A Life’s Work

Dinh Prince


The boys beat the old Vietnamese janitor with concentrated grace. They hit him in the face, neck, gut, and there, between the legs, a sure place to bring a man to his knees. It’s like drowning—a rush of liquid dizziness at each point of contact. Afterwards, he can only think of the wife who has left him. His blood overwhelms him with its smell and its taste.

In the workers’ comp pictures he looks shrunken and criminal. Pieces of him are passed between his wife and son—a hole where his teeth had been, one eye bloated shut, dark bruises on his neck, chest, and arms. Hieu pauses on one. In it, his father’s mouth is open. His head is thrown back so that the camera can capture the rows of missing teeth. He is standing in front of a blank white wall. The bright lights of the camera blind him a little.

“I can’t look at this any longer,” his mother says.

“He won’t talk to me. He won’t eat my cooking,” Hieu says.

“You need to prepare soft foods.”

“He cries at night. They say from post traumatic stress disorder.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It means he’s in shock.”

Hieu notices the assortment of sardines and corned beef that have been sitting on the kitchen shelves since he moved away years ago. He wonders if these are those same cans. His father never throws anything away. There are boxes of cereal that ants have long abandoned.

“When were these taken?” Min asks.

“A week after.”

“Why so long?”

“He drove himself home. Didn’t see a doctor for days. There are still blood stains on the sheets from when he went to bed that night.”

Min looks at Trung. He is splattered with bruises, a child in his posturing. He sits with his feet tucked under him, his hands in his lap.

“Where else did they hit you?”

“Here. And here.” He jabs the air around his face and chest.


The son came home first. For a month they lived in uncomfortable silence. There was an overall difference in bearing that made Trung immediately despise his son. When eating, Hieu sat with his back upright and closed his mouth when he chewed, as if he were a stone statue on display. Trung ate as any Vietnamese man would, with his mouth open, smacking loudly, taking in air so as to make the food more fragrant. He sat with one foot on the edge of his chair, his knee almost touching his shoulder. This was food he had earned and he would eat it anyway he pleased.

It was a blessing when his wife came home. Watching her cook—head bent, hands moving swiftly—he felt content. She knew his stomach and teeth, knew which foods would make his body hot or cold, knew what to finish a meal with in order to ease his digestion. His son did not understand that a broken body needed to be fed like a child’s. Min prepared bitter melon soup, lemongrass snapper, boiled chicken with ginger. Everything was simple, never much salt, the consistency of milk.

Min is now cooking though no one is hungry. The house feels oppressive when her hands aren’t moving. She pares green onion rapidly, a hairbreadth away from her fingernails.

She had left him a month before he was beaten. At the time she had told him she was going on a short trip to visit her childhood friend in Milpitas. A week later, when he called asking when she would be back, she told him she had decided to stay there permanently. He had called her terrible names. Told her to fuck herself and her ancestors. But she was no longer afraid of him and hung up the phone. He then begged her to return, and bought her a gold icon to protect her heart. But their son was grown now and had graduated from college. There was no reason for her to stay with him.

Now she is ashamed she left. When the beating happened, Trung had returned to an empty house. He hadn’t gone to the hospital, but collapsed on the bed. The stains of his blood on the pillowcase could not be washed out. It was later collected as evidence. The sheets would be held up in front of jurors, asking them to take pity on an old immigrant who had worked hard his entire life because he believed in the American dream. He hadn’t called her that night out of pride. He had waited for her to call. Had waited an entire week to tell her he had been beaten nearly to death.

As always, she prepares too much food. Plates are set out on potholders to protect a table already covered in thick vinyl. Trung slurps the soft melon from his soup bowl.

“I’ll talk to the physical therapist and the case manager tomorrow,” Hieu says. Trung reaches across the table for the red snapper.

“Be careful,” Min says. His sleeve dips into the soup. “Remember not to say anything,” she tells him. “They’ll speak fast and your English is no good.”

Trung continues to eat loudly.


Everything in the hospital room is white and disposable. His father’s wrinkled body is covered in a crisp sheet of paper. He sits on top of another sheet that crackles when he shuffles his weight. Cotton balls, Q-tips, and Kleenex are stored in glass containers with stainless steel lids. One small metal box marked ‘hazard’ sits in the corner of the room. There is the faintest mark of blood on the wall behind it. Enclosed in this stark white room, his father’s wounds darken and glare.

“He has constant nightmares,” Hieu says. “He cries easily. The swelling in his eye hasn’t gone down. Nothing can be done for his teeth. His shoulder hasn’t stopped throbbing. He’s anxious and frightened.”

Trung sits still, letting his son speak for him, one hand cradling the other in his lap.

“But he’s healed a great deal,” the doctor says. “He shows progress in his physical therapy. As long as he doesn’t carry heavy loads, he should be able to go back to work in a few weeks.”

Trung’s bodily poverty shouts in the small space. Hieu wonders how the doctor can stand it. He feels the need to cover his ears.

“He has been a janitor for this school district for twenty-one years. Never took a day of sick leave. No one can say my father isn’t a hard worker. Everyone knows the school is in a dangerous neighborhood. Yet there was no security to protect him.”

Trung stares at an invisible spot on the floor. He hardly seems to notice they are speaking of him.

The doctor’s face softens a little. “I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know what should have happened. I only know what I see. He’s progressing in his physical therapy. He can lift a ten-pound barbell repeatedly with this arm.” He touches Trung’s right arm lightly. “The bruises are healing.”

“He’s almost sixty years old. He’s lost most of his teeth. He can no longer extend his arms out fully. He can no longer have sex with his wife. He’s impotent now.” Even at these words, his father doesn’t look up.

“He didn’t mention any of that before.”

“He wouldn’t. It’s shameful to him. My mother had to tell me. He will lift a ten-pound barbell because he was instructed to, not because it doesn’t pain him. That’s how my father is. If you tell him to go back to work, he will go back. It doesn’t mean he’s healed.”

“I’ll give you another two weeks. We’ll have to examine him again. You figure out what you want to tell the district.”

Talking to the case manager of the insurance company is more difficult.

“We want the best for your father. We’ll relocate him to an elementary school. Children. Low stress.” Her blond hair is pulled back into a neat pony tail. She has a tall slim body. Her sleeve is puckered where she clasps her forearm tightly.

“That still means he’ll go back to work. He’s isn’t ready. He’s afraid.”

“In order to overcome his fears, he must work.”

“He has a month of sick leave saved up.”

“We’ve done our best to find a position for him when that runs out. We want to keep your father working.”

“Of course. If he’s able to work, it proves he’s healed. He needs adequate compensation for what he’s suffered.”

The case manager’s arms remain folded in front of her. Her lips are pursed tightly. Her blue eyes are filled with disgust. Then she smiles.

“I don’t know what you want us to do for him,” she says, still smiling. “We’ve done our best to find him a better job. We’re paying his medical bills. What else do you want?”

Her smile throws him off, makes him feel like a boy with a stuttering tongue, a boy with dark hair and a flat nose. His features are cut out of burnt clay and only half-formed.

“We’re getting a lawyer,” he says, trying to keep his voice from trembling.

“You’re welcome to,” she says.

When his sick leave runs out, the district changes Trung’s hours and transfers him to a middle school. Though Min and Hieu plead with him to stay home, he refuses to listen. Tells them they don’t know what they are talking about. What if there isn’t any money? What if they fire him? That’s ridiculous, Hieu tells him. How would that make them look? But Trung returns to work, his body still yellow with bruises.


When Min came home, she found Trung peaceful and dumb. A thin layer of dust coated the furniture and him. She cleaned and cooked, replaced what was broken, but she wasn’t prepared to go to him with solace.

Over the years, their conversations had become nonsensical, glancing off each other’s words. One would recount a memory that the other would fail to respond to. When they sensed the other wasn’t listening, they shouted. The walls of the house echoed their sounds back to them, revealing how empty the space was.

There had been a time when he would say, “Ah-Min-ah,” and the notes would break gently above his mouth. He would amuse her with stories of a mute woman healed by acupuncture, the monkey man of Saigon. She recalled his laugh that started at the back of the throat. His lips closed, his body mildly rocking.

When she came back, she slept in the same bed with him, facing away, as if nothing had changed. Trung often turned his body toward her, and observed without touching. She was plagued with arthritis, obesity, and a bad back. He marveled at the difficulty of keeping her beside him. She had not been ashamed to leave him. She welcomed his threat of other women, claiming it would give her rest. In sleep, her body lost its hardness. The beauty he had never fully appreciated was gone.

He would never make love again. The warmth that used to rouse him when she was close enough to smell was no longer there. One afternoon, she had called to him through the bathroom door.

“You’ve been in there for hours. What’s wrong?”

When he didn’t answer, she walked in, carrying towels. She found him with his pajamas around his thighs, crouched over magazines. She had not said anything. She shut the door quickly behind her, towels still in her arms.

Now his presence would be even more peripheral. Though she always claimed not to care for sex, she had now grown even more distant. She spoke in the same quiet tone she always had, but she was looking through him. The more absent she became, the more taken in he was by her details—her damp skin cooling, the two red moles stippling her left ear.


At five, he wakes with heaviness. He splashes water on his face, then feels the raised and tough areas with his fingers. He tries to avoid looking at himself. When he does, the harsh light is unforgiving. His reflection is that of a frightened old man. Shame rises in him. There are gaping holes where his teeth had been, large yellow blotches circle both eyes. Combing his hair is better. He has always enjoyed a full head of hair.

His work clothes he had ironed and set out the night before. He sits on his bed, lifting each foot into its pant leg. Min had often asked him why he bothered dressing nicely if he was just going to spend the day cleaning filth. He spent the first half of his life as a scholar and businessman, and developed certain habits of presentation. In America he is only a janitor, but he cannot shake off years of habit.

Before breakfast he lights incense in front of their statue of Buddha. Smoke from the incense curls up, infusing the house with its reverent scent. He pours fresh tea into the small tea cups, replaces the overripe persimmons. He puts his palms together and bows three times, asking for good luck. For breakfast he drinks weak coffee and chews on saltines, his mouth wetting the crackers to crumbs.

At work, he does his job in a set pattern. First stack the desks together. Sweep the floor. Mop. Vacuum the carpeted classrooms. Work out tough stains with a rag and vinegar solution. Unstack the desks. Flush the toilets, then scour with the brush. Repeat. For tough stains, use a pumice stone. Run the wide broom along the cafeteria floor. Feel it stop against a crust of food and start again.

His day is filled with constant discovery. He finds spitballs and gum. He finds an assortment of pens. He finds a hunting knife taped to the bottom of a desk. He finds erasers carved elaborately into cars. He finds notes and ribbons. Abandoned notebooks. Balls of shedded hair. Dozens of unflushed toilets. An occasional condom, sometimes covered in blood. He keeps moving to the next spectacle.

Because he works in the daytime now, he sees the children. They remind him of Hieu as a child—dark, ruminating, erratically joyful.

Min once urged him to recommend her for the job because she worked merciless hours at the restaurant. He told her they didn’t hire women. She accused him of lying, of wanting her to work like a dog. Though she came home with burns on her arms, she didn’t have to handle human waste. There is something about it, the stench punching the gut, the gag reflex almost never failing, no matter how familiar he has become with shit.

When he comes home he takes a hot shower. He scrubs his hands a dozen times, paying careful attention to his fingernails. He puts on headphones and sunglasses, and reclines in a lawn chair in front of the television.


The rooms are empty now because her son has moved away, but still there is no space, it seems, to move. Min finds herself weighted to the couch, hand on her head. The TV drones on. She turns it off. Her husband is in the next room. She has the urge to speak to him, jolt him, but what would she say?

She was gone before her son awoke. She defrosted, chopped, seasoned, fried, until she became sick of looking at withered stems of broccoli. She became accustomed to the smell of oil, the raucous laughing and yelling over sizzling woks. There was crassness and vulgarity inherent in the work. The boiling oil leapt from the woks onto her once pale and lovely forearms and caused her to cry out with a dirty word. Those kitchens aged her.

When she came home, Hieu had grown a little. It was always a surprise—the clarity of voice, a sharpness in the eyes that frightened her. Day after day, the child she hardly knew changed, until one day he was grown and gone.

Here there were flush toilets, running water, 401ks. The city was gargantuan, unwalkable. They keyed in their security code at night and carried cell phones in their pockets. Their house had a low roof and needed more light. There was mold in some places, but the walls were well-insulated. There were one-and-a-half baths, three bedrooms, doors ready to come off their hinges, a worn carpet. It had not been what they had expected, but it was much better than their first apartment, so small one held one’s breath.

She holds tight to her space, clutching the floor with her toes. She remembers the old country, sleeping mats where there was no room for a bed, cheap plastic tumblers and paper napkins, food stuck in the teeth and forgotten long ago, disorder, dirt, and barely any wages besides. A brother, who had garnered his luck and stayed behind working on power lines, one day found steaming—a man-shaped charcoal. A neighbor without legs who pulled himself belly down on a skateboard along a busy street, one arm stretched out in front of the other to grasp the ground in front of him, head lifted bravely, swimming in a sea of reckless motorbikes.

Hieu is here now, even if only for a few weeks. If he gets up for a drink of water and finds her on the couch, he will wake her. Otherwise, she will rise with a start, find herself alone in a dark room swept by the blue light of the television.


In the morning, she makes enough weak coffee for the both of them. Her husband has already gone to work, and has left no traces of his morning behind. She sets a jar of sugar in front of her son. Half in a fog of sleep, Hieu remembers a conversation he had with her long ago.

“Look at my hands,” she had said. “This is why you go to school.”

A rich scar ran from her knuckle to her wrist.

“A thirty-pound wok and they’re always rushing me.”

For as long as he could remember, her body smelt of oil and sweat. He turns his hands over and observes the hair on his smooth skin. He feels guilt over his mother’s body. It was a struggle to lift herself up from the couch while his child’s energy thrilled through him. These days, his own energy is slowing down. His heart beats carefully sometimes, as if it were a task. He can no longer take for granted that his body will work.

“You should rest,” he says. After setting down the sugar, she has gotten up again to start breakfast.

Here was her son with milk white teeth, telling her to rest.

“I’ll fix you something.”

“I just want to talk.”

She opens the refrigerator and takes out a carton of eggs.

“You left him.”

“Only for a short while. You want eggs? Congee?”

“I’m not hungry.” He hasn’t touched his coffee or reached for the jar of sugar. “Why did you come back?”

“He’s my husband. Your father.”

“Do you love him?”

Her hands pause on the faucet before turning the water on.

“You and I think differently,” she says. She turns her back to him to break eggs into a bowl.

“You shouldn’t work so much. Your back is no good.”

“How can I rest when I’ve worked all my life? It’s what I’m used to. I feel anxious if I don’t.”

“Maybe you should go away again.”

“You don’t care about your father.” She holds the broken egg shells in one hand. “Some people are born cruel. It’s not on purpose. He can hardly live without me.”

“No one would blame you. He’s done it to himself.”

“You’re a spiteful son!” She says, angry that he has figured out her thoughts.

“Why did you choose this house?” Hieu asks.

“Because he was afraid the mortgage would be too high. Here at least everything was ours.”

“Ours? This small space?”

“You loved this house when we first moved in. You rolled on the front lawn, happy because we finally had a yard you could play in. And afterwards you had ant bites everywhere.”

Hieu only remembers that in this house there had been rage and discontent. He had dyed his hair pink, torn his clothes purposefully. He experimented with his body, with cigarettes, with acid and cocaine, with men and women. They were terrified at the gummy look in his eyes, how he didn’t leave his room for days. The acid was still going strong when Trung beat him on the front porch in the mid-afternoon sun, the cars streaming by. This was Hieu’s most vivid memory of this house and his father. A man who never spoke. A violent, quiet man.

He left home soon after the beating, but the guilt was epic. The culmination of dead obedient sons and daughters flowing in his blood. His parents had worked themselves to death in a strange land with no heir to save them. He had gotten into an art school, but dropped out to major in business. He wrote his first paycheck over to them, and never stopped sending money. His father never acknowledged receipt of the checks, though they were always cashed. One didn’t talk about what was expected. Even after this, the sacrifice of his life, the guilt didn’t go away.


Because Trung had provided for his family every day of his life, he had felt irreproachable. He came home from work, put on sunglasses and headphones, and dissolved into noise and darkness. He had never felt guilt over his need for isolation. But now there were little naggings, hints of failure. He had taught them he was only a shadow.

He didn’t think he would miss her. Only at night there was her body, heavy with the weight of a day’s work. When she was gone, he took to eating out of cans. The smell of him filled the rooms, seeped into the walls. He lived without her sounds, without her changing things.

She had built a fish pond in their yard, bought frivolous junk to fill the house, replaced old and broken objects. It helped her, she said, to replace the dining room curtains. When she did, the lighting in the room changed to a burnt pink. A small event they had to live with for the next few days—a pinkness that made one homesick and weepy. In a few days, white curtains were put up. She sang while she hung them, and Trung was reminded that she was a woman.

He grunted at those who began calling him. He evaded their gestures of pity and affection. His brothers, his parents, even his no good American son who could not hide the fact that he was a homosexual, all thinking he had lost his wife. He thrashed around in his sheets.

After she left, he took to praying to old idols, filling tea cups with rice to hold fresh sticks of incense, setting out offering plates of oranges and pears. The times she called, he spoke to her softly. He mailed her a gold icon to wear around her neck, as protection for her heart against evil spirits.

So it was a blessing when he was beaten. It made her come back to him.

The boys had blocked the door with their bodies and asked him what time it was. He looked down at his watch before they struck him. The disgust of seeing his blood well to his skin’s surface like a green stem blooming made them strike harder.


That night Min lies silently beside her husband. She is thinking that in February Trung will get his settlement, and there will be less guilt. Surely he will understand.

Then he turns to her.

He touches her. She asks him what he’s doing and her clarity surprises him. He kisses her face, her chest, her arms. He turns her over and presses an ear to her back to listen to her heart through a shoulder blade. His hands fall to cradle her stomach. She turns to face him and sees how old he has become. All hunger and desire have left his face.




Dinh Prince is a native of California’s Central Valley. She received her MA in English Literature from the University of Oregon, and her MFA in Fiction from Arizona State University. She has served as a Teach for America Corps Member in at-risk public schools, and has been teaching and working in law firms since. Her nonfiction is currently featured in Mud Season Review, and her short stories have appeared in Platte Valley Review, Fawlt Magazine, A Generation Defining Itself, Growing Up Girl: an Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces and elsewhere. She resides in Houston, Texas where she lives with her husband, son, black lab, and two cats.