Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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“Today we must really get down to work,” I told myself as I led my two Vietnamese students down the high school corridor to class. “Present perfect, past perfect — we haven’t even touched them yet. Some teacher.” Disgusted, I turned the key in the lock and tugged on the door, which Tan leaned on to hold open for me. Her slender body swayed for a moment, balancing the weight along her back against the load of books in her arms. I shifted my briefcase to the other hand, swinging it out by the leather strap which now fits my grasp like a well-used catcher’s mitt. Reaching into the airless dark, I flipped on both light switches, and there before us, bathed in neon, lay our naked store room.
“Let’s look at your homework first,” I directed, striding to the nearest tabletop smeared with students’ names, vocabulary words and the passing remark to a neighbor, “This class stinks!”
“We don’ have any,” piped Gai in her plaintive, high voice as she trailed me to the table. Tan walked away from the door, and it swung closed behind her. She and Gai slipped into the chairs opposite me, facing the green board, while I unpacked. Pronunciation drillbook, workbook — hadn’t I assigned anything in these? No, that’s right. Yesterday, on the pretext of practicing the past tense, we talked about the weekend. Their tutor, of whom I am slightly jealous, had taken them to a ballet. She is always taking them somewhere, as I should be doing. But she is leaving soon, going to be married. They will miss her. The excursions help fill out their weekend plans, always so meager: Gai’s bus trips to the public library, Tan’s piano playing at the university practice rooms.
“Okay,” I said, checking the first item on my lesson plan, still determined to stick to the subject. “Then listen carefully and try to answer the questions I give you.” I perched on the edge of a chair on my side of the table, located page 291 in the teacher’s manual of grammar drills, and began to review irregular verbs in the concise, impersonal inquiries of the printed text.
“Whom did you meet this morning, Tan?”
“I meet Gai this morning.”
“Met,” I corrected, making her repeat. “Where did you go at 8:00 a.m.?”
“I went to the bus stop at 8:00 a.m.”
“When did you send a letter home?”
“I sen’ a letter last monf.”
“Oh,” Gai broke in excitedly. “I got a letter this week! From my country!”
“That’s wonderful,” I told her. “After all this time. What did it say?”
“My frien’, she said she’s very busy. She has to work all the time now,” Gai chirped, as though her news were cheerful.
“Did she tell you more about her life there?” I leaned eagerly across the thick blue manual before me, my elbow blotting out the rest of the exercise.
“No, she don’t,” Tan put in flatly, her deeper voice chopping off each word like Tarzan. “If she do, letter not sent.”
It is just like them to stop in mid-air like this, leaving me dangling. I searched Gai’s circular face for more information, but it was cast down, suddenly dejected. She sat like a child on the first day of school — carefully scrubbed, hair smoothed back and held by a barrette, round forearms placed carefully on each side of white paper. Only the doodles she was drawing betrayed her adult nervousness. What was she remembering about her friend? A goodbye she could never bring herself to say? Jumping rope on the school playground? (Do children jump rope in Vietnam?) She gave me no clues. So I conjured up my own picture of a small, darkly-clad girl scurrying to work along broad, gray avenues swarming with other dark figures — a scene from the first Western TV coverage to come out of China. I guess it was this anthill image that got me off again. Anyway, I remembered a question I’d been wanting to ask for a long time. It won’t take a minute, I thought.
“Why didn’t you leave in 1975 instead of three years later, if you hated the Viet Cong?” It sounded like a confrontation, but they’re used to these pointed questions which carry the tone of the manual, formulated in the tense of that class period to seem appropriate, and they answer right on cue.
“It was very difficult,” sang Gai, dropping her pencil, reanimated by her need to set me straight. “We must find a boat,” she said, tilting up her face, her open, plump palm, and the pitch of her voice like an offering. “And the man wif the boat — he had many fings to do. He planned how many people go, about food, many, many fings.”
“Out there in water,” Tan added in her gruff monotone, “there boats. They wait. They watch.”
“Yes, of course. And you probably had to go at night so you could get through.”
“No,” said Gai, upsetting my theory. “So the others not see us.”
I was intrigued, so I forgot to correct her. “You mean, the Viet Cong in the boats?”
“Oh, no,” said Tan, actually stressing a word in her surprise at my ignorance. “They already know. They let us go.” She got her long, princess-black hair out of her eyes with an impatient raking of her fingers from forehead to crown and turned to Gai to supply the explanation.
“Our good friends knew, of course. But the police must pretend they didn’t. So they made us go to boat late at night, all togever, so no one could see. We had to leave everyfing.”
“You mean, they let you get away in return for your property.” I phrased this as a statement, hoping I wouldn’t sound as innocent as I felt. “But you had to sneak to save their reputation.”
“They wait,” Tan repeated. “Viet Cong police, they watch through windows.” She cupped her hands around both eyes, and I got a dreamlike flash of Tan’s house at the center of a sports arena surrounded by many spectators with binoculars, like fans high in the bleachers at an Indochinese football game. It took me a minute to realize that they were eyeing the booty inside.
“She had a very good house,” explained Gai. “It was different — a French house. So they wanted it.”
To accept their news silently occurs to me too late. “That must have been very difficult for you,” I said. Tan smiled her closed-lip smile and shrugged. “Of course, you knew you were going to leave it anyway, but to see the authorities ready to pounce on it. . . .” I gestured with clawing paws to get my words across, not thinking what an effect this would have. Gai’s head bowed again, and she went back to drawing steadily. I’m a big help, I thought, remembering the day we discussed the American students’ unkindness. Tan had been just this animated, throwing out one image after another, seemingly unhurt, even smirking over her stock of examples. But Gai sat still, as now, drooping so low over her paper that I could only see parts of her face from where I was observing — the rims of her dark eyebrows and the broad, childlike cheeks where her tears began silently to roll. It was time to end this painful subject, so I searched for something soothing. “It’s a good thing they didn’t have the power to take it earlier, I guess.”
“They did,” wailed Gai, once again involved through my ignorance. “I don’t know why they didn’t do it. We very lucky.”
“You mean, it happened to your friends,” I pursued, keeping an eye on her cheeks.
“Yes, many, many!”
“But what happened to them? Where did they live then?”
“Sometimes they went to pisho. . . .” She looked at me questioningly.
“Rizo,” tried Tan as I scanned my mind for words, sounds, associations.
“Prison!” I found it, triumphant.
“Yes. The father went to pishon. Then mother and children, they went somewhere — to country maybe to live with relatives.”
“But you had enough money and property to give the police so they’d let you leave?”
“We had no money. After 1975 all money in banks went to Viet Cong.”
“You know,” explained Tan, stretching her fingers toward me with wide, excited eyes, “I tol’ you we get money — all children — on the New Year?”
“Yes.” I remembered her showing me a gilded red envelope in January, a gift of an uncle, which probably held a much smaller sum than it used to.
“All that money we put in bank. Every year. But after 1975 we can’t get it out.” She smiled and shrugged again.
“So you just had your houses to pay for your escape. But what about food? You had to eat all those years in between,” I said, as though informing them of this fact. I asked Tan, remembering that her father had been ill for a long time before he died — probably of cancer, though she doesn’t know the word. He couldn’t have worked, and her mother probably couldn’t either, with ten children to care for.
“Oh, we sell this fing, that fing. We eat — ate.”
The booty, I thought, trying to imagine what things would be valuable to a wealthy Vietnamese family of Chinese descent. But it was impossible. Instead I saw a southern American plantation house in the French style. Scarlet O’Hara draped in green velvet for one last stand.
“Do you think you couldn’t have escaped without the property to give?” It took me a while to get this question across. English verbs are so complicated. “If the Viet Cong had taken your house earlier,” I tried, but found no better way. I still wasn’t sure they’d understood when Gai answered.
The only thing left for me was a repetition. “You were lucky.” I looked down at the unused exercises, almost wishing there were some way to start them up again, to avoid the bleakness of their lives.
“But some people here — they like Viet Cong,” blurted Gai. Though her voice broke upward, I could feel her eyeing me narrowly, waiting to see what the teacher would say.
“Yes,” I said, feeling the burden of the many, contradictory American points of view. “At the end of the war, everyone was so tired of it —” I stopped, brought up against the contrast between our tiredness and theirs. “Many of us wanted the war, the killing, to stop — for your people, too.” I crossed my ankles under the table, balancing the weight of both feet on the tip of one precarious toe. “Well, we started thinking, ‘maybe the Viet Cong aren’t so bad. After all, they’re at least Vietnamese, and we’re not. It’s ridiculous to think they’ll kill all their own people if we just leave.’ And I guess they didn’t,” I added, feeling partially vindicated.
“No,” Gai pronounced slowly, continuing to observe me. She knows what she knows, regardless of my theories.
In the silence that followed, I closed the grammar book and thumbed the grimy corner of its cover. I was surprised when Tan started up again.
“They not kill us. But all parents afraid for their children. They 18, they have to go to mountain. Plant trees.”
Once again I was puzzled, imagining a fairy tale ogre with a child work force, an oriental version of Grimm.
“No trees, no water on mountain. Many die.”
“Ah, yes,” I agreed. “Not enough food, hard work. It must have been awful.”
“Oh, that not so bad,” Tan scoffed. “I there once. For two day. My class, wif my teacher. We stay at farm. These people — they have three children. They lose them all.”
“In the war, I suppose,” I supplied.
“No, no,” Tan rushed on impatiently. “After war. Digging on farm. My father afraid for I dig. Many fathers write letter to teacher, say, ‘My daughter sick, can’t go.’ But they have to go next time,” she added evenly, menacingly. “One girl, she very rich. Her father write her letter. But she say, ‘I will go. Just one week.’ She not come back.” She trailed off, her eyes on me, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I afraid to dig, too. But I dig — find nofing.”
Find? I thought they were there to plant. Did the ogre make them dig for buried treasure?
“Others — they find.” She continued intently. “But no one in our class.”
“The pop.” My blank look told her to explain. “You know. Pop!” She rounded her hands around an imaginary form as I groped among the possibilities. Ball? “Balloon,” I asked lightly. “It pops.”
“No,” she said, slightly exasperated. “Like this.” As she picked up a pencil and began to sketch an apple with a stem I noticed that Gai had sunk further and further into silence. She wasn’t even doodling now, and she was so still, she must have known what Tan was getting at. Why doesn’t she help, as usual, I wondered. Then Tan drew in the crosshatching and I saw that she meant a bomb.
“Oh.” I couldn’t bring myself to say it — not yet. But she knew I’d understood and continued cheerfully. “Sometime we dig, we find a body — a hand, a foot. One student find pop — then he buried there, too.”
My fairy tale ogre on a mountain of buried treasure vanished. Tan had finally brought me to a full stop.