‘Assemblage’ by Wei Xiong

Though my mother was a flock of adjectives herded together from unlikely corners, there was no getting around the shepherding force of dignity. She had a geometric precision about her, so much so that when she entered a room doing anything—clapping shut her gardening shears, lugging a hip-propped laundry basket—it had the effect of a statue unveiling. When the divorce finally came, I wasn’t surprised. Love had always seemed beneath her.

What surprised me was the word ‘boyfriend.’ Hers. Wholly. Named Dave. His devotion was so swooping he’d offered to marry her the first time he walked into Toby’s Steakhouse and saw her saunter toward him with a pitcher of lemonade, her smile more efficient than friendly. His first line, ‘If I had enough money, I’d buy you and take you home,’ was a testament to both his plainness of mind and flamboyance of heart, and she smiled. When she came home that night she told me about him while I counted her tips.

‘He’s fifty-something but doesn’t look half-bad. Two divorces, no kids. Owns a cattle ranch down on seventy-three.’

‘You’d really be a rancher’s wife?’ I said, picturing her Shakespearian Quarterlys face-down in bales of hay.

‘An aspiring concert pianist’s wife sounds better, doesn’t it?’

§

My father came home some days just before midnight. The stillness of the hour made the wall’s lurch even more seismic when he opened the front door. Beside me in bed I felt my mother clench in her sleep. Her eyes remaining shut frightened me even more than the trail of extravagant clamour my father summoned in rifling the cupboards, slapping together a sandwich and kicking off his shoes. It was like a fuse had blown in the too-thin air of the Rachmaninoff and Bach concertos he’d been practicing all day and now his every nerve hankered for each creak and groan. I read the stakes in the hard clamp of my sleeping mother’s jaw: he was a loose cannon; we were a sinking ship.

§

I was earnest and sodden in those days, the short end of thirteen. I sat in the front row of every class at school and raised my hand so much the teachers ignored it. At lunch I hung with Louise, who wore fishnet stockings on Valentine’s Day, and Jackson, her dreadlocked best friend. They marveled at the Victorian-themed romance novels I checked out by the dozen from the public library and the perpetual whiteness of my Keds.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Louise asked me once.

‘A doctor. Or a lawyer.’

‘You’re smart enough. But maybe too weird.’

At home my mother flared up at me for little things. Coming to bed with my hair still in a ponytail; rubbing a hole erasing a sum on my algebra paper; praying with a face theatrically grave.

‘Stop mooning through life and get a grip,’ she would say. ‘You’re almost a woman now.’

She, on the other hand, was very much a woman—one veined with steel. Though we hadn’t spoken to my father in more than a month, she never started when their paths crossed in the house, never sought his face for signs of calm or danger. I took each step like a trespasser. Coming home from school each day I’d pause in the front yard if his Oldsmobile was there or if her work sneakers were on the front porch. I’d circle the house, ducking and listening at each window. Upon concluding they were in separate quarters I’d zip through the foyer, living room and kitchen and on to the garage where I’d put on my suit and go back out to my bees.

My beekeeper’s suit used to be my father’s. He and my mother had patched it together from scraps years ago using a motorcycle helmet he’d bought from a garage sale, a wool muffler, some painter’s overalls, and a pair of leather gloves. They used my mother’s sewing machine and my father pierced his finger twice in the process as they bickered over the positioning of the pieces. When they finished, and after two weeks of scouting the country fields for hives, he came home with his first batch of bees. The bee boxes were the only equipment he spent money on. In order to keep the boxes isolated he mowed the neighbor’s lawn for a month in exchange for an old covered wagon. Years later it sat in our backyard, thatched weeds growing wild against its wheels. No one but me went in then. Though my father came from generations of bee keepers and my mother never went near them if she could help it, I was the only one who had never been stung.

I cherished the first look inside a hive the most. The bristly bee’s bodies buzzing into whorls and knots like tiny frantic monsters. It had a thrilling ugliness, a living, breathing ugliness I had to resist an urge to smash. Moving slowly in my suit I lifted out the panels to check for any dead bees or unusual congealment and removed the supers with their frames full of honey and drained them into jars. Though my mother found the taste of our honey cloying and my father hadn’t touched the jars in the cupboard in a long time, I did this daily. I had two reasons for this. One, no one would take care of the bees if I didn’t, and I had nightmares of lifting the panels from the box and seeing a field of sticky motionless carcasses. And two, though I couldn’t explain it to my mother, I liked being in the wagon where my every move had a reaction. The bees knew when I came in; their flight paths zigzagged with agitation. When I inched my face as close to the panel as I could I saw their rubbings through my visor, their movements small and electrical-accurate, their buzzing so low it was only a vibration on my skin. I didn’t imagine they liked me—even then I was too old for that. What I enjoyed, I think, was being totally immersed in my senses. If it’d been just a bit more—if the bees had only smelled—the ecstasy would have been too much. I would have thrown down a panel, crushed the humming bodies under my heel, and ran out into the open fields.

§

Something woke me one night in June. My mother leaned over my face, an old corduroy coat much too big for me clutched in her fist.

‘Put this on,’ she said. ‘Dave is outside in his truck. He wants to meet you.’

She wore a white nightgown so translucent I saw the contour of her body. Her hair was a whirlpool. A revving of elements made me dizzy.

‘Are you going out like that?’ I said, before realizing she’d probably come in like that.

Out in the jasmine-scented air, she opened the pickup door, placed a hand on each of my shoulders, and ducked behind me so as not to compromise the effect.

‘And this is Eve,’ she said, as if they were already in the middle of a conversation.

He looked less oily than I’d imagined. No buffed hair or shiny boots. Rather he was as roughly hewn as a grizzly. The bushy fray of his eyebrows drooped into his eyes and the skin of his knuckles puckered fat like toffee.

‘How d’you do, ma’am?’ he said with a nod and no smile and extended his hand toward me. When I felt his sandpapery skin and anchoring grip I understood why my mother liked him. I smiled to be polite but felt seasick.

‘Eve is excited about meeting the animals on your ranch,’ my mother said, stroking my hair. She only touched me tenderly when she thought I was distracted.

‘It’ll be an honour for them to meet such a beautiful little lady,’ Dave said.

§

On the last day of school, Louise and Jackson waved goodbye to me in the hall and continued on their way, hooting like coyotes at the student council girls in pastel jeans who struggled to not turn their heads as they walked by. ‘Don’t come back with a tan or anything, Miss Evie,’ Jackson shouted and blew me a kiss. Louise laughed and pulled him out of sight around a corner. I wondered if it was loneliness I felt.

Every morning that summer after my mother left for the restaurant I heard my father’s door yawn open. His noises were calmer in the morning, as if there’d been resolutions in the night. At around noon he left for the university conservatory with his briefcase filled with fruits and sheet music. I pictured him in an empty practice room, threadbare in comparison to his former carpeted office with the polished Steinway piano. Here he would spend the best part of summer, fingers flitting into a blur among the smooth ivory keys, the music emanating a simulation for the gardenias outside, the ivy climbing into a snarl, the slow conversations on a darkened porch he used to have with my mother about the bees, or me, or the neighbour’s leeks.

He’d kept to himself even before the layoff. I surmised this when, introduced to his colleagues at a Christmas party, they smiled at me with melting kindness, looked from my face to my father’s, and stepped away discreetly. Once, when I missed the school bus and walked to the music department to catch a ride from him, I glimpsed his slack-legged walk in the hall. His vacant expression was an abyss.

§

I grew heavy with anticipation bordering on paranoia. At night, with the lights off, I’d hear my father pace through the house, his noises neither angry nor composed, but repetitive. The floorboards in the kitchen creaked and creaked. The walls thrummed as if windows were being opened and shut and opened again. Sometimes when my mother and I cooked in the kitchen he would come in, cross the small space without touching us, and open the fridge, only to close it again empty-handed. Our conversations never resumed after he left. Regardless of the recipe my mother would turn up the burner and add all the spices at once.

She started coming home hours after her shift ended. I watched her from the front window, getting out of Dave’s red pickup, standing in her stocking feet on the porch and crouching down gracefully to put on her ballet flats. Did she know I was watching? Could it be all instinctive— the precision of the crook of her finger hooking into the heel of her shoe, the coltish tilt of her chin. When her path crossed with my father’s on the way to the bathroom or the kitchen, did his carefully-axised equilibrium trip upon her cocked elegance that had, even when they’d first met, made beauty a moot point? I turned over what little I knew of the episode in my head: two overly-solemn sixteen-year-olds meet at an arts camp in nowhere, Pennsylvania. She tickled by the stupor he lapsed into when he penciled in a treble clef; he surrendering all at the steadiness of her hand under his elbow as she led him onto the darkened gymnasium dance floor. Perhaps it was in keeping. Maybe they’d never learned to speak through the blunt-beaked mimicry of words and instead did what two overly-solemn teenagers do during the summer: felt the world’s spin through mere touch.

§

‘Is it about money?’ I asked my mother. We lay in bed back-to-back. She didn’t answer immediately but didn’t pretend I’d woken her.

‘Maybe.’ A pause. ‘Your father knows about Dave. I told him a week ago.’

I wasn’t surprised by this but my chest galloped and I wanted to cry. Though, why? I wondered. I hadn’t talked to him for months, dreaded the moment he would speak to me. I was relieved whenever I heard the clap of the door at his exit.

‘I don’t want you to waste your life trying to figure him out, Eve,’ she said when I said nothing.

I didn’t cry. I was sleeping next to my mother who had a rancher boyfriend. Crying would have made it all a mockery.

When the day came to move to Dave’s ranch, we tried to make as little noise as possible. Dave didn’t enter the house out of respect for my father and instead waited with his back against the truck. He looks like a world-weary cowboy, I thought with a sneer. I tried to time each of my exits from the house to coincide with my mother’s so I wouldn’t be alone with him, but I wanted to flee even more and so worked faster. When I trudged up to the truck with a canvas bag of paperbacks he took it from me with a mock grunt.

‘How are you holding up?’ he said.

‘Fine, thank you. Are these too heavy?’

‘What? No. No problem.’ He glanced down at one of my book covers—the silhouette of a man and woman locked in a kiss against a dusky sky. My cheeks grew hot as I struggled to think of something else: the acres of grazing fields I could roam in like a gypsy maid, the bedroom full of white wicker furniture my mother said Dave had waiting for me. Despite a mild nausea at the thought of him as our benefactor, I wanted these things.

I was about to return inside when he caught my shoulder. His grip hurt, but I saw he didn’t know it. ‘Your mother’s a good woman.’

I nodded. And then, wondering if he meant it as chastisement or refrain, I said, ‘I know.’ He kept his grip on me and looked into my face, as if he thought he might find absolute truth there. My mind skidded around what to say next and I was about to yank my shoulder out of his grasp when above us a harsh crash sounded. I looked up at my father’s bedroom window and saw an unfamiliar pattern of shadow and light, as if furniture had been rearranged. But I didn’t see him.

My mother trotted out the front door. ‘Last box,’ she said, hurrying me into the truck. It wasn’t.

§

My father died nine years later when a commuter plane skidded off the runway while landing at Washington Dulles. Out of eighty-four passengers, twenty-three fought their way out of the burning fuselage, bodies leaping with live fire, and tumbled into the snow-covered flanking-field. My father was among them. By the time the ambulances came the char had settled. He had stopped breathing.

The images were insistent, bounding across the Atlantic to my leaky, frigid student flat in Oxford, England. I hadn’t kept in contact with him at all. When my mother phoned me the news was already three weeks old.

On the blank canvas of the gap, then, I envisioned the flames. The sinews in his quiet body blooming bright like lit fuses, the riot in his cells dynamiting vast, outward. I realised how appropriate this was—the trumping of this single, soaring note over the old, meek enigmas: the hesitation with which he had held my hand at baseball games, as if the pose somehow embarrassed him. The humid months we spent in that embattled house, misfiring with ceasefire. On that last day: his blood’s swift wilt after it had first tided him to upend a vase, a dresser, anything, to make a bit of noise, to imprint himself onto the scene. Yet, I could not dwell on any of these particulars then. The indelibles that dripping night in Oxford were well worn, ordinary: my mother, at a crash that shook the rafters of a house, breaking into a jog yet not a run. Her penny-by-penny re-bargaining with fate after the first youthful, swooning fall. Instinct versus instinct. Prodding. Plodding.

 

Wei Xiong moved to rural Ohio from urban China at the age of nine. She is currently an online instructor of humanities and an adjunct instructor of English living in Ohio. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University in 2013.