Authors: Frances Hwang
Her father shook his head. “Unbelievable,”he said.
“I wrote a letter to the INS already. In the letter, I informed them that your marriage—your wife—is a fraud.”
Her father closed his eyes, shaking his head. He began breathing heavily and grasped his collar.
“What would Mother say?” she said. “You were such an easy dupe!”
“You and her!” he said, looking at Agnes. “You make me want to die!” He hit his palm twice against his forehead. “I want to
“You were so eager to jump into another woman’s bed,”Agnes said. “But you didn’t know she wouldn’t let you touch her. Not
even if you married her!”
“A dirty old man,”her father laughed. “Yes, I am a dirty old man! I sleep with whoever I want! I slept with our maids, you
know that? It only cost a few dollars each time! Sometimes I did it when you were in the house, and you never knew. It was
like you were knocked out, and I wondered if you took your mother’s sleeping pills. Because you never knew! You never knew!”
He was talking so fast that spittle was forming on his lips.
Agnes felt her throat burning and tried to swallow.
“I slept with all of them!” her father repeated.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Those women? They were old and fat—”
“Who cares? Their bodies were warm.”
“Yes, everything is disgusting to you.”Her father walked to the front door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she screamed.
He left the door open, and she watched him walk down the driveway with a jaunty step. She wondered if he knew how to get out
of the neighborhood. It was still morning, but the humidity was unbearable. She picked up the newspaper lying on the doorstep
and went back inside. She would let him walk as much as he wanted. It would serve him right if he got heatstroke.
At eleven, the phone rang. It was Lily, waiting at the INS and wondering where her father was. “He won’t be able to make it,”Agnes
said, and she hung up the phone. But she felt herself shaking. Wasn’t it obvious, wasn’t it to be expected—a healthy, vital
man married to an invalid for over forty years? And yet, she had never suspected. She remembered the speeches he gave, how
everyone had called him a gentleman ... and it was not what he had done that disturbed her so much as her own sickening ignorance.
She felt as if a hole had opened up inside her chest, all the things she had known and believed slipping through.
Another hour passed, and still her father had not returned. What if he should simply lie down and die like a dog in the street?
The thought made Agnes leave her house. She drove around her neighborhood, turning down streets that ended in culs-de-sac.
She felt something round and heavy inside her forehead, as if it were splitting open from the heat. She turned out of her
neighborhood onto a narrow two-lane road that dipped and curved without warning, and she couldn’t help but feel dread growing
inside her, a darkness that she wanted to make small again, half expecting to see her father lying on the side of the road.
She spotted him three miles farther down. He was walking at a much slower pace with his jacket along his arm. He had loosened
his tie, and his white shirt was semitransparent with sweat. She slowed down and honked at him, but he kept trudging ahead,
without turning to look at her. Agnes rolled down the passenger window. “Get in the car,”she said, but he began to walk faster,
with small, clumsy steps. He was panting and bobbing his head with each stride, intent on pressing forward, even though she
knew his feet must be hurting him.
“It’s useless to walk,”she said, driving slowly beside him. “How far are you going to get, huh? Don’t be foolish. Get in the
He shook his head, and she could see that he was crying.
“I’ll take you back to your apartment. I promise, okay?”
He walked more slowly now, and she felt sorry for him, knowing there was nothing for him to do but give in. When she got out
of the car, he was standing motionless, his arms hanging at his sides and his jacket on the ground. She touched his arm, and
he blinked, looking around in bewilderment as she helped him into the car.
He began shivering as soon as he sat down in the passenger seat, and Agnes turned down the air-conditioning. Neither of them
spoke as Agnes drove to his apartment. At Evergreen House, he hurriedly got out of the car, searching his pockets for his
keys. Agnes realized that they had forgotten to get his bag at her house. Nevertheless, the security guard recognized him
and let him inside the building.
When Agnes was twenty-two, she left Taiwan to study economics in Rochester, New York. She left her home and her parents with
a feeling of relief. Her family life had become a source of embarrassment to her, and as her plane lifted into the air—it
was the first time she had ever flown—she felt that she was abandoning an idea of herself. She looked outside her window,
the things she knew shrinking steadily away until all she could see were clouds, and she welcomed the prospect of being unknown
in another part of the world.
In Rochester, she received a blue rectangle of a letter every other week from her father in Taiwan. On the front, he would
write out her address in English with a painstaking, scrupulous hand. He told her about the vegetables he was growing in the
courtyard, the Siamese cat that Agnes had left in their care, the state of her mother’s health and the various foods she could
keep down, news of her brother in the army, and updates of their relatives and friends, some of whom were leaving for the
States. She would write back, sometimes enclosing a money order for twenty dollars. She could not afford to call them on the
phone, but the few times she did, she heard her own voice echoing along the line, a high, unfamiliar sound, and this distracted
her, made her think of all the distance her voice had to cross to reach their ears. Her parents always asked the same questions—
How are you? Are you eating well? Are you happy?
—until the static took over and their voices ended abruptly. Listening to the silence, she imagined their voices being dropped
from a high space into the ocean.
She sent her parents a hateful letter once. They had set a date for her brother’s wedding without consulting her, and it enraged
Agnes to find out that she would not be able to attend. The next letter she received came from her mother, who rarely wrote
after her fall. Her handwriting resembled the large uncontrolled scrawl of a child or of someone who was right-handed trying
to use her left. She had copied Agnes’s address so poorly that it was a miracle the letter had arrived at all.
We received your letter in which you scolded us severely. Your father fainted after reading it, and it took him a long time
before he could eat his dinner. He has heart trouble and cannot suffer any blows.
At the time,Agnes had been amused by her mother’s lies. Her father had no history of heart trouble, and as for his fainting,
she knew what a good actor he was. But it was her mother’s last phrase that had come to haunt her.
He . . . cannot suffer any blows.
Agnes did not hear from her father for over a month, and in that time she felt as removed from him as if he were living in
another country. One day in August, she stopped by his apartment to give him a box of persimmons. Lily answered the door in
gray slacks and a thin, watery blouse, a silk scarf wrapped around her head as if she were about to go out. “He’s not here,”she
said coldly, and began to shut the door.
“Wait—“Agnes said, putting her hand out.
Lily held the door open only wide enough for her face to be visible. The powder she wore could not quite hide the fine lines
etched beneath her eyes, nor the age spots above her cheeks.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?” Agnes asked.
“I have no idea.”
“I’d like to wait for him if you don’t mind.”
“Wait for as long as you like,”Lily said, turning away. She retreated to her bedroom and closed the door.
Agnes set the persimmons on the kitchen counter. Her father had hung red and gold New Year’s greeting cards from the slats
of the closet door. In the living room, he had decorated the walls with whimsical scrolled paintings of fruit and birds. She
had always been somewhat relieved by his attempts to make the place more livable. Perhaps she was trying to console herself
for the drab carpet and clumsy furniture, the sense of apology she always felt for things that were merely adequate. After
two years, there was hardly any trace of Lily in the apartment, but this didn’t surprise Agnes, as Lily had never intended
to stay for long.
She paused outside the bedroom door before knocking. “I’d like to talk to you,”she said.
“Come in, then,”a voice evenly replied.
Agnes saw Lily sitting on the side of her bed, a ghostly smile on her lips as she studied the scarf in her hands. She seemed
like another person to Agnes, ten or fifteen years older at least, and it took a moment for Agnes to realize that her beautiful,
shiny black hair was gone. Instead, wisps of ash-colored hair were matted together in places like dead grass. The sparseness
of her hair revealed mottled patches of scalp.
“What happened?” Agnes blurted. She couldn’t help but stare at Lily’s baldness.
“You didn’t know?” Lily said. She touched her head lightly with a flat hand, her eyes vacant as she smiled to herself. “When
I was struggled against, they pulled my hair out by the fistfuls, and it never grew back again. You would think it would grow
back, but it doesn’t always.”
Agnes was silent for a moment. “Hu Tingjun told me about your first husband,”she said.
“My first husband,”Lily echoed, and it seemed to Agnes as if those words had lost their meaning to her. “Yes, my first husband
was an avid collector of calligraphy. Did you know he had a work by Zhu Yunming that was more than four hundred years old?
He said the characters flowed on the paper like a flight of birds. Like a wind was lifting them off the page.”
Agnes shook her head. “I don’t know much about calligraphy.”
“This work was more than four hundred years old,”Lily said, “can you imagine? My husband begged them not to destroy it. ‘I’ll
give it to the state!’ he said. But they said, ‘Why would the state want such an old thing?’ And they burned it before his
eyes. Sometimes I wish I could tell him, ‘Is someone’s handwriting worth more than your life?’ I would have burned a hundred
such pieces. You see, I’m not an idealistic person. There are things one must do out of necessity.”
“My father is a foolish man,”Agnes said.
Lily looked at her, twisting the scarf between her fingers. “Yet it’s impossible to hate him. He doesn’t have any cruelty
“So you have your green card now.”
“A few more months,”Lily said.
“Where will you go after this?”
“California. My son is living there now.”
“Does my father know?”
Lily nodded, dropping the scarf on the night table. “He’s afraid, you see.”She lay down on the bed, folding her hands over
her stomach, her feet sheathed in brown panty hose. “He knows his mind is fading, but he won’t admit it. He shouldn’t be allowed
to live by himself for too long.”Lily closed her eyes. “I once told myself that I’d be happy, I’d never complain, if only
I was safe. But I’m so tired of living here. I can’t tell you how bored I am!” She curled up on her side, placed both hands
underneath her cheek. “Do you mind turning off the light as you go out? I’m going to take a little nap now. It seems all I
can do is sleep.”She murmured her thanks as Agnes left the room, closing the door behind her.
Her father never mentioned Lily’s departure, nor did Agnes say anything, both of them lapsing into a silence that seemed to
make Lily more present in the room, just as her mother was often there in the room between them, in the air they breathed
and the words they did not say.
One night, while her father was visiting, Agnes woke to find the light still on in his bedroom. When she knocked on his door,
she saw that he was dressed in his suit and tie, his bags already packed, even though it was only two in the morning. She
told him to go back to sleep, that it was still too early, and he smiled at her, waving from behind his ear as he closed the
door. She stood in the hallway, and after a moment he turned off his light, but she knew he was sitting in the dark, waiting.
In January, the manager of Evergreen House called Agnes to inform her that her father had stopped paying the rent. “He gets
confused,”the manager said. “Sometimes he doesn’t recognize us.”
Her father laughed when Agnes asked him about the rent. “Nobody pays rent here,”he replied. Then he told her he suspected
the manager of being a thief. “If anything happens to me, you should know that I have a hiding place for my cash. There’s
a brick in the wall which can be removed.”
Agnes and her brother agreed that it was time for their father to live with one of them. Their father didn’t offer a word
of protest. An airplane ticket to Indiana was purchased, and one weekend in February Agnes went over to his apartment to help
pack his things.
He answered the door in his slippers. The television was on, and he was watching a basketball game. His apartment smelled
musty, like old newspapers. Perhaps it was the wood paneling or the brown carpet worn as soft as moss. The sick sweetness
emanated from deep within the wood. The carpet had inhaled odors that had been pressed in for years by slippered feet.
She took a suitcase out of his closet and packed it hastily without too much folding. She did not like the intimacy of touching
his clothes, as if he were already dead. He hung vaguely about her for a few minutes, then wandered out of the room. In a
short while, he came back, looking around as if he were trying to find something. “What are you looking for?” she asked him.
He shook his head, closing his eyes, then left the room.
She finished packing two of his suitcases and dragged them to the front door. She found him standing on his balcony, watching
a plane as it flew over the building. “That’s the ninth one today,”he said when she looked at him.