The March of the Dragons Chapter 3 (minus about a page due to wordcount)
Lâm swatted at a fly buzzing around his ear. He sat in his green plastic chair. The electric fan he was repairing resting across his knees. Returning to his work he unscrewed the casing. Poking around inside the fan with the tip of a screwdriver he located the problem; a pin between the power button and arm connecting to a cog had come loose. Turning the fan upside down, the wheel and the pin both fell into his lap.
He picked up the pin between two oil stained fingers. It was broken. The missing part still attached to the cog wheel. Setting the fan down at his feet, he stood and walked to the near wall of his small workshop. Three dirty shelves showcased a variety of nick-knacks; engine pieces, rubber belts, little plastic trays filled with various screws and bolts and a scattering of stained and dusty jars.
He shuffled through various objects until he found the yellowed head of an old fan. Returning to his chair he opened the old fan and removed its pin. He held it alongside the broken one; satisfied they matched he set about replacing the busted pin.
Traffic passing the workshop was constant. Their fleeting shadows crossed the floor in by Lâm's feet. A small cardboard sign propped against the shop entrance declared in permanent marker; Repair, motorcycle, radio, gadget. The bottom left corner of the sign was darkened where it had soaked up moisture from a puddle.
The workshop was a converted double garage with a roll up iron gate opening onto the street. A scattering of discarded objects which once worked some gadget cluttered much of the floor space. To the rear of the workshop an old grey portable television sat atop a small wooden chest of drawers. The screen directed toward a double mattress in the back corner of the workshop. A pot of congealed rice sat atop a portable gas stove in the middle of the room. A power socket hung loose from the wall showing the wiring, from it a power chord led to a four socket extension unit beside Lâm's chair.
Having fixed the case back onto the fan, Lâm kicked the sandal off his right foot and picked up the fan's plug with his toes and thumped it into the extension socket. He nodded in silent satisfaction when the fan purred to life; the head whirring gently from left to right.
Noticing a shadow hover at the entrance he looked up. It was an old woman, her crooked back bent in her paisley clothes. Her face cast in shadow under her conical bamboo hat. She clutched a small stack of lottery tickets. Her eyebrows raised from her sagging features. She couldn't quite force the salespersons welcoming smile.
Lâm set the fan down and reached into the back pocket of his stained and frayed jeans. Producing a small wad of bank notes of small denominations.
'One ticket please, Anh,' he said.
The old woman's arthritic fingers trembled as she separated a ticket from the bunch and offered it in her claw-like hand. Lâm handed her a five-thousand Dong note. She silently mouthed her thanks, displaying a single browned tooth. She shuffled on her way along the uneven pavement. Her hat turning left to right in search of her next customer.
'Why do you want to buy lottery tickets? I thought you're having trouble paying rent.' The grating, nasal whine came from Dũng; a street vendor who sat to the right of Lâm's workshop. A fat gossip of a man who sold canned sodas, dried squid, and cigarettes.
'She needs the money more than I do.'
Dũng snorted. 'She won't last the year. She's been coming by here for years. This year she's too frail.'
'Just give me a packet of consulate.'
The tubby vendor smiled at the younger man. His sweaty hair clung to his forehead. He sat behind his mobile stall upon a little plastic stool, the legs of which bulged under his weight. With a beefy hand he selected the red and white packet of cigarettes. He tossed it to Lâm who caught with both hands.
'I know.' Lâm walked the few steps to the stall, handing the vendor two notes. The stool’s legs quavered as Dũng shifted his weight to stuff the notes into his pocket.
The shout came from somewhere across the street.
'Stop that kid!'
Along the busy street heads turned and necks craned to see what the commotion was about. A barefoot young boy with a dirty face dashed into the road. Lâm recognised him as a local street urchin who he'd given money on occasion to buy food.
Noticing Lâm the boy changed direction- cutting across the path of a scooter. The rider had to brake harshly. Shaking his fist, his cursing muffled by his surgical mask. The urchin kept going. Darting past Lâm he found refuge at the rear of the shop where he tucked himself between the old TV and the rear wall. His eyes peered over the top of the television set.
'Oh, he's trouble. Get him out!' Dũng wailed.
Lâm frowned at the boy. Before he could think what to do about him he was distracted by the fast approach of a second set of footfalls. He didn't know the new man; in his mid forties with short cropped hair, a white shirt open at the collar, a cheap blue tie loose around his neck. Trousers neatly ironed but the legs didn't quite stretch to his ankles.
'Where's the little bastard?' The man panted.
Lâm placed his hands on his hips and shrugged one shoulder.
'Is he your son? I saw him go inside. Is he stealing for you?' the man made to step into the workshop. Lâm stepped into his path. 'I can see him there hiding!' The man stabbed his finger at the boy.
Lâm puffed out his chest. At 184cm he stood taller than most Vietnamese. He raised his chin, looking down his nose at the accuser, silently enduring the outburst.
'Why are you protecting him? I’ll go to the police and tell them you're running a scam from this shop!'
Lâm glanced back at boy still peering from his hiding place.
'What did he steal?'
'Little bastard has my cell phone!' the man sprayed spittle from his reddened face.
Still thinking, Lâm slowly nodded.
'You big ugly giant! Look at you! With your stupid big rubbery lips and narrow eyes! Even if you get children to steal for you- you still can't afford a proper haircut or clean clothes-'
Lâm grabbed the accuser by the shoulders, shaking him to silence.
'I'll get your phone back for you. You don't need to call me names, Anh. Not unless you want me to bloody your nose.' Lâm spoke slowly, in a heavy droning tone. He released the man who stepped back, brushing creases from his shirt.
'Just get my phone.'
The boy leapt from his hiding place- sprinting toward freedom. Lâm's long arm lunged at the boy, snatching him back, feet kicking. Lâm took a firm hold on his skinny arm. The boy's eyes darted, searching for an escape route.
'Give me the phone,' Lâm said in a low voice, hoping to soothe the boy.
'He's a liar!' The boy squirmed.
Lâm shook his arm. 'Give me the phone.'
A tear appeared at the corner of the boy's eye, yet he continued to try to wriggle free.
'Tears don't fool me,' Lâm whispered, 'give me the phone, and I'll see you're taken care of.'
The boy's bottom lip protruded. He bowed his head in submission. Reaching down the front of his shorts he produced a small black mobile phone- a model several years old. He placed it in Lâm's waiting palm. Keeping a firm hold on the boy, Lâm offered the phone to its owner.
'Thieving little bastard.' the man spat, and with a reproachful glare at Lâm he walked back the way he'd come. Street vendors and their customers who paused to witness the spectacle returned to their business.
'Why'd you protect that scoundrel?' Dũng wailed.
Lâm turned his attention back to the boy whose wide eyes regarded him with curiosity and apprehension. Lâm sighed and released the boy. Crouching, he rested his forearms on his knees. 'What’s your name?'
Lâm smiled. The boy hid a smirk behind his small dirty hands. Kids often found amusement in the centimetre-wide gap between Lâm's front teeth.
'You remember me, Dac?'
'You're an orphan?'
He nodded again.
'How old are you?'
'Maybe ten,' he said with a shrug.
Lâm grinned. The boy giggled. He seemed small for ten. Lâm sniffed, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. 'If you want, you can be my apprentice. I can't pay anything, but I'll make sure you're fed and if you don't have a place to sleep, you can sleep here.'
'So, you like young boys now do you?' Dũng sneered, followed by a harsh, mocking laughter.
Lâm ignored the remark, waiting for the young boy to consider his offer. Dũng persisted. 'Maybe it's because you're too ugly to find a new girl since that educated girl you dated did the smart thing and left you.'
With a sigh, Lâm rose and strode to the vendor. 'If you say anything like that again, I will bloody your nose.'
Their eyes met. The vendor snorted and turned his attention to shuffling around the order of soda cans on his little cart. As Lâm walked away, he heard the vendor mumble that he'd given the theft victim the same empty warning.
Lâm tore open his packet of cigarettes and lit one with a cheap brass zippo; a copy of US war era lighters vendors sell to tourists. His bore the image of an eagle on a black shield and some writing in English which he couldn't understand. He took short, quick puffs on the cigarette, blowing smoke rings. He hoped it would amuse the boy.
Dac sat on the floor, fidgeting with the front of his grimy white t-shirt. His bare feet were black with dirt. His hands as filthy as Lâm's. He had dark smudges on his face, yet his hair had been cropped short. He was probably wearing his only set of clothes.
'Does anyone look after you?' Lâm asked pointedly through a cloud of smoke.
'Sometimes, different people.' The boy shrugged, twitching his nose.
'Where do you sleep?'
'Different places,' the boy sniffed and fidgeted. He seemed incapable of sitting still- looking ever ready to break into a run. His wandering eyes constantly searching.
'Did you ever work?' Lâm asked.
The boy shrugged again.
'Okay,' Lâm dropped the remaining half of his cigarette to the floor, crushing it into the concrete with the bottom of his sandal. Lumbering to the rear of the workshop he searched, moving cans and containers. Returning moments later offering a small cake. Dac snatched the small red and white wrapped treat from Lâm's hand. He tore it open and took a large bite from the Choco pie.
‘You can help me with some small tasks. You got small useful hands. I got big hands,' Lâm looked down at his palms, 'I can teach you to repair things.'
The boy munched on the chocolate marshmallow treat, staring at Lâm with wide eyes as if regarding a madman. Lâm waited for a reply but the boy finished the treat in silence.
'Well, what do you think?' Lâm said.
The boy shrugged. Lâm winced. He brushed his dark fringe from his eyebrows. How to get through to the boy?
The young urchin discarded the Choco pie wrapper and sprang to his feet. He scuttled out of the workshop with a sideways glance at Lâm.
Dũng laughed a throaty cackle which developed into wheezing and coughing. He wiped spittle from his lips with the back of his hand. 'You're a bigger idiot than people credit you for. Apprentice that boy? He's stupid and lazy. That's why he's a thief and an orphan.'
Lâm sat back into his green chair. He picked out another cigarette.
'I bet he isn't even an orphan,' Dũng scoffed, 'probably his mother thought he's too much trouble and threw him to the street.'
Lâm let out a long breath of smoke. 'If that happened he's still an orphan'
'What?' Dũng's voice raised in a hoarse rasp.
'If his mother cast him out, he's an orphan.'
'No, you fool. He's an orphan if both parents are dead.' The vendor's let out a phlegmy chortle.
'No,' Lâm countered, 'he can be an orphan if his parents are alive but don't take responsibility for him.'
'Nonsense. I'll ask Ngoc, she'll agree with me. Hey! Ngoc!' Dũng called to a middle aged woman who sold street food six metres further along the street.
'What?' she cawed.
'Can an orphan have parents?'
'No of course not. That's a stupid question. Stop wasting my time with nonsense!' The woman returned to preparing her pungent crab soup.
'See!' Dũng's smile was wide and mocking.
'You didn't say it the way I said it,' Lâm grunted, curling his lip with a sideways glance at the vendor.