Authors: Gish Jen
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Sarun tries out the wheelbarrow.
“ ’S ite,” he says.
” says Sophy.
“What does that mean, ‘ite’?” says Hattie.
“It means ‘all right,’ ” says Sarun. “All right, ’ite, get it?” He takes the wheelbarrow for a little test drive, trotting along behind it. Up one side of the pit, around the end, back. The wheel shrieks and squeals but no one seems to mind.
“He just has to, like, talk ghetto for some reason,” says Sophy as his orbit swings their way.
“For your express benefit.” Sarun skids to a dramatic halt.
Hattie starts to explain why it might be to his benefit, too, to speak standard English but stops herself. She is not, after all, responsible for this young person. She’s retired. She smiles instead. “Talk however you want.”
“With regard to this wheelbarrow,” says Sarun, “I’d just like to say, it is just what I always wanted.”
“Don’t talk California, either!” Sophy tells him.
“How is that California?” asks Hattie.
“It’s, like, Hollywood. The way rich people talk,” says Sophy.
“Ah.” Hattie nods. “Anyway, Merry Christmas,” she says.
Sarun grins and doffs his baseball cap to her, his jewelry gleaming pale in the low light.
“Thanks,” says Sophy, her cheeks flushed. She waves both her hands, holding their open palms out in front of her like airplane propellers. “Thanks for coming. Thanks for the wheelbarrow! And last time for the cookies, and the drawer! Everything!”
Hattie hesitates, but only a little. “You’re welcome,” she says, and waves a good-bye to them all, including Chhung, who reemerges just as she leaves. He nods, stubs out a cigarette, swats a few flies. Then he pulls the net down over his face and tries out the wheelbarrow himself, pushing coolly and with dignity.
inny’s breakup is common knowledge, but as she doesn’t seem to want to talk about it and as the walking group would rather sigh over Hattie anyway, they do, huddling at the Come ’n’ Eat after their walk.
“Was he the love of your youth?” Beth runs a rock quarry, but she’s the dreamiest of the group when it comes to romance. She ruffles her short hair as if trying to put a bend in it, then jabs a toothpick in her mouth.
“Yes and no,” says Hattie.
Bringing gasps from some, and from even the avowedly post-romantic, looks of interest. The love of her youth, sort of, returned in her late middle age to find her!
“I don’t know that he’s here to find me,” says Hattie. “And I did marry another man.” As everyone knows but red-haired Candy, the newest member of the group.
“And what happened to him?” she asks.
“Lung cancer,” says Hattie. “Never smoked, but he got lung cancer.”
It’s hardly news at this point, and goodness knows they’ve all had their share of illnesses and accidents and shock; they’re veterans of life. Still, it quiets things down. Other patrons push their chairs back; the front door opens and shuts, then opens but doesn’t shut as Hattie steels herself to explain about radon, and about how the cancer had already spread by the time they found it—to his liver and brain before anyone knew a thing. His illness having been found late, and having only involved a chapter or two, Lee used to say,
Not like my Tale of Two Titties; it was just lucky I didn’t have three
. That being the sort of joke only Lee would make—the sort even she stopped being able to make, some days; days when it was everything she could do to get herself out of bed and make herself walk. Walking, walking the drugs out of her system—walking, walking, in her pink punk wig. Candy does not ask about any of that, though. Instead, all she wants to know is, “Did you love him?” Her pale face washed out by her bright hair as she asks simply and sweetly. Unblinkingly.
“I did,” says Hattie.
For she did love Joe, brusque as he could be—her fellow teacher, who taught World History and ran the bike club at school. Once, when a student was attacked by a pit bull, he jumped right off his bike onto the dog’s back—that being the kind of thing he did, he said. What he lived for, even.
, he used to say,
when you know what you’re made of
. She did not believe she would ever know what she was made of. Sometimes, though, she did think she knew something, anyway, by the way she reached for him in her sleep—knows something, still. For even now she reaches, even now she dreams that she can feel him breathing—that they are breathing in synch, waking in synch, as they used to. One of the more nonsensical shocks of his death being that he ceased to have a rhythm, or a sense of hers. Of course, even autonomic responses require brain function. A working medulla oblongata; efferent nerves. She knew that. Still, theirs had been so unwilled, she had not quite registered, somehow, that they depended on life.
“Kids?” asks Candy.
“One,” says Hattie. “His name is Josh.”
“Not yet.” Hattie picks the peas out of her Tuna Wiggle; she’s partial to peas. The front door opens and sticks again; the new cook slams his pots on the stove as if he’s used to a lower range and just can’t get used to this one.
“So Carter disappeared?” Ginny’s lips match her nails, match her shirt, but she has bags under her eyes, and her artichoke hair has a helmety look.
“I took too long looking for my wet suit.”
“Don’t you think he’ll be back?” asks Greta.
“You don’t know Carter.”
“Here today, gone tomorrow.” Beth removes her toothpick from her mouth, that she might jab at the air with it. “I know the type.”
“He does dispense with a lot.”
“And you hadn’t seen him for how many years?” asks Candy.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe twenty-five? Thirty?” Hattie contemplates her thick plate. “Or no—I went to his father’s burial ten years ago, but didn’t talk to him. Does that count?”
She keeps forgetting about having gone to the burial, somehow—the interment of Dr. Hatch’s ashes, really—though it was right here in Riverlake. And how surprised and pleased the Hatches were to see her—how could she forget that?
, they kept saying, a word they hadn’t used to use much, but seemed to have taken up the way they’d once taken her up. They were
—all of them.
Did she live with his family?
“When I first came to the States, yes.”
And that was—?
“Oh, I don’t know—some fifty years ago. I was kind of a permanent exchange student. Their live-in Chinese tutor and basket case.” Hattie starts in on her noodles, which are, in truth, a bit gooey. “They were friends of some relatives on my mother’s side. I don’t think they realized they were going to end up stuck with me. But they took it in stride—put me up, made sure I got to college. And of course, they’re a lot of how I ended up here in Riverlake—that summer house they had.”
The Adirondack lodge—people nod. The one that was falling down and couldn’t be saved. The one the Hatches couldn’t bear to replace.
“Which I remembered when I was looking for somewhere I could live on my pension,” she goes on. Something she doesn’t have to explain; for who doesn’t live with her means firmly in mind, after all?
“Were they Christian?” Ginny, perking up, asks as if the question just occurred to her, or as if it weren’t hers, exactly—just something that popped into her head.
Greta, though, sets her spoon right down. Good Episcopalian that she is, gay bishops are fine with her but fundamentalists are something else. “What does that have to do with anything?” she demands.
Politely enough, really. Still, Candy, their evangelical, stiffens. Never mind that she disagrees with Ginny more often than she agrees; her mouth and chin stitch up.
“They were agnostic,” says Hattie—precipitating vague, scattered nods.
“Did you say twenty-five years?” asks Beth. “Or twenty?”
“It may be more like thirty-five, now that I’m thinking about it,” Hattie says. “Except for the burial.”
“Isn’t that something.” Ginny straightens her cutlery.
They watch their favorite waitress put a knee on the lunch counter to redo the specials board. Flora is young and slight—a rock climber, dressed all in blue today, as her other job is in day care; probably she’s off to be a whale in the afternoon, or the sky.
“Though it does sometimes happen, doesn’t it?” says Beth. “That people reconnect with their sweethearts from high school or whatever? Years and years later. I read that in a magazine someplace.”
“Did they say how often the guy needs taking care of?” asks Greta.
And people do laugh at that—no kidding.
“The healthy ones go for youth,” Greta goes on. “Someone to—”
“Stoke the old poker,” says Beth.
(Men, men, men
, Lee used to say.
Always guarding their turgidity.)
“What I want to know is why some of us can’t be happy and single?” says Candy. People look at her in surprise. “I mean, if that is the Lord’s plan? Why can’t we just accept it?”
“Or how about if it’s our own plan?” says Greta, warmly. “Might not some of us remain happily single even if it’s our own plan?”
Scattered nods to that.
“Anyway, Hattie’s not reconnecting. She married another man.” Grace’s wild gray hair is even wilder since she got a job in a greenhouse; the humidity brings up the frizz. “And didn’t he marry someone else, too?”
Hattie nods. “Her name was Meredith.” Dear Meredith.
“Kids?” asks Greta, helpfully.
More pot banging.
“One of each?” asks Candy.
One of the meaner tricks of time being the turning of the sweet into the inane
, Lee used to say. Anyway, Carter’s two girls seem the proof some need that whatever Carter and Hattie were, it wasn’t serious. The logic of this is not clear to Hattie, any more than why she would want to know where he is living and what he is doing.
But, well, the helpful will help.
“The Turners’ cottage,” puts in Candy. “You know how Dina hurt her knee? Right after they winterized? Well, they’re renting it to him for the year. I guess he’s writing a book.”
“Thinks all day, writes things down, looks miserable,” confirms Beth.
“Knows it wastes trees, but can’t help himself,” says Greta.
Hattie smiles. “I hope he at least recycles?”
Greta ought to smile back. Instead, she runs her braid through her hand as though reviewing a length of memory. “I’m trying to think,” she begins.
Oh, where is Lee?
Though Greta, bless her, has at least registered that the kids in that Cambodian family aren’t in school, as she brings up a few minutes later; and when others nominate Hattie to go talk to them, she does tactfully point out that it shouldn’t be because Hattie is, like the family, a black-hair.
“Of course not,” says Beth. “Her hair is white.”
“And used to be brown anyway,” says Grace. “Right?”
“You do not have to do this.” Greta brandishes the end of her braid for emphasis. “As you do realize?”
Hattie contemplates a trapezoid of light on the table—picturing in it, like a holograph, Chhung. Those cheeks. Those eyes.
Why would they have moved to Riverlake if they were thriving?
Probably the Chhungs are trouble. On the other hand, didn’t the Hatches take her in, once upon a time?
“I do live next door,” she says.
“And can that really be a total coincidence?” says Ginny. “I mean, doesn’t it just shout, Plan?”
“Do you mean as in God’s plan?” asks Greta.
The ceiling fan whirrs. The register drawer closes, then pops back open the way it always does, and has to be pushed back in.
“Those kids should be thinking of the future,” says Beth, finally. “That is just a fact.”
“The future is important,” agrees Candy. “It’s what we all look forward to.”
It is Grace, their ex-nun, who looks at Hattie and winks.
utside of the school issue, things are looking up next door. Chhung and Sarun are making good use of the wheelbarrow; Grace and Greta are dropping off food. And Candy and Beth would be driving the family places, except that the family is already getting rides from a blue car with a
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
bumper sticker. It’s not clear to Hattie where the car takes them besides to the grocery store. To a community center? A clinic? A church? Anyway, she is happy to think there’s a shepherd around somewhere, looking in on these sheep
—ruminating on these ruminants
, as Lee would say. It’s reassuring.
Of course, the kids are kids. Hattie sees Sarun out back behind Town Hall sometimes, shooting hoops at the netless basket there. People say his real sport is volleyball but that the kids around here aren’t into it; he’s retooling. Sophy has herself a guitar. She sits out on the milk crate, the big curves dwarfing her narrow lap; her strumming elbow is high as her ear. Every now and then she stops to rub her fingertips. But then she peers over the instrument, back down at her book, which lies flat on a towel on the ground. Never mind the still-chilly air; she holds the pages open with a bare foot. Checking her hand position, peering down at the book again, strumming a few measures. Turning the page with her dextrous toes.
A diligent girl, who ought to be in school.
Hattie sighs. Her painting is finally starting to show signs of one day having what her father would have called
—refinement. The white space is more charged—more part and parcel of the composition, less blank. And the stalks seem to have more to do with one another, as if they’re acquainted from another picture—involved. She’s learning. But will that relationship and charge be there the next time she sits down? It’s hard for Hattie to stand up in the middle of this whatever-it-is—this new neuronal growth, probably.
On the other hand: a diligent girl, who ought to be in school.
Hattie packs away her brushes. She puts on her walking shoes; she bags up some cookies; she tells the dogs to stay. The wind is blowing downhill. Hattie walks as if submitting her will to a Greater Force, not that she believes in a greater force, exactly—certainly not one who talks to folks personal the way Ginny’s does. Might there be
a superior reasoning power revealed in the incomprehensible universe
, as Joe believed, like Einstein? Well, maybe. Quite possibly. But never mind. Her cloth bag thumps softly against her leg; and as she approaches the trailer, the wind switches direction so that she hears, not Sophy strumming, but Chhung yelling in Khmer and Sarun yelling back, their voices choppy with anger. She thinks to turn around, but it’s too late. They’ve seen her.