I started using carry-out at the grocery store when I got pregnant. Even when I could still lift the bags, I decided not to. Having put off pregnancy until forty, I didn’t want to take any risks. After a month or two, Cao showed up. He looked Vietnamese, his black hair slicked back, new-employee shiny. At first I didn’t care who carried my groceries, but then I started lining up for the registers he worked. Cao made the extra effort. He frowned slightly as he dealt the items into sacks that were just heavy enough. He double-bagged without being told. And he smiled: a smile and a little nod to sort of bump it into place, then a shy look away, back to business.
“Did someone provide especially good service for you today?” ask red letters molded into a lucite card-holder at the checkout. “Let Foodway management know.” Several weeks ago I fished one of the cards from the box, feeling magnanimous. I imagined the president of Foodway ordering an immediate promotion and substantial raise for the friendly, hard-working subject of my comments. I would be doing my part to make the American Dream come true for an immigrant carry-out clerk, a Vietnamese no less, someone whose homeland we had bombed to near oblivion. We owed him. In truth, I had been intending to write a letter on his behalf for some time but hadn’t gotten around to it. The card made it easier. I slipped it into my purse and sent it off the next day.
Today the surly checker named Sonya wordlessly pulls my cart to the register with a tight-lipped, management-mandated smile. She is disagreeable in the way of a worn-out truck-stop waitress, though she’s only about twenty and has well-groomed, chin-length hair cellophaned to a shade of deep burgundy. My baby, Henry, twists in the child’s seat and looks to me for reassurance.
I usually avoid Sonya, but this afternoon the other lines are wagon trains overflowing with what looks like a year’s supply of third-world foreign aid. I don’t have time to wait. The baby needs his nap, and I still have to stop at the cleaner’s for Will’s suit.
“Cow,” Sonya snaps. I think for a moment she has sunk to calling me names, but then Cao appears at her side wearing the requisite navy polyester pants, striped shirt, and bow tie. He sports a new badge, his name imprinted in block letters. Something is inscribed below in letters from another alphabet, and then “Vietnam.” I wonder at the country designation. Did Cao request it, or is it some corporate marketing idea? I’ve certainly never seen “Mexico” or “Germany” or “Wisconsin” stamped on anyone else’s name tag.
No matter when I go to Foodway, Cao is there. Perhaps he works extra shifts in order to feed a large family and send money to his aging parents, though of course I do not ask. Such questions — anything beyond weather or where to stow the bags in my car — would seem an intrusion, at least for now. There’s time, I always think. One of these weeks I could inquire, maybe, Do you have children? Something innocuous.
Cao has the shine of hope in his eyes, the immigrant belief that hard work will buy the American Dream. He does work hard, which is part of why I like him — my traditional American values intact again, or nearly so, despite myself, despite the sixties.
Sonya is already pulling the next customer’s purchases across the laser beam. Cao lifts my last bag into the cart and asks in a barely audible voice, “Need help out?” I nod. Oddly, he doesn’t return my smile. Where is his usual friendliness? I retrieve the sunglasses from the cord around my neck and slide them onto my nose.
Cao wheels the cart toward the exit. Something is wrong. He isn’t meeting my eyes. He’s not cooing at Henry, not smiling. I pocket my checkbook and hurry to catch up. Should I say something, ask him what’s the matter? But I’ve never had a real conversation with Cao. I believe his English is deficient, I fear embarrassing him. Once or twice he nodded enthusiastically to something I said that didn’t call for a nod, leading me to suspect he knows only grocery-store English. How did you learn our language? I’ve wanted to ask. Do you take night classes at the adult school, or did you pick it up from GIs back home? Hey soldier, wanna buy a bee-ah?
My brother was a soldier. He was drafted, and he went.
I was there for Vietnam, too: not for the war, but for the anti-war. Watching the fighting on television, marching against it, making posters, sitting in, screwing shaggy-haired college radicals after interminable political rallies. It’s hard to imagine them all now, those militant pacifists, cleaned up and familied and working regular jobs. We thought we could change the world back then. What would they think of me now? Of Henry and our redwood house tucked away in the hills, of Will’s courtroom proficiency in defense of insurance companies? What would we have thought of ourselves if we’d known we would turn out like this?
I hold the cart in the parking lot to keep it from rolling away as Cao silently frees it of forty-five pounds of cat litter and nonfat milk. He loads the groceries into the trunk of my Volvo, which Will and I tell ourselves we bought only because it is reliable and safe for Henry.
I have often tried to think of a question to ask Cao that wouldn’t be too embarrassing for either of us. It’s so personal, that war, even at a distance of twenty years. Everyone lost someone. Who in your family was killed? I want to ask. But these are not questions for the Foodway parking lot.
Which side was he on, I always wonder, assuming Cao is old enough to have been there. It must have been the South, our side; that is, the US. government’s side, which was not my side. It gets difficult here. Back in the sixties, my side was the North, the followers of Ho Chi Minh. The South were victims, dupes, weaklings, cowards, or ruthless exploiters of their own people. I’m always uncomfortable in Vietnamese restaurants; I can’t help wondering if the owners are rich South Vietnamese who escaped with the help of the CIA — people who bribed their way out, squirreled their money away and used it to open exotic restaurants in trendy urban locations.
I have assumed Cao is from the South or he wouldn’t be here at all. The South Vietnamese are the ones who benefited, if you want to call it that, from our great efforts on their behalf. The Northerners are still back in Vietnam — aren’t they? — rebuilding under a system that no one in the world believes in anymore. But perhaps I am wrong. I realize now how little I know of these matters. Cao is obviously not rich. I itch with curiosity but have not found a way to ask the questions.
When my belly was bigger than the watermelons I bought, Cao always rushed to my side, anxiously grabbing the small bags I hefted. There was something comforting about his solicitousness while I was pregnant. Unlike other men, he wasn’t the least bit condescending. He wasn’t repulsed. He wasn’t impatient or flippant. Instead, be honored the life inside. He seemed to share its secret in a way that only other mothers did. I know what it is, strange women would tell me on the street, and it’s wonderful. Cao knew, too.
When the baby came, he was thrilled. Naturally, we hadn’t discussed the due date. One day I just showed up with Henry in a carrier. After Cao finished with the bags, he gently lifted a corner of the receiving blanket and gave the baby a silent blessing, a subtle bow of his head. He’s had soft goo-goo words for Henry ever since. Sometimes he tells me, “Baby getting big,” and I glow in agreement. But today, nothing. Baby not getting big, Cao not smiling, eyes not meeting. What’s wrong?
I watch Cao’s slender hips as he twists from cart to trunk. He’s ageless. He looks like a boy, a child, a nine-year-old. But he could also be fifty. At first I thought he must be a teen like most of the other carry-outs, a high-school boy earning date money. But then I decided his eyes were older; a family man perhaps, living on the edge of Oakland Chinatown. Do you have a lover, I want to ask, a wife?
Those hips. I try to imagine making love to them. What does the penis on the other side of that slight body look like? It must be small. Tiny, like him. Pencil-like, hairless. When he’s standing, the top of his head just reaches my breasts. A toy man. But his arms are strong, sinewy with muscles all the way down to the wrists. Did they once wield a gun? Or was he too young then? Children fought that war, I remember. I touch Henry and push away the thought. Cao hoists the bags of groceries easily, settling them into my trunk so they won’t topple over, shifting them around.
I suddenly realize what’s wrong. The card.
One day just after Henry learned to sit in the grocery cart’s baby seat, it started pouring rain while we shopped. From the register I looked out the automatic glass doors in surprise. After five years of California drought, no one ever thought to bring umbrellas. The carry-out clerks scrounged red nylon raincoats from somewhere and sped back and forth through the parking lot. Cao loaded up my cart and, at the door, grabbed the zippered edges of his jacket with a motion to take it off. “For you and baby,” he said.
“No, no, it’s all right,” I insisted. This wasn’t a warm tropical Vietnamese rain. This was cold and blustery, and Cao’s body didn’t have a cell of fat for insulation. He offered his jacket again. I couldn’t let him do it. Henry would be all right sheltered by my sweater. So we ran for the car, and Cao took as much trouble as usual getting the bags in just right.
I mentioned this incident when I filled out the card. “He even volunteered to lend me his jacket in a downpour,” I concluded, “though it would have meant his getting soaked and working wet and chilled the rest of the day. Cao is a credit to Foodway.”
I shouldn’t have been so specific. I shouldn’t have written facts he would recognize, events that would point to me. General anonymous praise would have been better. Last week I got a letter from Foodway thanking me very much for my comments and telling me they would show them to Cao. I hadn’t counted on that. I thought they’d just give him a raise, maybe mention “positive customer feedback.”
It has to be the card. Maybe he thought it was a complaint. No, the management wouldn’t have presented it that way. Still, maybe he misinterpreted, misread. Or maybe there’s some Asian concept I don’t understand, some complication I don’t see. I want to shout at him, You weren’t supposed to take it like that! It was just a card, just an effort to help, just something I wanted to do for you.
Is this all in my mind?
I imagine him crawling through underground tunnels with a knife in his teeth. Coming home to a burned-out village, his father mother wife massacred in the fields. I imagine him murdering my brother.
But no. Cao didn’t send my brother to Vietnam. Those who shipped my brother off to those jungles are the ones who killed him. If I still believe anything, it is that.
I stand by the cart, a hand on Henry, searching for something to say, hoping Cao will shimmy my bags around in the trunk the way he used to until they’re just right. But he doesn’t. I look for eye contact, a softening of Cao’s lips, a friendly pause before he slams the trunk closed. Nothing.
As I unbuckle Henry from the baby seat, though, Cao suddenly reaches out and chucks him under the chin. No smile, no goochy-goos, but it’s something. Then he wordlessly herds the cart back to the store as though it were a water buffalo.