UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION 11/2008
TAI HONG DUAI
I was curious, we all were, about the Chinese woman who moved into the house at the end of the road just after school had started. It was the shabbiest house on Windy Ridge Lane, abandoned two years ago when its last owner, a
We knew the new owner’s name was “Fang;” we’d seen it on her mailbox a few days before she ever arrived. In fact, the mailbox itself was something of a mystery, appearing overnight on a post of seemingly regulation height.
The school bus stop at the end of the road, not fifty feet from Fang’s property, was a three-walled, leaky roofed, plywood shed. My adoptive dad had built it when I started first grade, but he made sure it was big enough for Windy Ridge’s other kids, too.
“She moved in last night,” Larry Cimato told us one morning in mid-September. “I watched the entire thing from my bedroom window.”
Larry was in fifth grade, same as I, but thanks to the school’s unwillingness to pass students who missed a good part of the term, he was a couple of years older. I had a crush on him, regardless of how badly he treated the smaller children, how badly he treated me. Unlike anyone else on Windy Ridge, the Cimatos were renters. Larry’s father had left the family years ago, and now his mother stayed mostly indoors. “A wall-walker,” my dad called her. Larry’s older brother, Jay, was in his twenties, had been arrested at least once for cherry-bombing car exhaust pipes, and worked as an exterminator. I sometimes saw Jay coming home at night, a metal cockroach the size of loveseat on top of his company van. Even though it was being lived in, the Cimato house rivaled Fang’s in its lack of attention. Plastic pipes, tubing, wooden boards, bricks, cement blocks, rusting tools, garden implements all appeared to have been abandoned in mid-project.
“She’s a chink like you,” Larry told me as if I needed to be reminded. “And a witch, too.” Larry turned his attention to Dylan Tull, a huge third-grader who, even at eight, seemed destined to be a lifelong victim. “Probably moved here because she used up all the human sacrifices in her old neighborhood.”
“Used ‘em up,” Dylan parroted.
Larry addressed Olivia and Cole, a set of first grade twins, who both suffered with psoriasis. “I saw a caldron, and magic books, and guess what else?” The twins, too terrified to respond, watched hopefully for the school bus. “A black cat, that’s what else,” Larry told us.
Fairly or not, the Cimato boys got blamed for pretty much whatever went wrong on our street. A missing rug left out to air, tire tracks across a freshly seeded lawn, flat tires caused by nails – everything fell on Larry and Jay. Mr. Wippermann, who lived on the other side of the Cimato house and had been one of the cherry-bomb victims, even blamed Jay for termites found in his basement. “The kid’s in the bug business,” he told my dad, “and it looks like he’s been bringing his work home.”
“We should go over and welcome her aboard,” my adoptive mom said. It was a bright, crisp Sunday, one of those rare days when New England weather makes sense, three days after Fang had moved in. My dad was busy trying to fix a leaking kitchen faucet, and had already given his head a good wack on an open cabinet door. His temper, we both knew, could turn fierce at any moment.
“Larry Cimato says she’s a witch,” I said.
“Larry Cimato has major needs,” my mom said.
“Larry Cimato also tried to pierce his goddamn ear with a nail gun,” my adoptive dad reminded from under the sink.
My mom grabbed a box of Freihofer chocolate chip cookies from the counter.
“Aren’t those supposed to be desert?” I asked.
She had a nice smile; I often wished we’d shared a gene or two.
“You’re desert,” she said.
Larry told the truth about one thing. There was a black cat, a shy, slow moving creature that scampered away as soon as we approached the front door. Fang had picked up around the outside a bit, she’d swept the porch and washed the front window. In her driveway, a Dodge Neon about the same year as our Honda Civic. My mom rang the bell – we heard some shuffling around from inside – then silence. Maybe she’s casting a spell, I thought. My mom knocked, softly the first time, harder the next.
“Go way!” we heard in less-than-perfect English.
“We came by to see if we could give a hand,” my mom called.
“So much for the welcome wagon,” my mom said as she left the box of cookies on the porch railing.
The following morning my mother, on her way to St. Bridget’s to serve breakfast to the homeless, dropped me off at the bus stop fifteen minutes early. Thanks to the wind, it was raining sideways, something I’ve always considered a Connecticut phenomenon. I was sitting on the two-by-twelve plank that served as a bench, looking through my lunch bag, wondering if it was too early to eat the Cheese Doodles.
“You leave cookie?!”
I looked up and there she was. Fang. From what I could tell, she was old. Older, I thought, than anyone I’d ever seen. She wore baggy, unfashionable jeans, flip-flops, and a filthy yellow slicker with the hood up. Under the hood I could make out one of those conical straw hats – “coolie” hats some people call them – complete with the string running under her chin. Her cat had followed her, but stayed a safe distance away.
“You have name?”
“Leah,” I told her.
“You have Chinese name?”
“No,” I lied.
She was in front of me now, close enough to touch.
“You leave cookie?” she asked a second time.
“My mom did.”
Fang reached forward and grabbed my hand. This is it, I thought to myself. This is where she turns me into something gross.
“This for you and your mom.” She turned to leave, stopped, faced me again. “Cat named Jiang Li,” she said. “Have no claws, but at least have Chinese name.”
Fang and Jiang Li disappeared inside the house. When I opened my hand, the one she had taken hold of, I saw a partial pack of cherry Life Savers.
“What were you jawing with witchie-poo about?”
I looked up to see that Larry, as if by magic of his own, had suddenly appeared. He was soaked.
“Nothing,” I told him.
“Don’t be cute,” he said. He pointed to one of the untrimmed bushes on the side of the road. “I stood right there and watched you.”
I unclenched my fist, the one that concealed the Life Savers.
“She gave me these.”
Larry took the Life Savers, held them to the sun, sniffed them. “Poison,” he pronounced, then flung them as hard as he could into the woods across the road.
“Hey!” I yelled as I got up from the bench and watched the silver-tipped cylinder fly out of my life.
“You and the witch,” Larry said. “Two of a kind.”
The next morning, Fang was outside her house with a bucket and sponge mop trying to clear away the congealed yellow splats that spotted the front of her house.
“Well fuck me,” Larry said as we watched from the bus stop. “I’d say somebody got egged.” Just as the school bus pulled up, he said to me, “Take a last look. The witch ain’t gonna be here much longer.”
But Fang didn’t leave. Instead, she hired someone with a truck that said “Mr. Suds” on the sides to clean the front of her house. She rewashed her windows, and that next weekend two men showed up and painted the entire outside a sensible brown.
A day or two later, the hot water heater in the Cimato basement blew. It flooded the cellar and ruined, as far as we could tell the next morning, an exercise bike, a beanbag chair, an already-rusted file cabinet, and a man’s fur coat. They were all put outside the house to dry – the fur coat stretched across the clothesline like a decapitated bear -- and just that quickly the title of Worst-House-On-the-Street rested solely with the Cimato clan.
“Meet your new neighbor yet?” asked Ken, the man who owned the liquor store in Nutmeg Mall.
It was Saturday morning and my dad had taken me along. In the liquor store he gave me my choice of any one-dollar scratch-off card: Aces High, Bingo Bucks, or the one celebrating the upcoming presidential election, Hail to the Cash.
“Her name’s Evelyn Fang,” Ken told my father. “Johnny Fang’s mom. You know Johnny. Manager over at the Golden Pagoda.”
I listened in as I rubbed off another loser.
“She was in one of those assisted living places up in Portland,” Ken said. “Costing old Johnny an arm and a leg. Figured he’d be better off buying her that ‘handyman’s special.’ That or stick her with the state.”
About a week later, when Fang’s mailbox was blown off its post by some type of explosive, Fang still didn’t budge. I watched her one afternoon as I rode my bike by. She was attempting to attach a new mailbox; this one looked bigger, sturdier, more able to resist an explosion. As she banged in nails with the blunt side of a hatchet, her cat sat close by.
“You need something?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” I said, and peddled away.
On the following Wednesday, a storm hit. Lightning struck a huge, dead oak tree on the other side of the road, causing it to topple across Windy Ridge Lane and squarely on the Cimato’s front lawn. Its highest branches scraped down the front of the house like the fingernails on some gigantic hand, before breaking off into what seemed like a billion pieces. All of us, except Fang, were cut off from any of the access roads. Jokingly or not, that night neighbors referred to the incident as “The Wrath of Fang,” as they came out into the downpour, chainsaws roaring, and cleared away the immense wooden corpse.
While the men sawed, the Cimato brothers, on an evening too wet for any sport, tossed a Frisbee back and forth in their front yard and listened to every word.
It wasn’t long afterward that Larry, with the help of Jay, decided to really go for it. According to Larry’s version, told within our plywood “cone of silence” that next week, Fang had left with her son for the day. As soon as it was dark enough, the Cimato brothers snuck over, wrapped a chain around on of the porch supports, and attached the other end to Jay’s bugmobile. With little strain, they managed to yank the support free and the porch roof, like the wing of some injured wooden bird, folded in, smashed, and settled against the front of the house.
The morning after the collapse, a Saturday, my father was cutting our tiny lawn while I raked. Mr. Wippermann came over and told us what had happened. And although I though it, although I hoped it, this did not happen: My father did not go into our shed and come walking out with his tool box. Mr. Wippermann did not go to his garage for a ladder. The men on the block did not repair Fang’s porch while their wives brought cold drinks and sandwiches and their children played safely a short distance away.
Instead, my dad restarted his lawnmower while Mr. Wippermann borrowed a pair of electric hedge trimmers.
During lunch, my mom said, “We should have Mrs. Fang over for dinner tonight.”
“She’s not that kind of neighbor,” my dad told her.
“What kind of neighbor is she?” my mom asked.
“The kind you wave to,” he said, and he was right.
Ironically, though, it wasn’t until Halloween, a sunlit, bitter Thursday, that everything changed. Larry, Dylan, and I generally walked to the bus shed while the twins were dropped off by their mom on her way to work. But on this day, Larry was with his mother, standing between their house and us. They spoke softly, but not so softly that I couldn’t hear Larry say, “But I need to be here.”
“No you don’t.”
“He might need me.”
“He’ll be fine.”
“Why do I have to go to school anyway?”
And now Mrs. Cimato’s voice was easily heard. “So you don’t end up like your goddamn father, that’s why,” she said.
“Is Larry crying?” Olivia asked.
“Larry doesn’t cry,” Dylan told her. “Larry makes people cry.”
Still, Larry said nothing to any of us. He sat in the back of the bus, chewed gum, and stared out the window at nothing.
I got the full story later that afternoon. Since it was a Thursday, my mom went into New York City to work, while my dad taught a single morning class at the university. He picked me up at my school at two-thirty.
“Did Larry tell you guys what happened to his brother?” he asked on the ride home.
“Something happened to Jay?”
My dad nodded. “Fell asleep at the wheel of his van on Route 7 this morning. Crossed the median and ran head-first into a UPS truck.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Could have been worse,” my dad said. “Larry lost some teeth, split his lip open, broke his nose. The UPS driver was shook, but okay.”
“She’ll get blamed, you know.”
We didn’t get many trick-or-treaters on our road. It was too dark, too scary. But we always got the Windy Ridge kids. This year the twins – whose mother went through elaborate preparations for just about everything – showed up as Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley. Dylan Tull, to the surprise of few, was once again a vampire. I preferred not to go out – I was never a particular fan of dressing up – and was content to sit home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life, two months early. It struck me as odd, though, that Larry didn’t show up. He’d never really worn a costume – last year he picked an empty pizza box from our trash and came to the door as a pizza delivery guy – but if it was candy, and if it was free, Larry was there.
It was around ten o’clock when we heard it. Ungodly. Soul-splitting. A racket that would later be described by my dad as sounding like “a kindergarten class being passed through a wood chipper.” We were all in the living room. I was on the sofa folding laundry, my mom was in a chair painting her toenails, my dad was next to me, watching the news on TV.
We looked at one another simultaneously. And then we heard a scream.
“That was Fang,” I said
We got there before the police. Fang was still screaming as Mr. Wippermann, flashlight in hand, walked down from the Cimato’s front yard. He shined the light at us as we approached, then told my dad, “This isn’t something you want your kid to see.”
But I didn’t want not to see it.
We went to the side of the house to where Fang was standing, Mrs. Wippermann close by but helpless to soothe her wailing. It was dark, but in a moment someone inside the house – Larry’s mother maybe – turned on an outside light and it became clear. Two cats, Jiang Li and one I’d never seen before, had had their tails bungee-corded together and were slung across the Cimato clothesline. I don’t know how long it took – the noises we heard couldn’t have lasted more than thirty seconds -- but the stray cat, twisting now like a caught fish, had managed to claw Jiang Li to death.
Fang was gone the next day. No one – not Ken at Nutmeg Liquors, nor Mr. Wippermann, nor my parents – ever said much more about it. We were told that Fang was placed by her son in a “state facility,” but where it was, or even if it was, we were not sure. Sometime before summer, the house was boarded up, then bulldozed, and then taken over by the State of Connecticut.
The Cimato’s, though, didn’t even make it that long. Just before Christmas, their house caught on fire. The damage was severe, and one winter day they were simply not there anymore.
The cause of the Cimato fire was discussed at dinner tables, at birthday parties, at field hockey games, at Christian confirmations and Jewish bar mitzvahs. The adults didn’t think we were listening, but they were wrong. And they were wrong, too, about the cause. It was neither faulty Christmas tree lights, nor a short circuit in a wall switch. It wasn’t caused by Mrs. Cimato, after a particularly harrowing day, falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. And it wasn’t one of Jay’s explosive experiments gone wrong.
We, the kids, knew better. We, the kids, understood these things.Tai Dong Huai's fiction has appeared, or is scheduled, in Hobart, elimae, Word Riot, Wigleaf, 971 Menu, and other terrific places.
© 2008 Underground Voices