Viet Nam News
By Tống Ngọc Hân
Liquor was burning inside him while outside the sun was burning his head. His tousled hair smelled burned, as if it was on fire. His shoeless feet were scorching on the burning concrete. But he looked every inch the robust builder. The market he had been building was nearly finished. So, all the workers, including him, worked extra hours to earn more money. Unfortunately, he was addicted to gambling, specifically the lotto. He had just got his June salary and wanted to play number 40 today.
He dug his hand deep into his trouser pocket and pulled out a roll of notes. He threw them down on the table before the 20-year-old girl who was writing down the number. She looked surprised at the sum of several million dong. He then walked home. On the way, he thought that if he won tonight, he would win about 300 million dong, equal to what a peasant could earn all his life doing farm work. But if he did not win, he knew he would be a poor loser, but he decided not to get bitter about it, because he could lose more of his salary or even his wife and family.
He now came to the hut for construction workers. He heard the cook babbling on and on:
“Look, number 40 was the winning lotto number today. Someone put four million dong on it and so did many more gamblers. The girl who wrote the number ran away with her boss because the prize was so great that they could not pay!”
He grunted something. He had to look for the girl and her damned boss. He felt bitter for the loss of his monthly pay when he had worked his fingers to the bone for that money. All day he heard people saying: “Gambling is the way to poverty”. He saw his shadow on the bridge and he wanted to trample that stupid shadow into smithereens. That shadow had lagged behind him for forty years. It had got drunk with him; it had shared success and failure with him. Yet, how stupid it was! He cursed at his shadow. He told himself that he would finish building the market and go home to work on the farm.
Sad as he was, suddenly a woman asked him to chop fire wood for her. He agreed because he needed money. This woman brewed wine and raised pigs. He chopped fire wood while glancing at the woman’s daughter-in-law. The girl was beautiful, even more beautiful than his wife, he thought. He finished chopping the big pile of fire wood in three nights. He was tired at the end of every day, but happy because he had tortured his shadow.
One day, it rained and rained, pouring water everywhere. He had to put off working for a few days. It was for the best, he thought, as he could have a few days to rest. He was told that there was a shop selling very good crab noodle soup. I will try it, he thought. So, he went there alone. While crossing a bridge, he saw the river was swelling. He afraid, thinking that what if the river flooded the rice fields in his home village? He walked to a house by the roadside and phoned his wife:
“Hello, have you finished harvesting the rice? Ask our neighbors to help us! If there is big flood, keep the kids home from school! Have our ducks laid a lot of eggs? What about the cow? I’ll be home in a few days’ time when I finish building the market.”
The road to the crab noodle soup shop was muddy. When he arrived, he wondered if the shop was the outside one. The woman selling the soup was clean and pretty. He tried sit down. The woman gave him a friendly and he looked at her with an intimate glint. What good alcohol does this shop have, he wondered. He tried to sip it slowly, pretending he was a good-natured man. His table manners won the sympathy of the woman. They talked with each other. The woman asked him about his native land and she discovered that she was from the same place.
Right then, a provocative girl entered the shop. Having seen the crowded shop, she said bitterly:
“Where can I sit?”
The woman turned to speak to him:
“Would you please move for her?”
The girl sat down and ordered a bowl of crab soup. She ate it daintily. Then she stood up and left the bowl of soup half-finished.
“Good-bye, my dear!” – She said to him and walked away.
He felt very important because she had only said good-bye to him.
He was embarrassed. He stood up to pay and leave simultaneously. Before he left, he spoke to the owner of the shop:
“When the rain stops, I’ll come and help you enlarge this porch-roof to keep out the rain.”
The woman thanked him again and again and added:
“The girl doesn’t have a boyfriend. Would you help her around the house? She is my daughter, you know.”
He felt elated, but thought how strange this woman was when she knew he was married. He was an only son. He was told his father died before he as born. When he grew up, he found it strange that there was not any altar to worship his father, not even his photo. He was notorious for being bull-headed and unruly. Yet, he loved his mother very much and never said anything that could hurt her. One day he overheard his mother’s sister saying:
“Your son takes after his father. They are like two peas in a pod. His father is doing well up north you know!”
So, his father was still alive. He was happy to hear it. He tried to find an excuse to go and work up north in the hope that he could find his father.
He wanted to meet him not because he intended to have a bond with his father. He just wanted to be assured that his father was alive and happy. However, if his father was poor or sick, he told himself that he had to look after him.
From then on, when he wasn’t busy, he went to the market gate to see if the daughter of the crab soup shop owner wanted help. He often unloaded boxes of fruit from a truck for her. Once, when he finished unloading the goods for her, it rained cats and dogs. He was trying to find a place to avoid the rain when the girl took his arm and pulled him into a room. It was very dark inside. She forced him to lie on some bags of herbs. He felt tense. Thinking of his wife, his body suddenly became wobbly. The girl lay on him, saying:
“You don’t like me? What a stupid man! A lot of guys want to touch me, but they can’t, you can!”
He pushed her away and stood up, rearranging his clothing. He walked away in the rain. From that day, he never helped the girl. He and his shadow roamed together. He promised that if he found his father, he would treat his shadow to a binge of food and drink.
Time passed. Eventually, the market was finished and handed over. It would be put into operation soon. He had just been paid with his last two months’ salary. He wanted to go home. He dropped by the market and bought clothes for his son, a bag for his daughter and a white mosquito net for his wife.
Having left the market, he tried to avoid meeting the crab soup shop woman, but he failed.
“You look very smart today! Are you going home? Give my best regards to your wife and your children!”
How kind she was, he thought! He was crossing the street when a truck ran by, splashing mud all over him. The woman rushed to help him brush the dirt from his new clothes. When he checked his shirt pocket for his wages of ten million dong, it was gone. He panicked for a moment and then calmed down, shouting at the woman:
“Don’t take the piss!”
“What are you getting at? Who’s taking the piss? Go away so I can sell my crab soup!”
He felt dizzy as if he was being slapped in the face. He lost his temper, rushing to snatch the handbag from the woman:
“Let me see this bag!”
“Help! Help! He’s robbing me!” – The woman cried.
All the people in the market rushed to the scene. He ran to the bridge. He tried to open the bag and took his money. Then he threw the bag away. He crossed the bridge in a hurry. Unfortunately, right then, a truck was speeding by and ran him over. The roll of bank notes lay in a pool of blood. He was put on a stretcher and carried away. The red river was flowing swiftly under the bridge.
Translated by Mạnh Chương