Authors: Frances Hwang
“You tell me what else you want to bring, and I’ll send it to you.”
“What’s the use?” he said. “I don’t need anything here. I probably won’t live to see another year.”
“Don’t be so self-pitying,”she told him.
In the elevator, an old man stood in the corner, both hands leaning against his walking stick. “Mr. Cao,”her father said,
smiling suddenly. “How are you? Let me introduce you to my wife.”
“I’m not your wife,”Agnes said, irritated. “I’m your daughter.”
Her father screwed up his eyes, his fingers digging into his temple. Then he let out a loud, embarrassed laugh. Yet he seemed
delighted by his mistake. “My daughter,”he said. “Please excuse me. Yes, of course, my daughter.”
After she saw off her father at the airport, Agnes remembered the secret place he had told her about where he had hidden his
money, and she decided to return to his apartment.
In the living room, she stared at the scrolled paintings on the wall. Melons with their curling vines, a powder blue bird
hanging on a branch too thin for its talons, a lopsided horse as fat as a cow scratching its neck against a tree. She took
these scrolls off their hooks and rolled them up. Then she ran her hand along the wall, searching for a loose brick. She could
not find one. She pressed her hands against the bricks until the skin on her palms tingled with rawness. Anyone who saw her
groping this way would think she was mad.
She looked in his desk drawers and underneath his mattress. She crawled around trying to find a loose spot in the carpet,
but there was no part that would come undone. She could almost swear the carpet smelled faintly carcinogenic. Had he smoked
a cigarette here? Maybe, after all, it was a habit he couldn’t leave behind.
In his closet, she found a door to a crawl space that had been hidden by his clothes. She had to crouch through to get in.
It was a place for storage and apparently had never been swept, the floor littered with sawdust. She couldn’t see much of
anything and went back for a lamp, which she left in the closet as far as the cord could reach. There was nothing in the space
except an old crumpled shirt, which she knew was not her father’s. But then in the dim recess where the light barely reached,
she saw a yellow shape, which turned out to be a suitcase, and just looking at it she knew it was her father’s, something
her parents had used when they still lived in Taiwan. The suitcase lay on its side, and there were gashes in the fabric which
he had covered up with duct tape.
Agnes sneezed twice when she unzipped the suitcase. She expected old clothes, maybe even the cash he had mentioned, but instead
the suitcase was crammed full of letters. The envelopes were cold to the touch, permeated with the chill dankness of the room,
as cold as a basement. Her father had thrown them in rather heedlessly, and the letters had conformed to the shape of each
other. She could see this in the indentations of the envelopes, pressed and stuck together like so many leaves. Little rectangles
of blue paper, with red and blue stripes along the borders.
Aerogramme. Par avion.
There were long, slender envelopes with torn sides, the corners cut out with scissors where the stamps had been. She recognized
some of the names on the envelopes—Jia Wen, Wang Peisan, Zhou Meiping, Wu Yenchiu—various friends and colleagues of her father’s,
though she was unsure if any of them were still living.
In the pile, she spotted her own handwriting. A letter she had written to her father from Rochester. She had always been careless
about her writing, and her characters now struck her as hasty and anonymous in their uniformity. She put the letter aside
and searched through the pile for her mother’s name. She felt a strange sensation similar to the hope she felt whenever she
saw her mother in her dreams. The envelope she reached for was covered with tea-colored stains, fantastically bent, curling
around the edges. Though her mother’s name was on the front, the handwriting was unfamiliar to Agnes. She pulled out a tissue-thin
sheet of rice paper, folded vertically in thirds. The letter was dated February 19, 1946. Her mother wrote with a strong,
I have arrived safely in Yancheng. The doll you gave Shuling is quite beautiful and interesting. She is always playing with
it, holding it in her hands, and I’m afraid she’ll break it, so I put it in a glass jar so that she can look but not touch.
Let her appreciate it more that way. Her appetite has improved lately. You would be amazed to see how quickly she moves about,
how she turns left and right as she walks. She tries to talk, and I still don’t understand her, but her hands point to different
things, and I know what she wants.
Agnes couldn’t finish the letter and slipped it back into its envelope. Better to forget, she told herself. Her fingers smelled
of dust and old paper, and she stared vacantly at the suitcase full of letters. Had he left them behind for her? She wished
she had never found them. On all the envelopes, his name. HsuWeimin. Addresses she had forgotten and others she had never
known. All the places he had ever lived. Yancheng and Hechuan and Nanjing and Taipei. Then the last places. Bloomington. Washington,
Agnes stood up, wiping the dust off her fingers. In the kitchen, she found an empty trash bag, and she returned to the crawl
space, grabbing letters by the fistful and throwing them inside. How cold and brittle they were! She would never read them,
she knew that, and their presence was a small stone in her heart. Nothing lasts, and she was not a sentimental person.
“You cannot blame me,”she said out loud, as if her father were in the room, watching.
Somewhere in the sky, her father lives. Perhaps he is asleep, perhaps looking out of his window, the clouds washing past in
a dizzying blur of motion. In the rush of the plane, does he too sense that there is nowhere for him to go?
une was waiting inside one of the terminals at the Los Angeles airport. Her uncle had called to say he was stuck in traffic
and would be an hour late, and she opened up a newspaper that someone had left behind on the seat beside her. The newspaper,
Mainichi Daily News
, was one she had never heard of. She flipped through the pages and began reading an article about
, socially alienated youth who rarely come out of their rooms. Apparently there had been a disturbing case of one
who abducted a nine-year-old girl at knifepoint and forced her into the trunk of his car. He kept the girl in his bedroom
for the next nine years without his mother knowing, even though she lived in the same house.
The man, Nobuyuki Sato, had wrapped adhesive tape around the girl’s hands and feet at first, then trained her to speak quietly,
not to touch the door or get off the bed without his permission. Whenever she disobeyed, he punched her or used a stun gun
on her arms and legs. After a while, the girl lost her will to escape. She said she felt as though she were tied up with invisible
tape, and she stayed in the room even when Sato left the house without locking the door. As there was little she was allowed
to do, the girl said she stepped on the bed in order to feel alive. She was found in a sleeping bag by health officials called
in by Sato’s mother. The mother didn’t know who the girl was and said she hadn’t been allowed in her son’s room for over twenty
years. The girl had been starved and was too weak to get out of the bag by herself. She didn’t want to cross over the red
tape Sato had placed on the floor in the shape of a box and asked the officials to let her stay where she was.
June felt a little sick after reading the article and was glad to set the newspaper aside. She wandered around the terminal
and went inside a gift shop, where she bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker for her uncle, even though he probably wouldn’t drink
it, and a box of chocolates for her cousins. Then she found a restroom and rinsed her face with cold water. By the time she
stepped outside, almost an hour had passed, and she hoped her uncle would come soon. She thought once more about the girl,
Fusako Sano, and what she had said about stepping on the bed in order to feel alive.
According to the article, most
were not violent. That was a relief, as June couldn’t help but think of her younger brother in college. He was no psychopath,
of course, but it was always a struggle to get him out of his room. The few times she saw him each year, when both of them
were home for the holidays, he seemed to exist solely in front of his computer. He stayed awake until the wee hours playing
an online game in which he assumed the role of a sorcerer who could breathe underwater and had a pet cockroach. Their mother
delivered food to him on a tray, and when June berated her for spoiling him, her mother was quick to defend herself. “If I
don’t bring food up to him, he’ll eat junk food,”she said. “Or nothing at all!”
A few times June had burst into his room and tried to drag him out of bed by pulling on his arm. “We’re going to a restaurant,
don’t you want to come?” But he only wrapped the blanket tighter around himself, sealing his body in an impenetrable cocoon
and refusing to open his eyes. When he was a child, he had sought her out every evening because he was bored or lonely. She
was nine years older than he, busy with school and her own friends, and when he knocked on her door, she often considered
him a nuisance and told him to go away. She relented sometimes when he asked her to read to him, but she knew he didn’t really
care about the books and only wanted to be close to her. She had never been able to get him to read on his own.
The last time June was home was in December, four months ago. During that visit, her mother had entreated her brother, “Do
not become like your pet gerbil!” This gerbil had always been cared for by June’s mother and lived a circumscribed life in
the corner of the laundry room, often gnawing on the bars of its cage. June felt sorry for it and gave it newspaper to shred,
but her mother claimed the ink was bad for its teeth. June had bought a wheel for it to run on, but the rodent was too stupid
to exercise. It ate and grew fat and nested beneath tissue paper and pine shavings, and June could not imagine a more pitiful,
A quarter of an hour passed before she saw a blue van pull up onto the curb. A thin, graying man with a receding brow sprang
out of the driver’s seat and approached her. His eyes were startled, not resting on anything in particular, and he kept craning
his neck and looking around him. She smiled, but he gave no sign that he recognized her.
“Hello, Uncle,”she said.
He stared at her for a moment and seemed overwhelmed by his own thoughts. “That all you have—nothing more?” he asked her.
“That’s it,”she replied. “This is for you.”She gave him the plastic bag with the liquor and chocolates, and he nodded without
looking at what was inside. When he seized the other bag she was carrying, she tried to resist out of politeness, but he had
a wiry grip and finally she had to let go.
The back of her uncle’s van was cluttered with a stack of newspapers, half-opened boxes of the merchandise he sold, mostly
pens and watches, and cardboard trays of iced coffee and fruit drinks. He cleared a space for her bag and handed her a warm
can of mango juice. “You like?” he said. June thanked him and took a seat in front. He had covered all the seats with tattered
straw mats to protect the fabric, and, besides being uncomfortable to sit on, they made the van seem shabbier than it was.
Her uncle was silent until they reached the highway. Then he smiled through clenched teeth, his eyes darting over at her.
“June, you talk to Helen, okay?”
“Yes, of course, Uncle.”
He sighed. “You talk to her, right? Helen’s mind not so good.”He rapped the side of his head with his knuckles. “She isn’t
like you, right? Your father said Ph.D. at Berkeley!”
“Actually, I’m only getting a master’s.”
“You know Helen failed two courses last term? You know how we find out? Her roommate told us. Helen is lying to us for a year
now. Her mother and I are . . . how do you say it? We are
.”His hand fluttered over his chest. “Brokenhearted. Very sad hearts. Maybe she lose her scholarship. It’s because she’s involved
in this crazy . . . what do you call it? What’s the word?” A car honked at him as he swerved into the other lane.
“A cult?” June said, buckling her seat belt. She had already heard the story from her parents.
“These people! They see you lonely, and say, ‘We are your friend.’ And Helen feels—she wants to help them, right?—and they...
what you call it?
“Brainwash, yes. And she writes a check! They wash her brain, and she writes a check!” He broke into sharp laughter. “You
religious?” June shook her head. “You strong, right?” her uncle said, making a fist. “I say to Helen these people aren’t your
true friend. You can trust me, your mother, your cousin with a Ph.D. Because we are family, and only family is your true friend.”
June didn’t know what to say to this. The last time she saw Helen was almost ten years ago, when her uncle’s family spent
Christmas at her parents’ home in Washington, DC. Helen was a quiet, withdrawn girl with long, shadowy hair who didn’t seem
to mind that her own parents ignored her and doted instead on her younger brother, Gerard. Helen wasn’t pretty — her eyes
were too small, her nose too big, and she had inherited hermother’sthicklips— but she was gentle and serious, which June appreciated
and thought unusual for a child.
According to June’s mother, Helen had come out of the library one afternoon and been approached by a young Korean woman who
had given her a pamphlet. And Helen had gone to one of the services by herself and now wore a tiny silver cross around her
neck. Her parents didn’t mind at first that their daughter had found Jesus Christ. The people Helen associated with were polite,
neatly dressed, and spoke with melodious voices. It was hard not to be impressed by their calm spiritual glow. The young women
were especially beautiful with their clear moon faces and wore no makeup to show off their luminous complexions. Everything
seemed okay until Helen’s roommate, a short Taiwanese girl who had been her best friend since high school, arrived on their
doorstep with a scowling, tragic face. She had come unwillingly, forced and accompanied by her parents, who insisted that
she tell the Suns all that was happening to Helen.