Joyland

San Francisco |

Winter of Departures

by Susanna Kwan

edited by Lisa Locascio

Recently, at a neighbor's memorial, I saw a young man in uniform press a button inside the barrel of his bugle, his white gloves bright against the polished yellow metal, before bringing the instrument to his lips and filling the cemetery with the sound of "Taps." During the minute the song played, the muscles in his cheeks and neck did not move. No one else seemed to notice it was a recording. Another man in uniform presented the family with a flag folded into a soft-cornered triangle like a chain letter or the notes girls used to pass in Language Arts.

When I was very young, I lived downstairs from a retired band director who volunteered as a bugler for military funerals. I could tell from Mr. O’Rourke’s footsteps when he was preparing to leave his apartment. Sometimes when I heard his door shut I would open mine to catch him on his way down.

“The twenty-four hardest notes to play,” he’d say, lifting his trumpet case and pointing the bell end at me.

Once, he had seen me use a watering pot to write the alphabet on the cement in our shared backyard, and soon after small boxes of colored sidewalk chalk began to appear at my front door. From the street or the yard, where I drew hopscotches with my new chalk, I could see the blackened walls of the building beside ours.

The building had been boarded up since the year before, when a fire had killed a family of squatters who had moved into the top floor after word got out that the bank, which owned the property, had given up on collecting rent. They had run an extension cord to the downstairs unit to siphon power, and the plug had sparked and ignited the apartment, trapping them inside.

I woke up outside in my mother’s arms as smoke pumped out of the windows next door. All down the block, which was riddled with half-patched potholes, residents huddled outside their buildings as firemen pointed water hoses at the flames. Beside me and my mother were the rest of the neighbors from our building: Avis, along with her hulking boyfriend, Cedric, both of them in their fluffy bathrobes; Mr. O’Rourke in flannel pajamas, his silver hair smashed and tangled and his trumpet case in hand; and Wilson, gaunt and shivering in his underwear and faux-fur slippers. All five of us—and Cedric—together in one place.

#

On Sunday mornings I woke to the warbled sound of Mr. O’Rourke playing the trumpet and the slip and swish of scissor blades as my mother clipped coupons from the newspaper. After listening awhile to the brass notes twisting through Mr. O’Rourke’s floorboards and into my room, I would kick off my covers, pad into the narrow kitchen, climb onto the other stool at the rolling island we used as our dining table, and watch my mother stack perfect rectangles of thin, smooth paper. I wanted to help, but my hands were too small and the scissors squeaked at the pivot and resisted straight lines.

“Don’t mess up my piles,” she would say when I ran my thumb along the soft corners. “I have those organized like that for a reason.” After checking every page, she would secure each pile with a paper clip and place them all in a brown plastic sleeve that fit inside her wallet. She never went anywhere without that sleeve.

Afternoons, my aunt, who lived a six-hour drive south in Los Angeles, would call to complain to my mother about their mother.

“What do you expect,” my mother would say. “They fried her brains, remember?”

When she talked on the phone, she would huddle over her crossed legs and twist the cord with a finger. If I laid my chin on the island counter, I could see into her ear—dark corners and crevices, shadowed shapes. When she noticed me staring and listening, she’d wave me out of the room, and I would lie on my belly in the hall and peer into the kitchen from the floor. With my cheek against the coarse, lumpy carpet that smelled of previous tenants’ cigarette smoke, I could see her toes curled on the bottom stool rung and feel the entire building vibrating with trumpet noise.

“No, thanks,” she said into the receiver some days. “We have enough right now, but thanks for offering.”

“Someone broke into my car,” she said on other days. “With the tires and now this window I have to replace, we’re already down to almost nothing this month.”

I loved how the whole building was home on Sundays. Avis, who lived upstairs across from Mr. O’Rourke, would knock on the door with a Pyrex measuring cup my mother would fill to the top red line with sugar. Two hours later, Avis would return with half a dozen warm peanut butter cookies, and, on occasion, some plastic jewelry for me—dangling chili pepper earrings, pearls with seams that scratched my skin. She was a round woman whose hairstyle changed weekly—from tiny braids that hung straight to her shoulders to bouncing ringlets to a shiny red bob. Sometimes she even had long blond waves. She pinched my nose with her knuckles when she passed by, and when she laughed—when Cedric, who worked nights as a bouncer and security guard, came around and made her laugh—the sound was loud and full, like dinner with my extended family. Her perfume made my head throb, but I held my breath happily because I liked when she visited. From my window, I’d see her waiting, in a brown blazer and matching pants, all of her brown, for the bus that went downtown. My mother said she worked retail at one of the department stores.

Wilson, the forty-something-year-old Chinese man who lived opposite us, would step out for a smoke every hour or so. I’d follow him down the stairs, admiring his neat ballerina bun and perfect posture, to watch him from inside as he blew smoke rings on the stoop. He wore jeans torn at both knees, one of the holes patched with pink sequined thread, its seam puckered, the scales forming a sparkling wad, which I imagined would do damage to his skin if he fell. The other hole hung open like a lazy mouth with frayed threads for lips. I thought he looked lonely and told my mother so.

“I think you’re right,” she said. “You were too young to remember, but a very nice man named Leo used to live with him. He got sick and died a few years ago.”

“Cigarettes are no good for little girls,” Wilson would shout through the glass-paned front door, and I’d stare at the dramatic slope of his cheekbones as he inhaled, his cheeks rosy, as if a sheet of coal was glowing under the rugged skin. He seemed thinner and paler every time I saw him. I wondered, as I wondered of all men his age, if he might be my father.

“No, he isn’t.” My mother took my chin between her thumb and pointer finger. “I would tell you if it were him.”

In the cement yard, weeds shot up through the cracks and wilted, too tall to stand. Poppies sprouted from the fence corners like static bonfires. Cats covered in cuts and sores, their ribs visible beneath the fur, slunk through the lawn, which was ravaged from winter and littered with mascara tubes and beer bottles and bullet casings. At night we heard the cats yowl as they scavenged in the dumpster. When they came to the back door, my mother would put out a shallow bowl of milk. She said their bones were stretching like mine, that their cries were from growing pains.

#

The winter I was seven was the coldest in Northern California in decades, and I hoped to see my first snow. Icicles formed on our windows. The radiator hissed and clicked, but failed to generate heat. My nose was raw and peeling from weeks of emptying my sinuses into toilet paper. My mother filled a baking pan with half an inch of water and set it on the back step so we could marvel at the ice an hour later.

One afternoon I left a Coke can, the one soft drink I was allowed for the week, in the back seat of her car, and the can froze and exploded overnight. Early the next morning on our way to school, we found the can blown cleanly in two, its contents on the seat, not yet slush—a cylinder of brown snow. I reached for the aluminum pieces, and my mother pushed me back on the sidewalk and placed them in a plastic bag in the glove compartment, saying, “It’s sharper than it looks.” Then she tossed the cold brown lump to the curb and brushed away the ice shards that had formed on the seat.

Several shelters had shut down that year. Homeless men slept on the front stoop of our building, huddled beneath the thick glass windows on either side of the door, one beneath the four mailboxes and another beneath the four doorbells, their shopping carts pulled up on the step, partially blocking the entryway. My mother never said a word to them, not good morning or hello or get out. I asked why we couldn’t let them bring their sleeping bags and coats inside, just to the ground level where nobody lived, where it was warmer, and my mother said, “Don’t ever open your door for someone you don’t know and trust.” But I saw empty yogurt containers—the same kind she bought for me—and plastic baggies flecked with white rice or Cheerios left in the corner. One morning I even glimpsed, beneath the layers of military green, a corner of the pink polyester blanket my aunt had given me, patterned with rainbows and ponies, which my mother had refused to let me use because it was flammable.

A few days after Christmas, I was bundled in wool and playing in the yard when I saw Avis hurrying down her back steps, running so fast I was sure she would miss a step and fall. She squeezed herself behind the dumpster. Disheveled and trembling, she was almost unrecognizable. I had never seen an adult hide or look so terrified. I don’t think I’d have known it was her if I hadn’t seen the whole thing.

She put her fingers to her lips when she saw me. “Shhh.”

I ran inside and told my mother, who dropped the knife she’d been using to chop ginger and went straight to the yard. She came right back with Avis and latched the door behind them. After checking the locks on the front door, she sat Avis down on the living room couch, pulling a blanket around her. I positioned myself on the floor between the two of them.

“The 9 is gone from my phone.” Avis was panting, and her voice was raspy.

“What?” my mother said.

“I look out the window and see him get out of his truck and he has a baseball bat. I pick up the phone to call the police because this morning he said he was going to kill me. But there’s no 9 on my phone anymore. He took the 9 off my phone.”

“You’re safe here,” my mother said.

The main door to the building opened and slammed below. Heavy, slow footsteps came up the stairs, past our apartment door, and up the next flight, followed by a boom.

“He just kicked my door open,” Avis said.

“I’ll call the police.”

“Please, please don’t.”

My mother went to the kitchen and came back with an envelope. She kept a thin stack of cash hidden under slabs of frozen chicken in the icebox for emergencies, the bills so old they looked counterfeit.

“Here,” she said. “You can stay with us for a few days, but you have to get out of here. It’s not going to get better.”

Avis shook her head. “I can’t take your money.”

She spent the next few nights on our couch, and my mother monitored the window for Cedric. At one point, Wilson and Mr. O’Rourke came over. They had heard the commotion. Wilson’s arms were covered in rashes, and he was so thin I couldn’t look at his face, so I stared at his sparkling pink knee. Mr. O’Rourke didn’t have much to say, but he pulled a harmonica from his shirt pocket and blew a ragged tune into the hollow metal, making Avis smile.

“You must have been a great dad,” she said, and he nodded, just barely, and gripped the harmonica in his hand.

“You deserve better,” Wilson said to her. We could barely understand him over his cough.

“You take care of you,” Avis said.

The year was coming to a close. I don’t think we had ever all been in the same room together. My mother filled an old takeout container with leftovers from Christmas and handed it to Wilson, who requested another song from Mr. O’Rourke.

In the mornings of her brief stay, Avis would ask to use the phone. I overheard her calling in sick and then telling my mother she was afraid of losing her job. “This is the busy season,” she said. “I can’t miss any more shifts, I can’t.”

I kept returning to the scene in the backyard. I could not understand who Cedric was, or had become, to her. I wanted to know what he had done. “It’s not our business,” my mother said. She didn’t ask questions, but she always opened her door at the right time.

The landlord had the door fixed and the locks changed a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, and Avis went back upstairs.

That was the first time I stayed up for the New Year, and I remember feeling older, the way I expected to on birthdays but never did. Earlier that day, my mother had let me try arugula, which she had grown in a plastic milk jug on the back step. I remember that first pinch on my tongue, the flood of bitter and sweet, the surprise that there could be spice in a leaf. I resisted spitting it out, and this, too, made me feel grown-up. For the last half hour of the year, my mother and I sat next to the radio with cups of sparkling cider she’d saved from last January’s clearances, waiting for the recorded moment when somewhere, three hours earlier and thousands of miles away, in a city I could not yet imagine, a glowing ball dropped. We heard cheers from the neighbors watching a broadcast down the street, and we clinked our cups and sipped the cider. Upstairs Mr. O’Rourke played “Auld Lang Syne,” and when I woke I felt, for the first time, the loneliness of morning on New Year’s Day.

#

It must have been a Sunday in mid-March the last time we heard from Avis because I remember we were on our fourth or fifth or sixth day of eating corned beef. My mother would buy it once a year, on sale, and we would eat it all week, stuffed into sandwiches when the cabbage ran out, or sprinkled into omelets, the clipped red threads of meat flaking like eraser shavings. Sick of the taste, I pretended I was eating pieces of barbequed pork or duck with glistening chocolate-red skin. When that didn’t work, I tried to conjure the taste of ham.

Earlier that day I watched my mother cut coupons and place them into neat stacks, and we ate brunch to the dampened trumpet soundtrack. My aunt called, as usual, and my mother sat hunched on the kitchen stool for hours, talking in a low voice.

“We have to move out of this place,” I heard her say. “It’s just not safe.”

Wilson had been moved into hospice care, and the afternoon felt empty without his ritual smoking breaks. Outside, the cherry trees had blossomed and clouds of pink and white floated over the sidewalk, dropping petals that browned under foot traffic.

My mother had decided it was time for me to start learning how to cook. For dinner, she started with a simple lesson. After checking to see how much corned beef was left, she instructed me to rinse and soak the rice while she took a quick shower. In a series of washes, I sifted out the bugs that had invaded the stock. The tap water smelled like chlorine that day. The rice water was just starting to run clear.

That’s when I heard the knocking—insistent, loud, so powerful I thought the front door would break open. I listened for a reaction from my mother, but she must not have been able to hear over the water. The pounding didn’t stop, so I set down the pot and crept into the hall and saw the front door shaking, and then I heard Avis yelling right into the wood, open the door, please, please, open the door, and I wanted to but didn’t know if I should, and instead I dropped to the carpet and clamped my hands over my ears and tried to stop my whole body from shaking. My shoulders wouldn’t stop shuddering, and the rough carpet burned against my cheek, and the clamor did not subside. I brought my hands from my ears, and just kept grabbing handfuls of carpet and pulling and pulling, willing the moment to stop, feeling my fingertips go raw. It sounded like a giant was sprinting down the stairs. I heard a man’s voice, full of rage. The thumping was different now. She might have been throwing her shoulder against the door. Please. After a minute it stopped. I heard a tiny muffled yelp, then nothing.

I crawled onto my knees and into the kitchen where I stood up and stared at the coupons stacked on the island. I picked them up and tore them in half and in half again, not knowing why I was doing it, and when I was done the counter and the floor were covered in shreds of colorful paper. I stood there breathing only through my nose until alongside the fear I felt sorry, the most sorry and scared I had ever felt about anything, and my breathing got even faster.

The bathtub faucet squeaked shut. I wanted to make those pieces of paper whole again, I wished I had opened the door, I wanted to take it all back. I ran to my room and hid under the covers, trying to make myself undetectable.

I listened as my mother dried her hair. I heard her feet on the kitchen linoleum and waited.

“What is this?” she shouted. “Get in here. Now.”

All I wanted was her arms around me, but I shrank and shut my eyes and pressed myself closer to the wall. I don’t think I could’ve made a sound if I had tried.

She came into my room but didn’t see me because I heard the hall closet creak and I heard her yanking the shower curtain to the side and even opening the refrigerator door moments later. Never had I felt my heart going so fast, so fast I thought I would go blind.

I tried to breathe but I couldn’t control the air, just kept hearing the footsteps and Avis pounding and yelling at the door, and I don’t know how much time had passed but when I opened my eyes my mother was beside me in my bed, under my blanket, holding my head in her hands.

“I’m not mad. It’s okay,” she kept saying. “Whatever it is, it’s okay.”

I let her hold me, but even her hands and arms and voice could not make the terror that had bloomed inside me leave.

#

We can't predict the ways we will fall short, those vital, ordinary slips. Some days my girlhood closes in around me, and it’s like I’m living in that building again, in that time when people had run out of just about everything and still had something to give. When I think of that apartment now, I see my mother closing her checkbook and leaning over the table with her palms pressed against her temples, saying, “It’s like the ocean is inside my head.” From a stool by the window, I see cherry blossoms and an older couple with stooped backs carrying boxes from Avis’s apartment, one by one, as Mr. O’Rourke’s mournful trumpet music reverberates against the walls.

He had been the one to call the police. They found Avis’s body in her apartment. From under my blanket my mother and I heard the sirens and saw the lights flashing rapid-fire like a bright drumbeat. She pulled back and tried to see my face in the shadow. “Oh no, oh no,” she said. “What happened?”

“The schedules they handed him at the cemetery got longer and longer,” my mother told me years later, when I had just graduated from college. We were on the eve of a new, undeclared war, and for the first time I wondered what had become of Mr. O'Rourke. “He stopped volunteering. I don’t know what happened to him after that.”

My mother was Wilson’s only visitor at the nursing facility. When I asked after him, she told me that his parents had disowned him when he was sixteen and that they hadn’t spoken since. She tried to get in touch with them—at that point he was in and out of a drugged sleep, half-lucid and unable to protest. She was certain they would forgive their child anything on his deathbed. And she was right. They bought plane tickets and made hotel reservations, but by the time they got there it was too late. He never regained consciousness.