Joyland

The South |

Peaches

by E.M. Tran

edited by Laura Chow Reeve

Peaches did not like her Chinese neighbors. Mai Phuong and Minh had moved last year into the Greek Revival mansion that the Fitzgeralds used to occupy. Why had the Fitzgeralds moved to Dallas? She liked Jackie Fitzgerald. Jackie made sure their lawn was manicured more than once a month. Jackie did not place unsightly Oriental talismans on her front porch. You’d never find Jackie’s mother-in-law deep-frying fish in the backyard on an outdoor camp stove. Jackie would never let her dog run amok in the yard, unsupervised, barking incessantly all day. In fact, Jackie’s very sweet Goldendoodle, Archibald, had been the model of good canine behavior. And Jackie would first die before bringing a plate of jellied pork cake to an Eastover Wives Bi-Monthly Book Club meeting. “My husband thought it would be fun if I brought something like this,” Mai Phuong had said, but Peaches didn’t think the disgusting, gelatinous little cakes were fun at all.

Jackie’s last suggestion for book club before she’d moved had been Laura Bush’s memoir, Spoken from the Heart, and it had been a lovely book. Their Eastover Wives Bi-Monthly Book Club meeting that week had been so productive, that many of them donated to the same charities Laura Bush supported. Mai Phuong’s last book club contribution, on the other hand, had been Beloved, a graphically violent book about slavery, which had driven book club conversation into a quagmire. No one was able to speak honestly without appearing racist.

“I hated the book. Would you like me to lie?” Peaches had finally said. “I think enslaving another person is abhorrent, but I didn’t enslave anyone.”

Peaches didn’t understand why they couldn’t screen residents in Eastover. It was one of Jackson, Mississippi’s most desirable neighborhoods, a haven of lush, sprawling green lawns and stately homes on wooded lots. It was residence to Jackson’s bank owners, dermatologists, and oil kings. Sherry Hudson, who lived on Quail Run Road, a most coveted spot by the pond—her husband owned literally all the Sonic Drive-Thrus in the state! This was the caliber of people that lived in Eastover. Not some of the Sonic Drive-Thrus. All of them. Not that Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen were bums; Mai Phuong was a history professor at Millsaps College and Minh was the Director of Urology at St. Dominic Hospital. They’d told Peaches this at the dinner they’d invited her and Dwyer to when they’d first moved in. They had a very strange sense of humor that Peaches did not find palatable in the least.

Peaches shrieked when Mai Phuong placed a bowl full of wrinkly little chicken claws on the dinner table. “What in the good lord’s scorched earth is that!” said Peaches, pushing her chair back from the table.

“They’re chicken feet! You don’t have to eat them,” said Minh. “We like it, yes, but brought it out as a kind of joke. We don’t expect you to eat it. Although, you could, if you wanted to try.”

“We’re sorry, we thought it might be a fun adventure to eat them together,” said Mai Phuong. “Please, enjoy the roast and the potatoes, I really didn’t mean to ruin your appetite.”

“Now, wait a second, give me one of those feet,” Dwyer said, picking up a claw with his thumb and forefinger, waving it in front of Peaches so that she went cross-eyed.

“Stop it, Dwyer!” She hated his teasing, but knew this was his way of showing affection, of loving her.

Peaches and Dwyer did not extend a reciprocal invitation.

***

The next bi-monthly book club meeting was at Peaches’ house. The caterer was paid in full, her impeccable lawn was ready to receive guests as they approached the front door, and she’d sent Dwyer to Hooters for wings and beer, where he would treat the other bi-monthly book club husbands. Peaches had only ever hosted the Eastover Wives’ book club once before, and it had been a disaster. The caterer had had the wrong day in their calendars and did not deliver any of the food for the event. Peaches was forced to serve cheddar cheese and water crackers, even though a delicious spread of Italian finger foods had been planned for their discussion of The Da Vinci Code.

To make matters worse, they had had to dismiss their housekeeper, Lucinda, for suspected theft of a dozen cans of albacore tuna from their pantry the week prior, and Dwyer had thought it a good idea to do the laundry that Lucinda usually did while the women conducted their meeting, a mistake that marked the beginning of The Hooters Banishment as part of book club protocol. Dwyer had walked through the living room at least four times with his basket empty and full, full and empty, dropping socks and underwear and other embarrassing things along the way so that he had to stumble back to retrieve these items, his rubber Crocs squeaking on the polished hardwood floor. Lucinda would have never made this grave error in judgment, always remaining out of sight and mind when the neighborhood women were visiting.

Sharon, Sherry, Mary Margaret, Anna Claire, Mary Marge, Mary Katherine, Anna Beth, Bettie Mae, Carol, Billie, Jeanie Lou, and unfortunately, Mai Phuong, had all sent their RSVPs weeks ago for a total of 12 book club attendees, including herself. Della, Dolly, Mary Alice, and Edna sent their regrets because they would all be out of town, having rudely arranged a trip without inviting the rest of them for a beach weekend in Biloxi. Fannie hadn’t sent any notification at all about whether she was coming or not, which Peaches thought was even ruder than planning a beach trip without her. If Fannie showed up, she would hide all the food and claim it was gone. “If only we’d known you were coming, we would’ve saved you a plate,” she would say sweetly.

They would be discussing a Faulkner novel, a suggestion made by Mai Phuong.

“None of you have read any Faulkner?” she said. No one responded. She looked aghast. “He’s part of your Mississippi heritage! He’s from just three hours away in Oxford. If you can go there for your Ole Miss football games, you can certainly read a book about the place.”

Peaches had completely prepared her home for guests but neglected to start the book. She’d only bought her copy of The Sound and The Fury yesterday, the black leather bound anniversary edition, its front and back covers adorned in a delicate gold design and WF monogram. It looked marvelous on the bookshelf next to the fireplace. But now, she had to read the thing, all 329 pages of it. She sat in the armchair near the living room bay window and began. It was entirely incomprehensible, a load of gibberish that communicated nothing to her but a string of images and incoherent thought. From outside, she heard Mai Phuong’s Doberman barking. The barking grated on her, like the hoarseness of a crying infant or the intensity of an ambulance siren, reverberating off the large bay windows that opened into Peaches’ backyard.

She craned over the leather bound book and stared at the words. They streamed on, repetitive and without context, and she thought of Mai Phuong’s voice, as infuriating as the sound of the distraught dog. Mai Phuong had pushed the book onto the club. And now, here she was, trying to read the impenetrable literature that Mai Phuong had imposed on her, while Mai Phuong’s life repeatedly intruded upon her efforts. The house next door leaked in through the cracks of her pristine home. She hated Mai Phuong and she hated Faulkner.

***

The Humane Society website had a list to help Peaches identify signs of animal cruelty. Peaches thought Mai Phuong could possibly be responsible for all of the suspicious behavior detailed in childish, curly font underneath a photo of a puppy, its paw wrapped in bandages. The Doberman, that poor dog, was always tied up in the yard. That was why it always barked: it was crying for help, asking Peaches to save him. Or her. She’d actually never met the long-suffering animal, nor even had one of her own, but she knew how touchy people were about sex.

“She’s so cute!” Peaches once said upon seeing Sherry’s new teacup poodle.

He,” Sherry said. “His name is Kelly.”

But it didn’t matter what the sex of Mai Phuong’s dog was. It was in that yard at least nine hours of the day. Dwyer worked late, so by the time he got home, the dog was silent and gone. She felt his doubt whenever they sat in bed before turning out the lights (when he’d gotten home early enough to do this) and she complained about the noise. Now, in the mornings, she began the day by kissing him on the forehead and talking about the Nguyens’ dog. His skepticism made her more insistent. He didn’t know what it was like to live next door to those people, not really. He wasn’t home enough to know. Lucinda used to cover her ears and yell out to Peaches, “ El perro!” and they would grumble together, and Peaches would feel less insane and less alone.

Peaches copied the “Signs of Animal Neglect” list from the Humane Society’s website into her notepad and drew tiny little boxes next to each line.

“‘Chained dogs, tethered continuously suffer tremendously, both from social isolation and exposure to predators and the elements,’” she said each word as she transcribed it. She had never actually seen the dog in the yard because she rarely went outside—she only ever heard it. But why would it bark so much if it weren’t suffering? It seemed only logical that the dog was chained, unable to escape its miserable life. Peaches made a check mark in the tidy box she’d drawn.

“‘Abandonment,’” she continued, “‘Sometimes, an abandoned dog’s barking or cat’s howling can alert the neighbors that their owners have left.’” Mai Phuong and Minh were gone for most hours of the day. Wasn’t that a form of abandonment? That dog’s barking, as she had suspected, was an alert to her, the neighbor, a cry for help, the sad howl that accompanies desertion. Peaches added another check mark.

“‘Inadequate shelter, especially in extreme heat or cold temperatures, can be deadly to pets.’ Well, I don’t see how living in a backyard could be adequate in the least,” she said, while checking a third box. The list, it turned out, was very helpful in pinpointing the exact ways the Nguyens were dog abusers.

Lack of veterinary care seemed implied (check!), and hoarding—well, Peaches wasn’t sure how many dogs they had inside, but who knew. She put a question mark beside the box for hoarding, which she thought was a fair compromise.

***

Animal control arrived two hours after she made the call, wearing navy blue utility pants and jackets of the same blue, the back covered in yellow font, “ARL” for Animal Rescue League.

“There is dog abuse happening in my neighborhood,” Peaches said to the ARL operator. The complaint sounded tepid, and Peaches wanted to make sure they thoroughly investigated the matter. “You might want to make sure they’re not eating dogs, too,” she added. The horrifying image of chicken feet floated to the surface of her memory, and it suddenly seemed entirely plausible that the Nguyens were eating dogs.

Peaches was making homemade hummus because Dwyer liked exotic food. She brought the food processor, cans of chickpeas and garlic into the foyer so she had a clear view of the neighbor’s front door. Mai Phuong had gotten home from work and taken the dog inside. Perhaps she would be confronted, forced to answer for her crimes against dogs, evidence of malnutrition and mistreatment visible on the Doberman’s body.

The ARL handlers swung the sliding minivan door shut. They looked as if they had tried to dress as police officers on Halloween, but couldn’t get the costume quite right. There was no gun, no taser, no baton—only gloved hands and a clipboard as they both approached the residence, strolling up the brick walk and knocking on the door.

Peaches could see Mai Phuong’s profile as she stepped out onto the porch. The ARL handlers were invited in. Peaches wondered if Chinese pet owners were often reported to the Humane Society for their reputation of eating domesticated animals. How could anyone know for sure what was happening in the privacy of a home? She sat down to finish pureeing the hummus, but kept her eyes on Mai Phuong’s front door, creating a mess as she dumped ingredients into the food processor.

The ARL handlers laughed as they walked backward onto the brick walkway, waving at Mai Phuong who stood at the door. The entire inspection lasted less than ten minutes. They carried Tupperwares full of cookies. Peaches gripped the spatula and felt a salty sting at the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t fair, was it? The ARL van pulled away, but Mai Phuong remained outside. She stared into Peaches’ front window and Peaches stared back—she wasn’t sorry in the least. Mai Phuong waved, although she wasn’t smiling, and went back inside.

Peaches pulsed the food processor a few more times, the waning light of late afternoon filtering into the foyer. She would leave Dwyer a note on the kitchen counter, letting him know she’d made him food. He worked later and later every night at the law firm. Peaches couldn’t remember the last time she’d stayed up to welcome him home, but when she woke in the morning he was always there next to her, the large expanse of his back a wall between them, rising and falling in sync with slow inhale, slow exhale.

***

Peaches did not finish the book. She did not even progress past the first chapter. It became clear early in the meeting that everyone in attendance had read it, beginning to end. The girls seemed excited to discuss it. Genuine eagerness laced conversations held during hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

Peaches was so aware of her failure to finish the book in time for the Eastover Wives Bi-Monthly Book Club meeting that overcompensating was, it seemed clear, her only option. “I hated it,” she said. “Hated it more than Beloved.”

“I liked it,” said Fannie, stooped over the plate on her lap. She nibbled on a pimento cheese finger sandwich. Crumbs tumbled down onto the eggplant colored couch. “These are delicious, by the way. Who did the catering?”

Was Fannie mocking her? Her plate absolutely full to the brim despite her obvious lack of an RSVP? Peaches pursed her lips and did not respond.

The doorbell rang. Mai Phuong stood at the door holding a large, foil-covered tray. “Sorry I’m late, Peaches. I made miniature quiches and they took longer than I thought.” How could hors d’oeuvre quiches take any longer than twenty minutes? It was baked egg and premade pastry dough. When Mai Phuong set the dish down, everyone grabbed at least one miniature quiche even though not a single person had touched the large serving bowl full of olive and artichoke pasta. The miniature quiches were arrayed beautifully on an ornate silver platter.

“Divine quiches,” said Jeanie Lou.

“I’m dying these are so good. Dying,” said Bettie Mae. “What is in these?”

“Dog,” said Mai Phuong, and everyone burst into laughter. “I’m kidding, of course. Although, do you know, some people are crazy enough to believe it! It’s spinach and mushroom.”

Peaches’ heart pressed unpleasantly against her chest. She felt humiliated, even though the other Eastover Wives did not know about yesterday’s call to the Humane Society. Peaches thought she detected a glint of satisfaction when her eyes met Mai Phuong’s. She was being successfully punished.

Are you kidding, though?” said Peaches. She could hear the pettiness in her voice, and an embarrassed flush crept up her neck. She had meant it playfully, an attempt to join in with the others. “I just mean, aren’t Chinese known for eating dog?” There was a self-conscious rustling as her guests moved and made noises of discomfort. Peaches talked through it as quickly as she could. “I saw it on Bizarre Foods, so it’s not just a stereotype.”

“I’m Vietnamese,” said Mai Phuong. Fannie stared at the plate in her lap, eyebrows raised. Mary Marge and Anna Claire glanced at one another. “Ha, ha, everyone knows Vietnamese only eat chicken feet and cat,” Mai Phuong said, in an attempt to diffuse the situation. There was light, forced tittering, but it was too late now—the humor from the room had gone.

***

After the catastrophe of book club, Peaches threw all the leftover food in the trash except the untouched olive and artichoke pasta. Dwyer loved it. She covered it in saran wrap and left a loving note for him on the counter again. She couldn’t wait to tell him about book club when he got home from Hooters. When the Eastover Wives left, they kissed her on the cheek and thanked her graciously, but Peaches was sure they would talk about how terrible the meeting had been the second they could. Their discussion of The Sound and the Fury came to a dead stop. No one felt at ease, and Peaches knew that she alone was responsible for that.

She sat in her favorite armchair by the bay window. The Nguyens’ back yard was silent. The house was silent, too. Lucinda’s shuffling feet used to echo in the space, a comfort. Peaches tried to read the Faulkner novel one more time, and set the leather tome on her lap, its gold edging glinting in lamplight. Perhaps it wasn’t that the first chapter was unintelligible. She found it sad, unbearably sad, the voice of a grown man no one could understand, or refused to understand because they thought he was an idiot. She hated it. She felt that lonely, bottomless sensation she felt sometimes when she was alone in the house, and couldn’t read the book anymore. She shut it and prepared herself for bed.

Dwyer had not come home. Perhaps he’d gone to the office on a Saturday after Hooters. Maybe he was still there, watching the game on TV. She lay in the empty bed, the comforter and Egyptian cotton duvet like sandbags smothering her body into dreamless, dark, and empty sleep. And when she woke in the morning, she was still alone, space and silence in the bed with her.