from the Vietnamese “Trả Lại Tiền” in the short story collection Vài Mẩu Chuyện, first edition published by Văn Học, 2010.
The craving for a woman makes him pedal his bike round and round the city.
A few street sisters can be spotted on Red Cross Boulevard, popping in and out of sight from behind large trees. “Too much traffic, can’t do it,” the man thought.
He circles the park in front of Independence Palace. Night. Human shadows flit about each tree. A few other men are also pedaling around hurriedly, doing the same thing like him. “OK now,” he thought.
He stops under one tree.
One sister pops out and pulls his arm:
“In here, get in here.”
“Don’t have enough.”
“So how much you got?”
“How much just to blow the sax?”
“Still don’t have enough.”
“Then how much you want?”
“Only got five.”
“No way. Fuck you. Still haven’t got my first customer…”
“That’s my whole day’s wage. No? Fine, forget it then.”
He turns around. The woman pulls him back.
“OK, whatever you got.”
He leans back against the tree. Drops his pants.
She squats down. Does her job.
A flashlight suddenly beams straight at the man’s face, along with a loud order:
He opens his eyes, then quicky pulls up his pants.
She springs up, about to flee.
The cocking sound of a rifle. The shouting voice of a People’s Neighborhood Watcher (1):
“Show me your papers.”
Fumbling, he pulls out a document that reads: “Release Order” ; crime committed: “Officer from the traitor Southern Army.”
The flashlight stops at the words, hesitating.
He tries to explain:
“Look, I just got released. It’s been too long… I haven’t…”
The watcher lowers his voice:
“My older brother also got several years like you, but he doesn’t do the nasty in public like this. You gotta find some place a little more outta sight.”
“That’s what I wanted too, but there’s no money for a room.”
“How much did she charge you?”
“Five đồng?” The watcher cackles.
Then turning to the woman, he orders:
“Refund his money.”
Confused, she repeats:
“Give the man back his money. Then get outta here.”
She wants to say something, then after some hesitation, quietly hands the money back.
The man climbs on his bike, pedaling away. After the watcher is out of sight, he doubles back to the woman.
“Hey, I’m giving you back the five.”
She turns around. Her glance lingers on his face for a few seconds, then she says:
“It’s OK. Just keep it for yourself.”
(1) Dân phòng in Vietnamese. In the years following the end of the war in 1975 in the South, due to lack of personnel, the new communist government handed out guns to local young men, sometimes even teenagers, to patrol their own neighborhood at night. They were not paid, since all citizens were expected to cooperate with the state. But performing this duty was generally understood as scoring favorable points for themselves and their families with the new local police.