#11. Aren’t You The Happiest Man, Mr. Unfortunate?
“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.
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?”
“The merriest man?”
“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.”
“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 –
“Good boy. Jump.”
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