Coffee Without Words
The way I can communicate with the young man at the tea shop is with blocks of wood. There are seven. Each is about the size of a lipstick tube, and they are fitted into a square, low-sided wood box on the table. Sharing this compartment is a pad of paper and a few small number 2 pencils, golf-sized, with worn down tips. Cut outs of turquoise construction paper are glued onto each of the blocks. In a simply stylized, handwritten script are the phrases or words: “Whisper,” “Bill,” “Ice,” “Cool Water,” “Questions,” “Thank you,” and “Hot Water.”
The young man stands at table side, and I lay out the block that says “Cool Water.” He leaves and comes back with cool water. I put out the block that says “Thank you.” The man—he’s in broad and dark pants and a shirt that makes his body look shrunken in—puts his hands together, smiles, and then gives a slight bow. I grab “Questions” from the box and put it in front of him. He points to the pad of paper. “Order?” I write. He smiles and holds a pad of paper himself, a pencil against it at the ready. The tea menu is unused at my side, and I say, out-loud, “Orange juice with no ice and a coffee.” His head shakes back and forth without wagging off the smile. He points to his ear and then lays one hand flat in the air in front of him, palm down, and shakes it as well. I take up the menu and point to each item I want. He follows along, nods, smiles, and then takes Leonie’s order the same way.
A fan’s blades make the sharpest sound in the room. At the bar nearby, a knife slices through an orange, the orange’s insides are squeezed into a fluted glass, a metal phin filter pings when it’s placed atop a mug. One other couple is in the room, in its corner. They lean near each other, but no words pass in the shared space, just a stirring of spoons, the crumbling of cookies munched on, the thuds of cups returning to table top.
The room light is as muted, as forlorn, as the orphaned sounds. Patterned pillows are abundant on low step chairs and line the benches that jut from wainscot walls. Wood of dark hue makes up the pillars, the ceiling rafters, the chairs. The pillars are hand carved and display intricate patterns of letters and crawling plant vines. Vases full of flowers stand atop wood shelves. The windows are square and open to the street, and, despite the broad aperture of the window frames, it is a weak light that comes through. Outside is overexposed. People who walk by squint to see into the room and hush themselves upon entering.
The young man returns and puts trays and plates on our table. Each order comes with enhancing garnishes, and each garnish is served on a plate similar in style to the order it’s meant to accompany. So the coffee mug on a gilded plate is accompanied by cruets of milk and a trio of syrups also served on gilded plates. Leonie’s jade green teapot has for a partner a jade green cup, and the ceramic tray it’s on matches in style and texture the round ceramic dish that holds four pin-wheel shaped shortbread cookies. The subtle adherence to detail is astounding, and the young man waits to see our reaction.
The orange juice he’s put in front of me is sun warmed and tart. I put out the “Thank you” block, and the man’s rote smile and courtesy bow guide him back from the table.
Leonie wields her teapot to pour. “This place is so cool,” she says.
“Shut up!” I yell.
(Un-sponsored pitch: Reaching Out Teahouse is a project of Reaching Out Vietnam, an organization that provides opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment.)
After a late afternoon drink I sat in the lobby of the Essence Hoi An hotel waiting for Leonie. She had been at the side of the pool for a quarter of the day, salting her legs with the pool’s brackish water and poking them from out the protection of a deck umbrella. She’d asked for time to toss on shorts and a tank, and during the little time she took I had another drink. This was the type of lobby where one cannot sit for more than a few minutes without an attendant offering to wait on you. “Quite alright, nothing more,” I said time and again, “Just waiting on my friend to go on a bike ride.” Go out front, they told me, the bikes are locked out there.
I suppose it might still have been too hot to go out, but earlier in the day Leonie and I discussed having a bike ride and decided to wait until evening. I did not want to leave the fanned lobby. The floor was white marble inlaid with sable, diamond shaped tiles that felt cool on my feet. Overhead whicker baskets hung from hemp rope, the shapes various, from oblong to fatly spherical. A light bulb was fixed like a pearl inside each.
I checked my phone. Daylight had an hour left. Outside was a fuzzy kind of orange, the brightness too much for eyes to tolerate. As it was day’s end, the street was more crowded. The hotel was at the edge of town so it got to witness the dozens of people pedaling out from town heart. Leonie came to my shoulder and tapped it for me to follow her out.
The bikes were large, rusted steel hulks that we wobbled around on while acclimating to their unfamiliar heft and bulk. A single gear cranked and twanged with each pedal turn. The bikes did not have breaks. Leonie fell behind as I rode out, and when I looked back she was zig-zagging over the street with motorcycles slipping around either side of her. At least the bikes fit in aesthetically.
We biked slowly at first, uncertain about our place on the road. One bike that passed us was a bike with wood pedals and wheels without tires, just metal rims crimped flat by the weight of huge sacks of rice laid above the back wheel. But biking slow meant seeing who passed us in finer detail. A woman with a white dress, an ao dai, passed as well. She held onto handle bars that jutted out and then towards her like a bowed section of rib cage. The back flap of her dress fluttered behind her and was possessed by the color and texture of an orchid petal.
“Are we actually biking to something?” I asked Leonie.
“There is a village that makes pottery and has a museum. We can bike there, it’s not far.”
I could hardly see in front of me the sun was so bright. I held one hand up as a visor while the other kept course. Dust made a fine film on my sunglasses.
We biked for twenty minutes, and on arrival at the museum we discovered it closed. “What now?” I asked.
Leonie shrugged, so I biked off, randomly, into a side street as Leonie followed. I wondered how far we could make it off the main road, how deep we could poke our attention into Hoi An’s country. I understood that it was filled with rice paddies and minuscule, often unvisited villages. For the moment though, we pedaled through a labyrinthian complex of potholed streets with brick-building neighborhoods and squalid shacks whose residents seemed to be only fowl and hogs. The street I’d taken us down crimped into a dead end.
I got off my bike. We were at the side of a one story building. While on our way in, I saw four people squatting at the entrance, which was now out of sight. I figured they’d have a chuckle in a few moments after having watched us disappear down a side road they knew to be a dead end and then popping back out a moment later. Instead, one of the women I’d seen squatting emerged from a side entryway and waved us in.
The building was one room. Clay bricks were in stacks along the walls. Out back a large, handmade kiln sweated smoke. In room center, rising from a pile of clay shavings, was a square contraption with a flat and round stone, a potter’s wheel, on top. “You try,” the woman said to Leonie.
The woman gathered a heap of clay from a massive block of it and slapped it down on the wheel’s center. Then she flipped on a switch and the stone spun, blurring the clay smeared across its area. The woman dipped her hand into a ceramic jar filled with ash colored water and actioned for Leonie to do the same. Leonie sat down at the wheel’s helm, and the woman leaned across from her. Host hands went over guest hands as the pairing hugged the wet lump of clay. It took to its spinning shape slowly, first swelling like yeasted dough, then flattening, then fluting upwards. Two host fingers now sandwiched around one guest one to point and lead to the bowl’s completion, rounding the belly and narrowing the lip, molding blank clay to new form.
Back on our bikes, the road carried on and we went with it. It led out of town and to an abandoned red-wall temple and then to a cafe advertising happy hour specials. A few men sat on plastic chairs and drank Tiger beers and bubbled happily. A line of trees grew ahead, and the road shot straight through them. On the other side, the road went over a causeway. Abutting the slopes began the edge of rice paddies.
We began to cross. The road had no demarcating lines to segregate the directional flow of traffic: no dashes, no single stripe, no double. The shoulder was a slash of dirt that descended into a sloppy gum of mud. Opposite sides of traffic meshed together, bikers fitting into gaps of oncoming bikers the way the tines of two forks might fit together. Passengers on motorbikes looked at us and waved and smiled. While they passed, their heads corkscrewed to stay looking at us as if their eyes were magnetized to our forms.
The sun was going away. The initial husk of evening was velvet in color, and the darker kernel of night was not far behind. We needed to return to the hotel before it came as we held nothing to see the road by. There were no street lamps. Slashes of light would fit through gaps in the window shutters and the closed doors that lined the streets, but in the kind of lampblack night that possesses a country road, there was no guarantee that the orb of a motorcycle headlamp would cast its light on us in time…
We turned back far earlier than we would have liked. In one paddy, farmers packed seed into furrows. In another paddy, a tractor whose wheels resembled a paddle boat’s paddle scooped up matured plants. We pulled off the main road and looked back across the fields. A farmer waved, and we snapped a photo before mounting our bikes and disappearing into dusk.
A bright city street…
Sun fades away, day again-
Lights tied on a string.