A forgotten can of pilfered government pound cake and a supper of goi cuon awakens bittersweet memories.
I noticed the muddy “engineer” boots as I turned the chain adjuster on my motorcycle a few more clicks. They were a square-toed, heavy heeled style, with big metal rings joining heavy leather straps at the ankles. The muddy ones now before me belonged to ‘Marvin’, one of our merry band of high school enduro and motocross fanatics.
I nodded and smiled broadly. Gavin was about three years older than me. He had left for the army after a local judge recommended he do so “…as soon as possible.”
“Holy shit. That’s great.” I stood up and wiped my greasy hands on slightly filthier jeans.
Marvin had picked up a screwdriver from my tool bag and began using it to scrape the mud from his boots.
“He’s married too. The dumb fuck. Brought back a woman from over there. His dad’s really pissed. She’s Catholic and fuckin’ Vietnamish.”
“Oh fuck. You’re kidding.” I didn’t know what religion Gavin’s people held with. I was fairly certain they weren’t ‘cat lickers’. They were probably one of the few descendants within Michigan’s old French-Canadian families that wasn’t. They sure as shit were not “Vietnam-ish”.
I frowned at Marvin’s revelation and at his use of my best screwdriver as a mud removal tool.
“You met her?”
“Yeah. She seems nice. But, jay-zus aitch Key-ryst, she barely speaks English and squats instead of sitting in a chair.” In an unfortunate irony, Marvin now squatted next to the rear wheel of my barely (street) legal motocrosser. “She looks like she’s ten fuckin’ years old.”
“Fuck. Barely any of the Polacks around here speak much English. She’ll fit right in.”
‘Fuck’, in those days, often substituted for spoken capitalization and punctuation.
“Wanna meet her?”
I rolled my wrist over to look at my watch. It was the height of fashion to wear one’s watch with the face over the inner part of your wrist. It also kept it from being whacked to shreds as we tore through the jack pines on our motorcycles.
“Sure. I got nowhere to be.”
That summer began my education in Vietnamese culture and cuisine.
“Karen” (Her given name sounded like “k’wor-ahn”. Because she was in love with being an American, she immediately latched onto ‘Karen’ and never tried very hard to teach us the Vietnamese name she was given.”)
Gavin had been smitten by her. She had been one of the battalions of ‘hooch girls’ that seemed to swarm out of the ground wherever Americans set up a few corrugated shelters or musty tents. For a few ‘P’ a day, she would sweep out the soldier’s sleeping areas, catch rats, and run laundry and do errands. Karen spoke fair English. She had attended a Catholic school for several years before running off (or being sent off by hungry parents) to make her fortune as a servant girl to the “mi” (Americans). After putting up with “a bunch of boo-sheet from a gazillion army chaplains and other useless assholes”, Gavin got permission to marry ‘his’ hooch girl. It took them six months to wrangle the army into permitting the marriage. They (against the odds) kept their relationship going when he was ‘unexpectedly transferred’ a few days after discussing Karen with a (previously) kind chaplain.
I glanced cautiously at the little form standing in the driveway next to a (now) scary-thin and scraggly-handlebar moustachioed Gavin who was (as expected) working on his own motorcycle. The top of her head scarcely reached the height of the cycle’s handlebars and it bobbed a good two feet below the one on her husband. A Scooby-Doo beach towel hung from her skinny shoulders and dragged in the dirt and leaves that littered the cement around her bare feet. She clutched a few greasy wrenches in one hand and a sweating bottle of Coca-Cola in the other. Marvin and I climbed off of our bikes and did our best to ‘saunter’ to take positions opposite the shyly smiling girl.
“You wan’ vee’?”
Gavin nodded in our direction. “Yeah, Sweet. They want beers. Bring me one too.”
The waif with an impossibly flat face grinned broadly. She tossed the tools into the grungy toolbox spilled out on the cement and set the pop bottle next to it. Giving her coal-black hair a toss, she scurried toward the house. After tripping on the edge of the towel, she wadded it up and tossed it into the grass next to the driveway.
“And, fer fucksake, put on a shirt or a robe or something!” Karen was wearing a painfully bright blue bikini. She did look to be about ten years old. Flat-chested and with a butt like a young boy, the bikini fit as though it had been borrowed from a much older (and much more developed) sister.
“She seems nice. Pretty smile too. Congratulations, Gavin”
Gavin looked toward the house. “She’s scared shitless. They smile like Cheshire Cats when they’re nervous. But thanks, man. She’s really far out nice and a good cook too. You’ll like her.”
Marvin and I looked at our boots when Gavin used they to describe his wife’s behavior. Political correctness was decades down the road, but his choice of words seemed odd or disrespectful.
Over the rest of the summer, we spent a lot of time with Gavin and his strange, new wife. She was immensely generous with their meager food supplies and seemed able to make huge pots of (sometimes evil-smelling and odd-looking) ‘stuff’. She was happy as a clam to cook for us or ‘run beers’ in exchange for a cigarette (from which she promptly broke any attached filter).
Salem and Marlboro filtered cigarettes were “Num-bah ten-tow-zen”. Gavin’s own Camel ‘studs’ were “Num-bah one!” The learning curve on cigarettes and Karen was short and steep…
…Whenever a guest’s pack appeared, Karen’s hand (waiving, palm down) took furious flight. It was a mistake to toss her the whole pack or to tamp out more than one smoke. Packs entirely disappeared inside of her shirt, robe, or (usually) the very worn Scooby-Doo towel.
(I learned much later, that the obviously highly-prized Scooby towel went almost everywhere with Karen. There was one infamous incident, a few weeks after our first meeting, where Karen squatted under the filthy towel in the rain to wait for the mailman. Gavin’s blue-collar (Polack) neighbors were aghast and one called for the police to “See what’s going on over there.”)
Karen’s potluck suppers usually consisted of a huge bowl of sticky rice and another of steamed cabbage leaves scattered with canned tuna. Sticky rice (‘xoi’) came in several varieties. Sometimes, it was red and pungent with peppers and garlic. Other times, it was bright yellow and had bits of (canned) chicken throughout (‘xoi ga’).
Karen never made the famous Vietnamese ‘spring rolls’, or goi cuon (lit. ‘salad rolls’), for us. Asian markets were far and few between, even in Detroit (where you could buy dozens of brands of Polish sausage). Consequently, the required rice paper was not to be found locally in those days.
Along with cigarettes, Karen had an absolute love for pound cake. She had loved the stuff since growing up in Vietnam. Until arriving in America, Karen had never seen a pound cake presented in anything but dingy, olive-drab cans that were slightly larger than a can of tuna.
The canned cakes had substance. When you shook the can, you got a satisfying ‘thud’. There is nothing like it. The closest approximation would be to shake an unopened can of tennis balls. But, even then, there would not be that substantial feel of a canned pound cake.
I last saw Karen in 1974.
I was on leave from my merchantman, docked for repairs to a trashed screw (propeller).
A few weeks before, we were cleaning out galley stores and we found (hated) boxes of ‘C-rations’ under a tarp. We pitched most of the stuff overboard while the officers slept or hid in the day room, except for a case of Karen’s beloved pound cakes. I stowed them in my locker and vowed to take them to her.
Gavin was in Alaska, working on the new oil pipeline. Karen was keeping the home fires burning and was contentedly caring for their three (still in diapers) children. She snatched the case of cakes from me and scampered to the kitchen, opening can after can so she could feed bits of the hard yellow stuff, birdlike, to her brood of Asian-featured children. Karen tossed me an unopened can, yelling as she waggled a finger at me, “You keep. You nevah know when you ung-wee.” After making small talk for a few minutes more, I left her place and set off to experience the rest of my life.
A few weeks ago, while cleaning out boxes of old keepsakes and the accumulated ‘crap’ of nearly six decades, I found a dented and badly scratched tin of pound cake. I hiked up the basement stairs and set the can next to the keyboard on which I now type these words.
Gavin was killed in a car wreck in 1986. His obituary did not mention a wife or children.
Last night, I made a big batch of goi cuon and a bowl of pungent nuoc mam in which to dip them. My wife adores the tacky, flimsy rolls and the salty-fishy sauce.
We had pound cake for desert.