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Charlie Dickinson


Like a number sequence--one, two, one, two, one, two--her footfalls echoed on the bare, refinished floor of the empty parlor. A parlor--this was, after all, the Arts and Crafts bungalow, for which Marsha Ngo had moments before written a personal check. Earnest money. One thousand dollars. Check in hand, Kyla, the pert, but businesslike, real estate agent who had shown Ngo the place this second time, went out to her yellow Saab curbside.

One, two, one, two. Ngo toyed with the ballpoint pen held crosswise at her lips. Have I signed my life away? Now I write check every month for thirty years, three hundred sixty times?

In a way, she had no choice about this serious purchase. Last year, newly hired by Oxford Life downtown, Ngo was looking at more bankable wealth than anyone in her family--nearly fifteen years in Oregon--dreamed possible.

And at five-seven--only teenage Jeff was taller in the family--she now had the checking account balance, she now had the credit limits to go with her commanding stature. And with no one for her to support, no dependents--young, old, or otherwise--Duc Van Le, the family accountant in Rose City, earlier in the year had said, "Buy a house. You must, for goodness's sake. Taxes, they eat you alive." Not one to drop sound advice, Ngo got busy on a plan of action.

The trunk lid of the Saab levered up and Kyla bent over as if on a search. Ngo thumb-clicked the ballpoint pen and--one, two--studied the heavy cove moldings around the cream, nubbly plaster ceiling. Yes, she had found the place like any number-hungry actuary would. In awry, curling photocopies of the last U.S. Census she made at the main library. Census tract 1.01 through census tract 33.07, the whole city of Portland--all of it, she boiled down to a time-well-spent spreadsheet in Excel.

For that was how the Irvington neighborhood, and then this place on NE 28th, came up: strong educational levels, good incomes, and big plus, high homeownership rates. Ngo stopped the deliberate pacing, took a deep breath. After the numbers were crunched and especially after Kyla said, "Irvington, good choice. Definitely the hot market right now," Ngo knew she was on the right path.

Kyla's frothy ash-blond locks, so unlike her own dark, lank hair, passed in the beveled-glass panes of the front door that now eased open. "Normally, this is something I do in the office with everything in front of me." Kyla waved a blue slip of paper. "Here, your receipt for the earnest money."

"I had to see it one last time, you understand?" Ngo tucked away receipt and pen in her purse.

"Big decision, Marsha. You're not some couple, can't blame the other guy, you change your mind."

"So next is what?"

"I have a three o'clock with the sellers, their agent. I present your offer." In her light tweed suit with ruffled blouse, Kyla was the All-American matron, successful, professional. Ngo knew if anyone could make the case for the offer, twelve-percent off asking price, it was this woman. "We cross our fingers."

They left and a ways down the walk, Ngo turned. Two tapered, panelled columns framed the front door. The Thirty-ish front stoop exuded real character. Matching columns, two eyebrow dormers pushed up from the roofline. Ngo brought forefinger to cheekbone. Logic. Symmetry. Descartes, the Great Rationalist himself, would like this.

"You ready to move in?" Kyla said.

"Yes, but I won't sleep until I know it happened."

* * *

A few hectic weeks later, Ngo was, indeed, moved, the spacious bungalow housing what now seemed her meager belongings. A futon-style single bed. A refrigerator. A threadbare sofa needing a Salvation Army call for pickup soon. The affordable dining set from Hotel/Motel Liquidators. Three folding director's chairs. Countless boxes of stuff. Two wall-shelving units accompanied by too many boxed books. A new Dell laptop.

One weekday night, Ngo was reading, with difficulty, the latest morbidity reports from the office. She was also dozing off. The morbidity stats would have to keep. She sighed and headed up to the bedroom with the futon.

She swung open the dormer window that suggested an ellipse halved, then climbed in bed. Something like an urban lullaby, traffic hummed on distant streets. October breezes played across her face. The night air was good, like a draft of heady liquor. Her eyes, the smooth Asian lids, closed. She was fast asleep.

Then suddenly, sitting up, eyes open. Where am I? Doorbell ringing, red, blurred clock digits on window sill, 3:19. 3:19! What is this?

They break in--they think I'm not here.

Ngo, back bolt-erect, knew something had to be done, slid off the futon, rushed down to the parlor, the front door.

The other side, in windowed gauzy porchlight, a black man she had no reason to meet loomed. Large enough to break the door down leaning on it. Her back went shivery, her legs, concrete. Could she say anything? Was he ready to kick in? The black man's head lurched back on his thick neck.

"What is it?" she said.

"Is John here?" The eyes, so yellowed and bloodshot, blinked in the overhead porchlight.

"No." Right of the door windows, she held to the cold doorknob. Would mere words stop this tank of a man from crashing in? She was about to say, I call the police, when he turned and left and out on the sidewalk, leaves whished and the bulky figure shuffled away into a relief that was darkness.

Ngo went to go upstairs, then stopped, sat down at the first landing, her heart caught up in palpitation. Really, she was by herself. In the new place for what? Second week, third day? Her back shivered again.

* * *

Next Sunday evening Ngo visited, a few miles away, her parents for the weekly family dinner. Grilled meatballs, Saigon-style, thit nuong cha with fish sauce, a culinary favorite of the Ngos and many other Vietnamese families in the Rose City neighborhood.

Dad's jokes, their laughter, the feasting stretched out until Dad and Jeff, the young Ngo still at home, excused themselves for Blazers on cable. Ngo and Mom got busy on their own shared ritual, the dishes.

"So, Marsha," she said above the watery hiss of the faucet. "Now you in a big house, bigger than house here, you all by yourself, yeah?"

"It'll be fine, plenty of room, yes." Ngo opened the dishwasher, ready for her mom's washings. Washed, coincidentally, in the same order they were to be stacked. Bowls on top.

"You, small apartment, one-room, okay, but you, big house, too many rooms, all that space, empty, make you feel more lonely, I'm afraid."

"No, mother, I'll be fine." Her mother sudsed and scrubbed the mot cai bat, the big serving bowl and Ngo waited for more to load. "Maybe at first it was different," Ngo continued. "But I'm now used to the extra space."

"You busy with your job, yeah. I know you not like talk about it, but you meet good man, the two of you in that house, just right start a family, yeah." Her mom rushed the last words like water, as if the sentiment was not new.

"Mother!" Ngo glowered. A mosquito. She will never quit. Nothing's enough for her. Means nothing I'm an actuary. She would talk all the time marriage, she only knew about that burglar.

"I know before we talk about this. You now twenty-eight, older than I first bring it up. I have Chinh I only eighteen, okay, ten years younger from you. I think about house, big, empty, and Marsha, little, alone, there. I think she not put off family business much longer, yeah--"

Ngo had to change the subject.

"Mother, listen, I'll buy a dog."

"You do that why?"

"Because I'm lonely." Lonely little Marsha, big house: It was what her mom wanted to hear. In truth, a dog was better than a burglar alarm in many ways.

"Dog okay. Just remember, another mouth to feed. Buy one small, you not go broke."

"Yes, mother."

Tomorrow was Monday. The pointed words were said, not really answered, if they ever would be. Only a few more dishes for the dishwasher that would gurgle, filling with hot water. Ngo could soon check off her Sunday duty and leave.

* * *

"Hey, what we got here is a fourth-down software punt." Nelse, programmer contact out from Conifer Logic, was in Ngo's office. On her PC, he was demo'ing some new features of the beta software that would do everything, he said, including dice and chop mortality experience. "But I expected that--"

Ngo did not know what to make of irreverent Nelse. Not unhandsome Western features, blond, chestnut eyes, some style--for a supposed geek--and he moved with a single guy's strut. And talk about American-hustle enthusiastic. He probably got up early every morning and jogged, worked up a sweat. Then on to a fast, but tasty breakfast of raisin muffin and fresh-ground coffee.

"This you expected? Haven't you finished the software?"

"There, see," Nelse said, pointing to the screen with its mere one-line message. "Got it error-trapped, sends you right back to the parameter file."

"You guys, are you giving us buggy code? We depend on you--"

"No, no way. But beta is beta. We gotta keep dreaming up the crazy stuff, shake and break that code. You know, like the other day, Duncan, our FSA, says change mortality decrements to increments, see what happens."

"Mortality increments? You mean negative deaths?"

"Yeah, raising the dead from their graves. Can you see it? Night of the Living Dead. Population goes up because the lonesome departed get to climb out of their graves and walk around."

"You guys are so strange--" The round spaniel eyes brightened, like he had relaxed and they could just keep talking.

"Nah, we just wanna make sure the program's robust. Here, this will just take a min, reconfigures your parameter file. So what's new with you? Moved yet?"

"Oh, yes, last month."

"You like the change?" Nelse seemed about her age, she guessed, not disinterested.

"I love it, but being by myself, I decide I need a dog--"

"What you getting?"

"Wait, I remember the name right. Staffordshire bull terrier."

"Whoa, you're talking pit bull--"

"Why not? Good dog for protection, no? Some guy already rung my doorbell, three in the morning--"

"Your choice. But if I were you, I'd reconsider. You wanna talk unusual mortality phenomena, check out incidents with those li'l shark dogs."

"But they're lovable, so ugly and prehistoric like they walk around with dinosaurs--"

"It's what they do, Marsha. Listen, call your insurance guy, ask about deductibles. Could be ten, twenty thou, cute puppy wants a sample of kiddie meat--"

* * *

Ngo had to clear up this needling uncertainty about living with a pit bull, made worse by Nelse. Before noon, the next day, Ngo got her agent for the homeowner's policy, Vinh Pham, on the phone.

"Marsha, you call me why? You want to talk?" Vinh was not above joshing. He, a long-time family friend, went back to Saigon days.

Ngo said she wanted a pit bull for protection and . . .

"Buy the puppy, go ahead, we cover you. You in good hands. Ha, ha, ha." When visiting her parents, Vinh, more than once, would say the same thing, and turn his cupped palms over and down at the expense of his company's sloganeering.

Buy the puppy . . . No song by Enya ever affirmed more than Vinh's words. Ngo leaned forward. Her arm aloft, she pulled the fall of lank hair away the phone receiver cradled at her ear. She had to be sure, catch every word. "No deductible, no exclusions? I skip around the Web, see somewhere one company puts deductibles, huge, on pit bulls, Dobermans, rottweilers to cover them at all--"

"I know, one company they do that, but could be for publicity more than saving any claims dollar. I never hear of a dog bite claim and I do this insurance business more than a dozen years. No, Marsha, you okay."

"That's why I called. You know, I buy a puppy I get attached."

"Yeah, you okay. You collect baseball cards, different story--"

* * *

The new software needed real scrutiny. Ngo pushed back in the desk chair. It yielded a lone squeak. By being lead actuary for software evaluation, she was in no position to let the beta report slide.

Darty pixels traced ghostlike across the PC screen. The fireworks screensaver on the Conifer ActLife insurance module seemed generic, even hokey. She hoped that irreverent Nelse had not likewise cut corners when it came to writing the code.

With steadiness, she sipped hot, puckery green tea from a white ceramic demitasse. Nelse. Maybe Nelse was only enthused, trying to make an impression, all this talk about dangerous dogs. Vinh Pham thinks otherwise and he knows liability, casualty cold. Now I do what?

I don't want a harmless dog toy, a skittery Chihuahua that runs from its shadow. Who takes them seriously? But I know anything about risk, that's what it should be. No dog-bite lawsuit ever.

Pit bull, however, it'll be sword cuts both ways. Risk of dog-bite lawsuit, but also protection perfect for me. And the lovable, ugly dog will be fun. Risk, fun. Often hard to separate.

First time I rode a moped was just like that.

A steamy afternoon, Sunday many years ago, cauliflower clouds bunch in the sky, ready for soaking downpour, will wash dusty streets of my Saigon. Even after the take-charge Communists, we never name it Ho Chi Minh.

I am ten years old, am playing "l'enfant perdu," hide-and-seek, with kids outside our apartment building on Bach Nghi, down the street from Thai Sinh Market, always busy.

And up rides older cousin, Hien, the carpenter, on a brand new moped. He beams, sitting on Honda, all shiny red and chrome. "Hoon-da, Hoon-da," he keeps saying.

I run up stairs, to get Mom, to tell her Hien has moped. All we have is one bicycle, too big for me, to ride, when we not walk or take crowded buses. "Mommy, Hien has a Hoon-da, a moped. He wants to take me for a ride. Can I go, Mommy?"

I run back down to street, Mom follows. This event is big. First time any of our relatives with a gasoline-powered vehicle, even two wheels.

I've never been on a moped before. I am so excited. Wrap my eager arms around Hien, put my feet just right on back pegs, and hold on. Then tiny motor buzzes away below and we go fast through the street. I am almost dizzy with buildings blurring into each other before I can even see them. Bump, bump, bump. We hit the uneven cobbles with the street asphalt worn away before the corner and then wait for the cross-traffic to stop.

We go again. Fast. I pull my arms tighter around Hien and his loose shirt flaps noisy in the wind, hits my face and stings. I don't care, I'm too happy. He goes to a corner. Tick, tick, tick, turn signal blinks orange. We don't slow at all, just lean over. I scream, I don't mean to, I just think we'll fall over, but we don't. Tiny motor buzzes away, high exhaust noise echoes off buildings, we fly past duck-seller, pho shop on Nguyen Hekou and then another corner, we dive at a turn.

Up steep, steep hill. The one when I walk it, I'm always out of breath. The Hoon-da slows down, not too much, and I feel like we float through air without weight, like we sit on back of Most Powerful Long himself, the Great Dragon. I gasp and no sooner I see waters sparkling and boats like tiny toys in Saigon River far, far below, we go down.

I hold on so, I feel Hien's ribs under his shirt. I yell. All the way I yell because Hien pulls me forward when he leans over the handlebars to cheat the wind. I have great fear we might have bad accident. Then we are at bottom of hill. I catch my breath and we make only a few more turns on streets that are ways I don't usually walk.

Then in front of my home, we stop. The Hoon-da motor burbles away and someone else wants a ride. I get off the back of the seat and my legs are rubbery when I try to walk and I am too happy to properly answer Mom's question, "It was exciting, no?"

The revery of old times had to end. Ngo tapped the keyboard to kill the screensaver, to get back to work. A smile of distraction snuck over her face. Yes, seeing me happy even made Mom happy then. Risk and fun. So often, together.

Ngo swiveled sideways in her desk chair, faced away from the computer monitor, let her eyelids close. Okay, I calc odds for dog bites, check out facts on insurance exclusions. Oh, I see it now. Spotty neighborhood in Southeast. Many-headed dandelions in mangy lawns, every other driveway, dead, broken-window car rests on cement blocks and bricks. I push doorbell lit up beside the aluminum screen door. I'm here to talk business with the occupant, a commercial breeder of Staffordshire bull terriers.

* * * 

Ngo was not convinced this aerobic morning jog with puppy Spike would work.

He was the pit bull Ngo bought, abandoning all reservation. Squinty, piggy eyes, and white all but for a large black ink spot on his rump, he was Ngo's dog. Also the playful one in the litter, so his breeder said, and probably game for any distraction. So the question, Could Spike jog?

The bungalow's front door closed to, Ngo key-locked one-handed, her other hand away with the dog leash. The morning air was cool, not chilly.

"Spike, you ready? I'm ready."

But first, the tryout walk through weepy, gray light and muffled traffic sounds. Overhead, an insistent crow cawed.

"That's good, you're a good dog."

Spike got it, knew how to amble, and flat-footed along, ten feet or so of the retractable leash out.

At the next block, however, Ngo left the sidewalk and they mashed through wet leaves for the curbless street. Her legs felt limber and she jogged not that many steps before the short-legged puppy took off--at his other speed. Out to the end of his nylon tether. Swapped himself head for tail. No embarrassment. He started over.

"You go slower now, okay?"

With the galosh-sized puppy feet, Spike once again showed smarts and padded along. Sticking to a slow warmup pace, Ngo's Sauconys scuffed the wet street, empty, save for cars docked curbside. A vault of yellowing maples, a few scattered porch lights, and they turned right at NE 25th.

Crossing on Siskiyou ahead, another woman, thin as a rail, blue-and-black Spandex. Her blonde pony tail bobbed about. Beside her, a Doberman pinscher, also lithe and--Ngo stared in disbelief--unrestrained. The edgy Dobie caught sight of Ngo, Spike, and launched their way

"Oh, this very bad," Ngo said.

"Addy, come here. Now stop." the insouciant woman said. Words that escaped the dog's attention.

Short and stocky, yet every bit as lean as the Dobie, muscular Spike was ready and growled.

Ngo tiptoed backwards, clutched the leash.

"This okay, Spike, this okay . . ."

Her heart raced.

Arms akimbo, the woman gave it another, if not more enthused, try: "Addy, over here, now. Don't worry," she said. She raised her head as if her assurance would sail over the dog to Ngo. "She won't harm anybody."

Breathing hard with lips flared, teeth bared, Spike strained to get at the menacing Doberman busy sniffing from a few feet away.

"Lady, will you get your dog?!" Ngo's arm swung with the lunges of Spike.

"Ad-dy," the woman said with an inflection of familiarity on the dog's name. The woman squeezed a small device in her hand. Loud clicks.

The intrusive Dobie turned, left Ngo unblinking, amazed--Where could she get one of those?--and ran to Ms. Spandex. "Good girl, Addy, come here." She releashed the errant dog.

The tension building toward the woman crumbled. Ready to say something, Ngo let her arm with the leash relax. And her grip. And Spike knew.

He surged forward, broke free. The red plastic leash handle rattled down the street and this white stocky puppy, black mark on his rump, booked to the target.

Ngo gaped. This is happening? Then she ran, her brow clenched in worry. He bites that half-wit dog, hurts that stupid woman, it's all over. "Spike!"

She needed to catch him, to save him, to save her.

Then the stupidest thing happened. The woman and Dobie, sure, of course, they could outrun the puppy bearing down on them, sprinted as if lives were really on the line.

Like one heat-seeking missile, short-legged Spike turned, no hesitations, up the next street. The red plastic leash handle bopped away down the asphalt, soggy leaves given flight, and Ngo pressed on with her lung-aching best to stop the speedster.

The woman, her Dobie, both long-legged, gained a half-block lead. Then they turned right.

At Knott, the quick pair got an opening between cars almost without slowing and disappeared. Then trains of cars both ways.

Ngo bit her lip. Spike! He doesn't know about cars.

The worst happened. He kept running--no pause--between cars on Knott. One little brown car slammed on its brakes, skidded sideways, and stopped, engine-dead. The plastic leash handle banged away the other side of the street.

More cars kept Ngo from crossing. Where did Spike go?

At last, after a gray monolithic Suburban, enough of an opening to race across. She squinted. Nothing. That sound of the leash gone too. What happened? He did get hit! He's dying somewhere up there next to the gutter. Ngo's head hung down. Every step she now took was a reluctant step.

* * *

Ready for the heart-breaking news, Ngo stood bristle tense in the examining room, its claustrophobic white walls stencilled everywhere with paw prints. Dr. Benoit, lanky figure in a bluish lab coat, seemed an okay choice as the closest vet listed in the Yellow Pages.

He palmed the steel stethoscope disk against the broad chest of Spike and listened. Spike squirmed. "Airways are a bit raspy. Doesn't seem to be any distress, though. Again, what happened exactly?"

"He got away from me this morning, goes after another dog. He nearly gets hit by a car, then disappears." Ngo flailed her arm in emphasis. "I find him lying on ground, wheezing away, foam on his lips like he has trouble breathing--"

"What did you do?"

"I don't do anything. I don't know what to do. So I just stay with him. Maybe fifteen minutes. He starts breathing okay and finally stands up. So I thought it okay to take him home. I carried him, he liked that, then I called you."

"Okay, mornings, pollen is usually not the problem." He had to stay firm with Spike. The determined dog wanted out; he clawed the countertop. Benoit defeated that. He buckled under Spike's front legs. Ngo smiled at the doctor's confident way. "I think we're looking at an asthma episode brought on by exercise--"

"You mean Spike can't exercise?

"No, by no means. He's simply one of those dogs that can't take hard exercise, emphasis on hard, like running."

"Walking then okay?"

"Absolutely." Benoit smoothed Spike's large head and floppy, unpricked ears, then patted his husky withers. "Gotta keep his weight down."

"So that's it. He can't run anymore with me."

"Not unless he outgrows the asthma. Fifty percent of puppies do."

"I'd hoped for a companion jogging."

"Walking companion okay?" Benoit grinned like Ngo might give up jogging for walking too.

* * *

Boomba, boomba, boomba came the heavy sounds sneaking up behind Ngo out for a leafy walk with Spike. A red Honda Civic hatchback, aggressively lowered, sporting flashy chromed wheels, stopped.

"Chao co," a male voice, passenger side, called out. Young, hoody-looking, black hair, long on top, slicked back, some of that Vietnamese gangster style. Ngo shuddered: The bad apples of her own people. They had forgotten too much about what it meant to be Vietnamese. They wanted to be American in the wrong ways. The greeter, the driver both slumped in the car seats like they were off to a drive-by shooting. She had to ignore them.

Ngo furrowed her brow, turned away. Okay, so they guess right I'm Vietnamese, speak the language. I don't need to talk to them.

"Chao co," the guy said once more, persistent. Politely ignoring them would only provoke. She glanced their way to acknowledge them. The showy car crept along and matched her steps.

"You speak Vietnamese?" the passenger asked in a thin voice. Ngo shook her head. Not to you. Good. They think I'm white-bread Vietnamese, only speak English. She kept walking, so did Spike. "Excuse me, Miss, you get that dog where? We like one."

Ngo arched an eyebrow at the boomba, boomba, boomba hip-hop duo. This is silly stuff. Spike doesn't keep bad guys away, he attracts them. Like snakes in this pocket-rocket gangster car, nothing else to do, they follow me home, I don't get rid of them.

"You sure you want pit bull, this dog very dangerous."

"Yes, pit bull, big bites--" Boomba, boomba, boomba. The driver fussed with dash buttons for the sound system. She missed something the passenger said. "--That's what we want, protect our business."

She flashed a wry smile. Business, what business? Shake down the Asian store owners, protection money? Maybe car thieves. "You have to find dog breeder, " she said louder. "Don't remember name, but you can do what I did--"


She clenched Spike's leash. The dog pulled away, ready to move on. Had Spike tired of sniffing for dog dirt in the grass? "Just buy Nickel Ads, see under dogs. You know Nickel Ads?"

"Yeah, Nickel Ads, I know," the thin, clear voice--the driver had cut off the hip-hop--said. "People sell stuff they steal at night . . ." The black-haired slickster laughed, something he must have known nothing about.

"Get a copy, call those places that sell pit bulls."

"You pay how much?"

"One-fifty." She held fast to Spike's leash, out like a tightwire. The puppy wanted to walk and now a price on his head too? Would he understand, her needing to make this demeaning admission to lose these guys?

"Good protection, no?"

"Bites like bear trap." Ngo laughed. To look at Spike's squinty, triangular eyes, his monster mouth, how could that not be true?

"Miss, we no try him," he said, conceding, yes, Ngo had one killer dog guarding her. Spike's looks really would repel these boomba, boomba, boomba pests. "Gotta go to our business, do work."

"Chao," the driver said, speaking at last.

Boomba, boomba, boomba. They drove off, the red Civic's oversized exhaust pipe blatting away.

* * *

"So how's he doing?" Dr. Benoit asked Ngo. Once more he managed a Spike struggle at the examining table.

"Great. Every day, we walk. But he sees another dog, he's tugging on the leash." As if in sympathy, Ngo waggled her right hand. "I worry when he gets bigger, he'll break loose and run."

"Muzzles. Muzzles always work." An idea that had already hit Ngo. "So no more asthmatic attacks?"

"Not a one."

"Good. Keep walking him outside. I'll go ahead and write a prescription, something for asthma you can have just in case."

"It's funny, Spike was supposed to solve problems in my life: burglar alarm, protection when I jog--now he's the big challenge--"

"Or one of life's little adjustments--"

"I know, like buying this house. Before I worried about too much debt. Now, once a month, I write check, no big deal--" Ngo brought hand to mouth. What am I saying? She had caught her words, she did not say, It will be the same with Spike.

Benoit's right cheek tightened, a suggestion of a dimple. "Anyway, just keep," he said, "taking Spike for walks, good tonic for the heart and everything else. He'll be fine."

* * *

"So, tell me, despite my good advice, you had to go get a shark dog, didn't you?" Nelse said. At Ngo's desk with more of the beta software enhancements, he loaded the CD-ROM drive and eyed the puppy in the new framed snapshot.

"Yes, nice puppy, looks very mean, he keeps bad guys away."

"Oh, sure, bad guys in a neighborhood like Irvington?" Ngo brought forefinger to cheekbone, contemplated the thick blondness, the back of Nelse's head. What a surprise he still remembers where I live.

"Well, sometimes. They drive through--" Ngo said, reluctant to admit, Even my own people.

"You still like your new home?"

"Oh, of course. Loads of room, for the furniture I don't have." Ngo chuckled. She wanted Nelse to think that even in a house, she, like him, did not have every material comfort yet.

"Did I tell you, have this friend, he's in the market for a home, says Irvington prices are up two percent a month now."

"I hear those figures too, makes me feel like every day I live in more of a bargain."

Nelse turned away from the monitor busy with a nonstop stream of messages about hardware initializations, fixed Ngo with a look of confession. "Say, I've gotta get my finances together, stop this living out of an apartment and get in a house before it's too late."

"Rising prices make people move, that's for sure," she said, repeating what Kyla said, the words real estate agents must live by.

"Yeah, Irvington's one place I wanna to check out."

Ngo flicked a dangly lock of hair out of her face. Nelse, he's more than a programmer, might be a friend, might be fun, go ahead, do it. "You know, you're ever in the neighborhood--" She studied the chestnut eyes for a reaction. "Stop by."

His face relaxed, could not stifle a fresh smile. "I will," he said, an upbeat, confident tone. "You'll have me looking at houses in no time." The beam of enthusiasm stayed in his face.

"I'll show you where I live."

For no reason at all, or for all the reasons, Ngo, associate actuary, remembered that first thrilling moped ride in Saigon many years before.

Charlie Dickinson's work appears online at Blue Moon Review, Eclectica, Savoy and elsewhere. He lives in the Irvington Neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, the setting for "Steps" and nine other Irvington stories to date, all available at his website,


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