by David Mohan
She is called Margaret now, but before that she tried being Macy.
“Like the store, ya,” she would say, smiling like a market seller, trying to convince. But then Peng said it was better to be Paul, and Margaret was better than Macy, even in America.
She sits in the bedroom, waiting for dinner to cook, watching a Taiwanese soap opera. She’s got a chipped lilac mixing bowl clutched between her knees. While she watches, her fingers are busy molding white flesh and breadcrumb fish cakes.
She is only a footstep away from the kitchen. She could almost reach across to throw the fish cakes in the pan. And before the pan had a chance to spit back, she could be in her seat again, watching her beloved Brown Sugar Macchiato.
Paul is in his wife-beater, reading the newspaper. It soothes him to read in Mandarin after a day in a restaurant kitchen, carrying pots, washing dishes, scratching at the cruel enamel of American-English. Harley is splashing in the bathtub by the sink, beside her little brother, Floyd. According to the herb-seller on North Street, who knows everything, the children’s names will pass.
Margaret looks up. A spindly bug is searching the skylight for a way out. Which is just as well. There isn’t enough room for this family as it is.
For one thing, when it isn’t being used, the family hang shirts and jackets along the bath rail in order of size. This is the sort of house they must live in in America. And Margaret must put her geranium behind the shower curtain. The only advantage is that it gets watered by the faucet drip.
When the clutter becomes too much, she will say, “But there is always color, no?”
Crimson and turquoise shirts, and yellow plastic shopping bags are hung up on wall hooks like paintings in a gallery. Incense sticks burn beside freshly chopped limes meant for imminent fish cakes.
The only room with a sort of order to it is Nei Nei and Ye Ye’s bedroom. They sleep on a proper bed beneath a shrine to Buddha. They have bedside lockers for their photographs and magazines.
Harley screeches, and Floyd throws a bath sponge the shape of a goldfish onto the counter, beside the chopping knife.
“Be careful,” Paul snaps, his gaze swerving out of his newspaper, momentarily. Water or fat in either direction is risky. Each impromptu province of this room must behave itself if this tenancy is to work.
Soon, Margaret lays out dishes on the table. Paul lifts the kids from their bath, and wipes the suds from their plump bodies with a towel he plucks from a rail on the ceiling. The children dress themselves, famished by the smell, slapping their hands together, and soon the family is seated on red chairs around a table that almost fills the room.
Presently, when they are finished eating, a tray will be carried into the Yellow Emperor and his consort in the next room. They are taking a nap, which Paul theorizes might be the result of a sort of perpetual jet lag.
But when their noon snack is set down at their bedside the old folk will wake, still lost in their dreams of another country, their eyes flying in panic to the familiar sign of the ticking clock as though it might tell them something about the street they live on, or what their names are, or how they came to be washed up in this derelict place.
Margaret wipes the counter again, washes up, puts away the pans. Paul lifts up Harley, her scream following in her wake like the tail of a comet, a great yowl that fills the room. Margaret hears Nei Nei grumble in the other room, bed creaks, the neighbors upstairs footsteps, fractious, starting up again. Impatient with the suds crawling up her arm, she shakes her wrist out, slaps the water with the wash cloth.
As soon as the kids are gone to bed, the box bunk they share two steps away from where she stands, too near to be forgotten despite Paul’s game of whispers as they choose their storybooks, Margaret leans forward, opens the window onto the back of the building (not even Orchard Street like the realtor said). She pushes like he showed her, real hard, and down, a twist, precise. You needed to learn the knack of it, apparently. And it was never quite far enough, just a little to let smoke out, but not far enough to let the air in, and what air she gulped back was tainted by the outflow of other folks’ air cons. Fresh as detergent, courtesy of the laundromat downstairs. Enough to let that spindly bug out though, she figured. All day, its buzz flickered like a migraine from corner to corner.
When the kids are settled Paul takes her hand and leads her to the mattress they’ve placed beside the bunk. Undressing with an anxious, watchful quietness, they lie down, nuzzling beside each other to make a virtue of the sliver of silence that follows the kids’ bedtime. Traffic is slow now for a while at least. Trees can be heard somewhere, the wet drip of them. Paul listens to the news on his headphones then turns over, snores softly.
And Margaret turns, her head pressed to the wall. It’s still here somewhere, that spindly bug, dancing invisible, she can sense its indestructible presence, teasing, elusive, mocking. She clenches her fist, then distracted, scratches a flake of paint from the wall.
“Everything will be OK,” she says to the woman with the grudge in Brown Sugar Macchiato,and to herself. “These walls can be painted over, the window can be fixed, this room will become a house.”
If only, only, only, it weren’t for that spindly bug, still fizzing in its corner, always, always, a pulse of noise, like a broken fuse nobody can fix.