Letters to Pan
BY CHARITY YOUNG
Union High School, ’16
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
I began third grade in the September of 1965 missing a sock and my head. It was my fault for dropping the former behind the dryer as a friendship offering—I thought the mice living down there would appreciate it, even though they didn’t because they were mice.
I didn’t lose the latter right away. For the first ten minutes of class I still had my head, and I remember this because some kid asked if my eyes were open or closed. I wanted to say “closed so I don’t have to look at you,” but that morning Mama had yanked my hair in a ponytail that stretched them to slits and warned me, “You lay low in school or you destroy future.” So I shrugged at the kid and pretended not to understand.
I remember everything from that day. Room 102, Galen Elementary, Galen City, California, USA; Earth, ninety-three million miles from a Sun that blazed three feet away and warmed the prepubescent odors in the room, around which flies orbited. Chatter swelled with the heat. Blonde Miss P clapped for silence and said “Let’s go around, who don’t you all introduce yourselves” in the voice of a new teacher who would tire over the year and quit early to become a waitress like Mama. I held my head high until Miss P put you next to me. Then it popped off, bounced, and rolled—pause at nose, accelerate over skull—to settle by your ankles. I don’t think anybody saw it blinking under the table but you.
Now, I do remember everything from that day, but my memory of you pushes most details to the background. All I can tell you of the Dianas and Donalds and Ronalds and Rhondas are their names, in the way you know the types of fruit in the produce aisle, and that their voices faded to a hum as we stared at each other and your head fell off, too.
Our meeting was not the snuffle of baby animals but the crack of marble against marble, a purge of reason, a drill to the tooth, a bear trap crunching our bones together. The sun burst upon our bomb shelter of a tabletop (good enough to protect from the commies, said the government) and shriveled our eyes to raisins or deep-fried chloroplasts, exuding chloroform, so the children around us swayed and died and retracted beneath the desks like mimosa ferns.
Do you remember? I hope you do.
Mama kept a file for me. It contained a hundred dollars and a spreadsheet detailing every accomplishment she wanted me to make between the ages of nine and nineteen, which she clipped to business cards gathered from well-to-do restaurant patrons. An excerpt: September 1965, beat the grocer’s son at chess. October 1965, drive up to San Francisco to play against the retired master Liu Longwei, who spent his days pushing around mahjong tiles in a haze of cigarette smoke, shirtless, shorts hoisted up to his nipples, potbelly quaking beneath corduroy every time he laughed or yelled. And onward.
She added to the file twice a week at midnight when her second shift ended, writing in English no matter how long it took. If Baba wasn’t off somewhere drinking he would mutter that Mama was whitewashing me, which always made her eyes and nostrils flare. “Laogong, you want her to grow and marry man like you? Ah?” She would whirl on me. “You have Baba face. You need Mama brains.” So I spent my time trapped in the room we shared, reading chess manuals, playing against the girl from Apartment 204. On her good days, Mama would bring home a bag of my favorite longan candies. On her bad days, Baba didn’t come home.
Everything turned around, of course, after you. I knew at once you had special powers and confirmed this in two ways: first, you made the other kids’ taunts roll off my back like water over oil paper. Second, after Mama arrived home that night, Baba surprised her with gold jewelry.
Understand that I never thought your powers were good or evil. I hadn’t grown up with the concept. There was only loyalty and treason, honor and dishonor; so when Mama asked Baba “Why so big and heavy? You think I am prostitute?” I was not surprised, especially not when he went still and lowered the jewelry box.
Nobody could ever read his face except for her, and I wonder what she saw. To me he just betrayed a shiver at the corner of his mouth, a turn of his head to hide the ancient acne pits in his right cheek. I felt sorry for him, but more so for Mama because she wouldn’t realize how much her words hurt until days later, and then she would be too proud to apologize. She was the kind of person who spoke her mind and thought everyone else did too.
It wasn’t too bad. Even though Baba left that night she didn’t cry or grow resentful; the only thing that increased was her level of overbearing instruction and the rate at which my file expanded. My chess tournaments increased in number and frequency. My practices jumped from three hours a day to six. “You grow up better than me,” she would say every morning before school. “You grow up Mama’s girl.”
We began the second day of school saying the Pledge of Allegiance under Miss P’s direction.
“I pledge allegiance,” she said. “I pledge allegiance…I pledge allegiance…I pledge allegiance…”
I was starting to think Miss P had forgotten the words when she glared at you.
“Why aren’t you following along?” she demanded.
“I can’t,” you said.
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“Then repeat after me. ‘I pledge’—”
Miss P exhaled. The frays of her temper already showed as clearly as the inch of black roots on her platinum head. “Americans should say the American pledge. Just like Germans say the German pledge and Arabs say the Arab pledge.”
Your mouth quirked. “I’m not American.”
A pause. “Sorry?”
You repeated yourself.
“Are you a visitor?”
“I’m kind of visiting.”
“Kind of—kind of from—”
You nearly finished your sentence but thought better of it.
Miss P waited about two seconds and ordered you to leave. She didn’t look angry, just frightened. You stood up and gave your best sneer, glancing around like nobody was good enough for you anyway, and your gaze landed on me. I raised my hand without thinking.
Miss P tried to ignore me but failed when the other kids whispered. I heard what they said. Somehow it was worse coming from them than from Mama.
She reached for the book she was about to read to the class. In a careful tone she said, “Are you going to go with him?”
I said yes. You walked out the door and I did too. Nobody tried to stop us, not Miss P or Miss S or Miss W or the principal or Mama because she was working, or Baba because he was probably in Nevada by now. We passed from the stuffiness of brick walls to the sunlight, dead grass, blue sky, crickets in the dust. We walked in silence down the sidewalk, me following you because I didn’t want to go home.
“I just want ‘em to drop dead,” you said.
You threw a profane gesture at the school and glanced back, in a rather self-conscious way, to see if it made me upset. I thought of yesterday’s nuclear drill and the fear in Miss P’s voice.
“That’s why they kicked you out.”
“Oh—no, not like that. Not like—“ you whistled as if a bomb was being dropped and went boom, splaying your fingers. “That. I just think they’re sad. ‘Cause they’re kids, you see.”
“You’re a kid,” I pointed out.
“Well sure, but I’m all right.”
We walked again and entered a depression in the land that curved away from the chapel (abandoned, now a home for stray animals) and towards the bar. You sat under the only tree within a hundred feet, picked up a leaf, and shredded its skin.
“And they’re not?” I said.
Your mouth went through several indecisive shapes and settled on a smirk. “‘They’re in school to learn to grow up. They got no other choice. Have you ever seen chickens get so fat they can’t move? Isn’t is cruel? I think so. You still gonna go back?”
Regarding your last question there was no doubt, mostly because of Mama. I thought of her hands red from scrubbing pots, her wrinkles small canyons in some places. She needed me to grow up quick.
Your green eyes widened like a desert cat’s. You had a habit of doing that without knowing—you would mouth off about something and then your entire face would change for an instant, go soft and wondering and guileless, disarming whoever you were talking to of their cynicism and indeed of any remaining thoughts they might’ve had. I couldn’t help but notice how dark your lashes were. The leaf skeleton blew away from your hands.
“Liar. You’re not from here.”
“Born in Galen,” I said, automatically because everyone thought I was from China. “Don’t be dumb.”
“Born doesn’t matter. It’s where you’re meant to be that matters—fact, I’m going right now.” You rose up and leaned against the tree, not missing a beat of grandness. Sunlight turned your skin gold in patches. “There’s a place I know, y’see. It’s got big forests, and red moons, and piles of icing sugar, and no clocks or schools, and being young forever. I swear to God. It’s not too far, maybe a mile, and if you want I’ll let you come.” You spread your arms in a way intended to be magnanimous, although it looked more like you wanted reassurance. “But only if you really, really want.”
I pictured Mama all alone at home.
“Nah, you gotta want.”
“Just saying that’s a real lame tale,” I said in my hardest voice. “You sure?”
“Yeah, ‘cause if you get cold I got a jacket.”
“I don’t need your damn jacket, it’s a hundred and four damn degrees,” I snapped.
Your smile dropped off. I turned around and walked away because Mama always told me boys like you were crazy. I didn’t stop walking until I reached the apartment, hid myself in Mama’s room of newspapers and chess manuals, and closed the door.
In the days following I tried to focus in school, I really did. Days three and four were fine. But when you are a nine-year-old girl, the memory of a lovely boy’s wrists and eyes and slow gap-toothed grin stirs up something more naive than its confining breast, no matter how much you try to squash it down. Mama didn’t help at all—when I mentioned you once she told me not to trust the boys in America, especially at my age, period. “I married your Baba when seventeen. See stupid choices young make?”
She had a point. You’d chosen me out of all the girls in class for no good reason. I began to think I had missed a rare chance to escape my stuffy school forever—nobody here wanted to talk to me unless shouts of “hey, red” or “hey, yellow” counted. (I didn’t know they weren’t just lucky colors until later.)
The next Tuesday, Mama’s shift ended early so she wanted to walk me home. In hopes of going home for lunch I told her school ended at noon, not two, but to my dismay she showed up at the eleven o’clock recess in her Chinese waitress uniform. She searched the crowd until her gaze landed on me, and I shrank behind the slides even though I knew it was in vain.
“Ai-yah, look at dress, so dirty!” she cried out, rushing over to catch my shoulder. I pulled away and she slapped my hand. “School teach disrespect too, huh?”
“No Mama, let’s just leave,” I begged. Fortunately the recess supervisor had abandoned his duties to smoke behind the dumpsters. I willed my classmates to stay silent, too.
“Why are you only one go? Am I early?” Mama turned to the nearest child, a certain Lizzy Sanders. “The time is what, please?”
Lizzy, a ringleted fifth-grader from Texas, took two hasty steps back and nearly fell into the slide. She glanced at me. “Ditchin’ again?” she asked in an accent made a hundred times more charming after Mama’s.
A boy named Reed piped up. “If I couldn’t understand nothing I’d go too. Like that one kid—the Arab one.”
One side of Lizzy’s cheek dimpled. “D’you think he flew away?”
Reed and a couple other kids snickered. I didn’t get it.
“What do they say?” Mama demanded.
“You leave school too soon before?”
My insides squeezed up. “No.”
“So what do they say? What boy?”
“Maybe you should be more like him,” Lizzy called from the swings. “Drop outta third grade, go back to your country.”
Spots of color crested on Mama’s face. “Ai! Little gweilo, you are very disrespectful.”
Lizzy’s dimples deepened with a beautiful smile. One dress strap slipped down her sun-tanned shoulder; the boys snuck glances and laughed with her. Laughed at Mama’s funny word.
“What is teacher name?” Mama asked me. I would’ve done anything to make her shut up.
“I am to talk to her.”
“Yeah, you’re gonna get beat,” Reed said.
This time I hesitated. Then I grinned shakily with him.
Mama stared at me for a moment and grabbed my arm. I remember thinking how stupid she looked—dumpy in her ill-fitting uniform, straight hair flopping over her forehead, face red and contorted. Her eyes squinched too small for me to tell if they were bright with dampness or anger or both. “You are come with me,” she snapped.
“No Mama, I am not come with you.”
Laughter surged afresh. It took me a while to realize I’d spoken. Out of the corner of my eye, Lizzy slapped her knee and her dress strap fell another two inches.
“Listen, young lady, I’m going to talk to your teacher right now. And when you come home, you’re in for a big spanking,” Mama shouted in Chinese.
“Yeah, okay,” I said loudly in English so everyone could understand. “We can have a deal. You better never, ever come to school again.”
Mama’s mouth parted but no sound emerged. I didn’t wait for a promise or anything else; I just yanked out of her grasp and ran.
I’d always been a fast runner and besides, Mama was wearing pumps. She could only clip-clop behind me for a block before I lost her down an alley. She would need to go back and use the principal’s phone to call the police. My eyes smarted. I wiped them viciously and ran until I arrived at our spot behind the church.
With a trembling kind of hope I scanned the scraggly tree under which you leaned three days ago, but of course you weren’t there. No normal person would wait that long. Where would you sleep and eat? Did you even have a mama? The sun glared in the cloudless sky and burned my scalp.
It was nearly one o’ clock when your voice echoed from the church. I lifted my head from heat-catatonia and saw you racing down the hill; your face was soft and pinkish like you’d been sleeping.
“Hey,” you yelled. “I was gonna leave but I thought you might come back—though you gotta really want. I’m not even kidding this time!”
My heart expanded to the size of a beachball and I yelled something back. You tumbled to a halt by the tree, caught my hand like we were old friends, and said in a rush, “Hurry up let’s go you don’t needa bring anything it’s only a mile.”
We ran past the bar, the barber, the strip mall, the outskirts, the trash heaps; we ran until the sky turned mauve and gold rush towns grew and native americans hunted elk, and a ravine opened up to the sea with its sides flocked by white birds and fire-colored trees. All around us, young America blossomed alongside broken-down factories and discarded needles. Our journey slowed to a walk even though I wasn’t tired.
“Look around. This is where things go when they’re missing. And now that we’re one of them, we’ll never have to grow up.” You handed me a sock. “I found this the other day. Is it yours?”
We wandered the world of lost things for ten years.
You know everything else that happens. I only hope you recall our journeys as clearly as I do—I hope they have burned themselves behind your eyelids and upon your heart, even now as I sit in my office surrounded by pictures of my young family. Remember the time we visited New York City? Remember the immigrants, the Polish woman with ringworm and a dream? Remember seeing David Kammerer in Greenwich Village smoking a pipe? I hope you haven’t forgotten about me during your hunts alone or with another little girl, for I can’t bear the thought any more than I can know the truth.
At first I didn’t believe I was brave enough to grow up alone. At first Manhattan was gray without you. But then I apologized to Mama and she hugged me until I almost suffocated, and I fell in love with someone else, and in the end I still have you in a way so I was never really alone. I know you’ll always carry yourself across time on young legs and heart and voice, just as I remember. Our world cannot contain people like you, the perfectly immutable, the innocent, the angels and stillborn babies, so you must fall through the cracks with the car keys and loose change and wander until everything has passed.
That image of you, forever nine—that’s what you mean to me. I don’t believe we’ll meet again, but I am glad we met once and loved, fiercely, as only children can.
Do you remember? I hope you do.