Plain China

Homecoming

by Francesca Thompson · Columbia College Chicago · Honorable Mention in Fiction
Conflagration, Siman Xie · Wheaton College

When my brother Manny got home from prison, I was giving our mother her daily bath. She reclined, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. I knelt near her head and dunked a large blue sponge in and out of the warm water. Bubbles floated on top of the surface, their liquid surfaces spinning with rainbows. They touched her brown chin and hung there like a tiny beard. She had started to snore softly, these terrible, wheezing gasps. When she was disconnected from her oxygen, baths had to be quick.

I squeezed a sponge of water across her chest and carefully wiped her skin. I didn’t like to touch her more than I had to, especially in the bath, where her skin was strangely slick and loose, like it might come peeling off like a glove. This feeling of revulsion for my own mother troubled me. I thought of it while I bathed her—also while I helped her to the bathroom and dressed her, when Penny, the home hospice nurse, wasn’t around. When I wasn’t helping her with these basic tasks, my mother slept. Not a peaceful sleep but, rather, the fretful, disturbed slumber of the terminally ill.

I heard a car door slam in the driveway and paused, listening. The bathroom was without windows, but the walls were thin in our small house. I heard my brother Manny’s voice through the wall. I hadn’t seen him in five years and found it increasingly difficult to picture his face in my mind, but I had never forgotten the way his voice sounded. He was laughing, talking cheerfully, his voice like a heartbeat through concrete. I had no idea how he’d gotten home. The plan had been that I would pick him up from the bus station later that afternoon. Maybe we’d embrace. Maybe not. At the very least, he’d pat my back hard, affectionately, like brothers do. I’d tell him everything on the three-hour drive home. He’d be devastated, but he’d understand.

I panicked. I reached into the tub to pull the plug, my hand brushing my mother’s thigh on the way. The skin felt soft and dead. A dead fish. I compulsively checked my own skin for jaundice as I brought it back out, but it was still brown and unwrinkled.

The front door slammed. I began to wipe my mother down, trying to rinse away the suds, but there were too many. Not enough time. Throw a towel over her? How would that look? Leave her in there? Shut the door?

“A-ho, the prodigal convict returns,” Manny shouted into the living room. The sound carried easily down the long hallway, closing in on me. His voice was definitely just the same. I heard him deposit luggage with a thump, then his footsteps started down the hall. “Where is everyone? Does my little brother have pubic hair yet?”

He caught sight of us as he walked by the bathroom door, then froze in the doorway. The drain of the tub gurgled terribly, ingesting the tainted water. By now I was used to Sick Mom, this sunken version of her, but for Manny the sight of her must have been a stab wound. No smile, no round, endearing belly that that spoke stories of childbirth. Instead, a shadow.
Manny was a bull. No longer rodeo-lean, but almost hulking. The veins in his neck stood out like cords. He’d cut his hair and wore it shaved, barely an inch long. He used to have a ponytail that fell down between his shoulder blades. In contrast, I had grown my hair out and kept it in a ponytail at the base of my neck.

“What the fuck,” said Manny.

“What?” I said, without thinking.

He walked closer, dropped to his knees next to me near the tub. Mom continued to snore and the bubbles melted off of her body, exposing her deflated breasts. Her ribs formed a visible cage. Manny placed a hand over her bare sternum. There was a thick, raised scar across the back of it that hadn’t been there before he left.

“What’s wrong with her?”

There were a couple of reasons I hadn’t told Manny about our mother. The first was that I hadn’t ever been sure exactly how to talk to my brother even before he went to prison, especially about things that mattered. It seemed near impossible to call him at Colorado State Pen and tell him anything at all, let alone: Hey, Bro, mom’s got lung cancer. Yeah, they caught it way too late and it’s destroying her internal organs, including her brain. She doesn’t have that much longer. Oh, Dad? He got blazed one night and disappeared on your motorcycle and has been gone for weeks. I’m terrified that he’s killed himself, but I don’t let myself think about it too much. See you when you come home, hope you make it before Mom goes. Okay, bye.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about doing it, because I had. I hadn’t gone so far as to dial the number and hang up or anything, like people do in movies, but almost every time I walked past the phone in the kitchen, I thought about it. Sometimes I touched the cool plastic of the phone and paused. But that was as far as I ever got.

The second reason had to do with closed doors. At first, it seemed like Mom’d have to die in the hospital. But it turned out that it took a terminal illness for rich Nico, our cousin from Utah, to share the wealth. He insisted on hiring Penny, who came twice a week to do what I couldn’t, medicines and things. So Mom came home and I began to feel strange about closed doors. Anything at all could be happening on the other side. My mother was dying behind a door, and even though I had been assured of this apparent fact, I was always a little bit skeptical. Even though I had seen the yellowing of her skin, and the foul bile that dripped from her nostrils after a particularly hard coughing fit. Because it was happening behind the closed door at the end of the hallway. There was this large plank of wood between her and me that acted as a blockade. Only when I walked into the room did I believe that she was, in fact, dying, and I only believed it for the duration of time that I was in the room with her. Then touching her made it that real, times ten. The rest of the time, after the door had closed again between us, it seemed like I could have dreamt it. I spoke to others about it and operated under the assumption that it was true, but I could never be sure.

“She’s got cancer,” I blurted. Then, after a few seconds, “Lungs, with mets in her brain. It’s bad. It’s not going to get better.” Or: she’s going to die. Our mother’s going to die.

“How long?” Manny asked. He was breathing quickly now. I suddenly realized how cramped the bathroom was with the three of us inside. Every time my brother inhaled, his broad chest seemed to take up even more space.

“Two months,” I said, deciding it would be better not to lie.

For a minute he just sat there, on his knees, staring at her. She continued to sleep, oblivious of us. Thin strands of damp hair stuck to her forehead. I stood slowly and pulled a towel from the rack on the wall and draped it over her so that it covered her from the neck to the knees. She looked less sick when she was covered up.

Manny stood up and moved toward me. The bulk of him filled the tiny room. Instinctively I stepped back, but he was too fast. He shoved me hard in the chest so that I stumbled back through the open bathroom door and hit the opposite wall. The breath rushed out of my lungs. The impact caused the shelf near my right to shudder and a couple of dad’s cassette tapes fell from their stack—Eric Clapton’s Greatest Hits and Lakota Love Songs. Manny came at me again and hit me hard in the face, his fist balled. I stumbled to one side and slid down the wall so I was sitting on the floor, dazed. Pain surged through my skull. He bent down and grabbed a fistful of my shirt collar and yanked, forcing me to my feet again. For a moment we stood like that, my brother’s fist at my throat, his face six inches from mine, the closest we’d been in five years. He smelled like sweat, long car ride sweat, cigarettes, and harsh chemical detergent. His dark eyes examined mine through the brief silence.

“Two months,” he said finally, after a deep breath. “That is so fucked up, Yominy.” He was shaking now. He released my collar and pushed me again into the wall, less hard this time, but the back of my head still hit and silver stars explode in front of my eyes.

“You’re an asshole,” he said, before turning to walk back down the hallway, shaking out the hand that had hit me. He tore open the front door and walked out, slamming it behind him.

I stood there for a long moment, waiting for the stars in my eyes to fade. When they did, I walked back into the bathroom, wiped away the stream of blood that was leaking from my left nostril and shoved a square of toilet paper up there to stop it. The floor seemed slanted under my feet. Then, tucking the towel underneath her, I moved Mom back to her room and dressed her, careful not to touch her skin more than I had to, careful not to let the skin remind me how a dying person felt.

 

By the time Manny came back to the house, the sun was setting, throwing a bold orange through the west-facing windows into the living room and kitchen. I sat on the floor in the living room, just around the corner from Mom’s room, with an abused copy of East of Eden in my hand and a pillow between my back and the wall. From this spot, I could hear her breathing through the wall, less labored when she was hooked up to the oxygen tank as she slept. I listened to each breath she took, trembling when the pause between them was extra-long. But another breath always came.

As I turned one page, another fell out into my lap and I had to hold it up as I read. I looked up when my brother opened the door and stepped inside the house, barely glancing at me. As if on cue, the side of my face where he’d hit me began to throb. My flesh was reacting to the sight of him. Looking in the mirror after putting Mom to bed, I’d seen the angry red blotch where I’d have a black eye the next morning.

Manny walked past me into the kitchen. He opened cupboards and drawers, pulling out the stuff for a peanut butter sandwich. He was controlling his movements, careful not to slam anything or move too quickly. I peered at him over the top of my book.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” he said without looking at me as he swiveled a knife around in the jar of peanut butter. I stared at him. My brother had never apologized to me for anything, as far as I could remember.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Mom,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s pretty messed up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And where the hell is Dad? Did you guys sell my bike, too?”

I hesitated. Shit, this was harder than I’d thought it would be.

“Dad, uh…is gone. He’s been gone for a couple of weeks.”

“Gone?”

“Yeah. He, um. He took your bike and took off.”

Manny stopped spreading peanut butter on the piece of bread he had in his hand. There was a prolonged pause during which I thought he might come at me again, or throw the knife, or throw the peanut butter. I kept glancing at the scar on the back of his left hand, the hand holding the jar. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and pressed his two pieces of bread together to make a sandwich. He moved slowly to the couch, which was against the wall opposite me, and fell onto it. We faced each other and I lowered my book. Above his head, a faded and dusty American flag was pinned on the wall with thumbtacks at its corners, something that had been there for as long as I could remember. On the top left thumbtack, Dad’s military tags hung by their chain. Manny and I looked at each other. His eyelashes were still as long and spidery as they’d always been, his eyes still the same dark, clear brown. But he looked odd without long hair, without that middle part he’d always worn. The short hair and the thick neck made his jaw look squarer, or something. Something was different. Maybe he simply looked older.

As he chewed he brought his fist down swiftly on the arm of the couch, hitting the wooden bones of the thing and making a loud, dull thunk—a crack like a snapped bone. I jumped.

“Goddamnit,” he said, through a mouthful of sandwich.

“Welcome home,” I said after a minute, pausing then to make sure I could still hear our mother breathing through the wall.

 

S

he looked just the same to me when I opened the door to her room early that morning, but I understood because of the silence. The air in the room had changed in the absence of her dense breathing. My immediate thought was that my brother had killed her. I let this thought pass through me quickly, leaving a trail of guilt and sickness in its wake, and swallowed. I let it be replaced by the higher notion that she had simply been waiting for Manny to return home before passing. He was still asleep on the couch, because he hadn’t wanted to sleep in our shared childhood bedroom where many a night he had snuck the neighborhood girls in, told me to shut up and cover my head with a blanket, pretend I wasn’t there.

The hiss of the oxygen machine endured. I stood in the doorway for a long time, watching her and counting backward from ten, twenty, thirty, to be sure. I walked into the room and pulled the cord to raise the blinds on the windows. Sunlight flooded in. It was a clear and fine fall morning. She didn’t stir. I went to the window and rested my forehead against the cool glass. The breath from my nose blossomed into small circles of vapor.

For a few moments, I watched the backyard. That was all I would give myself, a few moments. The chokecherry tree that straddled the line where our small, scrubby backyard met the yards of the houses behind ours had been dead for six months. Mom had stripped the chokecherries from that tree since before I was born to make wojapi berry pudding that she sold every Friday at our taco sales. Her strong hands would be stained magenta for days afterward, cherry skins shoved up under her fingernails. After the tree had stopped producing fruit, its branches turning brittle and crooked, she began using pie filling from a can. Nobody who ate the wojapi had noticed. But her hands were no longer stained. I never told her, but I thought this took the heart out of the food.

I turned away from the window, away from the tree, and went to her. She looked perfectly asleep, her hands resting atop the green and brown of the star quilt. Small spots of spittle had dried to white crust at the corners of her mouth. I switched off the oxygen machine and lifted the tubes from her nose, setting them aside. Without its noise, the room was silent, save for the occasional sigh of a passing car on the road outside. I took her left hand between both of mine. It was cold and stiff with rigor and I held it easily, without the panic her living skin had induced. Through the smell of piss, I smelled the soap I had used to wash her yesterday.

I returned to the kitchen. The curtains were drawn across the two small windows above the stove, and it was still dark. Over the counter I saw Manny in the living room, still in his jeans and t-shirt, sleeping on his back with his mouth open, one of his legs dangling off the side of the couch. The peanut butter he’d gotten out last night still sat near the sink, now accompanied by five empty beer cans. I noticed a sixth can on the floor near the couch along with the discarded plastic rings that had bunched the cans together like handcuffs. There hadn’t been beer in the house before he arrived. I stepped over to the phone, which hung on the wall near the back door, and picked it up to dial Penny’s number. It rang several times in my ear before there was a soft, fumbling click and she answered.

“Yominy?” she said, her voice still blanketed with sleep. I’d woken her up.

“Hi,” I said, not troubling to keep my voice down. There was a pause during which the only sound on the line was our collective breath. “She’s done,” I said.

I’d meant to say “gone.” I wasn’t sure why it’d come out that way. “Done” made it sound like a conscious choice. Penny, who’d worked in hospice for years, understood.

“Oh, Yominy,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry. I’ll be over as soon as I can. Do you want me to call the funeral home?”

“Could you?”

“Of course. I’m sorry, sweetie. I’ll see you soon.”

I placed the phone back in its cradle. The coiled cord swung back and forth. It would take more than an hour for Penny, who lived ninety miles away, to arrive. I turned around to look at my brother again. He was still feigning sleep, but I was sure he’d heard the phone conversation. His mouth was closed now. His dangling foot was planted firmly on the floor. I walked around the counter into the living room so that I was standing three feet from the couch, looking down at him.

“Manny,” I said. “Get up. Mom’s done.” There it was again: done. I silently cursed myself. “Gone, I mean. Gone.”

He didn’t try to pretend as though he hadn’t heard. His opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times, slowly, searching for focus. They were bloodshot, red veins snaking around the whites. His lips and the pouches underneath his eyes were swollen with alcohol. It was a look I’d seen before. He looked just like our father in that moment. He sat up slowly, then took a deep breath and lowered his head between his knees, lacing his fingers behind his neck. For a moment, I thought he might be crying, something I hadn’t seen him do since we were kids.

But then he stood and left the living room, hustling down the dim hallway. He swung the bathroom door in so hard that it rebounded off the wall and slammed shut behind him. Through the closed door, I could hear him heaving to vomit, then the splash of it into the toilet.

Returning to the kitchen, I pulled the curtains back so that the morning lit the counters and the old linoleum. I opened the cupboards over the sink. A number of old cookbooks were lined up on the bottom shelf, colorful and grease-splattered, pages bloated. The Traditional Chef, My Ancestor’s Plate, Rez-ipes for a Healthy Heart—mostly stuff they’d given us for free when we collected our commodities. Right up front on the second shelf were four of Mom’s cans of cherry pie filling, the cheap stuff with the simple black-and-white labels. Neither Manny nor I had a clue how to make anything other than cereal and grilled government cheese. In the drawer below I found a can opener. The first can hissed with discontent as I punctured it. I worked the opener around the circumference, pulled the tin disk from the top, and stared into its bloody contents.

Without much thought, I dipped my fingers into the cool filling once, and then again. I found a cherry and squeezed. Red shine oozed down my thumb. Slow, sweet. I shoveled the filling into the sink until the kitchen was thick with the smell of syrup and fruit. I pinched cherries until their insides stained my fingers.

Off the hallway, the bathroom door was still closed. I pushed it open, my fingers still pink even after rinsing. Manny was leaning against the side of the tub near the toilet, his knees drawn up. The toilet was flushed, but I could still smell vomit, sharp and astringent. I went to the small counter in front of the mirror, where there were only a few things set near the sink: a toothbrush holder, toothpaste, a hairbrush. But the cavity underneath the sink was crammed with stuff. Most of it hadn’t been used in a while, and I’d shoved it away down there so I wouldn’t have to look at it: Dad’s pungent soap, shaving cream, dollar store deodorant; some fancy scented lotion Mom got at the mall in Rapid City, a box of stuff she used to wear in her hair for powwows. It all smelled like spice and must and dried flowers. The way stuff smells when you put it away and don’t let it see daylight for a long time. I pushed things aside, digging until I found the old electric clippers. They were dad’s Death Clippers. The last time he’d used them was back when I was ten and Manny was thirteen, when our grandmother died. It had been strange to us then to see him without so many long waves of black hair. I plugged the clippers in above the sink and let my hair down from its ponytail.

“What are you doing?” Manny asked, from the floor. He was close enough that I could have kicked him from where I stood.

“Remember when Mom used to braid our hair, when we were little kids?” I asked, studying my wide face in the mirror.

“Yeah,” he said, after a pause.

“Those two braids she used to do, a part straight down the middle. You always undid yours once we got to school, but I left mine in. I liked them. Kids used to call me Tonto.”

“You did kind of look like one of those serious old traditional Indians in photos.”

“I liked the braids,” I repeated.

I put a hand in my hair, letting it slide through. I remembered sitting on the floor between Mom’s knees while she sat on the couch, pulling a brush through it, using her fingernail to run a careful part down the middle and tugging gently to braid one side, then the other. On weekends, though, our hair was free. It was so long then because she refused to cut it, couldn’t cut our beautiful hair, which hung down to the middles of our backs.

I turned on the clippers and they hummed softly, vibrating against my palm. I laid the flat edge against my head, where my part was. I let the clippers skate over my scalp, vibrating my brain. It was almost shocking, the way long, dark hair fell in locks like strokes of calligraphy against the white porcelain of the sink. The falling seemed endless, and the baldness of my scalp cried out like a prayer from my reflection in the mirror. I wept. Still sitting against the tub, Manny rested his face in the palms of his hands.

About the Author

Francesca Thompson · Columbia College Chicago

Francesca Thompson, a Chicago native, holds a B.A. in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago, in whose journal, HairTrigger, this novel excerpt first appeared. She is currently an English education volunteer with the Peace Corps in East Java, Indonesia. Her other homes include L.A.; Michigan; South Dakota; and Newmarket, England. If you're reading this: send Reese’s.

 

 
About the Artist

Siman Xie · Wheaton College

Siman Xie is a senior in Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She majors in Italian studies and art history and minors in journalism. This photo was taken during her junior year abroad in Italy, where she encountered a wildfire in a Tuscan countryside. Conflagration first appeared in Rushlight.