Short Stories about the Panda Inn
Like everyone else in town, we've been wondering for ages about the fate of the Panda Inn building on Shelburne Road, where two co-owners were murdered in 1999. So we invited seven writers to imagine some scenarios...
Into the Fire
By Karen Newman
For three years the tables at the Panda Inn Restaurant had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that was about to change. "In Da Pan" was opening. And any lingering associations were now being eclipsed by today's spectacle: a 14-year-old sinking to new depths of humiliation. I was working the sidewalk along Shelburne Road dressed as a skillet.
This moment was secured by the Fates when my parents became businespartners in The Waterfront Diner. It got taken by eminent domain, then my mom got pregnant. They got married and opened the first in a long line of failed restaurants.
The first one I can remember was Cereal City, with its ceiling-to-floor Lucite dispensers of Fruit Loops and Cap'n Crunch, huge bowls, and aluminum milk machines. For years we ate leftover inventory for breakfast -- and sometimes dinner.
Then came "The Lost Sandwich," featuring items from other local flops: the Bombay Gobbler from the original City Market, the rollup from Queen City Tavern, Noonie's chicken salad and all the desserts from Deja Vu. But they were forced, my dad likes to say, to call it a wrap.
So here I was, avoiding eye contact with the drivers slowing down for the light at Prospect Parkway. A rewrite of history could portray me as the supportive child, but you'd have to leave out last night's scene: My mom had just finished glue-gunning rubber eggs sunnyside up across my abdomen. I told her I'd rather die. But they named my price: the rest of the money for my own guitar.
Shuffling along Route 7, I imagined myself writing songs as I ignored the jerks in my homeroom. Someone beeped. I waved. Now I could sign up for a music practice room at lunch. I pictured myself safe in a soundproof cubicle with my Beatles book, away from the cafeteria -- a.k.a. snobbatorium.
When someone rolled down their window and yelled, "You're hot!" I decided my shift was over. Inside, I ditched the pan and my dad seated me. He was smiling as if the place were packed, when in fact there were only two other customers -- an older couple having pancakes by the window.
He handed me a menu. "What'll it be?" Just then my mom appeared with the $47.40, smiling that same goofy smile as she handed it to me. The two of them were beaming. I opened the menu, trying not to smile myself. This is what they were good at -- starting over.
"I'll have #8," I said. Rise and Shine.
Karen Newman writes children's fiction and works as an early literacy consultant for the Vermont Reads Institute.
A Little Cosmetic
By Chris Tebbetts
For three years, the tables at the Panda Inn restaurant had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that was about to change.
"I don't think we should be here," Gwen said, toeing a loose edge of carpet in the doorway.
"That's the problem," said Mark. "No one does." He stood in the middle of the dining room, hands on hips. "We could definitely be serving dinners by Christmas Eve. Just needs a little cosmetic."
"Well, that and a karmic overhaul."
"What do you think I'm doing?"
"You mean besides the opportunism?"
He walked away from her into the glass-walled atrium, his voice louder but no less steady. "The only thing that makes what happened here even sadder is the way it's been sitting empty ever since."
"And the fact that you got it so cheap has nothing to do with it? You're not even thinking about the money, right?"
"That's not what I'm saying. I hope I get totally rich. But I'm saying that whatever I do, wherever I do it, independent of all that, this space is holding something that it should be allowed to let go of."
"I had no idea you were such a new-age hypocrite."
Mark shrugged. "Opportunist, hypocrite. Anything else?" He picked up a gray bus tub from the floor and began clearing tables of their red-capped glass bottles and paper chopstick envelopes. "We won't need this stuff."
"It's just so disrespectful."
"Do you think so?"
Her silence answered for her.
He worked a pattern among the tables, up one side of the room and down the other. "I'm not sure it's so respectful to pretend this place isn't here," he said finally.
Gwen fingered the buttons on her coat. "OK, well, maybe we should pretend I'm not here instead." She looked blankly off to the side, as if something uninteresting had caught her attention.
He knew her well enough to know she was waiting for a response and that any answer he gave at this point could be volatile. He thunked another dusty setup into the gray tub. A moment later, she was gone.
Chris Tebbetts is a writer living in Burlington. His four-part fantasy adventure series for children, The Viking, will be published by Puffin Books beginning in June 2003.
Come In, We're Prayer-Conditioned
By Cathy Resmer
For three years, the tables at the Panda Inn had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that was about to change...
In January, a Christian group opened Saving Grace Cafe, with 24-hour service and $1 meals delivered with Biblical reflections.
July: Eighteen-year-old Becky Gasparzski hunches in a back booth, working on the next issue of her zine, A Wretch Like Me. The spikes on her bracelet scrape the tabletop as she surreptitiously sketches her server, Marie Lapointe.
Becky sat behind Marie in Economics last year at Rice. She stared at Marie's twisting braids and imagined how she would look with her hair falling loose around her fine, oval face.
Despite the heat, Becky has ordered the Nachos and Superhot Psalm 63 Salsa.
Marie shakes her head and smiles as she sets the plate on Becky's table. "I don't know how you can eat this tonight."
Becky shrugs. "I'm a glutton for punishment."
"Maybe I should read to you about gluttony."
"No, no! Do Psalm 63."
Marie plucks a Bible from her apron and begins to read. Becky studies the wisps of hair that have escaped her braids. "My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is."
Becky closes her eyes as if in prayer. She imagines finding Marie in a blinding sandstorm, feeling Marie's fingers tighten around her arm. She imagines brushing the sand from Marie's face, tracing the outlines of her eyelids.
"My mouth shall praise you with joyful lips when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night..." Becky opens her eyes and catches Marie staring at her. Marie blinks and looks back at the book.
Startled, Becky reaches for her water. It spills on her sketchpad.
"Oh, gosh," says Marie, "let me get a napkin."
Becky wipes the book on her shirt. When Marie returns with the napkin, Becky hands her a five.
"You know what? I'm not that hungry. Listen," she says with more confidence than she feels. "What time are you done here?"
"Let's hang out. We could go night swimming. Or we could talk. Or whatever. I just --"
Marie cuts her off. "I'll meet you in the parking lot at 11." She tucks her Bible back into her apron and smiles widely as she walks away.
Cathy Resmer is a writer and a frequent contributor to Seven Days.
The Last Fortune Cookie
By Joe Citro
For three years the tables at the Panda Inn Restaurant had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that's about to change. A little fancy picking, and I'm inside. Quick look around. Interior's weird, frozen in time, like those old atom-bomb movies -- everything's ready for business, but no customers come.
The kitchen. Dishes stacked neat. Dishwasher open and full. String beans in a colander look like brown twisted roots. Body outlines, two of them, chalked on the floor tiles.
This is going to be easy -- in and out in 15 minutes. By daybreak, it's roast Panda. By breakfast, I'm paid and gone while my employer waits for his insurance check.
Makes sense. Place won't sell, just sucks up taxes. Couple deaths like that, people figure it's cursed, maybe haunted. Christ, they couldn't even hire a cleaning crew.
Let's see... fire's gotta start in the kitchen.
Frickin' odd! Must be the light or something. That body outline -- the one on the left. I thought both arms were at its side. Now one's outstretched, pointing, like it's moved.
Jesus! Something stinks. I turn around. Bloated blue fish are decomposing in the "feng shui" aquarium, floating in a foul-smelling soup. Makes me wanna puke, but there's work to do.
I haul my tool kit, a big plastic garbage bag, into the kitchen. I extract the putrid sleeping bag I swiped from some bum and smooth it out nice and cozy in the corner by the sink. Add a couple empty booze bottles, a few handfuls of trash from McDonald's and a bunch of crumpled cigarette packs. A bum's nest! Looks like he's been camping here a while. Should've been more careful with his cigarettes...
I light one up. Sprinkle alcohol on the bedbag. A few puffs, a quick flick, and I'll do a little Chinese cooking of my own.
What the hell? Must've been seeing double. Now there's only one outline on the floor.
"Yes sir, just like that. Sitting there at the table."
"Looks like a squatter, Lieutenant. There's a bedroll in the kitchen."
"Too well-dressed for a squatter. Funny thing is the food."
"Yeah. He's sitting there dead and, look, it's like somebody served him a meal. He's got wonton soup and a plate of General Tsao's Chicken in front of him. It's all fresh. When I got here the rice was still steaming."
Joe Citro writes scary books about Vermont.
By John Rubins
"'For three years the tables at the Panda Inn Restaurant had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that was about to change.'
"So reads the opening of a writing challenge hosted by the weekly newspaper Seven Days 140 years ago. The goal: for local writers to imagine the fate of this place after its closing following a tragic double homicide three years earlier. Those writers couldn't have predicted the war and crippling depression that would come shortly thereafter, and by the time Vermonters had recovered from those problems, in came the rising waters, transforming what was then Lake Champlain into the inland sea we know today.
"We are so very grateful that none of those writers' visions came to pass (laughter in the audience). Indeed, if any of them had, we wouldn't be here today.
"For this space has been left undisturbed for over a century: first abandoned, then ignored, and at last inundated but left intact by the anaerobic properties of the brackish sea water. Not since the discovery of portions of Seattle buried by the Mount Rainier eruptions has there been such a pristine find of an early 21st-century business. The microprocessor discovered in the cash box, or 'register,' alone has contributed greatly to our understanding of the origins of Artificial Intelligence. Not to mention the cooking technology in the kitchen, the paintings on silk, the exquisite staff costumes and incandescent lanterns. But perhaps the greatest legacy will be our understanding of the customs of our ancestors as suggested by the arrangement of the furniture, the very sense of the space. It is here that we may begin to see not only how they lived, but how they may have viewed their world.
"Thanks to Sevie Bahkrani for his help in providing the research and reverse-engineering that have made possible the chimera 'Han' waiters and the so-called 'Whites.' I'm not going to tell you which is which (laughter). No, really, Sev, they add a whole different dimension to the exhibit.
"For the adventurous, I encourage you to try the dishes on the Snack Bar menu: the Hunan Beef and Hot and Sour Soup, or the Pork Dumplings, which you can dip yourself in a menacingly dark sauce. Don't worry, if you're squeamish, we also carry a more standard selection of colored pastes, pills and chips.
"But let me go no further; come experience this for yourself -- our time capsule reveals a world when humankind was still divided into groups of different ethnicities -- or races, if you will -- a world where commerce was conducted with scraps of paper and metal called money, a world without Artificial Intelligence.
"So, without further ado, welcome to the Museum of Ethnic Vermont."
John Rubins is a Bristol-based writer and editor of the online fiction monthly Tatlin's Tower (www.tatlinstower.com ).
For three years the tables at the Panda Inn had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks gathering dust. But all that was about to change.
I was getting gas across the street, absently gazing at the empty restaurant and the "for sale" sign out front. Suddenly a late-model Lexus turned into the Panda's parking lot. A striking Asian woman emerged from the passenger side, and a very tall, blond man unfolded himself from the driver's seat. They entered the deserted restaurant like they owned the place.
"Hey, lady, you 'bout done?"
"What's going on over there?" the college-aged driver behind me asked. "Place has been empty since those people were killed, hasn't it?"
"Yes. I guess everybody's wondering what will happen to it."
"Why don't you go find out -- after you move your car?"
Why not? I thought. I paid for my gas, then maneuvered my car across Shelburne Road and parked next to the Lexus.
The tall man responded immediately to my knock. "Yes?"
"Um, I saw you here and just wondered what's going on. I'm a reporter."
The man smiled and threw open the door. "Come on in. Name's Jim Ferguson. This is Lisa Wu." The beautiful Asian woman also smiled.
"She wants to know what we're doing here," Jim told her.
"We've just moved here from California," Lisa said.
"So, you've bought this building?" I asked encouragingly.
"You bet," said Jim. "But it's not going to be another restaurant."
"No? What, then?"
"Panda Intimates!" he boomed.
"It's a line of lingerie that will benefit the International Panda Foundation," Lisa explained.
"You'll be making underwear here?"
"We'll be manufacturing in China, but this will be our retail and mail-order outlet."
"We're going to renovate extensively, of course," Jim said. "The showroom will be here -- "
"The Chinese have been trying very hard for years to breed endangered pandas, but they simply don't have enough money," Lisa continued. "So an international consortium has been established to help. Vermont seems like the right place for this... I guess you'd call it 'do-gooder' business. I designed this high-quality women's lingerie with tiny pandas printed on the fabric."
"But she didn't forget the guys -- or the kids," interrupted Jim. "Wait till you see the boxers, and the little jammies with panda feet!"
"The decor of our shop will echo a panda's natural environment," continued Lisa, "and over here we'll have a pandacam."
I nodded. "And the name...?"
"I feel it honors the past while acknowledging that life must go on," Lisa said. "Here, and for the bears."
"Call me when you open?" I asked, handing her my card.
"You'll be the first to know," said Lisa warmly.
"So, what's up?" a familiar voice called as I headed to my car. The college kid was waiting in the parking lot, his Cherokee idling. "I was dying to find out. This used to be my favorite restaurant."
"All riiight!" he yelled before squealing away. I guess that was all he needed to know.
Pamela Polston is the co-publisher/editor of Seven Days.
By Nancy Stearns Bercaw
For three years the tables at the Panda Inn Restaurant had been sitting undisturbed, the soy sauce and chopsticks collecting dust. But all that was about to change, because of poor penmanship on the part of a British solicitor and the sheer laziness of an American broker.
The letter was intended for the owners of The Panda In Rest, Shelbourne Mausoleum, Birmingham, UK. Its genteel -- albeit unsteady -- author had meant for the missive to read, "Dear Sirs, we would like to purchase your pickled Panda parts and place of business to create an homage to the greatest sideshow acts of all time. Please advise if the enclosed amount is equitable. Yours, James Brickwaithe, Esq."
After being rerouted from the Shelburne Museum, the nearly illegible envelope found its way into the hands of an incautious debt-collector for the Panda Inn, who regarded the clumsily calligraphied contents as conveying only one relevant fact: money enclosed. He promptly stamped the property sold and sent the purchase package to London with the insouciant message: "That Panda place is yours. From Tom Hansen."
Mr. Brickwaithe's delight turned to despair when he read the details of the attached deed. "Indeed," he told his prim partners as he re-surveyed the tidy sans serif type, "we have secured a place for the elephant crinolines and rarified oddities we accumulated during the 20th century. But the locale we have purchased is in New England. "
He further explained that although the panda moniker was some sort of misnomer, the very suitable structure was, according to his research, rather close to a famous folk museum in possession of a 500-foot-long miniature circus parade, among other Big Top memorabilia. What's more, he announced, "The deal included 37,546 fortune cookies."
His associates marveled at the fortuitousness of their misfortune. "America is the perfect place for a hodge-podge collection of curiosities," yelped the seasoned Mr. Smythe. "Let us begin the preparations for moving our regalia and paraphernalia!"
The scholarly Mr. Spencer pondered the predicament. "So, there is another place that will suit us just as well as the other place and our parcel managed to arrive in that other place instead of the original place we had selected? Furthermore, it's near a place that also is our kind of place?"
This particular group, being in the business of profiting from genetic twists of fate, understood perhaps better than any other eclectic assemblage that destiny was simply a series of accidental incidents. And being British gentlemen, of course, they prided themselves on keeping pandemonium in its proper place.
Nancy Stearns Bercaw, a former Vermonter, is a writer and the head women's swim coach at James Madison University in Virginia. She occasionally still gets to write.