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Manoa 15.1 (2003) 113-118
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Phan Thi Vang Anh
When Miss Thuong first arrived, Mr. Hao was outside gardening. Out of breath, she dropped her suitcase in the yard, unbuttoned her collar, and blew inside her blouse to cool herself off.
Hao was so flustered that he threw down his spade near the bed of roses, wiped his hands on his trousers, and muttered, "Oh dear me—very good, very good. Come in, come in!"
Even though the difference in their ages was great, they were good friends. He hadn't seen her for about three years, and except for being a little heavier, she hadn't changed a bit. The corners of her eyes were sharp as knives, her mouth wide, and her lips a deep red. She had long legs and strode on them as gracefully as a leopard.
Hao asked her why she had come to his remote town. She smiled.
"Oh, I felt sad and decided I needed to take a trip. As for why this town, well, it was actually at the suggestion of a friend. She said that if I was feeling sad, I should go far away. And this place has both mountains and sea. And when I was on the bus, I suddenly remembered an old acquaintance I had here. Luckily, I'd written down the address in my book."
Hao had been busy brewing nhan tran tea, but on hearing those words, the heightened sense of anticipation he'd felt since she arrived died. He knew his disappointment was his own fault, though. He kept up an animated façade, and they both chattered enthusiastically. Thuong had her own style of telling stories. Each new piece of information was followed by a few sharp commentaries, all sarcastic. But her remarks were not meant to be malicious—unlike those of his wife, now dead, who used to make jibes during festive occasions and the Tet holiday that were always a source of discomfort for him.
Thuong liked to smile, and when she did, her eyes sparkled like water in a spring, often startling people. Suddenly, she stopped in the middle of a sentence, turned around, and asked with whom he was staying. He pretended to smile sadly.
It was true; he lived alone in this house, which his children had repaired for him the previous year. When he had requested that they paint all of his [End Page 113] blinds green, they had called him trendy. Now, for the first time in his life, he had a guest room, though he had yet to have a guest. He asked Thuong if she would mind staying in his house. She laughed and said her reputation wouldn't suffer; she had been running around for some time and was no longer a naive girl.
This statement stirred up some hope in Hao, and his enthusiasm quickly returned. He took a small desk fan from the cupboard—the same fan that would leap like a toad onto his bed in the morning, after it had been on all night. He gave Thuong a pink, Thai-made fan and saved the defective one for himself. Then he mopped the guest room and unrolled a floral mat on the bed.
Finished, he stood back to take in the whole picture, his eyes wide as a child's.
"Anything missing?" he asked Thuong.
She was all smiles.
"It's just fine, Uncle. First rate."
Thuong stayed away from the house all day. When she returned, she washed her clothes and sang melodious Russian songs. She looked absentminded, like a person being rocked gently back and forth in an ox-drawn cart. The pace of life in this place had awakened in her a strange feeling of purity. She would go into the garden, knife in hand, and return with a few nameless flowers and sheaves of withered grass, just enough to fill a vase and make Hao blush at this reminder of how countrified and monotonous his life was.
And she cooked. Mostly simple food, but when she...