Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
After eight years of living in America, Auntie Eight and Uncle Liu had failed to make a single friend. It wasn’t because of a lack of reciprocity. Neighbors came by with blocks of cheese, metal trays of egg rolls, tamales wrapped in foil. Anh and Liu smiled while walking from the door of their car to the door of the apartment. Tentatively, they stepped on the porch, not venturing for their keys, not reaching for the knob, their arms swaying with the weight of workbags, but not making an effort to set them down. They paused until all conversation died. Once inside, any gift of food was immediately discarded with clucking tongues. They did not return these neighborly gestures. With all the talk of lawsuits in the media, they feared being sued for food poisoning.
They had grown up never moving two yards from the spot where they were born. Packed tight in a shared space, they had tripped over the bodies of family members. How could anyone expect them to make sense of this cacophony of cultures, this mishmash of souls on Gettysburg Avenue? They had never heard of the Hmong, and were suspicious of their version of eggrolls, the bright pink yarn weaving through their clothing. They swore they did not resemble these nomads, and made fun of their stunted growth, their muddied skin. They felt the same distrust towards the Laos, the Cambodians—cultures they had shared a continental land mass with. And whoever heard of an Armenian? God forbid the Russians! Instead of embracing this amalgamation, they turned inward, locked their doors, warned Lily and Alan of the dangers of the outside world. The faces of their idols glowed red from the light of electric candles. So much silence. So much space to fill.
The children, however, were permeable and without filter. The culture was smoke they inhaled in draughts. And their minds were quick to sense loopholes. If humans couldn’t be trusted, they would turn towards beings who stood outside of culture and class. They watched with wide eyes a news segment of a mother cat carrying her singed babies from a burning building as blocks of debris fell perilously around her. There were stories of Dewey the library cat, Old Yeller, My Friend Flicka. They catalogued in their subconscious television shows and books advocating for man’s best friend. Though every animal Auntie Eight came in contact with was summed up as either food or bait, there was one story she retold that made them believe they had a chance. She had owned a dog once—a dog she finally named.
He was a short, stout beast, never expecting much from his caretakers. At dawn he would disappear and by mid-morning return with a thick rat in his jaws. Anh would pick up the rat and toss it out the back door as a warning to its brothers. The cats, who were kept solely for this purpose, never brought home anything. When she stopped feeding them, he left food in his bowl out of pity for them. She rewarded him with soup bones. He sniffed, but didn’t take them. His frugality immediately placed him in Anh’s good graces.
She began to notice other things. How he didn’t bark or chase his tail foolishly. How he tirelessly plodded beside her as she did her chores. When she took a step, he took a step. If he was in front of her, he looked behind to see if she was headed in the same direction. When she rested, he would brush up clumsily beside her, taking up space without apology. He would lick the dust off her feet.
Like her he had to be there, and like her he bore it in silence. She of all people understood being unable to verbalize a deep need. There was already too much empty chatter from people she was forced to live with, emitting words that left her feeling hollow and ashamed. Every syllable wounded her. Like her, he had to be there, and like her he bore it in silence.
Because of him she found herself believing in past lives. She imagined him traversing universes. His eyes spoke about a depth they had shared, urging her to remember a thing that happened centuries ago, when he was a hawk and she was an egg, when she was a cow, and he a dragonfly. She had somehow achieved rebirth as a human. Because of his spiritual inability to attain anything higher, he agreed to the life of a humble mutt in effort to be near her. “Mimi,” she called him.
“Can we get another Mimi?” They asked her.
“Impossible. You could never find another Mimi.”
They badgered her every day about a dog, until her eyes grew hard and gleaming. There was no gradual build-up of anger. No negotiation leading to frustration. No quickening in her voice that would indicate impatience.
“ I HAVE A HARD ENOUGH TIME FEEDING THE BOTH OF YOU. IT WILL POOP AND URINATE AND TRACK FILTH INTO OUR HOME.”
Her voice lifted bodies and overturned vehicles. They covered their ears, ran to their bedroom, scrambled into their bunk bed for shelter. No time to recoup forces. They knew her wrath, the shape of it—the tide of emotion held back until something visceral broke. It was a scene that happened with increasing frequency as the distance between her and Vietnam grew—her beating them with a hanger and crying. How easily they had become rotten eggs.
“We didn’t mean it!” They sobbed as the wire swathed their arms and legs with vibrant pain.
“ALL YOU DO IS WANT. I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO GIVE,” she warned as she beat them. She walked to the door and remained there, then reluctantly walked away.
After awhile, they could hear her whistling as she washed dishes. Their hearts settled in their chests. Alan wiped the itchy tears from his eyes and picked up a comic book. Lily hung her feet against the white rungs of the bunk bed. She relished the pleasure of breathing after crying, and inhaled greedy lungfulls of breath.
Later, Auntie Eight came back with a cluster of mint sprigs in her hand.
“Tchouk mut,” she said, her hands dripping water.
Alan and Lily didn’t know exactly what tchouk mut meant, but the spitting sound of it carried her disgust simply and compactly. Tchouk mut: (n) rabid, wild, hairy, filth.
Over dinner, Auntie punctured the air with her chopsticks to mark key points in her narrative.
“As a girl, it had been my responsibility to take care of the animals. As soon as I was old enough to wield a knife, my mother put me in charge of slaughtering. The first time with the chicken had been a mess. I tried to hold it with two fingers, and avoid staring into the eyes and beak. The chicken struggled and pecked at my hands.”
She showed them the wispy brown scars at the base of her thumb.
“When I did manage to administer the first blow, I hadn’t used enough force. The chicken’s head hung limply to one side. It stumbled and leapt across the yard, spurting blood in wide arcs. I held the cleaver loosely like a child dragging a doll, and dropped it just inches from my foot.”
She jammed her chopsticks into her rice bowl and stared with astonishment at the two plastic sticks.
“My mother beat me for my ruined clothes, for being a coward, and for making the chicken suffer. By then the carcass was swarming with flies, and meat was a luxury. Not like now, when they inject a hormone and they grow as fat as turkeys. Real chickens are substantial. You had to raise them yourself. Nothing like this.”
She pushed a chicken wing around on her plate with disgust.
“After that, I learned to grow used to the way they convulsed in my hands. You want to know how to kill a pig? Hold it still with the strong muscles of your thighs. Slice its aorta through. Hold on tightly until its shuddering life leaves its body, even if the squeals make your face twitch. Sing while the bones of a chicken’s neck snap as you swing it over your head. It helps to tuck the beak in between your last two fingers to use as leverage. Be careful not to let the blood splatter on your clothes. Tchouk mut,” she spat.
She slurped the flesh from the chicken wing and placed it neatly in an empty rice bowl in front of her.
Weeks passed until they had all but forgotten Auntie’s threats. Auntie swept her porch and planted her fruit trees and treated them with brusque kindness. Life would have been fine until Alan brought home an aquarium, not filled with fish that Auntie would have divined as luck. Inside was a brown rat nursing seven hairless babies. Who knew why he had done it? He was twelve.
Lily peered into the glass. The rat scurried nervously from one plastic shelter to the next. Its babies were curled up upon each other, their bodies rising and falling, their eyes seared shut. She shivered a little staring at them. When Alan stuck his finger into the aquarium to pet the mother, she bit him.
He attempted to hide the aquarium in his room by throwing a sweatshirt over it, but how could a large glass rectangle be concealed in such a small space? At the sight of them, Auntie shrieked, convinced that all her life lessons had fallen on dumb ears. She picked up the aquarium and took it out in the yard. She sprayed the rat and its babies with Raid, and when they continued to move and twitch and scurry, she set them in the far corner of the backyard, hidden behind the out of commission Mercury Grand Marquis.
Lily and Alan were afraid to go near the rats after the Raid holocaust. Having no experience with death, they imagined the worst—rats growing half-formed appendages, foam dribbling out of sore covered mouths. They could not muster courage to peek. Instead, they let the rats wither into shells of rats. After a few weeks, Uncle Yiu emptied the aquarium and placed it next the garage. For years it sat there, collecting algae from the rain. They both felt ashamed at being powerless to save the innocent. Auntie didn’t know any better, and was not to blame. Tchouk mut, after all. A year passed. All talk of owning a pet was hushed.
But after the year, they grew tired of each other’s sour smells, the drone of electric voices emanating out of wired boxes. They grew tired of obedience to Auntie who collapsed every night on her bed smelling of fried rice. She did not have answers. This country and its images had exploded in them a reckless desire that clung in their throats and gave rise to dissidence.
They began their pilgrimage to a pet store that was fifteen miles away. They transferred on two buses. It didn’t matter how many miles they had to walk; they would walk through heat and swelter. They would carry the ungainly cage and pine chips back with sweaty palms and straining forearms.
When they arrived, they knew what they wanted. They had discussed it with great urgency the night before while planning their coup. With invisible blinders, they bypassed the dog and the cat (devastating if murdered), the duck (too loud), the fish (could not be petted). They walked straight to a center display of rabbits. For five minutes they observed. They ruled out the individuals that cowered behind plastic fortresses, the ones that leapt nervously, unconscious of crushing the others. There was a black and white one that seemed to possess a calm, dignified bearing. It would stop its nose from wriggling to assess its surroundings. They would name it Oreo.
They purchased food, a metal cage, a plastic water bottle, and pine chips. They hardly knew how they had saved the money. Somehow twenty-two dollars emerged from the coins they threw in a paper bag. Miraculously the clerk allowed them to count the change right then and there. All twenty-two dollars.
They arrived on their doorstep, exhausted from their exertions, and braced themselves for Auntie Eight. Yes, the rat was foolish. Rats carried pestilence and disease. But a rabbit on the other hand, a rabbit was cute.
Auntie Eight listened to their argument, her resolve being weakened by the shock of the rat. Yes, a rabbit did not make her stomach turn violently, but no, rabbits weren’t pets. They were food. You grabbed them by the scruff of their necks and hung them on a clothesline until they choked themselves from the force of their own kicking. As a snack in Vietnam, she would buy a whole skewer of roasted rabbit heads, teeth still intact and grimacing.
“Your family goes hungry back home, and you waste money.”
“Just a rabbit, Auntie. It’s just a rabbit. We’ve saved money for it. We’ll take care of it.”
Auntie Eight looked at them, furious but silent.
“Shall we season him with chili oil?”
“No!” Lily screams.
“It stays outside.”
“He’s not used to being outside. He’s used to the pet store.”
“Tchoak mut. Outside.”
Lily could tell that if she pushed the issue, she would only be beaten. She relinquished. She set his cage in the cool dark back porch, and sat with him awhile. Oreo hopped curiously from one end of the cage to the next, lifted himself on his hind legs to smell the night air. After awhile, Lily went off to bed.
The next morning, when she stuck her finger in to pet Oreo’s quivering nose, he bit her. She pulled her finger back and rebuked him.
“I’m your our only advocate. You want Auntie to cook you? She will. She’s killed hundreds of animals.”
She told Oreo about the cats Auntie abandoned in a field in Vietnam. About the doves Auntie brought home, that Lily had named, and then ate unknowingly, after Auntie had simmered them in the crockpot for a day. The rooster Alan had built a cardboard house for, only to see it feet up on the dining room table.