He did not understand why he stood there, looking at that iron door slowly closing before he walked down to the highway. It was over, after ten years of being in prison, he was now about forty years old. Ten years in prison for homicide. The night he stabbed somebody to death, he was heavily drunk, so in the morning, when he woke up, seeing blood stains on his hands, he was greatly terrified.
Having left the prison the day before, the next day he was seen at the end of the street, near the pavement market. Obviously, he had to earn his living. In the evening, he was seen sitting together with Hoang, his one-time underling who was now controlling this pavement area. He was senior in age and also senior in life, as after ten years in prison, he had got some tattoos of scorpions and other reptiles. Yet, it was too bad for him that his best years had been spent in the sugar cane field and rubber tree plantation in the correction camp. So much sweat he had shed there. He looked at his underling in anger as the guy chomped the food. But he tried to contain himself.
"Old man! It is so difficult to do business these days," Hoang said, emptying the glass of beer. "You were in the camp for quite a long time, so you cannot tell how difficult it is. A lot of changes, you see. Those young bloods are now more foolhardy than we were in the past. So please, stay here with me."
The sky was dark. A woman walked silently across the street upon seeing Hoang, but it was too late. She had to turn back to this side of the road when she saw him waving. She pulled the chair closer to him.
"Please, have some empathy for me. It has been raining all these days, so I cannot do anything to earn money. When I get it, I’ll send it to you immediately. Please wait for some more days. Is it okay?"
The guy turned up his eyes at the woman. She had heavy make-up, but she could not hide the wrinkles on her drawn face. But somewhere on it, there were still some traces of gracefulness that had been fading with time and fatigue. He turned his small eyes at her. Those people who had been living a parasitic life on the pavement would not have the guts to look at those small eyes of his. It was therefore hard for them to tell if there were any black pupils in those eyes.
It was pouring down rain.
Hoang "small eyes" communicated nothing. Hoang turned to him.
"You lacked everything in there, didn’t you? I’ll treat you tonight with this woman!" he yelled.
The woman’s name was Hanh. Her parents had hoped for the best for her, hoping that she could have a happy life (Hanh in Vietnamese means happiness, virtue). Yet, what she was doing now ran counter to her name. After working in dance halls, hotels and bars, the pavement was her home. Hoang got the money from girls like Hanh, and even from heroin dealing. Or in other words, from street evils.
The rain began to abate, and Hanh politely asked to leave. He had embraced her during the rain. He felt cold when she kissed his chest. Now she was leaving, so he gave her some money. She tried to refuse, but in vain.
So she said: "Thank you. But please, don’t tell Hoang."
He nodded. The woman smiled and put the money into her bra and left in haste.
He placed the piece of hollow brick on the ground again and displayed the sign offering illegal VCDs. There were dozens of such bricks on this pavement, which were seen as traps for the passers-by. If any of them slightly touched the VCDs, they would drop and the drama would start. He would pick up the disks and introduce them at cut-throat prices, depending on the kinds of customers. If the customer shook his head, the disks would be thrown down on the ground again and the prey was surrounded by those gangsters who would roll up their sleeves to disclose their tattooed arms. If the customer was "head strong", he would wave a syringe, saying: "Give me some money. I need a fix."
The money would be handed over and he would put it into his pocket. However, the city had fewer and fewer gullible customers. As a result, this morning he sat there, yawning all the time from the morning to the afternoon without luring anybody into his trap.
This month was really a bad month for him, just like the fortune- teller had predicted.
He heaved a deep sigh, then took some drops of water to smoothen his hair. He later roamed around to see if he could get something. Crossing the hospital, he hesitated. As he got used to using his strength, he hated pickpocketing or shoplifting. He thought it was quite base to do. But he was very hungry. Okay, leave it at that. He walked upstairs and examined the exits. After that, he walked leisurely, as if he were visiting a patient. Someone caught his hand, but he collected himself. A familiar-looking woman, yes, it was the woman he met after being released from prison, Hanh.
"I’m very glad to see you here. My son has a high temperature and I have to buy the medicines on the ground floor. Are you busy now? Please do me a favour! I’ll be back immediately."
He was quite perplexed as he looked at the boy lying there with a wet towel on his forehead to reduce the fever.
"You’ve made your mother mad, boy. If I had taken you away, what would happen? I ain’t your relative. She is really a woman!" he thought to himself.
The little boy cried. Maybe he got frightened at his roughness as he carried it. His hands were not as tender as those of the boy’s mother. But fortunately, the boy had cried only for a short moment. This made him forget his attempt to be here in the hospital. The boy’s eyes were closed tightly and his lips were moving as if they were wrapped around his mother’s breasts. He touched the boy for a se-cond time.
"Why is your mother so late, little boy?"
The little boy knew very well that those rough hands of his would not do any harm.
He suddenly remembered his mother. He had been so ill when he was small, and his mother had gone everywhere to buy medicines for him. And one day he was no longer ill and his mother was happy. He ate well and became strong. But he began using his fists. She died during his second year in prison.
The baby boy raised its arms. Clumsy as he was, he could handle the boy very skillfully.
"Do sleep, son! Your mother is not good. She has gone for quite a long time. Do sleep. I have pity for you!"
But the boy yelled loudly. The more he consoled him, the louder he screamed.
"Eh, your beard is making the child cry, you know. You’re so clumsy!" said an old woman. He felt great shame upon hearing this, so he put the baby down and it stopped crying right away.
Hanh rushed toward him. She took the baby from him in great fear. He burst out laughing.
"You look as if I have done something terrible to your baby."
Hanh got flushed and said thanks to him in a low voice. Her face had no more make-up, but she seemed more beautiful to him.
The next day Hanh’s baby was leaving the hospital. Hanh tried to pack her things quietly.
"It’s quite a pity for my baby, because I don’t know who his father is." She spoke haltingly, looking at the little boy. "I almost killed him, but the doctor saved his life by not allowing my abortion. When I gave birth to him and he was lying beside me, I felt so happy. What do you think? Is it alright? You know, when I was still single, everything was okay for me. But now I have this baby, so I have to be responsible for him, ain’t I? I don’t want him to think his mother is a bad woman. It’ll be a shame for him then! That’s why, I have decided to leave my past behind. I will try to earn an honest living for my son, even though I have to work my fingers to the bone. I don’t know if you can believe me or not, but I love my son. I will live for him."
The little boy was startled. Hanh embraced him.
"Be good, my baby. Your mother is here with you." The little boy buried its face into her chest.
Seeing this, the ex-gangster suddenly had a strange feeling come over him.
He went out of the hospital’s gate, the coffin tattoo visible on his chest. He smiled, touching his unshaven chin. He walked straight to a conve-nience store.
"Please, sell me the best razor you have!"