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.”
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 www.meredithwadley.com. She tweets at: @meredithwadley.