Concentration by Vilaska Nguyen

     We park at a rest area near Modesto and stretch our bodies across a stiff mattress situated beneath the pickup truck’s canopy.  My father removes his shoes.  I do the same.  His sigh echoes the exhaust of a semi-truck slowing to a stop just a few feet away.  The idling of the big rig shakes our bed.  The odor of diesel infiltrates our home.  My eyes water as I cover my nose with the blanket.  I ask my father if rats are running on the roof of the truck and he assures me it’s just God crying, the rain talking.

     It’s been a day since we left Seattle.  I’m anxious to get to Garden Grove in Orange County.  My cousin is making plans for the summer.  Finish the tree house in the backyard.  That’s the first priority.  My father says my uncle is waiting on help to run the delivery service.  My father and his brother move people’s stuff from one house to another.  Years later when I have children of my own, long after my father passes away from cancer, I’ll realize delivery service was just a tactful way to say hard labor which had stalked my father throughout his entire life.

     The rain quits, headlights from passing cars disappear into the ether, and the rest stop succumbs to sleep.  Maybe it’s the peaceful isolation, but my father’s stoic demeanor softens to sentimental.  This is the only time he’ll ever talk about Vietnam.  It’s the one time I’ll hear about the re-education camp.  I know this and listen to his every word.  The war is over and he’s waiting for the right time to leave Da Nang with my mother.  He pays a fisherman the equivalent of fifty US dollars to take them to Thailand where they will pay another person the equivalent of one-hundred US dollars to take them to the Philippines.  They don’t get very far.  My father is taken away to a re-education camp.  His eyes close as he describes the absurdity of carrying a large rock the distance of approximately one mile only to pick up another rock roughly the same size to carry it back to the starting point.  Men are underfed.  Every man must catch the occasional field mouse in the dark of night to sustain enough protein to survive.  Two years die before my father is reunited with my mother.  They find another fisherman, and this time, they are successful.

     We awake the next morning and I ask about the camp but my father just shrugs without saying a word.  It doesn’t matter how hard I push.  Nothing.  We drive in silence until I become tired and crawl through the truck’s cab space and sprawl my body across the mattress.  The sky is blurry through the window.  We’re driving too fast like we’re trying to outrun something.  I wonder how far I could carry those rocks.  I think about my father and all this driving back and forth for jobs I would never want.  I concentrate and wonder why my dad is still running.


Vilaska Nguyen is a felony trial attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.  His flash fiction has recently appeared in NANO Fiction.

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