SANDY TURNER sat on the toilet seat lid and opened the newspaper to the sports page. The article she’d hoped would be there even had a photo with it. She whispered, "Bingo,” and took the cuticle scissors from the overnight case to cut out the newest addition to the half-filled 1949 scrapbook. It was really the latest addition to those her mother had clipped over the years and kept—secretly, as far as Sandy could tell—until she died.
Sandy studied the picture. It was one the papers ran often, a close-up three-quarter shot with his racing helmet on. The angle of its bill against the dark background echoed the outline of his high cheekbones and strong jaw line. His eyes were so blue they photographed like pale rings around the pupils, and there were fine sprays of laugh lines in the outer corners. In all the pictures she’d secretlyhttps://websites.godaddy.com/ pored over the past month, he was smiling like that, the relaxed grin of a born winner. . . .
IT'S POSSIBLE that for 34 years the thought of ending it all never enters your head and then one day the idea presents itself, like a strange new entrée on an otherwise familiar menu. You’d think there’d be foreshadowing—an early inclination toward the dark side. Not necessarily. Sometimes it gets shuffled into the mix as you sense you're about to reach the end of your rope. Letting go is another option in the sequence of ill-considered decisions that nudged you over the edge and left you twisting there.
Here's one way it can happen. By mid-November, you’ve almost gotten used to waking up cold and disoriented in the back of your 2006 Dodge Caravan in the parking lot of a third-tier grocery store. It’s a place to hide when the local shelter is full. The streetlights are dimmed by sheets of snow driven by a frigid wind that rocks the car. You’d think you’d hit bottom. You’d be wrong.
Fearing that your ex and friends will discover your abject failure to reinvent your life, you’re desperate to avoid anyone who’s ever known you as the spouse of a successful lawyer, hosting many of Wichita’s movers and shakers. Keeping up appearances to conceal your downfall is taking a heavy toll as you spend most of your days hiding in plain sight.
Then one day you open your PO box praying for at least one decent job offer and withdraw an envelope from your ex’s law firm. The letter inside is only three pages long, but two words fly off the first page and hook like barbs in your eyes—sole custody.
Of all the words you’ve slung at each other—all those left unspoken for better or for worse—finally only those two matter, stretching like razor wire between you and the world you once took for granted.
When the only other option is to lie shivering in the back of your car with cheap vodka to dull the pain, wondering if it’s even possible to put a stop to the freight-train-out-of-control disaster of your life, it feels almost rational to also wonder if packing a wad of snow into the tail pipe can deliver you from despair to who cares.
But then you stop at a red light next to a car wash. The sun has come out, making the fresh snow glisten, and you see a scruffy-looking man standing near the entrance watching a woman in a slush-spattered white Toyota insert a token. The Toyota inches forward. He hunkers down and steps out of his clothes. The car wash’s under-carriage nozzles open up, a cloud of mist swallows up the slow-rolling vehicle as the overhead door descends, and the naked man scrambles up onto the top of the car and disappears.
The light changes, and you pull ahead taking quick glances over your shoulder at the carwash exit, your brain firing off possible scenarios of the scene inside the concrete tunnel. When you lean over to check once more in the sideview mirror, you’re surprised to see yourself smiling.
An Nguyen runs his fingers down the plastic crucifix hanging just inside the arched doorway to the kitchen of the apartment he shares with Thank Nguyen and his nephew Binh. The ladies of St. Paul's give them to refugees when they arrive in Wichita. Too restless to sleep, he lets his lips rest briefly on the savior’s ropy gold legs and crossed feet.
It is the first kiss he's given in a long time.
He tries to remember when the last one was, far back, long before the two weeks in hiding as he waited for word that there would be an attempt, a fishing boat waiting to the south of Da Nang if he could get there. And the long wait in the camp in Thailand, and finally the boat trip that cost everything but his life.
After the first raid on their village, his lips had tasted tears and blood on his young wife's hands—one side of her face missing from the screaming metal chips that killed and maimed their neighbors that afternoon. A chunk of flesh had been torn from his own right arm and planted in the smoking underbrush.
Leaning his head against the wall, he thinks back one day more, to when the air carried the rich smell of growing vegetation and smoke of wood fires as he returned from the fields. His wife’s throat and wrists had been scented with ylang ylang on that night when she’d last embraced him, the night he'd had no way of knowing that would be the moment of his last good kiss.
There is no sound from the room where Thanh and his nephew Binh are sleeping. An opens the refrigerator and takes out a can of cola, pausing in the box’s cool vapor before he closes the door. He pulls the tab and lets the stinging foam run down his throat unchecked. Then taking a book from a shelf under the phone, he spreads a thin cotton dish towel over the torn vinyl chair cushion and sits down and turns to Chapter Four in the English for Speakers of Other Languagesreader.
His teacher doesn't know he has this book, that he sneaks it in and out of the Learning Center at the vocational school over the weekends. It's one she herself held for him once, caressing the pages with her slender, pale fingers to ease the book's newness, its resistance to lying open before him.
In his good dreams, the ones he controls—usually just before falling off to sleep or on weekends when the others go out, leaving him alone with his music—he has pulled those white fingers to his lips, run his tongue over them lightly. At the vocational center, he can actually taste her, the flavor of her hand cream and shampoo, even when she's several feet away. This is because he has a nose like a dog, his older brother Lam used to tell him. An could smell the lingering aroma of papaya on his brother's hands hours after the older boys would have devoured their ill-gotten goods, feeling it justified to steal from the stall-keepers in Saigon who were getting rich off the American soldiers.
To An, America smells nothing like his own country. There is so much concrete and steel spreading out across the land, and so many automobiles with their choke smoke. The first indoctrination center he went to was in an old school administration building that smelled of aged wood and waxy buildup. He had been afraid there because he’d known no English—only "Where to find?" and "Tank you." When they were divided into groups, he thought that meant only some of them would be allowed to stay and study, to learn the language that would unlock the secrets of survival in such a huge land. An worked hard, concentrating on the American voices around him even when they sounded like no more than small hammers drumming on woods of differing hardnesses.
Eventually, whole words began to emerge, then phrases. He learned to read a little and scolded his countrymen for talking in their own language while at the school. An was one of the first of his group to be passed on to the vocational training center where he could learn the trade of welder. It was there he began to think that he might actually find a way to rebuild his life. There was nothing of the old one to build on, everyone gone. Even his nephew, seeking vengeance, had disappeared into the thick green that later burned orange and then black.
His friend Thanh, 10 years older than An, once told him he was lucky to have no one left behind, no one to fear for, to feel guilty about having abandoned. Thanh still has two sisters and an aunt living in the countryside, near what is left of their home. Even if he earns enough money to get them out, there is no guarantee they will survive their escape. So Thanh says An is lucky to be so completely alone. Yes, completely, An thinks. Even his own company is like being with a ghost, there is so much of him missing.
He focuses on the pages of the book, whispers the words, Meestah Gomez come home fom wok at six o'cwock. Miz. Gomez ees in da keetchen cooking wice and beans. She smies a her husban as he wooks into each pot on da stove. "Umm, smew good," he say. "It wew be weady soon," she say. An is getting to know the Gomez family pretty well, especially likes the parts where they struggle with some problem, like leaky plumbing or their son's troubles with his studies. Their normalcy seems exotic to An.
He rests his forehead in the curve of his intertwined fingers and thinks of Miss Joy, her cool fingers and wide brown eyes, which sometimes snap with pleasure when one of her students makes or gets a joke in English. The learning center—a small upstairs room once used for storage in the middle of the print shop—is a place of hope and smiles. That is the unspoken rule of all who go there. In that room, people from different countries but similar pasts come close to touching each other in their daily struggle to speak of the simplest things.
It is just as well, An thinks, that he has not the words just yet to tell Miss Joy how he feels, how thoughts of her—of them together—fill the empty places all around him, inside him even. The words that pour from her mouth—many of them still undecipherable to him—are like a stream of hope carrying him wherever he will next find himself. Added to his grief for what is already gone from his life is the new fear that something bad will happen to ruin this new life he longs to embrace. There have been whispers in all the languages spoken there of the learning center being closed to them. The night principal has been heard talking with some of the instructors when they thought the Asian students would not understand. Words like too hard and not fair to real students, meaning white he thought, the young ones from the high school that ran the programs.
When the rumor first touched An’s ears, he felt panic rise and wash through him, making his limbs weak and the lesson vocabularies hard to remember. He wanted to ask Miss Joy, wanted her to tell him they were safe. But he was afraid that speaking the frightening words might make them come to life. And today, she wasn’t there. The other American woman, Barbara, led their class. A big woman with a big laugh and smiling eyes that looked straight at the men and seemed to say that everything was going to be all right, but they were afraid to believe her.
To him nothing was all right that day, the crowded room once used for storage above the print shop had felt lonely and miserable. Joy less. Ha. He wishes he could tell her that when she gets back. Show how the language is winding into his brain and around his tongue and allowing him to become more his true self, ironic and deep and passionate. But he was still too lost in translation to use the most important words just yet. Joy less. She would understand. What would her face tell him?
He sighs and tosses his head from side to side to relieve his tight neck and looks down at the new-words list at the back of the chapter, but is too tired to concentrate. Leaning over the table, he cradles his head in his arms and drifts off to sleep as he imagines thin white fingers stroking his stubborn hair to one side, preparing his brow for a kiss.
Marlis Manley Broadhead ~ Author
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