Did You Know about Joe?

Submitted into Contest #42 in response to: Write a story that ends with the narrator revealing a secret.... view prompt



Joe Nguyen had been a quiet man. He was slight in build with a face that could be confused with any of hundreds of Vietnamese refugees who had moved into the community more than 40 years ago. His real name was Nguyen Cho Binh, but he had taken the name Joe because the minor official who recorded names on the “Boat People List” didn’t speak Vietnamese and Nguyen, Joe was the closest he could come. The name stayed and so did Joe.

Joe started as a picker, gleaning fallen fruit from the ground underneath orange trees then selling his fruit by the bushel to the broker, making just enough money to pay rent and provide a little food for his wife and baby daughter, Cam. Anna Nguyen, Joe’s wife, worked part time as a bathroom attendant at a local casino to make up the difference.

At first, Anna could take the baby to work with her, carrying her against her chest in a wrap and stopping to nurse her when needed, but as Cam grew, her employers asked her to make other arrangements. She arranged her hours so she could leave the baby home with Joe.

They lived in a small house near the orange grove, but it was a longer walk to work for Anna. She usually left for work when Joe got home about 6 o’clock, walked through the orange groves and farms to the casino, where she finished two four hour shifts, then arrived home in time to take over when Joe had to go to work.

Picking was back-breaking work and Joe was exhausted at the end of the day. More often than not, he stopped to have a beer before he went home. Some nights he didn’t come home until long after dark and Anna had to miss work. When Joe did arrive on time, he smelled of beer. She was reluctant to leave the baby with him and they argued. Anna was unhappy, but she was powerless to do anything about it. Except for their names being on the Boat People List, neither one had any legal status and she feared they would be deported.

One morning, Anna didn’t come home. A neighbor reported her missing when Joe asked her to watch Cam while he worked in the orange groves.

The sheriff came to the house that evening to ask questions and Joe answered them in broken English. No, he hadn’t fought with his wife before she left for work. No, he didn’t know how tall she was. No, he didn’t know exactly how old she was, but he guessed about 25 years old. Yes, the baby was born in California. No, he didn’t have a photograph of her. No, as far as he knew, his wife did not have any friends or family. She had left her daughter and the few things she had been able to bring with her when she escaped Vietnam, and simply vanished. 

The sheriff went to her job the next morning and interviewed Anna’s supervisor, who told them she had reported to work at the regular time two days earlier and left on time the next morning. No, nothing unusual had happened at work. Yes, Anna was well-liked at her job. No, Anna didn’t have a photo ID, just a card allowing her to enter the casino and the storage room. No, she didn’t have access to money. No, money was not missing. No, he didn’t think she had a boyfriend.

The sheriff interviewed neighbors, who gave him a description of Anna and told him about the fights Anna and Joe had been having. A missing person report was filed, and Anna’s description was broadcast state-wide. Neighbors retraced her steps and searched for any sign that Anna had met with foul play. Nothing was found.

Finally, the case was filed under “Unsolved” and the community returned to normal. Joe arranged for a neighbor to watch Cam and went back to work.

Two years later, remains were found in a creek bed about a quarter of a mile away. The coroner identified them as belonging to a male, between 20 and 30 years old. The death appeared to be accidental. That investigation was closed.

After his wife’s disappearance, Joe had full responsibility for Cam, who was already challenging his abilities to be a parent. He decided that he needed a better job and to get a better job, he needed to learn to speak better English, so he enrolled in a course at the community college. Co-workers began to depend on him to help them navigate the strange culture. When the boss found out what he was doing on his own, Joe was moved from picking in the orchard to a job in the corporate office, working as liaison with pickers and other company employees. He dressed professionally, trading in his jeans and t-shirt for a three-piece suit and he made more money. With his new salary, he was able to move into a nicer home and hire a nanny for Cam.

He continued college, eventually graduating with an associate degree in Business Management. Cam was enrolled in St. Mary’s Elementary School, where she excelled. When there was time, Joe was a room parent and became acquainted with her teachers.

As Cam grew, Joe advanced in the company and began to adapt to the American culture. He became a citizen and registered to vote. He ran for city council and easily won. He saved enough money to buy a nice house and a car. When Cam was in high school, he enrolled in the state university to study for a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture, finally graduating with honors the same year Cam graduated from St. Mary’s high school.

Joe was careful with money and seldom socialized. He had given up drinking to be a better example for Cam. He invested wisely and eventually became part-owner of the company he worked for. He paid cash for the orchard where he had first worked and built a greenhouse where he worked to develop a disease-resistant orange tree.

Over the years, many women, Asian and American alike, showed their interest in Joe. He wasn’t tall or muscular, but he had a handsome face and seemed genuinely interested in listening to them. Some of them asked him out. He occasionally went on a second date but let them know he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship. One woman even proposed to him and he thanked her, but politely refused.

When Cam went away to college, he had more free time, but spent it reading or managing his disease-resistant orange tree project. When Cam married and moved nearby, she gave him grandchildren and they visited on weekends.  

Joe had never visited a doctor, so when he had almost constant abdominal pain, he went to the herb shop for a remedy. That helped for a while, but he started to lose weight and was so tired he slept most of the time. Cam noticed that he was very thin, but that his belly was swollen. She tried to get him to see a doctor, but he refused.

She called to check on him every day. One day when she called there was no answer, so she called a neighbor to check on him. Her phone rang about half an hour later.

“Is Joe Nguyen your father?” The voice on the other end identified himself as the sheriff. The neighbor had called when she found Joe, lying in bed as though he were asleep. But he was dead.

Cam waited for her husband to come home, then rushed to her father’s house. The coroner had already been there and taken Joe to the morgue. Since he died without an attending physician, the law required an autopsy.

Her husband and children came to help her with arrangements for the funeral and Cam waited for the coroner to complete the autopsy so she could arrange for burial. Finally, the sheriff called and asked her to come to his office. The coroner and sheriff were both there.

“Did you know?” the coroner asked.

“Did I know what?” Cam asked him.

“About Joe. Did you know about Joe?”

She was confused. She was his daughter. Of course, she knew about Joe. He was a kind, hard-working and educated man who had been the best father in the world. He had been both father and mother to her most of her life. Of course, she knew about Joe.

Finally, the coroner handed her a copy of his report.

Name: Joe Nguyen (Nguyen Cho Binh)

Age: 62

Cause of death: Ovarian cancer.

It all became clear. The deceased was a female. Joe Nguyen was the one who disappeared years ago, and his wife Anna took his place. She played the part so well that not even her daughter knew.

May 21, 2020 21:03

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