In this flash-fiction piece from K-Ming Chang, a Chinese woman, who has been quarantined for two weeks in her daughter’s garage after being fired from her job in a nursing home, grapples with the xenophobia and alienation heightened by the pandemic. From its first lines, the work cuts to the grim core of the circumstances, anatomizing the pain of familial separation amidst the accelerating spread of the virus and how deeply punitive quarantine can feel. Chang offers a sharp look at the treatment of immigrant healthcare workers and demonstrates fiction’s potential to capture the illogic and precarity of the current moment.
—Zoë Koenig, development assistant
In the garage where my daughter keeps me, I watch the hook on the ceiling, a syllable of silver light. Once, my husband hung a buck from that hook, coring out its jelly eyes, scraping the meat from the hide and curing the skin in fistfuls of salt. The skin swinging off its shoulders like a cape. In the garnet dark, I turn away from that hook. I imagine it descending, hooking through my lip like a fishhook, hanging me up for my daughter to discover in the morning. Just here for two weeks, my daughter says, and then you can sleep in the house again. I remember her, born too small, unable to borrow my blood, how the zhongyi blamed the wisp of my umbilical cord, too thin to siphon oxygen. My body’s desire overriding hers. I eyed the hook, took its punishment.
There was no window in the garage, but I imagined one: the saw of the sky whirring toward me. At the nursing home where I used to work, Mrs. Hurlin’s family pasted sheets of paper to the window of her room so she could read their words from the inside: WE LOVE YOU, WE MISS YOU, PICK UP WHEN WE CALL YOU. Because of her cataracts, someone else read the words out loud to her, someone without an accent. On Sundays, the Hurlin family arrived outside the home in their church clothes, their blonde hair bright as gunfire, and stood outside the window, waving inside at their mother/grandmother/aunt, a woman whose first name I did not know. Once I was called into her room, tasked to find her teeth, and I found her dentures dropped into the toilet. With my sleeve rolled up, I reached in to fish them out. It was nameless to be needed. When the family left after pasting up their messages, it was my job to peel them off the window after two days, to plow the path for light to enter the room. It’s good for people, the light, the director always said. Light is a priority. Other priorities included mopping the dining room, which I did daily, because spills could lead to slips, and slips could lead to broken hips. This was another thing the director said.
And another: It’s best if you aren’t here for a while, the director said, your presence may alarm the residents. It was a word my daughter taught me: resident. As in Permanent Resident, as in Resident Alien. I never understood how I could be both a resident and an alien, but this was the country of opposites: the opposite of alien is allowed. The synonym for foreign is my face. The director weaponized the words in his mouth, resident descending down my throat like a hook. In the dark of the garage, I swallowed. Every night, my daughter deposits food through a doggy door and tells me it’ll be over in two weeks, and then I can be back in the room across from hers, the room where the window breathes light onto me. On the first night, she pounded on the door between us, said that the home couldn’t let me go like that, after all you’ve done for them, how could they, but I wanted to tell her: I gave birth to you, gave you my blood like a bracelet to wear anywhere, and here you are feeding me like a dog. This is what happens. But I said nothing, telling her instead that in Jiangsu they are burning factories all night because it’s easier to sell something to the sky than to fire everybody, all those women I used to be. The sky producing smoke like currency.
In the morning, my daughter deposits a bowl of doufugan, and I remember what I used to say to her, 盘底朝天, the bottom of your bowl must see the sky, or else I won’t let you leave the table. Squatting over the concrete floor, below the lash of that silver hook, I thought of Xixi, the only resident who ever directly spoke to me, calling to me in the hallway as I pushed past with a bucket of mop water. She called me into her room, the TV tuned in to a Chinese televangelist, his hands outstretched and breaching the screen, the only light I could see her by. She demanded that we wrap all her furniture in plastic, in case I ever piss myself, and all the plastic warped the dark like mirrors. Xixi said, I miss having someone to talk to in this language, and so I sat on her plastic-wrapped sofa for the rest of the evening, even knowing I would get in trouble, and listened to her talk about living for the Lord and who she last prayed for: her neighbor in the next room who pissed on her plants to water them. Can you believe it, she asked, and I did. When she asked my name, I said I didn’t have one here. God doesn’t need one either, she said, laughing.
Through the door, I hear my daughter pacing my room, opening the window to let in the light that has not yet arrived.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. More of her writing can be found at kmingchang.com.