The next available clerk

On the phone I could barely understand him as halting English poured out overloaded with the inflections and rhythms of Vietnamese. He knew I had a used car for sale and he wanted directions. ''I got map,'' he said; ''you say affress.''

Somehow the desire to sell and the need to buy triumphed over the limitations of two languages rubbing against each other on the phone. A half hour later a little gray car stopped at the head of my driveway and out of it came five ageless Vietnamese men and a bright-eyed boy no bigger than a tennis racket.

We greeted each other with smiles and nods. I started the engine of my car. They lifted the hood and for the next ten minutes the entire car was microscopically inspected while five men, all wondrously communicating with each other in the rapid ping-pong of Vietnamese, climbed over and under it like Lilliputians over Gulliver.

They didn't like the veneer of oil and dirt on the south side of the crankcase. There was much gesturing and concern. I explained to the wind that here was a good, solid car that did not burn oil. ''Does not burn oil,'' I said. No response.

The one who seemed to be the leader asked to drive it. He slipped impatiently behind the wheel and I sat next to him. The others shouted and gestured to him as he drove away down the dirt road to the highway. He turned left and took off like a rocket, reaching sixty-five miles an hour in a matter of seconds. ''Slow down,'' I said, waving my hand at the speedometer. ''Too fast.'' He grinned and lifted his foot. ''You'll get a ticket.'' What he wanted, I think, was to assure himself that black smoke would not pour out the exhaust, but he could have been telling me the annual rainfall figures in Vietnam.

When we returned there was an animated discussion among all five at once. The little boy stood listening and watching with eyes as big as soft plums. All five men circled the car in different directions, probing it with words and fingers. Finally all five, in slow succession, moved about fifteen yards from the car, squatted on their haunches in a line, and rolled the value of the machine over and over in their mind's eye while they talked.

After several minutes of chatter back and forth among themselves, I moved over near them, just to the side so they could still see the car, and squatted on my haunches. Then, quickly, like a thrust in dueling, the leader made me an offer $500 below the price I had set. I shook my head no. Although I wasn't sure I was even remotely understood, I listed the virtues of the car and said that they were the first ones to respond to my ad. There would be more. They wanted me to make a counter offer, but I stuck to my original price. Finally they stopped making offers, laughing and grinning, telling me I had a good car but I wanted too much money.

They drove away waving at me, the small boy staring out the back window of the little gray car like a panda as it roared away.

Over the next few days a number of people came and looked at the car but for one reason or another they drifted away. Then on the fourth day the phone rang. ''I got map,'' said a Vietnamese voice. ''You tell affress.'' I went into great, slow detail trying to determine if he was the same man who had come before, but I finally gave up. I gave affress.

In a half hour the same little gray car came to a stop at the head of my driveway. Out stepped five entirely different Vietnamese men, who went right to the oily-looking crankcase, with one man crawling under the car and shouting observations and responding to rapid-fire questions from the others. There was the same enthusiasm in this group, but not a hint that they were in any way a spinoff from the other group. When one of them asked to drive the car, I got in and handed him the key.

This driver seemed less frenetic than the other, and he moved down the highway well within the speed limit. His English was well within the beginner's realm, but he was eager to improve his pronunciation and repeated several words that I said. I discovered that he had left Vietnam a year ago, that he had spent the first six months in Texas and then came to California with a group because Texas was ''crazy.'' I asked for an explanation of ''crazy'' and he said, ''Too hot, too dry, and no speak English in Texas.'' I laughed and he laughed.

We returned to the driveway again and all five lined up on their haunches to study the car before they made an offer. OK, I said to myself, I'll come down $ 100 but no more. I liked them, which of course is not supposed to be a factor in wheeling and dealing in the international market.

When the offer came it came from the shortest man, with a smile and a voice like a rifle shot. He boomed out the offer as if declaring a decree for royalty. Frankly I was charmed out of my socks. When I said I had to discuss the offer with my wife, they erupted in laughter.

Minutes later we consummated the deal and a wad of bills was carefully counted out in my hand by all five voices. I had the necessary transfer papers, but even after explaining that someone in the group had to sign lines three, six , and eight, and even after a performance on my part worthy of Groucho Marx, understanding was missing.

The result was a joint trip to the department of motor vehicles, me in the lead, their new car second and the little gray car third.

Four of them stayed outside and Nguyen Van Thu came inside with me to wait in line for the next available clerk. A sign on a red stand said, ''Please wait in line for the next available clerk.'' I watched Thu form the words silently with his mouth. He turned to me and said, ''clook?'' ''No,'' I said, ''clerk, clerk, '' drawing out the word in exaggeration. He couldn't get the ''er'' sound. ''Clook,'' he said, and I said, ''clerk,'' and he said ''clook.'' People turned and looked at us. ''Cleeerrrrk,'' I said. ''CLOOOOOOOOK,'' he said. Just then the next available clerk became available.

She was patient, the model clerk, and after much discussion all the lines were signed and the transfer of ownership accomplished.

Thu and I went outside to the others. They chattered and examined the papers. ''Clook,'' said Thu. ''No,'' I said, ''cleeerrrk.'' The others tried it. ''Clooooook, clooook,'' heads nodding, throats straining to join the new world. We shook hands all around.

As I walked away, five voices were laughing and trying to make clerk out of clook.

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