Fiction - The Grey Area, Absinthe Literary Review
 

Browned
a short story by
Lee Minh McGuire
 

The door rattles on loose hinges, obscuring the sound of soft knocking. It’s ultimately the shaking, the clash of wood on wood, that wakes Oppin. He dreams he is flying in a jetliner, feeling like a tinned sardine, and sitting next to a person of importance whose identity hovers on the periphery of his submerged awareness, and the claustrophobic blur of the crowded cabin is a jelly in his eyes and fuzz in his ears, and when he turns to peer out the mason jar of a window the entire side of the fuselage dissolves and he finds himself rushing over a lush jungle, the glow of wet leaves and spice bark filling his nose, his head dizzy and congested with abundance. He opens his eyes and takes a deep breath, and the familiar scent of melting plastic rises from the dying polyester carpet in his apartment. A lot of nothing about nothing, he interprets, relegating the dream to his mental wastebasket. His clock radio reads a little past three a.m. so he lies back down and covers his head with a pillow hoping whoever is calling will go away. The knocking and shaking continues, accompanied now by low giggles in the hallway. 

In three steps he crosses his studio apartment in his boxers and opens the door, ready to break loose some grief, and sees it’s Bian and her new “friend,” Joseph. They have obvious drunken smiles on their faces. Oppin hushes them in and peers down the hallway before closing the door.

“What the fuck?” Oppin asks. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Sorry, O,” Bian says. “I didn’t know where else to go.” Short and compact, she slumps against the wall with her hands in her pockets, in no hurry, and Joseph, a tall lanky artist or musician or writer—Oppin forgets—stands behind her with a tight lip grin, nodding his head. He is so white he practically glows in the dark. The smell of cigarettes and beer accompanies them into the room. 

Even though Oppin is over Bian, his ex, she can still turn him to willow. He no longer descends to fractured logic when analyzing their failed affair, is thankful they’ve managed to maintain a friendship while recognizing their obvious incompatibility (she is a tiger, he a monkey), but unlike broken bones which comfort themselves in their slow knit back to wholeness, he has loose nerves, capillaries, tiny spaces close to his skin, disconnected parts which droop when she’s around.

“What’d you do this time?”  Oppin notices her orange tank top, her copper shoulders, but avoids looking her in the face.  He picks a white t-shirt off the floor and pulls it on. He thinks about turning on a light but the glow from his window fills the room enough. “Here,” he motions to Joseph, who still hasn’t said a word, and takes some books off a chair.

Bian looks out the window. Her straight black hair flows past her waist in smooth shiny lines like water running down an obsidian slope. Her legs are short in proportion to her torso. Long backed, lazy, Oppin’s mother would say. 

“We blew up the Five and Dime,” she whispers. Oppin doesn’t bite so she explodes into laughter. Joseph hee-haws several times before falling back into silence.

“You’re drunk,” Oppin replies with as straight face. “Doesn’t anybody work in the morning?”

“Those ragheads won’t be,” she says. “Don’t worry, O; it won’t be long now. I just wanted to tell you before we left.” She turns and gives him her sweetest smile. “Run, run, run little Oppin,” she sings. She puts her hands on her knees and bends her legs. “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man.”

“Okay that’s enough, Bian.” Oppin drops on his bed and lets his arms droop over the sides. “I’ve got to work in the morning, so if you need any money, ask, or if you’re done fucking with me I have to sleep.” He’s proud of that he doesn’t even get angry with her anymore.

She plops down on Joseph’s lap, and he wraps his long spider arms around her. She leans back and rests her head on his.  In the half-light of the window, they are sculpted into a misshapen centaur. It is then that Oppin notices Joseph’s scar. He can only see it clearly when Joseph turns his head in quarter profile and smiles in a way that shows his teeth and extends his jowls. It runs from ear to ear, under his chin and up and along his hairline. 

“We’re serious.” She leans forward like a mannequin on Joseph’s lap. “We made a nice little bomb and took a stroll by the Five and Dime and tossed it.” She flips her wrist as though she is throwing words. “Didn’t make as much fire as we thought it would, but it was loud. Glass and shit everywhere. Blew my eardrums out, so if I don’t hear you the first time, O, forgive me.” She looks up at the ceiling and pictures the scene in her mind. “What a rush.”

“You shouldn’t joke about shit like that.” Oppin sits up to get a better angle on the mark encircling Joseph’s face.

Joseph takes Oppin’s staring as a prompt to speak. “It’s true,” he says. His deep bass is incongruous with his reed body, and his accent isn’t quite southern but what Oppin would call hick. Joseph looks away as he speaks. “It’s all out there.  It’s just a matter of finding the signs, mixing it up, and doing it right.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Oppin replies. Their burnt scent comes to him as powdery now, not the sticky sweet of cigarettes but dry like charcoal or ashes. The longer he stares at Joseph, the darker the line of gummy flesh separating Joseph’s face from the rest of his head grows. Why hadn’t he noticed it before?

Bian stands and walks to the window again. She likes the incoming triangle of spotlight. “Joseph and I are striking back. You know he’s got Indian blood in him.”

“Yakima,” Joseph says, smiling devoutly at Bian. 

“So you blew up a convenience store?” Oppin asks dryly. None of this makes any sense. His eyes swim through the dim light, not detecting a single muscle moving on Joseph’s face.

“Always tracking us through the aisles like we’re common criminals.” Bian refers to the Middle Easterners who own and run the Five and Dime. “Watching us like hawks, when they’re the ones probably with something to hide.”

“I don’t blame them,” Oppin answers automatically. When they had been together, he had eventually refused to shop with her because of her habit of hiding candy bars, nail polish, and whatever she could fit in her pockets without paying for them.

“People shouldn’t always expect the worst from me.” She is angry and addresses him over her shoulder. “I’m so serious, O. I don’t care what anyone thinks any more. That’s the difference between you and me. Between you and Joseph. You worry so much it holds you back. Sometimes you have to say, ‘What the fuck?’.

“Well, what the fuck do you want me to do then?” He can’t take her seriously. Dead weary and lost in the crazy conversation, his thoughts aren’t moving past the walls of his apartment. There’s no argument in him, just a desire to black out and wash away.

Bian laughs bitterly and walks into the unlit corner of the kitchenette alcove. “Paybacks are a bitch,” she says to no one in particular.

Joseph turns his head to follow Bian, and Oppin stops breathing as the twisting of Joseph’s head reveals a flap of flesh, a seam coming undone along the scar line under his right ear. He sees Joseph’s broad smile in profile, his teeth enormous chalk blocks, his lips extended like wings plastered to his cheeks. Oppin can now detect a dark shadow underneath the loose piece of skin unraveling from Joseph’s face. The gash widens and slowly lengthens, from his ear to under the veil of his chin, and Oppin is terrified that Joseph’s face is falling off. A color like spice, the darkest brown before black, is visible underneath the pallor peeling away.

“People need things. Peace, respect, and most of all, rest from all those eyes.” Bian softly says, her own eyes hidden in the shadows.

“Motherfucker,” Oppin says out loud.

Joseph whips his head back to Oppin, and a sickening sound like slapping flesh snaps through the room. His face is a frozen mask, an exaggerated smile and a painted gleam in his eye.

“Aieeee yah!” Oppin screams, jumps up, and runs to the wall switch. He flicks on the overhead light. His nonsensical outburst and the sudden illumination break the spell. Sour bubbles rise in his throat and he coughs hard to choke them down.

“Are you alright?” Bian asks.

Under sixty watts, the world is solid again. Oppin looks up, inhaling deeply, and notices gossamer threads woven around the light bulb fixture. He moves his eyes down and across the room, his limited field of vision forming a bleary circle against the bare ivory wall. By the time he reaches Joseph, his breathing has caught up. Joseph is staring directly at him with a frightened look on his long skinny face. 

He’s just a kid, Oppin realizes.  Joseph catches Oppin’s eye and shyly looks away. Even the turning of his head is awkward and Oppin sees how Joseph scrunches his body into itself, to fit into the small chair, to hide from the scarecrow attention his gangly length must attract. What did I see? Oppin asks himself. There is no horrific scar under the bright light, just the uneven lines of a bad haircut, crooked bangs, scant sideburns. He expects to hear the cock crow or the alarm buzz any second, a point of reference to counter the lingering dislocation, to reassure him that the mind plays tricks on the unguarded heart, that in the dark he had been sloppy in his reasoning and had allowed his unresolved feelings for Bian and his jealousy of Joseph to take over. 

“Are you okay, O?” Bian asks and walks over to him and touches his arm. Her hands are sweaty. 

“I’m fine,” he says, brushes away from her and sits on the bed. He rests his elbows on his knees and hangs his head in his hands. “I must be really tired.”

She follows and bounces down next to him. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad, O. I just wanted to see you before we left. I still consider you my best friend.”

Oppin looks at her clearly for the first time tonight. Dark shells hang under her goldfish-shaped eyes, and though her nut-brown skin hides wrinkles and makes her age hard to determine, every tired shadow on her face is visible under the harsh light.  Only when she opens her mouth does her voice, in sing-song tones her growing fluency in English has yet to subdue, prove her youth, made even younger in Oppin’s eyes by the idea that she makes up her own history. She isn’t a skilled liar, not to say she doesn’t try, but he always knows when she is telling stories. Oppin had innocently asked about her parents on their first date, curious to know everything about her, and she had readily admitted she didn’t know them. But after that, when she began describing contradictory childhoods, Oppin surmised she was creating her past as she went along. In her first story, her father had been an official in the southern government, her mother a spoiled dilettante who had given Bian up to Catholic nuns after her father had been assassinated by Viet Cong terrorists. He had thought the story exciting, melodramatic and probably exaggerated, but craziness was indicative of war, and her vicarious memories made him feel closer to his own mother. All he had ever gotten out of her were pastoral reflections of an idyllic childhood in Saigon, of weather devoid of ice and cold, of a thousand shades of green in rivers and jungle, the scent of food cooking always in the air, of strict nuns in grade schools not afraid to lay the ruler to the palms of talkative girls (because we deserved it, she would say as she gave Oppin her best glare), of outdoor markets unlike the sterilized supermarts of America where exotic fruit with strange namesmangos and mangosteens, longans and milky breast (like sweet custard filled apples)could only be found. Her soft romances were devoid of any violence or intrigue, the only bitterness being that she had the misfortune to fall in love and become pregnant by his father, an American soldier. His mother had possessed the highest marks in her high school and had been a cinch to win a scholarship to Saigon University where she could have studied to become a professor or a lawyer or even a doctor. Born on a military base in Germany, his father had named him after Robert Oppenheimer, and he remembers him as a loud man devoid of any softness and, while not particularly cruel, a world unto himself. His father never talked of the war once they left Southeast Asia, the only mention being when he derided certain politicians as softies and liberals, like the men who hadn’t allowed them to win it all by bombing Hanoi back to the stone age. After coming stateside when he was twelve, his parents had divorced and Oppin hasn’t seen his father since. His mother quit talking about life before, preferring to start from scratch. He would have to piece himself together, picking and choosing from whatever accounts he could uncover. Bian was the closest he’d ever been to a real Vietnamese who would talk.

Later, Bian forgot what she had first told him. She let it slip that her parents had been North Vietnamese spies who had lived outwardly normal yet surreptitious lives in the South. When discovered, they had to rush into hiding to save their skins, leaving an infant Bian with a family friend. What happened to them, no one knew. She had escaped on a boat with her entire adoptive family, and her new father was killed as he defended his wife from rabid Thai pirates. Her recollections of life before this western shore, unlike his mother’s, were always stormy, full of crags and catches and theatrical stops and gos. Oppin never questioned Bian about the discrepancies because he would rather hear fictions than the dull and ordinary truth. Once during a bitter argument over choosing a restaurant, Bian had told him in a tantrum that she didn’t have parents, didn’t know anything about them or even need them, in fact she didn’t need anyone, much less a banana like Oppin who loved Asian food but couldn’t care less about the real thing or even speak his own language.

But he does care. It bothers him that she still feels so close to him while he feels her falling further and further away. If he could reinvent himself, he would delete all the gray areas in his life, the crossing of deep blue bodies of oceans and unknown landmasses, the hodgepodge of languages and loyalties, and make his past a smooth single line from birth to the present. He could stop trying, pass himself off as white just because he can, and then be the solid ground she could anchor to.

For these reasons, he knows he could never hate her or harbor angry feelings too long. They shared the same space. She runs in place, from things she can’t escape, while he looks for the truth in vague shapes and ghostly forms.

“Do you hear me, O?” asks Bian.  “Maybe you better lie down.”

“I’m fine,” he says, but it comes out weak and uncertain, not with the indignation he thinks would be proper for the situation, and he allows her to gently rest him back against the twin mattress.

“I’m sorry we woke you up. I had a little too much to drink. You know how that is,” and she smiles apologetically and covers his forehead with her palm. Smoky smells like spent bullets drift from her fingertips. “We’re gonna go now. Go back to sleep.”

“But what about the Five and Dime?” Oppin asks.

Joseph is standing and his mop of a head seems to reach the ceiling. Even he appears genuinely concerned. “No one got hurt,” he says.

“Forget about that,” Bian tells them both. “We were just fooling around.” She bends down and plants a quick kiss on Oppin’s cheek and slips the question in his ear as if she doesn’t want Joseph to hear. “Do you think you could loan me some money? I can pay you back next week; I got a check coming.”

Her request eases Oppin’s nerves, and he smiles for the first time tonight. “I knew it,” he tells her. This is a routine he’s familiar with, a sign of normalcy. “How much?” He sits up and grabs his wallet from the nightstand. “Is forty enough? It’s all the cash I have.”

Bian quickly takes the two twenties. “That’s great, O. Thanks. I’ll pay you back next week. I promise.”

“Sure, sure,” he laughs, knowing she has the best intentions but a short memory.

“I’ll call you,” Bian says as they let themselves out.

Joseph raises his hand to wave goodbye, and there are white scars cutting across his arm, from beneath his elbow to his wrist. They shine like glowworms against Joseph’s already pale skin. Joseph catches Oppin looking and quickly wraps himself up and slips out the door.

Oppin doesn’t even have the energy to get up and turn off the light. As he drops out, the last thing he sees is the bare bulb burning against the ceiling, then a bright star against the blackness of space.

 

~

 

Walking the four blocks to the bus stop, Oppin sees newspaper dispensers on every corner announcing the breakout of war.

Again? he scoffs. He has no desire to read beyond the large type of the headlines intruding onto the sidewalk. The media obsession, the escalation, the details real or suggested, the head-ons, the asides, the national put-downs and put-offs, hadn’t elicited any parallel growth of anxiety in Oppin’s conscience, had instead made the war itself anticlimactic.

More immediately, his stomach growls. In his mind’s eye, juxtaposed against the orange fire clouds and peals of dark smoke from the front page photographs, is a breakfast sandwich. He’d welcome a coalition of Canadian bacon, egg and American cheese on an English muffin right now. How many people in this city at this exact moment are eating their breakfasts? Are hungry? he wonders. How many are still sleeping, alongside another warm body or alone? Are laughing or crying or just feeling blank and gauzy, sieving the world’s worries into tiny hard bites they can roll around and around the hollow bowls in their bellies?

At the stop, a heavily-made-up middle-aged woman dressed in black occupies the cast iron bench. She’s here every morning with Oppin and gets off to work at a suite of office buildings at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill. After more than a year, they haven’t exchanged more than polite smiles. He faces uphill and leans back against a light pole allowing gravity to fix him to the cool metal. 

Looking back on the night before, all Oppin can recall are pastels of Bian’s and Joseph’s bodies, the initial anger at being woken, simmering annoyance, sarcasm and skepticism, and the remnants of an inexplicable fear. The night’s events remain unresolved. People marched in and out of his life, the only evidence of their existence being their actual presence, which lasted, what? Two, three months top? Oppin knows how memories and the emotions he works hard to suppress when Bian occupies his mind can’t be trusted. It could have all been a dream. His entire life a dream for all his memory-of-self is worth. The only real proof he has is the forty dollars missing from his wallet. 

When the Number Three arrives, he waits for the pale-faced woman in black to board before following. Most of the seats are taken so he sits near the back. The bus rolls by a park, an anomalous square of grass and maple trees framed like a landscape painting against a backdrop of wood and brick structures, and continues down Queen Anne Hill past endless apartment buildings before leveling out on 5th Avenue. At the stoplight at Denny Way is the Five and Dime. He can see shattered glass and cans scattered across the eight-car parking lot. A man wearing a blue business suit and a turban around his head sweeps the shards into a sparkling pile. As the bus waits for the light to change, Oppin can see the unlit interior of the tiny market through the missing plate glass window, and what shelving is visible lies bare and blackened around the edges. The floor is a colorful disorder of plastic packaging and paper labels. He doesn’t feel shocked or surprise because deep inside he has known all along. 

It all unfolds smoothly. They had actually been in his apartment last night, drunk and smelling of smoke. He had seen Joseph turn into a simulacrum of a human being, had watched his face coming apart at the seams, then watched him snap back into a gangly country boy. This is as certain a fact now as Oppin loaning Bian the forty bucks. For a twitch of a second, his body recalls the terror of almost losing his mind, but watching a woman on the sidewalk bend down to pick up a loose can that had rolled all the way to the gutter, seeing her place it in a little silver cart she pulls behind her returns Oppin’s mind to the practical and he wonders what the can contains. Soup, beets, creamed corn? Would she be considered a thief? Where is Bian and Joseph, and are they safe? Should he be worried about the cops or the FBI? 

The bus crosses the intersection and stops in front of the mart, and the lady boards the bus, jerking her cart slowly up the steps, thump, thump, thump, one step at a time. Oppin swears he can smell creosote and flash-burn through the open door. The cart lady approaches and stops beside him. She asks if she can sit down. Oppin looks around and notices that it is the only seat left. Others are standing in the aisle holding onto the bars. “Oh, of course,” he says, and scoots over to make room. She has a large behind and as she sits, her hips brush Oppin. He smiles politely and guesses from her large dark eyes and light brown skin she is probably Mexican or Native American. In her fifties, Oppin guesses, from the deep wrinkles and laugh lines in her face, black spots like shallow moles or age freckles scattered across her nose and high cheekbones. He realizes he is staring and turns back to the remains of the convenience store. 

She follows his gaze and remarks, “What a shame. And they’re such nice people. A little expensive, but I guess you don’t go to places like that to do your regular shopping. “

“What happened?” Oppin plays along.

“Who knows,” she says. “Gas leak? An accident? Hate to think the worst, but nowadays with the war and all the fear running in the streets, people like you and me get the worst of it.” She leans close to Oppin and whispers matter-of-fact, “It’s a tough time to be brown.” She shares a sidelong knowing glance with Oppin under the jostling crowd. She patronizes him with a smile before turning back to fuss with her cart.

Oppin remembers how his mother had covered her arms in elbow length gloves and shaded her face under a wide-brim hat whenever she left the house in Germany. By the time they moved to the States, she had begun trading in her home-sewn outfits for smart J.C. Penney’s pant suits and crisp skirts and heels. With her good English, she found work in a law firm, began dating one of the partners, a square headed man Oppin had never liked. She began driving a station wagon as she slowly transformed into a proper American mother driving Oppin back and forth to school. She abandoned the gloves and hat because, she told Oppin years later, the color of her skin wasn’t as important in America as it was to a girl in Vietnam. Here the weakened sun could never darken her enough to make a difference. 

The older woman is unwrapping a tin-foiled square she’s taken from the bag on her cart. Oppin rarely cooks and the homey little packet fascinates him.

“It’s date bread,” she says.  “Very healthy for you and you can’t find it in the store. At least not this kind. It’s a special family recipe. Would you like to try?”

“No thank you, I’m not hungry,” Oppin says, but his growling stomach betrays him. 

“Your body knows better,” she laughs. “Here, boy.”

Oppin takes the thick brown slice in both hands to keep it from falling apart under its own weight. He smells nutmeg and cinnamon, the earthiness of cloves like clean wet dirt, and other spices he can’t name. The bus is sliding through downtown, at right angles through short streets packed with automobiles and crowded by concrete and steel, and he knows that if they were to continue forward long and far enough he would wind up retracing his own path. In this circular moment, he imagines he is rushing over continents behind a scorching wind, through this petrified forest of rock walls and stony trunks laid barren, skyscrapers narrowing to needles in the clouds and identical city blocks squared one after the other, solidity disjointed, and finding, after eons of overturning and laying bare every pebble, hard hill, and desiccated mountain top, a lush oasis of palm trees and reed-disguised springs in the heart of the city. His dry fingertips replenish themselves from the abundant pool and his sodden finger pads and slick palms begin to unravel and slough off. It is too much, too fast, but his parched outer skin greedily absorbs the water weight and begins to slide away as well, and Oppin realizes, with a detachment resulting from his lightened burden, that he is falling apart. All he wonders is, what will be left of him after all the pieces have fallen?

By the time his hand reaches his mouth and he is able to take a bite, the bread is as dry as sand. He forces himself to swallow, and it is like dust softly spilling down his throat.

  

© 2003 Lee Minh McGuire

Click here to leave a comment on this story. Please mention title/author when leaving comments.