AMONG RICE PADDIES
Whenever Mila and her mother pull up to the entrance of her grandfather’s retirement community—the one marked by the big, metal globe that looks like it could just roll away—Mila feels like she is entering a different world. One where you need a key, a password, whatever her mother says as she leans out the driver’s side window and speaks to the man in the little house, which makes the bar in front of their car pull away, lets them in. Each time they drive on, Mila leans back in her seat and smiles as she watches everything pass by. She feels she is special now with the rest of the world closed off.
Also, routinely, as they drive past the perfectly green golf course and cream-colored dance hall, as they rise and fall over low speed bumps, Mila looks up at the apartment buildings and asks her mother how they are so tall. Her mother has come to ignore this question and today is no different. She glances at Mila as she turns to check the road behind her but does not say anything. But when they come to the next stop sign, her mother looks into the rearview mirror, smooths her short, black hair, and looks at Mila again. This time she says, “strength,” and laughs a little in her throat, the small laugh Mila thinks sounds like someone saying “ta-da.” Mila nods and they keep driving.
It is not a surprise this question becomes routine because as they weave through the community, the number of buildings increases. They become crowded and pushed together, each a tall stack of windows reaching toward the sky. Mila feels comforted by their presence and her typical question, though, because today is not routine. Usually, they only visit her grandfather on holidays or occasions where the rest of her cousins will be there. Today it will only be Mila. Her mother has warned her there will be no outing for Peking duck this time—she will not be licking the sweet plum sauce from her fingers or fighting with Billy over the last thin pancake today. Her mother tells her this trip will be different—quick—he’s just babysitting. Babysitting makes Mila think of Jenny and Lisa and playing games of “Guess Who,” but her mother has explained that they are in school. That her interview is in the city but will only last a few hours. That this is just convenient.
Even though Mila is not used to being alone at her grandfather’s, this plan does not bother her, because Mila and her second grade class are still on their spring vacation, and her grandfather still has 330 television channels. At home, they have seven, which she has not yet proven unfair. And, while her grandfather is quiet, always sitting back in his worn leather recliner drinking hot tea or ginger ale, she likes the apartment. It is warm and full of couches and has a coffee table with a glass jar always filled with hard butterscotch candies. She also likes how the apartment always smells the same, although she will not be able to describe this smell until she is older, one she will decide is a mixture of wool and dust and olives.
When Mila and her mother finally reach her grandfather’s building, they park, check in with the doorman, and her mother lets her push the elevator button to the ninth floor. Mila loves the soft orange glow of the button, and she always touches it again to see if it is hot.
Once they arrive on the ninth floor, they walk fast to the very end of the hallway, the last door marked Tsung-Yuan Lee. Mila watches as her mother knocks three times and steps back. She thinks her mother looks nice today. She is wearing a different coat over a black skirt and a pearly white blouse. The necklace with the gold coin she always wears is resting in its spot against her chest, but now it is matched with gold earrings. Mila looks at her from head to toe. Her shoes are so shiny they reflect the patterned carpet.
A minute later—the time her mother says it takes him to get up off his chair—her grandfather pulls open the door. He is wearing his typical outfit: gray pants that hang slightly too long, a loose green sweater over a white collared shirt, the same wire glasses that move as he smiles to greet them. He nods at her mother and hugs Mila quickly, then moves to the side to let them in. Mila steps in and looks up at him, perhaps staring too long as she notices how his soft brown skin falls slowly black to place around his cheeks, his eyes, from where it creased together when he smiled.
“I appreciate this, Dad,” her mother says as she places Mila’s backpack on a chair. Mila stands next to her, dragging her finger along the crystals that hang down from the ornament glass lamp on the entry table. The prisms hang in a perfect circle from the lampshade and always clink together in a singsong she loves. This lamp is one of her favorite things. She knows it is beautiful. Years later, after her grandfather has been dead for some time, she will ask her mother, her uncle, her cousins, what happened to that lamp, but no one will know. This, in a small way, will break her heart.
“Not a problem,” her grandfather says. He walks back into the living room following her mother. Mila grabs her backpack and follows too, sits down on one of the couches and takes a butterscotch from the jar. Her mother stands in the middle of the room turning in circles with her arms open and palms up as if she is trying to feel raindrops.
“Oh, Dad,” she says. She walks to the coffee table and picks up a pile of napkins, two dinner plates, and a few half-full glasses. “Is everything okay?” she asks, turning her head to stare at him as she picks up another plate from the bookshelf and walks to the kitchen.
“Of course,” her grandfather says. He sits down in his recliner.
Her mother reappears and looks at him. Then she goes down the hall into his bedroom and office. She comes back with her hand on her forehead. “I’ll be back in a few hours. I’ll pick something up for dinner. I can help you with the wash.” She runs her hand through her hair and looks at Mila.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Mila says. She swings her legs against the couch and unwraps the bright yellow cellophane of another butterscotch.
“June,” her grandfather says.
Her mother walks to Mila and kisses her fast on the cheek. She grabs her purse from the floor, straightens her coat, and says to have a good afternoon. She looks at her watch and leaves.
Once her mother is gone, Mila becomes uncomfortable. The air feels different now, like it is heavy and waiting, another silent person in the room. Mila is not used to the apartment being so empty. Usually, at least her older brother is there, fighting over the remote or lying on the carpet with her trying to guess just how many books line the shelves across the walls.
“Are you hungry?” her grandfather asks. He tilts up in the recliner and she hears it squeak.
Mila shakes her head. She puts her hands under her legs on the couch. She opens her backpack and gets out her coloring books, then sits on the floor. She still does not like the silence, and as she sharpens her aqua colored pencil, she thinks it sounds too loud.
Mila breathes when her grandfather gets up off the recliner and goes to the kitchen. She turns to face the windows behind her and presses her face closer to the glass. She loves how high up they are—how she can see down through the bright green trees with their waxy leaves and thin branches. She can see everything from here: the parking lot, the golf course, the roads that wind like sketches on a map to the world outside the gates. One time, she saw a couple kissing up against a car in the parking lot. She couldn’t tell if they were kissing at first but then she could. The lady had on a red coat and the man was tall. Every time she is here, she looks for them below.
When her grandfather returns, he brings her a glass of water. He leans down as he sets it on the coffee table, and up close, Mila can see again just how worn his skin is, how thick his glasses are, how his earlobes seems to stretch forever and look like apricots.
“Thanks,” she says.
When he straightens up, he hands her the remote.
Mila waits a moment before she turns on the TV, finishes coloring in the flower she has started, but then she pushes the top button and types in 263. She rolls onto her stomach, and with the noise around her, her grandfather back in his chair, the tightness she felt under her skin before begins to fade away.
Half an hour later, her grandfather asks her again if she is hungry. This time she thinks for a moment, pictures the shrimp dumplings he always keeps in his freezer, and says yes.
“Good,” he says. He stands and looks at her. “You can help if you’d like. Or watch.” Mila does not say anything. “Why don’t you bring your drawings to the table. It may take a bit.”
Mila does not think she will be able to help, and does not want to watch, but she obeys and follows him into the kitchen anyway. She brings one coloring book and a handful of her favorite pencils.
Mila sits at the small wooden table and watches her grandfather open and close the refrigerator doors. The kitchen is cramped with pale yellow counters and almost white cabinets, and she would rather be in the living room.
“So,” her grandfather says as he puts a few frozen packages on the counter. “How is school going? What is it, grade two?”
“It’s good,” Mila says.
He nods and fills a pot with water, puts it on the burner.
Mila opens her coloring book and begins to work on her flower. A few silent moments pass before she decides to speak. “Before vacation,” she says slowly, “we dissected owl pellets. It was disgusting.”
“Really? Owl pellets. What did you find?”
“Oh, mouse skulls. Some tiny bones.” She pauses. “Tommy Hart almost threw up.”
“Oh, really.” Her grandfather smiles, and Mila realizes she hardly ever seems him smile except for those first few moments when he greets them at the door. She continues.
“Yeah, the teacher had to bring him out into the hall. I felt bad for him, though. Even though it was really, really gross.”
Mile keeps coloring. When steam begins to rise from the pot of boiling water, her grandfather places the bamboo rack filled with dumplings above it. He secures the lid and turns down the heat.
“Owl pellets. You know, I thought the only thing they did in schools these days was a frog. I remember your mother doing that in high school. She didn’t like it.” He sits down across from her. “I never liked that, either. I have fond memories of frogs,” he says and touches the corner of his glasses.
“You like frogs?” Mila looks up at him as she tilts her chin down.
“Yes, I used to catch them. When I was your age, even.”
“How? They’re slimy.”
He laughs silently, his shoulders moving. “Where I grew up, we were rice farmers. So when the rice was harvested, the paddies were drained and you could see all these frogs then, just waiting to jump up and catch insects and things.”
“So you just grabbed them?”
“No,” her grandfather smiles again. “We had these bamboo rods. They were simple, really. Just had a string attached with a piece of meat tied to the end.” He holds his hands a few feet apart, showing her the length. “Anyway, it was easy, too easy. We would just dangle the string over the rice stalks and the frogs would jump up and eat the bait.” He leans back in his chair and hits the table. It makes Mila jump.
“But then,” he continues. “This was the hard part, once the frog caught the bait, we had to swing the rod very quickly over a basket, because of course, he would spit it out and drop down. It was a special basket, too. Made for fishing.”
“So what did you do with the frogs?” Mila begins to draw a frog in the corner of her page. He grandfather looks down at it then answers.
“Oh, I don’t know. Some people would eat them, I suppose. They were a delicacy in ways, but I never liked them. The catching was more fun.”
The pot begins to boil and her grandfather gets up. He takes a few plates from the cabinets and uses chopsticks to place dumplings on each. He brings them to the table and sits back down.
“You know, there were a lot of fun things to do when I was young. Things you’d probably like. Like fishing when the dams were drained, or the New Year’s festival.” Her grandfather coughs into the back of his hand, pauses, and pushes his dumplings around on his plate.
“Was it as easy to catch fish?” Mila asks.
Her grandfather looks at her directly for a moment. “We tried to catch them all the time, but only twice a year was it easy.” He starts talking faster, and keeps going.
For the rest of lunch, even when Mila’s plate has only soy sauce left behind from the six shumai dumplings she eats, her grandfather continues to tell her stories. She thinks she has never heard him talk so much, and wonders if he always has and she just never noticed—the room always filled with other voices—or if this is new, for her. But she doesn’t mind, it’s almost like when she is being read a book out loud.
He tells her about how he grew up with four sisters and two brothers, how they were poor but happy. He describes his village, explains to Mila how it was surrounded by flat rice paddies but had a mountain in the background, a creek that ran along one side, a pagoda—which he explains is a like a temple, a building—that brought good luck. And he tells her how every house in the village had one or two dogs, and how once he was attacked. He explains, laughing a bit, that at one time he and a group of boys were playing near a yard when a dog came at them, and, being the slowest runner, he was knocked to the ground. He says he was ill after, and that his mother believed he had lost his spirit during his fright. He explains to Mila how the next evening, she went to the spot where he fell, lit incense and chanted his name all the way home, and the next day, she told him he was ill no more.
He tells her other stories, too, getting up in between to get Mila a bowl of orange sherbet even though she doesn’t ask. He describes how once when he was little he cut his finger with an axe and his dad bandaged it with spider webs. How he raised tiny silkworms and loved to feed them mulberry leaves, watch them grow from silk cocoons to caterpillars. How his teachers would use bamboo rods to smack students’ desks, how he read under an electric light for the first time when he was eleven, how he went to high school, how his brother joined the army.
Her grandfather seems to be bursting with stories, and Mila begins to get tired. She is losing track of what the stories are about, and she begins to fidget in her chair. She closes her coloring book and scrapes the last orange melting sweetness from her bowl. Her grandfather takes a long sip of his water and looks at her.
“Anyways,” he says. He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Do you want more sherbet?”
Mila shakes her head no. She looks down the hall toward the living room.
“You know, also, I didn’t even tell you about my little sister’s dancing. She was just about your age when she was first in the parade.” He sips his water.
Mila looks back down the hall.
Her grandfather nods. “Go ahead,” he says, his voice lower.
Mila picks up her book, stands up, and says thank you. Her grandfather does not respond, and she is not sure if he does not hear her, but standing there, she feels confused, like she is doing something wrong. She feels again like she did when her mother first left, and it makes her want to leave. Mila looks outside and notices how the sun has lowered, the parking lot lights now on and reflecting in spots off the hoods of cars. She bites her lip and walks back to the TV.
Half a show later, her grandfather comes back into the living room. He does not say anything when he enters and sits down in his chair. Mila looks up at him and smiles, but he is staring straight ahead as if looking at the numbers displayed on the black box under the TV. Mila stares at them too, the numbers made of bright little red lines. Her eyes start to blur and she looks back to the screen.
At the end of the show, she asks her grandfather when her mother will be back. He tilts his watch, brings his wrist to his face, and says about two hours. Together, they silently watch a commercial about Kool-Aid.
“You know,” her grandfather says, making a drumming sound in his throat as he clears it, “my brother, the oldest, the one I told you was in the army, is sometimes on TV. The Chinese Network. I’ve seen him twice. Have you ever seen the Chinese Network? He left China after the Communist victory in 1949, went to Hong Kong and then the US, but he’s back there now. In Beijing. He was a great success in the war, is still invited by the government to meetings and ceremonies.”
Her grandfather does not seem to be looking at her, and Mila looks from him to the TV, which he is talking over. She is again confused and wishes her mother would come sooner.
“And,” her grandfather continues, “you know, we all loved him. Respected him. Such a life without any college or education. We were lucky to have him, the money he sent home. He was lucky in ways, too. Once,” he says, still staring straight ahead at the TV now showing a cartoon, “he just barely missed a bullet. He was wounded several times, but one time, when he was in the front directing the fighting, he bent down on a hill to answer the field telephone. And his assistant, who stood behind him and passed him the phone, took the bullet instead. Died.”
Mila lies completely still. She does not like to imagine bullets or people dying, and she feels for a moment like she might cry. She is relieved when her grandfather does not continue talking, and she does not turn back to look at him until the cartoon ends.
When she finally sits up, decides to get another sheet of paper from her backpack, she looks at her grandfather and sees he has taken off his glasses, is pinching his nose, his shoulders moving slightly. She stares. His cheeks seem to be wet, like he is crying. She looks away quickly and digs into her backpack. When he notices her, he picks up the newspaper beside him.
They do not speak again until her mother arrives, and when she finally hears her knocking, Mila jumps and rushes to answer, hugs her.
Her mother is in a good mood and Mila is relieved for her smiles. Her grandfather acts as he normally does and thanks her mother for the white bags of takeout she has brought him. Mila wants to leave and get back home, and she scrunches her face when she sees her mother take off her jacket and start moving around the apartment. She complains to her, but her mother tells her sharply to hang on.
Mila and her grandfather sit together in the living room while her mother moves around them. She picks up random items and books and puts them in other places, shoves clothes in the washing machine, and runs a damp towel over the tables. She moves fast, but Mila is impatient. The windows are fully dark now, the dotted lights of the outside world bright in the distance, and Mila wishes again that they would leave. She is hungry for dinner now, too, but does not want to say anything in fear they would stay longer.
Her grandfather does not look at her even as she walks closer to him to get another butterscotch candy. He is still reading the newspaper held close to his face.
Finally, her mother stands in front of Mila. She blows air up at her forehead to move her bangs out of her eyes.
“Ready, little one?” she asks.
Mila nods and grabs her backpack, which she has already packed. Her grandfather sets down his newspaper. Together, the three of them walk to the door.
They stand in a triangle and Mila watches her mother and grandfather stare at each other above her. Her mother tells him to take care of himself, and names a few dates when she can come back. They both look so old to Mila in that moment, her mother’s skin slick with sweat from her day and the cleaning, her grandfather’s shoulders heavy, his sweater loose. Mila touches the lamp’s crystal prisms one last time as they speak.
“What do you say to your grandfather?” Mila’s mom asks her as she turns to her and helps her with her coat.
Mila looks up at him. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for the sherbet.”
He nods, touches her on the head. Then, as normal, he bends down to hug her. It is quick as usual, and Mila is already picturing walking back down the hallway when he releases her. But his hand lingers on her shoulder when he stands, and in a moment, one she will not be sure really happens, he squeezes her shoulder so hard it hurts. Mila looks up at him and he looks back.
In the car ride home, Mila stares out the window. She feels like she wants to cry, and when her mother asks her what is wrong, she says she does not know. Her mother asks Mila if she had fun, and Mila says she did not, but when she asks why, she says nothing. When they exit the community, the bar letting them out, Mila wants to tell her mother something. But it is not until they are halfway home that she tells her she saw him cry. When Mila says this, the car slows, and her mother looks at her in the mirror. “Never lie, Mila,” she says. This makes Mila bite her lip and stare farther out the window. She touches her own shoulder.
Years from then, when Mila is older, when her grandfather is gone and her mother and she are in Mila’s first apartment unpacking boxes from his storage—trying to find what could be useful—she will unwrap his bamboo steamer, his chopsticks, his bowls, a picture she knew used to hang behind the television, and she will think back to that day it was just them. She will try to remember what was said, what was told. But all she will remember is that there was a lunch with dumplings and sherbet, a distant hurt and a story about a bullet, a vague image of a frog she drew, one that seemed to be alive and belonging elsewhere.
Lina Patton is currently pursuing a MFA in Fiction at George Mason University, where she also teaches Composition and serves as Assistant Fiction Editor of the literary journal, Phoebe.