If there’d been an Asian-American Norman Rockwell,
he might have painted a scene
like this. The Vietnamese shopkeeper with gray,
slicked-back hair and bony hands,
a baseball game on his small black-and-white TV.
And I, the white, dark-haired
nine-year-old in cut-offs sliding a penny across
the counter toward him.
The title of the painting might read Debt Repaid.
The shopkeeper’s moved
that I’ve come back with the one cent I was short of
half an hour earlier
for whatever it is he let me buy. You’re a very
honest boy, he says.
When I walk in twenty years later a black
college student sits behind
the counter doing school work, behind what looks like
So the store survived the riots. But the freezers
seem quieter, not that sound
of slow, steady rain. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve grown.
And where did they put those bright
packages of Jaw Breakers,
Lemon Drops, Hot Tamales, and Bottle Caps I’d stand
in front of, touching each
before selecting one? Now I think of it,
I’m not even sure I know he was Vietnamese. And do I
really remember an urgency
in his voice, a sense something he’s held on to
won’t last, take root?
Very honest boy, he tells me with a weight, an adult
seriousness, the passion
embarrassing me so that I want to step outside
into the light, surround myself
with the ongoing diatribe of traffic noise, a jet coming in low,
and stuff my mouth
with a piece of colored wax in the shape
of lips, an oversized wad of gum, or those crystals, Pop Rocks,
that dissolve by producing
an odd, beautiful effervescence on the tongue.
—2007 Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention