Published by The Adirondack Review
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Published by the Willesden Herald 2009
The train leaving Nishifunabashi station is packed- a tin can of sardines. Cackling teenagers cram the perimeter. Old women haunt the end-seats, ready to fight, daring anyone to crush meticulously assembled grocery bags, or disturb a strand on their blue-tinted hair. Exhausted office assistants dot the school of people, pink and plum scarves conscientiously tied around their thin necks. Wilted businessmen wrestle sleepiness, gravity pulling at the bags under their eyes. The train roars across the water to suburban gardens and murals in Chiba, the Tokyo skyline grudgingly disappearing, damning them all for escaping its grip.
Trina is standing in the middle of the boxcar, heaved between black Armani suits and the hard edges of Prada bags. And since there are not enough handles overhead to maintain her balance, she must depend, reluctantly, on the chest cavities of three people eclipsing her personal space. She is tall, and shoots above the mass of black hair, a steeple in a field. As the boxcar shakes, through the bedrock of homogeneity, Trina’s big eyes and Afro hit the crowd like seismic shock waves. Her skin crisps golden brown under their stares, incessant glances crawling over her like red ants.
But the end is near, Trina thinks, tomorrow in fact being graduation day, though the idea circles her head like smoke, its final meaning just beyond her grasp. And she is not sure what the finished painting of her stay in Japan will look like, what she will see when she stands back and contemplates the strokes and shades in all their entirety. On days of extreme exhaustion, such as this one, she misses anonymity, longs for the cold, uninterested eyes of Washingtonians. And yet, standing in her blatant state, Trina is clandestine, an agent out in the open, yet cloaked in mystery.
Two businessmen, waterlogged from rounds of sake, discuss the stranger. “Where do you think she’s from?” one asks, gawking, a smile spreading across his flushed face. He is secure in his drunkenness, ensconced in island mentalities, sure that the foreigner cannot understand a word he is saying.
The other man shrugs. Molecules of his smelly breath snake around them. His head bobs as he snaps to an imagined song, jaundiced eyes raking over the anomaly. “Maybe Africa? Like Nigeria? Nah, probably not. Most of these blacks come here from America.”
Trina imagines him awkwardly dancing on the stage of a karaoke bar in Ginza, rap video vixens gyrating behind him on a fifty-two inch screen.
Belching, the inquisitor leans even closer to the specimen, studying dark crystal. “She might be a model,” he says.
Trina smirks behind an emotionless face.
His buddy snickers, voice dropping an octave. “Ask her. I dare you to ask her.”
Dragon breath shakes his head. “It’s no good. My English is no good.”
“Do it,” the other snarls.
Trina thinks about allowing them to go on, while everyone is pretending not to be listening. But she pauses in the blackness of stealth, a desire to stun them growing in the crevice of her bra. All these long days she has kept silent. She has learned the weight of custom and restraint, and how words spoken too quickly sink to unknown depths. But couldn’t she say something just once? Say it. “I’m an exchange student at Waseda,” she quips in Japanese, instantly becoming holy. Only children born on beds of emerald ivy go to Waseda University. They swing eight-foot Kendo poles on black volcanic sands, the Japan Sea crashing behind them. They are the alchemists of tea ceremonies, a shower of pink cherry blossom petals kissing their shoulders. They are the anointed, seated squarely on the maroon leather seats of parliament, confident half-smiles dressing their faces.
At Trina’s words, the businessmen are aghast, suffocating, their minds trying unsuccessfully to reconcile the holy with what is standing before them. And there is nothing left in their Lucky cigarette-choked lungs to reply beyond, “Eh?” And they look down because, of course, there is no room to back away, no point of egress for at least four minutes and thirty-eight long seconds. And even the bickering and yammering of the teenagers has crashed to a halt, a bushy-haired boy stopping mid-sentence. The atmosphere has thickened into cement, crushing the can into silence and disbelief, the boxcar reeling from the fallout of Trina’s utterance. In the arrested din, Trina listens to the howling wind rattling the loose window slats, catching a glimpse of Tokyo Disney World across the bay, the lighted Ferris wheel twinkling.
The old women guarding the exits suck their teeth, grumbling about the poor example the men have set for the alien. One blue top admonishes the inebriated with an icy glare. “Crying shame,” she says, straightening the leg folds of her dress to their original severe crease. At the next stop the dispossessed quickly tumble out of the smeared doors. As the train rolls by the platform, Trina watches them through the window, shaking their heads, gesticulating wildly.
But now, in addition to the watchtower from which her looks announce themselves, Trina is something even more inexplicable. The office assistants look at her, gripping the straps of their purses, betrayal burning their pupils. Mama-san, Trina’s host mother, tells her Japanese people like special things. You are special, Mama-san says, in their long afternoon conversations. Trina clings to her words, her cover voluntarily blown. Closing her eyes, she thinks of the Blue Mountains of Hakuba she visited over Spring break, how crescent moons sailed indigo skies and rainbows arched lakes after rain. The train jerks, and she thinks of the pickaninny dolls in the gift shop at the Hakuba visitor’s lodge, their protruding eyes begging for deliverance from key chains and stickers.
A sickeningly sweet voice cuts through the squeaking of steel on tracks. “Makuhari Hongo,” chimes the automated attendant. As the train slows, she chatters politely, incessantly, warning of the dangers of not watching one’s step, her pleas to collect umbrellas and newspapers dipped in syrup. Trina empties onto the platform with the throng of others and heads for her bicycle parked below. Mounting, her body cooling from the burn of the spotlight, she is thankful for the cover of darkness en route to her host family’s house. Her stomach grumbles furiously at the smells of restaurants nearby. Weight gain is unthinkable in Tokyo, the body on constant watch for enough calories to make it through the day.
Trina cycles quickly through quaint, tree-lined roads, delighting in the fresh air of late evening, skidding to the last house on a charming dead-end street. It is a beautiful home, carefully built near a natural spring well, the water jetting from the sweating kitchen faucet breathtakingly delicious. There is a pretty Zenish garden out back, and on clear, quiet days she can smell the Makuhari Sound and glimpse Mount Fuji far, far away.
“Tadaima,” Trina tolls at the front door, hurriedly kicking off her shoes and sliding into slippers.
Mama-san awaits her at the dining room table. She is sprite, well into the golden years, her plump cheeks flanking a pouty smile. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she swims at the local community center, after which she counsels young neighborhood mothers. ‘New mothers sometimes need help with things and understanding what needs to be done,’ Mama-san tells Trina, patriotic responsibility edging her proclamation. Trina dumps her heavy bag in the corner and collapses into the dining room chair. They begin a ritual, one of many.
“How was class today?” Mama-san says, knowing the question is colorless now, but unwilling to part with the habit of asking. She sits a cup in front of Trina and fills it with green tea. “Drink just a little,” she says, as she always instructs Trina in the evening because the tea is laced with caffeine. Mama-san settles into her seat, smiling, ready to hear the details of her ward’s day.
Trina takes a few sips, melting as it slides down her throat. She is amazed to be graduating tomorrow, her experience a kaleidoscope of impression and memory. “Class was good. Everyone’s excited about the ceremony,” she says. The table is decorated with snacks of all kinds. She rips into sheets of dried seaweed and shrimp-flavored crackers. “Can’t believe it’s finally here,” she says, crunching.
Mama-san looks at her, rolling the tape in her mind back to the first day when she wondered how they’d get along. In her house. Eating her food. With no English. At the university orientation, the other host mothers had looked at the pair standing together in the green quad sympathetically, nodding their heads, offering salutations of good luck and best wishes framed in dread, all of them unprepared for anything more exotic than blond hair. But since those awkward first days, Mama-san’s pride in Trina has plumed into peacock splendor, though she looks upon it only in the twilight of her private thoughts.
Mama-san thinks of all the times she led Trina through the labyrinth of her studies, how together they decrypted nuance and ground through the substratum of innuendo, how they stood on the cliffs of the meaning of things, gazing into the blue. She thinks of how she has stopped worrying about whether the rice is washed and ready in the cooker for the next day’s meal, since Trina does this without being asked, and how she has come to instinctively include Trina’s favorites on the grocery list. In the backwaters of her mind, she has woven a lively home again.
And when the old woman thinks of Trina’s graduation tomorrow, she is reminded of the cruelty of brevity. In her long years, she has come to know its spiteful hand, how it cuts through delicate vines painstakingly strung, slashing what is cherished without deference. And she has grown less sure if there really is a beginning within an ending, as the proverbs and fables of her youth have told her. And a shadow descends on her when she thinks of tomorrow, something she isn’t proud of. “You’ve done well,” Mama-san says, cracking open a container of warmed tofu squares. “Eat more,” she urges, setting a plate and spice shaker in front of Trina.
And there is a hollow sound in Mama-san’s voice that Trina has never heard before, but dismisses as the fatigue of old age. Trina looks at the shaker of hot spice, thinking of Papa-san. Piri Piri he calls it, for the sound it makes when it is sprinkled, turning everything it touches into soul food. On the rare occasions Papa-san is home at a decent hour, the two of them sit at the table together in lovely silence, grinning and chewing. Thinking of him, Trina picks up the shaker and seasons the tofu heavily.
“Papa-san won’t be too much longer,” Mama-san tells Trina. They both know this is a lie. Mama-san will be sitting there until well after midnight awaiting her husband, when he will hobble into the living room, dizzy from ten hours of supervising his staff and three more hours of showmanship over cocktails.
Trina glances at the empty adjoining living room, straining to hear activity upstairs. Nothing. “Where is Mariko?” she asks.
A long silence. Venetian blinds roll down Mama-san’s face, closing sharply into a white facade. “She’s not home yet,” she says.
“Oh,” Trina says, feeling guilty again for asking. Mariko had dropped out of high school, was not in college, as her parents felt she should have been, and spent the better part of her time reveling in postmodern nihilism. ‘I’m not going to marry,’ she likes to say when they browse fashion magazines on her bedroom floor. She is a beautiful girl by most standards, and thinks that should be sufficient for all she might end up doing in life. ‘I’m sick of that shit about everything being over, if you don’t marry by twenty-four,’ she often says. She is probably out partying right now, Trina thinks, and Papa-san will end up sending Mama-san to bed in the witching hours while he keeps watch for her to come home.
“Nine o’clock,” Mama-san announces, the blinds lifting, her voice returning to its soothing gurgle. Mariko’s storm cloud has passed over, temporarily, and she gets up to turn on the news. A severe looking man is reporting rapid fire about student protests at a university in Seoul. The news cuts to footage of students clashing with police, smoke bombs and flaming bottles flying through the air.
“Those Koreans are always fighting,” says Mama-san. “Their hearts have always been too quick to anger, you know. And there’s so much heat in their diet, what with all the Kimchi and strong flavors on everything,” she says, sighing heavily. “It’s not healthy. Keeps the blood pressure up.” She shakes her head and pours herself another cup of tea. “That’s why,” she says, eyeing the Piri Piri, “we Japanese don’t eat too much peppers and such. Our diet is basically plain, you know.”
Trina chopsticks another mouthful of tofu, thinking about their weekend family trip to the Japanese National Museum in Ueno Park (Mariko wasn’t there). She and Papa-san had stood on the gleaming marble, looking at a tenth century special exhibit of ancient Korea. A prehistoric map of the Asian continent hung behind a row of colorful attire like a papyrus, the Japanese islands drifting on the Pacific Ocean. ‘This garb looks like the kimonos,’ Trina said in wonder. Papa-san was quiet for a moment. ‘Well, they should,’ he said, running a hand over his balding head. Mama-san had moved on to the Ainu masks without saying a word.
Trina looks at Mama-san and grabs the remote. “Isn’t Tokyo Love Story on now?” she asks. It’s a decidedly silly show; full of tearful women named Yuki and the furrowed brows of men forever misunderstood. But the dialogue runs at an easygoing clip, the melodrama entertaining in a mind-numbing sort of way. Mariko and Trina sometimes giggle through the show together with tall glasses of iced Oolong. Trina watches for fullness. Mariko watches for emptiness.
Mama-san gives Trina a look. “Maybe,” she says, which means she would prefer she not turn it on. Trina flips through the channels, passing Tokyo Love Story, pausing on a medical channel. A baby has just been born and screams heartily when the doctor holds him up. Half listening, Trina catches the narrator say, “Koku-jin,” meaning black person. After the first few days of life, the now pale baby’s skin will begin to change color, turning brown….
“Really?” Mama-san exclaims, looking at Trina incredulously. For her, there is no end to the wonders of black people, and she relishes this kind of chance encounter with astonishing bits of information.
When the two of them sit down for their Sunday afternoon ritual of tea and sweets, they exchange comments and questions until dinner. Last Sunday, after months of getting up her nerve, Trina asked Mama-san what she thought about Hiroshima. Mama-san stared at the cocoa powder atop the slices of Tiramisu for a long time without saying anything. She is from a southern prefecture, the youngest daughter of a traditional kimono-making family. She is of the generation that has lived both during the happening and afterwards.
In the long silence, Trina was a bit ashamed of her curiosity, but it had been tugging at her since she hit the ground at Narita Airport. ‘Papa-san said the American soldiers used to give out Hershey’s chocolate bars to the children during the occupation,’ she offered weakly, fidgeting in the old woman’s muteness.
Mama-san put another slice of Tiramisu on their pastry plates without looking at Trina. It was a question she had expected eventually, but the heaviness of it took her breath nonetheless. ‘I was a little thing, but what I remember the most were the holes,’ she said at last. ‘Where my cousin was, when we finally did go out to see where she might have been, they told us the women ran further into the countryside, that they had tried frantically to find cover, digging holes to put their children in the ground. Trying to protect them from the beast that had killed even the Lightning God, they said.’ Her face tightened. ‘The grass was still white, and there were holes everywhere,’ she said. After that, Mama-san and Trina sat quietly together for a long time, staring out into the ocean of things they found difficult to understand.
The narrator on the television show continued about craniums and birth weights.
“Really?” Mama-san asks Trina again, louder.
“Really,” Trina says.
“Incredible,” Mama-san says, taking in the thought. “But some of you are darker and some are lighter, huh?”
Trina thinks about engaging her in the other layers: ice ages and geography; the horrors of plantation life; race mixing; recessive genes; high-yellow fixations and that sort of thing. But she is stuffed. “That’s true,” she says.
They look at each other. And Trina is certain that the old woman can tell from her tone and the shine in her eyes that there is so much more to the story, but that she does not have, or is unwilling to expend, the energy to drill down through history and pain. It is a conversation for Sundays, and they agree on this without saying so.
“Why don’t you get some rest?” Mama-san says, more a command than a request.
The chair feels stiff now, and Trina is ready to stretch out, but not ready to go to bed. She puts down the remote and wanders to the couch, sinking into its plush leather.
“Grab a pillow,” says Mama-san, pointing to a stack of silk-embroidered cushions on the floor by the bookcase.
Trina lumbers over and picks out a green one, pulling the stack forward. There are photo albums on the bottom shelf behind the pillows. “Can I look at these?” she asks.
Mama-san is engrossed in medical terminology. “Look at what?”
Trina picks up a few dusty albums, showing the faded covers. “These.”
“Sure,” says Mama-san.
Trina settles into the couch with a throw blanket over her lap, flipping through the pages. There are pictures of porcelain-faced women wrapped in elaborate kimonos adorned with butterflies. There are scenes of Mama-san and Papa-san smiling in front of temples, Mariko’s cherub face staring from a stroller next to them. Trina comes to a picture that she thinks is Mariko, but realizes is Mama-san as a young woman, her eyes electric, beaming through the cracked plastic sheets. “When was this?”
Mama-san yawns. “Huh?”
“How old were you when this was taken?” Trina asks.
Mama-san comes over to the couch and sits next to Trina. As she stares at the picture, her face is illuminated from a light not in the room, the low current in her eyes intensifying. “Ah. Yes, that was me, wasn’t it? Twenty I think, about your age. My modeling days.”
Trina tries to fathom how a woman who orders the items in her cupboard alphabetically and keeps a petty cash envelope in the credenza could ever have done anything as orchid-like as modeling. “Really?” she asks.
Mama-san’s unspoken thoughts settle over them, mixing with the dust. “Trina, whatever it is you decide you want to do, make sure you do it,” she says, rising. She points to a little ship entombed in a bottle on the end table, and says, “Remember the boat.” The old woman returns to the television, leaving a trail of echoes. And Trina remembers Mama-san saying one Sunday that sometimes life can be like that boat in the bottle, that once a thing is constructed, and all of its pieces are brought to their end, it becomes only what it is.
The cat scratching Trina’s bedroom door awakens her in the morning light of Graduation Day. She hears the clinking of dishes and silverware downstairs, the sports report on the television in full swing. She goes down the hallway, pausing at Mariko’s door. A radio is playing whimsical songs, indicating she has made it home at some hour in the night. Trina pads down the steps with anticipation, wondering how the day will unfold.
The dining room table is decked in majesty, food of all sorts punctuated with opulent bowls and the chrysanthemums of hand painted plates. In the center of the table there is a box wrapped in silver paper, topped with a brilliant red bow.
Papa-san comes in from the kitchen. “Oh, so you’re up.” He pours them both a cup of tea, his smile a bit nervous.
Trina does not notice this and she is lost in the spectacular display. “This is just lovely. Look at all this!”
Papa-san sits down, motioning for Trina to join him. “Mama-san did put on a show, didn’t she?” he says.
And it is only then, looking around and hearing nothing but the television, that Trina notices the absence of something that is almost an appendage of the dining room. “Where is she? The post office? The market square? I thought she said something about us all going out later, after the ceremony.”
“No,” Papa-san says, looking away. “She’s not going.”
A long silence. And Trina cannot believe what she is hearing, cannot understand why Mama-san would not wish to see this event, a culmination of something she had so much of a hand in making. Disappointment routs her throat, and she is only able to manage one word. “Why?”
“It’s difficult,” says Papa-san. “Sometimes,” he says slowly, staring at the green leaves drowned at the bottom of his cup, “we don’t want to see a thing end.” He looks as if he wants to say something else, but folds it up and puts it away.
The two of them float quietly at the table, and Trina distracts herself with thoughts of plane tickets, of the boy she hopes will be waiting for her when she comes out of the gate, of Redskins and pumpkin pie, of white monuments and the black Potomac River. And when this falls away, she thinks of all of the afternoons she walked moonscapes with Mama-san, looking into craters full of surprises and realizations. And she thinks of all the species of roses in the garden of their friendship that they, after her leaving, will not have the opportunity to examine and discuss. All of it gone.
“But I’ll be there,” says Papa-san, trying mightily to smile, knowing Mama-san has gone to the murky waters of the sound to think about things they no longer discuss, knowing Mariko will remain in bed. He picks up the box and hands it to Trina. “She wanted you to have this.”
Trina tries to share in Papa-san’s feigned cheer, nodding and smiling, saying thank you profusely. She opens the gift, an extravagant assortment of chocolates with a card inside. Mama-san’s elegant calligraphy dances across the ivory. “For your other Sundays,” Trina reads, bursting into tears.
Published by The Istanbul Literary Review 2007
Lunch is tuna fish and milk. Not for my brothers and me. For Precious. Nana is folding money tightly, pressing it into my big brother Poke’s hand. She gives an order she’s given a thousand times before. "Poke, go on down to the store and get Precious’ lunch," she says.
This morning, breakfast was a slice of bread and water at dawn. That’s not enough for me. I know it’s not enough for Poke, him being bigger and all, but he never says a word about it. Now we will have to wait for supper leftovers for sure; greasy string beans from last Saturday with pork fat jiggling on top or salty six-month-old beans pulled from the freezer. Nothing as fresh and eat-it-now as tuna fish and milk.
I am dying to go to the store with Poke. Maybe along the way we’ll find some money. Maybe even enough to get a couple of Mary Jane candies or a bag of lemon drops. I can taste the peanut butter and feel the sugar rush as I follow Poke out the door.
"Where you think you going?" Nana barks.
"To the store with Poke," I say.
"No you ain’t. Poke’s the oldest. Poke’ll go. You don’t need to go nowhere." She points to the white gardenias painted on the sofa. "Sit," she says.
The flavors of delight sour in my mouth and give way to cardboard-flavored spit. I sit down on the plastic-covered sofa, it sizzles my legs like a griddle. The room is stifling. I can’t breathe anymore than the gardenias beneath me, the white petals stretching wide into exhausted yawns, hollow as my stomach. A layer of sweat coats my skin as the cracks in the hard plastic slice into my thigh.
Nana won’t open any windows. She says she’ll be damned if she lets her "good air" out. That raggedy machine, shoved into the weary window of her bedroom in the back, pushes out nothing but hot breath. Nana swears the air from that thing is as cool and crisp as the morning breeze. So did the junkyard man who sold it to her with a sly smile. But you can’t tell Nana anything.
I look at the plants in the corner next to the sofa that climb halfway up the wall and spread over the glass end table. The thick philodendron leaves bury the heads of little white ceramic angels sitting on the tabletop. Nana’s stories are on the television, and she sits in the easy chair without looking away from the screen. My little brother haunts the other end of the sofa, his thumb a part of his mouth. Together we float on the barge in silence.
When I shift to give my slashed flesh relief, I accidentally knock the lace coverlet to the floor. Nana hears the swish and jerks her head, looking at me. Her big bumper curls, freshly done by Ms. Jackson down the street, bob back and forth in the thick air like buoys on water. Just a minute ago, her eyes were light and bubbly from the latest twist in who is having an affair. Now they are glowing charcoals at the bottom of a grill. "Damn it, boy," she snarls.
"Sorry, Nana," I say.
Nana sucks her teeth. She loves to suck her teeth. "Yeah, you always sorry. You ain’t got nothing else in your cup but that. Your mother didn’t leave me nothing but you kids and a sorry."
And then I feel it again. I can’t even hear her words anymore or feel the heat burning at me from her eyes, because there it is again. Suddenly, there is coolness on the back of my neck. It vanishes and the chill turns again into hot sweat.
Nana gets up from her blue easy chair, huffing and puffing. She fans the lace into the air and carefully places it on the sofa’s back. The leaves of all the plants quiver. My little brother sucks his thumb harder. I take the chance to escape. "I have to go to the bathroom," I announce, and move away quickly.
Normally, Nana makes me hold it. My brothers too. She says she doesn’t know one man who can control himself. ‘You damn well better hold it,’ she likes to say. And we hold it until our bladders churn bile to butter. We clutch our privates until our stomachs do somersaults and sirens in our heads bang and clang us deaf. When our eyes bulge out like a full moon, and we walk like old men, she is satisfied. Precious is let outside anytime she paws the front door.
But my timing is good, and I know it. Between messing up the sofa and interrupting her stories, I know she can’t focus much on how much urine I’m holding. She rolls her eyes and sits back down. The pleading man on the TV has already told his wife that he is sleeping with her sister. Nana throws her head back and yells, "Lord, you made me miss it, boy!"
But by then, I am already halfway down the hallway to the bathroom. My brothers and I share a room. First door on the left. There is nothing much in there: one bed for the three of us, a closet, and a seven-drawer chest with a green desk lamp on it. The lamp is just for show. Nana never puts a bulb in it. She says that whatever we need to do, we can do before dark. Our shoes line a bed that takes a day to dry out from us sweating through it all night. The windows are nailed shut. Nana says a fan would run up her light bill. Some nights I lay on the floor along the wall. The rats living behind the crumbling plaster crawl in and out of the tunnels they make, and I can feel the air moving through their tiny halls.
Nana’s room is the second door on the left. She always leaves the door open halfway; half open to remind us that it is her house, and half closed to remind us that we are forbidden to enter. There is a yellow cotton quilt spread over her bed, a matching runner on the floor. All day long, the preacher shouts from the clock radio sitting on the crowded nightstand, the air conditioner gasping and heaving in the background.
And there in the middle of the bed, turned toward the muggy breeze, is Precious. Nana says that Precious is a special bred cat, but I know she’s a mongrel. In the first place, the thing is cock-eyed and her one good eye has a river of muck running from it all of the time. Second, she looks Siamese from the back and Calico from the front, an explosion of fur and patterns. Always, she is looking over her empire, perched on the bed like a queen on a throne. God, how I hate that cat.
I reach the bathroom at the very end of the hallway. At the toilet, I decide this time I’ll hold it. Not because I have to, but because I can. In the hidden spaces of my body, I have the kind of dick control Nana never thought possible. Now I prepare for a delicious thing. I turn on the cold water full blast and dunk my head in the sink.
And I let the cold hold me, caress my brow. Mama is coming back. Soon. After while. One day. She just has a lot of things to take care of first. Business to tend. That’s why she kissed each of us on the forehead at three o’clock in the morning in Nana’s living room that one time. ‘We don’t want to wake Nana,’ Mama whispered. ‘Grandma works hard, and it wouldn’t be right to wake her up in the middle of the night. Ain’t that right, my little men?’ We little men nodded. Mama held up a bright, shiny gold key. ‘See babies? Mama’s got a key to the front door, so I can come right on in any old time. Don’t you worry. Mama’s got some things to take care of. Got some business now. But I’ll be back before you know it.’
The cold nestles me. She’ll be back before I know it. Soon. After while. One day. I blow air bubbles from my nose and they tickle my cheeks on the way to the surface. I listen to the silence underwater. I wonder about the place that cold comes from. Must be a fantastic place.
There were a few times before, when I have felt the frost from that special land outside of the sink. Like when Nana slapped my cheek for eating her apple. It fell out of the sack she keeps in the locked cabinet and rolled under the kitchen table. I watched it sit there for three days. On the fourth day I ate it, and she slapped me. She belts me plenty so the slap wasn’t really nothing to care about. My face always flames when her fat paw hits it. But that time my cheek went icy. Chilled like a body on a slab. Nana went to hit me again, but when her hand touched my face, she drew back. That’s when I knew that the other world was real.
I raise my head from the water. Can’t take too long in the bathroom or Nana will be at the door, checking if I’m running up her water bill or using her good towels. The ones with the three red tulips burned on the front. I take one out, dab it on my face, then brush and rub the cotton this way and that. I fold it exactly the way it was and put it on top of the linen stack. Nana never checks for wetness, only for the neatness of the tulips. She doesn’t use the towels, but likes to open the closet and look at the order of the pile. I flush the toilet for show and click out the light.
Poke is back. He is standing at the kitchen table clutching a brown paper bag and thrusting his fingers into the bottom of his pant pocket to get Nana’s change.
"You get the chunk tuna in vegetable oil?" Nana yells from the easy chair.
"You get the pint of whole milk? Not that two percent mess, right?"
"No, Ma’am. I got the regular kind."
Nana comes in the kitchen humming. She reaches up to the top cabinet above the refrigerator and pulls out two delicate glass bowls. She takes the bag from Poke’s hand and opens the can of tuna fish. After carefully forking out the flakes of tuna into the bowl, she grabs the pint of milk and shakes it vigorously. The foam fans out in fluffy splendor when she pours it into the crystal. Perfection.
Lunch is a wonderful thing. The whole world stops whatever it is doing at some point in the day for it. People wait on it all morning, and feel funny when they haven’t had it. That’s just how special it is. Bet the President stops for lunch too. You can tell how certified a guy is by his lunch. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is okay, but shows haste and a lack of style. Baloney or ham is something to respect. But the kind of lunch that requires a napkin, the kind that is better hot but still dynamite cold, well, that is something out of this world.
Nana sits the dishes on the floor. "Precious!" she chimes at the top of her lungs. She never has to call Precious twice. The cat arrives in the kitchen on cue for a two-course meal, moving from one bowl to the other. Nana stands over the thing smiling and cooing, "That’s it baby. Enjoy your lunch. You know Mama wouldn’t forget about her Precious."
We watch Precious eat. A violent cough breaks Poke’s stare. Bet he has asthma. Probably from the fur floating through all this good air. The cough snatches Nana’s attention away from the feast. Her eyes go from Saturday night bliss to Monday morning piss. "You little bastards always sick,” she says. “Poke, go in there and get the cough syrup. Take a little and give some to your brothers. Can’t have all of you sick in here. There’s crackers on the table." Nana pets Precious on the head and goes back into the living room to see if someone else is laying his soul bare.
So that’s lunch. Soda crackers and a swallow of cough syrup. Precious turns her tail up in the air. Her purring rings loud in my head. Milk dangles on the ends of her whiskers, hitting the floor in little raindrops. And then the coldness from that place rushes all over me. I don’t know how it found me through all that time and space it must have taken to get to me, but it did. The chill stays with me all day and into the night. I even stop sweating. In the late evening darkness, everything feels cool to the touch, and the spot in the bed where I lay stays frigid long after I sink into the dents.
Maybe it’s the cold that makes me think about it.
I walk down the hallway and into the living room after everyone is asleep. Oh, how fresh the air all around me feels. The floor is a frozen lake. The street light pouring in from the window is an October moon.
I see the fiend on the sofa. She is luxuriating in the silver beam. The thing purrs briefly, a careless greeting. Me, who was left in favor of tending business. Me, whose cup is full of sorry. I snatch the lace coverlet and wrap the little beast in it tight. She struggles, but her clawless paws are no help and her hiss cannot be heard. And I am not surprised when I feel my hands strangling the fur, my nails digging, because I have felt this feeling in the cold before. Long before I got to the end of the hallway.
The headless angels on the end table wait for me. I pick one up and smash it into the creature’s skull. I remember reading in Webster’s Dictionary that precious means something held dear. Am I held dear? Am I precious? I look down at the purple in the moonlight, dripping from my hands. Right then, I know I am more precious than business tending. More precious than soda crackers and rat tunnels. More precious than confessing husbands and choking gardenias. More precious than this damned cat. Yes. I know because the cold told me so.
To Do List
Published by Jersey Devil Press
2011 Dzanc Books Best of the Web Nominee
I’ve got to drive up to Ypsilanti this weekend, and it’s got to be this Saturday because the Fourth of July weekend is when they run the specials on the grave plots. I want to get a good one. I want one with a tree, a maple: No, an oak. Rodman has the nerve to tell me this morning, after thirty-three years of marriage, that he doesn’t approve of me going—which is 100% insane because I don’t need his approval to pick out my own burial plot.
He’ll be standing there, arguing with the funeral home director about what’s best for his wife, cramming his feelings into long condescending discussions with the notary public and the attorney. I know him. He’ll be stretching his fury and fears into taunt, pronounce-each-syllable words to the insurance representative and the social security benefits clerk. And he’ll do it all without looking me in the eye.
I don’t want to see all of that.
I’ll rent a car myself, and I’ll drive up to Michigan tomorrow morning and I’ll buy my spot at the Ypsilanti Groves of Peace. Done. Then I’m going to dump these damned horse choking pills in the toilet because for one thing, they’re placebos anyway. They didn’t work six months ago, they don’t work now, and they won’t work tomorrow.
So I’m going to flush them and tell that ridiculous nurse that she can stop tattling on me to the oncologist about his nuclear-research-waste-away medications. If I’ve got to throw up, let it be from an Atlantic City frankfurter drowning in mustard and sauerkraut, or too much Ben & Jerry’s, or motion sickness on the boat Rodman and I used to sail on late Sunday afternoons.
We used to float together on the lake when the water was crystal in the dimming light, when the sun was melting like a great candle.
I’ve got to get stamps and send my sister Karen a card. I’ll write a little note of apology on it too. Because I’m sure I hurt her feelings when she said that I should stop smoking, now that I’ve been diagnosed, and I said: “What the fuck does it matter now?” That was a low blow, because for one thing Karen likes to hunt and gather all those natural things like mammals used to do in Jurassic times, except she goes to the organic store instead of the Amazon Rain Forest. She’s big on the tofu and nuts and berries, and who am I to judge?
That’s just her bag, and she’s never said an unkind thing to me. Not since we were girls, when I wanted to go out with her and her friends, and she would tell me no. And I blew up at her for commenting about the Virginia Slims and offering me a chewable Vitamin C. I lost my cool. But it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was happening to me.
I just knew too much.
I’ll write a note on Karen’s card and think only of when she was sixteen and I was fourteen, and she had miscarried in the bathroom. I had offered my shoulder for her to cry on, and she had said: Let’s run away. I’ll think only of us riding in the blueness of twilight on the open road, in the station wagon she had stolen from our parents: I had twelve dollars in my pocket and she had a driver’s permit in her purse.
We had been free of everything in existence for thirty-five minutes on the New Jersey Turnpike before the police caught up with us. But I’ll think only of the two of us tracing those white lines, with the smoke stacks signaling our exodus, and the grey air burning our eyes and our souls. I’ll think of the fate we thought we controlled for thirty-five minutes when I lick the envelope, when I pin it under the windshield of Karen’s car without ringing the doorbell.
I’ll leave an informed message on the graduate student’s answering machine, Rodman’s mistress. She’ll want to know that after two years of being aware of her existence, I never once feared her taking my place; that years from now, after she’s finished graduate school and started her own family and sat alone with her thoughts by the window, she’ll understand that there are many ways to win and there are many ways to lose. She’ll erase my message after listening to it, but she’ll file it in the archives of her mind. She’ll reference it when the time comes and know that even if Rodman had never happened, I was right.
I’ve got to stop at the post office to send my novel to the United States Copyright Office, with a check for the filing fee. I don’t even care anymore that “One Day” was never published because for one thing, I know that there will come a day when all that constitutional white marble will be chipped away. All that monument stone will just be chalky silt, and somebody will go down in that mile-deep basement and open up my yellow-paged unbound book. They’ll open up the singular edition of “One Day,” and it’ll be just as good a read then as it is now. All about the woman, the heroine, that chose career first, that chose a man first, that chose to have pets instead of children. I’m not going to make a copy of it. I’ll mail the original.
It’ll be the only real proof that I was here.
I’ve got to get that dress I saw at Neiman Marcus: the red one with the A-line. I am not going to be put down in one of those ugly-ass granny dresses with the lace trim and the darts in the front; the kind of dress that you look at and right away you think of tired, muddy women in the Mississippi Delta. They buried Mama in one of those wrecks and I was never able to shake the sight of it. Mama in that sickening paisley sack, surrounded by bouquets of flowers that should have been given to her when she was living. Not me.
That’s why I’ve got to pick up some long stems today. And I’m not going to the little florist by the house that I’ve been going to for ten years, just because I’ve known Margaret for ten years. I’m going to the market out in the country. They’ve got the biggest, prettiest flowers out there. All the way past the traffic and the downtown shops and the golf courses and the freeway, to the road that has only two lanes, where the world is small and quiet.
Where I can forget about all of the things I’ve been meaning to do.