How to Check the Burners

— Melissa Hung

In February, the burners finally fail on the 1960s Wedgewood stove, flickering empty like ghosts. The landlord delivers a new, more powerful stove, all chrome and black. I stand before it. I learned this from my mother: how to stand in front of the stove, how to check each burner, announce its state out loud: off off off off. How four offs are required to leave the house. These days, I check the oven, too. More than once, I have left it on after retrieving my sheet pan dinner. Five offs. This is not paranoia. This is what you do when your mother lived in an apartment building in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong and one day flames shot out of the factory next door. In the few moments she had, what did she take? Her immigration papers in one hand, her Po’s hand in the other. The next day—allowed back to salvage what they could—they took some clothing, jewelry, photographs. Today, the clothing is long gone, but the jewelry and photographs she carried from apartment to apartment, house to house. In the last years of her life, she organized the photos carefully into envelopes, labeled each one with the years in her handwriting, and stacked them into boxes in the cabinets at the base of the shelves in the study. This is how I can find her now: at age seven, frowning, her hair contained in braids, wearing a dark dress over a white short-sleeved shirt, standing by the wall of a building, perhaps her school; at sixteen in a smart bob and a shirt that tied at the neck, leaning over the side of a bridge, smiling, chin in her hand; at nineteen in a skirt suit, surrounded by somber-looking relatives, preparing to leave home forever. She organized the jewelry, too, into padded pouches, gave us instructions on which ones were worth money, which were rich in memories, what we were allowed to sell, what we were not. Not allowed to sell: the jade and gold ring that had belonged to her Po. Now it belongs to me. I recently dreamt that it was missing, stolen. When I woke up, I immediately took it out of the jewelry box and hid it. More than my wedding band, more than my engagement ring, more than any piece of jewelry, this ring would be the one I’d be most crushed to lose. I never wear it. It is too big for me, which makes me think it was too big for her. We have the same hands. We were the same size. Did it ever fit Po? If the building catches on fire, I grab the ring. But I also want my laptop, the box of journals, my father’s typewriter. These are heavy things, scattered across the apartment. There will not be enough time. In Southern California, my friend filled the trunk of her car with her favorite skirts in case she had to evacuate from the encroaching wildfire. Is it better to gather your favorite things together or leave them scattered so that some might survive? I think that maybe I could move them together. Maybe I should put them by a window so that I can throw them out onto the street when the time comes. One morning we woke up late, confused because it was still dark outside. The sky glowed orange, smoke trapped low, blotting out the sun. We turned on the air purifiers that we bought last wildfire season. We put painter’s tape over the gaps in our old wooden windows that do not seal. We thought about going to IKEA, which we reasoned had good HVAC and sprinkler systems. Where would we sit? Among the couches? The rows of desks like an open plan office? The kitchen displays so that we could mimic being at home? Working at the dining table looking at the stove counting each burner: off off off off.

Read more from Issue No. 31 or share on Twitter.