CHEAP EATS Not even duck soup can save me now. The children I put to sleep … they want stories.
“I had a black eye,” I began, “a swollen, purple nose, and tears streaming down my face.” I was lying on my back on the floor in the dark, next to their bunk beds.
“No no no,” the voice on top said. “Make one up this time.”
“When I was a little girl,” I began, as I always do when I’m making one up.
The voice of the bottom bunk interrupted. “In this one make the fox eat the chicken.”
“No no no,” said the voice on top. “Make one up where the chicken eats the fox.” He laughed his angelically evil laugh.
“Yeah!” she said, laughing hers. “Yeah, where — ”
“This story doesn’t have any chickens in it,” I said.
The silence was spectacular, my audience mine. I promised the usual: that if neither one said another single word, from that moment on, I would stay right there in the room with them when the story was over, until everyone was asleep. I said that in any case I would see them in the morning, and if anyone had any questions or comments we would discuss them over pancakes. “But if you want me to stay in the room right now,” I said, “you have to put your heads on your pillows, close your eyes, and just listen.”
This they did, the sweeties, but Top Bunk, being a little too eager to please, overshot the pillow and bounced his head off the headboard, necessitating an ice pack. When I came back from the kitchen, Bottom Bunk was cold and wanted me to snuggle with her.
The story I told, finally, from the floor, once everyone was properly iced and snuggled and re-sworn to silence, started with “When I was a little girl, between your age and yours,” and ended last night at the International Terminal of the San Francisco Airport.
In between there was plenty of time for two little children to fall asleep, wake up, go to school, grow into adults, and surrender to the cold, stark reality of make-believe, or — who knows — maybe even experience, just once, the upending shock of true, fiery, electric, and impossible love, the kind where whole worlds, not just bodies, collide.
Kids aren’t angels. They’re kids. They kept their heads on their pillows, their eyes presumably closed, and bravely just breathed. Then afterward I could hear their wheels spinning, the little coughs and sniffs, restless repositioning of arms and legs.
Their questions went without saying, but I knew what they would be, and had marked them all, along the way, for later, for morning, for pancakes …
What does pneumonia feel like? What’s an exchange student? Oxygen tent? How can duck soup taste so dark and good and still be medicine? And why couldn’t you finish it? Can you go to jail for stealing a roll of toilet paper from a ladies room? What does Fung Lum mean? Can people really fly higher than airplanes? If you liked the same stuff and never wanted to stop playing together, why did you stop? How come we wish on stars but not the moon?
Adults aren’t angels. The dishes needed done, the counters wiped, and the kitchen floor swept. It was garbage night. I hadn’t slept since Sunday, bathed since Monday, or changed my clothes since Tuesday. I’d cancelled meetings, missed deadlines, left work early, and concocted a really very unforgivable dinner that no one, not even parents, could quite fathom. That was Wednesday. On Thursday they ordered pizza.
And I lay on the kids’ room floor long after they’d both spun down into differently delicious dreams, forgetting every single thing except and until pancakes. Awake as always, as low, loved, and lonely as the kid-beaten, bent-tailed, poopy-butt cat curled up next to me, I lay with my black eye and almost-broken nose, tears brining my crows feet and basting my ears, thinking soft fingers on faces and wondering how in the world I would answer the one about the moon.
Fung Lum Restaurant
SFO International Terminal, SF
Beer & wine
L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.