Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Generation 1: A Cloudy Horizon

The next day, Kim Chong went to the museum and sat on the front steps until the curator unlocked the doors.Within thirty minutes the man had given him a firm offer for the Egyptian vases that he had found four years ago while aimlessly wandering by the Nile River. It wasn't a lot of money—perhaps §5000—but it was enough collateral for the bank to extend him a line of credit. 

Now the builders were at the lot on a daily basis, and Kim Chong, Layla, and Xiu were back to living on the lawn. Now there was no more writing at the kitchen table, because there was no kitchen. The furniture and appliances were all kept well out of the way in the back of the orchard. The little nursery was choked with dust as the construction workers carefully uprooted the foundation and rotated the entire building by 90 degrees. 

"Dada, what doin'? Dada!"

"Ah … get fruit for cake. You be big girl tonight!"

"Big girl?" Xiu repeated, timidly. The idea didn't seem to appeal. 

Kim Chong laughed and mussed her hair. "Yes, big girl. Have nice room, own bathroom, bed, toys. Good?"

Xiu looked puzzled, but once her father mentioned the cake again she smiled. She pointed at the half-built house and clapped her hands.  And her father smiled down at her, though he did not share her pleasure.



"Hey, Xiu. Ready go school?"

"No," Xiu said.

For the first four years of her life, Xiu had only known two people: her mother, and her father. There were no morning play dates with the neighbor's children, no afternoons at a playground, no parties to attend. She didn't know what any of these things were and didn't miss them, and she would have gladly continued to pass her days with only her parents. 

But now it was time to start going to school. At least, that was what Dada said.

It turned out that going to class and meeting other kids wasn't such a scary thing after all. Before long at all, Xiu looked forward to school. But she was always glad for the last bell that released her back into the afternoon sunlight and Dada's arms. She wasn't as sophisticated as her classmates. She didn't care who was looking, she was going to hug her father.

Today he said he had a surprise for her. He took her to the grocery store and pointed to five crates full of various fruit from his garden. Her job, he explained, was to go in there and sell the fruit to the owner.

"But I can't do that!"

"Yes, can! Go in, talk nice lady, ask for money. They give."

"But I'm just a kid!"

"No, you young lady! Go sell."

When it came to her father, resistance was useless. In she went.

To her surprise, the owner was very willing to buy the fruit from her. The clerks gathered around, smiling at her as she proudly demonstrated her ability to count and multiply. They did all laugh when she asked to be paid with bubble gum and Tootsie Rolls. 

Soon enough, Xiu came outside holding §400 in her hands. She tried to give the money to her father, but he wouldn't take it. "We go to furniture store, you pick out bed you like best."

Now this was exciting. Xiu was used to watching her mother or father mull over the price of an item for several minutes before deciding whether or not to make a purchase; sometimes they even went home and thought about it for the rest of the night. Never before had she been able to go into a store and just point to what she wanted and be able to take it home that day.  

"Are you getting a bed too, Dada?"

"Mama already buy bed. In house."

Xiu would recall this statement years later. There was something about it--the way he'd said the words, perhaps the expression--that told her that Dada's sudden generosity only extended to her. He was not happy with her mother's decision. But he didn't say anything else about it, and wisely, neither did she.

They went home. Xiu and Kim Chong ate their dinner while Layla wrote. It occurred to Xiu that her mother wasn't eating with them, and wasn't speaking to her father. Instead, she sat moodily at the wall, looking away from Kim Chong.

"Mama, aren't you hungry?" 

Layla immediately answered that she was thinking about how to finish a chapter of her latest book. 

"Did you know that Dada let me

"Xiu," Kim Chong said, and the tone of his voice made her pause. Layla excused herself from the table and shut herself into the master bedroom. 

Xiu waited outside of the closed door after taking her evening bath until her father gently guided her into her own room. Puzzled and hurt, she went and sank down into the soft mattress. He sat with her, playing with her hair. 

"I did something bad, didn't I."

"Why say that?"

"I shouldn't have tried to tell Mama about the bed."

"No, Xiu," he said immediately. "Mama not angry for you, angry for me. I get call today. Old man from hometown want me teach martial art technique.  I going to China tomorrow."

"Can I come?" Xiu asked hopefully, but as soon as she saw his face she knew the answer would be no.

"Cannot pay you and Mama come. Cannot take you, leave Mama here. So must go alone. And Mama angry because last time I leave her and you alone something very bad happen. She scared will happen more time. But I must go. Want to give you good thing, but must pay for good thing before give. Cannot get job here, cannot pay for house with apple and carrot."

The next morning when Xiu woke up she was very sure that she heard her mother crying. She tried to go into the bedroom to hug her mama's neck and wipe the tears away, but the door was locked, and she didn't know why. She hesitated to leave for classes, lingering on the doorstep.

When she got on the school bus, she looked out of the smudged window at the house. It looked lonely and afraid under the clouds in the sky. Like she felt. Like her mother felt. Like her father's voice the night before.


When Xiu came home, the house was empty—and it felt like it. The master bedroom door stood ajar, and she went inside, looking around this room that had always been off-limits. There was the doorframe that led to the bathroom. At least, she assumed it was a bathroom, even there was no tub or toilet. There stood the brand-new bed, only lightly marked on one side by her mother's slim frame. And there on the bedside table sat several envelopes that had yet to be opened. They looked important, although Xiu didn't exactly know why.

Something about this room felt unhappy and oppressive. She lingered in the room only for a moment longer before going outside to play.

Layla met her in the yard and picked a few vegetables for dinner. They ate stew together and Xiu finished her homework while her mother tidied the small front room. When Layla went into the master bedroom and tried on her nice houndstooth skirt, Xiu followed. "Mama, how come you're putting on nice clothes at night?"

"Just seeing how they fit. Meeting a publisher tomorrow."

"What's a pub-sher?"

"That's the man who puts Mama's stories into a book."

"Does Dada make books too?"

At the word dada, Layla's mouth drooped. "… no, little one. Dada does not write. Dada cannot read."

"How come he can't read? I can read!"

"He did not go to school when he was your age. He was … too busy with martial arts."

Again, Xiu heard the warning tone in her parent's voice that told her she should not ask any more questions. Her mother forced a smile onto her face, picked up a book and asked in cheerful tones, "Do you want me to read to you? You can sleep in here tonight." 

Xiu accepted her mother's compromise. It would become a pattern, to be repeated through both of their lives.


Layla watched as the papergirl ran up to the doorstep and flung a heavy paper at the mail slot. There was a dull thud as the eager girl swung her arm, and ran away. It described her mood perfectly. Anticipation, an abrupt thud, and then silence.

She had gone to her morning meeting with high hopes. All of her online correspondence with Milton & Griffords was positive, and she was certain that her latest manuscript would be optioned quickly. But things had gone wrong during the face-to-face. She became acutely that the agent's focus wasn't exactly on her writing so much as her bustline. He didn't even try to hide it when his eyes dropped. After the third time, she was too offended to continue the interview. She excused herself, returned home, and sent an email to the publishing house, complaining about his behavior. 

Not an hour afterwards she received a call informing her that her work 'was not suitable for publication at this time.'

She stared glumly at the brand-new couch that had just been delivered that morning. She had bought it on credit, but there was no money left to pay the bill that would come in just two weeks. All of her cash had gone for her outfit. She stifled tears as she remembered trying it on at the store. At the time, it seemed so professional. Now it just made her feel dirty and used.

She wanted to rip off the silk blouse and burn the wool-blend skirt, but that would just be more money wasted. With a trembling sigh, she wrote a check for the last of their funds and put the overdue envelopes into the mailbox. She hoped like hell that whatever Kim Chong was doing, he hadn't forgotten about her.


  1. Oh dear... those are bad times for Layla.... I think I like her more now than the first time I read about her. Xiu is a sweet little princess but, for the moment Kim Chong still is my favorite.

  2. Layla is definitely NOT an unsympathetic character. You just have to see past the general unkindness. And the grouchiness. And the bossiness. And the selfishness. And ... err. Maybe she IS unsympathetic! :D (Rob is going to kill me for that.)