Read World and Town Online

Authors: Gish Jen

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

World and Town (6 page)

BOOK: World and Town
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But anyway, too bad. Now the Iowa fengshui is not so good as before and our family face difficulty again. We hear there is a shopping center moved in right next to our grandparents, not to say a train line. And that is why our family, our luck not so good. Everything leaking away. Not just our branch, many other cousins say it too. Our situation not even so serious as other cousins. Some of them are losing money—a lot of money. So now we are thinking, how do you feel about if Grandpa and Grandma should be moved to Qufu, which is their real home? We believe they are lonely in Iowa. No one can sweep grave there. Of course we understand there is some question whether Grandma can stay in the graveyard in Qufu too. But we feel confident someone can arrange it, really you just have to find out who you should pay. After all Grandpa is still have the name Kong, and who can even see Grandma is a foreign devil anymore? Now she is not even bones, only some ashes or pieces, something like that. No one can see anything. And by the way I do not think Confucius ever said a big nose cannot be buried in the family graveyard. He never even thought about that case. Probably he does not even know nose can get so big. Everyone say American people do not take care of their parents’ grave, just let the weeds grow all over. Their thinking is different. You know better than anyone the kind of clothes they wear. They think that is normal. Anyway, we have been talking to some other family member, everyone agrees. Our family, something is wrong. Fallen leaves should return to their roots right? We should do something. But what do you think?

What does Hattie think?
If you are near red dye, you will turn red; if you are near black, you will turn black
. Who knows but that if she had grown up in Hong Kong, she’d be a superstitious nut, too. As it is, though, she just writes that she’s sorry, but moving the graves is not an option. Not adding, as she would like to,
The dead are dead and can do nothing for us! We’re on our lonesome own!
but pecking out the letters with one hand while she plays tug-of-war with Annie. Hoping Annie will not pee in her excitement, though of course, she does—a nice long fingerlake of a puddle in which she promptly steps. Hattie sighs.


Good riddance!

Three days later, though, another e-mail arrives, and then another, both about money.
What is it about the Chinese and money?
Joe used to ask.

And then this one, also concerning the graves:

Dear Aunt Hattie
You remember Vivian, what kind of girl she is. Like an angel, we always say she have wings, if you had special glasses you can see them. And beautiful besides, that is why she got such a good job in the karaoke bar even though she does not know how to sing. But you know what those local officials are—what kind of people. One of them ask her if she will take a bath with him. Of course, she say no, but he try again. So finally one day she take a fruit knife out of her bag and stab him. Not too bad, just in the leg, and she even put the bandaid on for him. Nice and neat. But now she lost her job

Hattie sighs and moves to her painting table. And yet another e-mail, the next day:

I write concerning my son. My son is very good at drive car. He practice every day, also read some books. And he buy a car with some friends, all of them go in together, that car is some special kind car, have so-called four-wheel drive. Everyone say that car can go all over, that car can go everywhere. But my son took that car to Tibet in the mountains and got stuck there. Is that not some bad luck? He drove down someplace, in some kind of valley, then cannot drive back up. Even he ask ten men to help him, they cannot push out. So now his friends very mad, want him to pay them back

Hattie shakes her head and writes:

I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles, but do you really think moving the graves will help you?

Outside, the sun is out later than it was even a week ago and setting farther in the west. As she walks her dogs, Hattie sees how it catches many more trees than it did, turning them orange and sepia and rust; the apparent world is broader. And look—down in the swamp—pussy willows! Showing their soft hermaphroditic catkins. Hattie feels them—furry but cold. She’ll be back later in the day to pick some for a vase.

iverlake’s north. Making winter the basic fact here—wool and hot drinks, a fire in the evening, and, of course, ice. Even with global warming, the lake stays frozen as a rock until April; it’s easy to see why people called it Brick Lake before it up and moved. But one day every year, there are cracks which one night fail to refreeze, turning instead into rivulets that turn into streams that turn into rivers, multiplying and crisscrossing until the whole white plain of the lake has come live. Giant shards of ice get thrown up onto the shore then—the sun patiently working its energy down into the surface of other things, too, until you start to feel a closeness in the air. A collecting. One afternoon you may even find your dashboard warm, especially if it’s black, like Hattie’s.

Hattie, though, is still keeping to her fleece—the state fabric—like most people; pretty much everyone’s got a vest on, at least. Only Carter Hatch would be traipsing around with no hat and no hair, in just jeans and a flannel shirt, top buttons undone as if to show off his pelican neck. The shirt hangs away from him—no paunch—men his age tending to come in two models as they do, padded and not, Hattie’s noticed, depending on their metabolisms.

Carter, dropping in like Judy Tell-All.

Hattie overfills her coffee mug and has to sponge up the mess.

Is he still running? She doesn’t know, but somehow wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’s still taking home trophies in the occasional senior trot. That seven-league gait, after all, and that drive—that Carter Hatch drive. What with her house up on a knoll, she’s watched people make their way up to her door all sorts of ways—some tackling the driveway with a little umph, some with a marked trudge. No one has ever taken it the way Carter is now, as if simply opposed to gravity. He’s carrying one of those dark green book bags from the days before backpacks—his father’s, if she had to guess—toting the rubberized thing so naturally that he looks not so much like Carter carrying his father’s sack as—eerily—Dr. Hatch carrying his own. Of course, in one way, it’s a surprise, looking back, that Carter didn’t go into marine biology or some such—one of those fields where you battle cold climes and come home with a distant look in your eye. But in another way, where would he have made his expeditions but to the lab? At least as an undergrad he looked different in the summer than in the winter—more like his god-given self, ruddy and hale. Later he just stayed his winter self year-round, too busy examining how people see to actually go out and see much himself; she never did behold him without wanting to offer him a cough drop.

Now, though, a thump on her front porch, and the start of a rap, but ha!—she’s opened the door before he’s knocked; and seeing as how she has yet to put up her front-door screen, there’s nothing but her in the doorway. Surprise.

“Miss Confucius.”

Dr. Hatch!

But no—it’s Carter, who, if she hadn’t surprised him with the door, or startled a bit herself, might well have relaxed enough to give her a kiss or a hug. Instead, he stands there with his book bag between his feet and his hands in his pockets, gazing at her as if he’s about to have his mug snapped for an I.D. card.

“It’s good to see you,” he says.

“Well, and I’ve had worse surprises.” She can still feel how she was about to step through the doorway and give him a hug back—that potential energy. But now she straightens up, too, the dogs gathering around Carter, who—can this be right?—appears to be wearing the very same hiking boots he used to wear back in the lab. That can’t be, she knows. But these do seem an exact replica of his old Swiss boots, with their zigzag red laces and first-class padded collar; they even have the same lovingly beat-up look.

“Go on,” she tells the dogs. “Out.”

Eliciting a funny look from Cato, especially—this isn’t their pattern. With a little more prodding, though, they do finally go sprinting down the hill and across the road to the sunny field, Reveille leading but Annie almost keeping up, and Old Cato, too; his hips must not be too bad today. As for whether Reveille will keep clear of that porcupine in the tree at the edge of the field, well, Hattie can only hope—Joe having been the expert quill-puller in the family. She never has gotten as plier-proficient.

“You’ve become a dog lover.”

“Fit company for the old dog I’ve become myself,” she says.

He laughs his old laugh, with a drop of his jaw—as if he just has to make a show of his hearty pink tongue and scattered gold crowns. “That’s my Hattie, ever sweet and obliging. You know what I remember most about Chinese?”

When he arches his brows, they make little familiar tents, too—
pup tents
she always thought them. An expression Carter himself taught her, although not for his eyebrows, of course, but for the real pup tents he and his brothers used to pitch in their backyard.

—wrong! You loved to say that. You never said, ‘Try that one more time’ or ‘You need to purse your lips’ or ‘Try touching your tongue to your palate.’ You just said,
Bú duì!

“Well,” she says, collecting herself a little—Carter did always make you have to collect yourself. “I suppose no one else ever told you you were wrong, did they?”

Bú duì.
” His crow’s-feet are more pronounced than his frown lines, she’s happy to see; and his plaid shirt is missing its second button—so that’s why the two unbuttoned buttons. White thread ends sprout from the flannel like the hairs that could be sprouting from his ears but, she sees, are not. “Many people told me. You just wanted to tell me yourself. Though here’s what I’ve been meaning to ask you all these years—why you never said it to Reedie. He told me that to him you always said,
Hĕn bàng!

“Well, you know.” She gestures vaguely. “Reedie.”

“Did you hear he got killed in a car accident last November?”

“Reedie?” She freezes.

“Driving drunk. Hit a beech tree. We tried to reach you, but no one knew where you were.”

“Oh my god.”

“I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you.”

And indeed, where was Judy Tell-All to warn her? Shouldn’t Judy Tell-All have warned her?

“No,” she says. “No.”

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “And here you were right in Riverlake. As we would no doubt have heard had Reedie’s ashes been buried here and not elsewhere.”


“His wife said it was his unequivocal choice to be buried with her family.” He looks off. “Dear Sheila. I heard about Joe, by the way.” He stops. “The Turners told me.”

She waves a hand.

“I’m so sorry. Two years ago?”

She nods.

“So young.”

She nods again, or thinks she does. If there is any point in bringing up Lee, she can’t anyway.

“Joe was a good man.” Carter hesitates in his Carter-like way—not looking away, as other people do, but fixing on her again instead. “It was a shock, as I hardly need tell you.”

Reedie’s death, he must mean. Anyway, she cries and cries.

Really she should ask him in, but Carter has already settled himself, leaning back against the porch railing as if against his desk. His elbows are bent, and his shoulders raised up, one hand sitting to either side of his hips. Much the way that a dog or cat sits, according to a little neural sub-routine, he arranges himself the way he always has; he’s ready to talk. And even as her chest heaves, she finds that her arms and legs have answered his on their own, crossing themselves and leaning sideways against the doorframe as if in his office doorway. It’s the force of habit—these patterns embedded, no doubt, in their very Purkinje cells. A disconcerting idea, in a way. And yet what a comfort it is right now—knowing the same dance, and knowing that they know it. It’s a comfort.

“I used to tell him it wasn’t worth trying to catch up to me,” he begins. “That there was nothing to catch up to. But he had that idea, and it made him feel pressured.”

She nods, numb.

“He didn’t care about Anderson. I guess Anderson was too far out of his league.”

“Anderson he worshipped.”

“Precisely. But me.” He laughs a short laugh, pressing his long fingers into the railing, which flakes a bit; it needs paint. “I guess he thought anyone should be able to catch up to me.”

“You really think it was your fault?”—her mouth talking without her.


“You just wonder”—her shirt sleeve is rough—“if you contributed.”

“Yes.” Carter’s voice still falls like an ax, but there is something new in his gaze—something lanternlike and reflective. “There are few subjects about which one dares generalize these days, but if I may in this instance: The death of a brother does give one pause.” He exhales. “And wonder how one contributed, as you put it. He had his own lab at the end, you know. He was doing good work—AIDS research. NIH loved him.”

“So I guess he caught up to you, by the end.”

“I would have said passed me. But as you know, we see what we see.”

“World makers that we are, you mean.”

“Yes.” Carter hesitates, his eyes on her, then says again, “He always felt pressure”—a backtrack so uncharacteristic that, upset as she is, she can’t help but notice. People used to say his train of thought really was like a train—that he made his stops and moved on. She’s never known him to wander, as others do, after what he used to call
the wraith of an idea
. Not that it much matters if he does now—since when are the people we admire most like trains anyway?—except that Hattie remembers what people said about his father
—he’s slipping—
and how that haunted Carter.
Dr. Hatch is slipping
. Is that why he retired? It is hard to believe that he’d be slipping in any noticeable way at sixty-seven. And yet maybe that was the idea, to get out before anyone noticed—before anyone could say that about him.

BOOK: World and Town
2.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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