Interview by Laura Ellen Scott For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 4.4, December 2010 Since 2003 Lee Papa, a New York-based writer and performer, has been blogging as the ultra liberal, foul-mouthed persona The Rude Pundit, whose stated mission of “proudly lowering the level of […]
Month: December 2010
Drama, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010 SETTING Time: Present, Summer Saturday Afternoon in Long Island, NY Place: Room empty of furniture with a window seat. CHARACTERS TOBY: Early 30s. Celia’s husband CELIA: Late 20s / Early 30s. Toby’s wife LAURA Old woman, modern practical clothing LIGHTS […]
Drama, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
Note: This four-character play can be made interactive with the introduction of food service during every scene or other types of audience participation. Scenes can be performed progressively in various restaurants or as one-act plays. As the play progresses, actors are required to play several roles, ranging from babies to the elderly, in scenes.
Act One: Wings and Wild Things
It is 1997. Husband and Wife are thirty years old. They are seated in a booth at a Miami sports bar watching the World Series. Large screen TVs hang over both their heads. Husband, boyishly handsome and wearing a Florida Marlins jersey, is obviously rooting for the home team. Wife, attractive, slim, and dressed in stylish workout clothes, couldn’t possibly be less interested in baseball.
Patron, sitting directly behind husband, stares at Wife whenever she isn’t looking in his direction and blatantly eavesdrops on their conversation. But whenever she tries to catch him at it, he snaps his head up sharply toward the television screen. Husband does the same thing in reverse, staring at the TV whenever Wife is speaking and only looking at her when he senses she’s glaring at him.
Wife: (sighs, picking at her cuticles): The weird thing about sports bars is the way you feel all these masculine eyes on you. Of course, the men aren’t really watching you. They’re really looking at the televisions right above your head. (She looks at Patron, who has been watching her. Patron immediately looks up at the television. Wife goes back to picking at her fingernails. Patron goes back to looking at her.) Or maybe that’s just their excuse. Maybe they are watching you, staring down into your cleavage, but pretending to watch the TVs the moment you happen to glance over. (She looks over Husband’s head at Patron, who has been watching her again. They repeat the same eye play.) It’s a kind of voyeurism, isn’t it? But acceptable. A publicly acceptable voyeurism. Especially for those who like to watch women eat. Those who get excited by watching women put food in their mouths and suck on straws and, well, masticate. They must imagine you are doing other things, sexual things, when all you are really doing is nourishing your body. Except nourishment is kind of a loose term in a place like this, where everything is deep-fried in a vat of rancid oil that has touched hundreds of other peoples’ orders of food. Why aren’t all these men at home, after all, staring at their own wives or girlfriends nourishing their own bodies? (Wife looks at Patron for a third time. Instead of looking away, this time he winks broadly at her.) Sports bars can really give you the creeps if you think about it. If only there were something good on TV to distract you, other than sports of course, that would help, don’t you think?
Wife: (turning to her husband): I don’t suppose they could turn one of these gigantic televisions to Wheel of Fortune or something.
Husband: Are you nuts? It’s game 5!
Wife: Which will be just like game 4. Throw, swing, miss, throw, hit, catch, miss, throw, start over. It’s all the same.
Husband: Actually there’s been a lot of hitting in this Series. If you at least tried to understand the nuances of baseball…
Waitress (wearing bright red lipstick, dressed in teeny shorts, teeny shirt, half-apron and heels, holding a drink tray; interrupting): Dude! (She gives Husband a complicated handshake that he seems to know. Wife looks on, bemused.) Great to see you. Whassup??? (she draws it out like the characters do in the Budweiser beer commercial. She’s hip and very appealing.)
Husband: Dudette! (He’s almost embarrassed to utter this, as he should be, according to Wife, who is now slightly incredulous.) Back at ya, girl.
Waitress: You wanna Samuel A?
Husband: Yeah, same old, same old. You know me, never an exciting moment. Sam Adams for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (They both laugh overly long as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Husband is obviously brilliant.)
Waitress: Got it. (She jots it down on her notepad, taking a long time and spelling out loud. She finally turns to Wife.) Hi! Is this your first time here? (brightly)
Patron (jumps out of his chair): NO! Liván, how can you just serve up a pitch like that? Of course Alomar’s going to eat that up! (He shakes his fist at the screen above Wife’s head.)
Wife (shooting Patron a dirty look): Ah, no, I was here with him (she jerks head toward Husband, who is now leaning over the back of the booth mumbling with Patron about the Marlin’s loss of the lead in the third inning) last night, and the night before that. In fact, we sat in this exact same booth. (Pause.) Twice.
Waitress: Can I get you something to drink? Would you like to see the beverage list? We have beer on tap, 2-for-1 well drinks, frozen cocktails… (She pauses and eyes Wife’s attire)… mineral water…
Wife: I’ll have a glass of the same lousy, over-oaked, malolactic Chardonnay I’ve had for the past two nights, thanks.
Waitress: Oh, ya know what? We just ran out of Chard. (She pronounces it with a hard ch, like chocolate.) I’m so sorry. (She taps her pencil on the pad and smiles at Husband, clearly not sorry at all.)
Wife (sighing loudly): Okay, well, what other white wines do you have by the glass?
Waitress: We have Pinot Grigio (she pronounces it peen-ott grigg-o) and White Zinfandel.
Wife (winces): I’ll take the Pinot Grigio (emphasizing the correct pronunciation), but just so you know, White Zinfandel doesn’t count as white wine.
Waitress: Sure it does. It’s like, white’s in the name.
Wife: No, actually it’s pink. It’s a blush wine. They just call it White Zinfandel because the zinfandel is a red grape and they don’t let the first press sit on the lees at all. After crush, they separate the skins out and let the wine ferment without it being colored too much… (She pauses when she realizes that Waitress, Husband and even Patron are all now staring at her)… anyway, I’ll have the Pinot Grigio.
Waitress (obviously not writing it down): Sure, let me get that for you. (She saunters away, swinging her tray—along with her butt.)
Husband: Do you have to do that?
Wife: Do what?
Husband: Make people feel stupid.
Wife: Are you kidding? I didn’t make her feel stupid. She is stupid. And did it ever occur to you that stupid people don’t even know they’re stupid, and therefore can’t be insulted when someone smarter corrects them? For the goddess’ sake, she should know how to pronounce what she’s serving. And know what it is!
Husband: There you go again.
Wife: There I go again what?
Husband (snorts): The goddess’ sake? Oh-so-lofty and pretentious.
Wife (staring): Um, I’ve said that since college when I took that feminist Norse mythology course, remember? It’s just a habit. What I thought was our private joke. In fact, if I remember correctly, you’re the one who made it up!
Husband: Well, some habits are made to be broken. Like rules. Or bones, like the arm I diagnosed today on that idiot five-year-old who jumped off his swing. Again. Like he did six months ago, when he broke his ankle.
Wife: Oh, you mean habits like going to the same sports bar three nights in a row? Why are we here, anyway? Are there no other restaurants with inedible chicken wings and weakly brewed beer playing the World Series in all of South Beach? Or how about this: Couldn’t we stay home and order in a pizza? Think of the money you spent on that huge TV going to waste because we’re… not… watching… it!
Patron (leaning over the booth,helpfully): That’s not a bad idea, you know. Could save you in beer money—buying a six-pack’s always cheaper. I know this guy…
(This time, it’s Husband who shoots Patron a dirty look and waves him off. Patron slides back into his seat. Waitress returns.)
Waitress: ‘Kay, here we go. One Mr. Adams for you (giving Husband a secretive but sunny smile) and wine (setting glass down abruptly so some sloshes out). Now, what would you like to order? (looking at Husband first)
Husband (flirting): You know my business.
Waitress (laughing): Yes, I do. Naked and hot?
Patron (audibly, on a moan): Oh, yes, please!
Husband: Uh, yes, thanks, unbreaded and spicy, that’s the way I like my wings, all right. And with blue cheese and celery, please.
Waitress: Right. Sauce and sticks. Gotta have the toys to build up to the main event. (She winks and turns to leave.)
Wife: Excuse me!
Wife: I’d like to order, too.
Waitress: Oh, I’m sorry. Do you need to see a menu? Also, we have a special on the beer-battered deep-fried shrimp.
Wife: No, I don’t need to see a menu! And I know about the special! It’s the same one you’ve had all week! And I know this because I’ve been here—twice, as I’ve mentioned!―and you’ve been the one serving me! (She visibly calms herself.) Look, since there’s nothing healthy to eat here, just bring me the same thing you did last night—the beer-battered deep-fried shrimp with cocktail sauce and a side salad with lemon. And no, I do not want bacon-flavored bits or pre-baked croutons with artificial Asiago cheese on my salad. Then I will proceed to peel the breading off my shrimp like I did last night and when the busboy comes to get the dirty dishes, he can make another snide comment about how my manicure was ruined. And he won’t notice that I don’t even have a manicure.
Waitress (to husband): Wow. PMS?
Husband: No, MLB. Not a Marlins’ fan.
(Waitress and Husband both crack up, high-fiving each other. Wife looks on in growing anger, then reaches over and taps Husband on shoulder, first gently, then more roughly when she gets no response. Patron avidly watches the plays between game and trio. Waitress reacts hurriedly when she sees her face.)
Waitress: Whoops, I think I see an order up. Be right back.
Wife (to Husband, angrily): What the hell?
Husband (watching game again]: What?
Wife: You’re flirting with her right in front of me!
Husband: No, I’m not. Just chill. Did you have a bad day at work? The Wine Shrews slow on advertising? I told you none of those male winemakers would get the Shakespeare reference.
Wife: No, you ass, I’m having a bad day at dinner. You can’t be bothered to talk to me, but when she comes over, you’re all ears. I’m getting pretty sick of this shit, I can tell you. (Pause.) Are you having an affair?
Husband (unreasonably mad): What? Look, honey, I’ve got my hands full at the practice seeing every snotty little kid in this city just so you can play around all day getting your tragically doomed esoteric wine magazine off the ground. Have I once asked you if you’re having an affair or, God forbid, to get a real job? No. I wipe noses and asses for a living, and you drink Chateauneuf du Pape. (snottily) Oh, excuse me, did I say that correctly? Was my accent okay with you?
(Wife sits silently, looking at him. She shakes her head.)
Wife: A simple no would have been sufficient. But at least now I know how you really feel about my magazine. At least that’s finally out in the open. (She rises slowly, with dignity, from the booth.) I’m going to the ladies.
(Wife walks Stage Left where Soft Balls door is marked. She pulls out cell phone and dials. Meanwhile, Husband sinks head into hands but can’t resist peeking up at game. Lights dim over Husband and brighten over Wife.)
Wife (very upset): Hi… Yes, we’re at dinner. Yes, the same place. (Pause.) No, I don’t know why he’d take me here if he’s shtupping the waitress. It’s almost like he’s bragging about it, or wants me to see that he’s still desirable to other women, I guess. I did ask him about it. Sort of. He was kind of inappropriately angry when I mentioned the word “affair.” (Pause.) I know that’s a sign. So yeah, he’s probably having one. He didn’t exactly deny it, more like turned the conversation to another subject. In fact, attacking The Wine Shrews that he used to be so supportive of. (Pause.) Well, what can I do? It’s not like I’m going to leave him, especially if I don’t know for sure. We’ve been together since college. I just finished putting him through med school and his residency. We’ve got all these loans. I can’t quit now. (Pause.) Besides, I still love him. Or I did when I left the house this evening. I’m sure this is just a phase. He’s probably just really tired. Pediatricians are notoriously overworked. They’ve got like ten whiny kids and overwrought moms to see every hour… I’m not defending him. (Pause.) Yes, I can hear her. (Pause.) Yes, I understand she has colic. Okay, I know you’ve got to go. Yes, yes. Go take care of the baby. (Hanging up the phone.) At least you’ve got one. (She exits Stage Left into Soft Balls).
(Lights brighten over Husband, whose head snaps up when cheers erupt from television set.)
Patron: Yes! Yes! Alou’s my boy! Alou’s my boy!
Husband: A three-run homer! Unbelievable! His second in two games!
(Husband and Patron jump up from booths, high-fiving and cheering. They link arms and begin dancing. Waitress approaches with food. Husband grabs her and plants a long, earnest kiss on her lips. Husband and Waitress start making out. She is still holding the tray so it is amusingly awkward. Patron stares. Soft Balls door swings half-open and Wife’s leg starts to emerge a little at a time Rockette’s style. Patron grabs Husband to break the liplock and faces him toward door. Husband scrambles into seat and straightens himself, but doesn’t notice a big blotch of red on his shirt. Patron launches himself back into his booth and frantically tries to draw Husband’s attention to his shirt. Waitress busies herself placing food on table. Wife returns, slides into booth. Waitress edges past Wife, avoiding all contact with her. Wife and Husband stare at each other.)
Wife and Husband (together): I’m sorry. (They laugh.)
Wife: Maybe I am a little tense about the magazine not catching on. I was so sure about it.
Husband: Don’t worry. It will. You’re right—there aren’t any female-targeted wine magazines on the market. I really didn’t mean what I said. You’re breaking new ground, and I’m proud of you. It’s only a matter of time. (Pause) Besides, you’re right about me.
Wife (horrified): You’re having an affair?
Husband (forced laugh): No! I mean, I haven’t been paying much attention to you. Between my patients and this Series, well, I’ve been a little distracted. I’m sorry, I really am. (He smiles and pats her arm.)
Wife (taking a deep-fried shrimp from her basket and peeling away the breading): Okay. Sure. But could you possibly explain that red stain on your collar? (She points to the stain.)
Husband: What? What’s that? (He reaches up and feels the wetness. His smile fades.)
Wife: Is it… my cocktail sauce? I have the little plastic thingy for it, but it’s mostly empty. (She shows him and frowns.)
Husband (tasting his finger and sighing in relief): Yes! Yes it is.
Wife: How the hell did it get on your shirt?
Husband: Oh, the waitress was putting down the food just as Moisés Alou scored a three-run homer, and I jumped up right into her. She spilled the sauce onto my shirt. I guess we were all a little excited. (He chuckles breathlessly.) She’s bringing you another one right now.
(Patron, eavesdropping, gestures wildly to Waitress, who hurries over with a ramekin of sauce and places it on the table. Husband takes the shrimp from Wife’s hand, dips it in the sauce and feeds her. Wife eats warily.)
Husband (guiltily): How does it taste, dear? What, are you crying?
Wife: (wiping her eyes): No, of course not. It’s just the horseradish. It must have gotten up my nose. (She pauses and sniffs loudly.) You know how that stings.
End of act
Drama, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010 Cast of Characters JENNY DALE: Beautiful, elegant, bright, 32 years old MICHAEL DALE: Bold, intelligent, handsome, 60 years old LIAM CHEADLE: Athletic, muscular, charismatic, 30 years old Scene The living room of Jenny and Michael Dale, in a quiet, upscale […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010 Robert Townsend had planned his suicide for ten years, and on July 10th, 2010 he took a long, hot shower to set the mood. He wondered if his twin sons were enjoying themselves in Italy, thought about the last time […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
It was the start of the year and the end of the day. I walked down through the park by the school fields, next to the high frosted hawthorn hedgerow. I walked slowly, with a bruised plum in my satchel and my cane in my hand. The snow was falling heavily, and the horizon was bleak: slate and ghost-white. The city was awaiting the thaw, or the blitz, or something to end this long, cold time.
Behind the hedge, the tumbled stone remains of the Orangery, from a different time, sat under waxy green ivy and rusty scrapped metal. Ma had told me about the Orangery one day, sometime ago, when we were taking a walk down here together. She said people from the city would come and pay money to walk around the grounds and touch and admire the bright citrus fruits. She said that in the disappeared days, servants would pick oranges and lemons for the Lord’s breakfast, when oranges were a luxury. The Orangery was now all but gone, save the rusty scrapped metal under the waxy green ivy.
A useless winch scratched and screamed in the wind from the sea ten miles west of here. The day was starting to lose whatever light it once had. A flood of starlings rose from beyond the factories into the wide-open sky, and twisted and dipped together in formation before heading eastward over the city.
A man driving an old open-top tractor with a battered snow plough was slowly ridding the sports field of the latest white drift. He was slumped over the steering wheel to keep the wind from blowing into his face. He sat up to turn the wheel when he reached the end of the field, to return for more snow.
I never had to compete in school sports, thanks to my disease. Ma said that people that play sports all the time are Philistines who don’t appreciate the arts, and that I should be thankful for my polio, as it meant I could devote my life to the arts. When I was diagnosed in the summertime a few years back, they gave me a cane. Ma said it was important that I learn to play musical instruments and read four books a week, so I could be a serious man and write books on the arts when I was older. I was lucky that I didn’t have to play sports and become a Philistine.
I picked a handful of cold, red berries from a holly bush in the hedgerow, and fingered them in my pocket. I put one in my mouth and counted to five before I bit into its tough skin with my back teeth. A dry and cold bitter juice soaked into the back of my tongue, like I knew it would. I spat out the remains into the snow as the swelling introduction to Moonlight Sonata drowned my thoughts.
I thought about Mr. Winter and ripped through the skin of the remaining berries in my pocket with my fingernails. My belly slowly turned, like my stomach walls were being sucked into a vacuum. My body was telling me to stop walking and go home. I thought about him dusting down each individual piano key as he did before the lesson. At the end of every lesson he would inspect the piano for scuffs or scratches and polish its dark surface.
I thought of him gulping air, low and slow like he was taking his last breath.
* * *
Mr. Winter picked up the cat from the chair, held her in his arms, and walked to the window. He looked over the city rooftops to the trees on the hills on the other side of the valley, where their old house used to stand, and remembered the fire. The thatched wheat roof had been the first to burn. It went up like a newspaper, burning bright and fast. The old oak frame gently blackened and splintered into the sky. The ancestral beams had protected the house and many families from cold winter gales for hundreds of years, but they disintegrated in hours. Once, they had supported the high ceiling of the farm kitchen. At Christmas, Mrs. Winter would stand on a chair and carefully tack Christmas cards along the length of the dark wood. He would return from a day in the woods with the spaniels and hang pheasants on the brass hooks near the stove to bleed. That night they fractured and burnt like matchsticks. The creaking wood swung up into the night sky, silhouetted by the low harvest moon. The house burnt into the night, but the strong stone chimney wouldn’t fall. For years the stone stack had channeled the heat and smoke from roasted quail and parsnips out into the cold sky. That night, the flames consumed it from the outside, but the fire could not topple it.
Mr. Winter remembered standing with his wife, watching everything they owned fall and burn into the soil from a safe distance on the hill. They watched everything but the chimney become razed into a useless heap of black dust and ash, and they knew that they loved each other as much as any two people could, and they knew that all they would ever need was each other. Now he looked out to the white city and remembered how the morning after the fire, the chimney was the only thing still standing. It was still warm to the touch a full week later, when the young men arrived in heavy, rusted-red machinery to knock it down and drag the debris away to fill a hole in the ground.
* * *
My fingers were wet and sticky from the berries, and my toes were numb from the snow. I left the fields and cut over to Glass Street, where the narrow red brick terraces had their curtains drawn. The chimneys from the factories on the East End spewed smoke into the dull, heavy sky. It was hard to tell where the smoke ended and the clouds began. This snow might never thaw.
I was only a couple streets away from his house now. I imagined a milk van coming around the corner, knocking me to the ground, so I walked out into the middle of the road, closed my eyes, held my arms in the air, but no milk van came.
I thought of his horn-rimmed glasses and his old eyes, always half-closed through drunkenness or tiredness, or both. His eyes, always slowly closing and never looking at anything, maybe they didn’t need to focus any more. I thought of his brown tweed jacket, covered in cat hair. His wiry hands, and the way they snapped at my wrists when I mistimed a note—I knew that it was coming, but it always made me jump.
His eyes, always closing. Slowly closing, and moist like he was about to cry, or sleep, or both.
I saw the house, just like every other house, but still so different from every other house. As usual, Mr. Winter was standing at the window staring into the snowy city landscape, holding the soft ginger cat in his arms. He was not looking into the street but far across the city.
I rang the doorbell. He eventually opened the door without a word, looked down at me, and closed his eyes. I climbed the stairs and hoped he was in a warm mood.
A glass vase stood on the piano with the same plastic lily, in the same position every day. The yellowing sheet music was always positioned in the same way, lit by an old brass lamp that buzzed like a wasp and was hot to the touch.
After politely declining a glass of water and running through my scales, I embarked on the piece, under the close eye and ear of Mr. Winter. I played through the famous opening notes of Moonlight Sonata before stumbling on the timing of the high A in the ninth bar. He plucked my thin wrists from the heavy piano keys, pinching with his finger and thumb like a claw crane, shaking his head in disappointment. As soon as I missed the key, I knew that he would remove my hands from the sacred keys to prevent me rattling on any further. My face felt cold, like the blood was draining through my body and into my cold, wet shoes. He rested his hand on my knee for a second before raising it to his mouth to contain a slow, scratching cough.
“Again.” Mr. Winter requested, and I began the piece once more.
Sometimes he would forget I was there, and even ignore my mistakes. At these moments, I imagined that he was thinking of his dead wife. The only time his eyes ever really opened was when he was staring at her photograph on the mantelpiece; it was then that I could get away with missing a note.
I wondered where they met; I imagined them down on the pier with ice creams in the sunshine before the war. Before the snow. I imagined him as a teenager, impressing her, swinging over the waves from the railings, with a three-piece suit and bowler hat. This image in my mind made me smile, and I must have started hitting the keys a little heavy.
“Pianissimo.” he whispered in my ear.
He was so close to my face that I could smell his warm port breath and the scent of old tweed.
He gently ruffled my hair with his hand.
“Pianissimo.” he repeated.
I began again, and was now past the dreaded ninth bar, playing nicely. The ninth bar was so similar to all of the bars around it, but for some reason it beat me every time. Mr. Winter turned the page for me and nodded along to the slow beat, as if pleased. Every time he lowered his head to the slow rhythm, his eyes would close and reopen as his head rose to the downbeat, like his head and eyelashes were on the same puppet string.
The cat jumped up onto the piano from the mantelpiece and Mr. Winter swung his arm, just missing my face, forcefully knocking the cat off the piano with the back of his hand. The cat squealed and disappeared into the hallway like a shot. I opened my eyes, stopped playing, and noticed that my hands were trembling. He rested his hands flat on his knees, the back of his hand scratched pink. He lowered his head and softly spoke.
“Sorry Dale.” I thought that this may have been the first time he had said my name. “Again,” he instructed.
In my first lesson several weeks ago, before the heavy snow, he had played the complete piece to me, and it resonated so beautifully. Now the melody had become so mechanical. The music terrified me. Every recent instance of my playing of the opening bars had ended with a scolding from him, and the forceful removal of my bones from the ivories. I had told Ma I wasn’t enjoying learning the piano. Ma told me, “Don’t force it, it will come.”
The introductory melodic triplets sometimes swam into my head when I was going to sleep, but it only reminded me of the smell of port on his breath, and the disappointment in his half-closed eyes. Ma had assured me that Mr. Winter was an excellent teacher; he had taught her, many years ago. This was probably before Mr. Winter lost his wife and started drinking. I wondered if back then he actually enjoyed the company of children. Ma had decided that I should learn from him too. Ma decided a lot. She had decided that I should take the day off from school when the city doctor came through with the new vaccinations. She had heard that the vaccinations made boys ill anyway, so I’d be better off without.
Cat hair was still floating amongst the white streaming light that sliced the room through the gap in the curtains. The lesson was nearly over. I asked for a glass of water. I knew this would give him an opportunity to take a swig of port in the kitchen, and might calm him a little. He rose and left the room without a word.
In the one photograph on the mantelpiece of Mrs. Winter, she sat in the same room, softly smiling, with the ginger cat curled around her neck. I imagined that this old photo frame was the only item in the room more precious to Mr. Winter than his beloved piano, including the cat. He returned to the room and passed me the glass of water.
“Please drink away from the piano.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Of course.”
“I like to keep my piano clean.” He paused, “Chloe is fine.”
I understood that he must have been talking about the recently scared cat, but I feigned ignorance and looked at him inquisitively.
“Chloe,” he clarified, raising his palm toward the cat, as she reluctantly returned to the room.
“Yes, Sir,” I said. “Of course.”
Chloe hopped back onto the mantelpiece via a dark brown leather arm chair, which was positioned to face the window. There was no television in the room, but a large wireless radio sat amongst the many dusty encyclopedias and biographies of long-dead German composers. Chloe settled onto the mantelpiece and watched us with her eyes closed, as if ready for a recital. I hoped she had learnt not to jump on to the piano again.
I began to play, and soon mistimed a C# early in the fifth bar. I awaited the wrist-grab, but nothing happened, so I continued to play. I made another mistake, but carried on. Mr. Winter made no sound and so the music would not stop. The pacing of melody suddenly started to make sense to me, and I even began to enjoy the flow of the music, and started to hit the keys a little harder despite the Pianissimo direction. I reached the end of the piece, but still, there was only silence from Mr. Winter. I started from the top, this time hitting the pedals with my good right foot, releasing the damper to create a glorious, thunderous sound.
* * *
Mr. Winter dreamt of the black cancer growing over her heart, like tar dripping on a red summer rose. Her eyes were still open and she sat at the piano playing and smiling, unaware of the blackness engorging her body from the inside out. Her clothes looked so loose, like only bones filled them. She played a crashing rendition of Moonlight Sonata that would have made the purists weep. She screamed an unearthly scream as she played, at first in anger and then in pain. He wanted to stop her screams, stop the sacrilegious rendition of the music, almost as much as he wanted to rip the black treacle from her lungs, but he couldn’t move. He knew he was dreaming, but couldn’t wake. The black seeped through her veins to her fingertips and toes.
* * *
I finished the piece a second time. I couldn’t believe that he had not stopped me; he must have passed out. I looked over and saw him, his hands flat on his knees as usual, but with his head bowed like the puppet strings had been cut. I moved my ear close to Mr. Winter’s face. The smell of port was strong. Sure enough, I could hear his fast, irregular snoring.
I looked over my shoulder, and now a cold, dusky half-light fell over the room. The only artificial light was the small, buzzing brass lamp that illuminated the sheet music. The room sat quietly, waiting for the music. So I played again and closed my eyes. I missed more notes, but it sounded better than ever.
I imagined a beautiful and unstoppable white wave of light spewing from the back of the piano and out of the window, igniting the dusty curtains as it passed. It crashed over the city, vaporizing the snow, revealing bright green parks, colossal oak trees, and busy streets. I saw myself running through the cut grass in the park with my arms reaching up to the sunshine. The red brick chimney stacks toppled into the river, smashing the ice, and rolled out into the North Sea. The river ran strong and fast.
I quickly glanced across once more to see Mr. Winter still sleeping, and so I continued to play with more vigor than ever.
* * *
In Mr. Winter’s dream now, she stood up from the piano stool and walked across the room toward him. The love he felt for her was the same in the dream as it had been in reality, and his heart quickened in the same way. He held her hands in his hands and drew her toward him. A fire burned around them, but her skin was cold. She removed his horn-rimmed glasses and let them swing, tethered with a leather strap, around his neck. She kissed him on the cheek softly but her skin felt like wax and her breath smelled like wetted ash. Now the fire disappeared, and they hobbled together into a desolate frosted park. She lay in the snow. She was gone; a snow drift from the north quickly buried her. He could see himself from above, crawling through the snow, pitifully trying to unearth her body.
* * *
I pumped the pedal with my right foot, and my crippled left foot swung around like it had a mind of its own. I hit the rising notes nimbly like my right hand had been made for this moment alone. The ivory keys and my thin, lame fingers were as one. My left hand, little finger, and thumb, splayed an octave apart, followed the bass of the chords in perfect unison, C #m, A, D… I stamped the pedals so hard that one of them ripped through a spring and detached itself from the piano, releasing a terrifying clanging sound like a bell falling down a well. The thin beech panel above the pedal ripped and splintered into my shin.
Mr. Winter awoke. Everything stopped and all sound disappeared into some kind of nothingness, save the wasp buzz of the lamp. Whatever chaotic sound had filled the room only seconds before was now a fast-fading echo in both of our minds. I feared for my life, and involuntarily whimpered. The blood drained from my face once more. He rose; his eyes were hollow and desperate; he looked to the broken wood at my feet.
He quietly walked to the mantelpiece and picked up Chloe. He walked to the window, holding the cat in one hand by the skin on the scruff of her neck, and opened the window with his other hand. The cold air filled the room like a flood. The city looked endless from here, the fluttering snow partially obscuring the view of the hills over the town. He removed his horn-rimmed glasses, and let them swing, tethered by the leather strap, around his neck. He squinted tightly and looked out over the city, through the white, to the trees on the hillside, and felt the weight of death lift from his shoulders.
He breathed slowly and deeply, and then gently rolled Chloe onto her back in his arms, lifting her to his face. He turned his head to the side, and placed his ear on her soft chest until he could hear her heartbeat. His grief was gone.
He returned to the piano to place Chloe on top, next to the vase. He sat, placed his aged hands flat on his knees, slowly exhaled, and opened his eyes. Chloe hopped down onto the keys, walking over the back of my cold hands, her warm soft fur caressing the back of my wrists. She jumped back up onto the top of the piano next to the vase, curled up, closed her eyes, and purred.
“Again.” Mr. Winter instructed.
Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010 Here, brides fell from the sky, drifting silently through the night like wingless white angels. It happened on certain evenings, lonely evenings, after the dinner dishes were washed, when all the doors were locked and the porch lights turned off. […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010
I wait for the bus at the outfield fringe of my two-man baseball field, the corner in front of my house. The neighbor kids come up to ask, “Lucky, where are you going? Why do you get on a Greyhound bus every night? What’s inside that box?”
I press the cigar box between my arm and my side. “Nothing,” I tell them, “Nothing’s inside. I’m not going anywhere.” Am I talking about the box or something else?
After kindergarten I started going to the private school twelve miles on the other side of town. Each school year the neighbors know less about me.
“Where are you going?” they ask again.
“School,” I murmur.
“It’s a really hard school. We do algebra in fifth grade in Latin.”
I imply that it’s the same school that I go to during the day, the one with all the doctors’ children who belong to the golf club with the guard at the front gate. My classmates hang out there on Wednesday afternoons as their fathers make deals to re-develop Sacramento while choosing three wood or two iron. No one at my daytime school, even Jeff Feinstein, knows that I go to this second school.
“Just show them what’s in the box and they’ll leave you alone,” Gary Allen whispers. Gary’s the last neighbor I still play with.
“Cigars,” I announce, “What else would anyone keep in a cigar box?”
“They let us have them since we have to go to school at night.”
“Can I have one?”
“Not this time.”
“You don’t really have cigars in there.”
My box is edged with gold paper. Dad kept these cigars for four years. The top has a picture of Trujillo, the president of the country that makes the best cigars still available in the United States now that Cuba has fallen off the map. Dad explained the difference to me once: Castro is a dictator and Trujillo was president for life. The inside top is a picture of a woman who’s supposed to be the mother of all Dominicans. I heard my father once tell someone at the restaurant that she’s one of Trujillo’s mistresses. Her father was foolish enough to let his daughter enter the Miss Universe pageant. I find this very exciting so I remember it.
The neighbor kids get on their bikes to play some sort of racing game. They press baseball cards against the spokes with clothespins. If you listen a certain way, the bike sounds like a motorcycle.
I reach inside without completely opening the cigar box and pull out an empty tube. “See?”
“Let’s see you smoke it.”
“Well, I don’t really smoke myself. I just bring them to trade for stuff.”
I close my box and clutch it to my side as if it were James Bond’s attaché case. These are the items inside they must not see: comic book-style primers from the Chinese Nationalist press with Kuomintang party seal, calligraphy books, a party youth membership card (Chiang borrowed the idea from Hitler), a jar of black ink, and a pair of bamboo brushes. They’ll give away the fact that my night school isn’t a regular private school.
Dad gives me the boxes and tubes after he finishes smoking the cigars. The best ones are glass and look like test tubes, but I don’t take those to Chinese School. I keep my brushes in a cedar-lined aluminum tube that I painted to look like a fifty-caliber-machine-gun bullet.
I welcome the rumble of the bus. Even if I hadn’t lost two months of little league, I would do anything to get out of going to Chinese school in Paperson. As the door of the bus whooshes open, I know that the neighbor kids can’t see through its dark-glazed windows.
Yeh-Yeh made a deal with moonlighting Greyhound drivers and mechanics. The drivers sneak the sceni-cruisers out of the yard to “test” for mechanical problems. The money Yeh-Yeh pays for these excursions comes back anyway. The gambling house is the only Paperson business open on weeknights. There’s a diner out front where the bus driver first gets a free meal, sees customers use the bathroom, and never come back to eat.
Once inside the sceni-cruiser, I pretend it’s a spaceship. I look for an empty row near the middle. If someone sits next to me, I don’t talk. Girls never sit with boys unless the driver makes them. My pickup is first because we live the farthest from Paperson. The early stop kids dress like me—jeans, sneakers, colored T-shirts. The girls wear pants or short dresses. By the middle of the route the clothes shift as the bus stops for the kids who live in the public apartments at the edge of what’s left of Sacramento’s Chinatown. These kids have noticeable Chinese accents. I’m not sure why they have to go to Chinese school. Shouldn’t they be learning English instead? Apparently, they work on something called “Citizenship” instead of language, though most of them don’t know any more written Chinese than we do.
The Fresh off the Boat crowd, together in the back, sneak cigarettes and talk about fast cars in Chinese interspersed with English words like hemi, four-barrel, and gottamatch. They comb their hair straight back and wear cotton pants and T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves.
A few weeks ago, I was reading the latest car magazine—all color photographs and graphs of road tests. One of the FOB boys sat down next to me. I had watched them pass outdated copies of the same magazines. Theirs looked like they’d come from barber shops or the offices of gas stations. He pulled out his own copy, thumb prints across the cover, pages ripped out, mustaches drawn on the models in the advertisements. After a few minutes, I noticed that he kept eyeing my magazine.
“You want to take a look?”
He grabbed it and pointed to a dragster engine, all chrome manifolds and pipes. “Wow,” he kept saying. “That’s cool.” For some reason he could say that one phrase just like Ed Kookie Byrnes from ’77 Sunset Strip.
I preferred sports cars, the ones with Italian names and impossibly high list prices.
“Pretty fast,” he whispered, while I wondered if he was reading the numbers printed in the road tests or the swirling dust airbrushed into the photo.
Moments later, he offered me a copy of one of his magazines. I flipped through it as quickly as possible while through the corner of my eye I saw the lazy pleasure he took from the glossiness of the pages of mine, and I felt jealous and disdainful all at once. A few minutes from Paperson he started to return my copy of Car and Driver.
“Keep it,” I whispered.
He shook his head.
“No really,” I said, “I’ve already read it.”
“Here, you take mine…trade.”
I looked at the dog eared magazine rolled in his hands.
“We trade,” he repeated.
“No, no, you can have it.”
Our exchange had gone wrong. He made a spitting sound through his teeth, stuck his own magazine in his back pocket, and pushed mine back at me. When the bus stopped, he got out without looking at me. I left my issue of Car and Driver with its Ferrari Dino cover on the seat next to me. I found his on top of a garbage can just in front of the steps to the school.
After that, I read other sorts of things on the bus—sports biographies, stories about hard work and determination as told to the same three Jewish men: Shapiro, Hano, Stambler. Sometimes the other American-born kids would bring comic books and we’d trade, until the Chinese School teachers caught two older kids bickering over whether one Fantastic Four was worth two old Supermans. They declared, Chinese school is the place to learn and speak Chinese. No American reading is allowed, even on bus. Before the ban, I left one more copy of a car magazine on my bus seat.
I then tried to bring my homework from regular school. If I kept repeating algebra problems to myself, I wouldn’t grow a Chinese accent. I wouldn’t start rolling up my T-shirts, slicking back my hair, and I wouldn’t try to say “Cool” just like some guy on a TV show that no one watched anymore.
My parents say, “Don’t worry about learning Chinese. The important thing is to make Chinese friends, be with your own people.”
I get home and they ask me if I played with anyone. I shake my head. How do I explain that the older kids hog all the good walls to throw balls against? Most of the time I stand in the schoolyard and watch, keeping score of the other kids’ games in my head, wondering how Arnold Hano would describe it.
Sometimes other American-borns come up to me and ask, “Which school do you go to?”
I tell them the name of my private school and they shrug. They’ve never heard of it. Most tell me they go to Sam Brannan.
I say, “Sam Brannan was a Gold Rush profiteer who hired General Sherman to survey what became Sacramento.”
They walk away. Sometimes, I just name kids I play little league with who go to Sam Brannan, but the Chinese school kids only seem to know other Chinese kids.
“Where is your school?”
“It’s a private school.”
“You must be rich.”
“No, we’re not, really.”
“Then where do you get the money?”
“They have scholarships sometimes.”
They never ask if I have a scholarship.
“You must be smart.”
They don’t come up to talk much after that.
When I first found out that I had to go to the Chinese School, I insisted that my parents give me a reason why and they told me, Because it’s part of who you are.
Every evening that I am here, I look around and ask myself the question, “How is this me?”
Another time, Dad told me, “You go to Chinese school to learn to be successful.”
“Is Chinese success different from American success?”
“To be successful in China, if you carry out your responsibilities to your family and yourself, you’re successful.”
“I can do my homework and chores without going to Chinese school.”
“It’s more than that.”
“So what’s it mean to be successful in America?”
“In America, you do whatever it takes to get what you want, then don’t let anyone else ask too many questions. You can be successful in both ways.”
Dad looks away, which means that I shouldn’t ask him to explain more.
In Chinese school, we recite from textbooks printed on comic-book paper. Memory is everything here, understanding nothing. The seal of the Chinese Nationalist press is stamped on the back. On the front, pictures of modern office buildings and automobiles compete with smiling children. Inside, the children in the pictures wear suspenders, shorts, and white-pressed shirts with buttons and collars. The girls wear plaid skirts and sweaters. Fathers carry briefcases to match blue business suits and mothers wear aprons. There are no pictures of peasants in coolie hats. Instead, farmers drive shiny tractors and talk to scientists who wear lab smocks. China, this China, is or at least will be as modern and rich as America.
Each day, we listen to a book about Sun Yat Sen. We learn how the Chinese revolution of 1911 was like the American revolution and how the Chinese communists are vicious bandits. If you say Mao’s name, you get in trouble. A big map of China hangs in every classroom. The mainland is the same color as the island of Formosa.
The rest of the time we recite words from the text. We learn the different words for members of the family, for studying, for brushing teeth, and washing your face. There are two different words for grandfather—one for your father’s father and one for your mother’s father. There are separate words for older and younger brother. It was so confusing that for two weeks I thought chat-chat (brushing teeth) and sai-sai (washing face) were yet more members of the family who only live in the bathroom.
We recite the words in unison. As we recite, the teacher walks the room and holds a piece of paper in front of selected students to make sure that they are not just moving their lips.
Mom tried to help with my recitation as I struggled with the tones. I had no ear for my ancestral language. One day she got frustrated, “Your memory in your other school is so good. Why do you have so much trouble with this?”
At regular school, the parents sometimes whisper about the kids with the learning disabilities who clog up the public schools and slow down the smart ones. In American school, I’m not one of those kids. In Chinese school, I’m not so sure. Everyone else recites much better than I do. Everyone else keeps their brush marks inside the lines when they write their names or the characters for Dr. Sun’s three people’s principles. Can you be smart in English and dumb in Chinese?
Sometimes I know the words, other times I mumble. You don’t want to be caught by the teacher. Sin San is a middle-aged man who wears the same gray suit every day. He greases his hair and wears glasses with wire rims. His posture is chopstick straight, but the first thing everyone sees is the mole on the right side of his face. Some of the kids talk about counting the hairs coming out of his mole.
If you make a recitation mistake, Sin San makes you say the phrase three times in front of everyone. If you giggle from nervousness, he hits the tips of your fingers with a ruler. I know that it is just a matter of time before I get caught forgetting. If it doesn’t happen with recitals, I know it is unavoidable in calligraphy. Even when we trace, Chinese characters tumble around for me. Somehow though, my turn never comes. Most of the time, he only punishes the FOBs. He’s extra mean to Kookie Byrnes. Once Sin San pulled Kookie by his ear just because he didn’t recite right away, even though Kookie always seems to be staring straight at him.
A few months into Chinese School, I asked my parents for a better reason why I had to go.
“Your Grandfather built the school. He raised the funds.”
“So, how would it look if his own grandson didn’t go there? “
“But Yeh-Yeh says he never went to school.”
“You get to go to two schools. Your grandfather helped to make sure you and all the other Chinese children here not only get the chance he didn’t get, but twice what American kids get.”
I wonder what Yeh-Yeh will think when he finds out his grandson is retarded in Chinese.
This evening it changes. In the middle of recess, I am walking around the end of the school where nobody goes. I figure walking is better than standing around and not talking or playing with anyone. The classroom has a back door, but only Sin San uses it. Kookie is by the door doing something to the knob, but I can’t see what.
He sees me. His eyes get big and he turns away from the door with hands behind his back. “Shit,” he says. When the FOBs swear, they somehow never have an accent.
“What are you doing to the doorknob?” I ask.
Kookie ignores my question. I point to a piece of metal in his hand.
“Please, you not tell anyone.”
“Are you being a spy?”
I’m not sure he knows what a spy is, but I like the idea of being a spy.
“For the good side?”
“The American side.”
Kookie nods his head.
“You not say anything?”
I nod. “Promise.”
Kookie runs toward the playground and I walk in the other direction.
The next week, I find Kookie by the back door again and I still don’t say anything. A few days later, it’s the same. After that, Kookie’s there every recess. In the meantime, Sin San keeps getting meaner to Kookie, calling on him to recite the really hard passages, finding little mistakes in calligraphy that looks way better than mine, accusing Kookie of not listening at the right times even though Kookie often seems to be looking straight at Sin San. Actually, a lot of the times Sin San gets maddest when Kookie is clearly staring straight at his face. I’ve never seen Kookie actually do anything wrong in class.
The other kids say that Sin San hates Kookie because he’s so greasy. It’s funny because I’ve noticed that Kookie is the FOB kid who doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He also does homework on the bus sometimes.
One evening, I’m walking in the playground and Kookie says “Hi, Rucky.”
I have no idea how he knows my name. I say hi back, but I don’t know his name.
“You still like fast car?”
“I help cousin in body shop. They got real fast car there.”
“Great,” I say.
“I show you some time.”
“You not believe me?”
“I believe you. What kind of car is it?”
“You mean a Corvette?”
“I’d go see a Lamborghini.”
“This Chevy faster than Rambo-genie.”
I don’t talk to Kookie for three more recesses, then one evening I see him coming out the back door of the classroom. I look around to make sure no one else sees us.
Suddenly, we hear footsteps. Kookie pulls something from his back pocket and tosses it to me. It’s bright red and looks like a felt pen.
I don’t know what to say, but I hear adult voices just around the corner of the building.
“You not tell, not get caught. He never call on you.”
The voices fade and never make it around the corner. I slip the red pen into the fifty-caliber cigar tube in my pocket. Kookie runs towards the playground. The bell rings. At the beginning of class, I stick the tube in my cigar box of Chinese school stuff. I don’t even notice until I hear giggles and tongue clicks. Sin San isn’t in the classroom. We’re supposed to come in, take our seats, and wait for him in silence. A drawing of the Chinese Communist flag, a star flanked by a sickle of four smaller stars, against a field of red appears in the left corner of the blackboard. I look in Kookie’s direction, but try not to make it obvious.
Sin San comes in and he doesn’t seem to notice. No one’s going to tell him. For a few moments Sin San teaches the words for brushing teeth, washing your face, then he’s on to the different members of the family. We’ve reviewed this same lesson for four weeks.
He stops. He wants us to be louder, less tentative. He turns away from us and towards the board to show his disappointment then sees it. “Ee yah!” he yells. We say nothing.
Sin San takes the big eraser and swipes violently at the flag drawing. Then just as suddenly he turns his face red, “What’s wrong with you children?”
He says it in Chinese and it just happens to be one of the few phrases I do know. He reverts to thickly-accented English, “I want who did this come forward. The rest of you put heads on desk.”
Someone giggles nervously, but no one confesses. He begins to walk down the aisle stopping at each desk “Did you do this?”
He comes to my desk, “Did you do it?”
I don’t dare look back out of fear that he’ll see the wrong thing in my face. I rub my fingertips with my thumbs. Before I get a chance to answer, he sends me outside.
“But!” I mutter. I tremble as I fight back tears.
“Go in hallway now.”
His hands crack together. I first make sure that I grab my cigar box before I slump against the cold blue cinder blocks of the hallway. What has Sin San figured out already? I would normally never touch the linoleum floors—the FOBs spit in the hallways sometimes. I slip my fingers beneath my thighs to keep them still. Will the principal come for me? Will they send the police?
But just before I crack, a girl joins me in the hall. Seconds later it’s another girl whose clothes come from Macy’s, followed by a boy smaller and even more timid than I. At least a third of the class lines the hallway. If Sin San is sorting suspects from non-suspects, I’m safe.
We don’t speak to one other at first, until the boy turns to me, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t think we’re in trouble,” someone whispers back.
We can hear Sin San yelling at the FOB kids, then searching their desks and school boxes for red chalk. At one point, I hear Sin San say, “You come here again. You show me your box one more time,” and I just know he’s talking to Kookie.
He makes some of the boys take all their clothes off except their underwear as we American-borns wait outside and listen.
“Why’s he so upset?”
“It’s the Communist flag. Don’t you know anything?”
“But it’s just a flag,“ the boy next to me, Jerry Jang, continues. “So it’s a Communist flag. You think they’re really any worse?”
No one answers. Uncle Nelson, my mother’s beatnik brother who makes me call him by his first name, says that sort of thing from time to time, but never in front of strangers. Over the summer there was a Taiwanese student who worked as a bus boy at my Dad’s restaurant who said things like that every now and then. He disappeared one Friday and never picked up his paycheck. They sent it to his mother’s address in Taipei and it came back. The kids in the hallway stare at Jerry.
Eventually one of the Chinese-born boys comes out into the hallway and motions us back. Sin San stands next to his desk. Two of the FOBs rub the board with a felt eraser that’s longer than their forearms. An old woman who apparently entered through the back door lectures us about her life, “Mao killed my family, slit their throats, then hung their headless bodies from a tree. The heads they fed to the pigs. Until I escaped three years later, they made me feed and clean after those same pigs.”
A man tells us, “The communists they keep everything for themselves, they say it’s all equal, but the insiders get rich in secret. No such thing as everything shared.”
Where did these people come from on such short notice? Is there some sort of anti-communist response team in Paperson?
We listen in silence. When the two finish, it’s not clear if we’re supposed to applaud or just sit. Again, I try to look at Kookie, but he’s looking straight at the man who’s talking and seems to be listening very carefully. When the recess bell rings, no one dares rush the door the way we normally do. Behind the speakers, the Communist flag, erased thirty times over, refuses to fade. Sin San tries paper towels, a wet sponge, and heavier erasers. All night they scrub, cover it over with chalk, and scrub again.
For days, the outline of the communist flag defies the resources of Paperson’s Chinese School. The school hires a chemist to analyze the offending chalk marks. After the first week, a Nationalist flag hangs over that section of the chalkboard, but we can still see the communist stars. When the light is just right, they penetrate the single white star of the Nationalist flag. At the end of the month, they replace the entire chalk board and fix the lock to the back door. Kookie keeps coming to school and Sin San is just as mean to Kookie. I don’t see Kookie by the back door at recess again though.
At recess one evening, I see one of the girls head to the principal’s office. The principal walks into the gym with the girl. She points at Jerry Jang. After recess, Jerry disappears. He must have left in a hurry. His textbooks stayed stacked in a neat pile on top of his cigar box. Sin San says nothing about why Jerry’s desk sits empty. I say nothing about Kookie.
The next week I overhear a group of girls whisper, “The Jangs support the Communists. They even get the People’s Daily, a big picture of Mao every week right in the mail.”
The others know this is something bad, but it’s not clear why. “They might even be arrested…or deported.”
A mandatory silence follows the second word.
I break it, “You can’t get arrested for that. We have free speech.”
“How do you know?”
“You can so be deported for being a communist. My Ah Ma told me so. It’s not just the Americans; it’s the law in Taiwan too.”
I lean against the rough cinder block wall. Boys don’t normally talk to girls at the Chinese school just like the American school. I don’t really want to talk to them about the Bill of Rights; I want to tell someone that Jerry Jang is innocent, whether or not his parents are communist sympathizers. It’s just that I don’t.
After Jerry’s expulsion, a strange thing happens. Parents start telling one another, “Learning Chinese is good, but all this indoctrination is too much for young kids. American-born kids say things sometimes, they just don’t know better.”
Fewer American-born kids get on the bus each week. One day at the zoo, I see Jerry Jang with a cub scout pack. He has lots of friends. He never talked much at Chinese school; here he’s one of the loudest. He looks right at me, but we don’t acknowledge one another.
One evening, Kookie comes up to me at recess. “Rucky, you want come see car?”
“No, not now. You come cousin garage. I show you. We trade.”
Mom and Dad are more than happy when I ask them to take me there, but they want to talk to Kookie’s mom first. I don’t know Kookie’s real name. I just have the name and address of a body shop.
“How can you not know his name?”
“Mom, I really want to see this car. He’s my friend.”
I see Mom do the math in her head. She agrees, but isn’t real sure. When we drive up to the body shop, she’s even less sure, especially after she sees Kookie, who’s in a dirty T-shirt and faded jeans. Kookie’s cousin Sam is smoking a cigarette and he has less of an accent than his younger cousin. I learn that Kookie’s American name is “Richard.”
“Richard, how old are you?” she asks.
When he says it, I can tell that Mom is thinking about Way Lan and wondering why I want to be friends with these older boys and why they want to be friends with me. I’d tell her if she asked. I’m more Americanized than they are, yet somehow these FOBs are more American than I am.
Mom looks around the body shop and makes a face at the girlie calendars and the empty bottles of beer, but agrees to come back for me in thirty minutes.
The car is a purple Corvair with a 427 cubic inch V8 jammed in the back. It’s not a Lamborghini, but it’s beautiful. Kookie shows me the tolerances of the cylinder heads with a plastic ruler. He talks spark plug gaps and the tweaks his cousin did to force more air to the carburetor.
“Pretty cool,” he says.
“Very cool,” I say.
Inside of three minutes, Kookie loses me. He has me touch the different parts of the engine. Eventually, he makes me sit in the driver seat and has me turn the key and step on the gas pedal to hear the Corvair rev.
He tells me not to be scared.
“I don’t want to break anything.”
“No worry, Rucky. I trust you.”
I feel my heart beat as the Corvair revs. It’s the noisiest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s what a dragon’s roar must sound like.
We’ve been in the garage for ten minutes.
Kookie’s cousin gets me a Coke, looks me straight in the eye and says, “You’re all right.”
I turn to Richard, “Why did you draw the flag on the blackboard?”
“Why didn’t you tell on me?” Kookie answers with a question. “I thought you were going to save Jerry Jang. He one of you.”
I don’t have an answer right away, but after a few seconds I say, “Sin San is too mean to you. It isn’t right.”
Kookie nods and his cousin says, “He’s all right,” a second time.
“Why’s he so mean to you?”
Kookie drops his head, “I come to school and I keep look at Sin San. I know he not like, but I keep look. Don’t know why. One day, Sin San make me stay after bell and say Whykeep look at me? I say, you face maybe I see in Toisan. Sin San say, Where from? I tell him Pao Bao and he say, Don’t know Pao Bao. I still look. After that, Sin San he hate me.”
“I don’t get it, “ I murmur.
Sam cuts in, “Our family comes from a little village, Pao Bao. No one in Sacramento much comes from there. Richard’s family owned a farm. Richard’s too young to remember. In Pao Bao, Sin San had a different name, but he was the school teacher there. When the communists came, he was the one who told the communists who all the landlords were and where they hiding. He wasn’t a communist, he just wanted to be on their good side. The communists round up the landlords and punish them. The teacher gets assigned to do re-education in Canton.”
“How do you know it was Sin San?”
Sam points to the right side of his own face, “Richard told me about the mole.”
“Sin San tell everyone that me cai-dai (bastard), then if I say anything he can say that I lie.”
I get an idea.
“I’m going to tell my Yeh-Yeh. He’ll fix this.”
“Don’t tell your Yeh-Yeh…Sin San was just doing what it took to get what he wanted. He just doesn’t want people asking questions. This stuff should stay in the past. We learned that in China.”
“Lucky, promise us that you won’t say anything. Richard’s fine, thanks to you. It’s time for us to forget China stuff and be Americans. You tell on Sin San and Richard would still get in trouble.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You might in a few years. My brother and I are your friends.”
Richard interrupts,”You our American friend.”
I hold my hand out to shake.
“Lucky, you wanna go for a ride?”
“I don’t think my mom would like it.”
“Your Ma doesn’t need to know.”
It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a car going over 100 miles an hour. We get back five minutes before Mom picks me up. Kookie’s cousin does the talking and he’s a good talker. Besides, Corvairs are safe at any speed, as long as you use your seatbelt.
Weeks later, I tell my parents I’m worried about my classes in regular school. I don’t have time for both. How can I go to Princeton if I don’t? It works.
By the next school year, the Chinese School in Paperson closed for a lack of students. I remember none of the words I recited all those nights at the amnesia academy. I lost the brush and ink, the comic book paper texts from the Nationalist Children’s Press. For years, I couldn’t even remember the faces of the other kids, just the empty desk, the sound of screaming at recess, Sin San’s blue suit with the Kuomintang party pin, and the blackboard drawing of the communist flag. I never saw Kookie or his cousin again. When I’d ask to go to Kookie’s body shop, Mom kept telling me it wasn’t a good time. I heard that Kookie’s cousin got a job crewing for Don Garlits and took Kookie with him. I tell myself that Kookie painted the swamp rat on Don Garlits’ dragster. A couple months later, I found the auto-body scratch repair pen in a cigar tube. I held it to my ear like a sea shell and the roar of hot rods drowned out everything.
Poetry, Vol. 4.4, Dec. 2010 Love and valor and the quest. The meaning of death, God’s lucky numbers, His favorite kind of whiskey and His favorite time of day to drink it. Later, the habits of certain animals such as the ant, marmoset and canary. […]