Photo: © 2001 George Kunze
"Hear me, Eric?" Ma says, turning from the TV. She's got her swollen feet propped on the rim of the tub, which sits dead center in the middle of the kitchen. "I don't want to hear any more complaints from Lao Gong." Ma's got on a new uniform. She's done up her hair with a thick red ribbon and she's even got lipstick on, too. It's New Year's. Big tips tonight, she says.
"Damn cripple," I say, crossing the imaginary line into my room. "The only ba-la-lang going on around here's in Lao Gong's ugly fat head."
"Ai." Ma sighs, giving me a look like she's sucking on a pickled plum. She shakes out her apron. "He's old."
"Relax, Mrs. Tsui," Seymore says, blowing a bubble with his gum. "We're just going to hang. I gotta go help at the store later anyway." Seymore practically runs the place these days. His old man spends most of his time doing these fucked-up paintings. Ma said it's no secret—except to Seymore, anyway—that his Ma took off with some Hong Kong rich ass. His old man would rather tell Seymore she's a missing person—"a bad man took her away"—than dish the truth. Seymore thought some asshole had her tied up somewhere; he wanted to find the bitch. These days, though, Seymore doesn't say much. Thinks after all this time she's dead. Why else wouldn't she have come back for him?
"Eat here," Ma tells Seymore. "I cooked too much. Don't want to waste."
Seymore and I toss our knapsacks on the top bunk and dump ourselves below on my brother Johnnie's. The Asshole would shit if he saw us here.
I give Seymore a look like, Wish she'd get lost already. With my foot, I snap the skateboard up and catch it in my hands. The wheels spin, its ball bearings clicking in the air. The hallway leading to the door's got my name all over it: Skate, go ahead, skate, it tells me. There's a scuff mark from the ollie over the tub; a turned-around S from pretending to thrash a halfpipe.
On TV, Oprah blabs on about all that feel-good garbage Ma likes to hear. "Everyone says they want to be happy," Oprah says. "But when asked, they don't have an image of what that really means to them." Ma nods and mumbles in agreement. She uses her arms to push herself up, then irons the apron. She does this slowly, pressing her weight onto every wrinkle, even the ruffles at the bottom. There's a crescent-shaped burn the size of a nail clipping. The thing is clean, scrubbed by hand every night in the bathroom sink, but against the new outfit, I realize it isn't white the way it should be. Closer, maybe, to a ratty dishrag. Ma folds it in half, then half again, and irons it to get square creases into it. Like that's going to make it look like new?
An hour before the Asshole gets home, I think. Just enough time to get down that flip kick over the tub. "You're going to be late, Ma," I say.
"Ai. Have to hurry." She ties the apron around her waist and pulls on a jacket. It's too thin by itself; she has to wear a coat over it. Seymore and me, we hang on Johnnie's bunk.
Ma heads out the door. She walks like a spider. Quick and soundless.
Skate, go ahead and skate, the hallway calls.
I drop to my knees, dig out the ramp from under the bed, and just to be sure she's gone for good, race to the window. Ma's red ribbon disappears toward Canal. Seymore and I move all the food to the kitchen counter, fold the table, and snake the shower curtain up over the metal rod. I set the ramp against the tub, find some speedmetal on the radio, and skate to the end of the hall.
"This is the shit," Seymore says.
With my back against the door, I focus on the space above the rim of the tub and picture myself there: just me and board and air. "Yes," I say, pumping my back foot. Just as I close in on the tub, I kick back, and boom!—Flying. Nothing can pull me down.
"Yeah, man. Shred it up!" Seymore says.
Lao Gong bangs his cane again. "Damn cripple," I say.
Seymore races to the end of the hall. "Check this out," he says. "Totally bionic." But the front door opens and in walks Johnnie. Seymore stops mid-step, his sneaker squeaking against the floor. Lao Gong bangs away at his ceiling.
"What the—didn't Ma say to cut that out?" The Asshole moves toward me until I've got my back against the wall. He tries to stare me down.
"Get out of my face," I say.
"What was that?"
I take a swing but miss, and he catches me in a headlock. I try to wrestle him to the ground, but his hold tightens and I start to choke. Seymore's face is like, "Oh, fuck." Johnnie dumps me into the tub. My head bangs against the spout and my knees catch the porcelain edge. I cough and spit, cough and spit. "Get up," he says.
I hope you die, I think. I hope that girl dumps your sorry ass and then you die. Seymore's still got that frozen look on his face. Spit hangs from my mouth. I laugh.
"What's so funny, huh?" Johnnie asks.
I wipe the drool with my arm. "Nothing."
Johnnie jerks his arm, making me flinch. A snarl curls the side of his lip. "Didn't think so."
The Asshole tells us to get lost and we do. First to McDonald's for a couple of Big Macs and fries. Then to the roof where one of the guys from school set us up with a bunch of six-packs. The sky seems lower than yesterday, like one of these days it'll fall and we'll be lost inside it. There's the crackling sound of firecrackers. Once in a while, a rocket. Seymore checks out the scene below. "Man, I never knew your brother got so uptight."
"Fucker can't get laid."
The wind cuts through my jacket. I kick a flowerpot and a bony dead plant topples over. The bump over my ear throbs, and I imagine all the ways a chick could dis the Asshole. I gulp my beer. His girl could take off with some other Asshole, tonight. Yep. Take off with some Hong Kong kid who owns a Porsche.
Wind sweeps over the rooftops and funnels down the street, lifting a crumpled napkin into the air. People squeeze slowly past one another. Somewhere in the dark, firecrackers snap like pistols. Smoke rises and drifts. It smells crisp and sour.
"We need a bunch of those," I say.
"Nah, what we need are a bunch of bottle rockets. Remember Jimmy Ho? Heard he lit one of those, then threw a stuffed mannequin off the roof. Everyone went nuts."
I crush the beer can between my palms. "Idiot, I was there."
"You were in on that?"
"Sewed the gloves on myself."
"Shit, did that thing really knock some guy unconscious?"
"Nah. That's Jimmy's big mouth. The thing dropped on a truck. But it was still awesome. You should've seen their faces. Everyone ran—thought someone got shot."
"He got the cell for that? Ain't shit."
Just then, Johnnie steps out of the building. A bow tie pokes over the top of his coat. His hair's slicked back, and not even the wind can get to it. He's got one of those Asian parties tonight. Tavern on the Green, he said, like he's some kind of rich-ass. Yo—like he's really going to get one of those yuppy jobs on Wall Street?
"He going to score or what?" Seymore asks.
"With that rich-bitch girlfriend he's got? One look at this place and she'll be making a bee-line back to Westchester."
"You seen her?"
"Nah. Just listen to shit he talks on the phone." I squash the aluminum can between my palms. The cold metal sticks to my skin. I could peg the Asshole right now and he wouldn't know what hit him. As if he read my thoughts, Johnnie looks back and gives me the finger. My elbow flinches.
"Do it," Seymore says.
I shove the can into my pocket. "Nah, too easy."
"Right. Like you would have gotten him? You couldn't peg me right here, your arm sucks so bad." This gets me laughing. Seymore eggs everyone on like this.
"Shut up," I say.
A cop appears on the other side of the street. He glances up, and just like that, Seymore and I are eating gravel. My beer spills.
"Did he see?" I ask.
Seymore snorts and breaks out the Chinaman rap he uses at the store. "Wew-come China-tong. Want buy watchie? Gucci only ten dolla."
The wind cuts down the neck of my jacket. "Ten dollars?" I add. "Oh, my. So expensive? How about nine?"
"Nine-la, okay-la. And a happy fucking New Year to you, too, bitch."
We down our last beers. That's when Lao Gong appears. He clutches the rail in one hand, the crutch in the other. He's got on the same gray coat he wears all the time. Even from up here, I get that sour, old-man stink.
"What's he up to?" Seymore mutters.
"Got me. He never leaves the place."
Seymore crushes a can. It folds together like an accordion. "Your chance, man. Get him good."
"I said shut up."
"Ten bucks says you are."
The guy drags one leg, then the other, down the steps. Couldn't miss even if I tried, I think. With a flick of the wrist, the can whirls through the air. At first, it seems as though it'll arc past him. But one, two, three and tock! The thing smacks his ear. A sound that's tinny and flat.
Lao Gong freezes. His fingers splay apart. The cane falls, the handle knocking, knocking, knocking against the cement. There's a sharp whine before the old man crumbles.
"Oh, shit," Seymore says, doing a hyena laugh. The old man drops, knocks into a passerby, then hits the pavement. People scatter. A black cloth slipper tumbles into the street.
"Bionic, man!" Seymore says.
We nose-dive onto the roof before anyone sees us.
I put out my hand. "Ten bucks."
The ambulance catches our attention. The siren squeals, red lights flickering on and off, on and off. The old guy's still on the sidewalk. He's lying on his side, one leg twisted at a funny angle. The wind flaps a lonely strand of hair. Some white guy crouches next to him and takes his pulse.
"He's dead," Seymore says.
"No way. Wasn't any beer in the thing."
The medics move around the body, checking the pulse at his wrist. They lift his eyelids.
"Get up, old man," I whisper. "Get up."
A crowd circles as they put him on a stretcher. Cops appear. We junk the beer and scramble downstairs. The roof door shuts out the screaming horns, and for a second, it's dark and quiet.
In the apartment, the lights are out. There's the lamplight from the street. Seymore's got the door, and me, I'm by the window. The ambulance takes Lao Gong up Mott, and the red lights swirl down the street until they turn onto Canal. People move around the space, but as the siren goes muffled, the crowd presses in until it's gone.
Where's the slipper? I wonder.
The cops get to the neighbor's door within the hour. "Mr. Yang no home," Mrs. Yang says. The chain rattles against the doorframe.
"May we ask a couple of questions?"
"No home. Mr. Yang no home." The door bangs shut.
Feet appear beneath the door to our apartment. One, two, three solid, even knocks. Seymore looks at me like, shit.
The cop raps again. One, two, three; one, two, three. We don't answer; they don't move. They know we're here, I think. Everything stops. It's Jimmy Ho who jumps into my head: "That first night, thought I'd shit my pants," he'd said. Sweat drips down my neck into my jacket. Seymore starts to whisper to himself. I'm like, Shut up, already. He's praying. The guy doesn't even go to church and he's praying.
The feet finally step away from the door. The boards creak under their weight.
"Shit," Seymore mutters. "Oh, man."
Neither of us says another word until the cops are gone.
Outside, the street's beginning to empty out. Wind funnels through Mott, making a low flute sound. A napkin circles on the pavement. Johnnie appears, head tucked low into his coat, walking straight into the wind. I knew the sucker wouldn't score.
Just as Johnnie enters the building, the cops appear. The officer's voice is low and muffled, but I can hear Johnnie slurring, "Yes, officer ... no, officer." Johnnie lights a cigarette, and adds, "Jesus, who'd be sick enough to do a thing like that?"
Just like that, I know that he knows.
"Gotta take off," I tell Seymore, grabbing my board. "Asshole's back."
Seymore blocks the door. "Got fried brain in the head or something? Can't go out there."
But it's too late. A key twists and Johnnie's there, a shadow with the fluorescent light behind him. Smoke funnels from his nostrils.
The light clicks on. Before I can even see straight, Johnnie's got me in a headlock.
"Seymore, if I were you, I'd take off," Johnnie orders, and then Seymore's gone. Johnnie chokes harder, harder even, and I feel my head turn hot. I drop the board and the wheels go wild.
He chucks me into a chair. I lean over the tub and toss; beer flushes out my nose.
"Talk," he orders.
I wipe my arm across my face. "Fuck you."
His fist nicks my jaw and I fall against the table. "Just had to cause trouble, didn't you?"
Fuck off, I want to say. "You're just pissed."
"What was that?"
"P-i-s-s-e-d", I say. "Rich bitch doesn't want Chinatown homeboy in her pants, does she?"
I block a punch. The blow stings. I look him in the eye, like, Go ahead, Asshole. I'll take you on.
There's a knock at the door. Johnnie pushes me aside and I trip over the board.
The first person I see is Seymore. Then the cops. Two of them sandwiching him on either side. One of them's got his hand on Seymore's shoulder. "This the home of Eric Tsui?"
The precinct stinks of fat cops and old papers. It's puke-green and white. The plastic tiles are chipped at the corners and coming up in places; the windows are covered with a hundred years of dirt. Two squashed beer cans sit on the cop's desk. Evidence: one taken from my jacket pocket, the other labeled "weapon," which they probably found beneath some parked car. The things are separated into bags.
Johnnie says, "You really fucked up this time."
"She's not coming."
"You're an asshole, you know that?"
Johnnie comes at me, but all he gets is a weak jab at the shoulder before a cop pulls him away.
"Ungrateful little shit," Johnnie says. "She's at the hospital begging the bastard not to press charges." He takes off, rushing down the stairs. "I hope they lock up your sorry ass," he says, slamming the door and leaving me alone at the precinct.
The cop pushes me into a chair. "Take it easy. A few questions, okay?"
Half an hour goes by before Ma shows. She comes up to me, and just as I think I'm getting a hug, she stops, stares, then smacks me across the face. Her eyes puff. She signs whatever papers the cops give her, and we leave. Outside, Ma walks a step ahead. She sighs and shakes her head. I know what she's thinking. Things would be different if Dad was still around.
"I'm sorry, Ma," I finally say. She sighs and shakes her head again.
At home, Ma shuts herself in her room, and I can hear her crying on the phone with her big sister, Ah Ming, in Hong Kong. Johnnie's already in bed, so he doesn't fuck with me. He gives me a look like, Just you wait. I climb up to my bunk and pass out in my clothes.
It's still dark out when Ma shakes me awake. "Get up," she says.
There's the smell of fried eggs, which makes me want to toss. It isn't until I sit up that it all comes back. I climb off the bunk. Johnnie's still sleeping, his jaw open so that the world can see his gross white tongue. Ma's got a tray of food out. A mug of tea, an egg sandwich made with Wonder Bread, rice congee with a quartered thousand-year-old egg, wood chopsticks she gets from the restaurant, and a folded napkin.
"What's that?" I ask.
She makes an impatient throat-clearing sound. "Bring to Lao Gong," she whispers.
"No way I'm going into that rat hole."
She sniffles and watches me through puffy eyes.
"Smells like piss," I say. "You can smell it in the hallway."
"An old man," she mutters, sighing again. "All my fault. Didn't raise you good. No, not a good mama."
"If only it had been me and not your father. He would have taught you right. He would have known what to do." The skin around her eyes looks like crumpled paper. She balances the tray with one hand. A blue vein swells at the inside of her elbow. "An old man. No one to help him. No one to buy food for him."
"The grocery drops stuff off every Friday."
"So smart. Know everything, hah? The grocery has new owner. No more deliveries. Old man didn't eat for two days." She shakes her head and moves toward the door, balancing the tray on one arm like she does at work.
"Wait," I say.
She hands the tray to me, adding a pad and pen. "Make a list of things to buy. What he wants to eat later."
"You're going to shop for him now, too?"
Ma's stare makes me nervous. "You are."
"Troublemaker" won third place in the Playboy Fiction Contest. Christina Chiu, a cofounder of the Asian American Writers Workshop, lives in New York.
Chiu's novel by the same title will be appearing from Penguin/Putnam. Consequent limitations on the duration and word count of the preview make the Bookshelf section best suited to accommodate it. The Bookshelf excerpt will run during September only and will not be archived.
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