I put the gun in my mouth and looked at the mountains one last time.

 

Saigon Slums, Vietnam

 

           I looked down at the cluster of wooden and mud houses and the idea of descending the hill appalled me. The smell of rotting vegetables and human waste drifted to my nose and I felt like puking. The slums had grown after the war when refugees from the countryside streamed into Vietnam's biggest city to escape the bombs and fighting. Many had settled on the damp ground along the city's branches of the SaigonRiver; the very ground that I was looking at.

           I sighed in resignation. It was now or never. Ten minutes later, I crossed over a polluted stream and zigzagged between the ragged houses and alleys. Along the way, I crossed path with

tired looking men carrying scrap metal to sell and women minding small stalls of fruits, and gutting fish from plastic buckets on the ground. Up to a quarter million people lived in these slums, with drugs, crime and prostitution defining a way of life: an ugly reminder of the legacy of the Vietnam War.

           I finally found the house I was looking for and quickly dove inside to evade the hawkers following me with their wares. Inside the house was a woman in her mid forties, cleaning the last of her dishes and setting them on a wooden rack to dry. I stood in the doorway and we stared at each other for a very long time.

           “I have seen this moment in my dream so many times,” she said. “But I never imagined how I would feel.”

           “Hi Ohn,” I greeted, “how are you doing?” I walked inside and invited myself to the old couch. There were no plumbing or electric lines, I noticed.

           She shook her head and smiled. “Fourteen years, and you haven’t changed one bit.” She walked over and sat across from me. “Fourteen years I haven’t seen you and you just walk into my house and act like we are old friends?”

           I knew where this was going and decided to end it. “Where is he?” I asked. “I want to see him.”

           She sighed back into the couch and said, “He’s playing soccer in the park two miles down the road.”

          I stood up and walked towards the door and then turned as another thought crossed my mind. “What’s his name?” I asked.

           She crossed her hands over her chest and said defiantly. “You’ll know him.”

         We locked eyes again, and the air between us was filled with unanswered questions.

 

           The two mile walk to the park was very unpleasant and rough looking youth accosted me and took my watch and shoes away. Two women appeared from around the corner and yelled at them. I ran off before they could get my wallet and tried to remind myself of purpose. It was very important that I stayed focused on my mission.

           The park in the slums. It gave new meaning to the word park. An open space yes,
but here the ground was dirt and ragged, and not a single stitch of grass was visible. In the middle of the soccer field, a sewage drain spilled out green water and the children had to jump over and occasionally use a stick to pull the ball from the sludge.

           I stood on the side and watched them play and I couldn’t figure out which one was my son. So I called them over and pulled out a new yellow ball from my bag pack.

           “Wow!” the kids exclaimed. “Can we play with it sir?” they asked.

           “Here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m going to show you a trick and whoever is able to repeat it can have this soccer ball.”

           The kids clapped with excitement.

           I juggled the ball with my bare feet, kicked it in the air and caught it with the nape of my neck. I let it sit there for a while then maneuvered it to the top of my forehead.

           “Me me me!” the kids offered. “I can do it!”

           “One at a time,” I said. “Everybody will get a chance.”

           And they started. Some were very good and they got the ball all the way to the neck. But only one boy was able to get it to the forehead.

           “What’s your name boy?” I asked.

           “They call me Lee sir,” the shy boy replied.

           “Well Lee,” I said. “The ball is yours.”

           The boy took the ball with glowing eyes and then asked. “Can I share it with my friends?”

          “Sure,” I said and watched them run off laughing. I was very impressed. Not every kid would have been so generous.

           I walked around the park and watched them play for hours, the soft bottom of my feet burning from the hot ground. At dusk, Lee ran over and thanked me again.

           “Can I walk you home Lee?” I asked.

           He smiled. “Yes. Maybe you can come and say hi to my mum.”

           “I would love that.”

           We walked by the alley where I had been mugged and Lee greeted the thugs with a hand wave.

           “Friend of yours Lee?” they asked.

           “Yes.”  The little boy raised the soccer ball and showed it to them. They looked at each other in a funny way and I knew that Lee wouldn’t own that ball for too long.

           Back in the house, I sighed when we walked into Ohn’s home. I had guessed correct. Lee was her son … my son.

           “Mum, mum, this is Mr. Chen and he gave me a new soccer ball. See!”

           “That’s a nice ball son. Did you say thank you?”

           “Yes I did.”

           “Alright. Go wash your face and hands. Dinner is ready.”

           The little boy stopped at the door. “Can Mr. Chen stay for dinner? Pleaaase?”

           “Ask him? He’s right here.” Ohn pointed me out.

           I raised my hands in surrender. “Okay, but only for a little bit.”

           The little boy jumped up in delight and ran off singing.

           Ohn looked at me and shook her head. “How did you know him?”

           “It was easy,” I replied as I sat down on the stool. “He has the same spontaneous soccer skills that I had when I was his age.”

           Lee came back a while later and we sat and ate dinner in a homely environment. Ohn was a great cook and I ate heartily. Darkness slowly descended outside.

           “So you used to be a great soccer player Mr. Chen?” Lee asked.

           “Don’t talk with food in your mouth,” Ohn said gently.

           I smiled. She was a good mother and the boy seemed edified.

 “We used to travel all over the country with the soccer team,” I said and winked at Lee. “It was a lot of fun and I was never home.”

           “I want to be a great soccer player too,” Lee said with a twinkle in his eyes.

           “You are on the right track,” I encouraged. “One day you will be telling people how you used to play soccer bare footed and they won’t believe you.”

           “And I will be famous too and they will show my face on every TV commercial!”

           I smiled and Ohn laughed.

           “Look into my eyes Lee,” I said and the little boy moved closer. “When you become famous, I want you to promise me something.”

           “What’s that Mr. Chen?”

           I took in a deep breath. “That you will always love and respect your mother, no matter how much money you make.”

           “Okay Mr. Chen.”

         “I want to hear you say it.” I placed a hand on his bony shoulder.

         “I promise to always love and respect my mum,” Lee said with conviction.

 

           Dinner being over, I stood up to leave and Ohn looked at me in surprise. “You are leaving?”

           “I have to go now. I have a busy schedule tomorrow.” I cracked the door open and a cold breeze hit my face. Outside, I heard the sound of gunshots and sirens and remembered my stolen shoes and watch.

           “You should probably spend the night and leave in the morning,” Ohn said in a calm voice behind me.

           I turned and looked at her in disbelief. The thought had not once crossed my mind until now. To sleep in the slums!

 It was a one room house, a studio: one bed, a couch and a cooking stove in the corner… where was I supposed to sleep? I felt like a trespasser already.

           “Please stay for the night Mr. Chen,” Lee said in a pleading voice. “You can sleep on the couch and in the morning I will walk you to the bus stop.”

           The boy was irresistible but it was the gunshots outside that convinced me to stay.

           Ohn eyed me with curiosity and then walked over and prepared my bed. She laid an old sheet on the couch then threw me a bed cover. “Good night Mr. Chen,” she said mischievously as she tried to imitate her son.

           A curtain dropped from the ceiling to separate her bed from my side of the room and while she and Lee went right to sleep, I lay awake and pondered about the path that had led me to this point.

 At midnight and too scared to venture to the restroom, I took a piss outside the door as I craned my neck, ready to dash back inside at the first sound of trouble.

A shadow suddenly appeared behind me and I almost pissed on my pants. It was Ohn. She walked over to a wooden bench outside the house and sat down without looking in my direction. Moonlight hit her face and I saw the pensive eyes and Mona Lisa smile. She looked very beautiful and yet so sad.

I walked over and joined her. “Can’t sleep?” I asked.

She didn’t turn to look at me. “Ya. Too many minds,” she said. And then. “Why now Chen? Why now after fourteen years?”

I had expected this question and so I replied with confidence. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life Ohn. I want to make things right. Are you still mad at me for leaving? I mean the last time I saw you, you threw your phone at me.”

She finally looked at me with smiling eyes. “No Chen, that was a long time ago. Look at him now. Look at Lee! How can I be angry at you? You gave him to me and all I have to do is look at him and the world is a better place again.”

Her words filled me with guilt and emotions. I wanted her to yell at me and call me names. But all she did was sit there and look beautiful. I wanted to say something nice to her. I wanted to let her know how sorry I was for breaking her trust in me, but I didn’t know how to. I didn’t understand the stirring inside my bones.

 “Chen?” She called as she leaned her head on my right shoulder. “Let’s not do that thing where we go digging into the past. Let’s enjoy the present and look forward to the future.” I nodded, too captivated to talk.

  A while later, we both went back inside and this time, I fell into a deep sleep.

           
My phone went off at
7am and I stirred from
sleep. Ohn and Lee were already awake and I could hear their happy voices somewhere outside. My back hurt from sleeping on the boat like couch.

           “Yes?” I answered.

           “Mr. Chen?” It was my lawyer Don. “Mr. Chen, the deal has been approved. We need your signature as soon as possible. Where are you? Do you want me to send the helicopter to get you? The Americans are here.”

           I looked around and smiled.  A helicopter in the slums would make quite a scene. “No helicopter," I replied. "Send the car to…” I gave him an address a mile from the slums. “And bring me some clothes,” I added. I disconnected the line before he could ask any further questions. Don was a lawyer by nature, nosy yes, but also a very good friend of mine.

           “Mr. Chen, you are awake!” It was Lee.

           “Morning Lee. Tell your mama I have to leave.”

           “So soon?” The little boy looked appalled.

           “It’s urgent.”

           Ohn’s face appeared in the doorway. “Business?” she asked.

           “Yes,” I replied. She recognized the look on my face from fourteen years ago.

           “Thanks for coming,” she said and we locked eyes for a moment. There was so much that we wanted to talk about but the boy’s presence and our not wanting to stir past wounds prevented us.

           “Are we going to see you again Mr. Chen?” Lee asked as he walked me outside.

           “It depends,” I said.

           “On what?”

           I pretended to think. “On whether you like the mountains.”

           “I do, I do!” He was jumping up and down and both Ohn and I laughed.

           “Well, if it’s okay with your mum, I will come back and get you both this weekend. How does that sound?”

          “Wonderful, I can’t wait!”

           Ohn walked over and briefly hugged me before I turned to leave.

           “I’ll walk you down the street Mr. Chen,” Lee offered.

 

           My office was on the top floor of the BitexcoFinancialTower, one of the tallest
skyscrapers in
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with three basements and 68 floors above ground. The elevator opened on the 64th floor and my three
secretaries scrambled over each other and rushed me with folders. I signed without reading and never once stopped walking. They had learned a long time ago not to bother me with details.

         “Fire the receptionist,” I said.

         “Any particular reason Mr. Chen?”

         “Yes. I don’t like the way she looks.”

   I was known build and ruin careers. This was my kingdom, and here people worshipped me.

          The Americans and the General Managers of my company were waiting in the conference room. Good. Let them wait a little longer. I was the kind of guy who liked to make an entrance.

           I strutted into the conference room wearing a beautiful tailored suit and a day old beard. I shook hands firmly with the Americans and looked each in the eye. I wanted them to know that I was there and that I could see them… each one of them. I withheld the smile for later and settled for a nod here and a gentle pat on the shoulder there. I didn’t want them to see how excited I was. This was my one dream come true; my legacy in the making. The first McDonald’s restaurant in Vietnam and I would be forever
remembered for making the tough calls.

            "As you all know gentlemen," I began in a resonate voice. "I went to school in Boston and my first job as a student was flipping burgers at
McDonald's." Polite laughter filled the room. It was why they were trusting me with the franchise. They believed that I understood their brand and
thus wanted to use me as an entry point to expand the brand in the
Asia region. First foods
such as KFC, Burger King, Subway and Pizza Hut already had restaurants in
Vietnam alongside dozens of local chains. Starbucks had just opened
its first store in
Ho Chi Minh City and now finally the world biggest burger restaurant, McDonald's
had arrived. 

            It wasn’t just about the restaurant but also bridging the margin in the relationship between a communist and capital state. Every journey began with one step and I could vividly
see the headlines in
America: McDonald's Opens in Communist Vietnam and it gave me a rush to imagine the stirred up controversy.  

           Afterwards, the President of Vietnam called me and congratulated me for my good work in building the nation. I was elated and I scampered down the elevators feeling on top of the world.

          “What’s next on my schedule Don?” I asked my lawyer as I lit a cigar.

 "You shouldn't smoke Mr. Chen," Don said in a timid voice.

            "Cut the crap Don, I just spoke to the most powerful man in the whole country. I have a genuine reason to celebrate. What's next?"

           He hesitated. “Your family is waiting for you at the ranch Mr. Chen.”

           I stopped and turned to look at him. “Now? Can we postpone?”

           “Not a good idea sir. They came from all over the country and some of them had to leave their jobs and travel for hours to get here.”

           The bastards, I cursed and bit into the cigar. “All right, let’s get this over with. I will take the chopper.”

            We took the elevator down to the 52nd floor, through the VIP & Bar Lounge and on to the heli-pad.  

         Up in the air I asked. “Don, did you get the stuff I asked for?”

          Don turned and nodded. “Yes Mr. Chen. The DNA results were positive, Lee is your son.”

           I nodded and looked out the chopper window. I had known all along but I wanted to be a hundred percent sure. Folks like me didn’t become rich by making mistakes. We made decisions based on facts and facts only.

           The ranch was a large single story U-shaped building with sliding doors opening
to a fancy golden green backyard with sporadic heavy leafed trees; motion detectors, dusk to dawn sensor lights. The living room where my family was waiting was separated from the bedroom by a long hallway that looked like a
picture gallery. Furniture in the ranch was changed every year to give the house a fresh look as I was known to get bored easily.

           They hugged me one by one and gave me sympathetic looks. The bastards, I cursed again. They couldn’t wait for me to die so that they could get my money.

           They were all there: my wife and three daughters; my brothers and sisters… a bunch of good for nothing folks. I couldn’t imagine how we were related. Look at Pyong for example; thirty years old, hasn’t kept a single job for over a
year, always broke and borrowing money. And then my sister; always giving birth, and none of the kids had the same daddy. And my wife? She was the worst of them all. We had never really been in love and she had stuck around for the
money.
How do we even call ourselves a family?

           I coughed as we sat down in the living room. “Thank you everybody for coming here at such a short notice,” I said. “As you all have heard, the rumors are true. I have cancer and won’t be sticking around for too long.” A murmur
erupted in the room and my three daughters, now in their early thirties rushed over and hugged me while crying. We had been close once; a long time ago… right before they left to see the world and ended up partying and boozing. They never
once called me to say hi.

           I pulled free and politely requested them to sit down. I was not handing trophies for great performances. “My lawyer will read my will now,” I said and watched as their eyes glowed with expectation. It was why they were here. Not to see me, but to collect. Not many folks in life wrote wills. Most people just die and allow their families to inherit the property. Not me. I had too much at
stake and I had worked too hard to watch my sweat end up in the wrong hands. Every home had a story, and this was mine.

           I watched as my lawyer handed each of them an envelope. All except my wife. Her case was a little more complicated and I would deal with her later. I drummed my fingers on my thigh and watched the scene unfold with amusement.

           A second turned into ten and the first voice rose above all. “The envelope is empty!” Pyong exclaimed and everybody else looked up in surprise. All the envelopes were empty! My lawyer looked at me nervously and I encouraged him to
proceed.

           “That’s how much money you are each going to get according to Mr. Chen’s will,” Don said in a firm tone.

           The voices got angry. “How can you do this to us? We are your family!”

           “Why did you call us here? You could have told us on the phone!”

           I had stopped caring a long time ago. At what point exactly, I didn’t know. To me, family was baggage on the road to success.

           Finally, a voice of reason. “So if we are not getting your money, who is?”

           The room fell silent and angry eyes bore through me. I stood up, took off my glasses and walked over to the window. The flowers looked beautiful in the yard. I turned and faced them with a dazed expression. “I have a son," I said. "His name is Lee.”

           The chopper took off from the ranch and I sighed into the seat. “That was fun Don,” I said. “We should do that more often. What’s next on my schedule?”

           “You have an appointment at the hospital for a blood drain and chemotherapy sir.”

           I waved a hand at him. “No. Let’s skip that.” The idea of a little boy in a white coat poking needles into my body wasn’t very appealing. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery were all a way of extending one's life and I did not plan to stick around for that long. A sharp pain cut through my belly and I reached for my painkillers.

           Don looked shock. “But sir, you said you were going to try out the new wonder drug everybody is talking about! They say that it helps the immune system break down cancerous tumors!”

           I smiled at him. “They are still testing it Don. I don't want to be anybody's guinea pig." Sigh. "Don, am tired. Please cancel the rest of my
schedule and take me home.”

            "Yes Mr. Chen."

         
Melancholy: definition simplified…sadness, depression.

 

           I was looking forward to my weekend with Ohn and Lee and when the limousine pulled outside the Saigon slums, the little boy came flying towards the car.

           “Woooo Mr. Chen, is that your car? Can I ride in it?” He touched it and looked at me in disbelief.

           Ohn appeared behind him in a stunning white dress, her long black hair shifting in the afternoon breeze. They both got into the back seat of the limousine and the smell of cheap perfume filled the air. I offered her a glass of champagne
and handed Lee a can of cold soda. The giddy boy looked like he was in
DisneyLand.

           An hour later, the big car pulled into the Alps Resort and we stepped out of the car to the beautiful view of the mountains. I owned the resort and the presidential suite was ready waiting for my arrival. Waiters and hotel employees hovered around us and jumped whenever I snapped my fingers. I fired easily and tipped good when I was happy.

           “I’ve never had one,” Lee told me a while later as he walked around his bedroom.

           “What?” I asked. “A room of your own?”

           “No,” he replied. “My own bed.”

           I stared at him and realized how privileged I had been in life. The things that I took for granted were other people’s desires.

           The word perfect couldn’t describe the weekend that we had. It was a fun weekend and we spent it like a family: horse back riding, swimming, riding canoes in the river amongst many other activities. We smiled and laughed and
talked about everything but the serious questions at hand.

           Sunday came quicker than I had expected and I offered to cook lunch for the two. During the meal, I was very pensive and I found Ohn constantly studying me.

“Ohn?” I called from across the table. “Do you believe in God?”

“Yes,” she replied without hesitating. “You?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “But I envy people who do.”

In the evening, I told them that I was going for a walk and refused their offer to accompany me; said that I wanted to clear my head. I left Ohn cleaning the room and headed up the hills.

           It was a gorgeous day and the evening was rapidly fading away. I sat on top of the hill and watched the last of the sun setting in the west in a beautiful display of art. Other than the pain in my abdomen, it was just like I had pictured it; my last day on earth. I had always wanted it to happen in the mountains. There was something very peaceful about the mountains and the mysterious way they dug into the clouds.

           I pulled out the gun from the inner pocket of the jacket and stared at it. With the pull of a trigger, I would cease to exist. Where I would go, I did not know. I thought about my family: my long gone parents, my wife and kids, brothers and sister. A sadness washed over me and I had my first sense of regret. The pressure was turning out to be too much. I had lived a great life and every step I had made towards success had been calculated based on facts. I had no facts or blueprints for the journey that lay ahead and the
unknown scared me. My body had betrayed me. I sighed deeply, a grave expression on my face. Twilight.  It was time. I gave the mountains one last look and shoved the gun's barrel into my mouth.

 

            A twig snapped and I quickly pulled the gun out of my mouth and slid it into my inner jacket pocket.

            "Nice view ha?" Ohn said as she walked towards me smiling.

            "I...I, yes, nice view," I replied with a stutter, feeling like a deer in the headlights.

            She sat on the grass next to me and we stared together at the setting sun. It was a
really beautiful sight. I wondered whether she had seen the gun.

            "I remember the last time you brought me here," she said without looking at me. "Oh, we were so young then and you... you were ready to conquer the world." She turned and looked at me. "Remember what you told me Chen?"

            "What's that?"

            "You said that you will one day make a lot of money and buy this land. You were strong then and all I had to do was look into your eyes and see the conviction. You never gave up on any of your dreams and you tenaciously fought life's
challenges and didn't let anything stand in your way."

           I looked at her as though in shock. Her words flowed into my body and I felt
something that I hadn't felt in a long time. Her believing in me made me feel alive! "You remember all that?" I asked in amazement.

            She leaned over and kissed me softly on the lips, her shadow on my face, sunlight
behind her. I closed my eyes and felt my heart leap with joy. "I love you Chen," she said. "I never stopped loving you."

            I couldn’t reply because her lips wouldn't let me. She didn't want me to reply either, I could tell. Her right hand slid slowly from behind my neck and onto my chest. Her touch was soft and arousing and I felt my nerves twitch with
excitement. And then... she slid into my inner pocket, pulled out the 9mm pistol and pulled back to stare at it. And in that instant, I knew that she
knew.

            Our eyes met briefly and I couldn't get a read on her. She had always been hard to read; an actress who never broke character… only that she was for real.

            "Lee!" she yelled suddenly at the top of her voice. "You can come out now! Your daddy wants to show you how to use a gun!"

            I sat up quickly as the little boy came running from the bushes. Both Ohn and I jumped to our feet and turned to face Lee as he arrived huffing and puffing.

            "Wow!" Lee exclaimed as he stared at the gun. "Are you really going to teach me how to shoot... dad?"

            My eyes instantly moistened at the word dad. I dropped on one knee and Lee ran into my arms. I held him tight and felt the tension ease from my body. We stayed in status quo for a long time.

            "Yes," I finally said. "I will teach you son. I will teach you how to shoot a gun and how to be the best soccer player in the whole world. I will teach you how to be a man.” My heart felt like it would burst with joy.

        I walked away from Ohn and my son a while later and pulled out my cell phone. Darkness had
gradually descended over
Vietnam, but we were too happy to care. The last birds chirped sleepily
and somewhere on a tree, an owl hooted.

        The phone was answered on the first ring by my lawyer.

        "Don?" I said, my voice optimistic. "I want you to find me the best doctors in the whole world. I'm going to fight this thing to the end."

        "That's wonderful news Mr. Chen." I could see him jumping up and down with joy. "Why the sudden change of heart sir, if I may ask?"

        I turned and watched Lee running around his mother's skirt and a warm feeling engulfed my
heart. "Let's just say that I found something to live for Don. I have a son to raise now." Pause. "And Don?"

        "Yes Mr. Chen."

        "Call my family and read them the correct will. I want everybody taken care of when am
gone."

          “Yes Mr. Chen.”

News

Off to AFRICA

 

My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.

 

The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen

 

Contact

 

mrobertto@yahoo.com

Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...