Read World and Town Online

Authors: Gish Jen

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

World and Town (8 page)

BOOK: World and Town
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The Chhung men, though, have already come around the side of the trailer to greet her. They stand side by side—the boy half a head taller than Chhung—resting their shovels in just the same way, as if per some regulation. Then Chhung says something, and the boy goes back to work. He doesn’t slow down until Hattie actually approaches, and then it’s the gauged pause of the underling: Chhung may be taking this chance for a break, but his son is aware that his interest is not called for, and certainly no excuse to slack off. Chhung, on the other hand, unties his net and flips it back over his hat. He casually lights up; the cigarette tip flares, the bright ring travels. A large crow flaps through, cawing way up high above them, where there’s sun; Hattie can see the light on its wings when it banks, but it doesn’t cast a shadow because they’re already in shadow.

“Hello,” she ventures. It’s colder and damper down here than at her place; enormous white toadstools gleam in the dark woods. She shivers. “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you. But can I give you this?”

The boy watches, his fingers and clothes streaked with dirt. He sports dirt-edged Band-Aids on his hands, like Chhung.

“Thought maybe you could use it,” she says.

“Tank you,” says Chhung.

“I hope it will be a help.” The flies are worse down here, too, with no wind. Hattie waves her hand in front of her face, but even so a no-see-um flies smack into her mouth. Of course, if she chose to reconceive the thing, she could probably find it not unlike a sesame seed. Instead, she spits it out.

Chhung takes a drag on his cigarette and, in a kind of answering gesture, blows smoke out his nose. Two wispy streams float up, obscuring his face. “Tank you,” he says again.

“You’re welcome.” Hattie has a look at the work-in-progress. The layers of dirt are clear as the layers of a cake—an icing of topsoil atop a gravelly mix, then clay and clay and clay such as Hattie knows well. If you pick that clay up, you can squeeze it into a ball; and if you let go of the ball, you will behold a beautiful impression such as could make a real fossil find in a few million years. For now, though, the clay is mostly a premium seal-all. The bottom of the pit is about as dry as the floor of a car wash.

“That soil is heavy,” Hattie starts to say. Before she can broach the subject of sand, though, Chhung has signaled to a window of the trailer. The girl peeks out from behind a lilac curtain; Chhung barks something, giving a swipe of a finger. The girl’s head disappears then, only to materialize, complete with body, from around the corner; her mother and the baby accompany her. They present Hattie with a cardboard box of raisins, as well as a clear plastic box of something that looks like orange peels packed in sugar. The red Khmer script on the cover is all loops and squiggles, with an English translation below, in green:
SWEET CHILI MANGO STRIPS
.

“Thank you.” Where the plastic box is sealed up with tape, Hattie pockets it and opens the raisins instead; she offers the girl and woman some. Naturally, they will not accept any until she’s had one herself. But then they each take a couple, shyly. The girl rolls several between her fingers, as if making spitballs; the baby leaves off its bottle, leans out of the woman’s arms, and opens up its molarless mouth. Aren’t they concerned about choking? Apparently not. The baby kicks; the girl softens a few more raisins; the baby placidly picks the raisins out from the girl’s outstretched hand. Not cramming them all in or hoarding them, as Josh would have, in those soft chipmunk cheeks of his. Just calmly picking them out, one by one, as if demonstrating the use of an opposable thumb; and what fine focus we Homo sapiens have! Courtesy of the foveal cells of our maculas.

Hattie watches, amazed.


A-muhmuhmuh,
” says the baby. The baby’s drool is brown with raisin juice.

The woman is shy and still;
her spirit abides within
, Hattie’s mother would say. A tiny woman—even Hattie dwarfs her. They exchange smiles as, between raisins, the baby goes back to drinking something that looks a lot like cola: some dark brown liquid, anyway, with lines of bubbles running up the length of the bottle. The girl is plain beautiful. She has her mother’s smooth skin and hoop cheekbones, and her mother’s high, wide forehead, too—a windshield of a forehead—but with lovely lifting brows of her own, and a decided lilt to her full mouth. She looks as though she were not born, originally, but somehow blown, still soft, down into the world through a tube. And then what life was blown into her! Her brows lift and fall, her nose wrinkles and smooths, her lips purse and pop wide. And behind those gestures something more flickers—wariness, interest, boredom, confusion—a liveliness of response Hattie remembers from her teaching days. How she’s missed this, she realizes—how she’s missed young people in general.
So many little gunning planes
, as Joe used to say,
on such highly interesting runways
.

“You’re welcome!” the girl says now, even as she shrugs her shoulders and ducks her head—embarrassed to have been effusive. Hattie introduces herself. And, suddenly forthright, the girl introduces herself in return: So-PEE her name is. People call her Sophie all the time, because her name is spelled S-o-p-h-y, but actually her name is So-PEE, meaning “hard worker”—not exactly what she would have picked herself, but anyway. The woman is Mum.

“Which really is her whole name.” The baby takes another raisin from Sophy’s hand. “She’s from the country, where they have names like that. Not like a real name. It just means like grown-up or something. Mature. Like, nothing.”

Chhung retires to the trailer, swinging his arms; he has the air of an overseer headed to his desk. Sophy accepts some more raisins.

“I think I get what you’re saying,” Hattie says. “It’s like ‘Ma’am.’ ”

Sophy considers. “Yeah, like ‘Ma’am.’ It’s a little like ‘Ma’am.’ Not exactly, but sort of. It’s hard to explain.”

“I think I get it,” Hattie says again. She turns to Mum. “And where in Cambodia are you from?”

Mum tightens her arms around the baby and shakes her head.

“She doesn’t speak English,” Sophy explains. “And she doesn’t read or write Khmer, either.”

Kh-mai
, she says, Hattie notices. Not
Kh-mer
, but
Kh-mai
.

“She’s, what’s that word?”

“Illiterate?”

“Illiterate. Yeah, that’s it. She’s
illiterate
. But she works hard, she knows you’ve got to work hard in America because, like, nothing grows on trees.”

Mum says something then, holding the baby with one hand, and smoothing her shirt with the other. The shirt’s close-fitting in a way you don’t see much around here—a matter of tucks and darts. It doesn’t move, the way Sophy’s T-shirt does; it’s formal. Both shirts, though, show their wearer’s long waist and modest bust to advantage. Sophy tugs on hers with one hand behind each hip, as if adjusting a bustle.

“She says do you know anyone looking for a house cleaner, because, like, she can clean. And she does factory work, too. Like, if anyone around here is making electronics or medical equipment. Anything like that.” Though Sophy shoos at the air with her raisinless hand, Mum, mysteriously, does not have to swat; the flies, for some reason, leave her alone. “She can do anything, she’s really good, you should see.”

“No medical equipment,” answers Hattie. “But a lot of people do bake things.”

Sophy translates. Looking in the air, thinking, speaking, looking in the air again. She gestures, swatting some more. Mum nods.

Hattie nods back.

And everyone smiles in the gray air—happy. In some basic, reasonless way, happy. A speckled pool of light—who knows where it’s from, it must have bounced off something, somewhere—flickers at their feet, dancing and live.

The baby’s name, it seems, is Gift.

“Because my mom thought he was, like, a gift,” says Sophy.

He? The baby is wearing another frilly shirt today, with green-and-pink pants. Dangling its—or rather, his—legs on either side of Mum’s hip, he is having a two-handed swig from the bottle, which really does look full of soda.


Mehmehmehmme,
” he says.

“Gift. What a lovely name,” says Hattie. “Is he a boy?”

“Yes,” says Sophy. “He’s my brother.”

“I see.” Hattie does not ask why he’s wearing girls’ clothes.

Still, Sophy volunteers, “We dress him like that because somebody gave us that clothes.” She shrugs. “And we don’t care.”

“Ah,” says Hattie. “And here I don’t care, either.”

Sophy tilts her head, thinking about that. Mum murmurs.

“She says Cambodians can make—what?” says Sophy.

“Do-na,” says Mum herself then, suddenly. Softly, but bravely. And again—a bit more slowly: “Do. Na.” She holds her mouth open after the second syllable, like a singer drawing out her vowels. Lovely as she is, her bottom teeth do zigzag.

“Oh, right, doughnuts.” Sophy’s teeth are better than her mother’s.

“Ah.” Hattie smiles at Mum. “Very good.”

“She’s never made them herself, but Cambodians make, like, all the doughnuts in California. So it’s definitely something Cambodians can do,” says Sophy.

“Is that so,” says Hattie.

Mum adds something quietly, from behind Gift, in Khmer, then lifts her chin in Hattie’s direction.

“They also can make—what?” says Sophy.

“Ba-geh,” says Mum.

“This French thing,” says Sophy.

“Baguettes?” says Hattie.

An inspired guess. Mum nods and smiles, but with her lips pressed together, so that her smile is more a matter of her eyes than her mouth—a radiance.

“Yeah. If anyone around here likes that,” says Sophy.

“I’ll ask around.”

Beside them, the pit yawns, dark and rough, all roots and rock.

“She’s a great worker,” Sophy says again. “Like she’s fast, but she pays attention, too, you know? She doesn’t make mistakes.”

“She’s accurate?” says Hattie.

“Yeah, accurate.” Sophy nods, tilting her head. “She’s, like,
accurate
. Where she used to work they always gave the most complicated stuff to her. They weren’t ever things she’d want herself, if anyone gave her one of whatever it was she’d just give it to the monks at the temple. But she made them because she was supposed to—like it was her fate. She’s Buddhist.”

Hattie looks at Mum—keeping her in the conversation. Not that
paranoia is the human condition
, as Lee used to maintain. But Mum might just understand more English than she speaks.

“Is she observant?”

“What does that mean?”

“ ‘Observant’? It means, does she observe Buddhist rituals? Go to temple? Is she practicing?”

“Oh, I get it.” Sophy nods. “Yeah, back in our old town, she went every week. Because she had to, like, bring the monks food so they could eat, to begin with. Like they’d leave this bowl out on the steps for people to put rice in, and my mom would always do that. Bring them stuff.” Her eyes go to Gift, who’s lost interest in the raisins; she pops what’s left of them into her mouth, licks her open palm, and wipes it on her jeans. “And there were, like, all these festivals. Like to remember the dead, even if no one can really do it right because they don’t have people’s ashes.” She licks her palm a second time—still sticky, apparently—and wipes it again. “But anyway, there’s no temple around here. I mean, that’s not full of hippies. And there aren’t any meditation groups, either. So I guess she’s not so
observant
anymore.”

“Very good.”

“Even if all she thinks about is
kam
, day and night, still. Is that what you mean?”


Kam?

“It means ‘karma.’ ”

“Ah.
Kam,
” Hattie repeats—the student, instead of the teacher.

“She won’t kill anything, even a fly,” Sophy goes on. “Because she’s trying to get out of this life.” “She believes life is suffering?”

“Yeah. But, like, it’s all fake, too, it’s hard to explain.”

Gift throws his empty bottle to the ground and, when Sophy retrieves it, throws it to the ground again. This time Hattie returns it.

“I see you,” she tells him, smiling. “I see you.”

He coos adorably, then pitches the thing so hard he all but nails a chipmunk.

“What do you mean, it’s all fake?” This time when Hattie rescues the projectile, she hides it behind her back. Gift squirms and cranes.

“Like we’re all just fooled,” says Sophy. “Like we think the world is real when it isn’t.”

“Like it’s the veil of Maya?”

Sophy cocks her head. “How did you know that?”

Hattie shrugs—producing the bottle, to Gift’s delight, before hiding it behind her back again. “I grew up in China, where a lot of people were Buddhist. Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Christian. And all of them at the same time, sometimes.”

Sophy laughs.

Gift kicks with his chubby hand outstretched—clearer than his mother, maybe, about object permanence.

“Are you Buddhist, too?” Hattie goes on.

Sophy starts to answer but doesn’t; Hattie looks up to see the ruffled curtain drawn aside.

Chhung, watching from the trailer.

The curtain shuts again.

Hattie returns the bottle to Gift once more but, rather than let him restart his game, Mum says something to Sophy, smiles at Hattie, and heads inside; never mind that Gift is reaching and kicking in protest, his pant legs dancing like puppets. Hattie is still waving when Sophy’s blond brother saunters up.

“This is Sarun,” says Sophy, rolling the
r
.

“How do you do, Sarun.” Hattie rolls the
r
, too. “My name is Hattie. It’s nice to meet you.”

“ ’S dope,” he says.

“Cut it,
Bong!
” says Sophy immediately. Her eyebrows lift, her nostrils flare. “No talking ghetto!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” says Sarun then, with mock manners. He has a deep, round scar on his cheek, as if someone poked him with an ice pick; his earrings are little pirate hoops.

“What does
Bong
mean?” asks Hattie.

“Just, like, I don’t know. Older brother or sister,” says Sophy. “Or cousin. Anything like that.”

BOOK: World and Town
3.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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