- In the Quiet
When I was twelve, I watched a show on the hazards of the restaurant business: the inner ears of busboys, dishwashers and short-order cooks were being irreversibly damaged. A restaurant kitchen might be as loud as ninety-five decibels, which was like having an electric drill to your ear. I turned, wide-eyed, to look at our own kitchen. My mother was kicking the lower cupboards because they would not stay latched shut, my sister was screeching without breathing and, as if for effect, my father punched the refrigerator. Not too long after that night, when I looked up from the television and fretted over our inner ears, my parents sent us away and then separated. [End Page 121]
My sister was to go to boarding school. I was too young to attend, and we had no relatives in the States, so I was to live with my mother's sister in Taiwan, where I had visited once before. What I remembered of it was relentless sun and haze.
"I'll come for you soon," my mother whispered as my sister and I sat on our hands in the living room. "I just need some time." My sister would not speak to either of us. I asked if we were on Candid Camera. I loved television, and hidden-camera shows most of all. My mother repeated, "I'll come for you," and then my terror took hold.
My aunt met me in Taipei and took me by train to the village of Tsaotun. As soon as we stepped off the train, she wrapped a frayed dishcloth around my face. The country air was full of the smoke of burning fields. She led me down a road that became narrower and narrower until it seemed impossible that cars could fit.
Eventually we walked through a gate that was rusted open. On the left was a three-wall garage made entirely of wooden slats. Separated from the garage and down a dirt path was my aunt's small house of stained white brick. As we passed by the open garage, a dog in a cage barked, spraying spittle. It threw itself at the wire until the cage rocked back and forth. The dog had only one eye and a mound of matted fur where the other should have been. When the cage threatened to flip over, chains prevented it, and the dog stiffened on its paws and threatened me with a growl from its gut.
"He's mad from the heat," my aunt said. The way she spoke Chinese reminded me of my mother. "And he doesn't recognize you."
The dog glared at me from its one eye. "Do you let him out?" I asked, making a wide semicircle as I walked past his cage.
"Sometimes, to kill the lizards."
Inside I greeted my uncle, my cousin and my uncle's father. I was instructed to call my uncle's father Ah Gong, even though he was not really my grandfather. Although I had met them once before, I did not recognize them. My uncle and cousin paid little attention to me, but Ah Gong smiled. He was gap-toothed and a little tattered. When he moved his arms, you could see holes in his shirt at both armpits. Ah Gong spoke no Chinese, only Taiwanese and Japanese because his generation had been brought up under Japanese rule. My mother had explained this to me in our last days. "English won't work with anyone," she said. "Chinese will work, but not with Ah Gong or Ah Ma." She paused. "Maybe you will learn some Taiwanese," she said. But I thought it more likely that I would stop speaking. [End Page 122]
I never greeted the old woman I was to call Ah Ma, or Grandmother. By the time I had unpacked my small suitcase and finished dinner, I was too tired to wonder much at the sight of her asleep on a straw mat in the family room. As a blanket she used a bath towel worn thin. Ah Ma was so small she fit completely beneath the towel, only a head of...