Authors: Frances Hwang
It seemed that every moment of Helen’s life was taken up by her new church, and her roommate hardly saw her anymore. In the
evenings there was devotion time, Bible study, prayer meetings. On the weekends, besides worship, there were picnics, retreats,
dinners, bowling, puppet shows, church skits, and singing. Helen was always baking cupcakes. When the group found out that
Helen was artistic, they asked her to make handmade cards for all the people leaving on missions. She was discouraged from
associating with nonbelievers except for the sole purpose of ministering to them. The roommate felt that the church had taken
Helen away from her and bitterly complained to her parents about it. Of course, her parents would not have interfered, they
told the Suns, in an ordinary falling-out between friends. But their daughter had said Helen was failing her classes and giving
away all her savings to the church.
“What we give her, she gives away,”her uncle said with a sad laugh. “You think it’s easy selling watches? I run around all
the time like a chicken that’s lost its head. You look at my office. I keep a stack of business cards—some good, some bad.
And I drive all over the place. People say no, I come back. Sometimes they throw me out of their store, they are so sick of
this face!” Her uncle sniffed, touching the side of his nose with his thumb. “It’s not easy. I used to sell briefcases, but
everyone has a laptop now. Who needs briefcases?”
“It isn’t easy,”June said. She felt bad for her uncle. Ever since she could remember, she had felt sorry for him. He always
seemed to be struggling. Of her father’s five siblings, he was the youngest and, unlike her father, who got his Ph.D. in the
United States, her uncle had been a mediocre student in Taiwan and now made a precarious living as a salesman. June’s mother
liked to emphasize how poor his family was. Before June flew out to Los Angeles, her mother said she would be giving Gerard
five hundred dollars for his high school graduation, and she reminded June to pick up the check when her uncle took her out
Of course, her uncle wasn’t truly poor. When her grandfather died, his children inherited equal portions of his land in Taiwan,
and her uncle sold his share and used the money to buy the house he now lived in. No doubt things were still tight for him.
When June’s older sister got married two years ago, his family could not afford the extra expense of attending the wedding,
and her uncle sent the bride and groom a pair of fake Rolex watches that fogged up in humid weather.
It must have been an unusual extravagance on her uncle’s part when his family flew all the way out to the East Coast to visit
hers ten years ago. June remembered she went to bed before her uncle’s family arrived late at night, and in the morning she
found her cousin asleep downstairs on the red flowery couch, June’s large gray cat curled beside her. It was snowing outside,
and the scene reminded June of a picture in a magazine. Helen’s face was dreamy and remote as the snow fell lightly through
the windows. The cat gazed at June, his mouth curved as if he were smiling.
Helen opened her eyes and sat up on the couch, blinking. “I’ve never seen snow before,”she said when she looked out the window.
June laughed. “You haven’t?”
“It doesn’t snow in California. Is this your cat?” Helen tried to stroke his head, but the cat jumped off the couch and walked
beneath a table, where he couldn’t be touched.
“He’ll love you more if you ignore him,”June said.
Helen didn’t listen to June’s advice. The cat was banished to the basement when Helen’s parents found out—they thought the
cat was dirty and might trigger one of Gerard’s asthma attacks—but for the rest of the trip, whenever Helen could, she snuck
down to the basement and tried to lure the cat from its hiding place. The cat was not afraid of her, only disinterested. He
often perched on top of the vertical end of a mattress that leaned against the wall, and Helen would entreat him to come down,
repeating his name and clicking her tongue as he stared at her with supercilious calm. The only thing that tempted him was
a can of treats that she would shake, and then the cat would yawn and approach her dutifully, lifting each piece from her
hand with a delicate tongue, careful not to bite her.
Her uncle’s family returned to Los Angeles, and two weeks later June received in the mail a softly colored ink portrait of
her cat that Helen must have drawn from memory.
I miss Manny very much. I hope you like this picture I did of him. I’m sorry he had to live in the basement when we stayed
at your house. He must be happier now that he can go upstairs.
Beneath the tip of Helen’s pen, June’s smug cat had undergone a transformation. She had drawn only his face and given him
fine long hairs, a flesh pink nose, and warm gold eyes. His expression was sad and benevolent, as if the cat had once been
human. June liked the picture very much but neglected to write and thank Helen when she returned to college.
“You talk to Helen, okay?” Her uncle caught the wheel and turned sharply into a subdivision of Spanish-style houses with red-tiled
roofs. “Tell her to study. To work hard,”he said as they pulled into the driveway of his home. “You be a good influence on
her, I know it.”
Helen and Gerard came downstairs to offer their greetings. Helen’s long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was
taller than June expected, very slender still, with light brown skin. She spoke in a quiet, whimsical way and apologized for
her mother, who was tired and had already gone to sleep.
“What do you think of this house?” her uncle asked.
“It’s very nice,”June said, looking around.
“Not as nice as your parents’ house, right? Your parents’ house much bigger than this?”
“It’s not much bigger.”
“We clean a lot,”Helen mused, “but the house never looks clean.”
“Oh, it’s fine,”June said. “You have a very nice house.”She wasn’t exactly lying. Given the fuss that was always made over
how much her uncle struggled, the house itself, with its stucco walls and cathedral ceiling, was much grander than she had
expected. But the house was just like her uncle’s van, a good, respectable structure ruined by the clutter inside. Someone
in the family was an incurable pack rat and could not bear to throw anything away. An old computer sat on top of stacked chairs
in the front hall, extra tables jutted out in front of doorways, and every flat surface—countertop, table, mantel, shelf—was
crowded with papers, boxes, and unending bric-a-brac. June glimpsed ceramic figurines, a brass swan, teacups, dusty bottles
of whiskey and cognac, vases stuffed with artificial flowers, and jars filled with sesame candy, coins, and seashells. Things
too were in the most unlikely places. Lamps stood on cookie tins in the living room, her uncle’s shirts hung from the handlebars
of a treadmill, a mattress set rested against the dining room table, paper towels were stored inside the fireplace, and books
had been inserted between the balusters of the stairway.
They gave her a can of Coke and invited her to watch television with them. June sank down onto a battered couch that had lost
its cushions. She could feel a bar and springs beneath her. Helen joined her on the couch, her uncle watched from the kitchen
table, and Gerard continued to hover awkwardly in the middle of the family room. Once a skinny boy, he had become tall and
stout, and his thick arms dangled softly at his sides. He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself and put one hand in
his pants pocket.
“Gerard, aren’t you going to sit?” June asked.
Gerard smiled, his lips pressed close together. It was a smirk, but he also seemed genuinely embarrassed.
“He has a poor back,”Helen said.
Her uncle perked up at this, and he began telling June the whole story. A year ago, Gerard began to have back pain and their
doctor told him he had a herniated disk from all those hours of sitting in a bad chair in front of his computer. “He sat like
this,”her uncle said, tipping forward in his chair.
“Oh, that isn’t good,”June said.
“Or he sat like this.”Her uncle crossed one leg beneath him and pretended to type furiously in midair. “You have to sit with
both feet on the ground, you see, Gerard?”
“Okay,”Gerard said with a note of annoyance.
“We bought him an expensive chair.”Her uncle pointed to an empty box in the middle of the room with a shiny black office chair
pictured on it. “The doctor said he should do exercises for his back. And he should pick up things like this.”Her uncle squatted
on the floor and demonstrated how to lift a heavy object.
“Have you been feeling better, Gerard?”
Gerard smiled at June with twisted lips. “Not really.”
“He likes to stand now instead of sit,”Helen said.
“Only seventeen years old!” her uncle sighed.
At midnight, her uncle dragged the mattress and box spring out of the dining room and stacked them on the living room floor.
“Don’t worry, I clean it for you,”he said, and he proceeded to wipe down the entire set with a damp towel.
“That’s okay,”June said, but it was impossible to stop him. He reminded her of her father, who could be obsessive about cleaning
and often woke everyone up with his vacuuming. June waited for the mattress to dry before putting on the sheets, and then
Helen and Gerard wished her good night and went upstairs to bed.
From where she lay, June could see the dim light of the kitchen and hear a clock ticking somewhere in the foyer. Her uncle
was still awake, eating a midnight snack and listening to a Mandarin pop song on the radio.
Helen didn’t seem to have changed much from the tenyear old girl June had known. She was still serious and shy, and she gave
June an impression of thoughtful sincerity. If anything surprised June, it was how calm and centered she seemed.
The biggest change had occurred in Gerard, not Helen.
June remembered he had been a hyper, crazy kid. In all the group photographs of their two families, there was always an adult
hand pressing down on Gerard’s shoulder, an almost rabidgleam in his eyes as he crouched, ready to spring away. June and her
sister had taken their younger cousins and brother to the Baltimore Aquarium one day, and when they went to the cafeteria
for lunch, Gerard loaded as much food as possible onto his tray—pizza and fried chicken, a hamburger with French fries, a
grilled cheese sandwich, a chocolate doughnut. Everyone except Helen had laughed at him, and June made him return most of
the food, but Gerard didn’t understand why what he’d done seemed so funny to them.
Soon after her cousins returned to Los Angeles, June found a photograph of herself holding her cat that had been left out
on her desk. Someone had drawn pointed fangs on the cat, and June herself had been given blue pimples and two horns sticking
out of her head. A caption scrawled below read “THE FAT GANG.”Her brother laughed out loud when she showed it to him, but
he said he wasn’t responsible. “It must have been Gerard,”he told her. June felt rather vexed by Gerard’s prank. She had always
been sensitive about her weight. She wasn’t fat for an American, just fat for a Chinese. So now the American diet had wreaked
its havoc on Gerard as well ...
She dozed off and woke up again in the middle of the night to find the kitchen light turned off and her uncle at the top of
the stairs shaking something out. It looked as if he were straightening a pillowcase, or maybe he was exercising, she couldn’t
tell in the darkness, but his movements were as frantic as ever, and she wondered if he would ever go to bed.
In the morning, when she opened her eyes, she found herself staring at a large oil painting on the wall of a lurid, industrial
Venice. The domed buildings were infernally lit, lapped by dank green water, and a small pudgy man gazed up at a tiny, ineffectual
moon. June couldn’t help but smile. Her parents had bought similar stuff at a sidewalk art sale, and she had upset them one
day when she took all their ugly paintings down and hid them in the basement.
On her way upstairs to take a shower, June passed by the kitchen and said hello to her aunt, who looked up from the batter
she was mixing and gave her a slight smile. Her gray sweater vest looked oddly familiar to June, and it was a bit of shock
when she realized that the vest was something her sister had worn in high school. Her uncle had over the years called up her
father to ask for their old, spare clothes, and June’s family had gone through their closets, weeding out all the things that
no longer fit or were out of fashion and then sending these in a box to Los Angeles.
Gerard came out of the bathroom, and June noticed he had not flushed the toilet. She couldn’t stop herself and said in a light,
bantering voice, “Gerard, can’t you flush?”
“What?” her uncle said, appearing around the corner. “He didn’t flush the toilet? What kind of person are you, Gerard?”
For breakfast, they ate a fruitcake her aunt had made by substituting olive oil for butter because Gerard was on a diet. The
doctor had said he needed to lose twenty pounds and also that his cholesterol was too high.
Helen asked june how long she was going to stay with them, and June replied she was leaving early the next morning. Everyone
was shocked by this news, and her uncle especially seemed disappointed. “I thought you will be here the entire week,”he said.
“I’m meeting a friend in San Diego,”June said. “Didn’t my father tell you?”
“Why you get your father to call me?” her uncle said. “Don’t you know you can call me yourself?”
“I thought it would be easier if my dad called you,”June said, feeling embarrassed. She had to admit that it didn’t make much
sense asking her father to be the intermediary, but whenever she spoke to his side of the family she felt they didn’t understand
exactly what she was saying. Even with her father, she often had to raise her voice and repeat herself to get her meaning
across. But the fact that her father was unable to communicate clearly to his own brother about the length of her stay made
June suspect the problem wasn’t a language barrier at all — that her father and uncle and their entire side of the family
just didn’t pay attention, slightly deaf to the world and to each other.