Finalist, Summer Fiction Contest 2018
My mother was facing eviction by eminent domain, and I was driving from Denver to Wyoming for the first time in seven years, trying to constitute two worlds remotely apart with a single question. Will you come and live with me?
My mother, Som, inhabited a reality decades old, a fragment of the old farming world and the industrial modern, and I floated above, without, and around the world in hi-tech, or suffused it, or supplanted it, as some software savants might say.
Som had won a first round in the local court and had become known as both a Don Quixote fighting windmills, and possibly the winds of change, and a charming idiot fighting a government with legal briefs used like hammers. All for a mobile home, forty-years-old, waffled aluminum skirt pitted and grayed on three sides where snow piled up in the winter and left in summer, roses that grew from gravel beds, and a singularly large walnut that could house as many as ten satisfactory treehouses.
I traveled alone. My wife Wendy, a project management consultant, aka a tech gunfighter for hire, had a weekend deadline, and my seven-year-old son Tate already had a Saturday morning ritual of video games and silly Facetiming with his friends from school, and said he would die if forced to make the trip. My mother had seen him days after his birth, and for his first and second birthday, so he had no memories of her.
At the mobile home, the walnut she had planted had grown to almost fifty feet, seemed wider than tall, obscuring the house with branches trailing to the ground, as if a barricade. My uncle, a refugee Buddhist priest from Thailand, had come to live with her, and I was ready to ask the most confounding and hard question:
Will you come and live with me?
It would be a temporary place for her, as all of my places were temporary. I lived in a mobile world, a mobile job market, moving six times since graduation from Berkeley, twice in California, once in India, once in China, once in North Carolina, and now in Denver. My career was my home, my family’s home. My wife shared our fixation on upward income, about not losing our place in our generation, and though we talked about finally owning a place with acreage, we really meant a stockpiled 401K and stock assets we could use to weather unemployment or job-shifting when our assets aged in the job market. By the age of seven, our son had known an English sitter in China, an Indian sitter in San Mateo, a Colombian sitter in India, and now a Libyan refugee sitter in Denver. I had been recruited out of college for my language aptitude, i.e. coding ability, even though I had not written anything of significance. One of my professors had identified me as “talent.” The goal of colleges had become to provide the opportunity to expose or create a usable talent for business, our human potential best served by idea-spinning, electrified agile conglomerates, with one proviso: you had to be nimble, had to switch companies at the mere whiff of stasis, had to be swift to capture the wealth. Our greatest meta-asset as a couple was not app code or segment marketing, but that we were transportable, Bedouins on Arab steeds in the job market.
Will you come and live with me? How could I ask a woman from a stationary world into the whirlwind of high-tech mobility?
In her homeland of Thailand, my mother’s name meant orange, the color, not the fruit, the vivid darkened orange of priests’ robes. It was her name that first attracted my father. He was a soldier from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, during the Viet Nam war, and to him orange was a winter treat in the doldrums of coal country, his father a coal miner who’d lost his joy for life in the death of his first wife, his livelihood in the death of coal, and his first and third sons to black lung from working in the mines. Gavin Thomas, my father, was the second son, tall, frail, with a Beatles mop and Buddy Holly glasses. He had been too thin and weak of upper body to work in the mines, and had been too undisciplined to go to college. In 1971, his draft number was two, and to avoid the draft into the infantry and go to Viet Nam, he enlisted in the Air Force, his recruiter promising an assignment back in Pennsylvania.
Halfway into his third year of enlistment, my father received orders to go to Thailand, orders that put him on an air base that routinely bombed North Viet Nam and Laos. His mutual glee and dread gave him an odd sense of euphoria and depression. He thought about fleeing the country at times, hijacking a plane to Sweden, or running a car up into Manitoba. But one thing kept calling him to Thailand—his camera. He had become a photographer, a good photographer, and had placed several of his photo shots in national publications. He kept the camera around his neck almost from waking to sleeping.
When he landed, an F-105 Thunderchief had come in hot beside his plane, having taken enemy fire and jettisoned its bombs over unknown tropical foliage on the Viet side of the border. A trio of F-4s loaded and ready for launching stood waiting for his plane to clear. But all Gavin could see were the forests rising beyond Ubon Air Base.
He saw Som. She was wearing an orange dress the day he met her, a common hooker who would be his first sexual experience, and a woman who realized at first that this soldier boy was her ticket out of Thailand, out of prostitution, if only she could be both mother and lover to him.
Som came from the village of Pathum. She was eight years older than my father. She had a unique expression of both a smile and a grimace, as if happiness was confused with pain, or perhaps pain infused in happiness. It seemed appropriate. She had endured the loss of her father and mother to the Viet Cong, lost her first husband to a motorcycle accident, her lone child from her first marriage to pneumonia. When Gavin would take her to Khong Chiam to where the Mun River joins the Mekong River, where the innocent blue water of the Mun churns with the brown water of the Mekong, she told Gavin he was the Mun bringing happiness into her life, and she the Mekong.
On the Mekong at Dong Na Tham, he had her hide behind the flowers, the waterfalls, have her bright pink dress the sole tint as fog stripped all the other colors from the river and the quays. She became monogamous that day, she would tell me often as I grew up, a not too subtle lesson to corral my teenage desires.
Standing in the shadow of the walnut brought back all of the stories my mother had told me. When she opened the door and hugged me. From a lower step I towered over her. She had shrunk, stood less than five feet tall, not the giant of lore made out by the news blogs.
Will you come and live with me? I had almost summoned the courage when I entered my childhood home, but the words stayed swallowed.
Gavin took two years after his discharge to arrange for Som to come to the United States. He greeted her in Hawaii where they were married, a complete blur for her, remembered with precision by him through his photographic eye. Then he took her back to Fayette County, Pennsylvania. It could have just as easily been the moon. There was no bustle, no city, no long strings of passersby, no haggling, no market, and no rain so heavy that it burdened your shoulders. Instead of being treated like a victim, she was treated as if she was Viet Cong, the enemy, and more than once was asked if she knew the men who had killed and maimed American boys.
Being Thai to the citizens of Fayette County meant being Asian, and being Asian meant you were either Viet Cong or Chinese, and both were bad. She never asked Gavin to move, but moving came.
The doctor told Gavin that he had signs of black lung disease, even though Gavin had never worked in the mines. His father and brothers had brought the soot home on their work clothes, had played with Gavin without showering.
Second-hand soot, Gavin joked.
But the soot was no joke to Som. She looked for clean air and found that New Mexico and Wyoming had the cleanest air, and that Wyoming had an opening for a Sears photographer in Cheyenne. Behind my father’s back, she sent his photos as a job resume, they had called, and Gavin had a career.
The clean air of Wyoming vanished as soon as they went out of their apartment. Smokers dominated the city. No restaurant was safe. No motel. No store. The clerks all seemed to smoke. Even the Catholic church smelled of smoke; she saw the priests out back after the service chain-smoking. The hospital reeked of smoke at the doorway and butts littered both the sand vestibules and the ground near it. Smoke fell over the valley like a dark blanket each night.
Everywhere my mother turned, she saw darkness: darkness on the snow, darkness in the air, darkness in the lungs, and darkness in the hearts of suspicious townspeople. In spring, she found a mobile home outside of Cheyenne on a high mound overlooking a valley of aspen and maples. The mobile home was two-years new, and had been the home of a shale oil geologist who it seemed had never used the kitchen and barely disturbed any other part. She had her own money from Thailand, so she bought it, told Gavin that night, and within a month, they had moved. In another month, Som was pregnant.
My father’s lungs did not recover. The asthma became worse, and in the third winter, he got the flu, which begat pneumonia, which begat death, a wheezing, gasping finale no different from his brothers or his father. They listed pneumonia on his death certificate, but soot had killed him.
Soot. All over the world people worried about germs and bacteria and viruses they could only see under microscopes, and Gavin had been killed by visible bits of coal and wood sucked into his lungs.
Will you come and live with me? Your life has been hard, I would tell her. Your home is cold in the winter. My home is warm. Wendy and I make good money. I have the space for both you and uncle. You could use your money from the settlement to live a good life, I would tell her.
What I wanted to say: you are all alone out here. All of the other homes have been demolished and yours stands like an eyesore to progress. The propane dealer doesn’t even want to come out here any longer. One day you won’t have heat. Why do you want to hold up progress for an entire generation?
Som knew how to work. She took in sewing. Good with needle, so-so with thread, she would always joke. She worked at Kimball’s bakery, up at three, work by three-thirty, home by one o’clock. Then she’d sew. One thing my mother liked about America—quilts. She started quilting. But not quilting like Quakers. She used color, like her homeland. She made quilts with bright blues and satin pinks and oranges. Sold like doughnuts at first, cheap, not much money. She went to her first show one Sunday and saw how much money women charged, one-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred dollars, and she changed her pricing to one hundred and five dollars and sold all six quilts just like that. Snap of fingers, she said. Then she found an outlet in Denver that sold all she could make, and she got one-hundred fifty dollars each. She’d make four a month. The sales brought in more money than the benefits. She stopped working at the bakery. No more three in the morning. She could breathe. She could breathe the good air up on this mountain.
Will you come and live with me? After the pleasantries and four quarters of a pastry that made me drool, I felt the question finally crawling up my throat, inching up like a mountain climber on a sheer face of mountain.
Instead I said, “When will you stop being so stubborn? When will you just accept the check and stop arguing?”
The room froze. For ten seconds I could feel the cauldron of the volcano in my throat prep for spewing. My uncle removed his glasses. He smiled, but his lips quivered. He giggled.
“I am not a survivor. I am a thriver,” my mother said, very quietly, and then the crescendo began. “Look, I ran from rainforests, enormous blossoms for this,” she said spreading her hands. “No blossoms, but no cowering under the trees. I left death, and here I have life,” she said, spreading her hands to show her three children captured in artwork and photos from decades past scattered in frames on the walls.
“I left a world where men enslave women, and here I have no man to serve, no man to bow to, here,” she said, spreading her hands over her chest, “I have myself. I left no God, and here, I have God,” she said, spreading both hands over her face.
“I have no sorrow, no sadness. Every day is difficult for me, like it is for you, for all of us. Ravens, rust, oil from rock, they surround me. I see shale oil as just another coal operation; black dust; state needs property as a road to wells. But this darkness killed your father, left me a mother of three children alone to survive, and this home, this land, my resurrection. I came to life here. Why do I want what killed my husband to take this too? To remove me from life. I am not bothered here. I do not look over my shoulder. I do not drop my head afraid to be recognized. I am free to move. Perhaps that is not happiness, but for me, I have contentment my brother the priest never finds.”
Her decrescendo began. “He will kid you that he the priest is at great contentment, but his heart never rests, his mind never rests. It is only his body that rests. He does nothing. His hands and his feet are useless oars.”
And now the question had crawled to my tongue. I could feel it burning my lips.
“Will you come and live with me?”
She stared at me for a moment, and then burst into laughter.
“No, no, no, it would never work,” she laughed.
I was relieved.
She would not suffer eviction, displacement. She was not the eternal refugee, the diaspora, the perpetual knapsacker, hobo, the cut adrift. She would win.
“I want home for home,” she said. “But if I take their terms, take money, I lose all value then. I want value. In the long run, none of us has value, only the eternal has value. Unless here and now is eternal, unless kingdom is at hand, I want value. How can they just buy me out without my permission? I want a trade—a place for a place. Not money. Land. A home. If they trade me eternity, I will rest.”
The conversation turned to more ordinary things, and my mother never let an opportunity go by where she could turn a phrase against Uncle, nor Uncle a phrase he couldn’t make into a double entendre about Som’s non-spiritual attitude. I was finally at the home I remembered, and remembered why I had left and not returned.
After I left and the door closed behind me, I felt an enormous comfort. My life, and Som’s, could continue on a map that had a tomorrow’s tomorrow. The two worlds would not collide.
About ten miles from the mobile home, I began choking, as if the question I had to ask had not been released when I spoke it, but was traveling back down to lodge again in my quivering stomach and heart. I had a swell of relief, suddenly, a bodily relief that was far more intense than comfort. It was not the relief from responsibility for my mother, but that I could always find her. No matter what point on a map my wife Wendy and I and our son might hasten, Som would be in the mountains of Wyoming, avoiding the darkness that accumulates in small black particles, the darkness of doubt, the darkness of transience, which sucked into our mind and body and soul, eventually kill us. In the age of mobility, in the necessity of mobility, she would be fixed.
Where the wind blew clean, I would find her.
All along she had been asking, Will you come and live with me?
Now I could see. I could finally answer yes.
Jeff Burt grew up in Wisconsin, was tempered in Texas and Nebraska, and found a home in California, though landscapes of the Midwest still populate much of his writing. He has work in Per Contra, The Nervous Breakdown, Atticus Review, Amarillo Bay, and won the 2016 Consequence Fiction Prize.