’t it sad?

I saw my son walking toward me. I waved, but he seemed like he didn’t see me at all. So I ran to him in the pouring rain and tugged hard on his expensive shirt sleeve. (Look at my son). (The shirt must have been made from silk). (The kind of silk you only saw in movies where they re-created our Emperor’s clothes). “Ti,” I screamed in the thundering rain, “my dearest Ti, Ti, Ti,” I repeated his childhood nickname as if I truly believed that if I kept on saying his nickname, he would magically become the ten-year-old boy in my old photograph, innocently looking back at me. So much depended upon an old photograph, and it was breaking and wasting away in the rain. “Look, this is you, and this is me,” I pointed at the shrivelling picture dampened by the heavy rain, “Ti, I’m your father. Do you remember me?” I turned to him, all smiling with my blackened and gapped teeth. He looked at me, a strange fear was creeping in his eyes. A fear I didn’t know and didn’t realize at that time.

He meant to say, I don’t remember you. He meant to say, Why did you come here, after all this time, when I finally grow to be happy. He meant to say, I don’t want you, your ragged shirt, and your heaps of lottery tickets. There were a lot more that he meant to say. But he stayed silent instead, and jerked his expensive shirt sleeve away from my weakening grip, and went inside the building. Long after he was gone, and long after the rain had completely soaked me, I realized I had forgot to ask him the important question. The question I had written down on the crumbled papers that were wrapped up inside my pants’ front pockets. (They were also breaking and wasting away in the rain, like the old photograph). Tu Hue came up to me, “Did you see it yet?,” she asked. “See what?” I replied with the difficulty of old age and a whole century’s sadness. Ti oi, have you been eating well lately?

Sunday evening, rainy. The day was no longer nice and beautiful.

“Isn’t it ridiculous how much one depended on an old photograph to live and believe in a nice day?”

“But you no longer have the photograph, Uncle Tu.”

Cha may, Hai, what does it matter? Bring me more booze.”

“Did you send him the letters you wrote?”

“They were no letters. I only knew how to write that one sentence.”

 “But did you send them?”

 “What does it matter?” I laughed, remembering the fading image of a stranger in expensive shirts and suits, walking into the mountain of the condo-something – a mountain no human could cross, “What does it matter, Hai, what does it all matter?”

“Isn’t it sad, Uncle Tu?” Hai asked.

I drank the bitter booze, feeling the tears swelling in my eyes. Because it was sad. It was so goddamn sad.

****************************

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#15. Because We Are So Much Better (Than Whatever This Is)

Was it the truth? I don’t know anymore.

When someone whispered a lie into your ears constantly, day and night, you would grow to believe in it. Does believing in the lie automatically turn it into some truths? I don’t know anymore. To me, at best, Nha’s lie sort of looked like a distorted truth from a far-enough distance. Kind of like appreciating Picasso’s paintings: Looking from afar, they are arts, ain’t they?

That was what Nha cooed into my ears every night since the day of the bomb. Each time I jerked awake in the night, writhing and floundering in the stoned-cold darkness, drowning myself in a lake of the death full of landmine, he would cooed sweetly into my ears. And in a blink of an eye, I would blindly believe him like a child tempted by the shiny lights decorating the department stores in the main district when Tet came.

But like those beautiful lights that people quickly discard after the tenth day of the Lunar New Year, Nha’s truthful lie went off when the night came. It always did.

“Because you are so much better than all of this. We are so much better than all of this. Whatever it is, we are so much better.”

“And will we be cruising over it?” I asked him, not believing in him. Not believing in anything. Not believing in life itself.

“Yes. Yes. Yes. We will be over it. Be it riding a motorbike or walking on these calloused feet, we will be cruising over it.”

And I thought to myself, How strange. Why am I so willingly and blindingly believe in him? I thought of the moment the light went out on the tenth day of Lunar New Year and unconsciously, I grasped onto Nha’s muscular arm the way a drowning person grasped onto thin air: Hopeless and desperate.

Perhaps this time, instead of hanging myself onto a loose rope, I had decided to hang myself on something frailer. Something like love. Because we were so much better than all of this mess, whatever it is.

***********

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#14. Isn’t It Funny How People Always Die When The Weather Is Nice?

The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven o’clock in the morning. It was quite a fine day, or like how I like to put it, a sultry, hellish day. Not a single wind was blowing west, and all I can see in front of me is the baked earth, which, not to exaggerate, was starting to evaporate. Yet one had to wonder at the marvelous blue sky above. It’s ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful it was. It’s ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful the weather was. It’s even more ridiculous how nice, calm, and peaceful the crowd standing on the edge of the lake just outside Auntie Bay’s house was.

The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven-thirty in the morning. Uncle Bay was fishing a UXO out of the lake outside his house amidst the buzzing storm of the crowd’s murmur. And I was there, with Hai, because us two idiots had never seen a bomb, a real bomb, before.

He said, half-joking, half-serious, “Perhaps I can die this way, Nha. Don’t you think it’s funny how people always die when the weather is this nice?” And right at that moment, I knew the half-serious part of the sentence was larger than the half-joking part. But I didn’t care much for what he said. Just like how I didn’t care for the way those nightmares haunted him at night when he laid there staring blankly at the ceiling.

That’s right. The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and Hai hadn’t slept for one whole week.

He’s been hanging on the death of the past – the ghosts of ancient, cruel times – like a suicidal person hanging on a loose rope. And I bet that’s all he ever saw. He even said it before to my face. Nha, I’ve seen enough of them dying. And now, getting a sense of what he really meant that time, I can’t wait to step out of the mess that was his life, fast as the way I had stepped into it on that rainy day. But that was also an ancient, cruel time.

By the time Uncle Bay was done fishing out the UXO, we were soaking wet with sweat. The salty water was leaking from every open pore on our body. It felt like a large construction sight to me. The scene was so familiar with all the stink, the heat, and the sun shining blindingly above us. I licked my lips and tasted the salty drop of sweat forming on the corner of my mouth. Nha, stop doing that, let what bygone be bygone. You are so, so far removed from that life of toil. 

But how can one escape from the past? That would be quite an invention. 

A stork was clattering its bills noisily, busying itself with the tedious grooming duty. I wiped the dripping sweat on my forehead and asked Hai,

“Man, care for a cold drink at your café across the road? My throat can build a desert.”

“First of all, it’s not my café, it’s Auntie Sau’s. Second of all, you are right, let’s have a cold drink. I think all my blood is evaporating under this piercing sun.” Hai was fanning himself with both of his hands. A strand of hair fell down and he tucked it behind his ears. A drop of sweat fell down his eyes, and he closed them to avoid the sting. The moment the drop of sweat moved down his eyelids and fell down his long eyelashes, I felt a bang in my heart.

A bang that will forever haunt me, torture me, and kill me, little by little, day by day. I turned away and felt my face burning. Was it because of the sun? Or something else?

And so we went to Auntie Sau’s café across the road. Some girls asked Hai why he was there because it was not his shift. As if a normal person had no right to be in a café if it was not his shift, I murmured under my breath. Hai laughed at them, saying that he heard someone found a bomb, so he came to watch.

“It’s not gonna end well, is it?” They chirped amidst the clattering of the plastic mugs and glasses.

“What?”

“The bomb. Have you seen one explode before?”

“Never. That’s why I came to watch.”

“And look at all them people. It looks like someone’s dam gio, can you believe it?”

“Well, if they are not careful, and if luck’s not on their side, then this date next year may very well be their dam gio*.”

“Look at you, Hai. Watch your mouth, or you will get a well-deserved beating one of these days.”

“I got my bodyguard, don’t you worry. And what do you know?” Hai winked at all the beauties. I heard him whisper under his breath, “What I deserved is a dam gio. My own dam gio.” But I didn’t care much for what he said. You never know what to do to a person who’s seen enough of them dying.

A group of strong, muscular young men walked into the café, clamoring for ice-cold black coffee. “Em oi, put in it a mountain of ice, please,” a young man with unusually squared jaws joked, “I need to apply some cold ice to my burning life.” The girls giggled like crazy at his words. One girl went to get the men’s ice-cold black coffee. Her long, lean fingers stirred the spoon to the rhythm of the cheesy pop song that was blasting inside the store. I love you, and if you don’t love me, I don’t know who else I will love, that was all the song said. That was all every cheesy pop song ever said these days. I heard the clanking noise of the spoon against the glasses, and I felt drowsy. The girl’s long, lean fingers suddenly looked like Hai’s to me: she moved them quick, then slow, then quick, then sideways, then circle, then …

“Will they cut open the bomb?” The man with weird jaws said.

“What do you think?”

“I swear they’re gonna cut open the bomb. I saw someone getting the rusty saw from uncle Tu the carpenter.”

“Really? They’re gonna do that? What a feast.” Then loud laughter. Then whistles.

“Man, what bravery. Have you ever heard of a joke? An American, a Chinese, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese join a bravery contest –”

The joke was tasteless. I felt Hai’s grip on my wrist stronger. I doubted that it will leave a bruise. But never mind. After all, the one being hurt wasn’t me. I wonder if the Vietnamese guy in that joke was brave or just simply stupid. I didn’t know. I bet he did not fear death. I bet he was wishing for death even, like someone who’s seen enough of them dying. Like Hai.

“Do you think we should go home, Hai?” I asked hesitantly. I hoped he said yes. Not the type of yes that everyone would cheer and shout and clap, but a good, happy yes that everyone wanted after a tiring day, anyway.

“Why? Should I not stay? Should I not stare Death in the face and say enough is enough?” He laughed, sipping his bac xiu**.

“We saw the bomb. What more do you want?”

“I don’t know what I want, Nha. But I do know what I don’t want. I don’t want to be home,” he paused for a second, then added, “It’s burning in Uncle Hai’s house.”

“Oh guess what? It’s burning here, too. And there’s way more people here.” I quickly glanced around. A crowd was never the right place for criminals on the run like me.

“They care too much for the bomb. They won’t see you for who you are.”

“And is that what you want? For people to not see you for who you are.”

He didn’t retort. That was a first. He continued sipping his bac xiu while staring intently at Uncle Bay’s house far across the road. The young men beside us kept on chattering loudly with a burst of laughter and dramatic hands movement. And the girls kept on stirring the metal spoon noisily, making it clanking against the glass. Her long, lean fingers looked more and more like Hai’s. And Hai stared ahead. And I felt drowsy.

You must be bored with all these details by now. Why would I tell you all of these small, insignificant, trivial facts? Because they are all the details that will always be vivid in my mind. Why are they so haunting? You may ask. Perhaps you already conjure up some terrible ideas. The worst idea, maybe. And they are all true. For fuck’s sake, they are all so damn true.

The date was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was twelve o’clock in the afternoon. The bomb exploded in Uncle Bay’s house. Boom. A loud motherfucking boom.

Everything happened in a blink of an eye. I know it was a cliché saying, but it was literally a blink of an eye. I blinked, and the house was gone. The crowd was gone. Uncle Bay was gone. The only thing that remained was a hollow pit. And we were all staring at the empty lot that used to be Uncle Bay’s house like a dumb, stunned audience watching the finale of a circus act. The sound of death was loud and clear. I knew it when I heard it. It was a mundane static noise ringing in the air. I guess I had also seen enough of them dying. We were drowning in the striking silence which was growing stronger each minute after the deafening noise. And as if Hai had finally woken up from his bad dreams – as if he was the only sane person among us audience, which he always was – he jerked up, his body shaking, his voice cracking. He screamed, “CALLS THE FUCKING COPS. SOMEBODY CALLS THE FUCKING COPS.” And he shot toward the hollow pit like a bullet.

Hai’s joking voice rang in my ears like a mourning toll. Well, if they are not careful, and if luck’s not on their side, then this date next year may very well be their dam gio. Damn it, Hai. And now the blown-up bodies will pile up on the ghosts that you dearly yearn to forget, Hai. But you can never forget this. You can never forget the corpses lying there like a decoration for Christmas. But Hai –

I stuck to the plastic chair, watching anxiously at the stream of people running toward the devastating sight. Someone said that the cops were on their way. I held my breath, and my hands were gripping on the chair’s handles tightly like an iron chain. Hai, oh Hai, if you don’t come back, I’m gonna join the bravery contest and saw the bomb in half. My forehead was running cold sweat. A tingling sensation was spreading fast all over my useless body and I can’t move my shaking legs. A cold whiteness unfurled in front of my eyes. Hai, come back. I writhed in fear and overwhelming terror. Hai, come back come back come back –

Outside, the cops parked their cars near the edge of the hollow pit. My heart was beating like a racing horse as I watched the cops walked out of the cars one by one. As the living life was seeping out of me, I saw a shadow running fast toward my chair, grabbing my hands, yanking me up, and pulling me out from the harrowing crowd. “What are you waiting for? Run,” Hai said. And that’s what we did. As we charged forward, I felt his frail hand trembling in mine as if he was gonna give me up anytime now – as if he was gonna give everything up anytime now, and burry himself beneath the hollow pit of the bombing sight, right beside the fleshy corpse of Uncle Bay. I pulled him to a nearby bamboo grove and hid behind it. Hai was wriggling like a worm and tugging my hand.

“Move. Just move. For God’s sake, MOVE.”

“Keep it down. What’s wrong with you? No one will see us here, it’s far enough.”

“Move. Move,” he was nearly shrieking. His fist punched me strong and hard. But the pain I felt at that time was nothing. The sultry weather was nothing. The stinky sweat was also nothing. Hai fell to the ground and hid his face in his arms, “If you don’t move now, one of these days, I will kill you, too.”

“No, you will not.”

“Did you hear me, Nha? I said this day next year will be their dam gio, haha –” Hai laughed. His laugh sounded like a poisonous seed was stuck inside his throat, and it was growing roots in his veins, ” – what damned luck is that? I am just like the Reaper, Nha. They called me Hai the Reaper. Because that’s what I do. Did you see me reap their souls when the bomb exploded?” He can’t stop cackling. The sanity was slowly leaving his bright, crystal eyes. Then he fell into his usual loop of crying-laughing – the loop that I had witnessed so many times this whole sleepless week. But Hai –

“I didn’t see you reap anybody’s soul,” I said to him, “You know what I see, Hai? I see someone who has been trying so hard to save everyone’s life. So, so hard. Heck, he even tries to save a criminal on the run while he is having a mental breakdown. He even tries to laugh and protect the happiness of everybody when he can’t even protect his own happiness. Hai, look at me. Come on, stop that nonsense and look at me. That’s right, good boy. Do you see it? All I see is you, Hai. All I see is you – who you really are.”

I stroked his unkempt hair gently. He curled up to me and continued weeping. “Everyone’s dying, Nha, everyone’s dying,” he kept whispering shakily in his breathy voice. I thought he was gonna shatter to pieces in that very moment. I gathered all of him in my arms, trying to collect the remaining pieces of his sanity in my hands, and patch the bleeding wounds that were scattered all over his body.

“You are better than all of this, Hai, all of this,” I cooed in his ears, “Look at you, you are so much better than all of this, so much better – ” As he slowly fell into a slumber on my chest, I held onto a flimsy prayer that one of these days, Hai will believe what I said.

The day was the twenty-eighth of April, and the time was eleven o’clock in the morning. There was so much that we can never save. And sometimes, the only thing we can hold in our hands was nothing but the sanity of a boy maddened by death and the past bygone.

*A person’s death anniversary.

**A type of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.

****************

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#12. The Thousandth Day

I thought it would be better after the thousandth day, but it seemed the pain will never fade away. And no matter how much I tried to keep on living, I can’t find a remedy for the hollow left behind by those cold corpses in a winter twilight.

The pain kept on burning. And I kept on living. No matter what.

***************

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#11. Aren’t You The Happiest Man, Mr. Unfortunate?

One.

“Now this here is what I call a blue sky. Today is an unexceptionally nice day, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you say today is the day? See, the wind is supporting us. With this wind, we will go far, and I don’t even know where it will take us, Mr. Unfortunate. But today you are not unfortunate no more. Look, the birds are singing a marching song. They are singing it for you. And the flowers, too. They wear their brightest dress in the bluest hue, and they are waving their tiny little petals at you. Aren’t you the happiest man, Mr. Unfortunate? Aren’t you the merriest man, Mr. Unfortunate? And isn’t Christmas coming a little too early for you, Mr. Unfortunate?”

I looked at the man in the mirror and slowly nodded at all his questions. Yes, yes, yes. I am the happiest man, I am the merriest man, and Christmas is coming a little too early for me. I brushed my teeth, combed my hair back all the way to reveal a retreating hairline, and put on some cheap cologne. Then I secretly looked again at the man in the mirror. He laughed cheerfully back,

“Look at the day. What a fine day. What a perfect day. What an over-the-top day. Because you know what day it is.”

“I know what day it is,” I mumbled.

“Today is a marvelous day to die.”

I gave him a sheepish smile. Yes, yes, yes. Today is a marvelous day to die. Then realizing that my wife and my daughter were probably still sound asleep, I quickly covered my mouth and slipped out of the bathroom. The man in the mirror followed my footsteps. He didn’t need to worry about the noise because he had no noise. I had to worry, and I had to worry a bit too damn much. It was six in the morning. The chance of my plan being successful was very thin. But the man assured me, “You will be successful, because you are the happiest man, the merriest man, and Christmas is coming a little too early for you.” So I held my breath, tip-toed out the door, and quietly closed the front gate behind me. Report: no one was woken up during the process. Comrade Unfortunate, you are doing a very good job.

I walked on the earthy road leading to the village’s market. There were many people on the field. People with ghosts. People without ghosts. And yet, there were no people with motorcycles. I was looking for that kind, people with motorcycles. “Are you still the happiest man, the merriest man, Mr. Unfortunate?” he asked in his chirping voice, and I said, “Yes, yes, yes.” Yes, my battle is still going strong. I walked on, one step in front of the other. I counted the steps carefully. One, two, three. If only this whole affair were as easy as counting one, two, three. What’s next after one, two, three? I thought hard, but I did not know. My ma always said that I was a bit too slow after I came back from that nasty, son-of-a-bitch war. So I reverted back to counting one, two, three, one, two, three.

Finally, there was someone with a motorcycle.

Two.

I walked on. And a fortune finally came to the slow, dumb, unfortunate man. Ahead of me, in the dim, foggy landscape, a bike jumped into my eyes. I ran quickly after it. “Just you wait, it was not a motorcycle,” the man said. But that is to be expected, I told him. Things not going according to my plan – that was always to be expected.

“Hey, young man, wait there,” I shouted. One, find someone with a motorcycle (but a bike was also acceptable).

“Uncle Ba? Where are you going so early in the morning?” The young man turned to look at me. Oh, are you –

“Is it Hai?” – uncle Hai’s son. My palms were wet with sweat. Will he know? Will he see the man in the mirror perched on my shoulders? Will he suspect that I am the happiest man, the merriest man? It was always messy if it were someone you knew. I stepped back, planning to run away, but the young man already parked his bike and walked toward me.

“How can I help you, uncle Ba?”

I stopped midway and started to think. I thought extremely hard; everyone could see my brain evaporate and forehead all wrinkled up. “What can he help me with?,” I asked the man in the mirror. He replied with a deafening silence. That damn man – always disappeared when I needed him the most. So I stood there like the slow, dumb, unfortunate man that I was, and flicked my shirt’s hem in the hope that the fabric could weave something out of my mind.

“Do you need a lift, uncle Ba?”

“Why, yes. I need a lift. That’s exactly what I need.” I perked up. This child sure was quick.

“Where do you want to go?”

“I need to go to my cousin’s house.” Two, tell him to drive you to a cousin’s house on the other side of the bridge.

“And where’s your cousin’s house?”

“Just over the bridge.”

“Over the bridge? That’s quite a long trip. Are you sure you want to go by bike? Because I can get you another person at my work with a motorcycle.”

“I’m in no rush. Today is a marvelous day, anyway.”

I smiled sheepishly at him, trying to not let the hopes and the wishes in my eyes shine too much. He will see through them. Will he see through them? Hai watched me, his crystal eyes carefully traced the outline of my body. He thought I couldn’t see him doing that, but I could see him doing that. He thought I didn’t know what he was thinking, but I knew what he was thinking. What should I do, I asked the man in the mirror, he will refuse, he will refuse, he will refuse –

“Sure. If that’s what you want, uncle Ba. Hop on.”

“See? I told you today is going over-the-top well. He doesn’t suspect anything. Because you are the happiest man, Mr. Unfortunate. You are the merriest man. And may I repeat that Christmas is coming a little too early for you,” the man in the mirror cackled in my ears. He put his weight on my shoulders, and I collapsed on the backseat of the bike. Hai pedaled ahead. The wind crossed my face in gentle gusts, and I can’t help but remember the man’s words. The wind is going to carry me far, and he doesn’t even know where it will take us.

“Today seems to be a nice day, uncle Ba. A perfect day to visit your cousin.”

“You are right. The sky is impeccably blue. The birds are singing a marching song. And the flowers are wearing their brightest colors.” I smiled like an idiot. Everything was just as how my plan was going to be. The man whispered to my ears, “I told you. My words are gospels,” and we had a good laugh out of it.

“How are your wife and daughter?”

“They are fine. Wonderfully fine. My wife is going to cook up a feast for my mother’s death anniversary today. My daughter will help. And I’m going to my cousin’s house to invite them. A bit late. My ma always said that I was always late after I came back from that nasty, son-of-a-bitch war.”

“But that’s not true, uncle Ba. There’s a saying that goes, Better late than never.”

“I’m hoping I’m not too late in inviting my cousin.” I looked down and flicked my shirt’s hem to cover the lies I was telling.

“Well, it’s better than not inviting him, right, uncle Ba?”

He laughed. The bumpy road kept on winding out of the village. The moment the bike was out of the village’s gate, a bud was blooming in my stomach. I thought I can see fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Finally, Comrade Unfortunate, you are on your way to the ending march. The man on the mirror looked back at the gate as we pedaled ahead and wistfully spoke to me, “Aren’t you the happiest man now?”

“Yes.”

“The merriest man?”

“Yes.”

“And these things don’t mean shit to you. This wind. This sky. These birds. These flowers. They don’t mean shit to you, Mr. Unfortunate.”

“Yes.”

“Because you know what to do, Mr. Unfortunate, you know what to do.”

I had the urge to revel in the spectacular morning, but the boy will know, so I held firmly onto the bike’s backseat and whistled a soft tune instead.

Let me tell you the story of Comrade Unfortunate. He was born into a family of the dead. When he was six years old, his father was KIA, and his two brothers were on the verge of being KIA in a nasty war. The thing he remembered most after all his life was through, was the face of the dead painted by blood and guts. You think facing all that dead, Comrade Unfortunate would not choose to plunge himself into a bloody war. But he did. How did I become Comrade Unfortunate and not just a simple Mr. Unfortunate? Was it because my heart was full of birds’ songs and blooming flowers? No, not that tedious bullshit. It was all a matter of running away. I ran from this side of the war to the other side of the war because I thought this side was nasty. Turned out, all sides were nasty. They were all sons of bitches.

Six years old and I already knew life was tiresome. We were always on the edge of running. Running from this house to that house. Running down to the basement. Running on the burning field. It was funny how people can live their life running away. My mom would carry me on her waist, and on the first bombs, she ran. But there were never the last. They kept falling on us like the rain of July. Amidst the booming noise, the blown-up dirt and rock, the torn houses and the dying paddies, she ran. The point of the story was, she never uttered a single word. No crying. No shouting. As if running has become a tedious chore, and she had to do it once, twice, or many times a day when the first bombs fell. What happened after the bombing paused? She walked back – to our ruin of a house – with a six year old me in her hands. “Never say a word,” she said to me once when we were hiding under the basement, “because they will know. And once they know, they will kill us.” I didn’t know who “they” refered to. The whole thing about the war was you never know which side you were talking about. Because they were all fighting. And they were all dying.

So when it was my turn to run away, I decided to run toward our side. Like my KIA father. Like my on-the-verge-of-being-KIA brothers. The day I became Comrade Unfortunate, my mother stood there on the doorstep, quietly looked at me. She did what she did best: not a word was breathed out. No crying. No shouting. She stood there and looked at me, her irises not moving. Then she looked past me, past the dim, foggy morning landscape. In her eyes, the scars of the war were engraved deep like Cu Chi Tunnel’s map. She thought I did not know what she was thinking, but I knew. She was thinking that I, too, will be on the verge of being KIA. Oopsies, that’s a total of a husband and three sons, ma’am, hope we can pay you back, the war said. She held onto the door frame, her thinning figure looked like those glass dolls that luxury stores sold with a tag “Fragile, proceed with care” on their shelves. Amidst the unexceptional silence of the raging war, I thought, Ma, if you asked me to stay home, maybe I would. Maybe I could hide myself in the tunnel under our tattered house, and we can live on water and dirt But we couldn’t live on water and dirt. And all she said at the end was,

“You will never go back to me, will you.”

“Who knows, ma. Maybe I’m lucky this time.”

“Luck or not, no one comes back from the war and be the person they once were. They all turn to ghosts. They have the ghosts of war perch on their shoulders.”

“But maybe this time, I would come back alive.”

She didn’t hear me. Her eyes were focusing on the ghosts of war which started to appear on my shoulders. The man in the mirror. She saw him laughing away at the corpses of my father, and eventually, my two brothers. She turned her back to me, went inside the house, and mumbled, “Ah, so that’s what it costs me. Just when I think it will not cost me more than this, it has the courage to come up to me and raise the price.”

And ma was right. She was always right. I came back from the war, painted by dead.

She was the same old, brave lady who kept on running on the field, on the paddies, on the glowing red earthy road the day I came back. There were never the last bombs, even after all the planes left. On thundering nights, we both heard the bombs fall down. Boom. Boom. Boom. I bet she still heard the booming noise the day she walked on the stage to receive the “Vietnamese Heroic Mother Certificate.” The certificate that will not bring back her home. The same certificate that will not resurrect her long-dead husband. The very certificate that screamed to her face the truth, that her two on-the-verge-of-being-KIA sons did eventually end up being actually-KIA. So she stood there, her feet firm on the stage, like a real statue that they built in memories of all the Vietnamese Heroic Mothers. She stood so still, so firm, so quiet, that the comrades had to uproot her from the stage and carry her down the steps. It was raining hard. The certificate in her hands started to crumble, melt away into the earth, and the comrades were trampling all over it. Bearing the scars of the war in her irises, she smiled, her eyes once again looked past me, into dark tunnels and basements,

“And now I don’t even have a certificate to prove that I indeed had a husband and two sons.”

For the first time in my life, I saw her cackle. But the rain was washing her cackles away. The rain was also washing her away. She was never the same person that she once was. Because no one came back from the war and be the person they once were. And the thunder kept on booming. And the bombs kept on falling.

All ma ever wanted was a happy meal with the happiest husband and the merriest sons. But the only thing she can grasp was a thin certificate. And the certificate wasted away in the loud fucking rain.

“Uncle Ba, we are on the other side of the bridge now. Where should I go next?” The voice brought me back to the sunlit road. I looked up at him, trying to give him one of my friendliest smiles; although my wife always said the I looked stupid with them:

“Can you wait a moment? I think I drop one of my sandals on the bridge.”

“Are you sure it’s on the bridge? I can go back there with you –”

“Yes, Hai, and no, thanks. I will be very quick. Pedaling back is a hassle. After all, riding a bike this far is tiresome.” And was I glad you were riding a bike.

I hopped down from the bike, and walked casually back to the bridge, waving at Hai intermittently. He looked like he, too, was seeing a ghost. His ghost was also painted by death. I counted my step slowly. One two. One two. What was next? Three. What was three? You know what to do, Comrade Unfortunate, you know what to do.

The water splashed. I heard many voices. Among them, there was Hai’s screaming. Bad youngsters; they never knew how to keep the silence like my ma did. As I drowned into the pleasure of the cold, cold water of the early morning, I heard my ma’s slow, quiet voice whisper, “I know I would lost you, too.” I opened my eyes to see her standing there, in our old torn-down house, with the trailing smoke of the bombs behind her. Her irises were engraved with the scars of warlike Cu Chi Tunnel’s map. “Just like how the certificate was wasted in the thundering rain,” she said, “because no one comes back from the war and be the person they once were.” Yes, yes, yes. The man in the mirror laughed in my ears, “You did good. And now, you will become a corpse, too. Because, Comrade Unfortunate, you know what to do.” Yes, yes, yes. The final thing to do was –

Three.

“Good boy. Jump.”

**********************

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