Things money can buy: a place to write and a comfortable cushion to sit on, enough tea to revive the fortunes of the British and pretty cups out of which to drink it; a plane ticket to India for research, quinine and lots of it, a digital camera so I can capture wonder and mystery in the palm of my hand, and a reluctant return ticket; rooms in which to breathe, rooms in which to think, rooms in which to alternate between self-doubt and inspiration; sunlit days free of creditors and their blackjack-armed thugs, quiet evenings heady with jazz and ruminative drift; a bed warmed by cats and a spouse just starting to fall asleep, dreams filled with words falling into perfect order, and a reason to wake before that order disappears; ink cartridges for the printer, paper for the printer, and - finally - a printer.
Things money can't buy: gratitude.
From the short story "Substitutes"
The trouble started the second day.
We were doing recitations, and she called on Truong. When he didn't respond, she looked at him and asked, "Truong?" The devil flashed in his eyes: "I'm not Truong, I'm Phuoc. He's Truong." And he pointed to Minh. Minh immediately shouted, "Liar! That's not true. That's Truong." And Minh pointed to Quang. Within seconds, the room reeled with accusations and confessions: "That's Truong!" or "I'm Truong!" The demon inside Truong now possessed all of us; even students who had never gotten in trouble played along. When the accusations got ugly - "Truong is the stupidest boy in school," "Truong is the one who smells like fish!"- Truong slammed his fist against the desk like a gavel. We had so much fun calling each other Truong that we'd forgotten Mrs. Pham. She stood at the front of the room, paralyzed. In a voice like dead leaves, she whispered, "Please be quiet. Please be quiet." She must have been saying it for minutes.
We pitied her. But we didn't let her off the hook.
We wondered if she had ever taught school before. If she had, it must have been very young children. More likely, she had been a housewife, maybe a shopkeeper. Every smile struggled against the wrinkles weighing down her skin. She threatened to go to Principal Kim when we grew too unruly, so we pulled back our antics until her face eased into neutrality. As long as we wrote our compositions, she ignored the ball of paper being kicked along the floor in an ersatz soccer game.
None of us knew where she came from. It seemed unlikely that she was from Can Tho or our parents would have known her. Khanh claimed that the Que family had taken her in. But perhaps she didn't have a home. That would explain why she always wore the same white blouse and black skirt. Each day, her clothes merged further towards gray.
Still, Khanh stuck by his story. She was a refugee from Saigon, he insisted. Her husband had abandoned her. That's why she always seemed so sad. He had a pass to take his family to America, but instead of taking his wife, he took his mistress. I mean, who wouldn't have taken someone else? Khanh took a drag off his cigarette. That's why she seemed so inexperienced, he continued. She had to find a way to make money.
We agreed: How sad. For our recitation, we chose the history of a Vietnamese emperor who executed his wife in order to save the country. We watched for a long sigh, a fist clenched in rage. Maybe she would tell us her story. And maybe this would have brought us closer, given us a pathway to understanding tragedy. But she only said, "We'll pick up the story tomorrow."
Maybe it's better Mrs. Pham left. We all knew the ending: the emperor would marry a Mongol princess and still lose Vietnam to the marauding Chinese.
"Substitutes" first appeared in Five Points magazine.