In college, I went on a date with the son of my mother’s coworker. I couldn’t remember if his name was Jason or Justin, so I spent the entire night maneuvering my way out of saying his name. He... [+]
The bus slowed down as it approached the small Oklahoman town, passing the highway sign indicating-Confederate Museum Left Exit and continued passed a railcar frozen in time. A marker made of local red rock bid Welcome to Beantown. The bus passed a speckle of buildings: a junk store, its contents spilling onto the overgrown yard, a bbq shack's stack puffing clouds of sweet smoke. The gravel crunched beneath the tires as the Greyhound came to a stop at a dilapidated store. Unleaded .36 gallon hung from a tilted board and above that in a shaky scrawl JESUS WAS A WHITE MAN. Under a canopy of tin, the pumps stood like obsolete robots. A man got up from the bench and headed towards the bus.
The passengers began to stir. Ly Nguyen got up from her seat and smoothed her rumpled t-shirt and tugged at her jeans. She glanced at her mom Diu, in her Áo bà ba—silk pants, long sleeved shirt with two pockets, slits at the sides of her waist— looking fresh in her native Vietnamese garb. After hours on the bus, Ly wanted to stretch, maybe grab some coffee. Diu grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. Ly started to protest but stopped as the man from outside boarded the bus. His white t-shirt, red suspenders and rolled up jeans revealed spit-shined combat boots, burnished like his freshly shaven head with a swastika tattooed above his ear. His pea green flight jacket draped over his arm, unnecessary, as the humidity was already rising with the sun. Ly recognized him as a skinhead, she’d seen a group of them before, encircled around a man, kicking and taunting him.
He swaggered down the aisle daring the passengers to look into his cold eyes. A scatter of diversity spread about looking like an accurate statistical dot plot sample of the U.S.' population. He nodded at the whites and snarled at the rest. The passengers feigned sleep hoping he would move on. He came to Ly and Diu’s aisle and made a snorting sound, his upper lipped curled in disapproval.
"What are you looking at," he glared.
"Nothing," they murmured, quickly looking out the window.
"That’s what I thought."
He crammed his bag in the compartment above, carelessly pushing others aside. He slid into the seats across the aisle from them, removed his boots and leaned his back against the window, feet dangling across the aisle, just inches from Ly and promptly fell asleep.
The bus continued, groaning to get back up to speed. Soon any sign of the stark town was replaced with rows of freshly tilled terracotta soil. A grain silo, red barn, and cows dotted the rolling hills in the distance.
The man’s feet smelled vile, permeating the space. Diu covered her nose and mouth making little retching noises. Ly pulled out the Lysol they bought at the last stop to mask the bathroom's odor that wafted into the cabin. Diu’s eyes widened as she shook her head no. Ly aimed the can at his blackened, stiff socks and sprayed, immediately filling the air with Spring Waterfall. The surrounding passengers smiled appreciatively at Ly. The man woke with a start.
"What is that smell?" He looked at Ly suspiciously. She looked straight, tucking the can by her side, wiping the grin off her face.
"I said, what is that smell?" His eyes boring into Ly’s profile.
Ly turned to him, "Oh, that's just the bathroom’s air freshener, it’s on a timer."
"Well, it smells gross."
"You should have smelled it before," said Ly.
Grumbling, he rolled over and fell back to sleep.
After making sure the man was fast asleep, Diu hissed at Ly in Vietnamese."What are you doing Ly? Leave him alone!"
"Don’t worry mama. He has no idea it was me."
"I never should have named you Ly."
"Oh mama come on, not this again."
"What was I thinking? Ly the Lion, of course, you are courageous. But messing with that man is not brave, it’s foolish".
"Well, if you say I'm a lion then that man must be a monkey."
"Tsk-tsk Ly, if you paid more attention to our culture, you’d know a monkey is happy at heart, that man is not happy."
"Give it a rest mama; we aren’t in Vietnam! I wasn’t even born there," said Ly plugging in her earphones.
Diu was one of the “boat-people” that fled war-torn Vietnam in 1975. She found herself at Fort Chaffee; a WWII army base turned refugee camp. Finding the Ozark Mountains beautiful, reminding her of Mount Nui Ba Den, she had stayed and opened a restaurant.
Ly stared out the window. The swooping phone lines and rigid poles created a mesmerizing pattern. Drifting off, she daydreamed about Dallas, The Big D. She called it the Great Emerald City like in The Wizard of Oz and was optimistic her wishes would be granted. Getting accepted into college was a dream come true. No more slinging noodles in her mama’s restaurant. She wouldn't be heartbroken getting away from the rednecks either. Other than being called chink or told to go back home daily, life was mundane. Although Arkansas was her place of birth, she never felt like she belonged.
"Nhi,.Nhi, wake up, eat," Diu said, shaking Ly
"Okay, okay! Quit calling me little one. I’m not little anymore."
"You’ll always be my baby," Diu said, as she opened the thermoses.
The seafood soup’s aroma made Ly’s stomach gurgle in anticipation. Once again the man woke up, wrinkling his nose.
"What the hell is that? What are you eating?"
Reluctantly, Dui answered, Seafood Phở...ah, soup."
"You’re in America now, why can’t you eat tacos like the rest of us."
Masking their amusement, they ignored the man and began eating.
"Ly, you know you don’t have to go to school in Dallas. You could go to community college and keep working with me."
"We’ve been over this before. I want to go to medical school mama...I need to go to Dallas to be a doctor. I want to help people. Besides, I’ve been working in that hole since I can remember."
"That hole paid for your clothes," she said, angrily twisting Ly's shirt, "paid for your fancy school!"
"I know mama. I didn't mean it was a hole."
"How grateful you should be. Instead, you run away. If only you knew how hard it would have been for you in Vietnam."
"But I wasn’t in Vietnam. I was in Arkansas. The only slanty-eyed girl smelling like fish, mama!"
Diu, hurt, put the food back into a straw bag in silence.
The man started to speak when Ly shot him a stare. He looked away.
The bus approached Dallas at dusk. Last hints of sunlight reflected on the geometric skyline. A skyscraper with gleaming silver mirrored windows and neon green outline towered over a glistening orb. A high rise with enormous X's watched over the twinkling jewels of the city. The bus approached downtown where abstract modern structures and boarded up storefronts spattered with spray painted tags and interrupted murals, mingled. Pulling into the station, the passengers gathered their belongings, spilling out the door as soon as it came to a stop. Ly and Diu waited for the skinhead to exit before getting up. He Turned to them and raised an angry fist, growling, "White Power!"
Ly and Diu waited for the driver to open the luggage bin when a piercing string of pops like firecrackers came from the street. Someone screamed, and the crowd scattered as a car screeched away. The skinhead lay crumpled on the pavement. Ly ran to the man as Diu shouted at her to stop, but Ly kept going. A pool of blood was forming beneath him, and as Ly felt for a pulse, she rifled through his bag for a t-shirt and pressed it on the wound to slow the bleeding. The man's eyes fluttered open. He stared intently at Ly, and whispered, "Why are you helping me?"
As sirens approached from the distance, she said, "Because you need help."
The skinhead never took his eyes off Ly as he was loaded into the ambulance, and said,"Thank you China girl."
Ly rolled her eyes, shaking her head and said, "I'm from Vietnam."
Dui approached Ly and hugged her tightly. "You'll be a good doctor."
"Thank you, mama."
"You call me every day from school."