December 07, 2010
December 07, 2010
I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.
Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.
The ad says to call May.
I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.
A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”
“Yes, a furnished room.”
“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”
“Just one. In Chinatown.”
“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”
This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.
“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.
“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”
Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.
Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.
“Ohh. You just moved here.”
“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.
“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”
I tell her I work for a radio station.
“Where you come from?”
“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”
She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Can I see it tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”
“But your name is May.”
“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”
I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.
“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.
“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”
The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.
John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.
I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.
Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.
“Three minutes.” She hangs up.
“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.
Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.
“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.
“Hi May,” I say. She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.
John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.
May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.
Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.
I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.
May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.
“You like?” May says.
“Sure,” I say.
May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.
I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.
May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.
“You like?” she asks.
I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”
“Mimi Lin,” May says.
“Ohh,” I say.
She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.
“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.
“You mean do I want to move in?”
“I have to think about it.”
“You call Mimi Lin.”
“Who is Mimi Lin?”
She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.
“Is she the owner?”
“Yes. You call.”
“What’s her number?”
She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.
I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.
That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”
I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?
That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.
She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.
We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.
“We all have choices,” Kike says.
“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.
“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”
Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.
“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.
“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”
I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.
I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.
Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.
I was nervous about seeing my grandmother.
“Puo-puo’s really different now, huh?” I asked my brother.
Greg shifted gears, speeding down the Los Angeles freeway towards our uncle’s house in Fullerton. “Yeah,” he said. “Before she had some expression. Now nothing.”
My boyfriend Alex patted my arm. “At least you’ll have the chance to see her,” he said.
I nodded and didn’t finish: Before it’s too late.
The last time I saw my grandmother was two years earlier at a family reunion in Las Vegas. Even then she was slower, her speech slurred, her movements heavy. But she was still herself, playing the same quarter on slots for hours, scarfing down crab legs by the plateful at the all-you-can-eat buffet, beaming when she saw any of her grandchildren.
Now my parents greeted us at the door. Normally my uncle Wen Meng looked after Puo-puo, but that Thanksgiving he and my aunt were in Boston visiting her side of the family. To help out, my aunt Ping had flown in from Connecticut and my parents from New Jersey.
My brother and I were trying to convince our parents to move to California. Earlier that fall Alex and I had moved to San Francisco from New York, and Greg had been living in L.A. since the late ‘90s. But I knew they’d have a hard time giving up their mass of friends back east, mah-jongg every Tuesday and karaoke on the weekends. For now they’d make do with visits to my grandmother.
As everyone hugged hellos, I glanced around. No Puo-puo. Hearing voices from the second floor, I went up. In one of the bedrooms, an emaciated old lady lay unmoving. Her hair was flat and gray. As I got closer, I saw that most of her bottom teeth were missing. The nurse sat beside her, holding her hand and talking softly.
I gently lowered myself on the bed. “Puo-puo?” I said.
Slowly she turned towards me. Her eyes were on me, but I didn’t know if she saw.
My grandmother was born in Weihai, a small port city on the northern tip of Shandong province. The youngest of four, she was the family favorite: vivacious, charming, and always ready with a story. She was enormously clever, or neng-gan, as the Chinese said. She read books lickety-split and drew characters as well as any calligrapher. She stitched the finest embroidery and wrapped the most delicious jiao-zi. She could kill a chicken with one swoop of an ax.
By eighteen, she had grown into one of the most beautiful girls in town. It made sense that the handsome youngest son of the richest family would want to marry her. She didn’t even care that he was only a teacher, and would never make much money himself.
During the Communist Revolution in the late 1940s, my grandfather was imprisoned and tortured. He was released, but as a wealthy intellectual, he’d always be a target. He had to run. First he fled to his sister’s house in Qingdao, a larger city across the peninsula. A year later, my grandmother and their children joined them. It was a long and difficult wagon ride.
“The sun was so hot,” Puo-puo liked to say when reminded of that time. “I was holding your uncle Wen Meng and had to cover his face with a blanket, or else he’d have been burned.”
They all hid in Qingdao for another year, my grandparents and their three children, my mother included, crowded into my great-aunt’s small house. Still somehow Puo-puo managed to get pregnant again. Aunt Ping was born right before they left China for good.
On the month-long boat ride to Taiwan, everyone was seasick every day. “Many people died,” said my mother, who was seven at the time. “Puo-puo wouldn’t let us out of her sight.” They made it to the small island. Poor as peasants, they scrimped and saved and worked hard, and eventually, one by one, Gong-gong and Puo-puo’s five children left to make their fortune, via grad school, in the States.
Puo-puo came to the U.S. in 1972, the year I was born. My father was finishing his PhD at UC Berkeley and my mother was working at a bank in downtown San Francisco. I spent so much time with my grandmother that I picked up her Weihai accent. A shy child, I clung to her when confronted with a roomful of strangers.
When I was two, we moved to New Jersey, where my father got a job as a research scientist. A year and a half later, my brother was born, and Puo-puo joined us once again, as she would off and on for the rest of my childhood.
By the time I knew her, my grandmother was fat, though that didn’t stop her from criticizing me when I gained weight. Her sparse hair was permed into tight curls and dyed jet black. When she went out, she wore powder and lipstick, and draped herself in jade, pearls, and gold. Once I caught her trying on a fancy sequined black dress in the middle of the afternoon, in preparation for an upcoming party. She giggled at her vanity.
My grandmother was also fun. While my mother was grouchy and often yelled at me and my brother, Puo-puo liked to laugh. Once I told her, “Close your eyes,” and put on her hand a fake mouse on a string. As I moved it, her face puckered with curiosity and she looked down. Seeing the mouse, she screamed and jumped away, then broke down laughing when she realized it wasn’t real.
She never learned to speak English, except thank you and hello. She was a great mah-jongg player and a terrible karaoke singer. “Puo-puo’s singing sounds like a cat being microwaved,” a cousin once said. After more than fifty years of marriage, Gong-gong still trailed her like a love sick school boy, first from Taiwan to the U.S., then back and forth between the coasts.
“Puo-puo visits us,” my mother once said. “And Gong-gong follows.” A decade later my grandmother would stand crying at his grave, while her children left offerings of flowers and his favorite foods.
Her hands were strong. She often stood at the counter rolling out dough for dumplings, steamed bread, and scallion pancakes. Sometimes she took the extra dough and molded doves for me. (I was always disappointed when they’d start to crack and harden.)
When I was losing my baby teeth, I had one that was particularly stubborn. My parents kept saying I should let them wrest it out, but I refused.
“Little Gem, let me see it,” Puo-puo said, calling me by my nickname.
“Don’t pull it out,” I begged.
“I won’t,” she promised. “I just want to look at it.”
As I went up to her with open mouth, she promptly grabbed the loose incisor and twisted it. Hard.
Crying out, I yanked myself away. I didn’t know what I found more offensive, the pain or Puo-puo’s bald-faced lie. I locked myself in the bathroom and blotted my gum with a tissue. I inhaled, and the tooth came out. I emerged triumphant, excited about receiving another dollar from the tooth fairy, having already forgotten what my grandmother had done.
That same year Puo-puo slipped and fell in our dining room, breaking her wrist. It was night time, after dinner, and she had been carrying a load of laundry. Now she lay groaning amidst the previously folded T-shirts and underwear. My mother hovered tearfully while my father called 911. From the living room, I brought over a large pillow, as though that would help.
The ambulance came. I was surprised at how bright the lights were, how they blinded me as I stood in the cold doorway. The next day the kids at the bus stop, who never talked to me, asked what happened. I was surprised that they had seen the ambulance too, that it wasn’t contained in my own small world.
Many years later, when I became engaged to a Korean man, I knew Puo-puo didn’t approve. I was never sure why. Was it really only because she didn’t find him handsome enough? That at five eight, she thought he was too short? Maybe too she sensed his distance: he thought his family was better than ours. Unlike my mother, his was soft-spoken. Mom’s cooking was too salty, our background wasn’t prestigious enough. His parents were doing me a favor by accepting me.
When we divorced four years later, my mother couldn’t bring herself to tell my grandmother. Instead she told Aunt Ping, who unlike Puo-puo, kept her judgments to herself. Mom allowed Ping to tell their mother.
Puo-puo was horrified. Not only had my ex cheated on me, but the woman had gotten pregnant.
“Who is she?” she kept asking Aunt Ping. “Some Korean woman?”
Aunt Ping wouldn’t relay the details about the random neighbor my ex had forged a seemingly innocent friendship with over the years. Puo-puo’s imagination churned.
“Little Gem deserves someone so much better,” she said. “She deserves someone who’s her match.”
Three years after my divorce, I fell in love again. Tall with a shaved head and goatee, Alex resembled an ex-convict, but his blue eyes warmed when he smiled. He was a computer programmer who played jazz guitar. He cooked good southern food and was nice to my mother. After just a few months, we moved in together and started talking about kids.
My mother loved his jokes and friendliness; my father admired his handiness around both software and a socket wrench. Quickly he became like another son to them.
I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Puo-puo. I knew she’d love him, that she’d think he was my match.
Now I leaned down to her ear. “It’s Little Gem!” I shouted. Half deaf for years, Puo-puo didn’t even bother wearing her hearing aid anymore. “It’s Little Gem!” I pointed at my nose, Chinese style.
Her eyes locked with mine, but she didn’t speak or smile. My brother said just a few months ago, she had smiled at him. Did she recognize me? Later I’d try to introduce her to Alex, but couldn’t tell if she had heard, if she understood what this strange Caucasian man was doing there. I didn’t know if she saw how we nestled together on the couch, how he kissed me freely in front of everyone, how happy I was now. I didn’t know if she saw now that I was okay.
Slowly she reached her hand towards mine. I grabbed hold of it, and found that it was still strong.