DINNER IN THE MIDWEST
In 1955, my father was laid off from his job as a mechanic on the railroad. He had been employed during the hey day of the American railroad boom repairing and maintaining the big engines that once moved a nation’s economy from coast to coast. My Dad often said that the one thing that he liked about his job was working on machines that were going to new and different places; places that he would never visit, but places that he often dreamed about. When the word came down from his supervisor that the lay offs were pending, my father grimly gave the news to my mother, straight and direct: “Everyone is using semis to move freight faster than the trains ever could, God dammit, and guys like me are paying the price.”
So, with his unemployment looming over the family like a lengthening shadow, he made the announcement that we were moving to Kansas to find work and to be closer to his family. Daddy never really felt comfortable living so close to Los Angeles with the smog and the noisy traffic slowly intruding on his haven in the foothills. Although securely nestled in the arms of the San Gabriel Mountains, to Daddy, our home seemed to be retreating into the canyons of the foothills as if escaping from the gray pall that slowly exhaled from the City of Angels.
That summer, my mother’s cousin came to act as the caretaker of our home while we set off to discover the Great Midwest. We boarded the Super Chief at Union Station and hurtled full speed for cornfields, cows, and flat vistas that stretched for miles. When we arrived in Kansas City, it was understood that we would live with my father’s parents: a stern and methodical couple from Eastern Europe. They were first cousins by birth and their intense desire to leave Poland was fiercely mutual. They married for immigration purposes and eventually settled in a part of Kansas City where Eastern European languages and cultures flourished and thrived. They never needed to read or write English in the neighborhood where they lived and so they never learned.
At first, it was strange hearing my father speak to his parents in Polish. While they always spoke English to me, my mother, and my brother and sister, it appeared to be such an effort that I avoided speaking to them whenever I could as much as the common courtesy of that era allowed. Happily, my Dad’s brother and two sisters were quite taken with the novelty of two nieces and a nephew from way out West. We rotated our time together spending many energetic days and tranquil nights among his three siblings and their families. This arrangement seemed to agree with my grandparents since they clearly felt some discomfort with these three small creatures from California rushing around disturbing the archaic durability of their hearth.
We had been in Kansas about three months when my mother decided to cook an authentic dinner, West Coast style, as a surprise for the family. I was a little tired of all of the heavy bland foods that my grandmother made, so I was looking forward to one of my mother’s specialty dinners. My grandparents, my dad, and my brother and sister would be away at one of the aunt’s house for the day, so it would be our secret, just between my mother and me. I helped her seed the tomatoes while she sang one of her beautiful songs in Spanish. But, she wouldn’t let me help with the chilies since she was afraid that I would accidentally rub my eyes afterwards without washing my hands properly. My mother was always so cautious when it came to the safety of her children. She carefully ground the chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and oregano by hand transforming the mixture into her famous salsa. The familiar aromas of our kitchen at home in California filled the musty air in the Old World pantry.
When my grandparents and the rest of the family returned, my mother seated everyone in the dining room, smiling with anticipation. She had set the table in that particular Midwest fashion that my grandmother had adopted when she immigrated to America. The plates were inverted on the table awaiting the words of thanks to be murmured over them before they would be turned over ready to receive the Lord’s bounty. After grace was said, my mother went into the kitchen and brought out the dinner she had so painstakingly prepared and began to set it on the table. First, she proudly offered a platter laden with crispy beef tacos, an old recipe from Mexico. She then served steaming bowls of fragrant Spanish rice and frijoles made from scratch. Finally, she placed several bowls of salsa strategically around the table and then, beaming, she sat down to join the family.
Forgetting my table manners, I reached for a taco and began to eat like I had been starving for a week. Then I noticed that everyone was very quiet. The silence was deafening. My grandmother rose to her feet, went into the kitchen, and began rattling pots and pans. I couldn’t understand why she needed to add anything to the perfectly wonderful dinner set before us. My grandfather frowned at me and muttered brokenly, “How can you eat with your hands like an animal? Is that how you eat in Los Angeles, like you live in a barn?” My mother bolted tearfully from the table running into the room that she shared with my Dad. Springing to his feet, my father shouted something angrily in Polish to his father and they began to argue heatedly. Confused and hurt, I ran to my parent’s room seeking relief from the sting of my grandparent’s rebuke.
The next day, we silently boarded a train that would eventually return us to our home in La Crescenta. My Auntie Lupe picked us up at Union Station near the Olvera Street entrance. My father’s jaw tightened while my mother quietly explained to my tia in the lilting tones of the barrio the reasons for our sudden return. Tenderly, my tia patted my Daddy’s arm and brought the car around to carry us back to the solace of our home in the foothills. For my father, the road to reunion was littered with the forgotten memories of renewed prejudices nurtured in his parent’s adjustment to a new way of living. My Dad never referred to the Midwest as home again
Good morning. How can I help you?
I need help in finding those special bullets with the kind of tips that will go through a bulletproof vest.
And why do you need those bullets?
Because, I have to rob a bank.
And why do you have to rob a bank?
Because if I don’t rob the bank, the voices won’t leave me alone.
What do the voices say?
They tell me that I am nothing, that the only way I can be something is if I rob a bank. If I don’t do what they say, they will come after me. They will scream at me when I turn the shower on, they will yell at me when I turn the lights on in the house, and then they will tell the neighbors that I am worthless.
Are you at risk of hurting yourself or anyone else?
No, I really wouldn’t hurt anyone when I rob the bank. I just want people to take me seriously. But if I don’t do something soon, I might have to cut my ears off so that I don’t hear the voices anymore.
Would you like to talk to someone who can help you today?
Yeah, I guess so, but do you think that you could help me find those bullets?
Sometimes the phone calls come every five minutes, sometimes, not very often, they come just once in a while and then we get a bit of a break, to catch our breath. There are four of us in a room that looks over a quiet park complete with a founder’s mansion from a bygone era. It is incredibly lovely beyond the window, the trees and grass newly green and unfolding in the spring sun. I am thinking that a thin pane of glass is the only thing protecting me from the pain that continues to spawn on the other side. Only a thin wire connects me with that desperate lament, drawing me ever closer to the inevitable yawning void where the suffering is deeply lodged, awaiting release.
Good afternoon. How may I assist you?
I have a kid who was placed with me about three days ago and I think that she needs counseling.
What’s going on with her?
She was placed with us due to extreme neglect and sexual abuse. Her mother has some kind of a degenerative disease and lives in an adult family home and her grandmother has been her guardian since she was three.
Why was she removed from the grandmother’s care?
The grandmother’s health began declining when the kid was about seven and the state sent a caregiver into the home. This caregiver is a biker type, you know what I mean? Tattoos, pierced. Well, anyway, he started buying this kid jewelry, then shampoo, and perfume. He began grooming her, brushing her hair, and giving her baths. Then he began sleeping with her and having sex with her regularly. Well, then, one day the dad showed up, moved in, and started taking pictures of his daughter in bed with this guy. He blew the pictures up and had them mounted all over the walls of the house. The cops arrived because of an old warrant against the caregiver and I guess it was really something when the cops walked in: vermin, filth, and then those pictures everywhere. There’s a criminal investigation pending against the dad and the grandmother’s caregiver. Charges are also pending against the grandmother. The doctor that examined the kid yesterday thinks that the sexual abuse has been going on since she was about four or so, so the dad is also a suspect. Oh, yeah, the kid hasn’t been to school in two years and the doctor thinks that she may be HIV positive and pregnant. We’re still waiting for the tests to come back.
How old is she now?
She will be twelve next week…
There are days when I wonder if the anguish and torment of those callers will ever be relieved. When questions about good and evil lay heavily in the air, like dust after an old rug has been shaken out. When the whispered and the frenzied chronicles of more violence, more dismay, more terror, and more despair lurk long afterwards in the mind’s eye, crowding everything else out until you walk away at the end of the day. Then, suddenly you are sucking in the fresh rain-washed air, clearing the last vestiges of horror and grief until you return once again to that room by the park.
Hello. How can I help you?
I’m not sure if you can help me or not.
Well, I’d like to try. What’s troubling you?
Well, I was divorced about a year ago, and I think that my kids need counseling. You know, their dad doesn’t come around, well, he can’t because of the incident, and they have been really angry and moody. So, I thought that maybe they could talk to someone, you know, to get it out of their system. I mean, all they need is to forget about him, but I guess you can’t forget about your dad, no matter what he did.
Tell me about the incident.
Oh, that. Well, right after the divorce was final, my ex showed up one day with a gun and held me and kids hostage for two days. The cops weren’t involved ‘cause I talked him into leaving, you know? I guess the guilt got to him and the kids started crying and everything, so he split. I got scared and got a restraining order against him, so everything is o.k. now. But the kids are pissed and scared and keep having nightmares about that time. I keep telling them that Daddy isn’t coming back and we don’t have to be scared anymore. Anyway, he told me he would never do anything like that again, so we don’t have to be afraid of him any more, right? You’re not going to call CPS are you? My sister told me that you guys might call CPS if I told you all of this stuff. I don’t know how I would live if my kids were gone…
Lately, my thoughts have turned to other possibilities. What if one day when I walk out of that room and try to shake the melancholy that fills my head, I then discover that my heart has become completely mournful and full of dread? What if at the end of the day, the echoes of those forlorn mutterings do not dissolve, but linger, pulling me ever closer to the precipice of that sorrow, dragging me over the edge to the oblivion that finally claims me as one of its own?
Good morning. How can I be of help?
I was supposed to come in and get some counseling, like, before summer, but I didn’t.
So, what changed your mind?
Well, I was busted for shoplifting and the courts said I had to get counseling or go to Remann Hall.
Have you ever been to Remann Hall before?
Yeah, once. It’s not so bad.
Why were you in Remann Hall?
Shit, the school went fucking ballistic ‘cause I brought my dad’s .22 to school. I wasn’t going to do anything with it. But, they sent me to Remann Hall, anyway.
Why did you bring the gun to school?
I was just trying to scare this guy with it. He’s some jock who thinks he is so bad.
How old are you?
Is there some reason why your parents aren’t calling for you?
Yeah, right. Like they care or whatever.
How would you describe your relationship with your parents?
It’s like that song, you know. My father is the hammer, my mother is the nail, and I’m the board…
Sometimes, their voices ring through the frozen water of my human sleep. Often I awake, startled, the night glaring and bold with their cries for help. Then I think, what if one night, one last time, their frantic calls seep into my very being and I am unable to continue to deter that plaintive and powerful force that longs to clutch me in its grasp? But then, I turn my back to the wall and sink into the comfort of my bed, of my life, and let clear repose approach, gathering me close and secure.
MONEY FROM HOME
I know it is Saturday morning when I wake up because I can hear Daddy in the bathroom for the third time that morning. He is gargling the lingering remains of last night’s six-pack down the drain. When I hear him start to whistle, I know that I can finally get up. He is now ready to “join the human race” as my mother used to say. During the week, Daddy is long gone by this time and has caught the 5:30 bus to work at the train yards. But now I leap from the top of the bunk bed that I share with my sister and full of anticipation, head for the kitchen. Daddy is on his fourth cup of coffee and the cast iron skillet is sizzling on the stove full of Farmer John sausage. My mother is on the back porch filling a wicker basket up with the first load of laundry for that day. Daddy is buttering toast and I slide onto the mottled green vinyl kitchen chair wincing when my leg catches on the dried and hardened electric tape used to patch the seat.
“Johnnie, when are you going to fix that chair right? These kid’s legs are full of scratches from those damn chairs.”
“I’ll see to it soon, Dorothy. Hey, sweetie pie, are you ready for some scrambled eggs and sausage?”
I nod my head and smile. I don’t like to say much between my parent’s terse exchanges, but as long as I smile in that quiet, then everything is all right. My mother slams the back door as she lurches out to the clothesline in the back yard. Daddy turns on the radio and Hank Williams pours his soul out into the kitchen.
When we went to pick up Karen’s friend to go with us on our trip to the lake, I was surprised to see that it was Teacher. Teacher looked strange outside of the classroom, wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I was glad to see her, but a little embarrassed by my family’s reaction to her. My mother hugged her, smiling that smile that appears when she is feeling uncomfortable and wanting to please others. My grandmother had been sitting in the front seat of the van and, immediately after the introductions to Teacher, she announced that she would sit in the back of the van so that Teacher could sit in front with Karen. I knew Teacher would protest since the only seats in the van were up front, but I was hoping she wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Teacher said a little something about my grandmother staying up front with Karen, but she finally gave up and got in.
As usual, my family was talking away forgetting that Karen and Teacher couldn’t understand anything they said. But it felt good knowing that I was the only one who could understand what everyone was saying. When we got to the lake and unpacked all of the food my mother and cousins had brought, I wanted to run away and hide. I knew that Teacher had never seen food like this before, much less eaten any of it. Karen was our sponsor from Catholic Relief and had been to our house many times, so she was used to the weird stuff my mother cooked. Teacher made a big show of how good everything was, although I noticed that she didn’t eat any of the kao pad that my grandmother had made. My grandmother was well known for this dish and I could tell that she was a little hurt that Teacher didn’t even try it.
When I went to school the following Monday, I was hoping that teacher wouldn’t talk about the trip to the lake and how wonderful it had been to meet my family. My cousin and my best friend, Phoua, would wonder why she hadn’t been invited and would ask a bunch of questions I didn’t want to answer. Besides, I didn’t want the other kids to know that my mother had made Hmong food for Teacher. When I was with my friends, we wanted to eat pizza or go to McDonald’s and it was embarrassing that my mother still cooked the old way.
After class one day, Teacher asked me if I would be interested in spending some time tutoring with her on the weekends. I was glad that she wanted to help me with my schoolwork, but I told her that I would have to ask my mother. She gave me her phone number so that I could call her and let her know. My mother was very excited that Teacher was taking an interest in me and gave me permission to go. I called Teacher that night and set up a time to meet with her at her home. My cousin, Tou Lee, would bring me and pick me up.
That day at her house, Teacher told me that I was the smartest person in class and that my English and grammar were very good. She kept talking about something she called my potential. I noticed that there were lots of rooms in Teacher’s house. I wondered if this potential had anything to do with living in a house that had a lot of rooms. I really liked all of the attention, but I didn’t know how my cousins and my other friends would react to it if they knew. I hoped she wouldn’t make a big thing out of it at school.
One day during our tutoring time, Teacher asked me if I wanted to visit a college. She described it as a place where you could get a complete education and really develop that potential she kept talking about. I told her I would have to talk to my mother. When I told my mother where Teacher wanted to take me, she was thrilled and wanted to go along. I was afraid that when we went to this college, my mother, her clothes, and everything else about her would embarrass me, but I couldn’t tell her that. When we went to this college, I found out that Teacher was a student there. I thought that once you were a teacher you didn’t have to go to school any more. Teacher told me that she was an Instructor Aide at my school and not a teacher yet. Even though I liked Teacher a lot, I was kind of disappointed that a real teacher wasn’t teaching my class. I wondered if the other kids in my school who weren’t in ESL had real teachers.
While we walked around the college, my mother held my hand the whole time. I was kind of glad that she did because there were so many buildings and they were so big. Everybody was so noisy and rushing around everywhere. It reminded me of the time when Karen took us to get pizza at a place called Chuckie Cheese. When we walked in, there were all of these of lights spinning around, loud music blaring, kids shouting and running, and this giant rat walking around. My grandmother was so scared that she started to cry. I hoped my mother wouldn’t start to cry now.
A few days later, my mother had a visit from her cousin, Cha Pao, who said that that he had been talking with a family that had a son suitable for marriage. I was not interested in marrying anybody, but I would never say anything like that to my mother while Cha Pao was there. After he had left, I quickly told my mother that I wasn’t ready to get married and that I wanted to go to that college when I finished high school. My mother started to cry telling me that I couldn’t do that now. Cha Pao had made the arrangements and since my father was dead, he was the one who made all of these decisions. I didn’t know what to do and I had no other place to go. I knew that I had no choice. My mother told me that the man Cha Pao had chosen owned a restaurant and lived in Fresno. This man was an important person at the Hmong Community Center. I told my mother that I would do as she wanted.
At school the next day, I invited Teacher to my house that weekend so that my mother could talk with her. She agreed to come and when she arrived at our house that Saturday, my mother had made her special tea from the herbs that she grew in the garden out in the back of the apartments where we lived. My mother put out her special cups with the teapot that had survived the bombings, the escape from home, the refugee camp in Thailand, and the trip to America. She poured the tea carefully and handed the first cup to Teacher. After my mother had served the tea, I told teacher that I was going to be married within the month. I started to tell her that I would continue at Herbert Hoover Middle School and then go to high school until I was sixteen, but she startled me with a look of such sadness that I couldn’t speak. “Khou,” she said, “is this what you really want to do? What about college?” Even though my mother understood little of what Teacher was talking about, her expression said everything. My mother lowered her eyes, unable to look at Teacher. I looked at Teacher straight in the eye and said, “Yes, this is what I want to do.” The three of us drank our tea in silence.
After Teacher had gone, I thought, how could I tell her that my mother had lost two husbands in a war that had never ended for us, that my little brother was deaf and would never be able to support my mother when she got old? That most of my cousins would be married by the time they were fourteen and that this was the Hmong way. That Cha Pao was poor, had a family of his own, and was tired of taking care of my mother, my little brother, and me. That we were lucky to have survived the journey across the river into Thailand, but had to leave my oldest brother in Laos because all of my grandparent’s sons had died in the war. How could I explain to Teacher that in the Hmong villages, a mother whose sons had died could claim any grandson as her own from any of her son’s wives? We didn’t even know if my oldest brother was still alive since the Communists had taken over the village where we had left him. How could I tell Teacher that getting married, having children, planting rice, growing old, and then dying with all of the people you have ever known gathered around you is the closest thing to a normal life for a girl back home in Laos? How could she know that when we came to America, all we were looking for was a way to go on? How could Teacher with all of her talk about potential, her house, and her college ever begin to understand?