PROLOGUE:

If a tweet posts in the forest and nobody reads it,
was there really a tweet?

 

1. “My story will get people’s attention,” Tran said. Nobody disputed it. Nobody was listening.
2. Tran bought a Greyhound ticket and left for a trip across the country. His wife and son were surprised.
3. Puffy clouds in a blue sky floated by the bus windows. The landscape below, he couldn’t see so well. Tran was kind of short.
4. Ever see what the inside of those bus toilets looks like? Tran was determined not to. He held it.
5. Tran’s phone beeped. “Where ya goin, hon?”

Tran answered, “Parts unknown.” He was ecstatic. He’d always wanted to use that phrase.

6. Tran liked to watch the evening news on TV. Now all he could think of were those commercials on bladder control.
7. Beep. “Come back, hon. I promise to make my trainer move out. Or at least into the basement.” Tran doubted it.
8. Tran had a literary agent as his imaginary friend. Some people had Jesus. Tran had Sarah Wittgenstein.
9. Bobette’s personal trainer wasn’t imaginary. Tran knew because it hurt when Dirk squeezed his biceps and tried to sell him Power Bars.
10. Dirk and Bobette talked only about abs, reps, and carbs. Yet they knew longer words. Tran had also heard them say “rehydrate” now and then.
11. The man sitting next to him smelled like something Tran couldn’t quite put his finger on. Rancid mayonnaise—that was it.
12. “California, here we come. Right, buddy?” Tran nodded. “John White’s the name. You speak English?” This was going to be a long trip.
13. Rumpled suit. Black stubble beard. John looked to Tran like he’d been riding the bus forever. Yet they’d gone less than 50 miles.
14. “Tell you, the Chinese are absolute geniuses at math.” Tran simply gave John an accommodating “Hm.” He was Vietnamese.
15. “On business or pleasure?” John asked. Tran had to think. “Pleasure,” he said. “Or, no. Business.”
16. John pulled a dirty card from his pocket. “Immigration Law.” Tran held it by the edges. “I was born in Baltimore,” he said. “But thanks.”
17. “Keep the card,” John White said magnanimously. “I handle other kinds of cases, too.” Tran noticed “attorney” was spelled with one t.
18. A baby in the front of the bus screamed, bringing back memories for Tran. Little Sam was already 14 now. Tran dialed home. No answer.
19. When Tran’s son Sam was a baby, he was all Bobette cared about. She switched her concern to her own body when Sam started school.
20. The mother carried her baby to the toilet in the back of the bus. Tran crossed his legs. Now there’d be a dirty diaper in there. No way.
21. A deep clucking sound brought the bus speakers to life. Tran heard “Bhrze, meh-shurt. Ger-zeh op” and hoped they were about to make a stop.
22. Tran left the station men’s room feeling life was good. Then his credit card was declined in the snack shop, and he wasn’t so sure again.
23. Tran bought a pack of cheese crackers for $2 and had $46 left. Had Bobette also emptied the bank account? He stuck his card in an ATM. Yes.
24. Cheese crackers taste great when you’re hungry. Tran almost said “Yum, yum.” But he wasn’t the type to engage in public displays of emotion.
25. An old couple were arguing loudly in the seats in front of Tran. That’s what he would do—go see his uncle and aunt in L.A.
26. Aunt Ha and Uncle Duc were still in Tran’s phone contacts. The reception was good. He could call them. Nah, he’d show up and surprise them.
27. Tran closed his eyes as the setting sun blazed red through the bus window. John shook him awake at the Knoxville station. 2,183 miles to LA.
28. Tran was hungry but wasn’t worried. At $2 a pack, he had enough cash for 23 packs of cheese crackers.
29. In the Nashville station, Tran mailed a Grand Ole Opry postcard. “Wish you were here.” For Sam, it was true. Bobette? Not so much.
30. Memphis. Tran stepped off the bus and felt the urge to do his Elvis impression. But he stocked up on crackers instead. Two packs!
31. For some reason, on the long ride to Oklahoma City, Tran tired of eating crackers. He called Bobette. No answer.
32. Tran tried again. Bobette answered this time. “Crackers and cheese? Well, at least you’re getting your carbs and protein, hon.”
33. As for hydration, as long as he refused to use the bus toilet, hydration was Tran’s enemy.
34. When Tran asked Bobette why their bank account was empty, she gave him a clear explanation. “Dirk needed a new treadmill, hon.”
35. At the Oklahoma City station, Tran splashed water on his face. No towels. He dried with his T-shirt. Could he really eat any more crackers?
36. In the waiting room, John White pointed to an empty chair next to him. John didn’t smell good, but at least it was somebody Tran knew.
37. “Money problems?” John asked. “Heard you on the phone. Here. Got you this from the machine.” The ham was graying, but Tran ate it greedily.
38. “Yuma. That’s the place to get work now if you need it.” John said he could make some calls for Tran when they got to Phoenix. 959 miles.
39. “Sounds good,” Tran said. Picking lettuce wasn’t part of his original plan. But did he really have an original plan?
40. Tran slept through the rest of Oklahoma. “Didn’t miss much,” John said. Would Sarah Wittgenstein disagree?
41. “I wanted to see cowboys,” Tran said. There are plenty in New Mexico, John promised. But Tran slept through New Mexico, too.
42. They say your stomach doesn’t really shrink if you eat less. Tran counted on this being wrong. He refused a sandwich from John’s briefcase.
43. Tran and John were parting at Phoenix. John gave him a handful of business cards. “In case somebody needs immigration help.”
44. “My phone’s a cell. The bus: my office. My clients: all over.” John’s office took him on to LA. Tran waited for Corporate Lettuce to arrive.
45. A dump truck loaded with men stopped nearby. Men in work clothes climbed in. It took Tran a second to realize that this was his ride.
46. Ever ride in a truck standing up with men crammed against you on all sides? Tran had now. Mental comment to Sarah W: “Mundane, you say?”
47. His agent Sarah (imaginary) had said his life was too mundane to be novel-worthy. Tran’s stomach growled and he smiled.
48. By looks, Tran didn’t stand out much from this truckload of men. When he couldn’t answer in Spanish, they assumed he was mute.
49. One worker patted Tran on the head. “Eso está bien, amigo.” Tran felt warm inside.
50. Dust from the road choked them. They pulled their shirts up over their noses. As was his wont, Tran addressed his imaginary literary agent.
51. “Oh Sarah,” Tran prayed. “If this is the life experience you have meant for me, help me along the way.” He took Sarah’s silence for assent.
52. Almost three hours to Yuma. Tran felt he might faint. If he did, there’d be no place to fall. He was held upright by the bodies around him.
53. The truck stopped. The men climbed out. Tran’s knees gave way. Two men handed him out over the side.
54. Tran picked up a crate and followed the pickers into the field. It was there he realized he was in trouble. You had to bring your own knife.
55. Tran sank to the dirt, disheartened and hungry. He started picking and nibbling leaves of lettuce.
56. Imaginary message from Sarah: “This is the point where a beautiful girl should enter the story.”

A beautiful girl stopped beside Tran.

57. “Eres un conejo?” Tran quickly swallowed the lettuce in his mouth. “Yo no, um, hablo Spanish.” Her brown eyes were deep pools of … etc.
58. “Conejo,” she said. “Rabbit. We pick lettuce. No eat.” Her full pink lips, etc. Tran’s agent S.W. would be proud of the way this was going.
59. “No knife.” Tran mimed cutting a lettuce head. She smiled and came nearer, even though he hadn’t meant it as a pickup line.
60. “My name Ana.” She scoffed when Tran told her his. “Is joke? Your name train? Funny man.”
61. “You forget knife? Where your cabin?” Her voice was soft, etc. Tran’s stomach gurgled.
62. “No cabin,” Tran said. Ana said, “Where you sleep?” Her look was sexy. In Tran’s mind, Sara W. crossed out “sexy” and penciled in “ardent.”
63. “No crates, no pay,” Ana told Tran. “Take my knife. I get another.” He watched her disappear, running through the lettuce.
64. Ana came back and gave Tran something soft wrapped in cloth. A burrito. He bit in, once again stifling the urge to cry out, “Yum, yum.”
65. At lunchtime, Ana gave Tran half of her own burrito. At quitting time, she added some of her lettuce to his crate. Tran was a slow picker.
66. “Come,” Ana said. She took his hand. Tran didn’t care where they were going. He was in love.
67. “My older sisters,” Ana said. They laughed when she introduced “Mr. Train.”
68. “Tran,” Tran said. They laughed again.
69. They watched him eat. It seemed to please them. Tran took advantage of the situation.
70. One sister asked Tran something in Spanish. Ana answered for him. She explained: “I tell her you sleep here.” Tran’s heart went flip-a-flop.
71. There was a mat for Tran next to Ana’s cot. “Train, you asleep?” Ana whispered. “No.” She slid down off her cot onto him.
72. Tran felt the warm, passionate embrace of her …
73. “Take that out,” Tran’s imaginary agent Sarah Wittgenstein insisted.
74. … in his loins.

“No loins, Sarah Wittgenstein scolded Tran. “I told you. No loins.”

75. Ana fell asleep in his arms. Tran lay awake wondering how long lettuce-picking season lasted.
76. Ana showed Tran the quickest way to cut off heads of lettuce. That was in the daytime. At night, she showed him other things. Holy Moly.
77. Tran was quickly becoming a migrant worker. With benefits.
78. Tran gave Ana the rest of his cash. $42. Beans and cornmeal from the Company shop. It didn’t have a large inventory.
79. It had been a while since Tran had eaten any meat. Beans were good, though. Bobette would have approved of this diet.
80. Tran called Bobette. Her trainer Dirk answered. Before Tran could speak, his phone died. No way to charge it. He shoved it in his bag.
81. Tran and Ana were always together. Everybody thought they were married. Tran felt the same.
82. Ana held Tran’s hand when they walked into the field. They shared the same water bottle. The same enchiladas. The same mat.
83. Tran and Ana had to be very quiet on that mat. The effort made them tremble. Ejaculation without ejaculation.
84. Tran looked across the field, checking how much lettuce was left. “Too hot to pick in two, three more weeks,” Ana said. Then he knew.
85. “Where you from?” Ana asked Tran one day. The question took him by surprise. His past had faded away.
86. “I from Mexico,” Ana said, “but here is better.” Tran said he preferred it here to where he was from, too.
87. “You married,” Ana said. “But no send pay back to wife and son.” Tran gave a long explanation in a few words.
88. Ana didn’t understand the word “sabbatical” so Tran changed it to “vacation.” Ana giggled. It made Tran laugh, too.
89. Tran thought of Ana with each head of lettuce he touched. For him, it had become an erotic vegetable.
90. Fresh cut lettuce on burritos. In tamales. Tran pictured the Elysian Fields filled with lettuce.
91. Every day Tran begged the sun to hurry and go down. The dark was the time for him and Ana.
92. Ana’s Tracfone still worked. “You can call wife and son,” she offered. Tran dialed. No answer.
93. “Where you go next?” Ana asked. “You come with me to pick orange in California?” Tran said sure.
94. Ana said it was a 6-hour ride by truck to Bakersfield. Tran’s heart sank. “Let’s go by bus,” he urged. His bus ticket was still good to LA.
95. “You crazy?” Ana said. “Truck is free.” Tran counted his money. “I’ll pay for you and your sisters.” Ana cried. Her sisters were going home.
96. “Only me, I don’t have papers,” Ana said. “If go home, maybe can’t come back.” Tran showed her John White’s card. A shot in the dark.
97. Tran could leave some lawyer’s cards in the company shop, Ana suggested. But she wasn’t interested herself. “I happy now with you.”
98. That night, Tran and Ana whispered about everything from lettuce to oranges to love. Nothing about going home.
99. Ana cried, her sisters cried, Tran almost cried. Sarah W’s voice echoed in Tran’s mind. “Easy on the tears. Don’t want to overdo it.”
100. The truck hauled Ana and Tran back to Phoenix. It wasn’t as crowded as before. Tran squeezed close to Ana anyway.
101. Tran bought Ana a ticket. “Ooo,” she said. “Soft seat, acondicionador.” Tran grinned. Her $74 sugar daddy.
102. “Smooth,” Ana said. “I cannot believe. What that in back?”

“A toilet,” Tran said. “Not recommended.”

103. Ana had to try it out. She took her little bag and was in there quite a while. Tran started to panic. She was locked in. Maybe that was it.
104. The door clicked, and a transformed Ana walked out like a model on a platform. Sparkling hair, makeup, and a chic black dress. Tran gasped.
105. “I wash up,” Ana said. “Hot water. Very nice.” Tran was speechless. But Sarah W urged him to say something, at least. He said, “I … You …”
106. Tran dug into his bag and pulled out the last pack of cheese crackers. He offered one to Ana. “American food.” She frowned. “No thank you.”
107. Tran thought Ana fell asleep first. She thought he did. Anyway, they both awoke when it was dark on the bus. They kissed.
108. “Picking lettuce is not bad,” Ana said, “but riding on bus is much better.” Tran wanted to agree, but there was that bus toilet thing.
109. When the bus stopped in Pasadena, Tran had second thoughts about Bakersfield. He was maxed out on field work. Why not something new?
110. Tran called his uncle Duc—second generation Vietnamese. Tran was third. “Bringing your lovely wife?” Uncle Duc asked. Tran said, “Um, yes.”
111. Uncle Duc had a touch of dementia and couldn’t see very well. Tran figured Ana would pass.
112. “You kidding,” Ana said. Tran told her he hadn’t seen his uncle and aunt since his marriage. And they were old then.
113. Aunt Ha hugged Ana. “What have you done with your hair? Tired of being a blond? Anyway, it’s beautiful.” Tran gave Ana a wink.
114. “Duc,” Ha shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me Tran and his wife were coming?” “I did,” Duc shouted back. They were both hard of hearing.
115. “I thought you had a child,” Aunt Ha said. “Oh, he couldn’t come,” Tran said. “Is there somewhere we can plug in our cell phones?”
116. More shouting between Aunt Ha and Uncle Duc. Tran and Ana took their bags into the bedroom. Ana gaped at the bed and fell onto it. “Train!”
117. That night Tran told Ana, “No more whispering. They can’t hear a thing.” He touched her fondly and she cried out, giving it a test. Nothing.
118. Tran had been worried about Ana’s name. “Wasn’t your wife Bab, Barbie, or something?” Ha asked. “She changed it,” Tran said. Keep it simple.
119. The family claimed Uncle Duc was rich. Tran looked around their apartment. Maybe it was better than the Corporate Lettuce cabin. Maybe not.
120. Tran called home. No answer. He texted where he was and the phone number there. No response.
121. The air was stuffy, and Tran opened a window. “That mountain air will be the death of me,” Aunt Ha said. They had AC, but it was set to 86.
122. Duc and Ha argued over whether they lived on Union before Ellis or Ellis before Union 60 years ago. Tran started cleaning the place up.
123. “Can’t get decent help in the store,” Tran’s uncle complained. “What? What about the shore?” his aunt yelled. “We never lived at the shore.”
124. A cuckoo clock sang out. Tran and Ana jumped. Duc and Ha didn’t hear it. They wound it faithfully, though, arguing about who did it last.
125. Business was bad at Asian Imports. Tran’s uncle suspected foul play. Meaning the girl who worked there part-time was probably stealing.
126. “What do you hire that girl for if you stay there watching over her all day anyway?” Aunt Ha shouted. Tran’s uncle waved his hand. “Ahggh.”
127. Tran offered to help out in the store. “It’s hard work, and I can’t pay much,” Uncle Ha warned. Two falsehoods, Tran suspected.
128. “The girl” at Asian Imports didn’t seem lazy or dishonest to Tran. Tiffany was her name. She pronounced it Teffanay. “Just call me Teff.”
129. Teff told Tran she thought business at Asian Imports was slow because of the stock. “I mean, who’s going to buy a silk suit?”
130. Teff told Tran she would stock items for student dorms. Lamps, mugs, wireless speakers. “If it comes from China, that’s Asian, right?”
131. Without telling Uncle Duc, Tran put in an order for some lamps, mugs, and wireless speakers.
132. The world was out to get Uncle Duc and Aunt Ha. Or so they thought. Tran rather doubted it.
133. Tran’s uncle and aunt never answered the telephone. “You never know who it might be.”
134. Tran was surprised how little his uncle and aunt ate. It was largely tea and cheese crackers.
135. Ana went shopping for groceries. She giggled when she showed Tran something from the bag. Corporate Lettuce.
136. Ana brought order and actual meals to the apartment. Tran’s aunt kept thanking her. His uncle liked to pat her on the cheeks. Constantly.
137. The aunt and uncle decided to pay Ana for cleaning, shopping, cooking, laundry. $5 a day. Tran thought it an insult, but Ana was grateful.
138. Tran would get $20 a day for working at the Asian Imports Store. Depending on sales, of course.
139. “Thought you were a professor,” Uncle Duc said to Tran. “What are you doing coming here looking for work?” (Never knew who you could trust.)
140. “I’m on leave to do research,” Tran said. At once, he realized his mistake. Research? Even his aunt was suspicious now.
141. “Research on what?” Uncle Duc demanded to know. Tran’s field was American Studies, but he seldom mentioned it. To avoid the dismissive “Ah.”
142. Tran’s college assumed he was working on a scholarly publication. He stuck with that. “All about demographics and statistics.”
143. “Graphics,” his uncle said. “That’s some fancy word for drawing pictures, isn’t it?” Tran said yes. Better to end the conversation there.
144. In fact, Tran was planning to write a novel. If he did, he would have to pay the college back for the year off. Fine. He had a great agent.
145. Meanwhile, the $20/day from work at the store helped. Tran’s uncle was starting to trust him. Even let him use the cash register now.
146. Soon Tran was as loved as Ana, and if Uncle Duc wasn’t patting her on the cheeks, he was patting Tran on the butt. Cataract problems?
147. Tran’s Uncle Duc and Aunt Ha were worried about something. They needed a lawyer, they said. But you never knew who you could trust.
148. “I know a lawyer,” Tran told his uncle. He gave him John White’s card. “My boy,” his uncle yelled out. “You have a lawyer friend? Who knew?”
149. Tran doubted immigration was his uncle’s problem, but how complicated could his case be? He made the call to John White and left a message.
150. Tran’s aunt and uncle kept the TV so loud it was hard to talk. At first, Ana kind of liked it. The English words came out loud and clear.
151. Ana kept a notebook as she watched TV with Duc and Ha. One day after Tran came home she asked him what “biyatch” meant.
152. “The word ‘ambuscade’ appears 68 times in the diary of this first president of the United States.” Tran saw Ana smile. She knew!
153. Duc and Ha loved quiz shows. Tran’s uncle stood and shouted whenever a contestant made a mistake. His face got blood red. “Darn fool!”
154. A contestant said “Pike Peak” instead of “Pikes Peak.” Tran’s uncle shouted till he got dizzy. “You’ll bust a blood vessel,” Aunt Ha yelled.
155. John White never called. Bobette never called. Although maybe they did and Tran couldn’t hear the phone ringing over the TV.
156. One evening for sure Tran heard the phone ring. He went to answer it, but Uncle Duc waved him away. “You can never be sure who’s calling.”
157. Tran’s aunt and uncle were still renting their phone. He was sure they could buy one that had caller ID for less than $10. Let it go.
158. Even Ana knew about “col-id.” But you’d have to 1. Get up and look. 2. Read the screen through cataracts. Tran decided to call John back.
159. “Tran, buddy. I left a zillion messages. Lots of Corporate Lettuce clients, thanks to you. In California now: orange season ahead. What up?”
160. Tran’s uncle had a black 1989 Cadillac that he jammed into the allotted space at his apartment. He drove it every 6 months to the doctor’s.
161. Tran’s uncle’s car was easy to find. It stuck out 3 ft. beyond the other cars in the line. Opening the doors and getting in was the problem.
162. “Jeez, Ha. You put another nick on my door,” Uncle Duc raged. Tran noticed many more nicks on the car parked next to theirs.
163. Uncle Duc didn’t want Tran or Ana to come with them to pick the lawyer up at the bus station. “You understand,” he said. “Private business.”
164. Duc and Ha returned in no time. Alone. “Took care of it at the station,” Tran’s uncle chuckled. “No need to stretch billable hours.”
165. Tran was disappointed. He’d wanted to see John again. Feed him something even better than that ham sandwich. Must be prime immigrant season.
166. The TV news was all about kicking Mexicans out. Build a wall. Cut off their food stamps and welfare. Tran wondered who’d pick the lettuce.
167. “They’re taking our jobs,” the protestors shouted. Tran never heard them say, “We’ll pick the oranges ourselves.”
168. Tran thought of Huck Finn watching a tar and feathering and thinking, “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.”
169. One political candidate called Mexicans murderers and rapists. Ana was scared. “He really hates us?” Tran took her hand, almost wept.
170. Well, actually, Tran did weep. Imaginary literary agent Sarah Wittgenstein notwithstanding.
171. Tran remembered Huck’s reaction to the ignorant bluster of the King: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”
172. Ana started to fear going out, asking Tran to bring groceries home. He told her not to worry. And tried to console her at night in bed.
173. Duc and Ha liked Ana’s burritos and refried rice and tamales. But they just nibbled. Ha seemed to be getting thinner. Tran was worried.
174. Ana made horchata rice milk for Ha. It was sweet and Ha liked it but could never finish it. Tran could. He was the one putting on weight.
175. When Tran came home from the store one day, Aunt Ha was in bed, Ana holding her hand. “Little fever,” Ana said. “No worry.”
176. In his mind, Tran heard the imaginary Sarah W noting Chekhov’s precept about a gun appearing in Act I. He hoped it didn’t apply to fevers.
177. In any case, Aunt Ha was up and about the next day. It was Wednesday—store closed, Tran home. There was a knock on the door.
178. Bobette, with Sam. Uncle Duc stood in the doorway. “We’re Buddhists. Not interested.” Sam ran and hugged Tran. Bobette saw Ana and shrieked.
179. “Who the hell is she?” Bobette said. “Who the hell are you?” Tran’s aunt and uncle said together. A Mexican standoff, you might say.
180. “What kind of lie is that?” Uncle Duc yelled when Bobette said she was Tran’s wife. “Tran’s wife is Ana.” Tran swallowed hard.
181. “She changed her name,” Aunt Ha said—a non sequitur, perhaps, to Bobette. Tran stood silent, hugging Sam. Ana had her hand over her mouth.
182. Tran said maybe they should all sit down. “Not me,” Uncle Duc yelled. “I don’t know what this person is doing in my house. Buddhist, I say.”
183. “Stop lying,” Aunt Ha shouted. “You’re not Buddhist or anything. Sit down. Call that lawyer. I don’t know what’s going on.” Tran did.
184. Bobette confronted Ana. “I’m Tran’s wife. Who you are?” Ana began, “I am house …” then stopped herself. She said, “I am his lover.”
185. Bobette said, “Is this true, Tran? I can’t believe you’re making it easy for me.” She took some papers from her handbag. “I want a divorce.”
186. “What?” Uncle Duc shouted. Tran’s aunt yelled, “Keep your promotional literature to yourself. We’re not interested.”
187. Tran reached for the papers, but Bobette pulled them back. “Not so fast. I’m going back and changing the grounds. Adultery now.”
188. Tran clung to his son. Bobette said, “Don’t worry. You can have Sam. Dirk says he’s not in a place right now to take on raising a child.”
189. “Dirk says all the men he knows with children end up with a paunch,” Bobette explained. She stared at Tran’s midsection.
190. Finally, Tran spoke. “What do your papers say, hon? 50-50? Let’s say the adulteries cancel each other out. I’ll give you 2/3 and sign now.”
191. Bobette closed one eye—her face when trying to figure out if somebody was trying to pull one over on her. She came up dry. “OK, then, Tran.”
192. Finally they sat down at the kitchen table. Crossed out figures. Added figures. Both copies signed. Tran and Bobette. No further law fees.
193. “This is some kind of scam,” Duc told Tran. “She’s out to trick you. Don’t sign anything.”
194. “I’ll have 2/3 of my pay deposited into your account,” Tran said. A bad deal? Not really. He thought 1/3 better than his current nothing.
195. Plus he’d have Sam. And Ana. And then there would be the royalties, Tran told himself. Sarah Wittgenstein, please hear my prayer.
196. Tran gave Bobette a hug. “Say hello to Dirk,” he told her. “And keep watching those abs.” Bobette looked at Ana and actually said, “Humpf.”
197. Sam’s mouth dropped as his mother left. “A little confusing, I guess,” Tran said. “Hey, you like burritos?” Sam eyed Ana. “Yea, I guess.”
198. Sam smiled at Ana. He seemed attracted to her. He was going on 15. Hormones, Tran guessed.
199. There was a third bedroom, but it had to be cleared out. Ana to Tran in bed: “What is these trash they keep? They taking nap, I throw out.”
200. Sam had his laptop, Android phone, surface chargers, solid state storage, and two changes of T-shirts and shorts. He told Tran he was set.
201. Tran took Sam to enroll in a summer program for high schoolers at Cal Tech. There was a software coding test for admission. Sam aced it.
202. Sam was all about software coding. He wrote and sold Android apps. He told Tran his PayPal account had $50,000 in it.
203. “Did Mom know about that?” Tran asked. She hadn’t paid Sam a lot of attention for a few years, with her workouts, dietary regimes, and all.
204. “I told her,” Sam said. “She didn’t seem to get it. Calls it play money.” Right, Tran thought. That’s what Bobette called “bittycoins.”
205. Sam took the bus to class every morning and came home to eat burritos with Ana. When Tran came home, Sam was always tapping at his laptop.
206. One day Tran came home and heard shouting behind the door before he opened it. Duc was enraged, Ha was crying, Sam was pacing. Ana was gone.
207. Tran learned nothing from Duc and Ha except that Ana had gone out to get some “Mexican stuff” for a dessert Sam liked. And never came back.
208. Tran called Ana’s phone. It rang in the bedroom. There it was, on the charger. “Check her call record,” Sam said. It was all Latina names.
209. Tran wanted to call Ana’s sister, but she couldn’t speak English. “My friend Rob at school speaks Mexican.” Sam smirked. His mom’s word.
210. Tran ran to the Mexican grocery store. They hadn’t seen her. He called the police. They gave him the number for Immigration Enforcement.
211. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE. Tran was scared to dial, but did. Phone tree.
212. “Only written requests for detainee information can be honored. Thank you, and have a nice day.” Tran doubted he would.
213. Tran slept alone for the first time since he’d met Ana. Is this the way it was for illegals? You suddenly disappeared?
214. Sam took Ana’s phone to class so Rob could call her sister. Tran went along. “Hung up,” Rob said. “She thought I was a cop or a creditor.”
215. “Better go find your wife,” Uncle Duc said. “Teff can handle the store.” But Tran didn’t know where to look. He called John White.
216. “Thought I’d get to see you in Pasadena,” John said. “That uncle of yours, keeps his cards close to his chest.” Tran knew.
217. “Way I see it, first thing is to locate her,” John said. Tran was glad he saw it that way.
218. “ICE isn’t far from me. Lawyers can get in. Got to say. It’ll cost a thousand.” “No problem,” Tran told him. It was, but he’d figure it out.
219. “What I don’t get,” Tran told John, “so many illegals here. Why Ana and nobody else?” “Cases like this,” John said, “usually an informant.”
220. “Don’t know anybody who might have turned her in, do you?” John asked. Tran thought he might. But the point was to get her out.
221. Tran slept alone a second, then a third night. He was back at the Asian Imports store when John called. “Bad news. She was deported.”
222. “Not exactly deported,” John told Tran. “Ana was allowed a ‘voluntary return.’ To Nogales. Same thing, basically.”
223. Tran closed the store. He sat on a park bench to think. Lots of women who walked by looked Latina. Yet only Ana was deported.
224. Uncle Duc and Aunt Ha kept asking where Ana was. Sam Googled immigration policies while Tran held his head in his hands.
225. Tran’s son Sam said, “They don’t deport you now. They remove you.” That’s it, Tran thought. Ana had been removed from his life.
226. “There’s a Mexican guy in my coding class,” Sam told Tran. “I hope he never gets removed.” Tran concurred.
227. Uncle Ha kept being surprised when he noticed Ana wasn’t there. Tran had to tell him what happened over and over, louder each time.
228. Aunt Ha reverted to cheese crackers when she couldn’t have Ana’s burritos. Actually, Tran, too. He was losing his paunch.
229. A call from John White, Esq. “Way I see it, Tran, you have two choices. Plan A. Your friend gets herself smuggled back across the border.”
230. Tran waited for John’s second option. “Plan B. You go to Mexico and marry her.” There was a pause. “Just saying.”
231. Tran couldn’t believe he’d never thought of Plan B. Possibly because he’d been married to somebody else until recently. “Plan B,” he said.
232. John asked Tran, “You have a passport?” No. “Divorce decree in Spanish?” No. “I can expedite the paperwork,” he said. “It’ll cost.”
233. “There’ll be things to sign,” John said. “I’ll bring them by in a week. You can pay me then.” With what? Tran wondered. But he said, “Fine.”
234. “Don’t hang up, Dad,” Sam said. “Aren’t you forgetting something? You sure she’ll marry you?” Tran told John to hold on, covered the phone.
235. Tran turned to his son. “Um.” It was all he could come up with. Sam said, “Don’t worry. Just kidding. And I want to go with you to Mexico.”
236. “Wait, John,” Tran said. “I’ll need a passport for my son, too.” Sam said no. He had a passport. “Mom said just in case.”
237. Sam grabbed his laptop and was on it. “Greyhound to Nogales. Two tickets. Type in your card number here, Dad.” Tran’s card was canceled.
238. John was coming in a week. Tran had to act fast. Get a new credit card, cancel the joint account, open one of his own. The bank was closed.
239. Back the next day. “Send this form to your college authorizing deposits …” Send? And then Tran knew it would sit on some desk for a week.
240. “I’ll stake you, Dad.” Tran asked Sam what he meant. “For the trip. We can use my PlayPal money. That’s what Mom calls it.”
241. Tran said, “But …” (Whoever heard of borrowing money from a 14-year-old?) But he knew he was going to borrow money from his 14-year-old.
242. “I’ll transfer the money to your new account,” Sam told Tran. “Takes 3 or 4 days.” You can pay me back from your novel royalties.
243. Tran took the comment about royalties as wit. Still, he prayed to his imaginary agent. Oh, Sarah Wittgenstein, help me in my time of need.
244. “How’s the novel coming, anyway?” Sam asked. “Got a lot written?” Tran said yes. “Not on paper but in my head, I mean.”
245. Sam pored gleefully over the Google map of Nogales. Tran looked over his shoulder, more anxious than gleeful.
246. Tran hated to go to Mexico and leave his aunt and uncle alone. “Does your son ever visit?” he asked. Uncle Duc waved his hand. “Ahggh.”
247. “Big shot,” Tran’s uncle said. “My son’s over in Europe somewhere. Never calls. Too busy managing his money.”
248. Tran arranged for Teff to work full-time at the store and drop in on his aunt and uncle once a day while he was gone. Would they let her in?
249. Trial run. Teff came at noon, and Tran let her in. “We’re Buddhists,” Duc yelled. Teff put a burrito on the table. “For lunch.”
250. Tran’s uncle said, “Room service? We didn’t order room service.” Tran’s aunt said “Ana, is that you? You look different.”
251. Teff said she was Ana’s friend. Aunt Ha cut off a tiny piece of the burrito. Uncle Duc took some, too. Tran winked at his son.
252. Tran would tell Duc and Ha he was closing the store until he got back. Neighborhood crime streak, he would tell them.
253. John White knocked on the door, topping off a rough few days for Tran’s uncle. He shouted, “We’re not on the clock now, you understand?”
254. “Take a walk?” Tran said. He handed John cash, as per request. John gave him the passport and papers in a plastic snack shop bag.
255. The class was over. Sam and Rob sat at the table with their laptops now. Coding or games? Tran wondered. To them there was no difference.
256. Deciding what to pack was no problem for Tran and Sam. They each took all of their clothes in a backpack.
257. “We’re off to get Ana,” Tran told Duc and Ha. “ Any problem, call me or Teff.” They had the numbers, but he knew they wouldn’t call.
258. Greyhound to Nogales, Tran’s nerves on edge. Could they find Ana? Would she marry him? Maybe back in Mexico she had …
259. Sam used his phone to snap picture after picture from the window, mostly of barren land. Tran sat holding Ana’s phone against his chest.
260. “Look,” Sam said. “The fence.” Tran hadn’t used the bus facilities and was still in his holding pattern. Brisk walk across the border.
261. “Taxi?” Tran read out Ana’s address. “Woo-hoo,” Sam said. “What a ride!” Tran was still gripping Ana’s phone.
262. “Maybe we should go to a hotel first,” Tran muttered. “Don’t be a wimp, Dad,” Sam told him. “Let’s get this settled, one way or another.”
263. The driver stopped. “Casa de Anabella Ruiz?” A boy led them to a door. Even if Ana refused marriage, Tran hoped he could use the toilet.
264. Ana threw her arms around Tran. So yes, it seemed. Then both sisters and the mother. A hug huddle. They included Sam. A bigger huddle.
265. Tran gave Ana her phone. She kept saying, “I cannot believe.” Then, “You troubled?” Tran had an urgent request. “Sure, door over there.”
266. Ana’s mother said something. Ana was mortified but translated: “She says have you come to ask for my hand?” Tran nodded.
267. Screams of pleasure by mother and sisters. Ana threw her arms around Tran. “Mi amor.” Tran took it for a “yes.”
268. Tran wanted to talk to Ana. But they had to eat first, her mother said. A three-hour meal delay. Sam put pictures of the food on Instagram.
269. Ana’s mother urged a short engagement. “Not more than a year,” Ana translated. Tran had been thinking a week, tops.
270. Tran spread out the papers he got from John. Proof of economic solvency, birth certificate, divorce decree. “All in Spanish.” He grinned.
271. “So I guess we’re all set?” Tran said to Ana. She paged through the documents. “Not quite.”
272. “What else?” Tran asked. Ana said, “Also need permission to marry from Mexican Immigration Office.” Tran responded, “Huh?”
273. Ana added, “To get permission we need blood test, X-ray, doctor paper.” Tran started to contemplate Plan A, smuggling her across the border.
274. Ana said, “Then must go to Civil Registry and marry. Wait for certificate. Take to US Consulate.” Tran’s stomach hurt.
275. “Here could be a problem,” Ana said. Tran saw she was looking at the divorce decree. “Must be divorced a year before can marry in Mexico.”
276. Tran’s son said, “Why don’t we just live here, Dad? The food is great.” Plan C?? Tran found himself seriously considering it.
277. Ana translated something for her mother: “Of course after the civil marriage comes the church ceremony and reception.” Tran stifled a groan.
278. Ana’s mother urged a small wedding. “Just relatives. A few friends. Not more than 100 people.” Tran saw his son gasp. It was on his dime.
279. Ana rode in the taxi with Tran and his son to the hotel. While Sam texted his friends, she sat next to Tran on the bed. Furtive kisses.
280. Sam asked to go swim in the pool for a while. “OK. Sure, that’d be fine. Long as you want.” Tran and Ana made love on the narrow bed.
281. Sundown. Ana had to go home. She couldn’t stop crying. Post-coital tristesse? Tran wondered. Something different?
282. Tran said, “Stay.” Ana said, “I will always love you.” She hugged him. And left.
283. Sam returned. “No swimming after dark. Where’s Ana?” Tran had a bad feeling. “Couldn’t stay,” he said. “Coming back tomorrow.”
284. Tran and his son slept deeply. Huge omelets for breakfast. No Ana. Swimming, then lunch. No Ana. They taxied to her house. No Ana.
285. “Where is she?” Tran asked. The mother and sisters turned up their palms. “Not wis you?” Tran’s knees buckled. Ana’s mother said, “Ayee.”
286. Ana’s mother called her husband in the “computador” factory. Talking in Spanish, but Tran got the idea. He didn’t know where she was either.
287. Tran’s son reminded him Ana had her phone back. Tran dialed her. He let it ring and ring. No answer. Nothing.
288. Tran had to sit down. “Should we call the police?” he said. The sisters and mother understood the word “police.” Definitely against it.
289. Tran gave Ana’s family his phone number and went back to the hotel. Sam did some swimming, Tran some pacing. Then it was dark. No Ana.
290. Tran to Sarah W, his imaginary literary agent who claimed he needed more experience. “Well, another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.”
291. Tran couldn’t sleep. He went out to the courtyard and sat on a bench to think. Came up with nothing.
292. Tran stared into the pool at the reflected sky. “Chanting faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.” An experience he could do without.
293. Tran’s son, barefoot in pajamas, slipped across the courtyard. “Come back inside and get some sleep, Dad. Nothing you can do.”
294. But, Tran thought, lying awake in bed, even if Ana changed her mind, why didn’t she tell me? Instead of just disappearing.
295. Tran must have fallen asleep towards morning because his phone woke him up from a dream about Ana. “Train, mi amor, I am on Arizona side.”
296. Ana laughed, told Tran she was at Lucky’s Café. She lowered her voice. “Is danger, I know. But I was voluntary return, not remove. Better.”
297. “I hoping you can meet me here,” Ana told Tran. “Maybe my mother give you some stuffs to bring.” Sam stopped Tran from hanging up. “Wait!”
298. “Should we get a copy of her birth certificate?” Sam asked. “Might come in handy.” Tran’s not quite 15-yr-old son going on 27.
299. Back through the turnstiles. This time the US guys examined their passports. Their stares made Tran nervous. He looked for a rest room.
300. “Open your bags, please. Take everything out.” The customs guy checked Sam’s things first. “You too,” he told Tran. “Empty yours, please.”
301. The agent stared at Tran. “What’s this? Women’s clothes? Underwear, makeup? Are you a …?” He grimaced and turned away. “Never mind. Go on.”
302. Sam still choking back laughter as they got a taxi. Query to SW: Does humiliation count as experience? Tran had plenty of that to work with.
303. Ana sat in a booth at Lucky’s Café, on the phone. The waiter eyed Tran as he approached her. Jealously, Tran thought.
304. Ana jumped up. “Mi amor,” she said. “Is my father. He want talk to you.” Sam gave Tran a supportive pat on the back.
305. “Ask for permission,” Sam whispered. Tran didn’t understand. “To marry her,” Sam had to explain. “Oh. Right.”
306. Ana’s father spoke good English—loud. “Sorry I couldn’t meet you, Mr. Train. But anybody Ana likes is fine by me.” Sam gave a thumbs up.
307. “Ana says you’re on vacation.” Her father sounded a little worried. Tran said it was a kind of project he was working on. “Supposed to be.”
308. “Anyway,” Ana’s father told Tran. “You’re better off Stateside. My pay at Chung Wa Assembly would be triple there.”
309. “I wish I could get hold of statistics showing that,” Tran said. “It would help with my project. But anyway.”
310. “Tell Ana to text me your LA address,” her father told Tran. “And good luck. She’s a handful.”
311. “So. Vegas, Dad?” Sam looked at Tran, then Ana. He hummed Faith Hill’s “Let’s Go to Vegas.” Ana nodded. Tran said, “Let’s go.”
312. Tran slept all the way to Las Vegas. His son picked up a casino hotel coupon in the station. Was Sam now in charge? Well, he was paying.
313. “Single room or suite?” Tran looked to his son. “Do you have an ATM here?” Sam asked. “Of course.” Sam said, “Suite.”
314. A 14-yr-old with his own room in a casino thronging with …? Tran’s imaginary literary agent SW scoffed at his qualms.
315. On the way to Las Vegas, Sam showed Tran websites giving craps strategies. Tran said, “No way I can win.” He won $1,000 in 15 minutes.
316. “Look, Dad, another coupon. Chapel of Love. Just saying.” Tran glanced sideways at Ana. Hand-on-mouth sign of approval.
317. Tran thought of his wedding to Bobette. In-law fights over invitations, the ceremony. Drunken relatives. Somebody else’s party, not his.
318. Ana was worried. “My clothes mostly for work in field.” Tran said no problem if $1,000 could buy a wedding dress. Ana fainted in Tran’s arms.
319. Ana tried on a silky white dress that left both Tran and his son speechless. $900. “No worries,” Tran said. “It’s free money.”
320. Birth certificate? Chapel of Love translated it. Marriage license? While you wait. Other requirements? None. Tran and Ana were married.
321. Sam posted pictures of the bride and groom on Instagram and Facebook. Ana called her family. Tran just smiled. No one to call.
322. “Tell your mother some day we’ll go back to Nogales and have a church ceremony,” Tran told Ana. When his royalties started rolling in?
323. The wedding night. Tran carried Ana over the threshold. A quandary: make love or enjoy looking at her in her dress. Love won.
324. Tran’s phone rang—coitus interruptus. Teff was sobbing. “I think Uncle Duc is dead. Had a stroke screaming out “e” during Wheel of Fortune.”
325. “Call an ambulance,” Tran said. “I’ll call his son.” It wasn’t the wedding night he’d expected.
326. Tran called Uncle Duc’s son. “You’ve reached 4290. If I know you, leave a message. If not, please hang up.” Tran left a message anyway.
327. Ana was crying. “Poor Uncle Duc. Poor Aunt Ha. We must go back right now.” Tran woke Sam, told him. Night bus to LA.
328. “The EMTs couldn’t revive him,” Teff told Tran. Aunt Ha didn’t understand. “That man and his shenanigans will be the death of me,” she said.
329. Ana took Aunt Ha to bed. Sam kept saying, “Oh, my.” Tran thanked Teff. When she left, Tran also started saying, “Oh, my.”
330. Tran left more messages for Uncle Duc’s son. No reply. He found an address and sent a letter. Return receipt requested. None came.
331. Things got worse. Aunt Ha stayed in bed with a bad fever. She wouldn’t eat. Tran called an ambulance. On the way to the hospital, she died.
332. Now what? Tran thought. Ana and Sam were at their wits’ end. Then Teff called. Would the store remain open? Tran had no answers.
333. Tran and Sam went through Uncle Duc’s papers. The apartment was actually a condo they owned. Good. But what about taxes and fees and bills?
334. “So. You still on vacation?” Ana asked Tran. Oh, that’s right, he remembered. A sabbatical report was due. He had nothing.
335. “September coming,” Ana said. “We could go pick apples.” As long as Sam would be OK, the idea held some attraction for Tran.
336. “Can I go to Rob’s school in September?” Sam said. But Tran’s sabbatical ended in the middle of Sam’s school year. “Don’t see how,” he said.
337. “Maybe you could teach online,” Sam suggested. “I could help you set it up.” Sounded good to Tran. Bobette had the house anyway.
338. A package came for Tran. Detailed report from Mexican SAT of tax and expense filing of Chung Wa Assembly. Ana’s father to the rescue!
339. Tran could base his sabbatical publication on the report. Woo-hoo. A year’s salary saved. If Ana could translate it.
340. “More fun to pick apples,” Ana said. “But OK I try.” Tran’s imaginary literary agent agreed with Ana about apples vs statistics, but …
341. A call from the lawyer John White. “What’s the story on you and Ana?” he asked Tran. “You guys married? Great. I’ll tell you why.”
342.  John said, “Got a habit of reading the obituaries. Sorry to read about your loss. Old Duc and Ha had a will, I guess you know.” Tran didn’t.
343. John said, “They left you loads of cash. Plus the condo and store.” Tran told him Duc and Ha had a son. “Oh, yea. He gets the cuckoo clock.”
344. Sam and Ana were staring at Tran when he hung up. “Good news,” he said. “Let’s go to Uncle Duc’s store. Tell you about it on the way.”
345. “No mugs?” Tran noticed. Teff smiled. “Nope. Everything we ordered sold out.” Tran said he was giving her a raise. Three months retroactive.
346. Sam frowned at the few cramped pages in Tran’s notebook. “Like Frost,” Tran said, “I glory in fitting my thoughts into a restrictive space.”
347. Sam and his friend Rob sat tapping at their laptops. Tran and Ana sat going over the Chinese expense report. A voice called out to Tran—SW.
348. “Hold on,” Tran’s imaginary agent SW said. “This is no way for a story to end. A wedding. People expect a story to end with a wedding.”
349. “Let’s go,” Tran said. “Back to Nogales for a big church wedding and reception.” He winked at Sam. “The trip’s on me this time.”
350. EPILOGUE: Teff took over the store. John got rich. Sam went to Cal Tech. Tran and Ana lived happily ever after. So did Bobette and Dirk.

 

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