DEATH OF A PERSON - English version by Khanh Doan and Thanh Doan
DEATH OF A PERSON
By Doan Quoc Sy
English version by Khanh Doan and Thanh Doan
Phong came and startled me with this news:
- Thinh is dead!
I was even more shaken when Phong told me that Thinh died of a horrible accident on the city street, where the Public Services workers were cutting trees to widen it. There was a big tamarind tree with all branches and roots cut off, with only a 4-meter high big bare trunk of two persons’ arm length left. At 6:30 that afternoon, Thinh was speeding by on his Mobilette motorbike. Fate made it that the trunk fell down at that very time. It broke the motorbike into pieces and killed Thinh instantly. Some policemen, together with a dozen passers-by, worked really hard to lift the tamarind trunk and removed Thinh’s crushed body.
Though not witnessing this dramatic scene, Phong’s story overwhelmed me with emotions and left me speechless.
A person’s death caused by careless public workers caused extreme reactions from the Press all over the nation.
Normally, when a coffin was closed to totally end a human life, relatives and friends would avoid saying anything negative about the deceased. However, because of the loud voice and special concern of the public about this accident, I felt obliged to evoke some features about Thinh’s past.
Being not only from the same village, but also from the same neighborhood, I got to know Thinh thoroughly since our childhood. With his unchanged character, I could describe him at any period of his life. Maybe, it would be best if I chose the relatively recent 1954 Passage to Freedom.
I moved South three months after Thinh. Being a civil worker, Thinh was immediately provided with accommodation. As to me, being jobless before moving South, I had to try really hard to find a place large enough for a folding bed for the night. Such was the rental situation in Saigon at that time.
In spite of my own difficult situation, it never came to my mind that I would come to him for a sleep-over night. One day, I visited Khải, Thịnh’s brother, who settled down in the South ten years ago. As I was about to take leave, Thinh came. He greeted Khải with great formality, repeating over and over again that he intended to buy such and such gifts for his brother but could not because of the limited luggage allowance on the plane.
Khải dismissed the idea insistently:
- Forget it, bro! You already had lots of luggage on your trip. Now, if you ever need anything, just come to me, I may help.
I rose to take leave of everyone and promised another get-together with Khải and his wife.
Though gone, I could very well tell how Thinh would continue the conversation. For sure. he would mention indirectly and objectively a few negative features about me. (It was Thinh’s inevitable habit to speak ill of a person who just left the group and to say it in a very tactful and discreet way.) Certainly, Thinh would not forget what Khải said: “If you ever need anything, just tell me. I may help.” I was sure Thinh would readily figure out what he needed. I was even more certain that he would emotionally talk about them being apart for ten years. Then, he would shrewdly lead Khải to realize he needed many things (things that Khải certainly had) so as to insist on his taking them home. By that time, the conversation would become heated and sensible. Thinh would vehemently argue against Khải’s offer. His refusal would certainly lessen and he would end up accepting Khai’s gifts Khải with either words of thanks or friendly rebukes.
Such is the contrast between the nice honest Khải and the mean tricky Thinh.
Not until I was lucky enough to rent a place at a surprisingly reasonable price of 2000 dong per month did I find my way to Thinh’s house. I did it not because I like him in any way, but because I found great fun in his character. Even when still in Hanoi, whenever I had some free time, I would visit Thinh to see him act or to put him on stage. I found it highly entertaining, even though at times exasperating.
As expected, I did find him acting.
His wife’s nephew had just arrived for a visit in a taxi.
As soon as the taxi sped up and disappeared into the heavy traffic, he said to the nephew:
- Let me pay for the fare.
- Don’t worry, Uncle. I already paid.
- Then, stay for dinner with us. Will you?
- Thanks, Uncle, but I have some business to attend to.
Thinh turned to greet me:
- Hey, I thought you stayed North with “Uncle” (Uncle Ho).
- Everybody knows the Communists too well. Who cares about staying with “Uncle”!
- How long have you been South?
- For over half a month.
- Where do you live now?
- Just want to see if I can stay with you.
He looked so obviously disturbed that I hurriedly said:
- Just kidding! I already found a place to rent.
Thinh smiled in relief:
- Exactly as I expected! I know you’d never want to share accommodation. You’d never bother to share a place with me. Where is that?
- On Gallieni Street, next to Kim Sơn Dancing Club near Bến Thành Market.
- Wow! That is great!
- Great, indeed.
I retorted both provokingly and mockingly.
I said hello to Thinh’s wife who entered the room to arrange the altar atop the cabinet. I noticed she had covered its glass mirror with a newspaper, so as not to see herself bowing.
Thinh turned to his nephew to repeat the invitation:
- Stay with us, it’s full moon dinner today.
Then, within five minutes, I heard him repeat the invitation four more times insistently, while the nephew kept regretfully declining it each time:
- I am sorry, Uncle. Maybe next time. I have to leave soon.
Suddenly, Thinh changed his offer to something else:
- How about a glass Ovaltine milk?
As the nephew kept silence, Thinh hurriedly said:
- No again? Up to you, then.
I could not bear any more of his acting and was about to take leave when Phong unexpectedly came. We were from the same native village. He wrote romantic poems but had a great sense of humor.
Phong had no great self control, so often made merciless jokes or got angry while Thinh was “acting”. (Evidently, there was no poetry in his language then.)
Once. while still in Hanoi, Phong ran into Thinh in the street and invited him to a meal of grilled fish. As they finished eating, Thinh hurriedly fumbled for his wallet, a typical pretending gesture of his. Phong, who knew it too well, chose to ignore it and let him actually pay. What a bitter experience! Even though he did not drink, Thinh’s face turned red as he staggered out of the restaurant.
Right after that, Phong came to tell me the incidence with uncontrollable fits of laughter. In the afternoon, Phong bought toys for Thinh’s children twice as expensive as the meal. Since then, Thinh never accepted any invitations from Phong.
This was the first time Phong visited Thinh in Saigon.
Thinh greeted Phong with a smile, then asked:
- Mr Poet, are you still composing?
Phong’s answer was brisk:
- Of course! Regularly!
- But you need to start drinking. Don’t you remember that your father used to drink while composing?
- I will need to add opium to the list, then. My dad used to smoke, too.
I could not help laughing. Knowing that those two would end up with some kind of insignificant but unpleasant arguments, I intervened by asking Phong to go with me to visit Khải.
Thinh did not venture to ask us to stay for lunch, knowing that his invitation, in Phong’s presence, would risk being accepted.
Such was Thinh’s character, an embodiment of meanness and trickery. Kind-hearted people would ignore him; generous people would not take him seriously. Meanwhile, the common people would at times try to retaliate, but realizing how pointless it was, they would end up keeping a distance from him. As a result, Thinh was able to pursue his own path comfortably without any obstruction.
As to myself, though I already told you that I regarded Thinh as an entertaining clown, I was still frustrated about his life and about my not finding a way to help him to enjoy a selfless, or at least uncalculated gesture. I often told myself: “Well, it will be OK if Thinh does not do anything for others, he should at least appreciate others’ selfless deeds. In fact, in Thinh’s mind, altruism was just soft soil easy to dig.
Many a time, I had the ambition of luring him out of his egoist shell by means of my true friendship, changing him. Hopefully, just as a snail stuck in a crevice, one day he would be washed out by a sudden ocean wave. I tried hard to find a single quality in Thinh so I could truly love him. This could be that he and I were from the same village and went to the same school since childhood. I would also remind myself that he deserved empathy after his first child died of small pox. Then I would rush to his house, hoping that my new surge of emotions would wake up his hidden altruistic feelings. But, my efforts failed miserably every time. His shallow smile, his superficial words, his stealthy fingers taking out a cigarette, just to avoid offering me one. All those gestures were so shamelessly mean that they effectively froze the feeble fire of empathy I had tried really hard to build. We were then two persons speaking two different languages with no mutual understanding. I happened to find an image to describe that discrepancy. His soul was a desert. Entering that desert, I longed for a tree shade and a river. Sometimes, the green tree shade and fresh water stream did appear, but it was just a mirage.
Failure! I could not help but admit failure! A coin in that period of inflation is not worth much, but it was still big enough to spread its shade to obscure Thinh’s honor and decency.
Actually, I should not elaborate this topic. Those keen enough would need only a few interactions with Thinh to clearly figure out how he lived his entire life. Then, all his empty words would become too small to cover up the vast hypocrisy and meanness in his soul. They would realize that he deserved their absolute contempt.
Right after the accident happened, the Press held a special grand meeting which resulted in articles published all over the nation in Vietnamese, French and English, illustrated by pictures showing the accident site and the victim’s body.
The following week, reports on the authorities’ investigation were extremely detailed. Reporters raised the following questions:
“Why not fell the tree right after all its branches and roots had been cut off? Was it because, at the end of the day, the heartless workers found it acceptable to leave their work unfinished?
Another reporter wrote more dramatically:
“Carelessness at work sites that cost a human life showed an extreme lack of responsibility and should be severely punished. Humans are not plants or animals. Humans are so valuable that all the gold and silver of the whole world could not pay for lost lives! Humans are sacred part of family, society and humanity. To undervalue human lives is to undervalue the whole humanity.”
As mentioned above, extreme anger from the press resulted in extreme anger of people all over the nation. I told myself that the feeling could very well be universal if the news were in all languages. Certainly, no one would be interested to know if the victim was a high-ranked official, a famous artist or a common person. News of a tragic senseless death would cause the whole world to mourn indiscriminately.
Investigations were conducted and completed within a month and the careless unscrupulous worker was identified.
The procurator office instantly brought him to criminal court and, despite two attorneys’ efforts, he was still convicted of a 5-month suspended sentence, plus a big indemnification to be paid to the victim’s family. There was even a final note that said: “If the indemnification is not submitted within a month, the court will issue order for property seizure.”
Thinh’s death was a warning to not only the Public Service but also to all individuals to be aware of any wasteful loss of human lives. Thinh’s life was not the end of a mean, deceitful and selfish person, worthless to his pushy self and his family. (What could his children expect from a father like him? Probably not a good example in decency, certainly not a useful member of society.) Thinh’s death was no longer Thinh’s death, but the death of a Person.
That was Thinh’s first, as well as last and only good deed for life.