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