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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 7-12
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The End of a Season of Beauty
Nguyen Ngoc Tu
Old Chin always maintained that selling lottery tickets was a matter of some significance. It gave man hope and, if he won, brought wealth to him. But what was of the utmost personal significance to Chin was that his wandering about selling such tickets helped him find the cai luong opera singer Hong.
Chin had followed Hong down three streets as she walked with a load of sweetened porridge on her shoulders. They were both in their late sixties now, so their eyesight wasn't good enough for them to recognize each other after forty-six years of separation. But he had remembered her voice, and it sprang from her shriveled lips clear and strong as a song as she called out her wares. Chin was stunned to see her. Her beauty was gone, and her once high neck was bent under the burdens of life. Catching up, he called out, "Miss Hong!" Tears filled his eyes.
He took her hands and invited her to come to the Buoi Chieu [Late Afternoon] House. She wanted to gather some of her belongings first, but he said, "Forget them." Her belongings were nothing but some sweetened porridge and the tattered shack she had erected near a water-fern pond at the end of a lane.
The Buoi Chieu House stood at the end of Cay Cong alley. It was a dead-end street, and only old people lived in the house: the abode of once-famous artists from the reform or classical theater. Chin Vu was a nobody in that artistic circle, but he had helped to found the Buoi Chieu House and, in fact, had named it himself. When asked why he hadn't called it the more likely Hoang Hon [Sunset] or Chang Vang [Twilight] or something like that, he explained that buoi chieu meant that there was still some daylight left: these artists still had a role to play in the affairs of society. The Buoi Chieu House was poor, and its expenses had to be covered either by the district or by good-hearted patrons. More vegetables than meat were served in the meals, but all its residents were happy because before they had come to this place, they had led miserable lives, poor as mice. Virtually all of them had been homeless. Some of them had lived in pagodas, some in public gardens or parks; some had wandered aimlessly on the streets. [End Page 7] Coming together in the Buoi Chieu House gave them a chance to sing for an audience again. After all, they were artists.
Chin had taken to selling lottery tickets in order to make ends meet, but he also felt that it was a way to trace friends who were still wandering. After she moved in, Hong continued selling her sweetened porridge; she insisted on it despite the pity everyone had for her. "Let me do it. Chin and I are still young and strong enough..." It was true; they were young compared to the others in the house: he was seventy and she sixty-four. Each morning, Chin shouldered the load of sweetened porridge to the beginning of the alley and then stopped at the base of the cong tree, a tree old as a hill—so old it had stopped blooming. He would hand over the shoulder pole to Hong and stand, at a loss for words, until she was out of his sight and he could only hear her sweet voice ringing out in the early morning. Then he would stop at the Tu Bung Café and order a cup of tea.
Once, when someone asked him why he didn't drink coffee, he smiled and shook his head. "I'm saving up to buy a bottle of perfume for her."
At the old man's words, the whole café burst out in laughter. "The geezer is still in love!" someone exclaimed.
"I am," he said, "and there's nothing I can...