Meredith Wadley ~ Mr. Allen’s Long Visit

Mom made us wait at the top of the board­ing stairs for Dad. A pilot and for­mer pilot train­er, he’d popped into the cock­pit to com­pli­ment the CAT crew on a smooth land­ing. The C‑119’s shrieks still rang in my ears as sol­diers in flared jeans and T‑shirts filed past us, issue duf­fel bags slung over their shoul­ders. They were hard­ly old­er than my broth­er, and one gave my sis­ter a long­ing glance. If he’d glanced at me long­ing­ly, I’d have smiled. She might have, too, if Mom hadn’t been there.

My sis­ter was four­teen, I was going on twelve, and the year was 1971. We’d just arrived in Tainan, Taiwan, where Dad had been giv­en com­mand of an air detach­ment that served as a back-base to the con­flict in Vietnam. We’d be stay­ing two years.

An updraft whipped my stringy hair across my face. Trish tried hold­ing back hers, too, until our miniskirts bil­lowed. We slapped our hems to our thighs. “Sheesh,” she said.

The air car­ried hints of warm, wet earth, the scents as trace as the smell of pond on skin after a sum­mer swim. Insects rasped. Out past the con­trol tow­er, a mirage shim­mied the run­way. Brahman cat­tle tied to stakes between grass-cov­ered Quonset huts grazed. They flopped their ears and swung their wat­tles, more trou­bled by flies than a Sabre jet taxi­ing by.

Dad and the crew laughed. At ease.

Christ, it’s humid,” my broth­er said.

Dad, emerg­ing from the plane, touched Steve’s elbow; our fam­i­ly did not use the Lord’s name in vain.

Mom said, “That must be them.”

Jack and Jenny,” Dad said. To us kids, he said, “Mr. and Mrs. Allen.”

Beneath a tree crowned in red blos­soms, the cou­ple waved. He wore trousers belt­ed grand­pa high. His hair shined like a slab of raked tar. She wore a red man­darin dress, her large blue-gray curls as stiff against the cross draft as wind­socks in a gale.

Seniors of Tainan’s American community—the mil­i­tary, CAT, and Corps of Engineers, mostly—the Allens had appoint­ed them­selves our wel­com­ing com­mit­tee and guides. They called each oth­er Mama and Papa, although they were child­less, and they’d secured trans­port and dri­ver. An Air Asia man swung our suit­cas­es into the back of a van.

We toured Dad’s detach­ment and the base, Mr. Allen a‑babble with the his­to­ry of the island’s suc­ces­sion of colonists—the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese. When the van turned off base, I sat up. In my eleven years, our fam­i­ly had made sev­en cross-coun­try moves but nev­er trav­eled far­ther from the States than Juárez or Niagara Falls.

Ta Tung Lu Road,” Mrs. Allen said.

Coolie girls in wide-brimmed hats worked in rice fields. A temple’s ornate glazed-tile roof glim­mered in the fierce sun­light. And the cul­verts lin­ing the road turned sorghum black as the rice fields became shops squeezed togeth­er like teeth beg­ging for braces. The stench of sewage spewed through the van’s air con­di­tion­ing. I cov­ered my nose. We over­took motor scoot­ers, cyclists, hay­carts drawn by water buf­fa­lo, and orange-clad monks. Trucks, taxis, and busses over­took us, and Trish leaned away from her win­dow. Young women link­ing arms scur­ried across the busy road. In the mid­dle of an inter­sec­tion, two mangy dogs sniffed each oth­er. And uni­formed stu­dents cycled hands-free and tossed a soc­cer ball back and forth.

We stopped at a set of iron grills.

Home, once your goods arrive,” Mr. Allen said.

The two-sto­ry, flat-roofed build­ing, more indus­tri­al than homey, sat with­in high walls topped with shards of bro­ken soda bot­tles and barbed wire.

Built for the Dutch man­agers of a sug­ar-cane plan­ta­tion,” he added. “Before the war.”

More com­fort­able than it looks,” Mrs. Allen said, pat­ting Mom’s arm. “Parquet floors, gen­er­ous rooms—even the housegirl’s room off the kitchen is big. Any house­girl would be hap­py to live with you.”

What’s a house­girl?” I asked.

A maid,” Dad said.

A clean­er,” Mom said.

Even NCO fam­i­lies have one,” Mrs. Allen said. “I sug­gest you hire two.”

I won’t have to make my bed anymore?”

And you have a yard­boy,” Mrs. Allen said.

Children are work­ing for us?” I asked.

My broth­er shoved me, and Mrs. Allen said, “You have your own play­ground, sweet­ie, your own slide and swings.”

With that, the woman set me on edge.

Trish point­ed to a bunker-like hut inside the gate. The blue light of a TV screen flick­ered inside it, and the strains of Chinese opera clanged. “Who lives there?” she asked.

That’s the guards hut,” Mr. Allen said. “They keep the stealy­boys out.”

At the hotel restau­rant, the Allens ordered lunch. They spoke Mandarin to the Chinese man­ag­er, she explained, and the local dialect to the Taiwanese wait­ers. Platters of fruit arrived, mel­ons, papaya, pineap­ple, and star fruit, and we helped our­selves while Mr. Allen talked on and on. Dad lis­tened enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly. He loved a talker.

Going on twen­ty years now—no, over twen­ty years, the Allens couldn’t believe it—they’d fled main­land China and Mao Tse-tung’s com­mu­nist forces to set­tle on the island. Tensions between the Chinese and Taiwanese ran high. Chang Kai-Shek vowed to “Take back the main­land!” but the Allens wouldn’t be join­ing them, how­ev­er much they missed Shanghai. Corps of Engineers, he’d be retired by Christmas. In six months, the pair would be set­tled in a Tucson con­do over­look­ing a golf course. They wished to take their house­girl home with them.

Dad offered the pair post-meal cig­a­rettes. Mrs. Allen, exhal­ing, fin­gered her neck­lace, a carved jade pen­dant the size of an egg. Jade ear­rings pulled at her sag­gy ear­lobes, and a jade cabo­chon ring had slipped side­ways on its bony fin­ger. She said, “Lynn’s the only house­girl we’ve had who’s nev­er stolen from us.”

We couldn’t get her res­i­den­cy.” Mr. Allen said. He laughed. “So, we’re adopt­ing her. The papers are in the works.”


With Mrs. Allen’s help, Mom hired Ann and Sue. I tried not to laugh at how they pro­nounced their names, but they did laugh, hands cov­er­ing their mouths, when I tried pro­nounc­ing their names, their Taiwanese names. Ann but­toned her matron­ly fig­ure into a clean­ing tunic and wore soft-soled slip­pers. Sue, a bit younger, worked in jeans, T‑shirt, and flip-flops. They start­ed on the day our goods arrived, help­ing us unpack crates and push fur­ni­ture into place and prepar­ing our meals. I thought they’d join us at the table, but they ate in the kitchen, washed up, and packed our left­overs to take home to their fam­i­lies. Once they left, we col­lapsed into our fresh­ly made beds.

Close to mid­night, and unbe­knownst to us, Mom and Dad’s new friends were about to throw a house­warm­ing surprise—Tainan style. I would lat­er pic­ture two oxcarts appear­ing at our com­pound gates, bot­tles of booze clink­ing in one  and drunk­en rev­el­ers rev­el­ing in the oth­er, the rev­el­ers telling each oth­er, “Ssshh!, Ssshh!” The night guard would have grinned and opened our gates wide. He’d have fetched a lad­der and tied the reels of fire­crack­ers hand­ed him to our gutters.

Unfurled, strings of fire­crack­ers cov­ered our bed­room win­dows like fly curtains.

Not that we knew. Not that we sus­pect­ed a fuse being lit—

We got rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! and explo­sions of light.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! We got rooms filled with the metal­lic stench of smoke and shock and fear.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat! Onto the land­ing we scram­bled, Dad herd­ing us to the stair­well. Downstairs, with the grin of some­one know­ing what’s going on, he threw open the front door.

Hurrah! Hurrah!” a crowd shout­ed. Paper shards, red and gray whirly­birds, twirled down­ward. “Welcome to Tainan!” every­one cried.

My fam­i­ly, all wear­ing robes, min­gled with the crowd pour­ing into the house, but I retreat­ed for the stairs: I wore only a thin cot­ton gown. Mr. Allen, hold­ing an emp­ty glass and a cig­a­rette paper, stood on the bot­tom step, giv­ing him mon­u­men­tal stature. He didn’t step aside. “Alice, right?” he said, his gaze trav­el­ing down the length of my body.

I crossed my arms over my flat chest.

Paper shards had stuck to his slick black hair.

Somewhere, Dad laughed, and I willed him or Mom to come between Mr. Allen and me, to inter­vene; I felt so naked.

Twelve, thir­teen, maybe?” Mr. Allen pulled on his cigarette.

A draft curled around my bare ankles. It slid up my legs, and I rubbed my feet togeth­er; they sound­ed like dried leaves.

It’s shock­ing, the way teens act over here,” he said. “They’ll swear at peo­ple who don’t speak English and shoplift open­ly. The locals expect man­ners and obe­di­ence from our youths.” He doused his cig­a­rette in his glass, the ember sizzling.

Someone closed the front door, and my thin gown bil­lowed again. I shivered.

Mr. Allen jan­gled the con­tents of his pock­et. He pulled out a sil­ver coin, a deer leap­ing across it—in fear, I sup­posed. “Be a good girl. And remem­ber, in this coun­try, you are the foreigner.”

Ignoring his coin, I pushed past him and ran upstairs, where I stayed.


Before return­ing state­side, the Allens want­ed to trav­el through­out Asia and wished to take Lynn along. They need­ed some­one to dog-sit their poo­dle and schnau­zer, so Mom vol­un­teered me. Mrs. Allen sum­moned me to their com­pound so that Lynn could show me what to do. I hadn’t met her. On the occa­sions we’d dined with the Allens at the O Club or at a down­town restau­rant, she’d nev­er joined.

Their com­pound wasn’t far along Ta Tun Lu, and I loved the walk despite the haze of blue exhaust and boys shout­ing “I love you!” from their bikes and scoot­ers as if they were being orig­i­nal. A clus­ter of gig­gling chil­dren shout­ed, “Hello! Hello!” and an old woman reached out to touch my light-brown hair.

I passed the win­dow of a Chinese herbal­ist, where with­ered roots and mum­mi­fied ani­mal parts gath­ered dust. I stepped around the mul­ti-col­ored grains, red, brown, and white, spilling from hemp bags at the rice mer­chant. Television screens at the elec­tri­cal shop flashed Chinese opera, day­time soaps, and ramen com­mer­cials, men stuff­ing steam­ing noo­dles into their mouths. Photos of naked baby boys plas­tered a photographer’s store­front. Bolts of fab­ric sur­round­ed tai­lors hunched over ped­al sewing machines. A youth snoozed atop a stack of lum­ber at the cabinetmaker’s, a flip-flop fall­en onto a pile of saw­dust. At the mechanic’s, an elder­ly man tank­ing a scoot­er smoked a cig­a­rette. I scur­ried across the fore­yard, slip­pery with iri­des­cent oil patch­es and clut­tered with can­ni­bal­ized motorbikes.

On a nar­row spur lead­ing to the Allens’ com­pound, the roar of Ta Tung Lu soft­ened. The ben­jos lin­ing the spur trick­led; I’d become accus­tomed to the stench of open sewage. Mortar slopped from between the cin­der blocks of the walls I passed until I came to the last. The Allen com­pound showed not a tea­spoon of waste. I buzzed at its pedes­tri­an gate. Housebound bark­ing explod­ed as if a match had been struck, and the latch popped.

The gar­den path wound past orna­men­tal trees, trimmed bush­es, and mossy stones. An arched bridge crossed a pond sin­u­ous with gold­fish, and beneath a cedar tree shad­ing the dri­ve­way, the yard­boy, an open-faced man, squat­ted on a jute mat. Barefoot and wear­ing a white under­shirt and kha­ki shorts, he slurped tea from a tin cup. Beside him, a canary in a bam­boo cage trilled.

The front door opened, and the dogs bolt­ed straight at me, spin­ning them­selves inside-out with joy as they licked my ankles and fin­ger­tips. Lynn, hold­ing a spray bot­tle and a rag, called them back inside. Maybe my sister’s age, maybe old­er, Lynn wore a fash­ion­able mini dress and slen­der rhine­stone san­dals. Her long black hair hung loose, and her cheek­bones sat high and jade-smooth. Her wide eyes, their lids ele­gant­ly tucked, avert­ed mine.

I’m sure I blushed, embar­rassed by my filthy sneak­ers, cut-off jeans, and wrin­kled Micky Mouse T‑shirt. Mom had told me to change into a dress. I hadn’t bothered.

Gâu-chá,” I said.

Chichi and Schatzi,” she replied, indi­cat­ing the dogs. They scarpered across the pol­ished aggre­gate floor, the schnau­zer pee­ing as he ran. Lynn, fol­low­ing, sprayed his trail.

What had Mom got­ten me into? I won­dered as an over­whelm­ing, lemo­ny scent blossomed.

In a room off the hall­way, Mrs. Allen baby-talked the dogs. Using the same tone for Lynn, she said, “We aren’t air-con­di­tion­ing the garden.”

Yes, Mama.”

The snarling, snap­ping dogs bound­ed back into the hall­way, bump­ing into a con­sole table. A cinnabar vase rat­tled, and the squat­ting Lynn held out an arm to keep her­self from being knocked unbalanced.

In the liv­ing room, she demon­strat­ed on her hands and knees how to prop­er­ly scrub Schatzi’s urine from the Oriental rug, its phoenix and drag­on sur­round­ed by red chrysan­the­mums. I was already imag­in­ing myself skip­ping the job.

In the games room, she allowed me to feed Mr. Allen’s Siamese fight­ing fish and mist his orchids. I coy­ly watched her reflec­tion in the mir­ror behind the cor­ner bar, imag­in­ing play­ing a game or two of pool with her. One of the dogs cracked his head on some­thing and yelped.

Lynn and I took the dogs out­side. The Allen com­pound abutted an open expanse, stands of bam­boo clack­ing, and leaves rustling. A creek gur­gled. Chichi and Schatzi chased each oth­er up a hillock cov­ered by a hel­ter-skel­ter of round­ed white shapes—marble tombs, each fac­ing an aus­pi­cious direction.

Are you afraid of ghosts?” Lynn asked, a del­i­cate accent grac­ing her English.

I don’t think so,” I said, notic­ing that she stood just out­side the ceme­tery grounds.

We returned to the house, where Mrs. Allen offered me iced tea. I declined yet found myself sit­ting on her coral damask sofa, fin­ger­ing the strings dan­gling from my cut-off jeans while the dogs tried gopher­ing into my crotch. Despite her strong per­fume and the scent of lemons, I detect­ed hints of old pee.

She rem­i­nisced about the lost world of Shanghai tea par­ties, silk-dressed beau­ties wear­ing fab­u­lous jade and jew­els, and restau­rants with chan­de­liers and black and gold lac­quered walls. The wrin­kles of her upper lip wicked its red lip­stick. Her stained teeth remind­ed me of antique mah-jongg tiles.

Lynn served the tea and withdrew.

Later, after Mrs. Allen com­plained to Mom about what I’d worn to her house, I tried back­ing out of dog-sitting—but Mom wouldn’t have it.


Snooping around the Allens’ bun­ga­low kin­da snuck up on me.

It began with the dogs drink­ing from the com­modes instead of their bowl in the kitchen. I fig­ured con­trolled drink­ing meant con­trolled pee­ing and set about clos­ing toi­let-bowl lids. The Allens had a bath­room off the kitchen, off the bed­room hall­way, and off the mas­ter bed­room. In the mas­ter bed­room, I spied Mrs. Allen’s jew­el­ry box of carved teak, sev­er­al draw­ers high. I’d try on her rings, ear­rings, and bracelets and longed to slip some­thing into my pock­et but feared Lynn would be blamed for any­thing miss­ing. On a high­boy, I dis­cov­ered a butler’s tray filled with erot­ic cig­a­rette lighters, a sil­ver der­rière, breasts with ruby nip­ples, and I cupped a naked woman with crossed ankles. Flames erupt­ed from the mouth of a naked woman on her hands and knees, a naked man press­ing him­self into her bot­tom. In the bath­room, I dis­cov­ered a stack of Playboys. I could hard­ly believe Mrs. Allen would allow dirty lighters and mag­a­zines in her house. I tried not to imag­ine Mr. Allen ogling boobs with his slacks pud­dled around his ankles.

The lighters and mag­a­zines weren’t the only seedy col­lec­tions. In the games room, erot­ic windup toys lined the shelves behind the bar. A grin­ning mon­key wore a tiny red cap. He clapped two coconut halves. When his arms sprung wide, out popped an enor­mous, erect penis. I near­ly dropped it. A friar’s brown robes part­ed to reveal fish­net stock­ings and high heels. He kicked the can-can. Did Mom and Dad know about these things, the Chinese monk whose eyes rolled in their sock­ets? His robes part­ing to reveal a woman with her head in his lap, mov­ing up and down?

The only room in the house already closed—locked, even—was that off the kitchen. On my final vis­it to the house—practically every­thing boxed or crat­ed up and ready for the movers—the dogs scratched the door open, and I went inside.

Ghostly rec­tan­gles and tack holes cov­ered the walls. I sat on the bare mat­tress and grabbed the bluet­ick pil­low, which gave off a lemo­ny scent. I won­dered how Lynn felt about leav­ing Tainan. About start­ing a new life in America. I knew noth­ing about her at all.

Chichi and Schatzi scuf­fled, each snap­ping at the other’s scruff. “Garr, garr, garr.”


In February 1972, President Nixon flew to Peking to shake hands with Premier Zhou Enlai.

Dad’s pro­fes­sion­al contacts—Kuomintang Air Force gen­er­als who sup­plied him with American-trained tech­ni­cians and engi­neers to main­tain and repair USAF aircraft—raged about our president’s deceit. Out of fear of a renewed Chinese attack on Taiwanese soil, Americans were put on alert. Adults fret­ted. Mom and Dad can­celed their farewell par­ty for the Allens. My friends and I grave­ly dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of evac­u­a­tion, of our being giv­en twen­ty-four hours to pack, tak­ing with us only what we could car­ry. Nothing I longed to keep—the scents and sounds and smells of Taiwan—fit in a suitcase.

My his­to­ry teacher required our read­ing The Diary of Anne Frank. I took my copy to our com­pound play­ground, to the top of our con­crete slide, where I peeked into the Franks’ secret annex. I con­sid­ered being forced to leave Tainan—unlike the Franks, we’d be leav­ing for home. Outside the com­pound walls, traf­fic roared. A truck’s horn blared. I watched a cyclist loaded with crates of live ducks over­tak­ing a boy on a water buf­fa­lo and a fam­i­ly of five on a motor scoot­er over­tak­ing both. “Buddha pro­tects,” our house­girl Ann liked to say.

On the day the mil­i­tary alert lift­ed, a let­ter from Mrs. Allen arrived. She described their Tucson con­do, the golf course, and Arizona’s astound­ing desert tran­quil­i­ty. “Hooting owls and yip­ping coy­otes,” she wrote, “ter­ri­fy poor Lynn. But the dry air agrees with our old bones, and we’re look­ing for­ward to reunit­ing with Chichi and Schatzi soon—doggie quar­an­tine for four months! We’re teach­ing Lynn to golf.”


Dad’s stint end­ed. We returned state­side, where I ached for Taiwan. When Dad retired from the ser­vice, he found an exec­u­tive job in Portland, Oregon, and we set­tled in the coun­try­side on acreage sur­round­ed by ancient Douglas firs. Mom took up gar­den­ing, my broth­er biked, and my sis­ter and I learned to ride hors­es. Dad left for work dressed in civvies, which felt odd at first and then not. My broth­er and then sis­ter left for college.

With each year pass­ing, mem­o­ries of Taiwan retreat­ed. Mom stopped hear­ing from the Allens. Then, on Christmas Day of my senior year of high school, Mr. Allen phoned. He shared much: Lynn had eloped with the golf pro; the new­ly­weds lived close by and had a baby yet wouldn’t vis­it, not even after he told Lynn about the cancer.

Jenny’s ash­es were in the front hall closet.

That night in bed, in the pri­va­cy of their bed­room, Mom said to Dad, “Jack doesn’t know how to bury Jen, and I didn’t even know she was sick.” The heat­ing ducts piped my par­ents’ bed­time con­ver­sa­tions into all the upstairs rooms when the fur­nace wasn’t blow­ing. Their war­bling voic­es usu­al­ly lulled me to sleep. To oth­er parental sounds, rhyth­mic proof they had no idea any­one could hear them, I’d roll onto my stom­ach and cov­er my head with a pil­low. Much can pass you by if you let it.

That girl,” Mom said, “sure got what she was after, a pass­port and a new life.”

That Lynn might have been using the Allens had nev­er occurred to me. I sat up in bed. Was Mom being fair? Maybe the Allens had tricked Lynn into leav­ing Taiwan, and she’d found a way to escape them. I couldn’t imag­ine liv­ing with the Allens, their stiff­ness and creepi­er sides, the Playboys, erot­ic cig­a­rette lighters, and those windup toys.


One after­noon the fol­low­ing April, I got home from school to find Mr. Allen stand­ing in our den along­side a bat­tered leather suit­case. He offered his hand. “Who’s this? Who’s this?”

In the time that I’d grown tall and strong, he’d grown lean and fee­ble. Memory had him taller, too. His hair, still dyed and raked, glistened.

In the kitchen, a cleaver whacked the chop­ping block—Mom, joint­ing a chick­en. “This is our Alice near­ly grown,” she said. Whack!

He seemed per­plexed, as though he’d for­got­ten my exis­tence. “Well,” he drawled, “she’s no slouch for looks.”

Which of mine is?” Whack!

Instructed to show our guest to the spare room, I led him to the stairs. Climbing wheezed him, even though I car­ried his case. At the half-land­ing, I stopped so he could catch his breath.

Say—you’re the kid who dog-sat Chichi and Schatzi, right?” He cleared his throat of that smoker’s grue­some kind of slop. “Gone now. And you know about Mama.”

I mum­bled condolences.

Okay,” he said, grab­bing the handrail.

In the guest room, he went to the win­dow, his stance trig­ger­ing a mem­o­ry of walk­ing in on Lynn and Mr. Allen in the Allens’ kitchen. She stood at the sink. He stood behind her, his hands on her shoul­ders, his thumbs press­ing her flesh. When she tilt­ed back her head, goose­bumps swept over me—the kind I’d got­ten when­ev­er stum­bling across my par­ents in an inti­mate moment.

Those hors­es yours?” he asked. Like my room, neigh­bor­ing, the spare room over­looked our pad­docks. “Mama kept a pony in Shanghai. At the race­track. Those old jodh­purs and boots of hers—my, my.” He turned and winked at me—or maybe the folds of his sag­gy eye­lid stuck together.

When I head­ed for the barn after chang­ing clothes, our guest fol­lowed me out­side. Several mares trot­ted up to the pad­dock fence. He reached out to pet a lit­tle buck­skin, and she nipped at him. Startled, he stum­bled back, and I caught him by his arm. Skeletal. “Careful, Mr. Allen. They’re not all gentle.”

He placed a knob­by hand on my shoul­der. At the jan­gling of his pock­et con­tents, I stiff­ened, recall­ing the time he’d offered me a sil­ver coin and cau­tioned me to be a “good girl.”

Here now,” he said, “call me Uncle Jack.”

I also found the sug­ges­tion annoy­ing; I wasn’t eleven any­more. I said, “Gotta feed the hors­es,” and left our guest reach­ing for his pack­et of cigarettes.

From inside the barn, in the com­fort of hay, horse sweat, and leather, I peered back at our guest.

He held a cig­a­rette to his lips and reached into his pock­et. I thought of his erot­ic lighters, but the one he pulled out had a red emblem on it—the same as Dad’s, a sou­venir from the Tainan Golf Course.


Mom put on a spread of nos­tal­gia, beef and noo­dle soup, cashew chick­en, and minced pork with green pan­cakes. As we ate, Mr. Allen’s sto­ries rose like steam from fra­grant rice. Dad brought up golf­ing and the coolie-girl cad­dies who’d gig­gle at poor shots.

We taught Lynn to cad­dy,” Mr. Allen said.

To cad­dy? Not golf?” I asked.

To cad­dy.” He smiled. “If she cad­died, she could golf with­out a membership.”

And did she golf?” This ques­tion came out sharp enough that Mom changed the sub­ject, recall­ing a bik­ing trip with Mrs. Allen to the Kaohsiung Harbor break­ing yards.

We bought brass lanterns off an old Chinese pas­sen­ger ship.” She fetched one. It gleamed from polish.

Later, in the kitchen, she said to me, “He’s remind­ing us of hap­py days. Be mindful.”

I agreed because Taiwan had long ago slipped from our own con­ver­sa­tions, and he returned the island and my dad’s laugh­ter to the din­ner table. Dad missed his ser­vice days more than I’d realized.

Later, in my room, I lit a san­dal­wood joss stick—the scent of tem­ples, melan­choly, and homesickness.

Sometime in the mid­dle of that night, I woke to nois­es com­ing from the hall­way. I went to my door, some­one on the oth­er side mov­ing around. Outside, a horse nick­ered. Another answered.

Alice, Alice. You awake?” Mr. Allen.

I slid my foot for­ward to block the door, should he try to open it, and held my breath.

The hall­way switch clicked, and light slipped under the door. The old man mum­bled, “Found it,” and his foot­steps retreat­ed. The stairs creaked.

Below my win­dow, the auto­mat­ic lamp flicked on, illu­mi­nat­ing the deck. Our guest, wear­ing a sweater vest over flan­nel pajamas—sleeves rolled neat­ly to the elbow—smoked a cig­a­rette. Then he stood in the cer­tain way of men who’d been young in the 1930s, legs shoul­der-width apart, hands flat on the low­er back, elbows out. He leaned behind his cen­ter of gravity.


On his last night with us, Mr. Allen went through his life once again, his Saint Louis child­hood, his wing-walk­ing sum­mer, and the Harvard years when he fell for Jenny. They mar­ried and moved to China—her dream, appar­ent­ly. Oh, those were high times, par­ty­ing with the Flying Tigers and being enter­tained by Madame and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek at their moun­tain retreat. The Japanese occu­pa­tion sent him inland. Separated from Jenny, he built air­fields and sup­ply lines. He lost many fine men. Firebombs, Fat Man, and Little Boy brought about Japan’s capit­u­la­tion only for civ­il war in China to break out. Finally, he and Jenny reunit­ed. The war had ruined her teeth and put paid to start­ing a fam­i­ly, but at least it got her off the pipe. They fled to Taiwan, worked, and built a house. Communism infect­ed parts of Southeast Asia, and when France pulled out, the US Air Force land­ed. Vietnam became a con­flict. The American pres­ence in Taiwan grew.

The men stubbed out their post-meal cig­a­rettes. “Remember the snake ven­dor at the night mar­ket?” Dad asked. His eyes twinkled.

I remem­bered. The man would milk a viper and then slam its head on a hook. As the body curled around his fore­arm, he’d skin and gut it. Once, Mr. Allen grabbed a bowl of the butchered meat and shoved it under my nose. I stared, mes­mer­ized as the chunks of mus­cle twitched and twitched.

Mom and I cleared the table, and our guest asked to length­en his stay.

Of course, Jack,” Dad said. “No need to ask.”

I looked at Mom. “He’s lone­ly,” she whispered.


I start­ed a sum­mer job, work­ing as a groom at a large show sta­ble, and met a boy. He could slip his hand under my bra as if slip­ping a bri­dle off an edgy colt; our plea­sures were just a bit of fun; at the end of September, I’d be leav­ing for college.

Following work, I’d head to our barn to care for our hors­es. Always tired dur­ing the week, I crashed well before the adults. Sometimes, though, I’d wake to the war­ble of my par­ents’ bed­time voic­es, usu­al­ly Mom com­plain­ing about Jack. He’d leave cof­fee mugs in the sink rather than putting them in the dish­wash­er. He left stiff, wadded hand­ker­chiefs in the pock­ets of his dirty trousers. And he watched too much day­time tele­vi­sion for her taste. She hat­ed day­time television.

That our guest heard her com­plaints as well as I did, went with­out say­ing. Perhaps I should have warned Mom about the heat­ing ducts—but what if Mr. Allen did get the hint that he’d out­stayed his wel­come? What if he did go home?

She said one time, “He could at least turn off the damn TV and earn his keep,” which did the trick. The next evening after work, I went into the barn to muck out the horse box­es and saw a trans­for­ma­tion. The truss­es had been swept free of dusty cob­webs. The next day, our sad­dles and bri­dles shined, and the hors­es’ troughs sparkled, scrubbed clean. Over the week, the chick­en coop’s eye-sting­ing manure was cleaned out—a job I avoided—and the hens had new nest­ing box­es. A peg­board with hard­ware-filled jars appeared above Dad’s work­bench, his tools dan­gling from hooks.

Dad, mean­while, dust­ed off his golf bag, and some­how, a set of clubs fit­ting Mr. Allen appeared. Weekend evenings, the pair would arrive home flush and cheer­ful from the nine­teenth hole.

Weeks rolled on. Mom’s spinach and radish­es pushed up. Potatoes flow­ered. The cur­rants and cher­ries red­dened. The apri­cots and peach­es blushed. Corn reached knee-high, waist-high, shoul­der-high, and the huge spiky leaves of squash spread. We ate fresh peas, chard, and ripe toma­toes. Mom froze, dried, pick­led, pre­served, and canned. She won blue rib­bons at the coun­ty fair.

One day, Mr. Allen took Dad’s old road­ster for a dri­ve. Gadding about, he called it. The dri­ves became day trips. Folks he met in cafés—a log­ging king, crab­ber, and his­to­ry professor—offered him beds for a night or two. With a research sci­en­tist, he hiked in street shoes to a fire look­out. Fourteen days he assist­ed her on Mount Hebo, but you’d have thought forty, the way he talked about it when he returned. The laun­dry reeked of camp­fire from his clothes. He stayed with an Ashland com­mune, buy­ing them tick­ets to a fes­ti­val per­for­mance of As You Like It. I didn’t catch the details, but the group evad­ed get­ting them­selves arrest­ed in a scene wor­thy of the Keystone Cops. Arrested for what? I won­dered. Mr. Allen asked me if I’d ever dropped acid—had we become buddies?—and Mom showed me a tie-dyed T‑shirt that’d end­ed up in the laun­dry. She held a reefer, too. “It’s not tobac­co,” she said, sniff­ing it. I didn’t help her solve the mys­tery. But that night, mar­i­jua­na smoke and gig­gles drift­ed up from the deck below my room, and I won­dered how well any­one knows her parents.


On an August Sunday lev­i­tat­ing with heat, Mom showed me her veg­etable neme­sis, a zuc­chi­ni branched into mul­ti­ple stalks, each pro­duc­ing as much as a sin­gle plant.

Compost it,” I said, my feet sink­ing into her well-worked soil.

Look at how healthy it is. It’s thriv­ing. It’s happy.”

You know you want to.”

You know I can’t.”


From my bed­room win­dow, I peered down at Mom’s gar­den. Buckets of corn cobs sat by the gar­den gate. She’d thrown the stripped stalks over the deer fence to the hors­es, the ani­mals’ heads buried in the pile, their jaws grind­ing. She frowned at her freak zuc­chi­ni, its sharp leaves now cov­ered in lesions of mildew, and ripped it out of the soil.

Mr. Allen called to her from the deck about can­cel­ing his plans to spend the week­end at the coast—he felt a cold com­ing on—and Mom’s shoul­ders fell. That very night, the heat­ing ducts aired her exas­per­a­tion: “Enough is enough. Jack’s got to go home.”

In the morn­ing, I woke to a famil­iar jin­gle: clothes hang­ers. Suitcase latch­es snapped, and Mr. Allen trudged for the stairs. I dressed and fol­lowed. Where would he be going this time?

He wore a tie under his sweater vest. Had fas­tened his trousers high. And sev­er­al holes in his belt showed black­ened dents in the leather’s sur­face. Mr. Allen had a gut, and his cheeks were as pink as rain-washed earthworms.

Dad held his suitcase—I felt myself tin­gle at its sight. This is it, I thought, he’s leav­ing. I held out my hand. “Safe trav­els, Mr. Allen.”

College, right? At the end of the week?”

Texas Tech. Structural engi­neer­ing.” Discussed at the din­ner table, often.

All righty, then. A female engi­neer. Mama was an engi­neer, you know, but China tor­tured her, and the war broke her.”

I pulled back my hand. The idea of Mrs. Allen being an engi­neer sur­prised me. There were things you knew or thought you knew about some­one and things you didn’t, right?

Find a hus­band,” he said. “Raise a fam­i­ly. Broke Mama’s heart, nev­er hav­ing chil­dren.” His pock­et con­tents jangled—a sound that no longer con­jured images of sil­ver coins or erot­ic lighters. “That girl she adopt­ed? Well, there’s no sub­sti­tut­ing blood, is there? And we know how duplic­i­tous Asians are.”

Astounded by these new details—the girl Mrs. Allen adopt­ed? Asians we know to be duplic­i­tous?—I looked at Mom to gauge her reac­tion, but her atten­tion fol­lowed the move­ments of a grack­le out­side berat­ing our nap­ping cat. She hadn’t heard Mr. Allen.

And Dad? He sim­ply said, “Ready, Jack?” ges­tur­ing for his old friend to lead the way.

Mom, with the care one uses to step into a boat, followed.


The phone on my dorm floor hung oppo­site the bath­room block where the air smelled of bleach and Herbal Essence. The receiv­er smelled of lipstick.

Jack’s passed away,” Mom said.

A toi­let flushed, faucets ran, show­ers sprayed. Conversations about boys and con­tra­cep­tives blared as if the bath­room block were a boom box. A tow­eled girl emerged from the show­ers, vapors eddy­ing behind her like ghost­ly wings.

We’re the execu­tors to his estate.”

In Tucson, Mom and Dad had Mr. Allen cre­mat­ed, arranged to have Mrs. Allen’s ash­es buried with him, and met with Lynn. She’d inher­it­ed every­thing yet refused to attend the memo­r­i­al ser­vices. “Odd, don’t you think?” Mom said, call­ing me from their Tucson hotel.

I didn’t ask whether she meant odd that Lynn hadn’t attend­ed the ser­vices or odd that she’d inher­it­ed every­thing. Instead, I said, “Did you meet her husband?”

She showed us a pic­ture of her son. Cute boy, as you’d expect.”

Night had fall­en. My room­mate was out. Leaving the light off, I went to the win­dow. Streetlamps cast a topaz tint over the cam­pus bush­es, trees, and buildings.

Lynn had tak­en Mom and Dad to the air­port. She hand­ed Mom a red vel­vet box tied with a white rib­bon. “On a slip of paper taped to its bot­tom,” Mom said, “Jenny had writ­ten my name.” Mrs. Allen had left her a jade neck­lace with a carved pen­dant, match­ing cabo­chon ring and drop ear­rings. “It’s impe­r­i­al jade, I’m sure. I’ll have it val­ued and insured separately.”

I used to try on Mrs. Allen’s jew­el­ry when I dog-sat for them.”

Dog-sat? Oh, I’d for­got­ten about that. Now it makes sense.”


I have a box for you, too.”

From Mrs. Allen?”

From Lynn. She said she remem­bered you as kind and joy­ful. And that your love­ly hands fore­told an aus­pi­cious future. I’d for­got­ten you’d met her. Sweet girl.”

Is she happy?”

I think so. She looked love­ly. But who’s to tell?”

A car swept by the dorm, ruby taillights.

I took a step back from the dark win­dow, and Lynn’s image seemed to appear. Holding a set of keys and the hand of a young boy, she approach­es a door. Unlocking it, she releas­es traces of lemon, nico­tine and urine, and unleash­es ghost­ly snarling, “garr, garr, garr.”

The boy runs from room to room, but Lynn heads straight to a room, its walls scarred by tack holes. In it, she finds an emp­ty aquar­i­um, which she fills it with dead orchids, stacks of Playboys, and a col­lec­tion of erot­ic lighters.

The boy dis­cov­ers a jew­el­ry box of elab­o­rate­ly carved wood. He touch­es bats, chrysan­the­mums, and the heads of drag­ons. He stuffs his pock­ets with hand­fuls of trea­sures, lit­tle pirate, before dart­ing down the hall to the den. Spotting a row of windup toys on a glass shelf, he climbs a barstool and tries to reach a lit­tle monkey.

Lynn takes the mon­key from her son; he thinks she’ll wind it up for him. Instead, all the toys get swept into the aquar­i­um, which she car­ries outside.

Standing at the front door, the boy watch­es his moth­er set the aquar­i­um on the curb. Maybe, he stands like a golf pro plan­ning the tra­jec­to­ry of a long shot. Or, he stands with his feet shoul­der-length apart, his small hands flat on the back of his hips. Maybe he leans against gravity.

With a sigh, Lynn returns to the condo—now hers—to sort through the rest of the rub­bish she’s inher­it­ed from Allens’ lives.


Meredith Wadley is an American Swiss who lives and works in a medieval micro­town on the Swiss side of the Rhine River. Her most recent long­form fic­tion appears in Longleaf Review, Line of Advance, and Collateral. Pieces from her series of idioms reimag­ined as flash fic­tion have appeared or are forth­com­ing in sev­er­al pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Bandit Fiction, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Gone Lawn, JMWW, Lammergeier, Lunate, and Orca Lit. Read more at She tweets at: @meredithwadley.