Nebraska Center for Writers

THE URBAN FOREST
by Lon Otto

ALTHOUGH HE LIVED JUST TWO BLOCKS FROM IT, Marshall had journeyed into the Liberty Plaza housing project only once before. His son, in kindergarten then, had given a Hmong classmate a birthday party invitation. For a while the boy had stopped by almost every day on his way home from school to ask if they were going to have cake now, but Marshall was afraid the boy's parents didn't know about the party. They might not have known English.
The morning of the party, while his ex-wife decorated the house, Marshall and Willy had walked over to the project and asked the few people they met — some children, a fierce-looking grandmother with a baby on her back, some teenagers — if they knew where a boy named Pao lived. Willy didn't know his last name. No one could help them. A couple of times Marshall had tried to describe the boy — an inch or two taller than Willy and three times wider, powerful looking, with hair that stood straight up in a dense black brush. Marshall couldn't tell if anyone even understood what he was saying. As they walked up and down the paths that wound among the brick apartment buildings and densely-planted vegetable gardens trellised with sticks and chicken wire, Willy kept a tight hold on his hand. Foreignness wrapped around them like an electric skin. They'd given up, finally, and a few weeks later Pao had ridden up to their front porch on a tiny bicycle and asked, was it time for them to have cake?

Reprinted with permission
from Prairie Schooner
Copyright © 2003
by Lon Otto


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