My Old Faithful
Rumor has it that Chinese families are usually close. Just how close can they be? Yang Huang's novel My Old Faithful consists of ten stories told by the father, mother, son and two daughters. Each confesses the pains and joys to be one of the family. A father spanks his son out of love. A mother is unsatisfied caring for her "selfish" children. A daughter primps herself for the admiration of her family. A son dallies with his sister out of curiosity. The younger daughter grows up and falls in love with an Indian man, who delights her entire family. Finally, when a prostitute approaches the father for business, the mother is shaken to her core. This is a portrait of a "normal" Chinese family, but only on the outside, as each person is bursting to tell the love and grudges he or she is holding inside. All the stories have been published in a handful of literary magazines. The following are some excerpts from the novel.
THE SELFISH YOUNGSTER
Son -- Pining Yellow
Father -- Chimney
Mother -- The Birthday Girls
THE WILLFUL TEENAGERS
Son -- If You Were My Legend
Younger Daughter -- The Match
Older Daughter -- The Homely Girl
Father -- The Umbrella
THE WOMEN IN LOVE
Older Daughter -- Dream Lover
Younger Daughter -- The Gourmet
Mother -- My Old Faithful
What the Son Did . . .
The old man was sticking a bunch of whistles onto the straw mast when I passed by his booth. "Hey, little brother," he called me. "Have you got a picture of your dog on you?"
"Sure," I mumbled. "I have one in my pencil-box."
"So what're you waiting for?" he asked, puffing white breath with every word. "I have a little spare time today. Why don't you let me take a look at your dog?"
I clutched the belts of my backpack so tightly that I almost stopped breathing. "But I don't have the money."
"Let's check out your dog first, and see if he's as great as you said."
"Of course he is." I threw my backpack on the ground to take out the pencil-box. Its plastic cover had become hard with cold, and I tore open a corner as I worked to get Yellow's picture out. I breathed on my hands to warm them.
"He's a stud alright," the man said, and ripped a piece of yellow dough to knead in his palms.
"What're you doing?"
"Just watch." He pressed his fingers on the dough to make a long muzzle, and cut a curve at the bottom to give it a grinning mouth. He rolled a pinch of black dough into a ball, sticking a pin twice to bring out the nose! He scraped a piece of white dough, sliced off two round shapes, then put a gray dot in the middle of each to show the hazel eyes. The old man did it all so fast that my eyes felt tired trying to keep up with his fingers. He slid his blade to the side and bent the dough into an ear that hung down from the head, no doubt, of my Yellow! "Wait." He pushed away my hand to finish the other ear. "Do you see what's missing here?" he asked.
"You have to pay me to make his body." He jabbed a bamboo stick into Yellow's throat and plugged the head on the top of the mast where I couldn't reach. "He's waiting for you. A cute dog, isn't he? Other kids will like him, too."
I felt dizzy watching Yellow's head hover over me, grinning. The old man touched my hand, and I looked down: it was Yellow's tail! Fuzzy and otter-like, with just the right curve. "Keep this for me, little brother, so you don't forget about your dog in case I do. What's his name?"
"A good name for a fine dog."
I wandered off feeling as if my own head had been left on the top of the mast. Then I reached up to pull down my hat and locked my head in place. Back to Top
A novella based on Pining Yellow was published in Stories for Film.
What the Father Wanted . . .
My son kept a crying face at dinner. It was so odd to see him shocked like this that it almost made me smile. After dinner, I went to the porch and smoked my Peony, while the light shone on the dead chick in the field. Pity if it was a little hen, she could've been laying eggs in a few months. Oh well. If my stubborn son learned a lesson, it would be well worth it.
While I was having my third cigarette, my son came to me whispering, "Dad."
"Are you ready?" I stubbed out the butt.
He stole a glance at the field. "Yes."
"Take your shovel. We'll bury it under the towel gourd. Do you want me to carry it over?"
"No, I will." He stood on the lowest step, and reached down to pick up the little chick by a thin leg, and his face turned white. He ran to my side and dropped it on the ground, clutching my leg, his dirty hands rubbing on my ivory pants.
I waited until he loosened his grip, squatted down and dug a few scoops into the ground. "Now do you want to finish it?" I asked him.
He nodded and began to dig with his little shovel, splashing dirt onto my pants and slippers. I didn't move. My wife and daughters were watching us from the porch. "Can I put it in now?" he asked in a whiny voice.
"You decide for yourself," I told him, "young man."
He measured the chick's body with his hand and dug a few more times. "Is it okay now?"
"Yes," I said softly.
He picked up the chick by its foot, and dropped it into the hole with a shiver. Then he began to scoop, and I stopped him. "Look at it for a minute, say you're sorry, and you'll be more careful with things in the future."
"I'm sorry." His features were convulsed so I told him, "Now you can bury her." He shoveled so fast that he had to stop twice, to catch his breath. I just watched him. The porch light on the upstairs balcony was turned on, then off.
My younger daughter asked, "Do you guys need help?"
"No," he said and wiped his forehead. "I got it." He flattened the mound with the back of his shovel. Then he crouched down as if he'd throw up. He sprang up and dashed for the porch, and I followed him. My wife reached out to touch him, but he veered straight to his room. He went to bed early that night. Back to Top
Chimney was published in the August, 2001 issue of FUTURES.
What the Mother Did Not Know . . .
The Birthday Girls
Almost two hours later, I headed home with a pair of Nike. I wished I had gotten the pendant of Kuan-yin instead, the piece of deep green jade engraved with the divine image. It would grow greener after being worn close to the skin. Body heat warms up jade; I knew that because my mom had once given me a pendant. So that I could be there with her in the afterlife, I had it buried with her when she passed away from breast cancer. Lian had never met her grandmother, whose name I had cried out in pain while giving birth to my children. When I had first taken Lian into my arms, I had been more hurt than disappointed, knowing my heir was fated to grow up and have this great birth pang, that her being a Dragon made no difference.
I got home and flashed the Nike box at Lian; I didn't feel like keeping a secret tonight. "Three hundred yuan!" she screeched when seeing the receipt inside. I was touched. We weren't used to buying the children gifts. But the twelfth year is special because one's own zodiac sign returns and it begins a new cycle.
Lian looked lovely with her round chin and slim shoulders. I wondered how the jade pendant would have hung on her chest. "You're a lucky girl," I said, "to be born perfect on Kuan-yin's birthday."
"Whatever," she said, running to show her dad the gift.
Because I had been missing my mom and caring for my daughters, I couldn't bear her "whatever" tonight. Following her to the kitchen, I raised my voice. "It's not 'whatever,' daughter. You think your birthday is yours, yours alone, well you're wrong. It belongs to me as well, the mother who brought you here."
"Watch out, ladies, hot stew coming through," my husband said, carrying the cauldron to the dinner table. "What's going on?"
"Our daughter thinks her birthday has nothing to do with me, that's all."
"That's not what I meant," Lian said.
"I know you didn't mean anything," I interrupted her. "You never mean anything. What do you care? Except for getting your shoes."
"Am I missing something here?" My husband fumbled in the Nike box. "Lian's birthday is not tonight, is it? Good, let's feed first, and worry about business later. Come on now, both of you, sit, it's late. Dinner time, boy and girls."
Lian took her seat at the table obediently, as I grabbed the Nike box to hide it in the highest drawer in our bureau. Back to Top
The Birthday Girls was published in Volume 5 Issue 1 of Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine.
With Whom the Son Took Liberties . . .
If You Were My Legend
When I took Lian swimming the next day, I felt so depressed I could barely stay afloat. The sound of people's chattering and laughing made my stomach turn. I dove into the deep water in order to have a moment of silence. But I couldn't stay underwater for long, and surfaced each time spewing water like a killer whale. Lian asked me what new game I was playing. I told her it was the deep water dive.
It seemed to be a harmless game. We raced each other to touch the bottom of the pool, starting from the shallow end then moving toward the deeper side. She had a hard time sinking because as a girl, she had more body fat. I snickered at her attempt to wiggle her way down, flip and flop like a fish stuck to the bait.
Soon I left Lian practicing in the shallow and swam to the deepest end by myself, and saw the girl in my class who was on the swimming team. I didn't say hello because she didn't seem to recognize me when I got near. Her face was blank, her eyes looking far away as if at the cloudless sky. Her upper body was wet, her hands holding tightly onto a young man's shoulders. I could only see his muscular back and handsome profile, his face almost touching her stomach. The straps on her swimsuit cut into her tan shoulders.
I rolled my legs forward and made a dive into the water. As my sinking slowed, I opened my eyes, and groped at the cement wall of the pool to touch the floor, three-and-a-half meters deep. On the way back up, I saw a forest of legs kicking around me, before I glimpsed two meters from me, a naked female genital. The bathing suit was pulled aside and pinned to her thigh by a man's bony hand. Her legs opened up like a pair of drawing compasses, while two thick fingers were sliding in and out of her in a frightful rhythm. I saw her sparse pubic hair and pinkish flesh with the brutal fingers inside. I swam away as far as I could, and just before my lungs exploded, I surfaced like a dead fish.
"Where have you been?" Lian's complaining voice broke me from my trance. I found myself back at the shallow end but couldn't remember how I had made it so far in a single breath.
I glared at my chubby sister. Her breasts lifted her swimsuit with plum-sized bumps. I'd seen her bathing countless times before but only now, with the straps of her swimsuit clamped tightly onto her meaty shoulders, could I picture her pussy, hairy and pink, and how she could open her own legs like a pair of drawing compasses, for fingers to slide in and out.
She pinched her nose and yelled, "Look at me!" and made a back flip into the water. Her white feet were the last I saw of her before she disappeared into the water.
After a few seconds, she popped out of the water. "Darn!" she said.
"I'm deaf." She tossed her head to make water bounce off her hair. For no reason, I reached out and stroked her head so gently that she barely noticed. Back to Top
If You Were My Legend was published in the November, 2001 issue of FUTURES.
What the Younger Daughter Once Aspired to . . .
At the bonfire party, I am one of the few girls wearing a sundress. Mine is an old rayon dress with yellow sunflowers on black cloth, which feels like it's pouring down my skin. Pin wears the souvenir shirt for a mixed-jump finalist, and sits on the bench with her back to us. I've said nothing to Stumpy about their losing the final, which, to me, was no loss at all. I kick the stone I sit on with the heels of my plastic sandals, dancing to my own cheery beat. Then Fei asks us to tell our partner what led us to join the summer camp.
"For the fun of the game." Stumpy squints at me, while I feel the warmth of fire on my thigh. "My brain never works better than when I stand in front of the crossbar, and know exactly how I'm going to clear it." He pushes down my knee to stop my leg from kicking. "Your turn."
I think of Fei, her flight over the bar, her long-lashed daughter who was not afraid of letting me catch her fall, her match of a husband whom she loves more than us, possibly--the three of them balancing on the same bicycle. It seems silly to tell Stumpy how Fei held me spellbound. I chuckle and tease him, "For the match with you."
He glares at me. "What're you talking about?"
"The old saying is right: out of blows friendship grows." I toss my head back and burst into a loud laugh. "We didn't start off on the wrong foot, I guess."
It begins to rain, so we retreat to our dorms. A paper plane flies out of the opposite boys' building, wheeling in the air for a few minutes before it crashes to the ground. Several new planes drift out into the moist evening air. One veers into the neighboring window. Another is sticking to the wall and unwilling to leave. A few plunge into the gathering puddles while their makers yell, "Come back here!"
Only one plane crosses the road, making its way toward our windows. The boys' cheering and shouting might have moved the plane, had it not been made of paper. When it hits our wall and drops off, a deep sigh rises in unison from both dorms.
I run downstairs to pick up the plane and throw it back to the boys. Back to Top
The Match was published in Volume 11 of Nuvein Online.
How the Older Daughter Looks . . .
The Homely Girl
"Looks don't matter," Mom said. I was thirteen, trying on my new glasses at home. I saw my face in the mirror, drooping under the weight of the frames.
"The glasses hide your bulging eyes," she said.
I turned my face to her. She seemed further from me than usual, smaller, her eyes so keen they startled me. I felt the floor floating up when I moved my eyes away from her.
"The glasses make your nose look daintier." She sighed. "You have your father's nose."
I stood up from my chair, put my feet down lightly for every step, gripping the edge of the table as I moved toward her side. She looked at the photos spread on the table. I sat down in a chair by her, looking at her profile, the eyes and nose I hadn't inherited.
"Can you help?" she asked me. She wanted to send four of our baby photos to be enlarged and colored. She had chosen three, one of mine, one of my brother's, one of my sister's, and was looking for the forth.
The glasses were sliding down my nose, so I pushed them up. "I feel dizzy," I said.
"Okay, Rou," she said. I knew I was pardoned from the chore. "Wei has my nose and eyes." She picked up my brother's photo, taken when he was five years old, holding a toy machine gun. "Look at those dimples, bigger than coins!" She traced the lovely dents with her pinky. "They all say that's a sign of good fortune."
Dimples. I never had dimples, and never will.
"He had the prettiest baby teeth too, like little . . . grains of rice. When he smiled, his eyes curved like two half moons."
"And his complexion was so . . ." She finally ran out of words, holding the black and white photo in her palms. It had to be her last pick, and no doubt, her favorite.
I sat straight to look at my face in the bottom of the bureau mirror. It was a little crooked, showing a narrow face that I found I liked. I was on the chubby side for a girl, Mom once told me. Luckily I had an okay complexion. "Peachy?" I said.
"Yes, Peachy." She wasn't satisfied. "It was almost . . . powdery. You know what I mean?"
But I was the one with the complexion in the family. Nobody praised my complexion in so many words. Wei took all the pretty features from both of my parents. I wanted what belonged to me, my peachy complexion. The yellow plastic frames made me look pale. I took off my glasses and let the photos in front of me fade into a blur.
Mom glanced at me. "I think you look better with the glasses, Rou." And so I had become stuck with my extra pair of eyes. Back to Top
The Homely Girl was published in the October, 2001 issue of FUTURES.
What the Father Is Worried about . . .
A clap of thunder seems to rip open a hole in the sky. I watch rain pelt down in hard sheets from the upstairs balcony, and worry about my younger daughter who is stranded at school. Lian is not a strong kid, and last night she complained about menstrual cramps. I mustn't let her be soaked on her way home and catch her death of cold.
I take out the largest umbrella from storage and dust it off. May has come before I could have our rain gear fixed. Two of its bamboo bones are broken, so a corner of the oilcloth is drooping. It cannot be folded into a backpack or opened with a flick of a finger. I push it against the wall to slide up the central handle until it clicks with a squeak. A giant taupe dome shadows me as I hold up the antique, the only umbrella useful in this downpour. I close it up to put on my raincoat, then hurry away to Lian's school.
Nearing a noodle shop, I catch sight of a tall young man who stands in the doorway holding open his raincoat. The hair on the back of his head is wet and smooth, gleaming jet-black. Passing by him, I become curious about the face the man wears with his fine physique, so I peer back. He bows his head with one cheek pressing on a young woman's temple. There behind the breast of his raincoat hides the little face of my fifteen-year-old daughter.
I whisper, "Lian," and clear my throat.
Lian loosens her grip on the man's waist. With her bangs heaped to one side on her forehead, she appears more surprised than I do. I'm almost too ashamed to speak, but she asks me, "Dad, what're you doing here?"
I thump the ground with my umbrella. "I was bringing you this, so you wouldn't get drenched." From the corner of my eye, I feel the young man watch me.
"Professor Chen," he calls me. I glare at Lian while he explains, "You taught child psychology my sophomore year. I'm from the physical education department. We are now practicing teaching at Lian's high school . . ."
I thrust the umbrella into Lian's hands. "Take this and go home!"
Lian sways her hips and faces the young man, who takes her umbrella to open it for her. He pushes up the central handle to snap it locked with a flick of his wrist. I reach out to warn him not to break more bamboo bones, only to smooth down the flabby corner of the oilcloth.
"Here you go," he says.
Lian carries the umbrella on her shoulder, rolling the handle a bit while smiling at him. I cannot watch them flirting anymore and pull Lian by the elbow. "Off you go." The young man steps into the rain but I wave him back. "You don't have to follow us home," I tell him. "Give me your name and phone number. We have to talk."
He gropes in his pants pocket to find an emptied cigarette pack, jots down a few lines and passes it to me. His fingers scald my skin when our hands touch. I lift my eyes and see he's flushed to the roots of his hair. I walk into the rain and nudge Lian home without another word. Back to Top
The Umbrella was published in the February, 2002 issue of FUTURES.
What the Older Daughter Has Got . . .
At the beginning of my second semester, I finished my TOEFL exam and started to attend Xu's poetry club meetings. I had no ear for rhymes, but I loved spying on him at the center of a talkative crowd. I imagined that he could have any number of fine girlfriends if he wished it, with his face, his voice, his smile, not to mention his style--he was a beautiful dancer. I also had a weakness for the snacks served at the meeting (Xu had a small budget from the school): spiced sunflower seeds, preserved beef jerky, bean paste moon cakes . . . . Every week I looked forward to something better and was never disappointed.
I had attended the weekly readings for four months without being noticed, until I was the only girl left in the club. One day, Xu asked why I hadn't read anything.
"I can't write poetry," I said.
It was the first week of May, and he had just gotten an increased budget. He brought in two giant bags of M&Ms that I couldn't take my eyes off. Imported M&Ms were shockingly expensive back then. My mouth watered when I read the bag's "Melt in Your Mouth, But Not in Your Hands." It must be even better than milk chocolate, which I loved, but which only came in brown and white chunks.
He caught me gawking at the M&Ms and said, "Promise you'll read something next time, or you can't have this."
I licked my lips and scanned the room; nine pairs of smiling eyes were on me. I peered at him and said nothing.
He broke into a laugh. "You just came for the food," he said. "Now open your hands." He ripped the bag open and poured me a great heap.
It was not true that I just went for the food, though if I couldn't attract him, I would settle for the candies. I savored my chocolate, letting each M&M melt slowly in my mouth and sweeten my tongue from tip to root. I was a little disappointed to find a yellow M&M melted in my palm, revealing its brown inside. I pressed the piece into my mouth and licked my palm, wrapped up six candies in my handkerchief for the next day (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, brown--enough colors to make a rainbow!), then wiped my wet palm on my brown polyester pants. I had very sweaty hands; maybe some people, like Xu, had the right kind of hands that wouldn't melt the chocolate. I peered up at Xu, who was watching me rub my hand on my thigh. Suddenly I became worried: did my slacks make my legs look bulky? Back to Top
Dream Lover was published in the May, 2002 issue of FUTURES.
What the Younger Daughter Falls for . . .
Amol looks like a dark giant planted in the middle of our dining room, towering above my mother. His head is only inches under the ceiling fan, and his slouching shoulders seem foolish and out of place, but are dear to my sight.
"Amol?" I call him.
He spins around, causing the bulk of his body to momentarily lose its balance. "You're here!" I shout, laughing and wrapping my arms around his stout back. He smells of a lightly pungent perfume.
"How are you, Lian!" He brushes my elbows with his fingertips. I squeeze him hard then let him go. If Mom had not been watching us, I would've realized the day is really too hot for hugging.
"Has he eaten?" Mom asks in a timid voice. I translate it.
Amol rubs his palms saying, "They gave me some extra salty peanuts on the plane. I have to wash my hands first." I take him to the bathroom and give him a new towel.
Mom has cleaned the table when I return. "Are you done?" I ask her, surprised.
"Yes, we were waiting on you."
I march to the kitchen to pick out two tofu dishes and chive with scrambled eggs, and fill a bowl with rice. We have no silverware in the house and Amol cannot use chopsticks, so I grab a porcelain spoon and plate.
"Why don't you take out some meat dishes?" Mom asks. "Your friend will think we're stingy."
"He doesn't eat meat," I tell her.
"Then how did he grow so tall?"
I ignore her.
"It's a miracle, for a flight to be an hour and half ahead of schedule." Amol's loud voice echoes in the bathroom. "Fortunately I had a first-class ticket, or my bones would've been hurting after crouching in the seat for twenty hours." He stomps out with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing his hairy forearms. "It's so good to see you again," he says, with water on his grinning face. "I missed you at work."
"What did he say?" Mom asks.
I pull out a chair to invite Amol to sit down. "Mom, I can't carry on a conversation if you ask me to translate everything."
Amol thanks me. "Has your mom said something about me?" he whispers to me.
"Yes." I smile. "She wishes you a good appetite. That will make her happy."
Dad carries out two bamboo chairs, nudging Mom toward the door. "Wife, let's go out to enjoy the cool, leaving the kids to have their talk."
I watch Mom close the screen door very slowly, then latch the iron door with a click. I wait for her face to pop back and have a last peek. Instead, their footsteps recede. I turn to Amol and smile with relief. Back to Top
The Gourmet was published in Volume 8 Number 2 issue of The Asian Pacific American Journal.
What the Mother Is Afraid of . . .
My Old Faithful
As soon as I set foot in the nursery's garden I find the auspicious flower: a red double peony. Its huge blossoms burst forth as if brimming over with rose-red joy. I stand in awe, while the store clerk tells me its strong stems never fall, even in the harshest weather. Its name, Old Faithful, makes it perfect for my home, as my husband and I are going to have our thirtieth wedding anniversary in two weeks.
"Yes," I say.
I carry the potted peony to the storefront, and find that my husband is talking to a young woman with a fluffy, chrysanthemum-like hairdo. "Can you give me a hand?" I call out to him. The woman glances at me, backs away into the crowd and boards the bus.
My husband takes my heavy pot to clamp it on the back seat of his bike. "You scared away some business," he tells me, with a smile on his face.
"What sort of business?"
"The bawdy kind." He ties the nylon rope to crisscross the pot and fastens a dead knot. "I'm pretty sure she was a prostitute."
"You mean she wanted you?"
He pushes the bike onto the pavement. "Am I not a man? Don't I have a wallet?"
"Watch your mouth!" I feel a sharp pain in my back and grab the seat of his bike. My fibroids are acting up again. I've had them for more than ten years; now I began to have belly and back pain. My husband took me to the hospital this morning, and the doctor suggested I have a hysterectomy--to have both my uterus and ovaries removed. It's a safe procedure, she told me, and many women who have had it are very happy with the results. I told her I had to think about it. Upset, I left the hospital with the single thought that I'd buy something nice to cheer me up. I found the Old Faithful, but what's the use of that if my husband is bent on ruining my day? "You carry on like this, and make sure that bad luck follows my heels," I accuse him.
"Take it easy." He holds my hand and squeezes it gently. "She wants business and we don't, so there's no transaction, end of story."
I watch the crowd move in the street. Young men and women dress in white, fawn, lavender and dark summer outfits that bring out their flawless skins. No one knows I am about to lose my uterus, with which I have borne three children. My older daughter is expecting a baby, and my younger daughter is getting married to an Indian man. My son is dating a professional dancer, who seems to think herself too pretty for him. Not that I care much for young people's folly, but here I stand on the pavement in the midday sun, and feel stranded on an island of youth with my old man.
"Look at you!" I stroke his sunken cheek, his lusterless skin. "You're not too wrinkled for a fifty-two-year-old, I guess."
He wraps his arm around my waist, and pushes the bike with his free hand. "Wife, you're a shapely fifty-year-old." Back to Top
My Old Faithful was published in the August, 2002 issue of FUTURES.