by Lisa Ko
July was over and Mama had been gone for five months. Ever since the February day she left, it felt like Deming had been holding his breath, waiting for some sign that she’d be back, even a sign she was gone forever. Instead she remained on hold.
Issue #102 soundtrack: Folding Legs "Stick, Tie, Lock, Tether"
The city had been too hot for weeks, the sofa’s upholstery sweaty against Deming’s thighs during the long, overheated afternoons, when he and his almost-cousin Michael batted their faces against the rattling plastic fan and sang La-le-la-le-la, the vibrations taking their words and spitting them back out in a watery brown croak. They melted ice cubes in glasses and sucked on them, collected change for errant Mister Softee runs, the ice cream always a disappointment, soggy orange sugar that soaked into its cardboard shell before Deming even got his tongue in.
“What do you want to do?” Michael asked, as they watched reruns of reruns.
Deming couldn’t think of anything, the entire summer after fifth grade just one big dead-end sign, but Michael looked at him, bug-eyed and waiting, as if he wasn’t going to breathe unless Deming gave the okay.
You think of something to do, Deming wanted to say, but he was older, even if it was just by a year.
“Let’s go to the aqueduct?” he said, though they had done that yesterday.
If Michael was disappointed by Deming’s lack of creativity, he kept it to himself and jumped up from the couch. “Okay!”
Mama's boyfriend Leon and his sister Vivian worked and Mama was gone and they were on their own. Deming and Michael sat on the ledge of the aqueduct, feet flopping against the bumpy concrete. Deming’s jeans were tight up the waist and butt. Michael’s hung baggy around his thighs, but were tight at the ankles. Deming’s hair stuck up in a choppy, uneven spike. A booger dangled inside his right nostril.
"Fuck this summer,” Deming said, tasting the pleasing heft of the words. “Fuck you.”
"Fuck you, too,” Michael volleyed back, his consonants resonant with spit.
Deming pointed down at the pit of water. “That’s where the dead bodies go.”
“Hung said so, like five years ago, right before I moved here, his brother Zhi saw a dude’s hand floating in there. Just the hand, no body. Called the cops.”
“Hung’s a lying dickweed,” Michael said.
"You’re a dickweed."
"No, I mean, he’s a real liar. Zhi wasn’t here five years ago. He moved to Virginia before he went to P.S. 33. Their older sister lives down there.”
"Oh. Yeah.” Deming didn’t know where Virginia was, down there, if it was another state or another city or somewhere out in New Jersey. He’d never even been there, New Jersey. That was how it was, Michael the one who’d been here longer, in America, in New York.
Deming contemplated the black water, slick as sludge, in the canal below. A not-so-faint odor of rot mingled with more familiar scents, flatulent exhaust and sweet garbage, searing pavement and grass. Pot smoke and perfume. Somewhere, a barbecue. He wondered what a dead body smelled like.
“Dare you to jump in.”
Michael laughed without making a sound. “Uh, no way. I’ll make you jump.”
Deming sat with his knees bunched up, jabbing his chin into the air like Leon did when he knew you were full of shit. His chest felt wobbly. “No one’s going make me do anything.”
He slid off the ledge. He wanted to run away. Turning onto West 192nd, Deming walked faster and Michael trotted alongside to keep up. They passed Sopheap’s building, the same as all the other ones on the block, squat and brown or tall and gray, the windows full of other families, the courtyards noisy with other kids. They paused and observed the fourth-floor window where the same plastic blinds still hung, the ones they’d seen so many times from the inside of Sopheap’s apartment. But that summer it seemed like their friends had never existed, that they, like Mama, had vanished with no guarantee of return.
Elroy was visiting his aunt in Maryland, Hung at some relative’s upstate and Sopheap, that traitor, had promised he would be home all summer but had decamped at first opportunity to outermost Queens, where his cousin allegedly had a large-screen television and lived in a building full of hot chicks. Last time Michael and Deming had seen Sopheap, four days or six weeks ago or whenever it was, Sopheap had described the peek-a-boo bra strap exposed on the shoulder of the hottest chick, how close she’d sat to him as they watched a DVD. She smelled, he said, of bubble gum and pepperoni pizza, and Michael and Deming had hooted and said Sopheap was full of crap, how come he never invited them to outermost Queens? Maybe instead of hot chicks Sopheap was spending the days with his grandma, who had moley arms and a long yellow tooth that caused her to fling spittle as she barked away at the boys in Khmer, slapping her slippers against Sopheap’s shoulder blades in an effort to get him to sit up straight.
Everything was suspect. Had Sopheap’s family ever lived there in the first place? Would Elroy and Hung even show up for school at the end of the summer? Where was Mama and why did she leave him? Nothing, no one, was certain anymore.
On Jerome Avenue, Michael and Deming stood in the space beneath the overhead tracks and hurled curse words into the subway’s rattle. A car bumped past blaring a bass line in rich, glossy maroons, and Deming felt a slow ache in the center of his chest. Before Mama split, he and Michael been united in the secrets they kept from their mothers, like sampling beer filched from Leon’s twelve-pack when they were home alone, passing a single can between them and taking furtive sips. Michael had grimaced and belched and Deming had knocked back more. They had giggled, teetered.
Another time they all stole a pair of panties out of a cart at the Laundromat on Elroy’s block, and in Elroy’s room they ran their hands over the tiny cotton panel where an actual girl’s actual crotch had actually nestled. Held it to their noses, sniffing exaggeratedly, disappointed yet secretly relieved when they smelled only detergent and fabric softener, like their own underpants after their mothers did the wash.
They walked out to the highway that overlooked the river, Manhattan looming large on the other side. Watching the aqueduct’s murky water had quickly lost its appeal, and it was shocking that they had sat there in the first place. Everything they had done in the past, whether it was last summer or last week or fifteen minutes ago, now seemed a profound embarrassment. Now the only mother in the apartment was Vivian, and the fact that Deming’s mother was gone was no secret. It was a car alarm cutting through an empty street in the middle of the night.
“I used to live in Manhattan with my mother,” Deming said, and he thought of the brief time when it had only been him and Mama, before moving in with Michael and Leon and Vivian, when she belonged to him alone. Once they rode the 7 train to the last stop and found other versions of themselves outside a bakery.
He turned around so Michael wouldn’t see his face crumple, the tears that came so fast he almost let them fall, and dug his fingernails into his arm, ten sharp half-moons sparking pain.
“Deming?” Michael sounded hesitant, like he was approaching a teacher or a friend’s mom. “I have to tell you something.”
“About Manhattan? You know everything about it, probably.”
“No. About your mother.”
“What?” whispered Deming.
“I heard Uncle Leon talking about it with my mom. They said she might be at an ice camp.”
“It has something to do with immigrants, not ice cream. Don’t tell Uncle Leon I told you, okay? Don’t say anything to my mom, either. They don’t want you to know. They’re trying to find out where she is so they can get her back.”
Michael glared across the folding table, the plastic top printed to look like wood, a corner peeling and exposing a foamy underlayer. Deming ignored him and snatched a piece of chicken off of Vivian’s plate.
She slapped his hand and reached over to grab it back. “Stop it. Bad boy.”
“What’s an ice camp, Yi Ba?” Deming asked. He licked the chicken before Vivian could get to it, ran his tongue up and down the sticky, salty skin. He had never referred to anyone but Leon as Yi Ba, and when Mama had first told him he could say it, it had felt a little illicit. In school, spacing out as the teacher chalked the multiplication table, trying to ignore the kids around him who were hyped up on sugar and rocked back and forth, busting out in Tourettes-y curse strings (one particularly restless kid liked to chant Balls, titties, balls balls titties under his breath all day), Deming would mouth his own words: Yi Ba, can you come here? Yi Ba, can I watch TV?
A piece of food was stuck to Leon’s stubble. “Where’d you learn that?”
Leon looked like hell. He reminded Deming of the pictures of cave men in one of his school textbooks, standing straight and de-haired into upright Homo Sapiens. Leon after Mama left was reverse-order evolution, a Neanderthalizing of modern man. He developed a stoop, a paunch, a spotty beard specked with grey. It scared Deming, like Leon had aged a hundred years while everyone else remained the same. What did Leon know that he didn’t?
Deming remembered riding the Staten Island Ferry with Mama and Leon, and even if the wind bit his face he had been so warm, like nothing could go wrong. “Do you like this boat, Kid?” Mama had asked. “Isn’t it better than Wai Gong’s fishing boat?” And Leon had laughed, the way he did when he took Deming out for donuts at the Vietnamese coffee shop and Boston crème spurted onto Deming’s chin.
Leon’s rare belly chuckle made Deming feel like he’d outrun the other kids at the playground, the jolt of triumph at reaching the fence and looking around to see he was the first one there. Yet he hadn’t heard Leon laugh for weeks. At the slaughterhouse, a falling hog had smacked Leon in the head and he skidded on the slick floor, coming to on his back. Got probation. He sliced the wrong veins, let an animal drift on by like a graceful ocean liner, large crooked knife slashes against the meatgrain. He was given the second of three strikes, his hours docked. Deming had heard him telling Vivian. The landlord had already given two extensions for late rent; the loan shark’s men were less understanding.
As Leon got skinnier, Vivian’s fat was rearranging itself. Her belly and arms were thinner but extra skin had appeared beneath her chin and around her mouth, like plaster that had been hastily slapped on top of an existing structure. She huffed when she walked up the stairs. Sometimes she fell asleep at the table, giving the boys food but claiming she wasn’t hungry. Deming heard her cursing when she looked in her wallet, and when he opened the refrigerator expecting food to magically materialize she’d yell at him to close the door.
“Is there a tent? Is it in the woods? I saw it on TV once, camping.”
Leon and Vivian kept eating. Sweat dripped down Deming’s forehead.
“I don’t know,” Leon said.
“But why is she in the woods?”
“It’s not a bad place. It’s like a camp. Like being on a vacation in the mountains.”
“Can we go to the mountains, Mom?” Michael asked.
“No,” Vivian said.
“But why would she go on vacation without us?” Deming scooped rice out of the pot and dropped a clump on the table.
"Don’t waste food!” Vivian snatched his bowl away. “Maybe your Mama left because of you! She was sick and tired of feeding such an ungrateful boy.” She took Deming’s bowl to the sink.
"Don’t listen to her,” Leon said. “Your Mama didn’t leave because of you. We’re all going to stay together, you and me and your mother. We just have to wait.”
It seemed easier to accept this fiction, that Mama would call any day now with some sensible explanation for her silence. Deming rinsed and scrubbed the dishes. “Does an ice camp have something to do with immigrants?” he asked, raising his voice over the sound of the faucet. He squeezed the sponge, let the hot, soapy water run along the inside of his arm. Vivian got up to take out the trash.
“You promised you wouldn’t say anything,” Michael hissed.
Leon went out and Deming fell into the couch like it was eating him. What was he doing here? Where was she? Leon wasn’t his real Yi Ba, Michael and Vivian not his real cousin and aunt. But they were his only family; there was no one he trusted more than Michael.
In the box was a yellow sweater Mama never wore, tiny balls of yarn dotting its sleeves. Deming rubbed the scratchy fabric between his fingers and thought: she isn’t coming back. She had forgotten him, or she was disappointed in him for not being good enough, and he’d been left behind.
She went to work at the nail salon one morning and never came home.
In a narrow park in Manhattan Chinatown, where he and Mama used to live, was a metal contraption on which Deming had liked to swing, hooking the bar with his ankles, head below feet, a disorienting position that was thrilling and nauseating, as if a simple flip could spin him into a new dimension. He’d holler curse words in Fuzhounese between the monkey bars, thinking no one could understand, until an old Chinese man on a bench walked over and shouted, “Shut the hell up!” and swung his cane against the metal pole so hard the tense clang made Deming’s ears ache.
He missed that feeling of being upside down, having it be his choice to do the flipping, rather than being flipped against his will. But five months had passed and he was tired of waiting. Every day was like being shoved in another direction. He missed walking with Mama, hand-in-hand, after school, music pouring out the windows of passing cars, how they rode the subway out to the end of the line just to see what was there, choosing their destinations by the colors on the map. In these other neighborhoods, the buildings and street signs might be the same shades and shapes but were always a little bit off, like a dream where everything was normal at first until you walked to the end of your block and began to fly. They’d pick out mother-son pairs that resembled them and upon closer inspection didn’t look like them at all. The Queens versions of Deming and Mama. The Brooklyn versions. Deming couldn’t remember the last time they had ridden the subway like that.
He returned to the living room. “Where’s Leon?”
Nobody answered. Michael was sprawled on the couch like it was permanently attached to his legs. Vivian flipped through a magazine and turned the fan to low.
“Fuck you,” Deming told Michael.
“Fuck you, too,” Michael said.
They shuffled through the TV stations, clicking up and down, and when a commercial appeared with a father and a son tossing a baseball, Deming turned away. One version of Mama was in the mountains, one version on vacation without him. He rubbed his eyelids with his knuckles and Michael switched the station.
Hours passed before Leon came home. Deming fell asleep on the couch, woke up to drool caked on the side of his face.
“Yi Ba, where were you?” he demanded, arms crossed over his chest, blocking Leon as he tried to get into the bedroom.
“Get out of the way, I need to go to bed.”
“You smell like a bar,” Vivian said. “Must be nice to go out and do whatever you want. I wish I could do that.”
Vivian slammed the bathroom door, then opened it so she could slam it again. Leon fell onto the mattress he’d once shared with Mama and now shared with Deming, his head landing on what had once been Mama’s pillow. He mumbled to Deming, or to no one in particular, that he couldn’t remember having changed the sheets since she left, couldn’t recall ever changing them. Had five months passed since his bed sheets were washed? He mumbled that he was a failure, a burden.
Deming said, “You’re not a failure, Yi Ba.” Leon didn’t respond, only pushed his face down into the pillowcase until the fabric was damp with his breath and that was all Deming smelled – stale beer, rank breath, furious and fungal.
The sky cracked open and it began to rain, drops splattered against fire escapes, running down rooftops, giving the air conditioners of the Bronx a free bath. On the other mattress, Michael’s skinny limbs flailed in some distant dream. The fan on the windowsill spun humid air. Deming watched Leon’s chest rise and fall, let his head rest on the mattress as Leon slept, his arm pressed against Leon’s back, his hand above Leon’s open mouth. He felt Leon’s breath tickle his palm and wondered what he could do to make Leon stay.
They were safe, for now, humbled and seething. They were two men without her.
Lisa Ko's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Apogee Journal, Narrative, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, Hyphen, the Asian Pacific American Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is working on a novel and a collection of short stories, and has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Hawthornden Castle. Find her, sporadically, on Twitter.
Cari Ann Wayman is a photographer from Rockford, Illinois. She mostly takes pictures of abandoned houses. She focuses on themes of memory, loss, and saudade through location-based portraiture. For more, visit her on Facebook and Flickr.
Folding Legs is a musical project consisting of four members (Jesse Richman, Gregory Free, Chris Cerny and Katharina Stenbeck) who came together to collaborate in Brooklyn, New York. Members Gregory Free and Chris Cerny recently formed Caesar Caesar Records, and the duo is producing and releasing electronic music for acts such as Sunbabi and Gianna. Singer Katharina Stenbeck is based in Los Angeles, where she works as a multidisciplinary artist in painting, music and performance. Folding Legs will release an EP, titled Slippery Victory, on KID Recordings in 2015.