Dear everyone, every year around this time, the leaves are so brilliant and colorful, as if Mother Nature ate a giant bowl of Southwest-style salsa and threw up on our city. (Sometimes, the poetry just comes to me). Around this time, I start becoming reflective, pondering the passage of time, the shortness of life, the temporal nature of our existence, and whether Jack-in-the-Box really went there with their commercial where Jack’s dad says, “It’s been more than four hours. Call the doctor.”

Recently, in one of those reflective moods, I met a lady by the name of “Panha,” who had set up a little store on the sidewalk near my work place selling approximately three pumpkins, six Ziploc bags of chiles, four fish, and five bags of matsutake mushrooms. “Matsutake mushrooms!” I squealed, dropping low to inhale their sweet scent that can only be described as cinnamon-flavored gym socks (in a good way). “Honey,” she said, “You buy mutroom. Very powerful.” She winked. These mushrooms at the time were selling for $40 a pound at Uwajimaya, so I bought two three-pound bags for $10 each. Who couldn’t use a little more “power”?

That was how Panha and I became friends. Every day, Monday to Saturday, at 9 a.m. she would set up her shop, comprising a dozen or so rag-tag items, hanging up a sign in broken English: “Pinwheel fish, no have spike fish, bean.” She is the only vendor there. She would stay until six. During breaks, I would walk to Panha’s station to chat with her, learning about her life story, how she once got mugged while selling. She always smiles, her hat throwing a shadow over her graying hair and the myriad wrinkles around her eyes. “Honey, come come come!” she said one day, pointing at the sidewalk, “Yellow mutroom!” Bags of chanterelles, my favorite mushrooms. “You buy, I give more more more!” I had bought $50’s worth of matsutakes and chanterelles from her, and she always called me “Honey” and gave me extra mushrooms. I came back once and complained that the matsutakes I bought had too many worms. “Worm no problem,” she said.

One afternoon, I came to visit and an old man with a walker was mumbling something to Panha. “Honey!” she yelled, “You help me. He crazy. He want kid me.” Apparently the old man was trying to kiss her. She looked amused. “Why you want kid me? You go home! Kid your wife!” He stole a pumpkin and very slowly tried to run off. “You see?” she said, laughing, “He crazy.” She gave him a minute’s head start, during which time he got approximately three feet away, then she ran and got her pumpkin back.

The last few days, it has been raining constantly. I came to check on Panha. She was huddled beneath a giant yellow umbrella, bundled in a fluffy coat. I hunched down to see her face. She was halfway sleeping. “Panha,” I said, “Are you ok?” She woke up. “Oh honey, yed, I’m good.” She coughed. I asked her how business was. “Not so good,” she said, smiling, “Not many cuttomer.” I asked her if she wanted some hot coffee. She broke into a wide smile, “Yed! Yed yed yed!” I ran and got her some hot Vietnamese coffee. “Oh, thank you, honey.” The rain continued to fall. I don’t know what she will do when winter rolls around.

It is autumn, and the leaves are turning colors and falling, sweeping along the street beside the hunched figure of my new friend. From the second floor of the building where I work, I can see her laughing and bargaining with customers and fending off the antics of the lecherous octogenarian. Sometimes I see her nodding off as she waits for customers. Around this time, I start thinking about the quick passage of time, the temporal nature of our existence, but as I have learned from Panha, life is like mushrooms. Sometimes it has a few worms. You can either complain and whine about it, or you can think “worm no problem,” and enjoy it anyway.

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