By Nguyễn Quang Thân - Translated by ROSEMARY Nguyen - SEATLE - USA
So that was it; the last shred of hope was gone. The shoe factory had filed for bankruptcy, and Hảo was out of work for the rest of the year. His proposal; the initial grant money; the patent he would have sold to the factory: all had dissolved into thin air. The customers had turned their noses up at the factory's shoes, the ones with the peeling toe-leather, before Hảo's marvelous new glue could find its way through that tortuous labyrinth of red tape.
So there it was, but he still had to eat, still had to send money to his daughter who'd gone up to Hanoi to pursue further studies, and still had to take care of that rattletrap bicycle that would fall apart to the tune of several thousand[i] every time he touched it. And then there was his morning cup of black coffee -- even one day without that and Hảo would begin to feel that he was reverting to the days when men had tails.
At any rate he had to have some kind of work! But, with the exception of the specialty written on that fragile piece of paper known as his Master's Degree, Hảo had no skills. And he couldn't be like Tứ, the artist who lived downstairs. Tứ usually did not know what the next day would bring him to eat, or even where he would eat. Tứ always said, "Hunger is like a tiger, don't look at it, even one little look and it will snap you right up".
But now Tứ, looking as stained as a vegetable-sponge dipped in paint, was stepping into his room at precisely the moment Hảo was thinking of him.
"Now, my young man, here's a job for you that's just what you need. But brew us up some coffee, we'll have a shot first, eh?"
Hảo anxiously scooped coffee into the filter. What, maybe Tứ is going to ask me to join in a counterfeiting scheme? His face looks as though he is already packing his clothes for the trip to Hỏa Lò[ii].
"What's the job?"
"Childcare! One hundred big ones a month with free lunches. Good enough for you yet?"
"It sounds great." Hảo was suspicious; a fan-shaped cluster of wrinkles cascaded from the corner of his eyes down to his cheekbones. "But no way would a sweet opportunity like that ever fall into my lap. And then there's my institute..."
"And I told you that they're hiring, aren't you listening? Ride herd on a little boy, three years old, just beginning to really babble. Baby-sit him and at the same time teach him a little English so that when he grows up he can read the names of companies around the city and can tell the difference between the men's and women's bathrooms at the airport. As for your institute, I can fix that up for you. Submit a proposal on a topic that really rings, something like this: "Casting a hard look into the shoe-tip glue manufacturing processes in our locality" -- remember you gotta have that word "our" -- then say you don't need any grant money and request two years to do research at home, good enough for you yet?"
Well, it certainly was good enough that Tứ hadn't asked him to counterfeit any money. Hảo did submit a proposal, but changed Tứ's wording. "Casting a hard look"...nope, wouldn't do. Finally: "Let's take a hyperbole (in English) in the spirit of dialectical materialism..." then in parallel translation: "faire une hyperbole..." (French) and "To take a hyperbole..." (in English again) and add in two pages of a research outline (also with parallel translations). There, now that's a proposal with style! Hảo’s bluff easily fooled the Director of the Provincial Committee on Science and Technology, who before becoming a political appointee had been a high school teacher. The research outline contained a few particularly difficult words which Hảo hadn't been able to translate into English, but he had simply made up some plausible-sounding words, confident that the director wouldn't know the difference. The old man usually required his cadres to write their commentaries in parallel translation, but he himself couldn't distinguish French from English--with the exception of Russian, which he could recognize by its odd backward N. "Quite good, young man, it's idealistic, it's localistic, yes, I have quite a good feeling about your subject. But are you asking for grant money? No? Good! Remember, it's your treat the next time, eh?" He signed with a sweeping scratch, his signature crawling across the page like a scorpion.
So Hảo had two years free. Oh, I'll treat, I'll treat. The Director and don't forget Tứ too, those two great patrons of science.
* * *
A diminutive Japanese dog gave several brittle barks then threaded nimbly between the two newcomers' legs. "Ah, Mimosa, Mimosa, be a dear now... good sirs, won't you come in..." The lady of the house hastily picked up the dog and dubiously eyed this artist-turned-procurer's stained trouser-legs. Tứ was in a hurry.
"I've brought Hảo to see you as I promised. Now I have to go hang up the flags for the May Day celebrations. I leave it to you two fine people to work out the details as you wish."
Hảo looked at the lady of the house. She was beautiful, elegant and lavish in both her dress and her slightly ample flesh, in both her time and her space.
"I'm sure Tứ told you. My little boy needs an educated person to look after him -- his father says that in Japan all childcare workers have university degrees. I'll turn the child over to you during the day; you'll stay here for lunch and take a two-hour nap with him every day--you must infallibly see to it he gets a two-hour nap just like at a daycare center. And teach him English. I wanted to hire a nanny. But my husband wanted a man, he said that the boy must learn machismo to compete in life."
All the details were settled. She said, "For now that's all you need to know. As for later..." And then she looked at him, her eyes drilling into his, and her face, her silent, morose and affluent face suddenly blazing with light. Hảo had assumed that she was merely a wealthy exhibitionist, the sort that would hire a king to dance for her party, but now a faint shiver ran through his body. Could it be that she, too, was a person of learning? He asked, "Where's your son?" It was clear that she had completely forgotten about the little boy. She answered vaguely. "I sent him to his grandmother's. You can just call him Kiddo. We always call him that so he doesn't get a big head. Makes it easier to raise them. Won't you come back tomorrow?"
The following morning she and Kiddo met him at the door. Mimosa stood at their side. The dog appeared to be astonished that Hảo could be so bold as to wheel a bicycle like that into the neat, graveled courtyard. As for the lady of the house, she was looking sleek in a fuschia-colored muslin outfit and a cursory dusting of makeup on her face. She thrust Kiddo towards him. "Now, Kiddo, say hello to the nice man. Say hello to your teacher. Go ahead!" With all the effort of some kind of sluggish machinery, the boy said, "If you please, good morning Ma'am!" She corrected him. "It's just because I put him in a preschool for a few days. Say it again, dear, 'If you please, good morning, Sir!'" She led Hảo and the boy into a small room adjoining the living room.
There was a child's schooldesk. The wooden divan that he would recline on at noontime. Some glasses, and bottles of filtered water. She said, "Tứ tells me you speak English like a native, is it true? Whenever my husband comes home, he'll be most pleased if he and his son can babble away at each other in English. He speaks English as fast as the wind." Hảo was about to contradict her with the comment, "I speak English like a Vietnamese" but just then Kiddo demanded to go number two. He screwed up his face, arched his back, and cupped his hand over his bottom. The lady of the house wrinkled up her nose. "Allow me, sir", she said, "I forgot to bring the chamber-pot in. Mrs. Múi!" Before the cook could enter, she had scooped up Kiddo and carried him out. A moment later she returned with the little boy under one arm and a chamber-pot under the other. "Down the hall there's a toilet. You may pour it in there and flush, that's good enough." Then, with all the care of a conductor putting his wand away on a shelf after a performance, she placed the chamber-pot in the corner of the room. The waltz had concluded.
Hảo looked at this snow-white symbol of his new trade and could only wish that the lady of the house would disappear. Just five years ago not a night had passed that he hadn't seen himself in his dreams, standing proud and somewhat self-conscious in the traditional robes of a doctoral graduate. Now, she gave him two keys: "Here's the key to the room. This is the gate. If you will, sir, you may take the boy out on occasion." Then she mounted the stairs to the upper floors with the self-satisfied expression of one who has fulfilled her responsibility as a conductor.
Hảo asked Kiddo "Whatsi yo namuh?" The child looked at him impudently and then paled. "You motherfucker!" He thought that Hảo had sworn at him. It had to be said that the boy swore fluently, even melodiously. Well, now was the time--somehow he had to teach the boy this sentence. "Whatsi yo namuh, it means what is your name, it's not an oath. Mankind has not yet fallen to the depths that it can construe an interrogative of nomenclature to be an oath." Thus ended the first English lesson.
* * *
No matter how irrational an act may be, it will nonetheless become easily accepted as status quo if only it is repeated day in and day out. Hảo’s transformation into a baby-sitter required only one week to come to feel natural. As natural as a famous professor who, plagued by a long illness, has to burn his books for heat; as natural as a time when each and every bicycle was required to sport a proper license plate dangling from its rusted bars. And now, after just thirty days, those twenty 5K banknotes had exerted their power and had transformed Hảo into a diligent childcare worker. The lady of the house paid no more attention to him than she did to Mrs. Múi, the stolid, shadowy cook. Since he had begun his employment, she had been liberated from her son and so had more free time. She would climb the stairs to the upper floors to read while he was bustling to and fro in his room with Kiddo and the chamber-pot, not a little beginning to miss his bookshelf and his past leisure when he had spent whole days reading the words of the great sages.
Sometimes she made a glass of lemonade for him and invited him to drink with the air of someone dispensing charity, then in the same breath took the opportunity to ramble on about her personal affairs. This was how Hảo learned that her husband had formerly been captain of an ocean-going vessel. It was he who had shown her the luxuriant green of US dollar bills, with their little portraits of deceased American presidents, for the first time. As soon as his pockets had a little something in them, he had sought a way to transfer to the shore. He told her, "These days you have to scramble up to win, whoever is underneath always loses." He knew how to invest for the long term and gradually climbed the corporate ladder. Now he was in charge of a representative office in Hong Kong, a broker in everything from multi-tonnage shipping vessels to women's bras. He said, "Used to be I'd have to shit and pee all over myself trying to buy up used goods on a trip to Japan and it would only snag me one or two taels of gold. Now, all I have to do is scrawl a signature--swak!--and I score a million big ones!" Hảo didn't know what her purpose was in relating these stories to him in her oh-so-sincere voice. He didn't know if she shared her far-flung husband's views or not. She talked cheerlessly, as though worn out; as a consumer, she did not have the passion of those who hunt their merchandise like wolves hunting prey. She was more like a she-vulture, lazily picking to shreds the corpse of an elephant. Her husband occasionally wrote letters, but for these past two years had not mentioned any kind of homecoming date. Hảo sensed that she expected he would never come home again.
Kiddo had someone to look after him, and so was cleaner than before. He was a fair student of English and was fond of his teacher. In order to deal with the chamber-pot situation, Hảo was teaching the boy to use the toilet whenever he felt the urge. The lady of the house paid him at the end of the first month; in addition to his month's salary, she handed him the following month's salary and a bonus of fifty thousand. Seeing him hesitate, she said "Take it. We're very rich. You can't possibly imagine how rich we are. But in this country where everybody is eyeing everybody else, one must be discreet."
One morning, when Hảo was in the room with Kiddo, Mr. Vi arrived on his motorcycle. Looking out the window, Hảo saw that he was better-groomed than usual, but perhaps lacking some of the majestic quality he carried with him when pacing up and down the hallways of the Institute with a cadre of science scurrying after him, trying to expound on some obscure subject. The lady of the house sat and entertained the old man for hours in the sitting-room. That afternoon, as Hảo was preparing to leave, she invited him to have some tea. "I have to go away tomorrow for several days,’’ she said, ‘’Can you help me out by staying over and taking care of the boy?" He responded that he could. After a moment's thought, she asked him, "Do you know the man who came to visit me this morning?" He said, "No." She gave him a trusting look. "Well, there's no sense in hiding anything from you, I'd only worry that you would think badly of me. That man is my lover." Seeing that Hảo seemed disturbed by this sudden disclosure, she gently, charmingly, began to pick at his shirt sleeve. "But I've decided to cut him loose. Tomorrow we're going to Sam Son beach. This is the last time, then it's over. Will you help me? Please?" She went on to explain to him that several years before her husband had subtly arranged for her to act as an escort to Mr. Vi. If it was to help her husband's career, as well as little Kiddo's future, she had no qualms about doing what was required of her. But although he went out of his way to help her husband, Mr. Vi never once laid even his eyes on her, although she dangled herself before him like a piece of fat before a cat's mouth. Well! Since when had anyone in this city dared to treat her as though she were no more than a chunk of potato? Her vanity rose, and she began to search for a chink in the armor of this paragon of virtue. At some point along the way-- she didn't know exactly when --she fell in love with him. It wasn't until she realized that his lofty-mindedness was no more than an old man's dangerous trap designed to conquer and subdue that she grew bored with him. "In the end my husband won, but I didn't get anything at all," she complained. "Please help me so that I can part ways with the old man as smoothly as possible". ‘’As you wish,’’ Hảo replied. "I'll watch the house, and I'll keep quiet about this as well." She gave a sad laugh. "That's not necessary, the whole city knows about us. We're just lucky they haven't put us on the evening news yet." Hảo said, "Don't take the little dog with you, okay?" She was taken aback. "Why not?" Then a sudden smile. "I just remembered that Chekov story.[iii] Don't worry. These days no one uses a dog to act as a go-between for love anymore!" She paused a moment, and for the second time, Hảo saw her face blaze strangely. She spoke breathlessly. "I will bring the dog with me. I'm a blind woman, but I'm still hoping to find my precious stone. Mimosa will lead the way for me." And so it was that she really did take Mimosa with her. Could it be that she still had faith that someone else awaited her at Sam Son?
Three days later, she and Mr. Vi returned home in a Toyota which pulled up outside the gate. Hearing the sound of the horn, Hảo acted the part of an diligent watchman and went out to open the gate. Unexpectedly, he came face to face with Mr. Vi. But the two did not greet each other, did not even utter a word. Ah, hard cash and a woman's beauty, no more than cards to be played by hands of vexatious fate!
Seeing the scowling, pent-up expression and the profuse body of old age ripening for its last time before withering, Hảo knew that for the last few days at Sam Son, Mr. Vi had only made it as far as first base. His pocketbook was probably somewhat lighter, but that other pocket which is every man's worldly burden was most certainly still full to the brim. And it made him angry. Hảo heard the sounds of arguing from the upper floor, in the sitting-room.
But in the end Mr. Vi had no other choice than to leave. She telephoned for a car to pick him up, then cheerfully and courteously saw him out in the proper fashion. He didn't stop glowering, knowing that he had been played for a fool; his only comfort was in telling himself that he had maintained his purity in the face of a trip to a beach replete with capitalist distractions.
Hảo knew that not many people can be cheerful when their lover has just forced them into retirement.
As soon as the old man had left the house, she ran to invite Hảo into the sitting-room for tea. "So I've cleared myself of this pound of flesh I owed!" She stroked Mimosa as she spoke, and the dog gratefully licked her hand, proud that it had won her back and proud because that wealthy, imposing old man had coveted in vain a fate such as it was enjoying today; to be fondled and stroked by her. "I just don't understand how he could have been so lovable back then", she said, "Now it's just lecturing and telling me what to do all day long!" She stroked Mimosa and whispered, "This year Sam Son was very beautiful, wasn't it, little Mimosa?" Hảo guessed silently that the little dog had already played some kind of role at Sam Son.
He was not wrong. Three days later a young man several years her junior came to the house. The young man wheeled a gun-barrel gray CBT 125 into the courtyard, removed his motorcycle helmet, and smiled broadly at the house. Hảo gazed respectfully at the motorcycle. It was only the second time in his life he had seen such a machine; the first time was when Tứ had pointed it out to him in a parking lot and had told him that, despite the fact that the entire city was crazy about Japanese products, only a few of these motorcycles had appeared to date. He called the lady of the house down and delivered the guest into her hands, then disappeared into his room with Kiddo. The guest glanced at him without a trace of surprise, as though he himself had hired several dozens of menservants of comparable quality.
They visited with each other in the sitting-room. Then she hollered for Mrs. Múi to go to the market. For lunch there was noodles with pork patties, snails stuffed with pork, a bottle of Johnny Walker worth one tenth of a tael of gold which the guest had brought, and freshly-frozen ice cream from the ice cream maker that was attached to the back of his bike. Hảo joined them for lunch; after all, his contract stipulated that lunches were included. The lady of the house took a few swallows of the expensive liquor and began to chatter and laugh incessantly. She looked years younger than she had the previous day. She introduced the guest to Hảo: X. here is the son of Mr. Y., and a nephew several times removed of Mr. Z., (Hảo had heard of them long ago); graduated from a university in Poland, he's spent the last ten years traveling back and forth, he's got no citizenship, no family registration papers, but just renews his passport every three years (even I don't know why I have this privilege -- said the guest -- whenever I need it I just ask Papa); and now he is a big businessman who has who-knows-how-much capital but it's a lot, and guaranteed to not be of the Nguyễn-Văn-Mười-Hai variety[iv]; he trades in everything from video machines to shrub brooms made for export... And what's more, he has an apartment in Warsaw and keeps a regular room at the Palace Hotel in Singapore and just flew in from there last week! She said, "At Sam Son, Mr. Vi confided in me that, if it weren't for the old guard like him, the rabble of cocksure youngsters would turn the situation upside down and ruin everything. But unfortunately for him, he can't even tell the fresh from the dried cod at the Sam Son market, isn't that right, Mimosa?" The dog, who was sprawled across her thighs, made vague, affirmative noises. She continued. "As far as I'm concerned, people like dear X. here-"
At this point "dear X. here" raised his hand. "Just a moment, sweetheart--now, what was it you said the other day? Ah yes, that the old man has, and is, and shall...as for me, even when I'm speaking English, I never conjugate my verbs into past and future. I am speaking, and I am living. Long live the present tense!" He lowered his hand and helped himself to a stuffed snail.
"Let me finish, now!" she protested. "As far as I'm concerned, it is precisely people like you who will lead us out of the crisis. Isn't that right, Hảo?"
Hảo wondered, which crisis is she talking about, that of the country or her own personal crisis? He answered, "I'm not an expert on politics but I know that in order to resolve any problem, you have to be hard and unyielding”. She was very intelligent. She laughed delightedly: "That's exactly right! That's how one must be, not like Mr. Vi, who's just....just a jellyfish!"
Apparently jealous at hearing her praise Hảo’s unservant-like comment, and obviously terribly intelligent himself, their guest interrupted. He glanced at a plate of balut duck eggs[v] that no one had touched and his callous, red lips formed a tight smile as he turned to her. "The issue is money! How much did you buy these duck eggs for, sweetheart? Seven hundred? I promise you, if you only say the word, by tomorrow I will--(there's a "will", Hảo thought)--have enough money to force down the price of balut duck eggs in this city's market to one half. And I'll keep them at that price for a week, would you like that, sweetie?" She howled with laughter again, this time because her ego had been stroked.
Hảo furrowed his forehead and tried to figure out how this veritable hero of a man would force down the price of duck's eggs to one-half, and how much money he would have to put out to do so. If he is successful, Hảo thought, I'll have to wade in and try to get a few eggs for myself. It had been so long he had clean forgotten what it tasted like, this dish usually reserved for wealthy philanderers. But he was getting truly tired of all this boasting. In the final analysis, blame could be laid squarely upon the English Empire -- it was they that had produced this obscenely delicious Johnny Walker.
After dabbing away the tears left by her round of laughter, and still preoccupied by the words "hard and unyielding" that he had uttered some moments before, the lady of the house turned to Hảo, and asked, "And you, tell us some more, what do you think? I'm not an expert on politics." Hảo simply replied, "I'm sorry, I don’t know anything about politics, either."
The businessman, apparently having finally caught on to the joke, raised his hand as though he were a youthful professor trying to teach a dull student. "This is not about politics. This is about invigorating the male sexual stamina of an entire city! We've been as flat as cockroaches for too long already!" She laughed again, and, with a gesture that was no doubt intended to convey feminine shyness but fell short, said, "Darling, if that's how it is then...go ahead and lower the price of duck eggs!" Hảo felt a strong desire to squelch all this overweening enthusiasm that had sprung from that bottle of English liquor. He asked 'Darling', "When do you intend to return to the country permanently to do business here?" 'Darling' wiped his mouth with a napkin and spoke through clenched teeth. "Whenever we have a representative in the National Assembly." Then he gave a greasy smile. "If not, who will protect our capital, hmm?"
After lunch, they went up to her room. Hảo returned to his divan. Kiddo was already asleep, and there by his side was the overflowing chamber-pot. As so many times before, Hảo launched into the familiar steps of his waltz. When he finished, he lay down next to the child. Soft music filtered through the ceiling to tickle his ear; ballads from before the war, all very familiar to him. He felt a strange longing for his mother. The empty hole in his chest gradually began to expand, to swell outward until all was encompassed in nothingness. The overly heavy meal made it hard for him to sleep. He remembered that his mother had also been rich, with an aristocratic bearing, an aristocratic bearing that she retained even after she was no longer rich. Even during the interminable days of the war. All of their silver and gold, all of their jewels--Mother had given them to him, at that time a mere three years old, so that his little hands could put them in the slot of the red painted box during Gold Week[vi]. Mother told Father: "I'm paving the way for the children." Under Mother's direction, the whole family pitched in to break new ground for a garden along the banks of the stream; there was the sound of washing the uncooked rice in the morning, the sight of the runoff from the hard kernels flowing down the riverbanks like milk. Laughing thrushes warbled their song from behind the guava trees that Mother had planted and a rattler would put in an occasional appearance, slithering across the courtyard to disappear into the clump of medicinal basil, and by doing so give birth to a fateful event. Then came the first funeral: Father was caught in a strafing and died from a scatter bomb. The second funeral was for his oldest brother who had been killed at Truong Son. And then it was his turn, and he, Mother's own precious boy, disappeared into the horizons of Eastern Europe, carrying with him all the family's hopes of a genteel life. By the time he returned, Mother had passed away. Together with Mother, an entire universe of all things admirable and memorable had passed away as well. But it was as though Hảo was blind. He was not prepared for the poverty and the wretchedness, and he was not prepared for life with his ex-wife, a life that had to be lived amidst the absurdities of modern times. He was not prepared to have been transformed into a manservant, working as no more than a day laborer for this intelligent but sly woman, a woman with a conscience, but with a lecherous nature as well. He tried to come up with another adjective for that but could not. In all honesty, he felt hatred and disgust at her audacious and wrongful complicity in appraising their political system by a man’s inability to perform in her bed, even when the man was his own worthless boss. And it was truly intolerable too, the way her eyes lit up when that dirty little goat with nothing more than a few dollars demanded a seat in the National Assembly of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At that moment, he imagined that if there were an election she would vote for the scoundrel ten times over. So why did she still pay him every month? Why did she still make him feel affection and even desire for her? Why did that thirty-million-dong CBT 125 out there in the courtyard still cast its lofty shadow oppressively over his poverty-stricken dreams? How was it that the glittering and gentle world of his mother's desires, and of his own as well, could have disappeared with such ease? Could it be that after that year's terrifying event, the words of the old fortune-teller were fulfilled? That summer, the weather was normal and Mother set a hen to brood; but when she took down the nest, it was crawling with a swarm of baby snakes. As for the guava tree behind the house, it bore nothing but a few sour mangosteens. That day, an old fortune-teller hugging his cloth bag passed through the village. Mother slaughtered a cockerel, and he read the feet and said, "The ancestor of this house committed much unrighteousness in his day. You must take care. One of you in this family will become a house-servant!" He went on to talk some more nonsense, and the village militia tied him to a stake and left him out in the sun for half a day before letting him go. That was the year that Father died, and then his oldest brother. The family bent heavily under the burden of death and mourning. And now his mother's youngest child had become a house-servant.
The melancholy music in the upper room suddenly died. The video player began to moan with pornographic vigor -- it was this same plastic Japanese box that she had previously used to jump-start her aged moralistic lover. Then the electronic moaning also silenced, giving way to the music of life. Mimosa, who had been abandoned, padded morosely into the room and licked Hảo’s hand, which dangled from the divan. He picked the dog up and pulled its ears -- you little ill-bred pimp, you hapless matchmaker you, these good-for-nothing little dogs, whether in Chekov's time or our own, they're all the same. The dog lay in Hảo’s lap and stared at the ceiling, just as Hảo was staring at the ceiling. Perhaps it could penetrate farther with its canine instincts.
For the next week, this quiet house on the corner rattled continuously with the crisp sounds of the CBT 125. There were more over-loaded meals, aided and abetted by bottles of English liquor and the Japanese microchip industry. But on Sunday, he didn't come. The lady of the house handed Hảo his salary along with a raise of two hundred thousand (to make up for inflation, she said), and insisted that he stay for dinner. She was sad and her face was tense, though still haughty. Hảo had had a taste of her penchant for unburdening herself. They took folding cloth chairs out to the back courtyard. She said, "You're quite a prophet! If only I hadn't taken Mimosa, I would have never brought that cad into my home!"
She looked at him with the eyes of one who has just escaped catastrophe. Like an explorer who has survived the South Pole, she began to tell him the story of her few days at Sam Son. That day, she had allowed Mimosa to run free along the beach so that she could take in a swim with Mr. Vi. They looked for a deserted corner of the beach for, whenever the two of them appeared in public in bathing suits, they could not avoid the shouts of the young men: "Hey, Pops, step aside and let us kids have at it, eh, Pops?" Though annoyed by their gutter language, she could not help but to gaze from her deserted corner at this segment of humanity, these youthful and coarse boys who were somehow sincerely coarse. As for Mr. Vi, he was trying his best to put his golden hands to use. He groused, "Why didn't you wear that two-piece bikini from Thailand?" Although he was fond of pontificating that Hanoi fashion these days had become far too revealing, he himself had, after a recent trip to Bangkok, brought her two bikinis as a present. On this day, she had intentionally worn an old classic, the prim bathing suit that was a product of our very own State shops and which, after the design had passed the Department of Culture's censorship board, had been widely distributed during the seventies. Truly a bathing suit of certifiable chastity and dignity! Mr. Vi had no choice but to surrender before the same bathing suit that he himself had given his stamp of approval to not long ago. Annoyed at this bothersome old man who at any rate was about to be downsized, she forgot all about Mimosa. The heavens chose that moment to open up and dump sheets of rain on them as well, and that was how they lost the dog.
That evening, after they had finished their meal and while Mr. Vi was grumbling denunciations of that god-forsaken bathing suit, spewing at it words that are usually reserved for debates about philosophy and morality -- that was when he came. He held Mimosa in his arms. Framed as he was against the background of the rain-soaked beach, he appeared a truly exquisite young man. The following afternoon, while Mr. Vi was giving a talk about the role of the New Woman (his favorite subject) at the Tourist Company Union, she escaped with the young man to the pine woods. She thanked him for finding Mimosa. He thanked her for giving meaning to his lonely ocean sojourn. He called her "madam", which stroked her pride; then he called her by name, which warmed her heart; finally he called her "little darling", which sent her into an ecstasy. This revolution in nomenclature took place in the space of only fifteen minutes. Come the sixteenth minute, he told her that he had rented two hectares of pine forest for the afternoon so that nobody would pass by. By the seventeenth minute, her back was covered in sand and she was on her way to heaven for the first time in her life, that heaven that Mr. Vi had only described to her with his theories. His descriptions, like those of the cheap three-penny authors who replace the important parts with their dot-dot-dots, had never satisfied her.
That evening, she came to Mr. Vị’s room (they always rented separate rooms when they came to Sam Son). He was elated, partly because she was voluntarily delivering her body up to him, and partly because his lecture had been a great success -- "The women ate it up, every word" -- and in his opinion it was time to bring back the spirit of the old ‘Three Responsibilities’[vii] movement--- She cut him off in mid-sentence. "Make love to me!" She had decided to give him a lavish last meal, like the meal usually given to the condemned prisoner the day before he is shot. Mr. Vi was stupefied with joy, just as that condemned prisoner, who for days has been seeing nothing but the execution-stake in his dreams but now awakes to find a roast chicken right before his eyes, is struck dumb to the point of being unable to eat. Mr. Vi, too, was unable to eat. He blamed his forgetfulness, that he had left his bottle of gecko liquor at home; he damned this run-down hotel with its bed that wouldn't stop squeaking; he even called down curses on her lingerie, what the hell did they need with no less than two openings to get in and out, just to make him fumble and get confused, nothing but a luxury product typical of the whole blasted system of democratic capitalism!
As always, he never accepted his responsibility for any failure. In spite of this, he tried to comfort her: "Darling, you must believe that I have, and am, and shall continue trying..."
That next morning, she urged him to take her home so that she wouldn't miss her rendezvous with the young man, the man who had rented two hectares of pine forest for one afternoon with her.
Now she sighed. "But I'm bored stiff with him already! These new bourgeois capitalist cads are no better than the old men with their false morality! Oh, Hảo, why is my fate so black?
Hảo silently cursed himself for the undeniable but understandable flash of self-satisfaction that he felt. He stood and excused himself.
"Don't hurry so, Hảo." Her voice was strangely intimate. "If you go home now I'll keel right over from depression. Why is it that I always meet up with none but these half-baked idiots? What rock do they crawl out from under, anyway? Hảo?"
Hảo sensed that her disgust was sincere. It dissolved across his skin together with the scent of French perfume and the fragrance of her breath. After all, she did have good reason to feel sorry for herself. At least she had the courage and munificence to redistribute the riches she plundered from her girl-happy chumps. She was supporting a scholar with a master's degree on a salary three times that of his official salary, and by doing so had plucked him out of his interminable unemployment which was encoded in the phrase ‘strategic research’ and wrapped up neatly in a shell of useless theses. But he quickly hardened himself again, holding fast to the timeless envy of the poor and the disgusted horror of the slandered intellectual. Then, with diplomatic care, he stood up.
But fate was to drive him in another direction. Several weeks later, the lady of the house fell ill. Hảo, as curious and prying as though he had been a man-servant all his life, guessed secretly that the young entrepreneur without a nationality had been in-country just long enough to invest a "foreign object" in the hinterlands before being deported. Motivated in part by propriety and in part by compassion, Hảo went up to visit her. She lay motionless on the bed, her arms stretched out on top of a thin blanket. She patted the edge of the bed with a hand that was as fluttery and gentle as a butterfly's wing and told him to sit down next to her. Seeing that the collapsible Japanese chairs had been put away, and that he could not sit on the night table, which was the only other sittable object in the room, he had no choice but to do as she said. His hand trembled as it grasped the edge of the bed. In one glance she had seen and understood everything. She took his hand in hers--her hand, that soft and gentle butterfly-wing hand--and implored him to help her. She said, "Can you arrange to go away with me for a few days?" He looked at Mimosa stretched out at his feet and didn't answer.
And then he did go with her, after they had arranged for a sitter for Kiddo and the house. He would have to take her to some anonymous hospital in Hanoi. Just as he had guessed, she needed to hastily expel the young entrepreneur’s hastily-deposited drop of blood. She needed him to play the part of husband to add some legitimacy to the situation as well as to relieve a measure of her self-pity. From the very beginning of their relationship, Mr. Vi had requested that she have the deed done in any city other than the city in which he enjoyed prestige and power. For, regardless of who the child in her womb actually belonged to, public opinion would assume that it was his, and that would be an inconvenience to him during election-time. So all in all there were more than enough reasons that Hảo should escort her on this trip.
They disembarked the train at dusk and checked into a hotel near the station. The receptionist gave them a knowing look while telling them they could rent a room together, no problem. The lady of the house rented two. He remarked to her about the tourist industry's permissive business practices. It was clear that the new policy of Đổi Mới [viii]was taking hold. She said, "If you've got an empty house, you've got to be permissive!" They spent the night in an atmosphere of abeyance and did not broach the other's territory.
The following day, she wasn't yet ready to check into the hospital. She demanded that he take her to see some of Hanoi's famous landmarks. He took her to the Văn Miếu Temple of Literature to express to her his love for Vietnamese culture; then to the Thăng Long bridge[ix]so she could admire the fraternal spirit of Soviet-Vietnamese relations. Their outing concluded at the famous Chả Cá fish patty restaurant, wedged in between large Western men and women who were all paying in dollars. Long before, Hảo had made a plan to concentrate all his resources in the year 2000 to fly to Hanoi for his first and last meal of Chả Cá fish patties. Now, due to her, he had surpassed the quotas laid out in his master plan a good nine years ahead of schedule. After they had eaten and finished up with coffee, the bill was laid on the table. Hảo felt faint. He might as well have bought the entire Eiffel tower! But the lady of the house brought out her wallet just in time, her slightly pale face betraying no emotion whatsoever. Relieved, he made a mental note that she was the first woman ever to share his dinner and not expect him to reach for his wallet.
She demanded then to go to Hồ Tây Lake, which they did. A young street vendor brought them two rattan chairs, set them in a dimly-lit spot at the foot of a tree, then ran back for two bottles of soda produced by the Prosecutor's Office of City X[x].
She took his hand. "Are you tired?" He said, "Culture differs from sex in only one aspect: it leaves one energized, not fatigued." She smiled. "Quite true! There are people here in Hanoi who have spent two million in one day for me, but nobody has ever taken me to a cultural or historical site. You intellectuals are truly delightful." He thought, probably the other men's formula was: Fancy restaurant, then bed. As for an intellectual, it would be: Văn Miếu Temple of Literature, then the Ngô Quyền exhibition hall. Tickets are only 200 dong, and nearby you can buy ice cream bars, also just 200 dong and you get all of three different colors in each bar. Intellectuals, as a rule, seldom have to spend money, even when escorting a beautiful woman. They just have to expend a little saliva, that's all. It's always been that way.
She did not allow him time for his rambling thoughts. Her hand was hot on his arm, squeezing hard. "Yet I have never had the honor of having an intellectual look at me with approval." He said, "Because you are so beautiful and they are so poor. The gods take mercy on the fools, remember that old saying? They do not spend their time helping the bookworms." "The gods can be jealous, though," she observed. "I'm sure there is some female god out there who is jealous and hates me. I try to find just one person for me but never do..." She sighed. The way she negated altogether four men's lives in one sigh annoyed him. But, possessing the sensitive nature of the intellectual, he also felt touched. He said, "You will find him eventually."
She suddenly looked straight into his eyes. "Do you know why my husband just lays about in Hong Kong and doesn't come home? Go ahead and guess!" He was silent. "He's got AIDS, that's why!’’ she said. ‘’Truly wretched! His last patriotic action was to request that WHO register him on the list of Hong Kong AIDS cases rather than Vietnamese. Slipping one more debauched wretch over to the capitalists is no injustice."
He felt her pain palpably, as though her were actually touching it. Her voice returned to normal. "I demanded a divorce, but Mr. Vi advised me otherwise. 'Don't lose faith,' he said. 'Science will find a cure for that monstrous disease. And one day your husband will return.' Just like Simonov's poem[xi]. Well, I understand only too well his black heart. If I were divorced, suppose I demanded to marry him? It would be enough to ruin his career. And anyway, it was wonderfully convenient the way it was, what with one half of his budget for lovemaking being subsidized by the Hong Kong capitalists, leaving only one half that had to be gouged out of the guts of the government somewhere. When I speak of him like this, do you think badly of me?"
Hảo replied, "I am a scientist. I like to have all of the data on any given issue."
"There's more. I hate him also for this horrible story. One day we went to see a movie together. While we were pushing and shoving into the theater, a lady stomped on my foot with her 7-centimeter heels. I screamed to high heaven. It should've taken just one word of apology to finish the matter, but she denied it up one wall and down the other and even cursed back at me into the bargain. We grabbed each other by the hair, cursing back and forth. I don't know if it was a lucky guess or with full knowledge, but she called me a 'novice little whore strutting around with a dirty old goat!' Mr. Vi went purple in the face. They invited us into the ticket-seller's booth. We had to give our name, age, and place of employment and then apologize to each other. That evening, as we lay in my bed at home, Mr. Vi would do nothing but grill me on every detail about that shrew of a woman. He took out a notebook and made notes. Three months later, I saw her again. She was sitting on the street and selling vegetables, a complete mental and physical wreck. She had been forced to quit work, her husband was on "seventy-percent"[xii] retirement, and they had two small children. I asked her, how could she have come to this? Turns out, in her position as a warehouse secretary, she had allowed twenty-one bars of workers' subsidy soap[xiii] get lost or destroyed. Well, I knew only too well which spider had spun the web that had caught this skinny, starving she-fly. I begged him. But he just sneered at me unpleasantly. "We must act decisively in order to raise the intellectual standard of the people,' he said. There you have it. He paid me for my services with his power, the very power that people like me and you, and even that secretary, have given him. And that wretch of an investor? He made me deliriously happy, but he paid me on a daily basis. Sometimes several million, mind you, but paid daily, meaning he paid only for what I put out. He said that all over the world, that's how people do it."
She let go of his arm and held her face in her hands. Hảo could no longer sit silently. He quietly raised his hand to stroke her hair, and an emotion welled up in his heart, the emotion an older brother might feel for a younger sister. She looked up at him gratefully. "You're so different from them!" Then her arms encircled his neck, and she kissed him.
That night, she came to him. As delicious and fragrant as a slice of jackfruit, and serenely dignified as well. He did not pretend to himself that he had not felt desire for her many times before. But now he was frozen. It wasn't that he was a virgin, like Daudet's shepherd-boy who had gently cradled his mistress on his shoulder as she slept. Nor was she a lost star[xiv]. She displayed those ferocious yet inimitably innocent instincts which are the birthright of every woman. And yet he did not desire her. If only she would leave him to his tranquillity, he would comfort her as an older brother. But she had worked herself into a tantrum, sputtering, "This is the best an intellectual can do? Your books didn't teach you about this, huh?" She lowered herself before him and did things that she had never done for any other man. But he remained shriveled up, lost in his academician’s sorrow. She threw her underwear--two minuscule fragments of Thai fabric--into his face and hissed at him through clenched teeth her woman's fury: "Yet another jellyfish! I despise you even more than the other three!" Then, naked from head to toe, she walked out the door and returned to her room.
One month later, after recovering from her illness, she allowed a cyclo driver to park his vehicle in her courtyard at night. He told her his story: his house and his family had been burned to ashes in a fire, and for two months he had been sleeping in his cyclo at the train station or under the bridge. Mrs. Múi whispered to Hảo, "Every other night without fail that man goes up to her room and sleeps with her. The wretch!" Hảo replied, "Eureka! Our mistress has found it!" Mrs. Múi had certainly never heard Greek before; imagining him crazy, she ran and disappeared into the kitchen.
The last English phrase Hảo taught to Kiddo was 'The Man'. The following day he quit. He walked towards his home at a leisurely pace as dusk was darkening the sky. A line of cargo cars was stopped at the train station. He saw that the workers were unloading twelve cars of balut duck eggs. The baskets of eggs glowed as though surrounded by a halo. The eggs could be seen budding up out of their nests of straw, each one looking like a glans topping off the genitals of some kind of heroically strong man, the likes of which had never before been seen. There had also never before been any company in town which had bought such an incredibly large amount of eggs.
The next morning, the streets were littered everywhere with chalk-lettered signs: "Balut duck eggs -- sale -- fifty percent off!" People worried and whispered to each other that, come one more year, there could be no doubt but that the city's population would be completely out of control.
Kim Giang July 1991
(Translated by Rosemary Nguyen – Seatle USA )
[i] The Vietnamese currency, the dong, is exchanged at a rate of 11,000 dong to the US dollar.
[ii] The Vietnamese name for the prison which was immortalized here in the US as the "Hanoi Hilton".
[iii] ‘The Woman and the Little Dog’. In the story, the woman’s dog plays a role in the lovers' first meeting.
[iv] The name a Vietnamese businessman who got famously rich through an illegal pyramid scheme.
[v]Eggs that are incubated until the duck fetus is three-quarters developed, then boiled and eaten. Folk wisdom holds that they are a powerful aphrodisiac.
[vi] When, after the Japanese surrender and subsequent withdrawal from Vietnam at the end of WWII, Ho Chi Minh took up a collection of valuables from the citizenry. It is said that the money was then given as a kind of bribe to the Chinese general that had been designated by the Allied Powers to oversee North Vietnam.
[vii] A propaganda campaign during the war encouraging women to shoulder the "Three Responsibilities" of home, production, and fighting the war.
[viii] ‘Renovation’. A policy of social and economic reform.
[ix] A bridge near Hanoi which was built with Russian aid.
[x] A common phenomena under the new ‘socialist market economy’, government agencies have been opening businesses unrelated to their proper mission as a means of income generation.
[xi] ‘Wait for me’
[xii] A form of downsizing used by bloated government enterprises. The worker is laid off but continues to receive 70 percent of his or her salary.
[xiii] Soap distributed free to government employees, usually of vastly inferior quality. Normally no one would care if 21 bars of such soap was lost.
[xiv] Referring to Alphonse Daudet’s ‘The Stars’.