Vietnam: Four Ways
By Anne Panning
At the fabric market, a two-tone silk in mauve and gray shimmers, then billows when I free it from the bolt. Delicate cranes fly along its fold. An old woman studies me studying the silk; I can’t let go. “This is so soft,” I say, “so—” But it’s in English. The old woman squints and says something over and over that I finally realize is “pajamas.” Of course, I think. The last person to make me homemade pajamas was my mother in Minnesota. She held the tan tissue paper patterns against my stomach, my breasts, my arms and legs, her fingertips warm through thin paper. This old woman, too, touches me freely: spins and tucks and measures and pinches. I buy three meters, feel the heavy weight of it in the plastic bag as I walk away.
2. Ice Bird
My son and I walk down the street for ice cream after dinner. Instead, a shaved ice vendor beckons to us. He says he will make my son a bird. And does so, shaving ice into his palms. He cups it hard into a ball as motorcycles blast past and the night’s humidity thickens like paste. He makes the bird—wings, beak and all—then drizzles it yellow, red, green, purple. Hands it to my son on a stick: free. My son is frantic to get it home to show his sister and father: so proud. He hands the bird to me: help! We race against the heat and crowded street, everyone rooting for us, rainbow colors drizzling and melting down my arm. We manage to get there—down the tiny little lane, through the heavy metal gate, into the hot dirty kitchen—with only one wing melting off.
Baby lives down the lane with Grandma, a houseful of student boarders. Baby is poor. Her haircut is a boy’s, sharp and square. Baby peeks through our gate, watches our children read books in the courtyard, watches us drink wine. Grandma feeds Baby rice porridge while peering through our gate: mushy white spoonfuls dotted with scallion. When my daughter outgrows her little track shoes, we plastic bag them and bring them to Baby. When a fish I buy at the market proves too daunting to cook—bones, eyes, scales, blood—we plastic bag it and bring it to Baby. But this is too much. Grandma looks inside the bag, the fish chopped to pieces, then reassembled like a child’s puzzle. She thinks we want her to throw it away. She smiles, so many teeth missing its dark inside her smile. She walks Baby down the lane to the spot where we all toss our waste: there goes the fish. That’s not what I meant, I try to say, but there is no way to mime missed intentions.
4. Swimming with Communists
I stand, black suit absorbing the sun, over lane one: plunge. Without eyeglasses, I can barely see, but the pool’s full of shapes. Breaststroke over and over at the military base. At the end of each lane, swim-suited soldiers watch my every move, say nothing. One of them waves the Vietnamese flag, red and yellow against clear blue sky. They are being groomed for stoicism, reserve and strength. They are so small. They don’t swim well. It is Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. I’m trying for ten laps, but the soldiers keep getting in my way. I am in their way. None of them catcall. At lap six, suddenly, they all exit. March up the bleachers, crumbling with decay, don olive green military uniforms, march down. I backstroke in their wake. One of them shouts what sounds like, “What’s your game?” But maybe he says, “name.” They leave me with a big empty pool until a guard points at me, shakes his head. “You go.”
Anne Panning's short story collection Super America won The 2006 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and was published in October 2007. She is currently at work on a memoir about her time spent living in Vietnam. Anne lives in upstate New York and teaches at SUNY-Brockport.
photo by Dinty W. Moore