Authors: Gish Jen
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Not exactly the story as Hattie knew it, but never mind.
“And how exactly did the Lord tell her?” inquires Greta.
“E-mail?” guesses Hattie.
Judy just fans, her shirt sleeve falling back from her henna-tattooed arm.
As for who’s going to bring in her firewood when Ginny can barely walk:
“That’s why the Lord’s helping get her hip done. So she can bring in her own wood,” says Judy. “Hey, look, there’s Lukens!”
Hattie throws her gaze left, using her peripheral vision. It’s the way she used to teach kids how to spot shooting stars—their rod photoreceptors picking up the low light, their retinal ganglion cells, the movement. And sure enough, there he is, a tall man with something of the look of a cell tower himself. Lukens, the big-deal retired judge, scratching his chin in the shadows.
“And look over there!” whispers Judy again.
For here comes huge Everett, his cherub cheeks rising incongruously from a camouflage shirt. And right behind him—more hidden by the camouflage than its wearer—the middle son great professor. Hattie lowers her distance glasses.
She drops her fan.
He looks a little as though someone has pulled a white hula skirt over his head, only to have it get stuck around his ears. Which in one way is no surprise—Carter’s father, too, had a notable egg. And how shocked should Hattie be to behold Carter beardless in addition, when she did glimpse the shave ten years ago, at Dr. Hatch’s burial? She must not have filed that face away, though, because Carter’s features seem not only repositioned—as if they have slid south in some Great Facial Drift—but caricatured: Everything is more plainly itself. The fine nose and high cheekbones of his youth are like line drawings redone in marker; his mother’s egret neck has gone a bit pelican. As for his father’s eyes—those preternaturally blue eyes—can they really be even brighter than they were? Maybe they just seem so, set off as they are by a now predominantly pink face, as well as by what appear to be shadows—hollows—around his eyes. Which could just be the lighting. But then again, maybe not. For Hattie knows this man well, or did once; and this is a studiously unhaunted Carter who strolls down the side aisle in a chamois shirt and jeans, his limbs loose. Carter holding on to himself as if on to a kite.
Carter, looking a bit like her poor denuded, post-chemo Joe.
He shoots a smile and a wink at her, then goes to stand, in provocative fashion, on the other side of the room. Talking with such apparent sincerity to this one and that, even as he affords a fine view of his profile, that she can’t help but laugh a little. For she remembers this game, of course—the neural pathway is still there. And—as he no doubt intends—it renders her, for a moment, seventeen again. She is not usually aware of her age, any more than she is aware of the number of steps she walks in a day, or the number of times she pulls down her glasses. But now, somehow, she feels it—how she’s been living shoulder-to-shoulder with time. It is not so much on account of her white hair, or two sets of glasses that she feels it
—Hattie six eyes—
shocks to Carter that those things must be. It is not even the fact that when the word
occurs to her now, it is mostly in reference to herself, rather than to a reaction or an equation. No, it’s the mark of experience she feels most keenly—how much she would like never to have seen Joe yellow with bile once his liver failed. How much she would like never to have watched him itch himself until he bled everywhere. How much she would like never to have heard Lee rant the way she did, toward the end—her gumption still there but come heartbreakingly unhitched. Time’s marched Hattie hard. And as for Carter, Time’s reminder—Carter who brought so much
, in his day—is this Carter even Carter? Isn’t Carter the man who changed others more than he himself changed? A catalyst. A man she would have thought outside time, if anyone was. And yet Carter was still Carter in being unable to simply say hello. Anyone but Carter would have simply said hello.
(Next to her, Judy watches and fans.)
Carter, though, always did disdain convention; he was like Hattie’s parents that way.
You should try a new hat every day
, he used to say.
Think out of the box. It’s the way every great thing gets made
Modest as they were, the Hatches did focus on achieving things about which to be modest.
But, well, who cares now? Who was modest, and about what—Hattie lifts her chin. All that is decades behind her now. Detaching herself, rising above herself—
—Hattie turns her attention to the meeting, which is focused on questions like what can be seen from whose kitchen, and which has a greater effect on property values—one’s view sitting down or one’s view standing up. Greta tugs on her arm.
“This is so dysfunctional. You have to say something,” she whispers. “You do.”
Hattie demurs. Still, Greta keeps insisting—“You do, Hattie, you do”—until finally Hattie half raises her hand, only to be immediately called upon. And there she is suddenly, towering over a sea of heads. Blinking. Feeling the town gaze. She has not done this in a long time. But then she senses Carter’s gaze and remembers: She has done it, though. Of course. Did it all the time, in fact, at the lab.
“It’s hard not to notice the convenience of cell phones,” she says, her voice clear and strong; she can feel the vibration in her thoracic cavity. “But ought there not be one place on earth that cell phones can’t reach?”
And back down she sits; probably she should have said more. Opined the way the men do, as if they own the air. Though as it is—what a roar of applause. People are hooting and stomping; Greta is whispering Thank you and You see? And look how Neddy Needham is standing up in Hattie’s place, inspired. He’s a high-tech person—a puffball of a guy, only starting to gray, whose particular kind of software, people used to say, could never be done in India. But now he has time to drive up if he wants; and so here he stands with his magpie hair and high-diopter glasses. Quietly pointing out that from a radiation safety point of view, there is only one usable corner of the property, and that a cell tower at that site isn’t even going to provide good coverage.
“There are going to be holes in the service,” he says. “It’s going to be Swiss cheese. Rescue is not going to be able to count on it; no one is going to be able to count on it. It is going to be a joke.”
The lawyer for the cell tower company lowers the pitch of his voice. “Are you implying that this town is being misled?”
“This is not the best site in the area, sir,” answers Neddy. “This is the site you think you can buy.”
“I beg your pardon,” barks the lawyer, but Neddy just pushes his glasses up his nose.
“The question, it seems to me, is, Whose town is this?” He looks first at the cell tower reps, and then all around, at the audience, too. “Whose town is this?” It’s a surprising show of rhetorical flair for a body people have always thought smart but shy; and even he blinks as he talks, as if surprised at himself. He takes his glasses off like a lawyer on TV but then, as if realizing he can’t see without them, puts them back on. “It’s not such an easy question to answer, is it? And yet if I may say so, sir, this much I know: Not yours. No, sir. Not yours.”
This brings the most thunderous applause yet, replete with stamping and hooting. Hattie claps as loud as anyone, though is this town hers, either? She does wonder.
What now? What now?
There’s no vote today, this meeting being strictly informational; the only leverage the town has is in zoning. Happily, though, the cell tower company will be needing a zoning permit; and even with Jim Wright head of the zoning board, well, there’s only one conclusion it can really reach now. Because things are just clear. What’s more, it’s going to be free coffee for Neddy at the Come ’n’ Eat as long as he lives in Riverlake, while the Wrights will be dining during off-peak hours.
Ginny, maybe, too, as she seems to realize. She sits a minute, contemplating the magic stretch material of her wrinkle-free jeans.
David beats Goliath! Down with the corporation! Judge Lukens stops to shake the hero’s hand, whereupon people shed their discretion like a fast-molting snake. They form a ring around the pair; they gawk and crow with glee. The town celebrities! The judge and Neddy leave the room, nodding. Tall and short but seeing eye to eye, it seems—unlike the cell tower people, who clump up by the whiteboard, frowning. Though they brought every color dry marker, they somehow only used the blue. And look how, not far from them, Ginny stands in her walker now, waiting to leave. Everett makes his way to her, but she snaps her compartment lid shut as if she doesn’t know who he is; and when he puts his hand out beseechingly, she slaps him flat in the face. People look up. But then off she rolls as if nothing’s the matter, and people obligingly look away. A private matter, they’re thinking, a spat, even as Everett stands there, stunned—huge and dressed in camouflage yet less prepared for combat than pink-clad Ginny, who holds her head high. Captain Ginny, some call her, though others call her the Power and the Glory, as in
For mine is the Power and the Glory
. Poor Everett! Hattie tries to catch his eye, but he’s turned his back and doesn’t see her. And so it is that she finds herself moving down the aisle, preoccupied, almost failing to realize it when someone gives her elbow a squeeze.
-mail! There’s no one to blame but herself, that when the town got DSL, Hattie did, too—ushering in the future, she did think then. Instead, though, it’s been the past—the past, the past, the past. She half expects to be hearing from the dead direct, pretty soon
—Joe! Lee! I’ve been thinking about you!
—though let her say right now: When that particular advance is upon humankind, she is not going to sign up for service.
E-mail is trouble enough.
For example, though a lot of her Chinese relatives have M.A.’s and M.B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s from the States—and though a lot of them have lived in the West, even live in White Plains and Quincy and Vancouver still—all the same, they e-mail on account of Hattie’s parents. Or, more accurately, on account of Hattie’s parents’ remains, which they want to see moved from Iowa to Qufu. Of course, the Chinese have always sent bones home, having been brought up from birth to recite
Shù gāo qīan zhàng, luò ye gūi gēn:
Fallen leaves return to their roots. But to want to do it now! In the twenty-first century! Hattie’s flabbergasted.
Yet they do.
The Kong family forest
, they write.
Ancestors. Luck. Tradition
. It’s the kind of hogwash her parents turned their back on once, and that she did, too. And so it is she writes:
Over my dead body
But still her relatives keep at it.
Dear Auntie. Dear Auntie
. Never mind that she’s only head of the family because her younger brothers have both died; never mind that her relatives have no real reason to listen to anyone at all, really. Still, they storm her—having gotten up at least a mild conspiracy among themselves, it does seem. For how else to explain it that everyone writes in English, when most of them, she knows, have character keyboards? How do they know, as they seem to, that her computer isn’t set up for Unicode?
This is the twenty-first century, excuse me
I am a scientist of sorts, please recall. A retired scientist, but still a scientist
This is hogwash, don’t you see? Hogwash!
To no avail.
Some of her correspondents are more superstitious than others. Some of them go to fortune-tellers, that’s to say, while others just burn a little incense every now and then. Wear a Buddha or a Guanyin, if they’re sick, or change the entrance to their house. There’s as great a range among them as among churchgoers. But whatever their stripe, they write. This, for example, from the ringleader, Hattie’s niece Tina, in Hong Kong:
Dear Auntie Hattie
Internet says your spring is late this year because the ground hog saw its shadow and went back into its hole. Is that true?
Even with global warming? We think that is very strange. Americans are so superstitious!
Hong Kong now is start typhoon season, but that is not why we write to you. After all you can say we are used to the rain! We write to you because of our daughter Bobby. You remember her, number one. Went to Andover then MIT then Harvard Business School, got a nice job on Wall Street. But now all of a sudden, she quit that job to live with a drummer, and on top of it try to sell the apartment we give to her. Very nice place, upper East Side. Have a doorman, everything. But she do not care. All she think about is drum something. We worry. She is our number one daughter, how can this happen to our family? We analyze, in particular Johnson. Johnson is quite well known for his analysis. But in the end, there is only one thing we can guess. Only we can guess that the graves of Grandpa and Grandma are not auspicious. The story we always hear is how Grandpa and Grandma were not buried in Qufu, as they like to be …
Instead because they died in Taiwan First Uncle bury them in Taiwan. And then when he himself leaving Taiwan, no one left to sweep the grave, he have to move them somewhere again. Mainland still closed, cannot bury them there. Impossible. So he say okay, how about Iowa? Never mind that Grandpa never visited Iowa once in his life. First Uncle said, at least they are go to Iowa together. And of course, when the bone picker open the graves, look like the bones are dry. That is true. So First Uncle say, you see? If the fengshui is no good the bones are not dry, even many years later. He say, I pick good place the first time, now I pick another good place. He say Iowa is good. Probably you already know this story, which is the story my father tell me. I just tell you in case you heard something else, over there in United States. My father say you are sent there to live as a girl, is that right? All by yourself, very brave, though my father always say how actually you have no choice, everyone else stuck in China and cannot get out