Xiaogui / 小鬼
When our parents go to work and our grandparents go to the parking lot of the Korean Baptist Church to do exercise, which from far-far away looks like they’re finger-painting the sky, pressing their sweat-and-sour palms to the cheek of the sun, we go to the park and chase the squirrels with an electric flyswatter and fry them as black as the moon that’s gone missing, black as our mothers’ hair at the roots before they dye it bloodstain-brown in the sink, black as the scar on Sugar’s shin from the time Linny tried carving his name into her skin with a rock because that’s what the Monkey King did, carve his name on the middle finger of god and pee into his palm too. Good thing Sugar kicked him in the crotch with her cowboy boots on, which means now Linny can’t have kids, his mother so upset about her son’s deflated testicles that she drove to the duplex where Sugar Wong lived with her ma and demanded that they pay to get her son’s balls fixed. How do you fix a ball, anyway? Pump it up like a tire? You can’t use duct-tape on it, even though our parents use duct-tape on everything, including open wounds, and one time Niangniang comes to the park claiming she’s shaved her legs when really she’s waxed off her hairs with a strip of duct-tape, and besides, she’s got no hair on her legs, except maybe one strand on her calf that you couldn’t even floss with. There’s an eyelash-shaped creek that cleaves the hills above our beetle-backed houses. We call it the butt-crack, that place where the creek carves itself into the field’s fat ass, where the wildfires start wolfing down on the grass and the city goes on its knees and we all breathe smoke through our noses only, competing to see whose boogers turn the blackest, and of course it was Vincent who won, with his boogers and earwax crunchy as coal. He couldn’t hear until his mother chiseled out his earwax with an electric toothbrush. Every summer, the firefighters come with their hoses knotted and glowing like serpents. The firefighters are women from the detention center, one of whom is Leana’s mom, Leana who works the counter of the dim sum restaurant and has no front teeth, because the day her mother got detained in Contra Costa for not wearing her seatbelt – the day before that, Leana’s little sister used meat-scissors to cut out the seatbelt, using it as a bandage/sling for a game of doctor in the empty lot, a game that the 大人ended when they caught us trying to anesthetize Yanny with a spoonful of black vinegar so that we could cut open her belly with the machete used for watermelons – Leana took a bite out of a cinderblock and broke her teeth out. Teeth, turns out, don’t grow on trees. We find this out when we steal our nainais’ dentures and plant them in the field where dandelions multiply like acne and our older brothers play soccer wearing wet cardboard as shin guards. We water the dentures and Marilyn even squats and spits on the soil, but 0 rows of teeth grow up from the ground, and we don’t get to harvest them by punching the dirt, and when our nainais can’t find their dentures, they tell our babas, and baba isn’t like mama, he doesn’t yell at all, he just asks us very calm, please go dig up the dentures, and we do, and he gives them to mama so that she can boil them in a pot, and while the water’s racketing, he takes us to the back of mama’s closet, where she keeps a taped JC Penney shoebox with our birth certificates and 400 dollars cash, and makes us kneel in the dark with our hands under our knees, and even though our nainais make us kneel to pray, this is a different kind of kneeling that rusts us, that makes our knee-hinges whine our names when we try to stand up. This is a different kind of dark than the one beneath a bedcover, more like the one inside a fist, a dark where we can’t see our own arms and can pretend for a while that we haven’t yet been booted from our mothers by that god who gets paid to kick girl out of the womb, which is why we’re all born green-assed like unripe fruit, and some of us ripen fast-fast, like Henny who wears a bikini, and some of us are sour our whole lives, like Jennlu who’s so green we call her the Statue of Liberty. Lift her shirt and see: her back’s so green we ask if she can photosynthesize, if she can swallow the sun and shit it out as a searchlight. After the dentures, after our punishment, we decide not to steal anything beginning with the letter d. We decide we will only steal things letters A-through-C. We steal apples from the chaoshi that are rotted and open around their seeds like fists. We steal bullets from the gun that’s buried in Xue’s backyard, the one her baba kept loaded in case of communists. One night he woke up and unburied the gun and ran down the street shooting windows and owls, but no owls died, and no windows neither, and our parents duct-taped the holes and put up plywood and Xue’s baba apologized for calling us communists, even though we didn’t mind being called that, we’d rather be communists than old like him, like all babas with steel knees. We threw the bullets into the creek but somehow they got baked into the birthday ice-cream cake that Gloria’s ma bought at Baskin Robbins, the cheapest cake in the Bible-thick laminated catalogue, with just Gloria’s name and a frosting trim and not even a plastic figurine. Gloria and her ma and her two brothers each took a bite of their slices and the bullets shot out and strung through their tongues, which now have perfect holes like the ones in beads, and then the bullets in their mouths opened into beetles and flew right out the window. We ask our parents how come we don’t get ice cream cakes and they tell us be happy with this douhua even though we think it tastes like a bowl of sweat. Our nainais say we are pudding and god is the spoon. Our nainais say listen to your father and we ask what kind of utensil is he. Our nainais are always mean to our mothers because, we are told, Chinese mothers are married to their sons, and they don’t like to share those sons with other women. Because we aren’t sons, we decide to be bears, like the one on the California flag in our classroom, and we climb the hills together on all-fours before giving up and walking like girls the rest of the way, all the way up to that cliff where our sisters go to get pregnant, where we once saw two boys twist-tied together like a pair of blue snakes, the kind of snake that once got into the city’s plumbing and bobbed up in someone’s toilet, Elen Chan if we remember, and bit her on the ass and turned her buttcheeks blue until they fell off one by one like apples. At the top of a trail only we and the coyotes know, there are crows with eyes baked into pearls, and we’re up high enough to watch the clouds breed, giving birth to tomorrow’s weather, which is today’s but more tired, rain so lazy it doesn’t bother to land, just touches the asphalt with its fingers before rescinding up into the clouds. The rock goes soft as snot in the sun, and when we sit on top of it, the houses below are beetling around in the heat, scuttling away because we stand over them and they don’t want to get smushed by our thumbs. The streets are barcodes, everything costs something, and from here we can see the lot for sale near the Dollar Tree, where all the stray dogs clot together. The dogpack stole a baby once, Pearl’s baby, but it was her fault because she left it in the stroller outside an apartment building while she ran up the stairs, searching for her husband behind one of the scabbed doors, her husband who we all knew was impregnating a girl who’d just come from Taiwan, a girl who would give later give birth to a baby so heavy no one could hold it, not even the professional body-builder from Guangzhou who lived above the laundromat and who kept a canary inside a perforated detergent box. We don’t know where the dogs took the baby, or if it was really the dogs who took it, but one month when the trees switched their wigs to red, we saw a poodle-mix gnawing on something that looked like a baby. Bambi and Linda chased the dog all the way back to the lot, but the baby turned out to be a KFC bag, and the bones were just the drumstick kind. Still, Bambi brought us what was left of the chicken bones, chewed to the texture of oatmeal, and showed us all in the park. We believed her when she said it was Pearl’s baby. We buried the bones in someone’s side-yard, maybe it was Mandy’s, because there was a palm tree in it and only rich people own palm trees, only rich people buy things that cast shade, and we prayed for the baby of Pearl. We prayed the baby would grow up to be a yam and we would candy it, sprinkle it with windshield shards we find on the street and call sugar. Later in the summer of the chickenbone baby, three older boys steal the tires off a cop car and push it into the creek that heaves with drymouth. The boys went to prison in another city and we wrote them letters: dear sirs what did you do with the tires? Did you hang them from trees and swing from them, swinging to scrape your shins on the sky, like we see in books and on TV shows? The boys never wrote us back, but we saw their faces on TV, we recognized one or two of them from the park, where all the boys played basketball shirtless and we weren’t allowed to go near them unless we were impersonating mosquitos: that’s what Sana says. Sana says if we shiver our arms like mosquito wings and buzz out of our mouths, we can go anywhere unnoticed, we just have to watch out for that one nainai whose daughter died of dengue fever and who goes out every morning to war with mosquitos, punching bodies of still water to abort its eggs. We buzz into bedrooms and listen to our fathers fish-hooking our siblings out of our mothers’ mouths. We buzz near the boys in the park and land on the lips of their beer cans and get sweat-drunk. We buzz over to Pearl’s windowsill, watch her turn on the TV and write down names of missing girls, as if any of them could be the baby she left in the stroller and that the dogs stole and did/didn’t eat, depending on whether you believe Bambi/Linda and how much you love dogs. We buzz around each other, hive in each other’s hair, kiss each other before we kiss boys, though we have never met a boy and don’t want to, our brothers not counting. We kiss and say it’s practice for when we’re married, which is when we will blow out babies like smoke rings, daughters dissipating before we can name them. Bambi and Linda practice the most, and one of them, we always forget which, has a pet crow she keeps leashed to her wrist. She brings it to school and the teachers say it’s not allowed, but Bambi/Linda stands up and doesn’t leave, goes to sit by a window instead and dangles her arm outside so the crow can fly an orbit around her wrist, a planet whose sun is a fist. When one of them, Bambi or Linda, moves south to Azusa to live with her grandfather after her mother dies one day in the house she’s cleaning–the owners came back and found her face down in the bathtub with a jug of bleach spilled into it, half her hair blonding already–the other girl, Bambi or Linda, severs the string on her wrist and the crow flies off, carrying the day into another city. The crow eats hair and dive-bombs onto our heads when we walk outside, so most of us carry a baseball bat or a butterfly net or at least a backscratcher to beat it away. Bambi or Linda, the one who hasn’t left, the one whose mouth smells of other mouths, goes to the creek with a different girl every day, and we don’t know what they do, but we know it’s the reason why the wildfires start early this year, why we shove wet towels in the crack beneath our doors and bar the windows with blankets and watch the TV, sirens salting the room, our mothers flipping their faces like nickels, each expression illegible to us. We smile smooth as spoons and laugh because the hills look like an ass on fire. We pray Bambi/Linda and her girl make it out of the fire, but the sky’s so smoked right now it’s like the texture of jerky, tough on our teeth when we try to tear a hole in it to see what’s survived. It’s only later, I don’t know how many years, that we see Bambi/Linda in some other city, one of us spotting her at the Nijiya in Japantown, one of us sees her working as a crossing guard in front of the smoked-out elementary school, holding back the traffic with her hips. Some of us see her with a man, with a scar, on fire, as a house. What we want to ask about is the crow, where she had gotten it from, where it had gone, whether she might kiss us if we asked, if she could show us what was worth burning for. Those who have left with the living: Derek who becomes a software engineer and pretends he never lived here. Na-na who had a baby and broke a hip birthing it. They replaced it with metal and that’s why she can’t get on planes anymore and come back. There’s Xiaomi whose Ahma teaches our mothers to collect recyclables from the park, profiting off all the litter that picnickers drop. She’s magnetized to metal, claw-grabbing the bottles of suanmei tang and cans of Arizona out of our hands before we’ve even finished, her shopping cart weak-kneed with the weight of what she’s collected. She invites us every Saturday to her driveway to stomp the week’s cans into silver hockey discs we kick around, pretending the two trees at the end of the block are goal-posts and our shadows are the enemy team. We dribble our cans down the street, the sun’s fist berating our ribs, and Xiaomi’s mother yells after us and says we won’t get our cut of the quarters unless we turn back. And we don’t listen, punting the can hard-hard. It bursts open into a bird and flies over the hills where girls kiss. On Sundays, after our mothers cut our hair on the floor of the kitchen, where we sit cross-legged on newspaper and listen to her tell stories about boys that hit you like rain, Xiaomi’s uncles gather in the yard with seven watermelons. When we come to watch them open the watermelons with machetes meant for other weather, for places where air rubs you like a pelt, they tell us a story about shoplifting the seven melons off the back of a truck parked behind the grocery, how they each wrestled one through the bars and ran, and we all laugh thinking about the seven uncles big-spooning their melons, holding them like babies until they reach the backyard and put them down on petaled-out newspaper. Beneath the rinds, the flesh is the same temperature as our hearts, each chamber full of flies. Six times, they splay open the rinds, the flesh beneath so red and sweet our teeth soften already. Flies flee out of the center of each watermelon, frenzied by the scent of themselves, colliding with our mouths and playing tag with our teeth. We beg to open the seventh melon, and the uncles teach us how to hold the blade away from our bodies so our skin won’t come unstitched. When the blade comes down, the watermelon halves its heart and releases a flock of flies that fastens to us and becomes our skin. We choose a chunk of melon and eat it to the bone of its rind and then we go for seconds and then thirds and then fourths and fifths until the flies spread evening over the sky and the moon glows wet as a gum-wad we stuck there with our thumbs. We pry the wad off and chew it sweet, watermelon seeds between our teeth, holding the moon hostage in our mouths til morning.
I knew a girl who only ate white things. Her mother said it would make her lighter, though it only worked on her eyelashes. When she blinked, her cheekbones were seasoned with dandruff. The girl ate pears, bleached beans, flanks of cod cooked in tinfoil, Q-tips, sofa stuffing, boneless chicken wings (minus the skin), candles (wicks too), handfuls of salt, baby teeth. We dated for a while, snuck into movies, climbed over the fence to the train tracks, kicked around all the things people dumped there: vacuum cleaner bags full of black hair, mattresses with ass-dents, a boxset of DVDs about deep-sea creatures. Wherever we went, she brought a ziploc bag of white things to eat: her nai-nai’s hair (plucked off the curlers), lollipops (just the sticks), a fist-sized ball of floss. She offered me the bag, asked if I was hungry, but I always said no, not for that.
All the white stuff reminded me of the time I found a single bloodless finger in the dumpster behind the restaurant. It was throned on a dented soda can. Bruised around the knuckles. I couldn’t tell which finger it was, maybe the fourth finger, one of the forgettable ones. I thought about that finger for a long time, especially while I was working in the restaurant and watching the customers pick up bones with their chopsticks and mop their mouths with the napkins. I looked down at their hands while they ordered or paid the bill or waved me down for more water. None of them found this rude. They must have thought I was bowing my head in deference.
One time on a date, the girl was sucking on a molar, moving it from cheek to cheek, and when I asked her where she got the tooth from, she told me her aunt was a dentist in Arcadia who kept all the extracted teeth in a locked drawer, all kinds of teeth, rotten ones and wisdom ones and broken ones and infant ones and mutated ones, molars with eight-pronged roots like an octopus. The dentist-aunt liked to open up the drawer and scoop up the teeth and rattle them in her fist like dice. No one in my family had ever gone to a dentist before. On the news there was a story about a woman who went to a scam dentist and got drugged and molested and dumped in a parking lot. My mother said that’s why you never trust people who tell you to lie down on your back, doctors included. When she burned her hands at the restaurant, her skin spiraled off in ribbons and the scars hardened in rock formations, but she still didn’t go to a doctor. Her hands looked like canyons. Eroded by a millennium of rivers. You could get lost inside them for days, traversing ridges and folds and valleys. After she fried her hands, my mother stopped her sewing work and I had to learn to use the Singer. She showed me how to take in a waist, how to make a buttonhole. I liked to flick the tip of my tongue through the slit of the buttonhole, web it with my spit, make the girl moan as I did it.
The girl and I went on maybe six dates, but when I tried to kiss her, she said her mouth had too many tenants. Like who, I said. Like all my teeth, my tongue, and two-and-a-half languages. I thought that made sense. I also had a half-language. When I spoke Taiwanese, it came out fermented, all the words pickled. Di sai. Li jia sai. Shao za bo. The girl laughed when I said them, said I sounded like a moose, and I told her moose don’t make any sound. Besides, a moose lives somewhere it snows, and the closest thing to snow I ever touched was the time a summer wind skinned all the streets and blew all the dandruff out of her hair and into my mouth. I drove her around in my mother’s Honda Civic, taped the glovebox closed because it kept opening into her lap, spilling cough drops and a BB gun and a pair of dentures I don’t know whose. The girl lived north of me in Monterey Park and her mother was an accountant, and sometimes when I dropped her off, I pretended her house was mine and I was the one returning to it. It had two stories and big windows I thought about driving into. I’d accelerate through her living room, wreck everything she’d ever touched. The house was always peppered with light because of the windows, and I thought of my grandfather’s apartment that was dark because he’d boarded up the windows. Last month a thief had broken in through the balcony and taken the box TV and also the jade urn with my grandmother’s ashes. None of us had liked my grandmother, who liked to evaluate our shit before we flushed it, giving it a grade of gravelly or too dense, but the urn was a kind of bone-jade that’s translucent in certain lights, that looks like fog in another city, a cloud pulled apart like bread. After that, we decided to put our dead people in protein-powder jars.
The apartment before, we’d gotten evicted for putting too many people in one room. I think we even had the cousins sleeping in the bathtub. The bathtub fell through the floor one day, crashing down into the apartment below, and my three baby cousins were asleep inside it. Didn’t even wake up, not even when a piece of ceiling fell on their faces and flattened them. That’s what my family is, heavy sleepers. My mother fell asleep at the wheel so often that she asked me to hold a needle in the passenger seat and poke her awake every other mile. I slept through earthquakes and wildfires and the police raid next door, where a man was hoarding three dozen dogs that all had to be put down. My grandfather said he even slept through the day Nantong fell to the Japanese. Woke up to the rivers cement-thick with dead people and oxen and chickens and the sky folding itself up to quit. The army had shot everyone in the house but him. When my mother sleeps, she looks dead too, her eyelids only half-buttoned, her tongue swelling like an udder full of sour-milk dreams. That’s the way to be safe, my grandfather said: resemble the dead.
I told the girl this story once. She said it was sad, but I thought it was pretty funny. Him waking up in a house full of dead people, being the only one left out, still living. The dogs were shot, too. He’d had two dogs, born attached to each other. They’d been separated with a cleaver. Dogs tall as horses, black pelts, stars on their foreheads. There’re strays all over this city. The girl never noticed them. In the parking of a Ranch 99, we ate our bingbang side-by-side, hers lychee, mine mango. I offered her a lick of mine but she said she couldn’t mix colors on her tongue. We watched the traffic, the cars nosing each other’s asses like dogs when they meet each other. When she stood up, I got behind her and started nosing between her shoulder-blades, sniffing. She laughed and said something in Taiwanese, a word I didn’t know, and it was the most we ever touched.
Later, when I was home, my grandfather was asleep on the couch. Even with the TV stolen, he liked to face the wall and watch the shadows on it, liked to catch up on the movement of the sun. I was hoping he might wake up and summarize the news for me like he always did, making up half the stories. A girl was caught stealing the moon, he might say. Rolled it out of the sky like a stolen tire. Or a girl was caught robbing a dentist. The only thing she stole was a plaster cast of a jaw. Or a car chase ended earlier this afternoon when both cars transformed into dogs. Days later, the drivers were pooped out. But he was asleep, and my mother too. In the bedroom, I lay down next to her and counted the popcorn on the ceiling. The fan turned clockwise, then reversed time and went the other way. I drove back to that girl’s house a few times, even after the summer was over and we both agreed to part clean as a wishbone, to pre-empt our own end. I heard she was interning at her aunt’s dentistry practice. I wondered if she ever stole teeth from the drawer to eat.
Outside the girl’s house, I saw her through the big windows, holding up a bald apple like a lantern. When it was night, I got out of my mother’s car and tried the door a few times, strangled the knob with both hands, but it didn’t open. I don’t know why I did it, who I wanted to wake, but I looked all over the street for something to throw through the window. Of course, there wasn’t anything, so I used my fist. Punched it a few times, but the glass didn’t even have the courtesy to crack. Double-paned, probably, to block out street house. Because this is the kind of family that can afford silence. Then some kind of alarm went off, and I should have run, but I was too busy looking up, watching as each room of the house was lorded over by light. It looked like a TV winter, that much light at once, a whole blizzard of it. And I heard the girl and her people inside waking up, coming down the stairs, ready for an intruder.
When we got robbed, my mother and I checked under the bed to see if they’d stolen the painting she’d bought at a flea market and claimed was famous, when really it was just a sheet of rice paper with two strokes of ink on it like eyebrows: – – We checked the bathroom too, behind the toilet where we kept our citizenship papers in a folder marked MISSING. Checked the oven where we kept the plates made of bone, but other than the urn glowing full of my grandmother, nothing was gone that hadn’t always been gone.