Written by Contributor Martha Gale
Le wiped the counter as the last lunch customer left. He turned the radio from easy listening to the Vietnamese station and walked from table to table, straightening the baskets that held soy sauce, fish sauce, toothpicks and salt and pepper. That’s when he noticed the man sitting at the back of the restaurant. He’d come in early, ordered the lunch special and a pot of green tea. He looked familiar, but Le still found it hard to recognize customers. They all looked so alike.
“More tea, sir?”
The man pushed the pot across the table without looking up.
Le took the pot behind the counter and began to prepare fresh tea. While waiting for the water to boil, he took a good look at the man. He was big—like most American men. Clumsy in their bigness, they never seemed to know exactly where their limbs were. His skin was pale, chalky even, showing the blue shadows of veins underneath. He slumped over the table, the teacup in front of him. And those big, knotty hands. The man seemed intent on studying them, staring at his palms as if to read between their lines.
Strange, Le thought as he poured water over the leaves, he’d asked for green tea specifically. Americans usually ordered coffee with their meal. Le was good at making coffee: even before learning English he’d had to learn to flip burgers and make the watery coffee Americans liked. He was glad to be working now in a real Vietnamese restaurant. It had only been open a month, and business was good. By summer, Le figured, he’d have saved enough to propose to his girlfriend.
“Yow!” Le shrieked as the pot slid off the damp counter and landed with a crash on the floor, splattering hot water and tea leaves. He looked guiltily toward the kitchen door, but the cook must have been having his afternoon smoke on the back stoop. Then he heard a chair fall on the floor. Le looked over the counter and saw the man huddled under the table, his chair on its side in the aisle.
Le rushed over to the table and leaned over. “Alright, sir?”
The man looked up at him, his pale eyes showing too much white. With something between a grunt and a growl, he crouched against the wall, shielding his head with his arms.
“Sir?” Le wondered if he should get the cook. He’d been in this country longer and understood the sometimes bizarre behavior of the natives. But Le didn’t want the cook to see the mess on the floor.
The radio played a soft melody, a young woman singing a love song. Slowly the man got out from under the table, picked up the chair, and sat down, wiping his face with a napkin. His skin was bright red now, glistening with sweat.
“I’m very sorry, I dropped the teapot. I can make more,” Le started back behind the counter, relieved that whatever had just happened seemed to be over.
“No, don’t bother.” The man stood up and put on his leather jacket. He pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and placed it under the teacup. He headed for the door but stopped by the cash register. Looking directly at Le for the first time since coming into the restaurant, he asked, “Do you have kids?”
“Me? Oh, no. ” Le blushed slightly as he thought of his girlfriend, “I hope to some day.”
The man gazed down at Le, but his eyes seemed to focus on something far away. He nodded, “I hope so, too.”