A Windfall

Truyện Ngắn

Vietnamese people often say don’t lend money to your friends or you will lose them. But in his case, he might get both the loan and, better than a friend, a wife.


Vietnamese people also say friendship brings wealth and marriage brings status. In his case, he would lose friendship and wealth but gain marriage and status. He wondered whether it would do him more harm than good, more good than harm, or both in equal measure.


Illustration by Đỗ Dũng


But first thing first: the loan.


One warm spring day when green buds blazed, from out of the blue he received a[WK1]  phone call in a gentle voice from a former college friend. She cut right to the chase. After graduation, she had started a travel agency selling tours to foreign tourists. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, bringing air travel to a standstill.


People worldwide went berserk, no one dared to travel, so her agency inexorably went bankrupt. As her whole family worked for this one business, they were now at their wit’s end. They still had a house, valued at over 10 billion đồng, which they were putting up for sale dirt cheap, but no one seemed interested. They wanted to sell that house, buy a smaller one, and then save the difference to cover daily expenses. Daily expenses were hard to cover indeed, she lamented. She, her children and her grandchildren might starve to death in a big, useless house.


As he listened, he recalled his former college friend, a pretty, slender woman. She wasn’t a great beauty, but was pleasant in manner and articulate and so attracted quite a queue of beaus in her day. If he remembered correctly, he had also stood in that line, and managed to have a few half-shy, half-flirtatious exchanges with her. Yes, he used to have a slight crush on her. What a surprising tragedy her life had become, forcing her to ask around to make ends meet.


She said honesty was the best policy, then went on to confess that she didn’t know where to turn to but her friends. If she hadn’t hit rock bottom, she wouldn’t be stooping so low as to call him, whom she hadn’t been in touch with for over two decades. To make a long story short, she wanted to borrow 30 million. She said when she was able to sell her house, which was worth 12 billion on the market, she would pay him back instantly.


As the saying goes, there is no greater good than saving lives. Here, he was being offered an opportunity to save not just one life, but a whole family in desperation. They were also selling their house, so he would have nothing to worry about. Somebody would pay billions of dong to buy her house and then she would repay him. Her difficulty was only temporary, just for a moment, and she needed help right at that moment.


Alright. He signed on to his mobile banking account, made a few clicks and hit “send.” Thirty million was promptly transferred to his friend’s account. She texted him back, shrieking in relief: Oh dear, we’re saved; you’ve thrown us a buoy and we’ll never forget.


He believed she would pay him back in a short time. No matter how hard, the house could be sold. Thirty million wasn’t much actually, just the amount her family spent on food for one month. There were seven of them: she herself and her daughter and her son, their spouses and their two children. What a family, he thought. Why in the world did they all commit themselves to one business and get drowned together. Families that big should never share one flight. If they drive, they should also split into two cars. You just don’t put all your eggs in one basket.


However, according to his calculation, no sooner did they use up their 30 million loan than something happened. She texted him another shocking message. Save me one more time, please. My daughter has borrowed from loan sharks but the house hasn’t been sold yet. They’re besieging us with guns and knives, threatening to kill her. Please lend me another 20 million, please.  


What a disaster, he thought. Why in the world did they get involved with loan sharks and risk being killed? A thought flitted through his mind that he couldn’t save them forever. Then came a second thought: he would help just one more time, to prevent any blood from spilling.  


He signed on to his mobile banking app and clicked send again. Quick and simple.



*    *


Vietnamese people often say, once a thief always a thief. He was afraid the same thing was happening to him: once a lender, always a lender.


There were clear signs of him travelling down this path. Not long after he lent the money to his college friend, someone else asked him for a loan. Asking for loans and transferring the funds were both conducted through cell phones. In this smartphone age, one doesn’t need to meet face to face to solve problems. This time, he received a call from a junior colleague who interned at his office before graduating from college. During the guy’s six-month internship, he had acted as a wonderfully supportive supervisor, writing up for him a positive evaluation to bring back to school. Afterwards, they parted their ways; he almost forgot the guy for nearly a decade.


After almost ten years, the junior colleague rang him up, inquired after him perfunctorily then asked for a loan. He elaborated on his desperate situation as follows. His younger brother was preparing for the International Mathematical Olympiad when he was diagnosed with muscular atrophy, a rare disease. The boy’s legs had shrunken into two wooden sticks, the older brother said in grief. I’ll have to take him from Sài Gòn to Hà Nội tonight, he said. I have a BMW but don’t have enough time to sell it yet. I need 30 million right away, please help me.  


What a comeback! He thought. And why did people keep asking him for money? What a coincidence too: everybody asked for exactly 30 million in their first call. But he told himself not to be easy this time. In the first case, he had acted quickly, but in this second case, he had thought twice. Thinking twice means pausing for reflection. Saving lives is necessary, that is correct. Yet to save lives requires many people to pitch in, not just one. If I help him, his other friends should also help out, he reasoned. Everybody helps according to his or her own ability. [WK2]   


Consequently, he told his junior friend that he didn’t have 30 million to lend him. Instead, he could send him 10 million immediately, to help a friend in need. He advised the guy to ask others for the rest.


The matter was swiftly handled. That night, he thought his junior friend must have been able to take his younger brother to Hà Nội for treatment. Later, the guy managed to text him a message: “Though we can’t choose to be born at the same hour, if my younger brother dies, I’ll make my choice and follow him.”


Days later, upon recalling that text, he felt a bit terrified and wondered why his junior friend didn’t update him about his younger brother’s conditions during his stay in Hà Nội. Then he thought his friend must be too occupied to think about contacting him properly.  


After more than a month, he started wondering again, why hasn’t he sent me a word? What happened to his brother? He turned impatient and texted the guy first, asking how he was doing. He hoped his younger friend wouldn’t misunderstand him for implying about the loan.  


The guy remained silent for one day. Then he texted him back, sending a photo of him reclining on the patient’s chair at a dental clinic, craning up his neck waiting to be treated. His message read: I’ve had a toothache since the first day of Tết and had to have seven teeth treated. I’ve fainted several times and been in great pain.  


He could only tell his junior friend to take care but was still bothered why the guy didn’t mention anything about his younger brother who suffered from muscular atrophy. Had the boy gotten better or worse?


He told himself not to worry too much because there was nothing more he could do to help them anyway. But then he accidentally stumbled upon his junior friend’s Facebook account. Since Tết, the guy had posted a photo of the interior of his new Mercedes, captioning that though the new one wasn’t as good as the old one, his wife and kids liked it better. Another photo featured him relaxing on a beach in Vũng Tàu with a glass of coffee with a caption ripped off from a song: “From Pineapple to Mulberry.”(*) Another photo showed him holding up a trophy from his company’s 18-hole golf competition. What a grin, showing off a mouth full of teeth without any sign that seven of them had been in great pain.



*    *


It’s one thing to talk about how he easily lent people money, but it’s quite another to explain how he got the money in the first place.


Economic experts often advise young people: if you live in Sài Gòn and make less than 15 million a month, you’d better go back to your hometown for cheaper expenses. Similarly, if you live in Hà Nội and make less than 13 million a month, you should return to your countryside home.


For his part, he was long past his prime. At present, he also earned above 15 million a month so he deemed it possible to cling to the city. When he transferred 10 million to his junior friend, he shrugged, not in a particular hurry to get it back.


What about the 50 million lent to his college friend? How could he readily have such an amount? Well, that was quite another story.


One day, he and two close friends went picnicking along the Red River in the suburbs. One of the friends was an architect, who worked in urban planning and had gotten wind of a project that would soon turn an orchard nearby into golden real estate. So the three of them sat down in a coffee shop and discussed whether they should become investors. Each would contribute whatever they could afford, a few billion or hundreds of millions, to buy the orchard, leave it idle for a few years, then sell it for much bigger profits. The other friend was chief editor of a government research project. She said she had some idle money and would give it to him, entrusting him with a chief investor’s task of keeping their collective fund and handling all transactions and paperwork. She even joked, if they bought the plot and couldn’t sell it in a few years, they could turn it into a nursing home and make profits in that fast-growing industry.


Carried away by the moment, she transferred 500 million to him right away to pay for any initial transaction.


It was right then that his college friend called in a panic, asking to borrow 30 million in the first call, then later, 20 million.



*    *


Our world is a small, compact one that is also round at the same time. That’s why people often stumble upon each other after one round trip. It turned out that his architect friend had also lent his college friend some money. To be more accurate, it was his architect friend’s wife who did the lending. The two women were old friends who did their internships together during college, so when the one got into trouble, she sought out the other for help. The borrower also said her family was being threatened by loan sharks who were in black and wearing black glasses and waving their knives and nunchakus around. The architect’s wife took pity on her and agreed to lend her 100 million. Then the borrower disappeared for two straight years.  


From his architect friend’s wife, he learned that his college friend had been able to sell her house for 10 billion. Her family had bought a cheaper but bigger one, installed a piano and a full string quartet instrument set, and set up a private salon that included a painting gallery and a sculpture garden for like-minded people to gather. Her whole family was strutting around like royalty, boasting on Facebook about their family art space, and how they had received friends’ generous support in hard times. They talked about many things, except when they would repay their loans. For a while, the woman had kept on borrowing, even begging for a few million from those who didn’t have money to lend her. Not until their college reunion did her old friends learn that all of them had been approached for loans.


All the boasting did more harm than good. Thanks to social media posts about the artistic frenzy of her children, who had won some children’s club award or a district woman’s prize, or about the luxurious musical salon or cheap painting gallery that was reserved for her personal contemplation though not for sale, her lenders flocked to her house to demand repayment. If she had sold her billion dong house, she must pay them back.  


He couldn’t believe it! How could his college crush fall so low? He tried to justify her behavior, telling himself that she might indeed have gone bankrupt and made ends meet every day. She had sold her house and now had to pull all of her resources to invest in the art business. She always intended to pay people back, though not everybody at once.


But the truth was that she didn’t repay her lenders quickly enough. The architect’s wife and son had to seek her out at her house, demanding she write an IOU, threatening to call the police if she didn’t repay them on time. Only then could they manage to get back the loan.


As for the rest who didn’t get tough, she simply made empty promises with her sweet gentle voice. Some had lent her several million, others tens of millions, just like him.  



*    *


Only his architect friend understood his dilemma. What he had lent to others was what he needed to repay, though he didn’t exactly borrow but simply kept his researcher friend’s money on her behalf. He hadn’t made any down payment with her sum yet, nor did he keep it intact to return it to her now. He intended to contribute his investment to their collective fund but didn’t have any money to spare yet. Every time the three of them met for coffee, he would say he hadn’t completed the necessary paperwork. His researcher friend would joke good-naturedly: no rush, we don’t need to go into the nursing business yet.  


His architect friend knew very well the limbo he had fallen into. When there were just the two of them, his architect friend mapped out for him his only two options. Either he’d learn from his architect friend’s wife, go over to his college friend’s house and request her to write an IOU with a clear deadline about repayment, or he would ask for his researcher friend’s hand in marriage and call it even with her. That way, he could get married and be solvent at the same time.


The second option sounded reasonable, especially because there wasn’t any third option. For instance, his college friend couldn’t simply marry him to repay her debt even if she wanted to. For many of those who were in debt, marriage was not an option.


So very likely, he would choose the second route. Getting married to pay off debts wasn’t a bad idea. His ex-wife had left him to look for a better life abroad many years before. If he proposed to his old researcher friend, he would get a very good deal. She already had a son from her first marriage, so he wouldn’t have to worry about procreation to have a full family. Actually, it would be a great deal. As Vietnamese people say, without incurring any expense, he would get both a buffalo and its calf(**).

By Hồ Anh Thái


Translated by Đỗ Linh

Edited by Wayne Karlin

Việt Nam News, February 27, 2022


(*) Pineapple and Mulberry are the names of two beaches in the Southern coastal city of Vũng Tàu.


(**) A Vietnamese proverb says: Buying a buffalo with its calf is like getting two buffalo for the price of one.