A race

Saturday, 2018-08-18 11:41:17
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Thuy stopped reading the newspaper as I walked into the room and stretched myself out on the bed.

"Have you lost the teaching job?"

"Yes. That bloody school boy told me that he had a cold and asked me to rub him with a coin. Then he took off his shirt. I tried to remain calm but I couldn’t. In the end, I had ridden a bicycle for nearly 15km for nothing. I’ve squandered a lot of energy, you know. I never received any pay."

"I’ve got something for. So read it and see if you can do it," she said, showing me a newspaper.

"A girl under 25 is needed with a good resume, good shape, lovely, high school level, able to give care to a bed-ridden patient. 50,000 Dong for two hours. Three days of probation, etc. "

"The wage is four times higher than a tutor’s job! You would have more money for your tuition."

"Better pay, more difficult job."

"Honest money asks for more energy and hardship. Do take my motorbike, please."

"Now?"

"Yes, let’s seize the opportunity immediately. Such high pay is very lucrative for many," Thuy urged me.

"What a queer demand! Why do they need someone with a good shape?"

I grumbled, but followed her advice anyway. She had worked as a beer marketing girl for two years now, but nothing had happened to her. She had avoided any rude acts from customers, while I had lost the job after a week because the director had touched my bottom and I had slapped him. I changed into old jeans and looked at myself in the mirror. A girl with shoulder-length hair and without any make-up was looking back at me.

I went to the address on the newspaper. It was really a nice house. A car in the garage. A dog was barking. A woman under 40 looked at me and then opened the door. I showed her the paper. She nodded and opened the gate. A flash interview happened.

"Do introduce yourself, please."

"My name is Phuong, 21, a student."

She held out her hand. I understood and gave my student card to her. She looked at the photo and at me from head to toe.

"Do you know how to make fun and sing karaoke?"

"Yes, I do."

"Are you patient enough and hardworking?"

"I’m sensitive but stubborn."

"You’re straightforward, that’s good. If you can do the job well, you’ll get two million Dong per month. If not, you’ll get 200,000 Dong for three days and then you can go. You’ll start tomorrow, from 3 to 5pm. Leave your address and student card or ID card here."

"What am I going to do?"

"Talk and help make the bed-ridden patient feel better."

On the way home, the figure of two million Dong was dancing in my mind. And that night, the figure came up again, troubling me. I was wondering if the patient was a woman or a man, old or young, human or devil.

The first day, I found out.

The housekeeper took me to the patient’s room. She whispered to me: "He is sleeping. Please wait."

It was a large, spacious room with a lot of furniture. It was messy on the bed. His hair had two contrasting colours. A thin blanket was covering his body. His arms were stretched out as if he was being nailed down. There were a dozen small pillows around him. I was surprised to be looking at a young face.

"When he wakes up, you’d better introduce yourself. You’re the thirteenth."

She went out. As soon as I stopped to pick up a newspaper from the floor, a pillow was thrown at me. I raised my head and met the eyes, full of hatred, on the face of a 20 year-old boy.

"Are you a prostitute?"

I had imagined many situations, but not this situation. I thought of the money.

"I’m the thirteenth."

"Stand up!"

"You’ve got good legs," he said, throwing a pillow at me. Then another.

I grew angry.

"I’ll throw it back if you continue that way."

He didn’t seem to care. I threw all the pillows back at him, hitting him in the face. The boy seemed shocked.

"Aren’t you afraid of losing the job?"

"Do you think you can do whatever you like when you have money?" I glared at him.

The urchin looked at me with wide open eyes, then laughed.

"You’re a bit interesting. Maybe I’ll get less bored." He tried to sit up, but could not.

"Please do throw more pillows if you can."

"Do help me to sit up! I’ll hire you to do this."

"But I don’t want to work as a hired hand for you. So ask the fourteenth to come and help you. I’m going now." Then I turned away.

"Hey!" he called suddenly.

I stopped. I had never felt inferior to anyone for even 15 minutes of my life.

"I need money and you need someone to help you. We can co-operate, provided we have mutual respect. If not, I’ll go. No harm done." I stood at the door, laying out my conditions.

"Your name?"

"Phuong."

"A student?"

"Yes."

"Come here and help me sit up."

I went nearer. The 2 million Dong encouraged me to get nearer.

"Don’t be frightened. He can’t get up," I thought to myself.

"Carry me to the wheelchair."

I intended to take the blanket from him, but he stopped me, saying: "Leave it at that."

I slipped my arm around his neck. He threw his arm around me, his eyes looked bright. I threatened him.

"Don’t do anything stupid. If you do, I’ll throw you down on the ground, you know."

The boy stuck out his tongue. For the first time I touched a man’s body, even though he seemed to have only half of it.

Then, the second day.

As soon as I stood my bicycle up, I heard the cries and shouts and curses. A lady with heavy make-up walked out of his room, wiping away tears. She stopped upon seeing me.

"I’m told that you have done well with him the first day. If you can help appease his mental crisis, I’ll double your pay."

"Can I know his condition and its cause?"

"A motorbike race. His girlfriend died and he had his two legs cut off as he was run over by a truck. For these two months, I have lived in hell because of his frenzy, and I am so scared that I dare not live in the house."

I entered the room and approached the crying body.

"The thirteenth has come," I declared.

"Give me back my legs!" he screamed.

"I haven’t taken your legs. God has got them back because you don’t need them."

He opened his mouth as if he were choking and intended to throw something at me. After a second thought, he stopped and threw it through the window.

"I haven’t got any legs left and none of my friends have come to see me."

"You’ve really thrown money out the window!"

"Seven million Dong, but what’s the money for?" He supported his arms to get something to throw it at me.

He always did that in order to let everybody know that he had still his powerful arms.

I picked it up, but was greatly surprised to see a one hundred dollar note made into the form of a crane. I found the weight of that crane in my hand, but threw it back to him. He threw back to me again, not a crane, but a flock of cranes at my foot.

"I’ve still got money, even if I am lying in bed. My mother bought a car for me to console me, you know. But I want to die now. So tell me how to die without pain. I’ll pay you for that."

I picked up all those five cranes made of one hundred dollar notes and put them under his pillow.

"I give them to you."

"I only receive your money for what I have done for you. I don’t want to get money for doing nothing."

"Poor as you are, you are very arrogant!" he said.

"There are some ways of dying published in the newspapers, so which one do you choose? There was the guy who jumped from the 33rd floor of a coffee house on his 21st birthday. Following big fight in a beer shop another guy was stabbed to death. A 17-year-old female student was run over by a train when she was walking with her bicycle across the rail way line. A young man on a motorbike was run over by a garbage truck when he slipped into a big crater on the road."

"All of these deaths are terrible," he said with a wry face.

"There is no gentle death. To reach death, you have to pass through pain."

Suddenly the image of my mother lying dead on the road appeared in a pool of sun light.

"What’s wrong with you?"

I quickly wiped the tears, shaking my head.

"If you choose death, there is no need to care for you. Now goodbye. What a waste of time!"

"Don’t leave me alone," he said. "Please stay with me. I’ll pay you a crane. This is for work, not for nothing."

"Yes. I’m stupid not to take it. Now, what do you want me to do for you?"

"What will you do if you die tomorrow?"

"I’ll fight to the end so that I can live on. Not a day goes by with a fight, you know."

"If I were as poor as you, I would not have met with this misfortune. With a motorbike to race, without money to kill myself."

"It’s only because you haven’t tasted poverty! It’s very cruel and merciless. It has washed away so many dreams and eliminated so many fates. But when you are so wealthy, the pain in your heart is more violent than hunger. A writer once said that."

"You’re right. I’ve got much money but my life is so empty. All of my family members live a false life. They have used money to buy anything. Eh, you’re of my age, but you’re so ‘old’."

"A bicycle robbed me of my childhood when I was only six years of age. For that reason, I hate those who kill people. I was thrown from the bicycle, while my mother was lying dead on the road in mid-day. I was fatherless. A certain man had left my mother when I was still in her womb. Then my maternal uncle took me home, got all the compensations, sent me to school for half a day and the other half I had to help him at the coffee house. When I was 14, I was forced by his wife to sell my body to a businessman. I took a bottle of alcohol and crashed it on his head."

"And then?"

"That man ran away. But I was homeless and roamed everywhere without anyone to turn to. I ended up in an orphanage."

"What a sad life you’ve got!"

"That’s why every day for me is a fight, a combat for existence."

Then, the third day came.

He did not yell or throw anything on the third day. He talked and sang karaoke with me. The housekeeper seemed not to believe that somebody was singing in his room, so she stood dumbfounded outside the door.

"I like a challenge, that’s why I was in the race," he sighed.

"Would you ever race again?"

"What do you mean?"

"With me. We will race to get to the light. Duration: five years."

He did not answer me. He looked thoughtful. When I carried him from the wheelchair to the bed, he looked into my eyes.

"You’ve got very beautiful eyes. Deep with sadness, but the glint shows strong will. "

My probation had gone by, but I couldn’t do the job any longer. The next day, a person came to my house with three days of pay and a box of gifts. When I opened it, I found those cranes made of one-hundred dollar notes, along with a letter.

Thuy and I read the letter:

"You don’t need to come for the fourth day. I am a clever boy by nature, and three days helped me see the truth. I accept your race. These ten cranes are for you as a gift. Don’t be so arrogant! Please accept my sincerity. See you at the end of the race."

"He is not a crazy boy," Thuy said.

"Nobody is crazy. Let’s go buy a computer. I’ll start the race! Be quick!" I said.

By Que Huong/ Translated by Manh Chuong
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