Rhubarb had a not so odd – or uncommon – parentage. To Americans, most anyway, it might seem strange, … foreign at least. His mother was the child of a French officer and a Vietnamese whore. His father was the get of an American black soldier, and a different Vietnamese whore.
Rhubarb was then, not surprisingly, born in a brothel, raised in a brothel, and now worked for the same brothel.
At the moment we chance upon him he is in reverie, and remembering favorite childhood experiences, particularly the one that led to his only name. Some blacks like rhubarb pies. As a child of the brothel he had had many mothers, and hardly anything that might be called a father in the usual sense.
The mothers encouraged him in a kind of trade. He was taught how to grown the rhubarb, and separate out the poisonous to animals leaves, while turning the stalk into fruit-like pies, which he sold by the slice to the brothel’s clients for … at least … an American one dollar bill. Drunks and other rude people were asked for a twenty, and told that there was something special in the treat. Not true, but they were already intoxicated – in one way or another – so would not notice the promise not kept.
One day one of the clients yelled for some pie, and being a bit cheeky he started calling the young boy Rhubarb. This was an improvement over Antoine, his grandfather’s name. Mostly because Westerners always mispronounced it.
As is natural in such an environment, some of the wannabe thugs – that is teenage boys – took advantage, and he was lucky at the end of the day to have a few Vietnamese xu for his troubles.
He was about 11 when it was recognized that his penis was unusually large, and after his tormentors made fun of that, one of their bosses came around for a look, and Rhubarb was soon servicing older women with a taste for boys.
By the time he was 14, the rest of him had caught up in size, and given the Darwinian nature of his environment it became necessary to study fighting skills, or die. He became adept with knives. One of his instructors has been an old Taoist, who lent some basics of spiritual wisdom into the training.
Now in his 50’s, he was the boss of the northwest corner, of a several block square of territory that the brothel owners ruled. He watched watchers, mostly.
His reverie was interrupted to by a set of rings coming from a Vietnamese taxi tricycle, turning into one of the nearby “gate” check points. The rings were in a code, three doubles, and then two singles. Major business potential coming in.
The riders were a drunk American couple, not unusual an outing for the section these gates led to was – more fashionable, shall we imagine. Cleaner, more decorous. Everyone who worked there spoke English.
One was black, and the other white. It was the white woman that was the problem. Natural blond, reasonably sized tits and ass, clearly in good physical shape.
The danger was that aspect of the brothel that bought and sold fresh pussy. She was worth $25,000 as is, and that buyer would transport her elsewhere, perhaps getting several hundred thousand at the end of the trail of viewings and other processes – which likely would begin by getting her addicted to heroin.
The black would be killed. Just another Western couple not paying attention to dangers in the world where most everyone else has to live.
Quick-fingered Li, the taxi driver, would already know the potential value, and would surely complain elsewhere, when drunk, if he did not get a much higher tip for this delivery.
The blackness that had creeped into Rhubarb’s soul, over the years of servicing black men and women, felt a bit sad. The frenchness was – obviously – a romantic virtue, while the mothers’ voices were pretty much always: stay out of trouble, and don’t get mixed up in other folk’s business.
It was within the sphere of his will to save the man and the woman. There were ways, although always these were risky. He could not save all the foolish that crossed through the gates he managed. He could actually save very few. People’s fates where mostly in their own hands, and he was just a piece of furniture to most of the customers he actually met. Served a function, seldom got a tip.
He was, in point of fact, seriously bored. Any good deed has value, his knife teacher had said: the Way of the Tao having many faces.
As a boss, he was the beneficiary of gifts from those below. He had more than enough thuốc phiện (opium for the uninitiated), so he went to the gate with a paper bag full, to give to Li.
The couple was standing there, waiting to be asked for their money. After giving Li the bag, making sure he saw what was in it (a treasure at resale … better than cash in many ways), Rhubarb told the couple that spirits of their ancestors had visited him a dream last night, and that he was indebted to the ghostly world, so he needed to do what was asked, and send them away with a warning to not be so naive while they travel.
He rested a hand on the machete he had put in his belt on the way out of his office post.
They looked, and nodded gravely. Li demanded more money for a return trip to their hotel, and a little more woke they turned and left.
Rhubarb returned to his reverie, and the many ghosts that his own life’s violent troubles had planted on his Way.
[Rhubarb’s Dilemma was written while listening to Beethoven on Alexa]