The Hope He Had

30 Sep

Winner of the 2014 Oregon Writer’s Colony writing contest. 

Finalist in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Association writing contest.

$1000

Sometimes a walk with your dog is not always just a walk with your dog…

That’s what the detective told me when the case was closed.

It started when I took my dog to a river. Gnarled tree stumps carried from headwater streams shared the shoreline with plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and the occasional hypodermic needle. Cranes dotted the Williamette River’s banks, perched over the water like herons waiting for prey. The metal reverb of shipping containers echoed across the water. Ospreys and gulls traded calls. Vessels of all sizes sliced the surface of the river. Cormorants bobbed in their wakes, diving for long minutes in search of food. Cars raced east and west on the bridges, salmon charged upstream, and century-old sturgeon sifted through silt in the depths.

I roamed the river’s edge, pocketed pebbles, and wrestled large pieces of driftwood back to my van for my garden. My footprints were crisscrossed with the drag marks of my latest finds. Big Head, my yellow lab, pawed and chewed at the logs as we moved along, steady but unhurried, like the currents at our side.  

I noticed the black briefcase first. Zippers open, sand sticking to the cloth areas. With warning thoughts about heroin needles, I searched the main compartment and pockets, never plunging my hand in blindly. No identification. Empty. Then I noticed the shoes, the shirts, and the pants nearby. I wondered if the contents had spilled out naturally, or if someone had dumped them looking for bounty. I knelt, reached for the nearest pants pocket and felt the unmistakable shape of a wad of money, rolled and bending slightly with each squeeze of my hand.

My gaze shot up and down the bank. Was there a body? Was someone watching me? Was I getting involved in something I should avoid? Not wanting to stand up with the wad of bills, I pretended to tie my shoes, slipped the money into my socks, and scurried away. Back in my van, I counted the money—ten one-hundred-dollar bills, cold and damp from the river.

I knew turning the money in was the right thing to do, but I entertained spending it, allowing greed to take a short tenure in my thoughts: a new camera, a family vacation, or maybe a couple crazy nights out with my mates at Portland’s finest bars.

I wondered, What would most people do? Then I called the police.

When I arrived home, my family was in front of the house exploring the arrival of spring. My wife, Lori, followed our two boys to the entrance of our basement preschool, trying to steer their little feet away from the tender shoots. Rayden, our four-year-old, knelt and inspected a cluster of crocuses. Then he framed the small flowers with shells and pebbles that he found in other parts of our garden. His younger brother, Jaxen, age two, helped by tossing handfuls of mulch in the general direction of the flowers. Rayden cried and objected to Jaxen’s help. Before the situation could spiral into rock throwing, I snatched up Jaxen, knelt next to Rayden and brushed off his carefully placed pebbles.

“Do you know who’s coming to our house?” I asked them.

“Who, Daddy?”

“A real policeman!”

“Yay!”

When I set Jaxen down on our red brick path, he darted away, yanking at every plant along the way before stopping to inspect a pile of heart-shaped stones. The red bricks on the path had come from our chimney after I demolished it for our preschool. Every log, shell, and rock along the path, including the smallest pebbles, I’d collected along a river or at the ocean with my own hands. I called the boys over to help me choose a resting place for my latest find, a sinuous log resembling a snake.    

Rayden stamped his foot near the corner of the wave-shaped fence I’d constructed. “This is the place! Daddy!”

Jaxen held on to me for balance, the seam on my pants providing a perfect handle for his tiny hands. He shuffled forward with me as I placed the log and admired my work; my creations living and non-living surrounded me. Rayden and Jaxen inspected the placement, tugging and pushing on the log as a Portland Police car pulled up.

A young cop stepped out, and I told him how I’d found the money. He jotted down the details, and then as he knelt to talk with Rayden, I grinned and thought, At least my boys are meeting a cop for the first time on good terms, not being busted for stealing wood for skateboard ramps or shooting BBs at a commuter bus. Cops and I have a storied history.

I offered to show the policeman the scene, but he declined. Apparently, there was no time to check out random clothing with large sums of money washed up on the riverbank. After allowing Rayden to say, “Hey, dude!” into his loudspeaker, the policeman took the money and gave me a claim form.

“I can’t imagine anyone coming to claim this. It’s yours after the ninety-day waiting period,” he stated.

I lay awake that night thinking of what might have happened on the beach. How did the briefcase get there? Whose money was it? Was there more money in the clothes that I didn’t check?

The next day, I returned to take pictures and check more pockets. A pinstriped collared shirt, dark slacks, a fitted black t-shirt, black leather shoes. Because of the size of the clothes, I thought I was holding a woman’s clothing. My search turned up one hundred thousand Vietnamese dong, about five US dollars. When I noticed that the tags on the clothing were Vietnamese, I began to think the person had been trying to immigrate. Knowing that many immigrants try to hide their money, I felt for secret pockets or money sewn into the clothing. Nothing more came up.

In the following weeks, I mulled over possible scenarios: a robbery victim’s briefcase tossed off a bridge, or maybe foul play on a cargo ship. One morning while sitting on the couch with my computer, I searched the Internet for reports of a missing Vietnamese person. Finding nothing, I dismissed the search for a while and turned to working on my current book, a multimedia memoir about my time in China.

As I typed away, I heard parents dropping off their children and Lori greeting them. The sounds of crying and laughter penetrated the basement ceiling into the living room. My carpentry skills and Lori’s teaching background had merged as one in the creation of our preschool. A dozen families trusted us with their children; our home was their home for part of the day.

Then my phone rang, and a missing persons detective introduced himself. He explained that he had the police officer’s notes but wanted to hear the story from me. I described the scene and told him about going back to take pictures when I found the Vietnamese money. The information fit with his findings. He told me a Vietnamese man aboard a freighter had been denied asylum around the time I found the money. The captain reported that the man had jumped ship.

“Do you think he made it?” I asked.

“We haven’t found a body yet,” the detective replied.

After agreeing to email him my pictures, I hung up. Chills coursed through me. The clothes were small, so I’d thought they belonged to a woman. But it turned out they fit a small Asian man with oversized courage.

Some might consider jumping from a ship into a cold river more a foolish act than a courageous one, but visions of a prospering family with choices are strong. Opportunity pulls like a rising anchor—dripping with promise. Whether it be stowing away on an airplane’s landing gear, riding on the top of a train from the equator, or jumping from a boat nearing shore, foreigners’ journeys have involved risking everything to come to America. It is indeed the Land of the Brave.

My own existence in America can be traced back to a similar scene when my great-grandfather left China and entered San Francisco Bay in the 1920s. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was still years away. The grassy headlands to the north and the view of San Francisco to the south must have made my great-grandpa grin. Maybe it felt more like the starting line instead of a finish line.

I pictured the Vietnamese man standing on deck as he passed under the St. John’s Bridge. Until recently, it was Portland’s tallest and only suspension bridge. Its two gothic towers looked down on him, and its cables stretched to the sky. The long ride was almost over. He allowed a smile, and then his eyes pivoted to land and his lips creased. Would he be granted asylum? If not, could he swim? How cold would the water be? On the outside, he carried his clothes and his savings. On the inside, he carried the burden and hope of his family left behind in Vietnam.

Did the Vietnamese man and my great-grandpa have doubts, or is there no room for doubt when you risk everything? Journeying to a country whose language you do not speak as your family depends on you is not adventure travel: there is no return flight home. Despite the pressures, both men must have felt the rush of new horizons. Everyone has grand ideas, but not everyone acts. For every immigrant who has stepped toward a new beginning, how many have cowered at home?

Amidst these musings, I remembered a fitting Chinese proverb: Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes.

As I waited to hear more news from the detective, I daydreamed frequently about my ancestors’ journeys. One day as I worked in my garden kneading compost into the soil, I saw my great-grandpa, eyes closed, boat rocking, and stomach churning during his three-month boat ride from China to America. I pictured his son, my grandpa, staring out a plane’s window in Guam years later, palm trees bending as a typhoon bore down on the island. It was his third flight of five during his journey to the United States. At twenty-one years old, he was leaving behind a wife, his first child (my mom), and everything he knew. He tightened his seatbelt and readied himself for the turbulent ride.

That night as I waited for the oil in my wok to heat up, I considered the many restaurants my grandparents had owned. Restaurants provided a living for both sides of my family, so to say my college education was partly funded by fried rice and egg rolls would not be a stretch. Although I never worked at the restaurants, it’s easy for me to imagine what it was like. I could hear the sizzle of stir-fries, the clang of dishes, and the scraping of metal spatulas. Splattering oil singed my forearms, dish soap cracked my hands, and greasy steam permeated my clothes.

I began to view the present through the lens of the past, realizing my existence had started long before I was born. One morning as I laid cushions and blankets on the living room floor for a makeshift wrestling mat perfect for toddler boys, I understood: My ancestors did what they had to do so I could do what I wanted to do. They did not have time for creative writing or hours to play with their children. They could not take months off from work to build a preschool.  

My boys crashed and burrowed into the pile of blankets, waiting for me to make my move. I lowered to my knees, growled like a monster, and pounced on them. Their laughter, their smiles, and my hands on their squirming bodies were gifts—a legacy. It was not just my hands that gave them joy, but also the hands of those who had come before me.

After ninety days, the detective called; a decomposed body had been discovered near the area where I’d found the money. DNA tests confirmed his identity. A portion of the money was used to cremate the man and send his ashes home to Vietnam. He was from a poor rural area, and his family received the remaining money. As I hung up, I wondered why I was crying for the death of a man I didn’t know.

I revisited the beach where I’d found the money and gazed across the river, my eyes in a soft focus. Months had passed since the man had met his end. The water was warmer now, and I wondered if that would’ve made a difference in his efforts. A large freighter labored downstream, cutting the river in two. Its formidable wake closed in on me, and I thought of the detective’s words.

In the detective’s last email, he thanked me for doing the right thing and wrote: Sometimes a walk with your dog is not always just a walk with your dog. Sometimes…even though none of us could have prevented the tragic outcome, you can never know which day…you may dramatically alter the course of a family’s life. 

He’s right. The Vietnamese family’s lives will never be the same—and neither will mine. Finding the money inspired me to look beyond my own beating heart and into the hearts that made me. My boys, like me, will know that life is a story: past, present, and future.

The freighter’s wake pounded the shore, erasing my footprints. Big Head raced by, and I joined him. We sprinted faster and faster until he stopped suddenly to paw at a stump. The deluge of waves subsided, our new footprints left untouched by the gentle lapping of the river. My phone vibrated, and I checked it to find a picture of my boys sitting at the dinner table and sucking long strands of noodles.

“C’mon boy…let’s go home,” I said, patting Big Head’s wet fur.

I smiled and knew why I’d cried for the man.

The life I live is the hope he had.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Scene

The Life I Live is the Hope He Had.

The money shot for the short film inspired by this experience. This shot was a year in the making. I wore a wet suit and a weight belt under the suit. We had one chance at this and we nailed it! It was fitting that I wore one of my late-grandpa’s old suits and his hat. He took a step towards a new beginning in 1943.  Music and camera work by my mate, Brett Neiman! 

* * *

 Ryan Chin is the creator of, Without Rain There Can Be No Rainbows, a multimedia memoir (two dozen short videos enhance the written word) about his teaching experience in New Zealand. Mr. Chin likes to call it a pet and teacher memoir sandwiched into an overseas adventure. The book is available at AmazoniTunesand locally at Powell’s Books. He hopes to complete his next multimedia memoir, Who Put the Chin in China, in the next decade.

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3 Responses to “The Hope He Had”

  1. Connie Thoene September 26, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    What a story, touched me…

  2. soozid September 30, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    This is a truly moving piece…beautifully written and sad at the same time

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sketch-Factor 8 | Mr. Chin's Currents - July 17, 2014

    […] out a new area of Swan Island. Swan Island is the site of Portland’s old airport and also the site where I found a $1000 last year. It’s only ten minutes from my house, a place where you want to make sure your tetanus shot is […]

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