At the seafood section of Buddha Amazing Market, the reek of death was especially prominent. The lobster tanks spellbound Trời and Lá. In one glass prison, the creatures, with rubber bands restricting their red pincers, climbed onto each other, as though trying to escape. The pile resembled a hunched back. One crustacean nearly made it out — but Chuông poked it with a chopstick. The clawed optimist fell slowly to the bottom.
“Ha! Sneaky guy.”
“Hey, why’d you do that?” asked Lá.
Grabbing a silver knife, Chuông prepared to cut up a salmon. “What? You want freedom for animals?” He chuckled. “Stupid!”
“Sorry, Chuông,” said Hồng, catching up to her teenagers, struggling to push a wonky-wheeled cart.
“Hồng! No problem. What would you like?”
“Salmon. Three pounds. And five blue crabs. Maybe toss a couple lobsters in there.”
“Full house tonight?”
“No no no.” She shook her hands and head. “Can never be too prepared about food!”
“Ah, okay.” Chuông put the raw fish into a plastic bag. “Here.”
She examined its contents. “Sorry, could you get new crabs and lobsters? Live ones! I’ll boil them extra fresh!”
He gave her a new batch. Hồng moved the cabbages and scallions to one side of the cart, the seafood occupying the other.
“Let’s go.” She motioned to the twins, swiping a pack of oxtail from the meat shelves.
Beginning to tail Hồng, Lá stuck his tongue out at Chuông, and Trời followed behind his brother. The family headed to the cashier.
“Byebye, stupid!” Chuông said to Lá. The salmon deboning continued.
The Tran twins grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They lived on The Very Old People’s Street — also known as Minnehaha. Nearly all the residents surpassed 70; Trời felt they paraded their age too much.
Only when surrounded by family, or by Vietnamese people, did they utter their real identities. At school, Trời was Oliver and Lá was Frederick — names they had seen on T.V. But luck showered over Hồng, since hers boasted a pleasant English translation: Rose. (Also pink, which isn’t as lyrical).
The name of almost every Vietnamese they knew carried poetry: Lotus, Apricot Blossom, Ocean. As with their mother, colors imbued the boys’ names: Xanh Da Trời (blue, like the “skin” of the sky) and Xanh Lá Cây (green, like a tree leaf). Economical with her syllables, Hồng called them Trời and Lá.
But even so, Trời’s confusion about colors never vanished. Everything in nature cycles through hues, doesn’t it? he wondered. The sky — it’s also magenta and murky and golden.
The neighborhood treasured the boys’ vitality, with which they became jewels of the street. Hồng could call any of the old couples to look after her children when she had to work an extra shift at the bakery.
At three in the afternoon, the school bus halted beside the street sign and opened its doors. The two 14-year-olds ran out. They said hello to Bertha, the classically trained pianist next door, who was swaying on her hammock as usual.
The twins marched into the house, their Superman and Captain America backpacks heavy with dreams. Each removed his shoes. Passing the kitchen —“Hey, con!” Hồng said — they scurried to their bedroom. Steam from the minty pho broth humidified the home, stuck to everything and spared none. Not even the clothes.
On the bottom of the bunk bed, Trời lay on his side. Above him, Lá’s body, within minutes, had surrendered to sleep, as happened daily. Trời dwelled on Cameron, a boy in his math class. Tracing both their names on the frosty window, Trời lived up to his name: He was blue. Then he stared outside, his gaze roaming away from the house, to where the grass ended and the fractured street began. Beside their mailbox posed a naked pear tree, from which he tried to extract meaning.
The next week, only Trời shopped for groceries with Hồng. While she inspected the cabbages and red onions, he stared at the lobsters, elbows on the glass, chin on fists. Like a daydreamer.
“Hey, what the heck you doing?” a muffled voice asked.
Trời flinched. A boy stood on the other side of the tank. They peered at each other through the aqua glass, as though at a border.
“Uh, nothing,” said Trời, stepping to the side. He thought the boy was weird.
Weird Boy mirrored the daydreamer’s move; The lobster tank no longer obstructed their eye contact. “I like the crabs, too. I have one as a pet! George. I like to rub his belly. Just gotta never take off the rubber bands. Keep him cuffed. Ba hates George, thinks animals are money-makers, not friends.”
“Who’s your ba?”
He pointed at Chuông, who glanced up from his work. “Trời Tran!” He was cutting salmon and tuna. “Where’s your mom?”
Trời turned to the direction of Hồng, who struggled to choose the best greens.
The overhead lights began to flicker. In seconds Buddha Amazing succumbed to darkness; A power outage infected the whole city. Chuông grabbed a flashlight from beneath the counter and shined it at the two boys. They stared into each other’s soil-brown eyes. Then Trời, his face pink as a sunset, moved his focus to the boy’s mouth: sweat twinkling, the vertical canyon between his nose and upper lip, black dots. An absence of light wasn’t so bad, Trời thought.
“I like your mustache.” He pointed at the blooming facial hair.
Weird Boy tapped his mouth. “No”— he shook his head —“you shouldn’t. It means I’m growing up — and I don’t wanna.”
Chuông carried on with his duties as another worker positioned the flashlight’s mouth to his cutting board. The deboning continued — as if nothing had occurred.
That left two boys, hearts beating fast as a caged bird’s wings. Standing in the shadows. In nothing and everything.
“What’s your name, anyways?” asked Trời.
“Oh — I’m Bài. You?”
“People call me Oliver, but I’m Trời.”
“Nice to meet you, crab-lover.”
“Hey I’m not — ”
“Whoawhoa, I’m joking, bro.” No-Longer-Weird Boy’s voice cracked.
“They’re not crabs, dummy.” Trời rolled his eyes. “They’re lobsters.”
“Okay,” replied Bài, raising his arms up, as if to surrender. “Okay.”
For Trời, the first glance was a test. The second, a revelation. He couldn’t ignore it, this beautiful tension. The lobsters seemed to be side-eyeing him.
The world, Hồng had taught her kids, has two types of people: conformists and rebels. A third, unofficial category also exists: those who choose to do nothing — which also means conformity.
The following Saturday, Trời entered Buddha Amazing by himself. Hồng had gone to drop off her famous spring rolls for ill friends.
Trời carried two shopping baskets. In his palm: a wrinkled sticky note, on which his mother had recorded a list: a dozen eggs, two cartons of milk, cabbage, scallions, chicken feet, chicken breast, four corn-on-the-cobs, clementines, dragonfruit and oxtail. No fish needed this round.
An astute observer of his mother, Trời found every item, swiftly reaching the checkout stations.
While waiting for an available cashier, Trời unzipped his jacket and removed Hồng’s food stamp card. Its intricate designs hypnotized him: snow-capped mountains, the flaming sky, two deer facing one another, their touching antlers, cherry blossom branches hovering over the frozen lake, bone-white camellias.
In front of him an elderly woman finished paying. And the cashier summoning the next customer was Bài.
“Hey, why the heck you here?” he asked Trời, who, struggling to raise the overweight baskets onto the conveyor belt, left Bài’s question in the fish-adorned air.
Pitying the lobster enthusiast, Bài slipped out from behind the cash register and hopped over to Trời. Without any words, the teens lifted the first basket together, each holding one handle, as though they had rehearsed. The whole time, Trời stared down. Bài placed the second basket on the conveyor and resumed his post.
“So, where’s Mrs. Tran?”
“I’m helping Ma with groceries. She’s busy.”
“And you — why’re you here?” Trời interrogated him, studying the checkout station.
“A worker’s sick, so I’m helping Ba with the seafood back there and the register up here.”
In the lane beside them a baby wailed in its stroller.
“You know your mom makes the best pho?” Bài asked, holding the scanner. “Ba tried it once. He fed me and I fell in love with the noodles.”
“Yeah, she’s the best.”
At that moment, Chuông stepped in to check on his son-turned-cashier. “It’s the not-stupid twin! How’re you?”
Smiling, Chuông helped bag up the groceries.
“We were talking about Trời’s mom and how good a cook she is,” said Bài.
“Dang right! She makes the best soups. But I don’t think her rice pancakes are better than mine.” Chuông shot a proud thumb at his chest. “Why not come eat dinner with us tomorrow—you, your brother, your mom!”
With each scanned item came a beep. “That works, since it’s after school,” Trời replied. “I’ll let them know.”
“Great, see you.” Chuông tied the four bags and looped two in each of Trời’s index fingers. After patting each boy on the shoulder, he returned to the seafood section.
Bài spotted the food stamp card. “Paying with EBT?”
He pointed to the plastic card.
“You mean food stamps?”
“Yeah, it’s called EBT. Eat. Bad. Today.” He laughed, noticing the Hershey’s bar Trời had placed onto the conveyor belt. The final item.
Trời shoved the card into the reader, typed the password, and clicked enter.
“Mkay, you’re all set.” He saluted Trời. “See ya.”
“Thanks.” The black-haired boy disappeared through the sliding doors and waited in the parking lot for his mother’s car.
Hồng drove past a lake on the way to Chuông’s, the boys’ heads sticking out of the backseat windows. Trời admired the October landscape: families sprinkling a line of breadcrumbs, bringing the ducks closer to them; remnants of that abrupt snow from the day before, dampening the sidewalks and grass; the rainbow playground in the sandbox, children zooming up and down the slides, dangling from monkey bars, as though over melted iron.
Pulling onto Magnolia Street, they saw Chuông’s one-story house. Painted yellow, it stood ten blocks from Buddha Amazing. The brightest thing in the tedium of white and gray, of foliage. Hồng parked in front of the mailbox.
“Welcome, Trans,” said Chuông, yelling from the front door. He wore sunglasses.
Hồng reached the entrance, her sons behind. “Hi, Chuông.”
Holding the door open, he waited for them to enter. Once everyone set their shoes on the rack, he led them to the dining room, where Bài was waiting. On the table rose five candles.
“What are those for?” Hồng stared at the flames.
“Ah, to save on electricity.” Chuông winked.
Trời and Lá greeted Bài as their parents chatted.
“Hey! Crab-lover and brother!” He fist-bumped each twin.
Trời beamed. “Hi, Bài.”
Hồng, the twins and Bài took their seats. Chuông entered the kitchen and returned with a pan of his rice pancakes, dandelion yellow. Containing shrimp, mung beans, scallions and pork belly, every circle had been cut into quarters. Trời considered every burnt spot a condiment, his mouth watering when he beheld the bronzed edges. Then the appetizers joined the show: purple mint leaves, lettuce, bean sprouts. And, of course, fish sauce.
“Eat a lot! Don’t wait for me,” Chuông begged.
The boys dug in. No teen touched the greens. After them, Hồng clamped mint and bean sprouts between her chopsticks.
Chuông took his seat and, copying Hồng, added veggies to his plate.
“So, how’s everyone?” He scanned the boys’ faces.
“Normal.” Trời and Lá spoke simultaneously.
“Same,” said Bài.
“Love lifes?” Hồng entered.
Lá scratched his head. “Uh …”
“Bruhhhh,” uttered Bài.
“I like … someone,” Trời suddenly began, munching on a peppered shrimp. “But I’m not the one. I know.”
“Well, I guess I lied yesterday. You’re both stupids, you” — Chuông pointed at Trời — “and him,” his forefinger then aimed at Lá. “How’re you so smart at school but not in real life?”
“Chuông’s right, con. You don’t know until you go out there — what the Americans always say!” Hồng said, as though they observed the country through a snow globe.
“Just put rubber bands around life’s pinchers!” Chuông exclaimed, giving a thumbs up.
“Where’s the bathroom?” Trời whispered to Bài.
“Right there.” Chuông smirked as he pointed to the hallway.
Fleeing, Trời found his destination. He flumped onto the toilet seat and drained the amber pool in his body.
Once he finished washing his hands, Trời noticed on the other side of the hallway a closed door, from which hung a drawing with cartoon lobsters, crayoned brown like autumn leaves. Wielding swords, they seemed angry, as if about to fight. At the center gleamed Bài’s name, in curly letters. Trời, his mouth ajar like a puppet’s, discovered in his pocket a dull pencil. He approached Bài’s door and scribbled a message on the name tag: “Hangout?” Trời tenderly separated the sign from its tape, and slipped it halfway beneath the door.
But he chickened out.
Trời withdrew the sign and, finding out the pencil bore no eraser, crumpled it into a paper ball, which he placed in his coat pocket. The cartoon lobsters didn’t have a chance to start their duel.
Chuông had to pick up shipments of fish and bring them to Swordfish Amazing, so he dropped Bài off at Hồng’s the next evening. The sun, like a far-away explosion with increasing radius, was setting behind the oak trees.
The twins, Hồng, and Bài banded together to fashion a bonfire at the center of the lawn. They collected twigs and branches, tossing them into the pit. Hồng squeezed the bottle of lighter fluid until the wood grew wet, and then lit a match. Spreading like watercolor, a fire was born.
Hồng slipped into the home to throw clothes in the washing machine. The boys remained outside, sitting in foldable chairs. Trời noted the fishy stench of Bài’s skin and t-shirt — but said nothing.
Playing games on his phone, Lá drooped into his seat. Bài and Trời were practically alone; they took sips from the hot chocolate Hồng had whipped up.
“Peaceful,” Bài said, exhaling.
Trời smiled without teeth. After a breeze whispered through the oak leaves, he spoke: “I just remembered — you didn’t show me George yesterday.”
Trời chewed on a softened marshmallow, which had absorbed the creamy brown sweetness. “Maybe you can take off his rubber bands when you show me?” he said hopefully. The flames gained power. Flashes of crystals in their eyes.
“I guess I should help out my best bud.” Bài laughed. “Gonna ask me to let him on my bed, too?”
His head lifted to the indigo sky, Trời giggled unapologetically, holding his stomach with both hands as though to keep it from falling off. “Yep!” He gave a thumbs up.
As if to celebrate the night, crickets gradually formed a choir. From Bertha’s half-open window piano notes whirled. Fireflies flashed on. A lovely stink, as of orchids, permeated the evening air.
Hồng returned to the lawn and covered the boys in hand-made quilts; they had conceded to sleep’s clutches. Trời’s coat, in which the crumpled lobster nametag still hid, was probably being soaked in soap. The fire continued to make cracking sounds, but it didn’t shatter. Drool escaped Lá’s snoring mouth. Beside him, Trời’s head had fallen, as gently as a shooting star, onto Bài’s shoulder.