Shirley's dark eyes shone with mischief. She'd deliberately dressed to rub faces in her Viet heritage. Skeet didn't approve, but he understood. In spite of his dark skin and hair, Skeet looked out on the world through an unknown forebear's ghost-green eyes. Plainly, he was a mongrel, too.
He touched Shirley's nose, unplugged his car phone and locked it in the glove compartment. Then he opened the door and got out, patting his belt to make sure he hadn't brought his beeper. Since he didn't use a cell phone, there'd be no interruption to their lunch. He walked around the car, checking his jacket pocket for his mother's garnet ring. Passed down to her from two generations, she'd left it to Skeet when she died. It was there. Now all he had to do was hope his hunch was right, that he'd picked a sufficiently dramatic time and place to propose. Shirley would forgive him any misstep except a lack of flair.
As she took his arm and stepped from the car, he heard a loud buzzing overhead. They looked up, together, and saw a bright red biplane. Like a giant ferris wheel with a single carriage, it made slow, scarlet loops in the sky. Skeet realized it must be part of the Founder's Day Air Show he never attended. He'd experienced enough stunt flying as a teenage GI, dropped in and lifted out of Vietnam jungles.
Shirley said nothing as they stepped up on the curb. All their trips to Mai's were full of melodramatic silences. She let go of his arm and dropped back, following him past the red neon "Open" sign, lit even in daylight, under the scalloped awning, past the glass windows with their flower-patterned wooden lattices, painted peach, as if to welcome a Mekong breeze.
Skeet opened Mai's shuttered door for her. Inside they stood before two huge, ceramic pots planted with bamboo. Customers called it the bamboo gate. They called Mai's proprietor Aunt Nga.
A few steps more and they'd be inside the large room, hearing the sounds and seeing the sights of Vietnam.
Skeet looked back, ready to proceed with Shirley behind him like the traditional Vietnamese woman she was pretending to be. He saw her hesitate, look uncertain, then nod that she was ready. He went to Shirley and put his arm around her. Together they walked through the bamboo gate.
Inside the air smelled of incense burning. They heard the Sun Lute and the Moon Lute play. Above the click of chopsticks and murmured lunchtime conversation, a colorful bird called from its bamboo cage. Everywhere, salmon-colored tablecloths lay on finely-crafted oriental tables and on their tops flowers floated in ceramic bowls.
As they walked on clay tiles across the room, each table they approached fell silent. They neared a high ebony bureau, graced by a stone Buddha. Intricately carved, inlaid with mother-of-pearl reeds and cranes, the bureau held buffets when they were served.
Mr. Ngo Khai Minh, his wife and son, always sat by the bureau. They were Skeet's friends. Unlike Shirley, he was welcome here because he was a friend of Aunt Nga's. But, today, Mrs. Can Khai Minh's gaze flew down when she saw them. Mr. Minh senior briefly froze, a succulent bit of curried squid dangling in midair from his chopsticks. Mr. Minh junior, in the moment he gazed at Shirley, looked as if an angel had kissed his eyes. Then he awkwardly rose, his cheeks visibly red. As if shielding his mother, he transferred to the aisle seat next to her.
Skeet pretended he didn't see. He nodded vaguely in their direction and continued, feeling Shirley's elbow tremble beneath his hand. He knew her emotions had deep roots -- in anger at the Vietnamese parents who forbade their teenaged sons to speak to her in high school, in jealousy of the pure-blooded girls who were approved; in her mother's family's rejection. All because Shirley was bui doi -- the dust of life, only half of her Vietnamese. And later because she was a beautiful woman. By inciting desire, love and romance such women had the power to thwart traditionally arranged marriages. Vietnam's Confucian patriarchy was built on arranged marriage. Beautiful women, if inclined, could destroy their culture -- or so Aunt Nga's customers believed.
Copyright © J. R. Lankford February 2, 2001, Xlibris Corporation used by permission. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this excerpt, please visit www.NovelDoc.com/Lankford.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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