2011 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner
I call my son in Baltimore and a bird picks up. It turns out the bird is a girl.
“I’m Trevor’s mother,” I announce myself, pretending I’m still proud of that.
“I’m Trevor’s girlfriend,” she chirps back. Her friends titter in the background like they are all perched atop the telephone wire.
I press the receiver closer to my nostrils and imagine a bull right before it charges.
“Trevor is in Vancouver,” she tells me.
So I scratch out the ten-digit number in my address book and replace it with one that has a “1” in front of it.
“Yes?” an Eastern European man answers.
“I’m Trevor’s mother.”
“Trr-evor is in China.”
So I scratch out the eleven-digit number and replace it with an eighteen-digit number.
“Way?” a Chinese man answers.
“I’m Trevor’s mother.”
It has become my way of greeting strangers.
“Oh hey,” the Chinese man turns out to be my son.
My grandfather spoke some form of Chinese, but little of it trickled down to me. He died when I was six and all I can remember are the ghost stories he heard from his father. Especially the one about The Red Garter in Williams, Arizona, where his father ran a chophouse and opium den after the railroad was done. From Williams to Flagstaff, from Flagstaff to Phoenix, in four generations we moved 120 miles. In four months, however, my seventeen-year-old son undid all that progress by dropping out of college and returning halfway around the world.
“Mom, stop it.”
“All right,” I stop. I’m supposed to keep to the facts. You see, my son is in China because he wants to write a book, and I am recording his journey for him because this is the only way he will call me and tell me what he’s up to. Somewhere between the advent of international flights and the invention of the credit card, parenting became very complicated.
Today Trevor climbed the Great Wall. One of our ancestors might have helped to build this, he said with pride. I wanted to mention that a million lives were lost during its construction.
Today Trevor saw the ruins of the Summer Palace. The English and the French had done this to us, he raged. They robbed us of our history, he cried, as if the land we had lived on all our lives were not also taken from someone else.
Today Trevor took the train to Xi’an. An old woman on the train asked him whether he had just returned from “beyond the ocean.” He lied and said no but wondered how she knew.
“Has my hair always been curly?” he asks me.
“Maybe.” I think back to when he was five and how he used to follow me around like a little duckling. “We had kept your hair buzzed when you were little, so nobody knew.”
“Weren’t you ever curious?”
“Sure, but your father said no son of his was to look like a damn hippie.”
“Does Dad know I’m here?”
“He called and I told him.”
“Was it really that hard living with him?”
“You were there. You saw.”
Then guilt kicks up like a heartburn.
“Your father had his moments,” I say, and try not to think of them.
Such is my life: a Mexican standoff. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I know who the Ugly is, but am I the Good?
A tumbleweed rolls by.
“Maybe there are two Goods,” my son suggests when I read this part to him.
“Maybe even three,” he says.
“Good morning, Mom.”
Today Trevor saw the loped-off heads and broken bodies of the Terracotta Warriors. Our people burnt our history just like the English and the French, he said, disappointed. But we also built history, I tried to tell him, thinking of my great-grandfather who worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad, the last ten miles laid in only twelve hours, my great-grandpa swinging his pick axe beside an Irish man. Yet we were talking about two different peoples, it seemed. Mine and his.
Today Trevor got sick from the street food he had last night. The landlady at the hostel gave him clear broth with chunks of ginger floating in it. On this land, she told him, every illness will eventually find its cure.
Today Trevor bused to the township of Chang’an.
Today Trevor found the orphanage.
Today Trevor didn’t call me.
“It’s OK, Mom. I’m OK.”
We both breathe into the phone. Somewhere a cock crows on his side.
“When did you find out?”
“When I was eleven. I saw my Chinese passport in our safe deposit box in the bank when you and Dad were dividing documents.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“I figured you’d tell me when you think I’m ready, or else I’d tell you when I think you’re ready.”
That’s called a chiasmus, he tells me.
“Sorry,” he apologizes.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“We planned to tell you,” I say, as if I were making a promise for the future.
“But then you and Dad split and no time seemed the right time anymore.”
I nod and he doesn’t see. He tells me to go to bed though it’s only two in the afternoon. And I do.
Today Trevor bused back to Xi’an, where his birth parents supposedly live now.
Today Trevor called them and explained who he was. A woman said he got the wrong person.
Today Trevor called them again. No one picked up.
Today Trevor called them eight times evenly throughout the day and once at midnight, but he waited for only one ring then.
Today the woman called him.
They want to see my son. They’ve no right to, but I’ve no right to stop them. There were circumstances — famine, revolution, their other two boys — but I had my fair share of circumstances, too. You try to raise a child on your own while running a clothing store. The Chinese women I hired said marriage is for life and I told them it’s for the lucky or else the charitable, and I was neither. I put my savings into my son’s education and coaxed him into attending Chinese school on weekends. Who knew it would come in handy like this? The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and now a Chinese couple in the mix.
“It’s not the end of the world, Mom.”
“I’m coming right back to Phoenix.”
“Do you think this makes a good ending?”
“No,” I tell my son. “Talk to me just a little longer.”