THE WAY STATION
Đỗ Phước Tiến
I wandered for a long time through the coastal provinces. My pointy skull got even longer. Like a long, faded ear of corn. With the cross‑eyed guy from Chao Zhou, I hunted antiquated clocks on the walls and tables, I gathered old eyeglass frames, gas cans from the fishing boats, helicopter metal. In short, I lived off scrap metal. For example, the bulky hooks from the cranes on the agricultural construction sites, or the steel chains that could chain up a tractor. My business didn't go too well. Mainly because in a tropical climate the rain and the sun come and go without any warning. One day, our pockets were empty. Stunned, we had to look reality in the face – we were both scrawny, lazy men. We never did have much luck. If luck would have been of any use in the scrap metal trade.
The Chao Zhou was as scrawny as a wisp of straw, unstable, shifty, terribly stingy. He drags a huge clock around with him. It's his loudspeaker, his talisman.
Unhappiness made us vindictive, quarrelsome, morose. My companion spent the days laughing maniacally. That monstrous, ridiculous clock reverberated miserably through the slums, the back alleys. Tumbling in the wind, it echoed over the deserted rooftops, spreading its surreal cries of hunger and thirst, calling to us all those who had scrap metal to trade. Then one day we were destitute. We collapsed on the side of a cesspool where they raised catfish. Panting, convulsed with hunger, we dreamt of a sweet‑and‑sour soup full of giac fruit. An enormous soup. Our stomachs turned. It suddenly became clear: our baseness, our regrets, our fear of the future. Time passed.
The Chao Zhou got to his feet first. He pulled together his failing strength. He said that in spite of it all he and I were men, that a dream soup couldn't nourish a great ambition, that our nightmare of wandering had to end right here, on the edge of a catfish cesspool, that our salvation wouldn't come like tropical rains, that heaven would never provide for us, that you had to hunt it down, like you hunted a woman, had to seize the moment, bite into it, even if it meant taking from the pockets of others. And that... and that... hundreds of "thats"; they all stank of dried gudgeon fish, of coconut cake. I listened, listless. A deep weariness. I felt my body disintegrate, my will dissolve.
Spring came. In desperation we separated. I left for the North, fleeing the salt marshes, the mauve‑colored dusks that haunted my vagabond dreams. The Chao Zhou left for the far South. And that was how we began our plan.
The home of Liem the Chinese was easy to find. A dazzling gate lacquered red. Rising around it, a hedge of longan and bilinga trees. Already, it was sinking into decrepitude. Walls whitewashed with lime. The roof, with its alternating male and female tiles, gaped open. Toward the back, the building looked like a real rat trap. An old wooden staircase led to the first floor. A fireplace stood out like an old broom. The whole place had something sinister, unsettling about it. The city lay under a constant swirl of dust. Desperate, silent, dismal little taverns lined the narrow back alleys.
According to the plan, I was to work for the Chinese for two years, the time needed to get back on my feet. I had to do a bit of everything: taste the wine, stuff Chinese sausages, marinate the chicken in herbs, make the "thousand‑year‑old" pickled eggs and, if I was lucky, still have time left to ponder the art of making sweet‑and‑sour noodles with ten different kinds of meat or steamed carp. If one day I could master the art of fondue in satay sauce, his entire culinary empire would fall into my hands. Don't forget, this was the kitchen of a restaurant owner from Ha Mon. This was the solution that the Chao Zhou and I had agreed on.
To be honest, I'm good for nothing. But for several seasons now I've worked like an ox, and I'm just clever enough to understand that I'm going to, have to work even harder if I don't want to, be squashed like an ordinary cockroach. Like everyone else, I have the right to eat my fill, sleep peacefully, maybe even escape my loneliness.
I really liked the Khmer, a pensive, generous man who was as dark and fat as a field rat. When you are in the same wretched situation, share the same fate, you accept each other easily, fall quickly into solidarity – at least that's what I think. Our friendship was sealed thanks to a cigarette lighter that snapped when you opened it. The Khmer liked it a lot, even though it clashed with his rubber tobacco pouch. At night, while I hid in a corner to eat the pork spareribs I had stolen the night before, the Khmer, a sarong rolled over his stomach, would quietly roll a cigarette in front of the oven. He had worked for Liem the Chinese for a long time, a very long time, maybe even before my miserable self came into the world. All you had to do was watch the way he butchered the animals to be sure of it. He slaughtered like one of the Binh Xuyen gang: His knife ripped the stomach toward the throat, slightly to the left. In general, Khmers don't like to change their profession or place of residence. Like tropical plants, they wilt when they are uprooted.
The Khmer's workload was terribly heavy. Each week, on top of his regular job, he had to kill two or three goats. Sometimes four if the restaurant was going well. They bought kid goats and fattened them tenderly, carefully, until their coats shone like sesbania sprouts at the end of winter. Then we force‑fed them a strong cane‑sugar alcohol, attached empty tin cans to their tails and chased them through the town until they collapsed from exhaustion. They expired quickly under the Khmer's expert blade, next to his sweaty body, his haggard, languid gaze.
The restaurant was open all day. But it was late at night, after the tornadoes of dust had subsided, that it really bloomed.
Another man lived there: he was the guest of honor. A swatch of flowered fabric wrapped around his hip, he swept the terrace with a jet of water and then, with an innate dignity, set the tables. A corpulent Indian placed a two‑handled pot on the hearth, with an indifferent, contemptuous air. The Khmer salted the smoked goat quarters. Me, I mashed the meat with a noisy grinder. By the time they lit the gas lamp, the Chinese was slightly drunk. A glass of wine mixed with soda in his hand, he chuckled jovially with his guests, evaluating each dish we served with the eye of an inquisitor. The Chinese had his own work. He reserved certain tasks for himself, forbidding us to do them. For example: Hanging the lamps, serving wine, cashing money and making change were all part of his exclusive domain.
The Indian always finished first. While we cleaned up, he would retire to a corner and drone interminable, monotonous prayers in front of a tiny oil lamp. His squat body slumped over as he entered deeper into dialogue with the Spirit.
Once I had piled up my ten piles of sawdust, I would find a way to go see Chu. She lived on the first floor. There I could relax a bit, savor the peace of the soul as if I were in my own home (that is, if ever I were fated to have one). Chu was there, day in and day out, seated in the middle of a pile of plastic roosters that sang when they jumped on their springs. The Chinese had declared the first floor off limits to everyone except the maid, Hoa. I entered through a skylight on the roof, tense, feverish, I would approach Chu. I knew that I was not the only one. One morning, I saw the Chinese come down first and go straight to the fountain. The Khmer was rinsing the earthenware pots used to mix wine and goat's blood. The Chinese drew near, pressing his face up against the Khmer's neck. They stared each other down for a long time. The Chinese pulled out the lighter that clicked when it opened, looked at it for a moment and then placed it on top of an earthenware jar next to the Khmer. He left without a word.
Chu told me that ever since she could sit up she had lived up there in that wooden cage. She told me that she would stay there until the room collapsed, until it crumbled under the piles of sawdust that rose up from below. I didn't believe her. For lunch I ate the cakes she put aside for me, just to pacify her, lull her into thinking of me as a harmless child. I massaged her tired, decrepit muscles. I listened to her talk on nights bathed in the silvery light of the full moon; she would search the clouds that drifted over the rooftop. And she forced me to rap in cadence with the passage of time, the time that hurtled through the male and female tiles, that darted through the dark, twisting alleys. Life down there was violent, wrapped in its trance; even the Chinese himself didn't belong to her world. She was half‑paralyzed, one leg and an arm. were useless.
The Chinese treated us well. I never doubted my boss's generosity. I understood and admired the tenacity, the will, the pride of the men from Xiamen, and more generally, of the Chinese, who had struggled to restore dignity to their race. All Liem the Chinese had was Chu. There was no question that he suffered. The alcohol in soda could only soften the bitter pain that weighed on him. It was, at best, a temporary tranquilizer. And the Chinese proved himself worthy of his race; he endured the shame of Chu's existence with an extraordinary stoicism. He would praise to the skies the withered celery or the shriveled mushrooms we brought him from distant villages cracking under the drought. He was a good small businessman, but that was all. He didn't dare choose, couldn't imagine another way out, another way to assert himself in the world. I was his complement: the girl, Chu, was a key objective in our plan.
Day by day, I devoted more and more time to Chu. More and more energy as well. When she sank into despair, I drew on all the tricks I had learned as a street hawker. I hate tears, I hate silence. Chu's tears trickled slowly. It took a whole night for them to barely reach her chin. Her tears reminded me of the wretchedness of my life. So I hugged her in my arms. And I imitated the Chao Zhou. I would tell her that... that the clouds were lost vapors risen from the waters, stupid, cowardly on top of it, deeply cowardly because they let the wind decide their fate, because they gave it time to shred their frail, impotent bodies. I would tell her that time is nothing, nothing but a hollow drum that beats against itself, that the traveling dyer perhaps doesn't live a life superior to mine, to hers;... that time is only an idiotic, organic movement of sensations, that it had no basis, that nothing was of any consequence... that she or I, or anyone in this world, we are only a plow plodding through time, that our desires are only rusty anchors that chain us to humanity, that to be trapped in this life, like her, or to wander until death, like me, came to the same thing, that only inner accomplishment could open a road to a human world.
Our little comedy lasted a year. I couldn't continue anymore after that; I didn't have the strength. When I had concocted this plan with the Chao Zhou, I had never imagined this outcome. When I held her body in my arms, I actually thought about goodness, about real goodness. That was how it happened. Even the rotten scrap metal I had once dragged around had a value that somehow defied the laws of exchange. Chu was like that. My head nestled in her warm, tender bosom, I glimpsed, terrified, in this decomposing body, an infinite yearning; the desire to be human; the sincere, transparent, tumultuous desire of two passionate beings. The soul, if it exists, has nothing to do with its rather seedy lodging. Straightaway I came to a conclusion: Absolute freedom is just a decadent desire; it brazenly accepts all infidelities. I strained to manage my love gently, contrary to the ruthless illusions I had had. But always, like a child, I was obsessed with the idea that before me, in this bed, other wild storms had passed. That I was just a puppet who filled the pause between two tempests. With my taut muscles, my stubborn silence. And I imagined how the Khmer ravished Chu, how he would do it with his resolute, meticulous gestures, as if he were butchering a goat. In the grip of such paranoia, what could I do? In my arms as well, Chu expired quickly, her body panting with sweat, her breasts blushing with pleasure.
Of course I loved her, but of course, not for a single instant did I lose sight of my goal: To make a fortune. I suffered for having to continue this weary life in the shadow of the Chinese. The wooden cage with its stale odor of pickled turnips haunted me, even in my sleep. I often imitated the Chinese, drinking to chase away the dark premonitions in my brain. Of course, this bitter alcohol stung my tongue; this too I had stolen. But like I say, alcohol is only a mediocre, impotent tranquilizer compared to the terminal agony of being human. It is the shame of who we are that gives us the strength to pull ourselves up, but it also holds the temptation to put an end to it all. True or false, only experience will decide, but a premonition doesn't wait.
Then a day came, a very green spring day. I was coming back from the train station, dragging a cart filled with sawdust. The March wind tumbled through the streets in gusts, filling my mouth with a dry, salty dust. The gate was wide open. The paved courtyard was deserted. On the verandah, the old Indian gazed, distraught, at his oil lamp, contemplating the flies as they basked in the sun. From behind, somewhere in the air, coming from the mousetrap on the first floor, the sound of crying. Exhausted from fatigue and the sun, reeling, heavy with a premonition of disaster, I mounted the staircase. It was deserted. I couldn't believe it. A voice sobbed softly. Had my worst fears come true? And yet, it was certain, yesterday evening, from the same staircase, I had seen the Chinese and the Khmer quarrelling. The Chinese was no ordinary man, that much I knew. I saw shadows gesticulating on the first floor and ran up. On the last step, I stopped, paralyzed.
On the bed where night after night we had fraudulently loved each other, there were two people. In my place (or that of the Khmer, it's all the same), was the maid, Hoa. Chu lay sprawled on her back, her mouth ajar, her eyes open wide, horrible. Sobbing, the maid gripped Chu's body, curling up against her like a shrimp. An unfinished meal lay on the table next to the bed. Overturned bowls. Rice scattered on the floor. A broken chopstick embedded in the mat. The sobs didn't come from Hoa's trembling shoulders. They seemed to rain down from the worm‑eaten roof.
The guest of honor stood under the skylight. His neck tilted rigidly to one side to support his dignified head, as if it might collapse under the emotion. The Khmer stood pressed up against the wall, his sullen face aflame. The Chinese was seated in the only chair in the room. He was rigid, pale, like the plastic roosters strewn on the floor. There was no sawdust in the air. But the room seemed ready to crumble under the hatred of their looks, the mute violence of their breathing, the oppressive fury of men.
I watched, as if through a turbulent dream, the Khmer take a bowl of soup. He pours a bit of bouillon into his palm, spreads it out, sniffs it. He hesitates, like a field rat before poisoned bait. He stares fixedly at the railing, where the fine crosshatching of the wood etches shadowy designs. There, perhaps, night after night, was the place Chu had trysts with the clouds of her dreams. For a long time I felt their movements in the cracking of my brain. I saw the Khmer approach the chair, the bowl of soup in his hand. Calmly, gently, simply, he dumped it over the Chinese's head. A celery leaf dripped slowly down the forehead onto the cheekbone, down his chin, slipping onto his thigh. The Chinese sat motionless, his hands clutching the arms of the chair. The soup trickled, yellow and murky, down his face. Briskly, the Khmer wiped his hands. And then he left. He never came back.
I collapsed on the floor. The traveling dyer's drum, with its warlike charges, hammered on my skull. And time passed. Frozen, empty time. Listen, Chu, do you hear, for the first time, the rhythmic time of your first steps. My illusions had been shattered.
A few days after Chu's funeral, the Indian left. The spring hadn't had time to fade. Flies basked in the sun, obscene, plunged languidly into the oil of the old lamp, wriggled and died. The Indian left with a shrug. The Spirit had shamelessly killed his faith. He left without a word, forgetting to pay for the oil that the Chinese had always supplied him with. I stayed on a bit longer. I had no ambition, no plans. Cooking no longer appealed to me. There was no possession I dreamed of having. I had loved Chu. It was difficult for me to distance myself from that room, where the nights of the full moon resonated with memories like long howls. The guest of honor also finally left. The Chinese couldn't keep him any longer. The alliances that he had painstakingly woven had unraveled in his hands.
In the end, they threw me out the red gate with the goat bones. Collapsed on the roadside like a dog, I gnawed my thoughts. I don't regret those months, the years that I lived like a rat caught in a trap. I knew that we couldn't live for long together, with those who live behind the tall hedgerows.
I thought about the Chao Zhou. It would have been better to follow his example. Thanks to his cross-eyes, he saw two sides to life. For life is always what we see. He is Chinese. He understands the Chinese better than I do. He knows Liem the Chinese, and he avoided him. It was the Chao Zhou who pushed me into the rat trap, but I will leave him to, his sweet dreams filled with tables and chairs. Another path awaits me. Let them call me an ingrate. At the end of the day, after this parting of ways, who can say which of the two of us is luckier? At the end of the day, our sufferings were the hidden part of the iceberg, the immense illusion we had created to deceive our hunger.
And I often thought of Chu. For a long time I would remember, with bitterness, those rotten spareribs, the cigarette lighter that clicked open, the shuddering of her body. Never again in this life will I taste happiness. Never.
First published in Trafika and Night, again