Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Modern Day Woman: Nonfiction with Repetition

BY JANA HSU

I am surprised that I am in my mother’s closet, sitting in the dark, pressing her polka-dotted summer business suit to my face, inhaling her scent, the soap she must wash with during nights when I would come into the bathroom, with its piss-yellow tiles and soft glare forty-watt bulbs.

As she uses a stolen, white wash cloth with the hotel emblem stitched into the center of it to dry her scrubbed-clean flesh, I watch because I want her to acknowledge me standing there scratching my leg with a small smile, trying to be cute, to win her over.

Lifting her legs carefully from the tub, she looks up at me suddenly and screams at me to go to my room, and I run back to my bed with the soft pinkness of it all and pull the covers over my head, trying to focus in the dark, trying to focus on the little white flowers that spot endlessly against the pink field of my blanket.

I am surprised that I am in my mother’s closet sitting Indian style, waiting for her to come back from her business trip, when it is midnight, and she is not coming back, and the itch on my leg has become an aching red rash because I keep hitting it, and my father’s lonely snore on the other side of this closet door is a reminder that there are hours and even days before I will see her scuffed brown leather briefcase on the brown wooden floor of the hallway that leads to the family room. Here, in the family room, I stand, looking in between the robin-blue painted metal bars of a bird cage my father bought from the fifty cent store down the block and around the corner next to the Burger King with its smelly fumes that used to be a chic clothes store run by a woman with long black hair like my mother’s and who called herself Ida.

I stand here in the family room, imagining the baby finches that used to chirp, chirp, chirp and drive my mother into one of her drinking binges and, moments later, her drunken rages, where I used to hide the bottles in the boiler room of the basement, behind the great gray humming tank that scared me to death when I was five.

I used to hide my mother’s heavy bottles of indistinguishable liquor with my father who came home with that night’s dinner in brown paper bags that read “Big Brown Bag” in black, block letters, because he knew my mother was in no mind or shape to cook the soy sauce with the creamy purple eggplant and boil the shrimp only after scalping out the dark lines of shrimpy-fecal-matter.

I stand here remembering another time when my mother cooked two perfect pork chops and presented them to me without screaming for once, because I was the one carrying on from a bloody gash on my ankle that I got from a fall off my pink- and white-striped bike with the small, white training wheels. I ate those pork chops between wails, watching my mother who was still watching me, holding a white napkin in her hands, the hands that looked red and raw from making the meal, and washing leftover dishes from the night before under hot burning water, and I kept wailing every so often to remind her I was still there, enjoying the meal she made me, so that she wouldn’t think about looking for the bottles I hid in the boiler room of the basement behind the big gray humming thing that used to scare me.

I am surprised that I am going down the black-carpeted stairs to the big gray humming thing in the boiler room in the basement that used to scare me, because, in case she finds it, I need to place a letter there that I wrote to my mother the day before yesterday when I was sitting in class writing on a piece of loose-leaf paper with a pink marker that made streaky imperfect lines and curves forming words I never thought I could say to my mother, between her drinking binges and her drunken rages, that never let her, or my father’s ears, or mine rest, until she went on one of her business trips.

I place my letter with the tear stains still wet on the corners, because I had wiped my eyes with the back of my right hand and folded the letter with deep, decisive creases, bolder than the wobbly words written from within by an old pink marker that was left over in the coloring box in the classroom, because no one had wanted it to write a card that they had made themselves for their mothers on Mother’s Day.

I feel proud of the pink color I used from an old dying marker to write a Mother’s Day card to my mother who went on a business trip because, in one picture that I have in a large falling-apart scrapbook inside a “Love My Heart” porcelain container my mother keeps on the second shelf of her closet that I can easily reach, there is a tear-stained photograph of my mother holding me and wearing a pink camisole with the words, Congratulations! It’s a Girl! stitched onto it with a careful hand by my grandmother who died of a heart attack last summer.

I place my Mother’s Day letter with its wet corners and pink words inside, on top of the bottles I hid with my father when my mother went into her blinding rages because she could not find her fix, and I trudge back up the stairs with heavy heart into the family room where the bird cage sits empty next to the old fifties’ style television set that my father bought a few years ago from a Cheap John’s store down the block and around the corner next to the Burger King with its deep stifling oily fumes that used to be a chic clothes store run by a woman with long dark hair like my mother’s but called herself Ida, which means meant to be pushed down in Korean.

I plop my butt on top of the Modern Day Woman magazines that slide out from beneath me until I am securely positioned on the hot-pink cushion with its sticky plastic surface that stick on my naked bottom on days like this when it is hot and there is nothing to do but watch T.V. on the ancient fifties’ television set my father once bought from a store down the block and around the corner next to the Burger King that has changed its name from Cheap John’s to Cheap Jack’s, although I failed to understand the difference, even after my father explained the switch in managerial positions within the chain of stores all over the country that changed its name from Cheap John’s to Cheap Jack’s.

I turn on the television with its broken antennae and dusty top to the Discovery Channel, where I watch a female puma and her young, the mother devouring a great gray hare she caught while chasing down brown, black, and white hares through a dense green blur of forestry and out into the wide open fields where the sun shines down and there is no protection from the sport of hunting and men’s guns.

I watch as one shot sounds off from the cold-ringed eye of a gun in the distance, causing the mother to pounce sporadically as more shots go off, her body landing on empty air and finding ground, with claws and teeth gnashing, her coat beginning to show darker in perspiration, and then sinking lower until her hind legs fold, looking like she is just tired and ready for a mid-afternoon nap, but the men are coming, and their voices tell me that the puma is shot with a mild tranquilizer, and will be transferred later to a place where they can exchange money for her coat, and I watch as the mother’s eyes close, her ears perk, listening for her young who are back in the rock cave half a mile away and wondering where their mother has gone and when she will be back because they are hungry.

I click on the remote to change to the Spanish channel, because I cannot listen to the low baritone voice of the male narrator who I am afraid will start talking about the fate of the puma’s young who are wondering where their mother is and when she will return with a mouthful of hare meat, so I concentrate on the Spanish family on the Spanish channel where “TaTa,” the old blind grandmother, is being yelled at by her middle-aged daughter, who shouts at her aging mother in angry Spanish words, and I ignore the sub-titles because I can understand rage and what it looks like. TaTa slumps in a sagging brown and red armchair that sits next to two very young children who I take to be TaTa’s grandchildren, and they look to be younger than I at eight, because the little boy still goes to the bathroom in front of company, and the Barbie sneakers of his younger sister who stands beside him are being splashed with his urine, the yellow dots show miraculously clear on the old worn screen of the fifties’ television set my father once bought from a chain store called Cheap John’s.

The little boy cries big wet tears that fall off his chin and onto a spreading wetness on the collar of his blue- and white-striped sailor outfit his mother picked out just for the occasion of dumping presentable looking children onto an aging blind grandmother widowed by her deceased husband of a year and a half and the bright pretty yellow dress with a hair bow to match for the little girl who cries standing next to her brother, who continues to cry with his sibling, and they are ruining their outfits, even though it does not matter because TaTa is blind.

I read the sub-titles because, although I understand what rage looks like, I want to know why the children are crying, and that is how I find out why the mother, with her whorish-looking red lipstick and slick black hair pulled taut and away from ever reaching her temples, is screaming at her mother because there is never any money in the house and something about a divorce and not receiving the father’s payments and unmade breakfasts where the kids are hungry again so they have come to live with the grandmother who should care about them enough to take them in because the mother cannot anymore.

I turn off the television because I do not want to start crying myself for a mother who does not love her children enough to take care of them until they get old enough to take care of themselves, and I think back to my own mother who has gone on a business trip not because she does not want me but because she is trying to earn money to feed me despite her illness that keeps her, at times, confined to her room, where I used to peep through the key hole in the door and watch her take slugs from the bottle she kept behind the bed frame.

I turn the screen to blank-blackness because I do not want to start crying myself and because I hear the sound of my father’s footsteps coming down the hall and his voice calling me for dinner in the dining room where the table is set for two because my mother still has not come home with her big scuffed up leather briefcase with the difficult clasp I once saw give way to a small heap of empty miniature bottles I mistakenly thought to be toys for me because I was too young to understand my mother’s shaking body and why she hit the floor right after I heard those low hollow pitching sounds that I can still hear in my head now when I am sitting at the dinner table set for two.

I sit at the table with my father who begins to spoon red-skinned potatoes from the smooth creamy Connie Ware onto the wide expanse of my plate because I am staring at the broccoli and beef not thinking about eating, and he asks me when I am going to decide to sleep one of these nights instead of sitting Indian style in my mother’s closet waiting to hear her soft gray pumps tapping through the front hallway leading to the family room where her finches wait to be fed, but when I ask my father about the finches his face becomes a mask of sweat, and his hand comes up to my forehead, checking to see if I am sick like he used to when I was still five, and when I hear for the hundredth time that the finches are dead, I start to remember again for the hundredth time that the cage in the family room where my mother used to sit and watch the sunset, sits empty.

I watch my father as he watches me, and I see in his eyes that he misses her, too, so I decide to show him the Mother’s Day card that is still lying on top of the liquor bottles behind the big gray humming thing that used to scare me when I would go down the stairs to the boiler room in the basement when I was five, and only just beginning to feel the loneliness I feel everyday now since my mother has gone on one of her business trips, and when I show it to him, my father cries mostly because it is so beautiful despite the awkward pink lines of print and family portrait of heavy-mustached father, thin-trailing-away mother, and pink-shirt-and-pants daughter. When my father tries to talk to me about liver failure, I imagine what it feels like to be a whistling teapot about to explode into orange-blue flames because the water has dried up inside or I imagine what it feels like to have my tongue pulled out from the roots of my mouth where the red gums meet the soft gooey membranes like something about to break, and then I look at my father who says at the dinner table set for two that I am like my mother – the fiery temper that is my mother when she cannot find her fix, and I feel pleased because I would like to be like my mother.

This is when my father gets the “concerned look,” because when I say this, he believes I will one day go away like my mother, even if my body stayed behind to go day-after-day down to the big gray humming thing in the boiler room of the basement that I used to be scared of but am not anymore since I have come to visit and revisit the memory of my mother there more and more each time I go, seeing her body crumpled like a decaying banana peel, starting to stink with sweet-going-bad odor and lodged in between the wall and the big tank, like she wanted to die with her body posed in an unnatural position, although when I asked her why she had had no answer.

When my father found me in the boiler room next to my mother lodged in between the wall and the great gray humming thing that always used to scare me, I think he was surprised to find me unafraid, and when I explained to him that it was because Mom was with me, my voice came out all wrong, and the next sentence I got out was, Could somebody stitch my mouth shut so that no more rambling wasted words would go out, and I can write letters on a chalkboard like a mute, but my father shook his head and hugged me close to him, his mouth against my ear with my hair all falling down, and I was surprised that I recognized the familiar soothing tone of his voice, but not what was being said, because I had grown dumb when I realized I would never be able to tell my mother.