Contents | May 2003
More on fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2003
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.
A Good Country
A short story
by Geeta Sharma Jensen
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."
"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."
I could hardly speak. I had not known of his troubles. I gazed out our front windows and saw his farm equipment melded with the cornfields, the beaten-down 4x4s and pickups and streaked lawnmowers and Case harvesters lined up useless and innocent in his driveway. A row of old ploughs rose from the browned grass and wild asters in a field on the other side of his tall brick farmhouse. It had been this way since we came. The bleached barn behind his house was filled with broken tractors, wheel rims, old tires, fuel cans, winches, chains, and all sorts of metal parts and repair equipment. It smelled of gasoline and motor oil, and it was messy with rags and crumpled paper towels.
Mr. Cooper had once taught history and math at a Milwaukee tech school. But he missed the land too much, and fifteen years ago, the stories said, he'd returned to the farm of his ancestors. Our friend Tobias Swenson, who was Pine Grove's town chairman and knew everything, told me that when Mr. Cooper came home, everyone was so happy that the 4-H food committee roasted a pig and strung a red banner across Pine Grove Avenue. The whole town turned out for his party in the street. Tobias said every farm town had a Mr. Cooper, needed a Mr. Cooper, and sooner or later everyone ended up visiting a Mr. Cooper. It was true. Shwe had gone to him earlier this year for washers for the kitchen taps. Even Mr. Bishop, who was now complaining, had visited Mr. Cooper's barn to get his snowblower fixed.
I swallowed some warm tea and made soothing noises, chuh, chuh, chuh, as you would when putting a child to sleep. "This is not fair, not fair, Mr. Cooper," I said. "People must speak out, must help you."
Mr. Cooper balanced his beer mug on the slab of rough cedar that Shwe had hammered into a coffee table and offered me his metal clipboard. I saw that his weak blue eyes looked sunken. Pouches ballooned under them. His cheeks and wide forehead were furrowed. He hadn't been sleeping much, I could tell.
"This is a petition, and I'd appreciate it if you'd sign, Suu," he said, handing me a pen. "It says you do not find my tractors and trucks bothersome. The Bishops and their pals have asked the town board to close me down. They bellyache that I'm violating the zoning law, operating a junkyard, a business, a nuisance, on farmland that's not zoned for such business. But I say I have a right to keep machines on my land. Don't you agree?"
"Yes, of course, of course," I said, and I wrote my name, SUU THANT, in wobbly but big letters in blue ink on his petition. And when he asked me to speak in his favor at the big town-board meeting around Thanksgiving, I did not hesitate for a moment. I said yes, for certain I'd be there. It was in keeping with what our Buddha taught.
After Mr. Cooper left, I stood at our bedroom window for a long time—five minutes, seven minutes, who knows?—thinking about his troubles. How could this happen, I thought, in Pine Grove, population 673, a place so safe we didn't lock our doors, a place so insignificant its downtown consisted only of Harry's Hardware and the A-One Feedstore, a community so closed that stony-faced farmers raised tumblers of brandy to me only after I'd slipped my arm into the Swensons' bawling Holstein one windy night and pulled its calf, all wet and bloody, onto the damp straw? That was our second deer season here. The men were hunting. I remember the flashlight shivering in Ruthie Swenson's hand as I felt for the calf, and her pink lips muttering, "Oh, sweet Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus." And I had murmured, impatiently, without thinking how silly I sounded, "Try the Buddha's eightfold path. It will keep the flashlight steady."
Thoughts floated in my head like lily pads in a clogged pond. Why did Jim and Bettina Bishop have so little concern for their neighbors? I was puzzled, because since we'd come to Pine Grove, I had not met many Americans without some kindness in their hearts. Mr. Bishop was a machinist at the Ladish plant, which Ruthie said was an important factory about forty-five minutes away, just this side of Milwaukee. I would sometimes see his blue Ford pickup bump into his driveway and his sharp face poke out of the window. "Bettina, get that bike out of the way!" he'd scream at his wife. "How many times must I tell you to keep the driveway clear?" Other times he'd sing out, "Tina, give your old man a kiss." He liked to fly the American flag every day from a thin pole sunk in a circle of cement, which Bettina tried to cover with tubs of petunias in summer and red plastic geraniums in winter. We also had a flag, but I did not favor plastic geraniums.
Bettina Bishop worked in the city too, as a nurse's aide. She was tall and big-boned, and though she had smooth pink skin and her brown hair swirled prettily around her head in thick curls, her features, I'm sorry to say (and may the Buddha forgive me), were put together in such a way as to make her unpleasing. Whenever we came face-to-face, usually at Harry's Hardware, she would say politely, "Hello! Isn't this a nice day we're having?" But once I heard her in the next aisle telling her friend Peggy Schmidt that they'd moved to the country to get away from "the crime and them black folks in Milwaukee," and wouldn't you know it, they were living next to some "slant-eyed foreigners."
The Bishops and the Schmidts and a few others were what Tobias Swenson called the NAs—new arrivals. Tobias snorted every time he said it. These people had come to Pine Grove only about two years before. Sometimes Bettina and Peggy earned extra money helping at the Swensons' mink ranch during pelting season. But generally they didn't have much to do with Tobias or with any of the others whose families had worked the land or raised dairy cattle on it for generations. Perhaps that's why they didn't understand the need for Mr. Cooper's tractors and his tilting, machinery-filled barn.
he lights of Milwaukee's southern suburbs began to come on in the distance. They were strung out in bunches on the horizon, twinkling and shining as if their only job was to hem in the blackness of the fields, tell us where the city ended and the silent, undulating country began. Now and again I could see the lights of the semis slipping by on the expressway two miles away, like raindrops on a power line. And once I heard the hoot of the Amtrak rushing north from Chicago.
I turned from the window to lay out Shwe's loose cotton Shan pants and velvet thongs near the futon before he came home. I always tried to make the house soft and comfortable for him, and told him gently that this was a good country, a beautiful country. I reminded him of this often during the long, dark evenings when his footsteps came haltingly into the house and I saw that his eyes were red from standing too long in the hissing, smoking kitchen of our restaurant, the Star of Rangoon. He no longer smiled much, my husband. It had been so for nearly four years. "Ah, Suu, my sweet squirrel," he said to me often, "the banana trees we planted along our little Amarapura creek must be tall and heavy with fruit by now. Do you suppose Ko Tommy has been watering the jasmines beneath the house? And do you remember May-May's coconut rice?" He'd go on, his voice like the whispers of ancestral spirits unable to get free of this earth. Sometimes, I confess, I wanted to say Ruthie's favorite words to him—wanted to stand like her, with my feet apart, one leg bent, head cocked, and say, "Get over it, will ya?" But I come from a line of dutiful wives, polite women, and it was not in my nature to insult my husband that way.
So I talked to him about the beauty of this country, of Pine Grove, where we had eventually come after Burmese university students started the riots of 1988 and the army killed thousands in the streets of Rangoon, and the dictator Ne Win's generals began to jail history teachers like my husband. Look how the snow lies so soft and white in the fields here, I would tell Shwe. Are you not reminded of the white radiance of the Buddha's enlightenment? And see how black the earth is here in summer. Does it not give us the plumpest squashes and tomatoes? Don't the apples taste sweeter than anything our yellow soil in Amarapura ever produced? And are not the farmers, the Swensons and the Hansens and the others, our friends? Many evenings I massaged Shwe's thick shoulders with the tips of my fingers and whispered, "We are safe here. We are free to have our way of life. This is a good country." The past is like the tail of a kite, I said. If it is too long and heavy, it will pull you down. We must keep the tail short and light so that our kite will dance in the wind.
"You're young and optimistic, Suu," he would reply gently. "You are adaptable, and that is good. But I am an old man." He would slide his long fingers down my hair all the way to my waist. "Such a small waist. Such an innocent squirrel."
I did not think my husband was old. He was just forty-nine. And I was thirty-eight. But of course I understood what he was saying, though he never told me so in words. He was remembering not his jasmine bushes, or the fragrance of the guttering candles in the pagodas, but his students, his teaching, his university lectures about the big fights, the revolutions of the world, the French, the Russian, the American, the Chinese, the Indian. He saw himself as a professor still. He did not think of himself as what he had become, a cook, even if it was in his own restaurant, in a nice strip mall in South Milwaukee.
I brewed fresh tea. On a porcelain plate as many-colored as the sea I arranged fermented tea leaves and slivers of ginger, pink from steeping in vinegar. I surrounded the leaves with mounds of fried garlic, red chilies, dried prawns, peanuts, and toasted sesame seeds. Shwe was partial to my tea-leaf salad, and I knew it would soothe him. I wanted him to be in a good mood when I told him about Mr. Cooper; I was afraid he wouldn't want me to speak in public for our neighbor. By the time the mall closed and Shwe came home, I was ready. I'd made myself look nice for him. My hair was knotted high on my head and decorated with yellow chrysanthemums from the garden. The blossoms matched my longyi, which I'd wrapped extra tightly around my hips and let fall gently to my ankles.
"Ah, squirrel, pretty squirrel," Shwe said, touching my chin lightly. "What a good day we had at the restaurant. Very busy. But that means my muscles are tired."
He dropped his Shan bag on the tiles and bent down to pull out a manila envelope, which he presented to me with a deep bow. "The money."
"Crazy man," I said, and giggled. "Oh, phoo, you smell of peanut oil and cigarette smoke. Hurry with your bath. I'll heat the fish soup. And I have a special snack for you."
I carried the six hundred dollars he gave me into our bedroom and took down the framed picture of the Ava Bridge that hung above the dresser. I could hear the bath water sloshing loudly as I unlocked a small door in the wall and packed the money into the safe Shwe had built between the studs. The money to run our restaurant was seen to by the bank. But after the desperate night when we had dressed as peasants and slipped over the border into Thailand with our money hidden in our head wraps, neither Shwe nor I felt easy without most of our personal savings close by. The stack of bills in the wall safe was quite tall by now. Shwe thought that by the end of the year we would have enough to buy our small house from the resettlement committee of the Lutheran church. On the installment plan, like Americans, Shwe said, winking. Oh, it was a lovely house—once a bunkhouse for farmhands, but now pretty, with cream-colored shutters, and clematis and honeysuckle twirling up the porch.
We ate the fish soup in silence and cleared our palates with pinches of my tea-leaf salad. Shwe chewed steadily, nodding now and then with obvious pleasure. Afterward, lulled by the rippling, tinny sounds of Burmese xylophones, we sat in his workshop, he carving figures out of wood, and I knitting scarves for Ruthie's Computers for Kids fundraiser. After each purl row I glanced at him, trying to see in his face if I should now bring up Mr. Cooper. But every time, Shwe's eyes were busy, his head bent over the miniature tax collector he was carefully shaping. Delicate pine figures, some with moustaches, some with elaborate headdresses, lay in a row on his workbench. They would soon join the hundreds of tiny figures in a replica of King Mindon's Glass Palace, which floated like a celestial mirage, a strange dream, in the middle of Shwe's workshop. I did not know what to make of this—this ancient Burmese city that Shwe had begun creating after we left the Thai camps. But it made his eyes tremble with light, so I refrained from pointing out that he was making a world that was not ours, a world we could not have anymore.
Coyotes were crying woo-ooo in the dark fields, and I'd begun to massage Shwe's tired muscles, by the time I mentioned Mr. Cooper. Shwe lay on the futon, the bottoms of his trousers rolled up to his knees, and grunted softly as my supple fingers kneaded his calves. By the time my palms were pressing down on his thighs, he knew all about Mr. Cooper's troubles.
"It's not fair, is it, Shwe?" I said, pausing to pin a strand of hair that had escaped from my knot. "Poor Mr. Cooper. He looked very worried, you know. Of course we must help him."
Shwe stretched and changed position. "I don't know, Suu. It's not our quarrel."
"What? I'm right, aren't I? It isn't our quarrel. Why get in the middle of someone else's fight?"
"But Mr. Cooper is our friend, our neighbor. We must help him. It is the way."
Shwe sat up slowly, his hair sticking out stiffly, and encircled my bony wrists with his fingers. "Squirrel, listen to me," he said, his broad face flushed with eagerness and his memories. "We are Burmese, and one day we will go back to our country. The general cannot live forever. He will go, the junta will change, things will change. Then who will want to hurt an old retired professor who does not teach anymore? I will be seen as harmless, and we will live again in our teak house. Ah, the house—remember how it sat so high on its stilts among the palms? Remember the breezes blowing through the rooms, Squirrel, and the Sagaing hills green across the river? So why get mixed up today with another's troubles?"
"But we live here now," I persisted, and to make sure he understood my point, I looked boldly, maybe even sternly, into his face. Then I said softly, "Lie down now. Let me walk on your back."
His smooth, almost hairless skin was warm and sweet against the soles of my feet. I made my slender body feather-light and walked as my mother and her mother and her mother before her had walked to soothe the bodies of their men. I swayed first on the calves, lightly, oh, so lightly, and then on the backs of the thighs, lightly still, and then teetered on the pillows of his buttocks, balancing, my arms outstretched like those of Ruthie's Jesus, and then the knobs of his spine were like smooth round pebbles between my toes and I was stepping, heavily and leisurely now, onto the safety of his sturdy back, feet sinking gently into the silt of his flesh, rocking, rocking, listening to his sighs rising like butterflies to meet me in the silken night.
And so I walked, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, pausing at his shoulders, I said, "And how will we live when we return to Amarapura?"
His breath wafted against the loose fabric of the pillow. "I've thought it through, Squirrel. I'm saving money. We'll buy this house. In five years, maybe six, we will sell it, and the restaurant, and the Toyota. And there you have it—enough dollars to last a lifetime in Myanmar. You'll have ayahs and gardeners as before. And you can study midwifery instead of pulling cows and horses into the world, as you do here."
I turned to walk back toward his feet. "The Buddha said all life is sacred. Human beings, cows, horses, pigs—it is the same. It's all good work. And I like to garden. It's my work for the restaurant."
I lingered on his back, slowly shifting my weight from one leg to the other. When had he begun dreaming these dreams? Each year, I knew, the vine of our daily life in Pine Grove would lash us tighter to this country. Five years, eight years, ten years—ah, Shwe, love, will this not have become our home by then?
"Tell me, what has this future you've been planning secretly got to do with Mr. Cooper and his troubles right now?" I said. "The Buddha says we must help our fellow man. We are Mr. Cooper's nearest neighbors. If we say his machines do not bother us, that will help him. I must speak for him."
Shwe did not answer. It annoyed me sometimes that he could be so irreligious, so self-centered. I stepped off his body, straddled his lower back, and brushed my lips against his neck. "Mr. Cooper could lose his livelihood, Shwe. Suppose someone threatened to close your business, and no one spoke for you? Mr. Cooper is a good man. Remember how he drove us everywhere our first two years here? And the time he fixed your Toyota's muffler? Answer me, Shwe—has he not helped us?"
"Do we not owe him something?"
"So," I said, and slipped off his back and curled against his body.
e did not discuss Mr. Cooper again. Shwe did not forbid me to take Mr. Cooper's side publicly. But when I showed him the words I wanted to say at the town meeting, words I'd scribbled on grocery bags and on pages torn from my household-accounts book, he waved his hands and returned the paper scraps to me without reading them. "Nothing good comes from interfering in someone else's fight," he said. I did not reply. Frost threatened that night, but I didn't ask him to help me bring in the tomato plants. I dragged the two tubs slowly up the kitchen steps and inside the glass patio doors by myself. And I didn't clean up the trail of mud until I was sure he had seen it.
The next morning the gourds remaining in our garden glistened with a layer of frost. Spikes of withered impatiens shivered in the wind, and the cilantro had angled over, black and stiff. I glanced out of the bedroom window and saw that Mr. Cooper and the Thomsens had managed to get the cabbages out in time. The only things that remained were Mr. Cooper's old ploughs and tractors and odd squares of parched corn whispering beneath the suddenly vast sky.
It turned cold then, but there was no snow. Ruthie telephoned several days later. "The mink've been pushing fur like mad," she said, her voice high. "We're getting together a crew. It's looking good, sweetie. We could start fleshing next week or so."
"Are you sure?" I asked. "It could warm up again."
"No, no, they're ready. The men will be at them soon."
he fields steamed in the morning, and mist drifted like billowing smoke in the hollows. The earth smelled like Amarapura after a rain. Remembering the chill of Ruthie's shed, I put on silk long johns before slipping into my husband's overalls and a long-sleeved blouse with a high collar. I added the navy wool cardigan I'd knitted for Shwe our first winter in America. I knotted my hair, wrapped a long chiffon scarf around my head, and carried three bowls of rice into the prayer room. Sitting on the mat below the papier-mâché Buddha that Shwe had fashioned, I lit candles and made my offerings—one bowl of boiled rice for our ancestral spirits, one for our living elders in Amarapura, and one for us Burmese refugees in America. The Buddha's face was misshapen, his smile not quite right, but how he glittered in the gold paint Shwe had found at Harry's Hardware. I asked the Exalted One to forgive the gassing of minks, whispering that it was the livelihood of my friends the Swensons, and so it was within the teaching; it needed to be done. Then I watered the chrysanthemums at the Buddha's feet and left without waking Shwe.
The eastern sky was iridescent as I walked up Pine Grove Avenue and turned west onto the long empty road to Ruthie's ranch. Thin sheets of ice lay in the ditches like cracked glass. In the fields the bleached corn resembled dried bamboo. I raised my arm to Mrs. Thomsen's boy, who jiggled by slowly on a dusty tractor. "Mornin', Mrs. Thant," he yelled, and I felt the warmth of belonging.
Walking briskly, I rehearsed what I would say about Mr. Cooper's yard at the town meeting. Lights were on in most of the farmhouses I passed, but Mr. Braun's place was dark. No one lived there anymore, now that he was in jail. One cold evening the previous winter Mr. Braun had beaten a man with a brick in a tavern fight over money. Mr. Bishop had been involved in some way too—a small way, because the judge only fined him. Now reeds and tall grasses waved along the curving dirt path that led to Mr. Braun's distant house. Brittle leaves still clung to the tall oaks in his yard, and a red maple interrupted the landscape with color. It was very quiet and beautiful, and I wished that Shwe could see it.
could smell the mink when I was still halfway up the gravel path to the Swensons' barns and sheds. At the farmhouse the air was thick with the stench—a feral smell, of wetness and organs and things rotting in the damp. I knew the odor would get into our clothes, our hair, our skin, before the day was done. I would taste it.
"Suu!—about time," Ruthie said when I entered the long whitewashed shed. "Coffee and kringle over there. We'll start fleshing soon as the boys bring the stuff in."
The men were in the other shed, skinning, peeling the thick pelts off the thin carcasses of minks as if they were rolling tube socks off feet. I hung up my parka, poured coffee into a paper cup, turned, and came face-to-face with Bettina Bishop and Peggy Schmidt. They were holding slices of kringle and chatting with Ruthie.
"What you doing here?" Bettina said, her voice guttural.
"Same as you, I suppose."
"Hah," she said, and turned her back.
"Peggy and Betty need some extra cashola," Ruthie explained, patting her hair, which this week was butter-colored and arranged like a stiff nest on top of her head. "Their old men are getting laid off." Then, catching sight of Tobias in the doorway, she sang out, "Time for business, gals."
Fleshing mink is easy once you get used to it. We worked quietly for half an hour, getting familiar once again with the machines. The skins came hide side out, but I could see the velvety fur inside: delicate pink, cream, like the insides of shells. The first ones in the season were always these pale shades. The dark colors—the rich browns, the lustrous blacks—came later. I was easing another pelt onto the machine's cone when Bettina spat out, "You and Al Cooper got something going on?"
I guided the rotating rubber wheel carefully over the hide and watched the rubber knives scrape off the yellowish fat, watched the globules fly, saw them splatter all over, felt them landing wetly on my face. I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand.
"Hey, I'm talking to you! I saw your signature on Cooper's fancy petition. It ain't got nothing to do with you. What you taking sides for? This ain't even your country." Bettina's round face floated pink and shiny in front of me as if unattached to a body. Flecks of mink fat glistened in her hair like grains of rice.
"I live here," I said slowly. "And I'll tell you—respectfully—that there's nothing wrong with Mr. Cooper's place. His tractors and machinery don't bother us. He is a good neighbor. You should leave the poor man alone."
"Well, I got news for you, honey. They bother us. And damn right we're doing something about it. Cooper's turning our neighborhood into a slum, that's what. That old garbage he calls farm machinery ain't even fit for the trash heap. We didn't leave the city to live next to no trash heap. We have a right to a decent view."
"What's wrong with the view?" I said. "This is a beautiful country."
"Listen to the foreigner," she said, hooting with laughter.
"Suu's less of a foreigner to us than you are," Ruthie said suddenly. "Anyhows, Bettina, what do these layoffs mean? You got me worried."
"Ladish started laying off last week. Temporary, they say. But talk is, the economy's slowing."
"Again? Hope it won't slow too much. New York won't be wanting much mink if it goes on this way." Ruthie sighed. She was quiet for a while, her forehead creased. I worried for her, too, but then she said, "We got to keep on fleshing anyhows, ladies. At least this mink oil'll get our faces supersoft. Some bonus, hey?"
round noon she served us beef stew and brown bread and pickled herring, in the garage. We ate at two picnic tables pushed together, about a dozen of us, the men in stained barn jackets, the women in parkas. The stench of mink was still strong, but we were getting used to it. The men ate hungrily, noisily, sopping up the gravy with hunks of bread. It wasn't until Ruthie set out mugs of watery coffee that Tobias spoke.
"Read in the paper a new subdivision's going in at Stanley Mills," he said. "And I hear talk a developer's nosing around. Talked to old Hansen about his seventy acres. I tell you straight, I ain't going to allow no Shady Acres in Pine Grove."
Tobias Swenson had a ruddy face, wispy gray hair, and an even gaze. I always told Shwe that his voice was like the actor Mr. Heston's in that movie Ben-Hur we saw on the university outing in Mandalay.
"What's wrong with some nice new houses and some decent folk moving in?" Peggy Schmidt asked, lighting up a cigarette. "We could get some decent services, like garbage pickup and streetlights."
"That's just what Toby means," Mel Olafsson said. "City folk move here, build their mansions in the cornfields, pretty soon they're trotting out some fancy ideas our taxes can't handle. Streetlights? What for? We got landmarks here can make you see good enough even in the dark. Hansen's barn and them two willows at the end of Pine Grove Avenue, lady, are just like streetlights."
Peggy had not learned the power of silence as we Burmese women had, so she said loudly, "Is that so? Well, Mel Olafsson, you better do something about your cattle. I'll tell you, Tobias, you being the town chairman and all, I woke up the other day and damned if I didn't see two googly eyes floating in this moo face right outside my window. And me in my nightie! I tell you, a body has a right to look out her bedroom window and not see no cows chewing and mooing just inches away."
I prayed to the Buddha to make her silent, but she went on, talking about cow shit and smells and fresh air and country life.
Tobias scratched his chin. "Are you talking about manure?"
"You can call it by any fancy name you like, sir, shit's shit," she said. "If you ask me, Mel ought to be controlling his damn cows. And for that matter, that Cooper fellow ought to be doing the same with his place, so decent folk don't have to look at his dump."
"Mel's got to do something," Tobias agreed. "But old Coop—now, he's okay."
"Ain't so," Bettina almost shouted. "That Cooper's destroying our neighborhood. We got a right to clean countryside. Us working folk paid hard-earned money for our place, and it ain't fair our property values are falling 'cause Al Cooper's fixing vehicles and making a junkyard in our residential area."
"That's a bunch of bull," Mr. Olafsson said. "Old Coop's been fixing stuff nigh on to fifteen years, and property values been going up yearly—taxes right along with 'em."
"We'll see," Bettina said. "We got ourselves a lawyer to shut Cooper down, clean him up. It's time you guys got yourself some new laws."
I cleared my throat gently. I saw their faces turn toward me—upturned faces, so white, so pink, like a row of flowers crowding a garden. "Well, I don't see what the trouble is," I said softly, making my voice reasonable. "I've been thinking about this. First, Mr. Cooper is fixing farm vehicles on a farm. And that is allowed. How can there be a farm without tractors and trucks? And if you have them on a farm, shouldn't people be allowed to repair them? Or are farmers supposed to drag their broken machines to town to find a mechanic? Ambulances belong at hospitals, fire trucks at fire stations. And machinery belongs on farms. So what if it's rusty and old?"
I saw the men nodding. Tobias folded his arms and smiled. I took a sip of coffee. I was giving them the speech I'd prepared for the town meeting. But I couldn't stop now.
"Second," I said. "Mr. Cooper's been here for fifteen years. His repair business was here first, long before you, Bettina, and the others came. And if you didn't like it, why did you buy the place near him? He was here a long time back. That's a consideration, I think."
Tobias slapped his hands on the table. "Suu's darn right. We'll grandfather Coop, stick in some new language."
"Hell, he's fixing other stuff now too—not like before," Bettina said huffily. "And he's got tractors that don't work beans."
"You're out of luck, my dear," Tobias said. "Ain't no lawyer that can get around a grandfather once we take care of it."
"It ain't over yet," she said, arching her eyebrows. "We got avenues."
When we left the ranch, though, at dusk, I felt lighthearted. Tobias Swenson would fix everything, I knew, and we could return to our everyday ways. I felt so relieved that I even waved at Bettina. "Good night, see you tomorrow," I said. And she replied, "G'night."
spent a long time at my dressing table that evening, coloring my lips and preparing for Shwe's arrival. Mr. Cooper's troubles are over, I would say to him. It's all fixed. I would walk on his back again, sweetly, as in the days before our disagreement. I no longer smelled of mink. I had shampooed and bathed with sandalwood soap; my feet were soft and smooth with fragrant oils.
Thumping music punctuated with loud yells and laughter spilled into our sitting room. Some sort of party was going on at Bettina's house. I'd seen the beer kegs in her back yard, and knots of thin, scraggly-looking men hooting and throwing stones at the taillights of Mr. Cooper's truck as he slowed for the turn near her house. Our walls flickered with the light from their bonfire.
Shwe was late. It was often that way on Friday nights. I put the rabbit stew Ruthie had given me on the stove to simmer and settled with my knitting into the armchair in Shwe's workshop. The Bishops' bonfire glowed in the windows. The blaze was bigger now, I was sure, but also more beautiful, warm, the color of a monk's robes. And when a shifting log sent sparks rising into the night like a thousand fireflies, I couldn't help sighing.
But minutes later I felt fear. The thin men I'd seen earlier were laughing and stumbling around the Bishops' yard, dragging branches and brush and heaving them onto their untamed fire with whoops. The bonfire was now as large as our Toyota; I imagined the frightening snap and pop of it. As I watched, one burning log and then another tumbled loose and rolled away, sparking, and a man in a ponytail and a denim jacket chased after them, crying, "Hey, hey!" Catching up, he emptied his beer cup onto one of the flaming limbs, making his companions giddy with laughter. The log darkened and became dull. But the other one set a patch of dry grass on fire, and three or four figures danced away from the group to stomp on the flames until they went out.
I watched the blaze from the window for a while, but then the noise of the party died down and I must have dozed. My mind enlarged and floated, twisting, losing shape. I was in a mixed-up world of pagodas and rusting tractors, silver paddies and screaming minks, and Shwe in a ceremonial silk headdress, smiling shyly at me. Soldiers were kneeling, firing at students and monks in the city streets. I heard the guns, volley after volley. Someone was banging on our front door.
I found Mr. Cooper on the porch, screaming, "Suu! Suu!" His eyes were wild.
"Dear God," I whispered. It seemed as if the darkness itself was glowing. Crimson-edged flames with yellow centers were licking and flashing from Mr. Cooper's barn. I could feel the warmth. I stood still, my breath sticking, and watched the trembling brightness rise toward the roof. Mr. Cooper yanked my shawl from the armchair then, took my hand in his, and pulled me with him into the cornfield, the earth so crumbly, so uneven, so far from the crackling barn and our house nearby.
"Goddamn careless drunks!" he raged, batting the air with his free arm. "I told Bishop to watch it, told him it was getting too damn close. We had words just outside the barn, you know, shoved each other around a bit. And all the while he had that damn cigarette dangling from his mouth. Those brainless idiots!"
It must have been sparks or embers carried on the night wind from the beautiful bonfire. Or flames creeping secretly into the dry brush, or an escaped log rolling down a small slope and smoldering against the barn. Could it have been Mr. Bishop's cigarette, forgotten, wisping smoke on the ground where they'd argued, near the paint cans and oily rags? Perhaps it was carelessness blossoming from a knot of beery anger. Who can tell about such things?
"Sons of bitches!" Mr. Cooper shouted at the sky.
I once went swimming in a shaded stream in the Sagaing hills. When I put my head underwater, undulating patterns floated above me. Swirls and curves and diamond shapes, all brilliant with sun, dark with shadows. Fish shapes darted and scattered. As we stood among the prickly cornstalks that evening, our chests heaving, my hand caught within the roughness of Mr. Cooper's palm, the black smoke rose in clouds, like plump fish in the moonless sky.
The world consisted of light and dark, of bright orange and shivery yellow, deep brown and deeper black. Trembling light played over our houses. People were shouting. Formless shapes appeared and disappeared, flitting, scattering, sometimes in the Bishops' yard, sometimes in the cornfield, sometimes in my garden. Someone yelled, "The buckets!" The bonfire still burned, but it was a tiny thing now compared with the flames furious above the barn. The ponytailed man was swaying drunkenly near our honeysuckle, a watering can in his hand. Perhaps that was my imagination, perhaps not. Popping sounds filled the air as something in the barn exploded. The heat! Mr. Cooper dragged me farther into the field.
From somewhere far off came the thin sound of sirens, and I thought I heard people sighing "Oh" very loudly, all of them together, like wind in the firs. And someone was laughing, and someone else was saying, "Ain't nothing to laugh about." Then a woman's voice: "Serves him right." And a man—Mr. Bishop, I thought—snarled, "What you dragging your feet for, damn it? Get the other hose from the house." And Bettina—it had to have been—said, "What for? I ain't feeling like helping him." And Mr. Bishop, his voice cracking, screamed, "Move your ass, damn it! We got to hose down her place. She's the closest." Then he yelled again, "Move! Our quarrel ain't with her."
I must have tried to run home then, because I remember Mr. Cooper gripping my arms as I broke free from the rustling, slashing cornstalks. "Stay here," he said sharply. "I'm going to help the others."
"Your barn," I said.
"Yes," he said, pushing me urgently back into the lumpy field.
I felt the ends of my longyi flutter in a gust. The sound of the fire was like the throaty growl of a distant waterfall. The air felt charged, hot and dry. I wondered how far sparks could travel on the easy wind, and how quickly dead vines and fallen leaves and old shingles would ignite. Would the colors change if the fire found Shwe's carvings, his Glass Palace of long-ago worlds? They were so pretty, those pine figures, painted parrot green and gold, royal blue and lacquer red. Then a man coughed. "Look at her go," he said, his raspy voice reverent.
Tall, so tall. The towers of red-orange heat tapering into threads of smoke, reaching high into the night sky. I saw the stars.
"In the refugee camp in Thailand," I said, "we lined up for blankets. We lined up for rice."
"I know," Mr. Cooper said. And then he ran for the garden hose.
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.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2003; A Good Country; Volume 291, No. 4; 93-101.