A Good Country

A short story

I always said this was a beautiful country, a good country. I'd said it to my husband, Shwe Thant, many times during the four years since the Lutheran church workers had taken us from a noisy Burmese refugee camp in Thailand and settled us here in Pine Grove, Wisconsin. And it was what I was thinking as I squatted in my kitchen garden, picking the last of the herbs for the fish soup I was making for Shwe's evening meal.

Already October was ending. The soil was dark yet crumbly, like rough ground coffee, from a lack of rain, and the gourds and clumps of cilantro and sorrel I'd tended all summer were yellowing stiffly. The fields around me—belonging to Mr. Thomsen and to loud-voiced Mr. Cooper, next door—were filled with dried cornstalks and lines of purple cabbage. From the cold ground where I crouched, I could see Mr. Cooper's rusting ploughs and threshers rising against the parchment sky like the skeletons of ancient animals. The abandoned machines had become as familiar to me, had begun to seem as much a part of the landscape, as the tinkling pagoda spires in my Amarapura, my home town.

I was reaching for the cilantro when I heard the spruces rustle alongside Mr. Cooper's house and his voice calling out, "Suu! Hi! Well, well, and don't you look like Isadora Duncan in that gauzy thing."

I did not know this Isadora, but I'd lived in America long enough to know that its people freely said many nice things to each other in society even if they did not mean them, and so I smiled and said, "Thank you, Mr. Cooper, you are so kind." I unwound my chiffon scarf, removed my bamboo hat, turned it upside down, and filled its hollow with sprigs of cilantro from the pouch I'd made by holding up the bottom of my skirtlike longyi. "Do you think, Mr. Cooper, that rain might come soon? Or snow? Look at the honeysuckle on our porch. So dry. Its leaves are curled. And they've been falling all summer."

"Dang," Mr. Cooper said. He strode to the creeper and peered at its curled leaves. He was a tall man, nearly as tall as the top of our front door. "Looks like a fungus or something. Better get Swen to spray it. Send him over. I'll give him something."

"Swen" is what Mr. Cooper and the other farmers in Pine Grove called my husband. The name began as a joke one afternoon when we were eating fried perch at the Crossroads Bar and Grill, and Mr. Cooper and his friends were playing darts and drinking brandy. They teased that Shwe—they said it slowly, "Sh-way"—sounded too Burmese, too foreign, that after all these years my husband ought to have a name that fit with the Swensons, Hansens, Olafssons, and Jensens in Pine Grove. So they settled on Swen. I did not mind. The name, I told my husband, was a sign of acceptance, of friendship.

Mr. Cooper lingered at my front door, squinting and smiling and tapping his square-nailed fingers against a pad of paper clamped to a metal clipboard he clutched against his broad chest. He had cleaned the blackness from beneath his fingernails. His hair, the color of coconut husks, was parted on the side and combed into two puffs. And instead of the stained overalls he normally wore, he had buttoned himself—with difficulty, it seemed to me—into a brown suit. I suddenly realized that he was in his going-out clothes, which meant I should ask him in.

"Won't you join me in a cup of tea, Mr. Cooper?" I asked, making my voice as placid as water in a deep well.

"Tea? At this time of the day? Heck, how 'bout a beer?"

I led him into our sitting room, ushering him into the cane armchair I'd found in a thrift shop in Racine. In the kitchen I poured the beer Shwe kept especially for guests into a tall glass mug, sprinkled powdered sugar on diamond-shaped pieces of my freshest sanwinmakin, our best Burmese sweet dish, and took everything out on a lacquer tray with a pot of green tea. Then I settled onto the Thai silk of the daybed opposite Mr. Cooper and waited politely to hear the purpose of his visit.

"I'm making the rounds of the neighbors and town residents," he said finally, brushing sugar off his moustache with thick fingers. "Your bakery is darned good, Suu. Now, I want to ask you—what do you think of my yard? I mean, does it bother you?"

I looked at him, puzzled. "It's a very nice yard, Mr. Cooper, very fine, very fine. It is as it's always been since we came. Why do you ask about it now?"

His big head moved up and down slowly. "Yes, nothing different about it, is there? Yet, Suu, all of a sudden they're trying to shut me down. They say I'm spoiling the countryside."

"Who says?"

"Them," he said, waving his hand in the direction of the ranch house on the shady road curving past our houses.

"The Bishops?" I laughed. "You are teasing me, Mr. Cooper. The Bishops cannot even see all of your yard from their house. The firs and oaks are in their way."

"I know, I know," he said, throwing up his arms and making the front of his suit crease and strain against the buttons. "But they want to close down my repair shop. They've gotten other families—the Schmidts, for one—convinced I'm turning Pine Grove into what they call 'nigger country.' They called the town constable on me twice, you know, and the county fined me twice—big fines, let me tell you—for running a junkyard or some crap like that."

Presented by

Geeta Sharma Jensen has an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars. This story took first place in the Fiction category of The Atlantic's 2001 student writing competition.

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