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Authors: Gish Jen

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

World and Town (56 page)

BOOK: World and Town
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Writes Hattie,

I would mind, but okay. If you are comfortable with it, I will send the bones as soon as I can. Please tell your monk they are coming air mail, special delivery, signature required
.

Answers Tina,

Fabulous! Thank you! Thank you!

Hattie stares at the screen, then stands to pour herself some tea; she is drinking more tea these days.

T
omorrow, the post office.” Hattie holds a flattened cardboard box up to one of the urns—too small. A roll of bubble wrap rests on the reclin-o-matic.

“Will you miss them?” Carter hands her a box the next size up.

She tries it out. “It’s been nice having them here.”

“Why don’t you keep them, then?”

“I think they would’ve loved being a help to the living. The whole idea that their bones could bring comfort to anyone, half a century later—they would’ve loved that.”

“The immortality of it.”

“I think the word is ‘humanity.’ ”


Rén
, you mean. As the Confucians say.”

She smiles a little. “Very good.
Rén
.”

A mouse skitters across the floor; Annie retrieves it and, as usual, drops it live. As it starts to escape, though, Carter leans down and traps it easily.

“What do you think?” he says. “Shall we give it the lab snap? We can also make like a local and whack it with a shovel.”

Hattie winces. “No shovels, please.”

“Or I can let it go like a Buddhist scientist, if you like. Though the house mouse is, of course, a nonnative and notably prolific species that can prove unsanitary and is known to wreak havoc with wires.”

“The lab snap,” she says.

He pulls down its tail and jerks back its head in one expert move.

“I never did like doing that, you know,” he says. He takes the carcass outside.

“Thank you,” she says, when he comes back in. And indeed, she is grateful: Annie, she has come to accept, will never be a mouser.

“So the Confucian graveyard is okay?” he goes on, sitting down.

“I think my parents were like the Red Cross.”

“Mired in politics and financial impropriety?”

She smiles. “Doctors Without Borders, then. Willing to bring aid anywhere, anyhow, to anyone.”

“Even to you? Do you feel they’ve aided you?”

She thinks. “I know it’s crazy, but yes. It’s done me good to have them here, yes.”

“Some connection to your past, however inchoate.”

“Putting me, no doubt, on a road to ancestor worship.”

He laughs loudly. “But tell me.” He clears his throat. “Have your parents been of aid to us? I ask because, you know, we never did finish our conversation the other night.”

His tone is so light, she is surprised, when she looks in his eyes, to see pain.

“Can you forgive me?” he goes on. “Because I know I’m years late with this but I ask your forgiveness, Hattie Kong. I do.”

She folds up a second box.

“ ‘I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me,’ ” she recites finally. “ ‘I am gone like the shadow when it declineth; I am tossed up and down as the locust.’ ”

“From the Bible.”

She tries not to laugh. “Very good.”

“Your heart is wounded within you.”

She puts her hands on the jars for a moment, feeling them. “Yes.”

“I was torn, Hattie. I don’t know if you can see that.”

“I’d have been torn, too,” she acknowledges.

“And yet, you were right to be mad.”

“Was I?”

She sees Everett, slumped over then; she smells the smoke.
Guess I’d rather have my rage. Guess I’m planning to have it for breakfast
. And there is the breakfast table, with a long line of blue and white jars on it, and a red tablecloth.

“You were hurt,” he says.

“I was,” she answers—calm but startled: For something light and large has come to her, an ease; she is not herself. And as Carter moves with some emotion to embrace her, she feels, not the bubbly thing she’d always imagined their love would be, but something else—a defining grace, bittersweet and hard-won.

“It would be nice to have some sort of send-off ritual for your mom and dad, wouldn’t it?” he says, a little later. What hair he has is flying every which way; his gaze is dreamy; she has never seen such crow’s-feet.

“Umm,” she says.

“Here we have rituals for yoga and funerals but not this.” “Umm.”

He kisses her between her eyes—one of his new favorite spots. “We should invent one.”

Nothing brilliant comes to mind, though, so in the end they simply make a nice dinner, and eat with the jars on the table, like guests. Then they meditate a little. And then, though he’s a little full for such things, Carter tucks in his shirt and stands on his head.

J
osh calls a week after Thanksgiving: He and Serena have broken up. He’s not crying, but his voice on the phone is froggy—nothing like his radio voice.

“She decided I was too old for her,” he says.

“Just like that?”

“Out of the blue. I don’t know why.”

“Did someone say something to her? Her parents?”

“Not that I know of. But she did get pregnant and miscarry, so maybe that was a factor.”

Hattie clears her throat. “Umm, that might have been a factor, yes. How pregnant was she?”

“Not very. Six weeks and change.”

“Still. That sort of thing can be world-changing for a young woman, Josh.”

“It was the first thing that had ever gone wrong with her life. I told her things will go wrong because, you know, that’s life. But it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, I guess.”

“She might have needed sympathy.”

“Someone to agree it was the end of the world.”

Joe’s voice.

“Let me ask you. How do you feel now?” she asks.

“Like it’s the end of the world. Like I’ll never love anyone as much in all my life. But maybe I’ve lost perspective.”

“Or maybe she’s the love of your life and you never will love anyone more.” Hattie hesitates to say so, but it’s true.

Silence.

“Anyway, I’m coming home for Christmas,” he says.

“Are you?”

“I owe you a visit, and the station has a backlog. Think you have room? Or have you gotten more dogs?”

“Of course, I have room! But I do have a new dog.”

“A replacement for Cato?” She laughs.

The cold has finally settled in. The lake is frozen solid, and up where Hattie lives, the snow is piling up. Turning baroque, even, in places—the wind chiseling out terrace upon terrace one day, ravines and slopes the next. The sun is so low, it hardly seems to rise in the east and set in the west, exactly. Instead, it seems to rise, then scoot straight across the south sky, just above the trees. From one side of the sky to the other, and then out. Every shadow is a long one.

But never mind. The coming of winter spells the coming of spring spells the coming of summer. Carter’s boat will be done no problem, but now that he’s making one for her, too, he has his work cut out for him. As for Hattie, she can’t remember when she last had a moment to paint, but she’s been thinking of moving her operation to Carter’s shed. She doesn’t mind the radio, and she likes his banjo breaks. And it does get great light. The only questions are, first, is it really as warm as Carter claims? And second, shouldn’t she really work at home, where she can see the lake? Because she’s sick of bamboo; she’s thinking of painting the lake, never mind how Judy Tell-All will laugh.

Most people do do the lake, when they’re looking straight at it
.

Never mind.

T
ina e-mails that night.

Dear Aunt Hattie
,
I write to inform you the bones arrived here safely. I brought them to the crematorium right away, we will go to Qufu this
weekend. The workers all lined up already and we paid some fees too. Of course, we can expect more fees at the last minute. Still we are very happy
,

And, a few nights later:

Mission accomplished. We found an auspicious day right away, and even though it is winter, the weather was not so cold. The workers did not overcharge us, and there were not so many fees. As for the town of Qufu, it is changed a lot, I don’t know when was the last time you were here. Maybe you would not recognize it. Tour buses all over, everywhere people try to cheat you. But the cemetery is quiet, nobody there. And now our family feel a big peace. We did not hear from our daughter yet but still we believe she will call. Even Johnson says so. Our fengshui is feel something different. I know you are scientific, do not believe too much this kind of nonsense
.
True.
Still I hope you will find your fengshui better all the time too
.

Such hogwash! All the same, though it’s late and she’s tired, she writes back,

I am keeping my fingers crossed about your daughter—please do keep me posted
.

SEND
.

N
ow she wakes into a brightening dark. Soon Carter will wake and reach for her. He’ll jot down some notes—the day’s agenda, some other things; then they’ll kick out the dogs and set about making love. In truth, it’s been a hit-or-miss activity—at times all passion, but at times more entertainment than they’d planned. Not so much because of her: Though she’s less interested in the abstract than she once was, she is, in fact, interested—and more or less reliable, too. He’s the opposite—alive with interest until certain moments arise; then sometimes his body is his and sometimes, it seems, someone else’s. Oh, youth! In their heart of hearts they feel themselves thirty-five, but the evidence does suggest otherwise. And the waste—
all them years
—she will never accept it. At the same time she is grateful for his persistence and analysis—he wouldn’t be Carter if there weren’t analysis—thanks which they do seem to be getting at least a few things down. Their timing, their locations, their lines of inquiry. And their aids—their rings, their capsules, their gels. It is a veritable course of study. Though how sweet the fruits of scholarship! She knows it’s just her oxytocin levels rising. Still, she’s cried every time: For their past and their future, for their happiness and their stupidity; for their finitude; because even now she
thinks things;
because even now, she has to forgive him all over again sometimes, as if forgetting, somehow, that she has already. And because, as much as she loves Carter, he makes her think of Joe. Her dear misanthropic Joe—how can Hattie be missing him all over again? It makes no sense at all. But Carter is so not Joe that Joe seems more present than he has in years. Such a pleasantly bulky man, she is realizing, belatedly; and of course, he will always be younger than Carter, with a younger man’s—well. The man, in truth, she sees and feels, sometimes, as she and Carter make love. Oh, Joe! How she wishes Joe could’ve known, before he died, how he’d stay with her. And Lee—how she wishes she could tell Lee.

The key to my reliability, Lee!

How Lee would laugh.

Shocking, Miss Combustible. Shocking
.

Hattie does not tell Carter (who is probably thinking about Meredith, anyway), though she is beginning to understand Chhung—haunted by his first wife, his first life.

If they were even his first.

Ratanak Chhung, the one who lived. And Hattie and Carter, too: the ones who lived.

The ones who live again.

But no more.
Where the water is too clear, there are no fish
, her father used to say. And here it is, in any case, morning in this new life, in this new home.

Carter’s here; the dogs are here; and her distance glasses as well, enabling her to enjoy a new favorite sight—Sarun and Sophy, headed to the public school. Chhung they’ll have to keep busy, as Carter said; they’ll have to find some doctors for him, too, and, if the Chhungs stay, they’ll have to find a temple for Mum, and an Asian food market. Which, in truth, Hattie wouldn’t mind herself.

But there go the kids in the meanwhile, marching up to the bus stop. Sophy has a new jacket, silver blue, and look how her hair is sticking out the bottom of her hat; by spring she should have her ponytail back. As for Sarun, he’s on an anticonvulsant but his prognosis is just fine. If only he would go to school every day now, instead of when the mood strikes him! Then they could call him truly out of the woods.

Well, never mind. For today, at least, here he is, with Sophy. They’re wearing backpacks; they’re blowing clouds; they’re throwing snowballs at the stop sign. The bus—a yellow half-loaf of a thing—pulls up just ahead of them. They run to get on. The wind blows; their backpacks thump. What with the sun so low, their shadows are as big as the mountains. Carter sits up.

“It’s been non-trivial getting those kids on that thing,” he says.

“Umm,” she agrees. And though he reaches for her with intentions, she sits forward for just another moment, hugging her knees. The doors fold shut; the exhaust smoke clears. Snow is lifting in huge spangled plumes from the trees.

“That Sophy Chhung is going to be straight A,” she says.

“That is a completely unsupported assertion,” he replies.

She laughs—it’s good to be watching from a different window. But now she takes off her glasses. “I’ll kick the dogs out,” she whispers.

“Umm,” he says, his eyes already closed; and then, “Precisely.”

The ones who live
.

They have, by some great gift, all morning.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many thanks to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award that made this book possible; and to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study for its gracious support of 40 Concord Avenue.

Heartfelt thanks, too, to Dan Aaron, Rosanna Alfaro, Jay Blitzman, Lydia Buechler, George Chigas, Eileen Chow, Laura Garwin, Allegra Goodman, Susan Hatch, Nancy Hefner-Smith, Ruth Hsiao, Melanie Jackson, James Jen, Mom Jen, Sue Lanser, Margot Livesey, Sovann-Thida Loeung, Deb May, Stephanie May, Mary McGrath, Markus Meister, Martha Minow, Timothy Mouth, Naomi Pierce, Tony Re-al, Frank Smith, Sayon Souen, Ernest Stern, Anne Stevens, Chhorvivoinn Sumsethi, Boreth Sun, Keto Tan, Lisa Thurau-Gray, Sarun Tith, UTEC, Tooch Van, Mike Vann, and Wendy Wornham for their generosity, candor, and expertise.

As for my extraordinary editor, Ann Close; my patient children, Luke and Paloma; my above-average husband, David; and my great-hearted friend, Maryann: No thanks will ever be enough.

BOOK: World and Town
13.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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