The author comes at you with a pretty dazzling mix of charm, humor, strong emotion, jump-off-the-page liveliness. I loved the pungent language and descriptions and, especially, the voice of its young, vulnerable, confused, melancholy, helplessly resilient narrator. This story makes you laugh a lot, makes you feel great affection, and breaks your heart. I have to admit, I finished it with tears in my eyes.
—Francisco Goldman, contest judge
That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking. Each night I came home I peeled off my shirt and pants that smelled of the juice of a thousand pigs, and I stood outside my room. My brother Aalap had hanged there the year before, the starched, yellow fold of his karate-class belt rounding his neck like a scarf. I’d been at college, and my mother had made it clear it was the belt and not her own strangle that had writhed small Aalap purple. You could still see the hole where the nail had been. It was just above my bedroom door and everyone had remembered everything but no one had remembered it.
My mother said it wasn’t nice how I stripped outside my room like that, that my father might see my triangle bra and shriveled-up breasts and then what. (Buchu, put your breasts back in your buttons!) I said maybe you shouldn’t stick your sad face in my business like that or maybe I just said it in my head. I stood until I could no longer stand, until that one hole became two and then four holes, and only then did I gather up my pile of soiled clothes.
From my window I looked at the candy factory up the hill that breathed of sugar and syrup and little helpers. In my twelve-year-old brother’s dream the factory exploded and a great pink ball of gum rolled out and down and ate the town up.
• • •
I told an Asian girl that came in the restaurant our beer was from Japan. My boss screamed I was a humiliation, that it was from Okinawa and if I didn’t get it straight he’d really do something bad. I told the girl it was from Okinawa and gave her the bottle for free. She mouthed an apology when my boss wasn’t looking, but I didn’t care.
My boss was a fat Korean man, 27, a star of the Cornelia-town restaurant scene, his favorite word “copasetic.” When his fat copasetic self stepped out to mop the sidewalk I looked deep down the vats of pig stock and watched belly-pink and bone-yellow rub each other’s smells out. I watched them juice up pools of concentric brown, an old carcass sap that steeped like cheap cologne. In the shower I imagined that stick of grease rolling off my chin and down my stomach—just before my thighs curling into my little dot bellybutton, to find a home away from light.
I’d worked three months and didn’t mind it; it was good to be out of the house, and who knew when I’d be back at school. I’d come home only twice in the year after we cremated my brother. Now when I mentioned going back in two weeks my mother stormed off and flopped around her bed. My father tilted his head like a pup then talked about something else.
On the nights the kitchen guys went to smoke in the walk-in I hung around in case they remembered me but they didn’t. I mopped the floors upstairs extra hard, pushed against the slabs of blond wood with all my strength to wipe out the rings from the bar stools, the bloody-nose smidges of Sriracha sauce, the cleat prints from the traction mats. After I mopped I took a spray bottle of orange chemical and stepped on two foot-sized sponges. I skated around Pippi Longstocking style, spraying and skating the space clean. My boss sat there with his baby blue Akitabare and watched my ups and downs and had a silent conversation with me.
Let me let you in on a secret.
No let me let you in on a secret.
If you touch my belly it’ll wiggle.
If you touch my hair I’ll dissolve.
Hurry the hell up I have a date, he said, wiping a last sip from his mouth. A thick line of hair went down the middle of his paunch and when he jiggled off his stool it peeked out black. He looked more sailor than chef in his double-breasted jacket and it made me lonely to see his naked bottom half—his shorts, his massive calves bulging thick like two bedposts, his big hairy feet spilling from his clogs.
You’d better not be hung-over tomorrow, he said, watching as I undid my apron. I met his eyes and tripped on my way out.
• • •
I took the bus the ten blocks home because the ground and sky were hot and I liked to watch people ripple over the tar like slow, pole-thin mirages of themselves. I thought of the dream my mother kept having, the one where she had to drag a dead, snow-white egret wherever she went. I wanted to tell her to weave that bird’s feathers into a ruffled dress, to whack her own head with its wing like a bat, else to lay down next to the great white beast and stare into its black eye and eye-to-eye listen to what the white bird had to say.
In my brother’s dream, the factory exploded and a great pink ball of gum rolled out and down and ate the town up.
Off the bus I found myself outside parks with willow trees and windmills, flower shops floating with irises and orchids. I wanted to be one of those girls that nipped a bud and stuck it behind her ear like she was the prettiest, pinkest thing—to wear a flower and feel paper-wrapped in warmth. I bought a plant but its red-cropped leaves withered away on me—too much light, too little music, who knew.
• • •
Back at home, I watched the news with my father, who liked to finish a bottle of wine by 8:30 and, purple-lipped, predict who was commentating.
This is Mike Flanders, reporting for FX news, my father said low and serious, facing the TV. This is Mike Flanders, reporting for FX news, the TV said.
Why don’t you brush your teeth, my mother asked him.
This is Anne Stevens signing off, my father said in a high-pitched voice.
This is Anne Stevens signing off, the TV said.
My mother got up and went to the kitchen table and sat in the chandelier’s low glow. Papers and books spread before her like the work of a grad student trying. She was planning on changing careers, moving into the hotel-management industry. She underlined how-to manuals until her face was in the books and my father had to switch off the light. My father slept a few feet away on the couch as if he were scared to let her out of his sight. Pools of red wine drooled down the couch’s yellow cushions because my father slept mouth open like a baby bird upping its head for a worm. I felt alone upstairs but it seemed like too much to have the three of us in a four-bedroom house lying inches away like cellmates.
Besides, there were the leftover candles and incense and wrapped chocolates strewn around the downstairs as if we’d held a séance the night before. I didn’t like it. The mourning had been a year back but bits and pieces remained. Hershey’s kisses, my brother’s favorite, had been tendered as if my parents had been praying to Aalap and not the gods. Come home beta! We’ll feed you good this time! I could have scrapped those chocolates but knew they’d notice like they’d noticed the box of lemonheads on Aalap’s desk. When my mother had tried to toss that box, my father, who’d been lying in Aalap’s bed, screamed that if she ever again tried to toss any of it he’d leave. Soon after, I’d gone over and picked up that box and slammed it against Aalap’s gray wall and watched yellow drops scatter to the floor like marbles. I’d lain down and watched the marbles from the side, small yellow mounds rising from the dense carpet. I’d imagined my parents lying on their sides, the three of us eyeing each other across a field of dandelions. Then I’d plucked each stem and put each one back and folded up that box and placed it at its original angle.
• • •
I snipped this story from the paper: Harvey, the 103rd generation of the Parmalats, is a fat ten-year-old. His parents die and he’s the sudden heir to the milk fortune. It’s the funniest story in town. No one wants a fat milkman, Harv, the kids at school whisper. Suck our teats, a bit of milk for your money, the girls sing, squeezing out their chests at him in the hallway. For weeks this fat little Harv runs home to a kitchen that’s lonely and downs milk from a refrigerator. One day, after a big gulp of 2-percent Harv goes to the toilet. With his corduroys banded around his ankles and bubbles of lactose fart on the air, he seizes. He has a seizure on the toilet; he dies. This kid’s head is pummeling the wall out of his bathroom, milk choking down his last gulped breaths and all he can think is how those kids at school made his life happen.
The next day, my day off, my mother decided it was time for us to see a movie. It was Aalap’s one-year-hanged anniversary and on our way to the theatre I sat low in the back and asked my father to make a joke. He used to claim he could make a joke of any three words.
Only then did he heave up his bowl of crawfish, letting out a big whoop as he slammed it upside down on the skillet.
Sledgehammer, toothpick, boat, Aalap would have said, then settled back into the left back seat.
My father, his head not yet filled with wine and voices, would have closed his eyes and smiled.
A boat dredged through the dredge only to come upon sledge and hammer it. So it hit the toothpick, my father would have said.
There would have been a pause and then Aalap would have been laughing and then me too. Audience is key for a comedian, my father would have said.
I’m too tired to joke, my father said to me and instead slid in the red album. On cue we sang she loves you yah yah yah, our hands up in the air, our necks stretched toward the ceiling like a retarded people’s duet.
My mother said something and I turned down the music.
You’re breathing on my arm, she said again at my father.
My father turned and looked at me.
I paused, then reached up front and switched back on the music while my mother pressed her forehead to the window and my father watched her. At the stoplight we came to a massacre of pink flowers. A delivery truck had made too sharp a turn and petals twisted across the pavement. My mother moved her big eyes from one to the next. My father made a U, and we were on our way back home.
• • •
Though I was off, I went into work that night. The sous-chef was whittling his knife against a whetstone, his silver edge slashing water from the top. I stood next to him and sliced up tear-shaped bulbs of garlic. I piled up delicate, fingerprint-sized circles, lining up their middle flecks of green. I liked it when they let me work in the kitchen when there weren’t too many customers.
My boss came over and watched me slice, stood close enough that I felt his warm breath on my neck. I threw two ends of a bulb in the trash. I sliced through the next bulb quicker, ignoring my shaky fingers to show just how quick I was. I could feel his eyes tracing down my arm to my fingers and then his hand rummaging big through the trash. I held my breath. The next moment his fist was slamming next to mine, so I had to stop cutting to keep from cutting him. His hand opened to show the end of the bulb I’d just tossed. His fingers rolled the end like mucus then threw it at my face. I twitched.
This is why I don’t hire women, he said in my ear.
I looked ahead and saw a customer watching.
I don’t fucking care who’s dead and who’s not, he continued, if you waste my money like this again you’re out.
He stuck his hand back through the trash and fished out two more ends and flung them through the air. I focused my eyes on the red Louisiana crawfish floating in the bowl next to me, their claws groping for the rim of their oil pool.
I don’t care if you have to stay here all night, you’re going to pick every fucking one of these out and re-cut them, he said.
I felt his face bake red and waited for him to walk away but he stood until I rolled up my sleeves and stuck my arms down the body-sized trash and picked out two half-bulbs like peas from rice. Only then did he heave up his bowl of crawfish, letting out a big whoop as he slammed it upside down on the skillet. I watched the tense curve of his calves and smelled the sizzle of paralyzed fish and felt wetness on my nose but was glad he’d said it; I’d wasted his money and it felt right to point this out.
His note had said he’d rather die than fuck up, and I wondered who taught a twelve-year-old to think he was the fulcrum of honor.
My bangs kept getting in my eyes as I re-cut. I used my shoulder to clear them out because my arms were up to the elbow in pork and noodles from fishing the ends out of the garbage. I could feel the sous-chef watching with disgust. By the time I had a pile of newly cut useless ends I reeked of the trash and it was pitch summer dark out and there were circles and squares of food up my arms like misshapen tattoos. The sous-chef came over and with one sweep transferred the pile back to the trash.
Don’t fuck up like that again, my boss said as I started to walk out. I nodded. He hurried over to me and put his hand on my neck.
Did you hear me?
I nodded again.
He leaned toward me and paused.
I don’t want you fucking shit up when I know you can do better, he said.
His breath was on my nose. I felt the pulse of his hand on my neck and waited for him to say more. He walked away.
• • •
At home my mother read the newspaper, her face buried in its winged flaps.
It looks like the Asian market’s going to crash, she said to my father.
Chinese not Asian, my father said without looking up.
Oh, China’s not in Asia?
My mother folded up the newspaper as she looked at me in the doorway.
You’re defacing our home bringing in the smell of swine, she said.
You know you don’t have to work, my father said.
What’s on your arms, my mother screamed, standing.
I didn’t want to cry because then they would cry. So I went and sat at the table and my father took my arms and one by one picked off the scabs of garlic. Then he did start to cry. My mother sat back down and watched.
The first time I’d heard my father cry was the day he’d driven Aalap home from school, one year ago. He’d gone back to work and tried phoning Aalap, but Aalap had been busy dangling by then. Or busy sticking his finger under his belt, hearing the phone, kicking his legs to quit dangling; who knew?
In bed that night I tried to stop breathing. I couldn’t. I tried for that blue-yellow look behind my closed eyelids, that flash of light that meant sleep was overtaking, but instead I stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars I’d tacked up in high-school that no longer glowed, stared until their outlines hazed into circles, until the flash became morning and light fumbled its way back through my dark.
• • •
Some night the next week the kitchen guys were leaving high and my boss went downstairs to the walk-in and I felt myself following. He went inside and I slipped in through the door just before it closed, and inside he put his hand on my hair, and I felt exhausted by how good it felt, I wanted his hands on my stomach, my arms. He touched my nipples that were wrinkly from how cold it was, then pushed me to the side against a tub of wriggly soft-shell crabs and lit a joint and began to unbuckle his belt. For a moment he looked into my eyes then paused. I don’t know what it was that made him pause but he paused and then looked down and began to cough.
Get the hell out of here, he said.
No, I don’t want you, he said but wouldn’t look at me, just fingered his belt. I looked at his skin pushing over his belt buckle, at the smoke curling from his hand through the cold of the walk-in. I looked at his face wondering if he was going to touch me again but he pushed the door open and pushed me out then shut himself back inside. I stumbled my way upstairs and through the front door.
Outside, I whirled through the dark like a car wreck happening, like a bat gone deaf in a nowhere temple. I spun like a phantom of orange lamplight, formidable, alone. I thought of my brother and wondered if he’d been spinning or if his had been a last-minute decision, if he’d meant it talking to my parents the night before about wanting to improve his swim times. I wondered who taught my little brother the knot that stopped his thoughts. His note had said he’d rather die than fuck up and I wondered who taught a twelve-year-old to think he was the fulcrum of honor. I thought of my mother saying his karate uniform had been ironed stiff, that his cotton white pants and shirt had smelled of blood and starch and I hated her for telling me that, for telling me he’d rehearsed the ironing, the pulling on those pants, the looking in the mirror, the holding of that yellow sash between his small hands, the wondering if it would work, the pulling up the chair, the finding it did work, maybe too late. I thought of my father coming home and calling out Aalap’s name and going upstairs to loosen his tie and unhinging my brother’s instead, of my father driving Aalap to the hospital too ashamed to call a neighbor to drive them both, of my father in the driver’s seat next to his purple son folded up in white clearly already dead, colors blurring before them both on the road, and I hated to imagine it. My mother kept trying to tell me about it, about my father’s call but I kept stopping her, I didn’t want to know it, a year later I didn’t want to know.
The humidity got to me, and I sat on the curb. A shadow cast past mine, and I turned to find my boss approaching, his eyes tired. He reached down and gathered me up into his arms and lifted me onto his shoulders and started to run down the street, his fat Korean butt waddling as he carried me, as I leaned close to his head like an aviator on the prowl. I put my nose in his hair and watched the warm streets fly past and mirror our strange reflection: I watched a worn woman balance a grocery bag on her head and a waiter play the flute on his midnight walk home, a small boy hold out a crown with a penis for its jewel and my brother, with shaggy black hair falling across his tilted face, across the saddest expression in the world, my baby brother with no glasses, eyes shut, tongue swollen like a heart, blood pooling in his hands, white-socked feet flopping like bunny ears, bob through the last of the night. I watched until the dark yanked away his figure too, leaving only me and my boss to continue, a running totem pole. I held on.