Authors: Gish Jen
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
The yelling stops. Sarun pulls into himself. Sophy—her feet in sneakers now—smiles brightly, redoing her ponytail. Chhung’s eyes jolt. He picks up a shovel but puts it back down. A Band-Aid on his thumb has flopped forward, revealing a raw popped blister; his forearms are hummocky with bug bites.
“Just wondering how you guys are doing.” Hattie balls her hands up in her sweatshirt pocket. Though it is practically May, the air is still cold. “How’s the wheelbarrow working out?”
“Great!” says Sophy.
Sarun toes the ground with his high-tops; Chhung glares. Hattie would never have believed that someone with such a wander to his eyes could glare, but Chhung is indeed glaring at his son’s foot, as if daring it to go on moving.
The trees creak and sway in the wind. A poplar flutters top to bottom, its tender new leaves all agitated, and when Chhung goes to light a cigarette, the matches go out. It takes three tries before he finally stands there, victorious.
For a thing dug by hand, the hole is huge—several car lengths now, and with claims to real depth. Looking at it through Greta’s eyes, though
(Doesn’t it look more like a foundation hole than a garden?)
, Hattie does wonder about Chhung’s approach.
“I hope you like peanut butter,” she says, producing the cookie bag.
Chhung nods as he accepts the offering. Sarun looks on with interest, then glances at Hattie as if hoping she’ll help him out in some way. And for a moment she’s tempted to respond—give him a wink, at least. Feeling Chhung’s eyes on her, though, too, she looks away.
“Thank you,” says Sophy. Her voice is a normal voice and she’s smiling a normal smile, but there are tears pin-striping her smooth cheeks. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” says Hattie. “I brought you some insect repellent, too. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me. So maybe it’ll work for you.”
“Thank you!” says Sophy.
Chhung accepts the repellent much as he did the cookies, cradling them both in the crook of his free arm. His track pants have a tear in the knee.
“The pit looks great,” Hattie goes on gamely. “A lot longer.” She thinks. “Deeper.”
“Thanks!” Sophy’s still crying.
Hattie pulls out a still-folded but slightly crumpled tissue from her pocket. “It’s no beauty,” she says gently, “but at least it’s not used.”
“Thanks!” Sophy wipes her eyes with it.
There’s no animal life today. No woodpeckers, no chipmunks, no birds. Just wind, and way up above them, clouds in a hurry.
“I hear your mother’s cleaning houses for summer folk,” says Hattie. “Helping Donna Legrand open cottages. It must be nice to see her working.”
“It is!” Sophy says.
“Especially as there isn’t a lot of work around here. She have enough?”
“No!” Sophy says. Her tears pool in the crescents of her lower lids, bright and full-bodied.
“That must be hard.” Hattie tries to emanate understanding. Sympathy. Something. “I’ll keep an ear out for more.”
“We don’t know what we’ll do if Sarun doesn’t pitch in the way he used to!”
The way he used to
. Hattie isn’t sure what to make of that but, what with Chhung hovering the way he is, doesn’t dare ask. “I’ll keep an ear out,” she says again.
Sophy’s still crying, Chhung’s still watching; Sarun’s digging. Hattie feels around in her pocket for another tissue but only finds lint and, embedded in the bottom seam, grit. A bike, meanwhile, appears up on the sunny road—Greta, who else, with her braid and her baskets. She honks as usual; Hattie waves back the way she always does, whether Greta can see her or not. It’s nothing too fascinating. And yet the Chhungs watch intently—their three heads lifting along with their three noses and three chins, all in parallel. It is as if someone has just switched on an electromagnetic field, showing them to be polarized objects, and Hattie, not—as if some base difference has been made manifest.
Hattie stops waving.
“I came to see,” she says, in a burst of inspiration, “whether any of you’d like to go up to the farmers’ market.” She explains how it’s all kinds of people selling all kinds of things, actually, not just farmers and farm products. “If Mum ever gets around to baking her baguettes, for example, she could sell them up there.”
“Bag—?” Though Chhung has been understanding Hattie just fine, he looks to Sophy to translate—buying time to make a decision, Hattie guesses. For, as it happens, she knows that space between languages very well—sees how Chhung barely listens, really, as Sophy translates, eyes on the ground. Sophy translates less haltingly for her father than she did for her mother, interestingly, although even now her Khmer is not as fluent as Sarun’s; you can hear that she was born here, rather than in the camps. But finally, anyway, she’s done. Her glance steals up, not to Chhung’s face, but to Hattie’s.
Hattie doesn’t dare smile back. Instead, she receives Sophy’s look, then looks up at the sky—focusing, not on the clouds, but on the shifting blue shapes between them. Something Carter taught her to do, way back when—to see the negative spaces—a way of
thinking outside the box
. She takes her time.
“I can take you all there,” she offers, finally. “If you’d like to check it out.”
“Sophy check it ow,” says Chhung.
“Would you or Mum like to come, too?”
Chhung considers. Sarun grips and regrips his shovel handle, but Hattie knows better, somehow, than to offer to take him along. She can see what’s plain out of the question, as can he, apparently. He does not try to make eye contact.
“Sophy go.” Chhung turns away.
Sarun resumes digging until Chhung says something else. Then Sarun grasps the handles of the wheelbarrow and wheels it over to Hattie. He sets it down carefully, like a pilot showing off his landing skills.
“Oh, no,” she says. “You can keep it. It’s yours.”
Chhung looks surprised.
“I’m giving it to you. It’s yours. A present.”
“A present,” she insists. “I don’t need it.”
There’s a pause; then Chhung smiles a broad, if crooked, smile. “Cambodian say, You do good, good come back to you,” he says.
“That’s beautiful.” Hattie gives a half-smile herself. “Hope it’s true.”
And not hogwash.
“True,” says Chhung, looking her steadily in the eye. He can only manage it for a moment, but he does. He smiles.
ophy’s normally swingy ponytail rests flat on the nape of her neck; she studies the ground as if she has a test coming up on it. Just when Hattie is beginning to think their trip a mistake, though, she catches Sophy glancing down the hill.
“They like cookies,” says Hattie.
“They do,” agrees Sophy.
“I bet Sarun eats like a horse.”
Sophy hesitates, but then says, “He does, he eats, like, everything.” She wrinkles up her nose.
“He’s that age,” Hattie says. “My son, Josh, was the same way. The minute you slowed down on your meal, he’d lean in and say, ‘You going to finish that?’ ”
Sophy laughs, her ponytail hanging free now. She stops to read Hattie’s bumper stickers but doesn’t ask what they mean, and climbs into the old Datsun naturally enough. Once they start driving, though, she stiffens, as if she needs to concentrate on her sitting.
Hattie pulls down her distance glasses. “How do you people manage without a car?”
“Sarun used to have a car,” says Sophy. “He just smashed it up.”
“In an accident?”
Sophy nods, sniffing. Up here at higher elevations, it’s more clearly spring; even with the windows closed, the air smells of manure anywhere near the farms. “He smashed up two, actually,” she says. Adding, “They weren’t his, exactly. He shared one with a friend and one with a bunch of guys.”
“He was racing.”
“Was he. Well, if he ever borrows mine, I’ll tell him no racing.” Hattie peers over the top of her glasses at Sophy, whose broad forehead is bright with light, like a second windshield.
“There’s nobody to race around here anyway,” she says.
“I see. Was anyone hurt? In these accidents?”
“Yeah, but not Sarun, he was lucky.”
“It sounds that way.”
The market field is sunny and un-buggy, and warm enough that a few intrepid people are in T-shirts. Their spring arms are about as appealing as dug-up roots, but never mind—they swing them happily. Only Sophy hugs herself as if worried about hypothermia. She rubs her arms through her jacket sleeves as Hattie tries to get her to pick out some vegetables.
“They’re fresh,” Hattie says. “Organic. I’ll treat.”
But Sophy, it seems, likes her vegetables the way they have them in the supermarket.
“In plastic, you mean?”
“Organic means fifty cents a pound more, at
” Sophy’s arms open at last, her outrage flowing out to her fingertips.
“Do you help your mom with the shopping?”
Sophy folds back up. “I’ll be helping forever.”
“Because she doesn’t speak English.”
“Because she is never going to speak English.”
“I see.” Hattie makes Sophy sniff some lilacs. “Now aren’t those something?”
“They smell like soap,” Sophy says.
A few stalls farther on they come, amazingly, upon some peonies—white with red flecks,
. Most of them still in bud, but still—so early! It doesn’t seem possible. Thanks to a south-facing stone wall, though, the stall owner’s garden is a whole zone up from the rest of the area, maybe more.
“Can I buy you some?” Hattie asks. “These are something special.”
Sophy shakes her head no. Still, when she makes a trip to the bathroom, Hattie, quick, nabs a bunch and stashes them on the passenger seat of the car. And when she finds them there, Sophy exclaims with delight. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” she says, sniffing them, then admiring them, then sniffing them some more. Her face opens as if blooming itself, and her smile is more than a matter of her mouth. The mounds of her cheeks rise up, her ears lift; the whole shape of her face changes. “What kind of flowers are they?”
“Peonies.” Hattie starts the engine.
“Peonies. I’ve heard of those.”
“They were my best friend’s favorite flower before she died,” says Hattie—then, “Ant,” as an ant crawls out from between the petals of an open flower. “Ants do love peonies.”
“Ants do love peonies,” echoes Sophy. Rolling her window down, she coaxes the ant first onto her finger and then on outside, blowing at it and peering over the edge of the door to make sure it’s safely off the metal and down onto the ground before they start moving.
“She used to say,” says Hattie, “that they were the one thing she was never moved to joke about.”
“My friend. Her name was Lee.”
“Did she joke?” Sophy rolls her window back up a little.
“She did. But she said peonies were too beautiful to joke about. She said they were so ordinary and extraordinary, they gave even her hope.”
“What do you mean, hope?”
“Hope that there were things even she would want to grow. Skeptic that she was. Hope that there were things that could turn even her into a fool for life.” Hattie stops.
Oh, to be a fool for life!
People like me take everything apart, you know, but secretly yearn to be corny
Sophy looks bored.
“Do you have a vase?” asks Hattie.
“We have a bottle, I’m pretty sure.”
“You need a real vase; peonies are so top-heavy. Can I lend you one?”
Sophy frowns. “My dad might not like it.”
She gives a little waggle of the head, as if she’s drawing a figure eight with her nose. But then she sniffs and smiles again. “They’re so
” she says.
And Hattie smiles, teacherly. She’d forgotten the satisfaction of occasioning a young person to reach for a word.
The car smells wonderful.
It’s some work to persuade Sophy not only to borrow a vase, but to come in for a snack. But eventually she perches on a kitchen chair, her hands under her blue-jeaned thighs. The dogs sniff her over, then stand a moment, tails up—awaiting direction, event, something. When nothing like that comes, though, their shoulders relax and their heads drop as if some string has been snipped. Hattie introduces them.
“That’s Reveille and that’s Cato, my old man,” she says. “See how gray he’s gotten? He moves a little slow because he has arthritis in his hips. And this is the puppy, Annie.”
Sophy pets the older ones gingerly. The puppy, though! It’s soft, crazy Annie she falls for—all-black Annie, with her too-big head and too-big feet, who can still ball herself up, and who never starts one thing but that she starts another. She is the very picture of unobstructed energy—of
, Hattie’s father would say—unlike Sophy, who, fascinated as she is, braces herself, one hand grasping the edge of her seat, the other held out stiffly. Finally she sticks out a sneaker, only to have Annie attack it, growling—tugging so hard, she looks to be stretching the thing a half-size up.
Sophy does not laugh.
“She’s from the pound in the city,” Hattie says. “They called me because she was so young when they found her, and they knew I had everything you need.”
“Like a hot water bottle, and a clock that ticks—that sort of thing. I gave her a pair of my pants to sleep on. She liked that.” Hattie’s coffee mug has some kind of a spot on it; she gives it a rub.
“I like that name, ‘Annie.’ Come here, Annie Annie.”
Annie yelps, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.
“It’s after Little Orphan Annie,” says Hattie.
“Who’s Little Orphan Annie?”
Hattie explains. “It was that or Jane as in ‘plain Jane,’ ” she goes on. “ ‘Plain Jane’ just being an expression. I guess because Jane is such an ordinary name, it’s come to be associated with plainness.”
“I like ‘Annie.’ ”
Hattie sets Sophy to feeding Annie ice cream as she explains how the pound found Annie in a barn. “Someone abandoned her right in the dead of winter,” she says. “Can you imagine? By the time they found her, her eyes were frozen open.”