LÊ TUẤN WRITER-TRANSLATOR-ACTOR-DIRECTOR


 

THE OLD MUSICIAN RETURNS TO HIS HOMELAND

A short story by Lê Tuấn

 

 

                                                    

 

 In the last six months, the musician had been in a convalescent home and hated every minute of it. He hadn’t been well. There was nobody to take care of him so he had to go into one of the cheap nursing homes where the meals were inedible and the nurses were ugly and rude. And how come all these people in here look so old, he wondered.

          The musician hadn’t played his instrument for a while. He had stopped touring about six years or seven years ago. Nobody asked him to go on those fun-filled trips across America and Europe anymore. He missed the rapt audience. He longed to hear the sound that came from his beloved Dan Bau and his own fingers and soul. He had always thought the reason he played well was because he had extended his soul to the tip of the fingers of his left hand, when they pressed on the delicate string, creating the gut-wrenching notes that even made him cry. A couple of days ago, in nostalgia he had popped one of his solo CDs into his portable player and, in a moment of utmost honesty, discovered why he was no longer popular. One of the rude nurses, upon hearing his music, had expressed precisely what he was afraid that his audience might have felt:

          “Gosh! What kind of sound is that?”

                              

               

That  was the sound coming from his Dan Bau; and it was so sad. The musician had become famous when he was about twenty-five years old, fifty years ago. The timing coincided with the traumatic time in his people’s history – which had lasted thirty years – during which time ideologies tore the country apart and brothers killed each other with the help of foreigners. The sound from his Dan Bau had perfectly embodied the sorrow that bore down heavily on his motherland. Its falling, disjointed notes had resembled the sparse tears dropped from the already dry eyes of a mourning widow.

It wasn’t like that here. He was in a different country now. The people had changed. There was no war. The deaths were caused by automobile accidents or drug overdoses, not bombs or bullets. People here had plenty to eat and had many things to cheer about. They didn’t want to hear him anymore. The ones who would long to hear his kind of music – to drown themselves again in sadness – were either dead or dying or deaf. Maybe he would still be popular in Vietnam where, he knew, there was a lot more grief.

He would have to do something about the priceless Dan Bau when he died. Maybe I’ll donate it to the Museum of Arts and National Treasures, he mused, I should return it to where it came from.

That thought brought him into unexpected territory.

          For the first time since he left Vietnam, he wanted to go back one last time. No, not a final visit to his country, but for good. He had a fervent desire to live the remaining days of his life among his own people, and then die in the land of his mother’s. This strange land shouldn’t be the place where his body was buried. His spirit would be lonely here. He assumed that the other spirits would be speaking in English, Spanish or even red-skinned Indian dialect in the other world. And although he would be dead, he would be mute and deaf again. He didn’t think there was another Little Saigon in the netherworld to accommodate him like it did now.        

He still had quite a bit of money. The owner of Kieu Hanh Jewelry had appraised his bag of diamonds at a value of seventy thousand dollars. He had saved most of the money he had made while he was touring and that came to another eighty thousand.

          The old musician reached down to his little bedside table and took out the tiny solar-powered calculator he had used quite frequently to convert local currencies into dollars when he was abroad. The window in his room faced west so there was plenty of sunshine to power the calculator. He pressed the “on” button and started to add and subtract, then divide and multiply. The musician wasn’t a math genius but he knew numbers; and with the numbers coming from the calculator, he found his solution.

          He figured that if he took his money – one hundred and fifty thousand U.S. dollars – and went back to Vietnam, he would live like a king for the rest of his life. If he were to spend five hundred dollars a month – a princely sum in Vietnam – he could rent a large apartment, have his meals delivered, have a maid, and maybe a nurse if his health turned worse. He figured, with his fortune, he would have to live another thirty years – until he was one hundred and six – to run out of money. The most comforting thought was that he would die and be buried among the people who spoke his language. The musician, like most Asians, believed in the afterlife.

          He made a decision. There was nothing to hold him back in the land called America anymore.

 

The famous musician took a stroll in Saigon on a warm afternoon a few months after he came back to Vietnam. Hung, a close friend, had been a great help in his return to his native country. A former Communist sympathizer and politician — he had held the title of Deputy Prime Minister briefly in the south — Hung had been an idealist who had opted to stay in Vietnam in 1975 to live in a unified country and was enjoying a cordial relationship with people in the city government. Hung had arranged a place for him to stay, had assured him that the local district or area officials wouldn't bother him, and secured a permanent visa that allowed him to stay in the country indefinitely. Of course, the arrangement had cost the musician money, but he had a lot of it. When he was ready to leave the U.S. the price of diamonds had surged briefly, and Kieu Hanh jeweler had paid him a premium price for his bag of stones.

*

The name of the street he was walking on had been called Tu Do, meaning Liberty, and had been changed after 1975 to Dong Khoi, which meant Rising Together, a favorite catch phrase of the Vietnam Communists. There was another name change on a street called Cong Ly – Justice. The new name was Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, another slogan to tout the movement of The South Fighting for the Cause.

In a conversation while the two of them sat on the upper deck of the Floating Hotel near Bach Dang pier, Hung said he had been speechless when someone recited to him two simple lines of verse that had been circulating in Ho City not even a week after the change of street names had been completed. The couplet was as follows:

-         When “Fighting for the Cause in the South” succeeds, gone is “Justice”.

-         As “Rising Together”  raises its head, lost is “Liberty”.

They say in every Vietnamese resides a poet.

*

The street looked the same but the people on it were different, the musician thought. Where Le Loi and Dong Khoi met, what used to be South Vietnam Congress Hall had been transformed into the Municipal Theater.

Banners advertising current and coming attractions bearing names of entertainers – some old and familiar, others he had never heard of – were flapping in the gentle breeze coming from the river a half mile to the south. Of course, he had been away for twenty-two years. The whole universe could change in twenty-two years. The officials at the airport hadn’t seemed to recognize his name or his face. Neighbors in Tan Dinh where he lived now hardly paid attention to him. He was an once famous man who had been forgotten and become just a grain of sand in the vast desert. He suddenly had a fervent desire to see his name in large block letters on one of those banners flapping in the wind up there.

The musician walked along Le Loi Street, passed Nguyen Hue Street, and signaled for a cyclo. He was tired and the walk exhausted him. The cyclo driver was young and spoke with a northern accent that was completely alien to him. He had been born in Hanoi and traveled extensively throughout the north in his youth and yet he had never heard people speak that way.

The musician sat on the cyclo and let his mind drift back to the first time he saw the south in 1954. When he and his first wife arrived in Saigon, along with their fellow refugees - a million people who had denounced the Communists and sided with the Nationalist government - the refugee’s administration gave them a small unit in military family quarters near Binh Dong, Cholon. He would never forget that unit because of a hole, the size of his toe, high on the wall it shared with the next unit. He had noticed a young girl living by herself there, but had no chance to say hello to her. He thought it was strange that her front door and the drapes on the only window were always closed. When the musician discovered the hole on the wall, he waited until his wife went to the market then stepped on a stool and peered through the hole.

For the next two months, he never left his temporary shelter, except to go to the Chinese coffee shop-bakery on the riverbank for his breakfast. He usually had a siu pao, two xiu mai balls, and a cup of hot coffee. The way they made coffee in the South was something he had never seen. The Buddha look-alike Chinaman would pour ground coffee into a cloth bag the size of a large sausage or an adult sock and dip the whole thing into a container full of boiled water, hence the moniker “sock coffee” instead of filtered coffee, the kind that dripped from the individual filter that he had been used to. And, following the local custom, he would pour the coffee into the saucer underneath the cup, blow the hot steam off, and drink from it. The bill would always come to one dong fifty and he would give the Chinaman one dong and tear another dong in two parts to pay for the meal; the torn half-dong was legal tender, according to a governmental decree.

The rest of the day, he would stay home and wait for his wife to go to her regular Tu Sac — Four Colors — card game session, and then climb onto the stool to watch the peepshow. The girl next door happened to be a very popular prostitute who entertained fifteen to twenty gentlemen a day, seven days a week. He had been tempted to knock on her door more than once to ask for her service but didn't have the guts to face his wife’s wrath if she should find out. The musician, nevertheless, had the best time of his life with what he had dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

One day, his wife was sick and came home early from her card game; he scrambled to get off the precarious stool, slipped, and broke his leg. He missed the show for the next three weeks while his leg was in a cast. The next time he climbed on the stool and peered through the hole in the wall again, the drapes were open and her unit was empty. The young female refugee from the north had found a permanent location to conduct her business.

*

The weaker he felt the more ardent was the musician’s desire to perform for a last time in front of a live audience. He shared his wish with Hung, who promised to look into it.

Two weeks later a deal was struck. The city government, who owned and operated the Municipal Theater, would rent it to him for one night at the rate of five hundred dollars. A show business promoter was hired to do the publicity for the event. Flyers were printed and distributed; posters were slapped on walls and lampposts everywhere. Five small trucks — with a P.A. system on board and his blown-up likeness painted on canvas on both sides of the vehicles — went to every neighborhood to urge people to go see the last performance of the famous musician. Two huge banners with his name in large block letters were hung in front of the theater. He had twenty-five more made and hung all over the city – from Saigon to Cholon. Proceeds from the sale of tickets were to be donated to the National Museum along with his priceless Dan Bau after the performance. Five hundred seats (maximum capacity) were sold in the first forty-eight hours at the box-office at fifteen thousand dong (a dollar and twenty cents) a pop. The musician was happy even though the deal had cost him fourteen hundred dollars so far. What was the price of fame?

*

He went to Hung’s place, a sprawling ranch house on an acre of land in a village called “Lo O Brook” near Thu Duc, ten miles from Saigon, for a few days to rehearse; the neighborhood where he lived was crowded, airless, and noisy. He loved the aroma and the stillness of the countryside and made up his mind to ask Hung if he would mind renting or maybe selling the place to him. For the first time since he left Vietnam and then came back, he experienced the serenity of his own soul. On the third day, his fingers were sore and stiff. The ranch was such a peaceful place, he wished he didn’t have to leave, but it was show time. The musician was ready.

*

Dressed in the traditional heavy silk and embroidered Ao Dai — tunic and Khan Dong — turban — which he had tailor-made for just this one last occasion, the musician sat on a low dark wood divan, a flood of cone-shaped beams from above enveloped his thin frame in bright light on the dark stage; his beloved Dan Bau stretched lovingly in front of him like a sensual woman lying in bed, awaiting her lover. He hadn’t been in this position, under the spotlight like this, for a long time, seven or eight years. He thought about his previous performances. He flexed the fingers on his left hand; they were rather stiff this evening. He needed them supple and lively to convey the command coming from his musical heart. Thinking about his heart made him feel weak. He hadn’t awakened well this morning; but as the day progressed toward show time, he had begun to feel better.

*

The traditional three distinctive thumps of a heavy log hitting the wooden platform signaled that the show was about to begin. The sounds startled him and he froze. There was a slight pain in his left chest. Must be stage fright, he told himself. Then came the voice of the emcee introducing him, reading from a piece of paper the musician himself had composed. He felt better. The emcee – whose service cost him twenty-five bucks just to read this – was reciting every place the musician had visited all over the world, every famous name in and out of show business whom he had met in his long and celebrated life. The musician listened attentively and was impressed with himself.

Finally, the house light dimmed and the curtain rose.

*

For one and one half hour, the musician poured his heart and soul into his left hand’s fingers as they pressed, slid on, and vibrated the thin catgut. His right hand plucked the string in perfect sync. The music was beautiful, the emotion high. At some points, the musician almost cried over his sad notes. His sweat streamed like a river in his heavy tunic under the hot lights. It was hard for him to breathe but he ignored the discomfort and played on. This was his last performance and people would remember him forever from this show. People would talk about him in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, about how he had performed tonight.

Suddenly, the music stopped. The audience started to applaud but their hands paused in midair. The famous musician had collapsed and fallen face down onto his beloved Dan Bau.

*

Because he had died in such a dramatic setting, and since the musician had been a national treasure, had willingly returned to his homeland, had tried to perform one last time for his fellow countrymen, had donated all proceeds, and had willed his priceless Dan Bau to the National Museum, there was a movement to petition the government to posthumously award him the title of Artist Of The People. Decision was still pending.

 

                            

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