“My mother wants to die.” Gary says this matter-of-factly, like, when he tells you his bike is broken, or that his little brother is the smart one.
I look at him closely. His hair is jet black, he’s missing a few front teeth, and his skin is pale, unmarred. “Are you sure?” I ask. “Why would she want to die?”
“Because she hates herself,” he says with a shrug.
He hands me his flattened soccer ball and follows me to the shed. He holds the ball steady as I put the pin in, attach the bike pump, secure the base with my feet.
“Ready?” I ask, still wondering, Can a six-year-old really know something like that?
“Ready,” he replies, fidgeting, poking at shards of broken glass on the floor with the toe of his plastic flip flop. I pump, push my thumb on the ball to feel whether it’s full, and hand it to him.
“Yup. Thanks,” he says.
I watch him run, free and headlong, down the driveway. I pull the shed door shut, securing the top with a wire we rigged up to keep out the pesky neighbourhood kids. Back inside, I pull out the cutting board and collard greens and start making dinner. It’s my new routine since I’ve been home recovering: purposeful activity for an aimless body. I hear the ball bouncing outside, its sound punctuated by wild laughter as the kids play in the driveway next door. Soon, there’s silence—and then my door- bell rings. There’s a cloth in the mechanism to muffle the bell, so now it just makes a strangled sound. I smile and don’t bother to answer; I know who’s there.
A moment later children’s feet slap along the driveway and past my kitchen window. Little Avvie yells, “Pizza-man!” and laughs at his same old joke. Then they’re all on the back porch, pushing each other out of the way to squint in through the screen door.
“Hell-low,” yells Gary.
“Hell-low,” echoes his brother Henry, who is four. “Hello,” I shout back. “What are you guys doing?”
They all laugh and jostle for position, dancing around. They crave the attention of adults, and these days, I’m far too easy to find. Gary and Henry live right next door, sharing the wall of our semi-detached house in Little Italy; Avvie and his sister Sarah live in the next semi one door down.
“We came to tell you something very important,” Gary says.
They stop pushing, stand straighter, and look as serious as a little band of rogues can look.
“Julian is missing.” They all nod gravely.
“But I just saw him half an hour ago, playing out front. Are you sure?” I ask.
“Yes, and his family are all looking for him,” Sarah says excitedly.
I walk outside, and see Gary and Henry’s mother on her back porch. She’s wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, even though the day is hot. I wave, and call, “The kids say Julian is lost.”
She looks serious, answers me in Cantonese. I realize I don’t know her name.
“I hope they find him soon,” I call after her as she slips back inside. “You kids let me know as soon as he turns up, okay?”
They scatter like sparrows, and I step back into the kitchen. Somehow I’m not worried about Julian. My thoughts, however, keep returning to what Gary said about his mother.
When you really look at her, she’s younger than she first appears. Her skin is smooth, but her posture is bent, as though she’s suffered some great, aging calamity. Bony-thin, she rarely leaves the house except to take the kids to school, when she limps along, one leg dragging. She seems devoid of energy, yet it’s always her we hear through our shared wall, voice shrill, spurting an endless torrent of words. We can’t tell whether she is angry or if this is just the way she talks. It’s harsh to our ears.
The day the “zoo poo” arrived is the only time I’ve seen her look happy. Actually, it was compost, but neighbourhood rumour held that the city had dropped a hill of elephant shit at the end of our street for residents to use in their gardens. Gary had yelled at us incredulously, “It’s free!” He, Henry, and their mother, her face aglow, had then run off home, staggering under the weight of their overflowing buckets of manure.
I turn and pour olive oil into the pan, flick on the gas, and wait a moment before pushing in the thin- cut collards. Stirring them, I wonder why we never hear Gary and Henry’s father. We do see him in the garden, working on his bok choy and tomatoes, or going back and forth from the shed, where he keeps his pigeons. Gary says he raises the birds to eat. The father says no—“Hobby.”
I don’t believe him. He’s a practical, frugal man. He has no grass or flowers; everything is dug up for a garden. The whole family wears the most basic of clothes, always clean, with their second set drying on the clothesline.
I remember one day Gary knocked on our door, agiated. “You left your porch light on—all day!” he said.
Another time we gave Gary a little flowerpot to grow something in. He couldn’t believe our largesse. Then he asked, “How much does this cost?”
The father’s hair is grey. There is a rumour that these are the children’s grandparents. He’s always in a hurry, and the kids never run up to him when he comes home from work. Near him they are quiet, more reserved, and well-behaved.
He talks to us, but his English is so bad it’s difficult to catch more than the general subject. On the excetional occasions his opinions actually come through, they’re definite, even strident. He insists, for example, that eating too many vegetables makes you stupid.
I smile at the thought, turn off the collards, and walk outside to gather greens for a salad. I bend slowly, careful of the tiny incisions on my belly. Discomfort today, not pain, so my thoughts flow on. Vegetables make you stupid. The neighbour reminds me of a guy I knew back in Greece, on the island. He was convinced that bread goes mouldy if you put it in the freezer. Nothing anyone could say would persuade him that it might have had something do with the frequent power outages.
I knock slugs off the leaves I’m picking. Perhaps his crazy theory has some basis in Chinese medicine that he can’t explain. Or maybe it’s just a whole different view. He once loaned me a Kung Fu magazine. Inside was a pinup of a female action star. She was quoted as saying that in China, she has to hide her arms because they are muscular. “People say, ‘That’s not natural.’ But in LA, people say, ‘Great arms.’”
I wonder what the Chinese think about people without children. As I pick snowpeas, Gary’s inquisitive face appears on the other side of the chain link fence.
“Julian’s found…” he says.
“That’s a relief. Where was he?” I ask.
“…and the police are charging the family $75 an hour for two hours because the grandmother forgot he went to Canadian Tire with his dad!”
I laugh, and Gary smiles a pleased, good-boy smile.
Sometimes he’s so soft, and other times so cutting. “That kid is going to be a critic,” complained a
friend of mine one evening. We had been sitting on the front porch drinking wine, when Gary walked up and glared at him.
“Are you an idiot? You are smoking,” Gary had shouted. Then more gently, with curiosity, “Do you want to die?”
I stand up from picking snowpeas just as Gary and Henry round the corner into the garden—for the tenth time today. The kids get bored in the summer- time. But Avvie and Sarah go swimming every day, and have their grandparents and lots of aunts and cousins to amuse them.
“Why don’t you ever go to the pool?” I ask the boys, adding a silent, instead of bugging me. Though lately, their presence gives me strange comfort.
Gary shrugs. “I don’t know where the pool is.”
I feel guilt as I shoo them away. Gary looks sad but goes; Henry clings to my hand, and then runs after his brother. How odd it must be for them: Chinese parents who barely speak English, though they have lived here for 10 years, and these two are both little Canadians. Henry has been saying “frucking assholes” right in front of them all summer long.
By the time I’ve finished preparing the salmon, Anthony has returned home.
“So, I hear you had tea and gingersnaps earlier,” he says in greeting.
There’s no need to ask me about my day; the kids tell him everything before he gets through the front door.
“How are you feeling?” he asks. My eyes well up. “I’m okay.” “Does it hurt?”
“No. It’s more getting used to the idea.” “I know,” he says, and pulls me close.
“So you don’t think we are cursed by god?” We’d read that in many cultures, a childless person is con- sidered dead, lacking a link to the next generation to grant them posterity.
“Not cursed,” he says, kissing my head. “I prefer the other view.”
I brighten, hoping for something more palatable. “You’re a sorceress who kills living things—you know, causes milk to curdle as it stands, whose glance makes cows lose their calves, who strokes the throats of children until they die…”
We both burst out laughing.This was from Margaret Mead: throughout history, we’d read, childless women have induced fear and been accused of being witches.
“Well, just last week, Tokyo’s mayor told the Financial Times that it’s ‘futile as well as criminal’ for women to continue living after they have lost their reproductive ability,” I inform Anthony as we fill our plates.
He rolls his eyes, whispers, “Yes, criminal,” as he leans in for a long kiss. Then he opens up the door with a flourish, and we go outside to the table under our back window. Within seconds, Gary is at his back window looking down at us.
“What are you doing?” he calls.
“Eating dinner,” Anthony replies. “What are you doing?”
“Why don’t you sing something for me?” Anthony asks. Sotto voce, he says to me, “I have to divert his attention somehow. I can’t play chess with him any- more. He’s getting too good.”
We laugh, and Gary presses his face up against the screen of the back window. He sings O Canada, twice through, before we hear his mother’s voice, and he disappears.
It’s dusk, shadows are forming, and the neighbourhood is suddenly quiet. It’s the hour when little kids are getting soapy in their baths, preparing for bed, and backyards revert to adult territory.
We go in. I hear Anthony talking on the phone upstairs while I make some tea. I return to the yard, walking over the grass. It’s cool on my bare feet. I sit at our concrete table, which looks like a sacrificial altar dropped on the lawn—courtesy of our Italian landlords. I often come home to find Anthony sitting here cross-legged, juggling or playing the guitar, with the neighbourhood kids lounging on the grass at his feet, clapping.
Tonight, I pull up a plastic lawn chair to savour the quiet. The Portuguese neighbours—who call us the “single couple”—are away camping. Avvie and Sarah and their extended Filipino family won’t be home until late, as they are celebrating 100 years of independence
from Spain. The only light comes from next door. It bathes a white wall, bare except for a Chinese calendar.
I exhale into a moment of perfect peace. “Hell-low,” says a voice.
I don’t answer, and hope he’ll give up.
A pause, and then he asks, “What are you doing?” “I’m drinking some tea.”
“I’m holding a flower in the window. Please look.
Do you see it?”
I turn. “No, Gary, I can’t see it because of the screen.”
Another pause, and then, “Okay, look now, at this.”
A spray of water shoots out the window, hits a passing moth. “Do you see the sparkles?”
“Yes, Gary, I see the sparkles. They’re magical.” “I have to go to bed now.”
“Okay, sweet dreams.”
The light goes out, and I’m left alone in the warm darkness.
How peculiar it is that we all live in this same space, in our brick boxes, a wall’s breadth from one another, yet our lives barely touch. Except for the kids, little envoys between adult countries.
“My mother wants to die,” I remember Gary saying.
She who possesses what we most desire, and will never have.
I hold these thoughts as stars fade randomly in and out of sight. The full moon slowly discharges from the treetops, a gold seed adrift in the dark night sky. Reggae music plays down the block, and the sound carries on the breeze. I hear it—sometimes loud and full, other times quiet and keening, like a heartbeat.