A chain hotel in their town is selling its old furniture on the lawn—twenty, thirty identical sets carried down from the suites. The same people who go to every yard sale come to this one, mill about in the furniture. And afterwards there will be twenty, thirty families in the town with the same living room.
The grass is wet. The plastic price-tags safety-pinned to the upholstery smack against the backs of the rocking armchairs. Ringo buys two black dressers with metal handles that look like door knockers. “How much? How much? Fifteen dollars for both?” The dresser tops are not lino, not vinyl either, but the sides are unmistakably wood with a black varnish.
Along with the two dressers he gets a long drawer thrown in for five dollars. Back home, he and his wife, Ginkgo, place the dressers a meter apart and lay the long drawer like a bridge across the top. “Is that right?” she asks. This is their first real furniture. The bottom drawers must be lifted as they’re pulled out, or they snag on the zigzag carpet. The clean black surfaces look out-of-place beside the square card table, the tubular cane chairs, the folding couch on which the three of them sleep. They joke that they should make this the family altar—luckily neither of them cares for the old ways.
The next morning at breakfast Ringo recalls their neighbor Mrs. Fung stopping him on the stairs: “I notice your kid is not saying mamababa.”
“I hate that Mrs. Fung.”
“What I mean is,” sez Ringo, “why don’t you teach him a few words today? Won’t that be fun for you both?”
“He’s only one year old.”
“A’Wing’s kid is one year old and he’s talking.”
Then Ringo goes to work and Ginkgo plays dead. The kid has been deliberately misbehaving all morning and she wants to teach him a lesson: “Look what you did, you’ve killed your mother.” She ignores the kid’s cries. She keeps this up for one minute, two minutes, three minutes. Then she can’t help it, she starts giggling and gives away the ruse.
But she imagines she could fall asleep for the whole afternoon face-down on the floor, imagines the fair clouds rolling by overhead.
A month ago Ringo bought his landlady’s dilapidated Plymouth Cricket. The heater was beyond repair so he put a box of matches in the glove compartment, anticipating winter. The driver’s door had rust all over it, so he took Ginkgo’s cleaver from the kitchen and used it to hack off the rust. Then he covered the door with duct tape. She screamed, “You chipped my cleaver, you moron!”
Spring weather caused many minor car accidents. Right after Ringo repaired his rusty door, he went for a drive on what he thought was an open road, though there was a woman driving behind him whom he didn’t see. He cut her off going east on Iliff Avenue; they both happened to turn right. He straddled two lanes on Ogden and floated twenty under the speed limit by Harvard Gulch Park, distracted by natural scenery. She veered over to the left-turn lane to pass him. Still unaware, he, too, drifted into the turn lane and hit her. Slammed his elbow, which was resting on the door with the window down.
On another occasion, Ginkgo was in the kitchen when she heard a crash. She ran to the window and saw that a gray car had rear-ended the Plymouth Cricket. She yelled for Ringo, “Someone hit the car, go quick!” Ringo, with his arm in a sling, ran down the stairs and saw in the windshield of the gray car, as he would recount at the police station, some people who looked like him. The people in the car hurriedly rolled up their windows and squealed out of the parking lot in a hot trail of smoke. Ringo ran shaking his fist, grinding his teeth. He chased the car until he couldn’t run anymore and doubled over on the roadside wheezing.
Another incident: after a picnic a Taiwanese student was a little drunk. While parallel parking on Logan Street, in front of the compound, he slammed the accelerator instead of the brake and totaled the car behind him. He switched gears and lurched forward, totaled the car in front of him, which rolled forward and hit another car, which hit another car. Instantly that sobered him up, and he drove away to Cheyenne and stayed with his friend for two days while the Chinese people in the compound tried to figure out who did it. When he came back he went straight to Ringo. Ringo was in the middle of comforting an old woman and a young woman whose cars were hit. After the women left the Taiwanese student very sheepishly tiptoed over with his hands beneath his chin. “Well, see, it was me.”
“Hahh?” sez Ringo.
“This is your secret too now.”
This was the same student who’d just borrowed Ringo’s car to drive cross-country for a job interview while Ringo slept on a Greyhound bus to make his dissertation defense in California, having left early to start post-doctoral work in Colorado. This, more than anything, solidified Ginkgo’s misanthropic worldview. Those with student visas in the late-eighties and early-nineties were getting married, couch-surfing, calling down a list of telephone numbers, passing on the message of so-and-so, coming this weekend—still unable to afford hotels, but now they had children in tow, conferences to attend, lectures to give.
Ginkgo has just kicked the brick in front of the heavy door and started down the exterior staircase, holding the plastic bag with chicken grease and bottles of cola clanging, when she hears the door creak shut behind her. She drops the trash, rushes up the stairs. She rattles the knob and bangs on the door as if her kid can reach the knob. She glances up and down in the metal corridor. She tries to open the window from outside, knowing full well that it’s locked and she has nothing with which to break it. The bottles and trash once in the plastic bag are now strewn down the stairs; seeing it makes her sick to her stomach. She’s slower than usual. She walks down the stairs, around the building, and onto the lawn inside the U-shaped compound.
She stalks around the lawn, peering into first-floor windows. She is spotted by her American landlady.
“Mrs. Ringo!” The landlady waves from her doorway.
The two say nothing for a moment, staring, smiling, Ginkgo shielding her eyes from the sun.
“How are you today, Mrs. Ringo?” “Fine, thank you! How are you?”
The landlady invites her up for some coffee, but Ginkgo shakes her head. Can’t tell Americans, she thinks, because they will take away your children and put them in foster care, then deport you. She simply waves her hand and smiles or grimaces, bowing like a Japanese. There was a Chinese family whose son kept saying in kindergarten, whenever he lost his pencil or spilled his milk carton on his sweater, “My mother is going to beat me to death for this!” The family was investigated by the police. Even though it turned out—the mother sighed, at wit’s end—there was no beating and the kid had an inferiority complex, the PTA was suspicious of this family thereafter. Americans are sensitive when it comes to children: this was the first thing immigrant mothers were told. Americans do not know what Mongolian spots are.
Ginkgo thinks to go to the Chinese restaurant where she used to wait tables. When she took a month off to have the kid, they replaced her with this really buff Cantonese guy. He might could break down the door. The restaurant is only a five minute walk away, even closer if she runs. When she gets to the restaurant she is out of breath.
“This new worker—it’s taken her two hours to fill the salad buffet”—the owner’s wife, manning the cash register in front, points at the old woman, hobbling in front of the salad buffet as though thinking about something—“And you hear that?”—there is a heated argument between two men in the kitchen—“The dishwasher is threatening to sue us.”
“Oh,” sez Ginkgo, “how terrible.”
“You need something?” the owner’s wife asks.
“Oh, say, doesn’t that really buff waiter work here?”
“The young man? He’s on his lunch break”—she checks the booths of the three-fourths-vacant restaurant—“He must be running errands. You looking for him?”
Ginkgo explains that she needs him to break down her front door. The owner’s wife tells Ginkgo to get Ringo. Ginkgo can’t; Ringo is administering a final exam. “Call a locksmith?” she suggests. “Well, you can’t afford a locksmith, can you?”
Ginkgo shakes her head, biting a nail.
“And you can’t tell Ringo why, because you are afraid of him or because he won’t care?” “No, no,” sez Ginkgo, “it’s because of precisely the opposite.”
“Your kid’s home alone?”
“He can walk yet?”
“Better hurry.” The owner’s wife glances at the Seagull-brand watch inside her wrist. “I’ll tell him when he gets back”—meaning the waiter—“I’ll tell him you are in trouble.”
Leaving, Ginkgo remembers another incident in their very own compound in which an absentminded physics professor was cooking a pot of something on the stove when he suddenly got an idea and drove off to the lab. His kid was ten years old—“I mean,” his father would later recount, “he should have been able to handle this”—but for some reason he couldn’t handle the stove fire, started screaming out the door for help. When they finally were able to track the professor down in his office, he received a strict warning from the fire department.
Ginkgo heads in the direction of the university. Normally it’s a five-minute drive, but she’s never gone on foot. She runs until she suspects she’s worn holes in her house slippers. She’s glad, when she has to cross an interstate, that at least she’s wearing day clothes—a green chintz shirt and cotton pants.
Ringo gave her money for an abortion and, three months later, found out she didn’t do it. He was agreeable about it, married her, moved them out of the rather unlivable basement he was renting into an apartment with a washer and dryer, saw less and less of his friends, filled out her naturalization petition, and one day, in the middle of dinner, told her he loved her. She had thought he was rich because he was able to give her the money for the abortion all at once. Little did she know as soon as they got married they’d be poor as shit. Then after she had the kid she couldn’t go back to work because of the heaviness.
For the first six months she could only put things on the floor; she ate cross-legged on the floor; she could not bring herself to reach up to high shelves. The kid was constantly screaming. Turning on the light monopolized her full strength. And she couldn’t stand any type of movement. Even getting the old Plymouth Cricket up to the speed limit seemed impossible.
Ginkgo went to the university clinic with Ringo as her translator. Ginkgo bemoaned (through Ringo) Ringo’s work schedule, Ringo leaving her to take care of the kid “completely on her own.” Ringo pled her case with all the right emotion, even embellishing some of her symptoms because it was his nature to feel sorry for her, and she despised him for it.
The doctor suggested talk-therapy, said he would refer her to the best therapist. He even suspected, within his vast network, he’d be able to find one who spoke Ginkgo’s native language —“What language is it anyway?”
Ginkgo refused to see a Chinese therapist. She shuddered at the thought. She reminded Ringo, “When it’s a Chinese professor visiting the lab you can’t even pour the beaker right.”
The doc asked Ginkgo whether she’d any friends, whether she talked to anyone on a regular basis other than her husband.
“Ginkgo sez no.”
Doc chuckled, “Ah! So we’ve found the problem.” He picked up the telephone, supposedly to call his doctor friends. “You know what’s the best cure for suicidal depression? Social skills.”
Ringo put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and said, “Well you see, Mrs. Ringo doesn’t like to see people. She would rather be alone than be pestered by people and their obligations.”
“Well, she’s got to have people that she likes.”
“Mrs. Ringo doesn’t like any of the people in this country.”
“Well, why doesn’t she go back home.”
“Mrs. Ringo doesn’t like the people back home either. She doesn’t like them as a race, you see. Mrs. Ringo considers herself superior to the people of her race.”
Doc laughed. Ringo laughed. Doc grinned at Ginkgo like she was the apple of his eye.
He scribbled a prescription for an antidepressant, ripped out the ledger, and handed it to Ringo. “What’s good about this medicine is it won’t make her drowsy. This way she can take it in the morning and go to work, good as normal.”
Ginkgo, aside: “Yeah, it won’t make me drowsy. It’ll make me bleed out of my nose and ears, but it won’t make me drowsy.”
Doc said Ginkgo could even “drive a car afterwards if she wanted”—with his hands he wobbled an invisible wheel—“Drive herself downtown, catch a movie, haha. Though I’m guessing there aren’t any movies in her language, haha!”
The doctor waved good-bye from his office, his phone dangling behind him, almost touching the floor. The receptionist, a blonde girl whose vocational program permitted her to work during the normal hours of high school, told Ginkgo, “It’s okay to cry after a doctor’s visit. I always cry after talking to doctors too. Getting scolded is no fun.”
As soon as she got home she, with the aid of her husband’s English-Chinese dictionary, read the label on the pill bottle, which warned that the medicine caused drowsiness. Tried to call the doctor but got a busy signal; she thought, What am I trying to accomplish by calling him? To tell him what, anyway? That the pills cause drowsiness? She hung up.
Now she is pressed against the side of the interstate, holding the grating with one hand, holding her breath. The sound of cars speeding by is not much different from that of metal crunching. She lets go of the grating and dashes across as fast as she can, losing her slipper midway. From the other side, she watches her slipper helplessly. The cars keep making the slipper, with its paper-thin sole, flutter this way and that. She takes off the other one, crouches, lets ten cars pass, and scuttles to the yellow line. Horns sound from both directions. A white Subaru and a red Toyota brake hard. By the time she puts on the slipper and gets reoriented, traffic on the interstate has gotten a bit congested.
When she gets back with the key, the really buff waiter, evidently having received Ginkgo’s urgent message, is standing in the corridor, peering into her window—he is tall so his shoulders are stooped as he peers in.
“There you are,” he sez. “What’s the problem? As soon as the old lady told me you had a problem I rushed over here.”
Ginkgo pushes past him to the door. “Never mind, it’s solved now, thank you for coming, bye-bye!” The students on campus stared at her but she didn’t care. She tripped along the brick paths, cut through the grassy atriums, and found the chemistry building all on her own. It was by no means an affluent university but the halls were clean and air-conditioned, papered with bulletins and founders’ faces. She snuck into the mezzanine, found Ringo’s office empty, found his keyring in the desk drawer, separated the apartment key from the car key, and meanwhile found a fifth of whisky in the drawer.
She shoves the key in the door. There is crying in the living room. The waiter doesn’t leave but insists she tell him what’s the matter: “Ah? You have a kid in there?”
She stumbles into the apartment, picks up the kid, and inspects him all over. She checks for all ten fingers and all ten toes. She checks the arms for burns, squeezes every bone and joint for injury. The kid’s hands and feet and neck are dirty, the fingers raw from being chewed on. She scans his scalp for cuts, bruises. The hair is growing unevenly, some dark spots and some light spots. The birthmark is where it’s always been, but the kid’s pants are stained and his nails are long. She hugs the kid to her breast and begins wailing so loudly the kid stops making any noise. She doubles over wailing, dry-heaving. She realizes that no tears are falling. She stops. She looks up at the waiter, her hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, her eyes gleaming black like an animal’s, her back hunched. “There’s nothing to see here! What are you waiting for? Go away! Go deal with that dishwasher who thinks he can stop the world singlehandedly!”
Still the waiter waits. The walls burn golden. The sun is trapped in the blinds, while cold light emanates from the icebox door, cracked ajar. The metal latch is stuck at forty-five degrees. The faucet drips. Notwithstanding the buildings and streets here, this place was not long ago just wilderness. Still wilderness—no fences, water that tastes like rust, and, just across from the compound’s parking lot, low greenhouses covered in net. Anyone can walk through, ducking under the net and standing where the net has fallen away. Farther yet, there are pebbles twittering under plastic tarps. There are mounds of sand and monstrous claws that move the sand, onto slanted conveyer belts, toward a sprawling concrete bridge with ladders all over it.