*Non-Fiction — September 1, 2016
Fredrik Rubensson, 2012
Matthews, North Carolina
- In the records of the earliest dynasties, events were (in absence of a portable standard) measured in the time it took two people to have dinner. When will the emperor’s forces surround the rebel encampment? The time it takes to eat a meal. What length was the traitorous general’s serenade to his favorite concubine before he headed off to battle? The time it takes to eat a meal. For how long did the horses drag the general’s decapitated corpse through the muddy roads of his hometown? The time it took to eat a meal.
- When the only Chinese restaurant in town folded, we didn’t find out until we arrived for dinner on New Year’s day and the dragon was gone. For years it had nested above the entrance, its body coiled and electric like some kind of mythical beast. But in its absence, only discolored concrete remained, weakly illuminated by the neon signage of the Fuddruckers on the other side of the parking lot. We peered inside and the banquet tables were all pushed to a corner; the red cushions had been ripped out of their booths and piled up in the center, slack as body bags. My father joked that we should leave before the People’s Liberation Army finishes its executions and starts cleaning up witnesses. My mother gave him a look and changed the subject, asking me what a Fuddruckers was. I replied, “A terrible thing,” and we drove away.
Marvin, North Carolina
- I let my mother dredge the deep fryer. It’s a fry bucket to be precise, no lid, all electric, just a rubber pail with enough space to make three chicken legs or a sandcastle’s primary turret. Last month it appeared on our doorstep inside a giant box also filled with pots, a rice maker, pans, two kettles, coffee tins, an electric iron, and a pressure cooker so outdated even our relatives in China would dismiss it as provincial. My father, it seemed, had not asked my mother what she wanted to spend their MasterCard reward points on. All his choices were terrible, except for the deep fryer. We forgave him.
- The things we deep fried were largely determined by novelty. My sister resisted at first, suspicious of the things bathed in half a gallon of oil. Then the afternoon my mother and I discovered anything dipped in pancake batter would turn golden and crisp—strawberries, sliced bananas, sweet potatoes, yuan xiao, dessert never ending. Then shrimp, salmon cuts, whatever meat my mother defrosted the night before. One night my father asked if we wanted hot pot, he had bought special thinly sliced lamb from the Chinese grocers. We deep fried the lamb. We’re all watching our weight now; we don’t want to end up like Americans.
- If I worry at night, it’s about the deep fryer after it’s unplugged. For thirty minutes it stays scalding hot while left unattended in the middle of the kitchen counter. My sister says she’s old enough to pour a glass of tea without knocking over a bucket of boiling oil. “Duh.” Still, I’m uneasy. I don’t want her to look like a burn victim. When I was in high school, there was a transfer student whose face was disfigured because her stepfather threw acid at her—so the story went—and we were all nice to her. I mean, we would hold fingers to our noses and oink when pushing past fat girls in the hallway. We would hand out party invitations to the whole class and skip the girls whom even makeup couldn’t turn pretty. We would throw our leftover carrot sticks at the girls who couldn’t afford the right clothes. But we were, all of us, nice to the transfer student. We always smiled, we always waved, we always said hello. We must have felt terribly sorry, looking at her. She wasn’t like the other girls. She was so ugly it was tragic.
Marvin, North Carolina
- By evening the squall line weakens. Our mother leaves once the rain starts to taper. Clouds roil across the sky, as if a lake frozen at high tide. She pulls the garbage can out to the curb. Twilight seeps past the cracks of a horizon that will take months to thaw. Alone at the bottom of the driveway, she looks underwater, her way lit by the pairs of lamps hanging above garage doors, each installed at the same height, an unbroken string that, as far as we see, encircles the earth. If she could keep traveling west (or is it east?) she might reach the places where her sisters have scattered. The sun wanes an ashen blue, a wound we left after falling through the ice.
- Trash strewn across the street: earlier the wind toppled recycling bins while rifling through the neighborhood. A slurry of grease and alcohol flows toward the gutters; the rivers glisten with bluegill bass, channel catfish, and ten thousand tons of coal sludge that local officials deny responsibility for. We head downstairs and help her wrap dumplings, our six hands gathering with flour until we become indistinguishable. She doesn’t say it, but we can tell, once we leave for our own families, we’ll never know this home again. Our grandparents’ fields are decades gone; the farmland paved into suburbs, strip malls, highway bypasses. Pinned to the refrigerator, there’s a sheet of paper brittle with age, a trail of phone numbers belonging to our aunts and uncles, written and unwritten like the rough draft of a poem on drifting apart. We too will chase shadows, believing they’re our dreams, and lose touch like geese caught on opposite seasons, or pollen that the wind flings in all directions.
- Rain returns, dangling off empty tree branches with a teardrop’s sag. Our mother finishes loading dishes into the washer. The full moon is piercing, but not bright enough to be seen across four continents. Whatever sky hangs over her kin tonight, home is as distant a wish as the cities their lives have portioned out.
- Sister, I’ve forgotten the rules to our childhood games, and the snow keeps falling as if no matter how many decades later, the city that should have raised us will never forgive our leaving. We land in Beijing, no better than tourists.
- I hail a taxicab and we try to pass for locals around the old imperial palace. On the way out, you point at an intersection and say maybe that’s where grandfather and his wooden cart were detained by the Red Guard for selling kettle corn. I laugh and wonder if mom will ever stop telling that story every time she sees a popcorn machine at the movie theater.
- Our mother, still jet-lagged, meets us for lunch at Pizza Hut. We plan the evening over garlic knots, bubble tea, and the hulking din of construction machines. The blizzard worsens and tower cranes go dark. Work falters. Those nascent skyscrapers through the haze are too much like Goya’s half-devoured colossus. Kitchen doors open and the tang of liquor and roast pork wafts out.
- The next morning, a petitioner’s carcass thaws out kitty-corner from the railway station. Trains to the seaside will be delayed. Those drawings our small hands carved into the dogged red walls of the hutongs have long eroded.
- My cousin and I were the biggest fobs in the Midwest, but we still had to go to school every Saturday morning. In winter, snow sagged off the sharp angles of the church roof, smearing the brick walls and stained glass panels with ice hued darker than soot. We trudged into the charmless single-story building without wiping our boots.
- When class started, the five of us boys still in middle school would sit as far back in the bible study room as we could, almost crashing into a bookshelf full of New Testaments and Jesus themed boardgames. We whispered about new releases for the N64, our beloved Lions’ playoff chances, and let the girls and the two highschoolers occupy the instructor’s attempts to teach us how to write and speak Chinese.
- Everyone’s parents waited out the time in the cafeteria—which wasn’t more than a couple of folding tables and a soda vending machine—and played majiang or eights while talking about whatever there was to say to the only other Chinese adults in town (and, as far as we knew) the only ones in Allegan county, in the lower peninsula, the rest of Michigan, the GMT -5 time zone, the western hemisphere.
- Our eyes often wandered toward the slit of a window that lead out to a field of grass long enough to play two first downs on. But nobody ever brought a football, and we weren’t permitted to sift through the equipment closet during our lunch break. It wasn’t our church; we only belonged on Saturdays between 9am and 2pm.
- Eventually, we came up with the rules of a game that would let us tackle one another and declare losers. We called it Hiroshima. Whoever scored highest on that week’s vocab quiz would become it. He had to run as fast as he could. The rest of us would be Americans.
Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 5. View full issue & more.